Laird's Blog

Seven Year Pitch

I started this blog seven years ago (Dec 13, 2007 was my opening entry), ostensibly to help drive traffic to the Fellowship for Intentional Community website.

While I reckon it's accomplished some of that, it's also become a platform for my observations and insights about cooperative group dynamics (distilled from my 27-year career as a process consultant), and a journal about my life in community, as a rural homesteader, and as a husband trying to be a good partner for my dynamic wife. Basically I write about what comes along that catches my attention. About every three days, something does.

Anniversaries and long winter nights (not to mention bad backs) are especially conducive to reflection, and it occurred to me, as I looked back over my career as a contributor to the blogosphere, that my earliest inkling that this might happen coalesced in an FIC committee meeting more than nine years ago, as I listened to my more technologically savvy brethren blue sky about the upcoming communication potentials bubbling up in the brave new world of social media, where the future was rushing in at warp speed to overtake the present.

While I'm by no stretch of the imagination a computer maven, I was able to connect the dots between: a) my being the public face of FIC; and b) social media being forecast as the infobahn of tomorrow. That was the moment when I first sensed a blog coming down the track with my name on it. While that engine took more than two years to actually pull into the station and pick me up, I've been steadily shoveling coal into my blog boiler ever since—to the point where whistling up contributions has become a routine part of my 72-hour circadian rhythm.

One of the most frustrating aspects of what I do in the world—as a writer, as a speaker, as a teacher, and as a consultant—is not getting enough data about how my efforts have landed. Have I offered a valuable insight? Have I altered anyone's life for the better? Have I stimulated a constructive conversation? Have I opened blocked passages? Have I been able to succor someone who felt isolated and misunderstood? Have I helped a group get unstuck and turn a corner? Have I inspired people to realize a bit more of their potential?

Most of the time, I don't know.

But something happened last week that made me smile. I got clear proof that—for at least one person on one occasion—my efforts made a difference. It was the best Christmas present I could get.

Essentially it's a story about customer service, and why it's important that the stream of electrons be connected at both ends to real people. Though not a complicated, as a feel-good story it's just right for the holidays.

As FIC's main administrator, I author quite a few communications written on behalf of the Fellowship to its various constituencies. A typical example of these went out about a month ago to all communities listed in our online Communities Directory. Although it's constant work to keep the information up-to-date, comprehensive, and well organized, listings are free to communities and there is no charge for users to access it. In recognition of this value, we asked groups to consider making a donation—we suggested $20 for every year that they'd been listed—to help cover costs.

The message went out under my signature to 3400 groups, and two days later I got this response from Sue Morris—someone I'd never met—who received my solicitation as a member of Neruda, a forming community in Marshfield VT:

John and I feel, as a founding community, that $20/year is way too much to ask. In our case that would amount to $140. While we are happy to make a donation, we're not sure if you would be content with some smaller amount, say $25 total. How does that sit with you?

I replied:

It’s important to us that all donations are a good fit for both parties, and thus, we don’t want you to contribute any more than you feel is appropriate. While we feel in integrity asking listed groups to consider supporting us at $20/year, we appreciate that the listing may mean more to some than others and will be happy to accept the $25 you’re comfortable with.

While I was fine with this exchange and thought that would be the end of it, last week Sue sent me this follow up:

We now have community-wide agreement to send $25 this year. Should I send a check to your address?

This made my day! Not because it was that much money, but because it was: a) thoughtfully done; b) engaged their whole group; and c) was relational. Sue and John were taken aback by the request, but instead of just hitting the delete button, they reached out to me to discuss their reaction, inviting a personal conversation. Then, based on my reply, they decided to widen the conversation. After the community duly met and discussed it, they let me know the outcome. Thus, I found out in December that my one-paragraph reply in November had landed well, at least in this instance. Not only did we get $25, but, more importantly, we got better connected. Hooray!

This is the very best kind of fundraising, where both parties feel good at the end of the conversation, and the request has resulted in stronger ties. As FIC's Development Coordinator I work hard to see that solicitations are respectful of prospective donors' interests and capacities—even when I get turned down—so it was satisfying to hear that I was able to achieve that with Sue & John.
If every group responded like Neruda, FIC would have all the resources we needed—because our connections with our constituency would be rock solid and we'd be able to harness that to pull together with incredible effectiveness.

The sequence in this story is instructive:
1. I started out with a generic appeal that was sent out en masse.
2. One of the recipients responded with a question, which I answered promptly, personally, and courteously.
3. The individuals brought the issue to their group, which determined its response through a deliberate process.
4. The individuals communicated to me the group's response.
5. Now I'm exploring my reflective response to this sequence, which will be posted en masse.

Think of it as a social media sandwich, where the most nourishing parts were layers 2-4—featuring direct conversations that stimulated Neruda/FIC relations better than a grow light—wrapped in messages that were broadcast to audiences worldwide, where it's uncertain if any seed will fall on fertile ground.

I've been pitching community and cooperative culture for seven years now, and it's satisfying to realize that unlike Tom Ewall in the 1955 romantic comedy, The Seven Year Itch, I've lost none of my original enthusiasm for being wedded to the cause.

Stop Spinning Your (Roulette) Wheels When Making Personnel Decisions

Overwhelmingly, intentional communities can think up governance structures faster than they can staff them. It's a problem. 

In my experience, communities generally do a fair job of puzzling out a decent way to set up committees (or teams) to oversee the major aspects of living together—for example, outdoor maintenance, common house management, common meals, budget and finance, celebrations, conflicts resolution, etc.

To be sure, there's a fair amount of variety and personal flair in how each group puts it together, and there's wonderful creativity in the names bestowed on some the committees. (For example, at newly built Durham Central Park, a cohousing group in North Carolina, their participation committee is called Workin' IT—or WIT, as in what they need about them when trying to figure out a good way to get everyone slotted into community tasks.) In the spirit of being WITty, I want to shine the spotlight today on the challenge of filling committee slots in intentional communities, which are filled on a volunteer basis (though in some groups there's a clear expectation that everyone serve somewhere).

In my experience (I've worked with perhaps 100 groups in my 27 years as a process consultant) it's essentially universal that communities have more committee slots than people who are actively and competently filling them. There are, I believe, a number of factors that contribute to this phenomenon. Here are five:

o  The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak
Often people sign up for committees with good intentions, but piling more food on an over-full plate does not necessarily mean you can eat it all. Perhaps people are agreeing to serve on a committee simply to be agreeable, and have no intention of actually doing the work. In any event, it's relatively common for communities to report that some non-trivial fraction of the people who have accepted committee assignments are there in name only.

o  Unaddressed tension arising from uneven participation
Sometimes what starts out well doesn't continue that way. Good intentions often devolve into some members being perceived as not carrying their weight (so-called Slackers), while others (perhaps) are doing more than is asked of them yet complaining of their workload and expect special rights by virtue of their contributions (so-called Martyrs). While it's fairly common that imbalances will occur and that these will lead to tensions, the real question is whether the group has developed a way to talk about the tensions and work through them (Every so often—perhaps every couple years—it's a good idea to set aside time explicitly to tackle this head on. Think of it like going to the dentist to get your teeth cleaned. See the spring 2008 issue of Communities magazine for an article of mine devoted to the Martyrs & Slackers dynamic and how to address it.)

o  Timidity in responding to interpersonal tensions 
This goes well beyond Martyrs & Slackers stuff, to include garden variety interpersonal tensions, style clashes, and personalities that don't mix well, resulting in: a) individuals who attempt to serve on committees together and rue the results; or b) in those so who have gotten off to such a poor start with another member that they don't even care to try to serve with that person on the same committee. 

The larger issue is whether the group offers sufficiently skillful support for members struggling to resolve interpersonal tensions, and whether the members have the courage and humility to ask for help.

o  Weak delegation of authority
If committees are only set up to do grunt work for the plenary, and are given no authority to act without plenary approval, serving on committees is often viewed as scut work, and not very rewarding. The good news is that this can be turned around by creating mandates that give committees clear guidance about the kinds of things they can handle on their own, and when they need to consult. Committees operating on a short leash tend to feel stifled; empowered committees tend to be much happier.

o  Lack of accountability
It tends to be awkward for communities to hold their members accountable for behaving in line with agreements and following through on commitments. While I get it that this can be uncomfortable, it doesn't get less so because it's ignored. And I'm not talking about draconian punishments; I'm just talking about a baseline expectation that it you're perceived to be coloring outside the lines, someone has a right to ask you about it and it's your responsibility to show up for a good faith attempt to sort it out.
• • •While it might well be worthwhile addressing some of the causes named above, what can you do meanwhile to cope with the fact that slots aren't being filled well? I have five ideas about that:

1. Stop taking volunteers from the plenary floor
Sadly, most communities largely fill committee slots by announcing openings in plenary and gratefully accepting the first people to raise their hand. You can do better than that. While I have no problem with testing the waters for general interest in plenary; please don't make the assignments based simply on who volunteers first. That's committee roulette. 

While I understand the saying "beggers can't be choosers," I believe creating some intentionality and esprit de corps can make a difference. How? Read on.

2. Create mandates for committees (and managerships) that spell out expectations
If you want to be more careful about selecting the right people for assignments, first you have to have a common understanding of what the job entails—so people know what they're assessing candidates for. That means a thorough job description.

While it will take some effort to put all this in place on the front end, once you have it, it will only occasionally need tweaking.

3. Create a list of qualities wanted from people serving in positions of responsibility
Answers here will vary according to the job (because, or course, what's wanted varies by job). For example, you probably want attention to detail as a desirable quality for an accounting position, while sociability may not enter the equation. For someone serving on Conflict Resolution you probably want to rate discretion high, yet not care a fig about their familiarity with spread sheets. You get the idea.

Note: If you're talking about committees, it can be useful distinguishing between qualities that you want some members of the committee have, and qualities you want all members of the committee to possess.

4. Self-assessment
Once the group signs off on 2. and 3. above, ask members to self-assess for suitability on the basis of three questions relative to the job:

a) Do you have the skills needed for this assignment?
Essentially, do you have the qualities the community has decided it wants for this job? Mind you, there's no guarantee that others in the community will agree with your self-assessment, but at least it provides a somewhat objective basis for that conversation (rather than it simply being a beauty contest).

There's also an additional nuance here: is the community committed to providing opportunities to learn skills it depends on? If so, it may make good sense to select people as apprentices to pair with more experienced folks so that there's a larger pool of competency to draw from in the future. If you always select your most experienced person, there's no growth.

Taking this point about opportunities one step further, do you want to set term limits for how long people can serve in a position? Sometimes people can get pretty comfortable in a certain slot and nobody else gets a chance. Is that OK? Continuity and experience are one thing; entrenchment and fiefdoms are another.

b) Do you have the availability needed for this assignment?
The most obvious meaning is are there enough hours left on your dance card after subtracting for employment, commuting, unwinding (recharging the battery), family time, other community duties, spiritual practice, etc, to actually do the work. However, it's more subtle than that. It's not just do you have the time; do you have the psychic bandwidth to engage in this work with grace and good energy? Remember, we're expressly not encouraging martyrdom.

Further, some jobs are difficult to budget for. Where accounting responsibilities tend to be highly predictable and uniform in terms of the time it takes to do the work each month, duties on the Conflict Resolution Team are notoriously unpredictable: one month nothing and the next 20 hours. Do you have the kind of flexibility needed for this job?

c) How motivated are you to do this work?
This is about whether you want the job. Would it be fun, or growthful in ways that attract you? Maybe it makes a difference who you'll be working with—if so, be sure to put that out. It might be a good idea to ask candidates what factors, or changes in the job, would make it more attractive. Maybe there are simple ways to alter how the job is configured to enhance motivation.

Once you've done all this, now you're in a much better position to make committee selections (with the added bonus that people serving on committees are much more likely to enjoy serving).

5. Periodically evaluate performance
Now that you're clicking on all cylinders, don't forget to close the information loop. By building into each job the expectation that there be a periodic performance evaluation, you get to check to see if mandates need adjusting, managers are doing their job, and committees are playing nice with one another.

One last thing: it's a good idea to conduct exit interviews when people step down from assignments. Ask questions like:
—How good was the experience for them?
—Did they get the cooperation they needed to do a good job?
—Were their contributions appreciated?
—Did they get support from the community when they asked for it?
—Did they wish they'd done anything differently?
—Does the mandate need tightening, or revisions made to the list of qualities wanted for people doing this job?
• • •We're talking about intentional communities, right? Then doesn't it make sense to be intentional about filling positions of responsibility?

Groups Works: Shared Airtime

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 Relationship segment there are 10 cards. The ninth pattern in this segment is labeled Shared Airtime. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card: 
Everyone deserves to be heard, and everyone has a piece of the truth. Find ways to invite sharing from all, not just the loudest, most senior, or most articulate. Actively draw out the wisdom of quieter or hesitant participants.

Overwhelmingly, intentional communities aspire to develop cooperative culture (in contrast with the competitive culture of the mainstream). In pursuit of that, consensus is the most common form of decision-making among communities.
There are two main roots of consensus: Native American culture (witness the Iroquois Confederation) and the Religious Society of Friends, aka Quakers, who have relied on it to reach congregational decisions their entire history. Of the two, the Quaker tradition has had the stronger influence on the way consensus is practiced among cooperative groups today (a tip of the cap here to the trail blazing work done in the '70s by anti-nuclear activists—think Clamshell Alliance and Movement for a New Society—to adapt consensus to secular settings).

Quaker practice (which goes back three centuries and change) happens in a spiritual context, and there is a phrase associated with the Quaker approach which can be traced all the way back to George Fox, the original articulator of Quaker beliefs (circa 1650): "There is that of God in everyone." While George was probably thinking about there being no excuse for wickedness and corruption because God acts as a witness within us all, this phrase has been passed down through the years and is more commonly interpreted today to support pacifism (to kill another is to kill a piece of God) and environmental consciousness (in the sense that God dwells in all living things).

In the case of intentional communities, most rely on a secular adaptation of consensus, where there is no assumption of spiritual alignment among the membership, nor is there an attempt to find the way forward by discerning divine guidance. Instead, many have translated "that of God in everyone" to "everyone has a piece of the truth."

It's important to understand that this does not necessarily mean that everyone has a unique piece of the truth, such that everyone's piece needs to be assiduously solicited and identified before the best response can be formulated. Rather, it means that it's a healthy baseline assumption that everyone has something relevant to contribute to the consideration—though they may not necessarily be adept at articulating what that is, and their contribution may have already been covered by others.
With this in mind, I think it's worthwhile to create a way (or ways) for all participants to contribute what they have on the topic with minimal impedance. This accomplishes two things: a) doing the best you can to see that all potentially useful input has been gathered; and b) enhancing the likelihood of solid buy-in with the outcome—because people who feel heard are much more likely to hear; people who feel stretched toward, are more likely to stretch toward others.

Many groups stumble here because they make the naive assumption that open discussion is an equally accessible format for all participants, just because it's intended to be. The fact is, some people are quicker thinkers than others, some are quicker at composing what they want to say, some are more comfortable speaking in front of a large group. 
Some of this can be addressed by varying formats (Hint: If you're in the habit of gathering input the same way every time, you're susceptible to inadvertently creating dead spots, where contributions from some segments of your group are systematically under-represented because the format doesn't have a clear on-ramp for their input.)
What do I mean? Instead of open conversation, where people simply speak as they are ready and called upon, consider:
o  RoundsWhere you go around the circle with everyone being given a chance to speak in turn, and no one speaks twice until everyone who cares to has spoken once.
o  Small Group Work
Having the full group break into smaller circles of 3-5 people where those who find speaking in front of larger numbers daunting can practice what they want everyone to know in a less intimidating setting.
o  Individual Writing
Some people are better able to express themselves in writing than orally. You can cater to that by occasionally giving everyone time (five minutes?) to jot down the points they want to make before speaking begins.
o  Spectrum Instead of using words, you can ask people to position themselves along a line that indicates where they stand (literally) between two extremes positions (say those who think affordability trumps everything at one end of the line, and those who think environmental impact is supreme at the other, with those who prefer some balancing of the two somewhere in the middle). This is a way that important meaning can be conveyed without using words at all (though it's often helpful to have people explain why they chose their position).
Finally, let's focus on what it means to "draw out the wisdom" of:
—The Inarticulate 
If this is a question of stage fright, changing formats may make a difference (see the options above). It might also help if the facilitator can be their ally: "Take a moment to organize your thoughts and try again, We'll wait for you."

Further, the facilitator may be able to help by offering an educated guess at the speaker's meaning. Even if the facilitator gets it wrong, it will eliminate a possible misunderstanding and demonstrate to the person struggling that there's help in the room.

—The Obscure
Sometimes people have an unusual way of organizing thoughts (perhaps English is not their native tongue). In cases like this translation is often needed. The facilitator (or anyone else inspired) can attempt to paraphrase what has been said such that: a) the speaker agrees that it conveys their point(s); and b) the meaning is now accessible to the rest of the group. Voila—the curtain has been raised and meaning revealed.
—The Overwhelmed
If it's nerves, a different format may help. Another option is taking a break and having the facilitator sit down (or go for a walk) with the tongue-tied for the purpose of helping them gather their thoughts. If it's a pattern, the facilitator may even anticipate this dynamic and spend time ahead of the meeting with persons prone to having their boat get swamped, providing them with a prompt about what to prepare for.
—The Marginalized
When people feel marginalized, they don't experience others caring about their input. Worse, if this is a pattern, they typically go into meetings expecting to not be cared about. The antidote is explicitly working to contradict that. This means making sure that their input is solicited (in a way that's accessible to that person), not moving on until that person reports that they've been heard correctly, and then making sure that their input has been duly considered in developing the group response. (Note: I'm not promising that they'll be agreed with.)

If all of this sounds remedial, that's because it is. It takes effort to repair damage. 
—The Upset If someone is experiencing non-trivial distress, it's important (even essential) that this be attended to before attempting to connect with, or process that person's input about what needs to be taken into account or how to proceed. The idea here is that upset functions as virtual earwax that distorts what the person hears, and your first order of business is unclogging the ears. Ignoring it simply doesn't work.

The bad news is that most groups are not adept at working authentically and non-judgmentally with distress. The good news is that it can be learned.

A Bridge Too Far

I've taken the title of this essay from a World War II book by Cornelius Ryan, which chronicles the story of a failed attempt by Allied Forces in the fall of 1944 to break through the German lines at Arnhem and cross the Rhein River. It is a high stakes example of overreaching in pursuit of a noble cause (in this case, ending the war as quickly as possible).

While taking chances occurs in all cultures, I'm narrowing the focus of today's essay to how this unfolds in a cooperative context.

One of the many facets of leadership [see Cooperative Leadership from A to Z] is aspirational—the ability to pull the group forward into the unknown, especially when the group is unlikely to go there on its own. What makes this a compelling topic is that this can work wonderfully and it can be a disaster... or some of both.

People can stretch—often more than they think they can—but only so far. Where is the limit, and how do you know you're close to it?

Suppose the issue is whether to build a new community center because you intend to grow and the old one is at capacity. The questions are many:

o  How large a group are you aiming to accommodate in the new facility? Partly this is a question of rate of growth (to what extent are you willing to rely on past trends to continue)? Partly this is a question of the life expectancy of the new building.

o  To what extent do you want the new facility to be an enhancement or upgrade from current facilities? Buildings are a long-term highly visible statement of values. Other things being equal, you want to be proud of that statement.

o  How much financial burden are current members willing to accept? If population does not surge forward, or otherwise falls short of projections, that means existing members will have to shoulder more of the debt load. There's a limit to what people can bear and still grin.

o  Undertaking a large project means that money and labor are not available for other projects. Is this facility the group's most pressing need? Is it acceptable that most other projects are on hold?

o  To what extent should you try to fund the building through savings, to what extent through donations, and to what extent through loans? Waiting to accumulate sufficient savings tends to equate with delays; borrowing tends to be easier to secure than donations, but you have to handle debt load. Donations are nice (manna from heaven), yet most groups do not have a robust fundraising program and starting from scratch takes time.

Having witnessed a number of cooperative groups go through the wringer in pursuit of securing and maintaining buy-in for a major building initiative, here's a list of things that leaders might keep in mind:

1. Tracking the Energy
In general, you can expect a certain amount of nervousness associated with any proposal to undertake a large project. For the risk averse this will be knee-jerk scary and you'll need to work through this, not bulldoze over it. That means making sure that you are able to demonstrate to the naysayers' satisfaction that you have heard their reservations and are being responsive in ways that feel respectful to them. Caution: this not about the leaders being in integrity; it's about the leaders being able to successfully build and maintain a bridge to the risk averse.

While this guidance obtains for any group working with consensus, regardless of the issue, the stakes are much higher here and therefore the penalty for getting this wrong is much greater.

2. Knitting Support at Tortoise Pace
There are times to go fast and times to go slow. It is crucial, for example, when you're developing group approval for the initial plan that you go no faster than your slowest thinkers. (Don't mishear me: slow thinkers are not inferior thinkers; they just need more time to process data and know their own minds. If they're pushed to make a decision too fast they tend to dig in their heels and bad things happen, such as gridlock.)

