Monday, August 31, 2009

Passivity Versus Neutrality

This afternoon I was facilitating a conflict between two people and there were three other group members present for the examination. For the 90 minutes that I worked with them, almost all of the talking was done by the two antagonists and me. Unlike a normal business meeting, where you want to hear from everyone, during a clearing I had no problem with the non-belligerents being almost silent. Toward the end, I asked each of the three if they had any questions or comments about what had transpired. One of them thought for a moment and observed, "We all have to learn to control our egos; nobody benefits from conflict and interpersonal strife. Everyone here means well, and we have to learn how to accept our differences without being so triggered."

The more I thought about what's behind that statement, the more I had a problem with it, and that's why I'm focusing this blog entry on the differences between Passivity and Neutrality.

For the most part, when people are in the presence of conflict and strong emotions, if they don't have a dog in the fight they generally attempt to be as quiet and unobtrusive as possible—in the hope that they will not draw attention from the belligerents. Mostly people fear the expression of upset and anger because it's so often associated with people getting hurt. If that's your experience, it makes perfect sense why you'd want to blend in with the furniture when others are going at it. While few people intend to generate collateral damage, nobody wants to be collateral damage.

I think what underlies this position is the notion that people are prone to say and do things under the influence of strong feelings that they'll later regret. If you accept that strong feelings are dangerous, it can make sense to attempt to conquer them (or at least contain them). Viewed from this perspective, the expression of strong feelings represents a loss of control. When they erupt, the person with this philosophy may have compassion for those emoting, but they will politely refuse to engage with protagonists emotionally; they'll keep trying to pull the conversation back into the rational plane. Often this translates into the choice to zone out of the conversation, waiting patiently for the fireworks to end. This is Passivity.

While the passive person is not contributing to the problem, neither are they contributing to the solution. I don't think this is good enough.

Without denying the volatility or dangerous possibilities of strong feelings, a passive approach (the attempt to calm rage by denying it oxygen) has several liabilities.

Problems with Passivity
1. It tends to reinforce the upset person's sense of isolation. This undercuts relationships, and tends to pathologize people who express strong feelings (they are labeled immature, or less evolved).

2. It fails to recognize emotions as a source of information and insight into the issues at hand. (Hint: not everyone "knows" things principally through their brain.)

3. It makes it virtually impossible to harness the energy in strong feelings to generate enthusiasm for problem solving (providing you can successfully navigate the tension that surfaces at the outset).

4. It leads to suppression of strong feelings (who wants to be labeled immature?), which then leak out elsewhere (often in the form of an overreaction), making the clean-up that much harder.

I have a different idea about how to view strong feelings. Instead of seeing them as dangerous, I see them as indicators that folks are working close to the bone, by which I mean close to their core values, close to their core damage, or both. While I'm not blind to the possibility that bad things can happen in those moments, good things can happen as well.

Advantages of Active Neutrality
o When worked constructively, conflict can build relationships. In addition to better handling the presenting issue, there's potential for healing and gaining a deeper understanding of one another that will pay dividends in future discussions. This is the flip side of the relationship destruction that can ensue from angry, accusatory salvos where people are left scarred (as well as scared).

o If the group can learn to not freak out because one or two members are freaking out, then it will greatly reduce distortion about what's happening, and significantly enhance the chances that information will be accurately exchanged. In particular, there's a tremendous amount of distortion that occurs in groups because people are so afraid that a particular statement might trigger conflict that they decide to sugar coat in an indirect generalization (which leads to the debilitating dynamic of the group struggling to ferret out the kernel of meaning in a field of cotton candy). Or worse, they choose to not speak at all (at which point the group gets to participate in another energy-draining game: What's the Meaning of Silence?).

o Well understood feelings and intuitions about a topic (as opposed to thoughts) can provide valuable insights into how best to balance factors when problem solving. When feelings are always translated into rational statements, it's easy to misinterpret potency or the depth of concern.

o Unaddressed strong feelings run the risk of losing the active participation of the upset person in problem solving (they're so absorbed in stewing that they miss or seriously distort what others are saying). In fact, when it's really bad, one person's upset tends to distract those around them from what others are saying as well, and the disruption mushrooms.

