As many of you know, I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma (a cancer of the bone marrow) 14 months ago. As I was in pretty bad shape when it was discovered (I had been bed-ridden with excruciating back pain for six weeks before it got bad enough for me to go to the ER seeking relief—looking back, it's obvious that I waited too long, but I'd never been seriously sick before and I'm a stoic guy) it was touch and go for awhile.
My kidneys were barely functioning at 20 percent of capacity, my skeleton was brittle from calcium leaching, and I had chronic back pain from three collapsed vertebrae. I was a mess. While they wanted to treat my cancer the doctors' immediate issue was saving my kidneys. To better cope with it all, they immediately put me on oxycontin to relieve the pain. Whew!
Today I am doing much better. My kidneys are functioning at near-normal capacity (I barely dodged the bullet of needing dialysis or a kidney transplant), the cancer markers diminished in response to a cocktail of chemotherapy, I underwent a successful autologous stem cell transplant at Mayo Clinic in July, and I've been steadily regaining stamina, appetite, energy, and cognitive function ever since. Best of all, my cancer is in complete remission.
To be clear, my cancer is not defeated; it's dormant. Because the version of multiple myeloma that I have is particularly aggressive—that is, it can ramp up quickly—my oncologist likes to see me once every four weeks and I get a maintenance dose, via intravenous infusion, of Kyprolis (a chemo choice especially developed to combat my cancer and one which I've shown a good tolerance for) on back-to-back days once every fortnight (adjusted for road trips). By checking my blood every two weeks they keep a weather eye on my cancer markers. So far so good.
I'm writing to give everyone a more specific monthly health update.
1. Four-week Road Trip
One of the blessings of my recovery is that I am strong enough and clear-headed enough to be able to return to my work as a process consultant and teacher. Yippee! I love the work and it's my social change passion (the way I try to make a positive difference in the world). While the work calls for high concentration as well as mental and emotional stamina; it does not particularly call for physical endurance.
I took baby steps at first, starting last September. Not sure how much I could do and justify my fees I didn't do more than two things back-to-back. As things went well, I have gradually attempted more and more, leading up to a very ambitious road trip: I was on the trail from Feb 23-March 23, during which I worked five jobs and was busy every weekend.
It was incredibly gratifying to return home road-weary, but not exhausted, and to experience being able to deliver some of my best work on the final weekend of the trip. I was fully back!
While I don't like being away from Susan for that long (and therefore will try to keep future trips to a maximum of three weeks) it was good to know I could do it. And that I can keep plying my craft for the foreseeable future, which is good both for my soul and my pocketbook.
2. Normal Hemoglobin
When I saw Dr Alkaied (my oncologist) yesterday he was looking at the blood tests from Feb 21 (the last time I was in town) and noted with a smile that my hemoglobin was 13.8, which is normal for an adult male. It was the first time I had reached that level in his year of working with me. He quipped, "If you keep this up you'll have to get a new doctor; in my line of work I don't see normal people."
3. Tapering off on Zometa
Once my kidneys started functioning better (late last spring) my doctor started giving me monthly doses of Zometa, a drug designed to recalcify my skeleton. Though I haven't broken anything throughout this adventure (knock on wood), when Alkaied first saw me (in Feb 2016) he wasn't optimistic about my walking again—the leaching of my bones was that bad. Not knowing that I shouldn't, I worked on regaining my strength to the point where I no longer needed a wheelchair and I've been walking for a year now.
In looking over my progress yesterday, Alkaied decided that they could back off on the Zometa to once every three months, as my need was diminishing. Hooray! As I sometimes have a temporary adverse reaction to Zometa (one time it was a severe headache; other times it's been weakness and a loss of appetite) I was happy to hear that.
4. Weaning off of Drugs
After several months of encouraging results, Alkaied announced last month that I could cease taking daily doses of Allipurinol (to protect against gout and kidney stones) and Ranitidine (to protect against heartburn and stomach ulcers), and could switch to OTC vitamin D supplements. Fewer pills and less expenses! But what about pain relief?
I expect to have back pain the rest of my life (centered around the three collapsed vertebrae in the middle of my back). For more than a year now I've been taking oxycontin (an opioid) twice a day, which has done a miraculous job of relieving my pain. Oxycontin is slow acting and lasts for a 12-hour period, hence the twice-a-day regimen. As back-up, I have a supply of Robaxin (a muscle relaxant) and Oxycodone (a fast acting opioid, and a cousin to oxycontin). Because oxycontin has been so efficacious and I have a relatively high pain level, I have rarely used either of my back-ups. Also, I'm leery of opioid addiction (I am not looking for ways to bond with Rush Limbaugh).
So I had a mixed reaction when Alkaied suggested pulling me off of oxycontin last month. On the one hand, I liked the idea of being off of pain medication. On the other, I didn't want to be in pain a lot. In talking it through with me he decided to wait a month, rather than risk my struggling with the switch while on a four-week trip. That made sense to me.
