Essence of the book

Priya Parker, a seasoned facilitator who specialises in conflict resolution amongst other things, shares her take on what it takes to create meaningful, impactful gatherings; from a dinner with friends to an international diplomatic negotiation. She shares some key principles to follow when designing and facilitating a gathering of any kind. She goes beyond the transactional aspects of “organising effective meetings” and gets to the invisible, unsaid, complex, sometimes fundamental and often underplayed aspects of what it takes to design good gatherings. Even though I don’t agree with everything she proposes, I largely found the book helpful – both for validating designing & facilitating good meetings take thoughtfulness, effort & time; and to get inspiration and ideas for my future gatherings.


I. Commit to a bold, sharp purpose

  1. This is right down to the basics and I never stop getting surprised at how often this basic principle is forgotten when meetings and gatherings are planned. I continue to see entire agendas and logistical plans for 3 day workshops, without the basic clarity and articulation of what the purpose of it all is.
  2. A category is not a purpose. Don’t conflate the two. A networking night doesn’t automatically have a clear purpose just because it falls in the category of networking. The purpose could be for the attendees to build a long lasting tribe, or to get feedback on their products or to find clients. If you aren’t clear about the purpose, you’ll fall back on stale formats that make for an awkward experience and transitory value.
  3. The purpose should be bold. It must stand for something. It should refuse to be everything for everyone. If a purpose doesn’t help you create clear boundaries, then you’ve possibly created a respectable purpose, which is bland and has little possibility to be transformative. Gatherings that please everyone occur, but they rarely thrill.  
  4. Specificity is crucial. The more focused and particular a gathering is, the more narrowly it frames itself, the higher the likelihood of success. Specificity sharpens the gathering because people can see themselves in it more clearly and make better decisions about whether they want to be there.
  5. A good purpose is “disputable”. It acts as a filter for decision making later on. Eg. The purpose of my wedding party is to celebrate love (indisputable, too generic) v/s The purpose is to create a ceremonial repayment to our parents for bringing us to a point where we can build our own family. So that last seat goes to your parent’s friend and not your school buddy.
  6. Keep asking the “why” behind your gathering and drill down until you hit a belief or value.
  7. Ask what your gathering might do for the world, even if it’s in a small way. What might it do for the people who are a part of it? How might they be altered though the experience? How might you be altered?
  8. Always design your meetings around outcomes, and never let the process take over.

II. Create boundaries

  1. The purpose driven guest list: The list is the first test of a robust purpose. The desire to keep doors open – to not offend, to maintain future opportunity – is a threat to a gathering with purpose. Thoughtful, considered exclusion is important for any gathering or purpose because over-inclusion points to a lack of commitment to the purpose and the guests. Every single person present affects the dynamic of the group. Learn to include and exclude well.
  2. Diversity: Diversity is a potentiality that needs to be activated. It can be used or it can just be there. An event where the audience is very diverse but kept in silence isn’t getting much out of diversity. But good exclusion activates diversity. A women’s circle only for women, where they are safe to express parts of themselves they otherwise hide, is activating diversity.
  3. Size: The size shapes what you will get out of people when they come together. If you want a lively, inclusive conversation as a core part, go with 8 to 12 people. Any smaller, the group can lack diversity in perspective. Any larger, and inevitably quieter voices will get hidden.
  • Groups of 6: Great for intimacy, high level of sharing, discussion through storytelling. Can lack diversity in perspective.
  • Groups of 12: Small enough to build trust and intimacy, offers diversity (if group is selected well & purpose is sharp)
  • Groups of 30: Starts to feel like a party, great for buzz, high energy, sense of possibility, too big for a single conversation but a pair of trained facilitators can make it happen
  • 150: Somewhere between 100 to 200. Trust and intimacy can still be palpable at a group level, and just short of becoming an audience, similar to the Dunbar number and it’s effect

4. Venue: Choose the venue based on your purpose, not the logistics.

  • Venues come with scripts. We tend to follow rigid if unwritten scripts that we associate with specific locations. The venue must embody the idea, the purpose behind the gathering. The design of a social and physical space always affects how people engage with the ideas, content and each other.  Choose a space that resonates with your deeper purpose.
  • The Chateu Principle. The venue also a powerful lever on the guests’ behaviour. If you had to facilitate a meeting where two parties are negotiating for a merger, pick a neutral place which evens the power dynamic between the two. As opposed to picking a place that’s more comfortable for one party. It will affect the dynamics.
  • The venue should also displace people – in that it should push them out of their current habits temporarily. This can be done by choosing unconventional venues. This can make the gathering memorable and give it a dazzle.
  • Have a perimeter. There should be a physical boundary to the venue to prevent the energy from “leaking out”. The size of the physical space matters too. Choose a space that’s suitable not just for your purpose but also the size. Too big and the energy will disperse, too small and it will feel suffocating.

III. Don’t be a chill host

  1. The desire for being chill as hosts has infected the 21st century culture. To host while being non invasive. To be relaxed and low key. To not own the power that you naturally have as the host, whether you acknowledge it or not. Being chill is a miserable attitude when it comes to hosting gatherings.
  2. Chill hosts abdicate their power and think they are letting their guests be free. But this often fails their guests rather than serving them. You cannot eradicate the power and responsibility that comes with being the host, you just hand it over to someone else as an opportunity to take charge.  This pulling back creates a vacuum in the gathering that others can fill. There will always be someone who will take over and exercise their power in a manner that’s inconsistent with the purpose and exercise it over people who agreed to be YOUR guests, not theirs.
  3. It’s not enough to set boundaries – you have to enforce them. If you don’t, others will step in and enforce their own purposes, directions and rules. The informal sources of power will dominate.
  4. Run your meetings with generous authority – where you own your power but do it with the mindset of service to your guests. It’s not about dominating. It’s about:
  • Protecting your guests – from boredom, from one another, from ignorance and the list goes on,
  • Equalising your guests – there is always a hierarchy, explicit or implicit in any human gathering,
  • Connecting your guests – connection doesn’t happen on it’s own, you have to design for it.

