The last time I had people over, I felt the whole night was kind of…flat. So I went to an expert—who told me exactly what I've been doing wrong. 

By Jancee Dunn
May 14, 2018
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Anne Bentley

A few months ago, I hosted a dinner for friends that never really got off the ground. I couldn’t understand it: I’d spent hours making a killer mushroom lasagna. I’d scrubbed and decluttered the apartment. I’d toiled over the music playlist.

Yet the whole evening was just kind of…blah. We all made chitchat, but it was a bit labored and punctuated by awkward silences. “I don’t get it,” I thought in a mild panic. “Why isn’t this happening?” After my last guest made for the door—a few polite minutes after dessert—I was happy to proceed directly to my pajamas, relieved it was over.

Why do so many get-togethers leave us feeling vaguely unsatisfied and a little hollow? Priya Parker, a group facilitator with a background in conflict resolution and the founder of Thrive Labs, which helps leaders have more meaningful gatherings, was struck by the same thought. Parker says we focus a lot on entertaining—picking the perfect recipes, setting the right playlist—but don’t really talk about the how of hosting once everyone is in the room.

Her new book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, is about stepping back and setting an intention for every event, big or small—weddings, backyard barbecues, business meetings. She maintains that you don’t need to be an extrovert or have a fancy house to make an occasion meaningful and memorable. All that’s required is a little planning and a few simple changes. I tried Parker’s advice to spruce up my own gatherings—and picked up some game-changing tips that even a novice host can easily put into practice.

Commit to a Specific Purpose

Having a clear intention for a party from the get-go will make your gathering less one-size-fits-all or bland. Before you begin planning an event, ask yourself two questions: “Why are we gathering?” and “Why is it important?” Every time you reach a deeper reason, ask “why” again. “Sometimes it takes four answers to drill down to the real objective,” says Parker. “Like if you ask a friend why she wants a baby shower, she may finally say, ‘I guess I’m scared of the actual labor and birth, and I want to be rallied by people who have been through this before.’”

If the answer is, “Well, this is the way we’ve always done it,” keep digging. Parker says sometimes we throw weddings, bar mitzvahs, and graduation ceremonies that are so tied to tradition that they don’t represent a person’s life and personality. Ask yourself, “Does this gathering reflect my values? And if not, how can I change it so it does?”

When Parker learned I was planning a dinner for six worn-out mom friends, she drilled me with “why” questions. At first, my answer was, “Because it’s fun to hang out.” Isn’t that enough? But she pressed on, eventually extracting the story of how, when I recently went on a playdate, my friend made me lunch. Since I’m usually the family chef, I was so pleased—and amused, because out of parental habit, she cut my sandwich into quarters and served me carrot sticks. I realized that I wanted to get together because I needed, on a very elemental level, to feel cared for—and I wanted to make my friends feel the same way.

Be Strategic With the Space

It’s said that 90 percent of what makes a get-together successful is put in place before the event—starting with the space. It’s tempting to book a massive venue for your shindig, but bigger is not better, says Parker. When people drift through a cavernous space, they miss one of the most delightful things about a party: the opportunity to bump into someone new and start a conversation. If you’re hosting a large group, build in contained areas for people to congregate. One veteran event planner told Parker that the reason guests often end up gravitating toward the kitchen is that people instinctively seek out smaller spaces as the group dwindles, in order to maintain the density. Gatherings need perimeters, or all the buzzy energy leaks out.

Tell a Story With the Invite

It’s also tempting to send a quick invitation with the basic details. But Parker says invitations are the perfect opportunity to make your event feel personal before anyone sets foot in the room. She urged me to put myself out there when I emailed the invite to my Worn-Out Mom Hootenanny. (If you want your gathering to feel authentic, it starts with you.) She had me lead with the sandwich story, then add something specific: “For those of you so often in the giving role, it’s nice to be in the receiving role. In that vein, I wanted to throw a party to make us all feel cared for. Let’s order in something special so no one has to cook. Also: Say the word ”kids“ at any point in the evening and you have to drink.” All six friends RSVP’d yes within the hour.

The First Few Minutes Set the Tone

Studies show that people disproportionately remember the beginning and the end of an experience. Yet we often pay the least amount of attention to how we open and close an event. “We treat it as an afterthought and focus on the logistics and food instead,” says Parker. “It’s such a missed opportunity.” She says starting and ending an event doesn’t have to involve grand gestures or speeches. She suggests ushering people in by lighting a candle, pouring every guest a special drink at the same time, or making a brief welcome toast.

