Laird's Blog

Groundhog Day in Plenary

I had a phone conversation with a good friend the other day, who needed someone to vent with about a frustrating experience she'd recently had as an outside facilitator.

The group had been struggling with a delicate issue that brought out the more strident and challenging sides of a handful of members and my friend dutifully guided them safely through the thorny thicket of their reactivity. While that's a bread and butter experience for a professional facilitator (you could handle three meetings like that every week and not run out of work before Christmas), in this case her teeth were grinding because she'd worked with that group previously, and it was frustrating to realize that the same people were reprising their same roles as petulant adolescents. Though the specifics had shifted, the dynamics had not. Ugh! It was the intentional community version of Groundhog Day!

While it's often exhilarating for a professional to help a group navigate a mess that they're uncertain how to handle on their own, singing the same refrain a second time is rather like bringing wilted flowers to the altar. What was inspiring the first time was somewhat depressing when the dynamics were on play repeat. What's the point? Is the group learning? While repeat customers are a delight; repeat dynamics not so much.

So why was the needle skipping back to the beginning?

Though I can't be certain, I can speculate on some likely possibilities. Here are four:

o  Change Is Hard
The most obvious explanation is that pointing out ineffective patterned behavior is the easy part. Shifting it is the hard part. Under stress (as in when we're triggered) we overwhelmingly tend to fall back on our reptile brain and slip into grooved behavior. It takes conscious effort to shift a pattern, and there are few among us who can experience a single different outcome and then successfully break a mold that has been relied on for decades.

While it would be nice if it were otherwise, it often takes several exposures to the "lesson" before it's incorporated.

o  Ineffective Pedagogy
Maybe the path through the jungle was insufficiently mapped. Just because the theory is clear to the teacher doesn't mean the explanation was clear to the student.

Demonstrating is only part of teaching. Often people need to do a thing themselves (under supervision) before the lesson can be ingrained in their body. If it's only in their head, it may not be accessible in the dynamic moment. It depends on how people learn.

I know people who can see a thing done once and are immediately willing to jump in and try it themselves, but they're the exception. Most people prefer multiple exposures before venturing into new behavior.

o  Compromised Neutrality
Maybe the group's facilitators (the people you're especially trying to pass along knowledge to) were triggered by the dynamic, or hooked on the topic. Once your neutrality is blown you're effectively disqualified as an arbiter of delicate dynamics. Thus, it's possible that there was no one behind the wheel (in the way of an authorized internal facilitator) to step in and take control when things went south. Perhaps they could have handled different configurations of dysfunctional dynamics, just not that configuration.

o  Steep Power Gradient
Sometimes it's too daunting to call particular, powerful individuals on their behavior. Maybe they're thick-skinned, maybe they're too well loved, maybe their health is questionable, maybe they have a reputation for lashing out when asked to cease and desist. There can be any number of reasons why otherwise well-informed and well-intentioned facilitators hesitate to act when certain individuals are misbehaving.

It can take major league chutzpah to confront powerful people.
• • •Undoubtedly it's hard to watch a group fall back into unproductive patterns—especially after you'd worked so hard to help them out of the pit. Yet beating yourself (or the client) up because they weren't able to successfully turn it around after one successful counter example, won't help. Change is hard.

Along these lines I try to remember that life's lessons are mandatory, but the learning is optional. The fact that people don't learn a lesson the first time they're exposed to it can be discouraging, but who's perfect? The other side of the coin is that the same people responded well (again) when my friend guided them a second time. Maybe the third time will go better.

Putting on My Socks One at a Time

The other day I got out of bed and starting putting on my socks.

While that's a rather mundane morning operation, I paused to reflect on how that wasn't so only 15 months ago…

Though there is a tendency for the things we commit to routine to drop below the radar of our consciousness, they can suddenly pop out in sharp relief when that routine is suspended.

After a long life of mostly robust health (it didn't hurt living a homestead lifestyle on an organic farm for 40 years, eating the food we grew), I developed a persistent back pain starting in the fall of 2014, when I used poor technique loading the back of a pickup with heavy boxes in the rain. From that point forward, my routine was interrupted, and I went through long stretches of bed rest in an effort to recover. (I recall being in too much pain to carve the turkey at Thanksgiving; I just wanted to be horizontal, and there is nothing routine about my skipping Thanksgiving dinner.)

While I didn't split much wood in the winter of 2014-15, I was mostly able to manage the pain with OTC doses of ibuprofen, and things gradually got better. I returned to work (traveling across the country) and resumed my busy life as a community networker and process consultant. But I wasn't really better. My back still hurt and I had to be increasingly careful how much weight I put in my suitcase. For the first time in my life I started being picky about where I slept. If the bed was too low (like a futon on the floor) it was an ordeal getting up and I was susceptible to muscle clenching in my lower back whenever I needed to get up in the night to pee. No fun!

Finally my body broke down again. I was visiting my son, Ceilee, and my grandkids (Taivyn and Connor) in Los Angeles in December 2015 when my back clenched up again and I was bed ridden for a couple days. I recovered sufficiently from that to travel (by bus, no less) to Las Vegas and see my daughter, Jo and son-in-law, Peter, for a few days over Christmas. Though still in pain, I was semi-ambulatory and managed to take a red eye to Minnesota to be with my new partner, Susan, in Duluth for a week straddling New Year's.

I can still recall how excruciating it was walking to the gate in McCarran around midnight, and then repeating the process fours later when I landed at dawn in Minneapolis. I felt like shit. By the time I arrived in Duluth (via a shuttle van), I was a wreck. Susan put me to bed (it was all I could do to climb the stairs) and once she tucked me in I barely left it.

After five weeks of feeding me in bed Susan decided enough was enough (duh), and took me to the ER at St Luke's Hospital. Not having ever been seriously sick before I didn't have a frame of reference to understand how stupid I was, trying to heal myself with bed rest and ibuprofen. Although I knew that pain is Nature's way of telling you that something's wrong, I essentially had the ringer off and the messages kept going to voice mail—which I then erased without checking.

As you can imagine, my daily routine started breaking down in Los Angeles when my back pain returned with a vengeance. From that point on, it was an exceptional day when I was feeling frisky enough for a shower. By the time I got to Duluth and Susan poured me into bed it was uncomfortable to even lie on my side.

I recall waiting to be seen at St Luke's Emergency Room and hardly being able to tolerate the pain of sitting up—my back hurt that much. Finally, I got into a bed and the doctors started looking me over. From there, things went fast. They gave me oxycontin for my pain and it disappeared! Of course, it was being masked, not cured, but I was grateful nonetheless. After a few hours of blood work they determined that I had enough problems to admit me to the hospital:

•  Multiple myeloma—a cancer of the blood where the bone marrow produces an over-abundance of unhelpful plasma cells instead of the red and white corpuscles called for in the instructions.

•  Kidneys that were near failure, operating at only 20% capacity because of the strain they were under attempting to dispose of all the unwanted plasma cells.

•  Skeleton thinning. A common byproduct of my cancer is calcium leaching and the doctors were quite concerned that I might break something.

•  Three collapsed vertebrae (probably related to the skeletal thinning), which coincided with the epicenter of my back pain. While my spinal cord was not at risk (there was no imminent threat of paralysis), I will never build another cistern or fell another tree.

Well, no wonder I wasn't feeling so good! I spent the next 19 days in the hospital, during which they worked diligently to support and strengthen my kidneys, to contain and drive back the cancer, and to manage my pain. While all of this was accomplished (hurray!), I was in an opioid fog. I think there was a point where I was getting as much as 60 mg of oxycontin twice a day and I was pretty weak and loopy.

To be clear, I'm not criticizing my doctor's choices in how they medicated me (I don't know enough to have an opinion about that); I'm only reporting that I don't remember much. I was (I discovered later) pretty close to death, and by the time I got out of the hospital I had lost a lot of weight and muscle tone. It was an ordeal just getting out of bed to pee.

While Susan tried taking care of me at home when I got discharged from the hospital (Feb 19), that proved too much. I was still fuzzy brained, and weak as a kitten. Fortunately, we got sage counsel from a home healthcare nurse, and my medical insurance was robust enough to pony up for a stay in an assisted care facility. Thus I moved into Ecumen Lakeshore Feb 26-March 19, for short-stay rehabilitation, which turned out to be exactly what I needed.
In particular, it was at Ecumen that I started reclaiming control of my life. When I was at St Luke's I just fell into the back seat and let them take the wheel; now it was time to climb back into the driver's seat.

Riding the Opioid Tiger
There have been two tracks in particular that I want to shine the light on. The first has been my journey with opioids—which is all the more interesting in that there are rising concerns these days about opioid abuse, and even some emerging evidence that they may not be as helpful in pain management as once thought.

After a certain amount of chaos in my early days at St Luke's, my doctors dialed back my oxycontin intake to two 30 mg pills daily—a level at which I had no trouble tolerating the pain. Yet it wasn't until my stay at Ecumen that I started getting serious traction on regaining my cognitive ability—a process that mostly proceeded subconsciously.

I started doing the NYT daily crossword again with Susan, I read more, and slowly the fog lifted. (I am in total awe of what the human brain can acclimate to.) I'm still scratching my head about how my brain—which was completely woozled by oxycontin at the outset—figured out how to benefit from the pain suppression and at the same time make steady progress in recovering cognitive function. Wow!


When I was at the Mayo Clinic in the summer, the doctor overseeing my care there (Frances Buadi) decided to cut my oxycontin back to 20 mg twice a day, and I had no trouble with the lower dosage. Already then! I was at that level for six months and then my Duluth oncologist (Humam Alkaied) halved the dosage to 10 mg twice daily. I still did fine.

It's been an interesting dance. On the one hand, I want to be totally off opioids (I'm concerned about the possibility of addiction); on the other, I like not being in pain. This month, with Alaied's encouragement, I've been experimenting with going off oxycontin all together. Instead, I've been given a PRN (use as needed) prescription for 5 mg tablets of oxycodone (which is just as potent as oxycontin, but quicker acting) with the idea that I can use them if the pain gets to be too much. Kind of a safety net. Since taking my last oxycontin April 25 (13 days ago) I've only taken oxycodone four times, the last pill five days ago.

Because I don't want pain to compromise my ability as a professional facilitator and teacher (and I know that oxycodone doesn't interfere with my cognitive ability) I'm traveling with a supply of oxycodone tablets. But maybe I'm done. I still have back pain, but I've adapted to it and it no longer gets in the way. If I can manage all that without opioids—which is what appears to be happening without any horrendous withdrawal symptoms—hallelujah!

Reclaiming My Routines
My second track toward recovery has been reestablishing my routines. It's been a matter of starting simple and working up from there:

At Ecumen this translated to:
—Using a walker instead of a wheelchair
—Strengthening my legs on a stationary bicycle
—Getting out of bed each morning and dressing myself before Susan visited with coffee and the Minneapolis StarTribune

It turned out that the trickiest part of getting dressed was putting on my socks—something I'd more or less taken for granted since I was three. Bending over meant stretching my tender back and moving muscles that had gotten lazy. It was humbling, but gradually it got easier.


A month later, I had graduated from Ecumen and was (gratefully) back home with Susan. Then my goals ramped up a bit:

—Get up every day, and work in a chair (rather than bed)
—Manage my own pill regimen
—Stop using the walker to get around
—Make the coffee
—Put away the dishes
After my stem cell transplant last summer, we bumped it up again:

—Cook breakfast M-F (the days when Susan goes to work)
—Start driving myself to the hospital for infusion therapy, and to the store for groceries
—Be the backup dog walker
—Take turns cooking dinner

This summer I may even do a spot of gardening and canning. Susan has wisely encouraged me to make steady progress in reclaiming my routine, and it's definitely helped with my morale. If you start acting like a normal person, before you know it you start being one. Today I put on my socks one at a time—just like a normal person—and smile.

Committee Fatigue: on You, on Me, or Ennui?

As a cooperative group process consultant, I work with committees all the time—or at least I encounter their spoor. While a decent number function well enough, it's relatively rare to discover unalloyed successes. The majority of committees, unfortunately, are either limping along or dead in the water. Why is that so common?

There's a significant difference between knowing that you need a committee, and knowing how to set one up well. By "committee" I'm referring to any subgroup of the whole that has two or more members and is asked to handle certain tasks on the group's behalf. (Don't get hung up on the name—task force, team, board, council, brain trust, etc—they're all essentially committees, and what I have to say here applies to them.)

In honor of the fifth day of the fifth month (happy Cinco de Mayo!—OK, I didn't get this posted until the 7th; consider it poetic license) I'm going to describe five ways that committees tend to stumble.

1. Right Relationship Between Plenary and Committee
There are three principal ways that committees get in trouble in this regard:

—A weakly defined committee/plenary boundary 
It can be a major headache if it's unclear what work should be handled by plenary and what work should be handled by the committee. Perhaps the mandate, which lays out the committee's duties and authority, is unclear (see point 2 below for more on this). Perhaps the plenary is inconsistent about how it interprets the mandate: sometimes asking the committee to do things, then other times handling the same things themselves. It can be crazy making.

Ambiguity about responsibilities leaves the committee guessing about how to serve the plenary well, making it susceptible to being accused of exceeding its authority (we didn't ask you to do that!) or of neglecting its responsibility (we've been waiting for your work; why aren't you done yet?). This can be very anxiety producing for the committee. Not only can ambiguity about expectations undercut the sense of satisfaction that people get from serving on the committee, it can undermine the quality of the product that comes back. Yuck.

—Low trust in the committee's skill or judgment
When care is not exercised in placing the right people on the committee (or perhaps the right mix of people) the result can be fractious. It can show up as poor morale (little or no camaraderie) and an inability to get the work done. See point 3 below for thoughts about how to avoid this trap.

—Poor discipline about respecting the committee/plenary boundary
Even if the boundary is spelled out, it only works if the plenary respects it. If the plenary is not conscious about the boundary, it can easily slip into working at a level of detail that should have been given to the committee. Every time the plenary does this (or overhauls work that was within the committee's purview to handle) it undermines the committee. 

(Sometimes this happens because the plenary is frustrated by a lack of product and goes overboard for the sheer joy of getting something done, instead of relying on its committee structure to finish up. However, if you want solid work from your committees, then plenaries need to be disciplined about not jumping the fence and grazing in the committee's pasture.)

