GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Guy Raz.
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RAZ: So when you're inviting family or friends or co-workers over for dinner, the rules of etiquette say you should steer clear of three subjects - sex, politics, and religion.
PRIYA PARKER: The rule or the norm - you know, never talk about sex, politics or religion at the dinner table - comes from a very good intention.
RAZ: This is Priya Parker.
PARKER: Some of the earliest charters of the Freemasons have rules about basically not talking about difference to what they call - to quote, unquote, "preserve harmony when you are in mixed company," whatever that might mean. And it comes from an - a way to find common ground.
RAZ: Priya knows a lot about dealing with mixed company. When she was little, her parents divorced, and they created two separate, very different households.
PARKER: And so every other Friday afternoon, I would leave my mother and stepfather's home, which is this kind of Indian and British Buddhist, atheist, vegetarian, you know, World Bank-y (ph), liberal, Democratic household and travel, you know, about a little over a mile away to my father and stepmother's home and step into this white, evangelical Christian, conservative, Republican, twice-a-week churchgoing, climate-skeptic family.
RAZ: Priya had to navigate all that as a kid - something she's continued to do as an adult professionally. Priya's a conflict resolution facilitator, and she's mediated conversations around race relations and Middle East politics, business deals. And the rule, no sex, politics, or religion? Priya is not a fan.
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PARKER: Part of the danger of this rule is that, basically, it squeezes out heat, relevance, interests, identity, values, figuring out life together, grappling. And to think that everybody in the room is basically in opposition with one another is a very flat way to both look at people but also to look at conversation.
RAZ: And Priya says, we're really not ever taught how to have a group conversation.
PARKER: Right? Like, you're not really ever taught that in school. You're not taught that in, frankly, even, like business school or managerial programs. Like, how do you actually ask questions that open people up in a way that is interesting? And what I'm arguing is that you can talk about these various - basically, the core elements of living in ways that are meaningful, help people connect and help us, frankly, like, sort our beliefs, and our opinions, and our decisions and our ways we live together.
RAZ: Priya thinks there's a way to deepen these get-togethers to make them more meaningful, and, frankly, to make them better.
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RAZ: Browse through the self-help aisle in any bookstore, and you will see a lot of ways to get richer or happier or thinner. And in reality, there are no shortcuts. We all know that. But there are also ways to reframe the things we already do, to think differently about them - about stress, or self-confidence, or decision-making, things that can actually make us better versions of ourselves.
So today on the show, we're going to explore some of those ways to be a better you. And for Priya Parker, a simple way is to start with better conversations. Priya has a step-by-step guide which she introduced on the TED stage.
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PARKER: The first step of creating more meaningful everyday gatherings is to embrace a specific purpose. An expectant mother I know was dreading her baby shower. The idea of pin-the-diaper-on-the-baby games and opening gifts felt odd and irrelevant. So she paused to ask, what is the purpose of a baby shower? What is my need at this moment? And she realized it was to address her fears of her and her husband's transition to parenthood.
And so she asked two friends to invent a gathering based on that. And so on a sunny afternoon, six women gathered. And first, to address her fear of labor - she was terrified - they told her stories from her life to remind her of the characteristics she already carries - bravery, wonder, faith, surrender - that they believe would carry her and help her in labor as well. And as they spoke, they tied a bead and for each quality into a necklace that she could wear around her neck in the delivery room.
Now, you might be thinking, this is a lot for a baby shower, or it's a little weird, or it's a little intimate. Good. It's specific. It's specific to them, just as your gathering should be specific to you.
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PARKER: One of the biggest mistakes we make in our gatherings is we assume the purpose is obvious.
RAZ: How do we fix that? Like, how do we make the gathering, you know, more specific?
PARKER: Well, the first question to ask before you even invite your guests is, what is the purpose of this? What is the need in my life right now? And then, who can come together to help me kind of fulfill it? I'll give a simple example.
There was a friend of mine who had a 50th birthday party. And at the beginning of the night, he rung his class and just said something like, you know, I'm turning 50. And I've realized that most people, when they turn 50, I've watched this thing where they begin to contract, like, in the friends they make, the decisions they make, the cities they move to, the risks they take. And there are a few people who continue to expand, and what I want to do is continue to expand. And everybody here are people who, whether you're 50 or older, or younger, are people who have always encouraged me to expand.
And in that single moment - it's 30 seconds - he's transformed the context of the night. So I'm interested in, how do you orient a group to have meaningful conversation that's connected to the purpose or the need of that gathering?
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PARKER: The next step of creating more meaningful everyday gatherings is to cause good controversy. You may have learned, as I did, never to talk about sex, politics or religion at the dinner table.
