Laird's Blog

An Older White Man's Response

Over the last month this country has been going through a spate of revelations about men in power (including elected officials, Hollywood celebrities, captains of industry, spiritual leaders, you name it) being accused of having abused their positions of influence to pressure women into sexual relations. It's pretty disgusting.

As an older white guy, I have a number of thoughts about this. 

I. Tip of the Iceberg
As bad as the revelations have been so far—which are terrible—you can be sure that the total scope of what's happened is much worse than we know today. Most abuse never gets reported, or is hushed up when it does.

One of the more pathetic excuses being offered by Roy Moore and his apologists is that they do not find the allegations against him to be credible because the incidents happened almost four decades ago. Surely, they argue, occurrences that bad would have been reported right away. Huh? If they knew anything about the psychology of abuse, they'd appreciate how hard it is for the victim to come forward. There is no correlation between delay and authenticity.

On the positive side, each time a woman finds the courage to tell her horror story it gets a bit easier for other victims to speak up as well. Though I am not at all happy that abuse occurs, I think we need to shine a spotlight on it if we're going to make any significant cultural change. In this current surge of revelations, a number of brave women have been doing the hard work of speaking up, and that should be celebrated and supported.

II. A Person's Right to Their Sexuality
After more than 60 years on this planet I've come to understand that the breadth of human sexual orientation and turn-on is incredibly varied and complex. While I believe that, in the ideal, everyone should have the freedom to express sexual desire (to extend an invitation) whenever they want, I think that's incredibly dangerous unless there is a concomitant commitment to responding respectfully when invitations are declined. If you can't hear "no," don't ask the question.

While I'm generally fine with individuals exploring auto-eroticism to their heart's content*, if you're wanting to interact sexually with others then you need their willing participation (for more about coercion see Point III below). As easy as it is to write that, however, there are a number of complications that need to be recognized.

Sexual abuse is mainly the misuse of power to gain sexual favors. If the power imbalance among potential partners is too great, how can you be sure you have consent (as opposed to acquiesence)?

Let me lay out four versions of this:

•  If the age differential is too great
I know an intentional community that developed a guideline for teenagers that they needed to be within two years of each other for sexual contact to be acceptable (above and beyond mutual consent). For adults I've heard it proposed that sexual contact be considered inappropriate unless the younger person is at least six years older than half the age of the older one.

Frankly, I don't know where the line is with respect to age differential, but there is one, and it's a dynamic to be reckoned with.

•  If there is an implied threat to safety, or possible retribution (say loss of a job, or a withheld promotion)
Suppose the invitation comes from a bodybuilder who is known to be prone to anger. Or from your boss, and you need the job, or covet a special assignment. Even though you want to say "no," you might hesitate.

And it can be even worse than that. If the person grew up in an abusive family (perhaps where the father beat his wife and kids), they may be sensitized to the danger of a male losing his temper, and may overreact to a raised voice because it triggers bad memories. I'm not saying it's the man's responsibility to know that ahead of time, but you can commit to paying attention to how your words and tone are landing, and making appropriate adjustments.

•  If the invitation comes from a guardian or protector
If you receive a sexual invitation from your father, your minister, a police officer, or district attorney (shades of Roy Moore)—someone you've been taught to expect safety from, it can be very tricky ground to navigate.

•  If the invitee does not have the capacity to give informed consent
It's inappropriate to have sexual relations with partners who are not able to respond thoughtfully to a sexual invitation due to incapacitation (think of Bill Cosby), or who do not have the cognitive ability to understand what's being asked.

For all of these reasons, it's important to develop clear norms about what kinds of sexual invitation are appropriate to extend.

* Even with masturbation there should be limits. I believe it's abusive, for instance, if you're pressuring others to watch (a la Louis CK). Also, I'm aware of an instance where a man tried to heighten his pleasure through near-strangulation and failed to stop in time. His accidental death left an incredible mess for others to clean up. The standard, I believe, should be sensitivity to how your self-focused act may place others in an awkward or compromised situation.

III. A Person's Right to Freedom from CoercionIf a sexual invitation places the recipient in a dilemma—where they don't feel safe to decline, or they anticipate having to pay a price for "no"—that's abuse. It is not enough that the powerful person did not mean to be coercive. It is incumbent on them to look ahead of the curve, at how their invitation may be hard for the recipient to handle.

In essence, the more power you have, the more circumspect you should be about extending sexual invitations, or even being available for sexual liaisons invited by the person with less power (because of the potential for the dynamic being misunderstood by observers if, say, the secretary seduces the boss, or the student their instructor).

IV. What's a Reasonable Strategy to Get from Where We Are to Where We Want to Be?
If we envision a world in which men and women and are equally powerful, does it make sense to flip privilege—where we preferentially support women being more aggressive than men—in order to close the gap more quickly? And if so, for how long? 

Sandra Day O'Connor had to wrestle with this question when, as a Supreme Court Justice, she had to lay out guidance in support of affirmative action as a legally defensible tactic in the battle to eradicate racial inequality. She chose 20 years.

While I have no idea how long it will take to dismantle male privilege (or even if it's possible in this day of alt-right Neanderthal politics and throwback gender roles), I am sympathetic to the argument that women deserve to be treated better then men, at least for a while, in order to counterbalance the negative impact of a lifetime of disadvantage.

In the world of intentional communities, where I have spent most of my adult life, there is an important distinction between groups that have a spiritual focus, and ones that do not. Among secular groups there is a strong commitment to creating feminist culture (by which I mean gender blind, not pro-female). However, spiritual groups can be all over the map when it comes to gender: anything from Old Testament patriarchy to New Age there-is-the-divine-in-all-of-us. 

As my experience is rooted in the secular side, my work is slanted toward creating feminist culture. As an older, college-educated, Protestant, heterosexual, able-bodied, articulate white man, I am oozing with privilege, which means I'm susceptible to misunderstanding (or being oblivious to) how the field is slanted in my direction. As someone who has been active in the Communities Movement I've always understood that my privilege was going to be scrutinized under a microscope. 

I'm OK with that. I don't want to be the recipient of unearned advantages, and I'd like to help develop models of appropriate male behavior—even though I'm still in the process of figuring out what those are.

V. How Does This Impact Me Personally?
The intersection between my societal objective (working toward a feminist culture) and my own sexuality has been very challenging to integrate. Once I became aware of the pervasiveness of male abuse, the societal double standard for sexual exploration by men and by women (if a man does it he's "sowing wild oats"; if a woman does it she's a slut), and the phenomenon of date rape, it gave me pause. 

I became suspicious of sexual attraction. What was inherent, and what had I been conditioned to? What is my birthright as a human being, and what is a brute reptilian urge broadly tolerated under the permissive shibboleth of boys will be boys? Not wanting to be that guy, I became sexually buttoned down in response.

Even though I came of age just as the fires of the Sexual Revolution were burning brightly (I entered college in 1967, right after spending the Summer of Love touring Europe), I resolved to proceed with caution. I was deliberate about romantic liaisons, and never slept with a woman on a first date. I wanted to make sure she was interested as well, and didn't feel pressured into sex.

Being aware of how men misuse their power (there is nothing in general about today's news that is revelatory to me—men have been acting as predatory jerks for a very long time) to gain sexual access to women, I made a commitment to do my best to not be part of the problem. The phrase "casual sex" became oxymoronic for me. I was either going to be thoughtful and emotionally grounded, or it wasn't going to happen.

Now fast forward through those awkward early years to a time in my 40s when another piece to the puzzle became clear. I was making love with my partner one night when something triggered an intensely sad memory for her and she lost all desire to continue. As the memory wasn't connected with me, and she felt badly about asking me to stop mid stride, she suggested that I simply finish without her. That is, she invited me to engage with her physically while her mind and psyche were elsewhere.

I was appalled. While I understood that her offer was well intended, I could not imagine how I could continue on my own. Sex by this time had become for me an inextricable union of energies, something my partner and I wove afresh together on each occasion. It was not something either party mailed in. Thus, as soon as she became sad, I became detumescent. 

Later, I pondered that exchange more deeply. While I couldn't imagine forging ahead with intercourse when my partner had lost interest, she had expected me, as a man, to either prefer to continue (once aroused), or perhaps be unable to stop. I realize, of course, that some men act that way, but are there men who really can't stop? I didn't understand.

Years later, while still with the same partner, I noticed that my erections were becoming unreliable. There is one time in particular that stands out because my partner wanted intercourse and I was not able to deliver. While it was frustrating and somewhat embarrassing for me, she was angry. She thought I was withholding my erection, like it was something I could control at will. What an interesting juxtaposition!

In the first instance she interacted with me as if I my erection signaled manifest destiny, where intercourse was not be be denied; in the second she expected me to be able to produce an erection on demand. Maybe other men are different, but my relationship with my penis did not match her expectations on either occasion. As I see it, men always have choices about their actions, though they may not always have erections.

