Interrelationship of Circle-Triangle-Square

Many people are so frustrated working within hierarchy and bureaucracy that when they are introduced to beautiful engagement processes like World Cafe, Circle Practice and Open Space, a new love affair begins.  These methodologies are powerful in re-igniting passion, hearing every voice, creating mindful and thoughtful conversational spaces that take individuals and groups into new territory.

The love affair becomes a bit jaded when people begin to say, “Conversation is great, but what about doing something?  Where is the action in these methods?  Where does decision making rest?”  As if creating meaningful and relevant conversational space and decision making or action are mutually exclusive.  In many cases though, people haven’t figured out how to make them work well together.  It is not either/or.  It is and. What is the leadership and understanding necessary to find the balance that invites both broad based engagement and effective decision making leading to wise action and movement on initiatives, especially social change initiatives inside organizations and systems?  What does it take to truly shift the shape of the world we live and work in?

Recent conversation with with Toke Moeller and Bob Wing in Brazil has sparked my curiosity and reflection on the relationship between the circle, triangle and square that we often reference in the Art of Hosting.

The circle represents the social technologies that engage people in deeper, more inclusive ways, tapping into human longing for connection and meaning.  Circle is an ancient and universal symbol of unity, wholeness, infinity, the goddess, and feminine power. It represents the sacred.

The triangle represents  hierarchy and structure within which so much work happens and decision making takes place. When the triangle points upwards, it symbolizes fire, male power and the masculine archetype.  The energy of doing and of action.

The square represents the physical world in contrast to the sacred.  In relationship with the circle and triangle, the square represents new forms of governance, stewardship or strategic thinking partnerships.

Power of Circle-Triangle-Square Interrelationships

Much of the intention behind or underneath circle or engagement strategies is to share leadership and responsibility more broadly.  We are not always clear on what that means. Sharing it doesn’t mean foregoing it as sometimes happens as people begin to experiment and play with engagement strategies.  A point is often reached where things feel stalled because we are not always clear where decision making fits or how to do it well.

Sometimes change processes fail because leaders are not clear on how decisions will be made in conjunction with engagement methodologies. They then “take back” decision making which seems to disempower the move toward shared leadership and shared responsibility.

Yet, very little gets done without decisions being made.  Clarity around decision making allows for stronger relationships and more powerful work processes.  Understanding the need for and how the circle and the triangle work together creates the space for more intentionality in processes and relationships.

There is not just one form of decision making that should always be used.  Sometimes consensus decision making is the most appropriate decision mechanism.  Other times decision making will be vested in an individual or a team that sits elsewhere in the organizational structure.  The lack of clarity around who makes what decisions when and how information flows is more likely to lead to problems more than the type of decision making structure.  The degree of trust inside of the relationships also has an impact.  In organizations or systems where the trust is high, decisions are trusted and respected no matter who makes them.  In organizations or systems where the trust is low, of course decisions are questioned and sometimes disrespected.  Quality of relationship can be improved through the circle, thus supporting the triangle better.  Clear decision making processes improve quality of relationship.

The circle and triangle  are nested inside of the square.  If the square is equated to stewarding or governance, the role of the square is about holding space and perspective from a strategic, bigger picture point of view.  Not so active in the decision making structures or in the conversational space but bringing the awareness of deeper patterns that relate to or underly any given process, initiative or movement, providing insight and perspective that then feeds back into the engagement (circle) and decision making (triangle) processes.

The danger lies not in any of these specific shapes. It is in becoming enamoured with any one of them to the exclusion of the others or disenchanted with one to the point of not wanting to engage it at all.  As I consider the work in front of me now, I will bring this deeper curiousity about the interrelationship between the circle, triangle and square into my process and coaching considerations, particularly as it relates to new leadership competencies required in a rapidly changing world.

Innovators and Pioneers in Systems Change

In Utah for Healthier Health Care Systems Now (January 11-13, 2012), we used the 2 Loops Model of Systems Change as one of the framing references for why we were gathered. It is a tool and a framing to understand the work we are individually and collectively in that shifts the shape of health care.  The two loops model looks like this:

 

The first loop represents the old system, the one we often name as the dying system.  The second loop represents the new system, the one we keep claiming we want, the one we think cannot emerge by fiddling with the old, the one we believe is needed to bring our current systems out of crisis.

The problem is, when we begin to think about the complexity of something like health care, where there are so many jurisdictions, so many players, so many interlocking systems,  trying to imagine what this new system or systems could be becomes paralyzing.  The conversation often becomes philosophical and theoretical.  It largely comes from an intellectual and cognitive place focused on all the things that need to shift that are outside our circle of influence.

Some of the frustration in being innovators inside of systems is that the systems begin to push back on the work in small and large ways, leading to the exhaustion, frustration and disillusionment so many leaders in health care experience.  This is all part of the old narrative.  Of course this showed up in our conversations in Utah to greater and lesser degrees depending on the questions, depending on who was in the conversation at any given time.  Any time we were in that conversation, thinking about the new system, it didn’t feel like a new conversation.

So, how could we be in conversation about Healthier Health Care Systems Now without  focusing on the second loop or the new system?  Well, by remembering who we are – pioneers and innovators in health systems – working under the first loop – in the in-between spaces – championing the new or being championed.  We began to focus in on and explore new questions: Where are the edges of my work?  What is the new territory I could begin to walk when I go home?  How can I draw on the resources in the room to expand my thinking, even turn it upside down and on its head – like the person who relies on gift economy in her practice, for her livelihood?  What more becomes possible in generative spaces with other innovators?  This was a different conversation, in tone, texture and energy.  This one did not come from the head. It was embodied in a whole new way – the beginnings of a new narrative of health.

The awareness of the old narrative and of the stuck places infiltrated us in the best of ways at the end of the first day of our three day gathering.   Someone suggested what we needed to do was create a vision of the new.  Ordinarily I might agree.  In this case though, that didn’t feel right.  It felt like it would take us further off track given that our roomful of people were geographically stretched from coast to coast across two countries with countless “systems”?

So, without taking our eye off the intention of shifting the narrative of health, we refocused on innovating and pioneering and guerrilla tactics of  hosting, collaborating and co-creating, engaging those around us in this journey that is health.  We didn’t leave with a specified vision of the new system.  We left heartened in our respective journeys, knowing the way to the future is through new processes, deeper conversations and finding our way with as many of our friends and colleagues as we can attract, engage and embolden along the way.

