The Itch


My son was asking me last week about what to do about mosquito bites.He was wondering if there was a way to make them stop itching.Ironically, the only way to make a bite stop itching, is to NOT scratch it.For some reason, if you scratch it, it makes it more itchy.

So there is a choice to make, we decided.Leave it alone, as hard as it may be, and it will go away.Stratch it and expect it to get more and more itchy.

The questions I left our conversation with:

  • When would I/WE leave an itch alone?
  • What will I/WE find if I/WE scratch the itch on purpose?

I have been writing here forwhile, as well as in unpublished places. And I am writing to simply scratch and itch with the intention that it WILL get more itchy.It seems to be working.The more I contemplate questions about how I engage with others, and about how WE engage with each other, I can see more and more clearly (and simultaneously less clearly) that I have a growing itch about how humans relate with each other in response to the challenges our communities we face.

I scratch as a means to explore and learn.

City By Design

Edmonton's children: Where they live, where they learn (Share Edmonton)The Edmonton Journal’s Sarah O’Donnell and Edmonton programmer Mack Male, have painted a picture for Edmonton residents and decision makers about how our city is growing, especially in light of recent Edmonton Public Schools decisions to close inner city schools.

The article and mapping show us where young families are living, and by implication where schools are needed based on the numbers of children nearby. Using this logic, it makes perfect sense to close schools where there are fewer children.  Need is based on numbers of children, no more no less.  Families move to the suburbs and school trustees follow the families. It’s that simple.

Or is it?  This conversation seems to make several assumptions.  I offer several below to test if they are the assumptions we are using, and /or if we wish to consciously create a new set of assumptions.  They drive how we build and adjust the city we live in, the city we are designing while living in it.

Assumption 1:  Growth just happens. Growth happens where we choose to make it happen.  Cities choose where growth will happen and has a legislative framework to guide growth.  Ultimately, the decision makers are City Council.  There are, however, many other decision makers that influence how and where we build: home buyers, developers and builders, school boards, health providers, realtors, etc.  We spend a lot of time and energy designing and building infrastructure to accommodate us living in this place together, and it is not haphazard. It takes years (and decades) to plan for Anthony Henday, LRT routes, water and wastewater systems, electricity, gas and our extensive roadway system.  We build all of this in the public eye.  None of it “just happens.”

Assumption 2:  We have unlimited funds for infrastructure now and in the future. We expand our city without contemplating the full costs of doing so.  We let school buildings close.  We let vacant land remain vacant when servicing infrastructure is near by.  We let land, and all the utilities serving that land, remain underutilized.  If we are not able to maintain our current infrastructure well now, how do we expect to do so in the future?  City Hall, for example, faces huge capital and operating budget challenges, yet we continue to spread ourselves thin.  We behave as if we have unlimited revenue now and in the future.  Are our pockets (as taxpayers) that full?

Assumption 3:  We need a lot of space from our neighbours. It seems that having oodles of space – in our yards and homes – drives Edmonton’s design.  Why are we afraid of being close to other people?  Or sharing park space instead of large private yards?  What is behind this?  What makes neighbours bad, especially if there are a lot of them?  Perhaps the devil is not in the density, but in the design of how we build the buildings and the space around them.  What if we built exciting spaces and ensured the services were on hand – like schools, LRT – to create viable neighbourhoods.  Viable from a social, environmental and fiscal perspective.  We have yet to really pay for all this space we are enjoying.

Assumption 4:  School boards don’t build cities – City Hall does. Schools have an absolutely critical role to play in physically building cities – look at the schools and green spaces everywhere.  They also play a key role in supporting the well-being of neighbourhoods. Schools are critical formal and informal gathering places that help make a neighbourhood healthy.  A school board’s decisions are critical.  They are not isolated from everyone else’s actions.  Our city builders include school systems (secondary and postsecondary), health systems, energy and water systems, city hall, and our builders and developers.  No one entity or initiative works completely in isolation – they all have a piece of the neighbourhood puzzle.

