Monday, October 16, 2017

How Intentional Communities May Save the World

At the end of last month I had an opportunity to give a talk at Carleton College in Northfield MN. I'm an alumnus there and was on campus as a guest speaker for a freshmen course on Utopias. The philosophy professor who brought me in offered me a chance to give a talk during the noon hour that would be open to all students. I accepted, and today's blog is the essence of my presentation, Sept 29.

Fifty years ago this fall I had just arrived on campus as a Carleton freshman. Those were days of foment and change. Among other things, they were the last days of in loco parentis. My first year men were allowed on women’s dorm floors from 2-4 pm on Tuesday; women had reciprocal privileges on Thursday afternoons. The door was supposed to be open at least six inches and three feet were supposed to be on the floor at all times. By the time I was a senior I was a resident assistant on a coed dorm floor. All efforts by the college to keep men and women physically separated from their animal urges were abandoned.

During my tenure, students were not allowed to have cars, everyone lived on campus, and the winters were long and cold—this was back before climate change, and Al Gore had not yet invented the internet. 

Having been raised in the Father-Knows-Best Republican suburbs of Chicago, campus life brought me face to face with a number of potent realities for the first time, including institutional racism and the early days of feminism. There were riots on the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention. Vietnam was raging. Kent State happened in 1970. That same spring I got arrested protesting at a draft induction center in St Paul—along with scores of my fellow students and the college chaplain. I received a lottery number and prepared to apply for a CO status if I got drafted after graduation. 

Cooperation as the Obverse of Competition 
In the classroom, I took an introduction to sociology course in which I learned that cooperation is the opposite of competition. While that caught my attention right away, I had no idea how central that revelation was to become in my life. Bookmark that insight. I’ll come back to it later.

I loved my Carleton years, where I experienced a combination of stimulation and support that fostered both inquiry and personal growth.

When I graduated (1971) I wanted to make a difference in the world, and took a job with the federal government in DC, to see if that was the right stage on which to apply myself—in the belly of the beast. Working for the US Dept of Transportation, one day I met the person who was the secretary of the administrative assistant for the Assistant Secretary for Administration. When I simultaneously realized both how funny that was and that I knew what it meant, it occurred to me that I might have been in Washington too long.

So, at the advanced age of 23, I retired from the M-F 9-5 world—which, incidentally, I never returned to—and rebooted my post-college life, beginning with a different question: instead of "what would I do?" I asked "who do I want to do it with?" I was beginning to understand the primacy of relationships in the pursuit of happiness. I wanted the milieu I tasted at Carleton but I didn’t want to go back to school to get it. It was at that point that I stumbled onto the arcane world of intentional community: groups of people living together on the basis of explicit common values. This, I thought, might be what I was looking for. And it was. Not as an escape from mainstream society, but as a base of operations.

I was part of two couples (three of whom were Carls) who founded Sandhill Farm in 1974. Located in the rural, northeast corner of Missouri, we pooled our income and dedicated ourselves to organic food production, land stewardship, and right livelihood. I lived there happily for 40 years.

In 1979 I became restless with an exclusive focus on Sandhill, and started looking beyond the property lines to expand my locus of attention. While I considered community living to be a political act (not escapism), I wanted to expand my field of operations. With that in mind I got involved in community networking, promoting dialog and collaboration among sister communities. At first I did this via Sandhill joining the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (in 1980) and my serving as a delegate. Seven years later I helped start the Fellowship for Intentional Community, a clearinghouse of information about communities of all stripes with a special emphasis on North America. 

Also in 1987 I launched a career as a process consultant working with cooperative groups, helping them to successfully weather internal tensions and to develop effective structures. Although I no longer live at Sandhill (I left in 2014), I continue my consulting work and in the last three decades I’ve stepped into the fire to work with more than 100 groups across the continent. Over time I’ve become an expert in cooperative group dynamics. 

Why Does This Matter? 
The world of intentional community is small and not widely known. FIC figures there are roughly 100,000 people in the US who live in some form of self-identified intentional community—groups who willingly wear that label. In a country of 325 million that’s less than 0.03%. While the number of communities is growing, it's statistically insignificant. Do I think it’s the wave of the future? No. It’s too radical. So what’s the point? 

If you ask people if they have as much community in their life as they want—without defining what community means—I figure you might get 100 million people saying they’d like more than they have. There are that many who will tell you that they experienced a greater sense of neighborhood and belonging when they grew up than they have today. That’s three orders of magnitude larger. Now we're talking impact. What does intentional community have to offer those 100 million people?

