Don’t Be a Chill Host

 


Three


Don’t Be a Chill Host

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Now you know how to craft a bold and clear purpose for your gathering and how to close doors based on it. The next step is to think about your role as host. How will you run your gathering?

“CHILL” IS SELFISHNESS DISGUISED AS KINDNESS

When I raise the question of the host’s role to clients or friends, whether in preparation for business meetings or family get-togethers, I am often greeted with hesitancy. This is because to talk about their role is to talk about their power as a host, and to talk about that power is to acknowledge that it exists. This is not what most people want to hear. Many people who go to the serious trouble of hosting aspire to host as minimally as possible.


But who wants to sail on a skipperless ship? Time and again, as in the case of S., who was debating whether to do more with her dinner party, I urge those I advise to own their power and lift a hand to the wheel. Time and again, they resist.


I once was in Washington, D.C., helping organize a meeting about poverty policy with a group of federal and state leaders. The hosts took my suggestion to hold an intimate, single-conversation dinner the night before the meeting, to give participants a chance to bond. The idea was for them to go deep, take risks, and even shift their mindsets to make their policy deliberations the following day more human.


After it was planned, one of the state leaders couldn’t make the dinner but wanted to attend the meeting the next day. I strongly urged that the organizers say no. The dinner wasn’t an aside; it was a core part of the design of the gathering. The full group would have bonded, creating the potential for an entirely different, more generative dynamic for the meeting. Then one person who didn’t go through that process would show up a day late and affect the entire group by her unchanged mindset. The four organizers, averse to conflict and worried about upsetting an important leader, resisted my advice. They wanted to let the state leader decide. Finally, the senior woman in charge listened to me and told the state leader: You are welcome at both parts of the gathering or neither part. She attended neither. After the dinner, seeing the shift that had occurred in the group through the meaningful personal conversation that evening, the organizers understood why it would have then been disruptive to bring in an uninitiated member the next morning.


On another occasion, I was at a housewarming party on a rooftop in Brooklyn. After dinner, the gathering had hit a lull, with people milling around, debating whether to leave or stay. I sensed this, and suggested to the hosts a game of Werewolf, a dynamic, intense group game invented by a Russian psychology professor that could bond the seated guests, reverse the tide of ebbing energy, and spice up the night. One of the hosts seemed eager to play the game and give the group a focus. She looked around and saw some of her guests eager as well, and a small handful with skeptical looks on their faces. The skepticism of this minority intimidated her, and she abandoned the idea, not comfortable using her power as host to bring them along. It was less a risk to do nothing. The moment passed, people broke up into smaller groups, and we lost the critical mass. The next day, she texted me that she wished we had played.


A journalist I know went to the trouble of gathering a dozen peers for a ten-year reunion of their time as foreign correspondents. People came from out of town to attend the dinner at a Thai restaurant in New York City. The journalist is someone who had taken my advice in the past. And so, of his own accord, he decided that he wanted at some point in the evening to interrupt the sidebar conversations and invite everyone to reflect on what that time abroad had meant to them. He wanted to create a moment of focus that would activate the evening’s intended purpose. But at the last minute, he backed down, fearing that the idea would be too domineering, or too earnest, or both.


A ubiquitous strain of twenty-first-century culture is infecting our gatherings: being chill. The desire to host while being noninvasive.


“Chill” is the idea that it’s better to be relaxed and low-key, better not to care, better not to make a big deal. It is, in the words of Alana Massey’s essay “Against Chill,” a “laid-back attitude, an absence of neurosis.” It “presides over the funeral of reasonable expectations.” It “takes and never gives.”


Let me declare my bias outright: Chill is a miserable attitude when it comes to hosting gatherings.


In this chapter, I want to convince you to assume your proper powers as a host. That doesn’t mean that there’s one way to host or one kind of power to exert over your gathering. But I do believe that hosting is inevitably an exercise of power. The hosts I guide often feel tempted to abdicate that power, and feel that by doing so they are letting their guests be free. But this abdication often fails their guests rather than serves them. The chill approach to hosting is all too often about hosts attempting to wriggle out of the burden of hosting. In gatherings, once your guests have chosen to come into your kingdom, they want to be governed—gently, respectfully, and well. When you fail to govern, you may be elevating how you want them to perceive you over how you want the gathering to go for them. Often, chill is you caring about you masquerading as you caring about them.

THE PROBLEM WITH CHILL

Behind the ethic of chill hosting lies a simple fallacy: Hosts assume that leaving guests alone means that the guests will be left alone, when in fact they will be left to one another. Many hosts I work with seem to imagine that by refusing to exert any power in their gathering, they create a power-free gathering. What they fail to realize is that this pulling-back, far from purging a gathering of power, creates a vacuum that others can fill. Those others are likely to exercise power in a manner inconsistent with your gathering’s purpose, and exercise it over people who signed up to be at your—the host’s—mercy, but definitely didn’t sign up to be at the mercy of your drunk uncle.


Isn’t a host who lets people make their own fun, talk to whomever they want to, the most generous kind of host? One of the most dramatic and convincing rebuttals to that possible objection took place in a classroom.


Ronald Heifetz is a popular professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and a well-known authority on leadership. On the first day of his class on Adaptive Leadership, he begins in the most peculiar way. Instead of walking into the room and taking attendance or launching into a lecture, he sits in a black swivel chair in the front of the classroom and stares at the ground with a blank, slightly bored look on his face. Dozens of students sit in front of him. He doesn’t welcome any of them. He doesn’t clear his throat. He doesn’t have one of his assistants introduce him. He just sits there in silence, staring blankly, not moving an inch.


The students sit expectantly, waiting. The official start time of the class passes, and Heifetz continues to sit there, not saying a word. The silence grows heavier, more nerve-racking. By doing nothing, he is abdicating his command of the classroom, refusing to play the expected role of professor-host—presumably, in his case, given his area of scholarship, for some reason we students do not yet grasp.


You can feel the collective nervousness growing by the second. One person laughs. Somebody else coughs. There is a general, unspoken confusion among the students. They are disoriented. When the professor, the traditional classroom authority, doesn’t play his role, he removes the guardrails of the classroom. The students are left to navigate the treacherous road themselves.


Someone finally speaks, saying (as best I remember it): “I think this is the class?”


With that, a popcornlike conversation, slow and measured at first, then gathering pace and fervor, breaks out among roughly one hundred strangers:


“Is he just going to sit there?”

“I don’t have all day.”

“No, I think this is the point.”

“So what should we do?”

“Shhhh . . . Maybe he’s getting ready to speak.”

“Don’t shush me. I have every right to talk.”


Without the professor leading the way, the students must deal with one another. Any of the hundred of them is, technically, free to speak (or yell or dance or laugh or attempt to take charge). No one is stopping them. But there are unspoken norms discouraging them from doing so. And even when those norms are put to the test, as Heifetz is doing by hanging back, each student has no idea how the others will react. Will one of them be strong enough, charismatic enough, or logical enough to convince the others what to do with the time? Or will they endlessly argue?


The popcorn of conversation goes on for what seems like an eternity but is really about five minutes. Eventually, Heifetz looks up at the class and, to everyone’s great relief, says, “Welcome to Adaptive Leadership.”


What is Heifetz doing? Launching a course on leadership by showing students what happens when you abdicate leadership. You don’t eradicate power. You just hand the opportunity to take charge to someone else—in this case, the students. You are not easing their way or setting them free. You are pumping them full of confusion and anxiety.

AUTHORITY IS AN ONGOING COMMITMENT

As hosts of gatherings, clients and friends of mine sometimes agree to take charge. Their instinct is usually to do so once, early on in the gathering, perhaps by giving an overview of the agenda, or by leading a discussion about group norms, or by going over a set of instructions for a group game. Then, as far as they are concerned, their work is done. Having done their “hosting,” they can pretend to be guests.


But exercising your authority once and early on in a gathering is as effective as exercising your body once and early on in your life. It isn’t enough just to set a purpose, direction, and ground rules. All these things require enforcement. And if you don’t enforce them, others will step in and enforce their own purposes, directions, and ground rules.


I once attended a dinner thrown by one of the more purposeful hosts I know. She seated her dozen or so guests around the table and then suggested we get to know one another by guessing one another’s occupations. She had seen it done at another gathering and thought it was fun. We were game. She explained how it worked: Everyone at the table gets a guess (unless you know the person), and then the person says what he or she does for a living. We plunged in, making rather hilarious speculations about the first person as he tried to maintain his poker face.


With the game off to a good start, as the guests seemed to find comfort and laughter in one another, the host got up to get dinner ready. She must have felt that her work was done: Her gathering was on autopilot now. Leaving put her only ten or so paces from the table; it wasn’t as though she had deserted us. But even this distance—more psychic than physical, since she was now focused on something else and only faintly following the game—created a problem. One of the guests, perhaps sensing the vacuum or perhaps doing what he always does, began to suck up a disproportionate amount of attention. He gave himself several guesses for each person instead of the allotted one, and when that infraction went unticketed, he began to ask follow-up questions to the guests after they revealed their occupation.


The host’s (totally understandable) abdication had made space for a pretender to the throne. Thanks to this pretender, we spent forty minutes on just the first two people. It was completely unsustainable as a pace, and not very interesting. The problem was that no one was invested in the game or its rules besides the host. No one had even heard of the game before. When the host set the game in motion and left, there was no one at the table to enforce the game’s rules or the norms of brevity and equality that made it work. But there was someone willing to enforce something—in this case, a guest willing to enforce his own idea that the rest of the group would benefit from hanging back a little and letting him conduct. He was wrong.


The man’s casual evening oppression is the perfect illustration of an old quote from the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin: “Freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep.”


What ensued that evening was what so often happens when hosts fail to exert their authority and to enforce it as an ongoing commitment: Many guests get irritated. Some spoke up and, without explicitly maligning the man or the exercise, suggested that we move on and just talk. That was a good suggestion, but other guests were equally right in pointing out that this approach wouldn’t be fair, since some people had now been elaborately introduced to the group and others remained unknown. Even after retaking her seat, the host laid low. We spent the entire night on the exercise. People were grumbling throughout—grumbling being the preferred weapon of guests who feel poorly governed and unprotected by their host.


So remember, if you’re going to compel people to gather in a particular way, enforce it and rescue your guests if it fails.


And the next time you host a gathering and feel tempted to abdicate even a little, examine the impulse. What is compelling you to hang back? If it’s something logistical (like the need to heat up food or to step out and take a call), you might find that a willing guest is much happier to get assigned to play temporary “host” than to be oppressed by some friend of yours for the better part of a night. Often, though, something deeper is at work: a reluctance that you convince yourself is generous.


It’s not just with strangers at a dinner party that hosts abdicate their power. I once advised a company that was suffering from painful quarterly meetings because of a misunderstanding of generosity. Three-hour meetings would turn into seven-hour marathons without anyone’s explicit consent. Agendas would be built, only to be thrown out the window once the executives actually gathered. The meetings would be diverted to one or two topics that a few felt passionately enough about to advocate for in the moment, and the rest didn’t feel passionately enough about to protest.


There was ostensibly an executive who was supposed to run these meetings. But the problem was that the entire company was based on the core value of equality. This executive would begin most meetings by going over the agenda, but then, like our dinner host, hope the rest would take care of itself. While the meetings might start on topic, inevitably one of the executives would have a burning issue he or she would want to discuss, and in trying to be generous to that peer, the host wouldn’t enforce the agenda. And no one else would either, in part because the others didn’t think they could if they were “equals.” Quarter after quarter, the participants left meetings frustrated, having made few substantive decisions or pushed any agenda forward. And though he was telling himself he was governing in a generous manner, the host was also protecting himself. His underlying belief was that in the current setup, even if the group was collectively worse off for it, it did him no favors to rein in his fiercer colleagues. With no source of enforcement, the meetings became dominated by informal sources of power: tenure at the company, professional success, force of personality.


Is your laissez-faire approach really doing your guests the favor you imagine it is? Does your agenda-free meeting help the young analyst? Or does her chance of adding something useful to a discussion among seasoned experts depend on her being able to prepare in advance? Does your talk-to-whomever-you-want approach help the quiet guest speak at all if not given a protected turn? Does open seating at a teachers conference help the three newcomers who end up sitting clumped together at the end of the table every time?


