Sunday, June 4, 2023

Navigating the Boundary Between Transparency and Discretion

This past week I received notice that Communities magazine is planning its winter issue on the theme of Privacy and Transparency. Reflecting on that inspired this monograph.

As a process consultant, I frequently get hired to work with groups bogged down in conflict—often intractable conflict, by which I mean the group has tried what it can think of doing on its own, and it's still stuck in the swamp.

Aside from the challenge of inviting groups into the chaotic, yet potent world of emotional exploration (which is always an element of conflict), whenever a portion of my work is done on the side—in contrast with working the dynamic in the presence of the entire group—there arises a question about what, if anything, that gets disclosed in the examination is appropriate to share with the rest of the group.

Coming from the perspective of professional counseling and/or HR concerns, there is often a strong urge to shut it down, promising protagonists that nothing shared in the process of working through the conflict will be revealed to others. While well intended, I think, in the context of community, this is a big mistake.

Better, I believe, is that the group offer support to members working through conflict with the understanding from the outset that a summary of what comes out in the exploration will be shared with the rest of the group. Mind you, a summary—not a court transcript or a Zoom recording.

Here's how I think it should be set up. Someone should be assigned to drafting a neutral summary ahead of time (so that they are doing the work of gathering the needed information from the get-go), and after it has been drafted it should then be reviewed by the protagonists for acceptability before it's disseminated to the group. I think it's fine that this information not be shared outside the community except with the express permission of the people involved.

To be clear, a good summary will include mention of people's emotional responses—that's part of the story. However, I know from experience (having personally crafted any number of these summaries) that you can adequately defang outbursts, such that you're accurately reporting the reactions, yet leaving out any name-calling or incendiary statements. This is not about voyeurism; it's about getting an overall sense of the full picture. Neglecting to mention that people are hopping mad (when in fact they are) doesn't help anyone understand what's truly happening.

Why do this? For a number of reasons:

• It's quite rare that no one in the group is aware of the tension being worked on, and in the absence of first-hand information about what's happening, people will speculate or make up stories to fill the void. A century ago, Mark Twain sagely observed, "A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots." Better, I think, is supplying the truth with slip-on footwear with good traction.

• Trust and good relationships are the lifeblood of community. Anything that impedes the flow of accurate information, however well-intentioned, degrades trust.

• One of the ways that bullies control the narrative and undercut attempts to hold them accountable for unacceptable behavior, is by isolating people and thereby dominating the story about what happened between themselves and others. It's their word against yours, and they'll make you pay for speaking out against them. (if you question whether people could really get away with such outrageous behavior, you need look no further than the popularity Donald Trump has enjoyed through outright lying, and attacking anyone who dares stand up to him.) It's much harder for this approach to be successful when everyone is current on what's going down.

• It's not unusual for the parties involved in the conflict to make agreements about doing things differently going forward, and these commitments tend to carry more gravitas when posted publicly (I'm not talking about printing minutes in the local newspaper; I'm talking about sharing summaries on the members-only community listserv).

• Agreements made in the dynamic moment may be abundantly clear, yet that clarity is susceptible to serious erosion if not captured in writing. People's memories tend to diverge over time and hard-earned agreements have a way of slipping away if you're not diligent and capturing them in the moment.

• There can be confusion about what the Conflict Support Team is doing if they never report on their activities. How can the community reasonably evaluate the performance of a team that operates in secrecy?

• When members work through tensions and reestablish repaired relationship, that's a success. Rather than worry about everyone knowing details about how you may have messed up, think of the benefit of everyone knowing how you owned up to deleterious impact, and labored to put things right.

• There is a marked tendency for people to behave better when they know that everyone is watching, or will be told how they behaved in a session set up to work through conflict.

A community is not just a random group of strangers—it's an aggregation of people who have explicitly agreed to create a cooperative culture based on a known vision and common values. They have committed to healthy relationships with one another, and cleaning up missteps as they occur. As a result, there is a different standard of compassion, accountability, and engagement and I am basing my recommendations on what will best serve those goals. Burying dirt under the carpet will not get the job done. It only leads to lumpy floors, and poor footing going forward.

All of that said, you cannot expect group members to be of one mind about this without a conversation about its implications. That means you have to talk about how you want handle this at the time you establish the Conflict Support Team, and before you need to apply it to a specific situation—when the discussion will tend to be seen through the lens of how to manage a particular person, rather than what's best as a standard for everyone.

The Exception that Proves the Rule

One more point. Although I support a baseline understanding that nothing gets disseminated about what occurred in a conflict clearing without the people involved in the conflict signing off on the summary, there is a circumstance where I think protagonists should not be permitted to block the sharing of discovered information—when the facilitators learn that something happened (or is reasonably likely to have happened) that puts the community at serious risk. 

I'm thinking about major financial exposure, illegal activity, compromised member safety, a direct violation of a member agreement… those kinds of things. While such occurrences are rare (thankfully), they are not unknown, and there needs to be a clear path whereby the community is promptly informed about what has been learned, so that it can complete any investigation of events and determine the best course forward. 

Note that if this occurs, the follow-up should be managed by a different configuration of people—not by the Conflict Support Team, as it's outside their mandate.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

The Third Rail of Emotional Abuse

I recently received this anonymous inquiry:

I'm very curious about emotional abuse. I'm concerned about a community member who has a history of trauma and is also a trauma therapist who is twisting the words of others to cause them to feel bad about themselves. It feels like emotional abuse. We're working toward mediation process but I'm wondering how a conflict resolution team would work with this type of pattern.

While I know no more details about this situation than what's contained in the paragraph above, I think it's a good topic. 

At the outset, it's important to understand that I have no training in trauma response, per se, and do not consider myself an expert in that arena. That said, I do consider myself an expert on conflict in cooperative groups, and hold the view that it's imperative for cooperative groups to be able to work constructively with feelings (which are invariably in the room whether you have agreements about them or not, and undoubtedly are a central feature of trauma).

While it's up to each community to establish what protocols will serve the group best with respect to the emergence of conflict and non-trivial distress, here's how I would engage with the dynamic described by the inquirer:

Let's make this as messy as possible, and assume that there are at least three different perspectives on what was happening (where the same event was experienced first-hand by three different people, all of whom may be having a different response).

Let's say Pat is the trauma therapist, Chris is the person who has been made to feel bad about themselves, and Dale is someone upset observing this. 

If I were facilitating when this dynamic emerged, I would step in to interrupt the dynamic as soon as I was conscious of someone being in noticeable distress (most likely cuing in to Chris or Dale, based on the scenario presented). Note that I would interrupt the exchanges as soon as I recognized distress or reactivity—I would not wait until I determined that abuse had occurred, which can be a more complex assessment.

When stepping in, I would try to engage the person I sensed was most in distress and then work my way around the room, until everyone in reaction had had a chance to say what was going on for them. In this instance, the fulminating tension may be between Chris and Pat, or it may be between Dale & Pat. 

(For that matter, there could be tension between Dale & Chris: I recall how irritated my mother was when I would would criticize my father for going into a rant and belittling her—she told me in n o uncertain terms to butt out; she didn't want me defending her.)

I would engage with each person long enough to establish what they are feeling, their version of what happened, and its impact on them. I would steer them away from labeling others, assigning motivation to others, or from analyzing the situation. I would simply be asking them to report what they've experienced and its meaning to them. After listening to their responses, I would reflect back the essence of what I heard, doing my best to match both their words and their energy. I would be trying to walk in their shoes.

Essential to this being effective is staying with it until the speaker reports feeling heard. Caution: It is often insufficient to simply assert, "I hear you" or to nod sympathetically. You have to be able to demonstrate to the upset person's satisfaction, that you get what they've told you.

My thinking here is that people in distress often feel isolated and are not confident that others will be open to hearing about their experience, or to understand it even if they get to tell their story. With that in mind, the very first order of business is to establish connection, so that information can flow.

How It Might Look to Pat

This can have a very wide range, including the following possibilities:

• Pat may have been abusive yet have no consciousness of it.

• Pat may own that they were purposefully trying to hurt Chris (I don't run into this often, but it's a possibility).

• Pat may believe they engaged with Chris in ways that they felt were ethical and constructive.

• Pat may be oblivious to what they had done, or its impact on Chris.

• Pat may recognize that they had gone overboard (in some sense) and are in remorse about it.

Even if you stipulate that Pat is skilled as a trauma therapist, that doesn't preclude their having a blind spot about the ways in which they can trigger trauma in others, nor does it guarantee that they are always aware of when they have been triggered. Finally, therapists are likely to have a preferred method for working trauma, and there is no single approach that's 100% effective.

Thus, while it's reasonable to expect a trauma therapist to be sensitive to what will be triggering in others, and to be deft in picking up on cues that what they're doing is landing poorly, there are no certainties.

Pat might be completely at ease with what they did; they might be embarrassed; they might be curious (that Dale thinks they were abusive); they might also be in reaction themselves (to who knows what). 

How It Might Look to Chris

Just because Dale believes Pat was abusing Chris, does not necessarily mean that Chris experienced Pat as abusive. It's important, I think, to not jump ahead, and to listen carefully to each player's story. There could well be three very disparate realities in play without anyone being "wrong."

While it seems unlikely that Chris enjoyed their interaction with Pat, discomfort or confusion is not necessarily abuse. Was the exchange embarrassing? Overwhelming? Unrelenting? Accusatory? Trauma-triggering (in ways that Pat might reasonably be expected to know or be sensitive to)? There is a wealth of possibilities here.

I can imagine that Chris might be in tears, shaking, or completely shut down. Or they might be outwardly calm, or even untouched by what Dale found intolerable.

By describing Pat's interactions with Chris as "abusive," it suggests that Pat—at least in Dale's eyes—placed Chris in an awkward (excruciating?) spot, without license to do so.

How It Might Look to Dale

It seems certain from the description that Dale had a definite negative reaction to what Pat was doing with Chris.

This could stem from any or all of the following:

—Outrage on behalf of the group (that Chris could be treated this way).

—Upset over the perception that Pat is acting out of integrity as a trauma therapist (misusing their license).

—Frustration with the group that Pat's behavior has been tolerated.

—Personal irritation with Pat that has its roots in prior unresolved issues.

How to Proceed

With all these moving parts, I'd need to make an in-the-moment assessment of where the major axis of tension ran and begin there. In condensed form, here is the sequence I'd follow:

• Interrupt the damaging or upsetting exchanges (stop the merry-go-round)

• Acknowledge the protagonists' experiences (noting where they are similar and where they diverge)

• Decide (interactively with the players and the group) whether to take it further in the moment, or set something up afterwards in another setting. If the former, I would work in dyads, starting with those most triggered or most in distress, attempting to repair relationship damage and to reopen channels of communication. Problem solving would follow that (commitments the two might make to each other about how to proceed differently in the future).

If the latter, I'd stay with it long enough to get a commitment from each party about a time and place to reconvene.

If the Facilitator Is Overwhelmed or Ineffective

This is where the Conflict Resolution Team might come into play, being on call to step in at need if the facilitator cannot answer the bell. While I strongly advocate that groups have such a team, there are three essential things that need to be in place for that hope to be realized:

1. A general agreement to engage with strong feelings when they surface (permission).

2. Clarity about how those feelings will be worked with (while there are a number of modalities for working with conflict, the group needs to bless at least one of the them, so members know what they've signed up for).

3. Sufficient skill in the community to be able to facilitate this work using the chosen modality.

It does no good to have a general agreement to work with conflict if there is no agreement about how to go about it, or no confidence in the group's ability to navigate it successfully.

Monday, April 3, 2023

Spring Trainings 2023

This past weekend marked the start of the second quarter—a time of transitions. Winter is nearly over (though it doesn't feel that way in Duluth, where we're flirting with all-time record snowfalls) and it's time to think spring.

Play Ball!

In sports, transitions are everywhere. The baseball season opened last Thursday. College hoops ends tonight, and the pros will enter their playoff gauntlet in another week, with pro hockey to follow the week after. 

For all of that, the sporting highlight of the week is the Masters golf tournament, to be contested April 6-9 in Augusta GA, amidst the azaleas. 

Brave New World

I am also undergoing an important personal transition—with respect to treatment of my multiple myeloma (MM), an incurable blood cancer that nearly stopped my clock back in 2016, when it was first discovered in me. Back in the fall, when it was apparent that my current regimen for MM management was starting to lose its efficacy, my Duluth oncologist and Mayo hematologist agreed that it was time for CAR-T as the next step. This is where science fiction meets the present.

CAR stands for chimeric antigen receptor. Through genetic engineering (accomplished in a Bristol-Myers-Squibb lab in NJ), CARs have been added to my natural T-cells which allow my own immune system to recognize and combat the cancer directly—rather than relying on chemical poisons, and their attendant side effects. Because the original cells came from me, there are no rejection issues. Further, because the new T-cells will reproduce true, I will not need further infusions. It's one and done. 

I'm typing this from my hotel room in Rochester MN, where I've already been in residence for a month, principally to undergo CAR-T cell therapy. I just received the infusion of the new T-cells last week, yet will need to remain in town through April to make sure the integration goes smoothly. Mayo is currently the only location worldwide where CAR-T is offered on an outpatient basis. I go into Mayo (two blocks away via carpeted underground tunnels) every day and get looked over by the CAR-T team. Mostly this is routine (knock on wood), and I'm done in less than an hour. The rest of the day I'm free. 

This only works because Mayo is large and forward looking. They made the commitment to this therapy some years ago and now have a dedicated suite location within their sprawling complex where a trained staff of 20 focuses solely on CAR-T treatment for blood cancers, under the auspices of their hematology department. In a few years they will have developed the in-house capacity to do the genetic work as well. One stop shopping.

What an exciting time to be alive! CAR-T only received FDA approval as a treatment for MM 18 months ago, and I am riding the crest of the advances being made in blood cancer treatment.

Process Trainings This Spring

Much as I enjoy watching sports (and benefitting from the latest advances in cancer research), life is much more than just enjoying the efforts of others from the sidelines. It's a participatory sport. With that in mind, Let's talk about what I can do for you. 

I have lined up a number of hands-on learning opportunities this spring—all via Zoom—that build on my 40 years of community living experience and 35 years as a cooperative group dynamics specialist.

In chronological order, I'm offering:

10-hour courses produced by the Foundation for Intentional Community

1. Aging Gracefully in Community • 5 two-hour sessions delivered on consecutive Thursdays • March 30-April 27

If we live long enough, we all reach our senior years. This course will help you understand how to make the most of those years, and how intentional community can be a terrific context for it.

2. Participation & Work in Community • 5 two-hour sessions delivered on consecutive Tuesdays • April 4-May 2

A close look at the myriad ways groups get bogged down over member contributions to the maintenance and well-being of the community, along with ideas about how to set up a high-functioning program.

3. Working with Conflict in Community • 5 two-hour sessions delivered on consecutive Thursdays • May 11-June 8

Understanding the imperative of groups being able to work constructively with feelings, and how to do it. 

For each of the above, clink on the hyperlink for details about costs and timing.

Two-year course produced by CANBRIDGE, my process consulting collective

4. Integrative Facilitation & Leadership Training 

This two-year program consists of 8 three-day weekends, spaced approximately three months apart (allowing ample time for integration and practice between sessions).

I pioneered this training program in 2003. Since then I've delivered it 15 times. It's the most fun thing I do. The faculty for the course will be myself and two accomplished former students, Penny Sirota and Brent Levin.

Each weekend will be organized around one or more components of the facilitator's skill set. In addition to a set of handouts germane to the teaching themes of that session, there will be an opportunity for in-depth practice with the material to make sure the principles are well understood. That said, the bulk of each weekend will be devoted to student teams preparing for, delivering, and debriefing the facilitation of live meetings for a volunteer group with real issues—all under the guidance and safety net of the trainers. (I figure you'll learn faster how to swim if we throw you into the deep end of the pool right away—with appropriate life rings—rather than watching me swim or hearing stories about it.)

Teaching themes include:

• working with the whole person

• working content (the facilitator's basic tool kit)

• formats & containers

• consensus (how to work issues effectively)

• conflict (working with emotions)

• diversity & privilege

• foundational personal work

• power & leadership

• organizational structure (the key committees and their functions)

• delegation

• challenging personalities

No prior facilitation experience is needed—you just need curiosity about how things can function well in cooperative culture, and a willingness to learn.

There are two ways to participate in the course: 

a) As a full student, you are eligible to do the live facilitating, receive 1:1 time with a trainer (personal mentoring), and a detailed written report from me about your live facilitating, including what you did well and where you can improve.

b) As an auditor, you can participate in all classroom activities and will receive all handouts, but are not eligible for doing live facilitating, or the same degree of personal attention as a full student.

This newest edition of the training—my 16th—begins June 22-25, 2023, and will run through March 6-9, 2025.

While there is an upper limit of 18 in the class, there is still room for a few more to enroll.

For additional details (including cost), or to reserve your space in the course, write me at

Is it time to make a transition in your life?

Sunday, March 12, 2023

The Genius of Indigenous Culture

Over the winter holidays I read a fascinating book that I picked up on whim while Xmas shopping at one of Duluth's indie bookstores: Covered with Night, by Nicole Eustace.

It's well-researched historical fiction, examining the machinations surrounding the murder of a native fur hunter by two white traders in eastern Pennsylvania while dickering over the price of the hunter's pelts in February 1721—fully three centuries ago. This occurred at a frontier outpost some 30 miles west of Philadelphia, which at that time was a burgeoning, yet modest trade center and port on entry. William Penn, the founding Quaker, had just died (in 1718), and Pennsylvania was in the midst of trying to sort out who would control the colony and whether it would remain in Quaker hands.

The power of the narrative is that the dialog and thoughts are extrapolated from detailed diaries kept by Quaker officials who were part of the Philadelphia town council at the time, as well as the correspondence of other key white players. While there was (apparently) no source material available from indigenous people, there was nonetheless plenty of critical statements about the actions and motivations of the white players because of the ongoing tensions between Quakers and non-Quakers.

On the indigenous side, the largest player was the Haudenosaunee—otherwise referred to as the Iroquois Confederacy—an aggregation of five tribes in the northeast: the Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, and Cayuga (just after the seminal incident that the book is based around, the Tuscarora joined the Confederacy, making it six nations). While other regional tribes were also part of the mix, I want to focus in particular on the role of the Haudenosaunee in this reflection.

Eustace does a terrific job of unpacking the varied ways in which the Eurocentric and Indigenous cultures differed and often misunderstood each other, a problem that has persisted throughout US history, often with tragic and outrageous consequences.

In no particular order, here are some of the contrasts illuminated by Covered with Night:

A. Relationship to Gender

While there were gendered occupational roles among the native peoples, when it came to decision-making, the views of tribal women were taken every bit as seriously as those of tribal men. The Haudenosaunee would simply not proceed on an important tribal issue until they'd heard from the women. This stands in sharp contrast with the European practice of not even asking women what they thought, or allowing them to hold political office.

B. Relationship to Integrity

In reading about the Haudensaunee's emphasis on personal integrity, I was reminded of the first of Miguel Ruiz' tenets for living a quality life: be impeccable with your word, which essentially means keeping your commitments and walking your talk. This is laid out in depth in his 1997 book, The Four Agreements. Not surprisingly, Ruiz' writing is a distillation of ancient Toltec wisdom, helping people to live in right relationship with themselves, with others, with life itself, and with God (if your cosmology includes the concept of a supreme spiritual entity).

While such guidance may not seem that special, the white folks on the scene struggled mightily with it—then as now. They would repeatedly make promises to indigenous people that they would not keep (setting the tone right away for a pattern of treaty violations that continued for centuries). And it was even worse than that. The Quaker Meeting based in Philadelphia came out solidly against slavery about a decade before this murder incident, yet all the wealthy Quakers in town owned and traded in slaves. Hypocrisy R Us. 

Further, it is no little thing that the two brothers who committed the murder represented the European law in their segment of Pennsylvania. Oops!

Among whites, apparently, personal integrity is standard you hold others to. If you question that as a relevant part of our white heritage (given that it happened 300 years ago), reflect on what we're seeing among us today, where the outrageous lies and behavior of Donald Trump, George Santos, and Fox News can be documented and exposed and it's not clear that there are consequences. Among the Haudenosaunee you would be held accountable for your word.

C. Relationship to Land

The Haudenosaunee, like most indigenous tribes, did not view land as a privatized commodity, and thus they had trouble understanding the white's continued interest in expanding farmland (and fencing it in) and obtaining mineral rights to traditional native lands. In indigenous thinking, the land was an asset held in trust for all. Among Europeans, it was an asset in which to store wealth, and suitable for exploitation at the owner's sole discretion. All manner of mischief ensued from this discrepancy of perspective.

While the native approach may not have been the acme of regenerative agriculture, they had been productively working the land for centuries before the whites arrived. The contrasting European style was to emphasize quick returns. Once the land's natural fertility had been depleted, they simply moved further west.

D. Relationship to Justice

A key element of the cultural misunderstandings was a profound difference in how justice was perceived. While the Haudenosaunee sense of justice had evolved (over a long time) into one that emphasized reconciliation and relationship repair, Europeans were locked into a focus on retribution, punishment, and assignment of blame. Reputedly, the dying words of the native hunter were, "My friends have killed me," indicating that even after having received a mortal wound, he continued to view his attackers as his friends (with whom he'd done business in the past).

Where the Iroquois tried to reinforce good behavior through the reward of connection and a secure place in the tribe, the Europeans were attempting to control aberrant behavior through threat of punishment and loss of freedom. One used the carrot; the other the stick. Where the Haudenosaunee expected gifts from the Europeans as a token of what value they placed on a good relationship with them (all the more important when that relationship had been strained), the Europeans interpreted that expectation as compensation, more like a fine. As such, the signals were constantly being misconstrued.

E. Relationship to Relationship

The whites saw the indigenous people as inferior (essentially as children and undeveloped), consistently misunderstanding that other cultures may not only be well developed, but better adapted. It is fundamentally different to be trying to outcompete or dominate those around you, versus trying to coexist peaceably with your neighbors. Where Europeans were looking for edges and information to file away for future advantage; indigenous peoples were looking for ways to find harmony and file away edges and rough spots.

F. Relationship to Intentional Communities Today

In reading this story I was profoundly struck by the parallel between the culture that the Iroquois Confederacy had consciously chosen (moving away from embracing war as a solution to problems) and what intentional communities strive to create as cooperative culture, as a distinct alternative from the competitive and adversarial mainstream culture of the dominant society.

To be clear, I don't think intentional communities are consciously trying to emulate indigenous culture (though there may be some of that in places). Rather I think it's a matter of a good idea resurfacing independently at a different point in history, because of the inequity and misery that's endemic in modern society, and the compelling need to integrate better with the natural world.

I find it incredibly heartening to learn that the cultural path we community builders are trying to define is one that has been trodden before. 

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Swimming in Liminal Waters

Over the course of my 35-year career as a group process professional, I've gradually been developing a deeper appreciation for working intuitively—trusting my sense of what to do in a given situation, even if a rational explanation is out of reach in the moment of choice.

I recently experienced a profound expansion of what is possible in this realm when given the unusual opportunity to work with a group for nine days straight—in person, no less. The group had been around for decades but found itself in a very deep hole, with major unresolved interpersonal tensions, low trust, and no willingness to work on relationship repair. Ugh.

Each day my work partner and I would discuss what we'd try to do with the group to evoke the positives and ameliorate the negatives. It was tough sledding, and many of my ordinary tools were off the table. So we had to wing it. 

When I work with a client, my habit is to clear my calendar for the duration of the work cycle, and fully immerse myself in their reality. When doing so, I elevate my energy and enhance my focus. Essentially, I'm all in. 

Much more commonly, the outer limit of my direct work with a client is 48 hours (Friday evening to Sunday afternoon). Rarely that has stretched to three or four days. So nine days was a whole other kettle of fish.

The problem wasn't figuring out where to help (there was no end of things in that category); the problem was figuring out how to sequence the engagement such that we drew out as much poison as possible, and sensitively gave them every chance to find a path forward that would allow the community to continue with its current membership. 

When working over a weekend it's fairly common for me to go to bed at night with an open question about how to proceed the next day and have the answer emerge from my sleep cycle. That is, I awake with clarity about how to proceed that I didn't have the night before. In fact, this has happened frequently enough that I've come to trust it—even though I don't understand how it works—and is part of how I've developed my intuitive muscles.

What was eye-opening about my recent gig-in-residence was that I did this every night for nine days.

Following that there was an echo of this when I crafted my after-action report, summarizing what was accomplished, my analysis, and outlining the work remaining. Three times I went to bed thinking about how best to frame what I had to say… and three times I woke up in the morning with clarity about how to proceed.

As a facilitation trainer, for a long time I have emphasized what I style "riding two horses," by which I mean paying attention to what is said, as well as the energy with which it is conveyed and received. Now I've come to embrace the additional nuance of developing and learning to trust one's intuition—inspirations about how to understand and engage that operate below the rational level. It's a different kind of knowing, yet no less potent.

The image I hold around this is developing sufficient confidence to commit to an action without knowing what it will engender, because it feels right. Think of it as committing your weight forward to take a step without knowing where the floor is, trusting that it will be there when your foot comes down.

We humans are such fascinating and nuanced creatures. What a blast I'm having exploring new rooms in the house that is my life.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Musings about Modern Life

I just got back from10 days of immersion at Ionia, a 35-year-old community in Kaslilof, AK that requested my help with community dynamics. My experience there—in the company of my work partner, Sarah Ross—brought to the surface of our consciousness a number of choices we mostly take for granted (because it's the water we swim in), and I was reflecting on that this morning.

1. Flush toilets

Ionia doesn't have them. Sarah and I have divergent histories on this. I have 41 years of community living under my belt—all of which were in communities that didn't have flush toilets. When you sprinkle in about year of wilderness camping over my lifetime, this was not new territory for me. For Sarah it was more challenging. Yes, she'd done some primitive camping, so she knew the principles, but it wasn't what she was expecting, and she had to cope.—which she did with excellent grace.

The main argument is that flush toilets are combining two resources (potable water and human excrement—a fertilizer, whence the term night soil) to create black water, a potentially toxic waste that must be dealt with safely through sewage treatment, either municipally or on site. While this expense may make more sense in urban settings where they are obliged to prioritize public health (originally to deal with cholera and typhoid in the 19th Century, but god knows what all today), in rural settings there is room to rethink the cost/benefit ratio—especially in light of shrinking water resources and innovative technologies for safely composting human manure—something China, Korea, and Japan have been dealing with more sensibly all along.

2. Access to high-speed internet

In contrast with the primitive plumbing, we had good internet access in our suite (an enclave in the basement of the common house). Because much of Ionia's commitment in simple living paralleled my experience at Sandhill, I understood what had happened. The community was launched in 1987, at the dawn of the Information Age , and they weren't thinking about computers, and wanted to limit exposure to mainstream media. Eventually it made more sense to embrace computers and access to the internet—while still discouraging televisions. They have a media room in the common house where members watch movies, and of course, people can easily stream television shows in their private spaces, so it's a slippery slope. But Sandhill did the same dance and I get it.

3. Privacy

As mentioned above, Sarah and I were bivouacked in a small suite in the basement of the common house. It was modest, but no different than what members were allotted who also resided in the common house. We had a door which opened to a modest common space with a table, a couch, and a chair. We also had a small fridge and an electric kettle where we could make tea and coffee. Separated by curtains, we each had our own sleeping space off the common area, partitioned by movable shelves that extended to six feet, providing visual separation, but not acoustic. Fortunately, this was not a big deal for either Sarah and me (as we are not particularly private people), though we paused to reflect on how that would likely have been more challenging for our romantic partners, or even for other work partners.

I found the openness that's encouraged in community living to be refreshing and honest, but I have also learned that it is too much octane for others, and some bridges are too far to cross. It didn't even occur to me to ask about accommodations before agreeing to come to Ionia, and, in retrospect, I'm surprised that the community didn't bring it up. Fortunately, it wasn't a problem, but it could have been a stressor that got in the way our doing our best work.

4. Common house construction

The thing about community buildings is that they are snapshots of community values and sensibilities that last a long time. While the community evolves and moves on, the building lasts, and it serves as a testament to where you were when it was designed and constructed. In the case of the Ionian common house, it was log construction and very large, built many years ago. It was a million dollar investment that features three stories, high ceilings, and room for many group functions. While it has well-insulated walls and ceilings, and hydronic floor heating (where hot water is circulated through pipes embedded in the concrete basement floor), it must be fierce to keep that building warm through the cold Alaskan winters. I can hardly imagine how much wood they have to go through, and the labor that entails. In consequence, the building was heated, but not toasty. People wore long sleeves and hats to the meetings, and regularly huddled near wood stoves. I understood the balancing act—we had made the same choices at Sandhill, though our buildings were smaller and fewer, and our winters milder.

Since the common house was built, the community has learned new and better techniques for construction, including timber frame and light clay straw slip. Today they would build the common house differently. Meanwhile, they have what they have, and are trying to make the best of it.

The other room (besides our basement suite) where Sarah and I spent a lot of time was the media room (where the community watched movies and held meetings). Apropos movie watching, it had a low ceiling and dim lights—perfect for movies, but a strain for meetings. The room held the energy, and but the dimness cast a pall on the energy and low lighting made it a challenge to read facial expressions across the room. I think it might have played differently in other seasons, but we were already in winter (8-12 inches of snow fell while we were there, and the ambient temperature never rose above freezing). Dawn didn't occur until halfway through the morning meeting.

5. Diet

Ionia was founded on a commitment to a macrobiotic diet, which is strong on brown rice, local vegetables, lacto-fermentation, no meat or dairy, and no coffee or alcohol. While there has been some easing off of being strict about those principles, there remains a strong focus on fresh and local food that is still largely macrobiotic. Food is a rallying point in the community, and Sarah and I consistently enjoyed excellent dinners in rotation among people's households over the course of our 10 days on campus. 

It was a balm to relax in the warmth and ease of eating together after meetings focused on what's being hard in the community (which was what we did during the day and was the reason we were there). The hospitality around food was superb.

6. The Malling of Alaska

Finally, I want to share a poignant story about our hosts. Being mindful that their commitment to simple living is not something familiar or comfortable to all visitors, we fielded multiple offers in our first days to take a trip to town (by which they meant Soldotna, a village on 4000 that's 30 minutes away and features a mall) where we might enjoy a cheeseburger or go shopping. While both Sarah and I occasionally do those things, we did not crave them and politely declined.

Our hosts were being mindful and had learned over time that many visitors benefit from a dose of mainstream culture to sustain their balance while at Ionia. It was a sweet gesture. To be sure, we asked for a few creature comforts and they were graciously supplied: I got coffee and half-and-half (no, oat milk was not an acceptable substitute for my morning ritual) and Sarah got bananas and yogurt. We tried to be low-maintenance visitors, and they tried to be good hosts. I thought we both did well.

Overall, it was good to be reminded that "normal" lifestyle choices can often be usefully questioned. That's why they call it "intentional community."

Friday, October 28, 2022

My Senior Moments

This year I've had the opportunity to be part of a team of instructors delivering a five-week webinar (10 hours in total) entitled Aging Gracefully in Community, being produced through the Foundation for Intentional Community (FIC). The second incarnation of this webinar will happen over five consecutive Wednesdays. It started Oct 26 and will run through Nov 23.

I'm teaching the first and third classes, and preparing for them has provided me the occasion to reflect on where I'm at with my life as a senior—something I strongly advise other seniors to do. I also crossed the threshold of my 73 birthday this past week, which is as good a time as any to step back and take stock.

I stepped down as the main administrator of FIC at the end of 2015, retiring from one of my two careers after a 28-year run. As it happened, I discovered immediately afterwards that I had multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer, which knocked me back for a time. After spending the bulk of 2016 in treatment (I benefited greatly from excellent care at a local hospital, and from a stem cell transplant at Mayo Clinic), I have been able to manage the cancer and recover sufficient strength and stamina to resume my other career—the one I haven't retired from—teaching and consulting about cooperative group dynamics.

This ongoing passion is something I've been doing since 1987, specializing in working with intentional communities and working with the whole person (not just the rational part). When I got a second chance on how my senior years might play out (I was pretty far down the well when the cancer was discovered in early '16 and might not have made it back), that served as a wake-up call. Colors were a little brighter, and there is nothing quite like near-death to sharpen the concentration and appreciate the preciousness of what you have. It's an opportunity to strip away the drek and prioritize the joy.

Well, continuing my career in group process was an easy call (so long as I retain solid cognitive skills, knock on wood), as that definitely brings me joy, It's my main venue for social change work, and it's simultaneous my main impetus for personal work. A hard to beat combo.

That said, my relationship to this work has evolved, and never more so than in the last three years. Let me count the ways:

(Actually everything evolves, though we are not always paying attention, or willing to reconsider things in light of new information. I have a good friend who once shared the insight, Don't you sometimes just long for the unexamined life? Hah! Personal work can be grueling! And it's sobering to absorb that it never ends—you never actually reach the top of the mountain.)

• Marked increase in divisiveness and the breakdown of cicil discourse—not just at the macro political level; I'm talking about the dynamics in communities as well.

• Social impact of the pandemic and the strain on cooperative groups as people weathered a long stretch of limiting how much they saw one another in the same room. (This has been especially hard on extroverts.)

• Discovering that Zoom can be an effective delivery tool for teaching and consulting. Not the same as working in-person, to be sure, yet more.nuanced and potent than I suspected at the outset.

• Increased opportunities to teach.

• Balancing immediate needs with strategic planning (it's hard to complete long rang projects when I manage opportunities on the LIFO inventory system).

Here's how all of this had impacted the various segments of of my work:

—Blog and articles

While I've spent markedly less time writing for public consumption the last three years, it's not because I've run out of things to say. It's because I've run out of time to write them, in deference to crafting handouts, client reports, slide shows for Zoom trainings, agendas, professional evaluations, and treading water with email (which includes a sharp up tick in student correspondence). Some of this is remunerative. Most of it is not. In any event, I'm not writing less; I'm writing differently. (Although my blog postings have been way down, I still managed to get four articles posted in Communities magazine this past year.)


