Asking honest, open questions, resisting the need to fix, & letting the light in: Takeaways from our first-ever host retreat

This past weekend, 22 Dinner Party hosts came together for our first-ever host retreat in Point Reyes Station, CA: a tiny town on the coast just north of San Francisco, replete with Douglas firs, foggy mornings, and clear-skied afternoons. One part wellness retreat, one part skill-building fest, one part The Real World for adults (sans the scandal,) the weekend was--if we may be so bold--straight-up magic.

We’ve known from the beginning that successful hosting isn’t about having the perfect thing to say at any moment, or offering help or guidance--and it most certainly isn’t about being an expert. But it does require that we really show up. Hosts have to be willing to model the same vulnerability that we ask of everyone at the table, while simultaneously avoiding the urge to speak at every moment, or to become a dominant voice. We have to listen without distraction, and engage in a conversation, rather than a series of rehearsed narratives. It requires that we be, in the words of today’s bona fide meditation gurus and the many peddlers of those age-old principles, really and truly present. 

Going into the weekend, we had three goals in mind: First and foremost, we invited everyone to get their self-care on. We opened with a morning devoted to going inward: yoga and meditation and indulging in the finest cornmeal pancakes known to humankind.  We reflected on the very real men and women who’d brought us all together, and on where we are today, and where we’d been. At the group’s decree, “Monday AM” was on the list of things we were to leave behind. 

Second, we wanted a chance to share what works and what doesn’t, and to dive into the “how-to’s”: How do you create a space that’s both casual and intimate (#chillpotluckvibes), and simultaneously invites people to go deep? What do you do when someone’s steamrolling a conversation? What’s the difference between an open and honest question and one that’s really advice-giving in disguise? 

And finally, the host retreat was our first chance to bring together folks from across tables, and to begin to paint the canvas together. We wanted to walk away knowing that in five years, we’ll be able to look back on the weekend as a turning point: The moment the seeds of a movement first took root. We may not have a crystal ball, but we’re willing to place a bet: Mission accomplished. 

A few takeaways: 

  1. Be. Don't do. Ours is a culture obsessed with to-do lists: An obsession we share, as one look at our post-it collection will prove. The compulsion to “do” goes beyond the occasional temptation to give advice, or desire to fix, or to correct (all of which should be squelched, pronto.) We want to be the perfect host. We want to make everyone feel instantly at ease, and taken care of. We want to say the perfect things, and create the perfect space, and cook up a main dish that could leave any foodie salivating for more. Among the themes of the weekend was letting go the constant need to do. 
  2. Ask honest, open questions. We were joined over the weekend by the amazing Karen Erlichman, a facilitator with the Center for Courage and Renewal (an org we’ve gushed about before, and that it’s safe to say we’re a teeny tiny bit obsessed with.) Karen shared the distinction between open questions and closed ones, and questions you know the answer to, and questions whose answer you couldn’t possibly guess. It can be tempting to ask a question that’s actually a suggestion: basically anything that begins with the words, “Have you tried…” Asking honest, open questions means focusing on the present tense, rather than the past: “Where are you now,” rather than questions about the past, intended merely to satiate your curiosity. It means lifting up words and phrases you hear: “Say more about that,” and “OMG, I’m so glad you said that--that really resonates.” 
  3. Invite silence. As a general rule, we’re not fans of rules. But one thing we do mention when someone’s joining a table for the first time is that folks are never under any obligation to speak, and that we don’t believe in awkward silences. Yet we’re hardly immune from the compulsion to fill silence, and the tendency to feel uncomfortable the instant a conversation pauses. We were reminded again and again over the weekend of the value of silence, and those rare moments that you can block out the noise, and really listen to yourself. There’s a difference, of course, between silence and feeling silenced, so for those of us who are prone to continually speak up, resisting the urge to jump right in can give someone who hasn’t spoken up in awhile a chance to speak. It can be as easy as starting or closing a dinner with a meditation, or simply making a conscious effort to allow space in between questions and different conversation threads. 
  4. Hold opposites. “Hospitable and charged,” “silence and speech,” “forward movement" and “ugly truths,” “#chillpotluck vibes” vs. “#realtalk,” making space to laugh and to cry, a recognition that every one of our stories is different and that ours is a shared story. We got paradoxes aplenty, which can be challenging when our impulse is to put things in neat little boxes, and constantly categorize. Here, we apply the great law of improv: Yes and, y’all. 
  5. Let the light in. Srsly. Yes, this s*#@ gets heavy. No, we don’t have any interest in pretending otherwise. But “have fun” is, to us, way more than the kind of empty directive found at the bottom of a 10th-grade science assignment. To keep people coming back--hell, to keep coming back ourselves--we have to want to be there. And that means laughing as much as we cry, and forging real friendships, and balancing the light and the dark.

We’ll be heading out to eastern PA for our East Coast host retreat, September 26-28. There are still a couple of spots free for folks looking to start a table of their own, so email lennon@thedinnerparty.org if you want to reserve a spot.  

Huge thanks to everyone who gave during our Indiegogo campaign: You all are what made these two weekends possible. On behalf of all of us here in Dinner Partyland, thank you.   

Posted on September 10, 2014 .