Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Living School

Today was the wrap-up for a three-day facilitation training (Weekend V in the Mid-Atlantic States). Nine students facilitated 10 hours of meetings for the School of Living in the context of their Board's quarterly gathering. The class did seven hours of committee meetings, leading up to a three-hour Board meeting that served as a finale. In addition to getting our work in, it was fun getting more familiar with and assisting a venerable nonprofit dedicated to social change and sustainability.

Inspired by the writing and thinking of Ralph Borsodi, the School of Living (SoL) has been around since 1934
as "an educational organization dedicated to learning and teaching the philosophy, practices and principles of living that are self-empowering for individuals within the general aim of establishing decentralized, ecologically-sound, self-governed and humane communities. All its resources, but most specifically the land it holds in trust, are held in responsible stewardship for present and future generations." It holds property in trust in PA, MD, and VA—most of which have intentional communities sited on them.

When an organization is 77 years old, it means they have gone through a generational transition more than once. Thus, when we spent time in the final hour discussing the phenomenon of burnout and too few attempting to do too much, it not only had a familiar ring (who do you know who cannot relate to this issue on a personal level?), you knew that the organization had been in this conversation before. And yet, here they still were. Impressive.

• • •
The facilitation training is comprised of eight three-day weekends, spaced approximately three months apart. This pacing works in two ways: a) it's not easy for busy people to carve out three-day weekends more frequently that once every quarter; and b) the time between is fertile, allowing for percolation and digestion of the nutrient-rich weekends—when students have chances to apply what they've been learning they find out more precisely what they've integrated and where they need more practice.

There are two things that are special about this facilitation training and it occurred to me how these features are concordant with a school that is focused on living, or at least live learning. First, the teaching is rooted in community and the eight weekends are constructed with the purposeful idea of the class itself bonding as a community. That is, we expressly immerse ourselves—students and instructors together—into a milieu of intensity and complexity, where we are striving to get better and better at understanding accurately what is going on both around us and within us, for the purpose of being able to deliver energy, ideas, and focus that facilitate connection and problem solving.

I am convinced that the learning proceeds more deeply and enthusiastically when the class becomes a living organism, that holds and nurtures each individual on his or her journey of discovery and accomplishment.

Second, the pedagogical orientation is slanted heavily toward teaching the moment—where the bulk of each weekend is preparing for, delivering, and debriefing live meetings for the host group. On the one hand there isn't much preparation that the trainers can do for each weekend; on the other, we need to be "on" all the time, because we never know what will happen. We try to teach students how to sensitively and thoroughly prepare for a meeting, and then be willing to scrap the plan in light of developing dynamics as the meeting unfolds.

While there's no doubt that the trainers' experience comes into play (we acquire pattern recognition that's enormously helpful in quickly diagnosing what's happening and what responses or approaches are most apt to be beneficial—or at least benign), we're all in it together and the relationship of our careful preparations to the reality can be wildly divergent. Good facilitation often requires the ability to off road, and teaching moments pop up in the most unexpected places. This is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. However you slice it though, it's education that's based on being alive.
• • •
Midway through the weekend, one SoL Board member came up to me during a break and asked for more information about the training. I explained how it was two-year program, and she was impressed with the dedication that took. When I further related that I had completed the course four times already and was midway through three others, she paused and looked at me with a confused expression and delicately inquired, "Is it so difficult to learn that you have to take the course that many times?"

After a pause to figure out what was going on, I replied, "I'm the trainer."

"Oh," she said, "I'd wondered why you were sitting in the back of the room and interrupting so much."

Sigh. Even when you've been thoroughly diligent about filling the trough with water, there's no guarantee that all of the horses will drink.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Art of Presenting

As a process consultant, I spend a lot of time practicing the craft of facilitation—either as a hired gun, or as a teacher. Essentially, facilitation is about how to run dynamic, effective meetings where the practitioner is all about the how and as little attached to the what as you can get.

