The Art of Hosting

Already just reading Bob Stilger's blog post, reflecting on his recent learning after hosting a workshop in Zimbabwe, is worthwhile (also useful comments there!) - let alone to read all the comments here (from the sharing on the AoH emaillist) that were triggered and went deeper into more learnings and naming some of our blindspots.

So, this is how Bob kicked it of:

Hi friends,

A week ago I shared some reflections about the Art of Participatory Leadership training Marianne Knuth, Simone Poutnik and I did in Zimbabwe in late September '11.
Well, I've continued to learn and reflect on what happened and have written a more critical analysis in a new blog at
There's been some important learning here for me.
I think we got trapped in our own form in a way that made it difficult to really work with our principles.  I talk a good line about working with what's present -- but what about when what's present doesn't fit into my pre-conceived form?  How ready and able am I to listen deeply and make changes which might really deepen the learning possible?
Really interesting to take this question on.
We're obviously in a time when we're invited to go deeper and to travel beyond what's become comfortable.  I think I and we can do so.  It ain't easy.  It's just what's next.
We had a great team and we did some good, solid work.  And something else was possible as well.
There will be another time.
For those of you who have a chance, I'd love it if you would stop by and read this latest blog and offer your wisdom on these issues.  Perhaps I should also invite a conversation on the AoH ning site.  But for now, to bed!
First comment by Helen, from Brussels:
Dear Bob,
Thank you so much for sharing your learning and observations with us. You have picked up some important and necessary patterns that can perhaps help to illuminate some blindspots in the AoH approach and increase our effectiveness as a community doing important work in the world.
It's breakfast time here in Brussels, and I should be preparing to head off for a 'day at the office' in the European Commission (where many of the challenges you describe are also present, almost identical!), but I want to get a few ideas down before I move on to other things...
1. a 'progression' of worldviews - What I see between the lines of what you write - and that you very perceptively touch on in your blog - is informed by models I have learned in other places, in particular Spiral Dynamics. We all live within our particular world view - what we believe reality to be. What we don't often realise is that our individual world views are embedded in collective world view that is held by the society we live in, and is very much shaped by the life conditions we share. The life conditions in Zimbabwe are very different than the life conditions in Brussels, New York or Tokyo. Not only the cultural context and content, but also the complexity of the daily challenges that face us. The greater the poverty, the more simple the challenges, in many ways: our priority is survival and that's that. There's a lot more I could say to nuance this, but in a nutshell, the underlying parameters of these world views lie along a continuum of 'simple' to 'complex' depending on the interplay between our life conditions and the coping mechanisms we have to develop in order to thrive in them. These coping strategies in turn change the life conditions to bring forth more challenges, which we then have to learn to cope with - in ever increasing spirals of complexity. That's the basic dialectic of social development proposed by the Spiral Dynamics model, and there's certainly enough intuitive truth to it to help us gain some insights.
An important point is that when we, who live in the complex post-modern society, with our challenges of what to where, where to go on holiday, what kind of health insurance to get, how to survive in a society where few people actually die of hunger, epidemic or war, look at this spiral of development, we can see where we have come from - the stages of pyscho-social development follow a similar trajectory for both individuals and collectives - but we can't see where we're going. As a child, you cannot know what it will be like to be an adult. As a member of an indigenous tribe, you cannot know what it is like to work in Wall Street (although I don't suppose most of us can really imagine what it means to live so close to nature and have the sensing skills it takes to survive there, either). The point I'm trying to make is that when a person is immersed in a world view (and we all are) - we don't think 'this is my world view'; we think - nay, we know - that 'this is how the world is'. Another important point is that there is a progression to these different world views. The order is not arbitrary, and stages cannot be skipped. We move from ancient, to traditional, to modern, to post-modern, to whatever it is we want to call the new view that is starting to emerge in our times in some parts of the world (often called 'integral'). So what is next for us is not what is next for a Somalian pirate or an orphan in South Africa, or an Imam in Iran.
The situation you describe, Bob, in your blog, shows different world views meeting without realising that that is what is happening. In Zimbabwe there are folks struggling to survive, and it is those people who are being served by the folks who participated in your workshop - who are embedded in quite traditional organisations (hierarchical bureaucracies) that are trying to improve the fall out from what happens when a predatory modern worldview driven by 'progress, profit and individualism' (think Ayn Rand) overruns an unsuspecting tribal culture. The AoH is a set of patterns that make sense to the post-modern mind ('60s onwards), although it incorporates patterns (like the circle) born in the dawn of the human age, if not before. Participatory leadership as we understand it is not something that the ancient, the traditional, or even the modern mind can grok in the way that we, the inhabitants of this list, do. And it isn't until we shift our own mind set towards an integral worldview that we are able to get our heads around the fact of this spiral of development and see it as a whole.
So while it might be possible to work with participatory leadership methods with folks from all the way across the spectrum, it's not realistic to expect them to 'get it' as a pattern that they can then use strategically the way we do. What they need is what's next for them. There might be many stages in between where our clients are and where we are. And it's not 'elitist' to think that. It's simply an equation of life conditions and coping mechanisms.
... so I strongly recommend an exploratory dive into a developmental model like Spiral Dynamics (which is the one I think is most accessible for our purposes) to add this layer of nuancing onto our approach when we work in systems and cultures we are unfamiliar with. There is a danger of 'labelling', but if we don't forget that the map is not the territory, we should be OK.
2. Serving what wants to happen. Bob, I really admire how you have been able to take a critical distance from what happened for you as a hosting team, to see what you could have done differently. That is the hallmark of an Integral warrior. What I notice more and more, when I sit in hosting teams designing events and training seminars, is that it's actually not up to us to do the design. At least not in the 'constructivist' way we are used to. What I see us doing as hosting teams (especially experienced ones) is setting up a container in a field. We come together to sense deeply into the field that we are serving. These days, when we design Participatory Leadership trainings (each one is different) in the European Commission, we have the habit, when we have a constellator present, to start our sensing into the field with a systemic constellation that will illuminate the dynamics in the field we seek to serve: what is at play, and what needs to happen to move to greater wholeness. Once the field is present, we simply sense our way (through what feels right in our bodies) to a scaffolding that will help to move the system in the right direction. As we learn to sense in this way, we become much more comfortable playing with the design and the components in our AoH toolkit, shifting and morphing the design to stay congruent with what is emerging.
When we work in this emergent way, we really see:
1. The importance of having at least one 'AoH steward/elder' on the team - someone who deeply, deeply understands the DNA of the Art of Hosting.
2. The importance of having a hosting team that is big enough and has enough real diversity to be able to serve the field it is operating in. It's really easy to think we should work with 'mates' that we find it easy to work with, that we get along with and enjoy working with. But that's a sure way of calling in huge blind spots. Much safer to invite diversity, and put in the time it takes, using the practices that serve to weld together a trusting and strong team with the vastest possible spread of perspectives. That way you will sense much more of the field.
and now I really do have to get on my bike and pedal into another day of juggling world-views and sensing the shifting field.
Deep bow to you, Bob - and love to all you other good people
Another comment, from New York, by Martin Siesta:
Thank you.

Yes. I also feel that it is working wit the present and what is now and what the world view is with who we are with. The essence of AoH, the DNA is not the same as the tools that may change in form.

Otto talks about tools in this way:
"i just returned from some coaching and consulting work. i am struck by the similarity of experience that todays leaders face across companies, industries and even across sectors. as a leader today, you find yourself in NO-WHERE-LAND. on the one side you have all the tools that you learned from consultants, business schools and other sources of conventional management wisdom. on the other side you have a huge leadership challenge that you currently face. and inbetween these two things, there is a HUGE GAP. a NOWHERE-LAND. and you find yourself right in the middle of that NOWHERE-ZONE. alone.

the only thing that you can rely on in situations like this is your self-knowing. the deepening of your SELF-knowing. the deepening of your awareness. THAT is, what presencing is all about. to provide a method to collectively CREATE from that NOWHERE-ZONE.

but that technology does not work if you use it with a mindset that belongs to the old toolkit (“problemsolving”). it requires a new mindset. a mindset that is acutely aware of that NOWHERE-ZONE right in front of us, right within us. the awareness of that GAP right NOW right HERE provides a crack where the window to an heightened awareness opens up. without that window open, we cannot cross the distance from self to Self—from no-where to now-here."
–otto scharmer

Deep listening, in empathy and awareness of our own limiting beliefs and world view are essential.

