The other morning I lay in bed wondering how I'd describe myself as a process professional. In what ways am I distinctive? Here's my answer.
I. My Strengths as a Professional
There are aspects of what I bring to the table where I believe I stand out, independent of what I know about group dynamics.
Excepting where I'm giving a workshop or an a la carte training (in which case there will be handouts), I commit to delivering a written report within two weeks. While the report basically recapitulates what happened live and what I said when I was in the room, I discovered early in my career that clients typically absorb only about 20% of what happens, so the written report gives them a second bite of the apple that they can refer to in their leisure. I have high standards for my reports.
Some small, but significant portion of the time there are tensions in the client group that relate to a key player feeling isolated or misunderstood as a founder of the group. It is unquestionably a special thing being a founder, and it helps me bridge to those folks that I also have been a founder—of an intentional community, of a national profit, of a community business, of a consulting career.
For reasons that are unknown to me, I can hold an unusually large number of balls in the air without dropping them. This is an enormously useful skill: taking in a large volume of information and being able to call upon it at will.
There is considerable range in how quickly people process information and are able to separate signal from noise. While I'm not a prodigy, I operate at the quick end of that spectrum, which means I'm at the head of the pack when it comes to figuring out where we are and where we want to go.
Some of the group issues I'm asked to facilitate involve parenting. On those occasions it helps tremendously that I have raised two kids in community—not because there is one right way to do it, but because I have personal familiarity with the range of what to expect (and non-parents seldom have street cred with parents).
This is a new label for me, and I'm not sure yet how it will play out. But if I've learned anything about group dynamics, all experiences come into play at one point or another. I've been a survivor for only a year, yet there have been moments in the past when I was working with individuals who were approaching mortality and it was a challenge to bridge to what they were going through. Now I'm better equipped. ("Did you almost die? So did I.")
II. My Flavor as a Professional
There are a number of ways that I do things that are distinctive. In some circumstances they are an advantage… other times not so much.
As someone who has lived most of his adult life in an income-sharing community, I've never needed a lot of income in order to make ends meet. That's given me flexibility when it comes to what I charge for my time, which I use to bridge between my services being accessible to clients (affordable) and my work being aligned with my values (if I'm not being asked to build a more cooperative world I'm not interested in the work). On the one hand, I do not want money to stand in the way of helping groups in need; on the other I want this skill to be taken seriously and compensated fairly—both for myself and for the profession.
Over the course of 30 years in the field I've gradually worked myself up the ladder to where I rate my services as worth $1500/day, plus expenses (travel, room, and board). While this may be a bargain in the corporate context, my clients are almost wholly in the nonprofit sector and that's high enough. (If you think that's pricey, consider what lawyers and architects charge: my skill set is far rarer and my work is typically more pivotal to a community's success.)
While I don't offer discounts up front, and I insist that clients discuss among themselves what they can afford and the value of my work (a conversation I don't need to be part of), I tell them I will accept without question whatever amount of money they put on the table—so long as my expenses are covered (my inviolable line is that I never lose money working for others). Sometimes I get full boat; sometimes I work pro bono. On average though, I come out fine.
This is handled differently by some of my peers. Some simply suppress their prices as a nod to affordability (I have a dear friend who refers to this strategy as the pride of poverty movement, where social change workers compete to see who can work for the least). Others embrace the gift economy where no prices are set and groups pay what they think right.
I've come to prefer my approach for four reasons:
a) I've seen how much clients anguish over price; not giving them a number to work from is hard on folks. They want to be fair, yet they don't want to be foolish. If I give them no frame of reference it can be highly uncomfortable.
b) I am a market maker in the arcane field of cooperative group process consulting and I think strategically about those who will follow me. This is a field that barely existed when I first hung out a shingle in 1987. Though my income-sharing lifestyle means I don't need as much, there are plenty of good facilitators who live in single family urban dwellings and they need to make a living, too. By gradually doing what I can to raise the water level, all boats rise.
c) While I wish it weren't so, people pay more attention when they pay more money. And while money isn't much of a motivator for me, I purely hate it when clients don't pay attention. Thus, it helps to establish a healthy bench mark.
d) Since adopting this approach I've never had a client complain about price.