Not counting conference workshops (I've done more than 100 in my career) I've been actively teaching since I pioneered my signature two-year facilitation training in 2003 (see below). That said, the pandemic gave a rocket boost to online offerings, and I'm along for the ride. Since 2019 I've tripled how much time I spend teaching. Fortunately, I love it, and it aligns well with my desire to be an agent for positive social change. Unfortunately, it means there's less time for everything else. (I'm even teaching an 8-part series, Learning to Play Bridge, through a local community ed program, and I love that, too!)

—Writing books about group dynamics

This is getting the short end of the stick. I don't prioritizing it, because it's anguishing for me to turn down client requests to protect time for books. My motivation is further undercut by the knowledge that pretty much everything I want to say in a book has already been captured in my blog—it just isn't organized as well as a book would be. Though I haven't given up, I'm definitely noticing that I'm not getting to the work.

—Integrative Facilitation Training (IFT)

I started this course 19 years ago and have now delivered it 16 times. It's the most fun thing I do on a regular basis. The teaching emphasizes an experiential model, where two-thirds of each weekend is devoted to students preparing for, delivering, and debriefing live meetings for a host group, who provides real issues for the students to cut their teeth on, under professional guidance. Students get practice facing live ammunition, and host groups get free outside help with sticky issues—everyone benefits.

I've noticed recently that it's becoming harder to reconcile the active needs of the host with the pedagogical needs of the course. It happens like this: hosts, understandably, want to get maximal benefit from outside help and typically select difficult topics—things where they have struggled on their own. While that is useful training for the students (coping with the nontrivial), topics that are freighted with tensions (often the most troublesome kind) require dealing with the tensions first, before moving on to problem solving, and often it's hard to effect the relationship repair and get deeper into the topic in the time allotted. Thus, students get a fair amount of practice working with tensions (good) but not so much with problem solving (which is a problem).

Most groups are poor at working through tensions, understanding how to productively work issues, or how to use plenary time effectively—all which are things I know how to do and try to emphasize when I teach. In an effort to have the group work where it needs the most help (for example, learning how to use plenary time well) the students don't get as much practice using formats that enhance inclusivity (but come at a cost of slowing things down). It's a dilemma when host needs doesn't align well with what the students need. So this is on my mind right now.

The Next Round of IFT

Incidentally, if you're interested in my thinking about cooperative group dynamics, there is no single better way to absorb (in both your head and your body) the breadth of what I and my fellow trainers have come to understand about this field than by enrolling in one of my two-year trainings, where you'll get to be in a special learning milieu for eight 3-day weekends, spaced approximately three months apart.

While the surface focus of the training is how to understand and make good decisions (as the facilitator) when responding to the complexities and complications of plenaries trying to make inclusive decisions, the utility of the training is much broader than that. 

• The context of the IFT course is understanding the secular dynamics of community, and we are committed to doing that both by discussing and analyzing community, and be being a community for the two years we are together. That means we speak from our hearts as well as our heads; we speak transparently and we speak with compassion. When stuff comes up in class—we talk about it. We teach the moment as much as the curriculum. We strive for a level of engagement and authenticity that is rarely found in this vale of tears.

• We expect everyone to be doing personal work in relationship to the materials. Good facilitation is not just learning formulaic responses, or memorizing scripts. While we offer templates, we don't teach paint-by-number facilitation; we teach heart-centered facilitation where practitioners learn to integrate thoughts and feelings, and to identify and trust their instincts.

• It turns out that facilitation training is also leadership training, as the overlap in skills and mind set are nearly identical. Thus, students can benefit from the training even if they never facilitate meetings, because it will help them fill leadership roles—in community, at work, or even in their family—with confidence and clarity. It also helps students be better followers, and better meeting participants (because they have a better sense of what the facilitator is trying to do).

Note: While I expect to continue training facilitators for as long as I can, there's no telling how much sand I still have in the upper half of my hourglass, so you might want to sign up sooner than later if you think IFT might be a good fit for you. My next training, which will be Zoom-based, will start Jan 12 and there's still room for more as of today. If this tickles your fancy, send me an email ( and I'll give you the full picture.

• • •

I get it that seniors use their latter years in a wide variety of ways, and I respect that this is a very personal choice. It's not for me to tell others what to do. Nonetheless, for what it's worth, I am offering this overview of how I'm spending a significant portion of mine.

Note I have not written about the other major components of my life: time with my partner, Susan; staying connected with family and friends; indulging in my recreational pastimes of celebration cooking, duplicate bridge, solving the daily NYT crosswords, and travel (tonight I fly to Anchorage for two weeks with a community on the Kenai Peninsula—a place I've never been to before—marking the first time I will have traveled to work with a client in person in 31 months). 

While the pace of my life has changed considerably (remember, I'm half retired), I see no reason to ship my oars and drift off into the sunset. I believe in an engaged life, and that generally means sailing close to the wind. The challenge is how best to do that as conditions around me shift, as well as my capacity and physical limitations. With all these parts in motion, there is a constant need to reassess and make adjustments. It goes with the territory. For all of that, however, there is no question about whether or not to try. I still get up every morning wondering how I can get best into what the late John Lewis characterized as "good trouble."