Laird's Blog

Anger Management

Sometimes I get angry. I mean really angry. 

I've done personal work over the years to examine my anger and my reactivity, slowly gaining in understanding about both. While I don't know that one's work in such things is ever done, I want to describe my journey and the progress I've made along the way. This is up for me right now because anger has been one of my responses to the demise of my marriage last winter and I'm doing focused work this weekend to let it go.

Like many others, my introduction to anger wasn't very inspiring. I grew up in a middle class family where the expression of anger was not encouraged—it was viewed as a loss of control. My mother had a flat affect (she almost never got angry, or admitted to it) and my father generally sublimated it into sarcasm, scathing commentary, or nasty innuendo—since "mature" people didn't get angry. (Can you see my eyeballs rolling?) 

So my temper tantrums as a child (and then as an adolescent) were framed as immature outbursts. There was a certain amount of tolerance and sympathy extended to me, but the main message was to get over it, or learn to channel it—into problem solving (from my mother) or into getting even (from my father).

While I learned a certain amount of self control and became a relatively high-functioning adult who didn't get angry often, I still did from time to time and it wasn't fun to be around when my volcano erupted. The trigger could be a number of things, none of which are unique to me: 
o  Moral outrage; a blatant abuse of power (how could they have done that!)
o  The perception that my integrity was being called into question (for example, claiming that I had misused power)
o  My being treated unfairly (the application of a double standard where it was OK for the other person to do a thing that they'd criticized me for doing)
o  Cursing my poor luck; railing at the gods (how could nine be rolled five times in a row?)
o  Simply a sense that somebody done me wrong.

The first step in my road to recovery was learning that feelings were OK—even though my entire upbringing had reinforced the message that they weren't. When I reflect on a fork in the road that I faced in my early 20s: go to law school or explore intentional community, I shudder to think about the arrested development that would have followed if I had taken the road more traveled. Law school almost certainly would have reinforced all the wrong things in me (competitiveness, dominance of rationality, fierceness), while intentional community led me to discover the path to becoming a more whole and integrated person (emotional sensitivity, heightened awareness of intuition, openness to spiritual inquiry).

Recovering my emotional heritage as a human being and welcoming it into my life was by no means a simple process. It took years and the path was rock-strewn and bumpy. Not coincidentally, this personal work corresponded with the advance of my capacity as a professional facilitator, where I learned to work with energy just as deftly as working with content. On my way to developing a national reputation for working constructively with conflict, it was absolutely essential that I could work accurately and empathetically with feelings as they emerged in the dynamic moment—something that I didn't have a clue about how to do as the 24-year-old who helped start Sandhill Farm in 1974.

Lesson #1: Denying anger doesn't work
If it is not acknowledged as it occurs, it does not go away for lack of oxygen; it just goes anaerobic and leaks elsewhere, infecting otherwise healthy dynamics. 

OK, suppose you get this far and learn to recognize and acknowledge reactions as they occur. While that alone will put you ahead of the curve of the general population, it will not get you to heaven. In a mainstream culture that lionizes rational thought, feelings are either denied, or tolerated as a weakness—until we can return from the interruption to our regularly scheduled rational conversation.  

To be sure, when feelings are mishandled bad things can happen. People can get hurt and relationships can suffer damage. It can get ugly. But it doesn't have to be that way! In fact, the full expression of feelings can be a huge positive in two regards, which are the substance of the next lesson:

Lesson #2: Feelings are not inherently good or bad
They represent information and energy. The former can be applied to understanding the issue at a deeper level. The latter can be harnessed in service to problem solving (a fire hose can be dangerous and destructive if water is jetting out the nozzle chaotically; in contrast, it can be highly beneficial if someone is directing the stream of water at a conflagration). 

Lesson #3: You are far more likely to be able to hold the fire hose if you can establish that you welcome the expression of emotions, (I'm angry!) while object to aggression (You're a jerk!)
Though the upset person may feel that those two statements are equivalent, they aren't. The first is a straight reporting of their feelings; the second is an attack on the person who's words or actions triggered the anger. Nobody wants to be attacked.

So let's suppose you've now made it to the third rung of the ladder and are able to recognize your feelings as they occur, to appreciate their potential value as a source of information and energy, and to express them cleanly. Now what? The next advance is understanding that a feeling is not an action imperative.

Lesson #4: Feeling anger does not necessitate that you act on it
Just because you always raised your voice and turned red in the face whenever you expressed anger as a child doesn't mean you have keep doing it that way as an adult. You have choices. In fact, it's possible to become angry, recognize, and not react to it. 

I'm not sure I would have believed that last sentence was possible until I learned how to be less reactive as a deliberate goal of couples counseling two years ago [see my blog EMDR to the Rescue for more on that]. Today I'm no less likely to become angry; yet I'm far less likely to feel compelled to express it (as a result of which everyone around me breathes a little easier).

It's one thing to have an angry reaction, and to ride the tiger. It's another to make the tiger your pet, so that you can ride it whenever you like.The art of anger management is navigating the space in between, where you don't try to fight the feeling, you recognize and acknowledge it, yet don't let it own your soul.
The object is not to extinguish anger. It's to not let it run you.

Lesson #5: Knowing when it's time to forgive and move on
Blaming someone else for your outrage is completely disempowering, as relief is in the hands of others, who may not care a fig for you. In fact, they may not know that you're angry. Or even if the do, and would otherwise be inclined to help you out, they may be pretty attached to the behavior or position that triggers you. Ugh.

The good news is that you can change your feelings. I'm not saying this is easy, but it can be done. Once you see that anger can be a dangerous drug—that you are at risk of becoming addicted to its flames and righteousness—there comes a time when you should examine persisting anger to see how it's serving you, if at all. If you find yourself stuck on play repeat whenever you think about the triggering person, there's a good chance that you're simply feeding the monkey and it's probably time to move on.
I am not talking about walling off or performing a feelingectomy; I am talking about forgiveness.

I'm talking about the self-healing power of finding a way to see the actions (or non-actions) of the triggering person(s) as being done innocently and forgiving them for whatever role they played as an agent in your misery. In the end, no one else but you is responsible for your feelings. I'm not talking about you being naive or a milquetoast; I'm talking about getting out of the swamp of self-misery you've built around yourself.

The beauty of this approach is that it is something that you can do all by yourself and is therefore entirely in your control. It entails emotional alchemy, transmuting anger into sadness, grief, and acceptance—ultimately leading to liberation and recapturing the capacity to love. 

Though it's taken me the last 40 years to get this far in my journey with anger, and I've had to learn each of the above five lessons the hard way, it's been worth it.

The Intersection of Community and Spirit

I just read How We Gather by Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile. It's an intriguing analysis of how millennials (people currently aged 18-34) see the world and what they're seeking. As someone in the process of turning over his life's work to a younger generation this is compelling stuff.

Of particular note, the authors reported:

[Researchers] found that millennials are not “the spiritual consumers of their parents’ generation, rather they are seeking both a deep spiritual experience and a community experience, each of which provides them with meaning in their lives, and is meaningless without the other.” In other words, when they say they are not looking for a faith community, millennials might mean they are not interested in belonging to an institution with religious creed as the threshold. However, they are decidedly looking for spirituality and community in combination, and feel they can’t lead a meaningful life without it. 

This is an important insight to me, as it provides a bridge that I was having trouble seeing among all four key elements of the Ecovillage Design Education curriculum that the Global Ecovillage Network developed as the essential componanets of sustainability: ecological, social, economic, and worldview (or spiritual). While I had no trouble seeing the interconnections among the first three, I have struggled for years to see the relationship of those to spirit. It worked better for me to think in terms of mindset; where we needed to understand the imperative of engaging in cultural change—moving from a dominant competitive, hierarchic culture, to a cooperative, egalitarian culture. That at least I could grok.

To be clear, Ms. Thurston is based at Harvard Divinity School and Mr. ter Kuile is undergoing ministerial training, and the point of their article is to explore the trend among millennials to be less religiously affiliated than older generations, even as they hunger for spiritual connection and meaning. 

The article offers this summary of millennials:

According to the 2012 Pew Research Center report, “Nones on the Rise,” nearly one in three do not belong to a faith community and of those, only 10% are looking for one. Though many millennials are atheists or agnostics, the majority are less able to articulate their sense of spirituality, with many falling back on the label ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’. The General Social Survey of 2014 shows that the disaffiliation trend is only growing.

The point that grabbed my attention is not the decline in religious affiliation among the young (I would have guessed that there are way more nones than nuns); it's the idea that the hunger for spirituality and community are joined at the hip. That I didn't expect.

In probing this more deeply, it makes sense to open the aperture to the lowest possible f-stop when looking at spiritually. Let's move beyond organized religion to focus on basic cosmological questions, such as:
o  What is the meaning of life?
o  What role do humans play in it generally, and what role do I play in it specifically? 
o  If there is a purpose to my life, what is it, and how shall I know it?
o  What is right relationship to other humans? To other species? To the planet?

These questions are timeless, and it only makes sense that millennials will be asking them, too—just like all who have preceded them in this vale of tears. So of course spirituality matters.

Approaching this from the other end, it doesn't take King Solomon to figure out that we need to start plowing through fewer resources per person if humanity is going to avoid splatting against a brick wall, and it's a relatively small number of dots that need connecting to take you from Point A—the realization that the Club of Rome was essentially right when it published its controversial landmark work, The Limits to Growth, back in 1972—to Point B—we need to learn how to share more and create a high quality of life that is not so defined by consumption and material acquisition, which, ta-duh, leads to community. 

That said, it is not enough to parsimoniously ratchet down consumables and minimize our carbon footprint. There needs to be a point to it all—a reason why humanity is worth saving. And that's where spiritual inquiry comes in. Community may be a safe haven, but it has to be more inspiring than a bunker with triple glazed windows and R-60 walls.

Thurston & ter Keile go on to say:

The lack of deep community is indeed keenly felt. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among youth. Rates of isolation, loneliness and depression continue to rise. As traditional religion struggles to attract young people, millennials are looking elsewhere with increasing urgency. And in some cases, they are creating what they don’t find.

The disillusionment of millennials with organized religion extends to organized politics as well. They're looking for something more personable and immediate, both with respect to what they can do and what they can receive.

The authors have identified six themes that are recurring qualities among the innovative organizations that they profile in their article—all of which are finding ways to connect with millennials:

Community 
Valuing and fostering deep relationships that center on service to others
  
Personal transformation 
Making a conscious and dedicated effort to develop one’s own body, mind, and spirit
  
Social transformation 
Pursuing justice and beauty in the world through the creation of networks for good
  
Purpose finding 
Clarifying, articulating, and acting on one’s personal mission in life
  
Creativity 
Allowing time and space to activate the imagination and engage in play
  
Accountability 
Holding oneself and others responsible for working toward defined goals 

The article continues:


[Savvy organizational leaders] assume that for institutions to work, they must become values-led, sustainable networks; that for idealism to work, it must yield measurable and scalable results; that for success to work, it must affect some kind of transformation, beginning with the inner life of the individual and radiating out to touch the world. 

What does it mean to touch the world in 2015? It’s a moment when virtual interconnectivity is more immediate than the "real" world, so that an American millennial feels more comfortable setting up a Kiva loan to a farmer in Kenya than bringing chicken soup to a neighbor. Is it possible to harness these new tools of global engagement to deepen our everyday experience of community as well?
  
The innovators in our report say yes, not just possible, but necessary. They speak to millennials as friends, offering positive and practical advice through clean and personable websites. They encourage an ethos of care for self and others and a mindset of abundance. They argue, explicitly or implicitly, that each person is a change maker with the opportunity—if not the responsibility—to make change for the better. And making change means making connection, both broadly in the world and deeply at home.

The contention of Thurston & ter Keile is that millennials are changing they way we gather, and they invite a dialog across the generations to discuss this. This is a provocative piece, asking all of us to be  more aware of the various settings and portals of access to engaging people under 35. Better yet, be mindful of the synergy possible when portals are combined. (Don't just offer an opportunity for creative experession; offer art that's community building and in service to social change work all at the same time.)
They end the article by posing three excellent questions, suggesting that all organizations hopeful of staying vibrant and meaningful—to millennials of all ages—need to keep in their consciousness:

—Who are we serving?
Healthy groups are obsessed with "who is our constituency?" which can be a moving target. More than that, it is paramount that organizations are doing something useful in the world and serving real needs. How does our work build community?

