Front End Load Your Planning Process – Need and Purpose

“If you are at a meeting and you don’t know why you are there, why ARE you there?” I have heard Jerry Nagel say this often enough when he teaches the Chaordic Stepping Stones at a training. The same goes for a planning process. “If you don’t know why you are doing something, why ARE you doing it?”

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

Many planning processes jump right into logistics (the 8th Stepping Stone, by the way) – budget, where the meeting will be, what the agenda is, important people who need to there. Then, when the planning team tries to decide what should happen during the meeting or planning process, people are unclear and sometimes confused or there are too many ideas floating around as meeting agenda is fitted to logistics rather than fitting logistics to the purpose of the work.

Purpose imagePurpose is the invisible leader. It keeps a  community engagement process, planning process or meeting agenda on track. Purpose arises out of Need. Taking the time to reach clarity on need and purpose is, what I often tell my clients, a front end loaded process. It takes time. It can get messy – anyone resonate with, “Let’s just make a decision!” And it can change the quality of the whole process. It is part of what we refer to as slowing down to go fast.

Need is an understanding of the current situation – the reason you have decided that something should be done, planned, convened. When the Need is clearly understood, the articulation of Purpose is often easy. Getting to the root Need can take some exploration and conversation because sometimes the Need that appears most obvious is fuelled by less obvious underlying patterns, behaviours or structures.

Jerry often shares a story about a school district he worked with. School funding comes from area rates and the community had refused, several years in a row, to increase the area rate to address some maintenance issues in the school – the roof needed fixing, the seats were broken and there were other maintenance issues. As he asked the planning team about need they repeated these things several times until someone finally had an insight. The relationship between the school and the community was broken. This was the deeper need to be addressed. Recognizing this changed the whole approach to the planning process.

A few years ago, I worked with a group in Nova Scotia focused on breakfast programs in schools. There were some changes in the environment impacting the organization that delivered these programs and prompting the exploration of a new means to deliver breakfast programs. The most obvious need was to ensure and organizational structure for ongoing breakfast program delivery. The deeper need was a recognition that children who had breakfast were better learners. The planning team recognized the need to nourish the children so they could learn better and the idea of nourishment was expansive, offering the possibilities of broader interpretations (but still very focused) into the future which led to the development and name of a new organization – Nourish Nova Scotia.

Nourish Nova ScotiaUnderstanding the need led to this purpose: To cultivate generations of healthy eaters. And, to this  vision: All Nova Scotia children and youth are well nourished to live, learn and play. With a bit of extra clarification: We aim to support the nutritional well-being of children and youth and desire to build their food knowledge and skills so they can feed themselves well into a healthier future.

Need and Purpose conversations often take a group into a groan zone which is one of the reasons people want to cut it short to get to the “important” tasks of planning. When this happens, it is common that the groan zone just gets transferred to some other part of the process, slowing it down somewhere else. Holding people in the space of a groan zone is a leadership skill.

Also, in any given project there may be multiple layers of need and purpose identified. For a project I’m working on with the United Way in Halifax right now, we are planning a community engagement event in September. That event has a need and purpose identified. There is a desire (even a need) to recruit a planning team representative of the community to ensure success. The need for the planning team has been identified as well as the purpose. And there is a meeting planned to invite potential planning team members  to step up and the need and purpose of that launch meeting has also been identified. The need and purpose of the planning launch meeting and the planning team are aligned with the need and purpose of the community gathering (I want to say, of course) and having this clarity at each step of the process keeps the whole thing on track.

KJ explaining something at WC table CA Women's leadershipSometimes the conversation is iterative as understanding of Need and Purpose may evolve through the course of the planning process. Yet, when these two stepping stones are clear, the rest of the planning process can unfold quickly.

The New Year: A Time of Renewal

relax renew refreshDecember 31. 2014. The sun sets on another calendar year. For so many, a time of making resolutions for a new year. Reflecting on this practice raises an awareness of the arbitrariness of a calendar date in making resolutions. It is not a solstice time. It is not necessarily a full moon or a new moon although in different years it may be. It is not a natural time of beginnings like spring, or like the fall has become for so many.  Yet it is a time of reflection and a time of renewal.

