Monday, March 31, 2008

Ode to Parsnips

March is going out like a lamb.

There's a steady, moist breeze out of the South, promising fecundity. The frogs are happy and sing to tell you so. The temperatures have jumped into 70s today and we're having one of those weird inversions that characterize how spring arrives in the Midwest: yesterday morning we had the wood stove fired up to counteract the overnight frost; today we have the doors wide open so that the outdoor warmth can heat the house!

If the calendar and thermometer were not enough to suggest spring, this past weekend we experienced two sure signs at the dinner table: the last of the potatoes and first of the parsnips.

To be sure, we still have potatoes held back for seed (most years we can get some in the ground before Easter, but that holiday came early this year and the warm weather didn't), but there won't be any new ones available before June. There's sadness in that, yet the new crop tastes more delicious for being seasoned by a few months of privation. And besides, now we have parsnips!

March and early April are the best times to harvest these unpretentious beauties, just when you can discern their location by the surging growth of their green tops
(after that they get too starchy and woody). While you can dig them in the fall, their flavor and tenderness are much enhanced by winter's cold (and March is when you are most interested in fresh food; in November the larder is full to overflowing).

Sweetness and peak flavor are unique to each crop. Parsnips are like persimmons, Brussels sprouts, and peppers—it's better to wait and let them fully mature. This is in sharp contrast with the best strategy for corn, peas, and beets—crops where it is optimum to pick them just when they reach adult size. For okra, zucchini, and asparagus it's best to pluck them while they're still adolescents—by the time they're adults it's too late.

As a child growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, we obtained our food at the local A&P. Parsnips there were pale, tapering roots sealed in wax. We never bought them and I couldn't understand why anyone would. But that was before I moved to Sandhill Farm and we started growing our own. Few things are so startlingly different in taste as freshly picked tomatoes, lima beans,… and parsnips. Sliced thin and fried in butter they are ambrosial. All the more so because they are the very first of our 2008 crops.

Winter is now officially over.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Nuances of Consensus with Back-up Voting

Today I'm going to explore the dynamics of groups using consensus with a provision to vote in the case of a stalemate (it is the companion piece to what I posted two days ago). This will be a play in four acts.

Act I: The dynamics of having the option to vote at all
I know groups which have a provision to vote in their bylaws but never use it—even after a couple decades. In situations like this, the group has grown to trust consensus and they truly operate as if the voting back-up were never there. It's abhorrent for them to consider voting, even though they have an agreement on the books making it legitimate.

However, if the group does exercise its right to vote, at least occasionally, all members will know that it's a possibility and that awareness has a subtle affect on the dynamics of conversations whenever the group is struggling to find its way. In true consensus (where there is no voting), the train isn't leaving the station until everyone is on board. It is the whole group's responsibility to find an answer that everyone can accept.

If there's a voting back-up however (the club in the closet), then those in the majority position on an issue can start to relax, because they know that time is on their side. If the minority cannot persuade others to join them before the clock expires on consensus, the club will come out of the closet and they'll lose the vote that will break the deadlock. Worse, if you are fairly sure you'll be voicing an unpopular opinion, you may decide to keep quiet—just to avoid the anguish associated with being isolated and losing a vote (why go through the hassle?). And anything that works to erode the environment in which people are encouraged to voice their views can be a mortal wound to consensus.

If a group gets in the habit of reaching for a vote frequently, it will eventually subvert the culture of consensus and the group will start behaving like a voting group (with a veneer of lip gloss about its commitment to inclusivity). Voting will start being used to circumvent the objections of individuals who are frequently difficult to deal with (either because of their positions or their personalities, or both), and the claim of making decisions by consensus will become a sham. If your group moves in this direction and is OK with it, then I recommend you abandon consensus all together and embrace voting officially as your decision-making process. Pseudo-consensus is worse than voting.

The litmus test here is the energy in the room when people disagree in plenary about non-trivial issues. Is it caustic or curious? Is it cantankerous or cooperative? While this is a challenge for consensus groups of all stripes, for those with a voting back-up much depends on how frequently the group reaches into the cloak room and takes out the cudgel.

Act II: A situational escape clause
While some consensus groups don't think of it, there is always the option to make a decision—by consensus, of course—to make an exception for how a particular decision will be made. You don't need a bylaws revision for this either. You just need minutes stating that "The group agreed by consensus to determine the color of the Guest Room bathroom by throwing darts at a color wheel." Or you could decide (by consensus) to make a decision about the (overdue) proposed 2008 budget by a 2/3-majority vote. [This last example is a reference to the specifics I described in my previous blog.]

While the minority, who might reasonably expect to be outvoted, may object to switching from consensus to a 2/3-majority vote, you may be surprised. In any event, there's no harm in asking—so long as you've made a reasonably thorough effort to consider the issue and resolve any concerns through your normal process first.

Act III: Defining when voting can be invoked
There needs to be a clear understanding about the conditions under which a stalemate is declared and voting can be invoked. (Note that you should also be clear about the kind(s) of voting that may be used: simple majority of all members, 2/3-majority, 80% of those in the room, secret ballot, show of hands, etc.)

An example of this might be: "There need to be at least two plenaries where proposals for dealing with an issue have been thoroughly considered before the voting back-up can be invoked to decide what to do at the next plenary."

Or: "If there is a plenary at which a proposal on a topic is considered and the group agrees at the end of the consideration that: a) everyone has had an adequate opportunity to state their views on the matter; b) there has been no progress made on resolving substantive differences among members despite there having been adequate time in the mtg to do so; and c) there is no expectation that 'aging' will help move the issue forward, then the group can invoke the voting back-up to determine what to do at the next plenary."

While you can't think of everything, it is important to be as explicit as possible in laying this out. Remember: you'll be applying this protocol only at times where there appear to be irreconcilable differences, so you cannot expect good will to be oozing out of everyone's pores. Clarity in the conditions will be invaluable in navigating this moment without weathering claims of foul play.

Act IV: Defining the process by which it will be determined whether the conditions in Act III have been met
There needs to be a clear process by which the group will consider whether the conditions necessary to invoke voting have been met. You may think this is simple, but it ain't necessarily so. Let's go back to the two examples of conditions-to-invoke that I offered above.

Questions about whether a particular plenary "counted" as one of the two required could surface along the following lines:
o Was there adequate announcement ahead of the mtg that this would be on the agenda?
o Were the minutes of the mtgs sufficiently complete and accurate?
o Were the minutes disseminated in a timely way?
o Were people known to be strong stakeholders on the issue and
out of town for one or both of the mtgs appropriately notified what was happening?
o Was the plenary consideration adequately "thorough"?
o Were there some plenaries at which this issue came up yet focused only on discussion and no proposals were offered (and thus don't count toward satisfying the protocol for invoking a vote)?
o What constitutes adequate advance notification that a vote is coming up on Topic X at the plenary to be held on Date Y?
o By what standard can you determine that reflection between mtgs is unlikely to produce movement?

As you can see,
there is plenty of room for ambiguity. Defining the process in the midst of a controversy about its application is a train wreck, and nobody wants that.

Epilogue: Minimizing the drama
Even if your group is crystal clear about what the voting back-up is and how it will be invoked, you still want to pay close attention to the energy around its use. There is a lot that a savvy group can do to minimize upset by careful work outside of plenary.

The politics of this dynamic are such that it's best to bend over backwards in an attempt to resolve the impasse without resorting to a vote. If everyone has the feeling that the group made an excellent effort to not let people become isolated in their differences, and gave them multiple chances to work things out in a variety of venues (plenary, small groups, one-on-one conversations, ouija board, outside consultant) the call for a vote and the experience of its application will land much more softly. Remember: what's at stake is more than just the disposition of the immediate proposal; you also need to be thinking about the long-term health of the group. If people feel a vote was rammed down their throats, it can be very expensive.

Here are some practical suggestions about what non-plenary laboring on a knotty issue can look like:
o Canvassing all people with remaining concerns one-on-one, to make sure that you've heard them accurately, and that they feel heard.
o Striking an ad hoc threshing cmtee comprised of all people with concerns and one or two skilled facilitators who help them attempt to iron out differences (separating the kernels of solution connection from the chaff of confusion and contentiousness).
o Posting a concise summary of remaining concerns and asking everyone to meditate on what might help the group through the impasse.
o Investigating the experience of similar groups when they've faced issues analogous to what you're wrestling with.
o Sometimes people balk at deciding the current issue because it represents leverage for them at getting the group to address a larger issue. Where that's the case, explore ways that commitments can be made to address the larger issue so that the proposal on the table is no longer being held hostage.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Dual Governance Means Dueling Governments

Earlier this week I got a call from a friend living in an intentional cmty. He wanted advice about the dynamics of using back-up voting when consensus seemed stalled—which is a great question. It involves both issues of governance and decision making, which I'll discuss separately.

The cmty property is owned by a homeowners association (HOA) and individuals own the homes (like a condominium). As far as the state goes, the legal entity is the HOA. As far as the cmty goes, the power resides in all the members (while there can be considerable murkiness about who is a member and what that means, I'll save that for another time), and decisions are made in the plenary (meetings of the whole). The cmty has a commitment to making decisions by consensus. However, the HOA bylaws (papers filed with the state) stipulate that in the event that the group fails to reach a decision by consensus, it can resort to a super-majority vote (in this case 2/3). To date, the HOA Board has essentially been rubber stamping whatever is decided in plenary, yet they have the legal right to do something else.

The situation driving the inquiry is that the cmty has been laboring since last fall to pass a budget for 2008. Some people are getting increasing frustrated and are ready to vote and move on (after all, the second quarter starts next week!). The person asking my advice sits on the HOA Board and he's been approached by a cmty member to have the Board use
their legal power to break the logjam.

The question I want to chew on today is:
Under what conditions, if any, would it be wise for the HOA Board to take an action that the cmty considers within its authority and has not reached agreement on?

The essential challenge here is serving two masters. If the two agree, there's no problem (though you might question how respectful it is of people's valuable time if you're having two different entities deliberating the same issues). If they disagree, now you have a problem. Who do you follow? When push comes to shove, who's running the cmty?

Let's look deeper. Legally, only homeowners can be members of an HOA, and the general way the power is parsed is one home=one vote. This is different than a cmty plenary—where all voices have the right to be heard and fully considered—because some households have more than one adult living there and not all people living in the cmty are homeowners. (Never mind the enriching, yet complicating input of minors, long-term guests, or absentees landlords.)

If the HOA Board is going to be more than a rubber stamp for plenary decisions (or perhaps a cmtee operating underneath the plenary's aegis), then homeowners will have clout that others do not. If this is actually exercised more than rarely, it will undercut the power of the plenary, which will quickly learn to look over its shoulder to see what the owners think on tough issues, lest their decisions be "overturned on appeal." Some members (owners) will be more equal than others, and this will tend to make a sham out of plenary deliberations since all decisions there will ultimately be subject to review by the HOA Board, whose authority has the weight of law.

I call this the club in the closet, and I strongly urge groups not to go down this road, which leads inevitably to lots of resentment and bad power dynamics. Better is to go entirely in one direction or the other: either make it clear that all power resides in the plenary and keep the HOA Board out of it, or make it clear that the owners make the decisions (while, hopefully, being genuinely interested in the input of all living in the cmty).

Having said all that, there can still be a useful and active role for the HOA Board. Let's consider the case of the gridlocked 2008 budget. Board members can jawbone with the resistance. That is, they can approach all the people who have their knickers in a twist over the budget and find out first-hand what their concerns are. If people ask, "Why are you coming to me about this?" the Board member can fairly respond: "I am an HOA Board member and technically on the hook if things don't get resolved about the budget. We need one to legally operate, and I'm motivated to be active in the attempt to get this resolved. I figured it would be helpful to have a personal conversation with as many members who hold strong views about this as possible." (Note: this answer may be persuasive to a budget-beleaguered member where an approach by Chris Citizen may not be; hence the special potential for the HOA Board to play a helpful role.)

What I'm suggesting here is that HOA Board members could be active in trying to improve the flow of information and building bridges between isolated parties. That is, they could be active in support of the plenary (rather than pulling their legal rights out of the closet and imposing a solution on the cmty). Caveat: if this work is already being done by others (pehaps the Finance Cmtee or the Process Cmtee), then it may not make sense for the HOA Board to duplicate it.

I'm suggesting a series of private or small group conversations where you make sure you understand people's concerns about the budget and you make sure they know you know (so they won't feel so isolated or misunderstood in their views). It is important to reach out to everyone known to have a concern; not just some of them. Done well, this has several potential benefits:

1. Being accurately heard and cared about is deescalating all by itself. It helps create a more friendly and creative environment when the topic next surfaces in plenary.

2. The answers may give you insights into ways to break the logjam.

3. If the differences ultimately prove to be irreconcilable, you have properly set the table to invoke the back-up vote… which I'll discuss in my next blog.

Monday, March 24, 2008

What’s Up with Laird?

During Sandhill’s annual retreat (which ran for five days last week), we do planning for the growing season ahead, approve the budget, and generally take stock of where we are as a group. Thursday we did a session on Feedback at Sandhill: how are we doing it now, and how do we want to be doing it?

Like a lot of groups, one of our trickiest dynamics is how to keep the channels of communication open when someone is upset. Our group is small (just six adults at the moment), and it wasn't too difficult to spotlight our most challenging pattern: we have two members who are generally willing to wade into volatile emotions, and four who are conflict averse and tend to get paralyzed when feelings escalate. Realistically, what are our options when one of the two who doesn't mind the heat gets triggered by the other? Unfortunately, this is the most common choreography for tension in our group, and while we all now have a better map of the forest, that doesn't mean there's an easy path through the trees.

In general, I think having a clear group understanding of a difficult dynamic does enhance the chances for future progress—because then it's possible in a stormy sea for even one person to name the known pattern and have the group latch onto that as a life preserver, pulling itself out of high water. We'll see how well that serves us in the months ahead.

• • •
The other feedback dynamic we discussed is a pattern involving me: the phenomenon of visitors who ask members, “What’s up with Laird?” There is an appreciable fraction of the people who come through our cmty who don't understand how I fit into the group, and some of them ask about it. This is a complex dynamic with a lot of factors, yet it's tender to me as someone who devotes his life to building cmty, yet is perceived by some to be unavailable for relationship.

Here are the factors:
o I am away from home about half the time. I travel both as the main administrator of FIC (attending a variety of mtgs and events focused on cmty) and as a process consultant. I love this work and it's good income for my cmty, yet it's obviously difficult for someone to get to know me when I'm not there.

o On top of that, my wife lives in Albuquerque and I'm highly motivated to spend time with her. Sometimes she comes to Missouri, but mostly I've gone to New Mexico. That means even more time away. (Fortuitously, that's about to change: Ma'ikwe intends to move to nearby Dancing Rabbit this summer, and there's a world of difference between having your partner live a 45-minute walk away or a 45-minute talk away.)

o A lot of my work at Sandhill relates to my networking and consulting work, which rarely overlaps with what others do. While they're interested and supportive, it's work I do alone.

o In addition, my Sandhill homesteading work tends to be stuff that others don't want to do. While it wouldn't have to be that way (no one has asked me to do this), I figure I'm most useful to the group work scene contributing in this way.

