Inviting story into the room with you is one of the best choices you can make for group success. It easily flows across the way a group naturally performs and can support the cohesion, coherence and results a group achieves. Here’s how…
Sam Kaner and his colleagues identified and named the parts of how a group works together in his seminal work “Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making”. In the Art of Hosting practice field, we call this the “Breath Pattern” and we use its parts – divergence, emergence and convergence – as a guide for designing great group process.
Whether a group is meeting for one hour, multiple days, or longer this pattern naturally repeats itself, just like humans continue to breathe in and out. Knowing about it — and surfacing it to the group – can make the work easier. It’s not that this is a “bad” group because it is confused and agitated – or even downright hostile! – it is a normal group, because every group needs to go through emergence if it is to produce something new.
The Divergence phase is all about supporting a group to land well together as participants, in place and with the topic. No matter how often a group has met, it will go through the process of having to come into alignment. When there is a mutual starting point, new information can begin to emerge. As we learn more about each other, more is revealed, and so on. Some people love this phase because it is like a giant treasure hunt. It is stimulating to find out about others, find out why they are here or what they most care about and what they think.
The second phase is Emergence. At some point, if we are to create something new together, we will step off the edge of the known universe and move away from what we have done in the past. On medieval maps this spot often bore the legend “here be dragons”. Some people love this phase because there are no rules, anything is possible. And many people hate this phase (and sometimes themselves or the other people) because it can be so incredibly uncomfortable and sometimes even terrifying. Kaner and his colleagues call this “the groan zone” for this reason.
In German it’s called the “Knirschzone” because that’s the sound your teeth make when they grind together. A very apt term! But it could also be called “the grown zone” because if you can stay there and stay together fruitfully, something new will be born.
The final part of the Breath Pattern is called Convergence, because here we begin to focus in to finally make the result. Many people love this phase because it is so tangible and results focused. And maybe also because the end is in sight!
The skill of a great facilitator or host is to accompany and support the group through all these phases.
Helping them be open enough to learn from each other and the experience, robust enough to ride the waves as a team and resilient enough to make it to a good result. Story can help!
Hosting is an unfolding story in the group. From the moment people accept the invitation to be part of something, they are part of a collective story they are making together at each moment. Let’s take a closer look at all the parts:
The story begins with the invitation. Invitation is an artform and the best invitations help people to arrive in such a way that they want to contribute to the work, or at least are curious. What story are you inviting your group to be part of?
This might be called the “Step In” phase. People are entering a new collective field. Their key question is: “What’s here?”.They want to know the purpose, other participants’ motivations, they want to know if they will be well hosted, maybe even if it’s safe. They want to know if this work matters. This is a time to build the relational field by introducing g people, place, group and topic. It is the beginning of the story. The beginning of a story is about creation.
People want to know: "What’s here?"
Story can help, beginning at the group check in. Asking people to share stories of why they said yes to the invitation, what they care about, about themselves and the topic helps to start building the relational field and group cohesion. Working with methods like World Café or Appreciative Inquiry and basing them more firmly on stories is a great assist to building the community conversation and connecting people. Methods like Trio Storytelling or Collective Story Harvest, here or in the Emergence phase, can help people dig more deeply into what they already know and find the gold in their own experience.
The middle of the pattern could also be called the “Step Up” phase. This challenging part of group work asks people to step up with their courage and strength to overcome resistance and stay connected. People’s key question here is: “What does it mean?” because it seems messy and overwhelming. Our role as hosts is to help them turn these questions into curiosity – “What does this mean to us as a collective field? so they can stay together for the bumpy ride. The other question that surfaces here is “What can we do with it?”. Our role as hosts is to help this question become: “What can we do with what we know and what we don’t know?” This is the place to create learning, surface old experience and new perspectives, strengthen cohesion so we can lean into emergence and expand resilience and hope. It is the middle of the story. The middle of the story is about challenge, change, conflict.
People want to know: "What does it mean? What can we do with it?"
Story supports this part of group process when people share their stories – about the topic, complexity, challenge or an aspect they care about. Collective Story Harvest or Trio Storytelling here can support people to stay connected and dig more deeply into group resources. Methods like Open Space or collective sensemaking exercises support the energy to be focused on what matters most to people, rather than fragmenting.
The final part of the Breath pattern could be called the “Step Out” phase. The question here is “Where does it go from here?”. People want to know how their work will be used and whether they made a contribution. It is the end of the story. The middle of the story is about completion.
People want to know: “Where does it go from here?”
Story can make a contribution here too, by helping the group take action. Telling stories about similar or vastly different challenges and how they were tackled can help people have the stamina to make action happen.
Crafting future stories – in which the participants describe where the group story goes from here – is also a compelling way to support the new to unfold.
Word to the wise
It’s convenient to talk about “beginning”, “middle” and “end” when referring to stories. But as narrative practitioner Paul Costello always says, there’s the beginning of the beginning, the middle of the beginning and the end of the beginning. Each phase has its parts too.
Most often, group conflict comes from people believing everyone else is in the same part of the story as they are.
One of the best things about storywork is that it can remind us that we all move at our own pace. Each part of the story has something to give us and being in different places is a gift of insight and understanding.
One of the most important roles of a facilitator is making the invisible, visible. Helping participants see where they – and we – are in the story is gold.
Across the Breath Pattern, story operates at three different levels, each equally important:
The Host or Facilitator – What stories can I tell to support the group? What stories are needed? A personal story to clarify the capacity of the host? A story about the topic? The mission of the group? An external story – either fact or fiction – that supports group qualities or focus?
Individuals – What stories do individuals need to tell? What stories or storywork can support individual learning, connection, relationship, engagement, wisdom?
Collective – What stories/storywork can support more collective wisdom? Where can the group create more ground together through sense and meaning making? Where can the relational field be enhanced or connection deepened? Where can the focus of the group work be strengthened?
Remember, context leads to content – an artful question is one of the best story-surfacers around!
Story can work with the natural rhythm and flow of group work, supporting people to stay together to create wiser action.
Hosting is an unfolding story in the group.