As a facilitator I like to find opportunities to participate in other people’s events, to watch and learn from their facilitation skills – either things that work or things that don’t! The other day I got thinking about a facilitation strategy that I’ve found effective as a participant and want to remember to use in my facilitation practice. It’s called the Law of Two Feet.

I was first introduced to the Law of Two Feet several years ago when I was a participant in a day-long workshop organized by Leadership Victoria. We were tackling the question of how to reduce barriers for homeless people seeking work using human-centred design methods. It was probably early in the day that one of the facilitators invited us to use the Law of Two Feet at any point during our times working in small groups if we felt that we could contribute more effectively in another group. It was a new concept to me at the time, but I ended up using that rule that day. I was brainstorming in a trio with two others who were coming from a different philosophical direction than I was and we disagreed on something. I felt like I was wrecking the “no judgement” rule of brainstorming and couldn’t see a way forward to participate meaningfully to our work. I invoked my Law of Two Feet to change to a different group. Wishing them well before I left, I was somewhat guilty but freed at the same time. In the new group I felt like a more productive contributor.

A couple of years ago I employed the Law of Two Feet again when I was a participant in a three-day Liberating Structures immersion workshop. By the third day I was getting antsy with just experiencing the structures – I wanted to get started facilitating with them! We were in the middle of an Open Space structure and I was part of a group that had formed to talk about using Liberating Structures online. The conversation quickly devolved into what platforms participants were using for webinars and I felt I was getting little from being part of that discussion as that topic was very familiar to me. I invoked the Law of Two Feet and left the group, grabbing some flipchart paper and markers along the way. I holed up in a corner of the very large room and started designing an online session where I would use Liberating Structures. Eventually a person or two came to join me to help me ideate and it was very worthwhile!

The third time I employed the Law of Two Feet was earlier this year at a conference. I had chosen to attend a particular session and ten or so minutes in, I was extremely disappointed with the presenter. He was way off topic and not at all engaging. Invoking the Law of Two Feet was a tough one in this situation as it was a smallish conference room full of round tables where it would be completely obvious if I just got up and left. Thankfully I got up the nerve and did, and when I joined another session I found a room full of engaged participants with a riveting presenter.

Later I found out that the Law of Two Feet actually comes from the Open Space Technology methodology. This user’s guide eloquently notes:

Finally we come to the One Law of Open Space. It is a law only in the sense that all participants must observe it or the process will not work. We call it the Law of Two Feet. Briefly stated, this law says that every individual has two feet, and must be prepared to use them. Responsibility for a successful outcome in any Open Space Event resides with exactly one person — each participant. Individuals can make a difference and must make a difference. If that is not true in a given situation, they, and they alone, must take responsibility to use their two feet, and move to a new place where they can make a difference. This departure need not be made in anger or hostility, but only after honoring the people involved and the space they occupy. By word or gesture, indicate that you have nothing further to contribute, wish them well, and go and do something useful.

I love the phrase that “individuals must make a difference”. The Law of Two Feet gives agency to participants in situations where they feel they could make more of a positive difference elsewhere than they are right now. As facilitators we must remember to tell our participants that the Law of Two Feet exists and tell them how to use it, for hopefully a better experience and result for themselves and the others around them.

Looking back on the three situations I shared above, if I had followed an etiquette of what I thought was politeness it would have prevented me from joining other groups where I could have made more of a difference. We could fall into the trap of thinking that leaving a group that is not serving us is rude any way you look at it – and that might make us feel guilty or even embarrassed to do so. Yet if I had stayed in those groups I wouldn’t have been a productive member of them in my own mind and I might have – even in some small way – tarnished the group experience for others. So it’s important to remember that as leaders of events where people are in groups, and it makes sense to do so, we should talk about this Law, normalize its practice and invite people to use it in kind and productive ways. Our participants will appreciate that we’ve thought about how we can put structures in place to help them make more of a difference, to themselves, their event colleagues, and the event overall.

Featured image by rosipaw on Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0