RAZ: OK. So this brings us back to sex, politics and religion, which are, you know, like, no-gos for a lot of people. But you're saying those topics can actually create good controversy. What do you mean by good controversy?
PARKER: So good controversy is the idea that controversy can be generative. It can lead us into conversation that helps us better understand something or helps make a decision. Often, when you avoid controversy or heat altogether, what you're doing is avoiding the questions that, actually, people care about at some level.
RAZ: So what's an example?
PARKER: So one of the people I interviewed is one of the general secretaries of the Society of Friends - of the Quakers - and she shared this example with me. Gay marriage was extremely controversial, and they finally decided to have a Quaker meeting - sort of the business of the day to face this specific topic head-on. And she said that many of the young people in that community were speaking up and explaining why this was such an important issue and why this was something that the Quakers absolutely should lead on and that this was a deeply un-Quaker thing to not allow it. And then in older parts of the community - in particular, she said one man stood up and basically made the argument against it.
And part of the power of that conversation was everybody was willing to actually say what they thought. And part of what happens in a community is if you don't allow people to process and to voice and to speak out, they can't be transformed by one another's ideas. You can't actually litigate, you can't debate, you can't be moved by the experiences, the stories in the room if you just keep what you think in your head.
And they finally, at the end of that conversation, you know, voted and agreed to allow same-sex marriage in their community. But they didn't bypass the conversation. So often, good controversy is anything that allows people to figure out what they actually believe together.
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PARKER: And finally, to create more meaningful everyday gatherings, create a temporary alternative world through the use of pop-up rules. So a team dinner where different generations are gathering and don't share the same assumptions of phone etiquette - whoever looks at their phone first foots the bill. Try it (laughter). For a mom's dinner where you want to upend the norms of what women who also happens to be mothers talk about when they gather - if you talk about your kids, you have to take a shot.
PARKER: That's a real dinner. Rules are powerful because they allow us to temporarily change and harmonize our behavior. And in diverse societies, pop-up rules carry special force. They allow us to gather across difference to connect, to make meaning together without having to be the same.
RAZ: I imagine that some people might find some of these rules, you know, like, a little grating.
PARKER: It's - yeah. Again, it depends on the context. And the reason I love this is because if it is grating to people, you can opt out. So I think we underserve people on our invitations because we are - every gathering is a social contract. So a lot of times, these rules are basically ways to orient people to what the purpose is.
RAZ: So I want to go back to family for a moment 'cause family is the most complicated, right? So let's say - I think anyone listening will either have been in or will be in a situation like this where there's a holiday; everyone comes from different parts of the country; maybe there's baggage between the siblings or this - between the children and the parents. Maybe the parents are divorced, and they're with their other partners, and they don't really like each other. You're all in this room - has different political views. How do you make that work? How do you actually make that work?
PARKER: How much time do you have? No. I know I sound like a broken record, but you - first, you say, what is the purpose? Why are we all getting together? So often, if, like, there's a divorced couple coming together with the new partners and they're, like, holding their breath and they're coming, they're usually doing it for their children - right? - or for their - for a daughter or for...
PARKER: ...Something. And then, depending on the nature of the group, the pitfalls or the minefields are so great, it's actually just kind of amazing to spend time together and be together. And in those contexts, you probably should play games. And maybe the heat is, like, everyone actually playing the same game, not, like, the different families each playing Monopoly in their own corners.
Another example could be, like, at different points, like, to do toasts but to ask questions like, what has this last year taught you? - you know, something that's, like, a little bit risky, but you invite people to take their own level of risk.
RAZ: So how do you know when you walk away from a gathering that - you know, that it worked, that it was successful?
PARKER: You know, gathering is an act of meaning-making. And so at some level, I think gatherings are powerful when people left - leave changed by them. People think, like, oh, my gosh, a gathering where you change people - like, that's a high bar. But we're changed by, like, stories. We're changed by one specific fact that someone might say at a dinner table that thinks, I've never thought about that in that way before, but I'm going to think about that again, you know, next time, or, if you go to a wedding and people change the ritual in a way that's really profound, you know, perhaps you just think, huh, you don't always have to do things the way you think you have to do things, right?
Like, change doesn't have to be so deeply profound. But we learn and we grow and rethink our ideas through other people. And I think that gatherings that allow for people to both think about themselves, each other and their relationship to the world are meaningful, transformative gatherings.
RAZ: That's Priya Parker. She's a conflict resolution facilitator and the author of the book "The Art Of Gathering." You can find her full talk at TED.com
On the show today, ideas about how to be better. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
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