Wednesday, April 29, 2009

One of Bamboo

For the second time in two months, I'm in the East Bay, with its amazing Mediterranean climate and bewldering array of flora. In the front of the house I'm staying at, there are lots of flowers in bloom, including one of my all-time favorites: bird of paradise. In the span of about 10 seconds, here's the sequence of thoughts that ran through my head when I saw these:
—Natural selection (see my blog entry for Feb 27)
—Mah Jongg

Let me explain those last two leaps.

Maj Jongg is a Chinese game. It's a lot like rummy, but it's played with tiles instead of cards. Instead if the four suits that comprise a deck of playing cards, a Mah Jongg set has three suits (dots, characters, and bamboo), plus honor tiles (winds and dragons). Each suit has tiles numbered 1 through 9. For the bamboo tiles numbered 2 through 9, all you have to do is count the number of sticks of bamboo carved into the face of the tile to know what number you have. For the number 1 tile however, there is no bamboo carved into the face; instead, there's a bird of paradise, and you have to know a bit about Chinese mythology to understand what's going on.

While the bird of paradise is a bona fide plant (though I may not have believed they existed if I hadn't seen them with my own eyes; I have seen them with my own eyes), it's only a mythical creature. Birds of paradise—just like pandas, apparently—only eat bamboo. Thus, any Chinese person could reasonably be expected to understand how the image of a bird of paradise—that singular avian—would be pressed into service to conjure up the 1 of bamboo. Out of cultural context (in America, for instance), the meaning is obscure.

While few people would rate confusion over the meaning of a bird on a Mah Jongg tile to be anything more than an amusing curiosity, it turns out that meaning of any kind can be obscure when taken out of cultural context, and that got me to thinking about facilitation.

One of the most important skills of a good facilitator is to be able to see the meaning of an act or statement in the cultural contact of the doer, and then be able to accurately translate that action or utterance into something with comparable meaning for the observer or listener. There are two essential elements here: a) shifting perspectives (seeing reality through other's eyes); and b) bridging between different perspectives when there is confusion or misunderstanding.

I'll give you an example. Some years ago I was facilitating a group that was wrestling with the issue of work expectations for members. In the course of the conversation, the group was considering establishing a Work Committee, whose job it would be to help members find ways to contribute that would match their skills and enthusiasm with the community's needs. As we were getting into it, one young man got nervous imagining members of the Work Committee showing up at his door and said "I don't want any part of authorizing a bunch of Work Nazis to go around barging into my room asking me what I've done for the community lately."

That was the first time anyone had used the N-word in the conversation and I immediately picked up on a body reaction from an older Jewish woman. Rather than asking her what was going on ( I was pretty sure she wasn't thinking about birds of paradise), I simply assumed that the young man and the older woman had a significantly different cultural context for the term "Nazi," and I immediately stepped in and rephrased what the young man had said, without using Nazi in my explanation. What had been a throw-away descriptor for the young man, used for dramatic effect, was a button-pushing traumatization for the older woman, and I knew we were in trouble. Fortunately, I caught that particular hand grenade in mid-air and was able to dispose of it safely before it exploded. To this day, I'm not sure the young man knew what danger he was flirting with, but the important thing was that I was able to draw the poison before it had gotten very deep into the older woman's (or anyone else's) bloodstream.

Maybe I should start using the bird of paradise as a symbol on my business cards.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Musings about a Moving Experience by the Maumee

I’m noticing a certain symmetry to my travel rhythms. Today—just like three days ago, when I started this road trip—I boarded Amtrak at dawn, and am composing a blog entry as I rumble toward Chicago’s Union Station and my first latté of the day…

• • •
I spent the last two days visiting my daughter Jo and her sweetheart Peter in Toledo, located at the west end of Lake Erie, at the mouth of the Maumee River. In addition to my daughter, Toledo is home for the Mud Hens, Toledo’s uniquely nicknamed AAA baseball affiliate (do they specialize in hitting fowl balls?), who play at cozy, downtown 5/3rd Field, named after a regional bank (how do you name a bank after an improper fraction?).

Like her father, Jo is a moving target. Unlike her father (who travels a lot but has kept the same bedroom for decades), Jo changes homes about as frequently as a white pelican. After moving to Amherst MA in early ’07, she migrated south that summer and resettled in Asheville NC. After almost living out a year’s lease on the east side of town, last summer she moved to Weaverville on the north side. While there, in the fall, she started dating Peter and they connected fabulously right from the get-go. After a few months replete with new couple romance, both of them got laid off as well, and it was time to change zip codes again.

Peter got work with a TV station in Toledo and they headed north together, peregrinating in the dead of winter. Now nesting together, they weren’t three months into their one-year lease on a rented house before the landlord asked if they’d consider moving so that he could live there himself. Although Jo claimed she'd rather have root canal than face another move, their old landlord sweetened the deal by paying for a moving company to handle the heavy stuff and chipped in the first month's rent on the new place.

Plus, Toledo in April is a whole other ballgame than Toledo in January. Just ask the Mud Hens. Luckily, Peter & Jo never let their his-and-hers storage boxes get too far out of sight (and think of all the time they save not having to dust them, cleverly putting them to use so regularly).

