Wednesday, June 1, 2011

When Values Collide

As a for-hire facilitator, I'm typically brought in to navigate one of two kinds of dynamics: something volatile, or something complicated. Of course, there are times when it's both. I encountered an excellent specimen of the combination plate special just last weekend, when my training class was facilitating quarterly meetings for the School of Living (SoL) in central Pennsylvania...

Two of the sessions we facilitated were meetings of the Land Committee. They had a proposal in front of them to execute long-term lease for a piece of property that SoL had owned for many years yet had experienced persistent trouble in finding a stable leaseholder for. The candidate was someone known to the organization who had been a caretaker on the property for the past half year and had already accomplished a considerable amount of clean-up and repair (to buildings that had been seriously degrading). Thus, the lease prospect had already established a good track record for herself as a motivated hard worker. On top of that, she is a permaculture teacher and wants to use the land as a demonstration site for sustainable land use practices.

As the School of Living wants long-term leaseholds for the property it holds in trust, they were happy to have a bona fide applicant, and in the afternoon we were able to establish to everyone's satisfaction that there was a sufficiently solid match with the woman's plans and the the school's mission around promoting education and community.

The trouble came in the evening when we discussed the financial details. The applicant has steady income as a working professional and was willing to commit tens of thousands of dollars in personal funds over the course of the next decade to renovating the dilapidated farmhouse. Understandably, she didn't want to embark on that ambitious program until terms had been negotiated with SoL.

In the SoL model, it's fine for the leaseholder to own the improvements on a piece of property while the school retains ownership of the land. Both because of the run-down condition of the buildings and because of the major commitment of personal funds that would be required to effect an overhaul (we're talking major leaks, rotten sills, multicolored mold, broken windows—you get the picture) the woman proposed that SoL sell her the buildings for $1. In exchange, she'd commit to the repairs mentioned above and provide the organization with a no-interest mortgage worth $80,000. (The amount was derived from a recent estimate given by a building inspector who thought that with $50,000 worth of repairs that the main farmhouse would be worth $130,000 in the current market.) On top of this deal for the buildings, the woman would pay a monthly lease fee for the land, over and above the cost of taxes and insurance.

As long as the woman held the lease, she would owe nothing on the mortgage. If the lease passed to someone else, the new leaseholder would be responsible for paying SoL $80k. This kept the woman's financial burden to acceptable levels and offered SoL the prospect of turning around the fortunes of the property. What it did not do was offer SoL a clear short-term path to recovering its substantial investment in the property.

While there was considerable support for this proposal (people were overjoyed at seeing any light at end of what had been a tortuous tunnel connecting acquisition and functionality), the proposal foundered over upset that emerged from a couple who had an SoL lease for a different piece of property on markedly less favorable terms. Why, they wondered, should this new woman get such a good deal when SoL made them cough up the money for all the improvements on their property? They demanded that either the woman pay the $80k (or something close to it) for the current value of the improvements, or give them the same deal for a no-interest mortgage. Fair is fair.

Now it was getting interesting.
Even though this was all unfolding in a room where everyone was getting along and there was an atmosphere of deep respect for everyone's good intent and diligence on behalf of the school's values, we had now uncovered the Daily Double of high emotions and no clear pathway about how to proceed. Yikes! It's instructive to walk through how we tried to work with this.

As the facilitation team, we were the ones behind the wheel when we hit the bump, and the first thing we did was pull over, temporarily suspending our focus on the lease proposal.

1. We first checked with the upset couple about their emotional response, making sure they felt heard by us.

2. Next we gave all members of the Land Cmtee a chance to respond to what they heard. As often happens in such moments (especially with groups not used to working together emotionally during business meetings—which damn few are), the comments, while heartfelt and sincere, focused more on what to do than on what was heard.

3. When the Go Round was complete, we checked with the couple about whether they felt heard and they replied that they didn't think so. Oops. When I had connected with their upset I made a point to raise my energy to match theirs and the couple reported that they felt heard by me—they just weren't sure that anyone on the Land Committee had truly understood their anguish. (Hint: bridging effectively to people in distress is just as much about the affect as about the words.)

4. After establishing the primacy of making an emotional connection on a deeper level, we laid out the essential challenge the group was facing: how to balance three different values regarding money—all of which were legitimate, yet didn't play well together in this dynamic:

o Financial fairness (treating similar situations similarly)
o Financial accessibility (making deals that good people with good plans could afford)
o Financial replenishment for SoL (so that it would have adequate funds to make additional good deals in the future)

5. Next we put it back on the group: "Who had ideas about how to balance all three?" While it had taken us three hours to get to this point in the conversation, we'd finally hit bedrock. This was one of the richest moments of the weekend—where the organization needed to address how it would balance core values with sensitivity and care.

Even though the matter was not resolved on our watch, I was happy that we'd gotten to the heavy lifting and were able to unpack the tensions without losing anyone or pretending that strong feelings weren't present (those kinds of meetings drive me crazy).

As a trainer, it's deeply satisfying to give groups the tools needed to navigate road hazards, and not be afraid of the occasional blow out.


Jim Dowling said...

Thank you for your very instructive writing. I felt as if I was in the room with you. As a fellow facilitator I was enthralled by the process and results.

Kathryn said...

I'm sending this blog post, together with the comment below, to everyone I can think of! I'm so glad I found this blog.

"What this guy has to say about intentional communities is easily applied to any group dynamic... relationships, marriage, family, work, church, government."