Fighting is infectious

Under the summer sun, fifteen kids, ranging in age from 6 to 10 years old, and two adults filed on to the bus last week, collecting behind me, near the back of the bus to keep the group together. I imagined the fun of a summer field trip until the adult camp leaders started talking. They were caught up in fight drama, full of fight energy. It was subtle, and infectious as it spread around the bus. If there was any fun on that field trip, it was not fun any longer. 

It was subtle and infectious as it spread around the bus. If there was any fun on that field trip, it was not fun any longer. 

The camp leaders were mad because they were running late. The group of them had been standing at the side of the road in between bus stops expecting the previous bus to stop for them. It did not, and they were furious. “What else would he be thinking? Why else would a group of kids be standing there? I called to make a complaint and they wouldn’t take the complaint because we were not at a stop–how ridiculous is that?” 

A nearby woman chimed in: “Those bus drivers! Not all of them, mind you, but there are enough around that just don’t care about people.” They went back and forth for a few minutes. In front of me, two women who did not know each other started to talk about it by themselves: “What a shame. Bus drivers these days. You can call 311 and make a complaint, but would they even listen? Would they ever change?” (Note: they didn’t hear the words of the camp leaders. They did call 311. It was the fight-feeling that was spreading.)

I found myself wanting to get off of the bus.

I wanted to escape the spreading infection of negativity and criticism and blame. I did not have the energy to witness the tempting pull to dehumanize, and demonize people we don’t even know. My stop arrived a couple minutes later and I stepped off, relieved. 

As I walked home, I thought about it and noticed that the camp leaders were:

  1. Experiencing anger about the bus not stopping for them. 
  2. Experiencing frustration that they were running late.
  3. Voicing their anger and frustration out loud.
  4. Blaming the bus driver for their anger and frustration. 
  5. Looking for and securing allies to justify their view. 

In that moment, they had hearts at war, as The Arbinger Institute, in The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict, calls it. They needed to find others to blame, rather than try to understand the situation of the other (the bus driver who drove by) or take personal responsibility for their situation. 

In that moment, they had hearts at war. 

When the heart is at war, we see and experience the world in a specific way. Here’s a summary of how The Arbginger Institute describes the heart at war: 

  • View of the world: unfair, unjust, burdensome, against me
  • Feelings: angry, bitter, justified, impatient
  • View of myself: better than, a victim (I am owed), need to be seen well
  • View of others: wrong, incapable, inferior (or superior) 

I know this stance. It is a regular occurrence in my life that I have to pay attention to with my family, friends, clients and the people I work with. From this stance, I am not able to see others as people; I see them, and experience them and treat them, as objects. When I operate this way, everything is going wrong and everyone else is to blame. When my heart is at war, I view the world as unfair and unjust, which leads me to feel anger, bitterness, and justification. When I feel this way, I may view myself as better than others, or as a victim that is owed, which means that my view of others is that they are wrong, incapable and inferior, or even superior to me. And I will look for and encourage allies to support me in this stance. It often feels like an easy way to operate, and it can take a great deal of energy to knock myself out of it. 

In contrast, a heart at peace, also described by The Arbinger Institute, is a very different quality of being. Instead of viewing others as dehumanized objects, I view them as people, with hopes, needs, cares and fears as I have, and not more or less important than mine. There are two ways of being: 

HEART AT WAR

HEART AT PEACE

Others are OBJECTS: obstacles, vehicles, irrelevancies

Others are PEOPLE: hopes, needs, cares, and fears as real to me as my own

The stance of a heart at peace appears to be hard because it involves a degree of self-awareness, and a willingness to notice what is happening within me. For The Arbinger Institute, we each, in every situation, have a sense of what we’d like to do, or how we’d like to be. The path to a heart at war is in the betrayal of that desire. Honouring that desire allows me to maintain a heart at peace. If I do not, I begin to see the other in ways that justify my self betrayal. It takes practice, and with practice it becomes easier. Over time it becomes easier to tell fewer lies to myself. 

Over time it becomes easier to tell fewer lies to myself. 

Did the camp leaders betray themselves?

I am only imagining here… Did they mean to give themselves more time to get to the bus stop, but did not? Did they sabotage this plan and then in anger and frustration blame it on someone else? Are they so entrenched in a heart at war stance that they don’t even know they’ve done this, or was it an infrequent occurrence? (Perhaps they took personal responsibility later, but in the moment they did not.)

Were they aware of the example they were setting for the children in their care, to blame things always on someone else? Deep down inside, did they feel badly and chose instead to justify their indignation and recruit allies to the cause?

Deep down inside, did they feel badly  and chose instead to justify their indignation and recruit allies to the cause? 