o I tend to work long hours and I tend to work quickly, both of which tend to be uncomfortable for others and reinforces my working alone.

o It is relatively common for people at Sandhill to report that their plates are full to overflowing and there are frequent calls for help with tasks. I try to respect this dynamic by looking for opportunities to help others while rarely asking for help with my tasks (I don't want to contribute to the sense of overload, I am OK with my own workload, and I don't mind working alone).

o My diurnal cycle doesn't match up that well with others'. While it's rare for others to work into the evening, I do regularly. Thus, while others tend to be socializing, I'm often at a computer keyboard crafting one more letter or report—or even composing a blog entry!

o I don't hang out much. That is, most people at Sandhill enjoy sitting around and casually connecting around the edges of the day, but that's not my style. I do it some, but not nearly as much as others. This kind of informal social intercourse is an important part of most member's relationships, and I don't tend to join in.

[To be clear, I value relationships by never missing mtgs, never spacing out in mtgs, periodically inquiring about how others are doing, and making it my highest priority to be present for direct communication whenever someone asks for my attention. I prefer to build relationships through focused conversations more than through casual ones.]

Beyond all this, my personality is off-putting to some. While most Sandhill members encourage visitors who ask "What’s up with Laird?" to ask Laird (a good response), at least some of the time the questioner replies that they’re too intimidated to make the attempt. Yikes!

When I asked last Thursday what other members understood that to mean, I got this smorgasbord of responses:
—I’m too busy
—I move too fast
—I miss evening meals more than others (and don't tend to linger when I do eat with everyone)
—I’m too intense
—I’m always on my way to something that seems important and it’s daunting to interrupt

While I don’t necessarily buy the “too” part, there’s truth in all of these perceptions. I'm different, and sometimes it's too difficult for others to attempt bridging the gap. I'm sad about this. It's awkward for the cmty, and I'm inadvertently contributing to low-level dissonance in the social flow of everyday life. Implied is that I'm missing out on some level of relationship that others are available (and even eager) for. That's not good.

At the same time, I like my life.
I have lots of meaningful and rich relationships (most of which are not at Sandhill), plus I'm comfortable with my pace and workload and am not asking others to match me there (though I am asking others to accept me there). It turns out that living with me is a diversity issue—which feels a little weird, but here we are.

What to do?
Though I remain at peace with my personality and my lifestyle, I want to move more toward the group, to reduce the tensions encapsulated in the query, "What's up with Laird?"

I'll be looking for ways I can work more frequently with others, and trying to attend a higher percentage of meals. I've also asked other members to tell me the next time a visitor has posed the magic question and then reported an unwillingness to approach me directly. Once I know about it I can take responsibility for initiating a conversation. Scary as that may be for the other person, I promise not to bite.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Health and Community

I recently received an email from Chris Greene, who had these comments about my Dec 29 blog Thinking of Geoph:

"My comment about Geoph's death is this: it just seems odd that it wouldn't be discussed why he died at such a young age. By this I don't mean him personally, but why would anyone in the communities movement die at a young age when I would assume one of the primary reasons to be in "community" would be to live a healthy lifestyle and to be happy, both of which one would assume would lead to a long life.

"Now obviously, I'm quite aware life isn't that perfect. We all have pasts and even the present can oftentimes be less than perfect. Also, I'm not trying to hold "intentional communities movement " up to some sort of perfect standard. But just to shrug it off and say well, "it was just the luck of the draw" or to think maybe one was just unlucky and breathed in a bit of plutonium dust from a nuclear test is somehow, seems to me, conveniently avoiding looking at the "communities movement" with less than a critical eye. A critical eye that might ask, how happy are people in the communities movement, really? How well are they eating, really?

"Death, I suppose, is ripe for ignoring. The young don't even think about it, and the old, perhaps, are rather terrified of it. Actually, I would imagine very old are quite comfortable with it, it's us baby boomers in the say 50 to 65 or 70 age group that death becomes a rather terrifying thing to consider just because we know how possible it is to die at a younger age nowadays.

"Anyway I guess you get the gist of my comment, which is again: does the communities movement need to be a healthier and happier place, or on the darker side, is it not as happy and healthy as it is being made out to be?"

Laird's reply:
I think this is a great topic. I have not given much thought to connecting Geoph's death at 57 to the general question of how healthy is cmty living. Communities magazine did an issue on the theme of Health & Healing back in 1999 (issue #102—available through the FIC website), and the general conclusion was twofold: 1) that cmty living itself is therapeutic (because there is a health benefit to simply being better connected and less alone or alienated); and 2) people living collectively (and under each other's caring, yet watchful eyes?) tend to make healthier choices about diet, exercise, and lifestyle.

As Chris points out, this does not mean that there is no disease or ill health in cmties; only that the incidence is noticeably less (and the home care support is much better). While I can't offer much in the way of statistics about this, it happens that I manage a self-insurance fund for income-sharing cmties (with a combined population of about 200) and I can offer this telling bit of relevant data: over the last 20 years we've experienced an average of just one health care claim per year exceeding $5000 in total costs (though, to be fair, there have been about that many again major health care needs where the bills were covered by insurance or other outside funding). That includes heart attacks, staph infections, hip replacements, breast cancer… you name it. Most people are blown away that our health care needs have been that low. I think it's directly related to cmty living being more healthy
—rather than cmty living being more lucky—though maybe we're both!

As far as death goes, I'm sure there are people in cmty who fear it (just as in the wider society), yet mostly I've been impressed with the touching stories of how cmties have helped create both sensitive and realistic environments in which to enjoy (even celebrate) one's final days and to say goodbye on one's own terms, with loving support and dignity. (Communities also did an issue on Dying—#50 in 1981—while it's a little long in the tooth, the topic, as they say, is ageless.)

I contrast this with the death of my father, who died of a heart attack in his sleep at age 72. While his ending was not protracted or painful, he did not die happy, and 72 isn't looking so old to me any more. By mainstream standards he was a "winner," by which I mean he had a successful business career, made a lot of money, and lived his retired years in a posh gated cmty on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. Yet for all of his money, he was a lonely
man with a drinking problem who had managed to alienate most of the people in his life. I think he was bitter at having "won" so little with his hefty bank account, and there is nothing about his life choices that I envy. For my part, I am looking forward to dying in cmty (though not for a while, I hope).

Chris further wrote:
"I guess I'll know soon if you want these type of comments on your blog. I've been interested in this movement all my life. I spent my 20s searching for the perfect community, living in some and then at 30 I began my life as an organic farmer for the next 20 years, full time. I'm 57 now, I have hep C., I just got divorced, I made some bad decisions and I have no idea what I'm going to do next. But this idea of "intentional community" still fascinates me, I think it has real potential, but I'm also a thinker and I'm thinking a lot more than I did when I was young. I'm thinking a lot more critically and reading a lot more books now. Some think critical thinking is being judgmental. I think judgmental is when it's directed towards an individual and that ideas and theories should be open for critical analysis."

Laird replies:
I think it's good to be a critical thinker. I reckon the key is the extent to which one is open to new input and rethinking earlier conclusions. We all have to make judgments in order to act, and you never have all the information (or can be 100% sure of its accuracy or relevance). The art is "knowing" when you have enough information to decide, and when there's enough new information to look again.

One of the reasons I like cmty living is that it's the best environment I know for fostering an atmosphere of curiosity and inquiry (which is not to say that cmties don't have any blind spots).

Maybe cmty will be a good home for you.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Happy Birthday, Lina!

Last Friday, Caroline Estes turned 80.

On Sunday, the cmty Caroline helped found in 1972 (Alpha Farm) threw a six-hour party for her at the Deadwood Community Center (which Alpha helped build a few miles down the road from their property tucked into the Coast Range of western Oregon). There was about one person present for every year of her amazing life, to help say thanks and raise a glass in salute. I was proud to be there, appreciating her moment in the sun that rainy spring day.

In preparation, Alpha pretty much shut down for two days, as all hands were on deck to help put the party together in a bustle of coordinated frenzy. Some barely slept the night before, baking cakes, peeling shrimp, and marinating chicken. The rain eased by mid-afternoon, and people started arriving. In addition to the Alpha members, there were ex-members from Eugene, Deadwood neighbors (some of whom moved to the area from out of state on Caroline's advice that it would be a good idea), and even the new guitar player who serenaded customers at the most recent Friday night dinner at Alpha-Bit (the cmty's gift shop cum restaurant strategically located in Mapleton, on the road connecting Eugene with Florence).

Lysbeth & Andrew's son, Morgan (born at the cmty nearly two decades ago and just off to college last fall), raced back from a kayaking trip in the San Juan Islands of Puget Sound to help celebrate “grandmother’s” special day. It had colicky babies and seniors; it had dear friends and people who know Caroline mainly as their semi-retired mail carrier; it had banjo pickers, raconteurs, and yarn-spinners of all stripes.

There was a former San Francisco street gang member who phoned in his congratulations. Caroline had worked with him more than 40 years ago, in her pre-Alpha days, and lost track of what had happened to him.
Now he’s a senior staffer for Senator Dianne Feinstein of California. (Jim, her husband of 50 golden years and an ex-newspaperman, had tracked him down on the sly and set up the call.) Bioregional author Kirkpatrick Sale sent a poem. In short, it was a microcosm of Caroline’s life, and a snapshot of the many lives that have been touched by hers.

We had so many outlets going to get the food ready that just before the main meal was served we blew the circuit breaker on the transformer and were without power for two hours. (Some were having such a good time that it was more than an hour before they figured out that the lights were out and the percolator no longer held hot coffee—they thought the candles were just mood lighting.)

I’ve known Caroline now for 21 years, a bit more than a quarter of her life and more than a third of mine. She’s been my consensus and facilitation mentor, my community networking peer, my friend, and occasional mah jongg partner. On Sunday I was happy to be a table setter, a dishwasher, and the guy who cooked the asparagus.

• • •
Secular consensus has its roots in the Religious Society of Friends. While I’m a major proponent of consensus, my spiritual credentials are no stronger than those of a lapsed Lutheran: Caroline, in contrast, is the real deal—a Quaker who learned clerking from the inside. Caroline taught me to be patient in front of a group (let the answer come to you; don’t force it), and I've never forgotten the dressing down she gave me in '91 about respecting one’s elders when I was a bit too quick on the reins with an older gentleman who had drifted off topic.

