Close Doors



Close Doors

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The purpose-driven list

The guest list is the first test of a robust gathering purpose. It is the first chance to put your ideals into practice. As with the book festival organizers debating whether to change the way they opened author sessions, it is an opportunity to assess how committed you really are to those ideals, how willing to sacrifice invitations on the altar of your reason for gathering. I have worked with more than a few hosts who feel gung-ho about their gathering’s daring new purpose only to have their courage melt under the pressure of deciding whom to include or exclude. The desire to keep doors open—to not offend, to maintain a future opportunity—is a threat to gathering with a purpose.

Inviting people is easy. Excluding people can be hard. “The more the merrier,” we are told from childhood. “The more souls, the more joy,” the Dutch say. “The more fools there are, the more we laugh,” the French declare. At the risk of dissenting from millennia of advice along these lines, let me say this: You will have begun to gather with purpose when you learn to exclude with purpose. When you learn to close doors.

I take no pleasure in exclusion, and I often violate my own rule. But thoughtful, considered exclusion is vital to any gathering, because over-inclusion is a symptom of deeper problems—above all, a confusion about why you are gathering and a lack of commitment to your purpose and your guests.

Sometimes we over-include because we feel a need to repay an old debt of hosting, as S. did. Sometimes we over-include because we’re sustaining a custom in which we don’t really believe: “I couldn’t not invite the marketing team. That would be a huge slap in the face. They always come.” Sometimes we over-include because we don’t want to deal with the consequences of excluding certain people, especially those gifted at making a stink. We cave in to the founder who no longer works at the company but wants to come to the leadership offsite, even though its purpose is to establish the new CEO’s authority after the founder’s exit. We yield to the aunt who happens to be visiting and presumes that her presence is additive when a couple’s parents are meeting for the first time.

Faced with people who should not, in theory, be there but are hard to keep away, it can feel easier and more generous to go with the flow. But the thoughtful gatherer understands that inclusion can in fact be uncharitable, and exclusion generous.

The kindness of exclusion

I was once part of a workout group that wrestled with this very question. Is more merrier or scarier? At first, the group consisted of six friends who gathered twice a week in a park at dawn with a trainer. We toned our abs while trading stories and advice. The group was going strong—the highlight of many of our days. And then one of us planned to go on vacation. Because our practice was to prepay for a season, our friend would have lost her money. She had a “better” idea. She wrote an email to the group, introducing a friend of hers who would “substitute” for her while she was gone. A number of us were surprised and uncomfortable at the substitution, but we couldn’t articulate why.

Several of us seemed to intuit that the proposed substitution violated the purpose of our gathering, but here was the problem: We had never actually discussed its purpose. One day, one of the members helped us figure out what was bothering us when she said, “This is not a class.” What it wasn’t helped us to see what it was. The undiscussed but shared understanding of our gathering was to spend time as friends while exercising. It was a hangout that used the convening mechanism of exercise, not an exercise class that happened to be attended by friends. We were a group of people with busy lives who wanted to find a regular, reliable way of reconnecting with specific other people we had chosen.

Once we talked about it and agreed that this was our workout group’s purpose, it became easier to deal with the specific issue raised by our friend. We decided we wouldn’t allow substitutions in the group, because a stranger might damage the intimacy and people’s willingness to share. But it also would take time out of the workout to teach a new person, who might attend only once, the various exercises. After our unspoken purpose was voiced and reaffirmed, it became obvious that the who of the gathering was central to its purpose, and that, in this case, the more was scarier, not merrier. Adding one person, while seemingly generous, would have been uncharitable to the other five who had committed to the group based on assumptions of warmth, social ease, and space for honesty.

Even when you get clear on your gathering in this way, there is never an easy way to say “Please don’t come.” That’s why so many of our gatherings end up being hijacked in the name of politeness. But here is what the skilled gatherer must know: in trying not to offend, you fail to protect the gathering itself and the people in it. I have learned that far too often in the name of inclusion and generosity—two values I care about deeply—we fail to draw boundaries about who belongs and why.

Of course, if inclusion is the purpose and identity of the gathering, a porous boundary is fine, even perhaps necessary. But gatherings with many other, wholly admirable purposes can suffer from over-inclusion.

Barack Obama’s aunt once told him, “If everyone is family, no one is family.” It is blood that makes a tribe, a border that makes a nation. The same is true of gatherings. So here is a corollary to his aunt’s saying: If everyone is invited, no one is invited—in the sense of being truly held by the group. By closing the door, you create the room.

In my workout group, I was on the excluding end of an argument about inclusion. Some years earlier, however, in a different but similar situation, I was on the pro-inclusion side. It took me time to see the compassionate potential of the closed door.

The gathering was an annual weekend with friends that I’m going to call Back to the Bay. We were a tight group of friends who were part of a professional training program, and somehow the plan emerged for a trip to the beach, where we could relax amid the pressure-cooker environment of our program and be silly and light in ways we couldn’t during the weekly grind. We played T-ball, barbecued, debated the proper sequence of alcohol consumption, and organized “dance-offs” late into the night. For two years in a row, it was the weekend everyone looked forward to, and its admittedly basic purpose was broadly assumed, if unstated: to spend time together, to have a release, to bond. We didn’t give the purpose much thought, frankly, until it was tested.

