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Priya Parker on what leaders should consider before bringing teams back together

Tips from an expert facilitator on how to give your meetings more meaning

Posted October 13, 2021 by Eliza Sarasohn

Reading time 4 min

“We spend our lives gathering,” writes Priya Parker, “first in our families, then in neighborhoods and playgroups, schools and churches, and then in meetings, weddings, town halls, conferences, birthday parties, product launches, board meetings, class and family reunions, dinner parties, trade fairs and funerals. And we spend much of that time in uninspiring, underwhelming moments that fail to capture us, change us in any way or connect us to one another.”

A facilitator, strategic advisor, and podcast host Parker is the author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters. Trained in the field of conflict resolution, Parker honed her singular approach to creating transformative gatherings through 15 years of experience convening groups of philanthropists, elected officials, educators and corporate executives—from beauty brands to Zimbabwean activists.

On October 5th, Parker joined Future Forum for an Executive Summit—an exclusive first look at our Fall 2021 research findings and a deep dive into creating meetings that matter. Read on for three key insights from the conversation.

1. Start with the basics: What is the purpose of the meeting? Who needs to be there? And who decides?

“The biggest mistake we make when we gather is we assume the purpose of the gathering is shared and obvious,” says Parker. “Before the pandemic it would have been common to skip over basic questions like: What is the purpose of meeting—literally when do we need to meet? Who needs to be there? And who gets to decide?”

These may seem simple questions, but Parker contends they’re complex—even profound. Asking them presents teams with an opportunity for positive growth and change.

Parker recommends holding listening sessions with your team to facilitate open discussions around prompts like:

  • During the last 20 months of disruption and change, what did we miss most about not being able to be in the office?
  • What did we not miss—what are we ready to discard?
  • What did we invent during the pandemic that we want to carry forward?
  • What new practices do we want to create now?

“Debate it. Discern it,” says Parker. “And then run a series of experiments.” As a starting point to spur healthy debate, check out Rae Ringel’s tool for assessing when to hold an in-person meeting.

2. Every gathering is a social contract. Your role as host is to help participants understand what is expected of them.

“Yes, gathering is about connection, but it’s also about power,” says Parker. “Pretending power dynamics don’t exist will make you a less artful gatherer.” As a leader, it’s on you to deliberately design an environment that levels power inequities and invites people to contribute—see Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation.

For example, Parker points to hybrid meetings. “If I’m at home and my child is napping in another room and my colleagues are in the office chit-chatting and drinking coffee together before the meeting starts, that is an unequal power dynamic.”

The first step to leveling this inequity, says Parker, is to simply acknowledge it. “Hybrid gatherings aren’t one gathering—they’re three,” she says. “There’s the experience of the people in the room together. There’s the virtual experience. And then there’s the mix of those people interacting. You need to acknowledge that people are living in different realities.”

Parker recommends assigning three hosts to ensure positive experiences for each group of attendees—a host to facilitate on the ground, a second host to consider the needs of virtual attendees and a third dedicated to fostering the mix between the two.

Parker also recommends creating “pop-up rules” for each gathering. “When you’re not explicit, you marginalize the people who don’t know the dominant code,” says Parker. Being explicit about the rules—such as when and how to ask questions, when is casual conversation encouraged, when to keep your video on and when it’s ok to turn it off—overrides unspoken cultural norms, giving everyone clarity on what is expected and leading to greater psychological safety.

3. For transformation to occur, you must have some element of risk.

“I’m most interested in transformative gatherings, when people come in one way and leave slightly altered by their experience,” says Parker.

But true transformation requires some healthy controversy. “Unhealthy peace is as damaging as unhealthy conflict,” Parker contends.

To encourage teams to display what she calls “generous heat” or “generous controversy,” Parker recommends asking the following questions, devised by experience designer Ida Benedetto. Before a team gathering, ask yourself:

  • What is this group avoiding?
  • What is the gift in helping them face it?
  • Is the gift worth the risk?
  • Can I help the team confront this with care?

Life in the office post-pandemic will look and feel differently than it used to, says Parker, but that’s ultimately a good thing. “Who gets to decide who gets to be successful at work?” she asks. “It doesn’t surprise me that this question is being deeply debated and contested now, in our multiracial democracy. Because we’re all trying to create meaningful connection—without feeling like we all have to be exactly the same.”

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