The Disaster of Un-Facilitated Open Space (very long)

Harrison Owen hhowen at
Wed Sep 19 05:07:20 PDT 2007

Well done, Peggy! Definitely deserving of a profound "Atta-Girl!!" Every
time I find myself in a conversation such as this a simple (minded?)
question comes to the fore. If everybody knew precisely where they were
going, why would they bother to come in the first place? 


Somewhere along the line you say something to the effect that orderly
precision is to be applauded in the manufacture of autos, planes, etc. True,
I guess - but in those situations we know, or at least think we know, what
we are doing. So it makes sense just to get it done. However, at a deeper
level, the manufacturing process of those critters is just as chaotic as all
the rest of life (LOTS OF MYSTERY) at least for those who are actively
engaged in the process. And if you don't believe that just listen to the
engineers and technicians as they do their job. Lots of chaos, confusion and
conflict, although people try real hard to keep the knowledge of those
realities from the customer. 


It is also true that innovation and improvement come precisely at the points
of chaos (at the edge of mystery). And when a system gets (or thinks it has
gotten) all the answers, innovation is dead - and it won't be too long
before the system itself is moribund. Your friend seemingly feels that we
actually have a choice - to engage/not to engage the question. To avoid or
not to avoid the fundamental churning of life (chaos). Seen in this light,
what happens in Open Space (what happened in your Open Space) is not some
un-natural aberration. It is just what is. (Whatever happens is the only
thing that could have.) When things get really wild, I can certainly
understand the desire to hide under a rock and get out of the way. And every
so often you just have to do that, but I fail to see that this withdrawal
changes the essential nature of this wonderful chaordic stuff we call life
and living.  We didn't create it, and we can't really change it - but we can
certainly learn how to live it better.




Sent: Wednesday, September 19, 2007 2:23 AM
Subject: The Disaster of Un-Facilitated Open Space (very long)


Okay, the title isn't is from someone who attended the recent
Story Field Conference (  Mind you, it is also
a very minority view.  For almost all of the 83+ people who attended, it was
a mind-blowing, life-altering experience.  It set a new bar for me of what
is possible when a diverse group of passionate people come together for 5
days in Open Space.


I'll say more about the whole conference soon.  In the meantime, there was
one particularly provocative post-conference reflection expressing a great
deal of frustration about what took place.  This person really struggled
with the open nature of the process, and asked some great questions.
(Unfortunately, his piece is in a secured area and I am not ready to ask his
permission to share it.)  Still, I think you'll get the gist through my


As I said to him, there is so much to be learned about the dynamic tension
between "structured process where everyone knows what's going on, and
everyone agrees to the ground rules" and a space open to the mystery of what
is wanting to emerge in the moment....





One of the main themes I found in your message was why go through all the
discomfort?  What's the point?

You said: The group seems divided into two camps - those who prefer messy,
emotional, and random processing, and those who came here for a specific
purpose, with the hope of creating something new and extraordinary, and who
are equally frustrated by the chaos.

I'd offer that for many of us, it is going through the messy, emotional,
seemingly random processing that we have the best chance of creating
something new and extraordinary.


I have a deep and abiding commitment to bringing mystery back into most
everything we do.  I believe that without the unknown, there is no learning,
no creativity, no life.  For me, if there is only certainty, I suffocate.  I
also believe that when there is no room for the unknown, it makes itself
felt through disease, disorder, violence, depression and other unpleasant
and unintended consequences.


Culturally, we celebrate perfection - perfect athletic performance, musical
performance, total quality in production.  I'm glad we do; I have felt the
inspiration of experiencing a virtuoso performance.  And I sure don't want
airplanes, bridges, cars built any other way.  


Still, there is a companion to this perfection that I believe is equally
essential that is not only not celebrated, but struggles to find its
legitimacy -- and grows increasingly important the more dysfunctional and
destructive the status quo becomes.  It is what happens at the margins,
where something doesn't yet have a form or a name, where it is seeking to
come into being.  My friend, David Gershon, calls it the learning edge.  If
we aren't playing at the border between the known and unknown, we are
standing in the way of our own evolution.  To be very pragmatic, there is no
learning or transformational change without mystery; if you already know the
outcome, then no transformation is involved!  


I appreciate learning from other's knowledge, and believe that has its
place.  When exploring a topic as nascent as a "story field", I would much
rather be present with passionate, committed, talented people exploring
their inquiries rather than committed to their certainties.  I suspect this
is true for many, if not most of us.  


Could we have made better use of those who brought knowledge about the new
story to the gathering?  Surely.  SHOULD we have, in some particular way?  I
don't know.  I think this choice is a useful exploration and would be
pleased to engage more fully in it.  In retrospect, I suspect we both gained
and lost by the choices we made.  For example, we did not come away with
anywhere near the shared sense of how to answer the calling questions as I
would have liked.  And yet I wonder, had we done so, would the voices that
are often left out found their place in the story?  I have no idea.  I know
that I gained a deeper understanding of how vital it is for those voices to
be part of the story that emerges.  And I do know that the work continues to
unfold among many who were present.  


I have come to believe that strategic conversations, such as we had at the
Story Field Conference, are part of a larger trend, a floating conversation,
with different threads of a collective exploration slowly converging,
bringing together different cohorts who are exploring similar questions.
Through these seemingly unconnected iterations, we are growing a new and
vital coherence among us.  At least, that's my story.  And it begins,
indirectly, to touch on this question of what it takes to get things done.




I, too, have a passion for getting things done. That's why I invested the
unbelievable amount of time it took to put together this story field
gathering.  But for me, the important question is this:  given an intention,
what form of getting things done best serves that intention? 


For example, I co-edited a 700+ page book with over 100 contributors.  This
required focused, linear skills of getting from A to B on a tight timeline,
juggling a vast amount of details as I went.  It was possible because there
was a high degree of agreement about the underlying assumptions - the "story
field" if you will - of what we were doing. 


However, for something like envisioning a new story, much less a new story
field, I believe what it takes to bring about wise action is quite different
from A to B thinking. In particular, it takes a special openness to engage
as much diversity as possible to achieve as lasting an effect as possible
from individuals, small groups, and perhaps even a major subset of the whole
group. This is not a linear proposition.  When the assumptions themselves
are part of the territory in question, I believe that opening as much space
as possible for being receptive to what is wanting to emerge creates the
greatest opportunity for deep understanding and lasting results.  


That is part of the reason why, when I look at the how much wise action
takes place in our larger culture and the huge amount of fragmentation that
impedes wise action, it is clear to me that something different is called
for. I believe wise, unimpeded action is an outcome that naturally flows out
of strong, healthy relationships. By opening the space as we did, a great
deal of relational work was done. What I saw in reading the reflections is a
remarkable number of people who said, "I now have the courage to act on my
convictions"; "I know that I am not alone; I have allies". 


Are you aware of the remarkable number of meetings, conference calls,
one-on-one connections that are all in process as a result of our
conference? The action on the wiki, alone, is a testament to the aliveness
of our work together. Remarkably, a third of the conference participants
(27) have posted 143 edits during the conference and for more than 2 weeks
afterwards, and counting.


Those people who have the good fortune to be quite at home in the dominant
culture -- which has an ethic of focusing on action, getting things done in
a linear way -- may not have thought about what gets lost when that is
always the primary focus.  They may not have wondered what voices don't get
heard because they find no place in that drive for action.  These are major
parts of my life -- and the lives of millions of other people.

I think our culture has paid a huge price by squeezing uncertainty and chaos
out of every place we can!  I believe it has created a wide range of
unintended consequences, most of which are virtually invisible.  For
example, one such consequence is an unspoken norm that to be in community
means conforming to the dominant story.  If I say something different,
something that is not comfortable or is unfamiliar, particularly if it is
emotionally unpleasant, it is judged to be inappropriate. To speak out is to
risk being ostracized.  No wonder many women, people of color, and young
people opt out!  

I think the current fragmentation of our society grew out of feelings that
there were no avenues for voices that don't fit accepted norms.  How can I
feel connected to a larger whole when there is no space for my point of
view?  At the extreme, violence is a consequence of this fragmentation; if
there isn't a space for voices with different stories, then it plays out in
other forms.  


With all that is happening across our world today, I believe the story has
become far too complex for any one culture to have all the answers.  Because
there was space for grief, anger, fear, and radical diversity, this
gathering made creating space for the voices and feelings not usually
expressed more visible, more urgent, and more poignant to me than even I
have ever experienced.  I felt my own anger as a woman when challenged by
yet another straight, white man who saw all of the overflowing emotion as
nonessential and nonproductive.  I heard, for the first time, the pain of
indigenous people who have always been completely invisible to me.  I heard
the anguish of people of mixed race and non-white races expressed as a
visceral experience of being choked off from speaking their truth.  And I
heard the pain of the white man - and others - confused and repelled by what
was happening.  And the cacophony of those voices -- because they were heard
-- welded us into a powerful community that was viscerally felt by the vast
majority of participants, and out of which has come the ecosystem of
activities that we are seeing online, in phone calls, and in upcoming local
gatherings -- as well as stimulating conversations like this about what
future conferences will be like.



I think part of the reason there was so much "stuff" surfacing on Wednesday
morning is that we culturally provide so little space for collective meaning
making of what is disturbing.  I sense that we have 1) a great deal of
unhandled angers, hurts, fears that are wanting to be expressed and 2) very
little experience expressing them and dealing with them together creatively.
I was talking to someone who said the invitation to discern whether what was
surfacing was personal or coming from a deeper source was interesting but
with no practice, she wasn't sure how to know.  And, as Van Jones spoke on
the Pachamama video, we also know very little about how to truly and
usefully hear such expressions of anger, fear and grief.

When I look back on Wednesday morning, the range of issues expressed was
extraordinary -- tensions between male/female, western culture/indigenous
culture, moving to action/handling our emotional backlog -- and there was
room for all of it.  I personally believe that our collective capacity to
stay present to it all was pivotal for the quality of connections, and
commitments to actions that seems to be emerging from the gathering.


As Mark Jones made us aware of, we saw, heard and loved each other.  And it
isn't about a woo-woo comfy Green meme feeling.  There is power here, a
latent power of the whole.   We are only beginning to understand the
practical power of seeing, hearing, and loving each other fully, together.
To grow into that understanding, we'll need a lot more such gatherings --
including a lot more continuity as a community.  But that's getting ahead of
myself here..





Right after the conference, my brother told me that Robert Putnam (Bowling
Alone; Better Together) has just released some new research that says the
more diverse a neighborhood, the more disengaged it is from the political
process.  This is no surprise to me:  as long as the pain, anger,
frustration remains suppressed, of course we can't connect to get something
done!  When Grace spoke her pain, she made visible something that was
already present.  She opened the way for others to express their hurt,
anger, frustration of what usually remains invisible.  While messy, we made
room for voices that are usually silent, to be heard.  It is that sort of
healing that is vital for us to become the kinds of diverse communities --
diverse, loving, and effective communities -- that I heard so many of us
long for!


And it took great courage. I see this as another reason for being willing to
open the space for what is wanting to emerge.  As we practice being in the
unknown together and learn to trust each other, we discover that we are not
alone.  In the last couple years of doing this work, it is one of the
strongest lessons I've received: when people know they are held, they have
substantially more courage to act.


What a profound combination: connection to people who we might have
previously seen as different from ourselves - which means we have much great
access to each other to use our difference creatively - coupled with that
increased courage.  When we do this well, I think the capacity for wise
action actually skyrockets!  This is not to say that we don't have a lot
more to learn about HOW to use our differences creatively and HOW to be more
effective together.  It is to say that our path to higher-order, more
elegant handling of our differences and collaboration is through hearing and
welcoming our differences - including our emotional differences -  into our
collective spaces.  That that process will often be messy goes without
saying.  But it is out of that messiness that our increased collective
capacity and communion arise.


I once heard a story of week-long Native American powwows in which they drum
and dance and worship and socialize for almost the entire time -- and then
get all their business done in the last afternoon.  The communion built
during most of the week makes their work together a breeze, once they get to
it.  I think there's something like that at work in the kind of community
I'd like to see grow around the story field project.  That, combined with
the power of emergence and the flowering of diverse passions, is my own take
on "getting things done."  That said, I'm also intrigued with how we can
arrive at collective coherences and whole-group accomplishments without
endangering those other powers.  I leave that to our future work together.


We came together in a meaningful way towards accomplishing something that
called to each of us at the Story Field Conference more than any other
conference I've been part of.  What made this possible?  I don't think it
was random, nor a lack of facilitation.  I think it was shifting the locus
of attention from what you would call facilitation to hosting what is
wanting to emerge in a space bounded by a common intention to understand the
role of story as a field phenomenon and to use story for profound social
change.   I believe we are still learning how to do this well - and that
there is much to learn.

I tend to think of this as a shift of what is in the foreground and what is
in the background.  Rather than a primary focus on the flow of a process and
keeping people "on task" or at least on the subject, the locus of attention
is on the flow of energy - in which there is confidence that any voice that
surfaces has something to contribute that can be heard and integrated.  

I get that from your point of view there was essentially no facilitation.
In a way, I'd agree with you as the term facilitation doesn't really
describe the nature of being a host to what is emerging.  There is work
involved in this role; it is just very different than facilitating a
process.  Because it is less familiar, it tends to be more invisible.
Gabriel Shirley used a term a few years back that comes closest to
describing it for me: running the energy.  Much of what we are doing is
paying attention to the energy of the group, tending to its flow - what is
the collective mood? what can we sense happening at the edges? what serves
the whole in reaching its potential?  I don't pretend to know all the
answers; I think we are in the early stages of learning how to work with
group energy.  I know I am.


For me, a core intention is to be sure that energy doesn't get stuck, that
the space stays open for what is wanting to emerge.  While I see how you can
interpret it as "egos reigning supreme" or that "a big no-no is making
someone feel bad, controlled or cut off", there are other ways to understand
what is happening.  During a reflection among the hosts, Gabriel Shirley
named it this way: there were two primary perspectives present: 1) each
person speaking was acting out of their own ego, doing personal work; 2)
each voice is there on behalf of the whole and is in some way a gift to the
whole.  I'd say that this isn't an either/or, both are real.  These
perspectives offer alternative ways of making sense of what is occurring.


I think many of us have minimal patience with this because, particularly in
the realm of affect, our culture has taught us very little about where and
how to express our emotional anger, pain, grief.  The dominant culture
provides very few venues for this, so, of course, if a space is made safe
enough, it will surface.  I applaud the quality of witnessing we were all
part of -- including you -- at the Story Field Conference, the discipline of
being present to raw feelings that eighty people held this space on behalf
of what was expressed.  


Paradoxically, the dominant culture sees these once-suppressed feelings
dominating the conversation without noticing that (and how) it usually
dominates conversations.  The dominant culture is transparent to itself,
just as our individual blind spots are invisible to us, just as the water is
invisible to the fish.  Those most at home in the dominant culture have much
less practice at the discipline of witnessing because by definition, the
dominant culture supports their way of processing.  Privileged people don't
have to listen.  Less privileged people get much more practice sitting and
listening to another's bullshit. In fact, the dominant culture even
institutionalizes this practice in the form of sanctioned talking head


As Emily pointed out, in our western culture, focusing on getting things
done is our norm -- often, I would add, to the detriment of expressing any
other aspect of ourselves individually or collectively.  I can imagine on
Wednesday morning that those expecting a space for getting things done were
extremely frustrated when the space shifted to a different purpose!  But I
find myself wondering:  Is this frustration more or less legitimate than the
frustration of those whose voices are suppressed?  Perhaps we should focus,
instead, on whether our choice of plenary activity served our collective




There are no doubt gentler pathways than to invite people to jump into Open
Space with little context of what to expect and with no training wheels.
Yet, I know of no other means that makes it so clear so quickly that the
ultimate authority for one's experience rests with oneself.  And, I wonder,
given the scale and scope of living a new story into being, what best
serves?  I don't pretend to have the answer; I suspect there are many
parallel paths.  I do believe that the capacity to be present to that which
makes us uncomfortable is a vital skill for this work.  I believe that the
space at Shambhala Mountain Center held some trigger for everyone!  To the
extent that such triggers feed our learning, growing and connecting, I
celebrate them.  To the extent they cause people to check out, go silent,
and disappear, they cause me concern.  There are surely things to learn
about how to navigate all that more successfully -- but trying to keep
people from frustration and triggers is certainly not the key.


Something you expressed that I found particularly ironic: that there was a
norm in Open Space that everyone be comfortable.  In fact, I think we were
quite willing to have people be uncomfortable.  It was just that those who
are most used to being comfortable were the most frustrated and
uncomfortable as we made room for voices that are seldom seen, heard or
welcomed to show up.  


And the gift I personally found in that was huge!  I learned a great deal
about both the new story and the nature of story telling from what took
place during the week:


*                    The new story is most effectively told in ways that are
consistent with the new story

*                    Blame, judgment, victimization, domination are all part
of the old story and when they show up in telling the new story, it causes
those who are made invisible by the old story to either disappear further
or, where there is room for them to show up, to show up fiercely

*                    The new story integrates the duality implicit in
male/female, western/indigenous, white/non-white into a larger pattern of
"differentiated wholeness".  By differentiated wholeness, I mean that our
differences become a creative part of the whole - so that to belong in a
community is to show up in all one's unique gifts and quirks

*                    Wholeness has holes in it, which has huge implications
for how stories are told:

o       If the story teller speaks as if they have all the answers, it
leaves no room for voices and perspectives that have something to add

o       Taking a stance of humility and conscious evolution, recognizing
that the story is never complete allows space for new aspects to show up and
be integrated

o       Being curious when missing voices show up is of service to the
whole, inviting a more whole version of our stories to emerge





I don't pretend to have all of the answers to how best to bring mystery back
into its rightful place.  It is clear the form we used is not comfortable
for some.  Perhaps it will never be -- and perhaps it is important that it
never be, at least to some degree.  I do believe that within the collective
us, the capacity to be receptive, compassionately unattached, is essential
for the new story to blossom.


Open Space makes a huge amount of space for the receptive.  It also makes an
extraordinary amount of space for action.  Where a group goes emerges out of
its own needs.  To say that again, a little differently:  it is the energy
of the group that most shapes the nature of the space.  By not
"facilitating" the group in a specific direction, we trust that what best
serves the collective intention of understanding the story field and the new
story is served.  When the intention is complex, as in defining a novel idea
like "story field", I have a bias towards a process that boldly invites the
emergent present, trusting the wisdom of the group to take it where it most
needs to go.  Could we have provided more context?  Of course.  Would that
have been our best service?  I don't know.  It would have created a
different gathering.  Would the voices and feelings that are normally
invisible found space to show up in productive ways?  I don't know.  Would
we have had a clearer, more articulated sense of the story field and the new
story?  If we did, I fear it might have been more intellectual and less
embodied.  Trusting the group energy in open space, I trust that the
conversations stimulated by your, David's and others' critiques will produce
innovations that will allow us to explore these questions more deeply and
consciously in practice, together as a community.


I do understand that, in particular, the grief, anger, and fear expressed
was way overboard for people who have little or no experience with it; or
for those who feel that such expression belongs in its own special container
specifically for that purpose.  Would I and others have had the lived
experience of the new story that we did without all that surfacing?  I
honestly don't know.  There are ways in which both answers are true, and I
know that we'll be learning more about this.


I believe that in the new story, we have a right to be whole people - head,
heart, body, and spirit.  And I believe we owe it to each other to learn to
be present to the whole of us in collective settings.  In fact, I think
because we did that, it contributed immensely to why so many people said
this experience was life changing for them.  


While we haven't yet landed in the intellectual coherence of the new story
that many of us desired (myself included), I believe we LIVED a nascent form
of the new story.  There was space for all of us and not in the form of
"let's make everyone comfortable" or in the form of "you need to behave in
expected ways".  Quite the opposite!  We made space for people to be real
together, where our differences were welcome disturbances from which
learning and growth could and did happen.


Can we get better at creating such experiences?  I sure hope so!  I am sure
there are better ways of inviting in male/female, indigenous/western,
straight/gay, white/color than we know right now.  We're just getting


I know now that if we can't hear new voices, we stay stuck - as most of our
current systems are.  No wonder people are checking out of them!  I got a
much deeper understanding of what it is like to always need to keep what is
most dear invisible or suffer the wrath of indifference, judgment,
dismissal.  I also felt a new compassion for what it is like to be seen as
the oppressor, the one holding the current form in place, even when we see
ourselves as in the vanguard of change.


Still, you may well ask, why bring in so much mystery at once?  Why not just
small doses?  It may well be that for many, that's what makes the most
sense.  For me, I believe we're entering into a time of increasing
dissolution; more and more of our assumptions and our systems will be
falling apart faster and faster.  The more of us who become more capable of
being present to the anger, grief, fear, and confusion that will surface,
the better.  What better way to practice than in learning more about
subjects we care about with people we discover are kindred spirits?


I am excited and fascinated at how engaged so many people who gathered still
are!  Many people made deep connections with others.  The intellectual and
practical work are underway big time.  I wonder if it is because we didn't
fully complete our work together?  Our wholeness has evocative holes in it!
We're still collectively processing the questions around which we gathered.
Perhaps this too -- rather than being a disappointment -- is a lesson in
keeping the mystery alive and following its enticing energy to wherever it
leads us.





That said, as you pointed out, chaos can be quite challenging, so how do we
welcome it in a way that is of service to a group?  That is an art that we
are still learning.  It is part of the dialogue that your message taps for
me.  We do know some things about it:


*	We know that creating a sense of sacred space can make a tremendous
difference (our time at the Stupa that first morning in the presence of
Spirit and our ancestors contributed to bringing to consciousness what would
make the space fertile and productive) 
*	We know that expressing dreams, desires, possibilities makes a
difference (e.g., our wishes spoken as if we are making them happen, and
speaking to what would blow our minds) 
*	We know inviting adult behavior that asks us to draw from the best
of ourselves matters (as Mark did by offering HSL - hear, see, and love --
and as we did in naming the Law of Two Feet - taking responsibility for what
we each love -- and asking people to check within themselves for what was
coming through them for guidance rather than looking to an outside
*	And we believe that working with the energy present in the moment


Beyond that, I expect this conversation and others like it to continue,
helping us discern how best to welcome chaos, to make room for the emergent
while tending to whatever form of getting things done best serves.




Have you ever seen a strange attractor coming into being?  (Strange
attractors are beautiful mathematical images. (see
%3Den%26rls%3DGGGL,GGGL:2006-42,GGGL:en%26sa%3DN).  They take a mathematical
formula, push some numbers through, plot the output on a map, feed the
output back through the formula, and plot again.  In other words, they
iterate through the same formula over and over.  Initially the dots seem
completely random.  Over time, a pattern becomes visible.  


I see conversations in a similar light.  I find most of us live, either
consciously or unconsciously, in a complex question or two.  For example:
What is the nature of story?  What is the new story that wants to be born?
How do we bring this story more fully to life?  As we answer these
questions, we feed the responses back through and new answers emerge.  They
begin to paint a picture.  When we join with others in a shared inquiry, the
picture takes on more shape.  What starts as seemingly random, begins to
come into coherent form.  It begins to entice us in, as we collectively call
it into being and witness its new resonance surfacing.  This isn't a simple
story that one person can create alone.  And its shaping demands more than
just our intellects.  It draws from the whole of us, head, heart, body,
spirit.  It is a complex response, made of music, art, dance, idea.  It is a
coherent, many-storied response to questions that we all hold dear.  And it
is still unfolding.


So I end with an idea that surfaced through Tom Atlee and me:


We are calling into being our collective soul so that our many-storied world
can find its way.and each and everyone one of us has our roles to play in







Peggy Holman
The Open Circle Company
15347 SE 49th Place
Bellevue, WA  98006
(425) 746-6274


For the new edition of The Change Handbook, go to: 


"An angel told me that the only way to step into the fire and not get burnt,
is to become 
the fire".
  -- Drew Dellinger

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