Priya Parker is the founder of Thrive Labs, where she helps activists, elected officials, corporate executives, educators, and philanthropists create transformative gatherings. Her recently published book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters, was named one of the best books of 2018 by NPR and Esquire Magazine

“Gathering matters because it is through each other that we figure out what we believe.” — Priya Parker

What sparked your interest in human connection? 

I come from the world of group conflict resolution. I’ve always been interested in how you create a connection, particularly across difference. Whether designing group dialogues to address race relations on college campuses, or building Hindu-Muslim community trust after riots in India, or working with state and federal officials vying for turf over a national poverty program, I hold at the center of these challenges one question: How could we design our time together in a way that would get these people to really see each other? 

Why is gathering important?

Gathering – the intentional bringing together of three or more people for a purpose – defines our days and nights. We do it so often that we’ve taken it for granted, and, unfortunately, too often go on autopilot and don’t actually think about how we gather. Gathering matters because it is through each other that we figure out what we believe, how we treat each other, what we stand for, what we should build, what we let go of, what we want to fight for, and what our collective sense of the “good” is. 

Why do you feel the current way of gathering is broken?

We have, particularly in the United States, over-indexed on individualism. We obsess over improving our individual lives (sugar intake, productivity, steps per day), and ignore how to improve our collective, shared life. I joke that The Art of Gathering is not self-help, but group-help.

Second, gatherings are interesting and memorable when they have specific forms with a specific purpose. However, most specific rituals come from specific sub-cultures that served a specific purpose (a Tamilian threading ceremony, an Argentinian sobremesa, an Indonesian tooth filing ceremony). As we’ve begun to mix (a good thing, in my biracial opinion!) and globalize, we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. In trying not to presume a certain way, we’ve lost our specificity of form and get diluted gatherings like a “cocktail party,” a “networking night”, a “house party”. In not wanting to assume that my ritual is the same as your ritual, our gatherings have become vague and diluted.

And finally, our phones [and the exciting worlds we can enter at the swipe of a finger] certainly aren’t helping our in-person time together.

How can we become better at gathering?

By gathering around a specific, disputable purpose. By asking first: What is a need in my life (or in my community) that by bringing together specific people for a unique moment in time they might be able to fulfill? For example, if I’m giving birth in a few months, how could my community gather around my partner and I in this time, and what are we asking them to do in that moment that truly eases our way during this upcoming transformation of being a couple to being a family? Maybe pinning the diaper on the donkey is not the best use of that time. Should we even call it a “baby shower?”

By hosting courageously.

By excluding generously (don’t over-include.)

And by inventing pop-up, explicit, temporary (even fun) rules that serve the specific purpose of each gathering.

We need to invent gathering forms that allow us to come together in specific ways for a temporary moment in time, even while we come from different cultures and belief systems.

That, I believe, is the future of modern ritual.

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