Monday, February 28, 2011

Pressing the Flesh

One of my favorite parts of my job as FIC administrator is meeting the public and talking about community. Some fraction of that is talking with reporters (which is an occasional live radio broadcast interspersed among a steady diet of phone interviews). Another chunk is doing presentations and workshops at events. While I enjoy both of those things (and do them regularly), I enjoy the most simple conversations with people who are curious about community and cooperative living.

This happens during informal chats while I'm staffing the Community Bookshelf table at events; it happens in random phone calls at the FIC Office if I'm the one who picks up the phone; it happens around the edges of my work as a group process consultant; and it happens at FIC soirees like the one we hosted at Edgehill Methodist Church in downtown Nashville last Saturday night.

About 25 people showed up. Most lived in our near the Music City, yet some came from as far away as Murfreesboro (35 miles to the southeast). We spent 2-1/2 hours talking community. The group included:
o Two couples (Martin & Cindy; plus Howard & Katie) who were ex-members of The Farm (their tenure went back to the pre-1983 days and the original collective economy)
o Daniel & Amanda in their 20s who were part of a new intentional community, less than two years old and eager for news from other groups
o Andrew, who was enrolled in divinity school at Vanderbilt and hoping to seed a group house in the Edgehill neighborhood, under the auspices of the church we were meeting in
o Chris, who had left mainstream culture as a young man and raised a large family immersed in rural Amish country, learning the sustainable practices of the "plain folk"
o Pam & Karl from the Nashville Greenlands, a local Catholic Worker House, servicing the homeless and dedicated to pacifism; plus Don who lived for many years with the Open Door community in downtown Atlanta—a well-established Protestant version of the Catholic Worker theme
o Ted & Woodley, long-term stalwarts of the Edgehill congregation (and friends of FIC Board member Harvey Baker)
o Randall and others connected with the Cumberland Greens and Transition Nashville, couple of vibrant meet-up groups
o A sprinkling of others wanting to connect their work in prisons to community, or hoping to discuss the link between community and food sustainability, plus others who came just to soak it all in.

We did an opening go around where everyone got to introduce themselves and what drew them to the circle, followed by a brief introduction to FIC and an open discussion about community—both of the intentional kind, and of the how-can-you-more-of-it-where-you-are kind. When we opened the circle at 8:45, most lingered for an additional 45 minutes in small group conversation, extending the good feeling.

While there's no telling what seeds might sprout and prosper among the myriad sown Saturday night, it's highly satisfying blowing on the coals of hope for a more cooperative future and seeing the glowing faces in the room. The FIC Oversight Committee has concluded its weekend meetings [see my blog of Feb 25, Plainly Speaking, for why I was in town] and today we disperse for home. With any luck, some of the cross fertilizing accomplished two nights ago will lead to connections than will abide for much longer.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Plainly Speaking

I'm in Nashville this weekend, rendezvousing with Fellowship for Intentional Community Board members Jenny Upton, Marty Klaif, and Harvey Baker for mid-course corrections halfway between our semi-annual Board meetings (the last one was in Massachusetts in November, and the next one will be in Chicago in May). This weekend is styled an interim meeting of the FIC's Oversight Committee. In addition to this one in winter, there's another that occurs each summer.

I drove down from Rutledge this morning, pushing through 4+ inches of wet spring snow that fell in the night. Fortunately the snow relented after the first 100 miles, and the drive turned dry and blissfully uneventful the rest of the way.

En route, I stopped at a store in St Louis and traded out 23 jars of crystallized sorghum for ones that were liquid (they sell much better that way), and delivered Dancing Rabbit member Liat (and her stuff) to a friend's house in Nashville. Tomorrow the friend will take her the rest of the way to her new home in Asheville, where she's going to try out living in an urban group house to see if she likes that any better than life in a rural ecovillage.

After the weekend, I'll back haul six kilos of shiitake mushroom spawn and several cartons of empty gallon glass jars that used to hold apple cider (and are destined to get washed out when I get back to Sandhill, and then used to showcase next fall's sorghum). Harvey saves these jugs for me over the course of each year and hands them off when we get together for FIC meetings in Tennessee every winter. Reuse is even better than recycling.

I enjoy figuring out how to make the fullest use of each vehicle trip (make that high-priced gasoline count!) and embrace the opportunity to Christmas tree additional objectives on a space-available basis once I'm committed to using a vehicle for a business trip.

• • •
Participating in interim meetings is one of the highlights of my travel calendar. For two days I immerse myself in sessions with a small group of friends and like-valued network junkies as we collectively try to figure out what's best for the organization. These are among the people who know me best, and among whom I need to be least careful about speaking directly what's on my mind. As someone who's often in public and has learned (the hard way) the need to be mindful about how direct responses can be misconstrued, I highly value opportunities like this where I don't need to be so careful. The freedom I'm talking about is not about a license to rant or be critical; it's about not holding back or feeling the need to worry that if I voice a strong viewpoint that it may silence others.

