Saturday, July 31, 2010

Remembering Al Andersen

I got a call this week that I didn't want to get. Dorothy Andersen called from California to tell me that her husband, Al, had passed away last Sunday. He was 91, and had been in frail health for some time.

I first met Al back in 1991, at the FIC fall organizational meetings at Lama Foundation (San Cristobal NM). It was the first time the Fellowship had met in the Southwest and Al came up from Tucson to check us out.

• • •
Al was 22 years old when Pearl Harbor propelled us in to World War II. As a Conscientious Objector, he sat the war out in a federal prison in Danbury CT. Around 1948, he collaborated with Griscom Morgan (who would later become the Director of Community Service, Inc, now called the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions, after Griscom's father) to organize a series of gatherings for communities in the Mid-Atlantic and Ohio Valley regions. The momentum generated by these get-togethers ultimately coalesced into the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. (Note the different preposition from the FIC of today—this first incarnation was oriented toward people already living in community, many of whom were COs who wanted to focus what could be done to eliminate the occasion for war.)

That's right, Al was there when the first FIC was founded. Although the dynamism of FIC 1.0 petered out in the '70s, and none of the bunch involved in that original effort were around for the revitalization spearheaded by Charles Betterton in 1986, it was only natural that Al wanted to find out what the new generation was up to, after we'd poured new wine into his old bottle.

True to his ties to the original FIC, Al wanted to know where the current Fellowship stood on the question of social and economic justice. While he was happy that we were promoting cooperation, that wasn't enough. He wanted FIC to take a stand against injustice and US hegemony in the world—never mind that we were a 501c3 and prohibited from taking active political stands.

Over the nearly two decades that we knew each other, Al and I were in the same room together only half a dozen times, generally at some FIC function. The last time I saw him was almost two years ago, at Friends House, a Quaker-based assisted living facility in Santa Rosa, which is where he spent his final years. He had arranged for me to give a talk about how intentional community can be a response to US imperialism. As it turned out, I went head to head with Barrack Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic national convention. I was flattered that a dozen or so folks decided to watch Barrack on tape-delay, and listen live to what I had to say.

Throughout the years, Al and I spoke regularly on the phone. He was always working on one analysis or another about contemporary politics, and it was a treat to hear what issue he was working on. In the last year, his attention became split between the theme of US empire, and the possibility that dis-embodied spirits could actively participate in groups from beyond death. Regarding the latter, I told Al that I work extensively with group energy, yet know nothing about dis-embodied entities. (I asked how the living could feel confident that they were working accurately with the views of the dis-embodied, especially if there was disagreement among the living about what those views were. As far as I know, Al was still puzzling that out when the sand ran out of his hourglass.)

While I'm saddened by the loss of a friend, perhaps he'll now have a decent chance to test out the possibilities as a dis-embodied spirit. It pleases me to think that he might be right. Maybe it will turn out that the limiting factor is not so much getting the dis-embodied to speak, as it is teaching the living how to hear—as far as I'm concerned, the world of the living is under-blessed with good listeners.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

It Takes a Child to Raise Some Issues in the Village

Last week I had a conversation with a friend about a relatively new community that's struggling with the issue of appropriate limits for the behavior of neighboring children when visiting the community. The precipitating event involved an older child who lives in the surrounding area and is a frequent visitor. This kid has something of a reputation as a bully, and at least some parents are concerned for the safety of their children in this outside kid's presence. During one recent visit (I don't know the full story) one mother was worried enough about what was happening in the moment that she called the police. Understandably, this triggered a firestorm.

As if that weren't complicated enough, five minutes into the conversation it was explained to me that the group had not discussed the question of appropriate limits for their own children. As soon as I heard that, I knew they were in for multiple meetings.

• • •
Dynamics with children is one of the most common themes that pops up in my work as a group process consultant (the only topics that occur more frequently are tensions around work expectations and confusion about consensus). Most times, the lightning rod issue can be distilled into the challenge of how to craft a lasting marriage between two deeply held values that are almost universally shared: a) wanting to create a safe and nurturing environment in which to raise children; and b) wanting to support parents' individual styles in child rearing (so long as they fall within certain widely spaced parameters, such as nonviolent disciplining—spanking can be controversial, for example—and not placing the life of a child in danger).

The key issue that communities with children have to navigate is what is expected and what is permitted (two very different animals) with regard to adults stepping in and setting limits for the behavior of children who are not their own. This topic will necessarily drag the group into another swamp: where is the boundary between public and private? When is a child's behavior strictly a family matter, and when—and to what extent—is the group a stakeholder in that conversation?

When you further add to the mix the near certainty that a parent's child rearing choices will be held as a core expression of their identity (read sacred), it doesn't take much imagination to appreciate the volatility that surfaces whenever these issues erupt, which they inevitably will.

