Remaking Gathering: Entering the Mess, Crossing the Thresholds
Priya Parker is a conflict resolution strategist and author of the acclaimed book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. She is a founding member of the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network, a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership, and a Senior Expert at Mobius Executive Leadership. Learn more about her work, her online Gathering Makeover series, and her email newsletter at priyaparker.com.
Krista Tippett: Priya Parker has become the voice of what it means to gather in this world we inhabit now. She’s helping remake the “how” of coming together, but more importantly, the “why.” Long before the pandemic, she points out, we’d fallen into rote forms for staff meetings, birthday parties, conferences, shared meals. Virtual or physical, this new time of regathering offers a threshold we can decide to cross with imagination, purpose, and joy, as a retethering in our lives and families, and towards making conflict generative, rather than merely divisive. This is a conversation with so much to walk away from and put immediately into practice.
Priya Parker: I see people in this moment of deep upheaval, where weddings keep getting canceled, and book fairs keep getting canceled and rescheduled. And when we don’t actually pause and, first, just kind of throw our hands up in exasperation, and also belly laugh, like … [laughs]
Tippett: [laughs] Right, right.
Parker: … what a mess! And rather than pretending it’s not a mess, and being far from the community or your people, whoever those people are, community is actually opening up and saying, what a mess, and welcome to this mess, and I want to be in this mess with you.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Priya Parker grew up in Virginia and was born in Zimbabwe, of an Indian mother and a Midwestern American father. They divorced when she was young, and for the rest of her childhood, as Priya writes in her wonderful book The Art of Gathering, “I moved every two weeks between my mother’s and father’s households — toggling back and forth between a vegetarian, liberal, incense-filled, Buddhist-Hindu-New Age universe and a meat-eating, conservative, twice-a-week-churchgoing, evangelical Christian realm. So it was perhaps inevitable that I ended up in the field of conflict resolution.”
So, recently, somebody asked me — no, I was speaking about how people often ask me, say to me, “You must have grown up in a family of great listeners.” And I said, “No, actually, I’m the other story, which is I grew up in a family where people did not listen, and I longed for that.” And there was a lot of contradiction that I was very aware of inside the individual characters in my life, and that sent me out into the world knowing in my body that people are contradictory, and I think it has allowed me to walk into every room knowing that and seeing, understanding that contradiction as a potential source of possibility and of growth together.
So that’s a long-winded way to get to the question I kind of want to ask you, because I feel like you get asked this question about your background, and you write about it so beautifully. But what do you think you knew in your body, that you have held in your body from your childhood, that you bring into every room that you walk into, including as a facilitator and host?
Parker: That there’s many ways to be, and that there’s many ways to be, within ourselves — like, within myself — and that there’s many ways to be with others and in community. And you know, it’s interesting to me that you’re asking me what did I know in my body. The ways that I would move — and I only became kind of conscious or aware of this years later — would shift, based on which room or which home I was in. And that was true also, linguistically. If somebody — years later my husband pointed out to me, if somebody sneezed in my father’s house, I would say, “God bless you,” and if somebody sneezed in my mother’s house, I would remove the “God.” I would say, “Bless you.” [laughs]
Tippett: You were multilingual, in many … [laughs]
Parker: Absolutely. And — but also —
Tippett: Also, emotionally.
Parker: Emotionally, and then also physically. So, you know, the ways that I would take a seat, if I was visiting New Delhi and it was a hot summer day and I was playing cards with my grandparents on their bed, literally the formation of my legs and how I would sit with them, cross-legged or slightly leaning back or put with my legs sort of bent and to the side, was a different embodiment than if I was sitting in a church pew with my father, or standing up to praise, as we called it, or simply sitting around and playing Uno. And so, in an embodied way, I learned from a very young age — as I think many of us do, when you start paying attention to the different rooms that you’re a part of — that my body could move in many ways and that there are many ways to be.
