Some musings on facilitating open space


November 11th, 2015

While open space has been part of my facilitation DNA for 25+ years, I don’t always have opportunities to facilitate open space events. That’s changed this past few weeks with two quite different events. The first was for a group of 40 humanitarian workers from the Pacific Region. They meet regularly, but this was the first time they had done so using open space. The second was with around 200 people, many with an engineering background, ¬†from a state government organisation.

The first I facilitated alone, the second, I co-faciltated.

Given the choice, I would always choose to co-facilitate. It’s just not possible to have the sort of conversations I like to have with a co-facilltator (Should we or shouldn’t we do this or that? What if we…? How about trying…?) with my client. For one, it would probably freak them out to have too much of an insight into how my brain thinks up, considers, rejects, and eventually, after a circuitous route, lands on a course of action. Or not!

There’s a rhythm to an open space event, especially if people are new to the process. They arrive and view the circle with some suspicion, or at least apprehension. There’s nowhere to hide. It warms up slowly. Even if it’s a short open space, I like to include at least one sleep. People come back different after their subconscious has had a chance to process the experience of open space. Different how, you ask? More relaxed, more confident, willing to jump in – I’m not sure, but you can feel the different energy.

On the whole, I like big open space events better than smaller ones. There’s a buzz, an excitement around being able to get hundreds of people self-organising. It just seems to flow. As we know it always does. For me, it’s more evident when there’s lots of people.

I also love the way people are surprised by how useful it is just to talk with each other. Sure, there’s always someone who is a bit bored, or wants to move along at a faster pace, but generally the feedback is about the joy of actually sitting down and talking about what matters with other people who also care.

My favourite moment in open space is when people reconvene in the circle. I learnt from my friend and mentor, Brian Bainbridge, to sit in the circle and gently ring the bells till everyone comes and sits down. It may take a while, but eventually they do come. And with a large group, there’s also a lot of chatter. I absolutely love that moment, when ringing the bells, and all the chatter has stopped and there’s pretty much complete silence. It’s a moment you can practically touch. I find it deeply satisfying. A bit like open space itself.

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