Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Beached by Sandy

I was supposed to be in Ann Arbor this morning, orchestrating agenda prep for the fall organizational meetings of the Fellowship for Intentional Community. Instead, I'm in Watertown MA, visiting with a dear friend (Tyler), waiting out Hurricane Sandy.

As a wilderness canoeist, I often look for a sandy beach when scanning the shoreline for an overnight campsite. In the Precambrian granite geology of northern Canada's premier canoeing territory, such sites are few and far between, but every now and then you can luck upon one. They represent a safe harbor, easy on the canoe and less treacherous for bathing.

Much as I enjoy being on a sandy beach, however, I'm not enjoying being beached by Sandy. 

As someone who's been involved with FIC since its beginning in 1987, I've never missed any of our semi-annual organizational meetings (board meetings plus committee meetings combined). That's 51 in a row. Tomorrow, for the first time, I'll not be in the room at the opening bell, because I didn't get out of Dodge Boston fast enough after wrapping up a weekend consulting gig with Jamaica Plain Cohousing Sunday afternoon.

My plan was to board the westbound Lake Shore Limited at South Station at noon Monday, getting off 18 hours later (at dawn Tuesday) in Toledo—which is only an hour south of Ann Arbor. Not worrying about the weather (big mistake) I had a lovely visit with Tyler Sunday evening and then got the bad news from Amtrak: my Monday train had been canceled in anticipation of Boston getting slammed by Sandy. 

Hmm. Logan Airport was also shut down, so I looked into Greyhound. There are two buses daily that go to Ann Arbor: one leaving at 12:15 pm and another departing at 7:40 pm. They both take about 23 hours and have a couple of transfers (one at 3 something am in Cleveland—talk about a good time), but at least they'd get me there. I could also rent a car, but the fees were stiff ($336 plus gas). What to do?

I have a decided preference for the train because it takes less time, costs less, offers reclining seats for sleeping, and I can work on the train (as opposed to the cramped seating on buses, or the psychic drain of driving 13 hours solo through driving rain with winds gusting to 70 mph). So I switched my reservation to take the Lake Shore Limited Tuesday and crossed my fingers. Maybe I should have crossed my eyes also. 

Monday afternoon, in the midst of the howling wind, Amtrak canceled Tuesday's trains also, and then Greyhound shut down the buses. Ain't nobody going anywhere out of Boston on Monday. It was about then that the lights flickered at Tyler's house and it occurred to me that I might be in for plenty more adventure yet. 

Worried about the rain and coastal storm surges, Ma'ikwe emailed me yesterday asking how I was faring—the weather maps looked horrific. I was able to assure her that I was removed six miles from Boston Harbor, and that I was hunkered down in the second story of a house built of brick—not the ones built of straw or sticks—and relatively secure from big bad Sandy's huffing and puffing. In short, I was riding out the storm in Watertown, not Underwatertown.

Fortunately, the power never went out and we've had running water throughout (not just in the downspouts). Last night I bumped back my train reservation once more, and now I'm crossing everything (not just my t's and toes). Today (Tuesday) the wind has died down to a modest 20-30 mph and we've even seen patches of sunshine bravely poking through the cloud cover. Who knows, maybe we'll go out for dinner tonight—something that only a maniac would have considered yesterday. 

While I am sad to not be with my FIC friends chewing on agenda this morning, they can get along fine without me. Everyone I know is safe and I can just as easily peck away at my To Do List from my laptop in Massachusetts as I could in Michigan. In the end, there are many worse ways to spend an unanticipated two-day layover than with a good friend who has reliable wi-fi and an ample stock of strong coffee.

With luck Amtrak will reinstate train service tomorrow, and I'll be to get to Ann Arbor for Day Two of our three-day meeting. Failing that, maybe I can catch the late bus (if they're letting the Greyhounds out of their kennel this evening). 

One way or the other, I'm optimistic that I'll find that sandy beach tonight.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Consensus Challenges: Knowing When to Accelerate & When to Brake

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 Knowing When to Accelerate & When to Brake.

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 [posted Sept 18 & Sept 30]

XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go
XIV. Accountability

• • •
Good meetings rarely operate at a uniform pace. Mostly they follow a rhythm that includes faster and slower stretches, rather like breathing. The trick is matching the pace to the need (and keeping in mind that it's damn hard to inhale and exhale simultaneously).

Here are some general guidelines about pace:

When to Hit the Gas
o  When reviewing things that people already know and are noncontroversial, as in when you're setting the stage for a dialog and reminding people of prior work.
o  When listening to reports.
o  When conducting brainstorms.
o  When people are getting bored.

When to Tap the Brake
o  When people are lost.
o  When emotions are running strong.
o  When you're about to make a non-trivial decision around which there was disagreement.
o  When you're about to switch from discussion phase to problem solving phase.

Generally speaking you want to move expeditiously through the opening housekeeping (where you cover an opening, introductions, announcements, scheduling, ground rules for meeting behavior and the facilitator's authority to run the meeting, and review the draft agenda) and the closing caboose (finding shepherds for any incomplete business, summarizing the product of the session, evaluating the meeting, and closing).