—How are we leading?
This is especially potent in the context of building cooperative culture, where the healthy use of power looks quite a bit different than in hierarchic settings. In cooperative settings, there is as much attention given to how you do things as what you do; in the mainstream culture everything is slanted toward the bottom line. How is our leadership building community?

Taking this a step further, how are intentional communities (as a specific kind of organization) taking advantage of their common values and the ability to focus resources to focalize conversations in the neighborhoods in which they're imbedded about how to have more meaningful lives, more resilient local economies, and a greater sense of community?

—What is right relationship to (divine) spirit?
How are the individuals who are touched by this organization becoming clearer and more centered about who they are and what they want to do in the world? How are we supporting spiritual inquiry and personal transformation? How is the spiritual grounding of our people inspiring our work and thereby nurturing community?

You may have noticed that these are the kind of questions that can be asked again and again. Don't let that dismay you from the attempt to address them. (It turns out that all the really great questions are 100% recyclable.)

How I Write

While quite a number of people dread writing and try to minimize expressing themselves in that medium (I'm sorry, texting and tweeting don't count, as they're more like composing shopping lists than the script for Schindler's List), among those of us who embrace it there is considerable variety in how we approach it. In the hopes that it may be instructive, today's essay will illuminate how I do it. 

First of all I want to make a confession: writing is not a skill that came to me naturally; I've taught myself to do it. Though that may be unexpected from a guy who has authored a regular column in Communities magazine for decades and has posted 900 blogs in less than eight years, in college I had a minor reputation for talking my way out of writing assignments. Literally. On a number of occasions I went to the professor and successfully argued that I make an oral presentation in lieu of submitting a paper. I still had to prepare, of course, and I still had to make cogent points, but I dreaded public speaking less than writing so I thought of this as a creative coup.

Slowly, over the course of the last 30 years, I've trained myself to be an effective writer. In fact, today I write something substantive almost every day (and I'm not counting my commuter rush of email traffic—not the least of which is my thrice daily intimate correspondence with my new partner, Susan, where the bulk of the investment in our burgeoning six-week-old relationship has been epistolary). "Substantive writing" could be a blog, a magazine article, a cogent summary of a complex topic, a comprehensive client report, or a nuanced proposal. If a day goes by where I don't have my writing oar in the water, then the next day I have to pull the boat twice.

In any event, here's how I approach my craft. I find it useful to think of writing having three distinct phases. Though the actual work may be accomplished in one sitting—depending on timing and inspiration—it's helpful to understand that each of the phases has a different mind set and that it's often productive to complete one phase before moving on to the next.

I. Outlining
This is the big picture. What do I have to say? Why is that compelling?

The first germ of what I'll write about can come from a number of angles:
—It could be philosophical (for example, many topics arise from my working with groups as a consultant and having an issue come up that I don't think I've treated thoroughly before). Thus, I might be writing about the theory of cooperative group dynamics, or articulating what I consider a best practice.

—It could be poignant (arising from a riveting personal experience: either something I witnessed or that involved me). These tend to be stories about how I learned a lesson, or how I'm struggling to make sense of one.

—It could be whimsical (telling a story of something entertaining or amusing; life is full of spontaneous oddities that are delightful to share). Though rare, there are occasions where I start with what I think is a terrific ending and then backfill all the rest to get there, like when I found myself coming home by train in mid-December and Mr and Mrs Claus walked through the dining car in full drag. When we got to my stop and I was the first one to get off there were 100 people with cameras and lights waiting to greet me in the sleepy town of La Plata MO—all hoping that I'd be Santa Claus.

Pretty much everything I write falls into one or more of a small number of categories:
o  Cooperative group dynamics
o  Community and sustainable living
o  Personal journey (major markers in my life and the learning associated them) o  Humor/entertainment

Next I try to sketch out the main points in a stream of consciousness—just banging down ideas and phrases as fast as they occur to me. (I can always excise ineffective thoughts and rehabilitate lame phrasing later). If the sequencing of ideas matters I often capture it in this initial rush.

It's not unusual at this stage for a topic to get richer and more complex once I delve into it, though sometimes the reverse obtains (where close examination reveals that I have nothing that interesting to say and my once-exciting concept is exposed as fool's gold).

II. Crafting
In the second pass, I try to flesh out the outline (put meat on the bones). This is typically done one paragraph at a time. Sometimes it's a slog (like house-to-house combat); sometimes it flows easily (like a float trip down the river of creative expression).

This is where the art of writing is most prominent. Each paragraph needs to meet strict personal standards for being to the point (laser focused), elegant (lean of words without being obscure or ambiguous), and grabby (with metaphors and images that are evocative and apropos).

Is there sufficient context? Is there a personal story, the telling of which helps place the reader in the narrative, or grounds the point (such as my encounter with Santa above)?

III Copy Editing
In the final phase I'm using an old toothbrush to clean the grout on the bathroom floor. Have I used some words too often (I don't count prepositions but you can't use "scintilla" or "maximal" more than once in an essay)?

Have I chosen the right words (sometimes the phrasing is not quite apt or the words don't convey the right flavor)? This is where I drill down on grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

I read the essay aloud to see if the meter is right. If I stumble somewhere, I rework the rough spots (like sanding wood).

This final phase is about polishing, craftsmanship, and technical skill, not so much artistic expression.
• • •If all goes well, by the time I've weathered the gauntlet of all three phases I have a nugget worth publishing—and that goes down so easily that the reader hardly notices that serious effort was expended in its manufacture.

The 100,000-mile Community Tune Up

I've been a group process consultant for 28 years. For the first 26 years most of my work was focused on weathering storms, or training groups in foul weather drills, so that they could better handle heavy seas themselves.

In the last 18 months, however, there's been something of a sea change. In addition to the crisis management work I've always gotten, I've been hired to help five different cohousing communities struggling with who they are, 12-20 years after move in. Plus I've gotten inquiries from a handful more who are thinking about hiring someone to help with reinvigoration, to reset their gyroscope. Apparently it's a trend.

What's going on?

Actually, there are quite a number of things going on, and I've enumerated 10 of them below. While all these don't obtain in all situations, the factors I've named can reinforce each other to erode a sense of cohesion and group identity. If you have a number of these dynamics at play in your group, unaddressed they will almost certainly lead to diffusion and confusion. The good news is that this trend is reversible—if the group has the will to address them.

1. Changing of the Guard
Some founders have retired from active community life, moved or died. New members have replaced them, but the group is now different and hasn't yet gelled in the way that the original group did. This phenomenon tends to happen earlier with cohousing groups because they often include founding members north of 60, so it takes fewer years for some of the originals to age out.

[Note that while aging is inevitable, not gelling is not. See more about this under Point 6 below.]

2. Accumulation of Unresolved Hurts
This is a big one. Overall, it's the most common thing I'm asked to help with (often packaged with other issues). The wider culture handles this abysmally, and thus well-intended folks tend to come into the community experience with: a) the naive hope that conflict won't happen in Utopia; rather than b) the personal skills needed to navigate conflict well.

When tensions don't resolve—I'm not saying they never do, only that it is highly common for some of them not to, and that there is a cumulative effect of ignoring these that gets increasingly expensive—it's often tempting to settle for the simplistic analysis that it's the other person's fault (that efforts at resolving tensions have stalled out). It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how myopic and limited that thinking is.

3. The Three Musketeers Don't Live Here Any More
Often there is a special all-for-one-and-one-for-all quality that is manifested for those who went through the rush of development together that creates a special bond among founding members. This is a real thing and the community can often ride that wave of good feeling for a number of years before it peters out on the endless pebbled beaches of everyday living.

It's one thing to bond over the exhilarating heady days of first meetings, recruitment, planning, and construction, when everything is new and everything is possible. It's another to renew and maintain that sense of cohesion. Groups sometimes make the mistake of thinking that after having successfully navigated the rapids of development together, that they're bonded for life. Not so. The experience fades and latter-day residents can never touch that experience.

Lacking some of the more nuts and bolts ways that groups renew and sustain cohesion (see Points 5, 6, 7, and 9), it turns out that groups may have only created a temporary sense of community during the intensity of development, analogous to how neighbors rally around crisis (such as a tornado or flood) to pull together in ways that they ordinarily don't. Then, when the intensity of pioneering eases off and it's  a matter of living the life (settler phase), there is rarely something so compelling or urgent that pulls everyone together in the same way.

It turns out that community building is a lot like gardening: you can't just turn the soil, sow seeds, and walk away hoping to return periodically to harvest sustenance year after year; if you don't cultivate the crops, pretty soon the weeds take over.

4. Increase in Transients
Many communities experience over time an increase in the percentage of renters living in the community—both in-house and whole house. There are three points to make about this phenomenon. First, some groups treat renters as second-class citizens, perhaps by not extending to them the right to block in plenary. I think this is a mistake. Renters can be excellent members and it behooves the group to allow that to happen, expecting renters to have the same set of rights and responsibilities that owners have, excepting perhaps that they're not allowed to block decisions with long-term financial implications (such as the conditions under which capital reserve funds can be accessed). On a day-to-day level, there are very few issues where you wouldn't want renters to actively participate.

Second, it's worthwhile for the group to pause and try to understand what the trend toward more renters means. Are owners struggling to make ends meet where they weren't before? If so, is the community doing anything to help with that? Are owners wanting out, but can't sell their home because of a poor market? Assuming you'd rather have owner-occupied houses, how actively is the community working to make that happen (as opposed to relying primarily, or even solely, on exiting members to handle marketing and screen prospectives)?

Often groups have an active Membership Committee in the beginning, to sell out the lots, and then that team goes dormant once the project is sold out. That's a mistake! You should always have an active Membership Committee, with primary responsibility for:
o  Recruitment (if you have no openings, develop a waiting list, including for renters)
o  Orientation & Integration (see Point 6 below)
o  Exit Interviews (why did that owner sell?)

Third, it makes a difference how long someone is renting. Most groups feel that investing in screening and orienting isn't worth it for short-term rentals (90 days or less) but probably is for longer rentals. Further, there is the contemporary phenomenon of Airbnb—very short-term rentals—which pushes the envelope around safety, strain on common facilities (Common House laundry, Common House kitchen, parking), and overall sense of connection because you know your neighbors. This is worth a conversation.

5. Weakly Defined Common Values and Mission
A lot of cohousing communities have a casually defined sense of what values are shared among members. In fact, a number of groups proudly tell the world that they make no attempt to screen people, trusting that the right ones will find their way to community without any active guiding from current members. I call this member roulette, and I recommend against it.

The truth is, not everyone is going to be a suitable member of your community, and not all collections of people are going to enjoy living together. There needs to be some discernment (by which I mean something more substantive than whether their checks clear), and that starts with defining what the group stands for and what it intends to do in the world—so that prospectives can do a better job of self-screening for appropriateness, and the community has a rational basis for rejecting someone who doesn't appear to be a good fit—what's the point of slogging through 2-3 years of mutual misery to conclude what you could have reasonably projected before move in? Grow a pair.

But defining common values has more application than merely helping with recruitment and new resident selection. Common values are the bedrock that you build all community agreements upon. They are the basis for discerning which factors need to be taken into account when wrestling with whole-group issues (because they are tied to common values) and which can be set aside as personal interests (because they are not tied to common values). Lacking clarity about this inevitably leads to getting bogged down in the swamp of strongly held personal interests (because there's no basis to exclude them).

By clarifying values and mission the community creates a beacon of light that will draw in people who are a good fit. Lacking clarity you have a fog, which doesn't particularly attract anyone, excepting the lost.

6. Weak Orientation and Integration of New Residents
I spoke above (Point 4) about the importance of having an active Membership Committee. Sometimes groups do a decent job of marketing, yet fall down on the second part of (what I propose as) their mandate: orientation and integration of new residents. Some groups feel that they've done their job if they hand new folks a fat notebook chock full of FAQ, member rules and guidelines, a map of the property, an explanation of the committee structure, and an agreement log.

