[OSList] Open Space as Yarning Space (long)

Harrison Owen hhowensr at gmail.com
Sat May 19 15:59:50 PDT 2018

Oh Yes. All over the world every time I’ve ever “done” an OS with “indigenous  people”… Africa, Asia, Native Americans – same result. Sooner or later some “elder” would start to smile…  Although the words would differ (individually, language, whatever) the message was the same: “White man – where did you steal that?” So one more time. Welcome to the world. Nothing new, nothing strange. Just sit in a circle…




From: OSList [mailto:oslist-bounces at lists.openspacetech.org] On Behalf Of Brendan McKeague via OSList
Sent: Friday, May 18, 2018 3:32 AM
To: OS Listserve
Cc: Brendan McKeague
Subject: [OSList] Open Space as Yarning Space (long)



Hi folks


Here is a story (Irish style) of a recent Open Space meeting 'in disguise'.  I hope it adds something to our ongoing learning and collective wisdom.






Open Space as Yarning Space - an Australian story



A group of five different ‘language/family groups’ wishing to pursue their intention of working together to submit a claim for native title over a certain area of land that their families had continuous connection with for many years. There was a history of disagreement, division and destructive conflict between some of the group during the past 10 years, illustrated by separate, competing claims over parts of the area in question.  They had arrived at a place where most of the elders had decided it was time to work together otherwise their chances of achieving a successful claim in the national Native Title Court would be unlikely.  In order to prepare themselves for the next steps in submitting a formal legal claim over the region, they suggested it would be appropriate to spend a couple of days together so that ‘they could sit and yarn' about the issues that divided them in the past, about how they might reconcile with each other and how they might work together in the future.  The sponsor, a representative of the regional Land Council that would be responsible for resourcing the meeting, wondered if an Open Space style meeting would be appropriate. 



Naming the Process

Another part of the context was that the sponsoring body did not have a favourable disposition towards Open Space. I’m not sure of the details, although it sounded like someone in senior management had previously experienced some sort of Open Space meeting and wasn’t impressed. My contact within the system asked that we not call it an Open Space meeting.  I was happy to oblige and we came up with the loosely described notion of creating Yarning Circles ('yarning circle' is frequently used in indigenous vocabulary in Australia to describe a group, often referred to as 'a mob’, sitting in a circle discussing/having a yarn about whatever mattered to them. So the underlying concept was similar, without the structure of an OST meeting). 


>From an introductory meeting with the family leaders, we formulated an invitation that asked the questions: ‘how will we work together AND respect our individual differences and identities?’


In describing the process, I simply renamed the main circle as the group Yarning Circle, and the break-out spaces as Yarning Places…everything else pretty much the usual set-up.  I shortened the principles on the posters to read: Right People; Right Time; Right Place; Right Yarning…the Law of Two Feet; Butterflies, Bees and Billabongs; Be Prepared to Be Surprised…and linked my introduction to each of these. 



The Event

There was a lot of anticipation about what might happen. The complexity of longstanding inter-familial, inter-generational disputes is well known in the world of native title in Australia. Security guards were hired for the meeting so that only those who were entitled to be there (another interpretation of 'the right people') were admitted. This was to do with the requirement that only those who are directly descended from the original ‘traditional owners’ of the particular areas are entitled to be part of the discussions and eventual decision-making process. There are strict protocols around anthropologist 'connection research’ to ensure that this is the case and these reports often generate additional conflicts among family groups.  


On the first morning of the two-day event, while people were beginning to gather in the meeting space, there was a very animated and highly charged interaction between two rather large men (I subsequently discovered these were two brothers who had not spoken directly to each other for nearly ten years) and this generated a burst of high tension energy.  A security guard intervened, in a very professional, low-key way, creating a pause between the men and providing an opportunity for some of their mutual relatives (mostly the older women) to exert a calming influence on them…fortunately, they seemed to be well practiced at such interventions! 


I was certainly wide awake now!  Too soon for a nap…and I wondered, rather nervously, how the rest of the meeting might go


The men calmed, the senior elder (one of the women) gave a ‘welcome to country’ asking that everyone in the room (about 60 participants) respect the ancestors, and each other, during this very important time together. I was then invited into the circle…I did my usual intro, with slight variations of language, verbal and body, to adapt to my environment. A the end of my introduction, as I usually do, I wished them well for the work of the day, handed the space over to them and exited the circle….


As I was heading towards the edge of the meeting area, I noticed a couple of people dive straight in the centre for their paper and pen…and to my surprise, the first topic announced was from one of the family members of the feuding brothers who invited the whole family to meet in the first session to sort out the issues that had been dividing them for the past decade. And it was an amazing ‘yarning place’…for much of an hour, there were loud voices, quiet voices, shouting, tears, hugs, reconciliation, laughter, resolve and agreement to disagree on what had caused their disturbances and, beyond that, agreement to work together in the future so that they could contribute constructively to the collective claim for Native Title….amazing to witness. 


For the remainder of the first day, people wandered, sat, stood and lounged around the room, energy and passion flitting and flowing in their own time, with differing degrees of high intensity, laughter and lightness.


And for good measure, we also had a ‘space invasion’ in the afternoon, when another group that had been seeking to prevent this combined claim going ahead, and had convened a separate meeting in another part of the conference venue, entered the space uninvited. Some of the leaders in the room stood up and started towards the exit saying they would not stay while this new group was there. In the pause of surprise and wonder, I could only think of asking a question: ‘I don’t really know what’s happening here, would someone please explain?’  That led to the incoming group, some of whom were related to the meeting group, requesting to read out a short prepared statement to the meeting group and then to leave. The meeting group agreed to listen. The statement was delivered, there was silence and no return comments, the incoming group left the room and the existing group spent the rest of the afternoon discussing how they would respond to the information in the statement…a new agenda emerged for Day Two. 


The second day of the meeting saw the group working together in the Yarning Circle, as an extension of ‘morning news’, for the first part of the morning, then breaking out into yarning places in response to new issues that were emerging. After a stretched-out lunch, the group converged to feed back the Action Plans before a very emotional, enthusiastic and energised closing circle (that included a short impromptu  dance of celebration…)



The Outcome

On the next day, following the two day Yarning Circle, there was a formal meeting with their legal representatives to ratify agreements made and provide instructions to be taken forward into the due process for native title claimants. Needless to say, this meeting was nothing like an Open Space meeting. However, the group on the previous afternoon had decided how they wanted the room to be set up for the formal meeting and, guess what, they chose to have five different circles for each of the five family groups and one centre circle for the elders from each group to enter when it came to delivering decisions to the legal representatives…creating a very different environment from the usual 'top table and rows'. That’s another story! 



Concluding Reflections

A few thoughts: the presenting context seemed suitable for Open Space; the meeting methodology was renamed, the underlying structure was retained; the conflictual energy that appeared prior to the meeting provided a catalyst for release of built-up tension and the courage to address what had caused it by those who lived within it; the stunning significance of self organisation at work, developing resilience to cope with a potential distracting/de-railing invasion; the use of the opportunity (the space invasion) to generate new agenda, to strategise and commit for the follow-up formal legal meeting (a complex adaptive system at work?); the presenting signs of relationship building, collective commitment and deeper levels of trust. 



Sponsor feedback 


1)       Why did you chose to use Open Space?

We held a two day OS community consultation followed by a native title authorisation meeting.   

For the community consultation we needed an approach that allowed for a general theme, linked to progressing a native title claim, that allowed for the native title group to work out for themselves the best way to work together on a native title claim and beyond.  OS provided the environment for this to occur.      

2)       What did you notice about the process, the engagement and the outcomes in this particular context?

The OS approach to the meeting allowed for the attendees to take ownership of the direction of the two day meeting and, as a result, the outcomes/undertakings that were generated.  In turn, the outcomes provided a roadmap for how the different traditional factions within the larger native title group could effectively cooperate while acknowledging and respecting differences.  The outcomes will feed into the rule book and policy manual for the corporation earmarked to be the PBC.    

We used some OS concepts to good effect in the authorisation meeting. 


3)       What did you learn from this experience?

That our clients can truly benefit from an OS meeting and that certain elements of OS can be introduced even into meetings with an agenda prescribed by legislation. 

I am convinced that an OS meeting should be convened early in the process of working with a native title group, particularly if there are internal divisions. 

If used properly, I consider OS could also be useful in some overlapping claims.   



Who knows what will happen next…indeed, that's not ours to know in the complex and mysterious world of emergence!
















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