Transformative Meetings (No, Really!) with Priya Parker
No one loves meetings, but we all attend them—probably a lot of them! So why are so many meetings so bad, and how can we make them better…or stop having them in the first place? On today’s show, we talk to author and facilitator Priya Parker about how to make gatherings of all kinds more meaningful, memorable, and inclusive.
Priya is a professionally trained in conflict resolution, and has worked on race relations at college campuses and on peace processes globally. She’s the founder of Thrive Labs and the author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. And she’s got a ton to say about bringing people together with purpose.
When I hear “we want everyone to be excellent to each other,” it makes me angry. And the reason it makes me angry is because it’s a power-blind way of seeing. It assumes that people when they walk in, that there aren’t any power dynamics, that there isn’t any hierarchy. That everyone will behave in the way that in your mind you think everybody behaves. And it assumes that you are creating a utopia without actually doing anything to create that utopia.—Priya Parker, author, The Art of Gathering
Priya tells us all about:
- How we’ve reduced meetings to the “things”—like food, wine, and table settings—and let our people wither. “This reflects an assumption that we’ve had for many decades, which is if you get the things right in the gathering, everything else will take care of itself. And I can tell you as a group facilitator, that is not true.”
- Why even events like sex parties have a ton of structure. “It allows people to actually organize and be around that purpose in a way that they don’t have to feel like they’re having to take care of themselves and each other.”
- Why “being chill” isn’t going to make your event relaxed. “Being chill is actually a selfish act. Because you’re doing it because of how you want people to see you.”
Also in this episode, Katel and Sara talk about the joys and challenges of running meetings, the power and vulnerability of owning your expertise, and so much more. Plus: we chat with Graywolf Press about new books to read this spring, and celebrate getting involved in grassroots organizations.
This episode of Strong Feelings is brought to you by:
Harvest, makers of awesome software to help you track your time, manage your projects, and get paid. Go to getharvest.com/strongfeelings to get 50% off your first month.
Sara Wachter-Boettcher This season of Strong Feelings is supported by Harvest—my favorite tool for tracking time, projects, and payments. Today I used Harvest to send out my first batch of invoices for the year, and it felt great. Almost as great as getting paid! Try it for yourself at getharvest.com/strongfeelings, and when you upgrade to a paid account, you’ll get 50% off your first month. That’s getharvest.com/strongfeelings for 50% off your first month of Harvest. [intro music plays for 11 seconds and then fades out] Hey everyone, I’m Sara!
Katel Ledu And I’m Katel.
SWB And this is Strong Feelings! A podcast about work, friendship, and feminism—and what happens when you bring them all together.
KL Today we are talking about everyone’s favorite thing—meetings!
SWB Ughhh. [KL laughs]
KL I know. Okay, well meetings are probably not everyone’s favorite thing, but we have so many of them in our lives—not just at work. And even when we try to simplify and remove stuff from our calendars, the reality is that we have to meet to get things done. So, we invited an expert in meetings to chat with us about why meetings are so bad so often, and what to do about it. That’s Priya Parker, she’s the author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.
SWB I really liked talking with Priya because so much of the work that I do every day really does involve bringing people together. I host a lot of workshops, and that means I end up thinking a lot about facilitation—how do we create spaces where different kinds of work can happen? And what I’ve realized is that it’s just such a really big responsibility to bring people together—to gather them and take that time out of their day. And I’m not sure everybody thinks of it that way when they are scheduling meetings and they’re just sending out invites. But I really do think of it as like, “this is a big responsibility and I owe it to the people who are coming to make sure that I have a purpose for them being there and to make sure that I put the work in to make that meeting actually function and make that meeting actually successful.” Versus a lot of meetings that you might have been to [both laugh] if you’re anything like me! It’s just like somebody just invited a whole bunch of people, maybe they spent one second on an agenda, and what it ends up being is everybody sitting around reporting on the status of things, which sometimes might be a useful meeting, but a lot of the time I think it’s just such a waste of everyone’s day. So, I really loved that Priya talks about what is the hard work that it takes to make meetings actually work? And how do you lead and guide them and how can you think about them differently? So, I liked that a lot.
KL Yeah, me too. Did you always feel comfortable leading meetings?
SWB Absolutely not. [KL laughs] I have always been pretty assertive and pretty organized and that helps, right?
