The Art of Connecting Communities - Lancaster
The Art of Connecting Communities – Why Bother Connecting?
Over the last few years, ‘The Art of Hosting’ has been transformative to my thinking and practice as a Doctor, as a Commissioner and as a Director of Population Health. Part of the core theory that undergirds this way of working is the 4-fold practice. It involves learning to:
Hosting yourself means doing the inner work, and tending to your own needs. It is important, if I am to give my best-self to those around me. As a type-7 personality, for me this has meant learning to embrace disciplines like silence and fasting. It has also meant learning to rest, learning some healthy boundaries, to take care of my physical needs, embrace pain rather than running from it and become more aware of my emotions, resisting the need to rationalise everything. In being hosted, it’s about letting go of control, embracing humility and receiving the gift of others. In hosting others, it’s about learning to hold space for someone else, to deeply listen and to resist the need to fix things, but rather to respond and to coach, where this is welcomed (perhaps the very art of the classic GP consultation!). Hosting with others, is about learning to collaborate, to play to each other’s strengths, to enjoy the dynamic of relationship and to create a space together which opens up exponential potential!
We have now hosted 5 different trainings across Morecambe Bay in the last 2 years, and hosted many more conversations. Our latest training, in the City of Lancaster (our first without the incredible Linda Joy Mitchell), was an amalgamation of some of the ‘art of hosting’ practices with our own developing practices, here in the Bay. We called this training, “The Art of Connecting Communities” and together we explored some of the theory and practice under the question: “Why Bother Connecting?”
We began with the amazing, Yak Patel, CEO of the CVS in Lancaster District welcoming everyone and framing our 2 days together. Yak has become a good friend and is one of the best connectors of people I have ever met. He is deeply humble, kind and compassionate. He has lived and worked in this area all his life and has taken the time to build really wonderful relationships across many communities, which means he is trusted. So when someone, like Yak, puts out a call across the area to invite people to come and learn together about how we connect communities, people respond very eagerly. there has, perhaps, never been a more important time to connect together. Isolation and loneliness is literally killing us, and our walls of division and suspicion are leading us into dangerous territory. Bringing people and communities together is an art form and one which is worthy of serious collaborative learning.
To welcome everyone in, we did a ‘check-in’ using circle practice. Circle is an ancient practice, and is great for breaking down hierarchies, welcoming everyone into a space and ensuring that every voice is heard and every person knows that they matter. It can be quite simple and straightforward, though my experience is that it tends to go quite deep, quite quickly. For us, in Morecambe Bay, this has always been helped by having members of ‘The Well’ communities with us. People from The Well know how to be community at a level you won’t encounter in many other places. They know how to be vulnerable, with such a natural humility and so when they open up, it gives permission to the rest of the room to also go deeper. When this happens, we find people meet at a very human level and relationships form within the group easily. in this circle, we gave people pipe cleaners and asked them to make something which represented them. We than asked them to share this with the circle. Our harvest from the circle was very rich and the amazing Jon Dorsett, a truly brilliant host and one of the best graphic harvesters around, transformed it into a stunning piece of spoken word.
After a short break, the team hosted a world-café. Hosting a good café, depends on taking time to set the room well, explain the process and have a really good couple of questions. Our café took an appreciative enquiry approach. Our first question was: “What gives the Lancaster District It’s Heart and Soul?” – after two rounds of incredibly rich conversation, we than asked: “Where and How do you Experience This?”
The beauty of a world café is the ability to find great connection and synergy in a room. The sense of positivity this conversation brought about the assets we have in this district was palpable and it created a dynamic in which everyone felt like a real participant and collaborator in the process.
Sue Mitchell, one of our team, a seasoned, wise and excellent coach and host did a teach-piece on ‘Deep Listening’, which we could also call ‘Transformative Listening’. Listening is an art form and one that many of us never really learn – at least not to the deepest levels. Sue, expertly took us through those levels and helped us develop a framework to challenge ourselves about how well we really listen.
Level 1 ‘My Turn’ is when we’re not really listening at all and we’re just waiting to jump in with whatever it is we want to say. Level 2 is when something the speaker says sparks a memory in us and we start contributing about our own (perhaps) similar experience – oh yeah – ‘me too’! It’s about us trying to sense make and find connection, but can mean we really miss what is actually being said! Level 3 ‘My Fix’ is about the listener stepping in and trying to fix the problem. It’s a level at which we don’t really want to connect too deeply, so we try and sort it and move on! Level 4 is where it begins to be about real listening – ‘I WITH you’ – it’s quite a sacred space. It’s where we allow ourselves to feel real empathy, to be with someone in their moment and experience, putting our own thoughts and experiences aside and creating a space for them. Level 5 is where ‘we begin to hear’. It is the art of self-awareness, it’s where we allow ourselves to be changed by the encounter and have our previously held perspectives and understandings changed. If we are to really connect within and across communities, we need to learn this art of listening.
Having learned about the art of real listening, we practiced it, using one of my favourite practices – Triads! The concept is pretty simple – three people, together – one is the speaker, one is the listener and one is the witness. The three people take it in turns to be each role, and each time, the same question or theme is explored. The theme we worked with was: “Share a story of a connection you made that changed your life. What was the impact?” – The listener asks the question, the speaker has 10 minutes to speak, with perhaps a few questions of clarification. At the end of the time, the listener sums up what they have heard and then the witness can give any feedback on what they have seen, things which have perhaps remained unspoken or anything else they have noticed. It is a very powerful experience to be listened to and to really hear another human being.
Learning to harvest is one of the most important aspects of hosting well. We harvested the learning from the triads, by bringing two triads together and asking this question: “What do we know about what builds connection?” – We then asked the 6 people together to come up with one sentence that reflected this knowledge and learning. Our harvesters then cleverly weaved a web of the learning.
We finished the day by checking out, again in a circle, simply speaking words of gratitude for the day and how we left feeling ahead of Day 2. As always happens on these days, people left feeling encouraged, hopeful and connected. I love it, because it is in the spaces formed between us that creativity is catalysed, ideas are formed and new things begin to emerge.
As with any training, we kicked off day 2 with a “feed forward” – there are loads of different ways you can do this, and the idea is to bring day 1 into day 2 and remind everyone what has happened in the previous day. It helps people to be ‘present’ and have a sense of continuity. Day 2 is always hosted by participants in the training, with the team acting as coaches for them. Our hosts decided to use a large heart in the middle of a circle and asked each of us to write a few words of reflection about what had really stood out for us on Day 1. It was a great way of collating a collective sense of what had happened and gave us a really positive platform to build on.
Following this, Mike Love, a really experienced and excellent host from Leeds, who has been such a key person in helping us on our journey in Morecambe Bay, framed the day for us by helping us think through the process of opening up conversations (divergence), how to hold the groan zone (emergence of ideas) and the process of bringing a conversation into a point of agreement/next steps (convergence). The diamond of participation, as well
call it, is a great way to understand our own preferences in conversations. Some of us love to open things up with great questions and get a conversation. Some of us a really comfortable hold the space for the emergence of ideas and love to see what is generated. Others of us, like to focus more on tasks and getting something delivered. The truth is that all of these are REALLY necessary if we’re going to create spaces in which we can discover collective intelligence. There was a real ‘aha’ moment when someone from the public sector said – “Our consultations are not really consultations at all, in any way. They are really a con and an insult”. This insight really provoked some great discussion!
Having fed forward and framed the day ahead together, we then checked in before heading into Open Space! Open space is a fantastic way of having the conversations that the people in the room want to have! Ours was framed around the question: “What do you believe we can achieve locally?” There were so many great conversations!
Then it was time for more theory. Mike Love, helped us again with thinking through ‘complexity theory’. We work in incredibly complex and chaotic systems and yet we often approach and measure them as if they were simple and complicated. If we are really going to learn to work well, we have to examine what it is we believe and how we see complexity, so we can learn to be far more adept in how we work in connection and relationship to others.
‘Designing for Wiser Action’ is another art of hosting tool, which is extremely useful if you are designing a project and would love to get the help and insight of others in knowing how to make it as effective as possible. We took most of the rest of the afternoon for people to work on ‘live projects’ which they wanted help with or needed to refine – another immersive practice where we learnt as we went along. This is a great tool, but also takes some guts! There is a point in the process where, having designed your project, you listen as other people come and find all the holes in it and offer some alternative solutions, whilst you have your back turned, cannot interject no try to justify yourself! Brutal love in action!
