For many years, when medical teams gathered to operate on a patient, they often didn’t know one another’s names before starting.
1: It turns out this practice had unintended and deadly consequences. “A 2001 Johns Hopkins study found that when members introduced themselves and shared concerns ahead of time, the likelihood of complications and deaths fell by 35 percent,” writes Priya Parker in The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.
“Surgeons, like many of us, assumed that they shouldn’t waste time going through the silly formalities of seeing and being seen for something as important as saving lives. Yet it was these silly formalities that directly affected the outcomes of surgeries,” she writes. “It was when the nurses and doctors and anesthesiologists practiced good gathering principles that they felt more comfortable speaking up during surgery and offering solutions.”
2: When we gather people together, be it professionally or personally, we want to be intentional about connecting those in attendance.
Our task is “to fuse people, to turn a motley collection of attendees into a tribe,” notes Priya. “A talented gatherer doesn’t hope for disparate people to become a group. [We] make them a group.”
The goal is to help our guests see and be seen by one another. “In the Zulu tribe, this acknowledgment is baked into the very language of their call-and-response greeting. Greeting: “Sawubona.” (I see you.) Response: “Ngikhona.” (I am here.),” Priya writes.
In our busy modern lives, we often skip this step. “This is what happens in many churches when the pastor invites the congregation to shift its attention from the pulpit to one another and to wish a round of ‘Good morning’ or ‘Happy Easter.’ This kind of invitation is missing from too many gatherings and can be especially powerful at the outset,” Priya observes.
When Priya facilitates a meeting, within the first five minutes of her opening, she always says something like: “I want you to imagine you’re building a spider web together. That each of you has strings coming out of your wrists that connect with the other thirty-two people here. We can only go as deep as the weakest thread will allow. Now, none of you are the weakest link.” The attendees usually chuckle.
“No one’s going to be voted off the island. But the weakest thread between two of you is what’s going to determine how deep we can go together.”
Priya makes these comments up front and then continues to remind her audience after breaks and at other moments of transition. “Build a web, build a web, build a web. Because it’s not about their connection to me,” she notes. “It’s this psychological inter-stitching of the group that allows [us] to take risks, build together, and have the boldest version of whatever gathering [we] ‘re having.”
Relationship and sex therapist Esther Perel regularly presents to large audiences of more than one thousand people. She is sought out not only because of her intriguing content but also because of how “she connects audience members to one another, signaling in subtle ways that they are not alone,” Priya writes. When someone asks Esther a question “about cheating or divorce or boredom, before answering it, she’ll look out at the audience and ask, ‘How many of you can relate to this question?’ Or, ‘Who also wonders about this?'”
This simple technique transforms a one-to-many speech into a collective experience.
We might simply turn to our audience at the beginning of a session and ask: “How many of you consider yourself an expert on artificial intelligence?” Or, “How many of you are working in the field?” Or, “How many of you are thinking about this for the first time?” Or even, “How many of you just realized you’re in the wrong session?”
3: As the host or organizer of an event, we also have the power to “temporarily equalize our guests,” Priya observes.
As President, Barack Obama noticed men “were far more likely to both raise their hands and be called on in public question-and-answer settings,” Priya writes. “So he started an experiment. He decided to take questions “boy, girl, boy, girl” fashion. And if a woman didn’t ask a question when the women’s turn came, he would wait until one did.
Reflection: Think back on a favorite meeting, event, or party. How did the host or leader connect people?
Action: Be intentional the next time I host a gathering about “fusing people together as a tribe.”