What do you want? And how will you get it?

Last weekend I had the opportunity, in fact the urgent need, to try something new. Something that felt a little risky. Something important. It’s called Non Violent Communication, and I’d like to tell you about it, because the results showed it to be a valuable tool for my communication toolkit – and perhaps for yours.

On July 6th and 7th I participated in the first of what I hope will be many Stoos Stampede conferences. This one was in Amsterdam, and I was really excited about it, but as I packed my bags I found I was stewing. The organisers had declared the event a hybrid of Open Space and a regular conference… which set off warning bells for me. By way of background: I’ve been involved in (participated in,  organised, and facilitated) many unconferences since 2004. In fact, as a woman with a mission, my time is precious to me, and I attend almost exclusively unconferences. In this time I’ve had some outstanding experiences, and seen some things that left me angry and sad: people confused, and confusing others, about the “un” part of unconference, reducing the joy and learning of the event and, worse, creating division.

Now, joy, learning and community are huge values for me, and in the days leading up to my attendance at the Stoos Stampede I found myself fretting: at this event that is so important to me, will our minimalist organizers, in using only parts of the Open Space format, remember to share the simple rules that put everyone on the same footing to co-create the event?

I found it hard to talk about this with my colleague and key organiser Jurgen Apello – being an ardent advocate of classic Open Space myself, and knowing that Jurgen had both publicly and privately expressed his dislike for it. When deep values are threatened, a feeling of conflict is natural, and my default stance in conflict, i.e. when I don’t choose otherwise, is withdrawal. So I had been keeping this concern to myself. However I was also toying with new ideas about conflict, since learning about Non Violent Communication or NVC at AgileCoachCamp. Clearly, NVC is intended for just such a situation, so on the train to Amsterdam I did a little reading and pondered how to use this new tool to put my passion and experience (which were “stuck”) back into the service of the community I care about.

On Thursday night I declined Peter Stevens’ kind offer of a beer and sat on the bed in my hotel room, using the NVC formula to think about this conundrum. I stumbled at “what do I need?” realising that this felt like a conflict to me because my perceived need was that “they should do it my way!” How juvenile, and yet how human, to frame it this way to myself, LOL. I reflected some more and dug til I was satisfied with “I need this event to model (my) Stoosian values of respect, inclusiveness, self-organisation, team intelligence.” Already this felt less like a conflict and more like a “crucial conversation.” Encouraged, I DM’d Jurgen and set up a 7:30 breakfast rendezvous.

As it turned out, Erwin van der Koogh was there, too: perfect! I got some eggs, avoided the temptation to seek refuge in a conversation with Steve Denning, and asked if Jurgen would like to hear my concern. He said yes, and my first experiment with NVC began, while Catherine Louis and her husband Paul looked on curiously. I won’t say it was a complete success – being calm isn’t my strong point (perhaps I married Ilja hoping to learn that skill – hmmm, in fact, that’s where I first heard about NVC :-). But I was impressed at how that simple formula, together with some deep reflection, had transformed my experience of this conversation. It had moved me from “indulging my anger” to “honoring my anger” constructively. It was short, almost easy (since driven by passion), and built a deeper bond rather than separating us.

The NVC formula ends with “a request”. I just blurted out the one I had decided on in my hotel room, something like: “will you allow me 5 minutes during the opening to welcome newcomers and explain the Law of Two Feet?” “Sounds important,” said Erwin. The two of them agreed to make room for it, and I promised to organise myself to keep it short.
And that is the story of my three-minute “welcome to un-conferenceing for newbies”, squeezed in just before 10 am. I explained The Law, and the strange Butterflies and Bumblebees it produces, and how each participant is responsible to create their own conference experience, to bring what’s important to them into the event.

During those 3 minutes I had created the opportunity I needed to suggested a voluntary working agreement that could level the playing field between “book authors” “talking heads” and “how-on-earth-is-this-going-to-work? unconference newbies.” And I had invited everyon’s passion. Already in the first few minutes, the event had embodied some of the Stoosian values I most love. Mission accomplished!

Who did I do this for? Why, everyone! Well, in fact, for me most of all – because I believe that teaching these values will help me change the world.

If you were in that room – I’ll bet you thought I was an organizer, right? :-) Nope. I was, like you, a conference participant, exercising the Law of Two Feet (and just a little passion :-) to get what was important to me, LOL.  With help from NVC (thanks, Bettina Ruggeri for sharing NVC with us at ACCDE12).

(And thanks to Erwin, Jasper Sonnevelt, Arjen Uittenbogaard, Steve Denning and others at the Storytelling session, for starting me on the journey of becoming a storyteller. How did I do? :-)

Comments (10)

  1. Hi Deborah,

    Thanks for sharing your story, insights and passion! We have different perspectives, which is key to sense-making of a complex environment.

    Here’s my perspective:

    We’ve defined Stoosian to be about “learning organizations”. The Stoos network and the Stoos Stampede organizers also aim to learn. Donald Reinertsen described in his latest book that learning is maximized when people do _experiments_. That’s what we did. We ran an experiment with the format of the conference. You said you tried something new with NVC, which felt a little risky? We tried something new (to us) with the event format, which also felt a little risky. Was your experiment good and our experiment bad? I understand you would have felt more comfortable with “the known approach” of open space, which would have been safer. We already know where OST succeeds, and we know where it fails. But where’s the learning if we do things only the safe way?

    What I miss in your passionate plea for unconferences is that people are different. Open space seems to be a perfect format for _you_. But it’s not perfect for everyone. (It’s not for me.) Another Stoosian value is “diverse people”. Well, this means taking into account that what works for you might not work for other people. Being sad and angry about some people not understanding an open space unconference is, IMHO, a suboptimal way to deal with diversity. Instead of explaining to confused people who “don’t get it” how to participate in open space, maybe we can also try to understand what these people really need, and improve the open space format accordingly? Several people told me they were happy to see session descriptions before the event, so they could prepare. One suggested that the session descriptions is what pulled him to the event in the first place! We miss all that with open space. When you announce an unconference as purely open space you usually only get the people who already believe in the value of open space. Where’s the diversity in that?

    Third, you’re right that empowerment needs leadership and facilitation. But that doesn’t have to be the same people. In fact, with my Management 3.0 hat I always claim that managers don’t have to be leaders themselves. They have to create the constraints in which leadership easily emerges. As event organizers we were (I think) primarily managers. But we did enable leaders (such as you) to step forward and help others. This is exactly what Management 3.0 advocates, and I’m glad you did what I hoped would happen. As organizers we invited leaders and followers, and they self-organized. Your story seems to indicate lack of facilitation by organizers was a weakness. I disagree. Although we could not predict what leadership would emerge, we did allow and invite leadership to happen. True, our experiment was not perfect. But we succeeded, with learnings.

    Fourth, you misrepresent my opinion I’m afraid. I do not dislike open space. I just see some issues with it. I liked the movie Prometheus, but I saw the big problems it has (major plotholes). I like open space too, but I do see the problems it has.

    Last, you spelled my name wrong. :)

    Thank for the reference to NVC. I’m sure I can use that too…


  2. Hi Jurgen.

    Thanks for your comments. Did you see my comment on your blog http://www.noop.nl/2012/07/stoos-stampede-empower-teams.html ? They are related, but different in focus. However, since you combine both topics here I will refer to both.

    First: sorry to spell your name – I know it happens a lot and usually try to get it right, but I guess a lifetime of speaking French snuck in. The correct spelling is Appelo … drat, I even got it wrong while writing this sentence, LOL.

    Second: I accept your correction that you don’t dislike Open Space (and note, my point was about “classic” open space) – you have some issues with it. So I guess it is more accurate for me to say that while you like Open Space, you did’t like it enough to use it for Stoos Stampede. You feld something different was called for, for your purposes – fair enough. If you look back I don’t think you will find one attempt from me to convince you otherwise, although you told me many months ago it would not be Open Space. I was curious, too, to see what would happen!

    You write “Was your experiment good and our experiment bad?” and my answer is “definitely not”. If you read carefully, you will see that I don’t advocate Open Space in this story. I mention my love for Open Space, and I advocate NVC and also facilitation of working agreements, in particular at unconferences. There’s no criticism of your inventive format here, written or implied. Sorry if you feel criticised – that’s not the point of this at all. In fact, I was impressed that you and Erwin listened, considered, and made space in the program for me. Thanks for that. I was very happy to collaborate in co-creating the event with you (and everyone else there).

    What was important for me about this interaction was not that the conference became more Open Space-like (although that was important to me, personally), but that I moved from stewing to being constructive, from “do it my way!” to “I’d like to change something specific that’s important to me, do you agree?” which allowed me to move back into action and be glad, not mad. This was a story about me – you and Stoos Stampede are characters that publicly appeared in it. There is more on how this relates to Stoos Stampede in my comment on your “Empower Teams” blog – where I note that Erwin already had planned to do at least some of what I did when I spoke, and we’d agreed about that. So there is no criticism here of “lack of facilitation by organizers”, but rather *my fear* of the same… and we’ll never know how it would have worked out had I not stood up… who knows, it might have been the same!

    You wrote “Being sad and angry about some people not understanding an open space unconference is, IMHO, a suboptimal way to deal with diversity. Instead of explaining to confused people who “don’t get it” how to participate in open space, ” Agreed! And: I’m pretty sure that’s in the story I just wrote. :-)

    Would I have changed the format of Stoos Stampede? No. If I had wanted to do that I would have intervened long before… and it worked out very well, so that would have been wasted effort, right? And would I change the format for the next one? I won’t spend any energy on that hypothetical scenario – the organisers of the next event need to answer that one for themselves, and that probably won’t include me.

    For the record (and you and I discussed this at breakfast) I like the idea of posting ideas beforehand, and I recognise that it probably drew in different people – and I agree that this is GREAT! In fact, I like it so much, I may well add it to my Open Space events in future. We already do something like this with position papers in some Open Space format conferences, but the ideascale site was an interesting new way to do it, for me.

    I hope you can see that my “passionate plea for unconferences” is, more precisely, “a passionate plea for working agreements (like the Law of Two Feet) at unconferences.” The Law is only one part of the Open Space approach, but, as last weekend’s experiment showed, was apparently enough to help me (and others who spoke to me about it) feel comfortable at the event. In fact, I gave it a 5 out of 5 in my comment on your blog :-) I think you guys did a great job at creating a place where everyone could contribute!

    And: I am happy that I did not walk around fretting all weekend, so I could enjoy and participate in it :-) From the evidence of a single experiment: NVC rocks.

  3. Hi Deborah, thanks for the clarifications and further feedback! Considering the time I’m spending on this discussion (see also my latest blog post) this must mean I find it valuable. ;-)

    1. Yes, Jurgen, we are different and that is good. We disagree on (I think) a very few fundamental ideas. So what? :-) So far, it works.

      And, yes, Jurgen, I also find this conversation valuable. In fact, I find working with you valuable and I am glad you are a participant-leader in our Agile and Stoos communities. Even if you don’t “do things my way”, LOL. I can live with it if you can! And who knows what creative newness will come out of it?


  4. Hi Deborah,
    perhaps even the Industrial Psychologist – who played such an important part in the story you told at the story-telling session, perhaps even made your Stampede experience into what it became – was drawn in by the ideas that were posted beforehand. :-)

    1. Sander – exactly! I think it is important to make information visible in advance of the event, for just this reason. That is why we use position papers for AgileCoachCamp.

      People wonder why some AgileCoachCamp events fill up so fast. One reason is buzz – the real event is the people, and letting them show what they are about, their passions and questions, sells the event, which is really just a container for getting these people together to talk. :-)

  5. In fact, upon a little reflection… this is one of the things people *don’t* want in the “stoos package” – slowness. When we take the time to reflect and talk to one another, to get past the uncomfortable differences, it takes TIME!

    But had you and I blown up at each other in Stoos, and others followed suit, I doubt the Stoos Stampede would have happened at all. We took our time in Stoos, and we are taking our time today. Why?

    * people, individually, matter
    * people (all of us) want real solutions
    * people, collectively, will create the right solutions at the right time
    * real solutions are worth a little waiting.

    my 2 cents. And now for a cup of tea.

    1. PS:

      Who goes slowly, goes wisely, and who goes wisely, goes far. — Italian proverb

      When we slow down, we go faster – Japanese proverb

      Dress slowly when you are in a hurry. — French proverb

      Hurry slowly — Swedish proverb

  6. Deborah,

    As I mentioned before, the NVC worked great. There was no hint of anger or frustration. There was a concern and a passion for new people at the conference. Yes I was planning to something along those lines, but you could probably do that way better :)

    And as far as the story. It is a good start. Could be a bit shorter and simpler.
    A sentence like: “This one was in Amsterdam, and I was really excited about it, but as I packed my bags I found I was stewing.” is great. It really conveys the emotion you felt properly. Enough details to make it concrete and most importantly about what you.

  7. I love the openness and heart in this post. Using these skills, such as NVC, is hard work because it puts us at our edges where life is uncomfortable. But, of course, the situations that called for them made life uncomfortable already, so – what the hell? Might as well interact more constructively with people!

    Thanks for sharing your story. You have undoubtedly helped many people by offering it.

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