Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Group Works: Balance Process and Content

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 first pattern in this segment is labeled Balance Process and Content. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card: 

Content refers to what you are talking about and the results of a session. Process is how the conversation happens. Like two wings of a bird, both are needed for balance, lift, and progress.
 
My first thought, when looking at this captivating image, is whether the bicycle represents process or content. It's a Zen koan. Ordinarily the person is atop the bike, but not in this case. Also, I note that the seat is facing down and has no butt on it. While I'll stipulate that this graphic conveys a sense of flow and wonder, it's also rather chaotic, demonstrably ungrounded, and suggests only a tenuous through-the-handlebars connection between process and content. Meetings are not, in my book, a throw-it-all-up-in-the-air-and-let's-see-what-happens matinee performance featuring an acrobatic facilitator solo.

OK, now that I have that off my chest, let's work with the text. I understand—and fully support—the idea that the Group Works patterns are meant to illuminate and promote the development and nurturance of cooperative culture. This is in direct contrast with the competitive culture of the mainstream. One of the distinguishing features of cooperative culture is that it will tend to matter just as much how you accomplish a thing as what you accomplish. 

Thus, in cooperative culture, the way you go about things has been elevated to a higher status than in the value hierarchy in which the vast majority of us were raised. The way this plays out, as is suggested in the text for this pattern, is by balancing content and process.

Having said that, it's important to understand that this is not a tug-of-war between the two (product versus process). Rather, it's a dance—where attention to each enhances the other. When this is misunderstood, product-oriented folks may complain that "good process" simply takes too long, drawing out a foregone conclusion for the sake of form. Going the other way, process-oriented people may resent pressure to focus on solutions, fearing that cutting to the chase may risk cutting out input, or that asking people to agree prematurely risks choking down proposals (rather than enjoying a sit-down meal you are wolfing down fast food, with a concomitant risk of indigestion).
 
In my work as a facilitation trainer, I prefer to style this pattern: balancing content and energy. I hold out the ideal of coming to agreement as expeditiously as you can without leaving anyone behind (or in a state of bewilderment, standing on the sidelines). Good meetings solve problems (or at least clear up ambiguities and identify a road map for next steps) in such a way that participants are energized and feel better connected. 

While this is not that difficult to achieve when there is no serious disagreement about a topic, I hold this standard even when there is. The primary challenge of cooperative culture is how to disagree about non-trivial issues and have that examination lead to both solid decisions about how to respond, and a sense that relationships among participants have been enhanced, rather than strained or degraded. While that may sound like a magic act, it can be done. (In fact, it wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say that my 28-year career as a professional facilitator and process consultant is rooted in my ability to consistently deliver that result.)

One of the main skills I bring as an outside facilitator is the ability to work simultaneously with content and energy—making sure that we're making steady progress on the agenda, while at the same time bringing the group into closer connection and deeper understanding of one another. In the business world (where the bottom line is king) professional facilitators are often asked only to manage content, and success is measured by how quickly you can dispose of issues. In the cooperative world (which includes that of cooperative businesses), that's not good enough: you also need to be sensitive to, and able to work deftly with, undercurrents and the disjunct between a person's words and their tone and body language. In the cooperative world, you need to be able sense when a topic is completed, not just know how to manage a parliamentary call for cloture and tally a vote. 
 
In short, you are not aiming to create flow simply by the speed with which you resolve issues. Instead, you are paying express attention to the flow of energy in the context of working content. Sometimes (for example, when a participant experiences a strong upwelling of emotion in connection with a topic) it's important for the flow that you purposefully slow things down. While bypassing the feelings might be quicker, you would do so only at the risk of compromising energy, which is generally a poor bargain. Good flow means creating a sense of purposeful movement that brings everyone along.

The bad news is that the skills needed to be good at working content are almost completely unrelated to the skills needed to manage energy. The good news though, is that both can be learned. (I know because I've been teaching facilitators how to do both for 11 years.) As far as I'm concerned it is foundational to cooperative culture that we learn to balance content and energy. Luckily, I don't necessarily think that means you have learn how fly through the air with your bicycle upside down.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Facilitation Trainings on Tap

A year ago I had breakfast with a friend in Michigan who had participated in my two-year facilitation training back in 2005-07, and she shared a story about how my program helped her professionally.

She applied for a job in a large city that would require her to bring together various stakeholders who were not used to talking with each to make common cause. That meant setting up and running effective meetings, building trust to where people shared openly, and then assisting them to come to a united understanding despite substantive cultural and political differences. After wending her way through the application and interview process she became a finalist for the position.

To determine who would be selected, each of the finalists was asked to facilitate an hour-long meeting of the hiring Board. Since facilitation was a key skill wanted in the job, the Board figured they could do no better than to observe the candidates facing live bullets.

At the conclusion of the segment that my friend facilitated, a Board member came up to her on break and confided, "Before today's meeting you had no chance of being hired, because you didn't fit the demographic we thought best for the job. However, after witnessing you in action, now there is no way that we won't hire you." And thus she got the job.

Her story sent goose bumps up my spine, as that's exactly the kind of impact I've hoped the training would have.

 • • •
Since debuting the two-year facilitation training program in 2003, I have delivered the course in its entirety eight times (as each training consists of eight three-day weekends, spaced approximately three months apart, that means I've conducted 64 training weekends—enough to fill a chessboard). While those eight are all water over the dam, I'm marketing three new editions right now—all of which I'm hoping will launch before the end of the year.

As a cooperative process consultant and group dynamics expert, it's the most fun thing I do. 

Below is a list of what's available starting in 2015. I'm sharing this with my readers because a primary focus of my blog posts has been about group dynamics and I'm hoping that some of you may be interested in signing up for an experience like that of my friend in Michigan, or otherwise are willing to help spread the word among those you know who hunger for more productive meetings and healthy models of cooperative leadership.