Thus it was that I showed up for a two-day visit that exactly straddled moving day (which is kind of like being in New York and accidentally catching Macy’s White Sale). Not that I minded. I enjoy being helpful on visits, and this was a clear opportunity, especially given that Peter was working that day. (Actually, we were all working Thursday; Peter was just the only one getting paid for it).

The weather cooperated wonderfully and Thursday was mostly about filling boxes, moving them in and out of vehicles, and then unpacking them on the other end (the new house was only three miles removed from the old one). Jo directed traffic and I just kept schlepping. The highlight for me was successfully navigating a DIY shelving unit capable of holding five storage boxes worth of DVDs—most of Peter’s collection. Having it assembled and ready to receive its bounty of electronic entertainment before bedtime put an appreciable dent in the mountain of living room stuff awaiting attention Friday. There were places where you could even see the floor.

Yesterday we started fine tuning the house. While Jo organized the kitchen, I swapped out the dryer receptacle (right wiring; wrong plug configuration), and helped her manifest a shelf to extend the utility of the pass-through between the kitchen and living room. What we staretd with was a simple opening (about 42”x48”) finished in drywall. As the opening was only as wide as the wall, that meant a 4-inch ledge. Jo figured she could do better and I got to dust off my skills as an impromptu carpenter—where you’re expected to do a nice job with minimal tools.

We bought a 4-foot length of 1x10 finished red oak at Home Depot and had them cut it to length (Jo & Peter don’t have a handsaw or circular saw). Knowing they’d want a rounded edge—it’s no fun catching body parts on the square corners of protruding shelves—I had Jo buy a chisel (Jo & Peter don’t have a coping saw). Out in the back yard I rested the board on top of the air conditioning exhaust (Jo & Peter don’t have saw horses) and chiseled the corners round, finishing them with the sandpaper we bought.

Next I had to figure out how to mount the store-bought wooden brackets. They had a slotted grove into which metal hardware had been factory installed. The buyer was also given a pair of pan head screws, the heads of which exactly fitted into a grove in the hardware, locking the unit to wherever the screw was attached.

Because the brackets had to drop down onto the protruding screws to lock into place, there was nuance in figuring out exactly where to place the screws so that the top of the brackets would be flush with the bottom of the pass-through. As Jo & Peter don’t have a level (are you beginning to see the pattern?), I used the side of an incense box as a straight edge so that I could line up the outer edge of each bracket with the sides of the pass-through—where I knew there’d be trimmers I could screw into.

Luckily, Jo & Peter do have a tape measure, and it was a relatively simple matter to make a template for where to place the screws. I had Jo buy a drill index (to go with the cordless drill she already had) and was thus able to pre-drill for the bracket mounting screws, and then for the brass screws I bought to lock down the finished shelving piece through the front edge of the bracket into the underside of the red oak. Ta-da! Jo now had a handsome red oak pass-through shelf that was 10 inches wide, instead of a drywall ledge that was 4 inches narrow. Better.

I even had time to do a little email and stretch before we went out to eat.

Jo says that she and Peter plan to be in Toledo for at least two years. I guess it could happen. And maybe the white pelicans will stay in Saskatchewan this winter.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Balancing Transparency & Confidentiality

Let’s take a few minutes to take about minutes. While almost all groups understand the need to have a record of their work (to help new members learn what agreements they’ll be expected to abide by, to clarify group policy when memories fade or disagree, and to help those who missed a meeting know what happened), there are aspects to minutes that can very tricky, and I want to discuss creating a record of discussions about sensitive topics. We have to have more nuanced choices than sealed records (maximum confidentiality) and full transcripts (maximum transparency).

For cooperative groups to function well, there needs to be an easy flow of information. When people are left to guess what’s happening, it erodes trust. When minutes are missing, unavailable, vague, or incomplete, the flow of information is compromised, and therefore trust is susceptible to being compromised as well. Governing bodies have to do better than function as a black box, where information goes in and decisions come out.

Probably the most challenging version of this relates to how minutes record sensitive topics. This tends to come in two different forms: reporting on critical comments (such as may naturally emerge in personnel evaluations, or when discussing negotiation strategies), and reporting on emotional distress. Trickiest of all is when these two occur together. Though each could happen separately, sometimes you get the whole enchilada.

In making a recommendation about how to handle this, I think it will help to walk through an example. Suppose there’s a cooperative group that’s large enough to have standing committees, and one of them is the Membership Team. Let’s say that during a Membership Team meeting the competency of the convener is called into question. This person has missed meetings, has failed to coordinate with the Finance Committee about Membership’s budget for the coming year, and accidentally deleted the only copy of two sets of crucial team meeting minutes. Suppose further that the discussion doesn’t go well. The convener feels cornered and gets defensive. Voices are raised, tempers flare, and before long everyone is pissed off. While nothing gets resolved, the meeting ends with an agreement to get help to talk about this further.

What will the minutes say about this?

Scenario A—Report none of the distress
Not being sure how to report distress (without inadvertently creating more), sometimes groups pretend it didn’t happen, at least as far as the official record goes. It’s not hard to imagine the notetaker being nervous about the possibility of being the target of the next vitriolic fusillade if the upset people are upset about the way their upset is reported.

However, think about what happens. Perhaps the rest of the group never finds out—in which case they are forever in the dark about a potentially pivotal event in group history, where serious relationship damage may have occurred. Sudden coolness between protagonists may make no sense to those left uninformed, and it will be awkward trying to puzzle out what portion of future interactions is current and what is attributable to mysterious, unresolved past tensions.

Perhaps some or all of the rest of the group learns of the shouting match. How much better is that when the learning is through the rumor mill, and likely coming indirectly from lopsided sources? This leads to the same quality of clarity as achieved by the proverbial group of blind people describing an elephant after touching different parts. While it will ultimately be obvious to all that the water has been roiled, no one will be able to see clearly what happened for all the mud that’s been stirred up.

Scenario B—Report it all
Working this from the other end, you could tape record all meetings and provide a written transcript, letting the chips fall where they may. Notetakers would be like court reporters. While there would be fairness to this, there's a appreciable chance that it will result in further damage to relationships (people regretting what they said—now that it’s been “spread all over town” they fear that mole hills will become mountains; people embarrassed by what they said—their mortification will be compounded by having "everyone" know; misunderstandings arising from the transcript’s lacking the context of body language, tone, and facial expression). It’s important to understand that the truth can be used as a weapon, and that backing off from sharing fully can be the more judicious and effective choice.

Further, if people fear how their statements will be understood (even if recorded accurately), then they’ll be more cautious in what they say and this can undercut the candor and authenticity that groups need to function at a high level.

Scenario C—Report the TV Guide summary
One in-between option would be to craft a short summarizing minute such as, “The team got into a heated conversation about the competency of one member and determined to ask for help in resolving the tensions.”

This is better in that it acknowledges that distress occurred without repeating any of the incendiary comments that would appear in a transcript (Dale said that Chris was “as dumb as a box of hammers”). That said, there’s still too much vagueness. Who was being criticized, and what were the criticisms? This invites guessing and gins up the rumor mill. I think we can do better.

Scenario D—Report a summary that gets real
Best I think is to get as specific as possible while at the same time staying neutral and non-inflammatory. Thus, the minute might look something like this:

“Part way into the meeting, the discussion veered into questions about Chris’ performance as team convener. Dale, Pat, and Kyle expressed upset about three different things. Chris has: a) missed three team meetings this year so far; b) failed to give the Finance Committee the Membership Team’s 2010 budget requests in a timely way; and c) accidentally deleted the only copy of minutes from two Membership Team meetings.

Chris was not prepared for this impromptu evaluation, and felt attacked. Tempers flared and the conversation broke down. Without coming to any resolution about the substance of the complaints or what to do about them, Chris agreed that the team had a right to discuss convener performance, and that it was fair to examine all the things brought up as the basis for the feedback. However, Chris wanted time to prepare a response, and the assistance of an outside facilitator to handle the potentially charged conversation. The team agreed to this and the topic will be taken up again at the team meeting next month.”

To be clear, I’d strongly advocate that everyone at the team meeting (or at least everyone who raised their voices, ostensibly Chris, Dale, Pat, and Kyle) be given a chance to review this minute before it was posted—you don’t want anyone disavowing it after it’s been made public.

The follow-up meeting may or may not go well (that's a different topic), yet now at least the rest of the group has been brought up to speed, and can help create the container needed to bridge the differences and heal the tensions. In the loop, the rest of the group can be supportive and sympathetic. Out of the loop, there's a tendency to feel irritated and marginalized. Guess which one works better?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Stretching the Ties That Bind

Yesterday I got into tiff with my wife.

• • •
Ma'ikwe and I have got a somewhat unusual marriage in that we don't live in the same place. We live close to each other, but are still three miles apart (up until last July, we lived 1000 miles apart, so we're definitely gaining). I live at Sandhill Farm, an income-sharing community I helped start in 1974, and Ma'ikwe lives at Dancing Rabbit, a thriving ecovillage of 40+ that bought land nearby back in 1997.

I like Sandhill's small, family-like feel, and Ma'ikwe prefers the stronger environmental covenants of DR, plus its vision to become a full-fledged village. So we've accepted the challenge of figuring out the rhythms of a marriage where we don't see each other every day. When we're both at home, we have a baseline agreement to spent Tuesday and Wednesday nights together. The rest of the week is negotiable. However, in busy times—which for two active networkers, is just about all the time—Tues and Wed nights are more often than not our only nights together. I guess you could say were perfecting the art of using scarcity to bolster demand.

And it's more complicated than that. As both the main administrator for FIC and as a process consultant, I'm on the road about half the time. While I do gobs from home via email, the bulk of my community building activities are done in place, where I go to the client (or to the event). I like traveling, and I like what I do, so it's a mix that mostly works for me. The only down side is that I'm away from home too much, and often I'm away from my partner as well.

Some portion of my travels I do with Ma'ikwe—during which we enjoy the concentration of time together. The rest of the time, however, I'm not even getting Tuesdays and Wednesdays with my wife.

So that's the general lay of the land. This year though, things will be worse. Ma'ikwe is building a house at DR, and this major project has several implications for our partnership:

o The house will be Ma'ikwe's #1 focus for the year (and probably the next as well). As such, it means she'll need to be at home as much as possible managing things (her priority will not so much be pounding nails and or mixing earthen plaster for the walls; it will be securing the materials and the labor to make sure that work happens in an orderly way and in line with the design). This means she'll have minimal time for visiting me at Sandhill, and minimal time for traveling together.

o It also means that Ma'ikwe will not devote much time to earning money in 2009. Instead, she'll be spending it. After talking over how I could best assist in this project, it quickly became clear that I was more valuable going out and making money, then by coming over to DR regularly to help with construction. This, of course, is a double whammy in that it simultaneously means more time on the road, and a smaller percentage of trips that we take together. It also means we wont have the occasion to work together much on the house.

o Managing the construction of a house—especially when you haven't done it before—can be a highly stressful experience. Often, you have to live with your mistakes for years afterwards (literally). So on top of everything else, Ma'ikwe will need additional psychic support for this project, and there will be definite limits to how much she can reciprocate for the next several months.

To be clear, I've willingly signed on for all this, but foreknowledge doesn't necessarily make it easier. We had a first taste of this challenge yesterday.
• • •
I am about to embark on a month-long stretch where I'll be on the road all but three days, home just long enough to participate in Sandhill's 35th anniversary party May 9. While I almost always go through a rush of trying to wrap up as many projects at home as possible before hitting the road, this time my list includes a number of things in support of the house project.

Most notably, I told Ma'ikwe I'd supply the 16 posts she needs for her post-and-beam design. At Sandhill we have an abundance of black locust, a native species which grows relatively straight and is naturally rot resistant. As she needs to debark and trim the posts and this work can't reasonable wait for my return in a month, it was important that I deliver the posts before my departure on Tuesday. I'd finished felling the trees Thursday, and yesterday was the day I'd hoped to gather and deliver them, working with the front-end loader on our biggest tractor.

Though it was raining slightly yesterday morning, I was able to work and I wanted to get as much done as possible because the forecast was for more rain yet. While I started out OK, despite the wet grass, I hadn't been working more than an hour before the hydraulic lines needed to operate the bucket burst, and I was through for the day—with only three posts loaded onto the wagon. Uh oh. While I got help right away trying to repair the damage, it necessitated a trip to town for parts and I switched to other work, unsure whether I'd be able to complete the work on Monday—my last full day at home. None of this improved my mood.

When Ma'ikwe stopped by Sandhill unexpectedly yesterday afternoon, I was glad to see her. She took the news about the hydraulic lines bursting in stride and I was able to hand off some other things to her (J-bolts I'd made for the stem wall pour that will happen while I'm on the road, cash she'll need to pay for materials, and a draw knife to strip the bark off the posts). One of the reasons she came by (other than to see her husband briefly) was that she'd just erected a large army tent that she'll be using to support the contruction crew on site and needed to pick up some items for it from the boxes she has stored in our barn loft.

Because of the rain. Ma'ikwe was nervous about being able to get to the barn without getting stuck. I assured her that it would be fine and she drove to the corner of the barn (which is set back about 50 feet from the road). When it came time to leave, Ma'ikwe had a choice about how to drive out. Either she could go straight ahead on sod (up a slight incline), or she could back out, taking advantage of a rocked driveway. She chose to go ahead and didn't quite make it before the wheels spun out. I was able to do no better and when the car stalled, I decided to pull the car out with a tractor. (I was in a t-shirt without a hat and the rain had picked up while we were in the barn rootting around for her camp stove and other supplies; I wanted to get the car out qucikly and get back under a roof.)

Ma'ikwe was unsure what she wanted me to do while I towed the car, and when she asked, I was ingracious in response. "Just steer" I said. The car pulled out OK and Ma'ikwe had no trouble getting it started again. While she drove home, I put the tractor away and dashed for the house to get out of the drizzle.

To be sure, this was no big deal. We had an awkward moment, got through it, and were able to solve the problem relatively qucikly. However, both of us refleted on the difficult energy of the exchange and it's sobering to realize that we're staring at several months of minimal contact and above-average stress. This foretaste did not bode well for the relationship. (There's a terrific book written in 1975 about the dynamics of building a house and the strain it can place on relationships: The Owner Built Home by Ken Kern.)

It is, of course, a good thing that we're acknowledging it. But that's not enough. We also have to breathe through it, and be ever-mindful of the intent to build a house that enhances the releationship, rather than one that degrades it. I'll let you know how well we do.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Mining the Tax Code

Today's the Day After (taxes are due), which means I'm coming back up for air after 72 hours in the accounting tank.

Beginning Sunday noon, I took over the dining room table, skipped meals, socialized with no one, and spoke only to request help in tracking down obscure details about financial exchanges that took place months ago for which our records are ambiguous. It's an unusual art form.

Yesteray I put the last envelope in the mail just minutes before the postman collected everything, once again (barely) navigating the IRS' annual version of Beat the Clock. I was really happy to lay aside spreadsheets last evening for my weekly dose of duplicate bridge, where my biggest challenge was bringing home a 5 hearts contract doubled, missing the ace and king of trump.

As an intentional community, one of Sandhill's aspirations is to be an example of a saner life. That means trying to create a model that others could reasonably emulate (should we be sufficiently inspiring). That, in turn, means operating legally, rather than trying to live outside of government regulations—even ones we disagree with—hoping to escape notice by flying below the radar.

