Acceptance a great catalyst to change
Lessons from working with Open Space Technology
For many years now I have been working with Open Space Technology (OST) as one of the most powerful meeting methods I know to create an environment where people address and ways to deal with often complex and contentious issues. Using OST consistently provides the path to new ways of dealing with what previously looked like intractable issues. During OST meetings group wisdom consistently appears as people build on awareness and understanding which in turn inspires the will to (collective)engagement and action. Paradoxically one of the reasons for this is because OST meetings train people in acceptance of what is present.
In a world where there is a great pressure to make a change as soon as discomfort is noticed, it seems counter-intuitive to think that a method that invites acceptance would be the one that brings us to the most profound changes. Yet time after time in OST events, and day after day being with people who integrate OST principles into their lives this is exactly what I see.
So I am dedicating some time to look at how that works, and what the benefit can be of learning to accept situations first vs. immediately trying to “improve” them.
Where does it start?
If you have never been to an OST meeting a little introduction is in order. Open Space Technology is a meeting method designed to bring (large) groups of people together — think all the stakeholders who are involved in a question — to tackle complex issues that are close to their hearts and therefore probably also ripe for conflict. It is a method that works well in situations where there is no clear path ahead, where the consequences of not doing something are high and where there is a great sense of immediacy i.e.: you wish you had a resolution already yesterday.
Developed by Harrison Owen in the late 1980s, and used around the world, one of the unique things about OST is how it goes against a lot of prevailing common sense about how best to deal with the above-described situations. Instead of trying to figure out the agenda, and manage and guide the discussions, in OST meetings you leave the handling of the issue constructing of the agenda and its flow to the participants. If someone wants to discuss a and is willing to write it on a paper, tell others what it is and put it in a time slot then the topic is on the agenda. If others want to contribute to a discussion about it, they show up at the time and place and have that talk. The people in the room guide the discussions, there is no meeting moderator, how the discussions take shape is left to the wisdom of the people in the room. If notes of the meeting are taken, they are put on a collective “news wall” for everyone to read.
Instead of moderators and limits, people are introduced instead to Four Principles and one Law that they are invited to live by during the meeting:The Four Principles
Whoever Shows Up Are the Right People
Whatever Happens is the Only Thing That Could Have
It Starts When the Time is Right
When It’s Over It’s Over
The Law of Two Feet/Law of Mobility
If at any moment you feel you are not in the right space, you are not contributing or learning, then use your two feet to find the place that is right for you now.
These principles and law support people to come into a frame of mind that is about acceptance. Acceptance of the situation that is in front of you no matter how beautiful, how messy, how confusing, no matter if it is “desirable” or not. Acceptance of who is with you, and of who is not. Acceptance of where your thoughts and energy go, and where it doesn’t, acceptance of if there are many who agree with you or if you are the only one who sees something and feels it is important. Acceptance of your state of mind to honor yourself and others by not staying in places when your mind/heart or energy is no longer there.
Working with the principles and law forces you to look at what is there at the moment and say to yourself — “okay, this is what I’ve got…now what.” This happens on an individual level with every choice you make. It happens in each sub-group meeting, and it also happens collectively when all of a sudden, as reports of a meeting emerge, the complex contours of all perspectives start to become visible.
Being in this space where all of a sudden you are confronted with what “is” and asked to accept it changes the state of mind of people. Over and over I notice that by becoming aware of and accepting the truth that this is where I/we am/are at this moment, this is what I/we have, these are the people I/we have to do it with, changes something.
Sometimes this acceptance comes with sadness or anger, other times with joyful celebration, other times with pure wonder at what is being uncovered. And in all cases, from this place of clarity new things emerge, and when they do, they emerge from a place of reality, of what is there, instead of from a place of mental concepts of what we wish would be.
This lesson in acceptance has come to be the most important part of working with Open Space Technology for me. This robust, unapologetic chance to see and accept what is, warts and all, to see it with a large group of people and from all different perspectives, gives such freedom. It releases people from the need to control, or be right, or be strong…it reminds us that we are all just parts of a larger whole, and from that space, the best opening is created for something real and new to start to form. And as that happens the actions and ideas that start to be generated in the meeting are amazing. Amazing in their depth and quality, amazing in their quantity, amazing in their potential for changing whatever situation must be faced.
Spending enough time in OST meetings changes people outside of the meeting as well. That’s because once you have lived knowing the truth of the four principles and law in the meeting you realize they also apply outside as well. When I feel frustrated with a person or a situation, I can no longer think it is not meant to be. It is here, and so I am the right person to be here too, and whatever is happening is the only thing that could have…so it is time to accept that and go from there.