Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Cultivating a Culture of Yes

About 10 years ago I was at a Sandhill Farm community meeting when a new member complained about how the most recently completed building—which was constructed before his arrival—was not built according to permaculture principles, and I lost it.

I told him (in no uncertain terms) that the building had been built the same way every other building in the community had been built—and the way every future building would be built: by using the best collective thinking available to us at the time, with special latitude given to the preferences of the people doing the work. While I assured him that if he's a member when we did our next building that he'd have every chance to insert permaculture principles into the consideration, I told him to knock off bashing the past.

Shift Happens
There is no doubt that thinking changes over time (thank God), and what looked great in the moment can be embarrassing years later, but it's counter-productive to wear a hair shirt or get out the cat-o-nine tails just because your prior thinking didn't incorporate ideas that hadn't yet been known or formulated. What's the point? While I'm all in favor of reviewing old thinking (so long as there's been some change in conditions or there's new information), I'm not a fan of recreational hand wringing or Oscar quality teeth gnashing.

At Sandhill we try to make decisions based not just on how we think it's best to balance the application of our common values, we try to balance the needs and preferences of our members as well. Thus, we value high resonance above consistency. Over time, the composition of our group changes, people's views change, design criteria change, and so do the circumstances. While precedence matters, it's not a golden calf we bow down to.

On the plus side, our conversations are alive, and there's room for the possibility of a different answer to similar questions because no two issues present as exactly identical. On the other, this approach can lead to a lot of re-plowing old ground (which tends to be not so thrilling for long-term members who have heard that song before), and it tends to make group dynamics more mysterious (and therefore less transparent) for newer members, because it may not be obvious what factors will weigh most on any particular decision, and the longer you've been in the saddle, the more you know where the burrs are.

Getting to Ask
People differ—sometimes spectacularly—in their personal comfort with making requests. Some try hard to never make a request unless they think it will be easy to get permission, mainly because they want to save others the potential awkwardness of turning someone down, especially if it's a friend. Others have no trouble asking for what they want, figuring there's no shame in getting a rejection and if you never ask, the answer is always "no" (unless you're a proponent of the philosophy that it's easier to get forgiveness than permission, and it's a superior strategy to simply bulldoze ahead until someone stops you).

In most groups it's common to find members distributed all along this spectrum, such that people with low barriers to making requests are doing it way more than those who are more cautious, with the unintended result that the cautious will start to feel resentment at the way the freewheelers come across as "entitled." It can get ugly.

In my experience it can take considerable work—but worth it—to get all on board with the idea that it's in everyone's best interest if you do three things with respect to members making requests of the group:

a) Make it as clear as possible ahead of time the basis on which requests will be evaluated. This helps people appropriately discern what to bring forward, what questions are likely to be asked, and the best way to package the information for easy digestion.

b) Establish the lowest possible barrier to people bringing forward any reasonable request. This will not only tend to even out the distribution of requests, it will often lead to more requests getting granted, because it's common for others to have helpful ideas that the requester will not think of for getting needs met.

c) For the first two standards to work, it has be OK that the answer is "no." Among other things, that means you have to uncouple the request from being a litmus test for whether others love you. If it's devastating being turned down, group living can be exhausting, even terrifying. (If you can't get over the terror, I suggest stepping away from group living and getting a dog.)

Getting to Yes
In the US at least, almost everyone comes to community after decades of being steeped in the competitive and adversarial mainstream culture. In consequence, the overwhelming majority of us have been deeply conditioned to think first about the ways in which we are unique and different from each other. (When you agree with someone, you are not distinct.) Overwhelmingly, if someone says something that you half agree with, the first response out of most people's mouths is "But... " because we're oriented to see differences first, even though the points of commonality are just as valid.
It takes effort to learn to respond with curiosity (instead of with a clenched jaw) whenever you encounter stakeholder viewpoints that differ from yours about non-trivial matters. The good news though, is that it's possible. At Sandhill we're dedicated to the attempt. On the one hand we expect all members to be appropriate about what they ask the group to support. In return, we try hard to say "yes" as often as possible—which is both easier to say and easier to hear.

1 comment:

MoonRaven said...

Thanks--this was very helpful. I know lots of folks on both ends of that spectrum and looking at ways that they can interact that are respectful is useful.