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A Rule Breaker Bonus: Gatherings Guru Priya Parker


Earlier this month, Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner interviewed Priya Parker, founder of Thrive Labs and author of the book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters . Her speciality is in teaching people how to transform the way we gather together and build purpose-driven communities. And that topic was just too much to cover in a single Rule Breaker Investing podcast episode.

So you, the listeners, get an extra treat -- a "lightning-round format" interview where Parker gives her best relatively short answers to a series of queries from Gardner. The topics range from what's missing from Martha Stewart's ideas about gatherings to how to turn the panel format into something less blah to how to make your family reunions more meaningful.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Aug. 11, 2018.

David Gardner: Welcome back to Rule Breaker Investing ! Earlier this week I had the pleasure of interviewing Priya Parker -- her book The Art of Gathering . Priya graciously agreed to do an extra, so here we are with a little bit of weekend fun. What you're about to hear is me ask [eight or nine] fairly rapid-fire questions of Priya that I thought would be fun.

She's going to give some provocative answers to provoke your thinking toward how to improve your next gathering and maybe in some senses how to improve our own characters and our lives. I think when we get better at gathering, we get better as people and it leads to really good things.

I'm really pleased that Priya's back. Let's get started.

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Gardner: Welcome back! It's the weekend. Thank you so much for joining me! I'm here with Priya Parker, the author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters and I sure hope you enjoy it. I know you enjoyed Priya earlier this week.

As I mentioned earlier this week, she was gracious enough to accept this invitation to an extra and Priya, our ground rules, here, are going to be simple. I'm just going to fire a few fun questions that occur to me based on reading your work and enjoying your work and just hear what you have to say. Let's go with a lightning-round format. I can imagine like one minute -- 30-to-60-second answers -- whatever you've got to say. Are you ready?

Priya Parker: Yup.

Gardner: Great, let's go! Three, two, one... All right, topic No. 1 is Martha Stewart. What's your take on Martha Stewart?

Parker: I think Martha Stewart is a symbol of an old way of gathering, which is a focus [and a disproportionate focus] on things rather than people. When you read her guide to party planning, there are 27 steps, and 24 out of the 27 have to do with the food and the recipes. It's not that that's problematic. It's the level of attention -- the assumptions -- that go into what creates a powerful gathering. I think that we need to actually, for this next generation, bring it back to people.

Gardner: Excellent. Topic No. 2. In this case let's say I'm running a conference and I've got both in-person experiences and then remote experiences -- like I've got a Skype feed coming live or I have people watching remotely. Advice to people who are trying to manage a combination of in-person and remote.

Parker: They are different audiences with different purposes. You need to know that and manage for both. Your first audience for most gatherings needs to be the in-person gathering, the in-person audience. When there's a conflict between the two, I always advise to allow the in-person audience to take off.

The second is to understand that when there is a virtual component -- and particularly if something is being recorded -- to also think about your future contract. So something can happen in a room that makes sense in a specific context. People are willing to show themselves in a certain way to talk about some of the generous controversies. Talk about politics or talk about things they may not want to show.

If they know that this is going to be shown to a future audience that they may not know who they are or what they want to be about, they will actually change their behavior based on that, and so don't assume that allowing anyone to join your gathering digitally enhances it. Think very deeply about why you are doing each format.

Gardner: Awesome. No. 3 and No. 4 are both about panels. Now in your book, Priya, you call panels, and I quote, "the most lamentable of gatherings." Since a lot of us have either been on them, certainly watched them, or hosted them; two separate questions for you about that most lamentable of gatherings. Question No. 1 -- why do panels suck so much?

Parker: They have become a form that we repeat over time because we think that we need a panel, and we have a spot of time that we want to kind of put something into. So first of all, anytime a ritual no longer matches its purpose, reinvent it.

The first thing I'd say is really ask if you actually need a panel or can you do a different form? A group conversation. A fishbowl. Facilitators kind of hit their head against the wall because there's so many forms of interesting ways to gather but they're not in the cultural lexicon.

