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.