I've recently became aware of an evaluation process in an intentional community that raised a poignant question about the balance between transparency and discretion, and what it means to be creating cooperative culture.
The Back Story
In the case of this particular community there exists a Board of Directors that oversees 501c3 aspects of community operations (the portion of community life that donors can receive tax deductions for supporting), and that Board is comprised of a mix of community members and non-community members. This is a relatively common arrangement, designed to ensure both: a) that the community's voice is present in Board considerations; and b) that there are outside eyes making sure that the community's educational activities adhere to mission and long-term goals.
Given that this community's vision is to be a model of sustainable living for the wider culture—as is true for many groups—it further makes sense to include non-community members on the Board because of (hopefully) their ability to see more clearly what it will take to bridge between what the community is offering and what the mainstream is available to receiving, which is no simple thing to navigate.
The Lead Up
In this instance there were two particular positions in the community that were hired by the Board, and it came time to evaluate how well those two people were doing in their roles. For the sake of this story let's cleverly refer to them as Position A and Position B. Having gone through iterations of this before (evaluating how well managers and committees are functioning in their roles) the community had developed some years earlier a standard evaluation form for this purpose. To be clear, this form was an internal document that had not been run by the Board for approval because most roles in the community are not subject to Board review.
That said, when it came to evaluate the people in Position A and Position B, the Board was delighted to make use of the evaluation form and process that had already been vetted and was familiar to the community. The norm in this community is that evaluations proceed thus:
o The Personnel Committee announces that the evaluation is underway (for a set period of time), and sends an electronic link to the job description and the evaluation form. Note that everyone in the community is given a chance to evaluate job performance: that includes the Board, other managers who work alongside this person as a peer, staff who work underneath this manager, and even people in the community who are only occasionally affected by this person's work. While it's common that only a small number fill out evaluations, the net is cast wide.
o After the comment period ends, Personnel makes sure that copies of all evaluations are sent to the hiring entity (the Board in this case) and to the person being evaluated.
o The hiring entity then meets with the person being evaluated and discusses what surfaced in the evaluations and decides how best to proceed.
o At the end of this face-to-face review, both the person being evaluated and someone representing the hiring entity sign a form indicating that this meeting took place and that all parties have seen and had a chance to discuss the points raised in the evaluations. This signed document then gets turned in to Personnel to become part of that person's permanent employee record—which is kept confidential, accessible only to Personnel, the hiring entity, and the person themselves.
It is important to note that this sequence is spelled out in the evaluation form.
The Train Wreck
When Person A was evaluated, only a small number of people filled out forms. While more participation had been hoped for, the process went smoothly. For the most part the feedback was positive and it was not difficult to discuss the ways in which improvement was desired.
Things did not go so well with the evaluation of Person B, which occurred right after evaluating Person A. The number of people filling out evaluations was again small, but this time there was considerably more critical feedback. When Personnel dutifully passed along copies of the evaluations to the person being evaluated, a couple of Board members blew a gasket.
What was Personnel thinking when it blithely shared raw critical comments with Person B? While Personnel was just doing its job—as delineated in the evaluation process—the Board members who were shocked had apparently not digested how evaluations were done in the community, and at least one of them rued the candor with which they described Person B's shortfalls. In fact, it seems the complaining Board members didn't even read the evaluations forms, where the process was laid out. Oops!
In fairness to the upset Board members, they were seeing this through the lens of how things are typically done in the mainstream, where critical comments tend to be summarized (and defanged) before being passed along to the person being evaluated. This simultaneously protects the recipient from being overwhelmed by the bow wave of criticism (however large it is), makes evaluators feel safer in being candid, and makes it less likely that bad blood will result between evaluator and employee.
Going the other way, sanitized feedback is more vague (both in terms of the specifics of what has been challenging, and in terms of how it can often be crucial knowing who gave comments in order to frame their meaning properly), which blunts their value. In line with its commitment to direct and honest communication—including the hard stuff—the community has intentionally embraced an evaluation process where feedback is passed along unadulterated. (If you can't say it to their face, don't say it.) If the recipient struggles to take it in, the community will provide support (this is not about treating people as piñatas, letting them dangle in the wind while everyone gets free swings).
Finally, passing along evaluations unedited saves the time it takes to craft a sensitive and balanced summary (no one in community complains that's there's too little to do) and neatly eliminates the danger of someone inadvertently seeing the unexpurgated evaluations at a later date, thus defusing what might become time bombs. (And don't tell me that never happens.)
The After Grow
What makes this a compelling story is that no one is wrong and there's considerable tenderness about which road to take. Which path leads to a fuller transmittal of critical information and which leads to its most constructive treatment?
While I applaud the community for bravely setting a high bar for communication standards by embracing direct feedback, there's plenty of room to question whether that quashes the expression of concerns. This is a nuanced conversation that needs to include both an assessment of what's possible now, and what we want to be possible in the future. (If you are not living the change you want to be, how will you ever get there?)
I think the community gets high marks for having a full-featured evaluation process, yet a lower grade for weak responsiveness to the call for evaluations. There is also work for the community to do in bringing the Board into greater awareness about the ways in which the community is expressly trying to be different than the mainstream culture (as well as work for the Board to do in reading forms before they fill them out).
Like a lot of things in community, robust evaluations—ones that are accurate, comprehensive, compassionate, and constructive—are a work in progress.
Thursday, July 31, 2014
I've recently became aware of an evaluation process in an intentional community that raised a poignant question about the balance between transparency and discretion, and what it means to be creating cooperative culture.
Monday, July 28, 2014
Suppose you're part of a cooperative group that makes decisions by consensus and there's an important issue under discussion. At the end of the first meeting it's clear that a lot of people see the issue differently than you do. While the group has not yet drafted a proposal about how to respond, what is your work—as a responsible member of the group—to be ready for that step?
For any process to function well it's helpful if the participants are relatively self-aware and are willing to look at the ways in which they may be stuck, or not owning their portion of what may be difficult. That's especially true in consensus, where one obstinate person can monkey wrench the whole shebang.
That said, even if you agree that it's important to do your "personal work," what does that mean? Here's a list of nine ways you might go about that. While this list is not exhaustive, it's highly suggestive. Think of it as priming the pump.
1. Are you respecting the views of those who think differently than you?
While you have the right to have your opinions taken into account; that's paired with the responsibility to take into account those of others. Have you done that?
2. Are you discerning the difference between personal preferences and what's best for the group?
While it's fine to give voice to what you'd prefer, have you paused to think through how much of that is legitimately in the group's interest, as derived from group values?
3. Are you owning your mistakes?
On those occasions when the group proceeds despite your concerns and everything works out fine, do you afterwards adjust your thinking in light of what happens? Do you admit to others that your fears proved baseless?
The flip side of this is celebrating (note that I did not say "gloating") when your concerns turn out to be justified. The lesson here is that your assessments are sound—please remain courageous in expressing them.
4. Are you considering both the head response and the belly response?
We take in, process, and "know" things in a wide variety of ways. While the default mode of examination in Western culture is to share your best thinking, there is also emotional intelligence and body knowing. Are they invited to your inner council also? Perhaps more importantly, are they taken seriously when their advice diverges from what you think?
5. Are you letting the work happen?
Sometimes we allow our busy lives to crowd out the time needed to digest the issues at hand and to come to know fully why we've responded as we have. Do we protect adequate time for reflection, and are we sufficiently disciplined to use that time well.
6. If you're having an emotional reaction, are your clearing that first, before deciding what action to take relative to the presenting issue?
Strong reactions are often accompanied by strong distortion and distraction. If you don't first attend to working through the upset, it can be the very devil sorting through what's best for the group.
7. Are you exploring what's at stake?
Sometimes it's illuminating to look closely at why a thing matters—both to you personally and to the group. What's the bad thing that might happen if you don't get your way?
8. Have you slept on it?
For some of us, subconscious processing—the kind of thing that happens when you're not paying conscious attention to a thing—can yield an insight. Sometimes we awaken to a sense of resolution even though we went to bed troubled. (Meditation may produce the same effect.)
9. If you're the kind of person who likes to talk through things with others, are you being careful to not solely discuss things with those who share your views?
While the theory of talking things through with others is that we'll be less likely to get stuck in our own tape loops, sometimes listeners just reinforce our prejudices. If you purposefully seek out the ear of someone known to have a different view than you, you're far less likely to become ensnared in this silken trap.
Friday, July 25, 2014
Although it's not what folks generally have their attention on when they start or join communities, the other side of the coin is that people leave. To be sure, this can happen for a wide variety of reasons. Let me give you a hypothetical dozen—all of which I've witnessed:
1. Maybe the bread winner in your household just had their job transferred to Kalamazoo or Timbuktu, and they really want to keep that job.
2. Maybe your 15-year-old got busted for smoking pot in the bathroom of the public library (there's a reason that "sophomoric" is an adjective that refers to poor judgment) and you're heart sick over the possibility that the negative publicity will give the community a black eye and lead to your family being ostracized in the community.
3. Maybe your mother is getting to the point where she needs one of her adult children to live nearby, and none of your siblings has enough flexibility in their life to answer the bell. You do what you gotta do and it's time to give back to Mom.
4. Maybe your daughter's asthma has worsened to where you have to move to a climate with lower humidity.
5. Maybe you love all the coffee shops, liberal politics, and Powell's bookstore, but if you spend one more winter in Portland's gray drizzle your SAD (which is bad) will make your partner mad and it's time to move to a sunnier pad where you can both be glad.
6. Maybe you're sick unto death of your neighbor's barking dog and, after years of struggle, you're willing to move so you can finally count on getting a decent night's sleep.
7. Maybe you can no longer tolerate the interminable meetings. Making decisions together sounded OK in theory, but OMG.
8. Maybe your youngest child just left for college and the nest is empty. You don't want to be rattling around in all that house but there is nothing smaller available in the community, so downsizing means moving.
9. Maybe your marriage has just dissolved and you cannot bear the thought of continuing to live in the same community as your ex. (Maybe 10 years from now, but not next week.)
10. Maybe your mildly hyperactive daughter has been accused of bullying the neighbor kids and is no longer welcome in community play groups with her peers. Though the kids still want to be together, the other parents won't allow it. You feel your kid is being scapegoated, and don't want to live in a community where other parents seem unwilling to look at how their child is contributing to challenging dynamics.
11. Maybe you came to community expressly to learn natural building techniques and how to incorporate energy saving technology into everyday life. Now that you've learned all that, you're ready to head off to your mountain top property in Colorado to build your dream home and retire next to a trout stream.
12. Maybe you can no longer tolerate hearing youngsters scream at community dinners (ruining adult conversation) and you're bone weary of tripping over scooters and Big Wheels strewn about the pathways at night—right where the kids left them.
I could go on and on, but you get the picture. There are many reasons why people leave. Sometimes it's because there's a problem in the community that's not resolving; sometimes there are personal reasons that have nothing to do with the community; sometimes it's a bit of both.
From the community's perspective there are three particular possibilities that I want to highlight. These are important both because there may be chances to turn things around even at the eleventh hour, and because it's an opportunity for the community to learn what it might do differently in the future.
Possibility A: Where the member is facing a personal challenge that suggests leaving and may not have explored how much the community could be an ally in finding a response that wouldn't require moving away
In this dynamic there is probably no expectation that the community has anything to offer, and it's quite possible that the member has not even made an attempt to seek help from the community. But that doesn't mean there are no options!
For this to have room to fully bloom I think it makes sense for representatives of the community (Membership Committee?) to pro-actively, yet discreetly, approach the person or couple to see if they're open to exploring how the community might be able to provide some outside-of-the-box support.
If the openness is there (no arm twisting, please) the support team can find out details of the situation beyond what is known publicly and perhaps help with spade work to follow through on promising suggestions, either on the private side (directly with individuals) or the public side (using community resources). Even if no appreciable help is realized through this effort, it will land well that the attempt was made and the community will feel better that it went the extra mile.
Possibility B: Where there are challenges in the community that have been named, but attempts at resolution have been unsatisfactory and the person is ready to leave in frustration
In this dynamic there is likely to be some hurt feelings, perhaps in many directions. It is a delicate thing knowing when you've tried enough, and when it's time to let go and move on. Not all problems are solvable and not all people are meant to live together. Exit can be the right choice.