When you're working an issue, I think in terms of six phases:
—Introduction of the issue
—Questions (does everyone understand what was just said and what we're talking about?)
—Discussion (where you're trying to name the factors that a good response to the issue will need to address)
—Proposal generating (where you're trying to identify the response that best balances the factors)
—Decision-making (which proposal to adopt)
—Implementation (who will do what by when with what resources)

For the most part, the heavy lifting is done in the Discussion and Proposal Generating steps, so that's when you'll move more deliberately. Often, for the other four you can often pick up the tempo.

Despite this general guidance, there will be times when the group will be split about what pace is desirable. Some will want to slow down while others will want to speed up. Which pedal to push? The prime directive here is to work as efficiently as possible, without leaving anyone behind or asking them to swallow something that has been insufficiently chewed. Thus, a portion of the time, you may need to slow down to allow for adequate ingestion by the slow chewers, and this may require selling the need for that to those in the group ready to move on. 
 Hint #1: Sometimes you can get an energetic lift not by changing the pace, but by changing formats—the way you are engaging, rather than how quickly you are engaging. This might be the savvy choice, for instance, when some in the room are feeling bogged down, yet you aren't yet out of the swamp.

Hint #2: Sometimes it's a better choice to lay something down—temporarily—rather than to push it through. That is, instead of forcing a premature decision or standing on the brake to protect those still sorting out what they think, it may be a better strategy to stop having that be the focus of attention for a while. Let it season and come back at a later moment (perhaps something as short as the next day, or even later in the same session). So long as you don't lose momentum or clarity about what's being considered, a pause may be highly productive without feeling stuck in a Go Slow zone.

Hint #3: Sometimes frustration about pace is more about a lack of discipline. Think of the meeting as a tour group, with the agenda as the exhibits. If you start the tour at 1 pm and want to end by 3 pm, one of the ways to get to all the exhibits and still catch the bus home is by asking everyone to jog instead of walk (which strategy is roughly analogous to picking up the pace). It might be better however (from the standpoint of enjoyment and depth of enlightenment) to have the tour guide (the facilitator) do a more active job of reminding everyone where we are on the schedule, which exhibit we're looking at now, and making sure the stragglers are close enough to the pack that they can hear one another's comments. In other words, efficiency (and a sense of productivity) may be more about focus than pace. Maybe there will be adequate time to walk to all the exhibits if the group is sufficiently dedicated to traveling in a tight group.

Finally, a word of caution. Processing speed is independent of quality of thought, and it is dangerous to attempt to map wisdom onto speed. People will naturally work at different paces even if they have the same intelligence, same comfort working in group, same degree of receptivity to how the information and viewpoints have been shared, and the same familiarity with the issues—none of which will be the case! 

It is a poor bargain to have accommodated the quick by forcing those who need more time to act precipitously.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Rings of Emotional Connection

You take a ring, and then another ring, and then another ring, and then you've got three rings… Ballantine.

I'm in New York City visiting friends between weekend consulting gigs, and that means I'm near the birthplace of Ballantine Ale (Newark NJ in 1840). I enjoyed a bottle Monday night while watching my beloved San Francisco Giants cake walk passed the St Louis Cardinals 9-0 to get their ticket punched to the World Series.

Have you ever noticed how insidious beer jingles are? Even though I had not thought about the one I opened today's blog with in more than a decade, it popped into my head as soon as I saw that bottle in a bodega before the game. While the tautology of the lyrics lacks profundity, the tune is catchy and it obviously stuck in my mind—which I guess was the point.

While I have no idea why Ballantine chose the symbol of three rings for its brand of malted beverages, it's apropos for a group dynamic I witnessed recently and am choosing to explore in today's essay.

To set the stage, I'll lay out three rings of association with a community:

The First Ring
There is an inner ring of people who are the ones most connected in the group. They are the ones (mostly) who come to meetings and are most actively involved in community life.

The Second Ring
There is also an outer ring of less involved folks who rarely come to meetings, yet nonetheless enjoy the amenities and economic advantages of the community.

The Third Ring
This segment is comprised of the disaffected who used to live in the community yet have left under strained terms. While there isn't necessarily open hostility, the population of this group is not encouraged by the First Ring to hang around.

As someone who works with many groups, it's not hard to use this basic overlay to describe the rings of association that exist in almost any group that's been around for a while. [Note: while I could also identify other rings of association, these three are enough for the point I want to make in this monograph.]

In the specific dynamic that I witnessed being discussed, the First Ring had worked hard to find a graceful way to move a particular individual (whom I'll call Rosie) from the Second Ring to the Third, yet, after that was accomplished there were a number of members of the Second Ring who were encouraging Rosie—their friend—to spend time at the community, the frequency of which was irritating to members of the First Ring.

In particular, there was a First Ring member (whom I'll call Jesse) who felt unsafe around Rosie—due to a long standing pattern of her disregarding community agreements, which was the basis for asking her to leave—to the point that the community didn't feel like home to Jesse if Rosie was present. Jesse was in considerable distress and came to a community meeting to get help working through those hard feelings. (Of note here is that the meeting was open to all community members; while Second Ring members didn't attend the meeting, they were invited.)

1. Jesse was smart to ask for help. While it may seem surprising, most people who are struggling with a group dynamic don't come to the group and ask for help. They are much more likely to brood, gossip, take unilaterally action, or demand group sanction against the offending person.

2. While Jesse had some thoughts about getting support for establishing firmer limits around Rosie visiting the community, the main request was for help handling the distress.

