Tuesday, February 26, 2008

How Can I Keep from Singing?

Over the course of nine days of teaching recently, I had a number of occasions to open and close sessions. One of my favorite choices for drawing the energy together for this purpose is to have the group sing (not listen to someone else singing; having everyone in the room sing together). It's not about hitting all the notes and delivering a virtuoso performance—it's mainly about showing up, and putting yourself into the attempt. I just love the right-brain release and unity achieved by people joining voices.

Today I want to write about how I got in trouble for the songs I chose.

I have eclectic tastes and a fairly narrow range of notes I can negotiate without sounding like a pubescent frog. So when I find a song I like (and can sing) I add it to my repertoire. In all, there are probably a couple dozen songs I choose from when asking a group to sing. Among the ones I selected during the recent nine-day period were Zippety Do Dah, an African song called Soma Guaza (phonetic spelling; I've never seen it written out), and a Calypso song written by or for Harry Belafonte, We Come from the Mountain, who debuted it on Sesame Street. Someone witnessing my selections criticized me for cultural appropriation and racial insensitivity. Ouch!

The gist of the criticism was that I was white and these three songs came from non-white cultures. I did not have permission to use these songs and it was presumptuous of me to sing them without it (never mind the challenge of where one would go to get such permission). It was, for my critic, yet another example of the mindless abuse (my critic did not suggest that I was choosing these songs with intent to abuse, hence "mindless") that people of privilege unwittingly engage in all the time.

Well, there's no question that I'm white and have oodles of privilege (in addition to my skin color, I'm an older man, well-educated, articulate, comfortable in front of groups, grew up in a stable family with both parents, have good health, a wife and two kids, no debt, and a blog). I further agree that cultural appropriation is a real thing. For example, if I were using the African song to sell Coca-Cola, I think that would be an example. Or if I were mocking Harry Belafonte I believe that would be culturally insensitive. But I wasn't doing either of those things.

I was singing songs that I love. Songs that have touched my heart and which I hoped would touch the hearts of others when I led them. Do I know what the person who wrote the songs meant by them? No. I only know what they mean to me, and what I hope their singing might mean to my group. Does my good intent protect me from the possibility that someone might take offense at my singing? No again. But then, I wouldn't have a guarantee of safe passage even if I wrote the song myself. People take offense for all kinds of reasons and you'll never be able to anticipate them all (Note: that doesn't mean you shouldn't pay attention, or make an attempt to anticipate what might be upsetting; I'm only making the point that there are no guarantees). What may be honoring diversity to one person may be cultural appropriation to another.

In the end, I think the best you can do is two things: a) to the extent possible, do everything with a good heart; and b) be available to hear and discuss it whenever someone has a bad reaction to something you said or did.

(To be clear, it's a different matter if you know someone is likely to be triggered by a thing before you do it. Then you have to ask if you're being provocative [
perhaps subconsciously]. Just because you have the "right" to do a thing doesn't mean it's smart. And it would be hard to make the case that it was a sensitive thing to do.)

Even though I introduced the African song with a brief statement about my good intent and how I found the sing inspiring even though I didn't know its origins, my critic held the view that white people simply shouldn't sing songs that come out of non-white culture. While I can see how that would be safer, it seems a profoundly sad choice to me—walking away from touching and sharing things you love and find inspirational because someone might have a reaction. Mind you, I'm not pretending that I'm leading sacred rituals arising from cultural pathways in which I am not initiated. I am simply singing—engaging in a universal human rite, more ancient than writing or agriculture. Like dancing or eating together, it is part of our primal vocabulary as social animals, and I am loathe to narrow my options.

I have made the personal choice to keep singing, knowing that my voice and my choice will not always land well, regardless of my intent. In those moments, I'll have to take responsibility for hearing about others' upset, so that the song I meant to be a bridge does not become a divide.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

A Bridge Too Far

Every so often, I encounter someone with whom I am unable to make a positive connection. It doesn’t happen often, yet it occurred again this winter and I’m still brooding about it. Now I’m ready to write about it. I had occasion to interact with this person (whom I’ll call Chris) many times over a two-week period and was never able to turn the corner. It was both frustrating and humbling.

As I reflect on what’s common in my experiences with people I fail to connect with, the problem typically begins with my inability to offer reflections of what the person has just said (about something important to them) that they recognize as accurate. Chris found my summaries distorted or otherwise missing important points. While it’s not that unusual for me to misread a situation or to mishear a statement (sometimes the problem is that I’m trying to do too much at once: for example, trying to reflect and bridge in the same summary, and I’ve gone too fast for the people I’m attempting to connect), most times I’m able to get back onto a constructive track on my next attempt. With Chris, I was never able to achieve that. I just kept missing.

(Part of the dynamic is that we can both get caught in a reinforcing negative spiral. It works like this: Once Chris has a few experiences of feeling misunderstood by me, they start to expect it. I make things worse by being more tentative or cautious in subsequent attempts. Maybe irritation leaks into my voice. Chris experiences my being careful as condescension. I get exasperated that Chris “always” seems to spin what I say badly. It’s an easy leap for each of us to feel that the other is dedicated to being a pain in the ass—and for reasons we can’t fathom. Pretty soon, we’re both working from scripts and there’s no chance for further attempts to succeed.)

While it’s tempting to explain this as Chris’ pathology, I’d rather explore how it might be mine.

There was a pivotal moment early on when Chris brought up a topic about which they had a lot of distress. I attempted to facilitate that moment by first naming Chris’ upset. It didn’t go well for Chris, and I didn’t respond well to their reaction. Chris didn’t understand what I was attempting and asked me to back off. I think they felt unsafe (they had no prior knowledge of how I work conflict, I had not explained ahead what I would be attempting, they had not asked for my assistance, and they suspected I had a hidden agenda). It was a poor set-up. Chris further reported a fear that my attempt to focus on their upset would hijack the conversation, steering it away from the issue they wanted to discuss. While I was intending the opposite—using recognition of the distress to create firm footing for problem solving—that was not apparent to Chris. Based on this poor start, I was chary of making a second attempt to work with Chris’ feelings (by which I mean acknowledging them). I didn’t bounce back well from this early rebuff.

On one level, I know better. That is, I know that when a person presents as being in distress—and that was clearly the case here—that the number one rule is to establish a connection with that person by bridging to their experience. That means naming their distress in terms they recognize as accurate. Why didn’t I stay focused on step one before shifting the focus to problem solving? Why did I get stupid?

Unfortunately, this examination has not uncovered a profound new truth. Instead, it has led me back to lessons I’ve already bumped into before—but which I obviously haven’t yet thoroughly extracted from the experience. Here’s what I’ve come up with, sifting through the slag heap of my past patterns (claiming the valuable ore I mistakenly discarded the last time I was working the mine of my misery):

I am heavily invested in a view of myself as capable and helpful, and it hurt to have my offering to Chris rejected. Instead of looking at how I could have handled the moment better, I focused instead on how Chris foolishly isolated themself (and cheated me out of a chance to feel useful).

Chris’ critical comments were directed at several people whom I admired and believed didn’t deserve what Chris was dishing out. I wanted to support my friends and discredit Chris. This was a reptilian brain response, and not very smart. My friends were entirely capable of protecting themselves, Chris was not being vicious, and my friends (just like everyone else) need open access to critical views of their behavior—so what was I accomplishing by trying to interrupt that?

Frustrated by Chris’ views and delivery, I didn’t pause to try on their perspective. Instead I assumed that my orientation was best and was mainly focused on how to get Chris to see things my way, rather than on how to bridge the two perspectives.

Irritated by Chris, I wanted them to be Wrong and me (and my friends) to be Right. I started to organize my statements to expose the contradictions I saw in what Chris was saying and doing, rather than focusing on what would help deescalate the situation and lead to creative problem solving. Instead of keeping in mind the primacy of building Relationship, I was actively (if subtly) undermining it. What a revolting development!

Will I ever be done with this shit?

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Closing Gauntlet

Today I'm going to write about the sequence of things that need to be taken care of at the end of a meeting, collectively called the Closing. This is the companion piece to what I posted about Openings two days ago. Parallel with what I wrote about Openings, Closings are also a bundle of things and it's important to understand what's typically involved.

In general, it works better if one person (or team) is responsible for the Closing. This does not mean that that person needs to lead all (or even any) of the activities below; it just means that they know who is doing each part, and that they are the one with authority to make last-minute adjustments to any aspect of the Closing based on emerging needs (for example, sometimes the last content piece runs late and you have to make a snap decision about dropping or sharply curtailing some aspects of the Closing you had planned in order to honor the lateness of the hour). Often the facilitator runs the Closing, but it could be someone else. The key is that everyone responsible for setting up the mtg knows who that is, and that the Closer knows the fullness of their job.

I'm picking up the thread from the point where the group stops focusing on the last piece of content for that session. The facilitator will need to protect sufficient time to accomplish all of the following and still end on time. While I am recommending that the Closing proceed in the sequence below, this is not sacrosanct (you might,
for example, do Announcements before Evaluation):

—Summary of the Product
There's a natural tendency for most people to focus first on what didn't get accomplished, rather than what did. It's the facilitator's job to briefly remind everyone of all the forward movement that occurred, to leave an "up and out" taste in everyone's mouth. Note: Product is much more than conclusions or agreements; it's also a narrowing of topics yet to be discussed, it's delegation of work to cmtees, it's unifying energy (perhaps by clearing tensions, or by just hearing how everyone feels about something powerful that happened in the group), it's settling on a plan by which the group will tackle a complex topic.

This should take no more than five minutes and be done up-tempo: you are a cheerleader celebrating the team's success. This is where you make it clear to everyone what they got in exchange for spending their valuable time in the mtg. While it is not essential that you do this every time, it is especially valuable if the mood of the group is subdued or diffused toward the end of the mtg, or if there's chronic grumbling about a lack of mtg product.

This is taking time for the group to reflect on how it did it's work during the session (or, if this is the last session in a string, the scope may be the entire series of mtgs). Note that this is not a time to drift back into discussing content. That part is done (at least for now). Here you are getting responses to questions such as:
o How well did we handle each topic on the agenda?
o Did we do a good job of working differences with efficiency and compassion?
o Did we take enough breaks?
o Did the choice of formats work well for the group?
o Did the visual aids and handouts enhance the conversation?
o Was the facilitation too directive?

Most often groups simply let people evaluate free form, where people can say whatever they want, in any order. Sometimes though, you'll get more useful information if you pose a question or two that focuses attention on key moments in the mtg (for example, "How did people respond to the way I worked the tense dynamic between Dale and Pat?"). Sometimes you'll get different answers if you ask people to write their evaluations rather than speak them.

There are many ways to do mtg evaluations, and they don't need to happen every mtg. They tend to be most useful when the group did something unusual or engaged each other in an unusual way—you'll want to capture reflections about that experience while the data is as fresh as possible.

Caution: The one thing you want to avoid during evaluations is cross-talk, or explanations from the facilitator. This kind of back-and-forth will tend to inhibit frank comments. Group members may hesitate to speak for fear that they may be contradicted (or even attacked) if others have different views. You want evaluative comments to be as open and as unedited as you can get them.

While this may have been covered at the start of the mtg, it is not unusual for a fresh batch to have incubated during the session—people may have suddenly remembered something they had forgotten to announce at the previous opportunity, new needs may have arisen relative to decisions made during the mtg ("Can the members of the new ad hoc cmtee on Cat Policy linger after the mtg to discuss when and where we'll first meet?"), or the timing of the announcement is more pertinent to the conclusion than the opening ("I'll need three volunteers immediately following the mtg to help me put the room back in order.")

—Breaking the Circle
The very last piece is the actual closing of the mtg, which is some clear marker that the mtg has ended and people are no longer in "meeting space" (and subject to the expectations of conforming themselves to good mtg behavior—assuming you have defined what that is). As with the Opening that signaled the start of the mtg, this could be many things: a song, a moment of silence, the reading of a quote, chanting. In general, you want this to be relatively brief and you want it to be energetically congruent with the mood of the group as it concluded its deliberations of the content of the mtg.

Hint: There tends to be a tricky last piece that groups often fumble over: how to actually break the moment. If the last activity is a song, this tends to not be a problem: the song ends and we're done. If, however, the mtg concludes a moment of silence, the person who has led the group into that should take responsibility for ending it (perhaps simply by saying "Thank you"). If you end with a chant, the person leading the chant should say something to indicate that the moment is over. If you end in a group hug, the person directing that needs to think through how they will get the group out of it (nobody wants to be the first person to end the hug).

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Opening Gauntlet

I just completed a 9-day teaching piece in Albuquerque, and during the afterbirth (the debrief of the nine-day delivery) the teaching team admitted that we hadn't done that well with the Openings and Closings each day—they had gotten the attention of a neglected stepchild, and it showed. While there weren't any disasters, there were some harried beginnings and way too many moments of confusion.

While Openings and Closings are not as crucial as the main segments of a mtg, these bookends are nonetheless important elements in orchestrating the energy of a session, and it's well worth learning to do them with grace, efficiency, and alignment. Let's take them one at a time. Today I'll tackle Openings.

First of all, you need to understand that Openings are really a bundle of responsibilities, rather than a single thing. (Not knowing this, it's easy to see how Openings can can go awry: the task is assigned lightly to a volunteer, that person may not be holding all the pieces, and a ball [or two] is dropped. Then, instead of that crisp beginning you had imagined, you have a clunky start, information doesn't flow smoothly, and people feel confused instead of unified. Not good.)

Here's an overview of the typical components of an Opening:

Call to attention
Depending on the habits of the group with respect to timeliness, and the layout of the space, it can take time to get everyone into awareness that the mtg is about to start and this needs to be factored into the equation—who will herd the cats, how will they accomplish that, and how much time should be allocated for its accomplishment. Note: in some cases this step can easily take several minutes.

I like using a pair of Tibetan brass temple bells for this purpose. The sound tends to carry pretty well and is not as obtrusive as the Town Crier approach where someone shouts "Please take your seats, the mtg is about to start." Unfortunately, in groups inured to resisting subtlety, you may need a gong or a dinner bell to penetrate the fog. (I haven't yet used a cattle prod, but I'll admit there have been times when I was tempted.)

Gathering the energy
Now that you have them quiet and in the right place, it's time for an activity that brings the energy of the group into alignment, and provides a clear marker that you have entered mtg space—a place where you expect people to behave differently than in the unstructured social space they just left. (NOTE: If you have not done so before, you may need to discuss with your group exactly what mtg behavior is.)

