I’m friends with an incredible group of women. We all met as ex-pats living in Buenos Aires several years ago. Over the years, the group has managed to stay in touch, except for me, who drifted away without contact for several years. Recently, the group got back together, and I hopped on a plane to see them without hesitation. I knew it would be epic, and I was right.
It was not awkward at all, even after all those years. But how?
You can’t just bring a bunch of people together in a room and expect that it will be a good time. If you want to host better gatherings, they must be intentional. As I reflect on my recent gathering experience, I can see three distinct things that set our gatherings apart:
Set a purpose
When I first joined this group back in Buenos Aires, there was an established purpose. At that time, the group was working through Julia Cameron’s seminal book the Artist’s Way. If you haven’t heard of it, the Artist’s Way is a book that takes you through various exercises to unlock creativity. Each week, we would discuss a chapter of the book. When we finished the Artist’s Way we moved on to other books, each one with a similar slant of self-exploration and creativity. Through these book discussions, we shared our dreams and our deepest vulnerabilities. It was a place to commiserate on the rollercoaster of life overseas, and find identity as we transitioned into adulthood.
Our purpose was to read and discuss books that aided the journey of self-discovery. This purpose was a magnet that brought the right people to the group. It anchored our meetings and eliminated the need for small talk. It allowed us to go deep, share bravely, and quickly bond with one another.
Create (and enforce) rules
Once the gathering has a purpose, you must create rules to ensure that everybody stays on track. I know this sounds harsh, but it’s necessary. When I first joined the bookclub in Buenos Aires, I was told two things: First, that I must commit to doing the work. Second, that I must make Wednesday night a scared space and NEVER miss a gathering. The message was that you can’t do this halfway, and it isn’t a casual commitment. It worked. The level of commitment in that group was incredible.
Not all gatherings need serious rules. In her wonderful book The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker explains how pop-up rules can help us to gather across difference. Pop-up rules are not ethnocentric or classist (in contrast to etiquette). A pop-up rule for a gathering could be to check your phone at the door. Or that we only use first names at this party. Or everybody must wear a certain color. You get the idea. A pop-up rule can be as wacky or as subtle as you like. The idea is that it helps bring people together.
Finally, ritual is a beautiful way to create meaning. Much like pop-up rules, rituals help to put everybody at the gathering in the same state of mind. Think of all the rituals we practice at weddings: best man and maid of honor toasts, the first dance, and the serving of the cake. All of these rituals help to mark the important passage of two people joining their lives together.
If your gathering is a weekly meeting, a kick-off ritual could be that everybody shares something good that happened during the week. In my bookclub, our central ritual was our listening circle– we all practiced active listening while each woman had a chance to share and reflect on the chapter.
When our group got together all these years later, we still held listening circles. These days, we don’t reflect on a book but we share what is happening in our lives: motherhood, relationships, aging bodies, and big questions about purpose and existence. We settle in, we find our spots in the circle, and we hold space for each other like we always have.
Gatherings can hold us in a troubled world
For most of us, it has been a long couple of years without many gatherings. Some of us may feel socially awkward as we get back into the swing of things. But gatherings are a powerful way to connect with ourselves and one another as we face the big issues of our time.
So grab a friend or two, and make your own gathering. If you need some inspiration, we have some pretty great gatherings happening at Groundwork, each with their own set of rules and rituals: bookclub, Marketing Lab, Breakfast of Champions, and mid-week meditation are a few. If you’re curious, check out our events calendar or come in for a tour.