How do you set the table for important gatherings?

When you cultivate real conversations in a safe space, anything is possible.

CLIC ’22 Cohort #6, Daniel Island SC. Photo courtesy of Doug Media Productions.
CLIC ’22 Cohort #6, Daniel Island SC. Photo courtesy of Doug Media Productions.

Here in the USA, November marks the beginning of the Thanksgiving rush.

Stores stock their shelves with sugar-laden goodies, baking products, and titanic sized turkeys. Some of us toil (or play) in the kitchen for hours, even days, to create a memorable meal.

Others revel in setting the table, festooning it with autumn colors, name cards, and fine silverware.

Both activities set the tone for the entire day. One of my clients, Linda, spends months preparing her holiday table designs, and leaves the kitchen chores to her husband (sounds like a great partnership to me!)

The same concept applies to how we prepare our customers and teams for an important gathering. Yet it’s tempting to stuff meetings with too much content and superfluous swag.

Tell me the truth: do you really need more office supplies, another backpack, and a “bro vest?”*

What if you spent the early portion of your meeting setting the tone for deep table talk? I tried it last week and it worked beautifully.

After a 3-year COVID hiatus, we hosted the 6th CMOs Leading Innovation Conference in scenic Daniel Island, South Carolina. The cohort included CEOs and marketing leaders from across the country, with a focus on growth planning, resilience, and agile strategies in the new customer era.

CLIC ’22 Cohort #6, Daniel Island SC. Photo courtesy of Doug Media Productions.

While designing the agenda and the pre-work, I took a leap and tried a new communications method. It worked wonders, and I believe it could do the same for you.

During the past five cohorts, we left plenty of unstructured time for our group to build new connections. For CLIC ’22, I realized that the social, political, and business landscapes have dramatically changed. Most of us feel fragile; many are grieving.

Coupled with the National Institute of Health’s reported rise in mental health cases and new, untested ways of working, society looks very different than it did in 2019 (which was the year of our last in-person national conference). Anxiety, burnout, panic attacks, addiction, and political malaise have dealt a heavy blow. It hasn’t eased yet.

Casual networking is not enough to help us build a new future. We need to set a trusting table that allows deep, important conversations to flourish.

Let me share a tool that facilitates these conversations. It’s called The Third Vault. I learned this process at The Modern Elder Academy (MEA). Last month, I spent 8 glorious days in Baja, capturing countless ahas! Here’s our cohort, named Mudita. (a Buddhist term meaning “finding joy in other people’s joy.”)

Modern Elder Academy Cohort #75, October 2022. Photo courtesy of Chip Conley.

My dear friend and MEA co-founder, Chip Conley, introduced the 3 Vaults to our group. Chip attributes the concept to two-time Super Bowl champion, Aaron Taylor, who believes in cultivating “third vault” conversations:

First Vault conversations happen when we first meet someone. We tell them what we do. We highlight our education. We share something about where we live.

Most of us have mastered the art of small talk. It’s icebreaking in search of common ground, and it requires little to no heavy emotional lifting.

Second Vault conversations include anecdotes and stories that make us look smart. We might even include a family of origin story in our Second Vault.

Here’s my personal example. In my first book, I describe how I met my former husband. He was initially my flight instructor. I studied out of a small, scrappy flight school in Connecticut on evenings and weekends while maintaining a full-time manager position. He helped me earn my private pilot’s license within eight months.

Third Vault conversations sound quite different. These include present moment comments that show our souls. We reveal what makes us different, and what makes us the same. We feel safe sharing our hopes, dreams, fears, and joys. Unlike the trappings of fame, fortune and frills, Third Vault conversations help us connect from the inside out, not the outside in. These happen often when I’m providing CEO coaching or advising our CMO members.

I initiated this concept during our CLIC ’22 introductory circle. Dr. Tonya Watkins, CEO of the International African American Museum, welcomed us for a private VIP museum tour. This hallowed ground, built beside Gadsden’s Wharf, was the ideal location to introduce the concept. I then let it marinate with the group overnight.

The next morning, we gathered in a circle again at Blackbaud’s beautiful corporate offices. As we went around the circle, we asked every person to answer: “What you really don’t know about me is…”

People listened deeply. Nobody stared at their phones or bragged about how many prestigious companies they worked for. The first two vaults melted away.

They exchanged stories of love, family loss during COVID, mental health challenges, inspiring acts of service, and fear of the unknown.

One more pro tip: Third Vault conversations work better with a talking stick. I brought a beautiful piece of Baja driftwood to our circle. Instead of perfecting our message in advance, the stick allowed us to pause and speak more from the heart. Don’t ask me how it works; it just does!

This process changed the conference planning and programming game for me. When you cultivate real conversations in a safe space, anything is possible.

I’ll share more CLIC ’22 takeaways soon. I have endless pages of notes, examples, and stories to share from these innovative leaders!

For now, I’m standing back, soaking in the beauty of the table. And I’m grateful.

** I recently heard this slang term during a Pivot podcast (I’m a Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway fangirl). I could not stop laughing. Most of us know it as a fleece vest, made popular by finance and technology executives.

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