Sunday, May 24, 2015

Catching Lightning in a Bottle

My primary imprinting in sports metaphors came from my father. In fact, it was one of the few things that we consistently enjoyed doing together throughout our tempestuous relationship—watching sports and talking about sports. 

[As readers of this blog will know, I love metaphors, and this entry will be my semi-annual indulgence in the fathomless richness and depth of sports metaphor. I have a few dedicated readers who tell me they can't understand a single thing I'm saying when I do this. If you are among them, hit delete now.]

Catching lightning in a bottle refers to some improbable achievement (the biblical equivalent is getting a camel through the eye of a needle). Like Joe DiMaggio hitting safely in 56 straight games in 1941, or Wilt the Stilt burning the New York Knicks for 100 points in 1962.

It comes to mind because, for the second time in three years, my beloved San Francisco Giants swept the dog-ass Dodgers three games at home, without allowing them to score a single run. While it's borderline amazing that I saw this happen once in my lifetime, it absolutely boggles the mind to grok that I've seen it happen twice. (See They Could Be Giants for more on the first time.) In fact, it's the second time this month that their pitching staff has served up nothing but goose eggs for three straight games. As Harry Carey would have put it, "Holy cow!"

(As an aside, the finale featured the third dream pairing this season of last year's World Series MVP, Giants ace Madison Bumgarner, going against last year's National League MVP, Dodger ace Clayton Kershaw, and the Giants have won all three contests. How sweet it is.)

What does this all mean? Hard to say. The reality is that the Giants lost their popular third baseman, Pablo "Kung-fu Panda" Sandoval (he of the roly poly physique, nimble hands, and freewheeling swing) to free agency and the Boston Red Sox in the off season and haven't been able to manifest a serious bat to replace him in their light-hitting lineup. Plus, it's an odd year and the Giants' good fortune has (so far) only aligned for post-season success in even years (having won the World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014). So, as auspicious as back-to-back-to-back shutouts are, who knows where this will lead. Even after the sweep, the Giants were still a game-and-a-half back of the Dodgers in the National League West, so plenty of work remains and we're only at the quarter pole.

To illustrate how quirky the vicissitudes of baseball are, picture this: immediately after the sublime performance by the Giants' pitching staff that held Los Angeles to oh for Baghdad by the Bay, the team traveled to Colorado and prevailed 11-8 and 10-8 in back-to-back slugfests in the bandbox that is Coors Field, where shutouts are as hard to come by as potato seed. It's a strange game.

I wish my father were around to share this with, but at least I have my son. Like my father before him, Ceilee is a dyed-in-the-wool Cardinal fan (who are doing well in the NL Central, thank you), but we can unite in our love for baseball, as well as our distaste for the dog-ass Dodgers.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Conflicting Views about Conflict

Over the course of my 28 years as a process consultant, I've had plenty of time to observe and develop my thinking about what conflict represents in a group context, and how to respond to it constructively in the dynamic moment. In fact, I'm called on to bring that skill into play in about about half the jobs I get as a process consultant. So I've had a lot of time in the saddle riding that particular bucking bronco.

Recently I had an exchange about conflict with an experienced communitarian who maintained that it was possible for conflicted parties to simply agree to stop brooding over unresolved past hurts, put it behind them, and start from scratch. I was gobsmacked that anyone could think that would work. In my 41 years of community living, I'd never seen that happen (In fact, I was thinking it was for more likely that protagonists would continue to scratch each others' eyes out).

The key piece of data in the last paragraph is that the parties were still brooding, and that it was leaking into current interactions. I accept that it's possible for a conflict to not resolve well when it occurs, yet both parties can independently work through it to the point of accepting partial responsibility for what went awry, and truly put it behind them. But I've never see that approach work when both parties were continuing to feed the monkey, keeping the negative stories alive. (Brooding works fine for hatching chickens, but not so well in people hoping to put conflict in the rear view mirror.)

How could this happen? It's not unusual for two parties who are deadlocked to view the other party as wholly at fault, and the stalemate exists mainly because both are too stubborn to admit their role in where things went south. In the worst cases, both sides may think that their actions were fully justified as a matter of high principle, and you can wait until hell freezes over before anyone makes a first move. 

This is, in my experience, where outside help can often make a big difference. Both sides feel misunderstood and object strenuously to the assignment (by the other) of bad intent. Each is eager that their view of events be recognized by the other as a precondition to listening to the views of the other side, and the protagonists never get out of the starting gate.

The advantage that outside facilitators (or mediators) have is that they don't have a dog in the fight, and are thus well positioned to listen to everyone. (In the end, it won't matter who went first; only that both felt heard.) Further, if Person A is conflicted with Person B and there's low trust between them there's a tendency for Person A to be suspicious of Person B's motivation in asking about their experience (do they really want to know, or are they just looking for me to expose myself for further attack?).

After decades of witnessing and participating in conflicted group dynamics, I believe that the largest hurdle to overcome is admitting that you're stuck and being open to accepting offers of assistance. I believe that resistance is due to a number of factors, any combination of which may be in play:

a) Lack of clarity about whether you're stuck
When in the soup, it can be hard telling whether you're entrenched or just embattled—where a modest amount of additional effort might lead to a breakthrough. Hint: if you notice that one or both parties are starting to cycle through the same statements or stories, it's probably time to put the shovel down and quit trying to dig yourself out of the hole.

b) Pride
Many people (or groups) hold the view that either they don't get hooked by conflict (very much), or that they they're perfectly capable of working through it on their own. In that environment, admitting that you need help can be a serious blow to one's ego, and there's a tendency to suppress it.
 
c) Embarrassment
For a number of us, admitting you need outside help can be like airing dirty laundry—something you'd rather do only in the privacy of your own backyard. Showing outsiders where you've stumbled might not match up well with your mission statement. (Remember that part where you told the world that you'd be a model of sustainable social dynamics and creative problem solving?)

d) Lack of history with conflict going well
Most of us have had precious few personal experiences of conflict work going well. Cooperative theory notwithstanding, it's not easy to gear up for the possibility of volcanic venting or no-holds-barred teeth gnashing if your belly is doing flip-flops.

The good news is that there a number of ways to approach conflict that can help you out of the ditch—but none of them are very effective if can't admit that you're off the road when you up to your knees in ditch water.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Facilitation That's Neutral Enough

Today's blog comes from the mailbag. A reader wrote:

I've been struggling quite a bit living in the housing cooperative that I've been a part of for the last five years. While the group means a lot to me—I have been shaped by and have shaped it in big ways over the years—I've been experiencing a cornucopia of feelings that sum up in, "I just can't live here anymore." It's not good for my mental health. That said, I'm a process and co-op junkie. I want to fix everything and save the world through co-ops and awesome meetings, and I think I'm one of the better facilitators in the group. Because my community is struggling through a cultural shift and turnover of members and important officer positions, I feel I need to be there to help.

While working through my own internal conflicts a friend said to me yesterday: "You can't put on your skills hat when you're trying to deal with all your emotions hats." While I initially wanted to correct that to, "It's hard to put on the skills hat and emotions hats at the same time," I suspect I might just be pushing myself too hard or neglecting self care.

I was hoping you might be able to help me out by talking about navigating those times when our co-op badassery is overlapping with our psychological and emotional needs. Can a person honestly try to be the leader/facilitator of an issue that is so very close to home and possibly directly triggering to them?

I want to answer this differently for someone engaging as a leader and someone engaging as a facilitator. While there is overlap, they are not the same thing.

How Leaders Relate to Cooperative Group Issues
Leadership comes in many flavors, some of which include advocacy (for what you think is in the group's best interest) and transparency (demonstrating that you—just like everyone else—are a human being with feelings that you are willing to express and own).

That said, good leaders are able to both articulate their views and their reactions (if they have any) and then make room for the views and reactions of others. To be sure, this calls for a considerable degree of self-awareness, and may call for the leader, on their own, to find their center again if reactivity has knocked them off it (which is no small skill).

