The Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter: A glimpse into the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible

This article first appeared in the spring-summer 2016 issue of Kosmos Journal.

The quality of our conversations makes our world what it is. How we talk to each other determines whether we walk away from each other and prepare to fight for our separate interests, or hold fire, stay together and open up into a future of mutual understanding and brighter possibility. Conversation is an art that can be practiced at any scale, from ones and twos to thousands, on timescales ranging from minutes to days to permanently ongoing.

This article is an introduction to a body of practice and a growing global self-organising network that I feel holds a crucial piece of the puzzle of how to start to embody the new story of the civilisation that we deeply intuit is possible, and that human hearts and souls long for. The ‘Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter’ is a participatory approach to life where personal practice, dialogue, hosted collective inquiry and co-creative innovation support the healthy unfolding of human life on Earth in the complex conditions of today’s world. It is especially effective in those situations and contexts where the complexity is such that our habitual resort to ‘predict and control’ just makes things worse, and we barely dare to admit that we don’t know what to do. The pattern of this practice spans the personal and the collective, the local and the global, the inner and the outer, the visible and the invisible. Its domain—the place where it thrives—is the complex reality of living systems, the sweet spot between chaos and order where resides the co-creation of the truly new. Its ethos is a love of wholeness, a delight in the aliveness of diversity, a fierce and radical inclusion of everything that shows up in the world.

An example of co-creation in action

Mike speaks

Mike speaks. (Photo by Hans Stockmans)

“Imagine you have everything set up for the next five years, and then suddenly it all goes wrong. You end up losing everything. One day you lose your money, on other days you lose your friends. Finally, you lose the safety of your home. You have lost it all because your society has gone wrong. And so there is nothing left to do but leave, to go somewhere else. That’s when you discover that wherever you go, people are afraid of you. After a long and difficult journey, I arrived in this country. In the 4 months I have been here, this is the first place I have found where people have the courage to meet strangers without fear. Thank you.”

The speaker of these words is a young Syrian man called Mike. He is speaking into a large and diverse circle of people in a historical manor house deep in the rural hinterland of Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. He has been brought to this place and this circle by a string of synchronicities, in response to his own heartfelt request – and that is another story.

So what is this circle of people doing together in this place? And, as I allow the shivers to run through my body on receiving Mike’s story, why am I not surprised at the magic in this room? We are more than 70 people, from three continents and 14 countries. Our ages range from 14 to 70. We come from different cultural and historical backgrounds and social and financial circumstances. Most of us did not know each other when we arrived. We have been together in this place for two days already and this is the morning of the third and last day of our gathering. Each of us has chosen to be here in response to the call of a question that matters to us: “What if it were up to us to embody a society where everyone and everything can thrive? Where I can accept and celebrate your culture and values without having to devalue or sacrifice my own?”

This question arose from a collective inquiry among a handful of people living in Belgium and in search of more satisfying ways of relating to the diversity that is an inescapable fact of life in today’s society. In language, culture, politics, ethnicity, creed, age, profession, role, personal history – the ways in which we differ are infinite. Wherever we look, we see chasms to be crossed, bridges to be built: how can top-down meet bottom-up? How can we engage with all stakeholders? Integrate successive waves of refugees? Reach out across the gulfs between generations, faiths, languages, worldviews and cultures? How can we invite all these differences into an appreciation of our abundance, instead something to fear?

And what is the point of gathering to inquire into such a vast question when we are, relatively speaking, so few? What difference can it possibly make to the turmoil pounding against the borders of Europe and frothing into its heartland to disrupt our quiet lives? The point is: to learn together. We are here together for three days to learn and practice the Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter (also called the Art of Participatory Leadership): a body of methods and practices to help us stay present with these questions in our daily lives, in ways that can transform our experience, individually and collectively. This is a practical approach to building the capacity for a different way of being together that is essentially participatory and co-creates collective intelligence, where we talk with each another, and not about each other. These practices help us to bring forth action (and non-action) based on the best collective wisdom present in any human system.

Learning gatherings like the one described here have been taking place throughout the world, on every continent (except Antarctica), for almost 20 years. No one has counted how many there have been. Each one is unique. Each one finds some new way to innovate, always building on and bringing forth the shared practice and models of the Art of Hosting, which is in essence a pattern for co-creation.

