Friday, December 28, 2018

The Pros and Cons of Open Discussion

For most groups, open discussion (where people speak to the topic whenever they're ready) is the default choice for how to work a topic. That said, familiarity is not destiny, and there are a number of format choices extant. Good facilitators, in my view, need a working knowledge of at least a half dozen to be able to consistently deliver solid meetings, and to accurately pair formats with needs.

Despite its being the default format—which means it's relied on heavily in some groups—I've observed that many groups struggle to realize the potential of open discussion, and dissatisfaction with this plenary experience has motivated some to try something more structured and more diffused (where more heavy lifting is attempted in small groups or committees). Instead of running the risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water, however, I want to take a close look at why and how to improve open discussions, which is a format I believe offers a number important advantages—as well as liabilities.

For the purposes of this essay, let's consider open discussion in the context of a plenary of 20+ participants.

• It tends to be quick. You can get a lot of information and viewpoints out on the table in a short amount of time. While consensus (and other forms of inclusive decision-making) protect the right of participants to give relevant input on all topics, the truth is, it is rarely necessary for everyone to speak in order to get all input expressed. (Rounds, for example, do a terrific job of protecting everyone's chance at the mic, yet can be incredibly boring as later speakers have little to offer that's new, yet use their time to say it anyway.)
• It's great at flushing out the diversity of views (so long as strong speakers are not allowed to dominate or intimidate) where it can be digested and weighed in the context of the whole group (it's not the same thing to aggregate small group output, where people are hearing summary reports, but not receiving the full presentations). When views are shared in plenary, everyone gets a chance at the information at the same time—all from the horse's mouth and with full affect.
• If the group is facile at working with differences (warning: this is a mature skill; new groups typically struggle with this and so do green facilitators) even a large breadth of opinion can be handled expeditiously.
• It is possible to build cohesive energy when work is accomplished in plenary that is not available as the sum of committee work. If you were in the room and the outcome reflects your input, the buy-in (and therefore the implementation) is noticeably enhanced.

• It favors those who are quicker to formulate their thoughts.
• It favors those who are more comfortable speaking in a large group.
• If the group is unsure of its footing in working emotionally, it favors the emotional demonstrative.
• Because open discussion in larger numbers is both more free wheeling (read chaotic) and can result in more balls being in the air, it calls for a higher level of skill to manage. This is a tough format for beginning facilitators to master.
• There will tend to be a wider range of participant familiarity and comfort with the topic—simply because there are voices in play. In consequence, it can be tricky getting the unfamiliar up to speed without experiencing chafing among the more clued in. Also, some participants may be uncomfortable with a topic that others are eager to explore and the facilitator may have a pacing issue accommodating both subgroups.

Taken all together, this is obviously not a simple calculus, and should make clear why it's a good idea to rotate formats. It's not a good idea to always use open discussions, and not a good idea to never use open discussions.

Now let's get into the trenches and try to demystify how to get the most out of open discussions. Here are a double handful of specific skills that the facilitator will be glad to have mastered. (To be fair, these are skills that will be beneficial in a wide variety of situations, yet they'll be especially helpful when facilitating open discussions.)

1.  Knowing how to focus the conversation, so that you can guide the group productively and will be in position to redirect those who try (inadvertently or purposefully) to steer things in a different direction.

2.  Having a good idea about how to contain (I did not say "gag") those who tend to speak a lot or whose contributions tend to result in others being quiet (perhaps because they don't want to risk voicing a differing view that might place them in that person's cross hairs; perhaps because they don't think they can speak as eloquently or persuasively and are afraid of sounding stupid). If left unmonitored, the 15-20% of members who eat the mic will take up more than 50% of the air time, which is dangerously unbalanced.

3.  The ability to accurately and even-handedly summarize the conversation every 6-8 speakers. This does a number of things: a) keeps everyone on the same page; b) cuts down on repetition (if a point of view is in the summary it doesn't need to be said again); c) gives the group a sense of progress; and d) helps people focus on what's missing (what hasn't been said yet).

4.  The ability to notice and bring to the group's attention when body language is not aligned with statements—signaling that something is off. While you may not know what it means, it's worth exploring.

5.  Being able to quickly and accurately distinguish signal from noise, noting which threads are worthy of including in a summary of product, and which comments don't need to be highlighted. While it turns out that only a small number of contributions are original and insightful, you need to be diligent about capturing them.

6.  Being light enough on your feet to sense when a tangent is powerful and timely enough to justify suspending the approved agenda to follow.

7.  Being skilled at seeing common ground among viewpoints that can serve as the basis for a balanced solution. Oftentimes the facilitator is the first to see the way through a complex issue, merely because good facilitators look for agreement before looking for differences—a skill that is glaringly underdeveloped in our culture.

8.  Being willing and able to sensitively name strong feelings and interrupt attacks whenever they occur. Of course, this work will be significantly aided by a group agreement to work emotionally, but the facilitator should attempt this even without such an agreement, because of how powerful it can be to accept a wider range of relevant information (embracing emotional knowing) and to calm potentially troubled waters.

9. Knowing how to structure the conversation so that the group agrees on what a solution needs to address before attempts are made to craft one. (Hint: if your first plenary consideration of an issue begins with a statement of the problem and the presentation of proposed solution, then you've already placed the cart before the horse. Oops!)

10. Being diligent about making sure that the plenary is only engaging on matters worthy of its attention and that details that fall below that standard are promptly delegated to managers or committees.

• • •
While this essay doesn't provide a foolproof screen for when to use open discussion to examine issues, it hopefully gives you a richer sense of its potential and the facilitative tools that are needed to get good results. 

May your meetings be frutiful.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Dark Night of the American Soul

It's 4 am on the longest night of the year and I can't sleep.

After lying in bed for an hour without being able to find where I misplaced my REM cycles, I gave up trying. I made coffee (a cup of which is sitting close by), and pancake batter, which will turn into breakfast in about four hours (breathing helps dissolve the micro-clumps of batter).

Update on My Life
The physiological explanation for this mid-night dance with my keyboard is drugs. Per my chemotherapy protocol I take 20 mg of dexamethasone—a steroid—every Thursday, which invariably means I'm on an energy high every Friday. While manic is not necessarily a good state to be in (think Mr. Toad's wild ride), I've learned to control the wave and Fridays offer a pleasant burst of productivity. It means that Susan typically wakes up on the last day of the work week in an empty bed (if you don't count Lucie, our 50 lb lab/retriever love ball who likes to join us in the family bed), but she knows the drill.

While I rarely rise this early in the day (excepting on Fridays and when I need to catch the shuttle to St Paul to connect with the eastbound Empire Builder), I've always enjoyed the night—this thing that mostly slips by me with my eyes closed. It's quiet. The phone doesn't ring, and there's ample time for the three R's—readin', 'ritin', and reflectin'—all of which are precious to me.

Today is solstice, the Earth holiday that occurs toward the front end of Xmas season. It's the official start of winter, which is something we Duluthians embrace as part of our boreal heritage (that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger). This is our time. All the snowbirds have left by now, and we're down to the hard core natives and winter sport nuts. Even though I don't ski, curl, or play hockey, I like winter.

Yesterday I wrapped up back-to-back reports for work I did on the East Coast two weeks ago, which frees me up to address a modest backlog of non-urgent emails, and positions me perfectly to enjoy the social side of the holidays, where friends and family come first. I've always loved this break in the daily routine. It's the one time of the year when it's socially acceptable for a fortnight to feed our ritual-starved souls. 

On the micro-level my life is going pretty good. My cancer is quiesecent (knock on wood), I have a loving partner, all four of our kids are out of the nest and doing well (all are in their 30s and have partners they're happy with), I have work as a process consultant and teacher in proportion to what I want, I'm making enough money to tread water with my health care bills, and I even get to play duplicate bridge twice a week when I'm in residence. What's not to like?

Overview of the National Scene with Loki as President
On the macro-level, unfortunately, I am brooding over the chaos that passes for national politics these days. Trump's capacity to be divisive and anti-relational knows no bounds. He's a one-trick pony who only knows to be a bully, and his boorish, spectacularly disruptive behavior has been given incredible latitude for mischief as a consequence of his surprise success as a presidential candidate two years ago. Now we're stuck with him. 

I have to think that even those who have been inspired by his drain-the-swamp, plain-talking, fear-mongering rhetoric have to wince when they observe his unpredictable, unprincipled, misogynistic, racist, distorted, and vicious tactics. He unattractively showcases the self-discipline of an angry teenager, and the self-absorption of Dorian Gray. Later today we'll discover the outcome of his eleventh hour game of chicken with Congress because of the tantrum he's throwing over the legislative branch's unwillingness to authorize $5 billion for a border wall we don't need but which he rashly promised in his campaign two years ago. 

Rather than accept political reality (never mind political sanity), he wants a fight, which is the role that bullies are wont to play. Rather than striving to pull the country together (you know, act presidential), he's willing to pull it down—apparently because it's more important that he deliver on his promise to his angry white base, who are determined to hold onto white privilege for as long as possible and/or feel they are being discriminated against and threatened by a steady flow of immigrants who are taking jobs that they have rejected. Never mind that the budget is going to hell in a handcart and that even some Republicans admit that the wall is a dumb idea, he's willing to ruin the holiday for about one-fourth of federal workers who may be laid off by midnight. Rather than allay the fears of his constituency, he fans the flames. In the spirit of this pagan holiday, it's clear to me that Trump is channeling his inner Loki. 

To my disgust, Republicans have basically caved in to Trump and are offering him a largely unobstructed field in which to spread his seeds of discord and mistrust. To my frustration, the Democrats have yet to articulate anything approximating a cohesive response to the fears that Trump is playing to. Rather than objecting to Trump (that's the easy part) they need to be pitching jobs, health care, education, a sane international policy, a balanced budget, and a caring government to the disaffected. They need a coherent, inclusive platform and they need a candidate.

Talk about Mr. Toad's wild ride!

My Personal Challenge
All of this presents a difficult societal challenge. How will we clean up the mess? And what is my role in that? 

Years ago I made the decision to focus my social change work on the grassroots level. Thus, I work with groups trying to effect a shift from a highly competitive culture to one that is more cooperative. I am operating on the trickle-up theory, whereby success on the local level can (theoretically) be ratcheted up to neighborhoods, municipalities, states, etc. I've essentially been following that course since graduating from college in 1971. While I don't expect to see the promised land in my lifetime (I'm like Moses that way), I expect to continue the path I'm on for as long as I am cognitively and physically able. That part is relatively straight forward.

More difficult is how to respond to the disruptive, demonstrably uncooperative behavior that Trump is championing at the national level. What can I do (what should I be attempting) in an effort to turn  around this orgy of negativity and love of the fight. What can I do to promote dialog in the age of invective?

The truth is, I'm not sure. 

I don't have connections on the national level and Washington isn't calling me asking for advice. While I believe my grassroots efforts are entirely germane to the issue, their impact is likely to take longer to bear fruit than the need calls for. I suspect that the best I can do at this stage is to invest at the municipal level. I can look for opportunities to selectively get involved in progressive groups locally (Duluth is a medium city of 85,000) in an effort to create citizen bridges that transcend party lines. Maybe Duluth could become a sanctuary city for the politically estranged.

I was heartened by the fact that none of the Democrats who won election to the top three offices contested in November (two Senate seats and the governorship) ran negative campaigns. Maybe we can be different in Minnesota and a model of political healing.

While Trump would likely object to that kind of sanctuary just as much as one focused on immigrant support, who cares? With Trump, I'm at the point of adapting Groucho Marx's admonition from a song he debuted in the 1932 classic movie Horsefeathers: 

Whatever he wants, I'm against it.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Open Membership

Last month I conducted a series of workshops at a brace cooperative houses in Austin TX. While there I got into an interesting conversation with folks about the pros and cons of open membership (where anyone can join if their rent check clears). I want to share the highlights of that exchange.

The Bright Side of Open Membership
a. This resonates with those who dream of a society where everyone is treated equally—which is definitely different than the society we have. If we're committed to diversity as a core value, isn't this what it means?

b. Who are we to judge others, anyway?

c. If I have trouble living with someone else, it may say as much about my flaws as theirs. If so, aren't I better off facing it than avoiding it?

d. If we commit to personal growth, then open membership leads to hybrid vigor, and serves as a prophylactic against stultification.

e. It's simpler—there's nothing to do but take who comes. It neatly avoids potentially awkward and challenging conversations about the perceived faults of prospectives. Whew.

f. Being selective about membership smacks of privilege and self-righteousness, and can all too easily be used as a glib justification for sustaining oppression. Yuck.

g. It reinforces us/them dynamics—a major pothole on the road to world peace.

The Dark Side
1. Not everyone drawn to community has the skills to do it well, and it's far cheaper to weed out bad apples at the start.

2. Not everyone can live together. Open membership more or less guarantees that you'll eventually encounter the limits of what that means—and it's no fun once you're there. Yes, point e) above means you can save time on the front end by not being selective, but you pay on the back end when the problem you avoided in the beginning is much more painful and difficult to address. In short, it's a poor bargain.

3. Community does not tend to attract people who have an appetite for dealing with conflict, yet open membership significantly increases the frequency with which you'll encounter it. Is that a good idea?

4. Over the course of my 40 years of community living and working with more than 100 intentional communities, I have witnessed a handful of times when groups with open membership have struggled to rid themselves of troublesome members who seemed perfectly at peace with their difficult behavior (even to the point of witnessing the police physically hauling out a deadbeat who wouldn't pay their rent). Each time it was incredibly expensive in terms of time and energy to navigate the extraction.

• • •
OK, so what's the way through this? Let's look at some of the key issues.

If you think about it, you can't actually live at either end of the diversity spectrum. On the closed end, it's impossible to avoid some level of diversity no matter how homogenous a membership group you desire (after all, we're not clones). On the open end, you can't be all things to all people. You'll have to face the reality world limits of how much diversity you can support. You'll have to make choices about what to prioritize. Isn't it better to make these choices consciously, rather than have it determined by chance (where you accept whatever diversity knocks on your door until you're full)?

—Being a Little Bit Pregnant About Discrimination
Upon reflection, it's an exaggeration that open membership means no boundaries at all. For example, you'll probably insist that people pay their rent or HOA dues. If members become delinquent (there may be a grace period if you fall behind, but ultimately there's a hard stop) they are booted out. Further, there are probably some baseline prohibitions, such as no illegal activity, or no violent behavior. Depending on the severity of the risk, the offending member may be given a warning and a second chance, but eventually they'll be asked to leave if they don't bring their behavior in line with acceptable community norms.

So where's the line? What kind of discernment makes sense?

Because communities, at root, are trying to create and sustain cooperative culture, I believe it's appropriate to screen prospective members for the skills needed to make that work. In my experience (30+ years of helping cooperative groups navigate their dreck) it's clear that groups cannot tolerate many non-cooperative members and still have a positive experience. Even one can be a nightmare.

Thus, I advocate screening prospective members for cooperative skills, by which I mean the ability to: 
o  Articulate clearly what you think.  
o  Articulate clearly what you feel.
o  Hear accurately what others say (and be able to communicate that to the speaker such that they feel heard).
o  Hear critical feedback without walling up or getting defensive.
o  Function reasonably well in the presence of non-trivial distress in others.
o  Shift perspectives to see an issue through another person's lens.
o  See potential bridges between two people who are at odds with each other.
o  See the good intent underneath strident statements.
o  Distinguish clearly between a person's behavior being out of line and that person being "bad."
o  Own your own stuff.
o  Reach out to others before you have been reached out to yourself.
o  Be sensitive to the ways in which you are privileged.
When these skills are absent, you should be very afraid. 
I also think it's a good idea to articulate the group's vision and common values, and check to see that prospective members agree to abide by them. Revisiting foundation values every time a new member wants to rock the boat is exhausting and you aren't likely to be very happy or effective in the world if everyone is seasick most of the time.

How Elitist Is This? 
Good question. I think there remains plenty of room for a robust response to those committed to diversity and wanting to tackle issues of oppression and privilege, such as:
• Working constructively with passion and emotional expression
• Welcoming non-rational communication styles
• Doing the work to understand what it will take to attract desirable under-represented populations, which might include a focus on race, class, ethnicity, mental health, or people with disabilities, to name a few.

If the group is paralyzed by an inability to work through differences—because the it lacks sufficient communication skills to do so—you aren't going to be an attractive group and you aren't going to be particularly inspiring, either as a model of social change or in whatever work you do. Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that groups select for people who are meek or mild-mannered, or who won't raise issues. Rather, I am saying it's OK to discriminate against people who are stuck in their viewpoint and refuse to consider any other.

I say, let the non-cooperative folks duke it out amongst themselves. I don't have time for that shit.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Responding to Abuse in Cooperative Groups

Yesterday I posted a blog about Conflict and Abuse, and last night I had some further thoughts about the dynamic I described toward the end, where Chris and Dale (my would-be protagonists) are in the same group, Chris does something that Dale labels abusive, and both want to remain in the group.

I wrote:
If Chris and Dale are in the same group, I agree that abuse should be treated differently from other forms of conflict in this way: I generally think it's reasonable (even important) that both Dale and Chris be expected to make a good faith effort to try to resolve interpersonal tensions between them—with group assistance if necessary—if they are unable to do so on their own. However, if Dale feels abused by what Chris did, and both want to remain in the group (which is the interesting case), then I would respect Dale's right to decline to engage with Chris. I might request that Dale consider engaging Chris with the group's assistance, but I would not require it. If Dale chooses not to engage with Chris in working through their trauma, the group will have to feel its way through any requests from Dale that Chris' opportunities in the group be limited as a consequence of Dale's abuse experience.

On the matter of how I, as a facilitator, would try to support Dale after understanding that they were triggered by Chris, I would begin the same way (by listening and acknowledging), independent of whether or not they labeled Chris' actions abusive.

Because of the potential I see for the previous paragraph to be misused, I want to explore it a little deeper. The phenomenon I'm worried about is where Dale employs the "abuse" label to avoid working out their reaction to Chris, claiming that they prefer to do this work solo (or perhaps with the help of an outside friend or counselor), yet nothing seems to change. While it's almost always better for the group to have people work through their distress—rather than allowing it to fester—it can be the wrong thing for the abused person's recovery, and it can be delicate knowing the right way to go in a given situation. 

Thus, I think it's OK that groups ask their members to try to work out any unresolved tension with other members, while allowing for the possibility that if a member reports feeling abused that this expectation may be waived. 

Upon reflection I want to further my recommendation: 

I am worried about Dale being the sole determiner of what constitutes abuse. Given that I am proposing group norms about how to respond to a report of abuse by one member in relation to another, the group is a stakeholder in the dynamic. Therefore it's appropriate, I believe, that it has a say in setting the standards for when their support gets activated.

Let's look at some examples. The caveats are that the group has the following agreements:
—Emotional expression is OK (though aggression is not).
—There is a Conflict Resolution Team (or its equivalent) established, whose primary task it is to help group members work through interpersonal tensions that they are not able to resolve on their own. Further, all members involved in unresolved conflict in the context of the group are expected to make a good faith effort to work it out, and cannot turn down an offer of help from the group if the team perceives that the tensions are leaking on the group.
—If a member claims that the actions of another member were abusive and does not want to engage with the person to work it out, that that request will be honored. (This is seen as an exception to the general agreement about conflict stated above).

(I understand that all groups do not have these agreements, but I recommend that they do and I'm trying in this blog to make a more nuanced and complete statement about what I recommend with respect to cases of abuse.)

Example 1
I think you'd get easy agreement that intentionally touching someone's body without permission constitutes abuse. (Obviously there's a wide gamut in how serious the violation can be, running all the way from a light touch on the shoulder to rape, but it's crossing a clear line nonetheless.) 

Example 2
More problematic is something like raising one's voice in a meeting. If Dale grew up in a family with an abusive parent who bullied their children with a dominant voice and threats of beatings, it would not take much to understand how Dale, as an adult, might experience a loud, angry voice from Chris as profoundly disrespectful and abusive. On the other hand, Chris may not be thinking about Dale at all (I'm not saying that's good, but it's understandable in the heat of the moment); they're just being their authentic self (they were raised in a family where people spoke loudly and expressed their feelings openly all the time; it was normal) and the group has a commitment to supporting emotional expression on topic. Now what?

If Dale is allowed to be the sole arbiter of what's labeled abusive, and chooses to not engage with Chris over their raised voice in a meeting—because the group policy allows that option when abuse is involved—imagine how frustrating that would be for Chris. They would have been labeled an abuser with no recourse. That can't be a good result.

• • •
Thus, I think it's appropriate that if Dale informs the group that they have been abused by Chris, that it automatically triggers a step where the group (or better yet, its designated committee, which is probably a quicker and more discreet way to handle it—I recommend that this task be given to the Conflict Resolution Team) reviews the situation and makes two assessments:

a) Is there group agreement that the alleged action is abusive? Mind you, this in no way invalidates Dale's experience—it's still abuse to them regardless of what the committee determines as a group standard in this instance. 

Here's how I imagine this working. The committee meets with Dale at their earliest convenience—without Chris being present—and hears them out about their feelings, their story, and its meaning, making sure to understand why Dale thinks what Chris did was abusive. After Dale is satisfied that the committee has heard them accurately, the committee asks if Dale is willing to engage directly with Chris to work through their reaction, in an attempt to resolve tensions, get agreements about future behavior, and to repair damage to relationship. In short, does Dale willing to waive the abuse clause that permits them to not engage with Chris, or do they want to invoke it?

If it is waived, then the matter can proceed as with any other conflict. If, however, Dale wants to steer clear of Chris—which is their right—then the committee needs to huddle (without Dale or Chris) and consider whether Chris' action was sufficiently egregious to be labeled abusive by the group. To be clear, this is not a simple deliberation. The committee will need to weigh:

•  Was the action sufficiently out of line in the context of group culture that there was an implicit understanding that it was abusive?

•  Is there any track record on this behavior, both in the group in general and with Chris in particular? If so, what did we do last time and what was our thinking? Was the outcome satisfactory or deficient? Have cultural norms shifted such that we might have a different answer today?

•  Could Chris have reasonably known that Dale might find their action abusive? Was Chris' behavior a pattern (and therefore likely to occur again without intervention) or unusual?

•  Are there extenuating circumstances that justify treating this instance as a one-off?

•  Is there any reason to believe that Chris was intentionally provocative?

•  What decision or action by the committee has the best potential for supporting and enhancing relationship among all parties: Dale, Chris, and the group?

b) How do we proceed if Dale won't engage with Chris? (This assessment can be skipped, of course, if Dale is willing to engage.) This has two paths: 

i) If the committee determines in the previous step that Chris' behavior was abusive, then it will communicate that to the group and honor Dale's request to not work with Chris to process it. Instead, the committee will take on laboring with Chris over their behavior, making sure Chris understands why the behavior is unacceptable, and doing their best to develop an agreement with Chris to not repeat it. This work may spell out what will happen if Chris does it again anyway. Depending on what the committee understands that Dale wants and what is seen as good for the group, it may ask Chris to apologize (perhaps to both Dale and group).

Any agreements arising from this work with Chris will be communicated to the entire group.

ii) If the committee determines that Chris' behavior was not abusive in the group context, it will nonetheless meet with Chris to make sure they know that Dale found Chris' behavior abusive (and why). They will explore with Chris ways they might voluntarily alter their behavior to be less triggering for Dale (and perhaps others like Dale) without changing their personality or their values. The point being that communication broke down with Dale and that's not a good thing. Based on Dale's response, could Chris achieve what's wanted in the way of fully expressing their views while being less triggering?

Here too, the committee will transmit to the group a summary of the outcome of their deliberation with Chris, including any agreements Chris makes about behavior changes, and any steps Chris is willing to take to repair relationships.

In short, this is shuttle diplomacy between Chris and Dale. While Dale may or may not be open to laboring with the committee (or its rep) on this, the committee should try. And even if Dale declines to work with the committee, the committee should still do what it can to work with Chris. Improvement and greater understanding in any direction—even if unilateral—is better than none.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Conflict and Abuse

Recently a friend suggested that I look at the relationship between conflict and abuse. As that seemed like a good idea, here are my thoughts. For the purpose of this examination, let's assume that Chris did something that upsets Dale. Adrian is a neutral third party who has a relationship with both Chris and Dale.

I define this as situations where there are at least two points of view and at least one person experiencing nontrivial emotional upset (in this case Dale). To be sure, sometimes Dale will be able work through their hard feelings unilaterally and nothing more needs to be done. Sometimes Dale will be able to work through the dynamic with Chris directly and life goes on. Other times, unfortunately, the reaction lingers and festers—and Chris may or may not know that this is happening. (Much of my work as a process consultant entails helping groups work through unresolved conflicts, mainly because our wider culture doesn't offer good tools for processing upset, so the group's capacity to handle it, either individually or as a group, can vary widely, and is often quite limited.)

I believe this occurs when Dale experiences Chris as having crossed a personal boundary without permission. That boundary may or may not have been articulated prior to the action, or been made known to Chris ahead of time. The action may or may not have been intended to be abusive. Further, abuse is experienced in a wide range of severity, and at the heavier end can be quite difficult to recover from.

Independent of severity, when Dale feels abused by Chris, it will invariably result in a degradation of trust. When Dale and Chris are in the same group, it can be very difficult for both to remain members unless Dale is willing and able to process their upset with Chris. On the one hand, it my be in Dale's best interest to process their experience of being abused by Chris independently. On the other, it is hard on the group (and perhaps on Chris) when there is unresolved tension between the two and no willingness to work it out.

Having said all that, abuse happens in minor ways (microaggressions) all the time. At what point does it rise to the level that it's appropriate to focus attention on it? That's not simple to answer. I believe it depends on history (both with abuse in general and with Chris in particular), context, and the sense in which Dale trusted (naively or with cause) that Chris would not violate a personal boundary. In any event, I think we can reasonably posit that any action that Dale labels abusive is going to carry with it an emotional load—which means that it fits under the umbrella of conflict.

My friend (who suggested that I consider this topic) shared that she believes that abuse and conflict should be handled differently. Let's explore that.

How to Respond 
When someone is in serious reaction—whether it's styled abuse or not—I think immediate Rx is called for. My approach is to offer to listen to what Dale has to say about their feelings and their experience without judgment. Without taking sides, I simply believe what Dale says as their truth (knowing that Chris and other players in the described dynamic may have different stories that don't align). As someone trying to be helpful, my job is not to discover the Truth (what really happened), but to be present to what Dale reports and its meaning.

I try to keep the initial engagement focused on three things: a) what are the feelings; b) what is the story (the context in which the feelings arose); and c) what is the meaning (why does it matter). I try to steer the conversation away from judgment or analysis of Chris' motivation. Whether this happens just with me or in the presence of Chris depends hugely on what the person in reaction needs to feel sufficiently safe to speak, and whether Dale wants an ongoing relationship with Chris.

Let's examine what support might look like in the case of someone feeling abused, depending on whether they want relationship going forward or not.

Doesn't Want Relationship with Chris Going Forward
Here are ways that a friend or facilitator might offer support:

•  Help Dale plumb the depths of their emotional response, and its meaning. Help them look at ways to recover and feel good about themselves.
•  Help Dale understand better their personal boundaries and how to make them known more clearly.
•  Help Dale identify how to protect themselves against a repetition of a bad experience (what would increased safety look like?).
•  Are there steps to take to distance themselves from Chris? This might include looking at whether to leave any group that Chris is also a member of.

To what extent, if any, does it make sense for Dale to make requests or demands on others in relationship to Chris in contexts other than private? For example, suppose that Dale and Chris are both members of the local symphony orchestra and both play the same instrument. When Adrian, the conductor, assigns them adjacent seats, is it reasonable for Dale to ask Adrian to move Chris to a seat further away?

Suppose instead that Dale is a carpenter and works for a company that Chris hires to remodel a room in their house. Is it OK for Chris to demand that Dale not work on the project, keeping them out of Chris' home—both literally and energetically?

While I think it's Chris' business whether to resolve tensions with Dale, if Chris makes the choice to not engage with Dale, to what extent can Dale ask Adrian to shift things involving Chris to accommodate Dale's discomfort being around Chris? (Actually, I think it's always OK to ask for what you want. What I really mean is whether Dale can reasonably expect others to honor that request, especially when it creates a headache for them?) 

I'm not sure. You're weighing Adrian's apples (the strength of their headache), against Dale's oranges (the strength of their trauma), against Chris' bananas (the strength of their right to not have other aspects of their life limited by a misstep with Dale—especially when Dale has declined to engage with Chris about it). This is a difficult calculus.

Does Want Relationship with Chris Going Forward
While all of the previous questions still obtain, it now makes sense to ask what Dale needs from Chris in order to be willing to engage further. It could be acknowledgment of the pain; it could be an apology; it could be agreements to behave differently in the future; or all of the above. If Dale wants an ongoing relationship with Chris, it will be helpful if Dale can lay out what the pathway to rehabilitation looks like.

• • •
Taken all together, if Chris and Dale are in the same group, I agree that abuse should be treated differently from other forms of conflict in this way: I generally think it's reasonable (even important) that both Dale and Chris be expected to make a good faith effort to try to resolve interpersonal tensions between them—with group assistance if necessary—if they are unable to do so on their own. However, if Dale feels abused by what Chris did, and both want to remain in the group (which is the interesting case), then I would respect Dale's right to decline to engage with Chris. I might request that Dale consider engaging Chris with the group's assistance, but I would not require it. If Dale chooses not to engage with Chris in working through their trauma, the group will have to feel its way through any requests from Dale that Chris' opportunities in the group be limited as a consequence of Dale's abuse experience.

On the matter of how I, as a facilitator, would try to support Dale after understanding that they were triggered by Chris, I would begin the same way (by listening and acknowledging), independent of whether or not they labeled Chris' actions abusive.

Because of the potential I see for the previous paragraph to be misused, I want to explore it a little deeper. The phenomenon I'm worried about is where Dale employs the "abuse" label to avoid working out their reaction to Chris, claiming that they prefer to do this work solo (or perhaps with the help of an outside friend or counselor), yet nothing seems to change. While it's almost always better for the group to have people work through their distress—rather than allowing it to fester—it can be the wrong thing for the abused person's recovery, and it can be delicate knowing the right way to go in a given situation. 

Thus, I think it's OK that groups ask their members to try to work out any unresolved tension with other members, while allowing for the possibility that if a member reports feeling abused that this expectation may be waived.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Key Facilitative Skills: Semipermeable Membranes

As a professional facilitator for more than three decades, I've had ample opportunity to observe which skills make the most difference. As a facilitation trainer the past 15 years, I've collected plenty of data about which lessons have been the most challenging for students to digest.

Taken all together, I've decided to assemble a series of blog posts on the facilitation skills I consider to be both the hardest to master and the most potent for producing productive meetings. They will all bear the header Key Facilitation Skills and it's a distillation of where I believe the heavy lifting is done.

Here are the headlines of what I'll cover in this series:

I. Riding Two Horses: Content and Energy
II. Working Constructively with Emotions 
III. Managing the Obstreperous
IV. Developing Range: Holding the Reins Only as Tightly as the Horses Require
V. Semipermeable Membranes: Welcoming Passion While Limiting Aggression
VI. Creating Durable Containers for Hard Conversations
VII. Walking the Feedback Talk
VIII. Sis Boom Bang
IX. Projecting Curiosity in the Presence of Disagreement
X. Distinguishing Weird (But Benign) from Seductive (Yet Dangerous)
XI. Eliciting Proposals that Sing
XII. Becoming Multi-tongued
XIII. Not Leaving Product on the Table
XIV. Sequencing Issues Productively
XV. Trusting the Force 

• • •
Semipermeable Membranes: Welcoming Passion While Limiting Aggression  
Because groups are composed of humans, there is always an emotional component present at meetings. It may not be ascendant at any given moment and may not need attention, but there will invariably be times when it will. Amazingly enough, most groups never talk about how they want those moments to go. They just hope to survive them.

I think we can do better.

How did we get in this mess? It's not hard to understand. Unless you purposefully stop and think about, meetings in cooperative groups are fairly likely to unconsciously mirror the meeting culture we all grew up with, which is that business will be wholly conducted in the rational realm. 

While there is unquestionably a smattering of exceptions, the predominant way we run meetings in the US is to have everyone offer their best thinking—and if a response originates as a feeling, as a queasy stomach, or as a krick in the back of the neck, the person is expected to politely translate that into ideation before sharing with the group. In actuality, humans absorb information, process it, and "know" things in a complex variety of ways, only one of which is rational thought.

Unstoppering the Emotional Bottle
There is also emotional knowing, intuition, spiritual, and kinestethic. While it's rare that all of these are in play at the same time, why is it smart to force everything into a single language? I believe a better strategy is to widen the playing field and work in the original tongue. In this essay I want to focus on just one of these neglected languages: feelings.

What if groups expressly welcomed members' emotional input? I believe this change has the potential to substantially alter meeting culture for the better. In groups that lack an agreement about handling strong feelings, the most common response is shut down. Work on issues tends to come to a screaming halt in the presence of screaming. For many of us, the emergence of strong feelings is accompanied by aggression and damage to relationship. As no one wants to be the target of someone else's scathing comments, there is often an overwhelming urge to put a lid on it before someone gets hurt. 

While that urge is understandable, I don't think it's the best response. For one thing, it's unsatisfying. For another, it's expensive. You don't make progress on the topic (which is hostage to the distress), you have surfaced strain in the group which has deleterious consequences on trust and relationship if allowed to stand unaddressed, you have missed an opportunity to harness the energy that fuels the upset, and you have missed the chance at the information that undergirds the feelings (they didn't occur in a vacuum). That's a large downside.

If the group gets paralyzed in the presence of strong feelings, it starts to shift a lot of things. Not only does it stall things out in the moment, but people learn to be cautious about what they say if they think it may trigger reactivity. Thus, it distorts the conversation even before reactivity emerges, which impedes progress and contributes to meeting fatigue. Inefficient meetings paired with occasional unproductive outbursts are enough to discourage attendance, which further degrades the ability of plenaries to get the work done (it's damn hard to build solid agreements with voices missing). So not being able to deal authentically with fulminating upset is expensive. I'm not saying it's easy—only that it's costly if you don't.

A Better Idea
Given that emotional responses are normal and relatively common, I believe groups function better if they can treat reactivity as a normal occurrence—rather than as a moment to be feared. I believe you can ask participants to limit emotional expressions in two important ways:

a) It should be related to the topic at hand—the same standard you'd have for any contribution to the conversation; and

b) It's OK to express your feelings, but you should check aggression at the door. That is, no attacks. No negative judgments. Thus, there is a significant difference between these two statements of the same event:

Statement 1: "I'm furious that you walked out of the common house kitchen while you were frying bacon and a grease fire broke out."

Statement 2: "You fucking idiot! How stupid do you have to be to leave the kitchen unattended with bacon frying on the stove? You could have burned down the entire common house!"

Both statements make clear that the speaker is seriously upset with the cook's neglect, but only the second one goes into attack mode, dumping on the cook. While many people my "hear" the judgment of the second statement when only the first is said (feeling the attack implied by tone), the truth is that the first statement is clean, by which I mean the person is owning their feelings and making no demands. It allows room for movement.

This is what I mean by a "semipermeable membrane," allowing a free and full statement of feelings, while objecting to aggression. This is important because the way through this is by starting with a validation of the feelings, and that task is made much more complicated if you first have to navigate an attack, which is likely to generate more reactivity and heighten volatility. This can get very messy in a blink.

Distress as Virtual Earwax
The person in distress often feels isolated and suspects that people may not want to hear what they have to say. Often their heart is racing and their attention is distracted by a busy internal dialog. I think of this as virtual earwax. In the extreme, a person can be so consumed with their distress that no outside information gets through—they hear nothing that others say and are therefore unavailable to collaborate in building workable solutions. And even if their ears are not completely clogged, partial plugging can still result in serious distortion.

In this condition, it is essential that you connect with the person in distress, showing that you want to know what they're feeling and what it means. When done well this is always deescalating, and serves to clean the ears out. Note that this is not a promise that you're taking their position; it's a good faith effort to understand their position. Others may hold similar views, or maybe not. Facilitating an upset person means being their ally to get accurately heard; it does not mean that anyone will agree with them or that they will get their way. That will depend on what others do with the information. By not overreacting to distress it undercuts the tendency to give upset people additional influence on what happens (in the mistaken belief that placating them will create safety—if people get what they want they'll be less likely to lash out). When groups respond this way they encourage people to go into distress as a strategy to control outcomes. It's not pretty.

In the model I've laid out, you connect with the person in distress for the purpose of understanding what the reaction is and how it relates to the topic. Once you've achieved that to the person's satisfaction, you continue the examination of the issue. As I see it, on-topic upset is not a distraction, it's just another way to enrich the conversation. 

The corner you're trying to turn here is accepting the normalcy of reactivity and getting the group to not react to reactivity—to receive it as just another form of input, to be weighed on merit, rather than on decibel level or the amount of tears shed. Those aspects are part of the input and taken into account, but they are not determinant (prove that you love me by giving me what I want). In any event, you certainly don't want to abruptly terminate the discussion just because someone is in reaction. You want the emergence of distress to be a time to lean in, not to shut down.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Dia de los Muertos 2018

In the spirit of the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos I am taking time today to reflect on two souls that touched my life and passed from this vale of tears in the last 12 months:

Chad Knepp (Oct 21)
Chad died of cancer of the gall bladder. It was discovered last April and did not respond well to treatment.

Our paths first crossed when he visited Sandhill Farm as a prospective member back in the late '90s. We got along well and he joined the community, but it wasn't long before he grew restless. While he liked what Sanhill has doing, he wanted the freedom to develop homesteading initiatives outside of central planning—because Sandhill was small, about eight adults at the time, our habit was to get full group approval before launching any project, especially if it entailed land use or building construction. Chad had lots of ideas about sustainability that he wanted to try out, and he chafed at being constrained by the need to get group approval every step of the way.

When we talked (at length) about allowing members more freedom to pursue dreams on community property, his request encountered push back from another member who wanted equality of opportunity. They were reluctant to extend to Chad the independence he requested, in part, because they didn't have the same homesteading skills. If they were not be able to make the same use of such freedom, then they didn't feel good about Chad having it—if all couldn't have it, then none of us should have it. Ouch. While I experienced this as the weaponization of equality, and left me both sad and disturbed, Chad's request was turned down.

To his credit, Chad knew better than to push, so he bided his time until he was able to join forces with Alyson Ewald and others to create Red Earth Farms in 2005, which was a community of homesteads, located on 76 acres adjacent to Dancing Rabbit—about three miles from Sandhill. At Red Earth, Chad could get most of what he wanted, experimenting with sustainable agriculture and permaculture systems on his own leasehold, with wide latitude to do things his way, so long as he operated within broadly defined ecological parameters. Even better, Red Earth had much lower expectations about the frequency of group meetings, and that matched well with Chad's predilection. He wanted to do, much more than to talk about doing. As frosting on the cake, Red Earth was close enough to Sandhill to maintain personal ties there.

The thing about Chad that I found most attractive was his creative, entrepreneurial energy. He stirred the pot. While this proved to be too much for the risk averse elements of my community, and thus Sandhill was ultimately not a good fit for him, we did not let that get in the way of enjoying each others' company.

Chad had a strong connection to family—both the one he was born into and the one he developed at Red Earth. One of my fondest memories is a time about 10-12 years back when Chad needed a last-minute ride to Iowa City, in order to rendezvous with a brother to drive to Michigan for a family health emergency. I volunteered to drive him, which meant a six-hour round trip starting at 10 pm and ending at 4 am. Uffda. While the drive home was brutal, it was worth it for the drive up—a rare chance for three hours of wide-ranging conversation with my neighbor. It was an uninterrupted chance to catch each other up on our disparate lives, which intersected in our deep connection to sustainable living.

There weren't that many of those long conversations, but the ones we had were precious.

I'll miss him.

Zeus (Nov 17)
Zeus was my son Ceilee's faithful dog, and a canine I bonded with inordinately. Ceilee carefully selected him from a litter after being impressed by the even temperament of his father, who lived next to him in Columbia MO. That was back in 2006.

Zeus was a pit bull/boxer mix, and Ceilee put in the hours to train him as a puppy—an investment that paid off in 12 years of faithful behavior.

Special memories:
o  I recall visiting Ceilee at his house in Columbia one morning. I'd arrived before he'd gotten up, and when he opened his bedroom door, Zeus boiled out and raced down the hall to where I was standing. I had just enough time to brace my footing before 60 lbs of enthusiastic puppy barreled into me and started licking my face. Good morning!

o  When Ceilee and Tosca moved to Las Vegas in 2007, they first lived in an apartment, and there were slobber marks all along the street-facing window in back of the couch in the living room, because Zeus would sit there all day, patiently watching to see when "Daddy" would come home.

o  Early in their tenure in Las Vegas, Ceilee and Tosca took Zeus with them on a visit to Tosca's grandparents (Juanita and Bob), for a party they were hosting at their well-appointed home in Henderson (a Vegas suburb). As the weather outside was hard on Zeus, Ceilee asked if the dog could sit quietly on the welcome mat inside the door, in the same room with the party. Juanita was skeptical about how that was going to work out but gave it a chance. When Zeus sat patiently for 60 minutes without moving—because Ceilee had not released him—Juanita went up to Ceilee and told him Zeus was welcome in her house any time. She'd never seen a dog with that degree of self-control.

o  One day Ceilee and Zeus visited Sandhill and we were eating lunch on the front porch. Ceilee gave Zeus a cow thigh bone to chew on while we ate. At the end of the meal we discovered that Zeus had systematically devoured the entire bone, even as we humans demolished our sandwiches. When I contemplated the power in his jaw muscles to accomplish that it occurred to me how easily Zeus could take off someone's finger—which he never did. He was always in control, and had an incredibly soft mouth. When children poked his face, he just backed away. He was never aggressive. I'm not sure I know any humans with that degree of self control.

For the last dozen years it had been a special ritual for me to greet Zeus as the first thing whenever I visited Ceilee, and we spent untold hours huddled together on the couch awaiting Ceilee's return at the end of his work day.

My life is a little emptier without Zeus, and his unconditional love.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Where the Rain Falls in Spain

Susan and I are now back from our Iberian adventure, and it seems appropriate to post a postmortem on our trip...

Having Fun Weather or Not
It's the start of the rainy season in Spain (hence the lower prices on accommodations), and that meant we were glad we brought raincoats—the very last thing we crammed into our suitcases. In eight days we donned them thrice, mostly in Madrid, which, as George Bernard Shaw (via the voice of Henry Higgins) has already informed us is susceptible to being located on the plain. Though to be fair, we also caught some raindrops in Barcelona, which is a port and in no way a plain city.

American Incursions 
As you may recall from my previous post, our tour was focused on four cities: Madrid, Toledo, Valencia, and Barcelona. Wherever we went, North American chain restauranteurs had gotten there before us. It was somewhat jarring and dismaying to see billboards for these establishments liberally sprinkled along the highways, followed by the storefronts themselves shoehorned into historical districts and close by ancient churches and other architectural splendors. Sigh. You can run but you can't hide from American enterprise. Though we never patronized any of these shops (I'd have to wear a paper bag over my head), we had our choice of:
Dunkin' Donuts
Steak and Shake
TGI Fridays
Burger King
Tony Roma's
Tim Horton's

Bed and Breakfast
It's is apparently normal in Spain for a complimentary breakfast to be included in hotel accommodations. Because Susan and I had bought a Gate 1 t our package covering the first six days, breakfast was always in the hotel the next day, where there was an ample buffet spread for all guests. While the fresh squeezed orange juice was to die for, and the spread of options was always impressive, it turned out, ironically, that our favorite breakfast was the simple one we enjoyed our last full day in Barcelona, eating in a patisserie around the corner from our Airbnb digs at the end of our trip. Going native we enjoyed:
two cafe con leche
two fresh croissants (the best we'd had in years)
two shots of complimentary fresh squeezed tart orange juice
a bowl of creamy yogurt with granola and fresh fruit

More on Meals 
While Spain is the land of tapas and we were pumped up about the food we'd experience, I was mostly disappointed that it wasn't better. The one standout exception to that generalization was the paella, which was terrific both times I had it (and I think I can prepare it myself now—the key is cooking the rice al dente, a la pasta).

Paella is always made fresh and you must allow 20-25 minutes for that if ordered in a restaurant. While most of us know this as a saffron-infused seafood dish, the traditional recipe is made with rabbit and/or chicken, and there is considerable latitude on what vegetables you include. Some use none. In Valencia (home base for this dish) we enjoyed a version with broad beans, lima beans, and artichoke hearts. It was eye opening for me that you cook a delicious rice medley without onions. Who knew?

While Spaniards tend to eat late (typically lunch starts at 2:30; dinner at 9:30 pm) it was never a problem finding restaurants open. This was good because we walked a lot (often three miles or more daily) and worked up an appetite after digesting our sumptuous breakfasts. It was amusing to realize that I was getting more exercise in Spain than in Duluth, yet satisfying to see that I was able to keep up the pace, which included a fair amount of up and down at churches and on the hilly streets of Toledo.
The Last Supper
We enjoyed this with our new best friends, Libby and Dan, fellow tour group members from Berkeley, who, like Susan and me, lingered for two extra days in Barcelona. We took the advice of our Airbnb hosts to eat at a local place only a five-minute walk from where we were staying.

Though we were way early for dinner at 6 pm (we had the place more or less to ourselves at that hour), there was a good side to that. Our waitress was not busy and took the time to chat with us. When I ordered a Negroni for a before dinner cocktail, it was obvious she'd never heard of it, but she was game. I explained that it was equal parts of Campari, gin, and sweet vermouth (rioja in the vernacular). She memorized that and went back to the bar. Five minutes later she came back with three bottles, just to make sure she had the rights ones (she did), and let me pour the drink. While it was garnished with a lemon wedge instead of an orange peel or maraschino cherry, it was still one of the best Negroni I'd ever had. We were off to a great start.

The entrées were fabulous as well, and we even had room to share a creme brûlée to top it off. A satisfying last supper. By then it was after 8 pm and the restaurant was starting to fill. It was time for us to head back to our rooms to pack for early morning departures.
General Observations
—Spain was clean. The streets, the sidewalks, the sites—even the subways. Why can't we achieve public sanitation like that in the US?

—Public smoking is still part of the culture here, though markedly less so than it was 11 years ago, the last time I was in Europe. Some restaurants have banned smoking inside; some haven't. So if that matters, you have to pay attention. The good news is that nonsmokers now have more options.

—No one in our tour group (or 40) had their pockets picked, despite multiple warnings that it was a possibility, especially in Barcelona. Maybe everyone was simply too diligent, or maybe there is an off-season for pickpockets as well. Anyway, that was one travel complication that thankfully didn't materialize (knock on wood).

—Being tourists, we naturally visited many tourist attractions, and everywhere we went the people (including Susan and me) sorted into more or less equal numbers of those who interacted solely with their eyes (that would be me) and those who interacted largely through their phones (where it as one photo op after another), which category Susan was in. I don't know that one is any more legitimate than the other, but they're different.

—Everywhere we went locals spoke better English than we spoke Spanish. Of course, we were only in cities or tourist-oriented places, where there was bound to be a steady flow of Americans and Brits. Yet it was sobering to speculate on how much trouble a Spanish-speaking person might encounter as a tourist in the US if they were weak in English—even though there are more Spanish speaking people in the world than English speaking. Money talks.
Other Random Highlights 
• Our tour guide's overview of the complex history of Toledo and his concise presentation of art interpreation during a two-hour guided tour of the Prado Museum in Madrid.

• Learning the secrets of cooking paellla in Valencia.

• Getting the hang of the Barcelona subway system.

• Experiencing Gaudi's incredible masterpiece: the Sagrada Familia, an architectural tour de force that has to be seen to be believed. And you must go inside. As amazing as the outside is, it gives no hint to what you'll experience inside. This is organic architecture at its finest and on a scale that is hard to fathom.

Gaudi spent the last 43 years of his life working on this church before he was killed in a tram accident in 1926. Still under construction, they are hoping to complete the project by 2026, for the centennial of his death. Here is a photo view of one of the four facades, taken last year: