The Art of Stewarding

Anyone who has ever wanted to call an Art of Hosting training has, in all likelihood, been told how important it is to have seasoned hosts – or stewards – as part of the hosting team. What does it mean to steward and why is this role so important in the Art of Hosting community and in individual training offerings?

I wanted to ground the word steward with a definition but none of the ones I found resonated until I came across this on Wikipedia:  it is desirable to increase capacity within an organizational system.  The Art of Hosting is a system – an interconnected, self-organizing global network – and since it began almost two decades ago, it has been increasing capacity in the network, within and across organizations, within and across systems and within and across individuals.

Even before there was such a thing as the name Art of Hosting, conversations were being hosted in many places around the world using different dialogic processes, including World Cafe, Open Space Technology, Circle Practice, Appreciative Inquiry  (and still are being hosted by people who have not heard of the Art of Hosting). Those who have become known as Art of Hosting Practitioners were intuitively and intentionally sensing into questions like: what is underneath this process, what are the patterns we can make visible, why do these processes or this way of convening a meeting produce different results?  They were deeply curious about the answers to these questions and the more evocative questions that were often provoked through the conversations stimulated by these questions.

Stewards sense and hold the deeper patterns in the field.  They don’t just hold this particular piece of client work or this particular training, they sense the patterns of the larger field and bring those patterns into the specific work and conversations they are involved in.

They have skill, wisdom and expertise in holding space, creating the conditions for powerful work (setting the container) and in working with emergence by paying attention to what is wanting and ready to happen in an individual, group, organization, or community or with a pattern.

They practice self-leadership or self-hosting and bring with them a presence often forged through the many fires of chaos, disruption and intensity they have found their way through which often enables them to keep their centre or ground in the most challenging of situations.

They have no need to hold centre stage although they find themselves there because of their willingness to share knowledge and learning while hosting fields where people are hungry to learn.  They bring clarity without doing the work of others or disempowering them or disconnecting them from their own sources of clarity, wisdom and knowledge.  They witness growth and ignite even more growth – within themselves and others.  They are flexible and diverse, growing the depth of field through co-learning with others.  It is precisely this co-learning, co-creating and collaborating on the edges of what they do not know that makes them most excited  – more so than presenting their expertise.

My awareness of stewarding has heightened over the last year or so as I have found myself in many stewarding conversations with good friends in the Art of Hosting, World Cafe and Circle Practice networks (most recently at ALIA in Columbus) and as I have the privilege to co-host with other seasoned practitioners in a variety of situations where the ability to draw on accumulated wisdom and knowledge has been powerfully beneficial to other hosting team members including apprentices hungry to learn as well as the full group involved in the training.

What do I know through some of my experiences? Stewards are able to check perceptions with each other to sense more fully into the field in which they are working, arriving at more informed choices of action, often to surface tension, move through groan zones, understand when divergence or convergence or some other intervention or process is needed.  They are comfortable with silence and with chaos, have no need to rush in and they can weave with each other through and across the field.  This does not mean there is never any tension but it does mean they have the capacity to work it through without detrimentally impacting the group or the overall experience.  In how they work together, they are often living, breathing examples of the beauty and power of co-creation.

I have had the opportunity to work more extensively with youth in the last year – in Canada, the US and Brazil – and see how sharing experience, asking good questions and holding space expands the depth of field in any given place and creates the opportunity for individual and collective expansion – by holding the space of curiosity with the space of experience.

In One Art of Hosting Does Not A Practitioner Make, I wrote that each Art of Hosting has its own flavour influenced by the hosting team, the calling questions, the people who show up, whatever is emergent in the field, whatever we choose to call the training and the place in which it is hosted.  It’s like seeing only a slice of the bigger picture.  One reason why stewards are necessary to these trainings is that they carry with them the depth of the patterns from across many trainings and client consulting work and they can help illuminate these patterns and this depth through how they hold the space and the questions they ask.

In any given training we will often say it is not about the methodologies – although when we use them we want to use them well.  It is about the purpose and intention of what we are about, what we want to achieve and how to create the conditions to meet purpose and intention and make more things possible.

Stewards illuminate the connections between people, places, trainings, theories, processes and patterns.  They bring the weave of the whole network into the space and disturb the training ground in subtle and overt ways, based on the imprints of their many experiences, helping shift the shape of the experience, enabling individuals to shift their own shape and ultimately influencing the shifting shape of the world.

This work is not for the feint of heart or lone wolves.  It is for those who are willing to show up more fully in the relational field, ask for help when they need it, offer what they can and sink into their own learning.  Stewards want to learn from each other and the more we work with each other, the deeper the relational field, the deeper the friendships and the richer the space we hold for others.

Becoming an AoH Practitioner

One of the things that stands out from my Envision Halifax days when a team of us co-designed and co-delivered a nine month leadership program, meeting with the group once a month for either a retreat or a learning day, is how often people talked about getting their Envision “fix” – essentially being able to step out of the craziness of their workplaces into a deep breath of a different kind of space, where we often began with check-in circles and always entered into a conscious, intentional practice field of learning focused on self-leadership, team learning and community reflection and engagement.

The desire and need for this “fix” is directly related to how challenging people find it to bring their learning about new ways of interacting with people, creating the conditions for different conversations that lead to different results back into their work environments – and it is also what I hear from people who have just stepped out of their first Art of Hosting training ground.  “It is okay to do this here, but back at work, well, that’s another story.”

