Three years into a new professional adventure and just one year beyond my training in The Art of Hosting Conversations That Matter (hereafter referred to as “Art of Hosting”), I find myself reflecting on what I’ve learned—about myself, about my reframed view of organizations, and, ultimately, about the way in which these ongoing revelations are helping me to re-imagine how I show up and engage with people and with organizations, through the lens of Art of Hosting practices.
A Leap of Faith
Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 2009, the time had come for me to make a fairly major professional leap. I had agonized over such a leap for quite some time, not quite knowing how to go about taking the next step or where it might lead. I was emotionally drained, restless, and certain that my passions and talents could be put to better use. After months of trying to see if I could create a shift “in place” in order to engage some of these passions and talents, I found myself with tears streaming down my face in a restaurant during an anniversary dinner with my husband. I was unhappy and I felt stuck! Five simple words in the form of a question from my husband initiated a journey I had not even been able to see as a possibility: “Why don’t you just leave?”
What? How could I leave? Where would I go? What would I do? While we were finally in a place in our lives where this option was financially viable, I could, at first, barely fathom taking such a step. As someone who has always needed to have a pretty clear sense of where I am going and how I am going to get there while controlling every step of the way, having the faith to, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “…tak[e] the first step even when [I couldn’t] see the whole staircase,” was daunting to say the least. But, leap I did and in March 2010 I was officially unemployed.
After embarking on a new professional journey, which brought me joy through a diverse array of teaching and consulting projects, I found myself in a Circle in June 2012 with 49 other University of Minnesota colleagues, about to embark on three days of Art of Hosting training. I was vaguely familiar with the Art of Hosting, as well as some of the core practices, and very excited to embark on a deeper exploration during the coming days in the company of good colleagues.
The Real Journey
It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work
… when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey. Wendell Berry
I have engaged in a lot of reflection in the time since my three-day Art of Hosting training in June of 2012. In particular, what I reflect on is how I have changed and how my internal shift has changed my practice, both as a teacher and as a consultant. Whatever I may have learned about people and organizations during more than twenty-five plus of education and work, my “go to” mode has predominantly been to think that I could—if I just worked hard enough, knew enough, and “kept at it” long enough—control outcomes. This need to control led me to feel deeply responsible for outcomes rather than responsible to outcomes. To feel responsible for people—their feelings, their work, their performance—rather than to them.
As I have reflected on this need for control and the futility of its pursuit, what I have learned from so many of the Art of Hosting practices, and particularly about the need to host myself, has been fundamental to my shift from taking or feeling responsibility for to my sense of responsibility to—to purpose and to people. The notion that people have the capacity to organize in purposeful ways and that my job as a consultant, as a teacher, or in any professional capacity might be to create conditions in which the work that needs to emerge in service to a particular purpose can do so, is not one I have come by easily.
I have wondered a lot about how my need to control has impacted my colleagues throughout the years (not to mention those in my personal life, but that’s a different chapter). So many of the Art of Hosting practices invite us to have a deep level of faith in the capacities of individuals, groups, and organizations and in the wisdom that emerges when the conditions are fostered that allow this intelligence to surface. How many times did colleagues, or those to whom I was supposed to be providing supervision or guidance, feel empowered to find their own solutions or believe that they had the capacity to do the work their way, because of my guidance? I fear it is likely that many times, because I stayed too close to the actual work, I often unintentionally communicated a lack of faith in others’ ability or stifled creative solutions that could have emerged had I shown up in a different kind of way.
Showing up differently might have come in the form of well-crafted questions I could have asked, about the work itself or about what was happening for the person doing it that was making him or her feel alive. Instead, many of those meetings were a micro-level accounting of a to-do list that did not leave me feeling very satisfied. I can almost certainly conclude did not leave my colleagues feeling fulfilled either.
There are many reasons for my coming to the proverbial fork in the road in 2009. My real journey began, as Wendell Berry notes, when I realized that I wasn’t sure what to do or which way to go. As I reflect on what I’ve learned about myself and on the ways in which the core practices of the Art of Hosting have helped me to think differently about work and the nature of organizations, I now believe that part of what I needed was a fundamental shift in my worldview about my role in the work of organizations.
Mistakes…are the portals of discovery. James Joyce
“Mistakes” may not be the best way to characterize what I see when I reflect on the past; I certainly was doing the best I knew how to do in the moment, just as we all do. However, I have learned a tremendous amount about my own practice and its limitations. I now find tremendous value in my consulting and teaching work using many of the Art of Hosting practices that I was first introduced to in my training. Perhaps the most profound outcome has been a genuine, fundamental shift in two primary ways: how I view organizations and, thus, how I view my role in them; and how I view the importance of hosting one’s self.
While certainly not a new idea, to practice one’s work from the perspective that complex organizations are Living Systems has, in turn, flipped on its head my own understanding and belief about my role as a consultant. Organizations viewed as Living Systems have, according to the Art of Hosting Workbook (Center for Integrative Leadership, June 2012), at least the following qualities:
- A living system accepts only its own solutions—we only support those things we are part of creating.
- A living system pays attention only to that which is meaningful to it here and now.
- In nature, a living system participates in the development of its neighbor—an isolated system is doomed.
- Nature, and all of nature, including ourselves, is in constant change (without “change management”).
- Nature seeks diversity. New relations open up to new possibilities. It is not a question of survival of the fittest—but everything that is fit—as many species as possible. Diversity increases our chance of survival.
- Experimentation opens up to what is possible here and now. Nature is not intent on finding perfect solutions, but workable solutions. “Life is intent on finding what works, not what is right.”
- All the answers to not exist “out there”—we must sometimes experiment to find out what works.
- A living system cannot be steered or controlled—it can only be teased, nudged, titillated to see things differently.
- A system changes when its perception of itself changes.
- Who we are together is always different and more than whom we are alone. Our range of creative expression increases as we join with others. New relationships create new capacities.
- We (human beings) are capable of self-organizing, given the right conditions.
- Self-organization shifts to a higher order (p.10).
An early consulting job reflects the shift I began to make in integrating this framework into my roles with organizations. In a two-year project, prior to my Art of Hosting training, I began my work as I always had—in charge and feeling full responsibility for the work that the organization wanted to accomplish. The first year’s work seemed to meet many good milestones and overall, people seemed happy with how the work was progressing. However, at the end of the first year, people in many key leadership positions left and suddenly there were new positional leaders with responsibility for the project’s work. While they had been involved tangentially in the project in the first year, they were now directly involved.
One of these individuals who had key responsibilities related to the work said to me, “Oh, I am so glad you are going to work with us again this year so that I don’t have to worry about this project and you can just take care of it.” The “old Karen” might have relished this comment, seeing it as a reflection of how indispensable I was or how well I was doing my work. The emerging “new Karen,” after my Art of Hosting training, was mindful of all of the lessons I was learning. I needed to stop and reflect on my own potential responses to this comment and, when I did so, I realized that I needed to give the work back to the individual and, by extension, the organization. My role as the consultant was, as I saw it, to be responsible to the larger purpose of the work, rather than for the work.
As the project proceeded into the second year, it felt as if it stalled out. In the midst of what felt like running in circles, as the same conversations, objections, and resistance to the work from many corners of the organization surfaced again and again, I reflected on the phases of “divergence, emergence, and convergence,” and particularly on the idea of the “groan zone.” It occurred to me that during the first year’s work, with the previous leadership team, we had worked through these three phases and that those doing the work were ready to move forward with solutions. With a new leadership team, we had moved back into another divergence/convergence cycle and throughout the second year of the project we truly were deeply into the groan zone. It was uncomfortable for many, including me; there was a lot of tension, and it was not clear that we would find our way to convergence.
