There's no doubt that money matters. But not always.
I recently worked with a group that was struggling over how to find an equitable settlement with its developer (who was also a member of the group) over promised facilities that never materialized, and one of the key challenges was coming to agreement about constituted "equitable."
Here's the back story:
o The project was started about a decade ago when the developer bought a piece of land and promoted it for a community location. He sold lots for a certain amount of money, with the understanding that some of the purchase price would go toward paying off the land, some would go toward infrastructure (roads, sewer, and utilities), and some would be set aside for building common facilities. While the exact nature of the common facilities had not been delineated, everyone agreed that the promise had been made.
o The project was to be developed in two phases: roughly two-thirds of the lots were in Phase I, and the remainder in Phase II.
o When the bottom fell out of the housing market in 2008, it put an unanticipated squeeze on the master plan. It was hard to sell lots, interest payments were piling up, and the cost of infrastructure development spiraled upward. The net result was that after Phase I lots were sold there was only enough money to pay off the mortgage and to complete the infrastructure. Nothing was left over to build common facilities.
o Further complicating matters, it turned out that the Phase II lots were in a more remote location such that there were serious questions about whether it would be revenue positive to develop them. Thus, it was by no means certain that completing the development would actually yield any additional revenue with which to fund construction of common facilities.
o As long as this issue remained unresolved, the developer was stuck in no man's land: halfway between being a real estate professional who hadn't kept a promise, and being a fellow member of the community. It was awkward. Everyone wanted to get beyond this limbo, to the point where the development phase was complete and everyone was just a member of the community, yet they needed a pathway that would both protect the rights (and dreams) of the community to common facilities and didn't bankrupt the developer in the process.
o By the time I got there, the group had been gnawing on this bone for more than two years and there was serious fatigue over the time and energy it was taking to untangle this Gordian Knot.
There were a couple ways to look at this.
Option 1: The Financial Solution
Under this approach the group could assign a dollar value to the empty kitty for common facilities and then compare it against what the developer offered as compensation. While there would undoubtedly be some serious numbers to crunch, there are known methodologies for getting all that accomplished. In the end you could compare the value of the proposed remedy to the value of the debt and adjust as needed.
In many ways, that's the point of money: to facilitate fair exchange between apples and oranges.
However, fair market value does a notoriously poor job of taking into account mental anguish, good will, and the importance of ongoing good relations among the players. As all the folks involved in this decision were going to continue to live together after the settlement, this mattered quite a lot.
Option 2: The Energetic Solution
Under this approach, the group would purposefully skip the step of conducting a careful financial analysis and go for the gestalt. That is, once both sides were satisfied that the offer is reasonable, the group could decide to accept it because it was close enough and the most important thing is to get the problem resolved and move on—not extracting the last nickel possible.
While money is a tool, and not inherently good or evil, focusing on financial equality as the prime directive has a way of devaluing intangibles—such as relationships, the lifeblood of community—rather than supporting them.
In the end, the group chose Door #2, and the relief in the room was palpable, as weight was lifted from everyone's shoulders and the sun came out from behind the clouds.
Saturday, November 22, 2014
There's no doubt that money matters. But not always.
Monday, November 17, 2014
Almost all people living in intentional community—as well as those aspiring to—value good communication. After all, the heart of community is relationship and that's pretty hard to develop and sustain with weak communication.
That said, all conditions under which communication is attempted are not equal. Some are way more challenging than others. In particular, one of the hardest is when one or more people are experiencing serious distress. In fact, the higher the voltage, the more uncertain and potentially explosive the connection becomes—to the point where it's questionable whether even to attempt it because:
a) Relationship damage may seem a more likely outcome than enhancement (sometimes people express distress in damaging ways).
b) The possibility of constructive exchange may seem too remote.
c) The environment in which the engagement occurs may be too uncomfortable or toxic for the people not in distress to be able to function.
d) There is no clarity about what will be constructive.
e) There is no confidence in anyone present possessing the skills needed to be constructive, even if there's agreement about how to go about it.
However, despite all these reasons to be cautious, reaching out and communicating with people in distress is also when it can do the most good—in terms of helping the person through the distress, helping the group shift back from turbulent to laminar flow, and strengthening relationships through deeper understanding.
So how do you handle it?
I believe that once a person identifies with being in serious distress, the group's prime directive is to make sure that that person doesn't feel isolated, and the way to accomplish that is to establish an authentic connection with their experience—essentially, that means being able to demonstrate to the upset person's satisfaction three things:
1. What's the trigger?
What happened (or didn't happen) that resulted in the reaction? Sometimes it's an action, sometimes it's a statement; sometimes it's a sequence of things that becomes the trigger. Sometimes it erupts out of nowhere and sometimes it's been building for years. Rather than guess, you need to ask.
2. What's the energy?
It turns out that getting the energy right is often more important than getting the story right. That is, in order for the upset person to feel heard, it's important that the person reaching out gets into a similar energetic zone—raising their energy if the person is angry, and dropping down for people who are afraid. Smoke curling out the ears needs to approached very differently than tears rolling down the cheeks.
Sometimes people make the mistake of trying to be an island of calm when reaching out to people in distress (on the theory that matching energy risks further stimulating the overstimulated), but my experience has been the reverse—that upset is far more likely to be sustained when met by mismatched energy. ("If you truly understood what I'm going through you wouldn't be so goddamn calm!")
3. Why does it matter?
The final piece of my triage trio is making a connection to why this matters to the person in reaction. In what way did this touch a core interest or concern? Understanding context can often be a key element in feeling fully held. This is especially helpful when the listener can establish how the concern is reasonable and tied to something valued in the group.
Note that none of the above is about taking sides; it's simply about hearing accurately and establishing connection without ducking hard feelings or assigning blame. Done well, information should now be freely flowing again.
Saturday, November 15, 2014
One of the most prominent complaints about consensus is the perception that it takes too long to get things done.
In thinking about how to compose this essay, I was reminded of an old Mad Magazine cover that featured a spoof on piracy. Across the top was the teaser "Seven Ways to Quell a Mutiny." Underneath that, in a more discreet font, was the secondary teaser: "Eight Ways to Start One."
Trying to be more up-tempo than mischievous, I will reverse the numbers for this essay, offering seven roads to consensus hell, followed by eight paths by which good results can be rescued from the voracious jaws of poor process.
This pickle (of trial by meeting) comes in a variety of flavors; here are seven:
• Stubborn minorities can too easily monkey-wrench the process
• It takes too long to hear from everyone
• Too many things require plenary approval to go forward
• When key people miss meetings all the work has to be redone when they return
• Forward progress is paralyzed by the emergence of serious distress
• Decisions are weak, devolving to the lowest common denominator, which translates into high input and low output
• The person with the thickest skin (or strongest bladder) prevails, rather than what's best for the group
OK, that was the house of consensus horrors. Here are eight tools with which exorcise those demons:
1. Culture Shift
Consensus is designed to thrive in cooperative culture, but most of the people attempting it have been raised in competitive culture. In order to get good results users need to understand that it takes unlearning combative responses in the face of disagreement. This takes effort and awareness. Without them, consensus devolves into unanimous voting and it can get ugly.
2. Working Volatility
No matter how respectful and constructive an environment you create, or how mature the participants, there will be times when people enter non-trivial distress, and you'll need agreements about how to engage in those moments, as well as the skill to deliver on those agreements. Again, these are not typically skills that most of us were raised with—but they can be learned. You can't afford to let reactivity paralyze the group.
3. Finding Agreement in a Haystack
Most of us have been conditioned to think first about how we are unique from others, before we think about how we are similar. Because we tend to find what we're looking for, mostly we see disagreement before we see common ground. In fact, some people have trouble seeing agreement until it's waved right under nose. Finding agreement in a jumbled haystack of opinion should not be dependent on good fortune; it should be the residue of learning to look for it.
4. Skilled Facilitation
It can make a night-and-day difference having a facilitator who can create and maintain a collaborative container in which meetings occur, reminding people of their cooperative intentions when the going gets tough. While the need for this diminishes as the group gets more savvy about how to function cooperatively, in my experience have a sufficient diet of early successes can be crucial to feeling sufficiently nourished to stay the course--and a skilled facilitator can provide the bridge to those successes.
5. Corralling Repetition
One of the main ways that poor behavior can suck the air out of the room is by tolerating repetitive comments—both by the original speaker (who probably isn't confident they've been heard the first time) and by others making the same point (but who are unwilling to let the first iteration diminish their chance at the microphone). This is definitely fatiguing for the group, as no new information is being exchanged. To address this phenomenon, groups need to establish agreements about speakers being disciplined, authorizing facilitators to interrupt repetition, and then backing up the facilitators when they do.
6. Redirecting Cross-Town Buses
Repetition's evil twin is talking off topic. If you think of the work needed on a issue as bus traffic, you want to be traveling uptown and downtown, hopefully by an efficient route. What you don't want to be doing is traveling cross-town, which is lateral to the goal and not toward it. Whenever people are allowed to talk off topic, they're inviting the group to work ineffectively, splitting the group's attention. Addressing this malady requires discipline from the participants and firm facilitation.
7. Distinguishing Discussion from Problem Solving
8. The Gentle Art of Delegation
Finally, it's crucial that the group have a clear sense of what kind of work is appropriate for plenary and then be disciplined about ending when the level of detail drops below that standard. When you have completed all the plenary worthy aspects of an issue, it's time to delegate any remaining details to a manager or committee and move onto the next topic. For this to work well the plenary needs to be crisp in its hand-offs, making sure that teams are given clear guidance about what they are to do, what resources they have at their disposal to do the work, what factors they are to take into account, when the work is to be completed, and reporting requirements. When handled cleanly, effective delegation can relieve the plenary of an enormous amount of work that it never should have tackled in the first place.
Tuesday, November 11, 2014
I was recently talking with a friend who described for me the arc of her relationship with her home community, where she'd been living for more than a decade. She started out as a mother of two young kids and didn't aspire to an active role in community affairs. Gradually though, as her kids needed less constant attention, she got drawn into meeting facilitation and planning plenary agendas (two separate roles, by the way). These were significant contributions and mostly her work was well received.
Buoyed by those initial tastes of group dynamics, she deepened her involvement in community affairs and was occasionally drawn into taking a strong position on contentious issues—especially those where she felt the principles and integrity of the community were being challenged by obstreperous individuals.
As it happened, we were talking shortly after she had gone to the mat with another member over a longstanding clash of styles and substance (which included participating in outside mediation at the community's encouragement), when she observed, to her chagrin, that her days as a facilitator in her home community may be behind her. She'd gotten hip deep into community muck frequently enough that wasn't sure she'd ever smell sweet enough again to be an acceptable facilitator.
While the community has plenty of other facilitators and was not dependent on her being in the pool for things to go well, she was lamenting the loss of a role she especially enjoyed, and didn't see it coming. It had not been clear to her that standing up in heavy seas for what she thought was right placed her reputation as a fair-minded facilitator at risk. Now she's seen as a major player.
To be sure, my friend was not regretting her decision to get more involved in community life; she was just expressing sadness about losing a service opportunity that she has a gift for.
As I listened to my friend's story unfold, it occurred to me that I've walked in those moccasins myself. Twice. At Sandhill Farm (my home from 1974 until last Thanksgiving) I facilitated only occasionally in later years. Though I've been a professional facilitator the last 27 years, I tend to ply my craft elsewhere and I was rarely asked to handle a thorny discussion at home.
Following a parallel trajectory, it seemed increasingly inappropriate for me to facilitate Board sessions of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, for whom I've been the main administrator since the '90s. As someone heavily immersed in the content, I typically draft the agendas, but I don't run the meetings. Never mind that I'm a pro; I didn't have the right profile.
Interestingly, for members who are deeply invested in their communities—which are definitely the kind you want—an inadvertent consequence of investment is an erosion of neutrality, or the perception of erosion (which is just as serious), such that some of your best members will inevitably become unacceptable as internal facilitators.
The tenderness of this hits home when, as often happens, the movers and shakers are also the folks who best grok good process. Now what? This can be delicate.
Over time individuals often have to make a choice about how they can best serve their group: as a person carrying the ball upfield, as a coach calling the plays, as a cheerleader, or as a referee. They all have their place, but the roles are not interchangeable. Once you're identified as a powerful stakeholder it can difficult switching back to wearing the zebra stripes of
Some of this is due to fewer and fewer topics on which you are not associated with a viewpoint. Some is due to others being nervous that you may use the power of the facilitator role to steer the conversation in ways that doesn't align with what they think is best for the group. Note that it may not matter whether you actually do that; just the fear that you might can be enough to render you ineffective as a facilitator. In fact, the more you're seen as skilled in process the more others may be chary about having you in that role simply because of the steeper power gradient—not necessarily because there is any history of your misusing that power. It can get pretty goofy.
I know a handful of process professionals who have chosen to hold themselves aloof from engaging too deeply in dynamics at home. While that choice always struck me as odd when I first encountered it (why wouldn't you jump in with both feet to make your home as great as possible; why hold back?), now I have a deeper understanding of how things play out. If you feel that your greater contribution is helping your group with how rather than with what, then preserving your neutrality can make great deal of strategic sense.
While I may not have the discipline for that myself, I can admire it when I see it.
Saturday, November 8, 2014
I'm in Ann Arbor this week, principally to participate in the NASCO Institute, the premiere annual gathering of student co-opers across North America. I've been on the teaching faculty for the last 18 years, where I enjoy giving workshops and acting as a resource for the next generation of young adults excited about cooperative living.
This year I'm giving a brace of workshops: one on Consensus Headaches (how to relieve them, not get them or give them) and one on Delegation (which is a stumbling block for many consensus groups).
