This from Julie Smith, who organized our first OST practice workshop, in Fairbanks, Alaska. A brilliant story and fine piece of work. She sent this to the OpenSpaceTechnology/OSLIST recently, in the course of a discussion about OST and other methods...
Chris and All ~
Your story about leaving the room (because you needed to) brings to mind my most recent OST, where I stayed visibly present in the room (because I needed to). I offer this because I think the art of living, and of OST, is to know when to be visible, and when to be invisible; when to speak, and when to be silent. Not yin or yang, but both yin and yang. (I bring this up because it seems to me that our OST conversation tends to articulate and support OST as a way for facilitators to express the receptive yin, and provides less permission for facilitators to express the assertive yang. I think wholeness as a human being and as a facilitator requires comfort with and ability to express both.)
Two weeks ago I facilitated an OST for a class of 30 7th and 8th graders (12 - 14 years old) in one of our local schools. When I met with them the prior week to plan the OST, it was clear there were many conflicts impeding the harmony of the classroom. They were pretty sure OST wouldn't work for them, but they agreed they were willing to give it a try. They decided on a theme of "Respect In Our Classroom." We were allotted 3 hours (a relatively long period of time in a classroom setting). I left the planning meeting curious, but unconcerned. I expected a typical OST to follow.
My first inkling that this would not be business as usual was during the posting of topics. Insults were slung freely. Arguments erupted. Emotional appeals for intervention were made to the teacher. The wording of a posted topic was altered without permission of the original author. General mayhem ensued. The teacher was very worried, and needed some semblance of order. We all did. The students actively ignored my presence in the circle and my requests for attention. Finally, somehow, I had their attention. I suggested that the best way for them to talk about their issues was to start the sessions. I also told them that given the level of dissension in the room, I would be willing to facilitate a mediation between conflicting parties if invited to do so. (I'm not sure what I think about this choice, but this is what I did.)
All but a handful of students ended up in one session, where the discussion again raged at full tilt. Students talked over each other in a heated frenzy of words. The noise level escalated. Students shouted to be heard. Some students stood up and talked even louder to gain attention. Several students attempted to take a leading role in facilitating the conversation, but failed. One student came to me to tell me how he was trying to help the group, as if he wanted me to anoint him the facilitator. I told him I couldn't do that, and observed that he wasn't exactly a neutral person in the group, and that might be why he wasn't being allowed to facilitate. I also told him I would be willing to come in and try to help the group hold their conversation, but only if the group invited me to do so. He went back. They voted on whether they wanted my help. The vote was about 50% for and 50% against. He decided that meant they didn't want my help. The battle raged. Two students faced off, then backed down. I was worried. The teacher was VERY worried. I seriously considered intervening without invitation, but kept resisting that impulse, wanting to give them every opportunity to make the process work. Finally, a key student (I'll call her Ann) left the room. Ann was the student who seemed to magnetize the most energy and drama. If I believed in space invaders, I might have thought her one. Wherever she went, fireworks erupted. When she left, everything changed. Whew. (Harrison, our conversation of old helped me get through this. In retrospect I can see that you were exactly right. There was enough space for her to leave, and leave she did. That made what happened next possible.)
After Ann left, the original group dispersed and mostly reformed in a different space for the next session. They selected a respected (and neutral) classmate to facilitate the discussion. This conversation was important because it concerned the care of another living being, the classroom gecko. It turns out Ann was the gecko's current caretaker, and there were some concerns about feeding and cleanliness. The group agreed on the identification of care issues, and they carefully thought through how they wanted to approach the topic with Ann. They agreed to send a person she trusted to talk with her about the issues, and he decided to ask me to accompany him to do so. Ann was back in the regular classroom. We walked there to talk with her. At first she refused to talk, then gave me a long look, and agreed. The conversation took less than a minute. He gave her information she didn't have (where the food for the crickets was stored, why the crickets were dying before they were fed to the gecko, how often the aquarium should be cleaned). She was relieved to have the information because it resolved many of her concerns for the gecko. She clearly wanted to take good care of the gecko. She thanked him for the information. They agreed they would talk again if any new problems developed.
The boy walked away, problem solved. Ann muttered under her breath that the people she REALLY wanted to talk with were two other boys. I accepted her invitation, and asked what she wanted to talk with them about. She said she couldn't say, because one of her teachers had told her not to talk about it. I asked her if she could tell me. Her eyes welled up with tears. She told me a friend had died a year ago, and the two boys had spread rumors about him. She said she didn't understand why they did that, and since that time she could barely stand to look at either of them. I asked her if she wanted me to talk with her teacher to see if it would be okay if she talked with them about it. She said yes. By the time I came back to the room, they had somehow already gathered and begun talking. I quietly sat down on the floor next to them. She told of her long friendship with her friend, how sad she was when he died, and the memories it raised of other losses in her life. The boys were both deeply respectful. They listened fully as she spoke. They asked questions. Both told of the serious consequences they had received from their parents for what they had done. One revealed the losses he was facing in his life, and his sadness that his father was again stationed in Afghanistan. She listened and expressed sympathy for his situation. One was very remorseful, and expressed a sincere and heartfelt apology. The other expressed less remorse because he was a friend to a girl who had been seriously harmed by the boy who died. He felt a deep loyalty to his friend and her suffering. Still, he expressed a sincere apology for hurting Ann, something he never intended to do. Ann dried her tears and said she felt better. The boys again apologized. Again, whew. (I now understand "whew." It is the out breath of release and relief.)
I went back to our OST meeting room. In between things I had been watching a very quiet and reserved young boy who had spent the entire time in his own session. He had taken some flip chart paper and markers and created a poster titled "Respecting Each Other." He wrote if someone was crying we should ask them what was wrong, and that we should be compassionate and merciful. He didn't know how to spell compassionate and merciful, so he found a dictionary and made sure he spelled them right. And then he defined each of those word. Then he added a little more about being loving and kind. I could have hugged him.
We did a short talking stick closing. People still wanted to talk after one pass, so we did a second round.
And then we were done. They went back to class and I slowly put the room back in order, filled with the wonder of it all.