As a professional consultant in group dynamics I rarely get asked to work with a group when everything is going fine. Usually they're leaking oil, have a busted leaf spring, or can't seem to shift into third gear—and are hoping for inexpensive repairs from me, the itinerant shade tree mechanic.
First of all, it can be awkward admitting (to a stranger, no less!) that your group has troubles that it's not able to navigate on its own. For most of us that's a humbling admission.
One of the most important milestones in the history of my community (of 40 years), Sandhill Farm, was when we started asking outside facilitators to guide our annual winter retreats—where we'd set aside 4-5 days to conduct strategic planning; take a deep look at unhealthy patterns; and/or try out a new way of relating to each other based on the skill set and training of the facilitator. Unfortunately, it took us more than 15 years to start that tradition—to admit that we needed help. Up until then we relied solely on ourselves, and it was a bumpy ride.
But let's suppose you're past that hurdle. In general, the most complicated situations I encounter feature tension that's triggered by current events—yet is mainly fueled by a historic pattern of unresolved distress. In a blink, once the old pattern gets evoked the group enters gridlock, with frustration and despair souring the air. Not pretty.
So let's break down what's happening. Yes, it's complex, but it's not brain surgery. For the purpose of putting flesh on the bones let's say that the old dynamic centers around long-term member Dale, and the pattern is that Dale is all-too-often late in offering input on plenary topics (maybe Dale misses meetings, maybe he/she doesn't always read the minutes, maybe it takes Dale a while to formulate his/her thoughts). Suppose that some version of this has been going on for years and there have been a number of attempts to articulate the pattern and why it's problematic, yet the behavior persists. That's the back story.
The Presenting TriggerIn the most intriguing cases, the surface issue is compelling in its own right, and the groan response from the group can be baffling to Dale. (Why is everyone being so reactive to my germane comments?)
The key here is understanding that Dale is looking at one thing (the relevance of his/her input) while others have their attention on its tardiness. Dale feels disrespected by so many cold shoulders; the group feels disrespected by Dale (again) not contributing in a timely way. Both of these views can be examined and worked with, though not simultaneously.
The Dysfunctional Pattern
While some groups are not that stout when it comes to members giving each other constructive feedback (to be fair, it's a difficult skill to master), let's suppose that the group is ahead of the curve and is pretty good at it, and that serious attempts have been made to illuminate the dynamic for Dale. However, if the pattern persists for any length of time and the group feels that it's made reasonable efforts to try to turn it around, it won't take long before the group will gradually give up on Dale, expecting bad behavior—to the point that they might not even hear Dale's input; they'll just proceed immediately to "Here we go again" and "Wouldn't we all be better off if Dale would just shut up?" Not good.
The key point is that if the dynamic goes unresolved then it tends to continue to deteriorate. In addition to having problems with Dale, now there is a tendency on the part of others to not hear Dale, which undercuts the community's commitment to inclusivity and working with the input of all. Uh oh.
If this persists further, the group will start to be both irritated with Dale for coming in late and for failing to work with the feedback (as evidenced by there being no change in behavior). Perhaps the most insidious part of this is that the group will tend to believe that responsibility for the dynamic lies solely with Dale—not seeing their part in closing off to Dale.
Instead of trying to talk it through (which experience has shown doesn't work), the group moves quickly from bad behavior by Dale to eye rolling, deep sighs, and crossed arms. Yuck.
Help Is on the Way
So how do you get off the merry-go-round? While every situation cannot be turned around (just as everyone is not meant to live together), I always believe it's worth a try. The approach that I use is to unpack a current example of the core dynamic—in this instance, Dale entering into the conversation late. Carefully, I would select someone in the group who is irritated by Dale and work this in a dyad, just as I would any conflict, relying on a four-step sequence of questions:
1. What are the feelings?
What is the emotional experience of each player?
2. What's the story?
What is the relevant series of events that is associated with the strong feelings?
3. Why does it matter?
What is the meaning of the reactions? What's at stake?
4. What are you willing to do about it?
Now that you've had the opportunity to explain your experience in depth—and learned what the experience of the other player is—what are you willing to offer in the way of a unilateral olive branch meant to repair damage to the relationship without selling out, disavowing your values, accepting blame, or altering your personality. It has to be an honest offer that can be freely given.
