Monday, September 28, 2009

Power of One

Last weekend I was working with a 36-year-old community in northern California that was founded by Quaker activists. Among other things they wanted to spend half the weekend refining how they work with consensus. It's a great topic, and one that I wished more groups devoted time to—especially groups who supposedly operate by consensus.

Here are the four consensus questions the group wanted to tackle:

1. How to get back on track once the consideration veers into negative or unproductive behavior?

2. How do we define "blocking" and "standing aside," and what are individual and group rights & responsibilities when these surface?

3. When working a topic on which there's substantive disagreement about how to proceed, how do we work constructively with differences and foster an atmosphere of appreciation for people willing to surface their concerns?

4. How can we discern when our input is based on what's best for the group, in contrast with personal preferences?

Well, we didn't run out of things to talk about. In today's blog I want to share some insights that surfaced for me in connection with addressing Question #2—in particular, about how blocking is viewed. In subsequent blogs, I'll try to address the other questions.

Consensus (in some form or other) is the most common way that intentional communities make decisions. As a process consultant I'm often hired to help groups learn more deeply how consensus works and how to develop the culture in which it can flourish. (Unfortunately, many groups make the commitment to using consensus without acquiring a deep understanding or investing in training, and they get indifferent results.) How to understand and work with blocks is one of the most frequent questions about consensus that I field.

In some cases, especially where groups are unsure of their footing around how the group can successfully navigate deeply held differences (reference Question #3 above), the group can become terrified of blocks, for fear of divisiveness and polarization.

In the case of the community I was working with last weekend, we were able to resolve fairly quickly what I'll style the difference between "blocks" and "pseudo-blocks." In a typical sequence of engagement on an issue, the group will go through the following phases:
o Presentation of the Issue (what portion of the issue needs to be tackled at the plenary level?)
o Discussion (identifying the factors that a good response needs to take into account)
o Proposal Generation (what response best balances the factors named in the previous step?)
o Decision (is the proposal good enough?)
o Implementation (who is doing what, when, and with what resources?)

In consensus theory, a "block," or "standing in the way of," occurs only in the Decision phase—at the end of thorough Discussion and careful Proposal Generation. Essentially, healthy groups rarely experience blocks because they almost never advance proposals that everyone cannot accept.

However, when a group is unsure about what constitutes a legitimate block and/or how to handle that examination, then trouble tends to show up earlier. A person with a strongly held position (or style) may draw a line in the sand early in the Discussion phase with a statement something like, "If someone proposes that we use capital reserves to fund repainting the Common House, I'll block it. That money should never be used for maintenance."

Although the speaker actually used the B word, it wasn't really a block because wasn't a proposal on the table. Rather, it was a strong concern, and a factor that will need to be addressed (which is exactly what should be surfacing during the Discussion phase). We call this a "pseudo-block" because it didn't occur during the Decision phase, yet it can be every bit as effective as a legitimate block in stopping a line of inquiry if the group does not know how to work differences.

The community I was working with was struggling mainly with pseudo-blocks. And while that was fairly easy to sort out to everyone's satisfaction, the confusion was partly begged by their being unclear what actually constituted a legitimate block. And it was that conversation that was especially potent for me.

To my knowledge, there is no single way that groups using consensus define a block. That said, it's typically a problem if groups don't define it and, for my money, I prefer that the test of legitimacy be that the blocker believes that the proposal either violates a common value of the group or a prior agreement in force. In other words, that the proposed action or agreement will harm the group in some substantial way.

While the group was united in its desire to to define a block (no one was standing up for ambiguity), there was not clear agreement about what that would be. In a Go Round, the majority expressed comfort with the standard of legitimacy that I offered. However, a notable handful dissented. And I was touched by this dissent.

After 22 years as a process consultant, I've run into many examples of groups which have been hamstrung by obstinate individuals who claimed they were blocking proposals for the good of the group yet no one could see how the proposal violated a group value. It just looked like the individual was abusing their right to block in pursuit of a personal agenda, and the group was reluctant to push against this.

The people who were uncomfortable with requiring that an individual needed to "justify" their block, or (put another way) that the group could override a block, spoke eloquently for trusting that members would take seriously the responsibility to think deeply and carefully before exercising their right to block. While I'm not yet convinced that the standard for a block should not be "for the good of the group," I can see how trusting members to do well may be a better model than preparing for churlishness or manipulation by protectively putting in place a process for invalidation.

There was not a shred of doubt in my mind that the dissenters were operating for the good of the group when defending the right of individuals to be the sole judge of whether their block was appropriate, and thus, in the true Quaker tradition, this group will let this question season and come back to it later.
After all my years in the field, I've learned that groups tend to manifest what they expect to find. Those dissenters reminded me of the power of expecting the best, and I was touched by how they all exemplified the very care and integrity in considering this matter that they were projecting that all group members will exercise when considering whether to block.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Booking My Future

Yesterday afternoon I spent a delightful hour with Lynne Elizabeth of New Village Press at her home in Temescal Commons, a small 9-unit infill cohousing community located smack in the middle of Oakland. The community was built in 2000, on the site of a homestead that goes back to the 19th Century and, incredibly, still includes the original barn—used to store the hay they used to cut from the surrounding fields of grass. You have to squint real hard to imagine that the urban asphalt and completely built-out Oakland of today (the place about which Gertrude Stein once quipped, "There is no there there.") once looked like that.

