Thursday, May 28, 2009

Country Malaprops

Mrs Malaprop is a fictional character from Richard Sheridan's play The Rivals (1775) who was prone to using the wrong word or transposing letters or syllables to turn common phrases on their head with unexpected—and often humorous—results. It comes, cleverly enough, from mal apropos, Latin for something inappropriate.

For example, my ex-partner Elke tells the story of her Uncle Mickey who (tongue firmly in cheek) was wont to say after splendid repasts at family gatherings, “What a malicious deal.” Although I never met the man, I’m sure I would have liked him. I have a great fondness for word play. Sometimes of course, people don’t mean to be funny, which tends to make it even funnier. Sifting through 35 years of rural living, I want to share today a handful of the accidental acorns that this blind pig has serendipitously stumbled across along the way.

I was reminded of this lighter side of my bucolic heritage while driving home from my regular Wed night bridge game last night (it’s a 45-minute ride, and a person can’t dwell the entire time on how to find a cold small slam with an eight-bagger spade suit headed by the jack and only 22 high card points between himself and partner). Near home I came across a highway sign that a commonplace whenever a stretch of blacktop has just been resurfaced: “Warning: No Center Stripe.” That got me thinking about Joe Pearl & Eva Grover, the couple who inspired Sandhill to go into the sorghum business…

• • •
Joe Pearl & Eva were in their 70s when Annie & I met them in 1975. (Annie and I were the only ones living at Sandhill that fall—when Sandhill's viability as an intentional community was seriously in question.) We went to visit the Grover's homestead about 10 miles distant to buy a gallon of sorghum one morning, and wound up coming back day after day to help out and learn the craft. In addition to harvesting cane, we also gathered our first crop of country malapropisms.

Sorghum looks a lot like corn, only it’s taller and has a seed head instead of an ear. To make syrup you have to squeeze the juice from the stalk. As the stalk has a lot of leaves on it—just like corn—the producer has a choice to make: remove the leaves or not.

The case for stripping the leaves:
—Some claim there’s a trace of bitterness in the juice of the mid-rib of each leaf, which taints the final product as it goes through the rollers in the extraction process.
—If the cane gets wet while harvesting and sits too long before milling, the leaves can mold and spoil the juice.
—If the leaves go through the mill, an appreciable portion of the juice is lost because it’s adhering to the surface of all those leaves.
—You can put more cane on a wagon because you’re not packing all that extraneous vegetative matter. Fewer trips to the field translates to lower fuel costs.

The case against stripping the leaves:
—Some claim you can’t taste the difference between sorghum made from cane that’s been stripped and from cane that hasn’t.
—It takes a gob of labor to remove the leaves.
—It makes the cane more slippery on the wagon and more apt to slide off if the stackers or tractor driver are not sufficiently careful in the loading or hauling (as much fun as harvesting is, picking up the same wagon load of cane twice is overrated).

In any event, Joe Pearl had a definite opinion about this. While he was happy to mill and cook sorghum for neighbors who’d grown their own cane (custom milling is a traditional practice in small towns throughout the Midwest and South), he posted this sign in front of his mill:

No Striped Cane

Apparently, he preferred to only work with the monochromatic kind. I always wondered what a spectacular view it would make if it were possible to grow a field of cane that looked like 12-foot barber poles. Kind of like a real-life version of Candy Land.
• • •
Here’s another pearl from Mr. Grover. One of the nuances of cooking sorghum is managing the timing between squeezing and cooking. On the one hand, you want the juice to settle for at least a couple hours after milling, allowing sediment and other impurities to gravity settle in a holding pan (making for a clearer, lighter syrup). On the other hand, if you wait too long—especially on a warm day—the juice may sour and ruin the flavor.

One warm day, after Jo Pearl was sweaty from having labored many hours over a vat of boiling sorghum, we approached him to get his opinion on whether the uncooked juice had soured. He deferred, admitting, “I don’t smell too good.” While he was right in more ways than he meant, we let it pass.
• • •
Not to be upstaged by her husband, Eva had her own way with words. I remember asking her once at the end of the day if she and Jo Pearl wanted our help the next day and she replied—without the slightest trace of irony—that the forecast called for only “a 40% chance of participation.” And I had thought we were more reliable than that.
• • •
Expanding from that promising start with Joe Pearl & Eva, I’ve slowly accumulated other nuggets. One year a customer dropped by the farm and inquired closely about sorghum’s nutritional composition because her doctor had warned her “to watch my colostrum level.” With a straight face, I assured her that mothers with week-old children were not typically employed in the manufacture of pure sorghum syrup—and in any event they kept their shirts on when squeezing the juice.
• • •
Sometime after we’d been here for a number of years and had established a local reputation for growing semi-exotic crops, a neighboring farm wife inquired, “Do you ever grow any of those gazebo beans?” I thought to myself, we do have a tent platform, but really, it never occurred to us to plant legumes there—we always just used the garden. (Nor, lest you ask, did we ever attempt to cultivate chickpeas anywhere near broody hens.)
• • •
A few years back I was wandering down some unfamiliar country roads on the west side of the state, trying to find an address for a rural sorghum delivery. I knew I’d made a wrong turn when I pulled into a driveway where this sign was prominently featured on the gate:

Posted: Trespassers Will Be Violated

Deliverance anyone? While I thought that was a little harsh, at least they were up front about it. With alacrity (could I hear “Dueling Banjos” in the background?), I put the gear shift into reverse and backed away safely.
• • •
While word tripping (as in "over one's toes") tends to be more prevalent among individuals, institutions are not immune. I can still recall vividly my astonishment at encountering this classic mixed metaphor as the boldface headline on the front page of our regional Tri-County Shopper more than 20 years ago:

Kick Inflation in the Bud!

Who knows, maybe it was Be Mean to Plants Month.
• • •
I’m sure I’ve forgotten more gems as I’ve recalled, yet it’s perhaps this smapler has been enough to give you a taste of the simple fun you can have by paying attention to how we occasionally trip over our own tongues (or keyboards).

