Friday, April 29, 2011

In Service

While I've always meant for service and community to go together, sometimes they're at odds. Sometimes attending to service keeps me away from my community home.

One of the reasons I live in intentional community is that it offers an excellent platform from which to be of service. With shared living, it's possible for some members to take their hands off the wheel (of driving things at home) for stretches of time because there are other members to take their place. Then, when you come back to focusing at home, others can get a break.

Sometimes this means traveling to do things elsewhere; sometimes it means redirecting your attention without even missing a meal at home. Either way, it's uniquely possible in community to free people up for concentrated periods of time, to be of service to needs other than those on the home front. This is an important quality-of-life feature that is precious to me about community living.

This topic is up for me right now because I've paused on my way home from 29 days on the road to honor a last-minute request from a friend to help her prepare for a move. I checked with home (both my community and my wife—which requests are not processed identically) and got the green light to stretch my road trip by an additional three days, spent mostly moving boxes to and from a storage locker and a community donation site.

I'm thankful that I have room in my life to by there for friends in need. Thankful that I don't have 9-5 M-F employment, and therefore the flexibility to shoehorn this detour into an otherwise fully subscribed life. It's good to take a moment to realize that while it's my arms moving the boxes, it's backed up by many arms at home making my good Samaritan act possible.

The friend I was helping does not live in community, though she has in the past and clearly misses the relationships and support that are at the heart of it. Part of my time with her was listening to her talk about:
—Her struggle to fit together the disparate pieces of her life.
—The choices she faces in how to make a living as someone north of 60.
—The calculus she's using in trying to determine where to live.
—Her everyday experiences and observations—something that she doesn't dependably have the chance to share with others.

To be sure, she was looking for a stevedore, yet the listening may have ultimately counted for more. I'd listen and reflect back what I'd heard and what made sense based on our two+ decades of knowing each other. It's what friends do.

And I appreciate that my friend gave the the chance to be there for her these past 72 hours. It's a gift to be needed.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Pause That Refreshes

—Manchmal eine Pause

That's what Coca-cola came up with to export their long standing catch phrase, "the pause that refreshes" into Germany. It literally translates into "sometimes a pause" and is what I want to explore today—when, sometimes, it's a good idea to pause when laboring with a tough issue, rather than keeping your foot mashed on the gas. I got this wrong recently, and I want to share my cautionary tale.

One of the most common complaints about consensus is that it takes too much time. As a group process consultant and professional facilitator, I specialize in up-tempo productive meetings. I've learned a great deal over the years about why groups flounder and what they can do about it. However, occasionally I get in trouble even when I appears everything went fine. Sometimes, I don't pause in the presence of a yellow light.

Recently I facilitated an all-day set of meetings for a group that was exploring a new business venture, and we uncovered a cornucopia of concerns on our way establishing solid footing. In the course of the day we unpacked multifaceted issues, drilled down to root values on the trickiest ones, and then handed off to various committees the assignment of drafting specific language or developing detailed responses that the whole group could review before formally adopting. There is a definite art to knowing how much work to attempt in plenary and when it's more efficient to hand over the wordsmithing and fine-tuning to a team—if you delegate too soon, there's not a firm foundation and the work that comes back is at risk of being overhauled; if you delegate too late, you've squandered plenary time while committees languish. All and all, I felt good about the work we'd done to walk that line.

However, it was more complicated than that (you could make the case that it's always more complicated than that, but that's the subject for a future blog). In addition to the business issues themselves, the consideration was complicated by the presence of unresolved tensions that some community members had with one of the people who was willing to serve on the business management team. Even though he appeared to have the right skill set for the job, there were serious questions about how readily and thoroughly he shared information.

In the evening, when we took time to review the day's work, one member reported feeling we'd moved too quickly in approving the composition of the management group. She needed more progress on the unresolved tensions as a pre-condition for moving forward and hadn't been able to articulate that reservation earlier.

This was a tricky moment for the group. On the one hand, nobody wanted to ram anything down the throat of a questioning member. On the other, people were saddened by the prospect of watching the day's work unravel and losing the buoyant feelings of serious accomplishment that had accompanied it. What to do?

As it happened, the unresolved tensions had already surfaced in the day's conversation, but the would-be member of the management team declined to discuss the tensions in plenary. This was not an across-the-board "no" mind you; it was an I'm-not-willing-to-examine-those-tensions-in-this-setting "no." Having identified that this work was needed and could be done later, we chose to move on. While the person wanting that examination allowed us to continue under those conditions, ultimately she recanted in the evening.

It's instructive to take a moment to break down this dynamic, where we made a poor choice while everyone thought they were acting in the group's best interests:

From the Perspective of the Group
The group mainly wanted to maintain forward momentum on a complex issue.
We weren't ducking anything, yet neither were we insisting. We were on a roll, and people were liking the combination of engagement and accomplishment. It would have been highly awkward to have pulled the emergency cord and asked that the work be suspended until the tensions got addressed.

