Monday, December 30, 2013

Bedlam 2013

This is my final post for 2013, and I'm going to use it to continue an annual tradition I started two years ago: by summarizing where I've slept this past year.

I refer to this as "bedlam" because: a) I'm on the road a lot and have a chaotic and confusing distribution of sleeping arrangements; b) some think that my travel schedule is prima facie evidence of mental illness; and c) I have a congenital weakness for word play.

So here are the highlights of where I was when the lights went out each night. (Hmm… maybe that makes these "lowlights.")

o  I slept in my own bed at Sandhill 104 times. While that was up strongly from 84 the prior year, you have to take into account the 40 nights (in the wilderness) that I slept at home from July 14—when Ma'ikwe divorced me—through Aug 27—when she agreed to undivorce me. All together, I spent 28% of my nights at Sandhill.

In addition, I spent 81 nights (22% of my total) at Moon Lodge—20 of which were in December, the month Ma'ikwe and I started our experiment of living in the same house. That means that 50% of my nights were spent in the 63563 zip code, just as last year. I find it satisfyingly symmetrical that my comings were exactly balanced by my goings.

o  Slicing the data another way, I slept with my wife 126 nights last year, or 35% of the total. It's remarkable to me that that was essentially the same as last year (when the total was 128 in a leap year), suggesting that the impact of my summer divorce (when the tide of intimacy was clearly ebbing) was mostly canceled out by this final month of cohabitation (during which the tide is decidedly flowing). Interesting. 

While there were Bay-of-Fundy-sized tidal swings my marriage this year, the net effect was no change when it came to sleeping with my wife—kind of like the person with one foot immersed in a bucket of ice cubes and the other in a pot of boiling water: on average his feet were pretty comfortable.

o  I slept in the home of clients (usually in guest rooms) 16 times for 62 nights in all—up 30% from the year before.
o  I slept at the house (or apartment) of family members 10 different times, for a total of 40 nights, up from 28 the year before. It's nice to be seeing family more.

o  I slept at 17 different friends' homes for a total of 41 nights, which is in the same ballpark as last year.

o  I slept 11 times at places associated with FIC meetings or events (a mix of community-oriented conferences, commingled with festivals slanted toward Sandhill's food products) totaling 30 nights, down a hair from 2012.

o  I ended up in motel beds (or paid accommodations) a whopping 12 times last year. While I realize that that's not much at all for a road warrior, it's my least favorite place to close my eyes, and I'm semi-alarmed that I haven't managed to manifest more friendly beds when I needed them to appear.

o  I was on overnight trains 20 times, which is a typical amount of my trying to recharge my battery while rumbling along at 60 mph.

o  Most nights I was in a real bed. One night was spent on an air mattress, one was on a fold-out camp bed, and 32 were on couches (mostly when visiting my son or daughter).

o  All together, I slept in 44 different locations outside of Rutledge (down a bit from 52 last year), which placed me in 17 states, one Canadian province, and four time zones. Whew.

With all this coming and going there were occasional nights when I woke up to pee and had no clue where I was. Fortunately, by the time I'd actually peed I could usually figure it out. Which is good, because it's important to know whether you're coming or going.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Intergenerational Challenge

At FIC we get a steady flow of inquiries from people who are seriously shopping for a life in community. A significant fraction of those are older than 50—for convenience, let's label them "seniors." Overwhelmingly, seniors are wanting an intergenerational community—not a seniors only enclave. To be sure, there are some for whom it is a greater priority to have a reliably adult decibel level at common meals (one more conducive to congenial conversation, especially for those with compromised hearing) and less danger of stray toys on the sidewalks, yet this is a distinct minority. Mostly seniors want to live in a community with a full age range, where there's the option to engage with those in different stages in life as feels appropriate.

One of the prospects of community that attracts seniors (and seniors-to-be) is the hope of graceful and dignified aging in place. In an intergnerational community it is easier to imagine how the many can be a support network for the few (providing that a community doesn't accidentally get too top-heavy—it won't work so well with 70% of the population in wheelchairs at the same time). This dream is much more than just on-site elder care and dying in your own bed. It's the hope of being able to make meaningful contributions as late in life as possible.

To be sure, seniors often are not able to contribute with the same physical strength and stamina of younger folks, yet there are many others ways to contribute. While they may not be as stout stoking boilers, shoveling snow, or pouring foundations, they can show up strong when it comes to research, mediation, problem solving, and committee work. (While people don't necessarily get wiser just because they get older, they've had more passes at the trough of knowledge and surely some of them have been drinking.)

If you conduct a cost/benefit analysis based only on the factors above, seniors may seem only of marginal benefit or even a wash: increased care needs coupled with limited capacity as an asset in the labor pool. But there is much more to the story.

Modeling a Better Quality of Life
Communities purposefully strive to provide a superior life for all residents, regardless of age. On the younger end, for example, there is ample evidence that community is a terrific place to raise children, no small part of which is the support parents get from other adults (often seniors, by the way) in regularly spending time with their kids—providing both enrichment for the younguns and a much needed break for the 'rents.

When it comes to the older end of life, the mainstream culture does an abysmal job. In a culture built around the concept of the nuclear family (which is in sharp contrast with the intergenerational model that has predominated for the vast majority of the human history) either you succeed in saving enough money to take care of your elder years or you face the bleak prospect of being warehoused in some institutional setting. 

Further complicating the equation is that the mainstream culture is competitive, which means there's a tendency to push seniors out of the workplace prior to their desire to leave, to make room for younger employees who can be hired for less money. Essentially, profit and return on investment come ahead of people and relationship.

Thus, even if you had planned carefully for your retirement, a cold-hearted employer might decide it was time to trim payroll prior to your having worked long enough at peak earnings to have salted away sufficient funds in your 401k.

In community, we're trying to move deliberately away from defining security in terms of bank balances, and towards a wealth of relationship. In short, we're trying to address a major societal need without relying on a governmental safety net. Further, we want to do that with dignity, which generally means finding ways for everyone—young and old alike—to meaningfully contribute to the health of the whole.

Seniors, by virtue of being near or beyond their full-time careers, tend to have a great deal more discretionary time in their lives. Even when you factor in decreased stamina, they tend not to have dependents at home or jobs that claim their attention 40 hours/week. It's not unusual for seniors to be contributing way beyond their numbers to the work needed to maintain and develop the community. Independent of their skill and wisdom, they simply have the time, and many communities would struggle mightily without a willing cadre of seniors to be in harness to the myriad needs of a vibrant community—you can only expect to extract so much blood (sweat, and tears) from the turnips that are working parents with kids at home.

In addition to the above, seniors can offer groups much more than merely more oars in the water. In many cases they possess a wealth of experience, some of which may be highly useful to younger folks hoping to acquire it. While many seniors are attracted to the concept of mentoring younger members (passing on what they know), there are a number of potholes on the road to this aspect of elder heaven, and I want to focus the remainder of this essay on what I label Misadventures in Mentoring.

—Pothole #1: Misalignment of Interest & Skill
The senior's knowledge may not be of interest to other community members, or their knowledge may not be as valuable as they think it is (perhaps because it relates to conditions that no longer apply, or relies on technology that is obsolete—for example, I could teach people how to use a slide rule or how to cut a mimeo stencil, but who gives a shit?).

—Pothole #2: Misalignment of Teaching Style & Learning Style
The senior may have useful knowledge yet may be weak at transmitting it. Doing and teaching are different skills; they may be solid at the former yet poor at the latter, or at least have a teaching style that doesn't work well for the person interested in learning that skill. The senior may well take that as a rejection of them as a useful person, when what's really going on is a rejection of their teaching style. It can be tricky.

—Pothole #3: Misalignment of Culture
One of the important things about intentional community is that it's an attempt to create cooperative culture, which stands in direct contrast with the mainstream competitive culture in which we were raised. When younger members join, they are most commonly fresh from that competitive culture. Even though they may be purposefully trying to move away from it, they have been deeply conditioned in it and thus are likely to bring with them a fairly well-defined sense of individuation that results in their not being so likely to approach others for advice about how to do things. This tendency undercuts the creation of a culture where mentoring thrives. If it depends on the seniors taking the lead in blowing their own horns, there will not be much trumpeting, or at least not much that will be heard as a clarion call by the younger set.

o  Honoring elders is fine in theory, but how do we actually shift to it? Hint: It has to be more than asking them to call in the Four Directions on pagan holidays, or reserving for them a front-row seat at house concerts.

o  How do we encourage younger members to reach out to seniors for advice? Hint: Mitch Albom's 1997 bestseller Tuesdays with Morrie is the tender story of a young man in the prime of his career seeking out the company of a former sociology professor as he nears death from ALS. In the course of their 14 Tuesdays together, Mitch is touched by his mentor's wisdom—even though that's not what motivated him to visit in the first place. How do we encourage mentoring under less dramatic conditions?

o  How do younger members even find out what seniors know? Hint: This will not magically happen on its own; it'll need help. I think it could be approached from either direction:

—a) A residents could be encouraged to let the whole group know what they're looking to learn, which could entail anything from a 10-minute download/demo to a formal apprenticeship.

—b) Seniors (or anyone willing to mentor others, regardless of the mentor's age) could be asked what they think they could teach. This could come out as part of a getting-to-know-each-other-better ritual where all residents take turns telling their life story (one per night, every other Thursday until you're done?), or it could be something as mundane as a posting on the community's website, updated as people are inspired. Part of new member orientation would be to make sure that everyone knew that the posting existed and was encouraged to add their own offerings.

• • •
This mentoring challenge interests me a great deal because my instinct is that the solution will have to arise from the mentees—not from the seniors—and that group, almost by definition, is least equipped to understand the cultural shift needed to make it happen. Let me conclude with a story that illuminates my point:

About 20 years ago at Sandhill, when my son was a young teenager (think smart aleck tendencies) we had a member in her late 20s who was highly frustrated with the community's standard that adults were expected to give children a reason when asking them to do something or limiting their behavior, and that they were further expected to listen and engage constructively if the child objected (not that kids had the same power as adults—in the end they had to go with the adult's limits—but they did have rights). 

That was decidedly not the way she had been raised and it grated her that she was getting the worst of it both ways: as a child, she was supposed to shut up a take it; as an adult, she was expected to be courteous and engaging with obnoxious junior lawyers. Yuck!

I tell this story because this woman was: a) young and Sandhill was her first experience in cooperative living; b) a valued and cherished member of the community; c) someone who was determined to develop her own niche in the community, and therefore not likely to ask others for advice; and d) someone who was just as apt to bump into the community's attempts at culture shift as awkward as adventitious.

Mentoring is a tough nut.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Looking at Both Sides of the Communication Coin

Choosing to live in community means opting for a life that is more intertwined with others. In consequence, one of the key predictors of how well someone will do in community is their ability to accurately track what happens in conversations. While that may seem obvious, it's trickier than you might think.

The front side of that is pretty obvious: how well do you hear what others are saying? It turns out that the back side is also pretty important: how well does what you say align with what you mean to be conveying? In this essay I'll examine both sides of this coin.

The Obverse: How well do you hear?
Pathway A)  Foremost, can you simply track what's being said and the general meaning? While I appreciate that sometimes people have unusual ways of speaking, which includes convoluted reasoning, odd word choice (even wrong word choice), imprecise diction, inapt metaphors, and mumbled enunciation, the truth is that not everyone listens well. To be fair, no one listens well all the time—perhaps they slept poorly; perhaps they're distracted by stress elsewhere in their life; perhaps they're bothered by tension in this conversation, perhaps they're so excited about what they want to say that they're not digesting what's being said.

It can take considerable discipline to center oneself sufficiently to be fully present for listening on a regular basis.

Pathway B)  Beyond the words, how well are you picking up the meaning associated with the inflection, tone, pace, and volume of the delivery? There is a lot here. If you're questioning that, just reflect on all the mischief we can get into with email, where all of this is stripped out and you only have the words with which to suss out the meaning. (In writing, of course, you have available the simple tools of CAPITALIZATION, italics, and underlining to convey additional nuance, yet compared to live conversation it's like having only the red, blue, and yellow crayons instead of all 120 choices that Binney & Smith offer in their deluxe Crayola set). 

In fact, these factors are so ingrained in the way we're used to communicating that with email we make up stories about the undercurrents based on word choice and sentence structure, conjuring up emotional content (and then outrage in response to it) without checking out whether that was a correct read. Sometimes it takes weeks to sort out where the conversation went off the rails—a mistake that would be corrected in seconds in a live conversation.

Pathway C)  How well are you picking up nonverbal clues: body language, facial expressions, eye contact (or lack thereof)? Most of this happens on the subconscious level and is something we start learning in infancy, even prior to understanding spoken language. For people with Asperger syndrome this is a struggle, as they suffer from the musical equivalence of being tone deaf when it comes to picking up social cues.

Another factor is your primary channel for receiving input.
o  For the visually dominant, Pathway C may be much more important than B, and thus unimpeded sight lines and adequate lighting may be crucial factors in being able to understand fully what's being said.
o  For the kinesthetically oriented, Pathway C is also important. In addition, it can make a big difference if speakers have enough room (and permission) to gesticulate, and perhaps stand and move, when addressing others.
o  For the aurally inclined (as I am), Pathway B is more important, and you want to pay attention to acoustical conditions, such as ambient noise, echo attenuation, and sound amplification.

The Reverse: How well do you convey?
Do people generally seem to get what you're trying to tell them on the first try? Does it seem that listeners more frequently get you wrong than others? If the latter, this may suggest something you could adjust in your delivery, making your meaning more accessible to your audience.

While you can claim the right that people should take you as you are—perhaps as a diversity issue—you're shooting yourself in the foot when "the way you are" isn't working that well. If the prime directive is effective communication (by which I mean an accurate conveyance of meaning between parties), then it's absolutely in your interest to adapt your delivery to something that's more easily grasped by your audience—assuming you know what that might be (and if don't have a clue, I suggest you allow that realization to motivate you to do the work to get one).

—Sometimes this is a pace issue: your stream of words may be coming too fast for people to absorb (I know a few people who's regular cadence suggests that they're reading disclaimers for radio ads); or, alternately, so slowly that listeners have trouble maintaining focus ("If you'd just speak a little more melodically, it would be perfect for helping me take a nap.").
—Sometimes it's a hearing issue: your being so loud that the volume is irritating; or so soft-spoken that your audience is missing words.
—Sometimes it's a framing issue: not filling in background or providing sufficient context for your comments to make sense; skipping steps in your reasoning, resulting in gaps that are difficult to bridge; or jumping back and forth chaotically in your narrative without time references or clear antecedents.

There is an art to speaking clearly and concisely (the old saw is that appropriate length is the same for speech and hemlines: in both instances you want something that is long enough to cover the subject, yet short enough to sustain interest) and not everyone devotes sufficient attention to how they're coming across. In particular, how well do you understand your affect when speaking? Is your delivery conveying what you want to be saying?

I want to conclude this essay by giving you three examples of problems I've had with this last dynamic in the past year. In each instance it is a story about how I responded ineffectually when I encountered pushiness that the initiator did not seem to be in touch with:

—Example A
I was working with a community (as an outside consultant) about tensions in relation to the budget allocation for a key committee. Ahead of working this in plenary I met with several individuals and small groups beforehand, to get their take on what the tensions were about. Toward the end of my series of prep meetings I sat down with the committee in question. 

