Priya Parker: Creating Meaningful Connections While Apart

Priya Parker is an expert on gathering

With over 15 years of experience in facilitating complicated, difficult conversations, and years of research on what makes gatherings more or less meaningful, Priya Parker is a respected thought leader on how to bring people together in a way that is meaningful. Her book The Art of Gathering is full of tips on how to host or facilitate in-person events of all kinds.

Fortunately, when everything shifted to online spaces in early 2020, Parker was able to point out that a lot of the same big ideas apply. More than that, she saw an opportunity for people to think critically and be creative in a remarkably difficult time.

Parker shared some of her best advice and insights as part of the TED Connect series, and we’ve highlighted some of them below. You can also watch the full video here.

What is the purpose of this gathering?

We often assume that the purpose of the gathering is obvious, but sometimes it’s not. If you’ve ever received a calendar invite titled “meeting,” you have an idea of what this can look like.

For recurring gatherings, like weekly team meetings, study groups, or regular dinners with friends, sometimes the purpose of the gathering changes. What you usually need from a movie night or a creative writing class or a family brunch might not be what you need now.

Tip: Ask yourself what the purpose of the gathering is, and what the people joining you need right now. Remember that people might need to take a break or postpone or cancel a gathering.

Give your gathering a name

People start to get primed for an event from the moment they are invited to join. The way an event is described gives attendees an idea of the energy to anticipate, and also the purpose or need for the event. An easy way to send this message is by giving your event a name.

Tip: Instead of sending out a calendar invite for “Team Lunch,” invite people to “Lunch at the Library,” and have people share about what they’re reading. Invite people to join from in front of their bookshelf or to bring a favourite book to recommend to the group.

What specific things make this gathering mean something?

Specific details are an important part of what makes gatherings meaningful and transformative. But in an effort to make gatherings easy for anyone to join, sometimes we’ve taken out the structures and details that make them stick. This doesn’t mean you should exclude people, but it does mean that you might need to explain a ritual or detail to other attendees. You can also invent specific things that people can expect to participate in for a specific event.

Tip: For your next online team meeting, invite everyone to bring their morning tea or coffee in their favourite mug, and invite them to share why they love that mug.

How is this night different from all other nights?

In her TED Connect talk, Parker talks about what she calls the Passover Principle. In her research, Parker learned that the first question asked at a Passover seder translates to “How is this night different from all other nights?” It’s an invitation for people to reflect on what makes that gathering time special, and it can be applied to any gathering.

If you’ve been experiencing the feeling that time and days are running together, Parker suggests finding ways to mark the days to give some direction to your time. This can be for small, recurring events, or larger gatherings.

Tip: Celebrate Taco Tuesday with your co-workers, or have a virtual dance party with your friends to celebrate someone’s half birthday.

Provide safety and choice where possible

When we’re in a professional setting, we usually have things about ourselves that we can choose to share or keep private. Bringing our colleagues into our homes can create a different level of intimacy than usual, and can take us outside of our usual norms and expectations for our professional gatherings.

Tip: If you’re hosting the online gathering, think about what kinds of guidelines might help people feel comfortable and like equal participants. This is also a good time to think critically about whether everyone needs to be at every meeting. Is it a good use of their time? Can they contribute to the project outside of the meeting?

Take this opportunity to experiment and borrow good ideas!

The sudden shift to online events has pushed a lot of people to try radical experiments in gatherings because of the new limitations. Lots of us are testing ways that we can use technology that existed before this to create more meaningful connections and gatherings. Some of these experiments might be temporary inventions to fill a need, and some of these experiments might stick as a way to bring more of us together.

As we come up with creative ways to gather, we’re also passing on those creative ideas to everyone who attends! People can walk away (metaphorically speaking) thinking “maybe I could do that,” or with ideas of pieces of it that can be borrowed for their next event. Courage is contagious too, so every time we’re brave enough to try an experiment, we’re giving permission for others to do the same!

Tip: Think back to online events that you’ve really enjoyed. What made them so great? Is there anything that you could borrow from that event to make your next team meeting or friend hangout better?

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