Thursday, April 30, 2015

Being Touched in Community

Being touched has many meanings.

1. Heart Connection
as in being affected by someone's plea or pitch

As humans, I believe we are hard-wired to want connection to each other. However, our societal conditioning doesn't necessarily reinforce this. In many ways, the hunger for community is fueled by this unmet need: both to be touched by others and to have others touched by us. I think we all want to be seen and held by those around us, and intentional community is, in part, an attempt to surround ourselves with people who care about the same things—making it easier to in touch.

This is more than others understanding and working respectfully with our ideas; it's about being seen for who we are and known for what matters to us, where meaning is deepest. I want to be clear that the essence of my focus is on being cared about and taken into account—not necessarily that you're agreed with.

2. Slightly Crazy
as in being influenced by wildness or spirit in mysterious or unbalanced ways

For most of us it takes courage to create or join an intentional community. It is far off the beaten path and looked upon as something rather exotic by most in the mainstream. In fact, one of the challenges for people living in community is being taken seriously. Many political activists, for instance, believe that living in intentional community is hiding out—creating a safe enclave out in the boondocks instead of engaging on real issues. (While I don't share that view, I've heard it plenty.)

I am an acorn that has wandered quite far from the tree from which I fell—so much so that my fellow nuts have a hard time conceiving of an oak growing out of my seed. As if the journey to new soil is not perilous in and of itself, I must also bear the stigmata of familial disapprobation or confusion. It is hard leaving the herd.

3. Physical Contact
as in bodies together

I had an experience of this last Sunday, at the end of Men's Group. After sharing that I was planning to take a leave of absence from Dancing Rabbit and try living with friends in NC, the evening concluded with the group giving me a "cinnamon roll." Starting in a circle with everyone holding hands, I dropped my left hand and then spiraled inward while continuing to hold the hand of the person on my right. The results was a spiral with me in the middle. I was acutely aware of both the smells and touch of the other men—and how seldom I feel that.

Because our culture tends to overlay almost all touch with sexual innuendo, there is a strong tendency to discourage touch excepting across the bonds of immediate family or where there is mutual consent to enter into the realm of sexual exploration. The upshot of this taboo is that people are starved for touch. Even where there is scientific evidence that touch is a necessary feature of health, we physically connect with one another seldom and often as carefully as handling porcelain when we do—as if we might break.

Among the many things I miss as a consequence of being estranged from Ma'ikwe is her touch: holding hands on walks, her touching my shoulder lightly when delivering me a cup of coffee at my desk, cuddling as our last act of consciousness at night.

At its best, community is about everyone being in touch.

Monday, April 27, 2015


I'm feeling better.

In fact, well enough to offer up this essay as a triple entendre.

1. The start of a 22-day road trip
I'm typing this on board the Illinois Zephyr, en route to Chicago, where I'll catch the eastbound Capitol Limited for DC this evening. Tomorrow I meet with an FIC donor, and by Wednesday evening I'll be in Blacksburg VA, where I'll be working through the weekend with Shadowlake Village, an established cohousing community with whom I've worked before (though the last time was the weekend right before Katrina hit New Orleans, almost 10 years ago).

After that I get to enjoy four days with my dear friend, Ann Shrader, in nearby Floyd VA. Departing Virginia May 9, I'll get to Denver by Sunday morning, where I'll visit for two days with another long-term friend, followed by five days of FIC meetings at Wild Sage, a cohousing community in Boulder. Then I head for the barn.

This is a fairly typical trip, combining a little of all the things I like to do out in the world: professional facilitating/consulting, network organizing, and visiting with friends. 

So I'm outbound from home.

2. I'm moving to NC
While my going on a trip is not remarkable and neither is the mix of how I'll be spending my time, I realized only yesterday that I will miss the entire morel season without a single walk in the woods, and I'll also not be in state when Sandhill celebrates Land Day, May 9. These are significant omissions because it represents an unmooring of my connection to place—my home of 41 years. I used to schedule trips around morel season and Land Day, and now I'm scheduling through them.

As I reported earlier as a possibility, I've made up my mind to join Maria, Joe, and Mia (Maria's 13-year-old daughter) in early June, occupying their third-floor apartment. I'll be renting month to month and exploring a household scale community with close friends.

To frame this properly, I've taken leaves of absence and stayed for extended periods away from Sandhill a number of times before, so I'm not exactly plowing any new ground here. It's an experiment. If it works out I may move to the Tar Heel State permanently and start a new chapter to my life in community. If not, I can return to Dancing Rabbit, where no bridges have been burned.

Notably, this represents my taking a pro-active step to define what's next for me, after 10 weeks characterized mainly by my grieving the loss of my marriage and allowing for the dust to settle. I've realized in the handful of days that Ma'ikwe and I have both been in residence at Moon Lodge (our house at Dancing Rabbit) that it's awkward trying to figure out how to relate to my estranged wife. I still love her, but she no longer wants me that close and I don't know where the line is between between intimate and interesting. I was walking on eggshells and I need more oxygen.

So even if my NC adventure does not bear community, it will be an emotional respite from the tenderness of my loss. In time, I'm confident that Ma'ikwe and I can find a new balance point that will work for us in a meaningful way—but not just yet.

So in about six weeks I'll be outbound from Missouri.

3. Pain in my torso is finally easing 
After almost seven months of fairly constant debility in one part or another of my ribs and back, I can feel the light at the end of the tunnel. I saw a doctor last week who explained that my most recent malaise— very tender ribs at the point where they meet the sternum (that's costochondritis if you're diagnosing at home)—will eventually get better without my doing anything more prudent than avoiding heavy lifting and getting adequate rest. 

That was welcome news, changing my frame of reference. I no longer think of myself as broken, or maladjusted; just sore. I'm now turning my attention more toward deeper breathing and holding less tension in my back—essentially breaking the reinforcing cycle of tension and exhaustion.

It's interesting to think about how much my ongoing physical pain may be mirroring (or even foreshadowing!) my emotional pain and that I may not be able to heal the one without the other. The intersection of spirit, health, and energy is a very compelling focus for me right now, and I like to think I'm finally pulling in the same direction—toward health—on all fronts.

So I'm outbound from pain.

It should be an interesting trip.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Facilitator Prep

One of the features of the Integrative Facilitation Training programs that I offer (see Facilitation Trainings on Tap for news about what trainings are available now) is teaching how to prepare for a facilitation assignment. Because training weekends are always compacted (we get a lot done in a short time, making maximum use of the three days we have together), the students don't get their assignments (for a one-hour chunk of live facilitation time) until Friday afternoon and sometimes have to be on stage as soon as that evening. (Yikes!)

While in normal life (whatever that is) it's far more common to have a week, or at least several days, to prepare for a meeting, we don't have that luxury in the training program, and thus, students need to learn how to get ready quickly.

In this essay I'm going to lay out a checklist for accomplishing that. The order is not so important as that each of these things needs to be covered:

1. Mind Set
This is about doing whatever personal work is necessary to set aside other things in your life to give yourself over as completely as possible to the task at hand (you're going for maximum free attention), and being as clear a channel as possible once the meeting starts. This is analogous to what athletes do in preparing for a game or an event, excepting that the work is generally not aerobic.

To the extent possible you're aiming for heightened awareness and an egoless state. In my experience this is not about vanquishing nervousness, so much as it's coming to peace with it, so that it's not distracting. As the facilitator, you are there to help midwife a great meeting, not to be the hero or the center of attention. While you should unquestionably prepare for the meeting and what you expect to encounter, you have to be fluid enough that you can adapt plans to fit emerging needs. Meetings are not scripted, and surprises go with the territory.

If you're worried about some aspects of your capacity to perform well, sometimes it helps to simply admit that at the start of the session: As a facilitator, I'm still learning my craft and the skill I want to focus on today is excellent summaries. If you think I'm missing something or am off base in my summaries, please feel free to suggest adjustments. It won't bother me a bit.

By owning this as a weak spot, it will be less scary and you will have enlisted the group as your ally (after all, they want a great meeting, too).

Getting your game on can look like a lot of things: meditating; lying down and closing your eyes for 15 minutes; going for a walk; making a cup of tea; journaling; taking a shower; sitting in a dark room; standing alone in the meeting space before anyone arrives, to feel into the space. Do what works for you.

2. Objectives
You need to know what's wanted on the topics that will be examined on your watch. Is this just a discussion, or is a decision expected? Will there be new data or research results presented in this session, or is all of that already on the table? What questions are we trying to answer? How clearly have the issues been articulated? Is this the first meeting on this topic or is this a follow-up meeting (if the latter, where were things left at the end of the prior meeting and what remains to be done)?

3. Background
Is there any prior work that the group has done on the topics that are on the agenda? This could be either recent or old. Are there any existing agreements that bear on the topics, so that everyone is clear what's already in place. You don't want to be scrambling in the meeting looking for old minutes. That should have been done ahead of time. Are there any relevant precedents in play?

4. Land Mines
Are there any known friction points relating to the topics to be discussed? I'm not talking about plain old vanilla disagreements; I'm talking about non-trivial distress or upset. If so, you want to know who has it, what those feelings are, what they represent, and whether they've been resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Nothing sinks a meeting as dramatically as bumping into an iceberg, where you suddenly discover a reservoir of intractable frozen feelings, ready to flood the floor once surfaced.

Of course, even good reconnaissance will miss some subterranean boulders. So you need to be prepared for field upset if it pops up, even if it wasn't on your radar at the start of the meeting. Although weather forecasting is imperfect, it's better than no-casting.

5. Formats
Now that you have the information you need about the topics (as a result of steps 2-4 above), it's your job to think about how to work them productively and efficiently in the meeting. Among other things, this means making choices about what formats to use to gather viewpoints. The default is open discussion, and that may work well some of the time. Yet you need to have in mind that no format works well all of the time, and you need to mix things up—both for the energetic boost that the group will get simply from making a change, and because different formats allow you to access different strengths in the group.

