On this episode of Unlocking Us
In this episode, I talk with Priya Parker – a master facilitator, strategic advisor, and the author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters. We dig into what it means to come together, why connection requires intention, and the often-invisible structures inside our most meaningful gatherings. Priya even helps me deconstruct my wedding and why, decades later, people still tell me how different and fun it was!
Listen to the episode
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.
Production by Cadence13
Brené Brown: Hi everyone. I’m Brené Brown and this is Unlocking Us.
BB: We have such a timely and important conversation for you today. I am talking with Priya Parker, who is a master facilitator, a strategic advisor, trained in conflict resolution, and she is the author of an incredible book that I recommend to pretty much everyone I know, and I’ve sent probably 20 copies of it to friends and leaders, and anyone who gathers people together, the book is called The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.
BB: Priya and I are going to dig into what it means to come together, even virtually right now, why connection requires intention and planning, and the often invisible structures that are inside of our most meaningful gatherings. Have you ever gone to a gathering or a conference, and you’re like, this is just so good, and you can’t really see the structure, but there’s something that’s holding everything together and everything feels purposeful? We’re going to talk about how that happens. We’re even going to deconstruct my wedding. I did not expect to talk about this, but I had this kind of crazy wedding to Steve in 1994 that people still today when they see us will say, oh my God, your wedding was so different and weird and fun and unforgettable.
BB: And it wasn’t because it was fancy, because it was a low budget wedding, it was because we, I didn’t know it then, but we had a very serious conversation before we started planning it, and we set these really intentional kind of inclusion and exclusion criteria for what was going to be okay for our wedding. And so we dig into what happens when we prioritize people and connection over old rules and kind of unwritten or written policies. So you’re going to love this. It’s so perfect for right now, I can’t wait for you to hear it and meet Priya.
BB: As I mentioned in my introduction, Priya Parker is trained in the field of conflict resolution, she has worked on race relations on American college campuses, she’s worked on peace processes in the Arab world, Southern Africa, and India. She really helps us take a deeper look at how anyone, all of us, can create collective meaning in modern life, kind of one gathering at a time. She’s a facilitator, a strategic advisor. Again, her book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, it’s a go-to book, if you want to with intention bring people together. She’s also the host of The New York Times podcast Together Apart.
BB: She has spent the last, Priya has spent the last 15 years helping leaders and communities have complicated conversations about community and identity and vision at moments of transition and moments of conflict and disagreement. She has worked with a bunch of clients, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Obama administration, the World Economic Forum, and she’s with us today breaking down what it means to come together. Welcome, Priya Parker.
BB: Okay, Priya, I have a million questions for you, and I’m so excited to talk to you during this very challenging time, so I’m just going to start with this, how are you?
Priya Parker: I am here and I am, I think what’s now being called COVID good. So each day I wake up and I wiggle my toes and I wiggle my fingers and I check in and I say, I’m here. And actually, sort of in an embodied way, the night before the election, I fractured my toe and went to the doctor and they said I had a stress fracture, and I thought, “Yes, I do.” I ebb and flow. And I try to focus on what I know to be true and how I can help. And then every few weeks I fall apart.
BB: That sounds exactly right.
PP: And then I pick myself back up and dust myself off and try again.
BB: God… I made up a story that like what if she’s floating above all this in a special art of gathering space that I need to know about. But for some reason, I’m really relieved that you are just like the rest of us, putting one foot in front of the other, feeling good about what you accomplish on some days and some days just falling apart and feeling good that you got through the falling apart.
PP: Absolutely. I think so much of my way of coping and navigating these times is a question that I’ve always asked myself, is a question my mother would often ask me when I was trying to make an important decision in my life, which is, what is it that I know how to do, where is the need, and how can I help? And it’s selfish, some of it, it’s like, how can I do the work almost so I have blinders on, so that I can just do what I can within reach, and then hope that others are doing the same.
BB: Will you give me your mom’s questions one more time?
PP: What do you know how to do and where is the need.
BB: Thank you for joining us on the podcast. We really, I can just wrap it up right here and we’d all be better… Yeah, that’s starting strong, Priya.
PP: You can go and have your tea now.
BB: Yeah, that’s a big one. Okay, let me ask you this, is this, this conversation between us a gathering? You describe a gathering as “the conscious bringing together of people for a reason, shaping the way we feel, the way we think, and the way we make sense of the world.” So are we in a gathering right now?
PP: Absolutely, and yet it’s a very unusual gathering, because I define a gathering as any time three or more people come together with a purpose. It’s really about a group experience. And so you and I are talking, but there’s a third chair at the table, which is the listener. And what’s so interesting to me about podcasts is that we are not all together at the same time in the same place technically, but from an experience perspective, we are in a gathering, there was an intention to your podcast and to this episode, and I imagine in each of your podcasts you think, what is the need in the country, what is the need in my community, and who might we bring together in order to explore that question together?
BB: Yeah. Those are actually the exact questions we ask. Did somebody tell you that?
PP: Well, I can tell from listening to it that it’s an intentional gathering, and I think… I’m a conflict resolution facilitator, and so my work is really about groups. And so it’s not that when two girlfriends come together or two partners or two people on the street, the core of what I’m interested in is what happens when a third or fifth or seventh or twelfth or two-thousandth person is in the room or in the Zoom room, how can we create experiences that help a group connect, but also where the group has changed because of the way they came together.
BB: So I’m so glad that we clarified this is a gathering, because I’m thinking of all the people who listen who are part of what I feel like is a community, and then we’ve got Kristen and Carly producing, we’ve got on my team Lauren and Laura, and this is a gathering. So I’m going to take a page from The Art of Gathering, and I’m going to set a bold, sharp purpose for our time together. I want to know more about you, I want to understand more about the importance of gathering, and I’d like to leave with some actionable strategies for doing gathering well.
