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Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, and founder of Thrive Labs, joins the program to discuss the importance of creating an intentional structure that allows for inclusion and transformation. She reveals the formative experiences from her childhood that led her to her current work, and how leaders can activate diversity within their organizations.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Priya’s diversity story of growing up in 2 very different homes (3:00)
- The importance of structure in gatherings (16:00)
- How to “interrupt the script” and what that entails (26:00)
- The ripple effect of courage at any level of an organization (31:00)
- How to activate diversity within an organization (36:00)
- The transformative impact of shared purpose at a gathering (38:00)
- When it can be okay to create an exclusive gathering (39:30)
- The unique design of a human-centered conference (41:00)
- A powerful example of the transformative use of dialogue (46:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Gatherings of all kinds are such a big part of our lives – team meetings and offsites at work, celebrations with friends and families – but I think we can all say that it is the rare gathering that really transcends and becomes a memorable, even transformative, experience. Many of us are intimidated by the role of the planner, or facilitator, of such experiences, but there is actually a science to it.
Enter Priya Parker, today’s guest on The Will to Change, and author of the 2018 book, The Art of Gathering: How we Meet, and Why it Matters.
Priya’s diversity story is even evident in her name, and it is no wonder she ended up so grounded in the field of conflict resolution. It is her lived experience to know what it feels like to bridge two worlds skeptical of each other, or worse. She carries this lens into her work today, as the founder of Thrive Labs, wherein she helps activists, elected officials, corporate executives, educators, and philanthropists create transformative gatherings. She 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.
We discuss frequently on The Will to Change the tension between belonging, or finding our community of same identity, and our uniqueness, or our desire to become. Gatherings can be intentionally designed to honor both, to find that magical, productive, and satisfying balance; Priya explores though why gatherings in our lives are often lackluster and unproductive, sharing why they don’t have to be. She makes the point that we rely too much on routine and the conventions of gatherings when we should focus on distinctiveness and the people involved. At a time when coming together is more important than ever, Parker sets forth a human-centered approach to gathering that will help everyone create meaningful, memorable experiences, large and small, for work and for play.
I asked Priya about how to strike that balance of not enough or too much structure, and control: one of her key messages is what she calls “generous authority”: things like knowing the purpose of your gathering, protecting your guests, from each other, and from values you don’t want, connecting your guests to each other and then, lastly, equalizing them. She encourages us to interrupt the script, change the furniture around, obsess about the name of a meeting, and craft a unique way for us to introduce ourselves and open proceedings. We even talk about the guest list, and why excluding to include sometimes makes sense, depending on your goal.
I personally took heart in how Priya’s book addresses charisma and personality as not necessarily the keys to great gatherings, but how the right structure is even more critical. She interviewed over a hundred people for the book, most of whom wouldn’t describe themselves as gatherers, per se – from a choreographer for Cirque du Soleil, to Zen Buddhist monks who do a lot of end of life care and rituals, and camp counselors at both Jewish and Arab summer camps – and many of whom are self-identified introverts and/or suffer from high levels of social anxiety. But we all create gatherings, all the time. And with her guidance and ideas, I as a reader felt empowered and equipped to see the gatherings I’m a part of, in a new way.
Priya, welcome to The Will to Change.
PRIYA PARKER: Thank you for having me.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m glad to have you. I’ve been heads down in your book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. It’s excellent, excellent! And I felt a real connection to you because I think we’ve both spent a lot of time in classrooms of various sizes and formats trying to figure out how do we create an experience for learners and a safe place for them to learn, and to collaborate, and to grow their trust for each other, and to establish some amazing outcomes? It’s such an art. I’ve never read a book that is about that art of creating and holding the space for successful gatherings. So I just can’t wait to bring your knowledge to our audience.
PRIYA PARKER: Thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, so we always start The Will to Change with our diversity stories. We say everyone has a diversity story even those you don’t expect. Sometimes it is an unexpected story. So what would you share in terms of your diversity story? I know there’s many options you would have to share, but what is one thing that would enable us to get to know a little bit more about you?
PRIYA PARKER: I was born in Zimbabwe. My mother is Indian, she’s an anthropologist, and my father is white American. He’s a hydrologist which is pertinent to this story.
JENNIFER BROWN: What is that?
PRIYA PARKER: They study water.
JENNIFER BROWN: Awesome.
PRIYA PARKER: And because of this for the first four years of my life they lived in various fishing villages in Africa and Southeast Asia and every nine months or year they would move. And eventually, they moved to the U.S. and eventually, they moved to Virginia. And once we moved to Virginia within a year they separated. Within two years they were divorced. And within three years they basically had each remarried other people who reflected the world view from which they originally came. And they had joint custody and I was an only child. So every two weeks I’d go back and forth between these two households on a Friday afternoon and I’d leave my mother’s house and that house had become an Indian, British, atheist, Buddhist, theosophist, kind of meditation Sunday, incensed-fueled, vegetarian, liberal, progressive, Democratic, World-Banky, cab hailing –
JENNIFER BROWN: That is such a good visual. [Laughter.]
