Thursday, May 11, 2017

Groundhog Day in Plenary

I had a phone conversation with a good friend the other day, who needed someone to vent with about a frustrating experience she'd recently had as an outside facilitator.

The group had been struggling with a delicate issue that brought out the more strident and challenging sides of a handful of members and my friend dutifully guided them safely through the thorny thicket of their reactivity. While that's a bread and butter experience for a professional facilitator (you could handle three meetings like that every week and not run out of work before Christmas), in this case her teeth were grinding because she'd worked with that group previously, and it was frustrating to realize that the same people were reprising their same roles as petulant adolescents. Though the specifics had shifted, the dynamics had not. Ugh! It was the intentional community version of Groundhog Day!

While it's often exhilarating for a professional to help a group navigate a mess that they're uncertain how to handle on their own, singing the same refrain a second time is rather like bringing wilted flowers to the altar. What was inspiring the first time was somewhat depressing when the dynamics were on play repeat. What's the point? Is the group learning? While repeat customers are a delight; repeat dynamics not so much.

So why was the needle skipping back to the beginning?

Though I can't be certain, I can speculate on some likely possibilities. Here are four:

o  Change Is Hard
The most obvious explanation is that pointing out ineffective patterned behavior is the easy part. Shifting it is the hard part. Under stress (as in when we're triggered) we overwhelmingly tend to fall back on our reptile brain and slip into grooved behavior. It takes conscious effort to shift a pattern, and there are few among us who can experience a single different outcome and then successfully break a mold that has been relied on for decades.

While it would be nice if it were otherwise, it often takes several exposures to the "lesson" before it's incorporated.

o  Ineffective Pedagogy
Maybe the path through the jungle was insufficiently mapped. Just because the theory is clear to the teacher doesn't mean the explanation was clear to the student.

Demonstrating is only part of teaching. Often people need to do a thing themselves (under supervision) before the lesson can be ingrained in their body. If it's only in their head, it may not be accessible in the dynamic moment. It depends on how people learn.

I know people who can see a thing done once and are immediately willing to jump in and try it themselves, but they're the exception. Most people prefer multiple exposures before venturing into new behavior.

o  Compromised Neutrality
Maybe the group's facilitators (the people you're especially trying to pass along knowledge to) were triggered by the dynamic, or hooked on the topic. Once your neutrality is blown you're effectively disqualified as an arbiter of delicate dynamics. Thus, it's possible that there was no one behind the wheel (in the way of an authorized internal facilitator) to step in and take control when things went south. Perhaps they could have handled different configurations of dysfunctional dynamics, just not that configuration.

o  Steep Power Gradient
Sometimes it's too daunting to call particular, powerful individuals on their behavior. Maybe they're thick-skinned, maybe they're too well loved, maybe their health is questionable, maybe they have a reputation for lashing out when asked to cease and desist. There can be any number of reasons why otherwise well-informed and well-intentioned facilitators hesitate to act when certain individuals are misbehaving.

It can take major league chutzpah to confront powerful people.

• • •
Undoubtedly it's hard to watch a group fall back into unproductive patterns—especially after you'd worked so hard to help them out of the pit. Yet beating yourself (or the client) up because they weren't able to successfully turn it around after one successful counter example, won't help. Change is hard.

Along these lines I try to remember that life's lessons are mandatory, but the learning is optional. The fact that people don't learn a lesson the first time they're exposed to it can be discouraging, but who's perfect? The other side of the coin is that the same people responded well (again) when my friend guided them a second time. Maybe the third time will go better.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Putting on My Socks One at a Time

The other day I got out of bed and starting putting on my socks.

While that's a rather mundane morning operation, I paused to reflect on how that wasn't so only 15 months ago…

Though there is a tendency for the things we commit to routine to drop below the radar of our consciousness, they can suddenly pop out in sharp relief when that routine is suspended.

After a long life of mostly robust health (it didn't hurt living a homestead lifestyle on an organic farm for 40 years, eating the food we grew), I developed a persistent back pain starting in the fall of 2014, when I used poor technique loading the back of a pickup with heavy boxes in the rain. From that point forward, my routine was interrupted, and I went through long stretches of bed rest in an effort to recover. (I recall being in too much pain to carve the turkey at Thanksgiving; I just wanted to be horizontal, and there is nothing routine about my skipping Thanksgiving dinner.)

While I didn't split much wood in the winter of 2014-15, I was mostly able to manage the pain with OTC doses of ibuprofen, and things gradually got better. I returned to work (traveling across the country) and resumed my busy life as a community networker and process consultant. But I wasn't really better. My back still hurt and I had to be increasingly careful how much weight I put in my suitcase. For the first time in my life I started being picky about where I slept. If the bed was too low (like a futon on the floor) it was an ordeal getting up and I was susceptible to muscle clenching in my lower back whenever I needed to get up in the night to pee. No fun!

Finally my body broke down again. I was visiting my son, Ceilee, and my grandkids (Taivyn and Connor) in Los Angeles in December 2015 when my back clenched up again and I was bed ridden for a couple days. I recovered sufficiently from that to travel (by bus, no less) to Las Vegas and see my daughter, Jo and son-in-law, Peter, for a few days over Christmas. Though still in pain, I was semi-ambulatory and managed to take a red eye to Minnesota to be with my new partner, Susan, in Duluth for a week straddling New Year's.

I can still recall how excruciating it was walking to the gate in McCarran around midnight, and then repeating the process fours later when I landed at dawn in Minneapolis. I felt like shit. By the time I arrived in Duluth (via a shuttle van), I was a wreck. Susan put me to bed (it was all I could do to climb the stairs) and once she tucked me in I barely left it.

After five weeks of feeding me in bed Susan decided enough was enough (duh), and took me to the ER at St Luke's Hospital. Not having ever been seriously sick before I didn't have a frame of reference to understand how stupid I was, trying to heal myself with bed rest and ibuprofen. Although I knew that pain is Nature's way of telling you that something's wrong, I essentially had the ringer off and the messages kept going to voice mail—which I then erased without checking.

As you can imagine, my daily routine started breaking down in Los Angeles when my back pain returned with a vengeance. From that point on, it was an exceptional day when I was feeling frisky enough for a shower. By the time I got to Duluth and Susan poured me into bed it was uncomfortable to even lie on my side.

I recall waiting to be seen at St Luke's Emergency Room and hardly being able to tolerate the pain of sitting up—my back hurt that much. Finally, I got into a bed and the doctors started looking me over. From there, things went fast. They gave me oxycontin for my pain and it disappeared! Of course, it was being masked, not cured, but I was grateful nonetheless. After a few hours of blood work they determined that I had enough problems to admit me to the hospital:

•  Multiple myeloma—a cancer of the blood where the bone marrow produces an over-abundance of unhelpful plasma cells instead of the red and white corpuscles called for in the instructions.

•  Kidneys that were near failure, operating at only 20% capacity because of the strain they were under attempting to dispose of all the unwanted plasma cells.

•  Skeleton thinning. A common byproduct of my cancer is calcium leaching and the doctors were quite concerned that I might break something.

•  Three collapsed vertebrae (probably related to the skeletal thinning), which coincided with the epicenter of my back pain. While my spinal cord was not at risk (there was no imminent threat of paralysis), I will never build another cistern or fell another tree.

Well, no wonder I wasn't feeling so good! I spent the next 19 days in the hospital, during which they worked diligently to support and strengthen my kidneys, to contain and drive back the cancer, and to manage my pain. While all of this was accomplished (hurray!), I was in an opioid fog. I think there was a point where I was getting as much as 60 mg of oxycontin twice a day and I was pretty weak and loopy.

To be clear, I'm not criticizing my doctor's choices in how they medicated me (I don't know enough to have an opinion about that); I'm only reporting that I don't remember much. I was (I discovered later) pretty close to death, and by the time I got out of the hospital I had lost a lot of weight and muscle tone. It was an ordeal just getting out of bed to pee.

While Susan tried taking care of me at home when I got discharged from the hospital (Feb 19), that proved too much. I was still fuzzy brained, and weak as a kitten. Fortunately, we got sage counsel from a home healthcare nurse, and my medical insurance was robust enough to pony up for a stay in an assisted care facility. Thus I moved into Ecumen Lakeshore Feb 26-March 19, for short-stay rehabilitation, which turned out to be exactly what I needed.
In particular, it was at Ecumen that I started reclaiming control of my life. When I was at St Luke's I just fell into the back seat and let them take the wheel; now it was time to climb back into the driver's seat.

Riding the Opioid Tiger
There have been two tracks in particular that I want to shine the light on. The first has been my journey with opioids—which is all the more interesting in that there are rising concerns these days about opioid abuse, and even some emerging evidence that they may not be as helpful in pain management as once thought.

After a certain amount of chaos in my early days at St Luke's, my doctors dialed back my oxycontin intake to two 30 mg pills daily—a level at which I had no trouble tolerating the pain. Yet it wasn't until my stay at Ecumen that I started getting serious traction on regaining my cognitive ability—a process that mostly proceeded subconsciously.

I started doing the NYT daily crossword again with Susan, I read more, and slowly the fog lifted. (I am in total awe of what the human brain can acclimate to.) I'm still scratching my head about how my brain—which was completely woozled by oxycontin at the outset—figured out how to benefit from the pain suppression and at the same time make steady progress in recovering cognitive function. Wow!


When I was at the Mayo Clinic in the summer, the doctor overseeing my care there (Frances Buadi) decided to cut my oxycontin back to 20 mg twice a day, and I had no trouble with the lower dosage. Already then! I was at that level for six months and then my Duluth oncologist (Humam Alkaied) halved the dosage to 10 mg twice daily. I still did fine.

It's been an interesting dance. On the one hand, I want to be totally off opioids (I'm concerned about the possibility of addiction); on the other, I like not being in pain. This month, with Alaied's encouragement, I've been experimenting with going off oxycontin all together. Instead, I've been given a PRN (use as needed) prescription for 5 mg tablets of oxycodone (which is just as potent as oxycontin, but quicker acting) with the idea that I can use them if the pain gets to be too much. Kind of a safety net. Since taking my last oxycontin April 25 (13 days ago) I've only taken oxycodone four times, the last pill five days ago.

Because I don't want pain to compromise my ability as a professional facilitator and teacher (and I know that oxycodone doesn't interfere with my cognitive ability) I'm traveling with a supply of oxycodone tablets. But maybe I'm done. I still have back pain, but I've adapted to it and it no longer gets in the way. If I can manage all that without opioids—which is what appears to be happening without any horrendous withdrawal symptoms—hallelujah!

Reclaiming My Routines
My second track toward recovery has been reestablishing my routines. It's been a matter of starting simple and working up from there:

At Ecumen this translated to:
—Using a walker instead of a wheelchair
—Strengthening my legs on a stationary bicycle
—Getting out of bed each morning and dressing myself before Susan visited with coffee and the Minneapolis StarTribune

It turned out that the trickiest part of getting dressed was putting on my socks—something I'd more or less taken for granted since I was three. Bending over meant stretching my tender back and moving muscles that had gotten lazy. It was humbling, but gradually it got easier.


A month later, I had graduated from Ecumen and was (gratefully) back home with Susan. Then my goals ramped up a bit:

—Get up every day, and work in a chair (rather than bed)
—Manage my own pill regimen
—Stop using the walker to get around
—Make the coffee
—Put away the dishes
After my stem cell transplant last summer, we bumped it up again:

—Cook breakfast M-F (the days when Susan goes to work)
—Start driving myself to the hospital for infusion therapy, and to the store for groceries
—Be the backup dog walker
—Take turns cooking dinner

This summer I may even do a spot of gardening and canning. Susan has wisely encouraged me to make steady progress in reclaiming my routine, and it's definitely helped with my morale. If you start acting like a normal person, before you know it you start being one. Today I put on my socks one at a time—just like a normal person—and smile.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Committee Fatigue: on You, on Me, or Ennui?

As a cooperative group process consultant, I work with committees all the time—or at least I encounter their spoor. While a decent number function well enough, it's relatively rare to discover unalloyed successes. The majority of committees, unfortunately, are either limping along or dead in the water. Why is that so common?

There's a significant difference between knowing that you need a committee, and knowing how to set one up well. By "committee" I'm referring to any subgroup of the whole that has two or more members and is asked to handle certain tasks on the group's behalf. (Don't get hung up on the name—task force, team, board, council, brain trust, etc—they're all essentially committees, and what I have to say here applies to them.)

In honor of the fifth day of the fifth month (happy Cinco de Mayo!—OK, I didn't get this posted until the 7th; consider it poetic license) I'm going to describe five ways that committees tend to stumble.

1. Right Relationship Between Plenary and Committee
There are three principal ways that committees get in trouble in this regard:

—A weakly defined committee/plenary boundary 
It can be a major headache if it's unclear what work should be handled by plenary and what work should be handled by the committee. Perhaps the mandate, which lays out the committee's duties and authority, is unclear (see point 2 below for more on this). Perhaps the plenary is inconsistent about how it interprets the mandate: sometimes asking the committee to do things, then other times handling the same things themselves. It can be crazy making.

Ambiguity about responsibilities leaves the committee guessing about how to serve the plenary well, making it susceptible to being accused of exceeding its authority (we didn't ask you to do that!) or of neglecting its responsibility (we've been waiting for your work; why aren't you done yet?). This can be very anxiety producing for the committee. Not only can ambiguity about expectations undercut the sense of satisfaction that people get from serving on the committee, it can undermine the quality of the product that comes back. Yuck.

—Low trust in the committee's skill or judgment
When care is not exercised in placing the right people on the committee (or perhaps the right mix of people) the result can be fractious. It can show up as poor morale (little or no camaraderie) and an inability to get the work done. See point 3 below for thoughts about how to avoid this trap.

—Poor discipline about respecting the committee/plenary boundary
Even if the boundary is spelled out, it only works if the plenary respects it. If the plenary is not conscious about the boundary, it can easily slip into working at a level of detail that should have been given to the committee. Every time the plenary does this (or overhauls work that was within the committee's purview to handle) it undermines the committee. 

(Sometimes this happens because the plenary is frustrated by a lack of product and goes overboard for the sheer joy of getting something done, instead of relying on its committee structure to finish up. However, if you want solid work from your committees, then plenaries need to be disciplined about not jumping the fence and grazing in the committee's pasture.)

2. Rigorous Mandates
Way too often, once plenaries decide to hand off a chunk of work to a committee they can be in such a hurry to wrap up and move onto the next agenda item, that they rush their work. Unfortunately, this is false economy. Sloppy mandates lead to sloppy work, and the moment of committee creation (or adjustment) is a time to slow down—to make sure you get it right.

For a complete layout of my thinking about how to craft solid mandates, I refer readers to Consensus from Soup to Nuts from March 20, 2010. In section F of that blog I present a laundry list of questions. While all won't apply in all situations, if you walk through them whenever you strike a committee (or adjust the mandate of an existing one), the answers should result in a comprehensive mandate every time.

3. Selection of Committee Members
In the majority of cases, the groups I work with rely overwhelmingly on a show of hands to decide who will staff a committee. While quick, that's about the only positive thing you can say about it.

If results matter (and they should), then I urge groups to be much more deliberate about the selection of committee members—especially when high trust is called for.

—Establishing Desirable Qualities
The first step I'd take is having a conversation about the qualities wanted in people serving on the committee. This can include familiarity with the technical aspects of the work being overseen (such as a handyman serving on the Maintenance Committee), interpersonal skills, reliability, easy-going nature… all manner of things.

Hint: When developing a list of selection criteria, there is an important nuance about qualities that you want all committee members to have (such as a basic understanding of accounting principles for sitting on the Finance Committee), and those that you only need some committee members to possess (perhaps facility with html if you serve on the team that manages the group's website).

Note: It can often be good for the plenary to select the committee's convener, so that you'll get someone with the right qualities (these may be somewhat different than the qualities wanted from regular committee members—for example, a greater emphasis may be placed on the convener being a good administrator, a prompt communicator, or discreet with sensitive information). 

I recommend that the group develop a written standard for what it wants from people serving in the capacity of convener, adjusting it as needed for specific committees.

—Selection Process
In deciding who will serve, I recommend against simply asking for raised hands (volunteer roulette). Instead, I suggest the following, which is much more deliberate:

o Post the committee job description and desired qualities for the members who serve on it.


o Ask all group members if they are willing to serve and create a written ballot listing all those who consider themselves qualified, willing, and available.


o In plenary, select an ad hoc Ballot Team (two people?) from among those members who have opted off the ballot. These people will be the only ones seeing the filled-in ballots and must agree to divulge to no one else how people voted.


o Distribute printed ballots to all members, asking them to mark all those whom they find acceptable to serve (people can pick none, all, or anything in between).


o After a set period of time (72 hours?) ballots are due and the Ballot Team tallies them in private.


o After ranking people by the number of votes received, they privately approach people (starting with the top vote-getter and working their way down the list), asking them one at a time if they are willing to serve. As slots are filled, additional people are added only if they are agreeable to those who have already accepted—that way you protect the chemistry of the committee. This process continues until all slots are filled.


o The Ballot Team announces the composition of the team (which does not require plenary ratification), the ballots are destroyed, and the Ballot Team is disbanded.


—Handling Ties
What happens if two or more people have the same number of votes? As this could arise in two forms, I’ll handle them separately:


Case I. Ties that occur when there is room to accept all those who are tied
This situation is fairly easy to deal with. I suggest taking all the nominees who are tied and shop them all together (as a package) with those who received more votes and and have accepted the nomination, if there are any. Thus, suppose you have five slots, the two top vote-getters are Adrian and Chris, and they’ve accepted the appointment. Tied for third are Dale, Jesse and Robin. I would show the list (of Dale, Jesse, and Robin) to Adrian and Chris and see if all three are acceptable from the standpoint of working together. If any are unacceptable they are dropped from the list, and you accept only those among the three with whom Adrian and Chris are OK working with. 

If that completes the slate, great. If not, you continue down your list.
 
If a tie occurs among the top vote-getters (that is, there are no people already appointed to the committee), then the Ballot Team will meet with all those involved, explain the situation, and ask if they are all willing to serve together. If there are any unresolved concerns about that, people with reservations can decline to serve and the Ballot Team will continue to work down its list.

Case II. Ties that occur when there are fewer available slots than people in the tie
This is more interesting (by which I mean complicated).

I suggest following the same procedure as above with this modification: 

Case IIa. Suppose there are three slots available and Adrian and Chris have already accepted as the top vote-getters. Again, assume that Dale, Jesse and Robin are tied for third. Show the list (of Dale, Jesse, and Robin) to Adrian and Chris and have the two of them collectively select the person they think is the best from among the three from the standpoint of qualifications and a good working relationship. 

Case IIb. Suppose there are three slots and there are five people tied with the most votes, That is, there is no one already on the committee to show the list of ties to. In this instance, I would bring together all five people, tell them they are tied as the top vote-getters and they must decide among them which three will serve on the committee. Again they should do this on the basis of qualifications (established by the plenary) and the desire for a good working relationship among the committee members.

Note: In all cases you want the results to be announced by the Ballot Team after all the behind-the-scenes resolution of ties have been settled. You need not tell the group that there were ties.

—Staggered Terms
When you are empaneling a committee with staggered terms, I suggest proceeding in one of two ways. Let's suppose you have a committee with three seats and you want staggered three-year terms. You could take either of the following two options:

a) Letting the committee decide among themselves how to assign the one-year term, the two-year term, and the three-year term; or

b) Having the top vote-getter be assigned the three-year term, the second top vote-getter assigned the two-year term, and the third place finisher gets the one-year term.
 
That should just about cover it.

4. Poor Supervision
One of the ways that committees can struggle is that they typically don't commit to the same standard of process that the plenary does. For example, meetings are often not formally facilitated—they are just run by the convener (a person who has typically been selected for their administrative reliability, rather than their process facility). This is economical but not necessarily smart. If you need facilitation (some committees do; some don't) then it's important that it be neutral and that's not likely what you'll get from the convener, who is often a key stakeholder in committee business.

Further, if there's tension among committee members, there may be no one on the committee who has the chops to handle it. Left unaddressed, this can undermine morale and committee effectiveness.

Another angle on this is the potential for committees to become isolated from the rest of the group. Perhaps because of inconsistent (or even nonexistent) notification of when and where committee meetings happen, careless distribution of the meeting minutes (or indifferently captured meeting notes), or reporting on committee activity that is vague, late, or incomplete.

5. Evaluations
The caboose topic for this essay is closing the feedback loop. It is not enough to lay out good principles—from time to time you need to stop and look over what you're doing, it see how well reality is matching up with theory.

I'll refer readers to Evaluations in Cooperative Groups, posted Feb 20, 2012, for a detailed explanation of my thinking about this oft-neglected pillar of sound process.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Art of Facilitating: Fishing at Deep Water

The art of facilitation is analogous to a set of nested Russian dolls: it's as many-layered as an onion.

