Saturday, December 31, 2011

Bedlam 2011

While the etymology of the title to my caboose blog for 2011 is a bit ambiguous, the smart money is on a corruption of Bethlehem Royal Hospital, the first and oldest institution in the world to focus on mental illness. Its London roots as a hospital go all the way back to 1337, and the association with the term "bedlam"—meaning uproar and confusion—probably derives from Bethlehem's reputation for cruel and inhumane treatment of the mentally ill in centuries past (I am happy to report that today it is considered in the forefront of psychiatric treatment and enlightened care).

References to Bedlam go back a long way. In Shakespeare's King Lear (written in 1605) the Earl of Gloucester's son Edgar takes the role of a Bedlam Beggar in order to remain in England unnoticed after banishment. William Hogarth included a Bedlam scene in his famous series of paintings entitled A Rake's Progress (done in 1735).

Today, I use the term to refer to my annual report on where I slept the preceding 12 months: as in Bed: Laird's Actual Mattress. Considering the level of chaos and confusion over where I lay my head each night, it seemed an appropriate cover, or bedspread (if you will) for today's blog. (I started this "tradition" last year, with my Dec 18, 2010 entry, Sleeping in the Bed I Made.)

So here's the story:
o I slept in my own bed at Sandhill 161 times, a whopping 44% of the time. If you add Ma'ikwe's bed, a mere three miles down the road to marital bliss, that number swells by an additional 34 nights. That means I closed my eyes in the same zip code (63563) a majority of the time. I thought it was worse than that.

o I slept with my wife 95 nights, or 26% of the time, a clear majority of which was not in Missouri. (Ma'ikwe guessed it would only total 70, so I'm gaining there, too.)

o I slept at clients' homes (usually in guest rooms) 13 times for 46 nights in total.

o I slept at 12 different friends' homes for a total of 55 nights (some of those were while I was doing professional work within walking distance).

o I slept 11 times at places associated with FIC meetings or events, totting up to 31 nights.

o Three times I wound up in a motel. While this is my least favorite option, there are a few days every year when I'm not able to manifest a friendly bed and I rely on MasterCard instead.

o I was on overnight trains 21 times (easily placing me in Select status with Amtrak).

o Most nights I was in an actual bed. Only three nights were spent in tents, 12 on couches, and 28 on air mattresses.

o All together, I slept in 39 different locations outside of Rutledge, which placed me in 16 states and one province—with no effort to account for the nights spent sleeping around (so to speak) on rolling stock.

Just for a moment, I invite you to contemplate the logistics that go into putting all this in place. Now fold in the reality that I don't have a secretary doing this for me.
Do you think that constitutes bedlam?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Performing with a Low Battery

I'm sick.

Though it doesn't happen often, every so often something grabs me and the last few days I've been afflicted with flu-like symptoms—occasional fever, elevated mucous, lethargy, and coughing. Lots of coughing. The worst bouts are when I get up in the morning, just after eating, and when I'm trying to settle down in bed each night. Poor Ma'ikwe is condemned to having a seat in the orchestra pit for my diurnal expectoral performances. She doesn't miss a single note.

While I don't think she minds a certain amount of playing Florence Nightengale, for the most part I don't think this is what she had in mind in asking me over for the winter.

Because I have a strong constitution (read deep reserves) and don't suffer being sick very well (I have a bad attitude about it), I can still handle most tasks on my To Do List (how much energy does it take to tap a keyboard, anyway?) my qi is definitely diminished, which affects my stamina and eliminates from consideration the more strenuous items on my work menu (such as chopping wood and hauling water). It just means going slower, and making sure I have plenty of fluids and rest.

It occurred to me this morning (metaphors are like that for me—I can't turn them off) that my health has an analog with the bank of deep cell batteries connected to Ma'ikwe's solar panel array. On good days
(read sunny) the system generates more power than is drawn down and the surplus is stored in the batteries (unless they're already topped off, in which case the extra is spilled).

Kind of like Homeland Security (which, I suppose, is one way of looking at what the batteries represent) Ma'ikwe assigns colors to different ranges of battery power, expressed as a percentage of full capacity, with user guidelines associated with each color:
Green 88-100% all ahead full; do whatever
Yellow 76-87% limited use of power tools
Orange 64-75% unplug the refrigerator overnight; laptops used for work only
Red 52-63% use laptops for no more than 90 min/day; conservative light usage
Black under 52% shut 'er down; think cavemen

I figure we all use a system like this when thinking about personal health—though we may not agree on the color assignments (I know some people who are definitely into periwinkle), and it's clear that there's considerable variation in people's battery capacity, as well as in their recharging rates.

Haven't we all had orange days, where we're not officially wearing the label "sick," yet are clearly limping along? Here's the way I'd map the battery codes onto human robustness:

Green everything in play
Yellow minor debilitation; passes up only the most taxing opportunities
Orange significant slow down, yet still completing most tasks; extra rest advisable
Red normal work mostly suspended; lots of time in bed or on the couch
Black that's what hospitals are for

People could wear colored tags around their neck to give passersby a quick visual on how they'd respond the ubiquitous query, "How're ya doing?"

Then, instead of writing this blog, I could just post: "I'm feeling orange today, with decent prospects for a yellow Thursday." But that would take all the green out of the joy I derive from writing about color changes, which evokes dark red feelings.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Ecovillage Christmas

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good day!

With apologies to Clement Moore, here at Ma'ikwe's off-grid house the first thing you want to know on a winter day is whether you'll have solar gain. Thus, this Christmas morning we were pleased to see a star rising in the East. And not just any star, I'm talking about the sun—which translates into natural abundance in a way that Santa Claus' materialism never will.

But don't get me wrong. We're not grinching it.
(Actually, that's not quite true. Last night I knocked back a couple of Grinch cocktails that Kurt—proprietor and head bartender—had whipped up for the occasion of Christmas Eve at the Milkweed Mercantile. Though I'd never heard of that particular cocktail before, they were a tasty green concoction featuring Midori, lemon juice, and simple syrup, garnished with a bright red cranberry. While there's only a brief window of time when such a thing might be considered fashionable, we're in that 36-hour zone now.)

I'm pecking away at my keyboard in the sunny (hooray!) living room next to the wood stove with a fresh cup of coffee, awaiting the start of the stocking opening ritual. The family configuration this year is Ma'ikwe, Jibran, Marqis (Jibran's Dad), and me. It's a sweet, light-hearted time when each participant gets to offer each other presents that are a peculiar mixture of desirable, appreciative, and amusing (sometimes it's a fine line, with the giver and receiver not necessarily agreeing on which of those three labels a gift should be assigned).

It's fun covertly collecting hints about what someone covets over the preceding months, hoping to impress loved ones with your perspicacity and cleverness Christmas morn. The one that most impressed me was The World's Largest Crossword Puzzle (with over 28,000 clues it takes up a 7-foot by 7-foot chunk of flat surface—we're talking about a serious commitment to interior decorating), that Ma'ikwe had resisted buying at the full retail price of $60, and then subsequently scored for $1.50 at a thrift store. Now that's when you know the Force is with you!

I have no idea when we'll have the courage (or wall space) to open that baby up. Meanwhile, there are board games to test drive, movies to watch, books to read, specialty condiments to savor, and new clothes to break in.

For today's big meal we're going to walk over to Mark & Alyson's at Red Earth Farms this afternoon for the traditional holiday trifecta of confections, conversation, and conviviality. I hope you and yours have every bit as much fun on tap for the day.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

10,000 Hours of Meetings

In recent years I've occasionally taken to introducing myself to people attending one of my process workshops with the one-liner, "The first thing you need to know about me is that I've been to more meetings than you."

While this invariably gets a laugh, it turns out there may be more substance to my claim than I first knew...

In Malcolm Galdwell's newest book, Outlier (released earlier this year), he makes the case that highly successful people are a combination of above-average capacity (relative to their craft), dedication to developing their skill, and luck. His sample set ranges from the Beatles to Mozart, from Bill Gates to Canadian hockey players.

Let's take these one at a time.

1. Above-average Capacity
Gladwell's research suggests you don't need to be a genius to be highly successful. You just need to be good enough. It's important to have sufficient raw ability that you're encouraged to develop your talent, but you don't need to be a child prodigy in order to ultimately excel. It turns out that practice counts for much more than innate ability.

2. Dedication to Developing Your Skill
One of the most interesting outcomes of Gladwell's investigations is that people are able to achieve a quantum leap in skill once they approach the 10,000-hour mark in practicing their craft. Amazingly, in broad strokes this holds true independent of the skill. That is, this principle obtains just as well for lawyers proficient at managing hostile takeovers as it does for professional hockey players; just as well for hit musicians as for IT wizards.