While the conference (and delivery of my workshops) begins today, it is not the only thing on my mind. Neither, for that matter, is the sleet happening outside, not-so-subtly reminding us all what season is queued up next.
In fact, a majority of my bandwidth today will be devoted to orchestrating Laird's Ninth Symphony: a Slow Food Extravaganza, where—for the ninth time in ten years—I produce an elaborate and scrumptious four-source meal for a dozen foodies and friends. Everyone will gather at 7 pm and devote the rest of the evening to conversation, consumption, and conviviality—all in a leisurely fashion. Most years we're still at it at 11 pm. It's one of the highlights of my annual calendar and delightfully bookends November as a month of gustatory celebration: with Slow Food Ann Arbor on the front end and Thanksgiving on the back.
I am given a free hand to select the menu (usually based on a particular cuisine), and oversee the cooking and presentation—which usually means starting Thursday for a Saturday evening performance. In exchange, all the other celebrants divide up the cost of ingredients.
Many years I have the pleasure of producing this meal with my wife, Ma'ikwe. Both of us love to cook and it's a joy to dance with her in the kitchen preparing love in the form of sustenance. Right now, however, she's gearing up for a speaking tour of college campuses to talk about community and climate change in early 2015, and has decided to minimize her off-farm commitments in anticipation of the rigors of a heavy travel schedule ahead. So I'm in Ann Arbor without her.
While I love cooking with Ma'ikwe, there's a silver lining to her absence: I could select a menu that's heavy on seafood, which I love and she does not. Further, I am blessed this year with terrific help in the kitchen in the form of Claire Maitre and Lesli Daniel.
Though some year's I've done all the cooking solo, it's much less nerve wracking to have a buddy—and this year I'm blessed to have two accomplished assistants. This is especially valuable this year as I continue to struggle with a balky lower back from overlifting at a fair in early October. In fact, it's dubious I could pull tonight's meal off without Claire & Lesli's yeowoman help. Whew. Sometimes, magically, the universe provides.
In any event, here's tonight's menu, based on a Creole theme:
Roasted beets with oranges and goat cheese
Pan-fried John Dory with meuniere butter
Red beans and rice with andouille and tasso
Key lime cheesecake
Now isn't that music to your stomach's ears?
Wednesday, November 5, 2014
This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."
In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.
The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
In the Relationship segment there are 10 cards. The eighth pattern in this segment is labeled Power Shift. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card:
Many cooperative groups hunger for flat hierarchy and an even distribution of power. While that's an understandable sentiment, power—the ability to get others to do something or to agree to something—is always unevenly distributed.
In my view, when it comes to power the goal of cooperative needs to be:
o Understanding how power is distributed in the group (including how that distribution shifts by topic and circumstance).
o Distinguishing between power that is used well (for the benefit of all) and power that is used poorly (for the benefit of some at the expense of others).
o Developing the capacity to examine the perception that power has been used poorly, without instigating a fire fight or inciting a witch hunt.
o Enhancing the leadership capacity of members—so that an increasing percentage of the membership has the ability to use power well.
I question whether "sharing power" is the right phrasing, because a person with power (the ability to influence others) cannot give it to others; they have to earn it. To be sure, the group can authorize someone (or a committee) to make decisions on behalf of the whole, but if that assignment is not based on trust in the person's (or team's) ability to do a good job, it's a questionable prospect.
That said, the group can intentionally support members learning to exercise power well—which, if the lessons are absorbed, will result in an increasing number of suitable people among whom to distribute responsibilities.
There is a trap that some cooperative groups fall prey to in pursuit of "adapting authority structures to best reflect their values." If the group translates that into strict rotational leadership there can be trouble. Let's take, for example, a group that has 24 members and meets twice a month. In the interest of purposefully distributing the power of running plenaries, the group may adopt the practice of rotating facilitation such that everyone is expected to do it once annually.
On the one hand this is eminently fair and serves the goal, yet it places the plenary at risk. For one thing, not everyone is equally skilled at facilitation, nor does everyone aspire to be good at it. Thus, on those occasions when you have people uncomfortable and/or unaccomplished in the role, you're taking a chance that the quality of the meeting can survive amateur-hour leadership. Is that smart?
For another thing, one of the hallmarks of cooperative groups is disinterested facilitation, where the facilitator is not a significant stakeholder on the topics being addressed.
if facilitation assignments are made ahead of the agenda being drafted—maybe members facilitate in alphabetical order and everyone knows their turn months ahead, which protects against someone being on vacation at the wrong time—this becomes facilitation roulette. It's inevitable that this approach will occasionally result in a inadvertent conflict of interest, at which point bye bye neutrality. Now what?
Sure, you can scramble to produce a substitute facilitator but that undercuts the Power Shift You can see the problem.
Better, I think, is to encourage all members to develop facilitation skills, but to twist no arms (and traumatize no psyches) by making this mandatory. Further, I think cooperative groups would be wise to invest resources in training members in facilitation, and then giving them assignments in relationship to their skill (and appropriate for their neutrality).
Think of this as a template for shifting power with discernment.
Monday, November 3, 2014
This past weekend was the Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos. In the spirit of that, I continue a tradition I started last year, devoting my first blog of November to remembering those in my life who died in the previous 12 months. This year I am remembering three.
Steve Imhof • died Jan 8 (in his late 60s)
Steve was many things, but I met him in the unusual capacity of a male midwife. As it happened, my son, Ceilee, was his first solo birth. He generally worked with his wife, Joy, who was the more experienced midwife, but they had two clients who went into labor at the same time and had to split up to attend both. Steve got Annie and me, figuring (accurately) that we'd be less phased by a male attendant.
Ceilee was born in the middle of our bedroom floor on a cold and sunny winter morning Jan 27, 1981, and Steve was a quiet, steady voice guiding us on this joyous occasion.
Though I lost track of Steve shortly after the birth, he surprisingly resurfaced in my life 27 years later when he drove up from Panama City FL to meet me in Atlanta (where I was visiting East Lake Commons to conduct Weekend I of a two-year facilitation training in the Southeast). After separating from Joy he had gotten curious about cooperative living and tracked me down to learn more about how he might build community in the panhandle of Florida.
After chatting with me in Atlanta he got intrigued by the facilitation training and spontaneously decided to stay for the weekend. Drawn into what we were teaching he signed up for the whole course and I got to see him eight times over the next two years. The final weekend was in June 2010, and I never saw him again.
Through occasional email contact, I knew that Steve was applying what he learned in the facilitation training to dynamics in his local fire department and that he was working on trying to coalesce some form of cooperative living in Panama City.
Mostly I remember Steve as someone who stayed curious his whole life, and was willing to question old choices in light of new evidence. We should all be so open to what's around us.
Marjorie Swann • died March 14 (at 93)
Marjorie was many things and lived a full life.
I first met her as the mother of Carol, a dynamic woman in Berkeley who is a dance and voice performer, a Hakomi therapist, and a social change activist. I was engaged in the dance of intimacy with Carol 1998-2000. Though it did not work for us to be partners, we have remained friends and I visited Marj (who lived in Berkeley as well) on a number of occasions while seeing Carol.
I also knew Marj as the ex-partner of Bob (Carol's father), who was a well-known economist and peace activist. Bob collaborated with Ralph Borsodi to start the forerunner of the Institute for Community Economics (that developed the community land trust model as a way to take the air out of the speculative balloon that inflates land prices). Toward the end of his life he championed the writings of E F Schumacher (Small Is Beautiful) operating out of the Schumacher Center for Alternative Economics in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Bob died in 2003.
Marj was a Quaker peace activist, very involved with the American Friends Service Committee, and a member of the War Resistors Leagues. She co-founded the Committee for Nonviolent Action in 1960—a group that continues strong today—and even found time to provide shelter for battered women.
I knew Marj only toward the end of her long life, when her waning physical strength limited how much she got out and about in pursuit of her various causes. Yet the fire burned strongly within her and her spirit was indomitable. There has always been something uplifting for me about being around seniors like Marj, who are engaged and open-minded in defiance of age—who do not go gently into that good night.
Stephen Gaskin • died July 1 (at 79)
Though Stephen was well-known as the charismatic leader who founded The Farm (Summertown TN) in 1971, I knew him only slightly. We chatted occasionally when I visited his community, yet I was never sure he remembered me from one visit to the next.
Our most satisfying connection (for me) was when I was participating in The Farm Communities Conference Memorial Day Weekend in 2012, and was able to present to him—during intermission of an in-house rock band performance on the community stage—the Kozeny Communitarian Award for that year. It was last time I saw him.
While Stephen was a poster child for Flower Power and the legalization of marijuana, what stands out the most for me are two of his lesser known achievements:
a) Steadfast dedication to good local relations, navigating the considerable challenge of peaceably integrating Hippies arriving by the busload into conservative rural Tennessee.
b) Accepting amicably his being deposed as leader of the community when its centralized economy collapsed in 1983 and the population shrank from 1500 to 200. Stephen lived in the community for 30 more years but never again served in a leadership capacity. Very few can handle a transition like that, much less with grace.