PRIYA PARKER: And then I would be taken a mile away or drive a mile away once I was 16 and enter my father’s household and it was a white, American, conservative, Evangelical Christian, Republican, meat eating, twice a week church going, climate skeptic family. And I joke, you know my name is Priya Parker and my diversity is embodied in my origin story. And my husband now jokes that it’s no wonder I ended up in the field of conflict resolution. But I think basically my entire adolescence was a swinging back and forth between two worlds that at the best were skeptical of each other and at the worst believed at least one side that the other side was eternally damned. And both were part of me.
I went to the University of Virginia and the first question I received as an undergrad from a number of different people was, “What are you?” And I didn’t understand what the question meant and I quickly figured out in a racialized climate it meant what race am I, and I learned the correct answer which was biracial, and I’m half-white American, half-Indian.
The order of the question always bothered me. It wasn’t the 17th question, it wasn’t the 32nd question, it was the first question and it was a question to categorize because so much meaning was attributed in that context to race. And UVA has a strong sense of student self-governance and it’s not just something that’s written on a wall and no one pays attention to. They really believe that if you see a problem do something about it and so I was encouraged by upperclassmen to really dive into the history of race and the current dynamics of race at UVA and learned about a process called, “sustained dialogue.” And the summer after my freshman year I decided to bring it to my campus and we launched it on September 10th, 2001.
JENNIFER BROWN: Mm, wow.
PRIYA PARKER: And then, of course, 9/11 happening the next day and it became this psychological container even though it was a day-old that so much was dropped into and that was the beginning of my exploration of my own identity of race and of the transformative power of gathering intentionally, in this case through dialogue.
JENNIFER BROWN: What an incredible story. That’s the ultimate set-up for being a fabulous space holder and facilitator when you’re in the room just your childhood and having to go back and forth, make sense of these two – hold that, as an only child I can’t imagine also the sort of burden of holding all of that and having successful relationships and close relationships with such disparate parts of your family that had such different beliefs.
And so it does make a lot of sense. It probably felt random at the time as it was all happening, but it led you to this really interesting place where you study gatherings as a, I heard in your book, as a lens on leadership. Really it’s a leadership book because so much of our leading has to do with gathering and being in front of people, determining what outcomes are. All of us are functioning, usually, in some kind of organization where we have accountabilities and we’ve got to get to certain goals and we need to make people feel honored and heard along the way. I think we need to do that, right?
PRIYA PARKER: Uh-huh.
JENNIFER BROWN: It matters how we get to the destination not just the destination.
PRIYA PARKER: Certainly.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s what I feel like I talk till I’m blue in the face about to my corporate clients because it’s more and more we understand how people feel welcomed and heard and seen in organizations can make a huge difference in terms of whether they want to stay there. A lot of those dynamics are kicked up in a meeting setting, right? There’s a reason that meetings are the first place we start when we talk about where bias, for example, either can be in check or can rump rampant and really disturb the equilibrium, make people feel excluded, et cetera.
So I love that you really focused on how we come together and what happens from an inclusiveness perspective. So would you just give us a little bit of a frame on your philosophy around gatherings and why you think this is the proving ground for our humanness and our leadership?
PRIYA PARKER: I define gatherings as any time three or more people come together for a purpose. And it’s no accident at some level that I think the lens that I bring to gathering is deeply influenced by my childhood. And that is, I think – when I went back and forth between these two families I experienced different versions of what I think we all experience in families which is these two competing forces which is one on hand a desire to belong, and to use Thomas Hubl’s language, on the other hand, a desire to become.
And because I had these two different gatherings, I mean if you take the family system as multiple gatherings over time, I realized that for the first I would say decade of my life in that context I learned to belong by becoming a chameleon. So I entered into each of those different group contexts and when I was at my mother’s house and somebody sneezed I would say, “Bless you,” and when I went to my father’s house and somebody sneezed I would say, “God bless you.” I’d add the God in there and I didn’t even realize I was doing this until my husband pointed it out years later as my sole witness who was ever with me in both places. And I think that gatherings are – the content can be about anything, right?
It can be about pushing a project forward, it can be about cleaning up a neighborhood, it can be about figuring out the right penalty for a crime. But the underlying DNA and patterns of a gathering are basically a temporary moment in time with a beginning, middle, and end of group life. And I think group life is about the balance between the search for individual identity and the search for a collective identity. And, to me, gatherings are units of time where you can see both of those in action and when they collide and when they align and what do you want to do about it?
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. So you talk about the role of the leader or whoever that person is that’s convening the gathering. You’re book, I think, is a call out to take responsibility and accountability for what gatherings could and should be and yet why we hesitate to step forward and shape them. I think because a lot of us, many reasons, we don’t know what we’re shaping them around. Maybe we’re a quiet leader. We don’t want to take up space. We don’t want to make it about us. We don’t want to dominate it. We want to let it be organic. As I was reading I was hearing myself because my leadership style is I love organic. I love unstructured. I love sitting and listening and reflecting, right?
PRIYA PARKER: Uh-huh.
