Monday, August 30, 2010

The Lyme & the Coconut

Good News! Ma'ikwe has Lyme disease.

While I realize that most people wouldn't consider that a cause for joy, she's been trying to diagnose why she's been so tired and achy for months [see my blog of Dec 14, 2009, Adventures in Hydrotherapy], and the not knowing has been brutal. She did a battery of tests back in December—including one for Lyme disease—but it came back negative then, leaving us baffled about the diagnosis and therefore unsure about the treatment. Rest has been helping but she just hasn't been getting better.

At the urging of friends who are health practitioners, she did a Western Blot test this time, and this more definitive assessment came back positive. While the treatment probably means an extended course in antibiotics (goodbye intestinal flora), Ma'ikwe is more than ready to do what it takes to put an end to her year of debilitating symptoms.

While the muscle ache and lethargy have been bad enough, the hardest part has been on her coconut (that is, her head). It is hard to maintain a positive attitude when you don't know what you have, whether you've hit the bottom, or even if you'll get better. While she's done a heroic job of maintaining an emotional even keel throughout this ordeal, it's much better knowing what you've got and what it will take to recover.

According to my sister-in-law Kim (Ma'ikwe was part of a Ludwig family peregrination to southwestern Michigan over the weekend to help celebrate her niece's christening), Ma'ikwe was feeling buoyant enough yesterday to indulge in some rolling around on the dance floor with her brother Mark, to the tune of Rock Lobster (by the B-52s). While I'm not sure what this says about her emotional stability, it's apparent that she's feeling more frisky and I take that as generally a good sign.

While with family, her plan was to take advantage of Uncle Ted being among the celebrants to discuss antibiotics. He's an MD with a healthy skepticism about the advisability of their liberal application, and she values his medical opinion. I know she's anxious to get started on the treatment so that she can immediately arrest whatever ongoing mischief the Lyme disease is visiting upon her body.

In a year, perhaps we'll all recall August 2010 as a joyous time, replete with alliterative milestones: Kim & Mark's daughter's dedication, the definitive diagnosis of a debilitating disease, and dance floor derring-do. While Ma'ikwe's been doing a yeoman job of giving her body a lot of rest the past nine months, I'm hoping that with this diagnosis she'll now be able to give her coconut a rest also.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Dynamics of Living with a "Very Conscious Person"

Two weeks ago I attended the annual Twin Oaks Communities Conference, in Louisa VA. I'm a regular participant in this weekend event, where community seekers get together with dozens of representatives of existing or forming groups to swap stories, make connections, and generally get inspired about cooperative living. The energy is invariably positive and it provides me with a great excuse to renew acquaintances with folks I've been visiting since 1980. (Because Kat Kinkade's A Walden Two Experiment [recounting Twin Oaks' first five years] was a seminal inspiration for my seeking intentional community back in the murky, pre-internet days 1973, my annual pilgrimage to that longstanding community takes on some of the flavor of a haj for me.)

Among the things I did at the conference, I conducted a set of three workshops:
—Power Dynamics and Leadership in Cooperative Groups
—Conflict: Fight, Flight, or Opportunity?
—Should You Join a Community or Start One?

A few days ago I got this email from someone who attended the conflict workshop, which I've edited lightly (also, I've inserted clarifying comments in brackets):

I have an interesting dynamic that I was wondering if you have had previous experience with...
Basically, there is someone in my group who is a very conscious person (VCP). At your talk on "conflict," you had a graph and drew a red line on it. Above the red line is a person experiencing [non-trivial] emotional distress. VCP is most always below this red line. ["Above the red line distress" means that the emotional upset is sufficient for that person that there is substantial distortion in how they are handling information; "below the red line" means that distortion is minor and manageable.]

Another characteristic of this person is their incredible ability to refine, and see what is "wrong" in things, which they point out on a very consistent basis. This has made for a very interesting dynamic in our group.

The dynamic is that VCP will take every opportunity they can to bring things into light, and others in the group (including myself) have come to rely on that instead of bringing things into the light ourselves. We listen to VCP, and defer everything to them instead of making things our own.

This dynamic feels unhealthy and does not support us all in growth. It's my sense that friends that have known VCP for over 10 years have pretty much stayed where they are at in their development of consciousness… One woman has lived with him for over 10 years and actually chooses to be extremely unconscious, which observation has raised questions for me about this dynamic.

What do I feel needs to happen or change about this dynamic?

I feel it is part of VCP's very essence to be refining things, seeing what doesn’t work, and sharing their analysis with us all.

I feel this can play out in a couple ways. On the one hand, people can defer to VCP and give that person full authority and leadership for handling a situation—in which case no one else grows in their capacity; or VCP almost forces others to step up to a higher expression of themselves. If people choose to "flow/ work" along with VCP's energy, a very sustainable relationship can come of it.

This is what I believe is happening with myself in relation to VCP. I see our relationship as very sustainable, healthy, and unlike any relationship either of us have been in before. Although I do not choose to be as consistently conscious as this person, for some reason we still work together. Ironically, my ability and motivation to dive in deeper and critically examine how VCP interacts with the group is an example of how I've been positively affected by VCP's gift, and brings more light into my own process.

Although I feel we can all expand beyond where we are at and learn to transcend any dynamic, I fear there is a lack of incentive among others to look at this issue and strive to become more conscious.

Maybe it doesn't matter that people do not choose to be conscious—it is definitely that way in the mainstream society. I feel though that we would be more productive as a group if we all chose to step up to the plate and not wait for others to do it. When is society going to take some personal responsibility? For gosh sakes, when are we in communities going to really model this! Have you found a community where everyone is stepping up to the plate?

This is a very interesting dynamic, and I think there a number of things in play.

1. First, let's take it for granted that VCP is totally sincere in their motivation to identify how any given situation can be "refined" or improved, and that they've got ego issues under control (this may not be the case, but I'm setting that aside).

It seems to me there might be a useful group conversation about how much that gift is wanted in day-to-day of group deliberations.

The reason this is not a trivial question is because people's capacity to examine things at the level that VCP likes is probably uneven. (What's more, the same person may be variably open to the examination, depending on time of day, when they ate last, where they are in their menstrual cycle, etc.) No matter how well intended, unwelcome observations lead to increased tension more than increased illumination.

In my experience, how a "refining" comment lands often depends on delivery and how well the audience believes it is being offered in a respectful way. A key nuance here is the level of trust that has been built (or not built) between the observer and recipient prior to delivery of the observation. The same kind of comment offered in the same way may land entirely differently if there is a "disturbance in the Force."

One of the ways I characterize this foundational question is: How much do you want to be in each other's life by virtue of being a member of the group? Answers to this question can be all over the map, and many answers can work. The problem comes when members have fairly divergent answers and this has never been discussed or worked through. The corollary here is developing an acceptable and clear way by which members can indicate that another member has crossed (or is just about to cross) the border of what is acceptable in the way of inserting themselves into the other's life. If there is not a sense that that boundary will be respected, there will be trouble.

2. Second, let's assume you've successfully answered the questions above, and you're agreed that VCP's comments are within the acceptable range. If other group members have grown accustomed to relying on VCP's analysis and no longer exercise their own thinking about the issues, it's not fair blaming VCP. Why are people getting lazy? Now if the other members have learned to not give alternate views on a topic because VCP will fight over the analysis, that's another kettle of fish and there might be a useful conversation about how VCP can give opinions that leaves the door fully open for dissent. (Note that this can be subtle. While it's obvious that there's resistance to alternative viewpoints when the speaker starts yelling or openly denigrating anyone who disagrees with them, disapproval may show up in tone of voice, body language, or withdrawal of warmth—all of which can be equally effective in shutting down opposition, yet make it hard to discern cause and effect.)

If other members are just "mailing it in" then the group is probably not owning the work and your decisions will be weak. This is a group issue and should be discussed as such. To be clear, it's not so much a problem that VCP may be doing the lion's share of the talking, so long as there's plenty of room for everyone to speak and the group moves at a speed that works for all.

3. Third, there is a power and leadership issue here. VCP obviously has power based (at least in part) on their demonstrated ability to offer critical thinking about relevant issues. So far, so good. The question is how much the group wants to develop leadership among the other members (as opposed to just continuing to rely on VCP) and what role all parties, including VCP, can play in creating an environment the supports leadership development.

Embedded in this is the need to define what qualities characterize good leadership in your group, so that you have a definite idea what you're trying to foster. In general, I prefer that you aim to make everyone stronger, rather than trying to shackle those who are already strong. That said, if some group members experience VCP as intimidating (in addition to being insightful) that also needs to be discussed.

4. Finally, groups vary a lot on the question of how much there is an explicit commitment to developing member consciousness. In some cases, groups are organized around a common practice (or set of spiritual beliefs) to achieve that end, and acceptance of that path is a condition of membership. In other cases, the group may be committed to member consciousness while leaving it entirely up to each individual how they want to pursue that. In still other groups, there is no explicit commitment to personal growth of the development of consciousness; is is considered a personal matter outside the scope of group attention.

While I have personally witnessed many examples of people whose consciousness (and self-awareness) has grown tremendously over the course of their tenure with a group, I know of no group for whom all their members have this experience. So the results are uneven in this regard.

Last, I want to offer a word of caution about how you assess another's progress toward increased consciousness. Even assuming two people agree on the goal (which is not simple), there are many paths and it is not unusual for Person A to report deep change and satisfaction with how they are working with consciousness, and to have Person B—who is equally sincere and motivated to achieve the same goal—be indifferent and unaffected by Person A's approach. My sense is that this says nothing at all about efficacy of the paths chosen by Person A or Person B. They both could be successful and yet pursue their common goal by very different routes.

I will close with two suggestions for your group if you want to make an explicit commitment to foster the development of member consciousness: a) rather than focusing on what path will lead to higher consciousness, do what you can to identify what observable behaviors you are looking for from members as indicators of advanced consciousness; and b) be extremely cautious about interpreting the failure to behave in desired ways as evidence of a lack of consciousness—there are myriad more innocent explanations possible and spiritual judgment never lands lightly.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Dancing with Salsa

Peaches on the shelf
Potatoes in the bin
Supper's ready, everybody come on in
Taste a little of the summer
Taste a little of the summer
You can taste a little of the summer
My Grandma's put it all in jars.
Ah, she's got magic in her—you know what I mean
She puts the sun and rain in with her green beans.
—Lyrics from Canned Goods by Greg Brown, who grew up in Iowa

While some people make their way to nightclubs to dance the Salsa, right now I'm dancing all day and into the night making Sandhill salsa.

August is tomato month in the Midwest, and the red, round, ripe beauties are arriving in our kitchen by the bucket load these days. There were four 5-gallon buckets that landed yesterday (Emily assured me it was a "light" picking), which means I barely kept my head above water, as I labored for 10 hours to turn 4-1/2 buckets worth into 18 quarts of juice and 38 pints of tomato salsa. Today I'll work through another 4-1/2 buckets and just about get caught up. Tomorrow I'll switch my attention to tomatillos, which I'll roast—in accordance with Grandma Guiterrez' treasured family recipe—and blend into a different salsa. Olé!

By the time Thursday rolls around, I'll be happy to spend the day somewhere other than in the food processing kitchen. Like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, by Wednesday night I'll probably be seeing five-gallon buckets and canning jars dancing in my sleep (undoubtedly to the tune of a soft Cuban salsa syncopation thrumming in the background).

August and September on the farm are the two main months for transforming our garden bounty into a full root cellar, which is where we stockpile our canned goods for the winter days days ahead. Buckets of raw products are imported into the kitchen one morning, and cases of canned sunshine are exported the next. While we buy the cumin seed, salt, and lemon juice that are accents in our salsa recipes, all of the main ingredients are grown on our farm, just a garden cart away.

When I go to see my Grandma I gain a lot of weight
With her hands she gives me plate after plate.
She cans the pickles, sweet & dill
She cans the songs of the whippoorwill
And the morning dew and the evening moon
'N' I really got to go see her pretty soon
'Cause these canned goods I buy in the store
Ain't got the summer in them anymore.

As a community networker and group process consultant, I'm on the road 60% of the time. As much as possible, I stay with friends and clients. So far, I've slept in 28 different places this year (plus a few motels). Often, I try to bring a jar of Sandhill summer as a thank you, and it's gratifying to see the sunshine reflected on my hosts' faces when they touch the jar. Greg Brown pretty much got it right.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Working with Critical Feedback

People work with information in an amazing variety of ways. Understanding this on a practical level is one of the key insights into how to help groups function well. Often, when a person works differently than you, there's a tendency to jump to the conclusion that they either didn't hear correctly, or that they're ignoring what was just passed along if they're not responding in the way that you would with the same circumstances. While either of those interpretations may be correct, there is a profound third option: they process information differently than you do. And it may take a while to tell which of the three it is.

While this dynamic goes on all the time—people handling information differently—it's especially potent in the context of how people work with critical feedback. As you can imagine, this territory is tricky enough in the context of intimate relationships; it's exponentially more challenging with a bunch more people added into the equation, none of whom you may know as well as you do your partner.

Having just been on the receiving end of a serious load of critical feedback [see my previous blog, Tough Love from a Close Friend], I thought I'd share today how I labor with feedback—which may bear no relationship at all with how others handle it.

1. My initial work is to check for an emotional response. If the comments are surprising (that is, if I'm hearing the criticism for the first time—note that this is not necessarily the same as being told it for the first time) or are especially close to the bone (by which I mean reflections about how I'm not acting in alignment with my core identity) then I'm more apt I to respond emotionally and defensively. If for some reason I don't have a strong emotional response, then I can skip this step.

But let's suppose I do have an emotional response. If I'm out of control (always a possibility), I simply blurt out my response and we're off to the races. It's a knife fight on the plenary floor. There's no thinking involved; it's pure reaction.

However, there's a subtler version of this that's sometimes in play, and toward which I try to steer things. Sometimes I can feel the emotions welling up and resist acting on them as a survival imperative. Sometimes, my reptilian brain does not take control. In these situations, I make a decision that is situation specific. I look inward to identify the feelings and then assess my prospects that the audience in front of me can handle my expressing those feelings. In most groups, for example, my expressing fear, sadness, or despair has decent prospects for being heard well. In contrast with that, my expressing anger, irritation, or outrage may have no chance of leading to anything other than a thermonuclear exchange. Mind you, I'm projecting possibilities onto the field while in a state of distress, so there's no telling how accurately I'm seeing the situation; I'm just telling you how I've learned to cope.

Sometimes it works for me to come back at a later time and report on my emotional responses when I'm no longer in my feelings, and that can be less incendiary. (The point being that remembered anger stands a better chance than fulminating anger of being received as insightful, rather than incitement.) This is not simple stuff, and I'm making a delicate assessment about whether it will ultimately go better if I take off the gloves and let 'er rip, or set aside my emotional response until I can figure out a way to better package it for digestibility without sacrificing authenticity. (If that sounds confusing, think about how often sadness or fear underlay anger. Where you can find this link and skip the step where you express the anger, it may help your audience bridge to your experience without saying anything false.) Hint: my assessment about what's possible with my audience is strongly affected by whether we have an agreement about how to handle strong feelings as they occur, and whether we the skill to back that up.

2. Next I ask clarifying questions (which don't land neutrally if the queries are loaded with unacknowledged emotional affect), in an effort to make sure I understand fully what's been said and how that was rooted in the observer's experience of me.

3. If I can find evidence within myself that there's truth to the observations or I care enough about my relationship with the observer (note that I said "or" not "and"), then I go through a "catastrophizing" phase where I dwell in a personal hell of all the bad things that this can mean if fully true. This includes the ways in which I'm failing in my responsibilities, the ways in which I'm destructive of relationship, and the ways in which I'm venal and out of integrity. This is a very dark process and I try to conduct this phase in as isolated a setting as possible. (Take my word for it, you don't want to be in the room.) After nailing myself to the cross, it
typically takes me about three days to rise again—which I reckon is the usual recovery time from crucifixions.

The point of this is that I completely mistrust my own ability to put a good spin on events (all the way up to denying that the sun rises in the East) and fail to take advantage of how others are reporting a noticeable gap between my words and actions. While the truth (such as we can know it) is rarely as bad as I can imagine it to be, it is also probably worse than I'll admit on the first pass. Thus, I've learned to go through this purgatory step as a way to better balance my ultimate response.

While in this phase, I inventory my conscious experience, looking carefully for evidence that the accusations are true at least some of the time. I approach this work as dispassionately as possible, so as not to miss the chance to validate the observer's comments.

4. Where I can find evidence that validates the criticism (sometimes it is enough that there's overwhelming plausibility, by which I mean that it makes no sense to me that I would have been completely oblivious to a thing, even though I have no conscious memory of awareness), my next step is to let go of my knee-jerk story of innocence (or significantly reduced culpability), and embrace that I actually did the ugly thing I'm accused of. (The beauty of this process is that you can back away from the trap of insisting on knowing the Truth about what you did or didn't do; so long as you can imagine that you might have done the bad thing, it's generally better all around if you just accept that you did it, and shift your focus to constructive responses.)

5. Next I develop a picture of what kinds of behavior change are called for and practicable. In essence, I'm trying to figure out what am I willing to do differently. Putting these changes into effect generally means a lot of conscious focus and discipline. While it tends to be challenging, it is nonetheless possible.

6. Finally, I report to the observer(s) what I've been able to accept about their criticism and what I'm prepared to do about it as a prophylactic against repetition. To the extent possible, I try to offer attempted behavior changes unilaterally, rather than as part of a quid pro quo.

Often, I'll have requests of the observers of two kinds:
a) What things can I do that will help you believe that I'm taking your feedback seriously and genuinely working to repair the damage to our relationship? While I may be unable or unwilling to attempt everything I get in response to this request, there will generally be things I can embrace.

b) Are you willing to give me reflections (especially in the near term, when my proposed behavior changes are not yet well-formed as new patterns) on how I'm either doing better or not doing better with respect to the dynamics in question?

• • •
Personal growth work is, not surprisingly, very personal. While I'm pleased to share with readers this outline of how I approach it and why, I'm pretty humble about this and make no claims about superiority. It's just what I do. Not only is personal work a matter of different strokes for different folks, but a good many never put their oar in the water. And it's understandable: personal growth hard work with uncertain results.

I laughed when a good friend sent me an email after reading my previous blog, which ended with the pithy assessment, "Personal growth sucks." She was right of course, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it anyway.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Tough Love from a Close Friend

Yesterday I got this set of reflections from someone close to me:

"I am afraid to send this. I think this email could kill our relationship. I think not sending this email could also kill our relationship, though more slowly. And when I think about the relationships that I’ve seen really last and be good, they involve the ability of the parties being able to have this kind of conversation: to say this kind of thing to each other and weather whatever comes of it. They also involve the other party doing something in response to it. I’ve seen you over the years deflect this kind of communication in the moment, but then six months later be a different person who seems to have taken in what I said. So I am trusting that some part of you can hear this and will, and I don’t expect an immediate “oh, yes, you are right” response from you. In fact, if you don’t respond now, that’s OK with me. Just send me a note saying something along those lines and I will just try to let go for now needing to hear any kind of direct response. But if you do have questions or want to respond, that’s OK, too.

"The heart of this, I think, is about ethics, and that you don’t seem to be able to look at that. It feels like, for you, questioning your integrity is the absolutely worst thing anyone could do to you, or that you could do to yourself. Your sense of self is tied really tightly to seeing yourself as a deeply ethical person, and you seem to have a very strong need to be squeaky clean in this arena, and looking at the ethical level is really destabilizing for you. I think, now, that this need of yours is why we are having such a hard time with the conversation, and this is where we need to be having the conversation.

"From the perspective of intellect and information, what you did looks like it was in line with acceptable variations on the theme of how members of your community can act. If we just stick to what the rules say and ignore the relationships, it is fine, and there is nothing to talk about. This is where I see you trying to keep the conversation: you made a mistake in not informing the community of your actions to change the ways things had been done in the past so that the implications could be discussed before they occurred; you’ve admitted that, can we just move on?

"But when you look at it from the level of impact on fellow humans (which is the territory of ethics) then this was not OK. Switching gears without talking to people, altering what they had come to think of as a stable point about how things were done, has created a lot of suffering for those around you. In the language of Strangers to Ourselves, this, to me, is your conscious mind asserting a story that makes you look OK, and that you probably even believe, but I don’t think it was all of what was going on, and may or may not have even been the story at the time. It’s the rest of the story that we need; and if you don’t have access to the rest of the story, than at least an acknowledgment that there is more to it than just the level of whether you were following the rules or not.

"The problem is that you can’t have that conversation. You retreat into feeling like everyone is against you when I think what is happening is that people are trying to get you to look at how you are a fallible human being, capable of doing wrong things (not just mistakes, but also deeper wrong, ethical wrong). People are reflecting to you an uglier side of yourself and you are unwilling to look at the reflection. I can look at this situation and say, “You know, at the bottom of all of this, I was selfish, and I put my head in the sand, and that was wrong; I’m sorry. I’m not saying I set out to use Sandhill or you, or hurt Sandhill deliberately, and I’m not saying that I should be punished, but I am owning up to being less than perfect in the ethics department." This is what is missing from you.

"For whatever reason, I don’t see you being able to do that level of self-analysis. You say, “I don’t see myself as the person you are describing,” and that is 100% true. The problem though isn’t that we are all seeing inaccurately; the problem is your refusal to see yourself fully. It is like you are wanting to only admit to the conscious part of your brain being you and all that unconscious stuff is “not Laird” even though that part of Laird is just as impactful on your relationships as the part that you do see and are willing to admit to. It isn’t that the conscious part isn’t true, it is just that it isn’t the whole truth. Not being able to admit to failings at this level is prideful and it separates you from the rest of humanity. From Sandhill. From me.

"Here’s what I see as the ethical issues:

1) You intimidate and diminish other people. It isn’t your ability to explain things that is the problem, it is the way that you treat people in the process. Whether it is some need to be in control or some self-protection where you really don’t want your decisions scrutinized too closely because then you can’t do what you want, I don’t know. But your version of explaining data has an overlay to it that makes it very hard to relax and get what you are saying, even when the words are totally clear and accurate. (I think it isn’t enough to get the lesson that you are “bad at explaining things”—I think you need to get what makes you bad about it, and it isn’t your intellect or organizational skills, it is this.)

2) You make unilateral decisions that you convince yourself are for the best and act on them without consulting. In this case, you didn’t get other perspectives on whether your unilateral actions were OK or not (or, for that matter, wise or not). This is not the only time you have done this. I see you get carried away—with excitement or a sense of duty or something else—and then your good group mind turns off and some other part of you takes over. You are clever and you work hard and often there are no real impacts that come from you doing that… you don’t “get caught.” But sometimes there are and you do. This unilateral deciding seems to me to be related to this sense of responsibility that you have (or at least that is what I imagine is a story you might tell yourself that makes it OK to act on your own; if you’ve taken on a sense of being the responsible one then you have the right to makes those decisions… but sometimes you’ve taken that responsibility on without anyone else asking you to; sometimes you even do it when I ask you not to and say, “I don’t think that is yours alone”).

3) There is something I can’t quite put my finger on that relates to your basic Jekyll-and-Hydeness—you are both super competitive and dedicatedly cooperative. Sometimes those lines get blurred inappropriately; who you are when you are sitting at the game board doesn’t get turned off when you are interacting with me or Sandhill or others. Maybe it is just that you have overlaid competition on self-perception: you need to be the most ethical, hardest working, most generous person in the room or you start to feel like you aren’t good enough (it is the “moral high ground” joke, except that it isn’t really a joke). There is something unreal about this. Nobody can do that all the time, and you don’t get to breathe when you have such strong expectations on yourself. It makes you tight, and the tighter you get the more likely you are to snap (either at someone or at yourself and slide into one of those downward slides of yours).

"I am questioning your integrity. These aren’t just personality quirks, these are ways that you are off. I’m also questioning mine (looking more at how I can be really self-absorbed and self-serving, how I rush things that I don’t have the capacity to rush on my own and it makes other people work harder, suffer, resent me.

"The bottom line for me is that this kind of thing is just what people do: I don’t think it makes you evil or unlovable (or no more so than anyone else anyway; if it wasn’t possible to love someone with this kind of stuff, there would be no love in the world). We don’t see ourselves clearly and have to rely on a situation like this to show us who we are being. We don’t live up to who we’d like to be. We cause other people pain and then have to really work to repair the damage. We tell ourselves stories about ourselves to protect ourselves rather than to grow. It is a human affliction, and you aren’t above it. I feel tired of all the extra dancing around things we do because you are working so hard to be above it (even now trying to be non-reactive and gracious, instead of admitting that you are reactive and lack grace and that's part of how we got here). I wish that you could see this as an opportunity to take in what is being reflected to you and stop defending yourself. It’s not the fuck-ups that are hard to live with for me, it is the pretense that they aren’t happening."

Wow. This has been a very hard communication to digest (and I'm still struggling with it). While I'm in awe that someone cares enough about me to offer such thoughtful reflections, I'm also feeling overwhelmed and in anguish that I come across as so brutish and uncaring. I thought I had been doing better, and now I have the embarrassing task of reviewing quite a wide swath of recent actions and significantly lowering my expectations for the marks I'll come up with in a self-evaluation. While personal growth almost always requires the gift of hearing how you are experienced by people close to you, that doesn't mean you're going to like what you hear.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

How Ambiguity Favors the Status Quo

The other day I got an email from a friend who's part of a forming community and encountering resistance from others, including the two people who hold title to the property (until the group can get fully established and buy it from them) over her desire to establish operating agreements for the group. She wrote:

So far our leaders and many members tend to default into the "we-don’t-need-no-stinking-agreements” point of view when I push for them, though we are creating some. Some folks are wanting more clarity, but are not sure how to get it, and others go into hopelessness that they have no power or means to address the situation as they see it. I feel like I am “holding the space” of possibility, optimism, as well as a sketchy vision of how to get from where we are to where we need to be, all by myself, as I am really the only one with an experience of good facilitation/good process. But frankly, it is pretty exhausting. 

I responded: There's a subtle dynamic at play here about power that may or may not be something your group is aware of—I'm wondering especially about the two land owners. Ambiguity slants things toward the status quo and reinforces power gradients. If the owners take the position that no agreements are needed ("good will will see us through") until and unless there's a problem, there will be resistance to engaging in the work of clarifying that must be overcome every time. To be clear, I'm not talking about anyone having a bad heart or being intentionally manipulative; it's just the way it plays out and people with power tend to be oblivious to it. 

It seems that people think good process, clarity around expectations, etc. equates to a loss of personal freedom, the creation of arbitrary or onerous rules or bureaucracy, a recreation of the corporate world which we are trying to escape, etc. They get triggered into their feelings about the latter without even knowing that it’s possible to have processes that are actually freeing, and that can emerge from the group, rather than be imposed from above.

This is a classic example of the dynamic tensions between structure/no-structure. Anarchy has a decent chance of working so long as everyone sits on one end of that spectrum. In a typical group though (which yours has every indication of being) the lens that the no-structure folks look through needs to be counterbalanced by the lens of those who find structure clarifying and liberating (because they know where they stand and there's anxiety living in the fog).

The key, in my experience, is trying to sell the product as our structure, rather than as one imposed by others (the nameless bureaucracy). While there's no doubt that you understand this distinction, I get it that you're encountering push back.

So when I push for more “social infrastructure,” I think I look like some kind of control freak to them. And the frustrating part is that as I start to freak out about the lack of clear agreements; I tend to get triggered into my own stuff, which does include a wish to control the situation. So it’s a vicious cycle.

It's a definite plus that you have self-awareness about where you place yourself on the structure/no-structure spectrum, and the ways that you can get triggered. It's also a plus that you have sensitivity about how this looks from different points on that spectrum. Perhaps it will help if you explain that you're not trying to solve every problem before it occurs; you're simply trying to create a reasonable pathway for tackling problems as they occur, and put into place the resources and responsibilities needed for this to function, without having to slog through this baseline stuff fresh every crisis.
The essence of this is that you want to put into place at the outset both what things you can expect to have group conversations about and how.

Given that you reported having a modicum of success in establishing some agreements, perhaps you can get the group to periodically revisit how well that's been working. To the extent that you can show them flexibility, perhaps they can relax their fears about being placed in a straight jacket.

Often a sunset clause will be helpful in these situations, where agreements will last only for a set period of time (a year?) and then expire if not explicitly continued. Where there is no history to guide the group and everyone is simply projecting the likely outcome of policy choices, it can be scary for all parties, and knowing that there's an escape hatch in the foreseeable future can help everyone feel more amenable to experimenting. In general, it turns out to be obvious which way to go with a policy once the time is up—typically it falls into one of three categories: a) you know to dump it (as unnecessary); b) you know to overhaul it (as poorly conceived or missing the heart of the issue); or c) you know to retain it (it's working so well that you wonder why it was ever controversial).

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Living with People Who Don't Like You

One of the fears people have about living in intentional community is that there might be people in the group who don't like you, and vice versa. Well, you can relax. If you live in community for any length of time, you can pretty well be assured that this nightmare will come true. I've lived in community for 36 years and it's happened to me multiple times.

While it's no fun, and tends to suck the air out of your balloons, it's only partially in your control and is likely something you'll have to figure out how to live with if you're going to continue to call community home. This dynamic is hard to accept. Especially when you reflect on how no one's dream of community living includes this reality. When you start or join a community you are purposefully screening members for alignment with core values, and your natural expectation is that this will lead to a life that is more integrated and harmonious. It can be a rude awakening to discover that a solid value match does not necessarily say anything about whether people will like each other.

There are a wide variety of ways the bloom can come off the rose. Here are some:
—different communication styles
—different sense of what integrity means
—different comfort level relative to rules and structure
—different relationship to risk
—different relationship to authority and power
—different parenting styles

Never mind differences in humor, diet, attitudes about pets, or what constitutes pleasurable dinner table conversation. At what point do differences shift from being refreshing to irritating? At what point does living with diversity translate into living with folks who are so different that it's hard to understand their choices? Where does acceptance get eroded to the point of mistrust? These are bread and butter challenges to community living—and you better believe that it will occasionally get personal.

Partly it's a numbers game. Having someone dislike you in a group of 50 (where you never have to sit at the same table) is altogether different from having someone dislike you in a group of five (where there's no place to hide). Partly it's a matter of how much you are in each other's lives. In a cohousing community you may not see each other for a month; in an income-sharing community like mine (Sandhill Farm), there are chances to rub up against each other's sore spots every day.

In its milder forms, it may be possible to navigate tense dynamics simply by giving each other a wide berth. You and your nemesis may be able to avoid serving on the same committee, and perhaps the dislike between you will not extend much beyond awkwardness.

Sometimes though, things devolve into outright hostility, where one person sees the other as bad for the community and capable of mendacity and manipulation. Communication between the two individuals is highly strained and tension can settle like a pall over the whole group. In the extreme, it can take on the dimensions of a holy war.

Playing the Hand You're Dealt
So what can you do if you find yourself in this dynamic, when it hurts like hell and there's no immediate prospect that it will get better? The good news is that you have options. Keeping in mind throughout that there is always the option to exit—and I'm not judging anyone for making that choice—I want to concentrate here on what you can do if you stay.

1. In all likelihood, the other person has an unflattering story about you—a story that is substantially different from the one you have about yourself. You can start by resisting the temptation to develop a reciprocal negative story about them. Tit for tat more often leads to pieces than peace.

2. While no one is asking you to enjoy being disliked (or having a negative spin consistently placed on your actions), you have choices about how you respond when acid is being dripped onto your head and your reputation. If someone is upset with you, you can learn to be curious about how they got there (instead of outraged). If anger wells up in you, it is not a moral imperative that you erupt (you can reflect on what to do with your feelings, rather than blurting them out in the moment).

3. Try to steer clear of offering an analysis of why the other person dislikes you. Uninvited psychoanalysis is seldom viewed as an olive branch.

4. Avoid asking other members of the group to take sides. In a mud wrestling match, everyone gets dirty.

5. Look for opportunities to genuinely appreciate the other person, which will help in two directions: a) these acknowledgments will offer the other person a chance to soften their negative story about you (Note: I'm not guaranteeing that this will happen; I'm only talking about possibilities—at the end of the day,
regardless of how unfair or distorted you may think it is, what the other person thinks and feels is outside your control); and b) it will help you to see the other person as more complex, by reminding you of their good qualities; it will help you develop compassion for their struggle to see you in a good light.

None of this is easy. Outrage and moral indignation are tempting and readily available responses when you feel that others are consistently critical of your actions and questioning your motivations. But you still have other choices, and I'm trying—from a place that's deeply informed by the personal pain of this experience—to make the case that we'll all be better served if we can find the courage to walk away from the fight once it's clear that no constructive exchange is possible. I'm not talking about selling out, and I'm not talking about giving up. I'm talking about going inward and finding the will to respond from love and caring about the group.

As an alternative to hardening your heart or armoring yourself against the upsets reported by those who dislike you, cultivate the ability to let their criticism wash over you. Look carefully at what might be true, and concentrate more on how they are struggling than on how you are. One of the gravest dangers in this dynamic is indulging in self pity and becoming addicted to the anger.

From ages 17 to 33 I was locked into anger with my father, and my community living experience helped me to finally see my unwitting part in perpetuating this debilitating dynamic—after 16 years of blaming my father for everything that didn't work well in our relationship. Though it was decades ago that I successfully broke that vicious circle, my community living experience continues to give me the opportunity to learn more subtle lessons in getting unhooked from the hypodermic needle of anger and outrage. From time to time I've succumbed to embattled dynamics with people other than my father, and I get to go through it again. The hardest of all is when this battle is at home.

While withdrawal can be a bitch, it's way better than the alternative.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Problems Are Just a Stone's Throw Away

I just got an email from a friend, who was in a quandry about how to handle an incident at her community. She wrote:

One night about a month ago, X was walking near the carports after dark and saw the silhouette of someone standing near a small rock pile next to the gardens, throwing rocks. She then heard a sound of something being hit but was too frightened to stop and find out what it was. A day or two later, it was discovered that a rock had gone through the rear window of the pickup truck that X shares with another neighbor couple. [X wasn't certain who the person was, so could not go and talk to him, but had a fair idea about who it might be from the little she had seen.]

X sent out an email to all describing the incident as most likely accidental and saying she would like to hear from the person who did the damage—in strictest confidentiality.

There was a plenary a few days later, and X had not heard from anyone about the damage. In the part of the plenary where short topics can be introduced, I brought up the incident and said that I thought the community should pay to replace the truck window as a matter of principle. (I don't think anyone understood this and it was hard for me to explain what I meant—something about the responsibility for something like this belongs to all of us.) My motivation had nothing to do with the actual expenditure as I am sure the three owners could easily afford whatever the deductible amounted to. The discussion in plenary was brief and took no particular direction. I did not want to say much, and X didn't either so I am not even sure if everyone understood that it was most likely a member of the community who did this.

