I’ve been deeply influenced over the years by Christina Baldwin’s principle that “no one person can be responsible for the safety of the group, but a group can learn to take responsibility for it’s own safety.” I too think that the principles of Open Space allow for the right balance for individuals to take responsibility for co-creating group safety. What is remarkable is that safety is an emergent phenomenon in Open Space, a true artifact of a self-organizing system. Of course I have seen some real conflicts happen in Open Space, but what seems to mitigate them is the double wall of the container.
What I mean by that is that meetings in Open Space happen within break out groups within the larger container. If a break out group breaks down, participants are still held in the larger space. I have seen very few instances where people in conflict left the bigger container, even if the exercised the law of two feet and left their breakout space. Most often a kind of “neutral ground” emerges in Open Space: near the agenda wall, around the coffee table, sometimes outside on a nice day. These emergent neutral spaces provide participants with a chance to discharge, relax, calm down and get their wits about them. The facilitator never has to do anything, in my experience, but just keep holding the space.
I don’t like the idea of safe space though, I prefer the term “safe enough” space, or even “brave space.” For many marginalized people the idea of safe space is always a myth, and there is no way that we can guarantee it will emerge in Open Space. So instead I encourage people to take a bit of a risk and enter into “safe enough” space, so that they can learn something new and let go of whatever it is they are holding on to.
I remember an event I did once on Hawaii with indigenous Hawaiians and well heeled Americans looking together at the values of reverence and sustainability. At one point, one of the Americans, a person with a net worth in the millions of dollars, asked the group that we commit to safety in the space. This raised the ire of the senior Elder in the room who snapped (and I paraphrase) “You have no right to safe space! Your desire for safety has imperilled the entire world. We do not live safe lives as a result. Our lands are colonized, our food supplies are depleted and our oceans are in danger of no longer providing for us. There is no safe space here. You must learn to live with risk and take responsibility for your role in creating it.”
When we are invited into risk together, everyone giving up safety according to their means, the possibility for real relationship exists in the shared challenge to our well held worldviews.