3. Those attending the meeting did a fairly good job of staying away from what exactly Rosie had or hadn't done as a member of the Third Ring, and kept the focus on what choices Jesse had in getting to a better place. What impressed me most about this examination was how well everyone seemed to understand the primacy of working emotionally before considering actions steps.

4. Because the group had already been down the road of trying to engage constructively with Rosie (attempted when she was still a member of the Second Ring) and grown frustrated when repeated efforts to get different behavior from her failed, it made sense to me that the group held little hope in the efficacy of further emotional work with Rosie.

5. The most interesting part of the conversation had to do with the Second Ring. While the primary focus had been on a First Ring member's response to the behavior of a Third Ring member, largely omitted from the examination was what it meant that Second Ring members were actively inviting Rosie to be at the community. While that ring unquestionably had the right to do so, it wasn't apparent to me that the Second Ring was taking into account the impact that Rosie's presence was likely to have on the First Ring.

6. While it made sense to me that the First Ring rejected the impulse to ban Rosie from visiting the community as a strategy to address Jesse's discomfort (because of the potential for that action being interpreted as war mongering), I was surprised that the First Ring didn't think to offer the same consideration to the Second Ring that it was offering Jesse: namely, engaging with them in a good faith effort to better understand: a) what having Rosie visiting the community meant to them in a positive way; and b) sharing with them the strain that put the First Ring under. (There is a large difference between banning Rosie from visiting and asking the Second Ring to take into account First Ring sensibilities when thinking about inviting Rosie over.)

On the one hand, the group did well to work accurately and sensitively with Jesse emotionally. Why not offer the same approach with the Second Ring? My impression was that the group was working more to manage the Second Ring (avoiding the possibility of incensing it through imposing tighter limits on Dale's visiting) than to build relationship with it, and that seemed off to me. 

If the commitment is to solve problems relationally—which approach I wholeheartedly support—then that's the prime directive. While the Second Ring may not respond as hoped, isn't it better to have failed following your beliefs, than to take your chances playing Ring Around the Rosie?     

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Best of Hurts

I was recently in a conversation with someone about personal work they were doing to better understand and manage the litany of psychological damage they had sustained over the course of their lifetime—not because this person had suffered spectacularly—but because they had come to understand how important (though difficult) it can be to move beyond the scars and traumas we accumulate over time. This person was becoming aware of how susceptible we are to being trapped in the stories we remember of what happened when we were wronged.

In particular, each of us carries within us a "Best of Hurts" highlight reel that we trot out for impromptu viewing whenever we're in a difficult exchange, thereby subtly (or even blatantly) increasing the likelihood that we'll have that experience again (and again).

I laughed when I first heard this, because it's both an engaging metaphor and apt! (At least it's something I do at times.)

Recognizing the potency of those stories, and the influence they have on how we view reality in challenging moments, my acquaintance was actively working with psychodrama and playback theater as techniques for uncovering the stories, for the purpose of trying to change them—and thereby achieve escape velocity from their gravitational pull into the abyss of misery. Pretty interesting stuff.

In essence, the more severe the damage, the more accessible the film; the more likely it is that current events will evoke the bad memory and start to superimpose the past experience onto the present one—whether it's a good fit or not. It's work—sometimes a lot of work—to recognize that projection is underway and that the past is not necessarily prologue; that history is not necessarily destiny.

As I sat with this insight, I realized that I could distill a large chunk of what I do as a professional facilitator into trying to accomplish two things: a) helping people accurately hear and see what's happening in the moment (as distinguished from what we absorb through the distorted lens of our damage); and b) offering a plausible, innocent motivation for why people around you do things that you don't like (in the hope that once a person takes that in that they'll be able to let go of they're-out-to-get-me thinking). What this boils down to is offering people a way to step out of their personal projection room for the purpose of participating with what's actually happening in real time.

Through working with my wife, Ma'ikwe, I've learned the concept of "free attention," which refers to the portion of our consciousness available to notice and interact with what's going on around us. It turns out that a startlingly large fraction of the time most of us are distracted by memories (triggered by something going on around us), and thereby miss or distort a lot of what's happening. Maybe we catch the headlines, yet miss much of the nuance.

Because our abilities to access memory, recognize patterns, and draw inferences are powerful cognitive tools, I am not suggesting that anyone block out or ignore their past. Rather, I am trying to make the case for learning how to stay out of your internal theater when engaging with others—for learning how to bring as much free attention as possible to interactions.

While I have a lot of fondness for movies featuring William Hurt (The Big Chill, Broadcast News, Altered States, The Accidental Tourist, Children of a Lesser God), being obsessed with those is a lot more innocent than sneaking into matinees where the main feature is your Best of Hurts. Besides, who needs all that popcorn.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Back in the Lymelight Again

This past week, Ma'ikwe had a Facebook exchange with someone close to her (whom I'll call Jesse) that didn't go well despite both of them wanting the best for each other. Worse, when Ma'ikwe reached out to me for help (having recognized that the back-and-forth with Jesse had derailed), my response didn't help. Yuck.

While the key dynamic with Ma'ikwe is the cumulative emotional toll that her constant struggle with chronic Lyme has exacted on her psyche, this tender dynamic is worth exploring because it could happen whenever someone is in a depleted state. This sequence is unquestionably not peculiar to Lyme.
I'm going to use this blog to unpack how three intelligent, caring people could miss each other so poignantly. Think of it as a crash site investigation.