An essential step along the path of gathering better is making peace with the necessity and virtue of using your power. If you are going to gather, gather. If you are going to host, host. If you are going to create a kingdom for an hour or a day, rule it—and rule it with generosity.

THE WONDERS OF GENEROUS AUTHORITY

At this point you may be wondering: If I am to rule my gathering, what kind of ruler should I be?


The kinds of gatherings that meaningfully help others are governed by what I call generous authority. A gathering run on generous authority is run with a strong, confident hand, but it is run selflessly, for the sake of others. Generous authority is imposing in a way that serves your guests. It spares them from the chaos and anxiety that Heifetz knowingly thrust upon his students. It spares them from the domination of some guests by other guests that the dinner host unwittingly enabled. It wards off pretenders who threaten a purpose. Sometimes generous authority demands a willingness to be disliked in order to make your guests have the best experience of your gathering.


But what does generous authority look like in the practice of gathering?


Generous authority is Richard Saul Wurman, the founder of the TED conference, walking onstage in Monterey, California, holding a pair of scissors. He walked toward Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the MIT Media Lab, a speaker, friend, and longtime attendee who, despite his familiarity with its norms, had violated its policy forbidding neckties by wearing one that day. Generous authority, in service of the larger gathering and its values, compelled Wurman to approach Negroponte before he could start his talk and theatrically cut off much of his tie. Which he did.


Generous authority is the comedian Amy Schumer facing down a heckler at a comedy show—hecklers being a perfect example of those pretender authorities waiting to rule if the host shows any weakness. Someone yelled a non sequitur from the audience, “Where’d you get your boots?” Schumer hit the heckler back hard: “On the corner of You Can’t Afford Them and Stop Talking to Me.” She was funny, but she was also implicitly using her power to prevent one heckler from ruining the show for others.


Generous authority is Daisy Medici’s arduous effort to equalize who gets to speak when wealthy families get together to make decisions and plans. Medici is a financial adviser (with a very good name for a financial adviser) who facilitates when the patriarchs and matriarchs of moneyed families convene their extended tribes for what are often difficult conversations. Generous authority is Medici’s awareness—and gentle counterbalancing—of the tendency of in-laws often to stay silent, deferring to the blood relatives, and of the elders to edge out their adult children, even though it is those children who will live with the consequences of, say, selling off a family business or giving money away.


Generous authority is not a pose. It’s not the appearance of power. It is using power to achieve outcomes that are generous, that are for others. The authority is justified by the generosity. When I tell you to host with generous authority, I’m not telling you to domineer. I’m saying to find the courage to be authoritative in the service of three goals.

PROTECT YOUR GUESTS

The first and perhaps most important use of your authority is the protection of your guests. You may need to protect your guests from one another, or from boredom, or from the addictive technologies that lurk in our pockets, vibrating away. We usually feel bad saying no to someone. But it can become easier when we understand who and what we are protecting when we say no.


When it comes to using our power to protect guests, we could learn from the Alamo Drafthouse, a movie theater chain founded in Austin, Texas, with locations now in several cities. How many times have you been in a movie theater, trying to watch the show, and one or two rows behind you are people loudly stage-whispering to each other? Or the person next to you takes out their phone and the radiating white light competes with the big screen? How bad does it have to get for you to say something? Perhaps you say something and nothing happens. Perhaps you say something and a conflict breaks out, ruining the movie for even greater numbers of people.


What sets the Alamo apart, in addition to its large seats and its food and beverage service during the show, is that it practices generous authority. Most movie theaters, like so many hosts, focus primarily on their own host-guest relationship, overlooking the audience’s internal relationships: that of guest to guest. The Alamo does not make this mistake. Someone there seems to have realized that other theaters outsource the role of enforcer to their patrons, which is a role a paying customer should not have to play. And so when you watch a film at the Alamo, you see an announcement that warns you not to text or talk during the show, which many theaters have. But here’s the clincher: If you do, you will get one warning by the staff. If you do it a second time, you will “be ejected.” And if you, as a customer, see another customer breaking one of the rules, you can simply put up your “order card” at your table and the theater will take care of it. (Customers also write down food orders on the same card to signal the waiter, so the anonymity of the snitch is safe.) The waiters deliver on the promise by serving as enforcers. I can attest that they do their job.


When one guest was kicked out for texting, she left an angry voicemail on the theater’s machine: “I’ve texted in all the other theaters in Austin and no one ever gave a fuck.” She continued, “You guys, obviously, were being assholes to ME.” She went on and on, ending with “And I’m pretty sure you’re being an asshole on purpose. So thanks for making me feel like a customer! Thanks for taking my money, asshole!”


The Alamo, confident in the generosity of its authority, reveled in the message. The company turned the voicemail into an advertisement. It ended with the words “Thanks for not coming back to the Alamo, TEXTER!” The ad went viral. The company’s CEO, Tim League, explained the company’s policy and strict enforcement of it: “When you are in a cinema, you are one of many, many people in the auditorium. When the lights go dark and the movie begins, every single movie fan in the room wants to be absorbed into and get lost in the flickering images on the screen. A light from a cellphone, a screaming baby or a disruptive teen cracking jokes all pull you out of the magic of the movies. Providing an awesome experience for true movie fans is the reason we opened the first Alamo Drafthouse back in the mid-’90s, and it is the exact same philosophy we adhere to today.”


What sets the Alamo apart from other theaters is not the fact that it has a no-talking and no-texting policy. It is, rather, that it pledges in a detailed way to enforce those policies and that its employees faithfully do. And the Alamo is willing to face the wrath of its guests. Its employees use their authority to protect the other guests and the larger purpose of their gathering. The Alamo, contrary to the texter’s voicemail rant, isn’t “being an asshole on purpose.” Rather, it is working to protect the purpose of the gathering: to enjoy the magic of the movies.


The theater has created a separate program, Alamo for All, where it lifts the noise and technology rules entirely and allows people to move around during the movie. The theater hosts these film experiences to serve a different purpose: to create a radically inclusive, accessible movie theater for children (including crying babies) and guests with special needs. Because the Alamo knows the needs of some patrons can be at odds with those of others, it has created two separate gatherings that serve two separate purposes: one to protect its guests from noise and distraction, the other to protect its guests from exclusion and inaccessibility.


To protect your guests in this way can be challenging, because the anger of the shushed is concentrated, while the gratitude of the protected is diffuse. Anyone who has ever moderated a panel—that most lamentable of gatherings—knows the feeling. But very talented moderators like David Gergen, the CNN political commentator and consigliere to many American presidents—get used to the idea of taking one for the team, even if the team doesn’t even realize what is being done on their behalf. When Gergen hosts a panel and Q&A time comes, he often instructs the audience: “If you would, identify yourself, be fairly succinct, and remember that a question ends with a question mark.” When an audience member inevitably begins making a long statement, Gergen interrupts repeatedly if need be: “Can you put that into a question? . . . Can you put that into a question? . . . Is this leading to a question?” It may seem to some that he is being mean, but in fact he is protecting the rest of the audience who waited or paid to hear from the head of state or a famous author or a political activist, not a fellow audience member.


That is protecting your guests: anticipating and intercepting people’s tendencies when they’re not considering the betterment of the whole of the group or the experience. The questioner at a panel who makes a statement often doesn’t realize that she is making a statement, as odd as that might seem. The relentless self-promoter at a cocktail party probably wouldn’t sound the way he does if he could hear himself. People aren’t setting out to be bad people at your gatherings; bad behavior happens. But it’s your job as a host—kindly, graciously, but firmly—to ward it off.


A few years ago, Elizabeth Stewart realized that she would have no choice but to step up in this way. She was the founding director of Impact Hub Los Angeles, which is part business incubator and part community center. Even though the organization she ran was about the growing of businesses and the nurturing of entrepreneurs, Stewart knew “that we had to guard against the transactional relationships that permeated the start-up coworking spaces.” She continued, “I knew we had to be different through ground rules and setting up norms that supported something different.” So Stewart introduced a rule in all Hub LA membership orientations: Members could only talk about what they “sold” if someone asked for help or asked about what they did. She was protecting her guests from being seen only as potential customers or investors and protecting the gathering from becoming crass. “It had to be about people getting to know each other as people first and foremost and sharing their ideas second. That’s where the rule came from. We tried to create a culture that was sensitive to inquiry and invitation,” she said.


Protecting your guests doesn’t have to consist of loud interruptions or fierce rules. It can be done through small, almost unnoticeable interventions that happen throughout a gathering: rescuing a guest from a long, one-sided conversation in the corner of your party; shutting down a domineering employee at work with a joke; asking someone to stop texting.


Protecting your guests is, in short, about elevating the right to a great collective experience above anyone’s right to ruin that experience. It’s about being willing to be a bad cop, even if it means sticking your neck out. And it’s generous, because you’re doing it for your guests so that, as at the Alamo Drafthouse, they don’t have to.

EQUALIZE YOUR GUESTS

Another vital use of a host’s authority is to temporarily equalize your guests. In almost any human gathering there will be some hierarchy, some difference in status, imagined or real, whether between a sales vice president and a new associate at an all-hands meeting or between a teacher and a parent at back-to-school night. Most gatherings benefit from guests leaving their titles and degrees at the door. However, the coat check for their pretenses is you. If you don’t hang them up, no one else will.


Thomas Jefferson understood that. The United States was, in his mind, a bold bet against inherited hierarchy. Jefferson was wise enough to understand that this ideal of equality should not remain an abstract concept. It should also dictate how he and other American leaders lived their lives—and, yes, organized their gatherings. Jefferson believed a new republic needed new protocols.


One of these new protocols involved the seating of dinner guests. A dinner party was a formalized affair in European society, where people were seated according to rank—all the more so in official and diplomatic settings. Jefferson got rid of this tradition, declaring, “At public ceremonies, to which the government invites the presence of foreign ministers and their families, a convenient seat or station will be provided for them, with any other strangers invited and the families of the national ministers, each taking place as they arrive, and without any precedence.” Seating people “pell-mell,” as it was called, offended some people who had enjoyed the benefits of status, including a British minister to the United States named Anthony Merry. Merry, his “large and equally offended wife,” and another diplomat all withdrew from official Washington society. According to The Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, “The ensuing social tempest came close to clouding the course of American foreign and domestic policy, but Jefferson stood firmly behind the principle at the root of pell-mell: ‘When brought together in society, all are perfectly equal, whether foreign or domestic, titled or untitled, in or out of office.’” He wanted his gatherings to reflect this ethos. (Unfortunately, the ethos didn’t extend to his slaves.)


More than two centuries later, another American president sought in his own way to equalize people and he, too, ruffled feathers, and got a few laughs, when he did. President Barack Obama noticed that men were far more likely to both raise their hands and be called on in public question-and-answer settings. So he started an experiment. Whether addressing students at Benedict College, workers in Illinois, or even his own press corps, he would insist on taking questions in “boy, girl, boy, girl” fashion. If no woman stood up with a question when the women’s turn came, Obama would wait until one did.


You don’t have to be the leader of the free world to equalize your guests. You just have to be aware of the power dynamics at your gathering and be willing to do something about them—as were the founders of the Opportunity Collaboration conference.


The conference was started in Ixtapa, Mexico, in 2009 to bring together leaders “dedicated to building sustainable solutions to poverty.” From the beginning, the hosts knew they were up against formidable power dynamics in the anti-poverty field: the organizations with the grant money held much more power than the grantees who implemented the programs on the ground. The organizers believed this dynamic thwarted the work of reducing poverty. As Topher Wilkins, the conference’s CEO, explained to me, “When I attend a traditional conference, it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard.” He added, “I think they do more harm than good. It’s promoting the same hierarchy that leads to how economic development gets done, and it’s that structure that we actually need to break down if we’re going to solve these problems in the first place.”


Wilkins and his team set out to design a gathering that would counterbalance rather than reinforce the hierarchy between donors and grantees. They invited 350 people to spend a week together in Mexico, and they spared no opportunity to embed equality into the gathering. They used nametags with first names in giant letters and last names in small letters, and—heaven forbid—they did not include organizational affiliations. They began the conference with a three-hour town hall, giving attendees a chance to “witness who we are as a community,” Wilkins said, and “very openly talk about the things that are preventing us from working together in the first place.” People seized on the chance to speak truth to one another and to power. Grantees said things like “Every time I go to a potential funder, it’s like going to the gynecologist. You have to show them everything!” Donors responded: “I hear that, and it’s really horrible. For me, it’s also difficult because I have to make decisions that change people’s lives, and there’s a lot of responsibility and stress around that.” The organizers even had people role-play the grievances of the other side to foster empathy.


