Thursday, December 30, 2010

Paint by the Numbers Facilitation

After 23 years as a group process consultant I'm getting ready (slowly) to write a book about facilitating cooperative groups. It's a big topic—and doesn't get any smaller by virtue of my going deliberately. In fact, one of the trickiest parts is knowing when to ease off of doing in order to write about doing. It's a little crazy-making.

One the themes I stress as a trainer is that a good facilitator needs to be able to work both with content and with energy. I call this "riding two horses," and it's no small feat. The skill to do one well is completely unrelated to doing the other well, and it's not unusual to encounter students who are fairly accomplished equestrians with one horse, yet total greenhorns on the other.

One of my motivations to author a book about facilitation is that most of the existing literature on this subject is slanted toward the content horse—how to manage the conversation effectively and efficiently. I'm convinced though that you also need the second horse, to be able to read the the subtle undercurrents and handle volatility (pretending that upset doesn't occur, or making a rule against its expression, simply doesn't work).

My attitude about this is rooted in 36 years of community living, where there's a clearer understanding that relationships are primary to quality of life, and that you haven't solved a problem if there isn't a high level of buy-in from the individuals in the group. While I think this is essentially true for all cooperative groups, it's more apparent in intentional communities, where discord and disgruntlement have more immediate deleterious consequences.

One of the spurs (riding the equine metaphor for all it's worth) for my writing about facilitation is that most authors offer up a recipe for good meetings with an "if A, then B" approach—suggesting that if you could get good enough at it (that is, learn all the rules), then you would always know what to do. If you could only get a large enough set of colored pencils, then you would always have the one you wanted for filling in the dragon's eye.

Some authors focus principally on expanding one's tool kit (the person who has mastered the most techniques wins). See Holman & Devane's The Change Handbook for an example of this approach, offering up their sense of the best of whole systems practices.

Others have a favorite technique that they view as a golden compass, always pointing you in the right direction. Or perhaps I should say a golden hammer, where every group challenge appears as a nail. Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication comes across this way, where the key is learning how to speak as a giraffe instead of as a jackal. The sociocracy craze is founded on the notion that the right organizational structure will see you to the promised land. The Institute for Cultural Affair's Technology of Participation offers an up-tempo formulaic approach to problem solving.

While I definitely think it's worthwhile learning patterns, and I believe that many of the above approaches have merit, meetings are not like pantyhose, where one size fits all. [Ma'ikwe just proofread this and informed me that even pantyhose does not come all in one size fits all—who knew? Probably I should confine my metaphors to lingering on topics about which I have more knowledge, and stretch less to offer metaphors about confining lingerie.] In my view, there is no single approach that always works or is always best in any situation. While you want to learn principles, you need to stay fluid about their application.

I see facilitation more as an art form than a craft, and this is a crucial distinction. While I'm all in favor of facilitators doing their homework and coming to a meeting prepared, they also have to be light on their toes and willing to alter the plan to follow the energy, adapting to what presents in the moment. This does not mean that facilitation is all about contact improv, yet it does mean that you will be too brittle if you're adamant about following a script.

For my money the facilitator's mantra is: What does the group most need right now? It could be a summary; it could be a graphic laying out where you are in the conversation; it could be a pause in the action to give attention to someone in tears; it could be a potty break. It's way more than just deciding whose turn it is to speak next. While the baseline skill is accurately hearing what people are saying, a great facilitator needs to also hear what's not being said, and the deeper meaning that underlies what's happening on the surface. A top-notch facilitator needs to be able to look around the curve, see what's coming, and decide whether to keep the herd moving in that direction or pick another path.

In short, facilitators need to be able to develop their horse sense and come to meetings with a fully stocked saddle bag; they need to know when to trust their instinct and when to haul out a technique. In the end, it's all about what works—by which I mean what moves the group productively and authentically through the agenda and builds relationships in the process.

While it's no doubt an easier pedagogy to teach brush strokes and how to mix pigments, I don't think that's really good enough. Sometimes, to get the full beauty of the moment, you have to color outside the lines. And that's the kind of facilitation I teach.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Vegas Convergence

Yesterday was a long day. It started when the alarm went off at 4 am and didn't end until Ma'ikwe and I crawled back into the same bed at 1:30 am (technically today).

In between we dropped off a friend at the Quincy train station (to catch the 6:12 am to Chicago), delivered a quart of honey to the doorstep of a sleeping customer in Hannibal, and continued on down to De Soto (less than an hour south of St Louis) to spend the day with my son and his family (Ceilee, Tosca, and their daughter Taviyn), who were visiting Tosca's family over the Christmas weekend.

I'd last seen them in October and figured this would probably be as close as I'd get to them until April at the earliest. So it was worth 9+ hours in the car to visit for 11+ hours.

My next visit will almost certainly be in Las Vegas, which is where Ceilee has been living the past four years, and where Jo, my daughter, will be living in a few days. Even as I type this Jo is caravaning to Vegas with her partner (Peter) and her mother (my ex-partner, Elke). Jo & Peter just closed out two years in Toledo yesterday, and life in Vegas glitz belt should offer considerable contrast with life in the Midwestern rust belt.

It's a bit weird that both my kids will start 2011 living in Vegas, which I don't consider to be an affirmation or natural extension of the agrarian homesteading values in which they were raised. Yet there's also a logic to it. Tosca was originally drawn to be in town for sommelier training; Ceilee likes it for the mild climate, the free-wheeling business environment, and proximity to natural recreational areas. Peter's career is in television (electronic promotions), and Jo has a budding career in food service. Vegas makes sense for all of those reasons.

Even though it's 1600 miles west, Vegas is a relatively inexpensive place to get to, and whenever I have work on the West Coast I'll get a chance to stop by (either coming or going) and see both of my kids in one go. If I'm successful in launching a two-year facilitation training program in northern California this year, that will translate into eight chances to see my kids over a 24-month period. Pretty sweet.

This coming Friday evening I'll be sedately ringing in the New Year over at Dancing Rabbit, (where there's a 50-50 chance I'll still be up at midnight). My kids, meanwhile, will be smack in the middle of Sin City where every kind of excess known to humanity is close at hand. While the juxtaposition is startling, I reckon we'll all be having a good time, with each doing what he or she wants to be doing. At the end of the day (or year), I reckon that's as good as it gets

Friday, December 24, 2010

Neither Snow, nor Rain, nor Heat…

Back in 1995, we painted Sandhill's mailbox green. If you pulled down the door, on the inside would be a message painted in yellow: "Hi Charlie." That salutation was for Charlie Houghton, our regular mail carrier for almost 22 years—from Jan 14, 1989 until yesterday, when he gave himself an early Christmas present and retired. We'll miss him.

In this season of exaltation and exhalation, it seems an auspicious time to reflect on the many years of good service we've enjoyed from our local Post Office.

While it's something of an urban distortion that change in the hinterlands comes slowly, the pattern holds true to stereotype when it comes to Rutledge mail carriers. I've lived here since 1974 and in all that time we've only had two regular mail carriers: Charlie and the guy before him, Hillis McCabe, whose time in the saddle went back far enough that a regular portion of his delivery route literally required him to spend time in the saddle. The roads were so poor when Hillis broke in that whenever it rained he'd have to deliver nine miles on horseback, slogging through the mud. (I don't know if it was uphill both ways, but I'm sure there wasn't any "swift completion of his appointed rounds" on wet days.)

Charlie was an easy-going mail carrier, happy to take a moment to discuss the weather (what were the chances of rain overnight?) or the whether (he'd take your package whether you had the right postage or not; if you underpaid he'd front the difference and bill you the next day—try getting that kind of service in the city).

Charlie knew where the vicious dogs were (and knew that ours were all bark). If there was a bad dog, he'd simply stay in his truck. What with the FIC's national headquarters located at Sandhill and my community's need to ship sorghum hither and yon, it's a common occurrence for our packages to exceed the capacity of our mailbox. If it was a nice day, we leave the extras on a skid next to the mailbox. In inclement weather, we'll stash the surplus on the front porch and leave a note in the box. Without complaint, Charlie would pull up to the steps, walk up to the porch, and gather the packages. In the country, you see, the Post Office doesn't just deliver, it also collects.

