The Art of Hosting

From the AoH emaillist - summer 2012:

Hello, friends,

I hope this message finds you well. I am writing to seek your wisdom about the Art of Listening. The context of my inquiry is as a witness to and participant in team dynamics. I am a member of a leadership team for my organization and I have been asked to explore ways that I can help the team and its members learn and practice listening.
Here are some of my initial thoughts:
  • Set the stage with some principles/ground rules that are co-created by the group. For example, Listen with attention, Speak with Intention; Listen to better understand
  • Introduce Reflective Listening (facts, feelings, values). Initially could be an exercise, but I think it could also be used as arcs in collective harvesting of some of our agenda topics.
  • Introduce Divergent/Convergence so the team can be aware of where we are in the flow of conversation and name the groan zone.
I welcome your ideas and insights!
Thank you,
A while ago I did a workshop on the Art of the Question that may be helpful for your management team. (Much of it was compiled from other sources and I can't take credit for it all.) Here are the question guidelines I came up with:

A good question is:

Speaker-focused rather than listener-focused. To ask a good question, focus on what’s being said and what needs to emerge from what’s being said rather than on your own personal biases or brilliance.

Circular rather than linear. Good questions invite us deeper into the issue rather than moving us past it. Good questions help you get to the centre of the spiral - peeling the onion - by getting to the next layer, it evokes more questions.

Curious rather than judging. Curiosity creates an opening, judgement creates a closure. “Consider the possibility that everything we know today about our world emerged because people were curious.” Create a climate of discovery.

Compassionate rather than patronizing. Witness the feelings & ask questions - give safe space for them but don’t patronize or make assumptions.

Searching rather than prescriptive. Good questions help the speaker weave narrative and meaning out of the information they’re giving you - helps the speaker find his/her own meaning rather than prescribing it for them. Motivate fresh thinking on the part of the person sharing, rather than closing off their thinking by attaching your own meaning to it.

Invitational rather than assuming. Don’t pre-suppose - let your question open you (and the speaker) to surprises. Don’t assume you know what the person is thinking or feeling about what they’re sharing with you. Invite them into a deeper layer rather than saying something like “I think what you mean is this...” Don’t assume you know the answer to the question, or that assumption will show up in the way you ask the question.

Paradoxical rather than simplistic. A good question holds the paradox - offers safety and yet risk, comfort and yet challenge, introspection and silence and yet expression and speech (from Parker Palmer)

Invites energy rather than containing it. In order to ask a good question, the questioner meets a person where they are, in the place of the story where there is the most energy and relevance, and then uses that energy to go deeper. Help the speaker make connections and find patterns between elements of the story that might not otherwise be obvious.

Possibility focused rather than fix-it focused. A good question shifts away from a problem focus or fix-it focus to a possibility focus.

Sometimes absent rather than present. Often the best question is no question at all. Resist the urge to improve on the conversation by asking a smart question. When we do that, we often are focusing more attention on our own wisdom rather than doing deep listening
I've cobbled them together from a lot of sources over the years and haven't really kept track. None of them are direct quotes, but are rather my interpretation of things I've read and learned in this work.

Some of the sources I know I've used are:
- The Courage to Teach, by Parker Palmer
- An article called "The Art of Powerful Questions" by Eric Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David Isaacs - downloadable here:
- The Circle Way; A Leader in Every Chair, by Christina Baldwin & Ann Linnea

Heather Plett

Very interesting, Jen and Heather.

Reminds me of how a friend of mine distinguishes high context cultures (Japan, etc.) from low context cultures (US, Germany, etc.) The high/low context frame comes form cultural anthropologist Edward Hall who's landmark work in the 70s really open the whole area of intercultural studies.

A colleague of mine in Japan suggests that the communication competence in high context cultures is listening, while it is speaking in low context cultures.

It's interesting to me that we have classes in "voice," but not in "ear." And that we teach pubic speaking, but not public listening.

I think part of the art of listening is learning how to listen to the whole field - the entire room, not just the parts.

Hall speaks of how a Japanese businessman knows something is amiss when hr comes home and a stalk is out of place in a flower arrangement or his tea is warm rather than hot. So listening extends far beyond the words.

Listening, I think, is a cultivated capacity to listen to all that is present -- as well as all that is absent. Attached is a paper I wrote several years ago on the language of listening. Might be of interest!

2008 Bob Stilger hear_and_now.pdf
This line of yours continues to resonate. Thank you for so exquisitely capturing the essence of the invitation I have until now been unable to extend in words: new "ear", new "listening" -- and the awkward, uncertain, tumble-on-your-bum-plenty-of-times-before-you-walk learning journey to create them. Thank you!!!!!!!