We ended the day by checking out, talking about our next steps and inviting people to help us plan for the 3rd day of training, where we will welcome back other members of the community of practice. We have now seen 250 people go through Art of Hosting/Art of Connecting Communities training in Morecambe Bay and are growing a wonderful network of hosts, who are learning to host ourselves, be hosted and host others (alone and together) in a way that creates space for new things to emerge. I am full of hope for the future!
So….as has become our custom in Morecambe Bay, we tend to deliver the ‘Art of Hosting/Art of Connecting’ trainings over 3 days, but we have a bit of a break after the 2nd day and then invite people back a few weeks later, partly to let us know what they’ve tried out in the mean time, but also so we can invite our wider community of practice back into the fray!
Or 3rd day of ‘The Art of Connecting Communities’ focussed in on how our connections create new possibilities. As a team we felt like we needed to ground a bit more of the undergirding theory that gives depth to this way of working, as well as remembering some of the great practices involved. We checked in, this time using triads, to help us get a bit deeper straight away and then we headed into a 90 minute immersive and reflective piece of learning on the four-fold practice. We drew out a quadrant on the floor to represent the four different ways of thinking about ‘hosting’ and then used circle practice in each quadrant to really reflect together on what it means to: host yourself, be hosted, host others and host together.
In each of the quadrants we put a question for the circle to explore. Learning to host and host well is a shift in practice for many of us. But it is a leadership style that is open to all and gives each person a deep sense of value and confidence.
In the ‘host yourself’ quadrant we asked: How do you host yourself well in the midst of chaos? There were some really creative insights. Some which stood out were: Breathe! Be Patient. Just be. Take care of yourself. Accept Chaos.
In the ‘be hosted’ quadrant we asked: When were you last hosted well? Our key agreements were that humour really helps, along with knowing the space is safe, there is no hierarchy, lots of voices are recognised and given space and lived experience is given space to come to the fore.
In the ‘host others’ quadrant we asked: What are your strengths in hosting others? It would be fair to say that this is the question that people struggled the most at. we are so used to knowing what we don’t do well, that we felt a bit of ‘Appreciative Inquiry’ was needed. We all realised that we have strengths to bring to hosting and it’s ok to play to our strengths. It allows us to use empathy and bee aware of the needs of others as well as using humility.
In the ‘host with others’ quadrant we asked: Why host with others? There are, of course, tonnes of reasons, but the ones which stood out for us were: it’s more fun, we learn from each other’s, we support each other, we play to each other’s strengths, we value our diversity and we make better connections.
We then had a ‘knowledge cafe’, which enables some quick space for learning about things people might want to go a bit deeper on. It’s adult-led learning! We had 3 rounds of 15 minutes in which people could choose to go to 3 of 4 options around core theory for the ‘art of hosting’:
After lunch we then had an OPERA! No – we did not all start singing (although much more the shame in my view!). Opera is an excellent way of helping to converge a conversation around consensus and decision making. It’s a beautifully relational and democratic process in which a group of people can make collective sense of the options available to them and what they feel really need to be the priorities.
We used OPERA to explore a question around saving money in the NHS locally. Basically what happens is this:
First you have to ask a good question! Ours was “What ideas do you have about how the NHS can save £120million pounds over the next 3-5 years (with some context given of the issues involved)?
Then everyone works silently on their own to come up with the OWN ideas. After this, they work in PAIRS to agree on their top four ideas. Then they EXPLAIN their ideas to the rest of the group. The group, having heard all the ideas, then RANK them in order before ARRANGING them into groups for action planning. It is quite remarkable to watch this process in action and to see participatory democracy really work in practice! I LOVE IT! There were some really great ideas and it was amazing to see what the group had appetite for and what they resisted or didn’t think would make enough difference. It’s a hugely helpful process that we will use again and again!
To finish our day, we had a ‘dream world cafe’. George Monbiot states that the only way to replace the current narrative we are living in, is not through more data, or compelling facts and figures. The only way ahead for us is to tell a better story – one that we want to live in together – one that awakens our imagination. The problem is that we have forgotten how to tell each other good stories. So, we spent some time doing just that – telling a better story of Morecambe Bay and awakening our imaginations to future possibilities. We asked ourselves: Imagine we are better connected? What new possibilities can we now envision for Morecambe Bay?
Imagine if we kept on doing this – what kind of stories might we tell and begin to live in? Here is a summary of what we came up with (not bad for 45 minutes!) – the last sketch is particularly moving: