Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Stop Spinning Your (Roulette) Wheels When Making Personnel Decisions

Overwhelmingly, intentional communities can think up governance structures faster than they can staff them. It's a problem. 

In my experience, communities generally do a fair job of puzzling out a decent way to set up committees (or teams) to oversee the major aspects of living together—for example, outdoor maintenance, common house management, common meals, budget and finance, celebrations, conflicts resolution, etc.

To be sure, there's a fair amount of variety and personal flair in how each group puts it together, and there's wonderful creativity in the names bestowed on some the committees. (For example, at newly built Durham Central Park, a cohousing group in North Carolina, their participation committee is called Workin' IT—or WIT, as in what they need about them when trying to figure out a good way to get everyone slotted into community tasks.) In the spirit of being WITty, I want to shine the spotlight today on the challenge of filling committee slots in intentional communities, which are filled on a volunteer basis (though in some groups there's a clear expectation that everyone serve somewhere).

In my experience (I've worked with perhaps 100 groups in my 27 years as a process consultant) it's essentially universal that communities have more committee slots than people who are actively and competently filling them. There are, I believe, a number of factors that contribute to this phenomenon. Here are five:

o  The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak
Often people sign up for committees with good intentions, but piling more food on an over-full plate does not necessarily mean you can eat it all. Perhaps people are agreeing to serve on a committee simply to be agreeable, and have no intention of actually doing the work. In any event, it's relatively common for communities to report that some non-trivial fraction of the people who have accepted committee assignments are there in name only.

o  Unaddressed tension arising from uneven participation
Sometimes what starts out well doesn't continue that way. Good intentions often devolve into some members being perceived as not carrying their weight (so-called Slackers), while others (perhaps) are doing more than is asked of them yet complaining of their workload and expect special rights by virtue of their contributions (so-called Martyrs). While it's fairly common that imbalances will occur and that these will lead to tensions, the real question is whether the group has developed a way to talk about the tensions and work through them (Every so often—perhaps every couple years—it's a good idea to set aside time explicitly to tackle this head on. Think of it like going to the dentist to get your teeth cleaned. See the spring 2008 issue of Communities magazine for an article of mine devoted to the Martyrs & Slackers dynamic and how to address it.)

o  Timidity in responding to interpersonal tensions 
This goes well beyond Martyrs & Slackers stuff, to include garden variety interpersonal tensions, style clashes, and personalities that don't mix well, resulting in: a) individuals who attempt to serve on committees together and rue the results; or b) in those so who have gotten off to such a poor start with another member that they don't even care to try to serve with that person on the same committee. 

The larger issue is whether the group offers sufficiently skillful support for members struggling to resolve interpersonal tensions, and whether the members have the courage and humility to ask for help.

o  Weak delegation of authority
If committees are only set up to do grunt work for the plenary, and are given no authority to act without plenary approval, serving on committees is often viewed as scut work, and not very rewarding. The good news is that this can be turned around by creating mandates that give committees clear guidance about the kinds of things they can handle on their own, and when they need to consult. Committees operating on a short leash tend to feel stifled; empowered committees tend to be much happier.

o  Lack of accountability
It tends to be awkward for communities to hold their members accountable for behaving in line with agreements and following through on commitments. While I get it that this can be uncomfortable, it doesn't get less so because it's ignored. And I'm not talking about draconian punishments; I'm just talking about a baseline expectation that it you're perceived to be coloring outside the lines, someone has a right to ask you about it and it's your responsibility to show up for a good faith attempt to sort it out.

• • •
While it might well be worthwhile addressing some of the causes named above, what can you do meanwhile to cope with the fact that slots aren't being filled well? I have five ideas about that:

1. Stop taking volunteers from the plenary floor
Sadly, most communities largely fill committee slots by announcing openings in plenary and gratefully accepting the first people to raise their hand. You can do better than that. While I have no problem with testing the waters for general interest in plenary; please don't make the assignments based simply on who volunteers first. That's committee roulette. 

While I understand the saying "beggers can't be choosers," I believe creating some intentionality and esprit de corps can make a difference. How? Read on.

2. Create mandates for committees (and managerships) that spell out expectations
If you want to be more careful about selecting the right people for assignments, first you have to have a common understanding of what the job entails—so people know what they're assessing candidates for. That means a thorough job description.

While it will take some effort to put all this in place on the front end, once you have it, it will only occasionally need tweaking.

3. Create a list of qualities wanted from people serving in positions of responsibility
Answers here will vary according to the job (because, or course, what's wanted varies by job). For example, you probably want attention to detail as a desirable quality for an accounting position, while sociability may not enter the equation. For someone serving on Conflict Resolution you probably want to rate discretion high, yet not care a fig about their familiarity with spread sheets. You get the idea.

Note: If you're talking about committees, it can be useful distinguishing between qualities that you want some members of the committee have, and qualities you want all members of the committee to possess.

4. Self-assessment
Once the group signs off on 2. and 3. above, ask members to self-assess for suitability on the basis of three questions relative to the job:

a) Do you have the skills needed for this assignment?
Essentially, do you have the qualities the community has decided it wants for this job? Mind you, there's no guarantee that others in the community will agree with your self-assessment, but at least it provides a somewhat objective basis for that conversation (rather than it simply being a beauty contest).

There's also an additional nuance here: is the community committed to providing opportunities to learn skills it depends on? If so, it may make good sense to select people as apprentices to pair with more experienced folks so that there's a larger pool of competency to draw from in the future. If you always select your most experienced person, there's no growth.

Taking this point about opportunities one step further, do you want to set term limits for how long people can serve in a position? Sometimes people can get pretty comfortable in a certain slot and nobody else gets a chance. Is that OK? Continuity and experience are one thing; entrenchment and fiefdoms are another.

b) Do you have the availability needed for this assignment?
The most obvious meaning is are there enough hours left on your dance card after subtracting for employment, commuting, unwinding (recharging the battery), family time, other community duties, spiritual practice, etc, to actually do the work. However, it's more subtle than that. It's not just do you have the time; do you have the psychic bandwidth to engage in this work with grace and good energy? Remember, we're expressly not encouraging martyrdom.

Further, some jobs are difficult to budget for. Where accounting responsibilities tend to be highly predictable and uniform in terms of the time it takes to do the work each month, duties on the Conflict Resolution Team are notoriously unpredictable: one month nothing and the next 20 hours. Do you have the kind of flexibility needed for this job?

c) How motivated are you to do this work?
This is about whether you want the job. Would it be fun, or growthful in ways that attract you? Maybe it makes a difference who you'll be working with—if so, be sure to put that out. It might be a good idea to ask candidates what factors, or changes in the job, would make it more attractive. Maybe there are simple ways to alter how the job is configured to enhance motivation.

Once you've done all this, now you're in a much better position to make committee selections (with the added bonus that people serving on committees are much more likely to enjoy serving).

5. Periodically evaluate performance
Now that you're clicking on all cylinders, don't forget to close the information loop. By building into each job the expectation that there be a periodic performance evaluation, you get to check to see if mandates need adjusting, managers are doing their job, and committees are playing nice with one another.

One last thing: it's a good idea to conduct exit interviews when people step down from assignments. Ask questions like:
—How good was the experience for them?
—Did they get the cooperation they needed to do a good job?
—Were their contributions appreciated?
—Did they get support from the community when they asked for it?
—Did they wish they'd done anything differently?
—Does the mandate need tightening, or revisions made to the list of qualities wanted for people doing this job?
• • •
We're talking about intentional communities, right? Then doesn't it make sense to be intentional about filling positions of responsibility?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Group Works: Shared Airtime

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 ninth pattern in this segment is labeled Shared Airtime. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card: 

Everyone deserves to be heard, and everyone has a piece of the truth. Find ways to invite sharing from all, not just the loudest, most senior, or most articulate. Actively draw out the wisdom of quieter or hesitant participants.

Overwhelmingly, intentional communities aspire to develop cooperative culture (in contrast with the competitive culture of the mainstream). In pursuit of that, consensus is the most common form of decision-making among communities.

There are two main roots of consensus: Native American culture (witness the Iroquois Confederation) and the Religious Society of Friends, aka Quakers, who have relied on it to reach congregational decisions their entire history. Of the two, the Quaker tradition has had the stronger influence on the way consensus is practiced among cooperative groups today (a tip of the cap here to the trail blazing work done in the '70s by anti-nuclear activists—think Clamshell Alliance and Movement for a New Society—to adapt consensus to secular settings).

Quaker practice (which goes back three centuries and change) happens in a spiritual context, and there is a phrase associated with the Quaker approach which can be traced all the way back to George Fox, the original articulator of Quaker beliefs (circa 1650): "There is that of God in everyone." While George was probably thinking about there being no excuse for wickedness and corruption because God acts as a witness within us all, this phrase has been passed down through the years and is more commonly interpreted today to support pacifism (to kill another is to kill a piece of God) and environmental consciousness (in the sense that God dwells in all living things).

In the case of intentional communities, most rely on a secular adaptation of consensus, where there is no assumption of spiritual alignment among the membership, nor is there an attempt to find the way forward by discerning divine guidance. Instead, many have translated "that of God in everyone" to "everyone has a piece of the truth."

It's important to understand that this does not necessarily mean that everyone has a unique piece of the truth, such that everyone's piece needs to be assiduously solicited and identified before the best response can be formulated. Rather, it means that it's a healthy baseline assumption that everyone has something relevant to contribute to the consideration—though they may not necessarily be adept at articulating what that is, and their contribution may have already been covered by others.

With this in mind, I think it's worthwhile to create a way (or ways) for all participants to contribute what they have on the topic with minimal impedance. This accomplishes two things: a) doing the best you can to see that all potentially useful input has been gathered; and b) enhancing the likelihood of solid buy-in with the outcome—because people who feel heard are much more likely to hear; people who feel stretched toward, are more likely to stretch toward others.

Many groups stumble here because they make the naive assumption that open discussion is an equally accessible format for all participants, just because it's intended to be. The fact is, some people are quicker thinkers than others, some are quicker at composing what they want to say, some are more comfortable speaking in front of a large group. 

Some of this can be addressed by varying formats (Hint: If you're in the habit of gathering input the same way every time, you're susceptible to inadvertently creating dead spots, where contributions from some segments of your group are systematically under-represented because the format doesn't have a clear on-ramp for their input.)

What do I mean? Instead of open conversation, where people simply speak as they are ready and called upon, consider:

o  Rounds
Where you go around the circle with everyone being given a chance to speak in turn, and no one speaks twice until everyone who cares to has spoken once.

o  Small Group Work
Having the full group break into smaller circles of 3-5 people where those who find speaking in front of larger numbers daunting can practice what they want everyone to know in a less intimidating setting.

o  Individual Writing
Some people are better able to express themselves in writing than orally. You can cater to that by occasionally giving everyone time (five minutes?) to jot down the points they want to make before speaking begins.

o  Spectrum
Instead of using words, you can ask people to position themselves along a line that indicates where they stand (literally) between two extremes positions (say those who think affordability trumps everything at one end of the line, and those who think environmental impact is supreme at the other, with those who prefer some balancing of the two somewhere in the middle). This is a way that important meaning can be conveyed without using words at all (though it's often helpful to have people explain why they chose their position).

Finally, let's focus on what it means to "draw out the wisdom" of:

—The Inarticulate 
If this is a question of stage fright, changing formats may make a difference (see the options above). It might also help if the facilitator can be their ally: "Take a moment to organize your thoughts and try again, We'll wait for you."

Further, the facilitator may be able to help by offering an educated guess at the speaker's meaning. Even if the facilitator gets it wrong, it will eliminate a possible misunderstanding and demonstrate to the person struggling that there's help in the room.

—The Obscure
Sometimes people have an unusual way of organizing thoughts (perhaps English is not their native tongue). In cases like this translation is often needed. The facilitator (or anyone else inspired) can attempt to paraphrase what has been said such that: a) the speaker agrees that it conveys their point(s); and b) the meaning is now accessible to the rest of the group. Voila—the curtain has been raised and meaning revealed.

—The Overwhelmed
If it's nerves, a different format may help. Another option is taking a break and having the facilitator sit down (or go for a walk) with the tongue-tied for the purpose of helping them gather their thoughts. If it's a pattern, the facilitator may even anticipate this dynamic and spend time ahead of the meeting with persons prone to having their boat get swamped, providing them with a prompt about what to prepare for.

—The Marginalized
When people feel marginalized, they don't experience others caring about their input. Worse, if this is a pattern, they typically go into meetings expecting to not be cared about. The antidote is explicitly working to contradict that. This means making sure that their input is solicited (in a way that's accessible to that person), not moving on until that person reports that they've been heard correctly, and then making sure that their input has been duly considered in developing the group response. (Note: I'm not promising that they'll be agreed with.)

If all of this sounds remedial, that's because it is. It takes effort to repair damage. 

—The Upset
If someone is experiencing non-trivial distress, it's important (even essential) that this be attended to before attempting to connect with, or process that person's input about what needs to be taken into account or how to proceed. The idea here is that upset functions as virtual earwax that distorts what the person hears, and your first order of business is unclogging the ears. Ignoring it simply doesn't work.

The bad news is that most groups are not adept at working authentically and non-judgmentally with distress. The good news is that it can be learned.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Bridge Too Far

I've taken the title of this essay from a World War II book by Cornelius Ryan, which chronicles the story of a failed attempt by Allied Forces in the fall of 1944 to break through the German lines at Arnhem and cross the Rhein River. It is a high stakes example of overreaching in pursuit of a noble cause (in this case, ending the war as quickly as possible).

