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.

23 thoughts on “The Art of Stewarding

  1. Beautifully written and full-heartedly expressed, Kathy. I appreciate how you capture the nuances and multitude of layers involved in stewardship and stewarding. THANKS!

  2. Hello Kathy,
    Great post, thank you. Perhaps that is the perception of the AoH community as a whole – I do understand and appreciate the role of the stewards and how needed they are for the community – on the other hand, I do see a potential shadow side of it – it sometimes transforms the art into the ‘community of experienced artists’ and holds back rich initial conversations that were once the spark of this group.
    This can happen when stewards illuminate too much and paths can become the ones already travelled by them.
    As a steward of the art and strong supporter of the community, I offer the question: How can the community support non-experienced people to host their own conversations in parallel with the wonderful conversations you shared above?

    • Beautiful questions Augusto, thank you. I think conversations are being hosted all the time by people who have gathered either spontaneously or for very specific reasons with and without “experienced practitioners”. I know so many people drawn to the Art of Hosting community because it helps frame for them what they already do. My experience of stewarding – both personally and in working with others – is that this question of how much illumination is an active one. Many times I have been in places where experienced practitioners have erred on the side of not illuminating enough, working with the belief that the wisdom and knowledge is inherent in individuals and collectives. Feels like a question we all need to be mindful of in our work as we continue to practice with the edges.

      I also like your reference to shadow — it is a conversation alive and well in many parts of the AoH community I touch into. Knowing everything has a shadow side associated with it how do we hold space for naming it and working with it.

      I am interested in how we hold the space open as much as possible with invitation and also how all these conversation spaces fuel the field of meaningful conversation and connection – because it does feel to me as if it is growing in beautiful and expansive ways.

      • Hi Kathy,

        “How do we hold the space open”
        I’m also very much interested in this question. It is very hard to invite a community of light to talk about a possible shadow side – specially because I obviously cannot be certain if it is a shadow side after all (or if it’s my shadow side :).
        Anyway, I feel it might be an important question so I’ll keep sharing it as it becomes more and more clear to me (us).

        “How all these conversation spaces fuel the field of meaningful conversation and connection”
        That’s beautifully uncontrollable. I have no idea how, but love to recognise it. This is something that the community has been doing wonderfully.

        Thanks again!

      • At the Stewards gathering last summer in Bowen Island, shadow became a large part of the conversation and it is a particular interest of a few of us, including Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea. Because it is a naturally occurring part of us as individuals and in groups, one of the questions we are in is how to normalize the illumination of shadow as part of process, not as a bad thing but as a naturally occurring phenomena to be alert to. I have heard Christina say that it is easier to sweep away shadow as dust bunnies than when they grow into the unspeakables in the room.

        Often our own individual shadow is part of the collective shadow. It is one of the reasons why developing the capacity to be present, or hosting one’s self, is such an important part of the work we do. I also love the notion that judgment and curiosity cannot exist in the same place – and I realize that defensiveness also does not exist in the same place as curiosity – so when we reallize we are in the space of judgment or defensive or any other response that maybe closing us off, becoming curious is one way to open the space – curious about my own response, curious about another person, curious about what all might be happening in a space.

        This is reminding me, this may be a good time to reopen some conversations on shadow. A few of us had thought about opening up a series of conversations to anyone in the AoH community interested in participating – to both have the conversation but also do some experimentation and learning to share with those in the conversation.

        My final thing for now – control is an illusion and the harder we try to impose it the more elusive it actually gets 🙂 .

        Augusto thanks for fueling this exchange. Feels generative and I appreciate being in it. Kathy

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  10. As someone once very involved in Bohmian Dialogue ( your use of the word stewards resonates deeply with me. Today I use the term ‘steward’ to redefine the role of parents and educators in the lives of children. In the long run, the most minimally presumptuous and maximally relevant thing we can do is to ‘steward the HEALTH of our children’s learning’. – Glad you are out there stewarding learning!

    • Thank you David. Stewarding is very much in my awareness these days. I will check out the links you have provided here when I’m settled back home after an amazing week in Brazil at Hosting from A Deeper Place.

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