Dear Jen and all,
Listening to this thread I was reminded of my very recent experience with an European NGO that has set out to make the finance system more responsible to overall society. We were a team of two to  host a recent board meeting with them.
We first set the room in circle without table. It was unusual for them to just sit like this. We invited them to listen to each other, introducing circle way of conversation where listening is more important and takes more time than talking. We invited them to speak to give voice to what they were listening from the centre of their conversation.
It was a bumpy ride for them. I just had the feedback meeting today with them and they shared with me, how much it was discomforting. There was so much psychology coming up, we were not getting to the decisions and results needed. And then they found their meeting was still much more effective than otherwise. something in their conversations had shifted. They had built relationships. On what basis they could engage with their topics and have trust in each other.
I also feel triggered to share many many experiences I had with Action learning circles. in this tradition, conversations are question-oriented. You may always ask a fresh question, but not make a statement unless it answers a question asked before. This simply rule of conversation already ensures so much more listening in conversations than normal.
Good luck with your endeavor with your leadership circle. Just a last thing that comes to me: it's so much easier to introduce such process shifts if you're an invited outsider rather than a member of the group :-)
Warm regards from Europe,

To listen fully means to pay close attention to what is being said beneath the words. You listen not only to the 'music,' but to the essence of the person speaking. You listen not only for what someone knows, but for what he or she is. Ears operate at the speed of sound, which is far slower than the speed of light the eyes take in. Generative listening is the art of developing deeper silences in yourself, so you can slow your mind’s hearing to your ears’ natural speed, and hear beneath the words to their meaning."
– Peter Senge
(offered by Jerry Nagel)
Thank you All for this beautiful string of conversation.
Jerry, what you shared below also reminded me of this short story.  I offer it below.
With Deep Gratitude,

If You Really Pay Attention


When I was a little bitty kiddy, about five, my Dad began a process … anytime somebody came and said something to us, my dad would say, "You remember what he said, honey girl?”  I would tell my father what the person said until I got so good at it that I could repeat verbatim even long presentations of what the person had said.

And he did this all the time.

Finally, one day there was this old gentleman, Richard Thompson. I still remember his name, he lived across the street.  And every time my Dad started to mow the lawn, there came Mr. Thompson. And so I would stand out there.

Dad says, “You might come and listen to this man, honey girl.  He’s pretty interesting.”  And so I listened to him, and then my dad would say, “What did you hear him say?” And I would tell him.

Well, eventually I was repeating all the stories he liked to share with my dad verbatim.  I knew them all by heart.

And my Dad says, “You’re getting pretty good at that.  But did you hear his heart?"  And I thought, what?  So I went around for days with my ear to people's chest trying to hear their hearts.

Finally my Dad created another learning situation for me by asking my mother to read an article from the newspaper.  He says “Well, I guess if you want to understand that article, you have to read between the lines."

I thought, "Oh, read between the lines. Hear between the words."

So the next time I listened to Mr. Thompson’s stories, I tried to listen between the words.  My Dad said, “I know you know his story, but did you hear his heart?” And I said, "Yes.  He is very lonely and comes and shares his memories with you again and again because he’s asking you to keep him company in his memories."

It just came out of me.  In other words, my heart echoed his heart.

And when you can listen at that level, then you can hear not only the people. If you really pay attention, you can hear what the Universe is saying.

--Paula Underwood, clan mother of the Turtle clan, Iroquois nation


new "ear", new "listening"...

one resource for this, that I don't think has been mentioned yet, 
is Focusing practice...  
learning to listen to our bodies, our intuition, our larger knowing...
and, learning to hold space for others in this way, so that they can listen more deeply to their own wisdom...
Eugene Gendlin, the originator of Focusing,  was a student and colleague of Carl Rogers...
He is also a philosopher, so please don't let that aspect of the practice scare you off; 
Focusing is actually very accessible...  his Institute's website is
Another "portal" is Weiser Cornell's site,
which is describes focusing as a tool for supporting one's own emotional healing.
if anyone is interested in experiencing this deep listening practice, 
there are ways to do so for free, at
I also highly recommend the following teleclass, as an opportunity to observe the work in action... 
and, there is also the upcoming summer school, for those who are wanting to delve more deeply...
Several major teachers will be there, each with their own approach to this deep listening practice:
August 18-24, in Garrison, NY
with all best wishes,
One resource you might find helpful as you think about your design, Jen, is the work within the Compassionate Listening Project ( I took their basic course, and what I found helpful are exercises to create an awareness of how you are listening to others and how your worldview impacts what you hear/the way you hear it.  Their book outlines some of the listening exercises they use in their workshop. It helped me realize that listening is art, that can be practiced daily. You can find the book on their website: "The Practice of the Art of Compassionate Listening" 

In my experiences with leadership teams you can say the words "listen with attention" and many think they understand what that means. It is not until they have had the actual experience of listening with their heart and speaking from their heart that they begin to understand the variety of "ways" you can listen. I have also found that people who have a difficult time listening, have often never experienced being "heard", so perhaps teaching the leadership team how to host themselves and to host each other with an intentional focus on listening to self and listening to each other might be useful as a part of a larger shift. Just a thought.  As I am writing this, I am thinking that if you can gain an understanding of "how" you listen, you might be more open to strategies for learning how to listen differently.
I believe Jerry Nagel has also done some work in this area and adapted some of the compassionate listening exercises for the AoH trainings in St. Paul, MN. Give a call if you'd like to talk more. Hope you are well!
Best wishes,
Another wonderful resource:

Kay Lindahl's book and companion guide -
Practicing the Sacred Art of Listening

The Sacred Art of Listening: Forty Reflections for Cultivating a Spiritual Practice



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