When the third year rolled around, two members of our group had become romantically involved with people not in our program. They both wanted to bring their partners. After many emails and conversations about these potential additions, they were asked not to bring them. One dropped the issue and decided to go alone. It was still early in the relationship, and it didn’t matter so much to her. The other student, however, was in a long-distance relationship, and, making matters more complicated, he was a soldier who would soon be deployed. Back to the Bay happened to land on one of his few remaining weekends with his girlfriend. Moreover, he wanted his girlfriend to witness him with his program friends, to see a dimension of him that she didn’t know. He wanted her, in a sense, to know what had been meaningful enough to keep him apart from her. So he again asked the group about bringing her. First he was told that there wasn’t enough space in the house we had rented. He offered that the two of them could rent another place nearby and spend the days with the group. That, too, ended up being denied, in an awkward and unforthcoming way. The soldier, our friend, decided not to come. It felt strange to a number of us, and it forced the group to grapple with the question of who belonged to it and what it was for.

This grappling surfaced truths about the group and its purpose that many of us who were part of it didn’t realize. As revealed in my workout group, conflict often unearths purpose. What we all knew was that the group had developed its rhythms and rituals and had created a certain magic. What was not universally known was that an element of this magic was that it was a rare space for one member of the group, a gay man whose sexuality was known to his friends but hidden from the wider world, to be unselfconsciously himself. Some of us had no idea that this was a big part of what Back to the Bay offered—and not just to this classmate, but also to those who felt for him and who enjoyed spending time with the freest version of him. And what benefited him in the extreme benefited the rest of us, too, if more subtly. Here was a place where we all could show sides of ourselves without risk to our safety or career advancement—including somewhat endangered sides. No one had ever formally declared this the purpose of Back to the Bay, but for many it had come to be the unspoken and inalienable one. And so the friends who had this point of view and who dominated the group decided that outsiders would change the environment for everyone. War or no war, the soldier’s girlfriend couldn’t come.

Years later, our gay friend came out publicly and became a leader in his field. I like to think that this group of friends, nurturing this man and giving him a zone of safety and freedom, helped him along his way. Although I didn’t like the exclusion at the time, I now see that it was right to exclude the two new partners. The more would have been the scarier. Keeping others out was what let our friend be out with us.

Looking back on the episode, it becomes clear to me that when you don’t root your gathering up front in a clear, agreed-on purpose, you are often forced to do so belatedly by questions of membership that inevitably arise. This was also what happened with my workout group: We didn’t think about what it was for until we found ourselves in an argument about who it was for.

To be clear, I don’t recommend backing into purpose through the question of whom to invite. But the link between the two issues illustrates that the purpose of a gathering can remain somewhat vague and abstract until it is clarified by drawing the boundary between who is in and out. When you exclude, the rubber of purpose hits the road. When you’re hosting a gathering with others, as opposed to hosting on your own, you should spend time not only reflecting on the purpose of the gathering but then also, ideally, aligning on it with the other hosts. Why are we doing this? Whom should we invite? Why?

To put it another way, thoughtful exclusion, in addition to being generous, can be defining. It can help with the important task of communicating to guests what a gathering is.

One of the most deft gatherers I know is a woman named Nora Abousteit. She once told me a story about her late father, an Egyptian immigrant to Germany named Osman Abousteit, that perfectly distills how who isn’t invited can make the gathering.

Osman had arrived in the small town of Giessen, Germany, in 1957, to study for a Ph.D. in chemistry. He observed, to his chagrin, that there was no real place in Giessen for students to gather—no hangout where they could be themselves free from their professors and the boring grown-ups of the town. He decided to start Giessen’s first students-only bar. He named it Scarabée in honor of the Egyptian dung beetle. Osman’s instincts were right. His fellow students craved a hangout, and they flocked to Scarabée, which lived by its own carefree rules. For example, at a time when it was considered crass to drink beer out of a bottle rather than a glass, Scarabée served beer in bottles. And yet it wasn’t this impertinence or the presence of those droves of students that gave Scarabée its legendary status. It was, rather, one very notable absence.

To get into the club, you had to show your student ID to a bouncer outside. A nonstudent would show up from time to time and would be denied entry. These exclusions helped underline the rule but also didn’t make much of a splash. It was when the vice mayor of the town came by one day that the situation grew interesting. The bouncer denied him entry. The vice mayor protested. Osman came out to deal with the situation. He enforced the rule and kept the vice mayor out. And it was this more demanding and risky exclusion that cemented Scarabée’s reputation. It was not a bar that happened to admit only students. It was a bar with a defining purpose for which it was willing to fight. Sixty years later, the bar is still hopping.

How to exclude well

So how, you might ask, do I exclude generously?

This issue comes up a lot when I’m organizing large, complicated meetings for clients. These are some of the questions I ask them:

Who not only fits but also helps fulfill the gathering’s purpose?

Who threatens the purpose?

Who, despite being irrelevant to the purpose, do you feel obliged to invite?

When my clients answer the first two questions, they begin to grasp their gathering’s true purpose. Obviously people who fit and fulfill your gathering’s purpose need to be there. And, though this one is harder, people who manifestly threaten the purpose are easy to justify excluding. (That doesn’t mean they always end up being excluded. Politeness and habit often defeat the facilitator. But the hosts still know deep down who shouldn’t be there.)

It is the third question where purpose begins to be tested. Someone threatens a gathering’s purpose? You can see why to keep him out. But what’s wrong with someone who’s irrelevant to the purpose? What’s wrong with inviting Bob? Every gathering has its Bobs. Bob in marketing. Bob your friend’s girlfriend’s brother. Bob your visiting aunt. Bob is perfectly pleasant and doesn’t actively sabotage your gathering. Most Bobs are grateful to be included. They sometimes bring extra effort or an extra bottle of wine. You’ve probably been a Bob. I certainly have.

The crux of excluding thoughtfully and intentionally is mustering the courage to keep away your Bobs. It is to shift your perception so that you understand that people who aren’t fulfilling the purpose of your gathering are detracting from it, even if they do nothing to detract from it. This is because once they are actually in your presence, you (and other considerate guests) will want to welcome and include them, which takes time and attention away from what (and who) you’re actually there for. Particularly in smaller gatherings, every single person affects the dynamics of a group. Excluding well and purposefully is reframing who and what you are being generous to—your guests and your purpose.

