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Hosting Memorable Gatherings Starts With A Purpose

Katherine Streeter for NPR
Katherine Streeter for NPR

Whether at home with friends or in the office with coworkers, it's our nature to try and connect with one another. And in many instances, it's the job of one person — a host — to help facilitate those connections and to create a memorable experience for guests. While planning a get-together, there can sometimes be a tendency to stress about things like food or decor, but those details can actually serve as a distraction from why someone is hosting a gathering in the first place.

"We spend too much thinking about how to create this incredible food and then think, 'Oh, I can't do that so I can't host.' If you are like that, you can still absolutely host ... in amazing ways where the meaning comes through how you connect people," says conflict resolution facilitator Priya Parker.

She wrote the book The Art Of Gathering, where she interviewed more than 100 different types of gatherers all over the world, who others have credited with creating memorable, meaningful experiences. Here are her takeaways:

Give your gathering a specific purpose

Before hosting, figure out your reason for gathering. Ask yourself how you actually want to spend your time, with whom, in what way.

According to Parker, we often make the mistake of conflating the category (e.g. birthday party) with the purpose (e.g. to surround yourself with the people who bring out the best in you).

A purpose doesn't have to be serious, but Parker says that simply adding an intention can begin to shape the group's experience of the night.

"It can be a total rave — like, the intention might be to just leave everything behind," says Parker. "It just allows people to know how to be, know how to show up, [and] know that they were specifically and wisely chosen. And then the group shapes the life of the evening itself."

Clarifying your gathering's purpose can also help determine a lot of the practical logistics too.

Think about your guest list

For starters, group size matters. It can fundamentally affect people's behavior, and there's actual science to it, too.

"Six is a good size for a really connected conversation," according to Parker. "Eight to 12 is a great size for a buzzy, dinner party [where] you're much more likely to have small group conversations. Twenty to 30 feels more like a party."

When it comes to deciding the specific people to invite, there can be a lot of anxiety. But if you're worried about excluding someone, host more, because it lowers the stakes of who you are inviting each time, argues Parker.

This is where determining a clear purpose behind your gathering can help as well. It allows you to explain your reasons behind a particular guest list, the way you can't if the party is vague.

"This knee jerk, 'of course, the more the merrier' — while it seems like a spirit of generosity, we kind of bulldoze through the intention of a group," adds Parker.

Lastly, make sure you invite people who will not only fit your purpose but will be open to it too.

Set expectations in your invite

Setting expectations can be a powerful tool. It primes your guests through a temporary social contract, so they know how to show up (and what to show up with) before even walking through the door.

"We all come in with lots of expectations. It's not a bad thing, but we have different cultural expectations. We have different economic expectations," Parker says. "The role of this invitation is like this psychological contract to help people understand this temporary world you're building and you're inviting them into for a specific moment in time."

Parker suggests giving your gathering a name and making the purpose clear — whether it's catching up with old friends or welcoming new ones to the neighborhood.

Hosting can be burdensome, either through the cost or in other ways. Being clear about your expectations beforehand can ease some of that burden. That could mean asking guests to come with a specific food, for example.

And ultimately, setting expectations can give guests a clear picture of the event ahead of time, so that they can decide for themselves whether or not to come.

Don't under-host and practice generous authority

When it comes to the event itself, a host should absolutely be able to enjoy themselves, but that doesn't mean stepping back entirely.

Although there isn't only one way to host, Parker argues that the most meaningful gatherings tend to be run by what she calls "generous authority." She defines this as "imposing in a way that serves your guests." It's about striking a balance between warmth and order.

The generous host does three things: protects, connects and temporarily equalizes their guests.

Protect your guests

Part of taking care of the life of the group is protecting them — either from sheer boredom or from each other. "If you're bringing together a group of people and one person's kind of taking all of the airtime or one person tends to be dominating the conversation, it's the role of the host to really equalize the group," adds Parker.

Equalize your guests

Groups are composed of many different identities, and almost any group has some hierarchy or power dynamics in it. The role of a host is figuring out how to make everybody feel like they belong. "Every time any group is getting together, there needs to be a context that's set up, so that each person, regardless of their many identities, can find a way in," says Parker.

Connect your guests

Another way of practicing generous authority is connecting your guests to both your purpose and to each other. It should be a goal of the host for guests to walk away forming new connections.

It can be tricky finding a balance between encouraging new connections and letting them happen naturally. The line between structure and spontaneity is a practice to nurture, says Parker. But she adds that "when you give just a certain amount of [the right kind of] guardrails, people then [are] allowed to actually be incredibly spontaneous because they feel safe."

Lastly, but certainly not least, don't forget to enjoy yourself too!

You can find the rest of Priya Parker's rules for gathering here. This summer, she's also launching "The Gathering Makeover," which, for four weeks from July through August, looks at one person trying to figure out how they want to re-enter.

The audio portion of this episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider, with audio engineering support from Joshua Newell.

We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org. For more Life Kit, subscribe to our newsletter.

Danielle Prieur covers education in Central Florida.