Facilitation and Hosting – A Continuum or A Dichotomy?

Some recent blog musings by my friend and colleague Chris Corrigan on the distinctions between ‘facilitation and hosting’ stimulated me to clarify my own thinking, which in turn have led us to a further exchange and refinement of views (for the full thread, see Facilitation vs. Hosting – Parking Lot. Here is a brief extract that captures the essence of Chris’s initial reflections:

“Facilitation comes from a mechanistic view of organizations, that they are machines that can be fixed…. Hosting, on the other hand, is a practice of leading from within a living system. It’s like entering the machine, becoming a part of it and changing it by being there… From a complexity stand point, facilitation is seen as a reductionist activity, reducing complexity to simple problems with simple outcomes and a simple path for getting there. Facilitators help groups to seek answers and end states. Hosting from within the field however is more aligned with the nature of complex systems, where there are no answers, but instead only choices to make around the next question, and the paths where those questions lead us.” (November 20, 2007)

Here is my November 26th response to Chris post:

Chris, I appreciate the thoughtfulness and time you have committed to attempt to distinguish between facilitating and hosting; it is one that as a Certified Professional Facilitator with the International Association of Facilitators and as a Fellow of the Art of Hosting, I have grappled with as well.

We are in agreement about the need for leading from the emerging field within the living systems we are invited to serve, and of bringing our whole self to the work – all of our tools, insights, wisdom, processes, and other assets that may assist in enabling the wisest and most sustainable choices.

Characterizing facilitation as a mechanistic and reductionist activity, however, is where we disagree. As a professional facilitator, I do not see groups, organizations and communities – the client systems where I am called to assist – as machine problems to be fixed. Clients do not bring me into the relationship as a mechanic, but rather as an active partner and catalyst, where my process expertise and experience are to serve as ‘evolutionary agent’ towards a desired change or transformation.

As a facilitator, whenever I can, I work with a design team of the whole system throughout the convening and design phase of an engagement, so that together, our combined content and process knowledge can help ensure we develop the most effective and appropriate work we are capable of at this time, given what we know. Once the system convenes around the agreed upon agenda and process, however, there is clearly a need for a neutral and skilled facilitator that is trusted by all to remain in service of the whole system, and not perceived to have a bias towards a particular group, stakeholder, answer or direction.

The facilitator’s neutrality does not equate in my mind with being a mechanic; it is a role adopted on behalf of and in service of the whole system towards its greatest ongoing good. Within that role, it is still possible for me to ‘lead from the emerging field’ and to ‘host consciousness’ – in other words, to discern what is emerging, to sense the questions that need to be asked, to have the courage to name patterns, call behaviours, and to suggest changes in process direction – all in service of the group’s larger health and wholeness. Up until now, I have called this “masterful facilitation”, or “servant leadership”; it requires complete detachment from the outcomes, and no investment in being right, looking good, or making a difference. I am willing to also call it ‘hosting’ so long as in doing so, I am not agreeing to a dichotomy that I do not believe truly exists between facilitating and hosting.

I suggest that a true disservice will be created Chris, by fostering this distinction in the field. Instead, I would invite you to view hosting as the endpoint of the facilitation continuum – representing the deeper intention and commitment of the goal of facilitation – to host the highest and wisest good of the whole. Along this continuum, the student starts with technique and method, and as s/he gains experience and wisdom, is increasing is able to act as a true servant leader – courageous as a warrior, gentle as a midwife – a humble host who understands one’s self as an integral and inseparable member of the larger whole.

To which Chris responded on November 28th:

Thanks all for these comments. Myriam, you are right I think to call me on the dichotomy. I think this post was generated out of a call to see things like that, and I acknowledge that the raw dichotomy itself does a disservice to the continuum you point to so beautifully.

