Sunday, September 30, 2012

Consensus Challenges: Balancing Voices Part II

This is the continuation of a blog series started June 7 in which I'm addressing a number of issues in consensus. Today's topic is Balancing Voices.

I. When do you know enough to act? [posted June 7]
II. Closing the deal [posted June 10]
III. Wordsmithing in plenary [posted June 16]
IV. Redirecting competition [posted June 23]
V. Bridging disparate views [posted July 5]
VI. Harvesting partial product [posted July 20]
VII. When to be formal [posted July 29]
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms [posted Aug 10]
IX. Coping with blocking energy [posted Aug 19]
X. Defining respect [posted Sept 3]
XI. Balancing voices
XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go
XIV. Accountability

• • •
While almost all cooperative groups intend to balance voices, actually doing so is trickier than it first appears. 

On the surface level, this may seem to be little more than making sure that in an open discussion everyone has a known chance to raise their hand (and an expectation that by doing so that they'll be called on). If that's not working, you can choose a more structured format, such as a Go Round, that will guarantee everyone air time. If people miss meetings, you probably need to provide a protected opportunity whereby people can offer input in absentia, or as a delayed reflection based on the minutes.

But let's suppose you do all that. On a deeper level, balancing voices is about trying to develop group decisions that constructively balance everyone's relevant input on a topic. Note that I didn't say: Weigh everyone's input equally. While some may believe in the principle that all voices should carry equal weight, they don't. It's more nuanced than that.

Factors that influence how much weight any given voice is given:Relevance of the input to the issue at hand 
Not all comments are germane to the topic, nor are all comments rooted in group values. If someone pleads for a personal preference that is not tied to a group, it won't carry as much weight (I'm not so saying it will be totally blown off—though it might be—I'm only saying to won't be weighted as heavily.)

Power of the speaker
If you're talking about fixing leaky pipes, a plumber's voice will carry more weight than a banker's. Someone with a reputation for being a good problem solver will be deferred to. Some are more comfortable and more persuasive speaking in groups. People with more social capital (by which I mean they're perceived to have given to the group more than they've taken) will have more sway. All of these things translate into the group assigning comments from these people more weight.

How many voices lean one way relative to how many lean another
In the simplified case where comments about how to handle a given situation boil down to two positions and 80% of the group favors Option A while 10% favors Option B (with the remaining 10% undecided), it is unlikely that balancing voices will result in a decision  exactly midway between A and B. I will probably be slanted much more toward A.

How compelling the minority viewpoints are, and the perceived cost of ignoring them 
This is more nuanced still. By combining the last two points, it's possible for a person who starts with an unpopular viewpoint to gain considerable support through strength of rhetoric. Or, alternatively, people may be persuaded to move toward a person's minority position by virtue of a strategic analysis that there will be an unacceptable social cost to not doing so—independent of the strength of the that person's opinion based on its merits. 

Regardless of how viewpoints are assessed, there remains the additional challenge of balancing them. This step will proceed much more smoothly if preliminary work has been done to establish that all viewpoints have been fully heard. It's hard for someone to be motivated to extend listening to others when they believe that the same courtesy has not been extended to them. In essence, the flow of creativity is accessed through the hose bib of validation, and it is feeling heard that opens the valve—helping people access flexibility about the final decision. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Due Process and Expulsion

I recently received this plea from a West Coast friend about how to handle the possibility of a consensus group stripping a member of rights—one of the toughest choices a group can face.

On the topic of what is happening in my local Occupy group, I have a really important question.

In a document on committees that you shared with my community, you say that "involuntary removal of member rights," in the extreme case expulsion, should never happen in a committee. I need to be able to clearly articulate, by Thursday at 5 pm, why this is so important and true. Could you explain this?

For any group operating by consensus, I urge that the following four things be done in plenary, without exception (NB: I think it can be OK that a committee or subgroup drafts policy or makes recommendations to the plenary; the essential point I'm making is that decisions about the following matters should always be done in plenary, so that they're fully owned by the group):

A. Establishing explicitly what constitutes a member's rights and responsibilities.

B. Establishing explicitly what conditions or behaviors could lead to the involuntary loss of member rights (including expulsion).

C. Determining the process by which the claim that such conditions obtain or such behaviors have occurred will be examined. This step will include standards for explicitly notifying the member of their offending behavior and whether or not they'll be given an opportunity to correct it before sanctions are imposed.

D. Determining whether or not to invoke the group's right to strip or limit a member of his/her rights based on what comes out under C. (Note that it should have been spelled out in C that the person(s) in question will not be allowed to block in D.)