As FIC's main administrator, my time huddled with Oversight recharges my battery and let's the Board know both what I'm up to and what I'm struggling with. I think of it as resetting the organizational gyroscope, and is precious to me personally because it reestablishes an energetic baseline. We talk about strategic planning and we talk about personality clashes; we discuss marketing campaigns and how to recruit new blood to the Board. We explore how it's a struggle to maintain motivation for FIC work when we're the only one doing it at home, and admit the reservations we have with certain personnel assignments. In short, we talk about everything. What a delight!

Tuesday I return home for five days of community retreat, and I can't think of a better way to get in the right mind set than to commune with my FIC Oversight friends, doing our work and celebrating our connections.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Chaos of Weekend I

Last weekend Ma'ikwe and I started a two-year Integrative Facilitation training at Dancing Rabbit. It's simultaneously one of the most exhilarating and one of the most challenging things I do.

The program consists of eight 3-day weekends, each spaced about three months apart (allowing for recovery, digestion, and practical application of what happens in one training weekend before being immersed in the next). To describe the weekends as "intense" is akin to labeling the interior of the sun as "hot." Last weekend was especially so.

There are lots of ways to teach and there is a wide variety of preferred learning styles. While we attempt to offer a range of ways to access the material and the skills, the bulk of the course is built on experiential learning—by having the students facilitate actual meetings, rather than relying heavily on lectures, role plays, and practice sessions. I have found over the years (at this point I'm a veteran of 36 training weekends, and have a lot of data points on this) that this generally produces the fastest learning and integration (student "get" in the lessons in their bones, not just in their heads), and it tends to make a night-and-day difference in helping the students understand the energy of the moment, providing context for how to do a certain thing at a certain time, and why.

That said, the live approach is more digestible for some than others. Here's a overview of some of the variables in play:

o Prior Facilitation Experience
The students come into the training with a wide disparity in experience levels, both with the principles and with performing in front of a group. The participants who are newer to facilitation are facing a larger chunk of unfamiliar information—sometimes to the point of overwhelm.

o Intensity of the Feedback
If you don't do well as a facilitator (or think you didn't do well—which is not the same thing, yet may land the same) your shortcomings have been revealed in front of God and everyone. That is, they couldn't have been more public. For some people, this is excruciating. One of the skills we explicitly work on in the training is giving and receiving critical feedback. While this happens in the context of a group that is learning together (and will ultimately happen in a group that becomes bonded through having walked through the fire together), the connections within the group are necessarily weakest and least established at the outset.

o Pace
In the interest of getting the most out of each weekend, we pack the time. In the interest of giving the host community value in the form of outside facilitation, we try to do as many live sessions as possible. These two objectives coincides nicely with the desire to give as many students as possible live experience, yet it squeezes the time to prepare for one session before you're on to the next.

Part of the reason I support this squeeze is that the students learn over the course of the training to think more quickly, to speak more accurately and concisely, to hold more things in mind simultaneously, and to increase their ability to stay focused longer (less space out). Through the process of being exercised in these intentional ways, they develop their facilitative "muscles."

o Acculturation to the Host
For those students who live at the host community, this is the water they swim in. For others, there is a lot to learn, and this can be double challenging for students with no prior community living experience. Of particular interest to the training, visitors need to take a crash course in the host group's meeting culture. I ran into a problem when I didn't take into account how strong a role presenters often play in orchestrating meetings at Dancing Rabbit
[see my previous blog on The Presenter/Facilitator Two Step for more on this]. Beyond that, we need to know how much the community is open to working emotionally, how they know when they've made a decision, how and if they use stacks to determine speaking order, what acronyms stand for, the rudiments of the community's organizational structure (the standing committees and their functions), the local argot (terms with special meanings that only insiders will grok), etc.

But it's worse than that. Even daily functions that we rely on to provide familiarity and routine can be turned on their heads (maybe the food is different, when is it OK to use electricity in a house that's off the grid, where is it preferred that people pee if the house relies on composting toilets). There can be no end to the things that are confusing or disorienting!

o The Trainers' Familiarity with Student Preferences
As Ma'ikwe and I learn more about what works best for each individual (about how they take in, process, and integrate information) we make attempts to tailor instruction and learning opportunities to what works best for that person. At the beginning of the course, however, we know the least about these preferences, and also have the vaguest understanding about the students' capacities (or the ways in which we believe they may have a distorted sense of their capacities).

o Being Asked to Orchestrate Great Meetings with Only a Few Instruments
Because the facilitator skill set is large and because we have eight weekends to lay it all out, we deliver the material in discrete chunks. Unavoidably, during the first weekend the students will have only seen one chunk, with seven more coming in the future. That translates into needing to conduct live meetings with a very incomplete package of instructions. While some are exhilarated by being thrown into the deep end as part of their first swimming lesson, others, understandably, fear drowning and not being able to deliver a good performance.

For all of these reasons, most participants experience Weekend I as the most scary, most chaotic, and most overwhelming. And it isn't necessarily easy (for them) to project that things will get better. As a consequence, despite explicit efforts to inform people ahead about the maelstrom they'll be entering, some people quit after the first weekend.

When I first conceived of this training, I proposed five-day weekends, to allow time for the more tried and true pedagogic sequence of listen (to theory), watch (the trainer demonstrate), practice (doing it yourself in a simulated meeting), and do (it in a real meeting). The more leisurely (read humane) pace would also protect breathing room for the students to reflect on one body of material before being asked to start absorbing the next. However, the reality of people's lives is that this amount of time is rarely possible to carve out. Three-day weekends represent the outer limits of how far most students can stretch, so that's what Ma'ikwe and I work with. We try to accomplish as much as possible in the time available.

While this approach mostly works quite well, sometimes it feels to the students like we're marching them across the battlefield to find out where the mines are… and they don't appreciate the assignment.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Presenter/Facilitator Two Step

I'm in the midst of Weekend I of the Midwest Integrative Facilitation training (being hosted by my neighbors, Dancing Rabbit), and I ran into a dynamic that surprised me the very first day involving the relationship between the facilitator and the presenter. Ordinarily it is no big deal to sort this out, but Friday I ran into a buzz saw.

• • •
In most groups this is handled fairly loosely. The person(s) who put a particular item on the agenda introduces it and the group goes from there. The facilitator, if there is one, tries to help the conversation go productively. In some groups, roles are handled fairly loosely, even to the point of allowing the facilitator to be the presenter. (Hint: This is a bad idea. If anyone reacts to the presentation or the direction that the presenter wants to go in, it can seriously undermine the neutrality of the facilitator and the group's in trouble.)

In most groups, the role of presenter is not clearly defined. I think it should look something like the following:

o Provides a concise introduction to the topic, including a statement of the issue(s) to be addressed, any relevant prior group work or agreements impacting this issue, identification of the known stakeholders and known hot spots (points of tension or disagreement).

o Develops any helpful visual aids (charts, drawings, tables, outlines, handouts, etc.) so that they are available during the presentation and discussion.

o Serves as a resource for providing additional background upon request, or to interpret the presentation if anyone is confused.

Note that this does not include responsibilities for how the topic will be addressed, though it may well include a recommendation for how to sequence considerations.

Unfortunately, most groups also don't define what's wanted from the facilitator very well. With sufficient fog around what's wanted from the presenter and the facilitator it's not to hard to understand why there can be either: a) both trying to cover the same ground (about how the conversation will be focused) and battling over control of the tiller; or b) neither covering it (a drifting ship with no one is at the tiller to steer the meeting into productive waters). Obviously, neither of these potential outcomes is desirable.

Of these two potentialities, the second is far more common, mainly because there's a natural tendency to be cautious in the presence of ambiguity (better to be chastised for being a wimp than accused of being a power monger) and tension around the facilitator/presenter dynamic rarely manifests as a tussle for control of the meeting. Rarely, however, does not mean never, as I'm about to personally attest to.

Irritation over presenter/facilitator dynamics most often plays out this way: the presenter lingers in front of the group after introducing the issue, in order to field clarifying questions. Then, if clarifying questions (did you understand what was presented?) slides seamlessly into discussion (what should we take into account in addressing this issue?), the presenter might still be up front, calling on people and effectively running the meeting.
Left unchecked, the facilitator may never get out of their seat.

This is most likely to happen when there's a strong presenter and a passive facilitator, or when there's no clarity about what's wanted from the role of facilitator.
In some ways this is the anarchistic if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it model, where the bottom line is a productive meeting and solid decisions and there's a distaste for creating an orthodoxy about adherence to a bushelful of process agreements. If the work is getting done and problems are getting solved, why create process agreements?

While I find this thinking persuasive when groups are small (six or less), it's been my experience that the presence of a savvy facilitator gets to be enormously beneficial as group size increases. (Which is essentially why I focus on training facilitators—because they can make a huge difference in cooperative group's having cooperative experiences, rather than divisive ones, when addressing tough issues. Good intentions are not enough.)
• • •
At Dancing Rabbit they've developed a meeting culture where presenters are encouraged to play an active role in shaping the portion of the meeting at which their topic will be discussed. Facilitators are typically assigned about a week ahead of the meeting, which allows ample time to meet with the presenter and perhaps other key stakeholders to discuss possible ways the meeting might go. If the facilitator is perceived to be experienced and the presenter not, then it's likely that the facilitator will essentially shape the conversation. However, if it's the other way around, then the presenter may be developing the meeting strategy and the facilitator's role may shrink to that of traffic cop (managing the order in which people speak).

The beauty of this arrangement is that the group gets to harness strength in either the facilitator or the presenter to ensure a good meeting. The pitfalls with this arrangement are the ones mentioned earlier: a) the presenter may not be neutral at all (which the facilitator should be) and thus their preference on how to sequence topics and explore the issue may slant things toward the conclusion they want, which can result in a significantly unlevel playing field; and b) things needed for a good meeting may be missed because of uncertainty between the presenter and facilitator about who's responsible for what (see my earlier paragraph on the dangers of operating in the fog).

I ran into a firestorm this past weekend when we started with the assumption that the facilitators would be responsible for all aspects of running the meeting and we got push back from presenters who felt like we were stepping on their toes. I was not accustomed to presenters assuming such a strong role in how the meeting would flow, and when I was trying to model how a facilitator should generically prepare for a meeting, the presenters experienced as meddling my attempts to probe for background information and to explore possible sequences for engaging on the issues—why was I taking apart work they'd already done? It didn't go well. They felt disrespected and my attempt to showcase a sequence of prep question landed like an inquisition.

