Monday, September 29, 2014

Balancing Listening and Speaking

I got in trouble recently when working with a client that had brought me in to help the group understand consensus better. Though they'd been living together for six years—and making decisions by consensus all that time—they'd never done any training in it.

My work with the client began one evening when I listened to a subgroup of about 6-7 folks provide background on the topic they wanted me to use as a demonstration for how to handle a complex and vexing issue. After listening to a round of everyone saying what they thought I ought to know about the topic, I started asking questions about what they had tried or whether they had a committee in place who's job it was to be concerned with certain things bearing on the issue. When the responses were mostly negative, I proceeded to outline some suggestions for different things to try… and that didn't sit well.

At least for one person, I was making suggestions far too soon. She and her partner had put in a tremendous amount of effort over the years to help with the community's various challenges, and was put off by my suggesting initiatives less than an hour into my visit. (I couldn't possibly know all that had been tried, and she felt her family's efforts were being cavalierly dismissed.)

As a process consultant, I'm expected—in a short time—to accomplish five things: find out what's happening in the client group, connect the dots among people's statements about history and the current state of affairs, outline a pathway through stuck dynamics, lead the group down that path, and recommend changes designed to improve group function in the future.

Though I demonstrably have a lot to do under tight time constraints, sometimes I go too fast.

To be clear, my venturing into potential responses in the first hour of my visit did not land poorly with everyone. In fact, most of the others in that initial meetingwere intrigued (and hopeful) that I had ideas of different things to try—which was the response I was hoping for. Yet for at least one person, that approach didn't work. While I was able to meet with her later and repair the damage—so that we could work together productively the bulk of the weekend—it would have been better if I had read her more accurately in the first place. While it's good to mend fences, it's better yet to not damage them.

Here's a fuller statement of what I'm attempting in a weekend:

I. Find Out What's Happening
This has several components:

o  What happening on this topic today (this includes existing agreements, whether they're being adhered to, and where the tensions lie).
o  What's the relevant history on the topic, leading up to where we are today?
o  How are people relating to the topic emotionally (irritated, bemused, concerned, angry, afraid, bored… )?
o  What, if anything, has already been tried to address this issue, and with what results?
o  How urgent is movement on this topic relative to other challenges the group is wrestling with?
o  Are there any players in the penalty box (by which I mean labeled intractable and badly behaved)?

II. Connect the Dots
On the surface, this means:

o  To what extent do the stories from group members differ? Is it a matter of different emphasis, or are they working from different "facts"?
o  What are themes that will need attention in order to work through the topic? How many strands are there to work?

Below the surface, this means:

o  How volatile does the topic seem to be? To what extent are the players holding unresolved tension that's likely to distort our ability to be productive in problem solving?
o  How are the personalities and styles of some likely to triggering poor reactions in others?
o  How well do people seem to be hearing each other—especially when their input and viewpoints vary?
o  To what extent is the stuckness attributable to poor process, a weak sense of common values, a clash of principles, a clash of personalities, or some combination of the above.

III. Lay out a Pathway Through the Thicket
Based on what I'm hearing and observing, I need to map out a route to guide the group from where they are to something more resolved and more unified. This means not only figuring what to do about the topic we're focusing on, but getting there in such a way that people feel better connected and less tense. In short, I need to attend to both energy and content.

Further, I need to be able to explain the route—both what we'll be doing and why—so that people know what's being asked of them, the sequence in which things will happen, and why I'm asking them to stretch and try something less familiar.

IV. Lead the Group Down the Path
Then, of course, I have to execute the plan. Sometimes this comes across as firewalking (when I ask them to follow me into the scary territory of unpacking emotional distress); sometimes this is experienced as pulling a rabbit out of a hat (when I'm able to see a workable solution to the issue before anyone else); sometimes it's mostly about managing the discussion: keeping people on topic, limiting repetition, summarizing frequently, altering formats to keep people fresh.

I have to walk my talk.

V. Recommend Next Steps
This comes in two flavors:

A. Work remaining to complete the issue
Most of the time groups ask me to tackle an issue that's both complicated (many threads) and volatile (impacted distress), and it's not possible to both teach what I'm doing and complete the work on the issue. Thus, it is common that work remains when the time runs out and it's my job to leave the group with a recommended sequence for how to frame the remaining subtopics and a recommended order in which to address them.

B. Changes in how the group handles issues
To the extent that I've been successful in moving things along on the topic, I've given the group a first-hand taste of why my approach may be worth adopting. In my report, I'll lay out discrete changes they may make in how they do things—a sample of which they'd just experienced—in order to extend that success to future issues.

