Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sometimes It Gets Worse Before It Gets Better

Ten days ago I was working with Monan's Rill, a 35-year-old Quaker-based community near Santa Rosa CA. Started in 1973 (just one year before my community, Sandhill Farm) they were unusual in that the founders were mostly in their 50s, inspired to build an intentional community in their "retirement" years. (I put that in quotes because I can hardly imagine a more demanding and consuming endeavor than creating a successful community from the ground up—yet that's what they did. The founders were fireballs, who did not go gentle into that good night.)

In any event, now the founders are all gone. Either passed away or relocated to assisted living, where the daily demands of getting around are less physically rigorous. For the members who comprise Monan's Rill today, there's a question about who the community is and where is it headed, which is part of the reason they invited me in.

I was asked to focus on two main things: 1) getting greater clarity about what non-monetary contributions are expected of members toward the development and well being of the community; and 2) how to work constructively with conflict when it emerges among members and complicates an issue. I was asked to both get traction on the thorny topic of Work/Participation and to provide a model for dealing with complex and volatile issues in general. For the 24 hours I'd be working with them (about 10 hours of plenary meetings), there was no danger of running out of things to talk about.

While the casual observer might think poorly of a community in struggle, I have a different view. On some level all communities struggle, and the key question in assessing health is how well they're dealing with their issues—not whether or not they have any. And in my book (which I haven't quite written yet, but I'm getting to), Monan's Rill stood out as a group with excellent prospects for three reasons:

a) They asked for help. Most groups don't. I don't know whether it's stubborn pride, myopia, or some misbegotten idea that progress doesn't count unless you do it all by yourself, but most groups simply don't ask for help. They could be on their last breath and still telling the world they just have a head cold.

(One of the most important developments in the maturity of my community was getting it that sometimes the perspective and neutrality of a community-savvy outsider can lead to a breakthrough in stuck dynamics. Today, we regularly ask outside facilitators to help us navigate difficult issues. Of course, Sandhill was nearly 20 years old before we got smart enough to realize how stupid we'd been, but at least we finally got it.)

b) The group has a stand-out depth of connection to the land and to the community's heritage. There is a palpable reverence and preciousness that most members report from being connected with Monan's Rill and social capital of that caliber is gold in the bank. It sustains people through hard times, making it clear why laboring with one another is worth the attempt.

Of the 22 adult members, every one of them attended the meetings (excepting only that one person missed the Friday evening session). To frame how unusual that is in my experience (as a process consultant who has worked with perhaps 60 communities), a majority of the groups I have worked with have never had a single meeting where all the members were in the room at the same time past the early founding days when the group was very small. This was obviously a community where members were "all in" and this touched my soul.

c) They hung in there—both physically and psychically—when the going got tough. One of the legacies of the culture established by the founders was that plenaries (meetings of the whole) would focus on business, not feelings. This is a choice that many groups make, mainly because there aren't a lot of good models for working constructively with feelings (outside of therapy) and groups want to contain how much time they devote in meetings.

Feelings, however, don't go away just because you don't give them oxygen in plenaries. In fact, they tend to get more virulent in an anaerobic environment. After 35 years of this, Monan's Rill had a pretty lumpy carpet (due to all the stuff that was being stored under there instead of being cleaned up as it occurred). My job, in part, was to demonstrate how to clean the carpets—working both with what was on top and what was underneath.

Not surprisingly, that was the bulk of what we did during my time with the community. Because I have the firm belief that you cannot make solid progress on substantive issues until you first address cleanly any non-trivial distress related to the topic (and the group had purposely selected Work/Participation as the main topic because it was known to be fraught with unresolved tensions), we didn't make as much headway on Work/Participation as we did on cleaning the carpets.

One of the ironies of this kind of remedial attention is that when it goes well, things tend to get worse at first. And that's what we experienced at Monan's Rill. (It's kind of like deciding to clean an overstuffed closet: when you first open the door, shit falls out everywhere.) Perhaps the pivotal moment of the weekend occurred right out of the box Saturday morning when I asked if anyone was sitting on any lingering distress about another member's non-monetary contributions to the community.

A woman going through a painful divorce launched into an angry criticism of her ex-partner's participation in community life—with him in the room. Here was the key moment. It wasn't remembered upset; it was active distress. It wasn't just about participation; most of the hurt was fueled by a long and complex history, the intimate details of which were well beyond the scope of plenary attention. It was messy, it was incendiary, and it was what I had invited. Many were holding their breath. Would the weekend go down the drain, or would this be different?

Fortunately, this was familiar ground for me (not the details; but the pattern), and I did what I've learned usually works in that situation. I didn't freak out because someone was upset, I got curious. I listened carefully to the story and the feelings, and acknowledged both. I carefully named the scope of the upset and distinguished what we'd tackle in plenary (we'd look at the top of the iceberg—the perception that the ex-partner was not doing his fair share of community work—but not the bottom part, the full range of unresolved hurts about the failed partnership). Once the woman reported that she felt heard about all this, I gave her ex-partner the same attention. Eventually we got to what each might do differently that would address the problem (steadfastly limiting the scope of the examination to community participation, without pretending that there weren't many other factors in play regarding their dynamic), and we went from there. The tension was defused, the weekend didn't get derailed, we didn't duck the issue, and no one died. People exhaled.

That was a success. The prize for which was that we got more. Having seen that it can work, people were more willing to name other unresolved tensions connected with Work/Participation. We had lifted up one corner of the carpet, and there as enough courage in the room to get out the brooms (instead of entertaining proposals to trim the legs of the furniture to better fit the lumps).

Having found the resolve to start the process and to not blink once they shined a light on some of the dirt, I am wholly optimistic that Monan's Rill can look forward to a future with cleaner floors.

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