Radical Empowerment: Reflection on the Bowen “Art of Hosting” Retreat


Leaving the rarefied atmosphere of Rivendell is a bit like a crash landing after a visit to a distant world.

I was privileged to spend three days this week in retreat with thirty extraordinary people from across North America — thirty people with the knowledge, capacities, passion and intention to facilitate meaningful conversations on subjects important to the participants and to the world, subjects that are often difficult, complex, and intractable.

The program is called The Art of Hosting, and it presents a full set of facilitation methods and techniques — Open Space, world cafe, appreciative inquiry, conversation circle, consensus building and others — plus discussions on when each is appropriate, and the opportunity to practice each with one’s peers.

The practitioners in this retreat were quite advanced. For most of them, facilitation is how they make their living, and these three days were their opportunity to compare notes and hone their skills.

My initial training was earlier this year in Australia with Viv McWaters and Brian Bainbridge, and since then I’ve become aware that this network of practitioners is global, powerfully connected, and driven to be of use, to make a difference, to make the world a better place. These people are not in any sense like the old style of facilitation consultants, who took instruction from senior executives with a predetermined agenda and pushed participants to deliver on it. Even worse, these old-style arrogant consultants sometimes introduced their own ‘expert’ point of view into the discussion (usually to the detriment of all).

By contrast, practitioners of this new set of facilitation or ‘hosting’ techniques aspire to nothing more or less than to enable more effective conversations leading to peer-consensual decisions and self-selected follow-up actions. If the participants do not have the complete freedom to decide and to do what they in their collective wisdom know is right, then the responsible facilitator will simply refuse the assignment up front as a fraud.

It is hard to overstate how radical this is. It is a reassertion of democratic principles, personal responsibility, true empowerment and the wisdom of crowds. It is a rebuff to the infallibility and ‘greater wisdom’ of executives, managers, consultants and ‘experts’. Practitioners of these techniques can be catalysts for important and truly revolutionary change, and in large calcified organizations, public and private, it may well be the only way to bring about significant change at all.

It is a recognition that the vast majority of actual work that gets done in organizations, the vast majority of value actually created, is the result of bottom-up decisions, workarounds and changes (often hidden from management for fear of retribution for violating official policies) made by the thousands of individual workers on the front lines. Those of us who have worked with large organizations recognize that they are substantially incapable of innovation, and that they drive their mavericks, bright thinkers, and imaginative people out, while absurdly over-rewarding (and over-punishing when things go badly) their senior executives. The potential ‘facilitated re-democratization’ of previously hierarchical organizations could reverse this brain drain and reverse their creative stagnation, to staggering effect.

I think the people who are doing this groundbreaking work realize the power it has, and that’s why they have embraced it with such passion and have been relentless in urging their customers and potential customers to use these techniques to set their employees (and in a way their customers as well) free, free to do their best work.

As our world enters a period of unprecedented challenges and uncertainties, the success of these people to spread this new way of learning, decision-making and acting could well be pivotal to our economy’s and our civilization’s ability to cope, improvise and perhaps even survive.

As we went into the third and final day of the retreat, I began trying to figure out what it is that makes these thirty people, and those increasing numbers like them around the world, so extraordinary, to the point that I actually ached leaving them. The intellectual and emotional high I received in their company has been followed by the typical withdrawal symptoms of quitting a euphoric drug cold turkey. Since I left a few hours ago I find most ‘outside’ people annoying, unbearable. For three days we were the type of intentional community that idealists only dream of. Now bland, desperate reality with its horrific imaginative poverty and ignorance have reemerged as the terrible reality of most of this world.

The world needs these revolutionary facilitators, these artful hosts, and thousands, millions more like them, self-organizing, connecting, smashing learned helplessness, corpocracy, hierarchy, bureaucracy, and inertia.

While this list is probably incomplete, here are the qualities and capacities I recognized in these amazing people:

  • a thirst for truth, and an insistence on speaking the truth and being honest to a fault
  • extraordinary perceptiveness, attentiveness, and presence
  • intellectual and emotional sensitivity
  • an almost erotic level of passion and energy
  • total dedication to their chosen practices, pursued as lifelong practices, through which they seek only to get better (i.e. no expectation of mastery)
  • great instincts
  • wonderful improvisational skills
  • a love of aesthetics, and not inconsiderable artistic and creative talent (my sketchbook yesterday was my struggle to keep up, as they all seem to be able to draw brilliantly)
  • a high level of self-confidence, but never arrogance (in fact, humility)
  • a desire to be of use and service to others, and the courage to do that anytime, anywhere (though when I asked them they said it was the only thing they could conceive of doing that would have meaning for them, so it wasn’t courageous at all)
  • exceptional communication skills — oral, written, and non-verbal
  • delightful imaginations
  • great trust and respect for each other and for others who are, like them, dedicated to unselfish pursuits
  • an aversion to power, and the use of power, and aversion to hierarchy and the cult of leadership
  • great intelligence, knowledge and curiosity
  • a subtle and gentle sense of humour, sometimes self-deprecating, never cruel or demeaning of others

Where did these people come from? Most of them are drop-outs from jobs in which they were absurdly under-employed. Most of them are substantially self-educated — they are extremely well-read and have exceptional vocabularies despite not having much more formal education than the average North American. They come from caring, informed parents. Two thirds of them are women. One third of them are LGBT. They skew towards boomer age but there is a healthy range of ages, and their children seem destined to follow in their footprints. They love language. Most of them work in the public sector, as social entrepreneurs. They have amazing networks that became much more amazing this week.

I expect my euphoria from this week will wear off, but I am determined to find a way to sustain the incredible sense of peace, joy, openness, connection and presence I found and felt this week.

Those of you from Rivendell who are reading this, thank you, my amazing new friends, artful hosts all, for the privilege of your company. You have filled my heart with love and joy and hope. The conversation started before it began, and it will continue long after it ends.

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17 Responses to Radical Empowerment: Reflection on the Bowen “Art of Hosting” Retreat

  1. Thanks Dave for this reflection. It was great to be with you this week.

  2. Dave, thank you so much for pulling this rich bucket-full out of your well!I am a member of this global community you describe who goes against the grain to the extent that I am working on bringing this art to my peers inside a large hierarchical bureaucracy. I am driven, as you say, by the knowledge that this is the *only* way to move forward. I consider my peers to be every man and woman in the organisation, regardless of their elevation in the bureaucratic food chain. We recently held a version of the art of hosting training here, and it sparked of a vestigial immune response, but the overall response from the 45 participants was very positive and we are in danger of being overwhelmed by requests for hosting since then. I am convinced, as you are, that this is how we can save our species and prove to posterity that we are a species worth saving.

  3. David – Thank you for sharing your experience. For a brief moment, I felt like I was there with you. Beautiful. It is only in the last 5 years that I have become aware of many of these technologies. My soul has been hungering for this. In my volunteer work with Peter Block in Cincinnati, I have been awakened to many of these tools. We are a community of like minded individuals from all backgrounds seeking to restore community to our city, work, church, and where ever we are plugged in.Thank you all for the passion you bring to this work. It is a much needed gift. It gives me hope for our tomorrows to know that so many are out there working to bring about a different way…to be part of creating an alternative future for this world.

  4. Jon Husband says:

    they drive their mavericks, bright thinkers, and imaginative people out, while absurdly over-rewarding (and over-punishing when things go badly) their senior executives. The potential ‘facilitated re-democratization’ of previously hierarchical organizations could reverse this brain drain and reverse their creative stagnation, to staggering effect.Yesh … need to move to adult-to-adult interactions and agreements rather than parent-child dynamic prevalent in many organizations.

  5. sally ludwig says:

    Thanks for these moving descriptions and reflections. I have had the good fortune to take part in some events convened and hosted in these ways, outside of formal organizations: conversation cafe discussions of our experience of environmental catastrophe and how we want to live in response to it; and Living Room Context weekends in which people live and embody the collaborative, mutually respecting and empowering communication our world so needs.What about considerations of power? It seems important to me to distinguish “power-over” / coercive power that is traditionally wielded in hierarchical organizations, and other, healthier conceptions such as “power-with” / solidarity and “power-to” / effectiveness to make change. I would be surprised if participants in your Bowen event really eschew power in all forms. Collaboration brings power to us all!

  6. Miranda Weingartner says:

    I’ve been unable to form coherent thoughts, let alone conjure the eloquence you just did. Thank you for putting my experience of this past week into words. I am so joyful at having found you, my friend.More later…Miranda

  7. Mark Hazell says:

    Hi Dave,Thanks for the post — it was a delight to meet you and to share the time at Rivendell. Looking forward to more,Mark

  8. Dear Dave,Chris, Monica, Tenneson, Dave Stevenson are all good friends of mine and you have definitely described them as I know them personally and the Art of Hosting practitioners and stewards generally. Your relating of your experience is beautiful and inspiring and I almost do feel like I was there. Welcome. Kathy

  9. Thank you for your honesty here, Dave. I suspect that you provided the container for others to feel similarly about the experience. The question always is: how to maintain that level of connection. I don’t know if it’s possible, but striving for it beats the hell out of settling for lack of it.Thanks for telling us about your experience. Warmed my heart!

  10. Viv McWaters says:

    HI Dave – You may have ached to leave – I ached to be there. Thanks for giving me a way of feeling what it was like and for re-affirming the sometimes ‘difficult to describe’ work that we do. Since returning from Africa a few weeks ago I’ve been struggling with the role of facilitation. It sometimes seems so superfluous to the work that others are doing in trying to make the world a better place. Your post has given me hope that maybe it’s worth it after all.ThanksViv

  11. Daisy Bond says:

    I’m so glad you got to have this experience, Dave! I believe I know exactly how you feel. This post makes me miss my friends.

  12. Man-oh-Manischewitz!This sounds like an amazing retreat.I like to think this is how I live my life, albeit on a much, much smaller scale. We all do what we can.But it sounds grand and glorious, immersing oneself in the company of people who live & breathe it 24/7. Or close.Maybe someday, huh?

  13. Dave Pollard says:

    Wow…what an amazing response! Thank you all so much, for your kindness, for your generosity, for your friendship, for caring, and for the sometimes-thankless and staggeringly important work you do. There’s something important happening here, don’t you think? And not a moment too soon!

  14. Theresa says:

    I enjoyed reading this. You live a charmed life. As to your worries that the emotional high will go away, I don’t think that will be a problem for you this time. When I think of the extraordinary, amazing, enlightened people I’ve met over the course of my life I’ve found that the people who have had some of the greatest influence are people such as you’ve described whom I’ve met for only a few minutes in passing. These role models left a distinct impression with their ideas and manners and their influence continues. You meet a few people like that and you begin to see enlightened people everywhere. Like angels or something (well, no, but something like that). I’ve never had the chance to meet in one place with a large number of people like that but I imagine that the influence would not wear off with time and the participants would be able to carry their lessons to other groups and individuals. It was nice to read in this post that it gave you some hope for civilization. After reading that, I considered that if I was going to stop reading your blog I’d stop with this one as the last one to read. The almost divine presence of amazing people all over the world is one of the reasons I never thought the planned or intentional community was the best way of organizing people.

  15. Doug Hayman says:

    I’m so glad I dropped by and caught your comments on the Hosting session Dave. You nailed it! Was great to talk with you. I look forward to staying in touch with you and others from that beautiful time. Great blog. Peace be with you brother, Doug

  16. Jill Chivers says:

    hi DaveI stumbled across your blog from Viv McWaters blog – I wasn’t aware of the Art of Hosting and your post came me a real feeling for how the retreat impacted you. It also reminds me of how much facilitation is a lifelong journey, where the destination is never reached. Thank you for opening the portal for me. The “new style” of facilitation is indeed radical – such a rich description of it in your post! It raises some interesting questions, for sure…. How are those skills “teachable”? I know that there are many facilitators who spend part of their time ‘passing along these skills to others’ – I wonder how that’s done without the person who’s doing the passing sharing some content expertise? If the ‘teachers’ do indeed share their own content expertise in the context of say a facilitation skills program, are they in danger of sharing some of the qualities you described of the old style consultants who “arrogantly insert their own expert point of view”? At a recent facilitation conference, I heard the words “content neutral” — this is interesting, because it isn’t “content free”. I’d really be interested in some discussion around these issues, in the facilitation community… Warmly – Jill

  17. Dave,I was on the calling team for the first ever AoH in Australasia which was led by Toke Moller and Tatianan Glad. Over thirty people came to learn and participate. I have been working with Open Space since 2003 mainly in the public sector and AoH is the next logical and perfectly brilliant step in the journey of bringing people together to adress questions that matter. We ran for four days and like you, I suffered severe witdrawal symptoms when it was over. For me the process proves that there can be such a thing as collective consciousness amongst diverse people who are looking for the truth and not just an easy way out.It is very exciting to be part of this community which regardless where they come from can work together and make a huge difference.Aart

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