• • •
With all of this in motion, it can be a strain at times to resist moving onto the next step when I'm ready—to allow adequate time for the client to complete the step that's gone before. Sometimes I get the timing wrong.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Group Works: Hosting

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

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

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

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

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

Help the session feel like home. Making a place and arrangements comfortable for everyone supports accomplishment of the group's work. Attend to the well-being of each person and the whole.

This is about the container and ambiance of the meeting: the room, the seating, the lighting, the nourishment, the air quality, the formality (or casualness) of dress, the ritual that marks the opening and ending of each session... Much of what's comfortable or off-putting about this operates below the level of consciousness—yet is no less powerful, as possibilities ride in the channels of context.

Of course, this gets complicated when the participants come from multiple cultures, as each has its own familiarity and rhythm, and what is easeful for one may be awkward or even irritating for another.

Some of this is rather straight forward: you don't serve Orthodox Jews barbecued pork, and it wouldn't be a good idea to open the annual meeting of the Atheists Association with five minutes of prayer. Yet some of this is more subtle.

Consider, for example, how family of origin influences what's comfortable. The default mode for meeting culture in North America follows what I label Northern European culture (think German, English, Scandinavian). This style is characterized by one person talking at a time in well modulated voices; there is space between statements. 

Contrast this with Southern European culture (Italians, Spanish, Jewish, African American) where there is much more passion and the pace is quicker. People talk on top of each other and use more hand gestures. "Normal" engagement in Southern European culture translates to out of control upset in Northern European culture. Asking Southern Europeans to conduct themselves according to Northern European etiquette is excruciatingly stilted and flat.

It's not that anyone is striving to make participants uncomfortable; it's that we're often unmindful of what makes others comfortable or uncomfortable. Worse, there's a tendency to be oblivious to things when things are going smoothly for us, and we may miss clues about discomfort in others. (Thus, if you find the room too cool, you're much more apt to be sensitive to whether others are doing OK with the temperature. If you're doing fine yourself, you may not notice the room temperature at all.)

Let me give you a poignant example. Several years ago I began a two-year facilitation training and the host for the first weekend was an intentional community—which is almost always the case because they can economically absorb the out-of-town housing with spare bedrooms and couches. 

As it happened there were about 15 students in the class and all were from intentional communities except one woman. She was facing the double whammy of trying to acclimate to the intensity of the training (just like many other students) and at the same time make sense of her first experience in an intentional community. She was overwhelmed, but everyone else was focusing on the training—the community part was just the water they swam in. Thus, we all missed this woman's signs of distress until they boiled over in a rant on the last day, when she lashed out about how terribly she'd been treated (by which she meant neglected). Ouch! I had not being sufficiently mindful of what she needed to be comfortable. I had been a poor host. It's a lesson I'll not forget.

Ironically, the goal in this pattern is putting people at ease, yet it turns out to not be so easy to accomplish. Nonetheless, learning to be a gracious host is a worthwhile objective.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Managing Naysayers from the Sideline

In all groups beyond a certain size (eight?) you expect to see a gradient of involvement in the work of the group. While you expect some people to move in and out of involvement over time (varying by project, or by room in the their life to devote to group needs), there will naturally be some segment of the membership that's rarely involved to any significant degree. I'm not saying that's what you want; I'm saying that's what you'll get.

They don't show up to most Work Days, they skip out on committee assignments, and they rarely attend community meetings. If they kept to themselves and seldom contributed to community conversations it wouldn't be that big a deal—and some of the less involved are like that, more or less ghosts. But the more challenging version of the chronically less involved are those who want their viewpoints taken into account, even though they're often late in sharing them and seldom put their hand in the air when the call goes out for volunteers willing to help make things better.

In short, these are folks who insist on their rights, yet seldom show up for the responsibilities with which those rights are paired. It's a problem. 

To be clear, people are not stupid by virtue of being less involved. People who do little work can often be brilliant (or at least cogent and valuable) in their contributions to group issues and it would be foolish for groups to automatically close their ears in proportion to the speaker's level of contribution to the group's work. Nonetheless it can be galling when people feel directed (or hamstrung) by the demands of the less involved—especially when those contributions come across as ill-conceived, misinformed, selfishly motivated, or stridently delivered—and that's where I want to shine the spotlight today.

In this essay I'll offer a list of ways that there can be confusion about what's going on and remedies for it. If you intend to pull the tough love card and uncouple the obligation of the group to incorporate member input when that input comes from those not meeting their responsibilities to the group, it behooves you to be scrupulous about making sure you've done all within your power to clear up misunderstandings about what those responsibilities are.

