1: Everyone fears the “Thanksgiving problem.”
The “total free-for-all of pent-up grievances that often brings out tears and a screaming match, culminating in your cousin’s announcement that he will be attending his “Friendsgiving” back home from now on,” writes Priya Parker in The Art of Gathering.
So, instead, we default to harmony. No controversy, we say. We stick to bland topics—”something about collaboration or partnership, prosperity or building bridges, new horizons or growth.”
Which are of interest to? Noone.
There is a better way, Priya believes. “My belief is that controversy—of the right kind, and in the hands of a good host—can add both energy and life to your gatherings as well as be clarifying,” she writes. “Good controversy can make a gathering matter.”
Yesterday, we looked at how Priya created a “cage match” within an architecture firm to talk about the firm’s future. Her goal? To prove it is possible to “hold some heat without burning up in flames.”
But why take the risk? we ask. Because “good controversy helps us re-examine what we hold dear: our values, priorities, nonnegotiables,” she writes. “Good controversy is generative rather than preservationist. It leads to something better than the status quo. It helps communities move forward in their thinking. It helps us grow. Good controversy can be messy in the midst of the brawling. But when it works, it is clarifying and cleansing—and a forceful antidote to bullshit.”
2: So, how do we create healthy rather than unhealthy controversy?
“In my experience, though, good controversy rarely happens on its own,” Priya writes. “Good controversy is much more likely to happen when it is invited in but carefully structured.”
One strategy is to shift the controversy from implicit to explicit by ritualizing it. That’s what Priya did with the cage match. She “created a temporary alternative world within the larger gathering, a wrestling match that allowed the controversy to be litigated in a way that was honest and aired feelings without being bridge-burning,” she observes.
By changing the context and the norms, Priya created a new, temporary world where the tone was playful.
3: Another strategy is to identify hot spots within the group and organize the conversation around these topics. Priya recommends beginning by creating a “heat map.” We do this by asking ourselves and others the following questions:
o What are people avoiding that they don’t think they’re avoiding?
o What are the sacred cows here?
o What goes unsaid?
o What are we trying to protect?
o And why?
“In almost any group of people—including strangers—certain areas of conversation will generate more heat than others. This heat can arise from conflict, taboos, transgression, power differences, hypocrisy, identity clashes, etc.,” she notes. “Part of my job is to figure out the sources of potential heat and then decide what to do with them.”
With the architecture firm before the event, Priya had interviewed many members of the firm and discovered there were different views about the future of the firm.
“In a newsroom, the heat may come from what stories get the best placement on the front page and on the paper’s website, but it could also be about expected layoffs that have yet to be announced,” she notes. “In a church, a source of heat may be the issue of gay marriage within the congregation, but it could also be how tithes and collections are spent,” she observes… “In a university administration, a source of heat may be the treatment of legacy applicants or the renaming of buildings.”
Controversy occurs around people’s fears, needs, and sense of self. “And when we poke at a source of power,” Priya observes. “Touching on these elements with care can produce transformative gatherings, because you can dig below the typical conversation into the bedrock of values.”
The bottom line? “Good controversy is the kind of contention that helps people look more closely at what they care about,” she writes. “When there is danger but also real benefit in doing so.”
Reflection: How might I intentionally inject some controversy into an upcoming gathering or meeting?
Action: Do it.