Saturday, December 31, 2011

Bedlam 2011

While the etymology of the title to my caboose blog for 2011 is a bit ambiguous, the smart money is on a corruption of Bethlehem Royal Hospital, the first and oldest institution in the world to focus on mental illness. Its London roots as a hospital go all the way back to 1337, and the association with the term "bedlam"—meaning uproar and confusion—probably derives from Bethlehem's reputation for cruel and inhumane treatment of the mentally ill in centuries past (I am happy to report that today it is considered in the forefront of psychiatric treatment and enlightened care).

References to Bedlam go back a long way. In Shakespeare's King Lear (written in 1605) the Earl of Gloucester's son Edgar takes the role of a Bedlam Beggar in order to remain in England unnoticed after banishment. William Hogarth included a Bedlam scene in his famous series of paintings entitled A Rake's Progress (done in 1735).

Today, I use the term to refer to my annual report on where I slept the preceding 12 months: as in Bed: Laird's Actual Mattress. Considering the level of chaos and confusion over where I lay my head each night, it seemed an appropriate cover, or bedspread (if you will) for today's blog. (I started this "tradition" last year, with my Dec 18, 2010 entry, Sleeping in the Bed I Made.)

So here's the story:
o I slept in my own bed at Sandhill 161 times, a whopping 44% of the time. If you add Ma'ikwe's bed, a mere three miles down the road to marital bliss, that number swells by an additional 34 nights. That means I closed my eyes in the same zip code (63563) a majority of the time. I thought it was worse than that.

o I slept with my wife 95 nights, or 26% of the time, a clear majority of which was not in Missouri. (Ma'ikwe guessed it would only total 70, so I'm gaining there, too.)

o I slept at clients' homes (usually in guest rooms) 13 times for 46 nights in total.

o I slept at 12 different friends' homes for a total of 55 nights (some of those were while I was doing professional work within walking distance).

o I slept 11 times at places associated with FIC meetings or events, totting up to 31 nights.

o Three times I wound up in a motel. While this is my least favorite option, there are a few days every year when I'm not able to manifest a friendly bed and I rely on MasterCard instead.

o I was on overnight trains 21 times (easily placing me in Select status with Amtrak).

o Most nights I was in an actual bed. Only three nights were spent in tents, 12 on couches, and 28 on air mattresses.

o All together, I slept in 39 different locations outside of Rutledge, which placed me in 16 states and one province—with no effort to account for the nights spent sleeping around (so to speak) on rolling stock.

Just for a moment, I invite you to contemplate the logistics that go into putting all this in place. Now fold in the reality that I don't have a secretary doing this for me.
Do you think that constitutes bedlam?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Performing with a Low Battery

I'm sick.

Though it doesn't happen often, every so often something grabs me and the last few days I've been afflicted with flu-like symptoms—occasional fever, elevated mucous, lethargy, and coughing. Lots of coughing. The worst bouts are when I get up in the morning, just after eating, and when I'm trying to settle down in bed each night. Poor Ma'ikwe is condemned to having a seat in the orchestra pit for my diurnal expectoral performances. She doesn't miss a single note.

While I don't think she minds a certain amount of playing Florence Nightengale, for the most part I don't think this is what she had in mind in asking me over for the winter.

Because I have a strong constitution (read deep reserves) and don't suffer being sick very well (I have a bad attitude about it), I can still handle most tasks on my To Do List (how much energy does it take to tap a keyboard, anyway?) my qi is definitely diminished, which affects my stamina and eliminates from consideration the more strenuous items on my work menu (such as chopping wood and hauling water). It just means going slower, and making sure I have plenty of fluids and rest.

It occurred to me this morning (metaphors are like that for me—I can't turn them off) that my health has an analog with the bank of deep cell batteries connected to Ma'ikwe's solar panel array. On good days
(read sunny) the system generates more power than is drawn down and the surplus is stored in the batteries (unless they're already topped off, in which case the extra is spilled).

Kind of like Homeland Security (which, I suppose, is one way of looking at what the batteries represent) Ma'ikwe assigns colors to different ranges of battery power, expressed as a percentage of full capacity, with user guidelines associated with each color:
Green 88-100% all ahead full; do whatever
Yellow 76-87% limited use of power tools
Orange 64-75% unplug the refrigerator overnight; laptops used for work only
Red 52-63% use laptops for no more than 90 min/day; conservative light usage
Black under 52% shut 'er down; think cavemen

I figure we all use a system like this when thinking about personal health—though we may not agree on the color assignments (I know some people who are definitely into periwinkle), and it's clear that there's considerable variation in people's battery capacity, as well as in their recharging rates.

Haven't we all had orange days, where we're not officially wearing the label "sick," yet are clearly limping along? Here's the way I'd map the battery codes onto human robustness:

Green everything in play
Yellow minor debilitation; passes up only the most taxing opportunities
Orange significant slow down, yet still completing most tasks; extra rest advisable
Red normal work mostly suspended; lots of time in bed or on the couch
Black that's what hospitals are for

People could wear colored tags around their neck to give passersby a quick visual on how they'd respond the ubiquitous query, "How're ya doing?"

Then, instead of writing this blog, I could just post: "I'm feeling orange today, with decent prospects for a yellow Thursday." But that would take all the green out of the joy I derive from writing about color changes, which evokes dark red feelings.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Ecovillage Christmas

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good day!

With apologies to Clement Moore, here at Ma'ikwe's off-grid house the first thing you want to know on a winter day is whether you'll have solar gain. Thus, this Christmas morning we were pleased to see a star rising in the East. And not just any star, I'm talking about the sun—which translates into natural abundance in a way that Santa Claus' materialism never will.

