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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If you’re really serious about gender equality here are some things you shouldn’t say

handsfromamySentences like this:

“I don’t believe women support other women”

“All my mentors have been male”

“I’ve always preferred male company because I know where I stand with men”

“women compete with other women”

I could go on…

I am lucky to know many powerful women around the world who do amazing things for other women every day. I know so many generous women that I can’t possible list them all. (although I will probably tag some of them on Facebook because the chances are good that they will share this post. And I really want it to be shared)

We have to stop spreading news about how women don’t support each other

In fact I think it’s one of the most sinister forms of misogyny around because it perpetuates a message that as a gender we are stingier, nastier and basically just not as nice as men. How can this be useful? How can this be scientific?

It negates the powerful generous women who have been doing so much for other women for years. It also gives too much airtime to the women who don’t.

I commend all the women supporting women right now – those of you who are mentoring, coaching, advising and helping just because you can. I am privileged to know quite a number of you. But there are also many of you I haven’t met and probably never will. You don’t do it for the credit or recognition. You do it because you’re generous and you like to help just because you can. You are to use a well-known Yiddish word a mensch. Which translated today means “a person of integrity or honour” But of course in its original German literally means a man. See how much work we still have to do?

I’m not negating the hurt that we’ve all felt when we’ve been let down or unsupported by other women. But it’s crazy to make this gender specific. I’ve been hurt and let down by men too.

And is it reasonable to expect unconditional support from a sisterhood just because we belong to the same gender? Men don’t do this. All they do is choose better friends.

How about we do the same?

“Do you really think we’re part of a supportive congenial network and that you are the only ones who suffer with politics?” a male friend once asked me

The difference is that men know that politics is part of organisational life and that’s that.

Some time ago I compiled a 5-step checklist to help girls to create healthy friendships.  All of the steps are equally useful for women of all ages so I’m repeating it here:

  1. We need to change the narrative that happens around girls and girlfriends. Yes there might be mean girls who bring your daughter down but focus on the friends who support her too.
  2. In the same way that Hollywood idealises romance, unrealistic images are often painted of “best friends” . I have some wonderful women friends in my life but none of my relationships bear much similarity to the kind between Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson in Bride Wars. Celebrate the small acts of kindness and support you get from your friends and your daughter will start developing more realistic expectations too
  3. Teach your daughter what it means to be a good friend so that she “becomes the change” rather than waiting for the perfect friend. Praise her for loyalty, courage, compassion and practical things too like remembering birthdays and phoning a friend when they are sick to offer homework help
  4. In my work with women leaders I ask them to reflect on who they turn to in times of crisis when they refer to the PHD (pull her down) factor. The answer is invariably “my women friends”. But sometimes we neglect these friends in our busy lives – something of which I am often woefully guilty. But in the tradition of appreciative inquiry practice, what we appreciate appreciates. Our relationships need time if they are important to us.
  5. Remind your daughter to choose friends who are worthy of her and her energy. Whether they are male or female, we need to encourage affirming relationships in our lives while we limit the toxic ones. This way we’ll have more time to spend with the people who deserve us and who we deserve in return.

Our #WeLead Circles are rich opportunities to experience female generosity and advocacy so please do drop me a line if you’d like to experience what it’s like to be surrounded by a dream team of powerful women who hold you accountable for achieving your goals.

But I’d like to throw out a challenge for women outside of our #WeLead community too. Send me stories of the women who’ve supported you. Give them the public recognition they deserve in a comment below or on my facebook page. (The best shout-out will get a prize.) Lets create a new narrative together

Magic happens “when some friends and I started talking.” #wordsandmusic

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On Sunday night a few friends decided to get together to host a special evening with food, music and poetry. They called it #wordsandmusic and I’ve been thinking about what they did to get it so right.

“It all began when some friends and I started talking” says Meg Wheatley, one of the authors who has most shaped my definition of leadership.

While her quote refers to social change, it’s equally relevant when it comes to dinner parties. Because a conversation has the ability to gather magical momentum whether we’re talking about starting a movement or hosting friends.

First came the inspiration of Lionel Bastos (who I’m delighted to say will perform once more at our Women’s Leadership Conference this year with Wendy Oldfield) Now I know that Lionel is a great musician and also that he has retained his humility and remains a mensch. But I could never have guessed at his sensitivity as creativity coach as he shared the stage with Mandy Collins. He knew just how much to support and how much to let go – a rare talent

Then of course was the courage of the evening’s convenor Mandy Collins who took action and turned Lionel’s suggestion into reality by acknowledging that it was time to let the world hear her original music and her voice.

