How to make sure that your dinner parties don’t suck

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A modern playbook for the art of conversation

Everyone hates meetings. Most of us concede that they are a waste of time and an opportunity for the preening and posturing of only the most powerful and obnoxious.  From walking meetings to virtual meetings, agendas and catering, corporations are hungry for good strategies and creative ideas for making meetings less mind-numbingly boring.  

In a generation where few have heard of Emily Post, teaching the art of hosting, practical listening skills and allowing everyone a voice can be surprisingly effective when it comes to creating the kind of psychologically safe spaces which Google has made famous.  It’s no coincidence that these are also the kinds of environments where innovation flourishes and meetings are most effective.

Earlier this year, Harvard Business Review ran a piece called “Why your meetings stink and what to do about it?” Author Stephen G. Rogelberg says that “the goal should be not to kill all meetings but to eliminate the ineffective or unnecessary ones and improve the quality of those that remain.”

The challenge of course when it comes to any gathering which involves human dynamics, is how best to do this. “It’s easy to simply show up and default to the usual way of doing things. But when you’re a steward of others’ time, you owe it to them to make some modest upfront investment.” says Rogelberg.

While the number of books on how to run better meetings and host richer conversations at work continues to grow in number and in quality, they are a mere hors d’ouvre when compared with the smorgasboard of offerings around anything to do with the culinary arts.  We’ve come a long way since Julia Child was the last word on cooking. From Nigella Lawson to Nigel Slater, MasterChef to Chef’s Table we are spoilt for choice. Game of Scones is the recreational choice for the meeting-weary when weekend strikes.

Strangely though, it’s in the sanctity of home and hearth that little has changed in the way we run our dinner parties.  There’s still a chasm between how we set our tables and the kinds of conversations that occur around them. The food might be delicious and the table settings sublime.  But it’s unusual for any but the most unusual host or hostess to remember the kind of conversational decorum that is in fact a whole lot more common in the boardroom than it is around our dining room tables.

The big difference between meetings and dinner parties is that we know the former are boring but dinner parties are meant to be fun.

Priya Parker the author of the Art of Gathering says

“I like to tell people that Martha Stewart’s greatest crime wasn’t insider trading, it was telling a generation of hosts that gathering is about fish knives, flowers and canapés; that if you get the things right, magic will happen. One of the documents I found that illustrated this for me was a party-planning guide on Stewart’s website. It’s a 29-item checklist and only three of the items focused on people.”

A great dinner party isn’t just about good food and wine. Usually tables are full and conversations are empty. But what we are really craving, is meaningful conversation, human connection, forming closer bonds with our inner circle and meeting interesting friends of friends who expand our worlds.

It’s bad enough not meeting anyone new (At what age do we decide: “This is it. I’ve met all the people I need to know, the cart is closed”?)

What’s eminently worse is having to listen to the same voices who continue to dominate while displaying no curiosity about new opinions, views and voices.

Often, the most interesting dinner parties are the ones where no-one knows each other or at the very least where not everyone belongs to the same social circle. Awkwardness can dissolve into lively discussion.  Learning to listen can result in new learnings and surprise connections.  

It requires effort to step out of one’s social comfort zone, but in the same way that organisations benefit from diversity, so do our communities. Something special happens when people can’t get stuck on small talk, work, school and holidays.  

So even though the next dinner party you host doesn’t need to have an agenda, a chair and a stopwatch, perhaps the next time you decide to invite people over it’s time to borrow some of the pre-planning discipline from the corporate world.

Focus first on purpose before getting overwhelmed with logistics and details. Ask yourself “Why am I hosting this gathering? Who should be part of it? What do I want to achieve? “

Make a point of introducing everyone to each other and seating your guests thoughtfully.  Ask questions which encourage personal stories rather than opinions.

Sometimes generosity of spirit is even more important than generosity of food and drink.  It’s time to shift our focus away from recipe books and table settings and focus instead on the timeless ingredients that create magic between people.

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Inclusive leadership is natural for women

It’s tempting to talk about how far women’s leadership has come over the last few decades. After all a record breaking six women are running for President in the US. More women are running organisations and governments around the world and the  #Metoo campaign highlighted the reality and scale of sexual harassment for everywoman.

However as Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka reminded us at the recent G7 ministerial meeting on gender equality and women’s empowerment: “No country in the world has achieved gender equality. No country. And this is nearly 25 years after the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.”

Progress aside, the fight for gender equality still has to be won on many fronts.  Women’s leadership is important because it is only when there is more equality in who leads, that gender issues like educational injustice, weaponised rape and child marriage will receive the attention they deserve.

