What Open Space Really Is

Open Space is the name given to a discovery. That discovery took a particular form. It was also not a particularly new discovery. What was new about it was the potential to apply it in organisational and social settings.

Open Space was discovered by Harrison Owen and – legend has it – it was a kind of realisation that led to a reaction against its opposite. Open Space addressed itself to the lack of emergence in the conference world. Conference proceedings were really precedings, with content largely set in advance and anything emergent tended to happen during the coffee and lunch breaks. Harrison Owen saw the potential of the emergent, empty space. Empty spaces are places of possibility, places of potential.

In a way, they aren’t empty at all. What resides in those spaces is supersensible. Potential can’t, at first be seen, nor properly recognised as potential until it is imagined, named, identified (though inklings of it can be felt and that is sometimes called intuition). When more than one person sees the potential of something concurrently, yet from differing physical and individual standpoints, potential can become confirmed and be experienced as “common ground”. This usually happens spontaneously, emergently, and out a shared process of meeting and dialogue. The empty space is therefore a place of the unseen, or the not yet seen, the unheard, or the not yet heard, the unfelt, or the not yet felt, and the not done, or the not yet done.

Often there is a collective experience of something in the seen, heard, felt, and done world – a collective challenge, a problem, a vital question. Pain is the common ground that leads to a shared restlessness to seek out, to hope for unrealised potential to emerge into sensible reality. What is then collectively imagined and explored, could become action in the world – action which helps to ease pain, to solve and resolve, or to at least allow important new questions to emerge. Open Space is a modern form of the meeting circle, the sacred place of mutual listening and dialogue where, in the empty space, the oracle can be heard, where the Gods speak inspiration to us (and also where darkness attempts to intervene in the form of temptation and distortion). In humanist terms, it is a place of respectful listening where the potential can arise in shared, creative thinking and dialogue.

Harrison Owen discovered an application in social action of the power of emergence. What he created was a marvellous antidote to meeting spaces and processes that filled the empty space far too much with historical baggage, with preset agendas, with tired old thoughts, feelings and habits. Open space sets human beings in a circle, laden with a restlessness to collectively explore some common ground, by sitting around an empty space of emergent possibility. If the facilitator behaves too much like a self-labelled, self-important old paradigm shaman, they will be stifling the space, and out of it will emerge, not transformational possibility, but instead, a collusion of mediocrity. So some facilitators big it up, legendising e whole thing with e myth of Harrison Owen followed by a lecturers on the process. Others walk the circle like an uber-calm high priest(ess) and stun everyone into sacredness. They clasp their hands like vicars, or step slowly and evenly like enlightened slugs or lazy yachts. Yet others point to e empty agenda as if it’s a magic trick, an empty box that will conjured into content with necessary audience participation. Let’s be clear: potential cringes at this, sometimes recoils from it and deserts the space entirely. It is often then clears the way for a fallen copy to take its place, an open space that is born of fake niceness, cuddly cultishness, and the proof of it is, back at base, months after the event, few or even none of the restlenessness, the excitement, the agreed action has taken hold. All has reverted and faded back to the original state, or even decayed. When open spaces are deserted by potential, shadow enters and plays joyful havoc worth our tired and disappointed will forces. Then, unable to hear the truth of the mediocrity, we big it up and leave, taking it up as revolution and victory. And then, so sure that real change hasn’t emerged, we post the success story onto YouTube.

Facilitators attempt to be shamans, stepping anticlockwise around the circle, gonging bells of various mythical pedigrees, and attempt to invoke a reverence and respect for this place of as yet unemerged possibility. But that shamanic role needs to be as emergent as the open space itself. The way the opening circle takes place should arise out of the moment, out of the unique constellation of people, intentions, mood, restlessness, and individual and collective will.

And that is where Open Space so often falters; not because Harrison Owen discovered something flawed (though the process has become far too overelaborated despite Owen’s entreaty to always seek one less thing to do), but because facilitation invades the open space. I know too many facilitators who see themselves as shamans of the empty space. A true shaman never self-names. A true shaman never steps into the empty space which is not empty at all, but laden with resonant potential.

The true facilitator attempts to disappear at a faster rate than the potential that emerges into our world of appearance. The true facilitator vanishes and tries to take the entire structure with them, leaving only flow. Often that is not to be, an Harrison Owen’s beautifully minimal structure and process is there like a sure foundations, or perhaps even a safety net over the abyss of chaos.

The true facilitator knows when to get the hell out of the way of community flow. Only perhaps later will they return, if needed, and only if needed, to guide that flow in humble relation to the original common ground restless question or challenge set by the group or community. The facilitator is not an ‘I’ in the process of serving potential that always wants to be realised. Yes, potential always wants to be realised, but it cannot unless a community wills it so in freedom as well. Freedom? Oh, that’s easy, freedom is being aware of your motives in real time. Being able to sense ones motives is much harder if the motives of the facilitator are spilling all over a sacred space. It is out of e silence of loving, active listening that what needs to be done resounds.

Harrison Owen articulated some principles of open space, and some gentle souls do share these with a group in ways that still keep the empty space fairly free of clutter. But these “rules” are not supposed to be presented verbally as commandments or sacred must-dos to a group. They are there to be lived authentically by the facilitator as he or she serves the space in a way that allows the process to flow in a way unhindered by fussiness or overstructure. Facilitators spend a good half an hour doing something that is a crying shame. Just at the point of victory, we snatch defeat from its jaws. The facilitator drops the entire story of open space, its rules, it process, slap bang into the middle of the space. And, as they ding their gongs, or worse, set the whole thing up as a kind of unique, beautiful “thing”, the empty space of emergent possibility is now filled up, not with pure, unrealised, supersensible potential, that wants to emerge, but instead with Open Space itself. We now behold, not a blank canvas, but Prometheus, the monster. And, it can be very hard to see past it. Luckily, despite the facilitator’s ego-clumsiness, there are usually a fair number of people in the circle, who refuse to be distracted and who see past them (though this can be energy-sapping and tiring for them) and they gaze intently, listen deeply, and still manage to find some possible topics, questions, dialogues that might just rescue the flow. Self-organisation has a remarkable tendency to emerge as well.

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