While taking chances occurs in all cultures, I'm narrowing the focus of today's essay to how this unfolds in a cooperative context.

One of the many facets of leadership [see Cooperative Leadership from A to Z] is aspirational—the ability to pull the group forward into the unknown, especially when the group is unlikely to go there on its own. What makes this a compelling topic is that this can work wonderfully and it can be a disaster... or some of both.

People can stretch—often more than they think they can—but only so far. Where is the limit, and how do you know you're close to it?

Suppose the issue is whether to build a new community center because you intend to grow and the old one is at capacity. The questions are many:

o  How large a group are you aiming to accommodate in the new facility? Partly this is a question of rate of growth (to what extent are you willing to rely on past trends to continue)? Partly this is a question of the life expectancy of the new building.

o  To what extent do you want the new facility to be an enhancement or upgrade from current facilities? Buildings are a long-term highly visible statement of values. Other things being equal, you want to be proud of that statement.

o  How much financial burden are current members willing to accept? If population does not surge forward, or otherwise falls short of projections, that means existing members will have to shoulder more of the debt load. There's a limit to what people can bear and still grin.

o  Undertaking a large project means that money and labor are not available for other projects. Is this facility the group's most pressing need? Is it acceptable that most other projects are on hold?

o  To what extent should you try to fund the building through savings, to what extent through donations, and to what extent through loans? Waiting to accumulate sufficient savings tends to equate with delays; borrowing tends to be easier to secure than donations, but you have to handle debt load. Donations are nice (manna from heaven), yet most groups do not have a robust fundraising program and starting from scratch takes time.

Having witnessed a number of cooperative groups go through the wringer in pursuit of securing and maintaining buy-in for a major building initiative, here's a list of things that leaders might keep in mind:

1. Tracking the Energy
In general, you can expect a certain amount of nervousness associated with any proposal to undertake a large project. For the risk averse this will be knee-jerk scary and you'll need to work through this, not bulldoze over it. That means making sure that you are able to demonstrate to the naysayers' satisfaction that you have heard their reservations and are being responsive in ways that feel respectful to them. Caution: this not about the leaders being in integrity; it's about the leaders being able to successfully build and maintain a bridge to the risk averse.

While this guidance obtains for any group working with consensus, regardless of the issue, the stakes are much higher here and therefore the penalty for getting this wrong is much greater.

2. Knitting Support at Tortoise Pace
There are times to go fast and times to go slow. It is crucial, for example, when you're developing group approval for the initial plan that you go no faster than your slowest thinkers. (Don't mishear me: slow thinkers are not inferior thinkers; they just need more time to process data and know their own minds. If they're pushed to make a decision too fast they tend to dig in their heels and bad things happen, such as gridlock.)

Later, once approval has been secured, you can pick up the tempo during implementation.

3. Admitting Uncertainty 
If you paint too rosy a picture, your credible is out the window as soon as the first surprises emerge. (Of course, if you emphasize is too much on the down beat, you're raining on your own parade.) It's important to disclose the variables and not pretend confidence when it isn't justified. There's reason for the adage "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." By overplaying your hand you train people to discount your projections.

4. Limiting Unknowns to Manageable Proportions
Take careful note of how many critical aspects of the plan require success when you're operating in terra incognita. It's axiomatically riskier counting on success in unknown territory than relying on delivering a modest increase in what you've already proven you can accomplish.

5. Assessing Internal Capacity to Do the Work
Do you have the horses? That is, can you fill all crucial slots with personnel who have the skill, motivation, and availability for the tasks? Hiring outside often increases costs and can result in a crew that isn't well aligned with mission. This can be particularly tricky if the project manager is hired outside the family. On the other hand, it avoids the awkwardness of people who are otherwise in a member-member peer relationship having to navigate the schizophrenia of also being in an employer-employee relationship.

6. Embracing Contingencies
If success depends on everything working well, you're probably stretched too far. Nothing goes perfectly. If your plan has so little wiggle room that any setback means unacceptable delays or cost overruns, then you're in deep doo-doo.

7. Establishing Pause Points
Good plans will identify checkpoints along the way, such that you can either hit the pause button, or—if the signs are bad enough—you can hit the abort button. This means establishing targets for funding secured, personnel hired, materiél acquired, construction accomplished within seasonal (having the exterior enclosed before freeze-up), etc.

People tend to breathe easier if there is a bolt hole established in the event that targets aren't met.