What if we switched those assumptions for the following principles in decision making at many scales (from citizen up to a large city network of organizations):

  1. Use current infrastructure before building new
  2. Create and design for exciting spaces where people want to spend time
  3. Bring nature to the people and people to nature
  4. Create and support a transportation system that moves people and goods efficiently (rather than the most cars/trucks efficiently)
  5. Integrate the interests and dreams of citizens, community organizations, our city institutions and our city builders
  6. Consider the cumulative costs of our city design choices – actively seek feedback on our choices

I suspect that these principles seem innocuous, but they are not when we  have the feedback systems in place to truly understand if our actions are in line with our goals.  The City of Edmonton, in creating and providing open source data, is providing a critical feedback loop for Edmontonians to understand how the city we are creating works.  There are exciting conversations ahead in Edmonton’s future.

Our collective actions -as  citizens, community organizations, school systems, business owners, city government, health providers, developers, builders, realtors, home buyers, etc.  – create our city.   Is it the one we want?

I wonder if the evidence shows that we are getting what we want, or if we are getting what “just happens.” ttp://

Corduroy, Bog and Ice


Of all the experiences a person has in 40 years of life, I wonder why a walk on the Cedar Bog Trail in Manitoba’s Bird’s Hill Provincial Park 18 years ago still sits in my mind.The sensation of walking froma hot, humid Manitoba summer day into a dark, cool forest of cedars left its mark deep inside me.

A month ago, after arriving in Winnipeg after a 13 hour drive and an evening of catching up with friends, our conversation shifted to how we were going to spend our time together over the course of our spring break visit.First up: the Cedar Bog Trail.It was calling me back.

The trail starts in aspen poplar forest, shifts to oak trees, then descends to boggy land full of cedar.The change in temperature was startling on a hot early spring day as we moved from the new sun on our bodies into cold and ice in the shade.The shock of cold – so quickly forgotten after a few warm spring days – reminded me of how quickly we acclimatize to new circumstances.I was also reminded of how the world sends us constant reminders of past circumstances, and how the past, the present and future are constantly being juggled.

In the bog, to make it passable, logs have been laid perpendicular to the path – a corduroy road.The quality of the corduroy is aged and suspect at this stage in the path’s life. Frozen, our passage was unhindered; thawed, our passage would have been arduous and messy since the corduroy logs themselves are now few and far between.I was thankful that the path was frozen. Corduroy logs up through the ice on Manitoba's Cedar Bog Trail.  March 28, 2010

Just before we left the bog, we came across an area that was a large expanse of ice.In a few days the passage would be completely underwater.We “skated” on the ice, avoiding the ends of a couple of corduroy logs poking out of the ice and bog. Then we made our way out of the bog, back to the oak and aspen forests and back to Winnipeg, andeventuallyback to Edmonton.And the ends of old corduroy logs keep poking at me, prodding me to further make sense of the Cedar Bog Trail.

When thinking of the inadequate logs sticking through the ice I wrestled with two ways to look at this situation:

  1. When the ice melts there will not be enough logs for the trail to be easily passable.I can see this clearly through the ice.People will be bogged down.
  2. It is passable right now!Just skate over it. Deal with the problem later.

My default is the first.When I see a deeper problem that needs to be addressed I aim to solve it.I find it difficult to notice the things that can not be addressed right now – the things under the ice that just simply can not be solved right now.And don’t even need to be solved right now.And can not be solved right now. There is a time to just let things slip by, and I must ask:

  1. Can and should it be solved now?
  2. Is it my problem to solve?
  3. Is it even a problem?
  4. How can I equip myself appropriately?
  5. Does this path need to be well tended?
  6. Do all paths need to be well tended?

Even when I think I have left the old corduroy road behind, it keeps popping back up. In this trail, it pops up in my memory everytime I explore a forest.And in the road at our family place at the lake, pieces of the 90 year old corduroy road keep popping back up through decades of gravel and tar.

Brake a Leg [sic]


Our Celebratory CakeLast night was the last night of my acting class, so it was “performance night.”  We put our scenes on stage at the Citadel.  Four things jump out at me as I reflect on the evening:

  1. “You look like you want to do something with the gloves.  Follow your impulse.” These were our instructor’s words to one of my mates as we were going through our scenes one last time before we hit the stage.  It can be a big leap to trust our instincts in this rational world, but it is our instincts that take us to a creative place where new possibilities arise.  We have a choice to make about where and when we let our impulse out.

I’ve got a hunger

Twisting my stomach into knots

That my tongue has tied off

My brain’s repeating

‘If you’ve got an impulse let it out’

But they never make it past my mouth.

“The Sound of Settling,” Death Cab for Cutie

Perhaps it isn’t my brain that keeps me back – it may well know I should let my impulse out, but there is something deeper within that I need to pay attention to.  As I contemplate my work in conversational leadership, I will ponder these questions for a while:

  • What am I hungry for?
  • If I truly notice that, what is my impulse about how to let it out?
  • What keeps me back from what I truly offer our craft and the world?


  1. No matter how well you know your lines, you need to grasp the plot or you’re sunk.And your mate with you. There was a moment in my scene last night when I lost my line.  Stuck. I drew a blank.  It didn’t matter that my mate and I had nailed them many times before.  Somehow I just lost track, and when I look back I can’t quite explain why.  It just happened.  We tossed a few lines in that “went with the plot” for a bit.  It was shakey for a bit, for both of us sitting there in the bright lights, but my mate didn’t panic, neither did I, and we trusted we would find our way.  We did.  He threw me a word that got me back on track and all was good.Even when you know something well, you know it works, the recipe is never the same every time.  Everytime the circumstances are different.  In conversation or theatre, there is no silver bullet/cookie cutter. 
  2. There are people rooting for you, even if you can’t see them.Often on the theatre stage, the lights are in your eyes and you can’t see the audience.  You can’t tell if they are legion or few – except for the sounds they make.  Even if you could see them, by and large to don’t know who they are.In the case of last night, it was a modest audience: our class mates, our instructor/director, the lighting guy, Citadel staff and a few people class mates brought to the event.Out front, I have a choice to make about how to proceed: trust that everyone is critically watching your every move, or trust that they want you to play a part in something wonderful happening.  My choice about what I trust has an impact on what I will do and how I go about doing it.  Do I believe in the worst or do I believe in the best?  If I lose my lines, which plot do I want to draw on to carry me through? 
  3. Brake a leg. Even the Safeway cake writer can’t get everything right.  Nobody can.  And the cake tastes just fine. How much of what I worry about is just icing on the cake? (Like the numbering in this blog…)


Focus, Flow and Fun


I have been pondering the significance of last week’s soccer scrimmage. I found myself on the field in default mode: going full tilt, fast, shoulder to the wheel, focused effort for results, more effort and more focus for even better results, put in the time and the effort and what I want to come to pass usually does.

But there was a voice over my shoulder, my coach Michael, who could see something I couldn’t see about how to play the game better.Behind me, his words to me were: “slow it down”.On another occasion: “just take the ball, hang on to it for a few seconds, then decide what to do with it.”I couldn’t believe the results.

Now I must note that I need to get feedback from Michael about what he saw – I am relying on what my subjective self sees and feels.I don’t know if he saw anything different, but I felt very different: my body was just doing what it needed to do, without really focusing on it.Putting things together that I hadn’t put together before.It was like those times when I look straight at something and I can’t quite see it no matter how hard I look, but when I look just to the side, I can see it better.My body was doing the things we have been learning all winter – ball control, passing, position, shooting – but without me actually focusing on these.From time to time, I felt a sense of flow.Things unfolded as they needed to in response to the circumstances of the moment.

I fell out of this feel of flow frequently, and then I could still hear Michael’s voice, though it was now me reminding myself. Other times, it was Michael pointing out technical things to do, like: “let the ball hit you straight on.If you turn to the side you have no idea where it will go.”Michael suggested I focus on something specific, but of course that is not the only thing I was expected to focus on.I had to file this information, these things to focus on, into the mix.In the end, I found myself falling in and out of precision, and in and out of intuition.A friendly and usefull tug-of-war between focus and flow.

The game, and life, is about the tug-of-war.It isn’t all or nothing, but rather noticing that both are in play and welcoming them.I notice that in my head and my body, I have a strong tendancy to work hard to get the job done, but not necessarily skillfully.The effort and focus I put into things often makes it look like I am better at something than I truly am.My skills improve when I take the risk of a split second to pause (or take Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink) and check out what the circumstances really require of me.This is not logical – but I can trust that I will know the right thing thing to do, and do it skillfully if I let myself.And if I try to do both – ie focus on flow – I won’t get either.Pulling both ends of the same rope gets you tight rope.

My coach has lessons for me on and off the field and I appreciate the time he has voluntarily spent with us, every week, over the last two years.We are learning technical skills – how to handle a ball, the rules of the game.We are learning about how we do not have the same skills or abilities or aptitudes.This is not only welcomed, but we are learning how to use this diversity to build an effective team.We are supported in our individual learning as well as our collective learning as a team.When we are ready, he shows us something new, always making sure the stretch is one that challenges without overwhelming us.
We are recognizing how we are doing something well and how we are not doing something well so we can see and feel how to improve.Most importantly we are having fun.

I see now that this week’s scrimmage, for me, was about focus and flow – and that welcoming both comes with fun, lightly holding the conundrum.



One of my son’s favourite television shows is Mayday, chronicling the events leading to and resulting in airplane disasters – or in the case of a recent episode, what should have been a disaster.We found big lessons for the pilots of our communities, cities and towns.

In “Panic Over the Pacific” (Episode 6, Season 4), ChinaAirlines Flight 006 is bound for San Francisco.After an engine failure (one of four engines on a Boeing 747) that should cause no significant issues, the plane plunges 10 km in just 2 minutes.The undercarriage doors and horizontal stabilizers are ripped off the plane under the force of the plunge, yet the crew land the plane safely.By many accounts, they should not have been able to save the plane, then we find out that the plunge need not have happened in the first place.

The conclusion: the pilot caused the plunge by focusing on the one instrument that was telling him the plunge was starting and choosing not to believe it.Due to massive fatigue and jet lag, he was spatially disoriented and unable to simply adjust as needed to the engine failure.The investigators confirmed all instruments were in working order.All the pilot needed to do was look at the other instruments to see that the plunge was indeed beginning, disengage autopilot, and put his foot on a pedal.The corroborating evidence was on hand – as well as a simple solution.

The investigators offered two significant observations about this event that relate to the survival of humans on an airplane:

1.Focus on the “dashboard”, not one instrument. Attention to only one instrument – whether we believe it is right or wrong – provides us with only a sliver of information.A dashboard of instruments will send us more complete information and tell us if we are on the right track or not.Nothing is fully dependent on one instrument.

2.There is a reason why there is a human at the front of the plane. Autopilot is designed to solve the problems that we have come up with so far, but the creative human mind is needed when new problems arise that Autopilot can’t handle.In the case of our pilot over the Pacific Ocean, the pilot needed to intervene – just put a foot on a pedal.He didn’t, and they plunged to earth.

Compared to a human community, an airplane is a simple system.There is a chain of command and it is clear who is in charge.If we take a town, city, region, province, country, continent or even the planet, we can see that it is less clear who the pilot is – there are many.There are many destinations and modes of travel, but the investigators lessons still resonate and raise the following questions for a community of any scale in any setting:

1.What brings us together?What is important to us?

2.Who are we? Who has the power to get us to our destination?

3.What is our destination?What will it look like when we get there?

4.What are the wise ways to get to our destination?

5.What are diversity of skills and gifts we bring to get us there?

6.How do we knit all of the above together through the messy process of community?