Yet there can be considerable gold in panning through the dross of failed attempts at conflict resolution—if you approach it with an open, what-can-we-learn attitude, rather than with a how-can-we-assign-blame perspective. While it may not be easy to get the protagonists to engage in a post-mortem analysis (who wants to pick the scab off?), you might have success if a neutral team (Membership, I'm thinking of you again) approached with a promise to simply listen, to make sure there's clarity about that person's side of events and how it landed for them.
It's possible that this kind of listening will lead to an insight about how things could get unstuck if approached differently, and—if it's not too late—those may still be tried. But I wouldn't hold my breath. Mostly the point of this kind of examination is to learn how to do things better next time; how to not dig the hole so deep that no one can get out.
Possibility C: Where there are challenges in the community that have not been named publicly, yet the person is willing to leave over them
This dynamic is a particularly interesting one because you may not know it's even in play unless you're privy to inside information or someone tips you off. The public presentation is that the person (or couple) has announced that they're leaving for personal reasons that have nothing to do with community dynamics (after all, they have to say something about why their leaving), but that's not the case, or at least not the whole story. How will you know to ask about this if you don't know it's happening?
Why would people do this? Perhaps it's too embarrassing to disclose their reactions in group. Maybe they're conflict averse and would rather leave than try to work it out. Possibly they're intimidated by the particular folks they're conflicted with and don't have the gumption to face bully dynamics. Maybe there are a bunch of small things, no one of which is fatal, but the accumulation is overwhelming.
The beauty of this possibility is that if you're following my advice about being pro-active in Possibility A, the interviewing group might discover that it's really Possibility C (where the "personal reasons" were trumped up to deflect inquiries about community dynamics), or a combination of the two (where there are both personal reasons and community reasons). If you uncover this dynamic, you may have a chance to still work the conflict (by whatever means your group has in place for that purpose). But even if it's too late for that, you get more accurate information about the ways in which the community has fallen short, which gives you a leg up on dealing with whatever broke down.
With all of the above in mind, let's drill down on what you might ask if you're interviewing someone who has announced they intend to leave. Here are some questions you might pose:
o How well did life in the community work for you and your family? What were the highlights; what was hard?
o Did you find the community to be as advertised? If not, please describe the ways in which there was a misunderstanding about what you'd find, and give us any suggestions you have about how to correct those.
o What suggestions do you have for how we could more accurately describe what life in our community is like? Please be specific.
o What would you say to a prospective or incoming new member that you wished had been said to you?
o Did you get the interpersonal support you were looking for as a member of the community? If not, what can you tell us about how we fell short?
o Are there ways that you wish the community could be doing more for its members? If so, please describe the ways.
o What, if any, aspects of community agreements did you really appreciate, and which do you wish were different?
o What, if any, aspects of community culture did you really appreciate, and which do you wish were different?
o Are there any unresolved issues related to community life that are a factor in your decisions to leave? If so, please tell us what they are.
o To the extent that there are personal reasons (unrelated to community life) influencing your decision to leave, have you tried to get help from the community in resolving those issues such that you could stay? If not, or you are willing to try more, we invite you to tell us in detail what those personal factors are. (While we cannot promise to pull a rabbit out of the hat, we're willing to give it a try.)
o If you had sufficient support from the community, would you be willing to try any further to work things out so that you could stay in the community? If so, what would that support look like?
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
OK, I know this is going to come across as fairly geeky, but hey, I was a math major.
Playing with Powers
Tomorrow, my daughter, Jo, will turn 27. Not only is that the bloom of life, but it's three cubed. While novel in and of itself, what caught my attention is that I'm four cubed (64 if you're scoring at home). I realize, of course, that it's not particularly difficult to have a parent who was 37 when their child was born, but think about it. Realistically, this is the only dual-cubed parent-child linkage that is likely without raising eyebrows.
Sure, I could be one of those older guys who just can't stop breeding (think David Letterman) and be 64 when my child was eight (two cubed), or an undisciplined teenager who got their family started right out of the box at the testosterone-enriched age of 19 (resulting in dad being only 27 when their offspring turned eight).
While you may think that math oddities are not a particularly loving or respectful way to celebrate the anniversary of my daughter's nativity, you'd be wrong. In addition to being related by blood, Jo and I share a geeky fascination with board games. (While I know that equates to "bored games" to many, not so with us.) In fact, she has boardgamegeek.com bookmarked on her laptop.
Let me put this in perspective. Last month I spent a week in Guelph ON doing some consulting with forming communities and attending a four-day conference in nearby Kitchener. Because the conference ended too late for me to catch the once-a-day bus to Ann Arbor MI, I had a leisurely last evening with Derek, who was my concierge and chauffeur all week.
While I put a pork roast in a crock pot with vegetables for dinner—cooking for a group is an excellent way for me to relax—Derek rustled up some friends to come over for board games after I assured him that I thought I could hang with his crowd. After dinner five of us settled on a game of Puerto Rico, which is one of the first excellent no-dice games. It was released in 2002 and nominated for the coveted Spiel des Jahres Award (Game of the Year in Germany). Twelve years old—which is long in the tooth for board games—it's holding steady as the #2 rated game at boardgamegeek.com.
Having played before, I adopted the high-income strategy, emphasizing tobacco and sugar (which allowed me to buy the best buildings) and I cruised to victory with 25% more victory points than the person in second. In contrast, when I play with Jo and Peter (my son-in-law), I'm lucky if I win one time in three. When it comes to board games, I live in a tough family.
Additional Power Plays
While it would have been enough that July 23 is Jo's birthday, there's more. I learned Sunday that my good friend, Jennifer, has a daughter Cynder, who'll turn 16 tomorrow (which, of course, is two to the fourth). In turn, that reminded me that for five months last winter I was 64 (eight squared) while my stepson, Jibran, was 16 (four squared). Pretty powerful stuff, eh?
Here was the tribute I gave Tony:
Saturday, July 19, 2014
I've been living at Dancing Rabbit since November and we have a new thing that's been going on the last several weeks: the traveling menagerie. There's a subgroup here called Critters that has a bunch of, well, critters.
Not only that, but they move 'em around. You've heard the old saw about the grass is greener on the other side of the fence? Well the Critters operate on a variation of that theme: the grass is always greener if you keep moving the fence.
They have a lightweight flexible electric fence that allows them to construct a temporary enclosure, which they relocate every so many days for the grazing pleasure of their small herd of four goats and a miniature donkey. If you need the vegetation brought under control somewhere, let them know and you can get your field or side yard into the rotational queue. If you don't mind the bleating, and the somewhat irregular trim heights, you can effectively get your lawn mowed and fertilized in one go with no drain on the national oil reserves. It's a pretty sweet deal.
In addition, they're experimenting with a free ranging band of three ducks—Khaki Cambells to be precise, two hens and a drake. The image above depicts the breed.
To be clear, this did not happen in a cultural vacuum, nor is it without boundaries. For years, the village dogs (at least the well-mannered ones) have been allowed to enter the village pub on cold nights to cozy up to the fire, and so far no one has suggested that the make-way-for-ducklings movement be extended to include visiting privileges in the common house kitchen—for which I'm thankful (and so is the health department).
It's turned out that the unfettered ducks are popular (as well as novel). Among other things they tidy up under the mulberry trees, which are otherwise a damn nuisance when the prolific fruit starts dropping, staining everything sticky and purple. (Now it's just the duck shit that's purple.)
So far all the outdoor dogs, cats, and humans have managed to coexist amicably with the quackers, and we hope that continues.
While it's too early to tell if this trend will persist, the Critters are doing all they can to get their ducks in a row, so to speak, to secure and maintain social approbation. With respect to choreography though, getting ducks in a row is much harder to achieve. The little darlings do not exactly constitute a chorus line. (Have you ever tried to get ducks waddling in syncopation? I thought not.)
I've come to view them more as a band of roving minstrels, and I'm enjoying their spontaneous riffs—punctuated by their characteristic tail twitching dance routines—as noteworthy contributions to the improvisational passion play, Life in the Ecovillage, showing daily.
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
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 Relationship segment there are 10 cards. The sixth pattern in this segment is labeled Honor Each Person. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card:
This is a rich and subtle pattern. On the one hand, it's obvious. Who would speak against honoring each person (or in favor of purposefully dishonoring others)?
Yet we are largely unaware of custom, of the water we swim in—unless we're swimming in someone else's pond, such as when we travel abroad. For the most part custom becomes an unnoticed backdrop that rises to our consciousness only when something is different. And the more different, the more we notice. When you take into account that most of us have been deeply conditioned in an individualistic culture, where identity is tied to the sense in which we are unique (rather than in a cooperative culture where we celebrate the ways in which we are similar), then difference tends to be strongly associated with distance. People who are different tend to become "other."
We may feel threatened by customs that are different than our own. We may feel confused. We may feel unwelcome.
Worse, styles may clash. A person who grew up in a blue collar family where mom and dad shouted and occasionally threw crockery when upset may behave in a way that feels overwhelmingly unsafe to a person whose family never raised their voice at the dinner table and only one person spoke at a time. Words and phrases that are precise and comfortable for a well-educated person may come across as unintelligible and manipulative to someone who barely finished 8th grade. Swear words are straight-talking to some; blasphemous to others.
In short, it's complicated. The trick, of course, is to focus on what's in the package, not on the wrapping.
The simple version of this is doing the work to not be triggered by the package (which includes dress, diction, skin color, emotional affect, physical disability, adornment, disfigurement, word choice, facial expressions, etc.), or at least to manage one's reactions. Yet this pattern runs deeper. It is not enough that you can parrot the words (or even the delivery); the object is to get what it feels like to be the other person; to see the dynamic through their eyes and their being. That is the deeper meaning of "honoring." It is much more than sharing the microphone.
Note the final portion of the text for this pattern: "... each person brings their gifts to the whole more fully when affirmed and appreciated."
The point here is that you will often not get what you might have gotten if you handle the opening poorly. Simply put, when people don't feel honored (or welcome) by their standards, they are far less likely to share what they have to give. If when they speak the audience stares back glassy eyed or checks their watches, it's not reasonable to expect them to pour their hearts out.
In truly parochial settings, non-regulars can get labeled uncommunicative and surly for not sharing, yet the regulars may be altogether clueless about how unwelcoming they were. The newcomers experience no warmth or genuine interest in who they are or what they bring; the regulars experience boorish guests with off-putting habits, odd diction, and obscure reflections. It's a train wreck.
Does this mean you need to learn every culture's customs? No, but you can remember to ask a person what their customs of greeting are—rather than assume they'll be knowledgeable and comfortable with yours.
When playing at home, the hallmark of honoring behavior is to be more curious than conforming; more accepting than judging. At an away game, it tends to work better if you watch and listen ahead of acting and speaking—the better to get a sense of local custom, before you inadvertently put your foot in something you'd rather you didn't… such as your mouth.
Sunday, July 13, 2014
Tomorrow, Ma'ikwe and I will recommit to our marriage.
While that may not seem such a momentous occasion given that the original ceremony was April 21, 2007 (which means our marriage is older than this blog, and not exactly above-the-fold front-page news), tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of Ma'ikwe's decision to divorce me. It's also Bastille Day, the anniversary of the start of the French Revolution (325 years ago), marking the overthrow of tyranny and the French monarchy—just as Ma'ikwe was prepared to throw off the yoke of matrimony.
So it's no small thing to schedule our recommitment for July 14. Think of it as smudging the calendar. Right on the brink of dissolution, Ma'ikwe and I were carefully—over the course of the last 12 months—able to pick our way back from the edge of the falls without going over the edge and crashing on the rocks below.
It's been quite a year.
Marriage By the Numbers
Seven years ago we celebrated for four days. In the course of those four days we invoked four circles of community and enjoyed special meals with each: blood family, intentional community family, FIC family, and our spiritual family. The commitment ceremony featured four parts: past, community, who we are, and magic.
The first time we got married in the fourth month of a year ending in seven. Now we're getting re-married in the seventh month in a year ending in four. Balance. Ma'ikwe is an Enneagram Seven: the epicure and adventurer. In the seventh year of our marriage she'd had enough struggling and was ready to try something new. Yet she was also aware of the work set out for this type to mature and thrive:
Your spiritual journey is to search for right work and focused concentration. Spiritual growth will come to you when you approach life with disciplined sobriety instead of getting high on new ideas, options and plans. Like a stone skipping across a lake that sinks deeply when it comes to rest, you will do well to slow down, experience your inner depths, and focus on completion.
Freedom will exist when you accept the limitations of the present moment. Remember that envisioning something is not the same as manifesting it. True freedom comes with commitment and hard work—not from having unlimited options.
When I responded well to her decision to end the relationship (my therapist deserves a lot of credit here—I didn't know I had it in me), Ma'ikwe thought long and hard about whether to stay in the relationship longer, to see where additional work could get us. In the end though, she agreed and here we are.
Time on the Couch
Since last July, I've had 15 appointments with our therapist and couples counselor in Quincy IL (60 miles away). Sometimes Ma'ikwe and I went together; sometimes I went alone.
I've been working on my reactivity, clarifying what I want from the partnership, and delving into the murkiness of my sexual response. In turn, Ma'ikwe has been working on her tendency to withhold what she's thinking about, and to stop imagining that I'm upset with her whenever she catches me talking to myself (which I do a lot).
Recently we've been working on how to handle the situation when we both feel solid in our positions yet they don't match up. While this doesn't happen a lot (whew), it's not rare, and we've been learning how to accept occasional non-agreement without jeopardizing the partnership. The essential point is that we don't have to work through everything.
We have also been working on protecting intimate time together on a regular basis, and the primacy of consulting with one another before making major commitments. Slowly, we've been learning how to be better partners.
The Fork in the Road
It became clear to me last summer (in a way that I was loathe to face before Ma'ikwe's announcement last July 14) that I was going to have to choose between my marriage and my community, Sandhill Farm. This was not something I'd bargained for when we said "I do" seven years ago, and I had been resisting it even as Ma'ikwe was asking for more time together (after all, she had the option of moving to Sandhill; why did I have to be the one who gave up my home?).
But you only have to hit my on the head with a 2x4 once, so Ma'ikwe's divorce announcement got my attention. Facing the certainty of losing one, I was able to let go of my home and stick with the marriage—if Ma'ikwe would have me. (If she turned me down—a distinct possibility—then I still had my home of 40 years.)
I took a leave of absence from Sandhill right after Thanksgiving and have been living with Ma'ikwe since then at Moon Lodge, her house at Dancing Rabbit. While there have continued to be some things that go bump in the night (and sometimes during the day as well), we're mostly doing quite well. Well enough, in fact, for Ma'ikwe to put her seven-year itch behind her and recommit to the marriage.
Tomorrow, as we purposefully resew the threads of our commitment to one another—and begin wearing our rings again for the first time in a year—I'll be thinking of it as our Seven-Year Stitch.
Friday, July 11, 2014
Ever since working on my high school newspaper (1965-67), I've wanted to be a journalist. While that has by no means been the only thing I've wanted to be, communication has been one of my enduring passions.
Slowly, over the decades, I've succeeded.
Starting in the 80s I occasionally authored magazine articles about community living. Concurrent with that, I launched a career as a process consultant, which inexorably led to report writing—lots of report writing.
Lost in the Fun House
Then things took a jump in 1992 when I negotiated FIC becoming the publisher of Communities magazine, taking over from Charles Betterton, who had lost the resource base to keep things going. This opportunity opened three doors at once: writer, editor, publisher.
—Over the two-plus decades that FIC has been behind the wheel, I've typically authored 6-8 magazine articles annually. Given that the road to effective writing is pretty much the same one that Lily Tomlin points out as the way you get to Carnegie Hall—practice—this steady work has been enormously beneficial in the development of my craft.
—Having apprenticed at my father's knee as a snob about words and their proper usage, I've also worked the other side of the aisle: editing. Even as far back as the early '90s, a network compatriot wryly gifted me a red pen for my birthday, because, after receiving my mark-ups of his draft white paper, he knew I must go through them faster than a garlic eater consumes breath mints.
—Rarest of all is the chance to be a publisher. While the circulation of Communities has never been above 1600, in our own small way we are a market-maker when it comes to grammar, spelling, and the meaning of words. We get to be ruthless in stamping out the cutesy disease of interior capitalization ("CoHousing" and "EcoVillage" make me want to vomit), expurgating unneeded hyphens ("e-mail," "by-laws," and "non-profit" are so '90s), and arbitrating a non-sexist solution to the need for a third person singular pronoun when gender is unknown (we prefer "they," making the plural do double duty in the same way that we ask "you" to be of service as the singular and plural second person pronoun).
I just eat that stuff up!
Throughout the last decade of the 20th Century and the opening stanza of the 21st, I gradually accreted an increasing number of communication offerings onto my workshop menu. Today my offerings include Conflict, Facilitation, Power Dynamics, Consensus (which comes in two flavors), and Humor (think of it as spumoni).
Blogging a Dead Horse
Then, in 2007, I dipped my toe into the blogosphere. Seven years and 770 entries later, I'm still at it. While I encountered an existential hiccup a few years back—wondering if I'd run out of fresh ideas and fall prey to reheating leftovers—I've been able to put that particular devil behind me.
I've discovered that all I have to do is pay attention to what's happening around me! Life is never dull for an itinerant community networker who is domiciled in a thriving ecovillage (note the clean spelling), and there is always a new foal or filly gamboling about in the landscape of my life, offering itself up as inspiration for my next blog (think of it as the virtual equivalent of My Friend Flicka). There's really no reason to be anxious about slipping into a morbid fascination with describing dead horses.
Communities as a Pathway to Community
Even though publishing our quarterly magazine steadily loses money (we've finished in the black only twice in 22 years), it's something that FIC holds dear and we're doing everything in our power to keep it in print. The magazine was first launched in 1972, and has established itself as the source for information and inspiration about community living and cooperative culture.
We cover the Intentional Communities Movement in its full breadth: from cohousing to ecovillages; from ashrams to student co-ops; from group houses to agricultural communes.
At its best, Communities chronicles both the triumphs and the heartaches of cooperative living. We take you behind the scenes to examine what challenges people are encountering, and what solutions they are discovering in their day-to-day experiences of living together.
Cooperative living is messy business and we try to cover it all. We don't sugar coat it, and we let authors disagree about the lessons to be learned. Our editorial mission is not to promulgate a party line; it's to make the lines shorter for getting into the party. If there's one thing we've learned from living in community, it's that we're all in this together and we're only able to do our best work when we listen to everyone's piece of the truth.
How You Can Help
This is where you come in. Nothing would make a more immediate impact on our bottom line than new subscribers. If you do not currently have a subscription, please consider clicking here and signing up. If you are a current subscriber, thank you!—and please consider giving a gift subscription to a friend or loved one.
The timing couldn't be better! We've recently overhauled our website to offer content either as paper or
plastic digital, and all back issues as either available as in-print copies or as digital downloads. We're also offering a completely revised collection of the Best of Communities on 15 different themes, where we've gathered together 15-20 of the best articles we've published on a topic (including Good Meetings; Leadership, Power, and Membership; Elders in Community; Challenges and Lessons of Community; and Cohousing) and created dynamite packets of 55-65 pages each. Buy one or buy them all.
For the truly inspired, we offer a complete back issue set—all 161 of them—for the bargain price of $500.
For those especially moved by what Communities has meant to you and will continue to mean in our collective effort to manifest a more cooperative future, I invite you to consider making an earmarked tax-deductible donation in support of magazine operations. It all counts.
Your support today will help keep our cooperative flame burning brightly—and all of us cooperative authors in print (and off the street).
Monday, July 7, 2014
Have you ever noticed how people start to appear wiser the further they get from home? You may laugh, but this is a dynamic of biblical proportions. Matthew 13:57 says: … but Jesus said unto them, "A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house."
It's enough to make you want to take a road trip.
In this day of upward spiraling travel costs (we really are running out of oil), it seems prudent to contemplate the future for consultants. Being one, I think about it. After 27 years of going to my clients (or to events where I can showcase my wares in workshops), I am pioneering a webinar series that will offer a half dozen of my most commonly requested workshops, plus a seventh Q&A session styled Stump the Chumps, where Ma'ikwe and I try to hit whatever cooperative process curve balls people toss our way. While being connected via video and audio is not the same thing as being in the same room, it starts to approximate it, and no one has to travel. I figure my future will definitely include more of this.
[While the webinar series was scheduled to start July 2, we aborted when the software (GlobalMeet) started spontaneously malfunctioning 20 minutes into the presentation—gremlins started arbitrarily muting the speaker and unmuting the audience. The whole series has now been moved back one week and will begin July 9, and will run every Wednesday through Aug 20. It will be live 2-4 pm Central time, and will be available as a downloadable recording to anyone who signs up. This Wed we'll be switching to Adobe Connect to frustrate the gremlins. So if you missed our opening (comedy) act last Wed, the boat has still not left the pier.]
Webinars aside, I've been aware for a long time that there's been little interest in my skills within my zip code. Yes, I've facilitated my share of meetings at both Sandhill Farm and Dancing Rabbit, but I'm almost never asked to facilitate conflicts, which is probably the number one thing I'm known for on a continental level. (On a state level, I've only been hired to facilitate five times outside of 63563 in 27 years, yet four of those were to teach about or to facilitate a live conflict.)
Of course, at Sandhill—which is a very small community, usually around six adults—it was nearly impossible for me to be sufficiently neutral (or perceived to be sufficiently neutral) to be acceptable as a conflict facilitator. But it's more than that. My community hasn't even been interested in learning my theory of working with conflict.
I recently witnessed someone in tears over his frustration at how little interest there had been among his fellow community members in taking advantage of his offer to help people be more financially successful (this guy works only 15 hours a week and generates enough surplus to make annual donations north of $20,000, so he's demonstrably good at being financially generative). While I felt his anguish, it's no longer acute for me. I'm a good bit further down that road and my disappointment is more of a dull ache because I've grown accustomed to it—and because I get plenty of work in different time zones, which satisfies my primal desire to be helpful. I've adjusted my expectations and no longer look for people to seek my talents at home.
I'm also seeing another shift. Now that I've moved over to Dancing Rabbit (to live with Ma'ikwe) I'm not centrally involved in community dynamics and people are more open to me as a result. At my new community I'm highly selective about what community issues I insert myself into, and I'm not seeking influence as I did while living at Sandhill. Oddly enough, two people at Dancing Rabbit have approached me in the last half year to be a mentor for them. This is something I very much enjoy doing yet have done precious little of my first 39 years of community living (excepting twice I served as adjunct faculty for Prescott College, guiding—by email and phone—students doing independent studies on intentional community). Having let go, the opportunities have come to me, which I experience as something of a cosmic joke (which is better, I think, than a cosmic tragedy).
While part of this may be about me (can you ever rule that out completely?), I think part of what's going on is a generic avoidance of the schizophrenic dynamic where two people are simultaneously in a peer-peer relationship (by virtue of being fellow community members) and in a teacher-student relationship. It can be awkward to navigate the shifting power gradient, and some would rather avoid it all together, accepting the price of foregoing whatever might be learned (either from the teacher, or from juggling the roles).
When the teacher comes from outside—especially from way outside— all of that awkwardness can be neatly sidestepped. The consultant goes away Monday morning. At Sandhill, I think I'm more valued for my tomatillo salsa, my skill at wildcrafting morels, and my knowledge of how to file the community's tax returns, than for my ability to be sure-footed when navigating complex community dynamics.
While it remains to be seen how my opportunities to be an honorable prophet (much less a profitable one) may diminish as gas prices soar, for now I'm savoring that I still have work all around the continent—which may be extended by my nascent career as a webinar presenter (and indefatigable blogger).
It's a quirky world out there, and every now and then you need to stop and make sure you're still heading in the direction you intended.
Friday, July 4, 2014
I attended a workshop recently on The Circle Way, based on the 2010 book of that title by
Christina Baldwin and
Ann Linnea. The workshop leaders were very promotional of groups using the Circle format to do deeper, more connected work. While I agreed with much of what they offered, their pitch reminded me of Shaklee distributors touting the universal benefits of Basic H (the miracle cleaning concentrate of the '70s) and I have the same reservations about sharing circles as I did about Basic H: although the Circle is a fine format some of the time, it isn't the best choice all of the time.
As someone who has lived in intentional community for 40 years and worked as a group process consultant for two-thirds of that time, I've been to an untold number of meetings, read gobs of books about group dynamics, and witnessed many different formats. Ever since workable models of secular consensus were first evolved to meet the emerging needs of the East Coast anti-nuclear groups of the '70s (thank you, Movement for a New Society) there has been an explosion of work done to develop cooperative processes—abandoning the arcane and susceptible-to-back-room-manipulation world of parliamentary procedure (think of all the murky and morally questionable process shenanigans that accompanied the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865, as showcased brilliantly in the award winning 2012 Spielberg film, Lincoln).
Here are some trends that I can distill from the broad sweep of my immersion in cooperative dynamics the last four decades:
o The hunger for cooperative culture (in contrast with adversarial, competitive culture) is very wide and growing. (If anything, mainstream dynamics are getting increasing shrill, uncivil, and dissatisfying.)
o Having the intent to be cooperative is insufficient to consistently produce cooperative behavior—especially when people disagree and the stakes are high.
o The essential difference in cooperative group dynamics is that participants have to engage productively on the energetic plane as well as the rational plane. Among other things, this means that how something gets done matters as much as what gets done. On a practical level, this means that good meetings are ones where all participants feel that their input is welcomed, heard, and respectfully treated without their needing to change personalities, or to check their passion at the door.
o While energy work can be significantly supported by the thoughtful choice of formats, there is no single format that works best (or even well) all of the time. If, as a carpenter, you fall in love with your hammer and neglect your other tools, pretty soon everything starts looking like a nail.
Let's return now to Circles as a format option. Mostly I'm aware of these being used in cooperative groups as a change of pace when it's more important to focus on energy than problem solving. An example would be a Grieving Circle when a dear one departs the group (perhaps by moving away or by dying). It could also be a celebration, as in a marriage, an anniversary, or an Appreciation Circle on the eve of someone's departure. In each of these instances, there is no problem to solve; the Circle is called so that people can share their hearts and deepen their connections.
Another common use of the Circle format is when doing a check-in (and it's twin sister, the check-out). While participants may or may not actually be arrayed in a circle, the concept is that everyone will get a chance to speak in turn, one at a time, saying briefly how they're doing and perhaps naming something on their mind that they'd like to set aside to attend to the purpose of the meeting. The point is to be better connected with everyone, and to allow a graceful opportunity for everyone to energetically arrive in the room before any heavy lifting is attempted.
Circles are also employed to get at the feelings connected with a topic prior to engaging in problem solving. The concept here is to clear the air of significant distress prior to discussing what action the group wants to take—mainly to eliminate or at least diminish the distortion and brittleness that typically accompany upset or reactivity. Groups that engage directly with "what to do" and skip this clearing step (either because they are unaware of the distress or because they lack confidence in handling it well) generally suffer difficult and exhausting meetings. With the idea of streamlining the process, they inadvertently wind up getting bogged down, or suffer relationship damage that takes longer to repair than the time they thought they were saving by not attending to the initial upset. Ugh.
While there are certainly more applications of the Circle, that's sufficient to lay out common uses among cooperative group that mainly operate through open discussion.
At this point I want to introduce what Baldwin & Linnea label the Components of the Circle. In their words this is an overview of what they advocate:
The Circle, or council, is an ancient form of meeting that has gathered juman beings into respectful converation for thousands of years. The Circle has served as the foundation for many cultures.
What transforms a meeting into a circle is the willingness of people to shift from informal socializing or opinionated discussion into a receptive attitude of thoughtful speaking and deep listening and to embody and practice the structures outlined here.
Intention shapes the Circle and determines who will come, how long the Circle will meet, and what kinds of outcomes are to be expected. The caller of the Circle spends time articulating intention and invitation.
Welcome or Start-point
Once people have gathered, it is helpful for the host, or a volunteer, to begin the Circle with a gesture that shifts people's attention from social space to council space. This gesture of welcome may be a moment of silence, reading a poem, or listening to a song—whatever invites centering.
Establishing the Center
The center of a Circle is like the hub of a wheel: all energies pass through it, and it holds the rim together. To help people remember how the hub helps the group, the center of a Circle usually holds objects that represent the intention of the Circle. Any symbol that fits this purpose or adds beauty will serve: flowers, a bowl or basket, a candle.
Check-in helps people into a frame of mind for council and reminds everyone of their commitment to the expressed invitation. It insures that people are truly present. Verbal sharing, especially a brief story, weaves the interpersonal net.
Check-in usually starts with a volunteer and proceeds around the Circle. If an individual is not ready to speak, the turn is passed and another opportunity is offered after others have spoken. Sometimes people place individual objects in the center as a way of signifying their presence and relationship to the intention.
Setting Circle Agreements
The use of agreements allows all members to have a free and profound exchange, to respect a diversity of views, and to share responsibility for the well-being and direction of the group. Agreements often used include:
—We will hold stories or personal material in confidentiality.
—We listen to each other with compassion and curiosity.
—We ask for what we need and offer what we can.
—We agree to employ a group guardian to watch our need, timing, and energy. We agree to pause at a signal, and to call for that signal when we feel the need to pause.
The Circle is an all leader group.
1. Leadership rotates among all Circle members.
2. Responsibility is shared for the quality of experience.
3. People place ultimate reliance on inspiration (or spirit), rather than on any personal agenda.
1. To speak with intention: noting what has relevance to the conversation in the moment.
2. To listen with attention: respectful of he learning process for all members of the group.
3. To tend the well-being of the Circle: remaining aware of the impact of our contributions.
Forms of Council
The Circle commonly uses three forms of council: talking piece, conversation, and reflection.
—Talking Piece Council is often used as part of check-in, check-out, and whenever there is a desire to slow down the conversation, collect all voices and contributions, and be able to speak without interruption.
—Conversation Council is often used when reaction, interaction, and an interjection of new ideas, thoughts, and opinions are needed.
—Reflection or Silent Council gives each member time and space to reflect on what is occurring or needs to occur in the course of a meeting. Silence may be called so that each person can consider the role or impact they are having on the group, to help the group realign with its intention, or to sit with a question until there is clarity.
The single most important tool for aiding self-governance and bringing the Circle back to intention is the role of guardian. To provide a guardian, one Circle member at a time volunteers to watch and safeguard group energy and to observe the group's process.
The guardian usually employs a gentle noisemaker, such as a chime, bell, or rattle, that signals everyone to stop action, take a breath, and rest in a space of silence. Then the guardian makes this signal again and speaks to why s/he called a pause. Any member may call for a pause.
