On this episode of Dare to Lead
Join me for Part 1 of a two-part series with Priya Parker on gathering together again. Priya is a master facilitator, strategic advisor, and the author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. We talk about the real, big and small challenges we’ll see when we return to workspaces, the need we’ll have to use our creativity and ingenuity to figure out how to be together, and the opportunity we’ll get to ask how we can be together better.
The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker
At a time when coming together is more important than ever, Parker sets forth a human-centered approach to gathering that will help everyone create meaningful, memorable experiences, large and small, for work and for play. Drawing on her expertise as a facilitator of high-powered gatherings around the world, Parker takes us inside events of all kinds to show what works, what doesn’t, and why. She investigates a wide array of gatherings–conferences, meetings, a courtroom, a flash-mob party, an Arab-Israeli summer camp–and explains how simple, specific changes can invigorate any group experience.
The New Rules of Gathering: A Guide to Planning with Purpose for Any Occasion by Priya Parker is a free guide to unlock new and creative ways of spending time together. It is meant to help anyone planning a casual get together, party, or work event brainstorm important elements of that gathering.
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Brené Brown: Hi everyone, I’m Brené Brown, and this is Dare to Lead. Before I jump in to tell you about this incredible episode, I want to give you a housekeeping note, church bulletin time. We are going to be taking some time off, so we are going to take off the month of June, we’ll be gone from Memorial Day and then the whole month, and I will be back on July 12 with a very personal and vulnerable two-part solo series on the hardest feedback I’ve ever received personally as a leader, how it felt, what it meant, what I did about it, what I thought about it, I’m just going to be really honest with y’all and tell you because I just don’t think we talk about it, we talk about feedback, but we don’t talk about what it feels to be on the receiving end of it, especially when it’s hard, and how we take that feedback, whether it’s a skilled person or often an unskilled giver of feedback and do something productive with it. We have incredible folks coming on the podcast for great conversations through the rest of the year, and I am as always, incredibly grateful for you. If you are also an Unlocking Us listener, we are taking off from June second to June 16th on Unlocking Us too.
BB: I will tell you that I am finishing a new research and working on a new book that’s going to come out either late this year or next year, so I’m excited about that, and I’m excited about some time with my family as well, and we’re going to come back from Unlocking Us with a five-part summer series that I’m doing with my sisters, Ashley and Barrett on The Gifts of Imperfection. So I’ll put this all in the show notes, but I wanted to give y’all a heads up that I will be off the grid for Dare to Lead in June, back in July and off for a couple of weeks on Unlocking Us as well. Alright, take a deep breath, friends. I mean, like a big… Let’s do the box breathing from the books, a big four second inhale. Hold for four seconds. Exhale for four seconds, and then hold for four seconds. This is part one of a two-part series with my friend, Priya Parker on the return to gathering. We are coming out of “COVID quarantine,” we are coming back together in our homes, in our faith communities and at work. And it is going to be tough. It’s going to be different, and we need it to be different, and we need it to be better than it was before. And I cannot think of a better person to walk us through how we return to gathering than Priya.
BB: We’re going to talk about how to navigate new spaces while creating an inclusive sense of belonging without creating exclusion. We’re going to think about how we don’t go back to doing some of the shit that was not working, that we were just on autopilot and doing, because that’s what we thought we were supposed to do. So part one is this episode, and then part two, [chuckle] and in part two, I am doing one of the most vulnerable things I’ve ever done on a podcast. So vulnerable, in fact, I had to get kind of the input feedback and permission from my team. We’re going to do a meeting makeover. I’m going to talk through a real problem we’re having with one of our meetings and how it needs to change and why it’s not working, and this is real talk in real time. So Priya Parker part one of two, I cannot wait until you hear this. If you’re walking, you’ll probably stop a couple of times right in your tracks, if you’re driving, you may need to pull over. She does not play.
BB: Okay, y’all, before we jump into this conversation with Priya, let me tell you a little bit about her. Priya helps us take a deeper look at how we can create collective meaning in modern life, one gathering at a time. She is a master facilitator, which you will observe, a strategic advisor, the author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters. She is the executive producer and host of the New York Times podcast Together Apart. Priya has spent 15 years helping leaders and communities have complicated hard conversations about community, identity and vision, especially in the moments of transition and fracture really. She is trained in the field of conflict resolution, she has worked on race relations on American college campuses. She has worked on the peace process in the Arab world, Southern Africa, and India. Priya lives in Brooklyn with her husband and her two kids. Welcome Priya Parker. Welcome back, Priya Parker.
Priya Parker: Thank you for having me. I love continuing to be in conversation with you.
BB: I have to say it because I’ve been waiting to use this phrase; back actually by popular demand.
PP: Wow! [chuckle]
BB: Yeah, our podcast together on Unlocking Us is hugely popular.
PP: Wow, that’s so lovely to hear, I mean I’ve gotten such amazing feedback from our conversation, and I wrote this at the time, you model the beauty of intentional structure of a host. I think it’s one of the best interviews I’ve ever given because of you. We pass through so much territory because of the questions you ask and how you ask them and how vulnerable you were about your wedding, and it was such a delight for me as well that I’m so happy to hear that. And I actually think about, particularly our analysis of your wedding quite often.
BB: Do you know what? I do too, and I think other people do too, because we still get comments about it. I really actually saw a tweet that said, “Thank you so much for your conversation with Priya, planning my wedding we’ll not make these mistakes, and we’ll do some of the things y’all did.”
PP: How cool.
BB: So it was very cool. What I want to do, if you’re open to it, is I’d like to record two things with you today. I have a lot of questions about returning to gathering. My gut is that it’s going to be more difficult than we anticipate, and I want to know what your thoughts are. And then I’d also like to record another episode with you, a meeting makeover. This is something, yeah, this is something you’ve started doing. We’re having a meeting problem, would you be willing to do both of those things with me, talk about going back and a meeting makeover?
BB: Alright, I think we did not do this the first time I interviewed you. So I’m really excited to start with this question. Tell us your story.
PP: Where does one begin? I think of my story as one that was made by and with multiple people in many ways of being. And we talked a little bit about this in our first conversation, but I was raised for the first nine years by my parents, by my mother, who is Indian and was raised in India, her father was in the government, and so they moved every two or three years all around India. So within India, they were kind of nomads, which actually broke free a lot of their mindsets of how to be, and she immigrated to the US, she applied to graduate school secretly because she didn’t want to stay in India and she didn’t want to have an arranged marriage, and got in. Her parents blessed her leaving. And she met my father at Iowa State University when he had just come back from Peace Corps, volunteering in Cameroon. And they kind of found each other and they were each other’s source of adventure and curiosity, and took a red VW van from Iowa down to Costa Rica and moved to Africa, and I was born in Zimbabwe. And for the first really sort of decade of my life, my world and my story was at some level, like the two choices these individuals made, the world that they created together, and every two years we would move.
PP: And I was born in Zimbabwe, we lived in the Maldives, we lived in Indonesia, we lived in India for a little bit, we lived in Holland, and we eventually moved to the States, back to the States. They eventually moved to Virginia, and I think we spoke about this the last time. They eventually separated and then divorced, and then each re-married other people. And these two worlds were very, very, very different. And my experience growing up in many ways was for the next decade, trying to figure out how to belong to two almost opposite worlds. In my father’s family, we would go to church, the local Presbyterian church, two, sometimes three nights a week. My summer camp was mission trips. And I would go to Christian revival camps. One of my most vivid memories is going to one of these kind of massive stadiums where on the stadium floor there was sort of a jokey infomercial, where the video was blowing up Hindu gods. And I was sitting there and passing around caskets to put in all of your… I remember it was like Gen X stuff. I didn’t really understand what was happening, but I knew that for me it was not working and it was not good, and it was demonizing the other part of my family.
PP: And then my mother and mother’s side, they come from a line of theosophists, and my grandfather was very, very committed to the Theosophical Society, which meant practically every winter I would go to Madras in southern India and for a month go to the Theosophical convention where they would open each session with five different prayers from all of the world religions and study multiple texts and meditate and do all types of different healing modalities, and I would basically toggle back and forth between these two different worlds. And those realities and sources of meaning and also deep sources of love on both sides really deeply shaped me, and I became a conflict resolution facilitator.
BB: Okay. We just have to stop for a moment and let that wash over everyone, right, okay?
PP: So, I’ve always been interested in how groups form, how they break, how they come back together, and in what shape. And in my life, that happened to be three different family units, the first one, and then the second and third, and then I realized that there was an entire field that studied group formation and group dissipation. And I went to the University of Virginia and was very frustrated by race relations there, now, the kind of infamous Charlottesville, but this was 20 years ago, and UVA has a very strong sense of what they call student self-governance, and students there said to me, older students, “Do something about it. If you have a problem with race here, do something about it.” And so I sort of studied and asked what other students have done in the past, and I learned about a process called sustained dialogue. And long story short, we launched this process called sustained dialogue on September 10th, 2001. And of course, 9/11 happened the next day. Launched means we sent a letter to the community saying, we’re going to start these dialogues, right? It was a psychological launch, which is in the world of gathering, that’s what an invitation is, it’s a future promise of a happening.
PP: And it was sort of the right place at the right time, and my peers and I learned how to facilitate complicated messy dialogues with people within our own communities to see if we could do something about the culture of the place, the structures of the place, and that really deeply informed my work. And so for the last 15, 20 years, the core of my story has been trying to use this very specific craft that I have, which is group dialogue and trying to figure out and help people and communities and places of power, and places without power use it to change things.
BB: That’s amazing. So let me ask you this question, if we were on a flight together or if we were at a cocktail party, and hopefully I’d have a better question than, “What do you do?,” which is one of my least favorite questions, although one time I was committed on a flight, because like you, I travel all the time, I was committed to trying something different, and I was sitting next to this guy, kind of had his readers on, it was pouring over Excel spreadsheets online and I said…
PP: Oh my God, your wrists were getting tired for him.
BB: Totally, and I was like, God, do we start this small talk? Do I say, “What do you do?” But I promised myself, I wouldn’t. And so I say, “So what do you love?”
PP: Oh. [chuckle]
BB: Do you know what his answer was?
PP: I’m scared.
BB: “Working in quiet spaces.”
PP: Oh, no.
BB: And do you know what I said back? I said, “Well, normally I say, ‘What do you do?’ But I was trying a new question and that question seems like bullshit, so work away.” I was like… And then he just laughed.
PP: And that made him more curious to want to be in conversation with you.
BB: Yeah, and it was good that I established a relationship with him because I held on to him because the flight got really turbulent when we were landing in Denver, so I was like, “I’m going to have to have some physical connection here.” He’s like… I think he just said, “Knock yourself out lady.” Yeah, I was like, “Alright.”
PP: That’s amazing.
BB: So if I were on a plane or at a party with you and I’d already had great other conversation about more interesting things than career definition questions, but I did happen to ask you, “What do you do?,” What is your answer to that?
PP: I think I would say something like, “I help groups have really complicated conversations that they need to have that they’ve been avoiding.”
BB: Oh, that’s really good filter, because curious people will lean right in.
PP: And I think like you, I also wear multiple hats, so my craft is as a facilitator, my day job is doing what I just told you, and then I think I have this other part because of my research side and my writing side, which is also, I help demystify how anyone can create meaningful, necessary gatherings for their people.
