Saturday, July 19, 2014

What the Duck?


I've been living at Dancing Rabbit since November and we have a new thing that's been going on the last several weeks: the traveling menagerie. There's a subgroup here called Critters that has a bunch of, well, critters.

Not only that, but they move 'em around. You've heard the old saw about the grass is greener on the other side of the fence? Well the Critters operate on a variation of that theme: the grass is always greener if you keep moving the fence.

They have a lightweight flexible electric fence that allows them to construct a temporary enclosure, which they relocate every so many days for the grazing pleasure of their small herd of four goats and a miniature donkey. If you need the vegetation brought under control somewhere, let them know and you can get your field or side yard into the rotational queue. If you don't mind the bleating, and the somewhat irregular trim heights, you can effectively get your lawn mowed and fertilized in one go with no drain on the national oil reserves. It's a pretty sweet deal.

In addition, they're experimenting with a free ranging band of three ducks—Khaki Cambells to be precise, two hens and a drake. The image above depicts the breed.

Nowadays you can round the corner on a building and run into the duck patrol cruising the neighborhood. On the one hand, it's disconcerting (WTF, did I just see three ducks walk by?). On the other, it's evocative of throwback depictions of medieval village life, where humans and animals commingled far more than they do today (think Pieter Brueghel): 
While you don't tend to see many DR folks wearing headgear with ear flaps (at least not in summer) duck liberation has been a definite step toward inter-species integration.

To be clear, this did not happen in a cultural vacuum, nor is it without boundaries. For years, the village dogs (at least the well-mannered ones) have been allowed to enter the village pub on cold nights to cozy up to the fire, and so far no one has suggested that the make-way-for-ducklings movement be extended to include visiting privileges in the common house kitchen—for which I'm thankful (and so is the health department).

It's turned out that the unfettered ducks are popular (as well as novel). Among other things they tidy up under the mulberry trees, which are otherwise a damn nuisance when the prolific fruit starts dropping, staining everything sticky and purple. (Now it's just the duck shit that's purple.)

So far all the outdoor dogs, cats, and humans have managed to coexist amicably with the quackers, and we hope that continues.

While it's too early to tell if this trend will persist, the Critters are doing all they can to get their ducks in a row, so to speak, to secure and maintain social approbation. With respect to choreography though, getting ducks in a row is much harder to achieve. The little darlings do not exactly constitute a chorus line. (Have you ever tried to get ducks waddling in syncopation? I thought not.)

I've come to view them more as a band of roving minstrels, and I'm enjoying their spontaneous riffs—punctuated by their characteristic tail twitching dance routines—as noteworthy contributions to the improvisational passion play, Life in the Ecovillage, showing daily.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Group Works: Honor Each Person

This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."

In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.

The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:

1. Intention
2. Context
3. Relationship
4. Flow
5. Creativity
6. Perspective
7. Modeling
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
9. Faith

In the Relationship segment there are 10 cards. The sixth pattern in this segment is labeled Honor Each Person. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card: 



Respect each person's essential human dignity. View others' unique beliefs, approaches and concerns as a resource for group wisdom. Tolerate and even embrace idiosyncrasies, knowing that each person brings their gifts to the whole more fully when affirmed and appreciated.

This is a rich and subtle pattern. On the one hand, it's obvious. Who would speak against honoring each person (or in favor of purposefully dishonoring others)? 

Yet we are largely unaware of custom, of the water we swim in—unless we're swimming in someone else's pond, such as when we travel abroad. For the most part custom becomes an unnoticed backdrop that rises to our consciousness only when something is different. And the more different, the more we notice. When you take into account that most of us have been deeply conditioned in an individualistic culture, where identity is tied to the sense in which we are unique (rather than in a cooperative culture where we celebrate the ways in which we are similar), then difference tends to be strongly associated with distance. People who are different tend to become "other."

We may feel threatened by customs that are different than our own. We may feel confused. We may feel unwelcome.

Worse, styles may clash. A person who grew up in a blue collar family where mom and dad shouted and occasionally threw crockery when upset may behave in a way that feels overwhelmingly unsafe to a person whose family never raised their voice at the dinner table and only one person spoke at a time. Words and phrases that are precise and comfortable for a well-educated person may come across as unintelligible and manipulative to someone who barely finished 8th grade. Swear words are straight-talking to some; blasphemous to others.

In short, it's complicated. The trick, of course, is to focus on what's in the package, not on the wrapping.

The simple version of this is doing the work to not be triggered by the package (which includes dress, diction, skin color, emotional affect, physical disability, adornment, disfigurement, word choice, facial expressions, etc.), or at least to manage one's reactions. Yet this pattern runs deeper. It is not enough that you can parrot the words (or even the delivery); the object is to get what it feels like to be the other person; to see the dynamic through their eyes and their being. That is the deeper meaning of "honoring." It is much more than sharing the microphone.

Note the final portion of the text for this pattern: "... each person brings their gifts to the whole more fully when affirmed and appreciated."

The point here is that you will often not get what you might have gotten if you handle the opening poorly. Simply put, when people don't feel honored (or welcome) by their standards, they are far less likely to share what they have to give. If when they speak the audience stares back glassy eyed or checks their watches, it's not reasonable to expect them to pour their hearts out. 

In truly parochial settings, non-regulars can get labeled uncommunicative and surly for not sharing, yet the regulars may be altogether clueless about how unwelcoming they were. The newcomers experience no warmth or genuine interest in who they are or what they bring; the regulars experience boorish guests with off-putting habits, odd diction, and obscure reflections. It's a train wreck.

Does this mean you need to learn every culture's customs? No, but you can remember to ask a person what their customs of greeting are—rather than assume they'll be knowledgeable and comfortable with yours. 

When playing at home, the hallmark of honoring behavior is to be more curious than conforming; more accepting than judging. At an away game, it tends to work better if you watch and listen ahead of acting and speaking—the better to get a sense of local custom, before you inadvertently put your foot in something you'd rather you didn't… such as your mouth.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Seven-Year Stitch

Tomorrow, Ma'ikwe and I will recommit to our marriage.

While that may not seem such a momentous occasion given that the original ceremony was April 21, 2007 (which means our marriage is older than this blog, and not exactly above-the-fold front-page news), tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of Ma'ikwe's decision to divorce me. It's also Bastille Day, the anniversary of the start of the French Revolution (325 years ago), marking the overthrow of tyranny and the French monarchy—just as Ma'ikwe was prepared to throw off the yoke of matrimony.

So it's no small thing to schedule our recommitment for July 14. Think of it as smudging the calendar. Right on the brink of dissolution, Ma'ikwe and I were carefully—over the course of the last 12 months—able to pick our way back from the edge of the falls without going over the edge and crashing on the rocks below.

It's been quite a year.

Marriage By the Numbers
Seven years ago we celebrated for four days. In the course of those four days we invoked four circles of community and enjoyed special meals with each: blood family, intentional community family, FIC family, and our spiritual family. The commitment ceremony featured four parts: past, community, who we are, and magic.

The first time we got married in the fourth month of a year ending in seven. Now we're getting re-married in the seventh month in a year ending in four. Balance. Ma'ikwe is an Enneagram Seven: the epicure and adventurer. In the seventh year of our marriage she'd had enough struggling and was ready to try something new. Yet she was also aware of the work set out for this type to mature and thrive:

Your spiritual journey is to search for right work and focused concentration. Spiritual growth will come to you when you approach life with disciplined sobriety instead of getting high on new ideas, options and plans. Like a stone skipping across a lake that sinks deeply when it comes to rest, you will do well to slow down, experience your inner depths, and focus on completion.

Freedom will exist when you accept the limitations of the present moment. Remember that envisioning something is not the same as manifesting it. True freedom comes with commitment and hard work—not from having unlimited options.

