Back to Insights

Tl;dr Book Review — The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker

Tl;dr – ★★★☆☆

Overall, an interesting look at gatherings and how we can shape them to accomplish a variety of tasks. We’ll admit the first few chapters felt a little nebulous — we were expecting more defined lines around gatherings and how they were received (metrics, research, etc.).

The Art of Gathering isn’t that kind of book — it’s an anecdotal collection of Parker’s lived experience as a master facilitator, paired with interviews & examples from around the globe.

There are definitely a handful of learnings we’ll carry with us to our next client offsite or internal meeting, but we’re not convinced a detailed reading would benefit our pool of busy leaders.

Instead, take a look at this list of favorites from each of the 8 chapters. If they pique your interest, check out the longer Tl;dr Review below.

1. Decide Why You’re Really Gathering

We gather for so many reasons, both personal & professional. The first step to planning a killer gathering is by “committing to a bold, sharp purpose” (p. 1).

Scratch what you think you know about setting a meeting objective — a category is not a purpose. We should instead “examine the deeper assumptions behind why we gather” so we can avoid “replicating old, staid formats” (p. 3). Instead of assuming what your meeting should look like, start questioning what it could look like.

But it’s not just the objective that’s important — it’s also the form or format. “People begin to attach meaning not just to the meeting’s purpose but also to the meeting’s form” (p. 11).

Over time, the form itself plays a role in shaping people’s sense of belonging to the group and their identity within that group: This is who we are. This is the way we do things around here.” (p. 11)

By challenging stale processes, you can create inspired gatherings that work to energize your team — and this could even add to or change culture.

We changed the meeting as a deliberate way to change the culture and values of the newsroom. We wanted people the think less about print, so we needed the meeting to be less about print. We used the meeting as a way to shift the values and the mindset of the newsroom.” (Sam Dolnick, The New York Times, p. 13)

In today’s meeting rooms, we don’t necessarily ask these questions. We do things on autopilot, which leads to busy, boring calendars and meetings that go nowhere. So instead, commit to gathering about something. “Specificity sharpens the gathering because people can see themselves in it,” so consider really dissecting “who” the meeting is for (p. 18).

The tea master Sen no Rikyu taught his students to keep in the front of their minds as they conduct a ceremony: Ichi-go ichi-e. The master told me it roughly translates to “one meeting, one moment in your life that will never happen again.” She explained further: “We could meet again, but you have to praise this moment because in one year, we’ll have a new experience, and we will be different people and will be bringing new experiences with us, because we are also changed. Each gathering is ichi-go ichi-e. And it can help to keep that in the forefront of our minds as we gather.” (p. 19)


Some practical tips on crafting your purpose (move from the what to the why):

Additionally, embrace “modesty” — we have such an addiction to multitasking in our society. Don’t add more and more into your gathering until you lose the focus. Test modesty, and really question the multi-use meeting.

2. Close Doors
Part One: WHO

Let your gathering’s purpose drive who makes it onto the guest list. “The guest list is the first test of a robust gathering purpose” (p. 35).

That said, excluding people, even with purpose, can be hard.

Thoughtful, considered exclusion is vital to any gathering, because over-inclusion is a symptom of deeper problems — above all, a confusion about why you are gathering and a lack of commitment to your purpose and your guests.” (p. 36)

Another quote from this chapter that resonates: “If everyone is invited, no one is invited” (p. 38).

How to exclude well:

“Excluding well and purposefully is reframing who and what you are being generous to — your guests and your purpose” (p. 43). If you are still struggling to figure out who should be excluded, ask Who is this gathering for first?

Additionally, thoughtful exclusion helps to bolster new relationships — “over-including can keep connections shallow,” so by excluding you can “focus on a specific, under-explored relationship” (p. 48).


You should also consider the size of your group in relation to your gathering’s purpose — plus, you can sometimes use size as an excuse for your exclusions.

Part Two: WHERE

The answer to this might seem obvious — but “the choice of place is often made according to every consideration but purpose” (p. 53). The problem with this approach is that “venues come with scripts,” so the environment you hold your gathering in also partially dictates how your invitees will show up, act, perform, etc.