For these trainings to manifest, we need two things: a) a minimum of eight paying students (while a dozen would work much better in terms of the trainers' compensation, we can make it work with eight); and b) host groups for each weekend that will provide room and board for students, plus live meetings for them to facilitate, in exchange for which the group receives:
—outside facilitation (done by the students, yet guided by professionals)
—a professional report on what the host accomplished in the meetings and what it might work on in the future
—two free auditor slots in the training weekend that it hosts
—first-hand familiarity with other talented facilitators in the region, who become a resource whenever the group wants outside facilitation in the future

Who Would Benefit from Taking This Training?I'm glad you asked. Foremost, it's for people who aspire to learn the skills of high-end facilitation—by which I mean the ability to track both content and energy, as well as to develop a feel for making consistently good decisions about what to do with that information in the dynamic moment to create effective meetings that bring participants closer together. 

Yet the training is much more than that. It's also for:

o  Understanding what it means to create and sustain cooperative culture
This is the foundational linchpin of a world that works better—one that stands in sharp contrast to the alienation and isolation of modern life, that tends to be rootless, hierarchic, and adversarial. People crave a more connected, authentic, and compassionate life, and this course offers the tools needed to create that, both for yourself and the groups you work with.

One of the key differences in cooperative culture (in contrast with the competitive culture that characterizes the mainstream) is that how matters just as much as what. In the wider culture it tends to be much more about the bottom line—so long as you're not breaking the law (or at least don't get caught). In cooperative culture the how gets elevated to a higher status, and that's what good process is all about.

o  Developing the skills of cooperative leadership
While the principal learning environment for this training is the plenary—meetings of the whole—where we're focusing on delivering drop dead great meetings, it turns out that the qualities wanted from leaders in cooperative settings map exceedingly well onto those wanted from facilitators: good listening; ability to easily shift perspectives to see a thing through another's eyes; minimal defensiveness when receiving feedback; ensuring that everyone is heard; ability to inspire; knowing your limitations and how pair with others to achieve complmenetary results; well organized; ability to bridge between disparate positions; able to function well in the presence of distress in others. So it's a two-for-one offering: facilitation training is also leadership training.

o  Personal growth
Learning to be a good facilitator (or an effective cooperative leader) entails personal work. Even if you never facilitate, or never assume a leadership role, isn't it worth your while to learn to how to listen deeply, and how to give and receive feedback honestly and constructively? Participating in this class may be one of the most real experiences of your life, where you will be seen fully and appreciated for who you are without anyone blowing sunshine up your ass.

o  Learning when and how to work constructively with non-trivial distress
One of the scariest dynamics for most groups is how to respond when one or more members enter serious distress. One of the key teaching components of this training will be how to respond effectively to conflict—not just how to survive it, but how to recognize and harness the information and energy of the moment to promote deeper understanding and connection.

o  Not limited to people living in intentional community
While it often makes sense to seek hosts that are intentional communities (because it's easier for them to absorb the room and board needs for a three-day training) we are expressly inviting students from non-community settings to get involved. In the past we've had people take the course who were college instructors (who appreciated the link between teaching and facilitating); professional mediators; people aspiring to start communities; and even a volunteer fire fighter. Don't be shy!

Following is a description of the flavor of each of the trainings being offered. All are geographic specific, yet are open to anyone willing to travel to get there. While all three are partially subscribed, there are openings remaining in all of them.

Option #1: Portland OR
This training will begin either June 18-21 (if we secure a host for that weekend) or Sept 17-20 otherwise. My training partner will be Ma'ikwe Ludwig (with whom I've done four prior trainings). Ma'ikwe and I just did a one-day demonstration/promotion March 14 at Cascadia Commons, a cohousing community in the Rose City, which helped pique interest.

As there is a considerable concentration of community activity in Portland we are expecting this training to be mostly concentrated in or around that city. However, we are casting the net as far south as Eugene OR and as far north as Bellingham WA, as there is strong interest in cooperative culture throughout this stretch of the Pacific Northwest, that Ernest Callenbach styled "Ecotopia."

For more information contact me or the program Coordinator, Janie Paige .

Option #2: New England
This training will start Sept 10-13, 2015, hosted by Mosaic Commons, a cohousing community in Berlin MA, a western suburb of Boston. My training partner will be Alyson Ewald (this will be our first time working together as co-trainers). We expect the weekends to move around within the six-state region, and possibly dip into nearby upstate NY. It all depends on where the offers are.

For more information contact me or Alyson .

Option #3: Southwest Colorado
This training will start Oct 15-18, 2015, hosted by Heartwood, a cohousing community in Bayfield CO. My training partner will be Betty Didcoct (with whom I've done three prior trainings).

While we are hoping to generate interest among other intentional communities in the vicinity (Taos, Santa Fe, Albuquerque), in this case we'll also be marketing heavily to cooperative groups that are not intentional communities in the Durango area—think food co-ops, progressive schools, and alternative healing centers—because they can benefit every bit as much as communities in becoming higher functioning in how they go about their business.

For more information contact me or the program Coordinator, Christine Maisano .
 • • •
I hope to see you at one of the trainings.

Friday, March 20, 2015

My Health, According to Hoyel

The phrase "according to Hoyle" refers to Edmund Hoyle, 1672-1769, an Englishman who made a name for himself compiling into book form the rules for various card games—gambling games in particular. In colloquial terms, the phrase has come to mean "the proper rules or protocol for doing a thing."

I bring this bit of arcana into play because I enjoy word play, I enjoy gaming, and yesterday I had a productive visit with my personal physician, Neil Hoyel, who operates out of a clinic in Memphis, our country seat. While I don't see Dr Hoyel that often, I like his down-to-earth nature and clear explanations very much. Though I never play games with my doctor, it amuses me that my straight shooting physician's last name is a simple anagram of Edmund's homophonic surname from three centuries ago (I just love how life randomly deals out such divertissements from time to time).

