Open Space Meetings

A new form that encourages exploration and co-creation

One of the articles in Strategies For Cultural Change (IC#9)
Originally published in Spring 1985 on page 33
Copyright (c)1985, 1997 by Context Institute

"I’VE STOPPED GOING TO MEETINGS," my friend said to me.

"How come?" I asked.

"I’m getting impatient with all this talk. People go to meetings so they’ll feel like they’re doing something, and the real action never gets done."

Why have meetings? Is there a role for meetings, even after we admit that sometimes they are used to avoid action? Certainly there’s something positive we hope will happen when we bring people together, a synergy, an opening, a sense of individual support combined with group spirit. People are different, of course – some know what they need to do and don’t need meetings to help them do it. But others act best from a group base. And some genuinely aren’t ready to act; what they need now is to feel that they aren’t alone, to try out their perceptions and ideas on others, to learn to hear each other.

But in a way my friend is right. There is a kind of meeting where nothing new is said or felt, and afterwards people go home the same, except possibly, as my friend pointed out, with a spurious sense of having "done" something. That’s the kind of meeting that most of us are used to from our past.

In recent months, in San Francisco, a group of us has been experimenting with a different kind of meeting style. Called the "open space" meeting, it combines agreements about the form of the meeting with agreements about the way we relate to each other at the meeting. Inspired by At the Crossroads by the Communications Era Task Force, there are now open space meetings in a number of communities, often called by different names, with different formats, but all with the underlying purpose of bringing people together beyond roles and affiliations.

The Form Of The Open Space Meeting

The open space meeting form is an attempt to find a middle ground between meetings that are so structured that there is little room for diversity and meetings that are so free that little happens that is satisfying.

There is one deceptively simple way that the open space meeting differs from usual meetings or groups. This is that several activities can go on simultaneously, or to put it another way, there is still a "group" even if different people are doing different things. At an ordinary meeting, for example, everyone must agree to go along with the same agenda, or decide what they are all going to do together. But at an open space meeting, if three people want to work on a project while the rest have a discussion, both can happen. Or if somebody feels like stepping out into the hall for a break, they can, without anyone feeling offended.

Here’s how it goes: At 7:30 the facilitator asks that the meeting start, and suggests that each person introduce himself or herself briefly by "what is exciting to you these days or what brought you here tonight." The facilitator may mention or point to the agenda, so people are aware that introductions need to be over, if possible, by 8:00.

After the introductions, the facilitator explains briefly that for the next hour different groups will form depending on people’s interests. There may be (for example) discussion groups, listening practice groups, project or action groups, or information groups that form around a particular person who has information that others may want to hear. So far we have tried two ways of forming these groups. One is to have people suggest what groups they want, write these up on butcher paper or a blackboard, and assign each a place and begin. (Discussion about whether two groups suggested are "really the same group" needs to be gently discouraged. In fact, any discussion at this point needs to be discouraged, just as you would for any brainstorming session.) If you want to, before starting, you can have a show of hands for each group, to see whether one is particularly large and needs to stay in the larger room, or whether some are not going to happen.

The other way we’ve formed the groups is to have each person say, when they introduce themselves, the kind of group they’d be interested in, and then, after introductions, just have people mill around, finding those whose interests were mutually attractive. (This method generates a little more hubbub for awhile.) Either way you choose, you need to remind people that they are free to leave a group after it starts, because the same principles apply to the small groups as apply to the large one. (This is so different from our usual assumptions that it’s better to mention it several times.) Also tell people, as they leave, the time when the large group reconvenes.

Of course it’s in the spirit of open space that, if a small group is doing something so fascinating that it doesn’t want to stop at 9:00, it would keep going and choose to miss the networking session. You’re lucky if you can find a meeting space where this can happen easily. But there’s almost always a hall . . .

From 9:00 on is the networking session. We ask if anyone has anything they’d like to say to the whole group. These are usually announcements of upcoming events or special projects that people want to help with, and there may also be reports of what happened in the small groups. We try to end well before the time when we have to be out of the building, so that people can connect with those whose announcements interested them. The excited buzz lets you know that people have found a lot of connections.

