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.

Virtual Circle Check-In as an Entry Way to Practice

In the Art of Hosting Conversations That Matter Training where Jerry Nagel and I are part of the hosting team, after we experience circle practice, usually as a form of check-in on our first day, we offer a little teach on check-in and check-out practices as a routine part of a meeting structure and flow, as a way to help people arrive into the purpose of the meeting and to wrap up the meeting before everyone departs.  We share how we, like many of our colleagues, also do this with our calls or virtual meetings as we are part of many hosting teams where members are drawn from many locations.

A participant at a November 2013 training in Grand Rapids shared her experience with how using circle with a virtual work group shifted the shape of their experience.

hands shaking through computers

“I work pretty much 100% via phone. Today, I was bringing a group together after a few weeks unconnected during the holidays. Wondering how to loop everyone back into the groove, I recalled  one of the things we learned at AoH in Grand Rapids, about how a “circle” acts as a form of check in and grounding.  I explained briefly what we did at our AoH workshop with the circle and a structure. I asked them, if we actually had a physical circle, what structure would they place in it and what about it would they like to share.

“Wow!  It was amazing how their “structure” actually related to the previously stated goals of the group and their own stated goals.  This set the course for the rest of the meeting. What could easily have been a painful meeting listening to how busy everyone has been, blah, blah, blah – turned into an awesome meeting. Picking their “structure” back up set action in place for our next meeting too.

“Just wanted to let you know this stuff actually works – if we use it;)”

Love that last line – this stuff actually works – if we use it! Where is your entry point? How do you invite people so they feel invited, thoughtful about it and engaged?

Explaining Art of Hosting for Beginner’s Wanting to Know What It Is

Every place we go has its own tone, texture and timing.  It is part of what makes Art of Hosting – or in the case of California in August 2012, the Art of Participatory Leadership and Social Innovation – so hard to define. “We” being whatever configuration of hosting and calling team has coalesced around an identified need or opportunity.  Every training is different because every place is different, every group that responds to the call is unique.

People who are just coming across Art of Hosting want to know, what is it?  One way to think of it is, at its core, a set of patterns and practices that help us be successful in complex circumstances.  Developing skill in using these patterns and practices is particularly helpful now at a time when long term strategic planning doesn’t work anymore (if it ever did) because we don’t know and can’t predict what ten, five or even two years down the road will look like.  One thing many of us have a growing awareness of is that what has worked in the past – strategies, practices, principles – doesn’t seem to work anymore – if it ever did.

The world is providing us with increasing complexity – in the environments in which we operate, our communities and in our organizations, especially as things seem to move faster and faster.  Social innovation is a response to this increasing complexity.  Rigid protocols have limited application in complexity.  Complexity calls for a different set of leadership skills – skills that tune in and are responsive to emergent circumstances.  Complex systems share behaviours that cannot be explained by their parts.  This requires a different set of frameworks to see and understand it.  In the Art of Participatory Leadership we draw on world view, chaordic path, divergence/convergence, the 2 loops of systems change, theory U and other frameworks as lenses through which to think about complexity and social innovation.  Social innovation looks for an alignment of circumstances that makes action possible – the relationship among elements.

One of the names we use for this type of experiential learning is the Art of Participatory Leadership because it also calls forth a new set of leadership skills required to deal with complexity and social innovation, quite different from how we think about traditional leadership.  Participatory leadership focuses on participation and engagement strategies, knowing from experience there is wisdom and knowledge that exists within a group, a team, an organization, a system.  When we make it visible in a group, it moves into the realm of collective wisdom, knowledge and understanding leading to a different kind of action and ultimately different results.

Participatory leadership  connects well in high pressure situations. Some of its core characteristics are curiosity or non-judgement, staying in the space of not knowing, generosity or openness, a belief that conversations matter and that good conversation leads to wise action.

It is not a quick fix or a magic bullet for problems that have existed and have been evolving over long periods of time.  However, there are often very immediate results for individuals as they examine and reflect on their own leadership practices.  This is also why we encourage teams to participate so they have a new common language and are more able to hold each other accountable to create a path of behaviour change and organization practices that will be sustainable.