This activity can be many things: a song, a dance, a movement exercise, a reading, a prayer, a moment of silence… use your imagination! With rare exceptions, you don't want this to go very long. Usually less than five minutes. Often, with care, you can select an activity that will bring the group's awareness and energy into a state that will complement the work you are expecting the group to do once the Opening is concluded. Kind of like priming the pump.
If at all possible, you want the Opening to weave seamlessly into the main purpose of the session. Selecting the right activity and carrying it out with the appropriate energetic invitation is an art form.

Generally this is about one of three things:
1. Logistics (we will break for lunch late today, so snack accordingly; there's a purple Taurus in the parking lot with its lights on; has anyone seen my green pen?);

2. Reminders of expectations (please fill out your evaluation forms before leaving today; keep in mind all we've learned about the new economic paradigm when listening to this evening's presentation); or

3. Opportunities (there will be a conference on health and wellness in town two weeks from now—details are posted on the bulletin board; I'm willing to give back rubs to anyone on break; I'm inviting everyone over for drinks after class tonight).

Sometimes there will be no announcements, but don't be surprised when there are. Some groups prefer that all announcement be funneled through a single speaker, so that you'll have an idea ahead about how much time to allot and can count on their being presented clearly and concisely. Some create a designated space on the wall and ask that announcements be posted there instead of being offered aloud.

Review of agenda
It often helps groups get grounded if you spend a minute briefly outlining the schedule for the day—even if it's already posted on the wall or they have a handout with that information. Obviously this is important if there are changes to what has previously been announced. If for some reason you expect resistance or controversy about the proposed agenda, you should allow appropriate time to handle that without feeling rushed.

If there are multiple sessions (in the 9-day training I just completed there were 13 sessions), it should be possible to overview the agenda in about 30 seconds, excepting the first time (when it should be reviewed much more carefully) or whenever there are substantive changes. Hint: It generally helps a group relax if the agenda for the day is clearly posted within everyone's sight.

Hand-off to the main facilitator
If the main facilitator for the mtg is also handling the Opening, this is no more than an announcement to the group that you are about to tackle the first item on agenda. If the person facilitating the Opening is different than the main facilitator (or whoever has been identified as the person running the first item scheduled), then there needs to be an explicit hand off, so that the group can follow the bouncing ball.

• • •
While there's some flexibility about the order in which these five things happen (you might easily reverse Announcements and Review of Agenda, for example), you should always be thinking about the energetic flow and how to sequence things such that the entry into the main agenda is on-tempo and focused. (By "on-tempo" I mean two things: a) in a timely way; and b) with an energy appropriate to the work about to happen—while you often want the group to be up-tempo going into an agenda item, that is not alway the case. If the first item on the agenda is heart circle to grieve the loss of a long-time member, you don't want to have everyone sing Zippety Do Dah as the Opening activity.)

The way I see it, it works best if a single person (or team) is holding the responsibility for seeing that all of the components of a good Opening are covered. This does not mean they have to be the one up front doing everything (though that's a possibility); it means they:
o Make sure the room is set up in an appropriate way (this may involve chair arrangement, lighting, props, audio-visual support, etc.);
o Know who is doing each piece;
o Establish a sequence for how the pieces will happen;
o Coordinate the pieces so that they fit together energetically; and
o Take responsibility for adjusting what happens with any aspect of the Opening in the face of emerging needs or requests (this could be something they sense, or a response to a specific problem or request)—the key is that everyone knows the Opening facilitator is the one who makes the call in the moment.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Risk Trap

One of the key principles we're stressing in the Economic Dimension of the Ecovillage Design Education course (being taught in Albuquerque Feb 9-17) is operating from a place of abundance rather than scarcity. There's a lot that the current dominant economic model does to reinforce scarcity (such as creating debt at a faster rate than the money needed to repay it). On top of that, there's greater power to manifest things in the world when you believe they're possible. This is not magical thinking; it's the power of positivism (which doesn't guarantee success; it just gives it a greater chance).

As good as this this adivce is, there's a trap lurking underneath, and that's what I want to explore today.

One of the most interesting features of the 9-day course on the Economic Dimension is that a good fraction of the class time (about 7 hours out of 40 total) is given over to what we style "Design Studio," where the participants have sorted themselves into five groups (of 3-8 students each) that tackle a particular project. They have been asked to figure out how to develop the project in a sustainable way, with an emphasis on applying the new paradigm economic principles we're offering in the course. There's nothing like test driving the theory to help integrate the learning.

One of the smaller groups is focused on developing a local business that features two products—smoothies and LED lighting systems. While the combination is a bit bizarre (I had to ask twice to make sure I'd heard correctly), this is an actual business start-up, not a role play about an imaginary business. The thing that these two products have in common is that the two principals, Jesse and Mike, believe they have two high-quality products, and they are totally excited to be producing them and delivering them by bike in the Albuquerque neighborhood where they live. The dream is that this will be a local business with products that can bought and delivered with minimal carbon impact. It's a cool idea.

