The Art of Hosting


I recently hosted an event where members of the core host team were introduced to hosting practices and principles for the first time in our core host team meetings.  Now that we have finished the event that we were aiming for, we are closing the project by reflecting on what went well and what lessons we need to learn.
One of the topics I am reflecting on has to do with a set of assessments of AoH made by one of our CHT members who has not been to a 3-day training and has only been exposed to AoH through our prep meetings.  So, in essence, she held up a mirror for me to help me see how I was portraying AoH, and in that 'mirror' AoH appeared as being "about empowering people, using democratic processes." In this description, too, she said that AoH isn't good for everything because sometimes someone has to make a decision, there has to be leadership, and sometimes you have to get work done instead of just talking.
Certainly some of what she reflected to me had also been filtered through her own experience and expectations, and we had a total of six hours of training, which is barely a dip in the pool.  But I wanted to open up a conversation in the community about this assessment and hear from you about your experiences of using AoH as an operating system, the space in AoH for hierarchy and occasional expert leadership, the value of expertise and traditional leadership, and the validity of describing AoH as a 'democratic process.'
That's the first question--how valid is this kind of assessment?.
My second question has more to do with the spiritual core of AoH.  My perception is that AoH grew out of the Shambhala tradition and, therefore, has some significant roots in spiritual practice. However, I also believe that it is compatible with a wide variety of spiritual practices and systems, and am interested in hearing about how this is realized in various contexts.
Amy K. Watson
Dear Amy,
You are asking a couple of big questions here and I'm not exactly sure where to begin in response.  AoH is about conversation that matters and good conversation leads to wiser action.  Sometimes conversation is action.  In a world that often values doing and action above all else we sometimes forget that not all action is helpful, valuable or useful.  This view shows up often – sure it's nice to be in conversation but what about results?  Does AoH get to results?  Can it be an operating system?  There are more and more examples of how it is showing up as operating systems in short and long term projects.  It requires a different kind of leadership and we are not very practiced at it.  In my experience, many leaders either lean too far in or too far out. Finding the balance of leadership that gives good guidance while allowing flexibility is the skill that many leaders I work with are developing. With strong engagement processes, leadership emerges.  This is one story where AoH was used as an operating system with a lot of success: - about growing collaborative care in NS.  There are many other stories.  
It occurs to me that one of the reasons it seems to take some time to build the ground for action is because many work environments or projects have lost sight of one of the key success factors in work which is in the relationship.  One area I've done a lot of work in is with dysfunctional teams.  By the time I get called in to work with some of these teams, so much mistrust exists in the space we need to invest considerable time in rebuilding relationship.  While we do that, not much "work" gets done – or not much task focus because the need is so great to rebuild relationship.  Once relationship is in place, the work goes smoother and faster.  But it is a balance.  Which is why I like the Community of Practice model we work with: - it shows the interrelationship and value of work, relationship and co-learning.  I wonder if it is the same when we first introduce AoH to many places – there is so much need to build and rebuild relationship in order to have stronger platforms to do the work we want to do that it feels like the only thing that is happening is conversation.  Let's not undervalue or misunderstand the importance of this and also not lose sight of the results we need to achieve.  Like any change process, if we stop in the middle or stop short, of course we don't see the results we are aiming for.  I'm sure there is more to be said here but I'll stop on this part for now.
On the spiritual core, interesting thought that AoH grew out of the Shambhala tradition. This would be the first time I've heard that particular thought and it's not actually true, but I can understand the confusion.  AoH grew out of open space conversations between practitioners of dialogic processes, curious about what they were doing that generated different results from more traditional consulting and meeting processes. You can find some of that story here:  Some certainly describe what happens in Art of Hosting trainings as a spiritual experience and given the larger question of what are we hosting really, it is not surprising.  We are not just hosting process, we are hosting energy, dynamics, consciousness and much more.  Because AoH practices are used in many places, and AoH practitioners show up in many places,  including ALIA (which used to be the Shambhala Institute) and Berkana there is often confusion about the organizations and the intersection points. 
Hope this is helpful as a starting point in this conversation.  
A bow to the centre,
Kathy Jourdain
Hi Amy:
First to the question of spiritual practice.  The Art of Hosting, based on the four fold practice, is not a spiritual practice, although I think a practitioner benefits from having a practice.  When we especially think about practices of "hosting self" this invites into a meditation practice, a reflection practice or any number of spiritual practices that help us work with our own thinking and self.  The second and third practices - participating and contributing - can also be well influenced by spiritual practices.  Many of the churches I work with align themselves with this particular aspect of the Art of Hosting.  And finally co-creation has a space for spiritual practice as well, as I have heard people talk about this practice as being a part of something bigger than themselves.
So it can be that, but it is at it's heart, the art of hosting strategic conversation in complex environments.
I do spend time talking about appropriate organizational paradigms - and part of the art is knowing what is good for what.  Hierarchy has a role, when the decision is clear and the accountabilities are strong.  Circle has a role too when we are not clear and clarity is required.  When people make the false distinction between "talking" and "decisions" I see that as an invitation to talk about what they think decision making is.  Making rash, authority based decisions in the complex domain can be fatal to the success of an initiative.  Decision reached without clarity are unwise.  Clarity in complex situations comes from being open to the margins, creating space for many voices and ideas to illuminate the choices ahead and making a collective decision to go forward.  This takes time, but far less time than retroactively correcting the results of a poor, rash decision that has no ownership from others.
Peter Block has written beautifully on this distinction and the inversion needed in our thinking is his book Community: The Structure of Belonging.
This is a very important topic, but my basic reflection is that in any situation: hierarchical, complex, circular, confused or clear, applying the four fold practice can help bring better quality to any of those.  If your organizational form and decision making structures are aligned with your purpose and what you are trying to do, no problem, the four fold practice will probably increase your quality.  If they are not aligned, the four fold practice may help you discover that alignment and help you realize that this is not the place for a collective decision, or this is not the place for one person alone to make a call.
Context matters.  Getting stuck in absolute declarations is not useful.  Also I would caution you on evaluating the Art of Hosting based on one application.  It will be a very different artistic practice in a very different context.  Better to evaluate a group on what it is learning by working together using these practices, rather than by saying "So how did the Art of Hosting work here?"  This is especially true when you are working with people who don't know what you are talking about.  Evaluators I have worked with, have always been a full part of the training and deployment of the AoH if they are being asked to evaluate the application of the practices.  The Art of Hosting is an art, and so it does not lend itself to summative evaluation very well.  A hosting artist changes her practice in response to the conditions, so how can you assess it?  It's like writing one poem - a sonnet perhaps - and then asking a group of people, "what does art of poetry do well?"  You just can't know from doing it once, and results from one context and form might not be applicable in another. And if you ask "what might we have done differently?" you open up a not always useful conversation that has, by definition, an infinite number of responses.  Retroactive coherence is a very dangerous way to learn about acting in a complex space, because past results have no bearing on future ones.  
Hope this helps,

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