The Art of Gathering Summary and Review

by Priya Parker
Has The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. Has it ever crossed your mind what makes up a good and successful gathering? We spend a large part of our lives gathering with others, from Monday morning team catch-ups to Friday night cocktails, book groups, and board meetings. However, it’s rare that we actually take a step back and consider what goes into a truly meaningful and exciting gathering. When we do try to plan our own gathering, we often focus too much on practicalities. We turn to Pinterest for decorative suggestions, or we spend time focused on the logistics of a business event. It’s rare that we truly stop and think about the deeper purpose behind gathering at all and get under the skin of how people connect with one another, considering how to design gatherings in a way that encourages better human connections. These book summaries are the perfect antidote to lackluster, boring gatherings. If you’ve ever had the feeling that maybe your dinner party lost some energy during dessert, or that your corporate strategy meeting could’ve been a little more focused, you’ll now be able to figure out how to make for more exciting gatherings in the future. In this summary of The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker, you’ll learn
  • why taking people off the invite list might actually be the key to making your gathering successful;
  • why not allowing guests to pour their own drinks might make for a more fun party; and
  • how to create the perfect end to a gathering.

The Art of Gathering Key Idea #1: While gatherings are essential to the human experience, we often done give them much thought.

A good portion of our lives is spent gathering – first in our families, with friends, in playgroups, and at schools. Then, with adult life comes weddings, business meetings, class reunions, and dinner parties. And, as our lives end, our families and loved ones will gather at our funerals. Gatherings are not only a huge part of life, but they’re a large part of simply being human. However, far too often is the time we spend actually gathering with others underwhelming and uninspiring. At work, we moan about conferences and meetings. Duncan Green, a specialist in international development, spoke for many of us when he wrote in his 2016 article in the Guardian about his views on conferences. He stated that, with some exceptions, his mood at conferences often ranged from boredom to despair, and sometimes to rage. And a 2015 survey presented in the State of Enterprise Work Report discovered that many employees say that wasteful meetings are their number one preventative when it comes to completing their work. As it turns out, though, non-professional gatherings also tend to be disappointing. As traditional religion holds less and less appeal to younger people, gatherings built around church communities have begun to decline. And we don’t even seem particularly happy when it comes to simply spending time with friends. A 2013 study on the state of friendship in America found that 75 percent of people were dissatisfied with their platonic relationships. Given this state of affairs, it might be easy to think that more people might take the time to think about how to change things. But instead, we keep taking the same approach when it comes to our relationships with others. It’s rare to go to a conference, or a party, and find that the event organizers have given serious thought to how guests will connect with each other so that they get something meaningful from the gathering. This might be due to the fact that when we actually look for advice on hosting, we have a tendency to focus on the mechanics of the gathering, rather than meaning. This means that what is fundamentally a human challenge – how to bring people together in a way that is meaningful, interesting, or thought-provoking – becomes a logistical one. We focus on Powerpoints, AV equipment, table decorations, and menu choices, rather than considering people and human connection. The good news is that there are easy steps you can follow that will make sure that your gatherings actually work. The steps are easy for anyone to follow: you don’t need to be an extrovert or have a fancy house or location to host your event at. You simply need to read on.

The Art of Gathering Key Idea #2: The first step to creating a great and meaningful gathering is to commit to a clear purpose for bringing people together.

Have you ever thought about why it is that we gather in the way that we do, through events such as quarterly board meetings, lectures and charity fundraising galas? If you did, it may become clear that too many gatherings follow ritualized formats, rather than being built around a clear purpose. This is why we spend so much of our time at work sitting through meetings. Never mind that a quick email exchange could be more effective than a weekly catch-up meeting. Because meetings are the way we’ve always done things, we continue the ritual of gathering this way. There are similar patterns in our social lives, as the author came to discover throughout her pregnancy. Her friends, of course, wanted to throw her a baby shower. As baby showers are associated with their own sets of rituals, the organizers and the author herself didn’t truly think about the purpose of throwing such a party. That is, until the author talked to her husband. As it turns out, he wanted to be involved, despite the tradition that baby showers are for women only. At that point, the author realized that she and her husband were making a transition together, from couple to family, and it was important to have a gathering that supported that transition. The fact that it was simply a ritual for women to gather together turned out to be irrelevant when it came to their aspiration to having equal roles as parents, as well as their desire to make this aspiration known. So, this means that when you’re trying to organize a gathering, it’s important to think less about the what and more about the why and the overall purpose of gathering in the first place. Perhaps your birthday is coming up, and you want, as usual, to host a gathering to mark it. Being able to pinpoint why it is you might want to do that could help you to put together a better and more satisfying event. Maybe the purpose for a birthday gathering is to surround yourself with people who make you feel happy. If this is your reasoning, then it might be more meaningful to host a small and intimate dinner with your closest friends instead of a huge barbeque with an invite list that includes everyone from Aunt Mary to Bob from accounting at work. Or perhaps the true purpose behind your gathering is to use your birthday as a reason to get out of your usual routine – in which case, bungee jumping with a friend might be a better alternative to a huge party. When you set a clear purpose for your event, you’ll be able to better make the rest of your decisions when it comes to organizing it. And among the first things to consider is who to invite. We read dozens of other great books like The Art of Gathering, and summarized their ideas in this article called Social Anxiety Check it out here!