(In contrast, I imagine a couple camp leaders and vibrating kids getting on a bus in conversation with each other, kids and adults intertwined. “Did you see that skeleton? Did you notice how big the horns were? Did you see that room full of bugs — which one was your favourite? Oh, I couldn’t go in that room, it was too scary, but I liked the video of the old man talking about the medicine wheel.” Full of joy and revelling in the shared experience of the trip, and, perhaps, one of the adults saying, “Oh my, I so wish that bus driver saw us waving our arms like crazy when we were caught between bus stops. We must have been funny looking!)

In a spirit of having a heart at peace, and not a heart at war, I try to imagine what it was like to be those camp leaders. I have no idea what their day was like up until that point, or the trouble they will be in if late. I have no idea what their life is like, any trauma that they are dealing with. All I can do is notice how they showed up, and how their energy–not necessarily them–recruited others.

All I can do is notice how they showed up, and how their energy–not necessarily them–recruited others.

This heart at war dynamic is akin to the prevalent war mentality that Charles Eisenstein articulates in his book, Climate: A New Story. A war mentality is a stance “based on a kind of reductionism; it reduces complex interconnected causes–that include oneself–to a simple, external cause called the enemy. Furthermore, it normally depends on the reduction of the enemy to a degraded caricature of a human being.” The ‘other’ is therefore “undeserving of reverence and respect, an object to dominate, control, and subjugate.” The camp leaders were operating from a war mentality, demonizing the bus driver and Edmonton Transit Service, and when another joined in they kept going. The camp leaders and the bystander joined forces. Others drew in this anger and riled themselves up.

This war mentality is in play in so many of our human interactions. The war on terrorism. The war against climate change. The war on drugs. The war on racism. It even drifts into the war on bus drivers. This mentality is pervasive and the irony is that it maintains the status quo: 

…fighting the enemy is futile when you inhabit a system that has the endless generation of enemies built into it. That is a recipe for war.

If that is to change, then one of the addictions—more fundamental than the addiction to fossil fuels—that we are going to give up is the addiction to fighting. Then we can examine the ground conditions that produce an endless supply of enemies to fight (Eisenstein, p. 17).

When the fighting never ends, the power structures remain the same; all we do is shift who has power and who does not. (Think about the Game of Thrones: endless fighting and all that changes is who sits on the iron throne. And you can never be sure you’ll be there for long.) The “ground conditions that produce an endless supply of enemies to fight” are the heart at war. In the end, then, the question is, who do we want to be? How do we want to be? 

The “ground conditions that produce an endless supply of enemies to fight” are the heart at war. In the end, then, the question is, who do we want to be? How do we want to be?

Do we want to maintain a clear separation between us and them, between right and wrong and maintain the game as we know it? Or do we want to make the transition to a world where conflict is not about right and wrong, but a way to make sure others’ needs are met, because in so doing mine will also be met?

IMPORTANT NOTE: Conflict does not disappear when we stop operating in fight mode. I do not advocate that conflict be ignored. We desperately need to talk about what works and does not work for us and work to resolve it. Instead of reverting to a war mentality of fighting and dehumanizing, we grow our capacity to be in conflict in ways that allow people’s needs to be met. This involves a lot of work within self, with others, and in relationship to the places we call home. 

VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: I am not advocating no fighting under any circumstances. Like Eisenstein, I observe that being in fight mode all the time is not effective. There are instances where fighting does make sense: human rights violations, racism and genocide, ecocide. 

The infection that spreads, then, is not fight drama, but deep and meaningful, interconnected relationships: the ground conditions for support and care for self, others and the places we call home. 

The choice at hand for each of us: Which infection do I choose to spread? The anger and frustration that comes with fight drama, or the generative possibility that comes with exploring conflict? 

 


Resources:

Charles Eisenstein, Climate: A New Story, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, 2018.

The Arbinger Institute, The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., Oakland, 2006, 2008, 2015.


The choice at hand for each of us: Which infection do I choose to spread? The anger and frustration that comes with fight drama, or the generative possibility that comes with exploring conflict? 



This post first published in Nest City News on August 9, 2019.

Disrupt the story of the land

A road trip is full of possibility. With the flexibility of time to take one of those turn-offs, there’s a chance to see something with fresh eyes. At the beginning of July, a friend and I drove from Portland, Oregon to Reno, Nevada in the United States. It was new territory — volcanic territory — that pulled us up to a lookout and down into a cave. 
 
In the northeast corner of California, just west of Highway 139, the Timber Mountain Lookout beckoned us off the highway. Wendy (waving in the photo below) toured us around her summer home, a place to keep an eye on things and send out the alert when there are ‘smokes’ — the evidence of fire. 
 