But don't get me wrong. We're not grinching it.
(Actually, that's not quite true. Last night I knocked back a couple of Grinch cocktails that Kurt—proprietor and head bartender—had whipped up for the occasion of Christmas Eve at the Milkweed Mercantile. Though I'd never heard of that particular cocktail before, they were a tasty green concoction featuring Midori, lemon juice, and simple syrup, garnished with a bright red cranberry. While there's only a brief window of time when such a thing might be considered fashionable, we're in that 36-hour zone now.)

I'm pecking away at my keyboard in the sunny (hooray!) living room next to the wood stove with a fresh cup of coffee, awaiting the start of the stocking opening ritual. The family configuration this year is Ma'ikwe, Jibran, Marqis (Jibran's Dad), and me. It's a sweet, light-hearted time when each participant gets to offer each other presents that are a peculiar mixture of desirable, appreciative, and amusing (sometimes it's a fine line, with the giver and receiver not necessarily agreeing on which of those three labels a gift should be assigned).

It's fun covertly collecting hints about what someone covets over the preceding months, hoping to impress loved ones with your perspicacity and cleverness Christmas morn. The one that most impressed me was The World's Largest Crossword Puzzle (with over 28,000 clues it takes up a 7-foot by 7-foot chunk of flat surface—we're talking about a serious commitment to interior decorating), that Ma'ikwe had resisted buying at the full retail price of $60, and then subsequently scored for $1.50 at a thrift store. Now that's when you know the Force is with you!

I have no idea when we'll have the courage (or wall space) to open that baby up. Meanwhile, there are board games to test drive, movies to watch, books to read, specialty condiments to savor, and new clothes to break in.

For today's big meal we're going to walk over to Mark & Alyson's at Red Earth Farms this afternoon for the traditional holiday trifecta of confections, conversation, and conviviality. I hope you and yours have every bit as much fun on tap for the day.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

10,000 Hours of Meetings

In recent years I've occasionally taken to introducing myself to people attending one of my process workshops with the one-liner, "The first thing you need to know about me is that I've been to more meetings than you."

While this invariably gets a laugh, it turns out there may be more substance to my claim than I first knew...

In Malcolm Galdwell's newest book, Outlier (released earlier this year), he makes the case that highly successful people are a combination of above-average capacity (relative to their craft), dedication to developing their skill, and luck. His sample set ranges from the Beatles to Mozart, from Bill Gates to Canadian hockey players.

Let's take these one at a time.

1. Above-average Capacity
Gladwell's research suggests you don't need to be a genius to be highly successful. You just need to be good enough. It's important to have sufficient raw ability that you're encouraged to develop your talent, but you don't need to be a child prodigy in order to ultimately excel. It turns out that practice counts for much more than innate ability.

2. Dedication to Developing Your Skill
One of the most interesting outcomes of Gladwell's investigations is that people are able to achieve a quantum leap in skill once they approach the 10,000-hour mark in practicing their craft. Amazingly, in broad strokes this holds true independent of the skill. That is, this principle obtains just as well for lawyers proficient at managing hostile takeovers as it does for professional hockey players; just as well for hit musicians as for IT wizards.

3. Luck
In all of Gladwell's stories, the person makes the commitment to putting in the hours because they're following an interest rather than because they know there will be a pot of gold at the end. Often enough, it is just dumb luck that there is a surge in demand for the skill that a person has been honing, giving them a temporary yet significant market advantage (because competitors cannot quickly replicate the mind-numbing 10,000 hours needed to catch up).

• • •
Walking over to Sandhill for my FIC Office shift yesterday, I had time to contemplate how many hours I'd put into attending and facilitating meetings among cooperative groups. Here's what I came up with:

o Sandhill Meetings
I've been a member of my community for 37 years. My best guess is that we average 2-3 meetings per month, with most meetings running at least two hours. That's 2200 hours of community meetings. Given that I'm on the road a lot though, let's say that I participated in only 1600 hours.

o Sandhill Retreats
My community has been in the habit of holding annual retreats for the purpose of long-term planning and working on deep issues the last 20 years. Typically we meet for 4-5 days. If we average 25 hours of meeting time that would be another 500 hours.

o FEC Meetings
I was a Sandhill delegate to the Federation of Eglalitarian Communities for 22 years, and attended every Assembly from 1979 through 2001. As meetings would generally run for five days, and there were two per year during my tenure, I estimate that was 60 hours of sessions annually, or 1300 hours in all.

o FIC Meetings
I've been involved with the Fellowship for Intentional Communities since it's inception in 1986. This coming spring we'll celebrate our 25th anniversary. The board meets every spring and fall and I've never missed one, which means I've attended 50 in a row. In the early years meetings would last four days; in the last five years or so, we've been able to complete our work in three days. In addition, there's an agenda setting meeting that lasts about four hours in front, and a wrap-up meeting that last for a couple hours at the end. All together, I figure the average board meeting translated into at least 25 hours of my time in meetings. That's another 1200 hours.

o FIC Oversight Committee Meetings
For the last 15 years, the FIC has functioned with an administrative committee whose job it is to steer the ship between board meetings. The Oversight Committee (which I have always been a member of) meets on average once a month for a one-hour conference call, plus twice a year for two days of
face-to-face interim meetings. In a year's time, that equates to 25 hours of interim meetings, plus another eight hours of conference calls. That's totals another 500 hours.

o PEACH Administration
I ran a self-insurance program for the FEC communities from 1987-2009. While most of this was done remotely, by letter and email, there were occasional conference calls and a handful of live meetings with representatives of the participating communities. All together, I figure that's another 100 hours.