I first met Lynne in 1998, at the FIC's highly successful Art of Community conference held that fall at Christ Church of the Golden Rule, a pacifist community outside of Willits CA. Although that site was over two hours driving time north of San Francisco, we had over 250 people attend and had to turn away 30 more because we couldn't shoehorn them in. At that point, Lynne was just about to launch New Village Journal, a magazine focused on building sustainable cultures. While the magazine didn't last long (at least in print form), Lynne has sustained an interest in urban vitality and sustainability ever since, and it was nice to touch base with her again.

As I walked over to her bungalow yesterday, I didn't have any particular agenda in mind—I was just reconnecting with a friend and wanted to hear what she was up to. Of course, I wasn't completely naive. I knew that Lynne and I are both inveterate community networkers and I expected to discuss potential collaborations. I just didn't know at the outset where the conversation would lead.

As her home is also her office, I was greeted at the door by Terry, her part-time assistant. As I waited for Lynne to finish up something upstairs in her work space, I glanced around at her books (isn't this what everyone does when you first have a moment alone in someone's house?). So, naturally enough, we started the conversation talking about books.

New Village is a small publisher that focuses on titles which build sustainable culture. They bring out perhaps 2-3 books annually, and are picky about what projects they accept. All of which made sense to me. After all, I'm a picky writer. Suddenly, it seemed obvious to mention to Lynne that I was in the early stages of writing a book, and I wondered if she'd be interested in publishing it. She asked me to tell her more, and we were off to the races.

For some years now, I've realized there's a book in me trying to come out. It will be about cooperative group dynamics—essentially a distillation of my 22 years as a process consultant and my 35 years of living in intentional community. At this point in my life, the hard part is not figuring out what to say (two years ago I printed out copies of my collected writing—at least all that's in my computer—and it was half a ream), nor is it writer's block (I author 8-9 blog entries every month, craft 1-2 articles for every issue of Communities magazine, and crank out reports on the average of one per day).

My main challenge is carving out sufficient time in an over-packed schedule to regularly push the project along. Two years ago I started setting aside a half-day per week for the book, but wasn't very far along when Geoph Kozeny tragically turned up with terminal cancer. I laid down the book to concentrate on supporting Geoph for the four months he had left. As part of the deal, I took onto my shoulders managing the completion of his video, Visions of Utopia, and two months after Geoph passed away I started my career as a blogger. (Where does the time go?)

Now, finally, I'm about ready to blow on the coals of my book project and bring that fire back to life. Right after Thanksgiving, I'm committing two half-days per week to the effort, for as long as it takes.

The conversation with Lynne helped in several ways. First, I think it's important that I work with a cooperative publisher. Which is not to say one that's easy to get along with (though that would be nice!); I mean a publishing outfit that operates cooperatively, so that the dynamics of bringing out the book are concordant with the message of the book. While New Village Press is not the only choice that meets that test, they're a strong candidate. New Society Publishers would be another.

Second, talking with Lynne brought into sharp focus that I don't want to be in charge of marketing and promoting my book, which is something all good publishers do. As I listened to what New Village does to promote their titles, I could tell viscerally that I didn't want to self publish (and therefore be in charge of my own marketing). Before that conversation I didn't have that clarity. Don't get me wrong, I'm certain that I'll love giving talks about my book; I just don't want to be the one setting up those talks. While working with a publisher may mean I'll make less money than self-publishing (at least that's a possibility) it will surely mean that there's greater distribution of the book, and that's really the bottom line when you're in the social change business.

Third, Lynne got me to see that I need to be much more clear about my intended audience before I start writing (or re-writing, given how much already exists in the form of handouts, reports, and monographs). While I'm working all the time on clarifying what I think constitutes effective cooperative group dynamics (in fact, at this point, I can't turn it off; I process even casual exchanges recreationally, whether I share my thoughts with others or not), that is only part of the equation.

Think of a book as a bridge, attempting to connect the author with readers. While the traffic is generally one way, it's nonetheless all about connection. My thinking, while important, is only one bridge abutment. My intended audience is the other, and it only makes sense to place both abutments on solid foundations before you start constructing the bridge deck. (Lynne was glad to hear that I grokked this. She shook her head while lamenting the number of manuscripts she sees where the author does not appear to have thought at all about the intended audience.)

Fourth, Lynne is connected with urban planners. In particular, she has ties with progressive planners and the New Urbanists, who are trying to refine and define what constitutes sustainable cities. This is a world I have not entered and I am hopeful that Lynne may be able to provide me with an entree, so that I can learn more about their world and how my work on cooperative processes can apply.

All and all, it was a highly productive hour visiting with an old friend.
This business of building sustainable culture is complicated stuff, and it's important to have friends helping one another along the way.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Conflict for Dessert

Sunday night I arrived in Oakland for the start of a four-day visit, and I had dinner with my friend (and host), Jeffrey Harris, an ex-Dancing Rabbit member. We went out to a neighborhood Italian restaurant with his partner and housemate Ha, and enjoyed a lovely dinner, replete with caprese, carbohydrates (fresh bread & pasta), and conversation.

Though we had our eyes on tiramisu for dessert, alas, they were all out! While they also had cannoli on the menu and that seemed to me a perfectly acceptable runner-up selection, Jeffrey talked me into going out instead to a nearby specialty ice cream shop, Tara's, which features organic and exotic flavors (I had cherry fudge, mango agave, and tarragon chocolate). It was pretty damn good. Jeffrey assured me that they use low-fat milk in concocting their delicacies, yet it was incredibly rich tasting nonetheless. Yum.