Among other things, that means minding of the tax code. At Sandhill, our thinking about taxes breaks into two parts: a) state & local, and b) federal. We feel fine about paying state and local taxes. These mainly go to support roads and local amenities like schools, libraries, and hospitals. These are services we use (or at least like having in place) and feel it's appropriate to pay our fair share.

With federal taxes we have a different analysis. We tend to be highly critical of what the US government does with its budget, and prefer to minimize our contribution to the US war machine. But what are our legal options?

Two months ago (Feb 5-22) I authored a series of blogs about the economic leveraging possible through community living. One thing I left out of that cataloging was the tax advantages peculiar to income-sharing communities. When the tax code was overhualed in 1954, lawmakers established the relatively obscure tax-exempt category of 501(d), austensibly for religious and apostolic orders which pooled their income. (To give you an idea of just how obscure this designation is, when we applied for it in 1979 there was no application form. Think about that. A category so small that even career bureaucrats could not justify assigning someone the task of creating a form for it.)

While income-sharing communities may or may not have a common spiritual belief, we are all organized economically just like monastic orders, and we've been able to make the case with IRS that we should be treated the same way. The key benefits of this are two-fold. First, although we are organized as a corporation, we file a partnership return (Form 1065 if you're keeping score at home), and the corporation has no tax liability itself. All net profits are reported on participating members 1040s, distributed according how long they were members of the community during the tax year—not according to how much money they made individually.
This is enormously beneficial in that the community can have members who earn a lot of money and others whose contributions are solely domestic, without worrying about the tax bite on the high wage earners. Since we actually aggregate all the money to cover everyone's needs—just like in a monastery—the IRS has agreed to treat us collectively, which was the point of 501(d).

In Sandhill's case, we had two members who earned more than $20,000 last year doing part-time professional work, yet their pro-rata share of Sandhill's income was less than $7000, resulting in their owing no income tax. (The other factor that allows us to keep our income so low is that our high degree of sharing means we need far fewer dollars to have a high quality life. There's a good bit more about this in my aforementioned Feb series.)

Second, each individual's pro-rata share of Sandhill's net profits is reported as dividend income, and is therefore not subject to self-employment tax. In exchange for foregoing access to Social Security payments in the future (or the possibility of access to Earned Income Credit), we can keep all the money (Social Security currently takes a healthy 15.3% bite) and take care of ourselves. Both because we don't have confidence in the future of Social Security, and because we're nervous about how the federal government uses dollars, that's an easy bargain for us to make.

While there was a steep learning curve in the early years figuring out how to set up our accounting so that we'd have the figures we needed every April without conducting heroic manipulations, we've solved that problem years ago. And that's the story of how we've been able to go beyond our commitment to mind of the tax code, to being able to mine the tax code.

What would the federal government do if everyone lived like Sandhill and it couldn't afford a new air craft carrier? Be nice to find out, wouldn't it?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Iconic Sunday

It's spring, and life is full of promise. Here in the Midwest, the returning green is starting to take a serious grip on the landscape. While the trees lag behind, the grass tells you immediately that its no longer winter and you know cells are multiplying like rabbits on the microscopic level. On a day like this, the recession is just an abstract concept, pushed aside for the immediacy of the burgeoning To Do List of agrarian life.

That said, it's also a day for pause. Of course, Sunday is the traditional day of rest in the workaday world, yet I mean more than that. It's also an exclamation mark on three institutional calendars, and I thought I'd take a few moments to reflect on this convergence, described in ascending order of impact on life in my community.

1. It's Easter. While I can recall an early Sandhill tradition of Annie getting up early and making hot crossed buns, and toddlers hunting for dyed eggs with wicker baskets when the kids were young, that was years ago and this high holy day among Christians is little more than a side note in community life, where the overwhelming majority of members come to us from a Christian upbringing, not with one.

Easter marks the resurrection of Jesus from death and offers believers the possibility of atonement for all sins—no matter how egregious—as well as the promise of everlasting life. It's quite a package. Unfortunately the prospect of free replays has led to all kinds of mischief in the temporal world, most especially the kind of idiocies perpetrated by people who believe their actions have God's favor (which, of course, everyone who believes in a God, believes they have). For the most part, Sandhillians have rejected Christianity (as well as other religious dogmas) because it has led to an atrocious tendency to foul one's own nest—as well as that of others—acting under the claim of "doing God's will." (I think the claim of any person to fathom God's will, something axiomatically defined as unfathomable, is the ulitmate act of hubris.)

In short, practices done by those flying the flag of Christ tend to be grossly out of balance with Nature and unsustainable. At Sandhill we prefer to think in terms of cycles and co-existence, and are less aligned with linear progression and dominion. In striving to lead exemplary lives in which the world will be a bit better for our having been here, and the land we steward will be a bit more able to support life for those who come after us, we have purposefully moved away from most aspects of Christianity. So Easter at Sandhill is mostly a vernal remnant, rather than a day of religious observance.

