1: It was the end of a two-day workshop. Priya and two other facilitators had spent countless hours preparing the content of the sessions. “Everything–every session, every transition, every break–was tightly designed, down to the minute. Everything except for the final ten minutes of the conference.” This topic they had not discussed.
We often assume the ending will just happen on it own. “Like a sunset, we assumed it would come,” she recalls.
“Guests, like romantic partners, deserve a proper breakup,” she observes. But this wasn’t that.
“The lead facilitator stepped up to the podium, looked at her watch, and made a few announcements about shared rides to the airport. The audience turned toward her, looking up attentively, waiting for more. There was a sense of expectation in the room.
“She looked out at them, presumably thinking it was obvious that we were done, but they kept staring at her, waiting for more. ‘OK, thank you!’ she said. Everyone kept staring.
“She tried again: ‘We’re done here! It’s over!’
“Finally, after another awkward pause, realizing there really wasn’t anything more, the attendees broke into conversation, grabbed their bags, and left.”
“We closed without closing. We didn’t take stock of what they had absorbed over the two days. We didn’t gauge their buy-in. We didn’t talk about how they would carry what we had done together into their daily lives,,” she writes. “We allowed the clock—and only the clock—to demarcate our ending.”
2: Often, our gatherings just “flicker out” rather than end with “a real send off,” she observes. “Too many of our gatherings don’t end. They simply stop.”
When we approach endings this way, we miss out on a powerful opportunity to create a sense of meaning and memory.
Professor Michael J. Smith runs the Political and Social Thought program at the University of Virginia. It is “an intensive, two-year-long seminar that takes each class of twenty students through a rigorous study of political philosophy,” Priya writes. “The culminating moment of the program is the submission of a final thesis. Students work on the thesis for more than a year. The final weeks tend to be grueling, filled with all-nighters.”
The thesis are due at 5 pm on the second Friday in April. “For most professors, that would mean leaving a box outside their office door for the students to place their bound theses and walk out,” she writes.
Not Professor Smith. “To the surprise and delight of his students, [he] stands inside his office, waiting for them with a platter of tequila shots,” she recounts. It is a surprise party and a welcoming into into post-thesis life.
“With that simple act of turning an ending into a closing, he transforms the act of submitting a thesis and creates a moment that students never forget (including this one, from the Class of 2004),” Priya writes.
How we start and how we end matters. In prior posts, we’ve looked at the tendency to open without a real opening: “Instead of drawing us in with a bang and catering to the human need to be welcomed and entranced, people start with logistics, announcements, housekeeping, and the settling of corporate sponsor debts,” Priya writes.
The same problem applies to endings as well. Just as shouldn’t open with logistics, we should never end a gathering with logistics and thank-you’s, Priya suggests. “I am not suggesting that you cannot thank people. I simply mean that you shouldn’t thank them as the last thing you do.”
So how do we close with a bang and not a whimper? We can learn a lesson from drinking establishments all over the world.
“Last call!” the bartender shouts. Why? To prepare us to wrap up any unfinished business. Priya believes many gatherings, both personal and professional, would benefit from the concept of last call.
“Perceptive hosts notice when an event is waning,” she notes. “Perhaps a few guests are rubbing their eyes, or they start shifting in their seats, or no one is asking questions of the panelists.”
The challenge? Other guests or participants want to continue. Priya offers a solution: “Once I can see the conversation petering out after dessert, I pause, thank everyone for a beautiful evening, then suggest we move to the living room to have a nightcap. I give the guests who are tired the opportunity to leave, but both my husband and I emphasize that we’d rather everyone stay.”
She calls it a “soft close,” the equivalent of last call. “Those who are tired can leave without appearing rude, and those who want to stay can stay. The party, relocated and trimmed, resumes.”
3: For workshops, conferences and other longer gatherings, Priya believes a strong close has two elements: inward and 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.” As the host, we create some space to engage in meaning-making: What transpired here? And why does that matter?
The annual TED conference often concludes with a comedian delivering a fifteen-minute summation. It’s not an easy assignment. “He or she must listen deeply throughout the week and then stand before hundreds of people who have been through the same experience and, with humor and insight, juice meaning from that multitude of moments,” Priya writes.
Turning outward is about preparing to part from the other participants and retake our place in the world. We address the transition back into everyday life and help our guests answer the question: What of this world do we want to bring back to our real worlds?
“No matter how ordinary your gathering, if we have forged a group and created something of a temporary alternative world, then we should also think about helping those you gathered ‘take the set down’ and walk back into their other worlds,” she writes.
As gatherers we may do this implicitly or explicitly by helping our guests connect the two worlds. “That thread could come in the form of a verbal or written pledge,” Priya notes, about “what we will do differently moving forward.” One option is to create a physical wall on which people can write their pledges.
Gathering together and shouting “Front line matters!” at the conclusion of the meeting reminds attendees why they choose to do what they do. We may choose to hand out a relevant gift that connects the two worlds. One particularly cool idea is to have participants write a letter to their future selves on a self-addressed postcard which the organizer mails out several weeks later.
Whether it’s a large-scale event or a small dinner party, all events can have a meaningful closing which can be as simple as a goodbye chocolate or walking guests to the door rather than letting themselves out. “Even a minimalist closing can manage to acknowledge what transpired and offer a release,” Priya observes. “Sometimes it can be just a pause, a moment, a tight squeeze, to acknowledge what has happened.”
Reflection: How do I typically close my meetings? Is there an opportunity to be more intentional about creating a moment of learning or reflection?
Action: Experiment with a new closing.