Note that this step is not, "What do you want the other person to do?" I find that offering something tends to land much better than making a request (which can land as a demand).
In my view it is essential that the above sequence be facilitated with curiosity rather than judgment. Just as the group comes to expect Dale to misbehave, Dale will anticipate the group's hostility and the facilitator will need to set a different tone—one that steers clear of blame and that opens the door to possibility. It is not an easy thing to do (maintain an attitude of wonder in the face of tension), yet it's worth gold.
The key to this working is that Dale and their counterpart be given an honest chance to follow through on their commitments to do something new, and that hearts do not remain hardened against that possibility. Of course, this won't get you very far if Dale (or their counterpart) makes an offer that they subsequently renege on. They have to follow through for there to be hope of turning the corner.
It's important to see this is the lynch pin of the dynamic. If you can establish that Dale and others can change their behavior, then everything can shift—which is what you wanted all along.
Monday, September 26, 2016
As a professional consultant in group dynamics I rarely get asked to work with a group when everything is going fine. Usually they're leaking oil, have a busted leaf spring, or can't seem to shift into third gear—and are hoping for inexpensive repairs from me, the itinerant shade tree mechanic.
Thursday, September 22, 2016
Today's essay will unfold in four parts, where "Walden" is the common thread that weaves hem together.
1. Walden Pond
For most readers this will be the first association that comes to mind, the modest body of water about 20 miles west of Boston, made famous because philosopher Henry David Thoreau lived the simple life there during the period 1845-47, and then wrote about it.
Thoreau's best known work was Civil Disobedience, in which he laid out his thinking about the right relationship of the individual to government. He was also a naturalist and thus something of an inspiration—well ahead of his time—to those seeking back-to-the-land simplicity and a spiritual connection to place in the 20th Century. I was such a person when I helped start Sandhill Farm in 1974, an income-sharing agrarian community.
2. Walden Two
In 1948, behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner chose to popularize his thinking by publishing Walden Two, in which he describes a fictional utopian community that operated under behaviorist principles.This book subsequently became the core inspiration for a handful of intentional communities that blossomed in the Hippie Era of 1965-75, including Twin Oaks (Louisa VA), Lake Village (Kalamazoo MI), and Los Horcones (Hermosillo MX)—all of which still exist today.
As someone who was deeply invested in community networking for 35 years, this was just one of the fascinating strands of cooperative living that I became aware of and tracked. Although behaviorist thinking never became dominant in the Communities Movement, the root principle of positive reinforcement (as opposed to controlling or guiding behavior through punishment) is alive and well in almost all cooperative living groups. It simply works better.
This is the title of John Pipkin's first novel, published in 2009. I read it last month and it's the fictional account of four lives—Henry David Thoreau, Oddmund Hus (a socially awkward orphan Norwegian immigrant), Eliot Calvert (prosperous bookseller, inept playwright, and discreet purveyor of pornographic postcards), and Caleb Ephraim Dowdy (renegade minister and opium addict) whose lives intersect on April 30, 1844 in and near Concord MA when Henry accidentally sets the woods on fire—a thing he actually did.
In this treatment Thoreau is in anguish over whether to drop out (by building a cabin on Walden Pond and devoting his life to writing) or returning to the family pencil business, where they've been able to set the gold standard for domestic production based on a superior source of graphite called plumbago. Should he focus on civil obligations or civil engineering?
Simultaneously the other members of the dramatis personae are wrestling with important life choices, even as they strive to determine just how bad the fire is and what role they should play in containing it.
It's a barn burner—even if few actual outbuildings succumbed to the flames.
4. Walden Farkas
Earlier his week I spent an agreeable 18 hours visiting with Walden (and his two boisterous English Setters) at his home in McMinnville OR. Though it had been 43 years since we'd last seen each other, amazingly, we had no trouble dropping back into a depth of sharing that was the reason we had been friends all those decades ago.
