Art of Hosting – Universal or Not?

When people ask me if I do “this” for a living, the answer is, of course, yes. But they don’t really know what they are asking.  They are asking about what they are witnessing or experiencing in this given moment – a specific Art of Hosting training, a planning process, a team building session, a leadership development training, a community engagement process, a World Café or any other range of possibilities and possible places I might be invited to host or show up in.  And this is not just true for me.  It is true for many of my good friends and colleagues who are in this work.

It is a matter of what you see is what you get and what you get is far more than what you see. Going away from any of these singular events thinking this is it, that you know what it is, that you know it, is an easy assumption to make – and it misses the point.  It often seems so simple, often seeming to flow easily and effortlessly, even in groups or situations where tension or conflict has been evident.

Yet, when people get the “behind the scenes” invitation through being on a hosting team or a design and delivery team for a training or for client consulting work, they will often say that is where the real learning starts.  They begin to see what we mean when we say that 80% of the work happens before we ever get in the room.  It is also why some of us believe in being as transparent as possible in our process.

These days, when I describe the Art of Hosting to people, I’ve been borrowing from Jerry Nagel from the Meadowlark Institute because I love the clarity and simplicity with which he speaks it.  As a set of patterns and practices to work with complexity, that invites non-judgment or curiosity and generosity of spirit, of listening.  It invites us to be present, to stay in the place before the knowing until clarity, and knowing from a different place and quality, emerges – all of us and especially the hosting team.  We believe that conversations matter and good conversation leads to wise action and different results.

I am in deep reflection about the universality of art of hosting patterns and practices and the trap we set for ourselves if we believe universality equals one map, one path, one way to do it.  Overlay the successful work of one organization or one training on everything as if that was THE way to do it.  There is no one way to do it, no one practice or pattern that responds to everything.

It is the variety of hosting situations I’ve been in recently that have me in this deep reflection.   In Palo Alto in August 2012 for the first Art of Hosting training in California.  High tech, consultants to high tech, social innovators and a few pastors in the room.  Wanting to do business better.  In the Phillips Community of South Minneapolis in September 2012 with a remarkedly culturally diverse group of people, many of whom are community activists. Wanting to live in community together better. In Nova Scotia, also in September, working with a brand new charity Nourish NS responding to the need for a new structure for the delivery of breakfast programs in schools, birthed a year ago and still in it using the chaordic stepping stones, birthed out of need, chaos, confusion and pain.  In Fredericton in October 2012, a little AoH taster to sense into the need, opportunity and timing in that province for a second Art of Hosting training there, responding to themes of social change and community engagement.

Very different situations.  The “art of hosting” “worked” in each one.  I use quotations to remind myself that even what I’m writing about is nebulous and that the words evoke certain images, assumptions and expectations as I use them and you read them.

In California, knowing that getting people in the room required us to think very strategically about what would attract them, working with the calling team to find language that bridged Art of Hosting and business; finding that language that invites is a common practice and part of the invitation process no matter where we go.  Working with the concerns of the calling team about whether this group would sit still long enough to experience a deep circle, to dive into a three day process and stay present.  Yes, they wanted to get to action.  And they wanted to meet each other human to human, wondering how to do that in a world that does not always invite the human to human exchange.

In the Phillips Community, when we asked the people who came where they are from, beyond where they live, you could feel the ripples out into the world and then even more ripples when we asked them where their ancestors are from, circling the globe. Coming together to address tensions and violence in the community, their community, to imagine the kind of community they want to create, they want to live in, together.  Finding their way past commonality and past difference.  Human to human.  Getting to action that has the potential to shift the dynamic of their community, co-creating through new quality of relationship and understanding.  Practicing generosity with each other.

For Nourish NS, deep in a question of how to shift their shape from the “kitchen table” to the “board room”, grow their board, grow their capacity as an organization, adhere to Revenue Canada charitable guidelines and maintain the culture they have been intentionally cultivating over the last year or more that is creating an organization that looks different, feels different and invites people into a different experience.  Living their mandate.  Living their principles.  Prototyping how to be and work together and knowing they are in an experiment with clear deliverables, creating decision trees and governance structures to bring clarity and still allow emergence and nimbleness of response.