• • •
So let's return to the story, and unpack the hair ball. Here's an overview of some of the issues that are illuminated by this dynamic:

o To what extent does the community want to welcome outside children as part of a commitment to neighborly relations, and how is this value balanced with the commitment to be a safe place for community children?
o In the context of child rearing, how does the community define "safe"?
o What are the boundaries of appropriate behavior of children in public spaces at the community?
o Does this vary if the children live in the community or live outside the community, and if so, how?
o If a child is seen doing something inappropriate, what is the authority of an adult observer to step in and redirect the behavior? What rights do child observer's have in this same dynamic?
o To what extent does this authority change if the observer perceives the behavior to pose an imminent threat to life or a serious threat to property? (You could make the case, for example, that you have different expectations around adult responses if kids are: a) observed leaving cushions strewn around the floor in the Common House living room; or b) setting fire to the trash in the kitchen.)
o What are the expectations around how an adult intercedes when attempting to redirect a child's behavior?
o If the observer is not the child's parent, how does that affect their authority? Further, what are the obligations, if any, to inform the parents of what happened?
o How important (and how possible) is it that all adults in the community make an attempt to interact with each community child in ways that that child's parents prefer?
o To what extent are parents expected to provide other adult members an avenue for critical feedback about their parenting choices if members believe those choices have violated a community agreement or negatively affected the quality of community life?
o What is the preferred protocol for working with issues involving children in the community? Under what conditions is it acceptable to call the police (or other authorities, such as Child Services) if an adult believes there's a problem involving children? (Note: I am not suggesting that community expectations abrogate an individual's civil rights; I'm only trying to illuminate that there is a definite social cost and a non-trivial erosion of trust if a member is perceived to have called in the civil authorities before having exhausted all reasonable internal channels for addressing the issue.)

Whew! This is quite a tangle. When you further take into account that this is only the list I can create in one stream on consciousness after a single phone call, it may feel overwhelming. The good news is that this can be handled. As I delineated in my Sept 23, 2008 blog Untangling Hair Balls, you just need to tackle the topics one at a time, and keep plugging away.

The work sequence should probably go something like this:
1. Unpack the serious tensions relating to the precipitating event. (If you don't, the residual distress will result in distortion that will undermine clarity and render brittle the potential solutions.)
2. Flush out all the issues.
3. Sort the issues into like items that can reasonably be handled as a single focus.
4. Decide what order to take up the issues after they've been massaged in Step 3.
5. After completing an item, go onto the next.
6. After addressing all of the issues, review the whole for consistency.

• • •
When I grew up there was a shampoo on the market called No More Tangles. I just looked (isn't Google amazing?), and Johnson & Johnson still makes it. While, unfortunately, there is no equivalent potion available for groups styled No More Conflict—that would ease you through the hard spots with topical application—I'm at least offering the prospect, with liberal doses of diligence and patience, of being able to comb out a complete rat's nest.

Raising children in community is generally awesome, and I am fully supportive of the attempt. At the same time, it will occasionally get you into some awful dynamics, and, as the group whom I've written about today already knows, I'm not kidding.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Radio Active

The last time I owned a television was in 1972. I was living in a group house in Washington DC and my TV was stolen from the living room one night during a minor break-in. After going through the predictable initial feelings of anger and violation, I reflected on how much I needed that particular appliance… and replaced it with a ping pong table—which turned out to be much more interactive, and a great deal harder to haul quietly through an open window.

Thirty-eight years later, I still haven't replaced the television. Instead, I listen to a lot of radio. Unlike TV, which is perhaps the ultimate conversation squelcher and a demanding mistress, it's possible to listen to the radio and still get things done. There are many tasks in my life that are repetitive—from canning salsa to making tempeh; from long distance driving to shaping boards for a woodworking project. I can listen to the radio while doing all these things, effectively allowing me to double track. Much as you can can pour a quart of water into a gallon jar filled to the brim with sand, I can fully enjoy radio programs without taking time away from other things. You can't do that with TV.

It also helps that my primary information input channel is aural. While many others are visual and some are kinesthetic, I depend mainly on auditory input. Thus, I can reasonably sit in a meeting and do hand work (such as shelling peas or peeling garlic) that requires most of my visual focus and not compromise my ability to track what's happening energetically. I can tell from very subtle changes in tone and pacing when I need to look up, both to better express compassion and to better gather non-verbal cues in delicate or volatile moments.

Note 1: Over the years I've come to appreciate that because many others depend mainly on visual input (for most folks it's the dominant pathway for receiving data), they tend to not trust that I'm tracking well if my eyes are directed elsewhere. If I'm identified as a crucial player in a conversation, I've learned to eschew hand work in order to offer more eye contact—not because I need it so much as I need to be perceived as tracking.

Note 2: As a professional facilitator, I take plenty of notes when I'm on duty, and part of the reason this works is that I don't need constant eye contact to track well. While I only refer to a fraction of my notes in the course of a meeting, having written them at all forces me to organize my thoughts, which pays off in more concise statements, better identification of themes, deeper insights, and more complete summaries. This wouldn't work if I couldn't take my eyes off the group from time to time.

