Priya Parker, author of ‘The Art of Gathering,’ urges hosts to value people over things
Priya Parker has been bringing people together for most of her life.
As the only child of an Indian mother and white American father who divorced and both remarried, Parker grew up shuttling every two weeks between “two radically different worlds,” she told Moneyish: her mom’s “Hindu, Buddhist, New Age, progressive” household and her dad’s conservative, evangelical Christian family.
“It’s not a surprise that I’m in the field of conflict resolution,” said Parker, a facilitator and conflict-resolution mediator who founded the boutique advisory firm Thrive Labs. “I come from a family with some estrangement in it.”
Parker poured that facilitating expertise into her debut book, “The Art of Gathering.” (A gathering, as she defines it, is “any time three or more people get together for a purpose.”) The Riverhead Books title, which went on sale Tuesday, aims to “blow up” the age-old notion that there’s a right or wrong way to host a meeting, family function or party. Rather, its author argues, we’ve been told to focus on the wrong things — nailing the perfect recipe or getting the perfect apartment, for example — instead of engineering thoughtful, inspiring gatherings that place the focus on people.
The Brooklyn mother of two interviewed more than 100 “gatherers” spanning diverse backgrounds, including a rabbi, a dominatrix, a Cirque du Soleil choreographer, Buddhist monks and an Arab-Israeli summer camp director. One of the best gatherings Parker attended, she said, was a boar hunt in Tuscany about four years ago: The day-long affair, which began with the group chatting and joking in a circle, went on to feature “delicious pie,” three or four hours of hunting, and a community feast that night with food and wine.
“From a gathering perspective, there was heat in it … it was an adventure,” Parker said. And as they looked for the boar, she added, one man told her what place the group occupied in his heart. “He started crying and he said, ‘My wife died last year, and she was my entire world … If I didn’t have this boar-hunting club, I don’t know what I would have done. But this is my community, and this is where I belong. They check in on me; they greet me; they ask how I’m doing.’”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Parker said, are gatherings in which people “are not honored or respected or seen.” “I’ve been invited to places where you feel like people want you at their party because they’re afraid of people not showing up, and you’re a body in the room,” she said. “And when you actually show up, they pay no attention to you — they’re just delighted that they got a lot of people in the room. And on some level, you feel used.”
“You can have the most beautiful dinner party, and people can leave feeling empty and hollow and disconnected and offended,” she said. “If you look at all of the books and magazines and brands that focus on gathering, the images and the lessons that we’re told are that if you get the things right, the magic between people will take care of itself. I love food as much as anybody, and I love beautiful things. All I’m saying is that that’s not where the emphasis should be.”
How we meet, when we meet, and what we talk about when we get together are “what defines and shapes culture,” Parker said — and our thoughts, beliefs and decisions are “deeply, deeply influenced” by others. “When you are deciding to bring together a group of people, you should spend a little bit of time thinking about how you want to shape them and shape the conversation, and think about what it is you want these people to experience — because gathering is a form of power.”
Here are simple ways to make your work meeting, wedding, birthday party or any other social function meaningful rather than tedious, according to Parker:
Have a specific purpose for gathering. Take your upcoming nuptials, for example: “Part of the problem with most of our gatherings,” Parker said, “is we fail to stop first to ask, ‘Why am I having a wedding?’” Is it to honor your parents? To bring together your partner’s and your worlds? “The gathering should look differently based on what your answer is,” she said.
Remember: You don’t need to have money to gather. “Focus on the conversation. Focus on what you write them in an email. Think about how you can — in a completely free way where people bring their own food, or you don’t even have food — create meaning for people,” she said. “If anything, this is a radically democratic way of gathering. It’s the opposite of elite.”
Make your purpose “disputable.” “People should disagree with your purpose — because if they don’t disagree with it, you’re not actually saying anything,” Parker said. “People should disagree that your baby shower should include men. People should disagree with the idea that a wedding should not invite first cousins.”
By way of example, she cites Dîner en Blanc, the worldwide, all-white-dress-code flash dinner party pioneered decades ago in Paris. “Many, many, many blogs talk about what a stupid, highbrow, exhausting gathering it is,” Parker said. “To me, that’s the sign of a good gathering — because there are people that it is for, and there are people that it is not for, and they are comfortable with that.”
Obsess over the invite. “The purpose of an invitation should not just be to convey logistics,” Parker said. “Think about how you can use your invitation to prime people.” Write an actual invitation instead of only sending an Outlook calendar invite, she said, and mention why you’d like for people to be there, the purpose of the meeting, and whether there’s anything folks should prepare ahead of time.
Don’t rush right into logistics. “Start your meeting in a way that everyone has a chance to understand why each other are there and connect to each other,” Parker said. She highlights research linking heightened communication on a surgical team with a lower likelihood of patient death and complications.
Don’t be a chill host. “It’s a way of basically abdicating your role of taking care of people,” Parker said. “In the name of chill, we tend to not help people figure out who’s in the room, or we allow people to dominate the conversation.” That’s not to say you shouldn’t be relaxed at your gathering, she added — “it means that if you’re going to host, take care of your people.”
Parker says her favorite “un-chill business” is Alamo Drafthouse, which has a strictly enforced no-talking and no-texting policy. “They’re protecting their purpose,” she said. “And the purpose of the Alamo Drafthouse is to bring back the magic of the movies.”
Create “magic” between people. One way is through “public intimacy,” or the idea of being vulnerable and showing your less-than-perfect self. “Whenever I’m at a dinner party or in a (group) conversation … the moment that I get most excited is when people don’t know what they’re going to say next — it’s not pre-planned; it’s not their elevator pitch; it’s not their stump speech,” Parker said. “All of a sudden, they begin to wonder aloud things that they haven’t necessarily thought of before, and are saying and wondering and building on an idea with other people. And all of a sudden, everyone starts to realize that maybe something more is possible here.”
Another way, Parker said, is “the idea of heat.” “In any type of context, there’s certain areas of taboo; there’s certain areas where the topics are particularly divisive,” she said. In the Middle East, that might mean where borders are drawn. With a group of friends, it might mean old conflicts. Consider what the group is trying to avoid, said Parker, citing the experience designer Ida Benedetto — and consider whether it’s worth going there. While there’s a certain risk in approaching those topics, she said, there can also be “a beautiful reward — in part because people really care about it.”
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