SWB I am definitely someone who can say, “okay, we need to get something done, how do we break up this time, let me sort of shepherd people through.” But for a long time, I think I spent a lot of my time worried about more of the performance of meetings. Which is to say the presence I would bring to them—which I think is something that matters—but I think what really shifted for me was when I started looking at the more strategically and started saying, “okay, is the goal that we need to come up with an actual decision? Is the goal that we need to generate a whole bunch of potential ideas? Is the goal that we need to share knowledge? What do we need to get out of this? And what types of structures, what types of activities, what types of organization to the meeting would help enable us to do that? What kinds of prompts do I need to give people?” You know, if you say, “hey, give us a five minute update on your work,” that’s really generic.
SWB But if I said something specific to you that’s like, “hey, Katel, can you spend five minutes sharing the way that you changed this process or that process and the benefits it’s had for your team?” that’s a much more specific thing to ask you to do.
SWB And so what thinking about that kind of thing did was it really helped me be less intimidated by running meetings because it became much more about problem solving. Like “okay, here’s the desired outcome. How do I work backwards to make sure that this meeting helps us get that outcome?” Versus being really focused on like, “oh my gosh, if I’m running the workshop, then I’m centre stage and I have to be the object of attention”—
SWB —which is a more stressful place to be.
KL Yeah. [laughs]
SWB So, that really helped me a lot. [laughs] Now, I feel pretty good—I get into facilitation mode and I can do the performative aspects of it without getting so stressed about it, which is really helpful. [laughs]
KL Yeah, totally.
SWB Do you like running meetings?
KL I mean, I haven’t always liked running meetings. When I joined A Book Apart, I used to feel a lot of intimidation—running meetings was kind of scary to me. And I recently realized that it wasn’t just the running of the meetings, it was that I felt like I need to prove I’m the right person for this job every time we meet. And I was sort of intimidated by the people—it was a new group of people, they were working in a different field, and I realized I was the person who would have to take the lead and that was intimidating because folks were looking to me to have the right answer [laughs] on a lot of things. And now I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable doing that, so that feels easier and I don’t really feel intimidated by the meetings anymore. But looking back, it was never really about running the meetings. That wasn’t really what was really intimidating to me. It was about owning a position or a decision. Putting a stake in the ground like, “this is what I think we should do.” And I think for context, I feel really comfortable talking about and sharing my feelings, [laughs] as I think a lot of people know. [laughs]
SWB Uh huh! [laughs]
KL I own those, you know? I know them so well and I know them to be true, and there’s a relatively small chance that I’ll be told they’re wrong. And I’m also not really bothered if someone doesn’t agree because they’re mine. But owning my expertise and the experience I have, which is ostensibly a combination of feeling and expertise, is so challenging.
SWB Yeah, that’s interesting. So, what is it about owning an opinion—or like you said, putting a stake in the ground and saying, “this is what I think we should do”—what is it that makes you feel so much less confident?
KL You know, when I think about the root of it, [laughs] I’m worried that I’m going to be wrong. And now I’m realizing this is something I really need to work on because you and I are working on creating workshops and writing about how to develop professional visibility. And if I don’t verbalize what my expertise is, how can I feel confident being someone who can help other people? I mean, I look at it on paper and I’m the CEO of a publishing company who has helped more than 30 people write, and publish, and sell their books. So why am I having such a hard time saying, “I am an expert at this, and I have unique insights to share”?
SWB Yeah. One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently—I actually just wrote an article talking about some of this stuff—is it really helps to sit down and literally list out things that you know about. To actually say, “okay, wait a second, this isn’t just day to day stuff that everybody knows about, this is my speciality and I’m making decisions on a day to day basis that other people actually couldn’t make.” So, being able to say, “okay, I’m not going to gloss over all of those details, I’m going to sit down and look at my accomplishments and look at my expertise and say, ‘these are things I actually know about.’” So, for example, if you sat down and you said, “okay, what kinds of things do authors tend to struggle with? And then when they’re struggling, how do I help them? What are the things I say to them?” Those are insights, I’m sure. Or when you have a prospective author that you’re talking to in those early conversations and they have some loose idea of a topic but they’re not 100% sure where they want to go with it, how do you help them hone in on something that’s going to be a successful book? What kinds of questions do you ask them? When you’re looking at a proposal and you’re evaluating “is this a good fit for our company?” what questions do you ask at that point? I think if you sat down and you really went through what it is that you do as you’re working on all these different facets of the business, you would find that over those thirty authors and then however many other people you’ve talked to who didn’t end up becoming authors or haven’t really gotten there yet, there are probably trends and themes and things that you have said a lot of times because they’re helpful tools, techniques, and insights that you give to people— and they’re just stuck in your head somewhere, you just have to figure out how to pull them out.
KL Ugh, I love this. Yes. I am going to work on this right now, I am so excited. Actually, right after this interview. [short transition music plays]
SWB Okay, Katel, you know I have a lot of strong feelings about books, right?
KL Yeah, I have seen your bookshelves.
SWB Uhhhh, don’t look too closely, they’re a little bit messy. [laughs] So I’m really excited today because thanks to our sponsor, Harvest, we are going to talk about some new books that are coming out this year. And to help us out, we have a special guest. We have Yana Makuwa, an editor at Graywolf Press, who is on the line. Hey, Yana!
Yana Makuwa Hey, how are you doing?
SWB We are doing pretty well, I think. How are you?
YM I’m great! It’s a little cold here, but we’re making it through. [laughs]
SWB Well, books are a great way to make it through the winter. So, first up, can you tell us a little bit about what Graywolf Press is?
YM Yeah, absolutely. So, Graywolf is a nonprofit, independent publishing house. We are based primarily in Minneapolis and we publish books by underrepresented writers who are writing about the world today. So, we focus on 21st century literature in all kinds of genres. We publish poetry, we publish fiction, we publish lyrical essays, and we really just want to bring out work that wouldn’t necessarily be published in the mainstream.
SWB Yes. You know, I’m actually reading a Graywolf book right now. It’s Milkman by Anna Burns. I’m really enjoying it!
YM Oh yeah. That book is a big hit and it’s like nothing I’ve ever read before.
KL So, Yana, what else do we have to book forward to this year?
YM Well, just out last week from Graywolf is Oculus. It’s a poetry collection by this wonderful author, Sally Wen Mao, who was a fellow for Kundiman and has a couple previous books out. But Oculus is a collection about being under a microscope and being in the public eye, particularly as an Asian American. She has poems about seeing, she has poems about methods of seeing, and she has a long series of poems about the first Chinese American actress, Anna May Wong. And she sort of embodies Anna May’s voice and character in these poems.
KL Ugh, that sounds amazing. I could stand to read a lot more poetry. What’s something that really stood out for you in this collection?
YM Well, I think that the way that Sally is able to move through so many different voices and points of view is really extraordinary. She writes this character from several decades ago as though she’s living now and today. And she imagines what she would be like if she was living now and today. And she just is able to communicate a point of view with so much strength and confidence that is really overwhelming. And two, she is telling a story in this book that really very few people are talking about and I think that representationally, it’s hugely important.
SWB That definitely sells it for me! So everybody should definitely go check out Oculus— out now from Graywolf Press. You can go to graywolfpress.org or buy it wherever you shop for books. And, Yana, thank you so much for chatting with us today.
YM Of course! I’m really happy to do it. And I’m really happy that Sally’s books is going to get this chance to meet more readers.
SWB Yeah! Well, thank you so much to Harvest for supporting authors and readers everywhere. [short transition music plays]
Interview: Priya Parker
KL Priya Parker is professionally trained in the field of conflict resolution, and has worked on race relations at college campuses and on peace processes globally. She’s the founder of Thrive Labs and author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. She helps people everywhere have more meaningful interactions and we’re so excited to talk with her today. Priya, welcome to Strong Feelings.
Priya Parker Thank you for having me.
KL First, can you tell our listeners what the book is about and who and what it’s for?
PP The main premise of the book is that we are gathering all of the time—in our schools, in our workplaces, in our town halls, in our living rooms—and many of the ways that we are gathering are leading us to kind of vague, [laughs] diluted, unproductive, slightly boring gatherings. And I wanted to write a book that looked at why do some gatherings that we attend kind of take off and are transformative and you remember them for years to come, and others may still have some of the same component parts. There’s good food, or there’s wine if it’s a dinner party, but you literally can’t remember anything that happened. And part of what I started to do as I dug into the research is I began to realize the majority of the books written about “hosting” have been outsourced to experts who know a lot about the things of gathering. So, chefs and food, or florists and flowers, or etiquette experts and the placement of wine glasses. And in part this reflects an assumption that we’ve had for many decades, which is if you get the things right in the gathering, everything else will take care of itself. And I can tell you [laughs] as a group facilitator, that is not true. And so I wanted to write a book for the rest of us to kind of look at the things that we’re doing all the time and make us more conscious about how and why we’re coming together and how we can do it well.
KL Yeah. And one of your main guidelines is to gather with purpose and what you call disputability. Tell us a little bit about what that means.
PP So, one of the things I did on this journey to write this book is in addition to my own experiences of facilitating dialogues and gatherings with companies and organizations, I also interviewed over 100 gatherers in extreme contexts. So, I spent time with a rabbi, a dominatrix, choreographer of Cirque du Soleil, camp counselors of Jewish/Arab summer camps that bring together teenagers around lines of conflict in Maine for three weeks, and I asked them all the same question, which is “why does what you do work? When it works, why does it work?” And one of the things that they all had in common was that they knew why they were gathering. And it seems so obvious that it’s almost skippable. And I started to realize that many of the reasons why some of our gatherings aren’t that great is because we’ve taken for granted why we’re gathering and therefore, we’ve gone onto autopilot about what it should look like. And what I mean by that is for example, a wedding. Why am I getting married when you could go to town or city hall? Why actually gather all these people in your life? And we tend to confuse category with purpose. So, if you ask somebody “why are you having a wedding,” the first answer is usually “to get married.” [PP & KL laugh] But you kind of have to ask, “but why are you having a wedding? Who is this for? Is it to honor your parents? Is it because they want to have a wedding? Is it to bring together two unique communities of you and your partner? Is it to for the first time say aloud the values of you and your partner, rather than the families from which you come if they’re different?” And the answers to those questions will look like very different gatherings. Whether the wedding is small or big, whether you say “God” in your vows or not [laughs]. And to have a disputable purpose basically means to have a purpose that people can disagree with. And in part because if all of a sudden, if somebody disagrees with your purpose, you know that there’s a there there.
KL Yeah, I really like that. You talked about how you interviewed hundreds of people for the book, which is so cool. And in talking to people like a dominatrix and a rabbi and I’m sure tons of people in between, what did you learn from so many different people and how did their stories impact the book’s focus?
PP I divided the book up into kind of the arc of how I think a gathering unfolds. So, different characters kind of fall into different chapters. And I’ll give an example. One of the biggest mistakes we make in gatherings is we think that the opening and the beginning of a gathering begins when somebody walks through the door. And actually, an opening begins the moment the guest discovers that this gathering is happening. And one of the things I learned from my characters is that the best gatherers understood that they were actually hosting from the moment that the guest received an invitation. One of my favorite stories is a Bernie Sanders rally. It was in Philadelphia and there were tens of thousands of people there at this arena. And the candidate, as is typical, didn’t show up for three hours. And there were ten thousand people—Bernie supporters— in the stadium kind of waiting. And because the organizers thought of that time as “waiting time,” that the gathering hadn’t started yet, that that moment that it starts is when the candidate arrives, they’d miscategorized that opening. And in this day and age, to have ten thousand people physically with you and not do anything with that time because you think it “doesn’t count” is a huge problem. They could have done movement building in that time, they could have had facilitators walk around, they could have had everybody turn to the ten people next to them and share the stories about how America isn’t working for them and why Bernie is the candidate. But again, because we miscategorize our hosting time, we actually under-host. And a huge way of actually having people have a transformative experience is to begin to prime them and signal to them when and how and what they can do so that the moment they’re all together, they’re ready to go.
SWB So, Priya, we talk about work specifically on our show a lot. And I know that when we talk about gathering, we’re talking about a lot of different types of things—work and social. But I’d love to zone in on work for a second here because when we talk about work gatherings, we are often talking about what people refer to as meetings. And meetings are not necessarily things people love, even though a lot of us have a lot of them. [laughs] I have definitely worked with people who hate meetings, who think they’re a waste of time. And I’m curious if we can get into that a little bit and look at why meetings have gotten such a bad rap, and what we should really be thinking about in that work context.
PP Most meetings, unfortunately, are a waste of time. And one of my biggest recommendations is to gather less. You know, I don’t say gather more, I say gather better. And this is for all sorts of reasons. First of all, it’s laziness. It’s a lot easier to throw out an Outlook Calendar and get other people to help you think through something that actually if you sat down for ten minutes and thought through yourself—like really shut everything down and thought through something—you don’t need to gather ten people for many of the things that we come together for. The second thing is we tend to have regularly scheduled meetings. And whenever you have a regularly scheduled meeting—a weekly check-in or a Monday morning meeting—over time, you start feeling obligated to the form, even if the purpose no longer exists. And so often the reasons that we’re meeting feel more like a should than actually spending time that you could again give people their time back. But if it is worthy to have people come together, some of the reasons our meetings sometimes don’t work is because we have organized the way we actually gather around an outdated purpose. So, I’ll give an example. One of the meetings I sat in on for research was the New York Times Page One meeting. This is a seventy year old meeting, it’s extremely respected and almost hallowed in the building. And what this meeting originally was was an opportunity for editors to come and pitch to the board which stories should be on A1. And contextually—for about fifty or sixty years—A1, the front page and particularly above the fold of the New York Times physical paper wasn’t just important for the US, it kind of set the news for the world. So, this was an extraordinarily important meeting. It happened around a King Arthur-style table. Now, ten years or so ago, The Times introduced something called a homepage. And Dean Baquet, the new editor, came in and realized that the way they were meeting no longer actually met the needs of the paper. It made no sense to decide which six stories should go on the front of the paper when the majority of readers accessed the website through social media. When the majority of readers had already read it on their phone before the physical paper comes out. So, he had to figure out how to—over the course of years, they’re still at it—basically change the structure of a meeting that people felt emotionally attached to and had a lot of cultural power in the building, but no longer made business sense.
SWB So, what happened there? What did they do instead?
PP So, he made the meeting half an hour earlier. They actually physically removed the table—the King Arthur’s table—and they’ve made it more of a living room-style room. And the questions that the masthead now asks have become different. So, for example, what should be put out on a notification? What should go out to millions of phones? The day I was there, there was a heart study that had just come out and there was a quote from the science desk and they were debating whether or not it was worthy of a notification, meaning a notification on your phone. And it was a fascinating argument, which was a couple of people argued for why it was helpful and why in the field of medicine this is actually a big deal, this study. And then somebody else said, “yeah, but in two years if there’s another study that shows that this study actually wasn’t correct, do we then have to issue a notification for the counter study?” And so what ends up happening is you back into the issues based on whatever the news of the day is, but these are actually philosophical questions. And Dean Baquet told me the goal of this meeting now is really to have a public forum to begin—through the news—to figure out still what’s fit to print, but not on page one, but actually philosophically. What does it mean to decide which forum and which location a story should go and to actually shift a newsroom through a meeting from a physical and analog age into a digital one—every day for an hour at 9:30.
SWB This is fascinating. And it’s really getting me thinking a bit about what you’re describing is going to be a constant question for them, right? That is not a thing you decide once—what is our philosophy about news—and then don’t come back to, which is why they have that every day. But I’m curious, what kinds of problems or challenges or organizational needs do you think meetings tend to be well suited for and what are some of the things that they don’t really work for?
PP Meetings are great to frankly do what Dean is trying to do—help a group of people debate and struggle with something philosophically in a practical, specific way that relates to the product. So, talking about things too theoretically. So, for example, if they were to sit around and say, “now what should we cover and what should our relationship to a president that—I’m making this up—to a president that calls us “enemy of the people,” what should that be?” I mean, in this day and age, that might be a specific enough question that it’s worth a conversation in a meeting. But when you’re debating a line in a column or you’re debating what language to use, which they do and they write about this publicly as well, that is a much more interesting way to get a team engaged about what should the relationship be to a president who calls you “the enemy of the people” be when you’re actually looking at something very practical. So, if you’re developing a product, if you’re thinking about your relationship to your customer, the best meetings are ones in which you’re a) you need other people to make a decision and you need other people to buy into that decision. But part of the conversation isn’t just to make a decision one way or the other. It’s to use a specific moment in your product line or in your sales line or in your legal department to help collectively people figure out who are we for? Who are this for? What are our values? What do we say no to? What do we say yes to? And when, for example, there’s a product and sales is pushing to drop the price and marketing is saying, “no way, this needs to be a premium product,” to actually let them duke it out. Because it’s part of the philosophy of who are we for? And whenever meetings are basically formats to help people through very specific, practical conversation—figure out together who we are and who we want to be—that is worthy of a meeting.
SWB I like this so much, it really dovetails to a lot of the strategy work that I do. But something that I think about a lot is your strategy is not going to be very useful if it does not help you decide what you’re going to say no to. In a lot of organizations I find that’s a problem. They’re not able to say no to anything, which means that you say yes to all kinds of stuff you shouldn’t be. So, it really gets me thinking a lot about how much of that is shaped by the way that we gather. And it makes me also wonder, if we have listeners who are in an organization that has a lot of meetings, which I think is probably a lot of our listeners, and they look at those meetings and they go, you know what? These are not really doing what we want them to be doing. These are not really opportunities to sort out where we’re going as an organization in a meaningful way. What practically would you say to somebody who is in that space and feels a little stuck in that space? How might they be able to start changing things in their culture?
