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How to get the most out of a meeting or a community gathering

Groups that are open to sharing vulnerable moments create safe spaces for difficult discussions

What distinguishes functional groups and communities that thrive from those that do not? The answer lies in how they gather and organize themselves.

I learnt this while participating in the recently concluded Asian Forum on Global Governance, along with young diplomats, entrepreneurs, academics and policymakers from 28 countries. The 10-day workshop in Delhi included back-to-back group discussions, case studies, policy debates and personal reflections that seamlessly transformed a group of strangers with different political and social convictions into an intimate community.

According to author and conflict resolution expert Priya Parker, there’s a three-pronged framework for designing gatherings that augment the interconnectedness of communities.

First, have a clearly articulated goal of the gathering. Most meetings and community gatherings, both formal and informal, confuse category with purpose.

Let’s understand this with the help of a few examples from everyday life. Team meeting is a category, taking key decisions is the goal. Most meetings at modern workplaces have specific formats and structures but no clear goal. Similarly, panel discussion is a category, translating that discussion into something tangible is a goal. I have often observed organizers running helter-skelter to put a panel together without figuring out why the discussion is taking place.

We tend to channel our energy on getting the logistics right— setup, refreshments, venue—and end up ignoring the people aspect of the gathering. Taking care of logistical issues is important, but it cannot compensate for lack of purpose.

We mistakenly assume that knowing the type of gathering is enough to shape a collective goal.

At the forum, I noticed that every session, even informal ones, had a structure, a goal and, most importantly, an element of surprise. This enabled us to co-create a shared adventure.

Second, cause good controversy. Human connections are as threatened by unhealthy peace as by unhealthy conflict. Unhealthy peace occurs when people are afraid to speak their mind and unhealthy conflict is euphemism for abuse. Both can affect communities. Parker suggests the most effective gatherings learn to cultivate good controversy by creating the conditions for it. Safe conversation topics like weather, food and travel are useful to initiate discussions but to augment trust and cohesiveness, we need to learn to discuss things that drive our conviction and curiosity.

While most of us have been taught to avoid discussing religion, money and politics over dinner, research suggests that discussing potentially unsafe topics creates stronger community bonds.

Is it easy and fun to debate different political, social and economic ideologies? Of course, not. But you learn to distinguish person from perspective.

Third, create a temporary alternative world with pop-up rules. Think of them as temporary constitutions designed to people together. Parker explains these rules are powerful because they allow us to temporarily change and harmonize our behaviour. They allow us to connect across cultures and make meaning together without having to be the same.

A pop-up rule at the forum was inverting one’s name tag to provide feedback and ask questions. This little ritual made it easier for the introverts to chime in, and helped us build off of each other’s ideas in a fun way.

I have observed a fourth element that creates memorable gatherings. Groups that are open to sharing vulnerable moments create safe spaces for difficult discussions.

Several fellowships typically bring together ambitious young professionals who might also have deep anxieties and insecurities. Instead of single-mindedly focusing on professional goals, sharing vulnerabilities strengthens the collective resilience of a cohort.

Perhaps, the biggest takeaway from any fellowship is listening and learning from the experiences of other cohort members.

The essence of hosting any memorable community experience or gathering is to figure out its purpose in early on. Doing so enables us to re-pivot from what to why, thereby making it more about people than the process of bringing them together.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

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