Seen from this perspective, it makes sense to get active in the presence of strong feelings, mainly so that you can realize these benefits. The key to this is understanding that being active does not necessarily mean taking sides. You can be active and still be Neutral. In particular, you can be active about safeguarding relationships, and helping to remind protagonists of their commitment to being constructive with their criticism and open to hearing feedback. The group's commitments to one another ought to be about authenticity and being constructive; not about being nice or nonreactive.

It's Alimentary, my dear Watson
Shit happens. If you automatically equate the expression of strong feelings with immaturity, it will lead to a cultural norm where strong feelings are suppressed (which, in turn, will probably be accompanied by a lack of skill in managing volatile moments, which will tend to validate why you don't allow the group to go there). This can lead to emotional constipation, and will not tend to enhance the free flow of ideas or energy.

Going the other way, neither am I advocating for emotional diarrhea. In a mature group, members use discernment about what feelings are sufficiently potent and relevant to bring forward, and they work at developing the skill to express themselves cleanly ("I'm angry with you for leaving the car windows open yesterday before the rainstorm" as opposed to "You asshole; the car seats are getting ruined because you're always leaving the windows open; were you born in a barn?")

One of the most potent understandings I gleaned from the Vipassana retreat I did last winter (see my blog series of Jan 8-15, 2009) was that Buddhist non-attachment does not translate into being passionless. Eschewing the addiction to attractions and aversions is not the same as suppressing feelings. The Buddha admonished us to notice everything, while holding onto as little as possible. This includes shit.

For my money, groups need active Neutrality from members to perform at a high level. That is, when you aren't a stakeholder on a topic, step up to the plate to safeguard the quality of the examination, helping to build bridges between people with different viewpoints. As a neutral party, your suggestions will have a greater chance of landing well. Take advantage of that; don't just sit there passively and look at your feet.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Farm Camp

This past week I’ve been in Fennville MI, visiting my wife’s brother & sister-in-law, Mark & Kim. They have an acreage in the country where they homestead and also hold down full-time jobs—as nearly as that’s possible in Michigan’s seriously depressed economy. (Kim’s an automotive engineer and lately she’s been making better money selling Tupperware.)

For the second year in a row, Mark & Kim have set aside a week in August for “Farm Camp,” where friends and relations are invited—kids especially welcome—to spend as much of the week as they can experiencing the bucolic life, with events scheduled daily. There was garden work, animal care (new calves and ever-hungry chickens who looked forward with relish to every bowl of kitchen scraps that came their way), trips to the beach (Lake Michigan is just a few miles to the west), a horse drawn wagon ride, a field trip to a Michigan State University experimental dairy farm with robotic milking machines, a raku pottery firing with Grandma Kay (proprietress of Capricorn Clay in Jackson MI), and U-pick blueberries. Some days it was hard to catch your breath.

All of this was capped off Friday with a block party. Mark believes that everyone ought to have a neighborhood all-skate at least once a year, both for social relations and to nudge a person into seriously cleaning up their yard. Ma'ikwe and I got a rare chance to dance together and the DJs taught us to line dance the Electric Slide (where do they get these names?).

I thoroughly enjoyed a week of being with my wife every day. This was her one break from a summer of house construction and she was cherishing putting up peaches and blueberries for the winter ahead. Heretofore she’d had no time whatsoever for food processing, and we did tomatillo salsa, pizza sauce, peach chutney, apple-peach sauce, frozen peaches, and blueberry preserves. (Of course, living on a farm myself, if I’d been home this past week I’d have been doing food processing there—but it was a pleasure nonetheless “putting up the summer in jars” (a la Greg Brown) for others. It was especially satisfying helping Mark & Kim get current with their garden during a stretch when they were serving nonstop as hosts & tour guides.

I even had time to read a Jeffrey Deaver potboiler, and watch Kay’s Alaska slide show (she was at Denali last month).

The thing I did not have was Internet service. Mark & Kay have rigged up some kind of dial-up service to work with their laptop, but I did without. Every now and again it’s good to be reminded that the world can basically get along just fine without me being plugged in every 12 hours—though I'm girding my loin for the 100+ emails relentlessly accruing in my In Box.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Closing the Deal

As a process consultant, I frequently get asked what are the greatest challenges that a facilitator faces. I think they fall into three major categories. Here they are, listed in the order in which you will probably need to grapple with them (luckily, all don't make an appearance with every topic; in fact, blessedly, with some topics, none of the three show up).

First, managing non-trivial emotional distress. When a topic triggers upset, you often have to deal with it as a pre-condition to making meaningful and lasting progress on the issue. That means you need to have an idea about how to do that, plus the chops to carry it off—typically in chaotic conditions. This is not a simple skill, yet an important one. For more about handling conflict, see my blog series on conflict: March 21-April 2, 2009.

Second, once you've cleared the air, the next major alligator to wrestle with is flushing out all the factors that a good solution needs to take into account—all to be accomplished before you start fielding proposed solutions. As facilitator, the hard part here is keeping the group sufficiently disciplined to stick with brainstorming the factors, before some folks jump to answers.

Even after the well has run dry on surfacing reasonable factors, there are still two more steps to creating a solid platform for problem solving: vetting the brainstormed factors for those appropriate for the group (as distinguished from personal preferences), and checking to see of there should be any prioritization of the factors (for example, when creating a pet policy, child safety appropriately comes ahead of Fido's preference to be unleashed).

The third challenge—and the main focus of this blog—is facilitating the group's consideration of how best to balance the factors you've just identified, polished, and blessed in the preceding step.

If the topic is complex, I suggest aggregating elements of the solution piece by piece, demonstrating to stakeholders how their concerns have been adequately reflected in what’s being proposed. In general, you’re better off checking first with the stakeholders you think might have to stretch the furthest to feel included—on the theory that if you can’t hold them, you probably don’t have a viable solution and you might as well know that from the get-go.

The trick here is steadfastly steering the group away from the advocacy that was featured in the preceding step (when you were identifying factors), and repeating to the group the mantra: "How well does this suggested solution balance the factors we came up with?" When a person feels their concerns have been left out of a proposal, ask them what would work better. Invite everyone to be a part of the solution, rather than a naysayer.

You are trying to create an atmosphere of inquiry and collaboration rather than survival of the fittest. Often, the facilitator—who is actively looking for the creative solution—will see a good way to balance disparate factors sooner than others, who tend to be more oriented toward protecting turf.

Caution: if, as facilitator, you offer up a solution that you think would work well, you have to gracefully stand down in the presence of resistance. It's all well and good to help the group move along; it's not OK if you're fighting for your ideas, as it will tend to undercut the neutrality that is the backbone of your license to operate.

The key to selling your idea to the group is showing how everyone's core concerns are being addressed. If someone feels left out, they'll be reluctant to get on board and you'll have to try another tack. If everyone can see how all players are being held and at the same time being asked to give a little, your idea will be more palatable.

When closing the deal, a crackerjack facilitator is part cheerleader ("We can do this!"), part magician (you're apt to see solutions others miss, especially if you're the only one in the room looking at the glass half full), and part sheep dog (continually urging the group to move in the direction of the corral—that will hold everyone—and away from protecting isolated ideas).

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Celebrating Quality (When Quantity is Wanting)

This past weekend I participated in the annual Twin Oaks Communities Conference, held Aug 14-16. Though the attendance was down markedly from past years (we didn't quite reach 100, and there have been years where we topped 250), it was nonetheless a solid event.

I've been going to this perennial wingding for more than a decade and it's a regular feature on my dance card. It's a terrific opportunity for seekers and wannabe communities to find each other and to be inspired by the stories of the 20 or so established communities who send representatives. For the newbies, it's a chance to be energized in the presence of people who are actually living the dream. For the veterans, it's a relaxed setting for renewing acquaintances, and slowing life down enough for in-depth conversations with thoughtful folks who have traveled all the way to the backwoods of rural Louisa County in an effort to make sense out of life.

[Years ago, when I was first making my appearance on the community circuit as a networker, the Twin Oaks conference stood out as a major deal. My life would accelerate into the chance to be on stage, talking about what we were learning at Sandhill about cooperative culture. It was like going to the circus, with all the attendant excitement and foment. Now, 30 years into it, I am thoroughly comfortable in my identity as a networker, and I experience the Twin Oaks conference as a time to relax and savor. What a shift! This past weekend I conducted three workshops, led singing at the Saturday morning opening circle, offered a public overview of FIC and Sandhill, helped run the benefit auction Saturday night, operated the conference bookstore (with the able help of my daughter Jo and my ex-partner Elke), and made sure I had about half a dozen conversations with fellow networkers. Today, I savor the Twin Oaks conference because of the ample opportunities around the edges—almost the exact opposite reason for which I used to protect the time. That's amusing.]