It's the last Sunday before taxes are due, and today's the day I sit down with the paperwork in earnest and begin the semi-mysterious process of organizing our records into a coherent statement of my community's financial activities for the previous year. Talk about arcane rituals. This is the one where we formally recognize our relationship (uneasy though it is) with the federal government—that institution with a propensity to solve probems with force or money, roughly in that order. At Sandhill, we tend to have a highly critical analysis of federal tactics and strategies, and mostly we focus our political activity on the local and regional level. We hope to have more leverage there and, to the extent we're successful, have apsirations that our changes in local problem solving can be scaled up over time.

The idea here is that it's not enough to be critical of our federal tendency to make war (literally) when we're effectively
approaching problems locally by making war (virtually) with those with differing views on important matters. Once we can demonstrate a consistent ability to disagree constructively (where we lay aside the concept of winners and losers), then we'll have an alternative to offer federal politicians, not just a critical analysis.

This afternoon, we're celebrating a seder with our neighbors at Dancing Rabbit. Seders are a Jewish passover tradition, marking the successful exodus of the Jews from captivity in Egypt. It's one of my favorite religious holidays. For one thing, it's ecumenical. Sure, it's a Jewish holiday, yet non-Jews are expressly welcome. I've been attending seders for 40 years now—coincidentally, just as long as the Jews wandered in the wilderness (40 years!—you gotta wonder how much better Moses might have done with a GPS) and it represents the very best of ritual celebration: all are welcome and the emphasis is on fellowship, camaraderie, and right livelihood. This ritual is alive.

For another thing, seders are more than a celebration of a bright moment in Jewish history; they are also a celebration of liberation. And while enslavement by Egyptian pharaohs is no longer a concern, oppression in general is still a huge issue, and we unabashedly contemporize our seder to address the urgent need for liberation today.

Finally, as befitting a ritual of liberation, there is considerable latitude in what haggadah is used. This is the script for the ritual, and comes in a kaleidoscope of versions. Among the liberal Jewish circles that I intersect with, the haggadahs can be fairly free wheeling, including original works created just for that seder. In this way, the ritual becomes both more relevant (though perhaps less reverent) and an opportunity for performance art.

Taken all together, this is a ritual that's fun, yet retains its potency.
What's not to like? If nothing else, at 4:30 this afternoon I get liberated (temporarily) from doing taxes.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

No MO Trash

Yesterday was highway trash pick-up day. Taking full advantage of a sunny dry day, Sandhill folks got together with several neighbors from nearby Dancing Rabbit to form a 14-person posse that swept along a 3.1-mile stretch of County Road M, gathering 26 large trash bags worth of stuff (plus some assorted automotive bumper fragments that were too large to fit into bags).

Like a lots states, Missouri has an Adopt-A-Highway program, mainly to help pick up the litter that accumulates along state-maintained roadways. This year celebrates the 20th anniversary of the program, and Sandhill was one of the first groups to jump in and police a stretch of nearby blacktop. So we've been doing this for a while, and I thought I'd share some observations about the Northern Missouri trash scene (No MO Trash).

While the official line is that adopters are expected to pick up four times a year, we live in a quiet corner of the state, and our sleepy county roads just don't have that much traffic (or trash). So once a year is as often as we get out there, usually in spring: after the snow and before the grass starts obscuring the litter.

Looking back over the 15+ years we've been an adopter, perhaps the most potent reflection is that the volume of trash we collect has hardly changed at all. It might be down a smidge, but that's all. Given the marked rise in society's ecological consciousness over that time, it's really startling that there's hardly been a dent in the habits of the toss-it-o
ut-the-window-when-you're-done crowd. (Of course, I can't tell if the general population is just as unmindful as ever, or whether the percentage of more careful folks has increased and this is compensated for by some dedicated litter bugs who are taking it upon themsleves to make up for others). In any event, this year, like most, we filled the back of a pick-up with the junk that's accumulated in a year's time along three miles of a little-used country road. Sobering.

I guess one way to look at it is that people around here have really embraced the idea that Small Is Beautiful—as in, my world is no larger than my vehicle (I mean really small)… and everything else is my trash can. Where do these people think that stuff goes that they're pitching out the window?!?

About half of what we collected yesterday was recyclables—mainly plastic and aluminum, with some glass, paper, and steel rounding it off. The good side of this observation is that half of what we collected is not only no longer lying beside the road as a land spill, it's also not heading for a landfill. The bad side is that the other half is heading for a landfill—almost all of which is packaging. Why do people have so much trouble learning to recycle, or using canvas tote sacks?

Over the years there's been a definite shift away from glass and toward plastic. Mainly this reflects the economics of packaging. Plastic is cheaper to manufacture and ship, and is less likely to break. When we started collecting highway trash, glass comprised about half of what we'd find, and we'd always get a certain number of returnable bottles—maybe 15-20 at a time. Yesterday, all of the glass fit easily into just two bags (out of 26 total), and we didn't find a single returnable bottle. Eighty percent of the glass was one-way beer bottles (in Missouri, Budweiser is not just the king of beers; it's also the king of glass trash).

There's a Pepsi bottling plant located in Memphis, our county seat, 13 miles away. It's a town of just 2000 and the Pepsi plant is a significant employer. It's hard not to notice that a high fraction of the plastic and aluminum trash that we collect is Pepsi and Mountain Dew products. How smart is it to have your local economy based on sugar-based liquids, packaged in petroleum-based plastic bottles or in energy-intensive aluminum cans?