I think that groups must undertake all of these things in plenary because they are all foundational for the health and integrity of the group. Delegating to a committee the authority to expel or otherwise limit a member's rights seems to me an abdication of responsibility on the plenary's part, and will likely tear the group apart (independent of the question of whether someone's rights should be curtailed, there will be upset over the fact that such an action was taken without everyone's voice being heard). Everyone needs to own such an onerous step, and thus have a chance to speak to what they think is the right thing to do and why. If the whole group cannot agree to impose a sanction, then it shouldn't be taken.

(As an aside, I think it can be acceptable for committees, depending on the plenary's pleasure, to have the right to set their own rules about who is a member of that committee; I'm saying above that no committee should have the right to limit or strip a member of their rights with respect to the whole group.)

I expect part of what makes this hard is that there is probably an incomplete understanding of consensus in the Occupy group in question and it's probable that they are struggling to get clear about Steps B & C only as some believe it's appropriate to be doing D. Making up the rules while you are in the midst of applying them is a process nightmare, and generally comes across as a lynch mob. 

While it's not too hard to see the train wreck that this leads to, I also have considerable sympathy for groups that find themselves in this position. It's pretty hard to get motivated to spell out B & C until and unless there's a sense of need. Sadly, by the time you have a live need, you're dead in the water.

For a description of the kinds of persistent or urgent dynamics that can lead to asking someone to leave a group—the involuntary loss of all rights in the context of the group—see my posting of Feb 13, 2011: Knowing When It's Time to Ask Someone to Go.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Communities and chronic illness

I recently received the following inquiry about what intentional communities might offer folks who struggle with chronic illness, from someone who had been tracking what I'd written about Ma'ikwe's ongoing battle with chronic Lyme disease:

With your brief glimpse into the disabled life (and with your familiarity with Lyme via people close to you) can you envision an intentional community that includes and is framed to support people with chronic health issues such as rheumatoid arthritis, Lyme, fibromyalgia, etc? This is a resource I've wished existed. I've looked into intentional communities in my region (northern California) but haven't found any that appear suitable for me (older, with Lyme and Babesia). How would such a group begin to create itself?

This is a great question.

My experience here—as someone who has been a community networker for 30+ years and visited perhaps 150 intentional communities—is that support for people with chronic health challenges sorts sharply into two different responses, depending mainly on whether the illness emerged before or after the person applied for membership. If the person joined in good health and the chronic issues emerged afterwards, communities will overwhelmingly rally around the person in struggle. While this result is even more certain if the person has been a member in good standing (as well as in good health) for a number of years before they are stricken, the key thing is that they have already passed the membership portal successfully. Once in the club, they can more or less count on community support, at least at a basic level.

On the other hand, if you apply as someone who is already in the throes of wrestling with a debilitating illness, membership is a questionable proposition, principally because the prospects for an equitable give and take (in terms what what the community will be expected to provide in relation to what they'll likely receive in return) is far more dubious, and the anticipated imbalance is somewhat odious. Even though intentional communities are especially well-suited to handle this kind of burden—because the support called for can be spread out over so many people, minimizing the inconvenience to any single individual—most times the group will balk at the prospect.

Ironically, one of the reasons groups are hesitant to swallow a projected trade deficit with a prospective member suffering from a chronic illness is that they'll want to protect their reserves against the possibility that a current member may become ill, and are not highly motivated to tax themselves at the rate needed to provide a more robust reserve. This is a tender example of the people in a stout lifeboat not wanting to pull half-drowned people in over the gunwales, for fear that there may not be enough food and water to accommodate those already in the boat. This is tough stuff.

And at the end of the day, it is much easier to say "no" to a stranger than to an established neighbor in their time of need.

All of that said, there are some communities who have developed an identity connected with service to people suffering from health challenges. There is Innisfree Village (Crozet VA) and the L'Arche communities (in several US locations and in Canada and Europe) that work with people with intellectual disabilities. The Camphill communities (in several locations in the US and Europe) work with the developmentally disabled. Gould Farm (Monterey MA) works with people suffering from mental illness. Unfortunately, I know of no community that offers analogous categorical support for people suffering from the debilitating effects of rheumatoid arthritis, Lyme disease, or fibromyalgia. 

Though it would be a godsend to those in need, that particular prayer has so far gone unanswered. To manifest an answer to this prayer would probably require a group that was willing to dedicate itself from the get-go to meeting this need, to accept this as part of its core identity. As the handful of established communities that I mentioned in the previous paragraph can attest, it is possible to do this, but the initiative on this will have to be undertaken by the healthy, not by those whose energy budgets have already been sharply compromised by their illness.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Knee Jerk Reactions

Nine days ago I wrote about my bowling mishap [see Wounded Knee from Sept 12]—where I wrenched the bejesus out of my right knee and had an excruciating time negotiating two airports 18 hours after the injury, when the swelling and muscle pain were at their peak.

Today I'm happy to report that I'm much better. This blog features oddments about my nonlinear journey toward recovery.

o  When I first went down I was nauseous and broke out in a cold sweat. I knew right away that it was bad, but I had no frame of reference (excepting that I was in the fifth frame of my first game at the Red Rock Casino). My daughter, Jo, reported that I'd literally turned white. Not good.

o  After surviving the death marches to and from my departure and arrival gates (with carry-on luggage of course), I was thankfully collected at the Sacramento airport by Marty Maskall (one of my facilitation students). We rented a Smarte Carte (which was clearly a smart idea, even if they have a thing about extraneous e's) and it was definitely an improvement negotiating my way to Marty's car with the aid of a rolling walker.

o  By the time we got to Marty's house my knee was the size of a grapefruit, and I dreaded even the trip from the dining room table (where I was ensconced with my laptop) to the bathroom. I suddenly got very conscious about my liquid intake.

o  Amazingly, Marty had just received in that day's mail a pair of collapsible walking sticks from REI. She only wanted one but they wouldn't sell her less than two. Did I want one? Things were starting to look up.

o  Continuing the theme of Marty as Angel, it happened that her husband had recently had a double knee replacement and they had some potent surplus prescription sleep aids (codeine-based) in the medicine chest. Yeehah!  

o  During my 19 hours at Marty's I enjoyed the anti-swelling benefits of regular applications of ice packs, and then it was time for a three-hour drive to Boonvlle and the start of a weekend facilitation training at Emerald Earth. The car ride was no problem, but people were wondering who that hobbling old geezer was when I gingerly unfolded myself from the front passenger seat and tried to unlimber my stiff knee.

o  Fortunately, facilitation training is not aerobic, and the outright pain had diminished enough that I could pretty much ignore my disability while immersed in the training. It was only a challenge when I wanted a cup of coffee or needed to pee. (With the former I was touched by how many people were willing to help manifest java for me; with that latter I was the only one doing the touching and I was appropriately on my own.)

o  The main hurdle at Emerald Earth was walking to my sleeping cabin in the dark. While the path was mostly level, that's not the same as paved, and each minor dip or stray stick created a potential misadventure. Still, I got around and didn't go down. It just took longer.

o  After the training weekend ended (Sunday afternoon—five days post-injury) Sean (another of my facilitation students) drove me down to the East Bay where I holed up for three days with Susan Frank, Molly Reed, and Don Lambert (the core of the dynamic organizing team for FIC's Art of Community event happening this weekend) in a lovely house sitting situation in the Oakland Hills. The accommodations were plush, but the operative word in my location was "hills." The house featured many stories and lots of stairs. I tried to think of it as built-in physical therapy.

o  By Wednesday I was feeling frisky enough that I tried getting around without my walking stick. I figured that if I could stand it (literally) that the more work I made my right leg do, the quicker I'd heal by virtue of the increased blood flow—so long as I didn't overdo it and wind up with a puffier knee at night that I started with that morning.

o  When the day went fine, I felt frisky enough to attempt walking to a restaurant for dinner after relocating to Mariposa Grove for my final day in the East Bay. Mind you, walking the streets of Oakland and Berkeley is typically a recreational pastime for me—something I do for enjoyment when my legs are both fully functional. So I was aching to get out and recapture a taste of my old mobility. Pushing it, I walked to Kirala, one of my all-time favorite sushi restaurants at Shattuck & Ward. After a lovely repast, I limped home and was startled to learn that I'd asked my tender knee to go 2.4 miles. No wonder I was sore! I went to bed fervently hoping I hadn't machoed myself into a relapse.

o  In the morning (yesterday) I was relieved to find that my knee was better still. Hurray! In the first days after the injury it was brutal putting on my shoes and quite tricky getting in and out of a car. Now I'm semi-good at those ordinarily mundane tasks.  

Fortunately, I have a generally strong constitution and am a fast healer. It has helped me both physically and psychically that my knee is noticeably better every day. No matter how bad an injury is at its worst, there's a mood elevating quality to being on the way up. Thus, when people see me now (nine days into recovery) and wince at what I'm going through, I laugh and tell them this is nothing; they should have seen me three days ago.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Consensus Challenges: Balancing Voices, Part I

This is the continuation of a blog series started June 7 in which I'm addressing a number of issues in consensus. Today's topic is Balancing Voices.