In exploring the above, we find that there are many things that catch our attention; homelessness,residential densities, economic development opportunities, transportation and education systems, health care delivery, ecological impacts, parks and open spaces, opportunities for recreation, community development, energy generation, clean technologies, telecommunications, food security, urban design, emergency services, etc.There are many systems in place currently that monitor each of these.The question then is, are we watching all of them, or just one instrument like our pilot.Perhaps we do not all need to watch all of them, but we need to find ways and places to still do so.A collective sense of piloting is crucial to our survival.

This is ultimately about integrating pieces of information throughout a community system.It is about creating the time and places to connect the silos in our communities that look after the well-being of so much that makes our communities complete.A high school principal comes to mind who recently had a significant first experience: he was in the same room as people working for municipal and provincial government that were not in education.He pointed out immediately the value of this – they share interests, insights and information.How could this go further?What are the ways and places where we can attend to collectively noticing what the silos that serve us are noticing, so that we can share a common sense of direction?I offer the following:

1.Create the conditions for conversations that cross silos with the express purpose of noticing a larger picture and shared intention

2.Cultivate a common destination

3.Create a dashboard of instruments that monitor our progress to reach the destination

4.Create a culture of resilience and adaptability where change is welcome

In the case of our pilot above, his misjudgment was attributed to fatigue.I am curious about the frantic nature of work that seems so predominant these days.What are we missing by moving so fast?Are we noticing our instruments?Are we misreading them?Are we afraid of them?Are we mistakenly on autopilot? Do we have the right instruments?

How and when will we know if a Mayday call is legitimate or not?

Poking the Bear


I was describing to a friend last week about a tough situation in which I found myself recently.In room full of teachers, I told them that they appeared to have shut down on their own learning.Her response:ohhhhhh, you just poked the bear.

I have been wrestling with this bear now for several days.I hold a deep intention to cause no harm to the people with whom I live, work and volunteer.But this intention is not superficial. It is not just about protecting the people around me from harm; it is as much about noticing when I and the people around me may be causing harms to others.And with this in mind, I find myself often telling clients (and other people in my life) things they might not want to hear.

But in the spirit of doing not harm, my intention is to do this in a compassionate and direct way. As my Art of Hosting colleague Toke Moller put it, a dull knife through a tomato is an aggressive and harmful act.A sharp knife through the tomato is compassionate.This isn’t about cutting people up with nasty things to say.It is about providing honest feedback – whether to an individual or a group – that is in some way what they need to hear.What they need to hear, but not necessarily what they want to hear.

So my own personal wrestling with the bear is about being brave enough to be direct and honest, because once I have poked it, I have to be prepared for the consequences – it might take a swipe at me.It is this consideration that makes me think of timing options to poke the bear:

  1. Right then and there – when it needs to be said
  2. Later – when it is a better time
  3. Never – just leave it be

As the bear pins me to the forest floor, I deliberate about what would have happened if nothing was said: nothing would have changed and teachers would teach rather than learn.If something was said later: nothing would have changed and teachers would teach rather than learn.Right then and there – the quality of the work that followed, and commitment to it, was significantly higher.The down side, I realize, is that people’s feelings were hurt because they were told something they didn’t want to hear.Some people were angry with the feedback.Some closed ranks and got defensive.Some said thank you – we needed to hear that.

The bear swiped around to protect itself. And in the end, I ask myself what it is protecting itself against, and the answer is astounding:learning.

I have slipped out from beneath the bear, for now, and I look it in the eyes.I will continue to poke the bear and give it feedback from time to time – always compassionately – because I trust that over time it will be received, constructively and positively, in ways I will never know as it makes its way through the wild world.

The value shapes of conversation


As I am getting ready to host, with fellow Albertans, a conversation about how to unleash Albertans’ collective ingenuity, I enter into an experience with diverse people interested in a collective learning opportunity.As part of this process, I will enjoy exploring the value of conversation in our communities and the role values and conversation play in our communities’ well-being.

A recent conversation with a fellow learner rekindled a curiosity:How do values shape conversation?

