Sunday, March 30, 2014

Facilitating Conflict

I recently worked with Heartwood, a cohousing community in Bayfield CO, where I was asked to reach them skills for working with conflict. In addition to presenting theory and a demonstration, they were keenly interested in learning how to facilitate conflict (after all, I was leaving on Monday). Liking what they saw me do Saturday, they asked me to break it down for them Sunday morning—which was a perfectly reasonable request. Here are a dozen concepts to keep in mind:

1. Contact Statements 
This is the ability to offer a Cliff's Notes version of what the person just said, to establish that you have understood the essence of it. Repetition is mostly motivated by people not being sure they've been heard, and effective contact statements can drastically reduce repetition. That said, they're not needed all the time. Here are four reasons it might be the thing to do:

a) The speaker has an unusual way of putting information together or expressing themselves and either you are unsure that you got the meaning right, or that others are. A contact statement can nip misunderstandings in the bud.

b) The speaker went on at length and people may have trouble holding all the points that were made or distilling them from a rambling presentation.

c) The speaker is in distress. To the extent that they feel isolated, a contact statement helps establish that you heard them accurately, thereby contradicting the isolation and helping the person deescalate.

d) The speaker is known to be prone to repetition. A contact statement can be a preemptive strike, undercutting the basis for repletion before it occurs.

2. Free Attention
For most of us it's hard to keep one's focus on what others are saying. There is a tendency to space out, or to have your attention drift to something else, which might be tangentially related to the conversation (but not the current topic) or something of interest to you yet not necessarily related to anyone or anything else in the room. The concept of free attention is being able to discipline yourself to track well what's happening in current conversation. This includes the meaning of the spoken words, the tone of the words, the body language, how the communication is landing with others, what the undercurrents are that have not yet been named, where this conversation seems to be headed and whether you're going to want to go there, etc. There's a lot going on, and you need as much free attention as possible track well.

The bad news is that most of us are weak at this. The good news is that you can train yourself to get better at it.

3. Walk in the Speaker's Moccasins
To the extent possible, when working conflict try to be the speaker and experience what they experienced. This is not parroting or mimicking so much as dreaming into their experience; picturing yourself as them and what that feels like. This is particularly helpful when trying to Get the affect right [see #5 below].

Caution: Are you at risk of losing your sense of self when you empathize? While I don't have this issue, Ma'ikwe (my wife and process partner) does, and is therefore cautious about taking this step very far.

4. Concise Summaries
When giving contact statements or summaries of where we are in the conversation, it's important that you be accurate, yet spare of words. The less air time taken up by the facilitator the better (it is, after all, not about you). The danger is losing momentum or the tenderness of the moment. Even though no one is particularly inspired by long-winded facilitators, concision is often the last skill learned (if learned at all).

5. Get the Affect Right
When trying to connect to people in distress it's essential that your reflection capture the feeling of their experience, not just get the "facts" right. Even when facilitators understand the importance of this step, there is a common tendency to be cautious about leaning into the feelings for fear of: a) triggering escalation in a person already upset; or b) coming across as taking one person's side over another. With respect to the first point, the reverse is true: if you get the affect right—showing up fully in expressing the emotional experience—distressed people feel less isolated and start to deescalate. On the second point, you will not get in trouble (by which I mean compromise your neutrality) if you extend the same strength of connection to other players as well.

Note #1: In the interest of concision and getting the affect right, don't be afraid to use different words than the speaker to get to the essence. If you're off the mark, they'll tell you.

Note #2: In order to reach people accurately on the emotional plane you need to develop sufficient range of expression. In broad terms you have to get big to meet rage, and need to get tender and soft to hold tears. Typically one end of the range is easier for people to access than the other, so you may need to work at developing your weaker end.

6. Be Curious
In general, when dynamics get stuck it follows a sequence something like this:
a) Person X did (or did not) or said (or didn't say) something and Person Y had a negative reaction.
b) Person Y lets Person X know about their reaction and Person X has a reaction to that.
c) Neither felt heard by the other, and feeling heard is a precondition for deescalating.
d) Since each has a story about being aggrieved, each is waiting for the other to make the first conciliatory gesture; when that doesn't happen the dynamic is stalemated (with each convinced it's mainly the other person's fault).

Curiosity is the way out. Thus, in the example above, you can go back to the moment when Person Y had their initial reaction and walk them through it ("OK, you noticed you had a bad reaction to what Person X did, and you couldn't understand why they made that choice. Rather than assuming it was because they were out to get you or didn't give a shit about you, let's find out how they saw it." That is, you can showcase how to get more information before dumping a reaction on someone.

Going the other way, you can walk Person X through their options when Person Y gives them critical feedback. Instead of defending their action, they could start by making sure that they understand why their action landed poorly for Person Y.

7. Be Willing to Follow a Vein
When you're in productive territory it's a good idea to mine all the ore. Here are the things that characterize such moments: 

o  People are sharing crucial things they haven't shared before (at least not with that person)
o  People are getting softer rather than more rigid
o  People are reporting insight, or accepting responsibility for what didn't work
o  People are expressing genuine caring for others
o  The emergence of tears

The flip side of this is knowing when you have a dry hole and it's time to shift the focus elsewhere.

8. Go Where Needed
That may mean staying on topic, or shifting the focus to something more profound. This guidance is about following the juice, and does not mean exploring every instance of awkwardness. Your object is turning a corner, not resolving all instances of unresolved difficult moments.

9. Develop One's Intuition
In addition to developing free attention, good facilitators develop an instinct for where the conversation should go, or what should be named. While instincts are not always insightful or productive (any more than thoughts are), you need courage to facilitate conflict and to be willing to trust your instinct.

Caution: That said, don't fight for your viewpoints. No matter how brilliant you believe your analysis or summary to be, if there isn't buy in from the protagonists, you should back out gracefully.

10. Look for Parallels
In conflict the protagonists almost always feel poorly understood by the other protagonists. If you find ways that the players had similar experiences, similar stories, or care about similar things, then pointing this out is often helpful in deescalating the dynamics—it has the potential to establish a bridge between them that was not visible before.

Hint: Parallels are actually common, and if you're alert to the possibility of their existence you'll be more likely to see them.

11. Keep the Examination Specific and Contained
Quite often, the relationship history between protagonists is complicated, especially if things have been allowed to fester for a while. The examination can easily snowball into something unworkable if you allow the protagonists to expand the consideration to include every incident that has ever gone badly between them.

With this in mind you want to invite the protagonists to select a single dynamic that is representative of what hasn't been working well, with the idea that if we can resolve tensions in conjunction with one incident, then we can subsequently do another and another until no more need to be addressed. Thus, you generally want to keep the players focused on the selected incident and not diffuse the focus by allowing them to introduce the complications of other hurts from other situations.

