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.

Corridor of the Dying or Something Else?

It is such a small leap for me I don’t know why it never occurred to me before.

I went to visit my mother this weekend.  She has had dementia for more years than we know and she has been in long term care for almost three.  Awhile ago I wrote about only understanding her journey from a soul perspective.  This is becoming more true for me as she gets nearer to her transition.

During this visit, I sat on her bed with her, maintaining physical touch the whole time I was there.  When she looked at me and we held eye contact, she smiled and even laughed.  So did I.  Sometimes with my tears also flowing.  The rest of the time, I watched her lift her head to look very intently at things I could not see all around her room.  It is clear to me that spirit in gathering although less clear to me when she will finally decide to let go of her physical body, but likely soon.   We, her family, are becoming more ready as we walk this path her.

To get to the dementia ward in what everyone in the town calls “the Home”, you enter the front door of the building, walk a short corridor past the administration offices and enter through an electronically locked door into the main residential part of the building.  You then have to walk down a long corridor to get to the dementia ward, behind yet another locked door.

As you enter the residential part of the building, you come upon people – old people and in some cases, really old people – sitting in wheel chairs or chairs – just sitting there for the most part, most nodding off.  Those are the ones well enough to be sitting up.  As you go down the corridor, bedrooms are on either side and in most of them someone is lying on a bed, oblivious to the rest of the world.  Sleeping, snoring, unaware. And, as good as this place is – and I do believe it is one of the best, it smells of old people waiting to die, sometimes less so, sometimes more so.  It is a hard corridor to walk with regularity, know the shape of these people’s lives have shifted so dramatically.

I have always thought of these people as waiting to die.  We all know the only way people come out of long term care is in a coffin.  This is where some of our population go to die – when their loved ones can no longer take care of them and, believe me, that is not an easy decision.

For some reason, with this visit with my mom, I had a little revelation and I don’t know why it never occurred to me before, but I’m glad it has now because it expands my awareness of what else just might be going on in these corridors.

My spiritual journey over the last dozen years or so has shown me pathways to altered consciousness, to spirit journeying, to spirit guides, angels and other entities.  I am aware that it is possible to “travel” in dream states – sleeping and waking – and that much good and healing work can happen in these states of altered awareness and consciousness.

As I sat with my mother and observed her looking at that which she could see and I couldn’t, I all of a sudden became aware that her physical body might be old and weak and her brain injured, as they say at the Home, but her spirit or soul is strong.  I began to wonder just where, how far and how often she may have been journeying while her physical body slept and that thought took me to all those sleeping bodies throughout the whole facility and a curiosity about where some of those souls might be journeying to while their physical bodies sleep.  I’m sure some of them may well be wrestling with their own demons, so to speak, but whose to say that most of them aren’t off doing much needed soul work in ordinary and non-ordinary reality.

Then I could feel a bubble of light surrounding this Home. The notion that these beautiful souls might be making contributions to the world that most of us cannot see or understand made my own spirit more joyful.  And now I hold my mother’s journey with an added degree of lightness and joy which I have no doubt she feels.  She is journeying well and will continue to do so, I have no doubt.  She is a great teacher for me.  And I love her and she know that.

“Soft Skills” – A Real Misnomer!

Ask anyone.  The hardest thing we ever do is relate to other people, especially as leaders in our organizations or communities, but also in our personal relationships.  Ask anyone what the most difficult component of their job is: relationships, interpersonal dynamics, people.  Ask project managers why most projects fail: inadequate communication and team members moving in different directions or having differing priorities.  Ask teams their greatest challenge: getting work done – because of interpersonal dynamics that get in the way.  Because people challenges interfere in getting the job done, slowing us down.

Empathy, leadership, communication, sociability, ability to laugh, optimism, common sense, responsibility,  integrity and motivation are some of the skills identified as soft. Somehow soft has become interchangeable with expendable so when budgets become tight the first thing to go is soft skills.

Soft skills are not about being nicey nice.  They are about creating the conditions for relationships to grow, enabling individuals and teams to engage in difficult and necessary conversations, not so we can all live in some kind of utopia but in service of getting work done, achieving results, having impact, shifting systems, seeing possibility, opening to emergence.  We do our best work with people we like, people we care about and people we love.  We have our greatest resilience in systems that care. We reach our highest potential in supportive environments that encourage growth.  We take our greatest risks when we know someone will help us up and dust us off when we fall so we can all be ready for what’s next.

