Laird's Blog

Musings About Economics

I was surprised to discover that in the last decade economics has become increasingly interesting to me as a social change agent.

My surprise is not so much that economics should have a seat at the table when discussing the elements of sustainable culture—that made eminent sense to me right away. The shock is that I might be sitting at the table, helping to articulate the economic elements of the better world we're all aspiring to manifest. I never saw it coming. 

Today's offering is a collection of 10 interestingly-shaped pieces of the economic puzzle. While I cannot promise that they can be assembled into a compete picture they suggest a different relationship to economics. See what you think.

1. The Big Canvas
For more than half my life I've identified cooperative culture as my lode star. As someone who wants to make a positive difference in the world, I screen all of my work through the fundamental question, Is this in service to building a more cooperative world? Mostly I've devoted myself to pursuing this through promoting and understanding community, and how individuals relate to it.

That's a plenty large enough field to play in, and there's no danger of running out of meaningful work. For decades it was compelling to focus strictly on how people functioned in a community context. Where did they fall into the ditch, what skills were essential to getting out of the ditch, how to work conflict constructively, how to balance "I" and "we," how to work non-rationally—stuff like that was my milieu and the bulk of my consulting work has fallen within those lines of inquiry. I've even been around long enough to help shape what the questions are.

Gradually, however, I became aware of larger questions. In particular, what is right relationship between social interactions (the heart of community) and resource consumption (ecology) and how we make a living (economics)? What does an integrated package of sustainability look like?

As I became aware of the three-legged stool of sustainability—ecological social, and economic—it was immediately apparent that all three legs were not equally robust. The ecological thrust has been most prominent (the first Earth Day was 46 years ago, and I can even recall a conversation with my high school science teacher in the late '60s about the pros and cons of a new text book that approached biology through an ecological overview—a radical concept at the time). For many today, sustainability is tantamount to ecology. The first and only images they hold are of solar panels, spotted owls, and recycling barrels.

In recent decades though, there has been quite a bit of progress made in bringing into wider awareness my leg of the stool: social sustainability. I've invested heavily in understanding the nuts and bolts of cooperation. I've learned how it breaks down and how it can be salvaged or repaired. I've traveled all across the continent offering everything from workshops in cooperative theory to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Satisfyingly, over the span of my professional lifetime I've witnessed a decided uptick in awareness of social sustainability.

That brings us to the poor stepchild that is the third leg: economics. It's the one that's least written about and least well understood. In contemplating this, I believe a huge factor is that the progressive elements most inspired by a sustainable future have a marked tendency to suffer from arrested development. In particular, they have not gotten past the biblical admonition that "money is the root of all evil."

Sustainable economics necessarily requires one to get comfortable with the concept of fair exchange, but it's damn hard to navigate that territory if you find money—the primary medium of exchange—to be inherently grubby and soul crushing. To be clear, I'm not offering paeans to money; I'm saying it is what we make of it, and it's not going to work if all economic exchange is smeared with the oleaginous face cream of prostitution and exploitation.

2. The Big Canvass
Terry O'Keefe and I are going to be delivering a workshop at next May's National Cohousing Conference (May 19-21 in Nashville TN) entitled "Community as Economic Engine." In preparation for it we're working with the Coho Association of the US on an economic survey. 

We'll be finding out how many communities currently partner with their members to enhance their economic situation. Overwhelmingly, non-income-sharing groups (about 90% of the total) wash their hands when it comes to helping members meet their economic nut. Terry and I think they can—and should—do better. In addition to banging the drum, we'll roll up our sleeves and suggest ways to do it.

3. Carrier as Belwether
Last week President-elect Trump did some serious jawboning with Carrier, the huge HVAC company in Indiana. They were poised to close down gas furnace manufacturing operations in Indianapolis and move nearly 1000 jobs to Monterrey, Mexico, where Carrier could pay workers $3/hour instead of $25/hour—realizing a neat $65 million in annual savings. It would have been a no brainer except for the fact that Trump had made a big deal out how he was going to put a stop to this very thing—outsourcing US jobs to foreign countries.

Given that Indiana is a very red state (and the home of Vice President-elect Pence), Carrier's proposed move would have left a very red President-elect (take your pick between embarrassed or angry, though the latter seems easier to access from what I've seen).

In the end, Trump succeeded in getting Carrier to rescind their move. But what really happened? No new jobs were created; rather, Indiana Governor Pence saved jobs (in his state) by offering Carrier unspecified "major concessions" that compensated them enough to forego their putative labor savings. And it does not take an MBA from Wharton to connect the dots between this deal and the sensitivity of United Technologies (Carrier's parent company) to retaining its favorable position at the trough regarding lucrative contracts for jet engines and other defense-related equipment.

Because Carrier has annual gross profits of $4 billion, the Mexico move only represented a gain of 1.6%, which they were willing to put on the table in exchange for concessions and public relations credit (it's interesting to speculate on what value Carrier assigns to not being in Trump's cross hairs).

When the smoke clears what have we got? We can be sure that Carrier protected its primary mission: making money for its shareholders. And Trump came through on a campaign promise to stop outsourcing. But what does protectivism have to do with "making America great again"? Are manufacturing start-ups now more likely to site plants in Indiana than Mexico? I don't think so. How long will it be before another major company gets the bright idea to announce plans to move operations out of country, trolling for another round of "major concessions" because Trump needs to avoid the embarrassment of failing to keep an uneconomic campaign promise?

Trump held up the hands of time for 1000 jobs in America's heartland, but it is hardly a blueprint for a robust economy. Progressives need to stop ceding economic territory to an energetic vampire like Trump.

4. Intersection of Economic and Social
In our efforts to articulate a better world (not just complain about the injustices of the one we've got) little attention has been focused on how the social and economic can, and should, be allies. Fortunately, there is considerable overlap between the two. The skills needed to resolve differences creatively in consensus are essentially the same ones needed to sort out thorny issues in economic diversity.

We need to be doing a better job of integrating the various parts of our lives into a cohesive whole, not straining the seams. Suppose you have a dream job in the city that pays top dollar, coupled with an idyllic house in the burbs with a great school for your kids—but there's just one problem: these two gems are interconnected by a brutal, bumper-to-bumper 90-minute commute twice a day, five days a week. How integrated is that (and how's your blood pressure these days)?

5. Intersection of Work and Value
When people complain about their struggles to find work, I've learned that what they really mean is their struggles to find good work. And "good," I've learned, distills down to values match. Though salary, flex-time, security, benefits, and a boss who respects you all come into the conversation, the bottom line is whether the inherent nature of the work—the actual good or service produced—is consonant with what you value in life. 

Thus, the fundamental economic challenge can be boiled down to this: how can I be paid a decent wage for doing work that I believe in? Once you understand this, life becomes simpler. Yes, it's more difficult if you are risk averse and non-entrepreneurial (because it can be too scary to try living on less income in order to have a better values match, and there are fewer options if you have to depend on others to create a job that will work for you) but everyone has choices.

We are not raised to think this way. For that matter, we are not raised to contemplate what are values are, much less how to assess job opportunities for a match with them. Instead, we are taught to prioritize income and marketable skills, and then use the money to buy what we want. The model we are offered is that if each person maximizes their potential (makes as much money as possible) all boats will rise on the flood. But that's way too simplistic. Income in a vacuum is too often vacuous (read spirit killing, which can be very expensive).

To be fair, jobs are available in a spectrum; not just sorted into categories of good and evil. And there can be a world of difference between jobs that are value-neutral (perhaps domestic cleaning) and those that are value-negative (say, marketing inferior products). The power in this analysis is appreciating the full value of a good match—where work is life affirming, rather than a necessary evil that allows you to pay the rent and buy groceries. Once you taste work that is value-aligned it spoils you for settling again for something less. When your heart is in it, it doesn't feel like "work." Your battery doesn't drain as fast. You recover more quickly and you're a joy to be around. It's addictive (in a good way).

6. Disassociation of Money from Security
One of the biggest lessons I learned from community living was how to get a better handle on the concept of security. As a young adult I didn't think much about it. I focused more on opportunity and how to be a positive influence in the world. In an effort to recapitulate the combination of stimulation and support that I experienced in dormitory living as an undergraduate (at Carleton College, 1967-71), I stumbled onto community living at age 24 and never looked back.

When, through a combination of intimate misadventures, I would up leaving intentional community 40 years later, I looked up and discovered that a lifetime of being economically generative had left me with very little money in the bank. I had been living in income-sharing situations since 1974 and had not been accumulating anything in my name. While I was safely under the economic umbrella of partnerships (first my intentional community, Sandhill Farm, and later my marriage) I lost that protection when those associations ended.

My initial response was to simply go out and make more money. While that started off well, my vulnerability caught up with me when I got sick last winter and discovered I had cancer. While my bank account was starting to swell, I hadn't gotten very far before work was derailed and I was facing horrific medical bills—a complete financial reversal. Fortunately I was already on Medicare and had purchased a strong supplemental policy that provided a substantial cushion. 

For all of that however, I was still financially exposed and completely without the protection of my prior partnerships. As someone who had been active in the Communities Movement, I had been writing and presenting for years about the advantages of group living, especially if you redefined security in terms of relationships rather than bank accounts. Well, my cancer inadvertently afforded me the occasion to field test that theory.

Perhaps the most humbling experience of my life was the unabashed outpouring of love and support I received once word got out about my battle with cancer. I was completely bathed in caring energy—even from people I didn't know but whose lives had been touched by a workshop I once gave. This, I came to appreciate at a visceral level, was what it meant to redefine security in terms of relationships. No amount of money in the bank could substitute for what that meant to me, or the role it played in my being able to push the cancer into remission. It has been a team effort.

The cherry on top was that when I put out a discrete call for help with medical bills (through this blog last July), 30 friends responded and the gap was closed. Yes, money made a difference. But that was the medium; friends and relationships were the foundation.

If you are able to make this transition, it is incredibly freeing when it comes to how you budget. You need less income when you are not salting it away against a rainy day. If you can afford to work for less it widens the horizon in your search for work with an excellent values match. Depending on your circumstances you can even consider volunteer work. This is a quality of life issue, where bedrock is happiness.

7. Marriage of Entrepreneur and Non-entrepreneur
Although it took me about three decades to see this, it's useful to absorb the following reality about a typical cooperative group: in almost all cases there will be a significant minority of members who identify as entrepreneurial, and a clear majority who identify as not. This is an important insight because the profiles of these two groups don't align easily.

Entrepreneurs are risk tolerant and tend to not depend on the approbation of others to feel good about themselves. They are comfortable in their own company and tend to prefer low structure (read minimal red tape).

The majority are the reverse, and one of the main challenges  achieving group health is figuring out how these two disparate groups can play well with one another. It can be a bitch.

To add to the joy, community founders, almost by definition, tend to be entrepreneurial as pioneers. It takes a certain kind of craziness and audacity to envision a successful intentional community—much less attempt one—and no small amount of chutzpah to pull it off. That said, once a community is established it depends on a steady diet of settlers joining the experiment in order to sustain it, and settler qualities tend to be non-entrepreneurial. Talk about fun. (Did anyone promise that community was easy?)

Why hasn't more attention been given to this? Both are always going to exist and we need models for how they can be allies instead of irritants.

8. Integration of Entrepreneur and Community
Another angle on this same dynamic has to do with how the group relates to its risk-takers. Ironically, even though intentional communities are radical social experiments, they tend to be obsessed with their own stability, which leads to the development of a generally conservative atmosphere—not so much regarding politics as internal experimentation.

The upshot of this is that groups tend to view their entrepreneurs with a jaundiced eye (while we love them as our very own, we wish they wouldn't come up with so many boat-rocking ideas). Precious few communities have directly addressed this issue—perhaps because they don't understand that it's happening; perhaps because they're afraid it will lead to a witch hunt. 

As we know, however, that we resist persists. By failing to tackle the issue of risk management head on, the result is that it's decided in the trenches. Entrepreneurs adapt by either conducting end runs (under the theory that it's easier to get forgiven than to get permission) or by taking their energy elsewhere.

9. Difference Between a Good Idea and a Good Business
A lot of folks fail to understand that having good product sense is not the same as having good business sense. While having a superior product or service is a definite advantage, it doesn't guarantee black ink at the end of the year. The business world is full of cautionary tales about how the better product lost because it was outmarketed (think Beta versus VHS; or FireWire versus USB). 

To what extent are cooperative groups helping their members with business advice? Answer: not nearly enough. This problem needs to be worked from both ends. Entrepreneurs need to swallow their pride and ask for help (what do you mean it doesn't count if you get assistance?); cooperative groups need to get over thinking that helping to develop values-based business plans as contamination with filthy lucre (who, after all, is pure in this vale of tears?). The point of this is to help everyone. Not only will the entrepreneurs be rewarded, but as their businesses succeed they'll be better able to employ non-entrepreneurs, who want good jobs.

10. Local Answers not Federal
Circling back to my third point about Carrier, I believe that economics—just like politics—start at home; not with government subsidies. While markets can be as wide as make sense (and with today's information-based products that can be as far as broadband ethernet can reach, which is just about everywhere), the foundation of right exchange is local. Instead of doing everything myself (or doing without), I trade to you what I'm good at or have in surplus and get in exchange something that you're better at than I or can afford to share. If we both give good value we're in integrity and both of our lives have been enhanced. Everyone sleeps well at night. It's that simple.

Small towns die when they lose their economic base. When local stores are franchises and not locally owned (think Walmart), profits are siphoned off to out-of-town shareholders and wages drop to legal minimums. People are no longer working for Uncle Fred, Grandma Gutierrez, or Ole Johansson—all of whom care about whether your daughter is sick or your dog just had triplets; they're working for Lord Farquaad or his moral equivalent. The good news is that this trend can be reversed. Buy locally. Give a damn.

If the viability of our businesses was rooted in our home communities—instead of leveraged off of investment tax credits and accelerated depreciation allowances—we'd be inflation proof and wouldn't give a hoot what the wage rate was in Guadalajara.

It's something to think about.

The Pause that Refreshes

I borrowed the title for today's blog from the long-time advertising slogan of Coca Cola. It's one they first introduced in 1929. 

I had taken a break from blogging after giving thanks the Friday after Turkey Day and haven't posted anything since… until today—an occurrence notable enough that it seemed worth commenting on. That 10-day publishing hiatus has been by far my longest period of epistolary interruptus. So what's been happening, you ask? My health has continued its mostly unremarkable improvement , Susan and I are getting along just fine, and I've been unusually busy crafting proposals and assembling reports (not necessarily to determine who's been naughty or nice, but you get the idea).

Lest readers worry that my fount of creative composition is drying up, I was so a-bubble with ideas last Saturday that I arose to jot down notes at 5:30 am, before they dissipated like the brilliancies of dreams that evaporate as the sun peeks over the horizon. (To be sure, it was a confusing moment for Lucie—our eight-year-old rescue dog who enjoys nocturnal squatter's rights on our bedspread; she didn't understand why the light was on—but she soldiered on, putting her head back down as I scribbled away.)

o  I want to explore cooperative economics more comprehensively. Increasingly, I suspect the literature is missing key elements.

o  I want to examine more closely the art of teaching and the tarantella of dancing between being a practitioner (out of town gun) and an instructor (disassembling the parts so that students can discern the sleight of hand of the artful facilitator).

o  I want to delve more deeply into how we understand cooperative culture, and why the shift away from our competitive overculture is so urgently needed. 

o  Why are people so poor at listening? And so reticent to write?

o  I want to celebrate the miracle of how much good we humans are able to do in the world despite our feet of clay, our fumbling awareness, and the myriad excuses we have to be fucked up beyond functionality.

o   What is the right way to apportion attention among practicing the craft of facilitation, reading about facilitation, teaching facilitation, and writing about facilitation? Ai-yi-yi!

So there is a lot to write about. Whether Lucie thinks so or not.

Giving Thanks 2016

Today is a day of rest and reflection. After a full day yesterday, Susan and I have a gloriously unscheduled Friday with her son, Jamie (up from St Paul). Family time.  

This stands in sharp contrast with yesterday, which was completely orchestrated. I had infusion therapy in the morning followed by a full-court press in the kitchen as soon as I got home, to continue prepping a Thanksgiving feast for eight, the cooking for which started Wed night. Don't get me wrong: I love cooking in general, and celebration cooking in particular. Even better, it's something on which Susan and I are totally sympatico. 

Our biggest challenge is dancing gracefully through the choreography of two busy chefs in the kitchen at the same time. The prime prep spot is a bit too close to the sink, putting wayward arms and hips at risk when the rhythm of wielding sharp knives and sweeping away detritus are executed in the vicinity of quick rinses and sudden tool extractions. But we're figuring it out.

I find 6-8 is the perfect size for a dinner party. It's hardly any more trouble than cooking for two, gives you more latitude to try out dishes (while at the same time honoring de rigueur menu items such as turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and cranberry relish), is easy to divide between two accomplished cooks, affords us a suitable opportunity to bring out the fancy dishes and linen, and you can fit everyone around one table, holding a single conversation. What's not to like? Talk about slow food, dinner yesterday stretched from 4-9. All the way from hot-out-of-oven crab-stuffed mushroom caps to coffee accompanied by pecan pie topped with whipped cream.
• • •As I happened to be at Susan's for Thanksgiving last year, this is a great time to take a snapshot of all that's unfolded for me in the past year, enumerating the wealth of things that I have to be thankful for.

o  Last Thanksgiving I was experiencing steady back pain, but the worst was still ahead. I was three weeks away from it deteriorating to the muscle spasming hell that would make it almost impossible to travel or even get out of bed for six weeks, ultimately leading to hospitalization and the discovery of my multiple myeloma. I almost died.

o  While contracting cancer would never be on anyone's wish list, from that grave nadir many wonderful things have emerged. By incredible good fortune, my breakdown occurred in Duluth. Not only did I receive irreplaceable emotional and logistical support when I most needed them, but it turned out that I received superb medical attention once I got over the hump of accepting that I seriously needed help.

Duluth is not a large city (pop 86,000), and has only two hospitals (St Luke's and Essentia). Yet they both have invested in their oncology departments and I could hardly have picked a better place to have discovered my cancer. I was morbidly sick and went to the St Luke's emergency room Jan 31. Within hours I was accurately diagnosed (in contrast with the cancer being missed when I was tested for it in Missouri in December 2014), admitted to the hospital, and started on treatment—my kidneys were barely functioning at 20% capacity, I had been leaching calcium from my skeleton to the point where I was in imminent danger of fracturing something, I had three collapsed vertebrae, and my bone marrow was producing a plethora of unwanted plasma cells. I was one sick puppy. I was thankful for excellent medical care and a loving partner—as the reincarnation of Florence Nightingale who unstintingly jumped into the role without any clarity about their being a future for our relationship beyond nurse/patient.

o  Since bottoming out last winter, I have steadily responded to the protocols laid out by Dr Alkaied, my oncologist. It turns out that multiple myeloma is a variety of cancer for which there there has been tremendous recent progress made in understanding the disease and how to treat it. Not only is Alkaied current with the literature and research, he was able to consult with the rest of his cancer team (seven in all) and he had immediate ideas about how to proceed. I was thankful that of all the cancers I could have had, it was one for which there was hope for containment.

After some judicious experimenting with various protocols, we hit on a chemotherapy mix that my body responded to well and that drove down the cancer. I was thankful for having a strong enough heart and lungs to handle the strain of my recovery. (All those years of healthy living and good diet at Sandhill Farm were coming into play).

o  My gradual recovery was in service to a master plan that called for an autologous stem cell transplant at the Mayo Clinic this summer. It's a procedure in which they are world experts, and my case was overseen by Dr Buadi, a hematologist who specializes in treating multiple myeloma. I was thankful to have access to top-drawer treatment in state. (As Alkaeid necessarily treats all kinds of cancer, he only occasionally sees my disease; Buadi sees patients with my illness day in and day out.) I was also thankful for Ceilee, Jo, Alison, Annie, and (of course) Susan who comprised my indispensable on-site support team during my five weeks in Rochester.

o  Happily, the stem cell transplant was a full success. My cancer is currently in total remission, I have been given the green light to resume my consulting/teaching career (within reason), and I am starting a maintenance course of chemotherapy where I receive a lower dosage of Kyprolis, one of the drugs that was effective in containing the cancer last spring. I am thankful that there is a drug that works well for me and that I tolerate well (which is not everyone's experience).

To be clear, the cancer is dormant (good) but not gone. It is inappropriate to see myself as "cured." The cancer may return at any time, or it may not. Meanwhile, I am fully aware of living in a state of grace. I am thankful that I get to enjoy these days (years?) of "extended play," with sufficient recovery to do the work I love (cooperative group process) with as deft a touch as I've ever had, and to have a surfeit of friends and loved ones with which to celebrate life and smell the roses (as opposed to interacting with people more or less in passing, on my way to the next thing).

o  While my choice to live in an income-sharing community left me rich in relationships and experiences—for which I'll be eternally grateful and don't expect to ever second guess—it did not lead to financial security. Thus, I was scrambling to handle the staggering health bills I ran up this year. I am thankful that this crisis did not bloom until I was 66 and already on Medicare, and that I had the foresight (and good advice) to buy a generous supplemental insurance policy. 

While that protection meant that I was insulated from the vast majority of my bills, I still had thousands of dollars of liability and was facing the double whammy of not being able to work while I focused on my recovery. I am thankful to the 30 some people who generously responded to my June blog appeal for financial support, effectively bridging the gap between what I had and what I owed. Whew!

o  My bedrock in all his has been Susan (how do people make it through life without a loving partner?). Of all the many things that I have to be thankful for today, none is more precious to me than Susan and the unprecedented opportunity that was opened up from behind the clouds of my health crisis for the two of us to enjoy our latter years in curiosity, in laughter, and in the exuberant exploration of love.

Defining Cooperative Culture

Back in 1974, when a group of four of us started Sandhill Farm, I started down a path that ultimately added up to my dedicating my life to building community. While that commitment has never wavered (the need for community today as more urgent than ever), I've frequently adjusted the lens through which I see what I'm doing.

One of the most potent and enduring ways to frame my life's work is that I am promoting cooperative culture—as an alternative to the competitive culture that dominates mainstream society. But what does that mean, cooperative culture?

While it's analogous to asking a fish to define water, I can at least nibble around the edges.

o  Caring about how as much as what
While there is lip service given to how things are done in the mainstream culture (don't break the law, pay fair wages, and deliver what you promise) there's no question but that the bottom line is king. In cooperative culture you're just as likely to get into hot water cutting corners on process as you are if you deliver slipshod product.

o  Thinking inclusively (no us-versus-them dichotomy)
Not going forward unless everyone can be brought along is quite a different mind set than trying to secure a majority of votes. In the former there should be no disgruntled minorities; in the latter outvoted minorities are collateral damage, and a way of life.

o  Going to the heart (rather than being nice)
Done well, cooperative culture is about plumbing the emotional and psychic depths of topics, not just the best thinking. Wherever there is tension we work to resolve it, not paper it over.

o  Placing relationships in the center
The weft and warp of cooperative culture is woven on the loom of human interactions. The stronger the connections, the tighter the weave.

o  Being open to disagreement and critical feedback
In healthy cooperative groups there is an awareness of how vital it is to establish and utilize clear channels of  communication among members whenever anyone is having a critical reaction to the statements or behavior of another member in the group context. Failing to attend to this leads to the erosion of trust and is damaging to relationship.

o  Emphasizing access and sharing (rather than ownership)
A corollary to recognizing the primacy of relationship is that "things" take a back seat to people. In the interest of leaving more for others—both present and future—cooperative folks work to eat lower on the food chain and consume less. If we share, then access to things can be a reasonable substitute for ownership, and everyone can chase fewer dollars in order to secure a satisfactory quality of life.

o  Taking into account the impact that your words and actions have on others 
Another corollary is the realization that cooperative culture doesn't work well unless it's working well for all of us. That translates into mindfulness about how one's activity lands on others. In the wider culture the model of good decision-making is competitive: that a fair fight will produce the best result (survival of the fittest). In cooperative culture we explicitly reject that thinking—because we know that life is not a zero-sum game where one's person's advancement is predicated on another person's loss.

It's much easier to expand one's consciousness to hold all species once you accept that we need to hold all of humanity (no just those living in blue states, those promoting white culture, or those embracing green politics). Once there, it is that much harder to be at peace with people throwing trash out the window of their car (essentially fouling our one nest), or with company CEOs who decide to pay fines because it's cheaper than eliminating pollution from their waste stream.

When seen through the lens of cooperative culture private ownership entails the responsibility to conserve, enhance, and extend—more than the right to hoard, misuse, and exhaust.

What do I mean by cooperative culture? All of the above.

Facilitating by Intuition

Today I'm traveling to Durham NC where I'll be working with a cohousing community (my 61st if you're keeping score at home). I'll be using one of my favorite approaches: a four-day intensive immersion. After arriving Wed evening I'll get a good night's sleep and then begin work in earnest in the morning. 

My time with the client group will divide into two distinct parts:

Segment I: Interviews
From Thursday morning through Friday afternoon I'll make myself available to meet with group members in ones, twos, and in teams. I'll ask questions, but mostly I'll listen.

They'll tell me what they think I should know about the group, or about their relationship to the group. They'll tell me what's precious about the group and what's challenging. They'll share their opinions about how we should focus the plenaries on the weekend. They'll tell me what the objectives should be for our time together.

Taken all together, I'll form opinions about how the group has lost its way and where the points of leverage lay for getting unstuck.

Segment II: Plenary Work
Everything shifts at Friday dinner. Afterwards we'll be gathering in plenary, in meetings that my partner and I will facilitate.

We'll start with my giving the group a summary of Findings: the themes I've distilled from Segment I. This, hopefully, will accomplish a number of things:

o  That I have listened well.
o  That I have a solid grasp of where the group stands, including a concise articulation of its issues.
o  That I have a road map for how to use the weekend plenaries productively.
o  That I have digested the complexities of the group dynamics and am not overwhelmed.
[Aside: This last may not seem like much, but it's common for members of intentional communities to experience what's happened in community as a singularity in their life, and it's therefore natural to project that it will be difficult (if not impossible) for an outsider to grok the sophistication of their reality in a single pass. What they often fail to take into account is that what's unique to them—living in community—is the (rarefied) air that I've been breathing for the last 40 years, and that fact is a prime reason why I was hired in the first place.]

From this starting point the weekend can unfold in a wide variety of ways but I can confidently predict that the elements will be an interwoven mix of:

—establishing heartfelt connections among members
—offering the principles of good process (generally this is slanted more toward introducing new ideas, rather than dismantling practices that are dysfunctional)
—demonstrating how to apply the principles while simultaneously tackling one or more pressing issues that the group needs to address anyway (this yields a double benefit: product on a specific issue and a workable model for how to tackle things more effectively in the future)
—laying out a sequence for tackling topics that emerged in the course of our examination but that we didn't have time to adequately address while I was on campus

Along the way I expect the energy to be up-tempo, I expect to have fun, and I expect relationships among members to be enhanced. What's not to like?
• • • Having laid all this out, it's only fair to confess that I developed this approach because it plays to my strengths: both in intensity and spontaneity. For those who prefer a much more detailed battle plan my approach comes across as frightfully cavalier and unprepared. While I've been in this situation frequently enough over a 30-year career that I thoroughly trust my ability to "see" what needs to happen in the dynamic moment, I have peers—whose abilities I have great respect for—who would sooner go into a consulting weekend with no pants on than so little clarity about the arc of the weekend on the eve of the first interview. What I see as luxurious, they see as borderline irresponsible.

When I train facilitators I emphasize the importance of developing one's instincts—learning to trust their gut.

Nowhere is this more valuable than when working with a group that's hemorrhaging in multiple planes. Cursory prep work will reveal that there are several legitimate points of entrée and the question emerges, "Where to start?"

In a situation like this experience has taught me that all roads lead to Rome and it doesn't matter that much where we start. So my preference is to follow the juice. That is, find out where the heat and passion are most concentrated and begin there. My absolute favorite way to accomplish this is through on-site interviews.

While it doubles my time on the job (four days instead of two), I know that if I listen carefully I'll learn all I need to know about where people are stuck and what matters to them. I firmly believe that people almost always know the answers to their own problems; they just get temporarily blinded from time to time. My job is not to perform magic (pulling a rabbit out of a hat); it's to pull away the curtains that have been obscuring the answers that were always there. Think of me as a community optician—the guy who's full of options and opticals, though hopefully few illusions.

This weekend I'll be working with María Silvia from Chapel Hill. In addition to being a close friend, for the last seven months of 2015 I lived on the third floor of the house she owns with her partner, Joe Cole. I'd happily still be there today excepting I fell in love with Susan and moved to Duluth to follow my heart, about which I have no regrets. María is highly talented and it's a treat for me to mentor her in group dynamic work. (Joe, by the way, is also talented and I'll be partnering with him to offer an all-day facilitation training as a pre-conference offering at the national cohousing conference in Nashville, May 18.)

As much as María loves me—and I know she does—it drives her nuts how little I map out before arriving on site. To be sure, she knows that plans need to be adaptable in the face of emerging conditions and is not a slave to them; she just doesn't like to arrive on site with nothing up her sleeve. The irony here is that María is a passionate Latina and there is nothing she needs to learn from me about following the energy. She just needs to increase her confidence that the ground will be where she needs it be when she commits her weight forward before the ground is in sight.

It's a dance.

Democracy Does Note Have to Be Majority Voting

In response to my most recent post, The Mourning After, Frands Frydendal wrote:

Can democracy be wrong?

I think it can, meaning it has its weaknesses, and the recent election—in the nation that is supposed to be the vanguard of democracy—shows that a serious update is long overdue. Fortunately new knowledge to create updates has recently become available. 


The election of Trump as the President of the United States is only part of the evidence that democracy as we know it is obsolete. Clinton as the final counter-candidate and the whole process has denounced democracy's claim of being the final solution to the questions of state. 


Versions of democracy differ a lot, but they all rotate around majority decisions, and all the possible ways to influence the majority, including ways that allow for manipulation and collective folly. Of course majority voting is not used for decisions about scientific evidence, neither is it used (much) for business. 


The recent US election is only one out of many democratic decisions leading to questionable, inferior, or even disastrous consequences. Think of the democratic triumphs of Hitler, Brexit, Putin, Assad, Erdogan, and other examples of democratically re-re-elected despots.

Why is it that so many believe that democracy with majority vote is the best decision-making system for a nation or state? It all comes down to the lack of a better alternative. Winston Churchill said:  “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Maybe it is time to try something new. Otherwise democracy will indeed be the end of that chapter of history. 


I think it is an important task for community workers to locate and inspire communities that have the wish and potential to develop better, alternate versions of democracy, to a point where we can say it has been tried at least on a local scale. 


The bits and pieces to replace majority voting are evolving fast in the circles of sociocracy.

[As English is not Frands' first language, I have lightly edited his statement—hopefully without altering its meaning.]

In the face of our recent US Presidential election, Frands has made an impassioned plea to expand our thinking about what's possible with democracy. In particular, he questions how much practicing democracies have relied on majority vote to make decisions—offering up the recent US election as prima facie evidence of the folly of relying on the current system to yield reasonable results—and makes a plea for experimenting with other forms of democracy to liberate it from the manipulation we just witnessed.

By definition democracy means "rule by the people"; where every eligible citizen has a say in how things will go, and there is no presumption that some people have superior wisdom to others. At larger levels (nation, state, or even municipal) this generally translates into some form of representative government where decisions are made by a majority of elected officials or delegates. This adaptation is typically done to reduce to manageable levels the time it takes to hear from everyone. In a direct democracy—where everyone who cares to is given the chance to speak to the issues at hand—there just isn't enough air time to get it done.

Of particular interest to me, Frands hints at the direction he'd like to see experimentation take: some version of consensus, which stands in sharp contrast with majority voting. From this point forward I want to respond in two parts: a) consensus in contrast with voting; and b) sociocracy in particular.

Contrasting Consensus with Majority Voting
Consensus has two major historical threads that I'm aware of: 1) The Religious Society of Friends; and 2) Native American cultures. In the case of the former, Quakers developed consensus (which they style "sense of the meeting") as a way to conduct religious meetings. By creating a contemplative meeting environment with plenty of spaciousness in which members of the congregation can speak as moved, Quakers believe that they are nearer to God and that that is the best way to evince God's intentions.

This version of consensus was adapted to secular groups in the '60s and '70s, with the Movement for a New Society leading the way in the context of anti-nuclear protest groups making decisions at action sites. From there it blossomed into the most commonly used decision-making process among intentional communities—a position it's held for at least the last half century.

The link between Native American cultures (think Iroquois Confederacy in particular) and secular consensus is less direct yet nonetheless helps to establish that the roots of alternative forms of democracy (by which I mean something different than majority vote) are much more deep-rooted than Frands knows. While I am not aware of any instances where consensus in intentional communities has inspired municipalities to adopt it as their form of government, there are plenty of examples of schools, neighborhood associations, congregations, and nonprofits that have been moved to work with consensus. So there is a growing body of work along the lines for which Frands has advocated.

As a long-time consensus advocate and instructor (I've been at this for more than four decades) the main factor limiting the expansion of consensus is that it requires a commitment to culture change and personal work to consistently achieve stellar results. Without it, you're essentially importing competitive conditioning into attempts at cooperative culture, and it's a train wreck. Culture shift takes time and investment, and it's way more sophisticated than memorizing a new instructional manual and organizational chart.

That does not mean I'm giving up on the potential of consensus to be a viable alternative to majority voting, but I'm not sanguine about seeing consensus take over as a popular form of large-scale democracy. It just takes too long to hear from everyone, and requires that too many participants become self-aware about appropriate ways to participate.

Sociocracy as a Strain of Consensus
This particular form of consensus has be around since Gerard Endenburg adapted consensus to apply to his Dutch engineering firm in the '70s and was then imported into the US by John Buck in his book We the People, published in 2007.

While I appreciate that Frands is excited about sociocracy's potential as a robust form of consensus, I've looked at this fairly closely and believe it's substantially oversold. For a more thorough treatment of my reservations, see Critique of Sociocracy Revisited

While there is nothing peculiar to sociocracy that I consider a best practice (and thus, I don't see it as a panacea in response the failings of democracy), I think it's a mistake to get hung up on which form of consensus is best. It is huge when a group makes a commitment to functioning cooperatively and attempts direct democracy.

That represents radical change, and, like Frands, I'm behind it.

The Mourning After

Progressives face an important choice today. 

In the aftermath of Trump's triumph Tuesday there is considerable soul-searching and despair among progressives. That's understandable, but it behooves us to not just sit in the corner wringing our hands. The issues haven't changed and neither has their urgency—I'm talking about climate change, LGBTQ rights, universal health insurance, education subsidies, and anti-racism programs. But our tactics will have to undergo some serious revision because the Republicans are about to have their way with us. 

They control the Presidency, the Senate, the House, and a majority of state governor slots. So we're in for a bumpy time.

And you can't blame it all on the Republicans or the bungling of the FBI. Of the 231 million registered voters in this country, a whopping 43.2% did not vote!

The question before us is how will we respond. Will we retire from the field to lick our wounds? Will we become bitter and cynical, talking only among ourselves and reinforcing the us/them dynamics that dominated the political rhetoric of the Presidential campaign? 

Or will we rise above it? Divisiveness and vilification of Other cannot be the answer. It cannot possibly "make America great again." Can we be gracious losers? Can we be the loyal opposition that steadfastly continues to state our concerns and to voice our objections to the suppression of minorities, the gutting of environmental law, and the repeal of Roe v Wade.

Our task is not to overthrow or to monkey wrench the government; it's to change it from within. And that means dialog. It means reaching out to the 63% of white men and 52% of white women (yes, you read that correctly: a majority of white women spurned Hillary and voted for Donald) who put Trump in the White House. We need to know why a majority of white women felt they could support Trump even after the awful misogynistic statements he'd made in the Billy Bush tapes were revealed, and after a plethora of women stepped forward to give personal testimony about his reprehensible womanizing.

It is our challenge to try to find ways to bridge between the fair, just, and sustainable world we crave and the land of dignity and opportunity they feel has been denied them. There is only one lifeboat and we're all in it. As progressives it's our job to initiate these conversations, reaching out to people we ordinarily don't talk with, hungry for the ways in which we're all human and can make common cause. This is not about the homogenization of our culture or bending others to our will; it's about getting along with our neighbors, people with whom we don't always agree or see things the same way.

Though the room just go darker, guess what? We have a light. And the preciousness of its illumination only increases as the darkness grows.

For me, this moment is highly evocative of the aftermath of 9/11. While Bush was immediately intent on revenge (striking back at terrorists with deadly force), there was a significant minority that was more focused on the question: why are some Arabs so angry with us that they bombed our buildings, killing more than 5000 all together?

Fifteen years later, I don't want to fuel the anguish and despair; I want to channel the energy of this election into a wake-up call for progressives. There is work to do. As activist and songwriter Joe Hill wrote in a telegram right before being executed in 101 years ago: "Don't mourn, organize!"

Getting Trumped on Tuesday

Tomorrow we'll get to see if a person can get elected President of the United States campaigning on fear and anger—because Trump sure isn't running on qualifications (unless you have a soft spot for bluster and misogyny).

Over the course of my lifetime I've observed the steady erosion of civility in political discourse. (I yearn for the good old days of Humphrey and Dirksen). In this era of extensive polling and psychological profiling, candidates have moved sharply toward vilification (in contrast with discussing issues) because studies show that that has the greater impact on how people vote. Ugh.

What could possibly be a more potent validation of that theory than the viability of Donald Trump's candidacy? He's tall, rich, arrogant, racist, a blatant womanizer, has no experience in political office, and no reverse gear in his demeanor. As a collaborator he makes Genghis Kahn look thoughtful. He is the absolute embodiment of competitive spirit, who will fight until the end and has no qualms about who he climbs over or trashes en route. On top of all that, he's a whiner, graceless, and has minimal self control. In short, he's completely odious and inappropriate. And yet, he's within a few percentage points of being the favorite tomorrow.

Take a moment to let that sink in. That's how far he's been able to ride the tiger of anger and fear. His policy ideas are naive and unworkable, yet he's found resonance with labeling his opponent as Crooked Hillary, and making the pathetic case that his philandering is OK because Hillary's husband did it, too. Are you kidding me??

I wish I were.

I could rail against Trump all day, but he only does his shtick because it works. Rather than focus on the avatar, I'm more interested in what's going on in our culture that such tactics are effective. I believe there is a deep reservoir of hurt and anger in this country. The delineation of its elements are some combination of:

—Life is unfair. We were raised on the promise of the American Dream and it's inaccessible.

—Jobs are being exported overseas or obsoleted. And even if I'm fortunate enough to have one, I'm underpaid, disrespected, and without job security.

—The chasm between the rich and everyone else (like me) is yawning wider all the time.

—There is despair that my individual voice is too weak to be heard, or is ignored when it is.

—Politicians lie, the media lies, and so do doctors, lawyers, and bankers. Who can you trust these days?

These issues have been gestating for decades and will not be solved by tomorrow's election. Nor, I'm afraid, are we likely to see any diminishment of vitriol in political pronouncements—regardless of who wins. It may feel good (at least in the moment) to vote your gut, but lashing out will not rebuild trust. Not ever. What it will take is winners reaching out across the aisle to lend a hand to losers, because the bigger picture is that we're all in the same lifeboat.

Sadly, even taking that first step (which may strain credulity to imagine—Trump offering the top job at EPA to Elizabeth Warren, or Clinton appointing Chris Christie to head a blue ribbon panel on election reform) is susceptible to vicious criticism. (Note how viciously Obama was disparaged for attempting bipartisan dialog during the early years of his administration—it was labeled a sign of weakness and roundly dismissed.)  

What does it mean that Republicans are boasting that if Clinton is elected and they retain control of the Senate that they'll indefinitely tie up in committee any and all of her Supreme Court nominees? Is that just a measure of the GOP's resilience, bouncing off the mat after a knockdown—or a sign that the apocalypse is upon us?

It seems to me that we'll have to start by acknowledging these deep hurts (which, I want to point out, can be done without assigning blame) and taking their measure. There will need to be room for people to express their anguish and a place for that to land. Not because anyone meant to hurt the disenfranchised, but because the actions of the powerful have had that effect, and no lasting bridges will be built unless the abutments upon which they are constructed are secured to the bedrock of open, heartfelt communication (as opposed to posturing and mugging for the camera).

I'm gravely concerned that we may have gotten so inured to mudslinging and slimy behavior that we may have lost our ability to discern integrity, or our will to insist on decency from politicians. And I mean all politicians.

While someone will undoubtedly get trumped Nov 8, will it be Hillary? The Donald? Or the American people?

Dia de los Muertos 2016

Today is All Saints Day. It is also the Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, when the veil between the temporal and the spirit world is said to be thinnest. In Mexico this is a time to remember those dear to you who have recently departed. Notably, it is treated as a time of celebration. It is neither somber nor macabre. Gravestones are spruced up and altars are festooned in bright colors and momentos. Favorite foods are prepared.

I am especially drawn to this holiday because it addresses a societal need. Overwhelmingly I experience our culture as ritual starved, and I think we have an unhealthy out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude toward death. Having experienced a long, slow dance with my own mortality this year (in the guise of multiple myeloma), I say bring it on!

This year I've lost two.

Fred Huebner (March 20)
Fred was my uncle, having married my Dad's only sister, June. He was well into his 90s when he died, so he didn't get cheated, and I'm pleased to report that he enjoyed reasonably good health (including golf) right up until the end. 

While we were not close, we were family. 

Sadly, my father had a lifelong enmity toward his sister (June, Fred's wife) and that severely limited contact between the families, even though we lived in neighboring suburbs of Chicago. When my Dad and June's father—my grandfather—was alive, he would insist that the families do things together. But that commitment died when he did, and there were no more joint Christmas or birthday get-togethers after 1972.

June and Fred had two children. Decades ago their daughter, Diane, contracted cancer and predeceased her parents. Their son, John, has suffered from disabilities all his life. He never lived alone (until now) and is currently wheelchair bound. In June's latter years her health was delicate and she required constant care up until her death a few years back. So Uncle Fred's family has endured more than its share of health challenges.
Like Job, however, Uncle Fred was a person who didn't complain about the hand he'd been dealt. Instead, he dedicated his life to being happy. I know that may not sound like much, but it was. Almost always we have choices about how we spin the events around us, and for Uncle Fred the glass was never empty. He would bring a bit of sunshine into any room he entered. Though not an ambitious man, he was a loving husband and father, and a curious man. (One of the last times we communicated he passed along photos of Saturn taken from outer space—he couldn't resist sharing his amazement at what we're learning about the universe.)

We could all do worse than be that curious in our 90s.

Joani Blank (August 6) 
I lost a friend and community lost one of its staunchest promoters when Joani died this past August of pancreatic cancer at age 79. She had lived a full life.

As the cancer wasn't discovered until June, the end came fast, but Joani made the most of it, spending her last few weeks surrounded by friends and family, celebrating their shared lives. She died at home in her beloved cohousing community, Swan’s Market, in downtown Oakland.

I first met Joani at the national cohousing conference held on the campus of UC Berkeley in 2001. Though it was a "home game" for her (as an East Bay resident she could sleep in her own bed each night), it was immediately obvious to me that she was a tour de force who’s energy would be strong in any setting. She was one of the early adopters of cohousing, and worked tirelessly to promote it all the years that I knew her.

Joani and I didn’t always see things the same way. For example, she viewed cohousing as the epicenter of community living, while I saw it as just one of many good choices available under the big top that the Fellowship for Intentional Community has erected for showcasing options in intentional community and social sustainability. Yet, in the end, our differences were minor and we recognized in each other the same burning desire to create a more cooperative and just world. We were fellow travelers.

On a personal level, Joani stood out as someone you could work things out with. As an activist, she was aware that feathers would sometimes get ruffled. Whenever that occurred she wouldn’t necessarily change her viewpoint (or her style) but she’d tackle differences straight on, being willing to hear your side and to work constructively to a mutually agreeable solution. She did not duck the tough questions. While I’d like to tell you that this quality is common in the world today, it isn’t—and Joani was all the more precious to me as a friend because that’s the way she lived her life.

Joan and I crossed paths early on as I helped organize benefit auctions for a number of cohousing conferences and she was a generous contributor, often sending something sizzling from Good Vibrations, the groundbreaking sex-positive business that she started in 1977, with the goal of providing a "clean, well-lighted place for sex toys, books, and [later] videos.” Long before she died, Joani had converted Good Vibrations from “her" business to one that was employee-owned.

While she was undoubtedly better known as the proprietress who started Good Vibrations, I knew her as an icon in the Communities Movement. I last saw her in May at the regional Cohousing Conference on Aging in Salt Lake City, and we had our last exchanges via email in late June after she knew she was sick.

She faced death as fearlessly as she faced life: directly and with her eyes fully open. What better epitaph could one have?

Facilitation Training for Greenhorns

I was recently challenged to come up with a weekend training for greenhorn facilitators. (See my blog How Quickly Could I Train a Facilitator?) As this intrigued me, I set aside a portion of my recent train travels to puzzle out how best to go about it. Upon reflection this sorted into three flavors:

Option A: For folks who have no experience at all (or precious little) and are willing to devote a weekend to having this essential skill demystified in a hands-on intensive.

Option B: For people living in intentional communities who have been doing this at home (or perhaps at their Unitarian church or their food co-op) and want help getting better. They want me to come to their group, or damn close.

Option C: For people so geographically diffuse that only a webinar makes sense (think anglophones living abroad). All they need is a good internet connection, a comfortable seat, and dates that work.

While the practice exercises might diverge for these three sets of clientele, I figure the ground to cover and key points to make are largely the same. Here's my teaching outline for a two-day intensive (which might translate into webinar series of 4-6 sessions, two hours each).

1. Mind set 
As a facilitator you are all about "how"; and as disinterested as possible about "what." You want what's best for the group, not what's quickest or most favorable for the presenter. The facilitator needs to understand that they are modeling open-mindedness, not just preaching it. Among other things, this means doing the personal work of unpacking how you've been conditioned to be competitive—so that you can unlearn it.

2. Are you the right facilitator for a given meeting?
After the draft agenda has been set, screen yourself for:

o  Neutrality
Are you sufficiently unattached to the outcome of the items on the agenda?

o  Skill
There are two main challenges that facilitators face: complexity and volatility. A topic could have one, both, or neither. If there are topics on the agenda that are known to be difficult, do you have the skill needed to handle them?

o  Availability
In addition to being able to attend the meeting, do you have time to prepare? Do you have the psychic free attention to give the group the focus it needs from its facilitator? (If you have a sick daughter in the hospital this may not be a good time to facilitate the monthly meeting.)

o  Desire
Do you want to the job? Martyring yourself is neither good for the group nor good for you.

3. Facilitation is a bundle of skills
There are quite a few process roles in service to a good meeting. Here's a pretty good list:

Running the meeting
Agenda drafting *
Opening & closing
Summarizing
Working emotions
Doorkeeping *
Meeting evaluation
Note taking *
Scribing *
Time keeping

* I think these aspects are best done by someone other than the person running the meeting.

All of these can be broken down into sub-roles that can be divvied up among a team, or one person can attempt holding them all. We'll discuss the pros and cons of working in a team, as well as the pros and cons of operating solo. There's not a single best answer here, but you need to know what you're getting into.
  
4. Ground Rules
It's important to establish explicitly your authority to run the meeting and redirect inappropriate contributions. While this is mostly common sense, if you operate without establishing Ground Rules you can get in hot water whenever you attempt to interrupt someone who can't find the period at the end of their paragraph, or who starts coloring outside the lines.

5. Prep
You cannot hope to be a competent facilitator without developing a clear sense of how to prepare for the meeting. In particular, for each topic you'll need to know three major things:

a) Objectives
What do the presenters want out of the group's focus on this topic at this meeting?

b) Background
What agreements exist that bear on this topic, if any? Has there been any recent prior work done on this topic? You want to start in the right place, neither skipping steps nor re-plowing old ground.

c) Icebergs
Are there any known unresolved hot spots with respect to this topic? If so, who is in distress, and why?

6. Working content
While there is tremendous variety in the way that facilitators work and no one style that is most efficacious, there are some basic concepts and tools that I recommend that all facilitators learn:

—Contact statements
A short oral nugget that captures the essence of what the speaker just said.

—Weaving
Illuminating a connection between the last thing said and something said earlier—even at a different meeting—that ties comments together.

—Bridging 
Finding a path that links seemingly incompatible positions.

—Summarizing
Distilling themes and highlights from the conversation. This is the ability to distinguish signal from noise, and encapsulating it in a concise statement. Note that summaries are not restricted to areas of agreement; they can highlight points of dynamic tension.

—Floating proposals
While it's important that the group own its work, it's fine for the facilitator to suggest solutions if the group is struggling to find the way forward. The key here is that the facilitator should never fight for their proposal; if there is resistance, back out gracefully.

7.  Format choices
There is almost an infinite variety of ways that groups can examine an issue, with more being crafted all the time. Fortunately, you only need to master a handful to be a competent facilitator. In this training we'll go over the following 10, explaining the advantages and weaknesses of each.

Open discussion
Brainstorm
Card storm
Fishbowl
Go rounds
Heart circles
Small group breakouts
Guided visualization
Individual writing
Spectra & other kinesthetic options

8. Plenary worthy
One of the ways that groups squander gobs of time is by not working at the right level. The most common version of this is asking the plenary to consider details that are too minor to be handled in a meeting of the whole. A good facilitator will know when to pull the plug, turning fine-tuning over to a manager or committee.

Note: Most groups have not ever made a conscious decision about what should be handled in plenary and what shouldn't, leaving it up to the facilitator to feel their way through this on a case-by-case basis. That's highly inefficient.

9. Working with emotions
As human beings, we bring our emotions with us wherever we go, and that includes meetings. Sometimes there is powerful information and energy contained in feelings and it can be a huge asset to the group when facilitators know how to work constructively with emotions. I will teach the principles for how to do this. (Again, this is an area that impacts all groups, yet few have had any agreements in place about how they want to handle emotions or make clear what authority facilitators have to work with them.)

10. Working with intuition 
Expanding on the previous point, there is often wisdom and inspiration in the group that does not come in a rational package. What latitude are facilitators given to explore that when it arises? If you are given permission, how do you do it?

11. Understanding the difference between Discussion phase and Proposal phase when working issues
One of the ways that groups lose traction when working issues is by not being clear about how to sequence their consideration. In particular, it is important that the Discussion phase (during which the group determines what a good response needs to take into account) be completed before Proposal Generating begins (during which the group tries to come up with the action or agreement that best balances what got identified in the Discussion phase).

In many groups these two steps are combined into one free-for-all jumble, at the cost of great confusion. Discussion phase can be expansive and passionate; Proposal phase should be contractive and reflective. The two don't mix well at all and it can be a tremendous benefit to the group if the facilitator can help the group track where it's at, and what kinds of responses are wanted at any given moment.

12. The value of changing pace
Most people have a preferred pace that they like to work at. Facilitators are the same way. I'll explore the advantages of being aware of one's pace, and the value of being able to develop a range of pace. It's valuable being able to either speed things up or slow them down, and we'll discuss how to use pace wisely.

13. Working hairballs
There will be times for every facilitator when you encounter a complex topic with many facets. Where to start? How to proceed without losing one's way? These can be baffling questions. I'll explain how to break down complex topics into digestible chunks, aggregating a solution bite by bite.

14. Up & out
Finally, I'll teach the importance of seeing the glass half-full (as opposed to half-empty) and why it's powerful to end meetings on a positive note. Left to our own propensities, most people will dwell on what did not get accomplished rather than what did. We want participants leaving the room with clarity about all that was accomplished, and why it was worthwhile to participate.
• • •Sound interesting? I will shortly work up pricing and proposed dates for Greenhorn Facilitation Training. If you think this might be your cup of tea (or have any questions), send me an email (laird@ic.org), telling me which of the three options interest you:

—Option A: For folks who have no experience at all (or precious little) and are willing to devote a weekend to having this essential skill demystified in a hands-on intensive. Please also tell me where you live and how far you're willing to travel to attend.

—Option B: For people living in intentional communities who have been doing this at home (or perhaps at their Unitarian church or their food co-op) and want help getting better. Please tell me where you live and the name of your group.

—Option C: For people so geographically diffuse that only a webinar makes sense (think shut-ins or anglophones living abroad). If you can, please give me an idea of when you could participate in a two-hour webinar that was offered once a week for 4-6 weeks.

If you let me know of your interest, I'll be sure to get you information about where, when, and how much.

Together, we can make a difference.

Mr Schaub's Wild Ride

With apologies to the children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows (where you can read about Mr Toad’s wild ride), let me tell you about yesterday’s adventure getting from Seattle to The Canadian, Via’s premier train from Vancouver to Toronto.

Staying with friends overnight in Seattle, I met over breakfast with members of a forming group in Hillman City (a southside Seattle neighborhood) that might be interested in hosting a weekend of my facilitation training in the Pacific Northwest. Fiona and Luz, the training coordinators, drove up from Portland the day before so that they could be in on the conversations. After some productive dialog (and a few phone calls) we scattered to do various errands, reconvening just in time to take me to King Street Station to catch my 1:45 pm Amtrak bus to Vancouver BC.

I had a harbinger of what was to come when we discovered that my host had left his backpack in the front seat of Fiona's car and had inadvertently retained the spare set of car keys. Uh oh. When we sorted all that out partway to the train station we promptly executed a u-turn and headed back to where our host had been dropped off. Once we got all paraphernalia to its rightful owners we restarted for the train station suddenly much tighter for time.

We had to navigate about 15 minutes of Seattle traffic in 20 minutes. Happily, Fiona (and GPS) got the job done and we pulled up to the bus just in time to load and go. Whew. While that was tighter than I like, we made it. As the bus pulled out I thought that everything would be more straight forward from that point onward, but I was wrong.

Less than 30 miles north of Seattle the bus started overheating and the driver pulled over. After some fooling around in the fuse box and some back and forth with the dispatcher for Cantrail (the company hired by Amtrak to run this service) it was determined that we were dead in the water and needed a relief vehicle.

Finally, about 4 pm we transferred people and luggage (there were 13 passengers) to a van operated by some local US company that was about half the size of the original bus and headed north again. Although we’d lost about two hours to this misadventure (all the more galling in that I overheard the bus driver complain that he’d warned Cantrail maintenance folks of overheating problems with that bus before and they hadn’t fixed it), I still had plenty of time to get to Vancouver (perhaps 2.5 hours of driving time away, plus customs) to catch my train east at 8:30 pm.

This second leg went without a hitch, taking us to the last rest stop on I-5 before the Canadian border, where we transferred again, this time to another Cantrail jitney.

When we approached customs at first I thought we were lucky: the line going into the US was backed up for a quarter mile while the line to enter Canada was blissfully short. Whew. Unfortunately, our driver made a mistake at customs which required us to return to the US and try a second time (something about letting the US officials know we were leaving before asking the Canadians for permission to let us enter—I never understood the exact problem; only that it meant we had to go through twice. Worst of all, it meant we had to go through the US line and that ate 45 minutes.

While the Canadian custom officials moved as through quickly, by the time everyone and her luggage was reloaded it was 7:48 pm and the driver (Renzo) told me it took 45 minutes to get from the border to the Canadian Pacific Station. Uh oh. Aware that I was being squeezed, Renzo leaned on gas, and off we raced.

Knowing it was going to be close, I started thinking about how to handle it if I missed the train. First of all, I needed to work through feelings of frustration and impotence. The Cantrail bus ride from Seattle was scheduled to take only 3.5 hours and was supposed to deliver me to the Canadian Pacific depot at 5:15, more than three hours before my departure. But all of the time cushion had been lost because of a mechanical breakdown of Cantrail equipment, compounded by Renzo's mishandling customs. If I missed the train I was going to ask Cantrail to cover my hotel costs in Vancouver, and perhaps more. I had a number of choices about how to proceed:

—The next train east wouldn’t leave until Sunday (The Canadian only runs three times per week). Should I wait in Vancouver for two days and catch that, accepting that there would be two less days at La Cité in Quebec?

—Should I fly east and bag the train ride (could I get Cantrail to cover my plane ticket)?

—Would Via honor my ticket for Sunday after I missed the Friday evening departure (never mind that it wasn't my fault; it wasn’t Via’s fault either).

—Should I drop back down to Seattle and take Amtrak east? That way I could still arrive at La Cité Tuesday evening.

—Maybe this was a sign that I shouldn't be going to Quebec. I was already missing Susan; maybe I should just take the Empire Builder home.

We pulled in front of the Canadian Pacific Station at 8:29 pm, Renzo and I grabbed my bags and raced inside… only to be told by the security guard that the train had just pulled out. Ugh. We could literally see the red light on the back of the last car as it picked up speed leaving the yard. We had just missed it.

Having already prepared myself for this possible outcome I sadly asked Renzo for the Cantrail phone number and the name of the supervisor to speak with. As he gave these to me, the security guard (who had seen this happen before) offered that I might still be able to catch the train by taking a taxi to the next stop: Mission BC, about an hour away. He was pretty sure that the taxi could beat the train. I immediately decided to jump on this chance, but no sooner had I committed to that than Renzo said he’d take me there himself. Bully for Renzo! The goddess only knew what a taxi would cost.

He knew that Cantrail had culpability for why I missed the train and he wanted to make it right. Notably, he didn’t call his dispatcher to let Cantrail know what he was doing until he was 3/4 of the way to Mission. This was a moral decision, not necessarily a business decision (though Renzo’s action totally changed my view of the situation; I was now seeing Cantrail as the hero rather than as the devil—you gotta like a company who’s employees literally go the extra mile).

So we quickly unloaded the other passengers and their luggage from the jitney and off we went on a mission to Mission. Renzo asked his GPS to direct him to the Mission train station and we got there at 9:45 pm. The Canadian wasn’t due until 10:05 so it looked like we were golden. But were we in the right spot? We couldn’t find any signage to support the supposition that Via stopped there; it looked more like a commuter stop. Renzo asked people walking in the area but no one could confirm that Via stopped there, a bad sign. Finally, he called Via. Fortunately, their office was still staffed at that late hour and they were all to give us the physical address of the train station, which turned out to be a mile away and was not a station at all. It was just a wide spot in the road next to the Fraser River. But there was a modest sign identifying it as the Mission Via stop. We got there eight minutes before the train was due. Whew.

Then we looked at the schedule. In the fine print it indicated that the train would only stop at Mission if Via had been notified at least 40 minutes ahead of time that there was business there. Uh oh. Frantically, Renzo (who stayed with me to make sure I actually boarded the train; he didn’t want me to be stranded in the middle of nowhere) called Via again to ask that the train stop at Mission. It turns out that there was a passenger getting off at Mission and thus the train was going to stop anyway. Otherwise we would have depended on our ability to flag down the engineer with waving arms. Fortunately it didn’t come to that. Free breathing restored! (Renzo's last call also confirmed that the train was running about 10 minutes late and would be there shortly.) So we spent the last few minutes smiling.

One final bit of bemusement occurred when Renzo told me I was looking for the train in the wrong direction; he assure me that it would come from the right and I had been looking left. Although I pride myself on having a good sense of direction it was pitch black outside (no stars; no moon) and I was in an unfamiliar place, so I deferred to Renzo. Then the train pulled up on our left. Hah!

After boarding, my only remaining concern was whether my ticket would still be valid. In the US, Amtrak will automatically cancel out a ticket if you do not board the train at your reserved place for embarkation. Trying to board one stop later (as I was doing) might necessitate buying a whole new ticket, which represented hundreds of dollars. Fortunately, Louise, my car attendant, wasn’t having any of that bureaucratic nonsense. She was pleased to see me catch the train (there was plenty of room on board) and of course my ticket was still good. The last of my anxiety melted away.

In the end I did not get the chance to enjoy the historic, refurbished Canadian Pacific depot. I did not get to enjoy a leisurely dinner in downtown Vancouver before my departure. I did not get to buy a book or two for the four days of train travel ahead. I did not get to exchange US currency for Canadian. But I did get on board the train I had been looking forward to riding, ad that was the bottom line.