Later, once approval has been secured, you can pick up the tempo during implementation.

3. Admitting Uncertainty 
If you paint too rosy a picture, your credible is out the window as soon as the first surprises emerge. (Of course, if you emphasize is too much on the down beat, you're raining on your own parade.) It's important to disclose the variables and not pretend confidence when it isn't justified. There's reason for the adage "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." By overplaying your hand you train people to discount your projections.

4. Limiting Unknowns to Manageable Proportions
Take careful note of how many critical aspects of the plan require success when you're operating in terra incognita. It's axiomatically riskier counting on success in unknown territory than relying on delivering a modest increase in what you've already proven you can accomplish.

5. Assessing Internal Capacity to Do the Work
Do you have the horses? That is, can you fill all crucial slots with personnel who have the skill, motivation, and availability for the tasks? Hiring outside often increases costs and can result in a crew that isn't well aligned with mission. This can be particularly tricky if the project manager is hired outside the family. On the other hand, it avoids the awkwardness of people who are otherwise in a member-member peer relationship having to navigate the schizophrenia of also being in an employer-employee relationship.

6. Embracing Contingencies
If success depends on everything working well, you're probably stretched too far. Nothing goes perfectly. If your plan has so little wiggle room that any setback means unacceptable delays or cost overruns, then you're in deep doo-doo.

7. Establishing Pause Points
Good plans will identify checkpoints along the way, such that you can either hit the pause button, or—if the signs are bad enough—you can hit the abort button. This means establishing targets for funding secured, personnel hired, materiél acquired, construction accomplished within seasonal (having the exterior enclosed before freeze-up), etc.

People tend to breathe easier if there is a bolt hole established in the event that targets aren't met.

8. Establishing and Meeting Reporting Standards
Transparency can go a long way toward helping people exhale. Good reporting is partly a question of frequency; partly it's depth of coverage. Are you making clear what indicators are important in your report; are you bringing the right information forward? Hint #1: It's more crucial to be forthcoming with bad news than good news. Hint #2: Keep your reports short and to the point, inviting people to ask questions if they want greater detail.

Sometimes project managers try to hide bad news in the hopes that problems will be resolved before the next report. This is a dangerous game—kinda like juggling lit dynamite sticks. Occasionally that works, but more often it blows up in your face and now you have two problems: the one you started with and the loss of trust.

9. Developing a Broad Base of Active Support
This one is a spin-off to 5) above. The more members of the group who are actively involved in the project, the easier it will be to achieve and maintain buy-in—because it feels more like their project than one being done for them, or worse, to them.

This may take some creativity on the part of leaders to manifest, yet you are at grave risk of being isolated and falling into us/them dynamics if only a small number of community members are getting their hands dirty and their sleeves rolled up in service to the project.

The key throughout is making sure that the bridge between the project and the membership is never too far.

When Does a Private Issue Become a Group Issue?

When people create intentional community they are purposefully choosing a culture that is shifted more toward the "we" end of the spectrum and away from the "I" end. People living in community are, by design, opting for a social reality in which their lives will be more interwoven with those of fellow members and less autonomous. In consequence, there will be a number of decisions that you may be used to making solely as an individual (or as a household) that you are now obliged to work out with fellow community members—because your choices may impact others, and you've agreed that you're in this together.

Let me walk you through this.

Suppose you want to cut down a tree in front your house that's getting so high that it's shading the solar panels on your roof. Let's further suppose that: a) the tree is growing in lawn that is within the space immediately around your house that is defined by the community's covenants as yours to control (often referred to in community lingo as "limited private element") and b) there is an explicit community agreement that if you propose to do anything that impacts your neighbors that you're expected to consult with them first and make a good faith effort to find a course of action that's mutually agreeable.

In the mainstream world, so long as the tree is on your property, you'd have the right to cut it down whenever you wanted. Your only risk would be accidentally felling the tree onto your neighbor's roof, car, or (heaven forbid) their children who wanted to get close enough to witness your Paul Bunyan moment.

In community this is much more complicated.

o  First of all, you'd be less likely to own your own chain saw, because community is all about shared living and how many chain saws does a community need anyway? If you're proposing to use the community's chain saw, you be smart to reserve it ahead of time because someone else may want it at the same time you do. What's more, you probably can't count on the chain being sharp, or there being enough fuel on hand, so that means setting aside time to see that those things have been taken care of ahead of need.

o  While few people think it's a good idea to run a chain saw in the dark (visibility being directly related to safety) there's an issue around noise. If your fire up a chain saw at first light, most people will not thank you for substituting Stihl-ness for stillness—waking up to the roar of a chain saw is highly unpleasant and it's prudent to accept guidance from the neighbors about appropriate hours for running noisy machines, and then giving everyone a heads up about the exact time you expect to be doing the work, so that they can get their children, pets, and cars safely away from the action.

o  There is also a nuance around parameters a) and b) above. From a) it follows that it's wholly your call whether the tree should come down. Despite that, however, you could run afoul of b). Suppose, for example, that the tree provides welcome afternoon shade for the neighbor immediately to your east. Under those circumstances it's possible that what you're doing to reduce energy costs for your house (by increasing solar gain) will increase costs for your neighbors (because their air conditioning will have to work harder to maintain comfortable temperatures in summer).

Worse, you may not even know that your neighbor benefits from the shade of that tree, and that you are at risk for stepping on a landmine you didn't know existed if you blithely ignore the basic principle that undergirds b): measure (your neighbors) twice, cut once.

Note in this hypothetical example that you have a good reason for cutting down the tree—one that's directly in line with a core community value of being energy conscious. But that doesn't mean you have the only valid perspective on the issue. Remember the part about being in this together? The fact that you couldn't think of any reason that the neighbors might object to your taking down the tree, doesn't necessarily mean there isn't one.
• • •Now I want to take this a step further. For some class of decisions, the whole group needs a chance to have their oar in the water. For another class of decisions, the individual still gets to decide unilaterally, yet they are expected to create an opportunity to hear and work through people's reactions.

All Skate Decisions
The kind of decisions that may shift from unilateral in the mainstream to being made by the plenary (or its designate) in community are things like:

o  Anything relating to group covenants or interpretations on common values, all of which can be understood as voluntary limitations on what an individual can do. For example, at both Sandhill Farm and Dancing Rabbit there are agreements that members will rely wholly on vehicles owned collectively by the community: no private cars.

o  Who is an authorized spokesperson for representing the community when talking with the press.

o  Who is authorized to sign contracts on behalf of the community.

o  Who are check signers on the community account.

o  What color you paint the outside of your house. (Not all communities try to control the outside aesthetic, but some do.)

o  How shared assets are maintained and accessed.

In these kinds of things, the group supplants the individual as primary decision maker. To be sure, the individual still has a say in what happens, but each voice counts the same. The operant shibboleth here is: you're in good hands with all skate. (Either that, or you're in the wrong group.)

Personal Decisions that Impact the Group
That said, there is a second class of decisions where the community may want/need a collective venue to process a choice made by an individual, where there's no intention of asserting a community right to make the decision. Examples of that include:

—Where there's been a break up of an intimate relationship, and both people are trying to continue to live in the community. While no one is suggesting that the community should have a say about who you partner with, changes in intimacy can have a profound impact on group dynamics and it can help enormously if there's a way to unpack those feelings (other than by gossiping in the parking lot). Non-principals can be in anguish about to how to reach out to one party in the break-up without it being construed as taking sides.

—Where there's tension about the range of different ways that parents set limits for their children. Though it's highly unlikely that the community will attempt to tell parents how to raise their children, it can be very awkward threading the needle when trying to set limits as a non-parent supervising two children who are being raised in very different ways.

—Where there's tension about the range of different ways that parents educate their children. Again, schooling decisions generally remain with the parents, yet children who are homeschooled (or children going to public school for that matter) may not be thriving, with the result that difficult behaviors show up in the community arena. How do you talk about frustrations associated with obstreperous behavior in the group context, in part because the parent has made choices about their child's education out of ideological reasons that are not working well for the child?

—Where there's persistent negativity and low trust between two or more longstanding members. While you can't make people get along, there's a point where the swamp gas of festering enmity poisons the atmosphere in group settings.

—Where there's a clash of personalities and styles that surfaces in the group context. What's loud, obnoxious, and bullying to one person may be exuberance and passionate expression to another. Given that you're unlikely to outlaw certain personalities, you need a way to discuss how you're going to translate your core commitment to diversity into a culture that is home for all.

—Where there's been a major trauma in a member's life (severe accident, prolonged illness, suicide of a loved one). It's not unusual for people who suffer major setbacks to grieve and recover privately. Yet that doesn't mean that others in the group are unaffected by events.

[As a case in point, more than 10 years ago my community, Sandhill Farm, went through a gut-wrenching time when a visitor lost most of the fingers on her right hand when she accidentally got a glove caught in the roller mill we use to crush sorghum cane during our fall harvest. While there's no question that the woman was the person most profoundly affected by the accident, the community still needed to emotionally cope what happened and we made time that evening for people to simply share from their hearts. It was not about assigning blame; it was about staying connected and offering succor to one another in response to tragedy.]

The point of this class of decisions is to acknowledge the need for a way to get information out on the table (ahead of the rumor mill) and to process feelings that get stirred up among non-principals, such as sorrow, joy, anger, and confusion. This is not meant as an opportunity to judge others; it's a chance to tend to relationships that are strained as a result of the stress radiating out beyond the immediate players. This is not about problem solving; it's about nurturing connections, which are the backbone of community.

This is all the more important because it rarely happens in the mainstream (which means that people come into the community experience with little sense of why this might be needed or how to set this up to be constructive), yet it can be enormously beneficial for the community as it strives to maintain cohesion and suppleness through trying times.
• • •In conclusion, private matters become group matters when decisions impact the group in non-trivial ways. This will happen more often in community living than in the mainstream because community culture is shifted more toward "we" and intertwined living naturally creates more opportunities for the group to be affected by individual actions.

In addition, there is an important distinction between: a) things that the plenary controls instead of the individual (the first class above); and b) things for which the individual still gets to decide unilaterally, but about which the group needs a chance to explore the emotional swirls that surface as a result of being collaterally impacted by those choices (the second class above).

To navigate this territory well, groups need to be able to distinguish between the two classes, and have in mind how to handle each conversation with sensitivity and compassion. I'm not saying that's easy, but it can be done and is well worth the effort to learn how to do it.