The inconvenient truth is that for all the hoopla surrounding the much-ballyhooed Greening of America, we've hardly changed our trash habits at all. Unfortunately, where the rubber hits the road, we're still finding
aluminum, plastic, and glass also hitting the road, dotting the landscape alongside it. What we really need in northern Missouri is No Mo' Trash.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Lessons from the Bully Pulpit

Yesterday afternoon I endured trial by conference call—a kind of New Age endurance test. I had back-to-back calls set up, running from 1-7 pm and consuming all but 20 minutes—about enough time to pee, get a glass of water, and shake off the first call to get ready for the second.

Because I'd be tying up a phone for so long, I took both calls from the FIC trailer. While I was undisturbed (good) and not disturbing others (also good), there was a decided downside to my choice. A late winter storm rolled in and I experienced the folly of sitting for six hours in an unheated space. Despite being bundled in a down vest and a woolen cap, the rainy 35-degree weather inexorably sucked the heat out of my body, to the point where I was unable to record notes during the last hour because my fingers were numb. Shivering, I was ever so thankful for the restorative warmth of the woodstove in the main house afterwards!)

• • •
Both calls were attempts to untangle conflicts. While the second was work I was doing for a client (facilitating conversations about someone else's troubles), the first was about a conflict I was a party to. And that's the one I want to explore in this entry.

It was essentially an attempt to understand better why a colleague (whom I'll call Dale) and I were having so much difficulty working together the last 18 months. While being in conflict is not new territory for me (having a facility for assisting others through struggle hardly means I'm proof against being reactive myself, or triggering reactions in others), it was sobering to listen to the Dale's story. Here's what I got out of it:

1. As an administrator, I'm often in the position of drafting agendas, presenting issues, focusing conversations, and formulating proposals. In the process, it is not uncommon for me to be in the position of asking pointed questions, trying to keep the ball rolling. If you are on the receiving end of those questions, it isn't always a pleasant experience. One of Dale's first interactions with me was in such a dynamic, on a conference call, and he felt isolated and pushed around. Strike one.

2. A couple months after this exchange, I visited Dale's community in an attempt to work further on the issues over which we were tussling, this time with half a dozen of Dale's community mates present. On the key issue, it turned out that everyone from Dale's community saw the issue the same way, and I saw it differently. Because it was something I had worked hard on (for more than a year) and was one that I felt was fundamental to the program's future, I was highly frustrated with the community's position. I spoke passionately in making a plea for my thinking, yet persuaded no one. Dale was shaken by my behavior and felt I had disrespected the community. Dale began to see me as someone who gets carried away with his emotions and lets his feelings cloud his judgment. Worse, I was seen as a bully; someone who has no qualms about pressuring people into agreeing with him and is used to getting his way through intimidation. Strike two.

3. It took a while for me to understand the damage that had been done, and the ways my behavior (first during the conference call, and then during the meeting at Dale's community) had left bad impressions. When, subsequently, I rasied questions over the appropriateness of some reimbursement requests submitted by Dale (that came to me as administrator to process), things got worse. Where I thought I was just doing my job with diligence, Dale thought I was selectively punishing the community for disagreeing with me months earlier. In short, I was abusing my role and out of integrity. Strike three.

4. In yesterday's call, I learned that Dale had gotten advice from others about how best to deal with me: don't give me direct feedback; be as careful as possible about how communications with me are worded; pick your battles; and let me "win a lot." In short, I needed to be coddled, presumably because I tended not to handle critial feedback well, and was prone to being reactive. Ouch!

What Is My Part in This?
As painful as this conversation was—and as different as Dale's story is from mine—my task is to sift through it for what I can use to understand the ways in which my choices were poor, and can be improved.

Lesson #1: As someone who is often in a leadership role, or a position of power, I need to be scrupulously mindful about context—especially when I feel strongly about something. I think Dale is right that I can come across as intimidating, and I need to do a much better job of checking with my audience about how to be with them when I'm an advocate. I can't count on people being open to hearing passionate statements from me. It's not about authenticity; it's about overwhelm.

If I'm upset, or otherwise having an emotional response, then the opportunity for misinterpretation is even greater. Most groups don't discuss or have a common understanding about how to work emotionally, and it's not smart to just bring my feelings into the picture without setting the stage. I should be saying something like, "I'm having a reaction to what's being said and am unsure how to proceed," and then taking cues about where to go next from the responses I get to that disclosure. In my haste to express my views, I still tend to forget that the fundamental need in that moment is to proceed in such a way that the channels of listening remain open. What good is "my truth" when the only thing people are hearing is my tone and volume?

Lesson #2: I waited too long to check in about the damage. Never mind that I had frustrations that mirrored Dale's, if I want better relationships it's on me to initiate. It's my job as administrator to keep lines of communication clear and I got lazy. Pouting doesn't help.