On one level our language doesn’t matter, and on another level it does. I don’t mean for this post to be a call to see oneself as one thing or the other – I will call myself a facilitator for a long time to come. Nor am I seeking a conflict between communities of practice that use one term or the other, because there IS no conflict there. I do, however think that language does belie some hidden cultural assumptions about things. I am inspired in this regard by Meg Wheatley’s practice of trying to exorcise mechanistic language from her vocabulary and see where that leaves us. We can certainly shift the meanings of words depending on how we use them, but to me it’s interesting to note what does pass for “facilitation” in the wider world and to see the assumptions that many people who are not facilitators hold about the work we do. In my experience, more often than not, the general population has a view of facilitation that is mechanistic or arises from the dominant mechanistic worldview – come and help us solve the problem, make things easier, make things run smoother. You are the guy with the tools…come work with us. It might not be how I actually show up, but the ground of expectation is set there.

You speak of “masterful facilitation” as a term to describe this shift from a beginning in facilitation to the practices I am also writing about. The only quibble I would have with this is the light implication that we move there from a place of being a student facilitator showing up with tools and techniques. It charts a path from technique to wisdom. I wonder if there isn’t another starting point. What if people were introduced to this field not through techniques and tools but rather through processes of presence? If the core practice of a masterful facilitator is leading from the field why not begin a path that is about learning how to be in that field first, how to work from within fields as a servant leader or a host? This is something I am trying hard to do with the people I run “trainings” with. Can we find our core capacities in being rather than in doing? What if we began the journey that way? Of what service could we then become? What implications would this path have for learning the art?

In practice of course, the dichotomy doesn’t matter and I agree wholeheartedly with the idea of a continuum. Those of us that do this work offer ourselves to the world in numerous ways, and that is all good. We are needed in the world in a diversity of ways. There really is no language that works for me to describe the kind of work I am doing with people, and any attempt to choose words comes with all kinds of implication. I have to be careful not to call myself a facilitator if the expectation is that I will behave in certain ways as a result. And calling myself a host in most contexts is even worse, because most people don’t even know what that means.

Although, like here, it is the conversation that might matter rather than the label. Thanks for these thoughts and for showing up in here with such strong and generous energy. Chris

And to which I then replied on November 28th:


You ask, “what if people were introduced to this field not through techniques and tools but rather through processes of presence? If the core practice of a masterful facilitator is leading from the field why not begin a path that is about learning how to be in that field first, how to work from within fields as a servant leader or a host?”

What I meant about the ‘do be do be do’ comment earlier is that whether to start with presence or technique may be a conversation that does not lend itself to a ready or obvious answer. In our practice retreat Wise Action/Lasting Impact, we do both together – that is, strive to help participants learn to attend, or “be present to” in your language, both the ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ work of facilitation “as” they learn various facilitation methods/techniques.

Quoting directly from our program materials (download brochure – Wise Action/Lasting Impact) “outer facilitation is helping participants through the agenda in accordance with the purpose, principles and other articulated norms for working together. Inner facilitation is being present and attending to what is actually emerging, and being willing to change the design to best serve the group.” We go on to further help participants distinguish (and practice) these dual foci of facilitation, and provide these two lists to help clarify what to attend to:

Outer Facilitation During Event: Constantly Ask – What Will Serve the Group Now?

  • Help participants pursue or explicitly revise the purposes and goals that brought them together, and the norms and agreements for how they want to work together.
  • Stay focused on the agenda, framing questions and exercises from the methods selected within the time available.
  • Coordinate activities and contributors (as appropriate to the method/process chosen).
  • Model a spirit of openness, curiosity, respect & care.
  • Collect group results/data for harvest; display group work/progress.

Inner Facilitation During Event: Constantly Ask – How Can I Nurture Emergence?

  • Be fully present to the unfolding field. Attend to what is unfolding in real time versus original agenda.
  • Continually ask: how can I best serve the whole for collective wisdom to emerge?
  • ‘Dance’ flexibly with the design in response to group energy.
  • Anticipate and be transparent about the ‘groan zone’ or other bumps. If/when it happens, be willing to stand in the creative tension to foster emergence.
  • Demonstrate commitment to responsiveness, detachment, collaboration, co-design.”

I am grateful to you Chris for the opportunity you are providing to help clarify thinking about these two terms.

All the best,

Author: myriamlaberge

M.A. (Economics), Certified Professional Facilitator Founder & Managing Director