BB: God, we really need you right now. I have some questions for you about going back to work. I had a funny conversation with a couple of folks from my team yesterday, and I was like, “We’re going to be together maybe in September, and the new off-site is going to be the on-site, because we’re going back to the office for the first time.” What are you concerned about as you think of all of us going back to share physical spaces? Let’s jump into, “Whoo! We’re going to gather again. I can’t wait and I’m scared to death.”
PP: Me too.
BB: You too?
PP: Both are true, absolutely. I’m so excited about being able to gather again with the people that I love. And I also think it’s going to be super complicated. I mean, I’m starting to realize that for a year I didn’t really have to make any decisions of that kind.
BB: Yes, yes.
PP: Do we say yes? Do we say no? Do I say yes? Do I say no? Do I get a sitter? I mean, we had a 1000 other terrifying decisions to make, but that set of decisions were just kind of on pause for a year, and I’m feeling the decision fatigue start to creep back in, and it’s like, “Oh my gosh, I forgot that the way we spend our time has changed and the number of invitations… ” you get zoom invitations, I guess, but just very simply, how do I or we as a couple, or a family allocate our time? And frankly, lot of the saying nos went away for a year because no one was asking anything and it was totally understandable why you wouldn’t go. And so this idea of… We talked about this a little bit in our other conversation, this idea of having to deal with not wanting to reject someone.
PP: Even just through the social interaction or meeting interaction of how do you navigate why you don’t want to go to something is re-entering our lives. [chuckle] I would say that at the deepest level, I’m concerned about people, organizations, teams, default racing back to assuming that they’re trying to race back to something without pausing and asking, “What have we learned during this time about our work, about how we work? About at the core of it, what it is we do and what is needed right now? What have we learned about things like access and equity in this year of reckoning?” And I’m not worried about the conversations people are having to figure out how do we do this? I’m worrying about people skipping those conversations and just focusing on the logistics. And what I mean by that, so just very specifically, I think a lot of organizations are starting to think about companies, groups, like where should the choice be about whether or not employees go in person to work? Should there be a blanket policy that everybody needs to come back? Or should we put the choice on the individual? And then based on how that then filters out, if the core is to have meetings or gatherings or work together in ways that are not punishing the people who decide not to come back, how do we actually run those hybrid meetings?
PP: So for example, a lot of the studies that show both of who has disproportionately lost jobs in the pandemic, women, and who is disproportionately likely to take the option of working from home, continually, women and parents. And so I’m concerned about people assuming that we go back to in-person meetings, and you just kind of let people zoom in or choose your verb, zoom into those meetings, but you’re not actually restructuring your meeting in a way that allows for true hybrid participation, because otherwise we’re punishing those who decide to choose to work from home versus actually asking things like, “When do we meet? How do we meet?” If not everybody is in the room, is it important to have two facilitators or two hosts, an in-person host and a hybrid host? A hybrid host with some amount of power in the organization? If there are certain people who are working from home and zooming in via hybrid work, do we have everybody in the office actually take the call through their computer in separate rooms to not basically exclude those who are choosing to work from home? There are so many questions around power and access.
BB: Oh, God.
PP: Right? And equity that I think need to be worked through, and my worry is that we skip those conversations.
BB: Oh my God, you’ve rendered me both speechless, which is rare, and worried, and you’ve kind of pissed me off a little bit in a way that you do sometimes when you call to our attention how we need to be thoughtful. Jesus.
PP: It’s not like we’re going to race back and then everything’s going to be solved, it’s like we are actually in this extraordinary moment that resulted from a lot of pain and devastation, in which at some level, like the decks have been cleared. For decades, we have been gathering in very specific ways that in a lot of cases haven’t been working for people, and rather than rushing back to those formats, we actually have an opportunity to pause and to ask like, How do we want to do this now? What are the meetings we’ve longed for? What are the things that even though we couldn’t do on Zoom, that we couldn’t do in the Google Meet Up, that we should absolutely bring back? Also what are the meetings that were cancelled and literally everybody quietly celebrated, right? What are the meetings we should actually not bring back, because they actually could have been an email? But then I think there’s this third part, which is during the pandemic, we have invented new ways of coming together, and that was so much of our previous conversation, but what have we learned in this pandemic that we actually want to bring with us, that we want to move forward, and then finally, what do we want to reinvent or invent anew? In this moment where this does not happen very often, we can decide how we want to be together and what we want that to look like.
BB: So, I’m not just hearing everything you’re saying, I’m really, as a leader, as someone who is the CEO of an organization, I’m really feeling everything you’re saying in a very uncomfortable way because I’m tired, and I don’t want on the racial reckoning front, on the equity and power over versus power within/to front, I do not want to just go back, but this is a heavy lift that you’re asking right now, you are asking for some considered reflective, hard questions about what is it going to look like. And when you said, “If we have a hybrid model for those of us that are going to be in the office physically, are we going to join from our offices so that the people who’ve chosen… Are staying at home, there’s a little bit more equity there,” I just wanted to start crying when you said that, and I’m just being really honest.
PP: And I think each of these elements have trade-offs, and I think part of the conversation, and I think these are conversations at some level we have with our teams. Part of figuring this out is choosing what I would call legitimate priorities.
BB: Say more.
PP: We build legitimacy, we build legitimate priorities through conversation, through including the people on our team who have different experiences than we do, through including in conversation the people who are furthest from the epicenter of power, that’s what it means to center some of these different voices, and then as a team or as a leadership team, it depends on how big your organization is, you get really clear on what are the three priorities that we in this company, in this organization, our people have agreed are the three elements we are most centering. And so, for example, if equity, I’m making this up, but if equity or access is the number one priority and everybody has agreed to that, then maybe the trade-off of meaningful connection, which is bodies in a room, that specific organization decides, yes, we’re all going to sit in separate spaces, but we’re going to spend our budget, we’re going to allocate resources to actually bring everybody together twice a year for five days at a time in an off-site in a way that we would never have before. Changing the way we gather isn’t only the structure within each meeting, it’s actually allocating resources differently, it’s actually allocating budgets differently, and one of the tweets that has most stuck with me in this pandemic year is from the writer and media researcher, Sasha Costanza-Chock.
