Friday, August 31, 2012

Once in a Blue Moon

This morning (at 9:58 am if you're in the Eastern time zone, if you're keeping score at home) the moon will be full for the second time this month, making it the one and only blue moon of the year. There won't be another until 2015.

While it's definitely a rare event—whence the colloquial meaning of the phrase, "That happens only once in a blue moon"—there is also a whiff of mysticism about this phenomenon. Perhaps magic is a bit more likely today, or the veil between the temporal and spirit world is thinner, a la Halloween. It will be fun to see what unfolds.

A Moon by any Other Name
Native Americans developed monikers for full moons that became associated with natural events and conditions that obtained in the month that they appeared. Thus, the August full moon is known variously as:

Sturgeon Moon, to mark when this large fish of the Great Lakes and other major bodies of water like Lake Champlain is most readily caught. 
Red Moon, in honor of the countenance of Earth's satellite when observed rising through the sultry, humid haze of late summer.
Green Corn Moon, as grains are ripening now.
Heat Moon: as I recall from an obscure passage in William Trogdon's 1980's bestseller, Blue Highways, the August full moon also has this appellation, for which his father, imbued with part Osage blood, was named. His older brother was thus naturally called Little Heat Moon, and William, who grew up to be an English professor and author, adopted the nom de plume Least Heat Moon.
• • •
So what will today bring? I travel to Twin Oaks (Lousia VA) later this morning to participate in their annual Communities Conference, running through Monday. In addition to operating the conference bookstore and offering a handful of workshops, over the course of the weekend I'll get to visit with old friends and meet interesting people I don't know who share with me a hunger for community. There's always some magic in that.

Saturday night I'll play auctioneer for a benefit auction in support of the Fellowship for Intentional Community. It will be an occasion of high merriment (and hopefully high bids). 

As much fun as I'll have on stage, the part I like best is the space in the interstices of the schedule, where I can enjoy one-on-one chance conversations with the humanity that ebbs and flows by the bookstore, building relationships and trying to be an answer man for folks trying to manifest more community in their lives. There's definitely magic and restorative energy at community events where people gather in numbers to celebrate and learn from one another about cooperative living. 

I'm lucky that my opportunities to do this thing I love happen four or five times a year—much more frequently than blue moons.

In just three short weeks I'll get my next chance at this magic. I'll be at Westminster Woods outside Occidental CA where I'll immerse myself in the FIC's Art of Community event, Sept 21-23—to be followed immediately by a Social Change Summit at the same location, Sept 24-25. After that, I'll be at the annual NASCO Institute, Nov 2-4, in Ann Arbor MI. My cup runneth over.

It's interesting to reflect that in going from Twin Oaks to Westminster Woods to Ann Arbor that I'll not only be traversing three time zones (twice—once in each direction); I'll also be jouneying from Blue Moon to Autumnal Equinox to Samhain. By aligning these community events with traditional Earth religion holidays, we'll effectively be stringing together a necklace of transformers along a two-month power line. I can sense that the Force will be with us,… even if I leave my lightsaber at home. 

If you're in my vicinity on any of these occasions, I invite you to drop by the bookstore for some scintillating conversation.  

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Green Washing in Chapel Hill

I was recently visiting friends who moved into a newly built home in Chapel Hill NC. Mostly they've been pleased with what they got. The development was touted as exceptionally energy efficient—a major selling point, for which they paid a premium—and the construction seems solid.

They were shocked, however, when they installed solar panels on the their roof to take the energy efficiency to another level and promptly earned a visit from the neighborhood Architectural Review Committee (comprised of a single person, who happens to work for the developer) insisting that they take those ugly things down. Huh?

It seems the developer was concerned about maintaining a uniform exterior look to the homes he'd built, in the belief that that would help sell units and support property values. While that basic attitude is nothing new, it's novel to simultaneously tout innovative energy features while indulging in bullying tactics in defense of a rather arbitrary sense of aesthetics (who says solar panels are ugly?). Apparently, in this instance, the commitment to a better environment was only skin deep, which had the reverse twist of meaning that energy initiatives couldn't be visible on the skin of the buildings. It's an interesting line to walk—building houses with a old style colonial look while operating with high efficiency under the hood. Kind of like putting a 5.7 liter V-8 Hemi engine into a restored 1972 Dodge Dart, and then marketing the car on the basis of its appeal as a retro icon.

(I was wondering what argument the developer would advance in defense of his commitment to energy efficiency while objecting strenuously to my friends' installation of solar panels. Talk about trying to thread the eye of a needle with a camel! I further wondered how much squirming the developer would experience if a story about this "happened" to appear in the local paper.)

When my friends did not capitulate to threats (including the developer's lackey insisting that if my friends didn't remove the panels voluntarily within 30 days that the developer would unilaterally remove them and charge the homeowners for the expense), the developer agreed to meet face to face. This set up a classic good cop/bad cop scenario, with the bulldog assistant as the fall guy. The developer was all placating and reasonable while his gofer foamed at the mouth. If this were presented as a television show it would strain credulity—nobody's that blatantly hypocritical and manipulative, are they?