2. Rigorous Mandates
Way too often, once plenaries decide to hand off a chunk of work to a committee they can be in such a hurry to wrap up and move onto the next agenda item, that they rush their work. Unfortunately, this is false economy. Sloppy mandates lead to sloppy work, and the moment of committee creation (or adjustment) is a time to slow down—to make sure you get it right.

For a complete layout of my thinking about how to craft solid mandates, I refer readers to Consensus from Soup to Nuts from March 20, 2010. In section F of that blog I present a laundry list of questions. While all won't apply in all situations, if you walk through them whenever you strike a committee (or adjust the mandate of an existing one), the answers should result in a comprehensive mandate every time.

3. Selection of Committee Members
In the majority of cases, the groups I work with rely overwhelmingly on a show of hands to decide who will staff a committee. While quick, that's about the only positive thing you can say about it.

If results matter (and they should), then I urge groups to be much more deliberate about the selection of committee members—especially when high trust is called for.

—Establishing Desirable Qualities
The first step I'd take is having a conversation about the qualities wanted in people serving on the committee. This can include familiarity with the technical aspects of the work being overseen (such as a handyman serving on the Maintenance Committee), interpersonal skills, reliability, easy-going nature… all manner of things.

Hint: When developing a list of selection criteria, there is an important nuance about qualities that you want all committee members to have (such as a basic understanding of accounting principles for sitting on the Finance Committee), and those that you only need some committee members to possess (perhaps facility with html if you serve on the team that manages the group's website).

Note: It can often be good for the plenary to select the committee's convener, so that you'll get someone with the right qualities (these may be somewhat different than the qualities wanted from regular committee members—for example, a greater emphasis may be placed on the convener being a good administrator, a prompt communicator, or discreet with sensitive information). 

I recommend that the group develop a written standard for what it wants from people serving in the capacity of convener, adjusting it as needed for specific committees.

—Selection Process
In deciding who will serve, I recommend against simply asking for raised hands (volunteer roulette). Instead, I suggest the following, which is much more deliberate:

o Post the committee job description and desired qualities for the members who serve on it.

o Ask all group members if they are willing to serve and create a written ballot listing all those who consider themselves qualified, willing, and available.

o In plenary, select an ad hoc Ballot Team (two people?) from among those members who have opted off the ballot. These people will be the only ones seeing the filled-in ballots and must agree to divulge to no one else how people voted.

o Distribute printed ballots to all members, asking them to mark all those whom they find acceptable to serve (people can pick none, all, or anything in between).

o After a set period of time (72 hours?) ballots are due and the Ballot Team tallies them in private.

o After ranking people by the number of votes received, they privately approach people (starting with the top vote-getter and working their way down the list), asking them one at a time if they are willing to serve. As slots are filled, additional people are added only if they are agreeable to those who have already accepted—that way you protect the chemistry of the committee. This process continues until all slots are filled.

o The Ballot Team announces the composition of the team (which does not require plenary ratification), the ballots are destroyed, and the Ballot Team is disbanded.

—Handling Ties
What happens if two or more people have the same number of votes? As this could arise in two forms, I’ll handle them separately:

Case I. Ties that occur when there is room to accept all those who are tiedThis situation is fairly easy to deal with. I suggest taking all the nominees who are tied and shop them all together (as a package) with those who received more votes and and have accepted the nomination, if there are any. Thus, suppose you have five slots, the two top vote-getters are Adrian and Chris, and they’ve accepted the appointment. Tied for third are Dale, Jesse and Robin. I would show the list (of Dale, Jesse, and Robin) to Adrian and Chris and see if all three are acceptable from the standpoint of working together. If any are unacceptable they are dropped from the list, and you accept only those among the three with whom Adrian and Chris are OK working with. 
If that completes the slate, great. If not, you continue down your list. If a tie occurs among the top vote-getters (that is, there are no people already appointed to the committee), then the Ballot Team will meet with all those involved, explain the situation, and ask if they are all willing to serve together. If there are any unresolved concerns about that, people with reservations can decline to serve and the Ballot Team will continue to work down its list.
Case II. Ties that occur when there are fewer available slots than people in the tieThis is more interesting (by which I mean complicated).
I suggest following the same procedure as above with this modification: 
Case IIa. Suppose there are three slots available and Adrian and Chris have already accepted as the top vote-getters. Again, assume that Dale, Jesse and Robin are tied for third. Show the list (of Dale, Jesse, and Robin) to Adrian and Chris and have the two of them collectively select the person they think is the best from among the three from the standpoint of qualifications and a good working relationship. 
Case IIb. Suppose there are three slots and there are five people tied with the most votes, That is, there is no one already on the committee to show the list of ties to. In this instance, I would bring together all five people, tell them they are tied as the top vote-getters and they must decide among them which three will serve on the committee. Again they should do this on the basis of qualifications (established by the plenary) and the desire for a good working relationship among the committee members.
Note: In all cases you want the results to be announced by the Ballot Team after all the behind-the-scenes resolution of ties have been settled. You need not tell the group that there were ties.
—Staggered TermsWhen you are empaneling a committee with staggered terms, I suggest proceeding in one of two ways. Let's suppose you have a committee with three seats and you want staggered three-year terms. You could take either of the following two options:
a) Letting the committee decide among themselves how to assign the one-year term, the two-year term, and the three-year term; or
b) Having the top vote-getter be assigned the three-year term, the second top vote-getter assigned the two-year term, and the third place finisher gets the one-year term. That should just about cover it.
4. Poor Supervision
One of the ways that committees can struggle is that they typically don't commit to the same standard of process that the plenary does. For example, meetings are often not formally facilitated—they are just run by the convener (a person who has typically been selected for their administrative reliability, rather than their process facility). This is economical but not necessarily smart. If you need facilitation (some committees do; some don't) then it's important that it be neutral and that's not likely what you'll get from the convener, who is often a key stakeholder in committee business.

Further, if there's tension among committee members, there may be no one on the committee who has the chops to handle it. Left unaddressed, this can undermine morale and committee effectiveness.

Another angle on this is the potential for committees to become isolated from the rest of the group. Perhaps because of inconsistent (or even nonexistent) notification of when and where committee meetings happen, careless distribution of the meeting minutes (or indifferently captured meeting notes), or reporting on committee activity that is vague, late, or incomplete.

5. Evaluations
The caboose topic for this essay is closing the feedback loop. It is not enough to lay out good principles—from time to time you need to stop and look over what you're doing, it see how well reality is matching up with theory.

I'll refer readers to Evaluations in Cooperative Groups, posted Feb 20, 2012, for a detailed explanation of my thinking about this oft-neglected pillar of sound process.

The Art of Facilitating: Fishing at Deep Water

The art of facilitation is analogous to a set of nested Russian dolls: it's as many-layered as an onion.

Casual observers may not notice that meeting facilitators—especially skilled ones—are doing anything more than managing hand-to-mouth dynamics, such as: 
—Coming up with a clever opening. 
—Making sure everyone has good sight lines to the white board.
—Deciding who's going to speak next.
—Determining when it's time to move to a new topic.
—Otherwise coping with what's unfolding in plain sight. 
But there's a good deal more to it than that. Good facilitators are expected to work at subtle levels, too. Here's a dozen examples of what I mean:

o  Looking ahead of the curve
Projecting where the current conversation is heading and discerning whether they (or the group) will be glad to arrive there. If it looks like a dead end (or worse, a train wreck), it's probably time to tack now, before they hit the shoal water. When executed with aplomb, most group members may not even be aware that there was any danger.

Busting ghosts
Is there a presence that's alive in the room even though the person triggering it isn't there? (perhaps the influence of a dead founder, whose charismatic and powerful persona continues to guide conversations from the grave; maybe it's fear of potential retribution by a bully who is on vacation but is bound to find out if anyone speaks critically of them). First you must sense what's happening; then you must decide what to do about it. Is it better to exorcise (calling the ghost out) or exercise (restraint by not dignifying the threat with the group's collective attention)?

o  Feeling the undertowThough similar to the previous point, this is about an energy that is pervading the conversation, rather than a person. Some may be aware of it; others may not. Is it a fair wind or foul? When the facilitator chooses to surface an unnamed undercurrent, it is not a magic act, or someone playing with planchette; it's just someone paying close attention.

o  Describing the interesting case
In discussing policy proposals it is often illuminating to think of examples that it might apply to, thereby grounding the consideration. However, not all hypotheticals are created equal. It is generally not a good idea to craft agreements designed to cope with rare exceptions. It's better to bring forward a representative example to showcase a proposal's strengths, and/or expose its liabilities. How will things play it in the situations you are most likely to actually face?

o  Sussing out when to be direct Many groups fall into the habit of working indirectly—mainly because they are not confident of handling tension well and are afraid that directness will lead to reactivity. When does cutting to the chase help illuminate the key dynamic; when does it lead to brittleness that inhibits creativity and short circuits compassion? In my experience most people prefer their medicine straight, and don't require a sugar coating—so long as it's not delivered with bitterness, salty language, or a sour attitude.

o  Reading the energetic tea leaves
Skilled facilitators need to be able to work with the energy in the room as well as with the content of the conversation. It is not enough that they can guide the group to an agreement; it needs to be a decision with which there is high resonance. If participants feel run over or bullied into alignment, the implementation is likely to suck (because their hearts will not be in it).

o  Noticing mismatches between content and energy
If you're handling the preceding point well, you'll notice when the conversation is out of alignment with the energy (say, for example, the group is working inexorably toward agreement, yet there are half a dozen folks sitting with crossed arms and scowls on their faces; or perhaps when the conversation is lost in the weeds and everyone's chuckling and having a good time). If the energy does not match the rhetoric, then that becomes the thing to talk about.

o  Knowing when to slow down and when to speed up
In a typical two-hour meeting there may be two or three moments that are pivotal to the outcome; moments when a crucial difference is illuminated and the group can either find a way to thread the needle (and manifest the joy of an inclusive solution), or it can devolve into cantankerous discord with each side bunkering in. It's generally a good idea to slow things down at delicate moments (say when a surprising thin gets said, or when a person gets vulnerable), and to pick up the pace when slogging through portions where there is no new information.

o  Following the energy more closely than the clock
While a good facilitator does their level best to end meetings on time, the prime directive is productive engagement, rather than ending a 20-minute agenda item in exactly 20 minutes. By "productive engagement" I mean progress on the issue and enhanced relationships among members (that is, participants will know each other better as a consequence of the consideration). These dual objectives are far more important than how fast can you find a solution that everyone can live with.

o  Mapping out the engagement
A good facilitator will sit with the draft agenda ahead of time and see into the concerns, teasing out the key questions that are likely to arise. Sometimes it makes a significant difference in what order questions are addressed (perhaps because the outcome of one question is crucial to how a subsequent one will be viewed); sometimes it doesn't. If possible, good facilitators will build the conversation toward a solution just as they'll manage the energy, moving from turbulence to laminar flow.

o  Riding the bucking bronco of fulminating distress
Essentially this translates into not freaking out when someone freaks out. It's being able to function with a clear head and a strong heart in the presence of nontrivial upset. On the one hand the facilitator needs to be fully present—without judgment or side-taking—for anyone who's upset, to help them feel safe and understood. On the other, the facilitator needs to make sure that the topic is neither sideswiped nor dominated by the distress. If, in the process of examining an issue, you manifest tears or anger, you'll get heard; but there's no guarantee that you'll be agreed with. The facilitator needs to be compassionate, yet fiercely neutral.

o  Integrating body and mind; heart and soul
For most groups the default style of meetings entails a great deal of sitting around, where the focus is on rational discourse (and a calloused butt). Unfortunately, that's only one way humans work with information and decide what they want. We also "know" things in our bellies and in our hearts (not just in our heads) and thinking is not everyone's first or best language. A skilled facilitator will offer participants a variety of ways to get at topics, offering multiple on-ramps into the consideration—which translates to opportunities for people to share feelings, intuitions, and body-knowing; not just their "best thinking." A savvy facilitator will not just get ideas in motion; they'll get bodies in motion, too.

Consultant as Plumber

About a year ago I was having my regularly monthly appointment with my oncologist (Homam Alkaied) when he came into the room and momentarily let his guard down. 

As a cancer doctor he sees sick people all day. He took one look at my numbers on the computer screen, smiled, and said, "Thank you. I needed somebody to be doing better today. The hardest part of my job is when I have to tell patients that we're out of options. Sometime the treatments don't work and we reach a point where there's nothing left to try. It's a heavy moment when I have to look someone in the eye and tell them the cancer is going to win. I've had a bad week of that and I really needed you—someone who's responding well to chemotherapy—to pick up my spirits." 

I told him, of course, that I was happy to be that guy.
• • •I started with that story because there are times for me, as a process consultant, when my role runs parallel to that of Dr Alkaied's: when I have to tell clients the bad news. While in my case it's never literally life and death, it can nonetheless feel emotionally devastating—the death of a dream.

Perhaps half the time I'm hired to work with a group it's because of a crisis that the group has not been able to work through on its own. While the precipitating event may have been external (perhaps a nuisance lawsuit from a neighbor, or an adverse ruling by the county zoning board), when it comes to persistent conflict the heavy lifting always revolves around unresolved interpersonal tensions in the group. (Groups don't dial up the roto-rooter guy unless their interpersonal plumbing is backed up.)

When I'm called into those situations I never start with the assumption that it's too late. Going in, I always start with the idea that the tension can be ameliorated, and that I can guide the group back to health without losing anyone. The reality, however, is that I encounter a wide range of difficulties (the stakes can vary wildly: everything from hangnails to something terminal), and groups don't always call me right away. In the worst cases, I don't get brought in until well after the initial damage has occurred, and anaerobic infection is well advanced. Sometimes everyone can't be saved, and pruning is necessary for the health of the tree.