I. When do you know enough to act? [posted June 7]
II. Closing the deal [posted June 10]
III. Wordsmithing in plenary [posted June 16]
IV. Redirecting competition [posted June 23]
V. Bridging disparate views [posted July 5]
VI. Harvesting partial product [posted July 20]
VII. When to be formal [posted July 29]
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms [posted Aug 10]
IX. Coping with blocking energy [posted Aug 19]
X. Defining respect [posted Sept 3]
XI. Balancing voices
XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go
XIV. Accountability
• • •
When you intend collaboration—whether using consensus or any other process—the assumption is that you want to hear from everyone. Actually accomplishing that however, ain't easy. There are two halves to this problem: a) making sure that everyone who cares to, has had a decent opportunity to speak; and b) making a solid effort to see that all those who have spoken have been accurately heard and their input considered.

Here are some of the potholes on the road to full collaboration, along with suggestions for hot tar mixes to fill them.

1. Unlevel Playing Field
While cooperative groups almost all aim for their meetings to be an equal opportunity for all members to contribute, they rarely are. Not because the people who set up the meeting are trying to tilt things in a certain direction, but because the format—independent of what the format is—will favor some communication styles over others. Typically, people who are quick to formulate their thoughts, who are comfortable speaking in front of groups, who don't mind interrupting others, who are not hesitant to wade into the conversation when passions run high, who are confident of their ability to articulate clearly and persuasively, who are more knowledgeable about and facile with the process agreements, or even those who are simply pleasant to look at, all have advantages that have nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of their thinking or the purity of their heart.

So the first task is developing sensitivity to what gets in the way of people being willing to speak at all.

—Part of this is pace  In a normal group there will be a range among members' natural rhythms when it comes to digesting and processing information. If the pace is geared toward the average—which may work fine for most members—the outliers at one end will be consistently impatient with how slowly the group works. On the other end people will be often be overwhelmed by how fast the group wants to make decisions. It doesn't take many iterations of that experience to get discouraged and either stop coming to meetings or learn to just shut up and go along for the ride.

By varying the pace, and working with more clarity and advanced notice, those who need greater time to open and close their synapses will have a better chance to thoughtfully board the bus before it leaves the station.

—Part of this is grace  For those intimidated by strong feelings, it can be a matter of creating sufficient safety for them to feel that it's OK to put their toes in the water—that there's a lifeguard (read facilitator) who will protect them from alligators or chomping away at their tootsies.

—Part of this is space  For those less pushy and less secure about entering the on-ramp in a fast-paced discussion, Go Rounds and talking sticks may be needed to slow things down and guarantee air time. Caution: too much slowing down will drive the quick-witted bonkers.

—Part of this is trace  It can serve a group well to develop facilitator sensitivity such that they can tell from body language who's ready to speak before they've worked up the courage to raise their hand, or can detect enough hesitation to probe a bit deeper to see if "I don't have anything to say" is really accurate. The shy may need to be invited more than once before they'll accept. (I'm not saying this a great strategy; I'm saying it exists.)

—Part of this is embrace  If the facilitator is good at helping speakers feel heard (note that I didn't say agreed with), someone sitting on a comment they expect to be unpopular may find it easier to take the chance, because they'll be less likely to be misunderstood, or worse, get creamed.

2. Rank and Privilege
Even though cooperative groups intend for everyone to have reasonable access to air space, the nuances of rank and privilege are always at work to modify who feels comfortable and who doesn't. Those who have more power by virtue of experience (rank) generally are more at ease inserting their views, which is naturally reinforced by people tending to listen more to people with rank. Those more green (in experience, not politics) are often more hesitant. Analogously, those with more privilege (which generally means white, male, older, able-bodied, and more educated) often find the wheels greased for them and somewhat gritty for others.

Even when groups have an explicit commitment to be aware of privilege (which I wholeheartedly support) and work diligently to not have it influence considerations, it leaks in. Plus, privilege gives those who benefit from it an unfair advantage in earning rank and when the two are commingled—as they often are—it can be the very devil sorting out how much of someone's influence is due to what they've earned and is appropriate and how much is unexamined privilege that you'd rather object to. 

Take the example of an older white guy whose advice about financial planning carries more weight in the group than that of a young Latina woman. Suppose the man came out of a middle class upbringing and has a degree in Economics from Princeton. Before coming to the community he worked for three decades on Wall Street where he had a successful career as an investment banker. In contrast, let's suppose the woman grew up in poverty in a San Juan barrio where she managed to scrape together enough of a living to put herself through college. Now both live together in an intergenerational community in a mixed class and multiracial neighborhood in Boston. In this instance, how much of the man's ability to be persuasive is attributable to privilege and how much to rank? See how messy this can get?

Arnie Mindell says, “Rank is everyone’s issue. If there is clarity and understanding, rank can be medicine. If unexamined, it can be poison.” It's a serious commitment for a group to tackle the morass of rank and privilege. The good news is that that swamp can be drained.  

3. Social Capital
Related to the previous point, yet somewhat different, is the concept that the group is more willing to listen to some members than others by virtue of their relationships and their history with the group, independent of that person's experience or expertise with the topic. Thus, we'll tend to listen more carefully and weigh more seriously the opinions of people we're close to, and the reverse will obtain with folks we're irritated with. Ideas that come from people who have recently been doing things above and beyond for the group will be treated more kindly; the views of people who have lately been needy and demanding will be held more critically.

While you're never going to eliminate the influence of social capital (nor am I advocating that you should even if you could), you can become more aware of how it functions, and thus better able to read how some voices commonly sound more off-key while others are perceived to be more consistently melodious in the ever-constant effort to harmonize. 
• • •
Taken all together, you can begin to see how naive it is to expect that the voices in a cooperative group will be naturally balanced just because that's your intention. While much of the skewing I've described happens unconsciously, that's a mixed blessing. On the up side, it's not a question of anyone having a bad heart. On the down side, it's much more difficult to illuminate and work with invisible forces.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

There and Back Again

Not everyone is aware that the subtitle of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit is "There and Back Again." I was inspired by something that occurred to me yesterday to dust off that bit of literary arcana and employ it as a suitable headline for today's blog, which highlights an oddity that occurred to me for the first time in my 25 years as a process consultant. 

Yesterday was the first day of a three-day facilitation training in northern California (my 52nd such weekend) where the teaching theme is Power & Leadership. During the morning session, the class got into an animated conversation about how to handle the situation where a group member is triggered by the perception that power has been misused in the group. What was the best way to proceed?

After I recommended that the top priority in that dynamic was to acknowledge the upset person's emotional response before tackling the power issue, a student who is new to the group (this was the class' fifth weekend, but only the second for this student) excitedly offered a diagram that illuminated the relationship between distress and distortion, where the essential point is that distortion necessarily increases as distress increases, and that at some point the distortion is so serious that it unacceptably impacts problem solving.

It happened—unbeknownst to the eager new student—that I had taught that exact same chart in Weekend III (when the teaching theme was Conflict, but which the new student wasn't present for) as an integral piece of my thinking about working constructively with distress. At first I thought that the student was making a joke, but eventually it dawned on me that he was unaware of my familiarity with what he was offering. What was really funny though, was that the distress/distortion graph was a piece of work that originated with me and the student didn't know it! It was the first time in my experience where my own work had come back to me without the advocate knowing the connection between the advice and its origin. What a hoot!

In some ways this was the ultimate compliment—someone trying to sell me my own thinking. It pleases me that my work (at least in this one instance) has been robust enough to have spread beyond its attribution. I don't need notoriety beyond what is sufficient to give me opportunity to ply my craft, and I already have that.

(In fact, I may already be too busy. I was recently approached by the minister of a church in Virginia who was desperately seeking professional help to weather a divisive, long-standing conflict between two parishioners whose bellicosity was threatening to turn the congregation into a conflagration, but was turned down because I couldn't make it there sooner than three weeks. Yikes! That's urgency. I want to be able help put out fires like this, but I'm often booked as much as six months out and that doesn't leave much room for battling spontaneous combustion.)

I'd prefer that my legacy be better group dynamics, rather than glorification of my contributions to it, so I savored yesterday's moment. At the end of the day it won't matter a whit what Laird did in service to group process; it will only matter whether the culture is better off.

Finally, I'm suspicious of whether I'll be able to keep my ego from getting addicted to too much stroking. So I want to be noticed some for my contributions and efficacy (I certainly want clients and students), yet not too much. Being a celebrity is dangerous stuff and I'm not at all confident I could handle it well. While I like having time in the spotlight, I want to be able to walk out of the spotlight also. Getting the right mix of attribution and anonymity is a fine line—and only partially in my control.

After decades of trying hard to develop enough of a reputation to create steady work and a flow of interesting opportunities to spread my thinking, I am finally There. To what extent can I go Back Again to control of my own time and the primacy of tending to the precious relationships that sustain me, while still honoring the work and the faith my clients place in me?

