The Art Of Gathering: How To Create Meaningful Gatherings
I was having lunch with Valerie Keller co-founder of IMAGINE. Like other leaders and humanitarians such as Richard Branson and Sue Rockefeller, Keller dedicated her life to creating safe spaces for executives to build cross-sector coalitions to accelerate tipping points for humanity's Global Goals.
During lunch, we discussed polarization and how millions of families right now are preparing for gathering around the Thanksgiving table and reuniting for the first post-vax Thanksgiving. Many have already started feeling the dread of this year's Thanksgiving dinner discussions.
Cultivating common ground and creating environments for people to connect meaningfully is at a crucial crossroads. With political and social controversies abound, strained relationships have become the norm, and the disconnect while living through a pandemic hasn’t made the situation better. Finding ways for people to come together for purposeful gatherings is paramount to healthy human connection. One of the simplest ways to foster this connection is at the dining room table.
Common Ground Kauai, a food-centered gathering place that aims to revitalize a diversified and sustainable agricultural economy in Hawai'i, acknowledges that food is sustenance, but it’s so much more. Food has brought communities together for centuries. More than any other facet of life, the age-old traditions of food have a tried-and-true ability to bring a diversity of people—presidents, artists, dishwashers, farmers, movie stars, kama'āina (locals), and visitors—together, literally under the same roof.
Matt Siegel, Chief Experience Officer and Venture Partner at Common Ground, says, “When we design gatherings in a place that demonstrates the interconnectedness of a regenerative food cycle, our role in the greater natural system returns to clarity. The opportunity to acknowledge our individuality amongst the whole sets the stage to break down patterns of learned divisiveness, find common ground and unify in our efforts to tackle the uniquely complicated problems of our time.”
Sharing a meal builds a bridge and creates a shared experience that offers opportunities for growth and change. The dining room table becomes an intersection where passions ignite and purposes ripple outward from our immediate circles.
That’s the goal, at least. But how do we start? That’s the question at the center of the table. How do we come back and gather meaningfully when we’ve been disunited for so long?
Priya Parker, a conflict resolution facilitator and author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters, says it’s important to embrace a specific disputable purpose. “The best gatherings learn to cultivate good controversy by creating the conditions for it because human connection is as threatened by unhealthy peace as by unhealthy conflict."
In other words, the norm of politeness is blocking our progress. The key to a purposeful gathering, whether it’s a board meeting, a sales dinner, or a going-away luncheon for a colleague, is to define the purpose and dig deeper. Avoid fluff, put away the phones, and release the fear of being disruptive. When done with meaning and purpose, cracking the surface of polite conversation allows for change to seep through the fissures and bring forth awe-inspiring authentic human connection.
In a world burdened by divisions, the unification of community is the fastest route to heal, sustain, and innovate ways toward understanding and mutual support. Common Ground finds community through its team of neighbors, farmers, small businesses, and government. Through these collaborations, ideas grow into real solutions.
Bren Herrera, activist, chef, and host of CLEO TV’s Culture Kitchen with Bren Herrera’ asserts that food is the ultimate unifier. “It brings people together. Not just families,” she explains. “The dining room table is a stable place for conversations. And conversations over food have the power to break down a lot of society’s ills. When we are full of good food, we are happy, and when we’re happy, we allow ourselves to become controllably vulnerable. That can lead to an empowering moment of letting others know how we feel and what we need. We extend ourselves more naturally. People become more sensitive, which can yield tremendous acts of service.”
Redesigning the Gathering Table
Our gatherings have become nonchalant and directionless. We’ve become more concerned with serving the right appetizers and putting together social-media-worthy table settings than creating a space where growth and connection intersect. It’s time for a gathering redesign. When coming together, our purpose must be specific, the intention clear with established rules for communicating, and a desire to generate some good trouble.
How do we do this?
Tamara Zachery, President of WHTWRKS Inc., a full-service marketing agency, encourages people to find balance and flexibility for meaningful gathering. “Plan activities and moments that are special to the attendees. Set expectations, encourage individual participation, and create memorable moments, but be willing to make changes should people feel uncomfortable or unfamiliar. The results of meaningful and purposeful gatherings should extend beyond the actual moments and serve to inspire others.”
It's also important for people to gather and not be afraid to have opinions, to voice them out loud. Whether we’re part of a high-intensity conflict group and or through our everyday gatherings, we must bring heat and passion to the table. We must stop assuming the purpose of our gatherings is obvious.
For example, consider the average sales meeting. What does one expect these meetings to be? Do they anticipate sitting around the conference table, sipping lukewarm coffee, munching on a bagel assortment, and listening to the sales team discuss their families and complain about office politics? When we assume the purpose and fall into the same patterns, our gatherings miss the mark for a deeper connection that addresses the groups’ needs and results in lackluster and monotonous interactions.
All our gatherings should have a clearly defined purpose that not only addresses our current needs but sustains our relationships over time, deepening and strengthening them. Sometimes this means an exclusive guest list. The act of inviting people around the table shouldn’t fall into predictable patterns. We must resist autopilot inviting, reverting to the same-old guest list that hasn’t served us well at past gatherings.
Meaningful gatherings don’t feel forced. They spark collective passion and enrich our lives. When we use gatherings and food, the great connector, to find common ground, we’re a stronger society. Problems don’t fester and hang in the air. They’re brought to the table through conversation and interaction that connect us better, help us solve challenges, and leave a better future for all humanity.
“The best gatherings design to reestablish the inherent human state of connection, where individuals and communities instinctively reevaluate their core purpose in an environment free of traditional social conditioning, and seek to align with their highest inspiration,” Siegel says.
Not all our gatherings will change overnight. The art of meaningful gathering takes practice. Start small and work your way up. Consider Priya Parker’s three-step process to influence purposeful gatherings:
- Determine a specific disputable purpose
- Cultivate healthy controversies
- Avoid assuming the obvious purpose or form of the gathering
As we head out (or stay in) for Thanksgiving dinner let’s break out of this pattern of dividing friends and family by looking at the conversation as a learning opportunity and not a judgment time.
Human nature is autonomous. We’re programmed to lean toward what we know. To find common ground, though, we must be willing to get uncomfortable and come to the table ready to learn and listen to each other’s stories and experiences for real growth to flourish.