From the Perspective of the Objector
The person with the reservations wasn't sure enough of her concerns to make that request. She was savvy enough to understand that there would be a cost to asking for a hiatus and she wasn't certain in the moment that she wanted to pay it.

Not everyone processes information and feelings at the same rate, and those differences can get accentuated by the presence of an experienced facilitator, where the pace picks up. It's not that people were being missed—knowing that the objecting woman was sitting on concerns (she was not passive) I was tracking her constantly to see whether she was on board with what we were doing. It was more subtle than that. She had been hesitant to ask that things slow down because she wasn't yet sure of her analysis. Being uncomfortable does not always translate into "go slow," and clarity about what underlay her discomfort didn't emerge sooner than the evening session.

From the Prospective of the Management Candidate
The person who put themselves forward to serve on the management team was willing to discuss the uneasiness with their management style, yet had learned that doing so in plenary was a poor setting for them. It was too excruciating being in the hot seat. So this person asked for an alternative venue. He was taking care of himself and still being responsive. While it may be an open question whether any substantive progress will be made in a clearing session to be held later (prior attempts to mine this issue hadn't produced much gold), I don't have any problem with the request to handle critical feedback in a smaller group setting. You want people to have options.

From the Prospective of the Facilitator (me)
While I'm reasonably satisfied with what I was tracking during the consideration of the business issues, it was also the case that I had been explicitly asked to demonstrate working on distress as an outside facilitator. While I offered to do so when the objector asked for that, I didn't see the potential trap when the management candidate deferred.

What I understand now is that the objector had little faith in the group's ability to work through the conflict (which had proven persistent and resistant to resolution) on their own and was pinning her hopes on what I could do as an outside gun. The timing of the group's work with me was such that it wasn't possible to schedule anything extra with me once we agreed to not work the tensions in plenary, so the choice to work the dynamic later necessarily meant proceeding without me and the objector had little faith in the outcome.

In retrospect, I went too fast when asking the group if it was willing to continue working the business issues while the tensions were on hold. In the dynamic moment, it was hard for anyone to think through the consequences and make the case for stopping without being at risk of escalating the tensions that we had just agreed to not examine. Talk about a pickle!

This was one of those cases where the subject (making delicate decisions about the business) was held hostage to the unresolved tensions, and in my desire to give the group as much product on a tough issue as possible, I drove past the caution flags.

Fortunately, the objector was brave enough to come back to the topic in the evening, as her concerns coalesced into a clearer objection, and the group agreed to place a one-month delay on the day's decisions, to give everyone time to digest the implications, and to give the objector and the candidate the opportunity to have that small-group conversation about their unresolved tensions.

Even though the pause came late, at least this time it didn't come too late.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

When Unwelcome Behavior Meets Unwelcome Advice

I recently had an interesting correspondence with a couple members of a cooperative house. It started with the following email:

I'm trying to find help for my co-op in a difficult situation. Though we have been a cooperative since 1981, we have no agreements or group norms about how to handle situations where guests are behaving badly.

While guests are normally respectful and welcome, on two separate occasions one particular house member—a woman with a serious drinking problem—brought home a young man (different one each time), they drank until drunk, she left them in our common space to sleep, and the guys went into a different woman's room uninvited. In On the first occasion, the man drunkenly tried getting into the woman's bed until she screamed for him to leave, which he did. On the second occasion, the inebriated man opened a mother's door (with her kid sleeping not far away), took off his shirt, put her daughter's shirt on, and climbed into bed with the mother. She screamed and got him out of her room. On both occasions the host woman was passed out drunk.

One of the assaulted women asserted that she wanted to deal with this on her own by talking to the woman who hosted these two men, but unfortunately didn't get around to it. When one of the men came back for a subsequent visit, we confronted him and he denied everything to the point of accusing the mother of lying. On the basis of nothing having been proven about inappropriate behavior, the hosting woman wants to bring him back as a guest.

There are many new members in the house who don't have much experience in cooperative living and have never dealt with these issues before. I am looking for help.

We have sought mediation, but the host woman with the drinking problem never shows up to those meetings. I'd like to stay because the other members are really wonderful, yet I don't feel safe.

I responded as follows:

While I'm learning of this situation only through you, and I know there will be other sides to the story, here is my advice based on the assumption that you have given me an accurate picture of events. This sounds like an awful situation, which essentially boils down to a house member acting inappropriately and the house not dealing with it well.

There are several points to look at:

1. Do you have clear house agreements about members being responsible for the behavior of their guests? And if so, is being drunk, passing out in the common space, and entering people's rooms without permission unacceptable behavior? I'm assuming that's so, but I'm checking (the point being that it's hard to hold people to standards that have never been articulated). There is also an issue of safety here, which I imagine is something that the co-op means to value (whether you have words to that effect or not).