While Dancing Rabbit's take on the presenter/facilitator relationship is a bit unusual and I didn't expect it, it's not untenable and it was my fault as the trainer that I hadn't done my homework ahead of time. More, I can see now that I should have made an explicit request to the host community that we wanted the facilitators to have responsibility for running the meetings and that we wanted the presenter role to be confined to the definition I offered earlier in this blog. Even if that was a stretch for Dancing Rabbit, it's what we needed to conduct the training.

Sigh. For some reason, it seems I always need to step in the shit before I can learn to avoid it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My Beverly Hillbilly Monday

Two days ago, I drove home from Michigan with a profile evocative of Okies departing the Dust Bowl 80 years ago for the promise of moisture on the West Coast. I mean my truck was loaded.

After completing back-to-back-weekends of process consulting in Michigan, I was back-hauling furniture from Jackson to Rutledge. Ma'ikwe's mother, Kay was taking advantage of my being in the neighborhood to divest herself of various components of her apartment's landscape in anticipation of her relocating to Canadaigua NY in April, to be with her new sweetie, Dick.

Sandhill has a light 1/2-ton Toyota pickup with a short bed (6-1/2 feet long) and there was a certain geometric challenge to dense packing the following manifest:
—1 love seat (think juvenile couch)
—2 bookshelf units
—1 desk
—3 nesting end tables
—1 desk chair (on wheels)

As I had the dimensions of these items emailed to me ahead of time, I had a plan. I installed the desk behind the cab, with the end tables on one side. The bookcases lay flat behind the desk, nesting nicely between the wheel wells. I deployed the love seat cushions as bumpers to protect the desk from rubbing against the bookshelves in transit. Since the combined height of the two supine bookcases exceeded the height of the end gate, as was able to lay down a sheet of 3/4-inch plywood next, to serve as a platform for the love seat. After mounting the love seat (on its back, with the legs unscrewed), the top edge of the couch extended 2+ feet above the cab, and I occurred to me that I was already offering a large enough profile as a plaything for the gusting-to-30 mph winds predicted for the day.

With images of Granny (Irene Ryan) strapped into a rocking chair atop a precariously piled mound of possessions—a visual image I've retained from the opening sequence of the long running CBS comedy, Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971)—I contemplated whether to add the final piece from the manifest: the desk chair on wheels. The phrase "hell on wheels" popped into my head at this juncture, at which point Kay & I prudently opted to leave the desk chair in Michigan. Hell, we figured, they have chairs on wheels in Missouri, too.

Next came the tarping down, made all the more exciting by the early arrival of the predicted gusting winds. At this point, it came in quite handy that I'm experienced at transporting canoes safely into wilderness access areas atop passengers cars traveling along back roads where the scenery is pristine but the paving is not. In a situation like that, it's not so much knowing one's dos and don'ts as it about having a nose about knots.

Fortunately, I know my knots and how to keep loads with a high sail profile firmly connected to the vehicle. After much threading of line through grommets and cleats—and the appropriate application of bowlines and tautline hitches—I had myself a covered load.

At 11 am I pulled out of Jackson and headed west. For the first hour I kept my speed below 55 and watched the side mirrors (all I could see in the rear view mirror was the back of the desk) for telltale signs of loose lines or a shifting load. I scanned as diligently as a mother hen taking her chicks out for their first post-hatch constitutional, worried that a fox might sneak up on my brood. When I paused at a rest area on I-69 I was able to correct some of the rigging and tightened everything down. After that, I gradually found that the load remained stable at regular highways speeds and I inched up to 65 mph.

[It's noteworthy, I think, that I could spend 8+ hours traveling at 65 mph on the interstate and only pass one car all day. If peak oil will necessitate significant lifestyle changes, people in this country have not yet gotten the memo. We clearly remain a nation in a hurry—and don't particularly care (yet) about how much oil we burn to get there.]

Happily, the remainder of my drive home was blissfully uneventful, excepting for the speed trap I stumbled upon once I got off the interstate and was pulled over for going 49 in a 35 mph zone with no traffic. After being self-conscious about the possibility that I might be going dangerously slow most of the day, I attracted the unwanted attention of a bored state trooper for not hitting the brake as I glided through a small town with rolled up sidewalks at 9 pm. Sigh.

Lucky for me, the temperatures were above freezing all the way and the roads were mostly dry. There were occasional patches of water resulting from the snow that's steadily been melting from the huge dump of two weeks ago [see my blog It Snow Miracle of Feb 1 for more on this], but this resulted in only minimal splashing. Whew.

When I got to Dancing Rabbit (circa 10 pm) I was more than ready to stop driving, but I had to figure out how close I could get to Ma'ikwe's house without risking the truck getting stuck. How thawed was the ground? At the first sign of things getting soft, I simply stopped for the night—about 100 yards from the house.

In the morning, the temperatures had dropped into the low 20s and the ground had crusted over, providing me just enough firmness to drive up to Ma'ikwe's house (after coffee, of course), unload the furniture, and get back on terra firma without rutting things up (For many years Sandhill had as a neighbor Willis Otte, who was fond of saying that the more firma, the less terra—and I knew what he meant when it comes to driving on thawing ground and you risk the bottom going out at any moment.)

When I drove home later in the morning, I reflected on how very different it was to arrive home in the sunshine, with meltwater streaming down the roadsides. I had left at dawn 12 days earlier with temperatures at -9 F and post-storm traffic reduced to one lane on the blacktop. I had left in the dead of winter, and returned less than a fortnight later with the maple trees already tapped, and the gardeners itching to start seedlings.

Spring is coming, pass it on.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Knowing When It's Time to Ask Someone to Go

As a for-hire facilitator and process consultant, I see a lot of groups when they're not at their best. While I always approach a job as if it's not too late to turn things around and heal all the hurts in the room, some of the time it is too late. Today I want to write about the telltale signs that it's better for all concerned that one or more folks move on.

Much of my work as an outside facilitator is putting out fires, by which I mean working with unresolved distress. While I have developed a protocol for doing this with which I've had a lot of success (it's a four-step process: a) what are the feelings?; b) what's the story?; c) what's at stake?; d) what do you want to do about it?), sometimes—maybe 3% of the time—I fail to make a good connection with all the players and the process falls flat.

Beyond moments when my personal skills (or judgment) are insufficient for the need, I've learned that there are other conditions under which it's time to let go, rather than to keep digging. Let me walk through the patterns:

1. Cracks in the Foundation
For healing and recovery to be possible, it's necessary that all parties can see each other as well-intended and capable of hearing accurately and working constructively with input that differs from their own. If things deteriorate to the point where you can't trust where someone is coming from (it appears they consistently advocate for their own interests at the expense of the group's) or the person in question does not appear to be capable of taking in what others are saying or working with what they say in a good faith efforts to find common ground, then it may be time to pull the plug.

The idea here is that trust in everyone's good will and the ability to hear and work with the views of others are foundational to building and maintaining a healthy group. No matter how elegantly you craft agreements or solve problems, if the group's work sits on a poor foundation, it is always susceptible to structural failure.

Caution: Before moving to this conclusion, be sure that you've first made a full effort to establish that you've accurately heard what the perceived obstinate person has been saying and attempted to bridge to them (they may have the same story about you!).

2. It's Not My Fault
Occasionally (not often) I encounter a person who seems to get into difficulties on a regular basis, yet never accepts any responsibility for why things are hard. It is always the fault of others. They are only satisfied when all efforts to improve things are being undertaken by someone else. In my experience, this kind of person is extremely difficult to work with cooperatively. If you have one of these in your group, I'd encourage them to leave.

Caution: Don't place a person in this category (of total inflexibility about accepting any responsibility for difficulties) based on a single incident. We're talking about an recurring pattern.

3. Lack of Will to Work on the Dynamics
A more subtle version of knowing when to quit is if things get to the point that all (or most) of the stakeholders are so weary of the skirmishes and entrenched positions that they've given up. That is, they've lost hope that things can improve. While everyone may continue to have good intent and able to demonstrate an ongoing ability to work constructively in the group (at least some of the time), there may nonetheless develop a system failure (humans have limits!) where it's for a change and it isn't any one person's fault. When the group has gotten discouraged to the point of despair, it may be time for the group to reconfigure.

A small portion of my work with conflicted groups has been of this nature. Even where I could see a pathway to recovery, there wasn't the will to attempt it and I was effectively being asked to perform a "memberectomy," where I labored to get folks to see how it was in everyone's best interest that one or more left the island.

Caution: In my experience, groups often reach a stalemate of this sort because they lack the skill to work with distress, before they lose the will to work with distress. I urge groups to try getting help before giving up.

4. Too Much Me & Not Enough We
Sometimes you'll have a group member who needs a lot of personal attention, to the point where it's consistently distracting the group from its mission. Often this person has gone through considerable struggle in their life and comes to the group with a lot of baggage. While they may be fine (even wonderful) when they're not triggered, the reality is that they'll triggered a lot, and it's draining the group's batteries having to tow them repeatedly out one or another their (many) emotional ditches so that the group can get back on the road and make progress on the work it's in the world to do.

The dynamic here is that this person needs a good bit more from the group than they're able to give, and the imbalance is unsustainable. If this dynamic is allowed to persist without addressing, it can lead to the loss of more productive members who get too fatigued by what's happening to continue their involvement.

Caution: There can be many things contributing to why a person is frequently triggered and it behooves a group to proceed slowly enough in assessing the situation that it looks closely at the ways in which the group's culture and structure may be unwittingly contributing to what's manifesting distress. That is, don't ignore the possibility that the upset person may be the canary in the coal mine, giving the group early warnings of unhealthy or inadvertently prejudicial practices that the group would be much better off addressing.

• • •
Even if the group becomes clear that it's time for someone to leave, it can take a lot of courage to start talking about it. It's hard to have these kind of conversations and maintain a stance of compassion and authenticity. Usually there's a considerable backlog of unresolved tensions and it can be very hard to avoid this appearing as a witch hunt—especially to the "witch."

What's more, it can be excruciating for a cooperative group to draw a firm line about unacceptable patterns of behavior—to the point where the offending member suffers an involuntary loss of rights, the most serious version of which is loss of membership. Even asking someone to leave (as opposed to attempting an expulsion) can be very hard to do, as it calls for a firmness and judgment that most people who join cooperative groups have hoped they could leave behind.

While it's understandable why it's hard, it must be done nonetheless, because the alternative is often worse. Sure, sometimes the difficult person will leave on their own. But sometimes they won't. They may not have any options that look better, or the wherewithal to manage the search for another situation. They may be stuck and not know how to put together or execute an exit plan. They may even think the current situation—never mind how painful or intolerable it may be for others—isn't that bad. They may be used to being an outlier wherever they go and where they are now may offer more humane and gracious treatment than what they typically experience. So why leave?
In the worst scenarios, the challenging person may persist in the group, and you may lose wave after wave of good members who would rather depart than confront. I've seen this happen and it can be tragic.

Sometimes, in the face of sustained evidence of stuckness—despite your best efforts to make things better—you can no longer afford to give more chances. This monograph is aimed at helping groups be clear enough to know when they've arrived at that fork in the road, and brave enough to take the right path.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Taking the Bully by the Horns

I define “bullying” as behavior that intimidates another person into either being quiet or otherwise acquiescing to the bully’s wishes even though that person has reservations about the wisdom or appropriateness of what the bully is asking for.

While bullying behavior may occur as a one-time incident, the more interesting case is when it’s perceived as a patterned tendency. Where that happens and it goes unaddressed, it can further develop into the people being quiet or tentative about stating their concerns for fear that expressing their views will trigger bullying behavior—rather than because it is actively occurring. Then, when it comes out later that people are upset because they felt intimidated, the bully is understandably frustrated because they are being blamed for something they might have done, rather than for something they actually did. It can get ugly.

It is important to note that bullying does not have to include physical intimidation (threat of physical violence). It can be entirely accomplished through verbal and/or written statements, and even through body language and facial expressions that involve neither touch nor words.

It’s important to understand that the roots of this dynamic can go back very deeply on both sides of the equation. For the bully, they may have learned that speaking more forcefully and passionately (perhaps loudly, or embellished with fist pounding or arm swinging) has the effect of enhancing their chances of getting their way. Building on that success, they’ve learned over the years to do it more. While they may be aware that they have this power (to control through intimidation), their rationale may be that they’re not asking that others refrain from doing the same thing. They believe their contributions are valuable and everyone is free to express their views as persuasively as they can. Let the best ideas survive!

Going the other way, the bullied may have grown up in a household with an angry or abusive parent. They may have learned to be timid and inconspicuous as a survival mechanism. While that’s not the (current) bully’s fault or responsibility, you can see how no-holds-barred meetings are not experienced as a level playing field. Instead, they may be a mine field.

One of the important nuances around this is being able to distinguish the boundary between an acceptable range of expression (for example, demonstrative and energetic) and unacceptable intimidation That is, at what point are dynamics being controlled by the raucous and passionate; at what point are they being dominated by the soft-spoken who never raise their voices? This is not a simple question and there is no agreement on the right place to draw the line.

Note: people can dominate events through being a bully, and they can also steer events through being a victim. Groups need to be aware of both dynamics. In a recent group I was working with, some people expressed extreme frustration with what they perceived as the group’s tendency to support the bully more than the victim. Sometimes it’s the other way around. The ideal though is to develop a culture when everyone in distress feels supported, and no feels either run over or muzzled.

I believe the line you want to draw is doing everything you can to permit a wide range of authentic (as opposed to postured) expression while at the same time checking to see if anyone’s boat is being swamped by someone else’s strong bow wave, or their boat is being sucked down into another’s whirlpool of misery and fear. When you’re group encounters heavy seas, you’re trying to bring the entire fleet safely into the harbor of agreement.

What you want is to be able to hear everyone’s input in their own words and with their own affect. That is, you want to know (both in your brain and in your bones) what they have to say and why it matters, yet you also need to be sensitive to how one person’s full expression can feel unsafe or destabilizing to another. These can be tricky waters to navigate.

I recall years ago facilitating a neighborhood association meeting where I had no prior experience with any of the participants. Among the attendees were an older black man and an older white man, both of whom had a fair amount to say and very different styles. It became quickly clear to me that the black man liked things up-tempo and animated. So when I was working with him, I picked up the pace and responded with higher energy. In contrast, the white man liked things slowed down and deliberate. So when I was working with him, I lowered my voice, and made sure the pace didn’t leave him behind. Each got a style of facilitation from me that matched what they needed to feel heard, yet neither’s preferred style dominated the meeting. Each got half a loaf, and both were able to feel fully included in the sandwich conversation.

In a lot of cases where someone in a group is perceived as a bully, there is the sense that the bully’s right to be heard is grossly out of balance with the paired responsibility of the bully to hear others. That is, it may appear that the bully is insistent upon their voice being heard (in the manner they prefer) while it’s not clear how they are also working respectfully with the input of others (or even supporting an environment where the viewpoints of others can be expressed). It can go a long way to deescalating a tense dynamic if the person who is labeled a bully can demonstrate how they are in fact supporting the viewpoints of others being fully voiced and considered.

While no one wants to be seen as a bully, people feel intimidated and triggered all the time. It’s important that groups have a way to discuss both what’s happening and what to do about it, yet you need to be careful about how the topic is introduced. Because the term “bully” is a pejorative, you may potentially already be in hot water if you begin with a direct statement such as, “I want to talk about bullying,” because this will invariably lead to someone’s behavior being tarred with that brush. It may get you off to a less charged start if you offer something like, “I want to discuss how we can better balance the right to freely express our views with the right to feel safe.”

The key here is that if you can’t talk about it, you can’t fix it. And if you can’t fix it, decisions will be made by those with the thickest skin and the loudest voices, rather than by those with the best insights into how to balance factors and viewpoints.

If your group is handling this well, bully for you!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Bridging Thinkers and Feelers

I had breakfast this morning with my friend, Rowena Conahan, and while I sipped my coffee we did some Monday morning quarterbacking—not about Ben Roethlisberger's weak performance on Pittsburgh's final drive in yesterday's Super Bowl, but about the choices I had made while facilitating a Living Well with Children weekend for her community, Sunward Cohousing. (Luckily, the retreat ended Sunday afternoon and there was plenty of time to eat, grab a beer, and still catch the opening kickoff in Dallas.)

While my conversation with Rowena was free flowing and speculated on a wide range of potential impacts of my work (on the community, on deeply conflicted dyads, on dealing with challenging dynamics) nothing touched my heart more than a story Rowena shared about an impromptu experiment she did last night before dinner.

Rowena is a gentle person who is very relational. While she's not afraid to tackle issues, she tries very hard to not be provocative and to not be demanding. She cares a lot about others and identifies strongly as a "feeling" person on the Myers Briggs scale (as opposed to a "thinking" person). In a nutshell, this is a measure of whether a person focuses first on logic (thinking) or social impact (feeling) when making decisions. Rowena has an eight-year-old daughter, Noe, whom Rowena perceives to be much more thinking oriented, and this has created some special challenges in relating to how Noe navigates the world.

After the retreat ended yesterday afternoon, Rowena went home and found her husband, Paul, already cooking dinner (hurray!). He and Noe, were partway into a dynamic that was a familiar one in the family where Noe was verbally poking at Paul (because he was cooking, he was only able to give his daughter partial attention at the end of a long weekend where both parents had given a lot of focus to the retreat and not as much to their kids). Both Paul and Rowena knew the pattern, and Paul announced that he was likely to lose it if Noe didn't cease her provocative behavior. With that, Noe stomped out of the kitchen and retreated to her room.

Going on instinct, Rowena followed Noe into her room, where, to Rowena's amazement, she found herself trying to engage her daughter in ways that were very un-Rowena-like, and very Laird-like instead! (Having gotten this far into the story, I was holding my breath to find out how this was going to end.) Rowena explained what she meant by behaving differently: she was uncharacteristically direct, specific, and wouldn't let Noe deflect the conversation away from what had been going on in the kitchen with Paul and how Noe was feeling about it. Rowena was not rude or dictatorial, but she was firm and didn't try to sugar coat Noe's emotional experience.

At the end of the conversation with Noe, Rowena reported that she was holding her breath, prepared to have her daughter tell her to get the hell out of her room. To her amazement, Noe didn't do that at all. Instead, she spontaneously crawled into Rowena's lap and they concluded their exchange in loving silence. Wow!

Rowena told me how amazed she was with how well that went; at how well Noe felt seen and understood by her mother in a difficult dynamic. This was a something (Rowena trying to engage her daughter when she was upset) that often didn't go that well, and this time it did. Taking all that in, I exhaled. In fact, I had tingles up my spine.

What an awesome learning! Rowena observed closely what I was doing differently—and effectively—as I facilitated challenging dynamics in the Sunward plenaries and was able to immediately translate that into a different way of communicating with her daughter when Noe was upset. And Noe liked it!

Stories like that are as good as it gets, and will sustain me through all manner of bumps and breakdowns on the road to Utopia. Who knows, maybe we'll all learn how to live well with children, too.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Coping with Copious Snow

I'm in Ann Arbor this weekend, working with Sunward, a cohousing community built in 1998. Next weekend I'll be in Kalamazoo, working with the Kalamazoo Peace Center on the campus of Western Michigan University. After navigating the aftermath of Tuesday's blizzard, I'm happy to be in Michigan anywhere.

Back at Sandhill Tuesday, we got about 14 inches of snow (how could they measure the stuff after it had been whipped around by 30 mph winds?). There were spots with only an inch or two, and other places with 3-foot drifts. In 37 years at Sandhill I'd never seen higher drifts—level with the bottom of some windows in the house. With the sun out and the wind died back, it was actually a lovely day Wednesday—both to appreciate Nature's artwork and to attempt to dig out from it.
(My left hand was cramping lightly all day Thursday in protest to the shoveling I'd done Wed morning, and my thighs were cramping in protest to sitting in the cab of my pickup all day.)

I left home in the pre-dawn light Thursday and got off to a hopeful start simply by getting to the blacktop (which was actually mostly whitetop with all the packed snow). Our access road is one-half mile of rock that goes downhill, crosses an intermittent stream (the Sandhill Branch) and then goes back uphill. The trick when driving under adverse conditions is to have enough speed when you hit the bridge that you have sufficient momentum to make it up the hill—while not having so much speed that you hit the bridge literally.