Our happy association with the Post Office goes further than our relationship with our mail carrier. Of the four postmasters we've had during my community's tenure in the outskirts of Rutledge, we grew quite close to the one we had the longest: Mary Walker, who served from 1990 to 2007. She came along right as the FIC was developing its role as a publisher, and together we plumbed the depths of the DMM (domestic mail manual) to learn about the arcane features of bound printed matter, periodical rates, and bulk mailing (we were the first locals to blow the dust off some of the sections of the DMM, and FIC was assigned Bulk Permit #1 when we started dabbling in direct mail campaigns).

In the early days of publishing Communities magazine, I'd go into the back room of the Post Office once a quarter to count and weigh all the bags with Mary's help. On Tuesdays she'd drive the two miles to Sandhill to take her one-hour lunch break with us, and we got to know her pretty well. In the depths of winter, it became a tradition to attend the Walker's Super Bowl Party, where the entertainment was equal parts of: a) watching the high-priced efforts of Madison Ave's latest attempts at clever TV ads; and b) listening to Mary's husband, Roger, who'd regale us with stories from his career as the road manager for Buckwheat Zydeco. Some of us even watched the football game.

• • •
The next in line to ascend to the regular mail carrier's position is Charlie's substitute, Kim. There are rumors though that we may lose our small town post office to the larger one in Memphis, our county seat, in which case the Rutledge routes would be consolidated and Kim might be out of a job. Wile we don't want that to happen, it's probably out of our control. Politics.

If closure decisions are based on volume of mail, the FIC is doing its part to help keep the Rutledge Post Office open, averaging around 100 pieces of mail outgoing each week. We're crossing our fingers that it will be enough, and our small town of 100 will not lose one of its favorite spots for socializing. If you're ever out our way, stop by and visit a spell. Hillis still lives in Rutledge, and you can ask himself yourself about all those miles of mud.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Getting Lost in the Fun House: the Nuances of Delegation

This past week I got an inquiry from a friend who lives at a community I've worked with a few times. They're a consensus group that's wrestling with a question of delegation and what comes to plenary. Here's what my friend wrote:

A while back you helped us set up the idea of the Gatekeepers [Laird's note: to determine if and when a topic is appropriate for plenary consideration] and advised us on how to determine if a topic is plenary ready. We have a Finance Committee (FC) that handles all the money, leases, legal, budget, etc stuff for the community. Part of what that committee does is work with the Office Users Group (OUG) to handle the leasing of the shared office space in our common house. (This space is rented to members based on a formula that was negotiated and worked out a few years ago.) We have one member, Chris [Laird's note: I've changed the name] who thinks that the office users are not paying enough money for the space. Chris went directly to the Gatekeepers and requested time at the plenary. The Gatekeepers put Chris off for several months due to other priorities but eventually the topic got on the agenda. When the “Office Rates” item showed up on the posted agenda, a lot of people freaked out. The problem, according to members of both the FC and the OUG is that Chris never came to either of them to discuss any concerns. People are feeling defensive, blind-sided, worried, angry, etc; it’s pretty messy. Further, faith in the Gatekeepers’ role—and in the Gatekeepers' understanding of their role—is in question because this is a very hot topic. Those who worked on the leasing rates labored long and hard to reach an agreement, working through a lot of emotion and engaging professional legal and financial counsel into the bargain.

As far as anyone can remember, nobody has ever tried to put a topic on the plenary agenda that dealt with a committee's area without going to the committee first. So this is a test case.

My question is: Should the Gatekeepers have told Chris to work with the FC and/or the OUG before requesting plenary time? I understood the process to be that, should an individual fail to feel satisfied after consulting with the host committee on his issue, or should a person have an issue that doesn’t have an obvious host committee, then—depending on the topic’s relevance and readiness—the Gatekeepers could decide to put the item on the plenary agenda. Our Gatekeepers remember that it was not necessary to go through a committee as long as the person had an issue that was "ready." (I’m not sure how they determined that this issue was ready but I think that might be a separate question for another time.)

This is a great question, and I thought I'd share my response:

For the purposes of this explanation, I'll use the term "committee" to refer to either the Finance Committee, the Office Users Group, or both—whichever is relevant.

Here's a thorough treatment of the sequence I think should be used:
1a) If the committee has a clear mandate to set office rates (the thing Chris wants reviewed), then Chris should go to them first, and the Gatekeepers should have directed Chris that way.

2a) If Chris takes it to the committee, three things can happen:
i) Chris is satisfied with their response. Done.
ii) Chris is not satisfied, yet acknowledges that the committee acted within its authority. In this instance, Chris may be unhappy yet will have to live with it. Done.
iii) Chris is not satisfied, and believes that the committee acted inappropriately. This can be appealed to the plenary. (Perhaps because Chris believes the committee blew her off, or misapplied group standards in disagreeing with her.)

3a iii) Chris should automatically get a chance to make her case in plenary (with the Gatekeepers deciding when this item should fit in the queue for a plenary agenda topic). When this happens, the discussion will be in two parts:

A) The plenary first hears Chris' case for why the committee acted inappropriately. The committee, of course, gets to speak to its side of it as well, and the plenary makes a decision about whether the committee acted in bounds or not.

If the plenary decides that the committee did fine, then Chris must live with it. Done.

If the plenary decides there was ambiguity, or the committee acted inappropriately, the plenary can clarify any confusing parts of the committee's authority, and then decide to either hear Chris' issue directly, or refer it back to committee with the clarified guidance.

B) If the plenary decides to hear the issue, then it tackles the question of office rates.

1b) If the committee does not have a clear mandate about setting office rates, or Chris can make the case that it has exceeded its authority in this regard, or Chris can make the case that what she desires is outside the scope of what the committee can decide, then the Gatekeepers were right to have the issue come to plenary—though they certainly should have alerted the committee that this was in play at their earliest opportunity.

2b) The plenary decides to do one of the following:
i) To clarify or modify the committee's mandate to handle Chris' concern, and turn the matter over to committee; or
ii) To tackle the issue of office rates directly.

There is also another possibility: the Gatekeepers could be satisfied that the committee has the authority to tackle Chris' concern, yet the committee demurs. In that case, the matter must come to plenary for the purpose of clarifying the committee's mandate (and the plenary must further be available to tackle the issue if the committee steadfastly refuses to take it on).

• • •
I don't think it's all that hard to figure this out if you can: a) keep track of where you are in the conversation; b) manage emotional distress (without condescending, kowtowing, or freaking out yourself); and c) remember to solve process questions ahead of content questions.

Last, there is an issue below the surface here about regularly evaluating standing committees—both to review whether folks are satisfied with the mandate, and with the way that the current configuration is doing their work. In a healthy group, this should be done periodically (once every two years?) and it's possible that some portion of Chris' upset would have surfaced sooner—and in a less messy way—during a routine evaluation of FC or OUG.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sleeping in the Bed I Made

The year is winding down and my suitcase will sit quietly in the corner for the remainder of the year. My next trip isn't until 2011 and it's great to be home for the holidays. I can cherish cooking and consuming Christmas comestibles—Tom & Jerry's, pinwheel cookies, and Aunt Hennie's plum pudding with rum sauce. I have time to sneak off to the workshop to craft a gift or two from wood grown on Sandhill's land; to settle into a daily yoga routine on my bedroom floor before dinner; to tailor individual holiday greetings to friends scattered far and wide.

When home, I appreciate the seasonal rhythms of the winter: sipping my morning coffee on the couch next to the wood stove; lingering in conversations because the workload on the farm drops with the temperatures; savoring the miracle of freeze-dried laundry (where cotton comes off the line softer than down on a new chick); snuggling under the covers with my partner, where we sleep with arms and legs interwoven like snakes; enjoying a healthy mix of contemplative noodling on my laptop, juxtaposed with aerobic outdoor forays to secure next year's firewood; testing the pond ice to see when it's stout enough to conduct the annual census of snapping turtles, parked liked submarines in the mud near shore; pausing in the late afternoon to admire the graceful descent of the weak winter sun as glimpsed through the bare branches of the majestic white oaks southwest of our back door.

And, perhaps most iconic of all, I get to sleep in my own bed… which is somehow more restful and rejuvenating than another other place I slumber. This is precious for a couple of reasons.

First of all, I don't take sleeping in my own bed for granted. As a purveyor of community—both as a networker and as a process consultant—I'm on the road 60% of the time, and I don't take my bed with me. The 40% at home is further diluted by my steady desire to spend nights with my wife, and she lives three miles away. While I like her bed as well, it's not my bed.

Second of all, I made my bed with my own hands. My first winter at Sandhill I hired out as a gofer for a local logger (Roscoe Blaine—can't you just tell with a name like that that he'd be handy with a chain saw?), and I took part of my payment in fresh-sawn white oak lumber. After air drying it in our barn loft, I turned some of those boards into my bed. I've slept there for 35 years now. Both of my kids were conceived in that particular piece of furniture, and with any luck I'll die there. In short, my bed is powerfully imbued with my spirit, with the spirit of my family, with the spirit of my community, and with the spirit of my place. Strong juju.

Bed Check
With no more trips planned for the next fortnight, I've been able to close out my 2010 accounting for how many beds I'd slept in. It turns out that my nest at Sandhill was one of 52 where I laid down my head—one for every card in the deck. (Does that make me the joker?) And that doesn't count the 29 times I slept on overnight trains. All of which is to say that there's substantial truth to the claim that I sleep around.

Fortunately, only three of those beds were in motels. Almost always I'm able to find a bedroom (or at least a couch) in the homes of clients or friends, and that works well for me—blurring the line between work and play, and sidestepping the antiseptic, faceless ambience of motel rooms.

People ask me all the time if the traveling wears me down. Mostly it doesn't. I have a strong constitution and a healthy body. I can sleep anywhere (and do, apparently) and eat anything. I like my work and benefit greatly from the chance to renew and strengthen relationships around the edges of my networking and consulting. The travel (especially by train) protects time for reflection, for letting go of what I just left and for getting ready for what's ahead. This is something that's harder to come by at home, where my To Do List can never fit onto a single page.

So I know why I travel, and have a clear sense of its many benefits in my life. That said, there are nonetheless significant tension points:

o I'm not at home enough to shoulder my share of on-farm responsibilities (meaning that the other members have to do more).

o Ma'ikwe and I love to spend time together, yet it's not simple to figure out how to manifest enough of it. To some extent we can work and travel together (which is great), yet she doesn't enjoy the travel as much as I do, and the pace is too much for her. So there's a limit to how far we can take that. The calculus is further complicated by our not living in the same community, so even when we're both in Scotland County a significant portion of the 40% of my time in Missouri is spent apart.

o I miss home. By doing the work of promoting community, putting out fires in community, and training people to better succeed in community, I'm not so much at home living community. While ironic, to some extent this is inevitable—after all, how much sense would it make if all the work I currently do were done by people who don't live in community? I also miss the steadiness of homesteading: milking the cow, splitting wood, replacing rotten sills, canning salsa, doing childcare shifts with our two-year-old, changing the oil in the car, refilling the pepper mill. I get to do some of that, but not as much as I'd like. Not as much as would fully ground me.

I could whine about my life not being perfect, but where would that get me? My life, after all, is a bed I made. There's no point in complaining that I have to sleep in it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Not for the Faint of Heart

Last Saturday night my wife Ma'ikwe was in the bathroom with me just before going to sleep. Without warning, she sat down suddenly on the edge of the bathtub and keeled over. I caught her head before it hit the floor and pulled her upright. Her eyes were wide open & unseeing; her pupils fully dilated. She was semi-rigid, though not convulsing like an epileptic. She was pale as a ghost. While I was on full alert and hyper aware, I didn't panic because I could tell she was breathing… barely.

It freaked me right out. Fortunately, the color returned to her face within about 10 seconds, and in less than a minute she was responsive (if woozy). Once I got her into bed she had the shakes. Half an hour later she threw up. It was not the most relaxed night we'd ever spent together.

Ma'ikwe had passed out once before, almost a year ago at a spa in northern New Mexico. [See my blog of Dec 14, 2009, Adventures in Hydrotherapy]. That time I wasn't next to her when it happened, and it was easier to understand then how fainting might be precipitated by her having just emerged from soaking in hot water on a cool evening. Last Saturday it was far more mysterious.

She'd had a couple glasses of wine with dinner, but had finished drinking three hours before passing out. Sometimes people will get light-headed right after getting up from a horizontal position, but she'd been standing without incident for a few minutes before the room started spinning. Sometimes fainting is related to low blood sugar, but she'd eaten a good dinner. Sometimes
dizziness is associated with stress, yet the day had gone well, and we'd had an evening with friends that was full of laughter. What the hell happened?

Yesterday, it started to happen again. While Ma'ikwe was sitting in an Amtrak waiting room in Chicago's Union Station—just reading a book—she began to feel faint. I was not with her at the time and was dismayed to hear the story when I returned. Fortunately, she did not pass out this time, but who knows when she might again? She's not felt 100% since blacking out three days previously, and we're both worried. Both times it seemed to come upon her with little provocation, in the most innocuous circumstances—where she hadn't been doing anything unusual and had recently eaten. It's very scary.

As a precaution, we rented a cart and took it slow while boarding our last train home. Fortunately, there were no more incidents between Chicago and her bed back at Dancing Rabbit.

One possibility is that there was some residual damage from her recent bout with Lyme disease. While blood tests last month indicated that the culprit spirochete is in remission, the disease affects people differently and sometimes a person's immune system is compromised permanently—especially when the disease has had months to muck around inside you, as was the case with Ma'ikwe.

All of that said, we really don't know what's going on. While further testing may turn something up, it may not. We may need to sort through how much it makes sense to continue to travel and work together, and even whether it's safe for Ma'ikwe to drive, by feeling our way in the dark of an uncertain future.

The good news is that Ma'ikwe has a strong heart—both physically and psychically. The bad news is that her constitution may not be able to match her heart. My wife's attitude is excellent; we just need her health to be as well.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

This Old Man

Have you ever wondered where middle age begins or where it leaves off? It's always been a vague mystery to me, a large demographic category with fuzzy borders at both ends.

Once I got past high school, I've not been one to dwell much on my age. Mostly I've been happy to be where I was at the time, and I never found any particular birthday to be a profound marker of how much sand had slipped into the bottom of my hourglass; of how little remained above.

Still, every now and again I've been brought up short by how I'm seen by those around me. one of those moment occurred shortly after my 21st birthday. I was in Chicago at the time, on break from college, and decided to buy a bottle of bourbon in a liquor store. While buying bourbon was not a new experience for me, doing so legally was, and I suppose I was partly motivated by the chance to exercise a right of my freshly-minted majority.

When the middle-aged clerk (think 50s) carded me, I was ready. I casually handed over my driver's license, and paused while he scrutinized it. Imagine my shock when, after doing the math, he concluded that he wouldn't sell me the bourbon because it was too close to my 21st birthday. Too close? What the hell did that mean? I was outraged. But I got no further explanation, and was ushered out the door sans bourbon. That was perhaps the last time I clearly remember feeling that I was too young.

• • •
Living in community for 36 years, I've tended to relate to all my fellow members and even the prospective members as peers. Sure, some of our ages don't match up too well, and some have life experiences that others don't (if you're paying attention, this inevitably runs both ways, independent of age), yet it always takes me by surprise when it turns out that a member's mother is the same age as me. (How can that be? Mothers are always of another generation One that dresses for dinner, wears lipstick and girdles, and does volunteer work for the Girl Scouts.)

Community has sustained me in my non-generational bubble, and I've stretched the boundaries further by leading a vigorous life. At 61 I haven't slowed down much, suffer no significant health maladies, and still work long hours. Middle age for me has meant my hair has gotten thinner and whiter, my middle has thickened, the hearing in my left ear is deteriorating, and I don't always portage the canoe any more (though I still paddle stern).

Three years ago, I married a woman 20 years my junior. While I was worried at the time about what the age gap might mean for the prospects of a partnership where we matched energy, it's turned out not to matter that much that she can't keep up. We love each other anyway.
• • •
Early last week I spent two days visiting Alpha Farm in Deadwood OR. I was there mainly to visit with with my dear friend, Caroline Estes, which I did. Around the edges, I met many of the new, young faces among the 16 or so residents. While Caroline and her husband Jim are both in their 80s, most of the other residents are in their 20s and 30s, with one or two north of 40. It seemed a typical mix and I thought no more about it.

When my friends Peg & Paul drove out to Alpha Wed morning to collect me for an overnight visit in Eugene, they were coming to Alpha for the first time and didn't know their way around. When they got out of their car, they inquired of the first person they bumped into where Laird was. The reply came back: "You mean the old guy?"