2. All groups, in my opinion, benefit from having an explicit commitment that all members need to offer all other members a channel by which they can offer critical feedback about people's behavior as a member of the group. In addition, I'd add that members be expected to make a good faith effort to work out conflicts in which they are named—even if they don't think there's a problem. It sounds to me that you don't have such agreements and now it's hard to approach the woman with a drinking problem who occasionally brings men with poor judgment home. If you did have such agreements, the hosting woman would be expected to show up at a mediation involving their behavior. Mind you, she wouldn't be compelled to agree with another person's story of what happened, or that she'd need to do something differently, but she would be expected to make a reasonable attempt to work things out. In some groups I know, failure to show up for such attempts could be considered grounds for expulsion—if the pattern is strong enough or the conditions are dire enough.

3. It's my view that even if the woman member with the drinking problem weren't bringing strangers home, there'd be a problem. While a house member's alcohol consumption may generally be a private matter, there's a place where an individual's behavior becomes a group issue, and I'd argue that that line has been crossed and that the group has the right to demand at least moderation in her drinking to the point where she's present when she brings guests home and is willing and able to protect the house from her guests acting inappropriately.

This is a reasonable norm for all house members, and even if the woman believes her guests and not the claims of her housemates about what these men did, I doubt it would be hard to get everyone to agree with the following:
o house members are responsible for guests behaving responsibly
o guests are not to enter private rooms without express permission
o guests should not be in the house if inebriated
o house member safety is paramount; it there's any doubt about what's happening, the guests will promptly be asked to leave and you'll sort it out later

Beyond all this, I'm amazed that this woman with the drinking problem is still there. Have you asked her to leave? If she's not willing to tackle her drinking problem (and see that her behavior when drunk has unacceptable consequences for the rest of the group), I wouldn't want any part of her as a house member.

• • •
When the woman posted the above to her fellow house members, this came back (with my subsequent response to all parties interspersed):

I am a current resident at the co-op in which another member recently wrote to you concerning a problem we are going through.

I would like to discourage you from giving advice to others. I am not currently involved in the situation but as an outsider who has actually met both parties I can assure you that what you received was a very one-sided review.

I am fully aware of having heard from only one person, and that other stories may be substantially different. My advice was based on what might be done if the statements given to me were true, including the following (all of which could be disputed):
o That the woman described has a drinking problem.
o That on at least two occasions men she invited into the house were drunk and the woman went to sleep while the men entered other women's rooms without permission.
o That the the issue was not brought up to the woman with the drinking problem.
o That the group is not clear about what responsibilities house members have for the behavior of their guests.
o That the group has not discussed when an individual's personal behavior (in this case, drinking) becomes a group issue.
o That the group is not clear about how to work interpersonal tensions between members.

To the extent that there is not agreement on the above, then it's entirely appropriate to back up to the point where there is agreement on what's happening and go from there.

The woman who wrote to you is one of the people involved in the disagreement. Your one-sided advice has really "fed the fire" and probably made this already intricate situation worse. You mixed some very sound logic ("Do you have clear house agreements about members being responsible for the behavior of their guests?") with your own inexperienced personal opinion. Like ending the entire letter the wrap up, "I wouldn't want any part of her as a house member."

That would be true for me if I believed that the statements from the original correspondent were true.

Please remember you have never met the woman being labeled as the problem. And you have never met the woman who wrote to you. Taking one's word at face value is dangerous. Look up "straw man." I appreciate your willingness to respond to this matter but would suggest you either leave out personal opinions or just don't advise personal conflicts in the future.

I'll willingly accept your chastisement about not being careful enough to make clear that my advice was based on the version of events that were given to me, and I'll freely admit that I am in no position whatsoever to make a claim as to their veracity. Further, I would be happy to rethink things in light of other viewpoints if I were involved.

However, giving advice in conflicted situations is what I do professionally and I'm not about to stop because someone doesn't like my thinking.
• • •
There has been no further exchange than this and that may be the end of what I hear. Did I do any good? Did I make matters worse? I don't know and I may never know. It is one of the most frustrating aspects of being a group process consultant—I rarely hear what happens afterward.

The one thing I do know, however, is that it can't be right to not talk about it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Do You Buy a Beer or Rent One?

When I first heard this joke (30 years ago?) I thought it was outrageously clever. While I'm able to contain my guffaws over it now, it's nonetheless a good lead in to the compelling topic of renting vis-a-vis owning in intentional community.

• • •
Recently I facilitated six hours of meetings for a group that was exploring the issue of how best to manage renting unsold units. With the national housing market stuck in the doldrums, there are a number of communities who are scratching their collective heads about what to do with empty units—in some cases, a substantial number of empty units. While the idea was to sell them like hotcakes, in reality they've been selling like cold cakes. Which is to say, poorly.

While these units were not built to be rentals, that looks pretty attractive relative to letting them stand idle and having the existing membership all take an extra helping of interest payments.

Rental issues break down into two categories: those that are generic to renting at all; and those that are peculiar to renting a much higher percentage of the community's housing than was ever intended.

