Itasca County, MN – Art of Hosting Works – Background, Application and Impact

In just over one year, community citizens of Itasca County, who were not familiar with the term Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter, went from showing up at the first three day training in November 2013 with a healthy mix of curiosity and scepticism, to hosting a one day community wide conversation at the first ever Grand Gathering of Itasca County just one year later that attracted over 85 people who engaged in 50+ conversations that mattered over a five hour period.


How does a community do this? By being passionate about influencing their future and believing it is possible. Support from the Blandin Foundation, (and thanks to the vision initially held by Bernadine Joselyn) made it possible for Jerry Nagel of the Meadowlark Institute and Kathy Jourdain of Shape Shift Strategies Inc. to offer (with other AoH practitioners) five three day Art of Hosting trainings, two Community World Cafes, one Grand Gathering using Open Space Technology and nine days of Advanced (or more in-depth) Training on specific topics. The Community Cafes and Grand Gathering were brain childs of participants in the trainings who stepped up to community engagement and hosting in beautiful and collaborative ways.

Participants understand that good community conversations on important issues offer everyone who shows up the opportunity to speak openly and without fear, to be listened to authentically and respectfully, and to leave feeling an ownership in the outcomes of their conversations. Community or civic engagement is also about accountability and commitment, a request not only to show up but to engage. This is happening in Itasca County in abundance now.

A report on the background, application and impact was compiled for the Blandin Foundation to show the value of the investment made in this series of program offerings for the community and you can access it here: Blandin Harvest 2013-15. (It might take awhile to download as it is full of pictures and stories that Highlight AoH in Action.)

Because Blandin supported this initiative, it made it possible for diverse cross sections of the community to participate – including artists, teachers, business people, not-for-profit staff, government staff from the county commission, natural resources, corrections and more, people from the Leech Lake Nation, people in transition, volunteers and more to participate. People met new friends and brought a variety of worldview perspectives into the room, where people “met” each other in the most interesting and sometimes unexpected places because they brought their curiosity to the conversations.

The stories of impact are still being collected. It is the stories that bring alive what is possible. The stories convey both subtle and large examples of bringing the practices to life. The last set of deeper dive trainings is happening in August 2015 and the programs are filling fast with previous participants, many of whom are planning to bring more people with them.

Itasca County is a beautiful example of the ripple effect that emerges as people change the way they approach meetings and conversations to get to the heart of what matters quickly, to evoke action that impacts, lasts and makes a difference across the region.

Small Miracles

Small miracles. They are easy to miss in the quest for the big work, the large results, the whole systems change, fame and glory and yet they make up a fabric of wonder, change and difference in households, workplaces and communities touched by someone (or several someones) who want to show up differently. The joy of offering Art of Hosting patterns and practices in a place like Grand Rapids, MN for the last fourteen months is the reminder of the power and prevalence of small miracles that show up each and every time we do this work – in Grand Rapids and elsewhere.


Small miracles; too numerous to count. We have been hearing the stories and witnessing the changes in people as we encounter them weeks and months after having first met them. We are hearing about the growing hunger to learn new ways of being in relationship with each other, of getting work done. Friends referring friends, persuading friends, they need to come to an AoH training.

Small miracles; sometimes tiny shifts in behaviour resulting in subtle differences but big impact. People showing up, being seen and heard, validated sometimes for the first time in a long time, sometimes for the first time ever. Shifts in behaviour. Glowing faces as people experience these differences and expansions. Sometimes simply by learning to ask good questions, bringing curiosity instead of judgment to the space, then listening, really listening to how another responds. When we change the quality of the listening, we change the quality of the conversation.

IMG_1307People lighting up with possibility they had long ago given up on. People re-invigorated to go back to workplaces where they have felt drained, sometimes burnt out and ready to engage again, but engage in new ways. We have witnessed people showing up to a training with what seemed like an agenda, wanting others to see the world from their lens, know their Truth, who relax into the processes, being seen and acknowledged in ways they never had been before, acknowledging the experience of many ‘truths’ in a space, in a community. Community holding community.

It shows up as circle process where it was never used before. Check-ins and check-outs to begin and end meetings in what would be considered likely (arts organizations) and unlikely (corrections) places. It is people recognizing the humanity in each other, living into their own humanity more fully, embracing each other, foibles, heart and all. People motivated to work together by issues they care deeply about even as they bring different views and ideologies to the conversations.


In Grand Rapids in a fourteen month period, over 150 people have been to one of five basic level AoH trainings and about 40 of them have been back to one or more of the 4 advanced level training offerings, all made possible by support from the Blandin Foundation. Over 80 people showed up for community cafes and more than 80 people from the community came to the first ever Grand Gathering in November 2014. The community cafes and Grand Gathering were initiated by people who came to the AoH trainings who care about what happens there, who care about each other. As they bring their friends and bring new patterns and practices to what they do,the large results, the whole systems change is showing up. In the meantime, we are capturing the stories that illuminate the new tapestry of small miracles that is being woven through the real lives and real experiences of real people.


Art of Hosting is a Lived Process – Participant Success Story

In Grand Rapids, MN, since November 2013, over 150 people have experienced an Art of Hosting training. It is a community of real people, real lives and real impact. Jerry Nagel and I have begun to document some of the success stories – many of them small miracles that provide inspiration to us and so many others who might be wondering where you start once you have been to an AoH training. This account was provided by Audrey Moen who attended the training in September 2014.

Audrey Moen in the circle with others taking in a teach by Jerry Nagel.

Audrey Moen in the circle with others taking in a teach by Jerry Nagel.

When I first signed up for the AoH training some people asked me, “Oh, why would you want to do that? It is just facilitating. You already know how to facilitate. Why go for three days?”  I knew, just in the title, before I even read the details of what AoH is, it was indeed going to be much more.  


September 2014, Grand Rapids – Teach by Karen Zetner Bacig

I was able to bring a diverse group of people with me who normally never attend training like this.  They are considered on the outside as poor, disabled, or have histories that do not allow them to secure basic housing. They may have had a criminal background. They may no longer have the right to vote.  It did not matter. They were welcomed as if they were Kings or Queens. 

What they took away from it has increased their lives.  One is on his way to attend the Day on the Hill at the Capital; one is now leading a group locally; one stated that she feels a sense of confidence and acceptance she never had before.

The learning that took place is something that will, for me, be life-long.  I use it every day in the little things. I think about table conversations in a different light.  I encounter situations that in the past may have been met with roadblocks. With the AoH and Worldview skills this does not happen.  If anything, I find that the skills learned open doors to communication; barriers or walls fall down, and people open up – trust is alive in the room.

The three days went by in a blink. I met people I never knew, developed stronger community links, shared values, insight and ideas that were priceless.

I also was able to participate in the Grand Gathering in Grand Rapids, MN.  What a day of positive energy and inspiration!  I also participated in the Theory U advanced training day which has already helped me in my career, my volunteer work, and in my home life.  

The facilitators for AoH are well trained in their field, they are engaging, accepting, and are an inspiration. 

My thanks to the Blandin Foundation for providing this training.  I would like to see it continue. The community needs to keep the momentum growing so the seeds can continue to take root and grow. The Foundation is very good at keeping things rooted as long as needed. 

I met other AoH participants who attended the training in our area and in other areas. They consistently state the same thing; AoH is a process; it is not a day, an hour, a moment. It is about taking the time, always learning, developing, reaching out, community building, and engagement.

Thanks again for offering the AoH to our area.  I can honestly state I hope it can continue.  There is so much to learn and put into practice!  

A Small Town Grocery Store Renewal Thanks to AoH Patterns and Practices

It is always a pleasure to share Art of Hosting success stories. This comes from Angie Benz who attended an AoH training in Bismarck, North Dakota in November 2014. The AoH training was supported by the North Dakota League of Cities and the Bush Foundation, co-hosted by Jerry Nagel and me.

Angie Benz

Angie Benz

She writes:

I wanted to share a success story.  After taking your AoH class in Bismarck I was so moved and excited.  I knew these were principles that I wanted to implement, I just didn’t know where or how.

Fast forward to last week.  I am a director for our local grocery store board and we have been struggling to say the least!  Our sales were 15% down from 2013.  Our manager, understandably, was a bit disgruntled.  The board members, myself included, had checked out.  And the worst part…this was all being seen by the community.

Then I remembered the principles taught at AoH!  We started out slowly……and grew into something bigger…….and I am hoping that we keep growing!

We started by sending out a survey asking two very important questions:

  1. Is the store important to YOU to have in YOUR community?
  2. Is it important enough to YOU that YOU are willing to pay a little higher price for groceries?

The responses were a resounding YES to both and we knew we had work to do.  We restructured our management team, creating a co-manager position with two people that will do great things together.

Then we had a planning meeting.  Everyone was dreading it!  I sent out an email inviting the management team and the board directors.  I gave them some ideas of what would happen that day. Then, I shocked them all by asking them to bring something that represents their journey with the grocery store….and I left it at that.  (Enter the sound of silence from the group.)  It was so loud that I could “hear” it through email.

The day of the meeting we started out with Check In using a circle setting.  It was AMAZING!  There was emotion, meaning, and most importantly….understanding.  Understanding of all the frustrations we faced in 2014.  We were letting go of the past and moving towards the future with understanding of each other and our journey.

We then moved into a variation of Open Space.  There were only 6 of us, so we used it more as a brain storming session.  At the end of it, one of the board directors made the comment that they thought we would have about 3 ideas…..we ended up with about 50!

Then it was time for us to get a little more specific.  We came up with action plans and timelines for the top 5 ideas/topics.  We will meet monthly to analyze and assess the top 5 and beyond.

To end the day, we did Check Out in a circle setting.  Again, there was emotion, meaning, and understanding.  There was also a sense of team….something that had been missing in the last year.  I said it before and I will say it again….it was AMAZING!

When everyone came and saw the circle they were a little put off and thought I was nuts.  I just asked them to hang in there with me.  They did and the results were incredible!  We left the meeting feeling more like a team than we have in a very long time.

I want to thank you for showing me that there is a way that a group of people with different worldviews can come together and be a cohesive unit!  You very well may have given me the tools to keep our small town grocery store alive!

Thank you, thank you, thank you!


Purpose Statement for the Bismarck AoH training, November 2014


Real People. Real Lives. Real Community. Real Impact.

Driving from the countryside of Stakke Lake in Minnesota, through the little towns and forested roads on the three hour drive to Grand Rapids, it is easy for me to forget that I am not in Canada, but driving through the US countryside, with my partner and co-hosting colleague Jerry Nagel, on our way to a rural community that is breaking its way out of any stereotypes we might conjure up about rural communities – in Canada or the US. What is happening there could happen anywhere. It inspires hope at a time when hope, especially for our rural communities, is deeply needed in the world.

Grand Rapids welcome sign

What’s Been Happening

In 2013, the Blandin Foundation funded a grant to the Meadowlark Institute to bring the Art of Hosting (AoH) Conversations that Matter to the Itasca County area. Not a one-off training but, thanks to the vision of friend, AoH Practitioner and Global Steward, Bernadine Jocelyn, and her colleagues at the Blandin Foundation, a series of trainings intended to offer residents of Itasca County the opportunity to acquire and use skills of 21st Century Leadership to work with every day life and address some of the most pressing challenges in their communities. The Blandin Foundation was founded by Charles Blandin in 1941 to aid and promote Grand Rapids (population around 10,000) and the surrounding area (total population around 40,000) in such a way that it could be responsive to changing times, a beautiful alignment with the adaptive capacity of AoH offerings.

What’s happening there, with organic emergence and almost astonishing interconnectedness, is a thing of beauty. Four Art of Hosting trainings (130 people altogether so far) since November 2013 with two more in the works; two Community Cafés (with almost 100 participants altogether) convened by a planning team that sparked from an Open Space conversation in the first AoH, called by Sandy Layman, a well known community leader. She asked the question “How can we become a community that hosts its own conversations?” That question is gaining momentum as it continues to spark the curiosity and inspiration of the county.


The first Community Café brought together participants from the first two AoH cohorts and was held one evening during the second training. The second Community Café was inserted into the middle of the fourth training, in an afternoon, and brought together participants from all four trainings and others who wanted to join in.


The Stories That Bring the Data Alive

All of that feels like data. It is the stories that bring the data alive, that show the nuances and interweave of connections; the stories of who is showing up in the same spaces together; the stories of willingness to dive into challenging conversations to address both long held and emerging issues; the stories of risk and courage as people bring AoH patterns and practices into likely and unlikely work settings.

Truly a fractal of the community is coming together – people who might not otherwise find themselves in the same room or the same conversations. The county administrator. Educators. A senior leader in Corrections. Senior leaders of non-profits. Advocates for mental health. Consumers of mental health services. People who have been homeless, some still in transition. People with very diverse political views. Local radio station representatives. Artists. Business people. Blandin Foundation staff. More. All on equal footing with equal voice. All responding to questions centered on “What is the future we want to live into and what can we begin now?”


The stories that are emerging from the people who have been through the training bring the impact alive and are heart opening. Our friend in Corrections, who was in the February cohort, shared with us that he only recently had the opportunity to offer a check in at the beginning of a meeting. He said it changed everything about the meeting. When we asked him how, he said, “People were very emotional.” When we asked him what his check in question was, he said, “How we are doing?” Simply, how are we doing? An invitation to a moment of humanity, an invitation to show up fully. They will now start every meeting with a check-in question. A small, but powerful, shift in practice.

The County Administrator shared that there is a discussion happening at the County offices about mental health funding, the number of agencies that provide services and the need for greater interagency communication. Someone at the county offices, who has only heard about AoH but not been to a training, said that what is needed for that conversation is art of hosting.


In Bigfork, another Itasca County community, community leaders have used World Café to host a conversation about an ongoing contentious issue, bringing new insight and perspective to the issue, establishing a foundation from which to move forward.

The region is facing some growing, possibly divisive issues; particularly around resource extraction (economy) and the environment; issues that are growing more complex all the time. Experience with the patterns and practices of the Art of Hosting is helping people see the possibility of different conversations; conversations that invite a multiplicity of worldviews, give voice to all the perspectives beyond the vocal few, invite people who live, work and play in the region to imagine more of the future they all want to live into, to continue to forge new ways forward on small and large matters. There is a growing buzz in the community and a sense of urgency combined with curiosity and even hopefulness.

The Community Conversations planning team grows with each successive training. The team is now getting ready to call and convene a county wide “Grand Gathering” on November 22, 2014 using Open Space Technology – the first community meeting of its kind in the area. This demonstrates the increasing reach of a commitment that began with that Open Space conversation during the first Art of Hosting training nearly a year ago, building on an idea inspired by the Great Gathering in Fredericton, NB; which demonstrates the interweaving of stories across borders and geographic distances. (And, incidentally, we have discovered there is a history of relationship between New Brunswick and Itasca County thanks to the pulp and paper industry.)

KAXE, a local radio station, present at the Community Café and on the planning team, will be doing a series of radio spots leading up to the Grand Gathering, which is being hosted by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. The team is in full volunteer recruitment and planning mode and the community is being invited to create an agenda of conversations and possible action steps that are meaningful and relevant to them. Some of the potential conversation themes have been popping up already in the Community Cafés and the AoH trainings. They include an emphasis on youth (brain gain), on revitalizing communities, co-ordinating resources and connecting diverse voices.

IMG_0824One of the many compelling themes that is emerging is around evoking stories and extending invitations. Care enough to ask for the story; bring everyone to the table to identify struggles and be open to hearing the unheard. Notice who is not there who should be and extend an invitation. Be a neighbour, bring a neighbour

It is the tip of the iceberg. The work has only just begun. This community is carving out pathways that can be an inspiration to other communities searching for new ways to imagine and live into the future. What can we begin now?

Real People. Real Lives. Real Community. Real Impact.

Conflict Resolution Strategies At Work in Teams

Many things can interfere with maintaining strong positive, productive team dynamics and often it has to do with the interpersonal challenges that arise out of lack of clarity of role or around decision-making processes. When things go wrong, trust is compromised and when trust is compromised it is hard to regain. Some teams never recover. And, thankfully, not every team experiences this level of dysfunction either. This post addresses processes for those teams that have and that have the support for the resource and time investment required to recover. Yes, it is possible although not easy.

conflict group

For senior leadership teams falling into this level of challenge can have devastating impacts personally and professionally for each member of the team. Examples shared here are from consulting work with senior teams experiencing dysfunctional relationships, sometimes so challenging that the professional reputations of everyone on the team was at stake because the issues became widely observed or evident in the organization. In almost every story, team members were barely speaking to each other, tension was high, trust was low, blame was rampant and team members undermined each other in a number of ways. Some of the most meaningful, impactful, rewarding work that Shape Shift Strategies Inc. does is with such teams.

In every team and organization there are two dimensions or polarities that are always at play. This is the polarity between a focus on the task to be done and a focus on tending to the relationship of the team members. Relationship tending is seen as something we should just know how to do and is the first thing sacrificed for money or time. It is also the thing that most often gets in the way of accomplishing the task. People who like each other enjoy working together, are more inspired, motivated and get far more done. They are more likely to have animated conversations that lead to new discoveries and creative solution finding and more likely to look forward to going to work.

For teams in conflict, accomplishing the task is at risk. For teams in conflict that want to address the conflict, it often requires a significant investment of resources and time – the very things that seemed in short supply to begin with – and focus on relationship – the very thing that seemed self evident as not needing tending.

tug of war ropeAddressing the human dynamics of teams in deep conflict is a several stage process that takes thoughtfulness, care and intentionality. The process outlined below is for teams with up to ten or twelve members. Beyond that different processes are needed.

Step 1. Individual interviews.

The purpose of the individual interviews is four-fold. One purpose is to give everyone an opportunity to individually tell the story of their experience, not to be confused with the facts of the situation. Each person will tell the story from their perspective or worldview and can get out any frustrations they have, speaking openly and honestly. A second purpose is to provide an opportunity for each individual to reflect on the situation, how they may be contributing to it, what happens if the situation is not resolved. A third purpose is for the consultant to build connection with each individual prior to having the team meet to address the issues. Often, many people on a team will point to an individual as being the primary cause of the problem and these interviews help uncover the system at play and the hidden dynamics. A fourth purpose is to discover the themes and patterns across the individual stories.

The same interview guide is used with each member of the team and usually an hour is allotted for each interview. They can be done in person or on a call. The interview starts in an unusual place – often with what they wanted to do when they were in school, finding out how they got to their current job or career, why that position now, hopes when they started in the job leading up to the current situation and inviting reflection on the future. It is a deep sensing interview, designed to invite them back into their humanity and to go deeper than simply asking them what is wrong or what needs to be fixed now.

Following the interviews, the information is compiled into themes and patterns as an offering back to the team in the first meeting often in a mind map. Team members are assured that nothing will show up in the mind map unless it is heard from at least three people.

Step 2. A first meeting.

The first meeting with the team is always interesting. The team members do not know what to expect. They are nervous. They don’t know what will be revealed and they are anxious about conflict. They know their own perception of the conflict and are sure they will have fingers pointed at them by others. They feel isolated.

We use circle process – with or without a table in the middle. More and more it is circle without a table, without the protective barrier of something in front of them or something to semi hide behind. Inviting them to show up fully. When people show up in an unexpected and unfamiliar form it is immediately disruptive and uncomfortable. As a consultant facilitating this work, you need to be very comfortable with other people’s discomfort and create an environment that helps them breathe through it.

With one team, when the team leader walked into the room she was immediately taken aback. There was a projection table on wheels by one wall. She sat in her chair, also on wheels, rolled back to the projection table, put her coffee on it, awkwardly rolled her chair and the projection table back to the circle as a source of support. I watched with curiosity. At the end of our day and half session, she commented on her own behaviour, noting her initial discomfort and her growing comfort with the form of our meeting as progress was achieved.

We start with a check in. Maybe around each person’s hopes for this process and naming any tension they are carrying. This often immediately begins to surface similarities or common experience. We review the mind map of the themes and patterns, which is usually in the centre of the circle as we begin – with talking pieces in case we choose to use them.

With one team I worked with, it took until the end of the first day of working together for someone to become brave enough to say, “That could have been my interview.” You could hear the collective sigh of relief as everyone else acknowledged the same thing. It was a shock and a relief to them to discover that what they had each been carrying individually was also being held by them collectively – similar experiences, similar fears, similar hopes. Common ground they had not witnessed in a long time and did not know existed until they saw it in front of their eyes.

We use Appreciative Inquiry (AI) because even in the most distressed teams there is always something that has worked or does work. Reminding people of this by asking them what their best experience of collaboration, their best experience of resilience their best experience of team, their best experience of the organization or other relevant topic has been reorients them to what does work and helps them understand they can make it work again while also surfacing what it is each person values about the organization, the team, each other, themselves. As highly intelligent people, individuals are often surprised to find themselves in a situation where they feel like they have failed or are failures and seem to have no strategies for success. It is good to surface what they do know and where they have been successful to create a bridge to the future.  We also use AI to collectively generate the principles by which the team wants to engage this work of building or rebuilding their relational field.

By investing time in this , we are creating the foundation for the team to enter the difficult conversations in a healthier space of curiosity, generosity and possibilities rather than defensiveness, debate and blame, where they can hear each other instead of only wanting to be heard. Where the conversation goes from there depends on what is most alive for the team, what has surfaced in the themes and patterns and what the team needs to be able to engage in good work together. When a team is in this level of disarray, these initial meetings focus almost exclusively on tending to relationship. The team has to slow down to go fast later.

Step 3. Ongoing meetings.

Issues and patterns that have become entrenched in a team are not easily shifted. A neutral, external support can bring voice to things the team itself cannot name, can bring new strategies and patterns into an existing situation and can challenge the team in gentle or tough ways about its patterns and interactions with each other.

There are many reasons for ongoing meetings. One is simply that entrenched patterns cannot be shifted in a day. It takes reminding, accountability and learning to trust that new patterns produce different results – like using a check-in and check out process for each meeting. Check-in brings people into the room mentally and emotionally and sets the tone for the conversations that are needed. Check out seals the day, allows people to express what is most present for them – gratitude, reflections, questions. Sometimes check out provides purpose and intention for the next meeting.

Also, a consultant can bring in Divergence-Convergence Diagram_000001patterns of human dynamics that help people name and understand their dynamics,
like the divergence-groan zone-convergence framework or surface hidden dynamics through systems mapping or provide strategies for thinking or planning differently like polarity mapping.

Sometimes it is as simple (and difficult) as holding space for the team to be in its own discomfort. One team we worked with, in the first meeting we had in a hotel, the room went completely silent whenever the wait staff came into the room. Not a peep out of anyone. The wait staff were asked to come and serve the break or the meals and leave directly afterward, leaving clearing the room for later. Over the course of the first three meetings, the tension in the room dissolved and conversation continued no matter who was in the room. With this team we used a parking lot for the conversations that began to spin around without resolution and we moved to the next conversation. Later we came back to the parking lot and it was amazing to see how easily most of those issues could then be resolved. More foundation and less edge.

Another benefit of meeting with the team on a regular basis is that the team gets to surface and review its progress – something not always tended to in the regular course of meetings and interactions. We also get to identify the dynamics that get in the way of team effectiveness – like lack of clarity of role or no discernable, reliable decision making processes. Once the team addresses these issues there is more ease in the relationships and a greater possibility of having a conversation rather than making assumptions. The team develops its own common language and short cuts into conversations or dynamic identification. One team I worked with would slide from one conversation to another with no clear resolution, agreement or decision. After having this pointed out to them several times, they began to notice their own pattern and took themselves back to finish the first conversation before moving to the next. They also began to do this with the teams they led in the organization, changing the tone of the meetings and the relationships.

Initially the consultant might have to offer the purpose or intention for each meeting, to attune people to where they are in the process and keep things on track. Before too long, the team can collectively elicit the purpose and intention on its own by tuning into what’s been going on since the last meeting and identifying anything they feel needs their collective attention.

As soon as it is reasonably possible, the focus of the meeting needs to tune back into the task(s) or work of the team and find a reasonable balance between task and relationship tending. As people see the impact of relationship tending on moving the task along or easing work flow, they are more willing to invest time there too.

Step 4. Concluding the process.

At some point, the consultant is no longer needed on a regular basis, often four to six months into the process. The team should become self-accountable with shared leadership and shared responsibility.

With one team, our last meeting was in a boardroom at a hotel. The leader, who had quite an adverse reaction to the first circle, remembered there was a big board table in the room and was feeling regret that it would impact our circle, only to turn up and find out the board table had been pushed back against the wall, leaving room for our circle.

Another team was able to use their resources more effectively. When trust was low, three or four members of the team would show up to a meeting when realistically one or two would do. As they addressed their issues and grew trust, they were able to trust that the perspective of the team could be conveyed by one individual.  And, instead of undermining each other in meetings with others – behaviour which contributed to the whole organization seeing their dysfunction – they began to support each other, even when they did not fully know where their team member was going. Instead of challenging them in front of others they would offer something like, “I’m sure if my teammate has offer this as a possibility, it has been well thought out and we should all pay attention.”

The whole organization began to see and sense the difference before they could really articulate what they were seeing. Like magic. Only it wasn’t magic. It was damned hard work that paid off.

group conversation

Not all teams need this degree of intervention and many times teams later end up disbanded because team members take on new challenges or sometimes there is a re-organization in the company that breaks the team up. But the skills learned during this kind of experience are transferable to many different situations and individuals see, and others witness, that they have grown their leadership capacity.

Princess Stories – A Key to Conflict Resolution

When we are engaged in conflict with someone else, it is often difficult to step out of it to gain perspective.  It is hard to pinpoint the exact problem, usually because we are absolutely convinced the problem is the other person, although we may begrudgingly admit that we might be contributing to the problem.

The answers to conflict resolution can be pretty easy.  Opening up to them is the hard part.  They are contained in the stories we tell.  If we can allow ourselves to listen to our own stories with a more discerning ear, we may be able to penetrate to the heart of the conflict more easily.

Ken Cloke and Joan Goldsmith, in their book Resolving Personal and Organizational Conflict, present a framework I find useful and powerful in explaining the underlying dynamics of conflict and my clients find it engaging. It is a way to explore worldview and experience the transformative power of worldview awareness.  It is based on the notion that we tell stories in a certain way when we are in conflict. The framework looks like this:

Princess triangle_000001

Princess Story Triangle

If you think of fairy tales of old ( since the very nature of our fairytale storytelling is now, thankfully, changing), there is usually a Princess or damsel in distress waiting to be rescued by the Prince from the Dragon, wicked step-mother or other perpetrator.  The Princess is pure and beautiful and always the victim of circumstance or of the jealous or evil intentions of someone who has some kind of influence or power over her life.  She never rescues herself.  The dragon is evil and hateful and has it out for the Princess. The Prince is handsome and gallant and always arrives to rectify the situation.  (It is important to remember these are archetypal roles that we all assume so even though the Princess is referred to as “she” it could just as easily and often be a “he” in the role.)

