Virtual Circle Check-In as an Entry Way to Practice

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

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

hands shaking through computers

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

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

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

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

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.

Exceptional is not an Extension of Good

“There is a fundamental discontinuity between good and great,” was one of the assertions Ray Ivany, President and Vice-Chancellor of Acadia University, made during a talk at a recent Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette event.  He was invited to speak on the topic of being the best and his talk was an insightful blend of the human dynamics and structural components necessary for exceptional performance.

“Exceptional is not an extension of good but it’s in a completely different place,” he said as he shared the following diagram with us.  Imagine that organizational effort is represented by a helium balloon that is attached to a stake in the ground by an elastic tether.  It manages to rise to the expectations of good performance without too much effort.  And, with some effort and exertion, it can stretch into the category of great.  However, it takes sustained effort to keep it there and as soon as the pressure is taken off, the elastic tether immediately yanks that balloon back into the category of good.

Great is not on the same continuum as Good

In order to allow it to stay in the zone of great, you actually need to sever the tether that holds it in place.   If you believe that great is discontinuous from good, the organizational and human strategies needed to move to and stay in great or exceptional performance are fundamentally different.

In looking at this diagram, it occurred to me that not only is good the enemy of great, it is probably the enemy of itself as well.  As soon as we think we are onto something good, we want to institutionalize it by creating standards and policies to maintain it.  This standardization means we often prevent the organization from conceptualizing the strategies that lead to great.  On the other side, the more we insist on standardization without the ability to continually adapt, the greater the likelihood we actually unintentionally shift our organization from good to mediocre by insisting on standards that often lose their meaning and relevance over time.

From this place of mediocrity, leaders still try to aim their people for excellence without any hope of getting there and the people are often frustrated in their efforts to shift organizational thinking and performance and no one really understands why.

We only shift the shape of our organizations from good to great, and stay there, when we build in the systems and the capacity to take different risks – one of those risks being failure.

Looking at this diagram and the capacities necessary to shift into a whole new category of performance reminded me of the Chaordic Path where one of the key questions is: “what is the minimum amount of elegant structure required to enable us to act in purposeful ways that lead to wise action and meaningful results?”  This is also the amount of structure that allows an organization to stay nimble and responsive to its environment, creating the conditions for chaos to emerge into its own sense of order and cultivating the adaptive and collaborative leadership that is also a strategy for exceptional performance.

Ray’s comments were entirely consistent with many of the steams of thought that show up in the Art of Hosting community and body of knowledge, providing a beautiful avenue of reflection for me.  The next entry will focus on some of the human dynamics elements that comprised the other main thread of this thought provoking talk.

Funerals, Families and A Family Story

I attended my uncle’s funeral today.  He was 80 years old, lived a full life and had dementia and other health issues in recent years.  His dying was not unexpected although death always brings some grief and sorrow.

My sorrow today, however, was not for my uncle.  It was for my cousin who came into the church with his family, dressed in orange prison overalls, shackles on his hands and feet, followed by two guards.  The sight was so jarring and so unexpected, tears sprang to my eyes as my heart broke open for him.

You might wonder what a man must have done to be brought to his father’s funeral in prison gear.  I suspect it has more to do with him being a flight risk than a danger to the public, although, to be honest, I don’t know why he is in jail this time.  His family has struggled with his path for some time and, understandably, don’t want to talk about it too much and they shouldn’t have to.   He has been in trouble with the law on and off for the last twenty five years, not because he grew up on “the wrong side of the tracks” or because he had a terrible childhood or because he had a bad streak in him.

He is in trouble with the law because the part of his cognitive ability that helps him discern right from wrong, appropriate from inappropriate, ethical from in-ethical, was destroyed in his mid twenties when he suffered a brain aneurism that instantaneously changed the course of his life forever.  It was a wonder he survived, many don’t, and survival came at a very high cost.

My sorrow is for a young man who lost any chance of living out his dreams or of living a normal life because he simply doesn’t know that walking out of store without paying for merchandise is wrong.  My sorrow is for a person who, one day, had a whole life of promise ahead of him and the next was thrown into unimaginable complexity and chaos in a world that had no answers and no systems to truly support him.  While I don’t know all the ins and outs of his story, I do know his family searched high and low and tried everything they could think of and then some to find a way to help him navigate his life, including having him live with them.  He has been in and out of rehabilitation centres and programs as well as jail.  Is it really true that the only place we have to house a person who’s had this kind of traumatic brain injury is in our jail system?  That breaks my heart.

And, my heart breaks open for my cousin and the path he unexpectedly finds himself on.  There is so much about him that is still quintessentially my cousin – he looks like himself, although he is now prematurely aged and hunched over.  He has a wicked sense of humour.  He knows all the people in his life.  He just doesn’t know how to respond to events in his life.  When his brother, someone he was very close to who kept a loving eye on him, died unexpectedly at a young age a few years after his aneurism, he went to see a neighbour and said, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel.”  And not from the perspective of the grief curve, but from the loss of this integral brain function.

