From Conference Calls to Tea Ceremonies, Here’s How to Make Your Next Gathering Count

“I think of gatherings as a temporary alternative world, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • Why your next get-together should be governed by a single rule
  • Why you should never be a chill host
  • Why endings are so powerful—and how to take advantage of them

Priya Parker is the founder of Thrive Labs, at which she helps activists, elected officials, corporate executives, educators, and philanthropists, create transformative gatherings. She is also the author of the Next Big Idea Club Spring Finalist selection, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. She recently sat down with Panio Gianopoulos—Vice President of Content at Heleo and the Next Big Idea Club—for a conversation about how to modernize old rituals, infuse meetings with purpose, and make any gathering an unforgettable one.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To watch the full version, click the video below.

Panio: It’s really easy for a casual observer to underestimate the significance of gatherings. I know that when I first saw the title [of The Art of Gathering] I thought, “That’s a neat idea.” Then I started reading it, and I was impressed. It reaches into every interaction, essentially.

Priya: The challenge of this book was to figure out how to get people to take these ideas seriously—as seriously as the power of gathering actually is. I think that, in part, we have started to associate gathering too closely with the idea of the dinner party. And it’s not that dinner parties aren’t wonderful— I spend a lot of time in the book talking about how to transform your dinner party—but I think it’s dangerous when we associate something as human as the word “gathering” with an archetype of a somewhat elite, only social, very specific type of coming together.

So when I set out to write this book, I specifically chose a lot of areas of convocation, of heat, of power, to see how people came together when the outcome really matters.

For example, I look at the New York Times Page One meeting and how Dean Baquet, the new executive editor, changed how the journalists and the editors meet when page one of the New York Times is no longer as important as the home page. How do you restructure a meeting that for 70 years has been the iconic meeting to figure out what’s going to go on the front page of, at some level, the news of the world? The rituals of that meeting no longer matched the need of the paper.

I look at courthouses in Brooklyn, where they began to see that the proceedings, the way that the courtroom was structured, the way that the lawyers and the defendants and the judges were actually interacting, weren’t actually reducing crime. And so this group, the Red Hook Community Justice Center, stepped back to ask, “What is the purpose of court?” And that’s a radical question.

When we come together, how we come together drastically impacts outcomes that affect the way we construct society.

Panio: Once you start examining these gatherings, you start to realize how there’s an element of ritual to them, which is very deep and can also be hard to change.

Priya: Absolutely.

Panio: But there’s also a comfort in it. One of the things you do so well is you encourage people to update the rituals [so that they] are more relevant to their current lives.

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Priya: There’s a very fine line between routine and ritual. Meaningful ritual, when it matches the purpose of the gathering, is extraordinarily powerful. Meaningless routine, when it no longer serves the original purpose, becomes extraordinarily frustrating.

The royal wedding [is an] example of this old, old ritual that could become [meaningless routine] if repeated in the exact same way—you know, basically the same dress, walking up the same aisle, hearing the same words from the clergy with the same music. At some point, anyone who’s moved on in the world kind of rolls their eyes.

The reason, at least for many in the world, that the Meghan Markle wedding was so moving was because there was deep, deep innovation within a consistent form—like inviting an American black pastor to give a sermon, inviting a chorus to sing old gospels—that acknowledge that this woman is bi-racial in a very staid, white, British royalty. [It] made the world watch and remember, and [it] transformed to symbolize a gathering that says both “We know our roots” and “We can modernize.”

Panio: In a way, it gets a little bit to the heart of—or one of the hearts of—art, which is that you take the familiar, and then you reinvent or reinvigorate it with a more modern, current approach.

Priya: Completely. I interviewed a tea master in Japan, and one of the things that I began to learn as I looked at tea ceremonies in Japan was the vast range of ritual. Within that world, [there are] enormous fights about what a tea ceremony consists of.

A friend of mine went to a ceremony where the entire thing was done to metallic, kind of radical music, and there were some people in the tea ceremony world that said that was no longer a tea ceremony. There are others in that world that say they are actually preserving the art by modernizing it.

Panio: Since we’re talking about refreshing and changing things, it seems like so many things are now virtual—for example, our conversation. 20 years ago we would sit down somewhere and have an interview, and now it’s over the internet… And I find it particularly challenging, because I’m very reliant upon body cues and tone of voice and gestures.

When I think of something like a conference call—for me they’re profoundly awkward. You never know when they’re over. You’re like: “So is everybody good?” And everybody’s like, “…Uh… yes?” Nobody wants to close it in case someone else [isn’t ready]. I’m wondering how you see it, because you’re so well-versed in the various etiquettes of different group gatherings.

“Meaningful ritual, when it matches the purpose of the gathering, is extraordinarily powerful. Meaningless routine, when it no longer serves the original purpose, becomes extraordinarily frustrating.”

Priya: I think we are still figuring out modern etiquette for virtual gatherings. One of the principles that I think of in virtual gatherings is, “How can you make them as human as possible?”

In any gathering, the first five percent and the last five percent disproportionally matter, kind of how you open and how you close. And one of the chapters in The Art of Gathering is “Never Start a Funeral with Logistics.” I use an extreme example, but you should never start a conference call with logistics. You should start it with your purpose and by connecting the group.

So, if you’re having a morning call—I’m making this up, but you could do it any way you wanted—ask everybody to make sure that they have a warm cup of something that they bring in a mug or a glass. And then, at the beginning, just say, “Hey, if we could check in, let us know where you are, and what does your mug say?” And some people will say, “My mug is the one that I grabbed out of the WeWork case,” and other people may say, “My mug says ‘Raising tiny humans is exhausting.’”

And by doing that, I’m actually telling you a lot about my life, but I’m also reminding you that I am a physical human being, and I’m drinking tea, or a cappuccino; it’s a very quick way of getting the body into the virtual space.

Panio: That’s fascinating—the embodiment. It’s true, it’s very easy [for someone] to just become this empty voice.

Priya: Yes. And I think the other thing about conference calls is that in any gathering, power lies somewhere. In a conference call, power lies in the mute button, particularly from the host: what do you mute, when do you turn their ability to speak on or off?

A couple of years ago, the organization Move On hosted a conference call. It was right after the election, and 60,000 people called in. And the organizers, I am told, in their opening, said “We have 60,000 people on this call,” and everyone obviously was probably amazed by that, and then they did something kind of radical. They said, “We’re going to turn off the mute button, and we want you all to say hello. At the same time.”

And, you know, you get chills down your spine. You had 60,000 people, and they gave them an opportunity to [have a] voice—and it transformed the memory of the call.

Panio: That’s incredible. Just as a moment of communal gathering.

Priya: Yes, yes. Who are we? We are all here. I think in any type of virtual gathering, there are still ways to help people understand “We are all here.”

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Panio: You cover lots of different kinds of gatherings. I just went to a dinner party last night, so it’s very top of mind, and I did want to ask you a few questions, if you don’t mind.

Your position is that a host needs to be much more involved—they need to guide [the gathering] more. Why is that? I worry that it would feel a little too orchestrated, like you’re at camp, as opposed to trusting people to just have natural conversations emerge.

Priya: What I mean by “don’t be a chill host” is that every time two or more people come together, there is power in the room. Power is not a bad thing. It’s the negotiation, at the simplest level, of who speaks when, or if there’s a decision to be made, how do you make it? Who is going to sit where? Do you leave it to your guests, or do you put little name cards so that they don’t have to negotiate?

I don’t think you should be involved in orchestrating every single part of it. I think that you should get very clear on what your purpose is, and then, as a host, you should protect your guests and the purpose. You should equalize them, and you should connect them. And you need to do that in a way that’s organic to you.

So in some gatherings, introducing people at the very beginning, or setting one rule and then letting them be, might make sense. But if somebody starts cornering a guest, or if somebody starts misbehaving, or somebody at a dinner party gets too drunk or is dominating the conversation, what I’m saying is, when you’re hosting, it’s your job to take care of it, because by not [getting involved], you’re not protecting everybody else.

A rule for gatherings that I love is from Anthony Rocco, an experience designer in San Francisco. He used [this] when he was planning different secret society events that he shared with me, which is, “Have one rule at the beginning of your dinner party. You’re welcome, come in, the only rule tonight is that you can’t serve yourself a drink. You can only serve other people a drink.” Do that, and, you know, things change.

One rule that I’ve seen employed more and more is “No small talk.” There’s an article in, I think, Wired UK, co-authored by Dan Ariely, and they talk about why small talk is a ritual, and why it is actually preventing us from connecting with one another.

I know a host in California who, before his gatherings, sends a link to that article and [says] “The only rule for tonight is ‘No small talk.’” He primes people ahead of time to start getting ready and realize, “Okay, so what do I actually talk about if I’m not allowed to talk about that?” But he backs it with science, because these people don’t really want a feel-good, touchy-feely, new agey thing—this needs to be science. He knows his audience.

So you need to gather in a way where you have the legitimacy of your group. And at some level, not being a chill host is being generous to your group, [because] you’re not leaving them hanging out to dry.

“You should never start a conference call with logistics. You should start it with your purpose and by connecting the group.”

Panio: You focus a lot on endings. How do you create endings that are relevant and resonant, and yet don’t feel… I don’t want to say sentimental, but overly orchestrated?

Priya: The first is, very simply, have an end. Don’t just let your gatherings stop.

When you think about a lot of gatherings, they sort of peter out. At some point, we’ll just get up and leave, or conferences end, and they end on logistics just like they began on logistics. The ending doesn’t have to be overly formal or orchestrated—it just simply means taking the time to close it.

One of my improv teachers, Dave Sawyer, would always say, “You can tell a good actor by the way they get on the stage. You can tell a great actor by the way they leave.” Good actors think desperately about how they open, and then they kind of schlump off at the end because they think their part is over. Great actors understand that the exit also matters.

It can be as simple as, at a dinner party, walking your guests to the door, rather than letting them walk themselves out. It could be a toast where you recall a few moments of the night that made people laugh. Or what you learned. It could be, if you’re a coach, at the end of a game [cheering], “Let’s go, team,” [just as you began]. Have your rituals match the context, so that it doesn’t feel cheesy. But people need to be held.

I think of gatherings as a temporary alternative world, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Whether it’s a conference call or a dinner party, think about how they open, how [guests] come into the room, and how you are greeting them. And then when they leave, how do you help them re-enter the world?

The last thing is, you can give them something. I have a three-year-old son, and he’s part of a music class. At the end of every class, the teacher, Jesse Goldman, strums the first note of the guitar of the last, final song, a goodbye song, [all the kids] sing goodbye, then he says the logistics—“Give me your checks, no class next week”—and then he continues to sing the song, ends on the song, and then he comes out and says, “Who wants a stamp?” And all the kids fly towards him, he’s marking them, and they leave. And for the rest of the day, everybody else knows, oh, they were at Jesse Goldman’s Moozika! class.

I use this as a simple example, but he understands the power of endings. And having them leave with a mark in some way—in this case it’s physical—so that when they leave, they’ve been “Moozika’d.”