Tippett: You know, we’re going to talk a lot about your intelligence on the art of gathering, but I don’t want to skip over the fact that, on September 10, 2001, you helped launch something called the Sustained Dialogue initiative; that you — that you began in the field of conflict resolution and conflict transformation. And I was looking on the website of the Sustained Dialogue initiative, and there’s this phrase: “listening deeply enough to be changed by what you learn.” And you know, it struck me that we are at a moment — globally, but certainly very intensely in this country — where that move [laughs] feels harder — you know, harder than it’s felt in my lifetime, collectively. So I mean, you, as a conflict resolution practitioner and gatherer, you are concerned as much about how people come apart as how they come together. And you know, there’s this word “unity” that’s been floated in these last years, and that’s a lovely idea and such an [laughs] inadequate rallying cry, I feel. And not — it’s not even just that it’s not reachable, I don’t even know if it’s desirable.
Parker: It’s not the right word. Absolutely.
Tippett: Yeah. Right.
Parker: Also, in part, because unity implies stasis, right? And unity to what and for what? And it assumes we are all fixed, right, in a moment or in time or in our own traits. And I have also taken and am a student of improv theater. And I’ve been studying under the lineage of Keith Johnstone. And Keith Johnstone, this language of “altered” I first learned from him, which is this idea that all scene, all drama, all stage work is about the ability for characters to be altered by an event. When we are not altered, there’s nothing to watch. [laughs] There’s nothing to learn. There’s nothing to grow from. And similarly, in relationship — and whether that’s in a marriage or whether that’s in a family or whether that’s in a company or in a house of worship — the dance between both being altered by what you hear or what you experience, while also maintaining a sense of integrity and being open to knowing what of yourself does one want to hold onto, versus what can be altered by something, is at the heart of all community. It’s also at the heart of difference.
Tippett: And so I feel like where you’ve walked us is really — so when you talk about gathering — and we’re talking about something so much bigger and deeper, or you are talking about something so much bigger and deeper than just people being in the same space, whether that’s a virtual space or a physical space. I just want to read the very first paragraph of your book, The Art of Gathering.
“Why do we gather? We gather to solve problems we can’t solve on our own. We gather to celebrate, to mourn, and to mark transitions. We gather to make decisions. We gather because we need one another. We gather to show strength. We gather to honor and acknowledge. We gather to build companies and schools and neighborhoods. We gather to welcome, and we gather to say goodbye.”
In this last period, post-2020 and post-2020 world, we’ve also made attempts to do as much of those things that we’d done in person, remote: meeting, working, loving, solving problems. One thing I want to ask you, as we go into what you know, the intelligence you bring to these questions, it seems to me that there’s a lot of form that changed. But there’s also a lot of principle and kind of essential truths that didn’t change at all. I mean, you’ve pointed out —
Parker: That were revealed.
Tippett: Right, right, that were revealed. I mean, you’ve also said meetings were broken before the pandemic, for example.
Parker: You know, I — just to set the table a little bit, in part because when we have words that we use all the time, we think we know what they mean, or we’re assuming we’re using them in the same way. So I define a gathering as any time three or more people come together for a purpose, with a beginning, middle, and end — so three or more people. I’m really interested, as you’ve already — as you’ve pointed out, in group life. The principles of this work apply in couples or one-on-one, but it’s really about the unique and beautiful creature of the group. [laughs]
And then it’s a specific event and time. It begins, there’s a middle, and there’s an end. And part of that is a distinction I try to make between gathering and group, or gathering and community. Good gatherings can create a sense of community, and communities have gatherings, but I’m pulling those two things apart. And I do that in part because we are gathering all the time, before the pandemic and now. It’s changed form, but all day long, morning, noon, and night, we are with other people, solving problems or in the classroom or in the — in our companies, with our neighbors.
And what I have seen — you know, I wrote The Art of Gathering in 2018. The paperback came out April 2020, in the middle of a pandemic, when gathering was illegal.
Tippett: [laughs] Right, to put a fine point on it, yeah.
Parker: [laughs] Yeah, I was like, this is awkward. [laughs]
And what I have seen over and over and over again is, before the pandemic, when I would go out and speak — and I’m still, my day job is still a group conflict resolution facilitator — when I would talk about the importance of gathering, I had to make the argument for it. And what has fundamentally shifted is, we now all see gatherings, in part because it was banned. Can I have this wedding; can I not? Can we host this fundraiser; can we not? The word “gathering,” over the course of two weeks from late February to mid-March, went from something I could have a, literally have a Google alert about to something that just was in every headline around the world.