Unlike the eight or so prior background conversations I'd had, I experienced the committee members as pushy, as if they were trying to sell me something. They tried to impress upon me that they were a paragon of good process in the community, diligent workers for the benefit of all, excellent listeners, and generally long-suffering through the budget debates. (They didn't make any claims about being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but you get the picture.) In short, responsibility for the tensions lay elsewhere.

This was interesting for two respects: a) their story didn't match up well with what others were telling me about how they experienced the committee; and b) their energy was adversarial.

My instinct in such situations is to meet energy where it is. (Mind you, I'm not saying this is necessarily an effective strategy; I'm just owning my tendency.) Thus, I raised my energy after the committee's download and gave them back some of what they'd been giving me. I told them that I'd already heard from multiple people in the community that they were viewed as bulldozers and a cabal that played fast and loose with group process to get their way. I tried to emphasize that I did not have an opinion about what was true; I was only pointing out the major discrepancy between their story about themselves and the one that I'd been hearing from others—that was a problem no matter what.

As they had been forceful and direct with me, so was I with them. They didn't like it. They accused me of being biased and not open to their truth—that my neutrality had been compromised by having listened to others first. (Even when I responded to that charge by accurately giving them a summary of their views—demonstrating that I'd heard them fine—they were not mollified.) 

When asked if I had engaged with others in the same way that I was engaging with them, I told them I was (in the sense that I was meeting people with the same energy that they presented) and I wasn't (in the sense that I was pushing the committee, and hadn't done that with others—because the committee was the only configuration that I had experienced as pushy). The committee concentrated on my admission of having treated them differently as evidence of my perfidy, and I was never able to recover their trust.

My sense was that the committee was not interested in the observation that they were highly combative in response to my having shared with them that multiple people in the community experienced them as combative—an accusation they found slanderous, even as they amply demonstrated that there was a solid basis for it. Sigh.

Looking back, I think I made a poor choice in mirroring the committee's energy when sharing with them a summary of how they were viewed by others. I don't regret trying to share that information; I only regret the way I went about it. Key in how all this went south was that the committee did not see how they were coming across (and weren't particularly interested in my, or their fellow community members', reflections about it). For the committee, I started it and they were outraged that an outside consultant would be so biased.

—Example B
In the context of conducting a training weekend, I had a student who was retired from a long career as someone in leadership. This person had the habit of inserting themselves into the conversation whenever they had a question, often without bothering to raise their hand first. To be sure, others sometimes did the same thing, but this person did it the most. 

While they were generally pleasant in demeanor (as opposed to imperious or haughty) there was nevertheless an undercurrent of entitlement and insistence that I found irritating (rather like the response I have to drivers who zoom past a line of cars queued up for an upcoming lane restriction, cutting in at the last minute—implying that their time is more valuable than that of all the people in the vehicles they've just jumped ahead of). Probably, as someone who was used to be in charge, they were rarely, if ever, called on for their tendency to jump into the conversation whenever inspired (who, after, is going to tell the boss to wait their turn?).

Over the course of the weekend, I got increasingly protective of the others in the class whose comments or questions were being pushed to the side to accommodate this insistent person's interjections, and my irritation leaked into our exchanges. At the end of the weekend, this person called me to task for being so critical of them relative to the way I was treating others. Ouch! 

The truth is I hadn't realized what I was doing, and this person was right to call me on it. I didn't have a problem with their comments; only with their insistence, and how I saw that as disrespectful. But instead of addressing this directly—which would have been far cleaner—I was letting my criticism show up in my responses, and they were feeling ill-treated. I thought I was responding to their rudeness; they thought I was arbitrarily picking on them! Yuck.

—Example C
On a different training weekend, I had a participant with a number of needs about which I needed to negotiate details before the weekend began—some of which complicated how I proceeded as an instructor. On top of this, the person also was someone with a lot of questions (fine, in and of itself) and with a style of posing them that was urgent and interruptive (not so fine). 

Already somewhat put out by the need to handle the special requests, I was less resilient than I aspire to when it came to fielding the stream of inquiries or concerns that were often inserted mid-sentence, with eyes wide, leaning into the circle with I've-got-to-have-an-answer-to-this-right-now energy. 

Again, as with Example B, I was responding to behavior that I found problematic, without having named that that was what was going on for me. That's a problem, and that's on me. What seemed obvious to me (the pushy behavior) was a general way of being for that person. That is, they weren't being different in the class. 

Probably it was how they learned to get what they wanted in the world. Never mind that it was irritating—or that there are other, more palatable ways of asking for what you want—asking them to be different was like asking them to not be themselves.

I teach that emotions are OK, so why wasn't their energetic engagement acceptable? (I also teach that aggression is not OK, and this person didn't understand how their behavior could be perceived as having crossed that line.)

Just as in Example B, this person experienced me as picking on them. Just as in Example B, I had not been clean or direct about what I was reacting to.

• • •
Note how tricky this is in all three examples. When the the first party isn't aware of how they're coming across (they're just being themselves!) then it appears that you're discriminating against them instead of responding in kind—almost the opposite of what you think you're doing! Oy vey.

For a continued examination of this humbling and debilitating dynamic, see my blog of July 22, 2010, "… But They Started It."

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Riding the Rails with Santa

I've been a regular Amtrak customer my entire career as a process consultant—26 years. When you digest that I'm on the road about half the time, that means I've taken a lot of train trips. 

My history with Amtrak goes back far enough that it was permissible to smoke cigars in the observation car (which only a little less antiquarian than admitting that I've typed mimeo stencils). Now you can get kicked off the train for sneaking a cigaret in the bathroom. There was a time when Amtrak offered sturdy souvenir coffee cups that came with a lifetime offer of free refills for $8 (boy, did I ever make out on that deal).

Anyway, I'm asking you to trust that I've encountered all manner of unscheduled travel experiences.

For example, I've been late plenty of times—sometimes spectacularly. Once I was taking a train from Danville VA to DC, a distance of only 250 miles. I had a meeting to attend at 7 pm that evening in a DC suburb and figured I'd have no problem, given that my train (the northbound Crescent) was scheduled to depart Danville around 5 am and arrive in DC around 10 am. Well, there had been heavy rain through the night and the train was on slow orders because of the danger of water having softened the track ballast. It was more than two hours late arriving in Danville, and then crept across Virginia at 10 mph. I didn't get to DC until 8:30 pm. Oops. 

Over the years I've learned to not take the train if I have to do something the day I arrive. There are just too many things that can go wrong. Once I was on the westbound California Zephyr and we were stopped by a freight train derailment in the Rockies just east of Glenwood Springs. As the accident stopped all train traffic through the canyons, we had to wye the train outside Granby and head back down to Denver. Then we got bussed to Grand Junction, where the eastbound Zephyr was blocked going the other way. After passengers were swapped in both directions, the Denver train headed back to Chicago and the Grand Junction choo choo returned to Emeryville.

Once I was returning home on the Illinois Zephyr and someone committed suicide by driving their pickup onto a grade crossing right in front of the oncoming train—the engineer never had a chance to avoid the collision. Fortunately for us train passengers, there was no derailment and we were only held up about three hours while the police, coroner, and towing service attended to business. The conductor on that train was nearing retirement and told me it was the third suicide he'd witnessed in a 40-year career.

Seven winters ago I witnessed a pickup slide into the side of the train as we were pulling out of Mt Pleasant IA. The roads were snow-packed and the driver simply couldn't stop. Luckily it was a slow-speed accident and no one was hurt. Nonetheless it was heart-stopping to witness the accident happening from my seat.

All of which is to say that I've seen some things on the train, and it takes a lot to surprise me—but that threshold was crossed last Tuesday on the last leg of Ma'ikwe's and my trip home, a five-hour jaunt on the westbound Southwest Chief from Chicago to La Plata. We were mildly amused while enjoying an evening repast in the dining car when Santa and Mrs. Claus came traipsing through the car in full regalia, belting out the lyrics to "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," glad-handing all the Amtrak patrons as they passed through.

Properly chastened to be good (we ate all our vegetables and left a generous tip), we finished our meal and returned to our accommodations in preparation for detraining at sleepy little La Plata (pop 1361 and declining).  

La Plata, MO Station Photo
Because of the short platform at the remodeled Art Deco station, the train made two stops: the first to offload sleeping car passengers (of which Ma'ikwe and I were the only two), and the second for coach passengers.

Imagine our surprise when the train pulled into the station a bit after 9 pm (an hour late—but that wasn't the surprising part) and we encountered about 150 eager faces (half of them children on a school night!) staring at us on the crowded platform, with cameras rolling and cell phones raised to snap pictures. Huh? It was the weirdest damn thing I'd ever experience at a train station. Especially in La Plata.

They were waiting for Santa! 

While the crowd had no trouble distinguishing Ma'ikwe and me from the North Pole's First Couple (despite my white beard and my wayward, wiry eyebrows, which Ma'ikwe affectionately refers to as my "Santa brows"), Amtrak station personnel had to part the sea of eager celebrants to get us safely off the platform. Then the train pulled up a few cars and Santa made his triumphant arrival, descending from a coach car, while Ma'ikwe and I eagerly searched the parking lot for our ride, to escape the crush of Black Friday Revisited.

And to think that I was foolish enough to believe that I'd seen everything. Hah!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

When Consensus Is Contraindicated

Let's suppose you're part of group that's seriously considering (or questioning) whether to make decisions by consensus. In today's essay I'm going to explore the limits of consensus in two ways: a) why it may be a poor choice for the general way that the group makes decisions,; and b) why there may be times when the group is better served to make specific decisions by a method other than consensus, even though that's what the group generally uses.

I've been living the last 39 years at Sandhill Farm—a group that's always made decisions by consensus—and have been an active participant for more than three decades in community network organizations that have used consensus (the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, 1980-2001; and the Fellowship for Intentional Community, 1987-present), and I'm an unabashed advocate of consensus for making decisions in cooperative groups. At the same time though, I've been a process consultant for the last 26 years and have witnessed plenty of groups struggle with consensus.

Thus, when a facilitation student asked me recently when it might be appropriate to not use consensus (in a cooperative group), I realized I had a lot to say…

A. Why a cooperative group may want to think twice about adopting consensus
Despite my overall enthusiasm for consensus, it's not an easy process to learn, and you're not likely to enjoy what you get unless you're willing to make a number of commitments. Here is a laundry list of ways you can get in trouble:

o  Vague common values
The bedrock of consensus is the group's common values, because that's the well you drink from when trying to sort out how to proceed when the group is pulled in two or more directions. Your primary navigational tool in safely negotiating a passage through these choppy waters is keeping focused on how best to balance common values in relation to the presenting issue(s)—and you can't very well be guided by that pole star if you're sailing in a fog.

o  Weak communication skills
If the group's members are not particular skilled at clear articulation, accurate listening, giving and receiving feedback, and shifting perspectives to see things through others' eyes, meetings can be a real slog.

o  No (or minimal) training in the process
Consensus is antithetical to the way most people have been conditioned. In recognition of that it's naive to think that the group will be any good at it unless the whole group has gone through training. Hint: Having read a book or watched others do it is not enough.

o  Failure to understand the need to make a cultural shift
Community living, almost by definition, is a conscious effort to live more cooperatively. Given that the mainstream US culture is competitive and adversarial—which is the sociological opposite of cooperation—it requires real work to turn that around. The key challenge is the moment when people disagree over something that's close to the bone. Will they respond as if threatened, or with curiosity? If you don't grok that effective use of consensus necessitates a culture shift and a willingness to do personal work, then you're in for a world of hurt.

o  Minimal care in membership selection
To protect your investment in a cooperative culture, you need to purposefully screen prospective members for those who have done or are willing and able to do the personal work described above. If you're careless about this, you're sowing the whirlwind. Membership selection has to be more than whether they claim to have read your vision statement and their first check clears. At Sandhill, assessing prospective members for social maturity is our number one screen after values match. (We figure we can always teach a person how to drive a tractor, but it's damn hard to teach someone how to listen.)

o  No major commitment to integrating/training new members
Even if you do adequate initial training in consensus and carefully screen prospectives for social suitability, you still need to invest in the integration of newbies into the group. And that means orientation in how things are done in your cooperative group. Hint: it is not enough to simply give them an owner's manual and tell them to read it; in many cases new members will not even know the right questions to ask, and the veterans need to be pro-active in making this happen. Don't wait for the new folks to figure it out on their own.

o  Sloppy minutes 
One of the key ways that groups can bring new members up to current is by introducing them to the archive of plenary minutes (and how to search them by topic). Fortunately, in this age of sophisticated word processing programs, it doesn't have to be that heroic to have decent, accessible records. Key here is solid guidance and follow-through on how minutes will be taken, what will be included, how they will be reviewed for accuracy and completeness, how they will be stored, how they will be indexed, and how they can be accessed. If you fail to do a good job of this be prepared to handle the tension that results from new people wanting to revisit old decisions, while the veterans roll their eyes. It's a train wreck.

o  Poor record of agreements
It's no fair telling new members that they have to get up to speed on past agreements if that material is not laid out plainly for them, indexed by topic. If you're not doing any better than pointing them in the direction of multiple notebooks of handwritten plenary minutes, it's hopeless. What this leads to is reliance on oral tradition and the long-term memory of long-time members to guide you through. Good luck with that.

o  No agreement (or understanding) about how to work emotionally
Even though all groups experience emotional responses in the context of examining issues (not on every issue, but often enough), few groups discuss it as a process dynamic and make deliberate decisions about how they'd like to proceed when strong feelings emerge. Absent any agreements about it, the group proceeds by the seat of its pants—with predictably awkward and haphazard results. Yuck!

o  Not defining blocks well, or understanding how to handle them
One of the biggest challenges for most groups struggling with consensus is the concept of "blocks"—by which a single individual can stop the group from making a decision. It's imperative that consensus groups have a clear understanding of: 1) the point at which blocks can occur (Answer: only when the group is poised to make a decision; anything before that is a concern); 2) the legitimate grounds for a block; 3) the process by which blocks will be tested for legitimacy; and 4) the process by which a validated block will be examined, and a clear statement of everyone's role in that effort.

o  Lack of skilled (or authorized) facilitation
Facilitation is much more than deciding who will talk next. In fact, when a group is trying to make a successful transition to cooperative culture, skilled facilitation can often make a night-and-day difference in the likelihood of the group having productive, energizing meetings. In general, you want your most process-savvy people running the meetings, because of their greater ability to steer things constructively. To get the most of this potential, it's important that the group give the facilitator authority to step in things get off the rails.

Hint: In most groups the four most common elements of meeting fatigue are: 1) repetitive comments; 2) people speaking off topic; 3) working at detail below plenary level; and 4) inability to hold off proposals until after the group has identified what the proposal needs to address. You need facilitators who understand how to manage all four of these challenges and have the authority from the group to step in and redirect whenever they surface. Otherwise, you're blowing in the wind. Answer: If your facilitators don't have the capacity to handle this, get them trained.

o  Vague understanding about what kinds of topics are appropriate for plenary
Not everything can or should be done in plenary (whew). Some topics shouldn't even be attempted in plenary—because they are a matter of personal discretion, already fall within the bailiwick of a committee or manager, or are outside the scope of the group's mission to tackle. In addition, it's important to know when the group has reached the end of plenary level concerns and it's time to hand it over to a subgroup (or manager) for completion or implementation. If you don't know where that line is, it's damn hard to know when you've crossed it.