A. Making sure prospective members understand the deal
Not all groups are diligent about explaining up front that the right to have your input taken into account is joined at the hip with the responsibility to extend that same courtesy to the viewpoints of others. If you come across as strident about what you want yet are not perceived to be working constructively what others have to say, it won't be long before you're deficit spending out of your social capital account. 

To be fair, it can get tricky in that being heard can be a prerequisite for some people's willingness to listen, and if people on opposite sides take that same attitude a stalemate is inevitable. Who gets listened to first? 

In any event, it's important to lay this understanding out clearly in the beginning. If you spring it on people for the first time when you want to hold their feet to the fire, it will not go well.

B. Making sure everyone knows when topics are being discussed and the appropriate window in which to offer input
This is about having and following a standard for announcing meetings ahead of time and making clear what topics will be discussed, so that interested parties can reasonably make plans to attend, or otherwise see that their input is delivered in a timely way. Complaining about people giving late input rings hollow when information about when the conversation is going to take place is obscure.

Further, when you take into account how common it is for people to miss meetings, you'd be well advised to regularly offer a defined opportunity for reflected input before closing the door on when it's OK to comment. 

Note: In order for this to work well you need good minutes (that go beyond recording decisions to include the rationale behind them) and a solid understanding of how minutes will be posted so that everyone knows where to look.

C. Making clear the difference between personal preferences and what's best for the group
Groups may want to hear personal preferences, yet are not obliged to accommodate them. On the other hand, they are obliged to take into account factors that everyone agrees are best for the whole.

It often makes a big difference if the group commits to training new people in the culture of cooperation, which teaches us to move away from survival of the fittest and toward what's best for the whole. If you're not careful about membership selection or don't invest in training the new folks, you're sowing the whirlwind and at risk of having things gummed up with a plethora of personal preferences.

Hint: Group-level concerns can be tied to group values and mission. Look for those linkages to validate the appropriateness of input.

D. Understanding the difference between identifying factors that need to be taken into account, and problem solving
One of the common ways that groups can get bogged down is when they're ill-disciplined about distinguishing between identifying what factors need to be taken into account, and figuring out how best to balance them. The first phase is expansive, during which advocacy is fine (even encouraged). The second phase is entirely different. It's contractive, and you're wanting participants to lay aside stump speeches and focus instead on the best way to bridge among the various group interests in play.

When groups fail to develop a culture where this distinction is understood, the plenary tends to vacillate between identifying factors and problem solving, with the inadvertent result that members can be inappropriately shrill (because they're speaking from advocacy) when others in the room have already moved on to the more creative and conciliatory phase of problem solving. Thus, participants deemed inappropriate may simply be confused about where the group is in the conversation and contributing where they can, as best they know how.

Strong, skillful facilitation can make a big difference here, making clearer where the conversation is at and what kinds of input are welcome.

E. Being clean when delegating authority
Sometimes late reactions to proposals expose problems with delegation. People may not be happy with who's been given a managership (or assigned to a committee), may feel that people are exceeding their authority (or attempting to), or may simply misunderstand that delegation has happened because there's sloppiness in minutes or the way they're distributed.

Thus, the person objecting to proposals or actions from the manager (or committee) may be complaining after the train has left the station, when the root of the concern is not that the train is in motion, but that the complainant believes they should have been given a schedule or had a say in who was on the crew, what the train's route would be, and whether it was a nonstop or a local.

These ambiguities can be cleaned up with sufficient care in how delegation happens and holding high standards for transparency, yet a lot of groups stumble over getting this right.

• • •
The overarching theme in the points I've enumerated above is that it's essential to conduct business with impeccable process before considering the serious step of disallowing someone's input on the grounds of late arrival, or because it's coming from someone demonstrably out of account in insisting that their views be respected when there's no evidence of their having extended to others what they're outraged about not receiving themselves.

I realize that I'm focusing on a situation groups would rather not be in. Unfortunately, it's a lead pipe certainty that you will be (providing only that the group is large enough and lasts long enough). I offer this with the idea that it's a better strategy to have a map through the swamp then to keep searching for ways to avoid it, or to sit on a rock and wring your hands.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Weeding the Garden of Dissent

As a process consultant I regularly field requests to help groups liberate themselves from the swamp of unresolved conflict. While this can be tough stuff and worthy of skilled assistance, it has recently occurred to me that there are many points of "proto-conflict" that occur prior to the blooming of full-blown distress, when the first sprouts of dissent emerge in the group dynamic. If these are handled well, I believe it can avert a world of hurt later on. If not, fasten your seat belt. 

