Holiday Parties And Family Gatherings Are Just Ahead. Here's How To Handle Conflict

Download Audio
The Capitol Christmas Tree is reflected in one of the hundreds of ornaments decorating the tree Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)
The Capitol Christmas Tree is reflected in one of the hundreds of ornaments decorating the tree Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

With David Folkenflik

Conflict resolution expert Priya Parker who works to resolve ethnic strife across the globe and corporate strife in boardrooms takes on the most fraught scenarios: holiday parties and family gatherings.


Priya Parker, founder, Thrive Labs, a consulting firm that designs transformative gatherings and purpose-driven communities. Author of "The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters." (@priyaparker)

Interview Highlights

On why she was "born to work in conflict resolution"

"I was born in Zimbabwe; I have an Indian mother who's an anthropologist, and a white American father who's a hydrologist. Eventually, we moved to northern Virginia, and within a year they were separated. So every two weeks, on a Friday afternoon, I would leave my mother's house, and I would leave this home that was this sort of Indian, Buddhist, atheist, British, agnostic, liberal democrat, vegetarian, incense-fueled home and go a mile across, and enter my father’s house, which is a white, conservative, evangelical Christian, Republican, meat-eating, twice-a-week-church-going, climate-skeptic family.

"I grew up realizing in that kind of multiverse that there's no one way to be, even when people deeply believe that there is — my entire life I've been interested in where and when and why people come together, and because of my own life, where and when and why we come apart."

On why it's important to ask the question, 'Why are we gathering?' 

"When we don't answer it, we go on to autopilot, and we tend to focus more on the form of how we gather rather than the function. And many of the ways we gather, whether it's the holidays or whether it's our meetings or whether it's our town halls, are based around a series of assumptions that may no longer be true.

"We tend to remember things that are specific. I always say that purpose in your gathering should both be specific and disputable, meaning people can disagree with it. We tend to get attached to the form of a gathering before we actually say, 'Why am I gathering these people?' And frankly, even in a work context — I work with a lot of corporations — you're problem is your gathering too much."

"For introverts or people who suffer from social anxiety, structure actually helps. Structure, when it serves a purpose, is actually deeply relieving."

Priya Parker

On creating gathering structures that don't feel awkward and imposing

"I think it's very difficult to do it in the moment, particularly with our families. Gatherings tend to require people to play certain roles, and we tend to follow certain scripts, and that's particularly true in our family gathering, in a multi-generational gathering. You're a teacher in some context, but you come in and you are a daughter-in-law in this role.

"Structure in a family can actually help ourselves kind of off-the-script, and the biggest thing is to ask your family beforehand to ask your allies ahead of time ...'where rather than just talking about politics and wondering what Aunt Millie might say, why don't we try our Thanksgiving or our New Year's or our Christmas around this model?'

"For introverts or people who suffer from social anxiety, structure actually helps. Structure, when it serves a purpose, is actually deeply relieving."

On the dangers of "over-inclusion"

"As a host, we tend to over-include; we invite more people out of obligation, and part of the element of that is we think the more, the merrier, the spirit of generosity, but for many gatherings, the more is actually the scarier.

"There are some gatherings where size actually helps. Concerts, football games — there are certain places where the more actually is the merrier, enjoying a feast.

"When you over-include, if you're a good host, you are going to always take care of the person who is furthest from the center, and therefore you are actually not protecting your purpose. What I argue for is generous exclusion; it's not personal, it's purposeful."

From The Reading List

Glamour: "How to Host a Holiday Party—or Any Gathering—Without Making Yourself Miserable" — "Hosting a holiday party always seems like a good idea, in theory: a cozy night in with friends—nothing fancy!—with some festive sweaters and Santa-themed champagne cocktails. What could possibly go wrong? But then, day of, you find yourself simultaneously cooking and cleaning and yelling, 'Where's the effing cookie platter?' while cursing Martha Stewart for ever setting an "easy but elegant" table. And suddenly all you want to do is bolt the door and drink the champagne straight from the bottle.

"But there's good news, beleaguered hostesses: It's possible to host a party without making yourself miserable. Inspired by Priya Parker, author of the New York Times best-seller The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, people everywhere are enjoying gatherings more—and worrying less about what direction the knife is supposed to face. Below, find Priya's advice, in her own words. And then follow it, starting now.

"I grew up with images of what I thought the perfect dinner party had to look like: a beautifully set table, gorgeous wine glasses, a vase of flowers set just so. I attended cotillion classes as a preteen, where an instructor would roll out a white-clothed table and instruct us on how to properly display a napkin, where to set teaspoons, and what to do if you drop a fork on the floor. (Leave it there.) I’d leaf through my stepmother’s hosting diary from the seventies, where she meticulously captured which recipe she tried, to whom she served it, and the date. I grew up with the implicit message that there was a right way of gathering and that it took a particular form. And, furthermore, that if you got the "things" of a gathering right—the food, the settings, the wine—the night would be a success. And implicitly, to gather well, one had to eventually obtain those specific things and follow a specific inherited form. And, lucky me, there was an entire industry designed to help me on my way."

Forbes: "Going To The Extreme: Gathering As An Art With Priya Parker" — "Are you the type of person who obsesses over guest lists for parties, girls’ weekends, or meetings at work? Are you losing sleep over who to invite, worried about alienating new friends or colleagues, but hesitant to mess with the tried-and-true dynamics you’ve grown to love/hate? And you maybe even feel a little embarrassed, thinking, 'What’s the big deal? It’s just a little brunch!'

"Same here!