There is nothing soft about soft skills.  They require discipline, practice and self awareness.  They require risk and letting go of control, trusting others to step up and in when we create the space for them to do so and they require discernment about what is the right amount of leadership, coaching and support required to allow teams and individuals the highest possibility of growth and contribution.

One of the reasons I gravitate to the Art of Hosting Body of Knowledge is because of the emphasis on creating the field or conditions from which wise action, results and impact will flow, flowing out of a well tended relational field.

We will not shift the shape of the world only through projects.  We will shift it by paying attention to the quality of the relational field and our relationships.  The greater the quality of the relational field, the greater the power to engage in actions with such purposefulness that the shape of the world cannot help but shift.

Art of Hosting: Example of a Collaborative Network

The Art of Hosting is an example of a collaborative network.  It’s not the only one but it is the one I am most familiar with and it is the one I find myself speaking about most often when the topic of new models of organization or business comes up.

The Art of Hosting network emerged organically, even before it was called Art of Hosting (AoH) as practitioners of dialogic processes gathered to inquire into what it was they did that was different and what were the conditions that contributed to their successful consulting or process work.  They created the conditions for relevant and meaningful conversations to occur in such a way that the conversations individuals, organizations and communities had were different and more impactful than the ones they traditionally had had and where wiser, more informed action often emerged.

As trainings were offered – always co-hosted by a team, they were a place of co-learning and open source sharing and such a meeting of mind, heart and spirit that people naturally wanted to stay in touch to continue sharing and learning.   Teams of hosts were invited into the same work together and variations of these host teams emerged as people newly introduced to AoH who wanted to deepen their understanding and practice began to call AoH trainings and join host teams.

Somewhere along the way, the AoH listserve was born and, as is typical of listserves, there are sporadic bursts of activity around themes that catch fire among some list serve members and there is also silence for some periods of time.

There were always people who carried a deep curiousity about this work and what, for many of the AoH practitioners I know, is a sense of deep calling.  They – we – work together often, deepening learning and often find each other at other gatherings like, for instance, ALIA.

From early on the notion of stewarding began to emerge and there have been many conversations along the way about what is stewarding, what is a steward, who is a steward, what is the AoH, how do we protect the integrity of this work, is there a brand, what do we do when someone calls an AoH training and no one in the network seems to know who they are.  These kinds of questions are integral to gatherings of stewards – practitioners who do not just use the AoH in their work but tend to the larger field.  A steward seems to be someone who understands deep within themselves what we call the DNA of the AoH – the formative field from which the AoH emerged.

Over the last decade, the number of AoH offerings has grown exponentially through public offerings and through client work that many of us are engaged in. These offerings have now occurred literally around the world, although not in every country yet.  We have experimented with forms of AoH like the Art of Participatory Leadership, the Art of Collaborative Leadership, the Art of Social Innovation, the Art of Harvesting, the Art of Protection, the Art of Humans Being and I’m sure there are more.

The AoH network is not without its faults or its own shadow.  It resists defined structure, hard and fast rules and continues to be organic despite calls from time to time for definitive answers.  It resists responding in traditional ways and roles.    Not everyone is happy with the way it works. And it works exceptionally well.

There is no central office and there are no staff.  While not a perfect system, AoH host teams are invited to share a percentage of the revenue earned in trainings to help support the technology that is key to connecting this global community and to offer something to those in this network who host this on our behalf.  And any of us can also contribute personally.

The AoH community is held together by a strong sense of purpose and principles in the work, a commonality of language and practice and core methodologies, processes, and world views. We understand that before we can host others, we must host ourselves and that we grow the body of knowledge and our own knowledge and practice through communities of practice.

It is easy to find people to work with on small and large projects and on systemic change work because there is such a strong alignment of principles and values.  I’m a sole practitioner but I’m not a sole practitioner because at any given time I either draw on the body of knowledge of the AoH or the mates I have in this network.  I have the privilege and benefit of often working on international hosting teams – here and elsewhere.

As the network grows, the sense of caring for the core of the AoH grows stronger amongst those of us who feel we are stewarding something here,  recognizing that it is completely impossible to control how it spreads, nor would we want to.  That is both the beauty and power of it – and the frustration.   It is a chaordic organization.

When we come together as teams to work together there are no hard and fast rules but there is certainly a sense of honour and integrity in relationships and of patterns of hosting and relationship.  We operate by agreement and we determine who and how host team members get paid by agreement achieved in conversation each time we gather.    People who are not part of this network sometimes have a hard time understanding that we don’t necessarily need a written contract to work with each other (like when one of my good friends was trying to get into Halifax to co-host with me and others and the customs officials asked several times to see the non-existent contract).

We care deeply about this work, about this body of knowledge, about this community and about the relationships we have entered into that are enduring for many of us.  We have a lot of conversation – purposeful conversation.  We don’t have a lot of structure.

A lot of information on AoH can be found on the website and on the community ning.  What I’m offering here is just one version of a very large story, the beginning of which I did not actually witness.  I don’t think this form of organization is the right form for every organization but with the clients I work with who are in a question of what next and how to structure their organization, I offer it out as an example to take some learnings from.  I also talk about World Cafe and Berkana, among others, as organizations experimenting with different organizational models.  Built on trust.  Built on relationship.  Purpose.  Principles.

And, it will be one of the collaborative networks used as an example during the Art of Collaborative Leadership next month in Halifax as we explore the conditions that foster good collaborative networks and what their role is in shifting the shape of the world.

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.

The Wolf at Twilight – A must read!

In the past I have heard about the need for people – us, white people, in North America – to understand the impact of colonization on the story of this land – a story begun many thousands of years before there was ever a European landing on the shores of North America.

This story is compellingly told by Kent Nerburn in his book The Wolf at Twilight: An Indian Elder’s Journey Through a Land of Ghosts and Shadows. Nerburn is the story catcher for a Dakota elder, named “Dan” in the book, who he journeyed with a number of times over a couple of decades.

In telling Dan’s story, he also tells the story of the First Nations people, of how they welcomed newcomers to their land, wanting to learn from them and willing to share with them.  How cultures, beliefs and ways of life clashed so dramatically that the First Nations people were practically wiped out in a land as vast as North America.

European ways of being were forced upon a people and a land with a system of property ownership that went beyond just land.  A significant portion of the population was wiped out because of their lack of immunity to the diseases brought by the European settlers.  The very rigid religious systems played a part in attempting to wipe out the remainder by crushing the heart and soul of a people and their culture through “educating” them in the white man’s language and traditions – and through the use of force.  The impact of residential schools on families and a people was devastating.

There was a time in our history when the white man wanted to drive First Nations people into extinction and when they couldn’t kill the people anymore, they killed their food supply, deliberately laying waste to magnificent herds of buffalo that once roamed this land.

The path to alcoholism and drug use emerged as the light of the soul dimmed, flickered and was almost extinguished.

The sense I got from reading The Wolf at Twilight is that it is not really about laying blame, although it very well could be.  It is about generating understanding of a time, history and culture that is fundamentally important to what is happening today in the world.

In my travels and work, I am seeing a growth in interest around indigenous practices and ceremonies – circle council, vision quests, sweat lodges, drummings, sundance ceremonies, an honouring of the life breath that is in everything and everyone and shamanic practice.  These practices are being reclaimed by First Nations people as they relearn traditions that have been almost lost to them and work to heal the soul of their people and their culture.  These practices are being adopted by white people who hear the whisper of the sacred in these practices and are also seeking healing – for themselves, their communities and the earth.

This book is a must read for all of us interested in shifting the shape of our future.  We need to understand our history – not just what we consider to be the good parts of it, but the shadow that shows up in how our ancestors treated the people who lived on this land before they arrived – as less than human beings.  It is only in living into our own history that we will be able to transcend it and really generate the level of healing that is being called for in the world right now.

The resilience of a people who were brought to the brink of extinction and are now reclaiming their heritage is brilliant and an inspiring example of what is possible for everyone and for the healing we all need.