Over the last 20 years I've experienced a steady decline in the frequency and duration of my erections. While this varies from individual to individual, it is a normal consequence of male aging, and I accept that. Nonetheless, I wonder how much of my experience is physiological, and how much is psychological. 

I raise this question because I suspect there may be a link between my declining erections and the deep questions I have about where desire may lead. (If I were fully open to it would I be at risk of unleashing passion that could result in abuse?) It seems reasonable to me that I may literally be embodying my ambivalence.

This question is all the more up for me (so to speak) in that I've become aware over the years (partly through intense work with a female psychologist) that it is relatively common for some women, at least at times, to want to be "taken" in the height of passion. That there is a natural tendency in heterosexual relationships for the man to be directive and the woman to be receptive. Oh boy, talk about playing with fire!

Having learned as a young man that there may be a monster behind the door of my unbridled sexuality (in service to which all manner of atrocities have been committed), I've worked hard to keep that door locked. Thus, on those occasions when an intimate partner has knocked on the door, asking me to open up, I've been scared to the point of paralysis of what I'll find. 

What a complicated journey! Maybe I'll live long enough to figure it out.

Keeping Busy at Home

Winter arrived in a hurry in Duluth. When I left for my last trip Oct 17, there was still plenty of color in the trees and there had not yet been a killing frost. When I returned home Nov 3, we were looking at 10 days without daily temperatures appreciably poking their collective heads above freezing. Yikes!

Cold weather is a good time to sit by the fireplace and reflect. As a senior citizen (my odometer rolled over to 68 recently), I sometimes wonder about how best to put my knowledge to use. That means looking for the intersection of what valuable things I think I've learned in life, and what I think people might be interested in learning from me—which are not necessarily the same thing.

Even as I've scaled back my workload since retiring as FIC's administrator at the end of 2015—I continue my work as a cooperative group process consultant and facilitation trainer, but that's only half time—I remain keenly interested in trying to make a positive difference in the world.

Since regaining much of my health following a stem cell transplant in July 2016 (to treat multiple myeloma), I have enjoyed paid work (and had sufficient recovery to deliver quality service) every month since then excepting last June (which is often a time when communitarians take vacation and are not looking to hire consultants). That said, I have no travel scheduled this month. What gives? It turns out that the answer is other opportunities.

While I haven't been hired to visit a struggling group to help them get out of the ditch, nor do I have a facilitation training lined up, I've been asked to do all of the following, preferably before Thanksgiving:

•  Author 4-5 blogs for the FIC, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary by posting a remembrance once per day all month. (I've done three; two to go.)

•  Review a fundraising letter for a community hoping to replace an $85,000 loan from ex-members that's being called. They have until the end of the year.

•  Continue work as an arbitrator/facilitator for a longstanding group that's trying to negotiate an amicable separation between one couple and the four other members, where there have been serious breaches of trust, and each side feels underappreciated and misunderstood by the other. About once every week or two I am called upon to put together a progress report as we inch our way forward.

•  Draft an assessment of a community that is struggling with integrating new members. It has largely turned into a tug-of-war and relationships have gotten seriously frayed. I'm not sure if it can be turned around before there's a mass exodus, but I have to try.

•  Write an article about consensus for the third edition of The Change Handbook.

•  Craft a testimonial for a long-time member of a client group in Colorado that I've known since 2004. They're celebrating his contributions and I've been asked to add a flower to the bouquet.

•  Conduct regular phone consulting with a friend in Seattle who's hip deep in developing a multi-racial grassroots restaurant and events facility in an urban neighborhood that's struggling to maintain its identity in the face of gentrification. It's righteous work, but fraught with complications.

So while I may not be hired to hit the road this month, there's no moss growing on me (or my keyboard).

Dia de los Muertos 2017

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

I am especially drawn to this holiday because it addresses a societal need. Overwhelmingly I experience our culture as ritual starved, and I think we have an unhealthy out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude toward death. Having recently experienced a long walkabout near the edge of death myself (courtesy of multiple myeloma), I have particular zest for pausing, to note those who passed over the edge since this date a year ago. 

I started this tradition in 2013, and today I am remembering two souls: Kimchi Rylander and Chuck Marsh. Oddly enough, they were both long-term members of Earthaven, an ecovillage in Black Mountain NC that was founded in 1994, and which I've had occasion to visit from time to time. While it's hard whenever you lose an elder, this year they lost two and are doubly sheathed in black crepe.

While I was not especially close to either of them, they were both fellow travelers in my field of passion—the arcane world of community networking.

Kimchi Rylander  
She died Feb 16, at age 55, from breast cancer and complications from diabetes.

I knew Kimchi in two ways. First, as someone who, from time to time, represented her community at the annual Twin Oaks Communities Conference (which was a regular whistle stop on my event circuit for two decades). And second, as a point of light and a ray of hope at home. She was an organizer and a lubricant in a community that suffered more than its share of sticky dynamics and strong personalities. 

Earthaven has been a community that has drawn to itself a wealth of people with a burning desire to be a model of sustainability, but everyone's vision of how best to accomplish that was not always aligned and the community has frequently struggled to get all the horses pulling in the same direction. Whenever the neighing turned to naying, Kimchi would be one of the ones to hold the heart.

Blessed are they who pour oil on troubled waters.

Thank you, Kimchi.

Chuck Marsh 
He died Aug 27, at age 65 (or thereabouts), from pancreatic cancer.

Chuck was a pioneer in ecological landscape design and he consulted and educated on edible landscaping, biological economics, and Permaculture Design. Earthaven was a great fit for Chuck and he devoted the latter third of his life to making it a home base for his work in the world. 

I always think of him with a scarf tied rakishly around his neck and with a puckish grin on his face.

Chuck had over 35 years of experience working with the plants, soil, water, climate and people of North Carolina to design and install place appropriate, productive, and sustainable home and commercial landscapes. 

Can we ever have too many people dedicated to designing and creating beautiful, productive, resource conserving landscapes that celebrate and deepen our connection to the natural world?

Thank you, Chuck.

Group Works: Iteration

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

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

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

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

In the Flow segment there are 15 cards. The sixth pattern in this category is labeled Iteration. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card:
Try it a second time, even a third. Outcomes of one round of activity or conversation inform the next, deepening, expanding, and generating new understandings and possibilities. For more powerful effect, repeat a process multiple times in the moment, or revisit at a later time.

This pattern is a tricky one. The first thing that occurred to me is this counterpoint quote, widely attributed to Albert Einstein: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results."

With that cautionary note in hand, where is the gold in Iteration? There can be an important—though sometimes subtle—difference between incremental gain and no gain. The importance of this pattern lies in the fact that groups frequently are unable to tie up a topic with a ribbon and bow in one pass. If participants think in terms of all or nothing (only completion will be deemed a success), then they may miss substantive gains on the road to completion. 

In my experience it is common for groups to take multiple meetings to complete deliberations on complex topics, and it is crucial that the group (either through savvy facilitation or the diligence of the topic's sponsors) recognize partial product that's achieved along the way (otherwise that ground will just have to be replowed, which is bad on morale). Think of it as scaffolding en route to completion; subsequent meetings should start where the prior one left off—not back at the beginning each time.

Groups should always go into meetings expecting progress to be made (and facilitators should never allow a meeting to end without summarizing the product, helping to ground the gains, lest they evaporate in a cloud of vagueness). That said, some meetings yield more high-grade ore than others, and occasionally it takes some careful discernment to identify the product.

BTW, "product" can be many things. In addition to solutions or agreements, progress can include:
•  Resolving tensions in connection with the issue, allowing people to hear one another better (clearing the air)
•  Determining who else needs to be brought into the conversation (and who will extend the invitation)
•  Getting clear on how prior agreements and common values impact the current discussion
•  Defining questions
•  Creating a road map for exploring the topic thoroughly (identifying subtopics and the order in which they'll be engaged)  
•  Striking an ad hoc committee to shepherd the issue 
•  Assigning research
•  Establishing deadlines for relevant work to be done outside of session

What's more, Iteration can show up in multiple ways:

A. Asking the same question in the same way
You might make this choice in different meetings, because the attendance has shifted and you want to hear what the new people have to say. Or you may do it back-to-back in the same meeting, but with the facilitator probing more deeply into the meaning of the responses.

B. Exploring the same aspect of the issue but with a different focusing question
Listening to one round of answers may suggest a potent follow-up question (or two) that uncovers new veins of insight. As long as you're gaining depth and understanding with successive rounds, why stop?

