Laird's Blog

Conflicting Views about Conflict

Over the course of my 28 years as a process consultant, I've had plenty of time to observe and develop my thinking about what conflict represents in a group context, and how to respond to it constructively in the dynamic moment. In fact, I'm called on to bring that skill into play in about about half the jobs I get as a process consultant. So I've had a lot of time in the saddle riding that particular bucking bronco.

Recently I had an exchange about conflict with an experienced communitarian who maintained that it was possible for conflicted parties to simply agree to stop brooding over unresolved past hurts, put it behind them, and start from scratch. I was gobsmacked that anyone could think that would work. In my 41 years of community living, I'd never seen that happen (In fact, I was thinking it was for more likely that protagonists would continue to scratch each others' eyes out).

The key piece of data in the last paragraph is that the parties were still brooding, and that it was leaking into current interactions. I accept that it's possible for a conflict to not resolve well when it occurs, yet both parties can independently work through it to the point of accepting partial responsibility for what went awry, and truly put it behind them. But I've never see that approach work when both parties were continuing to feed the monkey, keeping the negative stories alive. (Brooding works fine for hatching chickens, but not so well in people hoping to put conflict in the rear view mirror.)

How could this happen? It's not unusual for two parties who are deadlocked to view the other party as wholly at fault, and the stalemate exists mainly because both are too stubborn to admit their role in where things went south. In the worst cases, both sides may think that their actions were fully justified as a matter of high principle, and you can wait until hell freezes over before anyone makes a first move. 

This is, in my experience, where outside help can often make a big difference. Both sides feel misunderstood and object strenuously to the assignment (by the other) of bad intent. Each is eager that their view of events be recognized by the other as a precondition to listening to the views of the other side, and the protagonists never get out of the starting gate.

The advantage that outside facilitators (or mediators) have is that they don't have a dog in the fight, and are thus well positioned to listen to everyone. (In the end, it won't matter who went first; only that both felt heard.) Further, if Person A is conflicted with Person B and there's low trust between them there's a tendency for Person A to be suspicious of Person B's motivation in asking about their experience (do they really want to know, or are they just looking for me to expose myself for further attack?).

After decades of witnessing and participating in conflicted group dynamics, I believe that the largest hurdle to overcome is admitting that you're stuck and being open to accepting offers of assistance. I believe that resistance is due to a number of factors, any combination of which may be in play:

a) Lack of clarity about whether you're stuck
When in the soup, it can be hard telling whether you're entrenched or just embattled—where a modest amount of additional effort might lead to a breakthrough. Hint: if you notice that one or both parties are starting to cycle through the same statements or stories, it's probably time to put the shovel down and quit trying to dig yourself out of the hole.

b) Pride
Many people (or groups) hold the view that either they don't get hooked by conflict (very much), or that they they're perfectly capable of working through it on their own. In that environment, admitting that you need help can be a serious blow to one's ego, and there's a tendency to suppress it.
c) Embarrassment
For a number of us, admitting you need outside help can be like airing dirty laundry—something you'd rather do only in the privacy of your own backyard. Showing outsiders where you've stumbled might not match up well with your mission statement. (Remember that part where you told the world that you'd be a model of sustainable social dynamics and creative problem solving?)

d) Lack of history with conflict going well
Most of us have had precious few personal experiences of conflict work going well. Cooperative theory notwithstanding, it's not easy to gear up for the possibility of volcanic venting or no-holds-barred teeth gnashing if your belly is doing flip-flops.

The good news is that there a number of ways to approach conflict that can help you out of the ditch—but none of them are very effective if can't admit that you're off the road when you up to your knees in ditch water.

Facilitation That's Neutral Enough

Today's blog comes from the mailbag. A reader wrote:

I've been struggling quite a bit living in the housing cooperative that I've been a part of for the last five years. While the group means a lot to me—I have been shaped by and have shaped it in big ways over the years—I've been experiencing a cornucopia of feelings that sum up in, "I just can't live here anymore." It's not good for my mental health. That said, I'm a process and co-op junkie. I want to fix everything and save the world through co-ops and awesome meetings, and I think I'm one of the better facilitators in the group. Because my community is struggling through a cultural shift and turnover of members and important officer positions, I feel I need to be there to help.

While working through my own internal conflicts a friend said to me yesterday: "You can't put on your skills hat when you're trying to deal with all your emotions hats." While I initially wanted to correct that to, "It's hard to put on the skills hat and emotions hats at the same time," I suspect I might just be pushing myself too hard or neglecting self care.

I was hoping you might be able to help me out by talking about navigating those times when our co-op badassery is overlapping with our psychological and emotional needs. Can a person honestly try to be the leader/facilitator of an issue that is so very close to home and possibly directly triggering to them?

I want to answer this differently for someone engaging as a leader and someone engaging as a facilitator. While there is overlap, they are not the same thing.

How Leaders Relate to Cooperative Group Issues
Leadership comes in many flavors, some of which include advocacy (for what you think is in the group's best interest) and transparency (demonstrating that you—just like everyone else—are a human being with feelings that you are willing to express and own).

That said, good leaders are able to both articulate their views and their reactions (if they have any) and then make room for the views and reactions of others. To be sure, this calls for a considerable degree of self-awareness, and may call for the leader, on their own, to find their center again if reactivity has knocked them off it (which is no small skill).

Beyond that (safeguarding the full and open expression of all relevant viewpoints on a topic—especially if those views diverge from theirs), leaders are also expected to help the group find solutions that balance all the input.

In short, leaders are expected to simultaneously care about the direction of the conversation (what the group decides) and the quality of the conversation (how the group decides). At any given time, one of those two concerns may claim more of the leader's attention than the other, yet both may be in play.

How Facilitators Relate to Cooperative Group Issues
While no doubt you can "honestly try" anything, I dis-recommend attempting to facilitate any issue where you identify as a major stakeholder or know you are likely to be triggered by what comes up in the examination. That's because it's important for the facilitator to be acting from a content-neutral and participant-neutral place, the better to be everyone's ally in speaking their truth. In addition, the facilitator needs to be present and connecting to people when they are in distress in a meeting, and it's damn hard to reach out to others when you are in distress.

The facilitator's role is all about how the group does its work, and they need to be as egoless as possible in service to that objective. That does not mean being passive, but it does mean being scrupulous about being even-handed and careful not to exceed their authority when being firm.

In the ideal, the facilitator is disinterested in the outcome of an issue, and their work is wholly focused on efficiency, inclusivity, completeness, and connection—all of which may be compromised if an issue is "very close to home and possibly triggering."

If Superman Doesn't Live in Your House
Now let's take this another step. What is neutral enough when assigning a facilitator to a particular agenda? After all, it rarely happens that a candidate is completely neutral. Essentially, the test is in the performance. Do meeting participants feel that the facilitator is manipulating the conversation in a certain direction, steering things toward a viewpoint favored by the facilitator (and perhaps undisclosed)? Do participants experience the facilitator misreading the group by virtue of being in reaction?

Fortunately, some modest amount of preference or reactivity related to an issue can often be acknowledged and set aside, allowing the person to be a fair and effective facilitator. So it's a judgment call when bias is acceptable and when it isn't.

Now let's add an additional complexity. What if you recognize that you're not neutral on an issue yet don't think there's anyone else sufficiently skilled or neutral that's a better choice than you? 

Here are three options for how you might proceed:

a) Get an outside facilitator, perhaps someone from a neighboring cooperative (where they do a meeting for you and then one of your facilitators does a meeting for them).

b) Facilitate with a buddy who is not a stakeholder on the issue and is poised to take over the reins if they sense you're drifting towrad advocacy or going into reaction.

c) Volunteer to facilitate, owning your bias up-front, asking if the group is willing to try it. If they decline the offer, step back gracefully. If they accept, you've at least alerted them to the slant and will help you watch for signs of slippage (because you're coming across as biased against people with views that differ from yours) or misreading the situation (because you're distracted by your reaction).

Remember: the prime directive here is not that the facilitator be superman (or superwoman), where they do it all themselves and never make a mistake; it's that you have a good meeting.

Group Works: Balance Structure and Flexibility

This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."

In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.

The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:

1. Intention2. Context3. Relationship4. Flow5. Creativity6. Perspective7. Modeling8. Inquiry & Synthesis9. Faith

In the Flow segment there are 15 cards. The second pattern in this category is labeled Balance Structure and Flexibility. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card: 

Structures, such as a clear agenda, time limits, or raising hands before speaking, can create safety, focus, and a form for the group's energy to pour into. Yet to sustain the life of a group, this must be balanced with a great openness to change, dancing between the two as needed.

I find this to be one of the more profound patterns, because it calls upon groups to be self aware at a deep level. Many cooperative groups start out with the bright hope of equality and everyone having an equal voice, but it's more complicated than that.

This pattern hinges on understanding how there's always tension between structure and flexibility. What is liberating to high-structure folks (because they know where they stand and what's expected of them) is a straight jacket to low-structure people (who want to emphasize what's best under the circumstances and avoid pounding square pegs into rounds holes).

The image above combines the flexibility and flow of a river with the structure of stepping stones. That said, the image unfortunately suggests that structure is crosswise with flow (as opposed to operating in concert with it) and that the structure is what defines the way ahead, with the river as an obstacle. Perhaps a better image would be a portage where structure is relied upon to safely bypass turbulence—where the flow is dangerous, or at least unnavigable—with the clear understanding that you'll get back in the water and the end of the portage.

