Join Kevan and Ceri on a vibrant, poetic exploration of the dynamics needed to create healthy facilitation spaces. In this episode, you’ll travel along with them to The Art of Hosting retreat on Bowen Island, and discover leading, emerging insights about community and co-creation.
Creating the Space: Lessons from The Art of Hosting
Domain7’s Facilitation Practice Lead, Kevan brings wisdom from over a decade of experience leading award-winning digital strategies for a wide variety of institutions and businesses. A seasoned and engaging facilitator and speaker who has been with Domain7 since 2010, Kevan has helped shape our collaborative and people-centric culture. He’s studied design thinking and innovation processes at the THNK School of Creative Leadership.
As Domain7's Director of Engagement Strategy, Ceri is our team's resident expert when it comes to building constructive relationships between teams and in complex, innovative projects. Ceri's road to facilitation includes past experience in academic administration, branding and innovation. With Master’s degrees in Theology (UBC) and Biochemistry (Oxford), Ceri’s unique approach to blending analytical acuity, empirical knowledge, and relational wisdom has made her an expert strategist and clarifying voice on conflict resolution, empathy, assertion, and the human element of digital transformation.
Kevan: Welcome to Change is in the Making, Domain7’s podcast where we explore all things digital through the lens of purposeful change. I’m Kevan Gilbert.
Ceri: And I’m Ceri Rees. Together we’ll be discussing themes of connection making and culture shaping, delving into how to create meaningful change from a business stand point and a human perspective.
Kevan: I know, it’s normally Veronica who does that bit, but today Ceri and I are taking a field trip to Bowen Island for some training at an event called The Art of Hosting, and we wanted to bring you along with us.
Ceri: The Art of Hosting is a global movement that stewards resources and connects people to shift cultural patterns. It’s a series of methods and a way of working together in community. The training session will be structured as a four day retreat where we join others from around the world to dive into ways of facilitating that are both new and ancient.
Kevan: Ceri and I will be your tour guides as we learn and listen with this new group of people, once we arrive that is. I’m on my way there right now. Wheeling my rattling suitcase over the floors of the Vancouver Airport.
Kevan: “My daughter who’s six was begging me in the car as I was being dropped off at the airport, “daddy, please don’t go, please cancel your trip, I will give you all of my money if you cancel your trip,” I explained to her that this is daddy going to school, that I get to learn things, too, so I can be better at doing my job so I can help more people.”
Kevan: That job is called facilitation practice lead. I help organizations navigate the messy swap of complexity with the tool kit of facilitation and listening, yet the reasoning I’m traveling for training because I’m still wondering…
“…what’s missing from my tool kit about how I listen, how do I strike that balance? Between moving through what needs to get accomplished, while still creating space for deeper, emergent, more personal currents. I’d like to know that.”
Kevan: So it’s with that learning intention that we are headed to Bowen Island. A short 20-minute ferry ride from Vancouver for the Art of Hosting. One of our lead trainers will be Canadian facilitation guru Chris Corrigan, and in this setting, in the rainforest of the Pacific Northwest with 50 other learners from around the world I’m hoping we’ll create the space to learn exactly this.
Kevan: Let’s head there now. It’s dark by the time arrive. I settle into my room and hustle back to the main lodge where the gathering is taking place.
Kevan: “I’m outside on Bowen Island. I can see the water of this little inlet. There’s stars overhead, the city light does not drown them out. On the grass here I’m looking in towards the gathering place where the Art of Hosting will be taking place.”
Kevan: When I head inside to join the first session, the circle of participants is much larger than I expected, about 50 people. As we introduce ourselves we learn there are folks who have traveled from Japan, from Belgium, from Hamburg, from New Hampshire, from Washington D.C., from Toronto, from Winnipeg, from small towns in B.C. and from Vancouver. And these people, they’re here from business schools, health organizations, universities, churches, municipalities and nonprofits.
Kevan: As the participants introduce themselves, something unusual is happening. Or rather, not happening. It’s Chris Corrigan. Chris is not part of the circle, he’s sitting on the floor, not quite in the middle of the circle, and he’s on his laptop, typing, as people talk. This does not seem like listening. I decide I will need to talk to him after this to let him know about the impact his decision is having on the group. Maybe he doesn’t know.
Kevan: As the last person in the circle shares their story of where they come from and what they’re here to learn, Chris stretches and he says, “well, good news is, I finished my emails.” I’m more certain than ever that I will have to talk to him after, but people are laughing a little. He’s joking. He wasn’t emailing.
Kevan: Chris says, “I’ve been typing as you talked to create a poem that is made up of words that you have been speaking. As each of you shared what you wanted to learn during this time, I took those phrases and built this. I hope you’ll each hear a little bit of yourself in these lines.”
Kevan: As he reads it, you can see people’s faces around the room lighting up like a string of Christmas lights. They’re drawn into it, like hearing a story teller around a camp fire, as Chris’ lines connect with words each person has spoken.
Kevan: The poem itself is a “you had to be there” type of thing, it only makes sense if you heard the 50 original speakers say their piece, but here’s an excerpt to give you a glimpse,
“…participation and co-creation
are the station I have stopped at
to change trains of thought.
Open to lean into the mean sea of uncertainty
that demands I simply be in the complexity,
with angry and unengaged employees
who keep telling me to get to work in community.
I need to pause and reflect,
self-host and self-respect.
To inspect where we are,
rather than where we expect to be.”
Kevan: And right from this opening session, it’s like dominoes falling. We are plunged into session after session, back to back, method after method. By the time I finally to get the chance to finally catch up with Ceri in a meaningful way, it’s already day three.
Kevan: Ceri, how’re you doing?
Ceri: I’m tired.
Kevan: It’s been an intense couple of days.
Ceri: Yeah, it has been. So much conversation.
Kevan: By then, the rain is falling heavily, we’re in a quiet spot in the lodge and I have been able to borrow Ceri’s very cozy knit sweater that makes me feel like a sheep.
Kevan: When you were coming over here on the ferry and getting ready to travel out of the city and into a retreat space, what were your expectations for what this would be?
Ceri: Like exposure to different tools and methodologies and just kind of getting on and doing it? I think how maybe you would have, if I think of my own tendencies I maybe would have expected more like teaching per se, rather than just kind of like jumped straight in.
Kevan: Ceri is referring to the fact that there’s a unique aspect of the way these sessions have gone. As a participant, you’re not explicitly conscious of the facilitator, unless you’re paying close attention, you might feel that the sessions seem to facilitate themselves. In fact, what’s happening is the trainers carefully create a frame for the participants to do the work.
Ceri: I mean that’s intentional, right? Someone made the comment this evening, I hadn’t caught Chris saying it, but he said if someone thanks you in the closing circle for your role, then you’ve done more than you should have.
Ceri: And I think that that’s a real provocation, but it speaks to so much around the commitment to a participatory model and just really getting out of the way.
Kevan: It’s that bit that seems to challenge some of the base assumptions I’ve held about facilitation. When I think of a facilitator, I think of a person who can own the room with strong but inviting body language and dynamic energy. What Art of Hosting is showing us is that an effective facilitator must also recede. So that the community that is coming together is better equipped to lead themselves, to make and own their own decisions going forward.
Ceri: And so it’s almost a movement from community engagement to community decision making.
Kevan: Or community design, would you say?
Ceri: Yeah, yeah conceivably.
Kevan: One thing I’d like to understand more that I feel like I’m still trying to piece together an understanding of is where has the practice of facilitation truly emerged from? Just over history.
Ceri: I think on other cultures who don’t have these retreats, don’t have the books, this is just actually how they do life.
Ceri: And that in a certain way, what we’re doing here is a reclamation of ways of being and ways of knowing that, obviously Chris is drawing very much on indigenous sources of wisdom, but I think in many different spiritual traditions, I think there is a lapse there.
Ceri: There’s something that the ancients knew. In a curious way that’s been the phrase that I’ve had in my mind since we got here was the whole notion of stand at the crossroads and asks for the ancient paths, and you’ll find good ways to walk in.
Kevan: I find myself pretending to just be as wise as you in wanting to also quote really-
Ceri: Oh shush, Kevan!
Ceri: The first afternoon when we got we were a little bit ahead of the rest of the crowd and had some time to start reading through the handbook, and being a bookish kind of girl I was happy to read things and feel like I was a bit ahead, you know?
Ceri: The phrase that kind of stood out to me that they had talked about a lot in the book, it has come up so much in our conversation, but in the book was this phrase of pursuing wise action.
Kevan: Pursuing wise action?
Ceri: Yeah, I really like that because you can have an action plan, without it being a wise action, but I feel like there’s something inherit in the notion of wisdom that is about knowing the right thing and knowing when is the right time, and knowing how and when, and all those kinds of pieces.
Ceri: And as well as wisdom to build relationship, like in many respects, like in many traditions wisdom is a fundamentally relational thing. That is the shift from head knowledge and a data point to something deeper.
Kevan: But wait, this is pretty and everything, but wasn’t this supposed to be a podcast about things like digital transformation? How does all this talk about wisdom and relationships connect to that? I like how Ceri connects the dots.
Ceri: Making the website is easy. But the work that makes it difficult, and it makes it complex is the relationships. How can we walk with you in that, how can we help you think through that process, how can we help you steward that process? And come to a good outcome.
Ceri: And in so many respects, this is the meaningful work for me. And to help people navigate these journeys and come to solution that makes sense for their community, what a gift, when that is the work, that is the project. No more, no less.
Kevan: That’s what we keep running into is when we say this phrase, “Don’t you want to engage your community better?” Does that phrase have any resonance to business leaders today? Or is it seen as merely a nuisance or if I have to. If you believe that you need to find better ways to engage your communities, then have we got a process for you.
Kevan: But it seems, at least from my limited vantage point now, that many business leaders don’t share that perspective.
Ceri: My observation is that with a certain understanding of what engagement means, many of our clients are very much up for it, and actually do have a reasonable stab at it. They’re making surveys or they’re having round tables, or focus groups, or whatever the thing is.
Ceri: I think the challenge is is that we’re missing what true engagement might be, and the breadth and depth of what that could be, and so it becomes what if we talked to people that’s enough, but what if we, like Chris was telling that story of designing an entire program like a government program in a day through conversation, by asking community leaders from indigenous communities, how does this kind of legislation sound to you? What does that kick off for you?
Ceri: and then in the afternoon, and what kind of program would you design? and then by the end of the day, they had a program designed that is still running successfully, like that is powerful stuff.
Kevan: Yeah, yeah, the involvement that isn’t just tokenized, but involvement that listens makes a big difference. Listening that turns something into action, where that hearing turns into making something concrete does so much to not just make a more innovative program, but to bind a community together and build resilience and social cohesion in ways that no other method can. That’s the piece that I wish more people saw, is you can get to a good program design or product design or a good organization design through many methods, it’s just that choosing the one that has listening and co-creation in it makes your community healthier in the long term.
Kevan: I came across an interesting metaphor for this idea in a conversation I had with a participant named Jenn one day at lunch. During our conversation, she pulls out a metal skeleton key from her purse and explains that it’s one of the three remaining keys that unlocked the door to the 100 year old church where she works as a minister.
Kevan: The church, I learned, is in a literal ghost town. It used to be the town site for the Imperial oil company outside Port Moody in a town called Ioco. It had houses and schools and a post office, but these days only one building still operates. It’s her church, which doubles as a museum for the ghost town.
Kevan: Her church is too small to take care of itself, so she often partners with another nearby church and together they frequently use these methods of participatory leadership and community dialogue at the many crossroads at which they have found themselves over the years.
Kevan: I found it interesting that the only thing still alive in the ghost town, small as it is, is the organization that has said, yes to dialogue and inclusion and partnership. For me, there’s a metaphor in that, as bright and vibrant as if that rusty old skeleton key itself was wriggling and pulsing green like an enchanted object. What can last a 100 years? Outlast the rise and fall of corporations? Unlock doors to the past and still help us step into the future? Community can.
Jenn: “So welcome to the show, Kevan and I am really excited to be talking to you in this beautiful place. We are outside on location on Bowen Island in British Columbia, and we have been at a conference for four days now, I can’t believe it’s been four days.”
Kevan: This is Jenn. I should have mentioned being the minister of a church in a ghost town isn’t exactly a permanent gig, so she has a side hustle. It’s a podcast. She needed a guest for an interview, the last minute for her weekly publishing schedule, so I said yes. We’re recording an interview on my phone near the beach.
Jenn: Fabulous, and what’s one last piece of advice for the Careers by Jenn listener?
Kevan: I guess the only advice I would say is to acknowledge with gratitude the people around you that have supported you to be where you are. That it’s not about you striving to reach previous unattained heights, it’s about being where you are in the community and showing humility and gratitude for those connections.
Jenn: Thank you.
Kevan: This might seem weird, but a tree taught me that. Let me explain.
Kevan: On day three, we find ourselves in the forest. Chris has brought us here and he’s told us that the 50 of us over the next 15 minutes need to spend some time here reflecting in nature. Reflecting on what we’re learning so far and what clues we can find in nature about the way growth happens, the way systems interact.
Kevan: I find myself in front of a huge tree stump. I’m perched on a pile of uncomfortable rocks with a branch over my head, causing me to duck down. The stump I’m looking at it severed right down the side, exposing its insides. Smaller trees and shrubs are growing out of the top of it. A medium sized tree has plowed its way right through a gap in its face. A carpet of ferns all around it obscures any sight of the roots.
Kevan: just beyond the stump, especially if you look up, there’s a whole forest of towering coniferous trees that now dominate the scene. I’m trying to make sense of what I’m looking at, trying to find meaning beyond the easy, cliché, obvious answers. I’m not finding much so I pull out my phone and I open a new note, and I start thinking by writing, and it turns out that my fingers are writing what turns out to be a poem.
Kevan: The poem is told in the first person, from the perspective of the stump, as if it’s talking to me. I asked Ceri to help read this out loud to you. I’ll be the first part. Point of view of the tree, and you’ll hear Ceri chime in in just a moment.
“I am father.
I am forest centre,
I am proud ancestor,
I am four hundred years old.
Noises and shouts came,
And I stood.
I know not what neighbouring beings wished for.
I dug down deep.
I sought the sun.
I was the forefront of this movement,
Brave pioneer and brilliant signpost,
Until one day,
I tumbled like a leaf,
And crashed like nothing I’ve ever heard.
If a tree falls in the forest
And I am that tree
Does it make a sound?
Like a knife through cloth.
Sharp brief quiet done.
I left no trace.
I was finished.
My organic components ceasing to eat and nourish and seek,
And I thought it was over.
Don’t bore me with talk of legacy.
Don’t burden me with talk of my story
My corpse is being walked over
Dishonoured and abused.
You can tell me that new beings sprout from the gift of my body,
But to me that’s the cavalier blindness of impetuous youth
Blasting though cracks in my dead skull
Like I was merely a doorway through which to enter a new room.
I have no legacy.
I tell no story.
As father of the forest
I am invisible now.
And inhabited by ignorant descendants.
I fostered a people.
I lifted my arms up high and brought shelter,
Lent a blanket of leaves to warm the composing earth.”
“Hi old man
Said a voice.
I heard your poem
Not the soil that you occupied
Or the fern you sheltered
Or the worm that you nourished
I’m the water
Through the straws of your roots
You sucked it up like a milkshake
From my earthen reservoir
I came to you from a million mile journey
Ocean to cloud to soil to you
And you said it was you
That fathered this forest?
I mothered you
I fed you the very breastmilk of earth
You old baby
You’ve been dead a hundred years
And still I’m within you
Alive without you
I’m on you
I fall when I wish
And I return to the bones of earth
I fed you
And still I feed this forest
You played a role
I am the play
Any life on you, blame on me
Your past and future, assign to me
That youth that abuses you
That reach you attained
This community we are in
The pride you embody
The bitterness you swallow
The story never told
Your quiet fathering ways
All of it
Droplet after droplet
An untold story of life
Make a difference
Stayed the same.”
Kevan: I could break that poem down for you, talk about how the tree stump represents the ambitious striving that we often undertake as individuals, wanting to make a name for ourselves. Or as businesses and brands trying to reach high, and how often that causes us to miss those that surround us that are here to be part of our community. Or that which nourishes us and helps us along the way.
Kevan: Sometimes we see only our story and we fail to see the stories of others. But what I see, what Ceri and I were both seeing here at the Art of Hosting is that any ambitious striving that you might wish to undertake both as an individual entity or as an organization is not possible without connection to community, and that there are tools, there are processes, there are approaches, there are ways, ways that are established, ways are emerging, ways that have deep roots that can allow us to do a better job at this upward quest that still helps us dig our roots down deep and connect with the ecosystem that we are within.
Kevan: That brings us to the end of our episode today.
If you’re curious about engagement and listening methods for leading change in communities, that’s a big part of what Domain7 is here to help with. For podcast listeners, we’ve put together a great collection of practical resources and links you can start using today, ranging from the Art of Hosting methods mentioned here, to tools from the design thinking toolkit we touched on last episode. You’ll find this collection at domain7.com/podcast — where you can also get in touch with us, sign up for our newsletter, or follow us on social channels. That’s domain7.com/podcast.
The music you heard featured on today’s show included compositions from Jim Boraas — that was the piano music — and the electronic compositions were by our Domain7 colleague Ben Macdonnell.
This episode was written and produced by me, with editorial oversight by Veronica Collins. Our team lead Sarah Butterworth helps create the space for creative endeavours like this podcast, and the Domain7 culture as a whole provides incredible support. Domain7 is a global agency working to transform systems and culture through people-centric methods — learn more at Domain7.com.
Next episode is going to be another good one; we’re creating a guided audio reflection to help you look back over your own life and work in 2018, and set new intentions for 2019. It’s an interactive workshop that you can take with you in your headphones. We’ve tried this format twice before internally at Domain7 with tremendous success, and we can’t wait to share it with you.
Lastly. It’s almost the holidays. And to help you celebrate in style, Domain7 has created original holiday song. It’s called Cold Feet, available now on music services everywhere. And you can find link to the music video, right alongside those fantastic resources we mentioned, at domain7.com/podcast.
Thanks for listening.
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