It helped enormously that a neighbor had come through three times on Wednesday with their big ass John Deere tractor: first to simply make tracks, second to blade off the top half of the snow; third to plow as much snow off as possible. This made a channel in the roadway and reduced the remaining snow pack to a manageable 3-6 inches. Because the axle width on the pickup is less than that of the John Deere, I kept sashaying from one rut to the other as a wallowed along the road, but I never lost my momentum and made it out in one pass. Whew!

Next I had to cope with our secondary county roads, which, understandably, hadn't received as much attention from the snow plows as the primary roads had. I discovered, to my chagrin, that the blacktop near us had only one lane cleared. Yikes! It turned out that I had to traverse 10 nerve-wracking miles of highway until I got to where two lanes had been cleared. Luckily, I didn't meet an oncoming car. Double whew!

After that, I only had to worry about slowing down soon enough to avoid spinning out on occasional patches of snow. After 150 miles I got onto the interstate. Even the snow patches mostly disappeared and my speed approached normal. The only remaining serious challenge was negotiating the stretch of I-80/94 around the southern end of Lake M ichigan—where there's always congestion—and I had to contend with the triple whammy of heavy truck traffic, patches of ice, and sudden constrictions forced by lanes still clogged with snow. Nonetheless, I got through, and was happy to pull into the Sunward parking lot five minutes before my scheduled dinner meeting. Triple whew!

Here in southeastern Michigan, they only had six inches of white stuff (14 had been predicted). As that's a more or less a normal winter event for these parts, my hosts hadn't experienced the once-in-four-decades storm that Sandhill (and Chicago) had. For them, it was just another chance to go car sledding, and meet after sidewalk shoveling for hot cocoa.

That's OK with me. Even if my kids—who live in Las Vegas—don't seem to get tired of hearing about the weather they're missing by no longer living in the Midwest,
I think I've had enough winter for this year.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

It Snow Miracle

The US Weather Service is predicting that we'll get 13-18 inches of snow in the next 36 hours—accompanied by 30 mph winds, which should make for some Nepalese-scale drifts. Ufda!

My wife, Ma'ikwe, would call that a shit ton (that's a technical term, roughly equating to three gong loads, if I remember the conversion rates correctly). I can't ever recall a snow forecast where the low end of the range was more than a foot. It looks like we're going to really get dumped on. And I'm kinda excited about it.

We have plenty of food, plenty of wood, and plenty of good books. We even have plenty of skis, but I'm doubtful if anyone is going to brave tomorrow's whiteout for anything more adventurous than a trip to the chicken house. I plan to hunker down with a woodworking project, and not stray too far from the coffee pot.

There is something magical about being snowed in, watching flakes race by the window—from the comfort of a seat by the wood stove. Normal living is suspended. Going to town for a doughnut is out of the question. School will be canceled, and it will be a long day for Kim, our rural postal carrier. Maybe we'll start a jigsaw puzzle.

• • •
Predictions of an epic snow evoke memories of high school. When I was a senior (at Lyons Township, which we called LT, in the Chicago suburb of La Grange), we had a 24-inch snowfall Jan 26, 1967, and it paralyzed the city. It was just too much snow falling too fast, and the plows couldn't keep up. After struggling for hours on congested roadways, drivers abandoned their cars even on expressways, and pretty soon thereafter nobody was going anywhere. I remember how eerily quiet it was with no vehicle sounds for four days. The city shipped snow south in long freight trains because they had nowhere to dump it; the hopper cars they used had been built for hauling coal, but that week they were hauling cold.

The snow fell on a Thursday and my high school canceled classes Friday and Monday, representing only the second and third days in LT's 80-year history that school had been called off. It was a big deal. Maybe the blizzard heading this way will rival that monster of 44 years ago.

The title for today's blog also goes back to my days at LT. There was a popular youth center-cum-hang-out-scene just off campus called The Corral, and one of the main ways they raised operating funds was by selling tickets to a musical each spring that was written, directed, and performed by students. It would always be a pun-filled parody, and it happened that the Corral Show's musical for spring 1966 was a spoof of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs entitled, It Snow Miracle—cleverly planting the seed that would gestate nine months later into the spectacular Chicago snowfall of 1967. Life imitating Art. Or perhaps it was Nature trying to intimidate Life.
• • •
Two days from now I'm supposed to drive to Michigan, following in the wake of the storm. While the Weather Service promises that the skies will be clear by Thursday morning, who knows if the roads will be clear. Somebody's going to have to move a lot of snow to keep the highways open, and with 30 mph winds they'll have the pleasure of moving some of that snow multiple times.

It appears that here in northeast Missouri we're only going to get snow. While the amounts may be Brobdingnagian, I'm thankful that the dreaded ice belt will be south of us. There's a swath from St Louis to Indianapolis that's expecting up to an inch of ice—think prolonged power outages; overloaded tree branches snapping randomly and careening down on vehicles, roofs, and unsuspecting life forms; ice capades in two-ton vehicles at 40 mph. We're talking terror here. Interstate 70 may turn into the world's largest hockey rink and if you're driving there, you may be the puck.

All in all, I figure a shit ton of snow will be excitement enough.