This blog is about recognizing and managing those early moments—it's about weeding the Garden of Dissent.

To be clear, the key problem is not dissent itself (if you endeavor to eliminate that, you'll have another problem; disagreement is the lifeblood of stimulation and growth); it’s the response to dissent that I'm focusing on. There are two points of leverage, both of which are worth cultivating with an eye toward limiting an unwanted harvest of conflict (in the unfortunate case where you let the weeds flourish unchecked).

Let's hold in the spotlight the moment when someone expresses disagreement with another person's idea or viewpoint. For the sake of this examination, let's say that Kelly is disagreeing with something that Jesse has said or written.

Part I: How Dissent is Expressed
There are a number of factors that bear on how this unfolds. As I walk through them, let's suppose that the group has decided to start a car co-op and Jesse favors buying a new Prius, while Kelly thinks it would be better to buy a used Jetta that can run on biodiesel. The new Prius will cost $25,000 and the used Jetta has 50,000 miles on it, is four years old, and costs $10,000. For the sake of simplicity, let's say those are the only two cars under consideration.

A. Kelly's mindfulness as a speaker
The more someone is aware of their audience and the ways that others in the group are open (or closed) to certain ideas and expressions, the better they'll be able to steer clear of known hazards in expressing their views. After all, the point is an exchange of ideas and information; not "winning," or breaking down someone's resistance.

Thus, Kelly might say, "I think it's way better to buy a used Jetta first, because it will save us $15,000 and we're much more likely to be able to recover our money if the car co-op idea fails and we have to sell assets." 

But knowing that Jesse and others in the group have had bad experiences with used cars breaking down and leaving them stranded, Kelly might say instead, "Although the Jetta will be far less money up front, I know that vehicle reliability is a factor in this choice, and Consumer Reports indicates that 2011 Jettas have a great reputation for low maintenance." [Disclaimer: I'm making this up for the sake of my example; I am neither endorsing nor deriding 2011 Jettas!]

B. Kelly's facility in expressing themselves accurately and cleanly (without provocative phrasing)
It's one thing to know what pitfalls to avoid (see the previous point); it's another to be good at stating something concisely, in a way that's easily understood, and with minimal risk of encountering an emotional trip wire for one or more members of the audience.

Thus, Kelly might say, "My household has been running Jettas for 10 years and we love them. I think the Prius fad is overblown and it irks me on principle to lose money to depreciation as soon as you drive a new car off the lot."

Prudence, however, suggests that Kelly might be better off with, "There are a number of things we have to balance in making this decision:
—The Jetta is $15,000 less to buy.
—The Prius can be expected to last longer.
—The Prius will be under warranty for three years; there will be no warranty with the Jetta.
—We expect the Prius to be more trouble-free because it's new.
—A car running on biodiesel is more eco-friendly than a hybrid, because most of the fuel can be produced from renewable resources.
—At 50 mpg and gasoline costing $3.40/gallon, it will take 200,000 miles before we've saved enough on fuel to cover the difference in purchase price, assuming the Jetta gets 28 mpg and biodiesel costs $3.98/gallon. So our decision, in part, depends on how many miles we think we'll drive co-op cars.

I prefer the Jetta both because I think it's more in line with our commitment to being ecologically progressive, and because I don't think we'll run our cars for 200,000 miles."

C. Kelly's understanding of how their input tends to land in the group
Beyond what is said (the actual point that Kelly intends to make), how things land also depends, in part, and what the group expects to happen. Thus, if the group is used to Kelly saying provocative things (or has a reputation as a Devil's Advocate), their loins may be girded as soon as Kelly has been called on to speak.

Thus, Kelly might say, "How do we know that the new model Prius won't be a lemon? At least with the Jetta we have a known quantity. Further, I don't trust oil company projections that gas prices will only rise gradually; if we're locked into a vehicle that depends on nonrenewable gasoline we'll be susceptible to being fucked in a few years."

If Kelly is aware that this swashbuckling style won't go well, they might say instead, "I think there's risk of mechanical trouble with either a new car or a used car; we'll have to decide which seems less risky. Also, I'd like to look at which vehicle we'd prefer in the event that fuels costs spiral up sharply. Does that change our thinking at all?"

D. Kelly's reactivity in the moment
If Kelly has a non-trivial emotional reaction to Jesse, that's likely to leak into what Kelly says about Jesse's idea. Depending on the group's sophistication in working with reactivity, Kelly could proceed in a couple of ways: a) owning their reaction at the front end of their statement; or b) figuring out some way to work through the reaction before expressing their dissent (this could be going for a walk outside, meditating, talking with a friend—there are many possibilities).

If Kelly plows ahead and speaks from reactivity you might get, "I'm totally opposed to buying the Prius. I think people are seeing it more as a status symbol (it's what hip Green people drive), than as a statement of ecological sustainability. I know the Jetta will cost more to run, but that's OK with me. I want to discourage people from driving so much and eliminate frivolous town trips." [Background: Jesse has two kids who engage in a lot of extracurricular activities at public school, requiring special trips to pick them up after the bus has left.]

If Kelly is aware of the reactivity, the statement might come out this way, "First I want to own that I'm having a reaction to the suggestion that we buy a Prius and it has nothing to do with our group. When I visited my parents last Christmas—in the McMansion suburbs of Chicago—I was shocked to see how many people were driving Priuses. When I asked Mom about it she said it had become trendy in the neighborhood as a painless way for people to show they care about the environment without loss of comfort or performance. 

"Holy shit, I thought, operating a hybrid car is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the lifestyle choices that are truly sustainable, and I want no part of being lumped with suburban greenwashing.

"I care passionately about our car co-op being part of the solution to the challenge of being sustainable, and it's odious to me if all we achieve is being chic. Thus, I want vehicles that are economical to operate, that run on renewable fuel, and that are reliable. Beyond that I want us to be trying hard to make do with fewer trips and doing more multitasking whenever we drive somewhere. Hopefully, having a car co-op will lead to our owning and operating fewer vehicles."

E. The quality of the relationship (resilient or brittle; casual or strong) between Kelly and Jesse
The better connected Kelly is with Jesse, the more likely it is that Kelly's dissent will be heard accurately and responded to constructively, wiht no residual animus. The reverse is also true. If there's a history of charged exchanges between Kelly & Jesse, then it's that much more likely that this exchange will go poorly as well—even to the point where Kelly might think twice about expressing their dissent (is it worth the possibility of a blow-up?).

If Kelly proceeds without taking this into account, they might say, "I am not persuaded by Jesse's advocacy for a Prius. Not enough weight is being given to using renewable fuel, and I don't think we'll ever get our money back from shelling out $15,000 more up front. I think the Prius is being supported mainly because it's seen as sexier than a Jetta."

However, if Kelly were sensitive to the fact that their relationship is not strong, that statement of dissent might be transformed into, "I get it that Jesse prefers the Prius, and understand the viewpoint that there may be a public relations benefit in choosing a vehicle that blatantly contradicts the mistaken idea that sustainable choices are always grim and result in an impoverished life, with people limping along.

"Nonetheless, it's hard for me to choose a car that uses nonrenewable fuel over one that doesn't, and I worry that the much higher sticker price for the Prius is money we'll never get back through fuel efficiency. Isn't conserving dollars part of being a model of sustainability also?"

• • •
If speakers are interested in their opinions being received with an open mind, they'll be motivated to learn how to express them in ways that are minimally triggering. Hint: there's considerable value in first establishing that you've accurately heard the person you're disagreeing with—including why it matters to them—and then expressing your divergent views. People tend to be far more flexible in response to being challenged if they feel they've been fully heard. 

Part II: How Dissent is Received
Now let's take the other side: how Jesse responds to Kelly's dissent. The factors here include:

F. How well Jesse feels their viewpoint was understood by Kelly
It's not unusual for someone's first thought when encountering resistance to be that the dissenter didn't fully understand their idea, or the reasoning that undergirds it. And sometimes that's the case! So it's important to sort misunderstanding from disagreement. If this happens in the context of a group meeting, the facilitator can often lend a hand in sorting this out.

Warning: for some people it's hard to allow for the possibility that someone might dislike their idea on its merits, and for them dissent gets translated into one of two distortions: a) you didn't understand what I said; or b) you dislike me and are taking it out on my idea. When you have such a person in the group, it's all the more important that you can establish early on that this is not about mishearing or vendetta; it's about disagreement. 

G. Jesse's emotional state prior to hearing Kelly's dissent
In addition to the possibility that Kelly is in reaction, Jesse might be in reaction also. Perhaps because of what someone else (not Kelly) said; perhaps because of a fight they had with their partner at breakfast; perhaps because the time is getting squeezed to cover this topic in the meeting and that's upsetting—it could be any number of things. 

