Coaching Open Space Facilitators

By Larry Peterson

August 31, 1999, Revised February 2, 2002

I see this article as a "report on practice". As most you know, I have led training and been active in OSI Canada. I freely offer advice and have given support to trainees or to other OSI folks by phone or in person. I have also had facilitators shadow me at Open Space events. I have co-led Open Space events for mutual learning. However, it has only been in the last six months that I have been approached to be a "coach" for other facilitators. It is clear to me that "coaching" is catching on within and beyond the corporate sector.

I have recently been asked to coach four facilitators who have secured contracts to do large Open Space events. They wanted me to give clear and effective support including formal coaching sessions, rehearsals, and computer assistance for convergence all based on a coaching contract. The facilitators wanted to ensure that the coach would commit the time and the experience to give them the support they wanted.

They all had taken training from Harrison, Birgitt or I. They had all Opened Space before. However, they approached me because their "next event" was going to be different. Most had experience with smaller groups and they were now facing a much larger group. One person had not facilitated an Open Space for a year. For all of them the stakes were higher for the event on the horizon. They each wanted someone in the background to add to their clarity and confidence. I was definitely in the background. I attended only one of the four events. They all knew that a conversation over coffee, the phone or the Internet would not be enough and they wanted to compensate me for the extra effort.

External coaching or mentoring is seen as an important role in both the corporate and non-profit sectors now. Many large corporations build coaching support into most new or senior positions. Centers and Associations have emerged to train and support coaches. I have not taken that training, but I have coached change leaders before.

My approach was to initially work with these facilitators as if I was working with a client or sponsor who was Opening Space. In the early coaching sessions, I explored with them how they had prepared their clients for the upcoming Open Space with regard to some key issues for me.

    • Context: Where does the Event fit in organization or community
    • Theme: The Focus or Performance Challenge for the Event
    • Givens: Those Things that are not open for change
    • Invitation & Stakeholders: Who is invited and why?
    • Freedom for Action: Where will the results go after the event? What degrees of freedom for action does the group have?
    • Role & Commitment of the Sponsor
    • Possibility of the Dead Moose
    • Evening and Morning News
    • Converging/Harvesting Results
    • Follow-up: Location of Open Space in ongoing process of the organization

All had missed at least one key conversation, from my perspective, in preparing their client for the event.

In one case, I worked specifically with the facilitator and her support staff on preparing for convergence. They wanted to use the Multi-Voter software to determine priorities for planning next steps. I worked with the technical support person to ensure that the software was understood and working.

All the facilitators wanted to rehearse the "opening". They each drafted their personal notes or "script" for how they usually open space, integrating the theme of the upcoming event. I also worked with them on the flow of their comments and their body movement. They all wanted to rehearse their words and the walking of the circle. In two cases, we did that in the location where the space was to be opened so they could get an early feel of the room.

The facilitators would rehearse by beginning with the opening they had used in the past. I gave advice from my experience and from what I have seen of how others Open Space. They would then re-think and try it again, sometimes letting it settle overnight.

I am certain there is no one right way. I have seen space opened in many ways, some which followed the "ritual" and some that didn't, and it still was opened. Open Space works.

However, I believe it can be a more powerful experience for the group and the facilitator when the facilitator feels confident and empowered. I believe that there are some things that I do, some ways of being in the room, that engage the Spirit in the room and my spirit better than others. I also believe that each facilitator will find in their depths their own approach, their words and flow. I believe that personal preparation helps. And, that it will be different every time.

On their own, most of the facilitators re-read Open Space Technology: A User's Guide and I encourage them to do so. I also shared with them the flow of ideas that work for me in Opening Space. Coaching others has helped me become clearer about them.

    • Being introduced by the Sponsor
    • Walking the circle
    • One or two sentences connecting to the theme.  We are here to _____
    • Connecting to the circle: leadership to come from all, look around at the treasures and breathe
    • A few more words on the theme. This is your challenge or opportunity to _____
    • Legitimizing Open Space with a couple of stories of its use
    • A first, brief description of the process.  I usually go to the centre of the room and demonstrate writing on the paper and have an example “post-it”.  At the end of the description, I emphasize the chaos and discomfort for some when everyone goes to the wall, and its importance for breakthroughs
    • Responsibilities of Conveners/Leaders, Report Forms and what will be done with them, I use an example report form from the centre of the room.
    • “This will work best if you live by four Principles and one Law.”  Add appropriate elaboration and stories to enhance the meaning of each including: “What if nobody comes?”
    • Describing the process steps again in more detail
    • “Now take the topic or issue for which you have passion and will take some responsibility write it on the paper and bring it to me.” (making it a personal call to participation)
    • Hold mike for announcing topics to group and send people to get post-its and post topics
    • Tell people how to sign up, negotiate combinations or changes of topics.
    • Announce meals and when we will meet back here
    • Up to the Wall.  “You have to get out of your chairs.”
    • Stand around or collect coffee cups for a few minutes, answer individual questions
    • Disappear for awhile

This kind of coaching is different than the learning that takes place in the workshops I have led. It is personalized, it is at the interaction of ideas and behaviour, it is "real time" working on a real event, and the stakes are higher. It is also great fun in both the interaction and when I hear about or experience the results of the Open Space.

One of the facilitators from a large corporation doing a highly visible event was thrilled with the results of the Open Space as were the participants. Many felt that it was "one of the best large group events in the organization's history". The facilitator felt that my coaching made an important contribution to the success of the event and hopefully to more Open Space in that company.

I hope this statement of my recent experience is helpful. It may encourage some of you to become coaches in this way. Others may want to seek the support that this kind of coaching can provide.

(Larry Peterson & Associates in Transformation. 41 Appleton Ave., Toronto, ON, Canada, M6E 3A4, Tel: 416-653-4829,