"My whole life I’ve been a connection-junkie—with family, with friends (I’ve even tried my hand at matchmaking, quite successfully), as an executive recruiter, and now as a professional spaghetti-dinner planner and dot-connector.

"And, turns out, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Our gift for connection—yes, it’s a gift—is a wonderful way to go through the world, and it even has a name. We’re what Priya Parker calls, in her fantastic book The Art of Gathering, 'extreme gatherers.' "

Excerpt from "The Art of Gathering" by Priya Parker


The way we gather matters. Gatherings consume our days and help determine the kind of world we live in, in both our intimate and public realms. ­Gathering—the conscious bringing together of people for a reason­—shapes the way we think, feel, and make sense of our world. Lawgivers have understood, perhaps as well as anyone, the power inherent in gatherings. In democracies, the freedom to assemble is one of the foundational rights granted to every individual. In countries descending into authoritarianism, one of the first things to go is the right to assemble. Why? Because of what can happen when people come together, exchange information, inspire one another, test out new ways of being together. And yet most of us spend very little time thinking about the actual ways in which we gather.

We spend our lives gathering­—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.

Any number of studies support a notion that’s obvious to many of us: Much of the time we spend in gatherings with other people­ disappoints­ us. “With the occasional exception, my mood in conferences usually swings between boredom, despair, and rage,” Duncan Green, a blogger and specialist in international development, confesses in the Guardian. Green’s take isn’t unique to conferences: The 2015 State of Enterprise Work survey found that “wasteful meetings” were employees’ top obstacle to getting work done.

We don’t even seem to be thrilled with the time we spend with our friends. A 2013 study, The State of Friendship in America 2013: A Crisis of Confidence, found that 75 percent of respondents were unsatisfied with those relationships. Meanwhile, in How We Gather, a recent report on the spiritual life of young people, Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile write, “As traditional religion struggles to attract young people, millennials are looking elsewhere with increasing urgency.”

As much as our gatherings disappoint us, though, we tend to keep gathering in the same tired ways. Most of us remain on autopilot when we bring people together, following stale formulas, hoping that the chemistry of a good meeting, conference, or party will somehow take care of itself, that thrilling results will magically emerge from the usual staid inputs. It is almost always a vain hope.

When we do seek out gathering advice, we almost always turn to those who are focused on the mechanics of gathering: chefs, etiquette experts, floral artists, event planners. By doing so, we inadvertently shrink a human challenge down to a logistical one. We reduce the question of what to do with people to a question of what to do about things: PowerPoints, invitations, AV equipment, cutlery, refreshments. We are tempted to focus on the “stuff” of gatherings because we believe those are the only details we can control. I believe that’s both shortsighted and a misunderstanding about what actually makes a group connect and a gathering matter.

I come to gatherings not as a chef or an event planner, but as someone trained in group dialogue and conflict resolution. I’ve spent much of the past fifteen years of my life studying, designing, and advising gatherings whose goals were to be transformative for the people involved and the communities they were trying to affect. Today I work as a professional facilitator. Though there are many of us around, you may have never heard of us. A facilitator is someone trained in the skill of shaping group dynamics and collective conversations. My job is to put the right people in a room and help them to collectively think, dream, argue, heal, envision, trust, and connect for a specific larger purpose. My lens on ­gathering—and the lens I want to share with ­you—places people and what happens between them at the center of every coming together.

In my work, I strive to help people experience a sense of belonging. This probably has something to do with the fact that I have spent my own life trying to figure out where and to whom I belong. I come on my mother’s side from Indian cow worshippers in Varanasi, an ancient city known as the spiritual center of India, and on my father’s side from American cow slaughterers in South Dakota. To cut a very long story short, my parents met in Iowa, fell in love, married, had me in Zimbabwe, worked in fishing villages across Africa and Asia, fell out of love, divorced in Virginia, and went their separate ways. Both of them went on to remarry, finding spouses more of their own world and worldview. After the divorce, I moved every two weeks between my mother’s and father’s ­households—toggling back and forth between a vegetarian, liberal, incense-filled, Buddhist-Hindu-New Age universe and a meat-eating, conservative, twice‑a‑week-churchgoing, evangelical Christian realm. So it was perhaps inevitable that I ended up in the field of conflict resolution.

I discovered that field in college when I became interested in, and anguished by, the state of race relations at the University of Virginia. Upon graduating, I worked in communities—in the United States and abroad—to train leaders in a group dialogue process called Sustained Dialogue. It is a gathering technique that aims to transform fractured relationships across racial, ethnic, and religious lines. Through that work, I became fascinated with what occurs when people attempt to come together across difference.

In the years since, I have applied the methods of conflict resolution in a variety of settings and to a great variety of problems. I’ve run meetings in ­five-star hotels, in public parks, on dirt floors, and in college dorm rooms. I’ve led sessions with villagers in western India grappling with how to rebuild their community after ethnic riots and with Zimbabwean activists fighting the threat of a government shutdown of their NGOs. I’ve worked on dialogues between Arab opposition leaders and their European and American counterparts to explore the relationship between Islam and democracy. I’ve designed gatherings for state and federal officials in the United States to figure out how to revitalize a national poverty program for a new generation. I’ve facilitated gatherings for technology companies, architecture firms, beauty brands, and financial institutions, helping them hold complicated, difficult discussions about their future.

Excerpted with permission from the new book THE ART OF GATHERING: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker, published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Copyright © 2018 Priya Parker.

Barclay Palmer produced this show for broadcast.

This article was originally published on December 21, 2018.

This program aired on December 21, 2018.


More from On Point

Listen Live