Laird's Blog

When the Door Is Closed

As a professional facilitator I often work with conflicted dynamics, where two or more people are stuck in the mud.

While I am generally asked to help the protagonists find the way out of the swamp (without loss of dignity, change of personality, or admission of guilt), occasionally I arrive on the scene too late: where one of the players has reached the end of their rope and is no longer willing to invest in any further attempts at resolution. They've tried as hard as they know, experienced too little relief relative to their investment, and are ready to cut bait.

Now what?

While it's possible that one or both will leave the group, most frequently they just steer clear of each other. If the group is large enough, their common friends don't overlap significantly, and they don't share the same areas of expertise, this can work OK. Everyone doesn't have to be best buddies for the group to function well, and a robust group can absorb a few broken pipelines without undo consequences.

The equation changes, however, if there are multiple people who have given up working out tensions with a particular person. To be clear, I am not talking about the dynamic where a member irritates others and a lot of people start sitting somewhere else at dinner or refusing to be on committees or work parties with the person they find unpleasant. 

This happens on an informal level more than you might think with the result that a group will develop a story about so-and-so being "the problem" without necessarily having tried to address it directly. Once the story gets established, the group tends to stop looking at how they might have unwittingly contributed to a system failure and everyone starts laying the blame for the tension wholly at the feet of "the problem" person. Once this happens, it is almost impossible for the labeled person to make changes that will be recognized by the group and the label becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

I share this caution because, as a professional working in the field of group dynamics, about 80% of the time I can get different (more cooperative) behavior out of "the problem" person than the story claims is possible within the first 24 hours. I achieve this simply by not believing the story and remaining open to the possibility that the difficult person has the capacity to behave differently once they've been heard and not treated with contempt.

Note though that I didn't say I get different behavior 100% of the time. Sometimes the story holds. Sometimes the group has done due diligence and put in serious effort to try to resolve the tensions, yet no corner has been turned. What do I mean by due diligence?

o  Making sure that the difficult person has been heard to their satisfaction, so that their experience is being taken into account.
o  A determined effort has been made to inform the difficult person of the specific behaviors and specific incidents that have been problematic.
o  The group has worked hard to explain what changes in behavior have been requested.
o  The person has been given a reasonable chance to shift their behavior after the above has been spelled out.
o  The unacceptable behavior persists in the face of all of the above.

While this dynamic is thankfully rare, it nonetheless occurs. People can be drawn to cooperative living for the right reasons but not have sufficient social skills to be a viable member. 

Once the group's good will and grace have been exhausted, it may reach a stage where it asks the difficult person to leave the group. If the person agrees, that ends it. But they might not agree. Situations that would be intolerable for most people may be acceptable to people with difficult behaviors. Maybe they've had a hard time everywhere they've gone, and would rather stay in a situation where people are generally more civil and less vitriolic.
In any event, if they stay, the menu of options for the difficult person is limited to something like the following:

—Change their behavior (even at the 11th hour)
—Withdraw from active involvement—Engage only through a liaison (if there is a mutually acceptable person willing to serve in that capacity)
—Persist despite the tensions

I've seen all of these attempted. The hardest on the group is the last, where the difficult person is unwilling to shift anything, essentially forcing the group's hand with respect to its standards. While the group will need to be careful to operate legally, the ultimate card that it can play is to withdraw community. While its not quite the same as Amish shunning, it's close:

o  In group meetings the person will not be recognized to speak; their views will not be taken into account.
o  The person will not be invited to participate in common meals.
o  The person will be removed from all committees. 
o  The person will be removed from the group list serve.

While people may still greet the difficult person (not pretend they are dead), the group is purposefully continuing the life of the community without them. 

The basis for taking this extreme action may be something like this:

Members have the right to have their views apropos group issues taken into account, yet that right is paired with the responsibility to take into account and work constructively with the viewpoints of others. Where a member repeatedly fails to demonstrate an ability to meet their responsibilities in this regard and the group has made a good faith effort to point this out to the person and a gross imbalance persists, it can be grounds for an involuntary loss of rights.

As you can imagine, this is a heavy choice that requires the group to act in unison, supporting each other in carrying out an odious task—in all probability it is something no one anticipated having to face. It requires a kind of tough love that forces people to pass judgment on a fellow member. Yuck. There are times when voting someone off the island is the only alternative to everyone drowning.

While it's important that this be difficult to do and done only with great care, it has to be possible.

Customer Disservice

I was recently at Chicago Union Station—one of Amtrak's national hubs—to catch a train. As I travel a lot and train is my favorite mode, I have a wealth of depot experiences, most of which are good.

Last week, however, I had one that was not so good. Although I had arrived at the station 90 minutes ahead of my scheduled departure, and thus had plenty of time, I had sore ribs that morning and knew that I wanted to check two bags to lighten my load.

I got off to a poor start when I discovered that the escalator taking me down from street level to ticketing was disabled and I needed to bump my bag down the steps. With sore ribs, each time I braked the fall of the bag my sore muscles received an unwelcome jolt. Ugh.

Nonetheless, I got downstairs and headed for the window where Amtrak generally funnels passengers wanting to check bags. For some reason, that particular window was blocked off, so I asked an Amtrak employee if I could gain access to check my bag. given that I already had my ticket. He curtly (though not rudely) informed me that I could get in line with everyone else (there were about 15 people waiting in the queue to speak to ticket agents.

While that was an unusual request (in the past I had been directed expressly to head for the window on the far right if I was only checking bags), maybe they'd changed protocol since my last visit.

Ten minutes went by as I slowly inched my way forward in the line. I was sore and looking forward to unloading the weight. It was at this point that the same Amtrak employee announced that anyone only seeking to check bags should line up by the window on the far right. I did not take this announcement well. Why had I been turned down to do that very thing 10 minutes before?

When I pulled my suitcase up front to get into the line for the checked baggage window, he challenged me about whether I had a ticket. I replied by saying I had already told him that 10 minutes ago. He didn't like my attitude (which I admit was not pleasant) and told me I was therefore not welcome to come forward to get my bag checked and I had to wait in line with everyone else looking for tickets. He was going to teach me a lesson—which left me wondering about the nature of customer service.

This exchange didn't go well for either of us, and I've chosen to write about it because I think it's worthwhile to parse out what happened.

Looked at from the Agent's Perspective
He was trying to manage the flow of customers looking for assistance from the ticket windows. I imagine he has a certain amount of customers who are difficult to work with. Perhaps they have unreasonable expectations about what can be done for them; perhaps they are in a bad mood; perhaps they have challenging personalities. On top of that, maybe he had been having a bad day also. Maybe he had sore ribs, too.

That said, the bottom line is that this guy is in Customer Service. That means it's his job to be helpful. I thought I had a legitimate gripe. He didn't. He was setting boundaries for how he wanted to be dealt with. While I have some sympathy for that in general, it does not extend to his treating me arbitrarily and then denying that he'd done anything to be held accountable for.

My experience was that I had been mistreated by someone more concerned with exerting his power then in trying to help.

Leftover Baggage
Would this exchange have gone better if I had been less reactive? Almost certainly. So I am left with some reflecting to do about my culpability regarding how this went down. How important, for example, was it to have asserted the high moral ground? It didn't get my bags checked any faster. And it wasn't any fun to be stewing in line. So what was the payoff?

I don't think it's easy to unilaterally shift one's energy when you feel that you've been wronged and the other person does not appear to be evincing any remorse. But that doesn't mean you can't, or that it wouldn't be useful to try. Because if you don't, you might wind up carrying around a lot more baggage than you care to.

It's an interesting train of thought.

Effective Pedagogy

I've been offering a two-year facilitation training the last 12 years (eight three-day weekends spaced approximately three months apart). I've delivered this course eight times in its entirety and I'm on the front end of three more rounds—one each in New England (the first weekend was Sept 10-13), Portland OR (the first weekend is scheduled for Dec 3-6), and North Carolina (the first weekend is slated for Jan 14-17).

In addition to this, I've been busy training my successors in administrative work for the Fellowship for Intentional Community, which roles I'll be handing over by the end of the year. 

Taken all together, I've become obsessed with what constitutes effective teaching.

One Size Does Not Fit All
People have widely different learning styles. Taking that into account means creating multiple on-ramps to learning. (The default approach for most of us is to offer a lesson in the way we like to learn, and it is only a coincidence when that works well for the student.)

o  Some like to see the instructor ride a bucking bronco once and then be given a chance to get on the horse themselves. Learning for them is mostly experiential.

o  Some need to thoroughly understand the theory and rationale for what the teacher is offering. They will not be comfortable attempting to execute the technique until they "get it" in their head first.

o  Some need to watch a thing multiple times, in a variety of situations, before their body can assimilate the lesson to the point where they're willing to test drive the model. 

o  Some prefer that the various steps involved in execution be broken down into discrete micro-lessons, and they won't be comfortable trying to put it all together until they've had a chance to take the engine apat and put it all back together.

In addition to the above, people tend to sort into three kinds of primary learning styles: aural, (which I am), visual, and kinesthetic. So teachers are challenged to provide the same information through different modes of presentations.

But it's worse than that.

When the Spirit Is Strong But the Flesh Is Weak
In addition to student learning preferences, the savvy teacher needs to be aware of trigger points, style preferences, and blind spots—both on the part of the student and the teacher.

—Trigger points
This could be specific (as in the teacher reminding the student of their mother, who they detest) or generic (I'm suspicious of being taught by someone steeped in privilege: for example, an older, straight, well-educated white male—like me).

The question of privilege gets pretty interesting. How much is being projected onto the teacher; and how much does the teacher have a blind spot? There is always a power gradient between teacher and student; to what extent is that healthy and appropriate (based on the teacher's expertise) and to what extent is it amplified in an unhelpful way (based on privilege)? As far as I'm concerned it is on the teacher (as the person in the superior power position) to develop sensitivity to this possibility and make room for the examination.

Going the other way, the student could remind the teacher of someone with whom they have unresolved tensions, or the student could have a personality that is grating for the teacher (whiny and timid drives me bananas).

In all of these cases, the instructor needs to be able to see what's happening and offer adjustments. While that doesn't guarantee success—all possible dyads are not meant to work together—it's on the teacher to take the initiative.

—Style preferences
This is mostly a diversity issue. Naturally enough, teachers tend to instruct in their own style. But that may not match up well with the student's open portals for receiving lessons.

This can be about pace, volume, degree of passion, mode of transmission (intellectual, emotional, body-centered, spiritual, intuitive), stamina, range (variety of delivery), and vocabulary. Is the teaching didactic, story-based, or experienced-based? There are a lot of choices, and none is a best practice; you have to adapt to your students.

—Blind spots 
All of us have tendencies (perhaps to teach through role plays instead of lectures, or to see the right side of the room better than the left). Because I'm primarily an aural learner, I've had to train myself to think in terms of developing visual aids in support of what I'm teaching—it doesn't come naturally to me.

While some blind spots can be overcome (such as my developing visual teaching aids), the most important thing is to learn what they are and to be open to having it pointed out when they come up. This is about working to keep clear feedback channels. 

When you discover a blind spot in a student, the inspired teacher sees it as an opportunity. To what extent is the student aware of it? Are they willing to talk about it (alone or in the class)? Are they open to working on it with you (if so, with what parameters)?
• • •Once you start delving into the wonderful and multi-faceted world of teaching, you have to shake your head at how little teachers are paid and respected in our culture. We'd rather venerate lawyers and business tycoons. What a country.

Working Distress: How Many in the Pool at a Time?

I've recently been in dialog with a colleague over the issue of how tightly to control the conversation when unpacking emotional distress.

There are a number of models out there for working constructively with conflict and no agreement about what constitutes a best practice. So this is a live issue. Nonetheless, I have a definite opinion about this particular point.