The Art of Gathering Key Idea #3: When you’re willing to exclude people, you’ll be on the way to building a truly meaningful gathering.

The concept of “the more the merrier” is deeply rooted in society. Many of us have been hearing this saying since we were young children. So, when we think about guest lists, we’re often focused on inclusion. However, as it turns out, sometimes exclusion is just as important, even if it can feel a little uncomfortable. The author was faced with this challenge when it came to her workout group of six friends who met twice a week at the park with their paid personal trainer. This was where they gathered to tone-up and swap gossip. When one of her friends planned to go away on vacation, he suggested that someone he knew could take his place in the group, so that he could avoid losing the money he’d already paid the trainer for that week. The others took a while to work out why they were uncomfortable with this idea. Eventually, one friend figured out that the purpose of meeting wasn’t simply to work out together, but to socialize while working out. Because the proposed substitute was someone they didn’t know, his attendance would have threatened the meetup’s true purpose, which was to provide a fun and intimate environment where they could catch up as friends. It’s not easy to say “no” in these situations, because our tendency for politeness takes over. However, while exclusion doesn’t feel like the polite thing to do, inclusion of the wrong people is a form of impoliteness toward the other people involved in the group or gathering. This isn’t the only reason for exclusion, though. Some people avoid an exclusive approach to gatherings because they don’t want to narrow a group to the point of reducing its diversity. However, sometimes coming up with a tight invitation list might be the best way to bring together an interesting group of people. Consider Judson Manor, a retirement community in Ohio that limits its residents in an exclusive way. The only people who are allowed to live there? Retirees, of course, and five college music students, who are given free accommodation in exchange for recitals and participation in the community. Both groups get clear benefits here. The students enjoy cost-free rooms and a captive audience, while the older residents enjoy regular live music and the presence of energetic young people, which can act as a remedy against isolation, dementia, and perhaps even high blood pressure. The group simply has exclusive criteria. The setup wouldn’t have worked with, say, business majors. Including more young people simply would’ve eliminated what made the combination great in the first place. Being willing to make slightly uncomfortable decisions is a key part of hosting well, as we’ll see illustrated in the next book summary.

The Art of Gathering Key Idea #4: Hosts who act with generous authority will always deliver better events than hosts who are overly laid-back.

In today’s world, being “chill” is considered a virtue. As a result, we’re often hesitant to tell people what to do, even at events we are hosting ourselves. Being a laid back and relaxed host who doesn’t impose on their guests simply feels like the right thing to do. But when it comes to gatherings, being a “chill” host can actually lead to an abandonment of your responsibility toward your gathering and your guests, leading the event down a surefire path toward fizzling out. On one particular occasion, the author was at a housewarming party in Brooklyn. Once the guests had eaten, the party suffered something of a lull, with guests unsure where the party was going, and wondering whether or not they should just leave. The author decided to suggest to the hosts that they play a game of Werewolf – a dynamic group game that could bring the guests together and inject some much needed energy into the evening. However, the host was skeptical about whether all the guests would enjoy it, and she wasn’t willing to exercise her power as host to get them on board. She decided that doing nothing was simply easier than stepping in. The moment passed, and the party soon ended. Instead of committing to a hands-off approach to hosting, it may be better to embrace generous authority. That means running events with authority, but selflessly and in the true interests of your guests. The author was once in charge of hosting a conference with the purpose of bringing people together who were all involved in cattle ranching and selling grass-fed beef. The author was aware that the best way to connect the 120 attendees (most of whom didn’t previously know each other) would be to get her guests to meet as many new people as possible. So, she decided that when each speech ended, each attendee would change their seat to one at another table. The organizers and attendees were reluctant. It seemed like an imposition. And guests grumbled, initially. However, by the end of the day, the mood was different. Attendees of the conference shared with the author that they’d appreciated being able to make connections with new people who weren’t simply the friends they’d sat down next to at 9:00 a.m. In organizing the event this way, the author had exercised generous authority and chose to act on behalf of the true interests of her guests, rather than the easier to satisfy desire for comfort. Basically, it’s incredibly important to the overall enjoyment of everyone at your gathering to exercise authority, even when it seems counter-intuitive. It’s the best way to ensure that your guests truly get the value they’re searching for from gathering with others. Now let’s take a look at another aspect of authority: rules.