Spiral Dynamics is a model that speaks to this.

I would also recommend a recent book by David Brooks called The Social Animal. It resonates with this thread and I find it to be both powerful and accessable.

A quote from it:
"People are born into relationships --- with parents and ancestors---- and those relationships create people. Or to put it a different way a brain is something contained in a single skull. A mind only exists within a network, It is the result of the interaction between brains, and it is important not to confuse brains with minds."

Martin Siesta
some gratitude...
Appreciating this thread -- thank you all.
And appreciating this learning Bob. As always, your openness opens me. Offering to check in a bit on occasion.
In November, one of the events I'm co-hosting has a deep dive feel.... with people I've worked with now for three years. Together we are asking questions about what is underneath -- in creating container, activating energy, etc.
It speaks to some of what is here in this thread.
Greetings from Utah.
Sharing learning and more thoughts from Australia:

Hi Bob,

Thank you so much for sharing your reflections - such powerful learning.

Interestingly we recently had a related experience in  a strategic conversation we facilitated with a regional family services provider. The day was regarded a success by our client, and by ourselves. However an evaluation of the participants exposed some serious dissatisfaction. We are so used to receiving extremely positive feedback that the slightly negative feedback of some participants was deeply confronting. After we were able to let go of our defensive ego reaction we were ready to learn. Our key learningswere:

  • the invitation is critical - we were dealing with a wide variety of expectations, some of which we were completely unaware of.
  • We were wrapped up in using the methodologies, and were not nearly as flexible as we needed to be.
  • We/I reacted to edge behaviour in a patronising way, rather than responding to and working with that energy.

I really appreciate Helen's thoughts too. I too have found Spiral Dynamics to be a useful framework, despite the lack of peer review of the work and the extremely limited cohorts used to develop it (I was disallowed to use it for my doctorate for that reason). The same criticisms are valid for Freud, and his contribution to psychology has been extremely valuable. I wonder if it is most helpful to view the concepts as a powerful guide to understanding psychosocial behaviour and certainly not the "truth"?

Helen's thoughts on serving what wants to happenseem totally apposite for our experience. Had we used our energy to sense the field rather than stick to process we would have served so much better. Our container was simply not safe enough for everyone.

This conversation string has been extremely helpful for me and so I thank you very warmly and genuinely.




and back to Helen:

