When I was a child, every other Friday, I would leave my mother and stepfather's home — an Indian and British, atheist, Buddhist, agnostic, vegetarian, new age-y sometimes, Democratic household. And I would go 1.4 miles to my father and stepmother's home and enter a white, Evangelical Christian, conservative, Republican, twice-a-week-churchgoing, meat-eating family. It doesn't take a shrink to explain how I ended up in the field of conflict resolution.
Whether I was facilitating dialogues in Charlottesville or Istanbul or Ahmedabad, the challenge was always the same: despite all odds, and with integrity, how do you get people to connect meaningfully, to take risks, to be changed by their experience? And I would witness extraordinarily beautiful electricity in those rooms. And then I would leave those rooms and attend my everyday gatherings like all of you — a wedding or a conference or a back-to-school picnic — and many would fall flat. There was a meaning gap between these high-intensity conflict groups and my everyday gatherings. Now, you could say, sure, somebody's birthday party isn't going to live up to a race dialogue, but that's not what I was responding to. As a facilitator, you're taught to strip everything away and focus on the interaction between people, whereas everyday hosts focus on getting the things right — the food, the flowers, the fish knives — and leave the interaction between people largely to chance.
So I began to wonder how we might change our everyday gatherings to focus on making meaning by human connection, not obsessing with the canapés. And I set out and interviewed dozens of brave and unusual hosts — an Olympic hockey coach, a Cirque du Soleil choreographer, a rabbi, a camp counselor— to better understand what creates meaningful and even transformative gatherings. And I want to share with you some of what I learned today about the new rules of gathering.
So when most people plan a gathering, they start with an off-the-rack format. Birthday party? Cake and candles. Board meeting? One brown table, 12 white men.
Assuming the purpose is obvious, we skip too quickly to form. This not only leads to dull and repetitive gatherings, it misses a deeper opportunity to actually address our needs. The first step of creating more meaningful everyday gatherings is to embrace a specific disputable purpose.
An expectant mother I know was dreading her baby shower. The idea of "pin the diaper on the baby" games and opening gifts felt odd and irrelevant. So she paused to ask: What is the purpose of a baby shower? What is my need at this moment? And she realized it was to address her fears of her and her husband's — remember that guy? — transition to parenthood. And so she asked two friends to invent a gathering based on that. And so on a sunny afternoon, six women gathered. And first, to address her fear of labor — she was terrified — they told her stories from her life to remind her of the characteristics she already carries — bravery, wonder, faith, surrender — that they believed would carry her and help her in labor as well. And as they spoke, they tied a bead for each quality into a necklace that she could wear around her neck in the delivery room.
Next, her husband came in, and they wrote new vows, family vows, and spoke them aloud, first committing to keep their marriage central as they transitioned to parenthood, but also future vows to their future son of what they wanted to carry with them from each of their family lines and what would stop with this generation. Then more friends came along, including men, for a dinner party. And in lieu of gifts, they each brought a favorite memory from their childhood to share with the table.
Now, you might be thinking this is a lot for a baby shower, or it's a little weird or it's a little intimate. Good. It's specific. It's disputable. It's specific to them, just as your gathering should be specific to you.
The next step of creating more meaningful everyday gatherings is to cause good controversy. You may have learned, as I did, never to talk about sex, politics or religion at the dinner table. It's a good rule in that it preserves harmony, or that's its intention. But it strips away a core ingredient of meaning, which is heat, burning relevance. The best gatherings learn to cultivate good controversy by creating the conditions for it, because human connection is as threatened by unhealthy peace as by unhealthy conflict. I was once working with an architecture firm, and they were at a crossroads. They had to figure out whether they wanted to continue to be an architecture firm and focus on the construction of buildings or pivot and become the hot new thing, a design firm, focusing on beyond the construction of spaces. And there was real disagreement in the room, but you wouldn't know, because no one was actually speaking up publicly. And so we hosted good controversy. After a lunch break, all the architects came back, and we hosted a cage match. They walked in, we took one architect, put him in one corner to represent architecture, the other one to represent design. We threw white towels around their necks, stolen from the bathroom — sorry — played Rocky music on an iPad, got each a Don King-like manager to rev them up and prepare them with counterarguments, and then basically made them each argue the best possible argument of each future vision. The norm of politeness was blocking their progress. And we then had everybody else physically choose a side in front of their colleagues. And because they were able to actually show where they stood, they broke an impasse. Architecture won.
So that's work. What about a hypothetical tense Thanksgiving dinner? Anyone?
So first, ask the purpose. What does this family need this year? If cultivating good heat is part of it, then try for a night banning opinions and asking for stories instead. Choose a theme related to the underlying conflict. But instead of opinions, ask everybody to share a story from their life and experience that nobody around the table has ever heard, to difference or to belonging or to a time I changed my mind, giving people a way in to each other without burning the house down.
And finally, to create more meaningful everyday gatherings, create a temporary alternative world through the use of pop-up rules.
A few years ago, I started noticing invitations coming with a set of rules. Kind of boring or controlling, right? Wrong. In this multicultural, intersectional society, where more of us are gathered and raised by people and with etiquette unlike our own, where we don't share the etiquette, unspoken norms are trouble, whereas pop-up rules allow us to connect meaningfully. They're one-time-only constitutions for a specific purpose. So a team dinner, where different generations are gathering and don't share the same assumptions of phone etiquette: whoever looks at their phone first foots the bill.
For an entrepreneurial advice circle of just strangers, where the hosts don't want everybody to just listen to the one venture capitalist in the room —
knowing laugh —
you can't reveal what you do for a living.
For a mom's dinner, where you want to upend the norms of what women who also happen to be mothers talk about when they gather, if you talk about your kids, you have to take a shot.
That's a real dinner.
Rules are powerful, because they allow us to temporarily change and harmonize our behavior. And in diverse societies, pop-up rules carry special force. They allow us to gather across difference, to connect, to make meaning together without having to be the same.
When I was a child, I navigated my two worlds by becoming a chameleon. If somebody sneezed in my mother's home, I would say, "Bless you," in my father's, "God bless you." To protect myself, I hid, as so many of us do. And it wasn't until I grew up and through conflict work that I began to stop hiding. And I realized that gatherings for me, at their best, allow us to be among others, to be seen for who we are, and to see.
The way we gather matters because how we gather is how we live.