How to Design Gatherings That Matter, with Priya Parker.
This conversation with Priya Parker, founder of Thrive Labs and author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters, is about how to infuse intention and connection into all of our gathering opportunities.
How to Design Gatherings That Matter, with Priya Parker
In this episode, Priya talks about the idea of code switching, what that does at an individual level and how it led her to group conflict resolution, and about how we can host or guest gatherings in ways that foster self-care with some tactical tips and questions to reflect on.
Today we are talking about how to design gatherings that matter.
We all attend and host gatherings all the time, whether it’s a work meeting, or hosting a holiday, or just attending a get-together, a shower, or a wedding.
And this one is all about how to infuse intention and connection into those gathering opportunities.
On our guest, Priya Parker:
I’m so glad you’re here for this conversation with Priya Parker all about how to design gatherings that matter.
Priya is a master-facilitator and the founder of Thrive Labs where she helps activists, elected officials, corporate executives, educators and philanthropists create transformative gatherings.
She’s trained in the field of conflict resolution and has worked on race relations on American college campuses and on peace processes in the Arab world, southern Africa, and India.
She studied organizational design at M.I.T., public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, and political and social thought at the University of Virginia (she’s legit).
She’s also the author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters, which is what we’re really going to dive into today.
I love this conversation because it helps reframe the idea of gatherings or celebrations or parties and gives us some tactical ways to make them more intentional, more meaningful, and more connected.
Priya also shares a really good idea with us during this episode, and it’s something I want to invite you to be a part of.
If you tuned in last week, you know we talked about how to avoid the holiday spiral, and I encouraged you to cultivate and intentional season instead.
Being really intentional and incremental about these last 50-some days in the year so that when you go into January you’re not starting from scratch and you have some grounding and momentum going into the new year.
In this interview, you’ll hear me talk about this idea of the holiday spiral, and Priya then came up with this idea of the spiral supper.
I love this idea and I want to do it for myself, but more importantly I want to invite you do it together with me as a community.
If you’re listening in real time, this is how it’s going to go down:
This Saturday, November 17th, we will host a virtual spiral supper.
You can participate anywhere you are in the world; you can participate alone or with friends or family.
It’s going to be a virtual community event we can all do together on the same day and we will keep it very simple but very intentional.
First, pick a meal.
This can be something you cook that means something to you, something you cook with someone you love, or it can be takeout from a favorite restaurant- it’s not so much what, but why.
The second part is to actively set an intention for the remainder of 2018.
And that can be a big intention, but I really think the more specific and incremental it is, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to stick with it.
Maybe your intention is to be more real, or to connect in a more meaningful way, or to be more present, or to create more white space and more pause.
Whatever your intention is, I want you to write it down, speak it out loud, and share it with as many people as you can.
I’ll send reminder details on the Real Food Whole Life newsletter- if you’re not on there, that’s where I share behind the scenes and insider information (you can jump on that at here).
On Saturday the 17th, or the next day, Sunday the 18th, I would love for you to share something about the spiral supper.
That can be the kind of food you eat, the people you share the meal with, and/or your intention.
Share it on social media so that I can see it and, more importantly, so your community can see it.
It’s amazing how the actions that we take can influence those around us.
On her book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters:
Priya was born in Zimbabwe, coming from a mixed family with an Indian mother and a White-American father.
For the first four or five years of her life, they moved about every six months or a year to different fishing villages because of their work- her mother is an anthropologist and her father a hydrologist.
For about 10 or 13 years they were each other’s source of adventure.
They moved back to the U.S. and within a year they divorced, and within two years they had both remarried other people that broadly reflected the worldview from which each of them came.
Priya’s parents had joint custody, so every two weeks she would go back and forth between her mother’s house, which became an Indian-British, global, vegetarian, new-age, Buddhist/Atheist/Agnostic, higher-income family, and her father’s house only a mile away, which was a White, American, evangelical Christian, conservative, meat eating, multiple dogs, multiple kids, family.
And she was fully a part of both families.
So from very early days, she’s been interested in when and why people come together, and when and why people come apart.
She wrote this book, in part, because in modern life the ways in which we come together and who we come together with has gone into autopilot, which no longer serves us.
She wrote a book that looks at gathering, not from the perspective of the food that you cook or the way you set the table, but really how we create gatherings in all types of contexts that meaningfully connect people.
It’s about how to learn to create experiences that are remembered long after they’re over, for the things that they make you think about, things they made you feel, the way you were able to connect with someone in ways that perhaps surprised you.