Tippett: Yeah, that’s amazing. Right — I mean, I hadn’t thought about that. It’s also just so obvious and elemental that, as you have said and written about, we had and have come to do so many gatherings on autopilot, just with knowing — like a birthday, a meeting, a book club — without considering the why, but we kind of knew this how. But what happened during the pandemic is we had to remake the how. And so did it point us then back to the why, as well?
Parker: Absolutely. I mean, if you think about something as simple as a birthday, a birthday party, and pre-pandemic, in any context of our gatherings, I would argue that a lot of the infrastructure — doorways, food, hallways, bumping into other people — were subsidizing. They were distracting from the lack of meaning. They were distracting from the autopilot nature. They were distracting from the fact that we were focusing so much on the logistics and the cake and the candles and the pointy hats that we didn’t pause to ask, what does this person actually need or want, or how should we spend time to who they are at this age, at 17 or at 37 or at 87?
And this is true in office places and so many other contexts where, when you — we had to begin to actually think about, what creates psychological togetherness? What are the questions we’re asking? How do we structure time so that people are moved by the interaction between one another? Why are we doing this? Who should be there? And how do we spend our time?
Tippett: I mean, one of the things you point out, too, is that knowing the category of a gathering is not the same as knowing the purpose. Say a little bit more about what that means for you.
Parker: So we often confuse category with purpose, meaning, as simple as “Let’s have a pool party,” or “Let’s have a bagel breakfast at the synagogue” or at the mosque. And then we start saying, “OK, who’s going to order the bagels?” or, “OK, so who are we going to — do we invite this neighbor? Who are we going to — invite that neighbor?” And once we have a category in our head — there’s a board meeting: OK, we need Post-its. Or there’s a — we start — we skip defining the purpose, because we think it’s shared and obvious. And actually, many of our forms are either outdated or outmoded, or they’re activities, right? So something as simple as a pool party, well, why are you having this pool party? And I will ask this for anything, and people will just look at me like I’m, you know, nuts. It’s like, uhhh, to have fun? [laughs] To get wet? I don’t know, to swim?
Tippett: And what do you say? What do you say to the pool party?
Parker: And I say, OK, so then — but there’s a lot of ways to have fun. Well, who are you going to invite? And they’re like, “Well, I don’t really know if I should invite the friends we always see, or if we should invite the new neighbors, or if we should invite everybody.”
That’s when it starts getting interesting. And then you say, “Well, what is it at the core — underneath, what is it that you want for your family?” And eventually, someone will say something like, “Because I want to grow up in the kind of place where my children know their neighbors and feel safe.”
And there’s a lot of information in there. And it also allows us to connect to something that’s more deeply meaningful to us, but it’s also super practical. OK, if you want your children to feel safe and have an expansive sense of neighbor, we should be inviting the people that we most want to get to know. We should be expanding — it’s a compass. And when we don’t — or a staff meeting, or even a birthday party. What is the need, this year in my life, that I want to mark, and who might be the appropriate people this year to help me mark it?
[music: “Plum King” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, today with Priya Parker on remaking gathering.
[music: “Plum King” by Blue Dot Sessions]
So I recently attended something, a kind of traditional gathering which has been really meaningful in many ways, across many years, and the impulse was: now we can do it again. And the same template was there, of years past, and it worked. And what was so glaring to me is that that template did not allow for the acknowledgement in our midst that the world has changed, right?
Parker: I love that — and that we have changed.
Tippett: And we have changed.
Parker: Right? It’s almost like, if you were thinking about it, this physical stance. I see people in this moment of deep upheaval, where bar mitzvahs keep getting canceled, and weddings keep getting canceled, and book fairs keep getting canceled and rescheduled and put into hybrid and then into virtual and then into this. And when we don’t actually pause and, first, just kind of throw our hands up in exasperation, and also belly laugh, like … [laughs]
Tippett: [laughs] Right, right.
Parker: … what a mess! And rather than pretending it’s not a mess and being far from the community or your people, whoever those people are, community is actually opening up and saying, what a mess, and welcome to this mess, and I want to be in this mess with youAnd to me, having a similar ritual, the similar form as from the before times, unless it’s deeply conscious and everybody wants to do it, it’s — I mean, I’m going to use this word; it may be too much — it’s almost cruel. It’s like, it’s invisibilizing an entire transformation that we each have been through, individually and collectively —
Tippett: Yeah, and what everybody’s been through.