BB: So can we start with you?
PP: Absolutely. What would you like to know?
BB: Oh, I want to know everything, but I want to start with, there seem to be so many factors, just a swirl of variables that led you to a career in conflict resolution, from your family experiences to your UVA experiences. Can you tell us how you got here?
PP: I think, like so many of us, so much of my work is focused on the parts of myself that I’m trying to figure out. And I grew up, in a context, I’m biracial and bicultural, my mother is Indian, my father is white American, and I often tell the story because it’s the formative part of both my emotional life, but also my intellectual life, which is they were married for over a decade, and for a long time were kind of each other’s source of adventure and rebellion. My mother’s an anthropologist, my father is a hydrologist, he studies water, and they lived in Southern Africa and South East Asia.
PP: I was born in Zimbabwe because it was the closest good hospital to the village that they lived in in Botswana that would accept interracial couple at the time. They were just kind of footloose and fancy-free. And we eventually moved back to the U.S. and eventually to Virginia. And within a year they separated, within two years they divorced and within three years or thereabout they each had re-married other people. And I’m their only child and they had joint custody, so every two weeks, I would go back and forth between these two homes on Friday afternoons in my little beige Honda Accord, travel from my mother’s house, which was this Indian, British, Buddhist, theosophist, vegetarian, incense-filled, meditating, Democratic liberal progressive family, and I would travel 1.4 miles, this is in Vienna, Virginia, to my father and stepmother’s house and enter a white, evangelical Christian, conservative, Republican, meat-eating, softball-playing, church-going family.
PP: And so for 10 years, I would toggle back and forth between two realities that prayed in different ways, that ate in different ways, that had different definitions of what the sacred was and what the profane was, and I have always been interested in when and why and how we come together, and when and why and how we also fracture or come apart. And so, my husband jokes, it doesn’t take a shrink to explain how I got into the field of conflict resolution. But I’ve always been interested in how groups come together, define themselves, have meaningful time, and yet also being in both families a little bit on the outside. I mean, at some level, just temporally, I was half a part of each family from a time perspective, right. So over the course of a month, I’m there for two weeks.
PP: I also knew what it felt like not to belong, and so a big part of my work is about how groups that are in conflict can come together, but also as they begin to form relationships, how they do it in a way where they don’t each disappear.
BB: That’s difficult.
PP: It is difficult. And in part, because the book itself, The Art of Gathering, I really look at gatherings as a specific moment in time that you can shape, so a wedding, a funeral, a board meeting, a protest, a town hall, all of these kind of categories are gatherings. But I’m also really looking at how do you create a sense of belonging for a temporary moment of time. It could be the Brooklynites or it could be the biracial people, or it could be the teachers, or could be the left-handers, anything can become a source of belonging, but how do you both be part of a “we” without disappearing the parts of yourself that you love that might be different from those who are around you.
BB: I have to ask that you have such a unique lens on gathering, and I do a lot of reading and as a facilitator, I’m immersed in this work often. Do you think it’s your background in conflict resolution that gives you such a unique lens on the possibility, power, and pitfalls of gathering?
PP: Yes, in part because gathering is often thought of as like this rosy, beautiful, full of flowers, like joyful thing, and it can be, but conflict resolution basically assumes, like you’re not invited to enter unless everybody has already said like, this is not working well, like we need help. And so a big part of my lens is coming from how do you create a group experience without all having to be the same. And conflict resolution, and particularly as a facilitator, is about heat. So even going back to my own upbringing, when my parents, when I learned that they were separating, I and everyone around me was shocked because they never fought, and so I knew, and as a conflict resolution facilitator, I’m actually deeply conflict-averse, I’ve had to train myself, almost physiologically, to not just run out of the room when there’s conflict.
BB: I bet, yeah.
PP: And so I think a huge part of what I’ve seen is that our connection is often most threatened by unhealthy peace, at least this has been true in my experience, than by unhealthy conflict. We’re so afraid of everything melting down by fighting with each other that it ends up just kind of petering out.
BB: This just seems like just such an important moment right now for everything that we’re all living through. Unhealthy peace. Define that for me.
PP: So unhealthy peace is an inability or a refusal to see, to name, to engage with the fracture in front of you.
BB: God. So everyone listening right now is like, oh, my family. I think it’s hard with families, right?
PP: It’s really hard with families, and I think particularly in this time, and I think there’s probably studies on this, it feels like it’s gotten harder and harder over the last four years, and people drawing back into their own camps, and I relate to this, I have family members who I’ve had very complicated conversations with and sometimes defined boundaries in order to preserve the connection to actually not talk about religion, not talk about politics. And so a huge part of gathering is, I believe, and I’m really interested in the gatherings that change something, like why do some conferences change a field and others you kind of feel used and deflated and leave feeling worse about yourself afterwards.
PP: Why do you go to some weddings and you remember some for the rest of your life and that actually inspires you to be a better person in your union, and other weddings just kind of fade away. So I think the time we spend together is sacred, and so I know that a huge way to begin to shape moments in time with other people is by actually thinking about, why do I want to do this and how do I want to engage? And is the other person willing to engage on those terms?
BB: Okay, I want to drop down deep into the art of gathering. Can I read a quote from you, just to start out with, a quote from your book?
BB: “I believe that everyone has the ability to gather well. You don’t have to be an extrovert. In fact, some of the best gatherers I know suffer from social anxiety. You don’t need to be a boss or a manager, you don’t need a fancy house. The art of gathering fortunately does not rest on your charisma or the quality of your jokes.” This is the part, I just love this sentence. “Gatherings crackle and flourish when real thought goes into them, when often invisible structure is baked into them, and when the host has a curiosity, willingness, and generosity of spirit to try.” When I read this, Priya, the first thing I think of is that there is a ton of intention behind gatherings, or there should be.
