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.)

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