Thursday, March 26, 2020

Silent Spring

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.

—the last stanza of Casey at the Bat by Ernest Thayer (1888)

Today, alas, he won't even get to the plate. 

The baseball season has been suspended in the amber of the coronavirus, and Major League Baseball stadia across the country will stand empty today, instead of being filled with the unbridled optimism of capacity hometown crowds on Opening Day. Sigh. I understand why this is happening and I support the decision, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

Living in northern Minnesota, I am inured to spring's reluctant arrival. While my heart quickened at the sight of fresh daffodils in North Carolina three weeks ago, here we're still trying to melt the backlog of Thanksgiving snow. Winter in Duluth is a test of endurance, which makes the arrival of baseball season that much sweeter. It's a sure sign that spring is actually en route. (Can lilacs be far behind?)

When the calendar reads April it must be time for the boys of summer to trot onto center stage, whether the ground is thawed or not. March Madness is over (whether the games are played or not), and it's time to see if any of those rookies will be worth their signing bonuses.

I know many people—good people even—for whom sports is nothing more than a distraction. I am not in that number. In addition to being a distraction, sports are an art form, offering a glimpse into the outer boundaries of how the interplay of body, mind, and discipline can be channeled into incredible feats. At their best, performances on the athletic field can be breathtakingly sublime, uplifting of the human spirit. (Can anyone watch Simone Biles' floor routine and dismiss that as a mere distraction?)

I grew up learning an appreciation of sports from my father—and of baseball in particular. Many a summer night we'd sit in the driveway and listen to KMOX broadcasts of the Cubs and Cardinals on the car radio. My dad would smoke a cigar and I learned to "see" the game through the picture painted by the inimitable words and energy of Hall of Fame announcers Harry Caray and Jack Buck. Those were magical times.

I learned the rhythm of baseball (much different than the hurly burly and violent ballet of football), its insider argot, and arcane strategies—which are singularly cerebral and measured, emphasizing individual match-ups that build slowly to a tipping point, and then resolving in spring-loaded fractions of a second. (You go to the bathroom between innings, not during them, so as not to miss subtle shifts, like the third baseman cheating toward the hole when the batter has two strikes.)

I would ordinarily be listening to the live radio broadcast of the Giants-Dodgers game this afternoon—Opening Day at Dodger Stadium. While fiddling with dinner prep in the kitchen, my ears would be tuned to Jon Miller and Dave Fleming (every bit as good as Caray and Buck, for my money) describing the play-by play of Cueto versus Kershaw. And all would be right with the world.

Sadly, of course, all is not right with the world. First we have to weather the pandemic—something we'll be doing without the ameliorating benefit of live sports. We'll get through it, but I'm grumpy about it. And now the summer Olympics have been postponed as well. Ugh.

I yearn to hear the home plate umpire yelling "Play Ball!" more than I'm eager to witness the first snowdrops blooming in the front yard. Don't get me wrong. I get along fine with Nature. I'm thrilled that we've just sighted two freshly hatched great horned owlets in a white pine up the back alley (much to the consternation of the neighborhood crows), and it's been fun observing a black bear slowly stumble out of hibernation in the creek bed across the road. 

But this will be a silent spring in the world of sports, and I'm taking a moment today to observe the unnatural quiet of Opening Day.

Monday, March 16, 2020


Thursday I saw my oncologist. Friday I saw my primary care physician. While both appointments were made weeks ago for relatively routine matters (if you can consider cancer routine), the question foremost on my mind was how I should understand my risk relative to the coronavirus.

Without question I'm at relatively high risk: I'm north of 70, I have a compromised immune system (due to multiple myeloma and the ongoing chemotherapy regimen I follow to contain it), and I'm normally on the road a shade more than once a month, mainly to continue my work as a group process consultant and facilitation trainer. 

Happily, I like my doctors and I trust them. They're bright, they're personable, they don't talk down to me, and they give me straight answers. While they did not have completely aligned views about my risk, they agreed that I should take the coronavirus seriously.

My oncologist advocated staying home for the next four weeks and then reassessing. In four weeks we'll know a lot more than we do now. My primary care physician thought I could still travel, so long as I was rigorous about hand washing and social distancing.