JENNIFER BROWN: I felt really challenged by it stylistically because you really do say that a strong hand is needed, but you qualify it and you explain what you mean. So I wonder if you could elaborate on that? And you even say something as provocative as good exclusion activates diversity. That’s something that comes up a lot in my world. I want to hear a little bit about what is the role of that instigator or the gatherer as a starting point?
PRIYA PARKER: Absolutely. I think we sometimes confuse inclusion and protection. And in the book I argue for something that I call generous authority. And I use a simple example outside of the corporate context which is the Alamo Draft House. Have you ever been?
JENNIFER BROWN: No. It sounds fun.
PRIYA PARKER: It’s a movie theater that was started in Austin, Texas and is now in a dozen cities around the country. And like AMC and Loews they have a funny little video at the beginning, before the movie is screened that basically says, “Turn off your cell phones, no talking.” Unlike AMC and Loews if you text or talk at an Alamo you get a warning. And the way this warning is enforced is by the waiter. So, Alamo Draft House has like alcohol or beer, drinks, menu service and people are walking around from the Alamo Draft House and if somebody sees somebody talking or texting they can put up their menu card, which is the same menu card they’re ordering, so you don’t realize that the person is doing it. And the Alamo Draft House will first give you a warning and if you do it again they’ll kick you out. And they actually kick people out.
JENNIFER BROWN: Awesome.
PRIYA PARKER: And when the CEO was challenged on it from angry voicemails he defended based on purpose. And he says the purpose of the theaters and the theater experience is to bring movies and movie going, bring the magic of the movies back to the in-person experience. And unlike AMC and Loews, they basically outsource. They set a rule, but they outsource the protection and the enforcement of that rule to their patrons, to the customers.
So, if you’re at an AMC and Loews and you’re in a movie theater and someone texts behind you, you have to decide – the weight is on you. It’s actually very selfish of AMC and Loews. The weight is on you whether to give them a bad look, whether to escalate it, and the only time someone comes in is literally if it’s sending in security. And so, to me generous authority does three things. Well, first, you have to know the purpose of your gathering. And then as a generous authoritarian then idea is first you have to protect your guests. You protect them from each other and you protect them from the values you don’t want.
The second is you connect your guests. You connect them to each other. And the third is that you equalize them. You find a way to temporary equalize them. And I think part of the idea of laying back or laying low particularly when you’re hosting is that you assume that everything will go fine. Often when you don’t have structure it’s like Joe Freeman’s Tyranny of Structureless essay from the ’70s talking about the tyranny of structureless and the feminist movement and why what decentralization was actually leading to oppression is because we assume that if you don’t take authority no one else will.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right, and they do. In the vacuum they step in and they take it.
PRIYA PARKER: They do and it usually doesn’t serve the purpose, right? And then you basically continue. So, if you don’t step up and whatever way you step up, and it should absolutely be serving a purpose that you are choosing intentionally. So it’s not authority for authority’s sake. You can have ungenerous authority. Authority can be about yourself. Generous authority is about your guests. And it’s about basically helping people know that there’s a captain at the helm of the ship and that the power dynamics that might exist out in the world or out in the hallway or our in the corporate context, outside of this room, will not be perpetuated here because we are creating a temporary alternative world. That is a version of a possibility of how we could be together and I’m going to enforce that because this, for this temporary period of time, is my social contract and I’ve inviting you into it and you find it legitimate.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. And people like boundaries. Kids like boundaries. I’m sure there’s a part of human behavior that continues into adulthood that it allows us to feel safer and freer in a way when there is structure.
PRIYA PARKER: I also would make a distinction between authority and structure. I think you can have an absolutely organic, spacious, beautiful evening with strong authority. So, for example, if you were having a dinner party and at the beginning you’ve chosen your guests well and according to whatever it is that you’re wanting to gather around and at the beginning of the night you simply – or in an email ahead of time you simply say, “Welcome to my home,” or “Welcome to” wherever we are. “I just have one ask for the night and that is that we just have one conversation. We just have one conversation.” And literally that’s all you say. There’s no structure, there’s no opening question, there’s no time limit, there’s nothing else.
The only thing that I think you should then do is if people start side talking it is your job as a host to kindly, jokingly help them correct. And if they don’t you’ve basically set a rule and then you’re not enforcing it and it’s actually extremely awkward for everybody else. What are we doing here? I actually think things still have a lot of space for spontaneity and organic elements and for decentralization, but within a core of a framework that you set that, again, serves your purpose.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s great.
PRIYA PARKER: I’ll give another example. It’s, again, a dinner party theme, but I was talking with a writer named Jancee Dunn and she was trying to take the principles of The Art of Gathering and apply them to the dinner party. She was actually on assignment. I think she was expecting me to say, “Put your wine glass here, or cook this.” I’m a terrible cook and I still can’t remember which way the fish knife goes. And I said to her what I would say to all of my clients which is, “What is a need in your life or in your community that by through gathering people they might help you fulfill?” And she said, “Well, that’s interesting.” It was a personal example, “But I’m a worn out mom. I’m a writer and I was at a friend’s house the other day and she cut me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in triangle and gave me baby carrot sticks. And I was very amused and I took a bite and I started crying.” And I said, “Why did you start crying?” She says, “Well, I just felt really taken care of.” I said, “Great, let’s build on that.”
And she said, “Well, what if I hosted a dinner party for myself and for other worn out moms?” I said, “I love it. Give it a name.” “The Worn Out Mom Hootenanny.” “That’s great. Give it a rule. If you talk about your kids you have to take a shot.” And then she actually did this and she sent out the email, she sent out the subject line, she gave it a name. It was a specific purpose. It was disputable, you could disagree with it. To go to your point, it excluded dads, it excluded moms that weren’t worn out, it excluded not mothers, and there was a “there there.” And all six women RSVP’d yes within an hour and she said it was one of the best nights of her life.
JENNIFER BROWN: That is a great story. I love that. Solve your own problem by gathering.
PRIYA PARKER: Yeah, and it’s authority, but it’s joy and it’s humor. So, I don’t want it to get it confused between authority and structure and don’t want us to get confused between structure and joy.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, for sure. They’re not opposite. There is a healthy, needed authority. Some of us are going to be more comfortable with that than others and when you’re coaching leaders who prefer to lead from behind, who prefer that, how do you gear your coaching of that person to buy into this and then assume whatever that position is in the room in order to ensure that other people have a desired experience? Because if you don’t, anything can happen and it’s usually not a desirable thing to happen.
PRIYA PARKER: Yeah. So first, I get them to really, really engage with the question, what is the purpose of this gathering? And, basically, say, “Don’t gather until you have a specific, disputable purpose.” And I think when people get excited by coming together and hosting people for a reason that is so important that no one would cancel the meeting for, right? You’re really creating a gathering that people want to be at for a specific reason. Then the question becomes, “Okay, what is the design or the structure that will help you most likely fulfill that purpose?”
Whatever language you use, quiet to use Susan Cain’s language. An introvert doesn’t like this style, wants to lead from behind then bake the assumption of your purpose into the design. I interviewed over a hundred people for this book in extreme context who don’t necessarily think of themselves as gatherers, but a choreographer for Cirque du Soleil, Zen Buddhist monks who do a lot of end of life care and rituals that families don’t think of as rituals but basically are rituals, and camp counselors of summer camps between the Jewish and Arab summer camps. And one of the things that I realized as I was talking to a lot of them is many of them self-identified as either introverts or actually even suffering from pretty high levels of social anxiety. And in part they were such great gatherers because they relied on structure and not the charisma of their personality.
And some of this can be very simple. So, designing pop-up rules, the example I gave earlier with Jancee Dunn if you talk about your kid you have to take a shot was an example of a silly or a joyful pop-up rule. A slightly transgressive pop-up rule, but a different one is say, for example, you’re hosting your new employee orientation or a worldwide meeting where teams are coming together for the first time and haven’t all met together or a leadership team that is completely decentralized and never met in person and you don’t really feel like walking around and introducing each person to the other and being the social glue, bake it into a rule.
So one of the rules that I love is from the Latitude Society which is now this defunct, underground secret society in San Francisco that was very controversial, but one of the rules that they would embed in their opening members gatherings was come in, the bar is at the back. I’m sorry, I’m using a lot of alcohol examples here, but there’s drinks at the back and the only rule is that you can’t pour yourself a drink. You can pour anyone else a drink. Or I had one of the women I talk about in the book, her name is Nora Abousteit and she, actually, is an example, for me, of generous authority. She’s half-German, half-Egyptian. She’s an extreme example of this which is why I used her, but at the beginning of dinners that she’s hosted at conferences all around the world as an entrepreneur the food will come out and often be served family style and she’ll say, “Serve the person next to you. Welcome, and there’s only one ask which is just serve the person next to you or in front of you. Don’t worry about serving yourself.” And I’ve seen it. There are CEOs in the room. There are all sorts of people who are trying to – they may not look like it, but are worried about themselves and in that one comment, she’s not socially orchestrating. She’s not on for the next 90 minutes. She steps back and does the same thing herself, but she changes the dynamics in the room by simply orienting us to each other.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. It totally changes the energy. In the business world there’s not a lot of attention paid to creating bonds between participants, I think. We’re so task oriented and time isn’t taken to do these kinds of little things and what you’re describing is so easy to do and changes and shifts the energy. But it seems to fall by the wayside in terms of priority. Similarly, the space that’s chosen for the meeting has everything to do with how people are relaxed and how the energy flows in the room. I know you write about the power of even choosing a space for meetings, locations, the room, the boundaries of the room, the size of the room, the number of people that fit that size of room. It’s really interesting. These are things intuitively I feel like I’ve never really put a fine point on it as a facilitator, but it can make or break the experience, too. So what are some of those dos and don’ts with space and size and things we should think about?
PRIYA PARKER: So the first is to make sure that your location serves the purpose of your gathering. Seinfeld famously talks about doing his stand-up in like a vaudeville house and an opera house and as he puts it some rich guy sees my show, hires me at their birthday party, I go in their living room and I totally go down the toilet and everybody thinks “Seinfeld isn’t that great.” And he says the room does a huge percentage of the work and it’s the same. You’re a facilitator, you know it’s the same for facilitation.
