Ep. 036: Priya Parker

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Priya Parker is a facilitator and strategic advisor.

She is the founder of Thrive Labs, at which she helps activists, elected officials, corporate executives, educators, and philanthropists create transformative gatherings. She works with teams and leaders across technology, business, the arts, fashion, and politics to clarify their vision for the future and build meaningful, purpose-driven communities. Her clients have included the Museum of Modern Art, LVMH, the World Economic Forum, meetup.com, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, the Union for Concerned Scientists, and Civitas Public Affairs.

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 is a founding member of the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network. She has been appointed a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Values Council and the New Models of Leadership Council. She is also a senior expert at Mobius Executive Leadership.

Priya is the author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters (Riverhead Books, 2018). She is passionate about helping people create gatherings in their work and life that are transformative and meaningful for the people in them. She is also the co-creator of the 15 Toasts dinner series format and I Am Here Days. Her TEDx talk on purpose has been viewed more than 1 million times.

Priya 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 lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband, Anand Giridharadas, and their two children.

You can learn more about Priya and her work at https://www.priyaparker.com/

Show notes

Susan introduces Priya by indicating that so many people (Susan’s colleagues) wish that they had written Priya’s book: The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters.

(Bio section) Priya Parker is 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 lives in Brooklyn, New York.

While Priya’s expertise is bringing people together, Susan wonders if she considers herself a “peacebuilder.” Language is tricky thing-- at what point is this process “dialogue,” at what point is it “conflict resolution,” at what point is it “conflict transformation?” Priya says it's all a dance. She comes for a specific background of sustained dialogue and being a “dialogue practitioner” is related to being a peacebuilder, in that peacebuilding is a proxy for understanding the technology of relationships. “Peacebuilder” as a term is unsettling for her because she believes that peace is unsustainable if it does not have justice.

Susan discusses her experience as a mediator for some years and how bringing people together to feel safe to conflict and negotiate really sets the stage for what can be accomplished (Priya, of course, already knows this, but for the listeners knowledge!). Bill Ury discusses making a room safe for conflict, meaning that when people feel that disagreement is expected in negotiation, they will come to agreements that actually meet their needs and can be sustained.

Priya agrees. 19:25 “If we had more conflict in the world, we would have less violence.”

Priya was born in Zimbabwe to an Indian mother and white father from the United States. They were “each other's adventure” and she grew up in various places throughout the world, eventually settling in Virginia, United States. Her parents quickly separated and got divorced when she was 9 years old. She went back and forth from an Indian, meditation, UN, liberal household to a white, conservative, evangelical Christian, Trump-supporting, climate change skeptic household every two weeks and they were only a mile away! This, obviously, allowed her to see first hand cultural difference and the foundations of conflict from a young age. Even when people believe that they have “sole access to the truth,” there's always another community that does not have those fundamental truths.

She was always completely part of both families and grew up within both traditions. When she went away to the University of Virginia in 2000-2001, people would ask “What are you?” (which, in the United States, is almost always a racial question, when outsiders can’t assume what race you belong to because it isn’t “obvious” by United States census standards). This was always the first question she was confronted with. The question really is: how do I categorize you? This motivated her to study race, identity, and other related topics. She wanted to make a change on her campus and, while researching, came across the process of sustained dialogue, which works to transform a culture by shifting a variety of smaller relationships.  The person who codified this concept was Hal Saunders, who worked in the U.S. government for many years and helped to broker the Camp David Accords. He noticed, after all these years building peace between states and governments, but that relationships between citizens had not become peaceful. He created a project during the Cold War, where U.S. citizens and Soviet citizens could engage on an interpersonal level. The idea was that, if you could build trust between two smaller groups and have that commit to sustained dialogue in the beginning, could you use that new relationship to challenge the culture of relationships between the two groups.

Saunders witnessed this process several times and gave language to it throughout his career. The process is that “opposing groups” (usually across racial or ethnic divides) agree to meet and talk several times, usually around 12. Priya started this process at her university (UVA) in 2001. The day AFTER the first meeting, 9/11 occured.

There are five stages to the process. The philosophy is that if you can build trust between these groups and use their experience to map how to solve the apparent problems, you can create larger levels of change. Hal Saunders also left a model of relationship. 5 elements of a group relationship:

  1. Identity- all of the experiences that you’ve had that have shaped who you are up until this moment (she looked at Seeds of Peace for this in her book)

  2. Power and ability (power with, not power over)

  3. Interests

  4. Patterns of interaction -- this is the most analytical section

  5. Perceptions, misperceptions, and stereotypes

What does it take to “make the room safe for conflict”?

It depends on the situation. Are you trying to make people face what is reality within the conflict? Or are you trying to build relationships within a “temporary alternative world”?

Mary Douglas, anthropologist and cultural theorist, influenced Priya greatly in her book, Purity and Danger. She examines how tribes handled conflict and noticed that the shaman of the tribe would identify actors in a conflict and create space psychologically for this conflict to be safety carried out.  In her book, Priya interviews a woman named Ida Benedetto, who creates environments where people have to consciously choose to overcome their fears (usually in ways that break social norms).

  1. What is this group avoiding?

  2. What is the gift in helping them face it?

  3. What is the risk in helping them face it?

  4. Is the gift worth the risk?

40:45: In order to make the room safe for conflict, enough people have to agree that the gift is worth the risk.

Priya gives an example where she has to help a firm create their future vision and identity as a company.

The problem was that there was passionate disagreement on both sides with real consequences on each side. She created prompts where they would have to envision themselves and the firm in 20 or 30 years in various models. What does each prompt mean? How would the company get there? What would you feel?