Let’s go back to that point I made earlier about cooperation being the opposite of competition. 

I Versus We 
In any society there is a dynamic tension between how much individuals are acculturated to identify with self, and how much with society (or neighborhood, village, or tribe). When you take a step back and examine contemporary US culture from an anthropological perspective, I think you can make the case that there has never been a time in human history when the focus on the individual was more ascendant. 

In a competitive culture—which is unquestionably what we have in the US—the "I" focus is constantly being reinforced. So what? Consider what happens when you're in a conversation and you agree with half of what someone says and disagree with the other half.

For almost everyone, their first response is "But… " Even though you could just as legitimately start by acknowledging the partial agreement, that's rarely what happens—because our cultural imperative is to identify how we are unique, or at least distinct from others. When we agree, we don't establish differentiation.

This tendency has a profound impact on the atmosphere in which the conversation proceeds. If the  competitive environment prevails, you're essentially hoping that a fair fight will produce the best result—the strongest ideas will survive. If however you reverse this, and start by acknowledging the common ground, you can establish a cooperative container, where everyone is on the same team and differences can be encouraged for their potential of offering hybrid vigor. This may sound like a simple trick, but it's radically different.

In competition, there is a tug-of-war, where different views are in ridden into battle to see which prevails. In cooperation, everyone is in the same boat trying to successfully navigate a stream of different ideas. While the currents may be treacherous, and there may be different ideas about the best course, the people are trying to pull together.

One way to understand the impulse to experiment with intentional community is a desire to purposely shift one's location on the I—we spectrum more toward the "we" end. The trade-off is you get better connection and support, in exchange for relinquishing some control and autonomy. When people report that they want more community in their life, they are, in effect, saying that they’re jonesing for a greater sense of belonging. 

Now let’s look at two main ways that intentional community is pioneering critical work that addresses current societal challenges: 

I. Resource consumption 
There are about 7.5 billion in the world today and that number is rising. By any sane measure we are running out of resources and it is flat impossible for all the people in the world to consume resources at the current US rate. Should we just thank our lucky stars and hope to hold on, or try to do something equitable about it? I prefer the latter.

One of the ways that intentional communities are important to the wider society is that they are R&D centers for radical sharing. What if we challenge the notion that quality of life equates with throughput and acquisition material goods—the concept that the person who has the most stuff when they die wins? I realize it sounds fairly shallow when I state it that crudely, yet that’s how most people live their lives.

Here are four leverage points on how to shift this that are being actively modeled by intentional community:

A. Economies of scale
There is a lot that can be done to minimize drudgery and liberate time. If seven households living near each other agreed that they’d each cook one night a week for all seven, think how much time that would free up! It does not take anywhere near seven times as long to cook for seven times as many people. Yet mostly households cook alone every night. While cooking for only your own household gives you maximum control over menu, who wants to cook and clean up every night if there was a non-exploitative way to slash that by 80 percent? Even doing this just some of the time could make a big difference.

When I lived at Sandhill (where meals were prepared for members every night) it turned out that it was my turn to cook about once a week. Not only was that more efficient, but I truly enjoyed cooking at that frequency. If I had to do it every night, however, it would suck the air out of my happy balloon.

B. No prostitution
What value would you place on an integrated life, where work, school, home, and place of worship are in one location, aligned with your values? There’s a constant psychic drain that people experience when a core aspect of their life is out of alignment with what they believe in, yet almost everyone suffers from this to some degree. Think how common it is for people to either dislike what they do to earn a living, or are unhappy with where they live—or are happy with both but accept a brutal commute as the price to have them.

While it's not easy to quantify this cost, it’s expensive. To what extent do you think a person's long-term health is impacted adversely by having major aspects of their life unaligned with core values? I think it's pretty damn big.


C. Substituting access for ownership
The essential model our society offers for achieving success is ownership. But is that actually necessary? Isn't access to things a reasonable substitute for ownership? How many of us need to own our own lawnmower, table saw, or extension ladder? How about your own car? 

I lived for a couple years at Dancing Rabbit, an ecovillage of about 45 adults that is trying to showcase the possibilities for living a high-quality life on drastically fewer resources. In line with that mission members agree to not operate private vehicles. Instead, the community runs a car co-op to meet members' needs. With some sophisticated scheduling and a willingness to share rides with others, they have been able to provide a vehicle to meet 98 percent of members needs to go to a certain town on a certain day with a fleet of three cars and a pickup.

Think about that. Their ratio of adults to vehicles is greater than 10:1. By way of contrast, in 2015, the ratio of licensed drivers to licensed vehicles in the US was 218 million to 263 million, a ratio of 5:6. What's wrong with this picture? It's apparent that the overwhelming majority of people in this country blandly accept that they "need" their own car (some apparently "need" two!), even though it sits idle the vast majority of the time. This represents an incredibly wasteful investment for the sake of convenience.

What could be freed up if you weren't chasing the dollars needed to buy, operate, service, insure, and house your own private car(s)? If Dancing Rabbit adults were operating vehicles at the US average they'd have a fleet of 54. That catches people's attention.

To be sure, sharing resources means there are some additional challenges. For one, there can be scheduling issues, when two or more people want to use a jointly owned asset at the same time. You have come up with a reasonable and fair way to settle who gets to use a thing when there is more demand than availability.

For two, there can be tension around how common assets are maintained. When everyone owns thing, there can be a tendency for no one to maintain it. Tragedy of the commons. Even if maintenance expectations are clearly spelled out, it's likely that people will vary significantly in how diligently they apply themselves to those standards of care—the end result of which is someone can discover at 4:30 am that the community car they've been assigned does not have enough gas in it to make it to the train station 60 miles away (which actually happened to me once).

So there are definitely kinks to work out. Yet, in return, there are 50 fewer cars on the road. Not a bad trade.

D. Redefining security in terms of relationships
Until the advent of cities—a relatively modern human phenomenon—humans mainly aggregated in tribes or villages. In that context, your fellow humans would be there for you in time of need. Security was not about bank accounts or insurance; it was about relationships.

In community, people are trying to recreate this safety net of relationships. The pool needs to be large enough that you can be reasonably secure from too many needing support at the same time, or from the burden of care falling too heavily on the shoulders of too few (strength in numbers), yet not so large that people don't know one another, and the interpersonal bonds are too dilute.

This is a huge lever in that it allows people to release the need to accumulate assets against the potentials of old age or compromised health. Think how freeing this could be! If you needed fewer dollars to make your life work, it would give you a wider choice of employment, because you could trade off lower compensation in exchange for a better values match.

II. Problem solving 
Now let’s go back to the I—we spectrum, and the strong tendency in contemporary culture to focus first on disagreement—on how we are different from others. This has a profound impact on how people solve problems.

In the mainstream culture people work to aggregate enough power (or enough votes) to win. In cooperative culture, the strategy is to make sure that there’s a legitimate opportunity for all voices to be heard and then to collectively labor to find the solution that best balances the factors and interests: no one goes forward until all go forward. In the former we come to meetings hoping to change other people’s minds (so that our idea will prevail). In the latter we come to meetings hoping that our minds will be changed (because the ideas of others may enhance our thinking, from which the whole will benefit).

And it’s more than that. Think about how dehumanizing and stultifying it is that the wider culture operates as if all human input can be neatly translated into ideation, allowing little or no room for emotional and intuitive input—which are parts of our birthright as a species. Much of my group consulting requires me to work constructively with conflict, where emotional reactivity is a central component. We have little facility with this in the wider culture and we desperately need a vocabulary and orientation that allows us to welcome passion and spirit into our work.

The power of these differences can hardly be more compelling when one contemplates the current incivility and polarization in current politics, where polemics and vilification have replaced dialog and mutual respect. Greater competition is not the answer. Neither is a President who is knee-jerk counter puncher. We need a paradigm shift.

Intentional communities are important to contemporary society—not because they will become a dominant lifestyle—but because they are the R&D centers where we are unlearning competitive conditioning, and figuring out how to cooperate instead. The gleanings from the intentional community experience can be exported into schools, churches, neighborhoods, and workplaces—wherever people ache for more community and sense of connection—and that’s why it may save the world.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Reflections on Las Vegas

I woke up this past Monday to the horrific news of the mass shooting in Las Vegas Sunday evening, Oct 1. After listening to the sobering news accounts I sent an email inquiry to my adult children, Ceilee and Jo, both of whom live in Vegas:

"Susan and I are visiting old college friends (Peg & Caesar Sweitzer) in Alma CO right now and watching TV coverage of the horrific shooting in Las Vegas last night. While I realize that it’s highly unlikely that either of you were attending the country and western concert where the gunman was targeting the audience, I can’t help but think about you both and the incredible sense of violation and madness that this represents.