I ran out of my supply of oxycontin last Sunday, with my appointment with Alkaied set up for Tuesday. Monday night, my first after going all day without pain medication, I had quite a lot of trouble sleeping. Although my back pain was tolerable, it was cumulatively tiring and I lay in bed tossing and turning for six hours before I took two Robaxin and was able to get some sleep the final three hours in bed.
Naturally, I shared that data point with Alkaied the next day. After discussing it with me he decided to try an intermediate step on the road to getting me off opioids all together. For the next month he's given me a prescription for oxycontin in a 10 mg dosage (down from the 20 mg pills I had been on since August). As I won't pick up the new pills until this afternoon (opioids are a controlled substance and there are strict protocols about getting prescriptions filled), I went through another night of tossing and turning until 3 am last night, Ugh. At 4:30 Susan helped me find my supply of oxycodone (in my sleep deprived state I had trouble locating where I'd placed something I had not used in 12 months) and I blissfully enjoyed the last two hours of the night.
It's amazing how much of your bandwidth can be consumed by pain management. Tonight I'll be back on oxycontin (albeit at a lower dose). Hopefully this is just a small blip in an otherwise rosy report.
Wednesday, March 29, 2017
As many of you know, I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma (a cancer of the bone marrow) 14 months ago. As I was in pretty bad shape when it was discovered (I had been bed-ridden with excruciating back pain for six weeks before it got bad enough for me to go to the ER seeking relief—looking back, it's obvious that I waited too long, but I'd never been seriously sick before and I'm a stoic guy) it was touch and go for awhile.
Friday, March 24, 2017
Today I want
to focus on resilience. In particular, I want to share what the
Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC) is doing to help all of us be
more resilient in these uncertain times. But first I'm going to tell a
When I moved to northeast Missouri with three friends and started Sandhill Farm in 1974, we were a group of 20-somethings with no experience in farming or rural living. When we announced to neighbors that we were committed to growing food organically, they were amused. As far as they were concerned we may as well have been from Mars.
Forty years later, the neighbors aren't laughing. Sandhill Farm is still there and still farming organically. If anything, the topsoil depth and natural fertility of our small farm has gradually increased over the years of our stewardship. While we hold about 75 acres of cleared land all together, we've steadfastly refused to till more than 15-20 acres—the patches that are flat enough. The rest is too steep and has been planted to grass, which keeps the dirt where it is instead of washing downstream in rainstorms, gradually increasing the size of the Mississippi Delta.
Traditionally, farmers in our part of America's breadbasket would go through a three-year rotation of corn, soybeans, wheat, and red clover. This cuts down on the need for artificial fertilizers, manages weeds better, and makes it harder for insects to establish dangerous populations to assault specific crops. But that cycle didn't produce enough income to handle the debt load incurred by purchasing land and large equipment. In consequence, crop rotations today have collapsed to two years: corn followed by soybeans, and then back to corn. Over time, following that program leads to a drop in fertility and the need for ever-increasing inputs (fertilizer, herbicides, and insecticides) to maintain yields. It's a vicious cycle, which invariably leads to a marked decreased in resilience.
By farming organically and relying on traditional crop rotations, our bill for soil amendments has been much lower than our neighbors, and isn't spiraling up as fast (while the price for anhydrous ammonia goes up like gasoline, when you put manure on your fields you're just paying shit). Also, we rely on open-pollinated seed, which we save from year to year. Our neighbors depend on high-yielding hybrids that are not only expensive but must be purchased new every year.
By farming only on a modest scale, we don't need expensive equipment. Our first tractor—an Allis Chalmers WC, built in 1939—was purchased at auction for one bid above scrap: $210. And it still runs today. We also have our own combine. It's a pull-type Allis Chalmers All-crop, built in 1952. We bartered 7.5 hours of labor for it when the owner decided it was taking up too much valuable space in his machine shed.
While our crop yields were significantly lower than our neighbors, the disparity in net income was softened by our being able to command premium prices for organic food. (In 1974 you'd never see an organic or natural food section in a grocery store; today it's hard to find a modern grocery without one.)
Not stopping there we took advantage of our access to labor (both in terms of able-bodied adult members and the interns we'd attract during the growing season) to figure out ways to sell value-added products instead of raw goods. Thus, instead of marketing soybeans, we'd turn our soybeans into tempeh and sold that. While we grew horseradish root, we only sold prepared horseradish. With that strategy we needed fewer acres to produce the same income. By buying less land we've enjoyed a lower debt load. In fact, Sandhill has no debt. And none of our neighbors think we're from Mars.
Just as Sandhill was ahead of its time in blowing the horn for organic farming and resilient agriculture, FIC has been ahead of the curve in identifying and promoting the lessons of intentional communities as models of social sustainability. For both entities, what came across as exotic and other worldly in their early years has proven to be prescient and apt as the rest of the world has caught up with the near-desperate need to get off the acquisitive hamster wheel of materialism.
