Thursday, January 10, 2008

Remembering Marcos

I learned yesterday that an old friend, Marcos Canyon, died of a heart attack. I hadn't had contact with him since the early 90s and had lost track of what he was up to. But for a period of five years in the mid-80s, he and I worked closely together as fellow delegates to the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (FEC). Hearing this sad news brought back a flood of memories...
As I recall, Marcos joined East Wind (
a sister community to Sandhill, it's located in south-central Missouri) in 1983, when he was in his 50s. He retired early from the 9-5 world and decided on a rigorous program of lifestyle experiment for the latter half of his life. East Wind was either the first or second stop on his adventure. His modus operandi was to select some innovative situation that caught his fancy and then fully immerse himself in it for five years. He didn't just want to observe, like a tourist; he wanted to roll up his sleeves and try it out first hand. More than that, he wanted to help. When five years was up, he'd select something else and move on. I've never seen curiosity subjected to such strict discipline.
After East Wind, Marcos devoted his
next half-decade stint to Innisfree, a cmty nestled in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mts and noteworthy for its efforts to create a therapeutic and respectful environment for the developmentally disabled, integrating them into everyday cmty life. Marocs served as their Outreach Director for a time.
(Innisfree is an excellent example of the growing understanding that belonging to a community, all by itself, contributes to health. In essence, humans are herd animals and we crave close connection with our own kind. In isolation—think suburbs—our lives become fragmented and basic health is undermined. The good news is that the damage is largely reversible.)
After Innisfree, I lost track of Marcos on his next rotation.

• • •
Because we were both active FEC delegates, it meant we maintained a regular correspondence—this was back in the days when people wrote letters—and we'd sit at the table together twice a year at the semi-annual assemblies (when the delegates gather to discuss business). His given name was Mark, yet he affected a Latin air; hence Marcos. (Although I never asked him, I always wondered if he was partly moved to select that name in honor of the imaginative child who served as the protagonist in Dr. Suess' first classic, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. He was curious, too.) A careful dresser, Marcos carried himself with erect posture and something of an patrician air (think South American aristocrat). He was not snooty, but precise. He'd occasionally season remarks with bits of Spanish phrases. Whether his actual heritage was Spanish I never knew.
For such people, how they are perceived in public often carries high significance, and one of my cherished memories of Marcos is how he taught me a humbling lesson about the trouble one can get into by failing to take into account that people differ in how they like to be approached. Let me tell that story.
Marcos shouldered more than his share of the FEC workload and was a respected delegate. Because both of us were busy in Federation affairs, our work tended to intersect. Mostly that was good (FEC was, after all, a network of cooperative communities). However, occasionally there would be tension. My style, when I have an issue with what someone has done (or not done) in the context of organizational business, is to bring this up directly at the next business meeting. When this involved an unflattering observation about Marcos, he would bristle, and the exchange would invariable go poorly. To set the stage properly, I mostly admired what Marcos did and was generally careful to make sure that I appreciated the things I liked, so that my comments about his performance were not overly slanted toward the critical. While he acknowledged that the ratio of my observations was overwhelmingly complimentary, he dismissed it with (and I remember the quote because it stung so much at the time): "When I go to the symphony, I only hear the sour notes."
OK, now I was really pissed. Who did he think he was, dismissing me and acting as if his actions were above evaluation? Even at this early point in my nascent career as a process consultant, I was already locked into the idea that in a healthy group all members need to provide each other an accessible avenue for feedback about their behavior as a member of the group. It looked like Marcos was shutting me out and I was getting pretty righteous about how wrong that was.
This pattern persisted for a couple years. Because we were both high functioning, the work was still mostly getting done, but I was doing a slow burn about not being able to bring up with Marcos the occasional problem I had with his choices. Then, one day, we had an unexpected break in our schedule at an FEC assembly and Marcos and I went for a walk. With considerable courage (which I didn't recognize fully until after the fact), he asked why I tended to pick on him at meetings. Huh? Here I thought he was arrogantly ducking responsibility for his actions, and he experienced my attempts to discuss it as disrespectful churlishness! Once the dam had burst, it only took us about five minutes to sort it all out.
I explained my need to be able to comment—sometimes critically—on his choices, and he had no trouble at all agreeing with the legitimacy of that request. In turn, he requested that I raise my concerns in private; he didn't want to have his pants pulled down in front of the whole group. To my chagrin, I realized that I had never asked him how he wanted to be approached. I had just blithely assumed he'd be OK with whatever I preferred. Boy was that stupid. And ineffectual. After that five-minute conversation, we never again had a problem giving each other feedback (I'm not saying we always liked what was said; I'm saying we never again had a problem with how to say it).
It was one of those keep-your-eyes-on-the-prize lessons. The point of feedback is to solve a problem (or at least reduce tension and/or clear up any misunderstandings); it is not to look great or to embarrass your audience. That means paying attention to the need for delivering feedback in the manner most likely to be received constructively by your audience.
It was my dance with Marcos 20 years ago that brought this invaluable lesson home to me. Muchas gracias amigo, and adios.

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