Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Introverts in Communituy

I just read Susan Cain's book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking. It came out five years ago and was recently recommended to me by my friend, Roger Stube.

Among other things, it makes the case that Western culture (North American in particular) is dominated by extroverts—people who are energized by contact with others, and who tend to enjoy mixing it up at parties and meetings. Cain points out that this unintentionally creates an uneven playing field at which introverts tend to come out looking bad, even though there is no correlation between one's standing on the extrovert/introvert scale and intelligence.

For the most part, we tend to squander what introverts could contribute because things aren't set up to be comfortable—or even safe—for them.

As a group dynamics expert, one of Cain's more intriguing revelations is that extensive studies have shown that group brainstorms are invariably less productive—in both quantity and quality of ideas—than what results from individuals working alone who subsequently pool their ideas. I didn't see that coming.

(Interestingly, the one exception to this is online brainstorming, where participants are electronically connected, but not physically. Somehow that cancels out the way groupthink can stifle originality or inhibit those who are worried about sounding stupid when everyone is in the same room.)

To be sure, there is still a place for processing information as a group and coming to agreement together. Group cohesion is highly desirable and is not something you just mail in, or drop into someone's In Box. It is forged in the meeting.

While there's danger in generalizing, it's my strong anecdotal impression (after closely observing cooperative groups for four decades) that a majority of people living in intentional community are introverts (as opposed to somewhere between one-third and one-half of the general population). So what does this mean?

For starters, it suggests rethinking the way meetings are run. Because typical meeting culture emphasizes the bold, the quick, and those who are more comfortable speaking in front of groups, extroverts are favored. We have to work to create multiple on-ramps. That means purposefully creating room for people to digest information without haste, and spaciousness to organize what they want to say. 

One possibility is to give people time in silence to contemplate what they've heard and what they'd like others to know about their thinking before calling for responses. To be clear, I'm not talking about slowing things down all the time; but it may be a better idea than I knew to do this regularly.

Another possibility is being more rigorous about offering alternatives to open discussion (were people simply speak as they are ready), where extroverts are bound to dominate.

It also suggests the potential utility of taking time to ask people what their preferences are around pace and method of sharing—in the whole group, in small groups, with just one other person; orally, in writing, in a skit, through interpretative dance, in pantomime… whatever.

Cain's work suggests that the essential first step is creating an opening sufficient for everyone's story to be told, so that there is a sense that their input will be welcomed (though not necessarily agreed with). While extroverts often enjoy vigorous debate, rough and tumble conversations characterized by rising and falling decibel levels can leave introverts feeling decidedly unsafe and intimidated. The preferred style of one tends to be awkward for the other. 

Cain's book further reveals the startling fact that style unconsciously subverts thinking, such that people tend to be influenced by forceful and confident presentation—to the point where they will agree with the speaker and not realize that they might have come to a different conclusion if that person had not spoken. Yikes! This suggests being careful where you start Go Rounds, so that the same influential people are not setting the tone each time. (To be clear, Cain was not criticizing outspoken extroverts, she was just pointing out how things play out if you are not aware of what's happening.)

If this is new information, it's likely being received as an unwanted complication. My advice is to take a deep breath. While I'm sorry for the complication, the truth is you were already have it in your group, so you may as well understand better what's going on and try to adjust. The potential reward is that half or more of your group may suddenly come alive.

In fact, the rewards may be even greater than that. Because many introverts have had to learn to cope in an extrovert-dominated culture, they have learned to pump themselves up to operate at an extroverted pace and demeanor. As a result they often arrive home exhausted after a day's work, badly in need of recharge time (quiet time with minimal stimulation). To the extent that people are given ways to contribute that fall within their comfort zone, there is less accumulated fatigue.

In the larger picture, Cain explains that many psychologists think that personality can be boiled down to these five traits, which can present in any combination: 

Introversion/Extroversion
Agreeableness (how prone people are to conflict)
Openness to Experience (how open they are to novel experiences)
Conscientiousness (how diligent they are about doing what they said they'd do)
Emotional Stability (how easily strong feelings are triggered)

In the context of intentional community (and by extension, cooperative group culture) it's easy to imagine that you'd find people easier to get along with if they scored high on the last four traits, but where they stand on the Introversion/Extroversion spectrum is not predictive of happiness in community at all. Both can work out well; both can be a pain in the ass.

Last I want to share a gem about anger from Quiet. Cain starts with a story from Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion by Carol Tavris:

There once was a Bengali cobra that liked to bite passing villagers. One day a swami—a man who has achieved self-mastery—convinces the snake that biting is wrong. The cobra vows to stop immediately, and does. Before long, the village boys grow unafraid of the snake and start to abuse it. Battered and bloodied, the snake complains to the swami that this is what came of keeping his promise.

"I told you not to bite," said the swami, "but I did not tell you not to hiss."

Many people, like the swami's cobra, confuse the hiss with the bite.

In essence there is an important difference between expressing anger, and being aggressive. The two are not the same, though they are often thought to be. Going further, Cain shares that extensive studies have shown that the practice of venting does not "let off steam." If anything, venting fuels angers. 

With all do respect to Cain's exemplary scholarship, I have a subtle spin on this that I think can make a significant difference. Let's suppose the situation is that Adrian did something, Chris is pissed off, and Jesse has been asked to listen to Chris vent about it.

While I buy Cain's conclusion if Chris vents alone, or vents in Jesse's presence with Jesse only passively listening. Suppose however, that Jesse only agrees to listen if there is an understanding that the session will not end until there is a discussion (with Jesse's active assistance) to determine what constructive steps Chris will take to not remain stuck in reactivity. 

This might be Chris agreeing to talk to Adrian about what was upsetting to Chris (with or without Jesse's accompaniment); it might be identifying the ways in which Chris has an anger issue; it might be helping Chris see how they inadvertently contributed to the bad dynamic. It could be any number of things, but this ending offers hope of helping Chris move through their upset without stuffing it or risk unloading on Adrian like a ton of bricks.
While Cain's book may be Quiet, it spoke loudly to me.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Relishing One's Work

In my four decades at Sandhill Farm I gradually developed specialties—just like every other member. In my case I was the community electrician, the guy who filed taxes, the butcher, and an acidified food expert (that is, I processed the lion's share of pickles and condiments during my tenure—anything that could be canned in a hot water bath, rather than via pressure cooker).

The joke was that when I was away from home (about half the time), I'd be processing group dynamics. When I was home I'd be processing food.

In the Midwest, my busiest stretch was July through Oct, with August being the peak. That's when the tomatoes start rolling in, which meant tomato sauce, tomato juice, salsa, barbecue sauce, and ketchup. Leaving aside the occasional once-every-five-year crops, I'd also work up batches of corn relish, dilly beans, tomatillo salsa, horseradish, pickled beets, damson plum preserves, and pepper relish (both medium and hot). I'd spend many a day in the kitchen, emptying five-gallon buckets of garden bounty, turning their contents into canned goods that we'd either sell or enjoy ourselves. While others worked in the dirt; I worked over steaming kettles.

When I got sick last year (I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in January 2016) it appeared that my canning days might be over. But they aren't! Last fall I recovered from my stem cell transplant in time to be crank out a token run of tomatillo salsa, headlining fruit Susan produced in our postage stamp garden in Duluth.

As my health has gradually improved since then, I upped the ante this past week when I went wild at a farmer's market in Spooner WI. Monday I canned five jars of dilly beans, eight units of pickled beets, and 13 pints of corn relish. Although it was a long, wet day of cutting up in the kitchen, it was highly satisfying to dust off the canning funnel and jar lifter, and to be back in the swim of water bath processing.

• • •
Our glory in the kitchen continued yesterday after Susan and I sat down on the couch mid-afternoon to puzzle over that diurnal challenge that most households face: what's for dinner? Determined to do something about reducing our inventory of foodstuffs (after struggling to find space in the basement to store our burgeoning supply of canned goods), we started with the idea of featuring a beautiful fresh head of garden-surplus broccoli that had been given to Susan at work that morning.

As we have a goodly supply of organic pork in our freezer, we hunted online for a stir fry recipe that combined brassicas with tenderloin. While there were some, we got distracted (always a hazard when browsing the internet) by a recipe for spicy pork with kumquats. Say what? Incredibly, we had 5 oz of fresh kumquats in our fridge—exactly what the recipe called for. We took that as a clear sign that this is what we should have for dinner.

