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

Suzanna Stephan suzannastephan at
Thu Sep 20 08:34:02 PDT 2007

Kaliya and all,

Yes, the pendulum has swung dramatically to both ends of the spectrum and we are now in another messy part as it shifts and as we (hopefully) find a healthy interplay between the two. Important to recognize that all of life it's an ebb and flow...great model of this in the 5 breaths shared recently. Some folks are adapting and some holding on for dear life. Thanks to all who are holding space for the diversity and discovery along our journey. 

Suzanna Stephan

----- Original Message ----
From: Kaliya Hamlin <kaliya at>
Sent: Wednesday, September 19, 2007 5:15:40 PM
Subject: Re: The Disaster of Un-Facilitated Open Space (very long)

One more thought on this. If the issue of the "dominant culture" could be framed simply (perhaps to simply) is that it is on the extreme end the spectrum - very Yang.
  Then why would going to the extreme end of the spectrum the other way to the very Yin be 'the new story' to me the new story lies in the middle the weaving together in a healthy way - action mixed with heart.  

On Sep 18, 2007, at 11:23 PM, Peggy Holman wrote:

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 response.
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 presentations. 
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 intention.
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 started.
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 authority)And we believe that working with the energy present in the moment matters.  
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,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 it.

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

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"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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