PP: Yes. We are gathering all of the time, pre-pandemic and during. The form has shifted, many of us now may be on Zoom, but day in and day out, whether it’s breakfast meetings or team meetings, or bachelor parties or baby showers or non-profit fundraisers, we’re spending a lot of time with other people. And many of those gatherings are not actually connecting people in meaningful ways, could be put into an email, as we’ve recently discovered, and at some level are driven by fear rather than courage, whether it’s the fear of looking vulnerable, to get into your work, or whether it’s the fear of flubbing it up.
PP: And so a huge part of what we’re doing is, I’m not kind of creating more work for us, we’re already doing this, but I’m saying so many of our gatherings are on autopilot, there’s kind of a way we do things, you don’t really think about it, and because of that, the ways we gather often don’t actually represent who we have become. So take a simple example like a baby shower and putting it in quotes, the baby shower historically looks different in different countries, but it’s a particularly American ritual that has spread other places. And originally, traditionally, it was to support the mother, particularly when birth was more dangerous, when people were getting married younger and they actually needed help defraying costs of having a baby, but also when it was primarily the mother who was going to take care of the child.
PP: So women gather and play pin the diaper on the baby or make play-dough faces of the curls or, choose your activity. And yet, many couples, whether gay or straight, now want to equally parent, we’re in a moment where people are trying to figure out how do we both parent and be in the world, where many of the ways that our parents and grandparents parented are not working for us. But there aren’t actually spaces to begin to ask collectively aloud, how do we do this, how do we want to do this, how do you actually equally share in a way that’s creating an equal partnership when neither one of us saw that in our families.
PP: And so when we start with the form of gathering, which is we assume that a baby shower has to look a certain way, we miss an opportunity to actually shift the way we parent, to give permission to our peers to find stories from how others were raised, to have radical conversations that say, hey, maybe we do this in a different way, and yet because we are so stuck to the form, we don’t spend time inventing new ways of marking and welcoming in new life.
BB: I just have to think about this for a second, I’m a pauser. So I just… I can’t tell you how many… First of all, I can’t tell you how many baby showers I’ve been to, it feels like 400, I’m out of that, I’m now in my 50s, so that’s passed. But they can either be incredible or they can be so formulaic that I’m like, I will literally say to Steve, I’m going to get there, bring the gift, but leave before bunco starts.
BB: And you say something that… This reminds me of something that I read in the book, that was, I thought powerful, just a powerful quote. You said, “a category is not a purpose for a gathering.”
PP: The more obvious seeming the purpose is, like a birthday party, a wedding, a baby shower, the more likely we’re going to skip immediately to form. So when we have these kind of almost archetypal type of gatherings, we have an image in our head associated with “How we do it?” So like a board meeting and you imagine like a mahogany table and 12 white men. I’m kidding. Or like a wedding. Again, in the Western culture, most people imagine, maybe not everybody, a woman in a white dress walking down the aisle. And when we assume that a category, meaning like weddings, birthdays, board meetings, staff meetings, when we have a specific form in our head as the proxy, we skip asking what is the purpose? And we get really stuck to it having to look a certain way.
PP: So for example, even in weddings, one of the questions, you can often hear what people value in the first couple of questions they ask. A question I hate is around weddings, what are your colors? And the reason I think it’s a dangerous question is because behind that question, and it’s a question, like so many questions that come from curiosity and love and engagement, is an indication of what is valued and what the bride or groom should be paying attention to as they begin to plan their big day. And I grew up this way, looking at… My colors are pink, pink, and pink. Looking at popular culture that trains us to think about the questions that matter.
PP: Instead, what if we began in a modern world where we’re marrying people different from us and not necessarily from our communities, where we ask questions like, “How are you planning the ritual? How are you thinking about fusing your beliefs? How are you thinking about doing this in a way that involves your community, not just has them watch it?” And it’s just a different set of questions that begin to take into our own hands, there’s a need in front of us, why are we doing this in the first place, and then how might we design so that this looks fresh and like us.
BB: I have to say that I’m just having this moment, this real-time moment, that I had no intention of talking about this, but I just wanted to share this, because I feel like people are like, well, does gathering have anything to do with me? But you’ve made the point that we gather people all the time for different reasons. But I have to tell you that Steve and I have been together for 30-something years, we’ve been married for 26. And to this day, I cannot tell you, Priya, how many people say, “Your wedding was one of the best times I’ve ever had in my life.” And it was so interesting, because it was a very scary time for us, so my parents are divorced and remarried, Steve’s parents are divorced and remarried. So four sets, eight parents…
BB: We’re the oldest, so the first time some of them had been in the same room since the divorce. Really complicated. We had to be super budget thoughtful, and I remember that we sat down and I was getting my bachelor’s in social work at the time when we were planning the wedding, and we had just learned about ethics filters, like the first filter of do no harm, then the tighter filter and the tighter filter. And I said, we should just use these filters from social work, and so we want this to be a celebration of you and I as individual people and the future that we want to have together, and if it doesn’t fit that…
BB: We’re not going to do it.
PP: So right, so just say that again, say that again.
BB: We just want this to be a celebration of who we are as individuals and the life that we want to build together, and if it doesn’t fit that, we’re not doing it. And so… It was a street fight, I can tell you for sure, because we wanted a church wedding, but we had both left our churches, so we got married in the Methodist church because they would rent the church out without being Methodist. And I wanted to walk down the aisle to “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria,” from the Sound of Music. And they let us do it as the song back up the aisle. I wanted a short wedding dress with Texas wildflowers, and then we had the reception at the oldest honky-tonk in Texas.
BB: And it was kegs and barbecue, and it was so shocking to our guests, because the name of the honky-tonk was the Cibolo Creek Country Club, and so they all thought they were going to a country club. It was the kind… It was like sawdust floors.
BB: I didn’t even have the language until this conversation right this second to understand why… I mean, the tables were just covered in mason jars with daisies that we did ourselves, we hand-painted the invitations and they were on craft paper, because we just kept saying, in the end it has to feel like us, no matter what the judgments are. It was incredible, but I didn’t understand it until now.
PP: It’s such a beautiful example. And I’m like grinning. And my palms are sweaty, which happens when I get excited. To nerd out for a second, you had a specific disputable purpose, right?
BB: What does that mean, disputable purpose?
PP: When you said it was a street fight, so your purpose was inconvenient to other people’s purposes, and what I mean by that is, say again the line that you first said, we wanted it to be fully us and celebrate who we are as individuals.
BB: Yes, and then the possibility of what we could build together.
BB: It was not about what our parents wanted it to look like.
PP: Exactly. And that’s a line. So one of the things that happens in all types of gathering, so we’ll stick to the wedding example, is that when we assume the purpose is obvious, and we don’t pause to say, I love this ethics filter tool you use, “Why are we doing this? How are we going to make decisions around who’s invited? What kind of dress I wear? Where we actually host this thing before and after,” it ends up descending into proxy wars. So you end up kind of fighting one napkin at a time or one guest list scratch-off at a time. So it’s actually a clash underneath about who is this wedding for first, is it to honor your parents or is it to honor the couple? Is it to bring together and display the individuality of these two people and their complexities, the fact that they consider themselves Christian, but they’ve left their church, the fact that you want to be feminine, but not in the traditional ways.
PP: Whatever it is, not everybody is going to agree with your vision, but it’s legitimate because it comes from the source of the purpose of the gathering, which is to put you in union with the person you choose in the way that you want.
BB: Can I read another quote here…
BB: From you. Okay, you say, “But here’s the great paradox of gathering. There are so many good reasons for coming together that often we don’t know precisely why we’re doing so. You are not alone if you skip the first step in convening people meaningfully, committing to a bold, sharp purpose. When we skip this step, we often let old or faulty assumptions about why we gather dictate the form of our gatherings. We end up gathering in ways that don’t serve us, or not connecting when we ought to.” Dang, Priya.
PP: And you did this with the wedding, right? So you pause and you then say, “Do I want the one of three songs that I grew up with it in the weddings that I’ve seen, but I don’t want to go so far that I’m throwing out the aisle or throwing out the song?” Right? It goes back to what we were talking about earlier. It was like, how do you belong, but on your own terms? You chose this beautiful, hilarious song, right? “How do you solve a problem like Maria? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down,” like all of these words that are actually gorgeous and about transgression, and you’re walking up the aisle to it.
PP: And I think particularly as women, and at least the archetype of the female host, which came from generations of a context where one of the only ways to express power was actually in the domestic world, and so gathering kind of got tangled up with hosting, hostessing. So then we spend a lot of time focusing on how do you perfect the form, how do you beautify the flowers, how do you make sure you have ramps on the table, like ramps are all the season, how we… The crystal, and it’s not that those things aren’t beautiful or create meaning or joy, it’s just that they’re the base, they shouldn’t be the only source of meaning or connection.
BB: I want to read this quote from you because I thought it’s just so powerful. You say, “When we don’t examine the deeper assumptions behind why we gather, we end up skipping too quickly to replicating old staid formats of gathering and we forgo the possibility of creating something memorable, even transformative.” Man, I was just hit by this replicating old, staid power over ways, right?
BB: Say more.
PP: So, every ritual, every collective gathering at some point was an attempted solution to a need at the time.
PP: Right? So whether it’s coming together to barn raise, to literally build a barn, because you couldn’t build a barn alone, or whether it was, going back to our earlier example, to help a young couple defray the costs because they’ve barely joined the workforce yet, or whether it’s to have a coming out ceremony because at a very specific moment you want to present a person to society or in a different context, we bring people together in new ways, when a new need arises, that’s always been true. And part of the work of this moment is to not say, “Hey, let’s look at all the formulas and apply them to the new needs we’re facing.” It’s actually saying, “Let’s pause and look in front of us” and saying, “What is the need in front of us and how might we invent new ways, modern ways to come together.”
PP: One of the things that I realized when I was researching for this book was that meaning lies in specificity. So if you look at rituals from specific sub-communities, so like Brahminical, red thread-tying ceremonies, like in southern India, there’s a very specific ritual, if you go and watch, you tie a red thread around a specific wrist, and everybody there believes in the same God, eats the same food, understands what the red thread signifies, and when the red thread is tied around a wrist, everybody burst into tears because they understand that in that community it signifies a boy becoming a man. Or in Indonesia, like a tooth filing ceremony, it’s like a very specific way people come together to mark a specific moment in a community that all believes the same thing.
PP: And one of the things that has happened over time, as we become more diverse, a good thing, as our workplaces are becoming integrated and more equal, a good thing, is that we’ve thrown out our traditional ways of doing things, in part to try not to offend one another, but it gets replaced by these vague kind of full of beer gatherings that kind of doesn’t really serve anyone. And in trying to not assume a specific way, we lose a lot of the meaning. Or we fall back into traditional roles that none of us actually want to carry. So to have a powerful gathering, to have a meaningful gathering, start with a real need in front of you and ask who might be able to solve this with me.