As Patrick Frick, a professional facilitator, put it:

As Patrick Frick, [a professional facilitator], told me, “The environment should serve the purpose.” When he is working with high-level teams and they give him a boardroom to facilitate the meeting in, he said “ninety-five percent of my options are gone.” Why? Because, Frick said, “people who walk into this room will immediately fall into the same pattern of behavior: The CEO sits at the top, and you’re trained — you’re absolutely trained and brainwashed — how to behave there. You take your place according to hierarchy, you know when you’re allowed to speak, and so on” (p. 54).

The room you hold your gathering in dictates how people will engage with your material & with each other. “When a place embodies an idea, it brings a person’s body and whole being into the experience, not only their minds” (p. 55).

Another tip: 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).

Perimeter, area, and density

3. Don’t Be a Chill Host

What Parker means by “chill” is the desire to host while also being noninvasive. It’s an aversion to claiming the power that comes with being a host. There is a general temptation to “abdicate that power” — hosts feel that by doing so, they allow their guests to be free (p. 74).

This abdication often “fails guests rather than serve them” (p. 74). Lack of control creates a vacuum that others can fill, and those others are “likely to exercise power in a manner inconsistent with your gathering’s purpose” (p. 75).

It isn’t enough just to set a purpose, direction, and ground rules. All these things require enforcement. And if you don’t enforce them, others will step in and enforce their own purposes, directions, and ground rules.” (p. 77)

We have seen this play out in a myriad of meetings, offsites, reviews — others at the table have alternate agendas, and they are all too eager to assert them if given the opportunity. There will always be “someone willing to enforce something” (p. 78).

Additionally, when there is no formal facilitation happening, your gathering will be dominated “by informal sources of power: tenure at the company, professional success, force of personality” (p. 80).

Parker advises to facilitate with generous authority — “a gathering run on generous authority is run with a strong, confident hand, but it is run selflessly, for the sake of others” (p. 81).

Use this in the pursuit of three goals:

In a group, if everybody thinks about the other person’s needs, everyone’s needs are actually fulfilled in the end. But if you only think about yourself, you are breaking that contract (p. 98).

Entrepreneur Nora Abousteit wrote an email to a friend with tips about hosting that I’ll paraphrase below (p. 99):

  1. You are the boss. Hosting is not democratic; structure helps good parties.
  2. Introduce people to each other a lot. But take your time with it.
  3. Be generous — with food, drink, intros, compliments.
  4. Always do a placement. Always. Sit people next to people with different backgrounds, but complementary interests, etc.
  5. Have everyone make introductions, but keep them short.
  6. If you switch the tables, keep it organized — tell every person at the table to move to another seat.

There is another enemy to being a good host — being an authoritarian.

When things are too strict, to structured, there is no room left for the audience. Sometimes risk can be the culprit behind this (e.g. the perceived upside isn’t worth the risk of the perceived downside).

It’s about finding the balance between rigor & flexibility. When displaying generous authority, two things are embedded in every instruction: “compassion and order” (p. 100).

4. Create a Temporary Alternative World

In this chapter, Parker investigates the difference between etiquette & rules and how the two impact your gatherings.

As a whole, having some kind of behavioral expectation is beneficial to gatherings.

Within a certain social milieu or professional class, it is helpful to have a common set of norms and behaviors. Sharing this common code allows people to coordinate more easily, to avoid embarrassing one another, and to minimize the social risk of situations.” (p. 116)

Etiquette are implicit rules that are followed by a closed group of people. They are, by nature, exclusionary. Parker describes it as having fixedness and lacking humility.

But Parker brings up a rise in “pop-up rules” — temporary rules that are put in place during a specific gathering. For example, the recent trend for “no phone” weddings. The rise in rules might be attributed to the decline of etiquette (p. 118):

It is no accident that rules-based gatherings are emerging as modern life does away with monocultures and closed circles of the similar.

Instead of seeing rules as limiting, consider that they could bring “new freedom and openness to our gatherings” (p. 118). Where etiquette is fixed, pop-up rules can be “experimental, humble, and democratic” (p. 120).

Rules can create an imaginary, transient world that is actually more playful that your everyday gathering. That is because everyone realizes that the rules are temporary and is, therefore, willing to obey them.” (p. 120)

Unlike etiquette, the explicitness of these rules “levels the playing field for outsiders” (p. 121). When things are spelled out and directly relayed, a gathering is made more comfortable and can encourage diversity:

“You don’t have to know certain unsaid things, you don’t have to have been raised in a certain way, you don’t have to be steeped in a certain culture, you don’t have to have parsed decades’ worth of social cues. You just need to be told tonight’s rules.
This is the bargain that the rules-based gatherer offers: if you accept a greater rigidity in the setup of the event, the gatherer will offer you a different and much richer freedom — to gather with people of all kinds, in spite of your own gathering traditions.” (p. 130)
5. Never Start a Funeral with Logistics

Chapter 5 is entirely dedicated to the spaces before your meetings that we often don’t give enough thought or consideration to. Parker breaks these spaces into priming, ushering, and launching.