In any event, I went to see Dr Hoyel yesterday morning and here’s the report.

1. Cognitive Degradation
Back in January Ma'ikwe expressed concern that I might be losing cognitive ability. It relates to my habit of talking to myself (which I've done since I was a young child) and her sense both that the frequency of my doing it has increased and that I am not remembering what I'm saying to myself.


Here's an overview of the incident that caused her to voice her concern. We had been working together professionally and came to a friction point about how to proceed at the end of a long day. After deciding how to handle the moment with the client, we retired to our apartment. While we both knew we needed to discuss the tension that had just occurred, we didn't get to that right away and in the interim I was processing the experience, as I am wont to, by having a conversation with myself. 

A few minutes later, when I was discussing the awkward dynamic with Ma'ikwe, she confronted me with a phrase she overheard me use while I was subvocalizing—something that was critical of her—and I reported that I had no relation to having said that. Mind you, I wasn't denying that I had said it (because I rarely have a clear memory of all that I say when talking with myself); I was only saying that I didn't relate to having said it. For Ma'ikwe this was evidence of cognitive loss. She was clear that I'd said it (and only moments before), so how could I possibly not access it? This scared her.

While I didn't like hearing that I might be losing cognitive ability, I also didn't trust that I would notice if I was, so it made sense to me to look into it (which idea was reinforced by our couples counselor when we shared the story with her). Because of my travel schedule, yesterday was my first opportunity to broach this subject with my physician.

Hoyel said the kind of test he could administer was aimed at people with clear signs of dementia which he could tell wasn’t what was going on with me after only a couple minutes of talking. There are, he went on to report, much deeper, more subtle tests available (the kind of things that take a couple days to conduct), but he said I’d be looking at around $2500 for those tests, which was more money than I was willing to spend (at least at this point).

I explained about my talking to myself, and he reported that it’s entirely possible for a person to subvocalize something that they’re not consciously aware of, and he thus didn’t take Ma’ikwe's experience of me not recalling what she’d just heard me say as necessarily meaning anything—all the more so in that I wasn’t getting any other data (so far!) regarding my dropping balls.

To be sure, this does not prove anything, and he understood my concern about not putting myself forward as a professional facilitator if I’m losing my ability to track well. However, he made the point that if the shift is so subtle that it’s hard to detect, then why worry about it, and that there’s not much I can do about advancing dementia anyway (if that’s what’s happening). Thus, he recommended keeping an open mind about watching for symptoms, because it will start getting more obvious if that’s what’s going on, or else it’s not happening—in which case there’s nothing to do.

That was good enough for me.

2. Sore Ribs
I explained my recent journey with back pain, going all the way back to Oct. When I got to the part about responding poorly to a recent chiropractic adjustment, followed by sore ribs near the top of my sternum, he felt my front ribs and it was clear to him that they were out of position (and therefore it was no wonder that they were painful). Knowing that I was tender, he tried a gentle technique to pop them back into position, but it didn’t work (rats!). He said he could have me to lie on my stomach while he “pounded them” back into place but I declined (I couldn’t imagine the pain).

Instead he gave me an exercise I could do myself (on hands and knees) to try to slide the ribs back in and recommended that I to do this 2-3 times daily until the ribs repositioned themselves. This at least I can do myself, limiting the pain to what I can handle. I realize that I have been walking somewhat hunched over because pushing my ribs out is somewhat painful, but now I know I should be breathing deeply and working more deliberately on good posture. (Having an idea what’s going on is so helpful.)

In any event, the rib pain has diminished and is less acute (whew). I can cook and tend the fire, but no roller skating or break dancing.

3. Cramping Feet
I’ve been noticing this on and off for months and it was on my mind to mention because I experienced it in both feet the night before the appointment. Hoyel recommended an OTC magnesium supplement so I picked up some 500 mg tablets on the way home and I had no cramping last night. So this may be a relatively simple fix. (Whoopee!)

4. Arthritis on my Spine
When Hoyel looked at the CT scan on my abdomen (done in early Dec when doctors were looking for kidney stones) he noticed that I have considerable arthritis on my spine. Uh oh. Although I am not aware of any symptoms relating to that, it’s certainly something to keep in mind. For one thing, I’m glad to have lost 30 pounds since Oct (less to pack around and less strain on my back, as well as my heart).

It looks like I'll need to be paying particular attention to range of motion exercises (needed anyway because of my prolonged inactivity since Oct), emphasizing good posture (do you detect a theme here?), knee-to-chest stretching, gentle spinal twisting, and cow-cat rotation of the pelvic girdle. I'm thankful that I've gotten the heads up about this from Hoyel, instead of from my back.

So that’s me as of yesterday. Now I'm ready to spring ahead. Merry Equinox everyone!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

50 Shades of Consensus, Part II

The first 25 shades of dysfunctional consensus were posted March 2. This is the conclusion.

26. Putting a 20-Pound Meeting in a 10-Pound Sack
If groups are not disciplined about matching the amount of time truly needed to work topics with the amount of meeting time available, there's a tendency to try to get it all done by shoehorning, which leads to blisters. If you have five topics ready to go and you expect each to take 40 minutes, don't try to do all five in a two-hour meeting. Better to handle well the most pressing three, and set the other two aside for another time. Pressuring people to swallow food that has been inadequately chewed leads to indigestion and is a poor bargain.

27. Always Having Plenaries at the Same Time
While there's something to be said for regularity (if it's 2 pm Sunday do you know where your meeting is?), there may be no time of the week that works well for everyone. If you're struggling with some people frequently missing meetings and you miss their voice, consider mixing up your meeting times. Some people work hard and long and can only attend evening sessions; others are exhausted after dinner and unable to contribute well then; others religiously protect Sunday afternoons for family (or football). Offer a choice.

