Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Group Works: Closing

This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."

In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.

The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:

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

In the Flow segment there are 15 cards. The third pattern in this category is labeled Closing. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card: 

The formal ritual that concludes the collective time and space by completing the cycle of a group process. Include everyone, acknowledge the end of the time together and mark the transition point, ushering in a shift to what follows.

While it's a little odd to focus on "Closing" before "Opening and Welcome," C comes before O alphabetically, so here we are. 

In many ways the opening and closing are mirror images of each other: bookends that mark the boundaries between informal social time and meeting space, where different behaviors are expected. One of the main reasons for these markers is to avoid the frustration (and dissipated or unfocused energy) of some people being ready to meet while others are still being informal (engaged in side conversations, telling jokes, checking text messages, getting a cup of coffee, etc). You want a crisp beginning and ending so that everyone's time has been respected To that end everyone deserves to be given a clear signal about the transitions.

That said, there are some rhythms that are peculiar to the closing, and I'm going to expand this consideration to include all that ordinarily needs to happen between when you pull the plug on the last agenda item and the meeting is over. I refer to this segment as the "Caboose" and it includes four main  components:

1. Tying up loose ends
Just because you stop talking about a topic doesn't mean you're done, or even at a good stopping place. If work remains, then you need to name a shepherd (this could be an individual or a subgroup, standing or ad hoc). What's more, this is a chance to reflect on other aspects that have been tackled in the course of the meeting to see that they have their shepherd needs met as well.

To be clear, the role of shepherd is to track what work remains on a topic (as well as what partial decisions have been reached, so that work is not repeated the next time the topic is broached) and sees to it that it comes up again in a timely manner. Shepherds do not decide things; they just accept responsibility for keeping a topic alive and moving it forward appropriately.

Sometimes tying up loose ends involves testing for potential agreement that is available but unarticulated, and in danger of being lost if it is not harvested in the dynamic moment. It's an art being able to sense when agreement is close and worth probing for as the last grains of sand are trickling through the hourglass.

2. Summary of the product
I've found that it's important to do this every meeting, in part to contradict a decided (and unhelpful) cultural tendency to focus on how the glass is half empty rather than half full. While both can be true, groups will naturally lean toward a focus on what didn't get done or completed, rather than on the progress that was achieved, with the result that they'll leave the room with a sense of heaviness instead of celebration. Yuck. 

By making an effort to have the last piece be an up-tempo reminder of what got accomplished in the meeting (which expressly includes partial product, the narrowing of choices, or a sharper focus on what work remains; not just what got wrapped up with a ribbon and bow), it leaves a good (or at least better) taste in people's mouths. Caution: I'm not talking about blowing sunshine up anyone's ass; whatever you say has to be real and substantive—you're just making sure that the group recognizes all that it got in exchange for the investment of its valuable time.

Summarizing product can generally be accomplished in 1-3 minutes. Five at the absolute most.

3. Meeting evaluation
This is an important element, whereby the group reflects on how the meeting went. It's valuable both: a) for the group to hear each other on what worked well and what didn't (a common framing is to ask for Hearts and Deltas: Hearts being what you liked; Deltas being what you wish were different); and b) for the facilitator to hear how their efforts landed in the group.

Feedback is the lifeblood of learning and you'll never get responses about the meeting that are as rich (both in terms of numbers and depth) if you wait until later—perhaps by asking via email. Thus, making space for live reflections right at the end of the meeting is crucial to getting the most data.

For this to go well, it's imperative that the facilitator not respond with explanations, which may come across as defensiveness, which will have a suppressing impact on further comments. Your job is to smile and take it, doing nothing to interrupt the flow of honest reflection. There will be time enough later to reflect on what weight to give critical comments. That said, it's OK to ask clarifying questions if you don't understand what someone said or what it refers to—vague feedback isn't particularly useful.

Warning: don't let the group slip back into the abyss of content: keep evaluative comments focused on the how of the meeting. 

Finally, it's OK for the facilitator to ask some leading questions if there were particular moments in the session where you made key choices and were unsure how well they landed. Sometimes groups have trouble dropping into depth, and asking for greater detail helps get you into useful territory (Comment: "The meeting was great." Facilitator's follow up: "What was great in particular?")

4. Closing ritual
Pick a closing that is consonant with the energy in the room. If you had a brutal meeting punctuated by interpersonal tensions that did not resolve well, do not close with a rousing rendition of Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.

Closings should generally be tight and not drag on. People are often tired at the end. You can get a bit of an energetic boost simply by having people stand for the closing, but it's better to end early than risk drifting beyond the agreed ending time. 

I like to close with a song, but that's strictly a personal preference. Almost anything can work so long as it's focused and with easy-to-understand instructions. (If you pick a song, think ahead to whether you want to sing it solo or will be asking the group to join you—which is better energetically. Caution: There is an important difference between being a competent singer and a competent teacher of songs. If you pick a song that people don't know, be sure you have someone lined up to teach it expeditiously.)
• • •
In addition to these components, there can be nuance around when to start moving into the Caboose. This is a time management issue and entails the facilitator having a good read on what it will take to complete all the elements. In general, the Caboose takes about 15 minutes but there are a number of reasons why that might be shorter or longer.

o  Sometimes you are not at a good stopping place relative to the last topic when the clock tells you it's time to segue into the caboose. Now what? If you see a time squeeze coming you have two main choices:

a) Ask for a time extension to work this last topic a bit more, in an effort to get all the product possible before calling a halt.

b) Make adjustments on the fly, which might include truncating the summary, shortening the closing, or even skipping the evaluation (while I personally find this last choice distasteful, it's an option).

o  If there are fewer people at the meeting, you'll have fewer variables to manage when tying up loose ends, and fewer comments to hear during evaluation. Translation: a shorter Caboose.

o  If there are many worms on the floor that you're needing to get back in the can, then tying up loose ends will take more time.

o  If it's not fairly obvious who will shepherd unfinished business, or there's some underlying tension in the group about which subgroup has what responsibilities (say, unresolved power dynamics associated with certain committees or managers) then allow more breathing room to sort it out without anyone feeling like there's a gun to their head.

o  In that same vein, if a lot got accomplished it may take a bit longer to summarize the product. 

o  In assessing the time needed for evaluation, did powerful or innovative things happen (or not happen) relative to process that will be important for participants to comment on, or was the meeting fairly vanilla? Do you, as facilitator, have a need to get real-time reflections from the group about certain choices you made during the session (say, the frequency and way that you cut people off who strayed from the topic or were repetitive)? If so, budget time to get to those without inadvertently pushing the meeting into overtime.

Hint: During meeting prep I like to plan for a closing that takes 3-4 minutes (rarely anything longer) and then factor that in when I calculate how much time is needed for the Caboose. Then, if I feel time pressure building, I can seamlessly switch to a much shorter closing to gain time (say, having everyone hold hands for 30 seconds of silence, reflecting on all that got accomplished).

There's an art to bringing the train into the station on time, and the better you get at it, the more invisible it is to the group (because it's done without strain or drama).

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Anger Management

Sometimes I get angry. I mean really angry. 

I've done personal work over the years to examine my anger and my reactivity, slowly gaining in understanding about both. While I don't know that one's work in such things is ever done, I want to describe my journey and the progress I've made along the way. This is up for me right now because anger has been one of my responses to the demise of my marriage last winter and I'm doing focused work this weekend to let it go.

Like many others, my introduction to anger wasn't very inspiring. I grew up in a middle class family where the expression of anger was not encouraged—it was viewed as a loss of control. My mother had a flat affect (she almost never got angry, or admitted to it) and my father generally sublimated it into sarcasm, scathing commentary, or nasty innuendo—since "mature" people didn't get angry. (Can you see my eyeballs rolling?) 

So my temper tantrums as a child (and then as an adolescent) were framed as immature outbursts. There was a certain amount of tolerance and sympathy extended to me, but the main message was to get over it, or learn to channel it—into problem solving (from my mother) or into getting even (from my father).

While I learned a certain amount of self control and became a relatively high-functioning adult who didn't get angry often, I still did from time to time and it wasn't fun to be around when my volcano erupted. The trigger could be a number of things, none of which are unique to me: 
o  Moral outrage; a blatant abuse of power (how could they have done that!)
o  The perception that my integrity was being called into question (for example, claiming that I had misused power)
o  My being treated unfairly (the application of a double standard where it was OK for the other person to do a thing that they'd criticized me for doing)
o  Cursing my poor luck; railing at the gods (how could nine be rolled five times in a row?)
o  Simply a sense that somebody done me wrong.

The first step in my road to recovery was learning that feelings were OK—even though my entire upbringing had reinforced the message that they weren't. When I reflect on a fork in the road that I faced in my early 20s: go to law school or explore intentional community, I shudder to think about the arrested development that would have followed if I had taken the road more traveled. Law school almost certainly would have reinforced all the wrong things in me (competitiveness, dominance of rationality, fierceness), while intentional community led me to discover the path to becoming a more whole and integrated person (emotional sensitivity, heightened awareness of intuition, openness to spiritual inquiry).

Recovering my emotional heritage as a human being and welcoming it into my life was by no means a simple process. It took years and the path was rock-strewn and bumpy. Not coincidentally, this personal work corresponded with the advance of my capacity as a professional facilitator, where I learned to work with energy just as deftly as working with content. On my way to developing a national reputation for working constructively with conflict, it was absolutely essential that I could work accurately and empathetically with feelings as they emerged in the dynamic moment—something that I didn't have a clue about how to do as the 24-year-old who helped start Sandhill Farm in 1974.

Lesson #1: Denying anger doesn't work
If it is not acknowledged as it occurs, it does not go away for lack of oxygen; it just goes anaerobic and leaks elsewhere, infecting otherwise healthy dynamics. 

OK, suppose you get this far and learn to recognize and acknowledge reactions as they occur. While that alone will put you ahead of the curve of the general population, it will not get you to heaven. In a mainstream culture that lionizes rational thought, feelings are either denied, or tolerated as a weakness—until we can return from the interruption to our regularly scheduled rational conversation.  

To be sure, when feelings are mishandled bad things can happen. People can get hurt and relationships can suffer damage. It can get ugly. But it doesn't have to be that way! In fact, the full expression of feelings can be a huge positive in two regards, which are the substance of the next lesson:

Lesson #2: Feelings are not inherently good or bad
They represent information and energy. The former can be applied to understanding the issue at a deeper level. The latter can be harnessed in service to problem solving (a fire hose can be dangerous and destructive if water is jetting out the nozzle chaotically; in contrast, it can be highly beneficial if someone is directing the stream of water at a conflagration). 

Lesson #3: You are far more likely to be able to hold the fire hose if you can establish that you welcome the expression of emotions, (I'm angry!) while object to aggression (You're a jerk!)
Though the upset person may feel that those two statements are equivalent, they aren't. The first is a straight reporting of their feelings; the second is an attack on the person who's words or actions triggered the anger. Nobody wants to be attacked.

So let's suppose you've now made it to the third rung of the ladder and are able to recognize your feelings as they occur, to appreciate their potential value as a source of information and energy, and to express them cleanly. Now what? The next advance is understanding that a feeling is not an action imperative.

Lesson #4: Feeling anger does not necessitate that you act on it
Just because you always raised your voice and turned red in the face whenever you expressed anger as a child doesn't mean you have keep doing it that way as an adult. You have choices. In fact, it's possible to become angry, recognize, and not react to it. 

I'm not sure I would have believed that last sentence was possible until I learned how to be less reactive as a deliberate goal of couples counseling two years ago [see my blog EMDR to the Rescue for more on that]. Today I'm no less likely to become angry; yet I'm far less likely to feel compelled to express it (as a result of which everyone around me breathes a little easier).

It's one thing to have an angry reaction, and to ride the tiger. It's another to make the tiger your pet, so that you can ride it whenever you like.The art of anger management is navigating the space in between, where you don't try to fight the feeling, you recognize and acknowledge it, yet don't let it own your soul.
The object is not to extinguish anger. It's to not let it run you.

Lesson #5: Knowing when it's time to forgive and move on
Blaming someone else for your outrage is completely disempowering, as relief is in the hands of others, who may not care a fig for you. In fact, they may not know that you're angry. Or even if the do, and would otherwise be inclined to help you out, they may be pretty attached to the behavior or position that triggers you. Ugh.

The good news is that you can change your feelings. I'm not saying this is easy, but it can be done. Once you see that anger can be a dangerous drug—that you are at risk of becoming addicted to its flames and righteousness—there comes a time when you should examine persisting anger to see how it's serving you, if at all. If you find yourself stuck on play repeat whenever you think about the triggering person, there's a good chance that you're simply feeding the monkey and it's probably time to move on.
I am not talking about walling off or performing a feelingectomy; I am talking about forgiveness.

I'm talking about the self-healing power of finding a way to see the actions (or non-actions) of the triggering person(s) as being done innocently and forgiving them for whatever role they played as an agent in your misery. In the end, no one else but you is responsible for your feelings. I'm not talking about you being naive or a milquetoast; I'm talking about getting out of the swamp of self-misery you've built around yourself.

The beauty of this approach is that it is something that you can do all by yourself and is therefore entirely in your control. It entails emotional alchemy, transmuting anger into sadness, grief, and acceptance—ultimately leading to liberation and recapturing the capacity to love. 

Though it's taken me the last 40 years to get this far in my journey with anger, and I've had to learn each of the above five lessons the hard way, it's been worth it.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Intersection of Community and Spirit

I just read How We Gather by Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile. It's an intriguing analysis of how millennials (people currently aged 18-34) see the world and what they're seeking. As someone in the process of turning over his life's work to a younger generation this is compelling stuff.

Of particular note, the authors reported:

[Researchers] found that millennials are not “the spiritual consumers of their parents’ generation, rather they are seeking both a deep spiritual experience and a community experience, each of which provides them with meaning in their lives, and is meaningless without the other.” In other words, when they say they are not looking for a faith community, millennials might mean they are not interested in belonging to an institution with religious creed as the threshold. However, they are decidedly looking for spirituality and community in combination, and feel they can’t lead a meaningful life without it. 

This is an important insight to me, as it provides a bridge that I was having trouble seeing among all four key elements of the Ecovillage Design Education curriculum that the Global Ecovillage Network developed as the essential componanets of sustainability: ecological, social, economic, and worldview (or spiritual). While I had no trouble seeing the interconnections among the first three, I have struggled for years to see the relationship of those to spirit. It worked better for me to think in terms of mindset; where we needed to understand the imperative of engaging in cultural change—moving from a dominant competitive, hierarchic culture, to a cooperative, egalitarian culture. That at least I could grok.

To be clear, Ms. Thurston is based at Harvard Divinity School and Mr. ter Kuile is undergoing ministerial training, and the point of their article is to explore the trend among millennials to be less religiously affiliated than older generations, even as they hunger for spiritual connection and meaning. 

The article offers this summary of millennials:

According to the 2012 Pew Research Center report, “Nones on the Rise,” nearly one in three do not belong to a faith community and of those, only 10% are looking for one. Though many millennials are atheists or agnostics, the majority are less able to articulate their sense of spirituality, with many falling back on the label ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’. The General Social Survey of 2014 shows that the disaffiliation trend is only growing.

The point that grabbed my attention is not the decline in religious affiliation among the young (I would have guessed that there are way more nones than nuns); it's the idea that the hunger for spirituality and community are joined at the hip. That I didn't expect.

In probing this more deeply, it makes sense to open the aperture to the lowest possible f-stop when looking at spiritually. Let's move beyond organized religion to focus on basic cosmological questions, such as:
o  What is the meaning of life?
o  What role do humans play in it generally, and what role do I play in it specifically? 
o  If there is a purpose to my life, what is it, and how shall I know it?
o  What is right relationship to other humans? To other species? To the planet?

These questions are timeless, and it only makes sense that millennials will be asking them, too—just like all who have preceded them in this vale of tears. So of course spirituality matters.

Approaching this from the other end, it doesn't take King Solomon to figure out that we need to start plowing through fewer resources per person if humanity is going to avoid splatting against a brick wall, and it's a relatively small number of dots that need connecting to take you from Point A—the realization that the Club of Rome was essentially right when it published its controversial landmark work, The Limits to Growth, back in 1972—to Point B—we need to learn how to share more and create a high quality of life that is not so defined by consumption and material acquisition, which, ta-duh, leads to community. 

That said, it is not enough to parsimoniously ratchet down consumables and minimize our carbon footprint. There needs to be a point to it all—a reason why humanity is worth saving. And that's where spiritual inquiry comes in. Community may be a safe haven, but it has to be more inspiring than a bunker with triple glazed windows and R-60 walls.

Thurston & ter Keile go on to say:

The lack of deep community is indeed keenly felt. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among youth. Rates of isolation, loneliness and depression continue to rise. As traditional religion struggles to attract young people, millennials are looking elsewhere with increasing urgency. And in some cases, they are creating what they don’t find.

The disillusionment of millennials with organized religion extends to organized politics as well. They're looking for something more personable and immediate, both with respect to what they can do and what they can receive.

The authors have identified six themes that are recurring qualities among the innovative organizations that they profile in their article—all of which are finding ways to connect with millennials:

Valuing and fostering deep relationships that center on service to others
Personal transformation 
Making a conscious and dedicated effort to develop one’s own body, mind, and spirit
Social transformation 
Pursuing justice and beauty in the world through the creation of networks for good
Purpose finding 
Clarifying, articulating, and acting on one’s personal mission in life
Allowing time and space to activate the imagination and engage in play
Holding oneself and others responsible for working toward defined goals 

The article continues:

[Savvy organizational leaders] assume that for institutions to work, they must become values-led, sustainable networks; that for idealism to work, it must yield measurable and scalable results; that for success to work, it must affect some kind of transformation, beginning with the inner life of the individual and radiating out to touch the world. 

What does it mean to touch the world in 2015? It’s a moment when virtual interconnectivity is more immediate than the "real" world, so that an American millennial feels more comfortable setting up a Kiva loan to a farmer in Kenya than bringing chicken soup to a neighbor. Is it possible to harness these new tools of global engagement to deepen our everyday experience of community as well?
The innovators in our report say yes, not just possible, but necessary. They speak to millennials as friends, offering positive and practical advice through clean and personable websites. They encourage an ethos of care for self and others and a mindset of abundance. They argue, explicitly or implicitly, that each person is a change maker with the opportunity—if not the responsibility—to make change for the better. And making change means making connection, both broadly in the world and deeply at home.

The contention of Thurston & ter Keile is that millennials are changing they way we gather, and they invite a dialog across the generations to discuss this. This is a provocative piece, asking all of us to be  more aware of the various settings and portals of access to engaging people under 35. Better yet, be mindful of the synergy possible when portals are combined. (Don't just offer an opportunity for creative experession; offer art that's community building and in service to social change work all at the same time.)
They end the article by posing three excellent questions, suggesting that all organizations hopeful of staying vibrant and meaningful—to millennials of all ages—need to keep in their consciousness:

—Who are we serving?
Healthy groups are obsessed with "who is our constituency?" which can be a moving target. More than that, it is paramount that organizations are doing something useful in the world and serving real needs. How does our work build community?