One common problem I run into is that in gatherings with multiple hosts, different people have different Bobs. If you find yourself in a situation where there is conflict over who the Bobs are, there is an additional question to ask yourself that I have found useful: Who is this gathering for first?

I once designed a multigenerational convening at a seaside resort for forty leaders involved in a political movement. I was working with the organizers, a team of four people from different organizations, to make the guest list. They had agreed on the initial list, but as often happens, new requests had come in, both from people who hadn’t been invited and from guests who wanted to bring others. One influential donor had asked to bring a friend along to the meeting. One organizer thought that we should let her, worrying that she might not come otherwise. Another organizer argued that the friend was, effectively, a Bob. I prompted the organizers to ask themselves: Who was this gathering for first? The gathering was first for the forty leaders. If the organizers could get them to agree on a common vision, it would be a huge breakthrough for the movement. As the organizers teased out the purpose, they realized that part of the magic of the meeting would be to get these leaders to connect their various agendas to a larger cross-unifying theme. To do that, we would need to design a gathering where they meaningfully engaged with one another. In this case, we believed, bringing a close friend would keep that guest’s attention at least somewhat focused on her friend, as well as provide a safety blanket to not engage as deeply as she might otherwise. She was told no. (She accepted the invitation anyway.)

Another time, I was facilitating a gathering for a company in Brazil to help its team think through the building of a new city. We had invited twelve experts from around the world to come in for a day and dream up radical new ways to design a modern, bold, sustainable city. At the last minute, the firm’s executives asked if they could bring ten more people from their side to observe the meeting, effectively doubling the size of their group. Again, we had to ask, who was this gathering for first? The client. And what was the underlying purpose? To come up with bold ideas that the client would have the political capital and risk appetite to implement. In this case, we realized these extra people weren’t actually Bobs. The gathering’s purpose would actually be better served if more people observed the early stage of the process, getting excited by these pie-in-the-sky ideas. And they were people whose enthusiasm later in the process would be beneficial. We agreed to let them come and, because the observers were going to outnumber the participants, we tweaked the physical format of the meeting accordingly. We decided to highlight the role of the observers and turn their size into an advantage. We organized the room into two circles of chairs, one within the other. In the inner circle, we placed twelve chairs for the experts, whom I would facilitate through mini-talks and lively debate. On the outside, in a larger circle with chairs facing toward the center, we placed all the clients and their guests, who would sit on the periphery, without phones, observing and listening deeply. The added size and energy of the outside circle ended up creating an even more exciting environment for the people inside the circle. People were really listening to their ideas—a lot of people.

Good exclusion activates diversity

You might ask: In a world where exclusion becomes OK, aren’t we moving backward? Isn’t exclusion in gatherings something we’ve been fighting against for years? Isn’t exclusion, however thoughtful or intentional, the enemy of diversity?

It is not.

I started my life as a facilitator by moderating racial dialogues. I am biracial. I believe in few things as passionately as I believe in the power of the unlike being brought together and made to figure out the world. I exist because of that.

But diversity is a potentiality that needs to be activated. It can be used or it can just be there. A citywide book festival whose audience is very diverse but whose organizers keep them in silence, looking up at the conversations onstage, isn’t getting much out of that diversity. Giving readers time and a prompt to talk to one another would squeeze more juice and more insight from difference. On the other hand, at Back to the Bay, the diversity was well activated. A student who hid himself at school let himself become real in that space. And it was exclusion that allowed that diversity to be activated.

When I talk about generous exclusion, I am speaking of ways of bounding a gathering that allow the diversity in it to be heightened and sharpened, rather than diluted in a hodgepodge of people.

Consider the case of Judson Manor, a retirement community in Ohio that has limited its membership to two distinct, tightly bounded populations: college music students and retirees. This twist on a home for the elderly occupies a revamped 1920s hotel. In 2010, what was then your standard-issue retirement community decided to try an experiment after a board member heard of a housing shortage at the nearby Cleveland Institute of Music. It invited 2 and eventually 5 music students from the school to live with its 120 elderly residents rent-free, in exchange for giving recitals and art-therapy courses and spending time with residents. Organizers hoped the music students would serve as a tonic against isolation, dementia, and even high blood pressure. The idea was rooted in studies that show huge health benefits for the elderly when they interact with young people. The students would, in turn, receive what every artist dreams of—an eager, captive audience—and what everyone else dreams of: free housing. (These intergenerational housing experiments have also been tried in the Netherlands to much fanfare.)

The result is a great example of thoughtful exclusion and flourishing diversity, and of how they go hand in hand. No one could accuse Judson Manor of homogeneity: its very raison d’être is to collide the old and the young, two populations that are as divided from each other as any in many rich countries. But to fulfill that purpose well, it had to tightly define the who and the why. The head of Judson Manor, John Jones, was also keen to ensure that the age distinction didn’t just coexist, but that it was activated.

What is the match? And are they doing this for the right reason? Do they really have a genuine interest in integrating within our community? We just don’t want this to just be a free apartment for the rest of their school time,” Jones says in a documentary about the program. One imagines the experiment wouldn’t have worked as well if it allowed in anyone of any age who wished to volunteer their time with old people. Or students of any background and any major. Or even music students who had their own apartments and planned to drop in when it suited them. In any of those cases, the experiment would have been diluted. More openness would have meant weaker activation of the age differential the home was seeking to bring together. There was a power in the specific age and moment of life these students were in that inspired the residents. When asked what was special about having these young people around, one elderly resident said, “That’s where life is.” And at the same time, the students benefit from having “a lot of extra grandparents,” as one young resident put it. “It’s crazy to think as I talk with the centenarians here, and sixty- and seventy-year-olds, that they’ve lived four of my lifetimes, some of them, and have all this experience that I can ask them about,” another music student, Daniel Parvin, said. And it was the music that gave the relationship an initial focus.

Here is the lesson of Judson Manor as I see it: Specificity in gathering doesn’t have to mean narrowing a group to the point of sameness. With certain types of gatherings, over-including can keep connections shallow because there are so many different lines through which people could possibly connect that it can become hard to meaningfully activate any of them. Excluding thoughtfully allows you to focus on a specific, underexplored relationship. An overly inclusive volunteer program at Judson Manor would have been similar to many volunteer programs at nursing homes. The tightly bound program transformed it from a service program into a relationship between young artists and aging ears.

I first came upon this idea of specificity in gathering across difference in college when I facilitated racial dialogue groups. The program I helped bring to my campus was called Sustained Dialogue. It was a small-group process developed by a veteran American diplomat that enabled people to have difficult conversations across lines of conflict. I was a student at the University of Virginia, where the first question many people asked me, seeing a racially ambiguous face, was “What are you?” Other people had it far worse than I did, and when outright racial conflict flared up for the umpteenth time in UVA’s fraught history, some classmates and I decided to explore whether the Sustained Dialogue process could encourage people to talk.

Over the next few years, we hosted more than two dozen year-long small-group dialogues. Each of them consisted of a group of twelve to fourteen students who committed to meeting every two weeks for three hours to delve into these topics and build relationships with students who were unlike them. I was a student moderator, and I led the weekly debrief sessions among the other moderators, which were designed to identify and cross-pollinate what we were learning.

As we began to experiment with the makeup of each group, we started getting reports from student moderators that the best, liveliest, most intense groups were those consisting of two groups locked in a particular historical conflict, as opposed to the more general “multicultural” groups. Year after year, it was the dialogues that focused on one specific relationship—the black-white dialogue, the Jewish-Arab dialogue, and, on another campus, the Republican-LGBT dialogue—that had the highest ongoing membership and the most heat (of the kind you want in a dialogue). These were also the groups in which the moderators felt that they were achieving profound breakthroughs rather than just having interesting conversations. But to keep the focus, we had to be willing to say no to students who weren’t of those backgrounds and wanted to participate, and to thoughtfully defend our decision.

The matter of size

Sometimes after I have guided a client to do what we’ve talked about here, she is ready to exclude in a purposeful way. But the inevitable question arises: How do I tell people?

The most honest way is to point your would-be guest to your purpose. Your purpose isn’t personal. Your gathering has a life of its own, and you might tell them that this is not the gathering best suited to them.

But it can also be helpful to blame size, and if you do, you aren’t lying. For every gathering purpose, there is a corresponding ideal size. There is no magic formula for the chemistry of what happens in a room; it’s not scientific. And yet the size of a gathering shapes what you will get out of people when you bring them together.

If you want a lively but inclusive conversation as a core part of your gathering, eight to twelve people is the number you should consider. Smaller than eight, the group can lack diversity in perspective; larger than twelve, it begins to be difficult to give everyone a chance to speak. Therefore, when you are figuring out whom to include and how to exclude, know that by jamming in those extra few people you are changing the nature of the interaction because of the size of the group. If, on the other hand, the purpose of your meeting is to make a decision, you may want to consider having fewer cooks in the kitchen. Additionally, decision-making bodies like the Supreme Court purposely have an odd number of deciders in the group to improve the probability of a decision.

In my experience, there are certain magic numbers in groups. Every facilitator has his or her own list, and these are obviously approximations, but here are mine: 6, 12 to 15, 30, and 150.

Groups of 6: Groups of this rough size are wonderfully conducive to intimacy, high levels of sharing, and discussion through storytelling. The Young Presidents’ Organization, a network for CEO types, has developed a highly structured process that helps peers in groups of 6 thoughtfully coach one another through their problems. Groups of 6 are, on the other hand, not ideal for diversity of viewpoints, and they cannot bear much dead weight. To make the gathering great, there’s more responsibility on each person. Churches often encourage their members to join “small groups” of 6 or so members, who meet weekly to have dinner and share prayer requests, pains, and joys. It helps make the church a smaller place.

Groups of 12 to 15: The next interesting number is around 12. Twelve is small enough to build trust and intimacy, and small enough for a single moderator, if there is one, formal or informal, to handle. (When multiple facilitators are required at a large meeting, it is customary to divide the number of participants by 12 to figure out how many facilitators are needed.) At the same time, 12 is large enough to offer a diversity of opinion and large enough that it allows for a certain quotient of mystery and intrigue, of constructive unfamiliarity. In Sustained Dialogue, our groups were always between 8 and 12 people. King Arthur’s famous table had 12 seats. Jesus had 12 apostles. The U.S. presidential cabinet, which expands as new departments are born, now consists of 15 secretaries plus the vice president. In my work, I have found that 12, give or take, is the number beyond which many start-ups begin to have people problems as they grow. I sometimes refer to this as the “table moment,” when an organization’s members can no longer fit around one table. It is a milestone that causes more problems than you would imagine. I once worked with a technology company that hit this size and began observing conflict and mistrust in a culture that had previously been collegial. When the size of the group was still under a dozen, the entire company could grab a chair and sit in one conference room to discuss anything. Once the staff grew to 20, meetings started to exclude people. Exclusion was probably good for focus, but it changed the vibe of the company.