C. Exploring the same aspect of the issue but with a different format
Often enough, the responses change with the format—both what is contributed and who voices it. People who are quiet or uncertain with one approach may open up and become suddenly eloquent under a different one. Note: no single approach works best all the time, so beware of claims made for a particular format as the blue ribbon best for all occasions.
Going back to Einstein, it is imperative to have a clear idea why iteration will be constructive—why going to the well again (in any of the above senses) will yield new results and enhance your grasp of the issue or how best to proceed. You should not repeat an exercise simply because you can't think of what else to do and this Group Works card admonished you to do it.

Note that the image that accompanies this card is of a spiral staircase. Iteration works if it's an upward spiral. If you're just going around in circles (aka spinning your wheels), that's not the time to hit play-repeat. Groups (and facilitators) should be following their noses (on the scent for product), not slavishly following a formula.

How Intentional Communities May Save the World

At the end of last month I had an opportunity to give a talk at Carleton College in Northfield MN. I'm an alumnus there and was on campus as a guest speaker for a freshmen course on Utopias. The philosophy professor who brought me in offered me a chance to give a talk during the noon hour that would be open to all students. I accepted, and today's blog is the essence of my presentation, Sept 29.

Fifty years ago this fall I had just arrived on campus as a Carleton freshman. Those were days of foment and change. Among other things, they were the last days of in loco parentis. My first year men were allowed on women’s dorm floors from 2-4 pm on Tuesday; women had reciprocal privileges on Thursday afternoons. The door was supposed to be open at least six inches and three feet were supposed to be on the floor at all times. By the time I was a senior I was a resident assistant on a coed dorm floor. All efforts by the college to keep men and women physically separated from their animal urges were abandoned.

During my tenure, students were not allowed to have cars, everyone lived on campus, and the winters were long and cold—this was back before climate change, and Al Gore had not yet invented the internet. 

Having been raised in the Father-Knows-Best Republican suburbs of Chicago, campus life brought me face to face with a number of potent realities for the first time, including institutional racism and the early days of feminism. There were riots on the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention. Vietnam was raging. Kent State happened in 1970. That same spring I got arrested protesting at a draft induction center in St Paul—along with scores of my fellow students and the college chaplain. I received a lottery number and prepared to apply for a CO status if I got drafted after graduation. 

Cooperation as the Obverse of Competition 
In the classroom, I took an introduction to sociology course in which I learned that cooperation is the opposite of competition. While that caught my attention right away, I had no idea how central that revelation was to become in my life. Bookmark that insight. I’ll come back to it later.

I loved my Carleton years, where I experienced a combination of stimulation and support that fostered both inquiry and personal growth.

When I graduated (1971) I wanted to make a difference in the world, and took a job with the federal government in DC, to see if that was the right stage on which to apply myself—in the belly of the beast. Working for the US Dept of Transportation, one day I met the person who was the secretary of the administrative assistant for the Assistant Secretary for Administration. When I simultaneously realized both how funny that was and that I knew what it meant, it occurred to me that I might have been in Washington too long.

So, at the advanced age of 23, I retired from the M-F 9-5 world—which, incidentally, I never returned to—and rebooted my post-college life, beginning with a different question: instead of "what would I do?" I asked "who do I want to do it with?" I was beginning to understand the primacy of relationships in the pursuit of happiness. I wanted the milieu I tasted at Carleton but I didn’t want to go back to school to get it. It was at that point that I stumbled onto the arcane world of intentional community: groups of people living together on the basis of explicit common values. This, I thought, might be what I was looking for. And it was. Not as an escape from mainstream society, but as a base of operations.

I was part of two couples (three of whom were Carls) who founded Sandhill Farm in 1974. Located in the rural, northeast corner of Missouri, we pooled our income and dedicated ourselves to organic food production, land stewardship, and right livelihood. I lived there happily for 40 years.

In 1979 I became restless with an exclusive focus on Sandhill, and started looking beyond the property lines to expand my locus of attention. While I considered community living to be a political act (not escapism), I wanted to expand my field of operations. With that in mind I got involved in community networking, promoting dialog and collaboration among sister communities. At first I did this via Sandhill joining the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (in 1980) and my serving as a delegate. Seven years later I helped start the Fellowship for Intentional Community, a clearinghouse of information about communities of all stripes with a special emphasis on North America. 

Also in 1987 I launched a career as a process consultant working with cooperative groups, helping them to successfully weather internal tensions and to develop effective structures. Although I no longer live at Sandhill (I left in 2014), I continue my consulting work and in the last three decades I’ve stepped into the fire to work with more than 100 groups across the continent. Over time I’ve become an expert in cooperative group dynamics. 

Why Does This Matter? 
The world of intentional community is small and not widely known. FIC figures there are roughly 100,000 people in the US who live in some form of self-identified intentional community—groups who willingly wear that label. In a country of 325 million that’s less than 0.03%. While the number of communities is growing, it's statistically insignificant. Do I think it’s the wave of the future? No. It’s too radical. So what’s the point? 

If you ask people if they have as much community in their life as they want—without defining what community means—I figure you might get 100 million people saying they’d like more than they have. There are that many who will tell you that they experienced a greater sense of neighborhood and belonging when they grew up than they have today. That’s three orders of magnitude larger. Now we're talking impact. What does intentional community have to offer those 100 million people?

Let’s go back to that point I made earlier about cooperation being the opposite of competition. 

I Versus We 
In any society there is a dynamic tension between how much individuals are acculturated to identify with self, and how much with society (or neighborhood, village, or tribe). When you take a step back and examine contemporary US culture from an anthropological perspective, I think you can make the case that there has never been a time in human history when the focus on the individual was more ascendant. 

In a competitive culture—which is unquestionably what we have in the US—the "I" focus is constantly being reinforced. So what? Consider what happens when you're in a conversation and you agree with half of what someone says and disagree with the other half.

For almost everyone, their first response is "But… " Even though you could just as legitimately start by acknowledging the partial agreement, that's rarely what happens—because our cultural imperative is to identify how we are unique, or at least distinct from others. When we agree, we don't establish differentiation.

This tendency has a profound impact on the atmosphere in which the conversation proceeds. If the  competitive environment prevails, you're essentially hoping that a fair fight will produce the best result—the strongest ideas will survive. If however you reverse this, and start by acknowledging the common ground, you can establish a cooperative container, where everyone is on the same team and differences can be encouraged for their potential of offering hybrid vigor. This may sound like a simple trick, but it's radically different.

In competition, there is a tug-of-war, where different views are in ridden into battle to see which prevails. In cooperation, everyone is in the same boat trying to successfully navigate a stream of different ideas. While the currents may be treacherous, and there may be different ideas about the best course, the people are trying to pull together.

One way to understand the impulse to experiment with intentional community is a desire to purposely shift one's location on the I—we spectrum more toward the "we" end. The trade-off is you get better connection and support, in exchange for relinquishing some control and autonomy. When people report that they want more community in their life, they are, in effect, saying that they’re jonesing for a greater sense of belonging. 

Now let’s look at two main ways that intentional community is pioneering critical work that addresses current societal challenges: 

I. Resource consumption 
There are about 7.5 billion in the world today and that number is rising. By any sane measure we are running out of resources and it is flat impossible for all the people in the world to consume resources at the current US rate. Should we just thank our lucky stars and hope to hold on, or try to do something equitable about it? I prefer the latter.

One of the ways that intentional communities are important to the wider society is that they are R&D centers for radical sharing. What if we challenge the notion that quality of life equates with throughput and acquisition material goods—the concept that the person who has the most stuff when they die wins? I realize it sounds fairly shallow when I state it that crudely, yet that’s how most people live their lives.

Here are four leverage points on how to shift this that are being actively modeled by intentional community:

A. Economies of scale
There is a lot that can be done to minimize drudgery and liberate time. If seven households living near each other agreed that they’d each cook one night a week for all seven, think how much time that would free up! It does not take anywhere near seven times as long to cook for seven times as many people. Yet mostly households cook alone every night. While cooking for only your own household gives you maximum control over menu, who wants to cook and clean up every night if there was a non-exploitative way to slash that by 80 percent? Even doing this just some of the time could make a big difference.

When I lived at Sandhill (where meals were prepared for members every night) it turned out that it was my turn to cook about once a week. Not only was that more efficient, but I truly enjoyed cooking at that frequency. If I had to do it every night, however, it would suck the air out of my happy balloon.

B. No prostitution
What value would you place on an integrated life, where work, school, home, and place of worship are in one location, aligned with your values? There’s a constant psychic drain that people experience when a core aspect of their life is out of alignment with what they believe in, yet almost everyone suffers from this to some degree. Think how common it is for people to either dislike what they do to earn a living, or are unhappy with where they live—or are happy with both but accept a brutal commute as the price to have them.

While it's not easy to quantify this cost, it’s expensive. To what extent do you think a person's long-term health is impacted adversely by having major aspects of their life unaligned with core values? I think it's pretty damn big.

C. Substituting access for ownershipThe essential model our society offers for achieving success is ownership. But is that actually necessary? Isn't access to things a reasonable substitute for ownership? How many of us need to own our own lawnmower, table saw, or extension ladder? How about your own car? 

I lived for a couple years at Dancing Rabbit, an ecovillage of about 45 adults that is trying to showcase the possibilities for living a high-quality life on drastically fewer resources. In line with that mission members agree to not operate private vehicles. Instead, the community runs a car co-op to meet members' needs. With some sophisticated scheduling and a willingness to share rides with others, they have been able to provide a vehicle to meet 98 percent of members needs to go to a certain town on a certain day with a fleet of three cars and a pickup.

Think about that. Their ratio of adults to vehicles is greater than 10:1. By way of contrast, in 2015, the ratio of licensed drivers to licensed vehicles in the US was 218 million to 263 million, a ratio of 5:6. What's wrong with this picture? It's apparent that the overwhelming majority of people in this country blandly accept that they "need" their own car (some apparently "need" two!), even though it sits idle the vast majority of the time. This represents an incredibly wasteful investment for the sake of convenience.

What could be freed up if you weren't chasing the dollars needed to buy, operate, service, insure, and house your own private car(s)? If Dancing Rabbit adults were operating vehicles at the US average they'd have a fleet of 54. That catches people's attention.

To be sure, sharing resources means there are some additional challenges. For one, there can be scheduling issues, when two or more people want to use a jointly owned asset at the same time. You have come up with a reasonable and fair way to settle who gets to use a thing when there is more demand than availability.

For two, there can be tension around how common assets are maintained. When everyone owns thing, there can be a tendency for no one to maintain it. Tragedy of the commons. Even if maintenance expectations are clearly spelled out, it's likely that people will vary significantly in how diligently they apply themselves to those standards of care—the end result of which is someone can discover at 4:30 am that the community car they've been assigned does not have enough gas in it to make it to the train station 60 miles away (which actually happened to me once).

So there are definitely kinks to work out. Yet, in return, there are 50 fewer cars on the road. Not a bad trade.

D. Redefining security in terms of relationshipsUntil the advent of cities—a relatively modern human phenomenon—humans mainly aggregated in tribes or villages. In that context, your fellow humans would be there for you in time of need. Security was not about bank accounts or insurance; it was about relationships.

In community, people are trying to recreate this safety net of relationships. The pool needs to be large enough that you can be reasonably secure from too many needing support at the same time, or from the burden of care falling too heavily on the shoulders of too few (strength in numbers), yet not so large that people don't know one another, and the interpersonal bonds are too dilute.

This is a huge lever in that it allows people to release the need to accumulate assets against the potentials of old age or compromised health. Think how freeing this could be! If you needed fewer dollars to make your life work, it would give you a wider choice of employment, because you could trade off lower compensation in exchange for a better values match.

II. Problem solving 
Now let’s go back to the I—we spectrum, and the strong tendency in contemporary culture to focus first on disagreement—on how we are different from others. This has a profound impact on how people solve problems.

In the mainstream culture people work to aggregate enough power (or enough votes) to win. In cooperative culture, the strategy is to make sure that there’s a legitimate opportunity for all voices to be heard and then to collectively labor to find the solution that best balances the factors and interests: no one goes forward until all go forward. In the former we come to meetings hoping to change other people’s minds (so that our idea will prevail). In the latter we come to meetings hoping that our minds will be changed (because the ideas of others may enhance our thinking, from which the whole will benefit).

And it’s more than that. Think about how dehumanizing and stultifying it is that the wider culture operates as if all human input can be neatly translated into ideation, allowing little or no room for emotional and intuitive input—which are parts of our birthright as a species. Much of my group consulting requires me to work constructively with conflict, where emotional reactivity is a central component. We have little facility with this in the wider culture and we desperately need a vocabulary and orientation that allows us to welcome passion and spirit into our work.

The power of these differences can hardly be more compelling when one contemplates the current incivility and polarization in current politics, where polemics and vilification have replaced dialog and mutual respect. Greater competition is not the answer. Neither is a President who is knee-jerk counter puncher. We need a paradigm shift.

Intentional communities are important to contemporary society—not because they will become a dominant lifestyle—but because they are the R&D centers where we are unlearning competitive conditioning, and figuring out how to cooperate instead. The gleanings from the intentional community experience can be exported into schools, churches, neighborhoods, and workplaces—wherever people ache for more community and sense of connection—and that’s why it may save the world.

Reflections on Las Vegas

I woke up this past Monday to the horrific news of the mass shooting in Las Vegas Sunday evening, Oct 1. After listening to the sobering news accounts I sent an email inquiry to my adult children, Ceilee and Jo, both of whom live in Vegas:
"Susan and I are visiting old college friends (Peg & Caesar Sweitzer) in Alma CO right now and watching TV coverage of the horrific shooting in Las Vegas last night. While I realize that it’s highly unlikely that either of you were attending the country and western concert where the gunman was targeting the audience, I can’t help but think about you both and the incredible sense of violation and madness that this represents.

"I recall being in Denver right after the Columbine shooting in 1999 and how somber the mood was then. It’s so hard to understand why things like this happen.
"Please send me a note when you can. (Susan got the text from Jo letting us know that you all are OK, so I already have that most important fact.)"

Jo replied that day: We are fine. I honestly think that the impact is stronger for the tourism industry than it is for any locals who don't interact with the Strip. 
I can see the location where it happened from my office windows but it just looks the same as any other day. Facebook is full of opinions and condolences but the truth is this is the world we live in. We made our bed and now some of us have to lie six feet under in it. The best thing I can do is stay out of the way of the pros who are trying to do their job to get this mess cleaned up and investigated. I already donated blood so I can't do that again for a while. 
It is sad, but I've been feeling this way for about a year now so this doesn't seem any worse than it's been. Sure 58 people died here last night but another hundred will die from gun violence across the country today, and tomorrow and the next day. Not to mention the hundreds in Mexico City from the earthquake, Puerto Rico, TX, & FL from the hurricanes, South Africa and the Pacific Northwest from the fires, North Korea from the human rights violations etc.
The world is a place of ongoing tragedy, great joy, and beauty. It's just how much we choose to see of each on any given day. 
What a complex response I had to this reply! 

I. We Live in a World of Incredible ParadoxJo is right.  

At night I dependably get angry listening to the PBS News Hour as Judy Woodruff guides us through Trump's latest missteps and mindless provocations. Each morning I laugh when Lucie (our nine-year-old rescue dog—part black lab; part collie) jumps up on the bed and licks me awake. 

Once a month I travel cross country to work with cooperative groups in struggle, putting out fires and offering hope as best I can. In contrast, when I'm home I take time to cook delicious food and enjoy companionship with Susan and company. I worry about the future of humanity, yet take pleasure in a reading books at a rate of one per week, doing the daily NY Times crossword, and playing duplicate bridge on Mondays and Wednesdays. Life is a mixed bag.

On the one hand, it's important to me that I'm trying to make a positive difference in the world, attempting to lead an aware life. On the other hand, it will do me and those around me no good if I'm somber all the time and bathed in constant sorrow. The trick of life is to feel the pain yet not let it swamp your boat. To be able to laugh in a world going to hell in a handcart.
II. Las Vegas Itself is a Paradox Both my community-raised kids now call Las Vegas home. After having been raised on a communal farm dedicated to sustainable living, they now happily live in a city that's about as unsustainable as you can imagine, artificially supported by inexpensive electricity and water hijacked from the Colorado River—both courtesy of the Hoover Dam. Before the dam Las Vegas was just a sleepy village of about 5,000 people, a modest water-stop oasis on the route to Los Angeles. 

Work started on the dam in 1931—it represented a major Depression-era public works project, employing thousands over the course of four years. Not coincidentally, the first casino was licensed in 1931 as well, starting Las Vegas down a path from which it would be forever different. Today it has population of over 1 million, and growing.

It is an aggregation of modest, earth-toned neighborhoods, dotted with gated enclaves of starter mansions, radiating out from the glitzy, circus-like atmosphere of The Strip— which is a round-the-clock paean to Mammon and Materialism—all improbably plunked in the midst of a surrounding desert of breathtaking natural beauty. Go figure.
III. Pervasive ViolenceI have devoted most of my adult life to creating alternatives to violence; to promoting cooperative culture. As I mentioned above, I earn a living traveling into harm's way, in an effort help groups better navigate the shoal waters of group dynamics. One of the key qualities that I bring to my work is the ability to feel deeply into an upset person's reality—to see things through their eyes, and to articulate the meaning that has for them. From that emotional bedrock I've found that it's often possible to bridge chasms that otherwise appear to be too deep, too far, or too triggering.
In that context it is both humbling and frightening to realize how hard it is to imagine being Stephen Paddock. How did he get to the state of mind where he could purposefully spray bullets into a crowd of music lovers? I work with angry and frightened people all the time, yet occasionally I am unable to bridge to someone. In particular I am susceptible to falling short when it comes to imagining the attraction of violence. 

