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.