• • •
When I'm listening to a baseball game—which I do a lot—I can generally discern who's winning and whether the score is close within seconds of tuning into the broadcast, merely by the tone of the announcer's voice. Who knew that all those early years listening to sports broadcasts was honing skills I'd come to rely on professionally!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

... But They Started It

A lot of my work as a process consultant is helping groups get out of the ditch, where there's interpersonal tensions among members and the group is at a loss about how to untangle the mess. Often, though not always, events follow a sequence like this:

Step 1) Person A (let's call them Adrian) says or does a thing that pisses off Person B (let's call them Jesse). It's typically an action that Jesse feels is egregious or a patterned behavior that is consistently inconsiderate or inappropriate. The offending action is viewed as something clearly over the line of acceptable behavior and Jesse feels disrespected.

Step 2) Jesse then responds from their place of hurt or outrage, which is meant either as an expression of their feelings or a quid pro quo push back that they believe Adrian deserves. Typically, Jesse will acknowledge that their response contains some bite (by which I mean, is not all bark), yet their view is that this is no worse than what Adrian has done to them.

Step 3) Not uncommonly, Adrian had not been aware of Jesse's upset (or at least not the full extent of it) and their first inkling is that something is amiss is the sting they experience from Jesse's response. Now Adrian's pissed that Jesse used a biting response to express upset rather than coming to them directly with it. That is, now Adrian feels disrespected, and we're off to the races.

While the above sequence is certainly not a one-size-fits-all description for how every conflict develops, it's nonetheless a story line that adequately describes a numbingly high percentage of them. What's interesting about this pattern is that both Adrian & Jesse have the story that the other person started it, and that somehow this affords them each a free pass to indulge in the escalating steps they've both subsequently taken. (Kind of like finding yourself in a car accident, and then not caring what damage is done by your vehicle once you've convinced yourself that it's the other person's fault—where is the compassion and sensibility in that?)

Amazingly, Adrian & Jesse's internal stories are both that they have been defending themselves from an unfair attack and disrespectful treatment. The good news is that once this has been pointed out, it tends to help calm everyone down (since it's easy to get all parties to agree that being attacked and treated disrespectfully is not what anyone wants to be doing or experiencing).

The key log here is getting Jesse to see the possibility that Adrian didn't intend their actions to be provocative. Essentially, this means getting Jesse to see how Adrian's actions were a reasonable choice from Adrian's perspective. That doesn't mean that Jesse has to like what Adrian did; only that Jesse can see how Adrain's actions can be explained without assigning Jesse bad intent.

Going the other way, you can ask Adrian to understand Jesse's response as having come from a person who was upset and felt attacked—rather than as the actions of a provocateur. If you can get them each to see how the precipitating actions in Steps 1 & 2 are explainable without assuming ill will, that should give you the breakthrough needed to get things unstuck—where you can start to work creatively and productively on how to handle things better in the future.

Of course, when working with groups, conflict doesn't always neatly sort into a nice clean dyad. Often there's a multi-car accident and you have to figure out where to start. Hint: just like an ER nurse, use the principles of triage to work first with the person who appears in the most distress and yet is still responsive to ministrations. Then work you're way around the room until the bleeding stops.

In the end it doesn't matter to me who started it. I want to know who's willing to end it.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Fudging at Mackinac

A week ago today I made my inaugural visit to Mackinac Island (which, for some reason, is pronounced as if it were spelled "Mackinaw," which, amazingly enough, is the way that the city from which we took the ferry to get there is spelled—go figure).

The island once housed a fort of some significance in the development of the fur trade, which first opened up both western Canada and the northern portion of the western US to European expansion. The fort was first built by the British in the American Revolutionary War, and later played a role in the War of 1812 as well. The island is located just east of the Straits of Mackinac, which separate Lake Michigan from Lake Huron, and there is ferry service from both the north side of the strait (St Ignace) and from the south (the aforementioned Mackinaw City).

Visiting the island is one of those quintessential tourist experiences, roughly akin to a foray into Gatlinburg TN, Cody WY, or Myrtle Beach SC. Though there are only about 600 souls who live on the island year round, there are about 15,000 tourists who visit there daily during the peak season—which last Monday we were smack in the midst of. My wife (Ma'ikwe), her mother (Kay), her son (Jibran), and I bravely contributed four to the tourist tally for July 12.

There are a number of ferry operations servicing the island and we availed ourselves of Kay's favorite: Shepler's, a family operation that runs a boat both ways every 30 minutes, and supplies free parking to boot. They've been in the business since 1945, and were well positioned when the Mackinac Bridge opened in 1954, connecting Michigan's Lower and Upper Peninsulas via car traffic.

Mackinac Island is not big. The bike path around the outside edge is only 8.2 miles. One of the peculiarities of the island is that there are no automobiles (excepting one or two emergency service vehicles that are kept under wraps as much as possible). If you want to get around, you can do so by foot, by bicycle, or by horse drawn carriage—take your pick. We took Kay out to lunch (at the Pink Pony Patio in the Chippewa Hotel, where the whitefish sandwich was divine). In a quid pro quo, she popped for the carriage ride to tour the island.