3. Luck
In all of Gladwell's stories, the person makes the commitment to putting in the hours because they're following an interest rather than because they know there will be a pot of gold at the end. Often enough, it is just dumb luck that there is a surge in demand for the skill that a person has been honing, giving them a temporary yet significant market advantage (because competitors cannot quickly replicate the mind-numbing 10,000 hours needed to catch up).

• • •
Walking over to Sandhill for my FIC Office shift yesterday, I had time to contemplate how many hours I'd put into attending and facilitating meetings among cooperative groups. Here's what I came up with:

o Sandhill Meetings
I've been a member of my community for 37 years. My best guess is that we average 2-3 meetings per month, with most meetings running at least two hours. That's 2200 hours of community meetings. Given that I'm on the road a lot though, let's say that I participated in only 1600 hours.

o Sandhill Retreats
My community has been in the habit of holding annual retreats for the purpose of long-term planning and working on deep issues the last 20 years. Typically we meet for 4-5 days. If we average 25 hours of meeting time that would be another 500 hours.

o FEC Meetings
I was a Sandhill delegate to the Federation of Eglalitarian Communities for 22 years, and attended every Assembly from 1979 through 2001. As meetings would generally run for five days, and there were two per year during my tenure, I estimate that was 60 hours of sessions annually, or 1300 hours in all.

o FIC Meetings
I've been involved with the Fellowship for Intentional Communities since it's inception in 1986. This coming spring we'll celebrate our 25th anniversary. The board meets every spring and fall and I've never missed one, which means I've attended 50 in a row. In the early years meetings would last four days; in the last five years or so, we've been able to complete our work in three days. In addition, there's an agenda setting meeting that lasts about four hours in front, and a wrap-up meeting that last for a couple hours at the end. All together, I figure the average board meeting translated into at least 25 hours of my time in meetings. That's another 1200 hours.

o FIC Oversight Committee Meetings
For the last 15 years, the FIC has functioned with an administrative committee whose job it is to steer the ship between board meetings. The Oversight Committee (which I have always been a member of) meets on average once a month for a one-hour conference call, plus twice a year for two days of
face-to-face interim meetings. In a year's time, that equates to 25 hours of interim meetings, plus another eight hours of conference calls. That's totals another 500 hours.

o PEACH Administration
I ran a self-insurance program for the FEC communities from 1987-2009. While most of this was done remotely, by letter and email, there were occasional conference calls and a handful of live meetings with representatives of the participating communities. All together, I figure that's another 100 hours.

o Process Consulting
I've been a cooperative group process consultant since 1987. While my workload started out quite slowly, it's gradually ramped up to the point where I do 10-12 jobs annually, plus trainings (of which I did 11 this year). As best I can estimate, I've worked about 250 days as a consultant all together. Figuring I'm on the job an average of six hours/day, that's 1500 hours.

o Facilitation Training
I launched a two-year program in Integrated Facilitation Training in 2003. To date I've delivered 45 intensive three-day weekends in this modality. With an average of 27 hours of group time each weekend that's 1200 additional hours.

o Event Workshops
As a regular member of the presenting faculty for a variety of events that focus on cooperative living, I've logged the following hours offering workshops the last two decades:
—NASCO Institutes: 90 hours
—Twin Oaks Conferences: 70 hours
—Cohousing Conferences: 60 hours
—FIC Events: 60 hours
—Miscellaneous: 20 hours

That's 300 more, bringing the total time I've been actively involved in meetings with cooperative groups up to 8200 hours. But it's more than that.

Writing about Group Process
Early in my career as a process consultant, I realized that clients only digest about 20% of what happens in a weekend. In an effort to give them more useful product, I've committed to sending a detailed report after the fact, offering an overview of what happened, my analysis of the dynamics, process observations, and recommendations. I try to get these written reflections into the clients' In Box within two weeks. Because this effort involves concentrated analysis of what happens in live meetings, I figure it fully counts as practicing my craft:

—Facilitation training weekends: There have been 45 of these. At 14 hours per report (eight for the host group report and one hour each for every student facilitator) that's 600 hours.

—Consulting weekends: According to my records, I've written reports for at least 84 consulting jobs. At an average of eight hours per report, that's comes to 700 hours.

Beyond that, I'm a regular author for Communities magazine. In the 17 years that FIC has been the publisher, I've written about 80 articles. I figure at least half of those dealt with some aspect of cooperative group dynamics. Counting an average of five hours per article, that's 200 hours.

Finally, there's this blog. I've cranked out over 460 entries in four years, with the focus oscillating among the themes of homesteading, community, and cooperative group dynamics. I figure at least a third of my entries have been about group dynamics. If it takes me an average of 2-3 hours to complete a blog entry, that's 400 hours more.

Adding my writing about meetings to my actual time in meetings, the grand total is a whopping 10,100 hours. In short, it turns out I've made it (barely) across Gladwell's threshold for due diligence, and probably goes a long way toward explaining why the demand for my services as a process consultant has not diminished with the poor economy.

While none of this proves competence, it's nonetheless exciting to think about the possibilities in the face of current trends:
o Widespread dissatisfaction with traditional, competitive ways of doing business and making political decisions.
o Interest in community living has never been higher.
o Transition Towns are focusing on local, community-based responses to Peak Oil and Climate Change.
o The Occupy phenomenon has demonstrated a surprisingly resilient commitment to cooperative decision making.

I may be one of the lucky ones who accidentally focused on the right thing at the right time, so that I'd have my 10,000 hours in when opportunity knocks. Anyone care to have a meeting to discuss it?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Cohabiting with my Wife

Yesterday I moved in with my wife (at least temporarily).

Though Ma'ikwe and I have been married nearly five years, we've been living separately. When we first got together romantically (fall '05) she was living in Albuquerque, which was 900 miles from my bed at Sandhill. For the first 15 months of our marriage there were some non-trivial logistics to navigate if I wanted a date night with my wife.

In the summer of '08, however, things got a lot easier when she and her son, Jibran, moved to the same zip code as me. She joined Dancing Rabbit, which is only three miles from Sandhill. While I understand that three miles away is not the same as sharing a bedroom, it was nonetheless 300 times better than Albuquerque and allowed, for the first time, some degree of spontaneity about when we were in the same room. Much better. Now when I'm on the road (which is 60% of the time) I'm thinking about getting back to Ma'ikwe, rather than about how to get to her.

Better still, building on our shared interest in community networking and group process work, about half the time I'm on the road Ma'ikwe is traveling with me, on which occasions I don't dwell on missing her at all!

As a significant part of her settling into life at DR, Ma'ikwe has built a house (although it's not really complete, it's far enough along to be a cozy in cold weather), and this winter we're trying the experiment of my living here instead of at Sandhill. For the next quarter, I'll be waking up next to my wife every day (excepting three weeks of travel when we'll be apart)—an experience we haven't had since our honeymoon.

Will I miss Sandhill this winter? Yes, but not as much as you might think.
—For one thing, I'll be on the road seven of the 13 weeks (which is about normal for me), and when I'm away it doesn't make a lot of difference where my "official" bedroom is.

—My longest block of time in Missouri is the three weeks stretching form now through Epiphany (that's Jan 6 if you having trouble locating semi-obscure Christian holidays on your calendar). During the entirety of those three weeks I'll be going over to Sandhill every Mon, Wed, and Fri to pinch hit for Emily Hall (who handles orders in the FIC's Missouri Office) while she enjoys a deserved holiday with her family back East. It may be next year before anyone at Sandhill notices that I'm not sleeping in my room.

—Sandhill's annual retreat is queued up for Feb 5-8, and that means I'll be migrating home for four days of annual planning and renewal.

All and all, I'm fairly confident that folks at Sandhill will still remember what I look like when the crocuses emerge.

I arrived yesterday in time to attend DR's regular Sunday WIP (week in preview), when all members are asked to gather in the common house to coordinate schedules. This full ensemble
choreography is a logistical imperative for a group of 60-odd (and believe me, it is 60 odd) cultural creatives who manage their lives with a fleet of only three vehicles and with most days embellished with one or two opportunities to indulge in specialized social configurations. It's nearly impossible to keep it all in line without a whip, I mean a WIP. To give you a flavor of this, in the coming week residents will have the chance to partake in any of the following (and I'm probably dropping a stitch or two):

o Spiritual gathering—Sun eve (where those interested in spiritual inquiry take turns leading the exploration of their choice)
o Dance party—Sun eve (celebrating the arrival of new residents Craig & Kim)
o Meditation followed by yoga—Mon, Tue, Wed morning
o Kirtan—Mon eve (chanting accompanied by a harmonium)
o Potluck at Sandhill—Tue dinner
o Song circle—Wed eve
o Solstice celebration—Thu eve
o Community dinner—Fri dinner (households bring their own food and eat together in the common house)
o Cody's 6th birthday party—Sat noon
o Xmas Eve at the Milkweed Mercantile—Sat eve
o Xmas movies—TBA
o Cookie exchange—TBA

And by the way, Blues Dancing (a regular Mon eve offering) was cancelled because Rachel & Tony will be traveling for the holidays. Whew. Mind you, this is just the all-skate opportunities. Never mind the myriad
tête-à-têtes, small group private get-togethers, and the bewildering array of committee meetings. When do people sleep?

When it came to the portion of the WIP where announcements were made about arrivals and departures for the week, Alline (the impresario cum herald for the day) announced that Laird was "beginning his cohabitation with Ma'ikwe." Fortunately, everyone smiled—which I took as a happy mixture of bemusement with Alline's turn of phrase, and vicarious joy with the turn toward communion on behalf of Ma'ikwe's marriage.

At this point, I'm expecting to return to my regularly scheduled Sandhill life after the vernal equinox, yet that decision hasn't been made yet. (That's what it means to label what we're doing an "experiment.") We won't make that call until all the data has been collected and its meaning has been massaged. While I won't have to face that particular fork in the road until March, it's a pleasure knowing that both paths are likely to lead to good things.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Facilitator's Magic Eye

When I first began
To cut up oxen

I would see before me

The whole ox

All in one mass.

After three years

I no longer saw this mass,
I saw the distinctions…

—excerpted from Cutting Up an Ox, an ancient Taoist poem

• • •
I am the Sandhill butcher.

While many others in my community share in the work of this quintessential homesteading task, I enjoy it. Though I am not a hunter, I approach cutting up carcasses and preserving meat with considerable care and respect for the animals whose lives have been taken to sustain mine. Butchering has become part of my sacred relationship to food.

It has taken me a while to embrace the identity of butcher, in part because one meaning of the term is to do a job badly, or clumsily. Another is to kill indiscriminately, or brutally. While not wanting to be associated with either of those flavors of the term, there is yet a third meaning, which is honorable—or at least has the chance to be. A good butcher is one who is thrifty and skilled in the craft of transforming animals into food. Better yet, a good butcher is one who wastes little, operates humanely, and works in right relationship with the universe.

I recall when I first encountered this more noble sense of "butcher" employed outside the confines of the abattoir…

About 30 years ago, when I was teaching myself how to make insulated glass windows (is there no end to the ways in which youth will carelessly throw labor at the fortified walls of a tight budget, in the hopes of saving pennies?) we bought supplies from a New England company called Wood Butchers. I was immediately struck by the name. Surely they weren't implying that that they sold the tools of wanton woodworking, were they?

Indeed, "wood butcher" is an old term for carpenter, and meant as a label of respect for a craft. The meaning here runs parallel to that of meat butcher, and thus began the rehabilitation of the term in my consciousness.

Today, I happily consider myself an amateur meat butcher, as well as an amateur wood butcher. Taking this one step further, I am also a meeting butcher. As a professional facilitator, I am fully skilled in the dissection of meeting dynamics. When I am at my best, there is little waste and I am able to transform
logjams into flow, chaos into agreement, and disharmony into music. It is an art. While learnable, not everyone is willing to put in the effort.

As it was for the butcher referenced in the opening poem, one of my main challenges as a facilitation teacher is getting students to experience the unfolding of a meeting and seeing the underlying distinctions. What at first seems an overwhelming tangle of disparate viewpoints and discordant feelings, can instead be viewed as a montage of patterns, of which there are a limited number.

One of the main reasons that I am valuable as an outside facilitator is not inherent skill; rather, it's that I have spent many hours in the butcher shop and bring with me a wide pattern library. Today, it's hard to show me something I've never seen before. While the details are undoubtedly unique to the current manifestation, the applicable patterns are not. By breaking down the dynamic into its characteristic components, complex and/or volatile issues become more tractable, less daunting.

After conducting more than 40 facilitation training weekends over the last eight years, I've come to appreciate much better what it is I've learned to do as a professional facilitator (there is nothing quite like attempting to teach a thing to expose the gaps in how well you understand it). Over and over I am in the position of watching a live meeting with my students, detecting patterns, and then observing how long it takes for the students to see the same thing.

While a portion of the teaching is breaking things down into primary questions (what are the themes in the conversation; is the energy rising or falling; what questions remain to be addressed; how well are people hearing each other; to what extent are people feeling heard; are there underlying questions that haven't surfaced yet; where is this likely headed?), there is another portion for which an atomistic approach will not work.

It is the gestalt ability to absorb the whole of the meeting and have the essential patterns emerge when concentrating with a soft focus. Just as with Magic Eye graphics, the patterns can pop out of the fog in a blink. The trick is learning the art of the soft focus, where you let all of the data wash over you and resist the temptation to lock onto any one thing.

As a teacher, it's exciting to watch the students develop over the course of the two-year training, where there's a steady progression in relation to their ability to approach what I can do—all the way from awe to aw, shucks:

o Awe (I have no idea how you did that)
o Inkling (I knew something needed to happen but I had no clue what)
o Fuzzy (I had a general idea about what was needed but couldn't articulate it clearly)
o Slow (I got the same inspiration, but not as quickly)
o Aw, shucks (I could have done that!)

My dream is a world where my insights are aw, shucks all the time; where my eye is no more magic than anyone else's.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Eight Days Before the Mass

I woke up this morning with 70 pounds of warm mass leaning against my left thigh. Ceilee's pit bull, Zeus, had once again crawled onto my air mattress and snuggled against me in the night.

While not the same as sleeping with my wife—which I love and which I prefer—I am very fond of Zeus and happy to have his company in bed when I'm on my own, which has been the case this past fortnight for my road trip stops in Oakland and Las Vegas.

(The only downside is the challenge of peeing in the middle of the night. Extricating myself from the air mattress is analogous to climbing out of a vat of jello in the dark with a sentient wriggler moving between my legs, hoping to lick my face. When you're groggy and have to go, it's an interesting exercise in balance, patience, and spatial perception. Worse, by the time I return a few minutes later, Zeus will have repositioned himself smack in the middle of the warm spot and I have to fight him for the covers.)

• • •
In 1840 Richard Dana, Jr published Two Years Before the Mast, a compelling story about the privation of common sailors aboard sailing vessels. The writing was based on the author's personal experience in 1834-36, when he left Harvard to go to sea in an attempt to improve his vision after it had been compromised by a bad case of the measles. Though his intention had been to improve his eyesight, Dana gained insight into the plight of basic sailors (whose quarters were in the forecastle—before the mast) and his book became a bestseller. Though born into the owning class (he'd enlisted as a 19-year-old sailor on a ship his father owned), Dana was deeply affected by his experience and went on to become an antislavery activist.

Dana's story is affirmation of the potency of the classic admonition to walk a mile in the other person's moccasins. After coming to know a sailor's life—from first-hand experience, not just as a thought exercise—his patrician views about the social consequences of capitalism were forever tempered.

This age-old lesson maps well onto cooperative group dynamics and the skill of facilitation.
As a trainer, I teach students:

1. Seeing It Through the Speaker's Perspective
It's important to be able to be the other person when establishing a connection; to see the presenting dynamic through their eyes—just as Dana was able to write from the experience of a sailor before the mast. This is not about agreeing with the speaker; it's about being able to authentically speak for them. This can be huge when the speaker feels misunderstood or isolated—which is often the case if they are upset.

To do this well, you need to be able to bridge to both their position and their affect.

2. Translation
When Person A and Person B are missing each other and unable to get traction on the issue at hand, a good facilitator may be able to pull them out of the mud by translating what Person A said into language (or perhaps imagery) that's accessible to Person B while still being recognizable to Person A—and then being able to do the same thing going the other way.

To be able to pull this off, the facilitator needs to be able to first recognize that a miss is occurring (it's usually not that hard to accurately diagnose off-comments or querulous looks), and then find a frame of reference that both parties can access. It's this second step that's harder, requiring that the facilitator be able to articulate a bridge that each player can walk across.

This takes Dana's insight to another level. To be good at translation, it is not enough that the facilitator can describe the ends of the bridge (each person's position); the facilitator must manifest a connection between the positions that both parties believes is substantial enough that it will support their weight.
• • •
Today is get-away day. This evening I catch a dedicated Amtrak van that will take me to Kingman AZ, where I'll rendezvous after midnight with the eastbound Southwest Chief, rambling in from Los Angeles. Thursday morning, Ma'ikwe will be waiting to collect me at the art deco train station in La Plata MO. Yippee! I'll be home for the holidays.

Meanwhile, I have one last day with Zeus (who's poking me with his snout even as I type this, hoping for some loving—dogs aren't really that different from people; they're just less subtle). Later today, we'll go for a walk (he gets so excited when he sees me putting on my shoes that it's hard to tie the laces without him knocking my glasses off).