I'm not saying it's a bad idea to have that notebook, but I don't think it's anywhere near enough. New people often don't even know what questions to ask. Give new residents a buddy for six months who will be pro-active in sitting down with the new folks to help demystify community life (including debriefing community meetings). Expect each standing committee to be responsible for providing an orientation about what they do in lay terms for the new people.

Remember: it's far cheaper to retain a member than to replace one. It falls to the existing members to take the lead on this (rather than asking the new folks to pound on the walls until a door pops open).

7. Martyrs and Slackers Dynamics
This is the most common aspect of community life that I'm asked to handle as an outside facilitator: the accumulation of tension related to the uneven level of participation among members (non-monetary contributions to the maintenance and well being of the community). People are labeled "slackers" because they do not appear to be doing their share of the work, even though it appears they are able-bodied and could. People are labeled "martyrs" because they pick up the slack and then act as if they deserve extra power (that is, additional weight should be given to their views and preferences) by virtue of their having done more than others—even though they weren't asked to do more.

Unaddressed, these dynamics lead to demoralization, a gradual build-up of tensions that leak into other aspects of community life, and a decrease in participation overall (why bother if others aren't going to do their fair share). Yuck.

This is a specific example of Point 2. I think that all groups have a periodic need to talk about this, to clear the air. Think of it like going to the dentist. While it may not be an enjoyable prospect, you need to regularly remove the plaque from your teeth if you want to keep them. Unattended to, your teeth fall out (the bottom drops out of participation) and you're left with little more than a neighborhood condo association—and have to live on a diet of applesauce and mashed turnips, which is not the community you had in mind.

8. No Lights on in the Common House
Over time, most cohousing groups experience a decrease in how much the Common House is used. There are fewer community meals, fewer community meetings, a seldom used library, and even a decrease in social events. While this tends to follow from some of the other problems listed here (rather than create them), it's a relatively easy symptom to track.

The sad thing is that the Common House was expensive to build, and represents an ideal of shared space, where everyone's occasional need for large-scale events could be accommodated. However, when the sense of community is weakened, so is the desire to share, and common facilities go underused.

9. Lack of Clarity about What's Wanted from Leaders 
All groups need leaders. While that role can be filled by different members at different times (that is, communities don't need a single person to be the leader), we need organizers, cheerleaders, bridge-builders, articulators, and people who'll stick their thumb in the dike.

Unfortunately, most groups have not taken the time to articulate what qualities they want in leaders, and someone volunteering to serve in a leadership capacity tends to be viewed as prima facie evidence of that person having inadequate ego management. We need to do better than that.

Groups need to be able to talk openly about how power is distributed in the group, and what can be done to adjust that if we want it to be different (short of lopping off heads). We need to be able to distinguish between good uses of power (for the benefit of all) from bad uses (for the benefit of some at the expense of others). We need models of healthy leadership so that we can celebrate when someone does a good job, and have objective criteria to use when trying to help someone improve.

Lacking this clarity there is a tendency for the criticism of leaders to get all out of proportion to their appreciation, with the result that people don't want to serve in that capacity (because they're tired of taking arrows). While I guess you could make the case that no one serving as a leader is equality of a kind, it's pretty miserable.

10. Size Matters
Finally, I want to note that it's harder to maintain cohesion in a larger group, and most cohousing groups have at least 30 members, with many over 50. While no cohousing group, to my knowledge, is so large that people have trouble learning each others' names, it gets increasingly hard to establish and maintain close friendships beyond 20, and it's close friendships that are the life blood of community.

When groups are seeking reinvigoration, they're looking for a greater sense of common identity with the group. While you don't need to feel like every other resident is a close friend in order to achieve that, it's important that your circle of close friends in the group associates that bond with the community.
• • •When I'm asked to work with groups seeking renewal, I like to spend a couple days ahead of the whole-group time in one-on-one and two-on-one interviews to listen to the stories about what the community has meant to members in the past, to learn what's been precious to them in earlier years, and to assess what they're available for in terms of turning things around now.

While there are no doubt patterns as to how groups get stuck and how they might get unstuck, the key to successful work is building on the assets and desires of that group, and for that there is no substitute for listening. I've found that people will tell you what is in their hearts of you take the time to listen.

So that's the story of how I've recently become a community mechanic—helping with 100,000-mile tune-ups. Two years ago I didn't have the slightest inkling that it might turn into a market niche for me. Now here I am, trying to remember where I put that left-handed smoke bender…

Storming on Bastille Day

Today is an omen-filled day of mixed meanings. Even as the sky is broody (we had lightning and thunder bumpers around midnight last night, with a strong chance of more this evening), so am I.

Two years ago on this day Ma'ikwe asked me for a divorce I didn't want. While I worked hard to get another chance—which she gave me several weeks later—I remember two years ago as a devastatingly difficult time. 

Then things got a lot better. I moved in with Ma'ikwe in November 2013 and we felt solid enough about our reinvigorated marriage to conduct a recommitment ceremony, where we renewed our wedding vows. We purposefully chose to do that on this day a year ago, in an attempt to redirect and reclaim the Shiva energy of 2013. In the context of this ritual I also released my 40-year membership at Sandhill, going all in on my marriage.

Then, last February, Ma'ikwe reversed directions and decided she wanted out again—which decision she has stuck with. Suddenly I had lost my marriage (again) and was unsure of where my home was. In June I left northeast Missouri after 41 years to try to reinvent myself in North Carolina. In the short time I have been here, many good things have happened to me, with two standing out in particular: a) I am off to a promising start in trying to establish the nucleus of a community with my housemates, María Stawsky and Joe Cole; and b) I have found love with an old college classmate, Susan Anderson, based on the seed of an attraction that was first planted 45 years ago and which has turned out, surprisingly, to be not only viable, but robust.

So today is a day of reflection. In the last two years July 14 has represented both a nadir and a zenith with a partner who is no longer my partner. And today I am joyously with a new partner in a new home (though, notably, the two are not in the same location—which means that integrative work remains), neither of which I suspected I'd be in the market for half a year ago. What a roller coaster!

What Does the Mother Say?
I figure this reflective moment is a perfect opportunity to consult divination. Thus, I have drawn three Tarot cards from the Motherpeace deck:

1. What is the predominant theme I need to pay attention to right now?
—Priestess of Swords, reversed 

 

The mind at work, a channeling of wisdom. This is feminine knowing from a widow (Susan?). The motif of this card is from the North, an Arctic landscape (Susan lives in Duluth MN). The priestess is a thinker and probably a writer (me?). Thought flows through her like water or light. The owl represents healing and the power of thoughts to "take flight." She draws power from the moon. She has a quiet psyche, allowing her to know the minds of all those around her. Thus, she is able to imagine solutions that others miss.

This card suggest a contemplative, introspective approach. You may be experiencing a separation from your lover (only 1250 miles!) and it's a propitious time to think and write (which I reckon I'm doing right now). Reversed, the card suggests relying not solely on critical judgment; trust the heart.

2. What is the undercurrent that I need to bring into my consciousness?
—Six of Cups, mostly upright 
 
 

Sixes in general are about exuberance and triumph. Of cups, it is riding a wave of orgasmic energy. This is about celebrating having caught the wave just right and luxuriating in the resultant joy. As the card was not fully upright, there is some swaying in the waves, letting the pulsing current toss you around.

3. What do I need to pay attention to going forward?
—Priestess of Cups, rotated 90 degrees to the right

 

This is all about feelings, desires, and dreams. She represents the soul, mediating between the spirit world and daily events. The priestess is an enchantress who has secreted herself in elusive, sacred islands. In her realm of power she is stronger than masculine, hero energy.

This card suggests focusing within and giving your imagination free rein. Your emotions are core, your feelings and desires central. Rotated to the right, the card is progressive, leading into divine inspiration. Something new and powerful will emerge if you let it.
• • •If have drawn positive cards for my new relationship and the grip of this day on my heart has eased.

As I type this the sun is shining. Maybe the energy associated with the day is settling down. Maybe I've experienced enough break up and celebration of union on July 14 (mirroring exactly what happened in Paris July 14, 1789—the storming of the Bastille, marking the determination of the Third Estate to have a constitutional government instead of a monarchy—followed by what happened in Paris July 14, 1790—a celebration of unity of the French people.

Maybe next year I will experience no storming on July 14.

Qualities Wanted from Members of the Conflict Resolution Team

I recently worked with a group seeking advice about how to work constructively with conflict. 

Even though the group had been around for 15+ years and this was the first time they'd asked for training in conflict, they were still ahead of the curve. Though all groups experience conflict, only some have agreements in place about how to respond. Mostly groups rely on members sorting it out on their own and hoping for the best.

While this works to an extent, it invariably breaks down when two people are swamped in the waves of their reactions. And it's too late to call a meeting to discuss how to proceed when the water is coming in over the gunwhales. If you want help in place for those chaotic moments, you have to put it there before the waves get big.

While I appreciate that the dream of cooperative living often includes the rose-colored ideal that members will get along well enough that they'll never experience conflict (or only rarely), that's a myth. If you lead lives that are intertwined and are dealing with serious issues (such as how much you're willing to pay to be environmentally benign; how much diversity you can tolerate; the limits of support you can extend to members aging in place; how to handle situations where you think power has been abused) conflict is inevitable, and occasionally it will be thermonuclear.

OK, suppose I've convinced you that it will rain from time to time no matter how dedicated you are to sunny skies. Once groups accept this (some never do) it's common for them to empanel a Conflict Resolution Committee (or something with a similar name) to help members who have trouble navigating high seas on their own.

While that's good as far as it goes, you're not safely into the harbor yet.

One the more common problems that cooperative groups struggle with is not understanding how to delegate effectively. There are essentially two parts to doing this well:

First, crafting clear mandates that lay out what the subgroup is expected to accomplish and the authority it has to do so. [See Consensus from Soup to Nuts for a template of all the generic questions that you'll need to address in order to develop a thorough mandate. See The Fire Fighting Committee for my thoughts on what the mandate for the Conflict Resolution Committee should be.]

Second, care should be given to selecting the people who serve on the subgroup. This entails delineating the qualities wanted from members of the subgroup before you start selecting them. (I apologize if that seems obvious, but you'd be amazed how frequently groups fill committee slots by simply taking the first hands that are raised in a call for volunteers.)

Here's my pass at what I consider to be the qualities that groups might want in people serving on the Conflict Resolution Team:

Group A Qualities
o  Discretion (ability to keep private information private)
o  General open-mindedness about people who are triggered (doesn't think less of those who get upset)
o  Ability to collaborate well with other members of the team (group chemistry)
o  Doesn’t always need to have things go their way
o  Ability to think clearly about what's best for the group, especially in the arenas of safety and health
o  Ability to hear critical feedback about how they're coming across without getting defensive

Group S Qualities
o  Ability to communicate clearly both thoughts and feelings, and to know the difference between them
o  Ability to function well in the presence of distress in others
o  Ability to empathize with people in distress, establishing to their satisfaction that they've been fully heard
o  Self-awareness about when they're triggered
o  Courage to say hard things
o  Has the bandwidth to be able to devote chunks of time to emerging needs (conflict doesn't erupt on a predictable schedule like Old Faithful)
I have sorted the qualities into two categories: Group A are qualities I think you want in all committee members; Group S are qualities that you need in some committee members.

While your list may differ from mine, I think this is a solid point of departure for any discussion about what you'll want. Meanwhile, keep those buoys and life jackets handy.

Co-living

A friend of mine, Tree Bressen, recently pointed me in the direction of an article in Fast Company entitled: "How Krash And Other Startups Are Taking Coworking Home: It's called co-living, and it's all the rage."

Leaving aside my reaction to the name "co-living" (did the originators think they'd invented the concept of shared housing?), the article explores a new urban phenomenon that's a variant on co-working—where people rent office space with many others, which makes the facilities more affordable for all (users are buying access to expensive office equipment and meeting space rather than owning it, plus they get the bonus of being in an active business environment, and they needn't pay for what they don't need or use. Co-living, as featured in the Fast Company article, takes that a step further, emphasizing the connections and creative sparks possible when you rub two or more entrepreneurs together.

In particular, the article profiles what Phil and Jennifer Fremont-Smith have done in the last three years to develop Krash, a company that offers living spaces in Boston, New York, and DC (with offerings slated to open in Chicago and Los Angeles later this year) that are focused on entrepreneurial stimulation. Similar arrangements are available in the Bay Area and Brooklyn.

All of these are located in dense urban areas with a high cost of living. Fees in Krash houses range from $1,500 to $2,200 a month depending on the city and the time of year, which covers rent, linens, toiletries, and a fully stocked kitchen. The typical stay is only three to six months.

The sizzle is that co-living combines two things that are often separate: business stimulation and home sanctuary. You can talk venture capital while brushing your teeth, or how to slice payroll while slicing onions.

The bottom line on co-living is that if it works, it works. That is, if the owners of co-living houses are making money and renters feel like they're getting value for their rent, then it's a winner.

Still, as an expert in the social dynamics of people living together, I've got questions which the article does not explore. If I've learned anything from four decades of group living, it's that when people live together closely, friction among them invariably develops over time. And the longer you live together and the fewer the common values, the greater the tension. 

In short, when you rub entrepreneurs together you'll get more than just business ideas, and not all of it will be fun or marketable. When discussing group living, if you neglect to talk about friction you're talking fiction.

Maybe the Fremont-Smiths are banking on high turn over among renters to manage interpersonal tensions (by delivering on the business ideas and connections quickly and move 'em through before the pot boils over on how clean to keep the kitchen).

It appears that the only screens used when selecting renters are: a) whether the deposit check clears; and b) whether the prospective is intrigued by living with others looking to develop businesses. Entrepreneurs, as a breed, tend to be individually focused (what do I need and how do I get it?) rather than group focused. While they may be thinking about what's best for the group (as measured by the market), there is a definite iconoclastic bent among entrepreneurs, which does not lend itself well to harmonious vibes in a group house. The key stat in the article is how many successful businesses have been launched from co-living incubators; not how residents are able to reduce their carbon footprint or enhance their communication skills.

To be fair, I started living in group houses right out of college, jumping in with friends both for the reduced rent and the enhanced social atmosphere. I gave little thought to what skills it took to make group living work. While I eventually became good at it, it took decades—which is demonstrably not what the urban hipsters profiled in the article are looking for or intending that renters will devote to it.

While I'm all for entrepreneurs getting support, and I like the symmetry of Phil and Jennifer having figured out a business niche for themselves providing that support, I'm more interested in how people learn to get along with each other—especially how entrepreneurs can get along better with non-entrepreneurs—but, alas, the article doesn't touch that at all.

It will be interesting to see the extent to which co-living remains "all the rage," and the extent to which it foments rage—when the fissionable material of iconoclasts are asked to share a kitchen and bathroom.

Appreciating the Ordinary

One of the secrets of a happy life is having a Low Threshold of Delight—finding joy in many things.

I'm reflecting on this as my week-long visit with Susan Anderson slides into its second half. I've been here for five days now and our newly minted intimate relationship is well begun. While it's tempting to assemble a highlight reel offering readers a peek of peak moments in the last 120 hours (whence the phrase labor of love), I want to focus today's essay instead on the mundane—which comprises the overwhelming majority of our daily lives, and gives us the greatest opportunity for boosting the amount of joy we experience, if we'd just open our eyes to it.

—Making the bed
Noticing that Susan likes a made bed when she enters her bedroom at the end of the evening, I've made it a point to take a couple turns making the bed in the morning. While it's more for her than me (who tends to be more casual about making my bed in NC), my paying attention and honoring what's comfortable for her sends the right message.

—Making the coffee
Since we both drink coffee, it's not right that Susan be the one to make it each morning. Yes, I needed to learn how to use her particular set of caffeine paraphernalia, but it didn't take that long and isn't it better that half the time I can present Susan with a cup of hot coffee when she comes downstairs instead of her waiting on me all the time?

—Emptying the dish drainer
As we both eat, it only makes sense that we both clean and put things away. That meant learning where everything goes. While I didn't digest it all in one go, it's not rocket science and I've just about got it.

—Chopping onions
Susan and I both like to cook (hooray!). Since her kitchen can comfortably hold two people with sharp knives at the same time without undo risk to life and limb, we take turns being the lead chef (the one who selects the menu and the recipes) and the sous chef (the one who chops the onions and brushes the dirt off the mushrooms).

—Doing the crossword together
While I'm not in Duluth principally for the word play, I seldom pass up an opportunity when it presents itself. While Susan gets first dibs on the daily sudoku we've enjoyed cracking a couple New York Times Sunday Crosswords together, helping each other over the rough spots.

—Playing ball with Lucie
Susan has a shelter dog named Lucie. She's seven years old and a beautiful mixed breed of border collie and black lab. Because Lucie is used to sharing the house only with Susan, I've been viewed with a certain amount of skepticism, and it's been challenging to get physically close to Susan without Lucie inserting herself between us. While it's been difficult to discern how much of that is protective and how much is not wanting to be left out, either way it tends to break up the rhythm of Susan's and my exploration. Mostly it's funny… but not entirely.

Our working hypothesis is that evenings will go better if one of us spends some quality time with Lucie at the nearby park playing fetch right before bed time, hopefully cutting back on Lucie's barking and/or throwing herself at Susan's bedroom door during quiet hours. • • •Yesterday, Susan and I went to a neighborhood Fourth of July Party. It started at 4pm and didn't officially end until we got home from the fireworks at 11 pm, at which point we still needed to walk the dog. While I'm making steady progress in recovering strength and resilience since overlifting and straining my lower back nine months ago, I'm still plagued by sore ribs and often appreciate a nap in the middle of the day—a respite I didn't have time for yesterday.
All of which is to say, we were pooped by the time we got to bed last night.

Nonetheless, I took the time to appreciate how Susan drew people into the conversation at the party. There were about a dozen folks in all, representing an odd lot of neighbors, family relations, and friends of friends—which added up to people who knew each other well, and others not so much. It was fun observing Susan (and others) work the party, making sure that everyone was invited to share what was going on their life, all the while keeping a weather eye on the hors d'oeuvres to see when the chip bowl needed replenishing, or it was time to circulate a new plate of finger food. This kind of undemonstrative social lubricant can easily go unnoticed, but after four-plus decades of living in community, I know better and I made a point of telling Susan that I noticed the skill she displayed in putting others at ease.

Going the other way, Susan asked about my back after the fireworks show over Duluth Harbor, observing that I may have needed to lie down more than I needed to be extending the festivities into the night atop an outdoor rock wall to see the rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air. From there we debriefed the party, so that I could better learn her friends and their relationships. 

The point of my telling this story is that after seven hours at a party Susan and I both chose opening comments (when we were first alone afterwards) that were appreciatively focused on the other. Enduring relationships, I've come to understand, are built more out of the wattle and daub of such caring conversations than the occasional bonfire or rocket launch.

How else might the evening have ended? We might not have talked at all. We might have moved directly into the animal heat that is characteristic of lovers their first week together.

Or we might have focused on weariness. I could have lamented my sore back, subtly encouraging Susan to have regretted suggesting that we stayed for the boom booms. Susan could have underscored her frustration at having achieved low Boggle scores, or that I hadn't volunteered to take a turn helping with dish washing during the party. The point is that we have choices about where we put our attention, and what feelings we want to reinforce.

In the couples work I did with Ma'ikwe the last two years, I learned a good deal about who I am and what it takes to create successful partnerships. It turns out that consistently choosing to focus on what's working and appreciating what your partner brings to the table is powerfully predictive of which relationships are the ones where love will thrive. Knowing that that's the kind I want, I'm purposefully bending the sapling of my budding relationship with Susan in that direction, so that the tree will be inclined to follow that trajectory.

In such ways does the ordinary have a good deal of influence about what becomes extraordinary, and leads to greater joy along the way.

The Subject Tonight Is Love

Give yourself to love, if love is what you're after;
Open up your hearts to the tears and laughter,
And give yourself to love.


—from the chorus of Give Yourself to Love by Kate Wolf (1982)

I woke up yesterday morning with these lyrics on my lips… and with Susan Anderson lying next to me—the woman I have just given my heart to.

The Back Story
Susan and I met as classmates at Carleton College (1967-71) and first confessed a mutual interest in each other in 1970, but we were in other relationships at the time and didn't do anything about it—until this past month, when we tentatively started blowing on old coals and discovered, to our mutual delight, that there remained a considerable amount of banked heat. Today we have a merry little fire going.

There have been a couple other moments in the last 45 years where we checked in with each other, quietly affirming our continuing interest, yet we were never both available at the same time and it went no further. We've each been married once and played a significant role in the other's wedding (I was a bridegroom for her & Tony in 1979, and she had a speaking role in the ceremony that Ma'ikwe & I handcrafted in 2007), fully rooting for those relationships to last. Susan's marriage ended when Tony died of colon cancer in 2004; and my marriage tended when Ma'ikwe decided she'd had enough of me as her husband last February.

As I reflect on all the things that needed to come together in the right sequence for this tender flame to become so oxygenated—a seed that took 45 years to germinate—I'm shaking my head at the improbability of our story. Incredibly, we both hear the music and are ready to dance, with each other, at the same moment.

Nature BoyThere was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far, very far
Over land and sea
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he

And then one day
A magic day he passed my way
And while we spoke of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me:
"The greatest thing you'll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return"

—Nat King Cole (1948)
You may know this as the song chosen as the melancholy opening and closing of the movie Moulin Rouge (2001) that was sung by Ewan McGregor, encapsulating his desperate love for the character played by Nicole Kidman. Carol Swann (with whom I seriously explored partnership 15 years ago) offered to sing Nature Boy at my wedding in 2007. I told her the lyrics were excellent but the energy seemed unaligned with the up-tempo ceremony we desired. Not knowing how else to sing the song, she chose something else. While Carol's choice worked well (a musical improvisation of a Marge Piercy poem), I have not forgotten that Nature Boy, to paraphrase Robert Frost, was the song not taken.

Today, I've cycled back to the haunting truth of Nature Boy. Susan and I are in our mid-60s, which means the bulk of our living is behind us and the time remaining is uncertain. No one knows how much sand remains in their personal hourglass, and we have both lost contemporaries to death and illness—an inexorable trend that will only increase. 

Looking openly at where we are, we are not choosing to be careful; we are choosing love. Rather than wasting a moment on what might have been, we are choosing to dance with whatever sand we have left. We are choosing to be alive, and I'm all in.

He won't hurt you, will he?
This was a question recently posed to Susan by a couple of concerned friends, once they became aware that something was afoot (or afootsie, you might say). Not knowing anything of me, they are being protective of their friend, not wanting her to be taken advantage of—to get her heart opened and then broken.

While Susan and I have laughed at this—a choice that is artlessly easy when immersed in the first rush of a new relationship (who wants to be cautious when you're infectiously happy?), there remains truth in it, because you cannot fully open your heart without being vulnerable to incredible suffering if things later go awry. And you have to commit yourself to the rapids of love without certainty of where the rocks lie that can hole your canoe. There is risk.

Susan and I have both gone through the agony of loss and a broken heart, and yet are choosing to love again, with each other, because Kate Wolf and Nature Boy were both right and when you boil it all down, why would you choose anything else?

In these giddy early days we have little idea what this love means in terms of how our lives will intertwine going forward. All of those conversations are ahead of us. Yet our energy burns brightly and cleanly in this opening movement of our symphony—and that is sufficient to fuel our fire for quite a while.

What's Hafiz Say About It?
The title for this essay is taken from a book of the collected love poems of the 14th Century Sufi poet, Hafiz, translated with care and verve by Daniel Ladinsky (1999). I will close with this fitting selection from that book:

Never Say It Is Not God 
I taste what you taste. I know the kind of lyrics
your Soul most likes. I know which sounds will become
Resplendent in your mind and bring such pleasure
Your feet will jump and whirl.
When anything touches or enters your body
Never say it is not God, for He is
Just trying to get close.
I have no use for divine patience — my lips are always
Burning and everywhere. I am running from every corner
Of this world and sky wanting to kiss you;
I am every particle of dust and wheat — you and I
Are ground from His Own Body. I am rioting at your door;
I am spinning in midair like golden falling leaves
Trying to win your glance.
I am sweetly rolling against your walls and your shoresAll night, even though you are asleep. I am singing from
The mouths of animals and birds honoring our
Beloved’s promise and need: to let
you know the Truth.
My dear, when anything touches or enters your body
Never say it is not God, for He and I are
Just trying to get close to you.
God and I are rushing
From every corner of existence, needing to say,
“We are yours.”