In mature groups of 12+ members there will be sensitivity to the reality that both high-structure and low-structure people will be present, and you need to find the balance point. The low-structure folks will need to be brought along to embrace some structure, both because it's hard on the high-structure folks to be working constantly without a net, and because experience makes clear the cost of ambiguity. The key here is that the structure is put in place by the people expected to operate within it—that is, you're doing it to yourself, rather than having it done to you.

In turn, the high-structure people need to settle for a workable outline, where the t's are not all crossed and the i's not all dotted. This allows for individual discretion about how best to apply the spirit of agreements. As the text says above, it's a dance.

Now let's drill down on other portions of the text: 

Structures, such as a clear agenda, time limits, or raising hands before speaking
I squirm a bit with these examples, which are all relatively lightweight. That is, you can be excellent at all three and it won't guarantee passage to heaven (by which I mean a great meeting). In the context of plenaries, deeper structures would be how you tackle issues, discipline about the relationship between the plenary and committees, how you work with emotional distress, and sophistication about mixing up formats to help make meetings more accessible.
Time limits
This is a subset of the prior point. While I'm all in favor of developing a meeting culture that respects time and expects participants to speak concisely and on topic, I worry about being a slave to time assignments. Too often I've seen groups chop off a conversation prematurely simply because they were at the end of the allotted time—not because they were at a natural pause point. Better, I think, is for the facilitator to keep a close watch on the time overall, but not belabor whether a particular topic or phase of the conversation is running long. Providing only that the group is being productive, inclusive, and efficient, at the end of the day it will not matter whether a particular consideration took 30 minutes or 40 minutes; it will only matter whether the group felt good about the product (in relation to the time spent to get it) and that the meeting ended on time.

 —To sustain the life of a group, this must be balanced with a great openness to change.  
I'm concerned that this advice may be misconstrued to favor the less structured, where readers are admonished to be open to experimenting with process agreements regardless of how well the old ones are working. Or to be open to the wonder of a solution chosen once being changed on the next occasion that similar conditions arise. Rather, I prefer the interpretation that both high-structure and low-structure people need to be open to change: the high-structure in the sense that precedent may not count for much (because no two sets of circumstances are ever exactly the same); low-structure in the sense that operating underneath general agreements about behavior may be anathema to their anarchistic and/or creative bent. In short, it requires that all members grok that decisions about the relative degree of structure must reflect a balance of what's best for the group—which is not necessarily the same thing as adding up everyone's personal preference and then plotting the arithmetic mean.

This balancing act is not so much a science as an art form, where you'll know you're in the right territory when everyone feels the stretch, yet everyone can still breathe.

Love That Survives Divorce

The last three months I've written quite a bit about the end of my marriage with Ma'ikwe, reporting on my journey through anguish, sadness, grief, and even some hopefulness. Today, I'm turning a page and starting a new chapter, where I chronicle developments as Ma'ikwe and I work our way carefully and tenderly toward reknitting precious aspects of our relationship, while respecting her decision to no longer be partners. In contemporary parlance, you might think of it as friends without benefits… yet close friends.

On Sunday I sent Ma'ikwe a Mother's Day email, and it led to the following sweet and healing sequence the last 48 hours (I've edited out the extraneous references to the weather and such):

Laird #1:

I hope you have a wonderful day.

It must be fun having Jibran back: the official reason that today’s your day.

You should be proud of how well Jibran has turned out and how well you did giving him considerable latitude to find his own way in relation to education. I’m glad the mother in you gets these precious days with him now, all to yourself, before his California adventure this summer. [Jibran has a summer job in Mill Valley.]

Ma'ikwe #1:

Thanks. It means a lot to have you celebrate this part of me, as the main witness to my mothering for the past decade.

Yesterday turned out to be a hard day for me. Being at Sandhill was bittersweet. [It was Sandhill's 41st birthday cum May Day party.] After a couple shots of whiskey, I found myself wandering around, doing a kind of melancholy tour of the nearly two decades we've known each other. Some of my best memories of us are contained at Sandhill. I was feeling both the loss of you in my life and the loss of Sandhill in yours, and they were both weighing heavily. Some combo of straight of pain of loss and self-recrimination and joyful memories that were nonetheless coated in a kind of haze of sadness. I came home early in part because I was running the risk of just getting caught in it. I clearly am working my way through my own layers of mourning us.

Laird #2:

Thanks for sharing from your heart. That’s the part I love the best, even if I didn’t always handle it well.

I wrote my blog yesterday afternoon in a state of melancholy, thinking about not being at the party, and as I stared out the window (on the train) I was trying to figure out how I’d handle it if I were in Rutledge. I’m not sure I could have handled it at all, and might have not gone. I suspect you were braver and more together than I am capable of right now.

While sadness does not dominate my life (and never has) it’s definitely close to the surface right now, and I’ve made a commitment to not fight it. Harder, I suppose, is knowing whether I’m wallowing in it.

The cold gray fog outside my window exactly mirrors my mood right now.

Ma'ikwe #2:

You're welcome. That's true of both of us, you know. Not handling it well. As I'm into this new connection [with a potential new partner] I've been thinking a whole lot about what I did well and not well with you. We both have responsibility for it not working. And I'm sad about that.

I think the stakes are really different for us, honey. I was walking around [at the Sandhill party] with one (major, important, but still one) thread of my life laid bare. For you, being at Sandhill would have been a whole tapestry. My bravery and yours are apples to oranges in this case.

Laird, you've gotten so much better at not wallowing [in reaction]. And this is huge, this break up. It's worth giving space to it emotionally. So I'm glad you aren't fighting it, but I'm not worried about you getting stuck in it. You've moved past that in your life, and I'm really proud of you for having done that work.

Yeah, it's [the cold, gray fog] been suiting mine some days as well.

Laird #3:

I’m sorry about your sadness, yet you've seemed clear in your choice to end our intimate relationship, and I’m holding that you know what’s best for you—that the predominant feelings are release and liberation; that you are no longer held back and can proactively seek a more joyful life. I wish you only the best with [future relationships], or whatever you choose.

Ma'ikwe #3:

Thanks. Your well-wishes mean a lot to me.

Laird #4:

To be sure, I’ve found myself in many swirls the past three months (not all of which have been productive), and tenderness is always close at hand and easily triggered. Throughout it all, however, I have never lost sight of a foundational sequence:

o  I love you
o  I have no regrets about having tried as hard as I knew to make our partnership work (which represented the biggest investment in relationship that I’ve ever made; I’ve never tried harder or opened myself up to as much personal work as I have in pursuit of a great marriage)
o  Even being rejected by you as an intimate partner, I still love you (repudiating that love would be soul shriveling for me and self-destructive)
o  Love is not about possession or control; it’s about connection, celebration, and being there as support in hard times; it’s about your partner thriving in all senses of the word
o  In loving you, I wish you happiness and success in whatever you choose (the ultimate test of which is that I can truly mean that when your choices have nothing to do with me)

So you see, it’s not that hard to hope your budding relationship is joyous and successful.

Ma'ikwe #4:

Thanks, love.

I have a similar list with you.

1) I still love you. It's been there a long, long time and will continue.

2) I still think you are doing some of the most important work in the world I've ever been privileged to be a part of, and our mentor/mentee relationship is enduringly valuable to me. It was always part of the attraction: your brilliance, your dedication, your fearlessness.

3) I also have no regrets about all the work that went into us for all that time. It was really a decade long journey for me, because I knew where it was headed long before I worked up the nerve to tell you that. Our relationship was the most powerful one I've ever had. I had more fun, more learning, and more growth with you than anyone else.

4) It is abundantly clear to me as I'm exploring with [someone new] how much our time together has turned me into a far better human than I was when I went into it. If this next relationship is a success (and I'm hopeful about that) it will be in no small part because our time together matured me immensely. I feel a lot of gratitude for that, and also a lot of hope that you'll have a parallel experience at some point where love is more possible because we did us.

5) And I feel incredibly grateful that you've never been run by jealousy. It's making this much easier. I really get how rare it is for someone to be able to celebrate their ex-partner moving on, and I have no doubts of your sincerity with that. I'm grateful you are mature enough to be able to tease apart your hurt (which I know is real and runs deep) from any resentment about me being happy. You're a remarkable man, Laird.

6) And did I mention that I still love you? Because it is worth repeating. Whatever I can do to support your return to peace and moving on for your own good life, I will try to do. I know there's serious limits on that, because you can't really lean into me to heal from the loss of me, but please tell me if I CAN do anything.

I feel truly blessed to receive the gift of these healing words from my estranged wife.

Sandhill Turns 41

Today Sandhill Farm is hosting its annual May Day party, which is a tri-communities all-skate gala marking the anniversary of its birth in 1974, the pagan holiday of Beltane, and the fullness of spring.

Last year, I was on a leave of absence from Sandhill, exploring living with my wife at Dancing Rabbit (though we’d been married since 2007, we had not ever lived together, and my willingness to make that move was an integral part of her decision to rescind her request for a divorce the previous July). As Dancing Rabbit is only three miles distant from Sandhill, I had no trouble making over for the May Day. I remember last year’s festivities for all the storytelling on our 40th birthday, which included a number of ex-members returning for the occasion. It was a happy day.

Today, I think back on a year ago with wistfulness, sadness, and wonder. So much has changed. I’m typing this on board the westbound Cardinal (Amtrak’s train #51) as it limps toward Chicago more than eight hours behind schedule. I’ve long since missed my connection to the California Zephyr, which pulled out of Chicago at 2 pm without me. As I look outside the window, the green in the trees is right (spring is here!), but I’m missing the party back in Rutledge. Sandhill set the date after I’d made plans to visit Annie in Virginia and Betty in Denver with no stopover in Missouri in between.