This past week I've mainly been staying at Ceilee & Tosca's, which means that Zeus has been my main squeeze. During the day, if I'm the couch (watching TV, hanging out with a grandkid, doing a crossword puzzle, or visiting with adults) Zeus will regularly check in with me, which means putting his paws on my leg and pushing his massive face into mine, the better to lick my ears. After a bit of enthusiastic petting, he usually settles down by my side. Zeus especially likes my visits because I laugh a lot and am more dependably interactive (excepting when I have a full cup of coffee or my six-month-old grandson in my lap).

When I'm in Las Vegas, a good part of each day involves wrestling with good-sized dogs. If it isn't Zeus, then it's one of my other two granddogs: Yoshi or Zelda (who are part of Jo & Peter's household across town). While I've been with Zeus most nights, I've also been sleeping around (hey, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas). Last Friday I spent the night at Jo & Peter's apartment, sleeping on the couch with Zelda. While there was some late night negotiation around how to arrange body parts in the vicinity of my feet, everything went better once I convinced her that it wasn't going to work out unless she stopped licking the top of my head.

During Friday's Game Day at Jo's (see my blog of Dec 10, Visiting the Dren) there were a number of times when Yoshi came into the back room to check out the action, presenting me the opportunity to rub my hands on his silken fur between turns
(for luck).

As I reflect on it, it's eerie how high a percentage of my eight days in Nevada have involved a mass of granddog in my immediate proximity. While dogs are not a religion to me, they are definitely family, and I've come to think of my time in Vegas as attending mass.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Visiting the Dren

When I was in college, it was fashionable to shorten words to their last syllable. Whence, "za" for pizza; "zeeks" for physics; and "rents" for parents.

While only some of these back-end phrases caught on (blessedly), I'm recalling those days as I spend a week in Las Vegas, visiting my "dren" (my kids). In their presence, I inevitably drift into reverie about what I was doing when I was their age, or recalling my days as a rent with young kids—which mirrors where my son, Ceilee, is today.

Ceilee is fast approaching 31, which was my age when he was born. He has two children (my granddaughter Taivyn, and my grandson Connor) and it's a delight to spend a week with these two curious beings (of course, I get to go home on Tuesday—it's incomparably easier being grandparent).

My daughter, Jo, is 24-1/2, exactly the age I was back in 1974, when I got together with three friends to start Sandhill Farm. There are many milestones to remember.

I spent yesterday with Jo. Along with her partner, Peter, they hosted an eight-person Game Day that lasted from noon to midnight. Not counting a brief break for dinner (at the neighborhood Chipotle where Jo works), we indulged in an orgy of board games (which Ceilee's Mom, Annie, refers to as bored games). I played Hansa Teutonica (1x), Stone Age (2x), Resistance (2x), World Market (1x), plus Acquire (1x) as a nightcap. This afternoon, Jo & I moseyed back over to Ceilee & Tosca's where we managed a four-person game of Siedler: Cities & Knights before dinner. (I say "managed" because it takes a certain amount of logistical sophistication when you're playing a board game and simultaneously managing child care for a six-month old baby and a three-year-old recovering from bacterial infection—there were an "above-average" number of pauses to field what passes for crises among small children).

It was a lovely way to spend 28 hours—eight games and six Christmas presents later (one at Starbucks, two at Lee's Discount Liquor, and three at the Little Shop of Magic)—and it sets the stage for tomorrow's professional football extravaganza. If it isn't one game, it's many others.

Sunday, while we attempt to watch 14 NFL football games at my son's house (he has NFL Ticket, TiVo, and a 48-inch plasma TV), we'll simultaneously be making ribbon sandwiches, a Schaub family tradition that features four layers of bread and with three distinctive spreads in the middle. Yum.

Think of it as an interactive holiday, where the ghost of Holiday Past shares the kitchen (and TV set) with the ghost of Holiday Present. Thinking back to football Sundays where I watched games with my father (circa 1964) I realize I've been lucky enough to enjoy this particular form of domestic bonding from both ends of the worm hole of time.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


When working with conflict one of the surest ways to tell if you're ready to productively turn to problem solving, is by tracking closely the responses between protagonists. If the first word is "but," it's not a good sign.

Often, a conflicted dynamic is characterized by diminished trust and relationship damage. A metaphor I like to use for this situation is a broken bridge. While you may be itching to string new cable and repair the bridge deck, I advise that you first make sure that the piers necessary to support the bridge are sound. The caution here is that it won't make any difference how stout the spanning sections are if one or more foundations are shaky—the whole thing may collapse (again) if the piers is weak. In short, you want strong abutments; not strong "But… " statements.

With this foundational objective in view, I recommend that you slow down enough at the outset that each party has a full opportunity to state their version of what happened and how they felt about about (Caution: don't gloss over the second part), followed by the other parties being able to demonstrate that they got the essence of it by reflecting it back to the original person's satisfaction.

The tricky part here is getting the affect right. In my experience this is more important than being able to parrot the words back. When someone is under tension the emotional component of their reality looms large, and most upset people have finely tuned radar for detecting insincerity or affectation—they can just tell if the reflector is reading them right. When I'm attempting this as a facilitator, I try to be that person. It's not sympathy, it's empathy.

This is Part III of my series on conflict.

Fighting for the Reality Joy Stick
One of the hazards of working with upset people is that they'll often want to sell you on their version of the truth, as if it were the only genuine article in a market flooded with cheap imitations. That is, they'll try to convince the group that they know the Truth, while others are purveying distortions. I try to steadfastly resist this, approaching the exploration of stories and feelings with aikido: rather than resisting, I believe everyone—even when the stories are mutually exclusive!

I figure it's rarely possible to know objective truth anyway (never mind that our system of jurisprudence is based on the concept that courts and legal inquiry will ferret it out), and the prime directive when unpacking conflict is to focus on relationship, rather than truth. While both may have been damaged, relationships will not heal unless there's a willingness to work from the principle that everyone means well and believe that their actions were reasonable from their frame of reference. If, on the other hand, truth is your primary focus, resolution is likely to be achieved at the cost of hardened hearts and exacerbated relationship damage. When you reflect on the fact that relationships and trust are the core of community, pushing for truth comes dear.

There is little to be gained by making one or more players wrong. In my view, it's far more productive to work from the premise that everyone has been proceeding on the basis of their truth. While it's important to know what that is (so that the bridge will be sturdy, it does not help to transform the group into a jury that determines who was Right.

Pursuing that approach to its inevitable conclusion, there may not be anyone left.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Getting a Feeling for Working Conflict

Years ago I was giving a Friday evening public presentation about conflict at an urban university. I had been invited by a forming community, with whom I was going to be working over the weekend. They were using the occasion of my being in town to drum up interest in their group, and the woman organizing the event had a clipboard on which she was diligently capturing the names and contact information of the folks she didn't know.

In the minutes before we got started, she approached one unknown young man from behind and tapped him lightly on his shoulder to get his attention, for the purpose of getting him to register on the clipboard. The man startled at her touch, turned around
abruptly, and glared at her with intensity. In the spur of the moment, the woman decided that perhaps she didn't need his contact information that badly and chose to back away.

At this point, I have just described the entire history of interaction between these two people. If there were any words exchanged, it was less than a sentence each way. Shortly after the woman retreated to her seat, I began my presentation—blissfully unaware that there was a storm brewing in the audience.

Ninety minutes later I was in the home stretch of my presentation, explaining how everyone has the option to work on conflict unilaterally. While most of the time we prefer (naturally) to be met by the other player(s) in a good-faith attempt to resolve conflict, I was pointing out the possibility and potency of working solo when the door to joint work is closed.

It was at this juncture—only three minutes away (I thought) from ending the talk and inviting everyone to regather in a nearby reception for punch and cookies—that the young man became quite agitated and blurted out that it wasn't easy to work through distress all on one's one. Surprised by his comment, I slowed down and offered something like:

"I apologize if I gave you the impression that it
's a simple matter to look inward, explore dispassionately how well your reactions serve you and consider the possible advantages of changing your feelings. I actually think that's hard work—though profoundly worthwhile if you're willing."

I was hoping that I'd deftly addressed his agitation and that punch and cookies were just moments away. No such luck. Instead, his agitation escalated and he appeared to be on the verge of punching the organizer in her cookies! Yikes!

Replying to me, he lamented, "How can you do that work when you're under attack?" Rising from his seat, he quickly closed the distance between himself and the woman with the clipboard. Towering over her, he accosted her with, "This bitch abused me and I'm not going to let her get away with it!" Uh oh. I hadn't a clue where this rage came from.

The woman's husband, sitting on the other side of the room, protested, "You can't talk to her that way!" "The hell I can't!" came back.

Upset and confused, the audience was wondering: why had Laird arranged this tasteless dramatization to end the talk? Laird was wondering: what in heaven's name was going on?

• • •
This is Part II of a series on conflict. Today I'm going to make the case for the primacy of working with emotions when addressing conflict. I opened with this chaotic true-life story to showcase the points I want to make.

1. People in distress often express themselves in provocative ways
When a person is in serious distress (never mind how they got there; they're there) I've found it helpful to think of them as a drowning person—where all they can think about is getting oxygen. In their determination to get air, they may have little to no awareness about how they may be hurting others in their thrashing about, and observations about about their behavior fall on deaf ears. They want a helping hand, not reflections on their overhand crawl.

In my story, the young man was clearly in distress, yet the cause was not apparent. Worse, he was being abusive in his efforts to let everyone know that he'd been abused. Very messy. His experience was that the woman had been provocative; everyone else experienced him being provocative. In his urgency to get support he was, tragically, pushing everyone away.

Taking a deep breath, I knew what I had to do. Without knowing where the story would lead, I nonetheless knew that we needed to start with the young man's distress—not the secondary distress stirred up by the way he was expressing himself. So I walked up to him (I wanted him looking at me, not the woman) and tried to make contact: "You're really pissed off. You feel abused by this woman and you're outraged. Do I have that right?"

Almost immediately, the man started to deescalate (not all the way to calm and serene, but his voice register dropped and his breathing slowed). Essentially, people want to be held and even though I raised my energy to meet his, it is calming to be heard accurately and without judgment. Unlike the gas-on-the-fire response he had to those who were (understandably) objecting to his aggressive language with the woman, I was offering a life ring, and he gratefully accepted it.

While in most cases there's no mystery what triggers an emotional response, in this case I was clueless (and somewhat apprehensive of what would come out when I opened that door). Still, I needed to make sense of his response and I didn't yet have enough information, so I asked him what she'd done that was abusive. He replied that she'd tapped him on the shoulder, violating his body.

While I'm familiar with this potential response when a man touches a woman, it's rare to encounter this with the genders switched. As tapping someone on the shoulder seemed pretty innocuous, I needed more still. Carefully, I laid out that it seemed to me that he had a particularly strong response to a tap on the shoulder; could he say more about why that was abusive? He shared that his mother abused him as a child and that he's now, as an adult, hypersensitive to touch by women.

OK, now I could connect the dots. I didn't need to hear details about what his mother had actually done. It was enough for me to be able to recalibrate events through his lens. While tapping a shoulder lightly (especially a petite woman touching a taller, larger man) is going to be socially acceptable 99% of the time, this was the one percent where that assumption failed. Just as women have rights to determine appropriate boundaries of touch, so do men and the woman had made a mistake. While the unlikeliness of the man's response allowed me to have sympathy for the woman, that had nothing to do with the legitimacy of the man's emotional response. My #1 job in that situation was to validate the experience of the distressed.

2. One at a time
While I think groups should protect opportunities for everyone to be able to clear their distress relative to how the group's functioning, everyone can't go first and it doesn't work to have everyone go at the same time. It's generally best to start with the person who's the most upset and go from the there, with everyone getting a turn. (Note: it may not be that easy to tell who's in the greatest distress, because people vary so widely in how they display it. Just because someone is yelling and turning purple doesn't necessarily mean their upset is more severe than another person who shuts down and turns catatonic.)

That Friday evening, I started with the young man and stayed with him until he acknowledged that I had understood the essence of his experience. Then I asked him if it was OK to switch focus and offer the woman the same attention he'd just received. After getting his acceptance, that's what I did. She was shaking from being attacked and not sure what to do. She was shocked and dismayed by how badly her tap on the shoulder had landed.

3. Emotions first; stories second; context third; problem solving fourth
There's a sequence to working through conflict. Strong feelings are invariably linked with distortion (while there's considerable individual variation, the basic trend is that increased distress is associated with increased distortion), and that it's advisable to start with bridging to the distressed person's feelings. As the distortion will effectively undercut the efficacy of anything you attempt in the way of problem solving, it's paramount that you reduce the distortion before doing anything else. By this, I mean demonstrating to the distressed person's satisfaction that you have understood their emotional experience (first) in response to an event (second).

While these two steps can often be done simultaneously, so many people are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with emotional articulation that they'll avoid or bypass naming their feelings unless you're firm about the request.

After that, it often helps to set the context (what's at stake; why does it matter that the players repair their relationship?), followed by a request that each person make an effort to move toward the other by offering an olive branch. At this step, I'm looking for a measurable action that honors what the other person wants yet is completely within the values, ability, and personality of the person making the gesture. It's about reaching out, not selling out.

In the case of the Friday night fight, the two protagonists were ships passing in the night. While they had in common a curiosity about community and attendance at my lecture, they were not going to have an ongoing relationship—they had a fleeting relationship, not the more substantive connection of being in the same fleet. Thus, I settled for getting apologies both ways. The woman apologized for assuming permission to touch him, and the man recognized that the woman didn't mean to be abusive and apologized for being abusive in expressing his upset.

Then we went for punch and cookies.

The essential point that I'm making today is that you'll be far more successful in working conflict if you start with a focus on emotional experience—which approach can be effective even if the two people have almost no commitment to one another and you're taken wholly by surprise. At the end of the day, we all want to be held, and if you authentically contradict the isolation that people typically experience when in distress, you'll be well positioned to repair damage and to turn corners that stay turned.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Anaerobic Hazard of Unaddressed Distress

Today I'm starting an Integrative Facilitation training weekend in Oakland (weekend three of eight) and the teaching theme is conflict. It seems an auspicious occasion for making it my writing theme as well.

A significant fraction of my work as a process consultant is working with conflict—by which I mean the condition where there are at least two points of view and at least one person is experiencing non-trivial distress in relation to events. (Disagreements where no one's nose is out of joint are also interesting, but not nearly as tricky to navigate, so I'm concentrating just on the hard part here.)

The stakes are pretty high here. Our mainstream culture—the one nearly all of us grew up in—conditioned us to respond to conflict by fighting, submitting, suppressing, manipulating, or running away. As far as I can tell, this menu essentially goes back to Neanderthal days. One of the cornerstones of cooperative culture is that there has got to be a better way. The good news is that there is, but it's not necessarily easy to get there. The theory is not hard, the challenge is being able to respond differently in the heat of the moment.

This entry will be the opening of a series on the theme of conflict.
Today I'm going to try to make the case for why the cost of not learning to effectively address upset is prohibitively high. I've come to the view that we simply can't afford to not learn to deal constructively with conflict, and I'm going to try to persuade you to my viewpoint.

It's relatively easy to understand why groups hesitate to shine the spotlight of plenary attention on fulminating upset. Why do something that you're not good at and that often leads to people feeling nauseous? People who are upset often behave badly; aren't you just rewarding outrageous behavior be giving it attention?

Here are four reasons why groups need the capacity to be able to walk into the lion's den:

1. Conflict compromises problem solving
As distress rises, so does distortion of information. The greater the distress, the greater the likelihood that the person will mishear what's said or misinterpret what it means. I refer to this as "virtual earwax." In the extreme, nothing will get through accurately. While minor distress only causes minor distortion (and typically doesn't need group attention), everyone has a threshold above which distortion is no longer trivial and it becomes a problem for that person to participate accurately in the conversation. Worse, that person's distress may trigger anxiety in others which distracts them from focused attention on the issue as well, and it is hard to do good work.

This is why plowing ahead (by trying to set conflict aside) often fails to produce usable results.

2. Conflict is a source of information
Some people know things emotionally in ways that are different and perhaps more profound than they know them rationally. Why limit what we have to work with? While I admit that it can be a considerable challenge trying to weigh the apples of thought against the oranges of feelings, are you better of pretending that no one has any citrus?

What I'm advocating here is not being happy that there's upset; rather, it's appreciating that there’s a chance at the information.

3. Conflict is a source of energy
There is energy in emotions; if the group can find a way to welcome that input, it can harness the energy to focus on the issues. In fact, success in working with conflict builds community and connection like nothing else.

Have you ever noticed how many groups tend to run meetings with flat energy? One of the reasons is that they're trying to keep a lid on feelings lest they get out of control. I think it's better to welcome passion into the room, so long as it's on topic and heartfelt. Who said meeting can't be fun?

4. Unattended, conflict erodes trust and masks good feelings
This is a real tragedy. If the group avoids dealing with conflict and the parties are unwilling or unable to work through it unilaterally, then it tends to fester and occupy an ever increasing amount of a person's consciousness, to the point where the tension is evoked pretty much whenever they encounter the person who was the trigger—even when the topic in the moment has nothing to do with the original hurt.

