It doesn’t take a shrink to figure out how Priya Parker became a master of gathering. Raised in a biracial American-Indian household, she grew up with two very different family trees that were both literally and figuratively a world apart from one another. To her, communication was an essential part of creating and maintaining lasting connections.
Over the last two decades, Priya has dedicated her career to studying and teaching the art of conflict resolution. She is a strategic advisor, trainer, as well as the executive producer and host of the New York Times podcast ‘Together Apart’.
Through her work she is able to help leaders and groups navigate difficult conversations around community, identity and vision at times of transformation.
Priya is also the author of the much acclaimed book ‘The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters‘, which explains the essential human need for meaningful gathering, and how it can be used to bring people closer together. I had the honor of sitting down with Priya to talk about her work, highly-acclaimed book, and professional insights in this latest podcast.
The Importance of Intention in Creating Meaningful Gatherings
As fundamentally satisfying as gathering can be, it isn’t always done the right way. The literal definition of the word is to congregate with multiple people at the same time and in the same place. But that’s not completely accurate – real gatherings, ones that are meaningful, memorable, and valuable to our lives, are those that are intentionally-driven.
“A gathering doesn’t start the moment people enter a room.” Priya says. “A gathering starts at the moment of discovery. This future promised state that we’re inviting you to come into… is an invitation.” In other words, it has a purpose.
Consider the difference in mindset; in one scenario, you walk into a bar on a regular Saturday night and make small talk with other people who are simply there to have a drink. Does that fit the formal definition of gathering? Probably. Is it meaningful? Not really. In another scenario, you arrive at a party that you’ve been looking forward to attending for the past three weeks. Everyone has shown up wearing their best outfit and ready to rave. There’s an expectation for a good time, and that expectation is met. Does this fit the formal definition of gathering? Also yes. Is it meaningful? Absolutely.
Gatherings, then, are not just a physical act of coming together. They’re an attitude and experience that develops through the anticipation and preparation put in before the actual event. They require thought and care. “The role of gathering as a way to nurture relationships and create connections” Priya says.
The Impact of the Pandemic on Gathering
As humans, we are social beings by nature. Scientists have long been fascinated by the one-on-one connections people make with each other and how those connections affect our mental health. Studies have shown that having strong social relationships can help us to combat stress and depression, while being socially isolated can lead to feelings of loneliness and depression.
The implications of this became widespread when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. Literally overnight, society effectively shut down, leaving everyone at home and isolated from one another whether they liked it or not. The practice of connecting with others became an intentional affair – something that no longer happened organically but instead needed to be forced.
Professionals were particularly ill-equipped to handle the reality of lockdowns and what that meant for person-to-person collaboration. Many remember the last couple weeks of March as a time of relative standstill as companies scrambled to figure out how they would keep their wheels moving on a remote basis. How do we maintain the same level of communication that we had before? And most importantly, how can we ensure that our communications now are just as meaningful and effective?
Zoom only answered the first question. It offered a platform where people could schedule meetings with one another from anywhere in the world. But that’s all. We all learned pretty quickly that Zoom meetings are nowhere near the same thing as real ones. They lack the little in-between moments that enrich our conversations, like grabbing a bite to eat together or laughing at the same joke. And sometimes, they’re used in a forceful way that just makes everyone want to log off for the day. Couldn’t this have been an email?
Yet Priya notes that there are some bright spots to remote gathering when it’s done properly. She recounts interviewing a comedic writer who found online meetings more productive than a table full of people trying to get a word in edgewise. With Zoom, the creative process became much more controlled, with organizational tools and mute features ensuring everyone got an equal chance to speak and each contribution was heard.
Making the Most of Meetings
Beyond mute buttons, there’s another really important factor that can make or break a meeting’s effectiveness – dialogue. It’s one thing to join a call and go over a list of to-dos. It’s another to make that discussion an engaging experience for everyone involved. She points to Jeff Zucker, former CEO of CNN, as an example. He was known for hosting colorful meetings that people actually wanted to attend.
“It was a creative act, right? To bring people together, to get them to focus on the same thing at the same time” Priya explains.
This is an essential skill that she believes we’ll all have to master heading into a new world of work. The rules have been rewritten, and there’s no guaranteeing whether get togethers will be in-person anymore. The common denominator is how we choose to run the show.
Priya Parker sees the power of gathering as something that’s been deeply ingrained in our DNA. And even though it’s been challenged by the current era of remote work, it’s still something that can be used to propel us forward. With the right techniques and dialogue, we can learn to make the most out of our meetings, no matter how we’re connected.