B. Why a consensus group may want to make certain decisions another way
Here's a news flash: just because your group has an agreement to make decisions by consensus doesn't mean you are forced to make all decisions by consensus. There are cases where it makes good sense to decide by consensus that you'll make a specific decision by another method (which is typically voting, but could be throwing darts, drawing lots, pin the tail on the agreement, or relying on the inspiration derived from a Ouija board or chicken entrails).

Why would you do this? 
o  The stakes are low (perhaps the matter falls entirely within a committee's or manager's purview)
o  It's mainly a matter of aesthetics
o  All major concerns have been addressed in plenary and the remaining details are considered minor

Examples include:
—naming questions (which could be as trivial as what you call the pet turtle in the community pond, or as serious as what you call the community
—when to schedule a group event
—what palette of colors to allow for exterior paint 
—the menu for Thanksgiving dinner

Most often groups get in trouble in this regard for one of two reasons: a) failure to understand that it's OK to make minor decisions other than by consensus; and b) lack of clarity and/or discipline about not taking up plenary time with issues that are below the level of whole group attention.

Caution: I am not suggesting going to another decision-making rule as a work-around for a block. I refer to this as club-in-the-closet consensus—where the group commits to honoring dissent only if everyone "behaves." The concept of if-you-push-too-hard-we'll-shove-back-harder is not consensus; it's majority rule dressed up to look pretty.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Questions to Ask When You're an Outside Facilitator

One of the most exciting things I've done over the last decade is develop a two-year facilitation training, where I work with a geographically concentrated group of students (of all ages) eight times over 24 months, in intensive three-day weekends spaced approximately three months apart. 

Today I'm in Pittsboro NC delivering Weekend IV of the eighth edition of this program (which means this is my 60th training weekend). Not one to let moss grow on my programs, I'm actively marketing this training in New England, Portland OR, and Madison WI.

Out of the seven completed programs there is a handful of graduates who are interested in taking their skills on the road (rather than just practicing their craft at home). Two of my more venturesome graduates from the recently concluded northern CA training just did some work with a regional client, and wrote me because they were dissatisfied with their prepping with the client ahead of time. What, they asked me, is my prep template as an outside facilitator? What a good question!

I realized that a good bit of this is peculiar the situation (by which I mean, all questions are not potent in all scenarios), yet there are nonetheless some predictable lines of inquiry. Here are a baker's dozen to keep in mind:

1. What are the topics you want to address?
(Duh) I know this sounds obvious, but clients can be more in a fog bank than you might expect. Knowing you need help is not quite the same as knowing where you need help. Sometimes you have to bring them in for a landing on instruments only. Also, see Point 8 below for ways in which you may have to guide the client to land at the right airport, not just on the right runway.

2. How much time are you planning to devote to each topic?

There are several parts to this, including: a) how much time the group is willing to devote to meetings; b) what kind of meeting stamina the group possesses (which is affected in turn by how badly they perceive they need help—note that I didn't say how badly they actually need help); c) what their budget is for hiring an outside person and whether they run out of money before they run out of work (occasionally I get a client who'll ask me how much of their engine can I rebuild for $500); d) how well does the client (or at least the person who's your liaison for background) understand the complexities of the topic.

Then, for each topic:

3. What are the objectives for the time on that topic? 

To what extent are you wanting help with a specific issue, and to what extent training in how to handle dynamics that this issue showcases? If you want both, that translates to more time per issue.

4. What is the background on that topic?   

    --Are there any current agreements that bear on this topic? No need to reinvent any wheels.
    --Are there any recent prior conversations that bear on this topic? If so, what is the product of those conversations? Let's not re-plow freshly tilled earth.    
    --What community values are in play with this topic? If that's been identified already it'll save time.     
    --Is there precedent on this topic (or others like it) that we should be aware of? For some groups being consistent is a big deal; for others, not so much.

5. Are there any icebergs with this topic? 

Generally what you're looking for is non-trivial unresolved tensions among stakeholders. Sometimes it can help considerably to talk directly with people known to be triggered in connection with a topic before you arrive on site, both to put them at ease with your understanding of their story and feelings, and with your ability to be fair.

6. How do you make decisions?

Will we be able to make binding decisions in this meeting if we come to agreement, or will the outcomes be advisory only? While I've never understood the point of prohibiting the group from making decisions in the presence of any outside facilitator (are they afraid they'll be talked into something on Sunday that they'll regret on Monday?), clients do this all the time and you have sing from their hymnal.

7. What authority do facilitators have to run meetings?

Do you have authority to interrupt repetition, redirect off-topic comments, and decide the order in which questions will be addressed? Will you be given latitude to work emerging distress? In short, what a license are you being given to drive their car?

All of that said, there are some pitfalls to watch out for:

8. Clients who have naive ideas about how much time something will take.

It can be expensive hiring outside help and clients understandably want to get as much product as possible for their dollar. This can include overloading their plates at the all-you-can-eat outside facilitation buffet. When clients are allowed to do that it's a set up for one of two things, neither of which is good: a) disappointment that their unrealistic expectations weren't met; or b) indigestion from trying to swallow proposals that have been insufficiently chewed. Yuck.

9. Clients who don't understand how to sequence considerations for productive conversations.

The classic example is the client who wants resolution on a touchy issue yet fails to take into account the absolute necessity of unpacking the distress associated with it before attempting problem solving. (Of course, if the client has never seen distress worked with productively, it's not hard to understand why they haven't made room for it when picturing a successful weekend.)

10. It's relatively common to encounter some ineffective process agreements or bad meeting habits.
In asking for help with a particular issue, the client may be oblivious to the ways in which progress is crippled by a poor understanding of good process, or their inability to contain or redirect dysfunctional behaviors. When this occurs, the outside facilitator may face the challenge of pointing out these shortcomings in a constructive way (often by asking for permission to model something different in pursuit of the named objective). In the extreme, the bulk of the group's challenges can be explained by such structural flaws, rather than because of some deep rift in values, personalities clashes, or insurmountable ideological schisms. The trick, of course, is being able to diagnose that early and knowing how to offer a palatable, yet effective alternative.

11. There's the official reason you've been hired, and then there's the real reason you've been hired.

Unfortunately, you'll be hired on the basis of the former, and judged on the basis of your ability to deliver on the latter. (Did anyone promise you that life would be fair?) When these two do not match up it's important to ferret out the gap between them at your earliest opportunity, so that you'll know the lay out of the land and can adjust your focus accordingly. Sometimes the client knows about this gap (for example, when they can't get agreement from the group to name a vicious internal rift, but they can get permission to get outside "training" in problem solving); and sometimes not. It can be tricky.

12. The liaison(s) may have different agenda than the group.
While this doesn't happen often, sometimes the information passed along to the outside facilitator does not align with what the group thinks is going to happen (talk about fireworks!) and you can be walking into a trap. This is a particularly dangerous version of the previous pitfall, where the discrepancy is bound to get uncovered in the course of the delivery, and the outside facilitator may be the last to know! Typically, this happens when the people charged with setting things up are frustrated with the group's unwillingness to accept their analysis of what's going on, or their recommendation about where the plenary should focus its attention. Rather than accepting the will of the group, the planning folks go rogue, giving the outside facilitator directions for which there is no group agreement (under the theory that's it's easier to get forgiveness than permission) and doesn't let the outside facilitator in on the secret. 

13. It's not unusual for the client to have one or more process objectives in addition to topic objectives. 

For example, they may want movement on a challenging topic to be accomplished in ways that include active input from a higher percentage of the community than usual. Or they're looking for a resolution to an tough issue where there's buy-in from certain identified curmudgeons. The client may or may not be able to articulate this dual need up front (obviously it helps a lot if they can). Once that's in play, you'll need to be able to assess whether you can deliver on both objectives, or have to settle for one.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

My Wife, the Rock Star

Back on October 12, Ma'ikwe was on the campus of Carleton College in Northfield MN giving a TEDx talk on "Sustainable is Possible." It was released on YouTube only last week (Dec 4), and as of just now (as I type) 2183 people have seen it. Woohoo! If it gets enough views it will be moved up to the big tent ( where the cream of the crop are posted. Only 1647 make that cut (going back to a presentation by Al Gore on "Averting the Climate Crisis" in Feb 2006, which has been viewed more than 1.7 million times).