There is no doubt that it is part of the human psyche, yet it is a dark door that is hard for me to open. I have trouble accessing the capacity for murder, rape, and dehumanization, and I'm not sure what meaning this inability has. I'm not sure I want to be able to open that door. What monster in me may lurk behind it? What might I be unchaining? Scary stuff.

Even as I took in the horror of Sunday's shooting, Jo's note reminded me of how we have all become inured to everyday violence that is parceled out in smaller doses, as well as the numbing onslaught of natural disasters (the severity and frequency of which have undoubtedly been amped up by humans unmindfully monkeying with the planet's climate). I was punched in the gut by Jo's reminder that nearly 100 people are killed by gun violence in the US daily. Sunday's massacre was just a modest spike in a bad trend—not the atrocious anomaly we wish it were.

And the Republicans want to ease restrictions on gun control, allowing people to carry concealed weapons across state lines, making it easier to buy silencers, and eliminating or easing background checks for mental instability and criminal records among prospective gun buyers. This makes us safer? Yikes! By what standard does this pass for thinking?  

I am completely baffled by people who believe that an aggressive response to violence will eliminate it. I have never seen that work.  

IV. Parental PrideFinally, there is also joy for me in Jo's response, which was thoughtful, heartfelt, multifaceted, existential, practical, and pithy (all in four paragraphs).
My daughter is 30 years old and it makes me proud to see that she has matured to the point of feeling the pain around her yet not letting it swamp her boat. Isn't that the best we can hope for our children? Or for each other?

The Leaves Still Turn in September

I'm currently visiting Carleton College, my alma mater. It was exactly 50 years ago this month that I arrived on campus as an incoming freshman, and it's a rush to reflect on all that has transpired over the past five decades. There are many new buildings, and some old ones repurposed. Student enrollment has swollen to 2100—up from 1350 back in the day—but the maples are still turning toward their traditional fall raiment at the end of September, just the way I remember. Some things don't change.

Yesterday I was the guest presenter in Anna Moltchanova's philosophy class on Utopias (providing a three-dimensional contrast to the utopian literature the course is based on—they're reading Thomas More, Plato, Edward Bellamy, Aldous Huxley, etc.). I did 70 minutes of solid Q&A and it was great fun. Today I give a noon-hour talk entitled, "Why Intentional Communities May Save the World" (why aim small?). Between that and free pizza we should have a good crowd.

During an afternoon break, I took a walk yesterday in the cool sunshine and wound up outside Myers, where I sat quietly for a while on the bench dedicated to my old college friend (and Susan's late husband), Tony Blodgett. (For my remembrance of him click here.) As it happened, yesterday was the 13th anniversary of his death so it was a potent time. The bench is situated with a view across Lyman Lakes to Goodhue, the dormitory where I lived my sophmore year and Tony was the proctor's roommate. 

Later I had an animated visit with Renay Friendshuh, a junior this year who was born at Sandhill and grew up there. It was a day of circles within circles as my life folded back on itself.

Preparing for today's talk has given me the chance to reflect on what I've done with my life since the foment of my undergraduate days, during which time the college abandoned in loco parentis; the Vietnam War was raging, casting a shadow over my post-graduate options; I first got personally acquainted with racism and bigotry, and the seeds of the feminist movement were beginning to sprout. 

In 1967 students were not allowed to have cars on campus, everyone was required to live in dorms, and Minnesota winters were long and cold (it was before global warming and Al Gore had not yet invented the internet). One of my political science professors was Paul Wellstone. It was an intense and magical time, and I loved it.

Amazingly enough, my total immersion in Carleton connections will extend seamlessly into the weekend. Though I'll depart Northfield this afternoon, I'll rendezvous with Susan (also a Carl) for dinner at the MSP airport before flying with her to Denver. After overnight altitude adjustment at 5,000 feet (staying with Susan's daughter, Britta, and her partner Brian, both Carls), we will ascend to 10,000 feet Friday when we drive to Alma. Although the name of the town is not Alma Mater, it may as well be, as we will be guests for three days of old Carleton friends, Peg & Caesar Sweitzer, staying at their mountain aerie. There is definitely a theme to the week.

In Colorado we're hoping to enjoy the yellow and golden seasonal flaring of the cottonwoods and aspens—as well as the camaraderie. Susan and I will linger in Denver one more day after coming down from the mountains, to take Britta out to dinner on the occasion of her 36th birthday next Monday.

Whether we pay attention or not, the wheel keeps turning. I figure the best we can do is to enjoy the ride, each opportunity in its own season.

Roadmapping

One of the bread and butter skills of a good facilitator is getting everyone on the same page. I use the term "roadmapping" to cover this, and there are two ways that facilitators use it to help guide meeting participants: 

a) Providing a clear picture of the intended arc of the meeting (what will be discussed and in what sequence). For the most part this is taken care of with a well-crafted agenda. However, there can be a trap to this: facilitators may fall in love with the elegance of their plan, or they may hold on too tightly to the plan as a life ring in choppy seas.

It works like this: as a facilitation instructor I emphasize the value of being prepared for the anticipated agenda, which includes what questions to pose, in what order, and in what formats. If it turns out that the meeting doesn't flow as anticipated and there need to be adjustments, some facilitators can be reluctant to make them—both because they want the payoff from their planning investment (it looked so good on paper!), and because once they leave the map they may be unsure of their footing and worried that they'll lose their way.

b) The more subtle aspect of roadmapping—and the one I want to mainly focus on in this essay—is regularly reminding the group of where it is in the conversation and what kinds of responses are appropriate. When you take into account how common it is for surprises—both big and little—to arise in the course of a meeting, this in-the-moment skill is crucial to bringing everyone along effectively with the unplanned twists and turns of a dynamic conversation.

This second aspect manifests in three ways:

Off-roading
This is deviating from the planned agenda. While it may not happen often, the group has the right to change its mind about what to talk about whenever it wants to, and sometimes it wants to. (To be clear, in consensus the whole group has to agree to the change; it doesn't happen simply because someone threatens to hold their breath until they get their way.) While this should be a deliberate choice, sometimes things emerge that justify it. For example:

• Working fulminating distress.
• Clarifying a misunderstanding that no one knew existed ahead of time.

• Exploring a question that's suddenly more compelling than the regularly scheduled agenda.

Following the juice
Good facilitators know how to temporarily narrow the focus for tactical reasons. It frequently happens that the topic in hand has several components and comments do not necessarily follow one another, even though all are on topic. When that occurs, facilitators have choices about how to proceed. They can lay back, allow the chaotic flow, and try to pick out themes over time. Or they can look for moments when there is an energetic surge and then restrict responses to what was just said, in the hopes of riding the wave of interest to pin down agreement about that component. Once the surge dissipates (and you've captured all the product you can), the facilitator will widen the focus back to where it had been previously.

This technique can be an effective way to tackle complex topics—aggregating a solution piece by piece as opportunities present themselves. Doing so, however, requires facilitators who are light on their feet, and able to see the possibilities as they open and close in the moment. They need to be able to seize the time and walk away gracefully from their original plan.

In order to get there, facilitators need to be crystal clear about the objectives of the meeting, so that they can constantly sniff out shortcuts as the meeting unfolds.

Not leaving food on the table 
The last benefit to roadmapping is knowing what's possible and being ruthless about harvesting all the agreement that's in the room. By knowing exactly where you are with respect to objectives and concerns, the skilled facilitator knows when to stay with a topic a little longer and when to pull the plug.

—Partly this is keeping a weather eye on the goals for the topic, extracting maximum benefit from the conversation. Where can precious time be used to greatest leverage?

—Partly this is time management: you have to start wrapping up a topic soon enough that loose ends can be identified and tied off without slipping into overtime. 

—Partly this is the magic eye skill of learning to see potential agreement (instead of obsessing about the ways in which people diverge) so that you can accurately sense when to stay with a topic a bit longer and when to pull the plug. Often a skilled facilitator will be the first person to see the possible agreement, simply because they're the one most attuned to looking for it.
• • • A good facilitator should always know where the conversation is supposed to be focused and what the group is trying to accomplish.

Conflict, Bullies, and Introverts

A friend of mine recently posted these comments in response to my blog of Nov 16, 2015, What It Takes for Groups to Be Less Conflicted about Conflict:

Assuming the accuracy of data reporting the relative predominance in cohousing of people who view themselves as introverts, the use of boundary “management” or strengthening/closing in response to bullying (or even just to conflict in general) may be seen more frequently when an introvert feels bullied.  

My thinking is that the initial response called for—engaging or confronting—would require a decision or choice to engage, which the introvert might need to go inside to reflect upon first. Once there, they might determine that inside is safer and less demanding, and not come out again.
Staying in the fire is not easy for anyone, and perhaps even less so when the preferred examination process takes place internally. The decision to return to the fray and engage may be asking introverts to demonstrate a greater degree of courage than they possess, especially when it is not supported by the community.

Let's unpack this, starting with definitions and premises.

o  Almost all groups will contain a mix of extroverts and introverts. For the purpose of this essay I'm defining extroverts as people who are energized by engagement with others; introverts tend to be drained by engagement. Extroverts recharge their batteries by being with others; introverts recover alone. It's not a good or bad thing; it's just different.

o  Plenaries (meetings of the whole) tend to favor extroverts because it's an energizing environment for them. For introverts meetings can be a strain—they often have to pump themselves up to stay focused and engaged, and they're frequently operating outside their comfort zone. 

o  If you add conflict to the mix (emotional distress) the stakes tend to get even higher. While extroverts often raise their energy in the presence of conflict (some even thrive on it), this can be excruciating and feel unsafe for introverts. This tends to make it even harder for introverts to get their oar in the water and keep pulling.

o  Bullying is about acting in a way that's intimidating, making it harder for others to voice their  concerns or interests, or to hang in there when disagreeing with the bully. It is not about the bully's viewpoint; it's about how they express themselves and the ways in which they apply pressure on others to back down or otherwise yield. Bullying succeeds when others believe that exiting the unpleasant dynamic is more important than getting their needs expressed or met.

o  Bullying can show up in a wide range of ways:
sarcasm
raising one's voice
talking fast
interrupting
getting upset 
denigrating other's viewpoints (if you think this is rare, reflect on the dominant style of current political discourse)
woe-is-me manipulation (let me have my way because I'm a victim and your opposition prolongs or exacerbates my suffering)
threatening unpleasant consequences

o  Bullying may be a conscious, tactical choice, or it may be an unconscious style, so ingrained in a person's personality that they engage in it by default. 

o  Bullies may care how their behavior impacts others or they may not. That said, there is an advantage in cooperative culture in that there is a baseline assumption that the group will do its best work only when all relevant viewpoints are expressed and taken into account. Thus, in a cooperative setting there is a greater chance that a bully will be willing to be willing to work with feedback about how their behavior is making it harder for others to speak. The bully may deny that that they intend to intimidate others, but they may be willing to work on changing their behavior once they know it's having that effect.
• • •So what can be done about bullying in cooperative groups, taking into account how hard this dynamic can be for introverts? Here are half a dozen suggestions:

1. Talk about it ahead of time
I think it's essential that group's discuss the phenomenon of bullying behavior and how they want to handle it. (Hint #1: It is an an absolute nightmare to postpone this consideration until you're in the moment. You need to do this pre-need. Hint #2: Note how I phrased this—bullying behavior. Object to the behavior; not the person.)

2. Commit to interrupting bullying wherever it's encountered
This will almost certainly mean authorizing facilitators to step in when they believe bullying is occurring—whether the intimidation was intended or not isn't the point. If bullying is allowed to happen unchecked, things will not magically get better.

Note how nuanced this can be. Suppose someone in the group is intimidated by loud voices and feels bullied by a member of the group who is frequently passionate in their statements. How much does the group want to protect the person who feels intimidated and how much does it want to support each member having access to their natural style? Where is the balance point?

3. Have agreements about how you'll work with emotional reactivity and develop the skills to deliver the support you commit to providing
You have to anticipate that when bullying surfaces that some of the time reactivity will be part of the mix. It will be paralyzing if there is no confidence in the group's ability to compassionately and accurately work the moment—be it the bully's distress, other's distress, or both.

4. Introverts and extroverts are going to have to make peace with one another
You cannot expect everyone else to adapt to you. For extroverts this translates into being sensitive to how your style can make life challenging for others. For introverts it means there has to be room at the table for the passionate and the boisterous, just as much as for the quiet and contemplative. You don't have to pretend to be something you're not, yet group culture is a mixed salad, not a homogeneous stew.

5. Offer a mix of formats, making it easier for introverts to contribute or to express distress
Take time to canvass your membership to get a sense of what will help people feel safe and that their contributions are welcome. Don't guess what people want; ask. 

What am I talking about? Small group breakouts, individual writing, talking sticks, and guided visualizations are techniques that offer a more deliberate pace and a less chaotic on-ramp. Intermix them with the up-tempo raucousness of brainstorms and open discussions.

6. Make sure that the right to be heard is joined at the hip to the responsibility to hear and work constructively with the views of others
When bullies are driving an agenda they are all too often insisting on their right, while sidestepping their responsibility. Make sure that that doesn't happen. First help them be heard, then slow things down to make sure that there's air time for other perspectives. After all, introverts are not stupider; they're just quieter.

50 Years Later

Yesterday I took a train to Chicago and was met in Union Station by Jeff Stewart and Jan-Erik Damber. 

Though I had not seen either of them since 1967—the year I'd graduated from high school (we three were seniors together at Lyon Township in La Grange IL), I had no trouble picking them out by the Amtrak information kiosk in the main waiting room.

When I first met Janne he was an AFS student from Sweden. Today he's a (nearly) retired urologist living in Göteberg (the second largest city in Sweden, on the shores of the North Sea). Janne lived with Jeff's family during the 1966-67 school year, and my brother (Guy) and I visited the Damber family in Sweden for a few days toward the end of a nine-week European odyssey that took us to Ireland, Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Denmark and Sweden. Though many of the details of that trip have faded over the years, I recall that our stay with the Dambers was the highlight of the trip, as it was the only time we were not in a hotel, hostel, or pensione.

The most amazing part of yesterday's five-hour visit (over brie, wine and hamburgers) was the absence of strain or awkwardness. It was just interesting people sharing stories. In addition to the three wise guys, our social complement was rounded out by Jeff's wife, Steffie, and Janne's partner, Christina. The conversation flowed as easily as the wine, as we pleasurably bounced around among high school memories, catching each other up on what had unfolded in each other's lives over the course of the last five decades, commentary on the insanity of American politics, and speculation about the prospects of The Donald and Kim Jong-un—two world leaders with the ego management and temperament of oversexed cockerels—inadvertently starting a nuclear war as they posture for cameras, trade taunts, and otherwise play with matches.

Though I am foregoing the social chaos that would characterize my high school class' 50th reunion this weekend (which is why Janne and Christina are in town), it was lovely reminiscing and gradually revealing to one another the pearls of wisdom we have each carefully strung together over a lifetime of living. A leisurely dinner party for five in an Oak Park apartment, after all, offers completely different prospects than a cattle call of 300+ milling about in an antiseptic ballroom.

Once again I am reminded of why it is good to have friends, and why it is important to take the time to enjoy them.

Caught in a Fork in the Road

Sometimes facilitators get caught between competing principles and it can be hard to divine the best response. I had an example of this recently when I was working with a group that had called me in, in part, because they weren't doing well handling seriously distress among members and it was piling up. (Though this is not rare, far fewer ask for help than need it.)  During an opening session I had asked members to reflect on the myriad challenging things that they had witnessed over the past year and what they each might have done differently, that may have had been a better response. I was trying to get them thinking of constructive choices and less about their upset with others, as a prelude to working on crafting a policy the next day.
While most people did as I asked, there was one women who didn't. She responded in anger.  At the start of the meeting I had offered a summary of what I'd heard from people during 20 hours of one-on-one conversations. Included was a claim from half a dozen women who had independently reported to me that they felt there was unaddressed sexism in the community (which definitely got my attention). During the go round the angry woman used my statement as a springboard to launch an attack on some younger men she felt had been discriminating against an older woman.
Suddenly I was at a crossroads I had hoped not to encounter. On the one hand, I prefer to work difficulties in the moment and doing so would have been directly addressing an area in which the community had been struggling and wanted my assistance. By not addressing it I was risking needing to clean up a mess later.
On the other hand, the issue of sexism wasn’t even on my radar until the day before (it hadn't been mentioned as a possible topic when I was hired) and I was concerned that tackling that issue (while plenty serious enough and worth attention) might eat so much time that little would be left for the topics I had been asked to address. I was already worried that there were more heavy-duty issues on the table than there was time to get to, and was thus very reluctant to let a late-arriving topic jump the queue—because another issue in play was the strategy that if you act provocatively enough it will be rewarded with attention. What a mess! I was going to pay a price either way.
In this instance I chose to let the attack stand, to protect the overall agenda. While no one took the bait (no one responded with a spirited defense), and no one else fired another salvo—thus preserving my attempt at a reflective beginning, I'm not sure if I made the right choice.
At least two people who felt called out by the attack spoke to me on break about how upset and distracted they were by being blind-sided and left without an opportunity to tell their side of events. This was a high price to pay, yet these same people were already embroiled in other tensions about which I knew we had to deal, and I preferred that the first examination happen in territory that was already widely known. 
While I subsequently got the opportunities I was hoping for to work closely with the two men in reaction, we never got close to working the topic of sexism. While I'm satisfied I delivered solid work germane to the community's struggles, you never know what would have happened with the road not taken, and I'll just have to live with that.