28. Filling Positions with Volunteers
One of the challenges with many consensus groups is that they depend substantially on filling manager and committee slots based on which members puts their hand in the air first. While this may work fine for who oversees the Thursday Night Bowling Club, there are key positions where groups need high trust and discretion from the people in those slots, and a call for volunteers is a chancy proposition. Being more deliberate will pay dividends.

29. Not Specifying the Qualities Wanted from Positions of Responsibility
If you take to heart the previous point, the careful selection of people to fill positions will be much more satisfactory if you can take the additional step of specifying the qualities you want from managers or committee members before you select them—so that you've established some objective screens to use in the assessment of candidates. Otherwise it tends to be a popularity contest.

30. No Term Limits
Sometimes members settle into a certain niche in how they serve the group as a volunteer (it could be accounting; cooking the common meal every Sunday evening; being the in-house IT expert; serving on the Steering Committee). While this is invariably meant well and the person may be fairly good at what they do, without term limits it can become virtually impossible to get that person out of the role to make room for new blood. Better, I think, is the expectation that after so much time (five years?) that the priority be given to new folks to fill roles—which means no change if no one else wants the job, yet otherwise provides for hybrid vigor and deals even-handedly with any tendencies toward entrenchment (where others are reluctant to join a committee because old so-and-so, who's difficult to work with, is on it and has been there forever).

31. No Evaluation—of Managers & Committees
Another way to get traction on managers or committees that are not functioning well is to become diligent about periodically evaluating (every two years?) their performance. I'm talking about all managers and committees—not just those deemed problematic. The last thing you want is for a request to evaluate to be seen as an invitation to a hanging. Evaluations should be a time to celebrate what's working well, not just a chance to poke at the sore spots. For this to work you'll need to establish generic objectives for the process (for example, are they accomplishing their work in a timely manner?; are they playing nice with others?; are they meeting our expectations for reporting on what they're doing?; if it's a committee, is there good morale among members?) and assign someone (Process Committee?) to oversee its administration. Most groups are poor at this.

32. No Evaluation—of Plenaries
Parallel to the last point is developing a culture where the group regularly evaluates plenaries, so that there's a feedback loop on how you're doing your business. Plenary time is expensive (in a group of 30 you're burning an hour of people's time every two minutes) and you want to be mindful about using it well. The point of evaluations (maybe five minutes at the end) is to reflect on how well (or how poorly) the plenary functioned while the experience is still fresh and the data can come from the head and the heart. Then the facilitators (or whatever group is responsible for running the meetings) can take that in and adjust as needed. You don't want to settle for so-so plenaries (that you're able to survive); you want great plenaries—where you're able to thrive!

33. Sloppy Mandates
One the things that undermines (or at least complicates) attempts at evaluation (Point 31 above) is the lack of clarity about what managers and committees are supposed to do. In the interest of effective delegation it's imperative that plenaries craft crisp and comprehensive mandates that spell out such things as duties, authority to act on the plenary's behalf, what values are expected to be reflected in actions and decisions, resources available, and reporting expectations. When mandates are sloppy, the work of managers and committees is often reviewed and second-guessed by the plenary. Not only is this inefficient (contributing mightily to the phenomenon of agenda overload), but it seriously degrades morale.

34. Undefined Leadership
All groups need leadership. While cooperative groups understandably are allergic to autocratic leadership, we still need people who are inspiring, who are wise, who can think strategically, who can organize, who are sensitive to relationships, who are able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, etc. In most cases, cooperative groups (which groups using consensus strive to be) are looking for members who can be leaders in certain roles (such as the person in charge of organizing the winter solstice celebration; or the honcho for constructing a new cistern); they are not looking for someone to be "the leader." It can help enormously if the group actually takes the time to define what it wants from people taking on leadership functions, both so that people putting themselves forward will know what's expected, and so that you have some objective criteria with which to measure people against if there is tension.

35. Hot Potato of Accountability
A lot of cooperative groups struggle with the issue of accountability—holding people's feet to the fire when perceived to be coloring outside the lines. This comes in two flavors: a) behavior that does not align with group agreements (say, being aggressive and belligerent when advocating for their viewpoint); and b) failure to complete a task in a satisfactory way (you're late, went over budget, were disrespectful to co-workers, did the work poorly, etc). As it's inevitable that this dynamic will occur, you need to create an understanding and culture that addresses it, rather than one that allows it to fester and become anaerobic. You need, I believe, a known channel by which any member of the group can approach another about critical feedback they have about how they're functioning as a member of the group—all with an overarching goal of being constructive, rather than punitive or shaming.

36. Failing to Pair Rights with Responsibilities
When someone is upset it's relatively common for them to insist on their right be heard—which is a real thing—while forgetting that this is paired with the responsibility to listen and take into account the viewpoints of others. This dynamic can be further complicated by the person stating their upset in a provocative way (featuring "you" statements instead of "I" statements). On the one hand, listeners may be inspired in the moment to comment on the provocative way that the upset person is expressing themselves. This, however, does not land well for the upset person, who is trying desperately to be heard. Untangling this rats nest often requires that someone be able to set aside their distaste with the upset person's delivery to focus instead on their point and why it matters, with the intention of later—after the upset person reports feeling heard, which invariably leads to deescalation—getting around to giving that person feedback about their delivery and asking them now to extend to others the same respect and attention they demanded for themselves.

37. Defusing the Stalemate of Who Gets Heard First
Often, when someone feels outraged, they'll have a story about how they have been denied a right that has not been addressed (they were disrespected, their input was blown off, someone was allowed to dump on them in public with no consequences, the group responds in a condescending manner when the person reports uneasy feelings or discordant intuition). Because this slight may be unknown to others, it may appear that the upset person is the aggressor, and others will want to start to unpack the dynamic by focusing on how they have been dissed by the upset person. However, to the upset person, the roots of the dynamic start with how they have been dissed, and they naturally prefer that the unpacking begin with a focus on them. Even though, in the end, it doesn't make a whit of difference where you start so long as both sides get air time, it can be the very devil breaking the initial logjam.

38. Learning How to Have Hard Conversations
The trickiest conversations are those where there's non-trivial disagreement and the stakes are high. However, within that class, there is a subset that's even dicier: topics that are known to also touch the third rail of personal integrity or the possibility that you (or a love one) will be voted off the island. Examples include: a) power dynamics (the perception that someone has misused their influence for the benefit of some at the expense of others; b) the limits of diversity (defining when the group is being asked to stretch too far); and c) involuntary loss of rights (the conditions under which a member may have their rights curtailed, perhaps by virtue of persistent non-compliance with group agreements, or an egregious act that endangers life or property). These are thermonuclear topics, about which groups are well advised to think ahead about how they want to handle them pre-need. Hint: ducking doesn't work.

39. Navigating the Boundary Between Public and Private
Consensus groups, almost by definition, are attempts to create a culture where the balance point between public (group business) and private (individual or household business) is intentionally shifted more toward the public end, by which I mean that some level of things that are considered wholly private in the mainstream are seen as group business in cooperative culture. The trick is knowing where the line is. Most delicate of all are those dynamics that are some of both. Take for example the case where two couples split up because the partner in one couple wants to get together with a partner in the other couple, and all of this proceeds against the wishes of the ex-partners. While there is nothing original (or even rare) about this script, it illuminates the issue. On the one hand, everyone will agree that the choice about intimate partners is a private matter, yet the outcome of a switcheroo like this has obvious impact on group dynamics and it can be paralyzing to witness this and have no sense about whether or in what circumstances it's OK to explore the feelings that come up. To be clear, the individuals do not need the group's blessing to proceed, yet the group needs a way to collectively process the shake-up or it undercuts the relationships that are the lifeblood of the group.

40. Failing to Define Emergency Powers… Until There's an Emergency
Groups can go a long time—even decades—without facing an emergency that requires a streamlined response. The problem is that you don't know if and when an emergency will occur and it's too late to establish a process once you're in one. (If the house is on fire you don't call a meeting, you call the fire department.) Thus, it behooves groups using consensus to define the circumstances in which it's prudent to have a small group make decisions on behalf of the whole for the duration of the emergency. This includes: a) the conditions under which emergency powers can be invoked; b) the specific powers granted to the emergency group; c) who will comprise the emergency group; d) the process by which invoking happens; e) the reporting standards by which the whole group is informed what is happening; and f) the assessment afterwards about how well that went. Don't wait for the common house to catch fire!

41. Email from Hell
In this electronic age, a great deal of communication happens via email. While some of that is excellent (making announcements, posting minutes and reports, sending background materials ahead of major discussions) it is not well suited to all forms of communication. In particular, it is an incendiary way to express upset. In the worst cases people will say provocative things in email they would not say face-to-face, which is toxic to relationships. Worse, there is almost unlimited opportunity to misinterpret tone, emphasis, hyperbole, and sarcasm in email—all things that are much more easily corrected when people are communicating in the same room. Thus, groups are well served by developing protocols for the healthy use of email. Leaving it all up to individual discretion is naive.

42. Falling in Love with One Format
While the spirit of consensus is that the input of all members is welcome, meetings are never a level playing field and wise groups take that into account. The default format for most groups is open discussion, where people speak on a topic roughly in the order in which they indicate that they are ready. While that approach is meant to be evenly accessible to all, not everyone is equally comfortable speaking in front of the whole group, nor does everyone digest information and know their own mind at the same pace. Thus, some people wind up talking a lot more than others, and some may rarely speak. To address this, some groups embrace Go Rounds, where everyone has a protected chance to speak, and air space is much more evenly distributed. Unfortunately, Go Rounds are slow and there's a fair amount of repetition. The point is that there is no single format that works best all the time and groups are well served by facilitation that mixes things up. Do your facilitators have the latitude to do this? Do they have a sufficiently large toolkit and understanding of the tools to pair formats with what's needed?

43. Creating Constructive Containers
One of the most important skills of the consensus facilitator is setting things up to succeed by establishing the right stage (narrowing the focus of the conversation to something small enough to be digestible, yet large enough to be interesting); establishing the right tone (constructive, creative, and compassionate; rather than critical, combative, or compromising); and then getting out of the way, letting the wisdom of the group bubble up in that favorable environment.

44. Bloodless Facilitators
For some reason, a lot of people think that being a neutral facilitator means a neutered facilitator. No! You can be passionate without having a dog in the fight, or letting your ego get in the way of progress. You can care deeply that we're getting to the heart of the matter and that no one is being run over, without taking sides or trying to peddle a solution. You can empathize when people are contributing heartfelt feelings, and cheer when a bridge is discovered between seemingly intractable positions. To paraphrase Emma Goldman, I believe the facilitator's mantra should be: If I can't dance it isn't my meeting.

45. Everyone Has a Role
I figure that for all topics that the plenary tackles, every member will have one of two relationships to each: either they'll give a damn, or they won't. If they do it's relatively obvious why that should be engaged—they care about the outcome and would like to influence it. More subtle is why to be engaged if the outcome matters little. The way I see it, you are perfectly positioned to safeguard the process, to help people bridge to each other and not get bogged down in the trenches of their positions. You can help people hear each other and remember to think about what's best for the group—not with judgment, but with compassion. It's not just the facilitator's responsibility to safeguard process; it's everyone's responsibility.

46. Failure to Invoke Common Values
The lode star for plenary agreements is how to sensitively balance the applicable group values to the issue at hand. Obviously, the first step is knowing what your common values are. The second, more nuanced step, is inviting them into the conversation at the earliest opportunity so that they can be on the table as active elements when crafting a response. It is not enough that your values exist etched on a stone tablet that rests in a trophy case gathering dust in the living of the common house (next to the portraits of dead founders). They need to be alive and in the room guiding your work and being adapted to emerging shifts in who the group is and intends to be. Lacking a rudder, there is a lot of drift and decisions influenced by force of personality.