Just last week, Communities Editor Chris Roth caught this gaffe of mine in the closing of an email communication I wrote suggesting an idea for an article. Going a little bit too fast, I had typed:

Your sin stirring the pot,

To which Chris riposted “By the way, I think you left either a colon, a question mark, or both a colon and question mark out of the closing salutation. I've heard that about certain grains (while with others, it's essential).” Touché!
• • •
Last week, at the benefit auction for the FIC’s Community Building Day at Kimberton Hills, we had an energetic donor who contributed several items to the auction and identified himself on the listing forms as “anomalous.” At least his spelling was—even if the occurrence of malaprops, blessedly, tends more toward the iniquitous.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Productive Bully

When I conduct a two-year facilitation training, I devote one of the eight weekends to focusing on Challenging Personalities. I have developed a handout about this that I call the Meeting Menagerie: Personalities from A to Z. Under "B" I describe the Bully.

This is a fairly common type. Bullies tend to be loud and aggressive, hoping to achieve through bluster and volume what they may not succeed with through strength of ideas. They tend to thrive in environments with weak process agreements and unskilled facilitation.

Today I want to focus on a particular subset of this common type: the Productive Bully. This is a highly interesting case, where the loud and pushy person is also highly productive. When the bully is all Sturm und Drang and little action, dealing with them tends to be more straight forward (though not necessarily more pleasant). With the Productive Bully, there may be a real question about whether the group can function well without the Bully's considerable contributions and it muddies the waters about how best to proceed. I am particularly senstive to this type because for some, I am the Productive Bully.

(The irony here is that this personal liability translates into a professional asset. One of the ways in which I'm particularly prized as a process consultant is working with groups who have Productive Bullies among their membership. Based on my own group experience, I find it relatively easy to understand the dynamic and can simultaneously help the Bully find a way to examine their behavior with dignity, and help the group understand their options for engaging on the objectionable bahviors without vilifying the person.)

To be a Bully of any stripe, it means others are intimidated into being silent or acquiescing to what the Bully wants, swallowing (or at least understating) their reservations.This is dfferent than being bamboozled, where people are fooled or confused. With the Bully you know you don't like what's happening, but you don't know what to do about it, or are afraid to try. Typically, if you attempt to object to the Bully's tactics, you're likely to become the target of retributive attack. If it's unpleasant enough (and most attacks are), you'll hesitate to do it again—which only reinforces the Bully's power and encourage them to continue.

[Aside: Keep in mind that this is a highly simplistic overview, and I'm only working it from one end. Part of the dynamic may be that the label of Productive Bully is projected onto a person who exemplifies another Challenging Personality—the Victim. It can get very confusing understanding what's actually happening. However, for purposes of this exploration, I'll conveneiently lay aside that confusing element and assume that the label Productive Bully is being aptly applied.]

With the Productive Bully the calculus changes. There will be a tendency to put up with more guff in exchange for the Bully's substantive contributions. (A clever Bully may try to undercut criticism of their meeting behavior by asking why people are beating up on someone who contributes so much, attempting to deflect attention from their problematic social dynamics by shining the light on their exemplary productivity.) Sometimes the Productive Bully will believe that their output earns them a free pass on their roughshod meeting behavior—and if the group doesn't call them on it, you can understand how they've come to think that way.

There can be a lot of nuance here. Bullies weren't born yesterday; their behaviors have been shaped by years and years of interactions. They've learned that behavior as a way to exercise power. And in the case of the Productive Bully, it's quite possible that the power is being used in service to laudable goals (that is, in the group's best interest rather than in pursuit of personal advantage). Their story, typically, will be that they understand that others operate differently and that some in the group have trouble with their style, yet they nonetheless persist in their ways because of several positives (as seen through their eyes):

o It cuts through the crap and forces the group into action. The group otherwise tends to be wiishy washy and dithers in the presence of non-trivial disagreements about issues. Bullies will take the hit for the team. They will ask the tough questions and not shrink from the tension. They will grab the machete and start hacking through the jungle of confusion. Sure, people's feelings might get hurt, but at least we're through the hard part quickly and who's to say that going slower and discussing as a group which liana to cut, one by one, might not be more painful (it will certainly be more excruciating)?

o When they argue strongly for a position, Productive Bullies are willing to back it up with strong implementation. It's only appropriate that the people doing the lion's share of the work have more influence on the decision. Don't we care about high morale among the group? It's hard to get excited about implementing decisions you don't think are best.

o No shrinking violets, Productive Bullies bring their passion into the room, making for more lively conversations. You don't have to guess how they feel; they'll tell you. They're not asking others to get quiet, and
they can't be held responsible for the choice of others to be silent. Over a lifetime, they've learned that the quckest way to dispose of problems is through spirited debate. Asking them to moderate their bhavior is just about tantamount to muzzling them. Where is the commitment to everyone's voice being heard if they're not allowed to use their natural voice?

So what to do? While there are complicating subtleties in untangling the dynamics of the Productive Bully, there are compensating advantages. In general, with the Productive Bully you can count on their caring about the group, and it's relatvely easy to point out qualities about that person that you genuinely appreciate.

Let's take it step by step. If you're going to attempt a conversation with the Productive Bully about what's problematic with their behavior, it will occur in one of two ways: Case A—when the Bully is agitated; or Case B—when they aren't. It is crucial that you start with this assessment.

Let's take the simpler case first: Case B—when the Bully is not agitated. Assuming they've agreed to have a conversation to hear critical feedback about their behavior, I think you're much more likely to have a constructive experience if you can demonstrate to the Bully's satisfaction that you have a solid understanding about how they think about the group's well being and how their actions are based on good intentions. Further, you can make clear that you appreciate their many contributions as an implementor, even while objecting to some of their behaviors. You can appreciate that they bring their full self into the room, while objecting to how they tend to jump the stack, take up more than their share of the air space, and can intimidate others with the intensity of their advocacy.

The keys to keep in mind are explicitly affirming the Bully's good intent, and then making your criticisms concise, specific, and direct. Don't
say it three times, don't generalize, and don't sugar coat. Though I'm not guaranteeing this will succeed, I believe it will give you your best chance.

Now let's take the harder situation: Case A—where the Bully is agitated (which includes the possibility of the Bully starting the conversation not agitated and then becoming so mid-stream). This obviously is more volatile. It's not at all unusual for the Bully to get more difficult—and even abusive—when upset. In consequence, it is not unusual for people to be most motivated to object to the Bully's bahvior in that moment.

