We at Reach Partners are big Priya Parker fans. We devoured her book “The Art of Gathering” and even attended an event curated by her.
So when Parker penned an opinion column that ran in The New York Time before Thanksgiving, we paid attention. Titled “Abandon Your Thanksgiving Script,” the column addressed the need to think differently about holiday traditions during a year when nothing has been normal.
Parker challenged her readers to think imaginatively: “That begins with shifting our attitudes from fighting the current constraints to taking inspiration from them.”
As someone who studies and designs gatherings, she most often sees two responses to constraints on gathering: cancellation and rebellion. She encourages a third option: improv.
We’ve seen this play out in our own work and experiences over the last year.
As we were working on conference details for a client, something didn’t feel quite right. I knew there was something that the client wanted to change from the previous year’s event. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember exactly what it was. (In my defense, it had been over a year since we had planned that particular conference. That’s a long time to remember things!)
Thankfully, I knew exactly where I could find what I needed. The detail was included in our post activity report, also known as the PAR.
This won’t be a big surprise to many of you, but we love conferences and big events.
Yes, it’s true that we enjoy organizing them. We also enjoy attending them.
After all, you can gather information by watching online videos or reading about the latest industry trends via article or book. However, nothing replaces the face-to-face interactions that happen when people gather for a specific purpose.
When you attend a shared event or conference, you have opportunities to connect with others. You may gather new insight or hear a different perspective. When done right, conferences are energizing. You will walk away with at least a few tips that can make your personal or professional life stronger.
That said, every successful conference requires you to put forth some effort.
Here’s how you can make the most out of your time at a large event or gathering.
My family and I recently spent a week together on vacation.
We hiked, toasted marshmallows for s’mores, and explored one of Minnesota’s lakes by boat. That said, it wouldn’t have mattered what we did.
We were together; we were present. Mostly.
If you’ve ever planned a large event, you know how hard it is to determine how many volunteers or staff you’ll need to make the event run smoothly. So, you turn to your good friend Google and find out that the general recommendation is one (1) staff member per 50 to 100 attendees.
Great. But, that’s a broad generalization, and it’s critical that you get the number right. After all, if you understaff an event, your attendees will suffer. And if you over-staff, it will cost you money or sour a valuable relationship. You don’t want your volunteers feeling unappreciated because they’re standing around doing nothing.
In our work, we get some interesting requests.
One of the most memorable came from a client who regularly produces commercials. One afternoon we received a panicked call from the project manager overseeing an upcoming shoot.
The team had written the script, cast the talent, and ordered the props. The production team was scheduled and ready to go.
There was one problem. Because of unexpected circumstances, a major element of the set was missing: the walls.
The phone conversation went something like this:
“We need materials for interior walls, plus the wall constructed and installed at the set by eight a.m.”
“Give me 20 minutes, and I’ll call you back,” said Anita.
Within 10 minutes, Anita identified a solution. She found a builder and confirmed materials, building plans, and delivery. Less than 36 hours later, the set walls were delivered and assembled.
These types of requests are rare, but at Reach Partners we embrace the challenge of making the seemingly impossible become possible. In particular, we are thrilled when we can connect the right people at the right time to get a project done.
We can do this because we have good connections – a short list of go-to people whom will take our calls any time of day. These people have been in the trenches with us before and know how to work with us. We can skip formalities and focus quickly on what needs to be done.
Everybody needs these types of relationships – vendors, subcontractors, and amazingly talented people who can save your butt (and project!) when the unexpected pops up.
For many clients, Reach Partners is on that short list – mostly because we have those connections that can solve seemingly impossible problems. We recognize that these relationships and connections are among our most valuable resources.
Do you have a short list of go-to folks whom you rely on professionally and personally? Whom do you call when you needed promotional items ordered yesterday? Or your hair stylist moves to Texas?
If you don’t have a short list of go-to connections, now is the time to start developing one. Form a close relationship with a lawyer, editor, fix-it gal, restauranteur, graphic designer, printer, massage therapist, yogi, accountant, cook, talent agent, writer.
There’s no end to the skillsets and networking – the value – that these connections can bring to your work and life.
Suicide and suicide-related behaviors can be newsworthy topics. But how those stories are shared makes a difference in how others in the community view and respond to suicide.
We helped to shine light on this topic when we designed and planned a communications conference for news media and spokespeople.
Mental Health America of North Dakota and partner agencies wanted to erase the stigma around suicide, while increasing the likelihood that vulnerable individuals would seek help after viewing or reading a story about suicide.
To address this issue, they received a grant to hold a communications summit for news media and organizational spokespeople. They asked Reach Partners to join the summit’s planning committee and to oversee details of the conference, which was held in both Fargo and Bismarck.
“It was an honor to do this,” says Anita Hoffarth, co-owner of Reach Partners. “We were a key part of the committee.”
The group invited Daniel J. Reidenberg, executive director of S.A.V.E. (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education), to share best practices in reporting on suicide. In addition, a panel of survivors of suicide loss shared their personal experiences. They spoke about what it was like to be interviewed by members of the media and how the language and headlines used affected their families.
Sixty-five members of the media, public information officers, law enforcement and educators attended the conference. Conference planners assembled educational resources to distribute to those who had been invited but couldn’t attend.
During the half-day event, attendees learned more about suicide and how reporting and messaging could make a difference in whether viewers and readers would consider suicide or seek help.
One best practice shared was to no longer use the phrase “commit suicide” since the verb suggests the person conducted a crime. Instead reporters were encouraged to say “died by suicide.”
In a post-conference evaluation, 100 percent of the attendees said they were likely to use the information presented the next time they had to report on a suicide.
“I learned a lot of useful things and important considerations for my stories in the future. Thanks!” wrote one attendee.
Local news reports began to reflect many of the best practices shared at the summit – and journalists continue to be more responsible in their reports.
“I’ve even become more careful in how I talk about suicide and share with others what I learned,” Anita says.
Few things make people in a group setting more uncomfortable than silence.
People look awkwardly at their phones or notebooks while the lack of speech weighs heavily in the air. Nobody makes eye contact until someone breaks the tension with nervous laughter.
But, shhhh . . .
There’s power in that silence.
Musicians know this. A few (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Claude Debussy, as a start) have been credited with variations on the sentiment that “the music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” Or as the jazz musician Miles Davis put it: “It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.”
Silence gives noise meaning. In many situations, it is a golden ticket to stronger communication and building trust.
After all, when we have a message to deliver, we want people to listen. Silence may signal that someone is actively paying attention and they need a moment to collect their thoughts before responding. Silence, in this case, suggests they’ve actually listened to the conversation before forming their own commentary.
Posing a good question to the group also may result in quiet space. People are thinking, figuring out how to frame their responses. Consider the communication styles of those around you. While some people work through their ideas verbally, others need a few minutes of quiet time to collect their thoughts and courage.
If a group is brainstorming or sharing ideas, you can expect that conversation will ebb and flow. For a few minutes, ideas may come very quickly and then the pace slows down. Just as a piece of music may contain different time signatures, this rhythm may change multiple times throughout the conversation. If you don’t allow space between the noise, ideas could be left out.
There are times, of course, that silence signals a problem.
For example, phone conversations or conference calls are difficult to monitor when it comes to silence. Because you can’t read non-verbal cues, it’s challenging to know whether silence means a person is thinking (perfect!), walked away in frustration (not perfect!), or got disconnected (oops!).
If you are gathering in person, silence could signal that everyone isn’t prepared for the meeting. Just because you created a thorough agenda doesn’t mean everyone has read it. Watch body language to determine whether people need a moment to compose their thoughts or they haven’t completed their homework.
The most difficult part about silence may not be interpreting it, but in allowing it to happen. Handling a bit of silence may be more challenging than you think.
