If I Can Only Have Two Tools…

Last night I was fortunate to sit with a dozen or so other people invited together by Mark Busse for “dinner and discourse” on exploring and evolving an event Mark co-hosts every year. I was part of the group to both participate in the conversation as well as to give some light structure and facilitation to the night.

In my work designing and hosting conversations that matter, I tune into the Chaordic Path, where too much control and order will constrain the conversation and the group’s creativity, and too much chaos is destructive to the group’s work.

Chaordic Path

There is a path to take between Chaos and Order that leads us to the new, collective learning, real time innovation. Instead of relying on controlling every detail in our organizations or communities from the top down, many leaders today see the need to access the collective intelligence and collective wisdom of everyone, which can be, at times, a “messy” process until we reach new insight and clarity.

This “chaordic confidence” – the capacity we need to stay in the dance of order and chaos – supports a generative emergence that allows the new, collective intelligence and wise action to occur. In this space of emergence, we leave our collective encounters with that which not one of us individually brought into the room. This requires us to stay in a transformative shift, though we may want to veer toward either chaos or order. ~ Art of Hosting community

The question that I ask myself is “What is the lightest structure that will serve the group’s purpose and need?” And this is a constant edge for me – as a process artist, someone who plays with many different conversation, visual and embodied methods, I can fall down the trap of adding too many things.

Back to last night… This was an experienced group, many of them lead their own client / community engagement and conversation sessions. My friend Chris Corrigan describes this situation as “telling jokes to comedians”. How could I provide enough of a structure to create a container for our conversation, without getting too fancy or over-facilitated? The answer comes from a fellow Art of Hosting mate, Toke Moeller, who says if he can only have two tools going into a conversation they are a talking piece and a question.

So I packed a few talking pieces and created some questions using the Chaordic Stepping Stones to guide the flow of our conversation. After introductions, welcoming and filling our bellies, we started with a talking piece council (where we passed a talking piece around the circle) that invited each of us to respond to the question of what Vancouver needs this particular event to be. There was some free-flowing conversation after the talking piece round that built on the first round of sharing, then the time felt right to shift to the next round and question. Our second round invited us to explore the purpose of the event: what we yearned to see and what the event might do/create/inspire. We changed the talking piece to a koosh ball that people tossed back and forth across the circle, allowing a different pace and rhythm to the conversation. Sticky notes and pens were scattered on the table and people jotted their ideas and questions as they came up (instead of jumping in and sharing them verbally) to help them stay in the listening pattern of a talking piece council.

Having explored the different possible need and purpose for this event, we shifted into small group conversations with three or four people at each table. The tablecloths were paper for people to doodle, draw and make notes as their conversation unfolded, and more stickies were available to catch the gems. The first round in the small groups focused on the principles of the event experience (what kind of atmosphere and feeling we wanted to evoke, the look and feel etc) and then the groups mixed up for another round at the tables. The second round focused on the participants and partners and what their unique needs and interests are.

We came back together for a final round of talking piece council, a chance to share what had emerged for us during our small group conversations – a particular insight, a big idea, something that had cracked or shifted for us. And then a quick check-out to speak one or two words on how people felt at the end of the night.

Looking back on the intention of the night “to engage in conversation and casual discourse based in spontaneity and experimentation as we consider what this event could become in the future, tapping into the group’s thinking as catalysts” I feel like we achieved that. And that we also activated this group as informal ambassadors of this event, where seeds may sprout up or ripples made in each of our own lives and work as a result of having been part of this conversation. Juicy!

From a personal reflection and learning perspective, if I were to go back and do it over again, I would reduced the number of questions we explored as well as build in a visual group harvest to make visible the connections and themes that were emerging. More time to share what was coming up in the small tables would have also been great (I often do this by asking each group to name two or three key themes or ideas and note those separately on a sticky – and then some of these get shared out loud for the room to hear – popcorn style, not report-backs from each table as that drains the energy!). Things I normally would have done but felt tricky to navigate in the constraint of a short meeting (1.5/2 hours). I think we could have gone deeper on a few key questions and harvested them well.

Gratitude to those who came out and to Mark for inviting me in to play and co-host the night’s conversation.