47. Welcoming Emotions
Many groups are uncertain what to do with emotional input. Mostly they hope it goes away and doesn't cause too much damage on the way through town. There's a lot of holding one's breath and hoping for the best. We can do better. Emotions can be volatile, sure, and people can undoubtedly be hurt by their raw expression. Yet emotions are also a source of information (people can know things more deeply through their heart than their mind) and a source of energy. (Who says meetings have to be energetically flat?) If you think of emotions as the flow of water through a fire hose, I suggest preparing for those moments when the flow is high by learning to hold the hose, not by reaching for the valve to shut down the water.

48. Expecting New Members to Pick it Up By Osmosis
Consensus is an unnatural act—at least for those of us raised in the competitive, adversarial overculture, which is just about everyone. Thus, it's not particularly smart to assume that new members are going to take to consensus like ducks to water. They need help. Having new people watch plenaries and absorb it through observation is a start but you need more. Have an experienced member sit with the new folks afterwards and walk through what happened. Take the time to train new members in the culture shift needed for consensus to thrive; it will be time well spent.

49. Disinviting Don Rickles
One of the trickier aspects of cooperative group dynamics is knowing how to work with the two-edged sword of humor. While it can provide a much-needed leavening and ease, it can also be overdone (pulling people prematurely out of a tender moment), strained (forced humor tends to be worse than none), or even divisive (think sarcasm and put-down humor, a la Don Rickles, where someone is isolated as the the butt of the joke). At its nastiest, humor can be used to zing poisoned darts across the room, where criticism is voiced without attribution ("Oh, I was only making a joke; I didn't mean anything."). You want your facilitators to root this out, rather than unwittingly enabling it by letting it slide.

50. Faithless Consensus
Finally, a word about the power of expectations. Mostly people recreationally bash meetings like they complain about the weather, perhaps not understanding how outcomes are influenced by projections of dismal meetings (where the group will be inefficient, people will listen poorly, little will get accomplished, you'll get a headache, etc). For the most part your reality will be profoundly guided by your expectations. If you expect a poor meeting, you are already 90% of the way toward having one—even before the meeting has started! The good news is that this can be turned around. Fifty years ago the Lovin' Spoonful released their pop hit, Do You Believe in Magic? That question is completely contemporary when applied to consensus. There will be no magic unless you believe.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Dancing with Stars

[7 am] I awoke on the westbound Empire Builder this morning, running along the Columbia River, inbound for Portland. Today I will see Ma'ikwe for the first time since she told me she wants out of the marriage Feb 6. While I'm definitely looking forward to it, there's also wonderment at what will unfold. It's not as if I'm in control.

She's two weeks into her six-week sustainability tour, and is growing as a rock star in the burgeoning world of sustainability education, springboarding off her October 2013 TEDx talk ("Sustainable Is Possible") she's managed to line up speaking gigs like Rockettes. For the next two days we get to dance together—some on stage (giving a live demonstration of high-end facilitation at Cascadia Commons in Portland OR), but mostly in private, as we perform our minuet of intimacy with minor chords of sadness.

[10 am] As soon as I got off the train in Portland (six minutes early, mind you—go Amtrak) I sat on a bench in the Waiting Area, got connected via wifi and posted a long report while I downloaded the 40 or so messages that had queued up in the 46 hours I had been offline. I was just starting to walk through the messages when Ma'ikwe walked up and gave me a hug. It was great to see her (and to get her help schlepping luggage to the car sent to collect me).

[11 am] After settling in at Cascadia Commons, Ma'ikwe and I had a two-hour conversation about where we were, where we wanted to get to, and the best path for accomplishing that.

I was able to tell her that I still wanted relationship with her and had considerable latitude about what that might look like, so long as it was something that she embraced as well. Her answers in this matter, I felt, would have considerable bearing on the matter of where it made most sense for me to be living. On the one hand stood the litany of criticisms that informed her decision to ask for a divorce. On the other stood her genuine offer to continue as teaching partners, and the rekindled warmth with which she's been solicitous about my recent health challenges and her eagerness to swap observations about what we're noticing these days—a measure of how well we know each other and respect each others' insights. It's been confusing, and I wanted to check this out while looking each other in the eye.

Ma'ikwe was able to affirm a mutual interest in remaining close friends, yet she's clear that she wants to proceed with the divorce and cease our sexual relationship. That might be revisited in the future, but she cautioned me not to count on it. She is downright positive about teaching together and was promotional about our living together at Dancing Rabbit (in separate houses).

It felt good to express clearly and directly what I want. Though Ma'ikwe offered half a loaf and not a full one, there was nonetheless sustenance her response and I came away calm and with something to chew on. Retaining my best friend is a definite plus, and was enough to justify my looking deeper at cost of living issues as a data point in my search for where next to call home.

By confirming her desire to move forward with our divorce, it was pertinent to take a closer look at how to equitably separate our finances. While we have substantial areas of agreement (whew) there still remain some sensitive spots and it was awkward for both of us to steer clear of tensions relating to how we shared (or didn't share enough) financial decisions in the past and what constitutes generosity.

[2:30 pm] We took a break for 90 minutes and then repaired to a hot tub for another round of engagement in a more buoyant environment. While the precipitating financial questions are not all dissolved resolved, the gap has been considerably narrowed and I came away from the afternoon much relieved. The bottom line is that we'll be able to figure this out.

[8:30 pm] For two hours in the evening we ate Thai food and met with members of the Cascadia facilitation corps to discuss background on the topics we'll be addressing tomorrow. It was amazing how easily Ma'ikwe and I dropped into professional facilitator mode—like putting on a pair of old slippers.

As Ma'ikwe may need to leave Cascadia for another venue (to be in situ for a workshop she's leading Sunday at a different community) right after our work tomorrow concludes, she and I may not have another chance at our divorce minuet this visit. Having gotten off the train only this morning, it's a bit surreal to contemplate being back on board the eastbound Empire Builder Sunday afternoon. 