Tippett: You’re right, like, even if you just would like to do it the way it was done before, because it would feel like a return to something good, we’re not the same people, as you said. We’ve all been through so much. And many — right?
Parker: Absolutely. And this is — and by the way, this is true pre-pandemic. This is just true about life.
Tippett: [laughs] Right, in any given year.
Parker: In any given year, in any given moment. I mean, what we’re talking about here, there’s the philosophical approach, but there’s a very practical approach, which is how do we use language in our invitations in this moment? And doing something as simply as a regathering, versus a gathering, or the, you know, parentheses, “not a wedding” wedding reception, or the “belated mitzvah,” right — it’s the wink. It’s the saying like, Gosh, this is such a mess, and won’t you come in? And just the use of language in itself, in the invitation, acknowledges this shared, deep presence, the openness and acknowledgment of the moment that we are all in, and an invitation to come into it together and to see it and not avoid it.
Tippett: And be intentional, in a way, by force, in a way that we weren’t necessarily intentional before. And what you just said, also, is an expression of just some elemental things that you know about what makes for a meaningful group experience. And I think it’s true in a physical experience or in a virtual experience. And you know, a couple of these things are the importance of the host, and also of — where is it you said — of preparation, of how much of the quality of a gathering is dependent on what happens before anybody walks through the door or any word is spoken.
Parker: Absolutely. You know, I had a mentor, Randa Slim. She’s an incredible facilitator. And she would say to me — and she was talking about conflict dialogue rooms — “90 percent of what happens in the room happens because of what we’ve done before,” like, as facilitators, the paths that we prepped, what the invitation said, who we chose, how we decide the narrative, the story we’re telling about why people are coming.
And that’s true whether it’s a complicated global dialogue or whether it’s a four-year-old’s birthday party, which is — we think we’re hosting from the moment of entry; like once the guest comes into the room or the Zoom. But we’re actually hosting from this moment — what I call the moment of discovery: the moment the guest receives this invitation, receives this promise of this future event or future happening. And that invitation is an opportunity to tell a story, to create this temporary alternative world. And in part, it goes back to our earlier conversation, which is: because we have multiple selves; like, no guest is a monolith. And so I can decide to show up in so many different ways, based on what I understand the social contract to be, what I’m being asked to sign up for. And so am I coming with my serious side or my silly side? Am I coming with my marching band side or my gospel side? Am I coming with my facilitator side or my biracial side?
And part of the beauty of creating these psychological agreements to show up in a certain way and to choose to do that — so people will often say to me, “How do you get people to do what you just want them to do?” [laughs] And the secret is, you don’t do it in the room. I mean, every gathering is an agreement, at some level. And even if you think of something as — like a hootenanny or a dinner party or — all of these words contain agreements, contain norms, contain — a hootenanny, you know, whether you know that word or not, is like, bring your instrument and get ready to jam, right? Or a barn raising: that means, actually come and help us. A dinner party: bring a bottle of wine and be relatively interesting. [laughs] Whatever the —
Tippett: And what you’re doing is naming things that we don’t name and therefore are not — have not been intentional about. And again, this break from normality has forced this intentionality. And talk about — which is implicit in everything you’re saying — your understanding of the importance of the host and this quality of “generous authority.” And I’m also curious — I think that that language of authority is probably a little bit more controversial than it was when you first started speaking about it. But how do you mean like that? You say “hosting is not democratic, just like design is not democratic.” But yeah. What is that?
Parker: So any — gathering is a political act.
Tippett: Any gathering — even a six-year-old birthday party?
Parker: Particularly a six-year-old birthday party. [laughs] Who do we invite? Do we invite the entire class? Do we invite these people? They invited us. And when I say political, I mean political with a small “p.” It’s an act of power negotiation. And any time we are bringing together three or more people — and this is also true in two people — power dynamics exist in every relationship and in every group, and that’s not a bad thing. So generous authority is using your power as a host for the good of the group, to achieve its purpose. And I think of generous authority as practicing the kind of — the role of the host is practicing three things. One is to connect your guests to each other and to the purpose: why are we here? And it can be really fun.
Like, we are so — this is an example from a couple of years ago. A friend invited my partner and I to a Passover seder. And I’m not Jewish. It was our first seder. We walk in, and it’s a living room full of people — this is pre-pandemic — and I didn’t know — I didn’t know the context, I didn’t know if we were the only people who weren’t — didn’t know what to do, or if we were — I had no context. And it was full of joy, and people on the carpet and pillows and chairs and musicians. And then at some point, the host dung her glass, and she said, “Welcome. We are so happy to have you here. For some of you, this is your 25th, this is our 25th seder together. And for others of you, this isn’t only your first seder with us, it’s your first seder ever. And we are so happy you are here. You refresh us. You help us see. And for on a personal note, this is also the first seder that I’ve ever had without my mother. And she passed away last year. And I’m feeling that, and I’m so happy to be with you. Let us begin.”
Tippett: Yeah. Lovely.
Parker: Right? Thirty seconds, one minute, she’s transformed the room. She’s protected us. “You all belong here, whether you’re oldies or newbies.” She’s connected us. This is the — these are who else is here, and everybody adds value. And she’s temporarily equalized us, in — 45 seconds? And when a host uses their power to protect, connect, and equalize the guests, and in very simple ways, it allows everyone to actually then engage and feel enough so that they can be, then, whatever they need to be for that — for that moment, for that event.
Tippett: That also points at another kind of quality that you call out, of meaningful gatherings, and that is always the power of the opening, of the beginning. You said somewhere, the thing that often gets so — done so routinely and thoughtlessly, and it feels like — it feels like the right thing to do is, kind of, logistics. But you talk about creating a threshold. And you see that that’s what — that story you just told us, what — you all walked into a different place together.
Parker: We walked into a different place, and she changed the place. And thresholds, again — this is very practical stuff. This is very democratic stuff. Any of us can do this. A threshold can be a sign. That is a threshold, what do you put on your sign. There’s a restaurant in Brooklyn that, at least pre-pandemic, it said something like, “If you want to get served, you need to walk in dancing.”
Tippett: [laughs] Right. You know, when I saw that language that you used about a threshold, I thought of this line of John O’Donohue, the late poet and theologian and philosopher. He spoke about thresholds, that there are so many thresholds all through life, and that the work and that the challenge and invitation is “to cross our thresholds worthily,” which seemed like another, other words for talking about an “art” of gathering.
Parker: Completely. And I love — like, the sense of the worthy; like, gathering is a sacred act. You’re asking people to spend their time with you in a specific way. And it is an art, and it’s a way to actually ask, like, what is worthy of our time? And joy, right, is worthy of our time. Humor, release, is worthy of our time. Conflict, productive conflict, is worthy of our time. And how do we create the conditions and the setup so that people are knowing, are saying a true yes, that they also agree that this is a worthy way to spend their time?
And that idea of thresholds, you know, I think this is true right now in our workplaces. I recently wrote a piece where I was talking about reentry at work.
Tippett: That’s where I wanted to go next. wanted to ask you about that, because this is another dimension. So yes, keep going.
Parker: So I start the piece talking about Apple trying to figure out — and this is in June — whether or not to go back, you know, physically go back to the offices. And Tim Cook issued a letter that basically said — and I was very interested in this letter. It said, “We’ve learned what we can do in the pandemic. There’s” — this is not verbatim — “that have surprised us. And yet, we also understand that there are certain things that we just want to do together. And therefore, we’re going to — everyone’s going to come back to work three days a week.” Two days later, there’s an open letter from 80 employees basically saying, “I don’t think y’all are seeing what we’re seeing. I don’t think — [laughs] like, y’all are experiencing or have learned or — at all what the employees are feeling.”
And I love this example, in part because, in this moment, we are all Apple now. Like, we are grappling with, how should we meet, and who decides? And I think Do you want to go back to work? is the wrong question. And I write — in The New York Times, for this very specific piece, I thought a lot about, OK, if that’s the wrong question, what are the right questions? As a facilitator, if I had time with these different groups, what should we be asking and exploring together?
And it’s not Should we be going back to work? It’s What have you longed for during the pandemic that you couldn’t do with colleagues? That’s data. When did you want to just push through the screen and get so annoyed that like, you almost feel like you can’t do the thing you want to do, because of the limitations of the technology? That’s data. Just ask people. This is true for worship, too. This is true for anything. What did you want to — what are you happy to discard?
Tippett: What did you not miss?
Parker: What did you not miss? Exactly. You know, you can whisper that anonymously, like, What should we not bring back?
Then, third, what did we invent during this pandemic? What did we — digital hot tub parties where people were in their own bathtubs? I mean, I keep saying this over and over again, because it’s mind-blowing. It breaks this assumption of what can we actually meaningfully do when we’re not physically in the same room?
And then, finally, what do we want to invent now? And to quote — I love the idea of “worthily.” Like, how do we actually take this threshold moment and be worthy of it?
[music: “Tidal Foam” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Tippett: After a short break, more with Priya Parker.
[music: “Tidal Foam” by Blue Dot Sessions]
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, today with Priya Parker. In this world we inhabit now, she’s helping reinvent the how of coming together, from parties to staff meetings to movements — but more importantly, the why. She’s best known, perhaps, for her book The Art of Gathering. But she is foundationally a conflict resolution strategist, as committed to bearing witness as to joyful celebration, and she’s passionate about meeting conflict and making it generative.
What is the language you use — generative conflict. Say — I guess — what would you offer, in this time where we do have this collective fracture and sometimes — I mean, maybe more anecdotally than is true, but — the fault lines are in our families? What are just some, I’m not even going to say “pointers,” I’m going to say some orientation you would give about how to start witnessing one another even in these very fraught places? And how do you start to pick up conflict as generative, or transform conflict into something generative?
Parker: I mean, the first thing, and this is just always true, which is to pause — and I know I sound like a broken record, but it’s to pause and ask, to check in with yourself, and then to check in with whatever the line is, of that community. It’s like, what is the need here? Right? What is the purpose here? What is the need at this moment, for me, and what is the need, as I can ascertain it as deeply as I can see, for this community, whatever, however I’m defining that community?
And sometimes, you know, I — we talked earlier about lineages. And you coming from a family of non-listeners, [laughs] that’s something you’ve deeply come to, to listen. I come from a line of ostriches, [laughs] who stick their head in the sand and avoid conflict at all cost. And when my parents divorced, everyone was shocked, because they never fought. And so, often, just to pause and to ask, what is the need in this relationship, in this moment? — coming back to specificity. And in some contexts, the need, when things are so tense and so conflictual, is actually joy and reminding each other why you love each other.
Tippett: That we can take pleasure in each other, whether we agree or not.
Parker: That we can take pleasure in each other; to water the field, right, to water the bed so that we can actually face and turn to each other.
You know, I have a monthly newsletter that — in which I share an example of like, one specific moment of somebody going through a gathering. And most recently, it was from a woman who’s part of a small church in North Carolina. And she described her — when I asked, you know, “What’s happening?” And she said, “We’re a church community, and we’ve just done a lot of missing of each other. We’ve missed each other physically, during the pandemic, but also, it’s revealed all of these deep political tensions that we hadn’t faced before, and we’re just missing each other. Just a lot of — it’s just hard. It’s tough.”
And long story short, this was in the summer, and she just kind of began to locate, like, what’s the need? What’s the need? What’s the need? And she realized, and she belongs to this group — she said, “The need of this moment is joy, and to remember that we want to be a community, to remember that we can have fun together.” And so they threw a church parking lot party. And she convinced her church budget committee to rent a dunk tank. And she — this is like going back to purpose — she understood and she communicated: Our deepest need in this moment is remembering joy and surprise, and seeing each other, and maybe a little bit of dunking each other, as well, and the power of spectacle.
And it wasn’t to then avoid and pretend and put everything under the rug. It was actually to feed the engine so that we have the sustainability, we have the longing, we have the desire to then also want to face one another. And so, so much — so my deepest principle is like, Look at this moment, because the need may change — what is the need right now? And then to design the agreements around it to convince, to rally, to find your allies, to convince, what is a way in which we might address that need that may not look the way we used to address these needs?
And I think sometimes people bristle against, you know, rules or agreements or — and there are so many different ways to create kind of fun pop-up rules, and it can even simply be language or words we won’t use, or like, No eye-rolling. No eye-rolling is like, it’s kind of funny, but it’s also naming a deep sense that we sometimes feel, and it’s also this very simple way to say, we’ve got to figure this out.