However, in my experience, there is almost no chance of success if you ask an upset person to reflect on their behavior prior to establishing to their satifaction that you understand what's going on for them in the moment. This means setting aside your reaction to their behavior long enough to show the upset person that you get what they're feeling and what the trigger was. This is not about agreeing with them; it's about validating their experience. It's about seeing them and creating a bridge to their experience. If there is no bridge, the ensuing communciation will be constrictive, not constructive.

Once this bridge has been established, then it's possible to proceed as outlined for Case B.

Depending on how distress manifests, it is not necessarily our instinct to first respond to an upset person with caring and understanding. in the instance of tears or fears, reaching out may be our first choice; with anger however, reaching out may not even occur to us as an option. With the Bully (productive or otherwise), upset commonly shows up in the form of anger and a raised voice. It can take considerable savvy and discipline for a group to respond to anger with empathy, yet it's rare for anything else to work.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that you simply swallow your reaction to the Bully's behavior. rather I'm trying to lay out a pathway to a constructive conversation about it that emphasizes everyone's basic humanity, and approaches accountability through connection rather than from outrage. The trick, of course, when all parties are dizzy with upset, is to find someone who is willing to get off the merry-go-round first.

The bad news is that this is hard to do. The good news is that it's nonetheless possible and at least there's some solid thinking available about when and how to do it. While dealing with Bully dynamics is no fun, can we afford not to try? To paraphrase Walt Kelly, "We have met the Bully and they is Us." Believe me, I know.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Laird of the Ring

Sunday morning I lost my wedding ring.

My wife, Ma’ikwe, and I had gotten up at dawn and walked through the gray morning up to Rose Hall (where about 15 boxes of books needed to be loaded into the back of John Stroup’s pickup for the all-day drive to Missouri). We were at Kimberton Hills, a Camphill Village located 30 miles west of Philadelphia, where we had just spent five days of total immersion in FIC World, concluding with a Community Building Day on Saturday where the books were on display at the conference bookstore.

As the air was heavy with moisture, we were thankful that it wasn’t raining. We needed to get the truck loaded as expeditiously as possible, so Ma’ikwe and John could haul ass west. They had a 50-50 chance of getting to Rutledge by midnight. (I was lingering at Kimberton to deliver two days worth of conflict workshops as a barter for lower hosting fees.)

John is the Communities magazine Business Manager, on site for the Board meeting that took place Wed-Fri. He was at his truck right on time, and so was a restless Raines, an FIC Board member who had arrived the day before to help out with the event as an expert on cohousing. Then our luck started to go south. The mist began to coalesce into rain and we found the doors to Rose Hall locked (even though we’d been assured the night before that the back door would be left open). Grr. After a few moments of consternation, Raines managed to roust someone sleeping inside, who reluctantly left his warm bed long enough to pop open the door. While Ma’ikwe checked email one last time, John, Raines, and I swarmed the boxes.

As the rain was picking up, we agreed it would be better if I remained outside and held a tarp over the pallet we were loading the boxes onto, in an effort to complete this operation as much as possible in the dry (wet books don’t’ sell very well). Immediately after the last box was on board, I shifted into sailor mode, tucking the tarp under the pallet and lashing it down with nylon line I’d brought along from my cache of canoeing equipment when we’d left home the previous Monday. (While it doesn’t happen very often, when you’re tying down cargo in the rain and your work has to be good enough to survive a 1000-mile drive at 70 mph, it comes in handy knowing how and where to throw a bowline and taught-line hitch, without having to think about what you’re doing. Ship ahoy.)

After executing the tie-down I was pretty wet. I gave Ma’ikwe a good-bye smooch, waved the pickup down the driveway, and headed back to bed. Two hours later, I awoke for the second time and was walking up the path in search of coffee when I realized that caffeine wasn’t the only thing I was missing: there was no ring on my left hand. Uh oh. Worse, it wasn’t in he small pocket of my jeans where I religiously place it when removing it to do dishes or carpentry or some other task where I think it might get in the way. It also wasn’t in any other pocket.

OK, keep breathing. Shock gave way to disbelief (surely it will be found), replaced by determined problem solving. When did I last recall having it on my finger? I had a good answer there: a distinct memory of checking it as my last conscious act before falling asleep the previous night (Ma’ikwe and I had made love and there are certain maneuvers peculiar to our romantic expression where it’s important that I keep track of the ring’s location. It happened that we had engaged in just that kind of activity Saturday night and I was thus quite sure that the ring had made it to bed with me.)

That bracketed the possibilities to a nine-hour period, during most of which I was asleep. As I have never had the ring come off my finger without my being aware of it, it seemed highly unlikely that it just fell off while I was walking from my sleeping quarters to Rose Hall. The two most likely spots were the bed where I had slept, and the bed of the pickup.

Buoyed by this analysis, I had my coffee and spent the remainder of the morning visiting with the residual crew from Saturday’s event. Hopeful of a happy ending, I put off dwelling on the possibility that the ring might not emerge from where I intended to search.

I eventually completed my socializing, saw everyone on their way, and returned to my quarters by mid-afternoon. While I examined the bed sheets (and pillow cases) with optimism and diligence, the ring wasn’t there. This was starting to get serious. I even poked through the dust bunnies under the bed and shook out the area rug next to it. No dice. I could no longer keep dark thoughts at bay. Maybe I wasn’t going to get it back.

It was at this point that the brake was released on the roller coaster ride of my emotional responses. Panic rose up, but I managed to quell it with a plan to call Ma’ikwe on her cell phone, alerting her to the need to check the pickup carefully before unloading. (I had trouble believing that the ring had slid off my finger while I was fully awake and loading the truck, but it was my best remaining hope.)

This resolve was followed by a sudden descent into guilt and sheepishness. Sure, the ring is a symbol of commitment and not to be conflated with the commitment itself, yet I couldn’t stay away from a certain miserable logic: wasn’t it reasonable to question my care of something precious—my relationship with Ma’ikwe—if I had been demonstrably careless with its semi-precious symbol?

• • •
The stakes here were fairly high. I had proposed to Ma’ikwe November 18, 2005, around 5 am (I remember this pretty well), in the midst of a spirited conversation (and other expressions of intimate connection). Literally her first sentence of response was something to the effect of, “I’ll marry you, but there has to be a ring.”

At first, I was knocked off stride. Jewelry was the furthest thing from my mind in the moment. In fact, I was in fairly comfortably in the habit of not having jewelry in my consciousness ever. I wear none and had never been married before. In general, if you mentioned a ring in my presence, my first thought would surely have been of J.R.R. Tolkein. However, I recovered and the pause so not so long as to be excruciating. I dutifully promised a ring, and the morning proceeded apace.

The following month I turned my attention to delivering on my promise and, with the help of my dear friend Sue Anderson in Duluth, hit upon a plan for a ring which featured chlorastrolite—a distinctive green gem that displays considerable figure when polished. Think dragon’s eye.

Not only did I like the stone in its own right, but the symbolism was excellent: it exists only on Isle Royale, a national park situated in Lake Superior between Minnesota’s North Shore (which contains the Superior National Forest, and was my introduction to wilderness canoeing) and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (where Ma’ikwe had spent important years of her youth).

To top it off, I had been to Isle Royale once and knew that there is a resident pack of wolves, who live in ecological balance with a herd of moose (the forebears of which had both wandered over one cold winter when the ice extended from the distant Minnesota shore). This was potent because “Ma’ikwe” is a foreshortening of a much longer Ojibway term for “the voice of the she-wolf as heard from across the bay.” So the wolf connection sealed the deal for me.

But there's more. After I had commissioned the ring, I subsequently learned that Ma’ikwe had also spent time on Isle Royale (her father, Jim, is a wildlife biologist and took his kids to some rather remote field locations) and had actually collected greenstones. Sometimes the Force is with you.

Best of all, Ma’ikwe was suitably impressed with the ring and I subsequently commissioned a matching one for me. I tell you all this so you’ll understand that our rings have been imbued with considerable juju, well beyond what you might expect if we’d simply picked them out a la carte at the Wedding Accessory Box Store.
• • •
When we got married (April 21, 2007), we started wearing the rings regularly. However, “regularly” didn’t mean the same thing to each of us. Ma’ikwe literally wears the ring all the time, excepting only to massage the joint of that finger. While I wear mine consistently when traveling (which is a lot), I take it off to do dishes (I get nervous whenever I bang the band against glass while hand washing stemware), to operate power equipment (I’ve heard too many horror stories of rings interacting badly with table saws), and to do yoga. When home, I typically leave my ring on the nightstand beside my bed, since so many aspects of my homesteading life require a degree of dexterity with my hands for which the ring is a clumsy appendage.

While Ma’ikwe has accepted this, there is an undercurrent of sadness for her, and she frequently reminds me (with only a minimal tinge of irritation) to don my ring. Thus, the back story leading up to last Sunday is that our rings mean a lot to both of us, yet they’ve always meant more to Ma’ikwe than me. Sunday I found out that the gap had closed more than I knew. Even as the separation between my finger and my ring widened, the separation between what the rings—and by extension, our marriage—means to Ma’ikwe and me has narrowed. It’s been an exceptional fortnight for tenderness and revelation.
• • •
The remaining key thread to this story is the work Ma’ikwe and I are currently doing around her interest in having another lover (see my blog of May 7, 2009). I returned home from a two-week road trip May 8, feeling pretty shaky and unsure of where I stood with my wife.

To my transcendent joy and relief, she had a terrific response. She was totally present to me, allaying my fears and salving my wounded confidence in our connection. By degrees, she gently and persistently invited me to lay aside my armor. Fortunately, I found the courage to accept her invitation and our marriage has evolved into a level of tenderness and fluidity that is both unknown and exquisite. What a great response!

With the old (quite good) relationship cracked open, we left off lamenting and wriggled our collective way into a new and wondrous gallery in the mutli-chambered cave of intimacy. It was in the midst of spelunking this territory that I misplaced my ring. Was I sabotaging our new found joy (what Gay & Kathlyn Hendricks describe as the Upper Limit problem in their book Conscious Loving—where people get nervous about being able to sustain greater intimacy, and subconsciously do something to undermine it)? Was I at risk of becoming Gollum, destined to play the riddle game in a desperate attempt to recover my ring (or to "save" my marriage)?

On the one hand, I kept reminding myself that the ring was not the relationship; on the other, it was hard to ignore the symbolism—what did it mean that I lost my ring immediately following an intense week of looking at our marriage? I was as connected to my wife as I have ever been with another human being and felt terrific about the work we had been doing; was I undercutting that? I didn't like that ugly thought. Perhaps I was already Gollum and this was the riddle. Who and what was My Precious?

In the depths of this anguish I called Ma’ikwe around dinnertime Sunday to confess my loss, and ask her to check the back of the pickup for wayward jewelry. Just as she had all week, she responded with tenderness and concern. Her first thought was not about the ring; it was about how I was feeling. As I was somewhat subdued, she asked if I was afraid she’d be angry. No, I reflected, I was more concerned with disappointing her; with letting her (and the marriage?) down. Our relationship has come to be ever more precious to me and I was frustrated that this sent the wrong message.

As I marinated in the ambiguity of my situation and its meaning, it crystallized for me how much I wanted to recover the ring. I ached to have it back.
• • •
As it turned out, Ma’ikwe and John pulled over as soon as I’d called Sunday evening and took advantage of fair weather and the extended daylight of mid-May to search the pickup right away, and they found the ring tucked in the folds of the tarp. Thus, for Ma’ikwe, the drama was short and sweet. It was revealed and resolved in a matter of minutes: a mere one act play. My journey however, was more tortuous and complex.

I didn’t get Ma’ikwe’s good news until I checked email at noon on Monday, 18 hours later. This extended my stay in purgatory to 27 hours. Upon learning of Ma'ikwe's discovery my being was flooded with relief.

Now it's three three days later, and I'm composing this as I rumble across northern Indiana on the Capitol Limited, inbound for Chicago. Tonight, Ma’ikwe will meet me in Quincy and I look forward with a deep smile to the sweetness of her removing the ring from the lanyard that has it dangling between breasts and returning it to my finger, where it belongs.

Even now that the ring has been recovered, there is nonetheless some lingering shadow about what this episode was all about and I'm still shaking my head with the realization that the ring could come off my finger without my knowing it. But then, I’m reminded, Sauron’s ring had the uncanny habit of doing that as well. Perhaps I answered the riddle correctly.

To my surprise, I’ve learned that the loss I experienced (though blessedly temporary) went well beyond the loss of a material thing, and I reckon I needed to stew in it long enough to plumb the depth of its meaning. As near as I can tell, I'm entering the unfamiliar terrain of magic. Yes, I know that's the kind of thing Ma’ikwe and I bravely promised each other we'd do three-and-a-half years ago (as perhaps all new lovers do), yet intention is not nearly the same thing as the joyous, humbling, vulnerable discoveries of the actual exploration, now that we are on the portion of the map that's marked: Here be dragons.

In Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, the major incantation of the book reads thus:

One Ring to rule them all, and in the Darkness bind them.

With all due respect to the author, I’ve distilled my own ring episode into the following reworking:

Two rings to fuel their Call and in the Lightness find them.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Three Essential Agreements

Two days ago, the FIC held a Community Building Day at Kimberton Hills (30 miles west of Philadelphia) and about 56 people joined our crew of 12 presenters and support people to create a wonderful experience (while most participants were from the region, one came from as far away as Arizona, and some from Arkansas). During a general Q&A session right before dinner, one woman asked, “What are the three most critical agreements that a community should have in place in order to succeed?”

What an excellent question! Over the course of my 22 years as a process consultant I’ve slowly accumulated an understanding of a goodly number of key questions that healthy groups need to address, so limiting it to three was a challenge. What trio do I feel encompasses the most pivotal issues?

Here are my nominations:

1. Working with Emotional Input
The main model for appropriate group communication in our culture is to offer one’s best thinking. While rational thought is a wonderful tool, it’s hardly the only one available to us, and it really doesn’t make much sense to paint with only one color. As human beings we take in, process, and communicate information in an amazing variety of ways. It’s my view that groups function best when they openly embrace a wider range of input than just what’s available through ideation.

In addition to rational knowing, humans can access knowing that is emotional, intuitive, instinctive, spiritual, and kinesthetic. (While I don’t presume that this is a complete list of the alternate channels available to us, it’s enough to make my point.) Though not everyone operates with the full bandwidth; multiple channels are nonetheless available, and a group’s work will tend to be more sophisticated and dynamic to the extent that it consciously embraces more kinds of information (not just more data).

For the purpose of identifying a key agreement, I will narrow my focus to a single question: how does the group work with emotional input? Sadly, most groups never explicitly ask that question and have no clear answer. In consequence, they are unsure of their footing when emotions enter the equation—and the stronger the feelings, the more unsure the footing. Mostly groups discourage the expression of strong feelings, or relegate that kind of sharing to heart circles only (where they won't "infect" the business meetings).

Strong feelings can be scary for groups because their expression is often associated with attacks or manipulation, and groups (understandably) want to limit both from occurring. There is fear that the expression of strong feelings may undermine safety and lead to people being afraid to share their full thinking on a topic.

Best, I think, is that groups appreciate that emotions can be distinguished from aggression, and that it’s possible to welcome feelings while objecting to attacks. Emotions can be an important source of both information (people may know something more profoundly on an emotional level than on a rational level) and energy—let’s bring passion into our work!

Too often group banish feelings all together in a baby-and-the-bath-water response to nervousness about how to handle emerging conflict. Surely we can do better.

2. Critical Feedback
In biological systems, feedback loops are crucial to survival. Think about it: if you step on a nail, it’s important that it hurts, alerting you to the need to pull the damn thing out of your shoe. While you’d rather not hurt, you certainly don’t want to be walking around with a nail in your foot.

I don’t think it’s any different in groups. If Chris and Pat are both in a group and Chris is having trouble with something that Pat is doing as a member of the group, then there needs to be a known avenue through which Chris can communicate their concern directly with Pat. Absent a known channel, it can be hit or miss whether Pat ever hears what’s going on for Chris. Not only will this means that Chris doesn’t get the chance to work with the information (which may enhance their effectiveness in the world), but it will likely lead to a degradation in trust and an erosion of relationship between Pat & Chris. This can be very expensive.

While I’m all in favor of people having choices about the timing and setting in which feedback is delivered (some prefer to get it on the spot, others prefer advance warning; some prefer that it occur one-on-one, others prefer to receive it in the whole group), it’s important that everyone offers something and that that preference be known. A mysterious feedback loop is the same as no feedback loop. And no feedback loop means the flow of life-giving information has been choked off. It’s hard to thrive with a poor circulation system.

3. Talking about Power
Cooperative groups tend to have trouble talking openly about power dynamics. They typically strive to flatten hierarchies and to share power as broadly as possible. While there’s nothing wrong with that goal, the reality is that power is never flat; it’s always distributed unevenly. The key question is whether the group has a clear way to discuss the perception that someone has used power in less cooperative way (power over instead of power with) than that person thinks they have.

Healthy group need people functioning as leaders. Leaders need to exercise power to be effective, and there needs to be a way to examine how power is being used. We tend to bring into our current cooperative realities damage from past abuses of power and we have to sort out how much of our current discomfort is projection from the past, how much is misuse of power in the current situation, and how much is a misunderstanding about what’s actually happening (never mind what was intended). It can get messy in a hurry and we need a pathway through this morass.

• • •
In the end, if a group fails to address any one of these three issues, I guarantee that the ensuing ambiguity will be crippling. Though I’m not saying that this will necessarily be fatal, it will certainly be expensive, and seriously limit the group’s capacity to realize its potential.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

35 and Counting

Yesterday, Sandhill celebrated its 35th birthday as an intentional community. We had over 80 people join us for a lovely all-day party on a sunny day in the 60s. I doubt if there was anyone present who knew everyone in the dinner circle, and that's part of the magic of the day. Perhaps more startling is the recognition that a goodly portion of the attendees were in their 20s, and therefore not yet on the planet when Sandhill was launched. I love watching their faces when I lay this out. (While it's not true that we used to read by kerosene lantern after dinner, we did pre-exist the Internet and Face Book.)

For decades now, we've co-opted the pagan holiday of Beltane to mark our anniversary, joyously eating,
drinking, and dancing on the advent of summer. For a couple days ahead we bustle around: sweeping, mowing, and preparing special foods. It's a time of suspending normal routines to laugh and connect. Celebrating our primal, aminal urges.