But wait a minute. As we looked more closely at the recipe, it called for additional oddball ingredients:
Chinese five spice seasoning
Hoisin sauce
Oyster sauce
Fresh ginger root
Mirin (aka rice vinegar)

Riding the wave of our good fortune all the way to the dining room table, it turned out that we had all of these in stock (no wonder the fridge is crowded), substituting only fish sauce for oyster sauce, which we decided was close enough. Yeehah! We were the winners of an impromptu kitchen scavenger hunt.

Not content to leave it there, we still had to figure out what to do with the broccoli (remember, that's where we started). This led to our improvising a second stir fry, this time blending:
Broccoli
Onion
Radicchio
Cashews
GarlicGreen banana pepper
Red bell pepper
Crimini mushrooms

While we made a quick trip to the neighborhood market to secure the last two items, all else was on hand. The cutting up took about as long as the cooking, and we finished in time to catch the PBS News Hour with Judy Woodruff, to see if we were at war yet with North Korea.

Dinner was rounded off with a bottle of chilled Riesling and a peach cobbler I'd made with fresh fruit that afternoon, topped with vanilla gelato (on sale at our local co-op). One more note: when we found the pork cum kumquat dish not quite as zesty as advertised, we improvised with a few spoonfuls of sambal oelek at the table, fine tuning both the color and the taste. Perfecto! (Fortunately, we always keep a jar of chili paste on hand in the fridge for moments like this.)

We figure we were the only ones in Duluth (maybe the country?) enjoying this particular menu last night, relishing our work both in the kitchen and at the table.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Navigating the Boundary Between Personal and Group

I recently had an interesting exchange with a friend about how she interacts in her community, based on reflections I shared after spending three days consulting with her group. As the dynamics are not rare, I thought it instructive to share our dialog (with names and issues altered to obfuscate identity).

Laird:

I noticed that there were times when:

o  You told stories that were difficult for me to tie to the conversation. I struggled to figure out why you were telling the story you did.
o  You told a story (ostensibly for my benefit as the new person) that you had already told me.
o  You seemed to get lost in your stories, where you would get sidetracked in sharing details that were not central to the main point and then have trouble finding your way back.
In one of the gatherings where you witnessed me doing these things there were several others present and when the Schmidts launched into the barbecue episode (something that had been explored ad nauseum in the past), I thought Oh God no. Not that again. My partner considers my attitude ungenerous. In truth I am very fond of both Schmidts and try to be sympathetic and empathetic. However, the community spent a good chunk of a two-day retreat two years ago on this topic, and much other time before and since, and we never get anywhere other than a rehash. 

I just wanted to move to a different topic. It didn't occurred to me to find a nice way to do that, so I maladroitly tried to change the subject. What I thought the barbecue story and my tale of injustice had in common was lack of community support and recognition, but my partner disagrees. I didn't especially want to dredge up my story, but I was clutching at straws to change the topic. Maybe it would be helpful to learn how to say nicely, "Please, not that topic again."
Laird:
Thanks for this background, which was new to me. I have reflections in two directions.

A. Though it was obvious that the barbecue issue was an old wound, I did not know that the group had worked on it extensively, nor did I catch that you were trying to shift the spotlight off of what you considered a dry well (that said, your explanation helps me understand your good intent). What was different about this telling was that I was in the room. Based on what had happened during the day [where I had helped the group successfully work through some old, unresolved dynamics], I want you to appreciate that some people are going to want to tell me stories about something they are stuck on, in the hopes that I might be able to get them unstuck (rather than simply to wallow in a familiar mud hole, which may well have been what it seemed like to you). In my line of work I’m used to this (I’m never really off duty when I’m with a client), and I’m hopeful that I was able to give Ms Schmidt an insight into choices she has about old wounds, when I told the story about how I worked through my anger with my father. I’m not promising that there will be a change (you never know), but I believe I gave her something powerful and new.

To be fair to you, there was no knowing at the front end of her launching into the barbecue story that I was going be able to offer a helpful insight, yet I was basically giving her the same attention I gave everyone who wanted to talk with me (including you). I can understand that you might have feared that allowing Ms Schmidt to wallow in the mud risked souring an otherwise delightful evening, yet, in the end, what is more precious than helping each other work through tough issues?

