Need to Have an Honest Conversation at the Office? Cook With Your Coworkers
For GOOD’s summer issue, we wanted to facilitate an honest conversation about failure—and we had a hunch that it’d be best to host that kind of dialogue over drinks and dinner. So we worked with our friends at First Seating to make it happen in a tasty, entertaining, and meaningful way. We wanted their perspective about what it takes to truly spark a thoughtful discussion, in the office or anywhere collaboration happens.
Stale sandwiches and canned soda around the same old conference table. Sound familiar? Though corporate America is in the midst of reinventing the modern office—through workplace cocoons, chairless spaces, and office-sanctioned video games—the way colleagues get together to talk through big ideas remains largely unchanged. Enter Carolyn Sams and Isis Krause, two creative strategists and food aficionados on a mission to revolutionize the way we work—and dine—with each other.
When organizations need to shift gears, it’s time to “change the energy in these types of meetings,” they say. For Sams and Krause, that means inviting colleagues into a safe, progressive setting that allows them to feel comfortable opening up to each other. First Seating’s best sessions turn into “a mix of strategy workshop and team retreat,” they say. “We talk about the big, key questions or challenges facing an organization—who we are, where we are going, what we believe in, how we should get there—and we do so in a way that feels engaging and inspiring for everyone.”
And, according to Sams and Krause, one of the best ways to encourage that kind of mindset is to cook a meal together. Preparing food engages all the senses, and loosens people up enough to have a really meaningful conversation. But long before it’s time to plan a menu, First Seating recommends interviewing attendees in advance, informally designing and planning out possible solutions to talk through together the day of the event. “Since people have already been thinking about these ideas, they’re ready to jump in,” say Sams and Krause.
Still, “a long day of thinking and talking is hard, even with great food.” So Sams and Krause think it’s important to guide the discussion, encouraging participants to switch between different modes of thinking and interacting by moving around the space and playing hands-on games. At the end of the day, they say, the most honest conversations come out of exciting, memorable experiences. Food can help make that happen—but there’s no one way to get there.
“As entrepreneurs, there is no formula we have to follow,” they say. “Our business is proof of that.” For anyone looking to collaborate in a more authentic way, hosting a mealtime conversation is a good way to start. Don’t miss Sams’ and Krause’s tips for hosting your own meaningful meal by clicking through the slideshow above. (Plus, get a sneak peek at what it took to facilitate GOOD’s recent conversation about failure.)
All photos by Sarah Shreves
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“While we most often work with teams to talk through strategy during the workday, dinner parties have become a new way to apply our values to any collaborative occasion. This GOOD Dinner was a great example of how to host your own events."
1. Be clear about why you’re hosting this dinner.
“Before you get started, set the purpose for this event and stick to it. Dinner parties often fall into three categories: People either want to create something together (kick off something new), give feedback on an idea (host a focus group), or share stories and ideas to create a stronger sense of community. The latter was the main vision for our Failure Dinner with GOOD.”
2. Find the right mix of people, especially new and unexpected voices.
“For the Failure Dinner, the guest list needed to include diverse perspectives. But most importantly, each person needed to feel comfortable with this kind of conversation. Take the time to think through your guest list and what each person brings to the table. (And DON’T rely on big names to make the dinner feel more important.) Also, remember that the best size per table is between six and 10.”
3. Think through the skeleton of the night.
“To anticipate the entire flow of the night, we created a rough ‘playbook’: When people arrived, how we’d introduce everyone, when (and how) the dinner would be served. For example, standing together at the beginning with a cocktail and appetizers provided a window to share the vision for the night and allow people to introduce themselves to everyone… before the rest of the dinner began.”
4. Prep like you care about the conversation.
“We like designing questions that are a mix of open-ended prompts and specific call-outs to people to better spark stories. With the vision for the ‘failure’ conversation in mind, we researched and prepared a question guide to have on-hand that hit on a few key themes: success and failure in the media, building something on your own, personal support, and broader systemic challenges.”
5. Make sure everyone’s ready for the night.
“A few days before the dinner, we sent a few high-level questions for people to think about on their way over. Everyone had a chance to prepare their thoughts and know how they might best contribute to the conversation… especially since it was going to be recorded for the magazine! Pre-dinner prompts really help guests see it as more than a themed dinner, and set a great tone for the night.”
6. The secret sauce? Cook (part of) the dinner together.
“We have a theory that if people get to prepare a delicious meal together, they’ll be much more open for a deep conversation. But to not have everyone in the kitchen late into the night, prep most of the meal beforehand, and then bring the finishing touches to the meal (salad dressings, final plating) with the help of your guests. Instantly, the table will feel like a family dinner.”
7. Don’t be afraid to facilitate it.
“It might feel weird at first, but facilitating the conversation is imperative. As hosts, you’re in charge to guide the night. So once people sit down to eat at the table, start by opening up the conversation with something similar to your pre-event questions you sent along. Then prompt ideas and make connections, driving it forward. Make the conversation feel natural and listen to what’s being said.”
8. Create a menu that’s exciting (and kind of messy).
“We love making hands-on meals like summer rolls or crostini to keep the overall vibe friendly and casual. When you’re thinking through the overall experience, take into consideration everyone’s dietary restrictions. And if you have the chance, make it feel like a feast–people will want to stick around even longer if there’s great food and drink to keep enjoying.”
9. End it on a sweet note.
“Even if the conversation is going great, be respectful of people’s time and end the night before it starts feeling like it is dragging on. To give a feeling of an official ending to the night, we made ice cream sandwiches and stood out on the front porch to watch the sunset.”
10. MVP of the night: our spicy pickles. Here’s the recipe...
“Make your own batch to serve at your dinner party: In a bowl, mix ½ cup white vinegar, 1 cup sugar, 16 cloves chopped garlic, 1 TB chili flakes, and 2 bunches chopped fresh dill. Pack jars with quartered cucumbers and a few jalapeño halves, and spoon out the dill mixture on top. Fill jars with equal parts water and vinegar. Shake ‘em, fridge ‘em, and eat in a couple of days.”