Giving Thanks 2021: Priya Parker and The Art of Gathering

November 28, 2021

When you’re still thinking about, feeling grateful for, and applying lessons learned several months after reading a book, you know the book is a winner—which perfectly describes Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters and how it will transform anyone interested in making each gathering/meeting/training-teaching-learning offering as engaging and memorable as it can be.

Priya Parker; photo by Jeff Allen, from Parker’s website

Described (by its subtitle) as a book on “how we meet and why it matters,” it might not immediately catch the attention of my colleagues in training-teaching-learning—which is a real shame, for in adjusting our thinking so that “lessons,” “workshops,” “courses,” and “panel discussions” are seen through the powerful lens of “gatherings,” we find magnificent ways to liberate ourselves and our learners—what some of us call “co-conspirators in learning”—from the “tedium of learning” and find new ways to turn those lessons/workshops/courses/panel discussions into engaging, transformative gatherings with long-term impact.

The initial chapters of this engagingly-written book focus on social gatherings and the gatherings that occur when, for example, students and senior citizens living together in a retirement community interact over a long period of time. She offers concise reminders that successful gatherings grow out of myriad up-front decisions about the purpose of the gathering, the location in which it will be held, the duration of the gathering, and even the number of people who will be included in the gathering—all of which, of course, are elements considered and decisions made as we design and facilitate effective, memorable, transformative learning opportunities. She reminds us that “…a venue can and should do one further thing: displace people. Displacement is simply about breaking people out of their habits. It is about waking people up from the slumber of their own routines” (p. 62)—again, something that any creative, learner-centric trainer-teacher-learning facilitator knows and considers regardless of whether a gathering is taking place onsite or online.

One of the sections where she tremendously inspires us in our lifelong-learning environments is in her discussion, near the middle of the book (pp. 172-173), on the importance of providing a memorable opening to any gathering:

“Openings are a big missed opportunity in gatherings. They all too often underwhelm us, and they don’t have to. After all, openings lay the track for a gathering….Our brain effectively chooses for us what we will remember later. Studies show that audiences disproportionately remember the first 5 percent, the last 5 percent, and a climactic moment of a talk….And yet we often pay the least attention to how we open and close them, treating these elements as afterthoughts.”

Continuing on this theme (pp. 177-178), she reminds us that we have plenty of adaptable models for providing stimulating, memorable openings for our gatherings—including the formats common today in movies and television programs:

“The cold open is the practice of starting a TV show directly with a scene rather than with opening credits….Your opening needs to be a kind of pleasant shock therapy. It should grab people. And in grabbing them, it should both awe the guests and honor them. It must plant in them the paradoxical feeling of being totally welcomed and deeply grateful to be there.”

And that, for me, is the reason I’m including Priya Parker and The Art of Gathering in this series of “Giving Thanks” essays: I’m grateful that I came across that passage about the cold open and then had an opportunity to discuss and explore it with Stephen Hurley during an episode of our “Collaborations in Learning” conversations for his voicEd Radio program earlier this year; it made me completely change the way I open any learning opportunity I design and facilitate face-to-face or online. Gone are the (occasional) openings I used to offer about what was on the agenda for the session I was about to facilitate; the learners already knew that from the session or course description that had lured them to that particular learning gathering. Gone are the introductory comments designed to provide a brief overview of whatever topic we are going to cover; that, again, is generally covered in the brief descriptions or pre-session work that so often accompanies sessions I facilitate.

What we are left with is the best, most engaging story I can provide—that cold-open approach that grabs a learner’s attention, immediately inspires conversation, makes my co-conspirators want to know more about the people or circumstances at the heart of that story, and makes it clear that we are not going to waste time on turgid, unnecessary scene-setting. We’re here to work, to learn, and, in the best of situations, have some fun along the way through the act of sharing stories and drawing, from those stories, ideas we can immediately adapt in our workplaces or other places where what has been learned is meant to be applied. We are left with learning as storytelling and community-building rather than something that is focused on a lecture and ends with a quiz or formal exam.

There’s plenty more meat on the bones of this book. Parker leads us through an exploration of the value of storytelling. She describes the importance of creating gatherings that are “safe” places as well as places that offer challenges—those places where we are not afraid to take risks (the sort of personal risks obvious to any learner who tries to avoid the pain of “failure” while learning, even though temporary failure is an integral part of the learning process).

And she eventually travels full circle by coming back to a discussion of the combination of supporting vulnerability in our gatherings while fostering storytelling as she quotes Moth founder George Dawes Green (p. 212):

“Story is about a decision that you made. It’s not about what happens to you. And if you hit that and you get your vulnerability and you understand the stakes, and a few other things, people will intuitively find great stories to tell, and as soon as they do, we know them. We know them as human beings. This is no longer my boss’s colleague. This is a real person who had heartbreak. Oh, I know that.”

Parker, nearing the end of her book, reminds us that gatherings need to include appropriate, satisfying conclusions/endings (p. 268): “Part of preparing guests for reentry is helping them find a thread to connect the world of the gathering to the world outside.” And, in a parallel moment of recognition, we recognize that the learning opportunities—the gatherings—we facilitate also need to end with those all-important moment of preparing our learners for reentry into the environments in which they will—with a sense of gratitude for what they have obtained during their time with us—put lessons learned to work. If our gatherings produce those gem-like moments, we are well on our way to success…and a reputation for gatherings worth attending.

Next:  Shola Richards, Community, and Ubuntu (“I Am, Because We Are”)

N.B.: This is the fourth in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways.


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