"I recall being in Denver right after the Columbine shooting in 1999 and how somber the mood was then. It’s so hard to understand why things like this happen.

"Please send me a note when you can. (Susan got the text from Jo letting us know that you all are OK, so I already have that most important fact.)"

Jo replied that day:
We are fine. I honestly think that the impact is stronger for the tourism industry than it is for any locals who don't interact with the Strip. 

I can see the location where it happened from my office windows but it just looks the same as any other day. Facebook is full of opinions and condolences but the truth is this is the world we live in. We made our bed and now some of us have to lie six feet under in it. The best thing I can do is stay out of the way of the pros who are trying to do their job to get this mess cleaned up and investigated. I already donated blood so I can't do that again for a while. 

It is sad, but I've been feeling this way for about a year now so this doesn't seem any worse than it's been. Sure 58 people died here last night but another hundred will die from gun violence across the country today, and tomorrow and the next day. Not to mention the hundreds in Mexico City from the earthquake, Puerto Rico, TX, & FL from the hurricanes, South Africa and the Pacific Northwest from the fires, North Korea from the human rights violations etc.

The world is a place of ongoing tragedy, great joy, and beauty. It's just how much we choose to see of each on any given day. 

What a complex response I had to this reply! 

I. We Live in a World of Incredible Paradox
Jo is right.  

At night I dependably get angry listening to the PBS News Hour as Judy Woodruff guides us through Trump's latest missteps and mindless provocations. Each morning I laugh when Lucie (our nine-year-old rescue dog—part black lab; part collie) jumps up on the bed and licks me awake. 

Once a month I travel cross country to work with cooperative groups in struggle, putting out fires and offering hope as best I can. In contrast, when I'm home I take time to cook delicious food and enjoy companionship with Susan and company. I worry about the future of humanity, yet take pleasure in a reading books at a rate of one per week, doing the daily NY Times crossword, and playing duplicate bridge on Mondays and Wednesdays. Life is a mixed bag.

On the one hand, it's important to me that I'm trying to make a positive difference in the world, attempting to lead an aware life. On the other hand, it will do me and those around me no good if I'm somber all the time and bathed in constant sorrow. The trick of life is to feel the pain yet not let it swamp your boat. To be able to laugh in a world going to hell in a handcart.

II. Las Vegas Itself is a Paradox
Both my community-raised kids now call Las Vegas home. After having been raised on a communal farm dedicated to sustainable living, they now happily live in a city that's about as unsustainable as you can imagine, artificially supported by inexpensive electricity and water hijacked from the Colorado River—both courtesy of the Hoover Dam. Before the dam Las Vegas was just a sleepy village of about 5,000 people, a modest water-stop oasis on the route to Los Angeles. 

Work started on the dam in 1931—it represented a major Depression-era public works project, employing thousands over the course of four years. Not coincidentally, the first casino was licensed in 1931 as well, starting Las Vegas down a path from which it would be forever different. Today it has population of over 1 million, and growing.

It is an aggregation of modest, earth-toned neighborhoods, dotted with gated enclaves of starter mansions, radiating out from the glitzy, circus-like atmosphere of The Strip— which is a round-the-clock paean to Mammon and Materialism—all improbably plunked in the midst of a surrounding desert of breathtaking natural beauty. Go figure.

III. Pervasive Violence
I have devoted most of my adult life to creating alternatives to violence; to promoting cooperative culture. As I mentioned above, I earn a living traveling into harm's way, in an effort help groups better navigate the shoal waters of group dynamics. One of the key qualities that I bring to my work is the ability to feel deeply into an upset person's reality—to see things through their eyes, and to articulate the meaning that has for them. From that emotional bedrock I've found that it's often possible to bridge chasms that otherwise appear to be too deep, too far, or too triggering.

In that context it is both humbling and frightening to realize how hard it is to imagine being Stephen Paddock. How did he get to the state of mind where he could purposefully spray bullets into a crowd of music lovers? I work with angry and frightened people all the time, yet occasionally I am unable to bridge to someone. In particular I am susceptible to falling short when it comes to imagining the attraction of violence. 

There is no doubt that it is part of the human psyche, yet it is a dark door that is hard for me to open. I have trouble accessing the capacity for murder, rape, and dehumanization, and I'm not sure what meaning this inability has. I'm not sure I want to be able to open that door. What monster in me may lurk behind it? What might I be unchaining? Scary stuff.