Foto 07.02.16, 10 25 21

Loaves and fishes manifesting as tea-time

As an example, in this gathering in Belgium we added two experiments related to the aspect of embodying the new society. Firstly, instead of buying in the catering, we ‘hosted’ the kitchen: we invited in a team of volunteers to participate by preparing our meals (Syrian Mike was a valued member of the kitchen crew). The result of that experiment was a bit like the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. We wallowed in a veritable banquet of exquisite, organic, vegetarian dishes at every meal, with a budget that came in below the estimate and debouched upon half a barn full of unused ingredients to give away. The second experiment was the ‘shared economy’. Learning how to embody the society where all can thrive also means finding new ways to relate to money and value creation. We therefore deviated from the convention of charging a standard fee for the gathering (also offered as a training) as a transaction, opting instead for a learning experiment to discover what the future holds for communities that can work well with economy, currency, value and generosity, bringing relationship back into the exchange. This took the form of a cooperative, responsibility-based calling in of the resources needed to make the event possible, where the community as a whole—and not just the organising team—held the financial responsibility. That experiment resulted in a rich exploration of the shadow and light of our diverse relationships with money, meaning and value. The budget and finances (including the diverse fees asked by the hosts/trainers) were held in full transparency and we ended up with enough of a surplus to offer a financial contribution to each of the volunteer members of the kitchen crew (who had asked for nothing). We also came away with some co-created principles that our community wanted to use to determine its economy – principles that can (and will) travel out into the future beyond our group and context. I see such experiences as prototypes for the ‘circles of creation’ referred to in the series of articles on Collective Presencing I co-authored with Ria Baeck.

Given the timing and context of this learning event, the choice of ‘calling question’ was very deliberate. Our three days together taught us much about what it takes to embody that society where everyone can thrive. In fact, by practicing the patterns of the Art of Hosting, we co-created it in microcosm at the same time as we talked about it. Together we confirmed that it is possible to design processes which create a ‘safe container’ where people can show up in their diversity, their vulnerability, their authenticity, their curiosity and their creativity. Within that container, sharing our stories allows us to see each other in our humanity, beyond gender, history, culture, place of origin, rank/status, occupation, etc. When we meet in our humanity, diversity is not a threat but an opportunity: our differences are our wealth, what allows us to thrive in the complexity of life.

Café in full swing

World Café in full swing (Photo by Damien Versele)

So what is this Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter?

The Art of Hosting has been described in many different ways. This makes perfect sense, since it is a multi-faceted, continually evolving set of practices, models and perspectives. One way to think of it is as an ongoing inquiry into how to create collective intelligence and collective wisdom, and what happens when it becomes emergent – when deep conversation and cross-pollination bring novel insights and new shared meaning.

Another way of describing the Art of Hosting is as an iceberg. What appears first to the eye is a palette of conversational methodologies and approaches, many of which (Circle, Open Space Technology, the World Café, Appreciative Inquiry) were ‘invented’ elsewhere and are beautifully stewarded by their own communities of practice. One thing that all these methodologies have in common, though, is that while they mimic natural, spontaneous conversation, to do so effectively they must be skilfully invited, designed, hosted. The art lies in knowing when to use each, in service of a worthy purpose. The Art of Hosting takes the basic architecture, principles and processes of these methods and mixes, matches and adapts them to meet the needs of whatever context it is serving. This weaving and blending is our art form.

Beneath these methodologies that appear as the tip of the iceberg, we find the invisible scaffolding, attitudes and practices that allow the whole thing to float. Underlying everything are the basic assumptions that make up the Art of Hosting world view. Foremost of these is the awareness of human organisation as a complex, living system: just as living systems exist everywhere in nature (bacteria forming colonies, ants creating an anthill, complex ecosystems adapted to different climates, etc.) so people and organisations are complex living systems as well. In other words, they are intelligent, creative, adaptive, self-organising, and meaning-seeking. This is why participatory practices are so vital today: because they enable everyone to participate and be empowered. The innovation that humanity needs to get us out of the trouble we are in grows out of the dance between chaos and order, in the cross-pollination and new linking of ideas, experiences and insights. Conversations do, indeed, matter, because wise action (and non-action) emerges from the shared meaning we create together. (See also my article Evolutionary Entrepreneurship, engaging the collective will.)

The power of practice

Out of this view of the world as a living system springs an attitude to life not as a quest for knowledge and understanding, but rather as a practice of participation – a sacred search for the wicked questions that will open us up to experience more of life, more of our own depth, more of the mystery of the other and the magic of what we can create together, in service of Life. At the heart of the Art of Hosting lies what practitioners call ‘the four-fold practice’. The word ‘practice’ is prime here: we are learning together, one conversation at a time, to identify and strengthen the muscles of awareness that will allow us to develop mastery of a key social art form of the future. (The Art of Hosting provides a perfect portal into the practices of Collective Presencing).

  • The first dimension of this practice is that of developing personal presence as the basic instrument of participation. Presence is that quality of authenticity, vulnerability, confidence and courage which allows me to stand in the midst of intense emotion, to tolerate not-knowing-yet without rushing to fix anything, to be comfortable with silence, to work in service of purpose bigger than my ego. The practices that can support the emergence of presence are many and varied to suit all tastes: yoga, dance, martial arts, meditation, prayer, psychotherapy, time in nature, tantric sex, art, music – the point is to commit to regular practice and apply it here and now!
  • AoH_BE_08-02-2016_HS-032_LR

    An aid to good dialogue: passing the talking piece

    The second dimension of practice is participation. On one level, this means practicing engaging in good conversations, in dialogue with deep listening. At a deeper level, we find in every waking moment an invitation to participate with all of life. Practices within this domain include active listening, dialogue, asking powerful questions, owning one’s own projections, expectations and assumptions, clarifying intentions, cultivating curiosity and opening to nature.