“Your gathering begins at the moment your guests first learn of it” (p. 145). So it is a mistake to think that your job as the host starts on the day of your event. Putting an effort into the prepping & priming is “a chance to shape [your guests’] journey into your gathering” (p. 146). “Asking guests to contribute to a gathering ahead of time changes their perception of it” (p. 153).

One of those lessons has to do with the scale of the ask and the scale of the preparation. The bigger the ask — say, if you’re having people travel long distances to attend your gathering — the more care, attention, and detail should be put into the pregame phase. You need to attend to your guests in this pregame window in proportion to the risk and effort you are demanding of them.” (p. 151)

Referring back to our discussion around “pop-up rules” make sure your prep “sow in guests any special behaviors you want to blossom right at the outset”. You should find implicit and explicit ways “to communicate to your guests what they’re signing up for by saying yes to the invitation” (p. 158).

Other main points:


Another key pre-meeting piece is to “manage your guests’ transition into the gathering” (p. 163). Your attendees’ lives don’t stop the minute they enter your space, so it’s important to find ways of ensuring presence.

This might be physical — rooms, doorways, experiences. But more likely in our context it will be psychological. You’ll need to find a way to “tune out the prior reality and capture people’s attention and imagination” (p. 170).

Studies show that audiences disproportionally remember the first 5 percent, the last 5 percent, and a climactic moment of a talk. Gatherings, I believe, work in much the same way. And yet we often pay the least attention to how we open and close them, treating these elements as afterthoughts.” (p. 173)

Parker’s #1 rule: Don’t start with logistics. It kills the vibe. It ruins the work you did in prep and in ushering. If you start with logistics, “you are missing an opportunity to sear your gathering’s purpose into the minds of your guests” (p. 175).

Consider borrowing the “cold open” from sitcoms. Jump right in! (Then handle business directly after, or somewhere in the middle.)

Your opening “should grab people” and through so doing you will honor and awe your guests — the “feeling of being totally welcomed and deeply grateful to be there” (p. 178). Put another way, make “your guests feel like valued members of a club to which they have no business belonging” (p. 180). Care deeply paired with a brilliance that might rub off on your attendees if they fully invest.

Everyone always rolls their eyes at the mention of icebreakers — but you shouldn’t ignore the possibilities they open up. Help your guests “see and be seen by one another” (p. 183). You could have a group pledge, greeting, or exercise to get the juices flowing.

You as host could also facilitate the seeing. An example given was that a host at a conference delivered “highly personal, whimsical introductions of each person, ending with their name” but excluding their job title (p. 188). This signaled that they were invited the whole person, and gave others fodder for starting conversations later.

Sometimes, this type of personalization isn’t possible. Esther Perel, a therapist and speaker, builds moments for her audience to be seen and to connect with each other even from the stage. For example, during Q&A sessions, before answering a question, she’ll ask the entire audience who can relate, which “transforms a one-to-many speech into a collective experience” (p. 189).

Even panels shouldn’t be considered stand-alone conversations. Similar to Esther Perel, moderators can also turn the audience to ask questions like “How many of you are experts on this topic” or “How many of you are working the field” (p. 190).

Overall, with your opening, try to embody “the very reason that you felt moved to bring a group of human beings together” (p. 191).

6. Keep Your Best Self Out of My Gathering

Conferences are both the best places, and the worst, for achieving authenticity and true connection. This is because “everyone is presenting the best self they think others expect to meet” (p. 194). They’re not spaces for authenticity, openness, and vulnerability.

For that reason, you have to explicitly design for the outcome you want.

One of the concepts Parker proposes it “sprout speeches not stump speeches” (p. 202).

Some of the other advice given in this chapter:

Additionally, there are things as the host that you are responsible for. For example, “show the kind of self” that you are asking them to show you (p. 222). Facilitators need “to share an even more personal story than we expect” others to — however much you share, the group will share a little less (p. 223).

