Zibby Owens: Welcome, Priya. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Priya Parker: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: The Art of Gathering, you might think this is a bad time for this book to come out, but it’s actually the most important time ever for this book to come out when every gathering is imbued with extra meaning and navigating how to gather becomes the most important thing when you can’t actually see anyone. What do you think about the timing of this release?

Priya: It’s ironic. It’s a fascinating moment to have The Art of Gathering, particularly — the paperback came out in the midst of the pandemic and at a moment where the word gathering was in every headline perhaps in a way that it’s never been before. The CDC bans gatherings. Washington State bans gatherings of ten or more people. Andrew Cuomo bans gatherings. In a sense, the word gathering — I chose it very intentionally — before COVID hit, was a source of meaning and inspiration and beauty. Within three weeks, the context of the entire word flipped. It was a source of danger and a source of death. Part of what has been beautiful and powerful and complicated and painful in this moment is that we still are grappling with and struggling with how to be together when we can’t in the same old way. How do we create meaning together despite significant obstacles? I’m a conflict resolution facilitator. My core day job craft is not an events planner or a florist or a lighting expert or somebody whose profession is reliant on the things, the accoutrements of a gathering. A facilitator is trained on, how do you create meaningful connection despite significant obstacles? A huge part of The Art of Gathering, well before COVID when I was writing it over the last many years, is about, how do we actually stop our obsession on form and on things and on the fish knives and the flowers and the AV equipment? How do we actually think about creating meaning not through things, but through people? Right now, we can’t make meaning through things. It’s become actually this turned-up volume on, how do we actually create psychological togetherness and not over-rely on the physical togetherness?

Zibby: How do you do it? Like you, like everybody, I’m completely reliant on Zooms and FaceTimes and trying to make time for that in life, but it’s not the same. There’s something very much missing.

Priya: Absolutely. I hope and pray as much as everyone else that this period passes as fast as possible. I think the way you do it is actually, in some ways, the same way you do it whether you’re physical or virtual, which is, you start with the need in front of you. You start with the purpose. The same way if you’re thinking about a birthday party, I would say you don’t start with the cake and the candles, in a Zoom meeting or in a Zoom staff meeting or in a Zoom birthday party, you don’t start with Zoom. Zoom is a tool. It’s not the host. I’ll give a specific example. I have a friend who was turning fifty. He thought about not, what kind of party do I want? but, what is my need right now? He was feeling tender about turning fifty. He’d never really cared about birthdays. He wasn’t one to worry about getting older, but he felt a niggle. I don’t even know if that’s the right word. He felt this thing about turning fifty.

He got clear on it and he said, “In my life, I have always been attracted to and I’ve always sought out adventure and risk.” He was a foreign correspondent. He realized that in his life there were many people who, once they turned fifty, they began to contract. They took less risks. They started taking less of the scary jobs. He was really worried that would happen to him. He decided for his fiftieth he would invite the people in his life that most continued to take risks. He brought them together. It was around a table, but you could do this on Zoom. In the first five minutes, he raised his glass and he told the story. He said, “What I most want is to continue to take risks and to expand. I don’t want to be somebody who contracts slowly and incrementally over the next twenty years. I want to keep expanding. You are people who have always kept expanding despite obstacles. I want to thank you for that. I want you to blow that energy to me when I begin to contract. Remind me of tonight.”

Zibby: I love that. Even in your book when you talked about the dinner party, it’s something as simple as having a few couples for dinner. I’m having this couple, so I guess I should have this couple. What do you want to get out of a dinner party? Why are you going to do this? What do you want to talk about? Maybe you should talk about something really interesting. Maybe invite this other couple you hadn’t even thought about and give it a whole new purpose. Everything just shifts. I think one of the biggest things is we so often have meetings or events or whatever, and because we have them, they just are what they are. Your book and your whole message, really, is, no, no, no, we all have to stop. Yes, gathering’s a part of life, but it doesn’t have to be so route, almost.

Priya: Monotonous. Totally. I think at first, people are like, oh, god, that’s just so exhausting. I’m like, no, you know what’s exhausting? Going through life on autopilot and focusing on all the logistics and having everything to be perfect because you’re trying to replicate somebody else’s form. That’s exhausting. You know what’s life-giving? Having a real need and looking at yourself and saying, what is it that I need right now? Who might be able to help me with this? What is it that this community needs right now? How might we actually design for that? I’ll give an example. One of the characters in the book, Ida Benedetto, I called her up recently. She’s the one — I don’t know if you remember. She creates these extreme experiences to help people navigate risk with care. She does these fake conventions at the Waldorf Astoria where people show up in black tie and have to do things like — there’s a wedding on the third floor. Crash it, and give a toast to the bride. Things that just make your palms sweat. I called her up. I said, “How are you thinking about the holidays?” When I just need a different way of thinking, I call her.

She said, “You know, if I could give any advice, I would say don’t think about a holiday party. How can you shift from a party to an adventure? The difference between a party and an adventure is two things: motion and mission.” I was like, “Okay. What does that mean?” She said, “I threw my thirtieth birthday party years ago. Many friends often say to me it’s one of the best nights of their life. I’m like, why? It was so simple.” She had a friend who was a photographer who was taking pictures of beautiful keyholes on doors in the city. She brought together twelve friends. They all had to bring their camera. She explained their mission. The mission was to find the most beautiful keyholes in the city in two hours. Then they just went. She said, “What if during the holidays, rather than trying to all clamor into Zoom –” There’s way to make Zoom, also, meaningful. “What if instead, with your team or with your family, you created an adventure?” You can be outside. It’s cold, but when you’re in motion, it’s not so cold. When you have a mission, it allows for you to move. How do we actually think about being together in ways that are new experiences and don’t have to look like what we think a party looks like?

Zibby: It’s like my kids going on field trips. You have to get out of the classroom every so often. You have to go into the world. You kind of roll your eyes. You’re like, really? I have to schlep to the Queens Museum? or something like that. Then you end up realizing that that’s when you have the most memorable thing from the whole class. You just have to push yourself to get out there because learning often doesn’t happen the way you expect. Neither does any of the rest.

Priya: And the dynamics within the classroom, all of us, for good reasons, play specific roles to have some amount of order, whether it’s assigned seats or whether Sally always sits by Sanjay, and Sanjay always sits by Leia. Then on that sleepover, everyone could pull their sleeping bags in the museum on different parts of the floor. All of a sudden, these new friendships were born. When we shift our spaces, psychologically or virtually, we’re also shifting our norms of who is labeled as what. They’re always the introvert. They don’t usually sing. Each of us have many parts. I define a gathering as anytime three or more people come together for a purpose with a beginning, middle, or end. We’re gathering all the time, but we’re often gathering in ways that we’re on autopilot. It’s not serving anybody.

Zibby: I think about this all the time, so I was particularly receptive to your message and your mission because I’m always analyzing time and how we’re spending time. Is this worth it? Even my own time, is this group Zoom worth it? What is my purpose? Should I be doing my emails at the same time during this one or that one? How do you maximize everything? Why are we even doing it? What is the point? Why are we doing it? Before, I used to do it with meetings. What are we all just sitting around — why do I go to board meetings? What are we doing here?

Priya: When it becomes performative, like, I’d like to be on that board or I like that company’s mission or whatever reason we each join boards or you join a board, then at some level, no one really wants to be this performative sitting duck. I’ll give an example. A woman came up to me, pre-COVID, at a book event. She said, “I’m an executive director. I read The Art of Gathering. It helped me figure out why my board meetings suck. I realized that they are rubber stamps. We all as a staff work to make sure we make our most beautiful presentations. We go like a dog and pony show. We show all the wonderful things that are happening. Everyone politely claps and leaves.” She said, “But these people on my board are brilliant. I want to use them. I flipped my board purpose from being a dog and pony show to be bringing them our scariest problems.”

Zibby: I love that.

Priya: Everything changed. It was specific and disputable. Some of her staff were like, “I don’t know if this is such a good idea. You really want to tell them what the problems are?” All of a sudden, you could see the blood come back into the board member’s face. They were actually needed. We should be gathering because we need each other, not out of obligation, and shifting it — every community has needs that benefit by people coming together. We’re just not often gathering around what those needs are. We shouldn’t judge what those needs are. The needs can be hilarious. They can be release. They can be, I need to have a night where I can talk with other mothers and we don’t talk about our kids. I need to remember that I can be many things.

Zibby: Yes. I feel like I need to try to put in motion — I’m on the board of a major medical institution. I don’t know how receptive they’d be if I’m like, okay — but then you think, gosh, look at the people sitting around this table. If we were all just talking to each other, how interesting would that be versus listening? I also feel like that’s some ways that we’ve all saved time. I do feel like one perk of this pandemic — not that there are any and not that I wouldn’t trade it, obviously. For times when you just need to listen and process, why go anywhere? Why run around town and go from here to there to there just to sit and listen if you can do it from your computer? If you want to be with people and bring yourself and your feelings — I’m sorry, I’m preaching to the choir here. I totally agree.

Priya: Absolutely. I often say to my clients, people I work with, in all types of institutions, there’s a sense, we should have a retreat. We should have a three-day gathering. I always say, why are you doing this? Why do you want to have a conference? What is your purpose? Then I say, if you want to invite all of these people, I want you to figure out what the agenda is so that they would cancel other stuff to attend this. That’s the bar.

Zibby: Usually, there has to be something they’re getting out of it. You have to look at it like marketing. I have this anthology coming out. We’re trying to plan a tour. I’m like, I’ve been on so many calls about books. There has to be something that you’re offering. Otherwise, why would anybody just sit and listen? What can I give? I don’t know if I even have an answer to that. What can I give that people might leave and be like, I’m so glad because now in my life I can do X, Y, or Z better, or something where it’s not just…

Priya: Yes, and not just receiving. One practical way to think about — I think about time as real estate. If you’re sixty minutes on a Zoom call, fifty-nine minutes of those shouldn’t be a presentation unless it’s literally the most fascinating presentation in the world that people are tearing walls down to get this data. That’s not most people. Maybe it’s the presidential daily briefing. If it’s not that, how do you begin to shrink the presentation time to thirty minutes, meaning over an hour, or ten minutes and create time for people to interact meaningfully? On Zoom, that might be breakout groups. It might mean putting people in groups of three. It’s not rocket science. It’s having the courage to not fill time. You know what else? The presentation also is de-risked. I know schools that are navigating enormous conflict, whether on COVID or teachers. It’s such a fraught time. When administrators finally come and do a Zoom call and you log in and it’s a fifty-nine-and-a-half-minute presentation, they’re not doing anything. They’re perpetuating a problem because they’re not actually shifting the relationship and listening to what people have to say. How do you actually not just give people something, but how do you create a contract where the gathering has changed because of who the participants are and how they actually engage there? You can’t create something new if it’s just a stagnant webinar.

Zibby: Totally. You should just send the presentation ahead of time. Let me skim through it. I will digest the whole thing. I will come back to you in the meeting, and then I will have my questions already thought through. So will everyone else. That’s the beauty of the brainstorm. You really do get lots more ideas when you all come together, but if you’re going to waste time just listening…

Priya: There’s a facilitator named Misha Glouberman. He wrote a book called The Chairs are Where the People Go with Sheila Heti a few years ago. I think it was in April, he wrote this nerdy little Medium piece that I loved. It’s nerdy because it shows you how to host a cocktail party on Zoom, but through all of the technicalities. I have a newsletter community that every two or three weeks we send out a story of what somebody’s — how they’re creating togetherness virtually. Every now and then, we do an experience. We brought Misha in. He showed us on Zoom how you can create basically an unconference with a hundred other people. When he wrote this piece in April, it was kind of complicated. Now the latest version of Zoom has a feature where you can make everybody the host. Everybody, a hundred people, can be a cohost. This is an example of, if you have a hundred people or thirty people or twenty people, people are interesting. They know what their problems are. They know what their needs are.

He created a Google Doc where he said, “Do you have a conversation you would like to host in this group? Do you have a burning question you’re trying to figure out?” Some people were like, how do you fight online? How do you have conflict safely virtually with your team? Other people were like, how do you create intimacy? All these different questions. Then everybody becomes a cohost on Zoom. You see all the rooms. You see who’s hosting the conversation. You see what the topic is on Google Docs. You can literally portal yourself. Like Exit West, you can go through the portal and find yourself in another room. It’s a way of actually decentralizing power. It’s putting the agenda into everybody’s hands and letting people choose where they want to go. It’s not rocket science. It’s actually helping people determine what the needs are and choose where they want to go. People are now doing this virtually.