o Process Consulting
I've been a cooperative group process consultant since 1987. While my workload started out quite slowly, it's gradually ramped up to the point where I do 10-12 jobs annually, plus trainings (of which I did 11 this year). As best I can estimate, I've worked about 250 days as a consultant all together. Figuring I'm on the job an average of six hours/day, that's 1500 hours.

o Facilitation Training
I launched a two-year program in Integrated Facilitation Training in 2003. To date I've delivered 45 intensive three-day weekends in this modality. With an average of 27 hours of group time each weekend that's 1200 additional hours.

o Event Workshops
As a regular member of the presenting faculty for a variety of events that focus on cooperative living, I've logged the following hours offering workshops the last two decades:
—NASCO Institutes: 90 hours
—Twin Oaks Conferences: 70 hours
—Cohousing Conferences: 60 hours
—FIC Events: 60 hours
—Miscellaneous: 20 hours

That's 300 more, bringing the total time I've been actively involved in meetings with cooperative groups up to 8200 hours. But it's more than that.

Writing about Group Process
Early in my career as a process consultant, I realized that clients only digest about 20% of what happens in a weekend. In an effort to give them more useful product, I've committed to sending a detailed report after the fact, offering an overview of what happened, my analysis of the dynamics, process observations, and recommendations. I try to get these written reflections into the clients' In Box within two weeks. Because this effort involves concentrated analysis of what happens in live meetings, I figure it fully counts as practicing my craft:

—Facilitation training weekends: There have been 45 of these. At 14 hours per report (eight for the host group report and one hour each for every student facilitator) that's 600 hours.

—Consulting weekends: According to my records, I've written reports for at least 84 consulting jobs. At an average of eight hours per report, that's comes to 700 hours.

Beyond that, I'm a regular author for Communities magazine. In the 17 years that FIC has been the publisher, I've written about 80 articles. I figure at least half of those dealt with some aspect of cooperative group dynamics. Counting an average of five hours per article, that's 200 hours.

Finally, there's this blog. I've cranked out over 460 entries in four years, with the focus oscillating among the themes of homesteading, community, and cooperative group dynamics. I figure at least a third of my entries have been about group dynamics. If it takes me an average of 2-3 hours to complete a blog entry, that's 400 hours more.

Adding my writing about meetings to my actual time in meetings, the grand total is a whopping 10,100 hours. In short, it turns out I've made it (barely) across Gladwell's threshold for due diligence, and probably goes a long way toward explaining why the demand for my services as a process consultant has not diminished with the poor economy.

While none of this proves competence, it's nonetheless exciting to think about the possibilities in the face of current trends:
o Widespread dissatisfaction with traditional, competitive ways of doing business and making political decisions.
o Interest in community living has never been higher.
o Transition Towns are focusing on local, community-based responses to Peak Oil and Climate Change.
o The Occupy phenomenon has demonstrated a surprisingly resilient commitment to cooperative decision making.

I may be one of the lucky ones who accidentally focused on the right thing at the right time, so that I'd have my 10,000 hours in when opportunity knocks. Anyone care to have a meeting to discuss it?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Cohabiting with my Wife

Yesterday I moved in with my wife (at least temporarily).

Though Ma'ikwe and I have been married nearly five years, we've been living separately. When we first got together romantically (fall '05) she was living in Albuquerque, which was 900 miles from my bed at Sandhill. For the first 15 months of our marriage there were some non-trivial logistics to navigate if I wanted a date night with my wife.

In the summer of '08, however, things got a lot easier when she and her son, Jibran, moved to the same zip code as me. She joined Dancing Rabbit, which is only three miles from Sandhill. While I understand that three miles away is not the same as sharing a bedroom, it was nonetheless 300 times better than Albuquerque and allowed, for the first time, some degree of spontaneity about when we were in the same room. Much better. Now when I'm on the road (which is 60% of the time) I'm thinking about getting back to Ma'ikwe, rather than about how to get to her.

Better still, building on our shared interest in community networking and group process work, about half the time I'm on the road Ma'ikwe is traveling with me, on which occasions I don't dwell on missing her at all!

As a significant part of her settling into life at DR, Ma'ikwe has built a house (although it's not really complete, it's far enough along to be a cozy in cold weather), and this winter we're trying the experiment of my living here instead of at Sandhill. For the next quarter, I'll be waking up next to my wife every day (excepting three weeks of travel when we'll be apart)—an experience we haven't had since our honeymoon.

Will I miss Sandhill this winter? Yes, but not as much as you might think.
—For one thing, I'll be on the road seven of the 13 weeks (which is about normal for me), and when I'm away it doesn't make a lot of difference where my "official" bedroom is.

—My longest block of time in Missouri is the three weeks stretching form now through Epiphany (that's Jan 6 if you having trouble locating semi-obscure Christian holidays on your calendar). During the entirety of those three weeks I'll be going over to Sandhill every Mon, Wed, and Fri to pinch hit for Emily Hall (who handles orders in the FIC's Missouri Office) while she enjoys a deserved holiday with her family back East. It may be next year before anyone at Sandhill notices that I'm not sleeping in my room.

—Sandhill's annual retreat is queued up for Feb 5-8, and that means I'll be migrating home for four days of annual planning and renewal.

All and all, I'm fairly confident that folks at Sandhill will still remember what I look like when the crocuses emerge.