But today was worth it. I'm looking forward to sleeping on a bed that doesn't move tonight, and in the morning enjoying the rest of my unusual life.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Thomas Wolfe Was Right

In the four-plus weeks since Ma'ikwe told me she wanted a divorce, I've been sitting with the question of where is my home, or even, where do I want it to be. I had relinquished any claim to Sandhill (my home of 39 years) last summer, in the context of my recommitting to my marriage in July, and now I'm adrift.

And I moved to Dancing Rabbit (in November 2013) with the understanding that I was primarily investing in my marriage. While I liked DR, I wasn't planning to invest in it in the way I had Sandhill, in part because I was trying to husband time in my busy life to make more of it available to my partnership with Ma'ikwe—that being one of her points of dissatisfaction with me.

Now, inadvertently, I find myself with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to time. While this is unsettling and unlooked for, it is also opportunity—even if the ramifications are only now unfolding, like the petals of a flower that only blooms by the light of the full moon.

Here, in broad strokes, is the changing landscape of my life:

Partnership
It is both humbling and ironic that I have placed so much of my life force in my marriage—even shifting major commitments to devote more to it—only to have my partner unilaterally choose to go another way. I had meant for our commitment to be for life, yet it turned out be only for as long as I was able to retain my wife's interest.

Now, instead my marriage being a centerpiece of how I apportion my time, I am facing an immediate future completely devoid of that component.

To be sure, I have many precious relationships (which have been playing no small part in sustaining me through the emotional chaos of the last month), so I don't want to imply that I am friendless. That is not the case at all. I just don't have my partner and best friend—which is a very large hole in the bottom of my relationship boat.

Work
For decades my work scene has divided into three parts: a) as the main administrator for the Fellowship for Intentional Community; b) as a group process consultant and trainer; and c) and as a homesteader living on an organic farm. I have cherished all three roles and was very happy with that mix (not the least of which was the variety and spice it added to my life).

In deference to my advancing age and my wife's urging that I divide myself among fewer things so that there would be more available for the partnership (believe me, the dark humor in this has not escaped my attention) led me to exit Door C (my homesteader role at Sandhill) and to prepare for getting out of the center of FIC (Door A). 

This year we are replacing me with a new Development Director (we hired Aurora DeMarco last month and I'm training her now) and a new Executive Director (likely to be hired this spring). By the end of the year I expect to have all (or at least most) of my administrative tasks handed off, which will make an enormous difference in the time I devote to FIC, dropping it from 25-30 hours/week to less than five.

Door B is the one I'm retaining, along with writing.

Home
For the last four decades I've mostly taken this as a given: my home was Sandhill Farm. Then, at a crossroads in my marriage in 2013 (the crossroads before the current one), I chose my marriage over my community, and started a new adventure at DR. Though that hadn't lasted very long (15 months) before Ma'ikwe opted out of the marriage, now I'm a stateless citizen—since my main motivation in coming to DR was my partnership.

In the last four weeks I've been sitting with the novel question: where is home, or where do I want it to be? Here's a current overview of the possibilities:

—Dancing Rabbit
To be fair, Ma'ikwe is not asking me to leave DR, nor has anyone else at the community. Rather, it was my knee-jerk reaction to Ma'ikwe's decision. DR is her home and it didn't make sense to me to live under her shadow, especially with the critical things she had to say that led to her decision that I wasn't a suitable partner. I didn't need to be reminded of that.

Since then, however, there's been a shift and DR has been rehabilitated as a possibility. A big part of that is that I believe Ma'ikwe to be gracious and I don't think she wants me out of her life all together; just out of her bed. We have a dynamic and constructive teaching life together and we both want to continue that. Naturally, this would be facilitated working out of the same home base. Further, I feel confident that Ma'ikwe and I will be able to rescue a substantive friendship if aided by proximity. I'm confident that we can suss out that distance that still celebrates the attraction without engaging the repulsion.

Another attraction for me is ongoing participation in the Men's Group that meets weekly at DR. I've been part of that every Sunday evening that I'm on campus and ambulatory, and have come to highly appreciate the depth of caring and honesty that characterizes our time together.

—Sandhill
One thought I had early on is that I could try to recross the bridge I walked over in November 2013, to see if my old community would have me back. Sandhill has the advantage of known people, known land, and known rhythms, making it easier to plug in after forays to distant communities. Plus, Men's Group would be just as accessible from Sandhill (only three miles from DR).

For many years I was convinced that I'd die at Sandhill and was comforted by the thought. I would be going back to the Place where I had the most profound sense of home I've ever experienced. and that has a spiritual quality for me. The members there already have a good sense of the work in my life and what it means to me, and I could exchange my income for a room from which to write, read, and meditate. It's a cozy image.

But I had relinquished all claims to membership at the time of Ma'ikwe's and my recommitment ceremony last July, and the community was not obligated to have me back. From the road, I wrote and asked if I could meet with the community to discuss this when I was next in town. I turned out that there was no time in the March 4-10 window when everyone would be home, but Stan offered to get together with me and let me know what the group was thinking.

That happened Sunday. While assuring me that the community would absolutely be there for me if I had no other options, Stan gently let me know that the community felt it would be better if I didn't return. Sandhill has always been small and intimate, and since my departure there has developed a flow, ease, and camaraderie that is precious and that several members felt might be jeopardized by my coming back.

While sad, I accepted the news, appreciated the honesty and caring with which it was delivered, and knew right away that I did not want to impose myself on my old community. The energy would be all wrong. It evoked for me Thomas Wolfe's novel, You Can't Go Home Again, that was published posthumously in 1940. In it there is this dialog:

You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time—back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.
 
Though I had only been gone 15 months, the community had moved on and the bridge was closed. It was the risk I took in choosing Ma'ikwe.