The Back Story
o  Jesse lives with her partner on a small rural acreage, where they do homestead farming, work two jobs, and try to keep up with their rambunctious four-year-old daughter. Their lives are full.

As Ma'ikwe and I are self-employed, it was easier for us to travel to Jesse's family than the other way around, and over the last four years, Ma'ikwe and I have visited them a handful of times. To date, Jesse and partner have not visited Ma'ikwe at Dancing Rabbit.
o  A straight forward person, Jesse's style is to simply put out what she wants and let others know what she's thinking. While she doesn't expect to always be agreed with, it's her way to speak up when something is on her mind.
o  Ma'ikwe has done a lot of personal growth work over the course of her adult life and she's generally willing to look closely at her part of a dynamic when things don't go well.

o  Ma'ikwe suffered from depression in her early 20s and the personal growth work helped considerably with her recovery. By the time we met, she was a high-functioning, spunky, centered woman who was an accomplished organizer and frustrated with people who flaked on commitments.

o  Jesse and partner lead a more or less traditional nuclear family lifestyle; Ma'ikwe and I don't. Both she and I have been involved with intentional communities for decades, and we have an odd marriage in that we live three miles apart, each in our distinct, though well-connected communities (Sandhill Farm and Dancing Rabbit). Jesse has had no personal experience with group living.

o  Lyme disease (which Ma'ikwe's been battling in its active chronic form for most of the last three years) is progressively enervating and she's struggled to come to grips with her no longer being able to do things, or be anywhere near as productive as she once was.

o  In the last year, Ma'ikwe discovered that her 15-year-old son, Jibran, also has Lyme disease. While there has been a certain amount of camaraderie to their seeing the same doctor and commiserating with one another over symptoms, it's been heartbreaking for a mother to see her son suffer and be cheated out of normal teenage activities.

o  On top of near-constant muscle and joint ache, and a sharply diminished capacity to do things, it is psychologically exhausting not knowing when or if she'll recover (about 20% of chronic Lyme patients never do). While Ma'ikwe has a strong will and is an amazingly upbeat person who rarely complains (which is one of the bedrock reasons I think she's a great partner, by the way), Lyme's constant siege on her being is an exhausting burden, and sometimes it's too much. After a difficult weekend, she was in one of those especially tender and teary places at the start of this week.

Ma'ikwe & Jesse's Facebook Mishap
On Tuesday, Jesse reached out to Ma'ikwe via Facebook, unaware of Ma'ikwe's fragility and low emotional resilience. The conversation started off well enough, with Jesse inquiring how she was doing, knowing Ma'ikwe had better and worse days.

Jesse asked if Ma'ikwe would be open to visit where she could offer a stretch of domestic assistance and Ma'ikwe said she'd love that.

Jesse had noticed (via Facebook reporting) that Ma'ikwe had seemed in better spirits following a long visit from her mother in September when she was able to provide substantial domestic assistance and wondered if Ma'ikwe's health challenges were exacerbated by living in an unfinished home with a partner (me) who was around so little to help.

This is where it got sticky. Ma'ikwe tried to explain that good and bad days were not so much related to how much the dishes were done as they were to the cycle of spirochete blooms, yet Jesse pressed on. Even though Ma'ikwe reported that she benefited from a precious level of emotional and physical support by virtue of living in community, Jesse noted that her health challenges seemed to coincide with her moving into her new house three years ago. Maybe she needed to live a more "normal" life.

Ma'ikwe had a bad reaction to that, believing that Jesse had no feel for what living in community meant. On the other hand, stress is undoubtedly a contributing factor to Lyme becoming active and there's definitely been stress related to building the house—so it wouldn't be right to say that Jesse was completely off base.

Jesse was offering her heartfelt thoughts, connecting the dots as she saw them. Ma'ikwe was upset that she didn't take the time to look for more dots before offering the conclusion shed drawn with them. Ma'ikwe felt misunderstood and Jesse felt punished for reaching out. Train wreck.

While they broke off the exchange before it got ugly, Ma'ikwe could tell right away that it hadn't gone well, and even in her strained state she did a savvy thing—she asked for help. That's when I got in trouble.

Laird's Face Plant
Ma'ikwe recapitulated the Facebook dialog and asked for my perspective. Because the communication was on email, I made a guess as to her emotional state and assumed that she wanted help seeing things differently. (There's a big difference between being in distress, and talking about your having been in distress.) While she really did want my perspective, she first wanted my emotional support—as her partner, as someone who knew she was in a fragile place, and as someone who is a professional who works with people in distress. ("How come you know so well how to offer emotional support to others but not to me?" That hurt.)

Essentially, I violated a cardinal rule of working emotionally: validate the upset person's experience before doing anything else. I misread that she needed that (hey, everyone makes mistakes) but my big goof was not noticing that I was making an assumption and checking it out before proceeding. Doh. 

I was so happy to be able to offer a bridge to Jesse (I didn't find it that hard to see an innocent and caring motivation for all she wrote, even if much of her offering was off the mark) that I leaped to that, bypassing the acknowledgment of my partner's pain. Not one of my finest moments.

So now we had three people feeling shitty. Ugh!

By the time I caught up with Ma'ikwe's email expressing her frustration with my response, I at least didn't compound the problem by writing another email (I may be a slow learner, but that's better than being a no learner). Instead I picked up the phone and apologized.