I arrived yesterday in time to attend DR's regular Sunday WIP (week in preview), when all members are asked to gather in the common house to coordinate schedules. This full ensemble
choreography is a logistical imperative for a group of 60-odd (and believe me, it is 60 odd) cultural creatives who manage their lives with a fleet of only three vehicles and with most days embellished with one or two opportunities to indulge in specialized social configurations. It's nearly impossible to keep it all in line without a whip, I mean a WIP. To give you a flavor of this, in the coming week residents will have the chance to partake in any of the following (and I'm probably dropping a stitch or two):

o Spiritual gathering—Sun eve (where those interested in spiritual inquiry take turns leading the exploration of their choice)
o Dance party—Sun eve (celebrating the arrival of new residents Craig & Kim)
o Meditation followed by yoga—Mon, Tue, Wed morning
o Kirtan—Mon eve (chanting accompanied by a harmonium)
o Potluck at Sandhill—Tue dinner
o Song circle—Wed eve
o Solstice celebration—Thu eve
o Community dinner—Fri dinner (households bring their own food and eat together in the common house)
o Cody's 6th birthday party—Sat noon
o Xmas Eve at the Milkweed Mercantile—Sat eve
o Xmas movies—TBA
o Cookie exchange—TBA

And by the way, Blues Dancing (a regular Mon eve offering) was cancelled because Rachel & Tony will be traveling for the holidays. Whew. Mind you, this is just the all-skate opportunities. Never mind the myriad
tête-à-têtes, small group private get-togethers, and the bewildering array of committee meetings. When do people sleep?

When it came to the portion of the WIP where announcements were made about arrivals and departures for the week, Alline (the impresario cum herald for the day) announced that Laird was "beginning his cohabitation with Ma'ikwe." Fortunately, everyone smiled—which I took as a happy mixture of bemusement with Alline's turn of phrase, and vicarious joy with the turn toward communion on behalf of Ma'ikwe's marriage.

At this point, I'm expecting to return to my regularly scheduled Sandhill life after the vernal equinox, yet that decision hasn't been made yet. (That's what it means to label what we're doing an "experiment.") We won't make that call until all the data has been collected and its meaning has been massaged. While I won't have to face that particular fork in the road until March, it's a pleasure knowing that both paths are likely to lead to good things.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Facilitator's Magic Eye

When I first began
To cut up oxen

I would see before me

The whole ox

All in one mass.

After three years

I no longer saw this mass,
I saw the distinctions…

—excerpted from Cutting Up an Ox, an ancient Taoist poem

• • •
I am the Sandhill butcher.

While many others in my community share in the work of this quintessential homesteading task, I enjoy it. Though I am not a hunter, I approach cutting up carcasses and preserving meat with considerable care and respect for the animals whose lives have been taken to sustain mine. Butchering has become part of my sacred relationship to food.

It has taken me a while to embrace the identity of butcher, in part because one meaning of the term is to do a job badly, or clumsily. Another is to kill indiscriminately, or brutally. While not wanting to be associated with either of those flavors of the term, there is yet a third meaning, which is honorable—or at least has the chance to be. A good butcher is one who is thrifty and skilled in the craft of transforming animals into food. Better yet, a good butcher is one who wastes little, operates humanely, and works in right relationship with the universe.

I recall when I first encountered this more noble sense of "butcher" employed outside the confines of the abattoir…

About 30 years ago, when I was teaching myself how to make insulated glass windows (is there no end to the ways in which youth will carelessly throw labor at the fortified walls of a tight budget, in the hopes of saving pennies?) we bought supplies from a New England company called Wood Butchers. I was immediately struck by the name. Surely they weren't implying that that they sold the tools of wanton woodworking, were they?

Indeed, "wood butcher" is an old term for carpenter, and meant as a label of respect for a craft. The meaning here runs parallel to that of meat butcher, and thus began the rehabilitation of the term in my consciousness.

Today, I happily consider myself an amateur meat butcher, as well as an amateur wood butcher. Taking this one step further, I am also a meeting butcher. As a professional facilitator, I am fully skilled in the dissection of meeting dynamics. When I am at my best, there is little waste and I am able to transform
logjams into flow, chaos into agreement, and disharmony into music. It is an art. While learnable, not everyone is willing to put in the effort.

As it was for the butcher referenced in the opening poem, one of my main challenges as a facilitation teacher is getting students to experience the unfolding of a meeting and seeing the underlying distinctions. What at first seems an overwhelming tangle of disparate viewpoints and discordant feelings, can instead be viewed as a montage of patterns, of which there are a limited number.

One of the main reasons that I am valuable as an outside facilitator is not inherent skill; rather, it's that I have spent many hours in the butcher shop and bring with me a wide pattern library. Today, it's hard to show me something I've never seen before. While the details are undoubtedly unique to the current manifestation, the applicable patterns are not. By breaking down the dynamic into its characteristic components, complex and/or volatile issues become more tractable, less daunting.

After conducting more than 40 facilitation training weekends over the last eight years, I've come to appreciate much better what it is I've learned to do as a professional facilitator (there is nothing quite like attempting to teach a thing to expose the gaps in how well you understand it). Over and over I am in the position of watching a live meeting with my students, detecting patterns, and then observing how long it takes for the students to see the same thing.

While a portion of the teaching is breaking things down into primary questions (what are the themes in the conversation; is the energy rising or falling; what questions remain to be addressed; how well are people hearing each other; to what extent are people feeling heard; are there underlying questions that haven't surfaced yet; where is this likely headed?), there is another portion for which an atomistic approach will not work.

It is the gestalt ability to absorb the whole of the meeting and have the essential patterns emerge when concentrating with a soft focus. Just as with Magic Eye graphics, the patterns can pop out of the fog in a blink. The trick is learning the art of the soft focus, where you let all of the data wash over you and resist the temptation to lock onto any one thing.