However, regardless of how they got triggered, if they are, then that becomes a factor in how well they can accurately hear what Kelly says and are able to put a constructive spin on why. As distress levels rise, so does distortion—even to the point where nothing is getting in. While it's rarely that bad, all parties need to be alert to the possibility of distortion and what to do to bring distress down to the point where the distortion is minor and manageable.

This is the mirror image of point D above, and Jesse has the same options that Kelly had.

H. The personal work Jesse has done (if any) to better understand and manage their reactivity
It will help a lot if Jesse is aware of being in distress and can self-disclose. Of course, reactivity will be less likely if Jesse feels confident that they were heard well when expressing their ideas originally, or if Kelly is able to express their dissent in minimally provocative ways.

Warning: there is a trap here in the group dynamic. If the group advocates that members do personal work to be more emotionally aware, then there can be reaction to the lack of having done that work (and spewing in the group), independent of the quality of the speaker's thinking. If emotional maturity is a standard, then there can be a tendency to be irritated whenever people express upset. If this happens, people will quickly learn to suppress upset (to appear more mature and gain group approbation), and that's the road to hell.

I. The degree of connectedness and trust between Jesse and the group in general
If Jesse feels well-connected in the group then disagreement will not be as threatening to their standing in the group, and trust in the connection will create some leeway to explore differences without Jesse feeling that their credibility and social capital depends on their idea prevailing—which is an association you don't want Jesse to be making.

J. The degree of connectedness and trust between Jesse and Kelly
It also matters how well Jesse feels connected to Kelly, whether there are unresolved tensions from past exchanges, and how confident Jesse is that they can work with Kelly productively. If Jesse has respect for Kelly as a group member that helps. If Jesse finds Kelly's contributions to be half-baked or frivolous, it isn't going to go so well. This point is the flip side of E above.
• • •
In general, you want the lowest possible barrier to dissent being expressed, and the greatest possible attention to relationship between the speaker and recipient. Often, the assumption of good intent can be lost (or at least mislaid) in the heat of the moment. When dissent lands as a threat, you're off to the races unless you can clear that up on the spot.

My hope in composing this monograph is that a deeper understanding of the pitfalls of dissent may lead to managing misunderstandings and reactivity before it develops into conflict and dysfunctional patterns—where it tends to be much more difficult to root out.

Happy harvesting!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Outcome-based Expectations

Most intentional communities expect members to contribute in non-monetary ways to the development and well-being of the group. While there are all manner of questions to address in setting this up fairly and sensitively (see my blog Working with Work for an outline of the key questions), today I want to drill down on what happens if you define expectations in terms of output or accomplishments rather than hours.

The impulse to go this way comes from the realization that all hours are not equal. Everyone is not interchangeably proficient at the same tasks; everyone doesn't lean into the work with the same enthusiasm; and everyone has a different idea of what a 10-minute break is (or how frequently it's OK to take them). Thus, there can be considerable variance in how much productive work people accomplish in the same unit of time, and basing expectations on outcomes is an attempt to get around that. ("Take as much time mopping the kitchen floor as you like; just do a thorough job.")

The downside of this approach is the difficulty in equalizing baseline contributions—which is demonstrably one of the goals in setting participation standards. For all their faults and crudeness, hours is a uniformly understood concept and easy to equalize. Thus, the concept that every member is expected to contribute 10 hours per month is straight forward to grasp; yet it's awkward establishing how many snow shovelings of the front walk equate to balancing the community's checkbook, or how many deep cleans of the common house kitchen amount to the same contribution as convening the committee that oversees common house operations.

Embedded in this rat's nest are a number of questions:
o  Does all work count equally (even assuming equal proficiency)?
o  How do you determine task equivalents excepting by comparing the amount of time it takes to accomplish them competently (which gets you right back to hours)?
o  Even if you were able to parcel out jobs equally (which I'm questioning), how will you take into account that people are not equally thorough in how they clean a floor (never mind how fast they are)?

For all these reasons groups tend to find it simpler to go with expectations based on hours. I'm not saying it's perfect; I'm saying it's simple and a reasonable approximation.

That said, I am in favor of laying out what's needed to do a job well. Thus, "cleaning the kitchen floor" can be delineated to mean:

Every Sunday morning:
—remove all containers and furniture from the kitchen, dusting and cleaning surfaces as you go.
—sweep the floor.
—wet mop the entire floor.
—empty all recycling and trash containers, cleaning the containers if needed.
—on the first Sunday of each month, hand scrub the floor instead of wet mopping.

While there will still be differences in the degree to which people scrape up blobs of waxy residue that resist coming off with scrubbing, spelling out expectations will definitely reduce the range of how differently people perform a task.

