Chapter 5. Host: Cultivate Conditions for Engaging

As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.

—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Wisdom of the Sands

When disruptions are loud, situations are complex, and feelings run hot, we need change strategies up to the challenge. As appealing as it may be to “take charge,” success is more likely with a “create conditions for something to emerge” strategy. The latter approach takes humility, curiosity, and the willingness to involve others. We cultivate these qualities by embracing mystery, choosing possibility, and following life energy. They prepare us to host others.

How do we steward what is arising among us?

Engaging emergence involves hosting, creating a “container” in which innovations can arise. A good container has a clear purpose, has a spirit of welcome, and invites the diversity of the system. Clear intentions provide direction and inspire a sense of purpose without defining specific outcomes. Welcome conditions encourage authenticity and engagement. Diversity ensures that the unexpected is present.

This chapter discusses three hosting practices for cultivating productive containers: focusing intentions, welcoming, and inviting diversity.

Focus Intentions: Clarify Our Calling

What purpose moves us?

Pioneers are known for the clarity of their quests. Ponce de León sought the fountain of youth. Watson and Crick aspired to unlock the secrets of DNA. Single-minded determination strips away all but the essence of a calling. The strength of pioneers’ questions fills them with the courage to act. Obstacles are simply challenges to overcome.

The work begins the moment we name an intention. It sets direction, inspires a sense of purpose, and sparks images of new possibilities. A myriad of books exist on defining purpose, creating a mission or a vision. Ultimately, we act from some inner calling that awakens both our head and our heart. A shared image of the future compels individual and collective actions congruent with our intent.

To uncover shared intentions, tune in. Listen to your own voice, that of others, and your environment. What are you sensing in and around you? What matters to you? As you get clear, invite others, particularly those different from you, to weigh in. Intention can deepen and clarify as others engage. Ask questions that draw out our deepest longings. Remember how emergence occurs as clusters form? When we listen to each other, our different callings can coalesce into a shared intention that serves us all.

Learn to steward shared intention by continually revisiting it. Particularly when we’re feeling challenged, reconnecting with our intentions reorients us to our common work. Stay unattached to outcomes; this brings flexibility. It gives us access to many paths for accomplishing our intentions. Honor one another’s individual callings while staying connected to what we share. Doing so increases the likelihood of finding answers that work for us all.

Disturbance, particularly crisis, can accelerate the quest for clear intentions. When the World Trade Center towers fell in New York on September 11, 2001, many people and initiatives clarified or reaffirmed their purpose. It galvanized Journalism That Matters. It helped us to dig deep into why each of us cared. And that coalesced into an intention that mattered to all of us.

When Journalism That Matters began in 2000, before it had a name, we were four people, each with different needs and motives. Our conversation had something to do with changing journalism. As we got to know each other, the aspects that mattered most began to surface: What is the nature of stories that serve the public good? How can journalism thrive as advertisers fall away? How will changes in technology affect the field?

This broad focus was sufficient to keep us talking. In fact, it was compelling enough that Chris Peck, one of the four and incoming president of the Associated Press Managing Editors (APME), invited us to host a day in Open Space at the APME October national conference in October 2001.

As we prepared for that first conference, we struggled to name our session. Ultimately, we settled for “Saving Journalism.” And then September 11 happened. The conference was just five weeks away.

The attacks on September 11 focused us on what was most important in our work. We met to finalize our plans a few weeks after that fateful day. Each of us spoke to our desires for what we would accomplish together. We realized the simple truth was that we were all committed to journalism that matters. We named not only a conference session. The initiative itself was born out of that naming. The name continues to guide us. It provides focus, attracts others who care, and constantly energizes us to reimagine journalism that matters in the midst of media’s upheaval.

Clear intentions galvanize life energy. The clearer the image of what we wish to create, the more every choice we make reflects our focus. Although formal organizations can survive when intentions become diffuse, they are at their best when they have a clear, shared purpose. For efforts like Journalism That Matters—movements, networks, communities of practice, and informal initiatives—clear intentions are the glue that binds our diversity into a coherent whole, enabling individual and collective action that serves our intentions well.

Tips for Focusing Intentions

Clarity of purpose, an image of a desired future, orients us and galvanizes action.

Clear intentions do the following: [[Linda: List should be indented]]

•            Focus our work
•            Touch our hearts

•            Capture our imagination
•            Attract participation
•            Stretch the status quo, whispering at our aspirations
Ideally, they arise from a microcosm—a subgroup reflective of the system.

Get clear about what matters to you. Give yourself quiet space to reflect, to listen within. Some people meditate, some journal, some talk it through (without asking for or getting advice).

Invite others to name what matters to them. Shared intentions set the stage for a virtuous cycle of trust and collaboration. As others get involved, welcome what they bring. Use differences and tensions creatively to enrich clarity and group coherence.

Hold intentions clearly but lightly. Distinguish between the qualities of desired outcomes and specific forms those outcomes take. Even if you have a specific outcome in mind, be open for whatever forms emerge. For example: we want journalism that matters. It will likely involve many media, funding models, and participation from unexpected players.

Continually revisit intentions. As situations change, as others get involved, intentions evolve. Hold them too rigidly and they lose life energy. When held lightly, evolving intentions are like layers of an onion. Each evolution comes closer to the core, to essential clarity.

Clear intention is laserlike, focusing our actions. It can move worlds. On its own, intention can lead to unfortunate practices. The genocide of indigenous populations when European explorers arrived in the Americas is ample warning of the risk. A spirit of welcome provides a moderating force. It is an essential ingredient for good hosting.

Welcome: Cultivate Hospitable Space

How do we cultivate conditions for the best possible outcomes?

While clear intentions focus us, welcoming ensures that we are civil. It is far simpler to engage a diverse mix of people when they sense that they belong, right from the start.

Complexity scientists tell us that initial conditions are crucial in shaping what emerges.1 Welcoming conditions make the difference between a screaming mob and a circle of peace. Creating containers that foster creative engagement sets up initial conditions for engaging emergence. You might call it the “vibe,” the energy of a space or a group. Though we can’t see it, we can sense it. Think of that small voice that informs you when you enter a place whether to relax or watch out.

The broader the diversity of people and perspectives, the deeper into a system you wish to go, the more important a healthy container is. Welcoming containers are grounded in clear, focused intentions; engage a relevant diversity of participants; and involve mindfully chosen practices and physical spaces that serve the purpose and people well.2 We are cued both consciously and unconsciously about how much of ourselves to reveal, how deep we are willing to go together. When the environment supports us in expressing what might be considered disruptive in other settings, disturbances tend to show up as far less toxic. In welcoming spaces, people take charge of their situation, compelling facilitators and traditional leaders to move out of the way.

The role of cultivating a great container is a bit party host, a bit stage manager, and a bit den mother, and yet none of these. Like many relationally oriented skills, when practiced well, it is invisible. People feel welcome to bring all aspects of themselves present—not just their mind, but their feelings, their energy, their commitment. They know why they have come and what to expect—even when it is the unexpected. They can sense what they are welcome to say and do. A welcome space provides people with what they need to fully participate. It makes the difference between a room filled with silent hostility and one buzzing with hopeful anticipation.

Creating a container for the work is as important as setting a useful agenda. How do we make our intentions clear? Whom do we invite? What is welcome? What of our history needs to be shared? What of our aspirations? How about the physical space—what messages does it send? The questions are endless. All we can do is our best to discern the aspects that matter in any given situation. The good news: what we miss will show up as a disruption. By embracing it, we learn, adjust, and continue evolving.

A keynote talk I gave for an alumni conference of Seattle University’s Organizational Systems Renewal program involved an experiment in cultivating welcoming space. The conference organizers and I conspired to learn something about the role that physical space plays in people’s experience.

The keynote theme was “the changing nature of change: an experiment in four movements.” We divided the room into four quadrants, arranging the chairs differently in each section. One quadrant held a large circle. The second quadrant had café tables, each set for four people. The third quadrant was like an informal living room, with comfortable chairs, pillows, and throw rugs. The last quadrant was set in row of chairs, like a classroom. I was in the center.

The talk itself became increasingly interactive. I began with a brief lecture. A question and answer period followed. We then moved into a conversational mode, with people discussing a common question in small groups, then as a whole group. Finally, we took a few silent moments for people to reflect on their experience and to discuss the role of the physical space in shaping it.

The people in the large circle loved being part of a whole. The café table participants reveled in the company of friends. The people in the living room were so comfortable lounging around, it wasn’t clear that they had paid much attention to the keynote. Nor was it clear that they’d leave the space at break! The people in rows were grumpy. They felt constrained, isolated, and frustrated that they hadn’t arrived sooner to get a “good” spot. People in the first three groups chose their seat according to the experience they wanted. The people sitting in rows were there because there were no other seats left.

Conference feedback was enthusiastic. The program director told me that several prospective students had enrolled because of their experience. A week later, I spoke with a student currently in the program. She said that most of the class was disappointed in the conference. As we explored the contrasting views, we realized that her classmates were expecting the intimate retreat experience of their weekend classes. The crowd, the fragmentation of people going their own ways, and even the tone of the keynote were at odds with their expectations.

The conference experience highlighted both physical and subtle aspects of cultivating a spirit of welcome. The physical space cued participants on how to interact. The conversation with the student made it clear that knowing who is coming and what they expect matters. As an aside, a student joined the planning group for the following year’s conference.

Tips for Welcoming

Pay attention to the physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual messages you send.

Set context. What do we need to be ready to engage? Knowing the purpose, why it matters, who is involved, is a good place to begin. Often, history is important. How did this get started? Who is hosting? Where does funding come from? Because so many elements can be part of the context, we won’t always get it right. Prepare for that. Create the means for answering questions as they arise.