Casual observers may not notice that meeting facilitators—especially skilled ones—are doing anything more than managing hand-to-mouth dynamics, such as: 
—Coming up with a clever opening. 
—Making sure everyone has good sight lines to the white board.
—Deciding who's going to speak next.
—Determining when it's time to move to a new topic.
—Otherwise coping with what's unfolding in plain sight. 
But there's a good deal more to it than that. Good facilitators are expected to work at subtle levels, too. Here's a dozen examples of what I mean:

o  Looking ahead of the curve
Projecting where the current conversation is heading and discerning whether they (or the group) will be glad to arrive there. If it looks like a dead end (or worse, a train wreck), it's probably time to tack now, before they hit the shoal water. When executed with aplomb, most group members may not even be aware that there was any danger.

Busting ghosts
Is there a presence that's alive in the room even though the person triggering it isn't there? (perhaps the influence of a dead founder, whose charismatic and powerful persona continues to guide conversations from the grave; maybe it's fear of potential retribution by a bully who is on vacation but is bound to find out if anyone speaks critically of them). First you must sense what's happening; then you must decide what to do about it. Is it better to exorcise (calling the ghost out) or exercise (restraint by not dignifying the threat with the group's collective attention)?

o  Feeling the undertowThough similar to the previous point, this is about an energy that is pervading the conversation, rather than a person. Some may be aware of it; others may not. Is it a fair wind or foul? When the facilitator chooses to surface an unnamed undercurrent, it is not a magic act, or someone playing with planchette; it's just someone paying close attention.

o  Describing the interesting case
In discussing policy proposals it is often illuminating to think of examples that it might apply to, thereby grounding the consideration. However, not all hypotheticals are created equal. It is generally not a good idea to craft agreements designed to cope with rare exceptions. It's better to bring forward a representative example to showcase a proposal's strengths, and/or expose its liabilities. How will things play it in the situations you are most likely to actually face?

o  Sussing out when to be direct Many groups fall into the habit of working indirectly—mainly because they are not confident of handling tension well and are afraid that directness will lead to reactivity. When does cutting to the chase help illuminate the key dynamic; when does it lead to brittleness that inhibits creativity and short circuits compassion? In my experience most people prefer their medicine straight, and don't require a sugar coating—so long as it's not delivered with bitterness, salty language, or a sour attitude.

o  Reading the energetic tea leaves
Skilled facilitators need to be able to work with the energy in the room as well as with the content of the conversation. It is not enough that they can guide the group to an agreement; it needs to be a decision with which there is high resonance. If participants feel run over or bullied into alignment, the implementation is likely to suck (because their hearts will not be in it).

o  Noticing mismatches between content and energy
If you're handling the preceding point well, you'll notice when the conversation is out of alignment with the energy (say, for example, the group is working inexorably toward agreement, yet there are half a dozen folks sitting with crossed arms and scowls on their faces; or perhaps when the conversation is lost in the weeds and everyone's chuckling and having a good time). If the energy does not match the rhetoric, then that becomes the thing to talk about.

o  Knowing when to slow down and when to speed up
In a typical two-hour meeting there may be two or three moments that are pivotal to the outcome; moments when a crucial difference is illuminated and the group can either find a way to thread the needle (and manifest the joy of an inclusive solution), or it can devolve into cantankerous discord with each side bunkering in. It's generally a good idea to slow things down at delicate moments (say when a surprising thin gets said, or when a person gets vulnerable), and to pick up the pace when slogging through portions where there is no new information.

o  Following the energy more closely than the clock
While a good facilitator does their level best to end meetings on time, the prime directive is productive engagement, rather than ending a 20-minute agenda item in exactly 20 minutes. By "productive engagement" I mean progress on the issue and enhanced relationships among members (that is, participants will know each other better as a consequence of the consideration). These dual objectives are far more important than how fast can you find a solution that everyone can live with.

o  Mapping out the engagement
A good facilitator will sit with the draft agenda ahead of time and see into the concerns, teasing out the key questions that are likely to arise. Sometimes it makes a significant difference in what order questions are addressed (perhaps because the outcome of one question is crucial to how a subsequent one will be viewed); sometimes it doesn't. If possible, good facilitators will build the conversation toward a solution just as they'll manage the energy, moving from turbulence to laminar flow.

o  Riding the bucking bronco of fulminating distress
Essentially this translates into not freaking out when someone freaks out. It's being able to function with a clear head and a strong heart in the presence of nontrivial upset. On the one hand the facilitator needs to be fully present—without judgment or side-taking—for anyone who's upset, to help them feel safe and understood. On the other, the facilitator needs to make sure that the topic is neither sideswiped nor dominated by the distress. If, in the process of examining an issue, you manifest tears or anger, you'll get heard; but there's no guarantee that you'll be agreed with. The facilitator needs to be compassionate, yet fiercely neutral.

o  Integrating body and mind; heart and soul
For most groups the default style of meetings entails a great deal of sitting around, where the focus is on rational discourse (and a calloused butt). Unfortunately, that's only one way humans work with information and decide what they want. We also "know" things in our bellies and in our hearts (not just in our heads) and thinking is not everyone's first or best language. A skilled facilitator will offer participants a variety of ways to get at topics, offering multiple on-ramps into the consideration—which translates to opportunities for people to share feelings, intuitions, and body-knowing; not just their "best thinking." A savvy facilitator will not just get ideas in motion; they'll get bodies in motion, too.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Consultant as Plumber

About a year ago I was having my regularly monthly appointment with my oncologist (Homam Alkaied) when he came into the room and momentarily let his guard down. 