Now, it is several weeks later (no one has come forward; the truck is repaired) and I asked the truck owners if it was OK with them if I bring this up as a general community issue. They all want to drop it since it is "a one-time thing." I think this would set a bad precedent—of sweeping uncomfortable things under the rug. I would like to see a general discussion of the implications for the community. I have given up on the idea of the community paying for the repair.

I am not interested in who did it or why, though I have an educated guess. My hunch is that the damage was accidental and that the person was "blowing off steam." He is probably suffering his embarrassment in silence.

If you have any thoughts about where this type of thing fits into community life and how it should be handled, I would love to hear them.

This is an interesting sequence, that can be usefully broken into two parts.

Part One: When Stories Don't Align
It's not at all uncommon that Person A thinks that Person B—both members of the same group—did something inappropriate but Person B does not own responsibility for it. Given the vagaries of the circumstances (including poorly lighting on the night that the windshield was cracked, complicating a positive identification), there are a large number of possible reasons for Person B's position:

o Person B really didn't do it (it was someone else, perhaps someone who wasn't a member of the community and thus never saw Person A's email request to come forward).
o Person B did throw stones but doesn't think they hit the windshield of the pickup, and thus are not culpable.
o Person B did it, and knows that they did it, but is too embarrassed to admit it publicly.
o Person B has admitted it privately to the truck owner(s) and has taken care of it outside the public arena, which Person A doesn't know about.
o Person B is upset with the owner of the pickup and thinks that they "deserved" to have a cracked windshield.

My essential point is that there are many possibilities, including innocence. One of the factors in this is that Person A, perhaps unwittingly, has raised the ante by bringing the matter into the public spotlight. If Person A's main concern was to get the windshield fixed by the person responsible and they thought that it was Person B, then I think the course of action that was most apt to have worked well was for Person A to have approached Person B directly and asked about it (it could go something like, "Hey Person B, I'd like to have a conversation with you about something that happened in the parking lot the other night and that may involve you, is this a good time?").

This particular incident generalizes to all situations where one member thinks another has acted inappropriately and the other person denies it—because a) they think that the behavior falls below the level of what's appropriate for group-level attention (the accuser is nitpicking and/or being a busybody); b) they don't agree that a bad thing has happened; b) they deny that they did the bad thing.

In these situations, it is often the best you can do to get agreement on whether the purported action is indeed inappropriate and whether it's significant enough to warrant group attention. This at least sets the table for how it can go differently if it happens again (which may go a long way toward eliminating the behavior, even if there's no agreement about how to handle the precipitating event).

Part Two: The Vague Boundary Between Public & Private
The other major challenge of group living that this incident illuminates has to do with the boundary between personal and group responsibility. In particular, you tried to make the case that anomalous damage to private possessions stored in common spaces should be borne by the group rather than the owner. (Note that this is different than damage incurred while a privately owned possession is being used for a group purpose, in which case I think the group would likely support the notion that the group cover the repair.)

I think groups can go either way on this. It sounds like your community was not persuaded by your line of argument, but I don't think they were obliged to. Assuming everyone understood what was being asked (you seem unsure whether the lack of enthusiasm in support of your proposal was due to unclarity about what was being asked, or to disagreement with the principle that you wanted to establish), this may simply be something about which you and the rest of the group are not in agreement.

In most groups there tends to be considerable fuzziness about the boundary between public and private, and it appears that this incident has highlighted a portion of the gray area.

Having said all this, it's worth mentioning that the second conversation is complicated by the overlayment of the first and that part of the what you experienced as unsatisfying about asking the group to cover the windshield expense may be that people were wary of the unresolved energy around Person A's unattributed accusation. That is, Person A would not have posted the email to the whole group unless they felt it was likely that the rock had been thrown by a member, and this hangs like a dark cloud over the group and tends to stifle a discussion about principles until that tension is resolved.

Did anyone say that living with others was easy?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Whether to Patch or Pitch

As a process consultant I spent a lot of my time helping client groups figure out what agreements will best serve them where they previously had none. In general, groups begin with a surge of optimism and a distaste for bureaucracy. This combination often translates into a paucity of written agreements about how they'll operate, trusting that good will carry them safely through the rough spots. While true to a point, I get called when the wagon gets stuck in the mud; when good will is no longer enough to get traction on the issue.

In fact, I just got hired this week by the remnants of a group that I worked for previously. The original group brought me in too late to save that configuration and I mostly helped them amicably separate. However, in the process of providing that help, the continuing subgroup got religion about the value of establishing certain baseline agreements before inviting new folks to join the restart. Thus, for the first time in my career, I've been expressly hired to provide a template of the basic agreements that the nascent new group would be wise to have in place before opening the door to new recruits.

Mind you, I've not been asked to draft the agreements; I've been hired to pose the questions that the group will answer in their own way. My sense is that there are many good answers to such basic questions as:
—What are the basic rights & responsibilities of membership?
—How will the group work with emotional input?
—How much are people wanting to be in each other's lives by virtue of being a member of the group?
—What are the expectations of members to be available for critical feedback from other members about their behavior as a member of the group?
—What is our model of healthy leadership in the group and how will we support that?

If, however, you don't have clarity about where the group stands on these foundational questions, I'll guarantee that there will be tension around the ambiguity. It's an assignment I'm looking forward to.

• • •
Now let's fast forward and suppose that you've already got a set a basic agreements in place, and the issues you face are not so much about how to handle situations not covered by your agreements, as about whether your agreements are handling situations well enough. Assuming there's a general sentiment that some change is needed, I want to discuss the dilemma of whether to tweak an existing agreement (patch the tire), or overhaul it (pitch the tire and get a new one). This can be a tricky consideration.

