I've recently been in a dialog with a thoughtful friend who has lived half his life in a consensus-based community and shared this reflection about gender dynamics (which I have lightly edited to preserve anonymity):
As I see it, there is a distinct difference between the genders that has persisted for decades, well beyond the behaviors or personalities of particular men or women. When our group experiences open conflict in arriving at consensus it almost always becomes positional/territorial "lines" between one or two men, not women. I have recently seen the group get close to agreement only to have the consensus founder because one or two males believe they have a better understanding of: a) how consensus works; or b) what the real problem is that the rest are missing. It happens repeatedly… and heatedly.
Recently, I was standing in a circle of members when I expressed a concern that a committee had sent out a written message to a departing member that had not been cleared in plenary. When anger erupted in response to that revelation all the women took a physical step back, while the males exchanged heated words. Though we worked through the anger over the next days, it has made me look more closely at male-female dynamics during our plenary conversations—to read the body language, to observe if females are speaking out or not, and to see who is helping us move collectively and who is holding onto some "sacred" place that cannot be touched.
Lately, I've been finding a wonderful amount of courage and inner clarity to challenge these positions, yet I admit to almost wishing to be part of a community where the women's views were weighted a bit more than the men's (I know that's a big generalization, but there are threads of truth for me), because women can sense much of what is being felt in the group and what is being lost that the males often miss while proving themselves "right."
I can certainly resonate with your observation as someone who gets to peek behind the curtain of many groups (people don't hire me to confirm that everything is going well).
The way I've made sense of the gender phenomenon you described above is that women in our culture are conditioned to be more relational than men; and men are held up to the standard of John Wayne, the archetypal rugged individualist. (To be sure, I know plenty of women who are every bit as roosterish as those men whose behavior you have highlighted in your community, but in general I think your observation is sound.) For relationally oriented people it's not so difficult to set aside personal preferences for the good of the group. For those taught to trust their inner truth above all else, it can be the very devil distinguishing between personal preference and divine inspiration. In that context, asking them to think of the whole is an insult because they believe that their inner truth is always about that. They just have trouble accepting that other people's inner truth might be different, and just as divinely inspired.
On the whole, it's been my observation that strong women tend to run intentional communities. Not because they are naturally better leaders, but because it's essential for leaders to have developed fairly sophisticated social skills to be effective in community, and girls tend to be steered in that direction more than boys. While you want leaders to be good at both relational skills and systems thinking, it's my sense that its easier for a woman to learn systems than it is for a man to learn to see an issue from another person's perspective.
What do I mean by relational skills? It's the ability to:
o Articulate clearly what you think.
o Articulate clearly what you feel.
o Hear accurately what others say (and be able to communicate that to the speaker such that they feel heard).
o Hear critical feedback without walling up or getting defensive.
o Function reasonably well in the presence of non-trivial distress in others.
o Shift perspectives to see an issue through another person's lens.
o See potential bridges between two people who are at odds with each other.
o See the good intent underneath strident statements.
o Distinguish clearly between a person's behavior being out of line and that person being "bad."
o Own your own shit.
o Reach out to others before you have been reached out to yourself.
o Be sensitive to the ways in which you are privileged.
Intentional communities (at least the ones that don't espouse traditional gender roles, which is most, but by no means all) tend to be especially attractive to strong women for two reasons. First, communities tend to be progressive politically and are therefore likely to be committed to breaking down stereotypical gender roles. Thus, women are far less likely to encounter glass ceiling dynamics in community. That means openings for everyone without reference to their plumbing. Hallelujah!
Second, communities are committed to creating cooperative culture, and that means how things are done tends to matter as much as what gets done. This is in striking contrast with the mainstream culture and its fixation on results. In consequence, those social skills (that women have been conditioned to excel at) stand out as a big plus.
Going the other way, community can be a challenging environment for strong men because their behavior may trigger knee-jerk suspicion about whether their strength is rooted in a desire for personal aggrandizement (the mainstream tendency) instead of service to the whole. It is not enough that the strong man thinks he's clean (by which I mean not ego-driven and working on behalf of everyone); it matters more how he comes across to others, and this is all about social skills, not facility with rhetoric or branding.
It's even more nuanced than that. Given the historic privilege that men have enjoyed in the wider culture, the determination to create a more feminist culture in community (by which I mean egalitarian—not woman-centered) translates into encouraging women to step up and men to step back. In practice this can result in women being celebrated for being assertive (in the interest of encouraging their stepping up) while men taking the same action are criticized for being too aggressive (in an effort to encourage their stepping back).
While this may be demonstrably unfair, a more subtle question is whether it's an appropriate strategy for closing the gap in societal prejudice that favors men. While there's no doubt that this strategy won't work long term (because it would just reverse the inequity), it's an open question whether this brand of affirmative action is justified in an effort to accelerate getting to the promised land of equal opportunity, or for how long it should be supported.
All in all, intentional community is an incredibly potent laboratory for experimenting with gender dynamics in pursuit of the holy grail: a better life for all.
Saturday, November 30, 2013
I've recently been in a dialog with a thoughtful friend who has lived half his life in a consensus-based community and shared this reflection about gender dynamics (which I have lightly edited to preserve anonymity):
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
I know that Thanksgiving is tomorrow, but I'm going to start early.
I'm chugging inbound on the eastbound Southwest Chief, having boarded in the wee hours of Tuesday in Kingman AZ. I was awakened in the pre-dawn of eastern KS this morning as they stuffed the empty seats with heading-home-for-the-holidays passengers at Topeka and Lawrence. That means I have four hours until I'll be collected at the Art Deco Amtrak depot in La Plata MO—just enough time to jot down (well, peck down) all that I'm thankful for in the final hours of my four-week road trip.
