Between Chaos and Order

Last week I went to a place between comfort and uncomfort, order and chaos, knowing and not. I was in Athens experiencing ‘Art of Hosting’ (also called ‘Participatory Leadership’). l expected a training giving me tools to work participatory, instead l left with much more; a new set of glasses, insights and friendship.

‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them’ – Albert Einstein

Art of hosting connects different forms of participatory methods (e.g. ‘world cafe’ and ‘appreciative inquiry’) and can also include arts, such as dance and poetry. There are many ways to involve and engage people, regardless of whether you are in a big or small group, with colleagues or peers:

Check-in and check-out. At the airport; you identify your luggage, check it in and pick it up after the travel. Try think of a meeting as a journey with a start and an end. So when you opening a meeting invite all of them or just a few, to share a sentence or a word about  where they are when the meeting begins. It can be feelings of excitement, hopefulness, frustration or simply tiredness. In this way you set a common ground. Especially in a small group it helps to understand why someone for example is not engaging actively, as the person might have shared being in a place of observation. Ending the meeting on a similar note will help to know where the group landed, perhaps those being sceptic came to curiousness, and those tired to energy.

Tell a story, listen to others. Storytelling is a powerful way of moving people, we also tend to remember the personal tale more than scientific facts presented to us. Whether personal or professional, our own or others, we all have stories we can share. Tell a story when something led to progress. Listen closely to what were the factors behind the success, and if needed ask the storyteller to tell more about what made positive development. Do not argue against, the story belongs to the person sharing. Take turns telling and listening, you can also take on the interesting role of simply witnessing and learning from the interaction and process.

Take space, give room. Art of hosting is the idea that leadership is the sum of the experiences and skills that a group or community collectively share. It challenges the view that knowledge is held by a few powerful experts. Allowing everyone to participate means for some to take space and others to give room, to both lead and follow. While the format of sitting-in-a-circle might feel ‘hippie’ and alternative for some, it serves the purpose of including all. It also opposes the conventional sit-in-a-row setting where the ‘active student’ is in the front and the ‘shy’ one in the back. As I am typically one of those that feel uneasy with silence; I get chatty when nervous and ask many questions when others are silent. During the training I learned not to be so afraid of silence, and I realised it has an important function to allow introvert persons to feel comfortable, have time and space to speak out.

The key to structured participation is asking the right question. How the question is formulated will tell the participants what direction to go, in other words it will frame the objective of the meeting. My experience is that this is where we fail; we either attend or organise meetings without really identifying the purpose. Art of hosting uses a method of open-space for participants to self-organise group discussion on topics they formulate themselves. This has proven successful even in unexpected and large groups of several hundred bankers or civil servants. The key is the framing of the overall questions, and the courage of the facilitator to allow for silence until the first participant takes the floor and proposes a topic they want to discuss.

Art of hosting builds on the theory of change describing two belief systems: A conventional view that we operate within a system that functions as a machinery that can be repaired when parts are broken, and which is possible to fix by influencing those in power. This is often described as a place of great frustration and despair by those that still believe it can be changed from within. The alternative view is that the ‘old’ system we live in is in fact a living organism that naturally will die at some point, and give space for something new to grow. Current state of politics, society and environment are symptoms of a terminal illness that eventually will kill the system. Those that believe in something new takes on different roles: Some abandon the system, walk out and begin new. They are called ‘trailblazers’, for example the frontrunners that pushed for solar and wind power when no one else did, Steve Jobs describes them as ‘the crazy ones’. Others stay ‘undercover’ within the system and help it die, they function as ‘hospice workers’ to support people within the system to transit without being too badly affected and burnout. Finally, some are ‘illuminators’ that shine light on the pioneering work within the new system, and protect those that are a part of new emerging ideas. Whether a trailblazer, a hospice workers or an illuminator all experience a sense of loneliness and the need the connect with likeminded. (Listen to Deborah Frieze TED talk describing the theory of change more in detail.)

In Athens I had the privilege to meet involved and passionate Greeks, many that had left comfortable lives abroad and returned, rebuilding their country and caring for those seeking refugee.

You moved me. Thank you. ευχαριστώ.

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