On the Art of (Re)Gathering

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As any collective impact practitioner knows, our work involves meetings. A lot of meetings. We gather colleagues, allies, and networks to learn from one another, map our journey, dream, and celebrate. We know meetings matter, but how intentional are we, really, about why we meet, how we meet, and the role gatherings play in shifting the culture of our work?

These juicy questions were explored with verve and grace by Priya Parker, acclaimed author of The Art of Gathering, and Melody Barnes, the Aspen Forum for Community for Solutions’ Chair, during the 2022 Collective Impact Action Summit. In particular, Parker and Barnes delved into what it means to gather in our post-pandemic world. Their advice is good grist for our work moving forward.

I first discovered Parker’s work when a good friend gifted me a copy of The Art of Gathering a few years ago. I was immediately entranced by Parker’s ability to bring clarity and joy to our lives, whether it’s an annual conference or a social get-together with neighbors. Parker defines a gathering as any time three or more people come together, and wisely views that gatherings are the most accessible tool we have to shift culture. Here are some insights from their talk.

Start with WHY

The biggest mistake we make is to assume the purpose of a gathering is obvious and shared. When we assume purpose, we skip to form. We focus on where we should meet, who should attend, and what we’ll have for lunch. Instead, we should be asking ourselves: What is the need at this moment, and how can we design and facilitate a gathering to meet that need? A clear purpose informs who is invited, how the invitation is structured, what the expectations are and what needs to be discussed.

Hosting is power

Parker views a gathering as an act of love and an act of power.  A good host realizes their power and chooses how to distribute it during a gathering. In this context, power is decision-making. Who is invited? Who determines the agenda? How are decisions going to be made?

When power differentials are wide, a dangerous mistake we make is to deny the power dynamics and pretend we all “leave our hats at the door.” We pretend social equality and structural equality are the same. That’s incredibly unhelpful. Parker gives the example of a foundation inviting grantees to a meeting. Pre-gathering, the first question to ask is purpose. What is the need here? Is it to evaluate for learning? Address a lack of trust? Celebrate the work? Good leaders have the needs of those with the least power centered in their work, and structure meetings to protect participants, invite their best thinking, and feel safe in doing so.

We have an opportunity to reimagine how we gather

Seemingly overnight, the pandemic made the act of gathering something fraught and questionable. The opportunity to rethink the how, why and when of gatherings is more up for grabs than it has been in generations. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Parker advises that we take this moment to engage four critical questions:

  • What did you long for over the last 2 years when you couldn’t come together in person?
  • What didn’t you miss?
  • What did we invent over the last 2 years?
  • What might we experiment with now?

When you ask these questions in teams, one surprise is that the things some people miss most are often things that others don’t miss at all. This exploration helpfully complexifies our assumptions and builds empathy.

One question many of us are navigating right now is when and whether to meet in person or virtually. Often, the more complex, emotional, and relational a meeting is, the more we may benefit from it being in person. On the other hand, virtual is also often more inclusive and accessible than in-person-designed gatherings—less dependent on travel, people can more easily join while managing family care, and there are accessibility tools like live captions that can increase engagement. There is a lot to consider, especially when you are designing a gathering to include folks who may have routinely been excluded from participating before the pandemic due to the very nature of how we gathered before and what inequitable gathering practices we held in place.

Parker also mentioned Rae Ringle’s article When Do We Actually Need to Meet in Person as helpful to discern meeting form, and reminded us that purpose and need should drive our decisions. If that feels like a lot of pressure, she also recommends we experiment to learn what works. After all, we’re bad at predicting what makes us happy. Some trial and error may be just .

In her closing remarks, Parker reassured us that gathering is a skill we all can learn. Through good resources like the Art of Gathering, by cultivating a deeper awareness of purpose, power and practice, and by being okay with experimenting and learning long the way, we all can bring deeper meaning and greater impact to the work we do, together.

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