Walden and I lived on the same dorm floors our freshman and sophomore years at Carleton College (1967-69) and became good friends. Although our relationship was strained when Walden dropped out before our second year ended, we managed to keep the pot stirred by getting together a few times during the first half dozen years immediately following. Then we lost track of each other… until two weeks ago, when a message from Walden magically materialized in my In Box.
In a laconic two-sentence email he reported that he'd stumbled across my blog and now lived in Oregon. Knowing that I was coming his way last week he suggested we get together. Well, hell, it seemed like a good idea to me, and it worked out that I could be dropped off in McMinnville Sunday evening, en route to my Monday afternoon rendezvous with train #28, the eastbound Empire Builder.
In this year of challenged health, I've enjoyed many wonderful visits with family and friends—people who made it a point to see me, not knowing if it might be their last time. Of course, no one knows for sure when the last time might be, but the question is understandably more in the forefront when you're diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. For all of that, the possibility of getting together with Walden had not been on my radar at all, and thus was a great treat.
I was touched both by his finding me, and by his deciding to reach out. He's mostly lived alone the past four decades (excepting his canine companions) and it meant a lot to me that he decided to interrupt his routine to invite me into his home.
Mostly we just yakked, allowing the conversation to flow wherever it wanted. There were funny remembrances, convoluted stories about what we'd each been doing the last four decades, bafflement that Donald Trump actually has a chance to become the next President, and the opportunity to share what we'd each distilled into life's lessons.
I may not know where Waldo is, but I seem to have no problem with Walden.
Monday, September 19, 2016
weekend I was conducting Weekend IV of a two-year facilitation training
in the Pacific Northwest. It marked the first work I'd done as a process
consultant in three months—since co-trainer Ma'ikwe Ludwig and I
conducted Weekend III of the same training.
As you can appreciate, this was an important marker for me as a cancer survivor who wants very much to be also be a career survivor, albeit on a somewhat modified (read humane) schedule. While the travel out (by train) was somewhat tiring, I came out a day early to arrive on site with enough breathing room to rest well before going on stage.
Under the model we use for the training, three-quarters of each weekend is devoted to preparing for, delivering, and debriefing real meetings that the students facilitate for the host group. The concept is that students learn faster facing live bullets than by hearing the trainers tell stories or conducting role plays. While I'm convinced that this is sound pedagogy, its efficacy hinges on the trainers being able to teach the moment—each of which is unscripted.
Thus, a training weekend presents a serious test of how far along I've come in recovering my cognitive agility. While the results in June were so-so, it was highly gratifying to be able to perform again at a professional level, to be able to come in and redirect sensitively as dictated by the situation. Whew. Thinking that I can do it is not the same as showing that I can do it.
An important teaching element is being able to demonstrate to the students how to make effective choices in the complexity and chaos of live meetings. In the most delicate moments this can mean being able to access any or all of the following skills:
o Sorting the wheat from the chaff—extracting the essence of statements more or less as quickly as people speak.
o Having a working memory of what has happened previously that bears on the current moment.
o Phrasing comments such that the meaning is clear and requests are within the capacity of key individuals to respond positively.
o Being ready to offer a deeper, cogent explanation of why your requests or observations are pertinent in the event the audience is confused.
o Recognizing quickly when the group is heading in a dangerous or unproductive direction, offering a constructive redirection.
Describing such moments isn't nearly as powerful as witnessing them, so it's up to the trainers to be able to carry the mail.
While it's undoubtedly useful to be able to function on impulse power, there is nothing quite like achieving warp speed. It's nice to be back.
Thursday, September 15, 2016
for today's essay comes from the world of horse racing. In a one-mile
race (typically once around the track), there are poles placed every
1/16th of a mile (every half furlong) which are visual indications to
jockeys of how far along they are from the finish line. The last pole
before the finish is the 16th pole.
In less than two weeks I'll be traveling back to Mayo Clinic to have my Day 60 check-up. Sept 27 marks 60 days since my stem-cell transplant, and Dr Buadi wants to see me then to figure out what success we've achieved in placing my cancer into remission. It's an important assessment, the results of which will go a long way in determining how best to manage my health going forward.
While the cancer was surely knocked back July 27 when I took melphalan (the poison that killed everything in my bone marrow, good cells as well as bad), the question is how far and for how long. As I have a relatively aggressive form of multiple myeloma the doctors need to keep a close eye on my markers, to be alert for its return. Both Dr Buadi (the hematologist who oversaw the transplant treatment in Rochester) and Dr Alkaied (the oncologist who oversees my treatment in Duluth) are anticipating that I'll be placed on a maintenance level of chemotherapy—because of the aggressive nature of my myeloma, how well chemo worked over the winter and spring, and how well I tolerated it.
The tests coming up Sept 27 will determine which treatment will be selected. It might be pills; it might be infusions. While the latter is more awkward (infusions will need to be administered in a hospital or clinic on an outpatient basis, probably once every two weeks) pills can be taken anywhere. That said, I'll do whatever the doctors recommend.
Fortunately, I've been assured by Alkaied (I met with him this past Monday for the first time since June, before my trip to Mayo's) that there can be flexibility about dates. This is important to me as someone who hopes to resume his consulting/teaching career on a modified basis, and thus needs some latitude with respect to travel.
Meanwhile, the tests done Monday looked good. (I can hardly tell you how reassuring it is to watch your doctor scan the computer screen looking at your test results and saying, sotto voce, "Good" and even "Excellent." What you don't want to hear is, "Uh oh" or "Yikes!") Unfortunately, my Monday appointment with Alkaied did not allow enough time to return the most important test result: the amount of light chains in my blood and urine. In the kind of myeloma I have I was producing way too many light chain plasma cells and thus, in my case, this has been the most important indicator of the strength of the cancer.
When I was first hospitalized in late January my light chain count was around 1600 (where 100 is considered acceptable). By the time I went to Mayo for the stem-cell transplant in July, the chemotherapy had driven that number down to under 50—proof that the chemo was working. So it was good news when Alkaied's nurse called Tuesday (I had left for Oregon by train Monday night) and told Susan that my light chain count was practically nonexistent. Whoopee!
Essentially, the test results at this stage (Day 48) could not be better. (Can you see me smiling?) Yes, it's early days and there will be more challenges ahead, but right now I'm enjoying the sun shining on my face, with the wind at my back. Today, life is pretty damn good.
Monday, September 12, 2016
I recently got this message from a regular consumer of my blog:
I am scratching my head. I had full faith that you would make it through, but I am taken aback by your—appearing to me utterly foolhardy—upcoming schedule. Do your doctors know?! Shouldn't you be resting and drinking lots of fresh juices, and work on de-stressing your life?
Usually, when people survive cancer they make changes in their lifestyle in order to rebuild their body's defenses. Let us know how you see that... reading your missive, I worry.
As this is not the first time this question has come up, it seems worthy of a response. The inquiry comes from a concerned place and expresses reasonable questions. So… in no particular order, here are my thoughts about why I am doing what I'm doing as I recover from multiple myeloma, keeping in mind that I have every intention of rebuilding my body's defenses:
o What can be more therapeutic than pursuing one's passion?
I'm convinced that attitude plays a large role in health. As such it's valuable to my health that I keep my social change work oar in the water, at least part time. While I no longer work full days (excepting when I'm on the job), it's important for my self esteem that I continue to contribute to making a better world, one meeting at a time, putting to use the knowledge I've accumulated over the years about the nuts and bolts of what it takes to function well cooperatively.
o Yes, my doctors know my travel plans
I have two main doctors: Buadi (a hematologist) at Mayo and Alkaied (an oncologist) in Duluth. I have deep respect for both and both have signed off on my returning to work in moderation. So long as my body is telling me that my recovery is continuing and I'm not relapsing, I have a green light. They have even told me that ongoing maintenance treatments can be flexibly scheduled to work around my travel plans. If I go overboard I have no doubt that my body will let me know that I'm being overzealous.
o My work is not aerobic
While it requires sustained focus, process consulting does not strain my lung capacity, tax my kidneys, or pressure the tensile strength of my compromised bone structure. Further, you have to take into account that I have been doing this for work for three decades and have a fairly solid idea of what it takes. One of the distinct benefits of honing one's skills is learning how to conserve energy without compromising effectiveness. It's an art form.
