Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Happy 50th Sandhill Farm!

Today I'm offering a kaleidoscope of memories from my first five years at Sandhill Farm, on the occasion of its Golden Anniversary.

Exactly 50 years ago today, Ann Shrader and I arrived at the 63-acre property two miles west of Rutledge MO (that we had just purchased two weeks prior for the grand price of $13,500) that would be the start of Sandhill Farm. We rendezvoused there with fellow pioneers, Ed Pultz and Wendy Soderlund, who had driven up from their home in Memphis TN to live near Memphis MO (our county seat).

Both red and white spirea were in full bloom, framing the outside of the modest white clapboard, one-bedroom house that the two couples took turns occupying (while the other lived in a tent) until we completed a 16'x30' renovation on the south side that added two bedrooms and expanded the bathroom. Probably its most distinctive feature was the checkerboard pink & black linoleum tiles on the kitchen floor. (Hard to believe that could ever have been in fashion—excepting, perhaps, at a Good & Plenty factory.)

We were full of enthusiasm for our experiment in community living—which was a good thing, given the bottomless pit of our naiveté. As we had arrived just after the frost free date for northern MO, one of our first acts was getting the garden planted. I still recall Ann's and my excitement at seeing the first shoot emerge from our carefully planted rows of vegetable seeds, only to discover later that it was milkweed, not sweet corn. Talk about a rookie error.

While the house stood on the highest point of the property (in the southwest corner), there was a house located directly to our south that was higher still—the home of Edna & Earnest Childers. They were in their 80s and the only remaining residents of Sandhill after Charlie Gilmer died in 1972. Charlie was the last person to have have lived in our house, which we negotiated the purchase of from his surviving son and daughter-in-law, Bob & Lilian.

It's noteworthy that Earnest, our neighbor, was born in that house and had lived there his entire life. Amazingly, he was already two years old when the Santa Fe Railroad laid tracks nearby, in the late 1880s. The town of Rutledge sprang up at that point, as a service stop along the route from Chicago to Kansas City. Though Edna & Earnest both passed away a few years after we arrived, Sandhill has been continuously occupied since the 1850s. (Before that, we understand it was a seasonal camping spot for indigenous Native Americans.) In the years prior to the Show Me State being fully platted and the current county lines defined, Sandhill was something of a regional center, and the location from where a frontier circuit judge would periodically dispense justice in our corner of the state.

While Ann focused on gardening (something she still does today), Ed took charge of overseeing the house extension, working closely with Wendy's father, an experienced builder/architect. I bought a copy of H. P. Richter's Wiring Simplified (for $0.87) from the local Ace Hardware store and became the community's electrician—while we were doing the house extension, we rewired everything (switching from fuses to circuit breakers) and reroofed the entire house. Laying concrete blocks for the extension's foundation was my first foray into cementitious work, which also became a community niche for me. (Over the years I learned to do concrete work, as well as lay block, brick, tile, and tuck pointing—all flowing from that first summer.)

In the early years we tried all manner of homestead things, substituting labor for dollars. Example: raking leaves in the fall from the Childers' massive white oaks (that were sprouts before the arrival of white settlers) and then packing them into circular bins we fashioned from scrap woven wire fencing. After a couple years of rain and snow we had our own leaf mold, for use as a garden soil amendment.

Our first dog was Rochester, a medium-sized stray that showed up unannounced one day and never left. He was with us for nine years and was the only dog in my life that was closer to me than any other human. Our first cat was another stray, Seymour, an orange tabby. I took it as a good omen (for a cooperative community) that the two of them got along famously. Both were outdoor pets and they would huddle together for warmth on an old blanket inside a plywood kennel on the front porch during the winter months. 

Early on we acquired a Jersey milk cow, Rebecca. While we didn't get gobs of milk, it was high in butterfat and we were self-sufficient in butter in those days. (Cream is most readily churned to butter at 62 degrees, and I did it often enough that I could tell by feel when the gallon we had taken out of the fridge had warmed to the right temp.) 

Milking time was one of the highlights of the day for both Seymour and Rochester. Seymour would follow the milker down to the barn, where he could depend on getting some squirts of fresh milk for his trouble. While the distance from house to barn was only about 50 yards, as soon as Seymour headed down there, Rochester would make a game of overtaking the cat and putting his entire head in his mouth. Seymour would patiently wait until Rochester released him and then would travel several more yards until Rochester did it again. By the time Seymour made it to the barn, his head would be covered in dog slobber.

