Thursday, April 17, 2014

Spring Meetings Are in the Air

I'm in Lawrence KS, where the FIC Board is gathering for our semi-annual organizational meetings, starting Friday and running through Sunday. We're being graciously hosted by Delaware St Cohousing, and the timing couldn't be better: our last snow shower of the winter (he wrote hopefully) blew through northeast Missouri Monday morning and now the temps are in the 60s and full of promise for the growing season ahead.

Just as the redbud, forsythia, and ornamental pears are all in full bloom here in eastern Kansas, so is our agenda. Here is what we have on tap for the long weekend:

o  Reviewing negotiations with the Ecovillage Network of the Americas about the possibility of FIC becoming the North American network for the Global Ecovillage Network. In addition to reviewing a proposal about that, FIC's Board will hold a joint conference call with the ENA Task Force looking into how best to proceed.

o  Discussing the 2014 budget and the cash flow squeeze we've been experiencing as a result of delays in completing a major overhaul of our websites, rewriting all our code in WordPress, to take advantage of a widely used language with more off-the-shelf plug-ins.

It's a double whammy in that we've used our reserve to fund the work, and are depending on its successful completion to replenish our coffers. Part of our willingness to make this gamble was that we have wonderful new products to offer that could not be delivered with our old website—in particular, downloadable PDFs of every issue of Communities magazine ever published, plus a completely revised set of themed reprint packets with 85% new content (also available as PDFs).

o  Developing roll out plans for reorganizing how we list groups in our online Communities Directory. Our intention is to sort all listings into four categories:

A. Established intentional communities
B. Forming intentional communities
C. Dead or unresponsive groups
D. Groups or projects that have an association with community yet are not intentional communities (this is something of a catchall, and might include networks, housing developments that emphasize a community quality, nonprofits that hold community as a core value, research projects that investigate aspects of community, etc)

We'll also be looking closely at: 1) the sort criteria that will determine which category a group is placed into (asking groups to self-select will not produce consistent results); and 2) how best to review our 1600+ listings to get them placed into the appropriate pen. It's a huge undertaking!

o  Balancing the need for general fundraising (which will relieve pressure on our strapped cash flow) with the concomitant need to raise money to replace our aging office facility at our Missouri headquarters.

o  Cooking up ways to attract more subscribers to Communities magazinethe source for ideas and inspiration about cooperative living.

o  Choosing the winner of the 2015 Kozeny Communitarian Award. As we have no shortage of qualified candidates, the anguish here is over whittling it down to only one.

o  Selecting new Board members (which will include a review of how we select Board members).

I'm telling you, there's no end to the fun we're going to have! And if we get done early of an evening, we can go for stroll and smell the freshly mown lawns (instead of the flip chart markers).

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Opportunities and Challenges of Income-Sharing

I recently had this exchange with a regular consumer of this blog who does not live in community, yet is intrigued by cooperative living:

My take on where you and I come from is that we are two moderates who happen to walk opposite sides of the street. What originally struck me about your posts, other than that they provide an insight into a different way of life, is how much of what you talked about applies to volunteer organizations, or any organization using cooperation as a means to get things done.

That’s intentional.

I think, though, that you have found a topic on which we disagree. I see very few advantages to income sharing and many disadvantages.

I’m happy to have this discussion, but I want you to understand that I’m not out to convince you that you should share income. If it doesn’t appeal to you, don’t do it!
1. If there is a large range of incomes, say an order of magnitude or more, those at the high end may feel they should have a proportionally larger say in how the money is spent. I happen to agree with this position. If these individuals had not joined they would have had complete control over their own income.

I reckon your argument here that decision-making power ought to be in proportion to market rate for the work one does for the group. To the extent that dollars buy votes I guess that makes sense, and there are certainly others who support this notion.

I have several concerns with this though (and I want you to take into account that these arguments are being advanced by someone who is making an order of magnitude more money than others in my income-sharing community—that is, I’m a living counterexample to your hypothetical):

o  The market place sets wages based on supply and demand, yet a great deal of domestic work is not monetized and therefore poorly reflected by wages.

o  In community (cooperative culture) we tend to value how things get done as much as what gets done. Navigating the "how” well requires relational skills, which don’t tend to be valued in the marketplace as strongly as technical skills. I shake my head, for example, when groups fork over thousands of dollars to architects yet balk at paying a process consultant a fraction of that amount—even though a skilled process consultant is rarer than a skilled architect and can more powerfully impact the community’s success. Knowing that compensation, at least to some extent, is based more on habit than value, I’m not inclined to equate worth with wages.

o  Having control over your own household budget living alone is not at all the same as having control over the household budget living in a group. While I’m out on the road as a consultant, things are being taken care of at home without my worrying about them. Yes, I turn over my paycheck, yet I have a mix of work I love and all my needs are met.

I have a friend who lives with his sweetheart in an apartment in Manhattan. He makes over $100,000 annually, yet used to live at Dancing Rabbit where he made about $15,000 annually. He did the math and calculated that he didn’t start getting ahead economically until he was making over $90,000—because of the difference in cost of living (rural Missouri versus urban NYC) and the difference through income sharing. That’s an incredible swing.

o  If decision-making were weighted based on income, it would mean focusing a lot of attention on wages, and who wants to live that way? One person, one voice is much simpler. (What's more, in consensus, the weights wouldn't make any sense anyway as you can't move forward in the presence of any principled objection—even one from a person who voice only counted one tenth as much.) If people with high wages had more say, and used that to prevail (rather than bringing others along through the strength of their reasoning, or their ability to balance everyone’s needs), they’d be resented for it, not celebrated.

o  That said, if a person’s money-making ability were germane to the consideration (as would be the case if a lawyer were giving their views about a legal opinion) then they’ll have all the power they need without claiming it on the basis of wage differential.

2. Sometimes it is just not fair. Let me give you an example I deal with every spring, when I volunteer about 40-50 hours/week to help people with their taxes. I come from a rural town of about 8,000 and we field four tax counselors. A nearby town of slightly less population, but wealthier, fields none. This season residents from the wealthier town overloaded us with so many clients that I do not expect to go back next year. My question is: At what point do you stop helping those who will not or cannot help themselves because they're taking advantage of the offer of assistance?

I have been part of several co-op organizations where members were expected to pay dues and help on various projects. Dues were the same for everyone as was the amount of expected labor.

In my experience, it’s more common that dues are based on a percentage of net income while labor is expected on a per person basis, yet I know that the one-size-fits-all approach is out there as well.

As expected not everyone did their share of the labor, but in most cases there was no "You will work x hours" rule. As for financial help, those of us with higher incomes often gave extra, but this was offered on a voluntary basis and was not expected—which I think is important.
Similarly, no one is forced to live in an income-sharing community. People chose to live there and no arms are being twisted. To be sure, in making that choice you'll be giving up most of your claim on discretionary money. In exchange, you get: a) security (the group will be there for you in hard times); b) less need to chase dollars (because of the economies of scale and the leveraging through sharing); c) a mix of work that includes a higher percentage of work you love, and a lower percentage of work you dislike (because people's aptitudes and preferences vary so much).

3. You lose control of your finances. This can be important if you are a good saver and investor and others in the community are not.

I agree with the advantages to a community sharing resources. In my experience the downside is upkeep. Unless someone is designated to see to maintenance its quality tends to fall to that provided by the least conscientious user.

You’re right that income-sharing communities are susceptible to tragedy of the commons dynamics (if no one owns it, no one takes care of it). Addressing this adequately requires wrestling with accountability issues and that's no cake walk.

There seems to be nothing in your list for improving life in the community that requires income sharing.

Au contraire, with income sharing you get:
Much more resource sharing (significantly lowering income needs).
o  Considerably more flexibility in how you cover both domestic work and income generation. In a typical two-adult household, you just have two variables for meeting both needs. In an income-sharing community of 10, it's possible for some people to do all domestic work while others slant everything toward income production—so long as you collectively make enough money and still get all the meals cooked, the diapers washed, and floors cleaned, you're fine. Having a mix of work you like is a tremendous boost to quality of life.
Much better economies of scale (if one person cooks for seven every night, it is far less total time spent in the kitchen than everyone cooking for themselves every night).
o  A significantly larger safety net (if one person gets sick or breaks a leg, it’s relatively easy to have everyone else shoulder a bit more to cover the slack—rather than all of that burden falling on their domestic partner, if they have one).