Zibby: Wow. That’s really neat. All right, so there’s hope. There’s hope for the Zoom world. Thank you for that. How did you know you wanted to be a conflict resolution expert? How did that happen?

Priya: I assume, like your podcast, you are trying to sort out your own life through this podcast.

Zibby: What makes you say that?

Priya: Something tells me.

Zibby: I can’t believe you would jump to that conclusion. I’m offended.

Priya: Same, girl. I’m biracial. I’m bicultural. I grew up in a family that two parents were married and then divorced. My mother is Indian. My father is white American. Each remarried people who were, in a lot of ways, polar opposite of the family that they had created together. They had joint custody. I was part of both homes. Every two weeks, I’d go back and forth between these two homes. It was like split screen or split reality. One home was this Indian, British, Buddhist-mediating, incense-filled, dream-interpreting, for me home. Then I would travel 1.4 miles to my father and stepmother’s home. It was, and still is, a white American, evangelical Christian, conservative, republican, meat-eating, softball-playing, dogs — just culturally a different place. That was also my home. Every two weeks, I’d go back and forth between these two split screens. In many ways, the things that each of those family cultures began to think of as the other was actually my other two weeks. I’ve always been interested in when and why and how we come together and how we create our realities and how we create group identity.

How can you create a group and an experience and a community where people feel something in common, feel connected to each other, but don’t have to all be the same, where you’re stamping out people’s differences in order to belong? In part because there’s communities that I feel like I could belong and be complicated in and there’s communities where I don’t feel like I can belong and be complicated in, I’m really interested in the communities where you can belong and still have many paradoxes within you. I also don’t think every community is for everybody. A big idea in The Art of Gathering is exclusion. You shouldn’t invite everybody to everything. One, it makes everything the same. Also, it doesn’t make sense for the purpose. I’m a huge advocate in excluding people with care and not because of the personality or because of the politics, but because of the purpose. I often talk about this gathering that a journalist hosted called the worn-out mom’s hootenanny. She was trying to create this dinner party. She felt obligated to do it. It was actually an assignment she had. Then she shifted and she said, you know what, a need I have is I’m worn out. I’m a mom. What if I host a dinner party for my other worn-out moms? She called it a worn-out mom’s hootenanny. If they talked about their kids, they had to take a shot. The six women who were invited and went were so excited to be seen as worn-out, to be seen as a real need. Some of the partners were like, why can’t dads come? Part of it is because that’s not the need tonight. It begins to shift. If you want a worn-out dad’s hootenanny, you better be a little bit more worn out. It just starts to create specificity that actually has an opportunity to shift norms.

Zibby: Very true. I know. When I was reading about your childhood and the whiplash you must have had going back and forth — I’m a child of divorce too. My parents lived very close together. They’re not as different as yours. Still, any child of divorce who has to navigate constantly having themselves in these two different environments and having to adapt and also having to deal with parents in that situation, I feel like the conflict resolution schools or whatever, however you get trained, should pair up with the divorce lawyers. You could just have a feeder organization.

Priya: Completely. It’s like a boot camp.

Zibby: Yeah, boot camp. There you go. For you personally, now you have this book. You’re talking all the time on all these shows and podcasts. You just talked to Brené Brown, oh, my gosh. I started listening, but now I have to finish after this. I was like, oh, my gosh, you guys are amazing. What is it you still want to do? What are you super fired up to do next? What now?

Priya: I look at the people who I think have had some amount of success, whatever you want to define that as, who are in their sixties and seventies and eighties and who are still happy and vibrant and seem grounded and not like jerks, what I see them doing and having in common, whether they’re a comedian or whether they’re a therapist, is that they all are still connected to their source work. It’s the therapist who still sees clients three days a week. Jerry Seinfeld still writes jokes every day. He still goes to Podunk — pre-COVID and hopefully post-COVID — stand up halls to try out new material even though he’s the most famous comedian in the world because he’s pursuing mastery. He’s close to his source work. For me, for the rest of my life, I think, I’m a facilitator. My craft and my source, it’s to be close to the work. In a sense, I see writing as this outcome of the questions I’m pursuing through groups. Then I think the second thing that has really helped me is — years ago, David Brooks made a speech that resonated with me. He said something like, no question worthy of pursuit is answerable in a lifetime. How do we come together in ways that are meaningful and have a common, agreed purpose and not have to all be exactly the same? That’s a thousand-year question.

