Inviting onlookers

Last week, in a room full of people milling around, I was in conversation with a handful of leaders.  A couple had leadership by virtue of position/status – senior people in an organization.   A couple of others (including myself) also by position/status in that we were the “experts” brought in to teach.  A couple of others were leaders by virtue of their ability to step up and do/say what needs to be done/said.   Just outside our circle was Onlooker.  Listening in.  Hanging on every word.  Clearly interested, but removed from the conversation.  Clearly keen to be a part of what was happening, but clearly separate.

At first, I wondered why Onlooker didn’t just take the initiative to jump in and join.  None of us in conversation would mind.  Clearly, we weren’t speaking of anything top secret to be having such a conversation within earshot of others.  I felt frustrated that this onlooker didn’t just step in – it seemed even sinister that Onlooker would just listen in like that.

So I made an invitation.  “Onlooker, why don’t you step into the circle?  You are welcome to join us.”  “Thank you – I was waiting for the invitation.”

Onlooker was waiting for the invitation. I was floored.

I have been sitting with this question for a few days: whose job is it to make someone feel welcome?  As I reflect, my first reaction was to question why Onlooker didn’t just take the initiative to step in.  I see now that there is a vital relationship between the circle and onlookers:

  • The circle could have something important for the onlooker
  • The onlooker could have something important for the circle
  • One must take initiative to make the connection
  • The other must reciprocate to make the connection
  • If the connection is not made, the possibility is lost or destroyed
  • If the onlooker wants to play, s/he must risk jumping in
  • If the circle wishes to grow and learn, it needs to seek out and invite onlookers

At the heart of this are the possibilities that come with risk.  An onlooker risks indifference or rejection in seeking to play. The circle risks having to shape and adjust to make room for someone new.  The bottom line, though, is that we all know what it feels like to be an outsider.  It is a lonely place to be – even powerless.  Not everyone is always brave and courageous in this place against the power and camaraderie of the circle, so it is necessary for the outer edge of the circle to be permeable and welcoming.

A permeable, expansive circle will:

  • Recognize the power/status of being in/out of the circle
  • Freely invite onlookers
  • Trust the onlooker brings value
  • Expect and welcome the onlooker’s turbulence
  • Adapt and adjust to turbulence
  • Notice what is understood differently

As you read this, onlooker, I invite you to my circle.

5 thoughts on “Inviting onlookers”

  1. What just grabbed me, Beth, having had this post “foreshadowed” with context in an earlier conversation, is that how curious, odd, peculiar, amazing it is, that in the orientation to facilitation we both practice – Art of Hosting – we would both be having experiences of this dynamic: who’s in, who’s out. In Group Dynamics 101 – the classic Tuckman model of stages of group development equates calls this dynamic “forming” and then again articulated, rejigged and deepened by the commitments made through “storming” – who’s on top, who’s on the bottom – in the “norming” stage.
    I’m struck by an irony, because in my being, to “host” means to invite in, to welcome, to attend all the bits and nuances that make, allow and hold space for onlookers to find their way in, and that often it is up to me, especially as I have proclaimed myself to be an artist in hosting, to create that opening by saying “Please come, we welcome you – who you are, what you bring.”
    Thanks for the post and what it has now really clarified for me in terms of my own bold response out in the field.

    1. There is something so simple in being a host, isn’t there? To host well, we must notice the folks on the margin and invite them in.

  2. Hello Beth (and Katharine),
    Really, really nice blogpost!
    Have you already heard that the Art of Hosting is building a new online (Ning) platform?

    If you feel like doing it, I would invite (!) you to post your blog also in that virtual space (News/blogs) or make a little link to this page. We are trying to have some good content already there before inviting the whole AoH emaillist in. Thanks for considering.

  3. I am sitting with the words “insight” and “compassion” on this lovely fall morning. Reading this piece provokes me into noticing your insight in becoming aware of Onlooker and your compassion in acting on that to invite him/her into the circle. Such a simple act … with profound consequences both known and unknown … and for me, remembered. Thanks!

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