Introverts in Communituy

I just read Susan Cain's book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking. It came out five years ago and was recently recommended to me by my friend, Roger Stube.

Among other things, it makes the case that Western culture (North American in particular) is dominated by extroverts—people who are energized by contact with others, and who tend to enjoy mixing it up at parties and meetings. Cain points out that this unintentionally creates an uneven playing field at which introverts tend to come out looking bad, even though there is no correlation between one's standing on the extrovert/introvert scale and intelligence.

For the most part, we tend to squander what introverts could contribute because things aren't set up to be comfortable—or even safe—for them.

As a group dynamics expert, one of Cain's more intriguing revelations is that extensive studies have shown that group brainstorms are invariably less productive—in both quantity and quality of ideas—than what results from individuals working alone who subsequently pool their ideas. I didn't see that coming.

(Interestingly, the one exception to this is online brainstorming, where participants are electronically connected, but not physically. Somehow that cancels out the way groupthink can stifle originality or inhibit those who are worried about sounding stupid when everyone is in the same room.)

To be sure, there is still a place for processing information as a group and coming to agreement together. Group cohesion is highly desirable and is not something you just mail in, or drop into someone's In Box. It is forged in the meeting.

While there's danger in generalizing, it's my strong anecdotal impression (after closely observing cooperative groups for four decades) that a majority of people living in intentional community are introverts (as opposed to somewhere between one-third and one-half of the general population). So what does this mean?

For starters, it suggests rethinking the way meetings are run. Because typical meeting culture emphasizes the bold, the quick, and those who are more comfortable speaking in front of groups, extroverts are favored. We have to work to create multiple on-ramps. That means purposefully creating room for people to digest information without haste, and spaciousness to organize what they want to say. 

One possibility is to give people time in silence to contemplate what they've heard and what they'd like others to know about their thinking before calling for responses. To be clear, I'm not talking about slowing things down all the time; but it may be a better idea than I knew to do this regularly.

Another possibility is being more rigorous about offering alternatives to open discussion (were people simply speak as they are ready), where extroverts are bound to dominate.

It also suggests the potential utility of taking time to ask people what their preferences are around pace and method of sharing—in the whole group, in small groups, with just one other person; orally, in writing, in a skit, through interpretative dance, in pantomime… whatever.

Cain's work suggests that the essential first step is creating an opening sufficient for everyone's story to be told, so that there is a sense that their input will be welcomed (though not necessarily agreed with). While extroverts often enjoy vigorous debate, rough and tumble conversations characterized by rising and falling decibel levels can leave introverts feeling decidedly unsafe and intimidated. The preferred style of one tends to be awkward for the other. 

Cain's book further reveals the startling fact that style unconsciously subverts thinking, such that people tend to be influenced by forceful and confident presentation—to the point where they will agree with the speaker and not realize that they might have come to a different conclusion if that person had not spoken. Yikes! This suggests being careful where you start Go Rounds, so that the same influential people are not setting the tone each time. (To be clear, Cain was not criticizing outspoken extroverts, she was just pointing out how things play out if you are not aware of what's happening.)

If this is new information, it's likely being received as an unwanted complication. My advice is to take a deep breath. While I'm sorry for the complication, the truth is you were already have it in your group, so you may as well understand better what's going on and try to adjust. The potential reward is that half or more of your group may suddenly come alive.

In fact, the rewards may be even greater than that. Because many introverts have had to learn to cope in an extrovert-dominated culture, they have learned to pump themselves up to operate at an extroverted pace and demeanor. As a result they often arrive home exhausted after a day's work, badly in need of recharge time (quiet time with minimal stimulation). To the extent that people are given ways to contribute that fall within their comfort zone, there is less accumulated fatigue.

In the larger picture, Cain explains that many psychologists think that personality can be boiled down to these five traits, which can present in any combination: 

Introversion/Extroversion
Agreeableness (how prone people are to conflict)
Openness to Experience (how open they are to novel experiences)
Conscientiousness (how diligent they are about doing what they said they'd do)
Emotional Stability (how easily strong feelings are triggered)

In the context of intentional community (and by extension, cooperative group culture) it's easy to imagine that you'd find people easier to get along with if they scored high on the last four traits, but where they stand on the Introversion/Extroversion spectrum is not predictive of happiness in community at all. Both can work out well; both can be a pain in the ass.

Last I want to share a gem about anger from Quiet. Cain starts with a story from Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion by Carol Tavris:

There once was a Bengali cobra that liked to bite passing villagers. One day a swami—a man who has achieved self-mastery—convinces the snake that biting is wrong. The cobra vows to stop immediately, and does. Before long, the village boys grow unafraid of the snake and start to abuse it. Battered and bloodied, the snake complains to the swami that this is what came of keeping his promise.

"I told you not to bite," said the swami, "but I did not tell you not to hiss."

Many people, like the swami's cobra, confuse the hiss with the bite.

In essence there is an important difference between expressing anger, and being aggressive. The two are not the same, though they are often thought to be. Going further, Cain shares that extensive studies have shown that the practice of venting does not "let off steam." If anything, venting fuels angers. 

With all do respect to Cain's exemplary scholarship, I have a subtle spin on this that I think can make a significant difference. Let's suppose the situation is that Adrian did something, Chris is pissed off, and Jesse has been asked to listen to Chris vent about it.

While I buy Cain's conclusion if Chris vents alone, or vents in Jesse's presence with Jesse only passively listening. Suppose however, that Jesse only agrees to listen if there is an understanding that the session will not end until there is a discussion (with Jesse's active assistance) to determine what constructive steps Chris will take to not remain stuck in reactivity. 

This might be Chris agreeing to talk to Adrian about what was upsetting to Chris (with or without Jesse's accompaniment); it might be identifying the ways in which Chris has an anger issue; it might be helping Chris see how they inadvertently contributed to the bad dynamic. It could be any number of things, but this ending offers hope of helping Chris move through their upset without stuffing it or risk unloading on Adrian like a ton of bricks.
While Cain's book may be Quiet, it spoke loudly to me.

Reslishing One's Work

In my four decades at Sandhill Farm I gradually developed specialties—just like every other member. In my case I was the community electrician, the guy who filed taxes, the butcher, and an acidified food expert (that is, I processed the lion's share of pickles and condiments during my tenure—anything that could be canned in a hot water bath, rather than via pressure cooker).

The joke was that when I was away from home (about half the time), I'd be processing group dynamics. When I was home I'd be processing food.

In the Midwest, my busiest stretch was July through Oct, with August being the peak. That's when the tomatoes start rolling in, which meant tomato sauce, tomato juice, salsa, barbecue sauce, and ketchup. Leaving aside the occasional once-every-five-year crops, I'd also work up batches of corn relish, dilly beans, tomatillo salsa, horseradish, pickled beets, damson plum preserves, and pepper relish (both medium and hot). I'd spend many a day in the kitchen, emptying five-gallon buckets of garden bounty, turning their contents into canned goods that we'd either sell or enjoy ourselves. While others worked in the dirt; I worked over steaming kettles.

When I got sick last year (I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in January 2016) it appeared that my canning days might be over. But they aren't! Last fall I recovered from my stem cell transplant in time to be crank out a token run of tomatillo salsa, headlining fruit Susan produced in our postage stamp garden in Duluth.

As my health has gradually improved since then, I upped the ante this past week when I went wild at a farmer's market in Spooner WI. Monday I canned five jars of dilly beans, eight units of pickled beets, and 13 pints of corn relish. Although it was a long, wet day of cutting up in the kitchen, it was highly satisfying to dust off the canning funnel and jar lifter, and to be back in the swim of water bath processing.
• • •Our glory in the kitchen continued yesterday after Susan and I sat down on the couch mid-afternoon to puzzle over that diurnal challenge that most households face: what's for dinner? Determined to do something about reducing our inventory of foodstuffs (after struggling to find space in the basement to store our burgeoning supply of canned goods), we started with the idea of featuring a beautiful fresh head of garden-surplus broccoli that had been given to Susan at work that morning.

As we have a goodly supply of organic pork in our freezer, we hunted online for a stir fry recipe that combined brassicas with tenderloin. While there were some, we got distracted (always a hazard when browsing the internet) by a recipe for spicy pork with kumquats. Say what? Incredibly, we had 5 oz of fresh kumquats in our fridge—exactly what the recipe called for. We took that as a clear sign that this is what we should have for dinner.

But wait a minute. As we looked more closely at the recipe, it called for additional oddball ingredients:
Chinese five spice seasoning
Hoisin sauce
Oyster sauce
Fresh ginger root
Mirin (aka rice vinegar)

Riding the wave of our good fortune all the way to the dining room table, it turned out that we had all of these in stock (no wonder the fridge is crowded), substituting only fish sauce for oyster sauce, which we decided was close enough. Yeehah! We were the winners of an impromptu kitchen scavenger hunt.

Not content to leave it there, we still had to figure out what to do with the broccoli (remember, that's where we started). This led to our improvising a second stir fry, this time blending:
Broccoli
Onion
Radicchio
Cashews
GarlicGreen banana pepper
Red bell pepper
Crimini mushrooms

While we made a quick trip to the neighborhood market to secure the last two items, all else was on hand. The cutting up took about as long as the cooking, and we finished in time to catch the PBS News Hour with Judy Woodruff, to see if we were at war yet with North Korea.

Dinner was rounded off with a bottle of chilled Riesling and a peach cobbler I'd made with fresh fruit that afternoon, topped with vanilla gelato (on sale at our local co-op). One more note: when we found the pork cum kumquat dish not quite as zesty as advertised, we improvised with a few spoonfuls of sambal oelek at the table, fine tuning both the color and the taste. Perfecto! (Fortunately, we always keep a jar of chili paste on hand in the fridge for moments like this.)

We figure we were the only ones in Duluth (maybe the country?) enjoying this particular menu last night, relishing our work both in the kitchen and at the table.

Navigating the Boundary Between Personal and Group

I recently had an interesting exchange with a friend about how she interacts in her community, based on reflections I shared after spending three days consulting with her group. As the dynamics are not rare, I thought it instructive to share our dialog (with names and issues altered to obfuscate identity).

Laird:
I noticed that there were times when:
o  You told stories that were difficult for me to tie to the conversation. I struggled to figure out why you were telling the story you did.
o  You told a story (ostensibly for my benefit as the new person) that you had already told me.
o  You seemed to get lost in your stories, where you would get sidetracked in sharing details that were not central to the main point and then have trouble finding your way back.
In one of the gatherings where you witnessed me doing these things there were several others present and when the Schmidts launched into the barbecue episode (something that had been explored ad nauseum in the past), I thought Oh God no. Not that again. My partner considers my attitude ungenerous. In truth I am very fond of both Schmidts and try to be sympathetic and empathetic. However, the community spent a good chunk of a two-day retreat two years ago on this topic, and much other time before and since, and we never get anywhere other than a rehash. 
I just wanted to move to a different topic. It didn't occurred to me to find a nice way to do that, so I maladroitly tried to change the subject. What I thought the barbecue story and my tale of injustice had in common was lack of community support and recognition, but my partner disagrees. I didn't especially want to dredge up my story, but I was clutching at straws to change the topic. Maybe it would be helpful to learn how to say nicely, "Please, not that topic again."
Laird:Thanks for this background, which was new to me. I have reflections in two directions.

A. Though it was obvious that the barbecue issue was an old wound, I did not know that the group had worked on it extensively, nor did I catch that you were trying to shift the spotlight off of what you considered a dry well (that said, your explanation helps me understand your good intent). What was different about this telling was that I was in the room. Based on what had happened during the day [where I had helped the group successfully work through some old, unresolved dynamics], I want you to appreciate that some people are going to want to tell me stories about something they are stuck on, in the hopes that I might be able to get them unstuck (rather than simply to wallow in a familiar mud hole, which may well have been what it seemed like to you). In my line of work I’m used to this (I’m never really off duty when I’m with a client), and I’m hopeful that I was able to give Ms Schmidt an insight into choices she has about old wounds, when I told the story about how I worked through my anger with my father. I’m not promising that there will be a change (you never know), but I believe I gave her something powerful and new.
To be fair to you, there was no knowing at the front end of her launching into the barbecue story that I was going be able to offer a helpful insight, yet I was basically giving her the same attention I gave everyone who wanted to talk with me (including you). I can understand that you might have feared that allowing Ms Schmidt to wallow in the mud risked souring an otherwise delightful evening, yet, in the end, what is more precious than helping each other work through tough issues?
B. Now I want to shift lenses and look at this from your end. It will happen again that you are in a pleasant conversation when someone slips into dwelling on an old wound. What are your options?
o  Try to shift the focus to something else (which was the choice you made). The danger here is that the speaker may fight (cordially) for control of the conversational focus, and become irritated with you, either because you're undercutting their efforts, or because you come across as clueless about what the focus of the conversation has been. Neither of those two possibilities are happy ones.
o  Offer to listen, with the condition that after discharging, the person will work with you to come up with one or more constructive next steps (which was what I recommend in relation to gossip).
o  Try to name your discomfort as soon as you are aware of it. “Is there going be anything new in this retelling? If not, why are we doing this? This sounds like a book I’ve already read.” If the speaker does not accept your claim that it’s all old news, simply give them a synopsis of events along with what you understand their reaction to be. Ask them if you've gotten the essence of it. This will establish what you’ve heard before, and set the table for limiting the current focus to new material.   Talking about opportunities to volunteer: I inappropriately pointed out that I feel fulfilled by what I'm doing (some of our members speak about feeling unfulfilled and looking for something) and have no intention of volunteering. You pointed out that no one is pointing a finger at me to volunteer. Totally true. Where my remark came from: Guilt. Also, deep down inside, I'm still the little refugee girl who didn't know the majority language and culture. As a teacher, I've worked with lots of immigrants and refugees on these. I'm very skilled and very experienced. I'm also angry that, for my professional work, I have always been paid poorly—in that respect, treated almost as a volunteer. So though I know there's great need and could contribute a lot, I don't.  Laird:I can follow this, and it’s not hard for me to identify with it. I have a strong desire to be useful and it can be hard to not volunteer when there’s a task out there to do that I know I can handle and no one else’s hand is in the air. Yet it can’t be good that your past anger is stirred up (about the awkwardness of trying to integrate into a new culture, or about not having been fairly compensated for a lifetime of good work) when it comes to helping your community. To be clear I am not advocating one way or another about how much you volunteer (I don’t know enough to have an opinion about that). 

I am doing another thing: pointing out that requests for volunteers in the community (which must go on all the time) are triggering anger in you that may not be well known or understood, and that may greatly complicate your relationships in the community. Or have you disclosed to the group what you’ve shared with me? While you may be protecting yourself from resentment, you may come across as being a queen, who is too good for the menial work of the community. (I’m not saying that’s happening—no one expressed that view to me—I’m describing the risk.)
 • • •The underlying theme here is how appropriate is it to share your personal stories when living in a group. While moving into an intentional community means your lives will necessarily be more intertwined than would likely be true among random neighbors in the wider culture, how far should that be taken? 

The answer can be subtle, and deserves a conversation. Unfortunately, it's been my experience that groups rarely have that conversation. Instead they just stumble along and hope for the best. Members often have to guess how much to share of their personal story, trying to thread the needle between saying too much (being accused of giving TMI) and too little (who was that masked man?). When are we just chasing around the mulberry bush talking about old hurts to no effect, and when are we genuinely asking for help to get unstuck?

When are we giving enough information to help others understand the context in which we view current situations, and when are we being too stoic, missing the opportunity for genuine connection?

I recently had this exchange with someone from a different group:

There are multiple personality conflicts here, but I do NOT want to spend time in fishbowls [working through the conflicted dynamics] or discussing certain personalities or individual conflicts—we need to talk bigger picture. For example, how the community has not been able to effectively absorb the change that comes from new people moving in.

Laird: 
While I hear your desire to focus on better integrating new people, there's a problem with skipping the step of working through conflicts. In my experience, once you have a build up of tension and hurt between two people you can’t discuss solutions until you clear the tension. That does not necessarily require work in a fishbowl, but something must be attempted to draw the poison before entering into problem solving, and it appears that the community has not developed robust ways of working through interpersonal tensions. • • •Lacking a deep enough understanding of how group members approach life differently, we tend to misunderstand (and worse, assign bad intent to) actions and viewpoints that diverge significantly from our own. The beauty of group living is that you have the opportunity to bring diverse viewpoints to bear on the issues you collectively face. You have a richer pool of experience to draw from.

Unfortunately, that's simultaneously the bane of group living if you don't do enough spade work to appreciate from where those differences arise. It is not just a matter of chiseling off the rough edges until everything runs smoothly (viewing community as a giant rock tumbler). We have to be interested in why these differences exist and curious about their potential meaning—instead of responding with, Uh oh, here we go again.