TED started way back in 1984 (shortly after Al invented the internet), as a nonprofit dedicated to ideas worth spreading. It brought together people inspired by the themes of Technology, Education, and Design, from whence the acronym. Expanding beyond two conferences a year (the TED Conference has been held each spring in North America since 1990, and TEDGlobal has been held on another continent every year since 2005—it was in Edinburgh this year and will be in Rio de Janeiro next year), TED maintains its award-winning website where anyone can watch the best presentations. In November 2012, that site surpassed one billion in total visits.

To meet the burgeoning need, TED launched TEDx in 2009, with this mission:

Created in the spirit of TED’s mission, “ideas worth spreading,” the TEDx program is designed to give communities, organizations and individuals the opportunity to stimulate dialogue through TED-like experiences at the local level. TEDx events are fully planned and coordinated independently, on a community-by-community basis.

To give you a sense of how robust this program has become—of decentralized public speaking—there were 535 TEDx events in 86 countries just last month. Talk about going viral! The rules are that speakers are not paid for their time, they are prohibited from making commercial pitches, and the events cannot be run to generate a profit. At the discretion of the folks managing the main site, they can observe which of the talks arising from the TEDx events prove robust enough to be brought into the main arena for enhanced exposure. This, of course, is the holy grail for Ma'ikwe.
Ma'ikwe's TED Trek
In Ma'ikwe's case some students at Carleton (which is near and dear to Ma'ikwe's and my hearts as the college we both attended—though 21 years apart) decided a year ago to organize a TEDx event on campus and put out a call to students, faculty and alumni to submit proposals. Candidates offered a five-minute sample of what they wanted to say via Skype, from which 19 were selected by a panel of students to the all-day extravaganza on Columbus Day.

The thing about TED talks (x or otherwise) is that the presentation (18 minutes or less) must be made without notes, filmed in front of a live audience. You are allowed (even encouraged) to offer a series of slides as a visual backdrop to your words, and they employ a technology that allows the speaker to control which slide is up and a visual clue on a monitor that displays which slide is queued up next. Otherwise you're on your own up there in the bright lights, wired with a cordless mic. (Not everyone is up to the challenge. On the day that Ma'ikwe spoke, one presenter froze on stage, walked off in the midst of his presentation, and then promptly passed out, falling flat on his face. Ouch!)

As you might imagine, Ma'ikwe practiced her talk for hours and honed the script multiple times before driving north to her destiny amidst the fall foliage of the Midwest in October. While she's hopeful that the online views will drive traffic to both: a) Dancing Rabbit as a three-dimensional, on-the-ground experiment in sustainability; and b) Ecovillage Education US, and our annual 37-day immersion course each summer, the truth is that the talk was worth doing even if none of that happens. Going through the discipline of crafting a tight message about what is near and dear to one's heart, and facing one's demons about delivering that message to a live audience of hundreds without getting flustered will be valuable for the rest of her life. It will make her a more effective social change agent. The view count on YouTube is simply frosting and a fast-rising cake.

• • •
Continuing the theme of Ma'ikwe's emergence as a change maker, just yesterday she and I were visiting Acorn, a 20-year-old income-sharing community in central Virginia that I've been in association with since they were a gleam in Twin Oaks' eyes—when that community was bursting at the seams with people wanting to join in the early '90s and the group made the choice to start another community in preference to building another residence. 

Ma'ikwe and I were en route to a facilitation training in Pittsboro NC this coming weekend, and agreed to stop at Acorn mid-stream to offer a pair of evening lectures on group dynamics. While I've worked with Acorn a number of times in the past, on this occasion it was Ma'ikwe who had been asked to do the presentations, and I'm just the window dressing, which is a good sign (not because I'm particularly effective as eye candy; rather, it's good that Ma'ikwe is developing a reputation of her own).

To put this in better perspective, she didn't just spring forth fully clothed from Zeus' forehead in the past year. She's been a published author for most of her adult life and released a book in 2007, Passion as Big as a Planet, on the theme of eco-activism and spirituality—which is exactly one more title than I've had published. So she had a lot going for her before I came along, and I'm confident that she'd be successful even if we'd never met. That said, we each believe that our union makes the other more effective, which is no small part of the glue in our marriage.

Slowly, but surely, our work as a couple in the field of cooperative group dynamics and sustainability is evening out: some I do alone, some we do together, and some she does alone—with the last segment being the fastest growing.

People finding their own voices: it's an idea worth spreading.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Bedroom Archeology

At Thanksgiving I began a grand experiment: living in the same household as my wife. 

Though we've been married for six-and-a-half years, this is the first time we've attempted this version of communal living. While I know most people will respond, "Duh," this is a radical step for us, requiring that at least one of us (in this case, me) give up a home that means a great deal. With Sandhill's blessing, I'm taking a leave of absence to try this out. If it doesn't work, Ma'ikwe can revive her plans (from July) to divorce me and I can return to Sandhill.

No sooner did we recover from the tryptophan overload of Turkey Day than we plowed into the archeological site that has been my bedroom at Sandhill for the last 20 years. Fortunately Ma'ikwe had set aside the week to mainly support me in the transition and the reorganization of Moon Lodge (her house at Dancing Rabbit where we now live), and she played a strong role in keeping me on task, and helped me sort things into four piles: a) move; b) give away; c) store; and d) trash.

While I'm only half done (there are at least two full days ahead), we've mostly cleaned out the closet, and have moved both the bed and desk. In the process I've already found two long-lost things that I knew were in the room but couldn't figure out where I'd placed them, and had lost hope of ever seeing again. It was like an early Christmas!

The first thing was a pair of small diameter rifflers with which I intended to sharpen the blade of our Univex grinder for shredding horseradish (which is incredibly hard on equipment, not just your nose). I figured the blades are expensive and it couldn't hurt to try sharpening what we had instead of springing for a new blade—but that theory only works if you don't lose the rifflers! I'd ordered them five years ago and couldn't recall where I'd put them to save my soul. It turned out they were in a bowl on my desk (underneath scads of insulated coffee sleeves) still safely inside their factory packaging. Whew!

The second miracle was coming across a box of butchering equipment (carefully sealed with packing tape and clearly labeled in my handwriting) alongside my desk (in an area I rarely venture to look at). It included a blade and grater plates for our meat grinder, a homemade locust pushing block (with a diameter barely smaller than the inside of the feed throat on the grinder), sausage casings, and a stuffing funnel. I'd been looking three years for that lot, and it was fortuitous to come across it right after cutting up three deer, most of which was destined to become burger.

While most of what I discovered was old and familiar, there were plenty of clothes I've never worn and have no idea how they got into my closet. Ma'ikwe was good about pushing me to let go of most of it. Often I'd touch something and it would trigger a story about its origin. Pretty quickly, Ma'ikwe figured out that she didn't need to pay attention to what I was saying; she could just nod occasionally as I went through the grieving process.

Sleeping in the Bed You Made
It was powerful sleeping for the last time with Ma'ikwe in the bed I'd made 38 years ago, from locally cut white oak. It was the bed in which both of my kids were conceived and holds a lot of positive juju for me. We disassembled it the next morning and put it back together at Moon Lodge—only to discover that Ma'ikwe's mattress was bigger than mine and didn't fit between the posts at the end of the bed. Oops! So, after a few deep breaths, I sawed off the posts and we were able to sleep there that night: my bed and Ma'ikwe's mattress, symbolic of the union of our lives.

Almost as important as the bed was moving my desk into Ma'ikwe's living room, so that I'd have a workplace that was reliably mine (heretofore it had been my laptop atop my lap in a chair near the wood stove). Ma'ikwe likes to bivouac on her couch, with her papers spread round her. I prefer a desk (or table) and now we're side by side, with easy sight lines of each other. Something of a his-and-hers living room.

While we've already hauled about six boxes of books over, there are at least that many still to go. Plus, we've hardly made a dent in my piles of paperwork, including a four-drawer filing cabinet. I'm seriously toying with shipping a bunch of the FIC material off to an archive facility (at the Center for Communal Studies at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville IN), rather than continue to haul it with me wherever I go. It's time to divest!

We managed without too much strain to shoehorn my clothes into the dresser and closet space that Ma'ikwe freed up for me, we folded my modest cooking supplies into Moon Lodge's spacious kitchen, and we were even able to find a home for my best-in-county eclectic liquor collection (through the judicious use of the loft space above the bathroom). But I have no idea where all those books are going to go, even after we build three more rows of shelves along the south wall of the guest room.

The Ties that Bind
Last week, as part of the new world order, we had a conversation about the division of Moon Lodge domestic chores that included the two of us, plus Jibran, Ma'ikwe's 16-year-old son. Jibran is seriously thinking of trying to enter college next fall to study philosophy, which could mean that the next 8-9 months are his last as a regular fixture in our domestic scene. Before he departs, I have a personal agenda to get Jibran's skill set beefed up to the point where he can: a) consistently start a fire in the wood stove; b) cook a basic meal without burning the food or telling us how incompetent he is; and c) tie basic knots (I figure if you master the square knot, clove hitch, bowline, and tautline hitch, you can handle 99% of the situations where knowing the right knot can save your ass). All of these things will, I believe, make a bigger difference in his life than being about to explain nuances in epistemology. He'll just have to trust me on that.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Doer Archetyes that Disturb the Force

Permeating all of the Star Wars movies is the concept of "the Force": a binding, metaphysical energy that is everywhere, but which some are more sensitive to than others. In particular, it is a phenomenon that Jedi Knights—such as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker—aspire to grok, attune with, and harness.

Though not quite in the same IMAX way as George Lucas, I try to teach facilitators to be sensitive to the energy in group dynamics and to trust their intuition (in addition to tracking whatever the little jimmy dickens people are actually saying) with the understanding that there is much more going on in meetings than sequencing an agenda, exchanging ideas, and solving problems.

That said, one of the things that most groups encounter, sooner or later, are people who act as if the Force doesn't exist (at least not beyond the force of their will) and I want to explore the dynamics around that phenonenon.

One of the hallmarks of cooperative groups is that they pay as much attention to how a thing gets done as what gets done. Thus, process agreements (explicit norms about how things should flow) tend to be a big deal in cooperative groups (and individual initiative to just go out and "get 'er done" is less celebrated).

I want to approach this from the perspective of two archetypes that are especially vexing to the Cooperative Force: the Tragic Dynamic Veteran and the Cynical Lone Wolf, both of which should be familiar to observers of group dynamics. First, I'll start with a compendium of qualities that these types tend to hold in common. 

o  Are hard workers.
o  Are willing to push for what they believe is needed, even if their position is unpopular.
o  Are not particularly looking for the limelight; yet expect quiet recognition and acceptance for their (considerable) contributions to the group's welfare.o  Have martyr tendencies, where they expect some relief from scrutiny (or slack around process) by virtue of their yeoman service to the group.
o  Will suffer in silence (rather than gnash their teeth in public), even though it's not hard to tell when they're pissed.
o  Tend to be critical of people with a high need for emotional support, unless it's accompanied by high productivity. Similarly, they're skeptical of devoting a significant chunk of plenary time to focusing on feelings unless it can be clearly shown that this leads to action. ("If we redirected just half the time now being taken by meetings to simply doing the work, there wouldn't be so damn much to talk about.")
Archetype I: The Tragic Dynamic Veteran

Their Profile
Frustrated by non-performance. While they'd prefer to be part of a team, they don't want to be held up by slackers. Process is fine, but when push comes to shove, it's more important to get the work done than to hold the hands of people missing deadlines or wracked by doubt.

Often easier to do something themselves than wait for someone less able to get around to it. While this doesn't build capacity, it solves the immediate problem and doesn't slow them down. They accept many claims on their time and it can be excruciating asking them to accommodate the confused, the slow thinking, and the less competent.

—High-functioning, which package probably includes many or all of the following traits: a) multiple skills useful to the group; b) the ability to work quickly; c) the ability to produce quality work consistently; and d) an understanding of work details, the best way to sequence things, and the big picture.

—While process savvy, there is a tendency to be impatient with bureaucracy when it's perceived to be in their way (or irrelevant).

—Long to have their ideas listened to as closely as they listen to the contributions of others.

—Tend to get sullen when upset (because they've learned that the group doesn't do well with their anger)

—For the good of the group will put their thumb in the dike to tackle work the group wants done but which no one else will tackle. If this is work that they don't enjoy or don't think is necessary, it can lead to resentment when that effort is not appreciated or broadly supported.

—By definition, leaders have more power (the ability to influence others) than others. As such, they are often the target of those who are suspicious of power being unevenly distributed.
—Socially adept and readily available to help others at need, though not particularly open about their own needs, or asking for help. Given how much the group may depend on the contributions of dynamic leaders, the expression of their personal needs can be labeled emotional blackmail. 

Here's how it works: 
A) The group is dependent on its leaders to get things done.
B) The group functions better and feels more cohesive if members share from the heart what's going on with them.
C) Emotional needs tend to be translated into demands.
D) The leader responds to the request that they be more human and vulnerable in the group (per point B), yet in the presence of that sharing there's push back from the group about the leader pressuring the group to meet their needs (per point C) with the implied threat that they'll withdraw their energy if their needs aren't satisfied (invoking Point A).
Thus, while leaders may think they're only doing B, it may appear to others that it's a power play. Yuck.

How this type benefits the group. They can find people who can meet them in some respects (big picture thinking, stamina, dynamism in front of the group, pace), providing peers and the possibility of handing off significant aspects of their workload to others. They don't mind sharing the credit or control if the work is being done well. The group can be a base of operation or platform for their work in the world.
How the group benefits from this type. The group often relies on their dynamism and vision, even when there is baseline discomfort about how much power they have. A good leader can help develop the leadership capacity in others, both through modeling and direct mentoring.

How to connect. I think the points of leverage are: a) being diligent about leaders sharing from the heart as much as others; b) seeing to it that leaders have peer support (just like anyone else); and c) holding leaders accountable when they color outside the process lines. Hint: Leaders tend to operate on accelerated time, which means it's important that any of these options be acted upon as promptly as possible, to interrupt the leader's tendency to feel isolated and poorly understood.

Archetype II: The Cynical Lone Wolf

Their Profile
—Surly; uncommunicative; doesn't respond to emails or notes; isn't responsive to feedback or evaluations.

—Socially awkward; not well connected in the group.

—Rarely attends meetings & doesn't speak much.

—May ignore greetings.

Tendency to leak sarcasm.

—They are a person of actions; not words.

—They possess cowboy energy; acting impulsively on their own, rather than seeking permission and group support.
—Life experience has taught them that talking doesn't get things done.

—Being emotionally vulnerable risks getting hurt; it's safer being armored.

How this type benefits the group. Their work ethic is an inspiration to others. You never have too many members who ask little and deliver a lot. Their areas of commitment tend to be handled promptly and competently.

How this type benefits from being in the group. They basically align with the group values, and benefit from the shared work (living in a group, the loner needn't do everything themselves). They accept group decisions about what needs to happen and what resources are available to accomplish things; yet they opt out socially. (Since they don't value group process, they don't see its violation as that big a deal.)

How to connect. I think the best chance with this type is offering something that makes sense in their value system. Probably that means selling them on how clear communication and clear energy leads to better efficiency and productivity. While they may be skeptical, they will probably accept hard evidence (the proof is in the doing). Hint: Someone approaching this type is not likely to gain any traction unless that person has a decent reputation for getting things done.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Gender Dynamics Redux

Following my post of Nov 30 (Gender Dynamics in Cooperative Groups) I received three comments. They were so interesting that I've decided to keep the dialog going...

Anonymous wrote:
It might be interesting to look at the research about how women and men resolve arguments. Men seem, according to this research, to leave an encounter where some agreement has been reached with an ability to leave it behind; women tend to come back minutes, hours, or days later with "and this is a pattern of yours" to restart a broader discussion. It's not over for them. When I heard this I was in the car with my ex-husband, who is now in a committed relationship with a man, and he was somewhat offended because he said his husband is definitely more female in that way. Of course I recognized myself and him in the examples. We were trying to think of an evolutionary advantage to the female behavior and we could come up with only the hunter vs. gatherer advantages...being able to kill and eat something differs psychologically from growing or gathering edibles...and what roles that meant "feminine" gay men and butch lesbians did in early society. But maybe it's more about creating community and resolving issues....somebody has to say "it's done" and somebody has to remember for next time.

While I'm not an anthropologist (and therefore don't know jack—or jill, for that matter—about the evolutionary explanation for different gendered responses to arguments), I can build a picture about why relational people (who may be women) tend to hang onto disagreements that results-oriented people (who may be men) claimed to have moved beyond. If the argument ends without an energetic resolution, the dynamics persist. Relational people know this, and therefore attempt to engage in a holistic way (even if they're not particularly distinguished as problem-solvers). However, if the other person isn't emotionally articulate (or even available), this may not go well. In such cases, all parties may reach an acceptable rational solution, but everyone doesn't feel heard or "done." Those aware of the unfinished business are likely to cycle back to it.

All of that said, in the community context it has not been my experience that women tend to hold on to hurts any longer than men, or, for that matter, that women are any less quick to be ready to move on.

Abe wrote:
I have had a lot of experience visiting communities and hearing this bigoted viewpoint about men being one way and women being another way. I mean, I hear it outside communities as well, but I would have imagined more critique of the concept of the gender binary or the idea of gender being anything more than a concept in our heads, in communities. I have heard quite a bit of critique of these ideas of men are this and women are that in the circle of Acorn, Twin Oaks, and Living Energy Farm. Still, there is a womyn's gathering and a womyn's collective at Twin Oaks.

I remember, at an early Gaia U board meeting, there was a proposal to divide the Board by gender (just women and men, no one else). It was decided there be two heads of the board, because, you know, "you have to balance the feminine and masculine energies" and "men and women have a different way of looking at things."

What does this idea that men and women think and do things differently serve? Let's say it's not being said from a biological perspective of sex, rather than gender, and you're only talking about the cultural norms and how people were raised. Even then, what can this thought even serve? First, it is said from a cisgender perspective speaking only of women and men and no one else. It excludes intersex people. It excludes transgender people. Beyond that, what do you do with an idea like that? You apply it to the people around you and make judgments on individual people based on what your belief is about people of their gender. The problem with prejudice like that is that there is no way to take a whole classification of people and accurately apply it to any one individual within the classification.

I wrote the original piece because I believe there are important differences in the way that boys and girls are conditioned in the mainstream culture. It was not my aim to encourage stereotyping or to promote the assumption that all feminine-presenting people act one way and all masculine-presenting people act another; it was to describe a gulf that I see played out repeatedly in cooperative group dynamics and which I believe we must learn to recognize and develop the capacity to bridge between.

The most important part for me is the ways in which cooperative culture differs from competitive culture with respect to how it solves problems. In the wider culture, we venerate rational problem solvers and systems thinking. In cooperative culture those qualities are still an asset, yet so is the ability to work relationally and empathetically.

What was intriguing for me about my friend's observation (which was the inspiration for my Nov 30 blog) was: a) that both styles persisted in his well-established community; and b) that the clash between the styles was the major impediment to peaceable resolution of conflict. I was not so interested in the analysis that women were never strident, or consistently did a better job of setting aside their egos to think of the whole, yet I was interested in how gendered cultural conditioning could explain what my friend observed. That's exciting because it means that there is every reason to believe that if all children were trained to be skilled at human relations, then we could all be better cooperative problem solvers.

MoonRaven wrote:
I hear your [Abe's] frustration with the division by gender raised by this article. I also realize how much I appreciate the issues raised by the article. Rather than proving the point of Laird's 'thoughtful friend' (since I'm a cisgendered—and an old white guy at that) by drawing 'positional lines' (and I could—I still have those testosteronal reactions), I'd rather try to look at the truth of what you're saying as well as the truth of Laird's post. There is a good bit of truth in each.

First, I want to acknowledge that many individuals do not fall within the cultural norms of their gender—and many also fall outside gender norms at all. But I also think it's important to look at what is perhaps the heart of what Laird wrote here, his list of relational skills. I think that anyone using these skills, whether cisgendered, transgendered, genderqueer, or intersex, any human being using these skills will further the building of communities. I also think that we need to encourage anyone who is quick to speak up (regardless of gender) to wait and step back and encourage the quiet people to speak up so that all voices are heard.

Personally I would like to live in a community with more strong women and less strong men (I've seen what's been described too often for my liking), and definitely with more queer folk of every type, with many people who flout and challenge gender norms.

And I agree that we need to look at each individual as their own unique self. I think there is a place for looking at gender dynamics and a place for looking beyond gender dynamics.

I'm wholly in agreement with MoonRaven's concluding paragraph. However, I want to comment on the admonition that those who are quick to speak up should step back, and the idea that groups may be better off with fewer strong men.

I believe what we need are groups where all members are strong—by which I mean articulate, unafraid to voice their views (even if unpopular), able to take full responsibility for their feelings and their actions, and possessing a strong enough sense of self that they do not feel unworthy or damaged as a consequence of others disliking their words or behavior. (Note that I am not equating strength with stridency or obstinacy.) The meek or insecure do not, in my view, get strong as a result of shackling others. That's coddling.

As a professional facilitator, here's the way I prefer to handle the dynamic where air space is unevenly distributed in open discussion (which only happens all the time). I have two main strategies. First, if I notice that a minority is dominating the conversation (or that there are a number of people who have not yet spoken), I will often offer an observation along the lines of, "We have had an animated conversation the last 15 minutes and a number of useful ideas and concerns have surfaced. I notice though that a few people have spoken a number of times while others have not spoken at all. For the next while I'd like to make room to hear from those who have not yet contributed to the conversation."

This does a number of things all at the same time:
o  It honors the contributions received so far, which means those who are quick to speak or are less daunted by speaking in front of the whole group are not punished or made to feel bad. (While I don't want to celebrate being rash, it's fine to be quick.)

o  It expressly encourages those who have spoken a lot to sit on their hands. It's now other people's turns.

o  It creates an explicit opening for the shy or the more deliberate thinkers to step up. Don't come back later with the complaint that there was no opening.

Note that this approach does limit the quick for a time, but only after they have already contributed, not before.

The second strategy I employ to equalize participation is to mix up formats. Instead of relying solely on open discussion—which is often the quickest way to get at things—I intentionally use a variety of other approaches. Here are three:
—Go Rounds (where no one speaks twice until everyone who cares to has had a chance to speak once).
—Small group breakouts (where it's easier for people to test out their ideas).
—Individual writing before sharing in the whole group (some are more articulate that way than orally—why not occasionally give them a format at which they excel?).

All together, these are strategies for getting everyone into the conversation without gagging the strong, which, by the way, has nothing to do with gender, yet has everything to do with getting everyone's wisdom into consideration—all the while encouraging all participants to get stronger without pretending that we're all alike.