• • •
Last night I accepted a dinner invitation at a co-op house within walking distance of Jeffrey's, and once again I did not have cannoli for dessert. Instead I had conflict.

The person who'd invited me to dinner was struggling in her relationship with another house member and she wanted my help in facilitating an attempt to help them work through their dynamics. While it was flattering to be asked, I generally prefer not have these requests sprung on me. Still, here we were, and it seemed ingracious to decline. (Are professional facilitators ever off duty?)

As it happened, the other player in the conflict (a guy) also didn't know about this plan for postprandial processing. So it was a surprise all around. Fortunately for the woman (and my story) the guy was willing to give it a try. Even though he was tired from a long day at work and wanted to get to bed early, he was willing to give it 10 minutes.

(Well, I knew that that wasn't working—if it's serous conflict, 10 minutes is rarely sufficient to hear even one side of an upset, much less get the whole picture and make an attempt at working it out. I figured though that once we got started, things would pretty much move along on their own momentum, and, sure enough, a half hour went by before anyone thought to check a watch.)

While the presenting incident involved the proper use of dish racks in the common kitchen, I was never under any illusion that that was the underlying issue. It didn't take too long to uncover the pattern. Her story was that he is always defensive and resists her attempts to work through issues she has with his behavior. His story was that she's always pushing him to change and doesn't respect any boundaries about what or when to discuss her concerns. He was defended to guard against her pushing; she pushed to break through his defenses. Each thought they were responding in a measured way to what the other had started. This is how wars get started.

After many months of living together, they had found themselves on a merry-go-round that neither wanted to be on. Going round and round was not proving to be productive, and it was never merry. The good news is that they both wanted it to be different. I got the woman to see how she might get different results if she did two things differently when she had a bone to pick with him:

a) Ask the guy if this was a good time to talk about an issue, and respect his answer if he said, "No."

b) Once they had agreement to talk about her concerns, that she start by hearing how the incident in question looked to him and that she not proceed to tell her side of the story until he indicated that she'd understood his experience of the incident. (Note: When trust is low between people it is generally not sufficient that she felt she had heard him out; he needs to acknowledge that he feels heard as a prelude to the conversation staying constructive.)

Going the other way, I got the man to commit to:

a) Not agree to hear her feedback unless he thought he was in a frame of mind to work with it constructively.

b) If he puts her off in the moment, that he take primary responsibility for coming up with an alternative time that was not unreasonably distant (Hint: something sooner than "when hell freezes over"). It's not cool to expect her to come to him, if he requests a postponement.

c) When it comes time for her to state what's been hard for her, that he offer her the same thing she offers him: an acknowledgment to her satisfaction that he got it. (Note: affect here is typically just as important as the words.)

Finally, I got both of hem to be allies in jointly bringing to a future house meeting the topic of:
What are the expectations of house members to provide a reasonable avenue to hear feedback from other members about their behavior as a member of the house?

At the end of the day, conflict is most often about the same incident being experienced through different frames of reference, and misunderstandings about other people's lenses of reality. Fortunately, sociopaths are much rarer than TV would have us believe, and few people are truly evil. While behaviors that are selfish or unmindful are numbingly common, if you can remind yourself that no one actually meant harm, it will go a long way toward helping you find a way through the slough of ill feelings.
• • •
So dessert has been a surprise adventure each of my first two nights in the Bay Area. Tonight, I think, I'll just bring my own damn cannoli.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

When to Reass

Yesterday afternoon I witnessed a facilitator bring a group back from a break and moon everyone in the first 60 seconds. I'd never seen that before.

I'm working with a group this weekend where the prime directive is for me to coach their facilitators as the community tackles tough issues around refining how they practice consensus and making decisions about the next residence to construct. We have 11 hours of plenaries lined up accomplish as much as possible inside of 42 hours, and that's providing 8-9 members of the group the opportunity to take a turn at the wheel under my tutelage.

As a teacher, this is facilitation improv, and one of the most fun things I do. There isn't much I can prepare for; mostly I just teach the moment, which includes stepping in to offer a redirection or summary while the meeting in progress; conferring with the facilitator(s) on break to help them road map the next sequence of focus; and meeting with folks outside of session to discuss facilitation—all of which takes place in the highly caffeinated world of process junkies, where people meet immediately before and after each meeting to discuss the meeting.

On the front end, I orchestrate the prep: we go over the objectives, identify a productive sequence of engagement, discuss format options, and anticipate potential potholes on the road to success. Afterward we repair to a quiet corner to debrief what happened: we explore confusing moments, celebrate effective choices, and walk through how to handle awkward moments differently the next time around.

When you're addicted to good process, like I am, it's hard to imagine a better life. I'm in meetings all day (I'm composing this blog before dawn, because when the sun comes up I'm in a meeting), I get to teach people who really care about what I'm good at, there's strong coffee (with half-and-half) available all day long, everyone is laughing a lot, we're accomplishing real work, there's excellent beer at the end of the day, and I get paid to do this. How good can it get?