So I ultimately got what I wanted, just not at all in the way I anticipated getting it. So much for planning.

The Fog of Consensus

Back in 2003, there was a powerful documentary released called The Fog of War, in which Robert McNamara (Kennedy's Secretary of Defense) offered a mea culpa about his role in perpetuating and expanding the Vietnam War. He painfully explained how hard it was to know what was actually happening in the chaos of war. In hindsight, he regretted his role in that American tragedy.

As a long-time observer of cooperative groups that struggle with inclusive decision-making, it has occurred to me that may groups suffer from an analogous malady: the fog of consensus, where they get bogged down in disagreements and don't see the way through.

I was recently sent the following explanation of how a group makes decisions. Notably, this is was the output of a carefully considered process to learn about consensus:

The group makes decisions by consensus as defined by the following:

A. After discussion, the presider of such meeting will first ask who is for and then who is opposed to the action being voted upon.
 

B. If there is one or more persons present opposed to the proposed action, further discussion will be held to ensure that all points of view have been heard.
 

C. After completion of such additional discussion, the presider will again ask who is for and who is opposed to the proposed action and shall then call the vote on the action for recording in the minutes of the corporation.
 

D. Any member may request that the proposed action under discussion be held over to the next meeting, in which case, the members present will decide whether or not to so hold-over according to steps A, B and C of the above process.

Oh boy. Here was a group that genuinely wanted to be inclusive yet never got off to the right start. I have a number of concerns with labeling this group's process "consensus." As you read my comments, please keep in mind that this process is meant to be a thoughtful, respectful adaptation of consensus. (I shudder to think what we'd get if the group intended mischief.)

1. Notice how decision-making is described in terms of voting. While this is a natural extension of what we learned from student council meetings growing up and by observing the US Congress, it is not how consensus works.

What's laid out above is a form of majority voting in which serious effort is made to resolve differences such that proposals are passed without dissent, if it can be accomplished in a reasonable amount of time—where “reasonable” is defined by a majority of those present at any given time. It is, if you will, a nicer form of majority rule—but the power still resides in the majority, rather than in the whole.

To embrace consensus, participants need to understand that it necessarily entails culture change, purposefully moving from a competitive culture to a cooperative one. You have to view meetings as an opportunity to have your mind changed, rather than as an occasion to convince others of the superiority of your viewpoint. It is, to be sure, not easy to effect this change, but it is possible and can lead to wondrous results if you make the investment. To be fair to the group that drafted this process, many groups stumble over this foundational point.

2. I am hopeful that it was an inadvertent mistake to imply in Step B that ensuring "that all points have been heard" only happens if there is dissent regarding the proposal. Wouldn't you want to start with that? Wouldn't you want to start with that every time?

3. In my experience, a good facilitator does not test for consensus unless they feel it is in the room. While anyone can make a mistake in discernment, I find it counterproductive to ask for consensus when you know it isn't there. It just puts pressure on the minority to acquiesce (while simultaneously sending a signal to the majority that they can ease off because they'll win the vote if it comes down to one). Instead of encouraging groups to redouble efforts to find a middle way (where bridging prevails), testing prematurely for consensus tends to frustrate groups and draw participants back into a competitive mind set (where advocacy prevails).

4. Under Step D, a request to table a proposal (because there was dissent at the last vote) has to be supported by a majority of the members. Think about that. It means that people who voted for a proposal must now agree to set that decision aside in the interest of members who don't feel good about the proposal. While that might happen, it's a high bar.

Taken as a whole the majority is under no obligation to work to find an alternative solution to the proposal that they support. In consensus, everyone has a good faith obligation to work toward a solution that everyone can agree with. In turn, individuals have a responsibility to make sure that their concerns are rooted in group values (as distinct from personal preferences). The individual's right to stop a proposal single-handedly, is paired with the responsibility to not abuse it. Under the system outlined above, the group has protected itself from the possibility of an individual monkey-wrenching the process (enabling tyranny of the minority) by allowing individuals to be outvoted (enabling tyranny of the majority). 

Haven't we had enough of that? Isn't it time to try something else?

5. Notably, there is no mention here of how the group develops proposals; how it intends to delegate; how it will protect the rights of members who miss a meeting to have a say in proposals brought up in that meeting; how it works through differences; how it responds to emotional input; or how it trains new members in its process. Nor does it attempt to describe the culture it is striving to create. That's a lot of missing parts.

6. Although subtle, notice that meetings are being run by a "presider" rather than a facilitator. While it is not spelled out what a presider is, I am concerned that it may be the president or a committee chair—people who are not necessarily neutral on the topic at hand (when you think about the power that resides in committee chairpersons in the US government you'll get a better sense of how the person who runs the meting has the potential to steer things in a direction they favor). In consensus you want a disinterested facilitator. but nowhere is that spelled out in this document.

Connor Has Game

I'm visiting Ceilee and his household clan in Los Angeles this week, and yesterday I played a game of Ticket to Ride—the Nordic Countries with my grandson, Connor. 

The game is relatively straight forward to learn. The board consists of a map (in this case, Scandinavia plus portions of the Baltic States) on which major cities are connected by would-be train routes. Routes are of various lengths and are arbitrarily associated with one of eight colors. For the most part, turns consist of players either: a) drawing cards (in one of the eight colors); or b) playing cards of the appropriate hue to claim a route. With some exceptions (where there is double track between busy cities) only one player can build a given route; others have to go around. You score points both for building routes, and for establishing track that connects cities for which you have route cards (where points are awarded in proportion to the distance between cities).

When I asked Connor if he knew how to play he assured me that he did. OK, I thought, let's see. In our first game he demonstrated that he clearly understood the mechanics of turn-taking and how to build track, but he was clueless about route cards. He did not complete a single one of his five routes, and his score was terrible. Once that was revealed I spent time with him explaining how the route cards worked. He didn't need to be able to pronounce København, Örebro, or Åndalsnes (which is a good thing because I'm not sure how much better I could do); he just needed to be able to locate them on the map. After 15 minutes of teaching him how to do that we played again. The second time around he completed four of five routes and scored four times better. While he didn't win, he was competitive. 

Connor is only five years old and I was impressed: both that he hung in there for the lesson, and that he was able to immediately apply it. It won't be that long before he's beating me, and it was a proud Papa Ward moment.
• • • For reasons that are not all together clear, I grew up playing a lot of board games. I am well aware that many of my peers got bored playing games, but not me.

I went through a phase in my 30s when I has hooked on correspondence chess, and I dived into the arcane world of duplicate bridge around my 50th birthday (a passion which continues today), but it turns out that we are living in the golden age of board games—the last 20 years especially—and I consider myself lucky to have been around to enjoy it.

I recall occasionally playing chess, Monopoly, and Scrabble with my father, but he lost interest in a game whenever I got good enough to consistently beat him, so he was not a regular competitor. (His best game was gin rummy, which we occasionally played together throughout his life—in part because I never got as good as he.)

As a kid my favorite game was Clue, because of the variety of winning strategies you could employ and the subtleties of logic and inference (to be really good you needed to be able to learn from the fact that the person two to your right could not refute the suggested combination of suspect, weapon, and room, while the person one to your right could).

In college I was enthralled by Diplomacy, a board game played on a map of Europe where seven players took on the identities of England, France, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Russia to conducted a battle royale. You had to master both the logic of battle (maneuvering armies and fleets to gain military superiority) and the art of negotiation (developing allies to gain political superiority). That was my first exposure to the possibility of a great game that was not based on chance (dice rolls or card drawing).

As an adult I played fewer board games—it was hard to find anyone interested—until I discovered Siedler (which translates from the German to "Settlers of Catan"). That changed everything. It was, by far, the best board game I'd ever played that involved more than two players. As it happened, Siedler came along just as my children got big enough to understand gaming strategy and it quickly became my family's favorite (the expansion version that we consider the best is Cities & Knights, with the fish and pond replacing the desert, and with the deck of cards replacing dice). Years later, that same game proved to be the household favorite for Ma'ikwe, Jibran, and me. 

Since Siedler opened the gates, a flood of excellent board games has ensued, the best of which are diceless. My favorites include Agricola, Le Havre, Ora and Labora, Puerto Rico, and Caylus. For those who have trouble with games that last more than 60 minutes, try Splendor or Carcassonne.

There are also cooperative games, where players unite in a effort to defeat a common faceless enemy: Pandemic, Forbidden Island, and Arkhem Horror all work that way.

Over the last three decades board games have played an important role as a medium for quality time spent with my kids (Ceilee and Jo) and my stepson, Jibran. My daughter, Jo, and her husband, Peter, met at a gaming shop in Asheville NC and today they play with friends at least twice a week in Las Vegas—which I am welcome to join whenever I visiting. Gaming teaches logic, geography, strategic thinking, and how to win and lose with equal grace—all important life lessons. And it's a lot of fun.

It's great to be on hand this week to see the next generation picking it up.

Outbound for La La Land

As is my wont on weekdays, I awoke in the dark. Instead of stumbling downstairs and putting on the coffee however, Susan and I got into her brother Roger's Prius and caught a ride from him to the Minneapolis Airport. Susan boarded a jet to Salt Lake City at 6 am, outbound for a long girls' weekend of frolicking in Ogden. I winged my way toward the City of Angels 25 minutes later.

For the next three weeks I'll be galavanting all over the continent, with my time neatly partitioned into three segments:

a) For the next six days I'll be visiting Ceilee and family in southern California. While I'll still keep up with email and handle the odd phone call, this is mostly vacation.

b) In the middle stretch I'll take my time rumbling from Los Angeles to Ham-Nord, Quebec, the main highlights of which will be enjoying Amtrak's Coast Starlight end for end (LAX to SEA) and Via's premiere choo choo, the Canadian, from Vancouver to Toronto. This sojourn will take six nights and seven days. On the theory that getting there is half the fun, I intend to enjoy my scenic adventure in full.

c) The final portion will be five days of meetings at La Cité, a 32-year-old ecovillage in Quebec that I'll be visiting for the first time. The first two days will be a meeting of the newly constituted Global Ecovillage Network of North America, followed by the three-day fall organizational meeting of the Fellowship for Intentional Community. For the first time, I will be attending as an observer, without portfolio since having stepped down as Executive Secretary last December. 

I'm looking forward to all of it.

In Los Angeles I'll be seeing my son, his partner (Sarah), my grandchildren (Taivyn & Connor), and my granddog (Zeus). Yippee! In addition to simply enjoying the contact high of family, I will be rehabilitating a painful memory. The last time I visited LA was mid-December last year. It was there that my lower back pain reached a crescendo that continued for six excruciating bed-ridden weeks, eventually culminating in the discovery of three collapsed vertebrae and multiple myeloma. These were not my happiest days.

That prior visit was scheduled for six days, but was extended when I was in such pain that I could barely get out of bed, much less manage a bus ride to Las Vegas (where Jo and Peter awaited). No fun. In Los Angeles I had taken over Taivyn's lower bunk, which meant that she had to negotiate nighttime acrobatics sharing a narrow berth with her younger brother. (Much as she loves her grandfather, she was happy to see me depart the premises.) 

In any event, my visit last December was not the enjoyable family time we all had envisioned. In the coming week I get a redo, overwriting my visit of 10 months ago with fresher memories, featuring a recovering, more flexible Papa Ward (my nom de familia). While it's dubious how much I'll be available for bouncing on couches, and there may be questions about whether I'll be able to hold my own when Zeus (a boisterous 60-lb bulldog) wants to circumnavigate the block, I'm confident I'll be able to read to my grandkids in full theatrical voice, and be a demonstrable help in the kitchen, especially as dishwasher and sous chef.

How did I get to be "Papa Ward"? Glad you asked. Throughout my life I've never been that comfortable with honorifics and discourage their use whenever I can. (To this day, anyone trying to get my attention with "Mr Schaub" is immediately revealing that they don't know me well or my sensibilities on this topic.) To the extent possible I eschew honorifics and ask people to simply call me "Laird. When I became a parent it was easy to extend that preference to my kids. (I hadn't the least concern that they'd be confused about their paternal origin without its being steadily reinforced by calling me "Dad.")

