The Art of Hosting
by Alexander Kjerulf

I was recently part of an extraordinary conference, in which 30 people from all over the world gathered in an old, run-down but beautiful castle in Slovenia to explore the Art of Hosting together. Participants came from many different fields, including business, arts, teaching, consultancy, NGO's and students, and the scope of the conference was equally varied.

So, what is hosting?

Every time you invite somebody to be a part of something, you're assuming the role of host. Whether it's a company, a meeting, a conference, a project, a lecture or a night out with your friends, any time you gather people, you assume the role of host. And as host you implicitly assume certain responsibilities. The host must:

  1. Make sure that the gathering has a focus, and help the participants keep this focus in mind.

  2. Ensure that the rules of the gathering are defined and help participants to play by them.

It is very important to notice, that this doesn't mean that the host has to do it all him- or herself. Quite the contrary, in most cases it works very well to let the participants define the focus and the ground rules of the gathering. But it is the host's responsibility to make sure that it happens.

So what makes the concept of hosting so interesting?

To me, the answer lies in freedom. I believe, as do many other schools of thought from existentialist philosophy to psychology, that freedom is a basic condition of life. We are free to choose. This is explored in depth in the book Freedom and Accountability at work, which I've reviewed here: http://www.kjerulf.com/journal/00000173.htm.

Nobody can tell you what to do. Nobody can tell you what to think. Every time somebody gives you an order, you decide whether to carry out that order or not. You make the choice. However it is also true, that people utilize their freedom differently. Some people are very aware of their own freedom to choose, while others constantly make their choices based on other considerations eg. based on social norms, peer pressure, orders, habits, etc. One quote states that "Nobody is free to do someting they can't think of." Therefore, being free also means expanding your realm of what's possible - what you're able to think of.

So the goal should be to fully realize your own freedom, but also to enable others to do the same. Which of course carries a built in paradox, because you can't simply order people to "be free". You can only invite them to participate, and then create circumstances which makes it easier for people to see and live their own essential freedom. This is the essence of hosting.

Good hosting

Obviously there is good hosting and not so good. Good hosting is:

Carefully prepared

Preparation is essential, and here the key is to prepare "just enough". Do as little as possible to make it work, but leave as much as possible to the participants themselves. Every time you do something for them, you potentially take some of the responsibility and fun from them.

Inclusive

A good host lets everybody contribute, especially to the point of sharing the duties of host with the participants. Which brings to mind the old Lao Tzu quote about good leaders:

A leader is best when the people are hardly aware of his existence, not so good when people stand in fear, worse, when people are contemptuous. Fail to honour people, and they will fail to honour you. But a good leader who speaks little, when his task is accomplished, his work done, the people say "We did it ourselves."

The very bests hosts are hardly noticed, yet everything works anyway. And by sharing the tasks and responsibilities involved with the participants, good hosts create more good hosts everywhere they go.

Focused

If the gathering has a purpose, then keep that focus in mind. Allow people to stray, but a totally unfocused gathering is rarely a satisfying experience.

Alive

You can't control a gathering of people, and if you try, the results you get are not indicative of what the participants really wanted, and in all probability the quality of the results will also suffer. The very best meetings flow in strange and unpredictable ways, according to the mood, energy level and will of the people present.

Clearly defined

Any gathering will attempt to fill the tasks of hosting, and if nobody is clearly defined as host, confusion may develop. Good hosting is clearly defined, and hosts and participants are consious of which responsibilities are placed with the host and which are left to the participants themselves.

Hosting is everywhere!

To me, many roles contain the role of the host at their core, and I'd like to mention a few:

Leaders are hosts

If you accept that people are free, and that nobody can give anybody orders, then any order becomes instead an invitation. "Do this" is then the same as "I invite you to do this, but you choose whether or not to do it". And this means that the leader is now a host, who has invited somebody to work towards some goal.

Facilitators are hosts

This is so obvious it hardly needs stating, but a facilitator's role is to shape a gathering towards some purpose. To me, that has hosting written all over it.

Teachers are hosts

You cannot order somebody to learn something. You can invite them to study, but they create their own learning. Therefore teaching and hosting are very close to each other.

Coaches are hosts

As a coach, you can never order people to solve their problems. You can't even order them to let you help. What you can do is invite the people you coach to follow the process of your choice. Which makes you the host of that process.

Conclusion

In order to be a good leader, facilitator, teacher or many other functions, you need to be a good host. Many things happen, when people gather for a purpose, and every gathering requires a host. The key is to become conscious of when hosting is required, and to develop the requisite skills.

The promise of hosting is that you can create better, more efficient, more inclusive and nicer meetings. Meetings that serve their purpose and the needs of the participants to a much higher degree. You can enable people to bring their best to meetings, conferences seminars and coaching sessions, and at the same time you can create more good hosts, allowing it to spread without extra effort.


Alexander Kjerulf has created an organization which spreads Happiness at Work. The organization (Project Happiness at Work) is based in Copenhagen, Denmark and spreads happiness through workshops, seminars, games, conferences and speeches. The organizations website is currently only available in danish and can be found here: http://www.projektarbejdsglaede.dk. Alexander's personal weblog is available here: http://www.kjerulf.com .

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Copyright 2003 by Alexander Kjerulf. All rights reserved.

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