One of the earmarks of any good Open Space (and I've never seen a bad one) is that Truth is spoken. It may be the sort of truth that manifests when professional colleagues honestly and authentically access the relative merits of particular approaches to a given issue -- not on the basis of who invented it, but rather the likelihood of success regardless of authorship. More than occasionally it is also the sort of deep truth that everybody knows, but all are in fear of uttering. There is a reason for this fear, for when the truth is out in its wholeness, including the ugly parts -- it must be dealt with, and that act will exact a price in terms of pain and general disruption. Say what you will about the positive and cathartic effects of telling (facing) the truth -- it always seems to bloody well hurt.
There have been multiple examples of this sort of thing in my journey in Open Space, but two in particular stand out for me. The first was the occasion when I was privileged to open space for the 50 Palestinians and Israelis in Rome two years ago. I have told this story before and you can find the details on www.openspaceworld.com if you want. Basically these individuals came together (in the words of the conference theme) to consider the issues and opportunities for ending the cycle of violence in the Middle East. And in order to do that, it was necessary to face that cycle of violence in all of its grim reality un-protected by facile excuses and distribution of blame. To their great credit the participants did just that. And it quite literally took their breath away. It had been our intention to move from general discussion (two days) to action planning on the third day -- but all of that seemed rather a pointless exercise, at least until breath returned.
This past week I found my self in a similar space. I had been asked to work with the CEOs of the affiliates of a large American Non-Profit, The history of this organization is impressive, and its work is well known and often dangerous.For almost 70 years, these people have been at the cutting edge of social reform and service to people who might not otherwise be served. Not unlike other institutions of a similar age, it had grown bureaucratic and rigid with multiple fiefdoms all protected with jealous zeal. The flash point had come at the interface of the National organization and the local affiliates and the atmosphere was toxic and destructive. Everybody knew it, but nobody would name it except in the back corridors and dark corners. To do so would seem to provide comfort to the multiple oppositions and thereby jeopardize the all important mission. In Open Space the unspeakable was spoken, and once again it seemed that oxygen had been sucked out of the room.
I bring all this up for the simple reason that I suspect that many of you have faced similar situations, and many more will do so in the future as our world lurches towards whatever future lies ahead. My response in both cases seemed to work, but I am sure there are other possibilities and many improvements, which if we put our heads together, might just show up.
My response in Rome was essentially intuitive. I didn't have a clue what might be done until I was well into the middle of it. With the wisdom of hindsight, I think I recognized that when people are in shock, the first aid is to make sure they have some air. I suppose you could argue that urging people to soldier on might be appropriate, but in fact what I did was to call a time out and made every effort to open some more space -- breathing room. Specifically, I started the day by noting that it seemed to me that the day was a day of choosing. The choice was simple to state, albeit difficult to make. The people could see the preceding day's work as yet another example of failed hopes and dreams -- or they could understand that it was only because they had truly engaged each other that the tragic enormity of their situation apparently overwhelmed them. If the former was correct, it made little sense to continue. And if the latter -- then it would seem worth while to carry on, accepting the pain and seeking some deeper resolution. To enable the choosing (open a wide space of possibility) I said that I was leaving the circle and would return in an hour. Those who chose to return could do so, and those who chose differently must make their own plans. I did return in an hour with a talking stick (olive branch -- literally) and a question. "I see you have all returned -- and now where to you want to go?" -- and passed the stick. For the next 2 and 1/2 hours the group deeply shared their pain, hopes, and frustrations. When that was through, it was time for lunch. I had thought that we might still move to action planning, and suggested that before departing for the meal, those who felt so inclined might announce and post Issues for Action which would be addressed in the afternoon. Interestingly enough none were posted, but the afternoon was scarcely wasted. In fact real plans and commitments were made by some, and the remainder found it most useful to continue conversations in a more informal manner. By the evening meal, the group had congealed in a most remarkable way. Awesome!
As I said -- this past week I found myself in a similar space. Very different group and totally different issues -- but when the oxygen sucked out of the room, I knew I had been there before, and this time I had a much clearer idea of how to proceed. As you might have guessed, I did exactly the same thing I had done in Rome. Following some brief remarks, I left the circle -- although you could hardly leave the space. I returned an hour later with a talking stick (hand held mike) and for the next 2 hours the group shared hopes and fears with great intensity. Once again -- Awesome! And then there was lunch, but this time we did return for more issues, opportunities and action planning.
So there you have it -- two different situations with great similarities. My Reponses (intuitive first and then intentional) seemed to meet the needs -- and according to the participants appeared to convert immanent disaster into deep learning moments. My own feeling state was intense to say the least, and anybody who thinks that holding space under those circumstances is a walk in the park must be operating in some radically different space than I. Obviously, what I did should never be done casually or routinely, and doubtless there were alternatives -- Although I confess not to have seen any.