The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
gang aft agley —Robert Burns

Getting back to yesterday's meeting, I was observing the final plenary of the day, sitting right next to the flip chart easel. During a break, I had worked intensively with the two guys tag-teaming the facilitation to tease out the nuggets from 40 minutes of small group deliberations and determine possible ways to focus the final 30 minutes of the day—where the emphasis was on ending with as much solid product as we could gather. It was the fourth quarter, and we needed a touchdown. It was an animated 15-minute huddle (while everyone else was stretching, going to the bathroom, getting a cup of coffee, or all three), and my position was roughly analogous to a football coach drawing up a new play for the team on the back of a napkin during the final timeout.

As we were running a little late (the 10-minute break had stretched to 22) one of the two quarterbacks hastily scribbled the revised agenda on the flip chart and called everyone back to their seats. From my sight lines, I couldn't read what had actually been written on paper, but I knew were in trouble when one woman joked that "She was OK with the plan generally, but wanted no part of being "reassed"; she was fine with the one she had."

This comment immediately drew attention to the author's half-assed attempt at spelling, where the term "reassess" was missing its final "s." In the midst of this rising tide of ribald back door jocularity, the facilitator decided,
wisely in my opinion, to ride the wave (rather than buck it) and the next thing I knew he had his pants down and was bending over to demonstrate how "reassing" was actually done. This did a marvelous job of unifying the energy in the room, though not necessarily on the topic of construction.

After a minute of silence, everyone was able to resume a normal heart rate, as well as proper meeting decorum. The final 30 minutes was satisfyingly productive, and a valuable lesson was learned: i
n the heat of the moment, sloppy spelling can sometimes bite you in the assessment.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Bad News at Home

Ode to an Athlete Dying Young

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the marketplace;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsmen of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the route
Of lads that wore their honors out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl's.

—A E Houseman

I learned last night that my friend Tamar Friedner has been diagnosed with terminal cancer in her liver, pancreas, and uterus. The disease is so advanced that the oncologist considers it inoperable and untreatable. I feel that I've been kicked in the gut by one of the horses of the Apocalypse, and this has cast a pall over the tri-communities of Scotland County (Dancing Rabbit, where Tamar has been a member for many years, Sandhill Farm, and Red Earth).

Two years ago, I lost another friend to pancreatic cancer—Geoph Kozeny. Geoph was my age and his life was cut short at 57. As much as a tragedy as that was, it is even more shocking with Tamar, who is only in her 30s. You can never imagine it, and it brought to mind the poignant A E Houseman poem I opened with. How can a life so full of promise and inquiry be ending so soon?

My partner, Ma'ikwe, moved to DR a year ago and is now in the midst of building a house there. She worked extensively with Tamar last winter in designing the house and Ma'ikwe asked her to serve as the general contractor on the project. My most recent conversations with Tamar have been to discuss design details about Ma'ikwe's house.

Tamar likes construction, yet she declined Ma'ikwe's offer in order to free up her summer to travel and explore options, which is what she did. In the spring she traveled to Vermont to explore a possible life partner relationship. When that didn't work out, she planned trips to other parts of the US, to see friends and assess other potentials, springboarding off her substantial foundation of sustainable living experience at DR.

While not an athlete per se, Tamar may reasonably be likened to a marathoner, who knows how to exert herself steadily—both physically and energetically—for the long haul. It is the ultimate tragedy that in Tamar's instance, the haul will not be long. All of her friends in Scotland County are stunned and sadder today. How can such a vital life force be so cruelly truncated? It is a time for grieving.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Consensus in the Courtroom

Twenty-two years ago I was selected to be on a jury. It was a civil case about a local farmer suing a local bank because, the farmer claimed, he'd been coerced into signing over rights to an otherwise unencumbered piece of land as additional collateral when the bank got nervous about the terms they'd originally given him on a loan. The farmer claimed he didn't know his rights and the bank president had taken advantage of him. Presentation of the testimony and evidence was completed in six days. On the seventh day the lawyers rested.

While this story is very much old news, I'm dusting it off for three reasons:
1. The trial took place in the spring of 1987—about six months before I went out on my first job as a process consultant, and my jury experience helped gel in me: a) my interest in group dynamics; b) my sense that I had something to offer; and c) my understanding of the widespread need for something better than the ways we typically make decisions.

2. I was appalled by the gap between the way the jury process is meant to safeguard justice and the way decisions are actually made by the ordinary citizens who comprise juries.

3. This bit of history is on my mind right now because I used the example of this experience during last weekend's facilitation training (Weekend V of the 8-part Integrative Facilitation Training that I'm conducting with Ma'ikwe in North Carolina) to illuminate the opportunities for people to use consensus thinking and facilitative tools in non-consensus situations. While this is an important topic and this was a decent example, I hadn't prepared well to make my points. By writing about it, I figure I can take a second bite of that apple.

Courtroom Curiosities
o Although I believe laws governing court procedures vary somewhat by state, in 1987 Missouri jurors were not only forbidden from discussing a case in progress with people outside the trial (for example, when one went home at night), we were also forbidden from discussing it with one another until the case was turned over to us, and we were forbidden to take notes while the court was in session. Interestingly, we were allowed to make notes when court was in recess.

To me—already 13 years into my life in intentional community—taking notes during serious meetings was automatic, and I figured a trial counted as a serious meeting. I was taken by surprise when the judge halted proceedings the first day to make sure that my notebook was closed whenever he was in the room. This meant I had to rely on my memory instead of notes taken in the moment, and I had trouble seeing this as an enhancement of justice. Why not give everyone a notebook and encourage the practice?