—Near My Kids
It happened that I visited both my adult children in the days immediately following Ma'ikwe's announcement, and my daughter, Jo, reached out to me, suggesting that I consider finding a place to live in Las Vegas (where she and her husband, Peter, live happily). The point being that I could be nearer both of my adult children (Ceilee lives in Los Angeles, with my two grandkids) and it would be just as easy for me to travel from Las Vegas as anywhere else. 

Though Amtrak doesn't stop in Vegas any more, and trips to the East Coast (where over half of my work has been centered in recent years) would be a slog, I was both touched and attracted by this offer. I want more contact with family, and I never have too much time with my kids. Also, as a consequence of dating Ma'ikwe while she lived in Albuquerque, I discovered that I enjoy the desert climate (who knew?), so Jo's offer has merit.

—With Close Friends
Throughout the past month I've received a considerable outpouring of support from friends, which has been a balm on my bruised psyche. Included have been a number of offers to have me live with or near some of these folks. Perhaps in the same community.

My sister, Alison, offered me temporary sanctuary in her home in Chicago. My dear friend Annie (Ceilee's mother) offered her home to me in Floyd VA as well. I've been deeply touched and honored to receive these offerings.

In addition, I've been thinking about speaking with some of my closest friends to see if there'd be interest in forming a community together (a non-residential version of which is featured in the current issue of Communities: "Time for Tribe: Boomers Get Connected"). I haven't made any inquiries yet, but it's on my mind.

• • •
Taken all together, my life has undergone tremendous upheaval this past month (shaken, not stirred). On the one hand I'm sitting with terrific uncertainty, which may not yet be done unveiling itself—witness Sunday's conversation with Stan. On the other, I have unparalleled opportunity (something my Men's Group helped me see two nights ago). It's an interesting place to be, and that's what I'm concentrating on right now: just being and letting all the feelings and energy flow through and around me. It's fascinating, for example, that in all the swirl of emotions I've been experiencing, fear is not present, and anger only a little bit (thank you, EMDR).

I am not rushing to decisions, and Ma'ikwe is giving me room to sort things out, for which I am thankful. The work immediately in front of me is sorting things out with Ma'ikwe: where are we now, where are we headed, and how to get there as gracefully as possible. She is, after all, still the love of my life.

In the pre-dawn tomorrow, I'll board a train for Chicago, and then switch to the Empire Builder, bound for Portland OR, where I'll be with Ma'ikwe for two days. It will be the first time we'll have been in the same room, or even heard each other's voice, since her decision (all communications from Feb 6 to the present have been by email). In addition to doing a workshop together (planned well in advance of the divorce), we'll have the chance to delve more deeply into the questions I posed above.

I'm looking forward to it very much. 

P.S. I selected the title for this blog intuitively, and with no conscious thought of Ma'ikwe when I did. Rather, I was thinking about my relationship with Sandhill, which has been powerful in my life for a long time. I have realized only now, with amusement, that the wolf is Ma'ikwe's totem animal. Make of that portent what you will.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Laid Low Again

For the second time in four months, I'm laid up in bed with debilitating pain. And I'm getting really tired of it.

For the last five months I've been trying to recover from straining my lower back unloading heavy cases of food products from the back of a pickup while attending a fair in St Louis. At first it was just being careful to not lift anything heavy. Then, after three weeks of that I went on the road for a month and had to cope with secondary pain from muscles that had become sore from holding my body so protectively (a phenomenon that my friend Harvey refers to as "self-splinting"). My body was clenched in pain a lot and it was often excruciating getting in and out of bed.

I made it home from that trip right before Thanksgiving and pretty much collapsed into bed rest for three weeks. I just wasn't well enough to carry on normal functioning, even though I was studiously avoiding any serious lifting. As my mind was still active I read 10 books in December, which was a stimulating consolation prize.

As the pain gradually relinquished its grip, I slowly became more ambulatory and could start to work for stretches at a time sitting at my desk (instead of propped up in bed, as I am now). I was well enough to travel with Ma'ikwe mid-January to NC to conduct a facilitation training weekend, and felt better at the end than at the beginning. I was gaining!

Then I embarked on a month-long sojourn in early Feb. While the secondary pain in my back had mostly migrated to my ribs, I suffered a major emotional/psychic blow three days into the trip when Ma'ikwe announced via Skype that she had decided to end the marriage. While it's mysterious to me how the emotional body interacts with the physical one, I have no doubt that they do and Ma'ikwe's decision was decidedly a complication in my continued recovery. 

I arrived in Los Angeles for a six-day visit with my son (Ceilee) and grandkids (Taivyn & Connor) and immediately contracted a cold. I may have gotten it from Connor's sniffles or I may have picked it up on the train ride out, but either way I got it. The cold was run-of-the-mill and not particularly draining in and of itself, but a cold invariable leads to my getting a lingering cough, and that was aggravating for my sore ribs—like a knife being jabbed into my torso.

The cough went on for two weeks (about average for what I experience with a cold), during which I dreaded coughing and could do practically nothing to stop it. It was awful and my sore ribs persisted.

Fortunately the cough finally relented about a week ago, as I was finishing up facilitating a community retreat in Colorado, and I thought I was seeing light at the end of the tunnel… but no such luck. I had a bad reaction to some body work done last week that left soreness in my sternum (breastbone), and the minute I stepped off the train in La Plata MO Wed afternoon, it flared up into something so tender that I could barely lift anything. It was all I could do to get home and go to bed—where I've been the last three days, riding out the inflammation at the center of my top ribs.

On the good side, I'm being wonderfully supported (with fire tending and meals) by my caring neighbors (thank the goddess for community!) and I'm getting more reading in again (I'm deep into A Story Like the Wind by Laurens van der Post). 

That said, I've been wracking my brain trying to figure out which gods I pissed off last fall and what it will take to finally to expiate them. It's been as trying a five-month stretch as I've ever experienced.