—How are we leading?
This is especially potent in the context of building cooperative culture, where the healthy use of power looks quite a bit different than in hierarchic settings. In cooperative settings, there is as much attention given to how you do things as what you do; in the mainstream culture everything is slanted toward the bottom line. How is our leadership building community?

Taking this a step further, how are intentional communities (as a specific kind of organization) taking advantage of their common values and the ability to focus resources to focalize conversations in the neighborhoods in which they're imbedded about how to have more meaningful lives, more resilient local economies, and a greater sense of community?

—What is right relationship to (divine) spirit?
How are the individuals who are touched by this organization becoming clearer and more centered about who they are and what they want to do in the world? How are we supporting spiritual inquiry and personal transformation? How is the spiritual grounding of our people inspiring our work and thereby nurturing community?

You may have noticed that these are the kind of questions that can be asked again and again. Don't let that dismay you from the attempt to address them. (It turns out that all the really great questions are 100% recyclable.)

Monday, July 20, 2015

How I Write

While quite a number of people dread writing and try to minimize expressing themselves in that medium (I'm sorry, texting and tweeting don't count, as they're more like composing shopping lists than the script for Schindler's List), among those of us who embrace it there is considerable variety in how we approach it. In the hopes that it may be instructive, today's essay will illuminate how I do it. 

First of all I want to make a confession: writing is not a skill that came to me naturally; I've taught myself to do it. Though that may be unexpected from a guy who has authored a regular column in Communities magazine for decades and has posted 900 blogs in less than eight years, in college I had a minor reputation for talking my way out of writing assignments. Literally. On a number of occasions I went to the professor and successfully argued that I make an oral presentation in lieu of submitting a paper. I still had to prepare, of course, and I still had to make cogent points, but I dreaded public speaking less than writing so I thought of this as a creative coup.

Slowly, over the course of the last 30 years, I've trained myself to be an effective writer. In fact, today I write something substantive almost every day (and I'm not counting my commuter rush of email traffic—not the least of which is my thrice daily intimate correspondence with my new partner, Susan, where the bulk of the investment in our burgeoning six-week-old relationship has been epistolary). "Substantive writing" could be a blog, a magazine article, a cogent summary of a complex topic, a comprehensive client report, or a nuanced proposal. If a day goes by where I don't have my writing oar in the water, then the next day I have to pull the boat twice.

In any event, here's how I approach my craft. I find it useful to think of writing having three distinct phases. Though the actual work may be accomplished in one sitting—depending on timing and inspiration—it's helpful to understand that each of the phases has a different mind set and that it's often productive to complete one phase before moving on to the next.

I. Outlining
This is the big picture. What do I have to say? Why is that compelling?

The first germ of what I'll write about can come from a number of angles:
—It could be philosophical (for example, many topics arise from my working with groups as a consultant and having an issue come up that I don't think I've treated thoroughly before). Thus, I might be writing about the theory of cooperative group dynamics, or articulating what I consider a best practice.

—It could be poignant (arising from a riveting personal experience: either something I witnessed or that involved me). These tend to be stories about how I learned a lesson, or how I'm struggling to make sense of one.

—It could be whimsical (telling a story of something entertaining or amusing; life is full of spontaneous oddities that are delightful to share). Though rare, there are occasions where I start with what I think is a terrific ending and then backfill all the rest to get there, like when I found myself coming home by train in mid-December and Mr and Mrs Claus walked through the dining car in full drag. When we got to my stop and I was the first one to get off there were 100 people with cameras and lights waiting to greet me in the sleepy town of La Plata MO—all hoping that I'd be Santa Claus.

Pretty much everything I write falls into one or more of a small number of categories:
o  Cooperative group dynamics
o  Community and sustainable living
o  Personal journey (major markers in my life and the learning associated them) o  Humor/entertainment

Next I try to sketch out the main points in a stream of consciousness—just banging down ideas and phrases as fast as they occur to me. (I can always excise ineffective thoughts and rehabilitate lame phrasing later). If the sequencing of ideas matters I often capture it in this initial rush.

It's not unusual at this stage for a topic to get richer and more complex once I delve into it, though sometimes the reverse obtains (where close examination reveals that I have nothing that interesting to say and my once-exciting concept is exposed as fool's gold).

II. Crafting
In the second pass, I try to flesh out the outline (put meat on the bones). This is typically done one paragraph at a time. Sometimes it's a slog (like house-to-house combat); sometimes it flows easily (like a float trip down the river of creative expression).

This is where the art of writing is most prominent. Each paragraph needs to meet strict personal standards for being to the point (laser focused), elegant (lean of words without being obscure or ambiguous), and grabby (with metaphors and images that are evocative and apropos).

Is there sufficient context? Is there a personal story, the telling of which helps place the reader in the narrative, or grounds the point (such as my encounter with Santa above)?

III Copy Editing
In the final phase I'm using an old toothbrush to clean the grout on the bathroom floor. Have I used some words too often (I don't count prepositions but you can't use "scintilla" or "maximal" more than once in an essay)?

Have I chosen the right words (sometimes the phrasing is not quite apt or the words don't convey the right flavor)? This is where I drill down on grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

I read the essay aloud to see if the meter is right. If I stumble somewhere, I rework the rough spots (like sanding wood).

This final phase is about polishing, craftsmanship, and technical skill, not so much artistic expression.

• • •
If all goes well, by the time I've weathered the gauntlet of all three phases I have a nugget worth publishing—and that goes down so easily that the reader hardly notices that serious effort was expended in its manufacture.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The 100,000-mile Community Tune Up

I've been a group process consultant for 28 years. For the first 26 years most of my work was focused on weathering storms, or training groups in foul weather drills, so that they could better handle heavy seas themselves.

In the last 18 months, however, there's been something of a sea change. In addition to the crisis management work I've always gotten, I've been hired to help five different cohousing communities struggling with who they are, 12-20 years after move in. Plus I've gotten inquiries from a handful more who are thinking about hiring someone to help with reinvigoration, to reset their gyroscope. Apparently it's a trend.

What's going on?

Actually, there are quite a number of things going on, and I've enumerated 10 of them below. While all these don't obtain in all situations, the factors I've named can reinforce each other to erode a sense of cohesion and group identity. If you have a number of these dynamics at play in your group, unaddressed they will almost certainly lead to diffusion and confusion. The good news is that this trend is reversible—if the group has the will to address them.

1. Changing of the Guard
Some founders have retired from active community life, moved or died. New members have replaced them, but the group is now different and hasn't yet gelled in the way that the original group did. This phenomenon tends to happen earlier with cohousing groups because they often include founding members north of 60, so it takes fewer years for some of the originals to age out.

[Note that while aging is inevitable, not gelling is not. See more about this under Point 6 below.]

2. Accumulation of Unresolved Hurts
This is a big one. Overall, it's the most common thing I'm asked to help with (often packaged with other issues). The wider culture handles this abysmally, and thus well-intended folks tend to come into the community experience with: a) the naive hope that conflict won't happen in Utopia; rather than b) the personal skills needed to navigate conflict well.

When tensions don't resolve—I'm not saying they never do, only that it is highly common for some of them not to, and that there is a cumulative effect of ignoring these that gets increasingly expensive—it's often tempting to settle for the simplistic analysis that it's the other person's fault (that efforts at resolving tensions have stalled out). It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how myopic and limited that thinking is.

3. The Three Musketeers Don't Live Here Any More
Often there is a special all-for-one-and-one-for-all quality that is manifested for those who went through the rush of development together that creates a special bond among founding members. This is a real thing and the community can often ride that wave of good feeling for a number of years before it peters out on the endless pebbled beaches of everyday living.

It's one thing to bond over the exhilarating heady days of first meetings, recruitment, planning, and construction, when everything is new and everything is possible. It's another to renew and maintain that sense of cohesion. Groups sometimes make the mistake of thinking that after having successfully navigated the rapids of development together, that they're bonded for life. Not so. The experience fades and latter-day residents can never touch that experience.

Lacking some of the more nuts and bolts ways that groups renew and sustain cohesion (see Points 5, 6, 7, and 9), it turns out that groups may have only created a temporary sense of community during the intensity of development, analogous to how neighbors rally around crisis (such as a tornado or flood) to pull together in ways that they ordinarily don't. Then, when the intensity of pioneering eases off and it's  a matter of living the life (settler phase), there is rarely something so compelling or urgent that pulls everyone together in the same way.

It turns out that community building is a lot like gardening: you can't just turn the soil, sow seeds, and walk away hoping to return periodically to harvest sustenance year after year; if you don't cultivate the crops, pretty soon the weeds take over.

4. Increase in Transients
Many communities experience over time an increase in the percentage of renters living in the community—both in-house and whole house. There are three points to make about this phenomenon. First, some groups treat renters as second-class citizens, perhaps by not extending to them the right to block in plenary. I think this is a mistake. Renters can be excellent members and it behooves the group to allow that to happen, expecting renters to have the same set of rights and responsibilities that owners have, excepting perhaps that they're not allowed to block decisions with long-term financial implications (such as the conditions under which capital reserve funds can be accessed). On a day-to-day level, there are very few issues where you wouldn't want renters to actively participate.

Second, it's worthwhile for the group to pause and try to understand what the trend toward more renters means. Are owners struggling to make ends meet where they weren't before? If so, is the community doing anything to help with that? Are owners wanting out, but can't sell their home because of a poor market? Assuming you'd rather have owner-occupied houses, how actively is the community working to make that happen (as opposed to relying primarily, or even solely, on exiting members to handle marketing and screen prospectives)?

Often groups have an active Membership Committee in the beginning, to sell out the lots, and then that team goes dormant once the project is sold out. That's a mistake! You should always have an active Membership Committee, with primary responsibility for:
o  Recruitment (if you have no openings, develop a waiting list, including for renters)
o  Orientation & Integration (see Point 6 below)
o  Exit Interviews (why did that owner sell?)

Third, it makes a difference how long someone is renting. Most groups feel that investing in screening and orienting isn't worth it for short-term rentals (90 days or less) but probably is for longer rentals. Further, there is the contemporary phenomenon of Airbnb—very short-term rentals—which pushes the envelope around safety, strain on common facilities (Common House laundry, Common House kitchen, parking), and overall sense of connection because you know your neighbors. This is worth a conversation.

5. Weakly Defined Common Values and Mission
A lot of cohousing communities have a casually defined sense of what values are shared among members. In fact, a number of groups proudly tell the world that they make no attempt to screen people, trusting that the right ones will find their way to community without any active guiding from current members. I call this member roulette, and I recommend against it.

The truth is, not everyone is going to be a suitable member of your community, and not all collections of people are going to enjoy living together. There needs to be some discernment (by which I mean something more substantive than whether their checks clear), and that starts with defining what the group stands for and what it intends to do in the world—so that prospectives can do a better job of self-screening for appropriateness, and the community has a rational basis for rejecting someone who doesn't appear to be a good fit—what's the point of slogging through 2-3 years of mutual misery to conclude what you could have reasonably projected before move in? Grow a pair.

But defining common values has more application than merely helping with recruitment and new resident selection. Common values are the bedrock that you build all community agreements upon. They are the basis for discerning which factors need to be taken into account when wrestling with whole-group issues (because they are tied to common values) and which can be set aside as personal interests (because they are not tied to common values). Lacking clarity about this inevitably leads to getting bogged down in the swamp of strongly held personal interests (because there's no basis to exclude them).

By clarifying values and mission the community creates a beacon of light that will draw in people who are a good fit. Lacking clarity you have a fog, which doesn't particularly attract anyone, excepting the lost.

6. Weak Orientation and Integration of New Residents
I spoke above (Point 4) about the importance of having an active Membership Committee. Sometimes groups do a decent job of marketing, yet fall down on the second part of (what I propose as) their mandate: orientation and integration of new residents. Some groups feel that they've done their job if they hand new folks a fat notebook chock full of FAQ, member rules and guidelines, a map of the property, an explanation of the committee structure, and an agreement log.

I'm not saying it's a bad idea to have that notebook, but I don't think it's anywhere near enough. New people often don't even know what questions to ask. Give new residents a buddy for six months who will be pro-active in sitting down with the new folks to help demystify community life (including debriefing community meetings). Expect each standing committee to be responsible for providing an orientation about what they do in lay terms for the new people.

Remember: it's far cheaper to retain a member than to replace one. It falls to the existing members to take the lead on this (rather than asking the new folks to pound on the walls until a door pops open).

7. Martyrs and Slackers Dynamics
This is the most common aspect of community life that I'm asked to handle as an outside facilitator: the accumulation of tension related to the uneven level of participation among members (non-monetary contributions to the maintenance and well being of the community). People are labeled "slackers" because they do not appear to be doing their share of the work, even though it appears they are able-bodied and could. People are labeled "martyrs" because they pick up the slack and then act as if they deserve extra power (that is, additional weight should be given to their views and preferences) by virtue of their having done more than others—even though they weren't asked to do more.

Unaddressed, these dynamics lead to demoralization, a gradual build-up of tensions that leak into other aspects of community life, and a decrease in participation overall (why bother if others aren't going to do their fair share). Yuck.

This is a specific example of Point 2. I think that all groups have a periodic need to talk about this, to clear the air. Think of it like going to the dentist. While it may not be an enjoyable prospect, you need to regularly remove the plaque from your teeth if you want to keep them. Unattended to, your teeth fall out (the bottom drops out of participation) and you're left with little more than a neighborhood condo association—and have to live on a diet of applesauce and mashed turnips, which is not the community you had in mind.

8. No Lights on in the Common House
Over time, most cohousing groups experience a decrease in how much the Common House is used. There are fewer community meals, fewer community meetings, a seldom used library, and even a decrease in social events. While this tends to follow from some of the other problems listed here (rather than create them), it's a relatively easy symptom to track.

The sad thing is that the Common House was expensive to build, and represents an ideal of shared space, where everyone's occasional need for large-scale events could be accommodated. However, when the sense of community is weakened, so is the desire to share, and common facilities go underused.

9. Lack of Clarity about What's Wanted from Leaders 
All groups need leaders. While that role can be filled by different members at different times (that is, communities don't need a single person to be the leader), we need organizers, cheerleaders, bridge-builders, articulators, and people who'll stick their thumb in the dike.

Unfortunately, most groups have not taken the time to articulate what qualities they want in leaders, and someone volunteering to serve in a leadership capacity tends to be viewed as prima facie evidence of that person having inadequate ego management. We need to do better than that.

Groups need to be able to talk openly about how power is distributed in the group, and what can be done to adjust that if we want it to be different (short of lopping off heads). We need to be able to distinguish between good uses of power (for the benefit of all) from bad uses (for the benefit of some at the expense of others). We need models of healthy leadership so that we can celebrate when someone does a good job, and have objective criteria to use when trying to help someone improve.

Lacking this clarity there is a tendency for the criticism of leaders to get all out of proportion to their appreciation, with the result that people don't want to serve in that capacity (because they're tired of taking arrows). While I guess you could make the case that no one serving as a leader is equality of a kind, it's pretty miserable.

10. Size Matters
Finally, I want to note that it's harder to maintain cohesion in a larger group, and most cohousing groups have at least 30 members, with many over 50. While no cohousing group, to my knowledge, is so large that people have trouble learning each others' names, it gets increasingly hard to establish and maintain close friendships beyond 20, and it's close friendships that are the life blood of community.

When groups are seeking reinvigoration, they're looking for a greater sense of common identity with the group. While you don't need to feel like every other resident is a close friend in order to achieve that, it's important that your circle of close friends in the group associates that bond with the community.

• • •
When I'm asked to work with groups seeking renewal, I like to spend a couple days ahead of the whole-group time in one-on-one and two-on-one interviews to listen to the stories about what the community has meant to members in the past, to learn what's been precious to them in earlier years, and to assess what they're available for in terms of turning things around now.

While there are no doubt patterns as to how groups get stuck and how they might get unstuck, the key to successful work is building on the assets and desires of that group, and for that there is no substitute for listening. I've found that people will tell you what is in their hearts of you take the time to listen.

So that's the story of how I've recently become a community mechanic—helping with 100,000-mile tune-ups. Two years ago I didn't have the slightest inkling that it might turn into a market niche for me. Now here I am, trying to remember where I put that left-handed smoke bender…

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Storming on Bastille Day

Today is an omen-filled day of mixed meanings. Even as the sky is broody (we had lightning and thunder bumpers around midnight last night, with a strong chance of more this evening), so am I.

Two years ago on this day Ma'ikwe asked me for a divorce I didn't want. While I worked hard to get another chance—which she gave me several weeks later—I remember two years ago as a devastatingly difficult time. 

Then things got a lot better. I moved in with Ma'ikwe in November 2013 and we felt solid enough about our reinvigorated marriage to conduct a recommitment ceremony, where we renewed our wedding vows. We purposefully chose to do that on this day a year ago, in an attempt to redirect and reclaim the Shiva energy of 2013. In the context of this ritual I also released my 40-year membership at Sandhill, going all in on my marriage.

Then, last February, Ma'ikwe reversed directions and decided she wanted out again—which decision she has stuck with. Suddenly I had lost my marriage (again) and was unsure of where my home was. In June I left northeast Missouri after 41 years to try to reinvent myself in North Carolina. In the short time I have been here, many good things have happened to me, with two standing out in particular: a) I am off to a promising start in trying to establish the nucleus of a community with my housemates, María Stawsky and Joe Cole; and b) I have found love with an old college classmate, Susan Anderson, based on the seed of an attraction that was first planted 45 years ago and which has turned out, surprisingly, to be not only viable, but robust.

So today is a day of reflection. In the last two years July 14 has represented both a nadir and a zenith with a partner who is no longer my partner. And today I am joyously with a new partner in a new home (though, notably, the two are not in the same location—which means that integrative work remains), neither of which I suspected I'd be in the market for half a year ago. What a roller coaster!

What Does the Mother Say?
I figure this reflective moment is a perfect opportunity to consult divination. Thus, I have drawn three Tarot cards from the Motherpeace deck:

1. What is the predominant theme I need to pay attention to right now?
—Priestess of Swords, reversed 


The mind at work, a channeling of wisdom. This is feminine knowing from a widow (Susan?). The motif of this card is from the North, an Arctic landscape (Susan lives in Duluth MN). The priestess is a thinker and probably a writer (me?). Thought flows through her like water or light. The owl represents healing and the power of thoughts to "take flight." She draws power from the moon. She has a quiet psyche, allowing her to know the minds of all those around her. Thus, she is able to imagine solutions that others miss.

This card suggest a contemplative, introspective approach. You may be experiencing a separation from your lover (only 1250 miles!) and it's a propitious time to think and write (which I reckon I'm doing right now). Reversed, the card suggests relying not solely on critical judgment; trust the heart.

2. What is the undercurrent that I need to bring into my consciousness?
—Six of Cups, mostly upright 

Sixes in general are about exuberance and triumph. Of cups, it is riding a wave of orgasmic energy. This is about celebrating having caught the wave just right and luxuriating in the resultant joy. As the card was not fully upright, there is some swaying in the waves, letting the pulsing current toss you around.

3. What do I need to pay attention to going forward?
—Priestess of Cups, rotated 90 degrees to the right


This is all about feelings, desires, and dreams. She represents the soul, mediating between the spirit world and daily events. The priestess is an enchantress who has secreted herself in elusive, sacred islands. In her realm of power she is stronger than masculine, hero energy.

This card suggests focusing within and giving your imagination free rein. Your emotions are core, your feelings and desires central. Rotated to the right, the card is progressive, leading into divine inspiration. Something new and powerful will emerge if you let it.

• • •
If have drawn positive cards for my new relationship and the grip of this day on my heart has eased.

As I type this the sun is shining. Maybe the energy associated with the day is settling down. Maybe I've experienced enough break up and celebration of union on July 14 (mirroring exactly what happened in Paris July 14, 1789—the storming of the Bastille, marking the determination of the Third Estate to have a constitutional government instead of a monarchy—followed by what happened in Paris July 14, 1790—a celebration of unity of the French people.

Maybe next year I will experience no storming on July 14.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Qualities Wanted from Members of the Conflict Resolution Team

I recently worked with a group seeking advice about how to work constructively with conflict. 

Even though the group had been around for 15+ years and this was the first time they'd asked for training in conflict, they were still ahead of the curve. Though all groups experience conflict, only some have agreements in place about how to respond. Mostly groups rely on members sorting it out on their own and hoping for the best.

While this works to an extent, it invariably breaks down when two people are swamped in the waves of their reactions. And it's too late to call a meeting to discuss how to proceed when the water is coming in over the gunwhales. If you want help in place for those chaotic moments, you have to put it there before the waves get big.

While I appreciate that the dream of cooperative living often includes the rose-colored ideal that members will get along well enough that they'll never experience conflict (or only rarely), that's a myth. If you lead lives that are intertwined and are dealing with serious issues (such as how much you're willing to pay to be environmentally benign; how much diversity you can tolerate; the limits of support you can extend to members aging in place; how to handle situations where you think power has been abused) conflict is inevitable, and occasionally it will be thermonuclear.

OK, suppose I've convinced you that it will rain from time to time no matter how dedicated you are to sunny skies. Once groups accept this (some never do) it's common for them to empanel a Conflict Resolution Committee (or something with a similar name) to help members who have trouble navigating high seas on their own.

While that's good as far as it goes, you're not safely into the harbor yet.

One the more common problems that cooperative groups struggle with is not understanding how to delegate effectively. There are essentially two parts to doing this well:

First, crafting clear mandates that lay out what the subgroup is expected to accomplish and the authority it has to do so. [See Consensus from Soup to Nuts for a template of all the generic questions that you'll need to address in order to develop a thorough mandate. See The Fire Fighting Committee for my thoughts on what the mandate for the Conflict Resolution Committee should be.]

Second, care should be given to selecting the people who serve on the subgroup. This entails delineating the qualities wanted from members of the subgroup before you start selecting them. (I apologize if that seems obvious, but you'd be amazed how frequently groups fill committee slots by simply taking the first hands that are raised in a call for volunteers.)

Here's my pass at what I consider to be the qualities that groups might want in people serving on the Conflict Resolution Team:

Group A Qualities
o  Discretion (ability to keep private information private)
o  General open-mindedness about people who are triggered (doesn't think less of those who get upset)
o  Ability to collaborate well with other members of the team (group chemistry)
o  Doesn’t always need to have things go their way
o  Ability to think clearly about what's best for the group, especially in the arenas of safety and health
o  Ability to hear critical feedback about how they're coming across without getting defensive

Group S Qualities
o  Ability to communicate clearly both thoughts and feelings, and to know the difference between them
o  Ability to function well in the presence of distress in others
o  Ability to empathize with people in distress, establishing to their satisfaction that they've been fully heard
o  Self-awareness about when they're triggered
o  Courage to say hard things
o  Has the bandwidth to be able to devote chunks of time to emerging needs (conflict doesn't erupt on a predictable schedule like Old Faithful)
I have sorted the qualities into two categories: Group A are qualities I think you want in all committee members; Group S are qualities that you need in some committee members.

While your list may differ from mine, I think this is a solid point of departure for any discussion about what you'll want. Meanwhile, keep those buoys and life jackets handy.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015


A friend of mine, Tree Bressen, recently pointed me in the direction of an article in Fast Company entitled: "How Krash And Other Startups Are Taking Coworking Home: It's called co-living, and it's all the rage."

Leaving aside my reaction to the name "co-living" (did the originators think they'd invented the concept of shared housing?), the article explores a new urban phenomenon that's a variant on co-working—where people rent office space with many others, which makes the facilities more affordable for all (users are buying access to expensive office equipment and meeting space rather than owning it, plus they get the bonus of being in an active business environment, and they needn't pay for what they don't need or use. Co-living, as featured in the Fast Company article, takes that a step further, emphasizing the connections and creative sparks possible when you rub two or more entrepreneurs together.

In particular, the article profiles what Phil and Jennifer Fremont-Smith have done in the last three years to develop Krash, a company that offers living spaces in Boston, New York, and DC (with offerings slated to open in Chicago and Los Angeles later this year) that are focused on entrepreneurial stimulation. Similar arrangements are available in the Bay Area and Brooklyn.

All of these are located in dense urban areas with a high cost of living. Fees in Krash houses range from $1,500 to $2,200 a month depending on the city and the time of year, which covers rent, linens, toiletries, and a fully stocked kitchen. The typical stay is only three to six months.

The sizzle is that co-living combines two things that are often separate: business stimulation and home sanctuary. You can talk venture capital while brushing your teeth, or how to slice payroll while slicing onions.

The bottom line on co-living is that if it works, it works. That is, if the owners of co-living houses are making money and renters feel like they're getting value for their rent, then it's a winner.

Still, as an expert in the social dynamics of people living together, I've got questions which the article does not explore. If I've learned anything from four decades of group living, it's that when people live together closely, friction among them invariably develops over time. And the longer you live together and the fewer the common values, the greater the tension. 

In short, when you rub entrepreneurs together you'll get more than just business ideas, and not all of it will be fun or marketable. When discussing group living, if you neglect to talk about friction you're talking fiction.

Maybe the Fremont-Smiths are banking on high turn over among renters to manage interpersonal tensions (by delivering on the business ideas and connections quickly and move 'em through before the pot boils over on how clean to keep the kitchen).

It appears that the only screens used when selecting renters are: a) whether the deposit check clears; and b) whether the prospective is intrigued by living with others looking to develop businesses. Entrepreneurs, as a breed, tend to be individually focused (what do I need and how do I get it?) rather than group focused. While they may be thinking about what's best for the group (as measured by the market), there is a definite iconoclastic bent among entrepreneurs, which does not lend itself well to harmonious vibes in a group house. The key stat in the article is how many successful businesses have been launched from co-living incubators; not how residents are able to reduce their carbon footprint or enhance their communication skills.

To be fair, I started living in group houses right out of college, jumping in with friends both for the reduced rent and the enhanced social atmosphere. I gave little thought to what skills it took to make group living work. While I eventually became good at it, it took decades—which is demonstrably not what the urban hipsters profiled in the article are looking for or intending that renters will devote to it.

While I'm all for entrepreneurs getting support, and I like the symmetry of Phil and Jennifer having figured out a business niche for themselves providing that support, I'm more interested in how people learn to get along with each other—especially how entrepreneurs can get along better with non-entrepreneurs—but, alas, the article doesn't touch that at all.

It will be interesting to see the extent to which co-living remains "all the rage," and the extent to which it foments rage—when the fissionable material of iconoclasts are asked to share a kitchen and bathroom.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Appreciating the Ordinary

One of the secrets of a happy life is having a Low Threshold of Delight—finding joy in many things.

I'm reflecting on this as my week-long visit with Susan Anderson slides into its second half. I've been here for five days now and our newly minted intimate relationship is well begun. While it's tempting to assemble a highlight reel offering readers a peek of peak moments in the last 120 hours (whence the phrase labor of love), I want to focus today's essay instead on the mundane—which comprises the overwhelming majority of our daily lives, and gives us the greatest opportunity for boosting the amount of joy we experience, if we'd just open our eyes to it.

—Making the bed
Noticing that Susan likes a made bed when she enters her bedroom at the end of the evening, I've made it a point to take a couple turns making the bed in the morning. While it's more for her than me (who tends to be more casual about making my bed in NC), my paying attention and honoring what's comfortable for her sends the right message.

—Making the coffee
Since we both drink coffee, it's not right that Susan be the one to make it each morning. Yes, I needed to learn how to use her particular set of caffeine paraphernalia, but it didn't take that long and isn't it better that half the time I can present Susan with a cup of hot coffee when she comes downstairs instead of her waiting on me all the time?

—Emptying the dish drainer
As we both eat, it only makes sense that we both clean and put things away. That meant learning where everything goes. While I didn't digest it all in one go, it's not rocket science and I've just about got it.

—Chopping onions
Susan and I both like to cook (hooray!). Since her kitchen can comfortably hold two people with sharp knives at the same time without undo risk to life and limb, we take turns being the lead chef (the one who selects the menu and the recipes) and the sous chef (the one who chops the onions and brushes the dirt off the mushrooms).

—Doing the crossword together
While I'm not in Duluth principally for the word play, I seldom pass up an opportunity when it presents itself. While Susan gets first dibs on the daily sudoku we've enjoyed cracking a couple New York Times Sunday Crosswords together, helping each other over the rough spots.

—Playing ball with Lucie
Susan has a shelter dog named Lucie. She's seven years old and a beautiful mixed breed of border collie and black lab. Because Lucie is used to sharing the house only with Susan, I've been viewed with a certain amount of skepticism, and it's been challenging to get physically close to Susan without Lucie inserting herself between us. While it's been difficult to discern how much of that is protective and how much is not wanting to be left out, either way it tends to break up the rhythm of Susan's and my exploration. Mostly it's funny… but not entirely.

Our working hypothesis is that evenings will go better if one of us spends some quality time with Lucie at the nearby park playing fetch right before bed time, hopefully cutting back on Lucie's barking and/or throwing herself at Susan's bedroom door during quiet hours. 
• • •
Yesterday, Susan and I went to a neighborhood Fourth of July Party. It started at 4pm and didn't officially end until we got home from the fireworks at 11 pm, at which point we still needed to walk the dog. While I'm making steady progress in recovering strength and resilience since overlifting and straining my lower back nine months ago, I'm still plagued by sore ribs and often appreciate a nap in the middle of the day—a respite I didn't have time for yesterday.
All of which is to say, we were pooped by the time we got to bed last night.

Nonetheless, I took the time to appreciate how Susan drew people into the conversation at the party. There were about a dozen folks in all, representing an odd lot of neighbors, family relations, and friends of friends—which added up to people who knew each other well, and others not so much. It was fun observing Susan (and others) work the party, making sure that everyone was invited to share what was going on their life, all the while keeping a weather eye on the hors d'oeuvres to see when the chip bowl needed replenishing, or it was time to circulate a new plate of finger food. This kind of undemonstrative social lubricant can easily go unnoticed, but after four-plus decades of living in community, I know better and I made a point of telling Susan that I noticed the skill she displayed in putting others at ease.

Going the other way, Susan asked about my back after the fireworks show over Duluth Harbor, observing that I may have needed to lie down more than I needed to be extending the festivities into the night atop an outdoor rock wall to see the rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air. From there we debriefed the party, so that I could better learn her friends and their relationships. 

The point of my telling this story is that after seven hours at a party Susan and I both chose opening comments (when we were first alone afterwards) that were appreciatively focused on the other. Enduring relationships, I've come to understand, are built more out of the wattle and daub of such caring conversations than the occasional bonfire or rocket launch.

How else might the evening have ended? We might not have talked at all. We might have moved directly into the animal heat that is characteristic of lovers their first week together.

Or we might have focused on weariness. I could have lamented my sore back, subtly encouraging Susan to have regretted suggesting that we stayed for the boom booms. Susan could have underscored her frustration at having achieved low Boggle scores, or that I hadn't volunteered to take a turn helping with dish washing during the party. The point is that we have choices about where we put our attention, and what feelings we want to reinforce.

In the couples work I did with Ma'ikwe the last two years, I learned a good deal about who I am and what it takes to create successful partnerships. It turns out that consistently choosing to focus on what's working and appreciating what your partner brings to the table is powerfully predictive of which relationships are the ones where love will thrive. Knowing that that's the kind I want, I'm purposefully bending the sapling of my budding relationship with Susan in that direction, so that the tree will be inclined to follow that trajectory.

In such ways does the ordinary have a good deal of influence about what becomes extraordinary, and leads to greater joy along the way.