Monday, November 8, 2021

Losses Along the Way

As a process consultant for 34 years (the entire lifetime of my daughter Jo incidentally), I've accumulated a number of scars, and I lay in bed this morning going over some of those experiences…

While there are occasional times when groups engage me in order to learn how to stay out of the ditch, mostly I get called in because they are in the ditch. To be sure, the severity can vary widely, all the way from two wheels sliding down a grassy gradient, to a broken axle on a shaky bridge over boiling rapids. All of which is to say, I'm often trying to help groups extricate themselves from tough dynamics. It goes with the territory.

It's my job to speak truth to what I see, and that doesn't always go down well. Perhaps because my analysis is faulty, perhaps because I deliver the news clumsily, and some of the time because people simply don't want to hear it.

This morning I was brooding about the last of these. About people who started out being happy to see me, and now want nothing to do with me. In general, this has happened when I tried to hold them accountable for doing or proposing to do something that was harmful to the group and they weren't having any. It was more palatable for them that I was mistaken, and their actions were justified (I was on a crusade and they were a victim of my overzealousness).

To frame this properly, most of the time my observations and interventions go well and are helpful to all concerned. I work hard at calibrating what I ask of folks to what I think they can handle, and I like to think I've gotten better at that over time. But I still lose people, and it doesn't feel good. Even when I reflect on what happened and believe my analysis was correct, it still hurts to lose relationship.

The hardest ones are when I had an established connection with the person and then lost it. Let me describe three (with identities obscured):


More than 20 years ago I met Dale at an FIC community event, and it started a friendship. While we never lived near each other, our paths crossed a number of times over the years in the context of community, and we had a warm connection.

At a certain point it happened that I was conducting a facilitation training session hosted by a group where Dale was living, and she joined the class for that weekend. All was well and good until the students facilitated a meeting for the community (a regular feature of training weekends) and something came up in the course of the meeting that Dale (acting as a member of the community) voiced an objection to. When the student facilitator was unsure how to handle that moment I stepped in (as the trainer) to ask Dale what her concern was and she demurred—she didn't want to talk about it. I pushed a bit, explaining that her right to object was tied at the hip to a responsibility to explain her objection and to make a good faith effort to explore its resolution. Dale felt bullied by me and refused to speak—she didn't want to be in the spotlight and was determined in her resistance.

Though the moment was awkward, we moved on. Afterwards, in the meeting debrief (also a regular part of the training) I tried to unpack that dynamic. Unfortunately, Dale wanted no part of that either, walked out of the meeting, and sent me a note the next day informing me that she would not be continuing with the class. As an experienced communitarian and someone who considered herself a skilled communicator, she had never been held to the standard of meeting behavior I was insisting on, and didn't like being held accountable. Her response was exit, and I have not heard from her since. I was voted off her island.


For a number of years Adrian had been an avid follower of my blog, and was excited by the chance for his community to host a facilitation training weekend. Adrian was a founding member of his community and had been struggling for years with tensions with other members.

Knowing that there were strained dynamics, I arrived for the training early and spent time listening to a number of members about how they saw things. After more than a dozen interviews a picture started to emerge: everyone acknowledged Adrian's dedication and good intent, but it was almost impossible to work anything out with him. He had his views about the "right" way to do things and nothing would dissuade him. Eventually people with differing views would be worn down by Adrian's obstinacy and give up. Almost no one was willing to serve on committees with Adrian any more.

I took this information to Adrian directly (we spent about six hours 1:1 over the course of my visit, as I labored to get him to see how he was inadvertently killing the community by insisting on everything going their way). I tried to make the case that you cannot successfully build community by sacrificing relationships on the altar of your principles.  

Adrian had been hoping that I would support his efforts because he was so well intentioned. While I did like his principles, that wasn't the problem; it was the unyielding way that Adrian pursued them, tolerating no interpretation other than his own. To be clear, Adrian wasn't mean or petty—just adamant. It was Adrian's way or the highway. Some got discouraged and left; others hunkered down to await developments.

Adrian resisted my analysis and advice, but there were few people interested in creating community with someone who never seems to value opinions that differ from their own. In the end I told Adrian that I thought the community was better off without him unless he could start working more respectfully with others' input.

We parted in sadness. Adrian stopped subscribing to my blog and we have had no contact since.


A number of years ago I was hired to work with a community where there had been a major flare up between one member (Chris) and a number of others. Chris was a passionate woman who expressed in no uncertain terms her displeasure with how she had been treated unfairly by others. As is often the case, there were two parts to the dynamic: a) the incidents themselves; and b) the community's lack of agreement about how to work with strong feelings—or even whether to attempt it.

After taking time to listen to all the key parties to get their version of what had happened and how they were seeing it, the pivotal moment of my work with the group occurred when I was able to get Chris and another member to work with me (in plenary) in a dyad, unpacking a difficult incident. This led to a breakthrough, and everyone was pleased with the outcome, including Chris.

Months later, new tensions arose with Chris, and again I was hired to help. By the time I got on the scene, a couple of members were poised to drop Chris from a team where her participation had been problematic. When I found out about this move, I urged the two to slow down—both because the community had not defined the conditions under which someone might lose their seat on a team, nor had it defined the process by which such a step would be considered. In particular, I thought the group would be better off making clear to Chris what behaviors of hers were problematic, and giving Chris an opportunity to make adjustments before abruptly terminating her team membership.

While the two were congratulating themselves for being decisive: I was worried they were acting precipitously. Meanwhile, Chris was on the warpath when she learned that a coup to oust her from the team was underway and outraged that I didn't immediately put a stop to it (as if I had that power). I tried to explain that I did all that I thought possible given how far things had advanced before I was made aware of them, but Chris would have none of it. Either I joined her in burning the would-be ousters at the stake, or I was also the enemy and couldn't be trusted.

Though I labored with Chris for many hours (in an effort to make clear that burning people at the stake may feel good in the moment but is rarely therapeutic), in the end she wrote me off and I am no longer welcome back at that community.

• • •

When I conduct facilitation trainings I make it a point to tell students that facilitating offers a great opportunity to serve—but if you need to be liked all the time, it's not a great choice.


Carolina said...

This is a wonderful post. It is hard to come into a community into distress. Being human and a mediator is tough. The communities and individuals need to know it is just the first step but the have to do the hard work to have the relationships versus the altar of principles or whatever else is going on. I appreciate your honesty but every community does have one or more people who make waves so focusing more on behaviors than individuals may help - and how others won't get worn down but find a way to focus on what is best for the community. Maybe I'm being an idealist though!

Anonymous said...

It seems like you are trying to contribute to people and some appreciate your work. In reading this blog I see a lack of trauma and power dynamics awareness and it looks Ike you have caused harm due to that. It sounds like you are trying to make yourself feel better or get others to side with you. In all of your examples I see you making things up about other people some of whom sound like they are not feeling emotionally safe and you aren't getting it so you do things that make them feel less safe including in group situations. So much so that they stop interacting with you. I think even posting this is going to have an impact on some despite your attempt to obscure identities. Some will know who you are talking about. That is a harmful use of power in my view. Instead of being curious about your actions and what you aren't seeing you write in a fashion that comes off as knowing more than others and ultimately lacks compassion and self awareness to me. Your conclusions are the same. I don't know you or these people. But in reading this I feel sad for those you have written about in ways that are most likely not how they would describe themselves, their intents or their actions. I also feel sad for those you have had this attitude with in groups. I think you need to check your privilege and power.