Learning the Edges: Reflections on Art of Hosting Beyond the Basics

Three of us at percolab (Samantha, Paul, and myself) attended the Art of Hosting Beyond the Basics training in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia (May 15-17, 2014). These three days were intended as a privileged space for all of us to go deeper into our work.

What was offered to us was the opportunity to join into the enquiry of seasoned Art of Hosting practitioners: Tuesday Ryan-Hart, Chis Corrigan, Tim Merry, and Caitlyn Frost. All four are exploring the recurring themes and patterns in their own work. We were invited to delve how these themes inform our own work and our practice as hosts – and maybe even poke into what makes us uncomfortable.

Learning edges: Depth, Breadth, Power, and Friendship

The program was inspired by questioning: How do we explore beyond the borders of our work and edge into discovering what we do not know? How do we, as people who work with people (and not for them), continue to question ourselves and each other to sharpen and amplify our practice? What are our learning edges?

Over the three days of the training, Chris, Tuesday, Caitlin, and Tim shared their own learning edges around depth, breadth, power and friendship – the driving themes of the three days – as they advance in their own practice as hosts.IMG_5002

What does working with depth mean?, Caitlin questioned. It is not only about dealing with difficult issues and having serious conversations. It is an attention paid to learning, an ability to have conversations that are not superficial – it is about prying into what is difficult to look at the underlying pieces and mechanism. To work with depth we need to be constantly learning and changing to navigate a shifting territory. Working with depth means saying no to the cult of efficiency, agreed Tuesday and Chris, there is no quick path to depth. But beware of the depth trap! retorted Tim. If we are working on issues, especially in a way that feels significant and transformative, we can be seduced into a circle of depth that is so deep we drown.

The words “scale up” or “scale out” have crept into much of the language we use – especially around social innovation, stated Chris. What we are really being asked is to take things into breadth – to work broadly. This may mean working on one question with lots of people with lots of different perspectives and worldviews. This may mean including diverse geographic communities in our work. This may mean multiple stakeholders around the table for a conversation. Working with breadth embodies the very idea of collective intelligence: we are smarter than me. But, just as there is a depth trap, there is a breadth trap: paying lip-service to issues instead of engaging meaningfully with what really matters. We can also be enticed by the notion that more people, more places, more spaces means something matters more, Tuesday noted.

It can easily be argued that every single social movement has to do with power: gaining power, displacing power, replacing power. It is the one idea that frames every single aspects of our lives, yet is almost never talked about. Enquiring into power can be a scary proposition. If we succeed in making change in the world, then power often wakes up, Chris warned. If a flexing of power then wakes up the fears many of us hold, our projects are paralyzed. Power also resides in our worldviews and as we shift towards different ways of looking into the world, we are tinkering around with old worldviews that our dearly held by those we work with – not to mention every single one of us. Most of our interpretations of power see it as inherently transactional – it is a thing to be wielded or acquired or dismantled or shared or traded. We talk about power over (think positional/decisional), power with (think collaborative/sharing), power for (think allies/advocacy).

“What if we considered power among?” Tuesday questioned. “What if we began to reimagine power as not being transactional but as infinite or self-renewing or generative? How would we shift our way of walking into the world if power was generative?”


The learning edge, of course, is that Tuesday did not have the answer – only some inklings of a direction. If we try to sense what power among feels like what comes to mind? Treating each other with grace and unfettered generosity came into the discussion.

What surprised and resonated with me the most was the discussion around friendship. The hook that got me is the idea that friendship in work is a radical act. I have always approached all of my work from a place of friendship – some would it call this relational work, but I balk at the strategic label. Working with others from a place of friendship is a nebulous concept, and one that can even be risky. Being friendly can be viewed as being naive. It can also create a perception of being “in” with people or being “out”- exactly the opposite of the inclusion many of us try to foster in our work.

Processing all that was offered to us around depth, breadth, power and friendship, the question I carried out with me is around boldness. How can we boldly go deep, boldly go broad, and boldly befriend power – in all its incarnations? How can I boldly investigate the edge of my own learning?

Learning my own edges

It took me a few moments to wrap my head around the idea of a “learning edge”. If I come to the edge of my learning, what is on the other side? The only acceptable answer I could come up with is “I don’t know.” And that is really what we are up against every day, isn’t it? Not knowing. Unknowing. Confronting the unknown.

Or in the words of Vroomfondel from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: « That’s right! We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty! »

Sharing one of his own learning edges about working in collaboration, Tim Merry noted how the context that people who are trying to lead change find themselves in is changing incredibly rapidly, increasing levels of diversity, perspective, “evidence”, and easily found “science” to support just about any argument. We are all saturated with information – just go Google it, really we are! In this context people are forced to work together because no one person can figure out the answer.IMG_5006

Two weeks before going to Mahone Bay for this training I was having a ritual bedtime conversation with my four year old son. Xavier was sharing his favourite and least favourite moments of the day and asked me about mine. My favourite was easy, he had soothed his little sister when she had bumped her head, melting my heart in the process. My least favourite was a little tricky to share with a four year old: I was working with a group of people the next day and felt some anxiety about being ready enough.

“Mama,” Xavier reassured me, “if you don’t know what to do just go and ask the teacher.”

I contemplated that for a moment. “That’s a great answer. But here’s the thing, pumpkin,” I responded, “I’m the facilitator, so I guess that means I am the teacher.”

“Oh.” Xavier was quiet for a long time.

“I know, Mama!” he piped up, a minute or so later as we snuggled into the blankets. “If you are not sure about what to do just tell the people you are working with ‘I don’t know’ and then you can go figure it out together.”

That is my learning edge.

I have spent the past decade thinking about our cult of expertise and poking at ways to destabilize that idea in my own environment. Our usual expert/non-expert, teacher/student relationships, or even facilitator/participant dichotomies are not especially helpful. It situates some as knowing and others as not knowing. While some might hold information that is important, and may even be experts, we don’t need experts to lecture us. Actually, we don’t need experts at all. We need their knowledge. We need their expertise. But more importantly we need them to be learners, learning with us.

Yet, I find it so easy to succumb to the pressure that somehow I am supposed to know. I am supposed to have the answers. Perhaps this is because we often equate not knowing, with not doing – with inertia. Accepting not knowing is the opposite of having it all figured out ahead of time, a pre-fab answer at the tip of the tongue. For me not knowing is what propels me forward. It is about creating space to engage with others in the most collaborative way possible by asking meaningful and sharp questions for learning, thinking, understanding to emerge and allowing for the development of really good ideas and directions.

My learning edge? How do I hold the line about not knowing in my work and not fall into complacent knowing in order to assuage the discomfort of people I work with?

Of course, the answer is: I don’t know. But I will continue having this conversation with others. Both my colleagues I work with everyday, and our clients – people who we insist on working with not for. I will also continue to practice. To make full use of the notion of the lab evoked in percolab: to test, to experiment, to play, and to be on the edge of learning and not knowing… with others.

(Thankfully, I have a four year old to keep me on the edge of my learning if I start thinking I know.)


Photos: This is how Paul Messer, percolab’s resident artist and graphic facilitator, takes notes!


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