The Art of Hosting

copied from the emaillist, Dec '12:
Hi friends,
Came across this article this morning on questions as the most effective communication tool in Fast Company.  It speaks almost directly to the teach we do on powerful questions.  Enjoy.  Kathy


Kathy, thanks!
Your posting reminded me of one of my go-to resources on crafting questions:
the Art of Powerful Questions by Voigt, Brown, and Isaacs. That's Juanita Brown and David Isaacs--
World Cafe co-founders and co-authors. It's free here:
Hi all,
Just wanted to share an important insight I had last month in Japan when we were developing a learning approach for something we're calling "Innovation Facilitators."
There are skills in terms of developing powerful questions, but what I think is actually more critical is the depth of consciousness from which questions are developed.  The more we are able to see the world in its multi-fractled diversity, the greater our capacity to access questions which open up even more of the wonder in which we live.
Blessings of the old year,
Bob, this insight reminds me of Bill O'Brien's statement that the health of the organization is directly related to the interior condition of the leader----seems connected to the insight that the deeper the consciousness the more powerful and opening are the questions one can birth.
(actually the quote from Bill O'Brien goes: the success of an intervention is directly related to the interior condition of the intervenor)
I think that's an excellent comparison, Carolyn.  Also seems to point to an relationship between interior condition and deeper consciousness. Thanks!  One of the things we've been talking about in Japan is how the embodied spirit of hosting -- the cellular understanding is so much more critical than particular methodologies.
There are perhaps even greater pressures in Japan to "get it right" than other cultures.  I remember once being asked to join a group that had been using the other Baldwin's book on circle for many months -- they were so focused on the technique that they had chased the spirit out.
And then, perhaps, it is about the time required for mastery.  In Japan there is Shu-ha-ri -- learn the form, practice the form, break the form.  Interior state, consciousness, methods - all essential...
Yes, Bob---love Shu-ha-ri concept--- that after learning and practicing is be-ing, embodying---
And that most important in any practice form is to be very careful about not chasing the spirit out---brilliant and so heartful.
Thank you for this Bob. It speaks something important that I've had a hard time putting my finger on. To give attention to the questions we ask, oh yes, this is so important. I personally find that the simple ones really help with this.
And, the energy with which we hold any question, is what feels oh so important. As you say, the consciousness. That invites a different medium for engaging in the question.
Thanks for stirring it Bob, all.
Very interesting conversation. It's fascinating the way of mastery in Japan - sometimes I think it conflicts with the hunger westerns have for arriving quickly at understanding and deeper consciousness, perhaps something only given when you practice the form while not yet being there.
Reminded me of the book "Zen in the Art of Archery".
Best wishes for the year to come,

Ah, this thread is showing great potential! :-) Time for a meander in it!

I tend to think of consciousness as one of the elements that makes up the universe… So I would see it as going all the way down, and falling into the grammatical category of the uncountable: there is only one of it, and we all partake/participate in it, along with every other aspect of creation, each in our own unique way, depending on our physiological makeup.

So depth of consciousness in an individual would have to do with access. Learning to access and inhabit ever deeper/higher/more expansive levels of consciousness certainly requires practice, in my view.

But consciousness itself is empty, and I think what we are talking about in this thread is the relative complexity/scope of the cognition that provides content to our consciousness, on the one hand, and the relative maturity of the social and emotional climate that gives it texture, on the other. To make matters more complex still, there doesn't seem to be much connection between these two: you can be intellectually stellar and a real jerk at the same time.

And then, there's the question of the source of the contents of our consciousness… for the vast majority of humanity, it seems, most of what goes on in our minds is an ongoing downloading of thoughts and phrases that we have already had/heard before. A deeply conditioned inner commentary on everything that enters our awareness. Much of this we learn in our families as we are growing up and learning to talk and think. It's surprisingly hard to have an original thought! And most people are content to leave it at that, quite unaware of their own inner dialogue most of the time, or that anything else is possible, let alone desirable. Regrettably, this seems to be the level of consciousness which mostly runs things on our planet. But much, much more is possible, and this is what many people discover when they attend their first Art of Hosting training - at least, that is my observation from watching many people go through this experience.