Tippett: You know, the reinvention of this that we’ve been speaking about that is this great opportunity and calling and necessity right now, there are so many examples in your work and in your writing about what that can look like, that we really do get to make this be what it needs to be, and be creative and, as you say, have fun. And you know, probably if I read the book in any given month, I would have different favorite examples, but I’m just going to give two favorite examples from The Art of Gathering.
Parker: Wow, what a treat.
Tippett: [laughs] And one was — one was the example of a — so again, you’re talking about assessing the specific needs of the group, when it meets, and articulating why you’re gathering, and assuming that the gatherings don’t have to look a certain way. And this was the — I think it was the future of grass-fed beef group. [laughs] Right? And so basically —
Parker: [laughs] What can I say, Krista — I have range!
Tippett: You have range. But what I liked about this is, so basically, this is a group that is really the creation of a new ecosystem for the world we live in now. And it’s not the world we lived in, or at least didn’t understand that we lived in, 20 years ago. So I think that this particular standing before this particular challenge of creating a new ecosystem is almost there for all of us, no matter what we do, and whether it’s our workplaces or our fields of work or our communities or our neighborhoods or our kids’ schools, right? And so one of the things you came up with is these rotating small groups, lots of rotating into small groups, which people found — it just sounded exhausting, and I could see — it felt exhausting, [laughs] when I first read about it in the book.
But then you said something so beautiful. You said, in the course of the gathering, people sat at a small table with almost everybody who was there, which of course, also, is not what we do naturally. We naturally have our people we sit with every time. And you said, “After every speaker and every coffee break I reminded them that it’s hard to build a movement if you don’t know who’s in it.”
I just love that.
Parker: It’s true. It’s true. And I think part of — I was the facilitator in that group, and sometimes we’re facilitators with capital “f”’s, and that’s our profession, but most of us, at some point or the other, we’re small-“f” facilitators. And part of the role of the small-“f” facilitator is to push past, with joy and jokes, push past the resistance of like, ugh, again? I have to get up from my chair again? Or ugh, I have to give a toast? Who am I — or ugh, there’s too much structure here.
And yes, you can have too much structure, absolutely. But I find when you help people understand that by moving around during the coffee breaks, in that context, for those who are able to in the ways that their bodies move, there is a purpose of it. It’s not just, oh, this is fun, let’s do this trick, it’s like, you have told me that you want to build a movement.
Tippett: You’re not just mixing things up.
Parker: Yes. You have told me that part of the deepest problem is that the ways that farms are built and scaled in this country is that you don’t know one another, and only pockets know one another. We are all — this is pre-pandemic — we are all in the room for about eight hours. Success is that, in three years or five years or seven years, when there’s some crisis or there’s some moment of decision and everything is super complicated, you can text each other, right? You can make a joke with one another. You can pick up the phone and call — that’s part of an element of how movements are built.
And I’ll just — I love that you picked up on this example. Another example — when we are recreating fields and movements, in almost any organization or system, there is conflict, because there is difference. And so starting — the way we started, it was a related conference to that, the way we started, the opening question, I often have people, particularly in larger groups, fill out workbooks in advance with like, a number of questions in them. And then I read aloud their answers: I curate them, and I read them aloud so they can hear the voices in the room without it taking seven hours.
And one of the questions I asked was something like, what is your earliest memory of food? And then the second half is, then, how might that have informed why you do the work you do today? And in those — and I began by, you know, my — I remember the wrinkles of my grandmother’s hands, as she pulled up a carrot from the earth. And they started to hear each other’s stories, and in part they remembered that, even if they have very different philosophies of how a movement should be built, they were all children at one point, who were deeply moved by dirt. [laughs] Literally, these are people who love dirt. And so all of those elements, it’s like, we need to remind each other that we are complex humans and that when we want to do the work together, how do we quickly flick in certain ways to help a group find enough of a container to do its work?
Tippett: Right. OK, and you mentioned the word “toast” in there, so that was my other favorite example, your “15 Toasts,” which is just so fascinating, and also gets at the power of asking a question that people rise to, right — a question that calls forth the fullness of a human being, even in a single story.
Parker: Absolutely. So 15 Toasts is an invention. So years ago I was in a situation where a friend of mine and I were going to attend kind of very formal meetings the next day, and we wanted to see if we could connect the group in a way that was off-script, that allowed people to kind of let their hair down, that was also — was tapping into the interestingness and brilliance and complexity that we knew was in the room; that I believe is in every room. And people said yes, to come to this dinner, and then it was kind of like, well, it’s 15 people, do we ask one question and then try to harness it and facilitate it? What if people take over? Do we just let people talk to their dinner partner?
And we created this kind of experiment. And here’s what we came up with and we did and has now been done in communities all over the world, where you’re trying to figure out how to get a group of people to meaningfully connect. And so first is, we chose a theme. And in that context, because of the work we were doing, the theme we chose was “a good life” — not “the good life,” a good life. And at the beginning of the night, we dinged our glasses and — we primed them a little bit.
I ding my glass, stand up, and I said, “This is how it’s going to work: at some point in the evening, we invite you to ding your glass, stand up, old-school style, and to give a toast to what you have experienced, or something you’ve learned about a good life. But we don’t want your opinion about what you think a good life is. We would love to invite you to do your toast in the form of a story — a relatively short story, but a story of some experience in your life that no one around this room has heard of, a room that no one maybe knew you were in, and what it taught you, what it revealed to you about a good life. And the only other rule is that the last person has to sing their toast.” [laughs]
That’s one in, at least in most cultures, people break into hives. [laughs]
And part of what this form allows is it gives a structure — and you can choose any theme that’s relevant to the group. People around the world have done 15 Toasts to death, to adventure, to vision, to borders, to controversy, to conflict, to faith — you choose whatever, as a group, a word that you think will have complexity in it and that people will be able to share some story from their life in it.
And the other thing, just around toasting, is we’ve lost an — a practice of kind of collective mechanisms of toasting. And toasting is another form of witnessing, right? And it doesn’t — we don’t have to all be eloquent and say the most beautiful things, but part of a practice — and whether this is for a baby shower or a wedding or any — is to allow people to begin to speak aloud, to honor either a value or a person by actually having a practice.
And I may just actually end with a story. It’s — I was — I think we often, in part because of modern life, in part because we don’t all have the same ways of doing something, we — in trying not to impose on one another, we kind of do nothing in our gatherings.
Tippett: We’re such a ritual-poor culture, as well.
Parker: We’re such a ritual-poor culture. And so in this context, there — what we ended up doing for this baby shower was — and you can all use this, steal it — and this is the question that I asked, is: what is a value — so it’s a group of people who didn’t all know each other but were all connected to this person; in this case, it was a mother who was going to have her first child. And this was the question: how do you know this person? [laughs] — a little bit of context. But more than that, what is a quality in her that you know to be true that will help her, that you know will help her be a good mother? And what’s a story from your relationship, your experience of this person, that demonstrated that value?
Again, gathering is a political act. It’s in these moments that either your norms get reified or reinvented. And we miss those opportunities when we only focus on an activity, without actually trying to grapple with the needs and the moment and the people in front of us, to figure out how we want to now live.
Tippett: And I think what your work is drawing forth and being creative with is that we all have the capacity to pick up those conversations and the questions that are being raised, in the fabric of our lives, which is gathering with other people.
Parker: Absolutely — and by first asking and looking and seeing, what is the need that I see, and is that the need that others see? And it may not be, and if it is not, how do I listen? And then, how might we invent new ways and agreements and forms to come together, because we choose to belong to each other?
[music: “These Times” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Tippett: Priya Parker’s book is The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters. She is a founding member of the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network and a senior expert at Mobius Executive Leadership. Learn more about her work, her online Gathering Makeover series, and her email newsletter, at priyaparker.com.
[music: “These Times” by Blue Dot Sessions]
The On Being Project is: Chris Heagle, Laurén Drommerhausen, Erin Colasacco, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Suzette Burley, Zack Rose, Colleen Scheck, Julie Siple, Gretchen Honnold, Jhaleh Akhavan, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Ben Katt, Gautam Srikishan, Lillie Benowitz, April Adamson, Ashley Her, Matt Martinez, and Amy Chatelaine.
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