Beyond that (safeguarding the full and open expression of all relevant viewpoints on a topic—especially if those views diverge from theirs), leaders are also expected to help the group find solutions that balance all the input.

In short, leaders are expected to simultaneously care about the direction of the conversation (what the group decides) and the quality of the conversation (how the group decides). At any given time, one of those two concerns may claim more of the leader's attention than the other, yet both may be in play.

How Facilitators Relate to Cooperative Group Issues
While no doubt you can "honestly try" anything, I dis-recommend attempting to facilitate any issue where you identify as a major stakeholder or know you are likely to be triggered by what comes up in the examination. That's because it's important for the facilitator to be acting from a content-neutral and participant-neutral place, the better to be everyone's ally in speaking their truth. In addition, the facilitator needs to be present and connecting to people when they are in distress in a meeting, and it's damn hard to reach out to others when you are in distress.

The facilitator's role is all about how the group does its work, and they need to be as egoless as possible in service to that objective. That does not mean being passive, but it does mean being scrupulous about being even-handed and careful not to exceed their authority when being firm.

In the ideal, the facilitator is disinterested in the outcome of an issue, and their work is wholly focused on efficiency, inclusivity, completeness, and connection—all of which may be compromised if an issue is "very close to home and possibly triggering."

If Superman Doesn't Live in Your House
Now let's take this another step. What is neutral enough when assigning a facilitator to a particular agenda? After all, it rarely happens that a candidate is completely neutral. Essentially, the test is in the performance. Do meeting participants feel that the facilitator is manipulating the conversation in a certain direction, steering things toward a viewpoint favored by the facilitator (and perhaps undisclosed)? Do participants experience the facilitator misreading the group by virtue of being in reaction?

Fortunately, some modest amount of preference or reactivity related to an issue can often be acknowledged and set aside, allowing the person to be a fair and effective facilitator. So it's a judgment call when bias is acceptable and when it isn't.

Now let's add an additional complexity. What if you recognize that you're not neutral on an issue yet don't think there's anyone else sufficiently skilled or neutral that's a better choice than you? 

Here are three options for how you might proceed:

a) Get an outside facilitator, perhaps someone from a neighboring cooperative (where they do a meeting for you and then one of your facilitators does a meeting for them).

b) Facilitate with a buddy who is not a stakeholder on the issue and is poised to take over the reins if they sense you're drifting towrad advocacy or going into reaction.

c) Volunteer to facilitate, owning your bias up-front, asking if the group is willing to try it. If they decline the offer, step back gracefully. If they accept, you've at least alerted them to the slant and will help you watch for signs of slippage (because you're coming across as biased against people with views that differ from yours) or misreading the situation (because you're distracted by your reaction).

Remember: the prime directive here is not that the facilitator be superman (or superwoman), where they do it all themselves and never make a mistake; it's that you have a good meeting.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Group Works: Balance Structure and Flexibility

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 Flow segment there are 15 cards. The second pattern in this category is labeled Balance Structure and Flexibility. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card: 


Structures, such as a clear agenda, time limits, or raising hands before speaking, can create safety, focus, and a form for the group's energy to pour into. Yet to sustain the life of a group, this must be balanced with a great openness to change, dancing between the two as needed.

I find this to be one of the more profound patterns, because it calls upon groups to be self aware at a deep level. Many cooperative groups start out with the bright hope of equality and everyone having an equal voice, but it's more complicated than that.

This pattern hinges on understanding how there's always tension between structure and flexibility. What is liberating to high-structure folks (because they know where they stand and what's expected of them) is a straight jacket to low-structure people (who want to emphasize what's best under the circumstances and avoid pounding square pegs into rounds holes).

The image above combines the flexibility and flow of a river with the structure of stepping stones. That said, the image unfortunately suggests that structure is crosswise with flow (as opposed to operating in concert with it) and that the structure is what defines the way ahead, with the river as an obstacle. Perhaps a better image would be a portage where structure is relied upon to safely bypass turbulence—where the flow is dangerous, or at least unnavigable—with the clear understanding that you'll get back in the water and the end of the portage.

