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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How to have coffee with an influencer (or me)

I don’t much like the term influencer. Partly because it’s the kind of label that many people seem to attach to themselves in their twitter bios, not unlike guru and thought-leader.

Still, as sure as I love sour jelly beans there will always be people we want to get to see because of their perceived value to us. But by the law of meeting karma there are always people who want to see us too.

In the democratic world of the social media universe you see, we are all influencers and schmoozers to a greater or lesser degree.

So take comfort dear coffee-hunter in the knowledge that whoever you are chasing, they are chasing someone too. That’s the law of meeting karma. (just check out anyone’s twitter feed for proof)

Considering I have insight from both sides – as hunter and hunted, as influencer and as schmoozer – here are my Seven Strategies for having coffee with someone you really want to meet

1. In fact people are particularly protective of their coffee times. I have mine in bed in the morning when intelligent conversation is not yet a high priority.

After that I choose to have coffee with a few close friends I don’t see nearly enough. So if we’ve never met, unless you’re suggesting something that can change my life (in a good way) please don’t suggest that we grab a cup of coffee.

2. You could however start with an enticing and relevant personal tweet – everyone likes a mention on twitter– or an interesting email that gives a lot of juicy details. Our inboxes have become our to-do lists (Voicemail not so much.) So make sure your information is compelling enough to stand out.

3. Better too not to tell me that you want to pick my brains. Especially if you’ve never visited my website or attended any of my workshops. Sorry but there’s a fragile ego beneath this tough exterior. Rather suggest a conversation that you think I would find so valuable that I can’t resist spending time with you. (but don’t forget point 1.)

We teach what we most need to learn: About a week ago I sent a rather silly facebook message to an editor I thought would love to meet me because we have so many friends in common. (Erm wrong) Cardinal error: I also added that I wanted to pick her brains. And surprise surprise: she’s under far too much work pressure to see me. No-one I’ve met yet finds the prospect of having their brains picked irresistible!

4. Collaborate and learn more about anyone’s work via facebook or twitter or comment on their blog posts. I’m far more inclined to meet with potential facilitators (many of the people who want to see me want to lecture for QualityLife Company) if we’ve had an interesting interaction on social media for a while before getting an email out of the blue

5. If you’ve been to one of our conferences or workshops, please mention which one. I’m afraid I do (fragile ego again) give greater priority to people who are familiar with our work and our particular brand of facilitation and teaching. By the same token if someone has written a book and I want a meeting with her, I make a point of reading the book first before I write the email. “I haven’t read your book yet but..” has never cracked it as a killer opening line

6. Add value. Mention them in a blog post. Send them a copy of your new book or article (with no strings attached) Mention them on twitter or facebook. But whatever you do don’t lay guilt trips. Sometimes a short, no-need to respond email is the best way to go. Countless follow-ups asking if someone received your email is a sure way to turn someone off and chase them into a reclusive guilt-trip. (trust me I spend a fair amount of time there)

7. Finally, remember that the law of meeting karma is not personal. We all lead fast-paced lives and patience is still a virtue. I’m regularly humbled by the inspiring leaders who agree to meet me but of course there are those who let me know that now is not the time and I hope I take it graciously.

Because if I don’t sulk there’s a chance we might still have coffee one day.  And for those of you who’ve read this far, I like mine skinny and strong