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NCDD Commentary by John Engle

Inviting or Excluding?  Evaluating Our Way of Being
Submitted by John Engle, co-founder of Beyond Borders and The Experiment in Alternative Leadership and board member of the Open Space Institute USA, on December 7, 2003.

Several weeks ago someone broke into the Catholic chapel in Mariaman, Haiti, the village where I live, and stole the sound system. While my immediate reaction was disappointment (who would rob a poor church?), that quickly turned to wondering whether this was in fact a disguised blessing for the congregation.

Rosias, the chapel’s director, is among my closest friends in the neighborhood. Normally, he is kind, generous, and thoughtful. But as soon as he’s in a group or playing his role as leader, he becomes domineering and excluding. I vividly recall hearing the loud speakers blasting and so peeked into the chapel one Sunday evening. To my astonishment, I discovered Rosias standing in the pulpit preaching into the microphone with just four people sitting shell-shocked just ten feet in front of him.

With a group, Rosias, like so many of us, releases the restraining bridle on his ego. We become so wrapped up in our own ideas that we are totally unaware of how we are excluding those around us. Far too often, a person in authority dominates group conversation, while fixing his gaze on just one or two people, which often means choosing to never lay eyes on those from a lower socio-economic class who are in the group. (I always cringe when I’m singled out in such meetings as one of the chosen few.)

Too often Haitians who hold power in one form or another—whether politicians, business elite, community and organizational leaders, pastors, priests, or teachers—are audaciously egocentric. It’s as though they have been issued a license to talk and not listen, command and not serve, exclude and not invite. There seems to be a direct correlation between holding power and having exclusionary tendencies. (And certainly this phenomenon is not limited to Haiti!)

John Engle holding up the title of a proposed session during an Open Space event.

Much of my work in Haiti and the U.S. involves creating space for others to express, decide, brainstorm, and act—in an effort to transcend people’s tendencies to fill up the space with themselves and exclude others. Sincere, active listening is the key to creating such space.

I use a method called Open Space Technology, which enables ideas to emerge from the group (not just the leaders) that gives each person responsibility, and that empowers people’s passion for change. For ten years I’ve been practicing this method with groups ranging from leadership teams with large institutions to boys living on the streets of Port au Prince.

Open Space often requires significant preparation work with the group’s leaders, who must be willing to “invite” their people—staff/board members, employees, members of a community/association/congregation—into the decision-making process. This goes against the leadership style we are most familiar with.

Since its creation in 1983, Open Space has helped leaders become inviting rather than excluding—which has resulted in surprising and extraordinary developments. Creativity, motivation, and energy that were otherwise untapped emerge among group members.

Last month I participated in an international gathering of Open Space practitioners in Fyn, Denmark. Certain aspects of my experience have left me feeling a little discouraged as an active member of this network. While spending three days with colleagues from around the world nourished and inspired me, I was surprised by the way in which many long-timers frequently occupied group space by talking and dominating, instead of creating space or opportunity for newcomers to share. For me, learning to be inviting rather than excluding is a life-long apprenticeship. In group interactions, it’s not easy to harness my ego’s hungry appetite to impress others and to never miss an opportunity to tell people about me.

I dream of the day when it is culturally taboo to be excluding, when people will be so concerned about treating others with dignity and respect that we will avoid allowing power, prestige, money, etc., to concentrate around us for fear that it will obstruct our ability to be inviting. I dream we will become so effective at inviting and sharing what we have, and at including and caring for others, that the alluring shine of power and wealth loses its luster.

I hope to walk by on the path near my home in Haiti, where I’ll look into the chapel to find Rosias and members of his congregation sitting in a circle and engaged in respectful, enlightening dialogue.

John Engle is co-founder of Beyond Borders and The Experiment in Alternative Leadership. He leads groups with Open Space Technology both in Haiti and the U.S., and is on the board of Open Space Institute U.S.A. His email address is [email protected].

Past Commentaries:

November 8, 2003:  Commentary by Sandy Heierbacher, NCDD Convenor, about her October road trip with Tom Atlee of the Co-Intelligence Institute.

September 20, 2003:  Commentary by Cecile Andrews, author of The Circle of Simplicity, entitled "Simplicity Circles, NewsNite, and Grocery Line Activism: The Slacker's Guide to Dialogue for Social Change."

July 31, 2003:  Commentary by Libby and Len Traubman of San Mateo's highly respected Living Room Dialogue Group about the first Day of Global Arab Jewish Dialogue.

July 1, 2003: Commentary by Tom Atlee and Sandy Heierbacher entitled Declaring & Celebrating Our Interdependence. Outlines a variety of Interdependence Day celebrations and Declarations of Interdependence.

March 3, 2003:  Commentary by Sandy Heierbacher about her April 2003 trip to Seattle, during which she participated in Jim Rough's Dynamic Facilitation training and met with NCDD members Susan Partnow, John Spady and Vicki Robin.


Last Updated:  December 7, 2003.