One of the people I interviewed for the book is a guy named Patrick Frick and he’s in the same tribe of facilitators and he gave the example of working at some point at the World Bank and he came into a board room and it was set up deeply hierarchical and he freaked out. And he basically said, “We need to move this furniture.” And they’re like, “No, this is how we always sit.” And he said, “Exactly.” Literally they’re like, “It’s in the floor.” He’s like, “I don’t care, take them out. Unplug the wires. Take it out.” And I asked him why and he said, “Well, because we already follow scripts.” And scripts in gatherings and particularly scripts in hierarchy if they don’t serve a purpose are deathly. And we follow the scripts in part through the way we sit and what we say and the hierarchy and we become zombies. And so the first thing to do is interrupt the script. And you can interrupt the script in a lot of subtle ways, but the easiest way is to interrupt the script in terms of the location of your gathering because I act very differently if I’m in a board room versus if I’m in a dance floor versus if I’m in a cemetery. And make sure that the location serves your purpose.
But then the second thing is other forms of script changing is what you call the meeting. So, the first thing is give your meeting a name and don’t call it a meeting. Think about the name and the category. So the Jancee Dunn thing it’s like The Worn Our Moms Hootenanny. So there was an adjective in that case the whom it was for and a very specific group was named. And then there’s a category afterwards, a hootenanny. Now, did they go around and sing and play banjos? Not really, but energetically perhaps. And I would just say I think the other thing about connecting people at the beginning of a meeting it’s often seen as just shifting the energy, but it actually shifts the work.
So an example that I love is from Atul Gawande’s work which there’s a WHS study that looked at surgical teams that took the time to go through a checklist and one of those things was to introduce themselves before surgery and because in that surgical team there’s a hierarchy. There’s a nurse, there’s an assistant, there’s an anesthesiologist, and error rates went down when they introduced themselves. Because in a hierarchy it’s more likely that somebody junior, not conducting the surgery will see the error, but it’s less likely they’ll speak up if they don’t feel the psychological safety to speak up.
And so it affects the work, it’s not just the energy. Another example, a facilitator friend of mine was working at the pharmaceutical company and they were doing a global, all hands meeting on maternal mortality. And they asked an opening question which I thought was totally brilliant. They had all of these people in the room, all the executives, answer as they’re opening the question, “What is one thing about your mother that people wouldn’t know by looking at her.” And to me this is brilliant because it’s telling something about yourself and something relationally about your mother, but it’s related to the work which is maternal mortality. Right? It’s not random. It’s intimacy for intimacy’s sake. It’s changing the nature of the lens to remind people that we’re talking about our own mothers and if we were to approach a public health issue the way we would feel about our own mother we might make different decisions.
JENNIFER BROWN: So true. That’s a beautiful example. It connects to purpose and I love talking about purpose. I had a whole chapter on it in my first book and I think of purpose almost as important as a diversity dimension as perhaps we talk about race and gender. What we’re fueled by, what we are passionate about, what gets us up in the morning, what keeps us at a job? I think increasingly we’re talking about belonging in the workplace and belonging is generated in part by inclusion, but also the honoring of our own purposes, our disparate purposes and like you just said the permission to speak those truths and those purposes to colleagues and team members. We’re all shooting for this more open workplace because we know that the lack of openness is really hurting us. It’s hurting our morale, it’s hurting our results, and yet business continues to really resist being vulnerable, really resist speaking from the heart. It has this really bad habit of just living in the head and it’s very difficult to introduce the person, even just one question like the one that you just described.
I think that all of us have to take that responsibility to introduce that. We don’t have to wait for permission to do it. Even if our leaders aren’t comfortable because they often aren’t because they’re so busy being what they think a leader needs to behave like. I think we need to really introduce this more personal, more vulnerable conversation and introduce our purposes into meetings, into routines, into business rituals. I think the busyness of life as well really contributes to truncating what makes work so meaningful. And truncating those really important moments that don’t take a lot of time, but totally shift the energy. I couldn’t agree more. That’s why I think we start with diversity stories in my work with executives.
When you ask a straight, white male executive C-Suite leader, “What is your diversity story?” Something they haven’t even thought about, but the invitation to explore it is transformative in and of itself. And then, inevitably, they take a risk. As long as you create the safe space around them to take that risk and you talk about shifting a whole energy in a room when particularly perhaps a diverse workforce is in the room. Perhaps you have women of color and you have somebody technically in a position of authority on the org chart do something like that. It has these ripple effects. And then everybody else starts popping up and sharing. Then you’re in a groove.
But I think we have to be brave to say, “No, I insist. We’re going to set a different tone here and then we’re going to see what happens.” I think we can be brave from all levels of organization. We don’t have to be the most senior person and, in fact, I think the most senior people sometimes are the worst at doing these things because they have a lot to protect.
PRIYA PARKER: I think that one of the things that’s happened in our culture is over the last 10 or 15 years there’s been a rise in the idea of individual purpose, in articulating individual purpose, and it being okay that an individual has a purpose and the rise of the popularity of Simon Sinek, start with why, all of this is of the age. I think what I’m arguing for here is it’s not only okay, but imperative for your gathering to also have a purpose. And I think one of the asks of an individual to have a purpose is to make some decisions about what is not your purpose.
And similarly with gathering what I’m asking for in part to honor people’s time and in part to create the possibility that something comes of your gathering is to be as radical and courageous to have a purpose. So I don’t think vulnerability for vulnerability sake is actually good. I think, particularly inclusion and diversity context it can be dangerous. I think that vulnerability when it serves an agreed upon and legitimate purpose is good. When you’re asking in a very unequal context for a person with less power to be vulnerable that actually is not necessarily a good thing.
I think vulnerability and intimacy should serve, again, an agreed upon purpose and part of what I’m asking for here is to raise the bar of when and why we gather. So, often when I go into companies and organizations and help them map their organizations one of my first recommendation is to gather less.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s welcome, of course in some quarters.
PRIYA PARKER: And to raise the bar of less allows for a meeting. So when I say a meeting should be specific and disputable what I mean by that is that it should be sharp enough that it becomes over time clearer who and who should not be there. So one of the elements of our meetings that I think are problematic is that they’re vague and diluted because we over-include. And one of the elements that I learned actually from sustained dialogue was as we started launching these groups at UVA we would have in the beginning I think we had seven groups, simultaneous groups of 14 students at a time, commit to meeting. Diverse groups commit to meeting every two weeks for three hours of intentional dialogue on race. Some years we’d have 17 groups going on at the same time which meant we had 40 student moderators and these student moderators would meet week-to-week and I would facilitate these meetings of moderators and we’d start to look at these patterns and we’d say what are we learning from our groups?
And we started a couple of experiments in the second and third year when rather than just having diverse groups of South Asian students and some black students and some white students and some Latinos we would have one or two groups that met around a specific line of conflict. So, we had one black and white group. And it was actually, if I remember correctly, it was a black fraternity and a white fraternity. Or a black Greek life and white Greek life, it may not have been male. And then we had one group that was Jewish and Arab and at some point that Jewish and Arab group became Jewish American and Arab American and became even tighter.
And the tighter groups were the ones where the facilitators would come back and be on fire every week because the dialogue would be transported because there was a focus. And there was a focus that they could dig at week after week after week, versus trying to include every single part of a person of the Latino part and the black-white dialogue in America and the South Asian immigrant experience and this experience and then that experience. So you could go wide but you couldn’t go deep.
And I think one of the things that we tend to confuse when we think about diversity and inclusion is that we don’t have a sophisticated understanding of purposeful exclusion in order to actually activate the diversity that I believe we actually want.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. And I was giving you an example when we were speaking earlier about the LGBT leadership programs I do for a couple of corporate clients and we do exclude to include LGBT high potential talent, but the conversation comes up and the program is always challenged with, “Well, you’re being exclusive. Why don’t you want straight allies in the room?” Et cetera. And it’s a really interesting moment when I know how special, how sacred it is to actually have that singular purpose in the room where people relax and they can cry and they can let their guard down entirely in this completely new and unusual situation where they feel heard and seen on this whole different level. It’s transformative, but would I want to include allies in that room? Yes, but the purpose would be a completely different thing, right?
PRIYA PARKER: And because your listeners weren’t part of our earlier conversation I remember what you specifically said was it was this decision of whether or not to include allies in the LGBT group. And the courageous act was to not. And I love this example in part because you can defend exclusion when it serves a worthy purpose. So in that context my understanding is that the purpose of the LGBT group is, I would imagine, some variation of to find safety, to find likeness, to activate an identity where one can be a majority in a larger context where one is a minority and in an LGBT context where one is the invisible minority.
If the goal of a diversity program, however, is to begin to change our culture then perhaps you should include allies, but that should be a different group. The part of the design of gatherings and particularly for consultants and facilitators and trainers who are slightly on the outside of things is to understand that there can be a sequence of involving different people at different times, but to radically defend the purpose and to make sure that the people match the purpose of that specific need. And I think it’s a deep tension within an organization of how do you both create pockets of safety where a minority, however you define that identity, can be protected while still over the long-term perhaps, and this might be provocative, creating a culture where that becomes so integrated not through sameness but through acceptance where the first group is no longer needed?
JENNIFER BROWN: Right, and that’s the classic debate that’s going on right now which is that are organizations going to age out of or move beyond the need for a specific identity-based diversity networks. That is what we all talk about all day long. We famously say in my field, “We want to work ourselves out of a job.” I mean I don’t because I have a company to run, but my internal stakeholders we joke about that, but we do in our hearts wish there weren’t a need for and the structures that we’ve had to build to create the safe space in the first place.
But we’re so not there yet. When I consider that 50% of LGBT people are still closeted at work and that’s from a study from this past year, this is not old data. There is a towering need for safety and, to me, that’s an imperative.
PRIYA PARKER: Absolutely. And what I love about what you just said is you brought data in. So, often, when you’re in smaller circles you can feel like, “Oh, being closeted is a problem from the ’80s.” And actually bringing in data to say, “No, no, no, our perception is that this is no longer a problem, but it still is.” And so part of this conversation needs to be buttressed by data to see what are the actual facts in part because by definition if people are invisible and choosing not to come out you probably wouldn’t know that by just looking around. And so to make these decisions strategically based on actual data, based on what people are reporting and then to defend it based on, again, what your values are.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. What are some not so productive diversity dynamics in the gatherings that you’ve witnessed and been a part of perhaps facilitating or setting up? I’m curious most about how does that authority we talked about earlier show up differently when the gatherer is a man or woman or in the corporate context we always think of who’s not in the room or who’s underrepresented in the room and what are the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion that’s going on? How do you see that occurring? I’m curious, maybe despite you best efforts does bias still creep up on a gathering and how do you, if you’re the facilitator, counteract it when you see it? What does it look like when you see it and what do you do about it?
PRIYA PARKER: Well, there’s bias everywhere.
JENNIFER BROWN: All day.
PRIYA PARKER: There’s bias in design and then there’s bias in the room. And as anybody, you don’t have to be a facilitator to host a meeting, we are all hosting things all the time and we’re all guesting things all the time. One of the people that I most enjoyed my conversation with when I was interviewing is a guy name Martin Thornqvist. He is a Swedish entrepreneur. He hosts a conference called The Conference.
JENNIFER BROWN: That needs no name. [Laughter.]
PRIYA PARKER: Yeah, exactly. I’ve been told by a lot of people, I’ve never been, it’s in Sweden in a little town called Malmo that it’s one of the best, most human conferences they’ve been to. So, I called him up and I asked him about it and he brought up this question of bias and he said year after year after year, “I’m a man, I’m a white male. I’m Swedish, but I’m a man,” and they’d choose their speakers based on a combination of crowdsourcing from previous speakers, crowdsourcing from a group of experts which are non-speakers and then making internal decisions themselves as a conference organizer and they would notice that in the majority of the – they’d always ask speakers and stakeholders to nominate names for speakers and the majority of names would always be men. I mean 90%, 80% and he started realizing that actually the crowd was biased.
So there’s this implicit element that if you ask the crowd they’ll come back and you’ll have a diverse outcome and you don’t. And so they started tweaking in their design time and this is nine months before the next year to actually begin to train and to point out in their crowdsourcing this bias and to ask for sometimes entire lists of women, sometimes 50% and basically started to realize that there is so much inherent bias in who we even think of as worthy of being speakers that we were perpetuating this dynamic without thinking about it.
So the first is, how do you design and who should be in the room and why? The second is in the room, this goes back to the generous authority point, how do you design and counter-design for the dynamics that will sneak up on you anyway? So President Obama did this famously particularly towards of his second term he would go into rooms and it could be the press corps and it could be union worker in Indiana and in the Q&A part he would say, “Now, I’m here to take your questions. I’m excited to take your questions. There’s only rule. We’re going to go boy, girl, boy, girl.” And I bristle a little at the boy, girl line. Man, woman, man, woman. And then he would do it and men would raise their hands and he’d choose one of them and if no woman raised their hand he would wait.
And yes, he has the authority in a room to do that, but many of us do. I mean, if you’re a speaker in any context that’s an example of temporarily hacking a system. To counterbalance it completely one of the last press conferences of the year of his term he ended on eight women, eight women journalists, and it was symbolic to counter at the fact that for the majority of White House press conferences since the press corps began the people in the room were men. So, over time of if 95% by definition of questions that were asked by men he was symbolically inviting that to be slightly counterbalanced. And so all of that to say is there’s things you can do in the room to also counterbalance diversity.
The second thing I would just say is we often have a shallow understanding of why we are bringing in “diversity,” what we even mean by it. This goes back to the exclusion point which I personally think bodies in the room change the nature of a conversation, absolutely because particularly people speak up and we speak based on our identity. But in a lot of context whether it’s a conference or a play or an element where your guests are broadly playing a role of audience rather than content creators. Even if you have a diverse room, if they’re not activated, to me, it doesn’t really matter. It’s a good start, okay?
One of the examples I love is Anna Deavere Smith in her most recent play on education her second act is actually having the audience break up into dialogue circles, go into side rooms and facilitate a conversation on the content of the play and you come back into the third act. That’s activating diversity.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. You know, Gloria: A Life, Gloria Steinem the play that’s running in New York right now, they finish the play and then they invite the audience which is seated in a round, audience in the round, it’s such a great space in Union Square to weigh in an react to what they just heard about Gloria Steinem’s life. People were vulnerable and emotional. It was a history lesson in itself to hear the diversity within the room of different generations. Women and men speaking up, too. Men were invited in particular, even though this is Gloria’s life story, to talk about the impact of feminism on them. Anyway, I loved it and it was facilitated by the cast.
PRIYA PARKER: That’s beautiful.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, the cast literally stays.
PRIYA PARKER: That is awesome.
JENNIFER BROWN: I know, I loved it. And I thought, “This is transformative.” I think even the group experience we want in the arts is changing. I don’t think it’s enough to be a passive receiver of a performance. I wonder whether that format’s going to change as we realize what you’re talking about and the wisdom of involving people in their own learning in a more concrete way. You and I know when you design group experiences it’s a little bit of teach and then it’s a lot of involvement. You want people to be reacting and speaking and speaking to each other and not just learning from the instructor. You want to connect them to each other. It’s all these techniques you have in your bag of tricks as a trainer, but I remember adult learning theory in my grad program taught me that 90% of the knowledge that you want to pull from a group experience lives in the participants.