I'm thankful for the home that I am returning to. On a basic level, homelessness is a serious societal ill, symptomatic of the inevitable consequences of our winners-and-losers competitive culture. As a road warrior who travels mainly by train, I get to see more than my share of the not-so-pretty sides of cities and the people for whom the American dream has become a nightmare. I was raised with plenty of privilege and advantage and I've been able to parlay those into a life that works pretty well.
On a deeper level, home is more than just a roof over my head: a) it's a place on Earth where I have sunk deep roots, and where I have found a strong sense of Spirit, even though I didn't know I was looking for it; b) it's a community where I have established deep personal connections with fellow travelers in the social change business; and c) it's served as a living foundation from which I operate as a cooperative process consultant—my work is grounded in the reality of my life experience much more than any books I've read or workshops I've attended.
In many ways, connection to place has crept up on me. It was not the way I was raised, and I stumbled upon its preciousness as the years went by and I accreted in my psyche the natural rhythms of my community's farm in northeast Missouri as season followed season, year after year. This is a profound gift that I discovered in spite of my slash and burn cultural conditioning.
I'm thankful for my intimate partner, who loves me profoundly and pushes us to be all that we can be—on stage as public figures, on the couch, at the stove, and in the bedroom. (There's a reason that the kitchen sink is a metaphor for everything—and the goddess only knows we've spent our share of time there, talking about how to build it, how to get water to it, and how frequently to clean the dishes. There's an amazing amount of domestic dynamics that revolve around the kitchen sink.)
We have been a couple for eight years now, and we've worked our love harder in our eighth year than in any of the previous seven. For one thing, most of this past year we've been doing couples counseling, getting help looking at the parts we've rather not see. I'm telling you, a good marriage (and why settle for anything less?) is not for the feint of heart, and our relationship is a work in progress if there ever was one. All together, I feel blessed and I return home eager to begin our grand experiment in maintaining a single household for the first time.
—Paid Work That Aligns with My Values
I'm thankful for my parents who instilled in me a strong sense of self—as a person who could be all that he could be. While my choices confused my mother and confounded my father (who was hoping he was raising a midshipman of industry who would grow up to be a captain), I've found my place in a life centered around community with a minimal amount of wandering in the wilderness. It was from my upbringing that I learned to be risk tolerant, from which I derived the courage to insist that I make a living from activities that embodied my values and which satisfied my soul, not just my wallet.
Whenever I encounter people who are weary of their jobs, or peers who turn longingly toward retirement, I realize how fortunate I have been. I still get up each day looking forward to speaking at the next conference, facilitating the next thorny meeting, or crafting the next report. People pay me to do what I love and are happy with the bargain. Is that a good life, or what?
—Service Work That Aligns with My Growth Path
I'm thankful for my work in a second way also. More than being consonant with my values, my work is also the way I try to be a social change agent. Rather than heart work that I do on the side as a volunteer, as a community builder (though I know my way around a hammer and trowel, I mean this more in the sense of social sustainability than bricks and mortar) I've made it my business to place the creation of cooperative culture at the very center of my life. And the way I know that's a good choice for me is that my work regularly results in my getting up close and personal with my blind spots and human frailties—often in a spectacularly public way! I figure that when your service path coincides with your growth path it's a cosmic affirmation.
—Living in Interesting Times
I'm thankful for all the amazing opportunities there exist for doing good in the world at this time of flux. While today's global reality (peak oil, climate change, population pressures on water supplies, economic instability) translates into a general malaise of uncertainty and anxiety—and that's no fun, especially for those craving stability—it also creates openings for reexamination and experimentation where there were few before. We live in a time that's rife with possibilities. Though all seeds won't sprout and some fields will be overtaken by weeds, I find it an exhilarating time in which to be cultivating new culture.
I'm thankful for the amazing wealth of people who know and care about me, and who open up their hearts for me to be there for them in return. As John Donne succinctly pointed out four centuries ago, no man is an island, and I am buoyed by the archipelago of my myriad close relationships. This was poignantly brought home to me in July when Ma'ikwe was ready to throw in the towel on our marriage, and I struggled to come to grips with what my life would be like with the center blown out of it. Slowly, I realized that I would be fine. While my relationship with Ma'ikwe remains precious to me, I had a good life before her and all of the elements of that would remain if she left. I remembered that I am not an island and that even in emotional free fall I could expect my friends to be there to help break my fall.
I'm thankful for my two adult children, Ceilee and Jo, who both take responsibility for their own happiness and for their commitments. They know how to work hard, and how to take into account how their behavior affects those around them. Most of all, I'm thankful that we love each other, that we freely acknowledge that love, that we make time for one another, and that we enjoy each other's company. No sooner does one visit end than I am looking forward to the next.
I'm thankful for my four siblings, all of whom cultivate the scared garden of familial relations. Though we don't see each other often, we are there at times of need and celebration. Two months ago I visited my youngest sister in Toronto. Two months from now I'll see my brother in Fairhope AL. Blood ties are the long waves of relationship, where the currents are deepest and steadiest. This is not so much about a mind meld or an alignment of values. Rather, it's about a common history and the shared water of our earliest memories. It's recognizing and honoring bonds that is operates on a visceral level. I am thankful that we all know that.
I'm thankful for living in a community that has a core commitment to growing and processing its own food. It's not possible to eat any better than we do. Though I did not move to community because of food, it turns out that I love working with food and didn't know it! I am grateful that my community has a spiritual connection to raising and consuming organic food. It is integral to our symbiotic connection to our land, which we interact with on a daily basis. We feed our land and it feeds us, body and soul.
I'm thankful for a body and mind that still work pretty good at 64—which is a good thing given all that I ask of them. The older I get, the more I've lost friends and acquaintances who have had their health (or luck) run out. Increasingly, these people are younger than me and I have occasion to be thankful for the good cards I have been dealt. It is up to me to honor that gift by playing them well.
