Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Introverts in Communituy

I just read Susan Cain's book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking. It came out five years ago and was recently recommended to me by my friend, Roger Stube.

Among other things, it makes the case that Western culture (North American in particular) is dominated by extroverts—people who are energized by contact with others, and who tend to enjoy mixing it up at parties and meetings. Cain points out that this unintentionally creates an uneven playing field at which introverts tend to come out looking bad, even though there is no correlation between one's standing on the extrovert/introvert scale and intelligence.

For the most part, we tend to squander what introverts could contribute because things aren't set up to be comfortable—or even safe—for them.

As a group dynamics expert, one of Cain's more intriguing revelations is that extensive studies have shown that group brainstorms are invariably less productive—in both quantity and quality of ideas—than what results from individuals working alone who subsequently pool their ideas. I didn't see that coming.

(Interestingly, the one exception to this is online brainstorming, where participants are electronically connected, but not physically. Somehow that cancels out the way groupthink can stifle originality or inhibit those who are worried about sounding stupid when everyone is in the same room.)

To be sure, there is still a place for processing information as a group and coming to agreement together. Group cohesion is highly desirable and is not something you just mail in, or drop into someone's In Box. It is forged in the meeting.

While there's danger in generalizing, it's my strong anecdotal impression (after closely observing cooperative groups for four decades) that a majority of people living in intentional community are introverts (as opposed to somewhere between one-third and one-half of the general population). So what does this mean?

For starters, it suggests rethinking the way meetings are run. Because typical meeting culture emphasizes the bold, the quick, and those who are more comfortable speaking in front of groups, extroverts are favored. We have to work to create multiple on-ramps. That means purposefully creating room for people to digest information without haste, and spaciousness to organize what they want to say. 

One possibility is to give people time in silence to contemplate what they've heard and what they'd like others to know about their thinking before calling for responses. To be clear, I'm not talking about slowing things down all the time; but it may be a better idea than I knew to do this regularly.

Another possibility is being more rigorous about offering alternatives to open discussion (were people simply speak as they are ready), where extroverts are bound to dominate.

It also suggests the potential utility of taking time to ask people what their preferences are around pace and method of sharing—in the whole group, in small groups, with just one other person; orally, in writing, in a skit, through interpretative dance, in pantomime… whatever.

Cain's work suggests that the essential first step is creating an opening sufficient for everyone's story to be told, so that there is a sense that their input will be welcomed (though not necessarily agreed with). While extroverts often enjoy vigorous debate, rough and tumble conversations characterized by rising and falling decibel levels can leave introverts feeling decidedly unsafe and intimidated. The preferred style of one tends to be awkward for the other. 

Cain's book further reveals the startling fact that style unconsciously subverts thinking, such that people tend to be influenced by forceful and confident presentation—to the point where they will agree with the speaker and not realize that they might have come to a different conclusion if that person had not spoken. Yikes! This suggests being careful where you start Go Rounds, so that the same influential people are not setting the tone each time. (To be clear, Cain was not criticizing outspoken extroverts, she was just pointing out how things play out if you are not aware of what's happening.)

If this is new information, it's likely being received as an unwanted complication. My advice is to take a deep breath. While I'm sorry for the complication, the truth is you were already have it in your group, so you may as well understand better what's going on and try to adjust. The potential reward is that half or more of your group may suddenly come alive.

In fact, the rewards may be even greater than that. Because many introverts have had to learn to cope in an extrovert-dominated culture, they have learned to pump themselves up to operate at an extroverted pace and demeanor. As a result they often arrive home exhausted after a day's work, badly in need of recharge time (quiet time with minimal stimulation). To the extent that people are given ways to contribute that fall within their comfort zone, there is less accumulated fatigue.

In the larger picture, Cain explains that many psychologists think that personality can be boiled down to these five traits, which can present in any combination: 

Introversion/Extroversion
Agreeableness (how prone people are to conflict)
Openness to Experience (how open they are to novel experiences)
Conscientiousness (how diligent they are about doing what they said they'd do)
Emotional Stability (how easily strong feelings are triggered)

In the context of intentional community (and by extension, cooperative group culture) it's easy to imagine that you'd find people easier to get along with if they scored high on the last four traits, but where they stand on the Introversion/Extroversion spectrum is not predictive of happiness in community at all. Both can work out well; both can be a pain in the ass.

Last I want to share a gem about anger from Quiet. Cain starts with a story from Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion by Carol Tavris:

There once was a Bengali cobra that liked to bite passing villagers. One day a swami—a man who has achieved self-mastery—convinces the snake that biting is wrong. The cobra vows to stop immediately, and does. Before long, the village boys grow unafraid of the snake and start to abuse it. Battered and bloodied, the snake complains to the swami that this is what came of keeping his promise.

"I told you not to bite," said the swami, "but I did not tell you not to hiss."

Many people, like the swami's cobra, confuse the hiss with the bite.

In essence there is an important difference between expressing anger, and being aggressive. The two are not the same, though they are often thought to be. Going further, Cain shares that extensive studies have shown that the practice of venting does not "let off steam." If anything, venting fuels angers. 

With all do respect to Cain's exemplary scholarship, I have a subtle spin on this that I think can make a significant difference. Let's suppose the situation is that Adrian did something, Chris is pissed off, and Jesse has been asked to listen to Chris vent about it.

While I buy Cain's conclusion if Chris vents alone, or vents in Jesse's presence with Jesse only passively listening. Suppose however, that Jesse only agrees to listen if there is an understanding that the session will not end until there is a discussion (with Jesse's active assistance) to determine what constructive steps Chris will take to not remain stuck in reactivity. 

This might be Chris agreeing to talk to Adrian about what was upsetting to Chris (with or without Jesse's accompaniment); it might be identifying the ways in which Chris has an anger issue; it might be helping Chris see how they inadvertently contributed to the bad dynamic. It could be any number of things, but this ending offers hope of helping Chris move through their upset without stuffing it or risk unloading on Adrian like a ton of bricks.
While Cain's book may be Quiet, it spoke loudly to me.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Relishing One's Work

In my four decades at Sandhill Farm I gradually developed specialties—just like every other member. In my case I was the community electrician, the guy who filed taxes, the butcher, and an acidified food expert (that is, I processed the lion's share of pickles and condiments during my tenure—anything that could be canned in a hot water bath, rather than via pressure cooker).

The joke was that when I was away from home (about half the time), I'd be processing group dynamics. When I was home I'd be processing food.

In the Midwest, my busiest stretch was July through Oct, with August being the peak. That's when the tomatoes start rolling in, which meant tomato sauce, tomato juice, salsa, barbecue sauce, and ketchup. Leaving aside the occasional once-every-five-year crops, I'd also work up batches of corn relish, dilly beans, tomatillo salsa, horseradish, pickled beets, damson plum preserves, and pepper relish (both medium and hot). I'd spend many a day in the kitchen, emptying five-gallon buckets of garden bounty, turning their contents into canned goods that we'd either sell or enjoy ourselves. While others worked in the dirt; I worked over steaming kettles.

When I got sick last year (I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in January 2016) it appeared that my canning days might be over. But they aren't! Last fall I recovered from my stem cell transplant in time to be crank out a token run of tomatillo salsa, headlining fruit Susan produced in our postage stamp garden in Duluth.

As my health has gradually improved since then, I upped the ante this past week when I went wild at a farmer's market in Spooner WI. Monday I canned five jars of dilly beans, eight units of pickled beets, and 13 pints of corn relish. Although it was a long, wet day of cutting up in the kitchen, it was highly satisfying to dust off the canning funnel and jar lifter, and to be back in the swim of water bath processing.

• • •
Our glory in the kitchen continued yesterday after Susan and I sat down on the couch mid-afternoon to puzzle over that diurnal challenge that most households face: what's for dinner? Determined to do something about reducing our inventory of foodstuffs (after struggling to find space in the basement to store our burgeoning supply of canned goods), we started with the idea of featuring a beautiful fresh head of garden-surplus broccoli that had been given to Susan at work that morning.

As we have a goodly supply of organic pork in our freezer, we hunted online for a stir fry recipe that combined brassicas with tenderloin. While there were some, we got distracted (always a hazard when browsing the internet) by a recipe for spicy pork with kumquats. Say what? Incredibly, we had 5 oz of fresh kumquats in our fridge—exactly what the recipe called for. We took that as a clear sign that this is what we should have for dinner.

But wait a minute. As we looked more closely at the recipe, it called for additional oddball ingredients:
Chinese five spice seasoning
Hoisin sauce
Oyster sauce
Fresh ginger root
Mirin (aka rice vinegar)

Riding the wave of our good fortune all the way to the dining room table, it turned out that we had all of these in stock (no wonder the fridge is crowded), substituting only fish sauce for oyster sauce, which we decided was close enough. Yeehah! We were the winners of an impromptu kitchen scavenger hunt.

Not content to leave it there, we still had to figure out what to do with the broccoli (remember, that's where we started). This led to our improvising a second stir fry, this time blending:
Broccoli
Onion
Radicchio
Cashews
GarlicGreen banana pepper
Red bell pepper
Crimini mushrooms

While we made a quick trip to the neighborhood market to secure the last two items, all else was on hand. The cutting up took about as long as the cooking, and we finished in time to catch the PBS News Hour with Judy Woodruff, to see if we were at war yet with North Korea.

Dinner was rounded off with a bottle of chilled Riesling and a peach cobbler I'd made with fresh fruit that afternoon, topped with vanilla gelato (on sale at our local co-op). One more note: when we found the pork cum kumquat dish not quite as zesty as advertised, we improvised with a few spoonfuls of sambal oelek at the table, fine tuning both the color and the taste. Perfecto! (Fortunately, we always keep a jar of chili paste on hand in the fridge for moments like this.)

We figure we were the only ones in Duluth (maybe the country?) enjoying this particular menu last night, relishing our work both in the kitchen and at the table.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Navigating the Boundary Between Personal and Group

I recently had an interesting exchange with a friend about how she interacts in her community, based on reflections I shared after spending three days consulting with her group. As the dynamics are not rare, I thought it instructive to share our dialog (with names and issues altered to obfuscate identity).

Laird:

I noticed that there were times when:

o  You told stories that were difficult for me to tie to the conversation. I struggled to figure out why you were telling the story you did.
o  You told a story (ostensibly for my benefit as the new person) that you had already told me.
o  You seemed to get lost in your stories, where you would get sidetracked in sharing details that were not central to the main point and then have trouble finding your way back.
In one of the gatherings where you witnessed me doing these things there were several others present and when the Schmidts launched into the barbecue episode (something that had been explored ad nauseum in the past), I thought Oh God no. Not that again. My partner considers my attitude ungenerous. In truth I am very fond of both Schmidts and try to be sympathetic and empathetic. However, the community spent a good chunk of a two-day retreat two years ago on this topic, and much other time before and since, and we never get anywhere other than a rehash. 

I just wanted to move to a different topic. It didn't occurred to me to find a nice way to do that, so I maladroitly tried to change the subject. What I thought the barbecue story and my tale of injustice had in common was lack of community support and recognition, but my partner disagrees. I didn't especially want to dredge up my story, but I was clutching at straws to change the topic. Maybe it would be helpful to learn how to say nicely, "Please, not that topic again."
Laird:
Thanks for this background, which was new to me. I have reflections in two directions.

A. Though it was obvious that the barbecue issue was an old wound, I did not know that the group had worked on it extensively, nor did I catch that you were trying to shift the spotlight off of what you considered a dry well (that said, your explanation helps me understand your good intent). What was different about this telling was that I was in the room. Based on what had happened during the day [where I had helped the group successfully work through some old, unresolved dynamics], I want you to appreciate that some people are going to want to tell me stories about something they are stuck on, in the hopes that I might be able to get them unstuck (rather than simply to wallow in a familiar mud hole, which may well have been what it seemed like to you). In my line of work I’m used to this (I’m never really off duty when I’m with a client), and I’m hopeful that I was able to give Ms Schmidt an insight into choices she has about old wounds, when I told the story about how I worked through my anger with my father. I’m not promising that there will be a change (you never know), but I believe I gave her something powerful and new.

To be fair to you, there was no knowing at the front end of her launching into the barbecue story that I was going be able to offer a helpful insight, yet I was basically giving her the same attention I gave everyone who wanted to talk with me (including you). I can understand that you might have feared that allowing Ms Schmidt to wallow in the mud risked souring an otherwise delightful evening, yet, in the end, what is more precious than helping each other work through tough issues?