The judge told us that the rationale for banning notetaking among jurors during trial was that those who didn't take notes would tend to defer to those who did, thus destabilizing the equality among jurors. As it turned out, the other jurors in fact did defer to me when the case was turned over to us, because they all knew I was recording notes during the breaks, and they trusted my record better than their memory. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king; heaven forb
id I should be allowed to use both eyes. What a system!

o Leaving the rules about notetaking aside, I don't understand why jurors are not allowed to ask questions. If we don't understand something, we can't we ask for more information? When lawyers plead before the Supreme Court, after all, the justices are allowed to query them. While everything that is admitted into evidence is physically handed over to the jury for perusal once the case has been handed over to us, the reality was that no one looked at any of it, nor was it referred to, except from memory.

And that was just the beginning of the curious things that transpired.

o When the case was finally given to the jury, it marked the first time in a week that any of us were allowed to discuss the case. As we had been directed by the judge to start by selecting a foreman, we did so. They selected me. (Perhaps my taking notes projected an impression of organizational competence.) While I suppose there's a general expectation that the foreman has some kind of authority to manage the deliberations, nowhere is this spelled out and you have to make it up as you go along.

As I reflect back on that first hour together in the jury room, the image of herding cats leaps to mind. Everyone wanted to talk at once, and everyone was fed up with listening. After a few futile attempts to focus the conversation, I announced that I was giving up: the lot of them could simply engage in freewheeling commentary until everyone felt ready to have a single conversation. Somewhere in the second hour we reached that point—though not before I was able to discern that there were a lot more things on trial than just a lawsuit about collateral.

o The demographic of the jury was eight men and four women. I was 37 years old at the time, and there was one other man about my age; the other six were over 50. When we did a straw poll early on, to see which way the wind was blowing, the vote was 6-6. The four woman and the two younger men combined in favor of the plaintiff; the six older men sided with the bank. It turned out that that was not a coincidence. The older men were viewing events through different lenses than the rest of us:

A. It happened that the lawyer for the plaintiff was from St Louis, and not someone local. While there's a certain amount of parochial favoritism that's probably characteristic of rural counties everywhere, this non-local prejudice was compounded by the lawyer also being Black. My county has no Black residents and the jury was all White. Although Brown v. the Board of Education happened more than 30 years earlier, there was nonetheless palpable racial prejudice among some of the older men. To some extent there was a clear preference to see the White lawyer prevail over the Black one. Thus race was on trial. Ugh.

B. Most of the older men were farmers, and they didn't have much respect for the plaintiff as a peer. It grated on them that he might earn a financial reward through a lawsuit that they felt was outside his capacity to earn agriculturally. In fact, if he were a better farmer, they reasoned, he wouldn't have been in such substantial debt to the bank in the first place. They felt he should not be bailed out for his inefficiencies. Thus the trail became an assessment of farming competency and a referendum on what constituted fair return on one's efforts.

C. As farmers, the older men were typically dependent on local banks for cash flow loans. With only two banks in town, they were afraid that finding against the bank would be bad for business—either because the bank might take operations elsewhere, or might close off credit to any jurors who found against them. Thus the trial became a measure of what was best strategically for the local economy, and how to play it safe.

• • •
Where, I wondered, was there room for the case being decided on its merits? Boy, did I feel naive.

Because this was a civil case (not criminal) the standards for a decision were different than those I had absorbed watching Perry Mason on TV. Instead of requiring unanimity, it was sufficient that 9 of the 12 agreed with a course of action (either in favor of the plaintiff or the defendant). Nor were we asked to decide "beyond a reasonable doubt" what happened. It was enough to reach a decision based on what we felt the evidence showed most probably occurred.

Consensus Tools at Work
Here are the things I did as foreman in an attempt to navigate this complicated group dynamic, and which ultimately led to a verdict that we could all support.

1. Move away from positions and navigate from core interests
It was crucial to uncover early on that the 12 of us were not judging the case on the same basis. While some of us were focusing on whether the farmer had a legitimate beef about how the bank handled the request for additional collateral (it all boiled down to what we thought most likely transpired in a closed-room conversation where only the farmer and the bank president were present), it was important to know that the older men were afraid of incurring the bank's displeasure and that they didn't respect the plaintiff as a farmer.

2. Walk away from tangential inflammatory statements
While I had a knee-jerk outrage reaction to the racist side comments that some of the men made about the plaintiff's lawyer, I chose to let that go. I figured that as long as this was not being put forward as a reason to side with the bank (while I was on guard about this possibility, it didn't happen), then we were more likely to be able to build a workable solution. My immediate needs would be met so long as I was vigilant about not allowing the farmer's lawyer's race to be a factor in how we came to agreement.

3. Focus on bridging instead of advocacy
In attempting to build consensus in situations where there exist non-trivial differences, it's often useful to approach the issue in two stages: first, flush out all the factors that are in play; and second, make a transition to focusing on the search for a course of action that adequately balances those factors.

4. Make sure that all speakers feel heard—especially if they say something controversial
If a person says something edgy, or something they feel strongly about, they are highly likely to repeat themselves (often with increasing volume and frustration) Simply making sure that you've heard someone (to their satisfaction), can make an enormous difference in how smoothly you navigate tough topics.