Wendy has all she needs in her lookout. It is a wee home with all she needs to look after herself and keep an eye on the land.

She has a kitchen, a bed, maps, cameras and lenses. 
 
It is a place of solitude, the quiet and peaceful kind or the solitude that comes with proximity of a surrounding storm. It is a place where there are few human and many animal visitors, but contact with fellow humans is the point. Wendy and her fellow lookout colleagues are in contact with each other and the wider emergency response system. In that location she is alone, but she is part of a larger endeavour.  
 
We created these lookouts to keep ourselves safe from fire. We chose to make these structures, at sensible locations, and create a means for the people working in the lookouts to identify clearly the location of smokes for their emergency services colleagues to investigate and, if necessary, fight fire that threatens homes and/or livelihoods. 
 
The lookouts come with a contract — the one who resides in the lookout is expected to see things we cannot see, to see on our behalf. And we who receive their messages trust what they name is worthy of investigation. 
 
The lookout comes with a contract — the one who resides in the lookout is expected to see things we cannot see, to see on our behalf. And we who receive their messages trust that what they name is worthy of investigation. 
I wonder, who are the people on the lookout for us all in other ways? And are we willing to receive their messages?
 
Who are the people on the lookout in other ways? And are we willing to receive their messages? 
I took this question to our next stop, nearby lava tube caves and a visitor centre at the Lava Beds National Monument. This second pause in our road trip shone a light on a story dominant culture does not like to hear: we settlers arrived to colonize North America and kill or displace people already here. 
 
 
A cave, for me, is dark and unfamiliar terrain,  a world that is unsettling and uncomfortable. Unfamiliar to me, yet intimately familiar to the Modoc people who have left evidence of having lived here for 14,000 years. 
 
When European traders and settlers arrived in the early 1800s there was displacement and a change in the way of life. Then displacement turned into state-sponsored extermination and California’s state legislature funded of a campaign to kill Native people: state sponsored genocide. 
 
A standoff between the colonizers and the Modoc people (who resisted ill-treatment and displacement to reserves and wished to be reunited with their homeland) involved the Modoc vanishing into the caves they knew intimately. Outnumbered 10-1, over the winter of 1872-1873 (the Modoc War), their knowledge of the land allowed them to resist and survive. 
 
The Modoc, who know the story of the land most intimately — where to find water, where to find food, what makes good shelter, the stories of the land and sky that sustain life and a thriving culture — were killed or forcibly removed from their homeland to a reservation in Oklahoma. The stewardship of the land changed dramatically.  
 
The Modoc were killed or forcibly removed from their homeland to a reservation in Oklahoma. 
The colonizers began a process to reclaim the land for homesteading. Between 1908 and 1930 Tule Lake was drained and converted to farmland. By lottery out of a pickle jar the land was given to homesteaders. A stunning map in the visitor center tells the tale. 
 
By lottery out of a pickle jar the land was given to homesteaders.
The vast majority of the lake was converted to farmland. What remained of the waterbody was labeled “Tule Lake Restricted Sump”. 
 
Our settler/colonizer language is fascinating: 
 
re*claim 
 
verb
  1. retrieve or recover (something previously lost, give, or paid); obtain the return of.
  2. bring (waste land or land formerly underwater)under cultivation.
Our language reveals what we thought of the land and the people who lived on it:
 
  1. The land is ours to take. 
  2. Indigenous use of the land is unproductive. 
  3. Settler use of the land is more productive.
  4. Indigenous people are not productive.
  5. Settler people are productive.
  6. Indigenous people are inferior. 
  7. Settler people are superior. 
We had our idea of what the land could be used for and, deeming ourselves and our ideas to be superior, we occupied the land.  We killed and forcibly removed people to do so, and now we non-indigenous people call it our homeland. 
 
Deeming ourselves and our ideas to be superior, we occupied the land. We killed and forcibly removed people to do so, and now we non-indigenous people call it our homeland.  
I feel a connection to the story of the Modoc because it helps me see my family land lineage more clearly. In similar fashion, colonizers declared land open for homesteaders in central Alberta and my Norwegian great-grandparents arrived as homesteaders. In another family branch, my grandparents took advantage of others having declared land was available for purchase on a lakeshore. They bought lake property to serve as a recreational property, along with many others, surrounding an Indian Reservation. And me, I own land in my city that was claimed for settlement of non-indigenous people. There are Indigenous people who feel the land my city — and “my” land — sits on was stolen. My family lineage, then and now, benefits from the land we assumed to be ours for the taking. 
 
And here I have a choice about how far to go into this cave, and I have at least two stories to choose from. 
 
I could choose to believe that since my people were stronger and superior, then no reparations are needed. It is a story in which there is no room for weakness, especially mine. There is no room to accept that my people before me did anything wrong. (Or if I do accept they did, there is nothing I have done wrong.) This is a story about winners and losers, and when you’re a winner you enjoy the spoils and when you’re a loser you have to buck up and take it. This is a story that takes me to the entrance of the cave and causes me little discomfort as I continue to reap the benefits of living in a system works to raise my people and put others down.
 
A different story will take me into the cave, where I am uncomfortable and in the dark, unsure how to make my way forward. It is the settler/colonizer story where I take intergenerational responsibility for the actions of my people, decades and centuries ago, that were taken from a place of superiority and power. It is a story where I accept that I am part of the settler/colonizer culture that continues to benefit from having taken land. I am part of the settler/colonizer culture that experiences unearned privilege because of my ancestors actions. I am part of the culture that continues to propagate this old story: we settler people are better than Indigenous people. 
 
I am part of the culture that continues to propagate this old story: we settler people are better than Indigenous people. 
A part of this new story shows up in how we tell the story of the land we live on, whether the land of the Modoc, or the Plains Cree where I live. I grew up, and was trained as.a city planner, thinking about two things: 1) the geography and nature of the land (topography, water systems, plant life, geology, etc), and 2) the story of settlers on the land. I paid some attention to the Indigenous people who traverse these time horizons, but not an appropriate amount. Our pattern is to behave as though a group of people did not and does not exist. Further, we are conditioned to not take into consideration their existence. 
 
How we tell the story of the land is changing. The usual story I tell and hear, as a settler/colonizer, is the big natural story, and then the story of settling the land. We are conditioned to tell the story as though no one was here when we arrived. We tell the story as if there were no humans of worth here.
 
Yes, Medicine Lake is a volcano that has been active for over 500,000 years, with the last eruption 950 years ago. Yes the Oregon Trail and the Applegate Trail are significant stories of European “discovery” and settlement of western North America. Yes, the Lava Beds National Monument acknowledges, rather than hides, the story of the Modoc, but it is the stories of settler/colonizer triumph, the hardship, the hard work, the heroes, the defeated that thrive. And we avoid looking at the stuff that makes us uncomfortable. We avoid looking at the things that take us off the security of our superiority pedestal. 
 
We avoid looking at the things that take us off the security of our superiority pedestal. 
 
The new story will acknowledge this more widely. 
The new story will acknowledge this more widely.
 
My friend and I went into one easy to travel (and lit!) cave. There are many more deeper, darker and challenging caves to look explore. As i write, I imagine myself in a place of solitude up on Wendy’s lookout on Timber Mountain. I learn some peaceful things about myself, and I also witness the disturbance of stormy weather within myself.
 
There is a series of caves I have only begun to explore as a settler/colonizer of North America:  
 
  1. I do not understand and acknowledge my people’s role in the story of displacement and genocide and North America’s Indigenous Peoples. 
  2. I do not fully understand the implications of my people’s arrival and settlement, that it involved a desire to explicitly to “kill” and “terminate” the Indians”.
  3. I continue to live in a story of superiority over Indigenous Peoples.
  4. As descendants of settlers and colonizers, I have benefited and received the privileges that come with their actions and a story of superiority.
  5. I do not fully understand or acknowledge the explicit and subtle ways this story of superiority runs in my life.
  6. I am conditioned to remain unconscious to the ways the story of superiority runs my life. 
  7. I am threatened by the “loss”  I perceive if I lessen my hold on what I own.
The story of the land we live on is not singular. The story I grew up with, the dominant story, conditions me and us to believe in a superior people. And this story works very hard to maintain its position of dominance. The way to erode the power of that story: make room for others stories of the land, and our relationships with the land. This makes room for disruption.

 This post first appeared in the Nest City News on July 24, 2019.

Shifting to host-as-all-of-us

A community in conversation with itself does not rely on others to have the conversation on its behalf–the community is involved in the conversation.

A city (or group or organization) that brings in experts for a speakers’ series is not in conversation with itself. A city that brings people together to hear from someone (but not from each other) is not in conversation with itself. A city that presents a panel discussion that hundreds of people listen to is not in conversation with itself; it is a city that watches a handful of people in conversation about the city. The conversation is separate from the community, even when right in front of the community that has gathered.

The nuance here is significant, and you can catch it with a simple two-part question: who is involved in the conversation, and is there an opportunity for them to figure things out for themselves?

Who is involved in the conversation, and is there an opportunity for them to figure things out for themselves? 

Even when we are in the shape of community–a circle–it is possible for a community to not be in conversation with itself. This occurs when we lose track of the energetic pattern of the gathering. (For more information, please see these two previous posts: host-attractor and host-on-the-rim, and roles and challenges for the host-attractor and host-on-the-rim.)

