Thursday, December 31, 2015

Bedlam 2015

Continuing a yuletide tradition I started in 2011, I'm dedicating my final post of the year to a summary and analysis of where I laid my weary head each night.

I refer to this as "bedlam" because: a) I'm on the road a lot and have a chaotic and confusing distribution of sleeping arrangements; b) some think that my travel schedule is prima facie evidence of mental illness; and c) I have a congenital weakness for word play.

So here's the summary of where I was when the lights went out each night:

o  I spent 74 nights at home in Rutledge MO, during the stretch Jan 1 through June 8, at which point I moved to Chapel Hill NC, where I slept an additional  53 nights. All together I was only home 53% of the time—down from 62% the previous year.

o  I started the year married to Ma'ikwe and we spent 23 nights together, until she voted me off her island in early Feb and asked for a divorce. Coincident with my move to The Tarheel State I started romancing Susan. Even though Susan's home is in Duluth MN (over 1250 miles from Chapel Hill), I managed to be with her 30 nights.

o  I stayed with clients 15 times for 51 nights, up slightly from a year ago.

o  I visited family 32 nights, almost double a year ago.

o  I stayed overnight with friends 42 nights, down a hair from 2014.

o  I traveled to attend FIC meetings and networking events adding up to 36 nights, almost twice as much as a year ago.

o  I was in a motel or paid accommodations just seven times. Though that's up from four in 2014, it's not bad for guy who's on the road as much as I am. Mostly I stay with friends or clients, for which I'm thankful.

o  I slept on a train a whopping 42 nights (way more than the 17 nights I did in 2014), plus two nights in a car.

o  As I was wrestling with a sore back or torso all year, I was fortunate to sleep on an air mattress or a couch only once each—down sharply from  the 30 times I did that the previous year.

o  All together, I slept in 21 states in 47 different locations. That's a lot of schlepping luggage and adjusting to different beds. (No wonder my back is sore.)

As I peer into the fog of the year ahead, my FIC duties have fallen off sharply now that I've stepped down as the main administrator, so I expect to travel much less in that capacity next year. Going the other way, my process consulting and facilitation trainings have been picking up, so it remains to be seen how much I'll be seen more at home next year. It could go either way.

Right now, my highest priority is healing my back. If that means less travel, then so be it.

In the meantime, I wish a happy new year to one and all!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

When It's OK to Close Meetings

The overarching theme of this blog is articulating what it takes to build and sustain cooperative culture—as distinct from the mainstream competitive culture from which we come—and why we need to be doing that as one of our top social change priorities.

Much of what I write about is how this plays out in meetings of groups that are ostensibly committed to cooperative culture yet are still feeling their way into it (it turns out that there are a great many more people who share an analysis of how competitive culture fails to address issues of fairness and long-term sustainability than there are people who have done the personal work needed to unlearn competitive responses in the dynamic moment: when the stakes are high and you encounter disagreement or resistence).

One aspect of cooperative culture that I've written about a number of times previously is transparency. Reference the following entries:
Acceptable Risk • Jan 13, 2015
Collateral Healing • May 30, 2015
The Challenge of Hybrid Governance • Oct 22, 2015
Balancing Transparency & Confidentiality • April 22, 2009
Balancing Transparency and Discretion • July 31, 2014
Balancing Transparency and Discretion, Part II • March 28, 2015
Essentially, transparency is joined at the hip with trust. If groups want to succeed in developing cooperative culture there needs to be a high level of trust and that means a high level of transparency. Let me give you an example.

Earlier this month I was working with a grocery that had just made the switch from being a sole proprietorship to being a co-op. As incentive to keep the staff that had been working under the old management, workers had been offered a retention bonus based on gross sales. As it happened, I was present for the meeting at which the sales numbers for November—their first month operating as a co-op—were shared with staff. While the board was worried that the staff might react badly because sales were down 20% from November a year ago (which translated to a smaller bonus), in fact, the staff responded very positively because, for the first time, they were given a peek behind the financial curtain. They had never before been given that kind of detail about the grocery's finances and they were enthusiastic about helping to turn things around. It was clear that being committed to transparency went a long ways toward breaking down the traditional barriers between staff and management.

