1: The Harvard Kennedy School of Government is an intense place.
“The culture taught us to avoid sounding stupid in front of one another,” writes Priya Parker in The Art of Gathering. “It was important to show your strength.”
When students asked, “How are you?” they responded with smiles and false positivity, she recalls. “The up-and-down facts of our lives smoothed into ascending narratives, our accomplishments were humble-bragged, and our personal brands were promoted.”
There is a better way, thought Lisa Lazarus, one of Priya’s classmates. She created Change Agents Now, also known as CAN. Her idea was simple: “Groups of six interested Kennedy School students would agree to meet every other week, for 3 hours at a time, and do the opposite of what they were doing for the other 333 hours of that fortnight.”
Within their groups, students would share “crucible moments,” a concept originated by Bill George, a Harvard Business School professor and the author of True North. Bill defines crucible moments as challenging experiences in our lives “that shape us in some deep way and shift our lens on the world. They are stories that define us in our own minds—and that, nevertheless, seldom come up in the ordinary course of conversation.”
“Against all odds, they—we—would be honest. We would skip over all the parts that were working and dive straight into sharing what was not. We would tell authentic, painful stories—about parents who had abandoned us, about bullies who had taunted us, about poverty that had shamed us,” Priya recalls.
This ability to connect with other students authentically transformed Priya’s graduate school experience.
“The school became a different kind of place for me,” she writes. “Armor fell off; ears widened and mouths shrank; we learned to love one another for our flaws. The navy officer whose father was once homeless. The entrepreneur who grew up poor. The executive director, who, in light of an absent father, became a second parent to her siblings. I began to see their behavior through a different lens.
“And rather than feel jealous or intimidated by their accomplishments, I began to feel empathy for them, because I understood their stories, just as they understood mine.”
2: Her Kennedy School experience encouraged Priya to take similar risks in other settings. As a facilitator and author, she advises her clients on how to design meaningful and creative gatherings.
As the host or organizer, if we want our guests to share authentically, we must set the tone. If we hope to help our guests be more real, we must be real ourselves.
Early in the gathering, we must show them how. “To get the group to be vulnerable, we facilitators need to share an even more personal story than we expect our clients to,” comments event facilitator Bernardus Holtrop. The host “sets the depth of the group by whatever level we were willing to go to; however much we share, they will share a little less.”
“In some ways,” Priya writes, “this should be obvious. Being vulnerable with people makes them feel for you. Scholars like Brené Brown have been telling us this for years. But if it’s obvious as a description of human behavior, it doesn’t seem obvious to most of our gatherers.”
3: As hosts, we also need to communicate that each person should share at whatever depth they feel comfortable. “I draw a swimming pool. There is a deep end and a shallow end. You can choose whatever end you want to enter,” says facilitator Leng Lim. Offering an “invitation to intimacy is important, but depth is a complete choice.”
“This level of choice,” Priya observes, “is the difference between people being game for the evening and people resenting it.”
Reflection: Think back on an event I attended where the host or organizer shared a personal story. Did this encourage myself and others to share more deeply?
Action: At an upcoming event or meeting, set the example by sharing an authentic story.