Wednesday, March 30, 2011

All Ahead Slow

Today I'm riding the train, roughly halfway between the frenzy of cranking out 2010 tax returns for my community and the eight individuals who live there (trying to stuff four days of work into a three-day sack), and the spaciousness of a week of R&R with my kids in Las Vegas.

It's amusing to reflect on my topsy turvy life: hectic in rural Missouri during the slow time of the agricultural calendar (midway between maple syrup and spring planting), juxtaposed with down time in Glitzville USA. Go figure.

One of the weirdest parts of my life is how the pace can change so abruptly. Even though April 15 is more than a fortnight away, I won't be home again until April 29 and I was under pressure to whelp a 1065 and a whole litter of 1040s before boarding the choo choo west.

Matters were unexpectedly complicated by a balky printer—it'll handle Word documents without a pause, but is extremely hesitant with PDFs (Probably Defective Formats, I figure)—which slowed progress on my last day down to a crawl, as I attempted to pump out custom-filled schedules left and right.

After hours of playing Beat the Clock, I finally pulled the plug on taxes to spend my final 30 minutes indulging in a quick shower and throwing clothes into my suitcase. I then drove over to Dancing Rabbit to pick up Ma'ikwe so that she could drive the car home after dropping me off in La Plata (about 45 miles from home, and the nearest Amtrak stop). Once she was in the car I started to relax. It helped to just go through the ritual of listening to what we'd each been doing the 30 hours since we'd last seen each other.

We got to the station about 10 minutes early, affording us a few moments of marital bliss, in this case jointly munching chips and salsa, before the whistle of the approaching Southwest Chief rousted us out of the car. As I boarded, the knots in my shoulders finally started to soften.

It's now morning in southeastern Colorado, and the snow-capped outliers of the Rockies are within sight as we rumble toward the Raton Pass. I've had a leisurely breakfast in the dining car, and have spent an hour digging out impacted emails (a necessary periodic practice, roughly analogous to visiting the dentist, though on a shorter cycle). I have a week to get my networking teeth cleaned and bridge work done, interspersed with a heavy (and joyous) dance card with my kids. Then it's off to Portland, where I'll be back to full speed: in 10 days I'll work with three clients and participate in a networking evening with area communities.

As much as I enjoy the rush of working with groups—and I do—it wouldn't be sustainable without the protected time to exhale, to read a book, or just stare out the window. I don't know what I'll do if they ever succeed in making the trains run faster.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Manure on Our Strawberries

When we bought the original 63 acres that would became the start of Sandhill Farm (we had the land before the name) we made the deal in April. Not knowing what we were going to do to make a living, as soon as we signed the purchase contract we cast about for someone to rent our farmland, figuring at least there'd be some income from that. The seller, Bob Gilmer, suggested we approach our neighbor to the east, Emery Clark.

Even though most folks had their farming plans set for the season—and as I recall there was a shortage of seed corn that year—Emery was willing to put our ground into soybeans. We shook on it, and promptly headed out of town to collect our possessions and return to begin our country life. That simple beginning was the start of a neighborly relationship that lasted nearly 37 years, and which ended quietly a couple weeks ago when Emery passed away at age 85.

We saw as much or more of Emery than we did of our other neighbors because he lived on an acreage out on the blacktop and needed to drive by our property to get to his cropland, which he visited daily. Every now and then he'd stop by in his rickety old light blue Ford pickup. Parked smack in the middle of the road, he's lean against the wooden side panels and visit a spell, seeing how us city slickers were getting along.

While we only rented our land to Emery that first year, it was several years before we had our own combine and we hired him on occasion to bale our hay or to custom cut our red clover or orchardgrass for seed (those old pull-type Allis Chalmers combines are still terrific for harvesting small-scale grass seed).

Emery's wife, Dorothy, was the Egg Lady, keeping many area families supplied with hen fruit. The Clarks maintained a large flock in an outbuilding about 100 feet from their house. Like a lot of people in the egg business they provided their "Ladies Auxiliary" with artificial light in the cold months, to make up for winter's deficit of sunlight. Over the years, Dorothy got tired of getting up in the dark on cold mornings to switch on the light in the hen house, and I was hired to put in an electric timer to handle that chore automatically.

In the early years especially, it wasn't unusual for us neighbors to swap help getting a tractor or a truck out of the mud, and it was handy for him to have some young bucks around to help with a shovel or pry bar when one person's leverage wasn't enough for the task. It's the kind of thing that neighbors do for one another.