The scenario I’ve just described is not the only way to set up the meeting and still hold with the spirit of the open space. Ours has evolved to suit our needs, and is sure to keep changing in the future. How do we make the changes we need? It wouldn’t be much of an "open space" group if people couldn’t participate in making the changes as well. On the other hand, not everyone cares for the kind of "housekeeping" decision-making that is involved in setting agendas, etc. They are happy to go along with the decisions made by others. One thing that happens in the usual group is that some people are so bored by endless discussions of small matters that they – consciously or unconsciously – try to liven things up with fights and attention-getting. So the principle is to separate decision-making meetings from regular meetings. Let the time, place, and purpose be known; let all be welcome as equal participants. But don’t take up regular meeting time. You’ll find your decision-making (planning and evaluation) meetings are smaller than your regular meetings. They are also more efficient, and more fun, when everyone there is really interested.

The Agreements Of The Open Space

Just as important as the form of the meeting is the way that people relate to each other. The two aren’t separate: when the meeting form is a kind that doesn’t blind individuals to decisions of the group, people tend to have less of a stake in influencing or persuading others, so there is more of a listening attitude. But we’ve found it’s also important to make our attitudes explicit.

One way we’ve done this is by circulating a one-pager called "The Agreements of the Open Space." The "Agreements" are a way of expressing our shared goals for how we’d like to try to relate to each other, rather than being some kind of absolute rules. Here they are:

1) We agree to experience each person (including ourselves) as unique and as more than the sum of their (our) roles and affiliations.

2) We agree to hear what each person has to say as their own legitimate concern, not to need them to see things our way, nor to feel pressed to change our opinions because of theirs.

3) We agree to listen non-judgmentally and caringly to what is behind a person’s words as well as the words themselves, and to have compassion for the feelings, beliefs, and experience that may have led them to say what they’re saying.

4) We agree to operate in the spirit that no one has the exclusive right answer, but everyone is part of the answer. So our discussions are not aimed at determining who is right; rather, to make sure that all points of view are heard.

5) We agree to see disagreement, not as an unpleasant breach to be covered up or healed, but as a welcome manifestation of our diversity. We see that differences are necessary on the way to a more comprehensive view that includes possibilities none of us had to start with.

6) We agree to see each person as "in process," changing and growing, and to expect to see the person again but not necessarily the same problems or struggles again.

7) We agree to honor and to listen to the parts in ourselves and others that are not yet clear.

8) We agree to support each other in the difficult task of staying with the questions when the answers aren’t there yet; of staying with the ambiguity and uncertainty when the clarity isn’t there yet.

But endorsing a set of agreements like these isn’t enough to make much of a difference in how people behave, not when the old habits for being in meetings are so well practiced! So we deliberately try to practice new ways of relating to each other, to shake up our old habits and build new ones. One of the most useful of these is active listening: saying to the other person our understanding of the essence of what they are saying. We find this has at least three powerful effects: 1) We discover that we hadn’t really been listening before, just preparing to react. 2) People have room to change when how they are now is really heard. 3) It gives us a practical way to honor the diversity of all our views while touching the unity under them. Listening is easy to explain, but hard to practice and do well. Like any new skill, it takes patience and the willingness to feel a little awkward and strange at first. And not all of us like it, but that’s OK; for some of us to practice it helps the underlying attitude of the group as as a whole.

There’s a role for open space meetings because whatever the world is changing into has never been here before, and the only wisdom we have about how to be in it is fuzzy, unclear, and uncertain. What is clearest in us is likely to be the old forms, the old wisdom, with defined outlines and familiar words. So we need a style for coming together that lets us honor and listen to what is new in each of us. We need to give each other time to find what is new and unclear and uncertain, and slowly put it into words, words that will sound strange at first as we forge new understandings.

The open space meetings have had many good effects. We have learned together, found new friends, made connections for projects, woven a network of mutual cooperation. But perhaps the most important effect is this one: that we let each other be more than we have already been. That’s how newness emerges, in us, and in the world.

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