Building the Case for Art of Hosting at the University of Minnesota

Susan Engelmann

In my work at the University of Minnesota, I have been in many different positions during the past 40 years: home economics education, 4-H youth development, community economic development, organizational and leadership development, program management, strategic planning, administrative leadership, and eLearning strategic development. To be a positive force for institutional change, I consulted many different institutes, frameworks, and authors including Borich (1975), Diamond (1994), Jaworski (1998), Kanter (1990), Palmer (1994), Senge (1990), and Wheatley (1994).

I am motivated to write this chapter, though, because for the first time I have found something that brings it all together with a common language. The Art of Hosting Conversations That Matter (hereafter referred to as “Art of Hosting”) synthesizes key guiding principles and emerging methodologies for effective ways to address complex issues. As stated in the training workbook:

There is an emerging group of methodologies for facilitating conversation in groups of all sizes, supported by principles that help maximize collective intelligence, integrate and utilize diversity and minimize or transform conflict. Processes facilitated in this way tend to result in collective clarity and wise action, which is sustainable, providing workable solutions to the most complex problems. The approach ensures that stakeholders buy into the process (because they participate in the design and the process is by definition transparent) and make ongoing feedback, learning and course correction a natural and efficient part of life. (Center for Integrative Leadership, 2012)

In May 2012, my first exposure to the Art of Hosting came as I participated in Open Space Technology when the Office of Information Technology, hosted an event to get stakeholder input for mobile technology at the University of Minnesota. What piqued my interest was the way the Art of Hosting facilitators brought diverse people throughout the University as stakeholders to problem solve what mobile technology might look like in the future at the University. Through that experience I attended the Art of Hosting training in June 2012, sponsored by the Center for Integrative Leadership. The session brought together University faculty, staff, students, and administrators to find new ways to address complex issues for the University. There was no accident that I reconnected and made new connections with key people at the University. One of the guiding principles for Art of Hosting is that “the right people are in the room.” The training was exceptional because it was designed and implemented for the participant to put the Art of Hosting into practice immediately in both their personal and professional lives. So many times training occurs and there is no evidence of using it in your daily life.

Since that training, I have been part of designing, participating, and observing the effective use of Art of Hosting. Susan Geller’s work on using Art of Hosting proactively on a high-impact, high-profile, University-wide initiative affirmed that the Art of Hosting can impact the launch and implementation of a major University initiative. Laura Bloomberg, Associate Dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, uses Art of Hosting in several of her classes to help students address complex issues as a part of their student experience. Jodi Sandfort and Kathy Quick have brought together Art of Hosting practitioners for seminars, so we can better learn from their in-depth research.

It was at one of these meetings that I happened to connect with one of the other participants in the June 2012 training. She asked me, “Have you had a chance to use the Art of Hosting in the last six months since our training?” As I struggled to find words to answer, I realized that, in fact, the Art of Hosting is not an event, a plan, a best practice, but rather a way of being to address complex challenges. I responded, “Well yes, I try to use Art of Hosting every day in my work at the University and, in fact, attempt to use in in my personal life with my family and my friends, as well.”

The Art of Hosting needs to be sincere in its intention and engagement. When Art of Hosting is used as a pretense as a way of using people’s input for their own gain, it not only does not work, but also creates cynicism for using the Art of Hosting. People using Art of Hosting need be clear about the purpose and share the harvest results. Using these key questions can guide this process.

What? So what? Now what?

This is a well-used and successful model to assist you in designing the reflection activities. Although you can derive learning from each question, focusing on all three will provide broader insights and keep participants from getting stuck on only the facts or just the feelings.

  • What? (Reporting what happened, objectively.) Without judgment or interpretation, participants describe in detail the facts and event(s) of the experience. What happened? What did you observe? What issue is being addressed or population is being served? What were the results of the project? What events or critical incidents occurred? What was of particular notice? How did you feel about that? Let’s hear from someone who had a different reaction.
  • So What? (What did you learn? What difference did the event make?) Participants discuss their feelings, ideas and analysis of the service experience. Questions can also be focused on the meaning or importance of the activity to the various stakeholders:
    • The Participant: Did you learn a new skill or clarify an interest? Did you hear, smell, feel anything that surprised you? What feelings or thoughts seem most strong today? How is your experience different from what you expected? What struck you about that? How was that significant? What impacts the way you view the situation/experience? (What lens are you viewing from?) What do the critical incidents mean to you? How did you respond to them? What did you like/dislike about the experience?
    • The Recipient: Did the service empower the recipient to become more self-sufficient? What did you learn about the people/community that we served? What might impact the recipient’s views or experience of the project?
    • The Community: What are some of the pressing needs/issues in the community? How does this project address those needs? How, specifically, has the community benefited? What is the least impact you can imagine for the project? With unlimited creativity, what is the most impact on the community that you can imagine?
    • The Group: In what ways did the group work well together? What does that suggest to you about the group? How might the group have accomplished its task more effectively? In what ways did others help you today (and vice versa)? How were decisions made? Were everybody’s ideas listened to?
    • Now What? (How will they think or act in the future as a result of this experience?)

Participants consider broader implications of the service experience and apply learning.

Be aware to strike a balance between realistic, reachable goals and openness to spontaneity and change. Questions include: What seem to be the root causes of the   issue/problem addressed? What kinds of activities are currently taking place in the community related to this project? What contributes to the success of projects like this? What hinders success? What learning occurred for you in this experience? How can you apply this learning? What would you like to learn more about, related to this project or issue? What follow-up is needed to address any challenges or difficulties? What information can you share with your peers or community volunteers? If you were in charge of the project, what would you do to improve it? If you could do the project again, what would you do differently? What would complete the service?

These types of questions not only help create an environment for people’s voices to be heard, but bring together ideas to solve real problems. “What? So what? Now what?” provide a realistic and practical way to clarify the issues and move the initiative forward. The Art of Hosting inspires those who lead to engage in interactive, meaningful ways to bring together people from diverse perspectives to tackle challenges they care about for greater causes.

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  1. Pingback: Art of Participatory Leadership Meets College Learning & Teaching | TILT

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