Even as I took in the horror of Sunday's shooting, Jo's note reminded me of how we have all become inured to everyday violence that is parceled out in smaller doses, as well as the numbing onslaught of natural disasters (the severity and frequency of which have undoubtedly been amped up by humans unmindfully monkeying with the planet's climate). I was punched in the gut by Jo's reminder that nearly 100 people are killed by gun violence in the US daily. Sunday's massacre was just a modest spike in a bad trend—not the atrocious anomaly we wish it were.

And the Republicans want to ease restrictions on gun control, allowing people to carry concealed weapons across state lines, making it easier to buy silencers, and eliminating or easing background checks for mental instability and criminal records among prospective gun buyers. This makes us safer? Yikes! By what standard does this pass for thinking?  

I am completely baffled by people who believe that an aggressive response to violence will eliminate it. I have never seen that work.  

IV. Parental Pride
Finally, there is also joy for me in Jo's response, which was thoughtful, heartfelt, multifaceted, existential, practical, and pithy (all in four paragraphs).
My daughter is 30 years old and it makes me proud to see that she has matured to the point of feeling the pain around her yet not letting it swamp her boat. Isn't that the best we can hope for our children? Or for each other?

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Leaves Still Turn in September

I'm currently visiting Carleton College, my alma mater. It was exactly 50 years ago this month that I arrived on campus as an incoming freshman, and it's a rush to reflect on all that has transpired over the past five decades. There are many new buildings, and some old ones repurposed. Student enrollment has swollen to 2100—up from 1350 back in the day—but the maples are still turning toward their traditional fall raiment at the end of September, just the way I remember. Some things don't change.

Yesterday I was the guest presenter in Anna Moltchanova's philosophy class on Utopias (providing a three-dimensional contrast to the utopian literature the course is based on—they're reading Thomas More, Plato, Edward Bellamy, Aldous Huxley, etc.). I did 70 minutes of solid Q&A and it was great fun. Today I give a noon-hour talk entitled, "Why Intentional Communities May Save the World" (why aim small?). Between that and free pizza we should have a good crowd.

During an afternoon break, I took a walk yesterday in the cool sunshine and wound up outside Myers, where I sat quietly for a while on the bench dedicated to my old college friend (and Susan's late husband), Tony Blodgett. (For my remembrance of him click here.) As it happened, yesterday was the 13th anniversary of his death so it was a potent time. The bench is situated with a view across Lyman Lakes to Goodhue, the dormitory where I lived my sophmore year and Tony was the proctor's roommate. 

Later I had an animated visit with Renay Friendshuh, a junior this year who was born at Sandhill and grew up there. It was a day of circles within circles as my life folded back on itself.

Preparing for today's talk has given me the chance to reflect on what I've done with my life since the foment of my undergraduate days, during which time the college abandoned in loco parentis; the Vietnam War was raging, casting a shadow over my post-graduate options; I first got personally acquainted with racism and bigotry, and the seeds of the feminist movement were beginning to sprout. 

In 1967 students were not allowed to have cars on campus, everyone was required to live in dorms, and Minnesota winters were long and cold (it was before global warming and Al Gore had not yet invented the internet). One of my political science professors was Paul Wellstone. It was an intense and magical time, and I loved it.

Amazingly enough, my total immersion in Carleton connections will extend seamlessly into the weekend. Though I'll depart Northfield this afternoon, I'll rendezvous with Susan (also a Carl) for dinner at the MSP airport before flying with her to Denver. After overnight altitude adjustment at 5,000 feet (staying with Susan's daughter, Britta, and her partner Brian, both Carls), we will ascend to 10,000 feet Friday when we drive to Alma. Although the name of the town is not Alma Mater, it may as well be, as we will be guests for three days of old Carleton friends, Peg & Caesar Sweitzer, staying at their mountain aerie. There is definitely a theme to the week.

In Colorado we're hoping to enjoy the yellow and golden seasonal flaring of the cottonwoods and aspens—as well as the camaraderie. Susan and I will linger in Denver one more day after coming down from the mountains, to take Britta out to dinner on the occasion of her 36th birthday next Monday.

Whether we pay attention or not, the wheel keeps turning. I figure the best we can do is to enjoy the ride, each opportunity in its own season.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Roadmapping

One of the bread and butter skills of a good facilitator is getting everyone on the same page. I use the term "roadmapping" to cover this, and there are two ways that facilitators use it to help guide meeting participants: 

a) Providing a clear picture of the intended arc of the meeting (what will be discussed and in what sequence). For the most part this is taken care of with a well-crafted agenda. However, there can be a trap to this: facilitators may fall in love with the elegance of their plan, or they may hold on too tightly to the plan as a life ring in choppy seas.