We’re so used to filling quiet with sound that true silence may feel like eternity even if it’s only a few seconds or more.
If you’re tempted to jump in with a comment, stop. Count silently in your head or watch the second hand of a clock. Don’t fall into the trap of rescuing anybody. Let the awkward silence achieve its superpower.
You won’t have to wait long. In my experience someone will start talking in 10 seconds or less. Someone almost always does.
Shhh . . . wait for it.
Think about the last time you showed up for a meeting.
Did the group leader take a moment and review why the group was gathered? Did she summarize what had been agreed upon at the last meeting and what needed to be accomplished at this one?
How did that meeting go?
When a group meets, it pays to devote two to three minutes at the start of every meeting to recap previous efforts and share a vision for the future.
This does not mean you revisit the previous meeting’s entire agenda. Projects would never move forward if you did that. But taking a few minutes to share where things are at or what has happened since the last meeting can be beneficial.
To be clear, a recap is different than sending out meeting notes or minutes (which should be distributed after each gathering). But if you assume that everyone in the meeting has read the previous meeting notes, you are likely to be disappointed. (No judgment here. It’s reality.)
Even if everyone reads the notes and were at the last meeting, they will appreciate a reminder of what is going on, where things are headed, and what needs to be done.
After all, people make better decisions when they have context for the questions, needs, or purpose.
Start your recap with a statement of purpose, declare why you are meeting. Dignify past efforts by briefly providing the facts: the who, what, when, why. Let them know what needs attention and action today.
This statement can be part of each agenda and read by someone at the start of each meeting. The brief summary allows everyone to move as a team and step into the role of decision maker. It serves as a friendly reminder of why the group has gathered and keeps everyone focused on what is important at the moment.
There’s another way to look at it is like this. To move forward as a team, you should:
Identify purpose + Summarize steps taken + Identify desired outcome
If you want to make progress, it’s always worth taking a step or two backwards to recap.
When we moved into our new office space (across the hall from our previous location) last summer, something felt familiar.
I couldn’t exactly put my finger on what or why. I had visited the space when it was inhabited by another company, but I hadn’t spent a lot of time in there. Yet, I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that something significant had taken place in the very spot where I now work.
And then I had my ah-ha moment: My office used to be Tony’s office. You see, Tony’s work experiences have made me pause and reflect on work life at Reach Partners.
Tony was a long-term employee who worked with this other company in our building. Several years ago she requested one day off – July 10.
I recognize that granting vacation requests or personal days off can be complicated. But from what I understand about this business’s industry, mid-July wasn’t a busy time of the year. From what I knew about Tony, she was hard working and committed.
I don’t know why Tony asked for the day off, but it didn’t matter. Her boss said no. In response, Tony put in her two-weeks’ notice and left the company.
I’m sure denying the request for a day off wasn’t the only reason Tony left, but it certainly was the last straw for her.
Yes, there are rules and employee handbooks to follow. There are good reasons, as an employer, to have policies in place. There also are situations where employers and employees have to make hard choices. For example, I took off less time after my second child was born than I did when my first child arrived. Rachel once chose to fly from Minneapolis to Bismarck so she could attend a family wedding and fulfill a client obligation over the same weekend.
As at any company, Reach Partners always tries to balance the responsibilities of work with the responsibilities of personal life. Sometimes it’s easy; sometimes it’s not. Still, we believe our team is happier, healthier, and more productive when we trust our people to make decisions about their time.
Never do I want to run the kind of company that isn’t willing to consider an employee’s request for personal time. Tony’s company lost an experienced employee. I still wonder if her boss regrets his decision to deny her a day off.
In honor of Tony, we have observed July 10 as a Reach Partners holiday for several years.
This year, Tony’s Day Off will be held a day early because of some scheduling conflicts. That’s okay. What’s important is that we take a day off and recognize that sometimes the best policy is showing a little empathy and trust.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is an updated version of a post that ran July 7, 2015.