Monday, March 29, 2010

The Firefighter's Lament

Part of my work as a process consultant is out-of-town firefighting. In the small but intense world of intentional communities, if a group catches on fire and can't put it out on their own, I'm one the people who might get a call. It's a specialty that requires both that you understand the fluid dynamics of group conflagration, and the ability to not wilt in the heat of the moment. It takes a certain combination of savvy, groundedness, and improvisational chutzpah which I'm crazy enough to embrace.

While it's only a piece of my work as a consultant, some of my most precious memories are the work I've done with groups in crisis. While you're never happy that people are in struggle, you're glad for the chance to ease the pain, and offer a helping hand.

After being in this line of work for more than two decades, there's a steady stream of inquiries that reach my ears concerning hot issues (as opposed to requests for trainings or for non-crisis facilitating—both of which I also do), and they tend to fall into one of three categories, all of which occur in roughly equal proportions:

A) Groups who have recognized that they need help, have hired me, and have subsequently gotten their fire under control (whew!).

B) Groups who have recognized that they need help, but could not agreed to hire me—either because the prior work I've done with that group drew mixed reviews, or because they've never seen me before and are having trouble imagining how someone from rural Missouri could possibly be worth the $1200/day I tell clients I'm worth.

C) Groups that have not yet recognized that they need help (despite the fact the people in and around the group have already pulled the fire alarm).

While I'm wistful about the groups in Category B, it's the ones in Category C that haunt me, because I know what help can mean for a group in crisis, and it's hard to watch them suffer while they find their way, often tortuously, to being ready to give outside assistance a chance. Even when you know you can help, you have to wait for the group to be ready… and sometimes they never are.

Right now I'm waiting on four Category C possibilities, not knowing if any of them will convert to becoming clients:
—A land trust in the Southwest where the governing board hasn't met in over a year and two of the three members are at odds with each other.
—A West Coast retreat center where the professionals have broken off regular meetings because of unresolved internal tensions (folks, these things don't self-heal!)
—A Mid-Atlantic community that is struggling with mental health issues—how much can the group handle before their lifeboat is swamped?
—A Northeast group that is wrestling with how to balance the needs of members who suffer from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity with those who want to garden and burn wood (which activities are more ecologically sustainable yet make life harder for those suffering with MCS).

And that's just in the last two months.

When a cooperative group moves into crisis, what's at stake is often more than the viability of the membership of the individuals at odds. Sometimes it's the viability of the entire cooperative. Worse than that, it can be the viability of hope in a cooperative future. A bad experience can suck all the air out of the room, leaving the players' souls burnt to a crisp.

As a firefighter my job is threefold:
o To bring everyone who's not already toast back from the brink of immolation (this is battlefield nursing, where the players are scarred with emotional distress and you're operating mostly on instinct to salve the burns).
o To guide the group through the fire onto the cool grass beyond the flames, where they can function more or less normally again (teaching people that they can survive the heat).
o To offer the group the skills needed to manage their own fires (teaching people that they can thrive in the heat).

While I rarely get the chance to offer a group all three, I live for those times where I do. Knowing what's at stake, and how badly our culture needs to learn the skills to turn this around, the crises which keep me awake at night are the Category C's I don't get to fight—where good-hearted people are burning and they could have been saved.

1 comment:

Quentin said...

12 hundred a day. hmmmmmmmmmmmm

It sounds so money driven like much in the US.