The Art of Hosting Meaningful Conversations

I’ve just been on a 2-day course called The Art of Hosting Meaningful Conversations

The Art of Hosting Meaningful Conversations is an intensive 2-day learning experience where you will practice a set of simple yet powerful approaches for designing and hosting (facilitating) powerful conversations, engagement processes and meetings. It is an effective way of harnessing the collective wisdom and self-organising capacity of groups of people. It is rooted in the principles that people give their energy and lend their resources to what matters most to them – in work as in life. These practices invite people to step in and respond to the challenges facing them in creative, authentic, innovative and effective ways.

This particular course set up for groups and individuals that work in and around the Health & Wellbeing interest groups (for want of a better title). I attended with the triple hat of Borough Councillor, Dalton Creative and trustee of Mind in Furness and was joined by people from the NHS, St Mary’s Hospice, The Well, Love Barrow Families, the local police and so many more.

I wasn’t sure what it really entailed before arriving and then as we took to the circle I started to get the fear that it may be a little esoteric for me (I worded it hippy bollocks to the group I have to admit) but then we had a check in – I am used to them with at various times being involved in group sessions due to my mental health issues. The main object of a check-in is to ground people in the room and in the session and asks how we are feeling. The check-in here asked us why we had come/what we were hoping to get from the course. This is when I knew I was in the right place. Listening to people’s passion for our community, their acceptance that we can all do much better at living together, that our community needs some help and some hope. This was a very powerful session and one that will stay with me and help my work in our community in the future. The hippy bit I have discussed with various hosts and participants and was my own prejudices coming out more than anything. Too many faux groovy people have passed through my life, those that believe I’d be happy if only I could juggle… So very pleased that this wasn’t the case.

The next two days were spent learning various techniques for running open conversations – Look them up on the Art of Hosting website for details but in an overview, we started with a simple but powerful question. Ours was ‘What makes Barrow special?’ A great question as it framed our thinking in a positive way – so many times we approach problems with what is wrong, what needs fixing. This I found quite hard to do. We are so used to identifying a problem and fixing it that we can miss so many things. This is one of the reasons that I found the two days so valuable. It felt a very safe space to explore ideas and to be very open about our thoughts. From this initial conversation, we developed ideas, workshopped through some possible solutions and projects. There were so many fascinating people there that had interesting things to give that it really was heartwarming.

I will definitely be bringing in the spirit and the techniques of Art of Hosting into Dalton Creatives. I would recommend anyone to try and do the training course to get a fresh approach to having those meaningful conversations.

One of the most profound parts of the course actually came from tackling a problem I had with the course or how it ran partly. On day one we did a physical activity as part of one of the sessions. I asked if the hosts had any suggestions for changing the sessions to be more inclusive of people with disability. We were moved on with the promise of discussing it at the end of the day. This didn’t happen, but I went away and thought about it again. As a core team in DC we have various issues both physical and mental so the question of inclusivity is very important to us. I was happy that I could bring this up at check-in on day two. I volunteered to check-in first to clear this issue up and be able to move past it. Just before I spoke I was asked to keep my check-in to a few words, in fact, a single word. I changed my mind about speaking, then when the circle came back to me I said my word for how I was feeling was ‘constrained’. Then things moved on. During the next session, we discussed letting the conversation take its own course and not to rush past things that may be important. In the feedback for this session, I gave myself the space to bring up my issue that the disability question had not been discussed, and that in fact, I felt un-empowered as I had actively been shut down. It was a major positive to bring this up, to bring up my uncomfortableness about the issue and to get a positive reaction and told about a session coming up that I could ask the question properly.

I did this in the Open Space session and asked the question ‘How do we work with true Equity?’ I then had an amazing and deep conversation around inclusive action, the way it is forgotten easily if we are in the privileged position, how we can tackle working with bringing marginalized groups into the conversation. I got so much from this session and I hope the hosts did too – it was uncomfortable being the squeaky wheel but they gave the session the safety to do this, and I hope they reflected on their own practice also. It was put down as time constraints that they moved over my need, that sometimes the group good has to be tended to. Still not convinced by this argument, sometimes we need to face questions more head-on than letting them fester. But ‘fully inclusive’ is a tricky bugger to tame, more greased pig than elephant in the room. A tough one but one we as a group sorted, which is in many ways a success of the Art of Hosting. I hope this doesn’t sound too negative about the hosts, it isn’t meant in that spirit. I feel that by reflecting back on the most uncomfortable part of the two days for me and how I felt the issue resolved I hope it adds to the common knowledge base. It is a question that we explore in Dalton Creatives and that having a person-centered approach to working is very important for us to work towards. If anyone has any input, feedback, links, thoughts about the subject please do email me

I thank the 50 or so people I met on and around the course – it was wonderful and I look forward to the third day in February and I hope that these conversations do carry on and we bring in more positive and meaningful conversations into our community. Or am I just talking hippy bollocks…

Shaun (the information octopus)


Mark E. Smith of The Fall died during the course. His music has been with me for a long time and his fierce, unbending belief in being true to his roots has had a big influence on me – I hope I’m a little less belligerent than him though!