In Fredericton, a beautifully diverse group of people from the Department of Health, Renaissance College, students, city councilors, the provincial government, university professors, community activists.  Just three hours to dive into what might be possible with Art of Hosting and feeling like we had just begun a three day training but now everyone needed to go home percolating the vast array of questions we invited into the room about social change and community engagement.  Not leaving it nice and tidy, wrapped up in a bow with all the answers. Leaving it in the messiness that invites curiosity, invites exploration, invites a deeper dive together to discover what some of the answers might be.

AoH is only “universal” because it is adaptable, responsive, tuned into who’s coming, what their questions are, who and what shows up in the space, guided by a deep sense of purpose.  Tuning into the ebb and flow of patterns, energy in the room or field in which we are operating, cultivating emergence, leaning into what is wanting to show up in the space – not a set agenda, not a beautiful power point presentation, not all the answers or solutions but a living, breathing individual and collective experience.

In November, I’m invited back to Minnesota to go into another community experiencing many of the same challenges as the Phillips Community.  The core hosting team of four of us will be together again with some of the members of our apprenticing team and more people from the local community.  Our biggest mistake would be to assume that because we did it once well in the Phillips community that now we know what to do.  Of course, we have some beautiful learning from the Phillips community and from our individual and collective experiences from all the places we go.  But the only way we will really know what is needed the next time is to sense into the need and opportunity, the people who are coming, where they are from, the questions they bring, the hopes we are discerning and allow a purpose that is relevant to that work to emerge, let it guide the pattern we identify for the work of the days we are together and then be prepared to let it all go as people show up, we meet them where they are, see more deeply the questions, experiences and aspirations and let that guide what wants and needs to happen there.

I know from where I travel in the world, from the conversations I have, that AoH is universally applicable. But if we stop at that statement then we truly miss how this is so.  It is not the practices, frameworks, methodologies or even the patterns.  It is our ability as a hosting team to continuously sense into what is there, be prepared to let go of any of our own notions of what needs to happen, co-design on the fly from our individual and collective experience, wisdom and knowledge and to be responsive to all that shows up – the tension, the beauty, the joy, the humanness, the messiness and then work with the patterns, practices frameworks and methodologies to co-create the conditions to allow us to go deeply and well into the places waiting to be called forth.  There is a reason why it is called the Art of ….

Anyone who’s ever been to more than one well hosted gathering will tell you, it’s different every time.  And if that hasn’t been your experience, maybe you need to become curious about why that was so, challenge your own knowing and prepare to dive deeper into your own learning – or co-learning – because we are in it together.

The Field Beyond Difference

Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing,

there is a field.
I will meet you there.

Rumi

Rumi’s words, with a slight variation, encapsulate the experience of an amazingly culturally and age diverse group of participants, apprentices and hosts who gathered September 11-14, 2012 in the middle of the Phillips Community of South Minneapolis where all of us discovered there is a field beyond difference and we are willing to meet each other there.

Image

There was a tremble in our fourteen member hosting team as we prepared to welcome over seventy Somalis, Native Americans, African Americans, Anglo Americans, Latinos, people from Liberia, Ethiopia, Malaysia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Columbia and more, together with two translators: one for Somali and one for Spanish.  We were not sure how many would come, how many would stay or how many would come back the next day.

This Art of Hosting training, supported by the Bush Foundation’s InCommons in partnership with the Meadowlark Institute, was called by Amina Saleh a co-founder of the Native American Somali Friendship Committee, in the hopes that bridges could be formed across the  multiplicity of cultures that have come to reside in the Phillips residential area of South Minneapolis.  The original residents of this community were primarily African Americans, Native Americans and Anglo Americans.  In the 1990s immigrants and refugees began moving into the area in search of affordable housing.  Over the years, the cultures clashed, tensions rose and violence across the cultures, particularly between the Native Americans and Somali communities, occurred.

Amina found herself at an Art of Hosting training in March 2012 and became curious about what might be possible if a training was hosted right in the middle of her community, in the community centre, where the children congregate after school.  Well, we found out!

We started with a beautiful Lakota sage ceremony offered by Lemoine Lapointe from our hosting team, to open the space, to cleanse ourselves, open our minds and, even more so, our hearts.  An offering from one of the cultures present in the room, inviting others to also offer in a right moment or opportunity.

Lemoine Lapointe

Each one of us was then invited to bring our voices into the circle by responding to: my name is…, I live…, I’m from…, my ancestors are from… and I speak …. languages. As we listened, we became aware, beyond the diversity of skin colour already visible in the room, of the richness and multiplicity of cultures and languages represented in the space, the richness that showed up sometimes in a single individual as well as in our field.  It took our breath away and opened our curiosity.

The purpose that emerged for the four day training was: Hosting meaningful conversations as a way of giving life, (1) inviting in our full selves and each other, (2) sharing language and frameworks, (3) staying in it – together and (4) building “whole” community. The phrases in the purpose statement framed each of our four days; scheduled to begin around 9:00 with a hard stop at 3:00, because this is when the children arrived in the community centre we were in and when some of the single moms in attendance also needed to be home to greet their children.

Beautiful visual depiction of our 4 day flow by Nou Ka Yang

Our first afternoon was a caféWhat is in your heart that brought you here today? What is in your heart for your community? What would you like to give life to here for your neighbourhood?  Powerful, surprising questions, giving pause like unexpected questions do.  Silence at the first café round while people let the question sink in, then decided how fully they wanted to bring themselves into the room, into the conversation, into the others also at their table. Cautiously, at first. What is in your heart? Not, why are you here? Not, what’s in you mind?  What is in your heart? Are you willing to go there yourself, let alone speak it into the centre of the table?

By the third round there was a beautiful buzz in the room as people began to relax into the invitation to bring their full selves.   In the harvest, one man offered, “Unlike Vegas where what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, what happens in this room should not stay in this room. We all need to take it back out into our communities.”  This became a mantra for participants for our full time together.

People were ready and willing to offer their rituals, ceremonies and stories into our collective space.  In addition to the opening sage ceremony, we experienced a Somali coffee ceremony, an Aztek ceremony and a Hmong ritual and an African American dramatic story telling: Sojourner Truth, in addition to Native American ceremony, song and round dance from the Dakota and Lakota cultures. We gifted each other with prayers and blessings.

Sometimes it was a bit uncomfortable with the varying perspectives and cultural norms around touch, song, dance and partaking in another culture’s ceremony; but only just in that moment before understanding blossomed and more ease entered with the witnessing of things precious.  Graciousness, curiosity and respect filled the space and the conversations. Deepening our individual and collective listening skills invited us all to show up even more fully.

The realization that issues, concerns and passions arc across cultures invited people into bridge building. Education, children, community housing, racism, racial profiling, relationship with police, healing, well being.  Learning to navigate the dominant culture and stand up, both for what is right and for rights of an individual no matter each person’s roots or ancestral history.  Awareness of commonality in the diversity. People care about many of the same things even if their way of approaching them or their cultural norms may be different.

Invitation to Open Space

As we gathered in our check out team: Amina Saleh, Kadra Ahdi, Lemoine Lapointe, Molly Matheson Gruen, Susan Phillips, Bob-e Epps, Anne Gomez, Lori Lindgren Voit, Nou Ka Yang, Marcela Sotela, Jerry Nagel, Tuesday Ryan-Hart, Ginny Belden Charles and me, there were tears.  Tears of hopes realized, connections made, community strengthened, deep sense of belonging.

Our work began in the hosting team itself on our prep day.  It was the first time many of us had met in person as is common in these trainings.  There was a great variety of experience and understanding of the Art of Hosting in the team, from lots to little to almost none, with people eager to deepen their skill, grow their capacity.  The team quickly became strong and cohesive with each person stepping in, contributing, supporting as one fluid movement, offering what we each could, asking for what we needed. We formed community.

We became a field to welcome the larger field of community activists and organizers from across cultures who showed up.  And came back. Day after day.  For four days. They sensed something different. Became engaged in possibility in new ways. They made plans for next steps on very specific projects. Co-creating a new hope for the future. Giving life to community from a different place.  Stepping into courage, transcending fear, reaching out, seeing the human face of diversity and knowing that shifting the shape of the communities they live in and touch is possible to ever greater degrees.  Humbled, touched, delighted to be in this work that matters so deeply.

Turning to Each Other in this Time of Chaos

My news does not, for the most part, come from mainstream media.  Long ago I stopped reading the papers and watching TV news.  Far too depressing and non-constructive.  My news comes from other sources like the Art of Hosting listserve that I am part of (and you could be too, if you aren’t already) as well as other social media like Facebook and Twitter.  I am grateful to these sources and the friends I know in each of these media for the sharing of stories and events that show us all the courage, humanity, connection and community that we all know exists beneath and beyond the news coverage.

Government and related agencies, politicians, the news media do not know what to do.  They do not know how to respond to the mounting chaos in their countries and their communities.  They do not have answers – we all know this – and they are afraid to admit it, so rely on strategies that not only don’t work but actually contribute to making the situation worse (beefing up police presence as an example).  As one person from England suggested on the AoH listserve, wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone in a position of authoritative leadership would be able to see, voice and make more visible the larger patterns that are at work. Borrowing from his posting:

“We must now ask deeper questions. Why do so many young people believe it is alright to cause such destruction and distress in their communities? Whether it is ‘copycat’ activity or not, why is it happening? What does ‘community’ mean to each of us?  Across the country people are self organising, they are meeting in groups and cleaning the streets. Leaders are emerging. People are talking to each other. This is true community.”

If we are not seeing the kind of leadership we know is needed from our formal leaders, how do we continue to do this work in all the places we, ordinary people all over the place,  show up and influence where we can.  Let’s not undervalue our own systems of influence or own readiness to do what we know works – even if this is “simply” holding space, holding intention, infusing with love the situations and people we know about and the stories that touch us deeply – no matter where they or we are.

I read all the posts on what’s happening in London, Spain, Greece, Egypt, the US and other places from the perspective of ordinary citizens, friends and colleagues around the world who see the human story as it evolves, who sharpen their awareness of the relational field and the growing power to effect large scale systemic change from this place as well as individual one-on-one relationships – holding heart break and growing open heartedness, even in the chaos.  I share these stories with people I know who are not part of or even aware of these conversations.  It makes people hopeful.

My own hopeful heart continues to expand for every post I read.  There is a lot of trauma in this time but if that is what we, the world, needs to be able to see just how much the systems we have created or supported or just lived in do not work for us anymore, then we need to go through this to get to what lies on the other side.  I am imagining, working toward and living into a world and systems that emanate out of love, loyalty and community in the relational field because if we cannot turn to each other in our joy and our agony, there is no one else.  If we cannot turn to each other, we will not create systems that support life and resilience, courage and vibrancy.  If we do not turn to each other, we will live only in fear and isolation that propagates more of what we don’t want.

Everyday I experience encounters with people who are more and more ready to turn to each other, more and more ready to understand life as more than just the physical components that we see, more and more ready to embrace uncertainty and live into resilience, more and more ready to open their hearts in a time when the media reported news events might cause us to want to close our hearts and shut down, more and more ready to be intentional about shifting the shape of the world.  I am holding space for the courageous, the open hearted, the heart broken, the resilient, the cracks, openings and invitations.  I am working and writing where I can in support of a future I want to see emerge out of the chaos we are in these days.

From my heart breaking, open hearted journey to yours.

The Power of Vision, Activating Blood Memories and an Ask for What’s Needed

Ten years ago, while in her mid-twenties, Pawa Haiyupis attended her first Open Space Technology training, meeting for the first time good friend and colleague Chris Corrigan who became a mentor. Unbeknownst to Pawa at the time, a vision began to take root: a vision of First Nations youth connecting back to elders and the land, bringing back ceremonies like rites of passage, naming and grieving ceremonies, language; essentially activating blood memories.  We know when blood memories have been activated because we get little energy shivers in our bodies; the more powerful the activation, the stronger the shiver but even subtle little activations can have profound impact that reverberate in our awareness.

Four years ago, Pawa began working for the National Centre for First Nations Governance (NCFNG) out of British Columbia, with a focus on youth leadership.  During this time she also stepped more deeply into her own leadership journey through Art of Hosting and Warrior of the Heart, including a journey a year ago to Kufunda Learning Village in Zimbabwe.

Her vision grew and began to take tangible form with the development of a Nation Rebuilding project piloted in the First Nations community of Membertou in Nova Scotia this summer focused on helping young people, ages 14-19, learn about identity and belonging, reactivating their creation stories, inviting the ancestors through ceremony and a traditional territories tour to guide this process. A combined Warrior of the Heart/Art of Hosting training was identified as an essential component of this work because it cultivates the conditions for emergence based on what each Nation knows.

