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Shaping Powerful Questions by Kathy Jourdain

This guest post by Kathy Jourdain is one of a series leading up to our 2017 Maine Art of Collaborative Leadership training program coming up in November. Watch this space for more from Kathy and her partner Jerry Nagel, both of whom will be joining us for the training.


One of the most asked questions at, and after, any Art of Hosting training is about the questions.  Developing powerful questions is a crucial element to creating the conversational space we are seeking.  People are hungry for greater understanding of how to create questions, especially after they’ve tried a check-in, check-out or cafe experience that didn’t quite have the intended result or impact.

Sometimes powerful questions appear, almost like magic.  We know they are powerful because we feel them.  But usually they are developed and shaped with great care – and often co-created with others.  It is not unusual for a whole planning meeting (and sometimes more) to focus just on question development for a process – which may seem a bit crazy until you’ve had the experience of well formulated questions in comparison to sessions where questions have not been shaped with the same care.

This post contains general thoughts on the shaping of powerful questions.  Later posts will focus on specific processes where questions are used, like check-in and check-outWorld CafeOpen SpaceAppreciative Inquiry, Dyad and Triad Conversations and Deep Sensing Interviews.

Three Dimensions of Questions

In an Art of Hosting training in South Dakota this past July, was the first time I heard the three dimensions of powerful questions, coming from World Cafe work and community of practice.  The three dimensions are: scope or scale of the questions, assumptions in the questions and construction of the questions.

What is the scope of the question you want to ask?  If the scope is too big it may shut down conversation (how do we create world peace?) but you might want your question inspirational enough to allow people to gaze higher than they might otherwise (how have you created peaceful moments for yourself/your team/work/family? How could you do that more often or in a different setting?)

People tend to rise to the assumptions made in the questions so it is good to both notice the assumptions being made in the question and also to be intentional about them so the work is more appreciative and aspirational in service of purpose and intention and the greater work being tended to.

In considering how we construct questions, there is a continuum that flows from less powerful to more powerful.  The less powerful questions are ones that can be answered with a yes or no.  Moving along the continuum, more powerful questions begin with when or who.  The next level are questions that begin with how or what and even more powerful questions sometimes begin with why. I say sometimes, because sometimes the why questions also entrench people in their point of view if asked in such a way they invoke defensiveness.  Ask why questions in ways they evoke curiosity and then you’re onto something.

There is a timeliness we generate when we put the word “now” in our question.  “What you noticing now?”  “What has your attention now?”

Purpose and Intention

A key factor in question development is what is the purpose and intention – of your gathering, your meeting, the particular process the question is intended to shape or provide context for, the question itself?  What is the work you want the question to do and then what is the simplist way to ask the question? Purpose and intention is so central to question development that we go back to it again and again.

Language and Shaping

I like to use as much present and active language as possible.  Instead of asking, “What did you learn from that experience?” you might ask, “What are you learning from that experience?”  There is a supposition built into the question – that the learning is active and ongoing. If that fits the purpose and intention of the space you are wanting to create that’s great.  If not, a question targeted to the learning and conversation you want to encourage would be better.

If you are wanting to move in a certain direction, then create questions that presume in the direction you want to go.  “What is the shift you imagine will happen once you leave here and begin to apply what you’ve learned?” This question presume you want a shift and that you will put something into practice post the training.  For some it will inspire their imagination. When it doesn’t inspire someone, they will usually say so without detrimentally affecting the responses of others who are feeling inspired.

It is also okay to take a pulse of what’s happening in a group or process without assuming a direction.  This is particularly helpful when you want to sense into where a group is at, what you need to pay attention to or what might be simmering under the surface.  It is good to have people in a group name their experience sometimes without trying to shift into a particular direction.  The information that surfaces is then helpful in shaping design or process informed by what is present in the room or group, tracking always toward the purpose or intention of why you are in this conversation or work.  Sometimes diversions are necessary to ensure we get to where we ultimately want to go. You could ask a question like “What’s sitting with you now?”, “What question’s are percolating?”  Sometimes I might even ask, “What tension is arising in you at the moment?” but only if I am really sensing tension in the room, wanting to surface what’s there but not create it if it isn’t there to begin with.

Nuances in Question Development

Slight nuances in a question can lead to very different conversations. This is why we often sit with the questions we have drafted and imagine the kinds of responses a question might evoke, noticing how changing the question slightly could generate a different conversation.  Some examples: “What are you noticing in your environment right now?” compared to “What are you noticing in your environment that relates to this project?”  or “How have you been since we last gathered?” compared to ” How has the last gathering impacted you and your work?”  The first version of these questions is far more open ended while the second version is more targeted to purpose and intention.

Co-Creating Questions

It is hard to create really powerful questions all by yourself.  It is much more fun and generative to co-create with others what the questions could be.  Then when a nuance is discovered that makes the question more powerful, the whole group feels it, not just one person.  Collectively we know we’ve gone to a new level of depth.  When we co-create the questions we can start in the ball park of what we want to do and, through the conversation, discover what those nuances are that increase the capacity of the conversations we are inviting to be meaningful and relevant to the participants we have engaged and the purpose for which we have engaged them.

Powerful questions can shift the shape of an individual and their pattern of thought, a team and its dynamics, an organization and its usual ways of thinking about things.  Imagining they can even shift the shape of the world…


This guest post by Kathy Jourdain is one of a series leading up to our 2017 Maine Art of Collaborative Leadership training program coming up in November. Watch this space for more from Kathy and her partner Jerry Nagel, both of whom will be joining us for the training.


 

The Field Beyond Difference by Kathy Jourdain

This guest post by Kathy Jourdain is one of a series leading up to our 2017 Maine Art of Collaborative Leadership training program coming up in November. Watch this space for more from Kathy and her partner Jerry Nagel, both of whom will be joining us for the training.


Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing

There is a field

I will meet you there

-Rumi

 

Rumi’s words, with a slight variation, encapsulate the experience of an amazingly culturally and age diverse group of participants, apprentices and hosts who gathered September 11-14, 2012 in the middle of the Phillips Community of South Minneapolis where all of us discovered there is a field beyond difference and we are willing to meet each other there.

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There was a tremble in our fourteen member hosting team as we prepared to welcome over seventy Somalis, Native Americans, African Americans, Anglo Americans, Latinos, people from Liberia, Ethiopia, Malaysia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Columbia and more, together with two translators: one for Somali and one for Spanish.  We were not sure how many would come, how many would stay or how many would come back the next day.

This Art of Hosting training, supported by the Bush Foundation’s InCommons in partnership with the Meadowlark Institute, was called by Amina Saleh a co-founder of the Native American Somali Friendship Committee, in the hopes that bridges could be formed across the  multiplicity of cultures that have come to reside in the Phillips residential area of South Minneapolis.  The original residents of this community were primarily African Americans, Native Americans and Anglo Americans.  In the 1990s immigrants and refugees began moving into the area in search of affordable housing.  Over the years, the cultures clashed, tensions rose and violence across the cultures, particularly between the Native Americans and Somali communities, occurred.

Amina found herself at an Art of Hosting training in March 2012 and became curious about what might be possible if a training was hosted right in the middle of her community, in the community centre, where the children congregate after school.  Well, we found out!

We started with a beautiful Lakota sage ceremony offered by Lemoine Lapointe from our hosting team, to open the space, to cleanse ourselves, open our minds and, even more so, our hearts.  An offering from one of the cultures present in the room, inviting others to also offer in a right moment or opportunity.

Lemoine Lapointe

Each one of us was then invited to bring our voices into the circle by responding to: my name is…, I live…, I’m from…, my ancestors are from… and I speak …. languages. As we listened, we became aware, beyond the diversity of skin colour already visible in the room, of the richness and multiplicity of cultures and languages represented in the space, the richness that showed up sometimes in a single individual as well as in our field.  It took our breath away and opened our curiosity.

