Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Problem Solving and Community

As the FIC's main administrator, I do a fair number of press interviews—about 2-3/month. Thus, I get a lot of practice coming up with sound bites that nuggetize the essence of community living. Up until recently, my favorite had been:

The essential challenge of cooperative living is learning how to disagree about non-trivial matters and have that be a unifying experience.

While I still like that one, lately I've been test driving a newer model:

Intentional community is about learning how to solve problems without running anyone over or leaving anyone behind—which is fundamentally different than the way problems are addressed in the mainstream culture.

While I reckon these two aphorisms are roughly equivalent, I like how the latter suggests culture shift (where the former has a whiff of mental jujitsu and sleight of hand about it).

As most people know, community comes in a kaleidoscope of sizes and flavors: from so big that you don't know everyone's name, to so few that there's nothing you don't know about each other; from the isolation of
rural Wyoming to the urban density of Manhattan; from the sacred to the secular; from celibate to anything-that-moves sexuality. In short, the range is very wide.

One of the lesser appreciated spectra into which intentional communities sort is Degree of Engagement. To be sure, this is somewhat a matter of size (at my community, Sandhill, our five adult members eat dinner together most nights; at nearby Dancing Rabbit there aren't more than a handful of days in the year when all 45 members are on the property at the same time, which means that daily contact among members is necessarily more diffuse). However, there is more subtlety to it than that. It's also a matter of how frequently the group meets, how aligned the members are on the community's common values, and how the group solves problems. It's this last measure that I want to focus on here.

Here's a set of questions I've distilled from
22 years as a group process consultant. The answers, I believe, will be highly predictive of where your group lands on the Degree of Engagement spectrum.

Checklist for How Cooperatively Your Community Solves Problems

1. To what extent does the group welcome emotional input on problems?
As a species, we're hard-wired to have emotional responses. I don't mean we have strong emotional responses all the time; I'm only saying that they're not rare. Yet many groups don't know what to do with emotions when they enter the room, and basically take the ostrich approach—hoping they'll go away if the group pretends they're not there. Most groups have a meeting culture that says, in effect, that expressing strong emotions is immature and inappropriate. In consequence, most groups have brittle conversations about problems, because they're ever vigilant about suppressing strong feelings. Instead of figuring out how to harness passion, they harass it.

For those with high emotional intelligence (by which I mean they know things and respond more accurately in the emotional realm than rationally), meetings are stressful because they are not allowed to use their best language. If it's bad enough (maybe they're not bilingual), they'll stop coming to meetings. Worse, the group might take comfort in that development.

2. How dedicated is the group to hearing from everyone before entertaining proposed solutions?
Problem solving will both be more inclusive and more effective if the group develops the habit of making sure that everyone who wants to has had the chance to help define the problem before the group starts batting around potential solutions. When proposals are allowed to enter the conversation at any time (or worse, are encouraged at the outset as part of the introduction of the topic), those members who are slower to organize their thoughts, or who struggle to get air space may give up. To them, they face a Hobson's choice of either betraying their nature by pushing into the conversation, or giving up and trusting that the quicker and more assertive will take their unvoiced considerations into account. Good luck with that.

3. To what extent has the group been successful in creating an atmosphere of curiosity in the face of disagreement?
The essence of cooperative culture is encouraging a full expression of viewpoints (under the assumption that if everything is out on the table, then it will be easier to weigh and balance factors appropriately). If however, opposing opinions are met with resistance or hostility—rather than curiosity—then the speaker must gird their loin in preparation for an onslaught. Sometimes it won't be worth it, and alternate viewpoints will not surface.

4. How often do you hear "But… " as a person's first word in response to another's statement?
In the mainstream culture, we're used to doing battle when someone disagrees with our position (the most appalling tactics can be categorized under the euphemistic heading "healthy debate"), either through a vigorous defense or an aggressive counter-attack, challenging their premises or the flow of their logic. The key to inclusivity is responding to alternate opinions with openness and interest with the possibility in view that your mind might be changed (rather than fear that you'll be publicly humiliated as a consequence of another's idea being found superior to yours). Does the group understand the importance of creating a culture of curiosity in those moments?

5. Does the group have facilitators capable of consistently bridging between conflicted parties?
In the heat of the moment, we tend to revert to our deepest conditioning, rather than responding from of our loftiest ideals. In other words, if it appears that some matter close to the bone is not going our way, we tend to fight rather than cooperate, and it can make all the difference whether you have the capacity among your in-house facilitators to bridge between conflicted parties and help guide everyone back—
with honor—from the brink of a fight that no one really wants.

6. How frequently does the community meet?
This is a loaded question. The facile answer should be, "as often as needed," yet the question beneath this is whether the group is avoiding meetings because they have no confidence in their going well. The group may be ducking issues, or loathe to tackle them with everyone in the room. if so, this is not a good sign and will surely indicate weakness in the group's cohesion.

7. Does the community regularly evaluate managers and committees?
While it may not be obvious why this indicator is on the list, many groups fall into a trap of allowing long-term members to remain in the same position of responsibility for years at a time without examination. While this is not inherently bad, it can be trouble if there is no way to discuss dissatisfaction with performance, or to review what the community really wants out of that position. When people become entrenched in positions of power and create fiefdoms, it leads to demoralization and undercuts the will to engage.

8. What effort is made to integrate new members into the community's culture?
Over time, communities inevitably create their own idiosyncratic culture. There becomes a "normal way things are done around here." For long-term members, this become second nature and is the air they breathe. For new folks this is all very mysterious, and it can be exhausting worrying over the possibility of committing a social faux pas that was never explained to them. It's like walking through a mine field blind. If new members are obliged to walk through that mine field alone, it takes an exceptionally tough person to weather more than few explosions and keep putting one foot in front of the other. Many will tend to get less venturesome. At best, this retards the integration process and prolongs the power gap between old and new. At worst, you'll lose the new person.

• • •
How did your group measure up? While it's up to the members of each group to decide for themselves how much they want to be in each other's lives, I've offered the Checklist above as a aid for groups to be able to achieve the level they want, rather than the best they can stumble into, guided only by good intentions.

If you like, think of it as a way to solve problems about how you solve problems.


Unknown said...

I've read your column frequently and find it helpful. Though I am not living in an intentional community, I hope to at some point.

Recently, I happened across an interesting document by Jeannette Armstrong posted on the Center for Ecoliteracy's publications page near the bottom. The document title is "Let Us Begin with Courage." In the document, she describes a process/philosophy used by the Okanagan peoples of the Northwest called En'owkin. With respect to decision making, it corresponds roughly to what we would call a consensus process. En'owkin, however, does seem to go well beyond formal decision making in the Okanagan world. If you are not already familiar with her work, I think you might find the language and concepts interesting.

Anonymous said...

Laird, I liked the first version of the motto better. Here's why... it states in the postive what you want to see happen, or what is happening. In your newer version, you are staing what you don't want to happen "without running anyone over or leaving anyone behind".

Words are powerful... they paint a picture in people's minds. From an energetic perspective, I believe it's better to paint a picture of how things ARE or how we envision things versus how we do NOT wnat them to be.

As always, Laird, your blogs are thought provoking.

Wasatch Commons Cohousing
Salt Lake City, UT