While the developer has backed off from the 30-day deadline and the cops have not been called in (yet), my friends have consulted a lawyer and it's not clear how this will all end. The homeowners are amenable to having the panels moved to another part of their roof that is less visible from the front, so long as the solar orientation maintains high panel output. As the house faces east, it's possible they can be rotated toward the south and behind the peak such that everyone will be happy, but it's not yet clear that this suggestion will be given enough oxygen to be seriously considered. We'll see.

The issue here is not so much that the developer saw things differently than the homeowners—either on the matter of aesthetics or the best way to be energy efficient—as that the way they went about conveying their concern was so little evolved from mafia strong-armed tactics. There was essentially a complete disconnect between environmental sustainability and social sustainability. The developer does not appear to understand that if we don't solve problems differently, it isn't going to make much difference what you have on the roof.

If you stand for ecological, energy efficient housing, you can't very well not stand for solar panels as an option. If you want to make a credible statement about caring for the environment, you better make sure that your statements about how to resolve developer/homeowner tensions are expressed in a caring environment—because unhappy homeowners who feel that they've been subjected to bait and switch greenwashing are never going to be good for marketing.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Change of Pace

I've just driven to the East Coast where I'll be promoting a new round of facilitation training (in North Carolina starting Sept 27-30), attending FIC Oversight Committee meetings, and participating in the annual Twin Oaks Communities Conference, Aug 30-Sept 3.

En route, I stopped over in Louisville (I've driven straight through from Missouri to Virginia many times over the years, but I no longer have any appetite for marathon driving and I do the trip in two days nowadays) and saw my dear friend Ella Peregrine overnight on Thursday.

For the past four years she's been battling myalgic encephalomyelitis (or ME). This is a refined understanding of what has heretofore more commonly been referred to as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The defining symptom of ME is post-exertion neurological exhaustion that is substantially unrelieved by rest, and not triggered by other medical conditions. It is way more than just fatigue.

While I have been following Ella's health for some time simply because she's a friend, I am all the more interested because her journey parallels that of my wife, Ma'ikwe, who has been suffering from persistent low energy for the last six months. To be clear, Ma'ikwe is suffering from chronic Lyme disease and does not have the same diagnosis as Ella, yet their sharply diminished energy budgets are quite similar.

In Ella's case, she can do about two things each week without risking a serious setback—and that's if she's careful not to do too much. For example, she can manage to swim in a pool twice a week if she doesn't add to the strain by driving to the pool. Or she could swim once and go to the library once. If, however, she does the driving, then it's more prudent to only do one of those things a week. If she goes overboard one week, she may have to wait several weeks before she can do any excursions again.

For someone with a vital life force and a strong sense of curiosity—which Ella has in abundance and are the bedrock of our friendship—it is excruciating to have to make such choices and exercise that degree of self-discipline. When I asked her Thursday evening (during the intermission of a lovely outdoor performance of Gilbert & Sullivan's HMS Pinafore at Iroquois Park—Ella chose to visit with me instead of a trip to the library or a swim this week) how many people diagnosed with ME experience a significant recovery of their health, she reported only about five per cent. Yikes!

Though the medical understanding of ME is evolving and those odds may yet change for the better, it is likely that Ella will never again enjoy the freedom and energy that most of us take for granted every day. While not giving up on the possibility of recovery, she is trying to figure out how to paint a colorful life with a sharply diminished palette (rather than lamenting that the tubes on certain pigments have been prematurely squeezed empty). Ella is an amazing soul and I cherish our opportunities to connect and hear about her journey.

Ma'ikwe's prognosis, fortunately, is much less grim, and I'm thankful for that. While there is considerable murkiness about the course of her illness, she bounces back much better with rest and expects to eventually recover from her debilitating battle—even if we don't know the exact route, or how long it will take to get there.

One of the most precious things I got out of discussing with Ella how she experiences her low energy was the importance of trying to meet the ill person where they are—which is notably different than how you remember them or how they were when you were first drawn together. It's about adopting a pace that works for who you're with, rather than expecting them to meet you where you are. It's also about trying to find the intersection of where I am and where they are with respect to how their illness has impacted their cognitive abilities. This insight is especially valuable for me, who typically goes through life with his foot mashed on the gas, and dances lightly from topic to topic. 

I'm often impatient with repetition and am quick to tell where a sentence is headed before it officially arrives at its destination. Thus, I often have a response queued up before the speaker has arrived at a period. When a story or explanation is interlarded with trivial details, I tend toward irritation, longing for conversation that is graced with clean lines and crisp meaning.

When I contemplate some of the struggles that Ma'ikwe has had with me around her sense that I don't hear her accurately, I suspect that part of the dynamic is my impatience—that I haven't made an adequate adjustment to the slower pace dictated by her illness. Rather than blindly expecting her to cope with my stream-of-consciousness check-in style, I could work on slowing down my electron orbits to match hers and seeing if that might lead to better flow between us. 

While that may seem obvious, it hasn't been. I want my time with Ma'ikwe to be comfortable and familiar. I don't really want to be careful; I want to be natural. Yet maybe I can be more caring without being more careful. It's a distinction I'm taking the time to sit with right now (instead of racing headlong onto the next email in my queue).

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Six Guys on Sunday

Even though I'm just a guy (unlike my brother, who is actually Guy), I'm definitely a guy. I like to watch football & baseball, I play games to win, I enjoy butchering, I'm a competent mason and electrician, I have an affinity for action movies, and I love to drink beer (especially IPA). All of that said I've never been into cars and I love process, so maybe I'm a few genes short of a load on my Y chromosome. Who knows.

To be clear, I don't hate cars. I live in an income sharing community (Sandhill Farm) and I drive the community's fleet of vehicles like everyone else. Over the years I've done my share of changing oil, fixing flats, and coaxing a flooded engine back to life—I just don't seek it out, and you'll never hear me rhapsodize about the latest model whatsidingle. I just don't give a shit. 

It was thus amusing when Ma'ikwe participated in an impromptu query along with five other women on one of her Facebook Lyme support groups last Sunday, where the question was: "What is your partner doing right now?" Amazingly, the other five women all reported that their guys were fooling around with cars. I was the odd man out—I was working on Ma'ikwe's cistern. I was gobsmacked. Apparently it's still what guys do on Sunday afternoon (at least until football season starts).

According to Ma'ikwe I got lumped in with everyone else anyway by virtue of being caught working with hand tools. (I think if I had been knitting it would have raised eyebrows, but working with a screw gun definitely placed me in the guy thing category.) I chafed a bit at the lumping—after all, it's not common that I work on cisterns, yet I doubt it was exceptional in the least that those other guys were under their respective hoods. If the women had posed their question in the morning instead of the afternoon, my answer would have been composing a blog entry, which isn't a particularly gendered activity. Oh well. At the end of the day I reckon I'm still just a guy, even if I sometimes forget or stray a bit from the full stereotype.

Incidentally, today I oversaw the culmination of many days work (not just last Sunday's) when a group of six of us poured three-plus yards of concrete to form the lid on my wife's cistern. It was a 21'x8' barrel vault that took 50 hours to form and one hour to pour. And am I ever glad that sucker is done. I started that project 28 months ago and the hardest parts are now (finally) completed. I still have to set up a rain washer and install the submersible pump, but that's minor. This winter, for the first time since she moved into her house three years ago, Ma'ikwe will have running water. Yippee!

Crossing this large task off my To Do List was all the sweeter in that tomorrow I'm outbound for 40 days in the wilderness on the road, and I really wanted to get the lid poured before I left. I managed to beat my travel deadline by about 20 hours. Whew! Good thing today was a nice day. When I get back from this upcoming odyssey it will be October and my community will be immersed in sorghum season—when all hands are on deck and there's no time for extracurricular dabbling in concrete. So if I had failed to get the lid poured today, it might not have happened until next spring (can you hear the Volga Boatman playing in the background?).

It will be a treat to sleep at Ma'ikwe's tonight—our last night together for a while—and have the cistern lid in my rear view mirror when I close my eyes at night. While that's probably the same satisfaction that all guys feel after a knocking off a big job, I don't think there's any need to be alarmed… unless I start babbling about the payload on 3/4-ton pickups or the gas mileage on a Prius, in which case you should suspect doping or food poisoning and call for my blood to be tested.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Consensus Challenges: Coping with Blocking Energy

This is the continuation of a blog series started June 7 in which I'm addressing a number of issues in consensus. Today's topic is Coping with Blocking Energy.

I. When do you know enough to act? [posted June 7]
II. Closing the deal [posted June 10]
III. Wordsmithing in plenary [posted June 16]
IV. Redirecting competition [posted June 23]
V. Bridging disparate views [posted July 5]
VI. Harvesting partial product [posted July 20]
VII. When to be formal [posted July 29]
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms [posted Aug 10]
IX. Coping with blocking energy
X. Defining respect
XI. Balancing voices
XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go
XIV. Accountability

• • •
One of the biggest misunderstandings in consensus is the proper use of blocks. As a technical term, it's when a member stands in the way of a proposal at the point where the group is testing for agreement. That is, a block occurs only after the issue has been thoroughly explored, the group has identified what factors need to be taken into account in responding, and the group has made its best effort at balancing them in generating the proposal. In short, blocks occur at the end of the process.

In groups new to consensus—or ones that don't understand it well—it's not rare for a member to have a negative reaction to someone's viewpoint before you get to the proposal testing phase, and announces their position with the declaration, "I'll block that." 

Such an apparently definitive statement can be viewed as a line drawn in the sand and can send a chill wind through the room. In a number of groups I've worked with, any time they encounter an "I'll block that" statement, it effectively kills any further discussion of the statement that triggered it—regardless of the point in the consideration of the topic that this occurs. This is not a good response, and it is this phenomenon—premature blocking—that I want to explore in today's essay.