I let go of my Sandhill membership when Ma’ikwe and I recommitted to our marriage last July, on the one-year anniversary of her first decision to end it. Though that represented a big change (letting go of Sandhill after 40 years) it felt right at the time and I have no regrets choosing love over home. And then it all unraveled. Ma’ikwe decided this February that ending our marriage was the right thing after all, and Sandhill decided it would be better for all concerned if I didn’t return.

So on this May Day I am reflecting on all that I have left behind in Rutledge, and find it somewhat amusing that while everyone else is celebrating, I’ll be alone in a hotel room in Chicago, courtesy of Amtrak because of the botched connection to my second train. Last evening, in West Virginia (somewhere between Thurmond and Montgomery, alongside the banks of the New River) our engine hit a tree that had fallen on the tracks and managed to burst an air hose. That meant no brakes, which, in turn, meant no movement. It took many hours to manifest a replacement freight engine to effect our rescue, with the result that everyone’s connections in Chicago had no chance today.

Once out of our designated time corridor, we were subject to additional delays to let freight trains pass, and we even had a stop at a crossroads for a medical emergency, where a passenger having trouble breathing was met by an ambulance. It’s been quite a trip so far and I’ve still got an 18-hour sojourn to Denver awaiting tomorrow.

For as far back as I can remember, on the night of Sandhill’s May Day Party it would be my job to tend the fire for the sweet lodge. But not this year. Instead, I’m sweating how to make it up to Betty, whose time with me will be almost cut in half by my missed connection.

I tell people they shouldn’t take the train if they’re in a hurry, and today I get to learn that lesson one more time. Tonight, at my hotel, at least I’ll have the time to raise a glass to toast Sandhill in absentia. I wish them well.


When I was in high school, I took German as a foreign language. Though I've never lived in Germany I've gotten to visit it twice over the years and I've always had a fondness for German culture as the dominant cultural element of my parental lineage.

Being a foodie, I also have an affinity for German cuisine. Think sauerbraten, wienerschnitzel, sausage and sauerkraut, spätzle, and spätlese—not to mention beer. I also grew up in the '50s, and that meant untold hours in front of the television set watching Saturday morning cartoons. In addition to the Road Runner and Tom & Jerry, there was plenty of Bugs Bunny & Elmer Fudd.

If you'll recall, Elmer was always trying to protect his garden and Bugs was invariably successful in finding a way to extract the carrots despite Elmer's best efforts on defense. In some episodes a big deal was made of recipes for hasenpfeffer, which is a German dish featuring rabbit (hasen=hare + pfeffer=pepper; essentially rabbit stew). Of course, Elmer was thinking of featuring Bugs as the main course. Though that never happened, "hasenpfeffer" entered my working vocabulary at an early age.

Tonight, for the first time, I'm actually going to eat it. I'm visiting my good friend, Annie Shrader in Floyd VA this week and she pulled a rabbit out of the hat freezer for the occasion. It was my job to figure out how to cook it. We quickly agreed that the crock pot was the way to go, and the rabbit is stewing even as I type.

As I understand it, any dish comprised of rabbit, onions, spices, and a marinade qualifies as hasenpfeffer. Tonight's culinary concoction relies on tomatoes, garlic, rosemary, tarragon, pinot grigio, and plenty of fresh ground black pepper. Yum!

It's fun pioneering a new recipe, and I can't wait for Annie's next rabbit, when I can try a hasenpfeffer variation that incorporates, cabernet sauvignon, currant jelly, and bacon. (How can you go wrong?)

Bon appétit!

Renting in Community

I recently worked with a community that wanted to tackle the issue of renting. Did they want to leave the matter solely up to owners, or did the community want to have say in how that went? 

It occurred to me that this was an excellent example of a topic that was both complex and potentially volatile, so the group and I put some effort into thinking through the kinds of questions that the group might usefully address in order to have a comprehensive policy. Following is what we came up with. While each question may not be potent, or necessarily challenging to answer, our aim was to generate a list that would cover the waterfront.

A.  How important is it that renting be in compliance with local building code and occupancy laws?
B.  Renters impact parking. To what extent should they have the same access to parking as owners?
C.  Should the formula by which homeowner dues are calculated take into account rental units? If so, how?
D.  In what ways should policy differ if the rental is whole house, or rooms in an owner-occupied house?
E.  To what extent should rental units be allowed because they make living in the community more affordable for the owners?
F.  Rental units in some houses increase the assessed valuation of all homes in the community. To what extent, if any, should the increased tax burden on homes without rentals be supported by those that have rental units?
G.  What say should the community have in who is being rented to?
H.  Do you want renters to be involved in community life? If so, how do you want to accomplish that?
I.  Should there be any limits on renters’ access to common facilities and community activities?
J.  What responsibility should the community have for orienting renters to community life? What portion of this can be expected of owners?
K.  Should renters be introduced to the community? If so, how?
L.  Is there a safety issue with renters? If so, how can that be dealt with?
M.  Should there be an upper limit on renters to protect the viability of the community? If so, what is it and how will rental options be rationed among owners?
N. To what extent does renter policy and expectations change by length of rental (say, less than 90 days)?
O.  Does whole house renting beyond a certain number impact ability to get mortgages?
P.  What are the positives about renters?
Q.  Impact on community resources
R.  How will we handle situations where renters are not compliant with community norms and agreements?
S.  To what extent are landlord/owners responsible for what their renters do?
T.  What is the community's liability with renters?
U.  How to balance community interests and private rights
V.  Do we want/need a community member to be a liaison for each renter?
W.  How to ensure that our renter policy feels good as a package?
X.  What does “renter” mean (as distinct from guest)?
Y.  How do we take into account lovers, guests, pets, etc that often accompany a renter?

Our plan for addressing these was to tackle one strand at a time, developing the best answer we could before moving on to the next. Recognizing that the answer to one strand might depend on the answer to another that has not yet been addressed, we agreed to assume that we have a satisfactory response to unaddressed strands when and then proceeding. 

To the extent that some strands seem more foundational than others, it may make sense to be deliberate about the sequence in which they'll be considered, keeping in mind that eventually they'll all need to be addressed. (Note: the order in which the strands are listed above is arbitrary.) Further, it may make sense to clump a few strands to be considered simultaneously, though I cautioned the group about the dangers of trying to take too large a bite at once—they can be difficult to chew and swallow.

Being Touched in Community

Being touched has many meanings.

1. Heart Connection
as in being affected by someone's plea or pitch

As humans, I believe we are hard-wired to want connection to each other. However, our societal conditioning doesn't necessarily reinforce this. In many ways, the hunger for community is fueled by this unmet need: both to be touched by others and to have others touched by us. I think we all want to be seen and held by those around us, and intentional community is, in part, an attempt to surround ourselves with people who care about the same things—making it easier to in touch.

This is more than others understanding and working respectfully with our ideas; it's about being seen for who we are and known for what matters to us, where meaning is deepest. I want to be clear that the essence of my focus is on being cared about and taken into account—not necessarily that you're agreed with.

2. Slightly Crazy
as in being influenced by wildness or spirit in mysterious or unbalanced ways

For most of us it takes courage to create or join an intentional community. It is far off the beaten path and looked upon as something rather exotic by most in the mainstream. In fact, one of the challenges for people living in community is being taken seriously. Many political activists, for instance, believe that living in intentional community is hiding out—creating a safe enclave out in the boondocks instead of engaging on real issues. (While I don't share that view, I've heard it plenty.)

I am an acorn that has wandered quite far from the tree from which I fell—so much so that my fellow nuts have a hard time conceiving of an oak growing out of my seed. As if the journey to new soil is not perilous in and of itself, I must also bear the stigmata of familial disapprobation or confusion. It is hard leaving the herd.

3. Physical Contact
as in bodies together

I had an experience of this last Sunday, at the end of Men's Group. After sharing that I was planning to take a leave of absence from Dancing Rabbit and try living with friends in NC, the evening concluded with the group giving me a "cinnamon roll." Starting in a circle with everyone holding hands, I dropped my left hand and then spiraled inward while continuing to hold the hand of the person on my right. The results was a spiral with me in the middle. I was acutely aware of both the smells and touch of the other men—and how seldom I feel that.

Because our culture tends to overlay almost all touch with sexual innuendo, there is a strong tendency to discourage touch excepting across the bonds of immediate family or where there is mutual consent to enter into the realm of sexual exploration. The upshot of this taboo is that people are starved for touch. Even where there is scientific evidence that touch is a necessary feature of health, we physically connect with one another seldom and often as carefully as handling porcelain when we do—as if we might break.

Among the many things I miss as a consequence of being estranged from Ma'ikwe is her touch: holding hands on walks, her touching my shoulder lightly when delivering me a cup of coffee at my desk, cuddling as our last act of consciousness at night.

At its best, community is about everyone being in touch.


I'm feeling better.

In fact, well enough to offer up this essay as a triple entendre.

1. The start of a 22-day road trip
I'm typing this on board the Illinois Zephyr, en route to Chicago, where I'll catch the eastbound Capitol Limited for DC this evening. Tomorrow I meet with an FIC donor, and by Wednesday evening I'll be in Blacksburg VA, where I'll be working through the weekend with Shadowlake Village, an established cohousing community with whom I've worked before (though the last time was the weekend right before Katrina hit New Orleans, almost 10 years ago).

After that I get to enjoy four days with my dear friend, Ann Shrader, in nearby Floyd VA. Departing Virginia May 9, I'll get to Denver by Sunday morning, where I'll visit for two days with another long-term friend, followed by five days of FIC meetings at Wild Sage, a cohousing community in Boulder. Then I head for the barn.

This is a fairly typical trip, combining a little of all the things I like to do out in the world: professional facilitating/consulting, network organizing, and visiting with friends. 

So I'm outbound from home.

2. I'm moving to NC
While my going on a trip is not remarkable and neither is the mix of how I'll be spending my time, I realized only yesterday that I will miss the entire morel season without a single walk in the woods, and I'll also not be in state when Sandhill celebrates Land Day, May 9. These are significant omissions because it represents an unmooring of my connection to place—my home of 41 years. I used to schedule trips around morel season and Land Day, and now I'm scheduling through them.

As I reported earlier as a possibility, I've made up my mind to join Maria, Joe, and Mia (Maria's 13-year-old daughter) in early June, occupying their third-floor apartment. I'll be renting month to month and exploring a household scale community with close friends.

To frame this properly, I've taken leaves of absence and stayed for extended periods away from Sandhill a number of times before, so I'm not exactly plowing any new ground here. It's an experiment. If it works out I may move to the Tar Heel State permanently and start a new chapter to my life in community. If not, I can return to Dancing Rabbit, where no bridges have been burned.

Notably, this represents my taking a pro-active step to define what's next for me, after 10 weeks characterized mainly by my grieving the loss of my marriage and allowing for the dust to settle. I've realized in the handful of days that Ma'ikwe and I have both been in residence at Moon Lodge (our house at Dancing Rabbit) that it's awkward trying to figure out how to relate to my estranged wife. I still love her, but she no longer wants me that close and I don't know where the line is between between intimate and interesting. I was walking on eggshells and I need more oxygen.

So even if my NC adventure does not bear community, it will be an emotional respite from the tenderness of my loss. In time, I'm confident that Ma'ikwe and I can find a new balance point that will work for us in a meaningful way—but not just yet.

So in about six weeks I'll be outbound from Missouri.

3. Pain in my torso is finally easing 
After almost seven months of fairly constant debility in one part or another of my ribs and back, I can feel the light at the end of the tunnel. I saw a doctor last week who explained that my most recent malaise— very tender ribs at the point where they meet the sternum (that's costochondritis if you're diagnosing at home)—will eventually get better without my doing anything more prudent than avoiding heavy lifting and getting adequate rest. 

That was welcome news, changing my frame of reference. I no longer think of myself as broken, or maladjusted; just sore. I'm now turning my attention more toward deeper breathing and holding less tension in my back—essentially breaking the reinforcing cycle of tension and exhaustion.

It's interesting to think about how much my ongoing physical pain may be mirroring (or even foreshadowing!) my emotional pain and that I may not be able to heal the one without the other. The intersection of spirit, health, and energy is a very compelling focus for me right now, and I like to think I'm finally pulling in the same direction—toward health—on all fronts.

So I'm outbound from pain.

It should be an interesting trip.

Facilitator Prep

One of the features of the Integrative Facilitation Training programs that I offer (see Facilitation Trainings on Tap for news about what trainings are available now) is teaching how to prepare for a facilitation assignment. Because training weekends are always compacted (we get a lot done in a short time, making maximum use of the three days we have together), the students don't get their assignments (for a one-hour chunk of live facilitation time) until Friday afternoon and sometimes have to be on stage as soon as that evening. (Yikes!)

While in normal life (whatever that is) it's far more common to have a week, or at least several days, to prepare for a meeting, we don't have that luxury in the training program, and thus, students need to learn how to get ready quickly.

In this essay I'm going to lay out a checklist for accomplishing that. The order is not so important as that each of these things needs to be covered:

1. Mind Set
This is about doing whatever personal work is necessary to set aside other things in your life to give yourself over as completely as possible to the task at hand (you're going for maximum free attention), and being as clear a channel as possible once the meeting starts. This is analogous to what athletes do in preparing for a game or an event, excepting that the work is generally not aerobic.

To the extent possible you're aiming for heightened awareness and an egoless state. In my experience this is not about vanquishing nervousness, so much as it's coming to peace with it, so that it's not distracting. As the facilitator, you are there to help midwife a great meeting, not to be the hero or the center of attention. While you should unquestionably prepare for the meeting and what you expect to encounter, you have to be fluid enough that you can adapt plans to fit emerging needs. Meetings are not scripted, and surprises go with the territory.

If you're worried about some aspects of your capacity to perform well, sometimes it helps to simply admit that at the start of the session: As a facilitator, I'm still learning my craft and the skill I want to focus on today is excellent summaries. If you think I'm missing something or am off base in my summaries, please feel free to suggest adjustments. It won't bother me a bit.

By owning this as a weak spot, it will be less scary and you will have enlisted the group as your ally (after all, they want a great meeting, too).

Getting your game on can look like a lot of things: meditating; lying down and closing your eyes for 15 minutes; going for a walk; making a cup of tea; journaling; taking a shower; sitting in a dark room; standing alone in the meeting space before anyone arrives, to feel into the space. Do what works for you.

2. Objectives
You need to know what's wanted on the topics that will be examined on your watch. Is this just a discussion, or is a decision expected? Will there be new data or research results presented in this session, or is all of that already on the table? What questions are we trying to answer? How clearly have the issues been articulated? Is this the first meeting on this topic or is this a follow-up meeting (if the latter, where were things left at the end of the prior meeting and what remains to be done)?

3. Background
Is there any prior work that the group has done on the topics that are on the agenda? This could be either recent or old. Are there any existing agreements that bear on the topics, so that everyone is clear what's already in place. You don't want to be scrambling in the meeting looking for old minutes. That should have been done ahead of time. Are there any relevant precedents in play?

4. Land Mines
Are there any known friction points relating to the topics to be discussed? I'm not talking about plain old vanilla disagreements; I'm talking about non-trivial distress or upset. If so, you want to know who has it, what those feelings are, what they represent, and whether they've been resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Nothing sinks a meeting as dramatically as bumping into an iceberg, where you suddenly discover a reservoir of intractable frozen feelings, ready to flood the floor once surfaced.

Of course, even good reconnaissance will miss some subterranean boulders. So you need to be prepared for field upset if it pops up, even if it wasn't on your radar at the start of the meeting. Although weather forecasting is imperfect, it's better than no-casting.

5. Formats
Now that you have the information you need about the topics (as a result of steps 2-4 above), it's your job to think about how to work them productively and efficiently in the meeting. Among other things, this means making choices about what formats to use to gather viewpoints. The default is open discussion, and that may work well some of the time. Yet you need to have in mind that no format works well all of the time, and you need to mix things up—both for the energetic boost that the group will get simply from making a change, and because different formats allow you to access different strengths in the group.

For example, Go Rounds are wonderful for equalizing air time and protecting entrée into the conversation, but they tend to be slow and repetitive, so you don't want to overuse them. If the meeting is long (three hours?), you may want to think about how you can incorporate physical movement into your format choices (so that people can get off their butts other than during bio breaks or to refill their coffee cup).

6. Time Estimates
Although the time needed to deal reasonably with the topics chosen should have already been taken into account by whoever drafted the agenda, in the meeting it will be up to the facilitator to manage time. In service to that need, you generally want to map out (at least roughly) how much time each segment will take so that you have a running sense of whether you're on target, ahead, or behind.

Your job is to bring the train into the station on time (end the meeting at its allotted end point) and you should think through ahead of time what adjustments you might make mid-course to help ensure that result. What could you cut short or delete from your plan without sacrificing quality? If you're running ahead, is there an extra step that would enhance the consideration, or is it better to end early?

7. Coordination of Support Roles
There are many roles that support a good meeting. While that of facilitator is likely the most visible, there is typically also a notetaker (who should not be the facilitator), and there may be others, including:
o  time keeper
o  vibes watcher (person alert for ruffled energy and stepping in when they find it)
o  door keeper (person bringing late arrivals up to speed on what's happening)
o  scribe (person writing notes on a flip chart or whiteboard)
o  back-up facilitator

All together, this collection of players is an orchestra performing in service to the meeting, with the facilitator as conductor. With this in mind, it's up to the facilitator to take responsibility for discussing with each person filling a support role how they'll coordinate during the meeting. For example, it is relatively common that a well-intentioned scribe will do their best to capture the highlights of a conversation, yet not organize their work in such a way that the facilitator can use it easily. Ugh! This awkwardness can be avoided if the facilitator and scribe discuss this ahead of time.

Some facilitators choose to handle many of these support roles themselves, in part to avoid the challenges of complex choreography, but you have to know your capacity—it's a mistake to try juggling more balls than you can keep in the air.

8. Visual Aids
In a typical group there will be a number of people whose primary information intake is visual and you can help make everything easier for those folks by offering visual reinforcement of what you'll be saying. I'm thinking of things like:
o  schedule
o  agenda
o  ground rules for meeting behavior & the facilitator's authority
o  key questions
o  themes from a discussion
o  factors to keep in mind when developing a proposal
o  draft proposals
o  end-of-meeting evaluations

When you know you'll want these, write them up on flip chart paper ahead of time to the extent possible.

9. Setting up the Meeting Space
While this might be handled by others as one of the support role (step 8 above), the facilitator is the bottom line on this and may want to direct the set up to suit their preferences. If people have to move tables and chairs at the last minute you'll probably start late and be somewhat frazzled. Not good. 

Where do you want the visual aids (hint: not back lit by bright windows)? Will you need wall space for posting flip chart pages? If so, do you have the supplies needed (markers that are not dried out; with ink that's dark enough and broad-stroked enough to be seen readily from across the room; with ink that isn't cloyingly offensive to the scent sensitive)?

Where will the facilitator stand? Is there a good spot for the notetaker, so that they're not blocking other people's sight lines and yet can see the flip chart (or whiteboard) easily? Is it close enough to a power supply if they're taking minutes on a laptop?

10. Wardrobe 
Last, do you have appropriate raiment, so that everyone will be comfortable with how you're dressed and your clothes will not be the center of attention. You can get this wrong either by overdressing (suit and tie for men; skirt, hose, and heels for women) or underdressing (clothes that are dirty or with unmended tears; provocative, skimpy clothing).
• • •If you thought that the facilitator only needed to show up on time and decide who was going to talk next, think again. Good prep often takes as much or more time ahead of the meeting than you'll spend in front of the group in the meeting—especially for neophytes. As a professional I can do this a lot faster, but I've been doing it for 28 years. You have to learn to walk before you can run.

When Sharing Doesn't Build Trust

I regularly tell groups that there's a strong correlation between sharing information and trust (why wasn't I told; don't they trust me?). However, I was recently in a workshop where it bubbled up that there are times when too much information (TMI in process argot) degrades trust and relationships.

While I believe the principle of information=trust still obtains in most situations (see my blog of Sept 20, 2010, Building Trust for more on this), here are exceptions:

1. Outing someone without permission
This applies when you are privy to private or delicate information about others that they prefer (for better or worse) be kept confidential. If you choose to share this information without getting an OK from people about whom you are speaking, all hell can break loose. At the very least, the people you outed are likely to trust you less in the future. At worst, they'll feel betrayed.

2. Swamping the boat
This is when the volume of sharing exceeds the capacity of the listener to hold and understand. While it may not result in a loss of trust, it will not help build it either, and will teach people to be wary of offering to listen to you. Whence the phrase, "talking one's ear off," which is not a pleasant image.

3. Bad timing
This is insisting on sharing at a convenient (even compelling) moment for the speaker, without checking to see if it's a good moment for the listener. This can land as annoying and disrespectful.

4. Too much intimacy too soon
The workshop leader confessed that she used to have this syndrome, especially when dating. She had gotten into the habit of going deep right away as a way to screen people for potential partner material. It was only later that she realized that her pushiness was driving people away, not her positions relative to what she was seeking from an intimate partner.

5. Ability to stretch is exceeded
Sometimes the information is awkward for the listener to receive. If they aren't able to stretch that far, they can rubber band into shut down mode—something they won't thank you for, and which you won't enjoy either.

6. Malicious gossip
Talking trash about someone behind their back. Listeners may be worried that you might do the same about them when talking with others, and thus become more guarded about what they share with you.

Note that all of these instances revolve around the theme of being unmindful—either of your audience, or of the people you are talking about. If you keep in mind that one of the primary goals of good communication is enhancing relationships, you'll probably be less likely to inadvertently damage trust when your mouth is open.

Quo Vadimus

The title for today's blog was borrowed from the final episode of Sports Night, that aired May 16, 2000—a terrific comedy/drama/sports show written by Alan Sorkin that (tragically) lasted only two seasons, because Sorkin was unable to stay on top of both it and West Wing simultaneously. Sometimes you have to make choices when your plate overfloweth—of which more anon.

The title is Latin for "Where are we going?" This could mean as a species, as a culture, as a group trying to figure out where to eat, or for me personally—who thinks in terms of the community "we" (as opposed to the royal one).

A couple months ago the bottom fell out of my "we" when Ma'ikwe announced that she wanted out of our marriage. Now, cut loose from the foundation of my primary relationship, I am also trying to figure out where home is. Ma'ikwe has invited me to continue living at Dancing Rabbit, and that's a viable option with many pluses, not the least of which is that many people here have told me that they'd like me to stay.

Yet where's the bedrock? I've dedicated almost two-thirds of my life to community building and I believe in it, both personally and societally. While I can imagine a life alone (in a studio apartment where I'd have a large desk, filing cabinets, book shelves, a comfortable chair, a small kitchen, enough open floor space for yoga, and a good bed), it would lack flavor and stimulation.

My work can travel with me wherever I go (as long as I have a reliable internet signal I can compose reports, maintain correspondence, and bang out blogs just about anywhere), and often I travel for work (teaching, facilitating, and consulting). While it's thus helpful to be based reasonably near an Amtrak station, that doesn't eliminate much of the country (well, maybe South Dakota and Wyoming).

So what are the elements of home that are most precious? At root, community is about relationships and human connections. It is being there for each other in time of need; sharing the joys and sorrows of life; eating together; exchanging observations of the day; bouncing ideas off each other. There should be a lot of laughter.

I'm clear I want to keep my life rooted in community, where relationships will be my primary security and base of support. Thus, I want to make a choice where the relationships are strong; where I feel seen, respected for my work, and able to give to others in proportion to what I receive. It would be a bonus if I could discuss my work with community mates, though not essential. While Dancing Rabbit has the potential to be that place, I have compelling connections in a number of other places across the country, and I'm leaning toward exploring what's possible with dear friends I already have and trying to build community with them—rather than trying to build the relationships in the community in which I'm already located.

This means taking a break from my residency at Dancing Rabbit, to see what's out there. Because I came to the community (in November 2103) as Ma'ikwe's guest and was focused on our relationship and our home, I never got around to applying for residency and thus have no official standing in the community anyway. So it's a natural point to pause and consider reconfigurations. Though I have opportunities now that I wasn't looking for, they are opportunities nonetheless and it's up to me to make the most of them.

Two other factors here are:

a) My tenderness at sharing Moon Lodge with Ma'ikwe while we're both home (which has only been the case since Thursday—for the first 10 weeks after Ma'ikwe announced her decision to dissolve the marriage one or both of us has been on the road). This building is filled with memories of our being together, and those have come alive with Ma'ikwe's presence. Though she's doing nothing provocative, tears are never far from the surface. Exploring community options elsewhere would help me heal.

b) I feel reasonably confident that I can return to Dancing Rabbit and start my residency fresh if that seems like the best choice. (Sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder, and the full value of assets of where you are does not emerge clearly until seen in the rear view mirror.)

While I'm going to sit with this idea of exploring elsewhere for another couple weeks, that's the way the wind is blowing right now. My good friends Maria Stawsky and Joe Cole live in Chapel Hill NC and have a third floor month-to-month rental unit in their house that becomes available the end of May. I think I'll try there first.

How to Write a Report

There are all manner of occasions where people who are trying to function together need to share information, and this occurs in a wide variety of ways—including plenaries, committee sessions, staff meetings, one-on-one conversations, notices on bulletin boards, memos, informal chats around the water cooler, and even graffiti on the bathroom wall. In today's essay I want to focus on one particular kind of communication: a report. It's something that is relied on a lot, yet often with indifferent results.

One of the reasons why reports may be weak is a lack of clarity about what they're trying to accomplish, which can be any of the following, in almost any combination.

—What's happened; what have you accomplished?Put yourself in the shoes of the person reading the report. What level of detail is appropriate? Let me give you three examples of an annual report from Customer Service.

Example A
We resolved all complaints that came to us in the last 12 months.

Example B
We handled six complaints last year. Four were from women under 30; two were from men over 55. Three were from the East Coast; one from the Midwest, and two from California. Three came in the winter, two in the spring, and one in the fall. There were multiple complaints about sexist language on our website, and multiple complaints about our new 800 number. Four of the complaints were resolved within 30 days; one took 90 days; and one is still pending.

Example C
We fielded six complaints last year (one more than the year before, and well within our capacity with current staffing levels). Two trends were noteworthy: 

a) Three young women reported that they were offended by the sexist language on our website: using "he" for the third person pronoun when the gender was unknown, and an instance of "guys" when referring to unknown persons. We recommend that we make it editorial policy to use "they" for the third person singular when the gender is unknown, and eliminate "guy" from our vocabulary unless it is known that we're referring to men.

b) Three people reported that it took 15 minutes to reach a live person when using our new 800 number with automated voice options. As this comes across as institutional and impersonal (the very opposite of our customer service commitment), we recommend offering callers an option of speaking to an agent within a maximum of five minutes.

While A is obviously the quickest to read, it doesn't offer enough information to be useful as a management tool. Example B had a good deal more detail yet no discernment was used in winnowing wheat from chaff. Example C, while the longest, honed in on the data that was actionable. Reports are not meant to be a brain dump; they are meant to capture the highlights.

—Identifying issues
This could be problems, unexpected opportunities, or simply confusion. Perhaps something came up that calls into question whether you have sufficient authority to handle it it on your own and you'd like clarification. Maybe you need an adjustment to staffing levels, or your budget is inadequate to finish the year. If you want a response, be sure to ask for one, labeling it clearly (rather than burying it deep in the report).

A good report will not just identify issues; it will summarize relevant background information:
o  any current agreements bearing on this matter
o  the reasoning behind the current policy (if there is one)
o  how urgently is a decision needed
o  the budgetary impact of the suggested change
o  who are the identified stakeholders on this issue (so their input can be solicited)

—What's ahead
Sometimes a report will include analysis of trends, letting everyone know the consequences if things continue. By looking ahead of the curve, the group can look at the issue and consider a response before it's a crisis.

It can be important to know if a manager or committee is happy in their work. If not, where's the problem? (Management can hardly be expected to fix what they're not aware of.)

—Intra-organizational concerns
Often, managers or teams are expected to collaborate with other managers and teams within the organization. If so, is that going well or are there problems? If there are difficulties, what are they?

—Have you learned anything new?
Occasionally, people learn things that are revelatory but not necessarily tied to issues (that is, they don't require a response). While there is nuance about how much of that to include in a report, it can happen that someone outside the team will recognize an opportunity that the manager or team members will fail to see. Because of that possibility, it's often a good idea to report (briefly) on what you're learning in your area. You never know from where inspiration will arise.

—Compelling writing is clear, concise, and to the point
The opposite of this is rambling, wordy, and poorly organized. Sloppy reports are often glazed over and not thoroughly digested. While you may not think that word choice, grammar, and sentence structure should matter that much, they do.

For what it's worth, I find concision to be the very last skill developed in people learning to communicate effectively.

Does the report contain information or opinions that might be embarrassing if the wrong people saw it? This is most often the case if you're evaluating personnel, or discussing a delicate negotiation. If so, you need to mark the report clearly as inappropriate to share without express permission… or wear body armor.
• • •At this point in my career as a consultant and nonprofit administrator, I write a report (or its equivalent) every day. If I skip one day, then I compose two the next day. So I've had a lot of practice.

Stumbling on Stage

I recently facilitated a series of meetings for a cooperative group where I fell flat on my face.

We were working an interesting topic: how much, if any, community money ought to go into supporting an initiative that some expected to benefit from a great deal and others weren't that interested in? It was a big ticket item—an outdoor activity center—that most people felt would result in a significant enhancement of community connections.

While the vast majority favored some level of community support (even those who didn't think they'd be likely to use the facility) mixed with some level of contribution from those who could afford it and those likely to use it, there were a couple of members who did not feel comfortable with any level of community contribution to funding. When asked, the core concern for these two boiled down to affordability: one didn't want to pay extra in homeowners dues to finance this project (they lived on a fixed income), and the other was not convinced this was a high enough priority (and spending a lot of money here meant significantly less available for other projects). They preferred that it be funded wholly by private subscription, a mechanism that had been used successfully for other projects.

As we cast the net for proposals that might bridge the gap, someone came up with the idea of offering community funding coupled with a commitment to allow relief for those who couldn't afford the additional expense.

When I turned to the outliers and asked if that would work for them, the wheels came off the wagon. Instead of feeling held respectfully (by an offer that was meant to address their core concern about whether they would be asked to pony up money in support of a project that didn't float their boat), they both felt on the spot, and my asking them for a response came across with the judgment that they ought to say "yes." My persistence was experienced as badgering. Not good.

So what happened?

o  Going against the grain of community habit
The community was used to backing away when someone expressed a strong objection, rather than leaning into it (as I was doing). Thus, I came across as disrespectful as soon as I asked for a response. Never mind that I believed that was the right thing to do; they were already feeling isolated by the way the conversation was flowing (they knew they were outliers), and I wasn't careful enough about reestablishing connection before making a request.

For example, I might have started with asking them how they were doing, and trying to reassure them that the group wasn't going anywhere if they weren't on board. Instead, I asked them to take responsibility for working constructively with others' desire to support the initiative with community funding, which landed for them as pressure to capitulate. Uh oh.

o  Failing to build a robust creative container
I have the view that it's important to separate the Discussion phase of a consideration (where the group identifies the factors that a good response needs to take into account, during which I encourage the expression of passion and advocacy) from the Proposal Generating phase (where I no longer want to hear advocacy; I'm looking for bridging among interests). Although I'd taken time to try to explain that difference (and even been assured by a member of the group that they do that well), in fact only some of the group embraced a creative, bridging attitude. Others—notably including the two outliers—didn't get there.

o  Framing of the request poorly
I approached the outliers directly: asking them if the combination of community support and an affordability safety net could work for them. While there was nothing false or skewed about that, in retrospect I believe it would have worked better to have focused solely on whether the concept of an affordability safety net addressed their bottom line concerns.

That is, I could have simplified what I was asking about (fewer variables to respond to) and placed the emphasis on the safety net, which was intended as an olive branch, not a Trojan horse. While they may not have found it acceptable, it's unlikely that a good faith attempt to reach out to them would have been so triggering, and I might have been able to get deeper into an examination of resistance (if that's what we encountered).

o  Persisting beyond their comfort level
Once I got off on the wrong foot, and the outliers felt the need to defend their position about not wanting community money going to the outdoor initiative, I compounded the problem by simply repeating the request that didn't land well in the first place (working on the premise that I hadn't been heard accurately). Instead of clarifying, the repetition landed as badgering (you gave me the "wrong answer the first time, so I'll keep asking until I get the "right" answer). Understandably, that just made things worse. (I was reminded of the adage: when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is to put the shovel down.)

o  Leaking irritation
In addition to everything else, I was frustrated that my exchange landed so badly, and that I achieved no progress on a dynamic that I had been expressly asked to showcase how to deal with differently and productively. This leaked into my energy, making me less safe for the outliers. Oops!

I was trying to demonstrate how to unlink positions (no community funding of the outdoor initiative) from interests (affordability and impact on personal budgets) in an effort to achieve a respectful breakthrough in a logjam, but I didn't get there.

Of course, it never feels good when you stumble on stage, yet, as I tell my students, if you need to succeed every time to feel sustained as a facilitator, quit now. Everyone has off moments, and I had a beauty. Unexpectedly, I got the chance to demonstrate how to pick yourself up off the floor and keep going. While that wasn't what I was hoping to model, it was what was needed in the moment.

Accountability: Conflating Task Monitors with the Police

One of the most challenging topics for cooperative groups to tackle is accountability. What do you do when someone doesn't deliver on a promise or is perceived to be breaking an agreement?

For the most part cooperative groups simply hope the problem will go away—and fortunately, it largely does. That is, most members will voluntarily be good citizens on their own recognizance. They'll do their chores, help out on Work Days, and mostly follow through on commitments to the group—all without anyone sending out reminders or looking over their shoulder.

However, good intentions are not enough. Some will forget, some will be too busy, some chafe at expectations of any kind, some will purposefully step back from commitments because of a story they have about how they were wronged and it's never been addressed, etc. So the question is not whether it's going to happen, but how you're going to handle it.

The short answer is that you're going to have to learn how to talk about it, because here's the deal—it doesn't go away on its own. In fact, unaddressed it's a cancer on the good will and cohesion of the group. So the stakes are high.

Hint: While there's no doubt that noncompliance and deficient performance are a problem, that does not necessarily mean that the responsibility lies wholly with the person perceived to have broken the rule or failed to have kept an agreement.

Let's look over some of the potential factors in this dynamic, any number of which may be in play:

—Ambiguous Requests
Are you confident that what the accuser believes to be the understanding is the same thing that the accused understands? There's a reason for the adage: there's many a slip twixt the cup and the lip. This potential for unclarity is all the greater if the agreements are oral and not captured in writing. In any event, we may be talking about a misunderstanding or mishearing more than willful negligence or defiance.

—Undefined Flexibility
All groups I know allow for the possibility of extenuating circumstances to allow reasonable relief from commitments when people are overwhelmed by other factors in their life (compromised health, family emergency, loss of job, etc). The problem is that the limits of flexibility or how exceptions are invoked are rarely pinned down and the accuser may be interpreting their appropriate application differently than the accused. Uh oh.

—Shame & Guilt
A good bit of the paralysis that surrounds accountability relates to people's fear of feeling shame or guilt in a public forum. Some can't imagine the embarrassment of being called out; others want no part of subjecting others to something they imagine to be that painful. As such they are unwilling to take even the first steps down that road. Some don't want to impose their personal standards on others, while others can't seem to wait for an opportunity to do so. 

A lot of what's in place here relates to the role of shame and guilt in one's family of origin, and that experience is likely to be all over the map—making it damn hard to know what demons you're letting out of the box once you invoke their energy.

—Fear of Consequences
Another factor is what to do if it's determined that someone is out of account. Is moral suasion enough, or do you need a club in the closet for serious offenders? Some groups are flat out allergic to punishments (fines, say) while others seem altogether willing to go there if someone misses a chore cycle and doesn't make it up. To be sure, the backdrop in which this occurs is that the group (and the members who comprise it) always have recourse to the protection and rights extended to them by civil authorities in instances of lawbreaking and public safety, but that only happens in rare and extreme cases (thank god). 

The main point I want to make here is that you can commit to talking abut accountability without embracing a set of consequences (or, for that matter, deciding that you won't have consequences).

—Police State Anxiety
Amazingly, it is common among cooperative groups to have no one (I prefer a committee) designated to handle task monitoring, which seems weird to me. For the most part, I've come to understand this as: a) a fear of people passing judgment on each other (no one wants the Work Police knocking on their door asking where they were on the afternoon of Nov 12, while everyone else was raking leaves and getting the houses ready for winter); and b) a lack of confidence in the community's willingness to work constructively with upset—which is where they suspect conversations about noncompliance are likely to go.

As no one wants to live in a police state, the topic of accountability becomes anathema.
• • •While I get that those are real fears, are you liking the alternative any better—where the complaining goes on behind people's backs, and others are left to shoulder more of the work to cover those doing less? Not much of a bargain, is it?

Without advocating for or against consequences, I urge groups to commit to talking about it whenever a member is viewed as being out of account. However, since we want this to be constructive, and minimally disruptive, I advocate that this be distributed among the standing committees, where each is responsible for agreements and tasks in their arena.

Then, whenever someone has a concern about noncompliance, they'd be encouraged to follow a sequence such as this (until the matter is settled):

1. Talk with the person directly.
2. Talk with the person with the help of a mutually acceptable third party (or parties).
3. Ask the relevant committee for help (with the Conflict Resolution Team backing up the committee if it gets hairy).
4. Take it to the plenary.