Crunchy Cons

I recently read Rod Dreher's 2006 book, Crunchy Cons, subtitled [take a deep breath] how Birkenstocked Berkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party).

It's a breezy read, where the author pays a bit too much attention to being witty and not enough to being thorough, yet is worthwhile nonetheless. What do I mean by not thorough? Dreher complains about how mainstream conservatives leave no room in their firmament for his minority brand of politics—environmentally and socially conscious conservatives who do not bow down to the idol of commerce as the highest god—yet turns right around and commits the same error in neglecting to recognize people like me: a thoughtful liberal who has gotten off the consumer horse long before Dreher did and has already been frequenting all the same stops he visits in his cook's tour of the thoughtful conservative: slow food, organic farming, homeschooling, buying local, preserving beauty, emphasizing the primacy of relationships, and buying houses with front porches. Where Dreher believes that only organized religion can provide sufficient moral support to sustain the personal discipline necessary to be a true conservative, I observe, that's not all how I discovered and have maintained a lifestyle that's remarkably similar to the ideal he espouses. And "conservative" is not a label I gravitate toward at all.

Nonetheless, I think it's a valuable contribution to the larger political dialog that tends to be limited to the simplistic, knee-jerk sorting-everyone-into-one-of-two-camps mentality: a) liberal Democrats who are obsessed with sexual freedom, a large governmental safety net, and environmental sanity; or b) conservative Republicans who are staunch defenders of the free market, minimal gun laws, and national defense.
Dreher makes the case—and I agree— that there has to be something better. He articulates what he thinks a thoughtful conservative (as in someone who wants to conserve what's valuable in life) ought to believe in. The term "crunchy" in the book's title comes, as far as I can discern, from his pro-environment stance (conserving the Earth rather than embracing the more common Republican spin that God's creatures and creations are here principally for man to consume, carrying capacities be damned), which is often associated derisively with "crunchy granola types." Besides, it's alliterative (an aesthetic I appreciate).

So here's Dreher's ten point overview (in italics) with my commentary (in Roman). Much of it I like:

A Crunchy Con Manifesto

1. We are conservatives who stand outside the contemporary conservative mainstream. We like it here; the view is better, for we can see things that matter more clearly.

I agree both that Dreher's is a minority viewpoint, and that it's based on taking a longer view than is apparent in most conservatives (who gleeful discount the future by insisting on viewing it through the myopic lens of compound interest).

2. We believe that modern conservatism has become too focused on material conditions, and insufficiently concerned with the character of society. The point of life is not to become a more satisfied shopper.

Amen, brother.

3. We affirm the superiority of the free market as an economic organizing principle, but believe the economy must be made to serve humanity's best interests, not the other way around. Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.

Though I'm not ready to swallow the large frog that Dreher begins with, I like where he croaks with it—everything that follows after the word but. When it comes to embracing the free market system, it is not apparent to me that Dreher has looked deeply enough at how free market capitalism is inimical to environmental sanity—which he says he embraces.

4. We believe that culture is more important than politics, and that neither America's wealth nor our liberties will long survive a culture that no longer lives by what Russell Kirk* identified as "the Permanent Things"—those eternal moral norms necessary to civilized life, and which are taught by all the world's great wisdom traditions.

* [Kirk lived 1918-1994. His best known work was The Conservative Mind, published in 1953, tracing the roots of conservative thought in the Anglo-American tradition back to Edmund Burke.]

I'm good with this, and appreciate that Dreher has framed this in terms of "wisdom traditions" instead of "religious traditions."

5. A conservatism that does not recognize the need for restraint, for limits, and for humility is neither helpful to individuals and society nor, ultimately, conservative. This is particularly true with respect to the natural world.

I am wholly on board with the need for a major shift in how we think of a healthy economy, moving away from relying on throughput as the main way we test for robustness (GNP) to one that rewards the conservation of resources (achieving the greatest good with the least consumption). You might look at economist Herman Daly's, Steady-State Economics (1977), for a thorough treatment of this concept.

6. A good rule of thumb: Small and Local and Old and Particular are to be preferred over Big and Global  and New and Abstract.

You the man, Rod.

7. Appreciation of aesthetic quality —that is, beauty—is not a luxury, but key to the good life.

While I think this principle is a slippery one to hold (given that much of beauty is individually defined), I like insisting that it should have a seat at the main table.

8. The cacophony of contemporary popular culture makes it hard to discern the call of truth and wisdom. There is no area in which practicing asceticism is more important.

I take this to be a call for each of us to develop our own moral compass, followed by an admonition to not let the fickleness of pop culture deflect the needle. While I'm good with this as a general warning, I don't believe that all truth and wisdom has already been discovered and is adequately described. I don't believe that the proper role of modern humans is simply to cleave to the North Star of ancient wisdom. I think it's worthwhile to keep panning for gold in the streams of contemporary thought. For example, in my lifetime there has been an amazing amount of progress in how society thinks about race, gender, sexual orientation, and right relationship to the environment. These are not trivial shifts, and it behooves us to be open to the possibility of profundity emerging from the dross of fad.

9. We share Kirk's conviction that "the best way to rear up a new generation of friends of the Permanent Things is to beget children, and read to them o' evenings, and teach them what is worthy of praise: the wise parent is the conservator of ancient truths… The institution most essential to conserve is the family."

I'm uneasy here. Right off the top, Dreher's pro-natalist position sends chills up my spine. How can a thinking person (remember his brave claim about seeing better in point #1?) not see the train wreck between population growth and environmental degradation? Any arguments about needing to outbreed the heathens contains the same fatal flaws as the discredited nuclear policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (which, not coincidentally, bore the acronym MAD). We need a lot more babies in the world about the same as we need a lot more nuclear weapons.

Beyond that, I'm nervous about each parent being the conservator of ancient truths because it promotes closed-mindedness—which the world is already plagued with in ample amounts without further encouragement. Upon closer inspection, a fair number of ancient truths are culturally specific rather than universal (for example, contrast the plurality of Native American cosmologies with one-size-fits-all Christian cosmology). Thus, there can be awkwardness (read jihads) over which "wisdoms" are true. This can be a real goat fuck.

Finally, I'm uneasy defining family—the implication being nuclear family—as the fundamental unit of cultural construction. If (and it's possible that Dreher is OK with this, though that's not the way his book reads) we stretch the sense of family to include the concepts of extended family and even families of adults not related by blood or marriage—with which I am thoroughly familiar as a result of having immersed myself in the world of intentional community—then I'm OK. Having raised my two kids in the family-of-friends intentional community of Sandhill Farm you cannot tell me that that wasn't an excellent way to do it, so I object to Dreher's narrow-mindedness unless it embraces my experience as an option in this vein.

10. Politics and economics will not save us. If we are to be saved at all, it will be through living faithfully by the Permanent Things, preserving these ancient truths in the choices we make in everyday life. In this sense, to conserve is to create anew.

I'm fully on board with the opening sentence, then I get uneasy again. One of the fundamental lessons that comes out of my community experience is that we (as in healthy society) need to be more focused on Relationship as the prime directive, rather than Truth—and I expressly mean relationships across party lines, rather than relationships among allies as we strive to become a more effective united front against the unwashed. 

That said, Dreher's book is actually a mixed bag in this regard. While this tenth conservative insight speaks solely of Truth (which makes me squirm), his book is full of anecdotes that make clear his care and feeding of Relationships (which calms me down)—even to the point of repeatedly crossing the aisle to make common cause with neighbors and acquaintances with whom he shares some precious aspects of the good life, though not all. Bully for him.
• • •Taken all together, there is much to celebrate and be inspired by in the rich stew that Dreher has served up (with organic ingredients). I'm just not swallowing the whole bowlful.

Heart Goals and Hearth Coals

When my wife announced last February that she no longer wanted to be my wife, I went into a tailspin. It was not what I wanted to hear and it triggered a lot of grieving.

Even though I knew that I would still be able to carry with me the results of the personal work I had done in an attempt to make the marriage work, that seemed a very slim silver lining at the time. Mostly I just felt the loss.

To be sure, being less reactive (a specific area that I've worked on in counseling the last two years) was of immediate benefit. Instead if spinning my wheels unproductively in anger (at my partner walking away unilaterally), I moved through that, and I didn't get mired in shame at having failed to make the marriage work. I was centered enough to just let the grief and sadness wash over me. I didn't try to push it away or box it up; I just rode the rapids in a swamped canoe.

As the pain subsided, I started taking stock of where I was and where I wanted to be.

Question #1: Did I still want a partner? 

Yes!

Question #2: Was this urgent? 

No; I would wait for a good fit.

Question #3: What's a "good fit"?

Two weeks ago I came up with the following list of non-negotiables. I want a partner:
o  Who wants me (and welcomes my wanting her).
o  Who respects the work I do.
o  Who maintains her sense of self (and does not submerge her life into mine, nor expect me to submerge mine into hers).
o  Who will let me know when something seems off between us.
o  Who hangs in there to work out tensions and differences.

I've known for a long time that I needed to pair with a strong woman; someone who would not be knocked off center by my large bow wave. There have been moments in the past where I was not careful about that, and it didn't work well.

Question #4: What do I mean by "strong"?

Slowly, I've come to understand that strong comes in many flavors. In the past I've looked for a partner who was strong in the same ways I was: as a social change agent, a public speaker, an author, an organizer. But now, as a sadder but wiser man of 65, I can see nuance I had missed before. Instead of a firebrand (like me) I can find complementary strength in a keeper of the hearth; someone in whom the coals of home are enduring, though not incandescent. I don't need a mirror or a doppelganger if I have a partner with whom we create a whole (as opposed to a woman who, like me, can create a hole—with incisive body-piercing analysis that exposes the unworkable status quo).

In short, I could seek a synergistic relationship, instead of synonymous one. (Mind you, I am offering this analysis as a journal of my journey; not necessarily as a blueprint for others. Caveat emptor. What credentials do I have, after all, for advising others in this regard?)

Question #5: To what extent should I prioritize home in my search for partner?

In the wreckage of my marriage I also lost my home. It was a double blow. Having lived in the same zip code for 41 years I gradually developed a deep connection to place that turned out, to my surprise, to have powerful spiritual dimensions. I have come to know something of the sacred through connection to hearth and place.

This has been a complicated choreography for me. As someone who has dedicated his life to the exploration and promotion of community and cooperative culture, my calling requires that I'm on the road half the time—talking and teaching about community even as I'm not at home to enjoy it. With one foot at home and the other on the road, I was only partly in either, which strains the bonds of relationship that are the very lifeblood of community. It's been a longstanding dilemma. Home is at once a base of operation (a secure platform from which to engage with the world) and a refuge and sanctuary (which affords me much-needed renewal and groundedness).

So it's in that context that I'm unexpectedly starting over, trying simultaneously to reestablish home and to climb back on the partnership horse. For the last four decades home has been my North Star, with partnerships orbiting around its solidity, or budding from it. Now however, both elements have slipped their moorings at the same time and I'm adrift.

It's intriguing in this time of fluidity to shift how I think about my search—to contemplate a partnership that offers hearth as well as heart: to seek these two cornerstone elements as a pair. While I'm holding very different cards today than I was a year ago, there is still plenty of room for playing my hand well. Perhaps, it occurs to me now, I'll find the Queen of Hearts in the fireplace, instead of in the places of fire where I am wont to look.

On Being Out of Touch

Last Saturday I was at a potluck celebrating someone's 50th birthday (my first social event as a NC resident). Joe, Maria, and I all went. At one point in the evening, I sat next to Maria and spontaneously started giving her a foot massage. She hadn't asked for one, but she was grateful to receive one.

Later, on the drive home, we compared notes about the party and Joe reported being asked by a friend of all three of ours if Joe and Maria are polyamorous (open to having other lovers). Taking this in, Maria and I wondered where that question came from. Maria speculated that perhaps the friend was really asking if Joe, Maria, and Laird were a threesome. (We're not, but we could see how the question might arise: we're close friends, we have considerable affection for each other, and now we live together.)