o I'm working about half rate
While my schedule may seem breakneck to others, it feels like coasting to me. For example, I expect to participate in no conferences this fall (last autumn I attended three). Here's what travel I have lined up from now through the end of the year, which covers a span of 16 weekends:
—one weekend community consultation
—four facilitation training weekends
—one FIC meeting (for which I have no organizing responsibilities)
—one visit to see my son and grandkids
o Most of my work this fall will be training facilitators
The majority of what I'll be traveling to accomplish this fall will be conducting three-day facilitation training weekends. In each instance I'll be working with a co-trainer (not alone) and all three of the women that I'll be partnering with understand that they may need to fly solo for a time if I run out of gas and need to lie down to recharge my battery. What's more, I tested the waters in this regard last June (when I was weaker than I am now) and the training weekend went fine.
o I'm a veteran train traveler
Per my wont these past three decades, I will generally travel to and fro via Amtrak, where I find the rhythm of the rails to be mostly relaxing; not draining. I know how to slow down my metabolism on board the choo choo and rest up for the work ahead (or how to recuperate from the work just concluded). Having done it already, I know that I sleep reasonably well in the reclining coach seats, bad back and all.
o I am not you
Like most everything else, there is considerable variance among people's temperaments and accustomed sense of pace. What suits one may be overwhelming for another, or perhaps painstakingly slow for a third. In making choices for Laird I am not asking others to make similar selections. I am only asking others to give me room to find my own way.
Wednesday, September 7, 2016
This evening, for the first time in more than a year, I'm hoping to play duplicate bridge. It will end my longest break from it since I first ventured into that arcane world in 1999. While I wasn't seeking a hiatus, one came to me anyway by virtue of the confluence of: a) my moving away from northeast Missouri (and the familiarity and comfort of my local club); b) my lack of a partner; and c) my ill health.
Now though, I'm doing much better in managing my cancer and I have the bandwidth to gradually reestablish social patterns in my new home (it is not enough to be catching up with Susan on Louise Penny novels and watching West Wing reruns). With Susan's blessing I'm venturing a return to what had become my favorite recreational pastime since I turned 50: duplicate bridge.
One of the niceties about the bridge world is that if you show up early to almost any club game, the directors will work hard to find you a partner. Thus, you need not arrive with a partner in tow (though that's preferable). In Duluth there is a game every Monday at noon and every Wed evening, which will afford me plenty of opportunities to play.
1. Lift Bridge
A lot of what I'm called on to accomplish as a professional facilitator is creating a pathway between people where none exists, so that I can effect a restoration of flow of undistorted information and (hopefully) understanding. It's like being a plumber unclogging pipes. While not always noxious, dynamics among afflicted parties can definitely get anaerobic and tense at times. Thus, like plumbing, it's not so much that the principles are hard to grasp as that you are often asked to perform (with grace and even-handedness) under difficult and volatile conditions.
To be good at this kind of bridging you need to be able to hear and see people where they are (rather than where you or others think they ought to be), which skill requires that the practitioner be facile at shifting perspectives and empathizing with the person feeling isolated (and possibly misunderstood). It's one of my most valuable skills.
3. Caring Bridge
This refers to the blog site used by my partner Susan and others to report on my progress as I steadfastly work to treat and contain my multiple myeloma (first discovered in January). While I mostly post about my health on this blog; others who have visited me or served in the capacity of being part of my care team have been encouraged to write their impressions and share information about my progress on the Caring Bridge site.
This site has now been visited more than 5000 times (since it was launched in late February), doing yeoman's work in keeping people informed—for which I'm thankful. It's great getting a variety of voices and viewpoints in play, especially ones for which I have no responsibility for directing or editing.
4. Duplicate Bridge
As noted at the outset of this essay, I am itching to start playing bridge again after a break of 15 months (reading Frank Stewart's weekday column in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune is not nearly enough).
Tonight I'm hoping to put my toes back in those waters, bridging from my old life to the one I have today as a cancer survivor living in a new town.
