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045 How Not to Bore Your Dinner Guests

Dinner party, reception, cocktail hour, fetes, mixer, soiree, luau, gala, party… All words that convey images of social gatherings, ranging from formal to informal, small to large. The labels and names of these get-togethers give an idea of what to expect.


But as we approach another holiday season filled with uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic—how to protect against Omicron? Should we postpone celebrating?—our holiday events have to adapt to the shifting landscape of pandemic-related risks and restrictions. This week's post (late today, sorry for the tardiness!) I share how to create purpose-driven, inclusive, and connected gatherings—principles that could be used when planning a social get-together or work meeting.


So this year, should we host the annual year-end luncheon in person or virtual? If in-person, should guests only include those who have been vaccinated or have a negative COVID test? If the celebration is migrating online, others who may not have been included can be invited. What about holiday work parties that may have to be canceled due to the additional pandemic-related restrictions? How do you create a year-end celebration that is meaningful for guests and worthwhile of their time? How might we package connection, belonging, and safety into our holiday convening?


Start with Why

Always start with Purpose. It is easy to jump into planning and logistics—location, menu, guest list—that hosts forget to ask why people are coming together in the first place. "Because we have always hosted a party" should not be a reason to bring people together. Wanting some revelry for the sake of the season could result in some guests at the event wondering why they were included and if they are perhaps better off at home watching Netflix.


Photo by Evelin Horvath on Unsplash

Be generous and conscious when inviting guests to the convening. Is it to bring the community closer so that neighbors know each other? Is it to show gratitude to those who provided support in the past year? In this instance, perhaps a heartfelt handwritten note would be more meaningful given current pandemic concerns. Maybe it has been a challenging year, and you'd like to reconnect with others? A potluck with those closest to you where each guest brings a dish of their choice rather than everyone fussing over to prepare a traditional scripted holiday recipe could be more appropriate. This creates a more relaxed evening for the host and sets the tone for the guests.


When we know why we are gathering people, we can be more considerate when creating the space for others to spend their time meaningfully. Purpose helps decide whether the event should be in person or online and who should be included (and excluded) from the get-together.


The size of the group will determine whether it is a dinner (ideal size is usually between six and twelve guests) or a party (ideal size ranges from twenty to thirty guests). The different purposes will drive different group sizes and different outcomes. When you have in mind what success looks like for the gathering, you will be better positioned to plan the details around it. And the more likely that guests will feel that they have spent their time well.


Create Belonging

Once the purpose and the guest list are known, create the space for belonging for the get-together. Even before guests arrive, set expectations and align guests with purpose. For online celebrations, you could foster connection by introducing guests or sending a care package related to the event's purpose. If the intention is to create space for wellbeing, the host could send a scented candle that guests could light together in their own room during the event.


Photo by Antenna on Unsplash

Perhaps the gathering is to celebrate the uniqueness of each person. An idea for a pre-game activity can be guests exchanging their favorite recipes and why. Food has a natural way of bringing people together and creating bridges. In their own homes, guests could try a recipe from a different guest before the event and share what they thought about the dish during the gathering. While the actual online event may only be an hour or two, think of ways guests can connect before and after they sign off from the platform.


In-person gatherings in pandemic times mean that hosts need to set expectations and respect everyone has different circumstances. Before coming together, what are the things that guests need to do or show up with to be mindful of COVID-related protocols? What measures need to be taken to ensure that guests feel safe participating in the event? Whether it is asking guests to test before arriving, hosting the event outdoors, preparing individual plates, or scaling down the group size, these considerations can give guests psychological safety to enjoy themselves during the convening.


Create Meaningful Meetings

The key ingredient to creating meaning and connection for gatherings is empathy. Be mindful and respectful of others' time. We can translate these principles in the workplace and have better group meetings, where participants are fully engaged, contributing, and connecting. Set out the purpose and consider if the outcomes could be better achieved through email or other communication tools such as Slack. Be respectful of the team's time. Is the purpose worthy of collective time together? Who could contribute to the outcomes and should be included?


Like hosting a social get-together, create a sense of belonging before the business meeting. What outcomes would you like to achieve? How do you see the participant contributing to the discussion? Participants should feel safe expressing views and opinions and respectfully disagree with others. The working group need not conform to a set of ideas or perspectives. Make it clear and known that diversity of thought—whether the diversity comes in the shape of not just gender and race, but also from education, age, culture, mindset, and socio-economic status—is welcomed and appreciated in the group.


Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

BetterUp, a leadership development platform, found that when employees experienced belonging at work, work performance increased by 56% and there was a 75% decrease in employee sick days. So there is business value in investing time and effort to help team members feel that they can meaningfully contribute and connect with others. Psychological safety and closeness in the workplace are critical to building a sense of belonging. But this should not be at the cost of accountability—mistakes and problems should be raised and discussed candidly.


So whether you are planning a social gathering or work meeting, start with purpose. What does success look like, and who should be included? Be mindful and respectful of people's time and set expectations before the actual convening itself. Create a sense of belonging by letting others know how they can contribute and by building connections between guests or meeting participants. With these principles, you can create a memorable and meaningful experience for those involved.

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