Zibby: That’s true. All right, so you got your work cut out for you.

Priya: I think for each of us, rather than thinking about the form — again, it’s how do you stay close to your source work, whatever that is? How do you continue to pursue mastery, whatever that may be in? Brené Brown, she has one of the best and most whatever, number-one podcast. She’s relatively new at it. She tweeted the other day, “Enjoyed so much listening to Dax Shepard and Tim Ferris geek out on how to podcast.” She’s a student. She’s not sitting on her laurels. When she interviewed me, I was so moved. I was intimidated by the interview. Going in, oh, gosh, what am I going to say? She, more than anybody else — the entire interview is text based. She had her book, The Art of Gathering. It was dogeared and Post-its all around and like a student with a capital S. She was studying. It just reminded me, we all may have a mastery in one specific thing, but to continue to pursue a question is life-giving, not just to everyone else, but for yourself.

Zibby: By the way, that does not make subsequent interviewers feel any good about what they are doing. I was reading this before I talked to you. I was like, oh, gosh, I’ve already failed this interview. I already can’t measure up.

Priya: Not at all. I think part of the reason why even interviews for me are fun is because each one is an opportunity to have your brain collide with somebody else’s brain. Part of what’s beautiful about your podcast is that it’s your specific questions. It’s your curiosity. It’s not just for your audience, but for each author that comes on that’s unique and makes it “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books”-ian or Zibby-ian. It’s a very specific DNA.

Zibby: This is just literally my opportunity to ask people what I want to know. I’m delighted anybody else wants to listen, but this is completely self-serving. Yes.

Priya: Which is why it’s relevant. You have a real need. You found a way to spend time despite obstacles, I imagine being a mom and the things that may come along with that. There’s a lot of other people who have the same problem, and so they get to ride alongside you.

Zibby: Sure. Why not? Do you have any parting advice to aspiring authors?

Priya: To authors, one is, think about a question that you don’t know the answer to when you’re a writing book. You may have an instinct around — you may think you have something to say, but you’re really desperately curious to find out the answer to. That’s one. Number two, don’t write a book. Write twelve chapters. When I was thinking about a book, I was like, oh, my god, this is so overwhelming. My husband told me this. He’s like, “Write down the twelve things you know are true that are counterintuitive that you believe might be — and then go test them.” My original yellow sheet of twelve ideas, I think six of them became chapter titles. Six of them didn’t. New things came in. Write chapters. Don’t write a book. Make sure the chapters have an arc, but think about chapters. Then I think the third is, different authors and writers have different parts of the process that they love and that they hate. I love the research. I love the conversations. I love the meaning-making. I hate the writing. I find it very difficult. I’m a much better speaker than I am writer. I would often take voice memos of myself talking out loud and then transcribe myself onto the page. Find ways to lean into what you love and then to hack through what you don’t.

Zibby: Excellent. It sounds like your husband could maybe be a writing coach on the side, if you guys need a little side-hustle situation.

Priya: Exactly. He’s very good.

Zibby: I would say let’s meet up sometime, but of course, I can’t. If we ever have a common goal that we need to sort out, we should maybe intentionally try to do that face to face at some point in the next ten years or something.

Priya: I look forward to that. I get so many of my examples, as you can hear from this conversation, from other people doing real stuff in the world. Send me your examples. On Instagram, we’re often having lively conversations about what people’s holiday plans are, what Thanksgiving plans, what a virtual party looks like. You can follow me, @PriyaParker. Sign up for our newsletter. The Art of Gathering is a call to look at your own life and ask what the need is and then gather around it. It’s a courageous thing to do, but it’s also a contagious thing to do. A big part of The Art of Gathering is it’s a norm-spreading, permission-giving book.

Zibby: Love it. Well done.

Priya: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me and for a project that you’re pursuing that other people get to benefit from.

Zibby: No problem. Thanks for sharing.

Priya: Thanks so much, Zibby. Be well.

Zibby: Have a great day. Buh-bye.

Priya: Bye.