Value systems – whether in a person, family, organization, community, nation or even in the human species – evolve from egocentric, to ethnocentric and worldcentric.These value systems themselves change as the conditions of our lives change.A person who places great emphasis on the health of the entire planet (world centric) may find a distinct shift in focus to self (egocentric) when grappling with the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquate, for example.While this is simplistic, knowing, or simpliy noticing, where myself and others are coming from in terms of our value systems is useful when I enter into conversation – with myself or with others.(For an example of the kind of value systems contemplated here, please refer to

On February10-12, 2010 I am gathering with other Albertans to explore the art of hosting and harvesting conversations that lead to renewed and sustained communities.Such a conversation can not take place without consideration of the values in play – the values within the conversation, as well as the values that shape the decisions we make about how to design for conversation.

Generally, the physical shape of an “Art of Hosting” conversation is the circle. We sit in circle of various sizes, we seek to collaborate as equals, we seek to unearth the collective wisdom that sits with us: we make the assumption that the information we need to know to tackle the changes we are facing resides is readily available.We each bring a piece of the puzzle, and only in deep conversation – that may or may not even be with traditional words and language – will the pieces we bring begin to emerge, and the picture we create together begin to emerge.We are fellow travelers in inquiry.

In this vein, I am curious about how to create the conditions for people to fully engage with each other – at our gathering, but also out in the world.Not in a shallow, skirting converation, but in a way that reaches deep into the soul. Values come in when we meet the challenge to meet people where and how we find them, recognizing the values in play, each with expectations of conversation.I imagine these values in the form of shapes and texture of conversation, a critical piece in designing for conversation.I explore these below, first with egocentric value systems, then ethnocentric and worldcentric.

Value shapes of conversation concept

Value shapes of conversation concept

Survival– Staying Alive  There are times when sitting in circle to contemplate and inquire is not the right thing to do. Drawing on the example of the Haiti earthquake, for the individual fighting for survival, the shape is a dot – the survival self. A point that focuses on the self and what it needs to survive. There is no conversation. (There is no reason this is bold – I can’t stop it.)

Tribe – Safety and Security For the family or a collection of people supporting themselves as they survive together, the dot simply becomes larger in to a solid circle.It is a solid shape with afocus on the group as the self – the well-being of everyone ensures the well-being of each member.A solid circle, as opposed to the dot, takes into account a sense of collective, of looking after each other and a sense of belonging and connection.This is a tight-knit, solid group with a clear sense of leadership in the group (sage/elder/chief).Conversation takes place in circle form with an intense sense of belonging.There is clear protocol and deference to a leader and the spirits.

Empire – Power and Action The solid circles in isolation realize that there are others competing for the same resources to meet their groups’ needs.Power and action are critical elements to meet the needs of a group – those who have proven trustworthy, are respected and revered (or even feared) rise to power.Agression, anger and shame keep individuals in check. The shape I imagine here is a solid, tall triangle.A clear hierarchy of power with power at the top.Status (power) will determine where you fit, and there is clamoring to reach the top.The conversation is “top-down” messages within the triangle. The tall solid triangle, the climax of ego-centered perspective does not contemplate the needs of others.Between triangles there is minimal conversation per se, but rather comptetive positioning, war, agreession.There is great pride and identity (of self and the group) invested in this shape.This shape snaps into place when there is an emergency.

Authority Structure – Stability and Salvation  The intense comptetion and fueding within and between the Power God triangles is an existence of aggression, assertion of independence and control to respond to danger.A shift from this focus on self to the collective results in order and dignity, stability and a sense of right and wrong that is established by an authority – there is “One True Way”.

The shape of the tirangle again, but now with authority – there is protocol in place for the purposes of efficiency.With a purpose in mind, the pieces of the system know just what to do to respond in a timely fashion.Everyone has their place and role, and when the boss says it is time to go, it is time to.This is the shape of agencies stepping in to help in Haiti.This is the shape of the Red Cross.This is the shape of our food banks, soup kitchens and our police forces.Authority and control for the purposes of some greater public service.