While the cost of living in our area was low (hence the bargain land prices), so were the opportunities for employment, and we scrambled to figure out a way to make ends meet. At one time or another, in the early years all of us took jobs off the farm. Some taught, some worked for the extension service, some did work for neighbors. As I recall, that first summer Ed drove a tractor for a neighbor, earning the not-so-handsome wage of $60 for a 40-hour week. After that we never worked for less than $2/hour (hard bargainers that we were).

For most of its existence, Sandhill's signature product was organic sorghum, a traditional sweetener in the Midwest and South. The seed for that was planted when Ann & I stopped by the homestead of Joe Pearl & Eva Grover (a mile or two south of Memphis) to buy some sorghum during the fall of 1975. We stayed long enough to watch it being made and were fascinated by the process. They were in their 70s and it was obvious the work was tiring for them. We offered to help, and before we knew it we were back every day, lending a hand. They would only make about 7 gallons a day, yet it impressed us that every drop was sold about as fast as it was made.

Thinking that this might be a specialty product for Sandhill, we planted some cane the next year and traded our labor in 1976 for the use of the Grover's equipment to process it. That went well enough that we took it another step in 1977 and had stainless steel cooking pans made for us at a metal fabrication shop in Quincy IL. We bought a sorghum mill to do our own pressing, and had labels made announcing the availability of Sandhill Sorghum. While we were somewhat concerned about being in competition with the Grovers (we didn't want to bite that hand), it happened that Joe Pearl had a stroke in 1977 and they never made sorghum again, and thus we became the sole sorghum producers in Scotland County. For a period of more than 40 years, sorghum was the flagship product of the community's agricultural portfolio.

Community was a tenuous concept the first five years, as Ann & I struggled to get beyond being one couple living with others who tried it out for a year or two and then moved on. Following Ed & Wendy, there was Pamela Johnston & Michael Almon. Then we had Jesse Evans, Lin McGee, and Linda Joseph (all from Texas, for some reason). It was something of a revolving door in the early years. After five years, it was down to just three of us: Ann, Tim Jost, and me.

Our breakthrough in stability came circa 1979, when Stan Hildebrand, Grady Holley, and Thea Page arrived. Over the ensuing five years the only change in personnel was Clarissa Gyorgy (who came to us from Twin Oaks in Virginia) while Thea moved to Twin Oaks, along with her 2-year old daughter, Shining. After that we were never fewer than 5, and it felt like we'd crossed the line into being a stable intentional community. Whew.

While losing members was always hard, those early years are largely happy memories, and I look back with amazement at what we were able to accomplish with sufficient pluck and luck.


Thursday, February 15, 2024

Trusting Your Gut as a Facilitator

For the last two decades, the most complex and fun thing I do on a regular basis is train facilitators for working in cooperative culture.

Fundamental to my approach is teaching the necessity (and skill set) needed to work both rationally (with ideas) and emotionally (with energy). That said, humans are a good deal more complex than just those two components, and I want to focus today on working intuitively—knowing when to do something because it feels right, whether you can explain it or not.

To be fair, for most people this is not accessible when they first learn to facilitate, because they don't yet have sufficient body knowing in the role of facilitator to access subconscious inspirations, or sufficient grounding to trust such inspirations.

But you can get there, and I think I do some of my best work when I allow my gut to enter into an internal dialog with my head and heart about what to do. This shows up in a couple ways.

Planning

About 15 months ago I did 10 days of work in person with a longstanding group that was deeply divided over who they were now that the kids had grown up and started questioning the course that had been laid out by their elders. They were stuck and wanted outside facilitation to guide them through an attempt to figure out whether there was any hope of reconciliation or whether it was time to seek an amicable divorce.

The personal strain among members was so bad that there had been moments of near physical violence, which is not something I commonly encounter. Working with a dear friend and fellow facilitator, Sarah Ross, we were given a small suite of rooms in the basement of the common house, where we could meet with individuals when they wanted to confer with us, and where we could discuss between us what was happening in the group and how best to proceed. 

Each night Sarah and I would talk over where we were, and where we might go next, and I'd go to bed with an open mind about how to start the next day. By placing that question in the center of my attention as my last conscious thought, my subconscious would chew on it overnight, and every morning I awoke with clarity about how to proceed. I did this every day for nine days, and came to trust it.

While I love working this way, it's quite rare to get the chance to be with a group for that long a stretch. More commonly, the longest I have is from Friday evening until Sunday afternoon, which means only two overnights.

In the moment

In addition to dreaming into the future (described above), there is a more immediate version of intuition playing a key role in my facilitation. Often enough, someone will tell a story about how something has gone wrong for them, or they're afraid that it will, and I have learned in those moments to try to let myself feel into their reality and imagine what that might be like—to get what they're describing viscerally, not just rationally. For a few minutes, I try to be in their skin, and reflect back what I imagine them to have experienced, with explicit attention to the emotions.

When I get this right (practice helps), it builds a bridge to that person, who might otherwise feel isolated and is likely to not trust that they have been accurately heard or held. They are able to exhale, and they become more available to hear what others are saying. This step both deepens the conversation (legitimizing emotional experiences and impact) and deescalates tension—both of which can be highly beneficial. To be clear, I am not "taking their side"; I am becoming them, temporarily—a facility I make available to others in the room as well.

Sometimes new facilitators report that they are too empathic, by which they mean they can get so entangled in another's story that they lose track of who and where they are. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, I don't have that problem. I know what I'm doing when I try on another's footwear. While I may or may not do a good job of reading the other's reality, I never lose sight of why I'm doing it, or who I am. I never worry about losing track of what's me, and what's astral projection. 

Taken another step, once you have a bead on an outlier's reality, you have invaluable clues about how to build a bridge to them when it comes to problem solving.

Monday, January 29, 2024

Getting in Touch with me Directly

A reader just posted this Comment on my blog:

Is there a good email or preferred way to reach you directly?

laird@ic.org

Sunday, January 28, 2024

The Art of the Report

Early in my 35-year career as a group dynamics professional, I became aware that most people only digest and retain about 20% of what happens when I work with them. Ugh.

I believe there are many reasons for this:

—There's typically a lot going on, and it's easy to drop stitches. 

—The tendency to be so self-absorbed (how does this impact me?) that they miss the bigger picture. 

—A lot of folks aren't that good at listening. 

—Being too embarrassed to admit when you're confused, and thus failing to ask questions to better understand. 

—Not being open to new ideas (because you're so invested in the old ones—even when they're demonstrably not working).

As a consequence of this insight, I developed the habit of writing an after action report, in which I carefully go over what happened while I was with them, plus what I observed and what I recommend going forward. Even though there is often little that's new in these reports (from what the group was given orally while I was with them), a good report can significantly enhance what the group can make use of.

OK, so what constitutes a "good report"? Good question.

While not a court transcript, it should, I believe, cover the flow and sequence of the conversation, and succinctly identify the themes, conclusions, and next steps that emerge from each segment of the work. It should incorporate reflections about the energy in the room, not just the ideas. It should also capture unfinished business which either surfaced tangentially, or for which there wasn't time to address.

Writing a thorough report takes me about as much time as the meeting itself. Why so long? Partly because many people won't read a longer report and it can take me a while to boil down my comments to what I consider essential. (There is a quote attributable to Mark Twain that applies here: I apologize for such a long letter—I didn't have time to write a short one.)

In my experience, concision—making one's point clearly, yet with an economy of words—is often the last skill learned among speakers and writers.

All of that said, there are a few other things I try to include in group reports:

• Any insights into the dynamics of that particular group that went unnamed while I was present. This may mean looking more deeply into what I noticed happening, or illuminating the awkward interplay of multiple activities that are not in and of themselves problematic.

• An analysis of why certain practices can lead to deleterious consequences, and offering specific advice about how to accomplish the same result with a different approach that's less freighted with danger.

• When offering critical feedback I try hard to be specific and direct (notice when X said this and Y responded in this way, leading to this misunderstanding or that degree of reactivity).

• When groups are doing well, I make an effort to celebrate their strengths as well as the ways in which they might improve. (All sulphur and no molasses makes for a mean diet.)

The Essential Ingredients to Excellent Reportage

1. Careful observation. Hidden in this criterion is the need for a large degree of free attention, so that you don't miss subtleties.