On being together or apart as one person:
While there may not be anyone else out there with this exact story, Priya’s story can reflect the idea of going between two worlds or having different sides to yourself, which many people can relate to.
She is a stand in for a more extreme version of what we all carry.
Whether it be having Thanksgiving with your inlaws, which includes two different cultures- your nuclear family and your spouse’s nuclear family.
Whether your own parents came from different religious backgrounds or different parts of the country.
“We are always culture shifting and code switching we are just not as conscious of it when it’s more subtle”
Priya’s profession, now, is a group conflict resolution facilitator.
But she realized that, until college, she was a chameleon- she code switched.
Priya acted certain ways in each of her parents’ households, though she didn’t notice it happening until her husband pointed it out much later.
For example, if someone sneezed in her mother’s house, she would say “bless you”, but if someone sneezed in her father’s house, she would say “God bless you”.
For a long time, survival meant keeping one side quiet.
For Priya, the biggest conflict between her two homes was religion- in one household there was one correct version of the truth that just didn’t exist in the other.
It was painful to be a part of one household that believes the other part of her family was going to hell.
So she separated herself for many years.
However, in college Priya began thinking about what her own ideas were.
When she was hosting her wedding, a big gathering in which all of her family from different parts of her life who had seen her in different contexts were all going to be in the same room, she had to figure out what rituals and what values were going to represent her, especially when she couldn’t just tuck away one half of her family for that moment.
On code switching:
Code switching: knowing the norms, the vocabulary, the values, and the actual language of a community, and being able to speak in that code.
For example, in the context of responding to a sneeze in her two households:
In one context it’s appropriate to say “bless you”, but she wouldn’t imply a God because it’s too religious, yet in the other, the belief is that the only thing that could bless a human is the divine, therefore, God is included in the response.
Another version of this idea is double consciousness.
Double consciousness comes from the African-American school of thought, which Langston Hughes wrote a lot about.
Double consciousness: being able to have your experience as a minority or subgroup and knowing the ways and norms of your group (as simple as knowing how to do your own hair), but also knowing the ways, language, and codes of the majority group (and being able to do their hair).
If you’re good at code switching, if you’re good at showing up and fitting in, which can be really helpful to you, but also extremely damaging to your soul.
And you can’t look at code switching outside the context of power.
When one is code switching, or hiding a part of oneself because you don’t feel safe were you to show it, that is a damaging situation.
However, being biracial and bicultural has made Priya extremely successful as a conflict resolution facilitator.
When groups are in conflict about their identities, she can share experiences of hearing family members repeatedly argue for their side, and she can take on multiple world views.
“In all things around living well and living in the real life, choice really matters”.
When she puts on her conflict resolution hat, and she chooses to put on this ability to speak in multiple languages (meaning norms)- that is a healthy form of code switching.
However, she also remembers feeling embarrassed and afraid as a teenager at a revivalist convention watching an infomercial of Hindu gods being blown up- that is not a healthy form of code switching.
Often left out of the self-care conversation is that feeling of safety and being able to show up as you are.
There are so many places in which you might be in an environment that seems very light and easy going on the surface, but at the end of the day drained you because you didn’t feel safe in who you are and you didn’t have a way to work through it.
Self-care is also deeply relational.
“Self-care is… to be able to give us the fuel we need to go back out and dive into the world”
Part of self-care is that we are relational beings in a relational context and we change the world by changing ourselves but also through relationships changing one another.
In the context of the holidays, have forms of self-care like making sure you can step away and take a few breaths, but also in the sense of thinking about on what terms you are hosting and/or guesting a gathering.
Many of the ways and the forms in which we gather, we’ve inherited from other people, and we haven’t stopped to think about what we actually want our gathering to feel like, or what it would look like to put self care at the center of it.
Can you self-care together?
Think about any gathering as first asking, what is a need in your life right now that by coming together, other people could help you fulfill?
In the modern gathering, we no longer think about the purpose of us coming together, and we often just skip over the purpose and inherit the format.
Before you do anything, consider asking: do I have to do it the way it’s always been, or can I do it differently and what would I want that to look like?
“Reinventing your gathering format doesn’t have to be this exhausting deeply creative thing. It can be deeply creative, but it can also just be simply detangling the assumptions of what has to go together”.
On reinventing your gathering this holiday season:
Don’t skip the purpose. No matter how obvious it may seem, don’t skip the purpose.
