Orphaning the Top Table and the Power of the Circle

I remember a conference where the audience took over – at least for a while. It was a revolution that left the top table (the ones who had the bottles of mineral water and the little flowers in vases) paralysed with perplexity.

A formal presentation using a lot of bullet-pointed Power Point had just stopped for five minutes of questions and answers – the fifth presentation in a row without  a break.

Garish neon lights blared down from the ceiling in a room with no natural light.

Yes, you are correct – I said “revolution”. Now, that it an interesting word. We talk of a revolution of the people. We also talk of a revolution of the planets. Revolution hints at a circle.

Now, everyone was sitting in rows, as in a traditional classroom, facing the top table that was in a row facing the classroom style audience.

The speaker stood  at a lectern facing the audience as well.

The chairperson invited questions.

And then it happened. Someone in the audience raised their hand and was invited to pose their question. And pose it she did. But not in the direction of the top table. She sort of turned to her side and posed it to her row. She was interested, you see, in what other people thought of the issue underlying her question. Had other people had the same experience? Did they have any solutions. She seemed to pose it along her row and then to the rows behind her, as her arm swept around her and backwards in a kind of inclusive gesture. She finished her question and then someone near the back started to answer it. Soon, another person, nearer the front added a useful thought and then a small whispering conversation began in a corner between three people who were resonating with the original question.

It lasted for about four minutes and, at one point, the whole room were now looking, not at the top table, but inwards, towards a rough central point in the rows.

The circle was forming, even in rows of seats!

And the circle was powerful. Fora while those who were supposed to be “at the top” at the top table were flummoxed, silent, mere onlookers on the outside of a forming community circle.

It was a vibrant four minutes. Then the chair person raised his voice and attempted to restore “order”. He never quite got it back! For at least a while afterwards, when questions were asked they are posed by the questioner into the centre of the room, rather than directed to the front.

An in that four minutes a lot of ground was covered. The buzz continued into the coffee break and the top table was left, orphaned, without a clear role. The people wanted to talk to each other, to form a circle, to dialogue, to self-organise their own conversation.

And this had happened: Space had opened.

And this was happening: Space was opening.

What I loved about witnessing this was realising the power of the circle. The circle wants to form – it is the natural form for people in social setting settings. I believe the circle is always there, in archetype, whenever human beings come together; it kind of hangs there, as potential, above the group. It seizes the chance to realise in real, especially when there is a top table and a bunch of rows of seats. All it needs is the impulse to self-organise; and that occurs with a gesture. It is the gesture usually of one person made, not in a way that reinforces the linear hierarchy – the top table – but the gesture that addresses itself to the central point of the natural circle. Then the attention of all turns towards it and a circle is formed – even when there are rows of seats.

Space opens in a circle. And circles open space. Of course, it is often better to start with a circle of chairs, but even when that is not so, just direct your comments into the mess, into the heart of the community, and watch that circle form.

Written on the way to our Open Space on Open Space in London, on May 20th 2013.

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