It works like this: as a facilitation instructor I emphasize the value of being prepared for the anticipated agenda, which includes what questions to pose, in what order, and in what formats. If it turns out that the meeting doesn't flow as anticipated and there need to be adjustments, some facilitators can be reluctant to make them—both because they want the payoff from their planning investment (it looked so good on paper!), and because once they leave the map they may be unsure of their footing and worried that they'll lose their way.

b) The more subtle aspect of roadmapping—and the one I want to mainly focus on in this essay—is regularly reminding the group of where it is in the conversation and what kinds of responses are appropriate. When you take into account how common it is for surprises—both big and little—to arise in the course of a meeting, this in-the-moment skill is crucial to bringing everyone along effectively with the unplanned twists and turns of a dynamic conversation.

This second aspect manifests in three ways:

Off-roading
This is deviating from the planned agenda. While it may not happen often, the group has the right to change its mind about what to talk about whenever it wants to, and sometimes it wants to. (To be clear, in consensus the whole group has to agree to the change; it doesn't happen simply because someone threatens to hold their breath until they get their way.) While this should be a deliberate choice, sometimes things emerge that justify it. For example:

• Working fulminating distress.
• Clarifying a misunderstanding that no one knew existed ahead of time.

• Exploring a question that's suddenly more compelling than the regularly scheduled agenda.

Following the juice
Good facilitators know how to temporarily narrow the focus for tactical reasons. It frequently happens that the topic in hand has several components and comments do not necessarily follow one another, even though all are on topic. When that occurs, facilitators have choices about how to proceed. They can lay back, allow the chaotic flow, and try to pick out themes over time. Or they can look for moments when there is an energetic surge and then restrict responses to what was just said, in the hopes of riding the wave of interest to pin down agreement about that component. Once the surge dissipates (and you've captured all the product you can), the facilitator will widen the focus back to where it had been previously.

This technique can be an effective way to tackle complex topics—aggregating a solution piece by piece as opportunities present themselves. Doing so, however, requires facilitators who are light on their feet, and able to see the possibilities as they open and close in the moment. They need to be able to seize the time and walk away gracefully from their original plan.

In order to get there, facilitators need to be crystal clear about the objectives of the meeting, so that they can constantly sniff out shortcuts as the meeting unfolds.

Not leaving food on the table 
The last benefit to roadmapping is knowing what's possible and being ruthless about harvesting all the agreement that's in the room. By knowing exactly where you are with respect to objectives and concerns, the skilled facilitator knows when to stay with a topic a little longer and when to pull the plug.

—Partly this is keeping a weather eye on the goals for the topic, extracting maximum benefit from the conversation. Where can precious time be used to greatest leverage?

—Partly this is time management: you have to start wrapping up a topic soon enough that loose ends can be identified and tied off without slipping into overtime. 

—Partly this is the magic eye skill of learning to see potential agreement (instead of obsessing about the ways in which people diverge) so that you can accurately sense when to stay with a topic a bit longer and when to pull the plug. Often a skilled facilitator will be the first person to see the possible agreement, simply because they're the one most attuned to looking for it.

• • •
A good facilitator should always know where the conversation is supposed to be focused and what the group is trying to accomplish.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Conflict, Bullies, and Introverts

A friend of mine recently posted these comments in response to my blog of Nov 16, 2015, What It Takes for Groups to Be Less Conflicted about Conflict:

Assuming the accuracy of data reporting the relative predominance in cohousing of people who view themselves as introverts, the use of boundary “management” or strengthening/closing in response to bullying (or even just to conflict in general) may be seen more frequently when an introvert feels bullied.  

My thinking is that the initial response called for—engaging or confronting—would require a decision or choice to engage, which the introvert might need to go inside to reflect upon first. Once there, they might determine that inside is safer and less demanding, and not come out again.
Staying in the fire is not easy for anyone, and perhaps even less so when the preferred examination process takes place internally. The decision to return to the fray and engage may be asking introverts to demonstrate a greater degree of courage than they possess, especially when it is not supported by the community.


Let's unpack this, starting with definitions and premises.

o  Almost all groups will contain a mix of extroverts and introverts. For the purpose of this essay I'm defining extroverts as people who are energized by engagement with others; introverts tend to be drained by engagement. Extroverts recharge their batteries by being with others; introverts recover alone. It's not a good or bad thing; it's just different.

o  Plenaries (meetings of the whole) tend to favor extroverts because it's an energizing environment for them. For introverts meetings can be a strain—they often have to pump themselves up to stay focused and engaged, and they're frequently operating outside their comfort zone. 

o  If you add conflict to the mix (emotional distress) the stakes tend to get even higher. While extroverts often raise their energy in the presence of conflict (some even thrive on it), this can be excruciating and feel unsafe for introverts. This tends to make it even harder for introverts to get their oar in the water and keep pulling.

o  Bullying is about acting in a way that's intimidating, making it harder for others to voice their  concerns or interests, or to hang in there when disagreeing with the bully. It is not about the bully's viewpoint; it's about how they express themselves and the ways in which they apply pressure on others to back down or otherwise yield. Bullying succeeds when others believe that exiting the unpleasant dynamic is more important than getting their needs expressed or met.

o  Bullying can show up in a wide range of ways:
sarcasm
raising one's voice
talking fast
interrupting
getting upset 
denigrating other's viewpoints (if you think this is rare, reflect on the dominant style of current political discourse)
woe-is-me manipulation (let me have my way because I'm a victim and your opposition prolongs or exacerbates my suffering)
threatening unpleasant consequences

o  Bullying may be a conscious, tactical choice, or it may be an unconscious style, so ingrained in a person's personality that they engage in it by default. 

o  Bullies may care how their behavior impacts others or they may not. That said, there is an advantage in cooperative culture in that there is a baseline assumption that the group will do its best work only when all relevant viewpoints are expressed and taken into account. Thus, in a cooperative setting there is a greater chance that a bully will be willing to be willing to work with feedback about how their behavior is making it harder for others to speak. The bully may deny that that they intend to intimidate others, but they may be willing to work on changing their behavior once they know it's having that effect.

• • •
So what can be done about bullying in cooperative groups, taking into account how hard this dynamic can be for introverts? Here are half a dozen suggestions:

1. Talk about it ahead of time
I think it's essential that group's discuss the phenomenon of bullying behavior and how they want to handle it. (Hint #1: It is an an absolute nightmare to postpone this consideration until you're in the moment. You need to do this pre-need. Hint #2: Note how I phrased this—bullying behavior. Object to the behavior; not the person.)

2. Commit to interrupting bullying wherever it's encountered
This will almost certainly mean authorizing facilitators to step in when they believe bullying is occurring—whether the intimidation was intended or not isn't the point. If bullying is allowed to happen unchecked, things will not magically get better.

Note how nuanced this can be. Suppose someone in the group is intimidated by loud voices and feels bullied by a member of the group who is frequently passionate in their statements. How much does the group want to protect the person who feels intimidated and how much does it want to support each member having access to their natural style? Where is the balance point?

3. Have agreements about how you'll work with emotional reactivity and develop the skills to deliver the support you commit to providing
You have to anticipate that when bullying surfaces that some of the time reactivity will be part of the mix. It will be paralyzing if there is no confidence in the group's ability to compassionately and accurately work the moment—be it the bully's distress, other's distress, or both.

4. Introverts and extroverts are going to have to make peace with one another
You cannot expect everyone else to adapt to you. For extroverts this translates into being sensitive to how your style can make life challenging for others. For introverts it means there has to be room at the table for the passionate and the boisterous, just as much as for the quiet and contemplative. You don't have to pretend to be something you're not, yet group culture is a mixed salad, not a homogeneous stew.

5. Offer a mix of formats, making it easier for introverts to contribute or to express distress
Take time to canvass your membership to get a sense of what will help people feel safe and that their contributions are welcome. Don't guess what people want; ask. 

What am I talking about? Small group breakouts, individual writing, talking sticks, and guided visualizations are techniques that offer a more deliberate pace and a less chaotic on-ramp. Intermix them with the up-tempo raucousness of brainstorms and open discussions.

6. Make sure that the right to be heard is joined at the hip to the responsibility to hear and work constructively with the views of others
When bullies are driving an agenda they are all too often insisting on their right, while sidestepping their responsibility. Make sure that that doesn't happen. First help them be heard, then slow things down to make sure that there's air time for other perspectives. After all, introverts are not stupider; they're just quieter.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

50 Years Later

Yesterday I took a train to Chicago and was met in Union Station by Jeff Stewart and Jan-Erik Damber. 

