Monday, January 21, 2008

The Morning After

I'm back.

I've been out of Internet contact the last five days, traveling across country and then working at Shannon Farm over the weekend. They're tucked in a lovely Nelson County valley just east of Rockfish Gap in the Virginia Blue Ridge Mts. While it may come as a surprise to my urban readers, there are still rural pockets that do not have access to DSL, and Shannon Farm is one of them. (In contrast, Sandhill has had DSL for more than five years—even though the local phone company which offers it has the lowest customer to wire mileage ratio in the state of Missouri. Go figure.)

I think of it as an electron diet. Instead of checking email at night, the last few days I've been yakking more and reading (Collapse, by Jared Diamond). Today, I'm with my ex-partner and dear friend Ann Shrader at her cozy bungalow on the Left Bank Land Trust, just outside of Floyd VA. This rural outpost does have DSL, so here I am again.

• • •
The weekend of consulting with Shannon was set up as an exchange for their having hosted FIC 's spring organizational meetings last March. Over the last 10 years we've been frequently able to work out a barter with hosts, whereby the don't charge us for room use—both for housing and mtg space—and we supply them with a couple days worth of process consulting. FIC keeps its costs down and we build a stronger relationship with our host. It works well for everyone.

As part of the deal, I brought an apprentice with me—Sarah Ross from Great Oak, a cohousing community in Ann Arbor. Sarah had participated in a two-year facilitation training I did in Ann Arbor and which concluded this past September. For students who have an interest in facilitating away from home and
want to test the waters for a possible career in facilitating, I'm committed to creating opportunities for that. (Why would you hire someone you'd never heard of and who had no track record? It was a struggle for me 20 years ago and now I'm trying to make it a little easier for the next generation of community-oriented process professionals to get their feet wet.)
Shannon set up 11 hours of plenaries, starting Friday evening and running through noon Sunday. The community had selected ahead of time four topics to delve into: consensus, conflict, power & leadership dynamics, and membership issues. I had one preliminary conference call with their Process Committee, which provided some background. (Though I sometimes I do a lot more prep work on the phone, this was fairly typical

I'd arrived at Shannon Thursday evening, which allowed time to recover from traveling 900+ miles to get there and to meet with anyone ahead of the plenaries if they wanted to work on personal concerns or give me face-to-face background on certain issues. Only two people took advantage of this, which was less than usual and less than I was hoping for (but, as a consultant, all you can do is fill the trough with water; you can't make the horses drink).

There are about 60 adults living at Shannon, and half of them came to one or more of the weekend sessions. While that means a lot of members opted out, attendance was somewhat higher than what they get for a typical community meeting, and about average for the participation level I see when consulting with large groups. So the turnout was decent and there was a lot of interest in seeing what could be done to improve the quality of self-governance at Shannon. One the highlights of the weekend for me was how much people hung in there, especially when someone didn't get the focus or outcome they were hoping for from the previous session. Sometimes people were on the spot and uncomfortable with what was said or how they were treated. Yet with few exceptions people came back and did the work of staying open to future possibilities. There was a lot of resilience and caring in the room and that's gold.
Going the other way, there was also a lot of prickliness in the room,and I experienced an unusually low level of patience whenever we had selected a focus or format that was not to someone's liking. Even as some people spoke their appreciation and support for what we were doing, there were always voices ready to counterbalance that with criticism. In 20 years as a process consultant, I don't think I've ever before had the experience of being strongly criticized by at least one person after every session for what had just happened.

To their credit, the last topic we discussed Sunday morning—chosen by popular vote—was what the community can do to understand and turn around (or at least diminish) the adversarial atmosphere in which they do their work. More than one person spoke about how difficult (or even traumatic) it was for them to facilitate community meetings, because of how accepted it is shoot at the facilitator if something is not proceeding as they think best. The dynamic was likened to "facilitating a pack of hungry wolves." So I didn't feel special.

There is a long history in the community (founded in 1974) and there is a string of unresolved hurts that have become deeply embedded negative stories, significantly distorting current conversations and sharply limiting what's possible. These will not be easy to turn around, yet it is possible.
The community's history also includes great successes. Plus, there is considerable awareness of their issues and apparently the motivation to work on them: two ingredients which are absolutely essential to making a lasting change. That gives me great hope.
• • •
Now it is Monday morning. I am no longer at Shannon, and once again experiencing what I style the consultant's schizophrenia. After being fully immersed in Shannon for three days, I've suddenly surfaced back in the rest of my life. I will write my report this week and move on to other things. Shannon will fade from my consciousness. Yet I'll wonder if I've given them enough hope and tools to effect the changes that they want so much. I'll wonder if I'll ever find out.
For those who need to know the end of the story and exactly what impact they are having in the world, I do not recommend process consulting as a career. It's a good thing that I love my work. Otherwise it'd drive me crazy.

No comments: