Friday, March 30, 2012

Consensus in Heavy Sledding

This winter I worked with a group that had struggled mightily to complete their annual budget process. They were using consensus and the experience had been grueling. While they finally got through it, they crossed the finish line more with a sense of exhaustion than completion. Hoping they could have a different, better experience the next time they encountered a budget blizzard, they asked for help. (While this group's facility with consensus was only average, their awareness that help could improve things and their willingness to dedicate the time and dollars to the attempt made them above average.)

I worked with the group for three days—Friday through Sunday. In addition to facilitating a pair of three-hour plenaries Saturday and Sunday afternoon, I spent more than four hours specifically addressing the role of the facilitator in negotiating heavy sledding (which generally translates into two main challenges: complexity and volatility—for the most part, a group's worst nightmare is a topic that features both). On Friday I spent about eight hours listening to people in ones, twos, and small groups telling me what they thought was wrong and what they thought needed fixing. Interestingly, though not surprisingly, some of the reports were contradictory.

The plan was that I would teach the group how to use consensus more adroitly, so that they could reach a decision with broad buy-in on tough topics, and the vehicle selected for demonstrating this was revisiting the most draining discussion of the just-completed budget cycle. While there was easy agreement that this was an excellent example of something the group hadn't done well, there was nowhere near agreement about why it hadn't gone well, or whether it was wise to go back there so soon.

(As the weekend unfolded and I became aware of the tremendous resistance among some members to reopening the discussion, I had the distinct image of World War I trench warfare, where soldiers begrudged giving up even an inch of territory that had been purchased so dearly in blood.)

In any event—even if was a matter of fools rushing in—I was game to try. I am a firm believer in tackling the hardest issue that the group is willing to attempt, in the belief that progress there will be the most inspiring and uplifting. (If you only demonstrate how to handle lightweight stuff, the skeptics will be wondering if the group has really turned a corner, or just been mildly entertained by a display of cooperative prestidigitation.) In preparing for my work, I created an outline of the steps I'd take to lead them through the minefield that was the budget, and it seemed to me that sharing this template would be a good subject for today's blog. Here's what I did:

A. Background Interviews
As soon as I had arrived on site, I started having conversations with stakeholders (people known to care a lot about the outcome), the better to understand what their core concerns were, and the dimensions of the distance between viewpoints. Hint: While it's often not strictly necessary to have an individual conversation with every stakeholder, the stronger the emotional attachment, the more important it is to meet with that person ahead of time.

B. Determine a Point of Entry that Lays out the Gulf Between Positions and the Work Ahead
In preparing for the first plenary, I distilled what I'd collected from Step A into what I styled "Findings" and offered that to the group at the outset. If done accurately (I always check to make sure the group is on board with what I offer), this frames where we are, crystallizes the key questions needing attention, and suggests a pathway through the maze. Done well, this saves gobs of time in the attempt to get traction. I provides a road map for how we'll work, which makes it easier for people to follow where we are and where we're headed.

C. Start with Attention on Any Significant Unresolved Distress (if that's in play)
Essentially, if there exists significant tension in relation to the issue I think it's better to make an attempt to address the distress prior to addressing the issue.

While it's rarely possible to address all the unresolved distress in the the room, fortunately that's not typically necessary. Rather, you need to address enough distress that two important things happen: a) it releases the tension that was on top (taking the edge off and allowing those that expressed themselves to be more open to what followed—think of it as removing virtual earwax); and b) it establishes that the facilitator is willing and able to work through messes as they occur (which allows the group to relax its anxiety about whether messes are likely, thereby expanding the range of input that the group will find usable).

Note: by "working with distress" I am not talking about taking sides or determining who's right. The aim is simply to make sure that people feeI heard to the point that they were ready to go on.

D. Trusting that There is Sufficient Wisdom in the Group to Know the Way Through the Hard Stuff
As the facilitator, I see my job as midwife, not as wizard. Thus, I try to set the table and maintain the right atmosphere for a live birth, but it isn't my baby, and it's not my job to pull a rabbit out of a hat. To serve in this role, I listen carefully to what people are saying, trusting that the clues about what can work to bridge differences among people will lie in what they say.

E. Identify Themes and Potential Bridges as They are Uncovered
After each chunk of conversation, I offered the group a summary of themes or trends, helping to clarify a viable pathway through the maze, and the elements of agreement that might be woven into a cohesive whole. In each case, I was simply giving back to the group what it had just given to itself.

F. Once One Level of Understanding Is Reached, Use that as a Basis to Build the Next
I expect each round of consideration to be an advancement, based on what went before. I insist on progress yet am ever mindful to not go so fast that people are left behind. It is, of course, important to pause after each round to make sure there's solid buy-in with the product of one level before asking it to support the weight of the round of building.

G. When Significant Distress Surfaces, Pay Attention to that as a Priority
While we tried to do as much emotional clearing as we could up front (Step C), it's not at all rare for more to surface as you proceed. Whenever significant tension erupts, it behooves you to suspend the focus on the topic to attend to the distress. In the example I was working, one person reached a flash point of overwhelm and frustration that resulted in their making an impassioned plea for a couple holding a different position to give it up. The result was tears and the couple leaving the room hurt and angry.

In that moment, you cannot simply return to the conversation about the topic and pretend that the eruption didn't occur; you have to give people room to respond to what just happened.

To be sure, this can be tricky to navigate. In the instance I've described, some were dismayed—even ashamed—that the couple felt so alienated. Others were in a similar place to the person who lost it, feeling fed up with how much attention was being devoted to the couple. After hearing a number of comments like that, another person was in distress about people speaking critically about the couple when they weren't in the room. (I made a commitment to share a summary of the comments with the couple at the earliest opportunity, so that we could continue.) A few others wanted to discuss what should be done about the topic (responding from the head), and I had to ask them to wait until we were at that point again—for now I was only looking for heart comments.

H. After Working the Distress, Return to Working the Topic
After we gave everyone a chance to respond emotionally to what happened, we used the remaining time to confirm where were on the budget topic (so that all the good work that had been accomplished prior to the blow-up was not lost), what would be next steps, and how the group would handle the aspects of the road map that hadn't yet gotten to.

It's relatively common that the group is not able to wrap up a complex topic with a ribbon and bow when it's time to end the meeting. While it's inevitable that there will be some degree of disappointment with that, it shouldn't mean that the time was a waste of time. If you're careful to identify the partial agreement and have a clear plan for how to complete what remains, that can be a solid result.

I. If There are Outliers, Do What You Can to See that They are Being Carried Forward in the Work
In most cases where there exist non-trivial differences about how to respond to an issue, the distribution of viewpoints is not even. That is, it's common for there to be a few folks identified as being on the edge, while most people clump toward the middle. Where that's the case, it typically makes sense for the facilitator to pay special attention to those on the edges, as they are the ones most susceptible to falling off the wagon and you need to make sure they aren't being left behind.

While there was some discomfort with my doing this because it was perceived by some as letting the outliers control the agreement, that was not what I was doing. Whenever I'm working with someone who feels isolated and misunderstood, I go through a sequence that includes hearing, understanding, validating, and bridging—followed by expecting people to walk the bridge, which is not the same as asking anyone to walk the plank. That is, I expect movement from people once this kind of attention and respect has been extended to them.

One of the more poignant aspects of the work I did with this group was how members experienced it differently. While about a quarter of the group could see the distinctions in the way I was working (from the way the group had tried to cover the same ground originally during the budget cycle) and noticed the shift in the way the outlier couple was responding, another quarter remained skeptical and saw the weekend as the same old shit. (The other two quarters didn't express how they experienced the weekend.)

My sense was that for the skeptics, their hope for the weekend was that I could get the couple to move toward the position held by most people, and that it wasn't necessary for the majority to rethink where they had gotten to—they didn't get it that I was looking for everyone to get on the bridge, not just for the couple to walk across to the other side.

J. Keep the Group Focused on What Kind of Response Is Desired
Repeatedly, I would lay out where we were in the consideration and what kind of a response I was looking for. It takes discipline to understand that and keep one's comments focused productively. For example, one of the most common challenges in facilitating consensus conversations is distinguishing between the discussion phase (where you are identifying the factors that a good response needs to take into account) and the problem-solving phase (where you are exploring possible actions that balance these factors). It is incredibly common for someone to respond to the expression of a concern with what might be done to address it. While the enthusiasm and good intentions are admirable, it leads to mass confusion if you try to be expansive (discussion phase) and contractive (proposal-generating phase) simultaneously.

Similarly, if your want a response from the heart, the facilitator needs to assiduously deflect responses from the head.

K. Model Curiosity
In cooperative culture—which is what you're striving for in consensus—you want the quality of response to new ideas or differing views to be curios rather than combative or defensive. You want the lowest possible barriers to people voicing divergent views, trusting that the group will figure out how to balance everything once all views are in the open and fully understood.

While this concept is not hard, it's hard to remember it in the heat of the moment—especially when the stakes are high and you disagree.

L. Believe in the Process
If you don't think a breakthrough is possible, you're much less likely to see one that presents itself. People tend to find what they're looking for—and miss what they're not looking for. If people come into a meeting expecting a fight, they're already most of the way toward manifesting one. If you don't start with the assumption that movement and flexibility are possible, you won't recognize it when it comes along.

• • •
While it's no doubt hard to make progress when the group is unused to maintaining an open and curious environment—there's a reason they call it heavy sledding—it is possible and it's well worth learning. In a world that's brittle and fractured, I'm buoyed that groups are asking for help in learning how to do this.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Winter of Our New Contentment

Half a century ago (1961), John Steinbeck published his last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent. The plot revolves around the protagonist, Ethan Allen Hawley, who falls into the temptation to compromise his moral standards around honesty and integrity for material gain and the chance to recapture higher status and societal standing that had been lost by his father's misadventures. The novel is a dark inquiry into a person's soul and the nature of happiness.

With the redbud and grape hyacinth now in full glory, it's a good moment to reflect on the winter just passed, before it's buried by the bustle of spring and the projects ahead. While my winter also had its moments of turmoil and uncertainty, I've arrived at a much different place than Hawley and that seems worthy of reporting.

Saturday I moved back to Sandhill after spending the last three months with Ma'ikwe at Moon Lodge, her residence at Dancing Rabbit. It was the longest stretch of concentrated time we've spent together in our 6+ years of partnership and it brought up some surprising joys and challenges.

While there was one point deep into winter where Ma'ikwe thought it might be a good thing that we weren't together so much (something about absence making the heart grow fonder and missing the occasion for such fondness), it got better. Irritations that were more tolerable in smaller doses became issues we needed to attend to. Ways in which we've been hiding from each other (in plain sight) became exposed. As Ma'ikwe and I practice it, intimacy is a push-me-pull-me paradox where we subtly reject and stubbornly undermine the very closeness and transparency we crave. It's humbling stuff as we peel away the layers of armor and self-righteousness, only to discover more layers beneath.

While we were able to make progress on some of our intimacy issues—such as my baseline criticality [see my blog of Jan 9, Critical Judgment, for more on this]—other interesting lines of inquiry have been put on hold as Ma'ikwe's declining health warranted the top spot in our consciousness.

It had been my plan from the outset to return to Sandhill at this time. (Regardless of how the winter experiment in cohabitation went, I wanted to protect time to digest the experience before reaching any conclusions about where I'd live on a regular basis.) On the one hand, this is a crazy time to step back from being close to my wife, as she's facing a major challenge with chronic Lyme [see my previous blog We Went to the Doctor and the Doctor Said… for more on that].

On the other hand, my home community also needs me and my connection there is precious. In the three days I've been home I've organized a highway trash pick-up along a three-mile stretch of blacktop nearest our property; helped move the FIC office back into our funky trailer now that winter is a memory, started work on the community's taxes, hand scrubbed the kitchen floor, and done a cooking shift.

The last few days have been intimately disorienting, with the familiarity and comfort of being in my own bed—one I made by hand 38 years ago—juxtaposed with the absence of Ma'ikwe lying next to me, and the morning rhythms of the last three months transposed from winter at Moon Lodge to spring at the White House (the Sandhill building where my bedroom occupies the southeast corner). While both morning rituals prominently feature coffee and noodling at the keyboard of my laptop, now there is no fire to tend, no quilted window coverings to roll up, no choreography with my partner about how the day will go.

Luckily, when I'm home I'm still only three miles away from Ma'ikwe and I aim to get over there 2-3 times each week. While I won't be in her daily routine any more—and that's a significant difference—I will have approximately the same amount of concentrated personal time with her, and that's significant also.

For the immediate future, the hardest part will be the trips that we won't be taking together while she focuses on healing. Traveling and working together has been a significant part of our relationship, and that aspect will be minimized in the coming months. For example, we had been planning all winter to take a three-week trip to North Carolina the latter part of April—which included time to celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary, April 21. Now I'll be taking that trip by myself. While I'll still enjoy the work and the friends I'll see in the process, a number of things will be less favorable:
o I'll be separated from my wife instead of with her.
o I won't have her as my partner in doing the work.
o I won't be with her to help with daily domestic needs (cooking, doing the dishes, sweeping the floor, emptying the compost, etc.).
o I won't be by her side for emotional and moral support when she has hard days (skype and phone calls count, yet aren't the same thing as being able to hold her and breathe the same air).

As uncertain as the future is regarding Ma'ikwe's health, or even how much time we'll have together in the months immediately in front of us, we will be making decisions about that as a partnership that has never been closer or more resilient. Holding that framework in mind, I leave the winter content, and there is no amount of status or wealth that would tempt me to trade places with Ethan Allen Hawley.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

We Went to the Doctor and the Doctor Said…

… Nothing about feeding my wife shortening bread.

Ma'ikwe traveled to the Chicago suburbs this past week for a Wed morning initial visit with a Lyme literate doctor (whom I'll call Doctor Annette). "Lyme literate" is an appellation used by doctors who have made it an emphasis of their practice to study this particular syndrome and to work with patients who suffer from complications associated with having been infected by the bacterial spirochetes that carry the disease. As it turns out, it's complicated—not to mention controversial.

Size Matters
Before taking you on a tour of the Lyme Disease House of Horrors, I want to offer a basic primer on the following pantheon of human health hazards:

o Viruses are the smallest players. They don't have cells and are incapable of reproducing without a host. They are common and widespread. By far the most prevalent is the common cold. Other examples include flu, herpes, chicken pox, mumps, and shingles. While most viral infections are self limiting (such as a cold), others are not (such as AIDS). Viruses are often treated with vaccines, and cannot be treated with antibiotics.

o Bacteria are one to two orders of magnitude larger and can reproduce on their own (through asexual fission). Though larger than viruses, bacteria still lack a nucleus. They are styled prokaryotes, and exist as single-cell organisms. Antibiotics are typically used to kill bacteria by disrupting the integrity of the cell walls. Examples of bacterial infection include E coli, salmonella, staphylococcus, meningitis, and gonorrhea.

o Parasites are larger still and have a true nucleus. Though they are mostly multi-celled, they exist as single-cell organisms as well. Parasites are styled eukaryotes, and derive nutrients from a living host. Examples of parasite-caused human illnesses include amoebic dysentery, malaria, scabies, and pinworms. Treatment tends to focus on killing eggs, killing hatched parasites, and regenerating damaged tissue. Antibiotics are not affective approach with eukaryotes because what kills them will also attack healthy tissue.

o Fungi are also large. They are plant-like multi-celled living things that operate without chlorophyll. If they take nutrients from a living host then they are considered parasitic. However, fungi also exist as symbionts (where there presence is mutually beneficial with a living host) and as saprobes (where they derive nutrients from the decaying matter of a dead host). Examples of parasitic fungi that infect humans include athlete's foot, ringworm, and thrush. Treatments include antiseptics and fungicides.

• • •
While most doctors take the position that there is no such thing as chronic Lyme (outbreaks of Lyme symptoms that reoccur without re-infection), there is a minority view that the spirochetes are extremely clever, hard to expunge, and the cause of all kinds of mischief. According to Doctor Annette the Lyme organism can exist in three phases:

Spirochete Phase
This is the active bacterial version that all doctors recognize as a health hazard. People typically get infected as the result of back wash from a tick bite. While the classic symptoms include a bullseye rash around the bite, achy joints, fatigue, and headaches, an infected person may not experience any of these. There are definitive tests for the presence of spirochetes in the blood, and the standard treatment is an antibiotic to kill the spirochetes. (In Ma'ikwe's case she took a strong course of doxycycline 18 months ago when she first tested positive for spirochetes.) In addition, the spirochetes would normally be attacked by a person's immune system and are also adversely affected by heat (one of the more interesting treatment protocols is regular use of an infrared sauna, that apparently drives the little boogers crazy).

Cyst Phase
As a defense strategy, the spirochetes can go dormant by encysting in response to attack. They can apparently stay dormant for years. Ma'ikwe suspects, for example, that her original infection happened in 1997, when she was diagnosed with and treated for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. In this phase there is currently no known test to discover their presence. Doctor Annette explained it using the metaphor of your body as a house. If the spirochetes live in the halls and the cysts in the rooms, a blood test will only tell you if there is anything in the halls.

The understanding is that the disease will move out of the cyst phase and back into the spirochete phase opportunistically in response to stress, or any time when you immune system has been compromised. This could include emotional distress, physical trauma, attack by another disease, etc.

While Ma'ikwe wasn't oriented toward looking at Lyme as part of her health record until she got a positive blood test for it in 2010, when she looks backwards, she now thinks that the disease reappeared in 2005, when she gave birth to her daughter, Ananda, and had a difficult labor. She never regained the same level of wellness that she enjoyed prior to her daughter's birth, and the diagnosis of chronic Lyme explains a lot of things.

In an effort to attack the cyst phase, Ma'ikwe takes regular doses of an anti-candida medicine that includes grapefruit seed extract, oregano oil, and acidophilus (yogurt culture, a probiotic).

Cell-wall Deficient Phase
In addition to the first two phases, there is another, more exotic phase where the disease is active yet markedly different than in the spirochete form. While bacteria normally have cell walls, these ingenious boogers have apparently figured out how to survive for a time without a cell wall, thereby negating the effectiveness of antibiotics trying to hunt them down.

I know this sounds like something from the fringe science of the '60s television program Outer Limits, but evidence for this bizarre possibility was first discovered by scientists in 1935 when they found that some organisms that normally have cell walls could replicate without cell walls and then have the progeny revert to the original morphology (that is, with cell walls). Weird, eh?

While this three-phase defense strategy is impressive all by itself, the spirochetes have gone beyond that to develop additional techniques to bolster their survival. For one thing, they can clump in a ball. While the outer layer is susceptible to antibiotics, the inner layer is protected. Thus, a normal antibiotic course may not kill off all the spirochetes unless it's sustained long enough.

In addition, the
bacteria are also capable of exuding a bio-film, a gelatinous goo that the bacteria can hide in, protecting it from being reached by antibiotics. What's more these last two strategies can be combined, with the goo being employed to protect a ball of spirochetes. There is speculation that the bacteria's favored approach to goo-generating is to rob the body of the myelin sheath around healthy nerves—thus employing a wolf in sheep's clothing trick that our leukocytes then bypass when on the prowl for bad guys. (It hardly seems fair that bacteria can be so clever!)

The counter-terrorist measure that Ma'ikwe is relying on is an enzyme approach (lumbrokinase) based on the earthworm, Lumbricus rubellus. Ma'ikwe takes these in pill form (Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, guess I'll eat some worms... ). It breaks down the goo, which not only makes the little darlings more vulnerable to antibiotics, but it thins the blood, helping to improve blood flow—thereby addressing one of the classic Lyme symptoms of fog brain, perhaps resulting from insufficient oxygen flow to the head associated with goo-thickened blood.

OK, so that's a 25-cent tour of Lyme disease. Unfortunately, it's worse than that. Ma'ikwe must also cope with the likelihood of co-infection.

Once your immune system is besieged by Lyme, it creates a more favorable environment for additional diseases to join the party. Doctor Annette referred to this as "the soup." Given that this all started with a tick bite, the first group of co-infections to consider are tick-borne relatives of Lyme.
There are three major ones that are the most common:
—Bartonella, which is a bacterium
—Babesiosis, which is a parasite
—Erlichiosis, which is a parasite

While all have symptoms that are similar to Lyme, they also have differences. Doctor Annette's strategy here is to keep our eyes open for the symptoms, but not to start with parasites (we'll get to those later). Her preference is to focus first on bacteria or viral infection, and she was willing to wait on Bartonella because the doxycycline that Ma'ikwe is currently taking for her re-emerged Lyme symptoms is equally effective for Bartonella.

Ma'ikwe got blood work done Wed (the results of which aren't back yet) to look for the most likely opportunistic problems beyond the tick-borne options. This represents casting a significantly wider net with which to strain the soup (no doubt straining the metaphor at the same time). Here are the four we're looking at:
o Epstein-Barr (herpes IV), which is a virus
o Herpes VI, which is also a virus
o Chlamydia, which is a bacteria
o Candida pneumonia, which is fungal

Doctor Annette's thinking is to deal with whatever is presenting, and that it's better to have a rather wide screen when looking for what's floating in the soup. Because it makes a large difference if you're treating a virus, a bacterium, or a fungus, it's better to have clear evidence of what's in the ascendant before investing a lot in medicine. That approach certainly made sense to us.

The overall strategy is to tackle whatever is being the most problematic, gradually promoting health through eliminating (or at least knocking back) whatever is being ornery. To do that, Doctor Annette has made a convincing case for looking at her health as a system that can be compromised in a variety of interactive ways. we need to be looking at the whole and not just for spirochetes. In the end, it doesn't really matter how much of Ma'ikwe's poor health is being directly caused by Lyme; it matters that she feels like crap and we need her to get better.

Are we having fun yet?
On top of everything else, I want to illuminate one last piece of the puzzle: herxing. This term refers to the pain and discomfort—often acute—associated with a massive die-off of bad guys in response to treatment. The conundrum here is accurately distinguishing between ill feelings that are the result of effective treatment (hurray!) or because you haven't gotten anywhere (boo!). In both cases you feel shitty.

Couldn't we just have a halo that appears over her head when things are getting better?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

If the Form Fits, Wear It

Today is the final installment of a series of three blogs on the topic of meeting facilitation, covering:

Managing Open Discussions
Selecting Formats

• • •

While open discussion is the most common form of plenary engagement—and the one groups will default to if nothing else is suggested—it's by no means the only choice, nor is it often the best one. Here's why:

o Not everyone is equally quick to be ready to speak.

o Not everyone is equally comfortable speaking in the whole group (this may not be much of a factor in a group of six, but it can be a big deal in a group of 40).

o When group members are not well disciplined regarding the appropriate use of plenary time, a more structured format will help remind them of appropriate contributions, cutting down on diffusing and extraneous contributions.

o Meetings tend to be highly verbal, somewhat visual, and minimally kinesthetic. However, as human beings we're naturally a mix of all three and it generally enhances the energy and quality of the work if you can offer variety with these tendencies in mind.

o The objectives for a given topic can be a rich stew that shifts between focusing on energy (sense of cohesion and connection among members) and content (problem solving). Sometimes it's smart to shift the format to better serve the specific objective.

o Other things being equal, it's typically a good idea to change formats just to change the energy (sociologists refer to the Hawthorne Effect to describe the phenomenon where there's a temporary boost in attention and productivity simply because there's been a change—not because the new format is inherently better).

