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.

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