Friday, June 23, 2017

Beware of One-Trick Ponies

There is a trend in cooperative group process that has me worried: the tendency to offer one-size-fits-all solutions to complex dynamics.


I can understand the seductiveness of this. (Wouldn’t life be simpler if we had a handful of straight forward techniques that could reliably get us through the hard spots?) We yearn for magic beans (clear answers), and there is no dearth of practitioners who offer up their pet modality with the promise that if you only learn their approach your problems will be over, or at least easily managed. 

The difficulty with those claims—of which there are a growing number—is that none can deliver utopia on demand. Perhaps some of the time, but not all of the time. People (and therefore the groups into which they accrete) are simply too complex for their dynamics to be reliably broken down and resolved with techniques that can be digested in a weekend seminar.

To be sure, there are principles that serve as reliable guideposts (the imperative of acknowledging distress before attempting problem solving; the need for known channels of feedback whereby one member can pass along critical information to another about their behavior as a member of the group; meetings will occasionally be experienced as unsafe without agreements about how you’re going to work constructively with emotional input; healthy relationships are the lifeblood of community). In addition, there are useful patterns that can be learned (groups will include both the risk tolerant and the risk averse—you might as well get used to it; go rounds in large groups invariably take a long time and are highly repetitive; people process information and organize their thoughts at different speeds; rational discourse is not everyone’s best language).

But there is not just one right way to do things, and those who try to convince you otherwise are selling snake oil.

Hear me correctly: I am not saying that sociocracy, ZEGG forum, restorative circles, and nonviolent communication have no merit. I'm saying that they are not panaceas.
 
They all have strengths and can work spectacularly at times. However, my experience informs me that all of them have moments where the gold is revealed to be only a veneer; where the luster can be tarnished in the heat of the moment and the base metal core exposed.

All of them have been oversold. If a practitioner tells you that their approach has no downside and works well across the board, be very afraid.

If you witness an approach to group dynamics that works well, there’s an understandable urge to learn that approach. So far, so good. My advice, however, is that you don’t stop there. Test drive other approaches to similar dynamics so that you can pick and choose among them. Your prime directive should not be how to operate with the fewest techniques (looking for the one true way); it should be what’s most effective. Give yourself options.

Becoming nuanced and effective with cooperative group dynamics is not so much about learning a formula (if A happens, then do B) or operating from a playbook. It’s more about having an understanding of principles and developing an instinct about which to apply in emerging conditions. While it’s an excellent idea to create a plan ahead of time (to feel into what you expect to encounter), you have to be willing to scrap your plan and go off script in the dynamic moment—because that’s what the situation calls for. Your pole stars are two: 

a) What approach do you think is most likely to help the group reach its objectives for the meeting, recognizing that your answer may change over the course of the meeting?

b) How can you move forward enhancing relationships (rather than degrading them) and without leaving anyone behind?

If your course of action addresses both questions well, you know you’re in the sweet spot—never mind how well it aligns with your original plan or your favorite technique.

If you see someone do something terrific using only a hammer (or read a book that extols the virtue of hammers), there is a risk of falling in love with your hammer and neglecting the other tools in your kit. Over time, if you’re only using your hammer, a subtle change can occur: everything starts looking like a nail. (After all, it’s natural to want to justify your investment, and it can be embarrassing to admit that you may be overly relying on one tool.) 
 
The problem is that dynamics remain as messy and complicated as they ever were, yet if all you see is nails then out comes the hammer. Have you ever tried to cut a board or turn a nut with a hammer? Don’t let that be your group.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hello Laird,

I have been reading your blog and find it both fascinating and inspiring. I'm wondering if you have ever done any facilitation work for East Wind?
I plan on going on the Sandhill LEX trip this year and can't wait to see all the communities of northwest Missouri.
I'm interested to speak with you sometime about cooperative culture. I only have two and a half years living in community, but I know I have found my home.

You are doing great work,
Sumner
General Manager East Wind Nut Butters
East Wind FEC Delegate

Warren Smelcer said...

Laird! I am aaaaaalso from East Wind. Sumner showed me your blog and I LOVE it! It's sooooOoOoOooo what I was looking for as far as guidance on facilitation and communication. Your experience means that I hardly have to translate anything you're saying. It is all grounded in the community. Is there a way in which I may contact you and talk in greater detail? I would also love for you to stay here for a bit.

Cheers,
Warren!

Laird Schaub said...

Dear Sumner & Warren,

Thanks for your notes:

Sumner wrote:
>I have been reading your blog and find it both fascinating and inspiring. >I'm wondering if you have ever done any facilitation work for East Wind?

Yes, though it has been many years now since the last time and I have no idea how many there go back far enough to remember.

I plan on going on the Sandhill LEX trip this year and can't wait to see all the communities of northwest Missouri.

Good for you. It’s always a good idea to visit other groups and observe how they function.

I'm interested to speak with you sometime about cooperative culture. I only have two and a half years living in community, but I know I have found my home.

That’s great.

Meanwhile, Warren wrote:
>Laird! I am aaaaaalso from East Wind. Sumner showed me your blog and I >LOVE it! It's sooooOoOoOooo what I was looking for as far as guidance on >facilitation and communication. Your experience means that I hardly have >to translate anything you're saying.

Glad to help.

It is all grounded in the community. Is there a way in which I may contact you and talk in greater detail? I would also love for you to stay here for a bit.

Feel free to communicate with me through email. Though I have retired from my work with FIC and no longer live at Sandhill, I still do consulting with intentional communities.

In cooperation
Laird

Warren Smelcer said...

Laird, I can't find your email address. May I have it?

Laird Schaub said...

laird@ic.org

rithkhmer said...

thank for good post and sharing.......

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