Well, I know what I feel.  I feel my heart breaking open for my cousin, his family, the wife and children he will never have, his unlived dreams and potential and the loss to all of us of a caring, responsible, delightful, contributing young man. I still think of him as young even though he is now in his late forties.  My heart breaks open for this good person who has walked an unexpected path due to circumstances truly beyond his control that no one could have anticipated and which are, apparently, unfixable.

To see him makes me deeply grateful for the ability to intentionally shift the shape of my own path with levels of awareness no longer available to my cousin and leaves me feeling very humble.  While I’ve thought about my cousin on and off over the years and have seen him at family funerals, seeing him walk into the church today in this way will stay forever etched in my memory and my heart will be forever open with love for this human being who is part of my family and a living example of the mystery of how our individual and inextricably linked soul journeys show up in this lifetime.  Maybe if I can hold him in a field of love, even if he doesn’t know it, it will offer some ease and levity to the dark and difficult path that is his to walk.  And, really, he is still just a young man.

The Art of Collaborative Leadership

What if we could grow our courage and resilience in working with the status quo that says it wants to change but doesn’t seem to know how?  What if all we need to do is connect with others doing amazing work in our town who are facing similar challenges so we can grow and learn together how to move beyond episodes of enthusiasm to sustainable, visible and fundamental shifts?

The Art of Collaborative Leadership is an emerging way to meet a world that is increasingly complex and concerned.  It is a training and, more importantly, a practice ground for people who want to discover how collaboration can shift the shape of the world as a new core leadership capacity.  This gathering will contribute to the collective understanding of the Art of Hosting field around the world on how to do this better, more strategically and more meaningfully.  It is to amplify the ways we are working now, partly thanks to social media, and illuminate the networks through which we currently achieve results so we can hone our skill at this and become even more strategic.

We build networks and collaboration through conversation that allows us to discover the cool things we are working on and the cool things there is to know about who we are, what we are passionate about and how we show up in the world.

Mark your calendar for March 16-18, 2011 and prepare to name, illuminate, connect and grow collaborative leadership and networks in this city and beyond.  Registration details available soon.  For an advance copy of the invitation send me a note.

The amazing hosting and calling team – myself, Martin Siesta, Nancy Eagan, Jerry Nagel, Sophia Horwitz, Ryan Deschamps, and Rachel Derrah –  looks forward to meeting you where we all are and leveraging that to see what emerges.

Shape Shifting Poetic Reflection

Shape Shifting (1)

 

In over my head

Didn’t know the depth

I dived into

The deceptiveness

Of the calm

Hearing a promise

Of salvation

 

Under the surface

So much more

I didn’t want to see

Blinders on

 

Undertows

Grab hold of me

By the ankles

Yanking firmly

Sucking me down

Down

Down

 

Bubbles escape

All around me

I struggle

Wear myself out

Exhausted

 

I am lost

I cannot find myself

I am deceived

 

Struggle stops

I withdraw

Make myself small

Maybe this

Is how

I will survive

 

My soul whispers

My name

It is familiar

Like a breeze

Lightly on my skin

It is almost inaudible

With the din

Around me

 

Can I make myself smaller

Hide in plain view

 

I am sad

Angry

Poison

Is running

Through my veins

Hatred

Like I’ve never experienced

Before

 

Who is this person

Where did she come from

 

My soul whispers

My name

The undertow

Yanks me

Deeper

Into the abyss

I am lost

 

From the surface

Gazing through

The slight distortions

Of the water

I look calm

Only the occasional

Flicker

Gives clues

To onlookers

About the extent

Of chaos

Turmoil

Permeating

Every aspect

Of my being

 

My soul

Whispers

Louder

Calling my name

Begins to send

Messengers

Of hope

In unexpected

Delightful

Confusing

Illuminating ways

 

The water heats up

The seas

Unleash

The full

Fury

Of the storm

I am lost

 

Ahh

Ahh

But now

My soul

My soul’s journey

Is calling my name

Loud

Louder

Clearly

Beckoning me

Gently

Here

Here is your path

Here are

Your messengers

Here is your support

Drums

Guides

People

Places

Events

Timing

 

Open your heart

Tear down your walls

Tentative

Brick by brick

Peering out

Feeling

Little rays

Of light

Hope

Finding centre

Finding ground

 

The storm

Looms again

I rise

To meet the storm

 

STORM BE GONE!

 

Facing down

Ego

Facing down

Judgment

Self judgment

The most insidious of all

 

Yes!

You are safe

We’ve got you

You’ve got yourself

 

Love

Openly

Joyfully

 

Love is buoyant

Like a cloud

You will float

To the surface

 

I am finding

My way

Trusting

Just a little bit

Feeling buoyancy

Feeling joy

Letting go

Surrendering

 

Am I done yet

Can I graduate

What

No certificate

Life long

Life affirming

 

Why you are here

 

Surrendering

More fully

Trusting

More fully

Beauty

Unexpected delights

Surety of path

The how

Drifting off

Into the ether

Materializing

In its own

Unexpected

Glorious

Ways

 

I am found

My voice is found

My ground

My path

I am birthing

 

My soul

Is singing

Celebrating

Without the storm

Without drowning

I would still

Be lost