As it turned out, when my daughter (Josefa) was a mere pup she had trouble pronouncing "Laird." It came out more like "Lerd" (which, incidentally, is what I often get when native Spanish speakers take a pass at my name). Her mother (Elke) found this amusing and enjoyed reinterpreting Jo's attempts as "Ward," as in "Ward, I'm worried about the Beav" (a semi-obscure reference to a line frequently trotted out by June Cleaver when talking parent-to-parent with husband Ward on the iconic '50s sitcom, Leave It to Beaver. This successful six-year sitcom lampooned the peccadilloes and misadventures of two boys navigating life in the suburbs—remember, this was back in the age of innocence, way before the bathroom humor of Animal House (1978), the raciness of American Pie (1999), or the vapidity of Clueless (1995).

One of the challenges I faced in prepping for this multi-stop three-week odyssey was puzzling out my travel wardrobe. While Ward does not intend to wear a robe, he does expect to be robed. According to Weather Underground temperatures are expected to threaten triple digits in southern CA this coming week; yet trekking across Canada the following week I expect to wake up to frost most mornings. Needing both shorts and a fleece-lined vest (in order to straddle an anticipated 75 degrees of ∆t) put considerable pressure on the modest capacity of my roll-aboard suitcase. Sigh.

Fortunately, I enjoy challenges. La La here I come!

How Quickly Could I Train a Facilitator?

I enjoyed a fabulous brunch yesterday at the Duluth Grill, a well-established local institution that features local, fresh, organic food—some of which is grown in raised beds in their parking lot! 

As the place was packed around noon (we were lucky to be seated in only 30 minutes) the wait afforded our party of four (Elph Morgan, Lorna Koestner, Susan, and me) just enough time to tour the parking lot and all the flora. It happens that Lorna has had a personal hand in the plethora of parking lot plantings and was able to tell us all about them. In addition to a variety of fall-thriving vegetables that are an easy fit with the cuisine (rhubarb, chives, and many varieties of lettuce and kale) there were ornamentals in bloom (cosmos, poppies, datura, mullein, and pansies) and fruiting exotics (black nightshade and white everbearing strawberries) that we could munch on.

When we got inside we found the menu was almost as distinctive as the raised beds. I had the Everything Skillet, Susan went with the Mairzy Doats Bowl, Lorna selected the Rabbit Marsala, and Elph opted for the Salmon Bowl. Yum! 
• • •During breakfast Elph (an old friend from Ann Arbor) had a question for me. How quickly could I train someone to be a decent facilitator assuming they started with no familiarity with consensus. What an interesting question! He wasn't talking world class; just baseline competent.

I thought about it for a bit, and came up with this response: It all depends on the person's ability to be able to shift perspectives. If they stumble with this basic facilitation skill—the ability to step back from one's own viewpoint to see the same dynamic through the eyes of others (reference Trump, the classic one-trick pony who only sees the world through Donald's eyes)—then it would be a project. While I'm confident I could coach them up to develop that capacity (assuming they aspired to learn it), it would probably take months. 

On the other hand, if the person already had that capacity, I felt I could get them to decent in a single weekend.

Elph was lamenting that he was unable to find any programs to help people learn basic facilitation skills in a cooperative setting (think inclusive culture) in a short time. When I reflected on what I offer, I had to admit I don't have much in my portfolio to meet that need—even though I consider facilitation training a specialty. While I conduct a number of two-year trainings (I have three going concurrently) and I expressly welcome people into my classes from any background and with no prior experience, it nonetheless is a 24-month commitment, which is a fairly steep barrier.

I also conduct consensus trainings (and facilitation trainings) for communities, most of whom would be willing to have one or two outsiders join the party for a reasonable fee, but I haven't done anything to promote this possibility and it rarely happens.

Finally, I do a number of workshops at events each year, and it's common to offer something on facilitation once or twice. But those are just 90-miute introductions designed to inspire, not train. Training requires a sequence that is way beyond the scope of a one-session workshop: 
—Presentation of theory
—Demonstration of principles and skills
—Practice under supervision
—Flying solo

Over dinner last night I discussed with Susan my intention to follow up with Elph to see if we could put together a prototype facilitation training weekend for dummies, where the target audience is people who are interested in cooperative culture yet have no particular background in consensus or community living. I have a long train journey coming up next week (when I rumble from Los Angeles to Quebec by way of Vancouver BC) which should give me the perfect occasion to piece together a proposal.

If you, the reader, have interest in participating—or know someone who might be—please let me know and I'll make sure that you're informed about what bubbles up. Contact me directly at laird@ic.org.

Elph also asked me what I had available in writing about consensus facilitation. I told him (as I tell everyone) quite a lot, though it's scattered among my blog entries, Communities magazine articles, and client reports. Now that I've retired from administrative work for FIC and have my multiple myeloma under control, I'm laboring regularly on organizing my writing into books. Elph encouraged me to not dawdle and had this advice about what would be a useful presentation to him:
—Elucidation of principles
—Step-by-step guide to execution (think cookbook)
—Stories that breathe life into the above

As I'm still in the organizing phase (trying to figure out what I already have and what's missing), I admitted that I haven't yet given much thought to layout of the material. That said, Elph's sequencing appeals to me, so we'll see what develops. His request that I include stories has special resonance for me. I view stories as the oldest vehicle extant for transmitting information and the easiest way for people to retain lessons (there's a reason that traveling minstrels were so popular before the invention of movable type or the internet). 

Fortunately, after 30 years as a professional facilitator, I have lots of stories. All I have to do is pay attention.

The Ten Commandments of Scribing

Last month I was conducting a facilitation training on the West Coast with one of my co-trainers, Ma'ikwe Ludwig. As commonly happens, when student facilitators work they often ask another person in the class to scribe (capturing the essence of what people are saying on flip chart paper, a whiteboard, or a chalkboard) to help participants track what was said—giving them a visual reminder, so they needn't rely solely on memory. 

(One significant advantage to the training is that students learn the craft as a cadre of peers who can help each other along the way. That means there are plenty of people willing and able to fill support roles in service to whomever is the lead facilitator. That includes conducting openings and closings, creating graphics or charts of background info, doorkeeping [taking latecomers aside to fill them in on what's happening, allowing them to get up to speed without slowing everyone else down], and note taking. The most common support request is having a fellow student scribe.)

Because there is often awkwardness about how to do this well, Ma'ikwe took the time to spell it out in an impromptu teaching moment. Inspired by her summary, I'm recapitulating it here, embellished with my own commentary.

In no particular order, here are Scribing's Ten Commandments (well, guidelines):

1. Nuggetizing
The heart of good scribing is being able to accurately capture the essence of what someone says—in less time than it takes them to say it—with a phrase or perhaps a couple of words. We call it "nuggetizing," to distinguish it from court transcripts, or verbatim minutes. (One of the reasons that we like students to use scribes is that it gives them useful practice at a bread-and-butter facilitative skill: separating signal from noise. Thus, when one student is behind the wheel and another is scribing, two are getting on-the-job training at once.)

2. Form Follows Function
It's worthwhile for the scribe to pause at the outset to reflect on how their product will intended to be used. The answer often suggests a way to organize what you collect. For example, the simplest way to record statements is on a running list that goes from top to bottom of the first page, then top to bottom of the second page, and so on. But if you know ahead of time that comments will likely fall into four major categories, the utility of the list may be significantly boosted if you prepare five sheets of paper: one each for the four anticipated categories, plus one catchall for anything arriving from left field. Now you've got a home for whatever comes along and the end product will automatically be sorted. Nice.

Hint #1: In the end, it's far likelier that what was said will be more useful than when it was said.

3. Clump Like Comments
If you leave enough space between entries, it is often possible to add later comments that are similar (though not identical) to previous ones already posted. Any aggregating of like sentiments on the fly will be greatly appreciated when your done and looking for themes (which I guarantee will happen, or should).

Hint #2: If someone offers the same comment to one already up, you can adopt a simple convention to denote that: use a check mark or a star (*) next to it to indicate that that thing has been said an additional time (** would indicate that it's been said thrice, etc).

4. Grammar Amnesty 
In the heat of the moment such niceties as spelling and grammar can suffer collateral damage. Even though Strunk & White may turn in their graves, don't get hung up on proper English. As long as meaning is preserved, take your best pass at it and move on. (Going the other way, if you're the facilitator and your scribe has written "god judgement"—instead of "good judgment"—I suggest you grin and bear it.)

5. Eschew Obfuscation
All the clever wording in the world will count for naught if your scribblings cannot be discerned from the far corners of the room. With that in mind, only choose from among dark markers: steer clear of yellow, orange, pink, lavender, and light green. And while we're at it, be wary of scented markers as well: in a poorly ventilated space there are people who can get rather huffy if they're forced to be huffing marker fumes. No need to push the edges of your audience's sensitivities.

Hint #3: It can assist tired eyes to track clearly if you employ alternate colors when recording adjacent thoughts, and you can earn extra credit with drawings (even cartoons) that capture the essence of the point—rebuses can work as well or better than words, and it can make for more aesthetically pleasing charts into the bargain.

6. Write Large 
Bowing to the same god as in the previous point, make sure that the size of your lettering is sufficient that aging eyes can easily read your offerings from across the room. Your prime directive here is legibility; not saving trees.

7. Handle Push Back with Grace
Speakers will not always agree with your word choices when summarizing what they said. If a speaker believes you've mischaracterized them, try to be at ease when fielding their request for modification. (And it's OK, by the way, to stop the action now and then to ask a speaker if your nugget captured their point well enough—so long as you don't do it too often.)

Hint #4: For some people paraphrasing does not work; if you do not use their exact words they will object to what you've written. For those folks you'll have to mirror what they said—even if you discern no difference between what they said and what you offered. Just go with it.

8. Match the Number of Scribes to the Need
For most conversations (whether open discussion or rounds) one scribe is generally sufficient to keep up with the traffic. That may not be true however, if you're conducting a brainstorm, which can often be energetic and fast-paced. Rather than slowing down the creative process (heaven forbid), it typically works better to assign a second scribe, where they each take turns capturing comments.

9. Don't Scribe Everything
Scribing is an option, not an imperative. You should have a clear sense of the benefit you'll derive from using a scribe, or don't use one. In general it's to help capture ideas, both to reduce a tendency to repeat and to not lose an idea because there were too many to remember. It can also help a group identify themes and next steps.

That said, scribing can be distracting (perhaps people are watching the scribe more than the speaker; perhaps the scribe is drawing attention away from the facilitator). It can also pull people away from the energy appropriate for the task at hand. Thus, it's typically beneficial to scribe brainstorms, yet too heady for heart circles—where the focus is more on enhancing or repairing relationships and less on problem solving.

All in all, be judicious about using scribes.

10. The Facilitator Is the Boss
Finally, at the end of the day, you are in service to the lead facilitator and you should bow to what they want from you as scribe. If you are at all confused or uncertain about how to carry out your role, be sure to huddle with them and clear that up ahead of the meeting. If you disagree with their thinking and are unable to persuade them to your viewpoint, don't sabotage their work; do your best to accommodate their wishes and talk with them about it further after the meeting.

That said, if you find yourself confused midstream, it's perfectly fine to stop the action for a minute and ask for clarification. While no one wants to witness a floor fight between the facilitator and the scribe (perhaps battling for control of the dry erase markers), neither does anyone want to witness an uncertain scribe twist in the wind. Use your common sense.

Sharpening the Coversation

Last weekend I was conducting a facilitation training with co-trainer María Stawsky The weekends run from Friday morning through Sunday afternoon and are a mix of presenting material, answering questions, conducting practice exercises, and facilitating live meetings. That said, we emphasize the last approach above all others: devoting three-fourths of every weekend to having students prepare for, deliver, and evaluate the facilitation of real meetings—on the pedagogical theory that people tend to learn faster and more deeply if they're facing live ammunition.

As teachers, María and I face the challenge of identifying a teaching moment as it develops and figuring out what intervention (if any) might be both effective and elucidating. Here are the elements of this:

o  Because the teachers are experiencing the situation as it unfolds in real time—the same as the student facilitator—it means we have only a short time to recognize that there's a problem with how things are going.

o  Immediately after we identify that something is off, the next question is whether we have a solid idea about what would correct it. While María and I are experienced facilitators (which means we have access to personal memories of untold numbers of prior meetings to draw on) each situation is unique and thus considerable discernment must be used in choosing an alternative path.

o  In the context of training weekends, we have to put our ideas through two screens before acting on them: 

a) Will our idea be more effective than what the student is doing? Will it help the meeting be more productive?

b) Will it help the student learn how to be a better facilitator (presumably the prime directive for a training weekend)?

o  Less obvious perhaps, yet still a factor, is how to get in and out quickly so that we are minimally disruptive to the meeting's flow (we're trying to bolster students; not pull their pants down). That means we have to be able to execute (or explain) our idea with precision, so that the reins can be returned to the student as quickly and as seamlessly as possible.

Let me give you a recent example. In the context of a training weekend, a student was facilitating a meeting of the host community that was focused on how the group should proceed in the face of a recent decision by their developer to end their relationship, leaving the community high and dry in their attempt to find suitable property and get their dream homes built. There were a handful of ideas in the room about where to focus energy, one of which was to make sure that the community had learned whatever lessons they could before jumping ahead (and being at risk of repeating mistakes).

While no one was against the idea of learning from mistakes, there was push back about how much that was needed at that time; about how much that should be a priority (what is being prudent, and what is being timid?).

When the dissent was first voiced it wasn't clear whether the speaker's point was that taking time to focus on lessons was a waste, or whether that had already happened sufficiently to move on. When the facilitator allowed others to contribute to this topic (a good instinct) you could tell that the group was uncomfortable being in a conflicted dynamic and was trying to find middle ground (perhaps by seeing to it that all ideas about what to do next—there were four main ones—were honored and supported). After a few minutes of spinning their wheels (spreading oil on troubled waters takes time), it appeared to me that the facilitator was unsure how to handle it.

To be clear, this was not a disaster; it was just ineffective. It was a loss of momentum, a shying away from the dynamic moment. It was also a teaching moment, where I could simultaneously accelerate the consideration and showcase for the student how to do it.

In this instance it was by doing something that many consider counter-intuitive: leaning into the differences for the purpose of trying to bridge the gap. The principle I used to guide me was a simple one: if you can identify who holds the ends of the conversation (the people with the positions that are furthest apart) it can often be effective to focus especially on them, with the idea that if you can find a way forward with those folks on board then it's highly likely that everyone else will be carried along as well. 

There are two reasons that this flies in the face of traditional approaches to facilitation (and therefore is not employed much):

a) In cooperative culture, groups tend to move away from tension, not toward it. If you direct attention toward the people on the edge there is the sense that you risk fanning the flames—an undesirable result.

b) In cooperative culture, there is a core value of inclusivity and trying to equalize voices. Giving extra attention to a few people (and less to everyone else) is directly counter to that idea. (Won't you be rewarding people with extreme positions by giving them extra air time?)

The key to this working is that the facilitator needs to be able to work accurately with each player, establishing both that their position is understood and what it means to them. If this is done well, each player relaxes (they won't be left behind) and it's possible to negotiate a way forward that everyone can get behind. In this case, I first found out that the person who was leery of looking for lessons felt that that had already been done (the juice had been sucked out of those bones) and was worried that supporting more of that at this point was diluting group energy when it was most needed to be laser-focused on essentials. 

Turning to the person who advocated for more analysis I asked specifically what they wanted. The response: two hours of committee time, leading to a report to the plenary. I then turned back to the objector: "Can you swallow that?" Answer: "Yes." I then announced: "OK, we're done." Looking over to the student in the facilitator's chair, I offered: "Back to you," and sat down.

It only took about two minutes to run through the whole sequence. Along the way I was able to give the facilitation class an excellent example of what can be gained by sharpening the conversation, and by focusing on the outliers in service to the goal of efficiency without leaving anyone behind.

The Descent of Winter

Earlier this year I moved to Duluth MN, which for many weeks of the year can claim to be the icebox of the US. While there's no telling where the heart will lead, in my case it was here. Susan has been here since 1984 and that was good enough for me.

To be sure, others come for the salt-of-the-earth people, for the thriving art scene along the North Shore, for the glorious views of Lake Superior, or for easy access to the output of Bent Paddle Brewing—but what people don't do is to come for the balmy weather. (There are better locations for working on your tan.)

Although here it is October 6th and we still haven't experienced a killing frost (Susan and I harvested fresh basil this afternoon), the "high" tomorrow—and I use that term loosely—is projected to be a crisp 45 degrees. So here we go; time to make sure that the furnace filters are clean.

Fortunately, I like winter. To be sure, I don't particularly like ice, but I love creating a warm cave in our double bed each night, snug beneath the down duvet. I love hot soup for dinner, accompanied by cold butter melting on steaming rolls. I love how the diamantine stars dance on a clear new-moon night in January, sometimes accompanied by a curtain call from the Aurora Borealis.

In Duluth we expect the summers to be shorter and the winters to be longer. Even knowing that however, it's hard maintaining a good attitude in the face of spring's shy appearance. April is the cruelest month of all—when the calendar says it's spring but the ice persists in the harbor, delaying the start of the shipping season, as well as gardening. In anticipation of that Susan and I have finagled a Schaub sibling rendezvous in San Antonio for the first weekend of April in 2017, which we expect will net us a 30-degree gain in differential ambient temperature (we'll be trading 40 degrees in Duluth for 70 degrees in San Antonio—quite the upgrade). Will we be ready or what?

It was interesting this summer (when I was in Rochester for five weeks, getting my stem-cell transplant) that whenever I told folks that I was from Duluth, most southern Minnesotans commented on how lovely it is up here. This stood in sharp contrast with the opinions offered by most of my friends (living in balmier climes) who immediately expressed sympathy for what they considered my Nordic exile. (Oh, you poor boy.) Over and over I've had to explain that I like living in Duluth. Winters have never been a  problem for me, as long we've had enough dry firewood and good caulking around the windows.

As the thermometer drops, Susan and I start turning our attention toward holiday cooking opportunities: there will be Thanksgiving next month, followed by Christmas. Those are chances to warm the house from the kitchen outward, with good food marinating with family and good company. Somehow the food tastes better when it's cold outside.

Winter is also the best time for reading. For a couple years now I've been on a serious campaign to reduce my material possessions, with special attention being given to the enormous volume of books I've gradually aggregated over the years. Essentially I'm trying to turn around my habit of buying books faster than I read them. As a frame of reference I've plowed through 23 titles in the last quarter. As soon as I complete a title (I tend to alternate between fiction and nonfiction and have very eclectic tastes) I turn it over to Susan: either she can hang on to it to read herself (maybe one in four), we send it on to Goodwill, or I deposit it in one of the free lending libraries sprouting up in Amtrak depots these days. Slowly but surely, we're debooking the house, and I'm having a lot of fun getting exposed to all manner of ideas and wordcrafting.

You just gotta like winter.

Doing the Can Can in Richmond

I've always considered myself a can-do guy. True, I'm a bit more limited these days because of my cancer—due to calcium leaching, for example, I have to be careful about how much weight I lift—but I've recovered a great deal of functionality since being hospitalized last January and am getting around pretty good these days.

Thus, it was amusing last night to be eating at the Can Can Brasserie in Carytown, a tony urban retail strip along Cary St in the capital of Virginia, where the legacy of the Civil War (referred to here as the War of Northern Aggression) continues to simmer. Our brief journey to the restaurant, for example, took us right by a prominent well-lit monument to Stonewall Jackson. Hmm. I reckon it's a matter of perspective. To locals, Appomattox was barely 151 years ago; what's the hurry in getting over it?

History aside we had a lovely dinner. As you might guess, the Can Can featured French cuisine (though no petticoats). Marty and Dan raved about the pan-roasted grouper and Jenny seemed well pleased with the coq au vin. Unfortunately, my lamb chops (the Sunday special) were disappointing: stringy, undercooked, and the flavors not well blended with the polenta melange on which they were presented. Oh well, no restaurant can expect to ring the bell every time, and the meal ended on an up-tick when the four of us shared two high-calorie desserts.

For me the highlight of the evening was the company. I had not seen any of my dinner companions since before my cancer had been discovered and it was lovely having two hours of unstructured laughter and free-flowing conversation with them last night. They traveled over 90 minutes each way for the "privilege" of my company and we made the most of it.

On the way back to the car I confided in Jenny that my recent brush with mortality has helped me focus on the primacy of spending time with friends—further, I'm learning to not count on being able to do later things that I blithely pass up doing today.

Over fresh bread (and an oozing appetizer of baked brie, quince purée, raspberry compote, and candied walnuts—ooh-la-la), I caught up on the doings at Shannon Farm (Afton VA), where all three live. There is a proposal to bring fiber optic cable into the community, finally assuring residents of access to high-speed internet connections (welcome, Shannonies, to the late 20th Century!); and Marty's pod is about to hook up to a solar panel array that promises to significantly diminish the revolutions of the dial on his electric meter. Nice.

Both Dan (an independent insurance agent) and Jenny (one of three partners operating Heartwood Design, a well-established custom woodworking shop that focuses on up-scale kitchen remodels for the DC market) are wrestling with the same questions that Susan and I are: how best to segue into our retirement years, juggling:

A. The desire to keep active (though at a gradually decreasing level).

B. The desire to maintain a decent income flow (through a judicious combination of savings and current earnings).

C. The desire to have increasing control of one's time (where B is robust enough to cover what you'd like to do with C).

It's always interesting hearing how others are solving this equation, with each situation having unique characteristics to weigh.

Last night's social configuration is a precious artifact from my FIC days. Dan and I were part of the original group that founded the Fellowship in 1987. By the time that Dan was ready to step back (in the mid-90s) Jenny (his partner) had already made the transition from onlooker to imp (as we whimsically styled "implementers" back in the day) and I wound up working closely with her for nearly 20 years. Marty stepped into the circle in 1997 and continues on the FIC Board today. All of which is to say that I've been through many fires with these folks—both in service to community and in service to relationship.

Last evening it was a delight to stir the coals and bask in the considerable warmth of our mutual friendships—whether the South ever rises again, or not.

Good News from Mayo: Steady As She Goes

Yesterday I was at Mayo Clinic for my Day 60 check-up (two months after my autologous stem-cell transplant, July 29) and everyone was smiling at the end of day.

The headline is I’m doing well. I met with Dr Buadi (my Mayo hematologist) and he officially labeled the transplant as “very good”; one notch below “terrific.” I didn’t earn the top rating only because my lambda light chain number was 2.7 (for reference, it was over 1800 when I was first hospitalized in January!) and not zero, and my creatinine number (measuring kidney function) was slightly above normal (though Buadi felt that was likely an artifact of my taking Bactrim, a medication that helps me tolerate other medications. Essentially the tests indicated that the cancer is still present, though in minuscule amounts.

In addition to having 12 vials of blood drawn Tuesday, I also had a bone marrow biopsy (my hip will be sore for a week), but there was not time before the meeting with Buadi to have it analyzed. Also, Buadi wanted a more detailed urine analysis (not yet in his hands) to get a more complete picture. However, I had had one done two weeks ago in Duluth and the result then was excellent, so I’m not worried.

The essential news is that I’m in good shape (for someone with multiple myeloma) and Buadi does not expect to see me again until next July, at the one-year anniversary of the transplant. Meanwhile, he has recommended that I go on a maintenance chemotherapy program where I take a single drug (Kyprolis) twice a week for three weeks, followed by a week off. If that regimen goes well, we'll back that off to every other week after three cycles.

So long as I tolerate Kyprolis well (which I did this past spring) and it continues to be effective in suppressing the cancer, he thought I’d be on that protocol for two years, after which everything would be reassessed. It all sounded good to me. Having a two-year window in front of me where he was expecting things to go well was the best news I’d had since my receiving my diagnosis in January. Susan and I are breathing much more deeply today. I feel like I just went off the endangered species list.

The only wrinkle in this good news is that Kyprolis needs to be taken by infusion (via intravenous transfusion into the bloodstream) which is accomplished as outpatient work in the hospital. On the one hand, this is a routine I’m familiar and comfortable with in Duluth, but it complicates traveling and my work as a teacher and process consultant. I’ll have to huddle with my oncologist in Duluth (Alkaied) to figure out how much wiggle room I’ll have around delaying some treatments in order to shoehorn them in around my road trips.

It will be a new dance, but it looks like I’ll be around a for a good while yet. Yippee!

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