The purpose that emerged for the four day training was: Hosting meaningful conversations as a way of giving life, (1) inviting in our full selves and each other, (2) sharing language and frameworks, (3) staying in it – together and (4) building “whole” community. The phrases in the purpose statement framed each of our four days; scheduled to begin around 9:00 with a hard stop at 3:00, because this is when the children arrived in the community centre we were in and when some of the single moms in attendance also needed to be home to greet their children.

Beautiful visual depiction of our 4 day flow by Nou Ka Yang

Our first afternoon was a café.  What is in your heart that brought you here today? What is in your heart for your community? What would you like to give life to here for your neighbourhood?  Powerful, surprising questions, giving pause like unexpected questions do.  Silence at the first café round while people let the question sink in, then decided how fully they wanted to bring themselves into the room, into the conversation, into the others also at their table. Cautiously, at first. What is in your heart? Not, why are you here? Not, what’s in you mind?  What is in your heart? Are you willing to go there yourself, let alone speak it into the centre of the table?

By the third round there was a beautiful buzz in the room as people began to relax into the invitation to bring their full selves.   In the harvest, one man offered, “Unlike Vegas where what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, what happens in this room should not stay in this room. We all need to take it back out into our communities.”  This became a mantra for participants for our full time together.

People were ready and willing to offer their rituals, ceremonies and stories into our collective space.  In addition to the opening sage ceremony, we experienced a Somali coffee ceremony, an Aztek ceremony and a Hmong ritual and an African American dramatic story telling: Sojourner Truth, in addition to Native American ceremony, song and round dance from the Dakota and Lakota cultures. We gifted each other with prayers and blessings.

Sometimes it was a bit uncomfortable with the varying perspectives and cultural norms around touch, song, dance and partaking in another culture’s ceremony; but only just in that moment before understanding blossomed and more ease entered with the witnessing of things precious.  Graciousness, curiosity and respect filled the space and the conversations. Deepening our individual and collective listening skills invited us all to show up even more fully.

The realization that issues, concerns and passions arc across cultures invited people into bridge building. Education, children, community housing, racism, racial profiling, relationship with police, healing, well being.  Learning to navigate the dominant culture and stand up, both for what is right and for rights of an individual no matter each person’s roots or ancestral history.  Awareness of commonality in the diversity. People care about many of the same things even if their way of approaching them or their cultural norms may be different.

Invitation to Open Space

As we gathered in our check out team: Amina Saleh, Kadra Ahdi, Lemoine LapointeMolly Matheson GruenSusan Phillips, Bob-e Epps, Anne GomezLori Lindgren Voit, Nou Ka Yang, Marcela SotelaJerry NagelTuesday Ryan-HartGinny Belden Charles and me, there were tears.  Tears of hopes realized, connections made, community strengthened, deep sense of belonging.

Our work began in the hosting team itself on our prep day.  It was the first time many of us had met in person as is common in these trainings.  There was a great variety of experience and understanding of the Art of Hosting in the team, from lots to little to almost none, with people eager to deepen their skill, grow their capacity.  The team quickly became strong and cohesive with each person stepping in, contributing, supporting as one fluid movement, offering what we each could, asking for what we needed. We formed community.

We became a field to welcome the larger field of community activists and organizers from across cultures who showed up.  And came back. Day after day.  For four days. They sensed something different. Became engaged in possibility in new ways. They made plans for next steps on very specific projects. Co-creating a new hope for the future. Giving life to community from a different place.  Stepping into courage, transcending fear, reaching out, seeing the human face of diversity and knowing that shifting the shape of the communities they live in and touch is possible to ever greater degrees.  Humbled, touched, delighted to be in this work that matters so deeply.


This guest post by Kathy Jourdain is one of a series leading up to our 2017 Maine Art of Collaborative Leadership training program coming up in November. Watch this space for more from Kathy and her partner Jerry Nagel, both of whom will be joining us for the training.