For my part, I thought about the foot rub.

Although it was done fully clothed (well, Maria took her sandals off) in the middle of a well-lit living room, a lot of people automatically link touch with intimacy, and intimacy with sex. I think that chain of association is a societal train wreck.

It's my belief that we humans are hard-wired to crave touch from others of our species. This starts in infancy (there's solid scientific evidence on the importance of touch to the health and development of babies) and continues through adolescence, right through our senior years. Unfortunately, in a society confused about what constitutes appropriate sexual mores, we've fallen out of touch with the concept of healthy touch. 

In fact, the signals have been all over the map just in my lifetime, which spans this illuminating range of successful television comedies, all of which were contextualized in social commentary about the times in which they were produced: all the way from Father Knows Best (1954-60) to Sex in the City (1998-2004), with All in the Family (1971-79) as a wickedly ambiguous intergenerational bridge in between. 

As we've been wandering in the wilderness, touch has taken a lot of inappropriate hits—in no small part because a lot of women have been hit upon through inappropriate touch.

The problem, I maintain, is not the dangers of touch, so much as it's the taboo around talking openly about sexuality (sniggering in the locker room doesn't count) and what constitutes appropriate boundaries. Instead of an informed dialog, people have to guess what's going on, what it's OK to explore, how to discuss problems, and even how to discover their own sexual identity. It's a mess.

Further complicating this conversation is that sexual abuse is a very real and pervasive problem, though one that's far more linked to runaway power than it is to runaway touch. 

Let's be clear. Touching is a natural, integral part of lovemaking and sexual/sensual expression. But it's way more than that, including supporting, healing, relaxing, connecting, and assuring—all of which can be wholly asexual and essential to receive in regular doses. It's disastrous that we've carelessly condemned the innocent because it's sometimes associated with the questionable. 

Wouldn't it better to teach our children: a) to discern the difference; and b) that sex is a normal, healthy human function that can be misused? Wouldn't it be better if the baseline assumption is that when someone touches your arm or gives you a hug that it's simply someone trying to be caring, rather than carrying (a torch for carnal knowledge)? I'm not advocating naiveté; I'm advocating for an assumption of benign intent until a different line is crossed (such as patting someone's butt or nuzzling their neck uninvited).

Inhibiting touch of all kinds in social settings (for heaven sakes it might lead to dancing) is a spectacularly ineffective method of curbing sexual misdeeds. In effect, all it accomplishes is driving sex into dark corners (or back seats), while leaving in its wake a touch-starved society. We have to find a way to do better, or risk remaining out of touch.

Meanwhile, would you hand me your other foot? It feels like I've massaged the first one enough.

The Upper Limits of Consensus

A reader posted this comment in response to On Being a Fundamentalist, my blog of June 17:

What about larger groups and communities? I think of consensus as working well in smaller, focused groups. Could a group of a hundred or more use consensus to make decisions?

That's a good question. I don't have much experience with groups larger than about 60-75, but I know consensus can work at that size. Beyond that you're pushing against certain limits that are worth exploring:

A. Sensory Limits
In particular, there are questions about how well participants can hear and see each other. You obviously have to be able to receive information in order to be able to work with it.

As the group gets larger it gets harder to hear across the circle. Of course the acoustics of the room are also a factor, but even under ideal architectural conditions you need to account for the possibility of compromised hearing, the incidence of which increases greatly once you have members north of 50. And it's more than just getting the words right; it's also getting the tone and inflection right, as those have meaning as well and are part of the richness of live communication.

While the Occupy Movement did some notable work three-four years ago, where they used human amplification to have the speaker's words repeated to people outside of hearing distance, that's a stretch to sustain on a regular basis. The most common solution, by far, is using a PA system to amplify voices. The technology of this is sufficiently sophisticated these days that you can even get a system where the sound gets directly transmitted to people's hearing aids. Pretty nifty.

As a professional facilitator, I encounter an increasing number of groups of 40+ members that regularly rely on an amplifier and microphone to help members hear. While I think this is mostly good, there are some complications to take into account:

—You tend to need at least two microphones and maybe three to make this work, otherwise there's a constant time lag to move the microphone around. 
—Multiple mics means runners, which means the facilitation support team needs to grow in size, taking more people out of the conversation.
—You have to be careful that the mics don't get too near the amp to avoid squealing feedback.
—It usually takes a while for participants to get the rhythm of turning the mics on and off, and holding them an appropriate distance from their mouth.
 —For those who struggle feeling safe or comfortable speaking in large groups at all, adding a microphone compounds the issue: it's too much like a performance—about which they have anxiety independent of any nervousness about what they have to say. 
—Depending on the quality and location of the amp, augmented sound can sometimes be more difficult to hear than unaided voices.

Switching over to sight, sometimes eyesight degrades with age, just as hearing does (and sometimes participants forget to bring their glasses). Some of this can be addressed by giving careful thought to chair alignment that supports good sight lines, avoiding back lighting, and securing decent illumination in the meeting space.

The key things to protect are the ability to see adequately any visual aids (such as power point projections or flip chart pages) and to see people faces and body language, as there is considerable nuance conveyed through non-verbal expressions.

B. Squeezed Air Time
With more people in the meeting, it's a mathematical surety that there will be less time for each participant to speak.

Thus, great care must be exercised in determining what topics come before the plenary, and how to structure the consideration so that they're handled efficiently, as well as inclusively. In general, larger numbers translates into fewer topics that can be covered in the same amount of time.

The other dial available to groups for adjustment is increasing the volume of delegation—pushing more work down to managers and committees, so that less needs to be handled in plenary. You might reasonably require subgroups to make decisions in open sessions by consensus, where the number of participants will be a good bit smaller than in plenaries.

C. Participant Discipline
Just as larger numbers put pressure on agenda planners to be on the ball, there will be pressure on participants to be that much better disciplined about when to speak. I advise that the Participant's Mantra be: What does the group need to hear from me on this topic at this time?

That sentence contains a wealth of checkpoints where a thoughtful participant might realize that it's prudent to refrain from speaking, because the thing they thought to say is not on topic or at the right place in the conversation. If group members get proficient at applying that set of screens I believe they can accomplish a lot even with high number turnouts. [For more on the mantra, see Consensus as an Unnatural Act.]

D. Representative Consensus
Last, it's worth considering what can be done with the concept of representational decision-making, where the final authority is no longer the group as a whole, but rather a special enclave comprised of representatives.

Some interesting work was done in this regard in the context of the anti-nuclear demonstrations of the '70s and '80s (such as the Clamshell Alliance). As I understand it, the fundamental political unit was the affinity group, which everyone at the demonstration had an affiliation with. I'm not sure what the size parameters were for affinity groups, but I'm guessing it was something in the 12-18 range: small enough that everyone could be heard, yet large enough to have a decent diversity of viewpoints. 

Each affinity group would select a representative to the decision-making council, and that person would be authorized to speak for the affinity group and make decisions that would be binding on it. In turn, the council of reps would make decisions by consensus.

While I don't know of an intentional community today that works with this form of government (there are not that many groups with 100+ members), there is an interesting variation underway now at Dancing Rabbit (Rutledge MO). That community made the switch two years ago to a Village Council in anticipation of getting too large for all-skate plenaries (the community, an ecovillage, aspires to a final size of 500-1000). 

In DR's configuration there are seven councilors with staggered two-year terms. There is a careful election process once a year where the whole community discusses slates of candidates to fill all the vacancies (councilors are permitted to succeed themselves once and then must step down), and then the slates that emerge from that consideration are voted on by all members in good standing, using instant run-off voting. The Village Council makes all of its decisions by consensus and all councilors are expected to represent the best interests of the entire community, not just to speak for a subgroup constituency within the village.

As Dancing Rabbit only has around 50 adult members now, they aren't yet pushing the triple digit ceiling that I was suggesting might be something of an upper limit for day-in-day-out consensus. Also, having lived there recently (November 2013-June 2015), I'm aware of some interest among members in tinkering with the Village Council set up. While it's too early to tell how well this concept will function for larger groups that want to maintain a spirit of consensus, this is a work in progress that's well worth tracking.

On Being a Fundamentalist

A couple weeks ago I was attending the National Cohousing Conference in Durham NC when someone came up to me on the last day and asked, "Are you the fundamentalist?" I double clutched.

No one had ever asked me that question before and I was at a loss to understand where they were going, and why they thought that I might be their destination. More amazing still, it turned out that I was the fundamentalist. Apparently someone had described me as a consensus fundamentalist, and I didn't have to think very long before I could see the aptness of that label.

Consensus is the most common form of decision-making among intentional communities, and interest in community living is on the rise. Thus, consensus is getting more attention these days—all the more so because many groups struggle to get good results with it. 

Most problems with consensus boil down to a small list:

—Too much power in the hands of each individual. It only takes one or two contrarians to gum up the works for the entire group.
—Too difficult to work through complex issues when you need everyone to agree.
—Too many things need to be decided by the plenary; plenaries are bogged down by too much minutia.
—It takes too long to hear everyone's viewpoints on everything.
—Participants are not good at staying on topic, or avoiding repetition. Thus, meetings are not efficient.—Committee work is often trashed by the plenary.
—Paralysis in the face of a threat to block.

In general, groups respond to this package of unpleasant results in one of four ways: 

1.  They get so frustrated that they abandon consensus and try something else, perhaps majority rule.
There is an increasing call for trying to hold onto the spirit of consensus (a collaborative attitude) while relying on a different decision rule (some form of voting being the most popular alternative) to sidestep susceptibility to logjams.

2.  They keep banging away, essentially accepting that results aren't any better than they are. 
For many groups, even so-so results with consensus are seen as superior to the power dynamics and factionalism characteristic of majority rule.

3.  They find a work around. The two most common are:

—modified consensus (which allows a super-majority vote to decide a matter if concerns are not resolved after x number of meetings)

 —sociocracy (which is a highly structured approcah aimed at keeping the momentum going once the plenary takes up a topic, and at emphasizing solutions that are good enough, rather than laboring to find something optimal)

4.  They get motivated to learn how to do consensus well.

While I strongly favor Door #4, I want to explain how I got there. 

I've lived in intentional communities using consensus since 1974, and have been integrally involved in community network organizations (which also use consensus) since 1980—the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, 1980-2001, and the Fellowship for Intentional Community, 1986-present. On top of that, I've been a process consultant and consensus trainer since 1987. 

All of which is to say I've been to a lot of meetings and have tons of experience with consensus in the field. I know what it is and how to consistently get good results with it. As a consultant I am regularly asked to help groups navigate tricky waters using consensus and I repeatedly get positive results. 

Overwhelmingly, my experience tells me that the main problem with consensus is that groups seldom prepare well to use it and are then disappointed with what they get. The problem is not with the process; it's with practitioners not understanding the personal work needed to function cooperatively instead of competitively.

In fairness to the detractors of consensus, it takes hard work and a personal investment to unlearn competitive conditioning. Not everyone understands that when they join a cooperative group, nor is everyone up for the challenge when they do. But it can be done. I've done it myself, and I teach it to others.

Fortunately, you don't need everyone to do that work, just enough of the group to set a tone and to consistently steer the group gently, but firmly back onto a constructive path if dynamics turn tense or combative.

If you are a group that wants to learn how to use consensus well, you have two main leverage points at your disposal:

A. Understanding and committing to culture change
This means taking in at a deep level that the group does its best work only when all input is welcome, which means creating a container in which disparate viewpoints are not just allowed; they're encouraged. The members of the group need to energetically (not just intellectually) embrace the advantages that different ideas bring to the consideration. When the expression of doubt or disagreement is quashed or punished (think eyeball rolling, withering looks, and tightened voices), the whole group loses. Think of it as hybrid vigor.

Creativity and collective magic do not thrive in a battlefield where a tug-of-war mentality obtains (every inch in the direction of someone else's idea is an inch away from yours). When you are a stakeholder on an issue, the challenge is shifting from a sense of combativeness (to promote your idea above those of others; let the best idea "win" in an environment of vigorous debate) to one of curiosity (hoping that others can enhance your idea, or advance your thinking)—because the prime objective is a good decision for the group; not that you look good. If you are not a stakeholder, then you are well poised to safeguard the process, helping bridge among factors to produce the most balanced proposal.