In this essay, I want to drill down on one particular aspect of transparency: the degree to which meetings are open. In general, I urge cooperative groups to have the least barriers possible in this respect, such that the default is that meetings (as well as the minutes summarizing what happened at them) are open to the public. That said, I think there are three reasons why cooperative groups might reserve the right to temporarily meet in closed session:

I. Personnel Sensitivity
There are times when frankness trumps transparency—when the need to honestly express feelings and reservations is more important than letting everyone hear everything. In many instances, people are uncomfortable voicing hesitancies or concerns about someone in their presence. Let's look at three situations where this might apply:

A. Selection
This can come in two forms: 1) when you're evaluating candidates to fill a job or a committee slot; or 2) when you're assessing nominees to receive an award or honor. In either case you want to be able to thoroughly discuss the pros and cons of candidates without worrying about hurting anyone's feelings.

B. Performance Evaluation
Here the situation is different in that the person already has been given an assignment and you want to examine carefully both how they're meeting expectations and how they may be falling short. Often the person's presence (or their unabashed allies) can inhibit the full expression of shortcomings.

C. Firing (Involuntary Loss of Rights)
Though the least common of the three, it is often crucial that the group examine carefully whether there are sufficient grounds for imposing sanctions on a member, and that due process has been followed before taking action. This consideration will tend to go much better in a closed session where the person in question is not present.

In all three of these cases, I would support there being a closed session, with the understanding that the people being discussed will receive a private in-person summary of what was discussed at the earliest opportunity. This is an important caveat.

II. Political Sensitivity
For some groups (such as networks or nonprofits) there can arise questions about relationships with sister organizations where you want the consideration to happen in-house until a course of action is settled upon, with the agreement that you have not completed the conversation until you've explicitly decided what to share with whom about what was discussed.

III. As a Substitute for Member Screening
People are sometimes selected to be a member (say, of a board) for reasons of networking or bridge building—that is, the person has valuable ties to a group or target population that you want to explicitly cultivate, yet you may not trust that they'll use appropriate discretion if sensitive information is openly shared with them. Thus, you may establish an Executive Committee comprised of board members and staff that have demonstrated an ability to be discrete and to think strategically, that is empowered to occasionally meet in closed session for the purpose of discussing sensitive matters as they arise.

This way you can stretch to include allies in board selection without compromising the group's ability to handle tough, potentially volatile topics as needed. As in the other examples above, it's important that the closed group commit to providing to the full board a decent summary of the discussion, without making inflammatory comments.

For everything else, I say to the sun shine in.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Family Time

This is an image of my immediate family, taken yesterday afternoon in Jo & Peter's living room in Las Vegas:
Those are my grandkids, Taivyn (7) and Connor (4), in the front row; and my kids, Ceilee and Jo, in the middle of the back row, flanked by their partners, Sarah and Peter, respectfully. Note the top of the yuletide spruce tree poking out around Peter's neck. It had been many years since we'd all been in the same spot, and it's all the sweeter to have accomplished this at Christmas.

While I'm seated for this portrait (my lower back is still in recovery), it was wonderful being upright at all after spending the previous week in bed. While I had to be careful with my limited energy allowance (back pain can suck up a lot of bandwidth), I was able to enjoy meals and even got in a few board games (a family tradition that runs about as deep as present giving).

Last night I overspent my back budget flying from Las Vegas to Minneapolis on a Delta red eye. I knew the plane would not be crowded when I arrived at McCarran Airport at midnight and there were no attendants at the Delta counter (did I have the wrong airlines?). Fortunately one popped out as I approached and I got my bag checked. This was significant in that schlepping luggage has been a significant contributor to my back fatigue.

But even so, I had to carry my laptop and canvas tote sack through security (have you ever tried tying your shoes with sharp pain in your lower back?), negotiate the monorail system to get to the right concourse, and then walk to the last gate. Fortunately, the plane was only one-third full and it wasn't that hard getting to my seat, or finding space in the overhead storage compartments. 

It was just as bad on the other end where I had to walk the length of the concourse to get to baggage claim in Minneapolis. Not surprisingly, I was ahead of the seasonal "rush" to Duluth—by cleverly visiting in the dead of winter. I was the only passenger for the pre-dawn departure for the van ride north via Skyline Shuttle. By the time Susan collected me at the downtown drop-off point, I was a ragamuffin, hardly able to get out of the vehicle.

Bed never looked so good. And I have 12 gloriously unscheduled days with Susan, where she'll have the (unlooked for) opportunity to parlay her prior teenage experience as a candy striper into playing Florence Nightingale.

It's great to be with loved ones any time, but especially when you're dinged up.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

He Is Risen Indeed

I know I'm mixing religious seasons in my title (this is Christmas, not Easter), but it feels something of a miracle that I've been able to get out of bed after a week of being down with intense lower back pain.

It's hard to know what to attribute the improvement to: a) alternate applications of cold packs and a heating pad to the afflicted area; b) upping my dose of ibuprofen from 400 mg to 800 mg; or c) bed rest. Maybe it was all three. In any event I'm improving.

I went down late Wed night (Dec 16) and did nothing more courageous than walk (slowly and gingerly) to the bathroom for five days. By Monday (Dec 21) I knew it was time to get help, and I was up for five hours going to an Urgent Care facility and getting a couple prescriptions filled with the caring assistance of my son, Ceilee. I am now taking Flexeril as a muscle relaxant and Naproxen as a more potent substitute for ibuprofen. While achy throughout that adventure, I suffered no muscle clenching and it was great for my spirits to know that I could do that much.

Tuesday I rested (excepting that I took a shower and did boy that ever feel wonderful—especially having hot water streaming onto my lower back), and yesterday I geared up for a five-hour bus ride from Los Angeles (where Ceilee lives) to Las Vegas (where my daughter Jo lives), which required my being upright for nine hours straight. I wasn't sure I could handle it but it worked out OK. Jo was waiting for me when the bus finally pulled into the drop-off in the back of the Excalibur Hotel. I'd made it!

I lay down for a 60-minute nap and then went out for a two-hour blowout teppanyaki dinner with Jo & Peter (a belated birthday present). By 9:30 pm I was toast and gladly went to bed.

So here it is Christmas Eve, and I'm now semi-ambulatory—which doesn't feel so good on the way down, but it feels surprisingly hopeful on the way up. I don't move very fast, but I'm moving, and I feel that I now have a clear path to my red-eye plane flight to Minneapolis (followed by a van ride to Duluth at dawn) in the wee hours of Sunday, as it will require nothing more heroic than I accomplished yesterday.

OK, so what am I going to do to turn around this 16-month back problem?

I asked that question of the physician I saw in Urgent Care Monday, and her take was that I should first see my primary care physician and follow their recommendation for physical therapy. The main awkwardness about that is that I don't have a primary physician (yet) , but I'm just about to change that. In fact, I get back to home base in Chapel Hill late Jan 9 and I have an appointment to establish that very relationship Monday morning, Jan 11.

The Urgent Care doc walked me through her protocols to determine that all I had was a sore back (fortunately, I had all the right answers: no shooting pains down my legs, no difficulty urinating, no numbness in my hips, groin, or thighs). When I shared with her that friends had advised me to consider Rolfing or myofascial massage (by the way, I've discovered that opinions about how to treat back problems are remarkably similar to belly buttons—every has one), she suggested that I hold off on alternative therapies until I tried the PT that my primary care physician advocated. Then, she reasoned, if that brought no joy I might get the physician to sign off on something else (say, Rolfing or myofascial massage) which would make that treatment far more likely to be covered by health insurance (because it was backed by a health care practitioner that was acknowledged by Aetna—my Medicare provider).

While I'm in over my head trying to sort out the bewildering array of options, the important thing is that I've finally reached the point where I'm ready to do something about addressing it. I've decided that back pain is clearly overrated as a recreational pastime. There has to be an easier way to take a break, and the long-term solution cannot lie in a pill bottle.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Walking the Line Between Facilitating and Consulting

As a group process professional I'm frequently hired to be both a skilled facilitator and a cooperative group consultant. On the one hand, I'm wanted to work some thorny issues; on the other I'm generally asked to give advice on best practices or on ways to fruitfully approach complex topics (which I style "hair balls"). Often enough, what consultants supply are the "right" questions more than the "right" answers, but I'm ambidextrous and a free swinger.

When I'm hired in the above capacity I try to be careful to tell people at the outset that I'm about to do a dangerous thing: purposefully commingling the role of facilitator (which should be scrupulously neutral) with that of the consultant (who advocates for a certain approach, just like a stakeholder). I call this "wearing two hats" and there have even been occasions where the group asks me to physically don a goofy chapeau whenever I start pontificating as a consultant, so that they have a visual cue that they can no longer expect the same neutrality as they can from Laird the Facilitator.

OK, so what's the problem?

There are a couple.

Problem I: I'm an Active Facilitator
For some reason, the idealized version of a skilled facilitator is someone who is a quick-thinking, dispassionate person who never gets ruffled and always speaks in well-modulated tones. They pour oil on troubled waters and have the empathy of Mother Teresa, the patience of Job, and the wisdom of Solomon. (What's not to like?)

Well, I'm only sort of like that. I figure my job is not to be above the fray (of human frailties), but to be among the people. I believe that the best meetings are ones where participants bring their full authentic selves, and that includes their passion. So I bring mine, too.

Some of the time I talk softly; other times I get loud and raucous. Some of the time I slow things down; other times I step on the gas. My job is not to be liked (though that helps); it's to be even-handed and effective. 

Interestingly, being even-handed—which everyone I know would say is a reasonable quality for facilitators to aspire to—requires that you change things up as you go along, because it's never a truly level playing field and you have to take that into account. Thus, being even-handed does not mean being predictably even in how you run meetings. Weird, eh?

I know good facilitators who can stand in one place with good posture and good attention for two hours, but not me. I prowl and pace when I'm in front of a group.

Some facilitators prefer to work from a script (mapping out formats and blocking out the choreography of the meeting well ahead of time). Not me. I work from a few notes and try to ride the tiger of the meeting's energy: calming the wild horses and ramping up the mules. 

If the conversation loses all its bubbles, I want to put some seltzer in the mix, trying to find the point of entrée that most speaks to the heart of the matter and to the participants' hearts. If there's an unspoken undercurrent in the room, I'll speak about it. (I'm not particularly respectful of taboos and hidden agendas.) I figure that information is concentrated in resistance, so I can't resist asking about it.

All of this dynamism doesn't fit well with what some hold as the facilitator ideal and concerns can surface about whether I'm trying to control outcomes through some sleight of hand misdirection and whizbang. 

The truth is that I'll apply common sense to pose questions that I feel are in the room but haven't been voiced by participants. While some are disturbed that I'm treating the meeting as a séance (bringing in voices from beyond the circle), I think I'm just seeing around the curve and cutting to the chase.

Taken all together, I believe in good meetings; I just don't believe in dull meetings. In the process, not everyone is comfortable with my swashbuckling jocular panache. Oh well.

Problem II: I'm a Facilitation Trainer
When I teach facilitation (which I do a lot; I'll have three two-year training programs running concurrently in 2016—one on Portland OR, one in New England, and one in North Carolina) I make it a point to see that the students understand the line between facilitator and consultant.

The facilitator runs the meeting, acting with the authority bestowed on them by the group's process agreements. Their job is to structure and manage the conversation, keeping participants on topic, making sure that everyone has a reasonable opportunity to offer relevant input, and helping to uncover and articulate the solution that best balances the input and the sensitive application of group values.

The facilitator is responsible for the integrity of the container in which the consideration happens; they are not responsible for the outcome, and they should be disinterested in which solution emerges.

The mantra of the facilitator is to trust the process.

In contrast, the consultant is there to provide additional resources for the consideration (what have similar groups done in similar situations and how has that worked out?); to suggest pathways to consider the matter that have worked well with other groups; to frame the questions (and perhaps the sequence in which to consider them) that experience has shown will lead to a complete response; to explain the pros and cons that typically accompany different choices, giving the group a look "around the curve" before the die is cast.

The consultant is knowledgeable about topics being discussed and the best way to navigate them. They are like the bourgeois on a canoe trip, with a map in their head that is a larger scale than anyone else has.

The mantra of the consultant is to trust their experience.

When I train facilitators I am trying to teach good process and along the way, everyone gains experience.

Still, there are gray areas. Based on years of experience as a facilitator (note how experience helps people be better at both roles) my advanced skills include:

o  A feel for workable solutions. Because I've rigorously retrained myself to see the glass as half full—looking for common ground before looking at differences—I'm often the first person in the room to "see" a solution. This is an important distinction. I often see solutions earlier than others simply because you're more apt to find what you're looking for. Of course, it doesn't hurt that I have accumulated an enormous pattern library after 40+ years of community living, making it that much easier to "know" the productive approach.

o  An ability to see ghosts. When you've been to a lot of meetings and studied the patterns you begin see that sometimes there's an unarticulated presence in the room that's significantly impacting dynamics. As a skilled facilitator it's my job to feel into that and try to name the invisible intruder. It could be a missing person, or a missing viewpoint but you can discern its presence by observing how others are mysteriously affected by its gravitational pull or magnetic repulsion. This allows you to intuit its presence. Like a Jedi knight, you're sensing disturbances in The Force.

o   An ability to feel the deeper undercurrent when a group is skating over the surface, avoiding the deeper issues. This might entail tiptoeing around unresolved emotional tensions, or perhaps sidestepping a clash of core values for fear that an open examination may lead to irreparable damage to the group. If I sense that, it's my job to take the group there even if it's kicking and screaming. Avoidance is a poor long-term strategy. (And if you really didn't want to go there, you shouldn't have hired me.)

o  Sharpening the dynamic tension. Often this means taking a conversation that does not present as that hard and imagining where the sore spots are for the purpose of exposing them in the group. (Hey, we're here to do the heavy lifting; let's get at it.) After all, if the solution only works in the "easy" cases, what have we actually solved?

When I access these advanced skills students sometimes think I've gone over to the dark side (to consulting) because it appears that I'm employing dark arts, inserting myself into the conversation complexifying along the way (simultaneously building the demand for the consultant and making the student facilitator's job harder). But really I'm facilitating. By exposing all that's in play, I'm ensuring that the final solutions will be that much more robust. In the end I'm following the facilitator's prime directive: offering the group it most needs in the moment to do solid work.

It's a fine line, and I walk it all the time.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Laid Up

For the third time in 12 months I'm flat on my back in bed. Yuck.

Last night I got up to pee and wrenched my lower back, which had already been inflamed from road travel the last fortnight. Now I can't even stand up.

Fortunately, I'm able to rest at Ceilee's place in Los Angeles for a few days to let things quiet down. The main casualty in this is Taivyn, my granddaughter. She has to sleep with her little brother, Connor, while I get her lower bunk with the pink polyester Hello, Kitty pillow.

While this setback means I'll have to forego some holiday cheer, I'm happy to trade that for reduced pain and a speedier recovery. Right now I'm dreading my bus ride to Las Vegas on Sunday (to be with Jo & Peter for Christmas). We'll see how much ambulatory improvement I can effect in three days.

I was about to say that dealing with back pain (which goes back to October of last year) is getting old, but maybe it's getting old that leads to back pain. Sigh. I'm convinced that constant traveling has been an aggravating factor (schlepping luggage, sleeping in beds of different firmness and different heights, sometimes having bathrooms and bedrooms on different floors), so I'm hopeful that something more humane will bring relief in the new year, and Susan is about to clobber me if I don't seek medical help soon (who has time?).

I suppose an ongoing silver lining is that I've been highly successful losing weight the past 15 months (I'm down about 40 pounds and my snoring has evaporated). Being laid up in bed is bound to help me be less intemperate at rich holiday meals.—especially if I miss them all together. Today, for example, I'm on the famous water and ibuprofen weight loss diet, neatly bypassing an all-you-can-eat pig out at a Korean barbecue house. So I'm already off to a good start when it comes to keeping my waistline slim enough to fit comfortably into my size 34 waist jeans (down from the size 36 jeans that I started this trip wearing Nov 13 and which I'm now swimming in).

Fortunately, my laptop has a good battery and I've been able to tread water with email and complete a major report between naps. (And I'll probably complete this blog and get it posted.) More reports and proposals are queued up behind today's so there's no danger of getting bored. And email is non-fattening.

If infirmity is Nature's way of telling you to slow down, I'm getting the message. I just hope I don't monkey wrench too many of my loved one's holiday plans because I can't answer the bell. We'll see.

Monday, December 14, 2015

A Month Off

Starting Aug 15 and ending Jan 9, I will sleep in my own bed in Chapel Hill five nights (two in Oct and three in Nov). It's been the most concentrated period I've ever spent on the road.

While my work has gone quite well and been highly satisfying, I'm tired. The good news is that opening up immediately in front of me is a glorious month off from facilitating, training, and consulting. From Dec 14 until Jan 14 I'll only be with family and dear friends:

o  With my son Ceilee, and my grandkids Taivyn and Connor • Dec 14-20
o  With my daughter Jo, and my son-in-law Peter • Dec 20-27
o  With my partner, Susan in Duluth • Dec 27-Jan 8
o  With my housemates Joe and María in North Carolina through the end of Jan, which includes my next job on the far horizon: a NC-based facilitation training that I'll be conducting with Maria as my co-trainer, Jan 14-17.

I won't travel for work again until the last weekend of January. Yippee!

To be sure, I still have a variety of reports to write (I wouldn't want to go cold turkey) and promotions of one kind or another to conduct, but the pace slackens considerably as the weather turns colder and our hearts turn warmer. Not much business gets conducted the last half of Dec anyway (other than shopping) and I see no reason to push against the tide. While I may not be a model holiday shopper, I fully intend to consume and distribute my share of good cheer and bonhomie. 

I've always loved the concept of coming home for the holidays. And given the uprootedness that has characterized this past year for me, it makes sense that it will mainly be me traveling to the homes of loved ones this season rather than their coming to me. 

We are entering the season of taking our foot off the gas in the workaday world, making way for time together in celebration of ritual and relationship. The more deliberate pace (lingering in a warm bed instead of bouncing out in the dark to answer the bell of business; luxuriating over coffee as we collectively decide what breakfast will suit the day; cuddling on the couch to read or enjoy a movie together of an evening) offers a canvas on which we're able to imprint memories that sustain us year round.

I love the contrast of working hard, followed by immersion in this zone where time slows down and laughter pushes worry aside. Just as surely as I know I'll be ready to go back to work Jan 14, today I'm as eager as a child on Christmas morning, anticipating the arrival of Santa Pause.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Foundational Community Questions

I'm in northern California this week, working with a spiritual community that's an enclave of about 250 devotees living in a concentrated area. While a small number of the total are living on community property, most are living nearby on private property, some of which is owner occupied and some of which is rented. A majority of the folks lost their homes in wild fires in Sept, and I have been asked in as a resource to explore what it would mean if devotees rebuilt to live more cooperatively.

Cooperative living offers two ways to leverage your time such that there is more available to devote to things more compelling than the mundane, including your spiritual practice (if you have one), which is expressly one of the motivations for the group I'm working with:

a) Economies of scale (it does not take 10x as long to cook for 20 as it does for two).

b) Through sharing assets each member of the group doesn’t need to buy things outright, which means chasing fewer dollars to have the same quality of life.

In addition, if the fundamental nodes of residential community are sized right and developed well, there is the potential for a substantial deepening in the quality of personal relationships which leads to a better sense of connection and mutual support.
While there are a number of factors that are peculiar to the spiritual group I'm working with (which I'll not examine here), there are also some general considerations when it comes to exploring the potential for residential community and that's what I want to share in today's essay. While the following list will not cover everything, it will reliably get you a long way in the right direction. Consider it a template for the questions starting communities might pose. The point here is not so much that there's a right answer to the questions below as that no answer is a predictable problem.

o  What’s appealing about cooperative living; being a residential community? What do you picture the benefits to be?

o  Going the other way, what are your questions or concerns?

o  How much do you intend to be in each other’s lives by virtue of being a member of this community?

o  To the extent that this is appealing, what seems like the right size?
Smaller means there are fewer variables to work out; easier personal connections; less structure; greater intimacy. Larger means a greater pool of assets; more stability; more support for side interests; greater pool of skills.

o  What do you want membership to mean (rights and responsibilities)? Hint: non-financial responsibilities may include maintenance (physical work), governance, and social. Can renters be members?

o  How does one become a member? What are the standards and what is the process? Are you asking for alignment around common values? If so, which ones? What qualities do you want in members (that might be used in screening prospectives for suitability)?

o  How will you make decisions? The big fork in the road is consensus versus voting.

o  How will you handle conflict?

o  Do you collectively have the will and the bandwidth to organize? Hint: even if you have what it takes to maintain community, there are additional start-up needs that will have to be covered for the project to succeed.

o  What model of leadership do you want (what qualities do you want in people filing leadership roles)?

o  How will the economics work? Income-sharing versus not. If not, will there will be dues, and how will they be set: square footage of house; percentage of income? Is there a fee to join? How will financial separation happen if a member leaves the community? How will inheritance be handled?

o  What will the common facilities be? What will be developed and owned by individuals or households?

o  Are there ways to test the waters prior to building permanent homes? Perhaps through close living in rented or temporary shelters. Perhaps by extended visits to established communities already developed along the lines you believe you want.

o  To what extent does the community embrace an outreach function: allowing (or even encouraging) others to visit for the purpose of understanding your model and being inspired by it?

o  How do you want this community to relate to other cooperative efforts in the area? Do you intend to create community mainly for the benefit of members, or is there an outreach mission where you intend to be available for others to witness what you're doing and be inspired by your example?

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Mental Health and Community

I recently received this request from a reader:

Have you written a blog post on mental health/depression in community? In particular, I’m curious on your thoughts on how a community might make reasonable accommodations while a member is suffering and at what point, if any, might that burden be too much for the community to manage. How does the community balance the delicacy of mental health while also ensuring the health of the collective?

While I've touched on mental health issues here and there (in particular, see my June 25, 2011 posting: How Strong to Make the Safety Net), I don't think I've ever tackled this topic head on and now seems as good a time as any.

There are a number of things that come into play on this topic. In no particular order, I'd like to spotlight five:

A. Stigma
First of all, mental health is a hidden issue and people are reluctant to disclose it for fear of being labeled and isolated. Yet lack of information (especially accurate or current information) is part of what makes this complicated. Like many issues in community—others include how to work constructively with feelings, how power is distributed, how aware is the membership about the distribution of privilege and how it impacts dynamics, what are the limits of diversity, and how you'd define healthy leadership in your group—developing a robust model for how you're going to work with mental health issues hinges on being able to talk openly, authentically, and compassionately about it.

In most cases this means going to a deeper level of vulnerability than the group is used to. Do you have the skills and the will to go there? It is very hard to get community support for mental health challenges if the affected individuals and households are not willing to disclose what's they're wrestling with, yet there is no guarantee that support will be extended before you disclose. Do you have the kind of culture where taking that kind of risk is possible (by which I mean that people will be treated gently and respectfully even if their request is not fully met)?

Is discussing this (both what the community's position on it is, and asking the candidate if they have any mental health issues) part of your membership intake process?

B. Depression
This is a widespread phenomenon in the wider culture (I've seen estimates that perhaps a third of the population suffers from some form of depression—which might usefully be thought of as lowering one's energy in the presence of a challenge) and comes in a wide range of degrees of severity, some of which can be ignored by the group and some of which require serious attention. 

I mention depression explicitly because it's the most common mental health issue extant, and as one almost certain to exist in a group with more than a handful of members. Thus, if you're a group of 15+ people it is almost a statistical certainty that you already have members with mental health issues—even if you didn't think you did. To be sure, that doesn't mean you're in trouble, but it's already part of the make up of your group and it behooves you to think about what it means and how you intend to work with it in case it becomes problematic.

One of the insidious aspects of mental health challenges is that once you're suffering from it in one version or another, it tends to be more difficult to think clearly about how to cope with it. Also, if you delay the conversation until you have someone in need, it is much more delicate to establish an even-handed policy because you can't ignore that it will be immediately applied to dear old Sylvia or good old Charley, which tends to dampen frank conversation and skews the consideration. Yuck.

For both of these reasons, it's a big advantage to try to discuss this pre-need—yet this virtually never happens because it's not a pleasant or easy conversation and it's hard to be motivated until you have need. Catch 22.

C. Amateur Diagnosis
It makes a big difference whether the person owns the diagnosis, or has it thrust upon them. People can be problematic for a number of reasons, only some small fraction of which are caused by mental health issues. It is one thing to be diagnosed with a problem by a licensed mental health practitioner; it's another to have the group develop a story that labels a challenging person as suffering from a personality disorder (an inability to accept responsibility for having any culpability when when things go south).

As a professional troubleshooter, it's relatively common for me to encounter difficult members being labeled as mentally unwell by frustrated group members who are indulging in amateur diagnosis. While this doesn't guarantee that they're wrong or make it any less likely that the person so labeled has patterns of behavior that are truly challenging, the problem is that once someone is labeled as having mental health issues the group tends to give up on trying to make it work with that member—effectively writing them off. It can be chilling observing the herd culling out the "weak."

D. Limits of Support
The group needs to discuss what it can and cannot be counted on to do. No group can be all things to all people. One of the beauties of community life is how the collective can hold and nurture those who are sick and debilitated because the fabric of relationship tends to be stronger and because it is possible for many hands to contribute substantial aid in the aggregate without overloading the capacity of any one individual. However, there are limits even then. 

Not only is there a question of how many members with mental health issues can be cared for or accommodated in the community (apples to apples), but you also have to factor in other member needs when discussing the limits of what can be extended, such as physical disabilities, old age, even Syrian immigrants (apples to oranges, lemons, and pineapples). And how close to capacity are you willing to extend yourself now, while still protecting enough flexibility to be there for unknown future needs of members who are otherwise not needing support today?

When discussing limits, be sure to take it far enough to identify the markers that indicate you may be at your limit. Having those in place ahead of time will be very useful when it comes time to apply them.

Finally, note that there may be limits of what group resources are make available to help people in need, but that doesn't have to limit what individuals members do on their own.

To be sure, these can be can very tender conversations, but not talking about them at all is worse.

E. Timing
It matters whether the person joins with a mental health issue or develops one after already being a member. In fact, it matters how long they've been a member before the need is apparent, and the extent to which they are viewed as a contributing member. In short, social capital comes into play here. 

Communities have been known to stretch heroically to support beloved members in time of need, yet it is not likely that the door will be open if you approach community as a prospective member with a debilitating mental health issue that requires long-term community support. Understandably, groups are chary about embarking on a path that looks like long-term deficit spending (by which I mean the incoming member appears to need more support than they can ever give back).

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Pause That Refreshes

No, I’m not going to write about Coca-Cola. I’m referring to my going back on the road (outbound for the opening weekend of an eight-part, two-year facilitation training in Portland OR).

After working every weekend since Sept 19-20, I was ready for a break and Thanksgiving came along just in time. I was able to spend the last eight days in Duluth with Susan, recharging my battery (and minimizing my time communing with my laptop). Feeling refreshed, I’m ready for an intense stretch of teaching and consulting Dec 3-13, after which I’ll split time between my two kids (Ceilee in Los Angeles and Jo in Las Vegas) for the fortnight that will take me through Christmas. Having enjoyed time off duty last week, I’m ready to get back at it.

While Susan and I produced a whiz bang dinner for five on Turkey Day (we started cooking at 8 am and went more or less nonstop until we sat down to start eating at 6 pm), mostly we just took it easy. We only went out to eat (with friends) once, went to a movie (Brooklyn), ate gobs of leftovers, watched some football, shopped a bit, did a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle, tag teamed our way through the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday New York Times crosswords, and went to bed early most nights in a valiant effort to make up for all those weeks that we've been sleeping apart.

For the next 38 hours I’ll be chugging across the northern tier of states (mostly following US 2 if you’re tracking my progress at home with an atlas) from St Paul to Portland. There will be a whole lot of flat North Dakota, followed immediately by more of the same in Montana. By the time we get to the Rockies in western Montana (where the flatness ends) it will be dark. Thursday morning I’ll enjoy the last few hours of the ride prancing alongside the Columbia River from The Dalles to the City of Roses.

We departed from Union Depot in St Paul in rainy skies hovering in the low 30s. (I was grateful to dodge ice.) The forecast for Portland calls for rain in the low 40s, with the landscape between the terminals featuring a 1800-mile necklace of frozen farm ponds and ice-clogged river courses. I figure Portland weather will be perfect for meetings. (Who would rather be outdoors?) 

The facilitation training is being hosted by Know Thy Food, a natural food store that’s making the transition from being privately owned to worker owned. The students will be helping the co-op board, managers, and staff sort out how it wants to operate.

The following week I’ll travel down the coast to Lake County CA, where I’ll be working with members of the Adidam Community as they sort out whether (and how) to rebuild after losing more than 50% of their housing to wildfires in September. While the fire was a tragedy, there was minimal loss of life and the devastation has given this spiritual enclave (followers of the teachings of Adi Da) a unique opportunity to reconfigure their housing to be more of a cooperative community. I’ll be an adviser for that effort.

On the train today I’ll complete the last of my reports from the consulting I did prior to Thanksgiving (I promise clients that I’ll get these out within two weeks of completing live work on site), tread water with email, enjoy the subtle winter tableaus of North Dakota and Montana while rumbling along at 60 mph, and do some recreational reading. There’s nothing like a long train ride to settle the psyche and prepare for the next job.

As someone who tries to work at a high level, it’s essential that I also have down time. While that’s often little more than half a day, or the private time I can carefully husband while en route from one job to the next (it’s one of the reasons I prefer traveling by train—it’s slower), I’ve found that I occasionally need longer stretches as well, mainly to enjoy the relationships that I espouse being the center of cooperative living.

Having this time for reflection, it occurs to me that I’ve come full circle as a process consultant. Exactly 28 years ago this month I boarded a train in Mount Pleasant IA to conduct my first job as a consultant. I took The Pioneer (a now defunct Amtrak route through Denver and Boise en route to Portland) to work with Appletree Community, an income-sharing group in Cottage Grove OR. Interestingly, Appletree is now defunct as well.

Thus, while the trains and communities have shifted with the times, I’m still plying my craft. And still enjoying the slow times interlarded with the busy.