While Jesse and Mike agree on all of the above, they are now in a crisis over how quickly to develop the business. Mike wants to proceed cautiously, and not commit to marketing until they have their delivery bike assembled, their marketing materials crafted, and their supply chain for the LED products secured. Jesse is looking at a World Wellness Weekend (subtitled a Health, Wellness, and Sustainability Living Festival) happening March 8-9 in downtown Albuquerque March 8 that will feature Deepak Chopra and Marianne Williamson. He sees this is a special opportunity to jump start their business, getting their twin products in front of hundreds (if not thousands) of their target audience all in one go. Jesse is jazzed and Mike is freaked out (afraid that the fledgling company will blow the lion's share of its start-up capital overreaching itself in one big roll of the dice.

Both agree that the right people are likely to be in the room. The tension, essentially, is around risk tolerance. It is an interesting example because neither Mike nor Jesse is weird or off-base. Their thinking may or may not be good, but their general attitudes toward their business venture both fit comfortably within the range of normal—just at opposite ends of the spectrum. What is prudent to Mike is fear-bound to Jesse. What is bold to Jesse is reckless to Mike.

The opportunity of the Wellness Weekend had brought them face-to-face with a dynamic that they will have to solve if their partnership is going to succeed. That is, in order to continue together in a vibrant business (which was the idea all along), they'll have to acknowledge that they have very different degrees of risk tolerance and be able to consistently affirm the impact of their ideas on the other with respect to risk.

Thus, when Jesse gets excited about the next chance for taking the business forward in a leap, he should anticipate that this will push Mike's buttons about being out of control. Note that I'm not saying Jesse is right or wrong; I'm only saying he needs to start the conversation by acknowledging that Mike is likely to feel threatened by Jesse's new venture. If Mike feels accurately seen, the conversation will go much better.

Going the other way, when Mike proposes a plan that is more deliberate and careful, he needs to anticipate that Jesse may respond with impatience. Jesse may feel hemmed in or shackled by
what he perceives as steps too small. Jesse needs to soar and Mike needs to show that he understands that.

Really, it's a diversity issue and this is an excellent example of the challenges of how to navigate it without asking either party to capitulate or change personalities.

One more point (and the main reason I'm writing this essay). In the context of our training, there might be a tendency to empathize more with Jesse in this dynamic. After all, isn't he the one embodying the principles of abundance and positivity? Isn't Mike exemplifying scarcity and fear-based thinking? Here's the trap.

While we are indeed advocating that people make a conscious shift in the direction of abundance and positivity, everyone has their own journey and can only go at their own pace. Mike is moving toward abundance and positivity (he's starting a new business after all, and risking thousands of dollars in the attempt)—he just didn't start in the same place that Jesse did, and may not be going at the same pace.

Chiding him (or worse, judging him) for not being in the same place as Jesse will not help Mike. He needs to be supported where he is (just like everyone else) and celebrated for the movement he's making—rather than goosed for not keeping up with Jesse, the soaring eagle.

Looking at this the other way, just because Jesse embodies abundance and a positive attitude—which he does—does not mean that all his ideas are good. While they may all be well-intended, that doesn't mean his ideas should be exempted from careful examination. Boldness can be reckless. In many ways, the art of succeeding in business is discerning the difference before you irrevocably commit your resources.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Finding a Cooperatve Response in Competition

I'm in the midst of a 9-day training, delivering the Economic Dimension of the Ecovillage Design Education curriculum in Albuquerque. Monday night we introduced to the class a course currency (an alternative currency that would exist only for the nine days) which could be used to facilitate exchanges of services between students, and to make decisions about how we would use some of our plenary time later in the week.

On purpose, we didn't allow the students much time to digest the concept before we put it into action. Minutes after handing around a stack of 100 NEEDs (Neighborhood Economy Ecovillage Dollars) to each participant, we asked them to make choices about Wednesday and Thursday night where they could use NEEDs to "pay" for what they wanted. There were bonuses if students formed coalitions to bid jointly. It was almost total chaos.

Some students jumped right in and offered their entire bankroll for a pet interest. Others tried to build a large pool in support of a common interest (and to earn thereby a bonus for cooperating). Some were frightened and put off by the cacophony (it only took us about two minutes to start emulating the floor of the New York Stock Exchange), and simply drifted to the back of the room to get out of the way. A few were angry that the teachers had set up this competitive, old-paradigm dynamic. Some were having fun. What a mess!

After debriefing the experience, we asked participants to reflect on what they could do to have a cooperative response in a competitive environment. While we know that everyone in the course is there to learn about cooperative economics, here we were recreating (in a blink) the competitive dynamic we are all agreed we're trying to alter! If we can;t do it differently, who can? Realizing that all of us will be in this situation again and again—where we will want a more cooperative dynamic than what's occurring around us—what can we do?