In the interest of safeguarding content neutrality, I believe it's advisable for the facilitator to steer as clear as possible from the role of presenter—the person introducing the topic to the group. Caution: Please don't commingle these roles under the mistaken belief that it will speed things up. If someone has a reaction to how you present, regardless of how clean a job you think you're doing, that can hole your boat of neutrality before you've even gotten out of the harbor. It's not worth the risk.

While I've written gobs about the role of the facilitator, a student recently pointed out to me that it would also be valuable to have guidance about the role of the presenter. What a good idea! Here is my thinking about the qualities wanted in presenters:

o Ability to tell the story clearly
You want someone who can lay out the information in an orderly way, that everyone can follow. The better this is accomplished, the less time will be spent on clarifying questions—because everyone got it the first time and nothing important was omitted.

o Ability to tell the story concisely
This is about accomplishing the above without rambling sentences, extraneous jaunts down side alleys, or extra tickets for the merry-go-round. There's a great Mark Twain quote that applies here: "I apologize for the length of this letter, but I didn't have the time to write it short."

o Ability to project adequately for the audience
Your tight presentation may be wasted if you mumble or can't be heard in the back of the room. While this isn't a high bar in a group of six, it can be a serious concern in a group of 60. Make sure that your presenter has the voice for the job, even if that means a stout PA system.

o Flexibility to field questions and not get flustered by reactivity
While not strictly necessary (you could have one person present, and another handle queries), you generally want someone comfortable enough with the topic and sufficiently at ease in front of the group to be able to roll with the unexpected—including someone in the audience getting reactive to what's presented. Nobody needs a floor fight before you've even started doing any heavy lifting.

o OK to tell the story with passion
It's fine if the presenter gets into their presentation. While it's not helpful if the presenter loses track of the audience and takes off on a solo flight to Never Never Land, I'd rather attend a revival meeting than a wake.

o OK to be a stakeholder
While neutrality is essential in your facilitator, I have no problem with a presenter who's a cheerleader for butter side up—just don't try to hide it. In fact, it's probable that the presenter will be a stakeholder, as people who know the full story are seldom disinterested. Caution: Allowing permission to have a preference about the outcome should not be interpreted as a license to be sarcastic or inflammatory about viewpoints that vary from the speaker's. A good presenter is filling the trough with water for all the horses, not poisoning the well.

o Can work with the facilitator
Good meeting prep typically requires that the presenter huddle with the facilitator in a collegial way to provide objectives, background, and anticipated pitfalls. If the two don't talk, missteps and inefficiencies are likely to result. In the worst case, bad blood between the two can sabotage the meeting with open hostility.

o Has the time to prep for the presentation
Good presentations are not born, they are raised. They require thought and effort to put together, and care should be given to selecting someone who can carve out that time.

o Understands what materials will help people have a great meeting
There are two parts to this: a) what should be supplied to folks ahead of the meeting (to do advanced thinking); and b) what should be prepared in the way of flip chart pages that serve as a road map or reminder of what we're looking at and in what sequence. Note: This is not solely about text—the right graphics can be enormously helpful here.

o Knows when to sit down
… and let the facilitator run the meeting. In groups where the separation between presenter and facilitator is not clearly drawn, a strong (and well-intentioned) presenter can take over a meeting. And a passive facilitator might let them! While this is not automatically a train wreck, it might be. Especially if the presenter is charismatic, funny, and wants to steer the boat in a certain direction. When I'm facilitating I ask the presenter (politely, yet firmly) to take a seat as soon as we're done with clarifying questions.

o Understands what's plenary worthy
This is about focusing the presentation on the aspects of the issue that are appropriate to be dealt with in this meeting. Part of that is taking into account where the group is at on its journey with that issue; part of that is knowing what's expected from that group. With the help of the facilitator, the presenter's introduction to the topic can proceed much more smoothly (and productively) if the presentation is geared toward pointing the group in the right direction (not about what to decide; about where to focus its attention). [For more on plenary worthy see my blog of xx]

• • •
If I ran the circus (it's uncanny how often meetings resemble a trip to the Big Top), presenters would have all of this in mind when getting ready for their 10 minutes of fame in front of the microphone. And you thought presenters were just standing up there making shit up...

Monday, May 23, 2011


Despite Harold Camping's prediction, the world did not end Saturday.

