Container Holding as a Hosting Practice

In the work and exploration of the Art of Hosting (AoH) Conversations that Matter we often talk about the container, creating the container, holding the container – but what does it mean, really? We tend to speak of it in the same breath as hosting, as if it is the same thing.  But, is it?

In preparation for a gathering of sixty five AoH Stewards from thirteen countries that took place in Minnesota in October 2013, Jerry Nagel, Stephen Duns, Bob Wing and I became deeply curious about what it would take to hold a dynamically complex field that included three breaths of Art of Hosting – founders, early adopters and new or emerging stewards, many of whom did not know each other and had never met in person – who were holding, each in their own way, many similar questions percolating in local fields around the world, centering on what it means to be a global self-organizing system.

panoramic photo of circle

We began a series of calls to see what we could learn about container holding that we could apply at the Stewards Gathering, recognizing that some who would be holding the container would not be present in person but would be holding from the rim – wherever they happened to be geographically located.  For our inquiry, we separated out container holding, design and hosting recognizing they often are intertwined, happening together at the same time and that they are distinct in and of themselves.  It was – and is – rich learning.

Container holding is part of the subtle arts.  It is metaphysical, meaning of or relating to things that are thought to exist but cannot be seen. So much of what we pay attention to in hosting, beyond process, people and design, is the invisible – the energetics, consciousness.  It is why we have offerings of Hosting from a Deeper Place or the Art of Hosting the Subtle.

The invisible is alive all on its own and it shows up in the physical in group dynamics, ease or tension, flow or disruption, to name just a few ways it manifests.  We know that in any offering that is co-hosted, the frequency of the team is also alive in the field.  When the team has challenges within, those challenges show up in the larger field.  When the team has an ease of relationship, infused with trust (and usually joy), this also shows up in the field.  What is in the team is reflected back to the team.  A well connected, trustful, aligned team – which does not mean members all think alike – can hold the larger field from a place of trusting what wants to emerge and not be knocked off balance when challenges spark – at least not so off balance that they cannot recover.  The more coherent the team, the deeper they can host and the more process will flow through them rather than the team trying to control design or over-design.

Container holding might look inactive whereas design and hosting might look more active.  When we are hosting, it doesn’t mean we ignore elements of the metaphysical or subtle realms – although we are often not full intentional or conscious about it.  Attention to the metaphysical or subtle realms can also be a sole component of container holding. You can be a container holder and not be in a visible hosting role.

In the work we do, the container can be porous or permeable – and given it is metaphysical in nature that would likely hold to be true all the time.  When the container is held with the crystal clear energy of intention, this intention infuses the field and what happens as much as, and sometimes more than, design does. The hosting can be flexible, which is what we always advocate –  with a willingness to be disturbed or disrupted, trusting the chaordic path – chaos can be good, especially as we learn to sit with it until a natural sense of order emerges. If the intention is strong and held with clarity, disturbance can lead to emergence.  When the intention is less clear, disruption can lead to chaos with no pathway back to order. It is important to not be attached to design, to hosting or to process  – to hold it lightly – which is simply good hosting practice at the best of times.  We can ask the question, what does the container need to be infused with to hold chaos and disruption so it is of service to what wants to happen? It could be different depending on what is the work we are about.

A well held container invites coherence into the field. Coherence is a frequency. When we tune into the frequency we can host it into being to allow or invite it to become present, or more present – like when we hold tuning forks up to each other, they pick up the frequency of each other and become entrained.  How do we grow coherence without control, to celebrate different thinking, recognizing it can all be aligned with a common purpose and clear intention?  Is this not our work as hosts?

Container holding is part of hosting – especially when we are intentional about it.  And container holding has its own energy, its own path and its own coherence.  So much more to explore.  We are deep in our learning.  And how beautiful is that?

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.

Shaping Powerful Questions

One of the most asked questions at, and after, any Art of Hosting training is about the questions.  Developing powerful questions is a crucial element to creating the conversational space we are seeking.  People are hungry for greater understanding of how to create questions, especially after they’ve tried a check-in, check-out or cafe experience that didn’t quite have the intended result or impact.

Sometimes powerful questions appear, almost like magic.  We know they are powerful because we feel them.  But usually they are developed and shaped with great care – and often co-created with others.  It is not unusual for a whole planning meeting (and sometimes more) to focus just on question development for a process – which may seem a bit crazy until you’ve had the experience of well formulated questions in comparison to sessions where questions have not been shaped with the same care.

This post contains general thoughts on the shaping of powerful questions.  Later posts will focus on specific processes where questions are used, like check-in and check-out, World Cafe, Open Space, Appreciative Inquiry, Dyad and Triad Conversations and Deep Sensing Interviews.

Three Dimensions of Questions

In an Art of Hosting training in South Dakota this past July, was the first time I heard the three dimensions of powerful questions, coming from World Cafe work and community of practice.  The three dimensions are: scope or scale of the questions, assumptions in the questions and construction of the questions.

What is the scope of the question you want to ask?  If the scope is too big it may shut down conversation (how do we create world peace?) but you might want your question inspirational enough to allow people to gaze higher than they might otherwise (how have you created peaceful moments for yourself/your team/work/family? How could you do that more often or in a different setting?)

People tend to rise to the assumptions made in the questions so it is good to both notice the assumptions being made in the question and also to be intentional about them so the work is more appreciative and aspirational in service of purpose and intention and the greater work being tended to.

In considering how we construct questions, there is a continuum that flows from less powerful to more powerful.  The less powerful questions are ones that can be answered with a yes or no.  Moving along the continuum, more powerful questions begin with when or who.  The next level are questions that begin with how or what and even more powerful questions sometimes begin with why. I say sometimes, because sometimes the why questions also entrench people in their point of view if asked in such a way they invoke defensiveness.  Ask why questions in ways they evoke curiosity and then you’re onto something.

There is a timeliness we generate when we put the word “now” in our question.  “What you noticing now?”  “What has your attention now?”

Purpose and Intention

A key factor in question development is what is the purpose and intention – of your gathering, your meeting, the particular process the question is intended to shape or provide context for, the question itself?  What is the work you want the question to do and then what is the simplist way to ask the question? Purpose and intention is so central to question development that we go back to it again and again.

Language and Shaping

I like to use as much present and active language as possible.  Instead of asking, “What did you learn from that experience?” you might ask, “What are you learning from that experience?”  There is a supposition built into the question – that the learning is active and ongoing. If that fits the purpose and intention of the space you are wanting to create that’s great.  If not, a question targeted to the learning and conversation you want to encourage would be better.

If you are wanting to move in a certain direction, then create questions that presume in the direction you want to go.  “What is the shift you imagine will happen once you leave here and begin to apply what you’ve learned?” This question presume you want a shift and that you will put something into practice post the training.  For some it will inspire their imagination. When it doesn’t inspire someone, they will usually say so without detrimentally affecting the responses of others who are feeling inspired.

It is also okay to take a pulse of what’s happening in a group or process without assuming a direction.  This is particularly helpful when you want to sense into where a group is at, what you need to pay attention to or what might be simmering under the surface.  It is good to have people in a group name their experience sometimes without trying to shift into a particular direction.  The information that surfaces is then helpful in shaping design or process informed by what is present in the room or group, tracking always toward the purpose or intention of why you are in this conversation or work.  Sometimes diversions are necessary to ensure we get to where we ultimately want to go. You could ask a question like “What’s sitting with you now?”, “What question’s are percolating?”  Sometimes I might even ask, “What tension is arising in you at the moment?” but only if I am really sensing tension in the room, wanting to surface what’s there but not create it if it isn’t there to begin with.

Nuances in Question Development

Slight nuances in a question can lead to very different conversations. This is why we often sit with the questions we have drafted and imagine the kinds of responses a question might evoke, noticing how changing the question slightly could generate a different conversation.  Some examples: “What are you noticing in your environment right now?” compared to “What are you noticing in your environment that relates to this project?”  or “How have you been since we last gathered?” compared to ” How has the last gathering impacted you and your work?”  The first version of these questions is far more open ended while the second version is more targeted to purpose and intention.

Co-Creating Questions

It is hard to create really powerful questions all by yourself.  It is much more fun and generative to co-create with others what the questions could be.  Then when a nuance is discovered that makes the question more powerful, the whole group feels it, not just one person.  Collectively we know we’ve gone to a new level of depth.  When we co-create the questions we can start in the ball park of what we want to do and, through the conversation, discover what those nuances are that increase the the capacity of the conversations we are inviting to be meaningful and relevant to the participants we have engaged and the purpose for which we have engaged them.

Powerful questions can shift the shape of an individual and their pattern of thought, a team and its dynamics, an organization and its usual ways of thinking about things.  Imagining they can even shift the shape of the world….

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.