From the Perspective of the Blocker
If a person is having bad reaction to something another member has contributed, it's useful for the group to know that, and I do not want to place any obstacles in the way of that being shared.

That said, I have three suggestions for the blocker. First, is negative expression appropriate in the current context? For example, if the group is in brainstorm mode, trying to flush out the factors that need to be taken into consideration in addressing the issue, it's not the time to rain on someone else's parade. Evaluation comes later and brainstorms entail no commitments. There's plenty of time for the blocker's reservations to come out.

Second, the blocker can express themselves just as clearly in a less threatening way, and I urge them to get interested in that possibility. There's a big difference between "I'm having a strong reaction to that suggestion," and "I'll block that." While both make clear the negative response, the first allows an opening to explore what's going on, while the second slams the door.

There can be several things going on when there's a strong reaction, and it behooves the group to figure which ones apply in a given situation:
o  The blocker may have misunderstood what was said.
o  The blocker may be overstating their position in order to express the strtength of their feelings.
o  There may be unresolved tension between the blocker and the speaker that distorts how the blocker hears the speaker's contribution.
o  The contribution may trigger a strong fear in the blocker that the group needs to know about (you can be sincerely curious about the fear without necessarily buying the solution—killing the suggestion).
o  The blocker may be reacting more to the perceived power imbalance between the speaker and themselves than to the substance of the comment.

Third, I encourage blockers to do what they can to unlink the expression of their feelings from their conclusions (or demands) about what should happen. When people are unable to do this, they can mistakenly hear resistance to a conclusion as not caring about them as a person. (Prove that you love me and accede to my demand: stop talking about this thing I don't like, and never bring it up again.)

Mind you, I'm not saying that the speaker's idea is a good one, or that the blocker isn't right about the triggering suggestion being a poor idea; I'm only saying you shouldn't assume that, nor be afraid to explore it further.

From the Perspective of the Group
I believe there are three possible things at work here, which could be present in any combination.

Tiptoeing around the upset that may be fueling such a strong position
If the group is not confident of its ability to work constructively with distress, backing away from the speaker's suggestion may be more about conflict avoidance than issue avoidance.

Lack of confidence in being able to work through strong differences
Alternately, instead of being afraid of distress, the group may have no confidence in its ability to work strained issues, where there are deep divisions about how to move forward. If the group is afraid of heavy lifting, it will tend to drop topics that appear heavy.

Discouragement to look further at something that is only going to be blocked in the endWhile the blocker may be open to working on the issue further, the group may lack the will to attempt it. Even if there's an analysis that the blocker is being a bully, the group may not be willing to confront the bullying behavior (which is one way to experience premature blocking). One of the ironies of this dynamic is that a bully can threaten to block as a regular technique for controlling the conversation, and if the group allows them to get their way, the bully can legitimately claim they seldom if ever actually block (because everyone is afraid to push back against their "I'll block that" stop sign.

It's my view that the best way to work with blocking energy is to create an environment where the group is open to hearing from people when they have strong reactions (so long as they're on topic), yet you want to separate hearing from buying any automatic conclusions that you can't go there. Instead, you can be curious about what underlays the reaction, and then invite the whole group—including the blocker—to consider how best to proceed, which may or may not include working further with the speaker's triggering idea.

The key to this is not being reactive to someone being reactive. The more the group can develop the capacity to work with distress in stride, the more open people will be in expressing themselves and the quicker you can get to problem solving that has a solid foundation. The beauty of learning to cope well with premature blocks is that when you do it well, it will also reduce the incidence of legitimate blocks, because all the things that would be the basis for a legitimate block will have already been brought out in the discussion and the group won't be foolish enough to bring forward a proposal that it already knows won't work.  

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Making Lymeade

Ma'ikwe and I had a heart-to-heart talk this morning about the strain in our partnership. While it's not easy to sort out how much of this is triggered by the onset of Ma'ikwe's struggle with chronic Lyme disease, and how much is revealed by her battle with a long-term debilitating illness, problems are problems however they're revealed.

The pivotal issue we worked on today was my emotional engagement about how her health issues are affecting me. Having witnessed the gradual diminishment of her energy level and how much she needs to focus on recovery, there has been a concomitant reduction in her ability to initiate contact with me, or to inquire about how I'm doing. (To be sure, there is still a substantial amount of sharing that happens spontaneously between us; I'm just reporting a significant drop off in what Ma'ikwe initiates about how I'm doing.)

In my attempts to adapt to this change, I made a parallel cut back on what I initiated about myself, for fear of putting her in a bind about needing to raise her energy to be present for what I'm sharing when she may not have that energy to give. From my perspective I was trying to be sensitive to her energy budget and not invite her into examinations where she'd either be at risk of: a) feeling bad for turning down my invitation; or b) risking exhaustion for rising to the occasion. I didn't want to put that pressure on her.