B. Now I want to shift lenses and look at this from your end. It will happen again that you are in a pleasant conversation when someone slips into dwelling on an old wound. What are your options?

o  Try to shift the focus to something else (which was the choice you made). The danger here is that the speaker may fight (cordially) for control of the conversational focus, and become irritated with you, either because you're undercutting their efforts, or because you come across as clueless about what the focus of the conversation has been. Neither of those two possibilities are happy ones.

o  Offer to listen, with the condition that after discharging, the person will work with you to come up with one or more constructive next steps (which was what I recommend in relation to gossip).

o  Try to name your discomfort as soon as you are aware of it. “Is there going be anything new in this retelling? If not, why are we doing this? This sounds like a book I’ve already read.” If the speaker does not accept your claim that it’s all old news, simply give them a synopsis of events along with what you understand their reaction to be. Ask them if you've gotten the essence of it. This will establish what you’ve heard before, and set the table for limiting the current focus to new material.
 
Talking about opportunities to volunteer: I inappropriately pointed out that I feel fulfilled by what I'm doing (some of our members speak about feeling unfulfilled and looking for something) and have no intention of volunteering. You pointed out that no one is pointing a finger at me to volunteer. Totally true. Where my remark came from: Guilt. Also, deep down inside, I'm still the little refugee girl who didn't know the majority language and culture. As a teacher, I've worked with lots of immigrants and refugees on these. I'm very skilled and very experienced. I'm also angry that, for my professional work, I have always been paid poorly—in that respect, treated almost as a volunteer. So though I know there's great need and could contribute a lot, I don't.  
Laird:
I can follow this, and it’s not hard for me to identify with it. I have a strong desire to be useful and it can be hard to not volunteer when there’s a task out there to do that I know I can handle and no one else’s hand is in the air. Yet it can’t be good that your past anger is stirred up (about the awkwardness of trying to integrate into a new culture, or about not having been fairly compensated for a lifetime of good work) when it comes to helping your community. To be clear I am not advocating one way or another about how much you volunteer (I don’t know enough to have an opinion about that). 

I am doing another thing: pointing out that requests for volunteers in the community (which must go on all the time) are triggering anger in you that may not be well known or understood, and that may greatly complicate your relationships in the community. Or have you disclosed to the group what you’ve shared with me? While you may be protecting yourself from resentment, you may come across as being a queen, who is too good for the menial work of the community. (I’m not saying that’s happening—no one expressed that view to me—I’m describing the risk.)
 • • •
The underlying theme here is how appropriate is it to share your personal stories when living in a group. While moving into an intentional community means your lives will necessarily be more intertwined than would likely be true among random neighbors in the wider culture, how far should that be taken? 

The answer can be subtle, and deserves a conversation. Unfortunately, it's been my experience that groups rarely have that conversation. Instead they just stumble along and hope for the best. Members often have to guess how much to share of their personal story, trying to thread the needle between saying too much (being accused of giving TMI) and too little (who was that masked man?). When are we just chasing around the mulberry bush talking about old hurts to no effect, and when are we genuinely asking for help to get unstuck?

When are we giving enough information to help others understand the context in which we view current situations, and when are we being too stoic, missing the opportunity for genuine connection?

I recently had this exchange with someone from a different group:

There are multiple personality conflicts here, but I do NOT want to spend time in fishbowls [working through the conflicted dynamics] or discussing certain personalities or individual conflicts—we need to talk bigger picture. For example, how the community has not been able to effectively absorb the change that comes from new people moving in.

Laird: 
While I hear your desire to focus on better integrating new people, there's a problem with skipping the step of working through conflicts. In my experience, once you have a build up of tension and hurt between two people you can’t discuss solutions until you clear the tension. That does not necessarily require work in a fishbowl, but something must be attempted to draw the poison before entering into problem solving, and it appears that the community has not developed robust ways of working through interpersonal tensions.
 • • •
Lacking a deep enough understanding of how group members approach life differently, we tend to misunderstand (and worse, assign bad intent to) actions and viewpoints that diverge significantly from our own. The beauty of group living is that you have the opportunity to bring diverse viewpoints to bear on the issues you collectively face. You have a richer pool of experience to draw from.