In two posts last year, I explored two patterns–the host-attractor and the host-on-the-rim–and the challenges we experience with them. In the case of the host-attractor pattern, the primary challenge is the expectation that the hosts will have all the answers and that participants will not question hosts. The danger in this is that the community will go where the host wants them to go, from a host-ego place that is not in service to the community’s learning process. In the host-on-the-rim pattern, the primary challenge is reluctance in the community to share and rotate the hosting work. The danger in this case is that the group will go where a few people want to go, rather than discerning where the whole group is wanting to go. The result is a wobbly circle.

Two examples of wobbly circles

The challenges in each pattern are about power dynamics and the power we give–consciously and unconsciously–to hosts or community, to a handful (or one) or to the whole. ​​​​​​​While each pattern in isolation appears to have distinct challenges, it is not a binary, either/or matter. Most often, the patterns are activated simultaneously, which creates significant challenges to the well-being of our social habitat because we don’t know which direction we are aiming to move toward: the expertise in others or the expertise in us. ​​​​​​​The latter disempowers community and separates us from ourselves, while the former empowers and moves us toward wholeness.

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

These challenges appear under any of the following conditions:

  1. ​​​​​​​When a community is strongly attracted (consciously or unconsciously) to one or a few of its members and minimizes the contributions of others
  2. When a community strongly resists (consciously or unconsciously) the contributions of one or a few of its members
  3. When a community member has a strong desire (consciously or unconsciously) to be a host-attractor in the group​​​​​​​
  4. When a host-attractor does not want (consciously or unconsciously) the attention and responsibility of being an attractor​​​​​​​
  5. When a host-attractor denies (consciously or unconsciously) their presence as a host-attractor
  6. ​​When a host-attractor wants to create the conditions for the community to host itself (and shift the attraction/identification from the host-attractor to the larger community)

​​​​​​​All six of of the above scenarios involve subtle and significant power dynamics, full of shadow and projection. To best handle them, we need to be willing and able to talk about our attachments to how we perceive each other, and ourselves, in our relationships and we need to be in community to do this. Sometimes the host-attractor pattern is the right one. Sometimes we feel the need to shift into the host-on-the-rim pattern, what one reader (thanks Ian!) framed for himself as “host-as-all-of-us”. But if we are in the host-attractor pattern, relying on the guidance of others rather than our own guidance, we are not in a community pattern.

We need to be willing and able to talk about our attachments to how we perceive each other, and ourselves, in our relationships and we need to be in community to do this. 

​​​​​​​Ten years ago, six of us gathered around a teacher to learn specific material in a clear host-attractor pattern. We gathered around because we were attracted to both the teacher and the material she would teach us that would nourish our individual learning journeys. She laid out clear expectations about what we would learn, how we would learn it, and what she expected of us as participants. She created the conditions for us to get to know each other as a learning community ourselves and we choose to step into this during our time with her as a host-attractor.

​​​​​​​Most learning events create a community of shared interest, where we find people ‘just like me’ for a time, and we are buoyed with a sense of belonging. When the event is over, the connection dissipates because the sense of community stemmed from identification with the host-attractor, not the community around the attractor. In its power to create community, the host-attractor energy is not long-lasting.

Most, but not all of us, chose to stay in relationship with our teacher after the training was complete and gathered regularly, as teacher and students with shared interests. After a while, the gap between teacher and students lessened and we made a transition from a host-attractor circle to a host-on-the-rim circle. Our teacher’s role changed dramatically, as did ours. We all had to remind ourselves that we were no longer looking to our teacher to organize us, host us, and teach us–we were doing that for ourselves. We all had to allow a melting away of our earlier relationship into a new one, and we spoke about it as we did it. ​​​​​​​

While the above example is a small community of 7, this phenomenon is scalar; it applies to groups of any size, including organizations and cities.

I wonder what it would mean for a city to embark on a host-as-all-of-us journey, for citizens to be in conversation with ourselves about who we want to be as a city, and what it will take to be that city? Yes, people with expertise need to be involved, but the difference is the acknowledgement that there are various kinds of expertise that need to be integrated into city intelligence and this means those expertise need to be in conversation with each other. The perspectives of the city need to be in touch with each other.

I wonder what it would mean for a city to embark on a host-as-all-of-us journey, for citizens to be in conversation with ourselves about who we want to be as a city, and what it will take to be that city?

The shapes of our conversations, and how we host them, create social habitats that allow for–and disallow–this kind of integration. It is easy to listen to sage on the stage, for that is a comfortable pattern because it is familiar and there is less work for us to do as citizens. A city in conversation with itself does the tough work to integrate a wide range of perspectives and experiences.