The wicked question is not a popularly practiced social art form in most Western families, I believe - so learning how to ask them is a practice and a discipline which in itself can kick-start our further development. One of the things I most enjoy in life is being hit by a really wicked question: the sort that pulls the plug on my consciousness so that all the little thoughts that tell me what I think I know go swirling down the drain, leaving me blank, empty and open for new insight. And this brings me to the mystery of the other source of contents for our consciousness - when insights, visions and questions arise, seemingly from nowhere, to bring us alive in a totally different way. It can happen at any time, but it is more likely to happen when we are available - i.e. not caught up in the habitual downloading of everyday inner dialogue. Part of what we try to do in the Art of Hosting is to create social (and energetic field) conditions that invite people to be present and available to input from unhabitual sources - especially the magic in the middle, as the late Finn Voldtofte used to call it.

In the years of my work with participatory leadership in the European Commission, I have observed that people who become dedicated practitioners steadily upgrade their skill in developing questions that have the potential to transform their contexts. I have also noticed that the methodologies themselves do not naturally generate good questions: there need to be some 'elders' in the field to seed and anchor some deeper consciousness before anything transformative can happen. Fortunately, the dojo of regular practice in these methodologies - and particularly the practice of designing interventions for specific purposes in specific contexts (when there tends to be at least one elder in the room) - has the potential to put people on the path to becoming elders themselves. Ours are practices that can create a culture of permanent ongoing collective inquiry which becomes a fertile ground for developing depth in practitioners - provided we hold to the intention and maintain the discipline of giving our inquiry the time and space it requires. That is a big challenge in the Western culture, which seems only capable of going faster and faster.

Today I was reading about the definition of the 'Enlightenment' in German - and was struck by Kant's definition of the Enlightenment as being humankind's release from its self-incurred 'immaturity', where "immaturity is the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another". I think that we have since added another layer of complexity to the human mind, as more and more members of the species achieve 'individuation' - the ability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another - only to discover that that's not the end of the road, or the end of the story. We are now awakening to the realization that no mind, no matter how mature, can grasp the complexity of the whole. And so we are invited to set out once again, this time together, in a bid to collectively get our shared understanding around the immensity of the threats and opportunities presented to us by current life conditions on planet Earth. And that is the promise of this field and community of the Art of Hosting - where we welcome and cultivate diversity and delight in the discomfort of questions that challenge us.

I'm looking forward to having the plug pulled on me much more often in 2013!

warm wishes to you all

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and more interesting stuff:

Wow.  Such a simple offering into the field – a little article - and look at the richness that has evolved in this thread!  There is something touched on here that has been in me but not in my awareness – and that is the relationship between powerful questions, consciousness, depth of journey and offering to the field in which we are playing at any given time – the individual fields around each of us, the work we do, the collaborative relationships we are in that are generative to life, work and the field – the larger field we all contribute to as we lean in each of us from wherever we are.  
I am particularly struck by Helen's observations about the work - "In the years of my work with participatory leadership in the European Commission, I have observed that people who become dedicated practitioners steadily upgrade their skill in developing questions that have the potential to transform their contexts. I have also noticed that the methodologies themselves do not naturally generate good questions: there need to be some 'elders' in the field to seed and anchor some deeper consciousness before anything transformative can happen. Fortunately, the dojo of regular practice in these methodologies - and particularly the practice of designing interventions for specific purposes in specific contexts (when there tends to be at least one elder in the room) - has the potential to put people on the path to becoming elders themselves. Ours are practices that can create a culture of permanent ongoing collective inquiry which becomes a fertile ground for developing depth in practitioners - provided we hold to the intention and maintain the discipline of giving our inquiry the time and space it requires. That is a big challenge in the Western culture, which seems only capable of going faster and faster."
This speaks so much to the "art" of what we do.  We don't learn it in a day or three. We learn it by being in the practice of it every day.  By seeing what has impact and what doesn't.  By honing our skill for impact.  On the surface it looks like asking questions.  Underneath is the river – and the river beneath the river – that we learn to tap into through the practice that creates the conditions for generative space.  The moment we think we know the answer is the moment we shut ourselves off from this deeper consciousness and the deeper patterns.  Such a dynamic tension in a society that is conditioned to go faster and faster but capable of so much more.  One person can shift a field by inviting a pause, a reflection, a good question.  I am in a deep inquiry about eldership, stewardship and the practice.  This thread is fuelling my own inquiry and understanding – showing up in unexpected places at unexpected times.  
Thank you for beauty here.  Kathy
Hi all,
I'm particularly struck by your comment, Helen:  Ours are practices that can create a culture of permanent ongoing collective inquiry which becomes a fertile ground for developing depth in practitioners - provided we hold to the intention and maintain the discipline of giving our inquiry the time and space it requires. That is a big challenge in the Western culture, which seems only capable of going faster and faster.  Kathy, you say We learn it by being in the practice of it every day.  
The key question, of course, is what is the practice.  I believe the practice is the one Helen refers to as a culture of permanent, ongoing collective inquiry.  It is a place of both magic and mystery,  A place of finding enough clarity to move ahead, without being fixated on a particular outcome.  For be this is part of the learning about difference between vision and intention.
I don't know about other parts of the world, but I know in Japan we have, perhaps, focused too much on developing practitioner skills and not enough on developing deeper consciousness.  In addition, our attention to practitioner skills has been more limited to hosting methodologies than it has been to other critical cousins -- use of transformative scenarios, design thinking, systems being as well as more mundane things like project management.  
Of course, these practitioner skills themselves are crucial, but they are also insufficient.
Blessings all as this year comes to a new dawn.
Bob, I would agree with your question – what is the practice?  
Agree with all the things you named.  I would name also the practice of hosting self – not in a superficial way but in a deep way – through practices – meditation, fitness, yoga, martial arts, time in nature, reflective practices and more.  I also recognize the dynamic between developing practitioner skills and touching the deeper consciousness of the field or practice.  It's a conversation I've been in a lot lately with friends like Tenneson Woolf and Jerry Nagel and others here in Nova Scotia.  And we know many show up at Art of Hosting looking for practitioner skills only to discover there is much more  in the field.  Others seem to only be able to attend to the skills and not go to a place of greater depth.  It's all okay and all needed – and it is the difference defined by the "art" of what we do – the subtle things that are hard to describe to someone focused on technique – or even for those going beyond technique to the deeper patterns.  
This is one of the reasons why Narjara Thamiz, Gustave Prudente, Jerry Nagel and I have called Hosting From a Deeper Place: The Art of Hosting the Subtle ( ) – in Brazil at the end of February.  Because we are curious about diving in deeper, what it means, what we will learn with those who join us about the subtleties of the field that will grow our individual and collective hosting skill.  We sense when we touch that deeper consciousness, many of us practice touching it as often as we know how, we know when we don't and we are curious about how we cultivate this capacity more and more.  There is lots of room in the field for all that wants to show up.  I'm happy to help people develop technique and I'm passionate about being in service to the deeper patterns.  Loving this exchange.  Thanks for letting me "think out loud" about things that call my attention in the work we do, Kathy

Helen, I had just finished sending a personal e-mail to you and Bob,

when I saw the rich conversation that is taking place here on the AoH list…


Thank you so much for your thought-provoking post...

what comes for me in response,

is something about the relationship between “downloading” and “something new emerging”…

Almost like, the “only way out is through”… and the “downloading” can be a necessary part of the process… 

as in, it can be hard to be present to “what’s on the edge of our awareness”,

without a preliminary first step of being able to acknowledge “what’s in our awareness”, 

and feeling received there…


I’m wondering about the role of questions in that shift… and even more so, the role of listening…


For instance, it seems clear that people can “download” for an apparently endless time, on the subject of “what’s wrong”…. 

and so that's a place where the question/invitation of “would you be willing to share, what it is that you really want?”

can help invite a significant shift… yet somehow it seems more respectful and effective to invite that question after having “reflected back” some of the initial “downloading”, letting the person know that they’ve been heard…


And so I find the questions to be crucial, yet maybe the listening and connection need to come first… 

and something about the timing, as well…


Along those lines, another question I find very useful in our DF work,

is the question about what this person’s best creative efforts have been, to date…

 what is their “solution” to the situation, as they see it?

Again, we can call it “downloading” or “meeting people where they are at”,

yet it seems to me that there is something there that needs to be honored and received,

in order for people to be able to spontaneously and freely move beyond it…


Anyway, that is what comes for me, in this very rich conversation…


Wishing everyone a fruitful new year…



This is a seriously yummy thread - I'm replying in Rosa's response, but I also really want to acknowledge everything that Bob and Kathy have said, too.

Rosa, thanks for so beautifully illuminating the dance of welcoming and witnessing people where they are at. We are not in the business of trying to change others here - they are our precious teachers in the practice of hosting ourselves. Every time we judge another, we have the opportunity to see inside a small part of our own shadow self that is asking to be embraced and re-integrated. What a gift!
A metaphor I like to play with these days is the ICEBERG. At any given moment, there is stuff we see, and an opportunity to apprehend just the next layer of what is still beneath the waterline for us. The iceberg goes all the way down, where consciousness is concerned. What we can see stretches only as far as… we can see! But being in inquiry with others can lift the corner of the veil for us, so we can catch a glimpse of what has hitherto been hidden from us by the lenses of our own worldview. So it is with the AoH, for certain. When we first encounter it, we see the methodologies. It's only later, with more experience, that we discover how much more there is to this practice.
The metaphor also applies to our own personal development (the 'hosting self' part of the 4-fold practice). There has been a great deal of research done on adult development, through a wide variety of lenses (the best overview that I know of comes from Ken Wilber, in his book Integral Psychology). The point I'd like to make here is simply that, when you are on a journey, it can be really helpful to have a map that helps you to identify where you are and what to expect as you travel. Clearly, the map should not be mistaken for the territory it is describing, but I have found many descriptions of the different stages/waves of adult development of immense value in my own journey, for identifying where I am, what pitfalls I might encounter and what general direction to look in to find a new horizon.
And Rosa… If I have a wish for 2013, it will be to finally experience and learn Dynamic Facilitation!
warmly to all

More interesting perspectives:

What a thoughtful and investigate group of practitioners AoH has encouraged. This thread is interesting and provocative for me.
Deep listening is, for me, the key to transformation, but if we are trying to create a transformation I think we are in a way stealing from the process, pushing the stream rather than trusting the flow and resting in it. We can practice deep listening with others, and also practice listening deeply to ourselves as we speak. In my own life, having people around me who are willing to witness/truly hear what i am saying allows me to think/express myself in ways that are unexpected. So i access understanding/insight/feelings that i might not have accessed otherwise.
In turn, I notice that others are affected in the same way when the questions are spacious and the listening is deep. Some people are able and willing to speak what has been previously unspoken when they are asked a question with authentic interest behind it. This recent experience i had may seem unrelated but for me its revealed what deep listening is about: the willingness to hear what is real in the moment and tend to the speaker.
I was facilitating a pre-conference with a young man who had been tried for Child Abuse (the victim was a minor) resulting in death and sent to youth detention center. His file from juvenile justice referral was very thick, mentioning gangs,guns, other relatives in prison for murder and so on. I was not so sure i wanted to be involved with him, but i was.
My job was to assess the probability of a Restorative Justice Circle being appropriate and I looked at his file a few times early in our conversation, which is rare for me - probably because i was nervous, which is also pretty unusual.
Then he mentioned gangs and i spontaneously closed the file and set it down on the chair beside me and said, "Will you tell me more about the gang involvement. I don't know anything about that reality." And so he did.
At that point his right leg, which had been tapping up and down for the whole time we were together stopped moving and everything shifted.
I learned a lot from him. Later i told him, "You know, I was nervous about being with you after reading your file, seeing the gang relationships and that your relatives were in prison for murder." "Yah," he said, "I get that a lot. I hate those files. You can get a lot of facts there, and information, but that's not me. That's how i was, that's not how i am now."
How does this relate to AoH? Well, the minute i put the file down I shifted myself from nervousness to authentic "not knowing". I shifted to real interest and open and deep listening. I, as facilitator, was willing to be transformed by our encounter and everything changed. *************************************************************************
As I've said before, a person speaking in a Circle can be a stick of wood added to the fire that burns in the center of the Circle...or a new ingredient that adds to the flavor and texture of the communally created soup...or another drop of water added to a river of information that will flow to the ocean and eventually return to us in the form of nourishing, life giving rain.
Whatever the image, in an atmosphere of deep listening a deeper wisdom becomes accessible. And real questions emerge.
Questions that grow out of what has been said. Golden questions.
This is not present if the "questions" are actually disguised/formulaic tools for shifting or re-framing what could be a surprising conversation at the fireside, into an end product we had in mind all along. I don't think we can push the river, when i try to it pushes back! That's a strong indication that i need to be quiet for a moment and let what has been spoken, or what remained unspoken, take me to the next authentic question.
Allowing the silence and sense of spaciousness that deep listening evokes to permeate the space takes confidence in the practice itself and a willingness to relax and give "breathing space and place" to the ideas, responses, pauses etc that arise when they are invited.
For me something whole/holy arises in and between us when deep listening is present and that's the Power that feeds the questions.
May the New Year be one of health, happiness and peace for all of us, everywhere,

Thank you for sharing with us your story of the young man and your being present to his humanity and not his labels.

I have worked with the incarcerated and those re-entering from prison. Many have frightening rap sheets. A very few are clearly and sometimes obscurely dangerous. Yet, by being fully present with and listening deeply for their inner self (this often deeply scarred and steadfastly protected), transformative healing may emerge.

It is my experience that, as the Canadian physician Gabor Mate also asserts, prisons hold far too many people and most of these would be better served in supportive living and community based restorative justice centers: developing job and social skills and strategies to overcome substance abuse. However, our society has such a vengeful "penchant for punishment" (and this mostly ineffective and costly) that we continue to use the only tool we are accustomed to using: the hammer.

In AoH, forming powerful questions and listening with all six senses for that which seeks to emerge fits beautifully with your example of the young man who had committed a horrific crime. I applaud you for your care, commitment, courage and authenticity. In the name of Restorative Justice, thank you!

What a moving story, Rose...

as you say, when we humans are witnessed and truly heard, we are often able to express ourselves

in unexpected ways...
sometimes our authentic interest in another person, is expressed via a question or an invitation...
sometimes by a spontaneous physical gesture, such as your putting away the file folder...

i am also very moved by your descriptions of the essence of deep listening:
 "the willingness to hear what is real in the moment and tend to the speaker"
also the willingness, as a listener, to be ourselves transformed...
to be surprised... to not have any "end product" in mind.
what comes here for me, is how in Focusing practice,
we often "tend to the speaker" by simply offering the heart of their words back,
as a gift...
so often, this kind of witnessing allows another to unfold further,
without the need for any questions at all...
and yes, if and when any questions are offered,
they need to come from our heart, from the silence and the spaciousness...
and, they are often so very simple...
"is there more there?"
amazing, what can happen when we really listen...
Rose, you've inspired me to upload an unpublished paper to my website,
something I wrote several years ago called "Listening for Aliveness"...
it's not nearly as poetic as what you have written here,
but along somewhat similar lines...   
In a different-yet-related realm
(helping people heal from schizophrenia, not group facilitation! :-)
you may be familiar with Jaakko Seikkula's amazing work...
his "Healing Elements of Therapeutic Conversation: Dialogue as an Embodiment of Love"
is downloadable from the Taos Institute's website
(lots of other great work there as well...)
thank you for your heart-stirring images,
and for your eloquent witness to the sacred healing power of deep listening...
and thank you to everyone who has been contributing to and deepening this conversation...
with all best wishes,

What beautiful riches are unfolding on this thread. Wow.
This brings me to pondering about harvesting. When we talk about designing processes, we always say: craft the question to increase the likelihood of getting out the information that we want - or to feed into the next phase of the process…
It's so important to distinguish the very many levels of harvesting - the spontaneous transformation of human beings and relationships is a potential in any process, and we increase the chances of it happening by practicing deep listening and witnessing. And it is also important to recognise the distinction between the individuals and the organisation they energise - sometimes a process is designed to serve the organisation, not the individuals, and that, too, is OK - and it doesn't preclude magic moments for individuals.


and a comment on from which place are we asking the questions:

This has been a wonderful dialogue to follow. Thanks to everyone for your reflections. One thought that has been bubbling for me since Helen’s first contribution (Helen, are you a social constructionist in thinking?) There is something in this dialogue for me around that place/space before the naming. When we name something (practitioner, doctor, educator, dog/cat, steward, pastor, spirit, etc.) we attach performative characteristics to it and in so doing we could miss out on some of the richness and possibilities that are there if we had approached our interactions with something more like beginner’s mind, i.e. a place of not knowing or, as Helen, offers, of open consciousness. So, how can we craft questions that start us from a place of ‘before the naming’ of ‘beginner’s mind’ of an invitation to emergence of all the gifts and wonder and possibility that are in all things/beings?

Peace out,


more on this conversation from the email list:

Hi All


Bob, your point about us all being enriched by being gifted gems of ideas and stories of personal experience in a thread such as this is well taken.


I have found great value in these posts as reminders and also in coming to greater awareness of underpinnings and implications for a particular form of hosting which I am developing.


This is in the course of inventing a novel way of socializing in which the core feature is participants conversing in pairs with someone they do not know. The context in which this occurs can be described as 'stepping into a generous little spirit of old fashioned goodwill.'


What I have named Conversare from the Latin con versare – to turn or to dance together is a means by which people who may not know each other engage well, in public places.


With the ‘purpose’ being that all participants are invited to give of themselves by expressing interest in ‘the other’ through thoughtful questioning and listening.


This happens in the hands of a host who welcomes, sets everyone present at their ease and outlines the principles and practices which underpin these events. Such a host is ‘called’(sic) to this work and is thoroughly grounded in these, among which are those drawn from:


.  OST:  “Whoever comes are the right people’ and ‘Whenever we treat each other well good things happen’ – my ‘working’ paraphrase.  


.  TWC: “Define the purpose of the event’ and ‘Create a hospitable space.”


.  AI: “Engage initially in dysads.”  Then in groups of four, TWC style, to share observations.


With procedures which have ‘emerged’ in the course of experience in holding these events, originally in Hong Kong (where I lived happily for six years from 2005) and recently in Adelaide, to which I returned to live in mid 2011.


More about this format can be seen on my blog Conversare. Those with a keen eye may notice where pearls of wisdom from this thread are sprinkled in my latest post! <smile>


Of possible interest is that this way of coming together:


. will likely be integral to the social program of  the World Open Space on Open Space (WOSonOS) in St Petersburg, Florida in May of this year.


.  is now a component  of  the Adelaide Fringe  [reputedly the best run anywhere on our little planet] coming up here in a few weeks time.


Which may not be all that surprising, given this comment from one who knew about such things:  <smile>


‘Conversation is the greatest of the arts.”
Buckminster (Bucky) Fuller




These events have not ever happened in human history, anywhere. For participants are the entertainment - the audience are also 'the show' - in a conversational gathering within a festival of the arts.


. may prove of considerable value in enabling colleagues to get to know each other when working closely in organizations of any size, albeit maybe in different sections, for extended periods of time.


. has many potential applications and associated benefits perhaps particularly for people - across the age spectrum - who have lost confidence in their place in society. This could happen once others with a similar calling are trained to host these events in cafes, restaurants, pubs. hotels, community centers in local neighborhoods.


On the premise that, metaphorically, whenever people get connected there is a substance and field created. And that such happens when people are interested in others and express this, from a deep consciousness, through asking thoughtful questions and attending to answers.


I wonder if my account of a particular form of hosting expands your awareness of what this vital practice can be?


Looking forward

Go well


From a very hot southern Australia




Thanks, Alan, for including me in this interesting conversation. 

A big "thank you" to Kathy for the link to the good Fast Company piece on asking questions--I also see lots of overlap with what I have taught on this subject. And I agree with the author on the value of journalism training to develop skills for life. I would not trade my two years of high school journalism (with a teacher with high expectations) for any year of college!

A shout-out to Bob as well--I can see you are doing good work, and it was great fun to see your Spokane address. I was born in Spokane and lived there until I came to the west coast to go to college--a lifetime ago.

Joelle Everett

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