Saturday, November 3, 2012

Monday with Mildred

A week ago (before Sandy wreaked havoc on New York City) I had a chance to visit with an old friend, Mildred Gordon, at her home in Staten Island.

Mildred celebrated her 90th birthday in August, and is in failing health. Each of the three days I was in town, starting with Monday, I made a point to spend 45-60 minutes visiting her in situ in her ground floor room, reminiscing, reflecting, ruminating, and remonstrating (I have never known Mildred to resist sharing her insights about what I ought to be doing). Not being sure if I'll see her again, I savored each conversation—which were both light (because we weren't trying to solve any problems and reach any conclusions) and evocative (because Mildred still asks probing questions and offers trenchant observations about human foibles in general, and about mine in particular). While she no longer has the strength to stand on her own, her opinions do not need a walker.

I had been warned that her cognitive focus comes and goes and that she might not know me. While it's possible I simply lucked into a stretch of good days to visit, Mildred had no problem recalling who I was, or many of the details of our multitudinous interactions over the last quarter century.

• • •
I first met Mildred at Twin Oaks in the late '80s, when she and a contingent of others from her community (now called Ganas, but then flying under the flag, Foundation for Feedback Learning) attended an assembly of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities. The founding core group had moved together from the Bay Area in 1978 to establish their community in a thoroughly urban row house section of Staten Island, an easy 20-minute walk from the St George Ferry Terminal, where commuters by the hundreds journey to and from lower Manhattan every half hour. 

They purposefully sited their community to maximize their exposure to urban stimulation and cultural diversity, and they got their wish. While I stopped by Ganas a handful of times in the late '80s, my visitation rate went up substantially in the '90s, after Elke Lerman, my ex-partner and mother of my daughter, Jo, moved there in late 1989. While Elke and I had ended our romantic relationship, we had an enduring commitment to co-parent that encouraged me to visit Ganas more frequently.

As a natural consequence, that meant more time with Mildred and the other long-term members. Ganas turned out to be a fascinating community culture, where members routinely devoted at least five hours every day to examining interpersonal interactions and the myriad ways in which we mishear one another and distort reality in a never-ending attempt to control it.

It was fascinating to be immersed in the conversations and to witness how the group—mainly under Mildred's deft guidance—would unpack emotional distress for the purpose of illuminating dysfunctional patterns and getting to the place where clear-headed problem solving was possible. In fact, I owe much of my thinking about the interplay of emotions and thought to watching Mildred work. 

While some of the time I was the monkey in the barrel (that is, it was Laird's reactivity that was in the spotlight), I never felt picked upon—I was just taking a turn like everyone else.

My memory of those exchanges with Mildred (back in the '90s, before she was in her 90s) was that she was much more interested in my receiving her reflections of me than the other way around. While I struggled with this imbalance it at first, I ultimately came to see how it was foolish to let this get in the way of receiving her gift. Though it was up to me to determine what weight to give her views (and there were times when I definitely didn't agree with her), it was not in my best interest to push away what she had to offer—which, of course, was exactly the reason her community was originally styled the Foundation for Feedback Learning.

Most people (unwisely) have armored themselves against hearing critical feedback, even though it's extremely valuable knowing how others respond to our words and our behavior. Sure we might be misunderstood, but how will you know that unless people tell us? And the problem can be much worse than mishearing. It's not rare for people to assign bad intent to things you did or said that they don't like and it can cripple relationships, even permanently, if that's not brought to light. I'm not talking about being happy that people are having a negative reaction to you; I'm talking about being happy that you get a chance at the information that they're having a bad reaction to you.

Earlier this year I was working with a group in which there was a committee that thought they were conducting business as a paragon of good process. They believed they performed to a standard of openness and information exchange that was unparalleled in the community. However, that was not the word on the street, where multiple members reported to me privately that they were disgruntled with that committee, that they found to be arrogant, pushy, and close-minded. When I duly passed along to the committee this anonymous feedback they were dismayed. 

Because I had been asked primarily to attend to a different issue, it turned out that we did not have time during my visit to examine the gap between the committee's view of itself and the reservations others in the group held about the committee's performance. Thus, in the closing evaluation, I was sympathetic to the committee convener who was in anguish over my having uncovered a tension point in the group affecting his work with no progress having been made on resolving it. He was, understandably, not a happy camper.

The convener then went on to say that he'd gotten nothing out of the weekend, which I felt went too far. It is not at all the same thing to think that everything is going to fine and to know that it isn't. While much remains to be done (laying out the dimensions of the problem, working through people's reactions to what was shared, and deciding what to do about it), it's a definite first step to even know that a problem exists.

It occurs to me as I write this how much that exchange I had with the convener last spring was a perfect example of why Mildred devoted a large chunk of her life to examining all the goofy things humans do to insulate themselves from feedback. It also occurs to me how potent the lesson was because she offered it to me as a gift, not as a trade, thus helping me to better see the subtle ways in which I also have learning to do about receiving feedback. Thanks, Mildred. 


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