There’s something powerfully generative about doing what makes you scared. Mandy said she was terrified but by facing her fears and going where her creativity needed her to go she unleashed a special kind of magic. She did so with a gentle presence and musicality that saw her harmonise easily with one of SA’s best musical talents.

Poet Ruth Everson brought a gravitas to the evening with her courage with words that made us all feel that truth is the only option. What better gift could a poet give? The fact that she was Robyn Clark’s English teacher was one of the many delightful little connections which lit up the gathering like the fairylights in Mandy’s garden,

Clive Simpkins was the perfect MC. ( one member of the audience tweeted that he was “starstruck to have met him) As much facilitator as raconteur, he was perfectly tuned in to the atmosphere and to what needed to be said when. (Not only to all the performers but his easy reference to many members of the audience too made us feel we were at a big dinner party rather than an event)

There was also gratitude aplenty – I’ve hosted many events and I can’t tell you how often speakers forget to say thank you to the host.

But not this time. Everyone was beautifully aware that we’d been invited to something intimate and special and we were more than happy to pay for the privilege of being there. There was also a spirit of collaboration – not one of the performers tried in any way to overshadow any of the others

I left wanting more and inspired that there’s a group of people up the road from me who are genuinely committed to creativity and collaboration.

If you’d like to lead like Mandy and start your own conversation, this is the simple guide I give at many QualityLife events which #wordsandmusic followed so instinctively

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My name is Debby and I’m a conference addict


When we launched our latest offering “The Inspired Teachers Conference“, which is just around the corner, a friend asked me how many more conferences I was planning to create. The truth is, I honestly don’t know. But I will probably continue for a while because I’m addicted to the thrill of learning and discovering together.

I’m not sure exactly when the habit started but over the years, whenever I’ve been faced with a problem I can’t solve by myself, I host a conference.

In the process I’ve met fascinating people from a variety of different fields, but perhaps most significant of all, I’ve learnt something very important about how we learn. We learn better together, in conversation.

I often quote the findings of Harrison Owen, founder of Open Space Technology, who researched what it is that people enjoy most about conferences. The answer? The coffee breaks.

So, over the years, we’ve worked with the tension between attracting a star-studded cast and making sure that there is enough time for delegates to spend as much time as possible talking among themselves… because these are the conversations that are remembered years later, long after the logos on the goody bags have faded.

Like most lessons that stick, the only way I’ve learnt this lesson is through personal experience. I remember the first time I experienced working with a syndicate group when I was at Wits Business School many years ago. It was hell. Dunne, who had already completed his MBA and was far more experienced in the political dynamics of the syndicate, was amused as I tossed and turned at night, trying to come up with ways to get my all-male syndicate members to give me air time the next day.

Sleepless nights notwithstanding, some of the insights I learnt through that experience (most of them about myself) have stayed with me far longer than the finance notes I wrote down and tried to learn by heart.

The interactive experience of the syndicate group used by business schools is a valuable one, but it’s not nearly enough.

Etienne Wenger coined the term “Communities of practice” to describe the age-old phenomenon where people engage in a process of collective learning towards a common goal. His work has influenced educators ever since.

But collaboration in learning is now becoming even more prominent as we all get thrown together by the big melting pot of the digital economy. In fact, as gaming expert Jane McGonigal told World Economic Forum delegates recently, the 10 000 hours of gaming that the average young person will spend by the age of 21, will be spent honing the mastery of collaboration.

That’s why business, leadership and education is looking to the world of gaming for some insights. Young people might be obsessed with an online world that scares the living daylights out of us as parents, but they are also mastering skills we don’t know nearly enough about.

We know that the ability to work together across boundaries and across cultures is going to be one of the most essential leadership skills for our economic survival into the future. But many of us haven’t even mastered the basic art of listening, never mind the more advanced skill of working together.

I’m reminded of the importance of these skills every time I host a conference and learn as much from the delegates as from the speakers. Now that I’ve discovered this truth for myself there are all sorts of theories I can find to back up what I’ve already tested out more times than I can count – the best learning is learning together. And that’s why I keep creating conferences.

PS This also doubled up as my editorial for the February issue of The QualityLife Journal. If you’d like to subscribe (which would make me very happy) send an email to join-WLJ@quallife.co.za