Roles and challenges for the host-attractor / host-on-the-rim

I’ve met 12 fabulous new people over the course of the last several months in an online learning environment. We have gathered around a host-attractor, in the host-attractor pattern, and we would not have met if we were not attracted to our teacher and his offering. As a host-attractor, our teacher has laid the ground for a safe space for participants: he met each of us to make sure we were clear about what we were signing up for, he provided us with some guidelines and agreements about how we were expected to behave, and he makes himself available to each of us on our learning journeys (we are together for 9 months). Each time we meet as a group, he takes the lead and hosts us. He is the leader of the overall process at all times, gracefully checking in to make sure that what is happening is working for us, and offering us timely ‘teachings’ along the way.

The host-attractor pattern
The host-on-the-rim pattern

In the host-on-the-rim pattern, the deepening of community field comes with a distribution of leadership. I first came across this explicitly as part of a community of practice ten years ago (the Ginger Group Collaborative) that gathered face-to-face every 9 months for an ‘inquiry’, a gathering where a small team of hosts would host the others in an exploration of a topic for several days. The next time we’d meet, another small team of hosts would emerge, and so on, as a community on a journey of discovery.

Ginger Group Collaborative

It’s not one or the other though; it’s a process of discerning what is needed of me/us now.

My last post identified the energetic qualities of the host-attractor and the host-on-the-rim patterns, highlighting the differences about what brings us together, what happens, the shape of hierarchy and our sense of community.  It’s not one or the other though; it’s a process of discerning what is needed of me/us now. I ended that last post with two questions:

  1. As a host I ask: what pattern will best serve the purpose of the gathering – more host-attractor, or more host-on-the-rim?
  2. As a participant I ask: is the pattern we are activating the pattern we want to be in?

Roles and responsibilities

Thinking of the host-attractor and host-on-the-rim patterns as poles on a continuum (not either/or), there are distinct roles and responsibilities for each that, by knowing them, can help us be in the pattern we choose to be in:

  Host-attractor Host-on-the-rim
Roles A fixed host that leads the process at all times

Participants – engage actively in the learning experience with care for each other

Variable hosts that each lead the process from time to time

Participants – engage actively in the learning experience, which includes stepping in to host from time to time

Responsibilities Host – lay the ground rules or agreements for a safe container for the community, help people show up well, remove participants as needed

Participants – discern if the community and agreements are good fit (yes – show up well, no – remove oneself)

Participants – establish a clear purpose for the group and the agreements about how to be together, take turns hosting each other, hold each other accountable to your agreements, notice if you fit

Rotating hosts – remind the group of purpose and agreements, host in ways that serve what the community needs, help make space for those that don’t quite fit

To Note: Roles are clear and familiar and feel comfortable

If someone does not fit it is clear who will ‘deal with it’

Roles can be or feel vague, which feels uncomfortable

If someone does not fit, it is not clear who will ‘deal with  it’

Challenges

The challenges with both patterns stem from misunderstanding the roles and responsibilities of hosts and participants. If not addressed, there are power imbalances that make the circle feel wobbly.

In the case of the host-attractor pattern, there may be expectations of host-attractors to ‘have the answers’ and disappointment and conflict can arise if they do not have or offer answers. There is a trap that both hosts and participants can fall into: a desire for the insight of the host-attractor to be made available. I recently hosted a group of people from two organizations joining efforts to build affordable housing together and the members of one organization, a church, deferred regularly to “The Bishop”, who was in the room. While wanting to work collaboratively, there was a second trap tempting me as the host and participants: that insight of one with perceived power (host or participant) be received without question. While uncomfortable, it is healthy for participants to question and host-attractors to invite questioning because this is what allows a deepening in the shared community experience.

While uncomfortable, it is healthy for participants to question and host-attractors to invite questioning because this is what allows a deepening in the shared community experience. 

In the host-on-the-rim pattern, a different danger emerges: a reluctance or resistance to share the role of host. This pattern asks participants to step in to the discomfort of being a leader, if even for a moment. A safe community will make this possible; rotating leadership will not happen in a community where expectations and needs are not discussed.

