The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker: Book Review
How We Meet and Why It Matters
As people, we gather frequently. For meetings at work, for dinner as friends, for holidays as families. Yet so frequently, our gatherings disappoint us. But we still continue to do the same things, expecting different results (insanity, right?).
In a recent podcast, my guest Roni suggested the book The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker. I love to get book suggestions from my podcast guests and put them all on my reading list, so was excited to get to this one and am excited to review it.
For readers of this newsletter or listeners to our podcasts, you’ll see many themes we talk about frequently reflected in the book, which makes it a great read in my opinion. To see so many of the principles we use as product people applied to gatherings, in work settings and personal settings, both validates the ideas and helps us see them in a new light.
This includes ideas like understanding the underlying purpose, not becoming overly ritualized, owning the gathering, and working backwards.
Whether you’re looking to improve your recurring meetings, your family gatherings, or your upcoming offsite or high school reunion (yes, yes, yes, and yes), this is certainly the right place to start. So let’s dive in.
Gatherings are incredibly important. Maybe even more so now for many of us now that work in many industries has moved to remote. As our spatial proximity and even temporal proximity decreases (as I wrote about in an article about remote work), our social proximity becomes more important. And then taking full advantage of those times when we have all three of those things: spatial, temporal, and social proximity - when we’re all together in the same place at the same time for the same reason.
That is the key point of Priya Parker’s book. How can we make our gatherings better. It involves the principles and the practical advice for making meetings and social gatherings more productive and more meaningful.
We won’t review everything here, but let’s touch on a few key ideas I found fascinating.
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A gathering is all about “who” and not “what”. It is easy to lose sight of that as the author mentions in the book. If you search the internet for planning a party, you’ll likely see many tips for planning food, planning the space, and other logistical preparations. These are all important. But the most important thing about any gathering is the people who are gathering.
Much like human-centered design, human-centered gathering puts the people at the center of our gathering (like our work) and plans around them. It’s not about the food or the agenda or the software. It’s about the people having the experience. Everything needs to support that.
So all the logistical concerns are important as far as they support the purpose of the gathering and the people involved, but if we lose sight of the people, we lose the point.
With that in mind, we also need to have a clear purpose for our gathering, whether it is a meeting, an offsite, or a family dinner. What do we want to achieve? What will make this gathering special for the people involved? Different from the other moments before and after?
We must have a purpose, and we should center it around the outcomes for the people involved.
Be an Active Host
In chapter 3, Parker tells hosts not to be “chill”. It’s a theme that carries throughout the rest of the book.
Hosting a gathering is an active affair. Whether it is a social event, a conference, a dinner, or a weekly meeting. If you’ve gathered people together, you need to be in charge. Your guests, your family, or your team are depending on you.
This starts with ensuring the right people are present and the wrong people aren’t. This can be a difficult thing as a host. It can be a difficult thing as product people. We often want to include more people in order to be inclusive, not hurt feelings, and not face the fact that not everyone adds to the purpose of a gathering. But the fact remains that not everyone contributes, and some people may detract from a meeting or a gathering. As a host, you need to understand that and protect the people involved and the purpose of your gathering.
Once you’ve convened, your job continues. You must rule with “generous authority” as the author puts it, to protect your guests, equalize your guests, and connect your guests. You can’t (or shouldn’t) abdicate your authority, but you also shouldn’t use it for selfish reasons either. It should be about helping the people in your gathering and achieving the purpose you created your gathering for.
Bring the Heat
Don’t be afraid of controversy or debate.
I enjoy spirited debate and believe that healthy controversy is important for good meetings. If everyone always agrees, then you are all unnecessary to paraphrase the famous quote.
We shouldn’t shy away from difficult conversations or difficult topics. Those topics are where the breakthroughs come from. They are where we can get to deeper meaning and deeper connection.
Often we avoid these difficult topics for fear of “rocking the boat” or the need to just get along. Teams and organizations often have “sacred cows” as Parker describes it that they are trying to protect. These are the things that often seem untouchable. Whether traditions, rituals, processes, or other ways of doing things. But we should always be willing to question the sacred cows.
In one of my former companies, we used to have the “sacred cow” award. It went to the team member who took on one of the company’s sacred cows that month or quarter. It was a fun was of tackling the tough issues we had to face and encouraging everyone to take on the enormous challenges and try to face down the entrenched ways of doing things, even if we failed.
Open and Close Well
We tend to remember the beginning and ending better than anything else. This is partly due to the serial position effect, as well as the primacy effect and recency effect. It is just how our memory works when we recall events or lists.
Knowing that, we should open and close our gatherings well.
The author offers the very practical advice of not opening the funeral with logistics, which is often how we open most meetings. And don’t close with thank you’s. Those can be important items (or could be left out entirely depending on the context), but should not be the beginning or ending since that space should be reserved for the most important part of your gathering.
I was helping to emcee a conference recently and wish I had read this book beforehand. Because I fell victim to both of these issues as a host unfortunately. I opened with logistics terribly. Then closed weakly with a short recap of the two days and by thanking the people involved. It wasn’t powerful at all. And didn’t follow the advice that Parker gives in the book to “honor and awe” your guests in the beginning and then to close by looking inward to reflect and then looking outward to transition back to the world.
Overall, I felt the book focused on larger, more infrequent gatherings. It also leaned more toward personal than professional. At least that is where my mind went while reading.
That said, I believe that most of the principles can apply to personal and professional gatherings. They also can apply to regular meetings along with less frequent gatherings.
The more time we take to understand the purpose of our gathering, whether it is to reconnect with friends, to develop deeper relationships among extended family, or simply to create a shared understanding of our product metrics, the better our gatherings can be. Our meetings can continually improve as we take charge as hosts and focus on the purpose and the people involved.
And let’s face it, we know that meetings need to improve. With the right principles put into practice, we can make all our gatherings much more meaningful for ourselves and everyone involved.