A city in conversation with itself does the tough work to integrate a wide range of perspectives and experiences. 


REFLECTION

Take a moment, on a walk or with a journal, or whatever works for you and ponder these questions:

What is the default in your city? Do you show up to community events and find yourself hearing about what one or a few have to say, or do you find yourself in conversation with a variety of people with time and space to figure out what you think, and what you  have to say?  


This is the fourth post in a series about “how much of me” to put in while hosting community that wants to be in conversation with itself. The first version of this appeared in Nest City News, February 15, 2019.

  1. Host-attractor / host-on-the-rim 
  2. Roles and challenges for the host-attractor and host-on-the-rim
  3. 8 strategies to navigate power patterns
  4. A city in conversation with itself; shifting to host-as-all-of-us

8 strategies to navigate power patterns

How much of me do I insert while hosting a community in conversation with itself? This is a question I often explore in my work with cities and I’ve noticed two patterns in which hosts and community relate to each other: the host-attractor pattern and the host-on-the-rim pattern.

These two patterns are distinct in their energetic quality: the host-attractor pattern occurs when community gathers around the host (or a few hosts) and the host-on-the-rim pattern occurs when the host is embedded in the community and the role is shared by the community. ​​​​​​​

Host-attractor pattern 

Host-on-the-rim pattern

There are roles we play and challenges to be found in each of these patterns, and when we don’t acknowledge the roles in play, and the challenges that come with them, our experience can be confusing and wobbly. One of the ways the wobbles happen is by not paying attention to the power dynamics in the group. Below are 8 strategies to navigate these power patterns.

A wobbly circle

8 strategies to navigate power patterns

Here are eight strategies for hosts and participants in the variations of the host-attractor and host-on-the-rim patterns:

  1. State the desired pattern. Either pattern is appropriate, but it is essential to identify which pattern is the one you want to live into and make this clear for the group. While this is a good statement to be made by hosts, it is helpful if stated by participants in both patterns. Hosts and participants both show up better when the pattern is clear. If a transition is underway, knowing what you are moving from and to, and for what purpose, is helpful.
  2. Make the role of the host-attractor explicit in the host-attractor pattern. If the host-attractor pattern is desired, the host can describe how they will show up: “I am a teacher in this community and I have a different role from participants. This is what you can expect of me (roles and responsibilities)…”
  3. Make the role of the host explicit in the host-on-the-rim pattern. If the host-on-the-rim pattern is desired, the host can describe how they will show up: “I am a participant in this group, taking a turn as host at this time. This is what you can expect of me (roles and responsibilities)…”
  4. Notice the presence of a host-attractor in the host-on-the-rim pattern. The presence of a host-attractor in a community setting is best served by acknowledgement of the impact of their presence. A host-attractor can describe how they will show up: “I have been a teacher in this community and I have had a different role from participants. This is what you can expect of me now that I am not taking a leadership role…” A participant can also say this. This understanding may shift and change over time, and noticing this often—and how it is shifting—is helpful for both hosts and participants.
  5. Make the role of the participants clear. In either pattern, offering some boundaries about what it means to be a participant is an essential contribution to creating quality social habitat. This is most often done through the use of agreements, or ground rules. If the host-attractor pattern is desired, make the boundaries clear about the degree of participation and questioning that will align with the learning objectives. If the host-on-the-rim pattern is desired, the boundaries/agreements must be explored and agreed upon, along with the additional expectation that participants will take turns serving as host.
  6. Resist the urge to do what is expected of the ‘other’ pattern. If there is one pattern you are living into, the other pattern always has a pull to be aware of. In the host-on-the-rim pattern, the group (host and participants) could have a tendency to look to a host-attractor for direction or approval. All must be vigilant to not step into this territory or they will activate and reinforce the host-attractor pattern and destabilize the community. There is a particular responsibility for the host-attractor to not give direction or approval and consistently redirect that energy back to the community. ​​​​​​​In the host-attractor pattern, the group will have a tendency to resist the authority of the host-attractor if longing for a sense of community with less hierarchy.  All must be vigilant about the aligning the appropriate responsibility—and authority—with the host-attractor as agreed. (Note #1: participation in the host-attractor pattern is a choice. Clear purpose and boundaries articulated by the host-attractor are a good start, yet the ultimate decision to participate is made by participants. Note #2: there is great trust placed in the host-attractor to not overstep the granted authority.)
  7. Acknowledge ego, identity and community. Embedded in these two patterns, and the variations of patterns in between them, is ego and identity at two scales simultaneously: the self and the community. The hosts are front and center, with potential for a lot of ego and identity investment, or on the rim, where the ego and identity is blended with the wider community. Self-identity and community-identity are not necessarily at cross-purposes but can be felt to be. This dynamic is at the heart of the relationship between these two dancing partners, and all the shadow and projection we bring as our imperfectly perfect selves into community.
  8. Explore conflict with humility and heart. If the pattern is not clear, an unclear host-attractor role is present and this will generate conflict in the group.  Hosts and participants alike need to explore which pattern is desired and the steps needed to embody that pattern. If the host-attractor pattern is desired, it may be necessary for the host-attractor to step more fully into that role, with clearly articulated expectations of the host and participants and allow space for participants and host to digest discuss. If the host-on-the-rim pattern is desired, there is a need for the participants to step forward and for the host-attractor to step back. In both situations, regular checking-in on progress is essential. Moreover, an explicit invitation can be made to all involved to notice—and state—the drift whenever it occurs.