5. Proceed at a pace that doesn't feel rushed to anyone
While this may seem obvious, everyone does not process information or know their own mind at the same rate. If you chivvy along the slower processors (in the name of reaching the finish line sooner), it's often false economy. Pushing tends to result in push back, which will either undermine how quickly you'll be able to tackle the next topic, or erode the trust needed for a solid decision. People tend to get indigestion when asked to swallow before they're finished chewing. In fact, if you push hard enough, they'll spit out their food and it's messy all around.
• • •
After several hours of deliberation, we were able to reach agreement on finding for the plaintiff (establishing that the bank president should have known better what the proper process was for boosting the collateral on the loan), yet honored the concerns of the older jurists by limiting the damages to something modest. Thus, the bank wasn't hurt badly and the farmer didn't get rich.

In the end, I think we approximated justice pretty well, yet I wonder to this day how things would have gone if there hadn't been a nascent process consultant serving as the foreman, able to bring the tools of consensus into the jury room.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Coffee, Tea, or Me?

Ma’ikwe and I unreservedly agree that we have a great sex life. However, when she asked me yesterday if I thought that was one of the main reasons our partnership worked well, we didn’t have the same answer. And that got me thinking…

For me, sex has always been confusing. While I’m generally sure of my footing in most things I undertake (which means I’m either confident in my ability to do a thing well, or confident in my ability to find out how to do a thing well), that’s not the case with sex.

I’m mystified why anyone finds me sexually attractive (though thankful that some do). And while I really enjoy sex (mysterious though it is), I do not have much confidence in the outcome of any particular engagement. On the up side, as I’ve gotten older—I’ve been doing this for more than four decades now—I’ve gotten more sensitive to reading my partner and tuning into what she wants. On the down side (so to speak), my erections have become increasingly erratic and undependable. By unlinking the concept of sexual pleasure from the imperative of male orgasm, Ma’ikwe and I have been able to achieve a highly satisfying sex life.

I give Ma’ikwe a lot of credit here—when it comes to sex she has catholic tastes without Catholic guilt. I’ve had past partners who found my inconsistent erections highly frustrating—even to the point of accusing me of withholding erections (for what reason I cannot fathom).

Not trusting my sexual response or sexual performance, I’ve emphasized connection in other ways: mainly emotional, intellectual, energetic, physical, yet even spiritual and psychic. For me, sex is a private exploration that is an enhancement to an established connection; it is not a lead-up to intimacy, it is a celebration of it. Thus, for me, sex is magical and potent, yet it is also quixotic and non-essential.

This choice has also been reinforced by my emerging role as a public figure in the Communities Movement and as a group process consultant. The Communities Movement and my work as a consultant are both rooted in a commitment to creating cooperative culture. While that culture is certainly not anti-sexual, it is anti-manipulative, and there are far too many stories of men in positions of power or prestige who have parlayed that into sexual advantage. I am determined to not be one the men about whom such stories are told (and not because I didn’t get caught; I want it to be because I never went there).

In contrast, I experience my wife as marvelously sure of herself sexually, and amazingly open (which, no doubt, enhances her sexual attractiveness—I believe that centeredness is more potent than pheromones). I think her sexuality is well integrated into her identity as a vibrant, fully-featured person, and it makes sense to me that for Ma’ikwe sexual connection is more centrally positioned in her personal pantheon of life’s important relational elements.

All of which sets the stage for yesterday’s off-hand query and the surprised look on her face when I reported after a moment’s reflection that I didn’t think that our creative and deeply connecting sex life was central to our marriage. For Ma’ikwe, she can’t imagine being happily married to someone with whom she didn’t connect well with sexually. For me, I would never assess the soundness of a nutritional program by the dessert menu.

Luckily, we both like sex, we especially like it with each other, and the authenticity and power of our sexual connection is independent of whether we label it appetizer, main course, or remedial training. It’s all good.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

FIC as a Home for the Halt and the Lame

As the Fellowship for Intentional Community's main administrator, part of my job is to play center field. That means that if something comes our way that's sufficiently unusual that it doesn't fall into someone's defined bailiwick, then I'm expected to field it. This past week I got two communications as the FIC center fielder, which, together with a third dialog that I've been conducting for several months, showcase both the entertaining and frustrating aspects of my job.

Example #1
I opened a letter from a foreign correspondent last week, who is an FIC member and recent purchaser of Geoph Kozeny's Visions of Utopia video. So this is someone familiar with intentional community.

They were writing with an urgent request. This person was concerned about the Earth's impending shift into the Fifth Dimension, which will commence Dec 21, 2012. They wanted my help (as FIC administrator) to get space on the program at two upcoming events—the Continental Bioregional Congress to be held at The Farm Oct 3-11, and the NASCO Institute to be held in Ann Arbor Nov 6-8—to pass along vital information about the Fifth Dimension. Oh boy.

The writer had three pieces of evidence in support of their claim:
a) The growing support for belief that there are other sentient beings in the universe.
b) The emergence of indigo, crystal, or starseed children—all born since the '80s and who are markedly more intuitive and psychically open.
c) The presence of "walk-ins" such as himself who come from other dimensions,a nd are here to serve as go-betweens.

Well, I always get queasy when people tell me they have inside information and I just have to take their word for it. I can't tell that their wrong (which, of course, is the beauty of that assertion), but my bullshit indicator is on red alert.