I'm thankful for being able to read and for the existence of more good pieces of writing than I will ever be able to get to in one lifetime. I'll never run out of good material to read, and I still buy books faster than I read them. Some of this is the chance to be exposed to new thinking. Some is enjoyment of a well-crafted story. Some is appreciation of word crafting (which is not the same thing as a good plot—J K Rowling is a terrific story teller, but a wooden wordsmith; Charles Dickens was superb at both; Ambrose Bierce was so trenchant and clever that he could make a dictionary good reading).
I'm thankful for the excuse to pause every three days and reflect on what's happening around me, and for the chance to practice my craft as a writer (striving ever to be more like Bierce, though perhaps less acerbic). I have tried at various times in my life to maintain a journal, but was never able to manifest sufficient discipline until I began this blog six years ago. While I have sometimes been successful with an epistolary approximation (when investing in a particular relationship at a distance), these would invariably peter out after some months.
In this format I have chanced upon just the right mix of public service and private inquiry to sustain my interest. Although my primary inspiration for starting this blog was public service, it's proven to be such a personal benefit that I would probably continue it even if no one read it—it's been that much fun and helpful in clarifying my thinking. Today, if someone casually asks how I've been, I can generally swamp their boat by simply giving them the URL to this blog.
Finally, I'm thankful for my favorite way to start the day (other than sex). I prefer French roast, brewed strong enough to put hair on your forehead, balanced with a generous glug of half and half, which neutralizes the acid while preserving the essential bitterness that I crave. It's my only non-negotiable when clients hire me to work with their group.
Where there is life there is coffee
Where there is coffee there is life
We all worship the brown bean
Body of the God Caffeine
Sunday, November 24, 2013
I'm in Las Vegas today, observing what Best Buy has dubbed "Blue Sunday" (which allows merchants to steal a five-day march on Black Friday, through the clever ruse of assigning an underutilized hue to the occasion and offering up some pump-priming sales to roust people off their couches and out of NFL-induced stupors to go shopping).
Does this shit work? I mean, do people buy more stuff just because today has a color? I reckon there's no better place to test this theory than my current location—America's iconic temple to materialism and excess.
As it happens, I'm not here to conduct market research, but to visit my daughter (Jo) and son-in-law (Peter). This is the caboose segment of a month-long networking odyssey that began on Halloween and included earlier stops in Ann Arbor MI and Portland OR—places that are decidedly bluer than Clark County NV (and where it's far more likely that you'll encounter crunchy granola, both as a breakfast offering and as a political genre).
Despite the obvious differences in climate—both in terms of weather and politics—I've experienced this trio of cities as more similar than you might think. Partly this is a meteorological anomaly; partly it's a matter of finding what you're looking for. In reflecting on the past month, I'm wondering how much I've simply found rain wherever I went, or I've made it.
As a professional facilitator, I warn groups that I am "agreement prejudiced," by which I mean that I'm ruthless when it comes to pointing out potential agreement in the room. The reason this is important is because we live in a culture that idolizes the rugged individual (think John Wayne, Ayn Rand, and James Bond) in contrast to identifying with the group (or the neighborhood, or the tribe). In service to that ideal we've overwhelmingly been conditioned to think first in terms of differences rather than common ground (because it is only through our uniqueness that we can be certain of our individual identities; when we agree with others we are not distinct).
As someone committed to the creation of cooperative culture (in contrast to the competitive culture that has always dominated the American sociological landscape), I have trained myself to look first for the ways in which situations are similar. Having worked hard to unlearn the knee-jerk orientation toward differences, I am often the first person in the room to see how different ideas can be bridged—essentially because there is a strong tendency to find what you're looking for, and I'm always looking for connections.
So how have I found Ann Arbor, Portland, and Las Vegas to be similar?
80% Chance of Precipitation
In each city I enjoyed more rainy days than dry. While there's nothing particularly noteworthy about encountering November rain in southeastern Michigan or in northwestern Oregon—two of the grey-sky capitals of the United States, it was eyebrow raising when that phenomenon continued in southern Nevada.
I was in Portland for a week. Despite sunny bookends on the Wednesday I arrived and the Wednesday I departed, it was drizzling each of the six days in between. It was breathtaking (on Wednesdays) to get glimpses of Mt Hood and Mt St Helens, and I count myself lucky to have enjoyed those sights at all.
On average, Portland gets nearly 40 inches of rain a year, with the heaviest months being November through January. So rain was to be expected there. In contrast, Las Vegas typically gets only 4.19 inches a year—a mere tenth of Portland 's bounty.
All together, 1.37 inches have fallen in the last 72 hours. While I understand that's just a good soaker in Missouri, here in the desert that represents a hefty one-third of Las Vegas' average annual rainfall. Break out the galoshes, Nellie!
With the historic average rainfall for November in Sin City at 0.36 inches, we've already quadrupled it since Thursday morning—with more rain forecast for next weekend (when residents may experience Black Sky Friday). In contrast, they had 0.01 inches in October (which means there was a moment last month when the sky more or less thought about raining… and then changed its mind). The next thing you know, they'll be planting corn in vacant lots, or raising catfish in drainage ditches.
When I walked through the Summerlin neighborhood Thursday morning (to deposit a couple of checks and buy a door bell buzzer for Jo & Peter), I had trouble slipping on the asphalt because of how water floats the oil residue that gradually accumulates on the road surface between rains. In Las Vegas, that film had been accumulating since September. Watching cars attempt to accelerate into merging traffic was a bit like watching hippos on ice skates—and about as safe. Fortunately, I didn't witness any accidents.
One of the oddities about Las Vegas is that it's only here because of the Hoover Dam (32 miles to the southeast), which supplies both cheap electricity and an abundance of water, siphoned off from the impounded Colorado River. From the perspective of natural systems, this is a totally unsustainable place for a city, where the metropolitan area has about 2 million sun-dried souls, representing a whopping 70% of the state total. Location notwithstanding, for this weekend there was abundant water in the desert, and I'll be able to tell people that I've seen it happen at least once.