The one caveat here is that sometimes the protagonists select the wrong incident and the examination makes clear that there is another, deeper incident that is a better focus. In that case it may be wiser to switch to that (a la the point made above in Go Where Needed).

12. Deflect Analysis of Others
While you want a full statement of each person's story and their feelings, you are not interested in their analysis of why the other person did what they did, which is highly likely to be inflammatory and unhelpful. Often, when working conflict your strategy is to honor completely each protagonist's story and their emotional experience, while offering a plausible, alternative explanation that is not damning of the other person(s).

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Group Works: Celebrate

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:

1. Intention
2. Context
3. Relationship
4. Flow
5. Creativity
6. Perspective
7. Modeling
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
9. Faith

In the Relationship segment there are 10 cards. The fourth pattern in this segment is labeled Celebrate. Here is the image and text from that card: 

With joy and zest, publicly celebrate milestones and recurring events. Affirming shared history, we nourish community, crystallize a sense of accomplishment, and build group identity by unifying our stories and common goals. Can be planned and ritualized, or as spontaneous as a group cheer.

There's an old joke about why fundamentalist Christians don't make love standing up—because it might lead to dancing. 
The humor in this runs deeper than lampooning moral rectitude in the Bible Belt; it's rooted in the knowledge that we, as a culture, are embarrassingly subdued and afraid of passion. Not certain that we can safely distinguish between aggression and ebullience, we put the lid on both.

To be fair, it's not hard to understand how this happens. We all have first-hand experiences of feeling beaten up by someone lashing out in fear or anger, and it makes perfect sense how people (and by extension, groups) could be highly motivated to protect themselves from being subjected to repeat performances. That said, disapproving—or worse, pathologizing—emotional expression of all stripes ("Please, show some respect and control") is a spectacularly poor response to the challenge of understanding and working effectively with distress. 

Wait (you may be saying). How did we start with a pattern about celebration and get into a conversation about emotional distress? Answer: because the two are inextricably linked.

While the image above is in the range of balloons and whistles, there is a darker side of emotional response and you can't reasonably open up to the sunshine without expecting rain clouds from time to time. One of the reasons that groups tend to be a little stilted about celebration is because they're so tentative and unsure of their footing when it comes to distress. It rings hollow asking groups to cheer when there's an unwritten rule against crying or yelling.

There's a famous quip from Emma Goldman that applies here:
If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution.

The essence of this speaks to my point. Revolution is serious business, which Emma knew. She also knew that you need to bring your whole self to the attempt. Revolution is not just a state of mind ("Today, I think I'll care more about the environment."). It's an all-in commitment. Yet passion that's all channeled into anger and grim determination is exhausting, out of balance, and unsustainable.

There also needs to be some fun and goofiness, which brings us back to today's pattern. Sometimes you need to jump for joy, and sing hallelujah! This is not about pretending that bad things don't happen; it's about genuinely recognizing the good things that do, and not letting the pain and suffering of the world—which are very real things—stop you from being fully human and connecting with others in our effort to make a positive difference.

So if you want the baby (celebration) be aware that they can get messy from time to time and the bath water of emotions, in their full range of expression, comes with the deal.

Care to dance?

Monday, March 24, 2014


I'm in the City of Angels, visiting my son and grandkids for four days (as the last leg of a five-week odyssey). On my first night in town we watched Frozen (would it surprise you that Taivyn is five and Connor is two?), Disney's blockbuster animated musical about the power of sisterly love.

[As an aside, I was amazed that Taivyn, who will be six next month, could sing along with all the tunes, even though she was seeing the movie for the first time. Whoa. Talk about market penetration. It made me think of the Mel Brooks character, Yogurt, in his 1987 science fiction spoof, Space Balls, who revealed that the secret of the Force is merchandising. He was only partly kidding. Disney's promotion team was clearly not frozen when executing their full court press to hype this movie.]

While Frozen wouldn't have been the DVD I would have selected at Red Box, it was an evocative one to see, in a life-imitates-art kind of way…

—Frozen, as in the winter we just left behind
It's now officially spring, and seeing my kids (Jo in Las Vegas and Ceilee in Los Angeles) has meant highs in the 70s and lows in the 50s—which stands in sharp contrast to the (ma)lingering snow that held the Midwest in thrall when I departed on this road trip Feb 22.

This has been a throwback winter with a reluctant spring. I was thrilled to spot crocuses poking through the snow on an overnight in Maryland Feb 26, followed by full-bloom daffodils and sunshine (bona fide spring) when the calendar flipped to March while I was in North Carolina.

Still, southern California is not northeast Missouri, and I'm wondering what weather I'll return to next Saturday. When I skyped with Ma'ikwe five days ago she was wearing a wool cap and fleece jacket indoors next to the woodstove—an image that did not evoke spring—and the weather channel is predicting the dreaded "wintery mix" for Missouri today. Ufda. I really don't care to see another snowflake until November.

—Frozen, as in the unproductive dynamics that had crystallized in my marriage
Unlike in the movie, sometimes the phase change from liquid (as in flowing) to solid (as in stuck) happens so gradually that you don't notice, which is not a bad way to characterize where I found myself 15 months ago. Ma'ikwe was coming out of a bad year battling Lyme symptoms and was simultaneously thinking about stepping away from our relationship, where she was battling my reactivity and limited availability.

Fortunately we were able (with the help of couples counseling) to access love and our commitment to personal growth to thaw the parts that were frozen in unproductive responses, thereby saving our marriage—right on the brink of losing it forever. It was every bit as dramatic as the movie.

—Frozen, as in the dynamics that occasion groups to hire me
One of the ways to describe what I do as a process consultant is to help groups get unstuck (who would hire outside help when everything is going fine?). Sometimes that means people who are not hearing each other, and are stuck in their stories about how the other person has been a jerk, provocative, and self-absorbed. (It is especially poignant when this story goes both ways.)

Sometimes that means helping the group understand what it can do to blow warm air on frozen dynamics (rather than put on a sweater, hide behind the curtains, and hope for the best).

Sometimes that means offering ideas about how to better organize things so that they're less likely to freeze when encountering a cold snap in relationships among members.

Sometimes it's helping people find the courage to try, when they're frozen with fear, afraid that they're more likely to botch a difficult conversation than experience a breakthrough.

—Frozen, as in my passion for stories about humans testing the limits of cold
Every since I was eight, I've had an abiding fascination for tales of endurance and perseverance amidst ice and snow. This ranges from fiction (witness Ursula Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness) to accounts of polar exploration. I can't tell you how many books I read about the ill-fated Franklin expedition of 1845-47, that was lost with all hands while searching of the Northwest Passage, ultimately resorting to cannibalism. In the instance of Dan Simmons' 2007 offering, The Terror, I got to lick both scoops: it's a fictional treatment of life aboard one of Franklin's two ships, the HMS Terror.