Years ago, she confided in me that as a child her nickname was “Lina.” For the most part, that name has rarely seemed the appropriate appellation for the woman I know, with a reputation for facilitating groups of 200+ obstreperous progressives, and capable of holding the more raucous in line with a mere glance and the raising of an eyebrow. However, for a few precious hours on Sunday, I witnessed her child-like enjoyment of the lavender and yellow helium balloons; her delight in the cake and champagne. There was sparkle in both her glass and her eye, and for that day she was indeed Lina.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Private Is More Public in Community

I’m working with two couples who are going through the painful process of trying to recover from a freshly uncovered affair where two people not in the same marriage jumped the fence and got together on the sly. As a further complication, both couples have been living in the same cmty, and they are all trying to figure out a way that they can still do so. It’s a mess.

While there’s nothing new about married people having affairs, I want to focus today on how this impacts the cmty, and the ways in which that context can be turned into an asset.

On the one hand, the cmty is another player in the equation. At some point, tensions between the couples (or even within a couple) cease being wholly private and spill over into cmty life. (Let me give you an example: imagine the now-informed cuckold being sarcastic and over-reactive in response to his wife’s lover’s proposal to the cmty about a new way to allocate parking spaces. Cmty members may need a more forthcoming response than “none of your business” in reply to a query about why he’s being so critical.) Can it ever be better to simply let people guess what’s happened? Is the part-fact-part-fiction distortions of the rumor mill ever better than the truth? I don’t think so.

Still, it can be excruciatingly hard to launder one’s intimate indiscretions in public and to share the hurt and pain with the full cmty. It can take a lot of moxie, and it’s not too hard to sympathize with those who feel too overwhelmed to make the attempt.

Communities involve a commitment by members to be more in each other’s lives than what you’d find in your average neighborhood—they’re called “intentional” for a reason. Unfortunately, most groups are rather casual about defining how much more, and it often takes a problem (or crisis) to make clear the extent that other members now see themselves as stakeholders in your well-being. Nowhere is that more tender than when a family gets into deep mud and the whole cmty gets splattered in the thrashing.

The good side of this closer connection is that you have the possibility of a broader network of support (think of how other cmty members will rally to provide food and succor for families in times of illness). The challenging corollary is that there is now a much wider circle of folks who are affected by your life and may expect to have a say in how things unfold. In the case of extramarital affairs, this can move you into an arena where you never expected to have the spotlight shine, much less be in the center of it.

To be sure, there are still boundaries of privacy in cmty—they’re just narrower. And perhaps fuzzier, since everybody doesn’t draw the lines in the same place and it’s difficult to find the motivation for the conversation short of a specific incident to push your nose into the ambiguity. At what point does a couple’s struggles become cmty business? Arguably, when the distress starts leaking into cmty interactions—which I’m defining broadly enough to include normal social interplay, not just maintenance and governance.

The two couples I’m working with have lived in the cmty for a while, and have already had first-hand experience with a prior affair (not involving any of them) being revealed to members via the grapevine. They all know how potentially damaging that can be—both for the cmty and the couples.

As hard as it is to face the music about embarrassing moments, in a situation like this it’s better that it’s your tune and your band. Not because the cmty has the right to tell the couples how to do their marriages (they don’t), but because the cmty needs to know what’s going on—in order to better understand why there’s tension, and how they can be of help to both couples as they work to repair their marriages. Cleaning out the wound may be painful, but it accelerates the healing.

Here’s the way I'm advocating doing this, all with the help of a strong facilitator:

1. Given the volatile feelings running in several directions among the two couples, the starting place needs to be an opportunity for each to tell their story and the emotions they've been going through. While I don't expect there to be ongoing friendships between the couples (given the depth of hurt and sense of violation that’s just occurred), I think it will go better for both partnerships if they can approach the cmty in a combined effort to tell the story and hear the cmty's responses. The hope here is: a) to establish a uniform story about what happened (to the extent possible); b) to give the cmty a chance to get the information all at the same time with all key players present; c) to define what support and healing will look like to all the key players (not that the answers will all be the same; but that the requests will all be on the table at the same time); and d) to steer clear of asking people to take sides.

In order to accomplish all this, it will go much better if all four people are allies in the attempt, and I don't see how that will be possible without first clearing the highly charged air among them.

2. If we weather the first step OK, next we’ll discuss what a constructive future will look like for each person, based on the assumption that both couples will continue to live in the same cmty. I’ll be asking each person to offer their best thinking about what they'll need to heal their damaged marriage (not just from their spouse, but from the other partnership, and from the cmty), how they'd like to participate in cmty life, and how they'd like to handle moments when someone from the other partnership triggers them (which we have to anticipate will happen).

3. Next we'll set up the mtg with the cmty. I favor asking for a special session (as soon as all four feel up to it), where the goals would be:

a. All four principals can tell their stories and their reactions. In addition, each couple can relate where they're at, how they're trying to heal, and what, if anything, they want in the way of support from the cmty to accomplish that. Included will be an opportunity for all four to state whatever boundaries they have for being approached about this in the future.

b. People can ask questions—which the four will answer if their willing and able—and the other cmty members will be given a chance to share their reactions. (I expect these will be all over the map: some will be outraged, some angry, some sympathetic; some sad; some scared; some will be blown away by the vulnerability—it will be a kaleidoscope of responses. No small part of the benefit of doing it this way is the value to the rest of the cmty of their hearing the breadth of each other’s responses and feeling emotionally connected in a troubled time.)

c. Unless any of the four have specific requests from the cmty, this will not be an action mtg; it will be a time for sharing and listening carefully from the heart.

It will be a tough mtg, yet it can also be very important one in its healing potential for both the couples and the cmty. And that’s the most exciting part, helping the cmty be a place where truth can land softly and be a catalyst for healing, rather than an invitation for tribunal and judgment.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Virtual Earwax

After 20 years as a process consultant, I’ve become convinced that one of the important skills a facilitator can learn is how to discern when someone in the room is sufficiently reactive that they’re ability to work accurately with the information around them is serious compromised. I call this virtual earwax.

When the upset is great enough, literally nothing gets through. The person in distress hears and remembers nothing of what others said. They only recall their upset (and likely their sense of feeling isolated and misunderstood). In consequence their ability to contribute to problem solving is totally skewed. If you want their thinking —and their commitment to any agreements the group makes—you’ll have to give them an opportunity to deescalate, or clean their ears.

This moment is delicate for several reasons.

First, you may misdiagnose what’s happening. There’s a knee-jerk tendency to project your symptoms of distress onto others and that can lead to all manner of mischief. Just because their behavior would indicate distress if it were your behavior doesn’t mean they’re upset! Where a raised voice and waving of hands are solid signs of distress for some, it may only indicate engagement for others. Is that person’s sullenness and tense expression in response to what people are saying, or are they just constipated? You have to know the individual’s range. And if you’re not sure, ask.

Second, The most common response to the emergence of upset is fear (bad things happen when people get upset—there’s likely to be name calling, blaming, and outright attacks—so I better lay low and get out of the line of fire) or upset in return (you’re upset with what just happened, and I’m upset that you’re upset—the conversation had been productive until you got triggered). Distress in response to distress does not tend to add up to good things, and it can be tricky getting off the emotional merry-go-round.

Third, there is often a negative response to how a person expresses their distress (it can be a particularly difficult moment to remember one’s commitment to I-statements), never mind the distress itself. Unfortunately, when a person is seriously triggered, observations about their behavior—no matter how out of line—tend to only fuel the reaction, not calm it. For most of it's counter-intuitive to reach out to someone who is attacking someone else, rather than first trying to come to the aid of the person under attack.

OK, let’s suppose you’ve accurately diagnosed that someone is upset, you’ve established that major distortion is under way, and you know you need to get that earwax out. How to proceed? While deescalating can follow a number of paths, in my experience the best first step is to describe the distress in words that the upset person acknowledges are accurate. That means showing the upset person that you get their feelings and what triggered them. It doesn’t mean you have the same reaction, or that you agree with them. It only means that you understand and acknowledge their experience. This is essential to interrupting their tendency to feel isolated and misunderstood in that moment. People don’t tend to stay as upset when they are accurately heard.

Hint: You’ll tend to be much more successful at this if you pay as much attention to the person’s affect as to their words. You are trying to show that you get them in both your head and your gut.

What happens next can look like a lot of things. It depends on a number of factors, such as:
—How bad the distortion is (how much earwax has built up)
—The skill of people in the room to work with distress without getting triggered themselves
—What works for the distressed person
—How badly you need to get back to the conversation
—How much trust the distressed person has in the group
—What support exists for the distressed person outside of group

If you are unsure what to do next, ask the distressed person what they’d like. In the end, it’s all about what works, not about reinforcing an orthodoxy about how to clean ears.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Family and Consensus

I'm in San Antonio this Sunday, recovering from my niece's nuptials yesterday. The wedding was lovely and it's great having a soft day to recover from the excitement and excesses of 250 people eating, drinking, and taking pictures until all hours of the night.

It was also the first time I'd been with all of my brothers and sisters (and their spouses) since my own wedding eleven months ago. Being with family is simultaneously one of the most rewarding and most challenging social dynamics I face, and that's what I want to write about today.

On the one hand, family represents my deepest roots, and is a connection that is very secure. On the other hand, my family patterns and history were mostly established during the years in which I was least socially evolved. They remember me as I was, and—even more embarrassing—I find it amazingly difficult not to behave as I did decades ago. It's humbling.

As an adult, I've lived in intentional cmty for the last 34 years. During that entire time, we've made decision by consensus, and that's meant learning a new way of solving problems and working through disagreements. in it's narrow sense, consensus is a way for groups to make decisions. in its broadest sense, consensus is a way of life. Nowhere do I face a greater opportunity to turn things around than when I'm with my family.