What to ask yourself:
1 | What is the purpose of this gathering?
2 | What do I need, or what does my community need this year, that by coming together, we could fulfill?
3 | Who is this for and what is the simplest way for the format to reflect that?
We tend to focus a lot of the food and drinks and just allow the social dynamic to be what it is, but chit-chat can be really draining and some structure might help with that.
One way to implement structure is through an activity that Priya calls “15 Toasts”, which is a way to connect a group together through story.
First, choose a theme (“finding home”, identity, transition, new year, ritual, giving thanks, etc.)
Then, invite your guests to, at some point throughout the gathering, stand up, ding their glass, and give a toast to the given theme in the form of a story or experience of something they have lived.
This allows people to meaningfully connect, but also to give toasts that aren’t just to a person.
It allows people to toast a value that people can all have different interpretations of, but still unite in a meaningful way.
We spend so much time hyper focused on the ways that we’re different, that our brains start to just focus on that and we find that we can’t see the ways that we are the same.
On what creates transformative gatherings:
Priya interviewed over 100 gatherers in different contexts, all who gather people in extreme ways (in the extreme, you can see the ordinary).
She interviewed a choreographer for Cirque du Soleil, a dominatrix, a Rabbi, a camp counselor of a Jewish-Arab summer camp, among others, and asked all of them what created transformative gatherings.
Over and over, two themes came up.
Transformative gatherings have:
1 | Some amount of intimacy or vulnerability, of removing the veil.
2 | Some amount of heat, some amount of risk (such as through vulnerability or by exploring an issue with some amount of taboo in a safe way)
On making this happen:
Priya’s advice for those who feel like they’re the only one in the family who thinks that this is a good idea: find allies in the family.
The gathering begins before it begins; if you bring it up on the fly it is likely to get shot down quickly.
However, if multiple family members agree that the gathering could be reinvented, they may be more likely to be on board, informally, beforehand.
“90% of the gathering success happens before anyone walks into the room”.
And invite with intention.
Maybe just invite the people who are meaningful to you and invite them with specific intentions to let them know.
Or maybe have that open call, inviting everyone, to see all the people who you don’t usually see during the year.
Just know why you’re gathering, and make your invitation as specific and meaningful as possibly, rather than just conveying the logistics.
Make a there, there.
Intentionally host, but also intentionally guest.
Think about, how do I want to show up?
What does it mean to be pro-social, meaning how do I be mindful of the group?
On the spiral supper:
What if you invited just a few people, and had an intention-setting dinner?
Have a dinner, don’t even do it in the new year, do it before.
And during that dinner, set intentions and hopes, define your practices, and determine how you’ll keep each other accountable, and then do another one 6 weeks later.
Self care is relational, so how do you set up self-care so you’re not doing it alone?
How do I thoughtfully create a focused container, to have meaningful connection with the people that I love?
“Simplifying isn’t always easy, but it is sometimes so much more gratifying because you get to the essence of what matters”.
An idea that comes from Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert, is that of the trickster and the martyr.
The martyr might look at something and say, “I have to do this and it’s so hard”, but the trickster might say “how do I make this more joyful?”.
If you’re thinking about gathering, as a guest or a host, how can you move from a martyr to a trickster?
How can we not throw out the ritual, but reinvent the ritual in a way that reflects our lives?
On Priya now:
She is launching a company around gathering and they are beginning to train people on how to design gatherings that matter at a national level, in both small and big ways.
Priya is also a part of the Together Live tour, (with other individuals like Cheryl Strayed, Brene Brown, Reese Witherspoon, Abby Wambach, and Glennon Doyle) a group gathering to tell stories around the country from November 3rd-19th.
“Gather boldly, take one risk this season and think about how you gather, how you guest, and how you host”.
On what it means to be healthy:
“In Hindi there is a term called swasthya, which… translates as health, and my grandfather… used to say to me that swasthya, the deeper translated meaning of swasthya is to be seated inside the self”
Priya Parker is a master facilitator and the founder of Thrive Labs, at which she helps activists, elected officials, corporate executives, educators, and philanthropists create transformative gatherings. Trained in the field of conflict resolution, Parker has worked on race relations on American college campuses and on peace processes in the Arab world, southern Africa, and India. She studied organizational design at M.I.T., public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and political and social thought at the University of Virginia. She is the author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. Find her online at www.priyaparker.com and @PriyaParker on Twitter and Instagram.
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