I guess I'm no longer middle aged.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Not Seeing the Reality Forest for the Process Trees

I was working with a group recently where the members were wrestling with how to handle a request from an upset absent member to revisit a prior agreement on how to view individual financial contributions to the group (his being one among many). We were deep into the weekend when this item came up, and this request was perceived as a relatively minor curveball en route to our wrapping things up.

We'd already spent hours trying to sort out how to understand and deal with this absent member's upset, and part of the backdrop was accumulated fatigue in fielding his requests at all. At the same time, due mainly to a bleak housing market, the group was trying to weather some heavy seas financially and there was solid support for the necessity to re-rig the ship to handle the storm.

So we were in the interesting position of the group being simultaneously leery of supporting the requester, and eager to support the request.

The group's protocol for deciding when to revisit an agreement was that two-thirds of the members needed to support it. (There was some ambiguity about whether that was two-thirds of all members, or two-thirds of the members present at the meeting when the question was raised—but that's not where we got into trouble.)

An added complication was that the disgruntled member had sent along with his request to reconsider, a proposal for revising how investments in the group would be treated. That is, he sent both: a) a process request about bringing the topic to plenary; and b) a substantive proposal about how he'd like the agreement to be altered.

As the process request (whether the matter would be taken up in the plenary or not) was, I thought, a relatively straight forward up-and-down vote, I proposed dealing with it promptly with a quick show of hands. (I was, after all, a math major in college, and relatively confident of my ability to rapidly count hands and do percentages in my head.)

Well, it didn't go that simply. There was a flurry of concerns while people satisfied themselves that I was only asking for hands on the process question. I backed up and explained that if the request was rejected, we'd be done. If the request was approved, then the topic would be discussed at a later date. That is, regardless of the outcome of the request to reconsider, we'd not be discussing the proposal about what to do differently, and a vote to talk about it said nothing whatsoever about people's view on the unhappy dude's proposal. What a mess! People were afraid that I might be pulling a parliamentary fast one (or inadvertently abetting Mr. Dissatisfied in doing so). Sigh.

Sometimes, it just takes too long to go fast.

• • •
There are all manner of spectra that cooperative groups must navigate on the road to harmony. One of the most intriguing is the product/process continuum. At one end are the folks who in caricature are portrayed as navel gazers, perfectly willing to endlessly talk about how to talk about things... and never cross the finish line. On the other end are people who are hyperbolically described as ruthless in the pursuit of decisions, willing to run roughshod over the congenitally confused to get there, and disdainful of "how" as the refuge of the timid.

Not surprisingly, I think both process and product need to be attended to, and healthy groups should not dwell at either end of this spectrum. The point of good process is that it sets the table for solid product—decisions that are both respectful and that will be implemented with enthusiasm (or at least a distinct absence of foot dragging). Groups that neglect good process tend to experience product that has been rammed down their throats in the name of efficiency (or under the banner of "healthy" competition), and then are surprised at the resulting heartburn from being asked to swallow food that's been inadequately chewed.

Attending to process protects values that are core to cooperative groups:
o Consistency (or a lack of arbitrariness)
o Fairness (issues will be dealt with in an even-handed manner)
o Access (everyone knows how things will be considered, and what opportunity they'll have for their views to be in play)

These are all the more important because most cooperative groups also embrace diversity as a core value and must constantly deal with the reality that diverse folks will take in, digest, and display information in a bewildering array of styles and speeds. Good process is intended to level the playing field. It is not, however, intended to level the players.

Process is meant to show the way; it's not meant to get in the way. Thus, it should always be OK for a group to ask the question, "Is this process serving us?" If you don't have a good answer, think about changing what you're doing. (Hint: this could be understanding the process better; or it could be understanding that you need a better process.)
• • •
I toyed with labeling this blog "Parliamentary Obfuscation" but I was chary of obscuring my intent by pandering to erudition.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Tough Love and Vigilantes

I recently worked with a group that was wrestling with how to handle a couple who were prospective members and had become increasingly difficult to deal with.

Initial impressions of the couple were quite positive when they first appeared on the scene, yet relations deteriorated sharply after the group experienced a financial crisis in connection with the bottom falling out of the housing market, and the viability of the project was in question. The prospective couple had already contributed $15,000 to the community as earnest money and were trying to protect a non-refundable investment. Because they lived in another time zone, the couple was mainly participating electronically. They were not satisfied with how the community was handling the crisis, and asked a lot of pointed questions. Tempers flared. After months of struggling with the couple's harsh statements—which escalated into accusations of ill intent—the group was exhausted by the dynamics and ready to be rid of this cantankerous couple. Yet they were overwhelmed by how complicated things had become and were unsure how handle the whole mess.

While I doubt anyone would think this was an easy situation, I want to walk through the minefield that the group had to navigate, illuminating many of the elements that made this so hard. Let me count the ways...

1. The group was not used to openly discussing negative feelings, or working through conflicts. (In this respect, the group was typical.) They didn't have any agreement about how to handle emotional distress, and simply did the best they could, situation by situation. This yielded indifferent results. Sometimes the protagonists would work their way through their tensions and sometimes not. While the group had gone so far as to lay out the expectation that members were expected to try to work through tensions, and had established that their Process Team was available to help members who needed assistance, as a practical matter the Process Team was seldom asked to help, and many tensions festered. They knew they needed to do better, yet were unsure how to accomplish that.

2. It's extremely difficult to successfully work through distress electronically. While I've seen individuals who are otherwise well connected make this work, it's nearly impossible without a solid friendship to sustain you. There are too many ways to misinterpret the tone and emphasis of electronic communications. While phone is markedly better than email, neither is as good as face-to-face dialog when distress is high. Thus, geography was working against them.

3. Once someone is seriously worked up—as this couple demonstrably was—it's been my experience that you must first make a connection to their experience before you attempt any dialog about their behavior. The reason this is powerful is that a person's behavior often erodes when their distress escalates ("I" statements become "you" statements, and upset comes out in the form of an attack). It can be hard to reach out in a caring way to the other person when the thing that's most up for you is their outrageous behavior. You want your outrage to be the starting point, and the other person wants their upset to be where the conversation starts. If neither side makes a move toward the other, gridlock ensues.

4. Often, when two parties get stuck, each side has the impression that other party first crossed the line into unacceptable behavior, and each is waiting for their reality to be acknowledged as a precondition for seriously working on how to repair the damage. With these different perspectives, it's easy to see why there's no movement. [For more about this dynamic, see my blog of July 22, But They Started It.] In this case, the couple probably feels that the community wasn't acting in good faith when pitching a unit to them (not disclosing the full financial risk). Going the other way, the group maintains that they told the couple the same thing everyone else was told and no one else is claiming foul play; why are you slinging mud and assuming bad intent?

Community is about intentionally trying to create a more cooperative and kinder culture. Part of that is an attempt to be less judgmental, and yet it's the very devil to not have a judgment about people you perceive are judging you. A number of members expressed guilt and dismay at their own negative responses to the situation and this can lead to paralysis: people are reluctant to stand up to outrageous behavior because they fear that in the process of doing so they may become the thing they're objecting to. Unless this fear is faced and resolved, people with this pattern may do nothing, even though there is a clear assessment that the dynamic is intolerable. This can lead to considerable internal hemorrhaging.

6. How much do you need
responsiveness to critical feedback as a baseline requirement for healthy member relations? In this instance, several community members had attempted on multiple occasions to have direct conversations with the couple about how upsetting it was the way they were expressing their upset (independent of the merits of their complaints), and this did not lead to any measurable shift in behavior—they just kept up the stream of toxic emails. When have you tried enough?

7. This last point generalizes to a consideration of the limits of what the community can embrace. As much as you desire diversity and an openness to all, the truth is that you cannot take on all comers, and how do you have an accurate, yet compassionate conversation about when that limit has been reached. (Hint: members will vary, perhaps dramatically, in their answers here.) On top of the challenge to define clearly the boundaries of acceptable behavior, the group further has to tackle the question of what constitutes due process regarding notifying the person of: a) what's not working; b) what specific behavior changes, if any, are required to be in compliance; and c) how long the person has to effect the changes.

One the wicked aspects of this dynamic is that it's hard to be motivated to have the conversation before you're in it (whose got time to discuss theoretical problems, and why give juice to negative thoughts?), and yet it's nearly impossible to have this examination dispassionately once you're in a dynamic where you're seriously contemplating its application.

8. There is a dangerous tendency in this dynamic for the majority to develop a group mentality whereby the community sees itself as long-suffering and stops looking at their side of what's not working and lays the blame for the bad dynamics solely on the outliers. This is the vigilante dynamic, where the group exaggerates what the couple has done wrong for the purpose of steeling itself to be firm and relieving itself of the need for self-examination—which is often painful, and odious in that it may lead to a sense that the outrage of the outliers was, at least in some sense, justified.

9. If you decide to end the relationship, how do you do that with integrity? To what extent does fear of retaliation by the upset couple enter the equation?
How much should you labor to specify what behaviors are objectionable when you hold little hope of reconciliation, or that your communication will be heard constructively? Why bother? How important is it that you communicate in a way that is consistent with your values (treating others as you want to be treated yourself)? These can be hard to balance.

• • •
The group I was working with devoted an entire day to this examination, finally emerging from the swamp after six hours with a consensus agreement about how to proceed. I was proud of them. (And they were ready for a glass of wine at dinner.)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Lack of Consensus on the Meaning of "Consensus"

I had a dialog this past week with a dude who's put together a book on group dynamics, and one of the main thrusts of his writing is an attempt to redefine "consensus" as a process that fosters inclusivity and collaboration, yet does not say anything about how groups ultimately make decisions. Shoot me now.

While I can sympathize with the frustrations that many groups experience when first trying to work with consensus (it takes so long; stubborn minorities can hold the group hostage; there are too many meetings), you can't convince me that if a group ends a log jam by resorting to a majority vote that it will feel the same as a decision made by consensus, just because you were careful to use a collaborative and inclusive process in the discussion phase, and take time to listen compassionately to the upset of those who got outvoted.

The interesting case is when there's an issue that does not resolve easily, and there's a division in the group about how to proceed. If you're using consensus, the group needs to labor together until you can find a course of action that no one has objections to. If you're voting, you only need to find a course of action that most of the people support, and once it's clear which way the wind is blowing, the majority can start to coast (they're going to prevail) and the minority only has a narrow window in which to change people's minds, or live with not getting their way. The minority has a strategic choice to make: is it better to cut bait ,or to risk political capital by continuing the conversation in the hopes that they can pull it out after being down in the bottom on the ninth.

The good thing that this author is trying to address is that our culture sorely needs more cooperative processes, and he's wanting to preserve the good that's been learned about how to do that, while at the same time relieving groups of the frustration that's often experienced in trying to cross the finish line with no objections. He reported to me that his range of work is broad: with nonprofits, small businesses, local government, public meetings, and families. (Short of large corporations, it's hard to think of anything he doesn't work with.) Mostly groups are open to trying something that's more inclusive, yet they have no training in consensus and are not likely to get great results using it right out of the box. Knowing this, the author has reached for a paint-by-number approach that is relatively easy to follow, and doesn't require unanimity (actually, consensus doesn't require unanimity either; it requires that there be no principled objections, but that's the subject for a future blog).

I can see how he got there, and I'm fully supportive of highly collaborative and inclusive processes—I'm just objecting to labeling that "consensus," which is a specific decision-making process that has arisen out of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and been adapted to secular groups through vigorous work pioneered in the anti-nuclear protest groups of the '60s and continues today. I am not happy about his attempt to water down a concept that so many have worked so hard to refine and develop as a specific antidote to competitive democracy.

Further, the author and I disagree over tactics. While we're both interested in promoting a more cooperative world, he's offering "consensus lite" and I'm aiming higher. I want to get as many people as I can excited about learning how to disagree about something that really matters and yet create responses that everyone can live with and brings people closer. Where the author's strategy is to give as many people as possible an early taste of something better, my strategy is to train as many facilitators as possible, so that more groups get an early experience of something great.

At least were playing in the same league, if not on the same team.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tuesday with Caroline

This morning I woke up at Alpha Farm, a 38-year-old income-sharing community tucked into a finger valley of the Coast Range of western Oregon, just off the road from Eugene to Florence. After dancing between the rain drops (it is, after all, November and they say the rain will stop sometime in March... probably) from my guest accommodations in the old farm house to the New House (it was "new" about three decades ago, but the name stuck), I spent the next four hours communing over coffee and conversation with my dear friend Caroline Estes. It had been 18 months since I'd last seen her and we had a lot of catching up to do...

The Community
Alpha seems to be doing well. Although membership is low, the resident population (the pool from which members come) is high. There are about 16 adults living here now, with modest room for more. (It was sobering to realize that only three of the current folks were here 32 months ago, when I was last at Alpha, to help celebrate Caroline's 80th birthday. See my blog of March 19, 2008 for more about that.) A lot of the new energy is young and the community gardens are thriving.
One of the things I love about Alpha as an exemplar of a group committed to social change work is that they reserve a spot among their residents for "sanctuary." Under this program, the community accepts up to one person at a time who needs a safe home, yet may not be in a position in their life to give back in proportion to what they receive. It's just one way of the ways that Alpha tires to be an inspiring alternative to a mainstream culture that's fragmented and broken.
In addition to more long-term members, the community needs additional sources of income. Caroline has slowed down her career as a process consultant (see more below) and that income has not yet been replaced. They have a major deal in the works where they hope to get a large one-time cash payment from the federal government in exchange for conservation easements for portions of their 280 acres. on their property they have spotted owl habitat as well as some very old Douglas firs. The easements will protect forested areas from development and timbering. The money will be used to retire debt and capitalize a retirement fund.

The Work
Caroline is one of my mentors as a facilitator and a consensus trainer (I took courses from her in 1987 and 1991), and thus we talk shop when we have the chance. Sadly, Caroline's hearing has deteriorated to the point where she no longer thinks she can deliver solid work in large groups. As such, these days she's turning down invitations to work with groups larger than a dozen.

That said, she's thinking about reviving her 5-day introduction to consensus & facilitation workshops, where the size of each class is manageable. If she can get logistical support from the current batch of residents, she hopes to schedule three such trainings in 2011. As someone who was touched deeply by her teaching, I hope this happens. The world could definitely benefit from having more of Caroline's teaching in it.

The Community Network
Caroline and I also go back a long ways as community networkers. The first FIC organizational meeting was held in May 1987, and the first thing I did afterward was board a train for the West Coast. Not three days after that first meeting in Illinois, I was sitting down with Caroline for the first time, for coffee and conversation (just like today) at Alpha-Bit, her community's bookstore/cafe in Mapleton. A year later, Caroline joined the Fellowship Board—a position she still holds today.

Because she didn't make it to our recent FIC meetings in Massachusetts [see my blog of Nov 15 for more about that meeting] I filled her in on Board business and caught her up on all our mutual acquaintances. After 23 years of being allies in the change-the-world-for-the-better business, it takes a while to run through the list and tell all the stories.

It was my pleasure that I had a leisurely four hours today to devote to cultivating the garden of our friendship.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Board to Death

I recently got the following email from a person in distress about how her community was being governed. After hearing what I had to say about options in organizational structure at a workshop, she wrote:

You mentioned that a community could allow everyone to be on the Board and still satisfy the bylaws. Could you provide more details about how to create that? My group uses consensus and there's tension between the Board and the group.
It's not hard to do. Most communities are legally structured as corporations and the law (established on the state level, but remarkably similar in most cases) requires you to have a board and officers. You can simply make every member of the community automatically a member of the Board, and then make the officer positions titular (that is, you give them no power). Under this structure, all the power rests with the plenary (meetings of the whole), or its designates.

To be clear, I am not advocating that all decisions be made in plenary; only that there be a clear understanding that all power resides there. Once a group gets past a certain size (6-8?) it generally works better if quite a bit of the group's work is delegated to managers or committees. At a slightly larger size (12-15?) it typically works well to have a particular subgroup, let's call it the Steering Committee, that handles coordinating functions and is available to exercise power on behalf of the group in case of emergencies—which is something that should not happen often, yet is nice to have in place ahead of need. As I envision it, the two main functions of the Steering Committee would be to draft plenary agendas and monitor tasks, troubleshooting as needed.

In the context of a community that uses consensus, one of the big problems with an active Board (if it's a subgroup, and not a committee of the whole) is that you effectively have two governing bodies (the community and the Board) and it can be a nightmare sorting out which body has power over what decisions. The most common division attempted in such arrangements is that the Board handles financial and legal functions, and the community oversees social functions. However, many issues don't sort themselves that cleanly into one category and it gets to be a real mess. (Imagine that a couple of community kids get into mischief and damage several air conditioners in the
neighborhood by pouring sand into the vents. One neighbor calls the police and files a formal complaint. How much of this issue will be tackled by the community, and how much by the Board?)

Goldoni wrote a play a few centuries back, a farce entitled The Servant of Two Masters. The humor is based on the ridiculous situations that a servant can get into when trying to please two masters who have differing ideas about what the servant should be doing and never discuss how to coordinate their requests. In my experience, communities that simultaneously try to operate by consensus and under the aegis of an active Board also tend to be a farce. It's much better, in my view, to have a single government—whether it be a community council composed of carefully selected members, or a plenary that operates by consensus—than to attempt employing both, where each trips over the others' feet.

I feel our Board does not represent our community; it is acting separately. Five households recently received a letter from a Board member that was an attempt to enforce a pet policy agreed on five years ago. In my view, this policy is outdated and no longer fit the needs of many members. On top of its being out-of-date, not all members of the Board saw it before it was sent out. How best can we respond in this situation?

Now the story gets more complicated, and I want to attempt to tease out the threads. While I'm a big fan of consensus, let's suppose the inquirer's group was persuaded of the folly of dual governments and decided to abandon consensus in favor of being fully governed by an elected Board (a representative democracy).

Issue #1: Good Representation
It can't be a good sign that a substantial portion of the membership feels that the Board does not represent their views. This raises a bunch of questions:

o How carefully were Board members chosen? (In general, it's highly valuable that a Board have balanced representation, such that everyone in the group feels there's at least one Board member that is easily accessible to them and understands their perspective. Note however, that "understanding one's perspective" is not necessarily the same as agreeing with one's thinking.)

o How good a job is the Board doing of educating itself about what community members think about the issues that the Board is wrestling with?

o How well does the Board make clear to community members the rationale for its positions, and why they believe their actions are in the group's best interests?

Issue #2: Updating Agreements
Maybe the 2005 pet policy needs to be reviewed for how well it fits the community today. Do community members know by what pathway policies can be reviewed and altered? The fact that the correspondent believes the pet policy to be outdated does not necessarily mean that all community members feel that way, or even a majority. Absent an agreement to change the policy, the old one stays in effect.

Issue #3: Board Members Going Rogue
While Sarah Palin is trying to breathe life into her ersatz political career by entitling her recent book, Going Rogue, for the most part there's a problem if someone attempts to arrogate to themselves the power of a governing body that they have not consulted with before acting. If that's actually what happened in this instance (as the correspondent implies), then it appears that the Board member may have overstepped their authority, and there needs to be a way to address that.

On the other hand, it might be a good idea to check with other Board members about the possibility that: a) consulting did happen, just not in plain view; or b) the Board member who wrote the letter had been authorized by the Board to handle pet policy matters without consulting. I'm not saying that their action was smart; I'm only cautioning that it may not have been bad process. Check your facts.

In summary, the correspondent may have a real problem with the group's pet policy, yet that might continue even if the Board were the whole group. You may also have a problem with how to handle the situation where someone perceives agreements to have been broken. Changing the governance system will not make these issues go away—though it may help provide a clearer pathway for dealing with them.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

How to Be a Savvy Community Visitor

This concludes my four-part series on how to be intentional about searching for a home in intentional community.

I. What does FIC already offer? [see my Nov 15 blog]
II. How to make full use of Communities Directory as a seeker's resource [see my Nov 18 blog]
III. Questions that will help you figure out what you're looking for [see my blog of Nov 21]
IV. How to get the most out of a community visit

Today I'll address the final question, what to keep in mind when visiting a prospective community. I'll break this into two parts:

A. What do you want?
This comes in various flavors:

—The Asking
After walking through the literature and identifying what factors are priorities, you should have a fairly good handle on what are the important things for you to be looking for. The relatively straight forward part of this is obvious: ask your questions, and notice how satisfied you are with the answers.

Suggestion #1: Ask more than one member the same question—you may get different responses. This could mean a variety of things, so be careful how you interpret it. It may be that the group is still figuring out its answer, it may be there's internal confusion, it may be that one of the people is new and mistaken.

Suggestion #2: Notice if you're experiencing any discord between how your head responds and how your belly responds. Your intuitive knowing may count as much or more than your intellectual knowing. Pay close attention to how the community feels to you. Discomfort may be triggered by being in a new or unusual environment—which is natural and not necessarily bad—or it may be an early warning that something is off and you'd be wise to figure out what it is.

Suggestion #3: Notice what people aren't talking about. If some questions being evaded or answered in vague generalities, it's a bad sign.

Suggestion #4: If you have special needs (this could be anything from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, to cat hair allergies; from a place to play a baritone sax late at night, to a space to study tantric sex late at night), be sure to get those out on the table directly. Don't assume you'll work that out later. Going the other way, don't assume there's no flexibility even if what you want is not officially on the menu. If you don't ask, the answer is always "no"; but sometimes groups will bend in your direction if you're otherwise an attractive enough prospect.

Suggestion #5: Notice how accurately members hear your questions and are responsive to what you actually asked. In groups that get inured to a steady flow of visitors, you may be hearing canned answers that don't quite hit the mark—perhaps because they didn't bother to carefully hear the question. For some people, a conversation is merely an excuse to talk about whatever interests them, independently of whether the audience has any interest in what they're saying! Not good.
—The Milieu
Because community living is mainly a social challenge, it's worthwhile to see how members interact informally.

Suggestion #6: How much laughter is there? Is the humor easy and comfortable, or tense and competitive? Sarcasm or Don Rickles put-down humor may be entertaining, yet it may also be symptomatic of unresolved tensions, and wearying over time.

Suggestion #7: How much do members speak critically of one another or of the group in casual settings? This too may be indicative of unresolved issues. Note: There is an important distinction between gossip that vilifies someone not present, and venting that leads to constructive thinking about how to engage the person whose behavior triggered the upset.

Suggestion #8: Notice how comfortable members are in silence. Notice any tendencies for one or more members to talk a lot. Can you imagine this mix being a good social setting for you? Warning: Don't get swept up in your enthusiasm about a good values match and/or a lovely physical setting at an affordable price—at the end of the day, your ultimate satisfaction in community life will be based on your relationships with fellow members. Is this your tribe?

Suggestion #9: Are you finding any members who offer decent prospects for a close friendship? While it can be tricky sorting this out accurately in a short visit, you'll still have first impressions and this is an important data point. It will enormously benefit your transition to community life if you have one or more people with whom you have an immediate, easy rapport (people you can ask stupid questions to and not feel embarrassed).

—The Engagement
It's a good idea to look at the balance between how much the focus of conversations is about you and how much about others.
Suggestion #10: How interested are members in who you are and your journey to community? While it's inappropriate you expect everyone to drop what their doing and rush over to hear your story before you've set your suitcase down, it's reasonable that members take time to reach out to you at some point in your visit. Integration into a community is a dance where everyone has steps—it's not all about you adapting to the group. Look for the group's willingness to take you, as a unique person, into account.

Suggestion #11: If you do not come across as being interested in the members of the community (note that this is different than being interested in the community), you will not be a very attractive candidate to join the group.

—The Meeting
If at all possible, try to time your visit so that you can witness a community meeting. There is probably no single opportunity where you can learn so much in such a short time.

Suggestion #12: If the community does not let visitors attend meetings, find out why. If there's a delicate issue where the group is wrestling with a tough problem and has designated this as a members-only session, cut them some slack. If however it's just an average plenary, barring visitors from attending probably signals some unresolved trust issues in the group and that's a warning sign.

Suggestion #13: If you're allowed to attend a meeting, ask at the outset what are the boundaries of your participation, and then stay within bounds. Hint: Not respecting the limits will make a bad impression. Perhaps you'll be asked to observe only, maybe you'll be asked to participate in the opening check-in and the closing evaluation but nothing else; maybe you'll be expected to be quiet unless someone asks you a direct question; maybe you'll be allowed to use your discretion about when's an appropriate time to speak.

Suggestion #14: Observe closely how well members hear each other, how constructively they work with different viewpoints, how well the group protects opportunities for all to speak (note that this is not the same as how evenly the air time is divided), and how the group works with emotions if they surface. Do you like what you're seeing?

