Friday, June 10, 2011

Mixed Bag in the Mail

As an activist and all-around busy guy, I get a lot of email. It goes with the territory. Yesterday though, I had a stand out day regarding what arrived in my In Box—not for quantity, but for range.

Over the course of a 24-hour period, the 40 or so electronic communications I received included the following (of course I'm cherry-picking; there were any number of emails that did not cause my eyebrows to twitch, my blood pressure to spike, or my voice to break out into song):

Communication A
I received an irritated response from Person A (we're in a group together) about how they were troubled by my participation in a recent meeting. There were three specific complaints:

a) This person had informed the group ahead of the meeting that they felt overburdened by their workload (in the context of the group) and needed a shift. Their preference was that they retain as much management responsibility as possible, while offloading some of the grunt work. In particular, they asked other group members to shoulder more of the grunt work.

The matter was complicated by A's report being accompanied by a request that the issue not be processed in a group setting, as A didn't trust that that would go well for them. So, going into the meeting we had been given this heartfelt communication about a group issue (how could we best support A and still get the group's needs met), yet had to navigate how to accomplish that without explicitly discussing it in the group (or at least not yet). It was problematic.

During the check-in (time set aside for people to share about their emotional landscape—where clarifying questions are OK, yet discussion is discouraged) Person A chose to use that time to repeat much of what had been shared in their written communication, and the rest of us listened. An important piece of the story was that A felt that another group member (let's call them Person X, who was present in the room) had recently been shirking their commitments to support A, contributing directly to their sense of overwhelm.

When it was Person X's turn to check in, they had a different story about the dynamic in which they'd been named critically by A, and choose to use their time to tell their version. In that telling, it was Person A who had let X down. Oh boy.

Given that we were: 1) still in check-ins; 2) had not agreed to discuss the issue (and were aware of A's express request not to); and 3) had entered into a tit-for-tat exchange, I stepped in to offer the observation that both A & X had parallels stories about how the other person had been the first to not meet commitments made to the other. At the time, I thought I was being fairly even-handed and not taking sides.

It turned out that Person A didn't see it that way. For A, they had simply told the truth and then Person X slandered them. Seen through that lens, my attempt to stop the he-said-she-said merry-go-round was not even-handed or deescalating; instead, I was perceived as taking X's side and unfairly attempting to curtail A's right to defend themselves against untruths. When A insisted on telling their version of what happened again (peeing on the tires), I had a pained expression on my face and A felt disrespected by that. So much for trying to be a peacemaker.

b) During my check-in I acknowledged that I thought Person A's issue deserved group support yet did not see myself as having time available to pick up any appreciable amount of A's workload. In the email I got from A, they were worried that I was saying I didn't have time for A and also felt hurt that I wasn't picking up any of their work (when other group members had been willing to do so)—didn't I care about the group or about them? Ouch!

In my reply I went back and tried to make clearer that I cared a lot about A's happiness and supported the group giving that issue attention; I just wasn't going to promise that I'd take up any of their workload and I was still trying to figure out how to discuss this group issue when we were asked not to do so in the group.

c) Later in the same meeting, we were tackling the topic of how well the group integrates new people—we had just had someone exit the group abruptly and it was cause for us to pause and look at how we were doing. With limited time remaining (about 10 minutes) I suggested that we spend that time hearing from the two newest people in our group, to get fresh data about how we were coming across relative to our openness to new members and interest in who they were.

While Person A thought that was ultimately a good way to use the final minutes, they were bothered by my having made the suggestion when another person was serving as the designated facilitator. The concern here, as I understand it, was that I was usurping power that wasn't mine, and A wants me to be quiet about how to spend meeting time if I'm not the facilitator. Sigh. Even when my suggestions are sound and things go well, I can get in trouble.

I'm not sure what to do about this, and will need information from other group members about whether they want to hear my suggestions for a good way to focus conversations when I'm not the designated driver.

The hardest part of this exchange is that I felt good about all of my contributions in the meeting, and didn't feel I was unfair or disrespectful to anyone. Sobering.

Communication B
In the same batch of email I got a lovely note from an acquaintance in New Mexico (Robert Griffin) we wrote to share the beneficent impact that my May 11 blog, Dark Nights of the Cooperative Soul had on him, where I explored my painful journey in dealing with persistent stuck dynamics. Robert reported on his parallel efforts to work more with silence as an aid to immerse himself in the other person's reality without judgment. It was a touching exchange.

Communication C
I got a note from a compatriot in another group I'm part of (who I will cleverly label Person C) relating details about a conversation they'd had with someone outside the group (Person Y) with whom we both have had cooperative dealings. I didn't have a good reaction to what I'd learned.

The occasion for the communication was that Person Y had recently approached me to get a benefit that was under the control of Person C. When I touched base with C about whether they thought it was good idea, they balked: "Our group had already extended benefits to Y and where were we going to draw the line?"

