Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Stumbling Over Different Prospectives

Yesterday we had a community meeting that ended poorly, and I was in the middle of it. While this has happened before (and will likely happen again), it never feels good and is humbling.

Due to a heavy amount of December travel (typical each year around the holidays), it was the first meeting we'd had with all five members present in more than a month. In addition we had three people visiting as prospective members, and this was their first chance to talk with the everyone all together about what they were looking for and how they were experiencing Sandhill.

Understandably, the first half of our two-hour meeting was taken up with a check-in (hearing from everyone about how they were doing and providing an opening for personal reflections about what they'd been chewing on the last month).

When it was the visitors' turn to share, one of them talked about how he had been searching extensively for a community and had narrowed his choices down to Sandhill and one other place, both of which emphasized an economy and lifestyle centered around organic agriculture. To make a decision, he wanted to get current information about the community's commitment to providing ongoing opportunities to learn and experiment with organic farming.

I thought this was a great topic to discuss, yet knew it was beyond the scope of a check-in, so I asked that we come back to it later in the meeting. This guy was going to end his visit in a couple days and I thought it was all together reasonable that we make an attempt to address his question as a group before he left.

As it turned out, we didn't get back to this discussion before we ran out of time. Understandably, given that we hadn't met in a month, we had a number of things already on the agenda and items added mid-course tend to fall off the table. It was at this point that I got into trouble.

I was frustrated that we hadn't prioritized addressing the prospective's questions, which was work we needed to do anyway. Others felt that the topic was too large to attempt and that it was better to complete a bunch of smaller items and reserve the big one for another time—perhaps during our annual retreat coming up in March. While I could appreciate that this was a topic worthy of retreat attention, and there's a natural desire to conclude a meeting with as many topics as possible wrapped up with a ribbon and bow (which the question of Sandhill's relationship to supporting agricultural initiatives was not a good candidate to be), I was embarrassed that we had accepted this prospective (as well as the other couple) for a visit to explore membership and then might fail to discuss during his visit what we thought about his candidacy and the issues he raised. As far as I'm concerned, we were falling down on the job. (How do you invite people to live with you, have them travel a considerable distance to get to your place, and then not take the time to thoroughly consider their candidacy in a timely way??)

When I expressed this to the group, and urged us to meet again in the 48 hours remaining with everyone on the farm, it did not go well, and I think it's instructive to break down how this broke down.

There were two main components of the dynamic: a) my view that the group has an obligation to give a response to prospectives, if requested, about how we were viewing their interest in membership before their visit ends; and b) my upset about our not having taken this up in the course of the meeting. While I'm not defending my choice to express my upset (I have no doubt that what happened would have gone easier if I had not been in distress), it's worthwhile to look at how this becomes a mess.

We did not get off to a good start in that the responses to my statement were focused more on my views than on my upset. While there was support to stretch and have a second meeting (which I appreciated and was responsive to my concern), there was also reluctance. One person misheard my urging the group to meet as a demand that we decide right away whether to accept this person as a member, and they objected to being pushed into a premature decision. As people scrambled to figure out how to shoehorn a meeting into their Wednesday schedule, I became impatient. "What could be more important than this?" I asked with exasperation. This didn't go well either.

From their perspective, the other members were trying to work with me and felt trashed for their efforts. From my perspective, my upset had still not been acknowledged (my views had been recognized, but not my upset), and I was still speaking from a reactive place. While we finally got off the merry-go-round (and ended the meeting with an agreement to meet tomorrow to do what we can to tackle the questions raised by the propsectives), there was still a lot of raw feelings. After 35 years, you'd think we could handle this moment better, but here we are.

• • •
The Post-game Analysis
For me, there's still plenty of room to be more mindful about my rising upset and addressing it before it leaks into my responses to the issues at hand. If nothing else, I can do a better job of simply reporting than I'm upset, and uncoupling it from my views (as the commingling is almost never productive).

For the group, I believe that once non-trivial distress enters the equation, we have to work with that before we start working with the issues, or else the unprocessed distress will continue to infect and distort the conversation. Ignoring non-trivial distress doesn't work. And even though I know that (and get steady work as an outside facilitator expressly to handle this dynamic), it is nearly impossible for me to facilitate working with my distress. Part of my challenge is figuring out a way to get the support I know I need when I'm unsuccessful following the advice I've given myself in the preceding paragraph.

Sometimes, living in community is just down right embarrassing.

No comments: