[Book Review] The Art of Gathering

My ratings of the book
Likelihood to recommend: 3.5/5
Educational value: 4/5
Engaging plot: 3/5
Clear & concise writing: 3/5
Suitable for: anyone interested in how to host better gatherings, be it a birthday party, a family dinner, or a business meeting

Me: “I am reading a book called The Art of Gathering – it’s about tips on how to be a better host of gatherings.”

Response: “I like how you are reading about gatherings when we can’t have gatherings during social distancing. :)” Fair point – this may not be a good time to host a gathering, nevertheless it doesn’t hurt to think about how to become a better host. The learnings from the book will become especially handy when we resume normal social activities (and fingers crossed the situation would improve soon).

Before digging into the key takeaways, general comments on the book – I gave this book 3.5 stars out of 5:

  • What I like is the insights on gatherings – the book is less about what to do at gatherings (though there is a fair share of that) and more about how to think about gatherings (a mindset shift). This is not the typical logistical advice you would expect (e.g., how to arrange seats or dinner recipes). Instead, Priya Parker tells us how to re-imagine our roles as a host and the meanings of a gathering. This book reads like a combo of instructional manual + philosophy – that’s worth a 4 stars on educational value.
  • What I don’t enjoy as much is the narration style – some examples shared in the book feels a bit too wordy and could be slimmed down. For this reason, I find myself flipping through some chapters where I feel I have captured the main points, yet the examples shared are too detailed for my taste. Hence only a 3-star rating on plot & style.

And now to key takeaways from the book:

1/ Figuring out the real reason that matters is halfway towards a successful gathering. Importantly, a category is NOT a purpose, e.g., the purpose of a birthday party is NOT “to celebrate my birthday. A better but bland purpose would be “to mark the year,” and even better purposes could be along the lines of “to surround myself with the people who bring out the best in me,” “to set some goals for the year ahead with people who will help me stay accountable,” “to take a personal risk/do something that scares me.”

2/ Gathering that please everyone are rarely exciting – great gatherings are not afraid of alienating, which is not the same as being alienating. It is about taking a stand with a purpose of the gathering that stands out; it is about saying “no” to someone who want to join the gang; it is about enforcing rules to honor the purpose of the gathering and not succumbing to so-called etiquette.

(Some purposes) fail at the test for a meaningful reason for coming together: Does it stick its neck out a little bit? Does it take a stand? Is it willing to unsettle some of the guests (or maybe the host)? Does it refuse to be everything to everyone?

A good gathering purpose should also be disputable. If you say the purpose of your wedding is to celebrate love, you may bring a smile to people’s faces, but you aren’t really committing to anything, because who would dispute that purpose? … A disputable purpose, on the other hand, begins to be a decision filter. If you commit to a purpose of your wedding as a ceremonial repayment of your parents … that is disputable, and it will immediately help you make choices. That one remaining seat will go to your parents’ long-lost friend, not your estranged college buddy.

3/ A good host is never a chill host who sits back and lets guests organize themselves. I love how Priya Parker puts it: “Gathering well isn’t a chill activity. If you want chill, visit the Arctic.” Or in the words of Isaiah Berlin: “Freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep.

“The chill approach to hosting is all too often about hosts attempting to wriggle out of the burden of hosting. In gatherings, once your guests have chosen to come into your kingdom, they want to be governed – gently, respectfully, and well. When you fail to govern, you may be elevating how you want them to perceive you over how you want the gathering to go for them. Often, chill is you caring about you masquerading (instead of) you caring about them.”

“Behind the ethic of chill hosting lies a simple fallacy: Hosts assume that leaving guests alone means that the guests will be left alone, when in fact they will be left to one another. Many hosts I work with seem to imagine that by refusing to exert any power in their gathering, they create a power-free gathering. What they fail to realize is that this pulling-back, far from purging a gathering of power, creates a vacuum that others can fill. These others are likely to exercise power in a manner inconsistent with your gathering’s prupose, and exercise it over people who signed up to be at your – the hosts’s – mercy, but definitely didn’t sign up to be at the mercy of your drunk uncle.”