As we continue to shine the light on the experiments already underway, the successes, the challenges and the “failures”, and tap into the individual and collective resilience that is fighting to emerge, we can remember it is a journey that will shift and change as we go.  We remember life actually wants to help and it wants to heal. If we focus on how to expand our individual systems of influence and share those stories with our friends, our collective system of influence automatically begins to expand.  What seems like isolated work informs pockets of work elsewhere and we grow an energetic field that is part of the new, part of the second loop and is fueled by everyone stepping into innovative, courageous and pioneering ideas and projects.

I still can’t see what that second loop is for health care – other than it is about health and it is healthier.  I’m not sure anyone who showed up for this conversation can see the second loop either.  But I am absolutely sure that the innovators and pioneers are already prototyping what’s possible, what’s new, and in this work more and more of the new and the new narrative will show up.  I am reinvigorated by what’s possible, by the people who continue to explore these questions, who challenge the status quo, despite possible personal risks in doing so and know that there are better and more healthy ways to engage health care.

I and my hosting mates are committed to convening more of these conversations with people compelled to be in them to grow the field.  We envision large gatherings of people convening in new ways, continuing to innovate our way into the new system(s) so that maybe one day we will wake up and see in front of our eyes what we once thought impossible – a new generative system of health resilient enough and healthy enough to be sustainable in unexpected and beautiful ways.   If we take our eyes off the urgent need for something that feels impossible and put it in the places where possibility thrives… well, what more is there to imagine or say?

Steve Ryman, Tenneson Woolf, Kathy Jourdain, Marc Parnes

 

 

2 loops of systems change

Healthier Health Care – Now! A Little Taste of What’s Cooking

We wondered what would happen if we invited friends from across North America to convene in Salt Lake City, Utah around the question of Healthier Health Care Systems Now?  We were amazed.  We began by sharing who we are – the innovator and pioneer in us that  compelled us to come to this conversation.  Then we shared the exciting work we are engaged in.  We talked about the “system” and discovered “it” was never A system and “it” was not about health.  We moved from talking about systemic issues that felt as philosophical as we know they are real and moved into embodying the conversation, coming from a place of deep connection to ourselves, each other and the work that continues to call us in the worlds we work and travel in.  The insights, themes and cool learning are just beginning to percolate for each of us.  More, much more, is cooking.

It was beginning to cook before we even arrived in Salt Lake City.   We discovered healthier health care was such a compelling question people went to great lengths to get there.  Some initially said no and then found a way to come.  Others felt the question so urgently they used vacation days and airmiles to get there.  One person even crowd funded her flight.

Twenty-six of us arrived on January 11, 2012 – physicians, naturopaths, other practitioners, administrators and consultants from heath, public health, dentistry, acute and long term care from Nova Scotia, Ontario, Alberta, Ohio, Minnesota, Winsconsin, Illinois, Texas, Oregan, Washington and Utah.  Everyone an innovator or pioneer already working diligently on shifting the shape of health care within their spheres of influence.  We all brought stories of change and deep and compelling questions. We made instant connections that inspire us to go deeper and to keep at it.

This will continue to simmer and cook for quite some time to come.  I will have more to share here about this conversation at the beginning of 2012, curious to see how it might grow as we convene a community of practice for those who were there, those who wanted to be and couldn’t make it and those who begin to find their way to this particular conversation in their own way.

You can find snippets of harvest on Twitter by searching #HHSUtah.  Thanks to Amanda Fenton, who was with us from afar, for stepping in and compiling our tweets @Storify.

I offer here a little taste of a quick and fun harvest at the end of day 2 as we went around our circle and each of us added a line to the unfolding story of our journey together. I didn’t catch every word, but it will give you some small essence of the experience, recognizing some references are very specific to our experience, and it will have to tide you over til the next post.

“There were a bunch of hooligans in a house by the mountain.  They thought of themselves as pioneers, radically re-engineering, brought together by living systems that taught them how to transfer what they are learning and experiencing into what they are doing now – open to possibility.  In sharing, they saw new connections and unique opportunities.  They described them as opportunities to change and blow shit up.  These hooligans had so much to think about, they sat in circle, played, visualized and created on many levels a new vision of what they were yearning for – simplicity, wellness, with open heart toward the future to bring this new narrative to everyone.  Envisioning systems that bring forth vision and health, letting go of the old to release into timeless universe.  They pondered next action.  In the middle, they went deep into the cellar to share unique fonts and forms of creativity.  They came together to discuss the topic but it was more than the sum of its parts – human nature – own beauty, higher power and purpose run in each of them and each other with gratitude, although we do fear discovering in horror on FB the shaking moments, with brains exploding in chaos, guerrilla gardening and permaculture parties.  But then, a pause for reflection and even more to emerge.  Finished.  No shame.  Amazing thing, working hard to create something different.. but in the end, they were different, a community – and in their differences they found their common humanity from which to go back to the places they came renewed, reinvigorated, inspired to innovate on!”

With gratitude to all who were there, all who held the rim of this gathering from afar and specifically to my fellow hosts Tenneson Woolf, Steve Ryman and Marc Parnes for an experience that will be long remembered, in a gathering where the new narrative of health was activated, the field of innovation in health care where we meet was amplified and shifting the shape of health care in our spheres of influence has been accelerated.

Intentionally Shifting the Shape of the World in 2012

Wow.  2012 is a breath away. When I started the Shape Shift blog I wrote: “the shape of the world is shifting. It is constantly shifting but never more so than now. This is evident in health care, education, finance, communities, technology, organizations and other systems that have become vital to how we function today.  We can be passive recipients of the impact of these shifts in the world or we can become active participants in shaping the future of the systems, organizations and communities that we feel passionate about – that are near and dear to our hearts.”  This was true when I wrote it, and started Shape Shift Strategies Inc, in August of 2009.  It is even more true as we are on the brink of 2012 – a year that has been much prophesied and written about.

If we are paying attention we can literally and figuratively feel the earth shaking underneath our feet as significant shifts take place – in the natural world and the manmade world.  Earthquakes and tsunamis in New Zealand and Japan, the Arab Spring, Occupy to name just a very few.  I say paying attention with the full awareness that there are many of us who see the greater scope of these stories and feel the significance of them in our very beings and there are many who do not yet see the stories under the stories that show up in mainstream media – a medium that is struggling with seeing and understanding the deeper patterns of these movements in the world.

If I am to imagine into 2012, I can only imagine that the chaos and complexity of our systems, our social structures and  our communities will increase.  This because of the reluctance and deep resistance of letting go of what we know, even when we know it doesn’t work anymore, to embrace what is waiting and wanting to be born.  It is so hard to see new ways when all we can see is what we have already built.  I’ve seen it in the conversations surrounding the Healthier Health Care Now gathering set for Utah early in January.  “We want you to be different, but please do it in familiar ways.  Because we don’t know how to support something that looks and feels different, especially when you cannot tell us exactly what it will look like in the end.  We have to be accountable, after all.”

How do we become accountable for our future when we are anchored to what we know, what we have always known, what already exists?  This is why the chaos will increase.  It is already telling us what we know no longer works.  Our collective response?  Hold on tighter.  Don’t let go.  How deeply shaken do we need to be to let go, let fly into the void of the unknown?

Thank God for the growing pockets of people, teams, communities and communities of practice who see a different future and who steadfastly work toward it in the not knowing.  There are so many I can name - because I am part of them – and so many I can’t because I don’t have knowledge of them but I am not so insular as to believe they don’t exist.  Paul Hawken’s work in Blessed Unrest is just one indicator of this world wide revolution that is taking place right under our very noses – whether we see it or not.

Those of us working and living  in the spaces of not knowing the specific shape of the future or of what new systems could emerge from the old as we are shaken free in the chaos, we are Warriors of the Heart.  To be a Warrior of the Heart and be well, we need personal practices that keep us connected with source and allow us to access our own resilience, courage, compassion, strength, joy and love.  There are individual and collective dimensions of practice. We build personal capacity in our individual practice.  We amplify, accelerate and activate so much more when we come together in our collective work and journey.

2012 may show us more and more the intersection between the relational field (love and loyalty) and the strategic field.  We have treated love and loyalty somewhat dismissively – the soft skills side of the equation.  In business we need to be hard – hard nosed, make hard decisions.  What if this is not true?  What  if our greatest path forward is to embrace more fully the relational field so that our choices are actually more strategic, have a longer term view and value all the things that are important to our survival in a time when so much of what we have always known seems threatened?  What becomes possible when we sink into what we’ve known even longer than what we’ve always known – the wisdom and knowledge accessible to us in ancient wisdoms that become more present to us as we pause and listen deeply – to the earth, to the whispers in our own hearts, to the yearning we have to be connected to something that has deep meaning and purpose. What would a world look like that connected through love and loyalty and then developed strategy for the highest good of us all?

The shape of the world is shifting.  It always has been.  Is it shifting faster now?  Feels that way.  What is the intentionality we can individually and collectively bring to amplify, accelerate and activate the shift we desire to see in the world?  What is the shape of the world you want to live in to?

I experience such deep gratitude and appreciation for my friends and colleagues (the ones I know and the ones I haven’t met yet) around the world.  You inspire me.  You lift me up in the moments when I have lost sight of my own light.  You give me great hope for what is possible in a new world order.  I am humbled and honoured to do amazing work in the world with people I care deeply about – from a place of open heartedness and a field of love and connection that makes possible the impossible – only seeming impossible because we can’t always see the how.  The how stops us.  The vision and intention for shaping a future we want to live into compels us all forward.

Walking the path of not knowing.  Setting strong, clear intentions for what I want to see unfold in my own path of shifting the shape of the world in 2012, letting go of the how and inviting what is ready – and urgently wanting – to show up.

Contemplating and Celebrating Turning 50!

2012 seems like an auspicious year to be 50 – for me anyway.  For the last 3 years or so I have been saying I am almost 50, unlike some who fear that round number of age and wish they were sneaking their way backward, I find myself boldly and excitedly walking my way into it.  Which makes me smile and even giggle a little bit.

From 2005 to 2009 I was in a period of great upheaval and transition.  After saying repeatedly over those years I was in transition I began to wonder if that cycle would ever complete itself.  Then, in 2009 on the heels of a one day vision quest in Gold Lake Colorado and then the first Shamanic Convergence in Nova Scotia, I began to sense the transition process had shifted into a more gentle unfolding process and that I had given birth to the second half of my life, complete with the articulation of a personal purpose statement: from this place of deep rootedness to my spiritual lineages, I boldly bring my healing gifts to the shifting shape of the world and the regeneration of its people.  It is a statement that 2 years later still resonates deeply for me even as I grow less sure of what exactly it means.

This was also a period of time when I began to embrace gifts of awareness of the non-physical or subtle realms – and began to feel deeply embraced by non-physical entities – guides, guardians, angels.  As a person who lived a very ordinary experience of the physical world up to my late 30s, this was an area I had always believed in and felt could be accessed — but by other people, certainly not by me.  My journey brought teachers and mentors to me and took me to places where the existence and substance of the subtle realms and my ability to connect with them became undeniable.  It has been a significant part of the rebirthing process and will be a growing part of the journey forward.  A few years ago, one of my teachers said this is a time when there is a growing need for and a growing number of people who can walk with one foot in the physical world and one in the non-physical world – with greater ease, seamlessness and ordinariness.

If I gave birth to the second half of my life through that lengthy transition period, now I feel like I am beginning the Fool‘s Journey all over again, dancing the dance of possibility with time and space as a playground.  In the Gateway to the Divine Tarot (my favourite at the moment), the Fool is pictured drifting high above the Earth, implying an unearthly aspect to him, with innate wisdom that lies outside the ordinary and mundane realms.   The Fool is both emptiness and infinity, bringing movement, change and fresh starts.  The path is waiting but the full course of it cannot be seen.

I have been experiencing a sense of anticipation as I approach 50.  When I was a child, even a teenager, maybe even a young adult, 50 seemed both a long way off and old, not the launching pad for something new. I’m not sure what 50 is supposed to feel like.  It is half a century after all.  In the millennia of life this is such a short period of time.  I don’t feel old, I feel strangely and beautifully ageless and more and more like age as a number doesn’t matter.  What matters is how we approach life and journey, what we are willing and able to embrace and how well we can surrender into the greater forces lighting our path.