We often tell our conflict stories from the perspective of the Princess.  In our stories about conflict we have with another person we are the victim.  Somebody has done something to us.  Whatever we perceive they have done, we use to justify our own actions or behaviour in the conflict especially when we find ourselves “acting out of character”.  When we act out of reaction, anger, frustration, we don’t feel good about ourselves or how we treated someone else.  If we can rationalize that we have been provoked into our reaction, that at least offers an explanation for our own behaviour that we can live with, that supports our worldview.  We become identified with our position and are unwilling to acknowledge what we may have done to contribute to the situation. The less heard we feel, the more entrenched we become in our position. Our attempts to resolve the conflict feel like giving in.

We want other people to understand our reaction in light of the provocation so we paint the person we are in conflict with as the “dragon”.  Then, it’s as if we had no choice because the dragon forced us into it.  While we see ourselves as “acting out of character” we see the dragon in our story as very much acting within character for them, more so if the conflict has gone on for awhile or is particularly entrenched.

One of the reasons we tell our conflict stories to others is that we are looking for our knight in shining armour to come along and rescue us.  Sometimes the rescue is simply in being validated or acknowledged for our own actions.  “The dragon did such a terrible thing, no wonder you reacted the way you did.”  Other times we are looking for someone to do something for us, to intervene or to make the dragon disappear.

In promoting our princess stories to whoever will listen, we are looking for sympathy. If we don’t get it, we go deeper into our story, give more detail, repeat ourselves. The repetition makes the story more and more real and we become more entwined with it. We drive ourselves deeper into the princess role because surely that will generate the sympathy we think we need. In exchange for the sympathy we seek, we trade in whatever power we may have to rectify our situation.  In the victim role, we are helpless to defend ourselves, change our situation or learn from the conflict.

When we finally realize that the knight in shining armour is us, we stop looking for the prince.  When we recognize that the dragon may not be purely evil but also “acting out of character”, we can begin to relinquish the princess role and truly learn from our plight.  One key to doing this is to tell our story from the perspective of our dragon, to become curious about how they are seeing the world.  The dragon in our story has their own version, their own worldview, of the conflict story.  What are the odds that they actually paint themselves as the dragon?  About the same as us painting ourselves as the dragon in our own story. Although sometimes that dragon is an internal dragon.


As we tell the story from their perspective, we put ourselves in their shoes.  It enables us to see them in a new light.  Maybe they were reacting to something we said or did.  Perhaps they feel just as helpless in the escalation of this conflict as we feel. Maybe new awareness of their challenges and difficulties come to light that help us soften our own story, make us more curious and more generous, expanding the space for generative conversation to emerge.

Another benefit of telling the story from the perspective of the dragon is that it just might enable us to admit the pieces of our own princess story that we have omitted – the pieces that might have contributed to the dragon’s response, behaviour or actions.  If we let down our guard only momentarily, instead of signaling to the dragon an opportunity to attack as we fear it will, it just might signal an opening to disarm the conflict.

In order to do this, we must give up our need to be right and open ourselves up to alternative explanations, stories, scenarios or worldviews.  It is possible to have more than one right answer although when we feel absolutely that we are right it is a challenge to believe this.

Our princess story contains our truth. It is not always factual truth but it is emotional truth.  It also contains omissions.  The dragon’s story contains truth and omissions too.  It is in bringing the truths and the omissions together that an alternative story emerges, one that often contains the framework or foundation for resolution in an expanded truth.

The stories we tell ourselves shape our experience. What conflict could you shift the shape of if you found a different way to tell the story, if you become curious about the situation, your reaction, the other person, if you became more gracious and generous in responding to them – even if it is a stretch as you begin. Some stretches end up being worth it.

Dragon and Princess