At each point along the way, a good faith effort should be made to accommodate the preferences of both the accuser and the accused about setting, timing, and who's present in the way of support. While these may be facilitated conversations, participation should be voluntary with no one being coerced to accept another's viewpoints or conclusions.

If it is not clear which committee's bailiwick the matter falls into, then the Conflict Resolution Team will play centerfield, handling all requests that come along until and unless they're handed off to another committee.

A big advantage of expressly giving committees the job of task monitoring in their purview is that it becomes a license to initiate conversations about work or compliance with agreements. Absent the assignment of such authority, the person who shows initiative is susceptible to being labeled a busybody. The point of this is not to embarrass or shame: it's to get information and troubleshoot at the least expensive level. Remember: we're creating cooperative culture; not recapitulating the combative, competitive culture of the mainstream.

While it's possible for a matter to go all the way to plenary (the court of last resort), that will rarely happen if committees are doing their job about compassionately talking with folks who are perceived to not be doing theirs.

Mismanaging My Impatience in Meetings

I recently attended the meeting of a cooperative at which I was representing a group that had an interest in the main topic. Because I didn't need to present anything and was not a decision-maker in that setting, I was there mostly to listen and provide background as needed.

Things got off to a solid start, and after 15 minutes it was reasonably clear where the concerns lay and what the most likely remedies were. However, it took another 60 minutes before everyone present was brought into alignment about those things. It was excruciating.

What happened? Well, a number of things, all of which are depressingly common:

o  Jumping aroundAlthough it quickly became apparent that there were only two main concerns, I'll be damned if some speakers didn't feel compelled to make statements about both subtopics in a single turn at the microphone, making it hard to follow the bouncing ball. 

People do this, I speculate, in a misguided effort to get out everything they have to say in one go, regardless of the diffusing effect it has on the group's focus. It's generally much better if the facilitator limits the conversation to one subtopic at a time.

o  Straying off topic
While it's not fair to blame participants for a lack of discipline about containing their comments to one thread at a time if the facilitator is not offering that structure; it is, however, fair to hold participants accountable for comments that wander beyond the scope of the agenda topic, and to ask them to eschew free associating.

o  Repetition
When the focus is soft, or the facilitator is casual about offering summaries, people often find it irresistible giving their views more than once. Even though this tends to be numbing for the group, speakers often feel insecure about whether they've been heard if they don't immediately see the group actively working with their input.

o  Lack of concision
Meeting behavior is different than casual conversation, but the way many people contribute in meetings is just the same is when they're yakking with friends over a beer. In plenary you want contributions to not just be on topic, you want them lean. And they'd be well advised to leave chewing the fat for storytelling around the campfire.

o  Not keeping the conversation at the plenary level 
At what point does it make sense to stop talking about a topic in plenary and turn it over to a subgroup to tease out details? Groups that have not discussed where this line stands will frequently drift across it and get mired in minutia instead of handing it off to committee with alacrity and a crisp mandate.

o  Inability to coalesce the sense of the meeting
One the more important facilitative skills is the ability to sort wheat from chaff, offering a tight summary of what the group is likely to be able to agree to, or where the conversation is headed, based on what's been said so far. Even when you get it wrong, just being close will often help the group get there with only minor adjustments.

Some groups—especially ones using consensus—labor under the false impression that you can't reach a conclusion until everyone has spoken. Not so! While it's important to protect everyone's opportunity to have a say, it frequently happens that after a number of people have spoken that there are no additional viewpoints to contribute, and the group can legitimately move on. To be sure, you need to test for that (rather than just assume it), but it only takes a moment to offer a summary with the caveat, "Does that work for everyone?"

It's amazing to me how often groups miss the agreement in the room until they've been bludgeoned with it.
• • •Observing all this, it was painful sitting through the meeting. As time went on, I found myself stepping in more and more, without portfolio, to offer summaries, suggest agreements, and identify loose ends. (As a professional facilitator, it's virtually impossible for me to turn it off when I'm in a meeting—whether I'm up front with a baton or not.) While I meant for my contributions to be constructive, in the end-of-meeting evaluation I got my knuckles rapped by a participant who felt he was hearing too much from me, a mere observer.

Sigh. I reckon enlightenment and the patience of the Buddha still elude me.

Where Will Laird Live?

Two months after Ma'ikwe pulled the plug on our partnership, I've narrowed the main candidates for the W2L2 Sweepstakes down to two prime contenders. In no particular order, here are my reflections about the advantages of each.
Staying at Dancing Rabbit

o  I know the climate and enjoy it.

o  I have friends here already, including the men's group that meets weekly and all the folks over at Sandhill, just three miles away.

o  I'd remain close to the FIC headquarters, where I can help (even after transitioning out of the center of operations by the end of the year).

o  I can continue with all manner of support people I already know: doctor, dentist, bridge club, and all the stores in the area I know where to go to get what.

o  I know many of the rhythms and systems of DR (which means I won't have to learn new ones).

o  The cost of living is low in northeast MO, and my income is mostly elsewhere (from consulting and teaching), which is a great combo.

o  I'd be part of an important experiment in sustainable living at DR.

o  DR has an educational component that is on the rise and there are excellent prospects for that translating into teaching opportunities without leaving home (and without assuming more than my fair share of administrative overhead—about which I figure I'm running a surplus in Akashic accounting).

o  Moving will be much simpler (out of Moon Lodge and into another living space in the village—I could do it in a wheelbarrow).

o  DR is a central location for access to train travel in any direction (relevant because my work lies in all directions, and I prefer going by choo choo). If, for example, I moved to one of the coasts, I'd be looking at a three-day slog whenever I had work on the other coast.

o  There are a number of projects I've fantasized doing when my life slowed down (which I believe is starting to happen) and these will be more easily accomplished in northeast MO, where the resources are already in place and I have access to them. These include such disparate things as building and operating a smokehouse, pioneering some specialty condiment recipes, and getting back into wood carving. Also, at DR it will probably be easy to offer part-time help (such as back-up when one of the regular cooks is on vacation and kitchen assistance is needed for pizza night at the Milkweed Mercantile).

Creating a New Community Elsewhere

o  The satisfaction and stimulation of living with a handful of friends with whom I already have close bonds—deeper than those I currently have in northeast MO (excepting with Ma'ikwe, who has made it clear she wants less of me).

o  Not dragging out the potentially awkward separation from Ma'ikwe. While I think we'll mostly do fine, I'm still sad at losing the marriage and am unsure about how triggering it may be watching her energy go elsewhere.

o  The excitement of doing something I believe I know a lot about: setting up a successful community, based on members with high social skills and a commitment to being a positive influence in the world. There is, after all, a steady need for more intentional communities—especially high functioning ones.

Why it might not be that big a deal

o  My pattern right now is that I'm on the road 40-50% of the time, and that's not likely to change much, at least in the short run. So I'll only be home 50-60% of the time to enjoy all the benefits above. When I'm on the road it doesn't matter that much where home is (though I'd prefer shared housing, so that I don't come home from trips to find dead house plants, multicolored mold in the refrigerator, and dust covered shelving.

o  I expect to spend more time writing now and that's more or less a solitary activity. Though I like having others read my drafts and offer comments, mostly that's accomplished electronically anyway, so it doesn't make much difference where my desk is.

o  I know I want to live with friends, or at least quite near them. Human beings are herd animals and we crave each others' company. I need that contact. Fortunately, either choice above is likely to provide it.
• • •While my mind isn't made up yet, the fog is lifting. A lot will hinge on how excited my close friends elsewhere are about the prospect of creating something together. Stay tuned to this channel for late-breaking announcements.

Backing Into Health

Sunday, I lay on my stomach for the first time in four weeks (not because I was on the beach for spring break; I was getting a massage). Fortunately, it was better than I feared.

The Back Story 
My woes began six months, when I strained the muscles in my lower back by lifting improperly. Recovery from that was frustratingly slow but I was definitely progressing when I caught a cold in mid-February. The ensuing cough (the inevitable conclusion of a cold) kept the muscles around my ribs sore for a fortnight, and I was just getting over that when I accepted an offer to have some body work done around the first of this month.

Unfortunately, in a well-intended effort to stimulate the flow of chi, the practitioner was more enthusiastic than my torso could handle, resulting on two ribs popping out of position, right where they join the breastbone. This made breathing tricky (and coughing excruciating) and it's been a challenge all month to lift anything heavier than a coffee cup. This set back (back set?) was hard on my morale.

A couple weeks ago I went to see my local physician (an osteopath) to get his take on my condition. He confirmed that two ribs were out of alignment and gave me an exercise to do three times daily to help get everything realigned. Bit by bit, I've been feeling less tender and more able to function normally—now I can lift as much as two gallons (if I'm careful) and can work at my desk all day without a nap.

Thus, when my friend Jennifer suggested I sign up for a massage (being offered by the older sister of Jennifer's daughter's girlfriend, who was halfway through massage school and needing practice), I hesitated. I needed results that would be forward for my back; not backwards. 

Getting Back on the Horse Table
While I ultimately decided to give it a try, I arrived for my appointment with no small amount of trepidation. While I was quite stiff just lying down on the table (wondering how crazy I was opening myself up to semi-trained hands), I immediately enjoyed the heating pad on the upholstered table. My back muscles said, "Thank you!"

At the outset I explained my back history and the first portion of the massage proceeded well. I was so relaxed, in fact, that I almost fell asleep. Then the moment of truth arrived, when the masseuse asked me to roll over on my belly—a position I had not attempted since my ribs popped out. Encouraged by how things had gone so far, I gently turned over and was pleasantly surprised that the discomfort on my sternum was mild. Whew. (Of course, no pressure was being applied yet, so the test was yet to come.)

Working slowly, but deliberately, she gradually worked deeper into my back. At one time I was close to the edge of what I could tolerate and I asked her to not go any firmer. I was surprised when she reported that she was already working deeply and that she had hardly encountered any knots (I thought I'd be lumpier than an old mattress).

While happy with the results in the moment, I noticed that I was feeling increasingly sore in the hours afterwards and bed looked pretty good that night. What I couldn't tell right away was whether the soreness was productive (as in moving blood into damaged areas) or just adding to the strain on my poor body.

Fortunately I felt much better in the morning. More limber, and less reflexively tense—like I no longer needed to protect myself as much. For the first time in weeks I swept the floor, beat a rug, and did dishes, all of which were highly mood elevating.

Back to the Future?
To be sure, I'm not fully recovered, and I have no real idea how much longer that will take. For one thing, my ribs are still not right, sharply limiting how much I lift. While it's unquestionably better to be improving. I've got a long way to go before I can handle ordinary homesteading chores without assistance.

I figure that I'll have turned a major corner when I'm well enough to start stretching and exercising (even going for walks) on a regular basis. 

When I recall all those years when I blithely assumed the absence of pain to be "normal," I shake my head at the folly of it all.

Balancing Transparency and Discretion, Part II

Earlier in the week I received this compelling email from a friend:

I'm thinking of proposing a policy at our democratic free school where charges of misconduct will be handled at the plenary level—in a meeting of the entire school. (I'm writing you because I often look to intentional communities instead of other alternative schools for inspiration about good process, because other schools don't use consensus like we do, and don't have as high a degree of student involvement.)

Some people in the school community have concerns about my proposal because they believe that not every matter of safety should go to the whole school for consideration. Their main concern is in dramatic incidents like sexual or physical assault, where they are worried that a kid may feel afraid to go in front of the everyone to talk about what happened. What would you recommend?  

A counter-proposal is for a small conflict resolution group to make the decision, or to make a recommendation to the plenary, keeping information about the victim confidential. My hesitation with this approach is that we have used a committee for conflict resolution in the past and, in my opinion, it overstepped its authority and made big decisions without disclosing the details to the community.

What a good question! It's an attempt to balance due process (fairness) with confidentiality and the protection of both: a) the victim, from the potential embarrassment of having their experience examined in a public setting; and b) the accused, from the possibility of having their name smeared before it’s been determined if they’ve done anything wrong. In essence, this is another version of a topic I first wrote about July 31, 2014: Balancing Transparency and Discretion. It also touches on the dynamic tension between public and private: at what point is it the group's business to know about a private matter?

I think the priorities here are:

1. Having the lowest possible barriers to issues related to the group coming out, so that wrongs can be addressed and the innocent protected. You don't want: a) murky standards of accountability to undermine the group's resolve to address issues; nor b) your willingness to examine issues to be daunted by the prospect of volatility in the exploration.

2. Proceeding in a way that protects both authenticity and compassion. Thus, you want relevant information to be shared as widely as seems appropriate (trust is directly related to the dissemination of accurate information), yet at the same time you want to proceed in a way that seems least threatening and most accessible for the principal players.

Taken all together, I think what works best in this regard is a carefully selected Ministry Committee (the name is a traditional one in Quaker circles, referring to the task of laboring with members in tension with each other or with the group, and does not relate the relationship between individual and spirit). I like this approach because it tends to be less overwhelming than the plenary (supporting the concern raised by those uneasy with my friend's proposal), and because the committee members can be selected carefully to highlight the qualities wanted in this committee—which will hopefully translate into their being able to proceed more sensitively and sagaciously than the plenary.

Their mandate would be to hear and oversee the handling of complaints about member conduct that are not resolvable directly or informally.

In pursuit of its work, the committee would keep several things in mind:

A. Their first task will be to determine if the accusation places the school at risk such that the civil authorities need to be called in, or the rest of the school needs to be apprised immediately because of overriding concerns for endangerment to life or property.
B. If the danger or urgency of the accusation does not justify informing the whole school at the outset (Point A), then, at the conclusion of the investigation, the committee will discuss with the accused and the accuser what can be shared with the whole school, where the committee will try to secure permission to disseminate an even-handed summary of what happened as broadly as possible within the school community. 

C. Outside of what is agreed to be shared with the whole school or with the proper civil authorities (under Points A & B above), the committee is expected to not discuss details of the incident or its investigation with anyone outside the committee. This agreement notwithstanding, the committee may deem it prudent to keep sealed records of its investigations, against the possibility of future incidents of a similar nature, or involving the same players.
D. If Point A does not obtain, then the committee will conduct its investigation is such a way that is most comfortable for both the accuser and the accused, regarding matters of setting, timing, and support. (Note that the accuser and accused may have very different preferences in this regard, requiring delicate negotiations to resolve.)

E. If the committee recommends that punitive or behavior-limiting consequences are appropriate, then these will be discussed with the school’s governing board and ratified or adjusted as appropriate before they are implemented. That is, the committee is not licensed to impose sanctions on their own without review. This caveat accomplishes two things: 1) defanging the committee for those fearing its wrath; and 2) curtailing concerns about a runaway committee that exceeds it authority.

Group Works: Balance Process and Content

This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."

In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.

The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:

1. Intention
2. Context
3. Relationship
4. Flow
5. Creativity
6. Perspective
7. Modeling
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
9. Faith

In the Flow segment there are 15 cards. The first pattern in this segment is labeled Balance Process and Content. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card: 
Content refers to what you are talking about and the results of a session. Process is how the conversation happens. Like two wings of a bird, both are needed for balance, lift, and progress. My first thought, when looking at this captivating image, is whether the bicycle represents process or content. It's a Zen koan. Ordinarily the person is atop the bike, but not in this case. Also, I note that the seat is facing down and has no butt on it. While I'll stipulate that this graphic conveys a sense of flow and wonder, it's also rather chaotic, demonstrably ungrounded, and suggests only a tenuous through-the-handlebars connection between process and content. Meetings are not, in my book, a throw-it-all-up-in-the-air-and-let's-see-what-happens matinee performance featuring an acrobatic facilitator solo.
OK, now that I have that off my chest, let's work with the text. I understand—and fully support—the idea that the Group Works patterns are meant to illuminate and promote the development and nurturance of cooperative culture. This is in direct contrast with the competitive culture of the mainstream. One of the distinguishing features of cooperative culture is that it will tend to matter just as much how you accomplish a thing as what you accomplish. 
Thus, in cooperative culture, the way you go about things has been elevated to a higher status than in the value hierarchy in which the vast majority of us were raised. The way this plays out, as is suggested in the text for this pattern, is by balancing content and process.
Having said that, it's important to understand that this is not a tug-of-war between the two (product versus process). Rather, it's a dance—where attention to each enhances the other. When this is misunderstood, product-oriented folks may complain that "good process" simply takes too long, drawing out a foregone conclusion for the sake of form. Going the other way, process-oriented people may resent pressure to focus on solutions, fearing that cutting to the chase may risk cutting out input, or that asking people to agree prematurely risks choking down proposals (rather than enjoying a sit-down meal you are wolfing down fast food, with a concomitant risk of indigestion). In my work as a facilitation trainer, I prefer to style this pattern: balancing content and energy. I hold out the ideal of coming to agreement as expeditiously as you can without leaving anyone behind (or in a state of bewilderment, standing on the sidelines). Good meetings solve problems (or at least clear up ambiguities and identify a road map for next steps) in such a way that participants are energized and feel better connected. 
While this is not that difficult to achieve when there is no serious disagreement about a topic, I hold this standard even when there is. The primary challenge of cooperative culture is how to disagree about non-trivial issues and have that examination lead to both solid decisions about how to respond, and a sense that relationships among participants have been enhanced, rather than strained or degraded. While that may sound like a magic act, it can be done. (In fact, it wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say that my 28-year career as a professional facilitator and process consultant is rooted in my ability to consistently deliver that result.)
One of the main skills I bring as an outside facilitator is the ability to work simultaneously with content and energy—making sure that we're making steady progress on the agenda, while at the same time bringing the group into closer connection and deeper understanding of one another. In the business world (where the bottom line is king) professional facilitators are often asked only to manage content, and success is measured by how quickly you can dispose of issues. In the cooperative world (which includes that of cooperative businesses), that's not good enough: you also need to be sensitive to, and able to work deftly with, undercurrents and the disjunct between a person's words and their tone and body language. In the cooperative world, you need to be able sense when a topic is completed, not just know how to manage a parliamentary call for cloture and tally a vote.  In short, you are not aiming to create flow simply by the speed with which you resolve issues. Instead, you are paying express attention to the flow of energy in the context of working content. Sometimes (for example, when a participant experiences a strong upwelling of emotion in connection with a topic) it's important for the flow that you purposefully slow things down. While bypassing the feelings might be quicker, you would do so only at the risk of compromising energy, which is generally a poor bargain. Good flow means creating a sense of purposeful movement that brings everyone along.
The bad news is that the skills needed to be good at working content are almost completely unrelated to the skills needed to manage energy. The good news though, is that both can be learned. (I know because I've been teaching facilitators how to do both for 11 years.) As far as I'm concerned it is foundational to cooperative culture that we learn to balance content and energy. Luckily, I don't necessarily think that means you have learn how fly through the air with your bicycle upside down.