In spite of all the prickliness of this communication chain, I'm in awe that Ma'ikwe could muster sufficient focus and energy to scrape herself up off the floor, tell me fairly cleanly how my reply to her didn't work, and then send a follow up email to Jesse that did a terrific job of laying out the elements of what's being hard for her right now.

My hope now is that Ma'ikwe and I can convince Jesse to get back on the horse, and stay in touch. While it's no fun going through hard exchanges; it's when we're most susceptible to reactivity that meaningful relationships mean the most.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Facilitating When the Stakes Are Small

I was conducting a facilitation training recently when someone in the class mused, "How do you facilitate when there are significant differences about how to respond to an issue and the stakes are low?"

Hmm, I thought, that's a good question. Mostly, when conducting training weekends, the stakes are high, and we don 't get to practice working with penny-ante topics. In setting up training weekends I suggest to host groups that they pick hard issues for the class to wrestle with, both so that the class gets challenged and so that the home community gets maximal benefit from the occasion of having outside facilitation. 

However, the reality is that all issues are not created equal, and a good portion of the time facilitators will be working with topics minor enough that world peace will not hinge of their successful resolution. What then?

• • •
The facilitator's mantra is: What is the most productive thing for the group to be doing at this time? Plenary time is precious and should be used wisely. 

While the Prime Directive can be encapsulated in a single sentence, its application is somewhat sophisticated. In general, I teach facilitators to be able to simultaneously juggle the apples of Content with the oranges of Energy. Thus, a skilled facilitator needs to assess both:

A. What's needed to resolve the issue?
Typical questions here are:
What is an effective sequence for figuring out how to respond to the issue on the table?
o  Does everyone know where we are in the sequence and what kind of response is appropriate for the stage we're at?
o  Do we have the relevant background information in hand (existing agreements, minutes from recent prior work, research on options)?
o  Are there key people missing from the consideration, and, if so, can we usefully proceed in their absence?
o  Have we heard enough to be able to start floating proposals?
o  If there are non-trivial differences about what to do, what are the underlying group values at play?

B. What's needed energetically?
Representative queries here are:
Are we working in a way that's building energy and relationships among members?
o  Are there tensions among participants that are undercutting clear thinking?
o  Are people connecting at the heart level or only with their heads?
o  Is everyone tracking well, or are some engrossed while others are spacing out?
o  Is there enough fresh air in the room; is the temperature good?
o  How long has it been since people had a chance to move, or go to the bathroom?

So why would a plenary be giving time to low-stakes items? Here are some possibilities:

—It could be that you have to address a matter in plenary for legal reasons, such as state law that your corporation has a president and a secretary. Even if those are not functions that have meaning relative to how your group functions, you nonetheless have to have minutes that show you've selected people to fill those slots.

—Maybe the stakes are low because there is high competency in the group on the issue at hand and thus minimal concern about making a mistake. Suppose you're about to put up a new building and need to decide who's going to do the work. If you have an experience construction crew in mind with an established track record of delivering quality work on time and under budget, you pretty much know going in that you're going to gratefully accept their bid on the project.

—Perhaps the potatoes are small because everyone knows that the issue coming forward involves a request for which it's widely known that there is no broad support. You agreed to give it plenary air time in deference it's being a pet project of a valued member, but everyone knows that the proposal is a dead letter.

Beyond that, there are a bunch of ways that a group can inadvertently be discussing  something it shouldn't be, or are talking about the wrong thing. Let's look at some of those:

o  Are you working at the plenary level?
It's possible that the reason the stakes are low is because the plenary is doing committee work that has no business being addressed by the whole group. Oops.

o  Is there agreement that the stakes are low?
While this can be nuanced (some may be loving that the topic is on the table, while others would rather be napping or doing a sudoku in the corner) you can at least remember to ask the question. If everyone agrees the stakes are low, I'd suggest taking a hard look at whether to keep devoting plenary time to the examination. Isn't there more important stuff you could be doing?

If there's not a uniform response, it might be worth delving into what meaning adheres to the discrepancy. Maybe some members don't get it why it's worthwhile to pay attention when they're not a stakeholder on an issue (because they're ideally suited to safeguard the process and to attend to relationships). Perhaps those who want to dig in are failing to see the forest of how best to use plenaries for the trees of their pet issue.

o  Is this more about personalities than the issue?
Sometimes the churning about an issue has more to do with a clash of styles and communication preferences than it does about the topic. If this can be illuminated, the underlying issue may be a diversity struggle (how much can the group tolerate a range of styles and still function well?) rather than because the presenting issue is compelling.

o  Is this more about unresolved tension than the presenting issue?
It's possible that the real reason that this topic needs to be tackled in plenary is because of a disturbance in the Force, such that Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader are having trouble hearing each other without triggering Star Wars. That is, it might be appropriate to have the plenary support working on the dynamics, even if the topic that showcased those dynamics is not plenary worthy.

The mantra for a participant in a consensus group is: What does the group need to hear from me about this topic at this time? Note that there are several check points embedded in this admonition:

—What does the group need to hear from me?
This is not what does your best friend need to hear from you, or what do I think is clever in this moment; it's what does everyone need to know about your views on the topic. If someone else has already covered the points you would have offered there may be little for you to say, excepting a brief statement such as "So-and-so spoke my mind and I have nothing to add."

—What I need to say about this topic?
This requires discipline. Meetings are not open mic, where people are encouraged to say whatever damn thing pops into their head. They are expected to stay on topic. While it's not unusual for a current conversation to trigger relevant thoughts about a related topic that is plenary worthy, that does not mean it's a good idea to go there in the moment, sidetracking the focus.

What I need to say at this time?
 It's relatively common for someone to have an idea (perhaps even a brilliant one) about a response to a concern raised in the discussion phase of exploring an issue, but it's not appropriate to go there until all the concerns have been flushed out. While it's understandable why people have the urge to jump in with creative solutions, it's often counterproductive if the conversation yo-yos back and forth between the expansiveness of factor identification and the contraction of problem solving.

Sometimes—especially when the stakes are low—your best choice is to shut up. And a good facilitator will help point out to the group the cornucopia of opportunities to productively not speak when it's mole hills and not mountains on the menu.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Back from the Brink

The San Francisco Giants—my favorite sports team—will be playing baseball this Sunday. At the end of last Sunday that seemed a highly dubious prospect.

While the Giants managed to win the National League Western Division this year, they stumbled out of the gate in the first round of the playoffs—a best of five contest with the Central Division winners, the Cincinnati Reds—losing the first two games at home. In order to survive to the next round, they faced the Herculean task of sweeping the Reds in Cincinnati. While the Giants have played well on the road, the Reds had not lost three in a row at home all year. Until yesterday.

I feel sorry for Dusty Baker, the current Reds manager, who was the beloved manager of my beloved Giants from 1993 to 2002. In his final season as the Giants' skipper he took a wild card team to the brink of a World Series title that they lost in seven games to the Anaheim Angels. After being up three games to two, the Giants had a 5-0 lead in the 6th inning of Game Six and couldn't hold it. It was a bitter pill to swallow. This year it was the Giants turn to break Dusty's heart.

Amazingly, it took 28 innings before the Giants held their first lead in their series with the Reds. They lost the first two contests without ever being in front, and were tied 1-1 in Game Three after nine innings, before they broke through in the 10th inning to stay alive.

After the Giants' charmed 2010 season, when they captured their first World Series title since Horace Stoneham moved his team from New York to the Bay Area in 1958, the Giants have almost completely overhauled their regular lineup. Astonishingly, only Buster Posey, their MVP catcher with the All Star name, is a holdover from those who started the playoffs two years ago. Fittingly, it was Buster who had the big blow Thursday, a grand slam homer in the fifth that gave the Giants a six run lead and sucked all the air out of the Great American Ballpark on the banks of the Ohio River. 

While the Reds fought back, scoring four unanswered runs after the Giants's six-run eruption, Sergio Romo struck out Scott Rolen with two on and two out in the bottom of the ninth to end it. What a comeback by the Giants to prevail!

This year the Giants have survived the loss of their closer, Brian Wilson, for the entire season, and the loss of their best hitter, Melky Cabrera, to a drug suspension in early August. As a reward for pulling it out against the Reds, they'll get to go home and try their luck against the World Champion St Louis Cardinals, who eliminated the Washington Nationals this evening, 9-7, by scoring four runs with two out in the ninth inning. I reckon it isn't just the Giants who have some magic in their bats.

The Giants & Cardinals have met twice before in the National League Championship Series, with the Cardinals prevailing in seven games in 1987, and the Giants returning the favor in five games in 2002. Over the next week we'll get to find out who's rabbit foot has the stronger juju in it this time.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Full Court Press

Last Saturday we woke up the first serious frost of the fall. While it's gorgeous looking at how the ice crystals refract the low-angled morning sunlight into a kaleidoscope of rainbows off the grass, frost is a major event on the farm. It kills the sweet potatoes, basil, and hot peppers outright, and threatens the sorghum. The frost last Saturday meant all hands on deck.

• • •
At Sandhill Farm we make up to a third of our income from the sale of organic food, and sorghum syrup—a traditional specialty crop in the Midwest and South—is a whopping three-quarters of that. While it varies from year to year when the sorghum is ready, it generally falls in the three weeks from fall equinox to mid-October. Often enough, the first frost of the season also falls in that date range and it's a dance letting the crop fully mature (maximizing the yield of sweet syrup) versus getting it all harvested before it's frost damaged.

Fortunately, sorghum can take a mild frost without damage, and it general takes temperatures of 28 degrees or lower to be a problem. The first frost is rarely lower than about 30 degrees, in part because of all the leaves—still green because there hasn't been a frost yet—that will give up heat as they freeze. With sweet sorghum the critical part of the plant is the stalk, because it's the juice inside that we'll boil down to make the syrup. If it gets cold enough to freeze the stalk, the cell walls will burst and the juice will rapidly sour once it's exposed to oxygen in the ensuing thaw. The warmer the weather after the frost, the quicker the juice will spoil. 

Thus, when our farm crew suspected stalk damage Saturday morning, it was a race to get as much of the crop processed as possible before the juice soured. What had heretofore been an orderly, isn't-it-a-lovely-fall-look-at-those-beautiful-colors harvest season suddenly turned urgent. 