Check-out and Farewell
At the close of a Circle meeting, it is important to allow a few minutes for each person to comment on what they learned, or what stays in their heart and mind as they leave.
Closing the Circle by checking out provides a formal end to the meeting, a chance for members to reflect on what has transpired, and to pick up objects if they have placed something in the center.
As people shift from council space to social space or private time, they release each other from the intensity of attention being in Circle requires. Often after check-out the host, guardian, or a volunteer will offer a few inspirational words of farewell, or signal a few seconds of silence before the Circle is released.
With due respect to the ancient traditions which anthropologists inform us are the roots of Circle meetings—and which therefore testify to the vitality and resilience of that form—I want to raise questions about how far to take Circles in today's context.
I'm going to start by making some observations of contemporary Western culture, that provide a context for my recommendations regarding Circles.
1. In the sweep of human history, it's doubtful that human society has ever been more toward the "I" end of the I-we spectrum than we are today. I'm referring to how people tend to think first about how a thing impacts them as an individual, rather than how it affects the group, or the collective. There are even social and economic theories that the group is best taken care of when it's ignored and people only think and act on what's best for them.
While I think you can make the case that people are increasingly aware of the moral bankruptcy and unsustainable consequences of this approach (given how it supports gross inequality in the distribution of wealth and access to resources, and therefore widespread misery), the idea of the supremacy of the individual is not going to go away quietly.
That said, the steady rise in interest in intentional communities is testament to the appeal of purposefully trying to move back toward the "we" end of the spectrum—not to embrace the complete subjugation of the individual to the tribe, but rather to find more equilibrium.
2. Cultures that antedate post-Word War II overwhelmingly tended to be highly structured, which permitted far less latitude than we enjoy today regarding where you lived, class, sexual orientation, spiritual identification, choice of spouse, and even employment options. While there was a stronger sense of "we," it was packaged within hide-bound tradition, top-down hierarchy, and a level of xenophobia and parochialism that very few people today find appealing, or even acceptable.
In short, we want a greater sense of connection, safety, belonging, and home, yet are unwilling to give up much individual freedom to get it. This is a challenge. A lot of us literally know who we are because we have views that differentiate us from others. Because deferring to others can be equated with loss of identity, many of us have learned at an early age that it's more important to focus on differences more than on similarities.
3. We are ritual starved. Though traditional cultures tended to offer much more ritual, in the name of religious freedom and separation of church and state people today tend to feel malnourished relying solely on Christmas trees, Fourth of July fireworks, Valentine's Day roses, and chocolate Easter eggs to connect with Spirit. While organized religion still provides an avenue for that, many are seeking to fill that void in other ways—and are not necessarily being successful in the attempt.
So here are my thoughts about the ways in which Circles are powerful, and the ways in which they are limited in their application:
o In honoring the Circle's ancient roots, Baldwin & Linnea, they are offering a ritual-laden version with a set sequence, and defined roles that are purposefully rotated among group members. While I think the ritual will have resonance for many (addressing my third point above), some will chafe at the heavy attention to an arbitrary structure, losing sight of the prize: connection.
To illustrate my point, one of the workshop leaders (in the role of Host) took a moment to chide the other (in the role of Guardian) when that person chimed three times to indicate a shift in the process, instead of twice—even though attendees had not been told a thing about the significance of the number of chimes. You don't have to step back very far before you realize the ridiculousness of focusing attention on the number of chimes (a la the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin), when you are principally trying, in a workshop, to introduce the concepts of ritual and tone. That was an excellent illustration of how substance can be lost in attention to form.
Thus, while I think the purposeful introduction of ritual to cooperative meetings has merit, don't get hung up on the exact form it takes. Make it be your group's form—and don't take yourselves too seriously.
o Along similar lines, you don't need to employ all of the roles outlined by Baldwin & Linnea above, nor do you need the roles to be strictly rotated among the membership. Better, in my experience, is to encourage roles to be filled as widely as possible, yet allowing members to opt out if any particular role is too uncomfortable for them.
While I'm in favor of helping people get over their anxiety about trying on unfamiliar roles and making the opportunity available to everyone, I'm not in favor of twisting arms or applying peer pressure to enforce rotations. I just tends to traumatize the reluctant and result in the group being poorly served. Yuck.
o Not everyone is going to find Circle work appealing. Perhaps because they're uncomfortable with the unfamiliar; perhaps because the ritual overlay is too evocative of the unpleasant childhood church experience (from which they're still recovering); perhaps because the pace is maddening slow (not matching their metabolism or Latin style of expression and engagement); perhaps because it's too woo woo for hard-boiled pragmatists.
While the workshop leaders assured us that the initially skeptical will come around in time—and I buy that that will be true for some—I doubt it will be true for all. In fact, I'm confident in predicting that a good portion of initial skeptics will not come back to give it a chance to grow on them. You'll just lose them. Some pegs are simply too square to find affinity with the Circle.
o Circle process will tend to work better among the soft-spoken (because there is protected air time), among those who take longer to process what they think and be ready to articulate what they want to share (the deliberate pace helps with that), among those more comfortable sharing at the heart level (as distinct from the head level), and among those who tend to be overwhelmed by strong feelings, especially anger and rage (because of the deliberate, reflective pace, and the emphasis on honoring requests for a pause whenever anyone wants one).
In pointing out these tendencies, I'm not trying to favor the soft-spoken over the loud-spoken, the slow over the quick, the emotive over the rational, or the passionately expressive over the subdued. I'm only making the case that in searching for a truly level playing field, Circle ain't it, and it's naive to think otherwise.
o If you're part of a group that uses Circle as its main way of conducting business and you're happy with what you have, by all means keep doing it. I'm a big fan of doing whatever works. If you're thinking about moving in that direction, I advise that you to consider my reservations and see if you think they have substance in the dynamics of your group.
o Personally, I like preserving Circle as a contrast from the main way of doing business, partly because you can then be more judicious about employing it only when it's the right fit for the need (which I believe are the times when aligning energy is more important than making progress on resolving an issue), and because you'll maximize the boost you'll get from the Hawthorne Effect, the temporary uptick in enthusiasm you'll experience simply because you're doing something different.
While I don't think Circle is the one ring to rule them all, and I don't know if the Circle will be unbroken, I think it fully deserves an honored place in the pantheon of format options for cooperative groups.