Humans have gathered since our first dawn as a species. We did so to share our resources and to protect one another. We’re better together than we are alone, and it’s this togetherness that has allowed us to become successful. However, because we’re so used to being together, we hardly give gathering a thought. Occasionally, when we think about gathering a few more people than normal or people who don’t know each other, we’ll ponder it a bit, but it’s more accidental than intentional. In The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, Priya Parker explains that if we want to have successful gatherings, we need to put a bit of thought into it.
There’s an old African proverb (the specific source of which can’t be traced) that says, “If you want to go faster, go alone. If you want to go further, go together.” It’s at the heart of why we gather. It’s not faster. It allows us to reach further heights. Of course, there are a number of enabling conditions that must be just right for this to take place – but without the initial “together,” we can’t get there.
Conditions might include those that Kantor proposes in Reading the Room, those from William Isaacs’ work Dialogue, or the psychological safety proposed by Amy Edmondson in The Fearless Organization. Efficacy may be found best using Scott Page’s approach in The Difference or Richard Hackman’s guidance in Collaborative Intelligence.
One of the most striking ways that people were brought together was in Florence, Italy, when the Medici family gathered people with different skills and interests and allowed them to work and interact with one another. (See The Medici Effect for more.) Their efforts to bring people together kicked off the Renaissance period. We discovered that there were ways of teaming up and sharing that were effective at driving creativity and productivity. (See Team Genius for more.)
Organizations which were once plagued by ineffective meetings and who have now encountered an enlightened leader require that meetings have agendas. The agenda spells out why people are gathering, what the desired outcome is, and which items will lead to the desired outcome – at least, good agendas do this. “Wasteful meetings” is a common disdain that comes from both internal and external large corporate surveys. Too much time is wasted in meetings where there is no objective or agenda. People meet because they believe they’re supposed to meet rather than to get something specific done – or to coordinate on a specific project.
The Law of Numbers
The size of the group matters. Small groups of around six offer intimacy. Groups of 12 can build trust – and some intimacy. Groups of 30 start to create buzz and electricity. Groups of 150 are about the limit to the number of people that can feel like a single group. These numbers are consistent with Robin Dunbar’s research. (See High Orbit – Respecting Grieving.)
When planning a gathering, planning for the number of people is key to designing for the purpose of the gathering. While you may want to invite more people, sometimes those additional people can disturb the goal.
Venues come with scripts, patterns that tend to play out over and over. They’re expected, and that expectation drives more of the same. Sometimes, the patterns are so ingrained that we don’t even see they’re happening. Meet at a college, and people will expect to be lectured to – rather than engaging in a discussion. Meet in a library, and people will expect to stay quiet. (See The Public Library for more on library culture.) The coffee shop implies a casual meeting rather than one with a drive through an aggressive agenda.
When you pick the venue, you’re necessarily shaping how the interactions will happen. More than just the traffic flows and the catering options, venues veer us towards or away from our purpose.
Don’t Leave Me Alone
As the host of the gathering, there’s a tension between over-controlling the event and failing to let things spontaneously emerge and under controlling the event and leaving the participants to fend for themselves. (See On Dialogue for emergence.) There’s the idea that, if you don’t structure the time, people will be left to themselves. The truer response is that they’ll be left to the mercy of the other participants – and that can have some embarrassing results.
Parker recounts an event where too much freedom was given to participants, and despite the small talk, they had managed to not get introduced to one another – and, as a result, the conversation was strained.
All gatherings are social contracts. People give up something – most notably, their precious time – and they want to know what they’ll get for it. Sometimes, it’s the opportunity to meet someone new, hold interesting discussions, or have a new experience. However, there’s always some implicit contract about what they’re giving and what they’ll be getting – or, at least, what they might get. After all, in most situations when we attend a gathering, we don’t know for sure what we will get. We get a raffle ticket and hope that our number is picked for a prize.
Failure to articulate the value proposition – or potential value proposition – for the group is a surefire way to have people fail to accept the invitation and fail to show. With group dynamics being what they are, there’s no telling what not having the right – or enough – people may do to your gathering.
Sometimes, the groups that come together can share honestly because they don’t know each other – not despite their lack of relationship. Sometimes, the things that people must share are too heavy to be borne inside of a long-term, caring relationship. They must first be tested in the waters with relative strangers to provide comfort that they may be shared with closer relationships without fear of recrimination. The strange thing about the group in which these things are shared is that they invariably end up feeling like sacred spaces. People bond and connect quickly – even if those bonds turn out to be fleeting.
Hot or Cold
For most people, the conflict in a new group is anxiety producing. Most people are conflict avoidant, and the sometimes candid and direct feedback that evolves between two or more participants in a meeting can make others duck and cover. Clearly, this doesn’t allow everyone to bring their best selves. On the other extreme, there’s the problem of groups who are too conflict avoidant, and the conflicts that the group needs to have never happen. As a result, the group gets stuck being nice and getting nothing done. Even in gatherings, we need to consider how the group dynamics are playing out, which conflicts need to happen to get out in the open, and which conflicts can be safely avoided because they can’t serve any purpose. (See Radical Candor for more.)
Turning an End into a Closing
Kahneman explains how the Peak-End rule guides what we think of events. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow.) His research showed that the ending of any experience mattered more than it should. While endings are often left to chance, they need to be an integral part of your planning. Parker suggests that you not end with thank yous – those can be second to last. Instead, end with the thing that you want people to most remember or experience. If you do it just right, you may find that everyone has a powerful and moving experience in The Art of Gathering.