Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Excising Advocacy from Problem Solving

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?

4 comments:

Nenad Maljković said...

This is VERY useful, thank you! :)

Joan Linney said...

It made it into a discussion at our community. Good job Laird!

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