Sunday, October 25, 2015

Bringing the Personal into Personnel

As a group process consultant who works principally with intentional communities, I am aware that the skill set needed to facilitate community meetings is significantly different than what's asked of facilitators in the wider culture. So much so, in fact, that the field is legend with stories of "name" facilitators who are successful in the corporate world and find themselves in over their heads when attempting to ply their craft in community settings.

Why? In broad strokes, the model for how we work in the wider world is restricted to the rational plane (what's your best thinking?). In community, however, that's not good enough. To be sure, thought still counts, but so does a smörgåsbord of other ways of knowing: emotional, intuitive, kinesthetic, and spiritual. While groups may be uneven in their capacity to work well in these other languages, you can count on intentional communities expecting that openings be made for more exotic ways of knowing—ways that are rarely given a seat at the table in corporate settings or, for that matter, in the world of righteous nonprofits (ones doing real work as change agents).

One of the themes of this blog is that intentional communities operate at the cutting edge of social sustainability, by which I mean developing working models of how to reach decisions in a sustainable way. (While what gets decided also matters, I'm shining the light expressly on how in this blog.) 

o  To accomplish this the group needs to operate inclusively, which necessarily means working sure-footedly with multiple modes of information exchange and being able to bridge nimbly among them. Insisting that everyone translates their input into the rational mode as a pre-condition to getting people's attention just doesn't cut it. There are simply too many people for whom rational articulation (in front of a group, no less) is not their long suit.

o  Savvy communities know that when you create an opening for people to share their input or concerns on a topic, that you need to do more than simply collect concepts—you need to know what that input means to the speaker. How close to the bone is that input being held, and how does that relate to group values (as distinct from personal preferences)? Healthy groups learn how to ride the tiger of passionate statements without turning meetings into theatrical performances, or recapitulations of the British House of Commons.

o  When crafting proposals it's important that architects are able to show their work—what they've done to balance the input that's been collected. Simply handing down decisions from management may work in corporate boardrooms, but it won't work in community. People need to see how their contribution has been duly considered.

o  Community facilitators need to be able to do more than track what people are saying; they need to be able to read when there's a "disturbance in the Force," requiring a facile shift in focus from content to energy (and then back again once the riffles have been calmed).

o  While there are limits on who can live together cooperatively (not everyone has the communication skills that it takes, or has done the necessary personal work to unlearn competitive conditioning), you can tell a lot about a group's maturity by observing how it works with outliers—members with unusual speaking styles or uncommon ways of putting information together. Has the group worked to bridge to those folks, or written them off? In turn, has the challenging individual worked to better understand others and reach toward them? When the stretching happens in both directions there is often a place of meeting in the middle. When only one side is doing the work, it is difficult to sustain. There is considerable skill in knowing which relationships are salvageable and which are not.

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Laying this out illuminates an important gulf that must be bridged when trying to bring the lessons of community living into the wider culture. It is far more than just memorizing formats and structures. In order to achieve the quality of consideration that I've outlined above, facilitators need to bring groups that are purposefully reaching toward more cooperative dynamics along gently. It's a sea change and people will need their sea legs to be able stand tall in heavy waves.

The good news is that a small number of effective facilitators can bring a group around fairly quickly. The bad news is that most groups have never experienced truly effective facilitation and they don't understand what to look for or why it's worth investing in training.

In FIC we recently lost a staff member who had the qualifications for the job but who didn't feel the culture of the organization was a good fit. They didn't have the experience that the way they approached their job was respected by peers and it is too much effort to be heard. While it's sad when this happens, it's also a good sign that people are paying attention to the organizational culture and weighing it seriously. I consider it a good thing that we take personnel decisions personally.

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