In essence, this person predicts that the Age of Possessions is coming to an end (no shit, Sherlock) and the Age of Relationships is dawning. In this coming age, intentional communities will play a key role in midwifing the transition, which will feature a balance between natural energies (as in forces of Nature) and beings from other star systems. (While I don't know anything about how other star systems will play into our future, I do resonate with the appropriateness (even need) to redefine happiness away from materialism in favor of relationships and the quality of social connections.)

Last, the author wanted my support for getting writing published in Communities magazine.

Clearly, I was in over my head. In my response, I carefully explained that FIC had no sway over the program choices made at CBCX and the NASCO Institute. Further, I had no expertise whatsoever when it came to extraterrestrial intelligence, and was not aware of people seeking that kind information from FIC or from intentional communities (though, to be sure, there are some communities which have focused on preparing for major Earth changes—witness Stelle and Adelphi, which were founded on the prophesies of Richard Kieninger).

When it came to Communities magazine, I explained that our publishing standards: articles must be well written; relate to cooperative living; and be of interest to our readers (as near as we can discern what that will be)—it is not sufficient that the subject is of interest to the author.

Thus, I was the voice of ignorant skepticism, possibly halting their initiative. (As someone who had devoted his adult life to inquiry and experimental culture, it is somewhat embarrassing and uncomfortable to be on the conservative and mainstream end of a conversation about reality, but I reckon there is no position so extreme that there isn't at least someone on either side of wherever you stand.)

Example #2
This letter reminded me of a dialog I've been carrying on over the course of the last half year with another FIC member, who has queried me from time to time about groups interested in working with membership not limited to the corporeal plane. This person has recently gotten interested in the possibility of groups functioning with the explicit understanding that there are non-physical entities who can be part of the group's consensus decision-making. In particular, they were thinking of members who had died and could continue their participation from the spiritual plane.

As with the correspondent in Example #1, I plead ignorance of such a phenomenon, and could report no awareness of groups which functioned in this way. When I asked how the physically present members could discern the will of those who existed only spiritually, my friend was uncertain about how that would work. (If this gets cleared up, you can be certain that I'll blog about it.)

Example #3
On Friday, we got an web inquiry from someone who was appalled that we included in our Directory a listing for a group which does the following:
o Proselytizes at Grateful Dead concerts
o Expects women to be subservient to men
o Tells members how to dress
o Arranges marriages among members

For the correspondent, this added up to CULT (yes, the complainant used all capital letters), and demanded to know why we allowed this, if we cared a fig for our credibility.

I responded:

"We allow a group to list so long as it meets the following criteria:
1. It styles itself an intentional community and wants to have a listing with us.
2. It's accurate in what it says about itself (not misleading).
3. It doesn't advocate violent practices.
4. It doesn't interfere with a member's right to leave the group at any time.

"While I personally am not drawn to a community that has gender-defined roles and where leadership directs members' personal choices (such as who to marry), FIC takes the position that this is not our business so long as the practices in question are choices among consenting adults, and do not cross any of the boundaries mentioned in the list above.

"In our experience, the label of "cult" is typically applied to groups doing something that the labeler disapproves of, and is used as a blanket pejorative. While I totally get it that you don't like what this group stands for, FIC's job is not to only list groups that you like; our job is to list all groups and let individuals make their own choices. In fact, our credibility, as we see it, depends on this neutrality.

That said, "cult" also has a more specific and nefarious meaning: referring to a group which intentionally attempts to hold people against their will and to confuse them about knowing their own minds. It implies brainwashing. If you have specific evidence that such a thing is happening with this group, this is quite a serious charge and we'll look into it."

Within a few hours I got a reply expressing incredulity that we'd never heard of this particular group's "antics."

In turn, I asked what "antics" were being referred to, stating that FIC would not deny a listing to a group on the basis of the four practices cited in the original email.

This was followed minutes later with a wikipedia reference that included information about this group's practice of spanking children who misbehave, and expecting children to contribute labor in community businesses—over which they were found guilty of violating state child labor laws. For the correspondent, this added up to a clear case of child abuse.

As I reflected on how some people consider spanking to be violence (in fact, that's our position at Sandhill, where we forbid it). I thought we were starting to get into interesting territory. Of course, I was also aware that no parents have been convicted of child abuse solely on the basis of spanking their children for disciplinary reasons, and I knew that FIC was not about to apply a more stringent standard in this regard than the US legal system. Still, I could sympathize with the writer's anguish and was in the process of composing a reply when this arrived in my In Box—nine minutes after the wikipedia reference had been sent:

"You guys are lame. I used to like your web site, but now I think it sucks, and I won't trust it or use it anymore."

Guess I wasn't quick enough.

This kind of exchange is highly frustrating. About six-eight times a year we get a communication like this and they often end in the same way. Someone writes to FIC complaining about a group and demanding that we drop their listing. We try understand the exact nature of their complaint and offer to act as a go-between in an attempt to resolve the concerns directly and informally with the community. Almost always, the complainant isn't interested in that; they prefer that we take up their cause, and they don't understand why we hesitate at all (never mind that it's essentially their word against the community's and that we rarely have any direct information about the events in question).

Because we have a core commitment to solving problems in a way that enhances relationship, and because we are trying to build a world that does away with us-and-them polarizations, we are oriented toward conversation rather than judgment. It's fascinating to me how often we get labeled "lame" for trying to consider both sides. And in this last example, written off because we didn't jump high enough or fast enough in response to a complaint. Since we're not fully aligned with the correspondent's position, that makes us the enemy. Sigh.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Pardon the Interruption

With apologies to Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon (whose top-rated afternoon show on ESPN shares the same title as this blog entry), I want to focus today on the dynamics of interrupting.

