1: Priya Parker had been hired to facilitate a meeting on “one of the most politically divisive issues of our time,” she writes in her book The Art of Gathering. A dozen prominent civic leaders would attend.
The only problem? No one wanted to be there.
All of them “worked on the same hot-button issue, but from radically different angles,” she notes. “The leaders were, technically, on the same side of the issue, but they had amongst themselves a long, complicated history and a lot of internal politics.”
Where to start? Before the meeting, Priya interviewed each leader by phone. Her goal was to build trust and rapport. And to understand the core issues dividing the group. What she calls a “heat map.”
Two things became clear during the interviews: First, there was a fundamental disagreement about the nature of the core problem.
“Second, there was a massive power imbalance because of differences in size, resources, and public recognition among the partners’ organizations that affected all of their interactions,” she writes.
“All this dissatisfaction was coming out in proxy wars: battles over language on pamphlets, over the sharing of data, over who gets to stand on a dais or which country’s newspapers to publish in. Yet because of these seemingly small group decisions symbolized larger issues for many in the group, they mattered.”
2: Priya then created a digital workbook for all attendees to complete and return to her before the meeting. She explained that “their answers would be read aloud in the room, anonymously. Unlike the phone calls, which were confidential, they were now answering these questions knowing that they would be shared, if untraceably.”
She used the digital workbook exercise for two purposes. First, “the workbook included prompts about participants’ personal history to get them to connect back to their own core values: ‘Tell me about a moment in your early life that deeply influenced you and, in some way perhaps, led you to the work you do today.’ “
Second, “the majority of the questions encouraged the leaders to speak about what wasn’t working: ‘If you were to say something that was politically incorrect, or taboo, about this process or project, what would it be?’ And, “what do you think is the most needed conversation for this group to have now?'”
The gathering itself would be a single group conversation. The issues would be discussed in the room rather than offline or in sidebars, which was how problems had been dealt with in the past.
Priya’s goal? “I wanted to see if they could build the muscle to talk openly and rigorously about what was facing them.”
3: The day of the meeting arrived. Priya began by having the group create the ground rules. “What do you need to feel safe here?” she asked. “What do you need from this group to be willing to take a risk in this conversation today?”
Getting the participants to create the rules brought attention to how they would interact and name and acknowledge “past behaviors at some of their meetings that served to shut people down,” she notes.
Next, Priya began reading aloud from the digital workbooks. “I had organized my excerpts by question and theme and anonymized them as thoroughly as I could,” she recalls. “I began reading out people’s personal stories. As often happens, many of the participants had shared powerful stories from early in their lives that the others had never heard.”
Then, she read aloud the participants’ answers on the questions about taboos. “I had given each participant a Post-it pad and pen and asked them to capture any words and phrases they heard that struck them,” she writes. “As I spoke, I noticed that people were busy writing as fast as they could. It gave them something to do and would help them remember these phrases.”
Then, she looked up and paused. “The leaders were sitting straight up, paying full attention. A few of them had funny looks on their faces. Without saying anything more, I invited each to share two phrases they had written down. This was yet more naming.
“Within twenty minutes, what had never really been said out loud in this community was buzzing in everyone’s ears. A number of phrases were repeated by different members, thereby showing resonance within the group. It was the ripping off of a Band-Aid,” she remembers.
“Rather than trying to get there over the course of a conversation, we began with it all on the table. Only ninety minutes had passed, and there was a palpable sense of both expectation and relief in the room.”
Priya captured the various issues that had been identified and organized the rest of the day around those that most resonated with the group.
“We spent the day getting their assumptions out in front of one another,” she writes. “We’d gather for ninety-minute sessions at a time and then break, gather again and break. We worked through lunch. When some people began to dominate the conversation, I would pause them, pointing to a ground rule if need be, and try to bring in the quieter folks.”
She pushed them to go “below the surface, into the assumptions beneath what they were talking about,” she remembers. “When things would get heated, I would slow them down and try to help them go ‘below the iceberg.’ Rather than looking at the specific incidents and events above the water line, I would ask them how those moments revealed their underlying beliefs, values, and needs.”
Priya’s intention? “Even if they didn’t agree, they understood.”
One pivotal moment occurred when a past incident arose involving two of the attendees. “It’s OK; we can talk about it offline,” one said. Another participant objected, insisting “the incident actually reflected a dynamic that existed among a number of them, and she thought it would be helpful for the group as a whole to discuss,” Priya recalls. “Others agreed, and I facilitated the pair through their issue in front of everyone else.
At another moment, a newer group member shared her concern about the tone and direction of the conversation. She said, “Why are we spending time looking at all this negative stuff? I think this is very unproductive.”
Priya paused. “I didn’t defend,” she writes. “I waited.”
At that moment, an experienced leader spoke up, “Oh no, this is a breakthrough. In twenty-five years, we have never had this conversation.'”
Reflection: How could I introduce a little controversy into an upcoming gathering or meeting?
Action: Do it.