You’ll also have to perform some risk management. Allow participants to choose what “level of depth” they want to take and “manage the risk-taking you are encouraging” (p. 223). For example, choosing a general theme for storytelling allows them to choose the level they want to participate at.

7. Cause Good Controversy

In this chapter, Parker makes the case for good controversy by “making good use of what divides us in our gatherings” (p. 225).

That is, to push against harmony for harmony’s sake. Harmony can become “a kind of pretender purpose, hampering the very thing the gathering was supposed to be about” (p. 229). Our desire to not offend others turns into a “habit of saying nothing at all” (p. 232).

So what’s good controversy? It’s the “kind on contention that helps people look more closely at what they care about, when there is danger but also real benefit in doing so” (p. 233).

That said, you have to make sure the introduction of controversy is carefully structured. There’s a fine line between healthy arguments and hostility. As facilitators, we have to be intentional in defining “areas of heat” (p. 237):

Parker describes her process in preparing her audience for good controversy including pre-work:

  1. Low risk: Confidential 1:1 interviews with each guest. This creates trust between the facilitator and the attendee and preps them to start thinking about the hard questions.
  2. More risk: Digital workbooks. These were confidential, but attendees also knew that their responses could be anonymously quoted during the conference.
  3. Dinner the night before. Further warming up attendees, getting them comfortable with one another.

Then on the day of, harness the other learnings from this book: (1) Push people out of the comfort zones, (2) Demonstrate the vulnerability you want them to show, (3) Set ground rules.

By confronting the heat, the participants began to see glimpses of alternative, more productive ways of interacting with one another. They became clearer on where it made sense to collaborate and where it didn’t. They also got a lot off their chests.” (p. 243)

Lastly, ask “what is the gift?” and “what is the risk?” — keeping in mind that “no true gift is free of risk” (p. 244):

8. Accept That There Is an End

But how to close a gathering? We have a tendency to “close without closing” which is a missed opportunity because the way you end things “shapes people’s experience, sense of meaning, and memory” (p. 248).

In our culture, we’re allergic to endings, so we end up letting our meetings end without any formality. “We promise to sustain what is better surrendered” (p. 251). But you have to accept that your gatherings will inevitably end.

Accepting the impermanence of a gathering is part of the art. When we vaguely try to extend our gatherings, we are not only living in denial, we are also depriving our gathering of the kind of closing that gives it the chance of enduring in people’s hearts.” (p. 251)

There’s an easy way to develop an ending that will do just that though — have your openings and closings mirror each other.

There are two phases to a strong close: looking inward and turning outward.

Looking inward is about taking a moment to understand, remember, acknowledge, and reflect on what just transpired — and to bond as a group one last time. Turning outward is about preparing to part from one another and retake your place in the world.” (p. 259)

Looking inward: “A gathering is a moment in time that has the potential to alter many other moments in time,” so you need to facilitate some sort of meaning-making at the close of the event (p. 259).

One way to do this is by looking back. An exercise we use here at Sparklos (that Parker actually mentions in her book) is naming a rose and a thorn — what’s the best and worst parts of the day, or what’s one good thing & one thing you can use as a learning.

You can also “connect the tribe one last time” by having “an affirming moment of recalling not what we did here but who we were here” (p. 260).

Turning outward: “What of this world do I want to bring back to my other worlds?” (p. 262). Think about the process of reentry that is practiced in conflict resolution, for example. “Someone has gone through an intense experience within the bubble of a dialogue” is then expect to “return to their original context” (p. 263). How do you facilitate that successfully?

Whether implicitly or explicitly, you should help them answer these questions: We’ve collectively experienced something here together, so how do we want to behave outside of this context? If we see people again, what are our agreements about what and how we’ll talk about what occurred here? What of this experience do I want to bring with me?” (p. 267)

One other piece of advice: Do not thank people at the very end. It’s a poor closing — the ending needs to accomplish the above, and a list of thank you’s takes away from that. Parker’s solution: thank people as the second to last thing on the agenda.

Lastly, have an exit line. One suggestion from Parker’s toolkit is to take notes of what people have said during your time together — “specific phrases, confessions, epiphanies, jokes, and one-liners that you think capture an important moment” (p. 278). As a close, repeat these back to the audience.

By doing so, you are reminding them of everything you did together, while “showing them how deeply they were listened to and signaling to them that what they said was remembered” (p. 279).

Back to Insights