What I learned was that in securing the prior level of benefits from C, Person Y had implied that our group "owed Y" for having previously extended some comparable "unspoken" benefits to me. This didn't go down well on a number of counts:

a) There was nothing "unspoken" about what I had previously negotiated with Y; it was the result of deliberate communications that took months to conclude.

b) In exchange for what benefit I was receiving from Y, I was delivering a considerable package of work that directly supported efforts that Y was responsible for—both in terms of energy and in terms of dollars generated for Y as a result of my contributions. In short, Y had been paid in full for benefits that had been extended to me, and there was no "credit" on the books (psychic or otherwise) to be repaid in kind.

c) While Y was asking for a benefit from C that was comparable to what I had earlier received from Y, they were not making any comparable commitment to C about what they would do in exchange. They apparently neglected to share that part of the story, implying that our group owed them a back scratch. Grr.

d) It didn't land well with me that Person Y thought they could get away with this kind of shenanigans—that C and I would not talk and compare notes.

While I don't think Person Y is a bad person, I'm now more guarded about our current and future arrangements. Is this the way to build cooperative culture?

Communication D
I'm busily soliciting benefit auction donations for next week's national cohousing conference, happening June 17-19 in DC. It's a fun thing to do, lining up donations from supporters that simultaneously promote a product or service they're proud of with a cause they believe in.

Two of the folks I approached for support (I sent out about 200 solicitations) were my friends Lou & Joan Burrell at Manzanita Village in Prescott AZ. I first met them seven years ago when their project was stalled out, half-built and mired in internal strife. I worked with them three times during 2004-2005, and Joan sent this note along with their offer for the benefit auction:

Here's the flyer offering two nights in Manzanita Village that you can use for the conference. Hope somebody will choose to come out to visit us! You wouldn't know the place. It has finally become what we've dreamed about for years. Not perfect, certainly, but so much healthier than when you were here to help. All lots are sold. No more LLC Development Committee. 31 of 35 homes built and lived in. We're finally having fun together. One or two units for rent or sale. We look back to your being here as a turning point for our community. If you ever pass this way, please know that you're welcome to stay. We'd love to see you.

Does it get any better than that? I don't think so.

Communication E
Among other things FIC distributes literature through Community Bookshelf, our mail-order bookselling business that's also a regular feature of events we attend (such as next week's cohousing conference). In addition to the handful of things we publish ourselves, we carry other people's work that fits in our niche of cooperative living, right livelihood, sustainability, and group dynamics.

From time to time, people approach us to carry their work and last year I spent considerable time negotiating with a European author (Person E) about what role FIC might play in distributing their work on the theme of sustainability. We eventually came up with a scheme whereby we'd pay to have copies of E's work printed in the US in exchange for exclusive rights to be the distributor. For every copy of E's work sold, we'd pay a 30% royalty.

We would be risking money on the venture,
E would not put up any money, we would promote the product in the US market, and E would get a royalty. We would sell the product both retail and wholesale (to other distributors interested in carrying E's work). We signed the deal and things went well for the first few months. Sales were better than anticipated and everyone was happy.

Then E got the idea to offer their work as an electronic, downloadable version. It was easy to understand why this was attractive—not only would this enhance distribution, it would make more money. However, instead of discussing the idea with us, whose market would be affected by this competition, E signed an exclusive deal with someone else and we discovered it by accident. We were not happy.

While E admitted that this was a mistake (and certainly not in the spirit of the deal we'd signed just months before), we've not found it easy to figure out what the best remedy is. E is not willing to consider breaking their agreement with the download people, and we've been scratching our collective heads about how to proceed.

In that context I was dismayed yesterday to get this offer from E, which he characterized as eminently fair to all:
o E will pay us the production costs of all remaining unsold copies of their work (which amounts to about 75% of the production run). This amounts to about $1500.
o In exchange, E's royalties will double from 30% to 60% (looked at from our end, our return per copy would shrink from 70% to 40%).
o FIC can continue selling its remaining stock of E's work under these new terms.
o E would take back the exclusivity rights and then be free to make whatever deals they want with other North American distributors.

Given that gross sales of E's product were greater than $6000 in the last half year, and that loss of exclusivity will severely cripple our future sales, it was hard to understand how E thought this was a fair offer. (E was proposing that $1500 now and a flooded market would be fair compensation for holding exclusive rights with the potential to earn about $15,000 if every copy sold retail.) What was E thinking? I don't know.

What happened to trying to promote a more cooperative future where everyone benefits? Was this simply about how he could make the most money and wanting us out of the way now that we'd demonstrated the commercial viability of E's work in the US market? It's discouraging when things unravel like this—and this was a success story.

I'm still shaking my head, trying to understand what's going on.

• • •
Yesterday reminds me of the joke about the guy who has one foot in a pot of boiling water and the other in a bucket of ice water. While he was doing fine on average, it was not a comfortable experience. I hope your day was somewhat less confusing.

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