Returning to the Basics

5 core Art of Hosting insights from recent advanced trainings

Ben Wolfe

Curator’s note:

One of the threads that winds through and tugs at Peterborough Dialogues is the work of the Art of Hosting community over the last 10 years. Art of Hosting — its full name is “The Art of Hosting and Harvesting Conversations That Matter” — is a global network of stewards and practitioners of dialogue processes that empower emergent, shared leadership, and enable breakthrough change in communities.

We’re delighted to welcome Chris Corrigan, an Art of Hosting pioneer and high-level practitioner with roots in Peterborough — we made media together at Trent University — to our .media space. Chris blogs actively on organizational learning, leadership support, community development and systemic change.

He’s part of the Core Team of an Art of Hosting advanced training session (Beyond the Basics) in Kingston from October 21-23. It’s a rare opportunity to engage with Art of Hosting at this level. We’ll be there, and places are still available.

— Ben Wolfe

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
— T.S. Eliot

Our Beyond the Basics team is about to host our last gathering of the current cycle, back in North America. Over the past five Beyond the Basics offerings I have learned more than I feel like I’ve shared. I can feel that my practice has changed as a result of doing this work, and I’ve become interested in the way our team’s ideas and lessons from working at scale have begun to outline a form and practice of leadership that is needed in much of our work now.

Perhaps these things were always needed, but here are five top of mind insights that are part of what I’m discovering about how we can be helpful when working with organizations, communities and larger systems. Taken together, perhaps these things are something of a new set of basics for my own practice, or a return to some after a long journey away.

People need to be hosted

At the core of change work is a deep conversation that we all want to have. We saw this in our Europe gathering, where the question of European history, politics, demographics and aspirations was present in our group. But in North America we are currently witnessing election campaigns where the debates rage around scandal, accountability, party platforms, and who said what or did what.

At the core of change work is a deep conversation that we all want to have.

Where are we actually hosting the conversations about the democratic, social and economic systems of our time? Where do we connect the dots between the work we do in the world and the impact it has when combined with others? Who hosts the space between ideologies and competing aspirations for better outcomes, better worlds, better results? Whether you are in a corporate setting, a small business, a non-profit, government or community setting, it seems like there is very little time for the question of Why? Hosting these conversations is about creating the container for the deepest stories to surface.

We avoid these conversations because they go to our values and the nature of the impact of our decisions on ourselves and the world around us. And yet, in almost every engagement with which I am involved, people are deeply interested in reconnecting with their “why” but there are so few people who will host this fundamental exploration.

Not having answers doesn’t mean you can’t help

There is a misplaced cult of the expert in our society. We put great faith in those that can seemingly ride in on white horses, explain our dilemmas and help us find solutions. But I am discovering something more powerful in my practice: the humility to work with people when none of us know what is going to happen next. Not having the answers frees you to move from expert to host, and to return to the simple practice of creating containers in which people can discover their next best move together.

I’m struggling with how to be a useful provider of ideas and knowledge while still letting go into the unknown and emergent, and this is a question I think that many of us confront in our everyday practice of hosting and leadership.

Personal practice is important

More than ever I see that without personal practice, we are unable to confront the kinds of situations that test our patience and abilities. Hosting oneself has certainly always been central to the Art of Hosting, but without an ongoing rigorous practice of self hosting and inquiry, I find my fears and anxieties overwhelming my ability to stay resourceful and present with people and systems that are challenged to become something that have never been before. I’m learning a ton about why my brain likes me to avoid personal practice, and what delightful resourcefulness lies on the other side of the stories I tell myself to feel good.

Theory helps

As a result of work I have been doing around the illumination of the field of Dialogic Organizational Development, I have become very interested in theory. In Beyond the Basics I have been holding the torch for the imperative to understand why things work. Diving into complexity theory, cognitive science, philosophy and anthropology and sociology has become deeply important to my practice. When I understand why things work I become more resourceful in designing and carrying out process work and supporting good strategic decisions that help us work with change. Understanding theory takes us past methods and into deep practitioner territory. I’m challenged these days to make theory clear and useful to people I am working with, but I’m also not shying away from encouraging people to confront and wrestle with the theory that tells them why things work.

We have to learn our way past our blockages

I am finding powerful breakthroughs when groups are able to see what holds them in place, and understand how entrained patterns of thinking limit what is possible to do together.

I am so captivated by the cognitive science and theory that I am reading and working with these days. I’m confronted everyday with new ideas about how to create conditions for people to make sense of their context and make choices based on what is before us. So many organizations and systems we are working with are becoming more and more stuck in regulation, process, accountability and constraint. When they finally become free to act and move, many groups stay entrained in the patterns that are familiar. I am finding powerful breakthroughs when groups are able to see and learn about what holds them in place, and when people begin to understand how their entrained patterns of thinking limit what is possible to do together. For me, learning (and unlearning) is perhaps the most important strategic capacity we have, especially when we feel blocked and stale and unable to move in any direction.

Beyond the Basics has taught me to return to basic practice as if for the first time, informed by what I have been learning about power, friendship and the depth and breadth of systems and the nature of the problems we face. The basic strategic questions have always been “What is happening and what do I do now?” The four of us (the other Core Team members are Tim Merry, Caitlin Frost and Tuesday Ryan-Hart) are deep into the question of how to help people address basic strategy, and in some ways it is a return to the simplicity of practice.

(We invite you to join us October 21-23 in Kingston, Ontario for conversations about why, for ideas about how and for the connection with a diverse community of people who are all in this together.)

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