Maybe I don’t feel old now because, in the first half of my life, I have often felt older than my years. This was partly through taking on lots of responsibility and finding myself in leadership positions at very young ages. While not feeling old now, I do feel like an elder in some ways.  Steward might be a better word.  I think of it as elder in the journey – this current physical journey in the world, but also in the sense of my soul journey and the vast expanses of eras I have traveled to be here, right now in this time.  To be 50 in 2012.  Did I plan that?

A lot of attention has been paid to 2012 – the year the Mayan calendar ends.  Some have interpreted this to mean the year the world – or civilization – ends.  It may well be the end of much of what we do know or how we have lived but I doubt it is the end of the planet.  Likely it is the end of age old patterns, the end of blindly bringing destruction to our ecological systems, the end of allowing only  a few voices to dominate.  I am of the view that the Arab spring and the Occupy Movement are manifestations of the deeper shift that is already happening in the world, the trending to a greater level of awakeness in the world.  A time of returning to greater consciousness that there is far more beyond the physical vessels our spirits inhabit and far more alive in this world than just the plants and animals, just what we can physically see.  Maybe it is  a time when our sight and awareness will collectively expand again so we can live with a greater sense of the sacred in every place and every one – including in us.

I am aware of this journey in me and of me in this journey.  I am aware of a vast array of conversations I am with people in many places in the world where this is true.  Of a greater hunger for deeper dives, greater understanding, more meaningful work, love and relationship in new and deeper ways and beyond only the intimate love relationship.

Perhaps we will look back on this time in a decade or so and see what a harbinger of change it really is.  I’m certain I will look back on my journey and affirm what I know and sense as I move into 50.  This is a time for me to break old, limiting patterns, to step more fully into what is mine to do, to completely embrace my purposeful path and live into all that has been on my own edges for awhile.  It is the year I will publish my first book, Embracing the Stranger in Me: A Journey to Open Heartedness and begin writing the second book – its companion guide.

There is such a sense of newness on my horizon of 50 and of joyous celebration.  I may have unconsciously created an association between turning 50 and embracing life in the fullness of all it has to offer.  I have been growing into it for sure in the last couple of years as I have discovered falling in love everyday, have found joy as the baseline of my experience rather than as the exceptional state and have stepped into more conscious awareness of the experience I am living in any given moment.  I have been growing my experience of and relationship with the non-physical world and particularly my own guides, guardians and angels.

I didn’t really have a plan for my life up to this point. If I did, it wouldn’t likely have included the things that have shown up.  I wouldn’t have imagined I’d be divorced once, let alone twice.  While I would have expected to have children, I wouldn’t necessarily have anticipated the quality of relationship that has emerged and been present throughout their growing up years – with them and their friends. I couldn’t have imagined the most amazing people who have shown up in my life and those that have shown me pathways, caused me to grow or reflected back to me qualities I have been invited to embrace – the delightful and profound, the challenging and mundane.

I also would never have imagined that a country like Brazil would play such a central role in my life and journey or that I would be at this point in my life and surrounded by the most amazing young leaders from Brazil and here that I get to play with, learn from and with and journey with.  Yay for what I do not know and cannot see.  And for the increasing courage and grace that allows me to embrace what is wanting to show up.

The invitation into 50 gives me shivers in the most delightful and shimmering kinds of ways.  The invitation into deeper levels of trust, forgiveness, curiosity and joy are apparent.  This invitation is flirting at the edges of 50, waiting to see my response.  Like the first half of my life, it will be filled with the imperfections of life, of me in my human journey, ambivalent at times, sad at other times, anger more freely expressed when it shows up in my experience  but in better and more life affirming ways, like other emotional experiences that are not joy and love dissipating quickly because of the freedom of expression in healthy ways. There will still be days when it is challenging to walk the path, days when my own inner judge will be alive and vociferous, days when I do not know what to do or make choices that will somehow feel wrong.  It is a human experience I am living, after all, that we all live.

However, I have come too far to go back.  Have I come far enough to fully surrender and embrace all that is waiting for me here on the edge of 50?  It seems that is part of what I will discover as I begin the Fool’s Journey anew.  I begin with child like curiosity and playfulness and anticipation. I begin with joy brimming over the top.  I look forward to seeing where and how your path intersects mine and I am eternally grateful for the path, people and circumstances that have brought me here to the edge of what’s next. 50, here I come.  Are you ready for me?

The Voice of the Judge

There is no more powerful limiting mechanism in our lives than the voice of the judge.  I don’t mean that other person – parent, spouse, child, teacher, boss, friend, co-worker,random stranger on the street or in the shopping mall.  It’s the internal voice of judgment or internal critic that often runs rampant inside of us that we barely notice, if at all, because it is so clever and really good at disguising itself – for self preservation really.

I first became intimately acquainted with my inner judge in 2008-09 during coaching work with Sarita Chawla.  She recommended I read Soul Without Shame by Byron Brown in addition to the work we were doing together. I will forever recognize this as a pivotal point in the shifting shape of my journey.  I wrote about the voice of the judge back then in an article.  I am reviving that article here now in an updated version because it is the season of amplification.  My inner critic is activated – obvious to me because of how I feel – and I am reminding myself of strategies I already know that help to deactivate it and release its grip on me.

When I first became aware of the force of the internal judge, I had been working with the concepts of self-leadership and hosting oneself for almost as long as I could remember – still do, of course.  I worked with coaches, read books, did courses, took part in and led deep group work.  I am generally a positive, optimistic person holding deep appreciation and gratitude for much of what transpires in my life and who shows up.  I have transformed negative self talk into more appreciative forms of self talk and into periods of quiet in my mind.  I meditate and practice other forms of reflection and mindfulness.

So, imagine my surprise when I discovered a voice of self judgment and self criticism that was booming loud and clear in my unconsciousness, stronger than any external voice of judgment or criticism could possibly be.  This voice constantly set the bar for my performance at the best that I had ever achieved.  The bar moved if I did better.  When I didn’t match my most excellent performance, even when I did extremely good work, this voice told me that I had failed, that I did not measure up and that I never would on a consistent basis.  Strong performance was interpreted as mediocre.  Criticisms from others, whether justified or not, was reinforced by this inner critic.