On the one hand, overhaul tends to take more time. On the other, an overhaul will tend to be more elegant and lead to less trouble down the road. Here are some factors to take into account in making that call:

o How frequently does this agreement come into play? (Is it often enough to justify the investment of an overhaul?)
o To what extent is the tension around how to apply this agreement signal an inadequate agreement, and to what extent is it simply showcasing unresolved interpersonal tensions (which no amount of agreement adjusting will resolve)?
o How frequently have you tweaked this agreement in the past? (There can be a fatigue factor if the group is facing the prospect of putting patches onto patches that have already been patched).
o If you've overhauled this agreement before, how recently?
o Do you have the motivation, time, and skill needed for an overhaul currently available among the membership? (Getting everyone to feel bad about not investing in an overhaul is not a great way to boost morale.)

• • •
Let me close with a story about tweaking versus overhauling. While the "kitchen sink" is often used metaphorically to refer to an exhaustive effort, how exhaustive should the effort be when the kitchen sink is the problem?

In our community kitchen, the sink is located on the north wall and we have a window right behind it, providing both a nice view and natural daylight. The window sill is right at the same height as the top of the linoleum backsplash. Over the years, a crack has developed between the backsplash and the sill, allowing water to get in there and swell the particle board underlayment.

It is not a good place to expect caulk to hold up over time, and one conscientious member took it upon herself to stick a thumb in the dike by cutting a narrow strip of wood to length, painting it white to match the window sill, and nailing it in place after laying down a bead of silicone caulk. This took less than a hour, looked half decent, and protected the particle board from further exposure to moisture. Unfortunately, it also created a modest dam for water coming onto the sill—either from overly zealous sink activity, or from rain driven by a north wind—and you could tell that it would not be a satisfactory long-term solution.

The person effecting the quick repair did not have the time or inclination for anything more extensive. Fair enough. To her credit, this quick-with-the-lath person was perfectly willing to allow someone else room for a more complete response.

As someone who enjoys woodworking and has drifted unwittingly into a life that is bereft of it, I accepted the challenge and put about six hours into crafting a piece of tapered white oak to cover the entire sill. It overlaps the edge of the backsplash and drains toward the sink. By selecting the grain carefully, I was able to present a surface that exposed a considerable amount of ray flecks, making this solution aesthetically pleasing, not just hydraulically functional.

There are several keys to this story: 1) the initial responder was open to another solution; 2) I had the time and skills to work on an overhaul; 3) the community values thorough responses when they're affordable.

Though it doesn't always work, on this occasion at least, we successfully turned things around by throwing a solution at the kitchen sink.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Kids on Committees

Last week I wrote about some of the tricky dynamics that need to be sorted out when intentional communities raise kids—which most of them do [see my July 28 entry, It Takes a Child to Raise Some Issues in the Village]. Today I want to resume my focus on kids, this time from the governance perspective.

One of the primary missions of raising kids is to teach them to become responsible adults. Typically that requires giving them age-appropriate opportunities to try on what that means. This often starts out with asking the kid to bus their own plate to the kitchen sink, or to pick up their toys when play session is over. Later, there are expectations around chores. Eventually there are chances to try out their judgment once they earn a driver's license, or start facing the confusing dynamics of how to handle an 11 pm curfew when on a hot date.

Today I want to bore in on the possibilities of teaching citizenry—as well as enhancing group life—through encouraging kid participation in governance. This could range from attending plenaries, participating on committees, and even to taking on managerships.

(My daughter, Jo, just turned 23, and she's a food service manager at the University of Toledo. As young as you might think that is, she started taking on food manager responsibilities nine years ago, when she was in 8th grade at The Arthur Morgan School, a Quaker-based boarding school in Celo NC that had the wisdom to let Jo have her own day in charge of cooking for the entire school once a week. Although taking on such duties was not expected of the students, Jo asked for it and thrived on the opportunity. It turned out she was a better manager than a follower and the school got her best behavior that way. To be sure, this strategy is not going to be a good fit with every kid; I'm only telling the story because it might be a fit and the group can miss the chance if you're not looking for the possibility. Raising kids is not about cramming them all into the same suit; it's about tailoring the opportunities to suit the kid.)

Participation in community governance is obviously going to be age specific. While it won't make sense to give four-year-olds blocking power when discussing the consequences for people leaving scooters on the public sidewalk; it may be a good idea to include teens on the Common House committee, whose work includes norms around cleaning and sharing public spaces. (There's an old LBJ adage that applies here: "It's better to have them inside the tent pissing out, then outside the tent pissing in." And if you don't know what I'm talking about, then you've never lived with teens.)

It also may be topic specific. Kids may find management of the capital reserve fund a snooze, yet be surprisingly insightful when it comes to assessing technology upgrades for the common house, or how to handle limit setting for neighbor kids who act out of line.

The classic issue with child raising is how to manage the rebellious years, which usually straddle ages 13-19 and correlate positively with the emergence of hormones. If the community actively works to create openings for teens to have a say in community life, there will be less to rebel against.

Warning: this will not work if you're only talking about painting the Common House green in order to demonstrate the group's commitment to sustainability; that is, don't invite child input on community issues unless you're truly going to take their input seriously. I promise you: kids have an unfailingly accurate bullshit detector and hypocrisy will fool no one. This does not mean you have to do what they say to be taken seriously; it means you have to weigh their input just as you would coming from an adult. The kids are every bit as much a stakeholder in community life as the adults (unless you drive them out); I'm only suggesting the positive dynamics possible if you treat them equally. I know of no community that's suffered from over-estimating the capacity of their children
to meaningfully contribute to community life. At the same time, there are any number of groups who have lost their children's hearts by firmly keeping the door barred against their meaningful participation—all the while despairing of hope for the future, with children so blasé about continuing their parent's investment in community.

For the involvement of minors to be a good experience, it will be important to lay out clearly what their rights and responsibilities are (actually, this will be important for adults as well). It's OK to hold minors accountable to falling short on their promises; it's not OK to chide them for failing to meet expectations that were never spelled out.

If you want your children to grow up to be good citizens, I advise you to look deeply at ways to give them meaningful experience in governance at the earliest opportunities.