2. Good notes (don't expect to hold everything in your head).

3. The capacity to shift perspectives and see what's happening through the eyes of the various players. Actual evil, by which I mean intentional mischief or harm, is much rarer than is supposed—in general, people intend well, and it's your job as reporter to frame your comments in such a way that good intentions are honored, while not neglecting to illuminate concerns. It's an art.

3. The ability to write clearly (which, sadly, is less common than one would hope). 

4. Timeliness (I have a personal standard of trying to complete reports within two weeks of finishing an in-person stint).

While not rocket science, neither is good reportage accidental. It's a discipline, and well worth cultivating if you want to be effective in the world.

A final word: please don't let my laundry list of how to author good reports overwhelm you from trying (since I can't imagine ever getting that good, why try?). Any reporting can be worthwhile, so long is it's an accurate reflection of what you observed, and delivered in a compassionate and even-handed voice.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

The Dynamics When Someone Gets Upset and Walks Out of a Meeting

Working with a group of nascent facilitators last month, the question came up: What do you do when someone leaves a unfinished meeting in distress, triggered by something that happened inthe room (not because they suddenly remembered they have to pick up their kid from cello practice)?

While it's not something you want to have happen, most of us have experienced it—especially if you've been living in intentional community for any length of time, and it feels yucky. It feels like a failure.  

[One of my mentors, Caroline Estes, use to say that if you're not thinking about leaving the group at least once every three months, you're either ducking the hard stuff, or you're not paying attention. The idea is that reactivity is to be expected when you engage on issues that matter and about which people disagree, and this may cause you to be fed up with people's stubbornness (attachment to getting their way), or it may cause you to question whether you are in the right group.]

In any event, I want to tackle this apple in three bites:

Bite I: Missing or Ignoring the Signs

Version A: If someone goes from placid to postal in a matter of seconds, it almost certainly indicates that they came into the meeting already amped up about an unresolved dynamic, which or may not be related to the topic at hand (sometimes the tension is with an individual or with a committee, and just hearing them speak sets the person off). Or it may be that they have built-up frustration with how the group has handled the topic under discussion and they are now on a hair trigger. In any event, it's rare that no one is aware that this person (let's call them Person D) is churning about something. 

Version B: In this scenario, the reactivity builds over the course of the meeting until it boils over, and Person D leaves, usually in anger or in tears. Their circuits are overloaded, they are unable to take in any more information, and they may be afraid they'll say or do something from frustration that they'll regret later. Having no confidence in the group's willingness or ability to work with their upset, they depart the scene.

In both versions, I'm wondering about the group's commitment to working emotionally, or its ability to do so effectively. To be sure, this is not a minor deal—agreeing to work with emotions—nor is it a trivial skill to do with sensitivity and neutrality, yet I believe both elements are essential to creating high-functioning cooperative groups. And really, do we have a choice? People are not just thinking animals, we are feeling animals as well. It's a package deal. 

While some in the group are likely to be more emotionally (or relationally) oriented, while others are more rationally (or idea) oriented, it goes with the territory that both will be present whenever groups gather, and I've come to the view that it works much better if you acknowledge that, and learn to work both sides of the street—instead of holding onto the ridiculous notion that feelings have no place in meetings (which comes directly from a mainstream culture that tries to do just that, and pays an enormous price in terms of alienation, and dissipated energy)—as if using only one of your tools is better than using more of them.

(Please understand that I am not saying that strong feelings are in play with every topic, yet neither will they be rare.)

When there is no agreement to engage emotionally, people learn to try to quash their feelings (rather than suffer the group's disapproval over their "loss of control") or to not speak up when they notice that others seem to be struggling (due to lack of agency). Not only do you lose the attention of the person in distress, but those noticing the person going into distress will be distracted by their rising reactivity, wondering what it means, and whether there might be an eruption. Very distracting, and very messy.

For information about how effective emotional engagement might look, reference these blog entries:

Questions About Working with Emotions in Group

Key Facilitation Skills: Working Constructively with Emotions

Bite II: OK, So We Didn't Catch it Before it Happened—Now What?

Regardless of what opportunities to work with the tensions were missed before person D walks (or storms) out of the meeting, what are your options once they have?

It's been my experience that people in high distress generally feel isolated and don't trust that they have been understood, or even that others want to know what's going on for them. With that in mind, I believe that the first step in compassionate deescalation is to reach out to the disaffected person in an attempt to show them you care—both about them and their views.

How do you do that? By inviting Person D to tell you what happened for them, expressly including the feelings, and what the meaning is for them of their reaction. If some of that has already happened (perhaps before the walkout), then the person engaging with Person D can start with an attempted reflection of both their views and their feelings, staying with it until Person D reports that they feel heard. This should always be deescalating—because you are contradicting the isolation, and everyone likes to be understood and cared about.

Note that I am not saying you need to agree with them. Nor should you promise that Person D will get their way or have their views weighted more seriously by virtue of having gotten upset.

If you are facilitating alone, and there is no one suitable or willing to be the group's ambassador to Person D, you must decide whether to postpone reaching out to them until after the meeting, or call a break during which you attempt this in the moment. This can be a tough call.

If you decide to do it afterwards, you can handle this yourself. Be aware though, that in staying with the meeting, that it may well make more sense to suspend what you had been doing right before the walkout to hear people's reactions to Person D's departure, and perhaps what led up to it. In serious cases, this could be the remainder of the meeting. What's more, you should be prepared to offer Persom D a summary of what was said about them after they left the meeting.

If you decide Person D's departure is better addressed immediately, you have a number of options, including:

• If you are team facilitating, one of your number can seek out Person D while others continue the meeting.

• If that's not available, you might ask someone from your Conflict Resolution Team to step up—if such exists.

• Finally, you might ask for a volunteer to do so (while the meeting continues under your facilitation), if you think there are people in the group who have a sense of how to do this with compassion and sensitivity.

Bite III. Impact on the Group

—If you don't engage with Person D's emotions

In my view, attempting to pick up the meeting again at the point of interruption, and acting as if the eruption didn't happen, is a highly questionable choice. Not only will it be hard to do (at the very least, people will need a moment or two to stand and shake out the adrenaline), but some will almost certainly have their attention on processing what happened, rather than on the meeting agenda, which will significantly complicate doing good work.

By "engaging with Person D's emotions" I do not mean judging them for being upset, or even for walking out. I mean sharing reactions to what happened, what people understood about Person D's experience, and how the group might have handled it better.

—If you attempt to engage with Person D's feelings but they jump ship anyway

Even if you are persuaded by my argument for trying to understand what's going on for someone when they're triggered, there's no guarantee that the attempt will succeed in reestablishing a connection. Person D may remain upset, and leave the room in frustration. In fact, done poorly, you may make things worse. Which is undoubtedly why it's so popular to not attempt it. 

Going the other way, however, there's opportunity for making things much better. Knowing that, I encourage all facilitators to try to develop their capacity to work with feelings (as well as ideas), and to live in the place of hope, possibility, and courage.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Why I Never Say "Compromise" When Facilitating

As a consensus facilitator, I am constantly trying to make it easier for everyone to contribute what they have that's relevant to the conversation. Then I do what I can to establish how those contributions are rooted in a reasonable interpretation of group values (and therefore worthy of taking into account), as distinct from personal preferences. 

About this time, I generally point out that the right to offer one's views and have them be taken seriously is tied at the hip to the responsibility to treat respectfully the views that differ from theirs and have been similarly vetted.

Absent this framing, it's relatively common for groups to get bogged down with people who are inspired to defend their viewpoints because they are tied to common values—accusing those with disparate views of being selfish and not thinking of what's best for the group. In short, such folks believe they are holding the high moral ground and defending the group against self-centered marauders. 

But let's break this down. suppose one segment of the group favors installing solar panels on the roof of the common house. While there is an initial capital outlay, it will repay itself over time in lower utility bills and is in line with the group's commitment to being environmentally responsible (which we'll refer to as common value E, for ecological impact). What's not to like? 

Now let's imagine there is another segment of the group that objects to this action, because HOA dues will go up (at least temporarily) to fund this project and they are hanging on by their fingernails to meet current HOA dues. They are afraid of being priced out. Their concern is grounded in the group's commitment to being affordable (which we'll cleverly label value A). They feel solid in raising their concerns about the solar panels.

The key to keeping the conversation away from tug-of-war energy (which is rarely productive and feels yucky) is laying out that being concerned with common value A is not tantamount with being anti-environmental. Just as being promotional of value E does not mean you're oblivious to concerns about affordability.

