Be An Expert — At Inviting Expertise

Many of us have an interesting relationship with “expertise.”

On the one hand, there is learning from people that really know stuff, that have paid attention, that have studied with rigor, that have learned through some hard knocks. It’s always great to be with people who are good at what they do, or clear on what they know.

On the other hand, there is a kind of externalizing responsibility away from ourselves that is also packed in to expertise. There is a shadowy cultural pattern of projecting way too much solution and rescue into finding just the right expert. It’s fun to look for super heroes that will fix everything. It’s just not super real.

In my work, I face this shadowy externalization often. I work in complex environments. Organizational systems. With teams that have been charged by systems to do a whole lot of good. I work so often with good people who are trying to make sense of those complex environments and to learn to move within them in ways that feel helpful and life-giving. I work with people who have desire to reshape the paradigms. It’s natural to look for expertise, to be in good learning, to be in due diligence, to be thoughtful.

Well, if attraction to expertise is here to stay, let’s accept that there is a range of nuanced expertise. For me, there is a kind of alternative expertise that I’m committed to giving air time and cultural practice. It is the expertise of inviting expertise to come forward from the group.

There is a maxim that I so often work from — there is more wisdom in the room that there is in any individual. Notice, this does not presume that there isn’t wisdom and knowhow in the individuals that can hold some preference. It just points to another quality of wisdom that arises from those in the room interacting. Of course there is power in many perspectives. Most of us know this (except when our egos wrench away the steering wheel — guilty as charged, right). Yet pressure, and leadership habit, often regress us to expertise that smacks of  command and control, and of the external and obliterates the instinct to listen together.

In the Art of Hosting community of practitioners, fifteen years ago I was part of creating what became known as “Hobbit Tools.” It was born out of a conversation that I was having with my friend and colleague Toke Moeller. We were at Aldermarsh on Whidbey Island, Washington, one of the best retreat centers that I’ve been lucky to meet at repeatedly. Toke and I had just finished cohosting an Art of Hosting (also Christina Baldwin and Teresa Posakony). It was just Toke and I sitting in our meeting space that was now all tidied. Flipcharts were recycled, our participants were gone. It was a time to simply appreciate the silence and the immediate memory of the moment.

My mind was cooking (because the gathering had gone so well). My heart was singing (because that’s what happens when things go well, right). I took the opportunity to ask Toke for some clarity, given the many wonderful things that I’d been a part of the previous three days with participants. “Toke,” I began, “if you had one tool to rely on, what would that be.” Toke has a knack for getting to the simple — it’s one of the things I’ve always love about him. After some pause — why rush — he said, “Be present.” We both held a silence for a moment. Be satisfied with just two words. Be present. There is expertise in that. It’s related to learning from an expert about presence, but the primary invocation was to “be” it.

I smiled at Toke, and my never-far-away-little-brother part of myself asked playfully, “And Toke, if you had two tools, what would the next be?” Toke smiled again. It’s what good learners do together, I think. He paused again, looked out the window at Aldermarsh’s open field for a bit, and then replied, “Have a good question.” There is expertise in that too, and, this expertise points to inviting expertise in others, doesn’t it. Ask. Engage. Encounter.

A couple months later, Toke and I were working together with a group in Ohio. We were staying with another brother in this work, Phil Cass. I remember at breakfast one day Toke talked to me with excitement. He had furthered our conversation from Aldermarsh and had added a third tool. “Pass a talking piece,” which was really code for pass a listening piece, which was really code for listen, listen, listen. Listen to the group. Listen for the wisdom in the room. Listen for what is not just cumulative in us, but also what arises among us.

In the way that I know Toke’s fierce commitment to listening, he asked me, “Is there anything that you would add to this Tenneson?” I love this irrepressible commitment to a co-creation. I responded with what showed up in my belly — “Harvest.” It had deep meaning for me, and for us. Harvest. Notice. Make it visible. Give it a temporary tangibility that gifts the group with seeing some of it’s own wisdom.

Toke is a hobbit at heart. Simple person in whom the still waters run deep. So is Phil. They helped to pull that same quality out of me — I think we did with each other.

Be an expert in inviting the expertise out of others. That “Hobbit Tools” has grown into interesting and expanded teachings by others. It’s great to see. But somewhere in that story from that first Art of Hosting at Aldermarsh, rests with me this reframe of expertise that is so often culturally overlooked or invisible — it isn’t providing more from the external; it is inviting more from the internal and from the group that is trying to go together.

In an age of “look it up on youtube,” there is a video for everything. Yes, that’s fascinating. And helpful. For everything from folding paper airplanes to fixing cars to meditation techniques. Awesome! And, and, and —  let’s not forget the nuanced and essential quality of expertise that people everywhere are hungry for, and I think recognize when the see it, even when they (we) have forgotten in practice. Inviting forward what people know, feel, and wonder about, is itself an overlooked and much needed expertise.



Everything is Not What it Seems

I’ve started reading a book recommended by my partner, Teresa Posakony. It is by Bruce Lipton and Steve Bhaerman called Spontaneous Evolution. The main theme is about society participating in evolution (evolving the way we evolve) by making a significant change in beliefs and behaviors. I met Bruce Lipton once — his presentation was full and intense. He knows a lot of stuff and weaves it quite fiercely to create bridges between science and matters of spirit.

Generally speaking, I find it delicious to crack open a new book. I love the introduction and I love the table of contents, and preamble, and preface — as ways to understand the narrative arc that the author is about to invite us to ride upon. A ride is coming — that is what I love. One that might tease and tumble my imagination.

In this book, Spontaneous Evolution, Chapter 1 is titled, “What if Everything We Know is Wrong!” Funny that I just noticed it is punctuated with an exclamation point, not a question mark. The authors aren’t asking if this is true. They are asserting it.

I find it exquisite when people take on this theme of “everything we know is wrong.” It’s the river under the river. For me, more often I speak it as “all is not what it seems.” Or even more accurately, that everything is incomplete because this fantastic set of symbols that we call words, could never express the fullness of what is — it’s a good system, but remains a reductive system.

It’s the description of the nature of reality that has so often felt off to me, rendering much of the discussion and action plans that we humans create, off as well. A key first step for working and living together as teams, or families, or communities, is to be willing and able to explore the underlaying story that supports our knowing and insights. One of my colleagues has been reminding me of the need for “round world” rather than “flat world” strategies.

There’s a story in this chapter by Lipton and Bhaerman that illustrates how our perception (and certainty) can trick us. And by us, I do mean all of us. It’s not whether we will be wrong that is the issue to me. Rather, it is whether we are willing to engage with self and others about the incompleteness of it.

“Gaze into the sky on a clear, dark, moonless night, and you will see thousands of pinholes of light — each one a massive, magnificent star in a Universe too large to imagine. Focus on one star and realize that it might no longer exist but may have burned out and collapsed into space rubble eons ago. But because the star was light-years away, illumination from its former existence is still visible, serving as a navigational guide for mariners.

Now, turn your gaze from the heavens to our less-than-heavenly Earth and ask: ‘Is it possible that we have been charting our course by a burned-out philosophical star? What if our belief system about life is wrong?'”

Good, right? Following a star that has already died. I love the reference.

I think that the most important disposition that I’ve been able to offer in working with groups is to, just for a moment, help them (and me) entertain the notion that we might not have it all figured out. Curiosity is the need — that’s what I tell them. Dislocation of certainty, even for a moment — this reawakens a fundamental human quality of evolving not just what we do, but how we are together.

The willingness to engage around such vulnerability of not knowing, and just maybe, not having it all figured out — that’s a game changer.

On Shadow — To Try


Last week at the first session of our series, The Inner and Outer of Evolutionary Leadership: Engaging Shadow, Kinde Nebeker offered a “To Try.” It was homework. It was practice. It was a call to attentiveness.

  1. Feel it.
  2. Be willing to explore if there is a kernel of truth in it.
  3. Follow clues, and feel it again, now for difference.

This is solid advice and practice that I’ve taken to heart myself in the last four days. And even though it is practice that feels familiar, there is something additionally powerful in being reminded. What’s happening for me is what Kinde and I invoked in the group — “you will get what you are willing to look for.”

It’s feeling like a lot. Mine is a kind of terror, mentally and emotionally, about a suppressed thought that I generally have preferred, unconsciously, to keep suppressed. That thought has even more power when connected to a few life experiences that were painful. It’s easy to see how the movie playing inside of me can become so rigid, fearful, and punishing.

As Kinde and I shared with others in the session, when working with shadow, there are some closely related landscapes. Trauma is one. Conflict is another (or at least a gateway in to shadow). Even sabotage. And, there are many important and related ways of working with these. Therapy and counseling come to mind. The Work of Byron Katie is another, that is so good an interrupting the movie.

Feel it — this is very much about being willing to stay, unprocessed as Kinde reminds me, in the feeling. The ickiness. The painfulness. The fearfulness. The immediate impulse to deny. My partner Teresa Posakony teaches that these are all responses of contraction, neurally entrained liked carved canyons in our minds and psyches, that activate our reptilian brains — the ones that know mostly flight or fight. She says, “the part of our brain that we need for such experiences is mostly offline because we default to contraction.” Stay in the feeling. The stickiness. The ache in the back of the neck. The ever so slight turning of the head away, as if we can look away, and avoid, making it disappear. We all do this — let’s not kid ourselves. This is a call for awareness and interruption, not perfection and denial.

Explore the kernel of truth — of the “it.” That nasty thought or feeling that we are trying to stay clear of. I love what my friend Caitlin Frost does with these kernels in her Work of Byron Katie. “It may be true, which can be freeing to realize. Just because it is true some of the time doesn’t make it true all of the time.” I find that the sharing of these embarrassing kernels can become such a humanizing process together. We get to recognize a widely shared experience, shifting it from a mythology of extremely isolated.

Follow clues — I love the way Kinde speaks of this as clues to liberation. It’s not court room testimony clues that we are looking for. It’s not proof and absolutism. Nor is it a mind game to convince us that everything is OK. It’s clues that unlock the hold that a blind spot, or a shadow-infused stress, or a trauma-impacted rigidity can have on us. The surprising (and yet not) thing is how many clues there typically are. It turns out the world is not colluding against us.

I’m grateful for this simple “To Try.” I’m excited to move our attention in the next session from this awareness of shadow in self to exploring how shadow becomes part of groups. And I continue to hope for an evolution of who we are as humans, and how we are together, in the needs of communities, large and small, that we claim as dear.

Bowen Island Art of Hosting, Last Day


Endings matter. Closings to events and trainings matter, though I like the way that one participant spoke this appreciatively — “it was less training; it was more tribing.”

A team of four of us created a closing to this Art of Hosting that included poetry, remembrances (written on the colored circular paper that you see in the middle of this photo — each wrote, placed them in the shape of the salmon at the center of the room, and then was invited to take one home written by another). Then an expression of gratitude from each, song, a collective blowing out the candle. And then great hugs.

Just enough ceremony to seal the time together. Not with more information. Just with feeling.

With gratitude to this group and the time together, in one of my favorite places in the world, and cohosting team, Chris Corrigan, Caitlin Frost, Teresa Posakony, and Amanda Fenton.