Among the oddities that we learned from our tour guide, is that there are 17 fudge shops on the island—and every one of them will gladly offer you a free sample. Uffda. The very thought of it made my fillings ache. In fact, the fudge traffic is so firmly associated with off-island touristas that the local nickname for mainland visitors is "fudgies"—which
I did not get the sense was an honorific. Unlike the artless way that Indianans will sometimes refer to themselves as "hoosiers," or dedicated listeners to sports commentator Jim Rome will proudly style themselves "clones," I did not get the sense that island visitors gleefully refer to themselves as fudgies. Given that the island economy is wholly dependent upon tourism, there is a certain delicacy about the locals indulging in a pejorative that deprecates both their major export and its main consumer.

On the carriage ride we got a peek at the Grand Hotel, which sports the longest front porch in the world. At a whopping 660 feet long, it's more than two football fields lined up end to end. Billed as the ideal location for Flirtation Walks (to augment romantic aspirations), it seems to me it might also be suitable for cardio-vascular testing, to ascertain if the relationship is up the rigors of an aerobic courtship. Hell, if the fog is bad, you can't see the east end of the porch from the west end. I imagine some sparkers pack a lunch when they go wooing on the porch at the Grand Hotel.

In any event, the hotel was built in 1887 in 93 days. As the story goes, there was a $1 million bonus (which was real money back then) if the job was completed in 90 days, but the contractors made the strategic error of not informing the construction crew about the bonus (in the hopes of splitting the pot among far fewer participants). When word leaked out among the workers, they went on strike for three days—long enough to make sure that no one got the bonus. Which just goes to show how long mendacity, cupidity, and stupidity have been well acquainted with one another.

Though we were told that franchises are not allowed on the island, I'll be damned if we didn't spot a Starbuck's within 50 feet of the ferry terminal. While I will freely admit that the marriage of fudge and coffee is likely to be a happy one for most consumers, my sense of fair play was offended by this apparent breach of franchise etiquette. I suspect some pushy fudgies sweetened the deal to the point where the ruling locals were willing to fudge the rules. But that's just a guess.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hope on the Rocks

One of the ways I knew that Ma’ikwe was seriously interested in me as a life partner was when she told her father (Jim), a wildlife biologist, that she’d finally met a guy whom she felt she could bring bird banding without fear of embarrassing himself. While I could tell this was an important yardstick to be measured against, I had little idea what she was talking about… until last Sunday.

After spending a couple post-Drummond Island days [see my blogs of June 27-July 7 for more about that] puttering around the northeast quadrant of the Upper Peninsula, Ma’ikwe and I rendezvoused with her mother (Kay) and son (Jibran) at Uncle Ted and Aunt Barbara’s house on the St. Mary’s River outside Barbeau (just southeast of the Soo). Ted is Jim’s brother, and more to the point, they are both Fred Ludwig's sons. Fred was a doctor by profession and a bird bander by avocation. Starting around 1929, Fred got seriously interested in banding baby birds that nested in the Great Lakes, to help with wildlife research. He ultimately infected both his sons with this same zeal. By 1996, the extended Ludwig clan estimated that they’d banded about 650,000 birds, roughly 1% of the all those banded in North America. We’re talking serious banding.
While Fred passed away in 2002 and Jim has retired from banding, Ted keeps his hand in. A doctor like his father, Ted is also every bit the amateur supporter of avian wildlife that Fred was. Appropriately enough, Ma’ikwe asked Ted about his recent banding exploits after dinner, and it wasn’t 15 minutes later that Ma’ikwe, Jibran, and I were in Ted’s boat, motoring off to a special island he knew about two miles into Lake Huron, where common terns were hatching. Suddenly, Jibran and I were on our way to getting baptized as “real” Ludwigs.
I borrowed waders from Barb that I could just wedge my feet into without socks and off we went (the red welts on the top of my feet disappeared by the following morning).
The “island” turned out to be a modest pile of rocks, barely poking out of the water. It was more a miniature archipelago measuring all of 30 feet long by 12 feet wide, mostly disguised by reeds. Nonetheless, there were perhaps 50 pairs of common terns nesting there, and all the adults reluctantly rose up and hovered raucously 30-50 feet above us as we banded the babies.
As my community, Sandhill Farm, has had chickens every year since 1975, I’ve seen a lot of baby birds (no small amount of them have been incubated in our living room), and a chick is a chick. (My co-founder, Annie, had this particular trick she developed where she’d pop a baby in her mouth [after carefully wiping its clawed feet] and then causally mingle with folks, only to open wide at the appropriate moment and have the chick cautiously cock its salivated head toward the speaker inquisitively—it invariably stole the moment. But I digress… )
A few of the chicks we encountered in Lake Huron were still wet and exhausted from just having exited their shell. Unlike baby chickens however, these were a mottled brown that blended naturally with the reed nests and nearby stones, helping to keep a low profile against air-borne predators, such as gulls. While they may or may not have justified Ma’ikwe’s claim to be “the cutest chicks in the while world,” it was not hard to root for them. My favorite moment was when the chick I'd been holding (awaiting Ted's ministrations) horked up a fish that was three-quarters as long as it was, exiting tail first. I guess being held and banded by 200-pound monsters temporarily put it off its feed.
One Good Tern Deserves Another
As we were merrily banding away (Ted would expertly slip a marked aluminum band—they are only 1/4-inch wide and open like a letter C—over one of the legs and then squeeze it carefully closed with needle nosed pliers, leaving plenty of room for the leg to grow without pinching; our job was to tenderly place each bird back in the approximate place we found it), Ted explained that the common tern is rapidly becoming less common all the time. In fact, it’s one of the most endangered birds in the Upper Great Lakes, struggling to find decent habitat for breeding, and to compete successfully with cormorants for food.
Their fragility was poignantly apparent as strong winds out of the south had been blowing all day, piling water up at our end of the lake. This effectively raised the water level by several inches. Because the island had so little freeboard, an alarming number of eggs were floating in the water, which severely compromised the temperatures needed for successful incubation.
As you might imagine, the adult terns were highly relieved when our commando operation was over and we had shoved off from their spit of land. In perhaps 20 minutes, we had banded 69 chicks. While that’s only 0.01% of what’s been accomplished by Ludwig banders overall, I had finally gotten off the schneid.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Tale of Two Stories