Opportunity Collaboration had a larger purpose in mind: to solve the problem of poverty by equipping those who fight it to do so more effectively. That greater effectiveness, the organizers felt, would come from greater openness, greater collaboration, and, above all, greater equality. So after picking the location and guests, these organizers knew that they needed to claim their own power as hosts capable of equalizing their guests. If they could make the different tribes of anti-poverty warriors stand on level ground and hear one another democratically, perhaps they could begin to change how the field works in general.


This democratization of gatherings isn’t just for presidential occasions and poverty conferences. Many parties and other social events could benefit from some assertive equalizing. It was in part because the writer Truman Capote understood this that he was able to make his Black and White Ball such a great splash.


On November 28, 1966, the Monday after Thanksgiving, Capote invited 540 of his “closest friends” to the Plaza Hotel in New York for a masked ball. It was unlike any party the city’s society had ever seen. Not because of its lavishness (the invitation was for 10 p.m., and spaghetti and hash would be served at midnight). Not even because of the location. But because of who attended, and what they were told to wear.


Capote invited princesses and politicians, Hollywood stars and writers. The party was held in honor of Katharine Graham, which was itself an unusual move as she was a recent widow. Although she would go on to run The Washington Post during two of its most consequential decades, she was relatively unknown at that moment. Capote, whose bestselling book In Cold Blood had recently been published, invited the maharani of Jaipur and the Italian princess Luciana Pignatelli, as well as the middle-class family from Garden City, Kansas, who had hosted him while he was doing research for the book. And in addition to mixing all these worlds, he asked everyone to wear masks. “There was something radically democratic in the notion of inviting these very famous people to a party and then telling them to hide their faces,” said Deborah Davis, an author who has studied the ball.


For Capote, who loved a good party, the role of the masks was a deliberate act of subversion. As celebrities streamed in, the act of blocking their faces, even if just a little, created a parity that rarely existed in their social universe. (He even had thirty-nine-cent masks on hand for the guests who “forgot” theirs, to enforce the rule, Alamo Drafthouse–like.) The guest list was sent to The New York Times the next day, and the symbolism of all those people in the same room shook up people’s notions of who and how people could mix.

CONNECT YOUR GUESTS

A third use of generous authority is in connecting your guests to one another. One measure of a successful gathering is that it starts off with a higher number of host-guest connections than guest-guest connections and ends with those tallies reversed, far in the guest-guest favor.


As with the protecting and equalizing, the connecting of guests is something that no one is against in theory. Who doesn’t want their guests to come away from a gathering having gotten to know one another? But the question, once again, is whether you are willing to use your authority and stick your neck out in order to make those connections happen. Whether you are willing to risk looking like a fool, or going too far, or even annoying people, in order to foster the linkages you claim to believe in.


I was once facilitating a one-day conference on a working farm. The topic was the future of grass-fed beef, and the organizers had convened about 120 people who were involved in different aspects of the grass-fed beef ecosystem. At the time, grass-fed beef represented a tiny percentage of the beef sold in the United States, and the organizers had invited people who wanted to see that percentage grow. In the room were ranchers, farmers, investors, beef buyers from grocery chains and delis, chefs, and consumer advocates. But they didn’t all know one another, and in some cases, they had very different reasons for being there.


The organizers had scheduled a day full of panels, speakers, and updates from the field. But we knew that a key element in making them think of themselves as a group would be to build their sense of community. By the end of the day, we wanted them to feel as though they could pick up the phone and call anyone else in the room. So I set myself the goal of figuring out how to provide each participant with an opportunity for meaningful small-group conversations with at least three-quarters of the other guests. Yet the only way I could think of to actually do this was to have them get up and move to a different table after every speaker. It was a hassle, and people often resist packing up their belongings and moving.


Nonetheless, we decided to do it. After every speaker and every coffee break, I reminded them that it’s hard to build a movement if you don’t know who’s in it. So each person had to move to a different table. At their new ten-seat tables, they would have a chance to introduce themselves to new people and answer a question relevant to the day or the most recent speaker. In order to deliver on the larger purpose of connecting the group, I had to be willing to face a few grumbles about moving belongings and not being able to talk to friends. I had to operate as a representative of their future selves—happy they met new people, surprised by new connections with people unlike themselves—and actively go against what their present selves demanded.


By the end of the day, the mood at the gathering was anything but grumpy. In fact, it had turned festive. A number of participants approached me and said that they had never before felt so connected to so many new people so quickly. We had gone through a lot of technical information about the grass-fed beef industry, but we hadn’t sacrificed connection on the altar of our agenda. We believed we could do both. And we did.


The moral of this story is that connection doesn’t happen on its own. You have to design your gatherings for the kinds of connections you want to create. And, again, it doesn’t have to be elaborate and complicated. I once heard of a couple who found a clever way to seed connection among their wedding guests. At the entrance to the reception, they left a hint to each guest to seek out another specific guest they were told shared one similar interest—for example, to find the avid skier who once quit a management consulting job to become a ski instructor. They knew that, absent such instructions, friends and family who knew one another would seek one another out and stick together.


Some intentional gatherers actually encourage these guest-guest connections to form in advance of the event itself. Chris Anderson, who now runs TED, recently started a new tradition. Some weeks before the big conference he throws in Vancouver, he hosts a dinner for speakers based in New York who are in the final days of writing and memorizing what are supposed to be “the talks of their life.” Before the dinner, those speakers are all connected individually to him or one of his colleagues. After the dinner, they are connected to one another. They become a tribe who can navigate the sometimes intimidating halls of the massive conference. A grueling and intimidating process becomes less scary, and a gathering becomes more intimate. One group of speakers who were brought together in this way still gather from time to time in one another’s homes well after the conference, because they found such kinship in one another.