While I'm not saying people are never selfish, mostly they're reasonable and the thing I need to do in a situation like the above is to establish that no one is holding the high morale ground (so please check your righteousness at the door). The challenge is figuring out how to balance these two values in this situation. Who has ideas about how to fund the solar panels without pricing residents out of the community?

What I don't suggest is a compromise, which might look something like "Lets' buy half the solar panels now so the strain on budgets is more tolerable, and look at buying the other half later." I do not favor cutting the baby in half. Instead I work hard to get the group to see that no one is in the wrong place or saying anything inappropriate. You are on the same team. Who has ideas about how to move forward in such a way that both sides' concerns are addressed?

Examples of what this might look: a) borrowing money from the capital fund to finance the solar panels (with the understanding that the fund will be replenished with the money saved on utility bills; b) perhaps one or more members with deep pockets would be willing to front the purchase price of the solar panels, to be repaid by savings from utility bills; or c) maybe the group could do a series of fundraising event to generate the money needed for the panels, so that they can be a model for the neighborhood.

Do you see how all of these potential solutions respect both core values in play, and do not call for anyone to compromise their principles?

While I believe that the good intention behind asking people to compromise (or to accept that a proposed solution is "good enough for now") is to get everyone to recognize that we won't get out of a stalemate if no one moves, this framing has more than a whiff of least common denominator, and lukewarm energy. It's invites the group to settle for a "solution" that's equally painful to all parties, and generally lacks dynamism. 

The key to finding creative solutions—perhaps ones that no one had in mind at the start of the meeting—is holding the group in a space where they believe that synergy and magic are possible, and the group has learned to appreciate the breadth of differing viewpoints for its ability to broaden the foundation, rather than dreading their expression as a complication.

Yes, this is radical stuff. But way better than pressuring one another to compromise, or to try to carry the day through the dubious strategy of stating one's preference repeatedly in the vain hope that you'll wear down the opposition through persistence, perhaps accompanied by steadily increasing shrillness. Have you ever been in that meeting? They're exhausting, and strain the fabric of the community.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

What I Think I'm Good at as a Facilitator

Lately I've been wrestling with some health issues related to my dance with multiple myeloma, which brings into sharper focus my mortality. In consequence, I've been thinking a good deal the last month about how to wrap things up, how to hand off, and what I still want to say in this forum. Today's entry falls into this last bucket.

I've been a professional facilitator since 1987—about half my life. So what, after all these years, do I think I'm really good at as a facilitator of groups who desire inclusive outcomes? To be clear, I'm not talking about things I alone can do; just the things I can do consistently at a high level, and which I hope are both useful and aspirational.

In no particular order, here's my list—all of which are learnable: 

1. I'm fluent in the language of numbers

Math has always come easily for me, and it took quite a while to understand that that's relatively rare. That is, many people zone out when numbers enter the conversation. They may not understand which numbers are important, or how to display them to illuminate an issue. Most groups defer to those who claim facility with numbers and hope for the best. Thus, it's an advantage that I can wade into numbers and sort out what's happening in short order. 

While not every issue has a significant financial component, many do, and I can ride the waves.

2. I'm good in a storm 

By which I mean I don't lose my center in the midst of high reactivity. If anything, the moment slows down for me when people go into emotional distress. (For one thing, I don't have to guess what's going on; upset people are going to tell me.) The leverage point here is that I don't get tense when someone else gets tense. Emotional reactions are normal (part of the range of human response) and I've learned to treat them as data and energy, both of which can be highly beneficial—if you learn to see them that way and how to work with them constructively.

When groups do not have an understanding about working with emotions, or any agreement about how to do it, there tends to be considerable nervousness about how to proceed in the presence of high reactivity, accompanied by a strong vibe that expressing upset is immature and inappropriate (we were having a civil conversation until you erupted).

3. Pinning down details

While this tends to be a non-sexy mop-up phase of working an issue, I'm diligent about who will do what, by when, with what resources, in collaboration with whom, and with what expectations around reporting along the way. When implementation details are left unspecified, you often have to come back later. and clean up the ends you left loose. Inefficient.

