Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Art of Facilitating: Fishing at Deep Water

The art of facilitation is analogous to a set of nested Russian dolls: it's as many-layered as an onion.

Casual observers may not notice that meeting facilitators—especially skilled ones—are doing anything more than managing hand-to-mouth dynamics, such as: 
—Coming up with a clever opening. 
—Making sure everyone has good sight lines to the white board.
—Deciding who's going to speak next.
—Determining when it's time to move to a new topic.
—Otherwise coping with what's unfolding in plain sight. 
But there's a good deal more to it than that. Good facilitators are expected to work at subtle levels, too. Here's a dozen examples of what I mean:

o  Looking ahead of the curve
Projecting where the current conversation is heading and discerning whether they (or the group) will be glad to arrive there. If it looks like a dead end (or worse, a train wreck), it's probably time to tack now, before they hit the shoal water. When executed with aplomb, most group members may not even be aware that there was any danger.

Busting ghosts
Is there a presence that's alive in the room even though the person triggering it isn't there? (perhaps the influence of a dead founder, whose charismatic and powerful persona continues to guide conversations from the grave; maybe it's fear of potential retribution by a bully who is on vacation but is bound to find out if anyone speaks critically of them). First you must sense what's happening; then you must decide what to do about it. Is it better to exorcise (calling the ghost out) or exercise (restraint by not dignifying the threat with the group's collective attention)?

o  Feeling the undertowThough similar to the previous point, this is about an energy that is pervading the conversation, rather than a person. Some may be aware of it; others may not. Is it a fair wind or foul? When the facilitator chooses to surface an unnamed undercurrent, it is not a magic act, or someone playing with planchette; it's just someone paying close attention.

o  Describing the interesting case
In discussing policy proposals it is often illuminating to think of examples that it might apply to, thereby grounding the consideration. However, not all hypotheticals are created equal. It is generally not a good idea to craft agreements designed to cope with rare exceptions. It's better to bring forward a representative example to showcase a proposal's strengths, and/or expose its liabilities. How will things play it in the situations you are most likely to actually face?

o  Sussing out when to be direct Many groups fall into the habit of working indirectly—mainly because they are not confident of handling tension well and are afraid that directness will lead to reactivity. When does cutting to the chase help illuminate the key dynamic; when does it lead to brittleness that inhibits creativity and short circuits compassion? In my experience most people prefer their medicine straight, and don't require a sugar coating—so long as it's not delivered with bitterness, salty language, or a sour attitude.

o  Reading the energetic tea leaves
Skilled facilitators need to be able to work with the energy in the room as well as with the content of the conversation. It is not enough that they can guide the group to an agreement; it needs to be a decision with which there is high resonance. If participants feel run over or bullied into alignment, the implementation is likely to suck (because their hearts will not be in it).

o  Noticing mismatches between content and energy
If you're handling the preceding point well, you'll notice when the conversation is out of alignment with the energy (say, for example, the group is working inexorably toward agreement, yet there are half a dozen folks sitting with crossed arms and scowls on their faces; or perhaps when the conversation is lost in the weeds and everyone's chuckling and having a good time). If the energy does not match the rhetoric, then that becomes the thing to talk about.

o  Knowing when to slow down and when to speed up
In a typical two-hour meeting there may be two or three moments that are pivotal to the outcome; moments when a crucial difference is illuminated and the group can either find a way to thread the needle (and manifest the joy of an inclusive solution), or it can devolve into cantankerous discord with each side bunkering in. It's generally a good idea to slow things down at delicate moments (say when a surprising thin gets said, or when a person gets vulnerable), and to pick up the pace when slogging through portions where there is no new information.

o  Following the energy more closely than the clock
While a good facilitator does their level best to end meetings on time, the prime directive is productive engagement, rather than ending a 20-minute agenda item in exactly 20 minutes. By "productive engagement" I mean progress on the issue and enhanced relationships among members (that is, participants will know each other better as a consequence of the consideration). These dual objectives are far more important than how fast can you find a solution that everyone can live with.

o  Mapping out the engagement
A good facilitator will sit with the draft agenda ahead of time and see into the concerns, teasing out the key questions that are likely to arise. Sometimes it makes a significant difference in what order questions are addressed (perhaps because the outcome of one question is crucial to how a subsequent one will be viewed); sometimes it doesn't. If possible, good facilitators will build the conversation toward a solution just as they'll manage the energy, moving from turbulence to laminar flow.

o  Riding the bucking bronco of fulminating distress
Essentially this translates into not freaking out when someone freaks out. It's being able to function with a clear head and a strong heart in the presence of nontrivial upset. On the one hand the facilitator needs to be fully present—without judgment or side-taking—for anyone who's upset, to help them feel safe and understood. On the other, the facilitator needs to make sure that the topic is neither sideswiped nor dominated by the distress. If, in the process of examining an issue, you manifest tears or anger, you'll get heard; but there's no guarantee that you'll be agreed with. The facilitator needs to be compassionate, yet fiercely neutral.

o  Integrating body and mind; heart and soul
For most groups the default style of meetings entails a great deal of sitting around, where the focus is on rational discourse (and a calloused butt). Unfortunately, that's only one way humans work with information and decide what they want. We also "know" things in our bellies and in our hearts (not just in our heads) and thinking is not everyone's first or best language. A skilled facilitator will offer participants a variety of ways to get at topics, offering multiple on-ramps into the consideration—which translates to opportunities for people to share feelings, intuitions, and body-knowing; not just their "best thinking." A savvy facilitator will not just get ideas in motion; they'll get bodies in motion, too.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Consultant as Plumber

About a year ago I was having my regularly monthly appointment with my oncologist (Homam Alkaied) when he came into the room and momentarily let his guard down. 

As a cancer doctor he sees sick people all day. He took one look at my numbers on the computer screen, smiled, and said, "Thank you. I needed somebody to be doing better today. The hardest part of my job is when I have to tell patients that we're out of options. Sometime the treatments don't work and we reach a point where there's nothing left to try. It's a heavy moment when I have to look someone in the eye and tell them the cancer is going to win. I've had a bad week of that and I really needed you—someone who's responding well to chemotherapy—to pick up my spirits." 

I told him, of course, that I was happy to be that guy.

• • •
I started with that story because there are times for me, as a process consultant, when my role runs parallel to that of Dr Alkaied's: when I have to tell clients the bad news. While in my case it's never literally life and death, it can nonetheless feel emotionally devastating—the death of a dream.

Perhaps half the time I'm hired to work with a group it's because of a crisis that the group has not been able to work through on its own. While the precipitating event may have been external (perhaps a nuisance lawsuit from a neighbor, or an adverse ruling by the county zoning board), when it comes to persistent conflict the heavy lifting always revolves around unresolved interpersonal tensions in the group. (Groups don't dial up the roto-rooter guy unless their interpersonal plumbing is backed up.)

When I'm called into those situations I never start with the assumption that it's too late. Going in, I always start with the idea that the tension can be ameliorated, and that I can guide the group back to health without losing anyone. The reality, however, is that I encounter a wide range of difficulties (the stakes can vary wildly: everything from hangnails to something terminal), and groups don't always call me right away. In the worst cases, I don't get brought in until well after the initial damage has occurred, and anaerobic infection is well advanced. Sometimes everyone can't be saved, and pruning is necessary for the health of the tree.

The Fog of Conflict
While it's tempting to chide groups for being idiots about the delay in asking for help ("Why did you wait so long to call? This could have been dealt with much more easily if I'd been asked in right away."), I've learned over the years to be more sympathetic, for a number of reasons:

o  When you're in it, it's often akin to what Robert McNamara styled "the fog of war." While the former Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson was referring to Vietnam, the principle is apt here as well: in the midst of conflict it's often confusing and difficult to see what's actually happening, much less the way through it. What becomes obvious in retrospect is anything but when events are first unfolding.

o  It further behooves the armchair analyst to keep in mind that living in intentional community is something that almost all members are doing for the first time in their life, which means that prior experience offers little guidance. They are traveling through terra incognita.

o  What's more, people don't come to community anticipating problems, so there is typically a miasma of distaste and shock (it never occurred to us that that could happen here) that enshrouds the uncertainty about how to respond. 
Considered all together, you have all the ingredients for a goat fuck—a lot of frenetic activity, accompanied by maximal messiness, minimal forethought, and more hurt feelings than you ever imagined possible. Yuk!

To be sure, not all crises spiral out of control to this extent. (Whew!) My point, however, is that they can, and it can happen to anyone. Good intentions are by no means a prophylactic against being visited by members masquerading as hormonal goats. Conflict can just do that to people, and groups, I've discovered, are never ready to ask for help until they're ready to ask for help. So I've learned to get over my dismay. Never mind how the group got there; here we are.

Testing for Will
Once I'm on site, I try to have as many one-on-one and one-on-two conversations as I can, the sum of which adds up to a picture of what's happened and where people are today (which may be quite different from where they were when the triggering incident occurred).

As someone who works a lot with cooperative groups in conflict, figuring out how to navigate tensions has become relatively straight forward for me (see Rules of Engagement for my thinking about that). The delicate part is determining what the group has the will to attempt, on the road to healing and righting the ship. Sometimes there's still a lot of fight left among protagonists and they're not ready to look in the mirror (no listening). Sometimes they're exhausted and so demoralized that half the group has one foot out the door (no hope). Sometimes, however, they're tied of squabbling, they're done being defensive, and they're ready to work—this is the ideal.

Commonly enough, I'm asked to be the plumber—the person brought in to unclog the crap that is stopping up the lines of sanitary communication. While it may be obvious to all concerned where the blockage is, it smells bad and no one wants to touch it. Some portion of the time this amounts to my being the one to have a come-to-Jesus meeting for the purpose of laying down reality about what's happening with one or more folks who are central to events and heavily invested in riverfront property in Egypt (living on the banks of denial).

In this line of work it helps that I've been buffeted around quite a bit. My resumé includes:
—40 years of community living experience
30 years of consulting with over 100 cooperative groups
—Having been a community founder
—Having been divorced by my wife
—Having been asked by my community to not return after my divorce
—Surviving a near-death brush with cancer

Having lived through all that I'm pretty much shockproof and fearless. (What bad thing should I be afraid of?) While that doesn't mean I always get it right; it means I'm always going to try and that I have a large capacity to empathize with people in adversity. While I have a lot of scars, instead of making me tougher, I prefer to think I've been tenderized and made more resilient.

Finding the Right Words
A lot of my work revolves around being able to enter the chaos, quickly sort wheat from chaff, and set the table for the right conversations, in the right sequence. Not only do I have to understand the energy, but I need to be able to find the words that accurately convey its spirit. I need to be good in a storm—light on my feet in tossing seas, and calm amidst the howling wind.

What's more, I need to be able to get back up and brush myself off when I get knocked down, which invariably happens some portion of the time. While everyone enjoys clean plumbing, not everyone enjoys meeting the plumber, and it can be downright nauseating looking at what I find in the pipes.

While there can be catharsis and a tremendous release of tension when the things goes well, my work does not end with the first flush of clean water. I linger to assist the group in crafting a way to tell the tale, both to ground the lessons (no need to do that again) and to be able to share the story of adversity that is honest yet forward moving and dignified. In this the plumber's pen needs to be more incisive than his snake.

It's shitty work, but someone has to do it.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Individual and the Group, a Play in Three Acts

One of the interesting ways to think about intentional communities is that it's a purposeful choice to move toward "we" on the I-we spectrum. What I mean is that you can look at how people behave and sort actions into those which are taken with intent to maximize the benefit to the individual, and contrast it with those which are taken with intent to maximize the benefit to the public, or the group.

Where we stand on that spectrum is significant for a handful of reasons.

I. Are We an Island or Not?
First, you can make a good case for there never having been a time in human history where the dominant culture was located more toward the "I" end of that spectrum than we are in mainstream US culture today. It's all about what's best for the individual. Think John Wayne. Think Ayn Rand. The essential concept is that society will do best if individuals focus on their own welfare above all else. If individuals thrive, then the society will necessarily follow.

It hasn't always been that way. Almost four centuries ago, Englishman John Donne penned this well-known poem:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee. 
 —John Donne (1624)

While those lines are timeless, it's application has since eroded. Consider this contemporary counterpoint:

A winter's day
In a deep and dark
I am alone
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow
I am a rock
I am an island

I've built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain
It's laughter and it's loving I disdain
I am a rock
I am an island

Don't talk of love
But I've heard the words before
It's sleeping in my memory
I won't disturb the slumber of feelings that have died
If I never loved I never would have cried
I am a rock
I am an island

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock
I am an island

And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries

—Paul Simon (1966)

While there's a question how much Simon was trying to capture the ethos of the times versus how much he was writing cynically (or perhaps he was doing both), it's clear that we've ridden the horse of capitalism right up to the very gates of hell, and we're by no means done with the ride. Republicans have their hands on the reins and we have a President who's gleefully writing executive orders eviscerating a spate of regulations aimed at protecting the public good. Herbert Hoover's philosophy of rugged individualism lives on.

It's my belief that humans, as a species, are hard-wired to be herd animals. We crave each other's company and don't do well in isolation. Thus, it doesn't surprise me that there's a deep hunger for community; for a sense of belonging beyond one's immediate blood family. It's a natural response to the alienation that surfaces in the ill-fitting American dream of a house in the burbs where neighbors barely know one another.

That said, knowing that it's good for us does not mean that we know how to do it—live in close approximation with others without the structure of a caste system or Father-Knows-Best paternalism to maintain social order. We want the freedom of individual choice, and at the same time a solid connection with the herd. It's no minor feat figuring out how to thread that needle.

With rare exceptions, we have not been raised with cooperative skills. Worse, most folks who attempt cooperative living do not go into the experiment understanding why that's important. Commonly, they just get frustrated that it isn't easier. (Why is there this gap between what I intend and what I achieve?)

II. What's Private and What's Public?
The fact the people living in intentional communities have moved more toward the "we" end of the spectrum, does not mean they've moved all the way over. There is still a plethora of decisions that individuals or households make that are not considered group business.

That said, there is nuance around how far the line has been shifted, and it's not likely that everyone will see it the same way. If the group doesn't explore this ahead of time (to be fair, it's hard to gin up enthusiasm for discussing hypothetical awkwardness—why borrow trouble?) those differences are not apt to be illuminated until you're in a situation where they apply. The interesting case is when an individual makes a choice that no one proposes should be handled at the group level, yet that decision has obvious impact on the group. Now what? 

For the most part this is uncharted water. As a backdrop for my thinking about how to proceed, I want to pause to introduce two important concepts:

A. Intentional Communities as Modern Villages
Over 15 years ago I happened upon a copy of Sobonfu Somé's The Spirit of Intimacy, Ancient Teachings in the Ways of Relationships (2000), in which she describes how intimate couples relate to the group in traditional West African villages, which is where she was raised. While the village does not direct villagers in choices of intimacy, there is nonetheless an acknowledged two-way relationship between the couple and the village, where each has a responsibility to aid and sustain the other. This is formally acknowledged in marriage vows, and extends to raising children.

By substituting intentional community for village, it gave me insight into a constructive, proactive role for groups in situations where the whole is significantly impacted to the private actions of individual members. Apparently, in West African villages there is broad recognition that "we're all in this together." In consequence, there's an understanding that if the group is impacted by the choices of individuals then there needs to be an opportunity for the village (as represented by the elders in village culture) to have a say in how things move forward.

This is an important difference from the hands-off approach that is generally taken in mainstream culture. Unless you break a law, individuals are not expected to make themselves available to discuss the wider consequences of private decisions. They can simply say, "It's none of your business" and that's expected to be honored.

B. In Cooperative Culture Groups Get Together to Solve Problems and to Enhance Relationships
In the mainstream, meetings are essentially viewed as a way to share information and ideas, on the road to resolving issues and concerns. However, in cooperative culture (in contrast with competitive culture) how you accomplish things matters as much as what you accomplish. In cooperative culture there are two primary meeting objectives: 1) clearing up confusion, and figuring out how best to respond to emerging issues; and 2) sustaining and improving relationships among members.

These two objectives are not necessarily evenly weighted (though they may be); sometimes one of them is more to the fore, and others times it's the reverse. The significance of this is that it can be a revelation to some that you'd call a meeting expressly to attend to relationships. That is, the meeting may have no decision-making component at all, yet still be potent and appropriate.

With these two concepts in hand, let's return to the question of how to respond to a private decision that has blow back in the group. What's called for, I believe, is a group session designed to clear the air. Once it's established that there are nontrivial reverberations in the group, you have to accept that there is no stopping people from discussing it in pairs and small clusters (think parking lot conversations); the question is whether you also want to have a plenary discussion. As far as I'm concerned you have to. Here's why:

o  Getting on top of gossip and rumors
If you don't create an chance to look at this with everyone in the same room, information will be unevenly shared; some of it is bound to be incomplete, some of it is likely to be distorted, and some may be just plain wrong. It can be a nightmare trying to get all the worms back in the can. You pretty much need a plenary to get everyone on the same page.

o  You cannot repair damage until you know what it is
The biggest danger in these situations is that relationships are strained. To be more precise, when focusing on reactivity, no one's worried about unbridled joy—we're talking about feelings of alienation, such as fear, confusion, disgust, anger, or even outrage.

To address this well requires a certain sequence—one that's most effectively done live (you can't mail it in). Feelings must be fully expressed, they must be acknowledged (to the satisfaction of the speaker), and there must be a heartfelt, connecting response. Note that this does not necessarily require the individual to agree that they've done something wrong, or to offer an apology, though those may be appropriate.

o  Safety in numbers
When voicing negative reactions, many of us find it challenging to do so cleanly and completely (who do you know, after all, who learned this growing up?). While it may not make it easier to hear, sharing in the whole group can often make it easier for people to be courageous about speaking up.

Also, it is typically easier to line up skilled facilitation (either from within the group, or perhaps by bringing in someone from outside) for a plenary, the better to establish and maintain a constructive container for such delicate work. A good facilitator will make it easier for all parties to both speak and be heard.

To get these results, it's imperative that the meeting be set up properly. It is not about judging others, assigning blame, determining objective truth (uncovering what really happened), or making decisions; it's about sharing information, understanding impact, and repairing relationships.

III. Terraforming the Culture of Inclusivity
The stakes here are rather high. Not because that many people will ever live in intentional community, but because communities are research and development centers for sustainable culture. 

In this era of disintegrating civility and the normalization of alienation politics, many of us are near desperation in yearning for a way forward that all can embrace. I can see no hope in relying on additional doses of what got us to this pass, with one side trying to pound their majority down the throats of those who lost the last election. We need a sea change—an approach that builds on what's being learned in the crucible of intentional community living about how to solve problems and attend to relationships at the same time.

This is not about homogenization, making nice, or pretending that everyone thinks the same way. Rather, it's about moving ahead only after all sides have been heard and everyone's on the bus. It's understanding at a visceral level that we've got to start thinking more about "we" and not so much about "I," and what it takes to get there.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Family Time

Over the past weekend, Susan and I spent a whirlwind three days in San Antonio, rendezvousing with siblings, partners, and friends. The photo above was taken Friday, on Hemisfair Plaza, right before we ascended 750 feet in the Tower of the Americas for happy hour. From right to left it's:

Val Bower (Kyle's childhood friend from La Grange IL)
Dutch (Val's partner)
Tracey (my oldest sister)
Norm (Tracey's husband)
Alison (my youngest sister)
Dan (Alison's husband)
Richard (Kyle's husband)
Kyle (my middle sister)
Guy (my brother)
Elaine (Guy's wife)

Here's what some of us looked like 30 minutes later, adjusted for both altitude and attitude:
The Hemisfair Tower was built for the 1968 world's fair, coinciding with San Antonio's 250th birthday. Next year the tower will be 50 and the city will be celebrating its tricentennial. Yeehah! We stayed aloft long enough to see the sun go down before we did.

Each of the three days the mercury climbed into the 80s—a far cry from the 40s by the shores of Lake Superior. In San Antonio spring was sprung. The grass was verdant green, and irises were blooming in Kyle's front yard. (When the shuttle from Minneapolis dropped us off in downtown Duluth Sunday afternoon, we were happy that the temperature was above freezing and most of the snow was gone—never mind any signs of green.) Though Duluth and San Antonio are joined by I-35, they're separated by1400 miles and six agricultural zones. Uffda.

Susan and I were thankful for our down jackets on the van ride to the Minneapolis Airport in the wee hours of Thursday. When we arrived at Kyle's house later that day (around 1 pm), we wasted no time switching to light cotton tops, shorts, and sandals. Ahh!

It was great seeing all of my siblings, catching up on family news, and sharing Susan (and my renewed health) with one and all. In an unusual move, I sent only one lone email during my 68 hours in the Lone Star State (to my stepson, Jibran, on the occasion of his 20th birthday). As this was a mini-vacation, I was determined to give my laptop a mini-time-out. Today I've been been paying for it, digging out my In Box.

But it was worth it.