My dear friend Annie refers to this portion of my personal library as my "freezing and starving books."

—Frozen, as in connections with ex-partners
This is a tender spot for me. Sometimes I'm able to resurrect conections after recovering from the pain and awkwardnes of a failed intimate partnership, and sometimes not. There are women with whom I am very close (even closer than I was when we were lovers); women with whom I am still tender and am able to easily share in depth when we're together (even though that happens only occasionally); women with whom I am socially at ease, yet the door to depth is guarded; and there are women with whom I no longer have any contact. 

It's a humbling range from free flowing, to a precious trickle, to sluggishly flowing (choked with ice floes), to frozen solid.

• • •
Although it didn't occur to me until last night's DVD, when I was sitting on the couch next to Taivyn and Connor, my life can be substantially defined by my realtionship to Frozen.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Personal Growth & Facilitation 2.0

Nine days ago I published a blog called Personal Growth & Facilitation. Today I want to drill a little deeper, focusing expressly on what I mean by personal growth in relation to skilled facilitation.

A. Examining Motivation
When I spotlighted personal growth in the previous blog, my main point was that high-end facilitators will need, on occasion, to ask meeting participants to reflect on why they said or took the action that they did. That will land as a hollow request if the facilitator themselves is not willing to do the same. Not only will the facilitator come across as a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do hypocrite, but blind spots will remain invisible to the facilitator (though not necessarily to others), which undercuts effectiveness.

The deeper purpose here is trying to get a handle on what it means that you see things the way you do, and why you respond as you do. This is important both so that you know you're tendencies, which will invariably result in some degree of distortion (which you very much need to be aware of), and because this gives you the opportunity to consider changing what you're doing if it doesn't serve you. 

Much of what we have in the way of patterns was laid down in childhood. Even if those responses and viewpoints served us well at the time (which is not a guarantee—sometimes childhood responses are all about coping, and may not have been all that effective right out of the gate), it's worthwhile to consider whether they serve you as the adult you are, or mean to be. 

Unexamined, old patterns will rarely change, which will color what you see and how you're received. It should be fairly easy to connect the dots about how that gets in the way of developing into a skilled facilitator.

B. Working Constructively with Critical Feedback
This is a big one. First of all, what do you actually let in? Not just can you parrot the words back, I'm talking about whether you consciously consider what might be valid in criticism that comes your way. Most of us have developed (consciously or unconsciously) screens that limit what feedback gets through to our brain and it can be serious work to keep those filters unclogged and as open-mesh as possible.

The vast majority of us have learned to perceive critical feedback as an attack, and respond with denial, defensiveness, or counterattack—all of which get in the way of accessing the information.  The biological equivalent is pain: while no one enjoys pain, it's a damn good thing that your foot hurts when you step on a nail. I'm not suggesting that you look forward to pain; I'm suggesting that you be as open as possible to information about how others have experienced pain in relation to something you said or did. I am not trying to tie your hands in any way regarding what weight you give someone's feedback or whether it makes sense to change your behavior as a consequence—I'm only talking about the wisdom of being open to hearing it as dispassionately as possible.

That said, even if you get it how beneficial feedback can be, there are four dynamics relative to critical feedback that are especially hard to handle well:

—Unbalanced Feedback
Most of us find it easier to hear feedback from someone who is open to hearing it the other way as well (you give me yours and I'll give you mine). While that's fine when it occurs, that's not always available, and it's still in your best interest to receive their input, even if the giver is completely shut down to what you have to say about them. 

While there's no doubt that a balanced exchange will tend to be better for the health of the relationship, it's a big mistake to insist on a quid pro quo as a condition of listening, because the information is good for you regardless (of whether the other person has read my blog or not).

—Raw Feedback
A number of books about communication skills are aimed at learning how to genuinely convey hard things in ways that are minimally triggering. While that's good work (and I encourage everyone to look into it) you cannot count on others to have read the same books. If you insist on pretty envelopes as a precondition for reading the message, you're confusing packaging from content.

Just because someone is rude and aggressive doesn't mean they don't have a point.

—Embarrassing Circumstances
Sometimes the feedback is given kindly and the person is willing to hear your critical reflections in return, yet their comments are delivered in a setting that's challenging—perhaps in front of the whole group, on stage, or witnessed by your children or mother. To the extent that image and public persona are important, this can be excruciating.

I once knew a fellow community networker who simply couldn't abide critical comments stated in front of peers. Privately, offered one-on-one, he was quite open, but anything in front of a wider audience meant war and it took me several years of frustration to sort that out.

—Drive-by Feedback
When critical feedback comes from people who don't know you well, there's a tendency to dismiss what they have to say because it can't possibly be based on sufficient data—how can they know context after so little first-hand observation?

While there's unquestionably a relationship between breadth of connection and accuracy, that does not necessarily mean that observations offered on minimal data are off base. In fact, sometimes it's fresh eyes that see what the familiar miss.

C. Working to Diminish Reactivity
Embarrassingly enough, this is an aspect of personal work that I have devoted serious attention to in just the last year. (It was either that or my wife was going to divorce me—which she may do yet, but at least she's feeling met in this regard and we're on much better footing these days.)

Even though I'm 64, have lived in community for 40 years, and have been a professional facilitator for the last 27 years, I still have personal work to do, and my ongoing attention to it has a direct bearing on my skill as a facilitator. On the specific of my reactivity, there's a double benefit of being more aware of my tendencies: I'm less likely to be triggered, and I'm less likely to respond with fierceness when I am, which is a pretty good deal all around.

[A close friend recently observed me laboring with someone who didn't like the choices I made as a facilitation trainer after witnessing them do something I found awkward in the class context. The student experienced me as reactive and harsh, to which my friend remarked, "Hah, you think that was reactive. You should have seen him two years ago." At least I'm making progress.]

D. Playing with a Full Deck
Humans are complex animals that work with information and "knowing" in a rich variety of ways. While the default mode for engagement in meetings (remember, the context for this essay is how personal growth relates to facilitation) is through rationality, there are many other modalities possible and a savvy facilitator will intentionally cultivate a wider palette:

—Emotional Knowing
While this is a rich topic, there are three things I want especially want to underline:
a)  Ability to know and fully articulate one's feelings without aggression. This can be crucial in terms of coming across to your audience as human.
b)  Minimal tension in the presence of tension in others (at least when you are not the trigger). Ironically, this skill often shows up as an ability to mirror tension in others without taking it on personally. The essential skill is developing a heightened sensitivity to distress in others without going into distress yourself when it manifests.
c) I don't believe you can be a full service facilitator unless you can work authentically and accurately with conflict, and that necessarily means developing a facility with feelings. If you haven't done your own work on distress, you'll be dead in the water attempting to work with others in distress.