When I felt most down on myself or just down in general, this voice played a significant role – and still can in moments I feel most overwhelmed or vulnerable – until I expose it.  I didn’t actually hear it as a voice until I began to listen for it but I felt it strongly in many forms: sadness, unhappiness, melancholy, anger, listlessness, lack of motivation and many other emotional manifestations.

While I had been aware of this voice (or at least the emotions it manifested in) to some extent, I also prided myself on my journey of self-transformation and change.  Been there, got that medal, surely I must be done now, can I just get on with my life and success?  I realize now it was the voice of self judgment that said, “You’ve been doing this long enough, how come you’re not done?”

Part of the reason I had been pretty oblivious to this voice was because, in my quest to be calm and serene and professional, I skirted over my own emotional reactions.  I barely recognized I had them except in the odd instances where they overtook me.  Oh, was that an emotion that wasn’t calm and serene?  Oops.  Nope. Couldn’t have been.  It must have been something else.

Then, a friend told me I deal with my emotions intellectually.  So, I thought about that.  And I thought my friend just might be right.  Emotions don’t reside in our intellect.  They reside in our bodies.  We feel them and sense them.  We use metaphors to describe them.  We say things like, “That packed a punch!”  If we stop to notice, we will notice where it feels like we got punched.  And if we stay with that, we will begin to notice the impact.  And if we stay with it longer, we will notice the uncomfortableness and want to move onto something else.  This is where I am learning to stop.  I have learned to stay with it longer, until I can begin to discern the wisdom that is held there and that can only emerge when we give it an escape hatch to surface to the light.

It is in these moments that my voice of self judgment has come booming out at me in all of its voraciousness.  With all good intentions, all it wants to do is protect me – from failure, from being unlovable.  But its methods only serve to reinforce for me my failures, even to the extent of turning successes into failures, thus creating in my mind my own unlovability and unwantability.  I have also become aware through the Law of Attraction and the teachings of Abraham that this voice of the judge interferes with flow, abundance and allowing the full vibrancy of life.

I learned to journal in this voice.  I am astounded by the punch it does pack.  Periodically I sit and check inside of me to sense into what I’m experiencing and feeling and what the impact is.  I journal what I am sensing until I feel done.  Then I check in again to see what I am experiencing, sensing and feeling, and then journal again. And then again, if that seems required.  I am committed to going the next layer deep and the next until I feel the light flood back into my soul and I feel a lightness of spirit and of body. This is what I want to amplify in my life now.

Exposing my voice of self-judgment transmutes it into a gift of understanding and insight after which joy can once again arise and take more of the space that is its, and my own, rightful due.  Now, instead of seeing my journey as one that should be concluded and being hard on myself because it is not, I see my journey and myself with a gentleness I could not access before as it was hidden underneath the protective layer of the voice of judgment.  I have always known, intellectually, that learning and growth is a life long journey.  Now I know it and accept it with a graciousness that only comes from the light.  It is a good reminder in this season of amplification.

Tis the Season of Joy — And Sorrow

The holiday season is an amplifier.  It is often a time of great celebration and joy as family members and friends gather together in gift giving and meal sharing.  It is also a time of great sorrow for many as reconstituted families find new patterns of gathering and as many of us feel the absence of loved ones who are elsewhere, may have departed, are sick or dying or in long term care facilities or simply no longer a part of our lives.  And it can be overwhelming and stressful as we strive for perfection in a season that often already demands a lot of us and where expectations run high – the ones we have of ourselves and of others.

It is impossible to live life and not have our fair share of  joy, sadness and stress.  Simple little delights often bring the joy.  A particular Christmas song.  Lights.  Tree trimming. Christmas celebrations.  Buying someone that perfect little something – or creating it.  Traditions that are meaningful.  Conversations that are as delicious as the traditional holiday fixings.  Lovely memories.

The things that make the heart sing are a beautiful thing.  The things that make the spirit sad are harder to acknowledge.  Absences seem to be one of the most significant contributors to sadness at this particular time of year.  The absence of loved ones.  It is an experience I know.  We all do.

One example in my life: my mother is in long term care with dementia.  She’s been there now for three and a half years. Since May, seven months ago, we have been told she could leave us any day.  Some small part of her still inhabits her physical body while most of her is having a different kind of experience that is beyond my knowing at the moment.

She has been absent from our family Christmas celebrations the last two years physically and to varying degrees cognitively for longer than that.  A week or so ago, I was in a shopping mall.  Something in a store caught my eye. I was hit with a wave of missing my mother – really for the first time.  This woman loved Christmas and loved opening presents so much it happened so fast it was over almost before it began – until we found ways to slow the process down.  My mom was always like a kid at Christmas when it came to presents – until she forgot what to do with a present, forgot what it was or even how to open it.

We all have these kinds of stories.

Some of us have stories of being in relationships that are not fulfilling, meaningful or relevant anymore.  Some of us are no longer in relationships and carry sadness or regret as a result. Some of us are in relationships with loved ones who live far away from us.  This is a season that brings nostalgia about better times and brings heightened awareness of what is not working.  It shines a light on the imperfections of our lives and relationships.  It brings loneliness even as we are surrounded by people and festivities.

In a season that is “supposed” to be joyful, we don’t always know how to handle the emotions and times that are not.  When we try to suppress them, we just drive them underground for awhile.  They will resurface when an opening shows.  There is nothing wrong with surrendering into our sadness long enough to acknowledge it.  If it continues to overwhelm us deeply maybe we will need help to come out of it, but for most of us, surrendering into and acknowledging our own emotional turmoil, allows release.

There is nothing wrong with tears.  Truly, there isn’t.  Although many of us believe there is.  We apologize for our tears.  Like we are somehow weak and maybe imperfect because we cry – especially when we cry in front of other people.  But tears are releasing and healing and an indicator of our experience.  How much more beautiful it could be if we stopped apologizing for tears and let ourselves be in our experience and even have it witnessed by other people.  In the event it makes others uncomfortable, other people’s uncomfortablenss with our tears is not our responsibility.  And for most people who witness, it is also freeing for them.