—Dynamics of the Stay
I advise you to think carefully about how to set this up to work well for you. there are a number of things to keep in mind…

Suggestion #15: Arrange to stay for a week or longer, if possible. Obviously, the amount of information you can glean from a visit is directly related to how long you're there. While your flexibility to travel and be away from home is probably limited, staying a week is much better than just a weekend; and staying for a weekend is much better than just taking an afternoon tour. For one thing, your mood and your hosts' moods (and perhaps the weather's mood) are likely to shift over the course of several days and it's good to see things through a variety of lenses, all of which are part of reality's everyday landscape. (If long-term member Chris never has a good day when it's overcast, you may as well know that now.)

The longer the stay, the more chances you'll have for conversations that arise in a natural flow, rather than through semi-awkward forced dialog that can result from a telescoped visit—where you're marking off people on your Members To Talk To bingo card, hoping you can score a blackout before the car leaves. Whew.

Suggestion #16: For many, it's a big plus to visit with a companion who's also interested in (or at least curious about) community. Even if this person is not a serious candidate to move into the community with you, you'll have someone you already know to hep process your experience. Sometimes, your buddy will notice reactions that you're having before you do. The flip side of this is that you will not get nearly as much individualized attention if you're part of a tour group. Depending on how much you're wanting to learn, this lesser exposure may be acceptable, but know that going in.

Suggestion #17: If the group asks for a visiting fee, be sure to pay it, or negotiate a mutually acceptable exception up front. (A group may be willing to exchange work for fees, or have a low-income option, but don't assume that.) If the group does not have a fee, seriously consider making a donation. The amount is not nearly as important as the message you'll be conveying: "I understand that you're stretching to accommodate me into your everyday life, and I appreciate it." This will land well.

Suggestion #18: Sometimes visitors are expected to lend a hand with group work; sometimes not. Sometimes this expectation is dependent on how long you're there. Find out what the expectations are and try to exceed them. Better yet, find out what needs doing that is unpopular and try to help there. Warning: be careful of volunteering for a skilled task where you have no expertise. While almost anyone can safely wash dishes and sweep floors, if the group has to train you to be useful your offer may not represent a net gain.

—Widening Your Palate
It's generally a good idea to not narrow your choices of communities to visit too quickly, since the live experiences can have a significant impact on what you'll ultimate decide which qualities are crucial. It's an interactive search process, where the criteria can shift as you get fresh data.

Suggestion #19: Consider visiting communities that have qualities that you think you want strongly, even if there are other characteristics that eliminate that group as a likely home. Sometimes you can test drive a theory about what's important by visiting a place simply for the purpose of experiencing that quality up close and personal—to see if it really matters as much as you think it does. This strategy is all the more appealing if the community is nearby and doesn't cost much in time and money to visit. Refining your tastes through such forays can help prevent very expensive mistakes later on—such as selling your house and moving across the country, only to find out that you don't thrive living on an all olive oil and mango diet after all.

B. What does the community want?
Okey doke. Now let's switch horses and look at this dynamic from the other side. Some communities get interested in visitors only when they're serious prospects for membership. Others are more liberal about witnessing what they're doing, and enjoy strutting their stuff for the casual visitor as well—they see it as a commitment to general outreach and education about cooperative values. Even though you may consider yourself a bona fide serious prospect, the community may be cautious about accepting that label; they've heard it all before. So don't assume everyone's dying for a chance to sit down with you as the new person just on the scene. Give folks a chance to warm up to you.

—Been There, Done That
If the group has been around for a while, they're likely to be somewhat jaded by a steady flow of visitors, and it's hard to greet them all with fresh enthusiasm. This is especially true if your questions run to the mundane ("How many acres do you own?" "What's the dog's name?" "How much of your food do you grow?") Hint: Try not to ask questions that you could have gotten the answer to by reading the website.

—The Telling
If you're visiting to learn, try to emphasize listening over talking. The group will be looking closely to see how self-aware you are about how much air time you use. They will looking at how well you listen and can understand community dynamics. Hint: If you're unsure what's happening or the meaning of an exchange, it's better to simply ask than to pretend you understand.

While it can be fun and stimulating to have visitors to show around, it isn't fun and stimulating all the time. If you're hoping to be entertained and regaled by your hosts nonstop, give it up. They'll want to know that you can entertain yourself for stretches of your visit—without getting into trouble by spontaneously putting the dishes away in a kitchen you've never seen before, or overfeeding the wood stove to where the windows have be flung open in January. Hint: think about taking a walk, checking out the community library, or lending a hand scrubbing potatoes for dinner. Or falling back on that timeless shamanic admonition: chop wood, haul water.

—The Meeting
The community will have its own checklist for observing you, while you're observing them. They'll be looking at your self-discipline about respecting their boundaries on appropriate meeting behavior. They'll be looking at how well you can follow the dynamics. Afterward, they may be interested in how well you understood what was happening, and any observations you have about how things went. Hint: For some groups, this is a key assessment about your communication skills, so be on your toes.

—Running a Positive Balance
Almost all communities want members who will contribute at least as much as they receive. While you may not be directly asked to self-assess how you would stack up in that regard, you can bet that the community is nonetheless doing that assessment. As such, your chances of getting a favorable response to a member application will be significantly enhanced if you discuss first the ways in which you're excited to lending a hand, and explore second what you're seeking in the way support. Hint: there's a significant difference between enthusiasm for ongoing projects, and excitement to bring your own projects to the community. Where the former may be viewed as supportive; the latter may land as a challenging diffusion. If you can dedicate your first year or two to helping the community finish what's already on its collective plate, you'll see a lot more smiles around the closing circle.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Getting Clear About What You Want

This continues my four-part series on how to be a savvy shopper when considering making a home in an intentional community.

I. What does FIC already offer? [see my Nov 15 blog]
II. How to make full use of Communities Directory as a seeker's resource [see my Nov 18 blog]
III. Questions that will help you figure out what you're looking for
IV. How to get the most out of a community visit

Today I'll address the third question, how to carefully explore whether intentional community living is right for you. This breaks into a two-part inquiry:

A. Is intentional community a good choice for you?
1. How much do you want to be in others' lives, and others in yours? While intentional communities come in a rich assortment of sizes and stripes, all of them are an explicit attempt to shift the boundary between public and private more toward the public. That is, community living intentionally means that you'll be involving others—beyond family and intimate partners—more deeply in your life. Is that something you want? If not, that's a warning sign. If so, to what extent (this is not just a yes-or-no question)?

On the one hand, community living offers the prospect of neighbors who share your core values (which are the basis of what the community has been organized around),
the opportunity to share resources instead of owning everything yourself, greater safety and emotional support. On the other hand, it means availability to work out how your core values should be applied to everyday living, talking through how you will share resources, the expectation of working through tensions with other members and being on hand when others need your support.

Community living offers a lot of support and camaraderie… and expects attention and energy from you in return. Does this equation work for you? If you're a parent (or expect to be), there's an excellent chance that you'll have access to child care help from other adults. That's the good news. This support comes with strings—the expectation that you'll take a turn caring for other people's kids on occasion. In addition, your kids will almost certainly be exposed to different child rearing practices, and adults who will set different boundaries than you do around acceptable behavior in public. Does this trade-off work for you? Are you prepared to have these conversations?

What to look for: Community may be a good choice if you have an overriding interest in being close to people who share a particular belief (perhaps a spiritual path, a burning desire to be a permaculture demonstration center, or a deep commitment to working with the homeless). If that common commitment is strong enough, it may sustain you through tensions over everyday frictions (such as how often and how carefully the dishes get washed or the front porch gets swept). Or it may not. You need to sit with the fact that sharing common values tells you almost nothing about whether you'll actually like the people. (Communities Directory is terrific with searching for a values match, and almost no help at all in predicting whether you'll find good chemistry with existing members.)

2. How much privacy do you need? However much you're excited by the prospect of living with like-minded souls, most of us also have basic needs for solitude, quiet, and reflection. Think about what you need in this regard in order to have a healthy, balanced life. Do you picture eating meals in a group once a week? Twice a week? Every day?

A related yet slightly different question is how much control you need over your immediate environment. How quiet do you need it to be? Just during sleeping hours, or all the time?

What to look for: If there is a significant kid population in the community, this is invariably going to translate into an elevated ambient decibel level, not to mention scooters left on the sidewalk, lights left on in empty rooms, and lemonade spills left to age on the kitchen floor.

If sound control matters, ask about noise attenuation in exterior walls. Caution: communities located in milder and warmer climates will tend to be noisier—with windows open more of the year, soundproofed walls won't make as much difference.