In the last two weeks I’ve been riding an emotional roller coaster as I’ve tried to work through dynamics with a pair of people upset with me. The two don’t know each other and their only point of commonality is that they were in email dialog with me in the last seven days.

Story #1—Mr. Inside

I’m in the midst of a struggle with a co-worker about how we function together, trying to sort out how things became a mess. After a couple months of low-level contact, I asked this person to do a job with me that required traveling out of state and being together for about a week, which was way more contact than we’d had together previously.

In the run-up to departure, this person was showing increasing signs of distress about travel arrangements. Where I thought I was being responsive to whatever was asked, the story I got back was that I wasn’t coming through promptly enough and I was disrespectful.

Once on site after the outbound trip, my co-worker wasn’t feeling well, and was not able to answer the bell for half of the work we’d come to do. We were staying at separate locations and midway through the visit, right as I was dropping my compatriot off at their digs, I was given a handwritten note which laid out some of the distress they were going through.

The next morning I asked to discuss the note and was told that they’d gotten considerable relief just from having written it and didn’t need to discuss it further while we were on the job.

When we started our long drive home I brought the subject up again, and listened to a litany about why the job was being hard and they didn’t feel they had enough available time or energy to undertake the extra effort the job seemed to require.

I accepted that, and conversation petered out. Though this person had told me in the note that one of the motivations for agreeing to the trip was the opportunity to get to know me, I had not experienced their asking me a single question about how I was doing or how I was relating to their struggles with me. Though I wasn’t sure how to interpret this (I was willing to put it down mainly to their health issues), in the absence of any sense of invitation, I left my convalescing partner alone the remainder of the drive.

While the two of us didn’t have a great time together, we were able to accomplish the work that we’d traveled to do. Having witnessed: a) this person’s struggles in relation to my work style; b) their inflexibility around embracing the work needed from their position; and c) their apparent lack of interest in how their choices and mood were affecting others, it seemed best to accept this person’s resignation and try to find a replacement who’d be a better fit. I was ready to move on.

However, I discovered two weeks later that we weren’t done. Through a mutual acquaintance—who was in dialog with this person about a completely different topic—this co-worker complained about me, claiming that they’d tried to initiate conversation with me about our dynamic and couldn’t get anywhere. Their story was that they’d put in the effort and I hadn't responded. When this was passed along to me (with permission), I was flabbergasted.

Now I was pissed. I did not like getting this second-hand, I did not like that their version of reality was completely at odds with mine, and I did not like being so little seen for all I did to try to make things work.

The point of all this preamble is to relate how worked up I got about the story I had about my being mistreated. While I knew intellectually that this other person would have a different story (in which they were justified in their upset with me), I was on vacation and not in a position to do much with this except through email, which wasn’t providing any relief.

Once tensions are running high and trust is running low, email can be a spectacularly ineffective mode of communication, and such was the case here, where the response I got back to the communication in which I first expressed my frustrations was loaded with the assignment of bad intent to what I’d written. At that point, I knew to stop using email and asked instead for a time to get together live to try to work this out. (Finding myself in a hole, I knew to put the shovel down.)

Thankfully—and I want to give full credit here to my erstwhile antagonist—that offer was accepted, and we are now out of the main turbulence electronically and working on logistics for how best to set that up. Immediately upon getting the conciliatory email (which was only a willingness to meet as I'd requested; it was not a mea culpa or an abnegation of her own story), I noticed the emotional release.

What a ride! I’m reading Timothy Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves right now in which he explores the incredible depth of the unconscious mind, and I’ll be damned if I wasn’t watching it in action right there—both in how amped up I got with the story I’d created, and in how much instant relief I got when I was able to find a graceful exit from the trap I’d set for myself. Shit, who needs drugs or a wide-screen high-def TV? I’m my own self-contained entertainment center.

Story #2—Mr. Outside

Parallel to the track above, I was in another complicated email string that I became enmeshed in by virtue of being a spokesperson for the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC). Someone had complained about the conclusions reached by a college student who posted a winter term paper on the topic of why there aren’t more people of color living in intentional communities. FIC provides an online forum for topics relating to intentional community and this one had been up there since 2001.

The respondent was a person of color and found the student's comments stereotypic and offensive. In a classic case of guilt by association, FIC was tarred with the same brush, and the complaint ended with the all-purpose condemnation, “You guys suck.”

Fools Rush In

While it often doesn’t work out that well when a communication starts with a shotgun blast, we nonetheless have an organizational commitment to work with critical feedback—regardless of how raw it’s presented—and I accepted the challenge. I explained that we are committed to providing a forum and that the views of the author do not necessarily represent those of FIC. I further agreed with many of the respondent’s views about the lack of racial diversity among communities and what might be effective strategies for remedying that.

In all, we had four exchanges that took place over the course of five days.

In each of my communications, I made a point to join this person where I could, and point out ways in which we disagreed, both on points of fact (about FIC and about intentional communities) and on points of communication.

Let me give you a specific example of the latter. This person was angry and repeatedly launched into a rant about how white people can’t handle the emotional honesty of people of color. While this is admittedly a gross generalization, I tend to agree that white culture is dominated by damped down emotions and that that is generally not a good thing.

Over the years I’ve learned the importance of being able to work emotionally, and believe it's important to express on-topic feelings, just as it's important to express on-topic thoughts. At the same time however, I distinguish between that and commingling the expression of feelings with aggression. Thus, "I'm really pissed that you published this poorly-reasoned piece on racial diversity" lands quite differently than "You guys suck."

After a number of unsuccessful tries to make this point, I wearied of receiving repeated complaints from the correspondent about how fixated I was on the their having expressed strong feelings, and then continued to interlard their emails with yet more strong feelings, aggressively expressed in the form of taunts and sarcasm. Ufda. These were hard emails ls to work with.

It's exhausting to take these hits, and resist the temptation to respond in kind. Each time I'd need to breathe through the anger I felt at being misunderstood, at the injustice I felt at being racially pigeon-holed (as another stupid white person who hasn't done their homework on racism), at the disrespect of bathing a fellow human being in a steady stream of slurs. This person was obviously intelligent (I agreed with much of their thinking about how racism presents and what it will take to turn it around), and I invited them to post their own thoughts about racism and diversity on our forum. What I got back was more anger, about how they're sick of educating whites and it wasn't their responsibility to handle that. (How did an invitation become an assignment of responsibility?)

In the end, the correspondent simply opted out of the conversation, stating that they were wasting their time responding to a secretary (my FIC title is Executive Secretary). Having found my responses offensive (no matter how hard I tried to be both constructive and non-inflammatory) they took a potshot at how I close most correspondence, "In cooperation," claiming it was disingenuous and admonishing me to "get over it." One satisfying thing I got out of an otherwise wholly unsatisfying series of communication is the chance to compose a reply:

"Actually, I won't. I have an abiding commitment to trying to live cooperatively, and think that nothing less will do.

"I have no illusions about having any control over your responses. And I have no judgment about your being angry. You wrote an angry letter to my organization and I gave you a response that wasn't angry in return. While I'm baffled why you respond with continued provocation and school yard put downs, I've persevered in an effort to engage on the topic of racism in community."

While I didn't get a response to this, it did give me some relief articulating why I hung in there in the attempt.

This exchange ended with no connection and little sense of any progress having been made. Just as with Story #1, I went through the same surge of upset and outrage (different circumstances, same feelings), and can marvel at the unconscious work I do to process the experience. Consciously (if slowly), I get the chance to search for signs about my own patterns of prejudice, and glean a few more clues about the clever ways I contribute to misunderstanding—all the while claiming to be the champion of clarity and compassion. Man, this work is hard!

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Dangers of Mixing Book Conception with Fertility Drugs

Today is my last full day on Drummond Island, and it seems appropriate to offer up a progress report on my book. 
When I struggled for more than three years to get traction on this project, my wife, Ma’ikwe, wisely took the initiative and scheduled these two weeks in northern Michigan where my principal task was to finally spend time working on the damn book.
Now that I’m actually up here doing it, things are getting out of hand.
Here I am in a protected, nutrient-rich environment (lots of unscheduled time, a beautiful setting, a loving partner, good coffee, and internet access), regularly thinking about what I want to say. I arrived two weeks ago looking forward to how my labor pains this fortnight would lead in a straight forward way to the birth of my first literary child, sometime in the year ahead. Now it’s beginning to look like quints.
I reckon that’s one of the risks of placing myself in an artificial environment expressly for the purpose of enhancing conception—sometimes you get more than you bargained for.
I knew I was in conceptual foment by Day Four when it first occurred to me that I have too much to say about facilitation to just shoehorn it into a chapter or two about cooperative group dynamics in general (which was the topic I originally thought could reasonably contain all of my publishable musings). When I went for my daily walk on Day Five, I set for myself the task of brooding about whether I was going to write one book or two. Two hours (and eight miles) later, mitosis had struck again, and I was up to four books, having added one on power & leadership, as well as a fourth on sustainable economics. Good grief!
• • •
Let me pause here in my narrative to describe a bit about how I’m approaching this project. Because I already have a lot written (perhaps 100 reports to clients, 75 articles in Communities magazine, 60 workshop handouts, nearly 290 blog entries, and enough private correspondence with peers to clog a high-speed shredder) almost all of my work on the book to date has been devoted to organizing—sketching out all the subjects I want to address, figuring out what I have already written about that topic (and where I’ve stored it!), determining which pieces naturally fit together, and figuring out how things should be sequenced. Mostly this amounts to drafting a Table of Contents and then diligently walking through my files to review 12 years worth of accumulated offerings to determine what writing is strong enough to be brought forward as book material. Whenever I unearth something that looks promising, I dump a copy into the appropriate chapter and move on. Sometimes I make a discovery that causes me to create a new chapter. It’s a dynamic process and involves a fair amount of meandering.
At this point I guess I'm only 10% done with my review, and that means that gobs of work remain before I'll need to think about finding a publisher. However, now that I have a road map for how to proceed, my hope is that I'll be able to regularly grind away at it, a la the brave hopes for setting aside time that I expressed last fall [see my blog of Sept 25, 2009, Booking My Future].
• • •
Thus, after my Day Five revelation, I paused to draft a Table of Contents for each new book, so that I’d have a broader and more appropriate field in which to sort as I electronically walked down (random access) memory lane. This was a good discipline in that it helped me see right away which subjects I had a books-worth in me to write about.
By Day Seven I was having second thoughts about a book on power & leadership. My would-be Table of Contents there was not filling out and I went back to the idea of covering that in the book on cooperative groups. Whew! Also, I could see that the book on sustainable economics was a new enough focus for me and a different enough topic that I could safely leave it the corner for now, to be developed only after I’d birthed the other babies. So at the end of the first week I was at three books: one on cooperative groups, one on facilitation, and one (down the road) on sustainable economics.
However, even with all of that sorted, I kept walking and kept thinking. By Day Nine I’d added a book on nonprofit administration, especially slanted toward those organizations dependent on volunteers rather than a staff paid market-rate wages. I had no trouble at all filling out the Table of Contents for that one.
By Day Eleven I gave up trying to cover everything I have to offer about consensus as a single chapter in my book on cooperative groups—which I am determined to focus in such a way that it depends neither on living in intentional community, nor on making decisions by consensus. While I continue to think that decision is a wise one (in the interest of greatly broadening its application), the truth is that I’ve been living and breathing consensus for more than 30 years and it just wasn’t working to cram everything I have to offer on that topic into one chapter. Thus, two days ago I yielded to the inevitable and it became the fifth book. While Ma’ikwe thinks this is all amusing, she’s not the one making commitments to the work. When will this end?
I’m debating whether I dare go for a walk today, or should just leave well enough alone.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The End of the Road

For the last 10 days I’ve been vacationing (and writing) on Drummond Island, located in Lake Huron, just east of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Ma’ikwe and I are staying at a cabin that’s located beyond the eastern terminus of State Highway 134. Tucked up into a northern corner of the island, there are roads that continue to the north and east of us, but just barely. The tarmac peters out only a mile from our cabin and it’s only rock beyond that.

As part of my daily routine, I go for a long walk whenever the weather permits. Invariably, I turn north when I exit the driveway, heading away from “civilization.” In just two miles, I come to the first patch of Avlar grasslands, a rare and protected area that I never tire of visiting.
But I’m spoiled. I mainly associate the North Woods with wilderness canoeing (I’ve spent close to a year of my life in a canoe, mainly in northern Minnesota and western Ontario), and it’s been a struggle to tolerate a steady stream of noxious motorized vehicles rattling past me as I attempt to lock into the smells and sounds of the North Woods.
Yesterday I reflected on the traffic patterns more deeply, and today I’m writing about my discomfort.
—I’ve probably walked about 50 miles so far. In that time I estimate that I’ve passed people around 200 times. Twice I saw people jogging; once I encountered a pair of cyclists pedaling the other way. Everyone else was enjoying the wilderness via motor assist. Perhaps 10% of the traffic has been ORVs (they used to be called ATVs: All-Terrain Vehicles; now they’re Off-Road Vehicles), which are much easier on the gas and much louder on the noise. The vast majority of the traffic has been SUVs or pickups with camper tops, driving outbound one minute, and then returning from their jaunt 15-30 minutes later when the road ends and they have to turn around.
—I have not seen a single other person simply walking. With the notable exception of the joggers and cyclists, land-based recreation here translates into getting into your vehicle and driving around. (Actually, most people up here are into water-based recreation—that is, fishing. They do that by getting in a boat with a motor and an electronic fish finder, looking for whitefish that they’ll catch and then buzz back to shore and freeze.) Taken all together, wilderness recreation here is highly energy consumptive.
—At first I was impressed with how little litter I found along the roads. However, upon reflection, how littered would you expect roads to be that lead nowhere? Slowly, I’ve been picking up the trash as I go along on my walks. If you’re keeping score at home, the tally yesterday was Budweiser 8, Red Bull 2, and Coca-cola 1. (I guess Anheuser Busch is still the king of boors beers.) While I have no idea how long it’s taken for these to accumulate (and thus cannot compute the idiot-per-passenger-mile ratio), I was nonetheless collecting non-biodegradable containers chucked out the window in a protected wilderness area. Think about that. It’s hard for me to write this paragraph and not experience hypertension.
—Yesterday was squally (the weather, not just my mood) and I experienced several periods of light drizzle during my walk, which helped keep the temperatures down (even up at the Canadian border, it reaches into the 90s in mid-summer). Thankfully, it also kept the dust down as the parade of vehicles rumbled by me. There is this one stretch in the Alvar grasslands where there’s a broad shelf of bare limestone that the road passes right through. It’s so wide that it forms a rough circle about 50 feet in diameter, and it’s a special place to visit—it’s a wonder that Nature has produced something so old, so flat, and so large. When I came upon this spot yesterday, it appeared the limestone had been magically transformed into a pond, as the surface puddles reflected the sky and I could see no rock from my low-angled approach. The moment was marred, however, when I walked onto the circle and saw how the wetness brought out the skid marks of recreational enthusiasts who use this spot as a favorite place to demonstrate their prowess at executing doughnuts on their ORVs. (Perhaps it stands for Overpowered Rotational Vermin.)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