PP I mean the first thing—and I say this seriously, although facetiously as well—honestly, give them the book. Give them The Art of Gathering. I wrote a book in part because a book is this cultural document that is spreadable. When you start having shared and common language about how something can be and it’s aspirational, it’s a lot easier to help people look at their own context and begin to say, “huh, what if we did this differently?” But the second thing is I think of a gathering as opportunity to create a temporary, alternative world. I wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal in May about how when you start gathering differently, you actually can begin to tweak a culture. And what I would say if you’re in meetings is first of all, think about how you host and convene meetings. And then how you guest a meeting. And guests have power in meetings. Whether it’s the questions you ask—so if you’re going round in circles, simply ask—and you can do it as a joke, you can do it kindly, [laughs] you can do it firmly—“so, what is the purpose of this conversation?” One of the women I interviewed for the book is a woman named Mamie Kanfer-Stewart and she has a company called Meeteor. And I love the way that she frames the question, which is about purpose. And she asks all of her clients, “what is your desired outcome?” And she says, “sometimes when you just ask the purpose, people can get stuck on process.” Like, “our purpose is to share information.” And she says, “that’s not good enough. Part of the question is what are you sharing information for? What is your desired outcome to share information? Is it to get to a decision? Is it to get buy-in? And does it have to be in person? Could you do it over an email?” But the second thing—just a couple of tips, particularly if you’re hosting—is first of all, name your meeting. Whether you’re blocking time in people’s calendar or whether you’re sending out an email invitation, to give your meeting a specific name. And to think about what I would call the adjective and the noun. So, is it a workshop? Is it a lab? Is it an all hands? Is it a brainstorming? And the reason language matters is it primes people as to how they’re going to show up. The second thing is think about the adjective to use ahead of time. Is this an innovator salon? By just simply saying that, it’s harder for people to come in and hold onto the mantel of “this is how we do things around here.” In part because you’ve primed them to say that in this context, being an innovator is aspirational. So, language does a lot of work for you before you walk into a room. And then the second thing—and you can do this in different ways, and different companies do this in different ways, Amazon is famous for this—is think about what are you asking people to do ahead of time? And part of what that does is it signals to them, “oh, this is going to be different.” So, think about your purpose, name your event based on that purpose, and don’t over include. Think about who this meeting is for and who it’s not for. And when your guests walk in, don’t start with logistics. Begin with purpose and getting their purpose and begin by also connecting them to each other. And very quickly, spend 3% or 5% of the opening time of your meeting connecting them to each other. Don’t skip over connecting people to each other.
KL I really like that idea a lot. And along those lines, you’ve noted that structure in gatherings serves a purpose as well. That it can actually be a relief for introverts or people who suffer from social anxiety. And this resonates very deeply with me [laughs]. Why do you think that’s the case?
PP You know, part of the power of gathering is you can really come together in a thousand different ways. And people often tend to, particularly in the American culture and particularly among millennials, there’s this kind of desire to be “chill” and to not look like you care too much, and to not be too uptight, and in misunderstanding the idea of being chill as generous. Being chill is actually a selfish act. Because you’re doing it because of how you want people to see you. And they want to see you as relaxed. But actually when you are relaxed, you are underserving them. And this is true about enforcing norms and it’s also true about structure. So, I don’t love structure for structure’s sake. I mean, you can have a sex party—and some of the people I interviewed are underground designers who are experts in literally the dynamics of sex parties—and sex parties have a lot of structure. [laughs] So, we confuse and misconstrue structure for control and boringness. But actually when you know your purpose, to then design a structure around it, it allows people to actually organize and be around that purpose in a way that they don’t have to feel like they’re having to take care of themselves and each other. I’ll give an example from another context. It’s another business—the Alamo Theatre—there’s table service. There’s no table, but I guess there’s chair service where there’s waiters and you can get beer, there’s a full menu. And you order them on a little card, a pencil and a card on every table. And just like Loew’s and AMC, at the beginning of a movie, Alamo also has a little jingle that says no texting, no phones. But unlike these other theaters, they say, “and if you do it, we’ll give you one warning. And if you do it again, we’ll kick you out.” And also, if you see somebody else texting or using their phone, you can use the same card that you order food on to write to the server that the person behind is using their phone. And the difference between the Alamo and their competitors is the Alamo takes it on themselves to set the rules and then has the generosity of spirit to enforce them. Every other movie theatre says, “don’t use your phone.” But they only enforce the rules if it gets so bad that people get in a fight and you have to call in security. Otherwise, they put the weight of the enforcement on the other movie goers. If someone is texting behind you or laughing loudly, you have to decide, “do I give them the evil eye, do I say something, do I shush them?” It’s extremely awkward. And it’s not fun. And when you talk to the CEO of the Alamo, he says, “we started the Alamo to bring going to the movies and the magic to it back to the experience.” And he understands that magic isn’t only created by having a beautiful vision. It’s by enforcing awkward things. And similarly, I