While occasionally I get a chance to make decisions with my family (like where to eat dinner last Friday evening), mostly it's just a matter of trying to navigate informal social contact. If I'm on my game, I can simply be curious about other people's perspectives and experiences—letting go of whether that's reciprocated. Instead of being eager to tell my stories, I can be eager to listen to theirs. I can practice the art of connecting one person's story with another's, and helping put people at ease by building a bridge to their struggles and successes. In short, I can let go of the focus being about me.

I think of it as guerrilla consensus. Where you bring to the moment the skills of paying attention and helping people connect without making a big deal about it. Mostly it's fun, and people tend to like being listened to carefully... I just wish I found it easier to do with my family—where all those years of petty irritations can come cascading back in a blink.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Texas Two Step

It happens that I was in Austin last night, right in the midst of the Texas presidential primary. What a rodeo!

I don't live with a television at home (Sandhill hasn't had one since 1979), and here we were, riveted to MSNBC's lively coverage of a confusing evening. It reminded me of my brother and I playing endless rounds of gin rummy as that network's early icons, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, cut their teeth as national broadcasters, trying to explain the intricacies of the 1960 Democratic convention. I was only 10 years old at the time, and I reckon I understood national politics then about as well as I do now—which is to say, only a little.

There's a way in which last night was a triumph of democracy, with proportional voting and multiple avenues for ways to register your preference (in Texas, always a little bigger than the rest of the states, you get two bites of the apple: you can vote in the primary and take part in a caucus—both count!). I heard one analyst carefully explain that Hillary could win the popular vote and fail to garner a majority of the delegates. Huh?

The good news is that there were record numbers of people voting and attending the caucuses. No matter what, it's a good sign that more people are showing up. The bad news is that the Democratic race is getting increasingly nasty. When will we move beyond creating a sense of "us" by defining an evil "them"? We need this transition more than we need any particular Republican, Democrat, Green, or Libertarian. We need a President who can hold the whole without looking to see who they can push out of the boat (without losing the majority vote).

This is the essential challenge of consensus: figuring out how to row the boat forward without leaving anyone adrift. I'd have been more excited about the Texas caucuses if the precinct groups were actually trying to work their differences. That's the way they run the caucuses in Iowa, and I think it could be refreshing to have the people discussing with each other what they want, rather than just responding to the candidates. In Texas, people merely had to show up, register their preference, and go home—which isn't much different than voting without a booth.

Although the dust from yesterday's primaries has settled this morning, the Democratic nomination obviously hasn't. In the coming weeks I'll be watching closely to see how much Clinton and Obama, under stress, offer divisiveness or healing—that thing we need more than anything else.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Houston: We Have an Opportunity

Yesterday, Ma'ikwe and I participated in "A Day of Intentional Community" in Houston. The organizer was D'Arcy Bryan Wilson, who is intent on creating a five-family community on the modest acreage her family owns in suburban Pearland.

While Houston is the largest metropolitan area in Texas, it is not the center of progressive thought or community interest (that would be Austin, the state capital). When we asked D'Arcy how many she thought might attend the one-day event, she replied, "Somewhere between 10 and 100." She was right. We had 21. It was sponsored by IC Houston.

Amazingly, when we asked people what they most wanted out of the day, three out of four related that they had been studying intentional communities for years, and were hungry hear from people had actually been doing it. I expected more interest in strengthening the sense of community in neighborhood associations, churches, or work place. And while that was present also, this group mostly wanted to know how to move beyond talking and get something built that had a decent chance of succeeding.

That was no problem for Ma'ikwe and me. We had brought four boxes of Community Bookshelf offerings with us, and we offered four workshops each on various aspects of cmty living and group dynamics. We handed our our spanking new FIC promotional postcards and advertisement for the Art of Community Southwest event we're hosting in Albuquerque May 30-June 1.

Ma'ikwe and I had fun telling stories, providing resources, and generally offering tools and excitement about cooperative living to an eager audience. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was the discovery that there were (not one, not two, but) three groups which had been independently exploring cmty
in the Houston area without knowledge of one another. Perhaps the biggest outcome of the day was these groups readily agreed to to merge into one.

This all happened because Ma'ikwe and I had met D'Arcy the previous October, when she attended the Community Day we hosted in Austin following the FIC's fall organizational meetings. Because Ma'ikwe and I were going to be attending
my niece's wedding (happening next Saturday in San Antonio), we asked D'Arcy if we could do anything to support her cmty building aspirations when we were in Texas. D'Arcy did the rest. Attendees contributed on a sliding scale of $30-100 for the day. After covering her food costs for the day, Ma'ikwe and I received the rest, helping make our Texas trip more affordable.

In addition, we're doing facilitation training for the Board of Directors of Wheatsville Food Co-op in Austin this coming Wed.

It's a great example of accomplishing multiple things on the same trip. Not only does it squeeze more mileage (so to speak) out of the gas consumed on this foray to the Lone Star State, but we're generating income to balance the costs of attending the wedding and doing the work we love into the bargain. Yes, Ma'ikwe and I spend an inordinate amount of time on logistics, yet it's highly rewarding when we can weave everything into a workable whole.

If you are interested in having Ma'ikwe or me talk with people in your area about how you can get more community in your life, get in touch. Sooner or later, we're bound to be coming your way. And with enough advance notice, we can pretty much make anything work.