Unfortunately, that's simultaneously the bane of group living if you don't do enough spade work to appreciate from where those differences arise. It is not just a matter of chiseling off the rough edges until everything runs smoothly (viewing community as a giant rock tumbler). We have to be interested in why these differences exist and curious about their potential meaning—instead of responding with, Uh oh, here we go again.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Day 365

Exactly one year ago today I underwent an autologous stem cell transplant at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester MN. The fact that I'm writing about it is a fair indication of that procedure's efficacy, and my multiple myeloma (a cancer of the bone marrow) has been in remission ever since (knock on wood).

Medicos keep track of transplants by counting days. Thus, July 29, 2016 was Day Zero. While the first few weeks were rocky (I felt like shit from the melphalan they gave me July 27 to kill off everything in my bone marrow, which resulted in diarrhea, no energy, and no appetite), the stem cells eventually took hold and repopulated my bone marrow. As my blood cell counts went up, so did my energy and spirits. Things have been getting better ever since. Who would have thought that normal activities—such as cooking, rewiring a wall socket, and walking the dog—could feel so good?

Unquestionably, I'm lucky that I didn't develop cancer until now, and that multiple myeloma is a type that Western medicine has been developing effective protocols to treat. While there's no telling how many anniversaries I'll live to celebrate, I couldn't be off to a better start.

Question: What am I doing on my anniversary? Answer: Wrapping up an 18-day road trip. I had stops in Mountain View CA to labor with a two-year-old cohousing group, a segment in Los Angeles where I helped my son and grandkids get ready to move to a less stressful life in Las Vegas (yes, you read that right), and a third leg at Sandhill Farm (my home of 40 years) to disappear the old house trailer that had served as FIC headquarters for nearly two decades. While the first portion only entailed psychic heavy lifting (showcasing how to untangle conflict and complex issues constructively), the last two literally featured packing things in boxes and schlepping them in and out of trucks. It's work I couldn't imagine having the strength and endurance to handle a year ago.

Today I'm heading back to the barn, traveling from Rutledge MO to Duluth MN (with intermediary stops in Quincy IL, Chicago, and St Paul). Arising at 0 dark thirty, Sandhillian Joe Black chauffeured me the 60 miles to Quincy to catch the Illinois Zephyr, which departs for Chicago promptly at 6:13 am daily. 

We crossed the Mississippi in the pre-dawn light, just as colors were reinhabiting the diurnal visual palette. On the bridge I noticed tug boats and barge tows, and mused about how I would be detraining 16 hours later by St Anthony Falls in St Paul, also on the Mississippi and hard by barge traffic—just much further upstream. With luck, I may catch the sun setting on Ol' Man River as we chug between Winona and Red Wing. It's a motif for the day: as the river winds, so does my life.

The last leg will be achieved via Skyline Shuttle, which runs vans between Duluth and the Twin Cities every 75 minutes. I'll catch the 11:10 near the state capitol tonight and pull into DECC Parking (Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center) circa 2 am, where Susan will collect me. While I don't like being separated from my partner that much, I love what I do and the reunions are incredibly sweet.

It's a measure of my improved health that I've been able to resume my work as a process trainer and consultant, traveling one or two weeks per month on average. Not only does this provide Susan and me income, but it affords me the opportunity to visit friends and family around the edges of my work, and adds meaning to my recovery—I've been blessed with extended play, with which I can do additional good in the world as a builder and promoter of cooperative culture.

All and all it's terrific to be honoring a milestone today, instead of a headstone.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

On Sandhill's Porch

I'm typing today's entry while sitting on the front porch at Sandhill Farm, that had been my home from 1974 to 2014.

(I am visiting for a few days, principally to disappear the retired FIC Office—an old '70s-era 12x60 house trailer that has reached the end of its useful life.)

The front porch is a location that evokes rich memories, and I cannot sit here without being simultaneously nurtured and stirred by that history, so much of which touches me personally. It's attached to the White House, the original farm building that has been the nerve center of the community throughout Sandhill's tenure on the land. The White House contains the community's office, dining room, and the kitchen used to cook the daily meals (in contrast with the food processing kitchen, located in another building).

In spring, summer, and fall the front porch serves as the central social space—where members and visitors most commonly eat and hang out. Frequently, it's where people read during breaks and off hours. It's also the most frequent meeting space.

Location, Location, Location
Part of what makes the front porch so compelling is that it's eastern facing. In the Midwest that's important because it captures the morning sun, when heat and light are typically welcome, while shedding it in the afternoon, when ambient temperatures and illumination are more than enough. Further, air stirs through the porch in ways that it doesn't indoors, providing welcome relief from summer's oppressive humidity. (In addition, air flow is life-preserving when we're grinding horseradish in the fall—don't ever attempt that in an enclosed space without a gas mask.)

While the White House came with the property when we bought it in 1974, the front porch was narrower then (eight feet instead of 12) and not screened in, as it is today. When we rebuilt it in the '90s to its current configuration we increased its value tenfold.

In the winter the front porch is sheathed in plastic and transformed into a mud room, firewood staging area, and rudimentary airlock. So it's precious space year round (including as a weather-protected staging area for incoming and outgoing packages).

Finally, it's an incomparable observation post for experiencing thunderstorms, where you can fully see, hear, and feel the impact of a low pressure cell racing across the landscape without getting drenched. It's better than Omnimax.

Down Memory Lane
In addition to the multitude of quiet memories (reading and sipping coffee in the morning; cooling off with a glass of ice tea in the afternoon; lingering after dinner), there are many prominent porch moments that echo in my memory. To wit:

o  A meeting in the early '80s (during a thunderstorm, no less) when some members asked me to leave the community.

o  Filling transplant trays each April with sorghum seeds in preparation for field planting in May. This was work we mostly did as a group. A rite of spring.

o  A meeting in the late '90s when the male in one established couple announced that he wanted to get together with the woman in another established couple, which she fully supported but the other partners did not. (Talk about juggling sticks of dynamite!)

o  Innumerable membership meetings when we'd get down to brass tacks about the perceived enhancements and challenges of a prospective's candidacy.

o  Playing live music and singing along into the night at our 20th anniversary party in 1994.

o  Conducting the Sandhill Trivia contest at our 30th birthday in 2004.

o  Facilitating a meeting among Dancing Rabbit's founding members in the early '90s, where they assessed the pros and cons of various potential locations for buying land (they had visited sites all over the country before ultimately selecting property only three miles from Sandhill).

o  Enjoying the fantastic array at the potluck buffet on the porch every Beltane/Land Day celebration in early May. 

All in all, Sandhill's front porch is to me what a madeleine cookie was to Proust.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

On Being a Good Meeting Participant

As a cooperative group process consultant I mostly focus on the role of the facilitator, because it's a major leverage point in how well meetings function. It has, for example, been my experience that a skilled facilitator can single-handedly turn a poor meeting into a good one.

However, most folks will seldom or ever wear the hat of facilitator. For the vast majority, they will simply attend meetings, not run them. That does not mean though, that they, as participants, have no role to play in how well meetings go.

So let's focus on what it means to be a good meeting participant. I have a number of suggestions.

Do Your Homework
Read handouts and reports ahead of time and organize your thoughts. Coming with an open mind is not the same thing as coming with an empty mind.

Be Disciplined About Speaking
Meetings are not open mic. You are expected to speak in turn, on topic, and without repetition. Once the meeting begins, participants are expected to be circumspect about when they speak and what they say. Here's a sentence of condensed advice that I call the Participant's Mantra: 
 
What does the group need to hear from me about this topic at this time? 

If you don't have a good answer, please consider the option of not talking.

Commit to Engagement
As long as the group has been diligent about only allowing work appropriate for the whole group to take up plenary time, then there is an important role for everyone to play on every topic. Essentially, all agenda items are subject to a binary sort: either you're a stakeholder on a topic, or you're not. 

If you are, then you’ll be motivated to pay attention because the outcome matters to you. If you aren't then you are perfectly poised to safeguard the process, helping people bridge differences. Your active assistance in that capacity is more likely to be well received if you are disinterested in the outcome. All of which is to say, please don’t fall asleep in meetings, or zone out doing sudokus in the back of the room just because a topic doesn’t grab you.