Generic Questions About Renting
o Will renters undercut our community's cohesion; to what extent will it lead to revolving-door residency with lukewarm involvement? Can we expect renters to evince the same level of enthusiasm and responsibility for the care and feeding of the community that we ask from owners?

My anecdotal response (based on first-hand reports from dozens of communities) is that if a group does a decent job of making it clear to prospective renters what it means to live in community, then the renters are just as likely to be productive and engaged members of the community as owners.

o Will we screen prospective renters with the same diligence that we do prospective owners, or will it solely be at the discretion of the owner?

While there almost certainly needs to be a streamlined process for evaluating renters
(if a person wants to rent month-to-month, how can you justify a three-month courtship?), I think you'll be happier if you make the way you assess renters mirror the process used for owners as far as practicable.

o Will we extend membership rights to renters in the same way that we do buyers? If the rights of these two subgroups are not the same, in what ways will they be different?

I think the answer here should be yes (two classes of residents is a tough sell in a group committed to flat hierarchy and everyone having a say). In general, it works fine to extend to renters all the rights of membership, perhaps excluding only the right to block proposals involving long-term financial implications.

o In what ways will owners be responsible for backstopping the compliance of people who rent from them?

It tends to work well if the community is actively involved in the selection of renters, and expects the owner to be a "co-signer" on the membership agreement with the renter, such that the owner is expected to get involved in problem solving if there are issues with the renter as a member.

Additional Questions When Renting a High Percentage of Units
o At what point might the community be at risk of losing its core commitment if the dynamism of the owners is diluted in a seas of transients?

This is a nuance question and not easy to assess. The more cohesive the owners are, the more resilience you'll have regarding renters. Think pro-active.

o If the units are owned by the community, is the group better off self-managing the rentals, or hiring a management company?

Critical here is an assessment of whether the current membership has among it the skills, availability, and motivation to tackle this job—which will necessarily include jawboning with renters who start coloring outside the lines (falling behind in rent, skipping work assignments, getting too creative with how they "decorate" the wall, etc).

On the one hand, the community wants to screen propsectives for a good fit with the community, while a management company will be solely looking for warm bodies who can cough up rent payments. Further, the management company will almost certainly cost more dollars than what the community would compensate members to manage the rentals. There are essentially two reasons to select a management company: the skills set isn't present amongst available members, or no one with the skills has the time.

o How will you navigate the potentially tricky dynamic of simultaneously being peers (where all residents have an equal say on some issues, such as problems getting the common house cleaned or kids' scooters being left in the parking lot) and being landlord/tenant (where rights and responsibilities are paired, yet demonstrably unequal)? How can you be suitably firm with a renter who's behind in payments and then turn around and ask for their help in resolving tensions with a neighbor whose dog barks too much?

While tricky, this is not insurmountable. It requires clarity about how the relationship shifts as the circumstances change.

• • •
One of the most interesting aspects of cooperative problem solving is how to balance values that inadvertently are in tension on a given issue. Let me describe three pairs that come up in connection with the issue of renting.

Prudence Versus Trust
If the group is going to play an active role in screening prospective renters, how much information are you going to request about that person's background? On the one hand, you'd like to know if there are danger signs regarding a person' financial stability, health (both mental and physical), and perhaps their criminal record. On the other hand, you'd like to develop a trusting relationship and how might that intention be compromised by posing all these queries?

In essence, where is the middle ground around between not being naive and not being fear-based. This is not a trivial question.

Transparency Versus Discretion
One you start gathering information about a prospective member, to what extent should that information be shared with other members? How does your answer vary depending on what the information is? What's an invasion of privacy? What's appropriate information to pass along so that people can make an informed decision about risk? Do anyone promise you that community living was going to be straight forward?

Class Versus Diversity
Most groups have a core commitment to embracing diversity, but that doesn't mean without limits. If you allow renters that often translates into accepting people with less income or savings, and that often means people from a different socio-economic class. In turn, this often means people with a different upbringing and a different way of working with information and problem solving. Are you ready for that?

• • •
While I'm a big fan of renting, and I'm also a big fan of going down that road with your eyes open. While selecting renters is almost always more challenging than selecting what beer to drink, they'll both lead to a marked increase in pissing dynamics if you're not careful.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Rolling South

I'm typing from the upper deck of the southbound Coast Starlight, as we pull out of Portland (on a precious clear and sunny day!) to wend our way up the Willamette Valley. Eventually we'll snake through the Siskiyous and the substantial snow banks lingering in the passes leading to Chemult and Klamath Falls. (Yes, deep snow persists there into the second half of April and beyond.) In the dark, we'll begin our long descent into northern California, rumbling past Mt Shasta‚ which will literally be in view for hours—the mountain is that large and that isolated. In the pre-dawn, we'll chug into Sacramento in time to catch the early morning commuters. From there it's less than two hours to Emeryville and my first latte. If we're on time, I can get picked up before my host's 9 am yoga class.

I'll be in town for exactly one week, during which I'll visit with perhaps a half dozen friends, buttonhole potential sponsors for the FIC Art of Community weekend Sept 21-13 in Occidental, author some reports, attend a seder, soak in a hot tub or two, and launch Weekend I of the northern California version of my two-year course in Integrative Facilitation. It promises to be a full week.

Among other things, I'm looking forward to getting around the East Bay on foot, which is a terrific antidote to the sedentary life of a meeting junkie (and inveterate report writer). While I'm likely to rely on a car to get to and from the train station, there's a decent chance it'll all be BART and shoe leather in between. Yippee!

After a week of immersion in the perpetual spring of Berkeley, the following Monday I head for the barn, courtesy of two days on the eastbound California Zephyr. After 29 days on the road it'll be good to sleep in my own bed.

I left home in the cold mud of March and will return to the vibrant green of a countryside right on the cusp of summer. I will be returning just in time for morels and bluebells. Double yippee!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Any Portland in the Storm

I attended a gathering last night of intentional communities in the Portland OR area. Representatives of nine groups met for three hours over dinner and dessert to discuss ways to parlay the various beachheads of cooperation they've established at home into more robust options for the entire city. It's a cool model. Cooperative terra forming.

Like a lot of the US, Portlanders have been trying to weather the current recession, and the communities reported various struggles (as well as various successes). They came in the hope of seeing how the boundaries of cooperation could be extended out another ring, and how they could help each through hard times.

The FIC has talked about regional networks for years, trying to figure out how to promote them and support them without trying to steer them or control them. We're convinced that networks don't thrive unless driven by grass roots energy, which, by definition, a continental organization is not going to be able to supply. We can midwife networks, but not birth them.

How can we effectively encourage regional networks and then resist the temptation to cherry pick their best people in an effort to enhance the Fellowship—which also needs to grow? It's delicate.

While last night's meeting was all about planting seeds. The meeting itself was the germination of something first sown 11 months ago, when Board member Tony Sirna, Communities Editor Chris Roth, and I spent half a day visiting Cedar Moon (a community of 18 adults plus kids embedded in
Tryon Life Community Farm, an educational project on the edge of town). This chance meeting immediately followed the FIC's spring organizational meetings—held at Daybreak Cohousing in Portland last May. Our hosts that day were Brush & Jenny, and in the course of our conversation about shoes and ships and sealing wax, we touched on the idea of those two dynamos putting out a call for a regional network of Portland communities, with FIC serving in the capacity of cheerleader and resource (we could, perhaps, occasionally supply out-of-town cabbages and networking kings).

I promised to remind Brush & Jenny of our May conversation whenever I'd next be in the area. My first chance was last December (when I returned to deliver process consulting to Daybreak as part of FIC's barter in exchange for meeting space and room accommodations at the organizational meetings), but Brush was in Ireland and the timing was off. Undaunted, I tried again when Trillium Hollow hired me to work with them the weekend of April 9-10. This time we clicked, and the April 13 soiree ensued. All I had to do was show up.

Like most hopeful starts, it's hard to say what will have legs. I thought Brush & Jenny did an excellent job of facilitating the conversation (making sure everyone spoke and the conversation was a balance of inspirational and practical), yet much will depend on who is inspired sufficiently to pursue any of the various ideas that were generated—website development, skills exchange, social events, cross-community facilitation guild, bulk buying, pooled insurance, joint marketing, car sharing, etc. I offered that FIC would be happy to offer our event-in-a-box package to support a Portland area community gathering (if that was desired and we were given sufficient lead time).

Toward the end of the evening, I added a cautionary note based on my three decades of community networking: it will make a enormous difference if they can find a way to compensate one or two people to be coordinators or administrators of the network's efforts. In my experience, if you rely solely on the dedication and goodwill of volunteers and groups to make use of fledgling connections and to keep information updated, it doesn't work that well. People are busy and work at home tends to trump opportunities and hopes that are out of sight. While you don't have to pay someone enough to send their kids to college, it needs to be a living wage if you want a significant fraction of that person's vital life force devoted to the cause.

While no decisions were made about that last night, they seemed to take this suggestion seriously. I'll be on the email list arising from this get together, yet have made no commitments to doing anything (excepting things like writing about what happened and responding if I'm asked for FIC's assistance). While the Fellowship can be relied upon to provide some second-hand clothes and moral encouragement, the baby will essentially have to grow up on local milk.

It'll be fun to see what develops.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Changing Stories

A good percentage of my work as a group process consultant entails helping a group get past some stuck dynamics. In these situations it's relatively common that there are stories about how one or more people in the group are essentially horns that only play one note.

That is, these people are identified with a certain position and the story in the group is that whenever this person contributes to the conversation it is solely to sound their one note (again and again). Mind you, that is not the story that these people have about themselves—while they probably will agree that they care deeply about the thing that everyone associates with them, their story will be that they also care about other things and the group distorts who they fully are.