80% Chance of Participation
To start with, all three states voted for Obama in 2008, which means there are strong progressive threads available in each location from which it's possible to weave cooperative cloth. I'm not saying that everyone is a Democrat or a Green. I'm saying that in all three places there are Cultural Creatives and I was happy to sit down with some of them in each city to discuss what kind of culture we might create.
In addition to presenting at community events in Ann Arbor (NASCO Institute, Nov 1-3) and Portland (Cooperative Communities & Sustainability Conference, Nov 15-17), I taught two classes at Ananda College as a guest lecturer, did four consulting gigs, and generally functioned as a rainmaker for cooperative networking.
I had conversations with potential donors in all three cities, multiple phone dates with reporters interested in intentional community, promotional conversations about facilitation training, web conferences and one-on-one chats over coffee with like-valued organizations and potential collaborators—all of which is on top of crafting reports, treading water with email traffic, skyping with Ma'ikwe, and enjoying meal time conversations with my various hosts.
Thus, one way or the other, in my life it's always raining. While there's no doubt I get wet a lot, you can't have life without water, so I say bring it on!
Friday, November 22, 2013
Groups are often sloppy when it comes to establishing norms around members giving critical feedback to one another. In fact, as a process consultant who has worked with perhaps 100 cooperative groups over the last 25 years, I've rarely encountered a group that has an explicit understanding about the responsibility of every group member to provide to every other group member a channel for hearing feedback about their behavior as a group member—and it's a huge problem.
When feedback channels get clogged, virtual sewage piles up, resulting in anaerobic dynamics. This is the ideal medium in which gossip bacteria multiply, leading to gaseous grumblings behind people's backs, the exhalation of which tends to foul the air. Peuw!
OK, let me frame this a bit tighter. First of all, not every reaction (thank god) needs to be processed through feedback. Often enough, the person with the reaction can let it go. Maybe they understand that their reactivity is more about them and has little or nothing to do with the other person. Maybe they're able to see that the stakes are low enough and their relationship with the other person is strong enough that they can accept the triggering dynamic as a trivial matter and move on. In any event, every fender bender does not require a police report.
Also note that I'm not talking about all behavior being subject to review—I'm only talking about behavior in the context of group functions. (Thus, you're probably not obligated to listen to someone's upset about how often you wear purple, or how distressed they are that you've named your ill-tempered rescue dog Hermione—which happens to be the same name as your favorite aunt. But you are, I think, on the hook for hearing their irritation about not having filled the tank of the group-owned pickup when you used it right before they did and they ran out of gas on the way to the recycling center.)
Further, I'm not suggesting that people need to be available to receive critical feedback on demand. There needs to be options (for instance, now or later; morning, afternoon, or evening; alone or with third party support; perhaps they'd like to see it in writing before discussing it). The prime directive here is what's most likely to land constructively (rather than destructively).
For many people, it's painful receiving critical feedback and they'd prefer to put it off until some in the next decade (if they could get away with it). Understandably, people tend to shy away from pain. But that's a bad idea.
Think about the analog with physical pain. If you step on a nail it's a damn good thing that you feel pain—which informs you that something is wrong with your foot. It's not about being happy that you're in pain; it's about being happy that you know you have a nail in your foot. Pain is an important—even essential— biofeedback loop. If you inadvertently put your hand in a flame, you burn your fingers, your hand hurts, and you pull your hand out of the fire. Whew.
If you're a diabetic, you may have nerve damage in your extremities, which could result in your stepping on a nail and not feeling anything (or fail to realize that your hand is burning). That's dangerous. Pain alerts you to do something about it. Despite how easily everyone can follow that physical example, it's amazing how many act as if they have emotional diabetes when doing something that's painful to others.
Cutting yourself off from their pain means the feedback channel is broken. It's important information to you that your words or actions have landed awkwardly and it's a poor bargain to impede or block that flow of information. Mind you, I'm not saying you're obliged to agree that you've done anything wrong or that you must change what you do, but if you interrupt the information reaching you then you don't have the chance to consider it. You may not know that your chocies are painful to others unless they tell you. Metaphorically, you won't know to pull your hand out of the fire or the nail out of your foot (or perhaps more aptly, to pull your foot out of your mouth).
Keep in mind that I'm not saying this is easy. Especially if the delivery of the feedback comes with a charge and you don't feel there's substance to the complaint. It's a double whammy if you feel unjustly accused and dumped on into the bargain—requiring near-saintly equanimity to respond with grace and empathy instead of with defensiveness or outrage.
But isn't it better to cultivate grace than diabetes?
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
I was recently contacted by a friend living in a well-established community that is going through a deliberate process of soul searching around what it is and what it wants to be. The group has been around for decades and all of the original members have passed on—through death, retirement, or the desire for a change of scenery. While this group is blessed with a stable core membership and a rich tradition, it is a time of pause and reassessment.
One of the questions on the table is the extent to which the community wants to be more outward facing in addition to protecting the quality of life for members and the special sense of home and sanctuary (the original members wanted to emphasize retreat and renewal in support of activism pursued elsewhere or at other times in their lives).
While this is an excellent question—how much the community should focus on quality of life for its members, and how much on seeing the community as a platform for social change and engagement with the wider world—it's not what I want to shine the spotlight on today.
The community is also wrestling with the question of how to grow, which includes whether to expand beyond its current size, and how best to replace those who leave—whether feet first or head first. In the context of having those discussions, which expressly includes a review of the community's identity and vision, there is a delicate question of what role, if any, renters should play in the conversation. And that is what I want to focus on in this blog.
While I was inspired to write about this topic because of the communication I received about a specific community I sketched above, my response generalizes to any community that has a mixture of renters and owners.
The first question to address is what the group wants from renters (other than rent). To what extent does the group want (or is at least open to) renters being fully integrated into community life?
I think the concerns about full integration distill into three major objections:
1. Renters, almost by definition, do not have the same quality of commitment to the community as owners. In consequence, it can be seen as inappropriate, diffusing, or even foolish to allow them into discussions about matters with long-term consequences (things perceived to have an impact beyond the expected tenure of their stay) or questions about owner fees or long-term financial planning, which directly relate to protecting the monetary investment that the owners have in the community.
This tendency can be exacerbated if renters are not screened in the way that owners are (or should be) for a good fit with the community's values and vision, or are not assessed for communication skills and energetic alignment. If renters are selected mainly by the owner of the unit they live in, and primarily for their ability to pay rent, than it's understandable why there might be reluctance to have such wild cards present for discussions about the community's future.
2. Renters don't last as long as owners. While it's not hard to come up with specific examples of owners who turned out to be distracted, reclusive, or didn't last long—as well as instances where renters stayed a long time and turned out to be huge assets to the community—for the most part it's true that turnover among renters is noticeably greater than turnover among owners. Why invest time and energy in working with renter viewpoints when they're often not around to contribute significantly to the implementation or to help pay for it?
It makes some owners nervous to allow renters a say, for example, in developing policy for capital reserves, which requires thinking about how much money to set aside on a regular basis to handle large capital expenditures in the future (such as replacing the roof of the common house, or repaving the parking lot). Since renters do not have a direct obligation to contribute to the capital reserve and the benefit of the fund is not likely to be realized while they're living in the community, why invite them to the conversation?
3. Finally, if the group sometimes struggles to work through complex issues (and which groups don't?), there is an impulse to limit the number of people whose opinions you are trying to take into account when tackling issues. Not only is there a savings of the time it takes to hear everyone, but fewer people often translates into fewer distinct perspectives that you're obliged to balance. Thus, dis-inviting renters simplifies considerations that may already be plenty complicated.
Going the other way, there are four main reasons to invite renters to the table.
1. If there is a good match with values and vision, renters can be terrific members and excluding them from important conversations can carelessly uproot a tender seedling. It sends the message that renters are unlikely to make valuable contributions to the conversation and/or cannot be trusted to behave appropriately. Neither message is very flattering, and most renters will be discouraged from trying to invest (psychically or monetarily) in the community in the face of such treatment. Is this really what you mean to be doing?
2. There is an important link between how trust flows and how information flows, such that trust is eroded when there's a kink in the information hose. Given the primacy of relationships to community, and the primacy of trust to relationships, I caution groups to proceed with great caution when engaging in practices that choke the flow of information among residents.
3. What does it say about your community's commitment to building and nurturing cooperative culture— where you are trying to have minimal barriers to knowing and working constructively with the input of all stakeholders—if you systematically exclude renters from important conversations about the community's future? Are you walking your talk?
It is one thing to be naive about trust; it is another to start from an armored place and expect prospective members to approach you on their knees, as supplicants—driving home the notion that renters are second class citizens.
4. I get that a conversation about building a swimming pool that should last for 25 years is different than a request to pop for $250 for a July 4 fireworks blowout, but is it really all about the money? At the end of the day I think it's more about the relationships, and posit that the group's integrity and health are better served by responding from the perspective of what's best for the relationships. Thus, on the question of whether renters should be allowed to participate in meetings about the long-term health of the community—when they have demonstrably not (or at least not yet) made a commitment to the community long term, experience has taught me that you're far better off inviting all residents to the dance.
If you bar renters from attending some meetings, not only do you lose their input on the topic, but you lose the chance to integrate them more into the community (making it more likely that they'll become full members). At the worst, you are getting valuable data about their suitability for full membership.
If you're worried about how their presence may disrupt the consideration, even to the point of compromising safety such that owners may not fully speak their mind, then you have a deeper issue. (Why do you have renters that are so out of alignment with who you are; and what does it mean that the plenary can be so knocked off center by one or two people misbehaving?)
I recall a time several years ago when an experience communitarian from another community visited for a week and was invited to sit in on one of Sandhill's community meetings. To frame it properly, this was not a meeting at which we were wrestling with questions about the community's vision and future. Still, the issues were sufficiently sensitive and serious that we had invited an outside facilitator from nearby Dancing Rabbit to run the meeting. So there was weight to the conversation.
For the most part, the visitor simply watched and did not speak—which is what we generally encourage from non-members, with three exceptions: a) we invite them to participate during check-ins at the beginning; b) we invite them to offer reflective comments during evaluation at the end; and c) we may ask their views on a particular issue if we have reason to think their experience may be relevant.
In this particular meeting, we were reaching the end of discussion on a particular topic when the visitor inserted himself into the conversation to offer his analysis. At first, we were all surprised that he did so without an invitation, Then, as he went on and on, we were embarrassed for him that he understood community etiquette so poorly. Finally, when the facilitator tried to gently point out the inappropriateness of his unasked-for lengthy analysis, the visitor rebuffed the facilitator and continued his stump speech. Yikes! It was appalling that a community veteran would so misread the energy (and think it was OK to hijack the meeting like that).
I tell this story because it is the best example I can recall (over the course of 39 years) of a non-member, non-stakeholder being inappropriate and disruptive at a Sandhill meeting, and no bad thing really happened. Yes, we were irritated (and the visitor got direct feedback about his ill-inspired performance afterwards), but we simply shook it off and returned to our conversation after he finally wound down. We didn't even need to ask him to leave the meeting.
How do people learn discretion and self-discipline without opportunities to get it wrong? While I get it that you don't want important plenaries to turn into amateur hour, there is only so much that people will learn about discretion short of being given the chance to misuse it.
SynthesisTaking all this into account, my recommendation is to:
1. Screen prospective renters as carefully as you do prospective owners, and invest in educating and integrating them into the processes and culture of the community.
(Hint: This implies an active Membership Committee.) While there may be cases where the rental is so short term, or the renter is so little interested in community life that this doesn't make sense, I nonetheless advocate for training everyone as the norm. If nothing else, you're paying it forward for the benefit of the next cooperative group they're in.
2. Include renters in all community conversations under the notion that if you act like they are members (or at least can be), then it's much more likely that they'll act like members—which is what you want, isn't it?
3. That said, I think there's validity to the view that people who are not invested should have only limited control over long-term decisions. I think an elegant way to address that is to pull their teeth for those kind of conversations, by establishing that for some kinds of conversations (the ones with long-term implications) that renters are not allowed to block. (If you're relying on voting instead of consensus, don't give renters a vote.) Renters would be allowed to attend all meetings and give their views in the same way that owners would, they'd just have limited decision-making powers on certain topics.
The beauty of this approach is that it eliminates any sense of brokered deals, diffuses us-them dynamics between owners and renters, encourages renters to voice their views, and allows for the possibility that renters may have valuable contributions to make to the consideration.
In short, I advocate for minimal borders with boarders.
Friday, November 15, 2013
This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."
In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.
The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
In the Context segment there are eight cards. The eighth and final pattern in this segment is labeled Whole System in the Room. Here is the image and text from that card:
One of the tricks to this pattern is understanding the difference between having the "whole system" in the room and having everybody in the room.
The keys here are two: a) knowing the full breadth of stakeholder positions (so that all viewpoints are represented and can be articulated); and b) knowing how to manage larger numbers effectively.
When there are only 6-8 people involved, this is a no-brainer—you simply want everyone in the pool. But suppose we're talking about something north of 100 people, as in the image above. Then what? An all-skate in those numbers can present as a melee more than a meeting.
It's just too many bodies. Sight lines are too strained to see facial expressions well from across the room, there's too little air time for each voice, hearing is compromised, the glossophobic are terrified of speaking in front of so many (which directly undercuts the inclusivity you worked so hard to protect by widening the invitation). It just breaks down.
Thus, it's generally worthwhile to pare down the invitation list to find the sweet spot: large enough to include all viewpoints and to protect diversity for cross-pollinating ideas; small enough to be manageable.
Inviting the Right People
The first step is canvassing the overall group to identify what's in play. How many different perspectives are there on this topic? While this is often obvious (especially in groups with good communication flow), it can be tricky being sure that the discouraged and disaffected have their oar in the water. Hint: Don't assume that you know the complete answer to this. Check it out.
Next, there is the non-trivial matter of finding suitable representatives from each of the different perspectives. Two is typically superior to one. (While you may want more than two reps from each subgroup, that's a matter of taste.) If it's all on one person to carry water for everyone else on a given perspective, you're at risk of that person failing to remember a key point to introduce, being ineffective in articulating a key point, or being triggering to others in the meeting (because of personality clashes, unresolved past tensions with other players, quirky delivery style, whatever). Two people also tend to do a better job of reporting back what happened.
From the standpoint of trust, it often makes sense to ask a subgroup to name their own representatives—but not always. I worked with a group a few years back that was dissolving and needed to navigate issues around a fair settlement of assets where there was considerable tension. Because the group never got to the point of living together and was geographically dispersed, the work was attempted by conference call and it proved impossible because of how triggered some people were by those with opposite views. The only way we could conceive of continuing was with two representatives from each faction working with me in a smaller configuration. In agreeing on who would serve on that council it was necessary to find representatives that were both acceptable to their own side and non-triggering to the other. Whew.
You also want representatives who are good at both clearly articulating their own views, and able to hear accurately the view of others (which are not the same skill).
Working Effectively with a Large Group
OK, let's suppose you have the right mix of people. If the numbers are still large (over 50?), you need to think about how to structure the engagement such that you are providing a mixture of formats (since meetings are not like pantyhose, where one size fits all). Take another look at the picture above that accompanies this pattern. Note how the people are arrayed around round tables of seven per table, strongly suggesting that at least some of the time this group has been meeting in groups of seven, which is a very different animal than open
One creative option for large groups is a participant-driven process called Open Space Technology, the brainchild of Harrison Owen. The basic concept is that people mostly know what they need to work on, and it can be marvelously productive to simply let participants sort themselves into the aspects of the issue that most interest them and get out of the way.
Whatever format (or mix of formats) is selected, it will generally be necessary for all stakeholder's to feel that they have been heard and understood (which is not the same as having been given a protected opportunity to speak) before you can establish a solid foundation upon which to construct durable solutions. Better to take twice the time to complete a thorough articulation of what needs to be taken into account, than to ask the group to leap into problem solving prematurely. Swallowing food that's been insufficiently chewed invariably leads to indigestion and dyspeptic implementation—which no one wants to be downwind of.
If you are striving to get into the zone of "transformative change, novel solutions, and motivated implementation" (and who isn't?) it is essential that everyone feels welcome at the table, and that their input is being digested accurately and respectfully. No one gets creative when they're feeling marginalized or blown off.
Having said that, it's also important to keep things moving so that you're building momentum toward solutions (connecting people ad nauseam is no bargain; there needs to be flow). Just make sure everyone's on the bus when it pulls out of the depot.
It's not enough to have the whole system in the room; when the meeting is over you need everyone singing from the same hymnal when the whole system leaves the room.
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
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.
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.
Saturday, November 9, 2013
For the last four decades I've been in the community business—investigating it, creating it, living it, promoting it, and articulating it. In the last several years that primary focus has morphed to include a focus on cooperative culture (creating a greater sense of community, rather than limiting my scope to residential intentional community) and sustainability (figuring out how to define and manifest a high-quality lifestyle that could be accessible to everyone on the planet). If nothing else, it means I'll never run out of interesting things to do.