Holding the tension through this uncomfortable period, I found it helpful to revisit many of the Living Systems principles mentioned above. When tempted to “take control,” I reflected on what I knew: I could not impose my own solutions for moving forward onto this organization, even though it might make me feel more in charge and productive. This process was not about me—those involved with the project had to find their own way so that when I left, they owned the solutions that they had generated together. It would be too easy to dismiss something that someone from the outside had created, so I remained steadfast in my role as coach, guide, and host to the process. I also knew that those involved would only engage in work that they found meaningful, so many of my conversations during the second year were in search of what would make the work matter to those closest to it. I also encouraged the organization develop a willingness to try and experiment with various approaches, so that they would learn from the data they collected. Each step would provide them with evidence of what was working and what was not, allowing them to move forward incrementally.
As my contract for the second year ended, I believe much was still emerging and the organization was still in the throes of the “groan zone.” I think the “old Karen” would have felt that leaving the project at this phase was failure; the “new(er) Karen,” though challenged by a nagging feeling of failure, felt that the organization was where it needed to be, and only could be, and that when the conditions were right, convergence on a path forward would emerge. It was not without a lot of reflection and soul searching that I was able to embrace this perspective!
Recently, I was reminded by a colleague of an article entitled “Soul Work in Organizations,” that reflects on many of these same qualities of Living Systems (Mirvis, 1997). To think about organizations as Living Systems has helped me fundamentally shift how I show up in my work and enact my role as “consultant” and “teacher.” I have to trust people and their capacity to do the work they need to do, when they are ready and able to do it; I do not have to have all of the answers or “The Answer,” but instead need to allow the path, the plan, or the learning to emerge from the collective deliberation and knowing within the group. And I have to be genuinely okay with not being the authority but rather the host.
A significant reason I have been able to make these shifts, both personally and professionally, has come from my reliance on, as well as active engagement with, the Art of Hosting community of practitioners at the University of Minnesota. Having colleagues from whom I can draw support, strength, ideas, and feedback has been significant in its power to help me be better as a consultant and a teacher—my “outer game.” I also have been able to shift how I see the drawing of this support, so that I now see it as a strength rather than a weakness. This shift requires what I am coming to understand as something author and researcher Brené Brown (2012) calls “engaging with vulnerability.” Not something I have historically embraced!
Recently, as I was working on a project and struggling to come up with Powerful Questions, I called on others from the University’s community of practitioners and they engaged with me in thoughtful conversation, allowing me to be deeply listened to, and gain different perspective. This engagement allowed me to conceive of possible questions I had not previously considered that were so much richer and deeper than where I had started. Taking these new draft questions back to my clients resulted in wonderful, rich discussions, and, ultimately, questions they created based on the rich seeds planted because of the support of my colleagues. While previously I might have seen the fact that I sought input from others as a sign that I wasn’t “good enough” at my work, I now felt stronger because I was willing to reach out, seek input, and listen deeply to other perspectives, ultimately providing my clients with richer possibilities than I could have had I decided to “go it alone.”
The Road Less Traveled
Two roads diverged in a wood and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference. Robert Frost
I am recognizing that this Art of Hosting road is one that is foreign to many, and even suspect for some.For me, however, the ability to host others and help to foster conditions that promote authentic engagement with one another; to embrace, or at least tolerate, ambiguity, uncertainly, and struggle; and to believe that the solution to whatever needs to be solved, addressed, or discovered lies within the wisdom of those who care most deeply about the issue or question at hand, has meant that I not only have to trust others and their capacities, but perhaps even more importantly I need to trust myself in this new way of working. I have to be able to hold the uncertainty and the fear, the hope and the anticipation, and not succumb to old habits of wanting to fix, to answer, to own, or to go it alone. This road is a new one for me; a road that has, until recently, been rarely traveled. It is, fundamentally, a radically different way to think about the capacity of organizations and individuals, and how to support conditions that allow them to do their best work.
To be sure, Art of Hosting practices are not the only way forward—just because one has a hammer does not mean everything is a nail, and there are certainly plenty of other “practices” that have their time and place. What I do know, however, is that no matter what set of “tools” are deemed to be the most appropriate or effective for a given purpose, the how of the way in which I show up to do my work is most certainly different because of my very intentional engagement with Art of Hosting practices and the Art of Hosting community of practitioners at the University. Choosing this path at this point in my journey has, as Frost said, “…made all the difference.”