Lesson #3: While I'm thoroughly familiar with the potential trap of commingling the roles of facilitator and presenter, I allowed myself to slide into it during that conference call where the damage with Dale first began. While it was efficient to have me both run the meeting and present the issues, it was a false economy. In the end, it was way more expensive for me to attempt to manage a conversation about an issue on which I was clearly not neutral. Dale has been a strong proponent of securing neutral facilitators for subsequent meetings, and that's good thinking.
• • •
Of course, at the end of the day, stumbling is humbling. Fortunately, it's also human. While I'd much rather not have had the experience, now that I have it's on me to make the most of it. My challenge is to use the scars to help remember to do it differently the next time I'm about to speak passionately, the next time I'm aware of tensions with my behavior, the next time I'm setting up a meeting about which I'm a stakeholder on the issues.

I'm reminded of a bumper sticker that encapsulates my choice here: "Experience is mandatory; learning is optional."

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Fire Fighting Committee

This is Part Six, and the final installment of my series on Conflict in groups. Today I'll lay out a solid way for groups to create options for not working conflict in plenary.

While there are a number of solid reasons why groups should choose to deconstruct an erupting conflict in plenaries (ref my blog of March 24), I want to focus here on eliminating one of them: because you have no reasonable alternatives. In general, involving the whole group is the most expensive option, and should the one you choose last, when other efforts have failed to get the job done. Here's a decent sequence of escalating steps on the pathway to resolving conflict. While there may be occasions to skip certain steps, this is ordinarily a highly useful guideline:

A. Try to work through it unilaterally (perhaps with help from others, but not by discussing it with the person who has been the trigger).
B. Try to work it out directly with the person who was the trigger.
C. Get informal help from a third person (this could take the form of third party helping you think about how to approach the person directly, or could involve their facilitating a meeting with the triggering person).
D. Ask the Conflict Resolution Committee for help.
E. Ask the whole group for help.

In this blog, I want to narrow the focus to making Option D as robust as possible. Here's a generic mandate for what I'm styling the Conflict Resolution Committee (I've also heard it called Heart Pool, Dispute Group, Reconciliation Team, and Ministry—the important thing is not the name; it's the function):

o Once this committee is brought into a conflict, they will shepherd it until it's resolved.

o They can be asked to be involved by any member or committee. In addition, they can can pro-actively insert themselves into a perceived conflict if it appears a conflict or broken agreement is not being resolved and the impact is sufficient to hamper group functionality (Note: this is a key provision, giving the committee the authority to step in without an invitation from the people in distress. While no one wants this committee to become the "Conflict Police," it is relatively common for stuck people to not ask for help, and if the committee is responsive only and not pro-active, their hands can be tied. Trust me, you don't want that.)

o Whenever they are involved, they will decide what, if anything, it is appropriate to share with the whole group (in summary form) about the work they do with a conflict. On the one hand they are trying to protect the privacy of individuals; on the other they are trying to be as transparent as possible about what's happening in the group. It's a dance.

o This committee is charged with finding the most appropriate third party to facilitate a conflict between conflicted parties. They are expressly not restricted to Dispute Resolution Committee members, or even to group members (keep you eyes on the prize: the important thing is that people in distress get help; not that the help come from within the group).

o This committee will have a budget, both for training people in conflict skills and to hire outside people to facilitate conflict at need.

o This committee will not have authority to impose solutions. They can only suggest.

o If approached to discuss a potential conflict involving them, all group members will be expected to meet with the committee within a reasonable period of time and in good faith to discuss their involvement. This is not an admission of guilt; it is a commitment to be available to discuss any conflicts in which they are named. (
At Ganas in New York City, they call this the "no non-negotiable negativity clause"; it is not OK to refuse to talk.)

o The committee should be comprised of people willing and able to occasionally devote significant chunks of time to resolving conflicts.

How many people does this committee need? While it's a matter of style, I like 3-5. The larger number is nice for maintaining flexibility in the event that one or two are on vacation or otherwise unavailable to help at a given time. You may also want to establish terms for how long members will serve on this committee.

Last, I'm offering a recommendation about how to select members to fill this committee—for which it's essential that there be a high degree of trust. In a lot of groups, committee selection is little more than who raises their hands first. While that kind of slapdash informality may work fine for filling the Refreshments Subcommittee for the Thursday Night Poker Game, it is not going to cut it here. Try this instead:

o Post the job description for the committee and the desired qualities for its members (implied here is that you've created a job description; if you haven't, start there).

o Ask all group members if they are willing to serve, and create a written ballot listing all those who agree to be available.

o In plenary, select an ad hoc Ballot Team from among those members who have opted off the ballot. These people will be the only ones seeing the filled-in ballots and must agree to divulge to no one else how people voted.

o Distribute printed ballots to all members, asking them to mark all those whom they deem acceptable to serve.

o After a set period of time (72 hours?) ballots are due in and the Ballot Team tallies them in private.

o After ranking people by the number of votes received, they privately approach people (starting with the top vote-getter and working their way down the list), asking them one at a time if they are willing to serve. As slots are filled, additional people are asked if they would be willing to serve with others who have already accepted the calling, and vice versa. This process continues until all slots are filled. (Caution: don't skip this step of mutual vetting; it's highly important that there be good rapport among committee members.)

o The Ballot Team announces the composition of the committee (which is not subject to ratification), the ballots are destroyed, and the Ballot Team is dissolved.

• • •
Having a vital committee composed of crackerjack conflict communicators can go a long way toward drawing poison out of difficult exchanges, and helping everyone get more out of what they joined the cooperative group to get in the first place. Give it a try!