8. Establishing and Meeting Reporting Standards
Transparency can go a long way toward helping people exhale. Good reporting is partly a question of frequency; partly it's depth of coverage. Are you making clear what indicators are important in your report; are you bringing the right information forward? Hint #1: It's more crucial to be forthcoming with bad news than good news. Hint #2: Keep your reports short and to the point, inviting people to ask questions if they want greater detail.

Sometimes project managers try to hide bad news in the hopes that problems will be resolved before the next report. This is a dangerous game—kinda like juggling lit dynamite sticks. Occasionally that works, but more often it blows up in your face and now you have two problems: the one you started with and the loss of trust.

9. Developing a Broad Base of Active Support
This one is a spin-off to 5) above. The more members of the group who are actively involved in the project, the easier it will be to achieve and maintain buy-in—because it feels more like their project than one being done for them, or worse, to them.

This may take some creativity on the part of leaders to manifest, yet you are at grave risk of being isolated and falling into us/them dynamics if only a small number of community members are getting their hands dirty and their sleeves rolled up in service to the project.

The key throughout is making sure that the bridge between the project and the membership is never too far.

Monday, December 8, 2014

When Does a Private Issue Become a Group Issue?

When people create intentional community they are purposefully choosing a culture that is shifted more toward the "we" end of the spectrum and away from the "I" end. People living in community are, by design, opting for a social reality in which their lives will be more interwoven with those of fellow members and less autonomous. In consequence, there will be a number of decisions that you may be used to making solely as an individual (or as a household) that you are now obliged to work out with fellow community members—because your choices may impact others, and you've agreed that you're in this together.

Let me walk you through this.

Suppose you want to cut down a tree in front your house that's getting so high that it's shading the solar panels on your roof. Let's further suppose that: a) the tree is growing in lawn that is within the space immediately around your house that is defined by the community's covenants as yours to control (often referred to in community lingo as "limited private element") and b) there is an explicit community agreement that if you propose to do anything that impacts your neighbors that you're expected to consult with them first and make a good faith effort to find a course of action that's mutually agreeable.

In the mainstream world, so long as the tree is on your property, you'd have the right to cut it down whenever you wanted. Your only risk would be accidentally felling the tree onto your neighbor's roof, car, or (heaven forbid) their children who wanted to get close enough to witness your Paul Bunyan moment.

In community this is much more complicated.

o  First of all, you'd be less likely to own your own chain saw, because community is all about shared living and how many chain saws does a community need anyway? If you're proposing to use the community's chain saw, you be smart to reserve it ahead of time because someone else may want it at the same time you do. What's more, you probably can't count on the chain being sharp, or there being enough fuel on hand, so that means setting aside time to see that those things have been taken care of ahead of need.

o  While few people think it's a good idea to run a chain saw in the dark (visibility being directly related to safety) there's an issue around noise. If your fire up a chain saw at first light, most people will not thank you for substituting Stihl-ness for stillness—waking up to the roar of a chain saw is highly unpleasant and it's prudent to accept guidance from the neighbors about appropriate hours for running noisy machines, and then giving everyone a heads up about the exact time you expect to be doing the work, so that they can get their children, pets, and cars safely away from the action.

o  There is also a nuance around parameters a) and b) above. From a) it follows that it's wholly your call whether the tree should come down. Despite that, however, you could run afoul of b). Suppose, for example, that the tree provides welcome afternoon shade for the neighbor immediately to your east. Under those circumstances it's possible that what you're doing to reduce energy costs for your house (by increasing solar gain) will increase costs for your neighbors (because their air conditioning will have to work harder to maintain comfortable temperatures in summer).

Worse, you may not even know that your neighbor benefits from the shade of that tree, and that you are at risk for stepping on a landmine you didn't know existed if you blithely ignore the basic principle that undergirds b): measure (your neighbors) twice, cut once.

Note in this hypothetical example that you have a good reason for cutting down the tree—one that's directly in line with a core community value of being energy conscious. But that doesn't mean you have the only valid perspective on the issue. Remember the part about being in this together? The fact that you couldn't think of any reason that the neighbors might object to your taking down the tree, doesn't necessarily mean there isn't one.

• • •
Now I want to take this a step further. For some class of decisions, the whole group needs a chance to have their oar in the water. For another class of decisions, the individual still gets to decide unilaterally, yet they are expected to create an opportunity to hear and work through people's reactions.

All Skate Decisions
The kind of decisions that may shift from unilateral in the mainstream to being made by the plenary (or its designate) in community are things like:

o  Anything relating to group covenants or interpretations on common values, all of which can be understood as voluntary limitations on what an individual can do. For example, at both Sandhill Farm and Dancing Rabbit there are agreements that members will rely wholly on vehicles owned collectively by the community: no private cars.

o  Who is an authorized spokesperson for representing the community when talking with the press.

o  Who is authorized to sign contracts on behalf of the community.

o  Who are check signers on the community account.

o  What color you paint the outside of your house. (Not all communities try to control the outside aesthetic, but some do.)

o  How shared assets are maintained and accessed.

In these kinds of things, the group supplants the individual as primary decision maker. To be sure, the individual still has a say in what happens, but each voice counts the same. The operant shibboleth here is: you're in good hands with all skate. (Either that, or you're in the wrong group.)

Personal Decisions that Impact the Group
That said, there is a second class of decisions where the community may want/need a collective venue to process a choice made by an individual, where there's no intention of asserting a community right to make the decision. Examples of that include:

—Where there's been a break up of an intimate relationship, and both people are trying to continue to live in the community. While no one is suggesting that the community should have a say about who you partner with, changes in intimacy can have a profound impact on group dynamics and it can help enormously if there's a way to unpack those feelings (other than by gossiping in the parking lot). Non-principals can be in anguish about to how to reach out to one party in the break-up without it being construed as taking sides.

—Where there's tension about the range of different ways that parents set limits for their children. Though it's highly unlikely that the community will attempt to tell parents how to raise their children, it can be very awkward threading the needle when trying to set limits as a non-parent supervising two children who are being raised in very different ways.

—Where there's tension about the range of different ways that parents educate their children. Again, schooling decisions generally remain with the parents, yet children who are homeschooled (or children going to public school for that matter) may not be thriving, with the result that difficult behaviors show up in the community arena. How do you talk about frustrations associated with obstreperous behavior in the group context, in part because the parent has made choices about their child's education out of ideological reasons that are not working well for the child?

—Where there's persistent negativity and low trust between two or more longstanding members. While you can't make people get along, there's a point where the swamp gas of festering enmity poisons the atmosphere in group settings.

—Where there's a clash of personalities and styles that surfaces in the group context. What's loud, obnoxious, and bullying to one person may be exuberance and passionate expression to another. Given that you're unlikely to outlaw certain personalities, you need a way to discuss how you're going to translate your core commitment to diversity into a culture that is home for all.

—Where there's been a major trauma in a member's life (severe accident, prolonged illness, suicide of a loved one). It's not unusual for people who suffer major setbacks to grieve and recover privately. Yet that doesn't mean that others in the group are unaffected by events.

[As a case in point, more than 10 years ago my community, Sandhill Farm, went through a gut-wrenching time when a visitor lost most of the fingers on her right hand when she accidentally got a glove caught in the roller mill we use to crush sorghum cane during our fall harvest. While there's no question that the woman was the person most profoundly affected by the accident, the community still needed to emotionally cope what happened and we made time that evening for people to simply share from their hearts. It was not about assigning blame; it was about staying connected and offering succor to one another in response to tragedy.]

The point of this class of decisions is to acknowledge the need for a way to get information out on the table (ahead of the rumor mill) and to process feelings that get stirred up among non-principals, such as sorrow, joy, anger, and confusion. This is not meant as an opportunity to judge others; it's a chance to tend to relationships that are strained as a result of the stress radiating out beyond the immediate players. This is not about problem solving; it's about nurturing connections, which are the backbone of community.

This is all the more important because it rarely happens in the mainstream (which means that people come into the community experience with little sense of why this might be needed or how to set this up to be constructive), yet it can be enormously beneficial for the community as it strives to maintain cohesion and suppleness through trying times.
• • •
In conclusion, private matters become group matters when decisions impact the group in non-trivial ways. This will happen more often in community living than in the mainstream because community culture is shifted more toward "we" and intertwined living naturally creates more opportunities for the group to be affected by individual actions.

In addition, there is an important distinction between: a) things that the plenary controls instead of the individual (the first class above); and b) things for which the individual still gets to decide unilaterally, but about which the group needs a chance to explore the emotional swirls that surface as a result of being collaterally impacted by those choices (the second class above).

To navigate this territory well, groups need to be able to distinguish between the two classes, and have in mind how to handle each conversation with sensitivity and compassion. I'm not saying that's easy, but it can be done and is well worth the effort to learn how to do it.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Gift Horse Dynamics

Recently I was working with a community where, one evening, a group was sitting around at Happy Hour in the common house enjoying each others' company. At one point the conversation drifted into the advent of winter and chilly outdoor temperatures, which led one reveler to suggest, "Wouldn't it be nice to have a fireplace where folks could cozy up to in bad weather?"

As that was met with general approbation, one listener was so bathed in the warm glow of inspiration and conviviality, that she promptly went home and purchased an electric fireplace—that she intended to donate to the community to enhance the winter ambiance in the common house. Acting from a spirit (or perhaps spirits, in this case) of generosity and good intention, she was blindsided when her email announcement was met with consternation and push back. What happened?

There's actually quite a lot at play in this dynamic, making it well worth the time to unpack.

1. The donor was fully aware of the community's tight budget and the potential awkwardness of suggesting that the community buy a fireplace. There were probably other things in line ahead of it as priority improvements, and she thought she was saving the group all kinds of process by making it a gift. She had the money, and by proceeding this way she'd get to enjoy the warmth of the fireplace that much sooner and not add pressure to the budget, which was a known concern for those living closer to the edge of their means. She was not expecting to get a heated discussion; just a heated room.

2. Because the fireplace would live in common space, the donor misstepped by bypassing the team that oversees furnishing the common house. Even though it was a gift, it would take up space in a room that didn't have a lot to give, and the point of having that committee was that it was their role to oversee how the space was used. I can't recall if I've ever heard of a team that enjoyed being surprised by unilateral initiatives taken by outsiders in their sphere of influence—however divinely inspired.

3. Because the group has a core commitment to being conscientious about ecological impact, the donor might have anticipated the possibility of objections to operating an appliance that spins the electric meter faster. While the annual cost of such a device—even if used quite a bit—would probably in the range of $50-80 at today's electric rates, there are two concerns: 

a) Any increase in common expenses is borne more or less equally by all members, not just those who are comfortably off, and it never lands well to have a financial burden laid upon you about which you had no say. Even if it's only $2 a year.

b) Beyond dollars, what message does it send to visitors? If the group is trying to be a model of energy efficiency, it may well raise eyebrows that it has a prominently displayed appliance that converts high quality energy (line electricity) into low quality energy (radiant heat). People tend to be more impressed by what you do than what you say, and you didn't need to consult Nostradamus to predict that there would be some soul searching on this one.

To be fair, there is a real issue here: how to balance: i) creature comfort on cold evenings in a way that encourages social interactions; with ii) the desire to contain costs and be a model of wise energy use. I'm not saying how this conversation should go; only that it should happen, and before the fireplace is purchased.

4. There is also the matter of how the appliance will be cleaned, maintained, and repaired. All of those mundane matters invariably add up to an additional cost of a "free" gift, unless the donor agrees to underwrite them as well.

5. While I didn't sense that what I'm about say next was a factor in the instance above, sometimes donors expect to accrue social capital by virtue of their largesse, which amounts to, "Since I donated x, I expect to have a greater say in y." Not that it's generally stated that baldly, but that's how it comes across—and when it does, it's a guaranteed shit storm.

6. In the story above, the donor meant well, and it will be a poor outcome if the lesson she "learns" is to make no generous offers in the future. The trick is how to allow room for reactions and problem solving, while at the same time honoring the good intentions of the would-be donor.

Part of what's imbedded in this is the disparity of assets and income among residents. If the group finds it awkward sharing information about personal finances (at least with a broad brush stroke) then it's hard to hold the benefactor accountable for not taking it into account. It's a good thing that those with more financial ease in their life are willing and able to share some of their good fortune with others—so long as it doesn't come with hidden strings. There are times when free gifts are just too expensive.

Thus, it behooves groups to get savvy about members bearing gifts to the community. When you open the door in the morning and there's a gift horse sitting on your front stoop, I suggest taking a good look in the horse's mouth (despite traditional admonitions to the contrary) before accepting it into the herd:
A. How will cleaning, maintenance, and repair be handled? (Hint: it's not free.) Is the community expected to pick up the tab for upkeep? Is that agreeable?
B. Is it on loan, or a gift that the community can do with it as it pleases? If a loan, what say does the community have in its placement and use; how much advance warning does the community want before it can be recalled by the owner?

C. Are their strings attached (does it need to be available in common space until the donor dies; does the donor expect something in return; are there restrictions on its use)? If so, are the conditions acceptable?

D. Are we being diligent about whether to accept this offer in the same way we would if the community were buying it? If not, why not? 

When presented with a gift horse, remember it's permissible to respond to "neigh" with "nay."

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Coming Back

In my previous blog (Laid Back), I reported on my lingering back pain triggered by an intemperate bout of improper lifting the first weekend in October.

Yesterday, at the encouragement of my doctor and my wife, I had a CT scan done of my abdomen—mainly to check for the possibility of more serous complications, including kidney stones or worse, cancer. Happily, I have neither. Whew! This was definitely a case of no news being good news.

Other than a simple benign cyst (1 cm in diameter) on my right kidney (which is apparently common as people grow older—something I am wholly prone to), all I have is back pain. While that's complicated and debilitating enough, it's a relief to know that's "all" I'm trying to recover from.

The main problem is getting ahead of a vicious negative bio-feedback loop. In response to the original strain I've been involuntarily holding myself rigid to protect myself from re-injuring, or even tweaking, the muscles in my lower back (just above the hips and coccyx). After a couple of weeks of that I started experiencing secondary pain as my defensive muscles got tired of being on duty all the time, to the point where the secondary pain was equal to or greater than the original pain.

While my body has not yet recovered from the original trauma (read no sit-ups) and it's too early to start physical therapy to rebuild strength and resiliency, I'm going through cycles of secondary pain as all the muscles in and around my abdomen have been taking turns filing complaints with my central nervous system.

The only position I can be in with no pain at all is flat on my back, but staying in bed all day drives me nuts, and I don't want my muscles to completely atrophy. So each day I get up and try moving around a little (with my engine set at "all ahead slow")—going to the bathroom, getting a bite to eat, refilling my water jug, recharging my laptop, etc. (I am getting a lot reading done.)

When I walk more than 100 feet, however, the intercostal muscles at the lower end on my rib cage start to spasm, even when I have 10 mg of cyclobenzaprine on board, a prescription muscle relaxant. Thus, even with careful, minimal movement and no lifting I invariably clench the very muscles that I'm trying to calm. So I have a ways to go yet.

The good news is that after canceling my planned trip to New England (that was supposed to start today), I have no trips planned until Jan 13, which gives me six glorious weeks in which to come back all the way. And there's no better place to have this occur than at home, where Ma'ikwe can play Florence Nightengale and I can learn to type propped up at a 15-degree angle.

While I've never been very patient with being a patient, apparently that's the lesson I'm working on right now.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Laid Back

In general, when people talk about being laid back, you get the image of relaxed, at ease, coasting. And while Thanksgiving weekend is a terrific time to be laid back, it turns out that I'm taking this to an extreme. As in laid (flat on my) back.

I limped home just after midnight Tuesday after completing a 29-day road trip that I conducted while coping with lower back pain that I sustained in early October. I made it through on grit, ibuprofen, and Traumeel (a topical analgesic cream that features calendula, arnica, echinacea, hypericum, belladonna, and other homeopathic goodies). While you might think that the worst would be behind me after eight weeks, I've been locked in a battle with secondary pain that shifts fronts (or backs, in this case) every few days.

After the original strain in my lower back I was (understandably) very cautious about how I moved. If I held myself awkwardly or turned too abruptly I was susceptible to tweaking my injury such that my muscles would contract involuntarily and it felt like someone was jabbing me with razor blades. It didn't take many of those experiences to dread their reoccurrence. In consequence I was tensing the muscles near the trauma so much that I started experiencing secondary pain in the fatigued defensive muscles that was as much a problem as what I started with. Yuck!

As soon as one set of defensive muscles started complaining I'd adjust how I defended myself, with the result that the secondary pain would migrate to a new location. The last few days it's risen to the level of my ribs, such that I can't inhale fully without feeling like someone is jabbing me in the side with a sharp stick. It's hard to walk (and don't make me laugh or cough).

Ma'ikwe stepped in yesterday and took me to see a doctor. She's concerned both with my suffering and that there may be something more going on than a slow healing back. I gave a blood sample which showed that I'm slightly anemic (could it possibly be that I'm not eating enough sorghum?) and a urine sample which suggested the possibility of kidney stones. I'll be back into the clinic Monday to have a CT scan to get more data.

Meanwhile, the doctor prescribed a muscle relaxant (cyclobenzaprine) and a pain killer (hydrocodone), both of which provided immediate breathing room (literally) and I was pleasantly surprised with my vitals: 
pulse: 64
blood pressure: 120/80
weight: 187 dressed, which is down 20 pounds from two months ago

While I don't recommend lower back strain as a weight loss regimen, apparently it's effective. It's certainly taken my mind off eating.

Though the band of pain encircling my rib cage eased up a bit after an awful start this morning, I haven't thought about dancing once all day and I've got a ways to go before feeling spry enough to board a train at 6 am Tuesday to conduct a facilitation training weekend in Vermont that begins Thursday evening. I really want to go, but things will have to improve dramatically for that to make any sense.

If I stay home it will mark the first time I've failed to keep a commitment as a process consultant since I hung out a shingle in 1987. Ordinarily, when it comes to process gigs I'm not laid back at all, but maybe next Tuesday I will be. Stay tuned.