The Art of Gathering Key Idea #5: Making sure that you set explicit rules for your event can be surprisingly liberating.

Rules have a bad reputation. Oftentimes, they’re associated with school, overbearing parents, boredom, and rigidity. However, this is an unfair reputation for them to hold — if you get them right, rules can actually be the gateway for experimentation, playfulness, and even truly meaningful gatherings. The Latitude Society is a fantastic example of how rules are able to enhance a situation, rather than restrict the people involved. The Latitude Society was a secretive networking organization that hosted underground, invitation-only gatherings in San Francisco, before it disbanded in 2015. The society was founded on rules that were designed to encourage bonding and belonging to the group. A good example of how this worked is that attendees weren’t allowed to pour their own drinks, which meant that they had to ask someone else to pour it for them. This simple rule forced people to interact, but in a playful, easygoing way. This also made it easier to get past the slight awkwardness that often comes with approaching someone new and actually diving into conversation. Rules can actually shake things up a little bit; they can take us out of our everyday methods. This is an idea that’s particularly important in today’s age, since technology dominates so much of our lives. It’s no secret that the host of any gathering today will have to deal with the fact that technology (and therefore, being distracted by it) is a reality no matter what. A Deloitte study has shown that people check their phones an average of 150 times a day. So how do you make sure that 50 of those daily phone interactions aren’t happening during your gathering? How do you make sure that each of your attendees is actually truly present? The author and her husband created a weekend event for their friends that they called “I am here” days. The idea was to get their friends out to explore a new neighborhood of New York. The group would meet, walk the length of many NYC blocks, talk to locals, and share their experiences of living in the city. Once this gathering grew to be larger, they decided to set some rules, one being that no technology was allowed. Those who joined not only accepted the rules, but valued them. Why? Because the rules forced a sense of presence that tends to be rare in modern day, tech-addled, distraction-filled New York. As comedian Baratunde Thurston, a participant in “I am here” days has said, smartphones mean we all carry with us the ability to be anywhere. This means that making the active choice to do one single thing daily, with a set group of people and the focus of being present, can feel significant and meaningful. In a world that gives us almost indefinite choices, ensuring true focus on simply what’s in front of you can actually be an act of liberation.

The Art of Gathering Key Idea #6: Priming your guests well and honoring them on arrival will help get your gathering off to a great start.

Now that your gathering has a clear purpose and you have your guest list sorted, as well as knowing how to host, how can you kick things off in just the right way? Firstly, it’s important to recognize that people will already have an impression of what to expect from an event prior to their arrival. So, prime them with the right expectations. Priming doesn’t have to be complicated business, and it may mean something as small as making a simple request of your guests. Michel Laprise, a director at Cirque du Soleil, wanted to host a pre-Christmas gathering for colleagues after a long, tiring tour. The day prior to the event, he sent out a quick message to each of his guests, requesting that they send photographs of two happy occasions they’d experienced that past year. Because they spent time searching through their own photos, his guests had the expectation of a celebratory evening ahead of them. So, when they arrived to find a Christmas tree decorated with their photos – of scuba-diving trips, babies, and post-show selfies – the mood was set perfectly for a joyous evening. Laprise’s Christmas tree points to another great way to kick off a gathering: making your guests feel welcome and honored to be there. The author once had a teacher, Sugata Roychowdhury, who, on the first day of class, recorded attendance in an incredible way. Rather than simply reading through and checking off the list of his 70 students’ names, he paced the room. One by one, he held eye contact with each of the students, pointed at them, and stated their full name. Roychowdhury and his students had never met before. He’d taken the entire class attendance from memory, presumably having studied photos and names for hours. The students were mesmerized and of course immediately felt both honored and excited to be a part of his class. So, think about how you can honor your guests as they arrive. This doesn’t have to be a huge or complicated gesture: it could be as simple as decorating the table with some flowers before a friend joins you for what they’re expecting to be a casual lunch. Or, at a dinner party, it could be interesting to introduce each guest with a story that expresses something unique about them, rather than simply their occupation or a small fact about them. That kind of meaningful introduction is also a great way to encourage authenticity. And as we’ll see now, that’s not always easy to achieve.

The Art of Gathering Key Idea #7: Designing gatherings that encourage people to bring out their authentic selves is not only possible, but easy to do!