Note #1: Participation in the host-attractor pattern is a choice. Clear purpose and boundaries articulated by the host-attractor are a good start, yet the ultimate decision to participate is made by participants.

Note #2: There is great trust placed in the host-attractor to not overstep the granted authority. ​​​​​​​

A main feature of these strategies is this: there is no room for the rescue energy of the hero. A host-attractor can be imagined as a host-hero, the person on whom we rely on for answers and action, which means we don’t: a) have any answers or insight ourselves, and b) need to take action ourselves. The presence of a host-hero means disturbance is deflected and denied. And if disturbance is deflected we deny ourselves the experience of disturbance, we deprive ourselves of an opportunity for growth.

If disturbance is deflected we are denying ourselves the experience of disturbance, we deprive ourselves of an opportunity for growth.   


This is the third post in a series about “how much of me” to put in while hosting community that wants to be in conversation with itself. (This content first appeared to subscribers in the Nest City News in May 2018.)

  1. Host-attractor / host-on-the-rim 
  2. Roles and challenges for the host-attractor and host-on-the-rim
  3. 8 strategies to navigate power patterns
  4. Shifting to host-as-all-of-us (a city in conversation with itself)

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? 


 

Making meaning as a system

If you didn’t personally hear me speak, how is it possible that you heard me? This is the undercurrent of skepticism that surfaced in the closing circle at an event I co-hosted earlier this month. While the gathering generated a great deal of meaning for participants and the client, this question compels me to dig into listening and meaning-making. Who listens and who makes meaning?

If you didn’t personally hear me speak, how is it possible that you heard me?

Here’s the situation: we invited people to 3-hour workshops to explore how a city can be a learning city. We started with a World Cafe, a series of conversations in small groups with a variety of people, as a way for people to get to know each other and dive into the topic. (Our questions reflected the 4 pillars of the UNESCO pillars of learning: learning to know, learning to do, learning to be, and learning to live together.)

After this ‘warm-up’, participants were ready for the big event: to make a 3D model of the city as a learning habitat.

As we made and explored the models, the groups saw patterns in the metaphors and operating principles. They identified the qualities of the system that wants to come more fully into being. They could see:

  1. Connected webs of relationships with multiple layers of pathways and connections
  2. Circles of life
  3. Synergies and exchanges
  4. Nature and natural, organic processes
  5. Gathering places where people come together
  6. Inclusivity and diversity
  7. Beauty and art, whimsy and creativity, fun
  8. Sustainability and self-sufficiency
  9. Infinite possibilities
  10. A city that evolves by learning

Participants identified a way of knowing, doing, being and living together that creates a city that works for them. For my client, who is figuring out her role in stewarding a project to foster learning in the city, this vision is essential. Her work is to figure out how to nurture this system. Not be the system, or make the learning habitat alone, because one person is not responsible for the well-being of a system. Her role is help it be healthy, to live more fully into its pattern. She is one of many gardeners.

Participants identified a way of knowing, doing, being and living together that creates a city that works for them.

The challenge we face is the inertia of staying in familiar ways of relating with each other and being in relationship with the city around us. Just because we can see and feel a new way of operating does not mean we are ready to jump into it. This tension surfaced in our closing circle: one participant spoke to the work as a state of mind, another voiced skepticism about whether we got what we needed to move the project along. While the former could lean into a new way of ‘hearing’ the system, the latter could not.

The skepticism was about the ability of the process to listen. In a World Cafe the hosts–the ‘official’ listeners–don’t hear the conversations, which means that people are not heard–by the ‘official’ listeners. The assumption: if the ‘authority’ doesn’t hear me directly I am not heard.

Four questions come to mind:

  1. Who has something to say?
  2. Who needs to hear you?
  3. Who will digest what you say and make meaning of it?
  4. Who is responsible to respond to what you have to say?