Gift Horse Dynamics

Recently I was working with a community where, one evening, a group was sitting around at Happy Hour in the common house enjoying each others' company. At one point the conversation drifted into the advent of winter and chilly outdoor temperatures, which led one reveler to suggest, "Wouldn't it be nice to have a fireplace where folks could cozy up to in bad weather?"

As that was met with general approbation, one listener was so bathed in the warm glow of inspiration and conviviality, that she promptly went home and purchased an electric fireplace—that she intended to donate to the community to enhance the winter ambiance in the common house. Acting from a spirit (or perhaps spirits, in this case) of generosity and good intention, she was blindsided when her email announcement was met with consternation and push back. What happened?

There's actually quite a lot at play in this dynamic, making it well worth the time to unpack.

1. The donor was fully aware of the community's tight budget and the potential awkwardness of suggesting that the community buy a fireplace. There were probably other things in line ahead of it as priority improvements, and she thought she was saving the group all kinds of process by making it a gift. She had the money, and by proceeding this way she'd get to enjoy the warmth of the fireplace that much sooner and not add pressure to the budget, which was a known concern for those living closer to the edge of their means. She was not expecting to get a heated discussion; just a heated room.

2. Because the fireplace would live in common space, the donor misstepped by bypassing the team that oversees furnishing the common house. Even though it was a gift, it would take up space in a room that didn't have a lot to give, and the point of having that committee was that it was their role to oversee how the space was used. I can't recall if I've ever heard of a team that enjoyed being surprised by unilateral initiatives taken by outsiders in their sphere of influence—however divinely inspired.

3. Because the group has a core commitment to being conscientious about ecological impact, the donor might have anticipated the possibility of objections to operating an appliance that spins the electric meter faster. While the annual cost of such a device—even if used quite a bit—would probably in the range of $50-80 at today's electric rates, there are two concerns: 

a) Any increase in common expenses is borne more or less equally by all members, not just those who are comfortably off, and it never lands well to have a financial burden laid upon you about which you had no say. Even if it's only $2 a year.

b) Beyond dollars, what message does it send to visitors? If the group is trying to be a model of energy efficiency, it may well raise eyebrows that it has a prominently displayed appliance that converts high quality energy (line electricity) into low quality energy (radiant heat). People tend to be more impressed by what you do than what you say, and you didn't need to consult Nostradamus to predict that there would be some soul searching on this one.

To be fair, there is a real issue here: how to balance: i) creature comfort on cold evenings in a way that encourages social interactions; with ii) the desire to contain costs and be a model of wise energy use. I'm not saying how this conversation should go; only that it should happen, and before the fireplace is purchased.

4. There is also the matter of how the appliance will be cleaned, maintained, and repaired. All of those mundane matters invariably add up to an additional cost of a "free" gift, unless the donor agrees to underwrite them as well.

5. While I didn't sense that what I'm about say next was a factor in the instance above, sometimes donors expect to accrue social capital by virtue of their largesse, which amounts to, "Since I donated x, I expect to have a greater say in y." Not that it's generally stated that baldly, but that's how it comes across—and when it does, it's a guaranteed shit storm.

6. In the story above, the donor meant well, and it will be a poor outcome if the lesson she "learns" is to make no generous offers in the future. The trick is how to allow room for reactions and problem solving, while at the same time honoring the good intentions of the would-be donor.

Part of what's imbedded in this is the disparity of assets and income among residents. If the group finds it awkward sharing information about personal finances (at least with a broad brush stroke) then it's hard to hold the benefactor accountable for not taking it into account. It's a good thing that those with more financial ease in their life are willing and able to share some of their good fortune with others—so long as it doesn't come with hidden strings. There are times when free gifts are just too expensive.

Thus, it behooves groups to get savvy about members bearing gifts to the community. When you open the door in the morning and there's a gift horse sitting on your front stoop, I suggest taking a good look in the horse's mouth (despite traditional admonitions to the contrary) before accepting it into the herd:
A. How will cleaning, maintenance, and repair be handled? (Hint: it's not free.) Is the community expected to pick up the tab for upkeep? Is that agreeable?
B. Is it on loan, or a gift that the community can do with it as it pleases? If a loan, what say does the community have in its placement and use; how much advance warning does the community want before it can be recalled by the owner?

C. Are their strings attached (does it need to be available in common space until the donor dies; does the donor expect something in return; are there restrictions on its use)? If so, are the conditions acceptable?

D. Are we being diligent about whether to accept this offer in the same way we would if the community were buying it? If not, why not? 

When presented with a gift horse, remember it's permissible to respond to "neigh" with "nay."

Coming Back

In my previous blog (Laid Back), I reported on my lingering back pain triggered by an intemperate bout of improper lifting the first weekend in October.

Yesterday, at the encouragement of my doctor and my wife, I had a CT scan done of my abdomen—mainly to check for the possibility of more serous complications, including kidney stones or worse, cancer. Happily, I have neither. Whew! This was definitely a case of no news being good news.

Other than a simple benign cyst (1 cm in diameter) on my right kidney (which is apparently common as people grow older—something I am wholly prone to), all I have is back pain. While that's complicated and debilitating enough, it's a relief to know that's "all" I'm trying to recover from.

The main problem is getting ahead of a vicious negative bio-feedback loop. In response to the original strain I've been involuntarily holding myself rigid to protect myself from re-injuring, or even tweaking, the muscles in my lower back (just above the hips and coccyx). After a couple of weeks of that I started experiencing secondary pain as my defensive muscles got tired of being on duty all the time, to the point where the secondary pain was equal to or greater than the original pain.

While my body has not yet recovered from the original trauma (read no sit-ups) and it's too early to start physical therapy to rebuild strength and resiliency, I'm going through cycles of secondary pain as all the muscles in and around my abdomen have been taking turns filing complaints with my central nervous system.

The only position I can be in with no pain at all is flat on my back, but staying in bed all day drives me nuts, and I don't want my muscles to completely atrophy. So each day I get up and try moving around a little (with my engine set at "all ahead slow")—going to the bathroom, getting a bite to eat, refilling my water jug, recharging my laptop, etc. (I am getting a lot reading done.)

When I walk more than 100 feet, however, the intercostal muscles at the lower end on my rib cage start to spasm, even when I have 10 mg of cyclobenzaprine on board, a prescription muscle relaxant. Thus, even with careful, minimal movement and no lifting I invariably clench the very muscles that I'm trying to calm. So I have a ways to go yet.

The good news is that after canceling my planned trip to New England (that was supposed to start today), I have no trips planned until Jan 13, which gives me six glorious weeks in which to come back all the way. And there's no better place to have this occur than at home, where Ma'ikwe can play Florence Nightengale and I can learn to type propped up at a 15-degree angle.

While I've never been very patient with being a patient, apparently that's the lesson I'm working on right now.

Laid Back

In general, when people talk about being laid back, you get the image of relaxed, at ease, coasting. And while Thanksgiving weekend is a terrific time to be laid back, it turns out that I'm taking this to an extreme. As in laid (flat on my) back.

I limped home just after midnight Tuesday after completing a 29-day road trip that I conducted while coping with lower back pain that I sustained in early October. I made it through on grit, ibuprofen, and Traumeel (a topical analgesic cream that features calendula, arnica, echinacea, hypericum, belladonna, and other homeopathic goodies). While you might think that the worst would be behind me after eight weeks, I've been locked in a battle with secondary pain that shifts fronts (or backs, in this case) every few days.

After the original strain in my lower back I was (understandably) very cautious about how I moved. If I held myself awkwardly or turned too abruptly I was susceptible to tweaking my injury such that my muscles would contract involuntarily and it felt like someone was jabbing me with razor blades. It didn't take many of those experiences to dread their reoccurrence. In consequence I was tensing the muscles near the trauma so much that I started experiencing secondary pain in the fatigued defensive muscles that was as much a problem as what I started with. Yuck!

As soon as one set of defensive muscles started complaining I'd adjust how I defended myself, with the result that the secondary pain would migrate to a new location. The last few days it's risen to the level of my ribs, such that I can't inhale fully without feeling like someone is jabbing me in the side with a sharp stick. It's hard to walk (and don't make me laugh or cough).

Ma'ikwe stepped in yesterday and took me to see a doctor. She's concerned both with my suffering and that there may be something more going on than a slow healing back. I gave a blood sample which showed that I'm slightly anemic (could it possibly be that I'm not eating enough sorghum?) and a urine sample which suggested the possibility of kidney stones. I'll be back into the clinic Monday to have a CT scan to get more data.

Meanwhile, the doctor prescribed a muscle relaxant (cyclobenzaprine) and a pain killer (hydrocodone), both of which provided immediate breathing room (literally) and I was pleasantly surprised with my vitals: 
pulse: 64
blood pressure: 120/80
weight: 187 dressed, which is down 20 pounds from two months ago

While I don't recommend lower back strain as a weight loss regimen, apparently it's effective. It's certainly taken my mind off eating.

Though the band of pain encircling my rib cage eased up a bit after an awful start this morning, I haven't thought about dancing once all day and I've got a ways to go before feeling spry enough to board a train at 6 am Tuesday to conduct a facilitation training weekend in Vermont that begins Thursday evening. I really want to go, but things will have to improve dramatically for that to make any sense.

If I stay home it will mark the first time I've failed to keep a commitment as a process consultant since I hung out a shingle in 1987. Ordinarily, when it comes to process gigs I'm not laid back at all, but maybe next Tuesday I will be. Stay tuned.

Giving Thanks 2014

Thanksgiving isn't until tomorrow, but I'm starting early. Let me count the ways that I'm thankful.

1. After 29 days on the road, I was thankful to wake up in my own bed this morning. Not only is it good being next to my wife for the first time in a month, but my sore back is weary of the strain of travel. I'm hoping that a week of R&R at home will ease the pain and accelerate my slow healing.

2. This weekend celebrates the completion of Ma'ikwe's and my first year of living together, which we're enjoying every bit as much as we'd hoped we would. While it was sad for me leaving Sandhill, I'm happy with my choice.

3. I enjoyed taking the last leg of my train ride home last night—from Chicago to Quincy aboard the Illinois Zephyr—with my stepson, Jibran, who is joining us for his first break since starting college last August. It was fun hearing him describe all the new things he's been exposed to the last three months and see how much he's thriving. I was concerned about his going to a rigorous academic school (Shimer College) a year ahead of his age cohort and with no time spent with peers through his high school years (he was tutored at home), but I needn't have been. It's clear he was ready.

The most satisfying piece for me was his disappointment that his fellow freshmen are not (yet) that accomplished at listening carefully to what those who disagree with them have to say. Learning how to think and how to listen are not necessarily skills picked up prior to college, but Jibran, apparently, had a good start.

4. I just completed as solid a stretch of work as I've ever had. Bad back and all, over the course of four weeks I worked every weekend: three with cohousing groups and a fourth at the NASCO Institute (Nov 7-9), where I conducted a pair of workshops. Satisfyingly, everything went well. Woohoo!

5. My Amtrak travel has been extensive enough that I just reached Select status for 2105. That means expedited reservation service, three passes to the first class lounge in Chicago or DC when I'm traveling coach, three free upgrades to Business Class on intermediate-distance trains, and a 25% bump on tier qualifying points for next year. As someone committed to train as his preferred mode of transportation, this cornucopia of amenities and bonuses is a blessing.

6. I'm also thankful for a major life change that's just ahead. At the fall FIC organizational meetings (held Oct 23-26) the Board agreed—at my request—to move forward with shifting me out of the center of things. Though I've been happily up to my eyeballs with Fellowship affairs ever since it was launched in 1987, it's time for a change. We'll be dividing my current job into two parts: Development Director (DD) and Executive Director (ED). 

We have completed an overhaul of the DD job description and are poised to start the search for candidates soon. In addition, we have a promising ED candidate already in hand. With luck, by the end of next year I'll have turned over both roles to worthy, younger successors without a glitch.

I'm pleased to be making these changes from a position of strength. While I expect to continue to play a supportive role in the Fellowship for some time to come (after all, I represent an incredible wealth of personal relationships that cannot be transferred as easily as a Vulcan mind meld), it's time to bring in fresh horses.

While I'm simplifying my life, I'm not sailing off into the sunset. There will still be plenty for me to do as I redistribute my time among the four remaining never-a-dull-moment major interests in my life: my marriage, my cooperative group consulting, my teaching, and my writing.
• • •So I'm sitting at my desk at home, thankful for a great deal. All of this and I've got roast turkey with dressing, mashed potatoes with giblet gravy, orange-cranberry sauce, homemade minced meat pie, Famous wafers and whipped cream, and spiked eggnog directly on the horizon—which I'll be consuming with consummate enjoyment amidst family and friends. 

How much better can it get?

Why Conflict Resolution Committees are Like Maytag Repairmen

As a consultant to cooperative groups. one of the most common things I'm asked to demonstrate is how to work constructively with conflict. 

Illustrative of this point, I'm just wrapping up a four-week swing through the Eastern time zone in which I've worked with three different residential communities. In all three instances, a portion of what I did was explain my thinking about conflict, and then demonstrate its application with a live example of some festering interpersonal tension where the protagonists volunteered from the floor. Think of it as theater in the round.

While all groups have conflict, only some have a commitment to engage with it when it surfaces. Fewer still have agreements about how to engage with it and members trained in delivering that support. Some groups (less than half) have a Conflict Resolution Team (in one version or another) whose job it is to be available to support members having trouble extricating themselves from the mud all alone.

While I'm always happy to hear that such support is in place, it turns out that Conflict Teams tend to be like the apocryphal Maytag repairman: grossly underused. Why? Here are half a dozen reasons that explain what I think is going on:

1. Is the team authorized to be pro-active?
When groups first stick their collective toes into the swirling waters of distress there is a tendency to take baby steps rather than full strides, with the result that the team is expected to not engage unless asked in by one or (hopefully) both protagonists.

This caution will definitely choke the amount of work that comes the team's way in that there are all manner of reasons why people needing help don't ask for it—including pride, embarrassment, uncertainty about whether it will make a difference, and lack of confidence in the members of the team. Further, people in distress don't always make good assessments about what's happening and what they need, all of which complicates case loads for the Conflict Team.

Better, I think, is to authorize the team to step in whenever it has the sense that there's unresolved tension and it's spilling over into group functionality.

2. Lack of a baseline commitment to make a good faith effort to resolve conflict if named as a player by another member
This is an important understanding that's missing in most groups. Thus, if Chris is struggling with Dale and asks Dale to discuss it (in an attempt to work it out), is it acceptable for Dale to say, "No"?

Mind you, I'm not saying that Dale needs to agree with Chris' story about what happened, to admit culpability, or to accept blame; I'm only suggesting that they have an explicit obligation—by virtue of being a member of the group—to make an honest attempt to sit down with Chris (perhaps with third party help from the Conflict Team) and sort it out.

Lacking this agreement, many people named in a conflict are leery of getting together with someone known to be upset with them, for fear of being the pin cushion in a wrestling match with a porcupine. Who needs it?

3. Lack of clarity about what support looks like
Often, groups empanel a Conflict Team without being clear how they will conduct their work, what options are available to protagonists regarding formats, or what support and safety will be extended to "customers."

Ambiguity about these things amounts to signing a blank check and it's understandable that there will be hesitancy about committing to an unknown process to navigate volatile territory. Juggling live sticks of dynamite is dangerous on any occasion; is it any wonder that being asked to do so in an unknown dark room is not appealing?

4. Lack of confidence in the skill of the team
Even if the process is fairly well defined (addressing the previous concern), there may be serious questions about whether Conflict Team members are sufficiently proficient at managing it. Who wants student doctors in charge while you're undergoing open heart surgery?

5. Confusion about whether team members facilitate all conflict cases that come their way
One reason why members don't approach the team for help with a conflict is that they may not have the impression that any of the team members are sufficiently neutral. Team members may be known to be close friends with the person you're conflicted with, or highly sympathetic to your antagonist's viewpoint. When those conditions obtain it's understandable that would-be customers try to get their needs met elsewhere.

The remedy, I think, is to spell out the expectation that the team is responsible for finding a facilitator (or team of facilitators) who is skilled enough and neutral enough to be mutually agreeable to all parties. There is no need to limit who is eligible for filling this important role to team members or anyone else—including the possibility of securing help from outside the group. The prime directive here is having a successful meeting between Chris and Dale—not generating work for people wanting to facilitate conflict.

6. Casualness in how team members are selected
For the Conflict Team to be used a lot, great care needs to be taken in how team members are selected. This is not an appropriate occasion to simply accept the first four people who volunteer for the job. While desire to do the work may be a factor, it isn't nearly enough.

First you'll want to delineate the qualities wanted from people serving in this capacity. The list might look something like this:
o  Discretion
o  Empathy
o  Fair-minded
o  Good listener
o  Ability to work constructively with emotions and in the presence of high distress
o  Ability to collaborate well (with fellow team members)
o  Good communication skills
o  Trusted
o  Approachable
o  Skilled at facilitation
o  Has time in their life to make the team's work a priority when a conflict arises

Second, you'll want a selection process that gives the whole group adequate opportunity to indicate which members rate high for these qualities.
• • •It's one thing to know enough that you need a tool and make the effort to have it on hand. But that's not enough. You also have to make sure the tool is used when the occasion for which it was secured arises. A garden hose that's left untouched, coiled neatly at the side of the house when a fire starts among the leaves in your side yard, is not much different than having no hose.

Sometimes Money Is Not the Right Currency

There's no doubt that money matters. But not always.

I recently worked with a group that was struggling over how to find an equitable settlement with its developer (who was also a member of the group) over promised facilities that never materialized, and one of the key challenges was coming to agreement about constituted "equitable."

Here's the back story:

o  The project was started about a decade ago when the developer bought a piece of land and promoted it for a community location. He sold lots for a certain amount of money, with the understanding that some of the purchase price would go toward paying off the land, some would go toward infrastructure (roads, sewer, and utilities), and some would be set aside for building common facilities. While the exact nature of the common facilities had not been delineated, everyone agreed that the promise had been made.

o  The project was to be developed in two phases: roughly two-thirds of the lots were in Phase I, and the remainder in Phase II.

o  When the bottom fell out of the housing market in 2008, it put an unanticipated squeeze on the master plan. It was hard to sell lots, interest payments were piling up, and the cost of infrastructure development spiraled upward. The net result was that after Phase I lots were sold there was only enough money to pay off the mortgage and to complete the infrastructure. Nothing was left over to build common facilities.

o  Further complicating matters, it turned out that the Phase II lots were in a more remote location such that there were serious questions about whether it would be revenue positive to develop them. Thus, it was by no means certain that completing the development would actually yield any additional revenue with which to fund construction of common facilities.

o  As long as this issue remained unresolved, the developer was stuck in no man's land: halfway between being a real estate professional who hadn't kept a promise, and being a fellow member of the community. It was awkward. Everyone wanted to get beyond this limbo, to the point where the development phase was complete and everyone was just a member of the community, yet they needed a pathway that would both protect the rights (and dreams) of the community to common facilities and didn't bankrupt the developer in the process.

o  By the time I got there, the group had been gnawing on this bone for more than two years and there was serious fatigue over the time and energy it was taking to untangle this Gordian Knot.

Now what?

There were a couple ways to look at this.

Option 1: The Financial Solution
Under this approach the group could assign a dollar value to the empty kitty for common facilities and then compare it against what the developer offered as compensation. While there would undoubtedly be some serious numbers to crunch, there are known methodologies for getting all that accomplished. In the end you could compare the value of the proposed remedy to the value of the debt and adjust as needed.

In many ways, that's the point of money: to facilitate fair exchange between apples and oranges.

However, fair market value does a notoriously poor job of taking into account mental anguish, good will, and the importance of ongoing good relations among the players. As all the folks involved in this decision were going to continue to live together after the settlement, this mattered quite a lot.

Option 2: The Energetic Solution
Under this approach, the group would purposefully skip the step of conducting a careful financial analysis and go for the gestalt. That is, once both sides were satisfied that the offer is reasonable, the group could decide to accept it because it was close enough and the most important thing is to get the problem resolved and move on—not extracting the last nickel possible.

While money is a tool, and not inherently good or evil, focusing on financial equality as the prime directive has a way of devaluing intangibles—such as relationships, the lifeblood of community—rather than supporting them.

In the end, the group chose Door #2, and the relief in the room was palpable, as weight was lifted from everyone's shoulders and the sun came out from behind the clouds.

Closing Contact with the Third Rail of Distress

Almost all people living in intentional community—as well as those aspiring to—value good communication. After all, the heart of community is relationship and that's pretty hard to develop and sustain with weak communication.
That said, all conditions under which communication is attempted are not equal. Some are way more challenging than others. In particular, one of the hardest is when one or more people are experiencing serious distress. In fact, the higher the voltage, the more uncertain and potentially explosive the connection becomes—to the point where it's questionable whether even to attempt it because:

a) Relationship damage may seem a more likely outcome than enhancement (sometimes people express distress in damaging ways).

b) The possibility of constructive exchange may seem too remote.

c) The environment in which the engagement occurs may be too uncomfortable or toxic for the people not in distress to be able to function.

d) There is no clarity about what will be constructive.

e) There is no confidence in anyone present possessing the skills needed to be constructive, even if there's agreement about how to go about it.

However, despite all these reasons to be cautious, reaching out and communicating with people in distress is also when it can do the most good—in terms of helping the person through the distress, helping the group shift back from turbulent to laminar flow, and strengthening relationships through deeper understanding.

So how do you handle it?

I believe that once a person identifies with being in serious distress, the group's prime directive is to make sure that that person doesn't feel isolated, and the way to accomplish that is to establish an authentic connection with their experience—essentially, that means being able to demonstrate to the upset person's satisfaction three things:

1. What's the trigger?
What happened (or didn't happen) that resulted in the reaction? Sometimes it's an action, sometimes it's a statement; sometimes it's a sequence of things that becomes the trigger. Sometimes it erupts out of nowhere and sometimes it's been building for years. Rather than guess, you need to ask.

2. What's the energy?
It turns out that getting the energy right is often more important than getting the story right. That is, in order for the upset person to feel heard, it's important that the person reaching out gets into a similar energetic zone—raising their energy if the person is angry, and dropping down for people who are afraid. Smoke curling out the ears needs to approached very differently than tears rolling down the cheeks.

Sometimes people make the mistake of trying to be an island of calm when reaching out to people in distress (on the theory that matching energy risks further stimulating the overstimulated), but my experience has been the reverse—that upset is far more likely to be sustained when met by mismatched energy. ("If you truly understood what I'm going through you wouldn't be so goddamn calm!")

3. Why does it matter?
The final piece of my triage trio is making a connection to why this matters to the person in reaction. In what way did this touch a core interest or concern? Understanding context can often be a key element in feeling fully held. This is especially helpful when the listener can establish how the concern is reasonable and tied to something valued in the group.

Note that none of the above is about taking sides; it's simply about hearing accurately and establishing connection without ducking hard feelings or assigning blame. Done well, information should now be freely flowing again.
• • •Now let's spin the above another way. Instead of focusing on someone in distress, think of someone who comes across as stubborn and locked into their position; someone who's perceived as holding the group up by not working productively with the input of others. They're seen as insisting on their right to be heard, yet it doesn't appear that they're living up to their responsibility to work respectfully with the views of others.
How do you handle that?
My advice, amazingly enough, is to proceed in the same way as with people in distress (outlined above). In general, someone balks at reaching out to others not because they're an asshole, but because they don't yet feel that they've been reached out to. Thus, the request to balance rights and responsibilities lands hollowly for the stubborn person because they don't have the sense that their rights have (yet) been honored.
It is not enough to simply assert that you have heard the person, you need to be able to show them through reflective listening. Better yet, feel into their beleaguered position (as an outlier for being stubborn) and establish a connection to why their position matters to them.
Then see if they unclench and are better able to reach out to others and find middle ground. In my experience deep hearing is incredibly effective as a topical balm on raw feelings and as an analgesic for stiff dynamics.

Why Consensus Takes Forever (but Doesn't Have to)

One of the most prominent complaints about consensus is the perception that it takes too long to get things done.

In thinking about how to compose this essay, I was reminded of an old Mad Magazine cover that featured a spoof on piracy. Across the top was the teaser "Seven Ways to Quell a Mutiny." Underneath that, in a more discreet font, was the secondary teaser: "Eight Ways to Start One."

Trying to be more up-tempo than mischievous, I will reverse the numbers for this essay, offering seven roads to consensus hell, followed by eight paths by which good results can be rescued from the voracious jaws of poor process.

This pickle (of trial by meeting) comes in a variety of flavors; here are seven:
• Stubborn minorities can too easily monkey-wrench the process
• It takes too long to hear from everyone
• Too many things require plenary approval to go forward
• When key people miss meetings all the work has to be redone when they return
• Forward progress is paralyzed by the emergence of serious distress
• Decisions are weak, devolving to the lowest common denominator, which translates into high input and low output
• The person with the thickest skin (or strongest bladder) prevails, rather than what's best for the group

OK, that was the house of consensus horrors. Here are eight tools with which exorcise those demons:

1. Culture Shift
Consensus is designed to thrive in cooperative culture, but most of the people attempting it have been raised in competitive culture. In order to get good results users need to understand that it takes unlearning combative responses in the face of disagreement. This takes effort and awareness. Without them, consensus devolves into unanimous voting and it can get ugly.

2. Working Volatility 
No matter how respectful and constructive an environment you create, or how mature the participants, there will be times when people enter non-trivial distress, and you'll need agreements about how to engage in those moments, as well as the skill to deliver on those agreements. Again, these are not typically skills that most of us were raised with—but they can be learned. You can't afford to let reactivity paralyze the group.

3. Finding Agreement in a Haystack
Most of us have been conditioned to think first about how we are unique from others, before we think about how we are similar. Because we tend to find what we're looking for, mostly we see disagreement before we see common ground. In fact, some people have trouble seeing agreement until it's waved right under nose. Finding agreement in a jumbled haystack of opinion should not be dependent on good fortune; it should be the residue of learning to look for it.

4. Skilled Facilitation
It can make a night-and-day difference having a facilitator who can create and maintain a collaborative container in which meetings occur, reminding people of their cooperative intentions when the going gets tough. While the need for this diminishes as the group gets more savvy about how to function cooperatively, in my experience have a sufficient diet of early successes can be crucial to feeling sufficiently nourished to stay the course--and a skilled facilitator can provide the bridge to those successes.

5. Corralling Repetition

I'm not saying that consensus is easy. But neither it doesn't have to be that hard (or take forever). 

The Erosion of Neutrality at Home

I was recently talking with a friend who described for me the arc of her relationship with her home community, where she'd been living for more than a decade. She started out as a mother of two young kids and didn't aspire to an active role in community affairs. Gradually though, as her kids needed less constant attention, she got drawn into meeting facilitation and planning plenary agendas (two separate roles, by the way). These were significant contributions and mostly her work was well received. 

Buoyed by those initial tastes of group dynamics, she deepened her involvement in community affairs and was occasionally drawn into taking a strong position on contentious issues—especially those where she felt the principles and integrity of the community were being challenged by obstreperous individuals. 

As it happened, we were talking shortly after she had gone to the mat with another member over a longstanding clash of styles and substance (which included participating in outside mediation at the community's encouragement), when she observed, to her chagrin, that her days as a facilitator in her home community may be behind her. She'd gotten hip deep into community muck frequently enough that wasn't sure she'd ever smell sweet enough again to be an acceptable facilitator.

While the community has plenty of other facilitators and was not dependent on her being in the pool for things to go well, she was lamenting the loss of a role she especially enjoyed, and didn't see it coming. It had not been clear to her that standing up in heavy seas for what she thought was right placed her reputation as a fair-minded facilitator at risk. Now she's seen as a major player.

To be sure, my friend was not regretting her decision to get more involved in community life; she was just expressing sadness about losing a service opportunity that she has a gift for.

As I listened to my friend's story unfold, it occurred to me that I've walked in those moccasins myself. Twice. At Sandhill Farm (my home from 1974 until last Thanksgiving) I facilitated only occasionally in later years. Though I've been a professional facilitator the last 27 years, I tend to ply my craft elsewhere and I was rarely asked to handle a thorny discussion at home. 

Following a parallel trajectory, it seemed increasingly inappropriate for me to facilitate Board sessions of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, for whom I've been the main administrator since the '90s. As someone heavily immersed in the content, I typically draft the agendas, but I don't run the meetings. Never mind that I'm a pro; I didn't have the right profile.
• • •One of the core principles of cooperative group dynamics is that meetings should be run by people who don't have a dog in the fight. That is, your facilitator should be disinterested in the outcome of the topics discussed‚ or at least approximately so.
Interestingly, for members who are deeply invested in their communities—which are definitely the kind you want—an inadvertent consequence of investment is an erosion of neutrality, or the perception of erosion (which is just as serious), such that some of your best members will inevitably become unacceptable as internal facilitators.

The tenderness of this hits home when, as often happens, the movers and shakers are also the folks who best grok good process. Now what? This can be delicate.

Over time individuals often have to make a choice about how they can best serve their group: as a person carrying the ball upfield, as a coach calling the plays, as a cheerleader, or as a referee. They all have their place, but the roles are not interchangeable. Once you're identified as a powerful stakeholder it can difficult switching back to wearing the zebra stripes of referee facilitator.

Some of this is due to fewer and fewer topics on which you are not associated with a viewpoint. Some is due to others being nervous that you may use the power of the facilitator role to steer the conversation in ways that doesn't align with what they think is best for the group. Note that it may not matter whether you actually do that; just the fear that you might can be enough to render you ineffective as a facilitator. In fact, the more you're seen as skilled in process the more others may be chary about having you in that role simply because of the steeper power gradient—not necessarily because there is any history of your misusing that power. It can get pretty goofy.

I know a handful of process professionals who have chosen to hold themselves aloof from engaging too deeply in dynamics at home. While that choice always struck me as odd when I first encountered it (why wouldn't you jump in with both feet to make your home as great as possible; why hold back?), now I have a deeper understanding of how things play out. If you feel that your greater contribution is helping your group with how rather than with what, then preserving your neutrality can make great deal of strategic sense.

While I may not have the discipline for that myself, I can admire it when I see it.

Laird's Ninth Symphony

I'm in Ann Arbor this week, principally to participate in the NASCO Institute, the premiere annual gathering of student co-opers across North America. I've been on the teaching faculty for the last 18 years, where I enjoy giving workshops and acting as a resource for the next generation of young adults excited about cooperative living.

This year I'm giving a brace of workshops: one on Consensus Headaches (how to relieve them, not get them or give them) and one on Delegation (which is a stumbling block for many consensus groups).

While the conference (and delivery of my workshops) begins today, it is not the only thing on my mind. Neither, for that matter, is the sleet happening outside, not-so-subtly reminding us all what season is queued up next.

In fact, a majority of my bandwidth today will be devoted to orchestrating Laird's Ninth Symphony: a Slow Food Extravaganza, where—for the ninth time in ten years—I produce an elaborate and scrumptious four-source meal for a dozen foodies and friends. Everyone will gather at 7 pm and devote the rest of the evening to conversation, consumption, and conviviality—all in a leisurely fashion. Most years we're still at it at 11 pm. It's one of the highlights of my annual calendar and delightfully bookends November as a month of gustatory celebration: with Slow Food Ann Arbor on the front end and Thanksgiving on the back.

I am given a free hand to select the menu (usually based on a particular cuisine), and oversee the cooking and presentation—which usually means starting Thursday for a Saturday evening performance. In exchange, all the other celebrants divide up the cost of ingredients.