Over the years I have come to the view that once you're clearly in the territory of working tensions, then it's highly advantageous to limit the focus to the principal players (preferably a dyad, but occasionally a threesome), drilling down on a specific incident that highlights the tensions, and keeping it there until they reach a natural stopping place. In contrast, my counterpart is more open to allowing others to add their reactions to what's happening as this examination progresses. (The idea being that "what's alive in the room" is a shifting thing and that following the energy is often a productive strategy.)

So let's set up a hypothetical. Suppose Taylor and Lupe are on a committee together and they drive each other nuts. Taylor wants to reward individual initiative and minimize red tape. Lupe wants to make sure everyone is on board before proceeding and is often not quick to know their own mind. Taylor feels bogged down by Lupe's pace, and Lupe feels pressure to act faster. Both trigger the other.

Let's further suppose that Adrian (another committee member) tends to see things the same way as Taylor, excepting that it's not so much Lupe's slow pace that's the trigger, as it's Lupe's tentativeness and constant worry that someone may have concerns that have not yet been voiced. As far as Adrian can tell, the committee is never ready to make a decision because of Lupe's what ifs. Deliberate is one thing; glacial is another.

Just to even things out, let's further suppose that Chris (also on the committee) tends to take Lupe's side, but not just because they're equally sensitive to the rights of slow thinkers—they're also bothered by the dynamic of Taylor & Adrian ganging up on Lupe, who is soft spoken and struggles to be heard. Chris cares a lot about fairness.

So now we have a fine mess. While I appreciate that real life tends to be even more complicated than I've laid out, this simplified example is enough to make my points.

Let's examine how this might play out if the committee decides it needs help and asks for an outside facilitator to unpack what's going on. For the sake of this example, let's suppose the committee is in charge of outdoor landscaping of common ground in an intentional community.

Because we have to start somewhere, let's say that Taylor steps forward, wanting to discuss a time this past spring when they proposed bringing goats onto the property to eat the high grass as an alternative to mowing, and Lupe acted to slow things down.

In letting them each state what happened and how it felt, suppose the following came out:

—Taylor's Story
Taylor thought they had an elegant, outside-the-box solution to a perennial problem. It had been hard to find the labor to run a Lawnboy, some residents were irritated by the mower noise, and people felt guilty about the fossil fuel use. Why did Lupe need to be a stick in the mud? It was deflating to have their initiative bogged down in process, and they felt like pulling back from the committee. How could it be in the community's best interest to consistently quash fresh ideas?

—Lupe's Story 
Lupe was worried about the damage that goats might do to the shrubbery, flower beds, and gardens. Plus, the bleating might be every bit as noisome as the lawnmower, and goats might wind up being unwanted guests on people's front porches (maybe that's amusing if it happens to your neighbor, but not so funny on your porch). Although the committee had the authority to make this decision without further input from the community, Lupe felt unsure of proceeding without asking the entire community for comments, because no one had been thinking of goats when they established the mandate for the committee. Lupe felt steamrollered by Taylor. While they knew Taylor would have an adverse reaction, they nonetheless felt it was in the group's best interest to go slow on this.

Now we're at the first fork in the road. Do you keep the focus on Taylor and Lupe, or open it up to Adrian and Chris, who are obviously ready to speak (as both feel they have a dog in this fight)?

My instinct is to keep the focus on the dyad to work through two more questions before opening it up:

a) Why does this matter (what's at stake)?

b) What are you willing to do about it (now that you have been heard and have heard others)?

The prime directive here is effecting whatever repair you can to the relationship; attending to damaged trust. This is not about problem-solving—it's setting the stage for problem solving (which cannot proceed well in the face of the distortion that typically characterizes unresolved distress).

My concern is that if you give the microphone to either Chris or Adrian (never mind others who may also have their hand in the air, hoping to be called on), that the concerns will mushroom out of control. To be clear, this is not a judgment about the tension between Taylor and Lupe being more important; it's just that it isn't completed, and it may be difficult (even impossible) to get back to it once you crack open the lid on Pandora's Box of unresolved tensions.

For one thing, how can you allow Adrian to talk at this point without also allowing Chris to talk, and you can see from the way I salted the example, that each time one of them speaks, the topic is going to get more complicated and multi-threaded—all without anyone being "bad" or off topic.

In my experience, it is far better to complete a few dyads well and end on an up-note, than to get a bunch of tensions out on the table and leave them unresolved. For one thing, it's often the case that people with similar concerns don't need to voice them once they witness a constructive exchange with someone carrying water for them. 

The way I think about it, as a facilitator you are performing an operation on the dyad and once surgery is underway, you don't want your attention drawn elsewhere until the operation is complete. It's a safety thing.

I understand that limiting the focus to a single incident with two people means that you may only be touching a small fraction of the unresolved tensions extant. That's OK. You are not trying to muck out the Augean Stables. Rather you are trying to handle one discrete example well, with the notion that if you do that, then you can do as many more as are needed. The key log is demonstrating that you can turn the corner and create hope. That conflict management is doable—all without assigning blame, asking anyone to change their personality, or making anyone feel bad because they had a negative reaction.
• • •The second fork in the road that my colleague suggested is at the point where the dyad is addressing the last question in the sequence: What do you want to do about it? What about inviting the rest of the group to comment on the action steps that the dyad agrees to? 

While I can appreciate that this may make sense if you're focusing on a system response to a patterned dynamic, I am concerned that the impulse to go in that direction has more to do with problem solving than relationship repair, and I'm nervous about conflating the two. 

The interesting case is if the dyad is satisfied with what they come up with, and the outer circle (the rest of the group) wants something else. Under what circumstances, if any, would it make sense to not accept an action plan that satisfied the protagonists? I can't think of any if the lens is relationship repair.

That said, I want to soften my response in two respects. First, the outer ring my have constructive suggestions that the protagonists may like, and should then be free to adopt (the idea here is that we don't need to be hung up on where an idea originates; the test is whether it works for the protagonists). However, in this instance the outer ring folks are not so much stakeholders as they are friendly advisers.

Second, I think it's a great idea to ask the outer ring to reflect on what they witnessed after the dyad work has been closed to their satisfaction. Now the "operation" is over and you're wanting to help inculcate good habits in the group by having them reflect on what worked or could be improved upon.

Taken all together, I like to allow only a small number of folks in the distress pool at any given time—preferably only one dyad and a facilitator. If you find that a number of others are having trouble resisting jumping in the water, I suggest assuring them that their turn is coming; just not now.

Visiting Family

From left to right: Laird, Kyle, Richard, and Alison
For the past five days my youngest sister (Alison) and I have been visiting my middle sister (Kyle) and her husband (Richard) in San Antonio. Above is a picture of the four us on our last night together.

Back in March my siblings (there are five of us all together) and I were moving toward orchestrating a reunion in San Antonio (we had not all been together there since Kyle & Richard’s daughter, Alana, married Kevin in March 2008) this summer to help with a remodeling project in their backyard—converting an idle garage into an apartment they could rent. But those plans got shelved when Richard had a stroke in late April, losing use of his right side.

Miraculously, Kyle happened to come home within minutes of Richard being stricken and was able to get him into emergency treatment stat. Richard has been highly motivated to regain as much function as he can and gradually he’s been recovering use of his right arm. During rehab yesterday, Richard was able to lift a medium-sized ball, which required coordinated use of both his left hand and his right. That was a big breakthrough, and he practices exercises between his twice weekly physical therapy sessions to sustain the forward momentum. Most stroke victims have a window of about two years in which to regain functionality (essentially it’s the brain developing work arounds to replace neural pathways, bypassing blocked sections damaged by the stroke). It’s incredible how clever the brain is, yet patient motivation is a large factor in how far someone recovers.

As it happens, Richard is right-handed, which means that in addition to working to regain functionality on that side, he has to train his undamaged left hand to be more sensitive. It’s a lot of work. As an artist used to expressing himself through drawing, it has been very frustrating.

Reading email updates is nowhere near as helpful as being with Richard for several days to experience how he’s adapting and responding to the wicked curveball life delivered his way. In addition, it was great to see how Kyle is coping (the garage makeover got backburnered in favor of remodeling the back corner of the house to create an ADA bathroom). As hoped, Kyle took advantage of Al and me to handle some of the domestic chores and be available for conversations. It can be quite a strain on the primary care provider (who is also holding down a full-time job) when their partner goes down and many of the routines of 35 years of married life are turned on their head.

As a bonus, Alana & Kevin—and their two boys, Jack (6) and Henry (4)—came over Friday from Galveston and stayed until Sunday, lending youthful energy and willing backs to the main project of the visit: digging out the lean-to back porch that had become Richard’s “resource yard" over the years and was chock-a-block full of stuff of questionable utility and unknown provenance. This was necessary in order to uncover the back door, which was going to be relocated as part of the bathroom overhaul.

It was fun watching Alana, as mother, work patiently yet with clarity with her boisterous boys, expressing support while setting limits at the same time. Kyle commented on how amazed she is to see how competent her daughter is as a working mother (she’s second mate on a deep sea oil rig operating in the Gulf of Mexico)—not because she thought Alana wouldn’t be, but because she wasn’t confident that she was such a great role model (and how else do you learn?).

Kevin & Alana loaded their truck with whatever items they thought they could use back in Galveston, and the rest disappeared overnight when placed curbside beneath a homemade sandwich board sign that advertised “free.” (Whew.) It’s fascinating how one person’s junk becomes another’s treasure. Alison and I both departed Tuesday, leaving Kyle & Richard’s house ready for the contractors.

While we left being no clearer about that postponed family reunion, that's due to ongoing uncertainty about Richard’s capacity. He’s making too much progress to predict how far it will go—which is a nice problem to have.

Bullies and Boundaries Revisited

Today's entry comes from the mail bag. I received from Vera a thoughtful reflection on my recent post on Bullies and Boundaries that I'd like to respond to:

I have never seen a definition of bullying that includes "making people uncomfortable." Generally, bullying is about demeaning, one-upmanship, name calling, using various fallacies in argumentation or even lying to score a point, and so on. While I believe people have a right to protect their groups and their discussions from this sort of behavior, I do not, and have not ever thought that I am deserving of being spared being uncomfortable. Neither do I think that "loud voices" per se are bullying. And I am wondering if you use those examples in order to minimize the seriousness of bullying in groups.

I am dismayed that I've done such a poor job of making my points. Bullying exists in many forms, some of which are pernicious, mean-spirited, demeaning, and even dangerous. However, I am trying to confine my focus to bullying in the context of cooperative culture, where this phenomenon operates at a finer level. I'm not saying it isn't serious; only that it's less of a bludgeon.

In the majority of cooperative groups there is an explicit agreement to be nonviolent. As such, any member who consistently puts others down, jeers at them, vilifies them, or calls them names would be subject to expulsion or ostracism (the withdrawal of community), so I'm talking about bullying in a more subtle context. Rarely are we talking about a threat of physical violence.

The bullying behavior I see in community is about purposefully choosing behaviors or communication styles that make others ill at ease, for the purpose of getting them to back off or still their voices in opposition to the bully's viewpoints (if you speak against me I will make you pay). So yes, trying to make others uncomfortable is part of the picture.

I am not saying that bullying doesn't exist in more stark and nasty terms, only that these kinds of overt power plays are rarely seen in community—mainly because they don't work. The group won't stand for it.

In my experience, bullying is always about power (as in power-over), whether it is intentional or unintentional, conscious or subconscious.

While I agree that the motivation to bully is to exercise power over (I'm setting aside sadism as a possibility), it is reasonable to question how successful that is as a tactic in cooperative culture.

In community, the bully talks louder than others, speaks without being called upon, hogs air time (if allowed to), and is not afraid of confrontation and outright disagreement. In its more extreme forms, the bully may threaten to call in outside authorities or even to sue if they don't get their way. (Please understand that I'm painting in broad strokes and all bullies don't exhibit this exact pattern. I'm trying to be suggestive more than prescriptive.)

If the bully persists in their provocative behavior despite being asked to shift, they are at risk of being labeled a bully and thereby marginalized, which effectively undercuts their ability to influence others—which is the heart of power. Thus, at some level, bullies (in community) are at risk of shooting themselves in the foot if they don't adapt in response to critical feedback.

To be sure, bullies sometimes get away with behavior that everyone agrees is unacceptable because the group does not have the will to object, or to hold people accountable to operating within acceptable bounds. Bullies tend to be more comfortable with confrontation and they tend to know how to get others to back down first. However, even where this obtains, that will not prevent the bully from being isolated as a clear troublemaker, which limits their power.

This dynamic puts pressure on bullies to be no worse than intermittent in their frequency of being difficult, or even more subtle in how they attempt to manipulate others (because only behaviors with ambiguous meanings will be tolerated—perhaps sarcasm; occasional outbursts; in-your-face pressure questioning; late, difficult-to-integrate input on sensitive topics). 

Perhaps the subtlest form of all is when bullies learn to wrap their behavior in the flag of orthodoxy, such that the bully can put pressure on outliers by insisting that they behave "normally" (as defined by group culture) as a precondition to having their input considered—knowing full well that it's difficult for outliers to comply.

I agree that it is difficult to know the intention of another person, and it helps to focus on the behavior, not the intention. (Sometimes intentions are so murky that even the individual in question does not rightly know.)

We see this the same way.

If someone in group demeans me or another regularly, what is the proper response? Is it to ask that I grow a thicker skin (thus helping the bully)?

I don't get where developing a thicker skin (becoming less reactive to the bully's irritating behaviors) helps the bully. I'd say it's in everyone's interest to learn to be less reactive.

And that brings me to the issue of boundaries. They are lines drawn by a person that specify what is, and isn't acceptable to me, in the way others treat me. Being put down, jeered at, vilified, called names are examples of behaviors a person might draw a boundary about. A boundary simply means that I will not permit another to treat me that way without consequences.
There are two points to make here. First, the gross behaviors listed above are almost certain to undermine trust and good will between the giver and receiver, resulting in the giver having less power over the receiver—unless the receiver is so intimidated that they become silent or withdraw.

Second, there can be considerable nuance in determining whether a boundary is appropriate because of bullying, or a boundary isn't appropriate because the group hasn't really tried enough to work productively with the behaviors of the difficult person (the would-be bully)—because it's a diversity issue. For example, when is a pattern of loud, challenging statements bullying, and when is it a class issue based on family of origin?

After having looked into the issue of boundaries at length, I have never seen anyone saying, as you do, that "giving up on the prospects for productive communication with someone" is the essence of boundaries. I would say that is the extreme boundary when everything else has been tried, and disengagement and distance are the only things left. But there is a long long road with many options before coming to that point.
I'm not sure we're that far apart. I was using a particular community as a point of departure for my blog and that is how the term "boundaries" is being used there: as giving up on someone. I agree that a person could say that they need x in order to attempt to make common cause with someone, but how different is that from saying, in effect, that if the form is not acceptable, then I may ignore your content?

Are boundaries triggered? In my experience, boundaries are trespassed, or not. Boundaries are set and defended, or not. Some boundaries are firm, others are negotiable. 

My discomfort with this is that it pretends that whether the boundaries have been crossed is an objective assessment and it often isn't. Most often it comes down to: "I feel that you've crossed my boundary and therefore I'll impose restrictions and blame you for there being boundaries." Yuck.

If a group sets (and commits to defend) the boundary of, say, "no name-calling" then agreed upon consequences follow the breach. The simplest consequence being the interruption of the content, calling out "process!" and dealing with the boundary breach before moving on. And by the way, genuine apologies go a long way toward healing a boundary breach, and are the fastest way I know to return to the content of the group discussion.

I'm in full support of surfacing instances of unacceptable behavior wherever they're perceived to occur. I'd like, however, to start with making room for each party to talk about what they think happened and what it means to them, as many breaches are simply misunderstandings, rather than attempts to bully. I'd rather that the emphasis be on repairing relationship damage, rather than dogging down the passageways between air-tight compartments.

Visiting the Dark Side

Community tends to be a trusting environment that brings out the best in people… mostly. 

This is especially true at community-focused events, where attendees are getting a long, cool drink of cooperative water amidst the competitive desert of their everyday lives. Attendees often respond by becoming more casual about leaving things in common spaces and having them be there when they return—something they might never do otherwise. This is not about risk taking or tempting fate; it's about trusting the village once you sense its presence and feel a part of it. Mostly it's a good thing.

As a veteran community networker, I've been to gobs of community events over the years, something in the vicinity of 100. (This year I'll attend four, for example.) And my personal experience pretty well lines up with the generalities I've stated above. Thus, it was all the more jarring when I encountered a couple bumps in the road last week.

The Missing Cushion
Over Labor Day Weekend I attended the annual Twin Oaks Communities Conference in Louisa VA—something I've been doing for at least the last 20 years. Per usual, I ran the conference bookstore (for the Fellowship for Intentional Community) and positioned myself in the midst of the books, both to assist with book sales and so that folks who wanted a conversation with me as a community resource would know where to find me.

Since I injured my lower back last October, I've taken to traveling with a cushion so that I have back support wherever I sit, and I naturally set that up in one of the two chairs located inside the book area. It's common for me to leave a certain amount of personal stuff in the bookstore area overnight, to eliminate schlepping it around every day, and in two decades I'd never had a problem with it getting messed with.

While everything was proceeding normally (excepting for the thundershowers that drenched the conference site in hail and rain Friday afternoon), when I got to the bookstore Sunday morning I noticed right away that my cushion was missing. What could have happened? Frustrated, I looked all around the bookstore area and on nearby seats and hammocks, but to no avail. When no one brought it back during the morning, I made a public announcement at lunch about its having gone missing, but that produced no joy either. It was just gone.

While it made eminent sense why my cushion might be desirable amidst all the wooden seating, how do you just take something that doesn't belong to you and then ignore the plea of the person who needs it for support? I felt taken advantage of, and it shook my sense of trust. In the end, I never did find out what happened and I didn't recover the cushion. I don't know if it was stolen, or simply borrowed temporarily and then left in a place I never looked.

To be sure, by itself it was not that big a deal. The cushion was not a needlepoint heirloom and my back is better enough now that I don't strictly need the cushion as I did when first injured, and it had as much sentimental value as practical (as my trusty support and a memento of my life together with my ex-wife). That made it no less precious, but I also knew I would function OK without it.

Then it got worse.

The Missing Money Box
For more than 40 years I've been living in northeast Missouri, which is the headquarters of FIC. Almost always, when participating in the Twin Oaks Conference I'd drive out to VA with a carload of books and DVDs and then turn around and drive back with the unsold products and the money (cash, checks, and credit cards slips). I'd be the one unloading the car in Missouri and handing in the paperwork.

This year was more complicated because I'd moved to North Carolina in June. I made arrangements to visit northeast Missouri ahead of the conference so that I could drive out as usual, and I made the trip with someone from Dancing Rabbit, a videographer named Illly (yes, he spells it with three l's)—both so that he could shoot footage at the event in preparation for an FIC crowdfunding campaign, and so that he could drive the rental car back to Missouri afterwards while I traveled north from Virginia to conduct a facilitation training weekend outside Boston.

Though the conference continued through Labor Day Monday, Illly needed to depart late Sunday afternoon in order to get back home in time to turn in the rental car within a week, to avoid extra charges. That meant we needed to conduct a final inventory and pack everything up for the trip home expeditiously Sunday afternoon. While the weather was good, there was a lot to do and Illly was going through the routine for the first time. While his attitude was great and we worked together well, it was all on Illly's shoulders to get everything back to Missouri in good order.

When I got confirmation Tuesday that Illly had made it home safely, I breathed a bit easier. (I wasn't expecting trouble, but you never know when someone needs to drive solo long distance.) I figured at that point that conference logistics were behind me, but it turned out they were just about to bite me in the behind, which is not quite the same thing.

The day Illly had returned I got an email from Kim in the FIC Office, asking where the money and sales records were. Huh? The cash, checks, and credit cards receipts were all in a cigar box that we've been using for that purpose for years, as Kim well knew, and the sales records were in a manila file folder. I had been present when these were packed up at the conference and was sure they were in the boxes shipped back to Missouri. How could they be missing?

As you can imagine this started a series of emails with gradually escalating anxiety as no one had any idea where the cigar box and sales records had gotten to. After none of the innocent suggestions solved the mystery, dark thoughts started creeping into our collective consciousness.

Did Illly take it? Was he careless at a rest stop? Did I do something I'm not remembering? Could someone at the conference have ripped us off while Illly went to the parking lot (suddenly more thinkable following the missing cushion)? All of these thoughts were awkward and led to a sense of being violated (excepting the scenario where I had done something stupid; which was simply embarrassing).

We had never had this happen before, nor was there any solid reason to think that it had happened now—excepting that the money box was missing and had to be somewhere.

After two days of fruitless back and forth, where everyone was asking each other to rack their brains and check twice (and thrice), we were beginning to contemplate asking the event attendees to help us out in recreating what had happened. While the cash was gone, we might be able to stop payment on checks and credit card charges—about two-thirds of the total income. While this was an unsavory task, it was better than just kissing all the income goodbye.

Then the sun came out from behind the dark clouds. 

The Missing Sunshine
Three days into this misery, Kim remembered that part of what Illly brought back were some things for me, to be temporarily stored in Missouri. Perhaps the records and money box had been mixed up with those items? And that turned out to be the needed insight: the cigar box and file folder had been inadvertently covered up beneath my yoga mat. Whew! It turned out that none of those bad things had happened at all. Everyone one collectively sighed.

Part of the problem was that Illly was doing all the transporting home and he hadn't ever been through the drill of unpacking from an event. It was just so many boxes to him, and he was under some time pressure to get the car unloaded an returned to the rental company. He did his job fine, but everything didn't get placed where it could easily be sorted properly: there were books to be reshelved; unsold auction items to be stored until next year; Laird's personal stuff; Illly's video equipment, and records and money to be handed in for accounting. 

Someone once said that the veneer of civilization is only about three meals deep, and it was humbling seeing how quickly dark thoughts started surfacing when the money went missing for three days. While we were holding out hope for a happy ending, our confidence had been shaken. I think Kim summarized it well when she wrote, after the money had been found, "We can all regain our faith in humanity again :) … maybe."

Now if I could only get reunited with my cushion, I'd be able to put this unpleasantness behind me entirely.

Bullies and Boundaries

I was recently in a conversation with a prospective client about the possibility of my working with their group about the dynamics of bullying and boundaries. As I thought about it, I figured the first challenge was defining what those two concepts mean. Here's what I came up with:

Definition of Bullying
Let me start with this online definition from a school website:

Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.

In community, I'd modify this to say it's the perception that someone is purposefully communicating or behaving in a way that is uncomfortable, threatening, or disrespectful in order to put others at a disadvantage with respect to engaging on an issue. The effect of bullying behavior is often that engagement is unpleasant, tense, and ineffective. Sometimes it doesn't happen at all—because the person being "bullied" is too intimidated to even attempt it.

There is the perception that if the bully's behavior is tolerated, then the playing field has been tipped in their favor. This is seen as an abuse of power, and the bully comes across as being more interested in getting their way than in working it out with others. (If they were really interested in relationship or collaborative problem solving, they wouldn't behave that way.)

Note #1: The fact that the bully's behavior is unwanted and that this has been communicated to the bully (perhaps even repeatedly) does not necessarily mean that the bully knows another way, or that everyone experiences that behavior as bullying. Further complicating the dynamic, what is scary, aggressive, and threatening in one context, may be culturally appropriate or acceptable in another. This can be a diversity issue.

Note #2: While the most common way that bullying is understood is when a person uses forceful or threatening behaviors to get others to back down (perhaps the bully can tolerate being in a tension-filled environment better than others), the essence of this dynamic is when people use a communication style that is known to be awkward, difficult, or inaccessible to others, thereby placing the other person at a distinct disadvantage.

Thus, two people with very different communication styles can each feel bullied by the other. Because each may come across as insisting that the other person adopt their style as a pre-condition of being willing to communicate, it can lead to a stalemate with each blaming the other for the impasse.

One of the tricky aspects of bullying is that there is often an assignment of bad intent to the bully's behavior, and it is very difficult to know intent. It is not a simple matter to distinguish between an action that is deeply conditioned versus one that is calculated to cause distress.

All of that said, you do not just have to lump it if another's behavior or communication style doesn't work for you. You can still try to discuss it and explore what's possible with regard to the "bully" making efforts to move towards the comfort zone of others without becoming too uncomfortable themselves. Similarly, this can be worked from the other end as well: to what extent can those who struggle with the 'bully" learn to cope with their behavior, assuming good intent? (If you tense up in the presence of loud voices, are you willing to work on that response?)

Definition of Boundaries
In the context of a cooperative group, "boundaries" have to do with how far individuals (or the group) are willing to go to in attempting to engage with others in a good faith effort to work through issues. It comes into play when people feel they've tried enough and it's OK to disengage in integrity. You don't have to think very hard about this concept to appreciate that if boundaries are easily triggered, it leads to a lot of unresolved tension and general unhappiness. So healthy groups try to develop a culture in which there is ready support for people in tension, ostensibly so that those good faith efforts are easy to attempt and more likely to be productive.

While you can be sympathetic to the desire for boundaries (who wants to keep butting their head against the wall?), the danger is reaching for the boundary card prematurely. There is the general sense that Pontius Pilate was too quick on the trigger in writing off Jesus, and thus there is nuance about when you've tried enough and when you're simply trying to avoid something awkward while wrapping yourself in the flag of moral virtue.

While I believe that setting a boundary (giving up on the prospects for productive communication with someone) has to be an option (I've reached that point half a dozen times over the course of four decades in community and cooperative networking), the overwhelming danger is not trying too long; it's giving up too soon. The most seductive version of this is when there's a difficult individual with low social capital. Time and again I've witnessed groups embracing the story that the outlier's behavior is the problem and it's on that person to conform. Absent that, they'll be ignored.

Stretching, by definition, entails a certain amount of awkwardness, trying to figure out how far you're willing to move outside your comfort zone to find an intersection with a person you find difficult. If you're going to give up on them, you need to be able to sleep at night with having made that decision. Most people think of themselves as reasonable and compassionate. Have you lived up to your own standards with respect to adjusting how you come across in order to reach the other person? (Note: I'm not talking about trying the same thing over and over and it still not working; I'm talking about trying different things and none of them working.)

When people invoke boundaries—limiting their future engagement with people they find difficult—it makes it that much harder for the group to succeed. Communication and bridging are the lifeblood of the community and boundaries cut off the communication and block the bridges. It is an act of withdrawing the possibility of community with the person with whom you have established a boundary. It's a serious deal, and should only be taken after everything else has failed.

Too often, in my observation, people are willing to establish boundaries in retaliation for what they've experienced as disrespect (and perhaps disregard) by the other person (perhaps someone who comes across as a bully), without actually testing to see what the other person intended or checking for what they'd like their exchanges with you to be like, or are open to working on.

In effect, we're setting boundaries around unpleasantness, forgetting that it can have a profound impact on the people and relationships. If someone promised you that community living was not going to involve awkward dynamics, I have some oceanfront property in Utah that I'd like to talk to you about.

Back on Stage

Teaching is one of the most fun things I do.

Sometimes it's spontaneous, like explaining to someone how and why to use a steel to hone kitchen knives (you'd be amazed how often that comes up). Sometimes it's a discrete package, like a 90-minute workshop on Membership (such as I just gave Sunday at the Twin Oaks Communities Conference, where I walk through a number of questions that all groups should address—or else pay the price of ambiguity).

While I enjoy both of those kinds of opportunities, nothing compares with the challenges and possibilities that are available in the context of the two-year facilitation course I've been offering since 2003. It has been almost eight months since the last training ended (in mid-January, when Ma'ikwe and I wrapped up a course in North Carolina) and that's a long time between sessions. The good news is that I'm starting a course in New England tonight (working with Alyson Ewald from Red Earth Farms).

The even better news is that I'll also be starting a course in Portland OR, Dec 3-6 (working with Ma'ikwe again), and a third in North Carolina with María Stawksy, beginning Jan 14-17. So I have a lot of fun queued up for the next two years.

One of the most important features of the course is that I get to work with the students eight times, with approximately three months between training weekends, which affords students an opportunity to practice between sessions—an essential aspect of integrating the material. (It's one thing to understand the theory underneath a practice and even to see a thing demonstrated; it's another to be able to do it yourself in the dynamic moment.)

The training is heavily focused on hands-on learning. Fully three-quarters of each weekend is devoted to preparing for, delivering, and debriefing the students facilitating live meetings for the host group. These are not role plays; they are actual meetings where real issues are being addressed and real solutions are being sought. I figure the students learn to swim faster if if they're thrown in the deep end of the pool, under the close supervision of life guards who will step in if things get overwhelming or ineffective—we don't let anyone drown.

The key aspect of this is that the trainers can redirect in the dynamic moment, where the student will learn the lesson viscerally, not just in their head.

While the primary objective of the training is teaching high-skilled facilitation in collaborative settings, it turns out that the course is also cooperative leadership training because there is so much overlap in the skill set and orientation. Both facilitators and leaders need to:

o  Be excellent listeners
o  Work unflappably, yet empathetically with chaotic energy
o  Be minimally defensive
o  Be able to sort the wheat from chaff in complex conversations
o  Be able to focus a conversation
o  Be able to articulate agreements that pull the group together
o  Be able to see and articulate bridges between different perspectives
o  Be able to patiently explain why they're doing what they're doing and where they want the group to head
o  Support others learning the skills needed to competently replace them

Thus, this training is not solely for people who aspire to run meetings. It's also for those who want to develop the capacity for healthy leadership—both so that they can fill that role themselves and so that they can support it in others.

The facilitation training program works for me personally at three levels:

a) Passing on my knowledge about how to run great meetings
This was my foremost objective when I pioneered this training a dozen years ago. In the US I see a society that is desperate for more inclusive and less divisive ways to solve problems—and it's only getting worse. Consensus and cooperative facilitation offers a promising alternative to Roberts Rules of Order and the tyranny of majority rule.

When I contemplate some the challenges ahead (climate change, chaotic economies, increasing disparities between the haves and have-nots) and take into account the need for skilled facilitation to midwife the transition from competitive to cooperative culture, I've come to the conclusion that my greatest calling as a social change agent is to train facilitators. And it's not a moment too soon.

b) Developing a larger pool of professional facilitators
As you might imagine, the skill level of people drawn to take the training varies widely. While I was concerned at first about the range being too wide (the experienced might be bored while the neophytes were overloading their circuits), that's not turned out to be a problem. The more seasoned have appreciated the chance to understand the theory better and gain nuance while helping the newbies get a solid grounding in the art of facilitation. Further, it often works well to pair the more experienced with the less experienced, letting them help each other.

At this point there about 80 people who have gone through the two-year training (which has been delivered in its entirety eight times), and out of that number there are about 8-10 who have a skill level that's professional grade or nearly so. They represent the cream, and are those most likely to put themselves forward as for-hire facilitators (which a number of them are). To be sure, mostly these folks were already pretty skilled before they took the course; I was simply polishing gems.

For the most accomplished students I offer the opportunity to accompany me as an apprentice when I'm hired as an outside facilitators (so long as it's OK with the client). While they don't get paid, they get one-on-one time with their mentor and they get professional exposure (why would someone hire a facilitator with no work resumé?). I didn't have that kind of help when I started out, and I'm committed to giving my students a leg up.

c) Developing a cadre of trainers
Finally, there is one more circle, even smaller than the last. The very best students are not only professional grade facilitators, they are good enough to be trainers, and I am committed to helping them get exposure in that capacity—mainly be having them pair with me as teachers of the training.

Thus, I will be working with three different co-trainers in the three different trainings about to start—Alyson, Ma'ikwe, and María—all of which are former students in the program.

It's incumbent on me as both a leader and a trainer to be working with purpose toward the day when I will no longer be able to do either, such that the spirit of my work, as interpreted and owned by the new people in whom it resonates, can continue after I cannot. It's part of the human dance.

Meanwhile, the lights go up on the teaching stage again tonight, and I can smell the roar of the greasepaint.

Millennials and Sustainability

I just finished attending the annual Twin Oaks Communities Conference in Louisa VA. One of the most interesting ideas that surfaced for me was a comment made by a thirtysomething woman who reported that people in their 20s and 30s tend to be more drawn to community living for reasons of economic sanity than enhanced social engagement. That was a new perspective for me.

She suggested that it might be a generational difference, and perhaps she's right.

Certainly there's more economic upheaval than 30 years ago (when I was a thirtysomething). Millennials are seriously questioning why they should take on school debt when it's not at all clear that a degree will lead to meaningful work—or even work of any kind. I recently heard a startling statistic: three years in the future 90% of people under 35 do not expect to be working in the same place they are now. They expect chaos.

Because community offers a larger safety net, significantly reduced costs through sharing, and perhaps the promise of meaningful work (depending on the community), it makes sense that economics may be a bigger driver today in attracting millennials. That said, community economics will come in a package that will necessarily require greater social skills to navigate than a traditional job. In a community (or cooperative) business you can expect there to be as much attention given to how workers and management function together as what gets accomplished. That necessarily gets you into social territory, whether you meant to go there or not.

It is not enough to simply aspire to sustainable economics, where there's agreement that business activity should be measured against the standard of the triple bottom line (people, planet, and profit), or that work should be well aligned with values and enjoyable. If you're in for a penny (hunting better economics), then you're in for a pound (learning better communication skills, and the ability to distinguish what's best for me from what's best for the group)—because you won't secure the former without mastering the latter.

Are millennials approaching community living with better social skills than my generation did? I'm not sure. I certainly believe they're capable of learning them every bit as well as my generation did (or didn't), and in the end what does it matter in what order someone is inspired to pick up the skills needed to become more sustainable? The important thing is that they did and that they came to understand how one set of skills relates to another.

The point of entrée is significant from a marketing standpoint (maybe FIC should be emphasizing more how intentional communities provide real alternatives to the mainstream job market, rather than the authenticity of friendships forged in the crucible of community living), yet doesn't change the overall mix of what intentional communities offer, and just serves to underline how much all roads lead to home. Wherever you start, the trail will eventually bring you to all aspects, because, at its best, community living is integrated living, where we aspire to close the gap between our dreams and our everyday reality.

Making Things Better

I recently had this exchange with my partner, Susan:

When I visited property outside of Savannah, I couldn't help but think of the slaves that had lived there when it was a plantation. There are a few preserved slave cabins in the area and I vacillated between thinking how beautiful the thick woods were and how impossible it would have been to escape from them. I'd like to think I would have been like the Grimke sisters [Angelina and Sarah, who spoke against slavery in the 1830s, after having witnessed its horrors first hand growing up in South Carolina] and disturbed by slavery, but is it more likely I'd have been a product of the times and an obedient little girl?

While it’s almost impossible not to speculate, it’s also an impossible question to answer: essentially, how would you respond in a challenging situation that you’ve never faced? Of course, we get glimpses of our courage and our moral strength from time to time, when we are faced with tough moments. But it’s hard to accurately extrapolate from what happened in one moment to how you’d respond in another.
Guess instead of thinking on that, I should concentrate on what I can do today to make things better.

I believe there’s ore to be mined in imagining yourself in such a circumstance (in the Deep South in the first half of the 19th Century), as a thought experiment, knowing you’d be voicing a highly unpopular idea (questioning slavery). Yet even then I imagine there would be a way to initiate conversations where you could try to connect with all the players: both slaves and owners, if you could be genuinely curious about how they were handling the dynamic. While I think it would be hard to get a salve to trust a white girl and be forthcoming, I don’t think it would be impossible. Easier, perhaps, would be asking your family members and neighbors how it felt to own another human being. I’m suggesting this because I could imagine you doing that, introducing questions of morality and anguish, where perhaps the topic was being avoided—rather than pronouncing judgment or fomenting a slave rebellion.

I imagine this could have led to more decent conditions for the slaves and humane treatment (which must have happened in some cases). I appreciate that this is far short of eliminating slavery, but it would have been a positive step.

All of that said, I also resonate with “what I can do today to make things better.” I think one of the prime challenges in life is how to be a happy, joyous person, while at the same time aware of the incredible depth of misery, suffering, and inequity in the world. It’s overwhelming. Yet going around in a depressed state in recognition of that helps no one. 

This is why it’s a compelling question for me, “What is my social change work?” Essentially, how am I trying to make a positive difference? My community networking, consulting, teaching, and writing are all geared toward that. I’ll never know how much impact I’m actually having, but at least I have my paddle in the water. 

I’m also determined to live from my passion, so I only do work I love, and I am committed to being a loving person. So loving you is part of my social change work. Not just frosting on the cake; it is a core element of living a full life. I am a better person because I love you, you love me, and we don’t take that for granted. We work the garden of our relationship and we eat from it regularly. I intend to be ruthlessly happy with you, and all of the other things I do will be positively nurtured by that robust love.
• • •Today there is increasing attention given to the question, "What's sustainable?" This applies on the personal level every bit as much as on the neighborhood or national level. While it's not quite the same thing as how to make life better for everyone, it's close. People are concerned with how to make a life that does not depend on consuming more resources per person than would allow everyone to have enough. (Or, put another way, how good can a model be if it means some people cannot have it.)

My dialog with Susan points up that it is not simply a question of having a good model. You also need the courage to move the needle off center. When my grandmother first learned that I was quitting my job as a junior bureaucrat in Washington DC to start a commune in Missouri, she cautioned me about the folly of throwing my life away on a pipe dream. If I stepped off the treadmill for a few years I might never be able to get back on. I remember thinking at the time, "Who wants to be on a treadmill?" 

Now it's 41 years later and I'm still chasing the pipe dream of community (and I still don't understand why anyone would want to be on a treadmill). Only now it's much more than a dream. It's my way of life.

To be sure, I was lucky. I stumbled onto what would become my life's work when I was 24—even if it took a few decades to sort out how to use that as platform for social change work. I don't recall thinking of myself as courageous at the time. It just seemed like an interesting experiment, and almost certainly more personally rewarding than a career as a Washington bureaucrat.

When facing a choice about rocking the boat (whether objecting to slavery in the Deep South in the 1830s or extolling the benefits of community living in the 21st Century) you have to weigh the downside (becoming a social pariah, or an object of derision and ridicule) against the peace that comes from acting on your principles (being able to sleep at night, and the possibility that you've made the world a better place). This equation is complicated by considerable uncertainty. Often, going in, you won't have a complete picture of the costs or the benefits. Sometimes, in fact, later events prove that your well-intentioned act of bravery had no good impact at all—in which case you get the dubious experience of being exposed as a fool, and judged naive and ineffective to boot.

Yet for all those pitfalls, is there anything so exhilarating and spiritually uplifting as those moments in our lives when we did find the courage to step beyond our comfort zone to speak up about something we knew in our hearts to be wrong, and wanted to make better?

The Facilitator's Horse Trick

I was recently in a conversation with a friend who had just facilitated a difficult meeting for a neighboring community. Upon reflection, he felt fine when it came to working conflict and emotional distress, but felt sloppy and not well-focused when it came to managing problem solving and issue exploration.

While most facilitators would report the reverse (comfort in examining issues, yet unsure our their footing in the face of strong emotional currents), I believe deeply that we need facilitators who can do both. The bad news is that it ain't easy. The good news is that it's possible, and can be learned.

I've been a professional facilitator for 28 years, and have been teaching it—in the context of cooperative culture —for the last dozen years. Next year I'll be conducting three two-year facilitation training courses concurrently (one in New England starting Sept 10-13, one in Portland OR starting Dec 3-6, and one in North Carolina starting Jan 14-17).

One of the key concepts that I'll teach is that a high-end facilitator needs to be able to ride two horses: both the Content horse and the Energy horse. My friend, understandably, was witnessing how hard it is to be good at both. While acknowledging that as a widespread phenomenon—I know very few who are equally adept on both horses—I believe it's crucial that we invest in training facilitators to learn to ride like that.

The Content Horse
The skill set here includes:

o   Laying out clearly how the conversation will be focused 
o   Coming up with and following a plan for how the conversation will flow from opening to conclusion
o   Separating the signal from noise (not all contributions to the consideration are equally valuable)
o   Offering concise and accurate summaries
o   Weaving together the common elements of disparate statements (bridging between people who disagree)
o  Making sure no one is left behind
o  Tracking loose ends of the conversation
o  Accurately reflecting the sense of the meeting

The Energy Horse
The skill set here includes:

o  Getting people moving frequently enough (up out of their seats, to increase blood flow)
o  Maintaining a positive, curious attitude
o  Appreciating people's contributions without taking sides
o  Attending to emotional undercurrents when they start impacting the group negatively
o  Not freaking out when others freak out
o  Sequencing the work such that the group is ready to do heavy lifting when the time comes
o  Celebrating success 
o  Finishing on an up note

Unfortunately, the skills needed for doing well with one horse are largely unrelated to being good at the other. And as if that weren't enough, there is the further challenge of discerning which horse to be riding at any given moment. All of which is why facilitation is an art form and not a paint-by-numbers exercise, where all you need to do is follow a script.

The two main difficulties that facilitators face are complexity (a Content concern) and volatility (an Energy concern). What if you encounter a topic that includes both—which is a lead-pipe certainty to occur some of the time? That's when you use your most experienced people, or even bring in a hired gun. You'll need someone at the helm who can deftly handle both horses and will know when to switch rides. If facilitators get in over their heads, everyone pays (not only do you suffer through a poor meeting, but the facilitator can get traumatized into the bargain—yuck).

If you cannot develop the capacity for a single person to ride both horses (best), try to have two people work in tandem, with a horse each (next best). While two riders means you'll have to choreograph who's the lead facilitator at any given moment, it can be done, and may be more accessible than one person developing the agility needed to dance from one horse to the other, and back again.

A Week in my Old Room

This week I'm visiting Sandhill Farm, the community I helped start in 1974 and was a member of until last summer.

As it happens, I'm staying in my old room, which has now been converted to a sewing space, making it an interesting mix of the familiar and the strange. My welcome here has been warm, and I've enjoyed a number of conversations on the front porch (Sandhill's favorite fair weather hangout spot).

In addition to treading water with email (the flood of which never stops), my visit is a potpourri of my many familiar things:

o  Playing dpulicate bridge
The first night I was back I drove into Kirksville and played in the regular Wed evening duplicate game. I hadn't played since I was last in town (early June), but card playing is a lot like riding a bicycle, and my partner and I finished in a tie for first.

o  Preparing my divorce paperwork
Thursday I spent the morning with Ma'ikwe, going over our no-fault DIY divorce settlement. We now have a notarized document that we've both signed and I'll drop it off at the Circuit Court on Wednesday when I go into our county seat to pick up a rental car for the next leg of my fall odyssey.

While we were able to work everything out with minimal hassle, I can't focus on the failure of our marriage without invoking a cloud of sadness.

o  Making frames for María's ritual prints
One of the first things María told me about when I moved into her and Joe's house in June was that she was planning a major ritual for her birthday, Oct 3. As part of her shamanic training she'll be conducting a doming ceremony, which will help protect her home from inappropriate spirits (I don't think alcohol counts), maintaining the house as a sanctuary.

An aspect of this is installing eight pieces of original art that draw upon different spiritual traditions, to be affixed according the eight cardinal points of the compass. She had the art in hand, but needed to have it framed. After volunteering on the spot to do that for her, I quickly realized that I had no idea where in Chapel Hill I was going to get access to the woodworking equipment that I'd need. Then it occurred to me that I could do the job at Sandhill, where everything I needed was in one place, and I was familiar with all the tools.

So here I am, making eight 10.5"x13.5" frames out of walnut. I started Wednesday with raw lumber that had been air dried, and have now planed it, ripped it, shaped it with a router, beveled it with a table saw, put in a rabbet joint with a table saw, cut a joining dado with a radial arm saw, and sanded the pieces. Tomorrow I'll start gluing up, so that I can get everything assembled and oiled in time to drive the finished products east with me this coming Wednesday.

Though I'll be working with a community in Colorado Springs on María's brithday, my spirit will be thoroughly commingled with all eight pieces of art.

o  Visiting friends
As you might imagine there are plenty of people in the tri-communities of Rutledge that it's a pleasure to see while I'm in town. I've already been over to DR twice and will go again tomorrow, mainly to participate in Men's Group, which meets every Sunday at 7:30 pm until we're done.

o  Making tomatillo salsa
Monday I have a date with Frankie (a new Sandhill member and former intern) to process three five-gallon buckets of tomatillos—all of which go into making salsa, using a recipe that I pioneered years ago working off the advice of a Latina intern we had one summer, who passed along the secret of her Grandma Gutierrez: roast everything.

As food processing used to be one of my main jobs at Sandhill, it'll be fun to be back in the kitchen putting a little of the summer into jars (a la Greg Brown's grandma).

o  Cleaning out the old FIC Trailer
Last, I'll be devoting most of Tuesday to walking through the old FIC trailer, sorting stuff to be recycled from stuff to be archived. On a space available basis, I'll load the car with archive materials to be dropped off at the Center for Communal Studies, which is located on the campus of the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville—which I'll be driving right by on my way to the Twin Oaks Communities Conference.
• • •So it's being a week filled with conversation, memories, and good work. I even have time for a little reading.

Camp Easton

Beside the shores of Little Long
Where towering pines do stand
There is a camp called Easton,
The finest in the land.

The boys there are the straightest
That ever felled a tree.
All honest, kind good fellows
With hearts both bold and free.

And if I choose to wander
10,000 miles or so
I'll think of my Camp Easton
Whene'er a fire does glow.

Sunday afternoon, after Susan and I wrapped up a visit with friends at their cabin on Birch Lake, near Babbitt, we detoured on the way back home to Duluth to see if we could find Camp Easton, where I learned to canoe from ages eight to 16 (1958-66).

I knew where it was, tucked into the southwest corner of Little Long Lake, between Shagawa Lake (on the shores of which sits Ely, gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area) and Burntside Lake, a major destination for resort seekers. The question was what remained of it.

Getting to Ely was easy (and yes, Zupancich's Grocery is still alive and well, selling pasties and hot bologna). From there we took the county road that circles Shagawa Lake, hoping to suss out which turn on the north shore would lead to Little Long. Our problem was decisively settled when we encountered a sign for "Camp Easton Road."

Turning in, I explained to Susan that there was a fork in the road up ahead that used to be marked by a pine tree in the middle: to the left would be the camp; to the right would be private cabins along the south shore of the lake. Twice a summer, the campers would race by cabin group from the craft shop to the pine tree and back. This contest was styled The Lone Pine Tree Road Race: 0.6 miles up and down the gravel road. Amazingly, the lone pine still stood, so there was no question where to turn, even though a sign indicated that we were entering the private property of Rock Ridge Camp and Outfitters.

It wasn't long before a string of familiar green painted bunk houses started appearing along the road on our right, with glimpses of Little Long poking through the trees. These buildings were the cabins for the Bobcats, Beavers, Eagles, Wolves, and Cubs, respectively. Sure enough there were still signs identifying a couple of them.

Though it was the tail end of summer, the camp's season was not quite over, and we met Mike on the road, as he was outbound in a pickup, towing a canoe trailer on a rescue mission to pick up some wind-bound canoeists on a nearby lake. Once he learned that I had once been a camper there—albeit 50 years ago—he told us to go on up to the dining hall and tell his wife that we were welcome to look around. He was part of a Christian Fellowship group that has been operating it as Rock Ridge since 1997.

As near as I can piece it together, the camp began as Camp Winter, which probably went back at least as far as the '30s. At some point Bill Easton (head track coach at Kansas University) bought it and changed the name. Bill's last year was my first: 1958. At the end of the summer he sold it to his Assistant Director, Doug Bobo (who wisely decided to keep the old name and not risk his endeavor being mistaken for clown camp). Doug ran it for the remainder of my tenure as a camper and at least into 1972. It's mysterious to me what bridged Doug's ownership to the Rock Ridge era.

To be sure, much had changed. There were buildings I didn't recognize, parking lots where there had once been only trees, and even a tarmac basketball court that didn't use to be there. But the road ended at the top of the hill where it always had, right next to the dining hall.

Walking into the mess hall brought back a wealth of decades-old images. Though the wall decorations had been altered, the wooden plank tables covered in oilcloth were just the same. The room looked smaller than my teenage memories, but I could almost hear echoes of the after-dinner singing.

When I had been a camper, there had been a string of plaques along the top of the outer walls, commemorating who had attended each summer's session. I had been hoping to show Susan the ones with my name on them, but they were not in sight. When I asked Mike's wife about them she offered hopefully that some had been relocated to the Trading Post (the re-purposed Cubs cabin), and others still were in a box in the next room. Alas, the artifacts boxed in the office were of too recent a vintage to cover my era. So we repaired to the Trading Post to see what we might discover there.

While those plaques turned out to be from years before my time we did discover this gem from 1952:

The eighth name listed in the Wolves Den that year was Guy Schaub, my brother (though the last two letters have been obscured by damage to the birch bark on which the names were recorded with a wood burning tool). Guy only went the one time, six years before his younger brother first ventured north to learn campcraft. While Susan and I weren't able to locate any of the plaques from my years, it was enough to have found my lineage still on display.

From there we moseyed down to the beachfront, an overexposed view of which can be seen behind me in the opening image. While there used to be two piers where there is now one, and the old roof-protected canoe racks are long gone, the sauna still remains:

All summer long, the sauna would be fired up every other day, with each camper required to avail themselves of the opportunity to get steam-cleaned, followed by a bracing, pore-closing dip in the lake. As you can see from the image, there were three benches, which allowed campers to find the heat level they could best tolerate. On the top bench, where I'm sitting, the temperature could reach 230 degrees. While the sauna is still wood-fired, They've now electrified it for interior lighting (it used to be illuminated solely by a kerosene lantern placed in the window that separated the sauna from the anteroom where the firewood was stored), but it's the same building, with decades of soot baked into the eaves. Just the smell was evocative of summer nights in the North Woods.

Overlooking the beach is the old lodge. Now serving as the Lakeside Chapel, in our day it was employed mainly as a hangout space on rainy days, as a library, and as the site for hotly contested ping pong games. While pews have replaced the gaming equipment, many of the old hardbacks still line the dusty shelves along the back wall.

Thus Susan and I spent a satisfying hour on a rainy Sunday, ringing down the echoes of the summers of my youth.

Now We're Cooking

Over the years I've done a fair amount of wilderness camping, much of it canoeing in central Canada. While we could always depend on catching fish for a certain number of meals (mainly northern pike and walleye), we were essentially packing in all our food and packing out all our inorganic waste.

While that's unquestionably the right thing to do ecologically, it was invariably a challenge physiologically, because you are necessarily most loaded at the front end of the trip, when your muscles are least accustomed to the workload. Every day, as we steadily worked our way through the food supplies with purpose and appetite, the packs got a little lighter—a phenomenon that we referred to as "eating our way to mobility." The more we consumed, the easier it was to load the canoes each morning and to portage the remains.

I tell you that story because Susan and I have been going through an analogous gauntlet of food management the last five days.

When I visited her in early July (during which time we successfully launched our young relationship between old friends), one of the many things we discussed was what we might do together on future visits. It didn't take us very long to settle on hosting dinner parties as a possibility: cooking is something we both enjoy and it would be a delightful way to include others (rather than holing up in her house playing doctor).

Dinner Party #1
Looking ahead to the visit I'm now enjoying, Susan's first thought was to organize a dinner party for eight, where three other couples who enjoy good food would be invited. While that sounded fine to me, it turned out that the dates didn't work for one of the couples, so she switched off to hosting a neighborhood party, taking advantage of her kids visiting at the same time I'd be there. She knew that many of the neighbors would appreciate catching up with Britta (33) and Jamie (31), and vice versa. Because my overlap with the kids was only a few days, we needed to schedule the party for the day after I arrived (Wed). Then, because it was hard to know where to draw the line on who to invite, dinner for eight mushroomed into a freewheeling affair for 19. Yeehah! 

Reasonably enough, Susan's ease in expanding the guest list was influenced by the likelihood of being able to accommodate the flow in the back yard as well as the living room and dining room (think end of the summer block party). Unfortunately it started raining Tuesday night and was wet and soggy all day Wed, with temperatures in the 50s. Oops. Time to switch to Plan B, where all the milling was confined indoors—with Jamie bravely manning the barbecue grill out back, dancing between rain squalls. Even though we didn't quite have enough seating for everyone, in the end only 17 showed up and it all worked fine. Britta and Jamie were game for helping out and the home team pulled it off without a glitch.

In addition to a few contributions from the guests (who were told that nothing was needed but brought favorite recipes anyway) we served up:
—Swedish cucumbers with sour cream
—Sri Wasano's Infamous Indonesian Rice Salad 
—Sliced fresh tomatoes, red onions, and shredded basil marinated in aioli
—Watermelon cubed and tossed with mint and feta
—Grilled bratwurst (both pork and tofu) and grass-fed hamburgers
—Peach cobbler
—Plenty of wine, beer, and soda

Did we have enough food? We didn't even bother to pull out the second dessert and we were giving away doggie bags to all comers by the end of the night.

Dinner Party #2
While the refrigerator was already stuffed with leftovers, we bravely turned around Thursday and began planning for the second dinner party that Susan had queued up—this one for her mah jongg group on Friday. Susan is a card-carrying member of a dedicated group of four women who meet monthly for schmoozing and game playing. While the males do not typically attend these gatherings this party would be an all-skate, with Susan and me cooking. (Thus, Susan managed to preserve our opportunity to cook for a party for eight.) Now all we needed was a menu.

Susan and I tossed around a number of ideas before settling on:
—Appetizer tray of assorted olives, assorted cheeses, peppadews, marcona almonds, and French bread
—Locally made linguine with fresh spinach, served with a sauce featuring onions, garlic, and crimini mushrooms, cooked in a red wine reduction, topped with fresh whole sage leaves fried in butter
—Pork tenderloin smothered in caramelized onions, served with sour cherry chutney
—Frenched green beans stir-fried with garlic chunks and turmeric
—Potatoes au gratin
—Dessert was a birthday cake for one of the guests, who's special day was coming up at the end of the month

This worked pretty good, and we even got in several hands of mah jongg, with two of the men playing for the first time.

As the evening wound down (circa 10 pm), we distributed another round of doggie bags to our happy guests and sent them off into the night. After corralling all the party detritus into the kitchen, Susan reloaded the dishwasher and somehow manged to find a home for all the leftovers, creatively manifesting holes in a refrigerator that appeared to be completely full when she began.

Dinner Party #3
Saturday morning we slept in. Jamie had departed Thursday (for a bachelor's party weekend with 10-12 guys at a cabin on Lake Vermillion), and Britta had left Friday morning, headed back to Denver, by way of Northfield MN, where she'd do a spot of alumni fundraising for Carleton College, from which all four of us had graduated.

After luxuriating in an unscheduled morning with no one else in the house, we prepared to head to Babbitt and a rendezvous with friends Jane & Mick at a cabin they had rented for three weeks on Birch Lake, very near Ely and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. 

Taking into account that Jane & Mick would be arriving from their home in the Twin Cities only scant hours before we got there, and that we didn't want to be ungracious guests for our overnight stay, Susan volunteered that we'd cook dinner. (Hell, we were on a roll, right?)

While we needed to be a bit more creative to accommodate their vegan diet, it wasn't hard to settle on a reprise of the previous night's pasta dish. We just made sure to bring eggless noodles and to use olive oil in place of butter in building the sauce. So we dropped the sage leaves and substituted a handful of minced green olives and a jar of sun-dried tomatoes. We also contributed some of the choice leftovers from Friday: antipasto, the frenched green beans, and a loaf of French bread to fill out the simple menu.

Dinner Party #4
Tonight is my last night in Duluth. Amazingly enough, Susan and I will be dining alone. (Notice the near perfect progression: 17 on Wednesday; 8 on Friday; 4 on Saturday; 2 on Monday. Looked at through a geometric lens it seems inevitable that I'll be on my own come Tuesday, and fasting by Wednesday.)

I brought with me a special bottle of Chardonnay Reserve from Chateau Morrisette that I picked up when I was in Floyd VA at the beginning of the month, and we'll start the evening with that, augmented by baked garlic, a wedge of champignon brie, and the ubiquitous loaf of warm French bread. From there we expect to make further inroads on the surfeit of delicious leftovers, coming to the rescue of our hardworking refrigerator.

In case you couldn't tell, one of my favorite things is to cook and eat (and drink) with friends. This week I got to indulge in all three to my heart's content.

Trial by Travel

I'm in Duluth MN for a week, visiting my partner Susan Anderson. For a while Tuesday—from midnight to 7 am—it wasn't clear that I was going to make.

Much as we'd like them to be, everyone knows that travel plans and travel reality are not always the same thing, and I got a solid reminder of how easily those two can get out of alignment with each other.

To get to Duluth from Chapel Hill NC is not a straight forward endeavor, especially if you, like me,  eschew air travel and don't own a car. It entailed four separate legs of train travel, and ended with a van ride via a shuttle service linking The Twin Cities and Duluth. Here's the way it was supposed to work:

train #79 (The Carolinian) from Durham NC to Greensboro NC
  (eight-hour layover)
train #20 (The Crescent) from Greensboro to Washington DC
  (six-hour layover)
train #29 (The Capitol Limited) from Washington to Chicago IL
  (five-hour layover)
train #7 (The Empire Builder) from Chicago to St Paul MN
  (two-hour layover)
van #810 from the State Capitol to downtown Duluth

This added up to 58 hours of "en route," including the need to stay up in Greensboro to catch the Crescent at 3:44 am, and a 2:45 am arrival in Duluth. So this itinerary, even under optimal conditions, did not involve a lot of sleep until after I'd arrived on the shores of Gitchi Gummi.

As it happened, all four train legs offered checked bag service, so I availed myself of that in Durham, handing over my somewhat heavy suitcase (laden with presents for Duluth), checking it all the way through to St Paul, saving myself having to wheel it around on my three intermediate stops. Before making that choice, I carefully took into account that I had generous layovers in Greensboro, DC, and Chicago, which meant that there would be ample time to effect the appropriate transfers. At least that was the theory.

Things started to go off the rails (so to speak) when The Empire Builder's departure from Chicago was delayed by 50 minutes due to a mechanical problem with the equipment. That meant I'd lost half the time available for me to navigate the distance from the train depot to the van rendezvous point (at the intersection of Cedar St and Martin Luther King Blvd, within sight of the state capitol building). Fortunately, whatever the mechanical problem was, they dealt with it sufficiently that the train lost no additional time chugging north and west, and we pulled into St Paul the same 50 minutes late we were out of Chicago.

Then the wheels fell off my plans. I had a narrow window in which to collect my bag, walk to the nearby light rail station, and make my way to a stop within a long uphill block of the van pick-up location. Unfortunately, my bag and I did not reunite in St Paul. Everyone else happily collected their luggage and departed, and there I was at 11:30 pm with an empty carousel and a station agent, getting nervous about making my connection to Duluth.