I have to go now. I have a meeting in 10 minutes.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Wounded Knee

Last night I went bowling, and only made it through the fifth frame before I dinged up my knee.

It was my last night in Las Vegas with my daughter and son-in-law (Jo & Peter) before heading to northern California for the next leg of my trip. Our plan was a light evening of a meal and bowling at the Red Rock Casino (one of those spots well off the strip that mainly caters to the locals), and the back home. 

Our evening ended abruptly when I tripped on my follow through trying to pick up a 2-4-5-8 "bucket" for a spare. I had noticed as soon as we started bowling (at lanes I'd never been at before) that there was almost no give on the approach, and I couldn't count on any slide in my follow through (if you're a sports aficionado it's like contrasting the way tennis is played on the clay at Roland Garros with the approach you'd use on the acrylic surface at Forest Hills). As I typically bowl at lanes with more slide, I had already tripped and fallen once in an earlier frame. This time it was worse.

As I strode into my release, concentrating on the four remaining pins, I over-committed my weight. When my right foot didn't slide, I stumbled across the foul line into the alley. As I frantically moved my right foot forward to catch myself from falling, my leg muscles tensed. Unfortunately, the alley itself—in sharp contrast with the approach—was well oiled, making it very slippery, and down I went. 

Though I didn't hit my head (good) I could tell right away that I'd sustained damage in the area of my right knee. My first thought was that I might have torn a ligament. It hurt like the dickens and I didn't want to put any weight on it. When Jo helped me stand and get to a seat, I held my breath to see if I could walk on my right leg. I was relieved that I could, but I was nonetheless in trauma. I turned white, was dizzy, and broke out in a cold sweat. (Nothing like having some fun at the old bowling alley, eh?)

This episode quickly earned a visit from three Red Rock officials, who had me fill out an accident report and wanted to know if I wanted to go to the ER. Buoyed by my ability to put weight on my right leg, I turned down the offer (which may have been foolish; we'll see). They brought out a wheel chair and I was given a bottle of water and a ride to the parking lot where I gingerly got into the back seat for the drive back to Jo & Peter's.

Today was a travel day and I was dreading negotiating the airports in Las Vegas & Sacramento, which meant a lot of walking with carry-on luggage. Ufda. Typing this I'm sitting in Marty Maskall's dining room (she's my overnight host before we drive together to Emerald Earth in Boonville for a facilitation training weekend), happy that I don't have to walk any more today and have access to ice packs.

Even better, facilitation is not an aerobic activity and if can successfully contain my natural tendency to pace and gesticulate, I should be able to give my damaged knee ample rest this weekend, which is surely what it needs.

As a silver lining, Jo had the inspiration to call her brother (my son), Ceilee, who tore his PCL (in front of my eyes 10 years ago) playing rugby at Amherst. Trained as an EMT, Ceilee learned all about knee ligaments when he tore his own, and he walked me through a simple way to test for tears on the phone. Using his tests, it seem unlikely that I've torn a ligament (whew), but I may have sustained cartilage damage to my meniscus. In any event, it was a nice bonus talking to my son, even if I had to jerk my knee around to have a good excuse.

All I know at this stage is that my right knee is warm and swollen, especially on the inside, and that the muscles on the top and side of my right thigh are very tender.

I'm fairly optimistic that the thigh muscles will bounce back quickly, and that today's strolls through airports was likely good for them (stimulating blood flow to the sore spots). For the meniscus analysis, I'll have to wait—something I don't particularly excel at—and see how much of my mobility returns and how long it takes. This could take a while.

I tell you, this getting old stuff is not for the faint of heart, much less for those who are weak in the knees. 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Facilitation & Flexibility

I train facilitators and one of the key attributes I try to develop in students is their ability to commit one's weight forward without knowing where the floor is—trusting that it will show up when their foot needs it so they won't trip. 

Another way to express this is that you cannot just work from a script or a set pattern; sometimes you have to work extemporaneously, because that's what the situation calls for. While it's all well and good to study the terrain and have a road map (which I also teach); sometimes you have to go off-roading, following your instincts.

In short, a good facilitator needs to know productive patterns (and which ones apply under the conditions in play) and have developed strong enough instincts to know when something different is called for in the moment. You need to have a script, yet not be a slave to it.

Interestingly (I'm sure there's an astrological explanation for this, but it eludes me) this week I got a double opportunity to practice what I preach about being able to wing it. First let me set the stage...
Nine years ago I developed a two-year facilitation training program where I meet with the same group of students (12-14 is the ideal number) eight times in a series of intense three-day weekends that are spaced approximately three months apart. The training is centered near where the students live, so that it's relatively easy for them to get to the training site (which rotates within the region). I've now delivered this training five times in its entirety (once each in CO, MI, and NC, plus twice in the Mid-Atlantic States) with two other versions part way completed (there is one weekend remaining to a Midwest training, and four to go in northern CA). Later this month I'll be launching one centered in NC, and I'm gearing up to start another this January in New England.

Although I conducted the inaugural version of this program solo, it was obvious that working with a partner would be an enhancement for the students. The partner would offer a contrast of styles (the point of the training being to learn good facilitation principles; not to become a Laird clone), would catch things I'd miss, would be able to offer the same teaching points from a different angle, and would allow the flexibility to split the group up on occasion to do different things simultaneously.

Thus, for every version of the training since the first one, I've worked with a partner (there have been two over the years, and I'm about to start pairing with a third), and there's no doubt that this approach is superior to my working alone. That said, it's inadvertently turned out to be a damn good thing that I did the first round solo because there have now been five occasions (out of the 51 training weekends I've conducted to date) when my partner cancelled out at the last minute—generally for health reasons—and I needed to be able to conduct the weekend as the sole trainer. More than once, the cancellation was so last minute that I didn't get the memo until I arrived on site for the training. Ufda.

While not ideal, I know how to hit the curve ball and can take this pretty well in stride (in part because I've had a lot of practice at it!). It's a good example of the flexibility principle I illuminated at the start of this essay, which applies to facilitation trainers every bit as much as to facilitators.
• • •
Now back to current time. The first shoe dropped on Monday when Ma'ikwe, slated to be my partner for the new NC training, decided she wasn't recovering quickly enough from the debilitation effects of chronic Lyme to join me for the opening weekend in Pittsboro, Sept 27. Scrambling, we were happily able to secure Alyson Ewald (our good friend and quality facilitator, who used to live at Dancing Rabbit and now lives at neighboring Red Earth Farms) to pinch hit.

Yesterday, the second shoe dropped. I'm scheduled to conduct the fifth weekend in a northern California training starting Thursday, and my partner in that training just informed me that she cannot make it—only three days before we were going to rendezvous in Sacramento for the drive up to the training site at Emerald Earth in Boonville. Yikes! 

While I was able to figure out an adjustment for the NC training given three weeks advanced notice, it's too late to pull an ex-Rabbit out of the hat for the CA training, and that means that either God or nobody will be my co-pilot again this weekend. It appears that the universe is giving me the hint that I need to do some teaching about flexibility this month. 

At least I don't have laryngitis. Yet.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Training for a Perfect loop

Last night I boarded the westbound Southwest Chief in La Plata MO, headed for Las Vegas and five days with my daughter, Jo. No sooner had I settled into my seat when it occurred to me that exactly 27 days from now, Oct 3, I'll be detraining in La Plata from the westbound Southwest Chief on my return home. I'll be traversing a perfect loop, somewhere in the vicinity of 7,000 miles long.

My time at home yesterday was a whirlwind. I was only in Rutledge 18 hours, barely enough time to shower, launder my clothes, refresh the missus (one of my all-time favorite euphemisms, plagiarized from the musical 1776), shoot a promotional video blurb for next summer's Ecovillage Education course at Dancing Rabbit, turn in the accounting from my 12-day East Coast swing concluded at midnight Tuesday, add a quart of oil to the car I drove east (the modern equivalent of rubbing down one's horse after a long ride), open all my mail and pay bills, write personal notes on a dozen FIC membership renewal requests, and crank out 20 pints of tomatillo salsa—just in time for the start of the fall fair season. Whew!

The train was pulling into the station as I eased into the Amtrak parking lot last evening. I smoothly got out of the car, pulled my luggage from the trunk, and walked right on board. If I'd taken time to eat Wed, I'd have missed my connection. Talk about tight choreography! I'm looking forward to and easier pace, where I nod off as I gaze out the window—a luxury I couldn't afford the last fortnight as I drove solo to Virginia and back. Who knows, maybe I'll even get to read a bit and make a dent in my email backlog.

After three weeks in the Pacific time zone, I'll take a red eye to Raleigh/Durham NC, leaving San Francisco late Sept 26, and arriving mildly refreshed (and mildly disoriented) the next day in the Tar Heel State capital. While I take the train whenever I can, I don't have enough time between me final two engagements to make that work: I'm one of the facilitators for the FIC's Social Change Summit in Occidental Sept 24-25, and need to be teaching in Pittsboro NC the evening of the 27th, when I'll start a new round of my two-year facilitation training.

I'll be working in NC with a new training partner, Alyson Ewald, who is a good friend and lives near me at Red Earth Farm. She'll be pinch hitting for Ma'ikwe, who is still too debilitated from her current bout with chronic Lyme disease to be able to answer the bell. I have my fingers crossed that her health will have improved enough to work with me the second training weekend, slated for January.

After Alyson and I wrap up the NC weekend Sunday afternoon, we board the northbound Crescent in Greensboro (at the ungodly hour of 3:44 am Monday morning) to wend our way home via a three-train parlay, the final leg of which is the westbound Southwest Chief from Chicago, dropping us off in La Plata.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Consensus Challenges: Defining Respect

This is the continuation of a blog series started June 7 in which I'm addressing a number of issues in consensus. Today's topic is Defining Respect.

I. When do you know enough to act? [posted June 7]
II. Closing the deal [posted June 10]
III. Wordsmithing in plenary [posted June 16]
IV. Redirecting competition [posted June 23]
V. Bridging disparate views [posted July 5]
VI. Harvesting partial product [posted July 20]
VII. When to be formal [posted July 29]
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms [posted Aug 10]
IX. Coping with blocking energy [posted Aug 19]
X. Defining respect
XI. Balancing voices
XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go
XIV. Accountability

• • •
It's a relatively simple step to get groups to agree that extending respect to one another is a common value. But what does it mean?

This may be trickier than first appears, because respect can mean widely different things to different people and it's dangerous to assume that everyone is looking for the same "respectful" things as you. The default for most of us is that we will offer others what we want for ourselves, and that may have no relationship to what the other person finds respectful!

Here's a sampling of some of the behaviors that translate to respect for people—note that some of these are mutually exclusive:
—Not embarrassing you in public
—Giving you critical feedback in the way you prefer to receive it
—Giving you uninterrupted air time when you speak
—Saying something appreciative before something critical
—Not making jokes about your behavior
—Not using profanity
—Dressing nicely when company comes
—Never raising your voice
—Keeping agreements
—Assuming that you've done what you've agreed to do
—Inquiring how you're doing when you've been struggling
—Noticing when you do something for others that's above and beyond what you've agreed to do
—Not having to repeat requests (because others cared enough about you to hear it accurately the first time)
—Cutting you some slack when you occasionally fall short on completing an assignment on time 

In general the hardest dynamic to navigate safely is when two people want diametrically opposite things—then the real fun begins. It's one thing to be accused of being disrespectful when you've been unmindful; it's all together different when you were consciously trying to be respectful and are accused of being purposefully disrespectful. That's when you can hear fragments of the national anthem in the background ("… and the rockets red glare, and bombs bursting in air…")

With this potential in mind, I suggest listening instead to the lyrics of Aretha Franklin: "R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means it to me."

As if that's not complicated enough, it can get worse. People's answers (about what indicates respect to them) can vary depending on circumstances—who's in the room, how recently they've eaten, whether there are unresolved trust issues with the speaker, whether it's morning or evening, how recently they've had sex, etc. While it may be borderline heroic to attempt to memorize everyone's preferences regarding respect—especially if your group is large—you can remember to ask when you're unsure of your footing. And almost everyone finds being asked what they want to be respectful—even if they're unsure of their answer.

Switching perspectives, there is another important angle on the question of respect: what constitutes respect for the group? For the most part this is viewed as following the group norms or agreements about appropriate behavior. This, of course, comes in many flavors:
o  Doing the work you agreed to do in a timely way and to a reasonable standard of quality.
o  Being appropriately self-disciplined in meetings (Hint: what's wanted in plenary is not the same as in informal conversation, on the phone, or at the dinner table).
o  Following group guidelines about how to give critical feedback to one another.
o  Doing your homework about topics before the meeting at which it will be discussed.
o  Making a good faith effort to resolve tensions directly with people you're struggling with.
o  Listening fully to what others have to say and seriously considering it—especially when their views are different than yours.
o  Doing your best to have your children and pets operate within group-established boundaries of acceptable behavior.
o  Coming across as genuinely contrite when you fuck up.

I point this out because it's not uncommon for problems with what is viewed as inappropriate behavior to carry two components: a) the incident itself; and b) the sense that you've let the group down, and acted selfishly or immaturely. It's a double wound, and if there are two cuts, then both need to be cleansed before the healing can begin.