For me, it has the added significance of New Year’s Day also being my birthday. Beginning a new year. Beginning a new birth year. I long ago stopped making resolutions that take the form of promises to myself about life changes I think I should make or goals that I should strive for that often become broken promises or unreached goals. It has softened into reflection, intention setting and renewal.

Some lovely reflection questions:

  • How have I grown in the last year?
  • What places of beauty have I walked?
  • Who has impacted me and in what ways?
  • What and who have I cherished and made time for in my journey of the last year?
  • Who has cherished me? How did I respond in return?
  • In what ways have I honoured my knowing?
  • In what ways have I honoured the practicality of work and life too?
  • What has flowed to me over the last year in large and small ways? What do I want to fuel and seed in the coming weeks and months?
  • How have I honoured my path? How has my path honoured me?

Of course, there are things that have not flowed so well and maybe choices that didn’t work out so well. But these are not things  to focus on or fuel for what is ahead. If there are things to learn from them, by all means, let’s be in the learning. Absorb it. Let it go.

Intention setting. There are a number of ways to approach intention setting.

There are already many flows of life happening and available to each of us. What if intention setting began by sensing into those flows? Feel what works. Not need to name it even while being in the experience of it. What are the flows that want to be amplified? How do we turn our intention to that?

What BIG things are in movement or on the horizon that are worth setting intention for – aspects of work like big projects, new directions, partnerships, offerings; aspects of life like relationships, travel, living. Not just living. Living large, fully, powerfully, intentionally. Which doesn’t have to be flashy or braggy or materialistically but purposefully and meaningfully. Making it count. Your actions, your life, your voice, your word.

Leaving space for all the things we cannot know or anticipate but will recognize when they show up when they are aligned with the intention we set and are fuelling. Who do you want to set intention with – life partners, work partners, friends, colleagues? Nothing that feels forced, and it won’t if it is aligned with what is sensed in the flow of life and journey.

Renewal. Renewal of self. How will I renew myself now? My energy. My spirit. My joie d’vive? Renewal of relationship. What relationships do I want to renew now and continue to renew with intentionality? This does not just apply to the lapsed relationships we all have, but applies to the ones we are in and have now that we do not want to take for granted and that we want to bring the fullness of who we are to, to invite the other to show up in the fullness of who they are.

Reflection, intention setting and renewal. Not just a once a year practice, but a frequent practice. And, with the ending of one calendar year and the beginning of the next, a lovely time for renewal.


Documenting Our Work: Three Simple Guides to Harvesting

Central to good process design is understanding what needs to be captured for posterity – documented or recorded in a way that serves the purpose of the work. In the Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter, we call this harvesting. In an AoH training we will often invite a harvest team to take care of this on behalf of the group and offer harvest in from time to time – using words, like through slam poetry or story telling, visually in graphic facilitation or with a wordle, with music, movement or in any other number of ways. In a consulting process for strategic planning, community engagement, innovation or other processes, the question of what needs to be documented is in play from the very beginning. At least one or several of the team holds a primary responsibility for it.

The term harvest is used to invite us to imagine beyond the traditional (sometimes wordy, sometimes boring) report that is often the way we capture and record our work. There are many ways to approach harvest but until July 2014, in Grand Rapids, I had not seen really simple clear guidelines to use in consideration of helpful, useful documentation. Sheila Kiscaden offered the best teach I have personally witnessed so far – clear, easy to understand with beautiful analogies and diagrams that have inspired me to harvest her harvest teach in my blog.

There are three simple guides to consider in documenting your work: what is the purpose of the harvest, who is the audience or recipient and what are the methods available for you to choose from?


Is the purpose of the harvest or documentation for immediate consumption, as an ingredient in something else, for preservation and perhaps later consumption, or to be transformed into something else? The analogy of grapes offers a beautiful visual that helps us think of the purpose of the harvest.