The second is if you want to do a panel, make news. So The Wall Street Journal has their event series. One of the reasons they're so good is because they think as journalists. Every time they have a live event they're trying to make news from it. And what that simply means is they're trying to get people to say things they've never said before. They're trying to ask questions in a way that if you're John Carreyrou, you're trying to pin down the bad blood story. But also, you're just helping people to say things that they've never thought aloud before. To get off the script.

The second is that you can create a dynamic among the panelists where they start interviewing each other. Where they have a conversation. A panel where you get five people to each give their opening thoughts is not a panel. It's five speakers. So if you actually want a panel, make it a dynamic, smallish dinner party where you actually see two minds colliding. Two different sides of an issue coming together. Panels are the best public witnessing of conversation when it's not just a speaker. [They] provide a public good when they help us think about the issues we care about in a more articulate way.

Gardner: I feel like you just nailed the second question I was going to have about panels. Feel free to add a little bit more if you like. My second question was going to be if I'm asked to host or run a panel. [This is] something that has happened in my past and I don't think I've been very good at it. I don't enjoy it very much. What is one bit of advice to make me slightly more awesome as the dreary person who's having to moderate a panel?

Parker: Insist on a call with your speakers ahead of time and let them know your rules of the game, No. 1, so that they understand they're not going into it cold. Let them know the things that you might do that are against the social norms. Let them know you may cut them off. Let them know that you want them to be provocative. Let them know that you don't want them to be boring. Like be bold.

The second thing is to include the audience. Turn to the audience. It can be very simple. [Say], "How many of you work in AI?" [Say you are asking to do a panel on AI.] "How many of you work in AI? Stand up if you work in AI." That's interesting. It's interesting to them. Like who are my potential contacts? Clients? Colleagues?

"How many of you are just dipping your toe into this for the first time?" Say, "Stand up!"

"How many of you just realized you're at the wrong panel?" Throw some humor into it. Wake up the audience and don't pretend that there's this invisible fourth wall. Engage your audience in it.

And then the third is begin well, end well, and manage very tightly the audience Q&A so that it, too, can be a very powerful form of audience input while maintaining high quality of what the questions are. So a very small tip is to take three questions at a time rather than one.

President Obama does this as he understood that there's a gender bias in question askers, and so in a number of his contacts, whether at a university in Indiana or whether it was his own press corps, he'd often asked questions boy, girl, boy, girl [his language, not mine], and if there was no woman who was ready to ask a question, he'd wait. He used his power to show and unearth power dynamics.

Gardner: Because guys tend to ask more questions at the Q&As.

Parker: Yes.

Gardner: Next one. Three tips from Priya Parker to make my next family reunion better.

Parker: No. 1 is have an evening where the activity is conversation, and a structured conversation. George Dawes Green is the founder of The Moth. I interviewed him for my book, The Art of Gathering , and what he did at his family reunion of 50-plus people was they had a night where they rented out like a YMCA or a local hall because they're such a big group, and every person in the family had a chance to tell a story in front of the entire family for five minutes. A story in their life or an experience in their life of what it means to them to be a Green, meaning like their last name.

And I love this idea, because it allows for a collective moment of identity formation. But [it depends] on the story people share. As George told me, "There's a cousin who lives halfway across the country or a nephew. I'd never met him before. And it was so crazy to hear him talk about a story in a hallway about what it means to be a Green and me chuckling thinking, 'That's right. That is what it means to be a Green."'

No. 2 is talk ahead of time with your family about what the purpose of the reunion is.

And No. 3 is think about your rituals. Often after a death of like a patriarch or matriarch [a grandfather or grandmother], there's a lot of confusion of what you continue and what you change. And often we continue things that don't work for us because we think of it as dishonoring somebody who has passed. But actually to understand what the core values of this family are and what needs to be refreshed for a modern age is the way that you can honor and keep refreshed and relevant what your family actually believes and does in the world.