4/ Hosting a gathering is not a democratic activity, so don’t be afraid of being the boss if you are the host. Be assertive in introducing your guests to each other a lot. Be assertive in seating guests next to people who are from different walks of life yet still complementary. Be assertive in setting your own rules, e.g., break up two friends who are talking with themselves in the corner and encourage them to mingle with everyone else.

5/ A gathering starts when your guests first hear about it, and don’t waste the time from then until the date of the gathering to prime your guests for the event. Priya Parker calls this “pregame window” a chance to shape the guests’ journey into the gathering – it is about priming the guests to get them in the right mood & mindset before the event, so that they could exhibit the behavior you would like.

The pregame should sow in guests any special behaviors you want to blossom right at the outset. If you are planning a corporate brainstorming session and you’re going to be counting on your employees’ creativity, think about how you might prime them to be bold and imaginative from the beginning. Perhaps by sending them an article on unleashing your wildest ideas a few days beforehand. If, for example, you are planning a session on mentorship in your firm, and you need people to show up with their guards down, send an email out ahead of time that includes real, heartfelt testimonials from three senior leaders sharing personal, specific examples of the transformative power that a mentor had on them.

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. 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 participants to answer…The workbooks aren’t so different from a college application in that sense … they also help the person think through the things they value before they arrive. I then design the day based on what I see in their answers. I also weave quotes from their workbooks into my opening remarks at the convening.

6/ Quit starting or ending with logistics, such as where you should go next. It is extremely anti-climatic.

“I’m speaking, in short, of every gathering whose opening moments are governed by the thought: ‘Let’s first get some business out of the way.'”

“Just as you don’t open a gathering with logistics, you should never end a gathering with logistics, and that include sthank-yous. I am not suggesting that you cannot thank people. I simply mean that you shouldn’t thakn them as the last thing you do when gathering. Here’s a simple solution: do it as the second-to-last thing.”

“Goldman is a much-beloved teacher and singer-songwriter…To close (his classes) he strums the first note of the final song, his version of the last call, triggering the expectation of a closing in the kids, and then he pauses and makes announcements while still holding the note: Please turn in your check to me if you haven’t already. No classes next week. Someone left their jacket. He technically does these logistics between the first and second note of the final song. Once he’s finished with the logistics, he resumes the goodbye song. It’s subtle but quietly brilliant.”

7/ A soft close tactic, if done well, gives some guests the freedom to leave if they wish while lets other guests who want to stay feel welcome to linger around. Priya Parker shares a tip of inviting guests to the living room for a nightcap as a soft close for her house gatherings.

“The trouble for the host is that, for every person who is tired or checking out, there are presumably others who look as if they could keep going for hours. One of the most interesting – and divisive – dilemmas in hosting is what to do in this situation.”

“Once I can see the conversation petering out after dessert (at a home gathering), 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.”


“That invitation to the living room is a soft close; in a sense, it’s the equivalent of the last call. You can ask for the check, so to speak, or you can order another round. Those who are tired can leave without appearing rude, and those who want to stay can stay. The party, relocated and trimmed, resumes.”

And to heed my own advice, I should close this post with a thoughtful closing – at least somewhat thoughtful. I would like to share with you what Priya Parker wrote in the introduction of the book: there are no pre-requisites to being a good gatherer. No, you don’t have to be talkative, you don’t need to have a fancy venue, and you don’t need to hide a dozen jokes in your sleeves to entertain your guests. The magic recipe is some deliberate thought into why you are gathering, which identities of you the gathering is enforcing, and what spirit you are bringing into the gathering – it is likely to go well (or better than you imagined) if you have “the curiosity, willingness, and generosity of spirit to try.