As a facilitation teacher, I don' think that mastering formats is the major challenge of he job. To be specific, I believe all of the following skills are more consequential in midwifing a good meeting:
—Can hear accurately what's being said.
—Able to shift perspectives easily to fully understand the lens through which speakers are seeing the topic at hand.
—Can identify themes in a discussion (sorting the wheat from the chaff).
—Can articulate bridges between disparate positions (based on what people have told you are their core interests).
—Know when it's time to start problem solving, and when you've heard enough that a workable solution has emerged.
—Is able to create and maintain an atmosphere of curiosity, authenticity, and compassion among the group.

For all of that though, I believe that every facilitator should develop familiarity and facility with a basic set of meeting formats. I think of it as part of the essential facilitator toolkit. While there are always more tools available—many of which are excellent in certain circumstances—you don't need more than a basic set in order to accomplish solid work.

In no particular order, here is an overview of the formats I think every facilitator should know (Hint: don't get hung up in the names):

A. Heart Circles
Sometimes referred to as Sharing Circles, this is a construct where the pace is slowed down, and people are invited to speak from their heart, one at a time, as they are moved. The emphasis here is on relationship and connection and typically does not involve problem solving at all. The point is to hear deeply, the better to understand each person's emotional experience. You typically ask people to speak only for themselves. You are not looking for dialog in this format; you are looking for emotional honesty.

Sometimes, in order to reinforce the idea of a more deliberate pace and deep listening, groups use a talking object, with the understanding that only the person in possession of the object may speak. It's often a good idea for the facilitator to retain the right to ask clarifying questions, or to remind participants to keep their comments directed to the focus question of the circle ("How do you feel about Dale's decision to leave the group?")

B. Small Group Breakouts
When you have a large group and it's awkward for people to feel comfortable speaking in front of everyone, it can be helpful to divide the group into small groups (3-6 people per group) with instructions for each group to discuss a topic that the whole needs to tackle. The concept here is that the conversation will flow more purposefully and inclusively if everyone is guaranteed a small amount of airtime to explore their views (and to practice expressing them) in a more accessible environment first.

C. Individual Writing
Some people are better able to express themselves in writing than orally. Others are able to express themselves differently in writing. For both of these reasons, it can can occasionally be a significant enhancement of a group's ability to get a purchase on a topic (especially a complex one that isn't yielding easily to straight forward discussion) if you pause and ask participants to get at it another way. This option can work especially well as "homework" between meetings, where the time devoted to it comes at individual discretion and not out of the limited budget available for plenaries.

D. Guided Visualizations
As another change of pace that temporarily stills the aural symphony (or cacophony, depending on how amicably and productively you're proceeding), it can be insightful to try to access each participant's intuitive relationship to the topic (in contrast with their rational or emotional intelligence). The facilitator can create a scenario relevant to the topic, where group members are asked to place themselves (typically with their eyes closed) and then simply observe what unfolds in their minds eye, as in a waking dream. They are asked expressly to not attempt to steer what happens; all they need do is observe it and report back to the group what happened in their "movie." In my experience this technique can lead to some surprising clarity in the event of a rational logjam.

E. Reflective Silence
Similar to the previous suggestion, if you find yourself on a merry-go-round, where the contributions are tending toward the circular and not advancing, sometimes it's beneficial to simply stop the music and ask everyone to reflect on all that's been said and see what bubbles up. I can recall a powerful example of this from my early days of working with cooperative groups (more than two decades ago) where I asked everyone to pause for two minutes, to see if stepping back allowed anyone to access a reflection on the topic that had not yet been voiced. Sure enough it did, and the blockage resolved!

F. Go Rounds
This is a classic technique that ensures air time for the quiet while simultaneously limiting air time for the vocal. In its most common version, everyone is giving a protected chance to speak, such that no one speaks twice until everyone who cares to has spoken once.

There is a noteworthy variation on this called Inspiraling where the group continues with the Go Round as many times as needed for all members to feel complete. While the amount of summarizing and reflecting by the facilitator between rounds can vary, the core concept is that the group will use what's said in previous rounds as a springboard for forward movement in successive rounds. This technique can lead to a high level of buy-in while at the same time making an effort to equalize participation. That said, it may take longer than some approaches, and its efficacy will relate directly to how well the group can remain open and fluid in the face of differing viewpoints.

G. Brainstorms
This is an expansive technique, where everyone is encouraged to offer whatever occurs to them on the question at hand. ("What factors should we take into account when thinking about replacing the roof on the common house?") The key to a thorough and productive brainstorm is that the focus question is well crafted and that you assiduously steer clear of evaluative comments (assessment will come later). You want an up-tempo, creative—even playful—atmosphere where all ideas are captured. While you want suggestions to be on topic (it's OK to ask clarifying questions if you don't understand someone's contribution), it's important that participants feel free and unjudged.

One of the benefits of this technique is that it can significantly lighten the mood and is unparalleled for quickly gathering ideas. While not all of the seeds will sprout or land on fertile soil, it's often well worth it that some do.

H. Card Storms
This is an interactive sorting technique where all the ideas in play (perhaps generated by a brainstorm) are written in shorthand on slips of paper and then clumped by like items by the participants. While this can probably be accomplished by having the group direct the facilitator on which items go best together, it's typically quicker and more kinesthetic if the facilitator simply gets out of the way and asks the group to do this on their own.

It's amazing how fast groups can do this without any involvement from the facilitator whatsoever. Once the group is finished (five minutes is often sufficient), the facilitator can step back in and review with the group its freestyle efforts, both to name each clump and to determine whether things have been sorted in a way that works for everyone. The outcome is an ordering from which the group can decide how to proceed—in what order to tackle subsets, whether different subsets should be handled by the plenary or a committee, whether research needs to happen before the subset can be discussed, etc.

I. Spectrums
This technique is another example of how physical movement can be incorporated into information gathering. Instead of asking people to talk out their opinions, they're asked to walk
out their views. Once the group has identified tension between two positions on a topic, it can be illuminating in both a quick and nuanced way to ask people to place themselves—without words—on a line where one edge of the room represents total support for one of the positions and the opposite side of the room represents total support for the other. It can be highly instructive seeing the pattern. Do you have a dumbbell shape with almost everyone at one end or the other? Is it imbalanced such that there's a dominant pull? Are most folks clumped in the middle, indicating ambivalence?

While care is needed in setting up the right ends of the spectrum, this technique can be potent and at the same time provide much-needed movement— a terrific antidote for meeting butt.
• • •
While I think mastery of the above set of basic formats is sufficient to have great meetings, the possibilities are nearly endless, with new ones being concocted all the time. Here is a suggestive handful of some of the more popular ones, all of which can be explored online (in cases where FIC offers a title on that technique through Community Bookshelf, I have provided a hyperlink):

Appreciative Inquiry
Open Space
Restorative Circles
World Cafes
SWOT Analysis

In thinking about how to use these various tools properly, the prime directive is which will best serve the objective and the dynamics you are expecting to field in the attempt. Do not let your fondness for a technique determine which you select (the phenomenon where everything starts looking like a nail once you fall in love with your hammer). The test of a good meeting is not the facilitator's virtuosity with the instruments; it's how sweet the music.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Remembering John Dyer-Bennet

Out of the blue (and maize) I was recently pulled into the thread of an email conversation about raising money to fund the creation of shelters for soccer players and officials at Carleton College, in honor of John Dyer-Bennet who was the long time coach of that sport. It brought back a flood of memories that had quietly been collecting dust in the attic of my consciousness.

• • •
I was at Carleton during the years 1967-71, having gone there straight—and I mean that in every sense of the word—out of high school, and my homogenous Father Knows Best upbringing in La Grange IL, a bedroom suburb of Chicago. College was a time of expanding perspectives and breathtaking lifestyle experimentation. In the four short years I was there the college went from freshman year rules where women were allowed in men's dorm rooms twice a week for two-hour stretches (with the door cracked and at least three feet on the floor at all times—though I never figured out who was counting), to the complete collapse of in loco parentis by the time I was senior, when I was an RA on a co-ed dorm floor.

Amidst this social barnstorming, my school life intersected with Dyer-Bennet (whom everyone referred to, with his blessing, as DB) in two ways. I played soccer all four years and I was a math major. My final year I was one of the team captions and DB was my adviser for my senior comps. In consequence, I had occasion to spend more time in his presence than most, which has turned out to be something I've cherished.

He inspired me in many ways (not all of them as linear as the algebra he taught):

o To value precision (to the extent that it was possible to achieve). To this day, I am a fanatic about punctuation and word selection. Though this didn't start with DB (the roots go back to my father and my high school newspaper adviser, Kay Keefe) I was unquestioningly encouraged along this path by him.

o To enjoy the pleasure of a well-constructed proof (which included the discernment to know when you had one and when you didn't).

o To savor amateur sports, played for the thrill of the game, for understanding the inner game of being tested by the challenge of physical performance, and for appreciating the choreography of coordinating your actions with others in team efforts (lessons from which have carried surprisingly far). There was a purity about Carleton soccer that helped. It was a club sport that received minimal backing from the athletic department. We played on a field that was embellished with little more than chalk lines, goals with oft-mended nets, and simple benches. Crowds were sparse and the rewards were camaraderie and personal satisfaction—not fame on campus or the chance to see your picture in Sports Illustrated's Faces in the Crowd.

o To smoke good cigars (through DB I learned of a source of per-embargo Cuban stogies, from which I'd occasionally buy a box of Fonsecas). It is now 40 years later and there is a clutch of maduro-wrapped Hoyo de Monterreys nestled in a foil pouch in my suitcase on the bed next to me.

DB didn't categorize easily. In many ways he was an oddity:
—As a coach he was a gangly math professor with a hawk nose; not a jock.
—Living in rural Northfield MN (home of cows, colleges, and contentment) he retained a pronounced British accent that didn't exactly blend in.
—When he spoke he often closed his eyes, perhaps the better to see the purity that math professors aspire to when not distracted by the messy world around them.
—He drove an old Mercedes and I still recall my shock at this prudent Brit's willingness to demonstrate to a carload of over-testosteroned teenagers how good it could corner on a rare occasion when his sedan had been pressed into service for transportation to an away game.
—One of the ironies about his having the nickname DB was that those initials were also shorthand for "douche bag," a general purpose pejorative that was, for some reason, extremely popular at the time. (As the man was anything but improper or coarse, this overlay was amusing in the same way that one might smile at encountering an emaciated chihuahua named Stud Muffin.)

Dyer-Bennet started the soccer program at Carleton in 1963, and served as volunteer coach for 19 seasons. Thus, I experienced him mid-stride. He lived to be 86, and tomorrow will be the tenth anniversary of his passing.

The last time I saw him was in 1972, when I visited the Carleton campus to visit my girlfriend, Ann Shrader (with whom I would start Sandhill Farm two years later). She was a year behind me in school, and at least once it made sense to visit her and my alma mater at the same time. I recall DB coming up to me in the library on that visit and making a joke about why I hadn't been able to make more progress in sorting out the nation's transportation issues, thereby demonstrating that he not only recalled me, he knew where I'd settled two months after graduating (I worked as a junior bureaucrat for the US Dept of Transportation during the span 1971-73). In that one brief exchange—it probably lasted no more than two minutes—it sunk in how much he cared about the people he had coached, not just the soccer players and math students he had guided.

At the same time, he was also a private person. I recall the fall sports banquet held at the conclusion of my final season, where we celebrated the year just ended (we were 8-1 that year, losing only to an undefeated Gustavus Adolphus squad), and the captains for the succeeding year were announced. Bruce Tully and I (co-captains that year) had collaborated to give DB a pair of leather gloves as a token of appreciation for his tireless efforts on our behalf. Going up to him afterwards to savor a final moment with my coach, he was embarrassed by the gift, and begged off to say a few words of encouragement to the newly elected captions. While I had wanted more, I needed to let him go and not extend his discomfort.
• • •
So here I am being solicited by friends who's names I haven't seen, whose voices I haven't heard, and whose backsides I haven't slapped in more than 40 years, to honor the memory of a man who meant a lot to all of us.

As I have chosen a life that has not been focused on material acquisition, I am not in a position to contribute to the memorial shelters (fortunately others among our number have done better and the necessary funds have been fully pledged). Still, as I am rich in words, I offer this eulogy from that strength and am thankful for the nudge to do so.

Interestingly, the email thread that stirred my memories and inspired this blog had started with the a subject line that read: "John Dyer-Bennet Memorial," only to morph into: "Update on Dyer-Bennett Memorial!" Ahem. His name was spelled with only one "t," fellas. Somewhere, DB is up there with a #2 pencil poised above our virtual blue book, ready to imprecate us for our imprecision. Some things never change.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

About Face

I'm on my way to New Hampshire, chugging north from Maryland on the Vermonter (train #56 if you're scoring at home). This train is part of Amtrak's northeast regional fleet that has recently been upgraded to onboard satellite wi-fi. That means I'll have connectivity all day. Woohoo! (Among other things, that means I'll be able to track all the opening day action of March madness, as 16 first round basketball games will be contested today—it'll be a blizzard of hoops frenzy.)

I finished my reports from last weekend's facilitation training at Liberty Village about 1 am this morning, clearing my In Box before arriving today in Peterborough, where I'll be immersed in weekend consulting with Nubanusit, a relatively new cohousing community that's asked me to do some focused work with their facilitation team. Chugging north through Philly, New York, and Springfield today, I'll observe the novelty of a vernal reversal, as blossoms regress to swollen buds, followed by buds shriveling back into dormancy. It's springtime in the northeast!

• • •
Last night I had a bizarre experience in the course of my final dinner at Liberty Village, which was a community potluck. About 30 minutes into the normal exchange of people sharing the minor ebbs and flows of their diurnal experience, Vince casually mentioned that Ma'ikwe sure seemed to have enjoyed her echocardiogram. What?!

Ma'ikwe is going through health struggles right now as she suffers through a recurring bout with Lyme disease. While the main symptoms have been been achy joints (her arms and legs have been in pain nearly constantly the past month) and low energy, there is concern that she may have sustained heart damage (a relatively common occurrence with chronic Lyme patients) and she's wearing a monitor for 30 days to collect data about the electrical signals to her heart when she suffers an episode of dizziness or tachycardia. In recent days her pain and nausea have increased to the point where she was unable to accompany me on my current East Coast business trip [see my March 8 entry, Wife Down, for more on that].

Yesterday she was scheduled to have an echocardiogram done, as part of the testing sequence recommended by the heart specialist she's working with. Naturally, I'm concerned about her health—all the more so as she's struggling and not yet getting better—and we had talked briefly in the morning, via Skype. I caught her just as she was getting up (she had opened her laptop before making her first cup of tea) and we didn't talk long, but I could tell she'd not had a good night and I was worried about her.

Working on reports throughout the day, I had been regularly monitoring email to see if there was word from Ma'ikwe about how the testing had gone. Though nothing had come in by 4 pm (at which point I left my laptop to help my host prepare a dish for the community meal), I wasn't that concerned. There are many things that can delay communication and it's common for Ma'ikwe to be exhausted by a trip to town and need to simply rest afterwards. I figured I'd hear in due course and wasn't dwelling on it when I went to dinner.

Imagine my surprise then when I accidentally learned about Ma'ikwe's echocardiogram from someone who happened to be sitting at the same table with me. I had casually been explaining to Betsy, sitting next to me, that my partner had intended to come to Liberty Village as well, but had to cancel at the last minute due to ill health. Overhearing that, Vince (sitting at the end of the table) chimed in with news about how much Ma'ikwe had enjoyed her test today.

At first I thought I had misheard (how could Vince, who had only met her twice, possibly know more about what was happening with her than I did?). But then Facebook occurred to me. My wife participates in that alternate reality and I don't. [See my entry, Massaging the Medium, for more about that.] It only took me about 10 seconds to imagine what must have happened. Ma'ikwe had posted something about her experience on Facebook shortly after getting home and Vince had picked it up.