Emery was mostly a straight forward what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy, yet had a wry sense of humor that he'd let peek out from under his bill cap every so often. One of his favorite jokes had to do with small fruit production. He asked us one day, "Do you put manure on your strawberries?" When we allowed as how we did (thinking to impress him with our organic practices), he just shook his head and deadpanned, "I put cream on mine."

Emery, here's hoping there is a big bowl of strawberries and cream waiting for you up ahead.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

My Three Ring Circus

Back in 2003 I pioneered a two-year training program in Integrative Facilitation. While I did that inaugural version solo, it went well enough that I've found fellow trainers to partner with me (one of whom is my wife, Ma'ikwe) and have kept going. I've now completed four rounds of the training, and have two more under way: one in the Mid-Atlantic States that is half completed; and one in the the Midwest that was just started in February.

While I've often started a new program before the prior one concluded, I've never had more than two running concurrently… until next month, when I'll launch a version in northern California, April 21-24. (And while that's plenty for now, I'm in dialog with folks about offering this training both in North Carolina and New England—it never rains but it pours!)

Here's how it works. We find enough people interested in becoming better facilitators (or cooperative leaders—the course works just as well for that) to fill a class that lives in the same region—to minimize travel for the students (That said, if someone is willing to travel from outside the region to participate they are welcome). The course consists of eight 3-day weekends, all in the same region. Each weekend is hosted by a community that provides meals and overnight accommodations for the class in exchange for free outside facilitation of live meetings. In addition, the host gets two free auditors slots for the weekend that they host, plus a professional report from the trainers that offers our
reflections on where the group is at and where they might focus to enhance things.

Training weekends open with a check-in Thursday evening and run (more or less nonstop) through a closing evaluation Sunday afternoon. They are long weekends where it's best if students can set the rest of their lives aside for three days of total immersion in the art of facilitation.

The weekends are spaced approximately three months apart, which makes it easier for participants to carve out a weekend from their otherwise full lives, and to integrate and put into practice what they've just learned.

The teaching material (50+ handouts) is divided into eight major chunks:
Working Content
Challenging Personalities
Power & Leadership
Organizational Structure

Handouts are distributed a couple weeks ahead of each weekend, and we protect time for questions and practice with the teaching material Friday morning. The bulk of the weekend though is given over to preparing for, delivering, and debriefing live meetings for the host group. The skill set of facilitation is rich and complex, and I've made a deliberate choice to emphasize the kind of learning that comes from doing, rather than what's gained through talking and watching (though there's plenty of time for both of those as well).

The students facilitate meetings for the host group where real work is being done, where there are nontrivial and vexing issues to address. During the live meetings, the trainers reserve the right to step in at any time to throw a life ring to floundering students, to redirect the conversation along a more fruitful path, or to explain things that are confusing. In short, we teach the moment. It's the most fun thing I do.

Upping the Ante
When I first ventured into the field of process consulting (back in 1987), I wasn't sure if I could consistently deliver good meetings, or help stuck groups through logjams. The group would be counting on me; what if I got exhausted or lost my way? As I got more experience, I trained myself to be able to focus for longer and longer stretches, to the point where I rarely space out or get overwhelmed. (While I may not always have a brilliant idea about what to do, I almost always have an idea.)

After more than a decade as a consultant, I started wondering whether I could teach what I could do (while obviously related, they are not the same skill—some are good at one and not the other). That led me to put together the Integrative Facilitation course, where my abilities to focus would be further tested. During course weekends I need to simultaneously track what's happening with the students and what's happening with the host community in the live meetings. Sometimes, what I think the student needs most (perhaps more time up front to wrestle with their uncertainties about what to do in messy dynamics) is not the same as what I think the meeting needs, and I have to assess that meta question on top of everything else—is it better to emphasize what the student needs to ultimately be a better facilitator, or better to step in immediately and offer the statement or guidance that I think will help get the meeting on track? It can get tricky.

Now, after getting acclimated to the pace and exhilaration of course weekends, my challenge is to run more courses concurrently. Today I'm looking at the possibility of having 12-16 training weekends per year instead of 4-8.

