A Training Not for Spectators

Leah Lundquist and Jodi Sandfort

The Art of Hosting Conversations That Matter (hereafter referred to as “Art of Hosting”) training workshop is not a trademarked set of practices or a three-day retreat. Yet, it serves as a gateway experience through which individuals pass to be introduced to the techniques and frameworks associated with the Art of Hosting. For many—including over 170 individuals worked at the University of Minnesota who have had this experience—this is a memorable experience (Quick & Sandfort, 2013). It is a practical invitation to participatory leadership in service of positive organizational, political, and societal change. The story that follows captures the spirit of the Art of Hosting practicums that have been hosted at the University of Minnesota since 2011.

The Training Begins…

Participants begin to arrive, not completely sure of what they’ve stepped into over the next few days. Many are eager for professional development and looking forward to connecting with others from across the University of Minnesota where there are few opportunities for staff, faculty, and students to interact as equals. This experience poses a unique and exciting opportunity.

And, already, there is much that is unexpected. A couple weeks earlier each participant received a welcome letter outlining logistics and inviting them to consider both “What time is it now for the University of Minnesota?” and “What time is it for me in my leadership journey?” There is no projected PowerPoint image or even a screen. Instead, on the walls are two large sheets of paper with colorful drawings: an agenda—or “visual flow”—drawn out as a landscape, outlining the “journey” the participants will experience over the next three days: VisualFlow_AoHTraining

And a purpose, unique to this particular workshop:


The hosting team—eight individuals who together designed and are implementing the experience—are welcoming participants as they arrive, inviting them to have coffee and breakfast before settling into the circle of chairs.

The Day Before…

Each three-day workshop is hosted by at least one global steward in the Art of Hosting community, an individual who has deep experience with the practices through application in various contexts, to ensure program integrity to the approach. The steward is joined by at least two other experienced practitioners, invited to added diversity to the skills and background of the team. This team plans the entire workshop purpose, agenda, and activities the day before implementation. They “practice the practice” of honoring emergence to create what is needed.

“Practicing the practice” means the team participates in meaningful conversations to build their coherence, knowing a sense of camaraderie and trust between the hosts will set the tone for how participants interact. The most important element shaping workshop design is purpose: What work will the workshop do for participants at this place and time? In this particular case, each participant had articulated his/her own motivations when registering and the hosting team spends an hour walking through these responses. The caller for this particular workshop is the Center for Integrative Leadership—a University-wide center focused on building capacity for cross-boundary leadership. Annually, it has held a forum for leadership development to enhance cross-boundary leadership in the University. This context influences the shape of the workshop but it still takes the team time to integrate participants’ needs, callers’ expectations, and the larger intention. But it is time well spent as it builds relationships among the hosting team, and determines the activities and their ordering in the three-day program.

Throughout the day, the hosting team comes back to the purpose, as they discuss potential engagement techniques and frameworks that could be included. When consensus is achieved, the hosting team members are invited to write their names by the techniques they are willing to coach, frameworks they can do a brief 10–20-minute “teach” about, and other roles. They are once again “practicing the practice”; instead of encouraging delegation and role assignment, they are encouraging self-organizing based on individual passion and autonomy. No one will work alone on any role; hosting team members are encouraged to take safe risks, knowing another team member will be there to support their leadership.

designteamOver the next few days, the hosts will continue to practice the Four-Fold Practice:

  • Hosting themselves: Finding balance in the midst of the intense practicum days through exercise, music, and fun; asking their fellow hosts for support when they sense they need it.
  • Participating: Entering into the experience with a “beginner’s mindset”—open to new insights and ways to understand the techniques and frameworks; participating alongside participants in any “teaches” or activities they are not hosting.
  • Hosting: Ensuring participants feel welcome and comfortable. Being attentive to the energy in the room. Teaching the approach through word and deed, at all times modeling the leadership being called upon from participants.
  • Co-creating: Co-designing the experience as part of a hosting team. Checking-in and checking-out at the beginning and end of every day to debrief on what is going well, what could be changed. Bringing their talents and material artifacts (i.e., markers, baskets, cloths) to enrich the training experience.

Back to Day 1 of the Training…

A chime rings and participants are invited by a host to take their seats. From around the large Circle of fifty chairs, members of hosting team voice their welcome and explain the very participatory nature of this workshop. A sign-up sheet on the wall invites participants to step up to host a group process supported by coaching, harvest the many conversations that will be taking place, or attend to the beauty of the space. It is a practicum focused on learning-by-doing, particularly significant for adult learning (National Research Council, 2000; Parks, 2005; Thomas & Seely Brown, 2011)

After these introductions, participants begin to experience the Art of Hosting techniques. Through the circle process they are invited to go beyond typical professional introductions to bring their whole selves into the room by responding to the powerful question, “Who am I…really?” This question immediately catapults the participants from the status quo into a place of vulnerability, curiosity; it offers the potential of authentic relationship among the group of 50 people.

Over the Course of 3 Days…

The next three days are alive with conversation and movement. Most participants take advantage of the engaging-nature of this practicum, turning off their cell phones and putting up away email. They experience something that seems quite valuable at this moment of time; the benefit of slowing down and drawing on the wisdom of colleagues.

9088743162_9704d5b5b1The organic development of the training, where hosting team members step up to teach frameworks or coach others demonstrates unanticipated skills in the room. Some people bring their instruments, and song and dance erupt during breaks. Even those most seasoned in the Art of Hosting techniques and frameworks learn as they watch others lead presentations and application.

9086527465_16ff41523bAlong the way, the hosting team also engages case-in-point pedagogy, making explicit the design decisions informing the activities and validating questions posed throughout the sessions (Parks, 2005). Hosting team members also contextualize the experience by sharing stories of how they have sought to apply the frameworks and methods in their personal and professional lives at the University.

