Priya Parker is a conflict facilitator, strategic advisor, international speaker, and acclaimed author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. When the pandemic hit, she launched a beloved podcast Together Apart with the New York Times to navigate how we stay connected and re-imagine our gatherings when we can’t meet. As we emerge, she has become the go-to voice on how we gather now – in our communities, our workplaces, and with our most precious. She is the creator and host of The Art of Gathering digital course, which teaches anyone to make meaning with and for their people – one gathering at a time. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and two children.
What are the little-known rules when it comes to gatherings of people, both at home and at work or in society?
One of the biggest mistakes we make when we gather is that we assume that the purpose is obvious and shared. And so the first step to creating more meaningful, specific, transformative, gatherings (whether staff meetings, or for classrooms, or for a dinner party, or a wedding) is to not skip the purpose of the gathering. To become a more artful gatherer, start first with why. Why am I bringing these people together in this moment, and to what end?
What have you noticed from your work as a facilitator, how has the covid-19 pandemic changed the way people gather?
My book,The Art of Gathering, was first published in the United States in 2018 – two years before gathering became illegal and banned. For those two years, I spent a lot of my time in communities convincing people that the way we gather mattered. What the pandemic did, by taking gathering from us, we began to see how much gathering actually shapes our lives. We no longer took it for granted. And, by pausing the ways we were normally gathering – in our schools, our workplaces, with our friends, in our houses of worship – it forced communities to ask more fundamental questions like how should we meet? And where? And why?
In your book „The Art of Gathering“, which was published this summer in Romanian, you refer to the fact that people are often disappointed by the gatherings they attend, but we are not very happy with the time we spend with friends either. How can we explain these responses and what do you think we need to improve?
First, I am so absolutely delighted that The Art of Gathering is being published in Romanian. I have visited your beautirul country, and am delighted that The Art of Gathering is now on your bookshelves and in your libraries. Thank you so much for that honor.
When we gather with our friends or with our colleagues, so many of the ways we come together are on autopilot. We gather in the same old ways, have the same old conversations, and can get into a gathering rut. In our offices and workplaces, there are studies that show (even well before the pandemic) that the number one cause of rage among employees is wasted time in meetings. Much of this is because we haven’t paused to actually think about when and why and how we should meet and how we shape it into something that is worthy of our collective time together.
In your speeches, interviews or presentations on YouTube it is obvious that you always have a smile on your face and tell people how glad you are to meet them. Are these two of the secrets that contribute to the art of a successful gathering?
This book is called The Art of Gathering, not the art of hosting, in part because I believe guests have a lot of power. I have a monthly newsletter in which I write about topical themes around gathering more recently, and one of my most popular articles was about the art of intentional guesting. Guests – not just hosts – shape a gathering. In fact,I actually enjoy being a guest even more than being a host. Part of the reason I’m smiling in those videos is becuase I want to be there. I want to be at that event. I am intentional about what I say yes to and what I say no to. And so if you see me at something, it’s probably because I have thought about whether I want to spend my time in that way, and by saying yes, and by choosing intentionally what I want to attend, it gives me energy and warmth to show up and be my full energetic self.
At the level of common sense, there are many opinions about extroverts and introverts. From your point of view, do these traits influence the gatherings we have and if so, in what way?
One of the most interesting findings I had when I began to research The Art of Gathering, was that many of the people other people credited with consistently creating transformative gatherings identify themselves as introverts. For The Art of Gathering, I interviewed over 100 different types of gatherers from all walks of life: a rabbi, a choir conductor, a hockey coach, a beloved teacher, and I was surprised how many of them identified as introverts. When I asked one of them why they thought that was, she said to me: at so many gatherings, I am uncomfortable. So at my own gatherings, I create the gatherings I wish existed in the world. And other people seem to like them, too.
At the global level, we see two forces, many voices that bet on the individualistic vision („You are the most important“, „Don’t care about others“ etc.) and others that support the relational paradigm („We are interconnected“, „Only together can we succeed“ etc.). How do you think we can progress from an individualistic culture to a relational civilization?
Gathering isn’t all about just the We. All group life is about the balance between the I and the We. People join groups and are willing to give up some amount of their freedom to be part of a larger purpose. To me, gatherings are interesting because they’re a microcosm of society, and a world in which we’re trying to sort through where and how to protect the individual and where and how to nurture the group. How do we do that and how do we build a world in which people are seen for who they are and also part of something greater than themselves?
Host vs. Guest. What are the most common mistakes everyone makes?
The pandemic reminded us that ourtime is sacred. And whether as host or guest, I invite you to think more intentionally about how you spend your time and with whom. I write about the gathering audit in my blog and invite you to take it. Whether a host or a guest, to pause and first think about why you were attending or hosting what you’re hosting and how do you do so more intentionally.
Many people say that the role of host comes with some pressure. How is it in your case, do you still get emotional before an important meeting? How do you deal with them?
Absolutely. I’m a professional conflict facilitator, andthe majority of the gatherings I host are in my professional life. And every time, even now, 20 years later, before a big meeting, my palms are sweaty, my heart is beating fast, and my mouth gets dry. Like all good facilitators, I have my own coaches and practices to help me get grounded and practice breathing. So that I can go in and be present, authentic, and pay deep attention to what needs to happen, and how to bring people along to that reality.
Coming back to your book, which is a relational gem in many ways, how was the writing? What was the writing process like and what is one thing to put on about your book?
The writing process was… hard. One breakthrough I finally had is when I realized that I’m a much more comfortable speaker than I am a writer. And so many of the passages that I’m most proud of, I recorded myself just speaking aloud and then would listen to it on headphones and transcribe it onto the page.
On your website (priyaparker.com) there is also an online course entitled The art of Gathering. How is it addressed and what can we learn if we sign up?
My team and I spent two years developing this six week online digital course to help people learn the actual practical skills of becoming a more artful gatherer. It’s super practical, if you have a gathering coming up that is high stakes or that you are nervous about, it could be a wedding, or a team retreat, or a milestone birthday, or a product launch, you bring your future gathering to this course. The six weeks consists of prerecorded videos and live interactive case studies and examples to help you work through your future gathering and come out on the other side with a plan. You can sign up here.