Make no mistake, you’re not necessarily the end all be all, but that your job is to solicit that and create a safe enough space that people will contribute and they will learn from each other, not just from you. So, it was always really interesting as a challenge every time I walked into a room with a team I had never met to sus out all of the things you and I have talked about, right? Which is, okay how am I going to create trust quickly? How are we going to break down barriers? How are we going to put them in the driver’s seat as much as possible, but still hold the space? And drive the group towards an outcome, but do that in this sort of generous exclusion, I think you called it? Generous authority which I think is making it all about the audience has a ton of knowledge and every designer’s goal, I think, should be how can I harness that and allow people to feel comfortable enough to bring it? And then enable them to feel they’ve really gone through a transformation journey with my, perhaps, guidance? But they’re really creating it. I love that. I think it’s really cool to watch groups do that and they’re very capable of doing that.
PRIYA PARKER: Absolutely. One of the best primers on this, the art world and the museum world has really thought very deeply about this and one of the coups if there are coups in field is Nina Simon’s work and if you haven’t read it, The Participatory Museum. It’s this beautifully designed almost PDF of understanding what this looks like in a museum context and one of the characters in my book is a woman named Wendy Woon and she runs the Department of Education at MoMA. And in any museum including at the Museum of Modern Art there’s always this difference in philosophy between curators and museum educators. And it’s a beautiful paradigm or archetype for all of us because there is arguments for both which is the authority, the expertise, the curation, who puts art on the wall, who chooses what that art is? And should it speak for itself and do you have to train in art history to deeply understand it and should it be earned over time?
And then this other voice which is actually about human-centered design and bringing in the person and that art is only art if it’s in relation to interpretation. These are two strong voices that in a thriving museum should be an ongoing debate because it doesn’t mean that you just throw everything out and everything is a democracy all the time which, again, perpetuates bias, perpetuates all of the things. We on our own are not necessarily a good thing.
JENNIFER BROWN: No, we’re not. [Laughter.]
PRIYA PARKER: You see this on the national level which is in any system, in any group when you’re trying to create the good society what are the pre-conditions you’re creating and then how and where do you allow people to bring in their own content and begin to shape it and perhaps transform it over time but within the boundaries that you think of as the good?
JENNIFER BROWN: Priya, I could talk to you forever. This was so interesting. The book is so readable. It’s just like you, full of stories like you did today from so many different industries and sectors of life and it’s very alive. It’s a read that’s very stimulating and I think it’s a real call to leaders to figure out how to generously exercise authority in its best definition that you just said just now. Equality and equity and inclusiveness does not just happen. We’re human beings, we’re so flawed, we’re so biased, and there really is a need for someone to steer the process for others in a generous way and that’s really eminently doable and I think you equip us with a lot of ways to do that in the book.
So from one facilitator to another who’s super invested in what groups can accomplish in all parts of life I really appreciate your book and please let us know how we can follow your work for my audience. Besides picking up a copy of the book which is called The Art of Gathering, is the book. Where else, Priya?
PRIYA PARKER: Thank you. What a generous question. So I do a lot of my reflecting on Instagram, so @PriyaParker and you can sign up for mailing list, my work, on my website PriyaParker.com and we are developing, actually, right now an Art of Gathering workplace training for teams and companies to begin embedding this way of seeing in their work. So, if you’re interested in that you can also contact us through our website. But I think one of the things that’s been so exciting of work the facilitators are just coming out of the woodwork and be like, “We’ve been here for years! We’re a thing. We’re a thing.” I think having young people come out and say, “I didn’t know that you could do this for a living.” It’s like, yes, you can. Go do it, we need you.
JENNIFER BROWN: It is honestly my first love. It’s how I cut my teeth on the whole leadership topic and I still just love diving into the mosh pit of a classroom and figuring out how do I create something here that is going to last, that is going to feel good, that is going to accomplish whatever the client wants? And it’s just the ultimate challenge, but it’s such a high. I know that you and I know the intoxication of that kind of work and I do agree, it’s a field that’s not really known or talked about or honestly really respected and then it puzzles me. So, I love hearing that you’re being flooded with would-be and future people who consider this their art because it is. It’s art and science. It is incredible work and the world needs it more than ever. So, thank you, Priya for joining us today on The Will to Change.
PRIYA PARKER: Thank you so much for having me. And I’ll just say I think part of our own call as facilitators is to have a point of view. And that point of view doesn’t mean having an opinion on everything. It means baking your core values including diversity and inclusion into your design and into the clients that you’re leading and into teaching them. And that facilitation is an art, and when we begin to act that way and own it and use it for progress we will become more respected.
JENNIFER BROWN: Beautiful. That’s such a great last thought. Thank you, Priya so much and I hope many people start following you and I hope your workshop is a great success.
PRIYA PARKER: Thank you so much.
The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters
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