PP: I’ll give a simple, kind of playful example. When I wrote The Art of Gathering, a journalist called me for a food magazine and she said, can you help me art of gathering-ify dinner party? I want to throw a dinner party, can you help me art of gathering-ify it? And I said, “Well,” and I asked her the question that I ask every single person, and including myself, which is, ‘What is a need in your life that by bringing a specific group of people you might be able to address?” And she was like, “For a dinner party? I’m just trying to throw a dinner party.” And I said, “Just play with me here.” And she was kind of stressed out about setting the table and what to serve and kind of the form of stuff. And she stopped and she said, “Well, to be honest, I don’t know if this counts, but I’m a worn out mom, I’m exhausted. The other day I was at a friend’s house, she cut me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and put carrot sticks on a plate and fed me and I burst into tears.”
PP: And I said, “Why did you burst into tears?” And she said, “Because I’m worn out.” And then she stopped and she said, “What if I threw a dinner party for my other worn-out moms?” And I said, “Good, right?” It was specific. Give it a name. And she called it the Worn-Out Moms Hootenanny.
BB: Oh, love it.
PP: And then I said, “Give it a rule.” And she said, “If you talk about your kids, you have to take a shot.” And as she was talking, she was getting more and more excited, I could see the life coming back into her face. It didn’t feel like this obligation to throw this perfect dinner party and follow the suit of those forms, she was seeing a real need in her life. She wrote this email, I was like, include the peanut butter and jelly sandwich story, she wrote it to six women, they all RSVPed yes in the first 45 minutes, and she went on and she did this. And part of what she was doing is she was saying, “I don’t need to follow the same old rules,” but she was also doing something a little bit radical by introducing the sort of playful pop-up rule of if you talk about your kids, you have to take a shot. She was saying, “Yes, we can be mothers, and yes, we can come together with that shared identity, and yes, we can talk about many other things in the world that is not just our children.” Which, for the history of women coming together for all sorts of purposes, is a radical idea.
BB: I love the self-interrogation piece, especially when you feel like you’re doing something because you have to. And it’s just such a different vibe for me when I gather people out of love rather than out of duty.
PP: Absolutely, absolutely. And people can feel it. I’ll go through another example. We are living in ways that are new in history, particularly, I believe, in the United States, with more than half of humanity lives in cities, and usually that means is they’ve moved from the place they were born in. And so I have a friend and she allows me to share this example, and she is half-Egyptian, half-German, and she moved to the U.S. years ago, and recently, a couple of years ago, her father passed away, and so she went home to Germany for the funeral. And she came back and I asked her how she was doing, and she said, “You know, I went back and I was really there for my mother, to be a support for my mother, and I saw all of my childhood friends, and I’ve come back and I just feel so disconnected from my community.”
PP: She said, “It’s impractical to have everyone fly to that funeral, they didn’t even know my father, but what I realized, and coming back is, as a woman in my 40s, you all don’t know me as a daughter, and me as a daughter is a really important part of me.” And so I said, “Well, why don’t you hold a gathering?” And we invented one and she basically, she was still mourning, but she needed to mourn with her people, even though her people… Traditionally, her people would also be her mother’s people or the mother’s people’s daughters or sons. So she invited 40 people, she wrote an email, so part of I think modern gathering is being more explicit. When you’re inventing new ways to be, you have to explain the reasons for doing it.
PP: So she kind of explained all this, she said, “I know this is a little funny or this may feel a little odd and I feel even kind of vulnerable asking, but would you come for an evening… I’d like to share with you, to be with me, if you’re comfortable, wear black or dark colors, and I’d like to share with you stories about my father so you better understand me.” And we all came and she was specific, please come, and I think it was like 6 to 9, we’ll start at 6:30, so again, it was orienting, it’s not an open house, again with care, but we need to be oriented, and then she sat kind in of in the top of her circle and she had some photos of him and she just started telling stories about him. And as she started telling stories of her father, at certain moments the room would be rocked in laughter because we started realizing, “Oh, my goodness, like she’s just her father.”
PP: And then at some point she paused and she said, “And I’d love to just hear from you how you’ve coped or just if you have any advice.” And then like popcorn, unplanned, all different ages, all… We didn’t all know each other, people shared and shared about grief of losing a parent or losing a loved one and how they managed. And it was just this beautiful exchange that was a kind of a modern invention to a modern need that everybody felt honored to be a part of that was specific, that was disputable, and then she closed it by playing a song that he would often play, a morning prayer he would often play in the shower and listen to each morning. And then we broke bread and we ate.
BB: I have goose bumps.
PP: I mean, I have goose bumps just remembering it, and it was this beautiful… I think part of also her concern was like, “Is it selfish? Is it selfish to host a gathering that’s all around my need,” but actually, it was this radical act of generosity, because she was letting us see her, and she was letting us feel needed and feel wanted and realized that the “funeral” that was really important for that other community in which she was a daughter, but not a mother or a friend or an entrepreneur, was good for that community, but yet we haven’t figured out new ways to be together, and so we invent them.
BB: Tell me about the concept, when I hear this story, tell me about the concept of generous authority.
PP: So many of our gatherings, particularly in informal gatherings, suffer from a fear of not wanting to impose.
BB: That’s right, yeah.
PP: You know, whom am I to ask a question or make yourself comfortable, and again, it comes from a good place, it comes from a spirit of generosity and making your guests comfortable. But in a lot of contexts, leaving your guests alone basically means leaving them to each other. So if you’re at a training and there’s one chatty volunteer and that chatty volunteer keeps on asking all these questions, and the trainer at some point doesn’t just say, you know what, that’s enough, or with a joke, you’re actually not protecting the group. And so generous authority is this idea that as a host, generous authority is using your power as a host to protect the purpose in order to serve the group.
BB: Say that one more time.
PP: So generous authority is using your power as a host to protect and fulfill the purpose for the group, to help the group do its work.
BB: There is no facilitation without generous authority.