Far too often, we work to present our best selves, rather than our real selves. Social media allows us to curate a glossy, idealized spin on what our lives are really like. At business conferences, we tend to talk about our achievements and successes, but don’t talk much about our vulnerabilities. But all too often, this leads to dull, impersonal conversations. So, how can you get your guests to reveal their whole, authentic selves? When the author was asked to facilitate a World Economic Forum dinner for CEOs and other high flyers, she worked to come up with a theme and format for her gathering to ensure that her guests would avoid those normal dry exchanges of professional boasting. As her theme, she chose the idea of the good life. To get her guests to participate, she simply requested of them all that they, at some point in the evening, stood up to give a toast to the good life, and to started their toast by telling a personal story from their own lives. She decided that this was the best way to get guests to stop droning on about their achievements and instead, talk about something real. The result? A dinner focused on real human emotion. One guest told a story about her work in disaster relief, and became quite emotional about her experiences helping people. Another shared the dying words of her mother, who’d said that she’d spent 90 percent of her time worrying about things that didn’t matter, and encouraged her daughter not to do the same. That story prompted another guest to reveal something she’d never shared with anyone at all – that every morning, she does what she calls a death meditation, during which she reflects on everything she’d leave behind if she died that day, while making sure that she savors the gratitude she has for being alive. As the evening went on, stories were shared, and many of them had never been told before. Tears were shed, and this group of people who were used to interacting on the basis of their job titles and CVs, were able to engage with and get to know each other on a level of raw honesty. So, how can you bring this authenticity to your own gatherings? Firstly, ask for stories. People are already aware on an intuitive level that telling an interesting story involves vulnerability, risk, and emotion. It’s not quite possible to tell an interesting story about how successful you’ve been in your career. Secondly, reveal yourself. The author’s dinner was successful for many reasons, but one of which was because she made a truly honest and raw toast herself as well, recounting on how when she got her first period, her mother reacted with joy and celebration. It was, she told the group, a time that allowed her to feel as if she was seen and that she mattered, largely because of her mother’s reaction. Getting your guests to share something personal often means being prepared to expose yourself first. Take the lead, and others will follow.

The Art of Gathering Key Idea #8: Too many events slowly fizzle out, rather than ending with a bang, but there are simple ways to make sure that your gathering ends well.

A drama teacher, Dave Sawyer, shared with the author how he’s able to tell great actors apart from merely good ones: watch not just their entrances on stage, but their exits. Actors who are truly great focus just as much on how they’ll exit the stage as they do their dramatic entrances, as they know that how you end things shapes the experience and memories the audience will carry with them. Well, a great host should take the same approach. A good place to start when it comes to planning your ending is to simply avoid things reaching a point of fizzling out. In bars around the world, barmen shout out “last call” a little while before closing. Why? This allows clientele to resolve any unfinished business – whether that’s ordering one for the road, or winding down their heated debates about French philosophy. It nudges them toward a clear ending. It’s simple to implement your own last call at a home gathering as well. A common problem with dinner parties is that, after dessert, some guests may want to head home tired, while others would prefer to hit the brandy till the small hours. Because this is a common situation, you’ll be able to thank everyone for a wonderful evening and make it clear to your guests that they’re free to leave. When you do this, though, also emphasize to your guests that anyone who does want to stay should retreat to the living room. It’s the dinner party equivalent of a last call; guests are then able to choose whether they want to order another round or to call it a night. There is one more important element for ending your gathering: making sure that your gathering is remembered, and for the right reasons. The author’s father-in-law teaches a class on management consulting at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. At the end of each semester, during his last class, he makes a point to avoid doing a boring recap, and instead, takes a moment to remind his students of the difficulties that come from a life in management consulting and the importance of maintaining balance and purpose in life. Then he shows them a card trick. It looks like magic, he tells them, but really it’s just a technique. He then tells his students that he hopes that they’re able to master the techniques he’s taught them to a point where it looks and feels like magic. It’s an ending that ensures that his gathering is remembered for purposeful reasons, long after it has drifted into the past. If we left all of our gatherings in such a way, wouldn’t life be a richer experience?

In Review: The Art of Gathering Book Summary

The key message in this book summary: The gatherings we attend are far too often lackluster, as well as lacking in purpose. But it doesn’t have to be this way! When we get away from the usual rituals that surround our gatherings, it’s important to embrace the generous authority that comes with hosting, set some rules, and encourage people to be their authentic selves. When we do this, it’s simple to hold gatherings that are both meaningful and memorable. Actionable advice: Think carefully about your location. The best locations for gatherings are those that not only inspire, but embody the true purpose behind your gathering in the first place. So, think carefully about where to do things, and break out of your normal spaces. For example, it might be interesting to consider hosting a college reuinion in a cemetery, so that you can remind your peers that they should start working toward fulfilling the dreams and ideals they had in their youth. Or, if you are organizing a sales training, you could get your colleagues to spend a day with a subway busker, which would connect them with the purest form of their work. Choosing your location creatively while focusing on your gathering’s purpose helps to generate fresh and memorable ideas that will give your gathering even more meaning.   Suggested further reading: Find more great ideas like those contained in this summary in this article we wrote on Social anxiety