—Intuitive Knowing
Over the years I've come to have an increasing respect for intuition, which I think of as the ability to access inner knowing that operates below the level of consciousness. I believe a skilled facilitator needs to develop a sense of what to do in a given a situation. This is not so much about what the answer is, as about what the key question or observation is.

While I want to see facilitators with an openness to intuitive insight, and confidence in acting on it when it bubbles up, this needs to be tempered by an understanding that every offering will not be perceived as brilliant. The skilled facilitator will work, at times, intuitively, yet needs to be able to gracefully abandon a line of inquiry that opens no doors for others.

—Kinesthetic Knowing
There are people for whom physical movement is a powerful entrée into grounding information and integrating experiences. While this learning style is not rare, it tends to be grossly under-served in meeting settings and a sophisticated facilitator will develop a range of formats for long meetings (anything more than 90 minutes) that include movement—both to oxygenate the brain and to stimulate body knowing.

In order to be sensitive to this dynamic, facilitators do well to experiment with how physical movement can enhance their understanding of what's happening, both internally and around them.

E. Understanding That a Golden Path Is Not the Golden Path
The world is full of different personal growth modalities and disciplines, for example: Zazen Meditation, Landmark Forum, Avatar, Co-counseling, EST, and Vipassana. Some of them also offer specific ideas for how to engage effectively in groups, a sampling of which includes ZEGG Forum, Heart of Now, Worldwork, Nonviolent Communication, Restorative Circles, and Sociocracy.

All of the above practices have their advocates who will swear by the efficacy of its life-changing orientation, tools, and techniques. At the same time, every modality also has its detractors, who complain (sometimes bitterly) that the offerings have not worked for them, have been oversold, or are led by people with unhealthy egos who are more interested in generating fees and adoration than in helping people improve their lives. Whew!

When people have a profound experience with a particular teacher or a specific modality, there's a natural tendency to want to share the joy with others (there's no enthusiasm that compares with the rapture of the newly converted). The danger is relating to the modality as a religion that works profoundly for everyone every time. To the extent that facilitators fall in love with a practice they are susceptible to blindness about its weaknesses or the ways in which some will not find nirvana through its application.

I believe the sweet spot is sampling different approaches with an eye toward understanding the genius of each, the conditions under which it will flourish, and the kinds of people most likely to benefit from that approach, without closing one's mind to the potential benefits of alternate approaches.

It is a plus to be able to work sensitively with multiple techniques and approaches; it is a liability to continually rely on a single approach independent of circumstances (if you are enthralled with your hammer, pretty soon everything starts looking like a nail).

From the perspective of what will help develop facilitative muscles (which includes sensitivity to what's happening for others and the ways in which people can authentically bridge different viewpoints and disparate realities), I suggest that people look for ways to interpret the quest for Inner Peace as a search for Inner Pieces—of the puzzle of how to get along with each other, without anyone selling out or changing personalities.

F. Managing Ego
Good facilitators need to have done their work about their value in relation to events. In a meeting—the baseline arena in which facilitators operate—the goal should always be a great meeting; not one in which you stand out for your brilliance. Your mantra should be: "It's not about me" and there will be times when the very best thing you can do is to shut up and stay out of the way.

Here's how I relate to that: when I'm at my best, my ego ceases to exist—I'm all attention and energy. While I don't think that's the only path to facilitative excellence, it's the image that works for me. When I'm completely in the flow, I can work with anything, I "see" everything, and nothing sticks to me. (To be sure, this is easier to access if I'm an outside facilitator with no personal stake in the dynamics, but that's always my ideal.)

• • •
How do I relate to all this personally? I don't think there has ever been a time in my life where I haven't looked back with some degree of embarrassment with what I thought was sophisticated, mature, and insightful at the time... which means, of course, that in a few years I may reread this blog and wince. 

Oh well, we're all works in progress, and I'm choosing to embrace the work because I'm desirous of the progress, and that's the only way to get there.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Waging Peace

Whenever I work with a group for the first time I start off with a brief introduction of who I am and how I approach my work. (Of course, the folks who hired me already know my background—I hope—but usually the whole group doesn't.)

I tell them I've lived in intentional community for 40 years, and have been a process consultant for two-thirds of that, which, when combined, means I've been to a lot of meetings. Not only do I have plenty at home, but I travel around the country to attend more.

For the most part, groups hire me to help them: a) get past a stuck dynamic that's proven resistant or beyond the capacity of internal facilitators (Laird as hired gun); b) learn how to understand group dynamics better—I offer a la carte or customized trainings in consensus, conflict, delegation, facilitation, membership, diversity, power dynamics, and cooperative leadership (Laird as mentor); c) find out what other groups have done when wrestling with the same thorny issues (Laird as Google); or d) some combination of all three (Laird as magician).

While the client group is invariably thinking about how I can guide them through the wilderness—hey, after 40 years I've been there—I make sure they understand that my context is much broader. I see a world in trouble, and cooperative groups as potential points of light in the darkness.

I see increasing alienation and fragmentation. I see a marked degradation in political civility. I see the steady erosion of community (the sense of connection, identity, and belonging) in neighborhoods, schools, congregations, and the workplace. I see a squeeze on planetary resources and a human population that is out of control. 

I anticipate a future not very far in front of us where people will need to learn how to consume resources at 10% of the current US rate or there won't be enough for all. While I think this is doable, it will require a great deal more sharing than we're currently used to. It means we'll have to learn how to cooperate.

Unless we're OK with sorting this out through war—which I am not—we're going to have to learn how to solve problems collaboratively. We're going to have to learn how to disagree about things that really matter and come through that engagement feeling closer and energized, rather than worn down, divided, or defeated.

I tell clients that I am developing the fundamental building blocks of world peace, one group at a time. I tell them that I am working as hard as I can to instill the skills needed for a soft landing as the world hurtles toward a brick wall defined by oil depletion, climate change, rising population, and the gross imbalance of wealth.

After that stump speech I move on to tell them how I'll operate. While I'm deeply committed to peace and cooperation, I'm not Mr. Nice Guy. While I'm not grim (where's the fun in that?) I'm a passionate person who operates mostly in an up-tempo mode (I don't believe in dull or unproductive meetings). I will cut off repetition and I'll redirect off-topic comments. If someone is spouting bullshit, I'll call them on it. 

I'm agreement prejudiced, which means that if I get a whiff of a meaningful way to connect two parties at odds, they're going to hear my idea at the first opportunity. To be clear, if I miss the mark (and my proposal is not so brilliant), I'll back down gracefully. I don't twist arms or impose resolution; I just don't pussyfoot around. (I'm often the first person in the room to see a workable solution because I take the novel approach of looking for common ground before looking for differences. And when I see a potential agreement I'm ruthless about getting it on the table.) 

If people are in distress, I lean into it. Not because I'm an emotional vampire, or enjoy people squirming, but because there's information concentrated in the reaction and I know we're close to the energetic center, which is the wellspring of inspiration and heart-forged agreements. That is, the accurate and compassionate recognition of upset will invariably lead to the heart—both of the players and of the issue—and will provide the clues needed to create a durable bridge between parties in tension.

I think of what I do as waging peace, and there's nothing wimpy about it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Fishing for Good Faith

I recently received this inquiry from a fellow process consultant:

If you are facilitating a very stuck conflict, how might you assess whether or not the parties are negotiating in good faith?

Historically it's been easy for me to assume the best of people, and they usually respond well.  However, I am currently working with a polarized situation that has brought this question up. If one party threatens to boycott the next meeting if I don't run the process the way they want (which appears to stack the deck against the other side), or is taking action that might jeopardize the group's ability to carry out its mission, at what point would I reasonably conclude that this party is not negotiating in good faith? Do you have ideas on what a list of criteria might be? I expect to come into more sympathy and understanding as I learn more of this party's viewpoint; nonetheless, the question has been raised for me and I am interested in your take on it.

This is a good question. Let me tackle it in two parts.

I. Reasons to Keep Fishing
In the dynamic above, let's assume that the protagonist has a conclusion that there's nothing to save and it's time to start over. That's not the same as someone trying to monkey wrench for sociopathic entertainment, or acting in pursuit of their "job" as a government infiltrator. So there's room to work on how they got to that conclusion.

The strategy is to find out the analysis that undergirds their position and see if there's room to uncouple the source of their frustration from their dire conclusion. In all likelihood there's a seminal story (or stories) about how an awful, unforgivable thing happened, or there's a persistent pattern of dysfunction (in the eyes of the unhappy) that justifies giving up. For each key event (or pattern, which is essentially an accumulation of similar events) it's possible to unpack what happened, keeping in mind several potentials:

o  The story of the event may not be known widely in the group.
o  The upset (or strongly negative interpretation) associated with the story may not be widely known—even to the other players in the event.
o  There may be widely divergent "facts" about what happened—even to the point where it's impossible that all the stories could be true.
o  It's probable that there will be different spins on how to interpret what happened (how to understand the facts), though not always.
o  Were there attempts to address the upset associated with the stories? If not, why? If so, how did those break down (obviously they didn't work because the negativity persists)?

Answers to the above should provide clues to points of entrée of what's possible in the way of bridging between estranged parties.

It may also be helpful to ask what the disaffected person needs in order to step back from the conclusion that it's too late to turn things around. While this may come out in the form of demands, what you're really looking for is: a) how to get recognition from others about how the event landed for this person, and b) what actions from others will indicate to this person that they're being seriously taken into account (other than acceding to their demands).

Another thing to keep in mind is the tendency of people to develop and sustain pejorative stories about other group members with whom they are consistently beleaguered. While this can look like many things, I want to highlight three particularly pernicious ways this can show up:

o  Assignment of bad intent
When an action is seen as especially egregious, or the pattern particularly odious or disrespectful, it can lead to the aggrieved assuming that the doer was bad on purpose, which severely undercuts trust or the potential for bridging the gulf between parties.

o  Questioning mental health
Sometimes the analysis of another person's actions—and responses to critical feedback about those actions—leads the upset person to conclude that the doer is mentally unwell, and therefore incapable of being a fully engaged responsible member of the group. To be sure, mental health is a real thing, and some people suffer from it, yet beware of amateur diagnosis.

o  Questioning the ability to distinguish personal needs from what's best for the group
It's not uncommon for a disgruntled person to believe that others are acting selfishly while they (alone?) are responding from a higher place. If you encounter this it can be worth exploring whether the unhappy party has tried to find a group basis for the actions they're unhappy about. In my experience, it's not rare to discover that both parties are thinking of the group's welfare, but they're emphasizing different commonly held values. If you can establish that, it can be a substantial boon to deescalation.

On the specific question of the demand that the process go a certain way (that you believe is unfair), ask the advocate for their thinking about why they believe their recommendation is appropriate or sufficiently fair. Similarly, you can ask how boycotting the meeting will be productive, or how the action they propose is in line with the group's mission. 

Do the answers you get suggest sabotage or vindictiveness (which may indicate that things are unsalvageable, or pretty damn close to it), or do they suggest a reasonable approach that takes into account factors unknown to you?

II. Reasons to Cut Bait
If the unhappy person is not willing to discuss matters, or comes across as belligerent or highly armored—especially when talking solely with the facilitator, who is not a stakeholder—it may be too late. Before reaching that conclusion, however, you might check specifically about whether the unhappy person is questioning your neutrality. You might also, before giving up, take a stab at trying to establish what you think they're going through. If you can get it right, even on few clues, there may be a softening that wasn't there before that can brings things back from the brink. 

Additionally, it may be too late if the person repels all attempts to bridge to them or is steadfastly locked into their negative analysis of others in the group. If you can show them that you "get" their experience, which means both the story and how it's landed with them, and they're unwilling to even test for being seen that way by others, then it's probably too late.

If the door is closed to reconciliation, either because the damage is too large, or the relevant parties are too exhausted to keep trying (I've seen both), then you may as well let go of trying to bridge, and start looking for a graceful exit. 

Instead of heading into a meeting that you know will be a disaster, because you've not discovered any opening in their armor (or been able to develop one), and suspect that this person is not approaching matters in good faith, I would shift gears and start working on how it serves that person's interests to keep pressing (rather than calling them on your suspicion of bad faith). 

The angle here is getting the unhappy person to exit the group, rather than trying to destroy it.

Years ago I worked with a small community that was struggling with a member who had been unhappy for a long time, and the group felt paralyzed by this person's negativity. As the group was small (six or seven members as I recall) I interviewed everyone one on one to get their story on what was happening. While I was able to see a way out of the morass that didn't require anyone to leave or be the fall guy, it was clear from my interviews that there was no longer any energy available to work on repairing the relationship. Thus, I shifted my attention to the disgruntled member, asking him how it served him to keep pushing his discordant views on the group. Never mind how it was landing on others; how was it serving him
To be clear, I worked hard to show him that I understood his unhappiness and was not judging him. I was simply emphasizing that he look at what was best for him—instead of punishing others for his unhappiness. After a half a day of laboring with him and letting him think about it, he was able to announce to the group that he'd decided to leave—because that was in his best interest. 

While it saddened me that reconciliation was not an option, as a facilitator you have to play the hand you're dealt, and occasionally the best you can do is a "memberectomy," where no abutments have been dynamited, and no doors have been slammed on the way out.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Personal Growth & Facilitation

I've been offering a two-year facilitation training course for 11 years now, and it's the most fun thing I do. There are three main reasons why:

1. As a cooperative group process consultant, I figure any chance we have of manifesting sustainable culture rests on our ability to successfully make the transition from a competitive, adversarial overculture to a relational, cooperative culture. While this is not that difficult to envision, it can be the very devil to put into practice.

For decades I've witnessed groups struggle to act cooperatively in the heat of the moment. When the stakes are high and people disagree, they'll fall back into reptilian brain combat mode, clawing and scratching in order to "win." It's not pretty.

Fortunately, there's hope. Experience has taught me that under the guidance of a skilled facilitator, groups can effectively be reminded of the cooperative principles they meant to be operating by, and bring their actions into alignment. (It's not about twisting arms; it's about invoking our higher selves.) While the impact of the facilitator tends to diminish as a group matures and its members become more accomplished in the art of cooperation, having a good one present to midwife the transition can make a night and day difference in outcomes. All too often, well-intentioned groups don't appreciate the importance of investing in facilitative skill and fail to survive their infancy because of the inadvertent damage to relationships sustained in meetings run by amateur-hour facilitators.

Given how important cooperative culture is to our future and how valuable good facilitators are in manifesting cooperation, I figure I can't train facilitators fast enough. The way I see it, it's my greatest point of leverage as a social change agent—and what can be more fun than doing the work you know in your heart you're meant to be doing?

2. My training model is slanted heavily toward having students facilitate live meetings. There is minimal time spent in the classroom talking about the theory of swimming, and maximal time preparing for, delivering, and debriefing performance in front of real groups wrestling with real issues. I figure you'll learn faster if I throw you in the deep end—promising to pull you out if you start to drown.

Since all the live meetings are unscripted and the best teaching moments occur in the context of how principles are applied to real-world dynamics, I never know ahead what I'll teach or when the opportunity will arise. Thus, I have to be on my toes the whole weekend. I think of it as teaching improv, which keeps the material fresh and as three-dimensional as possible. Each weekend is a three-day swim meet, where you never know in advance how long you'll be in the pool or what strokes you'll need to use.

3. Unlike consulting jobs, where I can devote all of my attention to the client and make decisions about what to do at any given moment based on my sense of what's best for the group, training weekends are more nuanced. In addition to tracking the live meetings for the host group (where real work is happening and I have bottom line responsibility for it going well), I am also tracking what's happening for the student facilitator, and there are times when what I think is best for the student—about whether, or how, to step in to redirect what they're doing—is different than what I think is best for the meeting. It can get tricky, yet I love the challenge of being stretched to access the full breadth of my attention and skill.

• • •
While it's more or less a miracle that my training course today still looks substantially like what I started with in 2003, the program has definitely evolved. Having just completed Weekend V of the training underway currently in North Carolina, it's a good time to reflect on how the course has morphed over the years.

A. Leadership Training
My original concept was simply facilitation training, where the focus was on how to understand and manage the dynamics of plenaries. My thought—which I still hold—was that if you can handle large groups well then smaller groups (down to two people) are that much simpler.

However, one of the teaching modules is a segment on Power & Leadership and a former student (now my wife) helped me connect the dots about how the skills needed to be an effective facilitator in cooperative groups maps well onto the essential elements of servant leadership. Duh.

To be sure, you can aspire to be a group leader and/or have an aptitude for it without being drawn to the role of plenary facilitator (and vice versa), but I've come to realize that my training is a two-for-the-price-one deal, and I now market it that way.

B. Personal Growth 
Taking this one step further, it's hard to be an effective facilitator (or leader) if you're not walking your talk. In particular, facilitators sometimes need to ask people to look at their motivation for a statement or action, to reflect on how their choices might be misconstrued, or to see things through another person's eyes—rather than insisting on their viewpoint and the righteousness of their behavior. Thus, I've slowly come to realize the primacy of wanting students who are willing to do personal work and inner reflection when they encounter rough patches in the training. I need students who are willing to own their part of what's hard and to try to work through tensions when they arise in the class.

Rigid boundaries and flexible facilitation don't tend to play well together.

C. Different Strokes for Different Folks 
People don't all learn the same way. I got that lesson viscerally in the very first round of the training when I had two women from the same community, each eager to learn facilitation. The first woman watched me facilitate once and was then ready to try it herself. She knew that she was unlikely to get it right the first time, but had learned that (for her) falling down and getting up again was the quickest way to grok the lessons. She had no embarrassment whatsoever about not looking good in public.

The second woman was much more cautious. It wasn't until the fifth or sixth weekend that she was ready to try her hand at facilitating a live meeting (role plays are way easier), by which time I was suspecting that she'd never be ready. But I was wrong. She just had a different pathway by which she learned. She needed to see facilitation modeled many times before she felt secure enough to attempt it in public, where every misstep might be seen by God and everyone. Yet when she finally went—to my amazement—she gave one of the best first-time performances I'd ever seen.

Both women knew how they learned best and the two styles were very different. While that knowledge does not guarantee that I will be a great instructor for all styles of learning, I am at least sensitized to the need to take that into account.

D. Left Brain/Right Brain
Over the years, I've learned to offer greater and greater variety in both what we teach and how we deliver the lessons.

Thus, instead of all lecture or didactic discussion, we mix in role plays, kinesthetic exercises, guided visualization, and ritual. Over the course of the eight weekends, we move increasingly from directive to interactive; from "watch me," to "now you do it"; from "we'll tell you what to pay attention to," to "you figure it out"; from teachers as awesome, to instructors as (fallible) peers.

We pay particular attention to body-centered engagement (in contrast with the aural and visual) and to developing intuitive and emotional sensitivity (to counteract a cultural basis toward the rational). We're tinkering with this all the time.

E. Saturday Night Dinner
When I first cooked up the idea for this training, I envisioned five-day weekends (it was no problem thinking of all the cool pedagogical things I could do with that degree of spaciousness). Then the reality of people's busy lives brought me down to Earth and I scaled back the weekends to a more doable three-day commitment, and each weekend is packed.

After everyone gathers for Thursday dinner on site, the only things we try to cover that first evening are a schedule review and a check-in. Then the pace picks up Friday morning at 9 am. We typically run until 10 pm that night and then are right back at it Saturday morning. By the time the group has debriefed a live meeting Saturday afternoon, most of the class is running on fumes. By design, we all go out to eat together Saturday evening—simultaneously giving our host a break from meal responsibilities and offering the class a complete change of focus. While people are allowed to talk shop at dinner, it's not particularly encouraged. The emphasis is on fun, social engagement, and recharging the battery (which often means a certain amount of discharging from the intensity of the preceding 48 hours).