In deciding how to set up a standard of work expectations, it behooves groups to think through what they're trying to accomplish. In addition to the work itself (getting the kitchen floor cleaned), there may be the desire to:

o  Create a sense of unity among members (we're all in this together—in part, because we all contribute a baseline amount of volunteer labor to the group).

o  See that labor expectations are fair, adjusted for capacity and life circumstances.

o  Promote camaraderie among members through working together (thus cleaning the kitchen as part of a team is seen as superior to encouraging cleaners to do it alone at 2 am). 

o  Teach members new skills, which suggests that people be given work assignments partly based on desire, and not solely on credentials or proven competency, It may also suggest term limits on how long one person can retain a popular assignment. 

There is also a subtler value here: by encouraging members to try many things it creates more familiarity with the full range of tasks being done. In turn, this promotes sympathy and understanding with what others are doing, helping to reduce tensions related to martyr and slacker dynamics.

• • •
The point of illuminating the richness of things that groups hope to accomplish through members' non-monetary contributions is to give a sense of how much nuance is involved. When you digest that, I wouldn't worry too much about measuring expectations in terms of hours. While outcomes may be a truer measure of what's wanted, they're a booger to quantify and at the end of the day what's most important is that there's good energy—not how efficiently someone cleaned the kitchen floor, or that everyone did exactly the same amount on the groups' behalf.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Money, Sex, and Power in Community

I recently had an email exchange with a friend who wrote about a presentation he gave entitled, "Money, Sex and Power.” He had this to say about it:

It dealt with "happiness" via the question of whether or not one's basics needs for money, sex, and power are being met or not. And how that is foundational for developing the elements of higher consciousness: compassion, creativity, collaboration, insight, spiritual growth, etc. [My friend’s point was that people will seldom focus on those other things unless basic needs are met first.] A favorite phrase of mine is: "I've never seen anyone reach enlightenment while being chased by a pack of hungry wolves (or hungry bankers)!"

Thus, if you want to know how happy the members of any particular group are, you might first ask how well their community handles money, sex, and power as a practical matter.

When I reflect on what I know about how communities relate to money, sex, and power, it seems to me the patterns play out distinctively for each need, and it's instructive to examine them one at a time.

First though, I want to offer an overarching caveat. How members of intentional communities are faring with respect to money, sex, and power is not causally related to whether the community wades into these topics, and good answers on the individual level may not be matched by good answers on the group level. So don't conflate the two. That said, they can be related, so let's look at what intentional communities do, and how that impacts the odds of their members being happy.

Money
In community, many people (especially those whose lives are grounded in the community and don’t work outside) are largely divorced from the day-to-day world of money. They may have already established a secure lifestyle through savings or passive income, or may have considerable access to community resources and that’s good enough. Their security is based on relationship more than money in the bank and they feel “rich.” To be clear, this does not negate my friend’s point, but it shows that money needs can be satisfied without a lot of attention to money, or, in some cases, without a lot of money.

All of that said, the majority of non-income-sharing groups (which 88-90% of intentional communities are) do not tackle the issue of members' needs for money excepting in the limited sense of what it takes from each member to cover common elements (debt load, road improvements, common facilities, capital replacement fund, etc.). That is, it's up to each household to figure out how to make enough money, and the community doesn't attempt to address it. 

It can even be worse than that. Some communities have a policy of not hiring members to provide services for the community—even when the need and the money are both present—to avoid the potential awkwardness of one member serving as another's employer.

While I think there is a lot good that can come from a community viewing itself as an economic engine and partnering with members to create flow, the other side of this coin is that most members who join non-income-sharing communities are not expecting the community to provide help with income generation, so it's not as if communities are failing to deliver on a promise.

Sex
Very few groups take this on. The overwhelming majority of communities consider this a private matter among consenting adults and that the group has no stake in sexual dynamics (outside of upholding group values around nonviolence and prohibiting illegal activities). This can get tricky when member choices lead to relationship tensions that don't resolve well (because the group is demonstrably affected by what's happening yet has no license to step in), yet it's rare for a group to create a forum to discuss what's happening.

To be sure, there have been some notable exceptions over the years—groups that expressly did take an active role in examining and promoting sexual development (and experimentation) among members—yet they stand out all the more for being exceptions rather than the rule. Here are half a dozen that did so for at least a part of their history, some contemporary; some historical:
—Kerista (who coined the term polyfidelity)
—Ganas
—Zendik
—Oneida (the 19th Century community in upstate New York that advocated for free love and practiced “stirpiculture,” a form of eugenics)
—Shakers (who were celibate)
—ZEGG (a German community which inspired the Network for a New Culture in the US)

While I agree that sex is a universal drive, that drive is not uniformly compelling for everyone. Intentional community can be a great place to find a partner if you're aligned with the group's values and it's important that your partner is as well. Otherwise, community living tends to be a house of mirrors, where things you were hoping to keep private don't tend to stay that way. 

On the plus side, it is often possible in community to weather a break-up without either party moving away. There tends to be enough no-fault support for both players, and enough psychic space to heal. This can be especially helpful when there are kids involved—yet this is more about damage control than getting one's sexual needs met.

In general, I'd say that most intentional communities want their members to be sexually satisfied, yet decline to play any significant role in helping to make that happen.

Power
Whether communities are comfortable with it or not, all group dynamics are exercises in the use of power, by which I mean how one member influences another. (If you question this, when was the last time you were in a meeting where no one had any influence over anyone else?) The question is not so much whether people are exercising power, as it is about how they're exercising power: is it power over (for the benefit of a subset at the expense of others) or power with (for the benefit of all)?

Amazingly, despite the universality of its presence, most groups do not openly discuss it, or have a clear understanding of how to handle the situation where there's the perception that power has been used poorly. While I can sympathize with this not being easy, it doesn't get better for being ignored and it can be a large plus if the group can find the gumption and facility to address tensions related to power as they emerge.

However,  I'm using power in a different way than my friend. He was talking, I think, about having a sense of personal power—not so much the ability to influence what others do as the ability to steer one's own ship—of being able to control one's own destiny. 

I think community can help with that because individuals are likely to get more support for what they want in a community of like-valued people, where it's the norm for members to help each other. (It may be true, as John Donne avers, that no person is an island, yet we are nonetheless each distinct and life tends to be more enjoyable if you live in an archipelago, rather than off by yourself, surrounded by nothing but water in all directions. Community offers connectivity, and ameliorates isolation.) 

At the same time, it's only fair to look at how this can go the other way. In community, lives are intertwined to the point where there's greater potential for others to monkey wrench what you'd like to do, and this can be highly frustrating.

On the whole, if community members are mainly using power cleanly then you'll tend to like the results and feel happier. The reverse obtains if members often use power in service to personal agendas not broadly shared in the group. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Putting a Lid on It

Colloquially, advising some to "put a lid on it" translates into a request to shut up, or shut down. Well, yesterday that's exactly what I did.

In this case, I was shutting up Sandhill's new 12,000 gallon cistern, which involved pouring 4.75 cubic yards of concrete. The trickiest part was getting the forming right over a rectangular hole that was approximately 8'x25', so that the concrete went where we wanted it—and stayed there while it cured. As that amount of wet concrete weighs something north of a ton, you don't even want to think about the mess we'd have had if the forms had failed and the concrete slumped into the cistern. "Dismay"is not even in the same solar system as the emotional response that would have ensued. Although I had configured the shoring entirely with wood—something I was doing for the first time—everything held and the pour went smoothly (if you don't count Sandhill's pet kitten who mistakenly thought it would be clever to jump onto the wet concrete, and who realized immediately that something was very wrong).

Afterwards, the driver of the concrete truck (Dennis) admitted that he was worried about the forming holding up to the task. As there is no end of the amateurs buying ready-mix for backyard projects, you have to assume that drivers see just about everything, and Dennis had been delivering concrete for at least a decade. When he complimented us on the stoutness of our forming, I knew it was because he was not originally confident that we knew what we were doing. And so, in turn, I complimented him on keeping that opinion to himself until we were done. Whew.

While there is still be a good bit of work left before we can start capturing rain from the roof, the hard parts are now done and that was the bulk of my assignment. In the days ahead I'll oversee the wiring and the installation of the submersible pump, and advise on how to handle the overflow and the best way to connect the guttering to the cistern intake, yet these oddments are relatively straight forward and it feels good to have honored my commitment to build Sandhill a cistern—something I promised to do when I left the community last Thanksgiving.

Noticing how sore my back is today I'm wondering how much it makes sense to undertake this kind of work for anyone in the future. While it's never been easy for me to accept physical limitations—especially for things I used to be able to handle in stride—it's all the harder when I feel my knowledge about how to do things and my understanding of good technique have never been greater. Nonetheless, it may be time for me to put on lid on heavy construction. Sigh. 

Maybe in the future I can be the guy who rescues the mischievous kittens and redirects the ill-disciplined dogs. Kind of like a New Age Walmart greeter.