In addition to the tragedy of the ever-renewed irritation (which isn't pleasant for anyone), this dynamic has the additional negative effect of overshadowing any genuine good feelings that used to exist between the antagonists because they have been pushed aside by the festering raw sores. Who can access positive memories when you're picking at scabs?

• • •
In my next entry I'll examine what it means to work with the wild card of emotions—not just in the relative safety of no-comment sharing circles; I'm talking about welcoming on-topic feelings into the heretofore staid world of business meetings.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Defusing the Powder Keg of Sexual Abuse

I recently received this inquiry from a person in a well-established community wrestling with the explosive issue of sexual abuse:

Our community has recently had an experience of having a sexual assault predator living here who was arrested on charges. We were completely caught off guard in regards to this endemic social issue entering our community. We’ve done lots of healing and brought in a sexual assault prevention educator—all of which has been good. Now we’re at a crossroads, needing to make decisions about how to be responsible gatekeepers and guardians of our community. In other words, what proactive prevention do we put in place? I’m curious if you have had any experience with communities setting agreements for proactive prevention? And what have other communities done to provide a forum for that “uh-oh”/gut feeling that someone isn’t a good fit (could be around this issue or anything, really)?

This is a tough issue, mainly because it brings into play several complex challenges all at the same time:
o A wide range of societal views about what constitutes healthy sexuality
o Widespread disagreement about how much it's advisable (or even acceptable) to openly discuss sexual matters
o The boundary between private matters and group matters
o How the group works with intuition and gut feelings
o The group's responsibility to be a safe environment to raise children
o How to work constructively with strong emotions

It can be overwhelming knowing where to begin and how to proceed.

While I am not a sexual abuse expert, I am a group dynamics expert and I've been involved with a handful of instances where groups have had to handle this hot potato. Here is framing that I've assembled for setting the stage when charges of sexual abuse arise:

1. Sexual misconduct is common. According to statistics from the Eugene OR Police Dept, 30% of all females are sexually assaulted by the age of 13; 25% of all males are sexually assaulted at some point in their life; 45% of all children are sexually assaulted by the age of 18. This means
it is a statistical certainty that in a group of 30 that a significant number of the adult members have personally experienced sexual abuse in some form and that they are looking at current events through that lens.

2. Sexual abuse covers a lot of territory—all the way from a single incidence of inappropriate touch between adults who had a bit too much to drink, to repeated sodomizing of a child. I'm not implying that any abuse is OK, only that the damage and severity can vary widely.

3. It is not possible to create 100% safety from abuse (or 100% safety from anything). No matter how much we desire to minimize risk, we can never eliminate it. Parents and the community must wrestle with what is acceptable risk.

4. It is often difficult to know the full story, or to agree on what actually happened. While it's obviously beneficial to narrow the area of disagreement about the "facts" to the extent possible, the group may need to develop a response without clarity about how bad a particular incident was. On the plus side, it may be possible to agree that the alleged actions are unacceptable, and the group needs to be less naive and more vigilant about watching for potential abuse—even if you cannot reach agreement on whether the alleged actions occurred.

5. Lack of information degrades trust. To the extent that trust has been eroded
and relationships have been damaged—either with individuals or with the group—it's important to open up lines of communication among members.

6. This work is made difficult because of the tension between: a)
the need to share as a prelude to healing; and b) the desire for privacy—both about sexual matters in general (which tend to be outside the scope of the group's business), and about the specifics of an incident (or incidents) that are likely to be embarrassing and possibly humiliating.

It is generally not fruitful to attempt to rebuild trust or to discuss constructive steps until there has been a thorough opportunity to share pain, anger, fear, and other emotional responses to events. As you might imagine, this can be highly volatile and difficult to handle in a way that creates an opening for authentic expression while at the same time protecting people from getting psychically lynched.

8. In the community context there are aspects of creating safety from sexual predation that are private (for example, what parents decide about educating their children regarding abuse), and there are aspects where the community is a clear stakeholder—by virtue of having made an explicit commitment to being a safe place to raise children. Understandably, it can be dicey knowing where to draw the line between private and public, and it's very hard to get motivated to have this conversation without in issue driving it. Unfortunately, once there is an issue, it is much harder to navigate the uncertainties with sure footing and even-handedness.

9. Combining points 1, 3, & 8, this means the group may be discussing the nuances of acceptable risk in an environment where people may feel freshly betrayed, are uncertain of the line between private and public, and where some members are probably seeing the issues through a lens of past abuse that may not have been disclosed and may not have been worked through by the individual. That's about as thermonuclear as it gets.

10. On the matter of how much information about incidents of sexual misconduct is shared, there is a direct clash between two strongly held principles that make it delicate and awkward to know how to proceed: on the one hand sharing information about allegations and evidence as fully as possible would aid individuals in making their own assessment of risk, and honors a deep tradition in our culture that the accused has the right to full access to the evidence upon which the accusation is based; on the other, there is strong agreement among abuse professionals that where there is a question of a minor's safety you should err on the side of protecting the child. Now what?

11. Polarized dynamics do not get better on their own; the group needs to take active steps to turn things around.

12. After the group has worked through the trauma of the alleged events and the aftermath of the revelations, plus reached decisions about how to proceed more wisely in the future, there remains the delicate question of how to tell the story. What constitutes fair notice to prospective members, and how will the community respond to media inquiries? How important is it that group members offer a consistent story? What can and should be done to protect the privacy of affected individuals?

• • •
Getting back to the query that triggered this blog, I offered this advice about how a group might approach the question of examining "uh-oh" feelings that residents might have when they encounter a new person on the property that someone doesn't feel is safe:

Many groups create a standing committee whose job it is to be of assistance if there arises interpersonal tensions between members that the protagonists are unable to resolve directly or informally. Building on this general concept, I advocate creating a special version of this—a committee of 2-3 people whose sole job it would be to assist residents explore uneasy feelings about anything happening on campus. Thus, if someone had an "uh-oh" feeling they could go to this special committee (or any single member of it, if that felt more accessible) and explore it.

The committee's job would to to take every instance of this seriously. They'd listen carefully, and help the observer figure out where the discomfort arouse and what the appropriate response should be. This committee would use guidelines that the community had established ahead of time about the boundaries of safe and appropriate behavior, and would have the authority to discreetly inquire about what was happening if they felt that was warranted.

While the committee would be expected to operate with a high degree of discretion and confidentiality, they would also, in extreme circumstances, have the authority to call in legal authorities if they discovered something sufficiently serious or alarming. (The conditions necessary to invoke this power would need to be spelled out by the community.)

Once the committee was made aware of an uneasy feeling, they'd stay with it until all parties felt it was resolved. This could include (but is not limited to):
o Reaching resolution simply by talking through the initiator's ill feelings.
o Finding an innocent and satisfactory explanation by collecting more information about what was observed.
o Discovering background about the person
who triggered the uneasy feeling (perhaps information about cultural habits) such that their behavior made more sense and was no longer threatening.
o Moderating a conversation between the observer and the trigger person such that both reached an understanding about how the trigger person might change their behavior and the observer would be more accepting.
o Uncovering information about the triggering person (perhaps an undisclosed felony record) such that there might need to be a community-wide conversation about how to respond.

If the committee felt that there was sufficient cause for concern, they could recommend that the community have a meeting to discus the information available and what to do about it, if anything.

For their part, community members would need to agree that if the committee approached a member to discuss what they did or what they observed, that they would be expected to make themselves available for such a conversation. No ducking. (This is not about admitting guilt; it's about committing to a good faith effort to understand and resolve concerns.)

For this to work well, considerable care should be taken to select the right people to fill the committee slots. As individuals, these people will need to be highly trusted, excellent listeners, good communicators, possess good judgment, capable of keeping confidences, and be available. As a collection, these folks will need to deemed accessible to everyone in the community, and able to work well together. While you hope that this committee will not have a lot of work, you'll want them to do it well when there's a knock on the door, or a niggle in someone's belly.

This is my attempt to create a clear pathway for honoring intuitions about discomfort while protecting people from witch hunts; it's a middle way that balances the right to privacy with the responsibility to protect the group; it offers troubled people a sympathetic forum without leaping to conclusions or reaching for a bullhorn.

Sexual abuse is a tough issue, and communities are not exempt from it. The good news is that there are nonetheless tools and sensibilities available in community to handle it compassion and determination.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Consensus as an Unnatural Act

As a process consultant, I get frequent opportunities to share what I consider the essence of consensus—the most popular choice for decision-making in cooperative groups.

While there's a lot to say, I've come to believe that there are three most important introductory points to get across:

a) Groups will not get good results unless they're prepared to create a different culture—one that's oriented toward curiosity rather than combat in the presence of non-trivial differences. Given the way most of us have been conditioned, being curious in the face of someone disagreeing with you is an unnatural act. We are taught to defend, not to break bread with the enemy. Yet combat discourages open disclosure and sharply limits the flow of information. Job #1 is keeping the ideas moving freely.

b) Consensus is the nuanced intersection between relationship and decision-making—if you're not attending to both, you'll not be happy with the results. In the wider culture we're mostly taught to set relationships aside in the pursuit of sound decisions; in cooperative culture however, we value how we reach decisions about as much as what decisions we reach. If you neglect relationships you risk birthing agreements with stillborn energy. If, on the other hand, you attend to relationship and lose focus on problem solving, you may drift into an emotion-laden quagmire with no clear exit. Both forms of imbalance tend to be unsatisfactory.

c) Meetings call for different behavior than informal settings, and participants need to learn both what's appropriate and the discipline to modify their behavior accordingly. I teach groups that the mantra of participants in a consensus meeting is:
What does the group need to hear from me on this topic at this time?

This guidance is so nutrient-dense that I want to parse it into five components:

1. The Group
The context is a group conversation. That means screening possible comments for those that are group-relevant, and having the internal fortitude to discard the rest for another context. The point is that everything that is of sufficient interest—or even potency—for the individual may not be pertinent in the group context. To succeed in this, the participant needs to be clear about the group's purpose and what things are appropriate for plenary consideration.

2. Need
This is an assessment of relative importance. Rather than looking for "What can I think of saying about this topic," participants should be looking for "What is sufficiently germane and potent that the group needs to take it into account." If someone else has already offered the thing you were poised to contribute, you may not need to speak.

To be sure, there's considerable nuance around what the group needs to hear. If you're undecided, it's likely better to speak up and let others help you sort the essential from the elective.

3. From Me
If you say nothing, people may be left to guess how to interpret your silence. It could mean that you have nothing to add, or it could mean:
—You're confused about what the topic is.
—You're distracted by a personal challenge that has nothing to do with the topic.
—You're bored and have been spacing out.
—You're so upset that you're afraid to speak because you might vomit on someone and create a big mess that there's not time to clean up.
—You're still formulating a response and just aren't ready to speak.

Because silence can be so confusing, it's typically better to offer something like, "So-and-so speaks my mind," than to stay mum because you don't think you have anything new to add. Not only does this only take a few seconds, people will not be left to guess where you stand. Choosing to let everyone know that you're fine with what's been said is even more important if you're identified as a key stakeholder, as people will likely be tracking your silence even more closely.

this is all together different than making the same point as someone who spoke before, and then taking just as long or longer to do it, in an effort to find fresh phrases for the same concept. Remember, the point of the meeting is not how good you look; it's how good the group's thinking is.

4. On The Topic
It's not uncommon for a person's brilliancy to be triggered by the topic at hand, yet not be about the topic at hand. If that's the case, can you restrain yourself from insisting on sharing your inspiration? Whenever you indulge that impulse and stray off topic you're not being a good consensus participant.

To be fair, it isn't always easy to tell what the topic is, and therefore you may be unsure whether a proposed comment is in bounds or coloring outside the lines. That's where a good facilitator comes in.

5. At This Time
There's a predictable journey that topics take when traveling through plenary consideration, and different kinds of comments are appropriate at different stages. For example, during the discussion phase you're not looking for potential solutions (you're looking for the factors that a good proposal needs to balance); during the question phase you're not wanting any statements about blocking concerns (at this early stage you're only wanting to make sure that everyone understands the issue, not what positions they'll lay down in front of the bulldozer over).

In my experience it takes your average cooperative group years before these essential consensus elements become so ingrained that the responses surface naturally. The good news is that it's possible.

• • •
Post-Thanksgiving Postscript

For those who read my blog of Nov 16, Granddaughter Down, I'm happy to report that Taivyn is now home and completely free of the C Diff infection that knocked her down. While she still has a ways to go on the road to normalcy (she needs a bland diet and plenty of rest for several weeks), she is expected to make a full recovery and her parents had ample reason for giving thanks yesterday. I also want to express appreciation to all my readers for the outpouring of loving support that my posting generated. I was touched, and I like to think that all that healing energy helped her turn the corner just that much faster.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Loneliness of the Highly Motivated

I get a lot done.

I enjoy taking on responsibility (if it's appropriate to my skills and interests). If the values are right, it's a service opportunity and it gives me considerable satisfaction to be useful and productive (which are not the same thing). While it's not necessarily a slam dunk finding ways to get paid for doing what you believe in, I've even been pretty good at that (for which I thank my entrepreneurial father). Taken all together, I love my life and consider myself blessed. Yet it can also be lonely.

A. Out of Control
People look at what I take on and consider it prima facie evidence of irresponsibility. Projecting themselves into my workload, they figure they'd be overwhelmed, and therefore I must be as well.

I know that's not very sound thinking, but trust me, people do it all the time—there's a significant difference between projecting yourselves into another person's being (experiencing the world through their persona), and projecting yourself into another person's situation (where it's you in their skin). As a facilitation trainer, I encourage students to develop their capacity for the former, which leads to empathy, while discouraging the latter, which leads to judgment.

My personal work: It used to irk me that others didn't do as much as I did. Was I being taken advantage of? Why weren't people applying themselves?

Gradually, I learned the value of focusing on taking care of myself and not others (which, it turned out, no one was interested in my doing anyway). I learned to avoid the trap of martyrdom, where I did more than I felt comfortable with (perhaps to make up for others doing less; perhaps to indulge a compulsion) and then resented the extra work that no one asked me to do. As you probably already know, this doesn't go well—and it's damn hard to engender much sympathy for your anguish if it comes across as a guilt trip.

Going the other way, I ask that people let me work at the levels I enjoy. The deal is that I don't expect others to do what I do, and I expect the same in return. My work is too keep my commitments to what I can handle with equanimity. While I still might have resentment about others not doing their fair share, I work diligently to not have resentment about others not working at my level.

Mind you, this does not mean I never over commit. In fact, I mess up all the time. I belong to the school of thought that it's better to avoid lulls than overwhelm, and my boisterous optimism regularly leads to filling my plate to the point where it's a near certainty that stuff will fall off. However, I'm not focusing here on the perils of optimism; I'm examining the isolation of motivation.

B. An Unwanted Mirror
People are naturally curious and we live in a competitive culture. Often, people will subconsciously and automatically compare their life with whomever they come across. It's uncomfortable, however, when you're stacking yourself up against a highly motivated person. There's strong conditioning to define ourselves in terms of our accomplishments, and when that's in play most people are not going to enjoy comparing theirs with mine.

On a gross level, they may feel challenged by my productivity. On a subtle level, they may chose to leave me alone, or to find fault (so that they can engineer feeling better about the comparison). I'd rather that comparisons weren't happening at all, but that's not in my control.

My personal work: While I like being seen for my contributions, there's a dangerous ego trap lurking below the surface. I work constantly on trying to honor the work of others without keeping score about how much honoring I receive in return.

As a professional facilitator, I've learned to read people quickly and be able to bridge to the essence of their experiences based on a small sampling of data. Sadly, I rarely receive in return that which I am able to give others. Worse, in my instance it's a double whammy: not only are there not that many people such facilitative skills, there aren't that many people who can even imagine what it's like to keep so many balls in the air. I come across more as a circus act.

Come one, come all! In the course of 72 hours watch the amazing man teach a dozen facilitation students, while simultaneously pulling rabbits out of the hat by offering a breakthrough proposal in the last five minutes of one live meeting after another, all the while posting a pithy blog entry, keeping up with email traffic from across the continent, and still finding time to play three games of Settlers with his 14-year-old stepson! (Most people think I'm pretty weird.)

C. Work Over Relationship
This one hurts. For those who prefer a mix that's richer in social time and leaner in work time, I present as a workaholic, as someone who has an atrophied social life. While there's doubt a real and tender thing is happening here if you want more of my time than I make available, the irony is that my work, overwhelmingly, falls into one of three categories: a) helping groups successfully navigate the tensions and confusions of complex and/or volatile issues; b) administrative work for FIC, a nonprofit dedicated to offering up-to-date, accurate information about intentional communities and promoting cooperation; and c) doing what I can in support of my home, Sandhill Farm, an agriculturally based income-sharing group in northeast Missouri, where, for the most part, I try to focus on covering work others don't care for.

As I see it, all of my work is relationship based, so it's tough when I get criticized for neglecting that part of life.

My personal work: My job is to avoid the trap of defensiveness, and be available to hear the pain of those who feel left behind in the choices I make about how I apportion my time and my attention. My work is to establish a sense of my personal relationship with integrity (my moral compass) and then accept with grace that my choices may not look so good when viewed through other people's lenses.

One thing is for sure: I'm a much more attractive friend as someone who's at emotional peace with himself, than as someone who's in emotional pieces. And no one can do that work other than me.

Saturday, November 19, 2011


This morning a couple of friends of mine ended 18 years of marriage in a divorce ceremony, followed by a reception. As you might suspect, they live in an intentional community—I'm not sure where else you'd see that.

One of the most exciting aspects of the culture building work being done by intentional communities is around ritual. I believe modern society is ritual starved, and I'm happy to be part of an effort to create oases in the desert.

For most of us there are only a few moments in our lives that are marked by high ritual: birth, graduation, marriage, death, and perhaps confirmation. in addition, there are more garden variety annual rituals such as birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and perhaps an anniversary. For all of that, I think we could do a lot more to mark the passage of key moments with reflection and intent.

When Ma'ikwe and I got married four years ago, we planted a stake in sacred ground by having a four-day wedding. In addition to marking our commitment, we wanted to make a statement about ritual. Along with conspicuous eating and drinking, it featured a dawn sweat lodge, a scavenger hunt, a raucous roast of the bride and groom, and a roll-your-own ceremony replete with batik silk banners and a best dog dressed in tux. And while it's easier to imagine pumping up the calliope in times of joy, there's also a need for noting passages that are tinged with sadness. In addition to Irish wakes, how about ritual to mark the dissolution of a partnership—highlighting the yin of divorce as the underrepresented complement to the yang of weddings.

I wasn't thinking about the break-up of intimate partnerships when I started Sandhill with my then-partner Ann Shrader back in 1974. Yet one of the ways I've been most proud of what we have been able to accomplish at Sandhill was that we could ease out of intimacy after the birth of our son, Ceilee (in 1981), and neither had to leave the community or stop being an active parent. What a blessing!

Back in 1969—coincidentally the same year Ann and I got together—Dolly Parton had a hit country & western song called D.I.V.O.R.C.E., that plays off modern society's discouragement about discussing sad times openly—which iconically establishes the trend that my separating friends were deliberately bucking today. Here are the lyrics:

Our little boy is four years old

And he’s quite a little man
So we spell out the words
We don’t want him to understand
Like t-o-y, or maybe s-u-r-p-r-i-s-e
But the words we’re hiding from him now
Tears the heart right out of me

Our d-i-v-o-r-c-e becomes final today
Me and little j-o-e will be going away
I love you both and this will be
Pure h-e-double-l for me
Oh, I wish that we could stop this d-i-v-o-r-c-e

Watch him smile
He thinks it’s Christmas
Or his fifth birthday
And he thinks c-u-s-t-o-d-y
Spells fun, or play
I spell out all the hurtin’ words
And I turn my head when I speak
Cause I can’t spell away this hurt
That’s dripping down my cheek

The way through hard times is by going through them, not by tiptoeing around them in the dark, or whistling by the graveyard.

Of course, it takes more than a party. Just like the singer in Dolly's song, my friends have kids and have been agonizing over the question of separating or soldiering on for a long while. Ma'ikwe and I have been spending time sitting with them the last few months, helping them figure out what's best. This couple has been doing brave work, looking into the mirror as well at each other, trying to tease out the lessons interwoven with the pain. They know each other well and still care deeply about one one another, yet it's no longer working to be partners—there proved to be some gulfs that were too large to bridge and they were bone weary of the attempt. It was time to let go.

They are no less committed today to jointly raising their children than they were to each other when they marched down the aisle 18 years ago. Intentional community, at its best, can be a container of compassion and honesty that's large enough to hold that hurt without taking sides or requiring anyone to move away. Wow.

With Ma'ikwe's help, this couple deliberately crafted today's ceremony that openly acknowledged a formal shift in their relationship—turning simultaneously toward the love and the pain, rather than S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G it out, one platitudinous conversation at a time, alternately dipped in acid and treacle.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Granddaughter Down

A week ago Monday I got an email I never wanted to receive: Annie informed me that our granddaughter, Taivyn, was in intensive care battling a raging bacterial infection. The bottom fell out of my stomach. She's only three and a half.

Her small body was invaded by Clostridium difficile (colloquially known as C diff), which attacked her opportunistically following a pediatrician-prescribed course of antibiotics to knock out a respiratory problem. It is now nine days and counting since she was admitted to the hospital's intensive care unit, with no clear end in sight. Now she taking even stronger antibiotics to battle the C diff. This appears to be a clear instance of the cure being far worse than the disease.

As often happens with colitis (inflammation of the colon) she suffers additionally from diarrhea (hourly), stomach cramps, and rectal prolapse. There's nothing fun about it. While there's no immediate threat to life (thank God), it's totally exhausting for Taivyn and nerve wracking for both parents—my son and daughter-in-law, Ceilee and Tosca.

In order to starve out the bad guys, Taivyn is not taking any food orally. Instead, she's receiving both medication and nutrition through a PICC line (peripherally inserted central catheter). Ceilee & Tosca are at the hospital almost continuously, sleeping there every night, and leaving only long enough to shower, eat, change clothes, and visit their four-month-old son, Connor, who's safely at home isolated from his older sister's infection. Their #1 job is to be there for their suffering daughter as she rides
the waves of nausea on her frustratingly slow boat to recovery.

For all of this misery though, it occurs to me that Ceilee & Tosca are actually lucky. While I know that's not what anyone is feeling right now, let me count the ways:

a) Foremost, Taivyn's life does not appear to be at risk and there are excellent long-term prospects for a complete recovery with no lasting effects.
While the infection is debilitating and requires serious attention (how could 9+ days in ICU be anything else?) the prognosis is not dire.

b) Right away, Tosca's immediate family (mother, sister, and grandparents) traveled out from Missouri to rally around her in time of need. It's a terrific boon that they're able to suspend their regularly scheduled lives to take primary responsibility for care of Connor. Plus, it means that the dog (Zeus) will get walked & fed, food won't spoil in the fridge, the mail will get opened, etc. That's a considerable relief.

c) Ceilee & Tosca run their own business (they operate seven Cricket cell phone stores in Las Vegas). With managers in place to handle day-to-day affairs they have the freedom to take all the time off they need on short notice. Few have such flexibility. What's more, they have robust health insurance and the staggering hospital bills will be taken care of. Whew.

Antibiotic Merry-Go-Round
Apparently most of us have C diff bacteria in our gut. Ordinarily, this is something we can ignore, as the normal complement of intestinal flora are robust enough to keep C diff in check. Those natural defenses were breached however when Taivyn took antibiotics for her respiratory infection. That left the gate unguarded and the C diff marauders walked right through, producing the bacterial bloom that's been causing so much mischief.

While Taivyn's intestinal skirmish is highly likely to have an innocuous ending (my fingers and toes are both crossed as I type this), it's hard to not reflect on how this intersects with a disturbing trend among bacteria of all stripes to develop strains that are resistant to antibiotic treatment. The more bacteria see antibiotics, the more chances they have to develop evolutionary strategies to circumvent their effectiveness.

While I don't know any details about how bad the original respiratory illness was, I wonder about Taivyn's risks down the line, now that her body has been flooded with large doses of multiple antibiotics. How much are the bacteria in her young body being given the data they need to develop resistant strains for future battles—perhaps battles where her mortality is more in question? It's scary.

Seeing the Diff—the Roads Not Taken
When a loved one gets sick it immediately grabs your attention, and offers a reality check about what matters. It provided me some perspective on how much of my day-to-day focus is devoted to emotional minutia (For example, I spent a couple hours over the weekend agonizing about how best to approach a person who's feelings I may have hurt with an abrupt piece of feedback delivered Saturday afternoon).

On the one hand, it's unlucky that Taivyn was stricken with diarrhea and a bacterial infection. On the other, it's lucky that it was diagnosed promptly and treated seriously. It's enormously beneficial that Taivyn has loving and attentive parents who can afford high quality health care. On the other hand, perhaps the original application of antibiotics was precipitous (we may never know) and there may be a price to pay later in terms of decreased effectiveness of antibiotics. These things can be hard to weigh, and point out how often we must make decisions—sometimes decisions with large consequences—with only partial information. Sobering.

Grandmother Up
I spoke with Annie by phone last night. She was home in Virginia and I was in Missouri. Ceilee had just asked her to join the troops in Las Vegas, and she was calling to let me know that she was accepting the draft and moving up her planned Dec visit to deploy for Nevada in the next 24 hours, to further bolster the number of family boots available at Ground Zero to battle the infection.

While I won't get out there until the second week of Dec, Annie will still be there then and I'm fervently hoping that it will be a heartfelt, joyous time, with everyone able to celebrate the good health we too often take for granted.