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My First Open Space

Shelly Stanley
West Point NY USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 41 No. 5, October-November 2005, p. 111.

As I sat listening to Christine Whitney Sanchez and Claudia Haack during the closing of the first day of the International Mastery Symposium (IMS) at the La Leche League International Conference this past summer, I was taken back to the first time I attended a meeting that used the "Open Space" format.

It was January 2005, and I had agreed to go to an Area Council meeting with my co-Leader (and Area Coordinator of Leaders). I wasn't on the Area Council, but I was interested in becoming involved beyond the Group level, and I knew that it would be a fun day meeting different Leaders from around my Area. The meeting began in the usual way, with announcements and introductions, everyone seated in a large circle. As we went around the room, each Leader told her name and position on the Area Council. Of the 35 or so women in the room, there were only a few of us not on the Council, and I felt a little out of place. My plan was to listen and learn.

After introductions, Gail, one of the Area Council members, told us about Open Space. She explained that we would come up with our own topics for the day's meetings. If there was any issue related to the question, "What are the opportunities and challenges among Leaders in our area?" that we were passionate about and wanted to discuss, we should write down the topic and post it on the "sticky wall." The sticky wall was a large vinyl sheet taped to the wall that was sprayed with adhesive so the pieces of paper would stick to it.

Gail then passed around sheets of paper and colorful markers. I was suddenly struck with fear as I thought of having to come up with a topic when I hardly knew why I was there. I had hoped to just listen that day, and it seemed I would have to participate! I could feel the nervousness of others in the room, too. Only a handful of people had used the Open Space format before and many seemed unsure of how to proceed. Suddenly, one person rose from her seat to propose a topic, and slowly one after another added their topics, announcing them to the group and then posting them on the sticky wall. I quickly realized that I wouldn't have to post a topic, that enough people had ideas that they wanted to discuss that our day's schedule would be full. What a relief!

After posting their topics (there were about nine total) into one of two different time slots, the person posting the topic also chose a location. Then we were told to all get up and write our name on the two topics (one in each time slot) that we wanted to attend. We were also told that we were free to move to another session if we changed our minds or realized the topic wasn't that interesting to us after all.

We broke up to go to our first session. In each session, one person volunteered to take notes so that we could share what we had talked about with everyone. (These notes were later posted to our Area email list.) There were about eight people in my first session. I found that with such a small group, it was easy for me to speak up and be heard. My nervousness slowly faded.

Our conversation in that first session was intense. The women there were very passionate about the topic and we came up with some great recommendations. Gail came around to tell us that we had about five minutes left, and it was hard to wrap up. The second session was equally riveting. It amazed me how different this felt from other meetings and workshops I had been at where the topics sometimes didn't appeal to me. I realized that with Open Space, I could suggest my own topic. My voice could be heard. I could seek a topic that interested me if my first choice didn't work out.

After the two sessions, we met back together as a group. The note-taker from each breakout session gave a brief summary of what had been discussed, providing us two or three highlights. We then went around the circle and each participant was given the opportunity to tell the group one thing that she was going to take from the morning's I thought about what I had learned that day, and when my turn came I committed to re-instituting Chapter Meetings in my area. It may not have seemed like a large thing, but it was something that I could do, and if we all did just one thing, big or small, then a lot could be accomplished.

I left the meeting excited about all I had heard, all that others were going to be doing, and also with the commitment that I had made. I went home and organized a Chapter Meeting, the first in years for our Chapter. We liked getting together so much that we scheduled our next meeting, started planning a social event for our families, and even made tentative plans for regular meetings in the future.

Since that Area Council meeting I have seen the Open Space format used at a District Workshop, at my son's preschool parents' meeting, and I even facilitated Open Space for my husband's graduate student council. All these meetings had around 20 participants and Open Space had terrific results. I have learned, with no doubt, that when people are given the opportunity to discuss the issues they are passionate about, amazing things can happen.

Shelly Stanley lives in West Point, New York, USA with her husband, Roger, and their three children (ages 7, 5, and 2). She has been a Leader since 2003, and is a new Associate Coordinator of Leader Accreditation-at-large. As an Army wife, Shelly has attended LLL Meetings since 1997 in Germany and in South Carolina, Florida, Washington, California, and New York, USA.

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