In these reflections prompted by the Art of Hosting training at The Burren, I'd like to make some distinctions about the words which facilitators and coaches choose to use.
The point is partly about the difference that these words might make with our groups and clients - how they feel about things, which aspects of topics they might most focus on, what in the end they might or might not do differently.
And it’s partly about how our language reflects our assumptions. I’m suggesting that some assumptions are more useful than others if we are to work well as hosts of individuals, groups or communities.
Though the language may look similar, it’s often a grammatical similarity that conceals or obscures an important contextual difference.
At the Art of Hosting sessions in The Burren, for example, we were told that the full title of the movement is ‘The art of hosting and harvesting conversations that really matter’.
I asked what’s the difference between: ‘Conversations that matter’ and ‘Conversations that really matter’.
If there’s a worthwhile distinction, you should, for example, by participating in a conversation or observing a conversation, be able to tell which is which. I have no idea how to tell the difference.
Similarly, in one discussion we were asked,‘Why are you here?’ and later ‘Why are you really here?’.
The best answer I was given was that ‘really’ makes it more dramatic. Which may be fine, but this drama comes at a price.
There’s a difference between asking a child what really happened, when we have reliable evidence or a strong suspicion that they are not telling the truth – we suspect it was that child that broke the window, hit the sibling or made the fairy cakes that they attribute to the pixies – and asking a participant in a meeting or coaching session what’s really going on for them when they say they are bored with their administrative duties, don’t have their work-life balance as they’d wish or are over-excited about the away-day.
In the first we have good reason for taking the expert view that is implied by our choice of words; in the latter considerably less. Asking what’s ‘really’ going on, or has gone on, indicates disbelief in what we’ve been told so far. Which can be fine, if the evidence is good. But it is not fine (in my opinion) when it is a signal that we are taking a ‘realist’ or ‘essentialist’ view (in the Platonic tradition, philosophy fans), in circumstances better suited to a ‘constructionist’ or ‘emergent’ view; or to what we would like to be a collaborative rather than hierarchical (expert-led) situation.
If we take emergence seriously and consider ‘systems thinking’ a worthwhile lens with which to view and describe, then it may be useful to drop this rather conflicting language of ‘really’ and ‘essentially’ and so forth. Realist and essentialist language gives the impression that our descriptions of what we are emergently contructing are somehow inadequate or that the way to improve upon them is by looking further for what is ‘real’ or ‘essential’.
I reject this idea that our basic descriptions - what we say we want, or feel, or see – are simply poor or downright misleading efforts, behind which (hidden),under which (deeper), beyond which (really) or inside which (essentially), a better truth or description is to be found.
Instead, we could use language differently. Could we say, for example, ‘Here’s what we have heard/built/desired/noticed/grown so far. Now let’s talk some more’.
As facilitators and coaches, we could favour expressions such as:
Let’s add detail,
Give a few examples,
What do you think are the implications?
...all leading to a wealth of constructive conversations that honour rather than demean the opening exchanges of your particular co-construction of our so-called reality.