Many years I have the pleasure of producing this meal with my wife, Ma'ikwe. Both of us love to cook and it's a joy to dance with her in the kitchen preparing love in the form of sustenance. Right now, however, she's gearing up for a speaking tour of college campuses to talk about community and climate change in early 2015, and has decided to minimize her off-farm commitments in anticipation of the rigors of a heavy travel schedule ahead. So I'm in Ann Arbor without her. 

While I love cooking with Ma'ikwe, there's a silver lining to her absence: I could select a menu that's heavy on seafood, which I love and she does not. Further, I am blessed this year with terrific help in the kitchen in the form of Claire Maitre and Lesli Daniel. 

Though some year's I've done all the cooking solo, it's much less nerve wracking to have a buddy—and this year I'm blessed to have two accomplished assistants. This is especially valuable this year as I continue to struggle with a balky lower back from overlifting at a fair in early October. In fact, it's dubious I could pull tonight's meal off without Claire & Lesli's yeowoman help. Whew. Sometimes, magically, the universe provides.

In any event, here's tonight's menu, based on a Creole theme:

Signature cocktail 
Phoebe Snow

Cheese plate
Praline bacon
Shrimp remoulade   

Primi Piatti
Crawfish étouffée
Eggs sardou
Roasted beets with oranges and goat cheese

Secondi Piatti
Pan-fried John Dory with meuniere butter
Crabmeat Yvonne
Red beans and rice with andouille and tasso

Bananas foster   
Key lime cheesecake

Wine Pairings
Pinot grigio
Pinot noir

Now isn't that music to your stomach's ears?

Group Works: Power Shift

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 Relationship segment there are 10 cards. The eighth pattern in this segment is labeled Power Shift. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card: 
Critical awareness and transparency around existing power differences can, if held well, allow the group to adapt authority structures to best reflect their values or serve their aims. Sharing power isn't always easy, but the rewards for groups who do so can be profound.

Many cooperative groups hunger for flat hierarchy and an even distribution of power. While that's an understandable sentiment, power—the ability to get others to do something or to agree to something—is always unevenly distributed.

In my view, when it comes to power the goal of cooperative needs to be:
o  Understanding how power is distributed in the group (including how that distribution shifts by topic and circumstance).

o  Distinguishing between power that is used well (for the benefit of all) and power that is used poorly (for the benefit of some at the expense of others).

o  Developing the capacity to examine the perception that power has been used poorly, without instigating a fire fight or inciting a witch hunt.

o  Enhancing the leadership capacity of members—so that an increasing percentage of the membership has the ability to use power well.

I question whether "sharing power" is the right phrasing, because a person with power (the ability to influence others) cannot give it to others; they have to earn it. To be sure, the group can authorize someone (or a committee) to make decisions on behalf of the whole, but if that assignment is not based on trust in the person's (or team's) ability to do a good job, it's a questionable prospect. 

That said, the group can intentionally support members learning to exercise power well—which, if the lessons are absorbed, will result in an increasing number of suitable people among whom to distribute responsibilities. 

There is a trap that some cooperative groups fall prey to in pursuit of "adapting authority structures to best reflect their values." If the group translates that into strict rotational leadership there can be trouble. Let's take, for example, a group that has 24 members and meets twice a month. In the interest of purposefully distributing the power of running plenaries, the group may adopt the practice of rotating facilitation such that everyone is expected to do it once annually.

On the one hand this is eminently fair and serves the goal, yet it places the plenary at risk. For one thing, not everyone is equally skilled at facilitation, nor does everyone aspire to be good at it. Thus, on those occasions when you have people uncomfortable and/or unaccomplished in the role, you're taking a chance that the quality of the meeting can survive amateur-hour leadership. Is that smart?

For another thing, one of the hallmarks of cooperative groups is disinterested facilitation, where the facilitator is not a significant stakeholder on the topics being addressed.

if facilitation assignments are made ahead of the agenda being drafted—maybe members facilitate in alphabetical order and everyone knows their turn months ahead, which protects against someone being on vacation at the wrong time—this becomes facilitation roulette. It's inevitable that this approach will occasionally result in a inadvertent conflict of interest, at which point bye bye neutrality. Now what?

Sure, you can scramble to produce a substitute facilitator but that undercuts the Power Shift You can see the problem.

Better, I think, is to encourage all members to develop facilitation skills, but to twist no arms (and traumatize no psyches) by making this mandatory. Further, I think cooperative groups would be wise to invest resources in training members in facilitation, and then giving them assignments in relationship to their skill (and appropriate for their neutrality). 

Think of this as a template for shifting power with discernment.

Dia de los Muertos 2014

This past weekend was the Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos. In the spirit of that, I continue a tradition I started last year, devoting my first blog of November to remembering those in my life who died in the previous 12 months. This year I am remembering three.

Steve Imhof • died Jan 8 (in his late 60s)
Steve was many things, but I met him in the unusual capacity of a male midwife. As it happened, my son, Ceilee, was his first solo birth. He generally worked with his wife, Joy, who was the more experienced midwife, but they had two clients who went into labor at the same time and had to split up to attend both. Steve got Annie and me, figuring (accurately) that we'd be less phased by a male attendant. 

Ceilee was born in the middle of our bedroom floor on a cold and sunny winter morning Jan 27, 1981, and Steve was a quiet, steady voice guiding us on this joyous occasion.

Though I lost track of Steve shortly after the birth, he surprisingly resurfaced in my life 27 years later when he drove up from Panama City FL to meet me in Atlanta (where I was visiting East Lake Commons to conduct Weekend I of a two-year facilitation training in the Southeast). After separating from Joy he had gotten curious about cooperative living and tracked me down to learn more about how he might build community in the panhandle of Florida.

After chatting with me in Atlanta he got intrigued by the facilitation training and spontaneously decided to stay for the weekend. Drawn into what we were teaching he signed up for the whole course and I got to see him eight times over the next two years. The final weekend was in June 2010, and I never saw him again.

Through occasional email contact, I knew that Steve was applying what he learned in the facilitation training to dynamics in his local fire department and that he was working on trying to coalesce some form of cooperative living in Panama City.

Mostly I remember Steve as someone who stayed curious his whole life, and was willing to question old choices in light of new evidence. We should all be so open to what's around us.
Marjorie Swann • died March 14 (at 93)
Marjorie was many things and lived a full life.

I first met her as the mother of Carol, a dynamic woman in Berkeley who is a dance and voice performer, a Hakomi therapist, and a social change activist. I was engaged in the dance of intimacy with Carol 1998-2000. Though it did not work for us to be partners, we have remained friends and I visited Marj (who lived in Berkeley as well) on a number of occasions while seeing Carol.

I also knew Marj as the ex-partner of Bob (Carol's father), who was a well-known economist and peace activist. Bob collaborated with Ralph Borsodi to start the forerunner of the Institute for Community Economics (that developed the community land trust model as a way to take the air out of the speculative balloon that inflates land prices). Toward the end of his life he championed the writings of E F Schumacher (Small Is Beautiful) operating out of the Schumacher Center for Alternative Economics in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Bob died in 2003.

Marj was a Quaker peace activist, very involved with the American Friends Service Committee, and a member of the War Resistors Leagues. She co-founded the Committee for Nonviolent Action in 1960—a group that continues strong today—and even found time to provide shelter for battered women.

I knew Marj only toward the end of her long life, when her waning physical strength limited how much she got out and about in pursuit of her various causes. Yet the fire burned strongly within her and her spirit was indomitable. There has always been something uplifting for me about being around seniors like Marj, who are engaged and open-minded in defiance of age—who do not go gently into that good night.

Stephen Gaskin • died July 1 (at 79)
Though Stephen was well-known as the charismatic leader who founded The Farm (Summertown TN) in 1971, I knew him only slightly. We chatted occasionally when I visited his community, yet I was never sure he remembered me from one visit to the next. 

Our most satisfying connection (for me) was when I was participating in The Farm Communities Conference Memorial Day Weekend in 2012, and was able to present to him—during intermission of an in-house rock band performance on the community stage—the Kozeny Communitarian Award for that year. It was last time I saw him.

While Stephen was a poster child for Flower Power and the legalization of marijuana, what stands out the most for me are two of his lesser known achievements:

a) Steadfast dedication to good local relations, navigating the considerable challenge of peaceably integrating Hippies arriving by the busload into conservative rural Tennessee.

b) Accepting amicably his being deposed as leader of the community when its centralized economy collapsed in 1983 and the population shrank from 1500 to 200. Stephen lived in the community for 30 more years but never again served in a leadership capacity. Very few can handle a transition like that, much less with grace.

The Murky Line Between Discipline and Violence

How do you define violence? Is striking children in the name of discipline violence?

These were questions that the Fellowship for Intentional Community Board wrestled with at its recent semi-annual organizational meetings, held Oct 23-26 at Dancing Rabbit.

FIC has been around for 27 years and is best known for its comprehensive Communities Directory, which was first published as a book in 1990 and continues today both in print and as a searchable online database. We only have three boundaries around being included in the Directory:

a) That you tell the truth (no misrepresentation).
b) That you don't advocate violent practices.
c) That you don't interfere with members freely disassociating from the community if they no longer wish to be a part of it.

While we receive few complaints about listed groups—about 2-4 annually—mostly these amount to someone not liking what a group is doing and urging us to drop their listing based on their personal distaste. If it's nothing more than that we don't act. Our job is not to tell people what they should like; it's to give them options and let them choose for themselves.

However, if the complainant believes that the group has crossed one of our three boundaries above and is willing to stand by their position in a direct communication with the community, then we're willing to open a dialog with the community. Sometimes this amounts to clearing up a  misunderstanding, occasionally this leads to a modified listing, and every now and then it leads to our pulling a listing down.

We received a complaint this summer from someone who claimed a listed community had a policy of abusing children in the name of Biblically-inspired discipline, and he was perfectly willing to discuss this with the community.

Realizing that this was not going to be simple to resolve, I brought the issue to the Board. 

We had two issues to consider: 1) is the group misrepresenting its practices in its listing; and 2) is it advocating violent practices?

1. What's Happening and Is There Misrepresentation?
The complainant stated that community children are regularly disciplined by adults using reeds or sticks sufficient to raise welts and cause pain, though not enough to break the skin. Investigation shows that there are a number of ex-members who have testified publicly that this occurs. In television interviews, reporters asking for verification of the community's discipline practices are consistently rebuffed. On the one hand current members do not deny the practice, yet neither do they confirm it.

However, further research uncovered a website supported by the community in which the community admits to this practice. That resolved the question of what's happening and that it's a community practice, yet still left open whether there's been misrepresentation because this controversial practice is not mentioned in their listing. It would probably satisfy FIC's standard for honesty if the community explicitly included in their listing that the community condones disciplining children with a reed or switch that inflicts pain.