Groups of 30: Thirty starts to feel like a party, whether or not your gathering is one. If smaller gatherings scale greater heights of intimacy, the group of 30 or so has its own distinctive quality: that buzz, that crackle of energy, that sense of possibility that attaches to parties. Groups of this size are generally too big for a single conversation, although I’ve seen that done well with experienced facilitators and the proper arrangement of a room.

Groups of 150: The next interesting number lies somewhere between 100 and 200. When I speak to conference organizers who think about group dynamics, the ideal range I hear again and again is somewhere between 100 and 150 people. While they disagree on the precise number, they all agree that it’s the tier at which, as one organizer told me, “intimacy and trust is still palpable at the level of the whole group, and before it becomes an audience.” Spark Conference, an experimental gathering run by leaders in the media, began with 100 people, and found that 70 created a more intimate environment. Many so-called “unconferences,” at which attendees improvise the agenda, are designed for 100 people. A Belgian hotelier I know recommended weddings of 150 because, she felt, that was the size at which everyone could see one another at the same time and thereby function as a kind of organism. This spectrum roughly matches what some anthropologists have come to regard as the natural size of a tribe. The group of 150 is one in which everybody can still meet everybody, if the intention is there and the effort is made. This number, 150, also matches the number of stable friendships that the anthropologist Robin Dunbar says humans can maintain, which has come to be called Dunbar’s number. Above the “tribe” number, it’s still possible to gather well, of course, but the unit of experience usually gets broken up into smaller subgroups.

Tides of humanity: Well beyond these gathering sizes is the sea of humanity. Think Bonnaroo, the World Cup, Tahrir Square, the Million Man March, the hajj in Mecca, the Olympics. These are gatherings where the goal is not so much intimacy or connection as tapping into the convulsive energy of a massive crowd.


A venue is a nudge

You have your purpose in mind. You have your guest list in hand. Where will you gather?

The choice of place is often made according to every consideration but purpose. The cost determines the venue. Or convenience. Or traffic. Or the fact that someone happened to raise her hand and offer her deck.

When you choose a venue for logistical reasons, you are letting those logistics override your purpose, when in fact they should be working for it.

You might object: Isn’t a room sometimes just a room? What’s wrong with taking Morgan up on her offer of her deck?

Here is the problem: Venues come with scripts. We tend to follow rigid if unwritten scripts that we associate with specific locations. We tend to behave formally in courtrooms, boardrooms, and palaces. We bring out different sides of ourselves at the beach, the park, the nightclub. As Patrick Frick, a fellow member of my tribe of professional facilitators, told me, “The environment should serve the purpose.” When he is working with high-level teams and they give him a boardroom to facilitate the meeting in, he said, “ninety-five percent of my options are gone.” Why? Because, Frick said, “people who walk into this room will immediately fall into the same pattern of behavior: The CEO sits at the top, and you’re trained—you’re absolutely trained and brainwashed—how to behave there. You take your place according to hierarchy, you know when you’re allowed to speak, and so on.”

Jerry Seinfeld once made a similar point to an interviewer about how rooms determine comedic success: “The room is doing eighty percent of the job. And every comedian has had this experience where he’s been in a club, some rich guy sees him and says, Oh, I’m going to have this guy at my party. And you go to the party, and they put you on in a living room or in some weird party room. And you go in the toilet. And the reason is the context of the room does eighty percent of the work, in terms of giving you a position of advantage over the audience.”

To paraphrase and distort Winston Churchill, first you determine your venue, and then your venue determines which you gets to show up. If figuring out the guest list is about deciding who best helps you fulfill the purpose of your gathering, figuring out the venue is about deciding how you want to nudge those chosen few to be the fullest versions of themselves and the best guests.

So how do you choose a good, purposeful location for your gathering?


You should, for starters, seek a setting that embodies the reason for your convening. When a place embodies an idea, it brings a person’s body and whole being into the experience, not only their minds.

Larry O’Toole, the CEO of Gentle Giant Moving Company, based in Boston, makes use of embodiment when inducting new recruits. He leads groups of recent hires on a group run around Boston that ends with a race up the steps of Harvard Stadium. The choice of locale—compared with, say, an orientation conducted in an office—tells the new hires something about the place they have joined: To work here, you have to be physically fit, and just as important, when you are doing hard work, you should do it collegially, cooperatively, cheerfully, and with a sense of sport. Not surprisingly, year after year Gentle Giant gets rated as one of Boston’s best places to work.

Embodying a purpose doesn’t necessarily require going anywhere special. Sometimes just reconfiguring a room is enough. Wendy Woon runs the department of education at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her job is to help make a world-famous museum more accessible to the public. It is a challenging job in any museum, because the power in museums tends to lie with the curators. Sometimes it can seem that museums are being run for them and not merely by them. The goal of making a museum speak to ordinary people is often in tension with the curators’ desire for exhibits that win them esteem among their fellow curators and the larger art world. The job of someone like Woon is to constantly provide a counterweight to that desire—to be the voice within the museum for questioning how art is presented and for ensuring that it’s still accessible and connects to people’s lives and experiences. Even if that means pushing back against the curators. Woon’s role is to remind people that what curators may consider sacred isn’t sacred—that a museum should adapt itself to speak to people.

As part of her job, Woon teaches a course for graduate students who aspire to become museum educators. It takes place in a classroom within the museum. On the first day of class, at 3 p.m. sharp, the classroom door opens. In the middle of the room is a huge mess of white chairs, all tangled together—a giant highway pileup of seating. The students pause, confused. They look around at one another and then at Woon. Their teacher watches quietly, giving away nothing.

Eventually the students begin talking to one another. Little by little, their confidence growing, their interactions becoming more amusing by the minute, they untangle the chairs and arrange them. As they do so, each student must decide what to do with his or her chair without instructions: Where should I put my chair? How close should the chair be to someone else’s? Are we forming rows? A circle? If someone is not going along with the group shape, what should we do?

