Stealth Hosting

Inevitably in an Art of Hosting training someone will ask about how to bring AoH patterns and practices to a group or organization that is not familiar with AoH and may not be ready to receive them with open arms. When we say, “That is when you use ‘stealth hosting’”, people laugh and the room lights up.


Jerry Nagel and I, and colleagues we co-host with regularly, almost always start an AoH training with PeerSpirit circle practice. It sets the tone for the whole training. While most people love entering this space, find the opening practices thoughtful and calm, slowing the frenetic pace many are caught up in, inviting people to take a breath, to show up in the fullness of who they are, the thought of bringing it to their organization, understandably, gives them pause.

Art of Hosting uses language that is not a part of the organizational cultures many people work in, that is not familiar and can sound strange. Hosting. Harvesting. Container. Collective intelligence. Not to mention World Café, Open Space or Circle Practice. Then there is the use of a talking piece and a bell.

The use of language is purposeful and, we are really clear, it is not necessarily the use of language that allows these practices to be successful. It is the intention with which we bring them. We might never use the terminology of AoH with a client as we are not interested in promoting any particular practice as much as we are interested in meeting the needs and outcomes of the work we have identified with the client. When we talk to the client about the outcomes, we can often offer them a range of ways to get to outcomes. They can be quite receptive when they see the link to what it is they want done.

world cafe Fredericton 2013Many participants in a training see the possibility of starting to bring AoH practices using check-ins and check-outs, but the idea of naming circle practice or bringing a talking piece feels intimidating and risky – and we get that. We offer there is no need to name circle practice and you can use or not use a talking piece, but you do need a good question. We suggest not using the same question all the time as it can grow stale and in anticipation of the same question people can tune out. If you tune the question into the purpose of the meeting it is useful and can be a great place to start.

If you do use a talking piece, then using something that is either playful and fun or related to the organization is a great place to begin. This can be done in a light hearted but intentional manner. You can preface it by saying, “We are all here physically but sometimes it takes a few minutes to bring our attention to the topic at hand. Today we want to try something a little different, to begin with a check in to help us do that, to bring our full attention to the task at hand.” We might say at an AoH training that we want you to bring the fullness of your humanity. That might not work in your team, but turning our attention more fully to the task at hand might get better mileage.

If you want to use a talking piece you can introduce it quite simply. “Just to make sure we all have a moment to collect our thoughts and speak without interruption, let’s use a talking piece. When you have it, it is your turn to talk. When you don’t have it, it is your turn to listen. We’ll send it around the room until we have all had a chance to speak.” Get people’s permission and it will feel less impositional. Often we are sitting at a table rather than in a circle of chairs and there is nothing wrong with that.

If using a talking piece feels too risky or strange, you can simply say, “It would be good to hear everyone’s voice here before we begin, so let’s go around the table one at a time to answer our question.” The key is to re-enforce and honour the practice. If people continue to talk all over each other, then it can defeat the purpose. But if you can interject gently or humourously, you can bring things back on track. It is not to control what is happening, but it is to invite a flow that achieves the objectives you have for the practice. There is clear research that the sooner people are invited to speak in a meeting, the greater the likelihood they will continue to contribute. If this doesn’t happen, there is a greater chance the dominant voices will, well, dominate.

While it might seem strange at first, invariably your meeting participants will notice that the meeting has a different quality to it than when they jump right into item 1 on the agenda. Before long, people are often asking to begin with a check in. The same with a check out. It doesn’t have to be long and it can seal the meeting before everyone wanders off to the next meeting on their schedule.

For other methodologies you might want to use, you can strategize good ways to bring them into practice. From our own experience working with clients, we match outcomes to methods. If a client wants to connect people, allow them lots of opportunity to talk with each and get to common themes and patterns on a particular topic, then World Café could be a good option. If they want to engage people in ideas, get commitment to initiatives or get to issues and opportunities you don’t know exist, Open Space allows participants to create their own agenda and follow their passion to the ideas that have the most energy for them. In teams and organziations we’ve worked with that are experiencing a lot of tension and want to resolve it in a healthy way, circle is a good practice.

Purpose imageIt is not absolute what to use when, but when you are clear on the purpose you are working towards, and have an understanding of the way the methods work, selection becomes easier. In your organization, as you get clarity on outcomes, you could offer out ideas. “We’ve never tried this before but I have experienced (method) and it was a really great way to do (whatever it is you want to do).”