When I responded well to her decision to end the relationship (my therapist deserves a lot of credit here—I didn't know I had it in me), Ma'ikwe thought long and hard about whether to stay in the relationship longer, to see where additional work could get us. In the end though, she agreed and here we are.


Time on the Couch
Since last July, I've had 15 appointments with our therapist and couples counselor in Quincy IL (60 miles away). Sometimes Ma'ikwe and I went together; sometimes I went alone.

I've been working on my reactivity, clarifying what I want from the partnership, and delving into the murkiness of my sexual response. In turn, Ma'ikwe has been working on her tendency to withhold what she's thinking about, and to stop imagining that I'm upset with her whenever she catches me talking to myself (which I do a lot).

Recently we've been working on how to handle the situation when we both feel solid in our positions yet they don't match up. While this doesn't happen a lot (whew), it's not rare, and we've been learning how to accept occasional non-agreement without jeopardizing the partnership. The essential point is that we don't have to work through everything.

We have also been working on protecting intimate time together on a regular basis, and the primacy of consulting with one another before making major commitments. Slowly, we've been learning how to be better partners.

The Fork in the Road
It became clear to me last summer (in a way that I was loathe to face before Ma'ikwe's announcement last July 14) that I was going to have to choose between my marriage and my community, Sandhill Farm. This was not something I'd bargained for when we said "I do" seven years ago, and I had been resisting it even as Ma'ikwe was asking for more time together (after all, she had the option of moving to Sandhill; why did I have to be the one who gave up my home?).

But you only have to hit my on the head with a 2x4 once, so Ma'ikwe's divorce announcement got my attention. Facing the certainty of losing one, I was able to let go of my home and stick with the marriage—if Ma'ikwe would have me. (If she turned me down—a distinct possibility—then I still had my home of 40 years.)

I took a leave of absence from Sandhill right after Thanksgiving and have been living with Ma'ikwe since then at Moon Lodge, her house at Dancing Rabbit. While there have continued to be some things that go bump in the night (and sometimes during the day as well), we're mostly doing quite well. Well enough, in fact, for Ma'ikwe to put her seven-year itch behind her and recommit to the marriage.

Tomorrow, as we purposefully resew the threads of our commitment to one another—and begin wearing our rings again for the first time in a year—I'll be thinking of it as our Seven-Year Stitch.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Yours with Words

Ever since working on my high school newspaper (1965-67), I've wanted to be a journalist. While that has by no means been the only thing I've wanted to be, communication has been one of my enduring passions.

Slowly, over the decades, I've succeeded.

Starting in the 80s I occasionally authored magazine articles about community living. Concurrent with that, I launched a career as a process consultant, which inexorably led to report writing—lots of report writing.

Lost in the Fun House
Then things took a jump in 1992 when I negotiated FIC becoming the publisher of Communities magazine, taking over from Charles Betterton, who had lost the resource base to keep things going. This opportunity opened three doors at once: writer, editor, publisher.

—Over the two-plus decades that FIC has been behind the wheel, I've typically authored 6-8 magazine articles annually. Given that the road to effective writing is pretty much the same one that Lily Tomlin points out as the way you get to Carnegie Hall—practice—this steady work has been enormously beneficial in the development of my craft.

—Having apprenticed at my father's knee as a snob about words and their proper usage, I've also worked the other side of the aisle: editing. Even as far back as the early '90s, a network compatriot wryly gifted me a red pen for my birthday, because, after receiving my mark-ups of his draft white paper, he knew I must go through them faster than a garlic eater consumes breath mints.

—Rarest of all is the chance to be a publisher. While the circulation of Communities has never been above 1600, in our own small way we are a market-maker when it comes to grammar, spelling, and the meaning of words. We get to be ruthless in stamping out the cutesy disease of interior capitalization ("CoHousing" and "EcoVillage" make me want to vomit), expurgating unneeded hyphens ("e-mail," "by-laws," and "non-profit" are so '90s), and arbitrating a non-sexist solution to the need for a third person singular pronoun when gender is unknown (we prefer "they," making the plural do double duty in the same way that we ask "you" to be of service as the singular and plural second person pronoun).