I took a deep breath, gave the agent my baggage claim, my train tickets, my local phone number, and my address in Duluth. He dutifully filled out the form and I bolted out the door in search of the light rail stop, one block away.

I was able to catch the 11:47 pm headed for Robert St (only three stops from the train depot), anxious about arriving in time for my scheduled van collection at 12:05 am. I got there, out of breath, at 11:57 pm. Whew! I enjoyed a few minutes while buoyed by the thought that it was all going to work out in the end (after my wayward luggage caught up with me), but it turned out I was not yet done with misadventuring. The van never showed up. 

Here I was at a deserted intersection in downtown St Paul after midnight. After waiting in vain for an hour, I had to face the music: the van wasn't coming. I carefully checked my confirmation, and, yup, I was in the right place at the right time, and on the right day. What happened? 

Amazingly, I was able to catch an open wifi signal from the street, and was thus able to tell Susan to stand down on collecting me at 2:45 am in downtown Duluth, and to send a message to the van service apprising them of an unhappy customer stranded in downtown St Paul—and would they please collect me at 7:05 am, when their next scheduled trip was due to swing by Capitol Hill.

Then I took the light rail back to Union Depot, where I there was a pay phone (although I had charged my track phone battery right before the trip started, the phone was dead on the streets of St Paul) and I'd be in a warm building. The temperatures had dropped into the 60s and I couldn't put on more clothing because my suitcase was wandering the rails somewhere between NC and MN.

Luckily, the train station remains open until 2 am, and I arrived there at 1:40 am. That gave me enough time to call the van service. Though there was no one in the office in the middle of the night, their system gave me two options: a) leave a message that would be listened to when their office opened at 6:45 am; or b) be transferred to an emergency number where an on-call staffer would be awakened—though be advised that I might be assessed a $10 charge for waking them up. I figured my situation justified option b) but no one answered and I was shunted back to option a). Sigh.

So, after doing all that I could to let the van folks know that I was rattling around loose in St Paul and really wanted to be collected at 7:05 am, I could do no better than wait for morning. I left a detailed email for Susan laying all this out, asking her to call the shuttle office right when it opened—as there wasn't much time between 6:45 am and my hoped for rescue at 7:05 am.

Then I took the light rail back to Capitol Hill, arriving about 2:40 am and began my all-night vigil as the temperatures slowly descended into the 50s. It was a long night. As there was a slight breeze out of the north, I relocated to a nearby parking garage that had a low retaining wall that I could hunker down below and that helped conserve heat. Still, it was not warm enough to nod off, and the minutes crawled by very slowly.

Susan had emailed me, "Oh no! Are you laughing or crying?" It was hard to not feel sorry for myself, but I also knew it wasn't going to do any good. So I went through about 10 minutes of woe is me, and then concentrated on staying warm until dawn.

At a little after 5 am, cars started coming into the parking lot, as the early bird government workers arrived in preparation for a normal Tuesday. Noticing the guy huddled against the retaining wall, it wasn't long before a had a visit from the Capitol Police, many of whom had already noticed me earlier in the night waiting to no effect at the intersection of Cedar and MLK.

While I didn't know what to expect when I was hailed, it was only fair to appreciate that they didn't either. While they had questions, they were not rude or aggressive and at least my story hung together (the shuttle did make regular stops at the intersection I was waiting at, and I had been there for five hours). When I walked through all the things I had done to try to reach the van people, they duplicated my efforts and were satisfied that there wasn't anything more I could do until the office opened at 6:45 am.

Although there's no way to be certain, I suspect that the police were somewhat skeptical about my story. Although my possessing a laptop helped, my not having a suitcase didn't, and they must have been wondering whether the potential problem I represented (they don't want homeless people lurking around the Capitol) would go away at 7:05 am or not. 

Fortunately, after reaching my nadir when the police introduced themselves to me at around 5:30 am ("Excuse me, can we help you?"), they were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt, and it was definitely mood elevating to see the sky gradually lightening in the east. Construction workers punched at 6 am to restart their renovation of the capitol, and the stream of incoming vehicles to the parking lot surged. I had made it through the night! I was shivering slightly by then but, happily, the shuttle appeared on time and I gratefully sank into a seat in a warm van. Even better, the driver was appropriately apologetic, and assured me that the dispatcher back in Duluth would "make it right."

From there on, everything improved. Susan met the van mid-morning and there was a lovely warm bed at the end of my extended play Tuesday. While Susan was shocked that my hands were still cold when she collected me after two-and-a-half hours in the van, I was able to successfully re-fire my boiler sitting on her living room couch sipping hot coffee, such that I was warm again by the time her work shift ended at 1 pm.

In retrospect I had a couple more reasonable options available to me after I was stood up by the van—either of which may have occurred to me if the weather had been more inclement: 1) taking the light rail all the way out to the airport, which would have been open all night and offered shelter at a pleasant temperature; or 2) simply hailing a taxi from the train depot and having them take me to a nearby hotel, with the expectation that I'd have the van service reimburse me for the cost. 

My stubbornness in finding the least expensive solution cost me a miserable night, but the van service accepted responsibility for not collecting me and refunded the cost of my round-trip fare. Plus, Amtrak eventually found my suitcase in DC (don't ask) and it's now on the floor beside me as I type, having just been delivered by FedEx—arriving in Duluth a mere two days after I did.
All in all, this was not an auspicious start to my monster road trip—but, you know, it could have been worse.

Bored with Consensus

I was recently selected to join a nonprofit board and attended my first meeting via teleconference. Although the bylaws stiplated that decisions would be made by consensus (I'd done my reading), the meeting was full of calls for votes, motions, and seconds. Uh oh. Had I wandered into the wrong meeting? Unfortunately, I hadn't.

I tolerated the ghost of Roberts Rules for about 30 minutes until I couldn't stand it any more and spoke up. There was a certain amount of awkwardness and mea culpas until I realized that none of the 10 or so people on the call had a clue how consensus worked.

In fact, one board member grew impatient with my digression, because "how we function" wasn't on the agenda. Oh boy. Of course it wasn't on the agenda: no one else was aware that there was a problem. I wondered briefly if that was that why I had been asked to be on the board, but then I realized that they wouldn't have been looking for something that they didn't know was missing. In any event, now they have me, and it looks like board training in consensus is in our future (or it better be).

It's interesting to me that this board has been around for decades and the decision to operate by consensus goes back to the beginning. Even though the people who put that in place are long gone, how did practice drift so far from intent? There must have been a lot of meetings where people who knew better simply let consensus slide. How else could the board arrive at the state where no one understood what it meant (it's not as if all the board member were band new)? 

Who knows, maybe they were bored with explaining it. Or perhaps they relied on that old broken-down standby: passing along group culture by osmosis. ("Just watch; you'll figure it out.")

While there are other choices in decision-making and group process that could be made—including majority rule and Roberts Rules of Order—I like that the bylaws stipulate consensus. However, as someone who has been using it for 40 years and teaching it for 28, I think that consensus will not be a happy choice unless it's accompanied by some basic commitments, all of which appear to be absent in the leaky boat I just boarded.

1.  Train people in its use
In addition to the obvious—training new people—it's likely not a bad idea for the veterans as well (think of it as continuing education). Among the key points to be covered is making sure that everyone groks the fundamental concept that you need to be making a shift from competitive culture to cooperative culture (if you want consensus to thrive), and that culture change is not easy. People need to be drilled in this at the outset, not in mid-struggle.

2.  Define the process
As there is not a single definition of consensus, you will need to make clear how you'll practice it. This includes what constitutes the legitimate grounds for a block and the process by which you'll test for legitimacy. Does one block stop a proposal, or will there be provisions for a super-majority override? How will delegation work? How will meetings be run (do you default to the board president or the executive director doing double duty as convener—bad idea—or do you choose a neutral facilitator)?

3.  Set standards for minutes
I was appalled that the board minutes were nothing more than a list of topics and decisions. There was no sense of the discussion., which meant that they were practically worthless for two of the main reasons that minutes exist:

a) To provide a collective memory of how the decisions were reached. This is important when someone comes along later and wants to revisit a topic. In my book, that should only be allowed if something significant has changed (otherwise why re-plow old ground?) But you can't make that assessment if there's no record of what was taken into account.

b) Good minutes allow the people who missed the meeting to catch up. That includes current members who were sick, on vacation, or had a schedule conflict, as well as future board members trying to inform themselves on the background of issues. It's trivial knowing that the topic was last discussed in July, 2011, if the minutes don't tell you what was said.

4. Work with energy as well as content
In a previous call with the executive director and board president to orient new board members, I had suggested that the board spend time sorting out its mission and priorities (before making decisions on budget proposals). When this was supported it led to the idea of a board retreat which would include strategic planning. When someone (not me) suggested that we hire an outside facilitator for that, I was all in favor. However, when I made a point of selecting a facilitator who has skill in working with energy, not just content, there was a long pause. I'm not sure anyone had a clue what I was talking about.

When cooperative groups make the commitment to work at a deep level (which many do not) and embrace the heart of consensus, this absolutely brings you into the territory of energy. Thus, it's not enough to know someone's position or viewpoints on an issue; you need to know what it means to them and why it matters. You need to know how it touches their heart or soul—because that's where the magic happens. 

If you are simply trying to find the middle ground between positions, you're looking for compromise (kissing your sister). If, however, you're trying to find a solution that honors the core interests of everyone, that weaves together their central values and enthusiasm, then we're talking about a family reunion where everyone is out on the dance floor.

There are professional facilitators who are quite adept at working content, yet essentially tone deaf when it comes to hearing energy. I know because I've met a number of them, and it's painful to watch them struggle in community groups where their mainstream expertise is not enough.

It will be interesting to see what skills our outside facilitator brings to our board retreat. I don't expect to be bored.

On the Road Again…

The life I love is meeting with my friends
And I can't wait to get on the road again
On the road again
Workin' stuff that I've never seen
Helpin' folks that I may never see again,

I can't wait to get on the road again.

—with apologies to Willie Nelson

In two days I start a 54-day road trip. It may be the longest trip I've ever taken. And I may only be home long enough to change underwear, shower, and to conduct a consulting gig in Durham before I'm back out for another 27 days. Ai-yi-yi!

Here's what my next three months will look like, give or take a day here or there that is still not firmly nailed down:

Aug 15-17           on the choo choo
Aug 18-24           Duluth MN (visiting Susan Anderson)
Aug 25                on the choo choo
Aug 26-Sept 1     Rutledge MO (visiting Sandhill & cleaning up the old FIC trailer)
Sept 2                 Louisville KY (visiting Ella Peregrine)
Sept 3                 Afton VA (visiting friends at Shannon Farm)
Sept 4-8              Louisa VA (Twin Oaks Communities Conference & FIC Oversight meetings)
Sept 9                 on the choo choo
Sept 10-13          Berlin MA (New England facilitation training at Mosaic Commons)
Sept 14-16          on the choo choo
Sept 17-21          San Antonio (visiting my sister and brother-in-law, Kyle & Richard Contreras)
Sept 22               on the choo choo
Sept 23               Rutledge MO (Sandhill)
Sept 24-27          Yellow Springs OH (Tools for Transition Conference hosted by the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions)
Sept 28               on the choo choo
Sept 29               Fort Collins CO (presenting the 2015 Kozeny Communitarian Award to Bob Mann)
Sept 30-Oct 3      Colorado Springs CO (working with Casa Verde Commons)
Oct 4-5                Denver CO (visiting Britta Blodgett)
Oct 6                   Boulder CO (FIC fundraising event at Boulder Creek Commons)
Oct 7-8                on the choo choo
Oct 9-11              home! (working with Durham Central Park)
Oct 13-16            on the choo choo
Oct 17-18            Seattle WA (FIC fundraising event at Songaia)
Oct 19                 on the choo choo
Oct 20                 Sacramento CA (FIC fundraising event at Southside Park Cohousing)
Oct 22                 Berkeley CA (FIC fundraising event at Parker St House)
Oct 24-25            on the choo choo
Oct 26                 Rutledge MO (Sandhill Farm)
Oct 27                 Kansas City MO (FIC fundraising event at Hearthaven)
Oct 28-Nov 1       Ann Arbor MI (NASCO Institute)
Nov 2                  Rutledge MO (Sandhill Farm)
Nov 3                  on the choo choo
Nov 4-8               Union Bridge MD (fall FIC organizational meetings at Liberty Village)
Nov 9                  home!

Though it may be hard to grasp from that itinerary, my workload is tapering off… after the end of the year, when I hand over the FIC reins to the triumvirate of Christopher Kindig (Business Manager), Aurora DeMarco (Development Director), and Sky Blue (Executive Director). Until that happens I'm busier than ever.

In looking over that list (assuming you don't fall asleep before you get to the end), it's instructive to notice that I'm doing some of everything that my life normally entails—just more of it:

o  Visiting friends and loved ones
o  Attending FIC meetings
o  Fundraising for FIC
o  Participating at community events
o  Conducting facilitation training
o  Consulting with cooperative groups
o  Spending 18 nights on the train

I figure this year may be my best chance ever to achieve Select Plus status with Amtrak, for which you need to earn 10,000 Tier Qualifying Points by riding enough in a given calendar year. I've achieved Select status (which only takes 5,000 points) multiple times, but this year I'm going for the gold. The two biggest benefits of this exalted status are: a) unlimited access to first class lounges at all depots that have one (think free bag storage, snacks, and comfortable chairs during layovers, which is a big deal); and b) a 50% bonus on all Amtrak travel during the year that I have that status (which accelerates how fast I earn points needed for travel upgrades). Since I'm going to be doing all this travel anyway, there may as well be some kind of payoff for gathering no moss. I'll keep you posted on how it goes.
While Amtrak is working steadily toward the day when all trains will have internet connectivity via satellite links, they're not there yet. They have it on their short-haul trains, but not on the overnighters. This matters because my work (and my play) hinges on accessibility to the internet and thus there will be predictable delays in when people can reach me as I chug between stops overnight.

Since my responses are seldom so time critical that they can't wait for me to alight somewhere with a wifi signal, I can generally make this work—it just means that I have to be able to follow the bouncing ball (by which I mean type accurately on a train rambling along at speeds up to 80 mph). It's an art form.

I'll also be on the seasonal rotisserie for an entire quarter turn. When I head out people will be thinking about roasting in the late summer sunshine and still able to select roasting ears from roadside stands. By the time I'm done, people will be thinking about roasting chestnuts and able to select roasting turkeys for Thanksgiving.

The craziest part of this all is that I moved to North Carolina to explore community with my close friends, Joe Cole & María Stawksy (I rent the third floor of their house in Chapel Hill). While all three of us were in the house together my first two weeks, I then left for a two-week trip that included work in Cambridge, followed by a wonderful first visit to Duluth, to begin dancing with my new partner, Susan Anderson.

By the time I got home, María had departed for her biennial trip to the motherland (Argentina), that will last until Aug 18. As you'll notice above, I begin my fall odyssey three days before she returns. That means we'll likely not spend more than one day together between Jun 25 and Nov 9—a run of 137 days, stretching to the point of incredulity what it means to be "living together." Maybe someday we'll find out.

Meanwhile, I have Willie Nelson to keep me company.

The Anatomy of a Misunderstanding

I recently had an email exchange with my partner, Susan, where a throwaway line by me accidentally took on meaning I didn't intend and we were off to the races. While we were able to catch it and correct the misunderstanding all within 12 hours, that doesn't mean it wasn't dangerous.

Because misunderstandings are a dime a dozen, I think it's worthwhile to break down how this recent one happened as a cautionary tale, with the idea that the better we understand miscommunication, the better we can minimize or defuse the danger. While all of the factors that I examine below are not necessary ingredients (you can have a misunderstanding with only one being present) they are all usual suspects.

o  The risk of being cute
This is one I'm particularly susceptible to, as I find word play irresistible and I can lose sight of how I'm obscuring meaning in an effort to be clever. 

In this instance, Susan and I were working out some complicated logistics related to a future rendezvous and my "witticism" was to suggest that we may even have time to see the person we were building the rendezvous around. I thought I was lampooning our careful planning, and she thought I was hinting at not being that interested in spending time with others.

As we haven't been together long enough to have patterns to guide us, Susan was concerned about how I might respond to her splitting attention between the host and me, and was thus sensitive to clues about which way the wind was blowing. I was just merrily blowing hot air, oblivious to the concern.

o  The lack of cues in email
With electronic communication (or for that matter, snail mail) we have a tendency to fill in the gaps as if we're having a live, face-to-face conversation. So, if all we have to go on is words, then we tend to fill in the blanks with our imagination, hypothesizing about tone, pacing, and emphasis.

Susan was concerned that I was being snarky (which is in my repertoire), using sarcasm in place of stating a direct preference. While I don't want that to be the way I communicate, the truth is I sometimes do and it wasn't out of line for her to be alert to the possibility.

The important thing here is to understand that we're guessing. If we had the aid of facial expressions, body language, and auditory input we'd know pretty quickly when our projections were off base. Lacking those corroborating clues, we're throwing darts in the dark.

This was a contributing factor because Susan didn't have any way to read my face when she read my email.

o  The dark side of projection
It's relatively common to anticipate what someone's reaction or viewpoint will be to an unfolding situation. It could be simply straight line projection from the way the person reacted the last time something similar occurred, or it may be an educated guess extrapolated from other data. That said, there are many ways this can go off the rails. 

There may be some crucial differences about this situation that causes the person to have a completely different response. Or perhaps the person has done some work on their reactivity and no longer responds the same way. While there's still utility in imagining likely responses, the trick is understanding that those are estimates, not manifest destiny.

Further complicating the matter, you may not be conscious of how your fears or anxieties may undergird your projection and it may have nothing at all to do with the person being projected upon.

While I think it's probably hopeless asking people to stop projecting, you can learn to remember to check it out—because it's only a projection.

o  The importance of surfacing the reaction
Last, it's important to realize the value of sharing the reaction, so that both parties can be singing from the same hymnal. It wasn't going to be as easy (or even possible) for me to work with Susan's reaction unless she shared it with me.

I'm not saying this is always simple to do. For example, the person being projected upon may get huffy about the other person thinking that would be their reaction, or they may get defensive that they were interpreted that way.

In this instance, Susan's sharing her concerns right away was crucial to our being able to back up to where things had gotten wonky and correct the misunderstanding. It turned out that I fully expected that we'd emphasize time with our host and wasn't worried at all about Susan and I enjoying the leftovers. (Whew!)

Of course, it might have been more difficult than that. Susan's projection might have been right, or I might have been outraged that she feared I'd be a problem (I'm not saying that would have been smart, but men do all kinds of stupid things). So you can have sympathy for people who hesitate to voice their reactions, because history has taught them that doesn't always go well. Still, I think you have to do it, for the sake of the relationship. 

Every time you have a reaction and don't share it, you're driving a wedge between you and someone you care about. If left unexamined long enough, projections become reality—and the other person may not even know what pigeonhole they've been assigned to.

I like to think of misunderstandings as weeds in the garden of your relationship. Their occurrence is inevitable, but they aren't that difficult to control if you're regularly cultivating the garden. Left unattended however, the weeds can take over and ruin the garden. If you want a bountiful garden, learn to be a gardener.

Making the Write Choice

As a writer, not everyone enjoys what I have to say—especially if it's about them. 

While I try to make a point of complimenting people when they say or do something worth celebrating, I am also willing to examine choices that I don't think so favorably about (or when others don't think so favorably about mine). Mostly, if I write something that I think will land critically, then I try to do so without attribution. The biggest dilemma comes when the topic is compelling and the person's identity is crucial to my setting context for the story. Now what? This can be a difficult choice.

I can get in trouble for a variety of reasons:

1. I've inaccurately portrayed what someone said or did, or didn't set the context correctly, making them look worse than was the case.

2. They disagree with my perspective and are dismayed that I've broadcast it to the general public, where they may feel it is much more difficult to clean up, or to get their alternate viewpoint(s) across.

3. They may not want the light shined on their actions or words, perhaps because they fear it will reflect poorly on them.

When is it better that I not write—even if I think the subject is important?

I recently had a friend labor with me about this, arguing that I was, at least occasionally, being irresponsible choosing to tell my side of a story because it would make it that much harder for others described in the story to get alternate views in play—not because I was trying to slander them, but because I wasn't acting with sufficient sensitivity to the power I had. Here is dialog between us:

I'm not sure you have ever understood the violation that people feel when you use their stories for your purposes. I know you think it is innocent and even flattering at times and sometimes it lands that way. But at other times it feels like you are taking the person's right to frame their own story away in how you do it.

I do not agree that my telling a story in which I’m involved means that other players in the story have thereby lost their right to a different story, or had their rights delimited.

You are a well-educated, articulate, white, middle-class man with a voice of considerable authority who is prolific in using that voice. Whether you like it or not, your version of the story is going to have more weight than almost anyone else's.

And therefore I shouldn’t write?

Sometimes, yes. If what you are choosing to do with your voice is serving to reinforce all that privilege and is hurting the people you are writing about who don't have a level playing field with you, then yes it is appropriate to recalibrate what you feel like you have the right to do. This isn't a simple thing to sort out, and it isn't going to always be the same answer. But having some awareness of how automatically deferred to your voice will be because of all of that is a good thing to do. If you are going to keep writing using the same lenses you have used, then I think that goes hand in hand with having to deal with people's upset and also the fact that you will lose audience over this kind of thing. It also, obviously, means a loss of some trust with people you care about. 
• • •The screens I use in deciding what to write about are relatively simple: a) topics that interest me (often because of their complexity in the context of cooperative groups), and b) topics that have touched me deeply. (Sometimes I also write about reminiscences or oddities, but I don't think those pieces are where the trouble lies.)

While I never write with intent to hurt others, neither do I duck issues solely because people have been hurt—as they are often the most compelling stories and illuminate poignant issues worth exploring. What I have to say is always my opinion. While I sometimes try to imagine what differing perspectives might be, those are just guesses. I don't own the Truth, but I do own my perspective and it's hard to accept that the world would be better off if I didn't write about what I'm experiencing or observing because someone may not like it or feel hurt by it.

That said, it's demonstrably true that sometimes people are upset with what I say. While I don't enjoy that, I am willing to accept that that's a price I'll pay for my candor and my willingness to wade into the swamp of complex human dynamics. It would unquestionably be safer to not write, but I wasn't wired that way at the factory. To be sure, I don't write about everything that comes my way. There are many experiences that are too volatile or too private (either for me or others), or ones where I don't feel I know enough to say something intelligent or insightful. 

That said, it is intentionally part of my social change work to attempt to widen the field of acceptable public discourse—because I have seen so much damage result from topics being hidden and unexamined. Do I always make the right call about where that line is? Absolutely not, but I'm fearless about giving it my best shot.

In many ways, this tension parallels my experience as a professional facilitator and cooperative group consultant. Not everyone likes what I do or where I focus the group's attention. But I haven't been hired to be liked; I've been hired to fairly examine complicated impacted dynamics and to try to pull the group out of the mud.

No doubt I sometimes make mistakes in my assessments, or make poor choices in how to engage certain people. And some people are loath to have their shit examined in group and therefore resent me for holding up the lantern. But I'm always going to try, because I always think I can make it better. Fortunately, I succeed a lot of the time—but not 100% of the time.

Similarly, some people don't like what I say in my writing, and I reckon my friend is right to point out that my approach probably costs me some readership, and maybe even some friendships. I'm sad about that, and think it's good advice for me to try to be more sensitive to how my writing may land badly—yet I'll still write, even if what I say is occasionally wrong.