I think there are a few basic ideas that can help.

First, notice if you're having a strong reaction. If so, your first task is to recognize it and work through it. (If you respond to the situation out of reaction, good things will rarely happen.)

Second, once you've cleared your reactivity (but whatever means works for you), I think your most constructive next step depends on whether you consider yourself a significant stakeholder or not. Let's explore each.

If you don't particularly care about the outcome, you are well positioned to focus instead on the process by which the conversation is proceeding. You can play a significant role as an active neutral, offering connecting statements or bridging ideas between parties at odds with one another. For the most part, neutrals tend to stand back (and click their tongues). This Pontius Pilot approach may not make things worse, but it isn't helping. You can do better than that.

Hint: stakeholders actively involved in a competitive or adversarial struggle will tend not to be very interested in your observations about the process. The all-important first step in making progress on the dynamic is to demonstrate to all the stakeholders that you understand and are genuinely interested in their concerns (note that this is different than siding with them; it is simply showing to their satisfaction that you get what they care about).

If you do care about the outcome, your task is probably more challenging, yet still not out of reach. For the most part, our instinct in this situation is to respond to competition by shutting down or competing back. On a more sophisticated level, you might try coalition building, which is like cooperating to compete more effectively. (Many of the students attempted this Monday night.) Best of all though, is an approach that is almost completely counterintuitive: work first to demonstrate to the opposition that you understand and care about their different view.

If done well (hint: it will tend to not be enough to simply repeat a person's words; once you're identified as the "opposition," you'll need to be able to get the other person's affect, not just their ideas—that means you'll need to be able to show the other person that you get their position and what it means to them), it will lead to a softening of the dynamic (no one who feels well understood tends to remain a hard ass), and that's the thin wedge of cooperation that can be worked into the dynamic, slowly and inexorably changing the nature of the conversation. The key to this working is to let go of our natural insistence on being understood as a precondition to cooperative problem solving. Instead, offer that to the opposition first and trust that the improved environment will ultimately lead to everyone getting more of what they want.

: the opposition may never be interested in returning the favor. Do it anyway. In the long run, it will be your best strategy—both for getting your concerns seriously considered, and for nudging the culture in the right direction.

Monday, February 11, 2008

My Journey with Money

Feb 9-17 I'm teaching (with Rich Ruster and Maggie Seeley) the Economic Dimension of the Ecovillage Design Education course. As part of the training, I've prepared the following summary of my personal history with money

• • •
I grew up in the Republican suburbs of Chicago, and have an extreme amount of privilege in the mainstream culture (I'm white, male, well-educated, articulate, successful in business, happily married—I've got everything but hair). My father was financially successful and I was raised to be so myself. There isn’t a shadow of a doubt about whether I could make lots of money if I set my sights on that goal (that is, I could “win” in the current system).

I did not grow up rich, but comfortably middle class. The most important thing I got out of my upbringing was a strong sense of self-confidence. As I understand it today, this is the result of: a) my privilege; b) feeling secure in my parents’ love; and c) my never having experienced any serious deprivation growing up (my basic needs were always met). So the first piece to understand is that I had serious advantages.

While my father had plenty of money, and seemed to enjoy making it, it was also clear that he wasn’t happy. In fact, I came to understand by the time I went to college that he was profoundly lonely. It was a wake-up call of profound dimensions to see my father—who was clearly a success by societal standards—not happy. I wanted no part of that experience. So my second piece was that I understood early on the limitations of what money can by.

I went to college from 1967-71, during the height of Vietman protests. It was a period of unprecedented unrest on campus and I was smack in the middle of it. I exploded out my conservative cocoon and started questioning damn near everything. I loved the intensity of the inquiry and what I now see with hindsight were my first tastes of community—dormitory living with my peers. These were exciting times. It was during this time that the next piece emerged: I was drawn to doing social change work (and I knew that I was going to be a builder-upper rather than a tearer-downer: I had seen both roles showcased in those years of protest, and it was quickly apparent to me that I enjoyed putting together solutions more than I relished tearing the scales from others’ eyes.)

Coming out of college, I knew I was supposed to get a job (in the same way that I knew that I was supposed to go to college after high school). Already oriented toward wanting to make a difference, it seemed a good idea to explore public service, and for two years I worked for the US Dept of Transportation in DC as a junior bureaucrat. As it’s turned out, it was the only regular 9-5, M-F job I ever had. I worked for the then-magnificent salary of $7,000/year, and saved money. (The two main components of this were shared housing and not owning a vehicle; it’s incredible how much you can save that way.)

While it didn’t take me long to grok that this would not be my most productive environment (too much bullshit, not enough action), it was a valuable experience. It was, for example, highly instructive to see that I was the lowest paid person in my division (12 professionals and seven secretaries), and yet I was the only one not reporting a shortage of disposable income. People in that office spent to the limit of their income (or beyond). Sure, they had nicer houses and nicer clothes, yet they didn’t seem happy. This reinforced my inclination to not enter the consumer rat race. What was the point?

I also realized that I had lost that excitement and stimulation of college days. Maybe I’d made a mistake. Instead of focusing first on career possibilities and rebuilding a network of relationships in whatever job came along, maybe I should have done it the other way around: focus first on the people and let the job follow. In February 1973 I was in a public library and happened across the current issue of Psychology Today. It included an excerpt from a new book by Kat Kinkade, A Walden Two Experiment. It described the first five years of Twin Oaks Community in central VA, and it changed my life. “Community” was the label I was searching for to describe what was precious to me about my college experience. So now I had another important piece: people first; money second.

By August I had “retired” from public service and began serious conversations with friends from college days about starting our own community, to recreate that special environment. By the following spring, we had founded Sandhill Farm: four people willing to try to make that happen.
Because Twin Oaks was the inspiration and because I’d already done a fair amount of work to reject materialism, we set up Sandhill as an income-sharing community, where all earnings would be pooled. We still operate that way today.

The four of us were able to buy the land and expand the housing to meet our needs with cash (about $20,000). A significant fraction of that was saved from my two years in DC. I was 24 years old and had just jointly bought land in northeast Missouri. I had no job (or even an inkling of how we were going to make the finances work), but we also had no debt.

The Community Years
From this point on, I began seriously working on developing a viable economic model that was quite different than any I had known before. Here are the components of what I’ve done:

—Drastically reducing my need for money to supply basic needs, by living in a homesteading community that shared income.
—Working consciously to expand the pool of things that give me high satisfaction (essentially this is about cultivating curiosity).
—Insisting that the highest possible fraction of what I do is things I love doing.
—Defining work broadly (hint: value both domestic and income-producing activities as “work”).
—Blurring the line between work and play.
—I work when I want to work.
—Brining my full passion into everything I do.
—Defining success as loving the process, not the number of projects completed.

To the extent I’ve succeeded at this, I don’t track how much I work, and work doesn’t tire me. (Top Secret: clients feel this from me—even if they don’t know where it comes from—and it positively affects their experience with me, making it all the more likely they’ll want to work with me again. It’s a tremendous positive feedback loop.)

By having lots of things that attract me, I have a wide variety of work. Because I also have considerable control of my time, this affords me an important degree of flexibility. Whenever I get tired of one thing (or seem to have lost my creative edge), I simply lay it down and do something completely different. By this method I am able to maintain an unusually high degree of enthusiasm for what I do, and rarely get run down.

Pricing Myself
I do a lot of things that make money. Yet money doesn’t drive me. By having a low need for cash (by American standards) it gives me considerable leverage in the market place. As a process consultant (my most remunerative activity currently), I know that my services are valuable (I price myself as worth $1200/day, plus expenses) and that’s what I invariably say whenever prospective clients ask what I charge. However, in the same breath, I tell them that I don’t want money to get in the way of the work and that I’ll agree to do the job (assuming I’m interested in it) for what they can afford. That is, I tell them that I’ll say “yes” to whatever amount of money they put on the table, without quibbling. The only requirement is that they have a conversation (without me present) about what they can afford. What I don’t do is offer discounts up front. I insist they have the conversation about what the work is worth. And then I trust their answer.

In consequence, I get paid all over the map. Sometimes I work for a pittance, or even pro bono. In the end though, taken as a whole, I get paid plenty and I am able to ignore the paycheck when doing the work.

One last piece. I’ve derived considerable satisfaction out of making jobs up (rather than out-competing those already in the field). That is, on multiple occasions I’ve cooked up an idea for a job that hasn’t existed previously—something that really excited me. I’ve talked people into supporting me as a volunteer long enough to demonstrate that job’s worth, and then gotten the job funded. After a while, my interests invariably evolve, I find someone to replace me, and I create a new job. I’ve done this about six times, and I can feel the next shift coming.

After firmly establishing myself in the field of intentional communities as a process consultant (my most remunerative career to date), I am poised to leave that to others and focus instead on bringing the lessons and tools of cooperative dynamics into the wider culture—among neighborhood associations, churches, and the workplace, where the commitment to community and cooperation is softer, yet the numbers yearning for something better are exponentially higher.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Pitfalls of Proposals from Meetings People Miss

I'm trying to navigate some tricky dynamics right now as the administrator of a group whose representatives are spread across North America and have never been in the same room together. There are nine reps from nine groups which share common values and have pooled money to self-insure against catastrophic health care costs. As the administrator, I take care of day-to-day business and organize the agenda for discussion whenever there's a policy issue, yet I have no official say in the decisions. The group has existed for more than 20 years and generally operates with little difficulty. This last year has been different.

There has been considerable turnover among reps over the years, to the point where no one currently involved goes back more than 10 years, and most less than two. In the last 12 months we have bumped up against questions about program objectives, the criteria on which we evaluate loans, our investment philosophy, and how we define acceptable risk. There's more, but you get the picture: more or less everything is now being called into question. Because of the expense (in both time and dollars) of calling a face-to-face meeting, we've tried valiantly to make progress on our issues through a combination of email and conference calls. However, good intentions aside, these are not the kind of issues that lend themselves well to email resolution, and we've been mostly bogged down in our attempts to make progress. (No small part of this is our never having met in person before; turnover among reps being what it is.) In light of this, I'm advocating that we now must have a face-to-face meeting in order get traction on our agenda, regardless of the expense.

While I think people will agree with this assessment, there is, understandably, considerable interest in having this happen sooner rather than later, and with minimal cost. It happens that there is a regularly scheduled meeting happening later this month where six of the nine participating groups will be sending delegates. (To add to the confusion, the delegates to this subgroup of six are, with only a single exception, different people from the reps to the group of nine.) With good intent, someone suggested that the other three groups send their reps to this mtg and we create space for the face-to-face mtgs about the health care group there.

This was a decent idea, but it came too late for busy people to free up the time and it was quickly apparent that only a small fraction of the reps could attend (maybe two out of the nine). Despite this, one of the attending reps has proposed going forward with whoever is in the room to discuss the issues. Their forward-moving intent was clear enough: we have a lot to do, so let's get started where we can.

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. And that's the point I want to make in this blog. Under consensus, there is certain flow to making solid progress on issues. In essence, it's important to first flush out all the factors that a good decision needs to take into account before starting to problem solve (that way, you have a decent screen to test proposals against—how well do they balance the factors that everyone has agreed are in play?). When people are missing from the opening discussion (which is sure to be the case in the upcoming mtgs of the subgroup), then there is considerable danger of engaging in problem solving before the missing people have had a thorough chance to add to the mix of factors that need to be taken into account. It's a classic example of the cart being placed in front of the horse.

Of course, the missing people may have nothing to add to what those in attendance were able to surface and there may
then be no awkwardness in how the conversation proceeds. But if there is momentum built about solutions which have not taken into account factors that the missing people name later, there can be considerable tension around honoring the investment of time by the problem solvers versus really being open to input from those missing from the first conversation. Remember, the object here is solving problems with energy that brings the group together. While it doesn't happen often, sometimes more communication (with stakeholders missing) is less helpful than waiting for a time when everyone can be in the room.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Meetin' in the Holler

I’ve just wrapped up two days of Oversight Committee meetings for the FIC, and will be headed back to the barn in the wee hours of Monday (I’ve got to arrive at Sandhill in time to unload the car, turn in my accounting, download my email, change my underwear, post this blog, and catch the westbound Southwest Chief at 8:06 pm in La Plata—in order to get to Albuquerque in time celebrate with my wife the entirety of her 38th birthday on Wed). Nothing like the simple country life, I always say…

The Oversight mtgs were held at Dunmire Hollow, home of long-time friend and fellow networker Harvey Baker. It’s been our habit for years to have our winter mtgs here (for some reason, it’s often fallen on the weekend that straddles the Super Bowl), and I have myriad fond memories of discussing with friends and compatriots the giant and small intricacies and potentials of the North American Communities Movement in Harvey’s living room (this weekend, of course, we also got to discuss the strategies and challenges of the Patriots and the Giants). This time, there were only four us: Harvey, Jenny Upton, Marty Klaif, and myself. Jenny & Marty drove down from Shannon Farm in VA (oddly, all four of us live in cmties founded in 1974—apparently a vintage year for cmties).

It was indeed a Super Weekend, though the football game, good as it was, was incidental. Among other things, we made solid progress on:
o The timetable and process by which we’ll select a new Production Team for Communities magazine.
o How to do a better job of identifying & advertising job openings in the FIC, and soliciting candidates to fill them.
o Whether to accept an invitation to apply to NIH for a grant to conduct social research to investigate the successes and challenges of creating intentional cmties.
o Establishing an FIC award to honor cmty networking, named in honor of our recently fallen comrade, Geoph Kozeny.

Finishing early Sunday afternoon, we had time to visit with friends from The Farm (less than an hour to the east), where we spent a tender 90 minutes remembering Geoph. Michael Lee, Joan Thomas, Robert Moore, and Douglas Stevenson joined us, along with Dunmire members Karen Fletcher and David Baker. People told stories and Douglas sang a few songs. It helps immeasurably to grieve with friends.

One of the most intriguing of our conversations was about how to fulfill our mission to help people create cmty where they are. We know there is widespread interest in this, yet are uncertain what our product is. Perhaps it comes down to cultivating a consistently curious response (as oppose to a defensive or attacking one) in the moment when a person becomes aware of someone who is different or presents a different view on something that matters. How do we teach people to respond with openness, instead of fear? We believe that intentional cmties are learning something important about how to execute this graceful pirouette. In the years ahead, we’ll see whether we can teach it.