A hosting team of Pawa, myself, Bob Wing and Sarah MacLaren converged for this exciting work with 50 youth from Membertou, actively supported by up to 20 elders in the community as well as the young team from NCFNG.  In the middle of the 4 week Nation Rebuilding project, NCFNG’s funding was cut by the Harper government, potentially putting this work in jeopardy.  Except for the questions asked by the Membertou Governance Committee about how to make this work despite the funding cuts.  Except for the hosting team deepening their dedication to this work by agreeing to volunteer these four days of their time.  Except for the strong vision that Pawa and her team have been cultivating for years that refuses to be drowned out by resistance that shows up in the form of funding cuts and seems to now have taken on its own force independent of the individuals who first dreamt what was possible.  As one member of the team said, “The work will continue because the ancestors are strong and we are strong… we can make it work because its in our hearts.”

Pawa turned to a circle of “Eagles”,  stewards of the Art of Hosting, who are at our backs holding the rim of our circle with us, to ask for help.  She wrote:

“I email you all with a heart request to help financially to keep the movement going and help bring this work to Indigenous youth in Membertou, Cape Breton Island NS.  I know that financially at this time the world is in chaos. It is easier to give up which is precisely why I want to move this work forward. It is these practices (art of hosting and warrior of the heart) that help us lead in complex times with courage. It’s what is needed most. If the only thing the Emerging Leadership team does this year is finish this PILOT to be inclusive of art of hosting and warrior of the heart, it sets this work up to happen again in the future.

“It is crucial that the art of hosting and warrior of the heart be included in the Emerging Leadership Program for reasons that you all know, it works when changing systems. The government cut NCFNG’s funding drastically days before the scheduled training was to take place. Training that I have been waiting years to happen. Either the art of hosting gets cut from the program or we find alternative resources to make it happen. This is where you come in. Eagles, with vision. We honour you by asking for help.”  Pawa also made the initial personal contribution offer of $450 toward expenses of about $3,000 which includes Bob’s travel from Colorado.

The Eagles have been responding with small and large offers of financial support and adding their individual and collective consciousness to this work which may set a pattern for what is possible in First Nations communities across Canada.  We are broadening the call for support to the larger community.  If you feel called, if you sense the power and possibility of activating blood memories, you could offer financial support here WiseActions.net and whether you can offer financial support or not, your holding this work from where you are and adding your conscious powerful intention for the highest good of the work, the people and the hosting team are all meaningful contributions.

In the words of one of the eagles:

“Pawa, yes certainly, to offer what I can here.  When the revolution comes ( and it wont be televised) we will go kindly to Ottawa, sit the treasury board in a circle and pass the feather til the wisdom of mutual stewardship becomes our national fiscal policy….  ….until then I take this an an investment in the leadership needed to see that day…”

The last 2 weeks of this program are being combined into one.  We will incorporate hosting and Warrior of the Heart with a traditional territories tour, naming ceremonies and community celebration.  We will host and be hosted.  As a hosting team, the work we have been pulled into is shifting literally by the minute.  We will be called upon to be highly present, tapped in, resilient and resourceful to the fullness of our capacity as we hold this space with the people of Membertou.

The response of the Eagles has already astounded the good people of NCFNG and of Membertou who are interested by and curious about this generosity of spirit from people they do not know.  The response is also showing pathways to what’s possible when we think we don’t have money or other resources to do what is calling to be done.  We are more resilient and powerful than that and we have abundant resources available when we turn to look and when we continually offer prayers to the ancestors and ourselves in service of their bidding.

This work of and in Membertou is another of the illustrations of how resilient we are as human beings, responding to the vision of what’s possible in the world.  It is a time of quiet revolution and we are shifting the shape of the world as we know it.

Art of Hosting: Example of a Collaborative Network

The Art of Hosting is an example of a collaborative network.  It’s not the only one but it is the one I am most familiar with and it is the one I find myself speaking about most often when the topic of new models of organization or business comes up.

The Art of Hosting network emerged organically, even before it was called Art of Hosting (AoH) as practitioners of dialogic processes gathered to inquire into what it was they did that was different and what were the conditions that contributed to their successful consulting or process work.  They created the conditions for relevant and meaningful conversations to occur in such a way that the conversations individuals, organizations and communities had were different and more impactful than the ones they traditionally had had and where wiser, more informed action often emerged.

As trainings were offered – always co-hosted by a team, they were a place of co-learning and open source sharing and such a meeting of mind, heart and spirit that people naturally wanted to stay in touch to continue sharing and learning.   Teams of hosts were invited into the same work together and variations of these host teams emerged as people newly introduced to AoH who wanted to deepen their understanding and practice began to call AoH trainings and join host teams.

Somewhere along the way, the AoH listserve was born and, as is typical of listserves, there are sporadic bursts of activity around themes that catch fire among some list serve members and there is also silence for some periods of time.

There were always people who carried a deep curiousity about this work and what, for many of the AoH practitioners I know, is a sense of deep calling.  They – we – work together often, deepening learning and often find each other at other gatherings like, for instance, ALIA.

From early on the notion of stewarding began to emerge and there have been many conversations along the way about what is stewarding, what is a steward, who is a steward, what is the AoH, how do we protect the integrity of this work, is there a brand, what do we do when someone calls an AoH training and no one in the network seems to know who they are.  These kinds of questions are integral to gatherings of stewards – practitioners who do not just use the AoH in their work but tend to the larger field.  A steward seems to be someone who understands deep within themselves what we call the DNA of the AoH – the formative field from which the AoH emerged.

Over the last decade, the number of AoH offerings has grown exponentially through public offerings and through client work that many of us are engaged in. These offerings have now occurred literally around the world, although not in every country yet.  We have experimented with forms of AoH like the Art of Participatory Leadership, the Art of Collaborative Leadership, the Art of Social Innovation, the Art of Harvesting, the Art of Protection, the Art of Humans Being and I’m sure there are more.

The AoH network is not without its faults or its own shadow.  It resists defined structure, hard and fast rules and continues to be organic despite calls from time to time for definitive answers.  It resists responding in traditional ways and roles.    Not everyone is happy with the way it works. And it works exceptionally well.

There is no central office and there are no staff.  While not a perfect system, AoH host teams are invited to share a percentage of the revenue earned in trainings to help support the technology that is key to connecting this global community and to offer something to those in this network who host this on our behalf.  And any of us can also contribute personally.

The AoH community is held together by a strong sense of purpose and principles in the work, a commonality of language and practice and core methodologies, processes, and world views. We understand that before we can host others, we must host ourselves and that we grow the body of knowledge and our own knowledge and practice through communities of practice.

It is easy to find people to work with on small and large projects and on systemic change work because there is such a strong alignment of principles and values.  I’m a sole practitioner but I’m not a sole practitioner because at any given time I either draw on the body of knowledge of the AoH or the mates I have in this network.  I have the privilege and benefit of often working on international hosting teams – here and elsewhere.

As the network grows, the sense of caring for the core of the AoH grows stronger amongst those of us who feel we are stewarding something here,  recognizing that it is completely impossible to control how it spreads, nor would we want to.  That is both the beauty and power of it – and the frustration.   It is a chaordic organization.

When we come together as teams to work together there are no hard and fast rules but there is certainly a sense of honour and integrity in relationships and of patterns of hosting and relationship.  We operate by agreement and we determine who and how host team members get paid by agreement achieved in conversation each time we gather.    People who are not part of this network sometimes have a hard time understanding that we don’t necessarily need a written contract to work with each other (like when one of my good friends was trying to get into Halifax to co-host with me and others and the customs officials asked several times to see the non-existent contract).

We care deeply about this work, about this body of knowledge, about this community and about the relationships we have entered into that are enduring for many of us.  We have a lot of conversation – purposeful conversation.  We don’t have a lot of structure.

A lot of information on AoH can be found on the website and on the community ning.  What I’m offering here is just one version of a very large story, the beginning of which I did not actually witness.  I don’t think this form of organization is the right form for every organization but with the clients I work with who are in a question of what next and how to structure their organization, I offer it out as an example to take some learnings from.  I also talk about World Cafe and Berkana, among others, as organizations experimenting with different organizational models.  Built on trust.  Built on relationship.  Purpose.  Principles.

And, it will be one of the collaborative networks used as an example during the Art of Collaborative Leadership next month in Halifax as we explore the conditions that foster good collaborative networks and what their role is in shifting the shape of the world.

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.