While it is not so hard to describe the theory of cooperation, it's serious business learning to act that way in the heat of the moment, especially when the issues cut close to the bone.

B. Investing in skilled facilitation
An alternative approach is to develop a cadre of facilitators who are able to remind the group of the way it meant to function whenever it strays, bringing all parties back from the rigidity of bunkered positions into the softer place where everyone is on the same side, trying to uncover the best plan forward in light of all that needs to be taken into account.

 Skilled management of the process can address many of the bugaboos about consensus that I mentioned above:

—Outliers are worked with by making sure that their right to be heard and taken into account is paired with the responsibility to extend that same respect and courtesy to others. It's not OK to insist on the right and neglect the responsibility.

—Good facilitators are able to break down complex topics into digestible smaller chunks. While the group may not be able to get the whole thing in its mouth in one bite, eating smaller portions usually does the trick.

—On the ball facilitators will make sure the group is deliberate about what work is attempted in plenary, insisting that topics be handed off to managers or committees once all the plenary-level considerations have been addressed. They will also encourage the group to delegate authority to subgroups so that minor, routine items need not require the plenary's rubber stamp.

—While everyone has the right to speak, that does not mean everyone has something to say. Further, if another member has already said what you intended to, it is enough to add, "So-and-so speaks my mind," which takes less than five seconds. Good facilitators will encourage people to speak on topic, to the point, and to add their input just once.

—Skilled facilitators will not allow work to be handed off to subgroups prematurely; they'll insist that the plenary provide clear guidance for what's wanted, so that the work that returns is more likely to be honored.

—Savvy facilitators will know how to handle blocking concerns. Instead of backing away from them, they'll lean into them—to make sure they understand the interests that underlie that reaction, to check to see that they're a reasonable interpretation of group held values, and to work with them as a key factor that a solution needs to take into account.
 • • •If advocating for old-fashioned consensus as the best way for cooperative groups to make decisions makes me a fundamentalist, then bring on the long frock coat. I already have a beard and a steely visage.

Lighting a Local Economic Fire

Consider these trends:
 
1. There has been sustained, increased interest in community living the last 25 years
Since 1990, with notable spikes in 1990-95 and 2005-07, the Fellowship for Intentional Community has been tracking the volume of inquiries about community living and the number of new community starts. Interest is up and has remained so for a generation. While there are many factors that combine to make this happen, one in particular is affordability. People are worried about how to make their lives work on their own (or as nuclear families) and are increasingly interested in experimenting with the sharing characteristic of community, to create a better quality of life without having to chase as many dollars.

To be sure, what this looks like is all over the map. For some groups it's how to leverage assets to have access to an even better range of amenities by virtue of joint ownership (things like a swimming pool, hot tub, woodworking shop, exercise room full of barbells and equipment, or even a space to entertain 20 in one sitting. 

For others it's how to minimize their carbon footprint and pioneer models of high quality living on a shoestring budget (read low resource consumption).

For others still, it's about being able to age gracefully in place, without counting on your children or the government to provide a safety net.

2. Marketplace turbidity
It is much harder than ever to predict the health of the economy, which means uncertain job security, as well as uncertain retirement funds. Here are three sobering factors that contribute to this:

a) In the global economy, more and more jobs are being outsourced overseas, where wages are much lower. There is no reason to think that this won't continue, unless energy costs get high enough that overseas transportation of goods is prohibitively expensive. Given that it's considered political suicide to allow energy costs to spiral upward, don't look for this mitigating circumstance to save domestic jobs any time soon.

b) We are going through unprecedented automation of jobs as we enter the age of robotics. This is not just about spot welding on automobile assembly lines, robots are expected to soon make inroads in traditional low-paying service jobs such as flipping burgers at fast food restaurants. Fewer and fewer people can expect to find decent full-time employment, or perhaps employment of any kind.

c) In conditions where it's an employer's market (too many workers lusting after too few jobs) wages and benefits are driven down. I have a close friend who's a philosophy professor. Recently he got bumped off tenure track—not because his performance reviews were poor,  but because the university could get away with it. Now he's employed as adjunct faculty, where they pay him half as much for the same work and can avoid offering tenure. His future as a professor is murky.

3. Boomers are retiring
Social Security is running out of money, and it's scary contemplating if the government will be able to accommodate the bulge of Baby Boomers entering retirement age with fewer younger workers contributing to FICA. Can we count on that money being there when it's needed? As a Boomer myself, I'm questioning that.
 • • •So what does this add up to? 

If we want to get ahead of the curve (rather than just take our chances on surviving being buffeted about by macro-instabilities) we need to be thinking about what we can do to take care of our own economic needs at the local level. We need to be thinking about how we can create fair exchanges that meet real needs and about which people feel good in the delivery.

I think this is going to mean:

o  Local resilience
We need to be engaging on this at the level of people we know, who understand that we are in this together. When economic exchanges are not faceless (such as buying a book through Amazon), it matters that both parties feel good about the exchange, because everyone depends on good relations and a solid reputation for repeat business. (Hint: it doesn't matter whether it's barter, working for wages, or offering a service—the principle remains the same.)

o  Value-based part-time work
People don't necessarily need full-time employment if commuting is minimized or eliminated, and barter substitutes for cash purchases. What people need is enough work, and work that they feel good about delivering—because its aligned with who they are, and what they want to be known for. Work like that is not so draining. People get out of bed in the morning looking forward to it.

o  A little help from our friends
We need to be thinking about how to help people start and succeed at local businesses—not just for their own economic viability, but to create jobs for non-entrepreneurs as well. Everywhere there are people who have learned to be successful in business and we need to harness that skill to help guide others in developing sound business plans, and to be savvy about managing money. We need to make the shift to think of additional local businesses as a strengthening of the local web, rather than as competition for limited local dollars. We either succeed together, or go down together.

In short, we need to be real communities.

Tarheel Transition

As a process consultant, almost all of my work involves traveling to the client and engaging with them in situ (much better than asking the group to travel to my situ).

Since hanging out a shingle as a process consultant in 1987, I've called Missouri my home the entire time, which afforded me the witty opener, "I'm from Missouri, and I've come to show you." OK, maybe it's not the funniest of one liners, but it was serviceable… until today.

I'm now a North Carolinian.

I piled what I could fit into a compact one-way rental Tuesday afternoon and drove away from Dancing Rabbit and into a new adventure. I'll be trying to reinvent myself in the coming months. Here's what I have in front of me:

1. Consulting/Teaching Transition
Though my work has been steady in recent years (unlike almost everything else listed below), I'm increasingly interested in handing off to others what I've learned, which means shifting purposefully from doing to teaching. The tricky part is that demonstrating what I can do is the main way I generate students, so there's a balance point. [For details about the facilitation trainings I'm offering currently, see my blog Facilitation Trainings on Tap from March 22, 2015.]

The context of my work has always been nurturing cooperative culture, as distinct from the dominant, competitive culture. Increasingly, my work comes in two flavors:

a) Process ConsultingFor the last 28 years my main focus as a consultant has been cooperative group dynamics. Mostly I've worked solo, but occasionally I partner up. Now, moving in with Joe and Maria, we'll be discussing whether it makes sense to form a process collective. They have both parlayed their experience (which includes being students of mine in the two-year facilitation program I run—but don't misunderstand; they were already the main facilitators in their respective communities before I met them—I was polishing diamonds) into occasional facilitation gigs in the region and would like to do more. Though neither has left their day job (yet) it may be a way to accelerate their facilitation careers and at the same time accomplish more of the handing off that I'm seeking.

Auspiciously, Joe & Maria worked with me to conduct sold-out pre-conference workshops (one on Facilitation & Leadership, and another on Conflict) at the recent National Cohousing Conference in Durham (May 29-31) and both were well received. In the days ahead we'll discuss what more we might do together.

b) Economic Consulting
In recent years I've gotten steadily more interested in opening a second front, turning my attention to the poor stepchild of sustainability: cooperative economics. For this, my primary partner is Terry O'Keefe, who lives in Asheville NC. While still 3.5 hours away by car, that's a helluva lot closer than Missouri.

We also did a packed-room workshop at the cohousing event, and it also was well received. Flushed with that experience, Terry and I need to cook up what's next in our efforts to light a fire among cooperative groups to take a pro-active interest in supporting their members having more economically sustainable lives.

While we're not sure what the business model is for our being fairly compensated for this work, we're both entrepreneurial by nature (read risk tolerant) and can't help ourselves from testing the market.

2. Home Transition
One of the casualties of Ma'ikwe's decision in Feb to end our marriage was that I no longer had a home. To be sure, I could have remained at Dancing Rabbit—both the community and Ma'ikwe were fine with that—but DR was Ma'ikwe's home before it was mine and it's too tender for me right now to be operating under her shadow. 

So I'm trying something new. I'll be experimenting in the coming months with what I can create with Joe & Maria: three people who care deeply about community, social change work, right livelihood, and leading an examined life. It's a great foundation. While I went through a period of wondering what the existential reason was for my being tested in this way, I've now worked myself around to being eager for the chance.

One of the larger unknowns for me is what I'll be able to manifest relative to connection to the Earth. Slowly, over a process of decades, that became an essential element of what made Sandhill Farm (a food-centered community) my home, and now I've moved into a house that does not include a garden. Maybe I'll wind up doing some canning from farmer's market surpluses in July and August. We'll see.

Chapel Hill is a great location for securing locally grown wholesome food, and there's a great local co-op (Weaver St Market) but I haven't been so removed from my food in over four decades. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

3. Partnership Transition
Obviously a huge shift happened for me when I lost my partner. I think being away from DR will make it easier for me to process my grieving to the point where I can again be open to a new relationship. I don't feel any hurry, yet I also don't want to be afraid to get back on the horse—despite suffering a nasty fall.

Among other things, I am blessed with many good friends (who have provided wonderful support for me the last four months) and I don't feel lonely or lacking in emotional depth in my life. My scars will heal and I'll get to the place where other women will be interesting again.

4. Health Transition
It has been an incredibly long haul trying to recover from back strain that originated in early October and persists to this day. But I'm determined to recover all that I can of my health and mobility. 

One of side benefits of my new digs is that I'm on the third floor and climbing two flights of stairs after pouring a cup of coffee is both aerobic and good for my right knee, which is still not 100% after I hyper-extended it in September 2012.

I am just about well enough to restart a regular (if gentle) yoga practice, and I'm looking forward to that.

5. FIC Transition
The year is about half over, and that also marks the halfway mark in training my two main successors in Fellowship administration: Aurora DeMarco as our Development Director, and Sky Blue as our Executive Director.

The trainings have been going well and I'll be ready to turn over the reins at the end of the year as planned. While I'm sure I'll still be involved in FIC affairs in the years ahead (I represent an enormous investment in relationships, after all, and it would be a shame to squander that asset), I don't know yet what that will look like.

In fact, there's a lot about my life right now that I don't know about. It's an interesting time.

Getting Comfortable with Authority in Cooperative Groups

In the context of group dynamics, I define power as the ability to get others to do something or to agree with you. In essence, it's influence. It can come from good or dubious sources, but it necessarily involves the cooperation of others. You don't have power in a vacuum, nor can you "empower" others (you can't give someone influence).

That said, you can (and arguably should) develop the leadership capacities of others so that they can grow into having more influence (by virtue of their having demonstrated that they know what they're talking about, that they'll do what they say they'll do, and that they take into account the views of others). In cooperative groups it makes total sense to invest in developing the leadership capacity of your members.

Today I want to focus mainly on the relationship of power to authority, which is when the group has explicitly delegated to someone (or some group) the ability to act or speak on behalf of the whole. [In this essay I'll use the terms subgroup, committee, and manager interchangeably.]

It's an important feature of effective delegation (which cooperative groups tend to struggle with) that groups make a clean handoff in this regard, which entails spelling out clearly (in writing, please) what the subgroup can decide on their own and when it needs to consult. When the handoff is fuzzy, there are problems. If the subgroup decides to be proactive (either because it believes its mandate can be legitimately interpreted to include the action, or because it cynically believe it's simpler to garner forgiveness than permission) there is the risk of push back from people who feel that authority was exceeded and power misused—especially when they don't like the decision.

Going the other, the subgroup may become timid in the face of ambiguity, risking irritating the plenary when it comes back repeatedly for permission in a CYA maneuver aimed principally at forestalling criticism, rather than emphasizing problem solving or efficiency.

Authority can be specific ("Examine the options within x price range and select the one that is expected to last the longest and have the least deleterious environmental impact.") or general ("Make decisions about managing the commonly owned physical elements of the community such that you are doing your best to balance three factors: a) benign ecological impact; b) least cost; and c) positive aesthetic value."). Sometimes subgroups have no authority to decide; they are only asked to propose.

In cooperative groups, authority resides with the plenary. However, the plenary is free to delegate as much authority as makes sense to subgroups or managers. The nuance is knowing where to draw the line. As a long-time observer of cooperative groups, I favor stretching to delegate to committees, either ad hoc or standing, as much authority as the group can stand (so that plenaries don't get bogged down in the minutia of what color to paint the Common House bathroom), but this only works well when the mandates are clear and complete. [See my blog of Feb 8, 2010, Managing Management, for a mandate checklist.]

I suspect that the reason cooperative groups tend to have trouble with delegating authority is that they suffer from a mistaken notion that because power ultimately rests with the whole (which is true), that the whole needs to decide everything (shoot me now). Concomitantly, they are cautious about trusting that members will wield power well, and are thus reluctant to give managers a long leash, or to authorize subgroups to act, excepting under very limited and well-defined circumstances.

Groups can get this wrong in two ways: 

a)  By being parsimonious in delegating authority, everything has to be run through the plenary and that gets exhausting (especially when it gets down to details that most members don't care about, and they feel trapped in conversations they'd rather skip).

b)  By distributing authority so widely that nothing of consequence happens in the plenary. While this is less common than a), I've seen it happen that the plenary gets weak (why bother to come?) and the committees become fiefdoms run by conveners. Not good.

The trick is finding the sweet spot in the middle, which requires being clear what plenaries are for and then being diligent about using them only for those things. [See my blog of Jan 25, 2008, Gatekeeping Plenary Agendas, for details about that.]

In conclusion, I want to briefly narrow the focus to a subtopic dear to my heart: the way that facilitator's are authorized to run meetings. Done properly, the facilitator should be allowed to direct the focus of the group in moments of confusion, but it is an abuse of power to push the group against its will, or to tell the group what action it should take in response to an issue. The facilitator can suggest—based on what they've heard—but they should not try to sell.

Drawing a Lines in the Cooperative Sand

In cooperative culture, it's important to cultivate flexibility and curiosity (in contrast with rigidity and combativeness). That said, this does not mean being infinitely malleable, or spineless. When does backbone properly get invoked?

While it's all well and good that you intend to work things out, what happens when that fails? When have you tried enough to reconcile differences and it's time to move on? When does the cost of continuing to labor with outliers exceed the benefits?

These are nuanced questions. 


Unfortunately, based on my experience working with groups in heavy traffic, there is a tendency for cooperative groups to both give up too soon and not soon enough. Let me explain.

Why Groups Give Up on Working with Outliers Too Soon
Probably the biggest obstacle that cooperative groups face is that almost all of their members have been deeply steeped in competitive culture and are, at best, at varying stages of unlearning what that means. In consequence, competitive dynamics have a way of infecting what happens in cooperative groups.

In the dynamic where the main portion of the group favors moving in one direction and a distinct minority (perhaps only a single person) is resistant to going along, I've observed a decided tendency for the group to respond in one of two ways (neither of which works very well): 

1. Easing off to let the minority sit with what they're doing (essentially, frustrating the will of the majority), figuring that one of two things will happen: a) the obstinate minority will do the math, figure out that they're being selfish, and accede to what the majority favor; or b) they'll continue to dig their heels in, squandering whatever social capital they have—ultimately resulting in it being easier to work around them in the future.

As an insidious follow up, the majority often carries this a step further, developing a story about how dysfunctional the people in the minority are being (which, left unchallenged, can progress to the person being labeled dysfunctional—not just their behavior). From there it is only a small step to giving up on the people because they are so problematic.

In this sequence, I frequently find, as an outsider with considerable experience in group dynamics, that the majority has gotten lazy and fails to see its role (inadvertent though it may be) in pigeonholing the outlier and not allowing for a different outcome. In essence, the group has given up on the individual(s).

Keep in mind that this analysis does not negate that outliers can have challenging communication styles.

2. Increasing the pressure on the minority to get them to cave in. Not because the viewpoint of the majority represents superior thinking (which they may also believe), but because it's unreasonable, even "uncooperative," for a few to hold up the many. I'm telling you, our conditioning in the essential justness of "majority rules" dies hard.

Why Groups Give Up on Working with Outliers Too Late
As groups actively work toward developing cooperative culture, there is a mistaken belief that this should translate to a lower incidence of conflict. Thus, when it appears likely that conflict might erupt, there is a tendency to move in the opposite direction—even to the point of placating someone whose emotional state is moving into the red zone.

Unfortunately, the outlier can take away from this experience the unintended lesson that working oneself into a tizzy can give you additional leverage in stopping unwanted developments. Yuck.

The group may have swallowed whole the ideal that anyone is welcome in the group (it's hard to say "no" and we value diversity, don't we?) and all views will be respected. While a good deal of the spirit behind such sentiments is admirable, it is a mistake, I believe, for such openness to be unbounded. I do not, for example, believe that all people are meant to live together (or be in the same group together). Some simply don't have adequate social skills to make it work.

Neither do I think that all viewpoints can be worked with. One of the reasons that groups go to the trouble of identifying common values is so that they can discern what kinds of differences the group is obliged to work through, and which they can set aside with impunity. While I'm not advocating for ignoring personal preferences (as distinct from group values), I am trying to make the case for cooperative groups not feeling obliged to accommodate them.

In fact, I think it's perfectly reasonable to be firm about not degrading a common value in the interest of satisfying a personal preference—even to the point of losing someone from the group over it. That said, drawing a firm line (whether in the sand, on the chalkboard, or in concrete) is almost never a good idea as one's first response. It should be a thoughtfully considered step, justified by the clarity of the value that undergirds it, and informed by a lack of progress after negotiating in good faith to find a mutually satisfactory resolution.

Whenever you are thinking that it may be time to get firm about your position, you should pause and ask yourself if:
o  You have been able to demonstrate to the opposition's satisfaction that you understand their viewpoint and why they hold it.
o  You have taken ownership of your part of why things have become polarized.o  You have made reasonable efforts to get help.
o  You have reflected on your own reactivity in the dialog and are proceeding from a centered place.
o  You are truly at peace with all that you have tried to unblock the stalemate.
o  You care enough about the principles that you are willing to suffer a potential loss of relationship.

If you can answer "yes" to all of the above, then proceed. Otherwise, there may be more work to do. Keep in mind that if you ultimately decide to draw a line in the sand, that you want others to view your action as coming from a place of integrity, not stridency. Give some thought to how you can set it up that way.

No Regrets

I've just returned from a whirlwind four days in North Carolina, where I attended the National Cohousing Conference (in Durham) and got a sneak preview of Joe & Maria's third floor apartment in Chapel Hill, where I will be moving in a week. I'm excited.

After half a year of trying to figure out how to cope with a series of curve balls (first lingering back pain, then my wife's decision to divorce me, followed in short order by costochondritis and the realization that I needed to start looking for a new home), it felt good to be proactive—to be taking a positive step instead just trying to stay afloat emotionally in storm-tossed seas.

I'm going to try building a micro-community with my housemates (both community veterans) and see what comes of it. I don't have a timetable; I just have curiosity and a clear sense of what it means to be in close connection with people—a fundamental building block of resilient community.

The three of us—Joe, Maria, and I—had fun together delivering two pre-conference workshops in Durham. One on Facilitation & Leadership; and another on Conflict. It was an auspicious start. If we can generate enough interest in the Southeast, Maria & I will conduct a two-year facilitation training there.

As I type this, I am back in Missouri for a one more week, to select a carload of clothes, books, paperwork, tools, and stuffed animals to bring with me to North Carolina, and to place the remainder of my stuff into storage so that Ma'ikwe can rent out a room in Moon Lodge.

While I'm still somewhat shaky from all the recent, unexpected changes in my life, it's now been almost four months since I've been served notice that my marriage was over, and the amplitude and frequency of my grieving is tapering off. Incidences of anger and/or shame have both decreased substantially, and I'm starting to imagine a positive life ahead. While it's far more conjectural than substantive at this point, it's nonetheless a start.

While there remain parts of what happened to my marriage that I still don't understand (and perhaps never will), I'm happy to report that I look back on my last 10 years with Ma'ikwe with no regrets. While it was devastating to have her walk away (I had never invested more heavily in a relationship than I did in my marriage, and it's been excruciating to see that founder), it wasn't like I wasn't trying, nor do look back over the last decade and wish I'd held anything back.

In the end, whenever you commit to creating something with another, the only thing you get is the opportunity for relationship—there's never a guarantee that it will last or go the way you're hoping. What's more, you have to commit to the attempt before you know the outcome (and there's a non-trivial risk of the attempt failing if you decide to hold something back as a reserve against things going poorly—this can be a tricky calculation).

In my marriage, I was all in, and even though it ultimately failed, I'm glad that I made that choice. Not because I enjoy misery, but because it would be awful to be wracked with doubt about whether the outcome would have been different if I'd only committed all that I had. This does not mean that I didn't make mistakes, or have no thoughts about what I might have done better; only that I have the satisfaction of knowing that I was trying as hard as I knew to be forthcoming and constructive, moment to moment.

Further, I'm far enough removed from the initial pain to begin to see how this experience may make me a better facilitator, as there will undoubtedly be times ahead when someone will be struggling as a result of having been unilaterally cut off from relationship, and I'll now have something parallel to draw from in empathy.

Today—at a deeper level than I ever imagined—I get the power of the old adage:

It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Collateral Healing

I was working with a group recently where I was demonstrating how to work with conflict by facilitating the examination of a stuck dynamic between two members (who had volunteered for that purpose). I did this as a fishbowl, where the two protagonists and I pulled chairs into the middle and everyone else sat around in the outer circle observing.

Afterwards, I asked the outer circle (who were not allowed to speak while the demo was in progress) for their reflections. One of the more interesting ones was from a member who observed that many others in the group had either been directly impacted by the unresolved tension between the two in the middle, or otherwise were a player in a parallel tension where it was easy to see something of themselves in what they had just witnessed (there but for the grace of God go I).

The commentator spoke of there being many in the room who had suffered collateral damage as a consequence of the blocked energy between the fishbowl participants. The upside of that was that those same people experienced considerable release by virtue of seeing the energy flowing again between the protagonists, which phenomenon I dubbed "collateral healing," the focus of this essay.

Often enough, people in tension prefer that attempts to address it happen in a controlled environment—by which I mean as few variables (and witnesses) as possible. This is both a function of finding it awkward speaking in front of large numbers, and some degree of embarrassment about how many know the full details of how they behaved. What people often fail to take into account is the way others can be touched positively by their example of walking through the fire to get to the other side.

To be clear, the prime directive when working tension is to give the players whatever you reasonably can, to help them feel safe. Thus, I do not advocate cajoling anyone into working through conflict in plenary if it scares them to death. Rather, I'm asking both individuals and groups to reflect on the collateral good that can come from making that choice when people are willing.

I feel the same way about that as I do about transparency: take it as far as you can stand—all the while recognizing that there are circumstances under which people can't stand very much.

While working out conflict privately (or with the help of a third party) still counts, it is all together a different experience for the group if they witness the relationship damage being repaired, or they hear a report about it. The former becomes a collective memory that is bonding not just for the protagonists, but also for the witnesses with the protagonists. The latter is just a data point.

To be sure, doing this kind of work at all takes courage, and that's doubly so when attempted in group. After all, focusing on conflict does not guarantee a happy ending. Thus, if it blows up—which it sometimes does—there is the risk of spectacular failure. That said, the reverse is also true. Almost nothing has the same potential to heal damage like working conflict successfully to resolution in the group. While I think there needs to be sensitivity about how far people can reasonably be asked to stretch, do not lose sight of the sweet promise of collateral healing.

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