At the risk of stating the obvious, becoming a practitioner of anything takes…. well… practice.  And, I am aware of how risky it feels to try out new group processes or new ways of inviting conversation at work.  How many times we hear things like, “I could never use a talking piece at work.”  “I could never get our group to agree to use World Cafe.”  “People I work with would find this language strange and it may turn them off of even trying something new.”  Yes, all true AND there are always ways to begin practice.

People feel their credibility and reputation are most at risk trying something new with the people they work with all the time.   So one of the simplest possibilities is to look for other places to practice – with another team or department, in a volunteer capacity, with someone else who also wants to practice.

When we just begin to know the many and varied practices that are available through the Art of Hosting field and have little experience with them, we have less confidence in and knowledge of how the processes work and how people can be well and fully engaged in them.  Our own lack of confidence and fear can influence how the process unfolds.  For example, if the group has never participated in an Open Space before, it  may take a few minutes for them to warm up to inviting their own conversations when we open the space for their questions.  With experience, we know to be easy in that pause.  Without experience, it ignites our fears and then we want to jump in to make it happen, often over facilitating the space or the process, sometimes resulting in less than hoped for outcomes.  As grow our own experience and confidence in the impact of the process, we relax more which invites more flow and synchronicity into the space.

As for language, if it will be a barrier, don’t use it.  Rather than talking about circle practice, you could just say, “I would like to make sure we hear from every voice.  Maybe we could just go around the table and as each person speaks, the rest of us could just listen well to what they have to say.” Or, of course, whatever language suits you best.

Begin your practice in little ways.  Take little risks.  Change how you listen and see what difference shows up.  Use more questions, powerful questions, that invite people to respond differently.  Bring more curiousity to the conversations you have in the work you do.

Find places to practice the skills you want to develop more.  Find people to practice with.  Look for like minded people inside your organization with whom you can have conversations of discovery and potentially opportunities for practice.  Think of how you can intentionally shift the shape of your world.

Look for places outside of work to practice.  Take yourself back to another Art of Hosting training to deepen your understanding and skills and grow your courage.  Share success stories, small and large, so you and others can see the impact of making even small shifts.  Maybe you have an opportunity to be part of a calling team for an Art of Hosting in your organization or community.  You could look for an opportunity to apprentice in an Art of Hosting training with experienced practitioners and stewards so you learn to pay attention to and look for the nuances that can influence design, hosting and results.

Grow your confidence through practice and your practice will grow.  Don’t be discouraged easily.  Keep your eyes and ears open for opportunity, openings and invitations.  If you look for them, you will be delightfully surprised at how often they show up.

Join a community of practice.  If there isn’t one in your area, start one – even if it is just with a few people.  Join the on-line conversations and communities.  Observe and contribute when and as you are ready.

Whenever and however you can practice, do so.  Grow your courage through small victories and those victories will also grow.  You didn’t show up at an Art of Hosting training because you are risk averse.  You came because something called you.  My guess is, this work will continue to call you and you will continue to respond.  And there is a global field of practice that responds with you.  Be intentional, thoughtful and mindful and practice well.  Before you know it, you will recognize the Art of Hosting practitioner that is you.

One AoH Training Does Not a Practitioner Make

From the last few Art of Hosting trainings I have co-hosted there are two things that I am increasingly aware of: what it means to be a practitioner of the Art of Hosting and the value and contribution of stewarding to the field and the learning and growth of all.

People come to Art of Hosting trainings hungry for any number of things: to learn more about the methodologies and practices, to connect into a sense of community, to find refuge from the craziness of the worlds they live and work in, to deepen their own self leadership, to find new ways to be in the world, to discover mates they can work and play with in the world, because they have been part of a process somewhere that has drawn from Art of Hosting and they want to learn more and many more reasons I’m sure.  And they go away refreshed, curious, hungry for more and a bit hesitant around how they can bring this back to their life and work.

Two things I am aware of: to really be a practitioner of an Art requires practice and one Art of Hosting training does not a practitioner make.

The Art of Hosting field is incredibly rich and diverse and linked to so many other fields: World Cafe, Circle Practice, Open Space Technology, the Chaordic Field, Theory U, Appreciative Inquiry and more.  When we call a three for four day training, the breadth and scope of the days is shaped by the intended purpose and the people who show up – responsive to the collective need of the group, no matter whether it is a public or client offering.  There is no such thing as a set agenda.  It is a fluid process that the host team and the participants all contribute to.  It also means that the host team is having to pick and choose among the vast array of possible offerings that could flow into the training.  It is not possible to do them all.

All of these things – the hosting team, the purpose, the participants, the choices made within a training ground – contribute to the look, feel and shape of each training, while some underlying things always remain – paying attention to the field, holding space for co-creation and emergence, recognizing the interplay between the dynamics in the field and the learning needs of the group, between self hosting and collective hosting.  No two offerings are ever exactly the same, even if the same hosting team is in place – because the hosting team is also in its own learning individually and collectively and because of the responsiveness to each new training ground.

One Art of Hosting training offers a slice of the Art of Hosting field, even if it is a large slice.  Another Art of Hosting training will show different nuances, different strengths, different emphases and be just as relevant and meaningful as a reflection of the field.  If we leave an AoH training believing this is the way it is – and the only way – we will have missed something fundamentally important – that a key underlying principle is responsiveness to need, co-creation which influences the flow of any training or practice ground, paying attention to what’s in the space and what’s wanting to happen.

It really does take a number of trainings to have a more fulsome understanding and experience of AoH and what’s possible and really understand how AoH contributes to the shifting shape of the world.  We become practitioners when we practice and learn from what we practice.  The next post will explore some ways that practice shows up and how to ask for and offer support in the practice and a future post will look at the questions and observations that have been occurring to me about the role and importance of stewarding.