This is what I mean when I say that gathering well doesn’t require money or fish knives. It doesn’t require a fancy venue. The classroom that Woon uses is utterly ordinary—an unremarkable space in a building, and a city, full of remarkable spaces. By doing one simple thing—setting up the chairs in that crazy tangle—Woon makes the place an embodiment of her purpose. What was that purpose? To teach these future museum educators that nothing in a museum is sacred—not even a pile of chairs that at MoMA could have been confused for a work of art. And to teach them that art truly happens when people participate in it, and that a museum comes to life when people interact with it. “The reason I do this is to challenge traditional hierarchies of teaching and learning. The design of social space, physical space, and emotional space affects how people engage with ideas, content, and each other. And I wanted to show my students that you must actually design a ‘space’ for exchange and also then invite participation by design,” she explains. Over the course of the ensuing weeks, she teaches these aspiring museum educators how to make such interactions happen—how to achieve the kind of participatory museum she believes in and fights to defend. But on that first day, at zero cost and to unforgettable effect, she embodies all that she wished to say.

I am no Wendy Woon, but in my own work I try to have my clients choose spaces and locations that resonate with their deeper goals. For a workshop on people trying to find their path forward in life, a twelfth-century monastery in southeastern France set on one of the routes to the Camino de Santiago, a literal path of pilgrimage. For an architecture firm discussing the future of cities, the Hollywood Hills, overlooking all of Los Angeles. For a comedian looking to take his craft to the next level, the famed writing room of the satirical newspaper The Onion. I have seen, over and over again, that when a location inspires a client and makes them feel closer to their purpose, it makes my job as a facilitator much easier, as they are already halfway there.

Consider your own gatherings. What if for your company’s next sales training you assigned employees to each spend the day underground with a subway busker, to build their empathy and connect them with the most extreme version of what they do? What if you held your next college reunion in a cemetery, reminding your classmates, directly if morbidly, that time is of the essence for fulfilling the ideals they professed in their youth?

Sadly, the failure to embody is more common. The unwillingness to do so can be almost comical. I once advised an organization that advocates for protecting oceans. It was hosting a team meeting near San Diego to give everyone a break from their stuffy East Coast offices. When I looked at the schedule, it was chockfull. I asked when they’d have time to go to the ocean. “Oh, we have too much to do to go see the ocean,” the organizer told me. This was an organization that people were devoting their lives to because of their passionate love of the ocean. Spending time in and by the ocean could rejuvenate a strung-out team and remind them of their core purpose. This meeting didn’t.

The Château Principle

The Château Principle, in its narrowest form, is this: Don’t host your meeting in a château if you don’t want to remind the French of their greatness and of the fact that they don’t need you after all.

Every gathering with a vivid, particular purpose needs more of certain behaviors and less of others. If the purpose has something to do with bonding a group, you will want more listening behavior and less declaiming behavior. If the purpose is to get your company out of the rut of old ideas and thinking, the opposite may be true. What many hosts don’t realize is that the choice of venue is one of your most powerful levers over your guests’ behavior. A deft gatherer picks a place that elicits the behaviors she wants and plays down the behaviors she doesn’t. The failure to follow this principle once cost a banker a lot of money, not including the château bill.

“I will argue until the day I die that the meeting place we chose killed the deal,” Chris Varelas, an investor now settled in the Bay Area, told me. Back in 2001, Varelas was an investment banker—a managing director at Citigroup and the head of its technology banking group. He came onto a project representing Lucent, a New Jersey–based telecommunications company, in a massive proposed merger with Alcatel, the French giant. The deal was valued at more than $20 billion. It was a complicated merger, and after roughly a year of talks, the merger finally seemed to be lining up. One gathering remained: a face-to-face meeting for executives to do the final mutual due diligence.

Until that gathering, the two sides had done a good job of maintaining a useful fiction. This deal was “supposed to be a marriage of equals,” Varelas said, but everyone quietly knew that Alcatel, being the more powerful of the two, “was going to be more equal.” Yet until that point, according to Varelas, the perception that the two were equals had mostly held throughout the talks. It was a big part of why they had gone as well as they had—until a choice of venue upended the pattern.

The originally scheduled venue was a nondescript airport hotel in New Jersey, so that “no one would know what we’re doing,” Varelas said. Keeping details out of the media was an important priority, to avoid embarrassment on either side should the deal not happen and also to “avoid a leak, which can scuttle a deal if the market reaction is negative.” At the last minute, however, a senior director of Alcatel fell ill and requested that the meeting be relocated to France. They chose as the forum for the talks the Château des Mesnuls, a castle about an hour’s drive west of Paris, which was owned by an Alcatel subsidiary. “I’m pretty sure they used it regularly for offsites, which probably worked fine for internal rah-rah planning and strategy sessions but not for a merger negotiation,” Varelas said.

It is a fifty-five-room château restored in the Louis XIII style, complete with Persian rugs, gold frescoes, chandeliers, and portraits of famous French soldiers—including, one presumes, those who have recently outwitted Anglo-Saxons who mistakenly thought themselves the equals of the French. Over the course of three eighteen-hour days, a few dozen participants—including the corporate executive teams, board directors, bankers, accountants, and lawyers from both sides—met in the château to nail down the final agreement. And then, in the final hours, after The Wall Street Journal had published news of the impending merger, including the agreed-upon price, Henry Schacht, the chairman of Lucent, walked out of the meeting, and the merger fell apart.

According to news reports at the time, the walk-out was tactical—the two sides were struggling to agree on board representation. But it was also emotional. “In Alcatel’s failed effort to buy Lucent Technologies, the sticking point was pride,” The New York Times reported. “Lucent officials are reported to have balked,” the BBC said at the time, “because they did not believe that Alcatel was treating the deal as a merger of equals.”

