Why do we gather?
We gather to solve problems we can’t solve on our own. We gather to celebrate, to mourn, and to mark transitions. We gather to make decisions. We gather because we need one another. We gather to show strength. We gather to honor and acknowledge. We gather to build companies and schools and neighborhoods. We gather to welcome, and we gather to say goodbye – Priya Parker, The Art of Gathering: How we Meet and Why it Matters
How often are you stuck in a meeting at work, counting down the minutes until you can hightail it out of the room?
What about all those times that you were at a dinner for a friend, celebrating a birthday or a new baby? Were you eyeing the clock the whole time?
Do you remember those seemingly endless conferences when you couldn’t stop checking your watch?
Priya Parker, in her new book The Art of Gathering: How we Meet and Why it Matters, delves into why we have meetings or gatherings, what makes them fail, and how we can ensure they succeed. In her role as a facilitator and strategic advisor, and in her personal life as well as a product of divorced parents traveling between two households, Parker describes her experience with convening meetings and dealing with conflict resolution. So what is the secret to great meetings?
Parker sums it up well at the very beginning of her insightful book:
Here is the great paradox of gathering: There are so many good reasons for coming together that often we don’t know precisely why we are doing so. You are not alone if you skip the first step in convening people meaningfully: committing to a bold, sharp purpose.
When we skip this step, we often let old or faulty assumptions about why we gather dictate the form of our gathers. We end up gathering in ways that don’t serve us, or not connecting when we ought to…
In short, our thinking about gathering – when we gather and why – has become muddled. When we do gather, we too often use a template of gathering (what we assume a gathering should look like) to substitute for our thinking. The art of gathering begins with purpose: When should we gather? And why?
If the key to good meetings or gatherings is purpose, how to do we figure out if we have one? If we don’t have one, how do we create a meaningful purpose? Should we create a meaningful purpose?
Parker has several tips for helping people figure out what the purpose of their meeting is, which can in turn make or break the meeting itself:
Zoom out: Ask yourself why you are meeting. Parker gives the example of a chemistry teacher. Why is she teaching her class about chemistry? If she is simply teaching her class about chemistry, she will not have real purpose. If, instead, she is teaching chemistry because she wants to give her students a life-long relationship to the organic world, that will shape her lessons and classes in a more meaningful way.
Drill, baby, drill. Once you have zoomed out and have come up with your purpose, drill down. Keep asking yourself questions. If you have a work meeting and you believe that the purpose is to speak about next year, ask yourself, “What about next year?” If the answer to that question is, “to speak about our goals for next year.” Then, ask yourself “What kind of goals?” Perhaps the goals are financial or perhaps they are about new hires or expansion. Keep asking questions to really understand what the purpose of the meeting is until you finally cannot ask further questions.
Ask not what your country can do for your gathering, but what your gathering can do for your country. If you can put your meeting and purpose within the larger context of the company, community, or even the world, you can make the meeting significantly more meaningful. How can you make a difference outside of that specific meeting itself. Ask yourself, “What are the larger problems your gathering can solve?”
Reverse engineer an outcome. This tip is clearly related to drilling down to the true purpose. Once you understand the true purpose of the meeting, ask yourself, “What do you want to be different because you gathered?” If you know what you want to come out of the meeting, people will not be squirming in their seats, but will see the meetings as the highlights of their day.
Of course, understanding the purpose makes more sense in a business context, but feels less relevant with friends. Regardless, it also allows people to make better decisions about whether they need or want to be at the meeting. And, if there really is no purpose – then make it a simple, casual hangout… or, call it off and give people their time back.