As we allow ourselves to move through our own experience, we create more space for joy and delight to show up faster in our experience.  Staying in our sadness will not fill the absences, will not bring back people no longer here or bring people to us who are far away.  And most of those absent, would not want us to be lost in our sadness but would want us to celebrate the joy and vibrancy of life.  Even if they wouldn’t, our soul is inviting us to celebrate the vibrancy of life.

Another thing that detracts from the vibrancy of life is the stress of trying to make the perfect holiday – on top of so many other things that need tending – children, parents, work, life and death.  Very little of this stops just because it also happens to be Christmas and we now also need to shop, bake, decorate, wrap gifts, go to Christmas concerts and Christmas parties.

Some things could be left undone or done a little short of perfection.  How many cookies do you really need to bake?  How many presents do you really need to buy?  What if you boiled it down to the one or two essential elements that seem the most dear to you?  For me, it is gingerbread houses.  I make the house parts.  I thought about buying them one Christmas but realized how much a part of me is in this tradition – because I love to bake and love the delight of the gingerbread house process from start to finish.  Most of the rest of it I can let go – especially in my experience of reconstituted families.  When and how things happen is a matter for conversation and joint decision making that usually extends beyond my immediate family.

Tis the season of amplification.  What is joyful is more so, what is sad is more so, what is stressful is more so.  Tis also the season of reflection and remembering.  And maybe most important of all, let it be the season of self-care – because, in that, we shift and grow our capacity to embrace the joy, delight and imperfections of being human that are completely available to us in the season of amplification.

Shaping Questions for Powerful Check-in and Check-out Processes

Check-in and check-out processes are not just frivolous time wasters in our meetings.  If they feel that way, something is probably  missing.

Wicked questions help shape powerful processes. The shaping of questions in a thoughtful, purposeful and intentional manner increases the likelihood of them being powerful. This is the second post on powerful questions, the first one contained  general thoughts about shaping powerful questions.  This post focuses on check-in and check-out – processes, so fundamental to the work we engage in and setting context for what we do.

The greater clarity we have about the purpose and intention of the overall work and the process we are choosing to use, the greater the likelihood of crafting a question that does exactly the work we intend it to do.  Check-in and check-out processes are used very intentionally and in all kinds of settings.

People who come to an Art of Hosting training are often introduced to check-in and check-out for the first time. There are many forms of check-in and check-out.   If we’ve done our work well, these processes will have been experienced in a variety of ways – through the use of words, body, music and using varying lengths of time from a couple of hours or more to a 10-15 minute process.

Many people leave a training seeing the possibility of bringing a check-in process to their team or meetings but wondering exactly how to do that well.  Using the same question all the time eventually wears out its appeal so it becomes important to hold attention and keep things meaningful and relevant to bring new questions at least periodically.  It keeps things fresh.  Which brings it all back to purpose and intention.

The Use of Check-In  in Trainings

In an Art of Hosting training, we use a check-in process as we arrive and settle in together.  Usually this is planned as a  longer process, wanting to dive  deep together as we set the context and container for the whole three or four days we are gathered.  We intend to begin well as we arrive, meet each other and understand individual and collective intention for this training.

Not only do we use good questions for this initial check-in, many of us also engage in the fundamentals of good circle practice so we set our container well and with depth.  A little teach on circle, the use and power of a talking piece and the agreements of circle set the stage well for the work we want to do with each other.  Our greatest and best resources on good circle practice come from our friends Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea at Peer Spirit.  When we do this well, it is common for unexpected and beautiful things to arrive in our centre from the hearts, minds and souls of participants.

Often times check-ins on other mornings are simply to bring us into the space together.  Sometimes we don’t even use words but invite a physical movement or embodiment check-in.  Sometimes it is music.  It is whatever fits well with the overall theme and flow of the day and brings us fully into the space.

Check-ins also do not need to be done with the full circle.  Sometimes we use dyad or triad interviews or conversations to allow the time for people to go deeper in small groups.  Sometimes we might invite people into a walk with each other.

The Use of Check-Out in Trainings

Just like we use check-in to bring people into the space, we use check-out to bring some closure or convergence to a day or a multi-day process.  Doing a check-out doesn’t necessarily mean bringing everything to a nice tidy close but it could.  Check-out provides an opportunity for good reflection.  Where are we at, individually and collectively?  What is alive and present in the room?  Is there anything in particular we need to be paying attention to as we revisit our design for what’s next?  What is resonating for people?  Are we in a groan zone?  Are we eager and excited for what’s next?  Was there cool learning that took place that we want to provide people the opportunity to reflect on more deeply?

In a check-out we may want to presume in a certain direction, plant a seed – “What is shifting for you as a result of your experiences in this day?” “What spark are you carrying forward?”  Or we may want to take a little pulse – “What’s alive for you now?” “What one thing has your attention?”

And, like the check-in process, sometimes we are not wanting to use words.  Sometimes we use dance, embodiment, other physical movement, a series of claps or other imaginative ways to close our conversation or our day.

A good thing to remember, please don’t confuse depth with length of time of a process.  I’ve been part of many processes where there was not a lot of time available, but depth was achieved because of the care that went into thinking about purpose and intention and crafting a wicked question to guide the process.

What About the “Real World”?

This is one of my favourite questions – how to practically apply what’s been learned about check-in and check-out to “real world” situations, like my two hour staff meeting, my three hour partners meeting, my team that only wants to get right down to business, with a group of high powered individuals, senior leadership in an organization or in government?  Especially for folx who say, “that dance check-out was really nice but I could never do that with my group.”  And, of course, you wouldn’t want to go back to your organization and use some of those things that seem a bit too out on the edge.  But when you first try to use these processes, sometimes the very notion of a check-in or a talking piece is “out on the edge”.

Look for openings and invitations and step into practice in the places where greatest opportunities exist to try even some little new thing.  Sometimes bringing a check-in and check-out process to your meetings or your team is the simplest way to begin to practice on an ongoing basis and it can be done without great fanfare.

The Use of Check-In  in Ongoing Practice

It can be a relatively simple thing to begin a check-in process with your team.  “We spend a lot of time in meetings.  It would be great if we all felt these meetings were a relevant and meaningful use of our time and I’m not sure we all feel that way right now.  I would love to hear us each speak to this question: If we used our meetings really well, what would it look like and what is the difference it would make to us as a team and our work?” 

“The purpose of our meeting is….  Before we dive into the agenda, it would be great to hear a bit of what you are observing in your world that relates to our topic this morning.” Or, pay attention to what is the best question that can refocus your team or your meeting on what is important and link people’s passion or interest with the topic at hand.  It is amazing how a few minutes doing that can shift the entire feel of a meeting as people pay more attention.

Work the question you want to start with.  Will it generate the kind of thoughtfulness you are hoping for?  If not, how can it be nuanced – or sometimes completely thrown out in favour of a better question – to do the work you intend it to do?

How much time do you have for your check-in?  With a long time frame of meeting – a day or more, you have more time to begin well.  With a shorter meeting – as little as an hour or two – you can still begin well, just be conscious of the nature of the question you are asking.  The better you begin, the better the quality of the meeting, usually with better results in a shorter time frame.

The Use of Check-Out  in Ongoing Practice

Short and sweet often works for check-outs, particularly when you are in a short meeting. Once you get used to using check-in and check-out, meetings somehow don’t feel complete until you do a short round of check out.  Simple questions targeted at what you are looking for at the end of the meeting.  Curious about what is sitting with people now?  Ask.  Curious about what people are taking away?  Ask.  Curiosus about what is percolating?  Ask.  Noticing that things or people feel a bit unsettled.  Invite.  Not everything needs to be wrapped up with a nice tidy bow.  If you invite the rumblings that you sense, thank people for sharing.  “Thank you.  Good to know where we all are.  And not unexpected, given what we discussed/where we are in our process.  Thanks for sharing.  It is appreciated and important.”

Bringing in a Talking Piece

While I’m sure there could be an entire post on using a talking piece, there are some simple ways to bring one into your meeting.  For groups that are not familiar with this process and for whom it doesn’t feel quite right to do the full blown teach just yet, I will often say something like, “I want to hear from everyone in the room and to do that offer out this item (something I have with me, something in the room, something symbolic for the group, sometimes a bracelet I take off my arm, a pen in my hand, whatever is readily available) as a little talking piece.  This is just so we make sure we hear everyone’s voice.  The beauty of it is that when we have it, it is our turn to talk. When we pause, it is truly a pause and not an invitation for someone else to jump in.  It means we can think about whether we are truly finished or if we have a bit more to say.  When we don’t have the talking piece, that is our invitation to listen and listen well.  Because you know when you get the talking piece you can take a minute to think about what you want to say.  I find it changes the quality of the listening and changing the quality of the listening changes the quality of the conversation.”

I know from my own experience, that when the talking piece is not used often their are people who choose to stay quiet even when you invite all voices and then it is harder to re-invite their voice.  And it is amazing at how appreciative people become around using a talking piece.

Conference Calls

Yes we can, and do, use check-in, check-out and virtual talking pieces in our conference calls.  And, yes, it works well there too – shifting attention and quality of our experience.

The main points are the same across these different categories: purpose and intention, a question related to purpose and intention that you’ve worked a bit to make it wicked and powerful because you’ve sat with it to sense into whether it will do the work you want it to do.

Where are your openings and invitations?  The more you find them and accept them, the more you will find yourself in a practice that no longer feels risky but now feels fundamental for powerful process. The more the shape of your world will have shifted and before long you may find yourself not just an experimenter but a practitioner.

Shaping Powerful Questions

One of the most asked questions at, and after, any Art of Hosting training is about the questions.  Developing powerful questions is a crucial element to creating the conversational space we are seeking.  People are hungry for greater understanding of how to create questions, especially after they’ve tried a check-in, check-out or cafe experience that didn’t quite have the intended result or impact.

Sometimes powerful questions appear, almost like magic.  We know they are powerful because we feel them.  But usually they are developed and shaped with great care – and often co-created with others.  It is not unusual for a whole planning meeting (and sometimes more) to focus just on question development for a process – which may seem a bit crazy until you’ve had the experience of well formulated questions in comparison to sessions where questions have not been shaped with the same care.

This post contains general thoughts on the shaping of powerful questions.  Later posts will focus on specific processes where questions are used, like check-in and check-out, World Cafe, Open Space, Appreciative Inquiry, Dyad and Triad Conversations and Deep Sensing Interviews.

Three Dimensions of Questions

In an Art of Hosting training in South Dakota this past July, I had the privilege of hearing Tuesday Ryan-Hart share three dimensions of powerful questions, coming from World Cafe work and community of practice.  The three dimensions are: scope or scale of the questions, assumptions in the questions and construction of the questions.

What is the scope of the question you want to ask?  If the scope is too big it may shut down conversation (how do we create world peace?) but you might want your question inspirational enough to allow people to gaze higher than they might otherwise (how have you created peaceful moments for yourself/your team/work/family? How could you do that more often or in a different setting?)

People tend to rise to the assumptions made in the questions so it is good to both notice the assumptions being made in the question and also to be intentional about them so the work is more appreciative and aspirational in service of purpose and intention and the greater work being tended to.

In considering how we construct questions, there is a continuum that flows from less powerful to more powerful.  The less powerful questions are ones that can be answered with a yes or no.  Moving along the continuum, more powerful questions begin with when or who.  The next level are questions that begin with how or what and even more powerful questions sometimes begin with why. I say sometimes, because sometimes the why questions also entrench people in their point of view if asked in such a way they invoke defensiveness.  Ask why questions in ways they evoke curiosity and then you’re onto something.

There is a timeliness we generate when we put the word “now” in our question.  “What you noticing now?”  “What has your attention now?”

Purpose and Intention

A key factor in question development is what is the purpose and intention – of your gathering, your meeting, the particular process the question is intended to shape or provide context for, the question itself?  What is the work you want the question to do and then what is the simplist way to ask the question? Purpose and intention is so central to question development that we go back to it again and again.

Language and Shaping

I like to use as much present and active language as possible.  Instead of asking, “What did you learn from that experience?” you might ask, “What are you learning from that experience?”  There is a supposition built into the question – that the learning is active and ongoing. If that fits the purpose and intention of the space you are wanting to create that’s great.  If not, a question targeted to the learning and conversation you want to encourage would be better.

If you are wanting to move in a certain direction, then create questions that presume in the direction you want to go.  “What is the shift you imagine will happen once you leave here and begin to apply what you’ve learned?” This question presume you want a shift and that you will put something into practice post the training.  For some it will inspire their imagination. When it doesn’t inspire someone, they will usually say so without detrimentally affecting the responses of others who are feeling inspired.

It is also okay to take a pulse of what’s happening in a group or process without assuming a direction.  This is particularly helpful when you want to sense into where a group is at, what you need to pay attention to or what might be simmering under the surface.  It is good to have people in a group name their experience sometimes without trying to shift into a particular direction.  The information that surfaces is then helpful in shaping design or process informed by what is present in the room or group, tracking always toward the purpose or intention of why you are in this conversation or work.  Sometimes diversions are necessary to ensure we get to where we ultimately want to go. You could ask a question like “What’s sitting with you now?”, “What question’s are percolating?”  Sometimes I might even ask, “What tension is arising in you at the moment?” but only if I am really sensing tension in the room, wanting to surface what’s there but not create it if it isn’t there to begin with.

Nuances in Question Development

Slight nuances in a question can lead to very different conversations. This is why we often sit with the questions we have drafted and imagine the kinds of responses a question might evoke, noticing how changing the question slightly could generate a different conversation.  Some examples: “What are you noticing in your environment right now?” compared to “What are you noticing in your environment that relates to this project?”  or “How have you been since we last gathered?” compared to ” How has the last gathering impacted you and your work?”  The first version of these questions is far more open ended while the second version is more targeted to purpose and intention.

Co-Creating Questions

It is hard to create really powerful questions all by yourself.  It is much more fun and generative to co-create with others what the questions could be.  Then when a nuance is discovered that makes the question more powerful, the whole group feels it, not just one person.  Collectively we know we’ve gone to a new level of depth.  When we co-create the questions we can start in the ball park of what we want to do and, through the conversation, discover what those nuances are that increase the the capacity of the conversations we are inviting to be meaningful and relevant to the participants we have engaged and the purpose for which we have engaged them.

Powerful questions can shift the shape of an individual and their pattern of thought, a team and its dynamics, an organization and its usual ways of thinking about things.  Imagining they can even shift the shape of the world….

Why Don’t Those Occupiers Just Go Home?

The Occupy Movement seems to have hit a perplexing moment – yet another one, that is.  Officials in many cities across North America are trying to figure out how to make the occupiers go home.  Fall is settling in to many places and what many assumed was a passing fad hasn’t yet faded away with the cooler temperatures or fiercer weather.  If they didn’t have any demands like typical protestors and no proposed solutions to the problems that others could then shoot down, then why haven’t they just packed up and gone home?

So now, many officials are trying to figure out how to get them to disburse while opinions of the movement and the occupiers vary dramatically within the media and within communities in each of the cities.  Some people think they are an eyesore filled with people, mostly young, who don’t have jobs and are only looking for a handout.  People who have this perception seem to just want them to go home and find a job like everyone else.  Public officials are certainly playing off of the perceived dangers pointing to drugs, alcohol and even some deaths in some cities as reasons to disband the occupiers.

Other people see them as vibrant communities that people flow in and out of, people with and without jobs, people on traditional career trajectories and those on alternative career trajectories, who are standing up for democracy and “voting” by their very presence in public spaces.  My own bias or world view is that there is something more going on here, something deeper, something fundamental to understanding the shifting shape of the world.

Occupiers have been gathering long enough that minimum structures and process have emerged.  These tent villages include library and food tents as central points of focus.   They have been working with consensus decision making and ways of being heard in large crowds where any kind of speaker system has been denied.  The movements have stayed largely peaceful even in the face of being provoked at times.  They are communities that are taking care of each other in some beautiful and perfectly imperfect ways.

They are example of translocal communities that are learning from and with each other and supporting each other.  They exist in individual cities and they are part of a field of attraction that makes them more than any single city.  That the movement spread so quickly and virally from one place to the next points to its magnetic attraction and the sense that there is something more going on here.

Maybe the occupiers haven’t presented demands or proposed solutions because they know we don’t know what the solutions to our problems are and they won’t be solved by a few people locked away in a room brainstorming or strategizing our future.  The greatest likelihood of deep, systemic solutions appearing is the collective curiosity and discovery of what is possible through intentional dialog the likes of which we may have not seen before – like the 1000 table, 10,000 person cafe conversations that took place in Tel Aviv earlier this year – the first of its kind but surely not the last.

Our culture is such that any one person or group presenting solutions feeds into our predominant public and social structure of debate – giving people something to latch onto to elucidate all the reasons those solutions won’t work and dividing us into camps of right and wrong, good and bad, smart and stupid.  What happens when we invite ourselves to see past the dichotomies to hold the paradoxes and allow all possibilities to exist in the same moment?  The very idea is perplexing in a world that has become beautifully complex and yet where some still want to boil it all down into nifty little compartments of thought and action.  We don’t live in that world anymore.  We haven’t for some time.

Our systems – financial, health care, education, transportation, environment, to name a few – are in deep trouble.  For the most part, they no longer support themselves.  They are out of integrity.  Most of them would be financially bankrupt if we let them be.  Officials can try to make the occupiers go home – in fact, as I’m writing this I got a test message saying police in Halifax are forcibly trying to remove the Halifax Occupiers from Victoria Park right now, in the pouring rain.  But taking them out of public spaces does not change the condition of these systems or the condition of the globe in this moment.  It might allow some to pretend that we can go back to business as usual, but we have long since passed that point.

So, if we opt out of the ways we have always done things, where does that take us?  To the field out beyond right and wrong (to badly paraphrase Rumi)?  If enough of us were able to let go of everything we think we know and allow ourselves to surrender into the edges of our learning and experience, maybe collectively we will begin to imagine what’s next and lean into creating the conditions for that emergence – emergence meaning we all left with something no one brought.

The deliciousness of possibility has me salivating with eternal hope.  The inquiries I am in around stewarding what wants to emerge along with the deeper underlying patterns inherent in the work I am called to do make me deeply curious about the Occupy movement, the staying power of it and how it will influence the shifting shape of the world and the regeneration of its people.