What will be after that? Probably a parallel and advanced curriculum where I'm training professionals and training trainers—the people who will replace me. The themes for that might include:
Knowing Your Limits (and How to Expand Them)
Pedagogy (Both Teaching Generally & Teaching Facilitation Specifically)
Teaching the Moment
Balancing Content & Energy
How to Write Reports (That Are Worth Reading)
Marketing Yourself
How to Give Good Workshop
How to Cultivate Clients
Preparing for a Job
Managing Your Energy on the Job
When, Why, and How to Collaborate
Giving Critical Feedback
(Gracefully and Accurately)
Critical Feedback (Gracefully and Accurately)
Seeing What's Below the Surface and Around the Curve

As you might suspect, I'm not particularly worried about running out of interesting things to do.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Nose Knows

As a process consultant and FIC administrator I'm on the road about 60% of the time, which is a gob. Among other things, it further complicates the challenge of spending time with my wife (which is already sufficiently complexified by our not living in the same community—Ma'ikwe's bedroom at Dancing Rabbit is three miles away from mine at Sandhill Farm).

While I'm more or less in regular communication with my wife whenever we're apart (usually by email and occasionally by phone), and my relationship with her is never far from my consciousness, every now and then I get reminded of her in surprising and tender ways. I want to share one of those experiences that occurred this past weekend.

Friday and Saturday night I was staying with a client, in a house that I'd never been in before. They had me in a lovely guest room and the accommodations couldn't have been better (including unlimited access to fresh brewed curl-your-toes coffee with half & half in the morning—my kind of people). My first night there I noticed that there was an unusual, subtle smell in my bedroom that I couldn't place. It wasn't unpleasant (like a dead mouse); it was just odd and I couldn't figure out what it was.

In the morning, I showered, got dressed, and walked into the kitchen, leaving the mystery of my bedroom behind, or so I thought. After worshiping at the altar of the coffee maker—getting psyched for my day on stage as a consultant—I was sipping my java and casually glancing around. The kitchen is my favorite room in a house and they had a well-appointed one.

Among other things, my hosts are wine buffs and I discovered a copy of the Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil sitting on a counter. It's a fat paperback that runs to 910 pages, crammed full of more oenological detail than you can shake at grape scion at. Picking it up and opening it randomly, I was amazed to find a sidebar on the relatively obscure Malvasian grape, that produces a distinctive sweet white wine. According to MacNeil this white wine is only produced today in three relatively isolated locations, one of which is the island of Lipari--one of the Aeolian Islands off the northern coast on Sicily in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Holy shit, I'd been there and had drunk that wine!

You Don't Have to Look, You Don't Have to See—You Can Feel it in Your Olfactory
Ma'ikwe and I were married in 2007 and we spent most of the 4+ weeks of our honeymoon traipsing around Italy. One of the places we visited (in fact, one of our favorite places) was the island of Lipari. One of the main reasons that the Malvasian wine produced there is distinctive is that the soil of Lipari is highly volcanic and notes of sulfur—hardly a common accent in wines—come through in the complex flavors of the aged libation. And then it hit me: the smell in the bedroom was sulfur—which is hardly a comment accent in bedrooms either.

While Ma'ikwe and I were on Lipari, we took a day trip (by hydroplane ferry) to the neighboring island of Volcano, which features mud baths reputed to offer amazing curative powers. While we cannot attest to the efficacy of the mud as a healthy elixir, we can attest to the tenacity of the mud as a dominant olfactory sensation. The sulfurous fumes of our bath experience so infused our clothes that for the next two years whenever we happened to don a piece of clothing that we wore that day on Volcano, persistent residual fumes would waft into our nostrils and we'd be right back in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Wow. (And yes, we laundered those clothes regularly—not that it had much impact on diluting the smell.)

All of which is to say, I knew sulfur. I had just forgotten that I knew it until my reading the sidebar on Malvasian wine reminded me of it.

To be clear, the bedroom did not smell like rotten eggs (sulfur on steroids). It was only an undertone. While I'm not sure what association others might have with that odor, for me it evoked powerful positive images of happy days with my wife. While there's nothing particularly unusual about associating my wife with happy days (I could get in a lot of trouble here if I'm not careful), I don't often think about Lipari and I was serendipitously and spontaneously flooded with warmth for my wife (think love not lava).

While I joyously and enthusiastically attempt to weave all of my senses into intimacy, I've learned over the years that smell is dominant for me. (In fact, I suspect humans may be hard-wired that way, but that's a thought for a different blog.) Even though we live in a visually-oriented culture and touch is given a lot focus in the literature of intimacy, my nose knows. So after I made the revelatory connection with sulfur in the kitchen, every time I entered the guest bedroom thereafter, I was immediately in my wife's loving embrace.

What a great way to start the day!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Why I Live at Sandhill

This May, I will have lived in intentional community for 37 years, all at Sandhill Farm. That’s more than 60% of my life. While this experience has been profoundly inspirational and satisfying, it hasn’t been easy. My relationship with my home community is complex and has evolved over the years. In today’s blog I want to explore what’s precious about that.

At present, I divvy up my time mainly among four major commitments (there are other commitments tossed into the mixed salad of my life, yet these are far and away the biggest):

A. My Community

Sandhill is a rural, income-sharing community. We’re homesteaders who grow a large fraction of our own food and emphasize simple living and taking care of one another. As much as possible, we try to support whatever any member wants within the context of our common values of ecological consciousness, nonviolence, and a commitment to work through our issues with one another.

B. My Marriage

Ma’ikwe and I have been together for more than five years. While we share many interests and values, we don’t live three miles apart in separate communities (she is at Dancing Rabbit) and I’m on the road more than half the time. It is a significant challenge for our relationship to create and protect time together (the scarcity of which is a major reason for Ma’ikwe asking me hard questions).

C. Fellowship for Intentional Community

I was present at FIC’s birth in 1987, and have been a central administrator of this ecumenical network organization all along. It’s been an important way for me to give back to the movement some of what I’ve personally benefited from. I believe strongly in cooperative living and work through FIC to help make this option available as broadly as possible.

D. Group Process

It’s my view that greatest societal benefit of intentional communities is learning how to find cooperative solutions to vexing issues. As I (and the groups I’ve been a part of) have learned more about how to make cooperation work, I’ve been inspired to develop career as a process consultant and trainer, applying what I’ve learned how to do and teaching others what I know.

While there is considerable overlap and often a synergistic quality about how efforts in one arena support efforts in another, there is also tension among these commitments. Recently, Ma’ikwe has pushed me to look closely at what she feels is a dysfunctional pattern of spreading myself too thin, and not being sufficiently caring of my commitments. Naturally enough, she’s especially concerned with my availability for the care and feeding of our marriage. This is a serious question and well worth a thorough examination.

At my wife’s request, today I’ll look at how I am currently fed by my living at Sandhill. This is not about why I live in community; it is an examination about why I live in this community. It’s a good place for me to start my attempt to address the issue of my over-commitment.

—Connection to Place

I am deeply invested in the natural rhythms of life at Sandhill. I know the seasons and I have a personal connection to the subtle changes that occur as we cycle through the calendar. There is a unique quality about what I have carefully developed over the years, and I appreciate that at 61 it will not be possible for me to recreate that understanding at a new location.

—Connection with People

While my life has significantly diverged from the lives of my fellow community members over the years (my other three main commitments all pull me in different directions), I still cherish a rich understanding of the lives and interests of my fellow members. In addition to direct conversations, this plays out in how I hear and contextualize what they share in meetings and add to considerations when we collectively address group issues. I know these people, how they see the world, and how they want to be seen,

—Familiarity with the Work

There is a well-practiced ease for me about how to quickly plug into work at home. I know what needs to be done and how to efficiently use the resources at home to accomplish the work. After 3+ decades in one place, I have many well-defined niches at home where I can meaningfully contribute, and cover work that others would prefer to not do.

—Access to Resources

I know what’s available at Sandhill, and the ways in which others rely on the same resources. I know who to ask about a thing and I know whom I need to coordinate with when tackling a project. I know who will be bothered by my asking them a question, and who will be bothered by my not asking them a question.

—Home as Microcosm of the World

There are difficulties for me at home. Ways that I don’t feel well understood and valued. Personalities that don’t fit easily together. Yet where would this not be true? If I am going to be a person who helps others in need (see commitments C and D above) every challenge is also an opportunity to better understand my own limits and failings. At home, there is no one in awe of my capacity; no one with delusions about my blind spots or feet of clay.

—Charity Begins at Home

I have invested a large fraction of my life to this community and I’d like to see it succeed after I’m gone. By continuing to invest in the community (with my time and earning capacity) I enhance the chances that that will happen. It is also an exercise in letting go, in giving without insisting on control or in knowing how that investment will be used. While I definitely have the opportunity to have a say in that, it is not up to me alone. My potential to be an agent for good is all the more significant at Sandhill because the community is small and my capacity to contribute is a non-trivial component of what’s available to the group as a whole.

—My Bedroom is There

While not exactly a man cave, my bedroom is nonetheless a sanctuary for me. It is where I work, where I sleep (in the bed I made with my own hands), where I read, where I write, where I practice yoga, where I often have one-on-one conversations, where I organize my thoughts, and where I store the memorabilia of my life. It is my room and the center of my universe.

• • •

To be sure, this compendium is not manifest destiny. I care deeply about my marriage and my partner’s request for more time together. It is thinkable that I may chose to leave Sandhill in order to make more time available for commitments B through D. However, I am not making that choice today. I’m just at the beginning of this assessment, where I try to assemble an accurate picture of what each of my commitments means to me.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Eyes on the Ides

Historically, today was a poor one for Julius Caesar, yet it presents as an auspicious one for me. While the ides occur every month, the one in March enjoys the greatest notoriety, by virtue of its being the day when Caesar was stabbed to death in the Theater of Pompey, on this date in 44 BC.

In Roman times, homage was paid to Mars, the god of war, on this date. While I reckon that lines up fairly well with one of the most famous political assassinations of all times, I have my eyes on a March 15th that promises to be considerably less martial.

I'm in Floyd County Virginia (an alternative enclave tucked into the hills southeast of Roanoke) visiting my dear friend Ann Shrader at her homestead bungalow at Left Bank, a loose-knit below-the-radar community seven miles outside the town of Floyd. I was training facilitators last weekend in Maryland and am en route to Durham NC for some process consulting the weekend coming up. It's my pleasure to see Annie for a couple days between pay days. (It also gives me a chance to catch up on my reports.)

Annie stores up home improvements projects for my visits and the honey-do list this time includes: a) changing out the hot and cold water supply lines to her bathroom sink; b) putting up some siding on a garden shed lean-to off the north side of her house (when the rain stops); and c) jacking up the sagging southeast corner of her back deck.

While the seasons are definitely shifting—the snow is finally all gone, the bees are starting to gather elm pollen, and I've seen splashes of yellow and purples crocuses blooming here and there—today is one those where you don't want to stray too far from the wood stove: intermittent cold showers and a high of 34 degrees. Winter doesn't have to give up officially until Sunday and it's growling a bit on its way into hibernation. Rather than fight it (homage to Mars be damned), we'll set the outdoor carpentry aside, awaiting tomorrow's brighter forecast.

Today is camaraderie with crosswords, not cross words.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Threshold Committee

One of the more intriguing (and potentially delicate) dynamics that cooperative groups need to navigate is determining when the personal choices of members move from strictly being in the private realm to becoming the legitimate subject of a group conversation—not necessarily because anyone thinks the individual(s) needed to have secured group sanction before acting, but because the impact is demonstrably affecting the group and it's appropriate to have a conversation about the impact on the whole.

The trick is how to be authentic and compassionate without violating the boundaries of privacy. This calculus is made even more challenging when the individuals are skittish about sharing in the group, and the prospect of such an examination comes across as an inquisition rather than an inquiry.

Thinking about this recently, it occurred to me that some groups may benefit substantially from putting in place a subgroup whose sole job it would be to figure out whether and how to have such conversations. The committee's authorization might look like this:

Threshold Committee Mandate
o Comprised of three members carefully selected for the following qualities:
—balanced representation (to the extent possible everyone in the group should have at least one person on the committee that they can readily approach)
—discretion (able to hear sensitive things and not repeat them without express permission)
—compatibility with each other (willing to work together)
—high communication skills
—process savvy (understand what due process means and how to apply it with sensitivity and diligence on a case-by-case basis)
—moxie to face tough issues

o Be available to work with requests from anyone in the group about an issue involving a person's behavior such that the complainant feels it's having a deleterious effect on the group (as opposed to just them).

o Once contacted, the committee will conduct a discrete inquiry into the story, to ascertain what's happened, and people's reactions to that. In the end, they'll make a determination about whether the impact has reach the point where a group conversation is appropriate. The factors that the committee will weigh might include the following:
—how many people seem concerned about what's happened (or is happening) and want to know how it's affecting others?
—how great is the distress?
—what is the risk to the group (legal, cost in terms of group energy, cost in terms of resources, group harmony)?
—how bad is the gossip around this (how widely is this dynamic being discussed, what is the distortion level of the information, what damage is occurring to relationships and trust)?
—how mortifying is it to the protagonists that this be discussed in the group (you want conversations to be constructive, not traumatizing)?
—how does this fit in (or not) with the group's clarity about how much members want to be in each others lives?

o This committee will have the authority to call a group meeting for the purpose of seeing to it that the stories are told and that there be an opportunity for everyone to let others know what they want to be heard. This does not mean that anyone needs to do something in response to what is said—that may or may not happen.

o If the committee finds that a plenary is appropriate, they will labor with the key players about what format might be the most constructive for this sharing of information and responses, accommodating everyone as far as possible. However, in the end, the committee may call a plenary even over one or more key player's objections if they feel the need is sufficiently compelling.

o The committee will determine the most appropriate way to set up the opportunity for sharing. The committee cannot compel anyone to attend such a meeting, nor can it impose sanctions on anyone.

o The committee will have a budget for the purpose of bringing in outside help if the committee believes there isn't sufficient capacity or neutrality in the group to self-facilitate the sharing.

The inspiration for the Threshold Committee surfaced after I witnessed a group agonize over when and how to create a forum for clearing the air about tough stuff that was swirling around as fallout from private choices. When the group is paralyzed about whether to proceed with a collective conversation, it tends not to happen and the only outlets remaining are the uneven gleanings from water cooler gossip and what can be cobbled together through one-on-one airings.

Can't we do better than that?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Hitting the Curveball

As I write today’s entry, I’m jostling along on the Illinois Zephyr en route to Chicago, rumbling through the foggy morning air enveloping the soggy fields of the Land of Lincoln after yesterday’s cold, all-day drizzle. Ma’ikwe’s reading in the seat next to me, and in a couple hours we’ll arrive at Union Station, where we’ll change trains for the Capitol Limited and our overnight journey east.

We’ll be met around noon tomorrow in Harpers Ferry, and then driven to Liberty Village, a cohousing community just east of Frederick MD. Tomorrow night starts an intensive three-day weekend (fourth in a series of eight) with our Mid-Atlantic facilitation class. By Sunday, this course will be half completed, and I’m reflecting this morning, as I journey by train to the training, about the journey that our journeymen facilitators are on. (Wheels within wheels.)

A significant chunk of class time is devoted to getting ready to do live meetings for our host (in this case, Liberty Village). Friday afternoon we’ll get briefed about the topics the community wants to tackle, and we’ll get a concentrated download about three questions:

—What are the objectives or desired outcomes from focusing on the selected topics? How will the topic be introduced?

—What is the relevant background (what was the output of any prior discussions on each topic; are there any existing agreements that bear on these topics; is there anything we need to know that’s special about how the community makes decisions)?

—Are there any tensions points or pitfalls that we need to know about subject (we’d rather know about the stumbling blocks ahead of time, rather than accidentally trip over them)?

While proper preparation is a core element of facilitation, we also have to teach the students to not be overly attached to their plan. Expectations, no matter how insightfully developed, are only casually related to reality (as opposed to causally related to reality—but that’s a subject for a different essay), and you have to be flexible in the dynamic moment.

Three weeks ago, during a facilitation training weekend in Missouri, we had a first-time student who was cautioned that the topic projected for his slot was likely to evince some strong feelings. As he came into the training with the explicit hope of strengthening his ability to handle emotional volatility, he was psyched about his assignment and devoted most of his prep time to thinking about how he would ride the storm-tossed seas. When the time came and he invited people to voice their unresolved tensions, nothing happened. Now what? Once the script failed, he lost his way.

While there was no doubt that the tensions still existed, the group was not inclined to go there and it didn’t unfold as the best way to use the time. While it might have been the right thing to do, and it was appropriate to be ready for the possibility, the student had trouble adjusting to the anti-climax of needing to facilitate a plain, old vanilla discussion. While this more commonly happens the other way around (where you’ve prepared for you thought was going to be a simple conversation and a fight breaks out), handling the unexpected can be a challenge however it occurs.

The student struggled to let go of his plan and adapt to what the group needed in the moment. In baseball parlance, he was thrown a curveball and couldn’t hit it. The good news is that this was only his first time at bat, and he has several more weekends ahead in which he’ll get the chance to see curveballs again (under our watchful eyes in the batting cage) and we can coach him how to better see the rotation of the ball. For the students in our Mid-Atlantic class, it’s already time (at Weekend IV) for them to be seeing fewer fastballs and more curves.