4. Finding suitable homes for orphans and loose ends

It's not at all unusual for something to surface in the context of working an issue that is beyond what you agreed to address. While it may be appropriate to tackle at the group level, you may not have time to deal with it in the moment. Perhaps it's an expansion of the topic at hand, or maybe it's something tangential. In either case, I don't let the group go there—unless it makes an explicit decision to do so—and I'm good at seeing that such items are assigned a shepherd so that the topic comes back in an orderly way.

5. Adept at separating wheat from chaff (or signal from noise, choose your metaphor)

There is an art to sussing out which pieces of information or viewpoints are crucial to a consideration, or might become serviceable bridge planks connecting people who see an issue differently. Some of this is discarding repetitive or off-center statements; some of it is noticing when there is an energetic surge in the room when someone offers something potent.

This shows up in tight summaries, and the ability to highlight leverage points when a group struggles to find the balance point among strongly held differences. It is not necessary to include all input in a summary, so long as you include the key pieces, which helps participants feel heard and establishes forward momentum, from which workable solutions can be build.

6. Extracting all the product possible in the last 5 minutes of a consideration

This is a special application of the last point—understanding what's possible toward the end of the time allotted to work an issue. Often there is potential agreement that is in the air but not yet widely seen or made explicit—product that will dissipate if not identified and validated in the moment—product which will have to be reassembled later, brick by brick.

Many times this is partial product rather than final solutions, but it all counts and helps people feel good about having participated in the meeting.

7. Constantly shifting the lens through which I experience a meeting

This has at least three components: I'm tracking a) ideas, b) energy, and c) time. I am not doing these things simultaneously, but sequentially, over and over—without drawing the group's attention to where my focus is at any given moment.

The sum of these assessments helps me determine what is the best use of the group's time in the moment, and is constantly shifting. 

8. Ability to work fluently with both ideas and energy

As a subset of the previous point, I purposefully attempt to ride both horses whenever I facilitate, weighing such disparate factors as where is the conversation going, who haven't we heard from, do I detect tension or boredom in the group, is the group engaged or listless, which ideas seem to have landed mostly strongly, where is there resistance to the main thrust of the conversation, and what does it mean?

In particular, I have a facility for working with the non-rational, as well as the rational, which can be a significant aid in participants feeling that I am present for what they have to contribute, and will be an ally in their views being accurately understood.

9. My energetic range of engagement

While my default mode is up-tempo and high energy, I am able to slow down and soften my approach when I sense that shift is called for (say, when a person is in tears, or sharing something vulnerable with the group). I am much more effective as a facilitator when I'm able to bring my energy into alignment with that of the speaker, and that calls for range.

10. Understanding the myriad ways in which groups of people will necessarily contain considerable diversity, and the power of offering a variety of on-ramps into conversations

While most cooperative groups include a commitment to diversity among their common values, few have actually talked through what that means. For the most part they are thinking about not discriminating on the basis of factors protected by Fair Housing laws (ethnicity, race, religious preference, sexual orientation, gender, age, and the like). But diversity shows up in many more ways than that (for example, high structure/low structure, risk tolerant/risk averse, fast thinkers/slow thinkers, introverts/extroverts, people who love speaking in front of 30 people/those who are scared to death of public speaking).

When groups fail to understand that such diversity is present, they tend to default into operating in ways that are most comfortable to those with the strongest voices (or those who were there first), with the unintended consequence that others feel marginalized and unwelcome—which is rarely intentional, or helpful.

Aware of this dynamic (and the tendency for it being a blind spot) I'll conduct my work with a variety of formats, greatly increasing the likelihood that there will be something for everyone.

11. Information is concentrated in resistance

I try to be sensitive to signs of resistance in the group, as it almost always indicates a tender spot that needs to be understood in order to solve the issue at hand. Instead of being irritated by resistance, I get curious about it. What does the reaction mean relative to the topic? How does the reaction give me clues about how to build bridge to that person?

12. The potency of passionate neutrality

Many hold a model of the facilitator as someone who is dispassionate—who never loses their cool, and is always even-tempered. I'm not that guy. I figure if I'm going to ask meeting participants to show up with their whole selves, then I need to do so as well. This does not mean that I take sides (a facilitator non-no), but it does mean that I laugh, cheer, and express frustration. I'm human and I think it's a misstep to try to be an automaton. You need to be real.

13. Why and how to integrate heart work with head work in the same meeting

While there is increasing awareness among cooperative groups that room needs to be made for working emotionally, in many groups this translates to designating certain meetings as "heart circles" where reactions are explored but no decisions are made. 

While this is better than never making space for emotional sharing at all, it's my belief that people are complicated all the time and groups are better served by allowing the widest possible range of human input all the time (rather than insisting that it be translated into rational statements in order to be seriously considered). Yes, this is a challenge—but so is group living. Operating as if rational input is the only kind that's legitimate means cutting yourself off from emotional, intuitive, spiritual, and kinesthetic knowing. How smart is that? 

Over the course of my career as a facilitator I've learned when and how to offer ways to access these different kinds of knowing.

14. Can hit the curve

While it's always a good idea to have a clear plan for how to work an issue, sometimes, in the course of a meeting you encounter surprises. Now what? You have to be able to see that something unanticipated has occurred, assess its impact on your plan, and decide on the spot whether to continue with the path you'd laid out or start off-roading. This calls for courage, as the plan represents a safety net for some facilitators and they may be loath to give it up—even when it isn't working—because it's too scary to go off-script. 

15. Can see the bridge before others

Most of us have been raised in competitive culture, one consequence of which is a conditioned psychological imperative to be able to identify one's personal contribution in any given situation—as it satisfies the need to see how we are unique. Thus, we tend to look for differences before we look for similarities when responding to the ideas of others. 

Because I'm aware of this dynamic, I've worked hard to train myself to undo this conditioning, and to look for common ground before I look for ways in which ideas don't fit together well. As expectations have a profound impact on what you find, I tend to see solutions sooner than others, simply because that's what I'm looking for. 

16. Fearlessness

While there's no question but that I sometimes get things wrong (perhaps I frame a conversation poorly, struggle to connect accurately with an isolated speaker, or push someone beyond their capacity), I am always going to try—excepting only when I see no hope of how my stepping in can be helpful‚ either because I have no clarity about how to connect with a person, or because I experience someone as completely barricaded against my observations and insights.

That said, if I sense a way to name what's happening that has heretofore not been articulated, I am always going to try to offer that picture to the group.  

17. Weaving

I've come to understand that I have an unusually large RAM (random access memory in IT parlance), which allows me to recall on Sunday afternoon what someone said Friday evening, demonstrating that I'm paying close attention to what people are saying, and am constantly looking for ways to put together elements from different speakers—both to reduce complexity to something more manageable, and to establish a broad foundation for potential solutions. 

Understandably, people love it when the facilitator remembers what they said. To be clear, it's not a matter of my taking sides—it's a matter of my remembering and valuing their input. They don't have to repeat their view, or defend their turf, because I won't leave them behind.

18. Reports

This may seem like a mundane thing, but the standard for reports is actually quite low and there's an art to writing summaries that are pithy. yet complete and accessible. And I'm good at it. There was a time when I was essentially crafting a report (or a handout, or blog entry, or article for publication) nearly every day, and I honed my skills through years of practice.

As a facilitation trainer, I commit to giving students detailed reports of my observations about their efforts facilitating meetings that I have observed. It takes me about as much time to craft those reports as it does to observe the meetings, but it's an irreplaceable element of what I offer as a teacher and professional facilitator.

19. Giving and receiving constructive feedback

One of the (many) areas in which cooperative culture strives to be different from mainstream culture, is when it comes to feedback. Because the mainstream models are generally atrocious, most of us come to community living with little understanding about how to do this cleanly. That's the bad news.

The good news is that it can be learned—and is well worth doing. As a trainer, it's imperative that I walk my talk on this, which means being willing to listen carefully to critical feedback with maximal openness and minimal defensiveness. To be sure, this isn't always easy, but it's important.

20. Ability to walk in another's shoes

When it's clear that someone is sharing from a depth of conviction, I try to feel into how the situation looks to that person, the better to "get" where they are coming from. When I do this well, and am able to demonstrate that level of understanding when reflecting back what they said, the speaker relaxes—because they have been understood—satisfying an almost universal human desire. 

21. Ability to speak plainly and accessibly

As you can probably intuit from this blog, there is a fair amount of my speaking and writing, and I work hard at expressing myself in ways that are concise, memorable, and easy to understand.  I do this by using plain language (not pedantic), employing apt metaphors, avoiding the passive voice, and not ducking the hard stuff. It's a dance, but I can hear the music.