Gardner: Love it. The next one for you. What does working with you look like? I can imagine some people are like, "Hey! I'd love to have Priya come help me or my corporation do something." 60 to 90 seconds from you in terms of just how you roll as a professional.

Parker: We come in. We listen deeply to the gathering that you are wanting to either fix or create. We diagnose it, so we listen very deeply to understand what problem you are trying to solve through this gathering. We may advise you that this gathering does not solve that problem. One of our pieces of advice often is to gather less and make the gatherings that you actually gather count.

And then the second is we train you. We train you and we train your team to understand the lens that we approach gatherings with. We actually conduct a training in the art of gathering to help you understand how you do this on your own so that we don't have to be there to do it.

And then the third is we design your gathering, but we design it first [with you] having gone through the training process so you can see what I'm doing live. So you don't need to have me or my team with you every time that you start to create transformational gatherings.

Gardner: And I know I'm filling out a workbook a lot of the time, right? That sounds kind of like a pain, but you made it sound more appealing in your book.

Parker: Yes. Workbook, I've been told many times, is a terrible word, so I need to change it. But basically the idea is I facilitate a lot of gatherings that are complicated. That are often political. That are bringing people together that need each other but don't necessarily want each other. I come in and I facilitate.

I often don't know the people that I'm working [with], and I don't know the context, and so I design what I call a workbook of 10 questions that they answer ahead of time, they send back to me, and I read them. I then weave their answers into my time with them, but the questions I ask go from very personal to very controversial. I get people to talk about one, what is an experience that they had before the age of 20 that relates to the work they do today. I get them to remember their purpose. Why are they here? All the way to asking questions like, "What is a taboo that goes unspoken in this group?" And again, I manage the social contract very well. I sometimes open meetings by reading out that list.

Gardner: I've not been through that experience, but I can imagine that something that is meaningful is when you were to read some of my words and thread that into your opening so people can hear that you both did read our workbooks [that you listen], and you even integrated it into how we're going to frame up the day or the week.

Parker: Exactly. I was facilitating a gathering. It was in the press. A stone barn a couple of years ago. It was about the future of the grass-fed beef movement. One of the questions I asked the hundred people gathered was, "What is an early experience you had that connects with the work you did today?" And these are our chefs, and heads of schools, and activists, and people who are the CEOs of all of the food companies you've heard of. And I began by reading back their answers.

And they were beautiful. My grandmother taught me how to plant radishes, and after she died, the thing that I always did was make sure that I was planting radishes every year. I grew up in a food desert. I grew up in a place where I didn't see an apple until I was 12 years old. I thought they came in cans. And immediately you humanize the room because, frankly, these are people who are doing work because they're passionate about it, and so the quicker you can help people see that, the more likely your gathering will be transformative because of what they're willing to do in the room together.

Gardner: All right, three last ones. Priya, first one. What is a story that has arisen since the book because of something you wrote in the book?

Parker: I got a phone call that was actually through a radio show. People call in, in kind of the second half. It was a Dallas radio show. And a woman called and said, "My mother and father both passed away in the last month, and we have a memorial coming up. We haven't seen a lot of the family in a long time. It's complicated and I don't want this entire thing to be a downer. What do I do?"

And what was so beautiful is -- I answered it quickly -- first of all, funerals are downers, and to quote Amy Cunningham, you cannot be transformed by your grief if we do not grieve.

But the second thing was to kind of riff with her and even when it feels insensitive, just ask, "What is the purpose of your memorial? Is this for your mother? Is this for your father? Why are you doing it together? And do you want to bond the family that is coming together that hasn't seen each other? And how do you actually think about creating [a gathering]?" I actually ended up suggesting doing a George Dawes Green night, the night before, to say, "What does it mean to be a ___?" Whatever her last name was.

