Books : reviews

Priya Parker.
The Art of Gathering: how we meet and why it matters.
Penguin. 2018

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 20 June 2021

A bold approach to how we gather that transforms the ways we spend our time together at work, at home, in our communities, and beyond

In The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker argues that the gatherings in our lives are often vague and unproductive: we rely too much on routine and conventions when we should focus on distinctiveness and people. At a time when coming together is more crucial than ever, Parker sets forth a human-centred approach to gathering that can help everyone create meaningful, memorable experiences in their lives, large and small, for work and for play.

Drawing on her wide expertise as a facilitator of high-powered gatherings around the world, Parker takes us inside events of all kinds to show what works, what doesn’t, and why. She investigates a wide array of gatherings – a court hearing, a flash-mob party, an Arab-Israeli summer camp – and explains how simple changes can invigorate any group experience. The result is a book full of exciting ideas of real-world applications – and one that will forever alter the way you look at your next business meeting, dinner party, and backyard barbecue.

So many meetings or gatherings range from being a dire waste of time, to merely okay, with few standing out as valuable or enjoyable experiences. Parker describes some ways of increasing the effectiveness and meaningfulness of the gatherings you organise and run.

The first, and possibly most important, point needs to be considered well before any people arrive: what is the purpose of the gathering? Why is it happening, and what is the desired outcome? Often we think we know the purpose, but we may just be going with the flow (we always have a standup meeting on Mondays), or confusing two conflicting purposes (the example of a funeral is memorable: is it to mourn a passing, or celebrate a life? The answer will change the whole form of the gathering.)

Knowing the purpose helps you design the event. Design is less about the logistics (catering, etc) than the people, the setting, the structure of the event. So caterers and similar planners are not the right people to organise your meeting (although they may well be a necessary component). From starting with a powerful opening, through being an active host, to finishing strongly, the advice for a good gathering is somewhat like the advice for a good presentation, writ large.

Parker illustrates the advice with many anecdotes. Not all our gatherings are as high power or as high consequence as some of the example here, but they certainly make for memorable advice. I will probably try some of the ideas for the next technical meeting I host, and see what difference they make.