Assume Good Intent
If someone says something or does a thing that comes across as bizarre or mean-spirited, the meeting will go much better if you can pause and ask for more information instead of launching into reactivity. Because one thing is certain: the other person's story about why they did what they did will not be that they are bizarre or mean-spirited. While their thinking may not have been sound, and their choice may have been unwise, it will almost always be well intended and it will behoove you to hunt for that when their motivation is opaque to you.

Shifting Perspectives
Though this is an advanced skill (and beyond the reach of some), it can be tremendously helpful in bridging differences if you can learn to see an issue through the eyes of others, and not insist that everyone see it your way. 

Be Sensitive to How Much Air Time You Take Up
Although it's not strictly necessary that speaking time be divvied up equally among participants, it's generally desirable that everyone has a protected point of entrée. If you are the kind of person who is quick to know what they want to say, and does not find speaking in front of the whole group daunting, please be mindful of leaving room for others who are not so quick or comfortable, so that they can get their oar in the water, too.

Emotional Literacy
While mostly groups work in the arena of ideation (what's our best thinking about how to handle issues X, Y, and Z?), there will be times when feelings play a major role in what transpires. For that to go well, it's helpful if participants are self-aware (what am I feeling?) and able to acknowledge what's gong on with others (does this topic bring up strong feelings in you?). Not acknowledging strong reactions rarely goes well.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Community and Aging in Place

I spent 41 years living in intentional community. Though I left my long-established community home (Sandhill Farm) in an effort to save my marriage in 2014 (which didn't work out so well), and I've since relocated to Susan's well-established neighborhood in Duluth, my heart remains dedicated to cooperative culture. 
 
(Over the years I've become less attached to the specific form of community, yet very much committed to cooperation. If the incivility and mean-spirited boorishness of the Trump Administration does not convince you of the need for cooperative culture I cannot imagine what will.)

Although I moved out of intentional community just as I entered my senior years, that was an accident, not a strategy. As my cohort ages (we're talking Boomers), I've noticed that an increasing number of intentional communities are starting to have serious conversations about how to work creatively and realistically with an aging population.

While most communities did not think much for how they would handle growing older when they got started, that's not the case with all groups. For example, with the advent of "senior cohousing" (where no one south of 50 need apply), there are elder-friendly features built into the design—wider walkways, fewer stairs, additional space for live-in caregivers—and residents don't have to worry so much about kids screaming at mealtime or wayward Tonka toys on the pedway at night.
 
Regardless of how the community was designed, however, all communities will have to cope with an aging population if they are successful (that is, if they last long enough for original members to grow old). In the case of senior cohousing, they just don't have to wait so long to get there.
 
Because few, if any, intentional communities have been built promising members care through end of life, what we're talking about is aging in place—staying in the community for as long as possible. But what does it mean? What can members count on? Few communities define this ahead of need, and that's the main motivation for this essay—to get groups discussing this tender and important topic before the hard decisions need to be made and misunderstandings can lead to grief.
 
It's easy to understand the appeal of aging in place. Relationships are the lifeblood of community, and when groups are functioning well there is vibrancy, joy, and camaraderie among the members. It's a no-brainer that people would want to hold onto that in preference to a dubious future in assisted living.

With that in view, it is important for the community to start defining the limits of what it can provide for members, so you’ll know when it’s time to start talking about what help people can ask for, and when it’s time to start thinking about going somewhere else, because one’s needs have outstripped the community’s capacity to help.

—Hint: Don’t want to wait until you’re facing your limits to start determining them—these conversations should happen well ahead of need. 

Here are some things to consider:

A. Managing the Demographics
It will not work if everyone is infirm at the same time. While there are subtleties about where the limits are, and how to cope with a burst of needs that might blossom all at once (as if infirmity were contagious), it should be fairly obvious that the group will have a much easier time covering the care needs of 10 percent of the population, than it would if 75 percent needed that same level of attention. The former might be a powerful time of pulling together; the latter might be a horrific swamping of the boat.

Special note for senior cohousing: This point is all the more compelling for you in that you've purposefully selected a much narrower age range to work with. Instead of a span of 75 years (in a fully-fledged multi-generational community), you're only working with 25 years. That means you have to stay that much more focused on a viable ratio of the healthy to the infirm.
 