Though I had not seen either of them since 1967—the year I'd graduated from high school (we three were seniors together at Lyon Township in La Grange IL), I had no trouble picking them out by the Amtrak information kiosk in the main waiting room.

When I first met Janne he was an AFS student from Sweden. Today he's a (nearly) retired urologist living in Göteberg (the second largest city in Sweden, on the shores of the North Sea). Janne lived with Jeff's family during the 1966-67 school year, and my brother (Guy) and I visited the Damber family in Sweden for a few days toward the end of a nine-week European odyssey that took us to Ireland, Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Denmark and Sweden. Though many of the details of that trip have faded over the years, I recall that our stay with the Dambers was the highlight of the trip, as it was the only time we were not in a hotel, hostel, or pensione.

The most amazing part of yesterday's five-hour visit (over brie, wine and hamburgers) was the absence of strain or awkwardness. It was just interesting people sharing stories. In addition to the three wise guys, our social complement was rounded out by Jeff's wife, Steffie, and Janne's partner, Christina. The conversation flowed as easily as the wine, as we pleasurably bounced around among high school memories, catching each other up on what had unfolded in each other's lives over the course of the last five decades, commentary on the insanity of American politics, and speculation about the prospects of The Donald and Kim Jong-un—two world leaders with the ego management and temperament of oversexed cockerels—inadvertently starting a nuclear war as they posture for cameras, trade taunts, and otherwise play with matches.

Though I am foregoing the social chaos that would characterize my high school class' 50th reunion this weekend (which is why Janne and Christina are in town), it was lovely reminiscing and gradually revealing to one another the pearls of wisdom we have each carefully strung together over a lifetime of living. A leisurely dinner party for five in an Oak Park apartment, after all, offers completely different prospects than a cattle call of 300+ milling about in an antiseptic ballroom.

Once again I am reminded of why it is good to have friends, and why it is important to take the time to enjoy them.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Caught in a Fork in the Road

Sometimes facilitators get caught between competing principles and it can be hard to divine the best response.
 
I had an example of this recently when I was working with a group that had called me in, in part, because they weren't doing well handling seriously distress among members and it was piling up. (Though this is not rare, far fewer ask for help than need it.)
 
During an opening session I had asked members to reflect on the myriad challenging things that they had witnessed over the past year and what they each might have done differently, that may have had been a better response. I was trying to get them thinking of constructive choices and less about their upset with others, as a prelude to working on crafting a policy the next day.

While most people did as I asked, there was one women who didn't. She responded in anger. 
 
At the start of the meeting I had offered a summary of what I'd heard from people during 20 hours of one-on-one conversations. Included was a claim from half a dozen women who had independently reported to me that they felt there was unaddressed sexism in the community (which definitely got my attention). During the go round the angry woman used my statement as a springboard to launch an attack on some younger men she felt had been discriminating against an older woman.

Suddenly I was at a crossroads I had hoped not to encounter.
 
On the one hand, I prefer to work difficulties in the moment and doing so would have been directly addressing an area in which the community had been struggling and wanted my assistance. By not addressing it I was risking needing to clean up a mess later.

On the other hand, the issue of sexism wasn’t even on my radar until the day before (it hadn't been mentioned as a possible topic when I was hired) and I was concerned that tackling that issue (while plenty serious enough and worth attention) might eat so much time that little would be left for the topics I had been asked to address. I was already worried that there were more heavy-duty issues on the table than there was time to get to, and was thus very reluctant to let a late-arriving topic jump the queue—because another issue in play was the strategy that if you act provocatively enough it will be rewarded with attention. What a mess! I was going to pay a price either way.

In this instance I chose to let the attack stand, to protect the overall agenda. While no one took the bait (no one responded with a spirited defense), and no one else fired another salvo—thus preserving my attempt at a reflective beginning, I'm not sure if I made the right choice.

At least two people who felt called out by the attack spoke to me on break about how upset and distracted they were by being blind-sided and left without an opportunity to tell their side of events. This was a high price to pay, yet these same people were already embroiled in other tensions about which I knew we had to deal, and I preferred that the first examination happen in territory that was already widely known. 

While I subsequently got the opportunities I was hoping for to work closely with the two men in reaction, we never got close to working the topic of sexism. While I'm satisfied I delivered solid work germane to the community's struggles, you never know what would have happened with the road not taken, and I'll just have to live with that.