In mature groups of 12+ members there will be sensitivity to the reality that both high-structure and low-structure people will be present, and you need to find the balance point. The low-structure folks will need to be brought along to embrace some structure, both because it's hard on the high-structure folks to be working constantly without a net, and because experience makes clear the cost of ambiguity. The key here is that the structure is put in place by the people expected to operate within it—that is, you're doing it to yourself, rather than having it done to you.

In turn, the high-structure people need to settle for a workable outline, where the t's are not all crossed and the i's not all dotted. This allows for individual discretion about how best to apply the spirit of agreements. As the text says above, it's a dance.

Now let's drill down on other portions of the text: 

Structures, such as a clear agenda, time limits, or raising hands before speaking
I squirm a bit with these examples, which are all relatively lightweight. That is, you can be excellent at all three and it won't guarantee passage to heaven (by which I mean a great meeting). In the context of plenaries, deeper structures would be how you tackle issues, discipline about the relationship between the plenary and committees, how you work with emotional distress, and sophistication about mixing up formats to help make meetings more accessible.
 
Time limits
This is a subset of the prior point. While I'm all in favor of developing a meeting culture that respects time and expects participants to speak concisely and on topic, I worry about being a slave to time assignments. Too often I've seen groups chop off a conversation prematurely simply because they were at the end of the allotted time—not because they were at a natural pause point. Better, I think, is for the facilitator to keep a close watch on the time overall, but not belabor whether a particular topic or phase of the conversation is running long. Providing only that the group is being productive, inclusive, and efficient, at the end of the day it will not matter whether a particular consideration took 30 minutes or 40 minutes; it will only matter whether the group felt good about the product (in relation to the time spent to get it) and that the meeting ended on time.

 —To sustain the life of a group, this must be balanced with a great openness to change.  
I'm concerned that this advice may be misconstrued to favor the less structured, where readers are admonished to be open to experimenting with process agreements regardless of how well the old ones are working. Or to be open to the wonder of a solution chosen once being changed on the next occasion that similar conditions arise. Rather, I prefer the interpretation that both high-structure and low-structure people need to be open to change: the high-structure in the sense that precedent may not count for much (because no two sets of circumstances are ever exactly the same); low-structure in the sense that operating underneath general agreements about behavior may be anathema to their anarchistic and/or creative bent. In short, it requires that all members grok that decisions about the relative degree of structure must reflect a balance of what's best for the group—which is not necessarily the same thing as adding up everyone's personal preference and then plotting the arithmetic mean.


This balancing act is not so much a science as an art form, where you'll know you're in the right territory when everyone feels the stretch, yet everyone can still breathe.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Love That Survives Divorce Redacted

Yesterday I posted an entry that described a tender and (for me) healing exchange with my ex-wife, Ma'ikwe. Though I had a very positive experience of what I wrote about, Ma'ikwe had a bad reaction to my sharing what for her was strictly a private exchange.

While I thought what we'd been able to accomplish would be helpful (even inspiring) for others to hear (which is really the point of this blog), she felt exposed and has asked my to stop writing about her. While I'm saddened by this request, I will honor it.

Thus I took down what I posted yesterday and will no longer write about Ma'ikwe. I have caused her pain enough.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Sandhill Turns 41

Today Sandhill Farm is hosting its annual May Day party, which is a tri-communities all-skate gala marking the anniversary of its birth in 1974, the pagan holiday of Beltane, and the fullness of spring.

Last year, I was on a leave of absence from Sandhill, exploring living with my wife at Dancing Rabbit (though we’d been married since 2007, we had not ever lived together, and my willingness to make that move was an integral part of her decision to rescind her request for a divorce the previous July). As Dancing Rabbit is only three miles distant from Sandhill, I had no trouble making over for the May Day. I remember last year’s festivities for all the storytelling on our 40th birthday, which included a number of ex-members returning for the occasion. It was a happy day.