As a teacher, it's exciting to watch the students develop over the course of the two-year training, where there's a steady progression in relation to their ability to approach what I can do—all the way from awe to aw, shucks:

o Awe (I have no idea how you did that)
o Inkling (I knew something needed to happen but I had no clue what)
o Fuzzy (I had a general idea about what was needed but couldn't articulate it clearly)
o Slow (I got the same inspiration, but not as quickly)
o Aw, shucks (I could have done that!)

My dream is a world where my insights are aw, shucks all the time; where my eye is no more magic than anyone else's.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Eight Days Before the Mass

I woke up this morning with 70 pounds of warm mass leaning against my left thigh. Ceilee's pit bull, Zeus, had once again crawled onto my air mattress and snuggled against me in the night.

While not the same as sleeping with my wife—which I love and which I prefer—I am very fond of Zeus and happy to have his company in bed when I'm on my own, which has been the case this past fortnight for my road trip stops in Oakland and Las Vegas.

(The only downside is the challenge of peeing in the middle of the night. Extricating myself from the air mattress is analogous to climbing out of a vat of jello in the dark with a sentient wriggler moving between my legs, hoping to lick my face. When you're groggy and have to go, it's an interesting exercise in balance, patience, and spatial perception. Worse, by the time I return a few minutes later, Zeus will have repositioned himself smack in the middle of the warm spot and I have to fight him for the covers.)

• • •
In 1840 Richard Dana, Jr published Two Years Before the Mast, a compelling story about the privation of common sailors aboard sailing vessels. The writing was based on the author's personal experience in 1834-36, when he left Harvard to go to sea in an attempt to improve his vision after it had been compromised by a bad case of the measles. Though his intention had been to improve his eyesight, Dana gained insight into the plight of basic sailors (whose quarters were in the forecastle—before the mast) and his book became a bestseller. Though born into the owning class (he'd enlisted as a 19-year-old sailor on a ship his father owned), Dana was deeply affected by his experience and went on to become an antislavery activist.

Dana's story is affirmation of the potency of the classic admonition to walk a mile in the other person's moccasins. After coming to know a sailor's life—from first-hand experience, not just as a thought exercise—his patrician views about the social consequences of capitalism were forever tempered.

This age-old lesson maps well onto cooperative group dynamics and the skill of facilitation.
As a trainer, I teach students:

1. Seeing It Through the Speaker's Perspective
It's important to be able to be the other person when establishing a connection; to see the presenting dynamic through their eyes—just as Dana was able to write from the experience of a sailor before the mast. This is not about agreeing with the speaker; it's about being able to authentically speak for them. This can be huge when the speaker feels misunderstood or isolated—which is often the case if they are upset.

To do this well, you need to be able to bridge to both their position and their affect.

2. Translation
When Person A and Person B are missing each other and unable to get traction on the issue at hand, a good facilitator may be able to pull them out of the mud by translating what Person A said into language (or perhaps imagery) that's accessible to Person B while still being recognizable to Person A—and then being able to do the same thing going the other way.

To be able to pull this off, the facilitator needs to be able to first recognize that a miss is occurring (it's usually not that hard to accurately diagnose off-comments or querulous looks), and then find a frame of reference that both parties can access. It's this second step that's harder, requiring that the facilitator be able to articulate a bridge that each player can walk across.

This takes Dana's insight to another level. To be good at translation, it is not enough that the facilitator can describe the ends of the bridge (each person's position); the facilitator must manifest a connection between the positions that both parties believes is substantial enough that it will support their weight.
• • •
Today is get-away day. This evening I catch a dedicated Amtrak van that will take me to Kingman AZ, where I'll rendezvous after midnight with the eastbound Southwest Chief, rambling in from Los Angeles. Thursday morning, Ma'ikwe will be waiting to collect me at the art deco train station in La Plata MO. Yippee! I'll be home for the holidays.

Meanwhile, I have one last day with Zeus (who's poking me with his snout even as I type this, hoping for some loving—dogs aren't really that different from people; they're just less subtle). Later today, we'll go for a walk (he gets so excited when he sees me putting on my shoes that it's hard to tie the laces without him knocking my glasses off).

This past week I've mainly been staying at Ceilee & Tosca's, which means that Zeus has been my main squeeze. During the day, if I'm the couch (watching TV, hanging out with a grandkid, doing a crossword puzzle, or visiting with adults) Zeus will regularly check in with me, which means putting his paws on my leg and pushing his massive face into mine, the better to lick my ears. After a bit of enthusiastic petting, he usually settles down by my side. Zeus especially likes my visits because I laugh a lot and am more dependably interactive (excepting when I have a full cup of coffee or my six-month-old grandson in my lap).

When I'm in Las Vegas, a good part of each day involves wrestling with good-sized dogs. If it isn't Zeus, then it's one of my other two granddogs: Yoshi or Zelda (who are part of Jo & Peter's household across town). While I've been with Zeus most nights, I've also been sleeping around (hey, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas). Last Friday I spent the night at Jo & Peter's apartment, sleeping on the couch with Zelda. While there was some late night negotiation around how to arrange body parts in the vicinity of my feet, everything went better once I convinced her that it wasn't going to work out unless she stopped licking the top of my head.

During Friday's Game Day at Jo's (see my blog of Dec 10, Visiting the Dren) there were a number of times when Yoshi came into the back room to check out the action, presenting me the opportunity to rub my hands on his silken fur between turns
(for luck).