  • The third dimension of practice is hosting conversations. This is the domain of the methodologies that are the most obvious hallmark of the Art of Hosting. Beneath the surface, we learn the art of creating and holding a container in which people can have deeply meaningful conversations—even in a 2-day conference with 800 participants. We learn to ‘set’ the conditions that will allow a group to settle into collective presence, and to hold that space through the confusion of leaving familiar territory so that new order, fresh clarity and deeper relationship can emerge. Such conversations are much more likely to happen in the presence of clear intentions, a powerful calling question, a compelling invitation, good design, skilful framing, and the presence to hold space for emergence. One of the central tenets of the Art of Hosting is “never host alone”. This is not work for the solitary hero – “it takes a field to host a field”. It takes many years to master these subtle arts of collective interaction, and that is another reason why we call it ‘practice’!
  • The fourth dimension of practice is community. It is one thing to go to a training and learn the basics of the hosting practice. If we are to sustain our learning and keep our practice alive and growing to transform ourselves and our environment, we need to stay connected to other practitioners: we need a community of practice. The traditional way of ‘controlling the quality’ is to create an organisation or association that sets the standards. But to give emergence a chance, we share our knowledge through collaboration and conversation, without any formal hierarchy. In a way, this practice of community—this community of practice—is the culmination of dedicated practice by many people in the other three domains.

An emergent pattern of the New Paradigm: viral community

Within a little over a decade, the Art of Hosting community has grown from a handful of friends experimenting and sharing ideas together, to a global, self-organising network of many thousands, with new members joining all the time. For most people, the entry is through a three-day training like the one described above. For many, it is life-changing. There is no central institute rolling out cookie-cutter training seminars. Indeed, there is no licensing, trademark or copyright (other than a creative commons copyright for the co-created open-source companion guide), no organisational structure, staff or headquarters, no financial expectations or agreements. Each learning gathering is unique, called forth by a need in a local context and brought into being by the efforts of a few local practitioners, usually supported by one or more very seasoned ‘stewards’ of the Art of Hosting pattern, who might come in from another part of the world and who safeguard quality and protect the integrity of the DNA of the practice.

The people who attend these local training events come from all walks of society – local government, NGOs, schools, businesses, social workers, local community activists of all flavours, and just plain people who care to make the world a better place and are hungry for deeper human connection. Typically, in obedience to the injunction never to host alone, new practitioners then call in their local ‘mates’ to support them in applying the practices of Art of Hosting in their own contexts, where those practices begin to spread and transform what they touch. This is how local self-organising communities of practice have popped up in countless locations around the globe, allowing practitioners to support and deepen their practice together, and growing as ever more souls are touched by the practice and themselves call for training so that they, too, can immerse themselves in these patterns.

And then comes application: the practice in practice! Often a specially designed event is called for in a specific field, so as to engage with the full diversity of real stakeholders – examples include both food and finance in the UK, education in Lithuania, healthcare in Columbus, Ohio (USA), young people in Nova Scotia, business all over the place. In other cases, the Art of Hosting practices have taken root in a community or organisation and begun over time to transform it from the inside, stitching together the dynamic and healthy ecosystem that lives in potential within every space of human endeavour, despite the boundaries that tend to fragment us. Examples of this are Kufunda Village in Zimbabwe, the city of Columbus (Ohio) and the European Commission (now spreading to the other EU institutions) in Brussels. Stories from these and other contexts can be found at www.artofhosting.org.

All of these local fields are connected through a global, self-organising network that supports collective learning through a mailing list, online forums, a growing resource library and informative website.

In conclusion, what emerges

Over the years that the practice of the Art of Hosting has been developing and spreading, certain patterns consistently show up at different levels of scale:

  • Individuals step into their personal leadership to champion what they care about.
  • Teams increase their capacity to take wise action in complex situations.
  • Communities and organisations embrace more diversity, reconnect with their purpose and manifest more of their potential.
  • Globally, healthy, collaborative ecosystems of diverse communities and organisations emerge, seeking ways forward that benefit the whole.

I am writing this at a time when humanity is facing perhaps its ultimate challenge, as it is called to evolve away from our instincts of fight/flight/freeze towards our new capacities of witnessing, articulating and generating from conscious intention. The Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter offers a very effective training ground for building these new capacities. May we together fulfil our potential!

Diversity flows

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About iyeshe

Woman returning to the wild. Cunning linguist, mother of twins, witch, host, harvester, spaceholder for the dawning Aquarian age, evolutionary wooden-spoon wielder, self-mitigating carbon footprint, wannabe holon in the forthcoming collective buddha...
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