2. What constitutes violent practices?
When we first articulated our policy about violence, we distinguished between an act committed in the heat of the moment (while it may be no less traumatizing, acts of passion are easier to forgive than a policy of violence—such as regularly siccing attack dogs on unwanted visitors, or threatening people with guns).

Years later, we further refined our position by determining that hate speech is considered violence and grounds for being excluded from our listings. We had not, however, previously come to any conclusions about spanking children.

While a number of FIC Board members found the community's discipline practices personally abhorrent, the community claims that their practice is inspired by Old Testament Bible passages and discipline is done in the name of love. To what extent, if any, is it acceptable that a practice that is otherwise unacceptable be allowed because it's rooted in spiritual interpretation?

We needed to thread the needle around our commitments to: a) nonviolence; b) freedom of spiritual practices; and c) diversity of parenting philosophies. What a pickle!

What's more, one Board member wondered if this approach to discipline—however repugnant it is when considered in isolation—might actually be an effective deterrent to worse practices, helping to keep parents and other adults more disciplined about how they administer discipline. Who knows?

As FIC's main administrator (and the first monkey in the barrel when fielding critical feedback about listings), I needed a position that I could clearly delineate. If we took the view that striking children in the name of discipline was violent, how slippery was that slope? What about communities that take no position about disciplining children, leaving that wholly up to parents (which is what most communities do, so long as practices are acceptable within the eyes of the law)? Were we saying that any community that condoned spanking would be excluded on the basis of violating our boundary around violence? That could be quite a few.

After a thorough discussion we had narrowed our options down to:

Option 1
Deleting the community on the basis of their advocating violent practices. Some Board members felt this was a straight forward extension of our commitment to nonviolence. As they found the community's discipline practices unacceptable, its listing was unacceptable. If there are other groups that condone striking children in the name of discipline—even implicitly, knowing that it occurs on a regular basis and not acting to stop it—then we should take down their listings as well.

Option 2
Allowing the listing to continue if modified by the community to explicitly disclose information about their child discipline practices, accompanied by a statement from FIC that we are allowing this listing in the name of diversity and spiritual freedom, even though many of our Board believe this practice to be a form of child abuse. The argument here is that this might do a better job of balancing all the factors in play and it may be a more effective social change strategy because it attempts to educate about the issue, instead of turn our backs to it.

In the end, there was no consensus among the Board about where to draw the line, and it falls to me to do more investigating. By opening up a conversation with the community it may become clearer which way to proceed.

It was one of those moments where I hated the issue and loved the process, and an excellent example of using Board time appropriately—figuring out the best course of action in those awkward moments when our core values don't play nice with each other.

Issues in Inter-organizational Collaboration

Suppose you have multiple organizations interested in collaborating with one another. They each have similar—though not identical—missions and many common areas of interest, such as events, fundraising, outreach, education, research, and public relations. Let's further suppose that there's considerable geographic dispersal of the players, which complicates the desire for face-to-face meetings. How would you set it up to succeed?

One model is to put out the call for each of the partners to identify reps from their organization for each area of interest, encourage the reps to get together with their counterparts and see what happens. There is a simplicity and purity about this approach, but it tends to be fairly chaotic, and hit or miss about who answers the call, and how things move forward.

It works better, I think, if there's an identified coordinator—a person (or persons) whose job it is to call the meeting at which the reps gather, who sees to it that everyone knows about the meeting and how to access it (we're talking web-based meetings or conference calls), makes sure there's a draft agenda, that everyone gets to speak, that minutes are being taken, and that the conversation is forward moving.

Note that none of these coordinator duties needs to be coupled with a personal agenda. That is, they can all be performed neutrally. While I get it that in Western culture we're conditioned to think of the person in charge of coordinating and running meetings to be someone with power to control (or at least steer) outcomes—think of Congressional or Senate committee chairs to grasp my point—one of the most salient features of cooperative culture is the purposeful separation of facilitation from stakeholder.

So a key point in collaborative dynamics is whether you have a coordinator at all, and, if you do, how that person (or person) gets selected. If you offer to fill that role without being asked first, there can be suspicion about your motivation. Is it to control, to enhance productivity, or both? Having no coordinator addresses the power concerns (that the coordinator, or the organization with whom they're associated, will have an advantage in the direction taken by the collaboration), yet at the expense of efficiency (without portfolio, reps will be hesitant to step into the void to perform coordinating tasks—for fear of stepping on toes or being labeled power mongers).

In an anarchistic ideal, every rep would be fully actualized: willing and able to perform coordinator duties as the situation calls for them. But I've never seen that model work well. People can be reps—and good ones—without having the bandwidth to perform coordinating tasks. Perhaps none of the reps in a given interest area will have the time or inclination to coordinate. Or maybe the reps who volunteer to handle certain coordinating tasks are not seen as capable. Now what?
Of course, the reps could discuss that and determine collectively how to self-organize and fill coordination roles, which includes the possibility of reaching outside their current configuration. Can you count on that happening? Probably not. Yet rather than predicting that it won't, I'm suggesting that if you recognize the need for baseline coordination, then, as a partner organization you may want a proposal on the table at the outset, establishing that each focus group will address a set of standard questions about how they will conduct business—note that I am not saying that different interest groups need have the same answers, or that the collaborative groups need to operate the same way that parent groups do:

o  Who will take the lead on scheduling meetings?

o  Who will serve as a point of contact for the group (the person to whom inquiries are directed)?

o  Who is authorized to be a spokesperson for the group?

o  Will the group operate with a list serve, and, if so, who will manage it?

o  How will reps be notified when meetings have been scheduled and the protocol for accessing them?

o  If the group is frustrated by a rep's performance (missing meetings, not coming prepared, acting stridently, etc.) what is the protocol for addressing those frustrations, including the possibility of informing the rep's parent body what's happening and possibly requesting that the rep be replaced?

o  What will be the standards for minutes, how will it be determined who will take them, how will they be disseminated, will they be available to folks outside the group, how can they be modified, and how will they be archived?

o  Will meetings be facilitated, and, if so, how will it be determined who will facilitate?

o  How will meeting agendas be drafted?

o  To what extent are reps authorized to make decisions binding on their constituent organizations?

o  If the group develops proposals, what can the group implement on its own and when do reps need to consult with their organizations? If proposals need to be shopped among the partners, who will manage this process?

o  When can the group proceed in the absence of participation from a partner group (what happens when reps miss meetings)?

o  What are the reporting standards for informing partners what the group is discussing?

o  What is the protocol for inviting additional partners to join the group?

o  How will the group make decisions?
While this list is not exhaustive, it's comprehensive enough to give you a good feel for what I'm talking about.

If you reflect on this set of questions, you'll observe that all of them have probably been addressed by each partner organization to establish how they'll function internally. None of this should be virgin territory. I suggest you think of it as extending what you already know to be helpful at home into your work with others. While there can a certain amount of impatience with tackling process considerations when an interest group initially gathers (it tends to be much sexier jumping into ideas for joint projects, which were the inspiration for collaborating in the first place), my experience has been that operating in the fog bank of murky process quickly erodes enthusiasm for the joint effort. If you want your group's work to have legs, you have to provide shoes.

While it may make sense, in the name of efficiency, to ask one partner group to take the lead on handling coordination functions (perhaps by virtue of access to greater resources or staff experience), at the very least all collaborative groups can walk through the checklist of organizational functions I've delineated above to keep things rolling.

Why Cooperative Groups Fail to Accept Offers of Help

I'm currently immersed in four days of FIC organizational meetings, where a key focus has been how to make better connections with others trying to build cooperative culture. Essentially, those of us with deep familiarity in community living believe that we're learning something in the crucible of that experience that has wide application—in neighborhoods, in the workplace, in schools, and in churches—yet we're frustrated with the lack of invitations to share what we know. What's going on?

I think this declination sorts itself into three main reasons:

A. Not Open to the Idea
Some groups believe that the intentional community experience is simply too exotic to be relevant to their situation—and they may be right. Or they may not (more about this in Part B below).

Some groups believe it's more problematic than beneficial to be closely associated with intentional communities (interestingly, this can be true even if the would-be recipient is itself an intentional community!). As such, they'd rather do without. This might be because: 1) they think it's politically unwise (if their constituency finds out they've been cavorting with Hippies there may be a knee-jerk negative reaction); 2) they think it's superfluous (the would-be client believes they can handle their struggles internally, or what intentional communities offer will not address their need); or 3) or maybe they believe that the help is not replicable (we'll never be able to do what you can do, so why bother having a taste of it?).

A more subtle, yet pervasive version of this is where the group is willing to continue to muddle through because they have no concept that it can be better, or it's beyond their imagination to seek help (we may not be perfect, but we're proud of our self-sufficiency).

Some people perceive acceptance of help as an admission of failure. For some it's too embarrassing letting others get a peek at their dirty laundry. 

Thus, there are a number of reasons why groups may not be open to outside help.

B. Misunderstanding the Offer
Some resistance is tied to not wanting to be in a position of being told what to do by an outsider (I'm not saying that would happen; I'm saying there's repugnance at the thought that it might).

It's not unusual for clients to believe that their situation is so complicated or unique that it's too daunting to bring in outside help. (It would take too long to bring them up to speed; why should we pay to educate an outsider?) What they fail to grok is that people experienced in cooperative dynamics are familiar with patterns that may appear as impossibly specialized to the residents (who haven't as much cooperative experience under their belt as the consultant).

Some don't appreciate that groups are groups, and that the lessons gleaned in one cooperative setting are often readily adaptable to another.

Sometimes the folks making the offer do a poor job of casting it in ways that are accessible or attractive to the would-be client.

C. Misunderstanding the Need
It's relatively common for groups to mistakenly think that the problem essentially amounts to some small number of difficult members being jerks, rather than realizing that there's a bit of the jerk in all of us and what's needed is better tools for unpacking triggering dynamics.

If you've never witnessed a group work authentically and compassionately with distress, it may be hard to imagine that the group could use help with it.

Groups that slog through discussions where members disagree, may not understand that skilled facilitation can make a night and day difference in the likelihood of finding workable solutions without anyone selling out, or feeling run over by a truck.
• • •One of the reasons it's worthwhile to sort out these causes is that I believe we might be able to do something about B & C (for example, through better messaging, and more careful tailoring of offers to appeal to clients' needs), while A may be intractable.

At the very least, it will help us hone in on the opportunities where we think we have the best chance of turning it around—which has got to be a better response than wringing hands, or blaming the damn clients.