To me, the bridge between my community focus and my sustainability focus is broad and obvious. But I've come to understand that the relevance of my many years plying the waters of intentional community is not so clear to those steaming toward sustainability from a more mainstream port of call. While community is the water I swim in, I can look like a pretty exotic fish to many of the newly converted, who are entering the seas of sustainability for the first time—to the point where they're not so sure it's a good idea to have me and my ilk as a pilot for their journey.
At its best, community entails learning how to collaborate—how people with common interests and a future together can come to agreement about how to proceed, even when they start from different viewpoints, have different personalities, and prefer different strategies.
No matter how you slice it, sustainable lifestyles are going to require a higher degree of sharing than most of us are used to—there just aren't enough resources to go around at the rate were used to controlling and consuming them. While I'm not predicting this will lead to everyone living in intentional communities, I think what we're learning in the crucibles of intentional community about how to handle the social dynamics of sharing is absolutely germane to the future that's ahead for all but the über rich.
By "social dynamics," I'm referring to how to equitably sort out who gets to use a shared resource when multiple people want it at the same time; what will be the standard of maintenance and care for shared resources; how will you navigate frustrations when you don't think these things are going well? In community, we deal with this stuff all the time. (Not always well, mind you, but we're learning, and that experience is hard-earned gold for the path ahead.)
In addition, when you digest where upward spiraling gas prices are heading, you have to anticipate a future that's based more on what you have locally than what you can buy from far away. It means developing a stable, more self-sufficient local culture based on mutual reliance. While no one is advocating a return to medieval feudalism, we will need to learn better how to make common cause, and how better to make room for outliers in our neighborhoods.
Intentional communities are R&D centers for learning how to do these things. To be sure, some are learning faster than others—it isn't all smooth sailing—yet we've been able to significantly advance our understanding about how to have constructive conversations among people holding strongly different opinions about vital concerns. And these skills export well into more mainstream situations where there is increasing need for their application. We have to find ways to solve problems that don't rely on outspending others, building higher fences, voting people off the island, or simply moving away.
Thus, when we witness the dramatic surge in sustainability programs among university curricula (like mushrooms after a spring rain), and how many Transition Towns have popped up across the country (there are currently 143 initiatives in the US, distributed across 35 states, focusing on developing positive responses to the challenges of peak oil, climate change, and economic instability), the FIC gets excited about the potential for collaboration. We figure intentional communities are already wrestling with how to integrate sustainable practices into everyday life: ecologically, socially, and economically.
In the university context, we can offer field trips, guest speakers, and adjunct faculty to programs who want to hear, see, and taste live examples of what their studying. In the Transition Town context, we can help groups learn how to bring together disparate stakeholders—people who are not used to talking with one another, such as business people and tree huggers—and find agreement that respects all parties.
That said, it's been frustrating how little headway we've been able to make (so far) with sustainability programs and Transition Town groups when offering assistance. We have not yet found the way to pitch our skill and experience in such a way that they're attractive to these groups. While we're not giving up, it's both mysterious and humbling that we're having so much trouble penetrating the fog, and appearing as buoys to help navigate safe passage to the harbor of local, sustainable practices.
Meanwhile, we'll keep ringing our bell and hope that a favorable breeze will blow some traffic our way.
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
I was in a conversation this week with representatives of an established community wrestling with issues of accountability—which means that they're like almost all other communities I know. It's a good topic because it illuminates a tender spot where most groups are unsure of their footing. While there's no question that there's an issue, there are many questions about how to proceed.
In exploring this juicy topic, I want to start by positing some background universals:
o In community there are more occasions to get irritated about accountability (than in the mainstream) because you've purposefully chosen a life in which there will be more sharing: everything from tools and resources, to cleaning and child care; from participation in group governance to personal confessions that you're trusting will be kept confidential. That means a lot more chances to run afoul of expectations.
o No one wants to be the police, nor do communities want to live with police. It's an unpleasant role and not one that people had in mind when they were drawn to community.
o It's ineffective to rely solely on informal, one-on-one direct conversations to clear up misunderstandings and hurt feelings in connection with accountability. While—thankfully—this works some of the time, there are any number of reasons why this breaks down: a) past attempts at direct communication with that person were unpleasant or ineffective, and you're unwilling to go through that again; b) it's personally too scary to give someone (or that person) critical feedback; c) you're paralyzed by your emotional response; or d) you think it's a bigger issue than just you and the other person, or just this occasion.
o Groups invariably prefer that members exercise a high degree of personal responsibility, such that there's minimal occasion to worry about accountability. That is, members are not looking for opportunities to be bosses over other members, or to have other members telling them what to do. While there are times when that's appropriate, and some have a knack for it, it's not what people are looking for when they join community.
o Going the other way, there's resistance to spelling everything out in detail, such that there's often a need to interpret the spirit of agreements (because the letter is fuzzy), allowing for latitude of interpretation—which becomes the devil's playground.
o While groups try to craft agreements with as much specificity as they can muster (trying to anticipate the situations in which they will be applied), the reality is that extenuating (unanticipated) circumstances are common, such that there's considerable nuance in determining how much leeway should be extended in light of them. In short, life is messy—so please try to minimize how much time you spend lamenting that fact, or pretending otherwise.
With all of that in mind, my sense is that accountability issues tend to clump into four major types:
A. Individuals (or committees) not doing what they said they'd do, or not accomplishing it in a timely manner. Maybe they get partial credit, but they're glossing over or blowing off crucial components. This can take the form of their not putting in the time, or their not being effective when they do (or both).
B. Expiring agreements not being removed from the books when they've been made obsolete by newer agreements, the conditions no longer obtain, or they were never effective and it's time to bring reality into alignment with theory. When the group doesn't clean up its agreements, the dead wood starts to undercut the vibrancy of the live wood. ("Why do I have to follow agreement X when everyone ignores agreement Y?")
C. Members are perceived to be coloring outside the lines of acceptable behavior. This is most acute with explicit norms (for example, yelling and screaming in a nonviolent community), yet also occurs when there is an implied norm (never helping to clear the dishes after a common meal, or seldom lending a hand to bring in the groceries when the food truck arrives).
D. Members are felt to be taking advantage of an allowance for flexibility based on personal circumstances, such that they frequently under-perform relative to general expectations and are perceived to be taking advantage of the system to not do their fair share.
What to Do?
Here are a number of suggestions for ways to get traction with this slippery eel:
o Establish a Work Committee whose mandate includes being available to help resolve misunderstandings and tensions between members. (This task may be backed up by a Conflict Resolution Team if dynamics get hairy.)
o Ask further that the Work Committee periodically meet with all residents to stay current on their personal circumstances regarding ability to contribute to the community, helping them find suitable ways to contribute (to the extent possible), and sensitively informing the rest of the community about what's happening when there are exemptions.
o Every so often conduct a Martyrs & Slackers conversation to clear the air about the sense that contributions may be significantly out of balance.
o Check to see that the Membership Committee is doing a solid job of making sure that all new residents are aware of agreements and the expectations around participation.
o Have a conversation ("pre-need," as they say in the mortuary business) about what you think is an appropriate menu of options if someone's determined to have fallen short of meeting expectations, and the process by which that will be considered. (Increase dues to cover hiring people to do the work that was not done? Jawboning? Measured withholding of social benefits? Paddle machine? Tar and feathering?)
Monday, November 4, 2013
I'm in Ann Arbor right now, where I participated over the weekend in the annual conference of the North American Students of Cooperation. Sunday morning I did a 90-minute workshop on Consensus, during which I was asked to contrast how voting differs from consensus in terms of its effect on the group's culture. What a good question!
While student co-ops are invariably dedicated to making decisions democratically—where everyone has a voice in what happens—there's a large difference between doing that through voting, which is essentially an adaptation of our mainstream competitive culture to ensure a fair fight, and doing so through consensus, which represents a cultural sea change.
As it happens, many student co-ops use voting, which is understandable when you take into account that for most of the members it's their first experience with cooperative living and voting is the decision-making process they know best. Thus, it's appealing to take what you know and try to make it as open and as even-handed as possible.
Further, it's no small matter to understand consensus and get good results with it. It requires unlearning competitive conditioning that runs deep, and it can be especially challenging to access your new-found cooperative intentions when the stakes are high and you have a strong view about what should happen.
All of that said, it's important to grok that in sociological terms, competitive culture is the opposite of cooperative culture, and if you're seeking to move from one to the other, you need to think through how your decision-making process reinforces or retards that transition.
Does voting have to be adversarial and competitive? No, but it often is. Witness the divisive dynamics of voting in the US government, which have taken a marked turn for the worse (by which I mean less civil and less collaborative) than a generation ago. Today, it's the norm to hear vicious public statements from elected officials about those who hold differing views, negative ad campaigns are depressingly common, and suggestions for bipartisan actions are seen as a sign of weakness. Yuck.
Even though cooperatives are committed (presumably) to cooperation, voting does not tend to reinforce that commitment. Let's break it down, starting with the assumption of good intent on everyone's part (I know that sometimes there's hanky panky, stuffed ballot boxes, backroom deals, and outright misleading statements, but let's set all of that nonsense aside).
The interesting case is when the vote is not unanimous. Voting advocates like this because it allows the group to move forward when there is substantial support for a particular course of action, yet everyone is not aligned. In consensus you would not have an agreement; with voting you do. While this undoubtedly saves meeting time (you reach the finish line sooner), it comes at the cost of an outvoted minority that may feel disenfranchised, run over, or otherwise unhappy, which can manifest in sidewalk grumbling, halfhearted implementation, and even sabotage.
Mind you, I'm not saying that losing minorities are always disgruntled (in fact, I reckon they're "gruntled" more often than you hear that label applied), yet it isn't rare, and it can be the very dickens for losers to distinguish between their views being: a) blithely disregarded (because they don't have enough votes); or b) disagreed with though carefully considered.
With voting you run the risk of tyranny of the majority, where a determined and cohesive bloc can run roughshod over the outnumbered; with consensus you are susceptible to tyranny of the minority, where an obstreperous few can hold up the many.
With voting it's all about aggregating enough votes to prevail. With consensus you need to slow down enough to get all legitimate concerns on the table and addressed. For consensus to work you need to create an environment where openness and even disagreement are encouraged (so that you can explore how people got to different points of view, which can illuminate nuance—ultimately strengthening the final proposal about how best to respond). With voting you sometimes make a strategic choice to not speak if it looks like you have no chance of prevailing and want to conserve your social capital for a more propitious time. In voting, there is a tendency to stop listening closely once you've secured enough votes to pass your proposal. In consensus you have to work the whole room.
While I've tried to outline above some of the unwanted cultural consequences of voting, I have sympathy for student co-ops that are hesitant about using consensus. In addition to the non-trivial commitment to culture change, you have to cope with a constantly changing membership (almost all of whom will need training in consensus if you expect them to use it well), and the need to be careful about membership selection both so that prospectives know what they are signing up for and can be screened for alignment with the group's common values and agreements extant. All of this is work and it's understandably tempting to be less careful about who you let in (so long as their rent checks are good) with the strategy that you can manage difficult members by outvoting them.
In summary, consensus, if done well, will tend to engender more cooperative culture than voting, but you need to be diligent about process training, clear about common values, and careful with membership selection in order to harvest that result. Some groups would rather just vote.