While that may sound good, my curtailing my sharing has had the consequence of Ma'ikwe not feeling as connected with me. Yuck! While she was right this morning to point out that she's never turned down an invitation to discuss what's happening in the relationship, I have seen her overspend her energy budget and crash afterwards. I've been sacred of encouraging her to do too much, and don't want to be seen as selfish (asking her to place her health at risk to attend to my issues).

Ma'ikwe made it abundantly clear how important it is to her that I not edit what I share with her, as the strength of our relationship is directly proportional to our emotional sharing. In an effort to be kind and appropriate, I was inadvertently starving the connection! Mind you, I was not declining to respond to a direct invitation. Rather I was not initiating in response to Ma'ikwe not initiating. Boy, does this get messy!

When we got past the hurt feelings surrounding this dynamic (it was a bumpy ride) I was able to share what's been going for me—including my fear that she might die on me in the night—and we were able to break through to a much more tender and flowing place. Whew.

Because Ma'ikwe and I don't live together (she's at Dancing Rabbit; I'm at Sandhill Farm, three miles away) we're ever mindful of ways we can interweave our lives. In that regard we've been successful in developing a joint career in process consulting, but the viability of that is challenged by the Lyme disease, which makes it onerous for Maikwe to travel.

In casting about for what she might do instead, she been inspired to focus on Lyme disease patient advocacy. Not finding it easy to get the information or support she craves herself, she's been inspired to develop that for others and it's given her a worthy cause to devote herself to that's within her energy range and doesn't call for travel. Having been dealt a bag of lemons, I love that she's determined to make lemonade. Or this case, Lymeade.

Ma'ikwe admitted today that she's worried that this new calling may lead her away from our marriage (because I don't identify with Lyme, this isn't my calling) but this wasn't a trigger for me. If she ultimately decides she's better off moving away from our partnership—because Lyme advocacy is where she can be most of service in the world and I'm in the way—then she'll be leaving me for the right reasons and I wouldn t want it any other way.

While I fervently hope that won't be what happens, and that we can find a way to stay strong in our partnership even if we're marching to different drumbeats, I am not afraid of the things that are outside my control. It takes all the energy I have to focus on the things that I can influence. My challenge is to stay vulnerable and transparent, and see what happens.

Who knew that partnering could be this hard?


Monday, August 13, 2012

Furrowed Brows & Rolling Eyes

I just completed a facilitation training weekend during which a student admitted that she'd never actually seen smoke coming out of another person's ears—so what were people talking about with that expression?

While most of us learn the fundamentals of reading body language and facial expressions fairly early in life, there's considerable range in people's facility in this arena, and it's enormously helpful for facilitators to be as accomplished as possible in this department.

Beyond general guidelines (that crossed arms and a red face translate to anger; that glassy eyes, a blank face, and shaking equate to fear), there is a vast variety of subtle nuances and quirks peculiar to each individual such that if you're familiar with the landscape (perhaps because that person is in your group) that you can gain valuable insight into what's going on for people whether or not they directly voice it.

When the student reported confusion about this, we did an impromptu exercise where several people in the class adopted a posture or facial expression indicative of a strong feeling and we asked the questioner to attempt an interpretation. When she was only able to read some of them accurately, we suggested that she look for an opportunity in a future meeting—one with an agenda where she didn't identify as a key stakeholder and could thus safely let her attention wander beyond content—to observe the group and see what she could pick up on when participants were changing their posture or expressions in the course of the meeting and how that might map onto their mood or energy. We further suggested that she make an arrangement ahead to sit near another group member known to be astute at reading nonverbal clues, with the agreement that she could check out her interpretations immediately afterwards.

In addition to the non-verbal, there is also a wealth of information about energy and emotional response to be mined from observing the way people speak—above and beyond what they are saying. Taken all together, this field of information is incredibly rich: in addition to changes in posture, and shifts in facial expression, there's tone of voice, volume, pace of speech, alterations in breathing rate, use of hands, changes in eye contact, frequency of requests for bathroom breaks, tendency to zone out, twitching or tapping (of hands or feet), scratching, self-grooming (I know a professional facilitator who was surprised when I told her that she had a habit of wiping her hand across her face right before she'd say something critical). While this is by no means all, it's enough to suggest the breadth of what's in play.

Mostly we work with this information subliminally, below the level of consciousness, yet it's invaluable in understanding context and energy, and good facilitators need to be competent in this aspect of communication.

(If you're having trouble understanding how potent this is as an enhancement to effective communication, think about all the mischief people can get into with email, where all the sensory inputs have been stripped out. Lacking the cues of tone, pace, and facial expressions, we make them up, and then proceed to respond to our guess as if it were true! In the more egregious cases it can take weeks to untangle the mistake.)

One of the tricky things about reading body language correctly is that some people have mannerisms that mimic standard expressions yet carry an entirely different meaning for them. If you are unaware of this, reasonable guesses can miss the mark widely. Here are two examples of ways that I tend to get in trouble in this regard.