  1. Consume

grapesPerhaps the harvest is for immediate consumption – you want or need to eat the grapes now. In a training situation, the group might hear the themes and patterns emerging from a world café process but have no need to capture what they are hearing beyond that moment.

As an additional step you might want to have the themes that have been identified at a table or in a small group IMG_0890captured on post-it notes so there is a visible harvest as well as an auditory one. The post-it notes can be displayed on a wall, clustered into the themes and patterns that have emerged. Clustering can be done by someone on the hosting team and is usually more powerful when done by the people in the room. You might only need a visible harvest for immediate consumption or it might play a later role in one of the other categories identified.

  1. Ingredient

fruit saladIt could be that the grapes are needed as an ingredient in something bigger, like a fruit salad. They still essentially look the same but now are mixed in with other ingredients, adding flavour, new insight and new perspectives. The harvest could be an instigator for something else or something more, part of a mosaic that creates a more complete picture. A synthesis of themes and patterns might be incorporated into a report, ideas might become part of a strategic plan. These ingredients might be essential to an ongoing dialogue.

  1. Preserve

grape jamYou could turn your grapes into jam or jelly – preserve the harvest as a record of an event, a gathering, a meeting or conversation, perhaps when it is important to have a record to note or acknowledge that this event or conversation transpired – like an annual report for an organization. People can go back and look at it and it is an end in and of itself although perhaps a useful reference point in the future when scanning the past.

  1. Transform

wine and grapesLike grapes can be transformed into something else through a process – like dried into raisins or distilled into wine – it could be that the harvest will also be transformed into something else. Themes and patterns might become part of a generative conversation leading you into new conversational spaces, opportunities or ideas – like what can happen in the emergence phase of divergence-emergence-convergence. Input in stakeholder dialogues or community engagement meetings might transform into a larger purpose. A synthesis of many conversations will still hold the essence of the original ingredients and look very different in a transformational process.

Who is the intended audience or recipient?

The harvest might be just for you, a personal harvest, or it could be contributing to a group process or needed for public consumption. This will cause you to also consider how you will harvest.

  1. Personal harvest. It could be that you are harvesting for yourself – taking notes or drawing in a personal journal, creating reflective space for yourself for your own current and future learning.
  1. Sharing with small circles. Is the documentation required for committee meetings, to inform a sponsor of progress in a project, a record of what is shared in a circle of friends or colleagues? If so, what needs to be captured, how is it shared and how often?
  1. Share more broadly. Perhaps your harvest is part of a larger initiative and information needs to be shared with larger audiences, inside your organization, as part of a marketing or public relations strategy, within a community, as part of a public engagement initiative. Who your audience is or needs to be will influence how you think about your harvest.


There are a myriad of methods of harvest available and the methods you choose will be influenced by the purpose of your harvest, the intended audience and the nature of the work you are engaged in. Some ideas follow. They are categorized but many of these ideas could belong in more than one category and you could be using any combination of methods at any given time. Be as creative as is helpful for your work.


  • Reports – which might look like a traditional report or document or could be enlivened with pictures, quotes and sidebars which are more likely to attract and keep attention.
  • Blog posts – many individuals and organizations provide a record or reflections through blog posts which can be captured in the moment or, more likely, provided afterwards.
  • Mindmaps – a diagram used to visually track information and, more significantly, relationships between information. It can be crafted in the moment, with the group identifying and mapping the relationships, where they could also “vote” for the themes that have the greatest energy for them, and later (or in the moment) it can be transcribed into mind mapping software and distributed in a report.
  • Videos – within the process, later in editing or recapping. Understanding what you hope to do with the video and having a videographer and editor who is familiar with the topic at hand, the intent of your work and the language you use is helpful in creating the best record possible.
  • Interviews – people involved in your process can be interviewed about their experience and those interviews posted somewhere for access by the intended audiences. Good questions will produce good interview results.
  • Post-it notes – can be used to capture information, particularly themes and patterns from conversations and processes and then used to cluster the information into a meta themes and patterns.