A neighbourhood group I volunteer with decided to take leadership roles that best suited our styles: the extrovert took the hosting role, the writer was our scribe, the convener was our volunteer coordinator. While we didn’t share the explicit hosting role, we did share the work and spoke candidly about our comfort and how much discomfort would ruin our individual connection to our community and our project. We found our way because we share the work in ways that suited us. Our individual and community well-being—and our identification with our community—rested with all of us. (We expect our pattern will change as we become more comfortable with each other.)

The challenges in each pattern are about power dynamics and the power we give—consciously and unconsciously—to a host or the community, to a handful (or one) or to the whole.

The challenges in each pattern are about power dynamics and the power we give—consciously and unconsciously—to a host or the community, to a handful (or one) or to the whole:

Host-attractor Host-on-the-rim
Signs of a wobbly circle Expectation that hosts will have all the answers

Expectation that participants will not question hosts or anyone with authority

Reluctance to share and rotate the hosting work among community members
Danger Going where the host wants to go, from a host-ego place that is not in service to participant learning Going where a few people want to go, rather than discerning where the whole is wanting to go

While each pattern in isolation appears to have distinct challenges, it is not a binary, either/or matter. Most often, both patterns are activated simultaneously, which creates significant challenges to the wellbeing of that circle’s social habitat. These challenges can be addressed when we circle up and talk about what we don’t like to talk about: power.

How do you see the variations of the host-attractor and host-on-the-rim patterns in your world? Is it acceptable to talk about this, or taboo?  


This is the second post in a series about “how much of me” to put in while hosting community that wants to be in conversation with itself.

  1. Host-attractor / host-on-the-rim 
  2. Roles and challenges for the host-attractor and host-on-the-rim

 

7 tips for generative check ins

The generative quality of a check in can be eroded when the holding space we create for ourselves is weakened or collapsed. Two things do this: fear of empty space and discomfort in listening. Below are 7 tips to amplify the generative quality of a check in. (Of course these 2 things affect more than a check in, but this post looks specifically at the dynamics of a check in.)

Two things erode the generative quality of a check in — fear of empty space and discomfort in listening. 

So there are the situations when we meet and leave; this is business as usual. Then there are the meetings where we start with a check in, often in the form of a question, to bring a little more of ourselves into the meeting and tune ourselves into the meeting and its purpose. Some sample check in questions: ‘How are you arriving today?’; ‘What did you say yes to?’; ‘What is your inner weather?’; ‘What do we need to pay attention to today?’. In this space at the beginning of our meeting we pause to fully arrive and focus.

When a meeting starts with a check in the rest of the meeting has a more purposeful quality for three reasons:

  1. We each have a chance to leave behind what doesn’t belong in the meeting (like the last meeting or whatever else we were just doing)
  2. We each, and together, tune in to the purpose of the meeting just starting and how we are showing up
  3. What happens in a check in shapes and informs everything that follows

A check in can be small and quick or big and long. Either way it is a significant step that helps us be our best selves — as individuals and as a group. By its very nature, a check in is generative because it helps us be more focused and productive. The quality of the check in affects the degree of generativity that emerges from the check in and the meeting that follows. It is a sense of energy that comes from our intertwining with each other and little steps to being whole together. The results show up in how we feel (connected or disconnected), what we do (we can get more done with this focus), how we do it (we are more wise) and why we do it (we have a stronger shared sense of why, even if vague).

By its very nature, a check in is generative because it helps us be more focused and productive. The quality of the check in affects the degree of generativity.

In face-to-face situations, a check in will start with one person, moving along around the circle (or table or room). In one online world I find myself in, our host is worried about the time it takes for us each to check in, so he jumps in and tells us at random who’s turn it is, to avoid the empty space in between us. The objective of hearing each voice before we start is met, yet the removal of the ’empty’ space diminishes our generativity. The reason why is simple: the space among us allows us to energetically notice when it is time to speak. It may be something someone has just said and I feel a resonance upon which to speak my words, and when I do I amplify our collective voice. It might be a word or image that resonates, or a whole story. The point is the resonance. I may have something different to say and respond to an energetic impulse to put new words in; this, too, amplifies our collective field and voice.