3. How much social engagement do you want? (This is the flip side of the previous question.) Note that it can be workable to get a significant portion of your social needs met outside of community, unless you picture a stay-at-home lifestyle (community does not have to be an all-your-eggs-in-one-basket deal). Warning: if your image of
"social engagement" extends no further than Twister, poker games, and Super Bowl parties, think again. In community, a fair portion of your time with other members will include work parties and plenaries. If you're allergic to meetings, raking leaves, or pulling morning glory out of the community garden, there may not be as much "social engagement" as you want.

4. How good are your social skills? This is a tricky one if you're not good at self-assessment, yet it's highly predictive of a good fit if your skills match up well with those of other members. What to look for:

o How clearly can you articulate what you're thinking? Speed is not as important here as accuracy and completeness. Is your ability dependent on the size of the group? (If you do fine talking in a group of four yet get flustered in a group of 30, think twice about selecting a large group.)

o How clearly can you articulate what you're feeling? Hint: if you don't understand why this is important, community living is not likely to be a good fit for you. The primary challenge of community is social, and you will be expected, on some level, to be able to work with fellow members emotionally.

o How accurately do hear what others say? Caution: don't rely solely on self-perception when answering this question: ask those who know you well for an honest assessment. If they don't give you high marks in this regard, that doesn't bode well for your chances of fitting in well in community, where this quality will be at a premium.

o How do you handle conflict? Conflict occurs whether you want it or not. The key here is not how often you get upset; it how you respond when others are upset with you. On the other hand, a person who navigate distress with aplomb can be a big plus in a community.

5. Do you have special needs? If you're wanting group support for meeting those needs, that's going to narrow your options. I didn't say extinguish your chances, yet you'll be wise to put out what you're wanting up front. In addition to shopping for folks who understand and able to deliver what you're seeking, you'll need to consider how your requests are likely to balance with what you bring to the party. If you come across as someone who's needs are significantly out of balance with what you offer, you're not likely to present as an attractive prospective.

6. How portable is your economic base? If you're retired and are living on savings, the world is your oyster. If you're otherwise drawn to an income-sharing community, the group itself will almost certainly provide a way to plug economically. However, if neither of these conditions obtain, then you'll want to look closely at how you'll make a living.

If you can telecommute, or have an established career as a consultant or trainer, then geography may not be much of a factor. (Hint: you can reap decided economic benefits from combining city wages with rural cost of living). If however, you need to commute to work to make ends meet, it is rare that you can find a great job located chock-a-block next to a great community. Usually, have to choose which great thing to prioritize. Is that a trade-off you're willing to make?

B. What kind of intentional community will fit you best?
Assuming you answered Question A in the affirmative, the next step is figuring out what kind of community is most promising. Here are some key queries:

o Size Matters
Big groups offer stability (they're less susceptible to failure following the loss of one or two key people), and a richer pool of people with whom you can match secondary interests (the chance for a community choir or bridge club). At the same time, the bigger group will tend to be less cohesive, more structured, and slower to change (more inertia). In a smaller group, there tends to be a higher commitment to working out differences. That said, the stakes are higher in small communities: if the group fails to work through interpersonal tensions, the dynamics of the whole group can go septic.

o City Mouse or Country Mouse?
How close do you want to be to the city? Urban groups offer the greatest range of cultural opportunities. That also means a plethora of distractions. Country life is typically simple and cleaner; it's also less stimulating and more isolated. Urban life is more expensive; rural life is less expansive. Hint: often you can maximize the good qualities of city and country by looking for a community in or near a small city with a university.

o What does your partner think of community?
Years ago I met a veteran of life at Israeli kibbutzim. He reported—with tongue only partly in cheek—that there were two main reasons that people left kibbutzim: a) because they fell in love (and were afraid that if they stayed that the nutrient-rich (and not necessary pro-monogamy) environment of community life would be too destabilizing for their nascent partnership to survive; or b)
because they didn't fall in love (and left to search for a partner in pastures they hoped would be greener).

If you're in an intimate partnership that you want to keep, read on.

It is not unusual (especially for a couple coming to community for the first time) that one partner is more enthusiastic about community living than the other—or for one partner to have decidedly different tastes in community than the other. Warning: if you're in a committed relationship that falls into either of the categories I just described, proceed with utmost caution. This is tricky ground to navigate successfully and often leads to an ultimatum from the less enthralled partner: choose the community or me. In the long run, it may be far less painful to have a heart to heart about this potential pitfall right at the get go.

Hint: With the notable exception of communities founded on alignment with traditional religious morality (of which there are a number), intentional communities tend to be very progressive on social issues, and you will tend to find markedly better acceptance and support for nontraditional partnerships, such as gay or mixed race relationships. For couples that have struggled to find this, community can be a highly valued safe haven.

• • •
If you're still in the hunt for community after working through the gauntlet I've posted above, you should have a distilled list of key markers that you'll measure prospective communities against. The next step is to contact the groups that seem most promising and ask the questions that will help you assess them for a good match. Hopefully, that will produce a winnowed short list for further scrutiny.

If at all possible, try to set up visits to sample as many of these finalists as possible. My fourth and final installment of this series will be how to get the most out such visits.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

How to Use Communities Directory

In my last blog I started a four-part series on How to Focus Your Search for Community.

I. What does FIC already offer?
II. How to make full use of Communities Directory as a seeker's resource
III. Questions that will help you figure out what you're looking for
IV. How to get the most out of a community visit

Today I'll tackle the second question, on making the most of Communities Directory.

There are two parts to this: a) the straight forward stuff; and b) how to read between the lines.

In the print version of Communities Directory, one of the most potent tools in the book is the cross-reference chart, which sorts listings according to groups' answers to the most commonly sought objective criteria. Using the chart, you can quickly find which groups have what you're looking for if any of the following questions are potent for you:

o Is there a spiritual/religious orientation, and, if so, what?
o Is the group forming or established?
o Does the group identify as cohousing style?
o Does the group identify as an ecovillage?
o Does the group identify as a student co-op?
o Population
o Size of property
o Is the location urban, suburban, rural, or other (whatever that is)
o What are the community economics (income sharing or not)?
o How does the group make decisions (consensus, majority voting, council of elders, central leader, tea leaves)?
o Frequency of common meals (how often do members break bread together)
o Are there dietary restrictions or preferences?
o Who owns the land?
o When was the group founded?
o Is there a fee to join?
o Can you rent?
o Is the group looking for additional members?

While you can perform your own searches for these criteria using the built-in capabilities of the Online Directory, in the book it's already been done for you—which is worth the price of the book right there if you're doing any serious perusing.

Hidden Nuances
There's a practical limit to how many fields of information FIC can reasonably display in the cross-reference charts, and there is also a legal limit. To our chagrin, we are no longer allowed to collect and disseminate information about age range and number of children present (because of the potential for age discrimination, offering such data violates fair housing laws). That said, if you're looking for a multi-generational community, you can infer a considerable age range by looking at how long the group has been around. Most groups that have 20+ years under their collective belt are pretty sure to have a wide range of ages in their mix.

How much are you a pioneer—with a burning desire to create structure (agreements) and structures (buildings)? If you have that in your blood, look for groups that are not too far removed from their first birthday. These groups probably have more things still to build. Alternately, if you're more of a settler and are looking for stability, search for groups that have been longer in the saddle. As most groups fail before they reach their fifth birthday, ones older than are more likely to have found a productive groove.

If you want a community where people are rather deeply involved in each others' lives, I suggest you focus on income sharing groups—if members share money, their lives will necessarily be more intertwined. (If you dream is to eat meals together every night, serious income sharing tends to equate with serious meal sharing).

If you have limited financial resources and still want to jump into community living, you're better off concentrating on either income sharing groups (many of whom ask no fees to join) or places that have rental options.

If you're keen on a strong environmental commitment, be wary. The label "ecovillage" suggests such a commitment, yet there is no standard for what that term means, and you'll need to ask each group how that translates into everyday practices and ecological covenants. Don't assume their answer will be your answer!

While it's always a good idea to assess a prospective community for how well the members are able to name and work with power dynamics, be especially cautious if title to the land is held by one or more individuals instead by the whole group or a corporation.
Finally, a word of caution. The suggestions I've offered above are tendencies, not iron clad rules. After you've done all your sorting and whittled down your list to the most promising prospects, it's still a good idea to verify their reality before you buy their realty.