You Thought I Said What?

This past week I submitted a report to a client and the front end of it was a lengthy summary of background that I had captured over a couple days with the group, setting the stage for my summary of the issues we wrestled with and my recommendations for how to proceed. This is a normal feature of my reports, and generally clients like what they read under the Findings section. Not this time, however.

I was knocked off stride when this comment came back from the client: “In the history section especially, I am surprised at the information, since I think you must have gotten all or most of it from me, and so many things are quite far off.
Gulp. And this was from someone who liked what I’d done with the group and had no ax to grind—she just didn’t care for how I’d captured her story. I author a lot of reports and edit a lot of minutes (on average, I crank one out about once a week). While there’s no doubt I occasionally miss things, or jumble facts (luckily, most of my work is reviewed by careful eyes and the mistakes are caught early), I can’t recall the last time I got the feedback “most things are quite far off.” What happened? 
The first message was followed by this amplification of how she experienced me in our time together. She reported thinking to herself at the time, “He really doesn't seem to be asking the right question or listening well to facts.” Yikes! And I didn’t even think I was having an off weekend. To be fair, the client also reported that she felt I’d done an excellent job of listening emotionally, so I reckon I got partial credit. As a professional facilitator though, it’s my job to listen carefully to both the story and the feelings. Half a loaf really doesn’t cut it.
Groping for an explanation, it’s not hard to believe that the client and I could disagree about what aspects of a story we thought were important, so it’s relatively easy to picture moments when I wanted to follow a different track than the speaker and that may not have landed well. However, regardless of the strength of my insights about what threads to follow, it can’t have been a good result that the client felt I was missing her. So this is important feedback, albeit embarrassing.
Fortunately, the client has offered to give me specific feedback on the things I botched, so I’ll have a clearer picture about where (and how often) I went off the rails. The exchange is fresh enough that I haven’t received the specifics yet, so my comments today are about receiving critical feedback in general. Even though I know I need it, that doesn’t mean I don’t squirm when I get it. It’s my ego that’s struggling. (And thus I get to be further embarrassed that I’m still so susceptible to the anguish of bruised pride. Why haven’t I evolved to the point where I’m more adept at sidestepping this elemental trap after 60 years? Shit.) 
OK, enough wallowing in it. I’ll devote the remainder of this blog to laying out why taking accurate histories is important. There are a number of reasons:
—It helps the client feel heard, and is often a key step in developing trust with the facilitator. Whenever you’re working a stuck dynamic, the facilitator knows the point is coming when they’ll ask the players to take steps outside their comfort zone, and this request is much less apt to go well if sufficient trust has not yet been established with each protagonist. 
—Knowing the history helps the facilitator see patterns of behavior among the players (such as how they respond under duress and what their trigger points are).  
—Understanding the history reveals what’s at stake for each player and provides important clues about how to weave a solution that holds their truth and their core interests. (Hint: it rarely works to suggest a course of action that requires anyone, from their perspective, to violate a core value, admit to acting with bad intent, or to change their personality.) It’s enormously helpful to understand how each person defines “integrity,” and what signals to them that another is acting outside of it. 
—Histories often reveal the tender spots, where the unresolved hurts occurred. While (fortunately) it’s rarely necessary to visit all the hurts when trying to repair a damaged relationship, it’s probably necessary to visit some of the hurts and it’s important to select one or more that are representatively awful—so that healing achieved there can reasonably be projected as a balm onto the other hurts, affording the players a graceful and honorable way to let go and move on. 
—Finally, histories offer insights into what movement is possible for each player, so that the facilitator can make good choices about what behavior shifts to request—no matter how valuable or sensible a request may seem to others, at the end of the day it will not help a lick if that action is deemed inaccessible (not doable) by the person you’re making the request of. You've got to be real, and histories give you a good idea about you how each person defines reality.