Hosting Brave & Transformative Spaces Online

collective wisdom hosting learning edge people in practice practice May 18, 2020

Where once I felt like a voice at the rim calling for more attention on the relational field, the more we move online the more it becomes obvious that relationship is at the heart of transformation. In fact, that might be the most important thing I learned joining Civil Defense all those years ago in New Zealand. Living with the continued threat of earthquakes, I found out that resilience did not rely on the overall wealth of a place.

Resilience -- the ability to meet and bounce back from stress and challenge -- depends on connection. More connected communities are simply more resilient.

We've been seeing that play out dramatically during the time of crisis. The less we have been able to be with each other physically, the more isolated we've felt, yet "vulnerable" people have been less vulnerable with the support of friends and neighbours. Little actions counted greatly.

The same is true in the virtual realm. Little actions count greatly because everything is amplified online. If you've been attending a poorly run meeting, it will be worse online. If you've been offering only one-way content or playing only to certain voices, it will be more obvious there's no participation. If there is disconnection in the group or the wider field, it will be more noticeable.

But the reverse is also true. If you're with someone who knows how to create a container for connection and good collaboration, you'll come away feeling energised and stimulated.

In forcing us online, this crisis has also created new and intriguing mixtures of people and the opportunity to make connection, collaboration and collective meaning in inspiring ways.

I've been working online since 2014 and I know how to create brave and transformative spaces. Over the past months I've been asked to share what I know around online hosting with a variety of groups. Here's a distillation of some of the key principles and practices out of two recent webinars:

Creating the container -- the Breath Pattern

Every group meeting -- whether for an hour or over an extended period -- follows a repeating pattern. This pattern was named by Sam Kaner and his colleagues as "The Diamond of Participation". We enter a meeting with the hope of getting through it to a goal at the other end. Some of us may come with curiosity, others with trepidation, some with reluctance, but at the beginning we are interested to know who else is there, what we might achieve and what resources we have to offer. This is the time of Divergence. Eventually we step out of the known world and into the realm of confusion. What are we doing again? This time of messiness is called Emergence. A better name for it is the Groan Zone. Most people find it uncomfortable, it not downright scary, but if we can stay together here, eventually we will make it to the final part of the process, called Convergence, where we've made some decisions together and we're stepping into the next part of the action. This pattern repeats itself in groups. It's as natural as breathing, which is why the Art of Hosting community calls it "the Breath Pattern". As a host, it pays to know how this pattern operates and how to navigate with your group through it. I use it as the foundational pattern in setting the container for the groups I'm working with. I find it helpful to name this pattern so people can ride the waves with more confidence,


"Begin with the end in mind" is a great rule of thumb. When you are clear on what you want to harvest at the end of the process -- meaning what tangible and intangible results you want to produce, both for the individual and the collective -- then the process pieces can fall easily into place. I call this "results focus" and it stands in direct opposition to "slot management" where an agenda consists simply of slots being filled. If you want people to feel like their concerns have been heard, how will you invite all voices in? If you have a lot of content to get through, can it be done in a more engaging way than through a powerpoint? How will you portray, or demonstrate, the results at the end? I am illustrating this blog post with the graphic harvests from some very talented professionals who attended my online sessions. What a gift to the participants -- and to me!

Check in/Check out

Since the digital realm amplifies everything, if people are not paying attention -- or worse are openly multi-tasking -- it can really disrupt the focus of a meeting. Often people come into an online meeting with something else pressing in the background. One way to help people step into focus is to bring their voice in and you have a number of ways to do it. A Check In helps people become present by inviting their focus to this particular meeting. If you have a small group together online, you could invite each participant to share in turn. If you have a larger group, have them write into the Zoom chat window. Even asking for their name, where their feet touch the ground and some question pertinent to the meeting focuses everyone's attention back to the group. At the end of your meeting, make a clear close by inviting a Check Out. Once again, ask people to write into the chat window, expressing what they are taking away or what their question is now, or some insight they gained.


During a crisis people are on an emotional rollercoaster. One of the greatest gifts we can give each other is the power of our listening. You might even say that listening is love in action. Using moments of stillness and processes that invite people to actively listen builds the capacity to welcome new information that leads to innovation. Fear can keep us guarded against the very subtle inklings that can lead to transformation. Good listening helps us to relax enough so that trust can enter the space, leading people to the brave conversations they are longing to have.

Powerful Questions

The direct complement to deep listening is a powerful question. A good question can open the doorway to new perspectives and therefore to the transformation we are hoping for. It is both a skill and an art to ask a powerful question and a much needed capacity in any leader's toolkit.  If you want to use stories as a way of making collective wisdom out of learned experience, then a question is one way to help people find the stories you want to harvest. Asking a question is already an intervention. During this webinar, we used both listening and questions together by asking participants to work together in story trios.

During the presentation on April 1 for the Virtual Collaboration Campus, and in response to participant comments, I suddenly came up with "The 5 Cs":

Start with Curiosity. It is the strongest building block to great meetings. Out of it arises Courage, the courage to notice the new, speak from the heart, go after what really matters. When these two are in place, Creativity springs up. And from there the Collective can get to work, collaborating and creating more wisdom. Finally Compassion underpins the gifts we give back to the whole -- and to ourselves.


This past week I was asked to offer a session on how to take facilitation online for a course called ONLINE HOSTING NOW (starting tomorrow!)  and I chose to take on the inquiry into how to make magic and meaning in the online space. This time it was more about practices.

As someone once said: Its 40% the participants, 40% the facilitator and 20% magic.  I know I show up for that 20%. So what does it take?


Your first building block is your own mindset, worldview and personal practice. Together, these add up to presence. When you are in the space with someone who has great presence, you don't need sophisticated technique, they already begin to influence the field. People say things like: "I never thought I would say so much about myself" or "it's amazing how deep we went in this conversation". Personal practice helps you stay grounded and focused, no matter what comes up. In fact, falling in love with your participants is a great way to start. YOU are your greatest instrument. Just like an ordinary violin sounds better in the hands of an accomplished player, when your inner and outer are tuned to perfection, you become a Stradivarius in the hands of a master. 

If you'd like to hear my story about "keep falling into the whole", have a look here.


Everything you do is an invitation and people always respond to invitations. Are you offering an invitation to be a little box on a screen in consumer mode or a real live individual who is an active participant? Think of these stages: Before: Before your meeting starts, how have you invited people in? What do they know about the topic, the agenda, their part in it, how they can contribute, what you want them to prepare and what they can think about before they arrive? During: Do you invite them to be fully present by offering a check in? How are you asking them to participant within your processes? After: Are people clear what actions are needed and what they need to contribute? In what ways can invitation help people to stay in the boat together?

I like playful things that help people to get focused. Here's what my Zoom Waiting Room screen looks like: 


If you work with me at all, you will hear me say: Framing is everything. Helping people know WHY and HOW are important parts of encouraging them to be on the journey together. The other thing you need to be prepared to do is set the frame when emergence turns up. It's like being on a river rafting trip on a Grade 2 river, floating happily along. Suddenly you round the bend and the river turns to a Grade 5. Now everyone needs to be paddling to stay in the boat. As the river guide, you help to steer, but you also need to make people aware of their own responsibilities as the situation changes. Often, I start the framing right at the beginning by offering a talking piece for the Check In that has a story around it. It sets the mood, offers people a way to step in and frames our time together. Framing is everything.

This is the second harvest of the same talk by another graphic facilitator. I've added it to make the point that although both of these people experienced the same webinar, they made different sense and meaning out of it. Both beautiful captures and both different. One saw a space exploration and one the organic growth of a tree.

Exactly this will be true for your participants! Each will make sense in their own way. That's just the way the human brain works. You can help the main points to be the same for everyone in the way you focus and structure your framing and your processes.  Brave and transformative spaces are here. You just need to give them the room to unfold. Good luck!

Graphic harvests -- THANK YOU so much!

  1. Sabine Soeder, Co-creative Flow 
  2. Martina Grigoleit, Bikablo
  3. Desirée van Dijk, Bikablo

Isn't it time to have a brilliant ally on your side?

Subscribe to my newsletter for the latest about the power & practice of story.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.