Part of the problem, of course, is the unprecedented nature of the threat—the influenza epidemic of 1918 was 102 years ago and the world is a much different place today, so what can we usefully compare our current situation to? Another factor is all the uncertainties. We don't yet know:
•  How many will ultimately be infected
•  How many will die (to what extent will the capacity of health care facilities and personnel be swamp by demand)
•  How many people are already infected and don't know it (this problem will persist for a while as we don't have anywhere near enough testing kits on hand to determine who has it).
•  How much people will modify their behavior to reduce the risk of spreading infection

In addition, there are many facets that complicate the Rubik's cube of my risk assessment:

—It's a much better strategy for me to avoid getting the virus than to count on surviving an infection. Despite my confidence in local health care services, my oncologist estimated that the mortality of someone in my risk category might be as high as 40 percent. That got my attention. 

—No matter how diligent I am about watching for signs of infection, I have to anticipate that if I get the virus and am actively traveling and working, that I'll be inadvertently infecting others during the time lag between the onset of infection and the diagnosis—and that would feel awful.

—If I persist in traveling during the pandemic, it encourages others to take risks, as students and clients will be paying to have me come and their fees may be squandered if they boycott group sessions in order to protect their health. Is that acceptable to me?

—Traveling by train—my preferred way to get around—is definitely less risky than traveling by plane, but it's not risk free.

—I hate canceling work. But I also hate being stupid.

While it took me 48 hours to wrap my head around it all, I ultimately came to peace with taking the advice of my oncologist (and the decided preference of my partner, Susan) and pulling the plug on everything I had scheduled through early May. Smack in the midst of a highly choreographed five-month stretch of travel (I had seven trips planned from late January through mid-June, encompassing five facilitation trainings, three contracts with communities, two vacations with Susan, and a partridge in a pear tree one cohousing conference), I hit the pause button and will be staying home. 

Suddenly, there will be a lot more jigsaw puzzles, library books, board games, and Netflix in my immediate future.

I made a list of all the travel plans I need to cancel and shift, trying to secure whatever compensation or refunds I can. It's about 20. Ugh. While this is not my favorite way to focus my life force, it's a necessary consequence of my life choices. 

(I was thinking just the other day about how lovely it might have been to have had a secretary or administrative assistant to handle this kind of thing through the years, but I never did. The shiny side of that coin is that I know how to take care of this myself. Even if it's work that I was not that drawn to, it never sat well asking someone else to do it for me. And when you live low enough on the hog, I never generated enough money to fairly compensate someone else for this work. Thus I became, by default, a logistician.)

If nothing else, the coronavirus has given us all a blessed respite from the mind-numbing drumbeat of divisive politics. I was getting pretty sick of it. Now, I guess, I'll get the chance to get sick of hearing about people being afraid of getting sick.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Trains of Thought

I'm in North Carolina this morning, preparing for a weekend retreat with a newish intentional community that wants to focus on Growing Roots: exploring more deeply what kind of community it wants to be, and how to get there from here.

I've just made a pot of strong coffee, and appreciated bouquets in the kitchen of fresh cut daffodils and narcissus. Sigh. As a denizen of Duluth, spring is only a concept at this point. It's way too early to be thinking of flowers—we're still trying to melt the 20" of snow that fell at Thanksgiving, and we cheer when temperatures creep above 32. You have to take your victories where you find them. The only yellow we'll see outdoors before May is what the neighborhood dogs leave after marking up a snow bank.

As readers of this blog know, I travel a good deal. I average more than one out-of-state trip every month—mostly as a process consultant and teacher, augmented by the occasional sojourn to visit friends and family. Mostly I accomplish this by train (if Amtrak goes out of business it will not be my fault).

As I've been doing this for more than 40 years, travel has become a routine and I've accumulated a considerable range of experiences, as well as the habit of noticing what happens around me. In today's essay I want to share a handful of gleanings from my last two days.

I. The Woman in the Seat Behind Me
I normally get to North Carolina (from Duluth) via three train legs: 
St Paul to Chicago (on the eastbound Empire Builder)
Chicago to Washington (on the eastbound Capitol Limited)
Washington to Raleigh (on the southbound Silver Star)

It takes two full days to accomplish all this, and the connections between trains are guaranteed, which means that Amtrak will take responsibility if I miss a connection in either Chicago or DC because of train delays.

Wednesday the Empire Builder was running smack on time when I boarded in St Paul and kept that exemplary pace through Columbus WI (the stop that services Madison). We were just 20 miles west of Milwaukee when all of that came to an end. Someone decided to commit suicide by driving in front of the freight train rumbling along on single track immediately in front of us and all hell broke loose. It took three hours to get the coroner out, find all the pieces of human remains, and clear up the mess. I can hardly imagine the trauma that the engineer of the freight train must have experienced. Even though there was absolutely nothing he or she could do to alter the outcome, it must have been horrifying to see it all unfold in front of you.