Not only does this feature of the weekend result in better attention on Sunday, it also creates greater depth of relationship among the class, purposefully commingling the professional with the personal; work with play. Above all else, facilitators need to be human.

F. Advanced Training
At this point there are around 80 students who have gone through the training, and I'm starting to field requests for taking this to the next level. In general, classes contain a mix of people who are: 1) already serious about facilitation (and fairly accomplished at it) and are open to working with groups other than their own; 2) people who aspire only to being competent facilitators at home; and 3) those who aren't really interested in being facilitators themselves yet believe that knowing the role better will help them be better meeting participants (or perhaps better leaders).

The program works for all three and (fortunately) having a wide range of objectives and prior skill has not been a problem. That is, the more advanced are not bored, and the neophytes are not (unreasonably) overwhelmed.

One of the key elements of the training model (that helps contain costs) is that each is held in a relatively tight geographic area, reducing the commute time for students. While the trainers may have to travel across time zones, that's rarely asked of students. If we put together an advanced training program our expected audience would be Group 1) above, which means they'd be dispersed all across the country. That means that travel might cost as much as the participation fees and students may need to take additional time off to get to and from the training site. So we're still scratching our heads about how to structure this.

Logistics aside, I'm excited to think about what the curricula might encompass:
o  Teaching facilitation
o  Self care
o  Teamwork versus solo
o  When to get help
o  Developing process peers
o  Critique of techniques and modalities (what are we collectively learning?)
o  In-depth peer review
o  Preparing for work with outside clients
o  Negotiating compensation

I'm proud to say there appears to be no danger of running out of work.

Monday, March 10, 2014

How Facilitators Get from Good to Great

Ma'iwke and I were conducting a facilitation training in North Carolina last weekend. One of the key features of our trainings is hands-on work for the students, where they facilitate live meetings for the host community. While Ma'ikwe and I sit in the back of the room taking notes—and on call as a safety net—the students learn through trial by fire. So far, in the 11 years I've being doing this, no one has died.

Saturday afternoon the class was facilitating a three-hour business meeting, the key components of which were trying to reach agreement about two proposals that had been generated at a community retreat the previous weekend that had been characterized by high enthusiasm and low attendance. After notifying the whole group of the proposals in the intervening days, the group was poised to try to reach agreement and continue the forward momentum of the retreat. [Aside: does anyone else think it odd that groups typical rely on "retreats" to generate forward momentum?]

After securing passage of the first proposal in less time than allotted, there was optimism about wrapping up the second with similar ease. Alas, it was not to be.

The first proposal was deceptively easy in that it relied mainly on concepts with which the group was already familiar. The second one ventured into virgin territory: a complex package of agreements about hiring community members when voluntary efforts proved insufficient to cover critical tasks. Previously there were no agreements about this and the community considered it a hot potato.

On the one hand, it would be nice to give paid opportunities to community members, with whom there was obviously more loyalty and caring than with outside strangers. On the other hand, it was awkward holding fellow members accountable if there was a problem with their performance (such as with the quality or timeliness of their delivery). Nervous about whether the community could manage community members well, the community had shied away from the question of hiring internally for many years. Now, by golly, they were taking it on.

As we got into the conversation there were two aspects of the proposal that the plenary mostly wanted to chew on:

a) Whether they wanted to give preferential treatment to community members (over outside contractors), equal treatment to community members, or steer clear of hiring community members.

b) Whether people were satisfied that requiring a written contract and a designated contract manager through which all communication about job performance needed to be channeled were sufficient to give hiring internally a try.

As the time slipped away without resolution of these two sticking points, there was looming doubt about whether agreement could be reached. Several factors were in play:

o  The challenge of keeping the group focused on one question at a time
When comments danced back and forth among various aspects of the proposal it was hard for everyone to follow the bouncing ball, resulting in strained energy and requests that views be repeated.

o  Unease about surfacing the challenge of managing fellow members
It isn't easy to talk in plenary about problems with community members—there's danger of reactivity if they're in the room, and danger of the comments being labeled malicious gossip if they aren't. Yuck.

o  General discomfort with imposing too much structure
Some prefer extending considerable trust and leeway to committees and managers to act appropriately, without the complication of written contracts, due diligence, and feedback protocols. But informal methods were not resulting in community members getting hired and that was distressing in another way. How should those two factors be balanced?

o  The primacy of member relationships
While everyone agreed that that should held as paramount, did that mean inside hiring should be avoided (to steer clear of the rats nest of managing fellow members) or embraced (to extend a financial safety net to those needing the income?

o  The desire to get something back from the investment of two meetings
For those members who had attended both the retreat and Saturday's business meeting, there was increasing anxiety about the possibility that there would be no agreement on the question of hiring community members, and that felt highly discouraging.

With time running out, it was apparent that the student facilitator did not see a way to untangle all of these knotted threads and weave them into a cohesive proposal that the group could support. But I could. In the closing minutes I offered the community a modified proposal that included the encouragement (but not the requirement) that committees post job openings to community members, and that the proposal would be adopted for one year with a sunset clause (which means that the agreement expires March 31, 2015 unless it's expressly continued or replaced by something else).

This had something for everyone and no one dissented. It also completely changed the energy at the end of the meeting—the process equivalent of the sun unexpectedly coming out for a glorious sunset after an afternoon of increasing cloudiness.

• • •
I told you that story to set the stage for what I really wanted to talk about: how to teach the skill I was able to access in the last five minutes of that meeting.

While the class knows that I can do that (they've seen it before and believe in my ability) how could I break down and make available the elements of what I'm doing in that moment that will lead them to be able to do it?

The obvious answer is lots of time in the saddle (I've been there before and I don't wilt under pressure). There is, after all, a reason people invoke the aphorism practice make perfect, and thus there is truth to the notion that the gap between a student's ability and mine will only be closed through experience and repetition. However, upon reflection, I realized that I had a richer, more nuanced answer as well.

A) Ability to focus attention
Sometimes this is referred to as "free attention" and I'm really good at it. In meetings and purposeful conversations (as opposed to chit chat), I rarely space out or allow my attention to drift. While I don't know how I started disciplining myself in this way, Ma'ikwe has helped me understand that you can expressly work to develop your capacity in this regard, just like pumping iron will give you bigger biceps.

B) Large RAM
I have an unusually large random access memory. While I suspect that some aspect of this was factory installed (that is, I was born with it), I suspect that it's possible to think of after market enhancements—that is, that it's possible through practice to get better at how many threads you can hold at once before you start losing them.

This is valuable because pulling together threads is how you weave durable proposals. If your RAM is small, then you need to compensate with aids (notes?) to keep threads available.