People were shying away from conflict. They were incredibly polite, which got in the way of addressing the issue.

The solution: A temporary alternative world to change the norms of politeness in order to create a debate.

After a break, the team comes back to music from Rocky playing. The faces of two senior executives are photoshopped onto wrestler bodies. On one corner was “The Body”  and the other “The Brain.” These symbols represent two opposing sides of the argument. They used to power of ritual to make the room safe for conflict, but no one really knew where this game was going. Players had 2 minutes to make the best possible argument for each opposing argument. Priya relates this game to her high school softball games, where cheering and jeering and building her team up was equally as important to playing the game well. The rule for the game was that every person had to take a side. This was critical because they had to be seen in front of their peers as choosing a specific side.

After the game was finished, they transitioned out of this space and back into their polite, work environment atmosphere.

One side did end up winning, but they continued to have conversations down the line where they were able to openly disagree about the issues.

This “argument” was “clean” in that it wasn’t based too much around values or morals and there was one side that could “win,” which isn’t the case in many debates.

Susan uses this opportunity to transition the conversation to race, which often is not as clean cut as this previous example.

Conflict is an element of all relationships that involve power. In the previous example, this worked well because many of the people came from similar levels of power and they mostly shared racial and gender backgrounds. In this context, they did not really need to pay attention to coded language or body language with racial connotations. The other group was monolithic and other identifiers were not playing a large role in the conversation or group dynamics, so they were really able to only address the issues at hand. In most contexts, particularly in the United States, race is always at play, even in an all white group, because then the question becomes-- why is this an all white group?

56:00: With an environment specifically to discuss a racial issue, making the room safe for conflict depends on where you sit or stand within your own racial identity. Power dynamics are ascribed, not only just on an individual level, but also at a historical and systemic level.

57:40 There is a section of Robin DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility, where she discusses the  “ground rules” that many facilitators. She says that white, progressive facilitators use ground rules to “build trust” before they can discuss racism in a workshop. This is problematic because it centered a conversation on racism around the comfort of white people to talk about it, when they are already the dominant group. “Respect” is also difficult because it is undefined, and something that may feel respectful to white people, may not be creating respectful boundaries for people of color. “Respect” is perceived by many white people as polite, conflict-free, no challenging of racial histories, no discussion of racial issues, and an emphasis on “intent” over “consequence,” which allows white people to perpetuate racism without consequence because it was “unintentional.” This is a hostile environment for people of color.

Within sustained dialogue while she was still in college, the groups became increasingly popular, with 16 groups meeting several times annually. Each group would have two facilitators/moderators. These moderators would have their own meeting to discuss trends and the curriculum of the group. The strongest moderators were assigned to the toughest groups (Black and White Greek Life; Arab and Jewish). These are the moderators that were really on fire during these meetings and they seemed to have the best conversations and the highest attendance rates. Priya suggests this is because there is no skirting around the issues in these contexts.

In multicultural groups with many perspectives, it is difficult to get deep on the issues and things stay very wide. One of the first points in Priya’s book is: Know why you’re gathering. 1:02:40: Make the purpose of your gathering specific and disputable. If there aren’t people who dispute your purpose, you don’t really have a purpose. Purpose does not mean a “category” of event here, such as a baby shower, wedding, etc. What is the purpose of your wedding? Why are you actually having a gathering? Is it to bring your families together? Is it to please your parents? Etc. How do you create a gathering that reflects your current values which relating to and appreciate your past? With social norms changing so quickly, creating these events is extremely important.

The danger in cultures centered on the individual, we eliminate the entire ritual without thinking about what it should look like. She loves Jonathan Cook’s definition of “ritual”, which is “steps that transforms a state from something, to something.” (1:08:00).

Priya is moved by rituals that come from specific monocultures and as we have become multicultural, our gatherings have become vague because we don’t know how to bring all these groups together. We center events around “things” instead of “ritual,” because things don’t offend. We need to sit back and think: what do I need out of this event? Who am I inviting? How do I tell them what this gathering will be? And then they can make the decision of whether or not they truly want to participate.

“Pop up rules” an opportunity for a host to create temporary rules for guests to know ahead of time. House of Genius is an example of this, where you can’t talk about what you do, or can’t say your last name. These groups intentionally bend the rules of etiquette. The chemistry for our gatherings is missing. Give your event a name. Use invitations to provide pop up rules and prime your guests for what they are about to experience.

Pop up rules: Come on time. Stay the night. No phones. Etc. Phone stacking rule.

How do you get the system in the room? Susan refers to one strategy, Open Space Technology.

Do we need to bound the system? Is the system the right system? These questions aren’t always enough because, in Priya’s experience, people of color have been brought into the room to essentially educate the white people and they get exhausted, even though they know they might be the only person to speak truth to the group in this way. Another example is a difficult, racial question is posed, and no one in the room has the energy to answer any more. Without someone to get the data to answer this question, people will assume the wrong things about the difficult question.

In this context, it helps for just white people to have their own conversations about white privilege before entering a racial dialogue, so that other white people are forced to educate other whites and they can bring this new lense into the racial dialogue.

In any intervention, you need to know your goals. What kind of power is at play here? Historically? Structurally? Politically? Economically? How can you temporarily be a good host to these guests in order to equalize them for specific purpose?

Practitioners in this field need to be creative and bold in how you are gathering. When clients are afraid, play the role of educator. This field elevates the invisible. This needs to be parting of the priming process and well as the process within the gathering itself.


White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

Resources for Racial Justice Facilitators/Activists

Notes by Mary Grace Donohoe