In any event, on the Empire Builder we suddenly went from running on time to being three hours in arrears. That put my connection to the Capitol Ltd in jeopardy and I immediately started thinking about plan B—which didn't exist until then. 

For the woman in the seat behind me, it was a different story. She immediately started complaining. Though she was traveling alone, there were multiple people she could reach via cell phone and she availed herself of that option to share her pain—over and over. She also pestered the car attendant for information whenever he passed by. He patiently realyed to her what he knew, but it was never enough to satisfy her, and she made her displeasure known—though I have no idea what she thought that was going to accomplish.

Essentially she was unhappy and felt compelled to let the world know about it. As far as I could discern she'd be late to Chicago and that complicated her plans to get picked up. (That was all? I tell, you some people have a low threshold for misery.) Was she inconvenienced? Yes. Was it Amtrak's fault? No. Was it the fault of the car attendant? No. Was it the fault of her fellow passengers‚ in particular the ones trapped within her acoustical envelope—we who could not escape the steady stream of vitriol and negativity that spewed forth during the interminable phone calls? No.

It was all about her, and she did not appear to have any awareness of the impact of her behavior on those around her. She had been wronged and therefore had carte blanche to bitch about it—with salty language that would make a stevedore blush. At one point she complained that she was now forced to be on the train for six hours. Could anyone imagine how awful that was? (Actually I was having a lot of trouble with that. I regularly string together train trips that last more than 36 hours, and typically enjoy them very much. I decided, however, to keep that opinion to myself.)

In reflecting on this, I reckon she was an external processor—someone who works through a distressful experience by talking about it. Unfortunately, I didn't witness any progression. She seemed stuck on play/repeat and we only heard the one discordant melody. To be fair, I'm an external processor also, though I like to think I exercise a good deal more discernment about when to share and with whom. Mostly I talk to myself.

At one point she told the car attendant that this was her first trip on Amtrak and she'd never ride the train again. To which the car attendant (under his breath but within earshot of the rest of us) replied that it was his sincere wish that that be so.

I shuddered to contemplate a world comprised solely of people who's reality is so small that a three-hour train delay caused by the tragedy of a suicide would so consume them in righteous indignation. Have humans evolved so little?

II. The Man in the Seat Across from Me
While sitting in front of the complainant above was bad enough, I got a double dose of TMI on that trip. The man across from me was traveling to St Louis to visit his mother, whose health was failing. Clearly an extrovert (I had witnessed him earlier in the day hold forth for hours in the Lounge Car—where I set myself up at a table to work on reports—until they cut off his alcohol purchasing) he got into an animated conversation with the woman across the aisle in the seat in front of me.

In the course of their low-level flirting (they were both unpartnered and in the hunt), it came out that he had recently broken up with a woman he considered too clingy and emotionally immature. Repeatedly, he reported that he was over her now… and then kept telling stories about the woman and how awful it was to be with her. It was very unpleasant to be caught in the sound track of his strained efforts to feel good about himself again, complicated by his listener's willingness to spin everything his way. I wanted to shout, "Can't you see what's going on?" but didn't.

The man spoke hopefully about the possibility of our train being late enough to miss his connection to St Louis so that he he'd be put up in a hotel by Amtrak and could get drunk. Maybe this was just a coping mechanism; maybe it was a lifestyle choice. I didn't get enough data on that to decide, but I'm happy to move on and let that mystery go unsolved.

I did not find this man attractive, and you have to wonder what it means when a person obsessed with getting shitfaced and unaware of where he stands on the grieving continuum considers another human being to be emotionally beneath him. 

For this man the late train represented opportunity; for the woman behind me it was extreme inconvenience. Neither, I noticed, was at peace with the reality in front of them. What a world. It makes it a little easier to understand how Trump finds people who will vote for him.

III. My Chauffeur in Durham
Per usual, the NC client group was lined up to provide local assistance once I got as close as I could via public transportation. Although I was originally scheduled to arrive by train into Raleigh around 9 pm last night, I missed my connection in Chicago and had to fly instead. (Amtrak was going to rebook me on the next day's Capitol Ltd, but that wouldn't get me into NC until after the retreat was underway, which was clearly unacceptable.)

Thus, the person who was on tap to collect me in Raleigh was redirected to get me at the RDU airport around 6 pm instead, which was actually less driving for him, and he wasn't up so late. In addition, he was familiar with the airport but had never been to the Raleigh Amtrak station, so that potential confusion was avoided. All together, the switch in plans worked well for the chauffeur, and I was able to settle into my digs that much earlier.

Like many, the guy who picked me up is an enthusiast of modern technology and had become in recent years a dedicated user of his Garmin to determine driving routes via GPS. I have been aware of this trend (who isn't?) but had not noticed how much this has resulted in an alarming atrophying of directional skills. 

It happened that his Garmin was temporarily unavailable in order to download a program update, and thus he was relying on the directional program that was bundled with his cell phone, a program he ordinarily doesn't use and was sufficiently different from his Garmin to be confusing. 

I watched with both bemusement (I was in no hurry) and concern as he stumbled his way between the airport and home, having to make at least thee course corrections en route because of wrong turns. Without his trusted technology, he was unsure of the way between the main regional airport (a place he had been many times) and his home of many years—a distance of about 30 miles. Think about that. He was apparently so habituated to relying on the GPS that he had become untethered from visual signals about the correct path. And it only took a few years for that to happen. 

I rarely use GPS technology, and can't imagine not being able to find my way home by visuals when I'm within 30 miles. This does not seem to me a good trend.

IV. No Reservations
I am shamelessly borrowing the title of Anthony Bourdain's successful food and travel television series (it ran for nine seasons) to make a point about word play. Not only do I love food and the exotic, which Bourdain clearly did as well, but I have no reservations about word play. I have standards (whether you can tell or not) but catholic tastes and a low barrier to indulgence.

Yesterday, while flying to NC, I was reading The Club, a recently published (2019), carefully researched historical work by Leo Damrosch subtitled: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age. It profiles what happened during the period 1764-84, the last 20 years of Johnson's life, when a number of extraordinary people met at London's Turk's Head Tavern every Friday evening to indulge in food, drink, and intelligent conversation—on anything under the sun they found of interest.

Among those profiled are: 
Samuel Johnson, the sage of an age, and creator of the first modern dictionary
James Boswell, Johnson's biographer
Joshua Reynolds, the portraitist
Edward Gibbon, the historian
Adam Smith. the economist
Edmund Burke, the political essayist and orator
Oliver Goldsmith, the playwright
David Garrick, the actor and director
Richard Sheridan, the playwright

It turns out that Burke was an inveterate punster, for which he was much chafed by others in the club. (fellow clubster Bennet Langton once remarked, "Burke hammered his wit upon an anvil, and the iron was cold. There were no sparks flashing or flying all about"). So much for not having standards (or perhaps, sufficient skill).

A few pages, and a century later, Damrosch shares the story of someone having complained to James Joyce about his penchant for puns, stating that they were trivial, to which the great Irish author is reputed to have replied without pause, "Yes, and some of them are quadrivial."

(Note: the historical underpinnings of this bon mot come from a medieval educational practice that is now obscure to most of us; lessons were invariably taught in Latin and university curriculum generally began with three subjects (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), known as the trivium, followed by the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music theory, and astronomy).

Now doesn't that sequence just make your day? It made mine. You could ask me to stop playing with words, but it wouldn't do any good. You may as well ask me to stop enjoying food and drink, analyzing what's happening in group dynamics, or leading an examined life. It's far too late to change any of that. It's who I am. You have the same choices I usefully do: you can enjoy me, ignore me, or leave me when the train gets to Chicago.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Key Facilitative Skills: Eliciting Proposals that Sing

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.

[I launched this series August 17, 2018, but lost momentum last summer—my previous entry was July 4, 2019—more than eight months ago. Now I'm back in the saddle.]

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 Horse 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 
• • •
XI. Eliciting Proposals that Sing  
Laws are like sausages, it is better to not see them being made.
        —Otto von Bismarck

For many, crafting agreements by consensus is an awkward grind, just as Otto suggests. However, Otto (I'm reasonably sure) never operated in a cooperative environment and that's the water I swim in. When done well (I'll explain how in a minute) there is an elegance about good agreements that transforms wieners into winners.

Believe in the Force (not in the forcing)
What you get is largely influenced by what you believe is possible. If you expect a slog, you may as well get the hip waders out. So the first order of business is to be able to imagine elegance—to trust the process. If you don't believe in magic, there won't be any.

Then you need to know how to invoke it. I take the view that there is always sufficient wisdom in the group to solve any problem. The facilitative challenge is creating a container in which the wisdom can emerge. That requires entering into problem solving with soft edges, where participants are confident that no one will be left behind; that no one will be pressured into saying "yes" when they are not peace with the proposed solution. 

Note that I am not promising that everyone will get everything they want—only that their input will be taken into account; that they will not be run over. This is not about being nice, or steering clear of saying hard things. There should be a known and accessible pathway for everyone to offer their input on topic.

