Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Erosion of Neutrality at Home

I was recently talking with a friend who described for me the arc of her relationship with her home community, where she'd been living for more than a decade. She started out as a mother of two young kids and didn't aspire to an active role in community affairs. Gradually though, as her kids needed less constant attention, she got drawn into meeting facilitation and planning plenary agendas (two separate roles, by the way). These were significant contributions and mostly her work was well received. 

Buoyed by those initial tastes of group dynamics, she deepened her involvement in community affairs and was occasionally drawn into taking a strong position on contentious issues—especially those where she felt the principles and integrity of the community were being challenged by obstreperous individuals. 

As it happened, we were talking shortly after she had gone to the mat with another member over a longstanding clash of styles and substance (which included participating in outside mediation at the community's encouragement), when she observed, to her chagrin, that her days as a facilitator in her home community may be behind her. She'd gotten hip deep into community muck frequently enough that wasn't sure she'd ever smell sweet enough again to be an acceptable facilitator.

While the community has plenty of other facilitators and was not dependent on her being in the pool for things to go well, she was lamenting the loss of a role she especially enjoyed, and didn't see it coming. It had not been clear to her that standing up in heavy seas for what she thought was right placed her reputation as a fair-minded facilitator at risk. Now she's seen as a major player.

To be sure, my friend was not regretting her decision to get more involved in community life; she was just expressing sadness about losing a service opportunity that she has a gift for.

As I listened to my friend's story unfold, it occurred to me that I've walked in those moccasins myself. Twice. At Sandhill Farm (my home from 1974 until last Thanksgiving) I facilitated only occasionally in later years. Though I've been a professional facilitator the last 27 years, I tend to ply my craft elsewhere and I was rarely asked to handle a thorny discussion at home. 

Following a parallel trajectory, it seemed increasingly inappropriate for me to facilitate Board sessions of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, for whom I've been the main administrator since the '90s. As someone heavily immersed in the content, I typically draft the agendas, but I don't run the meetings. Never mind that I'm a pro; I didn't have the right profile.

• • •
One of the core principles of cooperative group dynamics is that meetings should be run by people who don't have a dog in the fight. That is, your facilitator should be disinterested in the outcome of the topics discussed‚ or at least approximately so.
Interestingly, for members who are deeply invested in their communities—which are definitely the kind you want—an inadvertent consequence of investment is an erosion of neutrality, or the perception of erosion (which is just as serious), such that some of your best members will inevitably become unacceptable as internal facilitators.

The tenderness of this hits home when, as often happens, the movers and shakers are also the folks who best grok good process. Now what? This can be delicate.

Over time individuals often have to make a choice about how they can best serve their group: as a person carrying the ball upfield, as a coach calling the plays, as a cheerleader, or as a referee. They all have their place, but the roles are not interchangeable. Once you're identified as a powerful stakeholder it can difficult switching back to wearing the zebra stripes of referee facilitator.

Some of this is due to fewer and fewer topics on which you are not associated with a viewpoint. Some is due to others being nervous that you may use the power of the facilitator role to steer the conversation in ways that doesn't align with what they think is best for the group. Note that it may not matter whether you actually do that; just the fear that you might can be enough to render you ineffective as a facilitator. In fact, the more you're seen as skilled in process the more others may be chary about having you in that role simply because of the steeper power gradient—not necessarily because there is any history of your misusing that power. It can get pretty goofy.

I know a handful of process professionals who have chosen to hold themselves aloof from engaging too deeply in dynamics at home. While that choice always struck me as odd when I first encountered it (why wouldn't you jump in with both feet to make your home as great as possible; why hold back?), now I have a deeper understanding of how things play out. If you feel that your greater contribution is helping your group with how rather than with what, then preserving your neutrality can make great deal of strategic sense.

While I may not have the discipline for that myself, I can admire it when I see it.

1 comment:

aaron michels said...

Very thought provoking. I usually hate sports metaphors, but this one is particularly apt. I love your blog, Laird.