C) Pattern library
In addition to having a great deal of experience (I've been to a lot of meetings), my memories are organized, which allows me to easily access what's relevant about something I've seen before vis-a-vis what's in front of me. I suppose the IT metaphor is that I've worked to place meta tags on my experiences that facilitate my ability to pull up the ones that bear on the situation at hand.

Thus, when someone hires me, they not only get my skill, they get access to my pattern library and my personal Dewey Decimal System for finding the right volume at need. I am very quick to see how one statement relates to a prior one, sometimes days, weeks, and even years before.

Having grokked the potency of this, I now tag my experiences as they come with the key concepts that I think I'll want to remember them for later. Having accomplished that, I can then call up a prior experience either rationally (observing that X is like Y) or intuitively (noting that X evokes Y, without necessarily being able to tell why—at least not right away). See E below for more on intuition.

D) Centering
While I have my own version of performance anxiety, or stage fright, it's not paralyzing and mostly it evaporates after a few minutes in action. In fact, when I'm really "on," my ego ceases to exist and I'm a clear channel. Before going on stage I protect time to myself to center; to set aside any ruffled energy I'm carrying, or concerns about personal needs.

Another way to think of this is that I intentionally try to clear my RAM before going on stage, to boost my free attention.

E) Trusting intuition
I'm convinced you cannot reach your full potential as a facilitator unless you're working intuitively as well as rationally. To be clear, I am not anti-rational; I'm pro-intuitive. I think of this as "belly knowing" and developing your ability to sense the right path in a given moment even when you cannot puts words to why.

One of the ways this manifests is not being too attached to my road map for the meeting and being open to surprise (Loki can show up in many guises: sometimes destructively; sometimes distractedly; sometimes playfully; sometimes with confusion; and sometimes even helpfully—the point is you never know!) Open to the unknown, I am less thrown off by it and adjust more gracefully on the fly.

f) Interlocking reinforcement
Note how the skills above are not independent qualities so much as reinforcing qualities, where strength on one enhances another.
• • •
For years I've been quipping, "The difference between a good facilitator and great one is about 10 seconds." That is, don't expect me to be that impressed with an insightful analysis of what you should have done; I want to know what you did in the dynamic moment.

One way to see my efforts to teach facilitation is that I'm constantly working to shave seconds off that gap.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Group Works: Breaking Bread Together

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:

1. Intention
2. Context
3. Relationship
4. Flow
5. Creativity
6. Perspective
7. Modeling
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
9. Faith

In the Relationship segment there are 10 cards. The third pattern in this segment is labeled Breaking Bread Together. Here is the image and text from that card:
Gathering over a meal is one of the most ancient forms of community process, as people sharing food appreciate each other at a profound level. Nourished bodies and relationships pave the way for better collaboration and higher quality work.

I resonate strongly with this pattern, yet the first thing that bubbled to the surface when I digested the poetic text above (think of it as process reflux) is that referring to "gathering over a meal" as a community process stuck in my craw. I conceive of it more as a ritual—which is often quite casual, yet can also be incredibly nuanced or elaborate. In the image above, it appears to be some of both.

On the one hand, the tablecloth, candles, place settings, adult beverages, and focused attention on the center of the table suggest preparation and a purposeful energy. On the other, the dress is casual, the assembled are drinking from paper cups, a roll of paper towels substitutes for napkins, and the adjoining room features jumbled junk visible through the window (not exactly a high brow ambience). It's a mix, and I like that there is something for everyone here—pointing out that ritual need not be stuffy or black tie to be potent.

Ruminating further, I prefer to cast the quality of the experience of eating together somewhat differently. While profound is no doubt possible (even desirable), I believe it is better described as visceral. There is, of course, the obvious way in which the stomach is engaged in the act of eating (It's alimentary, my dear Watson), but I mainly mean that eating together is more a body-centered sharing more than a mind-centered connection. It is a communion of food with people (Take eat, this is my carrot, which was prepared for you); of love from the cook to the partakers; of people with people (eating concurrently, in the presence of one another). It is a prototypical moment of conviviality.

Eating also represents a pause in the daily routine, where the prior activity has been suspended to attend to nourishment. Just as the body is sustained, the mind is refreshed (or has the opportunity to be—one can always gnaw on the bone of a vexing problem while eating, undercutting the salutary effect of the change of pace, and possibly compromising digestion into the bargain). I have found a daily yoga practice offers this same kind of benefit, and is something I cherish for the same reason.

All of that said, I have a caution about relying on meals as a setting for any heavy lifting (serious problem solving or emotional clearing). Eating necessarily requires blood to be in the stomach, which means there is less available to oxygenate the brain. I have learned, for example, that when I'm about to go on stage to facilitate it's prudent to not eat immediately beforehand, as I want all of my attention on the work ahead—rather than dividing it with breaking down the arugula or potato-leek soup I just ingested.

For all of that, there is hardly anything more basic among humans than eating together, telling stories, or having sex. I figure when you combine two out of three you're really cooking. Thus, it is with pleasure, and in the spirit of this pattern, that I protect certain opportunities for breaking bread with others in my peregrinations:

o  Ever since college days I have often been able to participate in seders, the Jewish secular holiday of liberation, keyed off the remembrance the let-my-people-go Exodus from Egypt under Moses. I love making haroset (for which there are almost no set rules) and grating fresh horseradish for this meal.

o  Since entering into a intimate partnership with Ma'ikwe, it has become our habit to hold a birthday celebration each Feb 6 (the anniversary of her nativity) which is centered around my cooking a special sit-down meal for whoever is on her guest list that year.

o  For the last decade I have prepared a gourmet meal for a slow food extravaganza in Ann Arbor MI the first Saturday of November. (Don't count on doing anything else that evening.) Shortly after the turn of the millennium I was in town as faculty for the annual NASCO Institute and was lamenting among friends (Elph Morgan, Jillian Downey, and Michael McIntyre) that I did not get to cook as much I liked when on the road, They had a solution. In all but one year since then I have come up with a special four-course menu for which my friends buy the ingredients and I start cooking as soon as I hit town on Thursday. Anywhere from 10-14 people then gather at Michael's for a savored celebration of food and friendship Saturday evening. While the guest list varies from year to year, the four of us are very dedicated and this ritual has become a highlight of my annual calendar.

o  Ever since my kids were kids I enjoyed cooking with them, and part of the rhythm of our reunions is that we spend time together in the kitchen as well as at the dining room table (we also enjoy restaurants, but that's not as distinctive as preparing our own feasts, replete with hand-me-down family recipes). Although Ceilee is now 33 and has his own kids, and Jo is 26, I know that when I get out West in a few weeks that we'll figure out some creative ways to mess around around with food, and I can hardly wait.

At its highest expression, eating is a participatory sport that lubricates all interactions, providing an invaluable foundation for weathering the inevitable bumps that all relationships are asked to endure.