[This almost certainly means multiple pathways, as one-size-fits-all approaches unwittingly favor some at the expense of others. For example, the default mode of engagement in most groups is open discussion. While this can be a powerful and efficient tool, it favors quick thinkers over slow thinkers and those who are comfortable speaking in front of large groups (say 8+) over those who would rather clean toilets or sort rotten potatoes. Thus, if you only offer open discussion, some voices will be lost will others are getting more air time than they should, skewing the results.]

Facilitators don't need to know the answer, they just need to be available for it. They need to listen well and encourage that in others. Crackerjack facilitators can accurately and concisely reflect back what's been said on a given topic. They strip out redundancies and boil it down to its essence, sharpening the conversation.

There are three main challenges to achieving elegance:

a) Navigating strong emotional input
As human beings we bring our emotions with us wherever we go. Even if feelings are expressly proscribed (or at least discouraged) they emerge anyway and if groups are not clear about how they'll work with them, groups tend to founder and lose their way in the presence of strong emotions. It doesn't feel safe and people tend to be distracted by the person in reaction, losing sight of the topic at hand and how the emotional response might illuminate the issue.

Further, when feelings are ignored, the group is left with one of two unsatisfactory choices: plowing ahead as if the feelings didn't emerge; or suspending the topic because it feels too chaotic, unsafe, or disrespectful to continue. In the former case, the atmosphere suddenly becomes more tense—the very opposite of the "soft edges" I spoke about earlier. In the latter, the topic is held hostage to the distress and it puts tremendous pressure on the person who expressed upset ("we were making progress until you lost your shit; now we have to wait").

Making a commitment to work with whatever feelings emerge on topic is a fork in the road. While it's not a simple skill to learn, and probably requires a fair amount of stretching for group members, the simple truth is that not doing so is crippling, and groups will never reach their potential for depth and authenticity without it. Oh they can still function—it is, after all, the norm in mainstream competitive, win/lose culture—but meetings will forever be susceptible to the slog that Otto predicted if you don't take that path. It's that foundational.

b) Navigating strong differences of opinion
Similar, but not the same as the prior point, is how groups respond when significant differences emerge about how to respond to significant issues—even when strong feelings are not part of the landscape. If you are a stakeholder on this issue (by which I mean you care about the outcome) you have been conditioned to fight to win. To be sure, this can look like many things: from manipulation to outright verbal combat; from cajoling and wheedling to emotional blackmail. What these techniques have in common is they are all combative and calculated to prevail over opposition. We have been taught this at an early age—it's either that or roll over and cede the role of alpha dog to others (which some do simply because being a combatant is too odious).

While some have learned to love the fight, mostly this energy leads to misery. Losers—and there are losers if it plays out in any of the forms I've described above—do not have a good time. They enjoy neither how they acted, nor the outcome. Those in the group who are not stakeholders (it's a rare topic where everyone is stakeholder) are dismayed that the group has been become fractured by the consideration, rather than unified, or drawn closer together. This not the experience they signed up for.

So the challenge for the facilitator is how be both authentic in eliciting the full breadth of preferences, while not allowing that to be fractioning. While few groups are so naive as to think that disagreements will never surface (what, after all, did you think diversity would yield?), that doesn't mean they have the skills to work with it deftly. It is the facilitator's job to receive disparate input with grace and curiosity, modeling for others an attitude they temporarily forgot they committed to in the heat of the moment.

There is typically a time early on when it's important to show to everyone's satisfaction that all viewpoints are tied to a reasonable interpretation of a common value—establishing legitimacy for taking that perspective to account. After that, it's a matter of exploring the group's best thinking about how to balance things. This is not about compromise (which is more or less an attempt to equalize loss); it's about finding the proposal that sings.

c) Advocacy creeping into problem solving
One of the most valuable insights I've gleaned from my decades of working with cooperative groups is the advantage of assiduously separating what I style Discussion phase from Problem-solving phase when working an issue. In the former, you are trying to flush out what a good response to the issue needs to take into account. In general, this entails explicitly identifying the common values in play. It is often useful to coarsely prioritize the list (which things do you have to have reflected in the solution, and which do you prefer to have there but there is some wiggle room around about how much you get). 

In this model, the group does not proceed to Problem-solving (the subsequent phase) until the Discussion is complete. You may think this is obvious, but it isn't. Most groups conflate these two phases—to their detriment. The Discussion phase is an expansive step. You are casting the net in search of a robust delineation of what should be taken into account. If someone feels compelled to make a passionate plea for they think is essential this is the place they can get a few minutes on the soap box making their pitch—where they can share with the group what they really think. Bring it on! To be clear, they only get to do this once, but this is the place for it. 

If the group (and by extension, the facilitator) is not disciplined about keeping potential solutions out of the Discussion, factors and proposed solutions get commingled and chaos obtains. How many times have you been in a meeting where someone mentions a concern—appropriate for Discussion—and it's immediately followed by a well-intended idea for coping with that concern—a proposed solution? When that happens you have one foot in Discussion and the other in Problem-solving. Are you inhaling or exhaling? Who knows? What kind of comments are you looking for now? You are wandering in the forest. That can be a lovely place to take a nature walk, but it's not good approach to tackling an issue. You want to be on a path, not lost in the trees.

In the latter, you are trying to figure out how best to balance the factors. This is a contractive phase. Your job here is to find the best balance point; the solution that bridges to all the factors. It is no longer appropriate to entertain advocacy. You do not benefit from hearing again why a factor matters. That ship has sailed and we already have it on the list. When done well, the facilitator has wrighted a new ship and invited everyone to board, where the group is asked to pull together in the search for elegance. If you have tug-of-war energy in this phase, you are failed to achieve the state of mind I'm talking about (in essence, everyone is not on the same ship). There should be soft edges now, where creativity can flourish. Where the magic can happen.

No Hot Dogs
As I head for the barn, here is a quote from a different statesman that offers an important insight:

Laws made by common consent must not be trampled on by individuals.
        —George Washington

Roughly translated, this means no grandstanding. No power plays.

The right to be heard (on topic) is directly tied to the responsibility to listen to and work respectfully with the input of others. All too often, outliers who are determined that their views be taking into account (which, unfortunately, tends to be confused with agreed with) conveniently sidestep this part of the equation. Savvy facilitators can't let them get away with such shenanigans. Proposal generating is a two-way street.

Repetition of personal preferences is rarely persuasive; it just ratchets up the tension, and inhibits creativity. To be sure, stubbornness can wear people down and ultimately result in capitulation, but that is by no means building elegance. There is no singing. When you find the sweet spot, there is a satisfying exhalation and a sense of grace. If you have a headache or your shoulder blades are tense, you're not there yet.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

The Inspiration of Inuit Consensus

In the world of intentional community, the most common form of decision-making is consensus. While it shows up in myriad flavors, almost all variations have the same root: a secular adaptation of the worship practice of the Religious Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers, who developed this in the 17th Century.

Quaker Strand
Key to what we know today as secular consensus, was the pioneering work done by the Philadelphia-based Movement for a New Society (MNS) in the '70s, under the guidance of Lawrence Scott, George and Lillian Willoughby, Bill Moyer, and George Lakey. They were dissatisfied with the response of mainstream Quakers to the Vietnam War, and formed MNS to develop the tools of nonviolent protest and organizing to effect revolutionary change—such as moving our culture from competitive to cooperative.

From that beginning, the work spread broadly among protest groups and intentional communities, which happened to be going through the Hippie-era growth surge at that time—also, in part, in response to the Vietnam War. Most of the communities that sprouted up then were a conscious rejection of mainstream politics and culture—but that didn't mean they were clear about what constituted a viable alternative. In that context, choosing to make decisions by consensus was a good fit, as it was completely different from what anyone had learned from student council days or from observing the practices of the US government (think Robert's Rules of Order, which is an adaptation of parliamentary procedure for non-legislative bodies).

Iroquois Strand
But the Quaker brand of consensus is just one version of what's out there. In addition there is the Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee League, originally comprised of five Native American nations in the northeast: Mohawk, Oneida, Onandaga, Cayuga, and Seneca (the Tuscarora joined in 1722). The league and its practices were developed even earlier than the Quakers, somewhere in the range of the 1450-1660. 

Notably, each nation retained its identity and independence while agreeing to operate collectively as a single political entity, with a durable non-aggression pact among member tribes. This arrangement has been incredibly resilient (it continues today) and decisions are made by a brand of consensus that was uninfluenced by the Quakers.

Inuit Strand
Less well known is a third strand in the consensus braid: the practice of the Inuit, an indigenous people of the Arctic (they live in the north slope of Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, and Denmark). While these peace-loving people have never been large in number (their population is about 150,000 today) they have endured for millennia in a harsh natural environment that few covet—which has undoubtedly contributed to their survival.

Taken all together, they refer to their culture as Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (a Scrabble bonanza that I have no idea how to pronounce). It is abbreviated IQ and translates roughly to "that which has long been known by Inuit." Within their IQ is the belief that decisions should be for the good and betterment of society. It stems from their hearts, and a commitment to use reasoning abilities based on the truths of Inuit culture and the desire to live in harmony. 

In 1999, the Canadian government established the new province of Nunavut, encompassing various portions of the Northwest Territories, the northern third of Quebec, and chunks of Labrador. Because the population of Nunavut is over 80 percent Inuit, IQ is predominant in how the provincial government was established. Here is Nunavut's official vision:

—Decision-making through discussion and consensus. Silence is part of the communication and does not necessarily signify agreement.

—Respecting others, maintaining relationships, and caring for people.

—Fostering good spirit by being open, welcoming, and inclusive.

—Serving and providing for family and/or community.

—Respect and care for the land, animals, and the environment.

—Working together for the common cause.

—Being innovative and resourceful.

Pretty impressive. As with the Iroquois, this cultural tradition was developed independently from the others.

Reflection about the Timeline
Take a look at this selective timeline for governing systems:

• Robert's Rules of Order—first published in 1876
• Quakers—mid-17th Century
• Haudenosaunee—mid 15th to mid-17th Century
• Inuit—pre-Christian Era

I find it incredibly uplifting that there have been multiple incidents of consensus arising among groups of people over the course of history and that these experiments in self-government have been successful over the span of centuries—much longer than Robert's Rules of Order has been in the field.

It's something to think about.

Friday, January 17, 2020

New Phrases

As any reader of my blog knows, words interest me a great deal. I am fascinated by how language evolves. It is semipermeable to change. On the one hand it resists it; on the other it allows it—if the tidal surge is sufficiently strong and persistent.

In recent years I've noticed the following handful of new entries have muscled their way into our contemporary vocabulary (please note that this is only a sampling—phrases and words that rose to the surface when I turned my attention to this phenomenon). In alphabetical order, I shine my bloglight on the following decad of freshly minted terms:

Meaning: calculation. The origin of this word is a specific mathematical process (invented by Newton and/or Leibniz—take your pick—in the late 17th Century) to study continuous rates of change. Bursting out of its scientific restraints, in modern parlance calculus is being used to indicate a complex, thoughtful assessment, flavored with a dash of sophistication and high-brow energy. 

Checks All the Boxes
Meaning: has completed due diligence, met all qualifications, or fulfilled all promises. This aligns with the image of a checklist on a clipboard, and is relatively easy to understand on first pass.

Double Down
Meaning: to stick with one's position in the face of criticism (the opposite of "backing down"). This is in contrast with "walking back" (see below). Instead of a retraction or apology, the initiator responds to feedback by repeating the claim—however spurious or unsubstantiated—often with antagonistic energy ("How dare you question my word!"). The consequence of doubling down is often a heating up.

I believe this is derived from gambling argot. In most casino games of blackjack, for instance, when the bettor's two dealt cards add to eleven and the dealer does not have blackjack, the bettor is allowed to face their cards, to double their bet and and to receive one more card, usually delivered face down. This is action is styled "doubling down."

Dumpster Fire
Meaning: across the board disaster. It may not be life-threatening, but we're talking about major disorganization, serious underperformance, and sharp disappointment. Think acute embarrassment. There may not be anything (much) that's salvageable.

Meaning: the denial of one person's experience by another—in particular, men denying the experience of women, though the term could be applied across any gender mix. This has surfaced strongly in the Me, Too context, when a women levels charges of sexual misconduct against a man and he denies it, claiming either that the encounter never happened or was consensual.

This term is derived from the Oscar-nominated 1944 movie Gaslight, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, in which Boyer tries to convince his wife (Bergman) that she's going crazy by subtly, purposefully denying her reality. 

Hot Mess
Meaning: an unwelcome, awkward situation that recently manifested and requires immediate attention. I suspect the origin is a steaming pile of shit (as in puppy's present on the carpet), but that's just a guess. In any event, it's an image that this phrase invariable evokes for me.

OK, Boomer
Meaning: this is a dismissive rejoinder made by younger people when responding to someone in the Boomer generation (born in years 1946-64, which translates to those aged 56-74 today) who comes across as dismissive of the statements or interests of those younger than themselves. The flavor of this is that the speaker is too self-absorbed or is condescending of those with less life experience. (Just because you're old, doesn't mean you're wise; and the corollary—being young doesn't mean you're callow or a lightweight).

Meaning: this is a man explaining something to others—prototypically a women, but the recipient can be any gender—in a condescending or patronizing way, perhaps without checking to see if the recipient wanted or needed the explanation. On top of that the explanation may not be accurate. The root of this is the dubious assumption that men naturally know best, resulting in this particular flavor of arrogance.

Smell Test
Meaning: intuitive first take. It is generally much more difficult to persuade someone to your ideas if your proposition fails the smell test.

Walk Back
Meaning: to stand down on a prior claim or statement. While this may result from solitary reflection, it most often occurs in the face of blow back from supporters, or the realization that the speaker misspoke. Perhaps the speaker overreacted; perhaps they were indulging in bluster and got caught out. Or perhaps the speaker was more honest than they meant to be, and is scrambling to rebury the truth. Oops! (We're seeing quite a bit of that now in the Trump impeachment circus, as the administration scrambles to recover from the President being caught with his hand in the Ukrainian cookie jar.)

• • •
I find words and phrases to be endlessly fascinating.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Bedlam 2019

As it's time again to replace calendars around the house, that's my cue to offer up my annual summary of where I slept last year, and what I was up to when I wandered away from the head waters of Lake Superior. 

I refer to this report as "bedlam" because: a) I'm on the road a lot and have a quixotic (and hopefully entertaining) distribution of sleeping arrangements; b) some think that my travel schedule is prima facie evidence of mental imbalance; and c) I have a congenital propensity for word play.

Here are the highlights of where I was when the lights went out each night, along with my musing about trends and what it all means.

o  As usual, I slept at home most often—229 nights, or 63% of the time. That's up slightly from the year before. That said, this past year there were 28 nights that I was home and Susan wasn't, mainly because she became a new grandmother in August and she had a number of trips to Denver, both for the birth watch (of Nico!) and to lend a hand during the crazy, sleep-deprived early month's of her daughter's adventures in mothering. I'm confident there will be more Susan-only forays to the Mile High City in 2020. Susan's delighted to be grandma and she's stoked to hold Nico as often as possible.

o  I stayed with clients only 36 nights last year, which is a sharp decline from 67 the year before. While I expect this number to bounce back up this year, we'll see.

o  I visited with family (either mine or Susan's) 33 nights in 2019, up a tad from 2018. I find that as I get older, I look more for opportunities to spend time with family, as one is never sure which visit will be the last (and what kind of excuse is it to say that you chose to recaulk the basement storm windows or read a good book instead of seeing siblings?).

o  I slept overnight with friends a modest 15 times (double the year before, yet still well below the high water mark of 42 in 2015).

o  In midwinter I once again succumbed briefly to a respiratory setback (both pneumonia and influenza—a double whammy), requiring three nights in the local hospital (where I caught up on college basketball just prior to March Madness).

o  While I no longer attend as many events as I once did, I participated in the biennial national Cohousing Conference in Portland last spring, the triennial International Communal Studies Association Conference near Hudson NY in July, and a board meeting of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions later the same month. These gatherings were a delightful mixture of seeing old friends and offering presentations, accounting for seven nights away from home all together.

o  Despite fewer consulting gigs last year, I was cleverly able to retain my Select Plus status with Amtrak (buying an upgrade to sleeper car accommodations on my final trip of the year put me over the top). I spent a robust 37 nights on the train, up 20% from the year before. Two of those choo choo journeys were pleasure trips with Susan.

o  I slept in a hotel paid for by myself only six times in 2018: three nights while vacationing with Susan, and three nights at the ICSA Conference. I purposely try to keep this number small. It's far more interesting staying with family, friends, and clients—which I manage to do almost a quarter of the time. (In my line of work—itinerant process consultant—a hidden benefit is the wealth of opportunities I have to see friends and family around the edges of my paid work.)

o  For a mere 10 nights last year I slept on couches (seven nights of which the couch folded out into a double bed). The rest of the time I had a real bed (excepting the reclining coach seats on Amtrak overnight trains). Having now reached the august status of septuagenarian—and living with a hinky back, courtesy of my multiple myeloma—I'm happy to forego air mattresses in my declining years and my reclining nights.

o  Over the course of my peregrinations last year I planted my feet, lay my head, or rolled my suitcase through 16 states and one province—which are exactly the same North American statistics as the previous year. In 2020 there will be more, if for no other reason than Susan and I will be vacationing across Canada (from Vancouver to Quebec City) in late April/early May. 

On the front end we'll enjoy first-class accommodations aboard Via train #2, The Canadien, rumbling for four days from the western terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway to Toronto. After sampling museums and bistros in Canada's largest city, we'll continue east in search of Three Pines, the fictional Brigadoonish village featured in Louise Penny's murder mystery series, centered around Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, augmented by a sterling cast of oddball personalities in supporting roles. Even if we don't find it, we'll have fun looking.

I hope you have fun lined up in 2020 as well.