Creating meaning in groups: How to host an intentional gathering
If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably been to - or maybe even hosted - gatherings that felt a little...repetitive. Say it’s a birthday party for a friend. Some of the guests you know, others you don’t. What’s the standard formula here? Cake and candles, drinks, surface-level, slightly awkward conversation...sound familiar?
Let’s be real, most traditional gatherings follow a predictable format. Thanksgiving? Turkey and tense conversation. Baby showers? Silly games and a pile of gifts. Now, there’s nothing wrong with tradition (I’m all about the Thanksgiving turkey!), but often we’re so hyper-focused on the things that make up a conventional gathering, like having matching plates or the right wine, that we’re not taking advantage of what gatherings actually provide for us—a chance to connect with people on a deeper level.
With summer holidays like the 4th of July upon us (barbecues and fireworks come to mind), I want to forgo the perfect potato salad recipe and instead offer you a recipe for hosting an intentional gathering.
What is an intentional gathering?
An intentional gathering is one that brings a specific group of people together in a meaningful and memorable way. These are the types of gatherings that stick in your mind for years to come, as opposed to ones where you leave the party asking yourself, “Did it even matter that I was here?"
Recipe for an Intentional Gathering
I had never thought about the importance of intentional gatherings until I listened to a podcast featuring Priya Parker. Priya works in conflict resolution, but her latest book “The Art of Gathering” is a toolkit on how to bring people together in a more conscious way.
Keep reading to explore the recipe for an intentional gathering inspired by Priya’s work. I hope these tips help make your next gathering, whether it’s a small cookout or large party, ripe with deeper meaning and connection.
1) Embrace purpose
As mentioned previously, when we plan a gathering, we tend to start with aesthetics. What food will be served? Where can I find the right flowers? For an intentional gathering, we’re going to start with something else: purpose.
For many conventional gatherings, like an annual 4th of July barbecue, the purpose may seem obvious. “The purpose is to come together as a family” or “The purpose is to celebrate our nation’s independence.” Both things may be true, but they aren’t quite specific enough. Let me explain.
You could celebrate US independence by yourself. Why are you choosing to gather with this group of people? Similarly, you could come together as a family on any day of the year. Why are you choosing to get together on this particular day? Catch my drift?
When it comes to purpose for your gathering, specificity is key. So, how do you come up with a specific purpose? According to Priya, ask yourself this question:
“Do I have a need in my life that by bringing people together in a specific way they might address?”
Maybe you just went through a bad break-up and need support on this first holiday without your partner. Perhaps you recently retired and want to celebrate stepping into this new phase of life. Whatever the purpose, think of something that would serve the greatest need in your life, family, or community at this time.
2) Pick a theme
Usually when we plan a gathering, we start with the theme. The trouble is, if we don’t have purpose locked in first, the theme of the party ends up being - for lack of a better word - generic. With an intentional gathering, you have the opportunity to reconceive traditions and design your gathering around the specific need you identified above.
Continuing to use 4th of July as an example - what are some themes that come to mind when you think of this holiday? For me, I instantly think of independence, bravery, pride, freedom, and family.
Now ask yourself, how can you tie your purpose and your theme together? For instance, if you’ve just retired, maybe the theme of your 4th of July gathering is ‘freedom’. If you’re going through that break-up, perhaps your theme can be ‘independence.’ Now, how can you design the aesthetics of your gathering to fit your theme? What are ways you can break from tradition and make this gathering truly memorable?
Maybe instead of having food piled on a table in the corner, each dish gets a themed name. Perhaps each guest gets an itinerary when they walk in the door with themed activities for the night. Get creative - there’s no right or wrong here!
3) Choose your guests
Oh yes, the people! Before you start inviting everyone in your contact list, ask yourself this question:
“Why I am inviting this specific group of people?”
Remember, your gathering is fulfilling a need either in your life or within your family or community, so who you invite is important. How does each person contribute to the purpose at hand?
Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean your gathering can only include your three closest friends (unless that ties in with your purpose). In fact, an intentional gathering is a great opportunity to cross-pollinate friend groups or family members. They’ll be able to connect through a common purpose versus throwing everyone at a table and hoping the conversation goes well.
4) Create rules
As a host, you have the opportunity to shape the experience of the group. This can be done by establishing rules for the gathering. If your first instinct is “That sounds harsh and controlling,” I get it. That was my initial response...until I heard Priya’s reasoning behind why this is important.
Whenever people come together, there are power dynamics. If you’re organizing an intentional gathering where the goal is to connect in a meaningful way, people need to be equalized. Everyone should feel like they’re contributing to the conversation, not just one or two especially extroverted individuals or people who already know each other really well.
Rules also establish norms for the group that may not exist outside the gathering. For instance, maybe you want to ensure that guests aren’t being distracted by their phones during the party. To do this, create a playful “rule of the night.” Perhaps phones go in a “phone jail” when a person enters the party or whoever pulls out their phone during the gathering has to do ten push-ups.
Create rules that will help serve the greater purpose of the gathering and stick to them!
5) Cultivate conversation
Part of shaping the experience of the group means honing in on what you’d like the conversation to look like. Intentional gatherings are usually designed to connect people on a deeper level and bond over shared experiences, so ditch the small talk and find ways to create meaningful conversation between guests.
One Vertellis community member gave us a great suggestion for this. At dinner parties, she puts a Vertellis Coaster at each place setting. Before dinner begins, she has everyone go around the table and answer the question on their individual coaster. She said this automatically makes guests feel more connected to one another and willing to engage in open, honest conversation.
If you don’t have Coasters, you can have all guests answer a question relating to your purpose for the gathering. For instance, if your gathering is meant to welcome new neighbors to the community, have everyone go around and say what their favorite thing about living in the neighborhood is.
6) Prime your people
Every gathering is a social contract. Consequently, you need to give guests the opportunity to say ‘yes’ to entering into this contract. How do you do this? With a conscious invitation.
Don’t just call people and let them know the date and time of your party. Create an invitation! Give the party a cheeky, witty, or funny name. Let people know what they’re in for. Lay the ground rules in advance.
The more you reveal, the more likely you are to receive a genuine “YES” from guests (and the fewer no-shows or last-minute flakes you’ll have to deal with).
7) Be an engaged host
I always thought being a “chill host” was the thing to do. Just sit back and everything will magically go as planned, right? Nope. If you’ve taken the time, care and effort to get people together with a specific purpose, stay with them through this journey! Warmly enforce your rules, make sure everyone is included, and stick to your agenda for the evening.
Why is this important? Well, frankly, if you don’t do it, someone else at the party will (and they may not do it in a way you approve of). By taking ownership of your gathering, you’re connecting, equalizing and protecting your guests—all of which are necessary for your gathering to fulfill its purpose.
Share your thoughts!We want to hear from you! What’s the most memorable gathering you’ve ever been to? Which tip for hosting an intentional gathering is your favorite? Drop a comment below and let us know :).
P.S. To help you host your next intentional gathering, we’re currently offering a 4th of July promo: Get FREE Vertellis Coasters with any purchase of $50 or more.
Tessa is a US-based Vertellis team member with a penchant for writing. When she’s not typing away on her laptop, you’ll usually find her studying Shakespeare or spending time in nature. Three things she cannot live without: good food, good coffee, and good conversation.