Tip #1: Let the space linger and trust that there is intelligence in that space; resist the urge to fill it. This compels us to slow down and hear what is happening in self and others and the whole. (This needs our attention in face-to-face and online environments.)

Tip #2 (for online space): Make the order of speakers clear ahead of time, enabling participants to see the order of things as they would if they were together in person. This can be a circulated list, or asking participants to organize themselves in alphabetical order starting with the first speaker, or moving from west to east.


In both face-to-face and online worlds, the power of a check in is often diminished with interruptions and reactions from the host or other participants. In one instance, I experience a host who reacts to many of the participants’ comments during the check in. Not only does this interrupt the field that is being generated by the check in, among all participants and the host, it shifts the attention from the whole — the community that is gathered — to the participant and host. It is an energetic wobble and while not likely to destroy the community, it diminishes the quality of generativity.

In other cases, I often hear hosts and participants verbally reacting to something that is being said, to chime in in agreement, or throw a joke in, or comment or question. This does two things: it erodes speaker’s voice and the quality of the collective field is dissipated. A check in allows each voice to be heard and also enables the voice of the whole to be heard. At a minimum, it is a space for us to practice hearing ourselves (self and selves). If I insert myself into this process, as either a host or participant, I diminish the quality of generativity.


Tip #3: Let the words of each speaker linger, without interruption or reaction. All participants and hosts have a role to play to embody this practice of deep listening, and remind others as needed.


From time to time, a check in takes a long time, when there is something that needs the group’s significant attention. Again, hearing the voices and experiences of each other is essential to discern of our way forward. In a recent three-hour check in the challenge was sitting and sitting and sitting to listen to each other and some emotionally heavy material. We took breaks to stretch each time we were a quarter of the way around the circle, but at the last break, with a quarter of our group yet to speak, many of the people who had already spoken released the field: they were chatting and visiting and having fun. Energetically, the last speakers had a diminished field to hold both them and their words. The result: the field was weakened and the last speakers words were not held as well as they could have been.


Tip #4: If it’s taking a long time, sit and sit and sit in it. This is hard work to do and it is necessary. The first speakers have a responsibility to hold the last speakers. Cultivate your capacity to sit and listen. Take breaks as needed and be mindful that the purpose of the break is to allow us to stretch and move and refocus, not break the field.

Tip #5: If time matters, let participants know how much time they have. It’s ok to limit the time a check in takes. If you think you have 30 minutes and 30 speakers, make it one minute each; if you have 90 minutes, make it 3 minutes each. With everyone’s agreement, a timekeeper is appropriate. (One client had a huge cowbell to ring if people reached their time limit. It didn’t ring.)

Tip #6: Use a guardian to create and make appropriate pauses. There are times during a check in when a pause makes good energetic sense. For example, a guardian can ring a bell to mark significant words, both to acknowledge the speaker’s words and to make space for the next speaker. Distinct from an interruption, this is a response to the words spoken from the place of the circle’s energy, not from anyone’s need to react (not an interruption). Note: the guardian can also let the group know how much time is ticking by, if on schedule or not. This enables the group to make decisions about how to use their time.


In the example above where an online host randomly names people in the check in, the purpose is order and efficiency. There may be times when this is appropriate, but that depends on the purpose of the check in. If the purpose is to generate interconnections between people, apply the tips above. Knowing the purpose helps determine the right kind of ‘order’ to impose. Other forms of order allow a greater degree of generativity: if the space is uncomfortable, offer an explicit order of speakers; resist the urge to interject comments (aside from diminishing the field, this also lengthens the check in time) and let the words linger; let people know how much time people have and let them know when there time is up; use a guardian to let people know how much time is ticking by.


Tip #7: Be clear on the purpose of the check in. Is a quick round to see how people are doing in that moment sufficient? Is it a longer round to hear how they are doing and what they think we need to do today? Is it an even longer round to allow reflection on significant events? A different question to ponder: is it unrelated to the rest of the meeting, or can it feed the rest of the meeting?