First, when concentrating I tend to frown, or furrow my brows. This often gets interpreted as upset, because I also furrow my brows when I'm upset! Confusing, eh? As it's relatively common for me to pause during a conversation to concentrate on how to balance all that's been said, I have learned to be more sensitive to the possibility that others may think I'm having a bad reaction when I'm just seriously contemplating.

Second, when someone presents a piece of important information that's new to me in the midst of an intense conversation, I have a tendency to turn my head to the side and look off into space (typically upward) as I attempt to integrate it. Unfortunately, the speaker can experience this as my rolling my eyes and being dismissive—which is also something that I do. Imagine how hard it is for the other person to read me right in the dynamic moment!

With this in mind, I urge people to be cautious when acting on their interpretations of body language or speech patterns, especially with people they don't know that well. Instead, you can learn to be alert to shifts in behavior and the potential for asking people what that shift means. It's rare that you'll get in trouble being curious about what a new mannerism implies—even if the answer is nothing.

Finally, I suggested to the student who asked about how to become more skilled in reading non-verbal clues was to suggest that she do two more things:

A. Become as aware as possible about how you come across to others
It's relatively common for people to think that they're harder to read than they are; to mistakenly believe that they're masking feelings that: 1) they're not prepared to reveal; or 2) they aren't consciously aware are emerging. They may also be unaware of how their tendencies can be misread—I explained my awkward journey in this regard a few paragraphs earlier. It's important to know how you appear to be reacting to others.

B. Understand as thoroughly as possible how you may be susceptible to overacting in the presence of certain energies
It's valuable to know how you may misread others because of your own scarring. For example, if you grew up in a household with a father who yelled, you may be prone to overamping when an older man in the group raises his voice. If you had a sibling who teased you unmercifully growing up, you may come done hard on someone who lampoons someone else in the group. If the person who is the object of the needling takes it gracefully, you may be defending a ghost, causing a chill wind to blow across the room when none was needed nor intended.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Consensus Challenges: Weathering Brainstorms

This is the continuation of a blog series started June 7 in which I'm addressing a number of issues in consensus. Today's topic is Harnessing Brainstorms.

I. When do you know enough to act? [posted June 7]
II. Closing the deal [posted June 10]
III. Wordsmithing in plenary [posted June 16]
IV. Redirecting competition [posted June 23]
V. Bridging disparate views [posted July 5]
VI. Harvesting partial product [posted July 20]
VII. When to be formal [posted July 29]
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms
IX. Coping with blocking energy
X. Defining respect
XI. Balancing voices
XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go
XIV. Accountability

• • •
Brainstorms are one of the most common ways that groups try to gather information on a topic. The ground rules for setting one up are fairly simple: 1) There are no "wrong" answers; 2) Everything will be recorded; 3) Evaluative comments are out of bounds.

In general you try for an up-tempo atmosphere, where the ideas are flowing freely and the group is having fun. If the group is fairly large (20+), it often works well to have dual flip charts so that two scribes are alternately capturing the input so that you can keep up with the flow and avoid a bottleneck. 

The trick with brainstorms is knowing when to pull the plug. If you drag it out too long, you dissipate the popcorn energy; if you end it too early you can miss the second wave of ideas, which is often where the most valuable ore is mined. (In the first wave the ideas that surface are 95% comprised of the obvious, because the creative, free-associating juices typically don't get fully flowing until the second wave.)

But let's suppose you get all of that right, and the brainstorm was both exciting and productive. Now what? If you stop there, it's not easy knowing what to do with what you've collected. The raw dough needs kneading to be develop its potential.

Essentially, you have a gob of raw data, unsorted and untested. Here's a serviceable sequence for getting this stuff whipped into shape and ready for prime time:

1. Sorting
It's generally a good idea (and relatively quick and painless) to sort the brainstorm output into like ideas. Interestingly, one of the quickest ways to accomplish this is to cut up the flip chart pages such that there is one idea per piece of paper, place them randomly in the middle of the floor, and ask the group to clump things that belong together—then stand back and get out of the way. In most cases a group can get this done in about five minutes. 

Once the flurry subsides the facilitator can step back in and walk through each clump to make sure the group is satisfied, adjusting as appropriate. Often it's helpful to ask the group to come up with a name for each clump.

2. Vetting
The next step is to visit each labeled clump and ask if the group feels OK with accepting each suggestion as worthy of group consideration. Sometimes there are ideas that have been offered up more for their humor value than because of their brilliancy, or perhaps some contributions are more a representation of personal preferences than something aligned with group values. As such, this is an opportunity to prune what's inappropriate. 

If a group has been fairly disciplined during the brainstorm there may be nothing that falls away. Nonetheless, this is an important step that establishes buy-in with the vetted list.

3. Prioritizing
Next it's a good idea to ask the group if there are some considerations that trump others, or are all ideas to be given equal weight?

If there are some factors coming out of the brainstorm that members agree are more crucial, then it guides the group in building a more stable foundation for its response to the issue under consideration.
• • •
At this point the group has organized, evaluated, and made a preliminary assessment of what relative weight should be assigned to each brainstormed idea. As a result, the group should be well-positioned to begin problem solving in earnest. This sequence demonstrates a pathway by which a group can start with an open-ended, creative brainstorm, and turn it into clear guidance for how to screen potential solutions. 

It doesn't have to be that hard.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

On Having a Chronically Ill Partner

My wife, Ma'ikwe, has chronic Lyme disease.

She had been suffering from symptoms (including joint ache, stiffness, fatigue, nausea, and occasional vertigo) for about nine months before receiving a definitive blood test in 2010. After treatment with heavy doses of the antibiotic doxycycline in the fall of that year, she enjoyed about 15 months where her health had rebounded to about 80% of normal. Then the symptoms returned around the first of this year.

Unfortunately, the same antibiotic treatment was not nearly as effective this time around, and she's eight months into trying a bewildering combination of protocols in a determined effort to regain her health. [See We Went to the Doctor and the Doctor Said… from March 24, 2012 for more on the disease and how Ma'ikwe has been treating it. See The Lemon and the Lyme from May 9 for how this has been a strain on our relationship.]

Two mornings ago, we lay in bed and Ma'ikwe was in tears, lamenting that she wasn't getting the support from me she needed. 

As her state of depleted energy has persisted, her patience is wearing thin with her slow, up-and-down progress in battling the illness. This journey is made doubly tough by the need to cope (as best we can) with the record-breaking heat assailing the Midwest this summer. Ma'ikwe is worn out, and she has diminished tolerance for:

My Not Listening Well Enough
This has a number of components. First, I sometimes repeat questions that she's already answered. 

Second, I have a tendency to talk over her when we both want to talk at the same time. 

Third, it's relatively common for me to share a past, related challenging experience of my own (if I have one) when she reports something that's currently being hard for her. While I think I'm bridging to her reality, she experiences it as my hijacking the conversation. Instead of continuing to be present for what's going on for her, she feels I'm turning her distress into (another) occasion to talk about me. Not good.

Fourth, our styles of sharing are different. While I like to walk through what's been on my mind since we've last shared, in a stream of consciousness monologue that jumbles together the trivial with the momentous; the humorous with the vexing in an unedited litany, Ma'ikwe prefers to be drawn out and then listened to without interruption. If I ask questions (in an attempt to better understand a thread), she often feels knocked off center and disrespected. In short, Ma'ikwe offers me what she wants in return and then feels cheated when I don't track her stories accurately enough or quietly enough.

While none of these communication issues is peculiar to our marriage, they add to the challenge of our successfully weathering the Lyme siege.

Right now, it mostly needs to be about Ma'ikwe and my challenge is to adapt better to what works best for her. It's not about what's fair or balanced; it's about what's possible and needed to get through a hard time—with each giving in proportion to what they can.

My Not Bringing Things Up
While Ma'ikwe ordinarily appreciates my being willing to talk about what's bothering me, it's hard for me to know when she has sufficient energy to hang in there with me when I'm churning about something in our relationship. How fair is it for me to ask my sick partner to listen to my lamenting about what's hard for me?

While I'm convinced that some of the time I should do this anyway (picking my spots for when her energy seems most able to handle it), it is damn hard to sort out. There are many days when it appears that it's all Ma'ikwe can handle to just hold her own life together, and I am loath to burden her with my concerns as well. Instead, it seems prudent (or at least humane) to just put such concerns on hold and wait until her constitution has been restored to something far more robust before bringing up relationship issues.

Unfortunately, this leads to her bringing up hard stuff far more than I, and that, understandably, pisses her off as well.

My Touching Her in Irritating Ways
While cuddling and touch have been an important part of the vocabulary of our intimacy throughout the seven years we've been together, it's much trickier these days. Ma'ikwe suffers from fibromyalgia-like symptoms and even light touch can be painful. Usually my touching her back is pleasurable for her, but not always. Now, sadly, something that we used to look forward to very much has become uncertain, and we touch much less.
• • •
Hardest of all, we don't know how long we'll have to hang in there before things will get significantly better. We don't know if Ma'ikwe will ever fully recover or if it will again be OK for me to touch her casually and we'll both enjoy it. I have a much deeper respect these days for that portion of traditional marriage vows that goes "… for better and worse."

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Geometry of Community

I was recently consulting with a forming group that's considering rehabbing a school to house an intentional community and they wanted my advice about optimum size and concentration. Although the school has five stories and they were open to the possibility of using the entire space for the community I advised against it—both because it gets proportionately harder to maintain group cohesion as the population increases, and because it gets geometrically harder to establish and maintain group identity as the number of floors increases. I suggested they try to contain the community on three floors.

While creating and sustaining community is mainly a social challenge, that doesn't mean that design and spatial relationships don't have something to say about the outcome.

For example, when community houses are clustered, the people tend to be more involved in each others' lives; when the housing is diffused, so are the social interactions (think about the relative isolation of people who live in the suburban sprawl of one house per acre—where you have to put on sun block in order to borrow a cup of sugar). If the houses are laid out in a circle, the differences are less pronounced. When the housing is strung out in a line, the end folks are simply not in the social flow as much as others and that affects relationships. If there's a common house and that's the epicenter of community action, then the key is how close a given house is from the common house—even if the common house is on the edge of the community.

To be clear, location is not destiny. It also makes a difference how much you hang out on your porch, attend potlucks, throw card parties, and/or have a reputation as a grouch who eats small children. In short, behavior is also a big factor. With a nod in that direction, today I want to focus on the predictable challenges associated with different physical layouts.

The Vertical Challenge
In addition to how closely a home is located from the center of activity, multistory communities have an additional challenge in that different floors tend to be completely out of sight of one another. At least with a strung out community you can see the house at the end of the row; it's damn hard to see the apartment above you. (Hint: being able to hear the couple above you argue or make love does not necessarily count as a bonding experience.)

Regardless of whether we're talking about people being spread out or stacked up, the key thing is promoting flow by one another's units. If there are public reasons that will bring people by where others lives it promotes informal social contact, which is the main lubricant of community. In the case of vertical communities (high-rises built on a small urban footprint), the question is how to locate functions such that most residents will need or want to travel to all floors.

This means public functions commingled with private ones. Maybe there's a pedestrian entrance on a different level than the parking entrance. Maybe you can have an exercise facility or entertainment room on different floors; maybe there's meeting space or a craft center on different floors than the entrance. The kitchen/dining room could be on another floor still. How about the mail room and community bulletin board, or the little kids' rumpus room?

While it's often convenient to clump public functions together (one stop shopping) that strategy may have the unintended consequence of promoting private space ghettos that no one ever visits unless they're going there on purpose. While no doubt some inter-visitation will happen no matter what you do (you can, after all, reasonably count on some degree of spontaneously occurring social interplay among residents), community depends on flow.

How will you draw people into walking by the units at the end of the hall on the top floor? How will you attract residents into going by the house built furthest from the common house (Hint: locating the dumpster there is a weak solution—while it guarantees traffic, who wants to hang out by the garbage)?

While everyone enjoys some moments of privacy and quiet, you do not want to design your community such that the housing reinforces people being isolated. There's more than enough of that in the mainstream culture already.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Relishing the Heat

At Sandhill, we've officially entered condiment season. It lasts from now until frost—about 10 weeks. While this summer has been unusually hot, it is only now that we start packing heat into jars.

With the weather as brutal as it's been—there have been all-time highs across much of the country—we're thankful that we're entering summer's second half. Today we inched into August, which is generally cooler than July. We can only cross our fingers and hope that this year will be typical.

[You know it's a hot summer when you're thankful that the daytime high is only in the 90s, and that you're praying for a nighttime low that dips below 70—such that you're reaching for a sheet before dawn.]

On a Midwest homestead, August is the month that both tomatoes and peppers are headline vegetables. Think salsa. While our hot peppers are not quite ready for prime time, we've nonetheless eased into condiment season. The stars were aligned this summer such that we succeeded in keeping the coons out of our sweet corn—a noteworthy accomplishment all by itself—and we've enjoyed a bumper crop of both cabbages and kings, I mean corn. This translates into corn relish. While my community relishes an abundance of sweet corn in the freezer, this year we have enough for everything (including plenty of corn-on-the-cob gluttony) and there are now 42 quarts of this once-every-five-years specialty in the root cellar. Yum.

Next in line are our tomatillos. As they start maturing in July (and keep on marching out of the garden until frost), we already have four buckets of these tasty Mexican nightshades patiently stockpiled in our cooler, waiting for the hot peppers to catch up. Once the jalapeños start ripening we'll enter serious tomatillo salsa production, which is one of our hotter sellers (pun intended) on our fair table each fall, standing proud right next to the sorghum and horseradish. Olé!

Once we get the tomatillo surplus under control, we'll have time to catch our breath and lay in the years' supply of tomato salsa, featuring generous amounts of pan-roasted cumin, hand ground in a mortar and pestle (it's completely different than using store bought ground cumin).

This takes us pretty much through August, by which time the peppers will be in full stride and we can pair their incoming bounty with new crop honey (our bees are enjoying their strongest showing in years) to cook down caseloads of pepper relish. We use equal parts of sweet peppers and hot peppers, diced small and cooked down slowly in honey and vinegar to create a a piquant, sweet gooey condiment that sells as fast as we can make it.

It's interesting that the hot peppers don't reach full strength until the weather starts tapering off, as if the peppers have been storing up all the extra heat that Old Sol has been radiating, releasing it later as starbursts of reflected glory whenever you take a bite.

As we enter condiment season, I am reminded of the lyrics of "Canned Goods" by Greg Brown, who grew up in rural Iowa. I aspire to be a culinary alchemist like his grandma, about whom he had this to say in the chorus:

Peaches on the shelf 
Potatoes in the bin 
Supper's ready, everybody come on in 
Taste a little of the summer, 
Taste a little of the summer, 
You can taste a little of the summer 
My grandma's put it all in jars.