This triangle is less solid in texture in that it opens itself up to a broader collective purpose, but the power and hierarchy are still needed to deliver on that purpose.Communication is still “top-down”, but it is more from authority, than power.Communication between triangles, when it occurs, is filled with protocol.Other Authority Structure triangles with a different purpose/method are not tolerated. These triangles appear in isolation – or in silos as we describe our institutions.

Strategic Enterprise – Success and Material Gain  Eventually, the urge to connect silos and solitudes leads to strategic thinking, and a shift is made to think strategically.The need to allow for more flow around an organization is noticed.The need for less authority to let an entrepreneurial spirit emerge is also present.There is still hierarchy and protocol, but is is relaxed and purposefully allows, and expects, the interconnection of interests without the traditional rules and protocols.Ideas flow from top to bottom and bottom to top as the power is dissipated and the self reemerges – as a creative, competitive, rule-breaking self.

The triangles are more stout again and no longer in isolation.They are also more porous, denoting a decrease in power and authority and the movement of information around the organization.The focus of conversation is getting problems solved creatively through the effective use of networking – people are connecting with each other in cooperation but not as equals.

Social Network – Inclusive Community  When the desire for material goods and gain wanes and the need to address social gaps surfaces, the shape of conversation shifts to reflect a new sense of equal human rights.Sensitivity to others is heightened. A deeper spirit of cooperation emerges and displaces entrepreneurial desire.A sense of responsibility to look after the needs of others in addition to the needs of me is noticeable.

As equals, the shape is a circle, one that elicits and supports the gifts that everyone offers for the collective good.The circle is less solid than the triangles, denoting more inclusivity.This circle is also less solid than the Tribe values, again because of its inclusivity.It welcomes all, seeking peaceful resolution of conflict in support of the whole. The circle supports the full development of each individual as well as the whole.Hierarchy is not present and may be vilified.

In the End it is Flex and Flow – Shifting Shapes

In the first collection of ego-centred shapes, I see them existing simultaneously, ultimately as self centered entities. As solid shapes, there is little room for identities beyond the identity of the entity itself.They must be so to meet their needs in the world as they experience it.As life conditions change, with more security and room for creativity, the shapes become less solid and more inclusive.

In considering the above, there are some questions that surface for me:

  • What is the impact of these value shapes on hosting and designing for conversation?
  • Under what circumstances is it appropriate to sit in circle?
  • Are well hosted conversations always in circle?
  • As the purpose of conversation changes, does the shape of conversation change?

In the Art of Hosting community, we make the assumption that there is great wisdom among us – we just need to release it.We must recognize that from a values perspective, this is a Social Network question that will not resonate too well with the Fire Department in the middle of putting out a fire.

There is a time and place for each shape.The questions I find myself reglarly exploring are:

  • What values are surfacing in me?
  • What values are surfacing in others?
  • Is the shape for conversation I envision coming from me, or the field?

The obstacle is not the objective


In my acting class last night an interesting parallel to my learning to be a coach.We’ve been exploring the notion of a basic objective in scene work for several weeks.My attention was grabbed yesterday when we stopped to have a conversation as a class about the exercises we have been doing.The simple meaning of our conversation was this: knowing specifically the objective of a scene, and the specific obstacles to that objective that need to be worked through is crucial.But the focus is not the obstacle – it is the objective that pulls me through the scene, but it the obstacle that makes me want to do so.This makes for a good scene.

On the spot as we were digesting our learning, I immediately thought of some meaningful coaching conversations I have had over the last year.The meaningful part being that a coach will offer opportunities for the coachee to explore how to move through obstacles to opportunities and the objective.It is not enough to simply identify obstacles.

In the coaching models I have been exploring, I have been paying particular attention to a continuum where at one end the coach “puts in” to the coachee, and at the other end the coach “pulls out” of the coachee.To be done well, both require heightened listening skills.Specific to the latter, the coach listens intently to the coachee, minimizing the filters and analysis as much as humanly possible.What the coach thinks simply gets in the way of what is wanting to come out of the coachee.While there is a time an place for coaching models that “put in”, there is an unbalance in that respect.People seem to be hardwired to have to tell others what to do.Even in our listening that comes through in the questions we ask.

So what would happen if in conversations we served as guides to wisdom that just sits in us?What if we rest in wonder about what is wanting to come out?

Whether as a coach, facilitator, parent, spouse, manager, that there are times to “put in” and times to “pull out” of the people I am with.I am starting to notice more specifically what I need in this respect.Being skillfull in conversation requires being attentive to your actions, your default patterns, what others need and, of course, having conversations with others around what they need and what you need from each other.

In my work as a community planner, conversation is needed everywhere.Quality conversation to ensure interests are understood and priorities arGovernment, communities, developers, not-for-profit organizations, school and health systems, food production systems, energy systems, are poorly integrated in their thinking and behaviour.Unresolved and deep-seated conflict is everywhere.I don’t imagine for a moment that it is possible to get rid of it.I do imagine, however, that if by identifying what it is we wish to accomplish together, and noticing the objectives that are in our way, we then have a choice to make about where we spend our time: focus on solving the obstacles and fixing he problems, or to focus on moving through them to welcome our objective.To do either, conversation that mover far deeper than the superficial is needed.

To make our desires a reality, we have to simply note the obstacles and move past them.Just as on the theatrical stage, they are not our focus.

Plan a meeting, or plan a harvest?

Isn’t it funny how even when you have heard it before, it doesn’t actually “hit” you until some later date?  While it rang true before, the noise is a lot louder today for the meaning of this statement: when planning a meeting, we are really planning a harvest.

4 mates and I are preparing for an Art of Hosting (and Harvesting) gathering in Edmonton, Alberta next week  And of course, now that we are getting into the design of the gathering, we are contemplating what it means to harvest the conversations we will be having.  We are contemplating this diligently in service to the invitation we have extended to explore how to cultivate Albertans’ collective ingenuity in order to renew and sustain Alberta’s communities.

When in conversation with anyone, including myself, meaning is generated.  There is the tangible meaning, such as a record of what decisions are made.  In addition, there are the impressions we make of each other, the conflict we carry, the assumptions, the sabotage, the agendas, as well as goodness and love.  Yet we struggle with our conversations – especially the ones we choose not to have.   Bad feelings are clearly a pattern, and this leaves a lot of conversations never held.

But what if we are more than that?  What if instead of leaving the fruit to rot on the tree, we choose to enjoy it?  What if we consider every apple, blemishes and all, as a sweet treat?  What if we planned for that when we gather? More importantly, what if we planned to explicitly expose those sweet treats for us all to see?  What if we held the intention to fully harvest the abundance that is just sitting there – each apple, and all the things we can make together?

A harvest is about both content and process, the tangible and the intangible.  The content is not about a message to be delivered to others, but about pulling out of ourselves what is just sitting there waiting to emerge.  Our unconscious, or semiconscious knowledge.  In terms of contemplating a harvest, content is about knowing what the conversation is for: is it to explore ideas, or to nail down a plan for action.  To build a common sense of direction, or generate a diverse range of options?  Knowing the overall purpose of the conversation assists greatly with ascertaining the appropriate design for the conversation – the process- as well as sense of harvest (to design for) that is in service to the intention. Intention provides clarity for both content and process.

The form of a harvest is various and unlimited: photographs, a movie, a song, a poem, a report, a picture, a performance, a document.  The harvest at times tangible and explicit (such as a report or document) or more intangible and implicit (a song or poem).  Both add value and meaning when aligned with the purpose and context of the people gathering.

Skillful design for conversation is the process, and when aligned with the purpose/intention, conversation will provide wonderful fruit for harvest.  Our design choices dictate whether we gather effectively the collective wisdom.  The quality of our presence in the gathering will dictate what we notice – whether one apple, the whole tree, the whole orchard, the ecosystem, etc.

Whether from an individual or as a collaborative effort, the harvest takes the unarticulated and unconscious to the articulated and conscious that is an expression of value and meaning.  It is an expression of learning.

In times of abundance or scarcity, just like an apple, the harvest of conversation is nourishment.