One of Parker’s friends, for instance, had Christmas party guests send copies of two photos of happy moments from the past year. As a surprise, he decorated a Christmas tree with them, and after everyone arrived, they had a festive cocktail around the tree, sharing stories—starting the party on a personal, reflective note.

When I hosted an impromptu Friday night chili dinner party, Parker urged me to make some brief remarks about why I felt moved to bring everyone together. I’m not the announcement type, but I plunged in anyway. Haltingly, I told them that because the news cycle had been particularly stressful that week, it was so reassuring to see their faces, which made me feel connected. And grounded. And grateful that we could gather around the table on a blustery night.

My friends all burst into applause.

If You’re Going to Host, Host With Rules

You’re the glue that binds everyone together. “No one wants to be in a lawless place,” says Parker. “Don’t leave your guests to themselves. Your job is to protect, connect, and equalize them.” That means using your power: If someone is domineering the table, take back the conversation. If two old friends are catching up for hours in a corner, find a subtle way to separate them or bring over other guests to mingle. And make introductions, even if it’s a quick “Melissa, meet Jake—you both have Chihuahuas!”

Parker says rules force people to be more present in a situation, allowing them to go deeper into an experience. As the host of a dinner party, you can spark connections by issuing decrees such as “There can be only one conversation at the table.” This prevents separate conversations at either end. (Inevitably, the group you’re not in is the one having the livelier conversation, with lots of whooping and hollering.)

A savvy host Parker knows announces that each guest has one task before dinner: to make two new friends. A secret society in San Francisco issued a rule during an event that you couldn’t pour your own drink; you had to approach someone else to pour it for you. I told my friend Sean about this rule before he threw a 40th-birthday bash at which many partygoers would know him but not one another. He loved the idea (Sean is a bit of a disrupter) and posted a sign by the bar stating the rule. It was a smash, encouraging guests to playfully interact—and the more drinks they ordered, the more people they met.

Strive to keep conversations real. Polite chitchat may be safe, but many experts believe people tend to remember more emotional events better than less emotional ones. Don’t be afraid to get intimate. To inspire a lively discussion, Parker devised a dinner called 15 Toasts. The premise is simple: Fifteen guests, seated around a single table, are given an open-ended theme, such as trust or the concept of home. At some point, each must give a toast related to that theme (and to keep things moving, the last guest must sing the toast). As she hosted more and more of these dinners, she realized that the best themes were not the sweet ones (such as “What makes a good life?”) but those that had a darker side to them: fear, strangers, borders. “It makes the conversation richer and rawer,” she says. “Far too many gatherings are run on a cult of positivity.”

Or ask guests to share “crucible moments,” challenging instances in their lives that shaped them in some deep way and shifted their view of the world. Do that, says Parker, and “armor falls off.” I tried it at a friend’s housewarming party; two hours later, we were still on the subject. Some of us got teary—and I learned revelatory new things about friends I had known for decades. One revealed that after the death of her mother, with whom she had had a contentious relationship, she felt a flood of pure relief. Another shared his immigrant mother’s wearisome struggles to assimilate and how that shaped his ambition. A third talked about the day she decided to quit her lucrative job to escape a toxic boss.

Other surefire conversation starters: At a book group, ask, “What book really affected you as a child?” During a dinner party, ask, “Which parts of your life have been a waste of time?” Inspired by the philosopher and writer Theodore Zeldin, Parker says she loves to ask people what they have rebelled against and what they are currently rebelling against. (“It’s a question that always works,” she says.) As host, you’ll probably have to answer first, but if you allow yourself to be vulnerable, guests will follow suit—you’ll “crack others open,” as Parker says—and sharing something genuine and moving is what makes a gathering soar.

Close Your Event Decisively

We’ve all been there: It’s late, people are furtively tiptoeing toward the door, and the party fizzles out. Guests want structure and direction, says Parker—so signal the end with an exit line. Thank everyone and wrap up with a few highlights from the event (“I’ll never forget Alex’s story of how his mom immigrated to America”). If you’re hosting at your home, suggest that everyone move to the living room for “one last” drink or coffee.

Then end with a personal touch by walking each guest to the door to say goodbye. Prolong the warmth by handing them a small keepsake or treat as they head out. After my chili party, I brought out a bowl of fancy chocolate bars and had every guest choose one. I watched in amusement as my friends, solidly in midlife, acted like greedy toddlers, playfully squabbling over their favorites. My friends still talk about that bowl of candy bars. “These are tiny little acts,” says Parker. “But they add up to something bigger. They say, ‘You matter.’”