How We Open Up Conversational Space

It’s called Open Space Technology.

Don’t let the name fool you. Open Space is not a new app or a fresh software solution. It’s a conversational framework that has been around for over 30 years. Created by Harrison Owen, a former associate pastor, peace worker and organizational development consultant, Open Space dismantles organizational silos and rigid control in meetings in favor of self-organization around themes and issues that a group of people wish to discuss.

It has the power to transform corporate meetings and galvanize conferences. I know. I just spent 3 days in an Open Space event at Columbia University, having conversations with 50 people from all over the world.

Open Space is simple. It’s inclusive. It’s radical.

Instead of locking people into a pre-determined agenda tightly choreographed by one person or a few people, it “opens space” for the conversations that are truly pressing for a particular group of people. Yes, that’s radical. And just the beginning.

The basics:

In an opening ritual, anyone in the meeting room can declare a topic that fits with the general purpose for the gathering (the theme of the Open Space I attended was Peace and High Performance). S/he announces the topic to the room. The topic is placed on a board called The Marketplace and given a space and time when the topic will be discussed. The person who chose the topic hosts the conversation. If 5 people show up, it will be a conversation with 5 people. If 20 show up, a conversation with 20. If no one shows up, the conversation isn’t meant to happen.

Radical, right?

The following core principles guide an Open Space conversation:

  1. Whoever comes is the right people.

  2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.

  3. Wherever it happens is the right place.

  4. Whenever it starts is the right time.

  5. When it’s over it’s over.

Even more radical, yes? And so very very Zen. I breathe a sigh of relief every time I see these principles. They are a liberation from heavily regimented agendas that don’t allow for any fresh insight or surprises. They unshackle meetings from the grind, grind grind of utter predictability.

Yes, exhale. Relief.

On the first day of Open Space, my colleague Lori Michelle Leavitt, author and exceptional leadership advisor, said to me, I prepared my comments carefully and made sure I stayed on topic. I found myself getting frustrated when someone else went off on a tangent. And then I realized that that was OK.

More relief.

One of my favorite Open Space credos is The Law of 2 Feet. Simple. When you are no longer energized by the conversation you’re in and feel like you have no value to add, remove yourself and join another conversation. No need to explain or apologize. You just leave.

Utterly totally radical. And so so so liberating.

Imagine what would happen to the meetings in your business if everyone present had full permission to honor The Law of 2 Feet.

Better meetings. More purposeful meetings. Meetings that are meant to happen because they allow for essential conversations.

Shocking thing is, first time we’re given permission to leave a conversation most of us do not leave. So entrenched is this notion that we must stay in a meeting at all cost, even if the conversation is dead and no longer feels relevant. Yes, that is how profoundly meeting-shackled we all are.

I trust the gist of Open Space is clear, even with this cursory overview. The real space we open in an Open Space conversation is, of course, the space within.

The space where we give up control of what should happen and how it should go.

The space where we speak a truer truth.

The space where we choose to be more vulnerable.

The space where we fully engage.

Not a bad space to be in, is it?

You may not end up turning every one of your business meetings into an Open Space meeting. But ask yourself, please: What might happen in my meetings if I open up more space for all of us? How would I/we do that?

Find your own answers.


The rewards will astound you.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also like: Spirit-Killing Complicity