PP: They wrote a book called Design Justice, and at the beginning of the pandemic, I don’t know if you remember this week, Brené, when South by Southwest just kind of had a stand-off with the City of Austin, trying to figure out, do they cancel, do they not, and because it was such a huge conference, more than 400,000 people attend. It gives Austin I believe a $250 million bump every year in terms of just revenue, “Do we cancel?” At the time Sasha tweeted something like, “Disabled people: ‘Could you get a live stream up?’ Able people: ‘No, no, no, it’s too hard.’ Disabled people: ‘Could you just get a live stream up?’ Able people: ‘No, no, it’s super complicated.’ Coronavirus: ‘We need to get a live stream.’ Able people: ‘We’re announcing the state-of-the-art live stream for everybody all around the world.’” And that tweet, it was so piercing, it’s brilliant in what they do. It was like an arrow at the heart of the system that just demonstrates what does it mean to center and who do we choose to center?
PP: And I think as a facilitator, that is up for grabs, the part of the debate that I will point my pointy elbows and defend space for is, we need to argue, we need to contest who and what are we centering based on who we are and what this work is, but centering doesn’t mean doing things the way that the people in the organization most think something should run, it’s actually asking like, “What is our work?,” “What is the need?,” and “What are the bottom lines about how we gather so that the people we choose to pay in this company can successfully do their most vibrant work?”
BB: One of the things that is really scaring me as a leader, but also as someone who studies shame, a lot of us are really considering that you have to be vaccinated to come back, that you can keep your job, but you’ll have to work remotely. It puts too many people at risk, especially people who have compromised immune systems, taking care of the elderly, kids that have compromised immune systems. Do you think about this? Have you thought about it? What’s your line of thought?
PP: I think it’s super, super complicated, and I think that in a way, it’s just a new line to consider that is about power and equity, and in every generation, there are new lines that we become aware of because of this very unusual once-in-a-century pandemic, vaccination is a new line of equity, we see it globally, as we’re having this conversation, the US is emerging, and India is in its worst moment of the entire pandemic, and so there’s global equity around vaccines and vaccine access and the patent conversation, but then even within the country, I think maybe you and I want to just… There are moments you just want to get in bed and put your cover over the head and to say like, “This is too much, I can’t think about this right now, someone else deal with it,” and so it’s like we both collapse, and then once you’re ready to take that sheet slightly below your face, and then we start thinking the way that thoughtful people have always grappled with, and I think for the vaccine… So I’ll give a couple of examples. I recently heard, someone DM’d me, I get a lot of examples from people experimenting with various ways to gather, this isn’t a workplace gathering, but it was an interesting example to me, and this is a parent who was hosting a birthday party for their child and for safety, invited people to wear color-coded T-shirts based on whether or not they were vaccinated.
BB: Oh God.
PP: And that was like vaccinated, not vaccinated, one week in, or something like that, and the intention, and this is a social example, but if we extrapolate and think about her goal as a host was to protect her guests, was to give them a code, a code to be able to protect themselves and safely interact with one another.
BB: And to make informed choices.
PP: And to make informed choices. Our instinct to that experiment might be like, “Oh gosh, that’s basically creating a cast system,” right? But we have to run a number of different experiments with care to basically figure out how do we keep each other safe, fundamentally at a health perspective, and then counterbalance those with who either don’t have access to the vaccine or can’t take it or don’t want to take it for all of those elements to think about, well then how do we creatively have them also engage similarly like race or like gender, all of these different moments of reckoning? I think we’re going to have a future series of reckonings around this very question, and particularly in countries with even less access, I think in New York, 50% of adults are now vaccinated, and so also we’re going to live in different realities in different states based on the current situation, but I think that it’s something to really think about as a host, which is as a leader, as a manager, as a CEO, as a president, as an executive director, to deeply think about legally what can you ask, but also how do we create, with safety, experiences for people that minimize shame and maximize connection?
BB: Laura Mayes is the Senior Director for the podcast, and she and I have been friends for, I don’t know, 15 years maybe, yeah, 15 years, because we met when our boys were 1, and we’ve both been vaccinated and we decided to meet in person for the first time in probably 15 months. And we met in Austin and I opened the door and she was staying there, we both had our masks on and I said, “I think we can take these off,” and she took hers off and I took mine off, and then we touched fingertips like E.T, we are very close friends, but we were so uncomfortable about how to physically share space, and I’ve seen that again and again, I’ve been in a couple of meetings outdoors now, I’m very slow to come out of my protective zone, I can tell you, but I’ve had a couple of outdoor meetings and people reach out to shake my hand and I offer them my elbow. Would you agree that there’s going to be some awkwardness?
PP: There’s going to be so much awkwardness, and I think also part of this time is we are physiologically re-training ourselves to enter, so even when logically you think you reach out your hand, or you reach out your elbow, or someone comes closer, and if you’re vaccinated, there’s a sense of your body still leans back, because for 14 months you’ve been basically trained to lean back or to step back, and so there’s the rational changing of norms. I remember when Dr. Fauci declared the end of the handshake, I’m curious to see, do we actually end up just continuing the elbow bump? What happens in 2040? How do people greet in 2040 or 2060? But I also think that to me… You asked me earlier when people say, “’What do you do?’ How would you answer?” I think part of how I do what I do is I encourage people when things are really complicated, to make the implicit explicit, and what I mean by that is if in any kind of in a meeting, in an off-site, in any type of gathering, particularly when we are in a moment of transition, and we are in a moment of transition right now.