On the final day, participants are encouraged to share any intentions they have after leaving this shared, workshop space. Many commit to acting on the projects or meaningful conversations they had worked on with fellow participants through a Proaction Café or Open Space Technology sessions. Many also commit to participating with the growing Community of Practitioners at the University, to support each other in both co-hosting conversations and continuing to enact the Four-Fold Practice.

The whole learning experience is guided by principles shared by others in the Art of Hosting international community, articulated by Meg Wheatley and Debra Frieze (2011): the leaders we need are already here; there is no greater power than a community discovering what is cared about; we have what we need.

9088746362_b183bdce9fWhat we are learning about training and adult learning….
We are using a number of structured approaches to capture our learning about how to improve delivery of the workshop.  As is noted in the other chapters in this eBook section, faculty are taking these training methods and adapting them for classroom use.

Also, to assure we have feedback from participants, we conduct a follow-up online survey each time the three-day workshop has been offered and compiled a comprehensive evaluation report. Participants have ranked their experience highly across the number of outcomes, while also suggesting changes that would improve the offering within the academic context.

The experiential nature of the activities over the three days is a refreshing departure from most professional training experiences offered in the academic environment.  Eighty-two percent of the respondents agreed they had sufficient opportunities to practice what they were learning during the training.

Many remarked on what a departure this was from the traditional “sage on stage” model of academic learning.

I found the concepts very relevant and the approach effective. I liked the learn by doing approach and that we tried out the different types of sessions — much more effective about understanding how they can be used and makes me more confident to use them. I also value having the resources to refer to in the workbook. (January 2012)

I loved most that each event had hosts culled from the general population of learners. It allowed everyone to participate equally, even if there was not yet mastery of a particular skill. (June 2013)

The hosting team is crucial to fostering the sort of environment that helps participants both retreat and challenge themselves over the three days. When asked what was most valuable about the experience one participant remarked:

The whole vibe of the three days — the hosts were welcoming and articulate and very knowledgeable and this made for a relaxed, comfortable, yet very intellectually stimulating three days. (June 2013)

We are learning that participants appreciate the spaciousness of the training flow, which allows ample opportunity to reflect and forge connections with colleagues. When asked what they found most valuable, many participants highlighted the Reflective Listening exercise. Ninety-five percent of the respondents agreed that the structure of the training allowed them to share their viewpoints honestly and openly. Ninety-seven percent of the respondents agreed that the structure of the training helped them to listen to the viewpoints of others with an open mind.

Opportunities to practice and to listen, to watch and to learn…it was a good rhythm and balance for me.  I particularly appreciate that for many parts of the training there was a great deal of time allowed for understanding, discussion, questions, etc.  So often, we want to do so much and that leaves us with insufficient time to process.  This training, for the most part, allowed for more time for important reflection, processing, and questions. (June 2012)

In addressing challenges that participants have expressed following previous trainings, we have learned to do a better job of translating terminology that might be useful in shifting perception, but might also turn participants off from the experience. Specifically, we have improved the pre-workshop welcome letter to seek to better prepare participants’ expectations for the experience.

At times, the new-agey culture surrounding the training detracted from the incredible value of the philosophy/underpinnings of Art of Hosting. To appeal to a broader audience and prevent people from disengaging, the material could be presented in more universal, less touchy-feely ways. The tactics and engagement strategies presented are wonderful.  It’s more the presentation style around it that I had a hard time connecting with. (June 2012).

Based on feedback from the 2011 and 2012 trainings, we have increased our intentionality around using case-in-point methodology to debrief and discuss potential application for each of the techniques. While participants still expressed a desire for more conversation around application, this resulted in fewer suggestions related to debrief and discussion in the 2013 survey.

We have also learned that this experience can be quite taxing for those more introverted or needing more time to process and prepare as the nature of the experience involves a high level of conversation and improvisation. By balancing the days with more individual reflection time and improving our coaching of participant hosting and harvesting teams, we are seeking to address feedback around this issue.

Finally, through deeper research conducted by Sandfort and Quick, we have learned that the practicum experience is just the tip of the iceberg and often it takes multiple experiences, particularly being a part of a hosting team, to start to understand Art of Hosting not only as a toolbox, but an transformative orientation to collective leadership. (Quick & Sandfort, 2013; Stuber, Sandfort, and Quick 2012).

By providing an annual Art of Hosting practicum retreat at the University of Minnesota, the Center for Integrative Leadership has been seeking to cultivate the sort of integrative leadership practices useful to addressing global grand challenges. The network of individuals who have participated over the past four trainings continue to connect across boundaries of employee classes, across disciplines, and even across Universities with practitioners at places like The Ohio State University to bring more meaning and smarter action to their work. The Center does not “own” Art of Hosting. Anyone who sees a need can sponsor a practicum. In fact, the January 2012 experience hosted at the University of Minnesota was called by the College of Design as they were seeking to foster a more collaborative and innovative environment among their employees.

Sharing our Learning…

As noted in the Personal Transformation chapters of this eBook, some individuals have a powerful experience in the workshop. This eBook is one way to document how people unleash their participatory leadership skills in many different venues following it. Others at the University of Minnesota have gone on to develop their own skills, through more extensive trainings offered in the upper Midwest region or nationally. Some have recently become international stewards. As a result of this initiative, and the many activities of the University’s community of practitioners, our resources at the University for offering these workshops or hosted gatherings have grown considerably.

Yet, practicing the Art of Hosting is not about exclusivity (those trained versus those not trained) or rigidity (methods and frameworks associated with Art of Hosting at the expense of other participatory approaches). Rather, it is an invitation to step into leadership and transform daily operations and learning from where you sit.