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Priya Parker on Gathering: Don't Bring Your "Best" You -- Bring Your "Real" You

By Motley Fool Staff – Aug 17, 2018 at 9:06PM

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It's easy to put on your most polished mask when you’re in a group. It’s also a mistake.

Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner is a big fan of "better." He's built his own career based on helping people invest better, of course, but he's also always on the lookout for people offering ways to improve our lives in areas beyond the financial. And when a person has ideas in that vein, they frequently choose to share them with the world in the form of a book. Hence his decision to inaugurate an "Authors in August" theme for the Rule Breaker Investing podcast.

For this episode, he's interviewing Priya Parker, founder of Thrive Labs, which specializes in teaching leaders how to transform the way they gather people together and build purpose-driven communities. Her book is The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.

In this segment, they consider the extremely common tendency of people to assume facades at gatherings. It's an understandable temptation to want others to see only the strongest, most accomplished versions of ourselves, but as she explains, a lot more interesting things happen when we throw authenticity and vulnerability into the mix.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Aug. 8, 2018.

David Gardner: Priya, from Chapter V we hit Chapter VI. "Keep Your Best Self Out of My Gathering." Obviously, I want you to explain what you mean by that, but I certainly would love for you just to spend a couple of minutes and explain how you invented the "15 Toasts" format which I know you've used many times. I'm sure others are copying it and using it. It's a brilliant idea, but it comes out of the idea of being authentic with each other and not just being the fake, perfect person who's happy at every gathering. Especially business gatherings can fall into this networking and these kinds of things. Give us a little bit more wisdom, here.

Priya Parker: At the core of why we gather is because we need each other. The irony is that we behave like we don't. All I'm saying is to begin to show a little leg, collectively, that we actually do need each other. Brene Brown talks about the power of vulnerability beautifully and has research to back it, and a lot of that conversation is about individual, one-on-one intimacy and vulnerability. What I'm interested in is how does that actually work at the level of a collective group?

I was a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Values. It's a mouthful.

Gardner: It is. [laughs]

Parker: I have to pause every time I say it. And we were coming together for a meeting with all of these different councils. One of the things that I'd noticed was that even when the content was values -- and I was also on a council called The New Models of Leadership -- even when these were human topics, the way we would behave, and act, and talk in meetings was we were basically acting like press secretaries. Spinning stories and making sure that we looked strong and that our businesses were strong. That we deserved to belong there.

So a colleague of mine and I, Tim Leberecht, decided that the night before this gathering we wanted to see if we could hack the gathering by hosting a small, radically different dinner party where we invited 15 people across councils whom we didn't know to come together and have a dinner together that felt more like weddings than board meetings.

We invited them to come. We chose a theme. We chose "A Good Life," which is different then The Good Life, but basically what makes a good life. And the night before I was very nervous, and I thought, "How are we going to have a conversation about a good life with 15 people? What does this actually look like?"

And long story short, through conversation my husband was there. We kind of played around with this format and we decided to try a format out. We later called it 15 Toasts. The people came, they gathered. We gathered around a table. I stood up and we shared these rules. And they are at some point in the night we invite you to stand up old-school style, ding your glass, and give a toast.

What we want to hear from you is an experience or a story from you that relates to a good life. What we don't want to hear from you are all of the amazing accomplishments. You wouldn't be here if you weren't accomplished. We know that you are amazing, but what we really want to hear is a rumour that you've been in that none of us know or an experience that you've had that relates to this in some way. And the only other rule is that the last person has to sing their toast.

Now what that does is it seeds the night along. And the second thing was I realized as a host I needed to be vulnerable, so to ask people to share a story; a group is only going to go as deep as the host will allow and show themselves. It's rare to go deeper, because the group is mirroring you. Gathering is a form of power and it's also a form of love, and whatever your discomforts are will likely extend to the group because they're watching you.

And so one of the things that ended up happening is as we went into the night [and you can read about this in the book] it's very difficult to talk about what a good life is without also talking about death. And very quickly people started sharing amazing, vulnerable, beautiful, personal, rich, complicated stories that we remembered for the rest of our lives.

But we also saw that we all had many sides, and we were complicated, and that actually these are people who not only could help me but I want to spend time with. And what could that actually mean and look like if we were to bring that lens and that part of ourselves to a question about what does values look like for the world, or what do new models of leadership look like? How do we embody the values that we're trying to bring about in the world?

Gardner: And this was all for a pre-event supper and I know that's part of your bag of tricks, is the professional. Priya, if we were to hire you to run something for like a Motley Fool off-site, that kind of a thing, you almost insist, don't you, that there's a supper the night before?

Parker: People are primed by whatever you give them. So one of the things that I do is the night before any gathering [if I have my way], is to do a dinner the night before where we show each other our fuller selves.

I was facilitating a gathering of political leaders a couple of years ago around the issue of religious liberty, religion, and a lot of the different, various political elements of this very heated issue. And we chose a theme of faith, defined broadly, which in that context is a very loaded word, and the night before hosted a 15 Toasts to faith and people shared the most beautiful stories of faith defined for them and it did not mean religion.

The rules of the 15 Toasts are that you can share each other's stories but you can't attribute them to anything, so I'm not breaking any rules, here, by talking about it. But one woman shared a story about how she was raised Catholic. It was a very strong part of her identity and when her grandfather passed away they went into the attic to go through his stuff and they found a box with a yarmulke and a Torah in it, and they realized that he was Jewish and he had converted, and he had hidden it. And so were they.

And I will always remember that story, but so will everybody else in the group. And when they started to get into the very complicated elements of the content that was at hand the next day, they were looking at each other with their very complicated, paradoxical selves. And for me as a conflict-resolution facilitator, the core element of what I work with is identity, and there are certain elements that are broadly fixed [you can't change over time], but there are many parts of us that are still changing and growing. And that can be added, and that can be taken away, and can be transformed. And when you can create a gathering where people realize that and start to understand that their identity is still a work in process, you can really create anything.

Gardner: And it is that authenticity, and that vulnerability, and bringing your full self that is so important at gatherings. And I think it's brilliant that you set people up for human moments before asking them to go through more professional emotions the day, or two, or three after.

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