After 35 years, we've settled into a predictable rhythm for our Land Day festivities. We have a kids' activity around 2 pm, May Pole at 3 pm, potluck feast at 4 pm, sweat lodge rounds beginning at 6 pm, and contra dance at 7 pm. Repeat as needed. If you don't manage to have a terrific time, it's your own damn fault.

For more than a decade, my special Land Day niche (aside from a bit of cooking) has been setting up the sweat lodge. This year I had yeoman help from Thomas and Charles from nearby Dancing Rabbit. Thomas is a long-time member, and Charles is a work exchanger (WEXer) there to help my wife Ma'ikwe build her house this summer. They overhauled the sweat lodge structure (which was sadly sagging, not having been attended or attended to since last year's Land Day) while I nurtured the fire—it takes at least five hours to get the iron and firebrick up to temperature (you want them glowing red).

All during the afternoon, while the main party ebbed and flowed up by the White House (the original farm residence, which contains our kitchen and dining room), I entertained anyone who'd venture down by the pond, to see what all the smoke was about. I stoked the fire and kept the iron and bricks nestled in the center. On Land Day, the sweat fire is like a side show at a three-ring circus.

By 8 pm we'd done four rounds in the lodge and I had the fire stoked up for a fifth. I passed my pitchfork to others, and retired for the evening. By then we'd made the transiton to dark. There was about an hour before the rise of the full moon, during which the glow of the coals emerged from the gloaming, and those present got increasingly transfixed by the pulsing embers and dancing flames.

Beltane is a pagan cross-quarter day, and it doesn't get more elemental than a sweat lodge: fire, water, earth, and air. This ritual goes back much further than 35 years. It goes back more than 35 centuries. Yesterday was the one day a year I give myself over to being the fire tender.

Another year, another sweat, and the cycle continues. Ho.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Stocking the Lifeboat

Challenges tend to focus one’s mind, and the sharper the challenge, the sharper the focus. If it’s serious enough, you quickly strip down to what’s essential, and jettison (at least temporarily) the superfluous. While you may prefer not to have had the challenge, you still get the benefit of the sorting.

The other day my partner, Ma’ikwe, disclosed an interest in becoming lovers with one of her community mates at Dancing Rabbit, and that’s led to a lot of sorting the last few days. In particular, I’ve been looking at whether this represents a threat to my Relation Ship with Ma’ikwe and, if so, what would I place in the lifeboat.

While not yet a consummated act, things are now at the stage of open discussion with all the key players, including the prospective lover’s primary partner. While things are quite fluid, and could unfold in a wide variety of ways, I’ve given Ma’ikwe full permission to proceed and I’m finding it instructive to do my sorting in the projected reality that this is a done deal. Though this represents a bit of jumping ahead, it’s the most interesting case. (If Ma’ikwe’s hopes for this new intimacy unravel, my main role will be to succor her in disappointment or frustration, which seems relatively straight forward by comparison.)

Fortuitously, I have a couple travel days ahead of me on the California Zephyr, inbound from the West Coast. With no cell phone and no Internet service, I have the opportunity to reflect and journal before meeting up with Ma’ikwe on the train platform in Ottumwa Friday morning. Here’s what I’ve been sorting:

Am I being a good partner?
I’m not sure. In the context of open relationships (where there is permission for partners to have other lovers) here are my responses to some predictable questions:

If I truly loved my wife, wouldn’t I demand monogamy, to protect my precious investment?
I don’t think that way. For me, love is about paying attention, accurately seeing the other person, and unconditional giving. It’s not about how tightly you can interweave your lives or establishing how devastated you’d be if you lost your partner. It’s about how far I extend my trust, not about how high I build the wall.

Do I need restrictions on her time or activities with her new lover to feel secure about my relationship with Ma’ikwe?
No. The health of my relationship with my wife is based solely on what she and I create; not on what she creates with others.

Am I jealous of the new lover?
No. I am curious about what Ma’ikwe will get from the new relationship, and it will surely hurt if her excitement with the new lover translates to diminished excitement or emotional availability with me—which is a possibility. However, I don’t see how any attempt on my part to prohibit or limit her access to other lovers will increase the quality of her life, or that of our relationship. I don’t believe that intimate energy is a finite quantity with only so much to go around, and thus I don’t see her investment in the new relationship as a withdrawal from ours. While there’s no doubt it could go that way, there’s no advantage to my projecting it that way.

Am I confident that this will go well?
No. Adding lovers always introduces a chaotic and complicating element and this has the potential to be highly destabilizing (mind you, it doesn’t have to be destabilizing; I’m just looking at the downside). On the other hand, I didn’t check the “Play it safe” box on my What Kind of Life Do You Want questionnaire (when being interviewed for induction into this vale of tears). Leading an examined life means being willing to take chances, and being at risk for pain. It goes with the territory.

In my view, being a good partner means doing what you can to support your partner’s happiness—even when that means supporting her having other lovers.

Am I doing what I want with my life?
A key factor in this equation is that Ma’ikwe and I don’t spend much time together. We live three miles apart and I’m on the road half the time. My guestimate is that we’re together only 75-90 days of the year. We each live in the community we want to be in, and I am satisfied I’m doing the work in the world I feel called to do.

It’s not hard to appreciate Ma’ikwe’s desire for more intimacy. She’s a vibrant woman and excited to be actively involved in the development of her community. It’s natural to desire an intimate partner who is more available and who shares in that work. Her new lover is both, and this presents as a significant enhancement in her life.

Ma’ikwe’s desire for a new lover brings right to the surface a pair of questions I’d rather not face. Though Ma’ikwe is not asking me to make a choice, I am compelled to look at two possibilities:

A. If it came down to a choice between my travel and the marriage, what would I do? As painful as it would be, I’d give up the marriage. It would hurt like hell, but if I gave up my work, I would resent the marriage and, in the end, I’d have neither. It’s crucial to me that I make a serious attempt to contribute to a better world; it’s optional that I have a happy marriage. (Of course, it needn’t be all or nothing, and it’s reasonable to discuss whether I could travel less, yet I’m nonetheless clear about the relative weight I give these two enormous pluses in my life.)

B. If it came down to a choice between my community and my marriage, what would I choose? This one is harder, and I’m not sure. My two-year marriage to Ma’ikwe is precious to me, yet so is my 35-year marriage with my community. If I had to give either up, it would leave a big hole. While I’m relatively confident I’d live through it, I’d rather suffer the loss of neither if at all possible.

In sum, I am at peace with the main choices I’ve made in how I apportion my time, and I’m fervently hoping I won’t have to make either of the choices I’ve enumerated above.

How bad can it be?
When I look into the darkest hole, it’s losing my wife. While I know that’s not her thinking, and I don’t believe it’s the probable outcome, it’s a possible outcome. Her hunger for more intimacy may widen into the realization that she made a mistake with me. At the end of the day it won’t matter whether it was because there was not enough quantity or not enough quality; any flavor of “not enough” is still not enough.

To be sure, Ma’ikwe has done her best to reassure me about the seaworthiness of our Relation Ship—and I believe the sincerity of her remarks—yet it’s important for me to sit with the full range of possibilities and not attempt to scare away the boogie man by whistling as I hike through the dimly lit forest of my future. In truth, I don’t think I’m any worse off today than I was last week, before Ma’ikwe revealed her buregoning interest in a new lover. It’s just that now the uncertainties—which were always there—more vividly haunt my consciousness. (Would your mind be free of pachyderms if, out of the blue, I gave you the strongest possible assurance that there were no rogue elephants at large in the neighborhood?) While I ordinarily give no attention whatsoever to contemplating life without Ma’ikwe, now I am.

These last few days I am seldom far removed from feeling my way into the tenderness of a partner-less future. Uncertain of the prognosis, and powerless to do anything about it as I chug home across the Sierra Nevadas, I cannot cease returning to the ache evoked by the thought of being de-selected. Though an unlikely future, I feel compelled to look fully into the dark corners and see the worst—rather like worrying a throbbing tooth by running my tongue over it repeatedly, as I anxiously await an appointment with the dentist. Hoping that it is something minor, I brace myself for bad news.

What do I need from Ma’ikwe?
The first thing is honesty. Fortunately, I have every confidence that I have that already, and that it will remain a constant feature of our partnership. Ma’ikwe has been solid in keeping me apprised of developments. She values honesty as well as I do, and I have no qualms in this regard.

The second thing is a commitment from Ma’ikwe that she’s only with me when she wants to be. If she’d rather be with her new lover (or alone), I’d rather that’s what she does. It’s important to me that I can count on her presence being volitional, rather than something motivated by a sense of obligation or guilt, or some need to balance.

To be sure, our time together will change. For one thing, I now expect that some non-trivial fraction of our hours will be devoted to her finding a way to share what she feels is appropriate for me to know about what’s happening with her new lover, what her feelings are about that, and satisfying herself that she’s made a good faith opening for me to disclose what this brings up for me. This is a new item in the garden of our relationship, and while I was not expecting those seed to be sown, that crop will require regular cultivation to keep the weeds down. As I reflect on this, I am confident that Ma’ikwe will be diligent with a hoe.

How can I best support Ma’ikwe right now?
Three things occur to me. First, to be as transparent as I can about my responses to what’s going on (whence this blog). In addition to showing up authentically for conversations about this, I need to do my homework and not duck the tough questions. Perhaps the hardest challenge for me will be to remain available and open. There’s a part of me that wants to disappear (just drop me a line when the fireworks are over and let me know if our Relation Ship is still riding high, or if there’s been damage to the hull), yet I know that the situation calls for me to be bigger than that.

Second, to be as low maintenance as possible, giving Ma’ikwe the chance to thoroughly enjoy this exciting development without distraction from me. This is not about suppression, or masking; it’s about not being self-centered or reactive. Because this calls for a degree of mindfulness that may stifle spontaneity and ease, this can be a tricky line to walk. Nonetheless, I think it’s incumbent on me to try. I’m approaching this as a meditation, and reminding myself of the Vipassana mantra that each person is the source of his or her own misery. My job is to stay out of the pit.

Third, to join in her celebration and joy in the exploration and rush of fresh intimacy. The start of a new relationship is a magical and ephemeral time, and I want Ma’ikwe to be able to ride that wave all the way to its natural end.

What does Ma’ikwe having another lover say about our partnership?
The obvious initial observation is that she wants more intimacy than she’s getting from our relationship, and she’s manifested an opportunity to address that. While there’s some hurt for me around her having gotten this far in setting things up with her prospective new lover without first more thoroughly exploring the topic of what’s missing for her in our relationship, I am sure there was no hurtful intent.

It is in relation to this question that the lifeboat metaphor most applies. I have committed to a life where I am on the road a lot, and Ma’ikwe and I have crafted a partnership where we don’t live in the same place. Combined, this means we’re separated far more than we’re together. As there’s not much wiggle room around how many days we can spend together, I’ve been focusing mostly on what I can do to enhance the quality of the intimacy we create in the opportunities we have.

Happily, I think there’s a lot I can work with in that regard, most of which distills to four admonitions:
—Laying aside the other parts of my life to be fully present to Ma’ikwe whenever we’re together.
—Asking as little as possible, and giving as much as I can.
—Being available sexually with minimal reservation.
—Being as flexible as possible about how we spent our time together.

If, in the end, Ma’ikwe seeks intimacy more and more with others, then I want it to be because my best was not good enough, rather than because I was not paying attention.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Third Time's the Charm

It's Sunday evening, and I've just concluded a weekend of consulting with a group in northern California. It's the third time I've worked with this group since August, and it was a solid confirmation of the advantage of multiple visits, with breathing room in between.

A number of years ago I recall having a conversation with Sam Kaner (lead author of Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, and principal of the San Francisco-based consulting firm Community at Work), in which he reported being at the place in his career where he no longer accepted clients unless they were willing to commit to multiple visits. What a revelation! Though I had never thought of asking for that, the advantages were obvious. From that point forward I started angling for that whenever I discussed work with prospective clients, and every now and then I get what I ask for.

If you know that you have a future weekend booked with the same client, it can take considerable pressure off the weekend at hand—you don't have to do everything in one go, and you can teach sequentially. The payoff of this more gradual (and therefore humane) approach was never more apparent than this weekend.

Like many groups, my client this weekend had a history of fairly passive meeting facilitation and no history of working emotionally in plenary. My primary assignment was to help them work through a backlog of tensions and to model how to work topics that were simultaneously
complex and emotionally volatile. The first weekend (where they were test driving me as a consultant), I did all of the facilitating. When they liked my work well enough to contract for three more weekends, I asked to start the second weekend by observing their facilitators run a "typical" meeting.