I just eat that stuff up!

Throughout the last decade of the 20th Century and the opening stanza of the 21st, I gradually accreted an increasing number of communication offerings onto my workshop menu. Today my offerings include Conflict, Facilitation, Power Dynamics, Consensus (which comes in two flavors), and Humor (think of it as spumoni).

Blogging a Dead Horse
Then, in 2007, I dipped my toe into the blogosphere. Seven years and 770 entries later, I'm still at it. While I encountered an existential hiccup a few years back—wondering if I'd run out of fresh ideas and fall prey to reheating leftovers—I've been able to put that particular devil behind me. 

I've discovered that all I have to do is pay attention to what's happening around me! Life is never dull for an itinerant community networker who is domiciled in a thriving ecovillage (note the clean spelling), and there is always a new foal or filly gamboling about in the landscape of my life, offering itself up as inspiration for my next blog (think of it as the virtual equivalent of My Friend Flicka). There's really no reason to be anxious about slipping into a morbid fascination with describing dead horses.

Communities as a Pathway to Community

Even though publishing our quarterly magazine steadily loses money (we've finished in the black only twice in 22 years), it's something that FIC holds dear and we're doing everything in our power to keep it in print. The magazine was first launched in 1972, and has established itself as the source for information and inspiration about community living and cooperative culture.

We cover the Intentional Communities Movement in its full breadth: from cohousing to ecovillages; from ashrams to student co-ops; from group houses to agricultural communes.

At its best, Communities chronicles both the triumphs and the heartaches of cooperative living. We take you behind the scenes to examine what challenges people are encountering, and what solutions they are discovering in their day-to-day experiences of living together. 

Cooperative living is messy business and we try to cover it all. We don't sugar coat it, and we let authors disagree about the lessons to be learned. Our editorial mission is not to promulgate a party line; it's to make the lines shorter for getting into the party. If there's one thing we've learned from living in community, it's that we're all in this together and we're only able to do our best work when we listen to everyone's piece of the truth.

How You Can Help
This is where you come in. Nothing would make a more immediate impact on our bottom line than new subscribers. If you do not currently have a subscription, please consider clicking here and signing up. If you are a current subscriber, thank you!—and please consider giving a gift subscription to a friend or loved one. 

The timing couldn't be better! We've recently overhauled our website to offer content either as paper or plastic digital, and all back issues as either available as in-print copies or as digital downloads. We're also offering a completely revised collection of the Best of Communities on 15 different themes, where we've gathered together 15-20 of the best articles we've published on a topic (including Good Meetings; Leadership, Power, and Membership; Elders in Community; Challenges and Lessons of Community; and Cohousing) and created dynamite packets of 55-65 pages each. Buy one or buy them all.

For the truly inspired, we offer a complete back issue set—all 161 of them—for the bargain price of $500.

For those especially moved by what Communities has meant to you and will continue to mean in our collective effort to manifest a more cooperative future, I invite you to consider making an earmarked tax-deductible donation in support of magazine operations. It all counts.

Your support today will help keep our cooperative flame burning brightly—and all of us cooperative authors in print (and off the street).

Monday, July 7, 2014

Profits at Home

Have you ever noticed how people start to appear wiser the further they get from home? You may laugh, but this is a dynamic of biblical proportions. Matthew 13:57 says: … but Jesus said unto them, "A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house."

It's enough to make you want to take a road trip.

In this day of upward spiraling travel costs (we really are running out of oil), it seems prudent to contemplate the future for consultants. Being one, I think about it. After 27 years of going to my clients (or to events where I can showcase my wares in workshops), I am pioneering a webinar series that will offer a half dozen of my most commonly requested workshops, plus a seventh Q&A session styled Stump the Chumps, where Ma'ikwe and I try to hit whatever cooperative process curve balls people toss our way. While being connected via video and audio is not the same thing as being in the same room, it starts to approximate it, and no one has to travel. I figure my future will definitely include more of this.

[While the webinar series was scheduled to start July 2, we aborted when the software (GlobalMeet) started spontaneously malfunctioning 20 minutes into the presentation—gremlins started arbitrarily muting the speaker and unmuting the audience. The whole series has now been moved back one week and will begin July 9, and will run every Wednesday through Aug 20. It will be live 2-4 pm Central time, and will be available as a downloadable recording to anyone who signs up. This Wed we'll be switching to Adobe Connect to frustrate the gremlins. So if you missed our opening (comedy) act last Wed, the boat has still not left the pier.]

Webinars aside, I've been aware for a long time that there's been little interest in my skills within my zip code. Yes, I've facilitated my share of meetings at both Sandhill Farm and Dancing Rabbit, but I'm almost never asked to facilitate conflicts, which is probably the number one thing I'm known for on a continental level. (On a state level, I've only been hired to facilitate five times outside of 63563 in 27 years, yet four of those were to teach about or to facilitate a live conflict.)

Of course, at Sandhill—which is a very small community, usually around six adults—it was nearly impossible for me to be sufficiently neutral (or perceived to be sufficiently neutral) to be acceptable as a conflict facilitator. But it's more than that. My community hasn't even been interested in learning my theory of working with conflict.

I recently witnessed someone in tears over his frustration at how little interest there had been among his fellow community members in taking advantage of his offer to help people be more financially successful (this guy works only 15 hours a week and generates enough surplus to make annual donations north of $20,000, so he's demonstrably good at being financially generative). While I felt his anguish, it's no longer acute for me. I'm a good bit further down that road and my disappointment is more of a dull ache because I've grown accustomed to it—and because I get plenty of work in different time zones, which satisfies my primal desire to be helpful. I've adjusted my expectations and no longer look for people to seek my talents at home.

I'm also seeing another shift. Now that I've moved over to Dancing Rabbit (to live with Ma'ikwe) I'm not centrally involved in community dynamics and people are more open to me as a result. At my new community I'm highly selective about what community issues I insert myself into, and I'm not seeking influence as I did while living at Sandhill. Oddly enough, two people at Dancing Rabbit have approached me in the last half year to be a mentor for them. This is something I very much enjoy doing yet have done precious little of my first 39 years of community living (excepting twice I served as adjunct faculty for Prescott College, guiding—by email and phone—students doing independent studies on intentional community). Having let go, the opportunities have come to me, which I experience as something of a cosmic joke (which is better, I think, than a cosmic tragedy).

While part of this may be about me (can you ever rule that out completely?), I think part of what's going on is a generic avoidance of the schizophrenic dynamic where two people are simultaneously in a peer-peer relationship (by virtue of being fellow community members) and in a teacher-student relationship. It can be awkward to navigate the shifting power gradient, and some would rather avoid it all together, accepting the price of foregoing whatever might be learned (either from the teacher, or from juggling the roles).

When the teacher comes from outside—especially from way outside— all of that awkwardness can be neatly sidestepped. The consultant goes away Monday morning. At Sandhill, I think I'm more valued for my tomatillo salsa, my skill at wildcrafting morels, and my knowledge of how to file the community's tax returns, than for my ability to be sure-footed when navigating complex community dynamics.

While it remains to be seen how my opportunities to be an honorable prophet (much less a profitable one) may diminish as gas prices soar, for now I'm savoring that I still have work all around the continent—which may be extended by my nascent career as a webinar presenter (and indefatigable blogger).

It's a quirky world out there, and every now and then you need to stop and make sure you're still heading in the direction you intended.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Sharing Circles and Square Pegs

I attended a workshop recently on The Circle Way, based on the 2010 book of that title by



























































































Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Starting with a Proposal, Revisited

Jasen recently replied to my June 10 post Why Starting with a Proposal is Usually a Bad Idea, and he brought up points that I want to respond to, expanding on my original thinking. Jasen’s comments are in italics, and my replies follow in Roman text. (Note that when I refer to a “committee” I mean for that term to encompass anything from a single individual or manager, to a team, task force, or standing committee—any subgroup of the whole).

I personally find this challenging to hear (thank you), as I'm a proponent of crafting the proposal prior to bringing a topic for discussion to plenary. As you state, plenary time is precious so I definitely agree that some topics should be discussed openly in plenary well before a proposal is crafted by an individual or subcommittee. The challenge is determining what constitutes a good "proposal" agenda item vs. a good "discussion" agenda item. Because of the abundance of potential topics that could come to plenary, a certain amount of delegation must be done to subcommittees/individuals in order for plenary time to be effective. My instinct likely is to lean on the proposal all too often. Your post is a good reminder of this.

Re: skewing the conversation, I agree that this happens but personally believe this to be a net positive for the following reasons:

1. The proposal helps define or frame the "problem" or “issue." It gives members a lump of clay to mold.


Yes, but the danger is that you might not have all the clay you need if the plenary restricts its reply to what the committee has prepared ahead. Further, it can sometimes take more energy to change the shape of pre-molded clay than if you were starting from scratch.

2. The proposal preparation allows for research to be done prior to plenary such that knowledge/expertise can be gathered for distribution at plenary. If this is not done beforehand, the plenary is not an informed position to make the best decision.

While this is a real phenomenon, I believe it's better handled by having the need for research anticipated by a thoughtful Steering Committee, whose job it is to screen suggestions for plenary agenda topics. A competent Steering Committee will ask the sponsoring committee to conduct anticipated research as a precondition to getting time on the plenary agenda.

Further, they should insist that the presentation be tight, with a focused question. This kind of diligence should go a long toward eliminating wheel spinning at the front end of a consideration.

3. Finally, in many (most?) cases, the plenary faces a number of relatively trivial, non-fatal, and revocable decisions such that even if the proposal were skewed towards an action of some kind, that decision can be evaluated and changed at a later date based on objective desired outcomes.

I have two thoughts about this. First, why are you dealing with relatively trivial decisions in plenary? A better approach, in my view, is delegating those to committees such that if they are operating within their mandate they can make decisions without coming to the plenary at all. Many consensus groups fall into the trap of insisting that all decisions be made by plenary and that committees can only propose. While care needs to be taken to craft thoughtful mandates for committees, I urge you to consider pushing out decision-making authority to committees as much as you can stand. That way only major topics come to plenary, such as ones requiring an interpretation or balancing of values.

While committees should always be informing the whole group about what they’re doing and provide a clear opportunity for non-committee members to have input on matters that the committee has authority to act on, there is rarely justification for clogging up plenary agendas with routine matters.

Second, I agree that the plenary shouldn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If a proposal seems good enough after thoughtful engagement, it is generally better to accept it and move on, trusting that changes in the light of better information or more complete thinking shouldn't be that difficult to effect down the road.

If you are not facing a looming deadline (which generally you aren't), another option in those moments when: a) you've done what you can on the topic; b) you've lost momentum; and yet, c) it doesn't feel "ripe," is to lay it down for seasoning and pick up again at the next opportunity—to see if anything has shifted. The important thing is to stop giving something plenary attention once forward momentum has ceased—and then not falling into the bad habit of recapitulating all the prior work when you get back to it, which means good minutes and disciplined facilitation.

Finally, if there is anguish about whether or not you have chewed on a proposal sufficiently to swallow, and are concerned about the potential difficulty of getting agreement to change it later (the interesting case would be when some in the group really like the agreement and others are quite unhappy), is to keep in mind the option of a sunset clause. This allows you to make a decision that will expire after an agreed upon trial period unless the plenary takes explicit action to continue the decision. The point is that if there is not approval to continue the agreement, then it expires.

Often, real life experience will make clear which way to go regarding a policy about which the group is in anguish over is it contemplates consequences. The sunset clause takes pressure off the group when there's fear of locking into a policy with a potentially large impact and there's uncertainty about whether you've considered thoroughly enough all reasonably likely outcomes and their consequences.