Sad though it is, not everyone likes me, or the way I work. I am very direct, and that can be more octane than some can handle. While I also try to be sensitive and compassionate, I am typically working complex dynamics under severe time constraints. As I do not get hired to play it safe (I get hired to be effective) it often means going into the lion's den. Inevitably, a certain fraction of the time (maybe 3%) what I attempt does not go well (perhaps I didn't have a full enough picture; perhaps my analysis was faulty, perhaps my technique was poor, perhaps the people I most needed to reach had their drawbridge up and there was no way to cross the moat). Most push back comes from people who are embedded in a stuck dynamic and are simply unwilling to have the light shined on their part. For them I am the disrespectful, outside agitator and there is no way I will ever be invited back—never mind that 97% thought what I attempted was brilliant, brave, or at least constructive. In my line of work if you don't hit a home run in your first couple at bats, you'll be on the trading block by morning. (Professional firefighting is not for the faint of heart or the thin-skinned.)
Most groups have never seen anyone do what I can do and thus are hard pressed when it comes to evaluating whether it's a good value to lay out major resources (both time and money) to hire me. As I've come to appreciate that phenomenon, it has underlined the standard advice I give groups considering professional help: check references.
This field is so young and so thin that there are no standards for accreditation, and I have been so busy doing the work (and the rest of my life) that I have not gotten around much to seeing my peers in action—so I want no part of passing judgment on others. I'd rather let the marketplace handle that. At the same time, I think this work is too important for amateur hour. So it puts me in a tricky position: I want groups to get assistance yet am concerned that more people are putting themselves forward as professionals than who know what they're doing.
(What I can do, upon request, is offer a list of my coaching tree, professional-grade students of mine whose quality of work I can vouch for.)
My approach is overwhelmingly based on what works in the trenches—in real meetings. That's in contrast with work that's grounded in exposure to the literature, or from absorbing instruction from others. In my case the exceptions are:
o Arnie Mindell's Sitting in the Fire, which does a terrific job of laying out the non-rational aspects of group dynamics, and the concepts of rank and privilege.
o Caroline Estes, a lifelong Quaker who taught me to understand consensus deeply.
o Mildred Gordon, who taught me the potential of interweaving the emotional and the rational.
Otherwise my thinking and my practice have been distilled from hundreds and hundreds of meetings, including 200+ professional gigs over a span of three decades.
Taken all together, I have an enormous pattern library to draw on (to the point where it's hard to show me something I haven't seen before). Thus, when you hire me you get a library card.
It happens that my primary intake channel is through my ears. While I've worked hard to be competent with both visuals and kinesthetics, my main medium of exchange matches well with the way meetings are conducted: by voice.
I write a lot. It got to the point a few years ago (while I was still the FIC administrator) that I was authoring something heavy duty—an article, a report, a major proposal, or a blog entry—every day. Never mind the three hours I devote to treading water with email every time the sun comes up.
At this stage in my life I've generated:
over 1000 blog posts
over 50 articles in Communities magazine
over 100 reports to clients
The vast majority of this output has been focused on one aspect or another of cooperative group dynamics. When people ask if I'm going to write a book, I tell them, "I've already written several. They just aren't organized yet."
As a writer, I strive to be concise, cohesive, comprehensive, and colloquial. I rely heavily on metaphors (and alliteration).
As I've gotten older, and therefore closer to the end of my career, I've become increasingly focused on passing along what I've learned. In addition to writing (see above) I've became much more active as a teacher.
In 2003 I launched a two-year intensive training program for people who want to learn high-end facilitation. I've now delivered this program in its entirety eight times with three other courses currently under way (in New England, the Pacific Northwest, and North Carolina). Since recovering from cancer, I've been working to assemble the materials for a masters course, which I hope to offer in the next year or two.
To the extent possible, I prefer to teach from live dynamics (where the lessons emerge from the what's in the room rather than from a script or a lesson plan). For the two years I'm together with students, I offer myself as a mentor—both in class and out. After completing the course, if the student is interested in going further and shows sufficient talent, I offer to let them accompany me on jobs as an apprentice, offering both advanced guidance (1:1 time with the teacher) and valuable exposure as a wannabe professional. Though I didn't have that kind of help when I broke into the field (why would you hire someone you'd never heard of and who has no track record?) now I have a chance to turn it around. And paying it forward is good juju.
—Major Philosophical Positions
Over the course of my career my thinking about group dynamics has continuously evolved (in fact, it still is). And, as you'd expect, my peers have a variety of styles, different aspects they emphasize, and unique ways they approach their work. Here is an enumeration of ways in which I believe I am distinctive as a professional facilitator, and ways in which hold a particular orientation to cooperative culture.
o I emphasize working with the whole person. That means the emotional, intuitive, kinesthetic, and spiritual; not just the rational (which is overwhelmingly the only way that most secular groups function in North America—though I suspect this is more by default than the consequence of conscious choice).
o A professional facilitator needs to be able to work with content as proficiently as with energy. Doing one well is not enough. I cut my meeting teeth in an income-sharing intentional community with no designated leader. As far as I'm concerned that's the toughest nut there is (by which I mean the dynamics there are the most complex and intertwined). It's my view that if you can function well in that setting you can do it anywhere.
o I've come to the position that you cannot fully bloom as a facilitator without developing and trusting your intuition; your thinking is not enough. Facilitation is more an art than a craft.
o There is a bewildering array of tools available these days to assist with meetings—with bright, shiny new ones being invented and touted all the time. While I think that robust experimentation with new tools is good, and it's fine to add to your toolkit anything that works well for you, I have two words of caution:
a) You don't need a large tool bag to be a great facilitator; you just need a basic set of tools (formats and the like) that you know when to employ and how to use well. The heavy lifting in facilitation does not come from clever structure; it comes from a deep understanding of where people are at, what they need, and how to reach them.
b) Beware of practitioners who are in love with a single tool, for as sure as they love their hammer, everything will start looking like a nail and the world is far more diverse than that.
o The bottom line for facilitation is consistently delivering meetings that people want to come to because problems are solved and relationships are built and strengthened. It shouldn't be just one or the other. When exciting things are consistently happening no one wants to miss the bus.
o Many groups that are avowedly committed to cooperative principles have not digested the foundational lesson that individuals raised in Western culture have been deeply conditioned to be competitive and you cannot expect cooperative behavior out of those people (which is just about all of us) when they encounter disagreement and the stakes are high. Competitive behaviors can be unlearned (thank god) but that requires personal work to achieve and you are not going to like the results if well-intentioned people attempt to effect cooperative culture while opting out of the personal work.
o Facilitation is a lot like midwifery. The point in a group's life cycle where skilled facilitation is most crucial is when the group is in its infancy and still trying to make the transition to cooperative culture. Good facilitators are able to remind the group of its good intentions and redirect inadvertent slides back into the abyss of competitive squabbling. Without good facilitation young groups often founder, get discouraged, and lose heart. As groups become more mature and cooperative behaviors become more ingrained, the need for strong facilitation lessens. Over time the group will develop a strong gyroscope and self correct without facilitator intervention.
o As a social change agent, when I contemplate how badly we need a viable alternative to competitive dynamics (is anyone inspired by the model Trump is offering?), I figure I can't train good facilitators fast enough—the need is that urgent. So that's mainly what I do (along with articulating the theory). I've retired from everything else (though I still do some for-hire facilitation, both because it keeps me on my toes and it helps recruit students), but I'll die with an intriguing idea for my next blog ready to be fleshed out.
o Though living in intentional community will never be that popular a lifestyle choice (it's too radical), there is a broad-based hunger for a greater sense of community in one's life—by which I mean more connection, civility, safety, control of one's time, and security. Intentional communities are pioneers in developing cooperative culture and they are important to the wider culture because our society is on the cusp of desperately needing to know how to get along better with one another, and how to equitably share a diminishing supply of resources without sacrificing quality of life.
My Strengths in Group Dynamics
Here are the aspects of cooperative group dynamics where I have developed my strongest reputation; it's what I'm best known for.
I define this as the condition where there are at least two viewpoints and at least one person in non-trivial distress. Conflict naturally occurs when groups deal with real issues and people are paying attention; the question is not so much how frequently conflict occurs, but how constructively you work with it. Most groups are scared to death of conflict and have nothing in place for engaging with it. It's jungle ball and they just hope to survive it.
I've thought a lot about the dynamics of emotional distress and I've learned that I don't freeze or get overloaded circuits in the presence of distress in others. As a consequence I'm frequently hired to help groups work through a conflict, to set up group agreements for self-managing conflict, or to train their personnel in conflict skills. It's also a key component of my two-year facilitation training.
The object of the training is not so much to reduce the incidence of conflict as it is to help groups not freak out when one or more of their members freak out. If we can stop the chain reaction there will be much less collateral damage and we'll be able to address derailments more expeditiously.
Today, if a group finds itself in the midst of a raging five-alarm fire, I'm one of a short list of people who gets called to put the fire out.
By way of framing, my approach to conflict is unique to me. While I have familiarity with NVC (Nonviolent Communication) and there is common ground between how I approach conflict and the teachings of Marshall Rosenberg, we developed our thinking independently and I have some nuances that I prefer.
There is also a more recent entrant in the field of conflict work: Restorative Circles, whose main articulator is Dominic Barter. I have been introduced to this approach by a professional and have experienced it as a participant three times. While I have peers who are quite drawn to it, I was not that impressed (what I saw was too slow to get to the point, the conversation was not that productively focused on the dynamics between antagonists, the facilitation was too passive, and major issues went untouched). That said, this is an evolving body of work and worth keeping an eye on.
—Interweaving Energy and Content
While many systems for working with groups do not incorporate conflict as part of the theory (for example, sociocracy) I believe there is a growing understanding among process professionals that groups must address conflict in order to offer a coherent system (that is, you can't just duck it or pretend that sound structure and practice will eliminate its occurrence).
I have worked extensively on what happens in plenaries (meetings of the whole) and the boundary between conflict and regular group business. Under what circumstances should you suspend regular business to attend to conflict, and when (and how) do you return to regular business after you have paused to address conflict? I am not aware of anyone who has more comprehensive thinking about managing this edge with sensitivity and effectiveness.
Years ago I had just arrived on site for work with a first-time client when a long-term group member approached me with a question: "I hear you're fearless. Is that right?" Because no one had ever asked me that before and I had never described myself that way, I paused. Then I smiled, looked her right in the eye, and replied, "That's right."
As someone who has been hired to put the fire out, I am not going to stand by while the building goes up. I will give it my best shot every time and I invariably approach work with the attitude that I can effectively cope with whatever comes along—even though that's patently not true. (Thus, there are embarrassing moments when I am the poster child for Alexander Pope's famous line "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.")
While I may fail for jumbled thinking, or for poor technique; I will never fail for being faint of heart.
There was important work done in the '70s by the Philadelphia-based Movement for a New Society to adapt the 300-year-old meeting practices of the Religious Society of Friends (which Quakers styled a "sense of the meeting," and was a distinctive and integral feature of how they worshipped) to secular political actions groups—anti-nuclear protest groups in particular.
From that beachhead, consensus blossomed to become the most common way that cooperative groups attempt to make decisions. The intentional community that I helped form in 1974 (Sandhill Farm) blithely adopted consensus right at the start and never looked back. However, that did not mean we knew what we were doing, and there were all manner of growing pains encountered on the road to maturity.
By the time I tentatively ventured into the nascent field of cooperative group consulting in 1987, I had become something of an expert on secular consensus, and there has been a steady call for advice in that capacity right that continues to this day (next week I'll be conducting an introductory consensus training for a forming group in New England for the third time—bringing all their latest members up to speed).
To be sure, my experience in working with consensus has been limited to groups with 100 members or fewer, yet it remains my hands-down favorite choice for how smaller groups can make decisions and organize themselves. While I have ideas about how some version of representative consensus might work well for groups with more than 100 members, I haven't had much chance to test drive my thinking.
Though my advocacy for consensus is solid, it comes with a caveat: to get good results requires an understanding of the personal work needed to unlearn competitive conditioning, and a commitment to training. The skills needed to do consensus elegantly are eminently learnable, yet purposeful effort is required. Don't adopt consensus unless you're willing to put in the effort.
—Depth of Familiarity with the Topic
Finally, I want to reflect on a natural progression that people go through if they persist in applying time and thought to their field. Starting as a professional practitioner, I gradually started teaching how to be a practitioner, which led to my thinking about and articulating why we facilitators do things the way we do.
Today I am an active theoretician about cooperative group dynamics, which makes me much more valuable than "just" a practitioner. This translates to my being able to accurately place a specific experience in the context of trends, quickly sorting breakthrough from novelty, and extracting the essence of a new thing. It also leads to "seeing around the curve," anticipating what's coming and whether that's a good thing or something to be alarmed about.
I cannot see the future, but I'm far enough down the road to see the trends, and the broad steps we must take to keep alive the possibility of a future worth having. I know how to keep my eyes on the prize and not be deflected by the drama of Trump's everyday dysfunction.