While occasionally the position between taken by the individual is off the wall (insisting that all committees be staffed by seven-foot people with purple hair and a nose ring), most commonly the position (or the values underneath it) are perfectly legitimate, and that's what I'll be assuming for this essay. That is, the problem is not that the viewpoint is inappropriate, it's the obstinacy with which it's represented.

What's Going On?
This is almost always a systems issue, where everyone is playing a part. Typically, the person who is labeled as a one-trick pony contributes by coming across as a broken record. Worried that the thing they care so passionately about will not get its proper consideration, they insist on inserting the same comment (more or less) into any discussion where it might be remotely relevant.

While this may not literally be the only thing they add to group considerations, it might be the thing they do that's most noticeable (and irritating) and gradually two things happen: a) the rest of the group stops listening (they've heard it before); and b) the rest of the group develops a sense of despair that this person will ever manifest nuance in what they say or the ability to work constructively with alternate views.

Before long, this person gets pigeonholed and marginalized. People start thinking about how this person can be managed rather than how to include them in problem solving.

While the person may not even feel their position as strongly as they state it, they identify themselves as the champion of that viewpoint and a role they believe they must fill for the good of the group. In the extreme, this can take on the quality of a sacred trust, where their delivery comes across as messianic. While the person almost certainly is aware of the group's weariness at hearing yet another statement of their grooved admonition, they are curiously reinforced in their isolation, feeling it's their cross to bear. They are willing to pay the price of their isolation because they care that much about the values underlying their position (and the more people seem to resist hearing from them, the more doggedly they persist). In their eyes the group is constantly at risk of making a serious error in undervaluing the thing they care about, and their speaking up is meant to protect the group from that folly—even if the group doesn't fully grok how dangerously they're proceeding. They view themselves as misunderstood prophets.

Going the other way, the rest of the group—almost to a person—reports that they are fully aware of the one-issue person's viewpoint (you'd have to be deaf and blind to have missed it), yet are frustrated with this pattern for two reasons. First, the person does not seem to be able to digest that the rest the group has heard them (or they'd have ceased beating everyone other the head with their litany), and second, they do not seem to be able to bridge with differing viewpoints—they are perceived to be adamant about everyone coming to them. That is, they come off as non-collaborative, or uncooperative. As you might imagine, this is a particular sore point in cooperative groups (which is exclusively where I ply my craft).

When asked about this, the person will typically respond in one of two ways. Either they express fear that if they soften their language and become more malleable that this will encourage people to move further away from the position they care about so much (that is, it will be a tactical error), or they express surprise that they are viewed that way (it's not the story they have about themselves).

Most importantly, the rest of the group will tend to an analysis that the pigeonholed person is wholly responsibility for this dynamic. That is, the group will not see how they have actively contributed to this dynamic—how, in fact, they have placed this person in a box and won't let them out, all the while complaining about that person's unchanging behavior.

The Way Out
The good news is that if you recognize that you are in this pattern and have the will to discuss it, it can be reversed. Here's what I advise:

For the individual, they need to look for opportunities to make public comments that bridge to other people's statements that are not wholly in line with their cause
célèbre. While I'm not suggesting that this person do anything out of integrity or betray their core values, it will behoove them to demonstrate publicly that they can see beyond their own issue and can work collaboratively. The individual needs to let go of the story that no one else gets it about their concern and to trust the group will not run them over if they're not constantly sounding their clarion call. Even if they're suspicious that this might not be the case, they need to test the waters.

For the group, it needs to look for opportunities to honor out-of-the-box statements from the pigeonholed individual, recognizing the breadth and caring that represents. It needs to let go of the story that the individual will always and only offer the same old input, and listen for nuance. The rest of the group needs to build bridges to the isolated individual, inviting that person join in the collaborative effort to solve problems.

Stories are perhaps the oldest form of social interaction; they're oldest human method for transmitting culture and information. They simultaneously have the potential to reinforce and limit; or to inspire and edify. The story I have about stories is that they are powerful and can be wonderful, confusing, innocuous, destructive, or all of the above. In groups, they work best when people are intentional about which stories they encourage to flourish. They work best when the stories celebrate compassion and reinforce relationships, rather than isolation and judgment.

For by their tales shall ye know them.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Sunshine in Portland

I've got sunshine on a cloudy day.
When it's cold outside I've got the month of May.
—the opening two lines of the Motown classic "My Girl" by Smokey Robinson

Back in 1984 I made a trek to southeastern Alaska. Mostly I was stayed with friends and explored the area in and around in Juneau, which is smack in the midst of a temperate rain forest. They average about 55 inches of rain annually and it was a dance finding sunny days sprinkled in amongst the liquid sunshine.

As impressive as that was, however, just a little bit down the coast is the town of Ketchikan, where it really rains. They average a whopping 150 inches of precipitation—nearly half an inch a day. There is a mountain overlooking the town and the locals say that if you can see the top, then it's just about to rain; if you can't see the peak, it's raining.

