Nowhere is puffed-up phoniness more palpable than at conferences. Nowhere else is the chance to have conversations across borders, identities, and professions so often wasted. Nowhere else are so many people with the influence to change things so frequently brought together, only for the resulting conversations to remain on the surface. They lurk there because everyone is presenting the best self they think others expect to meet.
If you had to pick the setting where this “conference self” is at its worst, you might well choose the meetings of the World Economic Forum, an organization that convenes the world’s rich and powerful several times a year, most famously in Davos, Switzerland.
Which is why, a few years ago, a colleague and I set out to see if we could create an anti-WEF on the sidelines of a WEF event—by inducing people trained to present themselves as perfectly baked loaves to bring dough worth sharing instead.
The event we decided to infect with our gathering ideas was an annual WEF conclave in the United Arab Emirates, a couple of months before the major event in Davos. The purpose of this earlier conference is, in part, to surface ideas and agendas for Davos. The people chosen to join these “councils” are invited because of their accomplishments and their strengths, not because of their vulnerability. For this reason, the meetings, and even the dinners and coffee breaks, can become like show-off sessions, with round after round of one-upmanship.
I had been invited that year to join the WEF Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership, whose focus was to understand and create an in-depth dialogue about the “profound shift in the context in which leadership takes place and in what it takes to flourish as a leader.” Specifically, the council felt that changes in the world were “opening up a new leadership space.” It said that space was defined by, among other things, “the emotional capacity of the leader (values, courage, self-awareness, authenticity)” as well as “the extent and depth of their social relationships and networks.” Perhaps because of this focus, many of us on the council were struck by how the WEF’s culture made it hard for leaders to develop along these dimensions. A colleague of mine on the council, a German marketing executive named Tim Leberecht, and I wondered if an experiment could change that.
Our experiment involved gathering differently. We suggested throwing a small dinner the night before the conference began, with members from various other WEF councils. Our goal was both simple and very complicated: to get people to turn off their networking engines and elevator pitches and get them to connect—humanly, authentically.
But how do you create an intimate dinner at a networking event?
At first, we focused on the normal preparations: We booked a private room in a restaurant. We invited fifteen guests from various councils, many of whom we did not know but who intrigued us. To help focus the evening, we chose a theme: “a good life.”
The night before the dinner, I had trouble sleeping. While we had spent so much time mastering every other detail, down to choosing the opening welcome drink, we hadn’t given much thought to the actual structure of the conversation. We were winging it. I wanted to make something intimate. But I had not actually designed for intimacy.
I put my facilitator hat on and started to think about potential structures, brainstorming with my mother and husband.
What if, instead of just introducing the theme of “a good life,” we asked each guest, at some point in the night, to give a toast to “a good life,” whatever that phrase means to them? OK, that was good. But what if people just waxed on and on about some grandiose idea of theirs?
Another idea: What if we asked them to start their toasts with a personal story or experience from their own life? We were making progress. But this was a lot to ask of people.
Then came the clincher: What if we made the last person sing their toast? I laughed when my husband proposed this, but he was serious. It would set a brisk pace for the evening and add some nice risk.
That evening, the guests arrived, not knowing what to expect, but people seemed intrigued and excited to be there. They were senior advisers to presidents, CEO types, journalists, entrepreneurs, and activists. We were split relatively equally by gender. The ages ranged from our early twenties to our eighties. People hailed from half a dozen different countries.
When we sat down, I raised my glass and thanked everyone for coming. I introduced myself and Leberecht. We described the theme and our reasons for wanting to hold this dinner. We explained the rules, including the singing rule. And, at last, we began.
The first three toasts went quickly: The first toaster drew from the well of her own story to talk about a good life as a life with choices. (“To choice!”) The second toaster spoke of her work in disaster-relief efforts and, as she did, became emotional.
Her toast showed the group that it was acceptable to be human when you care deeply about something. In the third toast, a man talked about three elements he thought made a good life: to work for oneself, to work for others, and to have fun. He ended his toast by saying, “Two out of three ain’t bad.” Someone then burst into song, singing: “Two out of three ain’t bad!” Everyone started laughing. (“To two out of three!”) The group was starting to relax.
At that point there was a lull, and we took a break to eat and chat with the people around us. I began to think about what I was going to say. I had a distinct advantage going into the dinner, as I had known the theme in advance. I had a toast idea in mind. In that moment, though, I realized that I wasn’t really taking a risk with that toast. An image came to mind of a good life, and it was a moment from when I was eleven. Then I thought: I can’t share that with this group. My heart started pounding, a sign that I tend to interpret as saying, Do it. I took a breath, hands shaking, and clinked my glass. People seemed surprised that I was going to go so early in the evening.
I began with the idea that a good life is about seeing and being seen, and launched into a very personal story about a time when I had felt seen. This is roughly what I can remember of what I shared:
When I was eleven years old, I got my period. I was sleeping over at a friend’s house in Maryland and wasn’t sure how to react. I didn’t tell my friend, but went home the next day and told my mother. I was at an age where a lot of my beliefs and judgments about things came from other people’s reactions, and I watched hers closely. When she heard, she hooted and hollered and lifted me up and swung me around, laughing with joy. She then danced all over the house celebrating. I learned that day, from her reaction, that being a woman was something to be celebrated. But she didn’t stop there. Two weeks later, my mother threw me a period party.
People at the table began to laugh and clap in delight. Even the men, to my great relief. I continued. I shared the story of my period party as I could remember it:
She invited her female friends rather than mine, all older women who had passed through this important transition of womanhood themselves. I received presents from each woman. One guest gave me my first pair of pink lace underwear, because one of her favorite things about being a woman was “opening the underwear drawer and seeing a splash of color.” They sang me songs, including my mother’s favorite two songs: “On Children,” by Sweet Honey in the Rock, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Teach Your Children.” That day, I knew I mattered. I was seeing, and I was being seen. I was being witnessed. And to me, that was a good life. And a small surprise for you all: My mother is here with us, sitting right over there.
My mother happened to be on another council at the forum. Because we have different last names, no one knew we were related. Everyone was stunned to realize that a woman who was sitting at the table, someone they might have known only as a World Bank expert on poverty, was also a mother who had designed a period party for her daughter. I was still shaking from telling such a vulnerable story, but I thought, What the hell, hoping it would crack others open.
The wine flowed and the toasts continued. One woman shared her mother’s words on her deathbed: “I spent 90 percent of my time worrying about things that didn’t matter. Don’t do that.”
Once the topic of death was introduced, I noticed it showing up in several other toasts. After all, thinking about what makes a good life implies thinking about life ending, about it being of limited quantity. Another person now said in her toast that she was going to tell us something “weird” she does every morning, something she’s never told others about. Every morning, she does a “death meditation,” in which she imagines she has died, sees all the people she loves and all she’s left behind in this world, and just hovers over the scene, watching. She then wiggles her fingers and toes and comes back, deeply grateful to be alive, perhaps a little more aware of what she values. It turned out that, for her, part of having and savoring a good life was keeping aware of death. She then raised her glass and toasted something like “To death!,” signaling she was done. “To death!” we replied, glasses in the air.
As the night went on, tears welled more and more in the eyes of people speaking and the eyes of people listening. Not because they were sad, but because they were moved. Over the course of the evening, people stood up, one after another, and over and over again we heard some version of “I have no idea what I’m going to say” or “I hadn’t planned on saying this” or “I’ve never said this out loud before.” People dropped their scripts.
One man pointed out that certain superheroes wear their underwear outside their costumes. We laughed. It was a perfect metaphor for what we attempted that night—and what I am challenging you to cultivate in your gatherings. And, yes, at last, the final person sang. He closed his toast with a Leonard Cohen song. A line about cracks allowing for light shimmered over a room that had, for one moment, practiced letting go of that most consuming of worries.
It was a moving, beautiful night. All these people whose titles usually enter the room before they do left their egos at the door. They showed us fresh, raw, honest sides of themselves. The dinner pointed to what was possible at gatherings like this.
After that moving evening in Abu Dhabi, we decided to take our format on the road. We called it 15 Toasts, after the number of people around that inaugural table, and we scouted for other stuffy gatherings that could use an injection of human feeling.
One or both of us, and even some former attendees who felt comfortable facilitating, went on to host 15 Toasts dinners on the sidelines of events in South Carolina, Denmark, South Africa, Canada, and elsewhere. And everywhere it went, the format invited people to remove their masks and begin to really see each other.
This article has been adapted from “The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.” It has been published with permission from Riverhead Books.