As it happened, last weekend was also the 15th anniversary for our neighboring community, Dancing Rabbit [see my Oct 6 blog, Not Quite Old Enough to Drive], and they had 50+ friends from out of town visiting for the celebration. Thus, when we put out the call for help, our cup ranneth over. At one point Saturday afternoon, we must have had 40 people in the field, many of whom barely knew which end of a machete to hold. Not having knives for everyone (to cut the cane), we taught some of the temporary campesinos how to dehead by hand (snapping the cane at a nodal point up near the top of the stalk), and others how to strip the leaves. In all, we were able to keep everyone busy and in just four hours this friendly swarm was able to completely lay down an acre of sorghum, saving our last major field from being left out in the cold. We were awed by this amazing show of spontaneous support. The street value of that field, once processed, will be in the neighborhood of $5,000. Wow!

Today, Tuesday, the full court press continues. In addition to cooking sorghum as fast as we can (pressing the juice out of the stalks with a roller mill and then boiling it down to get the syrup), there are myriad other post-frost jobs on a farm that can't wait, such as cutting the sweet potato vines and pulling the last of the tomatoes. My niche the past two days has been wrangling peppers. 

As the pepper plants were toasted (so to speak) my job was to convert as much of the fruit into usable products as possible before spoilage. In the past two days I've diced 11 gallons of peppers (32 quarts of sweet peppers and 12 quarts of hot), and cooked down 60 pints of pepper relish. While that may seem like a lot, I was only processing the peppers that were tinged by frost. There are still another 20 gallons of undamaged peppers sitting patiently in buckets and colanders awaiting attention next week (when we'll be back to managing the farm with our normal half-court zone defense). Hopefully, someone else will have the pleasure of those peppers, and I'll be able to do things like email again.

While the pace is ramped up now, I know that it will only last for another week or so, and will be followed by the post-harvest afterglow, when the weather can frost all it wants and we can just laugh and throw another log on the wood stove. 

This weekend I'm looking forward to a respite of sorts when I'll represent Sandhill at the Fall Festival in Keosauqua IA, where I'll be sitting at a booth in Riverside Park (next to the meandering Iowa River) and selling food products for only eight hours each day. 

After a week of full court press, it'll be a sit in the park.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Not Quite Old Enough to Drive

My stepson, Jibran, turned 15 in the spring. It won't be long before he'll be eligible to get a learner's permit to drive a car—something he doesn't care about at all.

This weekend, Sandhill's neighboring community, Dancing Rabbit, will also turn 15. And they're not just ambivalent about cars, they're actively trying to discourcourge their use. As a community of 70 adults on the way to hundreds, they prohibit members from operating private vehicles. As a group they make do with a car co-op of just three vehicles (one of which is a big ass pick-up). That's right, an average of less than one vehicle per 20 people. In America. It's pretty amazing.

While I doubt Peak Oil is much of a factor in Jibran's calculus, DR is trying to think ahead of the curve. They are an ecovillage attemtping to live a liefstyle that uses resources at a rate that would be sustainable if all humans on Earth lived that way. Their target is something in the vicinity of 10% of the current US level. While they are undoubtedly a driven group, they won't get where they're intending to go via the automobile.

• • •
This is a party weekend. While the weather is cool and blustery (quite a contrast after a summer of blistering heat) and the rime on the grass this morning is a harbinger of the wood heat season right around the corner, the atmosphere at DR this weekend is festive and cheery. The community has come a long way since purchasing 280 rough acres in 1997, and it's time to step back and celebrate.

When DR bought its land, the tillable acres were in the Conservation Reserve Program, and hadn't been farmed for years. Though the property is rolling hills (typical of northeast Missouri) much of which has no business being cleared, there was little standing timber of value. The only usable buildings were a decent equipment shed, a funky farrowing house (quickly converted into serving as an outdoor kitchen), and a couple of grain bins (one of which was creatively adapted to two-story housing).

Essentially they were starting from scratch.

Today the village is tdefinitely aking shape. There is so much new construction that it's hard to keep up with who's intending to live where. The building styles are so varied that touring the grounds is like a trip to a natural building convention. If someone has cooked up a new way to use locally available materials to house people safely and inexpensively, there's a fair chance that a three-dimensional version of it exists at DR. 

As you might suspect, there are lots of timber frame structures with strawbale walls and an earthen plaster finish. Wood, straw, and clay are all present in abundance in the Midwest so most construction is a variation on those three basic materials.

This summer the community built its second stretch of interior roadway, providing all-weather access to the community's second residential neighborhood. DR also launched an energy co-op that generates so much power via a solar panel array that it's selling the surplus to the grid.

While the internal economy lags behind the housing boom, there is now a commercial bed-breakfast operating in the village (the Milkweed Mercantile) that sports a licensed bar and features a killer curtomized pizza night every Thursday. A number of folks have settled into some aspect of food production and there's a robust market in specialty items. Some folks are able to make a decent living doing eco-cosntruction in the village; others offer childcare or educational services to supplement their income. Some are hired part-time to handle administrative or accounting tasks for the community. Slowly, the community is bootstrapping its economy.
• • •
If this celebratory weekend had a patron, it would be Janus—the two-faced Roman god of beginnings and transitions. One the one hand, there will be a looking backward, basking in all that has been accomplished. Among other things, this is a reunion and DR is expecting 50+ folks to come back for both show-and-tell and general camaraderie (and no small amount of carousing).