In closing let me share a good laugh I had a couple months back when Sharon (Susan's sister-in-law), who is a very accomplished duplicate player, explained that there has been a brisk sale of bill caps emblazoned with the common bridge bid "No Trump" among American Contract Bridge League players—especially since the Republican National Convention. Maybe I can find one available at a tournament in nearby Carlton MN this weekend.
Hah! I figure if we can't retain our sense of humor, what hope have we?
Friday, September 2, 2016
Susan put on wool socks yesterday—a sure sign that fall is in the ascendant. Also, we can't help noticing that it's getting darker and darker when the alarm goes off at 6:15 am each weekday. It's not our failing eyesight; it's an inexorable seasonal trend.
At least it is in Duluth. At COB Monday, the ice cream shops will shutter their windows until May, even as the locals begin to shudder in the presence of breezes off the lake. So the wheel of the calendar is turning, and I'm gearing up for the fall process season—where I'll (cautiously) step back into the rhythms of an itinerant consultant, freshly recovered from getting my multiple myeloma under control these past seven months.
Though it's too soon to know exactly how much of my health I've regained (or how much I've been able to maneuver the cancer into remission), it's not too soon to begin living the life I can with the health I have. In 10 days I'll board the westbound Empire Builder (train #27 if you're scoring at home) for the City of Roses. In Portland I'll be met by Luz Gomez, who will drive me the rest of the way to Medford, where Weekend IV of the Pacific Northwest facilitation training will be hosted by Ashland Cohousing.
I can hardly wait for the opportunity to teach again. It's one of the things in life I enjoy most, and is a great fit with my accumulated knowledge (40+ years of group living and almost 30 years as a process consultant) and limited energy (as I gradually continue to rebuild my stamina following the stem-cell transplant in July).
Two weeks after my gig in Oregon (note that I'm protecting a week of recuperation in between), I will be in Richmond VA starting a different version of my two-year facilitation training—this time in the Southeast (centered around NC and VA) hosted by Richmond Cohousing, a forming community in the capital of the Cavalier State. Following that I'll be enjoying fall in Duluth, leading up to a trip to the City of Angels to see Ceilee and my grandkids in late Oct.
If I have my way, I will springboard off the end of that visit to use Los Angeles as my point of departure for a romantic (and heroic?) traverse across the breadth of North America to attend the fall organizational meetings of the Fellowship for Intentional Community at La Cité, a well-established ecovillage just east of Montréal.
My hope is to negotiate the entire trip from Los Angeles to Ham-Nord QC and back to Duluth via choo choo—to the extent possible. It will take me five days and 4839 train miles eastbound (with a sharp dogleg right in Vancouver) plus two days and 1505 miles on the rebound (from Montréal to St Paul via Schenectady and Chicago). It's a fantasy train trip, and includes a ride on the Canadian (Vancouver to Toronto) end for end—it's the only long distance train across the continent that I haven't ridden. I'll get home in the wee hours of Nov 9 and will happily spend the rest of the month in Duluth, snuggling with Susan and giving thanks.
While Wikipedia cautions would-be travelers on the Canadian (Via's train #2) that the scenery can get monotonous (lots of pine trees and lakes), I am, after all, a deeply experienced bourgeois in backwoods canoeing and have a special affinity for both the North Woods and the Canadian Shield (the Precambrian granite that dominates the terrain from Winnepeg to Toronto). As it happens, in the early morning hours of the fourth day the train will chug through some of my most familiar territory in western Ontario, including a refueling stop in Sioux Lookout, from which I've launched many a canoe trip on Abrams Lake. So I'll be fine.
My trip aboard the Canadian will simultaneously be both eye-opening (new scenery, especially as we crawl through the Rockies where we'll glimpse Banff, Jasper, and the impossibly picturesque Lake Louise) and nostalgic. A nice mix.
While I'd much prefer to conduct this journey with Susan, she has used most of her vacation days to support me in my health crisis this year and she feels the need to stay closer to her desk at St Paul's the remainder of the year—paying back the church's kindness and understanding in letting her take off a good deal of time while serving as my main support. I'm fervently hoping that 2017 will be more characterized by our traveling together for our mutual pleasure than for attending to my medical treatments.
Hopefully, this year there will be no falling behind.