As I reflect on it, it's eerie how high a percentage of my eight days in Nevada have involved a mass of granddog in my immediate proximity. While dogs are not a religion to me, they are definitely family, and I've come to think of my time in Vegas as attending mass.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Visiting the Dren

When I was in college, it was fashionable to shorten words to their last syllable. Whence, "za" for pizza; "zeeks" for physics; and "rents" for parents.

While only some of these back-end phrases caught on (blessedly), I'm recalling those days as I spend a week in Las Vegas, visiting my "dren" (my kids). In their presence, I inevitably drift into reverie about what I was doing when I was their age, or recalling my days as a rent with young kids—which mirrors where my son, Ceilee, is today.

Ceilee is fast approaching 31, which was my age when he was born. He has two children (my granddaughter Taivyn, and my grandson Connor) and it's a delight to spend a week with these two curious beings (of course, I get to go home on Tuesday—it's incomparably easier being grandparent).

My daughter, Jo, is 24-1/2, exactly the age I was back in 1974, when I got together with three friends to start Sandhill Farm. There are many milestones to remember.

I spent yesterday with Jo. Along with her partner, Peter, they hosted an eight-person Game Day that lasted from noon to midnight. Not counting a brief break for dinner (at the neighborhood Chipotle where Jo works), we indulged in an orgy of board games (which Ceilee's Mom, Annie, refers to as bored games). I played Hansa Teutonica (1x), Stone Age (2x), Resistance (2x), World Market (1x), plus Acquire (1x) as a nightcap. This afternoon, Jo & I moseyed back over to Ceilee & Tosca's where we managed a four-person game of Siedler: Cities & Knights before dinner. (I say "managed" because it takes a certain amount of logistical sophistication when you're playing a board game and simultaneously managing child care for a six-month old baby and a three-year-old recovering from bacterial infection—there were an "above-average" number of pauses to field what passes for crises among small children).

It was a lovely way to spend 28 hours—eight games and six Christmas presents later (one at Starbucks, two at Lee's Discount Liquor, and three at the Little Shop of Magic)—and it sets the stage for tomorrow's professional football extravaganza. If it isn't one game, it's many others.

Sunday, while we attempt to watch 14 NFL football games at my son's house (he has NFL Ticket, TiVo, and a 48-inch plasma TV), we'll simultaneously be making ribbon sandwiches, a Schaub family tradition that features four layers of bread and with three distinctive spreads in the middle. Yum.

Think of it as an interactive holiday, where the ghost of Holiday Past shares the kitchen (and TV set) with the ghost of Holiday Present. Thinking back to football Sundays where I watched games with my father (circa 1964) I realize I've been lucky enough to enjoy this particular form of domestic bonding from both ends of the worm hole of time.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


When working with conflict one of the surest ways to tell if you're ready to productively turn to problem solving, is by tracking closely the responses between protagonists. If the first word is "but," it's not a good sign.

Often, a conflicted dynamic is characterized by diminished trust and relationship damage. A metaphor I like to use for this situation is a broken bridge. While you may be itching to string new cable and repair the bridge deck, I advise that you first make sure that the piers necessary to support the bridge are sound. The caution here is that it won't make any difference how stout the spanning sections are if one or more foundations are shaky—the whole thing may collapse (again) if the piers is weak. In short, you want strong abutments; not strong "But… " statements.

With this foundational objective in view, I recommend that you slow down enough at the outset that each party has a full opportunity to state their version of what happened and how they felt about about (Caution: don't gloss over the second part), followed by the other parties being able to demonstrate that they got the essence of it by reflecting it back to the original person's satisfaction.

The tricky part here is getting the affect right. In my experience this is more important than being able to parrot the words back. When someone is under tension the emotional component of their reality looms large, and most upset people have finely tuned radar for detecting insincerity or affectation—they can just tell if the reflector is reading them right. When I'm attempting this as a facilitator, I try to be that person. It's not sympathy, it's empathy.

This is Part III of my series on conflict.

Fighting for the Reality Joy Stick
One of the hazards of working with upset people is that they'll often want to sell you on their version of the truth, as if it were the only genuine article in a market flooded with cheap imitations. That is, they'll try to convince the group that they know the Truth, while others are purveying distortions. I try to steadfastly resist this, approaching the exploration of stories and feelings with aikido: rather than resisting, I believe everyone—even when the stories are mutually exclusive!

I figure it's rarely possible to know objective truth anyway (never mind that our system of jurisprudence is based on the concept that courts and legal inquiry will ferret it out), and the prime directive when unpacking conflict is to focus on relationship, rather than truth. While both may have been damaged, relationships will not heal unless there's a willingness to work from the principle that everyone means well and believe that their actions were reasonable from their frame of reference. If, on the other hand, truth is your primary focus, resolution is likely to be achieved at the cost of hardened hearts and exacerbated relationship damage. When you reflect on the fact that relationships and trust are the core of community, pushing for truth comes dear.

There is little to be gained by making one or more players wrong. In my view, it's far more productive to work from the premise that everyone has been proceeding on the basis of their truth. While it's important to know what that is (so that the bridge will be sturdy, it does not help to transform the group into a jury that determines who was Right.

Pursuing that approach to its inevitable conclusion, there may not be anyone left.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Getting a Feeling for Working Conflict

Years ago I was giving a Friday evening public presentation about conflict at an urban university. I had been invited by a forming community, with whom I was going to be working over the weekend. They were using the occasion of my being in town to drum up interest in their group, and the woman organizing the event had a clipboard on which she was diligently capturing the names and contact information of the folks she didn't know.

