Hosting Conversations in Challenging Times: Moving From Difference to Understanding

well informed or sane comicEach day, watching the news, social media feeds or just being out in public, we are bombarded by polarized and polarizing points of view. Whether it is election campaigns (like in the US right now), the refugee crisis, climate change, environmentalism, terrorism or race and racism, deep divides are apparent in many places all over the world. There are more profound business, social and humanitarian issues and challenges that have our attention every day. Oppositional views seem to be more entrenched, more vocal and less open to exploring alternative perspectives.

As the world around us grows increasingly fragmented, it is growing more difficult to sort through all the clamour to get to the heart of what is truly important, to make progress on issues that matter. What we see, hear and experience can cause us to pause, to think (or worry) deeply about the impact, internally and externally, to us, our organizations, our communities and our social systems.

With the intensity of the challenges in front of us, we can be hesitant or unwilling to tackle issues head on for fear that, even in beginning, things could bog down or stall into inaction. We live and work in a time when there is increasing urgency around our societal and economic issues and it is more important than ever for us to know how to be in conversations on issues that challenge us, that we don’t always know how to begin, even when we are skilled at it.

In preparation for Hosting Conversations in Challenging Times: Moving From Difference to Understanding, in the Twin Cities in May 2016, Bob-e Simpson-Epps, Dave Ellis, Jerry Nagel and I have been in many conversations about what has our attention, about what threads we want to bring into this Art of Hosting training and about our own learning edges as we imagine the conversations. Conversations that open up space, invite diverse perspectives or worldviews and move us from fragmentation to connection, from reaction to wise action, to be in the space of honest, authentic dialogue with one another that is not limited by fear or anxiety, to bring compassion and curiosity to discovering new ways to be and act with each other.

How do we prepare ourselves to be in these conversations, to host and hold the space for others to also enter genuinely? What, we wondered, can we specifically offer ourselves and others in consideration of engaging the challenging conversations in our environments? And, of course, we realized that among the many patterns, practices and frameworks available to us is the foundational Four Fold Practice.

The Four Fold Practice

four-fold-practiceThis pattern contains four practices that fold onto and into each other. For a simple pattern it contains much wisdom.

The first practice is to be present and this is fundamental to all the others. This is often referred to this as “hosting self”. This is the concept of know thyself. Know what keeps you grounded, know what gives you joy, know what triggers you, know what activates the “itty-bitty-shitty” committee that sits on your shoulder. Be prepared to bring curiosity and compassion to this exploration. Curiosity and judgment cannot exist in the same space. Develop the practices that help you stay grounded – meditation, running, reflection, journaling, sitting with a cup of tea, yoga, time with family. The list of possible practices is as long as your imagination and you probably already use quite a few. Practices that help you be mindful, help you be aware. As the Aikido master Morihei Ueshiba said when asked how he stays so grounded all the time, “I am taken off my center 1000 times a day but I know how to recover quickly.” It is very difficult to host another person or a conversation, if you do not know how to host yourself.

The second practice is practice conversation. It is the willingness to surrender into being hosted in addition to hosting another. It is to bring deep listening, listening with the intent to hear and understand. When we change the quality of the listening we change the quality of the conversation. It is with our most trusted friends and colleagues that we can begin the conversations on subjects that challenge us the most, to be ready to hear different perspectives, to be ready to acknowledge that another person may have had a very different experience with the exact same situation. To be curious about the other person and about ourselves. These are the kinds of conversations Dave, Bob-e, Jerry and I are often in.

The third practice is hosting conversations, to “contribute”. This is developing meeting design, hosting process, creating the conditions for good engagement and good outcomes, usually in a co-creative, collaborative process. This is where we understand we do not host alone, that there is value, significance and richness to co-hosting. This is especially true in challenging contexts. Different hosts pick up on different cues in a room. Participants respond and connect differently to different hosts. If one host is triggered – or triggers something or someone – than another host can hold that space in a far more resourceful capacity. How do we create and support processes that enables us to host challenging spaces really well?

The fourth practice is “co-creation”, to work collaboratively with others, to learn with and from each other. This has been some of the richest learning in this team that has enabled us to develop deep bonds of friendship since we all first met in 2012 at an AoH training Jerry and I were co-hosting.

It is by meeting ourselves and turning to each other that we find the strength, courage and humility to meet the greatest challenges of our times.

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3 thoughts on “Hosting Conversations in Challenging Times: Moving From Difference to Understanding

    • Thank you Doug. I forgot to mention explicitly in my post that it is not going from step 1 to 2 to 3 to 4 but that they can all be active at the same time or we can be giving more emphasis to one or another at any given time. Always good to hear from you friend.

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