The Art of Hosting and the Importance of a Good Conversation

 In Community

When was the last time you had a long conversation with a complete stranger? Not a conversation about the weather, or what they do for a living, or what they like, but a real long eight-minute conversation about yourself?

I know you’re probably thinking eight minutes isn’t a long time for a conversation, but picture yourself on a walk with a man you’ve never met before. And while you’re walking, you have to talk about why you’re there at that very moment with him and what brought you there.

The man at the side of you is just listening; you can’t see his face or his reactions, but you know he’s listening. He isn’t verbally responding to your story or asking you questions. He’s just physically present at the side of you, walking and listening.

For the first two minutes, you talk about yourself, giving vague details that you’d give a stranger, hiding safely behind the wall that you’ve built around you to protect yourself from people’s perceptions and judgments. Two minutes go by and you have to talk some more. So you take down a few bricks from that wall and give a little background to your story. It’s not too bad, a little strange, but you’re okay with sharing that with another person.

You look at your watch, about four minutes still to go. What else do you talk about? He’s still at the side of you, keeping pace with your steps and not saying a word. You break down the wall a little bit more and talk about your emotions that drove you to take those actions. Memories are flooding back in your head and you’re stumbling through your speech trying to piece words together to match those images.

Two minutes to go. Words are breaking out now, you’re sure it doesn’t make sense anymore, and you’re going back and forth explaining yourself. At this point, that wall that was protecting you is there, but it’s not as strong as before and you feel open, uncomfortable and vulnerable. You go on talking, because you have to and because you want to for some strange reason. Thoughts you didn’t know you had come out, and at times it feels like you’re just talking to yourself. You’re explaining reasons and motives out loud and suddenly an action that you took in the past makes a new kind of sense to you. It shakes you up a bit.

You hear a bell tinkling in the distance and you know that it’s your cue to stop talking. So you stop, take a deep breath and face the stranger. He smiles at you, you smile back and walk back into a room where everyone’s waiting, not strangers anymore.

What I just described was one of the first activities we had at The Art of Participatory Leadership Training that was conducted by the Art of Hosting Team in Goa. The Art of Hosting Team consists of a group of people all over the world (called practitioners), who bring people together to host and harvest conversations that matter.

What are conversations that matter? It’s a question that can have all sorts of answers, but I would say a conversation that matters is a conversation that can change the world, even if it’s one person at a time.

The leadership training brought 50 people from all over India, from different age groups, having different ambitions and pursuing different goals for one purpose, and that was to learn how to host a conversation that can make a difference.

Through the 5 day training (I could attend just 3 days) at a beautiful space overlooking the ocean, participants learned how to open themselves up to others, be honest with themselves and speak with freedom and purpose.

The practitioners shared and taught us some of the core tenets of the Art of Hosting community, like sitting in a circle, so that each person is visible and present to another and all forms of hierarchy are removed. Another core principle that was followed every day was the check-in and check-out, a process where every participant in the conversation gets a chance to speak and share a thought or a feeling.

A key aspect of having a pointed discussion or an important conversation is to keep an agenda ready, or as the practitioners call it, ask a ‘powerful question’. What makes a question powerful you ask? I read your mind. The practitioners say that a powerful question should be simple and clear and yet provoke further thought, challenge assumptions and open up new possibilities.

The powerful question asked during this training was ‘How can our shared leadership safeguard the future of Goa?’  This was a question constantly put forward to us so that it was at the back of our minds and we thought about it. We weren’t given the responsibility to come up with the answer on our own but given various tools so that we could hopefully glean the answer from the collective wisdom of all the participants.

The tools were different participatory activities where sharing ideas and conversations with different people was the focus. My personal favorite tools were the ‘Dialogue’ which I described at the start of this article, ‘World Café,’ a method wherein people sit down around a table as if in a café and have collaborative dialogue around questions that matter in real life situations, ‘triad’, an intimate and personal method of sharing stories and ‘Open Space’, an activity where people invite others to come share wisdom or provide assistance towards a subject they care about or an issue that they wish to resolve.

For people like me who aren’t used to speaking in public or sharing feelings openly, this was at times scary and unnerving. I’m not sure if it was the people around me or just the process, but after a point, it felt right, despite the fear.

What I liked the most about this training was the enthusiasm that every participant brought. Everyone came in each morning, to learn and to give back as much as they could. Nothing was said for the sake of having something to say but was said with purpose and with the vision of an action behind it.

There were people with active community projects who found renewed vigor at the training, and then there were those who just by being present was inspired to go out into the community and start something that would help drive positive change. It’s impossible not to be inspired when you’re surrounded by a group of passionate and driven folk.

Being a part of community processes or part of a group that wishes to drive change can often leave you drained out or eventually apathetic just because of the sheer amount of energy required to maintain focus. But having come out of this training, there’s a calmness and confidence that I now possess just knowing that a good conversation is all that it takes.

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