254. The Art of Gathering (Replay)

As the world slowly reopens after more than a year of COVID-19 shutdowns, coming together is more important than ever. Today’s episode takes a human-centered approach to how to create more meaningful gathering spaces and some simple tips you can follow to do so. From committing to a clear purpose to asking how your gathering impacts the wider world, we share some of the rules outlined in Priya Parker’s fascinating book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, and we discuss the benefits of Jefferson Dinners, where there is only one topic of conversation. Tune in today for some insight into the art of gathering!


Key Points From This Episode:

  • How to gather less frequently but make it more meaningful.
  • Commit to a bold and sharp purpose; be specific and focus on outcomes.
  • Why it is valuable to ask ‘why?’ five times as a tool for root cause analysis.
  • Ask yourself how your gathering is making the wider world better.
  • Have simple rules for meetings that help people jump into a new space.
  • We share some applicable rules from our episode on unconferences.
  • Learn about the concept of a Jefferson Dinner, where only one guest talks at a time.
  • And much more!


Transcript for Episode 254. The Art of Gathering (Replay)


[00:00:00] MN: Hello, and welcome to The Rabbit Hole, the definitive developer’s podcast. Living large in New York. I'm your host, Michael Nunez. Our co-host today.

[00:00:08] DA: Dave Anderson. 

[00:00:10] MN: Today we'll be talking about The Art of Gathering.

[00:00:13] DA: Yeah, it's the opposite of The Art of War.

[00:00:17] MN: Well, you do gather at wars just like you're fighting. We can gather. 

[00:00:21] DA: Yeah, just no stabbing. 

[00:00:24] MN: There's no stabbing in this art of gathering. We’re talking about tips that one could use to have more meaningful gathering spaces, and simple rules that you can follow to do so.

[00:00:38] DA: Yeah, I just finished reading this book by Priya Parker, called The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. I found it to be pretty inspirational, especially as we're thinking about, like what it means to reopen, how we're going to start meeting together. It feels we need to be a bit more intentional about it, because we might not be meeting in person as much as we used to. Remote meetings suck sometimes.

[00:01:11] MN: Yeah, I mean, especially if you have back to back to back to back remote meetings, nine to five straight up remote meetings, you might lose the umph of wanting to go to your next meeting by then. Gathering less frequently but making it more meaningful is the ideal approach. The pandemic has thrown a wrench in one of the many things that we do and the processes that we have.

[00:01:36] DA: Yeah, I think there's a lot of things that, by just being in the same place, they just happen. Like people being to have small side conversations or what have you and we value those things. Maybe we can get those same benefits if we are more intentional about how we go about it. 

[00:01:59] MN: Right. The first thing we could talk about is the idea of committing to a bold and sharp purpose.

[00:02:09] DA: Wait, I thought you said no stabbing. 

[00:02:11] MN: Oh, sorry. I'm sorry. Surprise, Dave. No, sorry. The purpose is sharp, not the knife.

[00:02:21] DA: Okay.

[00:02:21] MN: You still got to focus on a purpose that is meaningful to everyone, right? Because, you could go into those – and this goes as well as meeting in person or meeting online. If you don't have a big purpose, then maybe you shouldn't have the meeting so that people can rest from having all those – the Zoom fatigue. I don't know, there's probably a clever name for that.

[00:02:47] DA: Right? Or Yeah, if you even still have a casual gathering, but just try not to pretend that it's something more fancy than it actually is. There are a couple of rules of thumb that, I guess, are outlined in the book that you could follow to identify what your bold, sharp purposes is, which like – so to contrast, just to give a concrete example, before we jump into it. Might be like, if you're having a company or team off site meeting, an example of a bad purpose would be just to get out of the office and gather in a different context. Just to get everybody together, then you can sharpen it and be like, okay maybe we'll focus on the year ahead. 

That's a little better. But the best statements that you can make are very specific and could have some level of dispute to them. One example of a really specific purpose is to focus on building relationship between sales and marketing, which is hurting everything else. That's one from the book. That's pretty disputable, because sales and marketing, they’d be like, “No, we're working fine. We're not hurting anyone else,” because the company is like, “No, you guys get together and figure this out.”

[00:04:06] MN: Right. Then you could come up with specific examples as to why that is maybe hurting everyone else, right? That's where the dispute happens, just to work with facts, concrete facts, that you can point that out.

[00:04:20] DA: Yeah, driving some conversation and all that. 

[00:04:25] MN: You could be meeting with your team and saying, "Hey, let's go grab a beer just because.” Try to sharpen the purpose, not the knife, but the purpose down to something that will be more meaningful to that meeting, right? Like, if you're meeting with – I just had a thought, you're meeting with your engineering team for a drink, because you want to step outside of the office. You should make it like, I want to know more about your goals, your engineering goals for the rest of the year and have those conversations out rather than just like, “Hey, let's go grab a drink and this stuff.”

[00:05:00] DA: Right, yeah, that's very casual but fun. Even if it is casual, yeah, if you're looking back, out into the big picture where it’s like, okay, what is going to be the arc of this relationship with this person over time? How can we build that? That's zooming out to a bigger picture of just meeting for a social encounter, or helping them meet their goals. I think that's also an example of focusing on outcomes, because you're trying to think about what the long term benefit of that meeting could be.

[00:05:38] MN: The example of you knowing what your team members engineering goals are can help you even figure out ways and curate ways to help them in a very casual setting. It's not you're going to have your notebooks out and writing and documenting everything that they're saying, but you want to listen actively, and provide any feedback that you can at the time, and you're like, “Oh, that's good. Maybe we should schedule a meeting in the future to talk more about those things.” But that first conversation will roll itself into other outcomes that could be done whether it's at the workplace or even at the bar or restaurant where you guys are hanging out.

[00:06:15] DA: Yeah, there was another point in the book about asking why many times and drilling down, which is a tool that we use for root cause analysis. When something goes wrong, we ask why, at least five times to keep drilling down on our assumptions about a particular reason that something went wrong.

This is interesting is framing it also as a tool for asking why you're doing something in the first place before it goes wrong, so you could focus on the goals aspect. We're saying like, “Why are you really trying to figure out goals? Okay, professional development. Why do you care about professional development?” Because they want to get a promotion. Why do they want to get a promotion? Because they want to cash money.

[00:07:10] MN: Yeah, exactly.

[00:07:13] DA: I don't know. Something like that.

[00:07:14] MN: Yeah. I mean, that's a good point. Just knowing, asking the five why's for the purpose of the meeting. That's the preemptive version of what you've said, and identifying those why’s can help you hone that purpose, before you even have the meeting. Then, now that you have this focused purpose, you can then have the meeting and have that guide you the rest of the way.

Even outside the five why's, I think this was mentioned in some of the notes that I was picking up from the book. One question you should ask alongside five why's, so maybe this is your sixth question, would be how can it make the wider world better?

[00:08:00] DA: How is my stand up making the wider world better?

[00:08:04] MN: Well, I mean, it depends, right? I mean, I’ll play that game. How do you make stand-up better? I think that if you made stand-up more efficient, and you do it the best that you can, then people would get back to whatever they were doing before stand up and then we'll make their lives easier. If they're making coffee, and you have a long-stand up, then their coffees is burnt. If you keep it nice and concise, then they have good coffee that morning.

[00:08:30] DA: Oh, yeah. Better coffee means more code. Yeah, I guess, the team will be able to collaborate a bit better too, like less friction. They'll know what's going on and just be able to jump into things. I don't know, maybe solve the problems.

[00:08:50] MN: Definitely, even thinking of the example I used earlier. Like, “Oh, I want to meet with the my engineering team to talk about their engineering goals.” How does that make the world better? By me actively listening to other individual’s goals can impact their lives and their world in whatever they do at the end of the day.

Let's say, someone's engineering goal is they want to be a mentor to someone. Then they're actually impacting someone else in the world to be a mentor in engineering or whatnot. if that's one of their goals, then I can help that person help someone else.

[00:09:29] DA: There you go. Pay it forward.

[00:09:32] MN: Pay it forward. Yeah. Just taking in the five why's and making – how is this meeting or this gathering helping the world? The wider world, the wider world. The whole world.

[00:09:46] DA: Helping the whole world.

[00:09:48] MN: I mean, just small. You start small. Yeah, maybe you’re helping someone to help someone to help someone. That’s what we got.

[00:09:56] DA: All right, raising the bar for retro next week.

[00:09:58] MN: There you go.

[00:10:01] DA: Cool. Yeah, the other thing that really resonated with me in this book, this idea of having simple rules for meetings that help people jump into this new space. I think we've talked about an example of a meeting that has this structure before on conferences episode. That was episode number 120.

[00:10:31] MN: Oh, cool.

[00:10:32] DA: On the tats.

[00:10:32] MN: On the tat. Oh, yeah.

[00:10:35] DA: Yeah. There are just four rules in an unconference, that when you put them together, they really make you feel you're in a completely different world.

[00:10:48] MN: Rule number one is, whoever shows up are the right people. You're not waiting for someone or calling someone in to join your unconference session. Whoever decided to show up at the time are the right people at that time.

[00:11:02] DA: Yeah. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have. No regrets. YOLO-driven meeting.

[00:11:11] MN: The YOLO-driven meeting right there. Whenever it starts is the right time. If the meeting has started, someone comes in, that's fine. You don't have to bring it back. Or if it takes a little time to kick it off, that's okay, too. As long as it starts, that is the right time.

[00:11:26] DA: Yeah. It's over when it's over. Just don't need to drag it on past its expiration point. It's okay to end early, or go late, or whatever.

[00:11:41] MN: Whenever it's done, that's the right time for that as well.

[00:11:44] DA: Yeah. There's another one too, of the law of two-feet, where it's like, if something isn't good, walk away, which I didn't see in this particular list, but I think we talked about that in the unconferences episode. Those rules come in together. It makes a different space. It doesn't always feel like those things are true for all of our meetings. I feel like, if we applied these rules to stand up, it would be a little chaotic.

[00:12:12] MN: Yeah. If I use the law of two-feet in the middle of retro, that would be disrespectful.

[00:12:17] DA: A little disrespectful. It would be a different space, for sure.

[00:12:23] MN: Definitely will be a different space.

[00:12:27] DA: Yeah. I feel like, when those things come together, it makes a really exciting feeling. There's a lot of different cases where these kinds of things happen. It makes unspoken rules spoken. There is business etiquette in life that you have to know, but not everybody may be aware of it. Just laying out these basic ideas helps everybody be on the same page, no matter what their background is.

[00:13:01] MN: Another type of gathering, to spice things up, I think we might have discussed this in the past, Dave. I don't know. Correct me if I'm wrong. This is something we've done definitely in the conversation of meta-conversations about the podcast outside in other meetings. It's called the Jeffersonian dinner. The idea is that at the very beginning of this Jeffersonian dinner, you provide the topic at hand.

Again, as we discussed before, possible with using the five why's and the making the wider world better. Bring up the topic. The rule is, and this is usually in a dinner setting, only one person can talk at a time. No side conversations, which can be very difficult in a dinner setting. When it's intentful, you can get really meaningful conversations. People are listening intently, and are able to provide feedback as well about the topic and things to improve for the topic that's given.

[00:14:05] DA: Right. A lot of these things are rules for coming into the space. It's like, okay, you're preparing before you even get into the space for the meeting, the conversation, the dinner. During the dinner itself, there's only one rule in the Jeffersonian dinner, which is you must have a single conversation, and everyone should be listening. It's like, the whole table focusing on one topic and being really, really focused on it.

[00:14:35] MN: Right. I think, I just found the jeffersondinner.org. It has some rules, but it's what we just went over. The one table, where you can't have more than one table. Everyone should be able to sit and have a conversation across this table. Eight to 14 guests is usually. You don't want to have more than 14, because that might cause – you're more likely to have side conversations. You need to topic and you need food.

[00:15:01] DA: Yeah. It's interesting, because this framework of the Jeffersonian dinner covers most of the bases that The Art of Gathering covers. You can reimagine this framework for any meeting that you might have in your life or gathering. I was reading, and I was even thinking about my wedding and what it means – what is going to mean to us in that particular moment, even though we're already married. All that stuff. The complications of having planned something in a pandemic that got shifted back, and then we got married anyway, and blah, blah, blah.

The normal rules that exist, the normal etiquette that exists for a wedding, we just have to reconsider all of it. Having this framework of simple rules is like, “Oh, okay. That makes sense for that.” It makes sense for stand up, for a casual beer with your colleague. It makes sense for a lot of things. It's cool.

[00:16:06] MN: Yeah. Jeffersonian dinner is pretty awesome. I've had really, really great conversations with them. When everyone knows that they have to focus for the one person who's speaking, when those rules are set, right, like you mentioned, the wedding etiquette, they're just some things that happen at a wedding that you follow. When those rules have been established, it becomes – the event is that much more awesome to experience.

I'd be curious to hear what other gatherings are, have been done in the past, and other people's engineering teams, just to really be curious on what are some other ideas people can do. Because I do think that the unconference is an amazing way to spend time with your colleagues. Jeffersonian dinner is very insightful, when by bringing in the topic and then having lengthy discussions about things. I'm curious, like what are other types of gatherings that people have and what are some of our listeners’ thoughts on that?

[00:17:11] DA: Definitely.


[00:17:13] MN: Follow us now on Twitter @RadioFreeRabbit, so we can keep the conversation going. Like what you hear? Give us a five-star review and help developers just like you find their way into The Rabbit Hole. Never miss an episode. Subscribe now however you listen to your favorite podcast.

On behalf of our producer extraordinaire, William Jeffries, and my amazing co-host Dave Anderson, and me, your host, Michael Nunez, thanks for listening to The Rabbit Hole.


Links and Resources:

The Art of Gathering

Episode 120: Unconferences, Open Spaces with Doc List

The Jefferson Dinner

The Rabbit Hole on Twitter

The Rabbit Hole Podcast