A core element of the Art of Participatory Leadership is for each of us to deepen our own capacity to effect transformation – in ourselves and in a complex world.

Where have these practices and patterns been used? In community, private sector, academia, healthcare, and educational settings as well as social change efforts around the world.  The stories are only just beginning to be documented because many of us have been deep in the work rather than the writing about the work.  Stories are alive in Nova Scotia, Ohio, Minnesota, Europe and Brazil and many, many more places.

Art of Hosting is also a global self-organizing community of practitioners who use these integrated participative change processes, methods, maps, and planning tools (like circle practice, appreciative inquiry, world cafe and open space technology) to engage groups and teams in meaningful conversation, deliberate collaboration, and group-supported action for the common good.

The hosting and calling team for this first Art of Participatory Leadership and Social Innovation in California: myself, Jerry Nagel, Ann Badillo, Sherri CannonDana Pearlman and Mia Pond will weave stories of where this work is alive in the world into these three days of co-created emergent design and process – a little taste of what we do in the world and what is possible.

Shaping Questions for Powerful Check-in and Check-out Processes

Check-in and check-out processes are not just frivolous time wasters in our meetings.  If they feel that way, something is probably  missing.

Wicked questions help shape powerful processes. The shaping of questions in a thoughtful, purposeful and intentional manner increases the likelihood of them being powerful. This is the second post on powerful questions, the first one contained  general thoughts about shaping powerful questions.  This post focuses on check-in and check-out – processes, so fundamental to the work we engage in and setting context for what we do.

The greater clarity we have about the purpose and intention of the overall work and the process we are choosing to use, the greater the likelihood of crafting a question that does exactly the work we intend it to do.  Check-in and check-out processes are used very intentionally and in all kinds of settings.

People who come to an Art of Hosting training are often introduced to check-in and check-out for the first time. There are many forms of check-in and check-out.   If we’ve done our work well, these processes will have been experienced in a variety of ways – through the use of words, body, music and using varying lengths of time from a couple of hours or more to a 10-15 minute process.

Many people leave a training seeing the possibility of bringing a check-in process to their team or meetings but wondering exactly how to do that well.  Using the same question all the time eventually wears out its appeal so it becomes important to hold attention and keep things meaningful and relevant to bring new questions at least periodically.  It keeps things fresh.  Which brings it all back to purpose and intention.

The Use of Check-In  in Trainings

In an Art of Hosting training, we use a check-in process as we arrive and settle in together.  Usually this is planned as a  longer process, wanting to dive  deep together as we set the context and container for the whole three or four days we are gathered.  We intend to begin well as we arrive, meet each other and understand individual and collective intention for this training.

Not only do we use good questions for this initial check-in, many of us also engage in the fundamentals of good circle practice so we set our container well and with depth.  A little teach on circle, the use and power of a talking piece and the agreements of circle set the stage well for the work we want to do with each other.  Our greatest and best resources on good circle practice come from our friends Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea at Peer Spirit.  When we do this well, it is common for unexpected and beautiful things to arrive in our centre from the hearts, minds and souls of participants.

Often times check-ins on other mornings are simply to bring us into the space together.  Sometimes we don’t even use words but invite a physical movement or embodiment check-in.  Sometimes it is music.  It is whatever fits well with the overall theme and flow of the day and brings us fully into the space.

Check-ins also do not need to be done with the full circle.  Sometimes we use dyad or triad interviews or conversations to allow the time for people to go deeper in small groups.  Sometimes we might invite people into a walk with each other.

The Use of Check-Out in Trainings

Just like we use check-in to bring people into the space, we use check-out to bring some closure or convergence to a day or a multi-day process.  Doing a check-out doesn’t necessarily mean bringing everything to a nice tidy close but it could.  Check-out provides an opportunity for good reflection.  Where are we at, individually and collectively?  What is alive and present in the room?  Is there anything in particular we need to be paying attention to as we revisit our design for what’s next?  What is resonating for people?  Are we in a groan zone?  Are we eager and excited for what’s next?  Was there cool learning that took place that we want to provide people the opportunity to reflect on more deeply?

In a check-out we may want to presume in a certain direction, plant a seed – “What is shifting for you as a result of your experiences in this day?” “What spark are you carrying forward?”  Or we may want to take a little pulse – “What’s alive for you now?” “What one thing has your attention?”

And, like the check-in process, sometimes we are not wanting to use words.  Sometimes we use dance, embodiment, other physical movement, a series of claps or other imaginative ways to close our conversation or our day.

A good thing to remember, please don’t confuse depth with length of time of a process.  I’ve been part of many processes where there was not a lot of time available, but depth was achieved because of the care that went into thinking about purpose and intention and crafting a wicked question to guide the process.

What About the “Real World”?

This is one of my favourite questions – how to practically apply what’s been learned about check-in and check-out to “real world” situations, like my two hour staff meeting, my three hour partners meeting, my team that only wants to get right down to business, with a group of high powered individuals, senior leadership in an organization or in government?  Especially for folx who say, “that dance check-out was really nice but I could never do that with my group.”  And, of course, you wouldn’t want to go back to your organization and use some of those things that seem a bit too out on the edge.  But when you first try to use these processes, sometimes the very notion of a check-in or a talking piece is “out on the edge”.

Look for openings and invitations and step into practice in the places where greatest opportunities exist to try even some little new thing.  Sometimes bringing a check-in and check-out process to your meetings or your team is the simplest way to begin to practice on an ongoing basis and it can be done without great fanfare.

The Use of Check-In  in Ongoing Practice

It can be a relatively simple thing to begin a check-in process with your team.  “We spend a lot of time in meetings.  It would be great if we all felt these meetings were a relevant and meaningful use of our time and I’m not sure we all feel that way right now.  I would love to hear us each speak to this question: If we used our meetings really well, what would it look like and what is the difference it would make to us as a team and our work?” 

“The purpose of our meeting is….  Before we dive into the agenda, it would be great to hear a bit of what you are observing in your world that relates to our topic this morning.” Or, pay attention to what is the best question that can refocus your team or your meeting on what is important and link people’s passion or interest with the topic at hand.  It is amazing how a few minutes doing that can shift the entire feel of a meeting as people pay more attention.

Work the question you want to start with.  Will it generate the kind of thoughtfulness you are hoping for?  If not, how can it be nuanced – or sometimes completely thrown out in favour of a better question – to do the work you intend it to do?

How much time do you have for your check-in?  With a long time frame of meeting – a day or more, you have more time to begin well.  With a shorter meeting – as little as an hour or two – you can still begin well, just be conscious of the nature of the question you are asking.  The better you begin, the better the quality of the meeting, usually with better results in a shorter time frame.

The Use of Check-Out  in Ongoing Practice

Short and sweet often works for check-outs, particularly when you are in a short meeting. Once you get used to using check-in and check-out, meetings somehow don’t feel complete until you do a short round of check out.  Simple questions targeted at what you are looking for at the end of the meeting.  Curious about what is sitting with people now?  Ask.  Curious about what people are taking away?  Ask.  Curiosus about what is percolating?  Ask.  Noticing that things or people feel a bit unsettled.  Invite.  Not everything needs to be wrapped up with a nice tidy bow.  If you invite the rumblings that you sense, thank people for sharing.  “Thank you.  Good to know where we all are.  And not unexpected, given what we discussed/where we are in our process.  Thanks for sharing.  It is appreciated and important.”

Bringing in a Talking Piece

While I’m sure there could be an entire post on using a talking piece, there are some simple ways to bring one into your meeting.  For groups that are not familiar with this process and for whom it doesn’t feel quite right to do the full blown teach just yet, I will often say something like, “I want to hear from everyone in the room and to do that offer out this item (something I have with me, something in the room, something symbolic for the group, sometimes a bracelet I take off my arm, a pen in my hand, whatever is readily available) as a little talking piece.  This is just so we make sure we hear everyone’s voice.  The beauty of it is that when we have it, it is our turn to talk. When we pause, it is truly a pause and not an invitation for someone else to jump in.  It means we can think about whether we are truly finished or if we have a bit more to say.  When we don’t have the talking piece, that is our invitation to listen and listen well.  Because you know when you get the talking piece you can take a minute to think about what you want to say.  I find it changes the quality of the listening and changing the quality of the listening changes the quality of the conversation.”

I know from my own experience, that when the talking piece is not used often their are people who choose to stay quiet even when you invite all voices and then it is harder to re-invite their voice.  And it is amazing at how appreciative people become around using a talking piece.

Conference Calls

Yes we can, and do, use check-in, check-out and virtual talking pieces in our conference calls.  And, yes, it works well there too – shifting attention and quality of our experience.

The main points are the same across these different categories: purpose and intention, a question related to purpose and intention that you’ve worked a bit to make it wicked and powerful because you’ve sat with it to sense into whether it will do the work you want it to do.

Where are your openings and invitations?  The more you find them and accept them, the more you will find yourself in a practice that no longer feels risky but now feels fundamental for powerful process. The more the shape of your world will have shifted and before long you may find yourself not just an experimenter but a practitioner.

The Art of Stewarding

Anyone who has ever wanted to call an Art of Hosting training has, in all likelihood, been told how important it is to have seasoned hosts – or stewards – as part of the hosting team. What does it mean to steward and why is this role so important in the Art of Hosting community and in individual training offerings?

I wanted to ground the word steward with a definition but none of the ones I found resonated until I came across this on Wikipedia:  it is desirable to increase capacity within an organizational system.  The Art of Hosting is a system – an interconnected, self-organizing global network – and since it began almost two decades ago, it has been increasing capacity in the network, within and across organizations, within and across systems and within and across individuals.

Even before there was such a thing as the name Art of Hosting, conversations were being hosted in many places around the world using different dialogic processes, including World Cafe, Open Space Technology, Circle Practice, Appreciative Inquiry  (and still are being hosted by people who have not heard of the Art of Hosting). Those who have become known as Art of Hosting Practitioners were intuitively and intentionally sensing into questions like: what is underneath this process, what are the patterns we can make visible, why do these processes or this way of convening a meeting produce different results?  They were deeply curious about the answers to these questions and the more evocative questions that were often provoked through the conversations stimulated by these questions.

Stewards sense and hold the deeper patterns in the field.  They don’t just hold this particular piece of client work or this particular training, they sense the patterns of the larger field and bring those patterns into the specific work and conversations they are involved in.

They have skill, wisdom and expertise in holding space, creating the conditions for powerful work (setting the container) and in working with emergence by paying attention to what is wanting and ready to happen in an individual, group, organization, or community or with a pattern.

They practice self-leadership or self-hosting and bring with them a presence often forged through the many fires of chaos, disruption and intensity they have found their way through which often enables them to keep their centre or ground in the most challenging of situations.

They have no need to hold centre stage although they find themselves there because of their willingness to share knowledge and learning while hosting fields where people are hungry to learn.  They bring clarity without doing the work of others or disempowering them or disconnecting them from their own sources of clarity, wisdom and knowledge.  They witness growth and ignite even more growth – within themselves and others.  They are flexible and diverse, growing the depth of field through co-learning with others.  It is precisely this co-learning, co-creating and collaborating on the edges of what they do not know that makes them most excited  – more so than presenting their expertise.

My awareness of stewarding has heightened over the last year or so as I have found myself in many stewarding conversations with good friends in the Art of Hosting, World Cafe and Circle Practice networks (most recently at ALIA in Columbus) and as I have the privilege to co-host with other seasoned practitioners in a variety of situations where the ability to draw on accumulated wisdom and knowledge has been powerfully beneficial to other hosting team members including apprentices hungry to learn as well as the full group involved in the training.