  • IMG_0892Graphic facilitation – the use of large scale imagery produced live in the moment to capture the essence of the conversations and outcomes of the process. It activates a different part of the brain and helps people see what they are experience and what they know.
  • Photography – of people, processes, flip chart notes and of the other ways that information is being captured. This is a very common form of harvest for individuals and for collective purposes.
  • Table top documentation (like from world cafés) – while oftentimes this provides too much information and most is not that usable, sometimes there is some amazing artwork that does capture some of the important essences of the experience and this can be used also to enliven a report.


  • Body sculptures – this is often an on the spot harvest of the experience where participants are asked to “sculpt” their experience – perhaps using only their own body or having participants do this in small groups, using group members to create a “sculpture” that reflects their experience. This rotates so that every person either creates their own sculpture or the group might evolve a collective sculpture.
  • Movement – People are asked to offer a movement which we sometimes ask everyone else to mirror. This is a powerful experience that enables the group to embody the collective experience.
  • Dance – it is not uncommon for people who have some form of dance practice to be part of a group or a process and to offer their practice as one way to harvest or even simply to introduce movement into a process at a time when it is helpful to awakening body intelligence.
  • Skits – this is a beautiful way to harvest a conversation, a learning journey experience, a process evolution that illuminates other ways of knowing and gives us a glimpse into any patterns in the system that maybe at play.


  • Poetry, including slam poetry and other forms of poetic harvest – many people are gifted with a talent for poetry. Sometimes it is a live capture of a circle check-in or other process. Participants always listen carefully to hear their contribution reflected back into the room and it is easier to do than most people imagine. Sometimes there are some very gifted poets in our spaces who offer their work and/or a capture in the moment. Sometimes a poem written by others shows up in the space because it is the perfect harvest in the moment.
  • Story telling – on the spot storytelling invited through a question or later storytelling captured in blog posts, interviews or recordings. Using story brings the experience alive for others who were and were not there.
  • Music/song – this may be music or song that someone brings that resonates with the experience of the group or it may be co-created by the harvest team or the group.
  • Voice recording/radio interviews – this is a way of capturing the experience and spreading the word more widely in a community or amongst an audience.


  • Virtual repositories of information – websites, listservs (like the AoH listserv) – public or internal, community sites, other virtual networks and social media.
  • Any combination of ways and means to document and distribute information – identified here or emerging in new ways.

In these days of a proliferation of media tools and short attention spans, sparking imagination with harvests – both within the team and for the intended audiences – can make your work more accessible to your audiences and bring it alive in new ways. It is a place where people can bring their talents, sometimes gifts they don’t use in the regular course of their work. The more we access the range of learning and information styles at our disposal, the richer the resonance of our work.

Ingredients for Hosting Team Success – An Inquiry

How is it we can take a group of people who may or may not know each other, throw them into a prep or planning day together and have them emerge out the other side as a team, ready to co-create and co-host a three or four day Art of Hosting training, to greater or lesser degrees as a cohesive, fluid team?

In the last few years, I have had powerful experiences of this happening in Atlantic Canada, in Brazil, in the United States, as I’ve invited or been invited onto hosting teams with a wide variety of backgrounds and experience, different levels of readiness to step more fully into hosting and different size teams from six to fourteen. And these days, in my experience, although individuals on the team know each other, the whole team has only met each other in person on that prep day.

Cohesive, fluid hosting teams hasn’t always been my experience.  Especially in my early days of hosting.  Having contrasting experiences offered me opportunities to notice and reflect on what worked and what didn’t.  Hosting myself, I became aware of how to, more often, invite the kind of experiences that work well.    Recently a good friend invited me into a deeper inquiry of, in my experience, what makes strong teams possible?  What are the ingredients for hosting team success?  These are not definitive by any stretch of the imagination, but they are some of the themes I’m noticing that consistently support strength and capacity in hosting teams I’ve been part of.