On the other hand, it will be a looking forward. DR has big plans and there will be a groundbreaking ceremony at the site of the new million-dollar Common House, which will be built to the exacting standards of the Living Building Challenge, way beyond LEED Platinum.

Built into the weekend are multiple forms of social entertainment, including open mic and no-talent show opportunities for the theatrically inclined. My chance on stage will come tonight when I perform as the impresario at the benefit auction right after dinner. Proceeds will flow to Dancing Rabbit and its ambitious hare-raising plans to be a model of sustainability (including home grown amusement).

About 50 people (so far) have donated goodies and services to the auction, and it will be great fun inciting the crowd to bid up the bargains and momentos offered in support of a common dream.

Happy Anniversary, Dancing Rabbit! Next year you'll be old enough to drive on your own.


Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Great Blue Heron Highway

I'm just back home after 40 days on the road and it was an incalculable pleasure to see my wife Tuesday evening and to have our bodies nesting again in the night. 

When I left Aug 23, it was still summer. Now it's fall.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I was technically home for about 18 hours Sept 5—just long enough to drop off the car, hand in my trip accounting, roast all the tomatillos that had accumulated in our walk-in cooler [to later be processed into tomatillo salsa, one of Sandhill's signature condiments], do my laundry, repack, and pay credit card bills.)

One of the natural pleasures of this time of year is witnessing the fall migration. This year I experienced my own migration, with the great blue heron as my totem. I've always had an affinity for large birds, and a sense of awe in the majesty of their presence. While great blue herons are not a rare bird and have a wide natural range, I don't tend to see them that often. Interestingly, they were a guidepost for me this past week.

The last stop on my 40-day peregrination was the opening weekend (of eight) for a new round of my two-year facilitation training, centered in North Carolina. Auspiciously, the host for this training was Blue Heron Farm in Pittsboro NC. My training partner for this venture was Alyson Ewald of Red Earth Farms. While I flew from San Francisco to Blue Heron (arriving more or less as its namesake would), Alyson took the train from Missouri.

When Alyson and I departed the Tar Heel State this past Monday, we boarded the northbound Crescent in Greensboro, headed for the nation's capital. As we approached the outlying DC suburbs Monday morning, we glided by a reservoir and there as great blue heron walking along the spillway, trolling for breakfast. Apparently that was an indicator that we were going the right way.

When we detrained Tuesday evening in La Plata MO, we had only a 60-minute drive home to complete our journey. Imagine our shock when we encountered yet another great blue heron on the winding and quiet blacktop of Missouri Route 11, this time standing purposefully in our lane, gazing across the road. Alyson was behind the wheel and managed to swerve out of the the way just in time. Night or day, I'd never seen a heron standing in the middle of the road before.

What was up with all the heron energy? When Alyson and I shared our big bird adventures with Ma'ikwe the next morning, my wife glibly reported:

Among the Ojibway, Heron is the orator. Heron waits in silence to catch prey, and must know both silence and true stillness of self, as well as the appropriate timing to strike. When Heron does strike, it is decisive and without hesitation.

It is time to stop waiting for the "right moment." Heron may be asking you to speak your truth. Either there is no such thing as the right moment, or Heron is helping you see that the time has come. Be forewarned: Heron speaks the deepest truths of our lives and her voice is not pretty. Once you begin to speak, you may find your words to be more harsh than you expect. You are in a situation that calls for this. Heron may be telling you that the time has come to draw boundaries.

Holy shit. What truth am I supposed to be speaking? What is it the right moment for? I figure it's got to be powerful juju when the totem crosses the road.

• • •
There were also a handful of other special moments glimpsed on the journey home. Let me recount three more:

Sunset on the Mississippi
Yesterday Alyson and I stopped talking mid-sentence as our train slowed to cross the Mississippi River and enter the rail yards of Fort Madison IA. Magically, the sun was at half mast just as we eased onto the bridge—a smoky red ball midway into its graceful descent into the horizon—and the time need to complete its journey exactly mapped onto how long it took for us to reach Iowa. Wow.

I've been fortunate enough to have seen this celestial miracle twice before from the train. Once as the westbound Empire Builder crossed the upper Mississippi at La Crosse WI, and another time on the Hudson, as the Lake Shore Limited chugged upriver on the eastern shore en route to Albany. All three stand out as highlights of my 25-year career as an inveterate traveler of the iron horse.

Sugar Maples in Full Fall Raiment Knowing that we were now into October, Alyson and I were alert to signs of fall foliage as Amtrak fetched us home. Our best moments came from brilliant red-orange sugar maples that would occasionally pop up in the front yards of suburban Chicago homes, happily visible from our seats on the Southwest Chief as it gathered momentum for the run to La Plata. 

Dinner with Zoe
Our final evening on the train, Alyson and I chanced to eat dinner across from three-year-old Zoe and her vibrant, tattooed mother Roquel, who were halfway along in their trek from Maine to southern California. Zoe evoked for Alsyon her four-year-old daughter Cole, whom she'd been separated from for eight days—more than doubling the longest they'd ever been apart. It was tender and sweet watching Alyson come alive in Zoe's presence, which invoked the spirit of Cole, whom she was aching to be reunited with after a long week apart. 

While it's wonderful traveling to other time zones and getting paid to do work one loves, it's also precious to come home, being as open as possible to the images and markers encountered along the Great Blue Heron Highway.