The Art of Hosting

From the email list February 2013....

hello all,

I wanted to share a recent blog post, on a simple twist to the traditional agenda that was surprisingly effective in a particular situation. It has a bit of the taste of pro-action cafe yet without the groups.

with all best wishes,



Thank you Rosa.  A beautiful example of how a team can shift their energy
and meeting flow by shifting their process. I've shared it a bit more
widely. Kathy

Thanks Rosa,

It sings to me. I have worked with and for children and young people for many years, within local authorities. The structures therein are established, resistant to change and resilient. People will complain about meetings but, mostly, take no action to change what happens. I believe people are often 'kettled' by agendas. An agenda can squash the hell out of some meetings. Your blog brought to mind a meeting I pulled together a couple of years ago. I had identified that the largest single cause of students missing school was health reasons. This ranged from coughs and colds to serious medical conditions and mental health issues. There was very little coordination or collaboration between ( and within) health and education professionals. I spoke to all the key players, senior community paediatrician, mental health teams, doctors representatives, head teachers, school nurses and so on, about 15-20 people in all. All were the senior manager for their organisation or service) Having spoken to each of them individually ( some I knew, some I didn't.) to engage in a conversation and establish a key question, I emailed everyone with a calling question (although I didn't call it that) which was (something like) 'how can we best work together to support young people who do not attend school because of illness, whether physical, mental or imaginary?'

The day before I had a call from one of the health professionals to say 'I haven't had an agenda for the meeting'. To which I replied 'there isn't an agenda, there's a question'. She was fine with it, but it showed, to me, the expectation of an agenda and the uncertainty or dis-ease that people felt where there wasn't an agenda. My e mail had set the scene and asked the question but had not explicitly said 'NO AGENDA'.

The meeting started with me welcoming people ( some of whom had never met, within health there are so many different systems which are designed to not integrate) and asking people to introduce themselves and say why they were there. When everyone had spoken I restated the question and then stopped and, with a gesture, opened the space. There was a brief pause, which felt comfortable, and then the Headteacher said 'I'll start as it's schools that first identify a student missing school through illness'. So it started when it started. No agenda. An hour (or so) of open and generative conversation that was harvested (and I think I did slip the word in) and a handful of clear and agreed actions were recorded.

The meeting ended with a positive energy and conversation continued in the space. People had told their stories. People spoke from the heart. A formal agenda would have restricted conversation, in my experience, to people head speaking not heart speaking.

I had a wonderful unexpected conversation with a colleague (one that I don't know so well) yesterday about our shared concern about young people, 17plus, who are vulnerable and at risk of harm. How the system that is designed to help actually appears at times to expensively fail. The system is well defended.......

Take care,

Paul Smart


Paul, thank you so much for sharing... your story sings to me, also!

It's heart-warming, how much can be accomplished through open and generative conversation... 
I also much appreciate your efforts in reaching out to each of the participants ahead of time,
building the connection and trust that helped to bring them into the room...  
and then your trust, in "opening the space" with a calling question, and waiting...
couldn't agree with you more, about how "an agenda can squash the hell out of some meetings!" :-) :-) :-) 
Your community is very lucky to have you!
with all best wishes,

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