Gathering as a Form of Leadership
Syndicated from, Sep 19, 2019

44 minute read


December 18, 2018

Tami Simon: This program is brought to you buy At, you can find hundreds of downloadable audio learning programs plus books, music, videos, and online courses and events. At, we think of ourselves as a trusted partner on the spiritual journey, offering diverse, in-depth, and life-changing wisdom.

You're listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Priya Parker. Priya is a facilitator and strategic advisor. She's the founder of Thrive Labs, at which she helps activists, elected officials, corporate executives, educators, and philanthropists create transformative gatherings. She works with teams and leaders across technology, business, the arts, fashion, and politics to clarify their vision for the future and build meaningful, purpose-driven communities. Here's my conversation with someone who really understands how creating intentional gatherings can be a powerful form of leadership, Priya Parker:

Priya, welcome to Insights at the Edge. Thank you so much for making the time for this conversation.

Priya Parker: Thank you for having me.

TS: It's my sense—and I've heard this from several Sounds True authors—that we're living in a time in North America where many, many people are experiencing an epidemic of loneliness, feeling in some way lonely and disconnected. I wonder what you think about that.

PP: I think it's absolutely true. The former [surgeon] general declared a crisis of loneliness. People are writing about it left and right—that at a time where ironically we have more tools than ever before to connect us digitally, the quality with which we connect and the assumptions that are baked into the design of those technologies as to what connection means—what a like means, what a friend is, what our life looks like, or at least the side that we show online—is actually leading to not just loneliness, but also increased levels of social anxiety and depression. And at the center of a lot of it: a lack of connection, a feeling of isolation.

TS: Now, you've been mentioning in this response about technology and social media and how that gives us the illusion of feeling connected and contacted, but perhaps emotionally we don't actually feel connected and contacted. Besides social media use and how technology is playing this role in our lives of helping us feel—I guess you could say—connected but not contacted (would be my language), what else do you think are the factors that have created this crisis of loneliness?

PP: I think in addition to social technology, I think another force is technology, and not meaning social media. But with the ease of being able to order anything online, we're trading efficiency for community. Some community is intentional, and that's the type of community I write about in The Art of Gathering. But a lot of community is actually informal. So, going to the grocery store, going to the dry cleaners; going to the places, public or private, that you go for one specific need, which might be to get your lettuce, and we'd run into people on the way. We used to go—frankly—to the library, and now there are a lot of ways that we can consume content. We used to go to the movie theaters, and now we can watch Netflix at home. Part of this always on-demand economy is also making us not bump into people or to collide into people—to use [inaudible] language—anymore.

And then I think a third element is we are really, really, really busy. This kind of culture of busyness, this culture of "always on," not just for technology, [but] the number of hours Americans are working. The desire to multitask all of the time. Our distraction levels have gone through the roof.

There's studies that show that in any conversation now between people, the number of times we make eye contact with each other has gone down, in part because we're doing other things at the same time. Yes, looking at our phone, but also kind of have prioritized the values of productivity over the values of connection.

TS: Those are all very interesting forces at work. Thank you for that. Now, my question to you is you've written this book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, and I want to talk some about your work with creating transformative and meaningful gatherings. But before we get there, how do you think people can start addressing this crisis of loneliness in their life even before they're getting groups of people together or going to gatherings—just in a one-to-one way, making contact with people who we live with or with people at work. What do you think some of the antidotes are for this loneliness?

PP: I think the first is to do less. It's very difficult to feel deeply when you're a machine, frankly. And to begin thinking very consciously about how do you spend your time with who. And then when you're with them, how? I think a second thing—we'll go back to technology. There's been studies that have recently shown just among teenagers and middle schoolers—that different social media outlets lead to different levels of anxiety. Interestingly, I recently saw a study in Jonathan Haidt's new work that showed that Instagram is the worst of the five in terms of increasing anxiety and increasing unhappiness and depression levels, in part because of the ways that we show ourselves on Instagram—and the kind of the addictive, almost lottery-style design element of constantly checking if people have liked your post.

So, part of it is also intentionally using technology or not using it. And then I think the third is asking when you are spending time with people one on one, "How do I create an environment—how do I connect with people in a meaningful way?"

For me, I've always been primarily interested in meaning-making through conversation. There are many, many, many forms of making meaning. You know: dance and photography, and a lot of other kind of forms. But for me, I've always been fascinated about how you can connect with people through words.

TS: Let's go right there in terms of one to one—making meaning through conversation. Interestingly, you and I are making meaning right now through conversation.

PP: Absolutely.

TS: At least it's working for me. I hope it's working for you.

PP: Absolutely.

TS: How do I do that even more, especially when I'm making meaning through conversation with members of my family and I feel defended, and I'm not sure I really want to be close to the? Or other people at work where [we] have certain masks, perhaps, that we're wearing because there are roles we're playing in each other's lives? What are some of the tips for one-to-one making meaning through conversation?

PP: Start with purpose. I mean, start with—whether it's a family member or whether it's a colleague—in each moment, particularly when you plan to see them, "What is it in this moment that I want to get out of this meeting? What do I want to give? How do I want to show up?" If it's with a family member, if you're playing a specific role and you keep going over the same fight or role over and over and over again, and it's not serving you anymore, change the pattern. I'll give an example from my own life.