I'm not going to say I'm surprised by that, yet I did experience a surprisingly delightful five days in Chicago, that culminated in an up-tempo Christian rock crescendo Saturday evening, orchestrated by a band called The Crossing—roughly in the vicinity of when Camping predicted the Rapture was due. It was an interesting juxtaposition.

While the California evangelist was reported in the Sunday Chicago Tribune to have been "flabbergasted" by a decidedly Rapture-less Saturday (it was the second time Camping's calculations failed, having first misfired with a prediction that Jesus would return in 1994), today I want to write about my having found a less splashy, yet more profound (and hopeful) group inspired by the presence of Jesus. Instead of Camping's fire and brimstone, my attention was drawn to the hospitality and humility of our hosts: Jesus People USA—a 400-person income-sharing community on the north side of Chicago.

While this 39-year-old group is clearly grounded in evangelical Christian beliefs, that doesn't mean they aren't also dedicated to civility and kindness, and helping to make the here and now a better place. We FIC folks had chances over the course of our five days together to talk with dozens of members in a variety of settings. To a person, they were unfailingly warm and courteous. Often they were curious as well (wanting to hear our stories, and readily willing to share theirs whenever we expressed interest). The thing they were not was righteous or rigid.

As a community networker, I often encounter people (even whole groups) who are so excited about what they're doing (and so convinced that they have answers to the important questions of the day) that dialog with them is mostly about girding one's loin to withstand an encounter with heavy proselytizing. It's not seen as an opportunity for conversation so much as an opportunity for conversion. As someone who gets increasingly tired of being "saved" (without having put out an RFP), I went into last week's stay at JPUSA with some trepidation. While missionary zeal is by no means confined to religious groups (I've struggled every bit as much with the righteousness of eco-fascists), evangelical religious groups have a reputation for specializing in it (remember the insistent saffron-robed Hare Krishna's at airports in decades past?) and I was guarded—perhaps more than I knew.
As it turned out, however, I needn't have worried.

JPUSA folks have an abiding commitment to doing good in the world. Mostly this shows up by running a homeless shelter and offering about 80-90 seniors (some of whom used to be homeless) a comfortable and affordable place to stay on the top three floors of their 10-story building at 620 W Wilson. They've bought and sold several pieces of property over the years; mostly for a gain, but sometimes for a loss. Not everything they've touched has turned to gold.

Since 1984 they've produced Cornerstone, a five-day Christian music festival, held each year the first week of July, on JPUSA property in western Illinois. Tens of thousands attend this gala event each year yet it's only made a profit three years out of 27. While an artistic and spiritual success, its been a financial quagmire. Oh well.

Over their nearly four decades together, they've learned to take people as they are, and to be open to the mystery of faith arriving in a wide variety of packages. There's everything from Goth to bikers; from push-up bras to push carts. Their members are both joyous and tolerant. While they take their mission and their faith seriously, they don't take themselves too seriously. In short, their approach to life was every bit as fresh as the May breezes off nearby Lake Michigan.

• • •
In addition to being inspirational (both for us FIC folks and for the 30+ people who were more attracted to community than Camping and happily attended the Saturday event) the weekend had its amusing moments. One event participant (who arrived from out of town midday) had to pass through a gauntlet of folks vigorously hawking Rapture t-shirts in downtown Chicago en route to our Art of Community Day. Walking to the beach Sunday morning for a bit of communing with Lake Michigan before heading back to Missouri, I pulled a 4-color Rapture postcard from underneath the windshield wiper on my car (if the prophesy had come true, I'd have gotten the memo too late). There's something quintessentially American about attempts to merchandize the End of the World (where the ushers come across more as profit raptors than as prophets for the Rapture).

Riding the elevator to the FIC's quarters Saturday morning after breakfast, one senior resident casually inquired of (FIC Board member) Marty Klaif and me if we had plans for the day ahead of Camping's 6 pm hard deadline. We asked in reply if the end varied by time zone, and were informed that it was a Rolling Rapture—6 pm wherever you were. This brief exchange put fresh zest into the normally casual admonition to "have a nice day." This jaunty exchange of elevator repartee put Marty and me in good spirits. What better way to go out than by mingling with people hungering for more community in their lives—and with people who can laugh!