While it's a common occurrence in everyday speech—and I suppose we all do it—there are considerable subtleties.

First, let's look at why people interrupt. In casual conversation, any of the following might trigger an intentional interruption:
o You already know what's being said.
o You aren't interested in what's being said.
o The speaker is repeating what they've already said and you got it the first time (or at least you think you did).
o You don't understand what's being said.
o You haven't accepted the premise that the statement is based on and are therefore not willing to consider the conclusion.
o You've asked a question and the speaker is missing the mark in their response.
o You can't handle what is being said.
o You didn't hear what the speaker said and you want them to back up and start over.

There are also unconscious reasons a person might interrupt:
o You don't have the patience to wait until they're finished.
o You want to change the topic.
o You can't resist inserting a joke, or an aside.
o It's your style.
o In your excitement, you want to jump in with a story or statement of your own to continue the momentum of the conversation.

While I'm sure I'm not thinking of everything, you get the picture. Interrupting is a normal part of most people's speech patterns. To be sure, some do it a lot more than others (in fact, I do it a lot). While there tends to be less of it in structured meetings—where the norm is having one person speak at a time—facilitative interrupting is an art form. Here are a handful of reasons why the facilitator might step in (over and above the occasions mentioned for casual conversation):

o The speaker is off topic.
o The speaker is not following the accepted sequence for working the topic.
o The speaker is out of turn.
o The speaker is not engaging the topic at the right level (for example, the group is trying to do heart work and the speaker is into problem solving).
o The group cannot hold all that the speaker has to contribute, and needs a summary.
o The facilitator senses that the speaker needs help wrapping up (no terminal facility).
o The facilitator wants to check that others are grokking the speaker's meaning before continuing.

Recently, Ma'ikwe (my wife) gave me feedback about how irritating it can be for her when we're in a serious and delicate conversation and I don't let her finish a statement before jumping in with a response. Ma'ikwe is thoughtful and it's generally worthwhile for me to get her reflections on topics of mutual interest. That said, she does not tend toward concision, and if we're in tender territory I can get in big trouble cutting in to guess what she's about to say or to attempt a preemptive strike on multiple trips around the mulberry bush. Instead of cutting to the chase, she experiences it as disrespectful and imperious—which does absolutely nothing to improve the energy, or expedite the dialog.

Since we discussed it, I've been working at being more mindful whenever the conversation veers toward the ditch, attempting to curb my tendency to enter the conversation before she reaches a natural pause. To be clear, if the conversation is easy going and jocular (which, thankfully, is most of the time) I'm still prone to interrupting and Ma'ikwe can generally roll with it. The No Passing Zone is only in effect when the yellow caution flag is out.

A couple days ago, as an experiment,
I tried carrying my heightened awareness into a Sandhill business meeting. Stan mentioned that a neighbor was interested in buying black locust posts from Sandhill for constructing grape trellises, and he seemed to remember that we'd dealt with a similar request recently but couldn't remember the outcome. Instead of pausing to see if anyone had a response however, Stan started musing about why he couldn't remember what we'd done the last time. As the person who dealt with it six months ago, I knew we had a policy and was poised to respond. However, rather than launching myself into the midst of Stan's meanderings (as I was wont to do), I decided to wait politely until Stan finished.

Fascinated to see how long this might go on, I listened as he told the story of his confusion in three different versions without pause. Although he still hadn't run out of steam, Michael hopped in at that point to state that he agreed that we'd dealt with that request before but, for the life of him, he also couldn't recall how we'd handled it previously. Before Michael was finished, Gigi offered that she suspected that I might be able to shed some light on the matter. Fortunately, that created the opening I was hoping for, and I inserted something like
"I was the one who handled that last time and I can take care of the new request," which satisfied everyone.

While this whole sequence only took about five minutes—which means my interrupting Stan, had I done it at the beginning, would only have saved three-four minutes—it was an instructive contrast with the work I was doing with Ma'ikwe to alter my tendency to interrupt. At the Sandhill meeting, my interrupting (if done graciously) would almost certainly have been appreciated as a time saver. Yet that same impulse is what landed me in hot water with my wife.

Sorting this out, I can see a handful of lessons:

1. Some people tolerate interrupting much better than others (Hint: how much interrupting occurred at the family dinner table in the household where that person grew up?). Know your audience!

2. Tolerance tends to shrink when tensions increase. Thus, the latitude you're given to interrupt is situational. In a meeting, the facilitator (see above) probably has appreciably more latitude than others, yet even here there are limits.

3. Interruptions have a legitimate place in human discourse (that is, they're not just benchmarks of social ill-grace).

While it's not easy to change one's habits around something so ingrained as interrupting, there can be surprising dividends to be had in effecting even modest shifts in behavior, especially in delicate moments. Sometimes—if you don't want emotional fender benders to turn into T-bone tantrums at high speed—you're better off not crowding other people's air space.

There are times when getting someone to pardon you will be much more complicated than tolerating the long-winded explanation you thought were short circuiting by indulging in the interruption. Put another way, there will be occasions where you don't have time to go in a hurry, and you're better off interrupting your inclination to interrupt. It's something to think about.