The purpose of this gathering was not to figure out how one person and a steering committee will roll out a project, but how a whole city can live into a project, and the critical support it needs from the one person and a steering committee. This involves a very different kind of listening.

A conventional way of listening to many people is through an interview or survey, where someone sits down with you to hear what you have to say verbally, or reads what you have written. In this way of listening, you tell me what you know or think directly and then I turn around and make sense of what I have heard from you and everyone else I have heard from. An interview or survey is a familiar way of ‘speaking into’ a system; it’s what we know.

METHOD Interviews, Surveys World Cafe + Model Building
WHAT HAPPENS You tell me what you know and think with no interaction with other people You talk and think and go deeper with other people (who may have very different perspectives)
WHO SPEAKS Individuals Individuals and the whole
WHO LISTENS I listen We listen
WHO MAKES MEANING I analyze and make meaning alone We figure out what it means as a group
WHERE YOU FIT You remain outside the system We are inside and part of the system
OUTCOMES I see what’s happening and I tell you We see what’s happening and we build relationships with each other to figure out what’s next
RESPONSIBILITY  I maintain responsibility We share responsibility
WHY I want to know what people think  (informative) We want to know what we think and figure out our way forward together as a whole (collaborative)

Interviews and surveys are informative tools, with their time and place, not collaborative tools. Their purpose is not in helping a system see the relationships and patterns within itself. The choice for my client: informing herself or the city informing itself. The choice for citizens: rely on her to fix things, or jump in and help to improve (see improve vs. fix).

My client’s work, ultimately, will be to help people see and operate in a system that is not linear and tidy. That is the learning for a learning city. The challenge is to figure out how to nurture this system and do so in a way that honours the familiar, linear ways of learning as well.

As citizens and individuals, we must reconcile this fact: as one voice in a survey, or one voice in a World Cafe, I am only one voice among many. Our choice: entrench in the familiar or expand into new ways of making meaning that include us all.

As citizens and individuals, we must reconcile this fact: as one voice in a survey, or one voice in a World Cafe, I am only one voice among many.


 

Courage to fail

This time last week I was licking my wounds. I did not pass a weekend course in advanced wilderness and remote first aid. It might have been the early morning starts. It might have been the impersonal feedback from the instructors. It might have been that I was “off” those days. It might have been the conflicting feedback I felt I was receiving. But the bottom line is the same, whatever the reason.

I failed. And it’s no one’s fault by my own. 

Continue reading Courage to fail

When I hear the world, it changes me

NestCity-BlogPostThe main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart.

Yann Martel, The Life of Pi

As I started to clean off a shelf in my office, these words on a scruffy page of notes leapt out at me. I’ve been struggling with the location of the battlefield for good. It seems this statement comes at a time when I am ready to take it in. Continue reading When I hear the world, it changes me

6 circle lessons (from a dream)

NestCity-BlogPostEvery once and a while a dream knocks me back into reality. I was setting up to run a meeting, the second in a series of three for a client. This meeting was going to work a lot like the first, but I forgot to print off my version of the agenda, the one with all the notes I have about what I need to say. I lost the plot. So I decided to wing it and start the meeting. Continue reading 6 circle lessons (from a dream)

Lifestyle of the lifecycle

 

The words that instinctively came out of my mouth were wiser than the words I scripted for myself. At the opening of the Alberta Professional Planners Institute conference, in front of the crowd, I was to named the conference theme, “Lifecycle of a Planner,” but the word “lifestyle” came out.

This made immediate sense to me as professional citizenship, and the practices that enable professional life to include the interests of the citizen in each of us, as well as the citizens (and the public interest) we serve as professionals. As I listened to Paul Bedford’s story of this life as a professional planner, including as Chief City Planner for the City of Toronto and now as an urban mentor, I found these underlying questions that underpin a lifestyle of professional practice that serves both self and citizens well.

  1. What fascinates you?
  2. Do you get paid to do what you love?
  3. Where do you have a contribution to make?
  4. Who are you? Where do you belong?
  5. What are you learning?
  6. What do you do to nourish your self, and your creativity?
  7. Do you feel good about your work?
  8. How much courage do you have?
  9. What are the principles that guide you?
  10. Where am I growing?

Lifestyleofaplanner
The questions underlying Paul Bedford’s Keynote at 2014 APPI Conference

Explore these questions in your own way. On a walk, in a journal, while at the gym or playing the guitar. Find some time to settle into you, and settle into a question, recognizing that any one of these questions is a point of entry into the messiness and confusion that is naturally a part of being human. Transition from one part of your life to another part of your life is part of the lifecycle. How we live in these transitions sabotages or nourishes our personal growth. The lifestyle with which we live the lifecycle matters.

Spend some time with yourself.

Listen to what you have to say to yourself.

 

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