As a cancer doctor he sees sick people all day. He took one look at my numbers on the computer screen, smiled, and said, "Thank you. I needed somebody to be doing better today. The hardest part of my job is when I have to tell patients that we're out of options. Sometime the treatments don't work and we reach a point where there's nothing left to try. It's a heavy moment when I have to look someone in the eye and tell them the cancer is going to win. I've had a bad week of that and I really needed you—someone who's responding well to chemotherapy—to pick up my spirits." 

I told him, of course, that I was happy to be that guy.

• • •
I started with that story because there are times for me, as a process consultant, when my role runs parallel to that of Dr Alkaied's: when I have to tell clients the bad news. While in my case it's never literally life and death, it can nonetheless feel emotionally devastating—the death of a dream.

Perhaps half the time I'm hired to work with a group it's because of a crisis that the group has not been able to work through on its own. While the precipitating event may have been external (perhaps a nuisance lawsuit from a neighbor, or an adverse ruling by the county zoning board), when it comes to persistent conflict the heavy lifting always revolves around unresolved interpersonal tensions in the group. (Groups don't dial up the roto-rooter guy unless their interpersonal plumbing is backed up.)

When I'm called into those situations I never start with the assumption that it's too late. Going in, I always start with the idea that the tension can be ameliorated, and that I can guide the group back to health without losing anyone. The reality, however, is that I encounter a wide range of difficulties (the stakes can vary wildly: everything from hangnails to something terminal), and groups don't always call me right away. In the worst cases, I don't get brought in until well after the initial damage has occurred, and anaerobic infection is well advanced. Sometimes everyone can't be saved, and pruning is necessary for the health of the tree.

The Fog of Conflict
While it's tempting to chide groups for being idiots about the delay in asking for help ("Why did you wait so long to call? This could have been dealt with much more easily if I'd been asked in right away."), I've learned over the years to be more sympathetic, for a number of reasons:

o  When you're in it, it's often akin to what Robert McNamara styled "the fog of war." While the former Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson was referring to Vietnam, the principle is apt here as well: in the midst of conflict it's often confusing and difficult to see what's actually happening, much less the way through it. What becomes obvious in retrospect is anything but when events are first unfolding.

o  It further behooves the armchair analyst to keep in mind that living in intentional community is something that almost all members are doing for the first time in their life, which means that prior experience offers little guidance. They are traveling through terra incognita.

o  What's more, people don't come to community anticipating problems, so there is typically a miasma of distaste and shock (it never occurred to us that that could happen here) that enshrouds the uncertainty about how to respond. 
Considered all together, you have all the ingredients for a goat fuck—a lot of frenetic activity, accompanied by maximal messiness, minimal forethought, and more hurt feelings than you ever imagined possible. Yuk!

To be sure, not all crises spiral out of control to this extent. (Whew!) My point, however, is that they can, and it can happen to anyone. Good intentions are by no means a prophylactic against being visited by members masquerading as hormonal goats. Conflict can just do that to people, and groups, I've discovered, are never ready to ask for help until they're ready to ask for help. So I've learned to get over my dismay. Never mind how the group got there; here we are.

Testing for Will
Once I'm on site, I try to have as many one-on-one and one-on-two conversations as I can, the sum of which adds up to a picture of what's happened and where people are today (which may be quite different from where they were when the triggering incident occurred).

As someone who works a lot with cooperative groups in conflict, figuring out how to navigate tensions has become relatively straight forward for me (see Rules of Engagement for my thinking about that). The delicate part is determining what the group has the will to attempt, on the road to healing and righting the ship. Sometimes there's still a lot of fight left among protagonists and they're not ready to look in the mirror (no listening). Sometimes they're exhausted and so demoralized that half the group has one foot out the door (no hope). Sometimes, however, they're tied of squabbling, they're done being defensive, and they're ready to work—this is the ideal.

Commonly enough, I'm asked to be the plumber—the person brought in to unclog the crap that is stopping up the lines of sanitary communication. While it may be obvious to all concerned where the blockage is, it smells bad and no one wants to touch it. Some portion of the time this amounts to my being the one to have a come-to-Jesus meeting for the purpose of laying down reality about what's happening with one or more folks who are central to events and heavily invested in riverfront property in Egypt (living on the banks of denial).

In this line of work it helps that I've been buffeted around quite a bit. My resumé includes:
—40 years of community living experience
30 years of consulting with over 100 cooperative groups
—Having been a community founder
—Having been divorced by my wife
—Having been asked by my community to not return after my divorce
—Surviving a near-death brush with cancer

Having lived through all that I'm pretty much shockproof and fearless. (What bad thing should I be afraid of?) While that doesn't mean I always get it right; it means I'm always going to try and that I have a large capacity to empathize with people in adversity. While I have a lot of scars, instead of making me tougher, I prefer to think I've been tenderized and made more resilient.

Finding the Right Words
A lot of my work revolves around being able to enter the chaos, quickly sort wheat from chaff, and set the table for the right conversations, in the right sequence. Not only do I have to understand the energy, but I need to be able to find the words that accurately convey its spirit. I need to be good in a storm—light on my feet in tossing seas, and calm amidst the howling wind.

What's more, I need to be able to get back up and brush myself off when I get knocked down, which invariably happens some portion of the time. While everyone enjoys clean plumbing, not everyone enjoys meeting the plumber, and it can be downright nauseating looking at what I find in the pipes.

While there can be catharsis and a tremendous release of tension when the things goes well, my work does not end with the first flush of clean water. I linger to assist the group in crafting a way to tell the tale, both to ground the lessons (no need to do that again) and to be able to share the story of adversity that is honest yet forward moving and dignified. In this the plumber's pen needs to be more incisive than his snake.

It's shitty work, but someone has to do it.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Individual and the Group, a Play in Three Acts

One of the interesting ways to think about intentional communities is that it's a purposeful choice to move toward "we" on the I-we spectrum. What I mean is that you can look at how people behave and sort actions into those which are taken with intent to maximize the benefit to the individual, and contrast it with those which are taken with intent to maximize the benefit to the public, or the group.

Where we stand on that spectrum is significant for a handful of reasons.

I. Are We an Island or Not?
First, you can make a good case for there never having been a time in human history where the dominant culture was located more toward the "I" end of that spectrum than we are in mainstream US culture today. It's all about what's best for the individual. Think John Wayne. Think Ayn Rand. The essential concept is that society will do best if individuals focus on their own welfare above all else. If individuals thrive, then the society will necessarily follow.

It hasn't always been that way. Almost four centuries ago, Englishman John Donne penned this well-known poem:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee. 
                        
 —John Donne (1624)

While those lines are timeless, it's application has since eroded. Consider this contemporary counterpoint:

A winter's day
In a deep and dark
December
I am alone
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow
I am a rock
I am an island


I've built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain
It's laughter and it's loving I disdain
I am a rock
I am an island


Don't talk of love
But I've heard the words before
It's sleeping in my memory
I won't disturb the slumber of feelings that have died
If I never loved I never would have cried
I am a rock
I am an island


I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock
I am an island


And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries


—Paul Simon (1966)

While there's a question how much Simon was trying to capture the ethos of the times versus how much he was writing cynically (or perhaps he was doing both), it's clear that we've ridden the horse of capitalism right up to the very gates of hell, and we're by no means done with the ride. Republicans have their hands on the reins and we have a President who's gleefully writing executive orders eviscerating a spate of regulations aimed at protecting the public good. Herbert Hoover's philosophy of rugged individualism lives on.

It's my belief that humans, as a species, are hard-wired to be herd animals. We crave each other's company and don't do well in isolation. Thus, it doesn't surprise me that there's a deep hunger for community; for a sense of belonging beyond one's immediate blood family. It's a natural response to the alienation that surfaces in the ill-fitting American dream of a house in the burbs where neighbors barely know one another.

That said, knowing that it's good for us does not mean that we know how to do it—live in close approximation with others without the structure of a caste system or Father-Knows-Best paternalism to maintain social order. We want the freedom of individual choice, and at the same time a solid connection with the herd. It's no minor feat figuring out how to thread that needle.

With rare exceptions, we have not been raised with cooperative skills. Worse, most folks who attempt cooperative living do not go into the experiment understanding why that's important. Commonly, they just get frustrated that it isn't easier. (Why is there this gap between what I intend and what I achieve?)

II. What's Private and What's Public?
The fact the people living in intentional communities have moved more toward the "we" end of the spectrum, does not mean they've moved all the way over. There is still a plethora of decisions that individuals or households make that are not considered group business.

That said, there is nuance around how far the line has been shifted, and it's not likely that everyone will see it the same way. If the group doesn't explore this ahead of time (to be fair, it's hard to gin up enthusiasm for discussing hypothetical awkwardness—why borrow trouble?) those differences are not apt to be illuminated until you're in a situation where they apply. The interesting case is when an individual makes a choice that no one proposes should be handled at the group level, yet that decision has obvious impact on the group. Now what? 

For the most part this is uncharted water. As a backdrop for my thinking about how to proceed, I want to pause to introduce two important concepts:

A. Intentional Communities as Modern Villages
Over 15 years ago I happened upon a copy of Sobonfu Somé's The Spirit of Intimacy, Ancient Teachings in the Ways of Relationships (2000), in which she describes how intimate couples relate to the group in traditional West African villages, which is where she was raised. While the village does not direct villagers in choices of intimacy, there is nonetheless an acknowledged two-way relationship between the couple and the village, where each has a responsibility to aid and sustain the other. This is formally acknowledged in marriage vows, and extends to raising children.

By substituting intentional community for village, it gave me insight into a constructive, proactive role for groups in situations where the whole is significantly impacted to the private actions of individual members. Apparently, in West African villages there is broad recognition that "we're all in this together." In consequence, there's an understanding that if the group is impacted by the choices of individuals then there needs to be an opportunity for the village (as represented by the elders in village culture) to have a say in how things move forward.

This is an important difference from the hands-off approach that is generally taken in mainstream culture. Unless you break a law, individuals are not expected to make themselves available to discuss the wider consequences of private decisions. They can simply say, "It's none of your business" and that's expected to be honored.