B. Now I want to shift lenses and look at this from your end. It will happen again that you are in a pleasant conversation when someone slips into dwelling on an old wound. What are your options?

o  Try to shift the focus to something else (which was the choice you made). The danger here is that the speaker may fight (cordially) for control of the conversational focus, and become irritated with you, either because you're undercutting their efforts, or because you come across as clueless about what the focus of the conversation has been. Neither of those two possibilities are happy ones.

o  Offer to listen, with the condition that after discharging, the person will work with you to come up with one or more constructive next steps (which was what I recommend in relation to gossip).

o  Try to name your discomfort as soon as you are aware of it. “Is there going be anything new in this retelling? If not, why are we doing this? This sounds like a book I’ve already read.” If the speaker does not accept your claim that it’s all old news, simply give them a synopsis of events along with what you understand their reaction to be. Ask them if you've gotten the essence of it. This will establish what you’ve heard before, and set the table for limiting the current focus to new material.
 
Talking about opportunities to volunteer: I inappropriately pointed out that I feel fulfilled by what I'm doing (some of our members speak about feeling unfulfilled and looking for something) and have no intention of volunteering. You pointed out that no one is pointing a finger at me to volunteer. Totally true. Where my remark came from: Guilt. Also, deep down inside, I'm still the little refugee girl who didn't know the majority language and culture. As a teacher, I've worked with lots of immigrants and refugees on these. I'm very skilled and very experienced. I'm also angry that, for my professional work, I have always been paid poorly—in that respect, treated almost as a volunteer. So though I know there's great need and could contribute a lot, I don't.  
Laird:
I can follow this, and it’s not hard for me to identify with it. I have a strong desire to be useful and it can be hard to not volunteer when there’s a task out there to do that I know I can handle and no one else’s hand is in the air. Yet it can’t be good that your past anger is stirred up (about the awkwardness of trying to integrate into a new culture, or about not having been fairly compensated for a lifetime of good work) when it comes to helping your community. To be clear I am not advocating one way or another about how much you volunteer (I don’t know enough to have an opinion about that). 

I am doing another thing: pointing out that requests for volunteers in the community (which must go on all the time) are triggering anger in you that may not be well known or understood, and that may greatly complicate your relationships in the community. Or have you disclosed to the group what you’ve shared with me? While you may be protecting yourself from resentment, you may come across as being a queen, who is too good for the menial work of the community. (I’m not saying that’s happening—no one expressed that view to me—I’m describing the risk.)
 • • •
The underlying theme here is how appropriate is it to share your personal stories when living in a group. While moving into an intentional community means your lives will necessarily be more intertwined than would likely be true among random neighbors in the wider culture, how far should that be taken? 

The answer can be subtle, and deserves a conversation. Unfortunately, it's been my experience that groups rarely have that conversation. Instead they just stumble along and hope for the best. Members often have to guess how much to share of their personal story, trying to thread the needle between saying too much (being accused of giving TMI) and too little (who was that masked man?). When are we just chasing around the mulberry bush talking about old hurts to no effect, and when are we genuinely asking for help to get unstuck?

When are we giving enough information to help others understand the context in which we view current situations, and when are we being too stoic, missing the opportunity for genuine connection?

I recently had this exchange with someone from a different group:

There are multiple personality conflicts here, but I do NOT want to spend time in fishbowls [working through the conflicted dynamics] or discussing certain personalities or individual conflicts—we need to talk bigger picture. For example, how the community has not been able to effectively absorb the change that comes from new people moving in.

Laird: 
While I hear your desire to focus on better integrating new people, there's a problem with skipping the step of working through conflicts. In my experience, once you have a build up of tension and hurt between two people you can’t discuss solutions until you clear the tension. That does not necessarily require work in a fishbowl, but something must be attempted to draw the poison before entering into problem solving, and it appears that the community has not developed robust ways of working through interpersonal tensions.
 • • •
Lacking a deep enough understanding of how group members approach life differently, we tend to misunderstand (and worse, assign bad intent to) actions and viewpoints that diverge significantly from our own. The beauty of group living is that you have the opportunity to bring diverse viewpoints to bear on the issues you collectively face. You have a richer pool of experience to draw from.

Unfortunately, that's simultaneously the bane of group living if you don't do enough spade work to appreciate from where those differences arise. It is not just a matter of chiseling off the rough edges until everything runs smoothly (viewing community as a giant rock tumbler). We have to be interested in why these differences exist and curious about their potential meaning—instead of responding with, Uh oh, here we go again.