While the group had some concerns about whether they'd be getting full value out of paying me to watch them, it turned out they did. Not only was I able to reference my comments for the remainder of the weekend to what I observed Friday evening, I also got a much more accurate read on the cultural shifts that would be needed for the community to turns things around.

At the conclusion of the second weekend, I strongly suggested that for the
third weekend we switch our approach and rely as fully as possible on the community's own facilitators to run the sessions, with me helping them prep and available on the sidelines to coach and step in if things got off track. The community agreed to this suggestion and the primary facilitation of the weekend's 10+ hours of plenary was divvied up among three members of the community. To be sure, I stepped in often—to make comments and to handle some delicate moments—yet all three facilitators did an exemplary job and the group was buoyed by the experience of seeing their own people step up strongly. Now, for the first time, the group believes in its own capacity to commit to substantive changes in how they run meetings, and to actualy pull it off.

As a consultant, it was gratifying to see the group progress from overwhelmed to hopeful; from entrenched to enriched. It was exciting to witness the group responding well to the training progression:

Weekend I: relying totally on me to demonstrate a better way
Weekend II: bridging from my practices to their current habits
Weekend III: having them behind the wheel, with me serving as a safety net
Weekend IV: fine tuning the skills of their facilitators

In this learning sequence, the group gets a chance to absorb principles of good meeting dynamics in their bones—not just in their heads. In a single weekend, it's rarely possible to access this kind of learning. Instead, if all you can count on is a 48-hour stretch with the client, about the best you can hope for
is to deliver an inspirational demonstration of good technique, which, unfortunately, is rarely enough to turn a corner.

As a consultant, I'm always trying to work myelf out of a job. This weekend, perhaps for the first time, it really felt like I mght make it.

Friday, May 1, 2009

How Collaboration Falls Short

Yesterday I attended Green Business Camp in South San Francisco. My friend Raines Cohen got me a ticket (it was sold out), and I was curious what interest existed among green entrepreneurs for enhancing work place social skills. I figure that "green" implies sustainable, and sustainable has a social component. Were my fellow campers thinking along those same lines?

After a keynote talk by Paul Hawken (his best line was describing himself as a "change slut") who emphasized how much our future will be impacted by jumps in energy costs that are outside our frame of reference—he called it "civilizational" change, to distinguish it from the cyclical change that most economists think in terms of. To my delight, he also emphasized the increasing need for collaborative savvy.

So when I attended the first breakout session—on the topic of teamwork, partnering, and cooperation, I was curious to see what the pressing needs were. Though I had my chance to pitch the relevance of what's being learned about cooperative dynamics in intentional communities, there wasn't much grab in the room. Instead, there was a lot of attention to why collaboration—for all its sex appeal—wasn't easy to pull off. (There was also frustration expressed about how there was much more talk about collaboration than there was actual collbarating—which phenomenon we then promptly recapitulated by spending the bulk of our 45 minutes cataloguing shortcomings, and marveling at how similar our stories were.)

In any event, I listened to the laments and figured it would be instructive to round them up in a single list. I came up with nine:

1. Shallow agreement
This is where people feel good about reaching an agreement to collaborate, but the basis for it hasn't been fully explored and the buy-in is weak. Typically people are "making nice" and avoiding the hard questions. The fragile seedling withers from neglect.

2. Unclear implementation
The collaborators didn't go far enough to create a solid plan for who would do what, when, and with what resources. At worst, there may be no implementation plan at all. However, a vague or incomplete plan may be enough to strangle an initiative.

3. No accountability
When different entities are attempting to collaborate, it can often be tricky navigating who will monitor progress and handle task follow-up. This tends to be
viewed as a position of authority and coalitions may inappropriately shy away from that assignment for fear of establishing a hierarchy among "equals." Lacking clarity about who's moving things along, it tends to be that no one does and momentum dies.

4. Poor leadership models
This is a continuation of the previous point, broadened beyond task monitoring. We need leaders to motivate, organize, and think strategically. Yet we've not done a good job of coming up with good models for working in a healthy way with power and leadership in cooperative situations. Mostly we look at current situations through the lens of prior damage and are far more critical of leaders than supportive. Leader bashing in cooperative groups is an art form, yet we have to learn to stop eating our own if we're going to create viable alternatives to traditional business models.

5. Wrong people at the table
For coalitions to be effective, it's important that all the key stakeholders are at the table. You can run into problems with this in two ways: either by leaving out one or more key stakeholders, or by the right groups sending the wrong people—those who either don't grasp the issues and or don't have the authority to commit their group to agreements and actions. This gets to be a chicken-and-egg dilemma in that key people tend to be busy people who don't have time to attend meetings that aren't going to get things done. However, if they don't attend a meeting underling wiht no authority, it may guarantee that the outcome will be weak.

6. Not carefully vetting implementors
One of the keys to effectiveness is having the right people doing the right jobs. Thus, even if there's solid agreement and a good implementation plan, coalitions can shoot themselves in the foot by being sloppy about who's assigned what tasks. Often, groups do little more than ask for volunteers and happily accpet whoever puts their hand in the air. I think of this as Implementation Roulette, and it's a poor way to run a railroad. If the task is important and takes certain skills, take the time to identify the qualities needed and evaluate candidates deliberately.

7. Process too slow
Meetings need to produce results. If it takes too long to reach agreement, or there's no identifiable product from each investment of time, people lose heart and put their attention elsewhere. There are subtleties that underlay this, such as not having too many people in the room (the opposite of point 5 above), having good facilitation (to make sure that meetings stay on task and don't duck the tough topics), and having good minutes that are promptly posted.

8. Culture clash
When two or more entities attmpt collaboration, they may not have similar cultures, or ways of doing business. When that happens and is not addressed, it's a sure path to misunderstanding and an erosion of trust.

9. Constricted inormation flow
Often collaborations result in a mushrooming expectation of who should receive updates on what's happenings, and it's relatively easy to drop a ball or two. When people are left out of the loop, even inadvertently, this also will erode trust and undercut the good will needed for a collaboration to remain robust.

• • •
Too bad the sessions weren't long enough to start tackling solutions. Maybe next time.