have this chapter on generous authority—that part of both structure, but also creating pop up rules that serve your purpose is a way of actually not wasting people’s time. But rules can be fun! Structure can be joyous. Structure can be transgressive. But to actually not have basically a vague meeting. I mean, one of the reasons I wrote this book is because I was tired of going to both meetings and frankly house parties, where everybody kind of mills around in the living room. Maybe at some point there’s a birthday cake that’s brought out. And we’re kind of going through these forms and all of the right pieces are there, but you leave feeling kind of empty. Or cornered in the corner by some person you’re not really wanting to talk to. And there’s kind of no one at home in terms of the host. And part of the reason I believe this is is because for the last thirty or forty years, we’ve been told over and over and over again by people and icons and archetypes like Martha Stewart and others that if you get the things right, if you spend three days preparing the crudités, once everybody is there, we’ve baked love into our things. But we leave our people to be. And all I’m arguing is to switch it around. And yeah, don’t not have food. Don’t not have the right AV equipment, but that’s hygiene. That’s not the source of meaning.
SWB I have loved this conversation so much. And I was thinking so much as you were talking about people wanting to “be chill.” It reminds me so much of the conversation I’ve had too many times with organizers of events who are like, “we don’t need a code of conduct, everybody just needs to be excellent to each other.” And really pushing back against the idea that they need to think about what acceptable behavior is and what the consequences are of people who transgress that. And I think it’s definitely coming down to that where I’ve heard people say to me flat out, “well, we want people to have fun and if there’s rules, it won’t be fun for people.” And I think what you’re describing is so helpful. I mean, even something like a sex party—there are rules to the sex party that ensure that people have a good time and that everybody who came there gets to have the experience that they signed up for.
PP When I hear “we want everyone to be excellent to each other,” it makes me angry. And the reason it makes me angry [laughs] is because it’s a power-blind way of seeing. It assumes that people when they walk in, that there aren’t any power dynamics, that there isn’t any hierarchy. That everyone will behave in the way that in your mind you think everybody behaves. And it assumes that you are creating a utopia without actually doing anything to create that utopia. I’ll give a couple of examples. Barack Obama when he was president began to realize through reading studies and also through anecdotal information that when he went to any type of contacts, whether it was in the White House or at a university or at a factory, that during the Q&A, if he just said, “any questions?” disproportionately, men would a) raise their hands more and b) would tend to be called on more. And he started implementing this thing where during the Q&A he’d say, “I’m going to go in boy, girl, boy, girl order.” I cringe a little when I hear “boy, girl, boy, girl” when you can say “man, woman, man, woman,” but you get the point. You know, baby steps. And he would do it. And you’d see these live Q&As and if no woman raised their hand, he would wait. And he used his literally presidential power in these informal ways to counterbalance cultural norms. There’s a conference called Opportunity Collaborative. And I interviewed one of the designers of the conference and he said, “we bring together people who are all interested in eliminating poverty.” In our world, that tends to be funders and grantees. Now, anybody who is in the funder and donor or grantee world knows—the first thing they know—is that it’s an extremely fraught field in terms of power dynamics. Broadly, the donors have the power and the grantees have to listen to them because that’s where the source of funding comes from. But the conference organizers wanted to create a temporary, alternative world where for a small period of time over 3-5 days, there was relatively quality in that context. Now, they understood that they couldn’t change the structural equality of the field—it is what it is—but that they could perhaps change the dynamics between the funders and grantees. And so they thought very specifically about how they could do that. And they would do things first like purposefully not have organizations on their name tags. Now, this is now more common in some conferences to become more obsessive about name tags, but at the time, people hadn’t really thought about the default assumptions of what it actually means to signal whether or not you have money, right? [laughs] Literally saying, “do I have money?” I’m walking around with a huge dollar sign on my forehead if I say I’m at the whatever foundation. But the second thing they did was on the first day, they have a town hall where they gather all of their participants in one room and they do a number of exercises that basically begin to counteract and go into some of the taboos of the field. And so they’d do role playing between funders and grantees of what it’s actually like to be a funder or a grantee. And you’d have grantees in front of a lot of people who would never hear this language say, “writing a grant proposal or going and doing my annual reports is literally like going to the gynecologist. I don’t really want to show you everything!” [laughs] And it was this really raw, equal language when they realized that for at least a specific moment in time, they’re all playing roles. If you take off that role, they’re equals. And if you put on the role, they can see what it is. But this conference asks, “what would it look like if we could temporarily create a space where part of the thesis of why poverty isn’t being solved is frankly because of the communication and power dynamics in the field? And what if we could create a space that actually temporarily pauses that and helps us see the problems that we are part of and the problems that we are creating?” Now, that’s interesting. That they understood that if they just said, “everyone, come and be excellent” that they’re actually perpetuating the dynamics of a field that are perpetuating a problem they think they’re trying to solve.