Simultaneous with my confusion (how could he know that?) I was eager for the news. The posting was brief, and I got to see it on Vince's smart phone:
OK, I know I'm not supposed to be enjoying this, but I have to say getting an echocardiagram done is one of the most frickin' cool things I've done in a while.

Reading between the lines, Ma'ikwe's upbeat tone meant that the news couldn't have been bad. Whew. So far, so good. Reflecting further though, she didn't actually say anything about the test results. Maybe they hadn't been interpreted yet (racking my brains, it seemed to me that the heart specialist only visits our county on Thursdays and the test had been done on Wednesday).

After savoring the news that she was in good spirits, I started to have a reaction to my getting a health update about my wife from a casual dinner companion. But then I paused. Maybe there was an email waiting for me that I hadn't seen yet. At that point it had been perhaps three hours since I'd last checked email, so I hit the pause button on the storm brewing in my stomach. In fact, I started chiding myself for being so reactive. It's a good thing that Ma'ikwe is willing to share her story and there was no reason to think I had been left out. Relax, I told myself.

Then I went back to my room.

When I checked email, there was no message from Ma'ikwe. Ufda. Rather than pout, I tried reaching her via Skype. No answer. Hmm.

I figure the phenomenon I was going through is the observe of the German term, freudenschade, which means pleasure derived from other people's misery. In my case, it was latent misery that emerged in the context of receiving good news. What did it mean that my wife had energy to share information about her echocardiogram with 900 of her "closest friends" on Facebook but didn't have the energy to tell her husband about it? I wasn't doing well with this line of thinking.

This morning, however, I'm doing better. I wrote Ma'ikwe about my confusion and frustration as the last thing before going to bed and there was a good response waiting for me when I boarded the train at BWI Airport. She'd been up at 4:40 am (not good) and we've started a dialog about how she protects herself from letting people in too close (even me) and about how it's far easier to jot off a breezy one-sentence Facebook post than it is to unpack the complex anxieties and despair that she must navigate as she attempts to face her health challenges.

Ma'ikwe is a brave woman, and I'm am both amazed and profoundly appreciative of her willingness to tackle the hard questions whenever one of us raises them. The last thing she needs to attend to right now is her husband's bruised ego.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Open Discussion ≠ Open Range

Today is the second installment of a series of three blogs on the topic of meeting facilitation, covering:

Managing Open Discussions
—Selecting Formats

• • •
Years ago I was asked to work with a community over a weekend, facilitating their annual retreat. I started by observing a session on the thorny topic of how to address tensions related to the phenomenon that members were contributing unevenly to the work of the community. A pair of the group's regular facilitators handled the opening two-hour session and I was fascinated to see what unfolded: the entire time was taken up with two activities: a whole-group brainstorm about how people perceived the issue; followed by small group breakouts where people discussed ideas about how to address the issues named in the brainstorm, the results of which were dutifully reported back to the whole group as the final activity.

In the entire two hours, no attempt had been made to labor with differences (about what was problematic, about what mattered in trying to work toward a solution, about whether some concerns were a higher priority than others, about which solutions seemed most hopeful). The facilitators were afraid to go there!

While there was nothing wrong per se with brainstorming the issues or having people work on potential responses in small groups, the heavy lifting is done in the sorting, weighing, and balancing of input—and that wasn't happening. In the session I observed, the facilitators were using formats to avoid engagement, because they were not confident they could contain it or ensure that it would be constructive.
• • •
While there are a wide variety of meeting format choices (an examination of which will be the focus of my final offering in this series), far and away the most common choice is simply opening up the topic to whatever anyone has to say following the presentation of the issue and fielding any clarifying questions. Frankly, this is often the most efficient way to tackle an issue, as only those ready to speak and who believe they have something germane to contribute raise their hand. When done well, this can be incredibly direct and efficient.

While it may be trivial to set this up (it's often nothing more sophisticated than turning everyone loose with, "Who has something to say on this?"), there can be considerable skill needed to manage this well, and that's the focus of today's blog. It's important that facilitators have an understanding of the lay of the land when making this choice.

1. Problems With Open Discussion
While meetings in cooperative groups are meant as a level playing field, they aren't. Not everyone is equally comfortable speaking in group; not everyone is equally articulate; not everyone is equally quick to organize their thoughts; not everyone is in the same state of health; not everyone identifies as an equal stakeholder on this issue at hand; not everyone is equally emotionally centered (maybe their kid is sick, or they're distracted by a problem at work); not everyone equally understands the group's process; not everyone has equal energy or quality of attention at that time of day. In short, there are many complicating factors that produce potholes and moguls in the meeting playing field.

What's more, in open discussion these imbalances tend to be highlighted. Those who are more comfortable and/or energetic in any given setting tend to dominate, unless the group (or at least the facilitator) is aware of the tendencies and can compensate. As comfort and energy are good things, the strategy for addressing inequities is not to equally hobble everyone; rather it's to make choices that enhance everyone's accessibility to the conversation. While some of this can be addressed in format choices, there's a lot that can be done even in the context of open discussion.

With that in mind, it's relevant to assess
how capable the meeting participants are of:
—staying on topic (open discussion is not open mic—people are expected to limit their contributions to comments apropos the topic at hand)
—not repeating
—creating openings for those whose voices are heard less
—hearing the ideas that others contribute
—hearing the heart of what others contribute (think of it as emotional hearing)
—understanding how comments relate to group values (as distinct from personal preferences)
—shifting perspectives to see an issue from other frames of reference (the better to understand the relevance and potency of what others say)
—articulating their reactions cleanly (as opposed to speaking from a reactive/defensive place)
—working constructively with strong feelings
—bridging between divergent opinions

While no one intends to do any of these things poorly, most of us are not quite as evolved as we'd like and we tend to regress—especially on topics that matter a good deal to us, or ones that are complex and heard to follow. In my view, it's one of the facilitator's principal jobs to gently, yet firmly remind participants of their good intentions, providing folks with graceful ways to correct or reframe problematic contributions.

There are two things that groups can put in place that will greatly augment this effort:
a) An articulation of good meeting behavior (so that everyone has a clear idea of what you expect from one another once the bell rings).
b) Ground Rules that spell out the facilitator's authority to rein people in when they behave inappropriately (the boundaries of which have been defined in the previous answer) and to guide the conversation along the cooperative and inclusive lines the group intends to employ in how it proceeds.

2. Inhaling Versus Exhaling
Whenever the group tackles an issue, there will be two main parts of the consideration: a) a full delineation of what the issue is, and identification of the factors that a good response needs to take into account; followed by b) problem solving (discerning which action best balances the factors named in the previous step).

These two steps have different flavors, and it can be terribly confusing if you allow both to proceed simultaneously. If the group lacks an understanding about the distinction between these phases it will commonly happen that someone will offer an idea about how to address a concern as their first response to its articulation. If you allow that to happen the group can easily get lost: should it be focusing on the continued identification of factors (inhaling), or should it be responding to the merits of the proposed response (exhaling)?

Unless you're teaching people the arcane art of mastering the didgeridoo, expecting groups to both inhale and exhale at the same time leads to pulmonary distress and does not promote clear thinking.

Thus, it's important for the facilitator to be able to articulate this distinction and be able to remind the group which phase it is in. This will make open discussion much more productive.

3. Divide and Conquer
If a topic is complex (many of the most interesting ones are) it can often be a boon to the group if the facilitator (in consultation with the presenter) offers a structured approach: a sequence of questions calculated to focus the consideration such that the answers will be stepping stones on the way to the promised land (a solid agreement about what to do). Mind you, this is not meant to steer the group toward a particular solution; it's meant as a way to build a solid foundation for a comprehensive response.

While each of the focusing questions can still be addressed in open discussion, you've (hopefully) narrowed the range of appropriate responses to a more manageable number of variables—the better to hold them all, and the better to figure out how to balance them.

Even if it's not obvious what the right set of questions is, or in what sequence to tackle them, it can nonetheless be useful to ask the group start with putting less food in their mouth at a time, just to minimize the risk of indigestion.
• • •
Now let's return to the group that only attempted brainstorming and small group breakouts during their retreat. Employing the metaphor I just developed above, they were afraid to chew in plenary.

In their case, the group had not given its facilitators a clear license to run meetings, and got push back from individuals when they attempted to curtail repetition or to redirect off-topic comments ("Why are you picking on me?") Not feeling backed up, they backed off, and were at the mercy of each participant's uneven ability to self discipline. The predictable result was a lot of time lost in poorly focused comments (which, of course, was part of their motivation to ask a consultant to work with them).

Beyond that, the group was uncertain how to work emotionally, and the facilitators were unsure of their capacity to do so, even if there had been clarity about what was wanted. Understandably, that led to avoidance. While a group can get away with a certain amount of that, eventually the bill comes due and the distortion and blockage that attends to unaddressed feelings leads to complete paralysis and relationship damage. Yuck!

Finally, the group needed to exercise its bridging muscles, the skills needed to hear divergent viewpoints and then successfully labor collectively to craft a respond that everyone feels connected with.

In the weekend evaluation, I got feedback from the group that they would have preferred more done in alternate formats. In response, I freely admitted that I had slanted things toward open discussion, and affirmed the appropriateness of their instinct to want variety. At the same time, I pointed out that my instinct (as a consultant) was to focus on what they were avoiding. It's my view that groups need to be able to handle open discussions well as one of their options. I thought it would be a disservice if I showcased alternate formats, only to enable them to get increasingly creative on how to avoid doing the hard work with everyone in the room.

While I'm a great fan of variety and attractive presentation, that does not obviate the baseline need to know how to create a balanced diet, appropriately prepare the food, chew it, and swallow it—all without engendering gastrointestinal distress. A good facilitator needs to know how to work with all the basic food groups.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Wife Down

Two days ago, Ma'ikwe and I started out for Quincy IL at 4:30 am to catch the early train to Chicago. It was to be the first leg of our journey to Maryland, to attend the eighth and final weekend of our two-year facilitation training course in the Mid-Atlantic States. On the drive she got nauseous. Though we cracked a window and slowed down on the curves, it didn't get better. Ten miles out, she asked to pull over, so she could get out and puke. Not good.

Back in August 2010 Ma'ikwe got diagnosed with Lyme disease. She underwent a strong antibiotic course at the time (six weeks of doxycycline) and got relief from the symptoms. Though she got demonstrably better right away, her strength and stamina never returned to pre-2009 levels. Over this winter the symptoms gradually reappeared, with the pace accelerating in the last couple weeks.

Ma'ikwe traces her illness to a bout with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (which is tick-borne, just as Lyme is) that occurred 15 years ago. While that wasn't her orientation to her illness in 1997, today she thinks that Lyme disease (essentially a spirochete infection with rather sophisticated defense mechanisms) entered her system at that time and has been there ever since, mostly dormant with occasional flare ups—which have lately been more frequent and more severe. Yuck.

Thus, Ma'ikwe believes she's wrestling with chronic Lyme disease, which is a demon that's the very devil to permanently cast out from the body. As if her symptoms are not bad enough—constant achy joints, especially in the arms and legs; low energy; tachycardia; shortness of breath; low libido—there is controversy among allopathic physicians as to whether chronic Lyme actually exists, significantly complicating the search for a doctor to advise on an appropriate healing regimen.

(Insurance companies love this by the way, as they can use the party line of the Center for Disease Control—that chronic Lyme doesn't exist—to deny reimbursement for treatment. This administrative wrangling is a bitter impediment for the growing group of victims who identify as sufferers of chronic Lyme and are desperately looking for help.)

It has been a godsend for my wife that there is an online support group for chronic Lyme. Whenever some new set of painful symptoms crops up, she can post it to the group and she'll get 10 replies in 15 minutes, where responders are reporting similar experiences and describing what they've done to cope with that presentation. Notable, she gets this near-instant support independently of the time of day she posts her anguish. It has been an incalculable morale boost for Ma'ikwe to know that she's not alone and that she's believed.

My end of this is support. While I have no personal experience with Lyme, and don't know on a body level what she's going through, I believe whatever she tells me and am just trying to hang in there with her as she rides this out. My support is physical (doing some of the recurring chores that have become much less manageable); emotional (listening to her describe what's going on in her body, and helping her remember how current reports match up with what she told me last year, last month, or last week); and financial (both because she can't work as much and because her health care expenses are increasing).

In two weeks, Ma'ikwe and I will travel to see a Lyme-literate doctor for the first time. The appointment coincides with the end of my current business trip, and I'll be able to be with her for the three-hour initial visit, helping to make sure that Ma'ikwe asks all of her questions—and then helping her remember later what the doctor said. I am so thankful that we'll get to go through this together.

As soon as Ma'ikwe puked in the pre-dawn light Tuesday morning, we both knew that there was a serious question to face: did it really make sense for her to push herself to get on the train? We had about 15 minutes to decide. Would her queasiness in the moving car not persist on a moving train? Did her strong desire to be with our class on graduation weekend trump the balking of her body? In contemplating her choice, she went through the anguish of wondering if she'd ever go on trips again (if she gave in to the illness now was it just an inexorable slide into being housebound—it was a grim few minutes)?

Holding her, I asked her to listen to her intuition. I'd done solo training weekends before (14 of them in fact) and would be fine if she backed out. While the trainings are better with her, that's really only true if she's strong enough to participate. As we pulled into the station parking lot and popped the trunk to remove the luggage, Ma'ikwe decided to not go. Suddenly, I was on the train sitting next to an empty seat. While that's not an unusual experience in and of itself, it was a weird one when I expected Ma'ikwe beside me. Instead, I was a little bit beside myself.

As I type this in Maryland, Ma'ikwe is safely back home on her couch, coping in more familiar territory, with myriad friends and loved ones close at hand. She will not have to churn this weekend over when to take a break and when to attend sessions; she can just focus on her health. Looking back at Tuesday morning, she knows that she made the right choice. Just like I did in asking her to be my partner.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Facilitator Prep

Today I'm going to launch a series of three blogs on the topic of meeting facilitation, covering:
—Managing Open Discussions
—Selecting Formats

There are a number of things to do when getting ready for a facilitation assignment. For each topic on the agenda, you need to know:

What's wanted from the meeting; what are the desired outcomes? Hint: it's not always to reach a decision about what to do. Is this the front end of a conversation expected to take multiple meetings? Are you looking to clear the air on something about which there's unresolved tension? Maybe your main goal is to agree on a road map for tackling the topic, agreeing on an organization of subtopics and the order in which you'll address them.

Are there any existing agreements that bear on the issues to be discussed? Is there any partial product from recent prior meetings that needs to be taken into account? If this topic has cropped up in the past, are there relevant minutes from meetings at which this was considered (no need to reinvent the wheel)?

Where do the bodies lie? Is anyone in distress relative to this issue (and if so, about what)? What attempts, if any, have been made prior to the upcoming meeting to work through these tensions, and what more needs to be done in order to establish a firm foundation for problem solving?

While investigating these three aspects of an agenda topic creates a solid jumping off point, where will you jump to? Facilitators should create a plan for how to work each issue, which will include a choice of formats and timing. Before that, however, it's generally a good idea to make room for one-on-one (or one-on-two) conversations with the presenter and key stakeholders.

By stakeholders I mean the members of the group who care a good deal about the outcome of the consideration. It may be because their lives or their work area will be substantially impacted by what the group decides. It may be because the group will be wrestling with how to interpret a core value that's near and dear to that person's heart. It may be because the person has a nostalgic connection to the way things used to be done and is struggling with the idea that it's time for a change. It may be that they mistrust the person(s) who is advocating change and are nervous about the possibility of the group making a mistake acceding to their wishes. In short, people identify as stakeholders for all manner of reasons.

Conversations with stakeholders can be valuable in a number of ways:

o What you learn from them may be different (or at least richer) than what you'd been given by the agenda setting committee [see my Jan 25, 2008 blog on Gatekeeping Plenary Agendas for more on this] or by talking solely with the presenter, whose slant on the issue may not be balanced. Thus, these conversations are likely to help you gain a fuller picture of what's needed.

o Stakeholders may not start in a place of trust regarding the facilitator's ability to understand where they're coming from and what's important to them. They may have a story to tell leading up to current events, and it may be helpful for the facilitator to hear that story before the meeting, both to establish rapport and perhaps to save time in the meeting. This is about relationship building and what the facilitator can reasonably do ahead of time to put the stakeholders at ease about whether the facilitator can be counted on as an ally in being heard accurately. (Note: this has nothing to do with whether they'll be agreed with or get what they want—which you can't promise.)

o It can also be a time to give key people a heads up on what you expect will come out in the meeting (that may be challenging for them to hear) or to let them know about how you're intending to explore the topic so that they can be ready for it. Surprises can be fun at birthday parties, but tend to promote unwanted volatility in plenaries.

o If there has been a history of bumpy communications between you and a given stakeholder, this can be a time to address any trust issues, or to assure the stakeholder that you believe yourself sufficiently neutral to be able to serve them fairly. Alternately, if you are not able to make headway on a trust issue, it may be a sign that you should step down as facilitator and get someone else in there. By having stakeholder conversations ahead of time, there's still room to make adjustments, which is far better than suffering a meltdown on the plenary floor.

o If there are difficult patterns of meeting behavior with the person (perhaps they interrupt a lot or repeat themselves), this time can be used to discuss what you can do to point this out in the moment in such a way that the person will feel is friendly, rather than embarrassing. Agreeing on a protocol ahead of time can make this potentially awkward moment go better.

In case it hasn't already become apparent, it's not going to be possible to do a bang up job on prep if you don't allow enough time. Depending on how busy your life is and how available the stakeholders are, you may be smart to start prepping about a week ahead of the meeting. Working backwards, that means you'll need to receive the assignment ahead of that.
[For more about this see my Jan 28, 2008 blog: Selecting Plenary Facilitators.] When I see a group choosing a facilitator (perhaps relying on rock-paper-scissors) as the first item of business in a meeting, I shudder.

Now that I've put the fear of god into you about how important stakeholder conversations can be, let's be realistic. It will seldom be possible to talk with everyone, and generally that's not necessary in order to have a good meeting. Do the best you can and try to develop a nose for which conversations will be most essential. The only must-do on this list is talking with the presenter, so that you two are clear about what they'll be doing to introduce the topic, and at what point you will take over. There is often a dance between the facilitator and presenter over what visual aids will be created to support he meeting and who will craft them—make sure you know who's leading and who's following.

Once the stakeholder conversation have occurred, you should be ready to map out of the meeting. This will include how you intend to focus the conversation and the way you'll ask people to engage. The front half of this equation is identifying the questions you'll want the group to address and in what order. Often it makes sense to write up focus questions on flip chart paper ahead of time, so that participants will have a visual reminder of what they're supposed to be speaking to. You should be clear why you're asking each question and how that will lead the group toward clarity about what to do in response to each topic. The theory is that if you know what you're looking for, you'll know when you have it, and therefore when it's time to move the group onto the next question.

The second half of the equation is about formats. The default choice is open discussion, where anyone can speak once the focus question has been introduced and clarified. While open discussion is often the quickest way through a topic—I'll discuss the elements of doing this well in my next blog—there are a number of reasons why you might prefer a different format (which could include brainstorm, card storm, silent meditation, small group breakouts, Go Round, sharing circle, individual writing, and a host of other techniques). I'll tackle the pros and cons for selecting any of these alternatives in the blog after next.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Registered Sex Offenders & Community Membership

Over the winter I was working with a community that tackled the issue registered sex offenders (RSOs) as potential members. It was a tough conversation.

Essentially it boiled down to a clash between a core commitment to providing safety, in dynamic tension with a root desire to be a transformative community that believes in redemption. Yuck! One of the most dyspeptic things a group has to wrestle with are questions of how to balance two basic values that don't play nice with each other in a specific configuration. On the question of whether RSOs could be members, those conditions obtained.

As you might imagine, the community did not spend time contemplating this possibility when it first formed. The back story is that the group is now over 10 years old and has twice accepted members only to discover afterward that the person was an RSO. As you can imagine, both experiences were gut wrenching. While there was no clear evidence that in either case the person did something sexually inappropriate while in residence, there were some unsubstantiated accusations and considerable anxiety.

Until now, the membership intake process did not include inquiries about a person's criminal record, so neither of the two people in question misstated their situation. While it can be argued that they misled through withholding, there was no falsification.

Community vibrancy is based on trust, and trust was seriously eroded when the RSO status was uncovered rather than volunteered. While the two offenders may have honestly felt that this was something behind them and not worth mentioning, it's not hard to imagine the blood pressure spikes that occurred when this got revealed.

Sexual offenses come in at least three gradations of severity (laws vary by state), with federal guidance suggesting three categories:
Level A) All violent sexual offenses, and all offenses involving children under the age of 12
Level B) Nonviolent offenses (meaning non-coercive) involving minors in the 12-18 age range
Level C) Nonviolent offenses not involving minors

The community asked everyone to share in a Go Round whether they'd be open at all to RSOs being members of the community and, if so, under what conditions or with what limitations.

This was a tender and deeply moving circle, where everyone took whatever time they needed to answer and there was careful listening. In a group of 20 people, four spoke about their personal experience as a survivor of child sexual abuse, and a fifth spoke as a parent whose child had been physically abused. While the statistics on abuse suggest that there were probably more people in the room who had personal experiences with abuse, those are the one's who voiced it.

On the one hand, there were a number of people who ached to be able to offer a meaningful alternative to a punishment-oriented überculture—to give people a second chance.

On the other, the survivors reported dread at the thought of having convicted offenders in the bosom of their community. Parents feared for their children and a expressed a profound sadness at the prospect of tightening vigilance on free-roaming community kids if known offenders were inside the perimeter of the community bounds.

This conversation was further complicated by the recognition that the legal definition for sexual offenses didn't map exactly onto the community's norms, where swimming nude and peeing outdoors were acceptable practices, and there was no judgment about a 19-year-old having consensual sex with a 17-year-old. The community was in agreement that these behaviors—which could earn someone RSO status—were at worst minor peccadilloes and not at all on the same level as the horror of forced rape.

So what to do?
While there was widespread acceptance with the notion that a blanket ban on all RSO's would probably mean that some deserving folks (who perhaps were unlucky enough to get convicted of peeing by a roadside) would be denied the opportunity of membership, the prospect of looking at RSOs on a case-by-case basis (to winnow out the nogoodniks from those worth taking a chance on) represented an emotional wringer for the sexual abuse survivors in the group, who expected the process to be a re-traumatizing gauntlet. In the end, it was too much to ask the survivors and parents to stretch that far and the community agreed to not allow RSOs as members.

Three people stood aside in that agreement—notably, that trio included one of the survivors—and the group gave all three a final chance to speak from their heart about why this decision was hard for them. I thought it was one of the most touching and unifying treatments of a tough topic I'd ever witnessed.

That said, the community was not yet done with this topic.
Does the new agreement translate into background checks on prospectives? What about people who used to be RSOs, but their registration has expired (only Level A offenders are registered for life)? What about people who have committed sexual offenses but not been convicted? What about people convicted of violent crimes but not sexual ones?

In the continuing conversation certain themes emerged. To the extent that there was openness to considering people who had committed offenses, the group was more willing to stretch if the person freely admitted it (lying about convictions will be considered grounds for immediate expulsion), and was able to demonstrate that they'd done some serious personal work to understand what that was about, so that it was far less likely to happen again.

While there is still more to do (how does one demonstrate that the personal work they've done is "serious" enough?), it buoys my heart when a groups opens up a hard issue and gets closer as a consequence of the examination.