Digesting this, there is a great deal that can be done by an active Membership Team to recruit new members that are healthier (and younger) if your community is starting to get long in the tooth.

Word of Caution: Fair housing laws prohibit recruitment that is based on age, yet there is no law against targeting your recruitment efforts. So if you want families with young children, don't advertise for that in print; focus your outreach on Montessori and Waldorf schools, or the local chapter of the La Leche League. Go to the places where you are likely to find the values match you seek and the age range you're hunting.
 
B. Emphasizing Relationships as Security
To an amazing degree, it’s possible to substitute neighbor care for professional assistance. In most developed countries we tend to define security in terms of money or insurance. Yet community allows us to substitute relationships for money to a large extent. I’m not talking about asking your neighbor to perform surgery, but most care needs are modest and don’t require trained professionals. I’m talking about helping with physical tasks, being a buddy in going for walks (or to do gentle yoga), inviting seniors to social opportunities (like playing cards on Saturday night, or being part of a book club Tuesday afternoons), walking the dog, and driving people to town once a week.

Many will be able to live a lot longer in place if they receive a modest level of help in key areas. While extraordinary support can be sustained briefly (such as when a person is in a whole body cast for a month following a car accident), less heroic levels of support can be sustained for much longer—even years— if spread out over a large enough population, so it isn’t so much of a burden on any one individual or household.

C. Communication Support as Distinguished from Physical Support
Support can look like many things. While we most often think of physical aid (getting down high things for a person in a wheelchair; or feeding someone with broken arms), the group may commit to being a communication clearinghouse without committing to any particular level of physical support. I know one group, for example, that established a Care Committee (for any member in need, regardless of age), such that it would be available to help get the word out within the community about anyone's compromised health situation and what particular kinds of support that person was looking for. There is no promise that help will be forthcoming (individual members will respond as they are moved by the particulars of the situation); only a promise that the call will be put out, and that responses will be coordinated if the person wants that.

D. Balancing Social Capital
Because communities are comprised of individuals who have chosen to live together, you cannot mandate care. If it's “required” it will become a burden and the energy will be wrong. You want care to be given freely. This will tend to flow much more easily if the person in need has established social capital within the group—by having given substantially to the community (in terms of time and energy, more than money) prior to need. When a person has generously given of themselves to the community, the community naturally wants to support that person in return. If, on the other hand, a person arrives in the community with intent to run a negative balance (where they need more support than they can give) that doesn't work well.

E. Financial Safety Net
Despite what was said under Point B, there may be times when financial support is needed or helpful, and that too can be organized by the community. This can be done either through increasing dues to create a surplus to capitalize an Emergency Care Fund, or by asking those who are better off financially to donate to such a fund. This pot of money could then be administered by the Care Committee, working under guidance developed and approved by the plenary.

F. Trading Off One Kind of Support for Another
You cannot be all things to all people. Groups have to choose. The more money and time you give to aging in place, the less discretionary bandwidth remains for other worthy causes, such as supporting people with developmental disabilities, or providing transitional refugee housing. I am not advocating for any particular position when I state this; I am only pointing out that there are limits. The more you give to one thing, the less remains for anything else without risk of flooding the engine. 

I urge groups to discuss this and prioritize where they want their support to go, and how often they’ll review their decision.

G. Safety
When should limits be placed on a person driving, operating dangerous equipment, or even supervising others? When does it make sense to limit a person’s power in decision-making because of deteriorating memory or compromised cognitive ability? Talk about how you'll recognize, discuss, and communicate about these delicate moments, balancing the need for disclosure within the community with appropriate discretion about who that information is shared with outside the group.

H. Dignity and the Opportunity to Be Useful
Even with deteriorating abilities, people can often continue to be helpful to the group if thought is given to how to set it up well, and this can make a large difference in quality of life for a person with diminished capacity. No one wants to be made to feel useless or a burden. Perhaps by pairing the senior with a younger person, or only giving them tasks that do not depend on the particular ability that’s been compromised, it will be more possible to engage seniors usefully in community life well into their later years.

If you like this idea, it could be made part of what the Care Committee handles when they periodically canvass members for an update about their limitations and needs.