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.
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.