Being a great host often means having a clean and comfortable home, pulling off a delicious meal, and keeping the wine flowing. But as any truly great host will tell you, it’s about much more than food and wine.
What makes a dinner party one to truly cherish is the conversation and the experience of being at your table.
Conversation isn’t often on our dinner party prep checklists. It’s something many of us hope, or even expect, will flow naturally among our guests. But in reality, many people find it challenging to move past small talk, even with those whom we know well. And yet, we all crave connection.
Part of the reason we gather is to feel connected, and to share an experience with others. The conscious experience at a dinner table is one in which we feel comfortable and relaxed, engaged and interested, and invited to share a piece of ourselves with others. This kind of experience is truly a gift to your guests and will keep them coming back for more every time.
So what can you do as a host to set the stage for conscious conversation at your table? Here are a few ideas for your next gathering, based on tried and true tips that we’ve developed from hosting over fifty dinner parties for both friends and strangers around the world.
1. Provide a bit of structure.
When guests arrive, welcome them warmly by name. Giving your full attention to each guest upon his or her arrival will likely be a welcomed change from the hustle and bustle of wherever they were before. Guests unconsciously look to their hosts for what to do next. So when someone arrives, share a bit about how the evening will flow. Invite them to grab a drink here, make yourself comfortable there, and let them know that you’ll gather at the table around 7:30pm, for example.
Once guests have all arrived, we like to welcome everyone as a group. Give everyone a picture of the evening, including what’s on the menu and even the topic for conversation.
We even created to a tool to spark authentic and meaningful conversation. Convers(ate) is a tabletop game that sets the stage with a simple framework, a variety of topics, and thoughtfully crafted questions so that you can relax and enjoy the conversation experience. Some of our favorite topics for the holiday season include gratitude, time, and joy. In fact, we often like to share a topic for conversation in advance of the gathering. It gets people thinking, and gives your dinner table conversation a direction and purpose.
2. Encourage a whole table conversation.
So often, dinner parties lend themselves to several conversations at a common table, rather than a single conversation engaging everyone. So at your table, change things up by encouraging a group conversation. Once seated, invite each guest to introduce themselves one at a time. Even if you’ve gathered a friends who know each other well, an icebreaker question can be fun way to bring everyone together as a group.
The simple act of speaking one at a time for introductions provides an opportunity for the group to focus on each person for just a few moments. It sets the stage beautifully for conscious conversation to follow. Continue your whole table conversation by introducing the topic for your conversation. Anchoring the conversation in a topic provides a starting point for your guests, while also allowing them to explore their own curiosities about the topic and each other.
3. Ask better questions by tapping into your innate curiosity.
Great questions lead to great conversations. As the host, if you kick off the conversation with a great question, you’ll immediately engage your guests in an elevated conversation. Our question sets usually begin with a big, open-ended question that asks what the topic means to each person at the table.
Questions that begin with “who” or “what” will invite sharing and depth.
For example, when the topic of conversation is time, we start with a question like, “What is your favorite way to waste time?” or “Where do you think the expression ‘time flies’ came from?” Once you open the door with an initial broad question, ask a follow up question to learn more. For example, if someone answers that their favorite way to waste time is to read, ask how they developed their love of reading. By following your curiosity, you’ll invite more authenticity from each of your guests and build connections for everyone at the table.
4. Put your phone down and invite others to do the same.
Presence may be the most important ingredient for conscious conversation, and it’s unfortunately rare these days to give people our full attention. Sometimes it’s something nagging in your mind; sometimes it’s your mobile phone lighting up to signal the arrival of an email or the latest “like”. It can be fun to encourage everyone to take the plunge toward a technology free dinner, by inviting guests to “check their mobile phones” in a box on your coffee table.
Most importantly, remember the gift of experience this holiday season and focus on giving your guests a rich experience that they’ll remember for years to come.
Taylor and Mollie are the creators of Convers(ate), a dinner table game designed to spark more authentic and meaningful conversations. The product was fully funded on Kickstarter, and will be retail ready in early 2018.
Photos by: Amy Hulst