PP: It’s a responsibility of the host to think about, “Where are we meeting? How do I share with the guests all of the information that they need in order for them to make the decisions they need to make? What time of day do we do this? Is there a rain date?” I had a friend who got married this past year and the subject line of her wedding was something like, “Instead of praying for no rain, I was praying for good WiFi,” because it was a Zoom wedding. [chuckle] And so I think that it’s going to be awkward and one of the ways, as a host to mitigate some of the awkwardness in the moment is to give people handrails ahead of time.
BB: Yeah. In The Art of Gathering, you write about how unhealthy peace, and I would say unhealthy comfort is worse than unhealthy conflict, and the one thing I’m so grateful for in our organization that just kinda defines us before COVID, just from the beginning, is we do uncomfortable, we have uncomfortable conversations, we name like, “Oh God, this is awkward as hell,” we don’t know what to do, we just name what’s happening in the room, which people are always scared to do, because they think it makes it awkward, but it doesn’t. How important is it going to be, whether you’re a leader or you’re gathering people for, in a faith community, whether you’re… For social reasons, how important is it going to be just to name what’s happening?
PP: Naming is the most powerful tool that we have as facilitators, it is 101 to actually name the elephant in the room, and even if the elephant is just awkwardness, it just allows everybody to take a breath, and I’ll give a simple example. And I think you can name it in big ways, we’re all trying to figure out exactly how to be… That sounds… Well, to you, this won’t sound funny, but I think we will all experience micro-moments of perceived rejection over the next many months.
BB: Oh my God.
PP: You reach out to your elbow, someone…
BB: Say that again. I want you to say that again for everybody.
PP: We are all going to experience micro-moments of perceived rejection over the next many months. And when I say micro-moment, I mean, say the invitation is perfect, everything is gone, and then you walk into the room and someone raises out your hand and someone leans their body back, that’s what I mean by a micro-moment of rejection, or somebody walks over and somebody else moves away, we don’t fully know how to do this, and it’s going to be really clunky, and I think part of naming that as a leader to de-personalize some of that perceived rejection, to allow the stumbling and fumbling around, to also, particularly for virtual meetings to… I’ll give simple example of naming, I did recently, I was facilitating a large Zoom gathering for an organization, and I had to stick my computer in my backpack, and I took the wrong backpack, it was not my backpack, that I don’t let my children touch, it was a backpack that on weekends, there are snacks everywhere in that bag. [chuckle] And I stuck my backpack in this bag, I took it out for a meeting, this was like a five-hour meeting that was very important to me, and food had jammed inside the magnetized part of the power plug.
BB: Oh God.
PP: You know what I’m talking about?
BB: I do.
PP: And I couldn’t get my power plug into my computer to charge my computer to facilitate this 80-person meeting, and I was freaking out. [chuckle] And at some point, I just said, “Okay.” And I said, “Okay, I put my backpack in the bag that were used for my kids snacks this weekend, I have no idea what it is in there, but I cannot get it out,” and I’m doing a live poll in the Zoom chat. “What do you think is stuck in my adaptor cord?,” and all of a sudden I have dozens of hilarious answers, Crunch Cheerios, Za’atar.
PP: Crackers, goldfish, and it was a moment of levity. It also culturally, it was super interesting to see because at some level, they’re also saying, what’s in their backpacks, and so [chuckle] it was a moment of naming, I mean, that’s a micro-moment where it’s just my tech problem, but my tech problem in this COVID world becomes everybody’s problem, and so similarly, how do you name what is… And then help people come around to be like, “How do we help us together?” And then it was the solutions, can you vacuum the crackers out of all of these various elements? But it was a human moment, and this goes so deeply into your work, naming what is, naming what we’re facing gives us all the courage to figure it out together, and I think to me this moment of time is such a beautiful, interesting moment for deep creativity. It’s like at the core of what we each have is human ingenuity to figure out, “How do we do this now?” And to radically experiment. I gave that t-shirt example with the kids school, in part because she was testing, it came from care.
PP: She was trying to figure out, and so then it’s like, okay, maybe it’s not t-shirts, but there was a principle behind that, which is how do we help people signal in ways that allow them to navigate a space without being excluded. Okay, interesting, so what’s then t-shirt 2.0? But I think we have to build on top of each other’s experiments, and then when they don’t work to really learn and debrief with care, which is what I would encourage teams to do openly.
BB: Yes, man, will psychological safety be important when we come back or not? One of the things we talk about all the time is how do we build a culture where people can talk about what they feel and ask for what they need?
BB: And I think that’s going to go a long way when we come back for people to actually be able to say, “Here’s what I’m feeling. Here’s what I need to feel okay.” And I’m so keenly aware of… I have very strong opinions about public health issues and I’m married to a physician, I’m also very aware of how thoughtful I’m going to need to be.
PP: And I think there’s a difference between what you communicate and decide to say, and also then as a leader, what’s the policy that you institute.
BB: That’s right.
PP: And at some level, at least for private companies and even public institutions, leaders have always grappled with, “What is the fundamental foundation on which we are building?” And do no harm is a pretty strong one. And so at some level, how you get to the policy through talking with your people, through understanding, through doing polls and surveys, but really having meaningful conversations with focus groups. “What has this last year been like? What are the most powerful virtual gatherings or meetings we’ve held? What are the virtual meetings that have been terrible? What are you most excited by? How would you feel about this?” And not so much their opinions, but their experiences. So that when you set a policy, it’s not a policy that’s coming out of the left field, it’s a policy that reflects people’s deepest experiences. And then in my experience, at least, people respect that. They want a decision, but it needs to be a participatory process to get to one that feels like people feel like this is the best way to coordinate their work.