KL Yeah. I am sitting here just nodding my head in so much agreement. I think that is so, so true. So, we are sadly almost out of time, but before we go, I did want to ask about a concept that you weave throughout your work, which I love, and it’s the idea of pushing people to share experiences, rather than their ideas. Why is that so important when it comes to gatherings?
SWB I really like this 15 Toasts idea. I want to try this out.
PP You should do it!
SWB Yeah, I’m going to do it. And if any of our listeners do it, I would love for them to tell us how it went. So, Priya, thank you so much for talking to us today. We are definitely going to recommend that everyone go and get The Art of Gathering. How else can folks follow your work?
PP They can go to my website, priyaparker.com and sign up for my newsletter. And I also write about gatherings and some of my musings on Instagram, which is just my name— @priyaparker. We are launching our first product now around the book itself because we want to scale these ideas and democratize them, which is an Art of Gathering training for teams and for companies. They can learn more about that by just again going on my website priyaparker.com and sending us an email.
SWB Priya, this is so great. Thank you again so much for coming today.
KL Thank you!
PP Thank you for having me!
SWB Hey, Katel, it’s almost time to go. But we have one last segment left and you know it is one of my favorite moments. It is the fuck yeah of the week! Do you have something for us this week?
KL Yes, I know. It’s my favorite time too. So, I just got a text from someone that really made me smile and I want to tell you about it. I volunteer with an abortion rights organization, and I help a bunch of people, which is so fulfilling. And someone I helped while she was going through getting an abortion a couple years ago recently she messaged me to say that she’d had a baby girl. Because, you know, now was the right time for her, back then it wasn’t. And that was just so lovely. And you know, I love a good reason to knit a baby hat, so I asked her if I could send her a little something—and she must have just received it because she sent me a photo of her adorable baby wearing the hat.
KL I know. [laughs] It just made me smile so big. So, I just want to say fuck yeah to being able to help someone through a time that having a baby wasn’t right for her, so that she could get to a time that it was right for her.
SWB Yeah! Fuck yeah to that. And fuck yeah to grassroots organizations. I know the organization you volunteer with is extremely grassroots. And it’s so great to hear your stories about being right there with people.
KL I know. I love working with them, it’s just been such an amazing addition to my life.
SWB Yeah. And fuck yeah to making sure that women get access to the care that they need and to you, Katel, for doing that work! And also not just doing that work, but you clearly were really, really there for her a couple of years ago if she’s [KL laughs] texting you now to let you know that she had a baby. That is some really deep connections that you’re making—
SWB —so fuck yeah to you for doing that!
KL Aww, thanks for saying that. Fuck yeah!
SWB Well, that is it for us this week! Strong Feelings is recorded in Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn from Edit Audio. Our theme music is “Deprogrammed” by Blowdryer and you can check them out at blowdryer.bandcamp.com. Thanks to Priya Parker for being our guest today, and thank you so much for listening! If you liked the show, don’t forget to subscribe and rate us wherever you listen to podcasts like Stitcher or Apple Podcasts. And hey— you can also get some strong feelings right in your inbox. Sign up for our biweekly newsletter at strongfeelings.co. See you again next week! [theme music plays for 15 seconds and fades out]