The Fog of Conflict
While it's tempting to chide groups for being idiots about the delay in asking for help ("Why did you wait so long to call? This could have been dealt with much more easily if I'd been asked in right away."), I've learned over the years to be more sympathetic, for a number of reasons:

o  When you're in it, it's often akin to what Robert McNamara styled "the fog of war." While the former Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson was referring to Vietnam, the principle is apt here as well: in the midst of conflict it's often confusing and difficult to see what's actually happening, much less the way through it. What becomes obvious in retrospect is anything but when events are first unfolding.

o  It further behooves the armchair analyst to keep in mind that living in intentional community is something that almost all members are doing for the first time in their life, which means that prior experience offers little guidance. They are traveling through terra incognita.

o  What's more, people don't come to community anticipating problems, so there is typically a miasma of distaste and shock (it never occurred to us that that could happen here) that enshrouds the uncertainty about how to respond. 
Considered all together, you have all the ingredients for a goat fuck—a lot of frenetic activity, accompanied by maximal messiness, minimal forethought, and more hurt feelings than you ever imagined possible. Yuk!

To be sure, not all crises spiral out of control to this extent. (Whew!) My point, however, is that they can, and it can happen to anyone. Good intentions are by no means a prophylactic against being visited by members masquerading as hormonal goats. Conflict can just do that to people, and groups, I've discovered, are never ready to ask for help until they're ready to ask for help. So I've learned to get over my dismay. Never mind how the group got there; here we are.

Testing for Will
Once I'm on site, I try to have as many one-on-one and one-on-two conversations as I can, the sum of which adds up to a picture of what's happened and where people are today (which may be quite different from where they were when the triggering incident occurred).

As someone who works a lot with cooperative groups in conflict, figuring out how to navigate tensions has become relatively straight forward for me (see Rules of Engagement for my thinking about that). The delicate part is determining what the group has the will to attempt, on the road to healing and righting the ship. Sometimes there's still a lot of fight left among protagonists and they're not ready to look in the mirror (no listening). Sometimes they're exhausted and so demoralized that half the group has one foot out the door (no hope). Sometimes, however, they're tied of squabbling, they're done being defensive, and they're ready to work—this is the ideal.

Commonly enough, I'm asked to be the plumber—the person brought in to unclog the crap that is stopping up the lines of sanitary communication. While it may be obvious to all concerned where the blockage is, it smells bad and no one wants to touch it. Some portion of the time this amounts to my being the one to have a come-to-Jesus meeting for the purpose of laying down reality about what's happening with one or more folks who are central to events and heavily invested in riverfront property in Egypt (living on the banks of denial).

In this line of work it helps that I've been buffeted around quite a bit. My resumé includes:
—40 years of community living experience
—30 years of consulting with over 100 cooperative groups
—Having been a community founder
—Having been divorced by my wife
—Having been asked by my community to not return after my divorce
—Surviving a near-death brush with cancer

Having lived through all that I'm pretty much shockproof and fearless. (What bad thing should I be afraid of?) While that doesn't mean I always get it right; it means I'm always going to try and that I have a large capacity to empathize with people in adversity. While I have a lot of scars, instead of making me tougher, I prefer to think I've been tenderized and made more resilient.

Finding the Right Words
A lot of my work revolves around being able to enter the chaos, quickly sort wheat from chaff, and set the table for the right conversations, in the right sequence. Not only do I have to understand the energy, but I need to be able to find the words that accurately convey its spirit. I need to be good in a storm—light on my feet in tossing seas, and calm amidst the howling wind.

What's more, I need to be able to get back up and brush myself off when I get knocked down, which invariably happens some portion of the time. While everyone enjoys clean plumbing, not everyone enjoys meeting the plumber, and it can be downright nauseating looking at what I find in the pipes.

While there can be catharsis and a tremendous release of tension when the things goes well, my work does not end with the first flush of clean water. I linger to assist the group in crafting a way to tell the tale, both to ground the lessons (no need to do that again) and to be able to share the story of adversity that is honest yet forward moving and dignified. In this the plumber's pen needs to be more incisive than his snake.

It's shitty work, but someone has to do it.

The Individual and the Group, a Play in Three Acts

One of the interesting ways to think about intentional communities is that it's a purposeful choice to move toward "we" on the I-we spectrum. What I mean is that you can look at how people behave and sort actions into those which are taken with intent to maximize the benefit to the individual, and contrast it with those which are taken with intent to maximize the benefit to the public, or the group.

Where we stand on that spectrum is significant for a handful of reasons.

I. Are We an Island or Not?
First, you can make a good case for there never having been a time in human history where the dominant culture was located more toward the "I" end of that spectrum than we are in mainstream US culture today. It's all about what's best for the individual. Think John Wayne. Think Ayn Rand. The essential concept is that society will do best if individuals focus on their own welfare above all else. If individuals thrive, then the society will necessarily follow.

It hasn't always been that way. Almost four centuries ago, Englishman John Donne penned this well-known poem:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

 —John Donne (1624)

While those lines are timeless, it's application has since eroded. Consider this contemporary counterpoint:

A winter's day
In a deep and dark
December
I am alone
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow
I am a rock
I am an island


I've built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain
It's laughter and it's loving I disdain
I am a rock
I am an island


Don't talk of love
But I've heard the words before
It's sleeping in my memory
I won't disturb the slumber of feelings that have died
If I never loved I never would have cried
I am a rock
I am an island


I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock
I am an island


And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries


—Paul Simon (1966)

While there's a question how much Simon was trying to capture the ethos of the times versus how much he was writing cynically (or perhaps he was doing both), it's clear that we've ridden the horse of capitalism right up to the very gates of hell, and we're by no means done with the ride. Republicans have their hands on the reins and we have a President who's gleefully writing executive orders eviscerating a spate of regulations aimed at protecting the public good. Herbert Hoover's philosophy of rugged individualism lives on.

It's my belief that humans, as a species, are hard-wired to be herd animals. We crave each other's company and don't do well in isolation. Thus, it doesn't surprise me that there's a deep hunger for community; for a sense of belonging beyond one's immediate blood family. It's a natural response to the alienation that surfaces in the ill-fitting American dream of a house in the burbs where neighbors barely know one another.

That said, knowing that it's good for us does not mean that we know how to do it—live in close approximation with others without the structure of a caste system or Father-Knows-Best paternalism to maintain social order. We want the freedom of individual choice, and at the same time a solid connection with the herd. It's no minor feat figuring out how to thread that needle.

With rare exceptions, we have not been raised with cooperative skills. Worse, most folks who attempt cooperative living do not go into the experiment understanding why that's important. Commonly, they just get frustrated that it isn't easier. (Why is there this gap between what I intend and what I achieve?)

II. What's Private and What's Public?
The fact the people living in intentional communities have moved more toward the "we" end of the spectrum, does not mean they've moved all the way over. There is still a plethora of decisions that individuals or households make that are not considered group business.

That said, there is nuance around how far the line has been shifted, and it's not likely that everyone will see it the same way. If the group doesn't explore this ahead of time (to be fair, it's hard to gin up enthusiasm for discussing hypothetical awkwardness—why borrow trouble?) those differences are not apt to be illuminated until you're in a situation where they apply. The interesting case is when an individual makes a choice that no one proposes should be handled at the group level, yet that decision has obvious impact on the group. Now what? 

For the most part this is uncharted water. As a backdrop for my thinking about how to proceed, I want to pause to introduce two important concepts:

A. Intentional Communities as Modern Villages
Over 15 years ago I happened upon a copy of Sobonfu Somé's The Spirit of Intimacy, Ancient Teachings in the Ways of Relationships (2000), in which she describes how intimate couples relate to the group in traditional West African villages, which is where she was raised. While the village does not direct villagers in choices of intimacy, there is nonetheless an acknowledged two-way relationship between the couple and the village, where each has a responsibility to aid and sustain the other. This is formally acknowledged in marriage vows, and extends to raising children.

By substituting intentional community for village, it gave me insight into a constructive, proactive role for groups in situations where the whole is significantly impacted to the private actions of individual members. Apparently, in West African villages there is broad recognition that "we're all in this together." In consequence, there's an understanding that if the group is impacted by the choices of individuals then there needs to be an opportunity for the village (as represented by the elders in village culture) to have a say in how things move forward.

This is an important difference from the hands-off approach that is generally taken in mainstream culture. Unless you break a law, individuals are not expected to make themselves available to discuss the wider consequences of private decisions. They can simply say, "It's none of your business" and that's expected to be honored.

B. In Cooperative Culture Groups Get Together to Solve Problems and to Enhance Relationships
In the mainstream, meetings are essentially viewed as a way to share information and ideas, on the road to resolving issues and concerns. However, in cooperative culture (in contrast with competitive culture) how you accomplish things matters as much as what you accomplish. In cooperative culture there are two primary meeting objectives: 1) clearing up confusion, and figuring out how best to respond to emerging issues; and 2) sustaining and improving relationships among members.

These two objectives are not necessarily evenly weighted (though they may be); sometimes one of them is more to the fore, and others times it's the reverse. The significance of this is that it can be a revelation to some that you'd call a meeting expressly to attend to relationships. That is, the meeting may have no decision-making component at all, yet still be potent and appropriate.

With these two concepts in hand, let's return to the question of how to respond to a private decision that has blow back in the group. What's called for, I believe, is a group session designed to clear the air. Once it's established that there are nontrivial reverberations in the group, you have to accept that there is no stopping people from discussing it in pairs and small clusters (think parking lot conversations); the question is whether you also want to have a plenary discussion. As far as I'm concerned you have to. Here's why:

o  Getting on top of gossip and rumors
If you don't create an chance to look at this with everyone in the same room, information will be unevenly shared; some of it is bound to be incomplete, some of it is likely to be distorted, and some may be just plain wrong. It can be a nightmare trying to get all the worms back in the can. You pretty much need a plenary to get everyone on the same page.

o  You cannot repair damage until you know what it is
The biggest danger in these situations is that relationships are strained. To be more precise, when focusing on reactivity, no one's worried about unbridled joy—we're talking about feelings of alienation, such as fear, confusion, disgust, anger, or even outrage.

To address this well requires a certain sequence—one that's most effectively done live (you can't mail it in). Feelings must be fully expressed, they must be acknowledged (to the satisfaction of the speaker), and there must be a heartfelt, connecting response. Note that this does not necessarily require the individual to agree that they've done something wrong, or to offer an apology, though those may be appropriate.

o  Safety in numbers
When voicing negative reactions, many of us find it challenging to do so cleanly and completely (who do you know, after all, who learned this growing up?). While it may not make it easier to hear, sharing in the whole group can often make it easier for people to be courageous about speaking up.

Also, it is typically easier to line up skilled facilitation (either from within the group, or perhaps by bringing in someone from outside) for a plenary, the better to establish and maintain a constructive container for such delicate work. A good facilitator will make it easier for all parties to both speak and be heard.

To get these results, it's imperative that the meeting be set up properly. It is not about judging others, assigning blame, determining objective truth (uncovering what really happened), or making decisions; it's about sharing information, understanding impact, and repairing relationships.

III. Terraforming the Culture of Inclusivity
The stakes here are rather high. Not because that many people will ever live in intentional community, but because communities are research and development centers for sustainable culture. 

In this era of disintegrating civility and the normalization of alienation politics, many of us are near desperation in yearning for a way forward that all can embrace. I can see no hope in relying on additional doses of what got us to this pass, with one side trying to pound their majority down the throats of those who lost the last election. We need a sea change—an approach that builds on what's being learned in the crucible of intentional community living about how to solve problems and attend to relationships at the same time.

This is not about homogenization, making nice, or pretending that everyone thinks the same way. Rather, it's about moving ahead only after all sides have been heard and everyone's on the bus. It's understanding at a visceral level that we've got to start thinking more about "we" and not so much about "I," and what it takes to get there.

Family Time

Over the past weekend, Susan and I spent a whirlwind three days in San Antonio, rendezvousing with siblings, partners, and friends. The photo above was taken Friday, on Hemisfair Plaza, right before we ascended 750 feet in the Tower of the Americas for happy hour. From right to left it's:

Val Bower (Kyle's childhood friend from La Grange IL)
Dutch (Val's partner)
Tracey (my oldest sister)
Norm (Tracey's husband)
Alison (my youngest sister)
Dan (Alison's husband)
Richard (Kyle's husband)
Kyle (my middle sister)
Guy (my brother)
Elaine (Guy's wife)
Susan
me

Here's what some of us looked like 30 minutes later, adjusted for both altitude and attitude:
The Hemisfair Tower was built for the 1968 world's fair, coinciding with San Antonio's 250th birthday. Next year the tower will be 50 and the city will be celebrating its tricentennial. Yeehah! We stayed aloft long enough to see the sun go down before we did.

Each of the three days the mercury climbed into the 80s—a far cry from the 40s by the shores of Lake Superior. In San Antonio spring was sprung. The grass was verdant green, and irises were blooming in Kyle's front yard. (When the shuttle from Minneapolis dropped us off in downtown Duluth Sunday afternoon, we were happy that the temperature was above freezing and most of the snow was gone—never mind any signs of green.) Though Duluth and San Antonio are joined by I-35, they're separated by1400 miles and six agricultural zones. Uffda.

Susan and I were thankful for our down jackets on the van ride to the Minneapolis Airport in the wee hours of Thursday. When we arrived at Kyle's house later that day (around 1 pm), we wasted no time switching to light cotton tops, shorts, and sandals. Ahh!

It was great seeing all of my siblings, catching up on family news, and sharing Susan (and my renewed health) with one and all. In an unusual move, I sent only one lone email during my 68 hours in the Lone Star State (to my stepson, Jibran, on the occasion of his 20th birthday). As this was a mini-vacation, I was determined to give my laptop a mini-time-out. Today I've been been paying for it, digging out my In Box.

But it was worth it.

Health Update #1

As many of you know, I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma (a cancer of the bone marrow) 14 months ago. As I was in pretty bad shape when it was discovered (I had been bed-ridden with excruciating back pain for six weeks before it got bad enough for me to go to the ER seeking relief—looking back, it's obvious that I waited too long, but I'd never been seriously sick before and I'm a stoic guy) it was touch and go for awhile. 

My kidneys were barely functioning at 20 percent of capacity, my skeleton was brittle from calcium leaching, and I had chronic back pain from three collapsed vertebrae. I was a mess. While they wanted to treat my cancer the doctors' immediate issue was saving my kidneys. To better cope with it all, they immediately put me on oxycontin to relieve the pain. Whew!

Today I am doing much better. My kidneys are functioning at near-normal capacity (I barely dodged the bullet of needing dialysis or a kidney transplant), the cancer markers diminished in response to a cocktail of chemotherapy, I underwent a successful autologous stem cell transplant at Mayo Clinic in July, and I've been steadily regaining stamina, appetite, energy, and cognitive function ever since. Best of all, my cancer is in complete remission.

To be clear, my cancer is not defeated; it's dormant. Because the version of multiple myeloma that I have is particularly aggressive—that is, it can ramp up quickly—my oncologist likes to see me once every four weeks and I get a maintenance dose, via intravenous infusion, of Kyprolis (a chemo choice especially developed to combat my cancer and one which I've shown a good tolerance for) on back-to-back days once every fortnight (adjusted for road trips). By checking my blood every two weeks they keep a weather eye on my cancer markers. So far so good.

I'm writing to give everyone a more specific monthly health update. 

1. Four-week Road Trip
One of the blessings of my recovery is that I am strong enough and clear-headed enough to be able to return to my work as a process consultant and teacher. Yippee! I love the work and it's my social change passion (the way I try to make a positive difference in the world). While the work calls for high concentration as well as mental and emotional stamina; it does not particularly call for physical endurance. 

I took baby steps at first, starting last September. Not sure how much I could do and justify my fees I didn't do more than two things back-to-back. As things went well, I have gradually attempted more and more, leading up to a very ambitious road trip: I was on the trail from Feb 23-March 23, during which I worked five jobs and was busy every weekend. 

It was incredibly gratifying to return home road-weary, but not exhausted, and to experience being able to deliver some of my best work on the final weekend of the trip. I was fully back!

While I don't like being away from Susan for that long (and therefore will try to keep future trips to a maximum of three weeks) it was good to know I could do it. And that I can keep plying my craft for the foreseeable future, which is good both for my soul and my pocketbook.

2. Normal Hemoglobin
When I saw Dr Alkaied (my oncologist) yesterday he was looking at the blood tests from Feb 21 (the last time I was in town) and noted with a smile that my hemoglobin was 13.8, which is normal for an adult male. It was the first time I had reached that level in his year of working with me. He quipped, "If you keep this up you'll have to get a new doctor; in my line of work I don't see normal people."

3. Tapering off on Zometa
Once my kidneys started functioning better (late last spring) my doctor started giving me monthly doses of Zometa, a drug designed to recalcify my skeleton. Though I haven't broken anything throughout this adventure (knock on wood), when Alkaied first saw me (in Feb 2016) he wasn't optimistic about my walking again—the leaching of my bones was that bad. Not knowing that I shouldn't, I worked on regaining my strength to the point where I no longer needed a wheelchair and I've been walking for a year now.

In looking over my progress yesterday, Alkaied decided that they could back off on the Zometa to once every three months, as my need was diminishing. Hooray! As I sometimes have a temporary adverse reaction to Zometa (one time it was a severe headache; other times it's been weakness and a loss of appetite) I was happy to hear that.

4. Weaning off of Drugs
After several months of encouraging results, Alkaied announced last month that I could cease taking daily doses of Allipurinol (to protect against gout and kidney stones) and Ranitidine (to protect against heartburn and stomach ulcers), and could switch to OTC vitamin D supplements. Fewer pills and less expenses! But what about pain relief?

I expect to have back pain the rest of my life (centered around the three collapsed vertebrae in the middle of my back). For more than a year now I've been taking oxycontin (an opioid) twice a day, which has done a miraculous job of relieving my pain. Oxycontin is slow acting and lasts for a 12-hour period, hence the twice-a-day regimen. As back-up, I have a supply of Robaxin (a muscle relaxant) and Oxycodone (a fast acting opioid, and a cousin to oxycontin). Because oxycontin has been so efficacious and I have a relatively high pain level, I have rarely used either of my back-ups. Also, I'm leery of opioid addiction (I am not looking for ways to bond with Rush Limbaugh).

So I had a mixed reaction when Alkaied suggested pulling me off of oxycontin last month. On the one hand, I liked the idea of being off of pain medication. On the other, I didn't want to be in pain a lot. In talking it through with me he decided to wait a month, rather than risk my struggling with the switch while on a four-week trip. That made sense to me. 

I ran out of my supply of oxycontin last Sunday, with my appointment with Alkaied set up for Tuesday. Monday night, my first after going all day without pain medication, I had quite a lot of trouble sleeping. Although my back pain was tolerable, it was cumulatively tiring and I lay in bed tossing and turning for six hours before I took two Robaxin and was able to get some sleep the final three hours in bed.

Naturally, I shared that data point with Alkaied the next day. After discussing it with me he decided to try an intermediate step on the road to getting me off opioids all together. For the next month he's given me a prescription for oxycontin in a 10 mg dosage (down from the 20 mg pills I had been on since August). As I won't pick up the new pills until this afternoon (opioids are a controlled substance and there are strict protocols about getting prescriptions filled), I went through another night of tossing and turning until 3 am last night, Ugh. At 4:30 Susan helped me find my supply of oxycodone (in my sleep deprived state I had trouble locating where I'd placed something I had not used in 12 months) and I blissfully enjoyed the last two hours of the night.

It's amazing how much of your bandwidth can be consumed by pain management. Tonight I'll be back on oxycontin (albeit at a lower dose). Hopefully this is just a small blip in an otherwise rosy report.

Resilient Today

Today I want to focus on resilience. In particular, I want to share what the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC) is doing to help all of us be more resilient in these uncertain times. But first I'm going to tell a story.

When I moved to northeast Missouri with three friends and started Sandhill Farm in 1974, we were a group of 20-somethings with no experience in farming or rural living. When we announced to neighbors that we were committed to growing food organically, they were amused. As far as they were concerned we may as well have been from Mars.

Forty years later, the neighbors aren't laughing. Sandhill Farm is still there and still farming organically. If anything, the topsoil depth and natural fertility of our small farm has gradually increased over the years of our stewardship. While we hold about 75 acres of cleared land all together, we've steadfastly refused to till more than 15-20 acres—the patches that are flat enough. The rest is too steep and has been planted to grass, which keeps the dirt where it is instead of washing downstream in rainstorms, gradually increasing the size of the Mississippi Delta.

Traditionally, farmers in our part of America's breadbasket would go through a three-year rotation of corn, soybeans, wheat, and red clover. This cuts down on the need for artificial fertilizers, manages weeds better, and makes it harder for insects to establish dangerous populations to assault specific crops. But that cycle didn't produce enough income to handle the debt load incurred by purchasing land and large equipment. In consequence, crop rotations today have collapsed to two years: corn followed by soybeans, and then back to corn. Over time, following that program leads to a drop in fertility and the need for ever-increasing inputs (fertilizer, herbicides, and insecticides) to maintain yields. It's a vicious cycle, which invariably leads to a marked decreased in resilience.

By farming organically and relying on traditional crop rotations, our bill for soil amendments has been much lower than our neighbors, and isn't spiraling up as fast (while the price for anhydrous ammonia goes up like gasoline, when you put manure on your fields you're just paying shit). Also, we rely on open-pollinated seed, which we save from year to year. Our neighbors depend on high-yielding hybrids that are not only expensive but must be purchased new every year.

By farming only on a modest scale, we don't need expensive equipment. Our first tractor—an Allis Chalmers WC, built in 1939—was purchased at auction for one bid above scrap: $210. And it still runs today. We also have our own combine. It's a pull-type Allis Chalmers All-crop, built in 1952. We bartered 7.5 hours of labor for it when the owner decided it was taking up too much valuable space in his machine shed.

While our crop yields were significantly lower than our neighbors, the disparity in net income was softened by our being able to command premium prices for organic food. (In 1974 you'd never see an organic or natural food section in a grocery store; today it's hard to find a modern grocery without one.) 

Not stopping there we took advantage of our access to labor (both in terms of able-bodied adult members and the interns we'd attract during the growing season) to figure out ways to sell value-added products instead of raw goods. Thus, instead of marketing soybeans, we'd turn our soybeans into tempeh and sold that. While we grew horseradish root, we only sold prepared horseradish. With that strategy we needed fewer acres to produce the same income. By buying less land we've enjoyed a lower debt load. In fact, Sandhill has no debt. And none of our neighbors think we're from Mars.
• • •I told you the story of Sandhill's adventures in resiliency because I think it parallels the work being done by the Fellowship for Intentional Community. Over the course of 30 years FIC has had two main missions. The narrow one has been to be the most up-to-date and comprehensive clearinghouse of information about intentional communities, focusing mainly on the US and Canada. Its second, broader mission has been to promote cooperative culture in a world drunk on competition.

Just as Sandhill was ahead of its time in blowing the horn for organic farming and resilient agriculture, FIC has been ahead of the curve in identifying and promoting the lessons of intentional communities as models of social sustainability. For both entities, what came across as exotic and other worldly in their early years has proven to be prescient and apt as the rest of the world has caught up with the near-desperate need to get off the acquisitive hamster wheel of materialism.

Where Are We (and What Are We Doing in This Handcart)?
The emerging threat today is climate change and the global disruption of "normal" life. The melting of polar ice caps threatens coastal inundation. Places that used to have predictable rainfall now experience years of drought followed by massive flooding. Fruit trees are blooming in February instead of May, and there is unprecedented worry about adequate access to safe water.

Terrorist attacks have come in waves of numbing frequency—from a berserker truck driver on a rampage in the German Christmas market, to a solo fanatic driving down pedestrians on the Westminster Bridge in London; from the renowned hijackers of 9/11 who took down the World Trade Centers, to suicide bombers who are sheathed in explosives for the express purpose of detonating themselves in crowds—extremists are exhorting followers to perpetrate brutal acts of violence, without regard to human life, including their own. It is the triumph of nihilism.
On the political front, in the US there is almost a complete breakdown of civil discourse. There is no longer conversation and thoughtful dialog; there is only polemics and near-constant vilification of "other." Though there is only one Earth, if you listen to the nightly news you'd never know there was any awareness of our being on it together, with only a single future that we must share. All you hear today is breast beating for partisan agendas, and no willingness to recognize that others may hold pieces of the truth, just as well as we.
• • •Over the decades that FIC has been on the scene (since 1987), there has been a progression of "in" terms: from organic to sustainable to local to today's sweetheart: resilient. While the wrapping is new, the core message is not. We still need to figure out how to get along with each other. For all the reasons touched on in the preceding paragraphs that need has never been more urgent than it is today.

Intentional communities are important—but not because it is the lifestyle wave of the future. In Israel there was a time when as much as four percent of the population lived on kibbutzim; it would shock me if the percentage of the US population living in some form of self-identified intentional community ever got within sniffing distance of one percent. Today, for example, there about 100,000 in the US who are living in community. That number would have to expand by more than 30 times to reach one percent.

The importance of intentional communities is the pioneering work that they're undertaking in the crucible of group living. They are doing the heavy lifting to figure out what it takes to live cooperatively; how to share resources equitably; how to solve problems such that everyone's interests have been taken into account without settling for the winners and loser dynamics of majority rule. There has to be a better way, and intentional communities are in the forefront of the experiments that will light the path.

It boils down to figuring out a different way to be in the world; to harnessing the synergy of groups in order to create a better life for all, instead of competing as individual households and nations for limited resources. This is not about homogenization and one size fits all; it's about creating and maintaining quality while at the same time respecting and honoring differences and learning to live graciously while putting resource consumption on a diet.

If this resonates with you, read on.

FIC in Action Today
As someone who worked in the eye of the hurricane for 28 years (I stepped down from a leadership role with FIC at the end of 2015) I can tell you that the Fellowship never lacked for creative ideas about how to use funds. There have always been initiatives to better get the word out; experiments to conduct, evaluate, and chronicle; and collaborations to attempt. We don't just talk about hope. We test it.

For information about FIC's latest effort click here. They are trying to raise $8000 in order to fund four initiatives aimed at exploring the intersection of community and climate change: two books, a national speaking tour, and the latest issue of Communities magazine (released earlier this month). While they have raised more than half of their target (over $4800) there is only one week left until the perks being offering as incentives will be withdrawn. 

Now is the time to act! I'm asking readers and subscribers to consider donating (remember, it's tax deductible), and to ask your friends and acquaintances to do the same.
 
As a special incentive, for every $100 you donate to this campaign (for which you'll also get the satisfaction of having your oar in the water, pulling for a good cause) I will make a matching offer of 30 minutes of my time that can be used for any of the following:
—consulting about intentional communities 
—advising about cooperative group dynamics
—editing proposals or reports

This offer is good only through the end of the month (it expires at midnight March 31) and is in addition to any perks you claim from the FIC site. So long as you make your pledge or donation before April 1, you'll have one year to redeem the offer of my services.
 
Together, we are making a difference.

Reverse Discrimination

This weekend I've been conducting a facilitation training in Bellingham WA—Weekend V of VIII—and the teaching theme was Power and Leadership (each of the eight weekends we focus on a major aspect of what facilitators need to understand and keep in mind when trying to run dynamic and productive meetings).

While exploring the dynamics of privilege, Ma'ikwe (my teaching partner) explained that when people lose their privilege it feels like discrimination. Her essential point was that loss feels like loss, even when it's bringing everyone to even. As I sat with that it occurred to me that it might make a difference if your new position was the result of reverse discrimination… or maybe not.

In groups that work on becoming aware of how privilege skews the distribution of power, it's not unusual to consider adopting practices (at least for a time) where the group purposefully disfavors those segments who have benefited from unearned privilege and a slanted playing field. 

As an example, let's unpack the landmark University of California v. Bakke case in 1978, where the US Supreme Court looked at the affirmative action policy of the UC-Davis medical school to favor non-white applicants for the express purpose of correcting pernicious societal discrimination against non-whites. While the court ultimately struck down the UC-Davis policy for going too far, it provided the basis for supporting affirmative action programs in general, which subsequently became a legal precedent, and the underpinning of affirmative action programs today.

Two things are in play here: 

a) Recognition that there have been longstanding forms of discrimination in the society that are not what we want—I'm talking about race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious affiliation, whether or not you have children—those kinds of things.

b) In the interest of hastening the process of closing the gap between what exists and where we want be with respect to those kinds of discrimination, it is acceptable, at least for a time, to adopt policies that intentionally discriminate against those segments of society that previously enjoyed the benefits of privilege.

The first point was addressed in Civil Rights legislation. It was the second point that the Bakke case pivoted around, and the focus of this essay is to explore whether there is any significant difference between how it feels to undergo a power drop because of a) alone (the loss of privilege), or because of a) and b) combined (loss of privilege plus reverse discrimination). While it's an interesting question in its own right, I am not looking at whether reverse discrimination is a good practice; I am only exploring its impact on those whose power is reduced by it.

My credentials in this regard are various. First I have been working as a consultant to cooperative groups for three decades, and understand that culture profoundly. In addition, I'm someone who has gobs of personal privilege—white, male, older, well-educated, articulate, heterosexual, Protestant—who has chosen to immerse myself in the subculture of intentional community, which is hyper-vigilant about discrimination, to the point where I am often suspect when I enter groups for the first time (How much is this dude aware of his privilege; has he done his work around it?).

Frankly, as someone who has been trying to do his personal work in relation to discrimination, it's an advantage for me to be in a milieu in which I'm more likely to be watched closely—because it so easy for people who benefit from privilege to be blind to its application. In short, I've learned to mistrust relying solely on my own perceptions and good intentions. I figure I'm more or less like other folks: a work in progress. Some things I catch; some things slide by (oops!).

Taking my credentials one step further, I have been subjected to reverse discrimination. Not often, to be sure (no need to cry on my behalf) but I've tasted it. I'm thinking in particular, of gender discrimination in the arcane world of income-sharing secular intentional communities. In that rarefied setting, where I lived for 40 years, the same action that men would be criticized for (labeled overly aggressive) were likely to be celebrated if done by women (labeled constructively assertive). It's a double standard and there have been times when I chafed at being subjected to it.

Apropos this consideration, I viewed the way I was treated as unfair and that pushed a deep button in me. Fortunately it didn't end there, but I passed through that awareness, and it was painful. By degrees I took into account the analysis that led to the choice of reverse discrimination. While I was undecided about whether or not it was an effective strategy (to accelerate the creation of the just and fair culture that the men and women I lived with agreed we wanted), getting to that more sophisticated understanding allowed me to move through my pain. Today I don't recall how long it took me to work through all that—like unpacking Russian dolls—but I recall experiencing outrage along the way. I recall that I didn't enjoy being discriminated against. 

But then who does? And I guess that was part of the point, giving me a visceral taste of what some experience as a steady diet. 

Maybe a person of privilege can get the same taste by simply losing their advantage—going straight to the level playing field. But maybe not. In any event, it took me longer to tease apart the layers of feeling when I was on the receiving end of reverse discrimination, and I've ultimately come to view that experience as both more complicated and more profound.

Group Works: Follow the Energy

This past week I visited Tree Bressen, an old friend and peer in cooperative group dynamics. I was doing a series of workshops at Lost Valley Educational Center in Dexter OR, and she and Dianne Brause (yet another old friend) came out from Eugene for the afternoon.

Seeing Tree reminded me that a few years back I had started a blog series reviewing the Group Works process cards that Tree helped develop, and that reminder inspired today's essay. 

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

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

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

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

In the Flow segment there are 15 cards. The fifth pattern in this category is labeled Follow the Energy. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card:

What does the group really want in this moment? Let your observation of cues and "vibes" guide your response and steering of topics and process. Paying attention to where the life is, you help it flower. 

By coincidence, the final workshop that I did at Lost Valley was about facilitation. At the outset I solicited from participants where they wanted me to focus my comments, and two of the half dozen requests were: a) flow and b) balancing content and energy. It turns out that addressing b) is often the answer to a).

You can buy books on meeting facilitation—books that are meant to cover the topic comprehensively—that focus almost exclusively on managing content (what is being said, how does it relate to the topic on the table, how does it align with what others have said, what would be an insightful summary of everyone's input, where should we focus the conversation). But that's not good enough, or at least it isn't in the groups I work with (mainly intentional communities), where the expectation is that meetings will not only address issues; they will enhance relationships into the bargain. 

Riding Two Horses
In order to accomplish that, facilitators need to be able to work with energy. They need to be able to read it, sense trends, and have familiarity with choices that can acknowledge, shape, elicit, stimulate, defuse, hold, balance, enhance, and celebrate energy. And "choices" include far more than words: it's also tone, volume, pace, body language, sequencing, and whether to stand or sit.

Unfortunately, being conversant with energy is almost completely unrelated to the skills needed to manage content. They are different languages, with separate vocabularies and syntax. A facilitator may be good with one, both, or neither. I like to refer to this skill as riding two horses: the Content horse and the Energy horse. If you have a facilitator who is only facile on one horse, it can be effective to pair that person with someone who has complementary skills: getting the group's needs met with a team instead of an individual. 

While relying on two riders instead of one may be an elegant way to simultaneously train up a greenhorn while still protecting the group's need for a quality meeting, please be advised that team facilitating requires that both riders be deft at passing the reins without either horse spitting the bit. There should always be one horse in the lead and it's awkward for the group if it's not clear who that is.

For many groups, the person labeled "facilitator" is actually just riding the Content horse, with the "vibes watcher" atop the Energy horse. This can be fine so long as both riders know who's covering what and there's no confusion about how the hand-offs work. The biggest reservation I have about this deployment is that most vibes watcher that I've observed are passive, only stepping in when there's serious tension in the room—when the facilitator has lost control of the flow, or is in danger of it.

I prefer to teach facilitators how to handle both mounts (so that a single person is regularly reading the room for both Content and Energy), making micro-adjustments as the meeting unfolds. Small changes effected in a timely way can prevent the need for major changes later. If the Content rider is not alert to Energy, they can inadvertently make choices in service to problem solving that exacerbate Energy challenges. 

What do I mean? Let's unpack an example. If the facilitator is only looking at Content they may fall into a pattern of over-reliance on a particular format, say open discussion. On the one hand, there is steady progress made on the issue (good), but it may come at the cost of increasing frustration for those who are slower to know what they think, or who find it uncomfortable shouldering their way onto the on-ramp for a turn to speak (not good). Enjoying the enthusiasm of those who are jumping into the conversation, the facilitator may miss that one-third of the participants have not spoken at all and are either zoning out or getting bummed. Unattended, this disaffection can lead to rebellion, poorly supported decisions, or even a rift in the group (I thought everyone's voice was welcome here, not just the opinions of the loud and the rude). Ouch! A savvy and active vibes watcher might catch that drift and suggest a switch from open discussion to a go round before things get out of hand, or even before it's identified as "a problem."


Casting a Wide Net
In the example above I showed how attention to Energy could lead to a format choice that could significantly impact flow and inclusivity. But following the energy is much more than being sensitive to tension or reactivity. It also encompasses such mundane things as atmosphere (is the room too warm; is there enough fresh air); stamina (for how long has the group been sitting; do they need to move—either in the form of a break or via a format that gets folks off their butts); and mood (while fulminating distress is relatively easy to read, how about boredom and flat affect; sarcasm —deniable irritation; or frequent side conversations—scattered attention).

All of these fall under the umbrella of Energy and can be ameliorated by the ministrations of a skilled facilitator.

Drilling DownIn addition to giving advance warning or evidence of energetic discord (Luke, there's a disturbance in the Force) energetic cues can also suggest positive directions. Take for instance the dynamic when you're asking for responses to a proposal and a number of hands shoot up. Using a stack, you begin letting people speak in the order in which they raised their hand. Partway through (let's suppose there were six people in the stack) you notice an energetic surge in the room following the third speaker's statement. If you blindly continue the stack, there's a strong chance that that person's contribution will not connect easily with the previous speaker (even if they're on topic). 

Alternately, by paying attention to where the life is (invoking the admonition in the text that accompanies this card) you might suspend the stack to ask for responses to what was just said, and only return to the original stack after the surge has run its course. This is often a much better way to work issues, but it calls on the facilitator to be able to read the Energy (both its emergence and its demise) and to juggle threads.

Balancing ActLast, I want to remind folks that the Energy horse and Content horse can both pull heavy loads and neither should be seen as subservient to the other. Although I've mainly been looking at the importance of working with the Energy horse in this essay, they need to pull together. To be clear, there are moments—even whole meetings—where only one horse is spotlighted, but you want to have a saddle on both.

For those who experience group meetings as a tug-of-war between Process People and Product People, I want to offer a different view. The best meetings, where the flow is laminar instead of turbulent, are when the horses are pulling in the same direction.

Involuntary Loss of Member Rights

Regrettably, there are times when a group member behaves badly. Even worse, there are times when a person's behavior is sufficiently problematic and persistent that it calls into question the viability of that person's membership. Those are not happy moments, and not at all what people had in mind when they joined, but it can happen.

Painting in broad strokes, unacceptable behavior falls into two categories: a) an egregious outburst that calls for immediate consequences; and b) persistent irritating and disrespectful behavior that erodes trust over time. Examples of the former (which, fortunately, is very rare) might be firing a gun in the common house or setting a neighbor's shed on fire. Often this kind of behavior is illegal in addition to being dangerous, which means the group has recourse to calling in the civil authorities.

In today's essay, however, I want to focus on the second kind, where a single incident might be awkward but you'd definitely give the person a second chance (or even many chances) and a key element is the fact that the behavior continues after it has been pointed out. 

In general, groups will go through a sequence of escalating steps in the hope that it can successfully resolve the issue at the least expensive level, and you only take the next step if all the previous ones have failed.

Suppose Robin has done something that Kim has a reaction to and considers unacceptable (such as gossiping viciously about another member, or getting loud and demanding when  advocating for their viewpoints in plenaries, with no apparent regard for the opinions or sensibilities of others). In this dynamic the sequence of options available to Robin might be something like this:

1.  Try to work through your reaction unilaterally (sometimes distress is more about the observer than it is about the doer, and the bulk of working through it can be accomplished internally by the person in reaction).

2.  Speak directly with Kim about it.

3.  Ask a third party to join Robin and Kim in discussing it.

4.  Ask the Conflict Resolution Team (or its equivalent, if you have such a subgroup identified to support people struggling to work through interpersonal tensions) for assistance, either to think through what to try, or to figure out the best way to configure a conversation, including who might be a mutually acceptable facilitator.

5. Invoke the help of the entire group in a last train effort to get movement on the issue.

While there could easily be variations on this sequence—and it would be a worthy topic to explore what those options might be—today I want to focus on what might happen when Robin has gone through this entire sequence and there's still no joy. Now what?

Essentially, I'm focusing on the work a group needs to put in place to be ready to engage relative to the possibility of imposing sanctions: an involuntary loss of member rights. Most groups don't put anything in place until and unless they have a dynamic which suggests they may need to invoke it. Oops! It is much harder to craft a good set of agreements when you have a candidate in mind for their application, yet it's nearly impossible to get a group jazzed for discussing it ahead of need. Yuck!

On the one hand, a group may be fortunate enough that this kind of limit is never tested (whew). On the other, you're taking a risk. If you wait until you need it, the development of policy is likely to come across as a witch hunt (created expressly to justify the desire to get rid of someone). Believe me, it's an uncomfortable place to be.

It's my view that the group needs to have three conversations:

I. Defining Unacceptable Behavior
What specific behaviors are unacceptable to the point that if they are not corrected it could be considered grounds for imposing sanctions. 

II. Defining Due Process
What constitutes due process in conjunction with an involuntary loss of member rights? This will include:

—A formal examination of the claim that Kim has engaged in unacceptable behaviors (refer to the outcome of the previous step).

—A formal notification to Kim that the community has determined that they have behaved unacceptably in specific ways that are enumerated in the communication, along with what specific behavior changes will bring them back into alignment, and what period of time the person will be given to effect those changes.

—A second formal meeting at the end of the time period to assess whether Kim has successfully altered their behavior or not. If Kim has made the changes no sanctions will be imposed but they may be placed on probation (for a defined period) to see if the acceptably altered behavior continues or degrades to something inappropriate again.

—If the community determines that the there has been insufficient change, the community may then decide to impose sanctions from the list developed in the step below.
 
III. Defining the Menu of Sanctions
What is the options the community may choose from if it is determined that Kim has gone through the whole process (see the previous step) and their behavior continues to be unacceptable. Note that I am not talking about abrogating Kim’s civil rights if any apply; I am talking about the withdrawal or delimiting of Kim's social rights as a community member. 

Note further that you are not obliged to impose sanctions even when you are allowed to; the group must discern what sanctions, if any, are appropriate on a case-by-case basis.

A final note: I caution groups to make sure they are not acting in haste, and to pause long enough to look in the mirror (to what extent can the awkwardness with Kim be the result of bad behavior by others as well?) before reaching for sanctions. Consequences should be a grave step, taken only when everything else has failed. 

In short, make sure it isn't a witch hunt.

Peeing on Petunias

After 30 years before the mast (supplying navigational assistance to intentional communities struggling against interpersonal headwinds en route to the safe harbors of equanimity and harmonious living) I’ve encountered a wide range of challenging dynamics. The situations that are most compelling are those with the highest stakes—where the group is wrestling with issues that obviously have a wider social application.

For example, I once labored with an urban group trying to sort out cultural preferences in a neighborhood that included both Korean and Puerto Rican immigrants, yet their target recruitment profile was well-educated Greens. Living in a melting pot is one thing. Living in a melting down pot is something else. This community was hip deep in tough issues of race, income, safety, religious preference, and ethnic identity. The work had obvious application in the mainstream—not just for the well-being of the community in which the conversation arose—and I was excited to bring what I knew about diversity and communication to the front lines of social change.
 
Sometimes the conversations got heated and I was trying to thread the needle around whether emotional engagement itself (never mind what was actually being said) was seen as preferential treatment for one subculture over another. Ai-yi-yi!

I work with patterns. Over the course of many years (and many meetings) I've learned that it rarely makes much difference whether it’s a cohousing community or a student co-op. For that matter, it doesn’t make much difference whether it’s an ashram or a Unitarian Universalist Church. I’ve worked with them all, and people are people. When they aggregate into groups—my particular area of focus—people tend to behave in predictable ways and have similar blind spots.


As it happened, the very next weekend after I worked with the urban group referenced above, I was in another city working with a community that was wrestling with tension that arose in connection with Person A's cat urinating on Person B's flower bed.

In a flash of insight, it occurred to me that if I observed the second group with the sound turned off, that the facial expressions and body language came across as identical to what I’d encountered the week before. In short, I noticed that the affect was scale independent! People were filling their lives with drama to capacity, cleverly drawing on whatever fuel was at hand to reach the desired level of intensity. Fascinating.


While there was a part of me that struggled to take the cat issue seriously (after working with racial tension the week before, I was itching to ask the second group if they really wanted to invest so much energy in a triviality) but I took a deep breath and refocused. The issue, after all, was not the over-fertilized flower bed; it was learning how to work through interpersonal tensions—which is a serious world peace issue every bit as worthy of attention as ethnic diversity.

Still, it’s instructive every now and then to take a step back and assess whether you really mean to imbue the issue at hand with as much of your precious life force as you are. As Richard Carlson admonishes in his 1997 classic: don’t sweat the small stuff (and it’s all small stuff). It's embarrassing to look back over the span of my life and reflect on all the times I've gotten my knickers in a twist over small stuff. (What was I thinking?)

Today there is perhaps nothing more potent to help me access what Buddhists refer to as an equanimous presence than remembering to ask: 

Are we peeing on petunias here?

Excising Advocacy from Problem Solving

Last Saturday I did something I've done many times before: taught an Introduction to Consensus workshop.

This time though, I prepared by spending a couple hours the night before contemplating how I might approach this familiar topic in a fresh way. My efforts yielded two innovations.

First, it occurred to me to start out by asking participants what it would take for them to be ready to create cooperative culture, given that they'd been raised and deeply conditioned in competitive culture.

This was meant as a pump-priming exercise in that it's been my observation that a lot of intentional communities struggle with that transition. In fact, it's my sense that most start-ups commit to forming communities without discussing this transition at all. They just agree that community living is a good idea and they're ready to give it a go without questioning whether there's any personal work they need to undertake before they're "cooperation ready"—by which I mean able to respond to the normal challenges of group living and collective decision-making with cooperative behaviors.

While it may seem obvious to readers that that will be needed (and surely this assessment will have been made by thoughtful community pioneers), that is not what I've found. In particular, at certain key moments, such as when another group member expresses a strongly held divergent viewpoint about a matter you care about a lot, a cooperative response is among the least likely things to happen.

Instead of something along the lines of "Wow, I wonder how you got there. I have a really different idea about that and maybe you've thought of something I haven't. Tell me more" a much more likely occurrence is "What the hell are you thinking?!" or maybe "Are you kidding me? That would be a disaster!"

When the stakes are high and you have a clear opinion about your preference, it is far more probable that you'll respond to divergent views by preparing for battle. That's the way we were raised and it's what we know to do. To be sure, this may come out in a variety of ways other than outright attack—for example, expressing sarcasm, playing the victim, faction building behind the scenes (while expressing false support in the moment), or spreading hyperbolic rumors about the bad things that will happen if the other view prevails. All those options are divisive and come out of an us/them perspective that is fundamentally contrary to cooperative culture.

So my opening question was not academic; it was germane. Consensus does not thrive in competitive culture, and groups are not likely to enjoy the results if members simply bring their conditioned competitive behaviors into the attempt.

As a consensus trainer, I try to get that point made in the first five minutes.

Second, I devoted half an hour to brainstorming a list of the major issues I see groups struggle with when using consensus. Whenever I'm conducting a workshop I'm concerned with whether I'm addressing the audience's major questions. By offering a menu of the questions that most frequently arise I figured I might be better able to hit the sweet spot. Instead of guessing what they'd ask for, or trusting that they'd know how to articulate their needs if I gave them an open-ended invitation, it occurred to me that I might be able to productively short-cut the process by suggesting subtopics.

I came up with a dozen (in no particular order):

1. Culture Shift 
Community living is an explicit attempt to create and sustain a vibrant cooperative culture. Accomplishing that requires a certain amount of unlearning competitive conditioning and I believe it's crucial that groups get introduced to this reality as soon as possible. Better a bucket of cold water up front than bringing them into awareness only after they've bought a house.

2. Working Constructively with Emotions
You can find entire books and workshops that purport to offer a complete overview of consensus yet don't address this aspect of group dynamics at all. As far as I'm concerned those approaches are incomplete. Groups that do not discuss how they want to engage with on-topic emotional responses are sowing the wind. For what they invariably harvest is the chaos of emotional distress, with no tools or agreements in place with which to engage it productively. Not only is this foolish, but it's needlessly risky.

3. Welcoming Non-rational Input
The default style of secular meetings in US culture is rational discourse—to the point where other ways of knowing or processing information are expected to be translated into rational thought as a necessary first step to be eligible for being worked with, or even acknowledged. While common, I question the wisdom of that approach. It's at least worth discussing the potential of widening the welcome mat to allow participants to offer insights and responses in the language in which they arose. Thus, groups could look at the pros and cons of explicitly developing the capacity to work emotionally, intuitively, kinesthetically, and spiritually—as well as rationally. That would be different, eh?

4. Working with Conflict
This is the most volatile and dangerous aspect of emotional engagement, where feelings are most prone to being packaged with aggression. If a group fails to discuss how to handle conflict there will be nothing in place at times of need, and the group will be at the mercy of how individuals express and respond to distress. As most of us have had any number of bad experiences with that catch-as-catch-can approach, groups tend to be very nervous about engaging with emerging conflict and tend to default to a strategy of avoidance and containment. If encysting doesn't work, they just hope to survive it, like a bad storm. I think we can do better, which includes valuing conflict as a potential source of both information and energy.

5. Plenary Worthy 
One of the ways that groups inadvertently make poor use of whole group meeting time—a precious commodity—is by regularly allowing the group to work at a level of detail that is not worthy of the whole's attention. Instead of handing it off to a manager of committee when that point is reached, they continue to labor. The main reason that happens is because the group has never defined where the boundary of plenary worthy lies. In the fog of uncertainty the group soldiers on, simultaneously extending meetings (by drifting into territory they should have left alone) and undercutting the work of committees. Yuck.

6. Separating Advocacy from Problem Solving
As a long-time observer of how cooperative groups address issues, I've discovered that there's great potential for streamlining if issues are worked in two distinct phases instead of commingling both into one muddy free-for-all: a) first determining what a good response needs to take into account; and then b) figuring out what response best balances the factors identified in the first step. Further, as a firm believer in offering a seat at the table for on-topic passionate expression (what's the fun of hiding your light under a bushel?) I think it works best if time on the soap box is limited to part a). In the follow-up, problem solving phase you need a different energy—less circus and more collaboration.

7. Seeing the Glass Half Full
Although every now and then you encounter moments where the ideas and energy are all running in one direction—either all joy or all dross—that's rare. Most of the time you have a mix. In those moments you have a choice: should you focus on what's working or what isn't? While that question may seem trivial (after all, both are true; both are equally valid), it isn't. The norm in Western culture—where the individual is king—is to focus on differences and discord well ahead of common ground. In consequence, the presence of commonality can often go undetected for an embarrassing length of time. Why? Because you tend to find what you're looking for. This is important because durable agreements are built on a foundation of common ground. Yet consistently missing the boat results in needless delays. Ugh.

8. Dynamics of Blocking
For groups making the transition from voting to consensus, blocking can be a terrifying concept to embrace. (You mean just one person can stop the entire group from moving forward? A: Yes. Yikes!) The worry is that the group may have jumped out of the frying pan (an out of control majority) in exchange for the dubious advantages of greater exposure to the fire (tyranny of the minority). What's the bargain in that? It's important to carefully walk new-to-consensus groups through what constitutes legitimate grounds for a block, by what process a block will be validated, and the primacy of crafting the right energetic container for coping with a block. (And don't forget to keep breathing!)

9. Facilitator Authority
While most consensus groups accept without question that meetings will run better if facilitated, that doesn't necessarily mean they've digested what it is a good facilitator does, and how that's distinguished from the more familiar role of chairperson. For one thing, they ain't the same thing, and the role needs to be defined. For another, facilitators need express permission from the group to effectively handle phenomena like repetition, speaking off topic, sarcasm, and emotional outbursts. Without that authority, the facilitator role tends to devolve into little more than deciding who will talk next.

10. Commitment to Training 
It's not reasonable to expect new members to arrive on campus with a working knowledge of consensus. While you'll probably get a handful of community veterans to join, that will be the exception not the rule. Most will be starting from scratch or have partial experience that may be more problematic than beneficial. Thus, you're going to need to train new members (just as you may need to train facilitator). It is not a one-and-done proposition; it's an ongoing commitment. Hint: while it may be tempting, it's penny wise and pound foolish to expect new members to pick up the nuances of consensus by osmosis (watching others). If you want everyone singing from the same hymnal, it's less expensive in the long haul to give everyone voice lessons.

11. Triumph of Curiosity over Combat
The key moment in cooperative culture is what happens when people encounter serious disagreement about non-trivial issues. Do they lean in and express curiosity ("Whoa, I'd like to hear how you got there. Maybe you're seeing something I missed") or do they gird their loins and prepare for a fight, to defend their turf? Cooperative culture is not about being wimpy, but neither is it about limiting dissent. In fact, the higher the stakes the more important it is that the net is cast wide.

12. How Power is Associated with Roles
One of the more important measures of a cooperative group's maturity is its ability to openly and sensitively discuss how power is distributed in the group and what can/should be done about the ways in which it's uneven. Because power is the ability to influence what others say and do, you cannot give it to those with less, but there are things the group can do to encourage its members to develop their capacity for leadership and to grow to become more powerful. Is the group being sufficiently mindful about power distribution when authorizing people to fill key roles? Is it thinking strategically when committing resources to train members to be better able to fill needed roles?

Community as Economic Engine


It’s endlessly fascinating to see what kaleidoscopic patterns can be generated by shining light on a single facet of intentional communities, and then slowly rotating the focus from one group to the next. As this issue of Communities drills down on cooperative economics, I want to look at what emerges when the lens is trained on how communities organize financially.
 
Intentional communities sort broadly into two kinds: those where members share income (roughly 10-12 percent of the North American field today), and those where they don’t (the vast majority).
In the case of the former, the community takes primary responsibility for the economic welfare of its members. In consequence, the community rolls up its sleeves and develops community-owned businesses, and takes advantage of collective purchasing power to leverage economies of scale to make ends meet. In addition to the day-to-day, this kind of community also provides for member vacations, health care, and retirement. It’s cradle to grave coverage. Members put everything they earn (though not necessarily everything they own) into the pot. In return, the group picks up the tab for all expenses—within whatever boundaries the community sets.
For non-income-sharing communities, however, the collective tends to leave the economics of member households untouched. This is a huge difference.
As someone who lived in an income-sharing community for fours decades (1974-2014) and was a delegate to the Federation of Egalitarian Communities for two (1980-2001), I have deep familiarity with how the collective can partner with individual members to address economic imperatives. In addition, as FIC administrator for 28 years and as a group process consultant for three decades I have visited and worked with more 100 non-income-sharing communities and thus have first-hand knowledge of the economic realities in that milieu as well.
Both because most intentional communities don’t share income and because the potential there is less explored, the primary focus of this examination will be the economic relationship between the collective and the individual in non-income-sharing groups. I’m going to first describe what’s extant, and then attempt to make the case for shifting it to something else.
The Community Lens For the community, it’s much simpler if its financial focus is narrowly defined: the group will manage the collective assets and liabilities (such as property taxes, infrastructure, and common facilities) and member household will manage themselves. Not only does this protect individual privacy (getting the right balance between group and individual can be tricky) but it’s less work. Members may do a fair bit of expense sharing and collective purchasing, but the group’s interest in member finances tends to be limited to whether the checks for HOA dues clear and members don’t default on their mortgages. To be sure, if a member gets into financial trouble, the group may rally around them—either collectively or as neighbors—but it isn’t obliged to.
The Individual Household Lens For the member this hands-off policy cuts two ways. On the one hand it means that information about their financial reality (beyond whether they qualify for a loan if one is needed to buy or build their unit) and their household budget is entirely their business, just as in the mainstream culture.
On the other hand it typically means foregoing one of the principal advantages of shared living: the active assistance from others in figuring things out.
On the expense side, there is considerable room for sharing expenses in non-income-sharing communities, and a good bit of this happens. Perhaps the community has an internal food-buying club or has a link with a nearby CSA (community supported agriculture). Maybe the community owns a single pickup truck or wood splitter that is shared among all members. The group may build a swimming pool, a workshop, or an exercise facility—all of which are likely to be larger and better equipped than what members would build on their own. 
But what about the income side? This part of the equation is largely unexplored.
My good friend, Terry O’Keefe, and I have been trying to bring a lantern into this cavernous, dark room. We think non-income-sharing communities are mostly missing an important opportunity to partner with their members, bringing community assets to bear. Our point is not that communities mustdo this, but that it is a possibility that is largely missed. Often communities are located in places where jobs are poor (which is the obverse of the cheap land coin). If prospective members had help solving their economic challenges it could make a substantial difference in community accessibility.
When Terry and I conducted a workshop bearing the same title as this article to a packed room at the 2015 national cohousing conference (in Durham NC), these questions bubbled up in the audience: 
1.  When does it make more sense for the community to own a business, and when does it make more sense for individual members to own it?

We suggest looking closely at two sub-questions:
a) What structure gives you the best chance of manifesting the management energy needed? Keep in mind that possessing a great commercial concept is not the same as possessing great management skills, and neither is the same as business savvy (though there is definitely overlap). Thus, people with sound business ideas often need help (whether they know it or not) with: —Developing a viable business plan —Securing start-up money —Finding a qualified manager or management team —Creating a marketing plan —Identifying personnel needs (how many and with what skills)
b) To what extent are you open to fellow community members as a potential labor force? This question excites us a lot because of the potential for entrepreneurs (the ones who cook up business ideas) to partner with their non-entrepreneurial neighbors (who are looking to supplement their income but are reluctant to start a business). These two segments coexist in almost all groups and are often at odds with each other, because of the strong tendency for entrepreneurs to be risk tolerant while non-entrepreneurs are risk averse. Here they can make common cause.
2.  What advantages might communities businesses have in the marketplace?

—In communities of size there typically exists an amazing pool of skilled, motivated people available on site to help you with most aspects of business development. It’s an untapped gold mine. —Building (or at least enhancing) community can be an explicit byproduct of doing the work. Given that your people value the community (and the connections) this significantly boosts job satisfaction and morale (which translates directly to better attention to detail, fewer mistakes, less absenteeism, more pride in the work, less turnover). —If the business is owned by the community (and members are the workers) there will tend to be enhanced motivation and satisfaction from that fact alone. (There are any number of jobs I would gracefully do for my community that I would never do for wages.) —Healthy communities tend to have superior skills at communicating and working constructively with conflict. This can make all the difference in terms of job satisfaction and can be readily parlayed into superior customer service. —Communities tend to be more collaborative (and less hierarchic). To the extent that this obtains, problem solving becomes an all-skate activity (not just something management tackles). In addition to enhancing morale, it leads to more creative ideas and better problem solving. —Community-based businesses can often be more fluid about part-time work, flex hours, day care on the job, costuming, and working at home. —You’ll tend to get more people who will volunteer, because of the values you represent and how it helps the community. —There will also an opportunity advantage among customers who value cooperation. Potential customers within your service area who value community will preferentially give you their business. While there will be limits to how much they will be willing to pay a premium for your product or service, they will at least prefer you when price and quality are comparable. —Your labor pool itself may give you an advantage. For example, my long-time community (Sandhill Farm) produces sorghum syrup. While our neighbors could grow sorghum just as easily as we, they didn’t have the labor to do the work and couldn’t afford to hire it. Thus there was virtually no local competition for our product and we get the business from all who prefer to buy locally (which is a growing market share). Not stopping there we pressed this advantage by inviting friends to join us for the labor-intensive three-week harvest each fall. Our numbers temporarily swell to three times their normal size and it’s a madhouse harvest festival (a form of temporary community that we know how to manage). We’re no more efficient working this way, but all the incoming labor is volunteered—guest campesinos are compensated with wonderful food and camaraderie. —To some extent people can substitute for capital and property. If people are a major resource, think about how to leverage that. Let me give another Sandhill example for how we applied this principle. Just like most of our northeast Missouri neighbors, we grew soybeans. If we sold them as a raw product (as our neighbors do) we wouldn’t have any advantage. However, we added value to our soybeans by making them into tempeh, and selling that instead. While it wasn’t a get rich scheme (we made about $10/hour on tempeh), there were several advantages to this approach: • We could make tempeh year round and work when we wanted (when you’re dealing with raw agricultural products you must work when the weather is right, not when it fits your schedule). • We set the price for local, organic tempeh. When you’re selling raw products, you mostly have to sell for what buyers will pay. • We were selling a product that aligned well with our value for healthy living. Soy-based protein is easier on the land than meat-based protein and there’s no cholesterol. • We could produce the same income from one acre of soybeans converted into tempeh that our neighbors could generate from selling 25 acres of raw soybeans. That allowed us make the income we needed farming far less land, which meant our operation needed far less capitalization. —Often communities develop expertise in an area to meet their own needs, and that knowledge can have commercial application in ways that home-scale experiences may not. For example, Twin Oaks (Louisa VA) was a well-established community of about 90 adults that grew a significant fraction of its own food in extensive community gardens. When neighboring Acorn (Mineral VA) acquired Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (an heirloom garden seed business) in 1999, it was an easy adjustment for Twin Oaks to become a major seed grower for Acorn, thereby boosting income for both communities.
—Communities frequently control land or have commonly held buildings that are underutilized. (Have you ever noticed how often the lights are out at the common house?)

3.  How tricky is it to navigate the dynamic where members are both peer/peer and employer/employee?

The hardest part is likely to occur when the employer gives the employee critical feedback about their performance as an employee—and these two are at the same time neighbors. This can be dicey, and a lot will depend on how well the culture of the community supports the expression of critical feedback and clean communication. If the community struggles to work through tensions among members then this does not bode well. Going the other way, where roles are clear and skills are sharp, it’s just another of life’s unexpected pleasures.

4.  How can we encourage non-income-sharing communities to develop their potential as an economic engine?

We suggest groups think about this in two ways: 
a) What can communities do to foster and support business development among entrepreneurial members? [See the replies to Questions 1a and 2 above.] By seeing the collective skills of community members as a pool, it’s quite likely that there is expertise within the pool that can cover most of the needs for business expertise—especially at the advising or consulting level (as opposed to the regular job level)—without going outside the group. Canvass the group and put that skill to work! Not only will you be strengthening the economics of the community, you’ll be strengthening relationships into the bargain.
Beyond that, the community may be a huge help with capitalization, perhaps through borrowing against capital reserves or by organizing a loan pool funded by members with deep pockets.
b) What can groups do to help new businesses create jobs for non-entrepreneurial members? We touched on this above, and think the community’s role in this may be crucial. Often small business owners are content to remain a one-person or single household operation. The owner may not be strong in social skills or is otherwise leery of the dynamics of hiring and firing neighbors. Thus, remaining a ma-and-pa outfit eliminates potential personnel headaches, and owners may not be that ambitious about growing the business. 
However, the savvy community will know that a majority of its members are non-entrepreneurial, some fraction of which may well be eager for local work that has a good values match. By getting involved at an early stage, the community can be in a position to offer the carrot of helping to identify business assistance in exchange for job creation—including the offer to troubleshoot personnel concerns, on an as-needed basis. There can be a lot of good in this. The principle is simple: the more people you have eagerly hunting in the clover field, the more you’re going to turn up specimens with four leaves.
To be clear, access to the community’s “Chamber of Commerce” would be strictly voluntary; no one would be required to use this group, or to heed its advice.

5.  To what extent is a focus on business development just buying into the (failed) paradigm that growth solves everything, and to what extent is it sensible to use traditional business tools to support alternative economies?

While I think there’s a lot that can be done to dial down demand (and live happily on less), it nonetheless makes sense to be smart about analyzing prospects for new business ideas with time tested traditional queries. For example: —What's the market for your product or service? —What's the competition? —What do you do better than anyone else? —What are you passionate about doing? —Can you profitably produce or deliver your product or service at a price people are willing to pay? —How is your business an expression of who you want to be in the world? —How will you manifest the start-up capital you need to make a go of this business? —How will you service debt and not go belly up?

6.  How do you handle the tension between the non-entrepreneur (who tends to be risk averse) and the entrepreneur (who tends to be risk tolerant)?