And why were they suddenly not treating the deal in the way they had dutifully treated it for a whole year? It is impossible to say. But Varelas maintains that it’s because “the château brought the Frenchness out in the French.

“We’re sitting in these ballrooms having these discussions,” he said, “and you could just see the arrogance and hubris of Alcatel employees. They became much more comfortable asserting their dominance than I know they would have if we had been in Jersey.” The French started saying things like “When we take over” and, Varelas said, “It really pissed them off”—“them” being the Lucent executives. The Lucent side was aghast at Alcatel’s behavior, Varelas said. Lucent’s chairman finally said, “We’re out of here.” Deal off.

Seventeen years later, with many more mergers under his belt, Varelas sticks to his theory. “I’m ninety-nine percent sure that the meeting place reinforced or brought out the underlying assumption. It exposed the fiction that it was a ‘merger of equals,’ because it allowed the Alcatel people to be too comfortable in asserting their dominance over Lucent,” he said.

Even if you’re not negotiating a multibillion-dollar deal, the Château Principle may apply to your gathering. People are affected by their environment, and you should host your gathering in a place and context that serves your purpose. In some cases, hosting your gathering in a château may absolutely be conducive to your purpose. But for the two companies, which needed the French to remain modest for only one more day, it turned out to be, at great cost, the wrong environment.

Five years later, the merger between Lucent and Alcatel finally happened, albeit under the auspices of a new chairman and CEO at Lucent. One presumes they stayed away from châteaus.


So a well-chosen venue might signal to people what your gathering is ultimately about (embodiment). It might nudge people to behave in the particular ways that make the most out of this coming-together (the Château Principle). And a venue can and should do one further thing: displace people.

Displacement is simply about breaking people out of their habits. It is about waking people up from the slumber of their own routines. As a facilitator, I seek to do that through the questions I ask and the exercises I run. But it is also possible to achieve a great deal of displacement through the choice of a space. As in the case of Wendy Woon, it takes imagination and effort more than anything else to achieve a little displacement. It is not more complicated than doing an activity in a place where people would think you shouldn’t.

A dinner, for example, is generally thought best had on dry land. That, at least, is the conventional wisdom. However, one night in the Greek town of Kalamata, in the 1940s, the British travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor and his friends had another idea. As the group was seated on the quay waiting for their meal to arrive in the searing heat, Fermor and his two companions silently picked up their iron table and carried it into the sea. They sat waist-deep in the water, patiently awaiting service. When the waiter emerged from the restaurant, Fermor wrote, he “gazed with surprise at the empty space on the quay; then, observing us with a quickly masked flicker of pleasure, he stepped unhesitatingly into the sea” with their dinners. The surrounding diners, amused at the spectacle, began to send the maritime diners wine in celebration of their insouciance. Perhaps not surprisingly, Fermor’s New York Times obituary would note that his “tables” were “reputed to be among the liveliest in Europe.”

A dinner party is not supposed to take place in an ocean. Which is why Fermor went there. And which is why you should think about where your next gathering ought not take place, and hold it there.

But, as in the case of Woon’s classroom, displacement can also occur within a traditional location. Take, for example, the famed photographer Platon.

You’d probably recognize a Platon if you saw one. He shot cover photographs for Time magazine for many years and was a staff photographer for TheNew Yorker magazine. His signature style is a photograph taken so close to his subjects that you can see their pores. Platon has photographed every sitting U.S. president from Jimmy Carter through Barack Obama. He has done multiple portraits of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, well before they were presidential candidates. He has photographed world leaders from Angela Merkel to Tony Blair to Ban Ki-moon, the eighth secretary-general of the United Nations, and infamous despots from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, from Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi to Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Platon has photographed not only the powerful but also people who have challenged power, from the Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi (while still under house arrest), to Pussy Riot, to protesters in Tahrir Square, to Edward Snowden. And he’s shot hundreds of celebrities, from George Clooney to Yoko Ono to Bono.

What’s remarkable about Platon, though, beyond his litany of famous subjects, is what he is able to get these people to do in the room with him. It is in the interest of these leaders, many of whom have press secretaries and image consultants, to show a face that they want the public to see. It is in Platon’s interest to get them to show something else, something real.

When Platon is able, he will have his famous subjects do the shoot in his studio in New York’s SoHo neighborhood. However, for many subjects, he’s not always able to choose the location. He’s often given just ten minutes with a head of state to get the right shot, sometimes in a cramped hotel room, sometimes backstage at a university or concert or at the United Nations. In these cases, he can’t control the space to the extent he’d like. But regardless of the context, he brings a decrepit, falling-apart, white-painted crate for his famous subjects to sit on. “I start by inviting them to ‘step into my office,’ which is funny, because usually I’m stepping into their office,” he told me. This old white crate is a box that he’s had every one of his subjects sit on. Apparently, sometimes a presidential advance team will see the box and freak out: “We can’t ask him to sit on that box.” Then Platon tells them who else has sat on that box, and they always acquiesce.

Platon is displacing his subjects from the context that they’re in and is, through this physical object, connecting them to all the other photo shoots (and therefore people) who have come before them. He may have seven minutes with a president, but those seven minutes are going to be defined by his space and context, not theirs. After years of lugging it around, when the box finally fell apart, he had his assistants remake the new one to look as old and weathered as the original. It had become the gritty symbol that temporarily displaced a leader from his throne.

Perimeter, area, and density

The above pointers should help you choose your overall environment. Once you do, you will be faced with more practical questions about rooms and tables and chairs and the sizes of things. A few notes, therefore, on perimeter, area, and density.