What do I know through some of my experiences? Stewards are able to check perceptions with each other to sense more fully into the field in which they are working, arriving at more informed choices of action, often to surface tension, move through groan zones, understand when divergence or convergence or some other intervention or process is needed.  They are comfortable with silence and with chaos, have no need to rush in and they can weave with each other through and across the field.  This does not mean there is never any tension but it does mean they have the capacity to work it through without detrimentally impacting the group or the overall experience.  In how they work together, they are often living, breathing examples of the beauty and power of co-creation.

I have had the opportunity to work more extensively with youth in the last year – in Canada, the US and Brazil – and see how sharing experience, asking good questions and holding space expands the depth of field in any given place and creates the opportunity for individual and collective expansion – by holding the space of curiosity with the space of experience.

In One Art of Hosting Does Not A Practitioner Make, I wrote that each Art of Hosting has its own flavour influenced by the hosting team, the calling questions, the people who show up, whatever is emergent in the field, whatever we choose to call the training and the place in which it is hosted.  It’s like seeing only a slice of the bigger picture.  One reason why stewards are necessary to these trainings is that they carry with them the depth of the patterns from across many trainings and client consulting work and they can help illuminate these patterns and this depth through how they hold the space and the questions they ask.

In any given training we will often say it is not about the methodologies – although when we use them we want to use them well.  It is about the purpose and intention of what we are about, what we want to achieve and how to create the conditions to meet purpose and intention and make more things possible.

Stewards illuminate the connections between people, places, trainings, theories, processes and patterns.  They bring the weave of the whole network into the space and disturb the training ground in subtle and overt ways, based on the imprints of their many experiences, helping shift the shape of the experience, enabling individuals to shift their own shape and ultimately influencing the shifting shape of the world.

This work is not for the feint of heart or lone wolves.  It is for those who are willing to show up more fully in the relational field, ask for help when they need it, offer what they can and sink into their own learning.  Stewards want to learn from each other and the more we work with each other, the deeper the relational field, the deeper the friendships and the richer the space we hold for others.

One AoH Training Does Not a Practitioner Make

From the last few Art of Hosting trainings I have co-hosted there are two things that I am increasingly aware of: what it means to be a practitioner of the Art of Hosting and the value and contribution of stewarding to the field and the learning and growth of all.

People come to Art of Hosting trainings hungry for any number of things: to learn more about the methodologies and practices, to connect into a sense of community, to find refuge from the craziness of the worlds they live and work in, to deepen their own self leadership, to find new ways to be in the world, to discover mates they can work and play with in the world, because they have been part of a process somewhere that has drawn from Art of Hosting and they want to learn more and many more reasons I’m sure.  And they go away refreshed, curious, hungry for more and a bit hesitant around how they can bring this back to their life and work.

Two things I am aware of: to really be a practitioner of an Art requires practice and one Art of Hosting training does not a practitioner make.

The Art of Hosting field is incredibly rich and diverse and linked to so many other fields: World Cafe, Circle Practice, Open Space Technology, the Chaordic Field, Theory U, Appreciative Inquiry and more.  When we call a three for four day training, the breadth and scope of the days is shaped by the intended purpose and the people who show up – responsive to the collective need of the group, no matter whether it is a public or client offering.  There is no such thing as a set agenda.  It is a fluid process that the host team and the participants all contribute to.  It also means that the host team is having to pick and choose among the vast array of possible offerings that could flow into the training.  It is not possible to do them all.

All of these things – the hosting team, the purpose, the participants, the choices made within a training ground – contribute to the look, feel and shape of each training, while some underlying things always remain – paying attention to the field, holding space for co-creation and emergence, recognizing the interplay between the dynamics in the field and the learning needs of the group, between self hosting and collective hosting.  No two offerings are ever exactly the same, even if the same hosting team is in place – because the hosting team is also in its own learning individually and collectively and because of the responsiveness to each new training ground.

One Art of Hosting training offers a slice of the Art of Hosting field, even if it is a large slice.  Another Art of Hosting training will show different nuances, different strengths, different emphases and be just as relevant and meaningful as a reflection of the field.  If we leave an AoH training believing this is the way it is – and the only way – we will have missed something fundamentally important – that a key underlying principle is responsiveness to need, co-creation which influences the flow of any training or practice ground, paying attention to what’s in the space and what’s wanting to happen.

It really does take a number of trainings to have a more fulsome understanding and experience of AoH and what’s possible and really understand how AoH contributes to the shifting shape of the world.  We become practitioners when we practice and learn from what we practice.  The next post will explore some ways that practice shows up and how to ask for and offer support in the practice and a future post will look at the questions and observations that have been occurring to me about the role and importance of stewarding.

The Gift of Shadow

I have been intrigued by the notion of shadow ever since I came across Debbie Ford‘s book, The Secret of the Shadow, years ago as I began the more conscious part of my journey.  The idea that it is everywhere, in everyone of us and in our group dynamics was a revelation at the time.  The fact that there are real gifts in it when we develop enough courage to dive in was illuminating.

Shadow is not a bad thing.  It just is.  It exists. Where there is light there is also shadow.  We can really live into the light when we are ready to acknowledge shadow.

For some reason, we have made that acknowledgment really difficult in the world we live and operate in today.  We have made it “bad” through our fear of facing it, surfacing it or acknowledging it and so we try to pretend, individually and collectively, that it isn’t there.  We tiptoe around it, we dance around it, we grow frustrated by it and still it often remains a challenge to name.  We think it only exists in some places, but it actually can and does show up in all kinds of places and even in the groups and organizations that are doing amazing and, do I dare say, enlightened work.

My good friend Christina Baldwin, author of The Circle Way and Calling the Circle, and, along with her partner Ann Linnea, keeper and steward of circle practice for over twenty years (long before it became more fashionable as an effective and powerful meeting practice) defines shadow as: “the things that cannot be said or, if they are said, are said at great peril to the speaker”.

This great peril is often that the speaker is ostracized.  As the speaker is shut down, so are others who will not now venture to name the unspoken things and then any avenues for the naming of shadow are also shut down.   Unproductive group patterns and dynamics become entrenched in the group and members of the group pretend to each other that all is well.  And yet in this scenario, it means that people no longer feel invited to show up as full human beings.  They feel the need to leave a part of themselves parked at the door and this is often the part that would most wonderfully, fully and impactfully engage them in the work ahead.

Anytime things cannot be spoken, they surface in actions and interactions in a group.  They show up as frustration with process or lack of progress and as blame: “if only that one person (or that group) would get their act together, we’d all be fine.”  The impact of shadow shows up in lack of engagement by some members of the group and by side conversations that happen outside of meetings that do not serve the health and well being of the group.

It is not unusual that someone who has been perceived as the problem can leave the group and yet the actual problem persists.  It is now acted out by someone else.  The longer the patterns persist, the harder they are to surface and to break.

Aside from fear of being ostracized, the other reason people do not name shadow is because they are afraid of hurting other people in the group.  They do not have language or process around how to do this well and it is a skill that can be developed.

One of the tenets of Circle Practice is understanding there is a centre to the circle – or the work or the group – and if we focus on the centre it enables us to transcend two way debate,  personal attack and interpersonal dynamics and speak to the underlying patterns – that are often showing up in very overt ways.  To be able to name tension in a group or situation is one very simple way of relieving the tension.  “Yes, we’ve noticed and are aware that it is here.  How will we choose to move through it now?”

The simple act of naming can, quite remarkably,  diffuse a lot of tension and shadow.  How would the shape of our world shift, the shape of our meetings and the shape of our relationships shift if we could honour the fact that shadow exists, it shows up – instead of pretending it’s not there?   If we understand this, it frees us up to look for the gifts inherent in shadow and use those gifts to build our effectiveness, connection and cohesion as a group and as community.

Shadow is not something we deal with once and it is gone.  It will show up again.  But if we stay tuned to it, name it when it is present and work through it, more light will shine into our lives and the work we do.