Because groups of human beings are devilishly creative at manifesting unexpected and complex dynamics, we try to train facilitators to be adaptive rather than directive. Instead of trying to bend the will of the group to what the facilitator thinks is best, we try to develop the facilitator’s capacity to recognize what the will and the mood of the group are, so that the facilitator can work with what’s possible. While we want the facilitator’s ideas about how to structure the meeting to be firmly rooted in objectives that have been developed by the group (rather than by the facilitator), great facilitators know when and how to improvise on the spot, changing formats or the sequence of engagement based on what’s happening in the room—they develop a knack for making a bad thing good, or a good thing better.

This is at the heart of why facilitation is an art. While it’s a terrific advantage to have a large pattern library and familiarity with multiple modalities, skilled facilitation calls for the practitioner to do much more than just follow an endless cascade of if-then choices and decide who's turn it is to speak next. You have to be able to feel what’s happening and what’s possible; you have to develop an instinct for the right direction, such that it unerringly guides your hand when you reach into your toolkit.

In short, you have to be able to hit the curveball.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Dynamics of Doorknob Feedback

Two weeks ago, Ma'ikwe and I had a student reach the flash point at the end of the first weekend (of eight) of our facilitation training. After meeting each other for the first time Thursday evening—and apparently getting off to a hopeful start—everything unraveled for this woman over the course of the next 70 hours, to the point that she boiled over in a rant in the final hour Sunday afternoon. It was the first expression that Ma'ikwe and I had of her distress with the training, and by then it was essentially too late to do anything about it other than to listen. Essentially, she was giving us a devastating analysis with one hand on the doorknob, about to exit our lives. Yuck!

While it never feels good when someone is in pain—and it's extra hard when they're lashing out in the process—it was nonetheless important to know her upset and to try to glean what we could about where things had gone wrong. (While it's an valuable part of our training that the students get to witness how the trainers handle raw feedback, that doesn't mean we look forward to the experience.)

There were a number of factors that contributed to what happened:
—This woman had had no prior experience with intentional community and had trouble understanding the culture and norms of the host. We need to pay much more attention to orienting people who are unfamiliar with intentional community (which is almost always where the training weekends take place), so that the environment itself is more accessible (less mysterious) and not overwhelming. There's plenty of new stuff in the training and we don't need to compound the challenge of absorbing what's happening by making the students function in a foreign world without translation.

—The trainers (Ma'ikwe and I) need to be more diligent about explaining what we're doing at each step. That is, we need to lay out when we're modeling a behavior, when we're trying to make a teaching point, when we want the students to ask questions, when there are options about how we'll focus our time, when we want the students to take initiative, etc. While all of this gets easier as the class builds its own culture and rhythm, we are starting with a blank slate and need to road map very clearly to avoid confusion. Especially during Weekend I.

—The trainers need to explicitly protect space for students to approach them if they're having reactions to what's going on, or reactions to the trainers (alas, in the case that precipitated this essay, both were occurring). If the student isn't assured that this is available, things can slide downhill quite quickly. Poignantly, Ma'ikwe and I had explicitly checked with this struggling woman
Saturday afternoon and offered her time to meet with us that evening. She turned us down, thinking we were only offering to discuss preparation for a facilitation assignment she had the next day; she didn't understand that our offer could also be used to discuss how she was struggling. Having interpreted our offer as inappropriate to her needs, it became another piece of evidence of our obliviousness, rather than a ray of hope. (I'm telling you, the fall from grace can be hard and swift.)

The point here is not to assign blame for what went wrong; it's to better grok how easily misunderstandings can cause minor rifts (Luke, there's a disturbance in the Force) to erode into unbridgeable chasms. As the trainers, it is ultimately our responsibility to make sure the students know that feedback offer is there.

In this particular incident, the woman chose to express her upset and then exit. She'd had a very hard weekend, didn't feel taken care of, lost any confidence she had in the competency of the trainers, and didn't want to continue. Things had gotten bad enough that by the time she spoke up, she was burning the bridges. After stating her piece, she made it clear she wasn't available for working on the issues she raised; she was only interested in hearing how her feedback landed. Honoring her request, several people reflected back what we'd heard,
starting with Ma'ikwe and me. She reported having felt heard and then left.

Later that evening, she accepted an invitation to meet one-on-two with Ma'ikwe and me (in the presence of a neutral third party), where she gave us additional criticisms. Though these were not delivered in anger, her evening comments were more highly negative assessments and she cut short our attempts to respond. That is, she was still not interested in working the issues; she just wanted a second opportunity to tell us more fully of our failings.

I tell this story because this is as unsatisfying as it gets. The Sunday conversations with this woman were all one way, and by the time she spoke it was too late to attempt to repair the damage. And yet, this woman had every right to her feelings and to her choice to exit. As unpleasant as it was to sit through, and as disrespected and misunderstood as I felt about what was said (and how it was delivered), it does me no good whatsoever to attempt to protect myself from hearing it.

The distinction I'm making here is that I can be sad and frustrated that anyone relates to me this way, and yet it's absolutely in my interest to hear it if that's what's true for them. I need to keep the feedback channels to me as clear as possible in order to have accurate information about how I'm perceived. And that expressly means being as available as I can for raw feedback. While no fun, prohibiting it is just not smart. If I insist that feedback only be delivered in a pretty package ("I" statements only, please) then I am choking the feedback channels and run the risk of seriously distorting or insulating myself from valuable information.

To be sure, I'm not obliged to agree with the feedback—it's a complex matter deciding what weight to give criticism and whether you want to consider behavior changes in light of what you hear—I'm only making the point that it's never in your best interest to place barriers in the way of hearing it.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

To Ask or Not to Ask; That Is the Question

I was in a conversation yesterday where we were talking about the elements of conflict, and the systems that groups create (mostly inadvertently) around how conflict is treated. Even when there's a culture that supports engagement (as opposed to flight), there are still many pitfalls.

For example, let's say a group is solidly in favor of taking a look at what's going on when there's the sense that someone is upset—"Let's get it out in the open." Further, suppose the group agrees that this should be attempted respectfully—that is, avoiding anything known to be embarrassing, shaming, condescending, or overwhelming. While it's not hard to get agreement on those goals, it can be the very devil to put them into practice.

Today I want to examine just one aspect of this: the challenge of asking questions of the perceived upset person in such a way that it builds connection rather than pushes the person away. There are a lot of good questions that might be asked in that dynamic. For example:

o What's going on; you look upset?
o Would you like to talk about it?
o How are you feeling right now?
o Is there a different timing or setting that would work better for you?
o What triggered those feelings?
o Do you feel that I got what you said?
o If there are doubts about whether you were heard, what might help?
o Are you interested in my response?

When you have a sufficiently strong or deep connection with the person in distress, there tends to be a fair amount of grace about how your well-intended offer might land. Even when you miss the mark (by which I mean the recipient isn't interested in your question or your offer), this will tend to land harmlessly. It gets dicier however, when the connection is less substantial, or worse, clouded by past interactions that were awkward and unresolved.

There are, in fact, a wide number of ways in which people can miss each other in such tender moments. Let's assume that Person A (Adrian) is in distress and Person C (Chris) wants to reach out in support. Here are a few ways that things can go off the rails:
—Does Adrian want to be held (or even touched at all)?
—Does Adrian want engagement or space?
—What tone of voice will engage Adrian (Hint: a low, soothing tone may be calming and a salve on a wounded soul; or it may come across as condescending and piss the hell out of Adrian)?
—If Chris also happens to be the trigger for Adrian's upset, then attempts by Chris may be received completely differently than attempts by neutral party Pat—even if Chris says the exact same thing with the exact same tone.

In the absence of familiarity, or guidance from Adrian in the moment, Chris is likely to offer what Chris would want in the same situation. Unfortunately, that may have no relationship at all to what Adrian wants. Now we have a double ouch. Not only is Adrian in distress and Chris hasn't helped, but Chris' feelings are likely tweaked as well. Good intentions, it turns out, are not sufficient to guarantee good results.

In the most delicate moments, even a question as baseline as asking what Adrian wants may land poorly. ("If you really cared about me it would be obvious what I need and you shouldn't need to ask.' Or, "Why are you so tentative? Don't be such a wimp." Some days it doesn't pay to get out of bed.) Keep in mind that Adrian is in distress, and is therefore likely to not be hitting on all cylinders. It is relatively common for people in distress to feel isolated and misunderstood. This can easily translate into irrational suspicions about Chris' motivations.

Now that I've given you an overview of a number of ways that the wheels can fall off your welcome wagon, I want to conclude by advising that whenever you're Chris that you nonetheless try to find the courage to ask what
Adrian wants. Even if Adrian is not so appreciative in the moment, it's highly probable that that feeling will turn around after the lightning passes and there's been a chance to reflect.

At the end of the day, I figure it's better to be accused of being courageous and clumsy than timid and paralyzed.