5. Generous authority IS NOT a bureaucratic need for predictability translating into a rigidity that doesn’t serve guests. If you fear losing control as a host, you will play to ungenerous authority.

IV. Create an alternative world

  1. The best gatherings transport their guests into an alternative world. This isn’t about micro tips of spicing things up, but seasoning your gathering thoughtfully, designing it as a world that will come alive only once in that unique way.
  2. Pop up rules can be a great way of creating an alternative world. Pop up rules are different from etiquettes. Etiquettes are imperious and imply the “right” way to be. Whereas pop-up rules allow for a unique & more inclusive way for people to connect in a temporary alternative world. “You must have someone else fill your drink” is a meaningful pop-up rule that allows strangers to connect in a fun way. It's temporary and once the gathering is over, it doesn't hold any meaning.

V. Start right

  1. Prime
  • Before your event starts, it has already begun. So much of gathering advice comes from experts in food and décor rather than from facilitators, that it inevitably focuses more on preparing things rather than preparing people. Prime your audience in advance. Let them know what to expect, make room for them to be involved before the gathering begins. The success of a gathering depends on the priming. Because every gathering benefits or suffers from the expectations and spirit with which guests show up.
  • Priming isn’t hard to do, it can be simple and still effective.
  • There is always an implicit set of expectations that people show up for any gathering. It’s best to craft these expectations and make them explicit. Priming helps with that.
  • How you name your gathering will also prime people, so see to it that the name of your gathering reflects its purpose. A “visioning lab” signifies something very different from “Program Planning Meeting”. Likewise the language that you use throughout the materials and conversations will have a similar impact.

2. Usher

  • Hosts often don’t realise that there tends to be unfilled, unseized time between guests' arrival and the formal bell-ringing . Make use of this no-person’s land.
  • Create a passageway into your gathering for your guests – something to do or engage with between arrival and the formal start.
  • You can shape their experience of the “official” part of the gathering by utilising this space well. Create a meaningful threshold, a pause before you and your guests cross the starting line together.

3. Launch

The opening, whether intentionally designed or not, signals to the guests what to expect from the gathering. Never start with logistics. They can wait. Create an opening that’s meaningful and prepares the guests for what is to unfold. Make them feel deeply cared for.

4. Fuse your guests

Just because people have come together into a group setting doesn’t make them a tribe. You have to facilitate that to happen. The simple act of guests acknowledging one another and confirming their own presence is a crucial step to consider. But also go beyond that. Try to make the purpose felt in the first moments of the gathering. Start with an activity or ritual that embodies the gathering’s purpose.  

5. Honour & Awe your guests

Find ways to make every guests feel valued and significant (because they are). It must be a paradoxical feeling of feeling immensely welcomed and being grateful to be there.

VI. Design for authenticity

  1. Often when we gather, we are gathered in ways that hide our need for help and portray us in the strongest and least moving light. "It is in gathering that we meet those who can help us, and ironically this is where we pretend not to need them."
  2. Gatherings can be designed for authenticity. It doesn’t happen by chance nor is it entirely magical. Instead of creating a space where people wear the same old masks and “bring their best selves”, create room for vulnerability, complexity and good controversy.
  3. Gatherings become impactful and memorable when people are able to bring parts of themselves to that they typically hold back in regular meetings. It often requires the facilitator to set the tone, by sharing their own authentic self and risking vulnerability.
  4. We can create “crucible moments” in gatherings that make room for risks and vulnerability – moments that shape and shift people in deep ways.
  5. Inviting stories instead of just intellectual ideas can help.
  6. Step away from the “cult of positivity” and make some room for the flip and darker side of things (surface that conflict instead of smoothing over it).
  7. Use the stranger quotient – It’s powerful to connect with strangers who often have no stake on our everyday lives. They are easier to experiment and fail around.
  8. Craft an invitation and primer that already creates an expectation that you want guests to “leave their best selves at the door”.
  9. You do need to have the ability and maturity to hold the group in their vulnerability and manage risks,. You need to do this with immense care. But you can learn that as a facilitator with experience.  You also need to create enough safety for the group before they can tread tricky waters together. Design heat maps, safe spaces and ground rules to create safety and boundaries.

VII. Craft thoughtful endings  

A good ending is just as important as a good opening. And they often mirror one another. It has two components:

  1. It allows guests to process their experience by going inward and engaging in sensemaking. It allows them to connect one more time. An affirming moment of recalling why they were there, but also who was there.
  2. It also allows them to turn outward and decide what they will take from this alternate world, and into their other worlds as they re-enter them. If the gathering is especially intense and transformative, preparing the guests for re-entry is critical. Do this well. Find a thread that will connect them back to their “real” world and bring that into your closing. Pledges, declarations, a physical wall that captures these are examples of such threads. Closings are a moment of power in gatherings and often remain in people’s memories if done well.

Cover Image Credit: The HK Photo Company on Unsplash

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