The Art of Gathering


Janet Stiegler, Contributing Writer

A book club I belong to recently read Priya Parker’s book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. Her point is that we often get together (be it for work or pleasure) and tend to focus more on the logistics of an event than the purpose or the people. She gives an example of a baby shower, where planners focus on the food, decorations, and games rather than the real reason they gathered–to help a new couple transition into parenthood.

The book has eight chapters devoted to making any gathering more meaningful, but the three that had the greatest impact on me were:

Have a Clear and Specific Purpose. Use the purpose as a filter for what you do and who attends.

Be a Non-Chill Host. Demonstrate “half-Egyptian, half-German authority,” which combines the right balance of warmth and order.

Welcome a Little Heat. Too much harmony can make an event dull, while some good (structured) controversy can make a gathering more memorable.

Parker believes that our meetings and get-togethers have more meaning when we emphasize human connections. For example, she tells a story about when she presided over a small dinner party of second-tier international leaders. The idea was to get them to turn off their elevator pitches and connect more authentically as humans before hitting the negotiating table the next day. During dinner, each person had to tell a personal story illustrating “a good life.” The last to go would have to sing their answer, thus ensuring everyone spoke up.

To prime the pump, Parker told the group of mostly men a story of when she got her first period. Pretty daring, right? But the idea behind the vignette was about seeing and being seeing. In the Indian culture, her mother celebrated her transition into womanhood with a party. Her mother’s female friends brought daughter Priya presents and shared what they liked about being a woman. A good life for Parker was being recognized and celebrated by a close and generous support network of women.

Do you need to tell such an intimate story at your holiday dinners? No, but here are a few ideas for sparking thoughtful conversation and making your gatherings just a tad more fun:

  • Pick a theme (gratitude, generosity, happiness, a good life) and have each guest tell a story related to that theme that no one has heard before.
  • Share what seemed at the time to be an incidental event that you later realized was a significant turning point in your life. For example, the incident could be a choice you made or did not make, a comment someone made to you, or a person you bumped into by chance.
  • What would be your ideal occupation if money or talent were not an issue? In what ways is it different or similar to the occupation you have or had?
  • Describe a perfect day (24 hours). What would you do? Where would you go and with whom? Be specific. Explain why such a day appeals to you.
  • Talk about five things on your “bucket list” (things you hope to do). And five things on your “anti-bucket list” (things you definitely don’t want to do!)
  • Ask guests to send in advance one or two photos of themselves in a happy moment during the past year. Before they arrive, turn the pictures into holiday tree ornaments and use the tree as a fun conversation starter.

Photo by Ian Keefe on UNSPLASH