BB: Vibrant work. You said that. I love that. How do we support the people we choose to pay to be able to do vibrant work in a culture where they feel seen and respected and cared for? I guess if we hold that in front of us Priya, it’s the right, North Star.
PP: And it’s complicated. So I’ll give an example. There was a team where one person found that the way for them to most… Not just handle the pandemic, but handle kind of Zoom call, after Zoom call, after Zoom call, was to have a standing desk, but to also actually walk while they’re on the call, they had a treadmill. And it was very good for that person, and there were other people on the call who felt really dizzy and disoriented and found it was really distracting if there’s like six squares and one person’s moving.
BB: Yeah, I couldn’t do that. Actually.
PP: I couldn’t do it either. And so that’s an example of in a team, how do you either tell the person… Is there a policy of when we’re internal, you can walk or do whatever you want. When we’re client-facing butts in chairs. But it’s not clear what should happen because you’re always… It kinda comes back to my original stories. When and how do you balance the rights of an individual with the rights and the needs of the group? And COVID is a gorgeous example that is putting that on bold letters. That’s what we’re talking about here. And as a leader, and leadership is listening very deeply to the needs of the individual and the needs of the group. And then making an intentional decision that gives clarity and comfort to all.
BB: Call me prophetic, but I’m sensing some very uncomfortable, honest conversations coming up in the next few months. You’re going to be really busy, Priya. Yeah.
PP: We are in a moment of grappling, and these are what I would call worthy conversations. To run away… And one of the things I often tell, when I’m working with leaders or people dealing, group managers, it’s like, don’t be afraid of your people. They often have the answers. Listen and then make a decision. It’s not saying this should all be based on consensus, but don’t be afraid of people. They’re the ones who are actually living these lived experiences, listen to them, take it all in and then make an intentional decision and explain it.
BB: That’s right. Okay, before we jump into our rapid fire questions, I just want to say thank you for giving us handrails and guardrails in a package that says, “We need to be building handrails and guardrails.” I mean, you just modeled for us what we need to do for the people that we’re gathering. So thank you.
PP: I love how you’re framing that. You’re welcome. And I think part of this moment is realizing that we need handrails, and the decisions about even how those handrails are built contain power.
BB: Yeah, they do.
PP: And so, design them well.
BB: Yeah, design them well. Design them from power with and power to, not power over. You’ll appreciate this story. It will take two minutes to tell a story. When I was working on some parenting research, probably… It was over a decade ago. A woman gave me this really interesting advice. We were talking about the need for boundaries with children and setting expectations, being clear about what’s okay and what’s not okay, the why behind it. And she used this metaphor of one of those kind of rickety swinging bridges that to me would be terrifying to cross. But the kind that go over the gorge that’s a 1000 feet below you. And she said, parenting without boundaries is like sending a child across that bridge that doesn’t have handrails.
BB: And I think it’s so powerful. And over the years, I’ve thought to myself, just as someone who studies fear and studies how we show up in fear. I think if any of us have to cross that bridge and there’s no handrails, I think we do one of two things or maybe one of three things. We either get to the edge and just refuse to move forward. We run across recklessly. Or we kind of army crawl on our bellies, just gripping the hell out of that thing, which is so not productive. And so I think it’s such a powerful metaphor for teams and organizations too. No guardrails, no handrails. You’re asking people to cross some really dangerous territory, and don’t be shocked if they either freeze, they are reckless, or they just inch across in ways that don’t make sense.
PP: And from the perspective of the bridge builder, I think of it when we relate it to gatherings, that every gathering at some level is a social contract. There is a purpose. It’s almost like a constitution. There’s a purpose. We are convening people for this purpose. This is what we promise in terms of protection and safety, and creativity and work, and this is what we’re asking you to bring to be successful. And part of the bridge building, to follow on that metaphor and the handrails is that when you are a host, to use my language, or a leader, it’s irresponsible to not create handrails to let people to know if they want to walk across that bridge. And in any type of meeting, any type of gathering, whether you think of coming back to work as the meta gathering and just going back into those doors and going back into those hallways or just one meeting at a time, the role of the host is to create a social contract that people want to be a part of. And 90% of the work of gathering happens before anyone enters the door. It’s that handrail that you’re talking about, of bridging. How are we going to meet here?
BB: God. It is.
PP: Why are we meeting here? Give the meeting a name, that’s not just a calendar invite, saying TBD. How do we set people up so that we can get to work when they enter the door, enter the Zoom room? And that they know how to be successful when they come in. And there’s a thousand different ways to be. And so part of the codes, whether it’s understanding how we want to be in this new semi-vaccinated world and giving people guidance of saying, either this is going to be awkward, or we suggest whether or not you’re vaccinated, we’ve all agreed we’re going to wear masks. In part to feel, in part to center those who are not vaccinated, we’re still making up the rules. But part of the pre-conditions for letting people come in and be successful is setting up those guardrails, not because they’re children, but because they are living, breathing adults choosing to walk across a bridge. And so that bridge should be well built.
BB: Oh my God, yes. We could just work this metaphor. For how many days do you think we could work this metaphor?
PP: Definitely three.
BB: And I think guardrails in a lot of ways, my language is psychological safety, power analysis. And the other thing I would say is, as I was thinking about this conversation with you and talking to some folks on my team, we use this term the bounce. And I think I’m going to be really clear when we come back in person to work that we’re in the bounce. And what that means for us is, it’s probably a different way of saying beta, that we’re going to be trying things.
BB: Un-trying them. Learning from them. Trying new things. Everything that you see us put into place, we’ll talk about what we’re looking for in terms of success indicators. We want your opinions, and if it’s not working for all of us, it’s not working, and we change it. So I think probably, as you say, making explicit that we’re in beta. We’re trying to figure out what works, no one has the playbook.
PP: And we’re running a set of experiments. And we’re trying to determine what are the needs now.
PP: And therefore, how are we solving or trying to address those needs? And going back to gathering language in our first conversation back in November, gatherings are powerful when they meet a specific real need. And they get stuck, we get stuck in form, we get stuck in autopilot, when we’re solving a need that someone else had 20 years ago.
BB: Oh God, okay. Yeah.
PP: And so, so many, whether it’s a staff meeting or whether it’s how we celebrate retirement. When and the age people retire, how often they leave, how often you have to actually do farewells has completely changed from the 1980s because of how many people enter and exit different firms at different times. And so if you still are doing farewell parties the way you did 20 years ago, you’re probably not matching the need in front of you. And right now we’re in this moment of a great reset where we all in our families, in our places of worship and in our workplaces, have the permission and the space to actually look up and say, “Okay, what is our need in this moment?” And how might we experiment coming together in this way. And then how might we learn and decide if that really worked or if that was a terrible idea, we all laugh and we try something else.
BB: Woo, it’s going to be fun.
PP: It’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s a moment of deep creativity, it’s wild. And I think, part of your bounce language and being in beta as it gives everybody permission to play and try and be curious and be truly creating something. We’re in a moment of creation. And that is something that few generations get at this level.
BB: Yeah, I love that. I love that. And I always tell folks when we talk about the bounce, we all have to bounce different. When I’m in a bounce… Steve and I were thinking about moving to a different city. And when I was in the bounce, I’m like, “I have to find the house, find the neighborhood, emotionally move in, feel it out, understand where the grocery store is.” And he’s like, “That’s scares the shit out of me because you’re the microwave and I’m the Crockpot.” But you promise as you’re doing this, you’re in a bounce. I’m like, “Yeah, that’s the way I bounce.” I really go all in and try things. Because if we decide tomorrow that we’re not going, I can pull out really quick, and that’s not him. So even acknowledging that people bounce different and beta different, I think is important.
PP: Absolutely. And bouncing happens in entries and particularly in transitions. We’re in a moment of deep transition. We are sort of exiting this pandemic moment and sort of not. It’s sort of simultaneous. It’s not clear how long it’ll last. We’re also entering and building this new world and we bounce in different ways. I have a friend and a colleague who recently… She has allowed me to share this example with others, because I found it so powerful. She took a new job in the pandemic, probably nine months ago. And it was a big fancy job in a large organization. And to celebrate her first paycheck from that job, she bought herself a kayak. It was like truly pandemic purchase, right?
PP: And outdoor…
PP: But because everything was so backed up, it didn’t arrive until seven and a half months later.
PP: And the day it arrived, she found out it basically was not a good fit. It wasn’t a good fit on her end, and it wasn’t a good fit on the organization’s end, and they decided to end the relationship. And the day they decided that, the kayak arrived.
BB: Oh God. Oh Lord.
PP: And so she hosted for herself… this was her form of bouncing. She hosted a launch party of herself in her kayak. Inviting her friends, including the person who recommended her for the job, including the person who told her about the job, to be the master of ceremonies. And they popped champagne on the river all over the kayak and pushed her out into the river to launch her into her next phase.
BB: That is poetic. Isn’t it?
PP: It’s so beautiful.
BB: That’s poetry. Yeah, that’s poetry.
PP: And it allowed her to acknowledge with her community and her peers and the people who were involved in that process, that she is leaving and that this is happening and that she wants to be seen and faced it. And at a very deep level embodying this idea that she’s going back out into these waters and she’s choosing to, and she wants to do it in community. And that is somebody responding to a need in front of her, inviting her community around it, being seen in that invitation and creating both her own farewell party, as well as her own exit, as well as her own entrance. But with the people in her community. It’s both.
BB: Yes, it’s both.
PP: We’re all exiting and entering so many parts in this pandemic from a work perspective, but in so many other ways, and it’s an opportunity to really, for lack of a better word, have bounce parties. Or to begin to think about what are we leaving behind and what do we want to actually embody, and perhaps even in ritualistic form. You can do this as teams. If there are some meetings that were just truly terrible and no one ever wants to do it again, what does it look like to cancel a meeting, but at the meta-level, not this one time.
BB: Yeah. Right.
PP: Canceled. Can you host a cancel we’re never going to do that again, party? We need ways to mark and mourn and celebrate, and then also mark what we want to enter into. And it’s a radical time of makeover, of invention. And when we do that, witnessed with others, we all then carry that memory with us as we move forward and invent.
BB: God, I love this. And if you’re listening and you’re thinking, what does that look like to challenge, to create something new, to challenge, to rethink during this reset. Priya, has offered to do another podcast with me where we’re going to work a real meeting that I’m worried about in our organization. And she’s going to do a meeting makeover. So look out for that podcast because that’ll be really interesting. And I’m already kind of nervous about it, but I trust you completely, so I’m ready.
PP: I’m really looking forward to it.
BB: Okay, are you ready for the rapid fire?
PP: I’m ready.
BB: Vulnerability is?
PP: Being seen.
BB: What’s one piece of leadership advice that you’ve been given that’s so powerful you need to share it with us? Or so shitty, you need to warn us?
PP: I once had a business coach who was working with women entrepreneurs and working with us on pricing. And she was looking at how we were charging for different parts of our services, and all types of entrepreneurs. And she looked at our prices, and she kept on saying, “Why is that number so low?” And different people, myself included, would say, “Well, I can do that in my sleep.” Or, “That’s really easy for me.” And she said, “If that’s really easy for you, that is your gift, and you should be charging the most for that.” I’ve never forgotten that.