To be clear, the vast majority of intentional communities share with your hesitations about income sharing; but I've happily lived my last 40 years in one of the 10% of communities who pool income. I don’t expect to convince you that this is the way you ought to live. But I am hoping to convince you that I’m a thoughtful person who embraces income sharing for good reasons, and I’m hoping that you’ll see the potential it holds for pointing the way to attaining a high quality life on a fraction of the resource consumption of the average US citizen—which I believe is the challenge ahead.
Finally, I will note that employment of members by the community raises the whole employee/not equal, member/equal question, which, in my experience, has been a real deal breaker. And is one reason managers are told not to be friends with their subordinates.

Believe me, I understand the dynamic. Yet I’d rather figure out how to do it well—than forbid it because it’s awkward.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Three-Legged Stools in Non-income Sharing Communities

In the clear majority of intentional communities (88-90%), members do not share income. In the overwhelming majority of those, the group takes a hands-off approach with respect to members' personal finances. So long as residents can cover their HOA dues, it's not the community's business. Or is it?

The point of an intentional community is to create a better quality of life for its members through high alignment with common values, through a greater degree of sharing, and through developing an enhanced sense of connection and neighborhood camaraderie. For some, it also a platform from which to do good work in the world—either by modeling a more just and sustainable culture, or by concentrating group resources so that a few individuals can do social change work on behalf of the whole.

Most communities hold sustainability as a common value, which is often translated as being in right relationship with the Earth (certainly a good thing). But it's more than that. It's also right relationship with each other, which is social sustainability. And it's also being in right relationship to the exchange of goods and services, or economic sustainability.

The main point of this essay is that sustainability is a three-legged stool, which does not tend to be stable when one of the legs is missing. Of the three, it's the economic leg that is most often short or wobbly, and that brings me back to the opening paragraph and the fact that most non-income-sharing communities—despite their being intentional about trying to create a better quality of life for their members—tend to ignore the economic component. Whoops!

So how do economics interweave with social and environmental sustainability? Glad you asked. In simple terms, economic sustainability encompasses people making a living by doing things that are aligned with their values and for which everyone involved in the exchange feels is fair (no one's been taken advantage of). This is necessary because it doesn't make much sense to try to meet all of your needs yourself. If your neighbor is a whiz at plumbing and you're a master gardener, it works better all around if she installs your shower and you supply her with carrots and potatoes.

But let's take this further. By living in community you're purposefully living more cooperatively, which means you can collectively own a riding lawn mower and a table saw, obviating the need for everyone to buy their own (or do without). That means you can attain a high quality life without forking over as many dollars (because you can leverage resources through sharing). That means you can either work fewer hours or choose employment that you enjoy more but doesn't pay as well: you're ahead either way. What's more, sharing equates with less resource consumption, which is good for the environment.

Building on this concept (less time spent doing work you don't enjoy), at the end of the day you're not as tired—either because you're working fewer hours or doing more satisfying work. That means you're more fun to be around, less reactive (more resilient), less inclined to have a couple stiff drinks to "unwind," and less likely to hole up in the den with a movie or zone out surfing the web. That means your social life has improved. 

Is it getting clearer how one kind of sustainability impacts another?

Almost all intentional communities wrestle with questions of ecological impact and how to navigate sticky social dynamics. How about strengthening that third leg?

Here's are some ideas of that might look like, to prime the pump: 
o  Budgets could include money set aside to capitalize a loan fund that could be used to help people afford the down payment to buy into the community.

o  The community could conceive of itself as an economic engine, thinking of how its property and facilities are a major asset that could be utilized more fully (without compromising the socially valued uses now in place) to support business ventures with a high value match—perhaps growing open-pollinated or heirloom vegetable seeds instead of lawn; renting the common house dining room on off nights for neighborhood events; devoting a couple of little-used rooms as co-office space for fledgling businesses—complete with high speed internet.

o  Members with entrepreneurial energy could form a support group that helps members create business plans, secure start-up funding, and develop jobs on site for those hoping to walk to work and save on wardrobe. Most communities have a number of people who would like part-time employment (10-20 hours/week) at home with flexible hours at decent wages. (Hint: communities are excellent candidates for flex-time and job sharing—two stay-at-home moms can share one job with the off-duty woman handling childcare for both) Further, community folks tend to be well educated and possess exceptional social skills. Surely the entrepreneurial whiz kids can turn that into a market advantage.

Part of the reason that groups tend to avoid economics is that the need doesn't touch all members. In particular, founders tend to have entrepreneurial talent (starting a business is fairly similar to starting a community) and thus are less likely to need help with their personal finances. Unfortunately, that's not necessarily true for the folks who come later. Not only is that hard to see right away, but it can be awkward focusing group attention on a need that only affects part of the group. Another reason is that it can be difficult for entrepreneurs and non-entrepreneurs to play nice together (see The Entrepreneurial Dilemma for more on this).

I'm not saying that developing models of economic sustainability is easy, but I think they're essential, and have every bit as much right to group attention as the ecological and social. We need that stool to be stable!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

How Communities Value Labor, Revisited

Two days ago I received this thoughtful communication in response to my previous blog Paid Versus Voluntary Labor in Cooperative Culture:

I my view intentional communities are by definition communistic—I mean the real definition, not the politicized one. Everyone brings different skill sets and resources to the table. The problem as I see it is properly valuing these skills. It is sort of reasonable to expect individuals with management skills will end up managing. The problem becomes how do you prevent them from taking over, as seems to always happen in real life communistic societies.

Rotary International does it by changing its leadership every year. This prevents the taking over problem at the cost not having the best leadership every year. This can be somewhat mitigated by having a standing bureaucracy behind the leaders but just moves the "taking over" down a few layers.

This does not address the related problem with other skill sets, as you pointed out. I find it hard to imagine a healthy individual with a high-end skills being willing to support individuals with low value skills, and who may be unhealthy to boot for long periods—unless those individuals can bring something else of value to the table.

My point is that I don't see intentional communities ever being viable on a large scale.

I've extracted two main points from this note, and I'm going to tackle them separately.

1. How do you balance the need for effective leadership (a skill set that's unevenly distributed) with the danger of leaders abusing their power?

The first thing that needs to happen, in my view, is that cooperative groups need to define what kind of leadership they want and what constitutes healthy uses of power. While I don't think this is that hard to accomplish (think servant leadership, and leaders as facilitators), most groups have done neither and the resulting ambiguity has led to all manner of mischief—mainly because we all bring to the cooperative experience a personal history of being damaged by leaders who have abused power and we're guarded against that happening again. While it's good to not be naive, it's a grave problem (because of the tendency to project the sins of past leaders onto current ones) and damn hard to discuss the perception that power has been misused without going thermonuclear.

Leaders need to be held accountable for fulfilling their duties and acting within their authority, yet they also need to be supported and appreciated for their contributions (just like anyone else). Mostly cooperative groups do a miserable job of this, with leaders far more likely to get struck than stroked.

In this brittle and unbalanced environment, taking on leadership roles is not very attractive. (Who wants to wear the shirt with the bulls eye in the middle?) This discourages members from developing their leadership capacity and tends to keep the same people (those with saint-like qualities and/or thick hides) in leadership positions regardless of their openness to sharing the dais.

While I think it's silly to expect everyone to be equally capable of leadership, you can (and should) invest in training members to develop their leadership skills and look for opportunities to give people work appropriate to their capacity and inspiration. I believe we can (and must) develop models of leadership where:
o  Leaders know what qualities are wanted in their position (which, by the way, can vary substantially based on the position)
o  Leaders are evaluated periodically to assess how well they're doing (performance relative to job description)
o  Leaders are celebrated for their accomplishments 

o  Leaders are supported when they're in over their heads
o  The group invests in developing leadership capacity among its membership.

While I appreciate the concern about how badly power has been used by leaders at the national level flying under the banner of communism, I think we first have to develop robust models on the local level and work our way up. Though I hear the skepticism, I'm hopeful of developing dynamic models of democratic engagement based on consensus principles, and then ratcheting up to larger circles.

To be sure, there are a number of challenges to this:

a) Skilled facilitation

Meetings should be run by neutral facilitators; not by committee chairs, board presidents, or dictators for life. There needs to be even-handed access to the agenda and the emphasis needs to be on inclusivity and energetic congruence—rather than on brokering a majority and then ramming it home.

b) Adequate communication skills

This can be worked from both ends. Attention can be paid to reaching people where they are (which includes a variety of formats and ways to engage) and to developing the ability of people to be more articulate, better listeners, and less reactive.

c) Overcoming apathy

How do you keep the average member engaged in group issues—especially when they have little direct say in the outcome? For the most part this is a matter of providing an attractive point of entrée and making it clear how their input is respected and taken into account (this is particularly challenging when their viewpoint does not prevail).