Metaphorical doors aren’t the only doors that need closing in a purposeful gathering. The artful gatherer is also mindful of physical doors. Gatherings need perimeters. A space for a gathering works best when it is contained. Photographers and choreographers often close all the doors in a room to, as Platon explained to me, “make sure the energy isn’t leaking out.”

This rule is commonly violated in restaurants. Tables are often set up so that there is no “head” of the table, with chairs facing each other in two rows. I once went to a dinner at a restaurant with five friends. Our table was three square tables pushed together, with three chairs on each side. Throughout the evening, the conversation never really took off. It was difficult to have one conversation, as the person in the middle had to look left and right, as if watching a tennis match, and eventually the table broke off into two separate conversations. The two ends of the table remained “leaky.” It didn’t feel cozy or intimate. We should have simply asked the waiter to remove one of the square tables and moved two people to the ends. We would then have had a contained space (through the placement of our bodies) and it would have been easier for us to talk, to share—to come together.

A contained space for a gathering allows people to relax, and it helps create the alternative world that a gathering can, at its best, achieve. It can be as simple as putting down a blanket for a picnic rather than sitting on the endless expanse of grass; or temporarily covering the glass walls of a fishbowl conference room with flip-chart paper to create a modicum of privacy. Or if there’s an extra chair at a meeting that is not going to be used, removing it and closing the gap between people. One underground party planner explained it to me like this: “If you are on a picnic blanket, you will hang out around your picnic blanket. It’s not because there’s a fence around it; it’s because your picnic blanket is your mental construct. It’s not about sitting on a blanket versus sitting on the grass; it’s about claiming that mental space and making it yours and comfortable and safe.”

A game designer named Eric Zimmerman once told me about an experiment he and his colleagues designed for an exhibition in Los Angeles. The board game they created was surrounded by four curved walls that approximated a circle, so that when you stepped inside to play, it felt as if you were in a cave. Passersby were intrigued and players ended up becoming so addicted to the game that well after day had given way to night, they kept playing. At last, after the organizers took down all the other sets, they had to remove the four walls, though they left the board game intact. As the walls came down, one by one the players lost interest in the game and dispersed, despite the game remaining playable.

“When the walls came down, even though we didn’t take away any of the pieces of the board game, they didn’t feel like continuing,” Zimmerman told me. “The energy was dispersed.” Once the game’s perimeter was gone, its players lost their sense of being in an alternative universe.


You don’t have to bring your meeting to the ocean (though I highly recommend it) to make it memorable. Studies show that simply switching rooms for different parts of an evening’s experience will help people remember different moments better. To ensure people will remember the distinct parts of your party, Ed Cooke, an expert on the workings of memory, suggests having several interesting phases over the course of the evening, each of which occurs in a different space. “That way, in your recollection, the fuzz of conversation doesn’t all kind of blur into itself, and become just a single ‘it was fun,’ but instead you can remember specific things that happened at each point. You go on a journey; there’s a narrative,” he said.


The size of a gathering’s space should serve your purpose.

I once walked into a fortieth birthday party that had all the right ingredients: a beautiful venue, delicious food, an open bar, a lively band, and two hundred guests. But for some reason, I kept looking over my shoulder all night, waiting for the party to begin. It felt like the room was still empty even after all the guests had arrived. You had to physically walk over to another part of the room to meet new people because everyone was standing so far apart. I spent most of the night hanging out with a small group of friends I already knew and didn’t take any social risks. Even when the band came on, people congregated but hung back and didn’t dance. What went wrong?

The space was too big. The room was gymnasium-sized. There was never a moment when you accidentally bumped into someone, you turned around and met someone new.

Another time, I was running a two-day gathering to brainstorm future uses for the Presidio, a large park and former U.S. Army military fort in San Francisco. The evening of the workshop, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy opened the event to the public. People were invited to come and hear presentations from museum educators across the country about what makes an engaging space. We wanted to start with cocktails to warm up the gathering and tried to embody what we were talking about.

As the guests started to arrive, one of the architects at the meeting realized that the space where we were gathering was far too big to make it feel like a cocktail party. Thinking on her feet, she took all the flip-chart stands we had been working with throughout the day and placed them in a semicircle that cordoned off a small section of the room. As people filtered in, rather than taking over the entire space, they started to cluster together between the flip charts and the classroom-style chairs that had been set up for the talk. Within minutes, the place was hopping. The quick-thinking architect had a sense of the right size of the area the group needed to gather in and saved everyone from what might have been a disappointing and low-energy event.

Just as we go into autopilot on the location of our weekly staff meetings, we also tend to accept the default setup we’re given. If there’s a table in the middle of the room, we leave it there. If the chairs are set up on two of the four sides, we don’t move them, even though it would create more intimacy if we did. So next time you’re in a gathering venue, remember that something as simple as a few flip charts can allow you to transform the feel of a room.


What the architect understood that night was the appropriate human density for the event. And I have since learned that event planners and space designers actually have rules of thumb for event density. Billy Mac, an event planner, swears by the following parameters for the number of square feet required per guest for different vibes:

Examples: Square Feet Per Guest




Dinner party

20 sq. ft.

15 sq. ft.


Cocktail party

12 sq. ft.

10 sq. ft.

8 sq. ft.

Into the night/dance party

8 sq. ft.

6 sq. ft.

5 sq. ft.

   He suggests dividing the “square feet of your party space by the number to get your target number of guests.” If your entertaining space is 400 square feet and you want a sophisticated dinner party, invite 20 people. If, instead, you want a “hot” dance party, invite 80 for that same space. Mac says one of the reasons party guests often end up gravitating to the kitchen is that people instinctively seek out smaller spaces as the group dwindles in order to sustain the level of the density.





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