I—probably like many listeners—have complicated relationships with some members of my family. One of the dynamics that I was getting into with my father was that when we would get together—me as an adult—it was a complicated dynamic because of the other relationships involved on both sides of our families. We kept basically getting into these same stuck roles.

Long story short, I invited him . . . he lives in Washington. I live in New York. I invited him to meet me in Philadelphia once a month, and we call it "the Philadelphia day." It was on kind of neutral territory, if you will. Like, not in his home, not in mine. We'd take the bus down or up, or the train, and meet and spend eight hours together kind of roaming the city. Sitting in parks, going to—once I had a child, going to a playground, doing very simple stuff. Going to a public museum.

It completely changed our dynamic. It took us out of this always specific role that we would play into when there was other context of other relationships that were involved. And so, some of it is just thinking very specifically about how [you] meet people in a context where you don't have to play the same role that you always play.

TS: That's helpful. What about in a work environment, where you want to have more contact with people but you're not quite sure how to go about it? More meaningful contact.

PP: I always think about gatherings. But I think asking people questions that aren't necessarily always on the nose. So, not necessarily about work, but asking people questions about themselves. Part of being at work is wanting to be seen for who you are, and many of us have many complicated sides—sides that are kind of complex and paradoxical. Asking people questions about other parts of their life. That doesn't have to be totally intrusive, but get them to show you a side of them that you may not know.

Maybe somebody's a beekeeper on the side. Maybe they volunteered for the Peace Corps 30 years ago. You never know that. Getting people to tell stories about themselves, particularly stories about their younger selves, tends to allow for much more meaningful conversation. I mean, I guess the simple point is ask people for their stories rather than their opinions.

TS: Now, one thing I'm curious what you think about is risk-taking in conversation as a way to create more contact and more meaning, and risks that you take in conversations.

PP: A lot of recent research that's now coming out—you know, Brené Brown—as part of this wave is showing that intimacy is created in part through vulnerability. Vulnerability is one form of risk. There's other forms of risk. You can take physical risks. You can take psychological risks. Risk can be through actually broaching subjects you don't want to talk about—the subjects we avoid. But basically when you start kind of lowering your water level, if you will, of what you're willing to show and share about yourself to others, others typically mirror it.

Part of risk taking—one of the people that I interviewed for this book is a woman named Ida Benedetto. She calls herself "a transgression consultant." She literally helps people take risks, cross boundaries, cross borders. She does it primarily through creating group experiences.

I asked her, "What can we learn from you as we think about doing this and creating this in our own lives?" She said, "Before every experience that I design, I ask four questions. I say first: what is this group avoiding? Number two: what is the gift in helping them face it? Number three: what is the risk? Number four: is the gift worth the risk?"

TS: Those are good questions. Now, I'm going to be a little vulnerable with you here for a moment, Priya—which is I've done hundreds and hundreds of interviews at this point. I feel comfortable asking edgy questions, if you will. I mean, this program's called Insights at the Edge. Within my own personal life, I've had a couple of instances where I've sat down with people and I've started talking to them, and I've asked them a few questions, and it's been like, "Whoa, you are getting under my skin. Back off, babe. You have no right to be asking me that question right now. This is not an interview." Or something like that. I've gotten some negative feedback over the years.

So, I'm curious what you think about that—when maybe asking certain transgressive questions . . . even though at the time I didn't think they were particularly transgressive. I thought it was just something I was curious about. But not everybody's interested in that.

PP: Not everybody's interested in that. Those aren't your people.

I mean, what I would say to you is whether it's with your podcast or the rest of your work, to always to come back to purpose and to say, "Well, what is my purpose? What can I uniquely do? What is a need in this world that I might have the passion and capacity to address?" One of the needs, it sounds like, is to have more meaningful conversation and to take risks. That doesn't mean it will always go well. That doesn't mean that everybody is for you. But part of (I think) sticky conversations, sticky podcasts, places that have passionate sub-communities, passionate followers—there are places and questions and ways of being that are disputable. They're specific. They're not for everybody.

And so, at some level if you're not upsetting—I don't know—a certain percentage of the people that you talk to over a lifetime, I would say that you haven't found your specificity and your disputability. Obviously the pendulum can swing too far. But if the discomfort you're creating is connected to your sense of intentional purpose with integrity, I would say you're probably moving in the right direction.

TS: You've used this interesting word—finding your "disputability." Tell me what you mean by that, and why that's a positive thing.

PP: I think that—this is true in brands; this is absolutely true in gatherings—that at some level if you are for everybody, you are for nobody. So, in Barack Obama's first book, one of the things that one of his great aunts tells him when he goes to visit Kenya—she says something like, "The problem with your father . . ." his father [was] Kenyan but thought of [himself] as a global citizen. He says, "Your father basically thinks that everybody is family." The problem when everybody is family is that nobody is family.

What she meant by that was that to have an in you kind of have to have some amount of out. There has to be some level of, "Who is this for?"

So, I'll give a specific example. In gatherings, one of the things that I've found as I interviewed people who create wild, specific, transgressive, transformative experiences for other people around the world—almost all of them created gatherings that it was very clear that they were for some people, and these gatherings absolutely were not for some people. They were comfortable with excluding, but not excluding based on bias or race or religion. Exclusion based on purpose.

So, I'll give an example. I was talking to a writer. Her name's Jancee Dunn. She was supposed to host a dinner party. Actually, she was on assignment. She spoke to me and she said, "How do I host a better dinner party?" I said, "Well, do it around a specific need in your life that's disputable." She said, "Well, what do you mean?" So, I said, "Well, what's something in your life you're currently going through?" She said, "Well, I'm a worn-out mom. I'm exhausted. Someone gave me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich the other day, and it was cut into triangles. I ate it and I cried." I said, "Why did you cry?" She said, "Well, because I realized that I am always in the role of caretaker, but I'm kind of exhausted." I said, "Great. Let's build on that. What if you held a dinner for other worn-out moms?" She was like, "I love it."

"Great. Give it a name. The Worn-Out Moms Hootenanny." "OK, great!" "Give it rule: if you talk about your kids, you have to take a shot." "OK!"

She actually did this. She sent out an email to six of her other worn-out moms. She called it "The Worn-Out Moms Hootenanny." People responded within an hour. Everyone responded "yes." They did takeout because everyone was worn out. It was this beautiful, fun, hilarious night.

It was specific, right? It was for worn-out moms. It was disputable. That night wasn't for dads. That night wasn't for non-mothers. That night: if you don't drink, too bad.

I'm being a little facetious here, but part of an ability to be seen and part of an ability to get people excited and to kind of let people laugh a bit and say like, "Huh? That's interesting," is to have a point of view. It's to be disputable. It's to not please everybody all of the time.

The lens I look at this is through gatherings, because I think one of the most powerful things around gatherings is you can host anything anytime, and it's a temporary moment in time that fits a temporary need that will pass—which means you can have it be about something else next time. But part of the reasons I think so many of our gatherings are kind of boring is because we're afraid to be disputable.

TS: OK. Now, I want to go into an area that I think is a bit fraught. We're going to talk more about gatherings that I can put on and I can create the purpose—or the listener can here—and magnetize the in-people. But what about when I'm going to a family gathering? I want to talk about this, Priya, because this conversation is broadcasting right before the holidays, when I think many people will be going to family gatherings. They feel out, but they actually would like to be in—something like that, going along with what you're saying about in and out. I want to be accepted. What's my purpose for going to the family gathering? Love with my family. How am I going to do that? Probably by keeping my mouth shut, I think. Or something like that.

But anyway: what would be your advice for how can I make a family gathering meaningful when there's a lot of ways that maybe I'm not sure being authentic is going to work?

PP: Every family is different. What is that great—I'm going to butcher this Tolstoy line. "Happy families are all the same, but each unhappy family is unique." Or . . . a much better phrase than that.

So, it depends on the family. In my experience, families, more than perhaps any other type of group, have specific roles where people tend to get stuck in—mother, father, daughter, sister, brother—and that have been baked in as part of their identity over long periods of time.

So, changing gatherings when people are so embodied into their roles, even over-stuck into their roles, can be very difficult. What I've seen from a family perspective, when families have changed their patterns, it rarely happens in the room. It happens well before when one or two family members talk offline, well ahead of time, and begin to have a conversation—but just like you and I are having right now, which is, "Do you think we could do it differently this year? What do you think? Do you think people would be up for it if we X or if we Y?" Basically one month out or one week out, or frankly sometimes a few hours before, basically say, like, "Let's try something new this year."

One of the experiences that I've seen—my background is in conflict resolution, as in group conflict resolution. I had a mentor named Randa Slim, who's a Middle East expert. She's a Lebanese-American. She always used to say to me before we'd go into these high stakes dialogues—kind of closed room with leaders from different regions in the world—she'd always say, "Priya, 90 percent of the success that happens in this room happens well before we even step inside the room."

In her case, it was quite extreme. She spent two years kind of priming the participants, getting them ready to come in. In this case, it was leaders from Arab opposition parties and leaders in Europe and leaders in the US. There's all sorts of reasons they didn't want to come together or shouldn't come together.

Not that families are warring parties in the Middle East, but part of the insight is in the moment it's very difficult to throw people off their scripts and throw people off their roles—in part because if you throw one person off their role, everybody else then gets shaky. In family therapy, part of the huge innovation in the field of individual therapy was that therapists began to realize that when one person healed from addiction or from another ailment and went back into the "family system," they would either relapse or—strangely, sometimes—the symptoms would come up in another part of the family, and in part because the system itself didn't know how to be not in that equilibrium.

And so, all of that to say with your listeners—you know, I deal with this myself—to find an ally in the family and ask ahead of time, "Hey! What if we did this this year?"

I'll give an example. One of the people I spoke with, who I admire—a gathering that he started called The Moth. His name is George Dawes Green. Are you familiar with The Moth?

TS: No.

PP: So, it's a series of storytelling nights around the world. They also have a podcast, started (I think) over 20 years ago. They're in dozens and dozens of cities around the world. Basically he is a poet and he used to go to poetry readings. He found them kind of inauthentic. He realized that the parts that people were really interested in the poetry nights were when the poet was kind of clearing her throat to explain the poem and say, "You know, this next poem I wrote actually began because my father used to take me on these fishing trips at five in the morning. We'd put our boots on." The whole audience would kind of lean in to this story. Then the person would start the poem, and it was this sort of performative, lack of connection moment.

He said, "Why don't we just create a night where the entire night is just those first five minutes?" Right? The story.

And so, a Moth night is everybody—I think there's 10 story spots. You get 5 to 10 minutes to tell a story. They choose a theme. So, like "irony" or "rallying the troops" or "identity" or anything. If you want to tell a story—this is for the public nights. If you want to tell a story, you put your name in a hat. There's usually an MC for the night. They pick out 10 names and you go up on stage in front of a bunch of strangers, and you tell a story of your life.

George was going to have a family reunion, and I think 80 or 100 members were coming—an extended family reunion. His sister said, "You know, rather than just playing games in the front yard, as we often do, how can we actually meaningfully connect this family? What if we took this model of a Moth night and did it for our family? Give everybody who wants to five minutes to tell a story of what does it mean to be Green?" That's his last name.

They rented out a little hall in the town that they decided to meet in. Eighty members piled in. Everybody—as he told it, from his nephew to a great uncle; who lived all over the country—got five minutes to take the stage in front of family members that they knew very well and family members they hadn't seen in years, and tell one small story for them [about] what it meant to be a Green.

I loved this story because, one, in advance people kind of were on board with it or decided this is cool. But also, here's a collective kind of almost tribal moment, where a 12-year-old may say, "You know, I was in middle school and such and such happened, and I responded this way, and that's what it means to be a Green," and someone halfway across the country smiles and says, "That is what it means to be a Green."

TS: That's a great example. I'm wondering if you have any other examples for people who are getting ready to go to a family gathering and they're thinking, "You know, I'm going to call my brother or sister before I go. Let's try this experiment at our upcoming gathering."

PP: Yes. Another one that I love is called 15 Toasts. It's an experiment I started with a collaborator of mine named Tim Leberecht. Here's how it works:

I've used this with my family. I'm half Indian, half white American. I've used this with my Indian family when we got together—my extended family and my husband's extended family. So, I have tried it with family.

Basically you choose a theme that feels relevant. It can be anything from "a good life"—like, "What is a good life?"—to "tradition," to "identity," to "home" or "belonging." Anything under the sun.

The rules are at some point in the night—explain this to everybody either in advance or at the night, depending on the context of your family—you ding a glass and you stand up old-school style, and you give a toast to that theme. But the toast isn't your opinion about that theme. It's a story or an experience from sometime in your life that ideally no one in the room has heard before. In a family, this is actually really important. We have dozens of stories that we've never shared with our family. I mean, a life is a long thing. You share a story or an experience related to the theme, and the only other rule is that the last person has to sing their toast.

So, that definitely speeds the night along. But it also gives people some kind of focus [and structure], while also allowing a night of family members—rather than judging so-and-so's choices or getting into politics—to talk around it, but in a meaningful way.

The other thing that I learned from a friend a long time ago is when you actually finally give your toast, not to toast to a person but to toast to a value. So, say you give a story of, "You know, I was in summer camp and I . . ." This is a real story. I was in summer camp when I first moved to the US. My father's American, but I was born in Zimbabwe. And so, I was born an American citizen, but I moved to the US when I was five, and I moved and I had an accent. But I didn't know that.

I was at summer camp and somebody came up to me and said, "You have an accent." They said it in a negative way. I ran home and I said to my father, "I have an accent," and I was crying. He looked at me and he said, "Priya, everybody has an accent." I thought, "Huh. Oh." What he meant—though they have an American or Tucsonian accent or an Arizonian accent—you happen to have a slight Indonesian accent. He completely reframed for me what it means to carry something with you.

And so, if I told that story, rather than at the end saying, "To my dad," and everyone says, "To Priya's dad," I would say, "To reframing," or, "To accents," or, "To owning a part of yourself that you thought you were embarrassed by." Part of the switch is everybody can relate to a value. When you toast to a value, people can see themselves in it. Whereas when you toast to a person, it depends on how you feel about that person. [Laughs.]

TS: Now, this gathering format—15 Toasts—came out of a specific situation you were in, and then you were having a creative response. Can you share the story of how this format came into being?

PP: I was part of a council at the World Economic Forum, and every year—the more famous gathering is Davos. About six months beforehand, they gather members of 90 councils, often in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, to come together and work on whatever their topic is. Mine happened to be "new models of leadership" one year, and one year was "values." What I realized in these conferences is amazing people were in the room—people at the top of their field or exploring some extreme element on the fringe of a community in terms of scientific discovery. Really interesting stuff.

But the dynamic of the room was to spin your story like a press secretary—sort of talk about the best part of yourself, and in a way sell yourself. We began this conversation about loneliness. I'd felt very lonely. I didn't feel like I was connecting in a meaningful way with people. I felt kind of exhausted by the entire experience. And so, we—a friend and I who had done some work before together—both happened to be going to this thing. We thought, "What if we hacked the system a bit? What if we hosted a gathering the night before that inverted the norms of always talking about yourself in this self-congratulatory way or reading off your resume? Could we create a dynamic with the same people where we're actually vulnerable together and explore the parts of ourselves that we're still baking—not the fully baked parts? What if we could do something where people were invited to give their sprout speeches rather than their stump speeches—rather than their elevator pitches?"

So, we invited 15 people from these different councils. Part of the hypothesis was if there's all of these different councils, let's invite one person from each because if they can be changed by this gathering, maybe they could take some of that fairy dust, if you will, into the main room the next day. We chose a theme. In that case, we chose "a good life," because—not "the good life," but, "What is a good life?" We think [that] is an interesting question. We've actually done some work on it before, so we were both comfortable with it. [We] invited people to come, and it was a private space so that other people at a restaurant couldn't overhear this sort of vulnerable conversation.

We told people at the beginning of the night these rules. What was so beautiful about it was very early on, it's very difficult to kind of talk about a good life without thinking about death. What does it mean to live well? Well, part of it is life is short and you have to kind of realize that. As different people shared different parts of themselves—and I remember one person . . .

The rules of the dinner are Chatham House Rules. So, you can share people's stories and talk about the experience, but not attribute it to anybody. So, I'm not breaking any rules here.

But one woman shared that every morning—she literally said, "You know, I've never actually told anybody this before, but every morning I do a death meditation." What is that? She was a young woman.

She said, "Well, it's sort of like It's a [Wonderful] Life—you know, the movie. I imagine that I'm . . . I close my eyes, I breathe, and I imagine that I've died and that I'm looking at all of the people I love, and all of the things that I love of this planet, but particularly all the people I love. I look at each of them and I feel so deeply grateful. Then I wiggle my fingers and my toes and I come back into the room and I think, 'Wow. I'm alive.'"

I mean, in a sort of professional context, to share something like that was riveting. She clearly felt safe enough to share it. We talked about vulnerability earlier. People then started sharing other . . . some people were sharing things that their mother shared with them on their death bed—their final words.

At some level, we created a safe space. We invited them in. Some people, shared toasts that weren't as vulnerable. That was totally great as well. But we inverted the norms, where all of a sudden to actually share the parts of ourselves that aren't as fully tied together became kind of the currency of cool in the context of the gathering. We left that night feeling moved and alive and connected to each other. To this day, if I see any of those people, there's this very special bond, and it was one night.

TS: I'm curious: other questions, prompts that you've thrown into 15 Toasts, and what's worked really well, and maybe if you could also share what hasn't worked so well. What fell a little flat?

PP: We've tried this kind of process and methodology now in a lot of different contexts. We've probably had 40 or more 15 Toast dinners around the world, and all sorts of themes. So, some of the themes—I'll just name a few and then answer your second question. We've done 15 Toasts to fear, to romance, to collateral damage, to home, to belonging, to America, to the stranger; 15 Toasts to rebellion; 15 Toasts to borders.

The themes that we've seen over time that work really well are the ones, interestingly, that have two things. One, a little bit of darkness to them or a little bit of kind of complication to them. So, "fear" was a beautiful night. Rebellion. Borders. I wasn't at that one, but the ones that with the complicated relationships to.

The second were themes that it could be interpreted multiple ways. So, "home." You know, people think of home as a lot of different things. Or "stranger." Things that aren't necessarily one way to interpret it.

The themes that worked less well that were ones that were way too sweet. So, 15 Toasts to happiness, I think, ironically fell a little flat.

Part of this is, again, we're complicated creatures that are interested in complicated things. We have many sides and selves. I mean, these are all themes and you can give toasts to them, but a set of questions that I love and somebody that I admire is [inaudible] British historian—I mean, he's British but his field is French history. His name is Theodore Zeldin.

He has this—he calls it "a menu of conversation"—that is a series of questions that he's actually hosted many public birthday parties [with]. I think for his 78th birthday, he invites all of London through the newspaper to join in a public park in London to have a conversation with a stranger.

You show up and on the table isn't food or drinks, but is actually just a menu. There's an appetizer—question for apps, a question for fish, a question for meat, a question for dessert. But the questions are things like, "What have you rebelled against in the past? What are you rebelling against now?" They're these kind of beautiful questions that spark great conversation, but also he has the insight that we are often willing to tell strangers things that we wouldn't tell people in our own family, in part because they have no stake in the story of our life. And so, we can actually explore things aloud and they are not threatened or implicated by any of these deviations.

TS: Now, it's interesting. In many of the examples you've given, whether it's 15 Toasts or a family saying, "What does it mean to be a Green—a member of this family?" you've introduced these elements of structure. You know: we're going to all respond to this question, there may be some ground rules, the last person at 15 Toasts is going to sing. And now, one again, I'm going to share vulnerably with you, Priya and our listeners . . .

PP: I'm loving it.

TS: As we're approaching Thanksgiving at our house, I said to my wife—this was about two hours before we were having 15 people over, a little late in the game. But I said, "You know, hey, should we structure this in any way? So, should people share what they're grateful for or anything like that?" She was like, "Oh, come on, Tami. I don't want to make people feel uncomfortable. Let's just leave it open and have a beautiful gathering, and let's not put people on the spot." I was like, "OK. Yes. You're right. Sure." It was a little late in the game and I was still worried about the turkey being moist, and I had some other concerns.

And so, we just kind of rolled with it. And I'm curious what you think about this idea of, "I'm going to put people on the spot." Some people don't like structure.

PP: [Yes]. Putting people on the spot and structure often get tangled. They're not the same thing.

So, what I love about your instinct was you wanted to create what I would call "a moment of focus," a moment in which people agree to partake in some form of ritual—my language, not yours—where they're reminded and spend time experiencing, embodying, and exploring the purpose behind the gathering. Right? As opposed to indirectly doing it through eating the turkey.

Part of the reason why I wrote this book is I think we over-rely on implicit and indirect forms of meaning-making. We over-rely on putting meaning into things. So, what I mean by that is . . . Is Thanksgiving only because of the turkey or of the stuffing? Or a birthday party is a birthday party because of the cake and the candles. And so on.

I think for decades we've been told that if we get the things right—Martha Stewart has a party planning guide that I've pored over. There's 27 steps. Only three of them have to do with what to do with your guests and their logistics. Send out the invitations, ask for RSVPs, tell people they can bring something if they need to.

But then there's three steps on how to prep the perfect crudités. I don't mean to pick on Martha, but I think part of the problem is our assumptions of what makes a gathering meaningful has been over-indexed on getting the things right.

What I love about your instinct with your wife is creating some moment where meaning is created through language and through words. We know that community is built through the creation of meaningful conversation.

I think it's one thing to perhaps spring it on people a few minutes beforehand. But I think that structure, including for introverts, is often actually very appreciated. It can actually be much more complicated to navigate an ambiguous and ambivalent social dynamic, where you have to think about all of the things to say, than if you kind of are told, "For a limited period of time, perhaps not the whole dinner, we're going to do this."

I think a couple hours beforehand, what I would have done—because sometimes people do get pissed off if they don't feel like this is what they signed up for; I've definitely been in that situation where people are upset with me—would be when people come in or text a few allies ahead of time and say, "Hey, would you be up for this?" I think there's ways you can prime people right away, at the last minute. Every gathering is a social contract. It's like you're promising some things and people are behaving based on that promise. But I think you can change the social contract even 5 or 10 or 15 minutes ahead of time if you do it with care. If people say no, then don't do it.

But I would say you stopped too early.

TS: Now, let's go to the birthday party, and making meaning with someone's birthday. Because I think that's something many, many people experience. If it's your own birthday, you might end up afterwards being like, "OK. Glad that's over with. I mean, we all sang happy birthday. I'm an adult but they sang happy birthday to me. It's over. Yay!" I'm sharing with you my own bias there. Or if you go to someone's birthday, at what point do I stand up and I make a toast to the glory of their life and how much I love them, and . . . really?

So, what are your ideas for making birthday parties meaningful gatherings?

PP: I know I sound like a broken record, but I start with purpose.

TS: The purpose is to celebrate this human. Let's just say that. Let's just celebrate this human. We love this human.

PP: Well, so, I think it depends on who is hosting it. Right? So, it's different if I'm saying, "I want to have a birthday party this year," versus if my partner is saying, "I want to have a birthday party for you." So, the first is: who is hosting this and what is their purpose? I think why I say "what the purpose is" is to get more specific than we tend to.

So, what I would say if it's your birthday is, "What is a need . . ." It's the same question I asked Jancee Dunn about the dinner party. "What is a need in your life right now that people might, by coming together, they help you fulfill?" Perhaps your birthday is an excuse for them to come together.

So, I know a lot of adults feel like, "Do I really want people to come together and sing a song and bring me presents?" It feels a little seventh grade. For some people that's totally fine and they love it, but for, I think, most of us, there's at least a part of it that feels a little cringe-y. "Do I really need to be celebrated in this form?" I think the much more meaningful way to celebrate the life of somebody is to do something that represents a need or a desire that they have for the year ahead.

So, for example, say you want to celebrate a life of a human—but to ask more specifically, "What is it that you want in this next year to be more a part of your life? How would you like to mark this day?" Say they say, "I want to do things that are more adventurous. In my twenties I used to do things that made no sense. Now I just have a lot of routine." "OK. That's interesting. What if your 'birthday party' was a five AM visit with 10 friends to the wharfs and watch the fishermen bring in their catch?" That's interesting. Right? We get too stuck to the form of a birthday party. Everyone get in the kitchen or living room three quarters of the way through, bring out the birthday cake, have some toasts.

I'm not saying it's bad. I'm just saying that we have not [rethought] modern ritual to actually match our needs. We're all lacking from it. We're suffering from it, because we try to have—we create meaning through rituals that we did not create ourselves and may not actually match the need in our life right now. We haven't been given permission to rethink the way we do these things. I'm trying to give people permission.

TS: Have you ever created a birthday gathering for yourself that you found really meaningful?

PP: Yes. I mean, one that comes to mind is probably eight or nine years ago. I was actually in a really difficult moment in my life. I fainted on a plane and was taken off on a stretcher. A few weeks later [I] went and saw my doctor in the town I was living at the time, and he basically said to me, "There's nothing kind of wrong with you. All of your results came back fine, but your vitamin D levels are a little low. But as I look at this, I think you've been kind of running on empty." His words were, "You've been on war footing, and your soldiers have run out of supplies. I strongly suggest you take some time off."

So, I did. Long story short, I still wasn't feeling well. I took some time off. I was in graduate school at the time. I was very burnt out. Part of that—my birthday was coming up two months into this phase. I hadn't seen people in a while because I was taking some time to heal. I invited—I think it was eight friends. Not all of my friends, including some people who I knew would kind of want to be there, but for me for different reasons I felt like I had to perform and I didn't want to perform. They were the people who I felt the most safe with. I invited them to meet me two hours outside of the town that we were living in—at the time I was in western Massachusetts—to join me for a birthday hike.

We met in this sun-filled restaurant in a town no one had been to before. People said yes. They drove out. Some people rented a zip car. Not everyone had cars. They caravaned together. They carpooled together. We had brunch together in this beautiful, sun-filled restaurant. Then we went on this four-hour hike in the woods with beautiful changing leaves. Then we all drove home. I don't think there was a birthday cake. It was this beautiful time.

Oh! At the restaurant not everybody knew each other. Again, now you're starting to get—this may make your wife cringe. I asked one of my other friends, "I'd love to have a meaningful conversation that connects people, but can you do it?"

Again, I didn't want to host it, and partly because people know my tricks. A friend of mine said, "Hey, Priya [inaudible] wanted us to get together so we can get to know each other and be with her." I remember she came up with this icebreaker that I'd never heard of before. She said, "If everyone would just go . . . say your name and what is a scar that you have? Tell the story of how you got it." People were like, "Physical scar? Psychological scar?" She just smiled. She said, "However you want to interpret it."

You have to break through the sort of awkwardness of that moment. The courage to hold the awkwardness and keep going. Because it was my birthday and I had some legitimacy; people started answering it. I heard stories from friends of mine that I never knew. You know: "Fell off my bike when I was five years old, went home crying, bloody knees. My mother screamed at me, 'Why are you crying?'" In that moment I understood so much more of my friend than I had in five years of friendship.

And so, all of that to say is there is some structure—use your birthday to get people to do things that you want them to do, that they would normally not do, because it's your birthday.

TS: That's good.

PP: That's the beauty of gathering around your birthday.

TS: Now, in the book The Art of Gathering, one of the sentences I pulled out that really got my attention is that gathering is a form of leadership. During this conversation, I picked up on you mentioning that at this Davos forum, one of the things you were teaching on is new models of leadership. So, how is gathering a form of leadership?

PP: Most beliefs, norms, decisions, sense of identity formation happens when we're with other people. Often the format through which we're with other people happens for specific moments in time with a beginning, a middle, and an end. A meeting. A workshop. A birthday party. A conference. A treaty between countries.

I find gatherings as a specific moment in time where you can actually design and help shape how people interact: what they talk about, what their sense of the possible might be because of the conversation they had, what things you laugh about and you think are funny, and what things are not "appropriate." Gatherings are basically the social laboratories where . . . We don't think about them this way, but where—again—individual and collective identity is broken and remade, whether it's an orientation of a company where that's more explicit or whether it's simply your annual board of directors meeting. How do you spend that time?

If you look at gathering as a form of leadership, it's basically a form of influencing other people and helping them come together through conversation, generate new ideas or create, or be with each other in a way that you didn't think was possible.

One of my favorite examples from the—actually, this isn't in the book. I interviewed him and it was part of a chapter that was cut. I interviewed the man . . . Part of this process is I interviewed over 100 gatherers who gather in extreme ways. So, a Cirque du Soleil choreographer, a camp counselor of an Arab-Jewish summer camp, a dominatrix, a Zen Buddhist monk. But then I also interviewed people whose lives were changed by a gathering.

So, one of these people that I interviewed—his first name was Daniel. He talked about the Million Man March. You think about leadership. This was an unprecedented gathering, particularly for black men. Right? Again, specific, disputable. That's why it was powerful.

I asked him, "What was the experience like for you?" He said, "Well. It was the most amazing experience, in part because as a black man I drove down from New York. There were vans at gas stations all honking and smiling and grinning and so much joy. Then I got to the march and I'd never seen just a sea of black men—a sea of basically me, versions of me. I sat there and I welled up with tears and I thought, 'This is dawn. This is dawn.'"

And he said—and he said this in an interview on the record—he said, "And then I had an instinct where for a second I was also scared. I thought, 'Oh my goodness. This many black men together. I feel scared,' and then I immediately felt shame. My God. What have I internalized about the story of us?" Then he goes and he says, "For nine hours I went in that sea and it was beautiful and the way we were together. I don't even really remember the speeches. But the experience that somebody had this idea to bring together this group of people for a moment of time . . ." And he said, "And I thought for my life, 'What if we are the solution? What if we aren't the problem?'"

And, you know, he gave me this interview 20 years later. I said, "Well, many people would say things have actually gotten worse after that march. Black Lives Matter and all of the various particularly—race relations have kind of gotten—I don't know—more explicit. However you would want to frame it." He said, "I don't say that that's not true. I think it's based in a different form. But what that gathering meant to me is that it's a memory that I will always take with me of a different way of being. Being together, being in the country, and a different sense of what a possibility could be—of what good could come when your identity is considered normal and not deviant."

TS: You know, Priya, this leads to one of the final questions I want to ask you. But I wanted to make sure that we covered this: which is I think that a lot of Sounds True listeners are deeply concerned, as I am, about the recent rise that we're seeing in hate crimes—various kinds of hate crimes, whether it's anti-Semitism or shootings in a black church. Knowing your history both in conflict resolution and in meaningful dialogue and generating meaningful dialogue and bringing people together, I wonder what you think people can do—everyday people—can do who want to address this in some powerful way?

PP: I mean, to me this is the most important question to be asking right now. Arthur Brooks had a column a couple days ago in the New York Times where he was reviewing a new book called Them by—I think—a senator from Nebraska. One of the things that he says, starting from the original question, is that some of these crimes, and particularly hate crimes, are symptoms or at least correlations with loneliness. It's not so direct, but it's the idea that when we are more and more isolated from each other, when we're more and more fragmented from each other—and by the way, in a lot of these cases, when masculinity has not been rethought in an age of equality; when some of these core identities that we've held onto for so long have been hacked away without being replaced by a new, integrated form, people act out. The "them" becomes stronger and more vilified.

I would just say, frankly, I think about this every day and I wonder aloud myself. So, I think the first question's answer is, "I don't know." I'm figuring it out myself. But my initial thoughts are: one, seek out people and experiences that are unlike your own. So, one of the questions I often ask in rooms when I go around talking about gathering is I ask, "Have you been to a Ramadan celebration?" In most contexts, the majority of the room has not. What does it look like to go into places, and particularly—well, there's two types of engaging with others.

One is asking, "Where do you have privilege?" So, in some contexts, if you're white, many of the conversations that actually are most needed to be had are with other white people, in part because within a context of safety—particularly if it's about identity and race—you can have a conversation with people who perhaps are more likely to vilify or hate or engage in some of these more extreme behaviors than people without that privilege. But also to reach out—one of the biggest gaps right now is frankly around class. We don't live in the same zip codes anymore. We don't live in the same areas anymore.

Coming Apart looks at this very closely. I think there's now these things called "super zip codes." I'm going to get the numbers wrong, but it's something like 80 percent of the wealth is concentrated in 12 zip codes.

We don't know each other. To borrow my husband's language—Anand Giridharadas—he says, "We've fallen out of love with each other," in terms of citizens.

And so, to go back and to ask, "What are public ways we can see each other as neighbors?" Very simply, "What does it look like to host something in a park and invite strangers to it, and have a specific gathering about it?" What if you did Zeldin's menu of conversations, but actively, consciously, sought out communities that are not your own? How do we see each other as citizens again, not necessarily only talking about race and hatred? Part of the loneliness conversation is: how do we, again, have social capital? How do we bring together people in informal ways so that we don't fall through the net and have these kind of isolated people that then succumb to extreme politics, in part because they're lonely and at loose ends?

TS: That's a beautiful quote from your husband. "We've fallen out of love with each other." That's very beautiful. And what does it mean to fall back in love with each other?

PP: Yes, yes, yes.

TS: Now, just a final question, Priya. As we've been talking, one of the things that I've really been feeling is how powerful it is when people do take off their social masks and are really genuine with each other. Just really straight, really authentic. I feel that from you in this conversation. I feel this sense of, yes, you're just going to let it all hang out. I'm meeting you there. I'm doing the same.

I'm curious to know: in your experience of interviewing people about gatherings, finding people who have that capacity—that capacity to be like, "Yes, you know, it's OK. You can get to know me. I'm going to be myself. I'm not just going to give you my presentational self. You can know my real self." What do you think allows people to do that?

PP: I think even more than a capacity, it's a permission. I think thinking that it's a capacity actually limits a lot of us from believing we can do it. I think believing that it's alright, that it's appropriate—again, within specific contexts—unleashes people to speak in that way. One of the books that I keep getting recommended is Radical Candor by Kim Scott. She contextualizes her book in the workplace, but it's basically this idea that candor and radical candor is a much deeper way of being effective and, frankly, being kind than this ambivalent politeness that we all hide behind without actually saying what it is we think or who we are.

I mean, another book—Ray Dalio's new book—writes a lot about what [it looks] like to actually say what you think, and again, takes it to the extreme in the cultural context [of] the company that he's built. But I think a huge part of this is it's creating culture as a permission, where we start modeling this and realize that the world doesn't fall apart.

I will also say I'm very aware of power. I think in certain contexts, showing yourself or showing a vulnerable side is absolutely probably not smart. There's this huge piece on the logistics company—I don't know if you've heard it. It was on The Daily podcast two days ago—of how workers are being treated in a Memphis logistics branch. In that context, showing vulnerability to your boss or to your coworkers is not only not appropriate, it is probably immoral to suggest it.

And so all of this I say with a caveat: know your context and know the power dynamic. But in many cases, we often—by hiding from one another, we are not only disconnected . . . at the deepest level it's a form of—I was going to say abuse. It's a form of . . . I think over the long term, it creates more pain.

TS: [Yes.]

PP: On both sides.

TS: OK. And to end our conversation, here's the prompt I've been using as part of this podcast. The podcast is called Insights at the Edge. I'm always curious to know what somebody's edge is in terms of their own growth trajectory as a person. This is my growing edge. This is what I'm working on right now in my life, truth be told. Priya?

PP: My growing edge is to be more comfortable and understanding about what my own beliefs are, what my own non-negotiables are, what my own opinions are, and not only be so deeply listening to others that I can be a chameleon.

TS: I love it.

I've been speaking with Priya Parker. She's the author of the book The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. She's the founder of Thrive Labs, which helps people design meaningful, transformational gatherings. Priya, thank you so much for your conversation. I really enjoyed getting to know you Thank you.

PP: Thank you for having me. What beautiful questions.

TS: waking up the world. Thanks for listening.


This article is syndicated from Sounds TrueSounds True offers transformational programs to help you live a more genuine, loving and meaningful life. 

3 Past Reflections