As the JPUSA band The Crossing (one of several bands in the community) set up for their end of show gig (not to be confused with an End of the World performance) they joked easily among themselves—"Hey man, I know they're going to take you, so leave your wallet."

I figure there are far worse things that could happen to a person then being "left behind" at JPUSA—with or without a wallet.

Friday, May 20, 2011

60% Chance of Participation

Back in the fall of 1975, the second year we were at Sandhill Farm, Annie and I spent a couple weeks helping a local couple in their 70s (Jo Pearl & Eva Grover) harvest and process their sorghum crop. A big day for them—with our volunteer help—was seven gallons of finished syrup. (In contrast, 35 years later, we crank out about 75 gallons of syrup on an average cooking day at Sandhill.) Helping the Grovers that fall was how we first got interested in sorghum and we parlayed that modest beginning into our main agricultural cash crop.

One of the endearing things about Eva was her
idiosyncratic tendency toward malapropisms. For example, when it looked like rain, she might report that, "There was a strong chance of participation." Though Eva was often saying something different than she meant, I am reminded tonight that even her accidents might come round to serve...

• • •
The Fellowship for Intentional Community is hosting an Art of Community Day in Chicago tomorrow at the main facilities of Jesus People USA at 920 W Wilson Ave on the north side. According to the forecast there's a 60% chance of rain. There's also a 60% chance that we'll have more than 30 people arriving with a hunger for how to get more community in their life. I live for such days.

(If you read this in time and are casting about for something interesting to do on a rainy day in the Windy City, there's room for you drop by at the last minute tomorrow and live with me.)

As far as I'm concerned, one of the most fun things that FIC does is host events, which are chances for participants to get both information and inspiration about community living. While we want people to be excited, we also want them to be realistic. Thus, we offer folks the nuts and bolts—as well as a taste of the guts and jolts. Community living offers tremendous possibilities for leveraging a better life, yet it also comes with large challenges for making it work well, and FIC makes a serious effort to deliver the molasses and the sulfur in appropriate measures.

In addition to offering my standard workshops on consensus and conflict, I get to do a new thing tomorrow: moderate a panel discussion on Generations, where we'll have two panelists in their 20s, two around 40 years old, and two north of 60. Each will have five minutes to talk about how they relate to community (emphasizing what they've learned looking backward and what they're wanting looking forward), and then we'll open it up to questions and comments from the audience. While six speakers means I'll have to keep a close eye on air time (there will be a 60% chance of people being reined in), I look forward to plying my craft as a facilitator to keep things moving along and on topic.

Part of the reason I love events is because it's one of the best ways to get up close and personal with our constituency—the people for whom we're gathering information about cooperative living. Tomorrow I'll get plenty of first-hand evidence about what people who want community care about. It's an opportunity to reset my gyroscope and test to see if what I have to offer is still what's needed. It's also a chance to cast the net for new energy to join the FIC circle of community fanatics. In other words, it'll be fun on multiple levels.

With the perspective of 2020 vision, there's probably only a 60% chance that in another decade I'll still be reigning as the Fellowship's main administrator (because in 2020 there's a 100% chance that I'll no longer be in my 60s). I figure it's never too early to start planning ahead for a cooperative transition. Maybe one or two of my successors will be in the room tomorrow. Exciting!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Famous Wafers and Whipped Cream

Like a lot of people, I have childhood memories of certain foods and dishes that immediately evoke a sense of family. One of these is a dessert made with a relatively obscure Nabisco product styled Famous Chocolate Wafers. They are thin, lightly sweetened (which makes them unusual right there), crisp chocolate wafers (about 2.5 inches in diameter) that are marketed in boxes of 40 wafers each. This product has been around for at least 60 years and has remained unchanged in all that time.