Hello friends,

I really feel that we are getting into useful territory with this inquiry. Oodles of thoughts popping into my brain that I'd like to share with you...
I remember once at an AoH training in Belgium (I can't quite remember which one - but I guess it's probably happened more than once), where the hosting team had to sit down and gain clarity about what it was we were doing: were we delivering an Art of Hosting training? Or were we trying to please all the participants, including those who are not willing/able to take responsibility for their own unexamined and unspoken expectations? If I remember rightly, we reminded ourselves that we were delivering an AoH training, and the clarity helped us to keep the container solid and invite participants into their own responsibility and passion.
Bearing in mind the power of expectation, I have learned that it is important to invite in participants' expectations at the outset. That way we all hear our own and each other's - once they are explicit, they are much easier to deal with. Having the stated purpose explicitly in the centre (which means not just the purpose of the gathering, whatever it might be, but also the deeper purpose(s) that gathering serves for the broader context, and the expectations of the participants and hosts explicitly on the rim can help to elucidate what we are jointly responsible for and what we take individual responsibility for.
Time and again, in hosting work and in daily life, I get scuppered by unexamined assumptions that I am on the 'same website' as the people I'm working/playing with. In the European Commission, the very first deep conversational practice we learned was action learning, a practice of questioning which precisely teaches us the power of assumptions and how to unpack them.
Stephen, I really honour your desire for rigour, and your natural wariness of embracing approaches that 'lack peer review' and are based on 'limited cohorts'. Many of us are working in contexts that fully embrace the 'scientific paradigm' where 'objectivity' and 'repeatability' and other such injunctions are held sacred, with the best of intentions. And that paradigm is based on the assumption that there is an 'external reality' out there that is separate from us and obeys predictable laws... even though that very science has outstripped that understanding. The established order is always last to catch up with the latest science...
The thinking underlying Spiral Dynamics was inspired by the powerful intuition of Clare Graves. And I think that he was tapping into an invisible realm of patterns that cannot be observed by science. The fact that these patterns are vulnerable to interpretation in ways that we find distasteful (particularly elitist 'us and them' thinking) is a separate issue, I think. I believe that the patterns that Spiral Dynamics seeks to articulate do operate in the cosmos. The reason I think that is because I can clearly discern them at work in myself. But the larger point at play here, I think, is that all of the phenomena we are working with in the Art of Hosting field (including the 'field' phenomenon itself) are out there on the evolutionary edge of what we as humans are learning to discern and start to articulate. So there won't be much in the way peer review to rely on. And the cohorts we try it out on - as we are learning now, from the experiences shared in this thread - respond in different ways, depending on... what? Worldview? Culture? Complexity of thinking? Social and emotional development? There are many ways to cut this, and many of them are 'cutting edge'. If they help us to discern a generative, compassionate and inclusive way forward, then let's use'em!
And the truth is something else entirely! Our assertions about the truth say more about us than they do about the world.
and more from Steve Ryman:
Thanks for those reflections, Bob.  I really appreciate your honest self-examination and your willingness to be vulnerable in sharing.  It reminds me a lot of an Art of Hosting that I did in Zim in 2009.  When it was over, I felt more like crawling under a rock than in posting my reflections.  Again, we did good work and there were some amazing experiences but it did not meet the participants' expectations (though those expectations were not clear at the outset) and it did not have the level of magic that I'd come to expect from an AoH.  In fact the resistance and the feedback we got were very similar to what you describe.

I also appreciate your observations, Helen.  Spiral Dynamics provides a great lens through which to view this experience as well as the one I had.  And it makes me wonder what would be an appropriate goal and design for an AoH or APL event with a group of people who are largely living in pre-modern organizations or societies.  How can our work help these systems to become healthier and more ready for transition without challenging them to take bigger steps than they are ready for?  How can we be sensitive (and non-elitist) in recognizing and honoring the differences in levels of development and working with them rather than pretending that they don't exist?  
This reflection also makes me even more appreciative of the development of Kufunda - both the development of the individuals and the development of the culture within the village.  With the exception of Marianne, almost everyone at Kufunda came from a "pre-modern" background and most had far less education than many of the Zim nonprofit staff that I met.  Maybe the exposure to "modern" education makes the transition even more difficult?  I would be interested in further conversation about what made it possible for Kufundees to make the developmental leaps that they have.  This whole inquiry feels very rich.

with gratitude,

Then Christina Baldwin chimed in too:

Dear Bob and other Dear Ones,

This is such a good thread. Thank you, Bob, for offering your learning for conversation in this community. It takes courage and strong sense of selfhood and service.

I wanted to share the blog I just wrote on the circle hostings in Belgium and Germany to add to the thought here. See:

In all our training circles recently we have been very aware of what we call "the longing in the room." We find more and more that our role is to bring in the circle as a portal, a safe structure in which people can sit down and adjust to the sensation of stopping amongst each other, have some basic, essential learning and experience of what circle calls forth... and then support the self-determination that emerges. We are also finding, particularly in "training" environments, that people want to translate their learning immediately into experience of deep circle. We seek together for a meaningful question or issue and go there together.

