Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Art of Gathering: A Fabulous Book to Help You Host Better Meetings and Events

I remember the first staff meeting I ever ran. I had just started at the MAH as the new executive director. The museum was in huge financial trouble. I wasn't sure we were going to make payroll that week. But I also had a more immediate problem: I had no idea how to lead a staff meeting. I felt like a new teacher on the first day of school. Everyone's eyes on me, expecting something. I had no idea what to do.

I didn't know how to open a meeting. I didn't know how hold power and share it. I didn't know how to kick off a productive conversation, make group decisions, or close a meeting with energy. I knew that I didn't want to replicate the droning report-fests I'd encountered in other jobs... but I felt like I didn't have any alternative formats to draw on.

The weird thing is that that wasn't true. I'd spent years leading workshops around the world as a consultant. My expertise was on inviting strangers to participate in public settings like museums. I had lots of creative formats for drawing people out, sharing stories, and working collaboratively. I had tools to achieve everything I wanted to achieve in that staff meeting. But for some reason, I applied none of those lessons to my new situation. It was as if I had bought a new car and lost all memory of how to drive.

Priya Parker's wonderful book The Art of Gathering shares the core principles of how to drive. Whether you dream of better meetings or you're planning a community festival, I urge you to read this book. Parker argues that all events--from team meetings and picnics to conferences and weddings--are opportunities to come together with purpose. The book explains how to host events with purpose, drawing lessons from intimate parties, mass happenings, and international summits. This is one of those rare non-fiction books with the killer trifecta: strong stories, specific takeaways, powerful vision. It made me feel more confident about what I already know and eager to push myself further. It's an easy read, and if you're like me, you'll want to put it into practice right away.

Here are my three big takeaways from The Art of Gathering:
  1. Hosting is an exercise in courageous leadership. When you host an event, you have the power to define what happens. It takes courage to assume that power. If you shrug it off, you hurt the event. Too often, a conference moderator will tell each panelist they have exactly five minutes, and then do nothing when a speaker heads into his 18th minute at the podium. Too often, a dinner party host will airily encourage guests to "get to know each other," without providing fuel for connection. When we abdicate hosting responsibility in an attempt to practice humility or democracy, all we do is let someone else take over. Instead, Parker encourages all event hosts to adopt a stance of "generous authority." Take the lead. Set the table. Invite people into participation. Redirect when needed, even if it feels uncomfortable. You'll end up doing more work than usual--and getting the results you want.
  2. When participants are diverse, explicit rules help. I admit: I've never been a fan of events that start with the group writing rules for the day. It always feels contrived and dreary to me. Of course we know not to look at our phones, or to listen with respect. But Parker makes the point that the more diverse the participants at an event, the less likely that they have shared expectations about etiquette or ground rules. Creating event-specific rules can level the playing field, make the implicit explicit, and create a specific culture for the event. Parker calls these event rules "pop up rules," and they can be as silly or serious as desired. First names only. Everyone must wear a hat. Sit next to a stranger. These kinds of rules have the surprising dual effect of helping people know what to expect AND making events more memorable.
  3. Strong events deserve strong endings. Many events close with a whimper when we yearn for a bang. The end of an event is one of those moments when the host has to actively practice leadership (and often abdicates). The host has to decide to close the discussion. To clear the plates. If you don't decide as host, people will straggle away, some exhausted, some feeling guilty, all missing out on the opportunity for a shared closing moment. At work and at conferences, we're often "saved by the bell" of the clock telling us the time is up. But why are we letting the clock close our meetings for us? If we open meetings with purpose, we should close them that way too. Closing rituals seal the shared experience of the event and launch us back into the real world with the event's imprint on our hearts.
The Art of Gathering expanded my understanding of what it means to build a powerful culture of participation. Events are not all logistics and content. The way you welcome, the way you host, the rules you make, the way you say goodbye--all these play major roles as well. As Parker writes in the introduction: "Gatherings crackle and flourish when real thought goes into them, when (often invisible) structure is baked into them, and when a host has the curiosity, willingness, and generosity of spirit to try." Sounds like great participation to me.
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