Sunday, January 15, 2012

Facilitating Elders

One of the exhilarating aspects of creating cooperative culture is the opportunity to do things differently—the chance to create norms that are different than the ones we were raised with, with the express purpose of making things better. That said, there can nonetheless be some unintended consequences that don't go down well.

At Sandhill, for instance, we have intentionally raised our kids with the expectation that they deserved an explanation when adults asked them to do something—not they had the option of opting out if they didn't like the answer; only that they deserved an explanation if one was requested. Years ago, I can remember when we had a member in her mid-20s and how irritated she felt at being expected to provide a rationale to my teenage son when he asked for one after being asked to help out. In her view, she was getting the worst of both experiences. As a minor she was expected to be satisfied with "Because I told you so." Now finally an adult, kids suddenly had more power and being imperious with children was no longer acceptable behavior. Grr.

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I'm immersed in a facilitation training this weekend hosted by Hundredfold Farm, a two-thirds built cohousing community in Gettysburg PA (they have five lots left). Yesterday, a question came up about how to work with elders. What a good question!

The interesting aspect is to what extent you should you treat elders (by which I mean people who have been in the group for a long time and who are up in years and probably no longer as active today as they once were) differently than anyone else. Alternately, what if the elder expects to be treated differently, whether consciously or not? As this comes in a number of flavors, let's taste each in turn:

1. Founder's Syndrome
For some elders, their tenure with the group may go all the way back to the beginning days, or at least close enough that there is a substantial gap between their time in service to the group and that of many current members. Sometimes the elder will hold the view that so many special things happened in those bygone times that the latter day members cannot possibly understand what it was like back in the day.

When tension develops over how to respond to an issue and the elder with Founder's Syndrome holds a different view from that of newer members, the elder can get locked into the opinion that the disagreement is caused the newbies' lack of perspective and insufficient breadth of experience. While that may be a factor, it can be the very devil to convince elder that they have indeed been fully heard—they just aren't being agreed with.

If this is the dynamic then the leverage point is figuring out how to demonstrate to the elder's satisfaction that they have been heard, as a prelude to doing any heavy lifting around the triggering issue.

2. Diminished Capacity
As people age, it' not unusual for senility
(or at least diminished capacity) to enter the equation, yet the decay is rarely linear and there can be considerable delicacy in diagnosing this.

o Perhaps they're
living with one foot in the past, insisting on reminiscing instead of keeping the focus current. Warning: Be careful! Stories about what the group did in earlier years may be highly relevant to the current conversation. Being old does not necessarily mean being in the way.

o Perhaps they don't hear or see as well as they once did and miss a lot of what's happening.

3. Family of Origin
The roots of how a person responds to elders can go back to how they were conditioned as a child—to what extent were grandparents treated differently (read deferentially) growing up? For most of us, the "normal" response is to recapitulate the way you were raised, yet it's almost certain that people's conditioning will be all over the map in this respect, especially when you digest that most people living in cooperative groups have already demonstrated some degree of willingness to break from their roots in choosing that culture. (Thus, for those who identify courage and pathfinding with a shift, it may actually be knee-jerk negative for them that someone responds to elders with deference. That is, what is meant as respect by one person may come across as unenlightened and/or chicken shit to another. Talk about a mess!)

4. The Power Gradient
Elders can derive power by virtue of their age (see my previous point) and also by virtue of experience—which is often associated with age, though not always. Experience is something an elder has earned (or at least accumulated) and, so long as it's relevant to the group's purpose, not something you want to throw out with the bath water in an egalitarian purge. In this respect elders are no different than anyone else with background that bears on the issues and functions of the group, and is one of the ways in which it's appropriate to discriminate. That is, it makes sense to give more weight to the opinion of those who have more knowledge about a topic than those who don't. While experience doesn't necessarily translate into wisdom, it helps.

What makes this murky is that appropriate discrimination can be interwoven with privilege and it can be delicate teasing out the difference. When you have a plumbing issue, are you listening more to the advice of the older white guy because: a) he's done more plumbing; b) he's older; c) he's white; or d) he's male. While you may think you're only doing it for a), how can you be sure?

5. Stepping Down
The opposite side of the elder who tries to hang on to power too long, is the one who gives it up before the group is ready. This is where the elder recognizes the need for transition—perhaps because of weariness; perhaps because the need for the next generation to develop their leadership capacity before the elder is literally gone. In this dynamic there can be resentment directed toward an elder who is perceived to be withholding their care and sagacity. (Tough love does not tend to be received with grace when not requested.)

6. R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Find Out What it Mean to Me
In the 60s, Aretha Franklin made this into a hit single. One of the things that makes this song compelling is that the lyrics pose a timeless challenge. It turns out that respect does not mean the same thing to everyone. Thus, even if everyone agreed that it was appropriate to extend respect to elders (not instead of respect to non-elders, but as a class deserving of special treatment), it would be dangerous to assume that everyone understood that agreement translated into a uniform set of behaviors.

For some, it would mean not speaking until the elder had spoken; for others, it might would mean making sure that the elder had the last word. For some it would mean never raising one's voice in front of the elder; for others it would mean being strong in the presence of the elder, meant to honor how the elder has inspired strength in the group. For some it means reserving a favorite chair for the elder; yet for some elders this is embarrassing and comes across as coddling.
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For all of these reasons, it can require careful work on the part of the facilitator to tease out why people—including elders themselves!—are responding to the elder role as they do and figuring out how to navigate these waters without foundering, pitching the founder overboard, or going overboard in obeisance to the founder.

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