Some of it is in what happens in prep day.  Most of it is the quality of invitation to all of us on the team whether we are seasoned hosts or stewards, practitioners, apprentices, or logistics coordinators to show up fully.  We are all equally human, equally beautiful, equally valuable and  each of us holds a part of the whole.

There is no question the space for this invitation is held by the stewards.  It is not just a verbally issued invitation, it is one that is fully and authentically supported in all our actions and in our energetic field, in the space we create and hold for others to step into, in the responsiveness to all the voices that show up.  When, as seasoned hosts, we are able to step into our own humility and support the field from what might seem a less visible place, we open the space for others to step in more fully.

There are, of course, times that what we have to offer from our experience is what is needed – a thought, an observation, a question, a teach, a framing for what’s in the room, making something visible, stepping into our own brilliance in service of what is needed now. Knowing when to step in and offer what is needed now is also important – a part of the art.  Doing it in a way that builds on what others have offered, in the spirit of expansion and illumination, is a gift to self, a gift to others and a gift to the field in which we work.

To seed this field of invitation I want to have at least one other person on the team I know well, where mutual full trust exists, with whom I know we can handle anything that comes along.  With a minimum of the two of us (and one or two more is even better), we can hold the space for whatever wants or needs to show up in the team – and then in the gathering we are co-hosting.

Co-hosts and apprentices are wanting to know and understand their role, what they can contribute and how welcome their contribution may or may not be.  We are all wanting to know where all our learning edges are, what each of us wants to step into and how this can best be supported.  In particular, I am wanting to support people stepping up to their next level of learning, hosting or offering.  It is a thing of beauty when people publicly step into their learning edges, usually with some fear, some trepidation and loads of courage.

Prep day itself begins with its own welcome, framing and flow.  And an invitation to the full team to find the places they want to step in.  We begin open heartedly.  Infusing the space with welcome, invitation and confidence.  We move to  a check-in process. First on a  personal level.  What draws us to this work? What are we most excited about? Whatever question that personally brings us into the work and into the team.  Then we move onto what we know about who is coming, what their questions are, what they might be hoping for.

The harvest from these two rounds of check in is a co-created purpose statement to guide our planning and design process.  From there we take a first crack at design.  What is the invitation for each day? How will we invite people in, invite them to stay in, create the space for what they want to do and the opportunity for them to reflect on what they will do when they leave.  It is at this point I often notice the energetic threads weaving amongst the team.  People connecting more deeply.  Similar thoughts and ideas emerging at the same time.  Laughter in the room as synchronicities show up.  The awareness we have tapped a deeper place.

We take a look at what we’ve crafted.  Identify day hosts, hosting opportunities, coaching opportunities.  We invite hosting team members to offer where they most want to play.  We step in where we know our wisdom, knowledge and learning will most serve and we look for balance in the offerings.  We create a field of caring and intention and we prepare ourselves to welcome the larger group in the same open hearted invitation instilled with curiosity and generosity.

As a team, we stay tuned into and aware of each other in subtle and obvious ways.  We continue to invite each other’s brilliance and to support each other.  We work with the ebb and flow of individual and collective energy and know that we have each other’s backs. We ask for what we need and offer what we can. We invite each other.  We check in at the beginning of the day and we check out at the end of the day.  Openly.  Honestly.  Speaking what is in our hearts, minds and awareness.  Tuning in to what is in the space.

I don’t know if this is a recipe for hosting team success.  I know it’s been working in the places I’ve been and in the teams I have the pleasure of being in learning with.  I am certain there are other ingredients, other recipes that work equally well and will continue to be in co-learning and inquiry to continue to grow my own capacity to support hosting team success.

A question very much alive every time we step into a team, those we’ve worked with before and those we are working with for the first time is: what is the humility, generosity, open heartedness and also the brilliance that needs to be present and available in me, in each of us and collectively that supports the environment of co-learning in service of the field we are entering and committed to holding?

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….