Feminism (still a surprisingly fraught and misunderstood term) simply means that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. And one of the best ways we can accelerate this process is to get more women into positions of power.

Not surprisingly, as the late Kenyan Nobel Peace laureate, Wangari Maathai noted “The higher you go, the fewer women there are.”

Some advocates of change like Sheryl Sandberg the COO of Facebook believe in what has been referred to as the DIY model of empowerment. Women should “lean in” more and be more assertive in order to increase their leadership potential

Sandberg’s critics include Anne-Marie Slaughter, political scientist and the author of Unfinished Business (OneWorld) who believes that much broader social, political and cultural change is necessary to change the system.

I believe both. The broader system and the values it represents certainly needs to change but for many of us who aren’t able to influence change on a structural level, we still need to find a way to make changes where we can. I’d like to suggest two strategies for making a difference that are accessible for most of us.

The first is that we broaden our definition of what leadership is.  And the second is that we focus on some of the skills that come naturally to many women.

Even though there is more recognition of different kinds and styles of leaders, we still tend to default to the style of leadership which is more traditional and patriarchal. (I lead and you all follow)

After all which names come to mind when we think of who is at the helm of countries and organisations and even who we should invite to give the keynote address at a conference?  It’s still easier to give lists of high profile male leaders.

Years of being socialized into a way of being in the world means that many of us are more comfortable to be in the wings than to take centre stage. It’s not that there’s a shortage of talented women. Rather it’s a sign of how reluctant women often are about taking a seat at the table.

However, when we use a different, more inclusive definition of leadership it’s easier to think of more women who fall into this category.  We are more inclined to include ourselves as legitimate candidates for leadership.  And most important of all, we can become more ambitious around what leadership is able to achieve in the world.

Leadership author Margaret Wheatley’s definition is helpful.

“A leader is anyone willing to help, anyone who sees something that needs to change and takes the first steps to influence that situation”

When this is our definition of leadership a leader might be a parent who intervenes in her child’s school or a colleague who refuses to allow mistreatment of others in her workplace or a neighbour who rallies others around saving trees in the suburb.

When we expand our notion of what leadership is, we encourage people to step forward and make a small difference in their communities. It’s also the kind of definition that is naturally more appealing to a wider range of women leaders.

In the same way that research into the world of micro-financing reveals how women who accept loans are more inclined to invest back into their families and communities, women are more inclined to expose themselves to the risk of leadership when there is a greater cause at stake.

When we think of leadership as a call to make a contribution rather than a more individualistic instinct to put ourselves in charge, we tap into a feminine ease with supporting others, speaking up for the voiceless and making a difference to many.

The second strategy is to harness a set of skills which comes especially easily to women . This is the cluster of skills which I and others in leadership describe as the art of conversation.

The dark side of this ability is when girls exclude others socially. Most women  have at least a memory of what it feels like to be an outsider. Often it’s as a result of these social scars that women reinforce the narrative that women are inclined to bring other women down rather than build them up.

But the flipside is a natural ability women have around creating conversations, safe spaces and making others feel welcome. Like good listening skills, the idea of inclusion is becoming core to good leadership. Inclusion simply means making sure that an organization is welcoming at every level to every individual. Inclusion is about diversity of thought and individuality regardless of race, heritage, or gender. It’s becoming the new normal and at its heart is a skill that is second nature to little girls all over the world.

Teaching the art of hosting conversations, practical listening skills and allowing everyone a voice can be surprisingly effective when it comes to creating the kind of psychologically safe spaces which Google has made famous.  It’s no coincidence that these are also the kinds of environments where innovation flourishes and meetings are most effective.

Women from different countries, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds have been raised to welcome others into their homes, make them feel comfortable, introduce them to people they might not have met before and offer them food and drink. The limitation is that we have been raised to think of these skills as the skills of home economics rather than as the elements of leadership. These are skills that we don’t need to go to business school to finesse.  They are abilities that have been relegated to the catering committee of our communities rather than into boardrooms or peace talks where they belong.

In an age where we have too many connections but feel less connected than ever before, we crave meaningful conversation, human connection, forming closer bonds with our inner circle and meeting diverse voices who expand our worlds.

These are the kinds of leadership skills that the world needs now. Not because they come naturally to women but because they create and encourage essential human values.

It’s time we took them out of the domestic realm and put them into the world.

This article first appeared as an Op Ed in The SA Jewish Report. Sajr.co.za