Last night I arrived in the Chicago area for the start of a five days of FIC meetings. While the meetings will all take place at the north side facilities of Jesus People USA (an evangelical Christian group that focuses on the spiritual inspiration found in Jesus' words and acts), Ma'ikwe and I stayed the first night with my sister and brother-in-law, Alison & Dan Cooke in southwestern suburb of La Grange. For dessert last night Al offered up a batch of Famous Wafers and Whipped Cream. Yum!

a madeleine was for Proust, a serving of Famous Wafers and Whipped Cream is for me—instantly bringing up images of my mother and family celebrations of summers long ago.

While this Schaub tradition goes back as far as I can remember, if you Googled it, the recipe would most commonly be classified as a "refrigerator cake." Simply enough, you trowel about 1/4-inch or so of whipped cream between wafers until you assemble a log that's about 12 inches long. After parging all the outer edges with additional whipped cream, you wrap the whole in waxed paper and refrigerate it overnight. The moisture in the whipped cream seeps into the wafers, rendering them soft and gooey. When unwrapped the next day, the log is sliced thinly along the diagonal, resulting in zebra-striped oblongs that are sinfully delicious—that is, they're delicious if you like sugar, chocolate, and butterfat. Duh.

The trick to this dessert is not in the execution, which is relatively straight forward—it's in finding Famous Wafers in a grocery store. Few carry this old-time Nabisco offering, and even if they're in the store, they're generally not found in the cookie section. For some reason, they're most commonly hanging out amongst the ice cream toppings.

Last night, over pre-dinner Manhattans (a penchant for which has become a mini-family tradition for him and me) my brother-in-law Dan waved in my direction by confessing that he regularly reads this blog. Who knew? He works for a company that manages commercial property and said he had little trouble applying my musings about cooperative group dynamics to corporate settings—which I liked hearing. (After all, if you're trying to save the world, you need broad application.)

He further confessed that he aspired to see his name appear in some future blog entry. He reasoned that bribing me with the right dessert should do the trick, and he was right!

Hey Dan, this blog's for you! (And if you want to try working me over with plum pudding and hard sauce at some future dinner, I promise a second coming.) With the right dessert, you too can be an (almost) Famous Waver. We could make it a new family tradition.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Social Capital

One of the more intriguing aspects of group dynamics is understanding the economics of social capital—which is a barometer of whether a person's statements or actions are likely to be viewed kindly or with exasperation. Some members always seem to have more, while some have less.

While there's an aspect of popularity in this concept, it's more nuanced than that. Social capital is about the ways in which a person is cared about by others, and measures how much others are willing to do in support of that person. Social capital accrues when a person gives more than they take, when a person is more apt to lead the group out of hard spots than into them, when a person graciously takes on a job that no one else cares to do (taking a hit for the team), or whenever a person spontaneously does something above and beyond for the benefit of all.

The payoff can come in the form of favors (walking Fido while so-and-so is on vacation, doing so-and-so's cooking shift when they're sick, even making so-and-so a cup of coffee), in the form of grace (not being irritated when so-and-so is late to a meeting, or leaves the car window open on the night when it rains), or in the form of support (going along with so-and-so's request to move bowling night to Thursdays, or to have everyone wear goofy hats to dinner).

How can one lose social capital? By creating or aggravating social awkwardness. By trapping the group in dynamics that are unproductive or onerous. By making requests that are a strain for the group, or are otherwise perceived to be out of balance with support offered in return.

Humility and kindness tend to increase one's social capital; arrogance and self-importance tend to diminish it. Honesty and a willingness to accept responsibility for errors tend to enhance one's capital; defensiveness and blaming others tend to undercut it. When people use power (the ability to influence actions and agreements) for the benefit of all (power with), their social capital grows. When people are perceived to use power for the benefit of some at the expense of others (power over), their social capital declines.

If a person draws down their capital account too far, there may be nothing left. While it's possible to borrow under certain circumstances—personal sickness, or loss of a loved one are two good examples—it's possible to reach a point where credit will no longer be extended and the person's membership is no longer socially viable.

Sometimes the accounting can be complex. For example, you could earn social capital be being a hard worker, yet squander most or all of your gain by being a difficult person to work with. Conversely, you could be a highly popular compatriot (earning capital through your jocularity), yet irresponsible with tasks (eroding capital through your unreliable or erratic behavior). It can get tricky. Further, you can have more capital with some people than with others (perhaps by virtue of whom you're better connected with), such that missteps may be easily forgiven by those with whom you carry a high balance, yet lead to outrage among those with whom your account is low.

It doesn't matter whether you're a socialist or a capitalist; all groups are affected by the flow of social capital among members, and it behooves you to learn how to accurately read the balance sheets.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Dark Nights of the Cooperative Soul

Over the course of my 37 years of community living (and 24 years as a process consultant) there have been about half a dozen times where I've been embroiled in difficult dynamics with another person that have persisted for years, where together we have been unable to turn a corner in how we interact. It just never gets better.

As someone devoted to thinking about and assisting others in understanding and navigating challenging dynamics, this is humbling stuff. When everything I try fails, then what? I'm haunted by the spectre of my blind spots laughing at me. What am I missing?

One of the most delicious ironies about this dynamic is that I can often see how I would reach out to the other person in the moment of maximal estrangement, or how I would reach out to the distressed person that is myself, yet I am neatly disqualified from engineering either bridge-building operation. My antagonist typically is in no position to see my attempts to reach out as well intended, and any effort to guide others about how to hold me when I'm feeling isolated just comes across as self-serving. There is a Cassandra-like quality about this, where my demonstrable skill at working conflict is uniquely inaccessible when I'm a player in it.

Still, there is work for me to do. How do I step back far enough from the dynamic to get an accurate glimpse of how I'm feeding the fires of dissent—all the while lamenting how badly I'm being treated? Usually, I need to go through a period of venting. This typically works best alone (perhaps through journaling; perhaps through a long walk where I conduct a stream-of-consciousness monologue that no one else needs be subjected to) or with my long-suffering wife (who at this point understands that there are times when I just need to unload and am not looking for a response), whose sole (soul?) task is to hold me through the night.

These tend to be dark nights of soul, where I sit in misery and despair until I exhaust the fuel of the latest outrage and in the cold pre-dawn must still find my way to a constructive response. How to find courage that is uncontaminated by revenge or the tainted desire to be right?

I try to see my protagonist as simply someone in pain, doing their best to cope. I try to open my heart to a possibility that I dread: that I am actively contributing to the dysfunction; that I can make different choices and perhaps get different results. I need to consult more than my head and my heart; I need to consult with the heads and hearts of others. I need allies to be constructive. How can I ask for support without asking people to take sides?

I need to steer clear of the cesspool of assigning bad motivation and stick with identifying the actions that don't work for me. Along the way—and especially if the journey is long and arduous—I have the option to exit, to walk away. While I yearn for relief from the struggle and the sense of being vilified, where can I be assured that this will not happen? I have learned over long years that it's important to make such decisions only after my anger has cooled and I can exit at peace (or can be at peace with asking the other person to exit—I have done both).

Many years ago (before I got together with Ma'ikwe) I faced an important relationship choice where I was sorely tempted to find out what was possible with a new partner. I sat with the possibility for weeks before making up my mind that it was right for me to go ahead. It meant ending the intimate relationship I was in and the break-up was messy (which was not hard to foretell). As it turned out, the new relationship didn't gel and before long I was partnerless, which was not at all what I had in mind. However, I was nonetheless at peace because I had done enough personal work before breaking up with my existing partner.

The main fruit of my laboring over whether or not to pursue the new relationship was my realizing that I was not exchanging my existing relationship for a new one; I was exchanging my existing relationship for a chance at a new one. While I was sad that the seed didn't sprout, I at least knew going in that all I had been promised was a seed. Thus, whenever I contemplate exiting as a response to persistent challenging dynamics, I've learned that it is important to do so freely, and without placing any burden of expectations on others to justify my "sacrifice."

In short, I need to be truly at peace with moving on, or else it's a sure sign that my work is not yet done. I'm telling you, this personal growth stuff can be an absolute bitch.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Fear Strikes Out

Here's a quiz. What does the title of today's blog* have in common with Sandhill's Anniversary? (I'll give you a hint: Annie will find this an easy question—it's the same as what she'd say if you asked her to pick a number between 1 and 100.)

The answer is 37! (In five more years, of course, our anniversary will coincide with the answer to the universe and life, according to Douglas Adams… but I'm getting ahead of myself).)

The original four people who comprised Sandhill's modest beginning
—Ann Shrader, Ed Pultz, Wendy Soderlund, and me—arrived on the land to start our life together on this day in 1974. Yesterday we celebrated Land Day (we always pick the Saturday nearest the actual date) with perfect spring weather and about 80 friends (arriving on 25 bikes and a dozen of cars) who joined us for a treasure hunt, maypole ritual, potluck dinner, contra dancing, and half a dozen rounds in a sweat lodge lasting into the night. It was interesting to observe that a majority of yesterday's celebrants were not yet born in 1974, much less interested in community living. What a journey!

I feel a bit like a grandfather oak, admiring all the acorns who came to the party (as well as the robust saplings of Dancing Rabbit, Red Earth, and the Possibility Alliance—members from all of which helped us eat and dance and laugh).

As a mathematician I like 37 because it's prime (just like my age, 61). For me, indivisible numbers are auspicious, and represent an opportunity to do something fresh and potent. Consider it "prime" time. When my age was 37, for example, my second child was born (Jo), I helped found the Fellowship for Intentional Community, I started a self-insurance fund for income-sharing communities, and began my career as a process consultant. It was a big year. I can hardly wait to see what my community cooks up at age 37.

* The title reference is to the name of an autobiography and a biopic movie based on the life of baseball player Jimmy Piersall. He played in the major leagues, mostly as a centerfielder, for 17 seasons. Though he came up with Boston, he did a three-year stint with the Cleveland Indians during the height of his career (1959-61)—a stretch that coincided precisely with the pinnacle of Annie's tomboy fascination with baseball. Jimmy was a star on those Indian teams and became her favorite player. He wore 37 on the back of his uniform and that became Annie's good luck number. While Annie's interest in baseball had long since waned by the time I met her in 1969, her lucky number has endured to this day.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Nailing Distress

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

This centuries-old proverb cautions about the potentially large consequences of the accumulated effects of small problems left unattended. There is a strong parallel here when working with active distress in groups. It goes like this:

For want of a bridge there is no traffic among the protagonists.
For want of traffic there is no collaborative problem solving.
For want of collaboration there is weak buy-in with agreements about what to do.
For want of buy-in the implementation is crippled.
For want of wholehearted implementation the problem is not solved.
And all for the want of a bridge.

Thus, whenever I'm working with distress—which is probably the single most common dynamic I'm asked to tackle as a process consultant—I've learned that there's little chance of substantive progress until and unless I've built bridge to each player and can successfully maintain it. As a starting place, it's imperative that I'm able to establish to each party's satisfaction that I've understood the gist of their experience and can represent this accurately as the conversation unfolds. That's the foundation for the bridge.

While this may not sound very profound, it's actually tricky.

o This doesn't work unless the person agrees that you've heard them accurately. It's rarely sufficient to just nod your head or assert, "I understand." Often, a person in fulminating distress feels isolated and misunderstood. To counteract this, it's usually necessary to offer a verbal summary that captures the essence of their story and to get their recognition that you did a creditable job. Remember: it's their story and you need to get it on their terms.

o There is an important distinction between content and affect, and you need to get both right. Batting .500 is great is you're a major league baseball player, but not good enough if your facilitating conflict. It's more than parroting the words or weaving together all the threads, you need to connect to the story viscerally.

When establishing affect, it's been my experience that it's often helpful to work with passion. Some facilitators attempt to be even-tempered all the time, in the mistaken belief that their calmness will keep people from being less triggered in a volatile situation. To the contrary, I've found that if you're accurate and even-handed that you can be fully demonstrative and it won't come across as provocative or taking sides.

Don't try to stay in the middle; try to stay connected to both ends (this is a very different strategy). Don't be attached to truth or outcomes; instead be guided by relationship and the need to keep all parties exchanging information that can serve as a salve (rather than as a salvo).

o When you ask conflicted parties for movement (that is, a commitment to an action step that is different than what they've already been doing) keep your eye on the bridge abutments to make sure they're still intact. You can lose an otherwise serviceable connection by making too large a request too soon.

o Sometimes, the way a person expresses distress can itself be triggering, and your first impulse may be to comment on their negative judgments or aggression, which you find offensive and out of line. While you have my sympathy, that rarely works. First build the bridge; then discuss their choice of expression.

Bridge building is an important facilitative skill at all times, yet you'll have to learn to be an engineer in adverse conditions if your going to facilitate conflict. Not everyone has the deftness or the moxie to attempt to quarry foundation blocks and set them in place when the winds pick up and there's furniture flying. Luckily though, there are some who willing to lean into the wind and perform in harm's way. They are the ones who are out there trying to nail distress.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Morel of the Story

I got home just in time.

I arrived about 12:15 on Saturday and everyone (including this season's interns, Michael & Sofi) was eating lunch. After unloading my luggage and traveling paraphernalia, I said hello to everyone (I'd been on the road for over a month), had a glass of milk, and put on my boots. By 1:15 I was in the woods hunting for wild mushrooms. While about 25% of what I found were past peak, I found a number of prime specimens and my three-hour stroll netted a tad over three pounds of morels. Whew! I wasn't too late.

While there are occasional aberrations, in northeast Missouri morels pop up only in a fairly
tight 10-day window starting in late April and drifting into the first week of May. Though I was arriving at the early end of when the season typically occurs, there is enough uncertainty about timing—due to the vagaries of moisture and temperature (fungi like it wet and warm)—that I was nervous. I hate missing the morels. [For more of my personal journey with morels see my blog of May 7, 2008, The Morel Imperative.]

At Sandhill Farm we do mushrooms two ways: a) we cultivate shiitakes on 42-inch sections of oak logs, stacked to form a serpentine picket fence under a shady maple grove; and b) we hunt morels during their ephemeral season of manifestation. As it happened, on Saturday we harvested both, and our fungal cup runneth over. While cultivating shiitakes is essentially about technique, teasing morels out of the woods is more of an art form. Think of them as the yin and the yang of mycological farming. Most of the work with shiitakes is in the set up; most of the work with morels is in the walking and developing the magic eye needed to discern the little darlings as they peek out of the leaf mold or from underneath a mayapple canopy. While you can find one boldly out in the open from time to time, most fruits are shy, requiring a technique where you peruse the same ground from different angles when you're in suitable habitat.

While there are patterns to look for (medium to full-sized silver maples are indicator trees), there is no guarantee where they'll appear. Spots can produce steadily for years and then inexplicably go dry; certain stretches can be a bonanza one year and then never again. Every so often you'll encounter a singular morel in a location you've never found one in before and with no apparent second fruit within 100 feet. Mostly though, if you find one mushroom you're as likely to find ten. The mycelium propagates underground (following some mysterious biological impulse) and it's highly likely that if conditions are right for one fruit that the same rootstock will produce more nearby. Thus, whenever I encounter one morel, I slow down to one-quarter speed to look more carefully for buddies. They're almost always out there, if you can just tease them out.

My triumph of this season was walking through a patch of woods where I'd had some consistent luck in the past, yet was reporting no joy on this occasion. I was almost through and about to give up when I noticed that the downed tree I was about to step over (as I attempted to effect my exit from the copse) was a maple. Walking back to the base on instinct, I discovered a flush of morels ringing the edge of the root ball disturbance. Jackpot! Noticing two additional modest maples veering in a direction I hadn't walked (how had I missed those moments before?), I followed the trail. With one morel in sight of the next, I collected about 40 mushrooms before the vein petered out. It's humbling to reflect on how close I was to walking right by and missing the whole mess.

Today is my day in the kitchen, where I'll get the opportunity to make pasta (from eggs laid by our chickens and from flour ground this afternoon from our wheat), flavored with a sauce made by cooking down my precious morels in butter and olive oil, seasoned with onions, garlic, sage, and homemade black currant wine. Don't you wish you could come to dinner?