The short answer? Yes.
Our gathering actually begins at the moment our guests first hear of it. “This may sound obvious, but it’s not,” Priya Parker writes in The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. Our guests have been “thinking about and preparing for and anticipating” our event from what she calls “the moment of discovery.”
Typically, we focus on logistics. Where will the event be held? What food will be served? Yes, we must attend to details like these, but our bigger opportunity is to be intentional about shaping the event’s impact. “Logistics can again overrun the human imperative of getting the most out of your guests and offering them the most your gathering can,” she writes.
The window between the announcement and the formal beginning is the time to prime our guests. What is the unique purpose of our event? For example, if we are planning a funeral: “Are we coming together to “celebrate and remember,” or are we gathering to “grieve and to mark”? Priya asks. “Those different purposes imply different types of funerals and different moods and behaviors among guests. From the first lines of the invitation, there is an opportunity to get your guests ready for how you want them to show up.”
We ask ourselves: Is there a specific mindset or a particular behavior we seek? Suppose we are planning an organizational brainstorming session, and we want to prime our associates to be bold and creative. In that case, we might send an article on “unleashing our wildest ideas” a few days beforehand, Priya suggests.
Suppose we are kicking off a mentorship program, and we need people to show up as their authentic selves. In that case, we might send out “real, heartfelt testimonials from three senior leaders sharing personal, specific examples of the transformative power that a mentor had on them,” she notes.
Being thoughtful in advance creates an environment where we can achieve the desired outcome of the gathering. If we are “hosting a meeting at work and hoping to have an honest conversation in which employees share what they’re actually experiencing, it can be harder to do if they show up cynical or defensive,” Priya writes. Sure, we “can try to change their mood when they arrive. But it takes more energy and sophistication on the part of the host and cuts into the time for the gathering.”
The better option? Prime the mindset and behaviors in advance.
“In my own work with organizations, I almost always send out a digital ‘workbook’ to participants to fill out and return to me ahead of the gathering,” Priya writes. “I design each workbook afresh depending on the purpose of the gathering and what I hope to get guests to think about in advance. The workbooks consist of six to ten questions for the participants to answer.”
Priya selects questions that will (1) connect the participant with the purpose of the event, (2) get them to share honestly about the challenges and opportunities that person is facing regarding the event’s purpose, and (3) prompt the attendees to think about what they hope to achieve during the event.
She writes: “For a gathering on the future of education at a university, I asked questions like ‘What is one moment or experience you had before the age of twenty that fundamentally impacted the way you look at the world?’ and ‘What are the institutions in the United States and abroad that are taking a bold, effective approach to educating the next generation of global problem solvers? What can we learn from them?’
“For a gathering on rethinking a national poverty program, I asked questions like ‘What is your earliest memory of facing or coming into contact with poverty?’ and ‘How are our core principles the same or different from when we started fifty years ago?’
“For a gathering of a technology company’s executive team after a merger, I asked questions like ‘Why did you join this company?’ and ‘What are the most pressing questions you think this team needs to address?’
Answering the questions creates “a social contract” for a gathering: “What am I willing to give—physically, psychologically, financially, emotionally, and otherwise—in return for what I expect to receive?”
These workbooks serve other purposes as well. They provide Priya with a sense of the individual people and the dynamics of the group. She then designs the sessions around what she sees in the answers and includes quotes from the workbooks in her opening remarks.
The workbooks do one final thing, Priya notes: “They inadvertently create a connection between each participant and me, well ahead of our time together, which makes my job much easier once I’m in the room. By crafting the workbooks and sending them out, I am sending the participants an invitation to engage. By filling them out and sending them back to me, they are accepting. The relationship, and the sharing of confidences, begins well before we enter the room.”
Reflection: Think about a meeting or event that is coming up. How can I prime the participants in advance to show up with the mindset and behaviors necessary to make the event a success?
Action: Take action.