HALF-GERMAN, HALF-EGYPTIAN AUTHORITY

I have encouraged you to own your power as a host, and to do so not to aggrandize yourself but to protect, equalize, and connect your guests. Now I want to talk about one of my favorite role models for generous authority: Nora Abousteit.


Abousteit is an entrepreneur living in New York City. Born in a small town in Germany to a German mother and an Egyptian father (the one who started the students-only bar), she has spent her career building communities of people who make things by hand. The founder of CraftJam, an organizer of social crafting events, Abousteit gathers in the course of doing this work, and she gathers in her personal life. A lot.


She is, you could say, an extreme gatherer. She hosts and attends more gatherings than most people I know, and she hosts more generously and seriously as well. Abousteit will think nothing of gathering forty people in her home for a banquet multiple times a year. She cohosts large dinners on the eves of conferences around the world. She hosts regular brunches for anyone who happens to be in town on a Saturday. Her home has an open-door policy, and she hosts friends of friends, even if she has never met them, to give them a temporary sense of belonging while they navigate a new city. In all she does, she incarnates generous authority—protecting, equalizing, connecting.


Abousteit uses her authority to protect her guests in ways small and large. At her formal seated dinners, she informs guests that they can’t show up late. “People warm up together,” she tells me. “They get to a certain point, and there’s a certain kind of energy, and it’s a collective experience.” By letting people come whenever they want, Abousteit understands that she would be failing to protect those who showed up on time. In that same spirit, if two friends are in a corner catching up with each other and ignoring the rest of the group, Abousteit has no problem saying to them, “Catch up on your own time.” She is protecting those who may not have the luxury of catch-up buddies at the dinner, and whose chance of having a good time depends on other people being open to conversation with a stranger.


She equalizes her guests by holding everyone to the same standards. At one banquet she hosted, she ended the evening by suggesting that the group of forty go around the table with each person sharing a single piece of culture, broadly defined, that truly moved them that year. She insisted that each person get only sixty seconds to do so. And then she equalized her guests by enforcing that sixty-second rule mercilessly. Whether it was her mother-in-law, her husband’s colleague, or a high school friend, at sixty seconds, Abousteit said, “Time’s up,” and the group moved on.


Abousteit connects her guests to one another as if it’s her job. At one party she hosted, as friends streamed up the stairs to the main room, she stood at the top with a big smile on her face, welcomed each guest, and told them that she loves nothing more in the world than the people she loves meeting one another, and that they have one job before dinner: make two new friends. And because she’s so authentic and explicit about it, people make an effort to talk to new people, in part because she’s given them the social cover to do so.


One way Abousteit helps her guests connect is by priming them to take care of one another. When she gathers a large group of people who are sitting at separate tables, she assigns roles to a guest at each table, which gives them something to do and an excuse to talk to the others around them. A “Water Minister” ensures that everyone has full glasses of water. A “Wine Minister” keeps the wine flowing. At another dinner, with people seated banquet-style next to others they didn’t know, when the food arrived in big bowls, she explicitly invited her guests to “serve each other and not worry about getting served themselves.” She explained: “In Egypt, we always serve one another first. When that happens, everyone gets food. You’re not worried about yourself.” Abousteit laughingly admits that she plays the Egyptian when greater warmth is required and it’s helpful to be Egyptian, and she plays the German when greater order is required and it’s helpful to be German. That night, the guests, a bit startled but also intrigued, began lifting bowls of quinoa salad to serve one another, everyone looking around to see if their dinner mates had gotten enough food. This small reorientation shifted the dynamic of the room. Instead of worrying about themselves, the guests relaxed and started to look out for everyone else. She had nudged people into relationships of care, even though many of them had just met.


Abousteit understands that generous authority is a commitment, and that she must sustain the protecting, equalizing, and connecting of her guests throughout the event. And it was this commitment, and the bewildered pushback it invited, that came to a head at the most important gathering of Abousteit’s life: her wedding.


She had spent days with seating charts designing what she thought were perfect tables. They were low tables, in the Egyptian style, covered with multicolored silk cloths under a beautiful, enclosed tent. She sat groups of six people together at thirty tables. She chose a smaller number than many do for wedding tables because she was more interested in group intimacy than group energy. She was marrying an American who works in China much of the time, and because she herself hailed from multiple places, the guests were from many different countries. At the tables, she tried to put together people who were different but somehow complementary. She considered the dynamics between individuals and the table’s potential conversations as a whole. And to the dismay of some of her guests, she followed German tradition and separated couples by putting them at different tables.


At one point during the evening, Abousteit, looking stunning in her black-and-white wedding dress, walked around proudly, admiring her handiwork, visiting each table to greet her guests. Her deepest desire was coming true: the disparate parts of her life were melting into a tribe. Suddenly, she noticed something amiss: “I saw a couple where the woman was actually sitting on her husband’s lap, telling him that she missed him. I was confused why this one table was different. I could tell right away, just from looking at the people, that the entire energy of the table was off.” To the surprise and dismay of that guest, Abousteit walked over and marched her guest back to her original table.


Why had the aberration in her seating arrangements upset her so much? “They were breaking harmony,” Abousteit explained. “They were only thinking about themselves and their own needs and not about the group. In a group, if everybody thinks about the other person’s needs, everyone’s needs are actually fulfilled in the end. But if you only think about yourself, you are breaking that contract.” She continued: “I was really upset because it’s not fair to the other people at the table.” In that moment, Abousteit was thinking not about the guest who had departed from the seating order so much as the guests who were left behind. Obviously, none of her guests was going to get up and ask the guest to return—even if the absence did alter the dynamics at a rather small table.


The guest whom Abousteit shame-marched found her behavior authoritarian. But Abousteit saw it as being protective of the five people who were left at the table. In her mind, the dinner was a short part of a long evening, the only portion where couples were separated, and it was specifically designed to help her guests connect and interstitch the many disparate stories there.


When you are on the wrong end of one of Abousteit’s gathering commands, it isn’t fun. But I have never had any doubt about why she is ruling her gathering. It is always for the sake of her guests.


One of my favorite gathering documents is an email that Abousteit once wrote to a friend, offering tips for throwing a dinner on the sidelines of the South by Southwest Conference. It leaves no doubt about where her heart is:

  1. YOU ARE THE BOSS. Hosting is not democratic, just like design isn’t. Structure helps good parties, like restrictions help good design.

  2. Introduce people to each other A LOT. But take your time with it.

  3. Be generous. Very generous with food, wine, and with compliments/introductions. If you have a reception before people sit, make sure there are some snacks so blood sugar level is kept high and people are happy.

  4. ALWAYS do placement. Always. Placement MUST be boy/girl/boy/girl, etc. And no, it does not matter if someone is gay. Seat people next to people who do different things but that those things might be complementary. Or make sure they have something else in common; a passion or something rare is best. And tell people what they have in common.

  5. Within each table, people should introduce themselves, but it must be short. Name, plus something they like or what they did on the weekend or maybe something that can relate to the gathering.

  6. For dessert, people can switch, but best to have it organized: tell every other person at the table to move to another seat.

I love this list for how it distills the ethos of generous authority. In almost every instruction two things are embedded: compassion and order.

WHEN AUTHORITY TURNS UNGENEROUS

I’m sure you’ve been to many gatherings governed under the doctrine of chill. Conferences in which the “questioner” before you in line deprives you of the opportunity to ask something because his “question” turns out to be a soliloquy spanning two typed pages, and the moderator doesn’t stop him. School-welcome picnics at which not so much as an opening announcement is made, leaving you wondering if you are actually at the school picnic or just a crowded portion of the park. Dinner parties at which you become an expert in start-ups—or at least the start-up of the really talkative guy next to you.


I’m also certain, though, that you’ve been to another, very different kind of gathering: one in which you felt not unattended or abandoned, but rather controlled, bossed around, taken for granted, even tricked—and very clearly for the sake of the host, not anyone else. Ungenerous anarchy—a.k.a. chill—is not the only enemy of generous authority. There’s also the problem of ungenerous authority, to which we now turn.


If the sin of the chill host is leaving people alone for his or her own sake, the sin of the domineering host is controlling people for his or her own sake. It is running your gathering with an iron fist, and doing so in a way that is in service, above all, of yourself. Though there are no hard and fast rules, in my own experience, it is institutional gatherings that more often err on the side of ungenerous authority, the bureaucratic need for predictability translating into a rigidity that doesn’t serve guests. It is personal gatherings that more often suffer from the problem of chill. That said, I have been to ungenerously anarchic institutional gatherings and ungenerously authoritarian personal ones. You never know.


The host most likely to succumb to ungenerous authority is the one who fears losing control. It is in the obsession with knowing how events will play out that we often make them go poorly for the guest, for the sake of calming ourselves. This was the case at one gathering I helped put together: the formal launch of the Obama administration’s new Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, in the summer of 2009.


It was a new office, dedicated to a new idea: that sometimes the role of government is not to solve problems directly, but rather to play conductor to the orchestra of solution chasers around the country. The founding of the office sent a message that Obama, a former community organizer, didn’t just believe in local solutions and active citizenship in theory. He was building an institution tasked with harnessing and promoting those ideas.


We wondered: What was the best way to launch such an office? This wasn’t like launching a Treasury Department sub-agency. Our office represented new values and a new theory of where good ideas came from, and this deserved a different kind of launch. We made plans for an interactive conversation among President Obama and one hundred leaders in the social innovation sector. It was a rare gathering where the icons of the field would all be in one room—and a room in the White House, no less. Members of our team recommended doing a live, dynamic, fishbowl conversation where each guest could step in and out of the dialogue circle at timed intervals while engaging with the president. But when we took our plans to the Office of Public Engagement, the gatekeeper for all public-facing gatherings, the staff there shot down every element of the gathering that was unscripted, that had any element of risk.


“We never know what he might say if it’s unscripted,” we were told of the president.


The event ended up being traditional—a highly scripted speech with guests seated in classroom-style rows in the East Room of the White House. What might have been an event that pushed forward a field and embodied its purpose—to look out to the community for solutions to the nation’s problems—ended up being a staid, top-down ceremony. Because of the organizers’ fear, it was an excessively controlled gathering. The organizers had claimed their authority, but their authority did not feel generous. Rather than protecting their guests, they seemed motivated to protect their own jobs. Rather than connecting the invited leaders to one another, they had them listen to the president and three other speakers. In the organizers’ mind, the perceived upside (galvanizing a group of leaders around the president’s new innovative initiative) was not worth the risk of the perceived downside (the president making some offhand comment that might cause other problems). This risk factor is among the biggest reasons many institutional gatherings leave the generosity out of their authority.


If timidity can make gatherers ungenerous, so does navel-gazing. I have a friend in the fashion industry who once invited me to a fancy gathering to celebrate the 250th anniversary of a liquor company. While the gathering overflowed with all the right ingredients for a swanky and memorable night—a welcome cocktail, performance artists, a red carpet, a celebrity appearance, models as waiters, and a tantalizing menu—it quickly became a self-serving disaster—even though on the surface it appeared very generous.


There was one drink on offer: a strong cocktail made from the brand’s liquor. There were no alternatives except water. As we were waiting for our drinks, we were strongly encouraged, repeatedly, to move into the main dining area as the program was going to begin. At least we would be given some food to counterbalance the liquor, we thought, only to discover that the food would be served only after a presentation. We had been invited to a 7 p.m. dinner, but the meal wasn’t served until close to 10 p.m. There was an MC managing the show, but there was only so much he could do: It was clear he was following a script. As the guests sat quietly, staring at the stage, without food or drink, the hosts showed video after video explaining the work of the tasting committee, whatever that was. We learned about the seven generations of family members that contributed to the legacy of this liquor.


As far as I could tell, few of us had arrived cynical of this event or of this brand. As the night wore on, I started noticing guests texting under the table, rolling their eyes, mock-eating their own arms. There began to erupt a small, if subtle, revolt. The experience of the audience was being totally ignored. By having us sit at specific tables, with no real way to move or get up or go anywhere, and with little opportunity to talk to one another, they were certainly using their authority. But what they gave us in return did not justify the freedom they were asking us to give up.


When the food finally came out, the hosts were so focused on the beauty of the delivery that they forgot the practical considerations of a roomful of hungry guests. For each table, a SWAT team of waiters marched out in a straight line, holding the plates, and then surrounded the table all together and served the course à la française (simultaneously to every guest). But the problem was that this process took a lot of time, and there were many, many tables to be served.


The printed menus on the table had filled me with excitement for the moment that was now, at last, coming. There would be, for saffron lovers, “Saffron Potato Crisp” and “Crab and Saffron Maki,” “Scallop and Saffron Cream” and “Saffron Poultry.” There would be “Cocoa Salmon” and “Chocolate and Mango Pie.” When I finally got my plate, though, I was surprised to see how little there was on it. As we raised our forks to eat, the organizers now scolded us not to eat any of the “food” until the four members of the tasting committee came onstage to explain each dish that we were supposed to eat with the drink. First, they said it in French, and then it was translated into English. It was clear that it was important to the company that all four of these people were represented onstage.


I finally just started eating. I was done in five minutes, and looked around to see if I could get a second plate. No luck. What could have been a fun, interesting evening turned into a night to make fun of the hosts.


At this point, I and others grasped the deeper reasons for this dreary gathering: The event’s purpose was to honor a small number of people. This was a celebration of the liquor company, by the liquor company, and for the liquor company. Everyone else was a prop. The evening was all form, no function. They hadn’t woven us into their story, and we didn’t feel a part of it.


The difference between Abousteit’s imposition and the liquor company’s imposition is this: Abousteit’s authority was not about her. At her gatherings, the heavy hand demonstrably makes the gathering better for guests. She’s not doing it to be the star. She’s doing it so that each person gets an equal chance to be a star, to enjoy the evening, to come away slightly altered by the moment. With the liquor company organizers, the guests became the unwitting audience of a bad show. As one guest wrote to me later, “Why were we gathered? What purpose? What was the red thread that tied it all together?” He continued, “They forgot to do the basics: Frame the event. Here is why we are here.”


The organizers neither connected the guests to one another, nor protected the guests from anyone, including themselves. In fact, they were the oppressors. And they forced the audience to protect themselves.


If you are going to hold your guests captive, you had better do it well. When a host fails to exercise power, the authority that pops up instead can be annoying, but it is hard to pin down. It comes from fellow guests whose names you may not even know. When a host exercises power badly, on the other hand, the anger has a clear focus. The wrath knows where to go.

HOW I RUINED THAT DINNER

So as a host, how do you get your power right? How do you not abandon your guests while ensuring that your power serves them? How do you strike that balance? Or to put the question in more personal terms: How could I have done it better that night I ruined dinner?


It was a dinner that my husband and I were hosting for ten guests. It was originally planned around a couple we wanted to have over, in part because they host us quite often. (I know: not a good purpose.) We then added six other friends to the evening. Some of the guests knew one another professionally, but not well; others had never met. It was an intergenerational group, ranging from people in their twenties to people in their seventies. My original intention was to be a cool, laissez-faire host. I would be unobtrusive. As each guest arrived, my husband or I let them in, poured them a drink, and led them to the living room, where there were nibbles arrayed on a small coffee table, surrounded by a circle of chairs and a sofa.


I thought that introducing people who already knew one another a bit might seem heavy-handed or overly orchestrated, and I was trying to create a relaxed tone for the evening. Each guest found a spot around the circle and then remained in it for much of the next hour, talking in small groups. The energy was low, and it felt a little forced. I was surprised because I thought the group would have enough in common to spark easy conversation.


I started to get nervous.


We invited people to move to the table for dinner, and at that point, one of the guests pulled me aside and said, “Can you please introduce us? There haven’t been any introductions.” In trying not to impose, I had left my guests underequipped.


I decided to reverse myself and take charge of the evening. I welcomed everyone and raised a glass. I thanked each of them for “sprinkling fairy dust on our family” in different ways over the previous year. Then I attempted to make an introduction of every guest. I hadn’t planned what I was going to say, so I tried to wing it. I embarrassed the first guest in trying to honor her: I said something like “This date was chosen months out because of Elise’s crazy calendar.” She blushed, while everyone else looked a little wounded, thinking they were runners-up. Then I went around and tried saying something about each guest, but I messed up the details and was repeatedly corrected. “He grew up in Tennessee,” I would venture. “Actually, Georgia,” the guest said. I introduced some of the guests professionally, but other guests based on a personality trait. It got so bad that one guest said, “Hey, you said something about everyone’s profession except for Zeb’s.” Then, as I became more flustered, I realized I wasn’t sure of that person’s current work, so I asked him to expound. I took forty-five minutes to do these introductions. My husband was cueing me to stop, but it was no use: I couldn’t do half the group and leave the other half out. My husband finally had to tell people to please start eating while I finished the introductions.


In trying to course-correct, I swung from unstructured to tyrannical—from an anarchy that didn’t serve my guests to an authority that didn’t serve them either. And I did both badly. I could have addressed the need for introductions in a number of creative ways: letting people ask each other questions, having partners introduce each other, asking each person to answer one fun question. But I did none of that. Instead, I took over without any forethought. And my mode of introduction neither connected the guests to one another nor provided paths to a group conversation.


The rest of the night was clunky at best. A few guests dominated the conversation. I would try to redirect it, but still raw from my introduction flop, I was gun-shy. I don’t believe the guests left feeling particularly connected to one another. The conversation was disjointed. People fled right after dessert was served, saying they were tired. (Never a good sign when your guests say they are tired at 9 p.m.) I woke up the next morning feeling embarrassed and regretful.


I had tried out two kinds of authority that night, both of them wrong. I left people alone. And then I ruled them illegitimately. What could I have done better?


I could have started before the gathering even began. In my reminder email to the group the day before, I could have easily included a little fun background on each person, which they could read on their own time to get a sense of who would be there. As they walked in, I could have connected them, making a point of bringing each person around, even though it was a small group, and introducing them warmly to one another, saying a few nice things about each, as Abousteit’s list advises.


Once at the table, if I was going to do introductions, I could have prepared better so that my comments would be warm and interesting and, more important, accurate and egalitarian. I could have found one beautiful detail about each person that no one knew. Or I could have asked a question at the beginning of the meal to connect the group, something like “What is on your mind for the year ahead for yourself? For the world?” And then, harnessing my inner Abousteit, I could have made sure that everyone answered it.


Briefly.










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