PP: Correct. And it can look a thousand different ways. It’s in each of these things that should reflect you, it’s like you and Steve’s wedding, it was like, it’s not replicable. It doesn’t make sense to replicate because it was yours. So similarly with generous authority, so three kind of jobs, if you will, as you’re thinking about bringing people together: To protect people, to connect them to each other and to the purpose, and to temporarily equalize. So I’ll give an example. Actually, this is from your hometown, the Alamo Drafthouse, have you been?
BB: Oh, yeah, of course, yeah.
PP: So as you know, it’s a movie theater that is unique in a lot of ways, but one of the ways that I love its uniqueness is that like other movie theaters, it says, pre-COVID, no texting, no talking, but all other movie theaters, AMC or Loews, if someone behind you is talking, or chatting up or on their phone or texting, it’s up to you as the other guest to like give them a stink-eye or like escalate it. So they set a rule, but they don’t enforce it, they kind of leave you to each other. At the Alamo Drafthouse, they have a system that’s equitable, which is everybody gets a card, because you can also order food or drinks, and if you see somebody texting, you can write on your card, but they don’t know if you’re not ordering an IPA or saying this person’s texting, and the person gets a warning from a staff and if they do it again, they get kicked out.
PP: And you could say, wow, this is a really controlling place, but what they’re actually doing, if you talk to the CEO, he is protecting the purpose of the Alamo, which is to bring the magic of going to the movies, in an age of streaming and Netflix, back to the theater. And a lot of things can kill the magic, you have to understand, people are agreeing to these rules by coming. You don’t have to go to the theater. But similarly, in our gatherings, when we want to be chill, chill is a self-protective way of not looking like you care in front of your people, and that’s neither protecting you, nor is it protecting your people.
BB: I have to say that, Laura, the person who heads of the podcasting for us, who’s listening right now, hey, Laura, has put together a conference, it’s called Mom 2.O, for a decade now, and it’s really interesting because we’ve been friends for that entire decade, and this is a big conference where mothers come together with marketers. And what’s interesting is I thought a lot about the Mom 2.0 conference when I was reading your book, because there is a very serious invisible structure to that conference that takes a shit ton of work, and you don’t feel the structure. Because if I go into a conference or something and it is super engineered within an inch of my life, I hate it, but this is like you’re walking across a bridge and there are hand rails that you can grab, but they don’t obstruct your view.
BB: It’s like, I don’t know how to describe it, but I also know that pulling together these thousands of people that are going to this conference, I know that it takes two days or three days to put the conference on and 10 or 11 months to build the invisible structure that keeps people protected, keeps people connected to each other, and keeps people connected to the purpose. Is that an example of what you mean when you talk about these kind of generous authority and invisible structures?
PP: Absolutely, and I would imagine if it’s a conference that’s repeated over time, people over time also kind of know how it works at Mom 2.O and love it and continue, and over time, people will reinforce the norms for you.
PP: Which then becomes less work for the host. But thoughtful structure… I mean, for a 2000-person conference, it absolutely will take nine or ten months to do it really well and get people all at some level marching to the same tune so that they can dance to their own beat.
BB: Wait, say that again.
PP: So part of… For a large group of people, unless we all kind of know how to do something, right, you go to Bonnaroo, or South by Southwest, you go to a very specific conference or music festival where people have been going for many, many, many years, and there’s a way, and you know how it goes. If you’re a new conference or a new gathering, part of what you need to do is prime your guests so that they’re kind of… I think what I said is marching to the same music so they can dance to their own beat.
BB: That’s right.
PP: And you see this now in a COVID world, I think when so many gatherings are being put online, we’re again trying to navigate norms where I think people are under-hosting. Zoom isn’t like a physical space. Zoom is whatever we make it. And so to go back to our wedding thing, I’ve been to multiple weddings this year over Zoom, virtual weddings, and some in the chat are like church meets the peanut gallery meets like a football game, where like people talking and laughing through the chat and making comments on the bride’s shoes and teasing each other, and others where the chat is like pin-drop silence.
PP: And part of that is because of the norms that the people set at the very beginning, when people come into a Zoom Room, is there a slide show or a story of who this groom and bride are, or bride and bride and groom and groom. Are there people early on kind of normalizing the fact that you can write into this chat, like we don’t really know how to be, and so this generous authority absolutely comes onto the virtual world as well, because you have to guide your guests so that they understand how can I be successful here.
BB: I want to rephrase what you said and then tell me whether I got it right or not. Okay? Zoom is not the gatherer…
PP: Yeah, I mean, another way to put it is like Zoom is not the host…
BB: Right, Zoom is not the host.
PP: Zoom is a place, and it’s a place with very little context. So part of the moments in COVID right now is rooms create a lot of context, doorways are actually also psychological entryways where you leave the carpet and you enter the wood, you leave the outside, you come to the inside, you take your coat off, you put it on a coat rack and you come in and you… The doctor enters the office, she puts on her white coat, she becomes a doctor and she leaves herself as a soccer player or whatever she was right before. And in Zoom, we don’t have any of those elements, so we actually have to, or virtual, we have to create them and we can create them by, you know, I have some… I’m now doing conflict resolution online with groups, and in some of those cases, you have 30 people coming in, you find the first five minutes in a physical world, people are coming in, they’re mingling with each other, they’re moving the chairs to where they actually want to sit, they’re grabbing a snack.
PP: We are thinking a lot about how do you create those first five minutes, what’s a song that would actually unify people, what’s two words you can put on a PowerPoint that people put into the chat, how do you invite people to bring a mug or a specific object to place in front of them so that you can create a sense of togetherness even if you’re not physically together.
BB: Tell us what you see right now going on in the world of gathering virtually, just a couple of very specific things that’s working really well.
