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.

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