B. In Cooperative Culture Groups Get Together to Solve Problems and to Enhance Relationships
In the mainstream, meetings are essentially viewed as a way to share information and ideas, on the road to resolving issues and concerns. However, in cooperative culture (in contrast with competitive culture) how you accomplish things matters as much as what you accomplish. In cooperative culture there are two primary meeting objectives: 1) clearing up confusion, and figuring out how best to respond to emerging issues; and 2) sustaining and improving relationships among members.

These two objectives are not necessarily evenly weighted (though they may be); sometimes one of them is more to the fore, and others times it's the reverse. The significance of this is that it can be a revelation to some that you'd call a meeting expressly to attend to relationships. That is, the meeting may have no decision-making component at all, yet still be potent and appropriate.

With these two concepts in hand, let's return to the question of how to respond to a private decision that has blow back in the group. What's called for, I believe, is a group session designed to clear the air. Once it's established that there are nontrivial reverberations in the group, you have to accept that there is no stopping people from discussing it in pairs and small clusters (think parking lot conversations); the question is whether you also want to have a plenary discussion. As far as I'm concerned you have to. Here's why:

o  Getting on top of gossip and rumors
If you don't create an chance to look at this with everyone in the same room, information will be unevenly shared; some of it is bound to be incomplete, some of it is likely to be distorted, and some may be just plain wrong. It can be a nightmare trying to get all the worms back in the can. You pretty much need a plenary to get everyone on the same page.

o  You cannot repair damage until you know what it is
The biggest danger in these situations is that relationships are strained. To be more precise, when focusing on reactivity, no one's worried about unbridled joy—we're talking about feelings of alienation, such as fear, confusion, disgust, anger, or even outrage.

To address this well requires a certain sequence—one that's most effectively done live (you can't mail it in). Feelings must be fully expressed, they must be acknowledged (to the satisfaction of the speaker), and there must be a heartfelt, connecting response. Note that this does not necessarily require the individual to agree that they've done something wrong, or to offer an apology, though those may be appropriate.

o  Safety in numbers
When voicing negative reactions, many of us find it challenging to do so cleanly and completely (who do you know, after all, who learned this growing up?). While it may not make it easier to hear, sharing in the whole group can often make it easier for people to be courageous about speaking up.

Also, it is typically easier to line up skilled facilitation (either from within the group, or perhaps by bringing in someone from outside) for a plenary, the better to establish and maintain a constructive container for such delicate work. A good facilitator will make it easier for all parties to both speak and be heard.

To get these results, it's imperative that the meeting be set up properly. It is not about judging others, assigning blame, determining objective truth (uncovering what really happened), or making decisions; it's about sharing information, understanding impact, and repairing relationships.

III. Terraforming the Culture of Inclusivity
The stakes here are rather high. Not because that many people will ever live in intentional community, but because communities are research and development centers for sustainable culture. 

In this era of disintegrating civility and the normalization of alienation politics, many of us are near desperation in yearning for a way forward that all can embrace. I can see no hope in relying on additional doses of what got us to this pass, with one side trying to pound their majority down the throats of those who lost the last election. We need a sea change—an approach that builds on what's being learned in the crucible of intentional community living about how to solve problems and attend to relationships at the same time.

This is not about homogenization, making nice, or pretending that everyone thinks the same way. Rather, it's about moving ahead only after all sides have been heard and everyone's on the bus. It's understanding at a visceral level that we've got to start thinking more about "we" and not so much about "I," and what it takes to get there.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Family Time

Over the past weekend, Susan and I spent a whirlwind three days in San Antonio, rendezvousing with siblings, partners, and friends. The photo above was taken Friday, on Hemisfair Plaza, right before we ascended 750 feet in the Tower of the Americas for happy hour. From right to left it's:

Val Bower (Kyle's childhood friend from La Grange IL)
Dutch (Val's partner)
Tracey (my oldest sister)
Norm (Tracey's husband)
Alison (my youngest sister)
Dan (Alison's husband)
Richard (Kyle's husband)
Kyle (my middle sister)
Guy (my brother)
Elaine (Guy's wife)
Susan
me

Here's what some of us looked like 30 minutes later, adjusted for both altitude and attitude:
The Hemisfair Tower was built for the 1968 world's fair, coinciding with San Antonio's 250th birthday. Next year the tower will be 50 and the city will be celebrating its tricentennial. Yeehah! We stayed aloft long enough to see the sun go down before we did.

Each of the three days the mercury climbed into the 80s—a far cry from the 40s by the shores of Lake Superior. In San Antonio spring was sprung. The grass was verdant green, and irises were blooming in Kyle's front yard. (When the shuttle from Minneapolis dropped us off in downtown Duluth Sunday afternoon, we were happy that the temperature was above freezing and most of the snow was gone—never mind any signs of green.) Though Duluth and San Antonio are joined by I-35, they're separated by1400 miles and six agricultural zones. Uffda.

Susan and I were thankful for our down jackets on the van ride to the Minneapolis Airport in the wee hours of Thursday. When we arrived at Kyle's house later that day (around 1 pm), we wasted no time switching to light cotton tops, shorts, and sandals. Ahh!

It was great seeing all of my siblings, catching up on family news, and sharing Susan (and my renewed health) with one and all. In an unusual move, I sent only one lone email during my 68 hours in the Lone Star State (to my stepson, Jibran, on the occasion of his 20th birthday). As this was a mini-vacation, I was determined to give my laptop a mini-time-out. Today I've been been paying for it, digging out my In Box.

But it was worth it.