In the minutes before we got started, she approached one unknown young man from behind and tapped him lightly on his shoulder to get his attention, for the purpose of getting him to register on the clipboard. The man startled at her touch, turned around
abruptly, and glared at her with intensity. In the spur of the moment, the woman decided that perhaps she didn't need his contact information that badly and chose to back away.

At this point, I have just described the entire history of interaction between these two people. If there were any words exchanged, it was less than a sentence each way. Shortly after the woman retreated to her seat, I began my presentation—blissfully unaware that there was a storm brewing in the audience.

Ninety minutes later I was in the home stretch of my presentation, explaining how everyone has the option to work on conflict unilaterally. While most of the time we prefer (naturally) to be met by the other player(s) in a good-faith attempt to resolve conflict, I was pointing out the possibility and potency of working solo when the door to joint work is closed.

It was at this juncture—only three minutes away (I thought) from ending the talk and inviting everyone to regather in a nearby reception for punch and cookies—that the young man became quite agitated and blurted out that it wasn't easy to work through distress all on one's one. Surprised by his comment, I slowed down and offered something like:

"I apologize if I gave you the impression that it
's a simple matter to look inward, explore dispassionately how well your reactions serve you and consider the possible advantages of changing your feelings. I actually think that's hard work—though profoundly worthwhile if you're willing."

I was hoping that I'd deftly addressed his agitation and that punch and cookies were just moments away. No such luck. Instead, his agitation escalated and he appeared to be on the verge of punching the organizer in her cookies! Yikes!

Replying to me, he lamented, "How can you do that work when you're under attack?" Rising from his seat, he quickly closed the distance between himself and the woman with the clipboard. Towering over her, he accosted her with, "This bitch abused me and I'm not going to let her get away with it!" Uh oh. I hadn't a clue where this rage came from.

The woman's husband, sitting on the other side of the room, protested, "You can't talk to her that way!" "The hell I can't!" came back.

Upset and confused, the audience was wondering: why had Laird arranged this tasteless dramatization to end the talk? Laird was wondering: what in heaven's name was going on?

• • •
This is Part II of a series on conflict. Today I'm going to make the case for the primacy of working with emotions when addressing conflict. I opened with this chaotic true-life story to showcase the points I want to make.

1. People in distress often express themselves in provocative ways
When a person is in serious distress (never mind how they got there; they're there) I've found it helpful to think of them as a drowning person—where all they can think about is getting oxygen. In their determination to get air, they may have little to no awareness about how they may be hurting others in their thrashing about, and observations about about their behavior fall on deaf ears. They want a helping hand, not reflections on their overhand crawl.

In my story, the young man was clearly in distress, yet the cause was not apparent. Worse, he was being abusive in his efforts to let everyone know that he'd been abused. Very messy. His experience was that the woman had been provocative; everyone else experienced him being provocative. In his urgency to get support he was, tragically, pushing everyone away.

Taking a deep breath, I knew what I had to do. Without knowing where the story would lead, I nonetheless knew that we needed to start with the young man's distress—not the secondary distress stirred up by the way he was expressing himself. So I walked up to him (I wanted him looking at me, not the woman) and tried to make contact: "You're really pissed off. You feel abused by this woman and you're outraged. Do I have that right?"

Almost immediately, the man started to deescalate (not all the way to calm and serene, but his voice register dropped and his breathing slowed). Essentially, people want to be held and even though I raised my energy to meet his, it is calming to be heard accurately and without judgment. Unlike the gas-on-the-fire response he had to those who were (understandably) objecting to his aggressive language with the woman, I was offering a life ring, and he gratefully accepted it.

While in most cases there's no mystery what triggers an emotional response, in this case I was clueless (and somewhat apprehensive of what would come out when I opened that door). Still, I needed to make sense of his response and I didn't yet have enough information, so I asked him what she'd done that was abusive. He replied that she'd tapped him on the shoulder, violating his body.

While I'm familiar with this potential response when a man touches a woman, it's rare to encounter this with the genders switched. As tapping someone on the shoulder seemed pretty innocuous, I needed more still. Carefully, I laid out that it seemed to me that he had a particularly strong response to a tap on the shoulder; could he say more about why that was abusive? He shared that his mother abused him as a child and that he's now, as an adult, hypersensitive to touch by women.

OK, now I could connect the dots. I didn't need to hear details about what his mother had actually done. It was enough for me to be able to recalibrate events through his lens. While tapping a shoulder lightly (especially a petite woman touching a taller, larger man) is going to be socially acceptable 99% of the time, this was the one percent where that assumption failed. Just as women have rights to determine appropriate boundaries of touch, so do men and the woman had made a mistake. While the unlikeliness of the man's response allowed me to have sympathy for the woman, that had nothing to do with the legitimacy of the man's emotional response. My #1 job in that situation was to validate the experience of the distressed.

2. One at a time
While I think groups should protect opportunities for everyone to be able to clear their distress relative to how the group's functioning, everyone can't go first and it doesn't work to have everyone go at the same time. It's generally best to start with the person who's the most upset and go from the there, with everyone getting a turn. (Note: it may not be that easy to tell who's in the greatest distress, because people vary so widely in how they display it. Just because someone is yelling and turning purple doesn't necessarily mean their upset is more severe than another person who shuts down and turns catatonic.)

That Friday evening, I started with the young man and stayed with him until he acknowledged that I had understood the essence of his experience. Then I asked him if it was OK to switch focus and offer the woman the same attention he'd just received. After getting his acceptance, that's what I did. She was shaking from being attacked and not sure what to do. She was shocked and dismayed by how badly her tap on the shoulder had landed.

3. Emotions first; stories second; context third; problem solving fourth
There's a sequence to working through conflict. Strong feelings are invariably linked with distortion (while there's considerable individual variation, the basic trend is that increased distress is associated with increased distortion), and that it's advisable to start with bridging to the distressed person's feelings. As the distortion will effectively undercut the efficacy of anything you attempt in the way of problem solving, it's paramount that you reduce the distortion before doing anything else. By this, I mean demonstrating to the distressed person's satisfaction that you have understood their emotional experience (first) in response to an event (second).

While these two steps can often be done simultaneously, so many people are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with emotional articulation that they'll avoid or bypass naming their feelings unless you're firm about the request.

After that, it often helps to set the context (what's at stake; why does it matter that the players repair their relationship?), followed by a request that each person make an effort to move toward the other by offering an olive branch. At this step, I'm looking for a measurable action that honors what the other person wants yet is completely within the values, ability, and personality of the person making the gesture. It's about reaching out, not selling out.

In the case of the Friday night fight, the two protagonists were ships passing in the night. While they had in common a curiosity about community and attendance at my lecture, they were not going to have an ongoing relationship—they had a fleeting relationship, not the more substantive connection of being in the same fleet. Thus, I settled for getting apologies both ways. The woman apologized for assuming permission to touch him, and the man recognized that the woman didn't mean to be abusive and apologized for being abusive in expressing his upset.

Then we went for punch and cookies.

The essential point that I'm making today is that you'll be far more successful in working conflict if you start with a focus on emotional experience—which approach can be effective even if the two people have almost no commitment to one another and you're taken wholly by surprise. At the end of the day, we all want to be held, and if you authentically contradict the isolation that people typically experience when in distress, you'll be well positioned to repair damage and to turn corners that stay turned.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Anaerobic Hazard of Unaddressed Distress

Today I'm starting an Integrative Facilitation training weekend in Oakland (weekend three of eight) and the teaching theme is conflict. It seems an auspicious occasion for making it my writing theme as well.

A significant fraction of my work as a process consultant is working with conflict—by which I mean the condition where there are at least two points of view and at least one person is experiencing non-trivial distress in relation to events. (Disagreements where no one's nose is out of joint are also interesting, but not nearly as tricky to navigate, so I'm concentrating just on the hard part here.)

The stakes are pretty high here. Our mainstream culture—the one nearly all of us grew up in—conditioned us to respond to conflict by fighting, submitting, suppressing, manipulating, or running away. As far as I can tell, this menu essentially goes back to Neanderthal days. One of the cornerstones of cooperative culture is that there has got to be a better way. The good news is that there is, but it's not necessarily easy to get there. The theory is not hard, the challenge is being able to respond differently in the heat of the moment.

This entry will be the opening of a series on the theme of conflict.
Today I'm going to try to make the case for why the cost of not learning to effectively address upset is prohibitively high. I've come to the view that we simply can't afford to not learn to deal constructively with conflict, and I'm going to try to persuade you to my viewpoint.

It's relatively easy to understand why groups hesitate to shine the spotlight of plenary attention on fulminating upset. Why do something that you're not good at and that often leads to people feeling nauseous? People who are upset often behave badly; aren't you just rewarding outrageous behavior be giving it attention?

Here are four reasons why groups need the capacity to be able to walk into the lion's den:

1. Conflict compromises problem solving
As distress rises, so does distortion of information. The greater the distress, the greater the likelihood that the person will mishear what's said or misinterpret what it means. I refer to this as "virtual earwax." In the extreme, nothing will get through accurately. While minor distress only causes minor distortion (and typically doesn't need group attention), everyone has a threshold above which distortion is no longer trivial and it becomes a problem for that person to participate accurately in the conversation. Worse, that person's distress may trigger anxiety in others which distracts them from focused attention on the issue as well, and it is hard to do good work.

This is why plowing ahead (by trying to set conflict aside) often fails to produce usable results.

2. Conflict is a source of information
Some people know things emotionally in ways that are different and perhaps more profound than they know them rationally. Why limit what we have to work with? While I admit that it can be a considerable challenge trying to weigh the apples of thought against the oranges of feelings, are you better of pretending that no one has any citrus?

What I'm advocating here is not being happy that there's upset; rather, it's appreciating that there’s a chance at the information.

3. Conflict is a source of energy
There is energy in emotions; if the group can find a way to welcome that input, it can harness the energy to focus on the issues. In fact, success in working with conflict builds community and connection like nothing else.

Have you ever noticed how many groups tend to run meetings with flat energy? One of the reasons is that they're trying to keep a lid on feelings lest they get out of control. I think it's better to welcome passion into the room, so long as it's on topic and heartfelt. Who said meeting can't be fun?

4. Unattended, conflict erodes trust and masks good feelings
This is a real tragedy. If the group avoids dealing with conflict and the parties are unwilling or unable to work through it unilaterally, then it tends to fester and occupy an ever increasing amount of a person's consciousness, to the point where the tension is evoked pretty much whenever they encounter the person who was the trigger—even when the topic in the moment has nothing to do with the original hurt.

In addition to the tragedy of the ever-renewed irritation (which isn't pleasant for anyone), this dynamic has the additional negative effect of overshadowing any genuine good feelings that used to exist between the antagonists because they have been pushed aside by the festering raw sores. Who can access positive memories when you're picking at scabs?

• • •
In my next entry I'll examine what it means to work with the wild card of emotions—not just in the relative safety of no-comment sharing circles; I'm talking about welcoming on-topic feelings into the heretofore staid world of business meetings.