There had been some doubt about whether this year's event was going to happen, and a firm decision to continue wasn't made until two weeks before the event—which is pretty late in the day. The two people who had been coordinating the conference in recent years had both stepped back and there was a vacuum of leadership until Bucket (a Twin Oaks member) stepped forward at the last minute. As marketing was one of the casualties of the ambiguity, it's not surprising that attendance was down (even though interest in information about community living is at an all-time high). Bucket & Company did a great job however, at tailoring the event to the audience. With numbers down, they offered a stripped down menu of workshops and each one enjoyed the 10-25 participants it usually had. In whole-group circles, it took less time to do Go Rounds, where everyone added a piece about how the weekend was going for them.

The weather was gorgeous: no rain and temperatures below historic averages for August in the Virginia Piedmont (80s instead of 90s). As parking snafus tend to multiply in geometric proportion to attendance, this year was a breeze. The food lines were b
lessedly shorter. The coffee pot sustained its ability to dispense caffeine longer. Small can indeed be beautiful.

In recent years I've developed a workshop I style "Should You Join a Community or Start One?" and it was one of the three I offered last weekend. While it never attracts a large crowd, it tends to draw the people whose lives are dominated by that very question and I love doing it. One woman had knowledge of a large chunk of land available for "a song" in West Virginia, and she was anxious to seize the time. I assured her that in troubled times (while I'm not sure there is ever any other kind, there's no doubt that we're in them now) that there would be a plethora of properties available at distressed prices—that's what happens in hard times. I urged her to focus on the people, not the property. She was reassured, and it may have been the best thing I did all weekend.

• • •
At FIC we've learned not to attempt events unless we have coordinators in place in whom we have confidence. Twin Oaks is going through some soul-searching about what economic mix it wants in order to balance its budget and conferencing is one of the prospects they're considering for expansion. While I'm hoping that someone (Bucket?) steps forward to manage the conferencing business at Twin Oaks and I can continue to enjoy opportunities to pass along the tools and inspiration of community living, in the end, I respect Twin Oaks' need to wrestle with the question of whether this is who they want to be.

I don't know whether last weekend was a swan song or a point of celebration on the road to resurgence. It'll be intersting to see.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Reversing the Telescope

I’ve reported in earlier entries about the struggles I’m going through this year to find enough time with my partner, Ma’ikwe, as she focuses on building a house and I focus on earning the money to pay for it. [See my blogs of July 29, 2009—"A House Divided" and April 19, 2009—"Stretching the Ties That Bind".]

As I drove out to Virginia Tuesday (13 hours alone in the car) I had ample time to contemplate this dynamic and how I could better cope. I achieved a breakthrough of sorts about 600 miles into the trip when it occurred to me that things would look a whole lot better if I simply looked at them through the small end of the telescope instead of the large end.

Let me explain what I mean.

When we got married in April 2007, Ma’ikwe and I made a big deal out of taking control of the ceremony to create our own definition of commitment. I realize now that I failed to look deeply into rhythms of married life and unwittingly brought into the marriage some unintended baggage about what marriage is “supposed” to look like. (So much for taking control). Most married couples live together. Ma’ikwe and I never have. While we acknowledged that prospect going into the marriage (she was going to continue to live in New Mexico while I continued to live in Missouri), it got more complicated when Ma’ikwe moved to Missouri in July 2008.

While Ma’ikwe moved to the same county as me, she didn’t move to the same community. I live at Sandhill Farm and she moved to Dancing Rabbit, three miles distant. While three miles is demonstrably closer than 900 miles, it’s not at all simpler. It used to be—when Ma’ikwe was living in the Land of Enchantment—that when I was in Missouri I was essentially focused on Sandhill; when I was in New Mexico, I was focused on my marriage. Now, whenever I’m home, I’m dancing between the two.

Prior to Ma’ikwe’s moving to Missouri, I was either with her every day or in a different time zone. Now I’m juggling. And it’s just occurred to me (finally) that this isn’t fitting with the pattern of marriage that I’ve been imprinted with from childhood. Married people are typically together every day, unless one spouse is on a trip without the other. Well, Ma’ikwe and I are typically not together every day, and there’s been heightened tension about being close, but not together.

Looked at from the fat end of the telescope (where everything shrinks), my marriage was too small. Even when we're both in Scotland County, Ma’ikwe and I are together, on average, only two days a week—which is pretty paltry spousal contact when compared with most marriages. I wasn’t being a good partner, I was getting out of sync with my wife and we were spending a significant portion of our precious two days each week wading through the misunderstandings and reconnecting (rather than simply enjoying each other). Ufda.

Tuesday, it occurred to me that I had the option to "reverse the telescope" and start seeing those two days through the small end, so that they looked bigger, rather than puny. Laying aside the traditional pattern, I could just as well choose to see how blessed I was to have two days a week with someone who loved me and truly cared about me (which was excatly two days more per week than what I had prior to Ma'ikwe & I getting together romantically in October 2005). I could more regularly celebrate that I have a wife who is fully present with me and who consistently enjoys my company.

Having been proud and excited to have crafted my own ritual around marriage commitment, I see now that I neglected to appropriately recalibrate my expectations of married life. Oops! Loving and appreciating what one has is a far better strategy than lamenting that you don’t have more of it. (It amazes me that Ma’ikwe has put up with this shit from me as well as she has—she must really like me.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Home Echo

Terry Winkelmann & Phil Rudd are trying to create community where they are: in South County St Louis. Terry grew up in the neighborhood where she and Phil have their store Home Eco at 4611 Macklind Ave, where they’re trying to inspire and support St Louisans to be more sustainable and ecologically conscious. It was my pleasure last Monday to be on hand at their store to help bang the drum for their efforts.

Their store is the only one in the city devoted solely to environmentally friendly products. They’ve just been open for two years and are still trying to figure out a product mix that will be a successful business. Right now they’re trying a wide variety of things—everything from natural bristle vegetable brushes to rain barrels; from low VOC paints to seminars on the basics of photovoltaics.

Last month they offered a Monday night class on beekeeping (only two showed up). This past Monday they offered me—fielding questions on Everything You Wanted to Know About Intentional Communities. There was an lively audience of 15, who kept me hopping for about two hours.

One of the most interesting questions was whether I thought it was wiser to try community in the city or in the country (the poser was particularly worried about the potential of imminent economic collapse). After assuring the questioner that I didn’t have a crystal ball that was any less foggy than hers about the proximity of urban breakdown, I advised that it was a matter of style.

I equivocated by declaring that community was needed everywhere. I’d advocate for a country life if you were especially concerned with violence, or the security of one’s food source. I’d lean toward city life if you wanted the chance to help more people, or preferred the cultural richness of the urban stew.

In the case of Terry and Phil, they’ve made the choice (at least for now) to try the city, using their store as a lightning rod for attracting interest in cooperative living (based on the stock-it-and-they-will-come theory). Terry came from a traditional Catholic upbringing—her neighborhood is just south of The Hill, St Louis’ stronghold of Italian culture. She developed seriously Green-shifted values as an adult, and is now back home, offering to her traditional neighborhood an echo of decades past, where household products and building materials were more benign and contained far fewer polysyllabic ingredients.

I was excited to meet this couple in their 30s. Not sure of how best to manifest community, they have nonetheless rolled up their sleeves and are trying something to live out their values. They are an excellent example of the kind of people FIC had in mind four years ago when the Board adopted Creating Community Where You Are (CCWYA) as part of our mission.

The reason I was at Home Eco Monday night was that Terry had stumbled onto my blog one day while web surfer last winter, and invited me to speak at their store. Though it was months in advance, we agreed on August because I knew I’d be on my way to Virginia for the annual Twin Oaks Communities Conference (happening Aug 14-16) and could stop en route without any extra driving. Terry and Phil provided overnight accommodations in the basement of their post-WWII brick bungalow (with Meggy and Socks, the resident cats), and I thoroughly enjoyed swapping stories with living, breathing prototypes of the Fellowship’s CCWYA constituency.

I’m hopeful that next visit, we might be able to set up a Community Dialog in St Louis, where I can return to facilitate a conversation among attendees to explore their personal interest in community and cooperative living. Perhaps it will spark a forming community—or at least a more vibrant, engaged neighborhood. Blogging is the proselytizing equivalent of floating bread on the water, and it’s fun to see some of those seeds find fertile soil.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Cut Above

Saturday I spent all day helping Ma'ikwe build her house. She has seven close friends from her Albuquerque days (2003-2008) visiting this week, and it was fun being part of the menagerie for a day.

It was essentially a three-ring circus, with occasional side shows. One locus of worker bees installed purlins over the northeast quadrant of the roof, one mounted rafters over the northwest quadrant, and the third prepared meals and kept the cold drinks coming (it was hot and windy all day).

While there were no assignments ahead of time, and people were more or less free to work where they wanted (excepting who'd cook each meal), I wound up assisting on the rafter crew, doing one of my favorite jobs—cutting boards to exact specifications. As a 59-year-old, I leave the rafter dancing & hammer pounding to those with younger legs and more practiced arms.

My tools were a circular saw, a straight edge, a carpenter's pencil, a tape measure, a speed square, and a hand saw. Simple as this tool set was, there are a number of nuances about using each element well, and I got considerable satisfaction out of dusting off old knowledge and harnessing my hands and head to contribute even in a small way to my wife's house.

1. Carpenter's Pencil
These construction oddities are soft lead encased in a distinctly ob
long wooden shell. On site, where few surfaces are level, they simply won't roll. They'll stay where you put them. You can easily sharpen them with a utility knife. The trick to getting a clean line is to resharpen frequently and to hold the pencil at the same angle every time. In general, it works well to try to replicate the angle at which you've sharpened the point when you hold the pencil against your straight edge.

2. Straight Edge
As the rafter wood we were working with was recycled 2x12s, I needed a straight edge to extend the lines I'd mark out with a speed square (while they make a larger version, ours was the standard size with sides only a hair longer than six inches). While I could have used a framing square instead of the speed square/straight edge combo, the speed square is such a quick layout tool that it was preferable to use two tools. In this case, I chose a two-foot level. It was light and plenty long enough for my purposes. The trick was being diligent about how far away from my line to hold the level (about 1/8-inch is usually right) and then using a constant angle when marking with the pencil.

3. Speed Square
First invented in 1925 by a carpenter named Swanson, this cast aluminum tool is a workhorse on a construction site. In addition to making layout of perdendicular cuts a snap, it's the perfect tool for laying out bird's mouth rafter cuts. These are the angled bites of wood taken out of the bottom of each rafter such that they rest flat on the beam (or top plate). There's one at each end. Once you know the angle at which the rafters lay, it's simple
using the speed square to replicate the exact same cut, board after board.

4. Tape Measure
As all the lumber for the house has been recycled, there's considerable variation in dimensions. While they were all nominally 2x12s, some were nearer to 11" wide and some were proud of 13". Some were 1-1/2" thick; others a hair over 2". The tape, or course, is used constantly to measure these variables, and to determine the exact location of the gap between bird's mouths—so each rafter will fit snugly at its specific location.

Because we were mounting rafters with joist hangers, and they're all constructed for modern milled lumber, we frequently had to trim down the tickness of a rafter to fit within the 1-1/2" stirrup of each hanger. That meant I needed to measure the tickness of each rafter within a sixteenth of an inch, and then set the depth of cut on the circular saw to exactly waste away the excess. Accurately reading a tape measure for readings under 1/2" can be tricky. It's important to make sure that the steel tab at the end of the tape is used properly, and to avoid confusing 1/4 inch from 3/8 inch.

5. Circular Saw
When making precision cuts (trying to keep margins under 1/8-inch), the most important thing is understanding kerf—the thickness of the wood removed by the blade when making a cut. When executing bird's mouth notches, I needed to constantly remind myself which side of the line was waste. Also, when making interior notches, I had to be vigilant about not running the cut deeper than the mark. It's virtually impossible to do this work without safety goggles, as you constantly need to be checking where the blade is working—placing your face directly in line with flying wood chips.

6. Hand Saw
On every bird's mouth, I had to stop the circular saw short before the cut was complete (because the cut at the top of the board is more advanced than the cut at the bottom), and finish each cut with a hand saw. Because the kerf of a hand saw is considerably less than that of a circular saw blade, it was imporant to press the hand saw blade against the line whenever I was finishing a cut.

There's a satisfying rhythm to working a hand saw cleanly. Western saws cut on the down stroke (Japanese saws cut on the pull stroke), and you need to keep the blade in line with the cut, start the stroke lightly and then accelerate into the finish. As you near the interior corner of the bird's mouth, you need to steepen the angle of attack, until the last few strokes are made straight up and down.

• • •
With Steve and Denis up on top (each working a different beam), Sarah and I worked below. Sarah would help me schlep boards from the stack in the yard, hold the tape for the critical measurements between bird's mouths, help me wrangle the boards up to Steve & Denis, keep the upstairs crew supplied with hardware, and keep my workspace clear of wood scraps (tripping over scraps with a powered up circular saw can be more excitement than anyone needs). Sarah and I could just keep ahead of Steve & Denis, and we mounted about 20 rafters before dinner.

At dinner, people remarked on how joyful the work site was and how substantial the productivity-to-swearing ratio. In all, it was a
very satisfying day.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Trying to Be Less Conflicted About Conflict

Sandhill is heading for some changes. We're expecting a membership inversion this fall, and we've started talking about where we are and where we want to be, which is a compelling conversation.

See Change
While we've enjoyed remarkable stability over the course of our 35-year history, we'll be losing Käthe & Michael Nicosia this October. After seven years with us, they're returning to a piece of property they own in southern Missouri, where they used to live before coming north to join Sandhill in 2002. Käthe's son is builidng a home for them there and it's conveniently located between Käthe's two adult children: Andrew in northern Arkansas, and Molina in central Missouri.

Going the other way,
we're expecting Joe & Trish (a couple in their late 20s) to join us this winter, along with their infant son. So although we're only be four adults and Renay (Gigi's 13-year-old who splits time between Sandhill and her father nearby) come October, we're fully expecting to be six adults and two children by next spring.

Last week, for the first time, the four members who will be the remaining adult core—Stan, Gigi, Apple, and me—met for the first time alone, to dip our collective toes into the water of Galadriel's mirror, peering into Sandhill's past, present, and future.

Knowing that we'll be seeing change, each of us painted a picture of what we wanted Sandhill to look like in five years. Not surprisingly, the responses substantially affirmed much of what we're now doing. We intend to stay the course when it comes to our strong commitment to growing our own organic food. We intend to remain small enough that we're more of an intentional family than a village. Still, there were some important departures from the status quo.

Sea Change
Stan and Apple voiced a clear desire that we return to a deeper level of engagement with one another—harkening back to what we'd created in the mid-90s, when we'd typically explore some modality of personal growth work as part of our annual retreat. In recent years we'd drifted away from working at a deeper level in meetings, and had even held fewer meetings. Much decision-making was handled on the fly over morning coffee, or during dinner on the front porch. Check-ins had gradually become more superficial (often more about agricultural observations than intimate disclosures).

In particular, there was less reliance on the group to create a container in which to resolve interpersonal tensions. Instead, there was more emphasis on being nice (or toughing it out when triggered by something another had done).

C Change
While I had an immediate positive response to Stan & Apple's request for more engagement among the members, Gigi was more cautious. She's been at Sandhill for 15 years and does not look back on the days of greater intensity with fondness. Reasonably enough, Gigi was translating the request for greater engagement as an invitation to work conflicts more regularly in the group, and this didn't excite her. She was thinking of "C" as in "Conflict," and altering our culture to intentionally spend more time in the lion's den did not feel safe.

Over the last decade, by far the prickliest dynamic among the membership has been between Gigi and me. We have substantially different styles, are fairly out there in expressing our views, and have frequently run afoul of each other. Our attempts to express this and sort it out in the group have not commonly gone well, and this informs Gigi's coolness about an invitation to "return to battle." In Gigi's view, we've tried a number of ways to help sort things out constructively and nothing has proven particularly effective. Why do it more?

While I substantially agree with Gigi's assessment of how successful we've been at working conflict in the past (meaning not very good), I have two reasons for being much more optimistic about doing better now: Stan and Apple.

In my experience, a group is much more likely to be successful in engaging with conflict if it has members with the gumption and skill to navigate emotional distress when they are not key stakeholders on the presenting issues. For the last decade, we've rarely had that. Now perhaps we do. And I'm eager to put this in place before Joe & Trish arrive.

[Ironically, working conflict is one of the bread-and-butter aspects of my group process consulting business. My experience in this volatile arena is one of most frequent reasons I get hired to work with groups, and yet this is of almost no value when I'm one of the players in the soup. While I'd know how to work with me, for most of the last 10 years at Sandhill there has been no one sufficiently neutral, skilled, and motivated to manage the dynamics that Gigi and I have manifested. As a result, there's a been a lot of suffering and it's no wonder that Gigi is chary of returning to the crucible.]