For example, Go Rounds are wonderful for equalizing air time and protecting entrée into the conversation, but they tend to be slow and repetitive, so you don't want to overuse them. If the meeting is long (three hours?), you may want to think about how you can incorporate physical movement into your format choices (so that people can get off their butts other than during bio breaks or to refill their coffee cup).

6. Time Estimates
Although the time needed to deal reasonably with the topics chosen should have already been taken into account by whoever drafted the agenda, in the meeting it will be up to the facilitator to manage time. In service to that need, you generally want to map out (at least roughly) how much time each segment will take so that you have a running sense of whether you're on target, ahead, or behind.

Your job is to bring the train into the station on time (end the meeting at its allotted end point) and you should think through ahead of time what adjustments you might make mid-course to help ensure that result. What could you cut short or delete from your plan without sacrificing quality? If you're running ahead, is there an extra step that would enhance the consideration, or is it better to end early?

7. Coordination of Support Roles
There are many roles that support a good meeting. While that of facilitator is likely the most visible, there is typically also a notetaker (who should not be the facilitator), and there may be others, including:
o  time keeper
o  vibes watcher (person alert for ruffled energy and stepping in when they find it)
o  door keeper (person bringing late arrivals up to speed on what's happening)
o  scribe (person writing notes on a flip chart or whiteboard)
o  back-up facilitator

All together, this collection of players is an orchestra performing in service to the meeting, with the facilitator as conductor. With this in mind, it's up to the facilitator to take responsibility for discussing with each person filling a support role how they'll coordinate during the meeting. For example, it is relatively common that a well-intentioned scribe will do their best to capture the highlights of a conversation, yet not organize their work in such a way that the facilitator can use it easily. Ugh! This awkwardness can be avoided if the facilitator and scribe discuss this ahead of time.

Some facilitators choose to handle many of these support roles themselves, in part to avoid the challenges of complex choreography, but you have to know your capacity—it's a mistake to try juggling more balls than you can keep in the air.

8. Visual Aids
In a typical group there will be a number of people whose primary information intake is visual and you can help make everything easier for those folks by offering visual reinforcement of what you'll be saying. I'm thinking of things like:
o  schedule
o  agenda
o  ground rules for meeting behavior & the facilitator's authority
o  key questions
o  themes from a discussion
o  factors to keep in mind when developing a proposal
o  draft proposals
o  end-of-meeting evaluations

When you know you'll want these, write them up on flip chart paper ahead of time to the extent possible.

9. Setting up the Meeting Space
While this might be handled by others as one of the support role (step 8 above), the facilitator is the bottom line on this and may want to direct the set up to suit their preferences. If people have to move tables and chairs at the last minute you'll probably start late and be somewhat frazzled. Not good. 

Where do you want the visual aids (hint: not back lit by bright windows)? Will you need wall space for posting flip chart pages? If so, do you have the supplies needed (markers that are not dried out; with ink that's dark enough and broad-stroked enough to be seen readily from across the room; with ink that isn't cloyingly offensive to the scent sensitive)?

Where will the facilitator stand? Is there a good spot for the notetaker, so that they're not blocking other people's sight lines and yet can see the flip chart (or whiteboard) easily? Is it close enough to a power supply if they're taking minutes on a laptop?

10. Wardrobe 
Last, do you have appropriate raiment, so that everyone will be comfortable with how you're dressed and your clothes will not be the center of attention. You can get this wrong either by overdressing (suit and tie for men; skirt, hose, and heels for women) or underdressing (clothes that are dirty or with unmended tears; provocative, skimpy clothing).

• • •
If you thought that the facilitator only needed to show up on time and decide who was going to talk next, think again. Good prep often takes as much or more time ahead of the meeting than you'll spend in front of the group in the meeting—especially for neophytes. As a professional I can do this a lot faster, but I've been doing it for 28 years. You have to learn to walk before you can run.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

When Sharing Doesn't Build Trust

I regularly tell groups that there's a strong correlation between sharing information and trust (why wasn't I told; don't they trust me?). However, I was recently in a workshop where it bubbled up that there are times when too much information (TMI in process argot) degrades trust and relationships.

While I believe the principle of information=trust still obtains in most situations (see my blog of Sept 20, 2010, Building Trust for more on this), here are exceptions:

1. Outing someone without permission
This applies when you are privy to private or delicate information about others that they prefer (for better or worse) be kept confidential. If you choose to share this information without getting an OK from people about whom you are speaking, all hell can break loose. At the very least, the people you outed are likely to trust you less in the future. At worst, they'll feel betrayed.

2. Swamping the boat
This is when the volume of sharing exceeds the capacity of the listener to hold and understand. While it may not result in a loss of trust, it will not help build it either, and will teach people to be wary of offering to listen to you. Whence the phrase, "talking one's ear off," which is not a pleasant image.

3. Bad timing
This is insisting on sharing at a convenient (even compelling) moment for the speaker, without checking to see if it's a good moment for the listener. This can land as annoying and disrespectful.

4. Too much intimacy too soon
The workshop leader confessed that she used to have this syndrome, especially when dating. She had gotten into the habit of going deep right away as a way to screen people for potential partner material. It was only later that she realized that her pushiness was driving people away, not her positions relative to what she was seeking from an intimate partner.

5. Ability to stretch is exceeded
Sometimes the information is awkward for the listener to receive. If they aren't able to stretch that far, they can rubber band into shut down mode—something they won't thank you for, and which you won't enjoy either.

6. Malicious gossip
Talking trash about someone behind their back. Listeners may be worried that you might do the same about them when talking with others, and thus become more guarded about what they share with you.

Note that all of these instances revolve around the theme of being unmindful—either of your audience, or of the people you are talking about. If you keep in mind that one of the primary goals of good communication is enhancing relationships, you'll probably be less likely to inadvertently damage trust when your mouth is open.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Quo Vadimus

The title for today's blog was borrowed from the final episode of Sports Night, that aired May 16, 2000—a terrific comedy/drama/sports show written by Aaron Sorkin that (tragically) lasted only two seasons, because Sorkin was unable to stay on top of both it and West Wing simultaneously. Sometimes you have to make choices when your plate overfloweth—of which more anon.

The title is Latin for "Where are we going?" This could mean as a species, as a culture, as a group trying to figure out where to eat, or for me personally—who thinks in terms of the community "we" (as opposed to the royal one).

A couple months ago the bottom fell out of my "we" when Ma'ikwe announced that she wanted out of our marriage. Now, cut loose from the foundation of my primary relationship, I am also trying to figure out where home is. Ma'ikwe has invited me to continue living at Dancing Rabbit, and that's a viable option with many pluses, not the least of which is that many people here have told me that they'd like me to stay.

Yet where's the bedrock? I've dedicated almost two-thirds of my life to community building and I believe in it, both personally and societally. While I can imagine a life alone (in a studio apartment where I'd have a large desk, filing cabinets, book shelves, a comfortable chair, a small kitchen, enough open floor space for yoga, and a good bed), it would lack flavor and stimulation.

My work can travel with me wherever I go (as long as I have a reliable internet signal I can compose reports, maintain correspondence, and bang out blogs just about anywhere), and often I travel for work (teaching, facilitating, and consulting). While it's thus helpful to be based reasonably near an Amtrak station, that doesn't eliminate much of the country (well, maybe South Dakota and Wyoming).

So what are the elements of home that are most precious? At root, community is about relationships and human connections. It is being there for each other in time of need; sharing the joys and sorrows of life; eating together; exchanging observations of the day; bouncing ideas off each other. There should be a lot of laughter.

I'm clear I want to keep my life rooted in community, where relationships will be my primary security and base of support. Thus, I want to make a choice where the relationships are strong; where I feel seen, respected for my work, and able to give to others in proportion to what I receive. It would be a bonus if I could discuss my work with community mates, though not essential. While Dancing Rabbit has the potential to be that place, I have compelling connections in a number of other places across the country, and I'm leaning toward exploring what's possible with dear friends I already have and trying to build community with them—rather than trying to build the relationships in the community in which I'm already located.

This means taking a break from my residency at Dancing Rabbit, to see what's out there. Because I came to the community (in November 2103) as Ma'ikwe's guest and was focused on our relationship and our home, I never got around to applying for residency and thus have no official standing in the community anyway. So it's a natural point to pause and consider reconfigurations. Though I have opportunities now that I wasn't looking for, they are opportunities nonetheless and it's up to me to make the most of them.

Two other factors here are:

a) My tenderness at sharing Moon Lodge with Ma'ikwe while we're both home (which has only been the case since Thursday—for the first 10 weeks after Ma'ikwe announced her decision to dissolve the marriage one or both of us has been on the road). This building is filled with memories of our being together, and those have come alive with Ma'ikwe's presence. Though she's doing nothing provocative, tears are never far from the surface. Exploring community options elsewhere would help me heal.

b) I feel reasonably confident that I can return to Dancing Rabbit and start my residency fresh if that seems like the best choice. (Sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder, and the full value of assets of where you are does not emerge clearly until seen in the rear view mirror.)

While I'm going to sit with this idea of exploring elsewhere for another couple weeks, that's the way the wind is blowing right now. My good friends Maria Stawsky and Joe Cole live in Chapel Hill NC and have a third floor month-to-month rental unit in their house that becomes available the end of May. I think I'll try there first.

Friday, April 17, 2015

How to Write a Report

There are all manner of occasions where people who are trying to function together need to share information, and this occurs in a wide variety of ways—including plenaries, committee sessions, staff meetings, one-on-one conversations, notices on bulletin boards, memos, informal chats around the water cooler, and even graffiti on the bathroom wall. In today's essay I want to focus on one particular kind of communication: a report. It's something that is relied on a lot, yet often with indifferent results.

One of the reasons why reports may be weak is a lack of clarity about what they're trying to accomplish, which can be any of the following, in almost any combination.

—What's happened; what have you accomplished?Put yourself in the shoes of the person reading the report. What level of detail is appropriate? Let me give you three examples of an annual report from Customer Service.

Example A
We resolved all complaints that came to us in the last 12 months.

Example B
We handled six complaints last year. Four were from women under 30; two were from men over 55. Three were from the East Coast; one from the Midwest, and two from California. Three came in the winter, two in the spring, and one in the fall. There were multiple complaints about sexist language on our website, and multiple complaints about our new 800 number. Four of the complaints were resolved within 30 days; one took 90 days; and one is still pending.

Example C
We fielded six complaints last year (one more than the year before, and well within our capacity with current staffing levels). Two trends were noteworthy: 

a) Three young women reported that they were offended by the sexist language on our website: using "he" for the third person pronoun when the gender was unknown, and an instance of "guys" when referring to unknown persons. We recommend that we make it editorial policy to use "they" for the third person singular when the gender is unknown, and eliminate "guy" from our vocabulary unless it is known that we're referring to men.

b) Three people reported that it took 15 minutes to reach a live person when using our new 800 number with automated voice options. As this comes across as institutional and impersonal (the very opposite of our customer service commitment), we recommend offering callers an option of speaking to an agent within a maximum of five minutes.

While A is obviously the quickest to read, it doesn't offer enough information to be useful as a management tool. Example B had a good deal more detail yet no discernment was used in winnowing wheat from chaff. Example C, while the longest, honed in on the data that was actionable. Reports are not meant to be a brain dump; they are meant to capture the highlights.

—Identifying issues
This could be problems, unexpected opportunities, or simply confusion. Perhaps something came up that calls into question whether you have sufficient authority to handle it it on your own and you'd like clarification. Maybe you need an adjustment to staffing levels, or your budget is inadequate to finish the year. If you want a response, be sure to ask for one, labeling it clearly (rather than burying it deep in the report).

A good report will not just identify issues; it will summarize relevant background information:
o  any current agreements bearing on this matter
o  the reasoning behind the current policy (if there is one)
o  how urgently is a decision needed
o  the budgetary impact of the suggested change
o  who are the identified stakeholders on this issue (so their input can be solicited)

—What's ahead
Sometimes a report will include analysis of trends, letting everyone know the consequences if things continue. By looking ahead of the curve, the group can look at the issue and consider a response before it's a crisis.

It can be important to know if a manager or committee is happy in their work. If not, where's the problem? (Management can hardly be expected to fix what they're not aware of.)

—Intra-organizational concerns
Often, managers or teams are expected to collaborate with other managers and teams within the organization. If so, is that going well or are there problems? If there are difficulties, what are they?

—Have you learned anything new?
Occasionally, people learn things that are revelatory but not necessarily tied to issues (that is, they don't require a response). While there is nuance about how much of that to include in a report, it can happen that someone outside the team will recognize an opportunity that the manager or team members will fail to see. Because of that possibility, it's often a good idea to report (briefly) on what you're learning in your area. You never know from where inspiration will arise.

—Compelling writing is clear, concise, and to the point
The opposite of this is rambling, wordy, and poorly organized. Sloppy reports are often glazed over and not thoroughly digested. While you may not think that word choice, grammar, and sentence structure should matter that much, they do.

For what it's worth, I find concision to be the very last skill developed in people learning to communicate effectively.

Does the report contain information or opinions that might be embarrassing if the wrong people saw it? This is most often the case if you're evaluating personnel, or discussing a delicate negotiation. If so, you need to mark the report clearly as inappropriate to share without express permission… or wear body armor.

• • •
At this point in my career as a consultant and nonprofit administrator, I write a report (or its equivalent) every day. If I skip one day, then I compose two the next day. So I've had a lot of practice.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Stumbling on Stage

I recently facilitated a series of meetings for a cooperative group where I fell flat on my face.

We were working an interesting topic: how much, if any, community money ought to go into supporting an initiative that some expected to benefit from a great deal and others weren't that interested in? It was a big ticket item—an outdoor activity center—that most people felt would result in a significant enhancement of community connections.

While the vast majority favored some level of community support (even those who didn't think they'd be likely to use the facility) mixed with some level of contribution from those who could afford it and those likely to use it, there were a couple of members who did not feel comfortable with any level of community contribution to funding. When asked, the core concern for these two boiled down to affordability: one didn't want to pay extra in homeowners dues to finance this project (they lived on a fixed income), and the other was not convinced this was a high enough priority (and spending a lot of money here meant significantly less available for other projects). They preferred that it be funded wholly by private subscription, a mechanism that had been used successfully for other projects.

As we cast the net for proposals that might bridge the gap, someone came up with the idea of offering community funding coupled with a commitment to allow relief for those who couldn't afford the additional expense.

When I turned to the outliers and asked if that would work for them, the wheels came off the wagon. Instead of feeling held respectfully (by an offer that was meant to address their core concern about whether they would be asked to pony up money in support of a project that didn't float their boat), they both felt on the spot, and my asking them for a response came across with the judgment that they ought to say "yes." My persistence was experienced as badgering. Not good.

So what happened?

o  Going against the grain of community habit
The community was used to backing away when someone expressed a strong objection, rather than leaning into it (as I was doing). Thus, I came across as disrespectful as soon as I asked for a response. Never mind that I believed that was the right thing to do; they were already feeling isolated by the way the conversation was flowing (they knew they were outliers), and I wasn't careful enough about reestablishing connection before making a request.

For example, I might have started with asking them how they were doing, and trying to reassure them that the group wasn't going anywhere if they weren't on board. Instead, I asked them to take responsibility for working constructively with others' desire to support the initiative with community funding, which landed for them as pressure to capitulate. Uh oh.

o  Failing to build a robust creative container
I have the view that it's important to separate the Discussion phase of a consideration (where the group identifies the factors that a good response needs to take into account, during which I encourage the expression of passion and advocacy) from the Proposal Generating phase (where I no longer want to hear advocacy; I'm looking for bridging among interests). Although I'd taken time to try to explain that difference (and even been assured by a member of the group that they do that well), in fact only some of the group embraced a creative, bridging attitude. Others—notably including the two outliers—didn't get there.

o  Framing of the request poorly
I approached the outliers directly: asking them if the combination of community support and an affordability safety net could work for them. While there was nothing false or skewed about that, in retrospect I believe it would have worked better to have focused solely on whether the concept of an affordability safety net addressed their bottom line concerns.

That is, I could have simplified what I was asking about (fewer variables to respond to) and placed the emphasis on the safety net, which was intended as an olive branch, not a Trojan horse. While they may not have found it acceptable, it's unlikely that a good faith attempt to reach out to them would have been so triggering, and I might have been able to get deeper into an examination of resistance (if that's what we encountered).

o  Persisting beyond their comfort level
Once I got off on the wrong foot, and the outliers felt the need to defend their position about not wanting community money going to the outdoor initiative, I compounded the problem by simply repeating the request that didn't land well in the first place (working on the premise that I hadn't been heard accurately). Instead of clarifying, the repetition landed as badgering (you gave me the "wrong answer the first time, so I'll keep asking until I get the "right" answer). Understandably, that just made things worse. (I was reminded of the adage: when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is to put the shovel down.)

o  Leaking irritation
In addition to everything else, I was frustrated that my exchange landed so badly, and that I achieved no progress on a dynamic that I had been expressly asked to showcase how to deal with differently and productively. This leaked into my energy, making me less safe for the outliers. Oops!

I was trying to demonstrate how to unlink positions (no community funding of the outdoor initiative) from interests (affordability and impact on personal budgets) in an effort to achieve a respectful breakthrough in a logjam, but I didn't get there.

Of course, it never feels good when you stumble on stage, yet, as I tell my students, if you need to succeed every time to feel sustained as a facilitator, quit now. Everyone has off moments, and I had a beauty. Unexpectedly, I got the chance to demonstrate how to pick yourself up off the floor and keep going. While that wasn't what I was hoping to model, it was what was needed in the moment.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Accountability: Conflating Task Monitors with the Police

One of the most challenging topics for cooperative groups to tackle is accountability. What do you do when someone doesn't deliver on a promise or is perceived to be breaking an agreement?

For the most part cooperative groups simply hope the problem will go away—and fortunately, it largely does. That is, most members will voluntarily be good citizens on their own recognizance. They'll do their chores, help out on Work Days, and mostly follow through on commitments to the group—all without anyone sending out reminders or looking over their shoulder.

However, good intentions are not enough. Some will forget, some will be too busy, some chafe at expectations of any kind, some will purposefully step back from commitments because of a story they have about how they were wronged and it's never been addressed, etc. So the question is not whether it's going to happen, but how you're going to handle it.

The short answer is that you're going to have to learn how to talk about it, because here's the deal—it doesn't go away on its own. In fact, unaddressed it's a cancer on the good will and cohesion of the group. So the stakes are high.

Hint: While there's no doubt that noncompliance and deficient performance are a problem, that does not necessarily mean that the responsibility lies wholly with the person perceived to have broken the rule or failed to have kept an agreement.

Let's look over some of the potential factors in this dynamic, any number of which may be in play:

—Ambiguous Requests
Are you confident that what the accuser believes to be the understanding is the same thing that the accused understands? There's a reason for the adage: there's many a slip twixt the cup and the lip. This potential for unclarity is all the greater if the agreements are oral and not captured in writing. In any event, we may be talking about a misunderstanding or mishearing more than willful negligence or defiance.

—Undefined Flexibility
All groups I know allow for the possibility of extenuating circumstances to allow reasonable relief from commitments when people are overwhelmed by other factors in their life (compromised health, family emergency, loss of job, etc). The problem is that the limits of flexibility or how exceptions are invoked are rarely pinned down and the accuser may be interpreting their appropriate application differently than the accused. Uh oh.

—Shame & Guilt
A good bit of the paralysis that surrounds accountability relates to people's fear of feeling shame or guilt in a public forum. Some can't imagine the embarrassment of being called out; others want no part of subjecting others to something they imagine to be that painful. As such they are unwilling to take even the first steps down that road. Some don't want to impose their personal standards on others, while others can't seem to wait for an opportunity to do so. 

A lot of what's in place here relates to the role of shame and guilt in one's family of origin, and that experience is likely to be all over the map—making it damn hard to know what demons you're letting out of the box once you invoke their energy.

—Fear of Consequences
Another factor is what to do if it's determined that someone is out of account. Is moral suasion enough, or do you need a club in the closet for serious offenders? Some groups are flat out allergic to punishments (fines, say) while others seem altogether willing to go there if someone misses a chore cycle and doesn't make it up. To be sure, the backdrop in which this occurs is that the group (and the members who comprise it) always have recourse to the protection and rights extended to them by civil authorities in instances of lawbreaking and public safety, but that only happens in rare and extreme cases (thank god). 

The main point I want to make here is that you can commit to talking abut accountability without embracing a set of consequences (or, for that matter, deciding that you won't have consequences).

—Police State Anxiety
Amazingly, it is common among cooperative groups to have no one (I prefer a committee) designated to handle task monitoring, which seems weird to me. For the most part, I've come to understand this as: a) a fear of people passing judgment on each other (no one wants the Work Police knocking on their door asking where they were on the afternoon of Nov 12, while everyone else was raking leaves and getting the houses ready for winter); and b) a lack of confidence in the community's willingness to work constructively with upset—which is where they suspect conversations about noncompliance are likely to go.

As no one wants to live in a police state, the topic of accountability becomes anathema.

• • •
While I get that those are real fears, are you liking the alternative any better—where the complaining goes on behind people's backs, and others are left to shoulder more of the work to cover those doing less? Not much of a bargain, is it?

Without advocating for or against consequences, I urge groups to commit to talking about it whenever a member is viewed as being out of account. However, since we want this to be constructive, and minimally disruptive, I advocate that this be distributed among the standing committees, where each is responsible for agreements and tasks in their arena.

Then, whenever someone has a concern about noncompliance, they'd be encouraged to follow a sequence such as this (until the matter is settled):

1. Talk with the person directly.
2. Talk with the person with the help of a mutually acceptable third party (or parties).
3. Ask the relevant committee for help (with the Conflict Resolution Team backing up the committee if it gets hairy).
4. Take it to the plenary.

At each point along the way, a good faith effort should be made to accommodate the preferences of both the accuser and the accused about setting, timing, and who's present in the way of support. While these may be facilitated conversations, participation should be voluntary with no one being coerced to accept another's viewpoints or conclusions.

If it is not clear which committee's bailiwick the matter falls into, then the Conflict Resolution Team will play centerfield, handling all requests that come along until and unless they're handed off to another committee.

A big advantage of expressly giving committees the job of task monitoring in their purview is that it becomes a license to initiate conversations about work or compliance with agreements. Absent the assignment of such authority, the person who shows initiative is susceptible to being labeled a busybody. The point of this is not to embarrass or shame: it's to get information and troubleshoot at the least expensive level. Remember: we're creating cooperative culture; not recapitulating the combative, competitive culture of the mainstream.

While it's possible for a matter to go all the way to plenary (the court of last resort), that will rarely happen if committees are doing their job about compassionately talking with folks who are perceived to not be doing theirs.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Mismanaging My Impatience in Meetings

I recently attended the meeting of a cooperative at which I was representing a group that had an interest in the main topic. Because I didn't need to present anything and was not a decision-maker in that setting, I was there mostly to listen and provide background as needed.

Things got off to a solid start, and after 15 minutes it was reasonably clear where the concerns lay and what the most likely remedies were. However, it took another 60 minutes before everyone present was brought into alignment about those things. It was excruciating.

What happened? Well, a number of things, all of which are depressingly common:

o  Jumping aroundAlthough it quickly became apparent that there were only two main concerns, I'll be damned if some speakers didn't feel compelled to make statements about both subtopics in a single turn at the microphone, making it hard to follow the bouncing ball. 

People do this, I speculate, in a misguided effort to get out everything they have to say in one go, regardless of the diffusing effect it has on the group's focus. It's generally much better if the facilitator limits the conversation to one subtopic at a time.

o  Straying off topic
While it's not fair to blame participants for a lack of discipline about containing their comments to one thread at a time if the facilitator is not offering that structure; it is, however, fair to hold participants accountable for comments that wander beyond the scope of the agenda topic, and to ask them to eschew free associating.

o  Repetition
When the focus is soft, or the facilitator is casual about offering summaries, people often find it irresistible giving their views more than once. Even though this tends to be numbing for the group, speakers often feel insecure about whether they've been heard if they don't immediately see the group actively working with their input.

o  Lack of concision
Meeting behavior is different than casual conversation, but the way many people contribute in meetings is just the same is when they're yakking with friends over a beer. In plenary you want contributions to not just be on topic, you want them lean. And they'd be well advised to leave chewing the fat for storytelling around the campfire.

o  Not keeping the conversation at the plenary level 
At what point does it make sense to stop talking about a topic in plenary and turn it over to a subgroup to tease out details? Groups that have not discussed where this line stands will frequently drift across it and get mired in minutia instead of handing it off to committee with alacrity and a crisp mandate.

o  Inability to coalesce the sense of the meeting
One the more important facilitative skills is the ability to sort wheat from chaff, offering a tight summary of what the group is likely to be able to agree to, or where the conversation is headed, based on what's been said so far. Even when you get it wrong, just being close will often help the group get there with only minor adjustments.

Some groups—especially ones using consensus—labor under the false impression that you can't reach a conclusion until everyone has spoken. Not so! While it's important to protect everyone's opportunity to have a say, it frequently happens that after a number of people have spoken that there are no additional viewpoints to contribute, and the group can legitimately move on. To be sure, you need to test for that (rather than just assume it), but it only takes a moment to offer a summary with the caveat, "Does that work for everyone?"

It's amazing to me how often groups miss the agreement in the room until they've been bludgeoned with it.

• • •
Observing all this, it was painful sitting through the meeting. As time went on, I found myself stepping in more and more, without portfolio, to offer summaries, suggest agreements, and identify loose ends. (As a professional facilitator, it's virtually impossible for me to turn it off when I'm in a meeting—whether I'm up front with a baton or not.) While I meant for my contributions to be constructive, in the end-of-meeting evaluation I got my knuckles rapped by a participant who felt he was hearing too much from me, a mere observer.

Sigh. I reckon enlightenment and the patience of the Buddha still elude me.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Where Will Laird Live?

Two months after Ma'ikwe pulled the plug on our partnership, I've narrowed the main candidates for the W2L2 Sweepstakes down to two prime contenders. In no particular order, here are my reflections about the advantages of each.
Staying at Dancing Rabbit

o  I know the climate and enjoy it.

o  I have friends here already, including the men's group that meets weekly and all the folks over at Sandhill, just three miles away.

o  I'd remain close to the FIC headquarters, where I can help (even after transitioning out of the center of operations by the end of the year).

o  I can continue with all manner of support people I already know: doctor, dentist, bridge club, and all the stores in the area I know where to go to get what.

o  I know many of the rhythms and systems of DR (which means I won't have to learn new ones).

o  The cost of living is low in northeast MO, and my income is mostly elsewhere (from consulting and teaching), which is a great combo.

o  I'd be part of an important experiment in sustainable living at DR.

o  DR has an educational component that is on the rise and there are excellent prospects for that translating into teaching opportunities without leaving home (and without assuming more than my fair share of administrative overhead—about which I figure I'm running a surplus in Akashic accounting).

o  Moving will be much simpler (out of Moon Lodge and into another living space in the village—I could do it in a wheelbarrow).

o  DR is a central location for access to train travel in any direction (relevant because my work lies in all directions, and I prefer going by choo choo). If, for example, I moved to one of the coasts, I'd be looking at a three-day slog whenever I had work on the other coast.

o  There are a number of projects I've fantasized doing when my life slowed down (which I believe is starting to happen) and these will be more easily accomplished in northeast MO, where the resources are already in place and I have access to them. These include such disparate things as building and operating a smokehouse, pioneering some specialty condiment recipes, and getting back into wood carving. Also, at DR it will probably be easy to offer part-time help (such as back-up when one of the regular cooks is on vacation and kitchen assistance is needed for pizza night at the Milkweed Mercantile).

Creating a New Community Elsewhere

o  The satisfaction and stimulation of living with a handful of friends with whom I already have close bonds—deeper than those I currently have in northeast MO (excepting with Ma'ikwe, who has made it clear she wants less of me).

o  Not dragging out the potentially awkward separation from Ma'ikwe. While I think we'll mostly do fine, I'm still sad at losing the marriage and am unsure about how triggering it may be watching her energy go elsewhere.

o  The excitement of doing something I believe I know a lot about: setting up a successful community, based on members with high social skills and a commitment to being a positive influence in the world. There is, after all, a steady need for more intentional communities—especially high functioning ones.

Why it might not be that big a deal

o  My pattern right now is that I'm on the road 40-50% of the time, and that's not likely to change much, at least in the short run. So I'll only be home 50-60% of the time to enjoy all the benefits above. When I'm on the road it doesn't matter that much where home is (though I'd prefer shared housing, so that I don't come home from trips to find dead house plants, multicolored mold in the refrigerator, and dust covered shelving.

o  I expect to spend more time writing now and that's more or less a solitary activity. Though I like having others read my drafts and offer comments, mostly that's accomplished electronically anyway, so it doesn't make much difference where my desk is.

o  I know I want to live with friends, or at least quite near them. Human beings are herd animals and we crave each others' company. I need that contact. Fortunately, either choice above is likely to provide it.

• • •
While my mind isn't made up yet, the fog is lifting. A lot will hinge on how excited my close friends elsewhere are about the prospect of creating something together. Stay tuned to this channel for late-breaking announcements.