Science is conclusive: the less small talk you have in your life, the happier you'll be. That's because humans are intensely social animals. We crave genuine connection with others, and the only way to experience that is to face the terrors and joys of real and revealing conversation. Chatting politely about the weather doesn't cut it.
Yet think about the last few events you went to, be they birthday parties or board meetings. Did you feel genuinely connected with fellow participants? Did the gathering spark joy? Did you leave transformed?
I'm going to bet no, and that's no accident, according to Priya Parker, author of the book The Art of Gathering. In her newly released and brilliant TED Talk (hat tip to Swiss Miss), the expert in conflict negotiation and professional facilitator of difficult conversations, explains why so many events end up dull and soulless, and what we can do to plan ones that spark genuine connection, joy, and even sometimes personal transformation.
1. Think about your purpose.
When most of us plan an event of some kind, we rely on existing templates. Birthdays are marked with cake and singing. Board meetings require long tables and PowerPoint. Baby showers mean presents and awkward games.
These "out of the box" scripts are where we first go wrong when planning an event. Instead of following a template, Parker urges hosts to think deeply about their own individual purpose for the gathering. What are you trying to accomplish? What type of gathering will get you there?
Parker gives the example of a woman who was dreading her upcoming baby shower. The usual gifts-and-games format just seemed pointless. Then she asked herself why she wanted a baby shower at all.
The answer turned out to be to gather support from friends before an event that was terrifying her. Once this purpose was clear, the woman rethought her plans, asking a few close friends to come and share stories of times the host had displayed qualities that would help her through the transition to parenthood. The guests even made a necklace together at the event, which the woman could wear to give her courage and strength in labor.
That's far from your typical "meh" baby shower, and it all started with an intense focus on a specific, individual purpose for hosting a gathering.
2. Cause good controversy.
We've all been told to never talk about sex, politics, and religion at the dinner table. That's bad advice, according to Parker. "Human connection is as threatened by unhealthy peace as unhealthy conflict," she writes. "Politeness can block progress."
On the other hand, you don't want to end up throwing turkey legs at each other at Thanksgiving. So how do you encourage real dialog while keeping the heat of the exchange within comfortable parameters? In the case of a conflict-riven family seeking real conversation over the holiday table, Parker suggests banning opinions in favor of stories.
"Choose a theme related to the underlying conflict but instead of opinions, ask everybody to share an experience from their life that nobody around the table has ever heard... giving people a way in to each other without burning the house down," she says.
At a work gathering, a host might organize a structured debate about an issue that politeness has kept from surfacing for too long.
3. Create a temporary, alternate world.
Rules sound like they'd make a party dull and restricting, but Parker insists that "one-time-only constitutions for a specific purpose" can keep diverse gatherings from going off the rails because of differing expectations or etiquette. "Pop-up rules allow us to connect meaningfully," she insists.
So, at an intergenerational work dinner, the invitation might read, "the person who looks at their phone first, foots the bill." At a networking event you can stave off dull, transactional "So, what do you do?" conversations by specifying attendees can't reveal what they do for a living. Or, at a mommy gathering where the host wants her guests to reconnect with other aspects of their lives, the rule might be "if you talk about your kids, you have to take a shot." (All real life examples drawn from Parker's experience.)
Intrigued by Parker's prescriptions for better parties? Check out her complete 10-minute TED talk below.