I don't believe that the delegation of power necessarily leads to its abuse, but you need a strong a commitment to: a) collaborative leadership; b) transparency of operation (where everyone is informed of what's happening and why); and c) diffusion of leadership—to the extent that it can be accomplished without sacrificing dynamism or productivity.

Isn't the commitment among intentional communities to value everyone's contributions evenly (or at least heading in that direction) a fatal flaw in terms of modeling a society that works better? That is, how can it possible scale up? Why would people who can command high salaries live in such societies?
That's a fair question. It's one thing to have an ideal (or at least an idea) of moving toward alternative economics by treating equally all labor volunteered by members to the group's well being—regardless of whether that's mopping the kitchen floor, or setting up and troubleshooting a sophisticated website (replete with blog feeds and video clips). But how far can you realistically take that?

How will you entice people who could earn top dollar in the mainstream business world to volunteer their services to the group for an attaboy at the next potluck—which is the same coin offered to those doing the potluck dishes?

The answer is that this choice is not based solely on economics; the reward is social as well. In fact, once you get past the lower levels of Maslovian needs (food, water, shelter, clothing, sex, sleep, safety), the more weight is given to social considerations. People enjoy making contributions in support of others, in recognition of friendship, for the good of the tribe. This is not martyrdom or idealistic zealotry; it's identification with the group, and doing one's part. Further, the more that the individual receives in the way of recognition, a sense of belonging, and security, the more they're prone to give. It feels good.

To what extent does it make sense for the strong to take care of the weak (a catchall that includes those with low paying skills, the infirm, those prone to sickness, the depressed, etc)? Well, how about asking that the other way around: what sense does it make to build a society that throws people under the bus if they can't answer the bell?

While I'm not advocating that weakness be rewarded, it seems inhumane to ignore it or to respond solely with tough love. It seems to me that a compassionate society needs to guarantee that everyone's basic needs will be met, while still finding ways to honor initiative, productivity, and reliability. It's a balancing act.

On the societal level, there is a point to be made about how cultures have choices about how the cost of education relates to compensation. In the US, for example, doctors and lawyers are highly paid professionals, which at least in part is justified by high schooling costs. In cultures with more state subsidized education (for example, Cuba and Russia) doctors and lawyers are still important professions and command a decent salary—just not an indecent salary. And this has nothing to do with the quality of the training or the skills of the practitioners. Thus, how the state allocates funds has an impact on wage differentials.

As a final note, do you really want people making vocational choices principally based on the size of the jackpot once they're licensed? Is that a world you want to live in? Is that a doctor you'd want to trust your health to, or a lawyer whose advice you'd seek for the health of your trust? Think about it.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Paid Versus Volunteer Labor in Cooperative Culture

When intentional communities start out, there is generally no end of the work and limited funds to hire its completion. If the group survives its start-up, then it will eventually transition from the hurly-burly rush of Pioneer Phase into the more measured pace of Settler Phase, where the unending punch list of things that needed to be done yesterday has finally been tamed and the group begins to taste of what "normal" means. Then things get interesting.

In the salad days, everything is typically accomplished through volunteerism fueled by idealistic zeal and the unbridled enthusiasm of the newly converted. Over time, however, that predictably wanes. Staying up into the night scrubbing god-knows-what off the walls of the used house trailer you've purchased (for a song) to handle overflow housing during your construction pushes no longer seems like fun. Now you want to pay someone to shovel snow off the solar panels so that you can spend the evening with your family and friends watching Bones.

Here's what you can predict will characterize a built community:

A. While everyone had to meet a certain minimum standard of financial wherewithal in order to catch the bottom rung of the ladder, over time the range of financial positions among members will tend to widen (some will feel flush and some will feel flushed). What happens is that life intervenes, and everyone is not dealt the same cards.

Some residents will retire and be managing on a fixed income. Others will see their income climb as their careers advance, kids graduate from college, and the mortgage gets paid off. Some will lose their jobs, and will be scrambling to meet their HOA dues. Others have trust funds and never worry about money. It's a mixed bag.

If you have money, then time tends to be the limiting factor. If you're underemployed, then labor is abundant and dollars are dear.

B. Almost all groups ask residents to contribute volunteer labor to the betterment of the community. Sometimes it's quantified; sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's recorded; sometimes it's on the honor system. But everyone is encouraged to have their oar in the water.

It's tricky setting a target for hours/month because:
o  People's availability and capacity for contributing are all over the map.
o  You don't want to set a minimum that's so high that many residents will struggle to meet it.
o  You don't want to set a maximum because it's an advantage to have residents contribute extra if they're inclined (Caution: That said, you don't want martyrs—people working beyond the expected amount and then complaining about it).
o  You don't want a large gap between those contributing least and those contributing most because it leads to guilt and feeling taken advantage of.

To the extent that community labor is about getting the work done (saving the group the expense of hiring), it makes no difference whether residents do the work themselves or pay someone else to do it for them. However, that's not the whole picture. To the extent possible (through work days and project teams) groups also promote working together, to build esprit de corps and enhance connections. Paying someone else to cover your work shift doesn't help with that.

On the one hand, the pay or play option with regard to work expectations provides flexibility, such that residents can protect whichever resource—time or money—is most precious to them. On the other, it allows an easy out for the well to do, undercutting camaraderie and the we're-all-in-this-together attitude that prevailed during Pioneer Days.

C. Despite B, there is always more work that's needed (or at least desired) than there is resident labor that's sufficiently available, skilled, and motivated to cover it. While outside hiring is a no brainer for some jobs (because the work is so odious—pumping out the septic tank; so skilled—structural engineering for the common house trusses; or so esoteric—teaching tae bo to the teens and tweens) there will almost certainly be some amount of desired work that is not covered by volunteerism yet residents are capable of covering. 

This naturally leads to the idea of hiring internally to cover the shortfall. In fact, it may be a preference to do so (why support strangers over neighbors?) To be sure, there is predictable awkwardness about simultaneously being: a) on equal footing with someone as a fellow resident in the community; and b) in an employer/employee relationship in the context of the hired work. But let's suppose you've figured all that out. There's still a further problem: hiring erodes enthusiasm for volunteering.

Once residents start getting paid, why would anyone contribute above and beyond as a volunteer? Work that people were willing to do for free when everyone was volunteering, suddenly becomes drudgery if money is available for labor and you're not getting any.

The tone shifts from "Let's pull together and get this done" to "Just do your expected hours and then start filling out invoices for anything beyond that." And it gets worse. There is often not enough funding to cover all the desired work not being covered by volunteers, which leads to tenderness around why some work gets paid and other work doesn't. When there was no money for internal compensation, there was little squabbling; now that there's money, there's bickering.

Here are some questions that will need to be addressed if you travel down this road:

o  How (and by whom) will it be decided which jobs get paid, and which will have to wait for additional funding?
o  Should all work done by residents by paid the same (analogous to the way volunteer labor is valued), paid market rate, or something in between?

o  How will you maintain a culture of volunteerism in the face of increased remuneration for community work?

o  Will you be able to hold residents accountable as employees (in ways that are nearly impossible when every is a volunteer)?

Ironically, in an effort to move toward economic sustainability, hiring community members can place considerable pressure on social sustainability.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Inequalities in Feminist Culture

For groups that embrace cooperative leadership—where there is reliance on the wisdom of the whole, instead of that of a single person or council of elders—the ideal is feminist culture, by which I mean a commitment to gender equality and a basic belief that all humans have the same inherent worth regardless of productivity, skills, or sagacity, and that everyone should have a voice in decisions affecting them.

That said, it is demonstrably not true that everyone has the same talent or proficiency at accomplishing what the group needs to maintain its health or to pursue its mission. In short, there is a sense in which everyone is equal… and a sense in which everyone isn't. It gets confusing.

While it's all well an good to strive for a level playing field, not everyone's interested in doing the work to close the gaps between where they are and those ahead of them, and there are some delicate questions around how much of the group's resources should go toward eliminating inequalities—not the least of which is because you'll never get there. 

Please don't misunderstand me. I think investing in capacity building and personal growth are excellent ideas. I'm only saying that there are too many ways in which people are different and no amount of ideological purity or tour de force training will result in a membership comprised of interchangeable parts. While that observation is not very profound, my experience has been that cooperative groups rarely act as if they fully understand that.

Sure, groups get it that all members are not competent auto mechanics, crackerjack facilitators, or gourmet chefs. (For that matter not everyone is that wonderful at scrubbing floors or balancing a checkbook, either.) And there are some distinctions between members that are relatively easy to acknowledge and discus openly:
o  Size
o  Strength
o  Discretionary Time
o  Education & Training
o  Credentials

Other distinctions, however, are a bit trickier. All the following topics could be: a) straight forward to acknowledge; b) somewhat obscure; or c) controversial to interpret:
Physical Health
o  Wealth
o  Experience
o  Skill
o  Privilege

Last, there is there are subjects that members rarely discuss openly, and can even feel offended that you asked about:
o  Mental Health
o  Power 
o  Counseling History
o  Family Challenges
o  Financial Challenges
o  Addictions
o  Personal History with Abuse

Notice that there is no particular correlation between the tenderness of the topic and the likelihood that it will be a factor in group dynamics. My main point in this essay is that there are a number of important ways in which people are reliably different, yet most cooperative groups do not have a clear sense of how to explore these differences, or even an agreement that they should be discussed at all. They just hold their breath and hope for the best.

It's crippling to be actively working toward a goal of equality among members when there are significant differences that are off limits. If you can't discuss them, how will you determine how large they are (or even how large the range of opinions is about the size of the gap), what those differences mean, or what you want to do about them (if anything)?

To be sure, these taboo topics are subjects we've been conditioned to consider private—things we share only with intimate friends and partners. Yet they still impact the group, and if you're serious about working sensitively with differences, then you need to be able to develop a sense of what constitutes healthy inequalities and what are differences that erode the group's cohesion and effectiveness. 

The challenge is whether you have the awareness, courage, and maturity to be able to explore assessments of inequalities wherever they occur relative to group function. I'm not saying that there is a "right" way to handle differences; I'm saying that whistling in the dark and pretending that they don't exist doesn't work.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Facilitating Conflict

I recently worked with Heartwood, a cohousing community in Bayfield CO, where I was asked to reach them skills for working with conflict. In addition to presenting theory and a demonstration, they were keenly interested in learning how to facilitate conflict (after all, I was leaving on Monday). Liking what they saw me do Saturday, they asked me to break it down for them Sunday morning—which was a perfectly reasonable request. Here are a dozen concepts to keep in mind:

1. Contact Statements 
This is the ability to offer a Cliff's Notes version of what the person just said, to establish that you have understood the essence of it. Repetition is mostly motivated by people not being sure they've been heard, and effective contact statements can drastically reduce repetition. That said, they're not needed all the time. Here are four reasons it might be the thing to do:

a) The speaker has an unusual way of putting information together or expressing themselves and either you are unsure that you got the meaning right, or that others are. A contact statement can nip misunderstandings in the bud.

b) The speaker went on at length and people may have trouble holding all the points that were made or distilling them from a rambling presentation.

c) The speaker is in distress. To the extent that they feel isolated, a contact statement helps establish that you heard them accurately, thereby contradicting the isolation and helping the person deescalate.

d) The speaker is known to be prone to repetition. A contact statement can be a preemptive strike, undercutting the basis for repletion before it occurs.

2. Free Attention
For most of us it's hard to keep one's focus on what others are saying. There is a tendency to space out, or to have your attention drift to something else, which might be tangentially related to the conversation (but not the current topic) or something of interest to you yet not necessarily related to anyone or anything else in the room. The concept of free attention is being able to discipline yourself to track well what's happening in current conversation. This includes the meaning of the spoken words, the tone of the words, the body language, how the communication is landing with others, what the undercurrents are that have not yet been named, where this conversation seems to be headed and whether you're going to want to go there, etc. There's a lot going on, and you need as much free attention as possible track well.

The bad news is that most of us are weak at this. The good news is that you can train yourself to get better at it.

3. Walk in the Speaker's Moccasins
To the extent possible, when working conflict try to be the speaker and experience what they experienced. This is not parroting or mimicking so much as dreaming into their experience; picturing yourself as them and what that feels like. This is particularly helpful when trying to Get the affect right [see #5 below].

Caution: Are you at risk of losing your sense of self when you empathize? While I don't have this issue, Ma'ikwe (my wife and process partner) does, and is therefore cautious about taking this step very far.

4. Concise Summaries
When giving contact statements or summaries of where we are in the conversation, it's important that you be accurate, yet spare of words. The less air time taken up by the facilitator the better (it is, after all, not about you). The danger is losing momentum or the tenderness of the moment. Even though no one is particularly inspired by long-winded facilitators, concision is often the last skill learned (if learned at all).

5. Get the Affect Right
When trying to connect to people in distress it's essential that your reflection capture the feeling of their experience, not just get the "facts" right. Even when facilitators understand the importance of this step, there is a common tendency to be cautious about leaning into the feelings for fear of: a) triggering escalation in a person already upset; or b) coming across as taking one person's side over another. With respect to the first point, the reverse is true: if you get the affect right—showing up fully in expressing the emotional experience—distressed people feel less isolated and start to deescalate. On the second point, you will not get in trouble (by which I mean compromise your neutrality) if you extend the same strength of connection to other players as well.

Note #1: In the interest of concision and getting the affect right, don't be afraid to use different words than the speaker to get to the essence. If you're off the mark, they'll tell you.

Note #2: In order to reach people accurately on the emotional plane you need to develop sufficient range of expression. In broad terms you have to get big to meet rage, and need to get tender and soft to hold tears. Typically one end of the range is easier for people to access than the other, so you may need to work at developing your weaker end.

6. Be Curious
In general, when dynamics get stuck it follows a sequence something like this:
a) Person X did (or did not) or said (or didn't say) something and Person Y had a negative reaction.
b) Person Y lets Person X know about their reaction and Person X has a reaction to that.
c) Neither felt heard by the other, and feeling heard is a precondition for deescalating.
d) Since each has a story about being aggrieved, each is waiting for the other to make the first conciliatory gesture; when that doesn't happen the dynamic is stalemated (with each convinced it's mainly the other person's fault).

Curiosity is the way out. Thus, in the example above, you can go back to the moment when Person Y had their initial reaction and walk them through it ("OK, you noticed you had a bad reaction to what Person X did, and you couldn't understand why they made that choice. Rather than assuming it was because they were out to get you or didn't give a shit about you, let's find out how they saw it." That is, you can showcase how to get more information before dumping a reaction on someone.

Going the other way, you can walk Person X through their options when Person Y gives them critical feedback. Instead of defending their action, they could start by making sure that they understand why their action landed poorly for Person Y.

7. Be Willing to Follow a Vein
When you're in productive territory it's a good idea to mine all the ore. Here are the things that characterize such moments: 

o  People are sharing crucial things they haven't shared before (at least not with that person)
o  People are getting softer rather than more rigid
o  People are reporting insight, or accepting responsibility for what didn't work
o  People are expressing genuine caring for others
o  The emergence of tears

The flip side of this is knowing when you have a dry hole and it's time to shift the focus elsewhere.

8. Go Where Needed
That may mean staying on topic, or shifting the focus to something more profound. This guidance is about following the juice, and does not mean exploring every instance of awkwardness. Your object is turning a corner, not resolving all instances of unresolved difficult moments.

9. Develop One's Intuition
In addition to developing free attention, good facilitators develop an instinct for where the conversation should go, or what should be named. While instincts are not always insightful or productive (any more than thoughts are), you need courage to facilitate conflict and to be willing to trust your instinct.

Caution: That said, don't fight for your viewpoints. No matter how brilliant you believe your analysis or summary to be, if there isn't buy in from the protagonists, you should back out gracefully.

10. Look for Parallels
In conflict the protagonists almost always feel poorly understood by the other protagonists. If you find ways that the players had similar experiences, similar stories, or care about similar things, then pointing this out is often helpful in deescalating the dynamics—it has the potential to establish a bridge between them that was not visible before.

Hint: Parallels are actually common, and if you're alert to the possibility of their existence you'll be more likely to see them.

11. Keep the Examination Specific and Contained
Quite often, the relationship history between protagonists is complicated, especially if things have been allowed to fester for a while. The examination can easily snowball into something unworkable if you allow the protagonists to expand the consideration to include every incident that has ever gone badly between them.

With this in mind you want to invite the protagonists to select a single dynamic that is representative of what hasn't been working well, with the idea that if we can resolve tensions in conjunction with one incident, then we can subsequently do another and another until no more need to be addressed. Thus, you generally want to keep the players focused on the selected incident and not diffuse the focus by allowing them to introduce the complications of other hurts from other situations.

The one caveat here is that sometimes the protagonists select the wrong incident and the examination makes clear that there is another, deeper incident that is a better focus. In that case it may be wiser to switch to that (a la the point made above in Go Where Needed).

12. Deflect Analysis of Others
While you want a full statement of each person's story and their feelings, you are not interested in their analysis of why the other person did what they did, which is highly likely to be inflammatory and unhelpful. Often, when working conflict your strategy is to honor completely each protagonist's story and their emotional experience, while offering a plausible, alternative explanation that is not damning of the other person(s).