This is what I notice in any part of a conversation: when we fear empty space, we long to fill it; and when we are uncomfortable listening, we long to insert our voice over the other. The tips above seem to help amplify the generative listening space — for both self, other and the group gathered — in any part of a conversation, at the beginning, the middle or the end.

Do you have any tips to add to these? 


 

Self empowerment threatens

Self empowerment threatens the stories we have been telling ourselves for as long as we can remember. Whether its myself I’m empowering, or watching another reach into their own empowerment, my life is changing. My choice:

  • be upset, feel threatened, find ways to thwart the coming change
  • be supportive, feel excitement, find ways to nuture the coming change

The choice is, in the end, about fighting or allowing.

The choice is, in the end, about fighting or allowing. 

In my last post, Beware listening through stories, I describe two ways people showed up for me while I was going through a tough time. Simply put: they listened through their stories and grief and were unable to support me, or they put their stories aside and listened and encouraged me in my own story. The former was about fighting threats to their view of the world; the latter was about creating the conditions to help me find my way. (Both are reasonable responses, yet as the receiver, only the latter feels like love and care.)

At Donald Trump’s inauguration in January there was great talk of a wall. At that same time, I was making my own wall to protect myself in a difficult time. I needed to figure out what my boundaries were. Here’s what it looked like in my journal:

I came to the realization that I am not going to stop doing what I need to do to be me, to grow into who I am growing into. On my side of the wall, at the end of a 21 year marriage, it meant looking after myself in a whole new way. (I know, this begs description and this will come.) What it meant was self-empowerment.

I am not going to stop doing what I need to be doing to be me, to grow into who I am growing into. 

On the other side of the wall was upset. What came my way was advice, fury, sadness, directions, and explanations — and a need for explanation. I imagine what was brewing for many behind the scenes: confusion, envy, anger and grief. When I am low, however, support does not come in their reactions to my reality, despite their best intentions. Others’ advice, fury, sadness, directions and need for me to explain what happened are about them and their journey, not me and mine. Hence: a wall.

Others’ advice, fury, sadness, directions and need for me to explain what happened are about them and their journey, not me and mine. Hence: a wall. 

Travel through the wall is two-way. When fragile, I stay on my side and raise the ramparts for those stuck in their story and their projections, unable to support me when I need it. Those able to walk alongside me, to care for me and my story, come through. This is moment by moment boundary setting to ensure that when I feel fragile, my needs come first.

When I feel strong enough I travel through the wall into other people’s stories, to walk alongside them without my story. To support them in their own awareness and self empowerment. I do this when the following conditions are in place:

  1. I am open, able to release my story
  2. The other is self-aware, knows that their story is their story
  3. The other is open to exploring the tension they experience in their story, what is going on for them
  4. There is love, care and safety for us

I realize now that what I have made for myself is perhaps more of  a cocoon of sorts, than a wall. It’s a safe place where I become more me, to prepare to be more me out in the world. Inside the cocoon I am not necessarily alone; there are people who join me and support me in my journey. Those that are able to travel with me join me. I leave the cocoon more frequently now, I go back and forth, stronger and more able to leave the parts of my story behind – not forgotten – to join others in their journey.

It seems the cocoon is not a one-time place and time for transformation, but one I can carry with me and make for myself whenever I need it. It is the boundaries I set for myself and the interactions I have with people, and the discernment about when I am able to be with them in their story out in the world and my expectations of people I invite into my cocoon, my side of the wall. I imagined the wall as permeable and so too is the cocoon. In addition, the cocoon is not a one-time event; I conjure it when I need it because change is not a one-time event. (I like my friend Michael’s take on change: think of it not as a noun, but as a verb.)

We all have the same choice, whether the change comes from within or without: resist our transformation or allow it. 

Self-empowerment is threatening to our sense of self and others’ sense of self. People will go to great lengths to keep us we were, and we will go to great lengths to keep them as they were. We all have the same choice, whether the coming change comes from within or without: resist our transformation or allow it.

As you become more you, what boundaries do you put in place to support your own empowerment?


 

Beware listening through stories

On February 3, 2017 my former partner and I shared parallel messages to let friends know what was happening in our personal lives:

This message let a wider circle of friends know what was happening in our internal worlds, but for most of my interactions with people, for months, when asked “how are you?” my answer was “good.” Sometimes I’d be more honest and say, “You know, I’m ok today. I have some stuff going on and I’m not at my best.” But the majority of time, the most people knew was that I was “good”, or “fine”. Just like them, I suspect, I gave the answer we all hope to hear, that all is well.

Here’s what I have learned: there is no way any of us can possibly know what is going on for someone else by looking at them, or even briefly talking to them. It is irresponsible to think that we can.

There is no way any of us can possibly know what is going on for someone else by looking at them.

As I hunkered down to make sure I kept it together during a significant time of transition in my life, and made my way through the world, I realized that no one else knows what is going on for me. A handful of people got close and gave me the gift of love and support, but when I went out to get groceries or went to work, I did not have a sign on me telling others what was happening. Even if I did have that sign — 21 year marriage just ended — they would still have no idea what it meant for me. All they have is their story.

It is not possible for others to know my story and what it means to me. And this tells me that when I see others on the street, or in a workshop or at work, it is not possible for me to know  their story and what it means to them. I can not know by looking, and I can not know by hearing a wee piece of story either. All I can know is the meaning I make of the story I tell myself. All I have is my story.

It is not possible for me to know their story and what it means to them… All I can know is the meaning I make of the story I tell myself. 

The tricky work of being in relationship with others is in recognizing that my reaction to what others do and say is my reaction. The stories I tell myself about them are my stories. To show up as my best self with them means I have to be aware of the stories I tell myself.

I have learned this because the stories others tell themselves about me are not my experience. Here are a few story pieces a handful of people have shared directly with me:

  • There must be a reason why! There must be someone to blame. Who made this happen?
  • You have lost so much! You are alone, without a partner. This is tragic.
  • You must be lonely.
  • You must not know what to feel, so I will tell you how you must be feeling.
  • You must not know what to do, so I will tell you what you need to know. Here’s how to handle money… here’s how to handle the separation agreement… here’s how to handle the kids.

These stories these dear people carry about my and my situation shape how they offer support to me. As they listen through their story, they act in ways that soothe them, not me. Despite good intentions, they are not supporting me at all. To me, what they say and do can feel disempowering; I sense a pre-supposition that I am broken, flawed, that something is now missing in my life that should be there, that I am incomplete. These stories that are not my own and have the power to deflate me — if I let them.

In contrast, a series of other stories have revealed themselves to me, that recognize and support my journey:

  • It took courage acknowledge the need to separate.
  • It took courage to enact the separation.
  • This is a time of transition, confusion and metamorphosis.
  • This is hard work and you are capable of handling this.
  • I am available to listen, with out judgement, and simply be with you.

This set of stories embodies an entirely different way of supporting me because they are listening for my story; they are not listening through their story. To support me, they put their story aside and make room for me. They trust that I am fully capable of living through a difficult time. When we spend time together, they give me space and room to figure out my next steps without inserting their agenda. If they are uncomfortable and upset about my new reality, they are able to put that aside and not let it run the show.

I have a new understanding about what it means to be heard and supported as we make our way through our lives. For me specifically it means this:

  1. I pay more attention to my own state and ability to be with others. If I am not able to listen for their story (and only able to listen through my story), I need to remove myself.
  2. I pay more attention to the quality of listening in others toward me. If they are only capable of listening through their story, and I am in need of support, I remove myself. If they are only capable of listening through their story and I am capable of listening for their story, I will stick around and be supportive.
  3. I choose to notice the stories I tell myself, check if they belong to me and if they are disempowering myself and/or others.

 

s t r e t c h i n g

s t r e t c h i n g

stretching is

the power to welcome

growing appreciation

for play

for belonging safely

in gratitude

sitting together

in fun and friendship

with open hearts

allows discernment

for next steps

hosting slowly to go far

in synergies of joy

and unexpected gifts

of seeing 

our quivers full

s t r e t c h i n g

courage and initiative


A poem caught in our closing circle at The Art of Hosting the Beauty in Difference in Edmonton last month.

Take the stage

 

When learners get to take the stage and show what they know, in whatever way they choose, it is amazing what will come out. They seem to learn more with this responsibility.

At the end of The Art of Hosting the Beauty in Difference last month, participants hosted themselves to notice what they knew and understood differently at the end of our four days together. They noticed–of course–that they learned different things and show what they learn in different ways. There was a 3D artifact, a skit, a musical, a dance and the team that hosted them in this experience by offering minimal, yet effective, structure.

This poem was caught while listening to them describe what they learned when pausing to notice what they had learned.

_____

take the stage

the heart 

of connecting

doesn’t take long 

when the participants

take the stage 

all it takes is

an invitation

to say yes

to trusting

the energy

_____

Depths of my inside world

The longer arm points to the camp
where I find prejudice and hurt
and hope
in the personal and local
I’m not so naive 
as I’m growing, discerning
what to say
what to be thankful for
what to look to: a spiral of fear or the good that always comes
what feeds my spirit Continue reading Depths of my inside world

How to say goodbye

When it’s over, it’s over. This is one of the principles of Open Space Technology a conversation process founded by Harrison Owen. The idea is this: when your conversation feels like it is over, ask, “is it over?” If yes, you move on to another conversation that energizes you. If no, you make arrangements to continue. Continue reading How to say goodbye

The expert/theatre trap

At the outset of summer I found myself in the expert trap: I started talking and talking and talking, not leaving any room for anyone else.

Friend A was organizing a big lecture about community connection. Friend B, Friend C and I were talking about how ironic it was to have a bigwig speaker in town to tell us about community connection, with us all sitting there in passive listening mode in a theatre and that we would not make any new connections in our community. So Friend B got in touch with Friend A to see if she would like to circle up and see what could be done. (Friend A is of our tribe of people who see this kind of conundrum.)

The conundrum is that we don’t get to know each other when we sit like this:

theatre style

Deeply embedded in this shape is expertise and the assumption that she at the front of the room has it and we do not. It is an empty vessel approach, where we, as the audience, need to be filled with all the things we do not know. Moreover, even after we have listened for ages, we are given no opportunity to notice what we know and understand differently, to consolidate what we are learning. And we are not given this opportunity as an individual, or a small groups or large groups. We drink from the firehouse then leave with a few drops of nourishment.

It’s not that this mode of information exchange is not needed–it is, under the right circumstances (see last two posts: shapes of conversation and direction or discernment). My point is this: Friend A was caught in a swirling environment of assumption that the best way to talk about connection was to disconnect ourselves from ourselves, and each other, and assume that the expert outsider has more information on the matter than we do. The ‘machinery’ of the city is caught in the assumption that we need to be told what to do, that we are not capable of figuring this thing out. Embedded in this is the further assumption that if we are simply told, we will go and do it and the problem will be fixed.

Friend A pulled off a remarkable feat. She acknowledged the desire, and in fact the need, to hear what the expert had to say (in theatre mode), then created a new shape that allowed people to meet each other, connect with each other, and figure out what this new information meant for them, for our lives and for our city. She did this:

small circles

Instead of leaving with a only a few drops from the firehouse (as is what happens with a lecture), people left having met and connected with people new to them.  They met around topics of shared interest. They took some time to notice what the lecture meant to them in practical ways that will change their lives and the city around them; they began to integrate what they learned into their being as individuals and a loose collective. Friend A delivered on connection not just by inviting an expert in, but by creating the conditions for the audience–citizens–to truly hear the expert by connecting with themselves and each other.

I almost wrecked everything for Friend A it because when Friends B, C and I met with her I fell into the expert trap. We sat at an outdoor cafe table on a sunny early summer day and missed that we were sitting in a circle. I didn’t let others speak. I said what I see, much like is written above, and then said it again and again.

Passion, impatience and my own insecurity got the better of me.

One of the reasons I most appreciate the circle as a shape for conversation is that it helps me find my place with others in a way that allows others to also have their place in the conversation. It does not diminish me: it focuses me. And most importantly, it allows us–me and the people I am with–to better see what we need to see. It does not diminish my passion, but allows it to show up more appropriately.

And, of course, the irony is not lost on me. What I was most critical of out in the world was what I was doing myself.

What I was most critical of out in the world was what I was doing myself.

_____

What opportunities do you see in your city to shift from the one-way “expert lecture” to create the conditions for collective discernment? What is your role in this?

_____

Conversation: direction or discernment?

In my last post on the shapes of conversation, I made the distinction between forms of meeting that facilitate direction (the board table and the theatre) and those that facilitate listening and discernment of collective action.

These two options–direction and discernment–are quite distinct from each other in terms of their usual shape, their purpose, and the assumptions made by all involved in where the expertise and leadership resides and how information flows. Further, the role of the “host” also differs, from chairing the meeting to creating the space, or a container, in which the discernment can take place.

DIRECTION DISCERNMENT
SHAPE board table, theatreboard and theatre small circles, large circlecircles
PURPOSE tell, direct, instruct, set people up to go do something listen, share, integrate, figure things out together
EXPERTISE in one, select few in everyone
LEADERSHIP at the top shared, distributed
INFORMATION FLOW from one or few, down to others from everyone to everyone
HOST ROLE chair the meeting co-create the space, or a “container”

Both approaches are right–in the right circumstances. It is a matter of acknowledging the purpose of the gathering and designing for that purpose. (For more on these purposes, see the shapes of conversations.) But these two choices are not mutually exclusive; the circle can be at the board table and direction can be set in a circle.

These two choices are not mutually exclusive. The circle can be at the board table. Direction can be found in a circle.

We don’t have two clear-cut choices. It’s not as though there will be no discernment for collective action at a board table, or that in working in circle there will be no direction established for the group or for individuals. What we do have to recognize is that regardless of the shape we feel the strong pull of expertise, and the assumption that expertise resides only in one or a few of us.

We have a deep-rooted tendency to feel either that “I am the expert”, or to feel that “they are the experts.” There are times when this is true, like my doctor friend with expertise in infectious diseases that I described last week, who has a clear role to inform and direct other physicians about what to do when unfamiliar diseases present themselves. There are many times when we find ourselves with other people and the expertise is shared, but we operate as though expertise–mine or others’–is what rules the day. When we believe this, it dictates the shape the conversation takes, regardless of our physical form. When we find ourselves in the expert trap, looking for direction, or giving direction, we are not stepping into the shared leadership that we are called to offer.

Circle square

With the intention of collective discernment the circle shape can find its way around a table. It depends entirely on how we put ourselves in the conversation. Here are a three principles and three practices my The Circle Way Colleagues and I use, developed by Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea.

Three Principles 

  1. Leadership rotates among all circle members
  2. Responsibility is shared for the quality of experience
  3. Reliance is on wholeness rather than any person agenda

Three Practices

  1. Speak with intention: note what has relevance to the conversation in the moment
  2. Listen with attention: respect of the learning process for all members of the group
  3. Tend to the well-being of the circle: remain aware of the impact of our contributions

These principles and practices are a simple place to start, yet challenging to implement because they embody a significant cultural shift from our automatic expertise stance, to one that welcomes, invites and accommodates the diverse expertise within and around us.

Openness to vulnerability is leadership–and this kind of leadership is shared and easier to carry if we are brave enough to notice when it is needed. 

There is a cultural shift required of us to embody discernment, whether at the board table, or in a circle. We are each required, as citizens, to be self-aware in ways we are not well-practiced, and this self-awareness is a necessary precondition to collective awareness and discernment. At most board tables self-awareness is a scary proposition because it comes with vulnerability, but in this cultural shift vulnerability is not a liability, but a strength. Openness to vulnerability is leadership–and this kind of leadership is shared and easier to carry if we are brave enough to notice when it is needed.

Which principle or practice feels the most scary to you? 

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Resource:

The Circle Way Guidelines outline the components of circle, in addition to the principles and practices described above, that help create the conditions for collective discernment in a circle or even at a board table.

**Caveat** This form of conversation is not easily accommodated in a theatre setting for this simple reason: people can’t see each other.

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