Today, I think back on a year ago with wistfulness, sadness, and wonder. So much has changed. I’m typing this on board the westbound Cardinal (Amtrak’s train #51) as it limps toward Chicago more than eight hours behind schedule. I’ve long since missed my connection to the California Zephyr, which pulled out of Chicago at 2 pm without me. As I look outside the window, the green in the trees is right (spring is here!), but I’m missing the party back in Rutledge. Sandhill set the date after I’d made plans to visit Annie in Virginia and Betty in Denver with no stopover in Missouri in between.

I let go of my Sandhill membership when Ma’ikwe and I recommitted to our marriage last July, on the one-year anniversary of her first decision to end it. Though that represented a big change (letting go of Sandhill after 40 years) it felt right at the time and I have no regrets choosing love over home. And then it all unraveled. Ma’ikwe decided this February that ending our marriage was the right thing after all, and Sandhill decided it would be better for all concerned if I didn’t return.

So on this May Day I am reflecting on all that I have left behind in Rutledge, and find it somewhat amusing that while everyone else is celebrating, I’ll be alone in a hotel room in Chicago, courtesy of Amtrak because of the botched connection to my second train. Last evening, in West Virginia (somewhere between Thurmond and Montgomery, alongside the banks of the New River) our engine hit a tree that had fallen on the tracks and managed to burst an air hose. That meant no brakes, which, in turn, meant no movement. It took many hours to manifest a replacement freight engine to effect our rescue, with the result that everyone’s connections in Chicago had no chance today.

Once out of our designated time corridor, we were subject to additional delays to let freight trains pass, and we even had a stop at a crossroads for a medical emergency, where a passenger having trouble breathing was met by an ambulance. It’s been quite a trip so far and I’ve still got an 18-hour sojourn to Denver awaiting tomorrow.

For as far back as I can remember, on the night of Sandhill’s May Day Party it would be my job to tend the fire for the sweet lodge. But not this year. Instead, I’m sweating how to make it up to Betty, whose time with me will be almost cut in half by my missed connection.

I tell people they shouldn’t take the train if they’re in a hurry, and today I get to learn that lesson one more time. Tonight, at my hotel, at least I’ll have the time to raise a glass to toast Sandhill in absentia. I wish them well.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Hasenpfeffer!

When I was in high school, I took German as a foreign language. Though I've never lived in Germany I've gotten to visit it twice over the years and I've always had a fondness for German culture as the dominant cultural element of my parental lineage.

Being a foodie, I also have an affinity for German cuisine. Think sauerbraten, wienerschnitzel, sausage and sauerkraut, spätzle, and spätlese—not to mention beer. I also grew up in the '50s, and that meant untold hours in front of the television set watching Saturday morning cartoons. In addition to the Road Runner and Tom & Jerry, there was plenty of Bugs Bunny & Elmer Fudd.

If you'll recall, Elmer was always trying to protect his garden and Bugs was invariably successful in finding a way to extract the carrots despite Elmer's best efforts on defense. In some episodes a big deal was made of recipes for hasenpfeffer, which is a German dish featuring rabbit (hasen=hare + pfeffer=pepper; essentially rabbit stew). Of course, Elmer was thinking of featuring Bugs as the main course. Though that never happened, "hasenpfeffer" entered my working vocabulary at an early age.

Tonight, for the first time, I'm actually going to eat it. I'm visiting my good friend, Annie Shrader in Floyd VA this week and she pulled a rabbit out of the hat freezer for the occasion. It was my job to figure out how to cook it. We quickly agreed that the crock pot was the way to go, and the rabbit is stewing even as I type.

As I understand it, any dish comprised of rabbit, onions, spices, and a marinade qualifies as hasenpfeffer. Tonight's culinary concoction relies on tomatoes, garlic, rosemary, tarragon, pinot grigio, and plenty of fresh ground black pepper. Yum!

It's fun pioneering a new recipe, and I can't wait for Annie's next rabbit, when I can try a hasenpfeffer variation that incorporates, cabernet sauvignon, currant jelly, and bacon. (How can you go wrong?)

Bon appétit!