Where Are We (and What Are We Doing in This Handcart)?
The emerging threat today is climate change and the global disruption of "normal" life. The melting of polar ice caps threatens coastal inundation. Places that used to have predictable rainfall now experience years of drought followed by massive flooding. Fruit trees are blooming in February instead of May, and there is unprecedented worry about adequate access to safe water.
Terrorist attacks have come in waves of numbing frequency—from a berserker truck driver on a rampage in the German Christmas market, to a solo fanatic driving down pedestrians on the Westminster Bridge in London; from the renowned hijackers of 9/11 who took down the World Trade Centers, to suicide bombers who are sheathed in explosives for the express purpose of detonating themselves in crowds—extremists are exhorting followers to perpetrate brutal acts of violence, without regard to human life, including their own. It is the triumph of nihilism.
On the political front, in the US there is almost a complete breakdown of civil discourse. There is no longer conversation and thoughtful dialog; there is only polemics and near-constant vilification of "other." Though there is only one Earth, if you listen to the nightly news you'd never know there was any awareness of our being on it together, with only a single future that we must share. All you hear today is breast beating for partisan agendas, and no willingness to recognize that others may hold pieces of the truth, just as well as we.
Intentional communities are important—but not because it is the lifestyle wave of the future. In Israel there was a time when as much as four percent of the population lived on kibbutzim; it would shock me if the percentage of the US population living in some form of self-identified intentional community ever got within sniffing distance of one percent. Today, for example, there about 100,000 in the US who are living in community. That number would have to expand by more than 30 times to reach one percent.
The importance of intentional communities is the pioneering work that they're undertaking in the crucible of group living. They are doing the heavy lifting to figure out what it takes to live cooperatively; how to share resources equitably; how to solve problems such that everyone's interests have been taken into account without settling for the winners and loser dynamics of majority rule. There has to be a better way, and intentional communities are in the forefront of the experiments that will light the path.
It boils down to figuring out a different way to be in the world; to harnessing the synergy of groups in order to create a better life for all, instead of competing as individual households and nations for limited resources. This is not about homogenization and one size fits all; it's about creating and maintaining quality while at the same time respecting and honoring differences and learning to live graciously while putting resource consumption on a diet.
If this resonates with you, read on.
FIC in Action Today
As someone who worked in the eye of the hurricane for 28 years (I stepped down from a leadership role with FIC at the end of 2015) I can tell you that the Fellowship never lacked for creative ideas about how to use funds. There have always been initiatives to better get the word out; experiments to conduct, evaluate, and chronicle; and collaborations to attempt. We don't just talk about hope. We test it.
For information about FIC's latest effort click here. They are trying to raise $8000 in order to fund four initiatives aimed at exploring the intersection of community and climate change: two books, a national speaking tour, and the latest issue of Communities magazine (released earlier this month). While they have raised more than half of their target (over $4800) there is only one week left until the perks being offering as incentives will be withdrawn.
Now is the time to act! I'm asking readers and subscribers to consider donating (remember, it's tax deductible), and to ask your friends and acquaintances to do the same.
As a special incentive, for every $100 you donate to this campaign (for which you'll also get the satisfaction of having your oar in the water, pulling for a good cause) I will make a matching offer of 30 minutes of my time that can be used for any of the following:
—consulting about intentional communities
—advising about cooperative group dynamics
—editing proposals or reports
This offer is good only through the end of the month (it expires at midnight March 31) and is in addition to any perks you claim from the FIC site. So long as you make your pledge or donation before April 1, you'll have one year to redeem the offer of my services.
Together, we are making a difference.
Monday, March 20, 2017
This weekend I've been conducting a facilitation training in Bellingham WA—Weekend V of VIII—and the teaching theme was Power and Leadership (each of the eight weekends we focus on a major aspect of what facilitators need to understand and keep in mind when trying to run dynamic and productive meetings).
While exploring the dynamics of privilege, Ma'ikwe (my teaching partner) explained that when people lose their privilege it feels like discrimination. Her essential point was that loss feels like loss, even when it's bringing everyone to even. As I sat with that it occurred to me that it might make a difference if your new position was the result of reverse discrimination… or maybe not.
In groups that work on becoming aware of how privilege skews the distribution of power, it's not unusual to consider adopting practices (at least for a time) where the group purposefully disfavors those segments who have benefited from unearned privilege and a slanted playing field.
As an example, let's unpack the landmark University of California v. Bakke case in 1978, where the US Supreme Court looked at the affirmative action policy of the UC-Davis medical school to favor non-white applicants for the express purpose of correcting pernicious societal discrimination against non-whites. While the court ultimately struck down the UC-Davis policy for going too far, it provided the basis for supporting affirmative action programs in general, which subsequently became a legal precedent, and the underpinning of affirmative action programs today.
Two things are in play here:
a) Recognition that there have been longstanding forms of discrimination in the society that are not what we want—I'm talking about race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious affiliation, whether or not you have children—those kinds of things.
b) In the interest of hastening the process of closing the gap between what exists and where we want be with respect to those kinds of discrimination, it is acceptable, at least for a time, to adopt policies that intentionally discriminate against those segments of society that previously enjoyed the benefits of privilege.
The first point was addressed in Civil Rights legislation. It was the second point that the Bakke case pivoted around, and the focus of this essay is to explore whether there is any significant difference between how it feels to undergo a power drop because of a) alone (the loss of privilege), or because of a) and b) combined (loss of privilege plus reverse discrimination). While it's an interesting question in its own right, I am not looking at whether reverse discrimination is a good practice; I am only exploring its impact on those whose power is reduced by it.
My credentials in this regard are various. First I have been working as a consultant to cooperative groups for three decades, and understand that culture profoundly. In addition, I'm someone who has gobs of personal privilege—white, male, older, well-educated, articulate, heterosexual, Protestant—who has chosen to immerse myself in the subculture of intentional community, which is hyper-vigilant about discrimination, to the point where I am often suspect when I enter groups for the first time (How much is this dude aware of his privilege; has he done his work around it?).
Frankly, as someone who has been trying to do his personal work in relation to discrimination, it's an advantage for me to be in a milieu in which I'm more likely to be watched closely—because it so easy for people who benefit from privilege to be blind to its application. In short, I've learned to mistrust relying solely on my own perceptions and good intentions. I figure I'm more or less like other folks: a work in progress. Some things I catch; some things slide by (oops!).
Taking my credentials one step further, I have been subjected to reverse discrimination. Not often, to be sure (no need to cry on my behalf) but I've tasted it. I'm thinking in particular, of gender discrimination in the arcane world of income-sharing secular intentional communities. In that rarefied setting, where I lived for 40 years, the same action that men would be criticized for (labeled overly aggressive) were likely to be celebrated if done by women (labeled constructively assertive). It's a double standard and there have been times when I chafed at being subjected to it.
Apropos this consideration, I viewed the way I was treated as unfair and that pushed a deep button in me. Fortunately it didn't end there, but I passed through that awareness, and it was painful. By degrees I took into account the analysis that led to the choice of reverse discrimination. While I was undecided about whether or not it was an effective strategy (to accelerate the creation of the just and fair culture that the men and women I lived with agreed we wanted), getting to that more sophisticated understanding allowed me to move through my pain. Today I don't recall how long it took me to work through all that—like unpacking Russian dolls—but I recall experiencing outrage along the way. I recall that I didn't enjoy being discriminated against.
But then who does? And I guess that was part of the point, giving me a visceral taste of what some experience as a steady diet.
Maybe a person of privilege can get the same taste by simply losing their advantage—going straight to the level playing field. But maybe not. In any event, it took me longer to tease apart the layers of feeling when I was on the receiving end of reverse discrimination, and I've ultimately come to view that experience as both more complicated and more profound.
Thursday, March 16, 2017
This past week I visited Tree Bressen, an old friend and peer in cooperative group dynamics. I was doing a series of workshops at Lost Valley Educational Center in Dexter OR, and she and Dianne Brause (yet another old friend) came out from Eugene for the afternoon.
Seeing Tree reminded me that a few years back I had started a blog series reviewing the Group Works process cards that Tree helped develop, and that reminder inspired today's essay.
This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."
In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.
The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:
1. Intention 2. Context 3. Relationship 4. Flow 5. Creativity 6. Perspective 7. Modeling 8. Inquiry & Synthesis 9. Faith
In the Flow segment there are 15 cards. The fifth pattern in this category is labeled Follow the Energy. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card:
By coincidence, the final workshop that I did at Lost Valley was about facilitation. At the outset I solicited from participants where they wanted me to focus my comments, and two of the half dozen requests were: a) flow and b) balancing content and energy. It turns out that addressing b) is often the answer to a).
You can buy books on meeting facilitation—books that are meant to cover the topic comprehensively—that focus almost exclusively on managing content (what is being said, how does it relate to the topic on the table, how does it align with what others have said, what would be an insightful summary of everyone's input, where should we focus the conversation). But that's not good enough, or at least it isn't in the groups I work with (mainly intentional communities), where the expectation is that meetings will not only address issues; they will enhance relationships into the bargain.
Riding Two Horses
In order to accomplish that, facilitators need to be able to work with energy. They need to be able to read it, sense trends, and have familiarity with choices that can acknowledge, shape, elicit, stimulate, defuse, hold, balance, enhance, and celebrate energy. And "choices" include far more than words: it's also tone, volume, pace, body language, sequencing, and whether to stand or sit.
Unfortunately, being conversant with energy is almost completely unrelated to the skills needed to manage content. They are different languages, with separate vocabularies and syntax. A facilitator may be good with one, both, or neither. I like to refer to this skill as riding two horses: the Content horse and the Energy horse. If you have a facilitator who is only facile on one horse, it can be effective to pair that person with someone who has complementary skills: getting the group's needs met with a team instead of an individual.
While relying on two riders instead of one may be an elegant way to simultaneously train up a greenhorn while still protecting the group's need for a quality meeting, please be advised that team facilitating requires that both riders be deft at passing the reins without either horse spitting the bit. There should always be one horse in the lead and it's awkward for the group if it's not clear who that is.
For many groups, the person labeled "facilitator" is actually just riding the Content horse, with the "vibes watcher" atop the Energy horse. This can be fine so long as both riders know who's covering what and there's no confusion about how the hand-offs work. The biggest reservation I have about this deployment is that most vibes watcher that I've observed are passive, only stepping in when there's serious tension in the room—when the facilitator has lost control of the flow, or is in danger of it.
I prefer to teach facilitators how to handle both mounts (so that a single person is regularly reading the room for both Content and Energy), making micro-adjustments as the meeting unfolds. Small changes effected in a timely way can prevent the need for major changes later. If the Content rider is not alert to Energy, they can inadvertently make choices in service to problem solving that exacerbate Energy challenges.
What do I mean? Let's unpack an example. If the facilitator is only looking at Content they may fall into a pattern of over-reliance on a particular format, say open discussion. On the one hand, there is steady progress made on the issue (good), but it may come at the cost of increasing frustration for those who are slower to know what they think, or who find it uncomfortable shouldering their way onto the on-ramp for a turn to speak (not good). Enjoying the enthusiasm of those who are jumping into the conversation, the facilitator may miss that one-third of the participants have not spoken at all and are either zoning out or getting bummed. Unattended, this disaffection can lead to rebellion, poorly supported decisions, or even a rift in the group (I thought everyone's voice was welcome here, not just the opinions of the loud and the rude). Ouch! A savvy and active vibes watcher might catch that drift and suggest a switch from open discussion to a go round before things get out of hand, or even before it's identified as "a problem."
Casting a Wide Net
In the example above I showed how attention to Energy could lead to a format choice that could significantly impact flow and inclusivity. But following the energy is much more than being sensitive to tension or reactivity. It also encompasses such mundane things as atmosphere (is the room too warm; is there enough fresh air); stamina (for how long has the group been sitting; do they need to move—either in the form of a break or via a format that gets folks off their butts); and mood (while fulminating distress is relatively easy to read, how about boredom and flat affect; sarcasm —deniable irritation; or frequent side conversations—scattered attention).
All of these fall under the umbrella of Energy and can be ameliorated by the ministrations of a skilled facilitator.
Drilling DownIn addition to giving advance warning or evidence of energetic discord (Luke, there's a disturbance in the Force) energetic cues can also suggest positive directions. Take for instance the dynamic when you're asking for responses to a proposal and a number of hands shoot up. Using a stack, you begin letting people speak in the order in which they raised their hand. Partway through (let's suppose there were six people in the stack) you notice an energetic surge in the room following the third speaker's statement. If you blindly continue the stack, there's a strong chance that that person's contribution will not connect easily with the previous speaker (even if they're on topic).
Alternately, by paying attention to where the life is (invoking the admonition in the text that accompanies this card) you might suspend the stack to ask for responses to what was just said, and only return to the original stack after the surge has run its course. This is often a much better way to work issues, but it calls on the facilitator to be able to read the Energy (both its emergence and its demise) and to juggle threads.
Balancing ActLast, I want to remind folks that the Energy horse and Content horse can both pull heavy loads and neither should be seen as subservient to the other. Although I've mainly been looking at the importance of working with the Energy horse in this essay, they need to pull together. To be clear, there are moments—even whole meetings—where only one horse is spotlighted, but you want to have a saddle on both.
For those who experience group meetings as a tug-of-war between Process People and Product People, I want to offer a different view. The best meetings, where the flow is laminar instead of turbulent, are when the horses are pulling in the same direction.
Monday, March 13, 2017
Regrettably, there are times when a group member behaves badly. Even worse, there are times when a person's behavior is sufficiently problematic and persistent that it calls into question the viability of that person's membership. Those are not happy moments, and not at all what people had in mind when they joined, but it can happen.
Painting in broad strokes, unacceptable behavior falls into two categories: a) an egregious outburst that calls for immediate consequences; and b) persistent irritating and disrespectful behavior that erodes trust over time. Examples of the former (which, fortunately, is very rare) might be firing a gun in the common house or setting a neighbor's shed on fire. Often this kind of behavior is illegal in addition to being dangerous, which means the group has recourse to calling in the civil authorities.
In today's essay, however, I want to focus on the second kind, where a single incident might be awkward but you'd definitely give the person a second chance (or even many chances) and a key element is the fact that the behavior continues after it has been pointed out.
In general, groups will go through a sequence of escalating steps in the hope that it can successfully resolve the issue at the least expensive level, and you only take the next step if all the previous ones have failed.
Suppose Robin has done something that Kim has a reaction to and considers unacceptable (such as gossiping viciously about another member, or getting loud and demanding when advocating for their viewpoints in plenaries, with no apparent regard for the opinions or sensibilities of others). In this dynamic the sequence of options available to Robin might be something like this:
1. Try to work through your reaction unilaterally (sometimes distress is more about the observer than it is about the doer, and the bulk of working through it can be accomplished internally by the person in reaction).
2. Speak directly with Kim about it.
3. Ask a third party to join Robin and Kim in discussing it.
4. Ask the Conflict Resolution Team (or its equivalent, if you have such a subgroup identified to support people struggling to work through interpersonal tensions) for assistance, either to think through what to try, or to figure out the best way to configure a conversation, including who might be a mutually acceptable facilitator.
5. Invoke the help of the entire group in a last train effort to get movement on the issue.
While there could easily be variations on this sequence—and it would be a worthy topic to explore what those options might be—today I want to focus on what might happen when Robin has gone through this entire sequence and there's still no joy. Now what?
Essentially, I'm focusing on the work a group needs to put in place to be ready to engage relative to the possibility of imposing sanctions: an involuntary loss of member rights. Most groups don't put anything in place until and unless they have a dynamic which suggests they may need to invoke it. Oops! It is much harder to craft a good set of agreements when you have a candidate in mind for their application, yet it's nearly impossible to get a group jazzed for discussing it ahead of need. Yuck!
On the one hand, a group may be fortunate enough that this kind of limit is never tested (whew). On the other, you're taking a risk. If you wait until you need it, the development of policy is likely to come across as a witch hunt (created expressly to justify the desire to get rid of someone). Believe me, it's an uncomfortable place to be.
It's my view that the group needs to have three conversations:
I. Defining Unacceptable Behavior
What specific behaviors are unacceptable to the point that if they are not corrected it could be considered grounds for imposing sanctions.
II. Defining Due Process
What constitutes due process in conjunction with an involuntary loss of member rights? This will include:
—A formal examination of the claim that Kim has engaged in unacceptable behaviors (refer to the outcome of the previous step).
—A formal notification to Kim that the community has determined that they have behaved unacceptably in specific ways that are enumerated in the communication, along with what specific behavior changes will bring them back into alignment, and what period of time the person will be given to effect those changes.
—A second formal meeting at the end of the time period to assess whether Kim has successfully altered their behavior or not. If Kim has made the changes no sanctions will be imposed but they may be placed on probation (for a defined period) to see if the acceptably altered behavior continues or degrades to something inappropriate again.
—If the community determines that the there has been insufficient change, the community may then decide to impose sanctions from the list developed in the step below.
III. Defining the Menu of Sanctions
What is the options the community may choose from if it is determined that Kim has gone through the whole process (see the previous step) and their behavior continues to be unacceptable. Note that I am not talking about abrogating Kim’s civil rights if any apply; I am talking about the withdrawal or delimiting of Kim's social rights as a community member.
Note further that you are not obliged to impose sanctions even when you are allowed to; the group must discern what sanctions, if any, are appropriate on a case-by-case basis.
A final note: I caution groups to make sure they are not acting in haste, and to pause long enough to look in the mirror (to what extent can the awkwardness with Kim be the result of bad behavior by others as well?) before reaching for sanctions. Consequences should be a grave step, taken only when everything else has failed.
In short, make sure it isn't a witch hunt.
Wednesday, March 8, 2017
After 30 years before the mast (supplying navigational assistance to intentional communities struggling against interpersonal headwinds en route to the safe harbors of equanimity and harmonious living) I’ve encountered a wide range of challenging dynamics. The situations that are most compelling are those with the highest stakes—where the group is wrestling with issues that obviously have a wider social application.
For example, I once labored with an urban group trying to sort out cultural preferences in a neighborhood that included both Korean and Puerto Rican immigrants, yet their target recruitment profile was well-educated Greens. Living in a melting pot is one thing. Living in a melting down pot is something else. This community was hip deep in tough issues of race, income, safety, religious preference, and ethnic identity. The work had obvious application in the mainstream—not just for the well-being of the community in which the conversation arose—and I was excited to bring what I knew about diversity and communication to the front lines of social change.
Sometimes the conversations got heated and I was trying to thread the needle around whether emotional engagement itself (never mind what was actually being said) was seen as preferential treatment for one subculture over another. Ai-yi-yi!
I work with patterns. Over the course of many years (and many meetings) I've learned that it rarely makes much difference whether it’s a cohousing community or a student co-op. For that matter, it doesn’t make much difference whether it’s an ashram or a Unitarian Universalist Church. I’ve worked with them all, and people are people. When they aggregate into groups—my particular area of focus—people tend to behave in predictable ways and have similar blind spots.
As it happened, the very next weekend after I worked with the urban group referenced above, I was in another city working with a community that was wrestling with tension that arose in connection with Person A's cat urinating on Person B's flower bed.
In a flash of insight, it occurred to me that if I observed the second group with the sound turned off, that the facial expressions and body language came across as identical to what I’d encountered the week before. In short, I noticed that the affect was scale independent! People were filling their lives with drama to capacity, cleverly drawing on whatever fuel was at hand to reach the desired level of intensity. Fascinating.
While there was a part of me that struggled to take the cat issue seriously (after working with racial tension the week before, I was itching to ask the second group if they really wanted to invest so much energy in a triviality) but I took a deep breath and refocused. The issue, after all, was not the over-fertilized flower bed; it was learning how to work through interpersonal tensions—which is a serious world peace issue every bit as worthy of attention as ethnic diversity.
Still, it’s instructive every now and then to take a step back and assess whether you really mean to imbue the issue at hand with as much of your precious life force as you are. As Richard Carlson admonishes in his 1997 classic: don’t sweat the small stuff (and it’s all small stuff). It's embarrassing to look back over the span of my life and reflect on all the times I've gotten my knickers in a twist over small stuff. (What was I thinking?)
Today there is perhaps nothing more potent to help me access what Buddhists refer to as an equanimous presence than remembering to ask:
Are we peeing on petunias here?
Wednesday, March 1, 2017
Last Saturday I did something I've done many times before: taught an Introduction to Consensus workshop.
This time though, I prepared by spending a couple hours the night before contemplating how I might approach this familiar topic in a fresh way. My efforts yielded two innovations.
First, it occurred to me to start out by asking participants what it would take for them to be ready to create cooperative culture, given that they'd been raised and deeply conditioned in competitive culture.
This was meant as a pump-priming exercise in that it's been my observation that a lot of intentional communities struggle with that transition. In fact, it's my sense that most start-ups commit to forming communities without discussing this transition at all. They just agree that community living is a good idea and they're ready to give it a go without questioning whether there's any personal work they need to undertake before they're "cooperation ready"—by which I mean able to respond to the normal challenges of group living and collective decision-making with cooperative behaviors.
While it may seem obvious to readers that that will be needed (and surely this assessment will have been made by thoughtful community pioneers), that is not what I've found. In particular, at certain key moments, such as when another group member expresses a strongly held divergent viewpoint about a matter you care about a lot, a cooperative response is among the least likely things to happen.
Instead of something along the lines of "Wow, I wonder how you got there. I have a really different idea about that and maybe you've thought of something I haven't. Tell me more" a much more likely occurrence is "What the hell are you thinking?!" or maybe "Are you kidding me? That would be a disaster!"
When the stakes are high and you have a clear opinion about your preference, it is far more probable that you'll respond to divergent views by preparing for battle. That's the way we were raised and it's what we know to do. To be sure, this may come out in a variety of ways other than outright attack—for example, expressing sarcasm, playing the victim, faction building behind the scenes (while expressing false support in the moment), or spreading hyperbolic rumors about the bad things that will happen if the other view prevails. All those options are divisive and come out of an us/them perspective that is fundamentally contrary to cooperative culture.
So my opening question was not academic; it was germane. Consensus does not thrive in competitive culture, and groups are not likely to enjoy the results if members simply bring their conditioned competitive behaviors into the attempt.
As a consensus trainer, I try to get that point made in the first five minutes.
Second, I devoted half an hour to brainstorming a list of the major issues I see groups struggle with when using consensus. Whenever I'm conducting a workshop I'm concerned with whether I'm addressing the audience's major questions. By offering a menu of the questions that most frequently arise I figured I might be better able to hit the sweet spot. Instead of guessing what they'd ask for, or trusting that they'd know how to articulate their needs if I gave them an open-ended invitation, it occurred to me that I might be able to productively short-cut the process by suggesting subtopics.
I came up with a dozen (in no particular order):
1. Culture Shift
Community living is an explicit attempt to create and sustain a vibrant cooperative culture. Accomplishing that requires a certain amount of unlearning competitive conditioning and I believe it's crucial that groups get introduced to this reality as soon as possible. Better a bucket of cold water up front than bringing them into awareness only after they've bought a house.
2. Working Constructively with Emotions
You can find entire books and workshops that purport to offer a complete overview of consensus yet don't address this aspect of group dynamics at all. As far as I'm concerned those approaches are incomplete. Groups that do not discuss how they want to engage with on-topic emotional responses are sowing the wind. For what they invariably harvest is the chaos of emotional distress, with no tools or agreements in place with which to engage it productively. Not only is this foolish, but it's needlessly risky.
3. Welcoming Non-rational Input
The default style of secular meetings in US culture is rational discourse—to the point where other ways of knowing or processing information are expected to be translated into rational thought as a necessary first step to be eligible for being worked with, or even acknowledged. While common, I question the wisdom of that approach. It's at least worth discussing the potential of widening the welcome mat to allow participants to offer insights and responses in the language in which they arose. Thus, groups could look at the pros and cons of explicitly developing the capacity to work emotionally, intuitively, kinesthetically, and spiritually—as well as rationally. That would be different, eh?
4. Working with Conflict
This is the most volatile and dangerous aspect of emotional engagement, where feelings are most prone to being packaged with aggression. If a group fails to discuss how to handle conflict there will be nothing in place at times of need, and the group will be at the mercy of how individuals express and respond to distress. As most of us have had any number of bad experiences with that catch-as-catch-can approach, groups tend to be very nervous about engaging with emerging conflict and tend to default to a strategy of avoidance and containment. If encysting doesn't work, they just hope to survive it, like a bad storm. I think we can do better, which includes valuing conflict as a potential source of both information and energy.
5. Plenary Worthy
One of the ways that groups inadvertently make poor use of whole group meeting time—a precious commodity—is by regularly allowing the group to work at a level of detail that is not worthy of the whole's attention. Instead of handing it off to a manager of committee when that point is reached, they continue to labor. The main reason that happens is because the group has never defined where the boundary of plenary worthy lies. In the fog of uncertainty the group soldiers on, simultaneously extending meetings (by drifting into territory they should have left alone) and undercutting the work of committees. Yuck.
6. Separating Advocacy from Problem Solving
As a long-time observer of how cooperative groups address issues, I've discovered that there's great potential for streamlining if issues are worked in two distinct phases instead of commingling both into one muddy free-for-all: a) first determining what a good response needs to take into account; and then b) figuring out what response best balances the factors identified in the first step. Further, as a firm believer in offering a seat at the table for on-topic passionate expression (what's the fun of hiding your light under a bushel?) I think it works best if time on the soap box is limited to part a). In the follow-up, problem solving phase you need a different energy—less circus and more collaboration.
7. Seeing the Glass Half Full
Although every now and then you encounter moments where the ideas and energy are all running in one direction—either all joy or all dross—that's rare. Most of the time you have a mix. In those moments you have a choice: should you focus on what's working or what isn't? While that question may seem trivial (after all, both are true; both are equally valid), it isn't. The norm in Western culture—where the individual is king—is to focus on differences and discord well ahead of common ground. In consequence, the presence of commonality can often go undetected for an embarrassing length of time. Why? Because you tend to find what you're looking for. This is important because durable agreements are built on a foundation of common ground. Yet consistently missing the boat results in needless delays. Ugh.
8. Dynamics of Blocking
For groups making the transition from voting to consensus, blocking can be a terrifying concept to embrace. (You mean just one person can stop the entire group from moving forward? A: Yes. Yikes!) The worry is that the group may have jumped out of the frying pan (an out of control majority) in exchange for the dubious advantages of greater exposure to the fire (tyranny of the minority). What's the bargain in that? It's important to carefully walk new-to-consensus groups through what constitutes legitimate grounds for a block, by what process a block will be validated, and the primacy of crafting the right energetic container for coping with a block. (And don't forget to keep breathing!)
9. Facilitator Authority
While most consensus groups accept without question that meetings will run better if facilitated, that doesn't necessarily mean they've digested what it is a good facilitator does, and how that's distinguished from the more familiar role of chairperson. For one thing, they ain't the same thing, and the role needs to be defined. For another, facilitators need express permission from the group to effectively handle phenomena like repetition, speaking off topic, sarcasm, and emotional outbursts. Without that authority, the facilitator role tends to devolve into little more than deciding who will talk next.
10. Commitment to Training
It's not reasonable to expect new members to arrive on campus with a working knowledge of consensus. While you'll probably get a handful of community veterans to join, that will be the exception not the rule. Most will be starting from scratch or have partial experience that may be more problematic than beneficial. Thus, you're going to need to train new members (just as you may need to train facilitator). It is not a one-and-done proposition; it's an ongoing commitment. Hint: while it may be tempting, it's penny wise and pound foolish to expect new members to pick up the nuances of consensus by osmosis (watching others). If you want everyone singing from the same hymnal, it's less expensive in the long haul to give everyone voice lessons.
11. Triumph of Curiosity over Combat
The key moment in cooperative culture is what happens when people encounter serious disagreement about non-trivial issues. Do they lean in and express curiosity ("Whoa, I'd like to hear how you got there. Maybe you're seeing something I missed") or do they gird their loins and prepare for a fight, to defend their turf? Cooperative culture is not about being wimpy, but neither is it about limiting dissent. In fact, the higher the stakes the more important it is that the net is cast wide.
12. How Power is Associated with Roles
One of the more important measures of a cooperative group's maturity is its ability to openly and sensitively discuss how power is distributed in the group and what can/should be done about the ways in which it's uneven. Because power is the ability to influence what others say and do, you cannot give it to those with less, but there are things the group can do to encourage its members to develop their capacity for leadership and to grow to become more powerful. Is the group being sufficiently mindful about power distribution when authorizing people to fill key roles? Is it thinking strategically when committing resources to train members to be better able to fill needed roles?