Tend to the space. Be clear about the tone you wish to create. Create a physical space that says, “You belong,” to the diverse people involved. Be sure that the room is clean. Perhaps a “Welcome” sign would help. Or nametags. Pay attention to the emotional space and the psychic space. For example, are both the head and the heart welcome? Since we can never predict all needs, put the means for adjusting in place.

Imagine yourself on the receiving end. What makes you feel welcome? Consider the diverse people—their roles, backgrounds, ages, and other factors—and stand in their shoes. What expectations do others have? If they are old, young, of another culture, of another discipline, what communicates hospitality?

Say “yes and . . . .” In the heat of the moment, welcome what comes. Whether we like it or not, working with the unexpected as it arises increases the likelihood of a creative outcome.

Clear intention and a spirit of welcome are not enough to engage emergence. We need the people!

Invite the Diversity of the System

How can we include the true complexity of the situation?

Inviting diversity stretches us and broadens our understanding of our world. Think of protesters outside the doors of power. What would happen if, rather than shouting their messages, they were invited into the room for an exploratory dialogue? While sometimes it takes violence or civil disobedience to be invited in, making space for different perspectives in a system opens the way for creative engagement.

How do we decide whom to invite? The simple answer is: those who care. Involve those with a stake in what occurs. Marv Weisbord and Sandra Janoff, creators of Future Search, offer useful guidance based on the principle of getting the whole system in the room. They say, invite all who “ARE IN”: those with authority, resources, expertise, information, and need.3

Inviting is the most time-consuming and often most challenging aspect of hosting. It involves being receptive to unfamiliar perspectives, being willing to go to unfamiliar places, and cultivating relationships with people different from you.

My colleague Heather Tischbein took on this type of challenge when she became the executive director for an environmental group on the western slope of Colorado—the heart of oil and gas drilling in the Rockies. She modeled the challenges and tenacity often required when reaching out to the “other.”

Heather was hired to change a combative activist group into an organization that could work creatively with energy companies and government to bring viable solutions to the region. She spent a year reaching out to her conservative counterparts. She attended Chamber of Commerce meetings and went to other places where she knew they would be, with little to show for it. They didn’t welcome her. The history of her organization told them that she wasn’t to be trusted. Still, she hung in, listening, asking questions, learning about their perspective, while feeling pressure from her staff and board. They couldn’t figure out what she was doing. She was filled with doubt. Nothing in her environment affirmed her choices.

One day, the phone rang. It was one of her conservative adversaries calling to suggest a dialogue! What had happened? In Heather’s words:

“I had introduced myself to the public relations person for one of the biggest energy companies doing business on the west slope at a community luncheon. I acknowledged that our organizations were considered to be enemies, but that my desire and intention was to make peace, not war. I hoped we might at least talk to one another. We could explore the possibility of finding common ground from which we could work together on behalf of the community, rather than perpetuate the polarized public conversation that was shredding the fabric of our community.

She called me because no one from Western Colorado Congress had ever reached out to attempt a dialogue before. I was ‘different’ than the ‘others’ she’d met. She invited me to lunch with the public relations person of another big energy company. We talked about what it might look like to cohost a public dialogue on how energy resources could be developed compatibly with preserving and protecting the environment, public health, and legacy landscapes—what ‘we’ all treasure about Colorado. It would be a dialogue that transcended or evolved beyond jobs versus the environment. Then she took me on a tour of a gas drilling rig—right into the heart of ‘enemy territory’!

Some people assumed that her motivation was to coopt me or to create some good public relations smoke and mirrors. They took me to task for getting ‘sucked in’ by her public relations expertise. I suggested that it couldn’t possibly hurt to try to engage in diplomatic relations and to trust ‘good intention’ until proven otherwise.”

Although a change in the political climate prevented this dialogue, Heather and her counterpart continue to explore possibilities behind the scenes. Her story reflects a common challenge when the habitual response is to make “the other” wrong. Getting people together takes patience and practice. Heather continues living the spirit of invitation, holding an intention for creative engagement when there’s an opening.

Tips for Inviting Diversity

Inviting the diversity of the system is a critical and challenging task for engaging emergence.

Define who/what makes up the system. What functions, constituencies, or roles are involved? What mix of race, class, gender, geography, and generation is important? Are there nonhuman elements—for example, the environment or animals—that need to be present in some way?

Go where those you want to participate live and work. If you wish to engage people from a different age, race, culture, etc., put yourself in their settings. Be humble. Listen. Learn. Reach out. They are more likely to join with you if they see that you are interested in a respectful partnership.

Create an organizing group that reflects the system. The more a hosting group includes the mix of people you wish to engage, the more equipped you are to invite them to participate.

Work with what arises among you. The organizing group is in the intensive course. The disturbances that exist in the system will show up in a diverse organizing team. Welcome the issues and work them through. Not only does it strengthen the group, but it prepares you for what’s to come as you increase the scale and scope of your work.

Having created a focused, welcoming space with room for the diversity of the system, we are ready to step in and engage emergence.

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On to Chapter 6. Step In: Practice Engaging