We at Reach Partners are big Priya Parker fans. We devoured her book “The Art of Gathering” and even attended an event curated by her.
So when Parker penned an opinion column that ran in The New York Time before Thanksgiving, we paid attention. Titled “Abandon Your Thanksgiving Script,” the column addressed the need to think differently about holiday traditions during a year when nothing has been normal.
Parker challenged her readers to think imaginatively: “That begins with shifting our attitudes from fighting the current constraints to taking inspiration from them.”
As someone who studies and designs gatherings, she most often sees two responses to constraints on gathering: cancellation and rebellion. She encourages a third option: improv.
We’ve seen this play out in our own work and experiences over the last year.
One of our partners plans an annual event. The gathering has followed a similar format for years and it works well. Faced with meeting during a pandemic, however, our partner had to make some tough choices. In the end, they chose the route of improvisation and planned an all-virtual event. Instead of feeling cheated or overwhelmed, they embraced the opportunity. As one staff member said: “I’m thrilled we are going to reimagine our event!”
To be honest, there are people who love to change things. They’re invigorated by the unknown. I am not that person. Usually. And yet, 2020 has pushed us to adapt, to imagine, to, as Parker explains it, accept the offer.
It is always okay to rethink the way things are done and the pandemic serves that lesson to us again. (I sometimes wish I’d learn the lesson the first or second time around…not the tenth time). When we hear the phrase “because we have always done it this way,” we should pause, take a step back, and think about what it could be instead.
The beauty of improvisation and imagination is that our traditional gatherings don’t have to be an all or nothing affair. This is true whether it’s the holidays, family celebrations or projects at work.
Improvisation also does not mean you don’t need a plan. Be intentional about why and how you are making the gathering happen. It might not always work out as you hoped, and that is ok. Try again.
I recently heard about a milestone birthday party and a baby shower that were held on Zoom. Both events were set up similarly. The hosts invited people in small groups based on who might know whom and then placed those people in the room with the guest of honor. Each group met for a short period of time.
In pre-pandemic life, those celebrations would’ve been all-evening events. Had the hosts just moved the celebration to Zoom and structured it the same as an in-person event, conversation would’ve been difficult. Digital exhaustion would’ve set in. Obviously, the previous script wasn’t going to work.
During these past few months, you may have found new way of gathering that works better and you won’t want to let it go even when it’s safe to be together in person.
I do miss meeting in person and look forward to having that option available as we move into 2021 – even if that means needing to wear zip-up pants again. That said, I'll be keeping Zoom meetings as an option. This technology allows me to connect with a client for a full hour – 60 minutes – without having to plan for travel time. It allows me to easily connect with someone who is working from home or at the office. Thanks to Zoom, I can facilitate an evening meeting with 14 people across North Dakota (which I did this week) and no one has to travel or worry about the weather.
When we give ourselves permission to toss the script and write a new one, we can stumble upon some wonderful and meaningful new interactions.
Your partners in leadership.