I'm buoyed by Stan & Apple's paired request that we shift the community's culture to disclose more with one another. While they're no doubt picturing this as a much richer stew than just devoting more time to working interpersonal tensions, there's also no doubt that they realize that conflict comes with the territory. The fact that they're willing to give is an exciting prospect for me.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

This Old House

Two nights ago Ma'ikwe and I got together with a mutual friend (Tony Sirna from Dancing Rabbit) and spent about an hour talking about the weak spots in the foundation of our relationship (see my previous blog of July 29). Tony did a good job of making sure that each of us was heard and helped us identify where to effect repairs. As often happens, shining light in the dark corners helped reduce my fear of disaster, and helped get me out of what John Bunyan styled "the Slough of Despond" in his allegorical novel Pilgrim's Progress.

In fact, we felt solid enough yesterday to spend the whole day together, working on Ma'ikwe's actual house. Just as we're working through some dramatic shifts in our relationship, she's at the point of dramatic changes on the construction site. Almost half of the rafters are up and we nailed up the first purlin as the last act before quitting time. We took receipt of the metal roofing yesterday and with any luck it will all be screwed down within the week. Then it's time for the strawbale infill, taking advantage of the crew of seven friends arriving next Wed from Albuquerque for a week of helping-Ma'ikwe-build-a-house (which is sure to provide the crew with fun answers to the questions they'll get in the fall about how they spent their summer vacation).

• • •
While I'm still nervous about how many shoes are yet to fall (how many more patterns in my behavior Ma'ikwe will reveal are non-trivial irritations), she's clearly aware of my anguish, and has done a great job of steadfastly hanging in there with me. While I'm weighed down by the accumulation of announcements (and especially by those whose delivery has been delayed by months), she feels unburdened and more hopeful. While I'm staggering under the uncertainty of when we'll hit the bottom of the barrel, she's buoyed that we're getting to this level of sharing.

There's a tendency I have that contributes significantly to why these moments are particularly difficult to navigate. When I receive serious feedback (which happened last Tuesday) I want to bore into what I can do on my side of the equation. In an effort to be vigilant against any desire to blame the other person
unfairly and deflect responsibility for the part I've played in what's not working, I typically spend a few days concentrating on what I can shift. Instead of examining the other person's options, I focus exclusively on what I can do differently.

Ma'ikwe, understandably, feels left out of this. (She even feels huffy that I'm hogging all the responsibility for what's not working—every couple should have this kind of problem.) Her preference is to tackle problem solving together, after we've jointly come to some agreement about what the problems are and what would constitute acceptable remedies. She was worried about a number of things:
—I might invest considerable effort in trying to make changes that may not be things she wants.
—I may be overreacting, taking a criticism too heavily (while she's feeling relieved to be getting things off her chest, I'm questioning the viability of the relationship).
—I'm not available to help her sort out what she can do differently.
—While I engage in this intense exploration, I'm not available to her; she feels shut out and that's neither connecting nor partnering.

While my Dark Nights (and days) of the Soul tend to be productive periods for me, they're no fun to be around and Ma'ikwe is frustrated with my disappearing act. At least they don't tend to last long—about 2-3 days at the most.

In any event, here's the constructive outcome of our Thursday night house party. Ma'ikwe's willing to look at how she can communicate more directly what's going on for her and what she wants. This will help me be accurate in my responses, and help me undertsand right away when something goes awry.

For my part, I'm going for the trifecta:
a) I'll try not to interrupt, and let her complete full statements before responding or asking a question;

b) I'll try to pause to ask what kind of answer she wants before luanching into the first thing that occurs to me. This last is especially potent in that Ma'ikwe could want any of the following, in any combination:
o A sympathetic ear (no response needed)
o A response on the feeling or heart level (how am I touched by her story)
o Technical advice (about process, content, or both)
o Background information on the topic

When I guess, there's a fair risk of my getting it wrong (and while it takes a bit longer to inquire about what kind of response Ma'ikwe is looking for, she's never had a bad reaction to my asking—which makes it rather embarrassing that it's taken me almost four years to start focusing on asking the question).

c) When we uncover a recurring weakness in the relationship, I'll try to stay in the conversation long enough to get a full sense of what Ma'ikwe considers her part of the dynamic and what she'd like from me (if she knows).
• • •
Building a strong house can be tough work. But living in poorly constructed one is worse. Thankfully, I have a partner who is not afraid of hard work (and can swing a hammer).