I once did a World Café with a window installations company with the whole staff including the installers. The purpose was to identify the biggest irritants in the work environment and causes of delays in their ability to get installations done in a timely fashion. We didn’t call it a World Café and they certainly didn’t need 20 minutes per round of conversation but we did have small groups and we did mix them up between rounds, using questions that got us to our end objective, which was their list of priorities to be addressed in that year by the company leadership.

If beginning with your own team is fraught with anxiety, find another environment to test out and experiment, to grow your skill with new patterns and practices. Work with another department or in a voluntary capacity. And, there are good reasons we say, don’t work alone. It is always easier to share the risk, plus we are more creative, when we work with other people. And, we have each other’s backs. You can make it fun and stay tuned into outcomes. The more you try it, the more success you have, the more you will trust the methodologies to deliver.

Look for success stories to share with your team or your boss or whoever it is that might need to approve a new way of moving forward. We are capturing a few under the category of Art of Hosting Works here on the Shape Shift blog – small inspirational-you-can-do-it-anywhere examples to long-term projects.

The language we choose with Art of Hosting is intentional. It signals a different approach, a different way of thinking about and doing things. However, if we become attached to the language, we risk losing the intention of what we are doing – bringing people together in different ways, to engage them more fully, hear them more clearly and find connections, inspiration and ideas that might not have existed before.

Take some care. Stealth host any opportunity you get. And we would love to hear and share your success stories too.

A Decade of More People “Stepping Up”, Engaging in Nova Scotia

Stepping Up

Stepping Up Conference – 2015

On January 11, 2005 (what later become fondly known as J21 within Envision Halifax), I walked into a day long community gathering hosted by Envision Halifax, along with more than 100 other people, at St. Matthew’s Church Hall on Barrington Street, and my life and the way I work were forever changed. And, more than that, a movement began, sparked by a mission to “ignite a culture of civic engagement”.


A visual depicting the Envision Halifax Leadership Journey – 2007 – which used Theory U as the journey and Art of Hosting as the “operating system”.

I had cause to think of that moment earlier this week when I walked into the new public library in Halifax for the Stepping Up Conference (#StepUpNS) hosted by Engage Nova Scotia, along with more than 350 other people in Halifax, even more gathered at 10 other locations in the province with an additional 500 or more people at their own computer screens following the live streaming.

A decade ago it was Envision Halifax. Something new and meaningful was sparked. Then a sabbatical to check back in with need, purpose and approach, some work in the background and the emergence of Engage Nova Scotia as a next iteration ~ different, stronger and with greater reach.

Danny Graham and Kathy Jourdain at an Envision Halifax public gathering where project teams shared what they were working on in that year (2007).

Danny Graham and Kathy Jourdain at an Envision Halifax public gathering where project teams shared what they were working on in that year (2007).

During the Envision days, Danny Graham and I had a chat about whether we were just “preaching to the choir” as many liked to say or was it something more? Maybe it was preaching to the choir, but I wondered then and I wonder now, is that so bad? Is that not a good starting place? I thought about this because I overheard someone remark at the Stepping Up conference that “we are only preaching to the converted”, since that is who shows up. That may be. But something happened over a decade to grow the number of “converted” in this province by at least 15 fold and probably more.

I was honoured to facilitate the group conversation focused on a new attitude. There were many gems of wisdom in that conversation including: expand your own bubble and do more of what you can, ignore naysayers and time how long it can take you to shift a negative conversation into a positive one. These gems are reflective of “new attitudes” sparking all over the province as individuals recognize their own circles of influence and focus their attention on what they can do and impact.

What struck me in a deep and meaningful way, reflecting over a decade is – more. More people in Nova Scotia are paying attention. More people are asking questions. More people are longing for a future that looks different than the past. More people are Stepping Up. And that is a very exciting ongoing evolution over just one short decade of quiet but growing change in and across our beautiful little province.

A decade ago and this week (and in many other places and times in between), Danny quoted a favourite poem of his:

If you always believe what you have always believed,
You will always feel the way you always felt.
If you always feel the way you always felt,
You will always think the way you always thought.
If you always think the way you always thought,
You will always do what you’ve always done.
If you always do what you have always done,
You will always get what you have always gotten.
If there is no change there is no change

Well, in Nova Scotia, if you stop a moment to reflect, it is clear that beliefs, feelings, thoughts and actions are changing. Thank you Nova Scotia, thank you Engage and thank you to everyone who played, and continues to play, a role in changing the future in the place I am delighted to call home.

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