And what's been really beautiful to me is that people are now able to read this book. I wrote it in an accessible way. I believe it applies to personal gatherings and professional gatherings, and people are starting to understand the deep power of bringing people together around the moments that most matter to us. And that you can, again, actually shift people's identity and belief of what is possible in the future in the relationship if you think very deeply and use this lens of how you actually want to spend the time we have when we come together. That even something like a funeral doesn't have to look like one thing.

Gardner: All right, the second-to-last one. Online gatherings. Online communities. Priya, you don't spend much time in your book. I view you as focused more on what we think of as events that have, let's say, beginnings, middles, and ends. But any advice for all of that online gathering that we're doing on the internet these days?

Parker: Have your online gathering have a beginning, middle, and end. Have your online gathering connect people in the beginning in some way that reminds them that they are actually physical people offline, as well.

If you have a conference call -- a small tip -- but tell people at the beginning of it to bring a mug of their favorite liquid [at the] start. We can't meet in person, but please at the beginning of the day start the conference call by asking everybody to say what they are drinking and what their mug says. Mugs, these days, say all sorts of stuff. I have a mug that says, "Raising tiny humans is exhausting." Like, you learn a lot about bringing the human into the digital and making them have a physical experience even if they're online.

Gardner: All right, and let's close it out. My final extra question for you, Priya. I loved what you said about pop-up rules in your book and earlier this week on the podcast. How about a pop-up rule that I could use to spice up my next gathering? What have you tried that's worked?

Parker: To invite people and tell them they can't pour themselves a drink. Very simple. And what it does is it shifts them [from] worrying about themselves to caring for others. And it's a small rule, but it actually changes the dynamic in the room.

The second is more of a challenge. [It's] to give their next gathering a name. I may have said this on our conversation, but the writer Jancee Dunn was thinking about hosting a dinner party and I told her to name it, and she ended up calling it, "The Worn-out Mom's Hootenanny." And it completely transformed what the night was.

Gardner: Beautiful. Now to close, Priya, one thing that you do a great job at in the book I can see you do in life. You're exemplifying it through your words in your book, but you do it in life, [and that] is you take risks and you encourage us to take risks. If I'm somebody who's listened in -- I've gone all the way through this week's podcast and all the way through this extra and I'm like, "I like her and I want to work with her, and I want to take a risk to do my next gathering in some new or interesting way," I would love for you just to describe briefly how people might reach out to you and find you.

Parker: Thank you for that. First, host a 15 Toasts. It's an easy risk with structure. And you can reach me on my website, priyaparker.com. Follow me on Instagram. I love engaging and hearing your stories of the risks you took.

And sign up for my newsletter. I would love for you to take a risk, sometime, in the next week or two to host a gathering if you may not otherwise. Just do something risky at a gathering if you have a daily meeting. And tell me about it. Write about it. Share it on #theartofgathering. I would love to hear how you are transforming the gatherings in your life.

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Gardner: Well, Priya has taught me to end better, so let's see if I can do a better ending for this extra than I might otherwise have done. Next week's show we're going to have Amor Towles, the author of the celebrated novel, A Gentleman in Moscow . I hope that you've read it. I have. I love it. I recommend it.

But if you've not, you may not even have time to do so between now and my interview, but I know you're going to enjoy Amor Towles, the author, who comes from the world of Wall Street but who wrote a novel, breaking a lot of the rules that you might expect. The central figure is a character who spends the 30 years of his life and most of the novel in just in a single hotel in Moscow.

Lots of challenging premises and especially I'm looking forward to talking with Amor about the business of being a novelist and what that world is like [the publishing world], which he's got to know very well. I know you're going to enjoy that -- all Towles fans -- A Gentleman in Moscow.

Rule Breaker Investing coming at you this coming Wednesday. In the meantime, gather well. Fool on!

As always, people on this program may have interest in the stocks they talk about, and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against, so don't buy or sell stocks based solely on what you hear. Learn more about Rule Breaker Investing at RBI.Fool.com .

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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.



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