• • •
Twenty-seven years later. I'm in Portland OR, where I'll be working for the next 10 days with a trio of communities: Trillium Hollow, Columbia Ecovillage, and Daybreak. While the City of Roses has a reputation for rainy days, they don't get nearly as much accumulation as Juneau—Portland averages only 37 inches a year. Mostly they get mist and drizzle. Still, that adds up to a lot of cloud cover. Because most of their rain comes in the stretch November-February and then tapers off gradually in the spring, the natives are relatively starved for sunshine by April.

When I arrived yesterday, the skies were partly sunny. Today was even better: mostly sunny. Understandably, people wanted to be outside, or at least within sight of the sunshine. The past two days I've had about 12 hours of one-on-one (or one-on-two) conversations to get background for the plenary work I'll be doing with the whole community Saturday and Sunday. While no on blew off a date with me to play outdoors, people would position themselves so that they could look out a window.

Metaphorically, my job as a process consultant is to help bring sunshine into places where there's been a lot of rain, so this is all fitting together nicely. While it's tempting to play up the idea that I deserve partial credit for the upbeat change in the Portland weather ("Notice how the sun came out as soon as I arrived?"), I'll content myself with focusing on the weather we create inside the meeting room this weekend. If we can successfully navigate some stormy dynamics, people may not even notice the rain that's been forecast for the weekend.

When I was asked how I wanted the meeting room set up, I told my hosts that I wanted to be on the side of away from the windows, so that I wouldn't have to compete with the outdoor vistas for the community members' attention. While I'm fairly confident that I can be more stimulating than a steady drizzle, why take the chance?

Among other things, Trillium has asked me to demonstrate how to work authentically and constructively with conflict. They got some frozen dynamics in the group and my job, to paraphrase Smokey Robinson, is when it's cold inside to be the month of May. Even though it's only April, I'm up for the challenge.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Remembrances of Making Hay

One of Sandhill's long-time neighbors, Joe Neese, died March 31, succumbing to cancer at 87. I had written a eulogy for Emery Clark just nine days ago, and here it is already time for another. Yikes. I can only hope this is not one of those comes-in-threes kind of things.

Joe was both more social and more liberal than most of our neighbors, which led to his coming by more often to see how we were faring. In the first 10-15 years of Sandhill's existence, Joe was probably the neighbor that most took advantage of Sandhill's availability to provide short-term farm labor. In the summer we'd help bring in the hay…

As I type this, I can immediately image myself riding a wagon hitched behind his John Deere square baler. In the 90-degree days of June (perfect for making hay) I'd be wearing longsleeves (to protect my forearms from getting scratched by the grass stubble) and sweating profusely as I kept pace stacking bales of orchard grass & clover as quickly as they ka-chunked out of the chute. (I loved the geometric challenge of dense-packing about 70 square bales on a moving wagon such that they'd make it all the back to the barn without falling off.)

There was often a crew from Sandhill hired to haul the loaded wagons to the barn, where we'd pack hay to the roof joists. If we got ahead—and Joe & his wife Jacquelyn were out of sight—the crew might sneak off briefly to one his farm ponds and skinny dip in an attempt to wash off the dust and lower our core temperature to something below a simmer.

In the winter we'd help cut wood…

Joe had a monster wood-fired furnace in his basement that could burn four-foot chunks. Once or twice each winter, he'd gather a crew to help transform a pile of freshly cut logs into firewood, using a buzz saw powered by the flat belt pulley on a tractor. Sandhill would often supply a portion of the crew. Typically, there would be two pairs who would alternately manhandle poles up to position at the saw, where the wood would rest on a hinged table that could be pushed into the whirring blade. In addition to the sawyer (who would determine the rate of feed by how hard they pushed the table into the saw), another pair would catch and stack the firewood as it was cut.

I had the feeling at the time that these were the remnants of a dying culture, where farm neighbors came together to help each other out. Today, it's all about relying on technology to do the work of many, and farmers tend to ply their craft in isolation. I have strong doubts about how good this is from a quality-of-life perspective, and it's one of the main reasons Sandhill continues to harvest its sorghum by hand—to preserve the camaraderie of many hands working the land together.

• • •
Though other neighbors teased Joe about having a gloom-and-doom pessimism (about politics, the weather, and farm prices), he enjoyed life and always had a kind word to say about family and friends. That said, his spirit took a major blow when Jacquelyn passed away in 2002. Though he lived another nine years, I never had the sense that "batching it" suited him.

When we first moved to Rutledge in 1974, almost everyone called Joe "Junior." He had been named after his father and that made it easier for everyone to sort of who was being referenced when the two were both alive. However, as a group of 20-somethings we never met Joe, Senior, and it was uphill referring to a 51-year-old neighbor as "Junior"—and it didn't get any easier as time went by and Joe's hair grew thinner and grayer. Stubbornly, we persisted with calling him "Joe" and gradually, as memories of Joe, Senior faded, that's what others tended to called him as well.

Never quite trusting the vagaries of the weather, Joe's main cash crop was raising pure-bred Angus bulls. As the topography of northeast Missouri is mainly rolling hills, the land is better suited to grass than row crops, and it's terrific country for cow-calf operations (raising steers and heifers from birth to weaning). There is a steadier market for beef than for corn, and Joe was successful enough at raising bulls that he was able to increase his land holdings over the decades. A highlight of Joe's farming life occurred in the mid-80s when his son, Bob (there would be no Joe III), returned from doing missionary work in South Africa, built a house next door, and started farming with his father.

Just as he did with his father before him, Bob continues where Joe left off. Maybe Bob will stop by Sandhill one day and share with us why he's bearish about bulls—then we'll know he's his father's son and the circle will be complete.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Going to the Dogs

When I come to Las Vegas I rarely spend time on the Strip, but last night was an exception. I had a lovely evening with my son Ceilee, my daughter Jo, and her partner Peter. We started with a three-hour sake tasting at the Mirage (150 varieties!), and followed that up with a nostalgic visit to the Sahara, where we played some blackjack and roulette until midnight and my kids each pocketed a souvenir chip when it was time to cash out. The Sahara is one of the grand old ladies of the Strip (it opened in 1952), but the owners announced last month that they plan to close this icon May 16. We decided to pay homage to this classic casino whose time was coming to an end.

For a Vegas casino, 59 years old is ancient—not for its patrons, mind you, but for a business operating in the land of hype, where show-me-what's new is king and they overhaul the landscape of the Strip about as often as strippers change outfits (and with a similar degree of subtlety). The Sahara goes all the way back to the prime of Louie Prima & Keely Smith.

Sadly though, the glory days of the Sahara are long gone. There are many newer, glitzier hotels and casinos and the epicenter of the action has moved further south down Las Vegas Blvd. The Sahara had become a dog of a casino, and it couldn't survive the current recession.

Man's Best Friend
While many people who visit Vegas may consider casinos their best friend, I'm more of a traditionalist: I like dogs. Sitting next to me as I type is Zeus, a pit bull/boxer mix that Ceilee brought with him from Missouri when he and Tosca moved to the desert back in 2007. Occasionally he gets bored with my pecking away at the keyboard and suggests we go for a walk by placing his considerable muzzle on my thigh and staring at me hopefully (and when doesn't work he starts licking my ear).

Though I thoroughly enjoy my occasional forays to the Strip with Ceilee and Jo, the truth is that I happily spend way more of my time in town petting and roughhousing with my three granddogs (in addition to Zeus, Jo & Peter have two dogs: Yoshi and Zelda). When I stay at Ceilee's, Zeus is my regular companion. When I stay at Jo's, then I'm sitting on the couch next to Yoshi or Zelda.

[I can't help inserting here my fascination with these dogs' names. It isn't very often that you encounter a set of three arbitrarily named things and the one closest to the beginning of the alphabet starts with "Y."]

Growing up, my family always had a dog. In the years I lived at home there were only two. First Clipper, a Shetland Sheepdog (a kind of collie who left tufts of hair all over the furniture); then Beauregard, a Springer Spaniel (who was forever salivating on the windows looking onto the backyard, as he stared longingly at the birds and squirrels trespassing on "his" territory). In addition to their shared breed alliteration, these were both medium-sized dogs that lived more than 12 years, and were both well loved by the family. They were also dogs that had been bred for a particular purpose—herding sheep and fetching birds—that was spectacularly irrelevant to our suburban lifestyle.

It wasn't long after we started Sandhill Farm (back in 1974) that we had our first dog: Rochester. He was just a mutt that showed up one day and never left. He lived with us about 10 years (until the day that Mallie Phillips accidentally hit him with a pickup and Rochester died in my arms with a broken back). Though Rochester was essentially on outdoor dog, Annie would get me out of bed but letting Rochester into the house first thing in the morning. He'd race into the bedroom, jump onto the bed, and lick my face until I couldn't stop laughing.

While Rochester was the dog in my life that I bonded with most, we've had many dogs at Sandhill over the years. Mostly they're just pets, yet they help deter deer and rabbits from predating on our garden and that's a true benefit. It's wonderful that we can give our dogs so much room to roam (in sharp contrast with the 100-foot long fenced backyard that was all that was available to Clipper and Beauregard). The one strict behavior rule we have with our dogs is that they can't stay if they chase chickens.

Sandhill's current resident canines are Sammy and Biscuit, and they are loved just as much as their predecessors, though they have bonded more with other members than with me. I'm just on the road too much these days and the dogs that are closest to my heart today are the three I'm visiting this week in Las Vegas. Thus, whenever I make plans to come out here, it's not just to see my kids and my granddaughter—I am going to the dogs!