It's raw, dynamic, real. Our experiences are with groups of about 20-30, a goodly size for council of this nature. Last week, I had an experience with a national board retreat where we did mostly circle, with one World Cafe morning to surface the questions, and just kept taking the identified issues deeper and deeper. It was a profound act of trusting the listening process, putting stories and insights into the centre as the group sought new direction for this nonprofit. The third morning, I went to our circle room before dawn and two others were already there setting out the emerging patterns on flip-charts, getting ready for our morning session. Whew! - we got to the synergistic and the way forward became clear. As the facilitator, I experienced my role as space-holder, shaping thier councils with the next question, helping them keep faith with their own wisdom, and trusting, radically, that the wisdom was in the room, and in each of us.
This is truly a learning field with everyone engaged and no one outside. Everyone is in the soup, and everyone is also observing their own process and participation and commenting on the "cooking" we are doing.

If others are noticing this as a shift in the pattern of hosting and what is arising out of the methodologies we are interacting within, I'd be very interested to hear more stories.

Christina B.
Gratitude from Bob who started this tread:
Dear Christina, Ann and other brothers and sisters.
Yes, this exchange has been rich and thoughtful indeed!  Thanks Helen and Stephen and Simone and Steve and others for the insights in your writing.
Such an interesting time -- we're all in the soup together and in our togetherness we're often in radically different places as well.  Visions of the protests around the world dance before me as I write those words.
It feels as if this year has been something akin to the eye of the needle.  As I write those words I also know I suspect that we're not through the eye yet.  I was talking with one of my close colleagues in Tokyo yesterday and we were remembering October, a year ago.  3.11, the revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, natural and human disasters around the world, massive protest in Greece, the machinations of the US from tea parties to occupy -- none of it was foreseeable (at least in the particulars).  And I don't see any reason to believe that 2012 will be anything except more of the same.
So as people who host spaces in which discovery, creation and innovation is possible, more and more is being asked of us.  Most of us have had rich lives of practice.  And more is being asked of us that ever before.
So what you say, Christina, about working with the "longing in the room" seems particularly apt.  Sometimes that longing may form a coherent field.  Often it will be a discordant one where the lens of spiral dynamics or other tools of insight may help us better see what is happening and respond accordingly.
It is a precious time. 
May we each and all go well.
ANd a final contribution by Mary Stacey:


Off to the Freeskool in Toronto’s St James Square, but in response to your ongoing inquiry about ‘tools of insight’ I offer you the slides we used in last year’s module at the ALIA Institute—Action Inquiry: Transforming Leadership in the Midst of Action.

100600 Action Inquiry Torbert Stacey Slides.pdf

You’ll find summaries of  The Leadership Development Frameworks (meaning making structures from which we take action), reference to the Leadership Development Profile (the associated ‘tool of insight’ and intentional development) and the practice of Action Inquiry, which Chris Chapman so beautifully referenced in his recent note in this thread.

Personally, I’ve chosen to bring the LDF/LDP/AI into my work because it weaves so well into our experience cultivating leadership that has the capacity to embrace complexity, ambiguity, and rapid change; to use mutually transforming power; to engage in double and triple loop learning; and to take timely and effective action across the four territories of personal, interpersonal, organizational, and systemic…. and much more

And, it does so in language that is accessible to the people I work with—always a blessing!

Art Kleiner and I will be offering the LDP to participants in our workshop Designing Scenarios for Strategic Engagement at the June 2012 ALIA Summer Institute. We’re bringing together the research that demonstrates that if today’s leaders want to effectively embrace greater degrees of complexity, they must attend no only to the outer dimensions of it, but also to the inner dimensions of it with the ‘self in system’ capacities that are required to design and hold global systems scenarios.  I appreciate all ways that participatory leaders, and hosts of AoH practice, can join together in this developmental practice.

Enjoy, and would love to have a conversation with anyone interested in how developmental theory and practice this be supportive in the AoH context.

Be well,



Views: 129

Reply to This

© 2024   Created by Rowan.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service