BB: Let’s just take a pause right there. And I can see people stopping just in their tracks on their walk or pulling over to the side of the road in their car. That’s your gift. You should charge the most. Amen. Amen. Okay, I can’t wait. I’ve been dying to ask you this question. What is the hard leadership lesson that you have to keep learning, that the universe keeps putting in front of you over and over again?
PP: Oh, God.
BB: I wish y’all could see her face. We’re on Zoom and she’s covering her eyes and laughing. What is your hard one?
PP: Oh man. The real nub in this question Brené, is that you still have to keep learning over and over again. You’re just really getting in there with this question.
BB: I knew you’d appreciate it.
PP: Oh, man it’s such a good question. Okay. We can cut some of the pause, right?
BB: No, we’re not going to cut any of the pause because I want people… But you know why? Because I did a podcast about a couple of months ago with The Economist, and she’s like, “Wow, we’re going to have to rename this a pause cast with you.” And we’re really hardcore about not cutting the pauses, so people know that we’re still there. Because I want to model for people what it sounds like to be thoughtful in answers.
PP: Beautiful. Okay, then I’m going to pause and I’m going to think.
PP: I think a leadership lesson I keep bumping into again and again is my boundaries around when and how I work, and when and how I close and turn it off. And I think in part because I’m so interested in the work that I do. And like you, it’s about human beings that I keep learning and I keep practicing, what does it mean to actually let work stay at work. And particularly now that we’re all on Zoom, and some of this is very practical ways, changing my shirt, when I close my laptop and go out to meet my family. Just literally having some kind of change. Not allowing for the work that I do and particularly around the conflict resolution work, to finding ways to protect myself so that I’m fully in it when I’m in it. And then I can also not let it kind of carry with me as I go into the other parts of my life. I think as a facilitator and as a leader, one of the things is that in part, in order to access and really help a group, I let them in at some level. I become part of the system. And so I think the leadership lesson I keep learning is how do I do that and then also continue to help protect myself and also protect them, to be able to leave and exit when I’m then entering a different part of my community and life.
PP: And the last thing I’ll say is a lot of this is very practical. So as a facilitator and as a leader, I think one can have the experience, particularly if you’re holding a group or running a meeting of being big, being powerful, holding a lot of space, speaking a lot, taking more air time, whatever it is. Just the experience of just physically… Now, we are on Zoom and my hands are wide in the air and I’m kind of showing and demonstrating holding a group, is I often try, after I’ve facilitated a large meeting, to within 24 hours, giving myself the experience of physically being small to counterbalance that energy. So going to a yoga class virtually or doing something where I am a student, so that I keep on just integrating big, small, big, small, big, small, and I don’t get so inflated at holding that I either collapse or just become incredibly annoying.
BB: The space you’re talking about, that transition space, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a facilitator, or a researcher, or an accountant, that transition space is no joke.
PP: It is no joke.
BB: Okay, what’s one thing that you’re really excited about right now?
PP: Despite our entire conversation and all of the things we need to worry about with handrails, gathering again with people I love in ways that don’t feel super formal and through an internet line.
BB: Amen. Tell me one thing you’re deeply grateful for right now?
PP: The vaccine rollout in the United States.
BB: Yes. Yes.
PP: They’re doing an amazing job.
BB: Yeah. And at a really macro level, also a gathering endeavor.
PP: Absolutely. Absolutely. Particularly in places that are… I’m based in New York, the vaccination centers that are run by the National Guard are so… It’s like a powerful experience. You’re going in and just literally getting, both a literal shot in the arm and a metaphorical shot in the arm. You have to sit for, I don’t know, 14 minutes or 10 minutes to make sure that there’s not an effect afterwards. And that liminal space of knowing that you’re exiting back into a world with protection. These are gathering spaces, sitting with your fellow citizens six feet apart in chairs.
BB: Oh yeah.
PP: And watching people literally get their life back or their life forward. And knowing that we’ve all with these strangers around us, it’s like a civic ritual. And it doesn’t need to be named, but there’s people at the door watching and protecting us. There’s people holding this serum, this magical serum, and that’s getting injected into our bodies, and that we are sitting and reflecting and then exiting back into the sunlight. This is a powerful set of civic gatherings happening around the country.
BB: Yeah, I started crying. I started crying. And the person that walked out at the same time I did when we got released after the sit down and make sure you’re okay, period, kinda looked at me and she just looked at me and she goes, “I know.” And she just gave me a fist bump. It was very much a collective thing for me, it was. Yeah.
PP: Me too. Me too.
BB: Priya Parker, you are welcome on any podcast I host. It doesn’t matter. Unlocking Us, Dare to Lead, if there’s another… You’re welcome all the time, anywhere, any time. Thank you for joining us again.
PP: Thank you for having me. It’s such a treat.
BB: Don’t forget, this is part one of two. If you’re like me, you’re like, “This is the conversation we need to be having.” This is what daring leadership looks like right now. And you want to know what daring leadership looks like right now. It looks like having hard AF conversations about coming back, what’s important and what’s not. We will put all the links to her books and how you can find her on the episode page. Her website is simply priyaparker.com. She has something incredible that’s new that lives there called The New Rules of Gathering Guide. It’s meant to help all of us plan a gathering from a get together party, a work event, meetings. It’s really masterful in helping us think about the right questions. You can find Priya online @priyaparker on Instagram. Her newsletter is incredible. You can sign up for it on her website. And we’ll also put hiatus dates when we’re going to be off the air for, Unlocking Us and Dare to Lead on the episode pages. Grateful to be here on Spotify, and always, always, extremely thankful to be here with you. You can catch everything Brené Brown on Spotify at our hub. Stay awkward, brave, and kind folks, and I will see you next time.
BB: The Dare to Lead podcast is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown. It’s produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and Tristan McNeil, and by Weird Lucy Productions. Sound design by Kristen Acevedo and Andy Waits. And the music is by The Suffers.
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