Welcome to Open Space.
When Harrison Owen, the inventor of Open Space Technology, walked into our room at Connecting4Community and started talking, everyone went silent. He is, after all, a celebrated leader in our community, one that pioneered the way for facilitation and conflict resolution. He is also a master storytelling, and he instantly captivated us by sharing his life experiences, and by showing his compassion and motivation for the amazing work that he does. He also surprised us by admitting that he holds a “light regard for the truth”. This struck me as particularly relevant as I believe each time we share a story it changes or shifts depending on our mood and our audience – storytelling is not so much about truth as it is about wisdom. As Harrison began, he told us that his goal for our day is “not just talking about community – its about ‘doing’ community.”
Open Space is really quite simple – you are invited into a space where you sit in a large circle. You can then walk into the centre of the circle and write down a topic or idea that you would like to discuss. The ideas are posted on boards along with time and area specifics, and people can choose which topics interest them. Harrison explained how everything worked and then asked us to write down our conversation topics.
I jumped at the chance to discuss something I have been exploring – the ability to measure change through storytelling. It is something that I know to be true, in the way that storytelling captures our impact in ways that data cannot, and yet it is also something I struggle with, since I am not sure how to set it up so that we can easily capture those stories on an ongoing basis.
Before Harrison released us from the circle, he told us about The Law of Two Feet. As he spoke, I suddenly got an entirely new perspective of what it means to be a leader. The Law of Two Feet encourages participants to float around from group to group, either as a Bumblebee or as a Butterfly. The Bumblebee buzzes from one group to the next, stopping whenever something catches their attention. The hope is that the Bumblebee will cross-pollinate, bringing ideas from one group to the next. The Butterfly sits back quietly, rarely dominating the conversations but almost always surprising the group with the depth of their contribution. The hope is that the Butterfly will encourage others to listen and be respectful of each voice in the circle.
Now, The Law of Two Feet means that participants can engage in conversations up until the point that they lose interest or choose to leave. They can then walk away, join another group or return to the original conversation.“If you are not contributing or interested, all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other and walk away”, says Harrison. Now it sounds simple enough, to give people permission to leave when they want, but after having facilitated many groups, I know that most people, including myself, would not dare of leaving a conversation for fear of being rude or missing out (see my previous post on FOMO). This law throws all of that out the window. Open Space is not about being polite after all, it is about moving beyond discussion and getting to that place where ideas become actions.
Harrison’s advice to us: “Go somewhere where you are doing something useful”.
And so, when we broke off into our small groups, I found myself leading a conversation with 8 people from all over the world interested in storytelling. Some of them stayed for the entire hour and a half, some left and came back, others buzzed about and then sought out another topic, perhaps more applicable to their field. The time flew by, and I was amazed at the flow of dialogue – every person had something of value to share, and we each built on the other comments. While we all had different perspectives, we found a way to come together and figure out why storytelling is so vital to social change and why we want to move away from traditional methods of analysis, including facts and figures. The day of Open Space reminded me that we often hold the answers to our own questions, it is just a matter of finding the time and the space to open up the dialogue and deepen our awareness. Connecting4Community was a magical moment in time, when strangers became friends and passions became possibilities.
To the organizers, the contributors and to my new community, thank you for opening your hearts and sharing your stories. Thank you for bringing us together and for building us a community.