Ep. 036: Priya Parker: The Art of Gathering

Ep. 036: Priya Parker: The Art of Gathering


“As practitioners, we need to be creative and bold in how we are gathering."

Priya Parker

When Priya Parker published her recent book, the Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters, Susan and her colleagues commiserated that we hadn't written it ourselves. The book is excellent, highly recommended and we are greatful to Priya for having written it with such great artistry.

How we meet and how we gather is critical not only to the quality of our lives and connections, but to our ability to build a more innovative and peaceful world. It is the HOW that is the main focus of the Peacebuilding Podcast -- what are the best tools, techniques, processes that can build common ground in complex systems.

Priya Parker is a facilitator and strategic advisor. She helps activists, elected officials, corporate executives, educators, philanthropists create transformative gatherings. She works with teams and leaders across technology business, the arts, fashion and politics to clarify their vision for a future and build meaningful purpose driven communities. She began her career and has been deeply impacted by the field of conflict resolution where she has worked on race relations on American college campuses and on peace processes in the Arab world, Southern Africa and India.

Some highlights and main ideas from the episode:

The first is just simply who Priya is and where she comes from, the perfect person for the job that she has. “Priya” “Parker” -- Priya is from her mom who is a South Asian Indian, and Parker, from her dad, a white Anglo-Saxon American. Her Mom, as she describes it, is a vegetarian, very liberal, comes from families that worships cows; Her father, very conservative, from an evangelical Christian background, and from a family (of cattle ranchers) that slaughters cows. Her parents divorced when Priya was 9. She spent her childhood going back and forth between these two very different worlds while thoroughly immersed in each. It was a rich learning laboratory for somebody who ultimately has become a professional gatherer and facilitator of diverse groups.

We began the conversation talking about language. The word “peacebuilding” makes Priya cringe a bit because "there can be no peace without justice". Susan explains that there is strong evidence that we no longer need armed conflict, that it’s a huge waste or our precious planetary resources, and that HOW we bring people together and, in the words of Bill Ury, make the room and world safe for conflict is key. Priya agrees and quotes a friend: “if we had more conflict in the world, we would have less violence.”

Susan’s favorite ideas from the interview are the linked ideas of the power of modern ritual to help groups connect across difference and creating temporary, alternative realities in gatherings to, in a sense, make them safe for conflict.

Pulling from shamanic traditions, Priya describes how she creates rituals, processes and experiences that actually help people experience alternative worlds where people can deal with the “danger” of conflict and difference. She shares an example how she created a unique and fun process with an architecture firm to help them shift out of their polarization and “stuckness”. 

In the course of interviews for her book, Priya realized that the most powerful rituals come from more monocultural groups. But, many of these don’t work anymore -- both for people coming from those cultural groups and for communities or gatherings that are multicultural. So how, she asks, do we intentionally, purposefully, create a sense of ritual, maybe perhaps even a sense of the sacred, that will ultimately be the magic that allows people to connect, make contact, transform and move into a different state? How do we reinvent modern ritual to match the needs of our communities in an explicit way that allows us to connect with each other when we are note the same?

She also explored the process that we facilitators do of elevating the invisible – clients generally don’t think about process, but we facilitators know that it’s the process every bit as much as the content that can make a huge difference to transformation. In her work, Priya exposes the hidden rules of engagement, like etiquette from certain traditions, and superimposes on these “pop-up” rules or norms that are — democratic, temporary and learnable -- for the sake of the gathering.

We spent a good bit of time talking about how (in the words of William Ury) you make a space “safe for conflict”. This idea is very aligned with Susan’s experience – that you cannot create a shift or change in a system unless you have created it in the room. (She experienced this profoundly when she used fictitious negotiation simulations to allow warring factions to connect in spite of face issues that would have prohibited.) We as facilitators know that our clients can not transform to different ways of being together, different understandings of what those differences are hopefully a more innovative way of being together unless they have a very meaningful experience in their often short time with us. Priya probably as much as anyone is really isolating all the ingredients of this secret sauce that makes this possible.

We explored creating safety for conflict around a topic as charged as race. Priya shared how impressed she is with the book White Fragility. The author talks about how the “groundrules” often set by facilitators unwittingly privilege the power holders. Susan shared how much she appreciates the simple but powerful groundrules for gatherings used by Black Lives Matter that she sometimes uses in her facilitation work:

  • Lead with love

  • Low ego, high impact

  • Proceed with the speed of trust

We hope you give a listen and enjoy this episode. It is chock full of insights and practical suggestions for any kind of gathering you might be at the center of holding. 

Find her bio and show notes here.


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