PP: So I think that we’re learning one step at time. I think one thing that is working well is people are starting to use the very simple tools, use the chat in Zoom. There’s something that I’ve recently, I heard someone call, I think they called it a chat fall, kind of like a waterfall, but a chat fall, so say you have 50 people on a call or a 1000 people on a call, and they’re just starting to ask questions in some ways that they wouldn’t necessarily ask before. So what’s one thing you did in the last week that you would have never done pre-COVID? And you see 45 answers or 1000 answers. What’s the best virtual gathering you’ve been to in the last month in a work context? What’s one gathering you think we should cancel?
PP: And what’s interesting in Zoom is that you can actually see people’s names versus like in real-life events. I think there are party planners and experience designers who are exploring ways to not just get stuck in the screen, so there’s these groups of people who do this called the Bodyssey, where they have different rooms actually in your house, they have the insight that we are all so focused on the screen, but we each have these entire universes behind us. And so I remember seeing one tweet of somebody who said, “I went to this amazing party online, and I ended up in the ‘hot tub room,’ and everyone was in their own bath tub in their own house.”
PP: It devolved into a naughty game of truth and dare. And I laughed because it’s kind of blowing in my mind that people are experimenting radically. There’s a guy named James Sills, who at the beginning of March, he sings, he wrote a book called Do Sing, and he was kind of stuck on his couch and from March once a week, he does this thing called Sofa Singers, and thousands of people around the world, and he has them put himself on mute and he sings and everybody sings together at the same time. People are really, really experimenting.
PP: I have a newsletter every couple of weeks, so we kind of look at one element of gathering, particularly right now in the time of Corona, that kind of dissects people’s approaches so that we can all understand, like in every gathering, there are power dynamics. In virtual gatherings, power disproportionately lies in the mute button.
PP: So how do you think about how you use the mute button, we mute and then we actually take out so much information, when people’s jokes, and you know this as a social worker, when people’s jokes and side comments and sarcastic comments are so much data. It’s actually a lot of the truth lies in the throw-away comments, and when we mute, we’re literally sterilizing our environment. So how do we begin thinking about more sophisticatedly using the tools that we have when we can’t be physically together.
BB: I love this. Okay, I have two questions for you before we get to the rapid fire. One is, do you think there’ll be a shift in how we gather moving forward?
PP: I think one thing that COVID has done across the board is that it has made us not take gathering for granted.
BB: Yes, yes.
PP: Whenever we have a vaccine and enough people have taken it safely and all signs say go, I think we’ll be rushing towards each other, and I think we will have joyous messy dance parties. And I think that in part because this massive disruption, teachers have had to figure out how to teach virtually, the Supreme Court is now live-streaming their arguments. Institutions have changed.
BB: For sure.
PP: And so I think a huge part of what we will see moving forward, I think we will see more people doing virtual gatherings than would pre-COVID, and I also think that the currency of coming together has gone up. I think we won’t take for granted being together and I think and I hope that part of what we have learned during this time is that you can still create meaning, in fact, you can particularly create meaning through the ways that you shape questions and conversation, and not just through the shaping of things, particularly when in the global pandemic, the things are the dangerous part, so it’s like, how do we begin to shift meaning and pay attention to people and not just fuss over the shape or the form.
BB: Fuss over the china and the flower arrangements.
BB: I have to say, I’ve been in some really amazing virtual situations, and I’ve been in some that are just terrible, and I don’t think you can do it well without, using your words, bold, sharp, purpose, clear, sharp, bold purpose-setting.
BB: Yeah. Okay, last question, I think it’s okay to talk about this because I think we’ll always be, something will be ahead of us like this, but we are going into a holiday season here in the U.S., Hanukkah, Christmas, many holidays, Kwanzaa. We’re not gathering with family for the first time in my life this year, and I’ve got older parents and it’s… What thoughts do you have about that?
PP: So I think it’s very sad. And I’ve been doing some research on other times where we have faced versions of this, and realize that in the years 1941, 1942, 1943, families couldn’t gather, the Thanksgiving Day Parade was cancelled, the football season had been put on ice, there were recipes in newspapers about how to make do with what you have. The country was actually split, FDR apparently passed an ordinance to change the day of Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of the month instead of the fourth Thursday, and 22 states celebrated in one way, and 22 states celebrated in the other way.
PP: And I’ve been poring over newspapers and archives to see how did they do this. And how they did this was what we should be doing now, which is you love the ones you’re with, and you find ways to meaningfully honor the ones you can’t be with that day. And so in 1942, that looked like hosting servicemen and servicewomen who were in your city away from their families. And so today, I know of people who are cooking up a meal and driving around, not going home, but driving around their cities or their towns and dropping off meals to those in need, but also those who they’ve been grateful for, who have really been a new relationship because they can’t actually go home and they’ve been really important, hanging outside in your town or city.
PP: Also in 1942, there wasn’t Zoom, there wasn’t these virtual ways, and so I think the other way is to think about “Who are my people this year?” And if I can’t be with them in a safe way physically, how do I still meaningfully connect in these new ways, whether it’s like sync cooking together, choosing a recipe, talking about why that recipe was… My step-father turned 80 this year, and we had to cancel his 80th, and he has multiple grandchildren between the age of 2 and 16. And we realized that, like how do you do this? And so what we ended up doing was at 10 AM had a joint gingerbread cooking competition across six households where everybody put a… We used FaceTime, on the table, and it was this kind of shared synchronous activity that was age-appropriate and matched the need, and then at 4 PM, we hosted a virtual cocktail party where people he wouldn’t have been able to invite to his birthday because they live in another country or his roommate from 40 years ago, all joined, and my mother, kind of the queen of the gathering, put everybody into breakout rooms, strangers, and had them spend 10 minutes coming up with limericks…
BB: Oh, my God, that’s awesome.
PP: Like simple stuff, and then we came back and each person shared their limerick, it was short and sweet, but it was hilarious, and it also, again, a focus… The focus was John, it gave each of us, his cousins, his roommates, his work colleagues, his nephews and nieces, different perspectives of him that we wouldn’t have otherwise got if it was just the children and the grandchildren in a house, which was the original plan. This is really hard. And to go back to our beginning conversations, like, what do I know how to do, who is my circle of responsibility right now, who is my circle of joy right now, and how can we find simple, meaningful ways to honor each other and face what is.
BB: There’s so many things to love about you, Priya, but one of the things I love the most is you are not afraid at the tension of a paradox, you are not, you are…
PP: And neither are you.
BB: No, no, I’m not, that’s probably why I love it so much in you, but you are like… You are “Yes, and” and you are “Yes, this is hard, and we can still do things that make a difference. Yes, we’re going to be excited to see each other again and gather in messy loving ways, and we’re going to do more virtually moving forward.” I just so appreciate your expansiveness.
PP: Thank you. Thank you. Well, I think you model it for so many of us, and I think all we can do right now, and it’s a time for self-exploration is like, “What do I know how to do?” Yeah, so as a facilitator, if I was like, “I’m an expert in in-person gatherings, I’m going to sit this year out,” versus getting really clear and saying, “I know how my core skill is to create meaningful connection despite obstacles.” Boy, is COVID an obstacle. So similarly, each of us have gifts and skills, and then how can this day, in part for my own sake and sanity, address a need in a way, that is what I can give that day.
BB: It all comes back to your mom, Priya.
PP: And I mean, for all of us, right? You can’t escape it.
BB: No. Okay, you ready for the rapid fire?
PP: I’m ready.
BB: Fill in the blank for me. Vulnerability is…
BB: You are called to be very brave, but your fear is real, you can feel it right in your throat. What’s the very first thing you do?
PP: Feel my feet on the floor.
BB: God, that’s good. Okay, what is something that people often get wrong about you?
PP: That I’m controlling.
BB: The last TV show that you binged and loved?
PP: That’s easy, “The Crown.”
BB: Okay. Okay, favorite movie? Or one of.
PP: “A League of Their Own.”
BB: A concert that you’ll never forget.
PP: Simon and Garfunkel at JazzFest, where Garfunkel lost his voice and the whole audience took up his lines to sing when he couldn’t.
BB: Okay, are you killing us on purpose here, Priya, or what? That’s just too good of an answer for the person who wrote The Art of Gathering. Okay, alright. Favorite meal?
PP: Anything that my husband cooks.
BB: Oh, is he a good cook?
PP: He is a really good cook.
BB: So he’s a great cook, he’s a brilliant writer, and he’s got fantastic hair, it just doesn’t seem…
PP: He does.
BB: What’s one thing he cooks that you just really love, like what would he make you on your birthday or special day?
PP: Steak. He’s a great griller.
BB: What’s on your nightstand?
PP: A five-year journal. And right now, a book about how and why the Bancrofts sold the Wall Street Journal to the Murdochs.
BB: Woo, that’ll be a podcast in itself. I’m going to come back and ask you that. Okay, two more, a snapshot of an ordinary moment in your life that gives you true joy.
PP: Walking with my children to school.
BB: And tell me one thing you’re deeply grateful for right now.
PP: This conversation with you.
BB: God, me too. I’ve learned so much. Okay, you gave us five songs that are really important to you: “On Children,” by Sweet Honey in the Rock. I thought I was the only person in the world that knew that song.
PP: I love that song.
BB: That is the most incredible… Khalil Gibran, right, wrote the words.
PP: It is, it is.
BB: Incredible. So “On Children,” by Sweet Honey in the Rock. “Storm Coming,” by the Wailin’ Jennys; “Come Along,” by Cosmo Sheldrake; “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” by Nina Simone and… Do you want to give us this title?
PP: I always listened to it, I’m not even sure how to pronounce it.
BB: I’m going to try it here. “Cucurrucucú Paloma,” by Bïa. Okay, in one sentence, Priya, tell us what these five songs say about who you are as a person.
PP: I think each of them have minor notes that become major notes in really interesting ways.
BB: You are so on point. You know what, you’re so beautifully intentional, there’s this like saying in scrum and agile process that rituals will set you free. It’s a paradox in itself, but you are so intentional, that you are incredibly expansive. So thank you so much for sharing your research, your work, your writing, the art and craft of gathering with us, it’s a really important time for this conversation, and I feel so grateful that we’re going to put it out on Thanksgiving week. So thank you.
PP: Thank you so much for having me. It’s such an honor.
BB: Not only was this an informative conversation, it was just fun. She’s just a fun, smart, connected, empathetic person to talk to, I can’t think of anyone better as we are trying to figure out gathering in virtual ways and as we start together again, hopefully soon around the corner. The book, again, is, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. You can find everything on the episode page on brenebrown.com. You can find Priya online @priyaparkerIG on Instagram, and her website is priyaparker.com. And she mentioned that newsletter, which I’m actually going to sign up for, because I love anything that sends like thinking pieces. It’s easier probably to go to brenebrown.com and get it off our episode page. In the end, it really comes down to the three questions her mom asked: What do I know how to do? Where is the need? And, how I can help? Man, these questions matter so much.
BB: Okay, I want to tell you a couple of things. Dare to Lead podcast, I’m talking with Eric Mosley about re-humanizing work and what it means to make work more human, I think you’ll really love his unapologetically enthusiastic and joyful take on people and what we’re all about.
BB: The Dare to Lead podcast is available exclusively on Spotify, it’s also free. I think that’s it, y’all. Stay awkward, brave, and kind, and gather with intention. Unlocking Us is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and by Weird Lucy Productions, and by Cadence13. Sound design is by Kristen Acevedo, and the music you’re hearing is by Carrie Rodriguez and Gina Chavez.
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