Let’s be real. This tension exists already, whether you have community businesses or not. Isn’t it a better strategy to learn to deal constructively with the full breadth of attitudes among your membership than to attempt to eliminate or shy away from opportunities for those differences to manifest?
[Terry and I will be reprising this workshop at the next national cohousing conference in Nashville TN, May 19-21, 2017]
• • •
Can communities afford to not explore their economic potential? I don’t think so. 
I’m not looking for Trump’s jawboning to bring back the manufacturing jobs that were lost to outsourcing. I’m not looking for governments to bail us out at all. I’m looking at what we can do for ourselves, working together in values-aligned cooperative groups—the same kind of entities that impressed Margaret Mead so much for their potential to effect world change.  
Sidebar #1: Redefining TermsSecurity Ordinarily this term conjures up thoughts of bank balances and insurance policies. In community, however, or in close-knit neighborhoods, we can shift that to relationships—the people who will be there for you in time of need. There are some nuances here, such as maintaining an intergenerational mix (so that the percentage of members needing help doesn’t get too high) or joining a community after you can no longer contribute (knocking out of balance a healthy sense of give and take), but these challenges can be solved with sufficient forethought. —Quality of Life We mostly think in terms of amassing material goods or money (which can buy material goods). However, if we can shift from ownership of goods to access to goods, this is very liberating on one’s budget. In community, you learn quickly that everyone doesn’t need to own a lawnmower, a washing machine, or a table saw. Yes, sharing comes with challenges—the tragedy of the commons, and mutuality of need come to mind—yet think of all the dollars you don’t have to earn if you share items that you only need occasionally. This can be translated into working fewer hours, or changing to a job you enjoy more but pays less. —Sustainable Economics In the mainstream culture we rely on GNP (gross national product) as the principal indicator of economic health. That’s a measure of throughput, with no distinction between $1 million spent on building wind turbines or $1 million spent on cleaning up an oil spill (or $1 million in legal fees to defend the company that caused the oil spill)—they are considered equivalent events in terms of GNP. But what if we valued conservation of resources instead? Rather than measuring how many trees were sold for lumber, we’d focus on how many trees are still standing that could be cut into lumber. Since we live in a world of finite resources, maybe it would make better sense to focus on what we have available (rather than how fast we’re exchanging it). We could peg our sense of health to how many inches of topsoil we had at the end of the year, rather than on the dollar value of the potatoes we grew in that topsoil last year. Economist Herman Daly laid out a blueprint for this different approach in his seminal work, Steady-State Economics (1977). We could focus on a system of exchanging goods and services that can be continued indefinitely into the future with no one getting hurt. We could emphasize helping people find work they love and are good at. We could redefine “work” as something that purposefully blurs the traditional distinctions between work and play—because you enjoy both. To make a shift of this kind requires the fish to sense the water they’re swimming in and to decide to try something else. It’s questioning fundamental assumptions about what kind of activity or condition best measures the health of an economy—by which I mean a system’s capacity to support people getting what they need and want for a decent life. It’s hard, and perhaps a bit scary, but it can be done.
Sidebar #2: Challenges Peculiar to Community-based Businesses As promotional as I am about community businesses, there are pitfalls that it behooves groups to become familiar with up front: 1. You will need to devote time and resources to training people in communication and cooperative problem solving. While people will be attracted to what you intend and what you have created, that does not mean they will already possess the skills to plug in well. In fact, they most likely won’t (or will have those skills only partially mastered). Because intentional communities purposefully effect culture change, any business embedded in an intentional community will be operating in a different culture. In recognition of that tautology you would be wise to anticipate the need to build capacity as a precondition to reaping the benefits. (While you might reasonably project a flywheel effect that will help carry you along with its positive momentum once you have things well under way, there will be a lot of effort in the beginning getting things pointed in the right direction.) 2. It is a complication to embrace the concept that relationship building is part of your work. Yes, it comes with the advantages enumerated in the main article, yet it won’t all be cake and balloons. There will be times when you’re ready to focus on a task and some of your fellow workers will insist on working through interpersonal tensions instead. In mainstream workplaces, there are typically strict limitations on what, how, and when you can expect tensions to be addressed (if at all); in a community-based business you’re going to have to budget time to do this work way beyond the industry average (and it won’t come in predictable doses; it’ll be episodic, irregular, and occasionally intense). 3. Collaborative decision-making can take considerably longer than typical management styles in the corporate world. While you can make an excellent case for why collaborative styles will produce better decisions in general, there needs to be a fairly sophisticated understanding of how to delegate effectively and under what conditions it makes sense to use a more streamlined decision-making process (for example, to respond effectively to time-sensitive conditions and information). Doing this in a sloppy way is highly expensive (in terms of hurt feelings, a sense among workers of betrayal or hypocrisy, and frustration among management). It’s serious work developing an effective decision-making style for collaborative groups, and you can get creamed if you don’t anticipate this. 4. It can be tough navigating the dynamic where two members are in a manager/employee role in the community business, while at the same time relating as peers in community meetings. There are different expectations in those roles and it can get confusing if people have trouble changing hats when shifting from business conversations to community conversations.
Sidebar #3: Profile of Members Seeking Part-Time Employment Among members of non-income-sharing communities looking for employment, here are the preferences I have been able to distill from direct observation and discussion: —Options for part-time work —Flexible hours —May need help with childcare, or openness to having young kids at the work site —Strong match between work values and personal values (no prostitution) —Low/no commuting —Casual dress permitted (minimal wardrobe expenses) —Social skills highly valued —Limited desire/willingness to manage —Wages need to be decent, but not exorbitant
Sidebar #4: Defining Living Wage How much income is needed to live decently? Answers vary widely, based on individual circumstances. Essentially, we’re talking about covering basics (food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and health), plus some for education, travel, entertainment, and savings. Someone living in the city will have a different bottom line than for someone living in a rural county without a stoplight (as I did for 40 years). Someone living in an income-sharing group house will have a verydifferent budget than someone living in a single family home. The amount of money you equate with a living wage will be directly tied to the decisions you make about the amount of independence you seek and the degree you feel you need to own things (rather than share them), and these choices will tend to have a significantlygreater impact on your money needs than the local real estate market. Getting the Life You Want on Less Money Probably the biggest two items on your expense list where you have immediate potential for drastically reducing your living costs are in housing and transportation, with food a distant third. The more you share, the less money you need to have the standard of living you seek. It’s that simple (though, to be sure, the practice of sharing is not always simple—which is why there’s a social dimension to sustainability). Another factor is the extent to which you equate your worth with your wage (or your bank account). The mainstream culture has gone to considerable lengths to condition people to make this link, and it can take serious effort to unlearn it. (The good news is that it’s possible.) Making Work Work for You The way through this issue is to expand the list of things you value when assessing what you get from your work. While money is a factor, you can also value: —Relationships (both with colleagues and with clients) —Education (what you learn while delivering the job, either professionally or about yourself) —Opportunity to serve —Working conditions (pleasure derived from the environment in which you work) —Access to resources (use of company tools and expertise for personal purposes) —Contacts (which may lead to more rewarding jobs in the future) —Ancillary social benefits (the opportunity to visit friends and relatives living near or en route to where you’re delivering work—this is a big one for me, because I travel a lot as a process consultant) The point is that it’s good to have a complex equation when assessing the value you get from work, as it gives you the greatest leverage for practicing the permaculture principle of “stacking functions.” That is, your life will tend to work better if you can get work to satisfy multiple functions (rather than just generating the money with which to afford the myriad things you really want to do). The Problems of Separating Love & Money While mostly people are looking for more money from their work than they’re getting now, there can also be a challenge from the other direction: where people insist on not getting paid (or paid decently) for work they love. The idea here is that the other side of the people-not-having-work-they-love coin is people not wanting to mess up what they love by associating money with it. It works like this. Having taken deeply into their heart the shibboleth that money is the root of all evil they don’t want to contaminate activities they love with the taint of commercialism.  This can play out in a couple of versions. One is the artist (and everyone who practices something they love can be styled an “artist”—regardless of the value others place on that person’s work) who chooses to not sell what they produce (or accept commissions to create it), for fear that market preferences will influence (either subtly or grossly) their artistic choices and they prefer a non-economic purity in their practice. Another is that some people working in the social change field will prefer to volunteer or accept low wages in exchange for credibility or even power. The dynamic is that there tends to be a deep suspicion about the motives of people who ask for high wages (note that “high” in this context can simply mean a living wage), and some would prefer to demonstrate their depth of conviction by accepting little or no compensation, hoping (perhaps subconsciously) to trade their poverty for influence. While there are all kinds of flaws in this logic (what does it say about a model of a sustainable world if it depends on the people working to create it not being sustainably compensated for their efforts?), this “pride of poverty” phenomenon is a powerful dynamic undercutting the effectiveness of much social change work today. (For an excellent and poignant story about this, read pages 37-40 of Passion as Big as a Planet by Ma’ikwe Ludwig.)
Sidebar #5: Laird’s Economic Journey In the interest of completeness and transparency, I want to share my personal odyssey in relationship with money. While everyone’s path is unique, and my experience cannot be a blueprint for anyone else, I think personal stories ground the issues and can occasionally provide inspiration. Background I grew up in the Republican suburbs of Chicago, and have an extreme amount of privilege in the mainstream culture. My father was financially successful and I was raised to be so myself. There isn’t a shadow of a doubt about whether I could make lots of money if I set my sights on that goal. I did not grow up rich, but comfortably middle class. The most important thing I got out of my upbringing was a strong sense of self-confidence. As I understand it today, this is the result of: a) my privilege; b) feeling secure in my parents’ love; and c) my never having experienced any serious deprivation growing up (my basic needs were always met). So the first piece to understand is that I had serious advantages. While my father had plenty of money, and seemed to enjoy making it, it was also clear that he wasn’t happy. In fact, I came to understand by the time I went to college that he was profoundly lonely. It was a wake-up call of serious proportions to see my father—who was clearly a success as measured by societal standards—not happy. He was, I understand now, living well beyond the "Apex of Fulfillment," and I wanted no part of that experience. So my second piece was that I understood early on the limitations of what money can buy. I went to college during the years 1967-71: the height of Vietman protests. It was a period of unprecedented unrest on campus and I was smack in the middle of it. I burst out my conservative cocoon and started questioning damn near everything. I loved the intensity of the inquiry and what I now see with hindsight were my first tastes of community—dormitory living with peers. These were exciting times, and it was in that context that the next piece emerged: I was drawn to social change work (and I knew that I was going to be a builder-upper rather than a tearer-downer: I had seen both roles showcased in those years of protest, and it was quickly apparent to me that I enjoyed putting together solutions more than I relished ripping the scales from others’ eyes). Coming out of college, I knew I was supposed to get a job (in the same way that I knew that I was supposed to go to college after high school). Already oriented toward wanting to make a difference, it seemed a good idea to explore public service, and for two years I worked for the US Department of Transportation in Washington, DC as a junior bureaucrat. As it turned out, it was the only regular 9-5, M-F job I ever had. I worked for the then-magnificent salary of $7,000/year, and saved money. (The two main components of this were shared housing and not owning a vehicle; it’s incredible how far you can stretch a paycheck when you get control of housing and transportation, and don’t eat out every night.) While it didn’t take me long to grok that this would not be my most productive environment (too much bullshit, not enough action), it was a valuable experience. It was, for example, highly instructive to experience being the lowest paid person in my division (of 12 professionals and seven secretaries), and yet I was the only one not complaining of a shortage of disposable income. People in that office spent to the limit of their income (or beyond). Sure, they had nicer houses and nicer clothes, yet they didn’t seem happier. This reinforced my inclination to not enter the consumer rat race. What was the point? I also realized that I had lost that excitement and stimulation of college days. Maybe I’d made a mistake. Instead of focusing first on career possibilities and rebuilding a network of relationships in whatever job came along, maybe I should have done it the other way around: focus first on the peopleand let the job follow. In February 1973 I was in a public library and happened across the current issue of Psychology Today. It included an excerpt from a new book by Kat Kinkade, A Walden Two Experiment. It described the first five years of Twin Oaks Community, and it changed my life. “Community” was the label I was searching for to describe what was precious to me about my college experience. So now I had another important piece: people first; money second. By August I had “retired” from public service and began serious conversations with friends from college days about starting our own community, to recreate that special environment. By the following spring, we had founded Sandhill Farm: four people willing to try to make that happen. Because Twin Oaks was the inspiration and because I’d already done a fair amount of work to reject materialism, we set up Sandhill as an income-sharing community, where all earnings would be pooled. The community still operates that way today. The four of us were able to buy the land and expand the housing to meet our needs with cash (about $20,000). A significant fraction of that was saved from my two years in DC. I was 24 years old and had just bought land (with others) in northeast Missouri. I had no job (or even an inkling of how we were going to make the finances work), but we also had no debt. The Community Years From this point on, I began seriously working on developing a viable economic model that was quite different from any I had known before. Here are the components of what I was able to accomplish: —Drastically reduced my need for money to supply basic needs, by living in a homesteading community that shared income. —Worked consciously to expand the pool of things that give me high satisfaction (essentially this entailed cultivating curiosity). —Insisted that the highest possible fraction of what I do was things I loved doing. —Defined work broadly (valuing both domestic and income-producing activities as “work”). —Blurred the line between work and play. —Worked only when I wanted to (though I wanted to a lot). —Brought my full passion into everything I did. —Defined success as loving the process, not the number of projects completed. To the extent I’ve succeeded at this, I don’t track how much I work, and work doesn’t tire me. (clients feel this from me—even if they don’t know where it comes from—and it positively affects their experience with me, making it all the more likely they’ll want to work with me again. It’s a tremendous positive feedback loop.) By having lots of things that attract me, I have a wide variety of work. Because I also have considerable control of my time, this affords me an important degree of flexibility. Whenever I get tired of one thing (or seem to have lost my creative edge), I simply lay it down and do something completely different. By this practice I am able to maintain an unusually high degree of enthusiasm for what I do, and rarely get run down. Pricing Myself I do a lot of things that make money. Yet money doesn’t drive me. By having a low need for cash (by American standards) it gives me considerable leverage in the marketplace. As a process consultant (my most remunerative activity), I know that my services are valuable (I price myself as worth $1500/day, plus expenses). Whenever prospective clients ask what I charge, I give them that figure, and in the same breath tell them that I don’t want money to get in the way of the work and that I’ll agree to do the job (assuming I’m interested in it) for what they can afford. That is, I tell them that I’ll say “yes” to whatever amount of money they put on the table, without quibbling. The only requirement is that they have a conversation (without me present) about what they can afford. What I don’t do is offer discounts up front. I insist they have the conversation about what the work is worth. And then I trust their answer. In consequence, I get paid all over the map. Sometimes I work for a pittance, or even pro bono. In the end though, taken as a whole, I get paid plenty and I am able to ignore the paycheck when doing the work. One last piece. I’ve derived considerable satisfaction from making jobs up (rather than out-competing those already in the field). That is, on multiple occasions I’ve cooked up an idea for a job that hasn’t existed previously—something that really excited me. I’ve talked people into supporting me as a volunteer long enough to demonstrate that job’s worth, and then gotten the job funded. After a while, my interests invariably evolve, I find someone to replace me, and I create a new job. I’ve done this half a dozen times. After firmly establishing myself in the field of intentional communities as a process consultant, I am poised to leave that to others and focus instead on bringing the lessons and tools of cooperative dynamics into the wider culture—among neighborhood associations, schools, churches, and the workplace, where the commitment to community and cooperation is softer, yet the numbers yearning for something better are exponentially higher.

Techno Boosting in Duluth

Yesterday I transferred data from my old laptop ('12 model) to a spiffy new one (a refurbished late model MacBook). Whew.

In the pre-dawn hours of Thursday I'm outbound for a 28-day (five-gig) road trip and I had been anxious to get the migration completed before departure. I slept well last night with that technological accomplishment safely in my rear view mirror.
 
I figure I swapped out just in time: my old laptop was getting creaky. Not only was I rubbing the more popular letters off my keyboard (e, r, t, a, s, d), but I was needing increasing fingertip pressure to register my keystrokes (which meant a lot of tedious backtracking to correct misses). It's a joy to return to normal typing, where regular light pressure is effective. 
 
I had a moment of panic this morning when I tried working in Word for the first time on the new machine and it blithely informed me that I had read-only privileges until I registered my copy of Microsoft Office. What! While I had no idea why my registration didn't migrate to the new machine along with my files, now I had to recall where in Sam Hill I'd stored the box that the program came in. Amazingly, it was in the first place I looked (talk about a miracle): the back of the lap drawer of my desk. It contained a copy of the 25-digit key I needed to fully enable my programs. Saved!

Still, all is not beer and skittles. When my Mac was infested with a virus last June the local techie who got rid of it also, inadvertently, dumped all my iCal data and emails dated earlier than February 2015, and I was not able to restore either via my external hard drive back-up. Ouch! Barring some moon-from-the-bottom-of-the-sea recovery, I am in the process of reconciling with the increasing likelihood that I have permanently lost access to all of my professional reports and correspondence from 2014 and before. Ugh. (I'm lucky that all my blog entries are stored online.)

Still, I soldier on. On the plus side, my new laptop is tiny, yet powerful—it weighs just under a kilo, is small enough that it doesn't have an internal fan, and can run forever on battery power. It weighs about the same as a tablet, yet features a larger screen, with crisp, pro-retina pixelation.

I figure getting a new laptop is lot like my sister getting a new hip. It's awkward at first, but after you work the kinks out, you wonder why you waited so long to get it done.

Bring on that road trip!

How I Place Myelf as a Professional Facilitator

The other morning I lay in bed wondering how I'd describe myself as a process professional. In what ways am I distinctive? Here's my answer.

I. My Strengths as a Professional
There are aspects of what I bring to the table where I believe I stand out, independent of what I know about group dynamics.

—Reports
Excepting where I'm giving a workshop or an a la carte training (in which case there will be handouts), I commit to delivering a written report within two weeks. While the report basically recapitulates what happened live and what I said when I was in the room, I discovered early in my career that clients typically absorb only about 20% of what happens, so the written report gives them a second bite of the apple that they can refer to in their leisure. I have high standards for my reports.

—Founder
Some small, but significant portion of the time there are tensions in the client group that relate to a key player feeling isolated or misunderstood as a founder of the group. It is unquestionably a special thing being a founder, and it helps me bridge to those folks that I also have been a founder—of an intentional community, of a national profit, of a community business, of a consulting career.

—Large RAM
For reasons that are unknown to me, I can hold an unusually large number of balls in the air without dropping them. This is an enormously useful skill: taking in a large volume of information and being able to call upon it at will.

—Fast Thinker
There is considerable range in how quickly people process information and are able to separate signal from noise. While I'm not a prodigy, I operate at the quick end of that spectrum, which means I'm at the head of the pack when it comes to figuring out where we are and where we want to go.

—Parent
Some of the group issues I'm asked to facilitate involve parenting. On those occasions it helps tremendously that I have raised two kids in community—not because there is one right way to do it, but because I have personal familiarity with the range of what to expect (and non-parents seldom have street cred with parents).

—Cancer Survivor
This is a new label for me, and I'm not sure yet how it will play out. But if I've learned anything about group dynamics, all experiences come into play at one point or another. I've been a survivor for only a year, yet there have been moments in the past when I was working with individuals who were approaching mortality and it was a challenge to bridge to what they were going through. Now I'm better equipped. ("Did you almost die? So did I.")

II. My Flavor as a Professional  
There are a number of ways that I do things that are distinctive. In some circumstances they are an advantage… other times not so much.

—Compensation
As someone who has lived most of his adult life in an income-sharing community, I've never needed a lot of income in order to make ends meet. That's given me flexibility when it comes to what I charge for my time, which I use to bridge between my services being accessible to clients (affordable) and my work being aligned with my values (if I'm not being asked to build a more cooperative world I'm not interested in the work). On the one hand, I do not want money to stand in the way of helping groups in need; on the other I want this skill to be taken seriously and compensated fairly—both for myself and for the profession.

Over the course of 30 years in the field I've gradually worked myself up the ladder to where I rate my services as worth $1500/day, plus expenses (travel, room, and board). While this may be a bargain in the corporate context, my clients are almost wholly in the nonprofit sector and that's high enough. (If you think that's pricey, consider what lawyers and architects charge: my skill set is far rarer and my work is typically more pivotal to a community's success.)

While I don't offer discounts up front, and I insist that clients discuss among themselves what they can afford and the value of my work (a conversation I don't need to be part of), I tell them I will accept without question whatever amount of money they put on the table—so long as my expenses are covered (my inviolable line is that I never lose money working for others). Sometimes I get full boat; sometimes I work pro bono. On average though, I come out fine.

This is handled differently by some of my peers. Some simply suppress their prices as a nod to affordability (I have a dear friend who refers to this strategy as the pride of poverty movement, where social change workers compete to see who can work for the least). Others embrace the gift economy where no prices are set and groups pay what they think right.

I've come to prefer my approach for four reasons:
a) I've seen how much clients anguish over price; not giving them a number to work from is hard on folks. They want to be fair, yet they don't want to be foolish. If I give them no frame of reference it can be highly uncomfortable.

b) I am a market maker in the arcane field of cooperative group process consulting and I think strategically about those who will follow me. This is a field that barely existed when I first hung out a shingle in 1987. Though my income-sharing lifestyle means I don't need as much, there are plenty of good facilitators who live in single family urban dwellings and they need to make a living, too. By gradually doing what I can to raise the water level, all boats rise.

c) While I wish it weren't so, people pay more attention when they pay more money. And while money isn't much of a motivator for me, I purely hate it when clients don't pay attention. Thus, it helps to establish a healthy bench mark.

d) Since adopting this approach I've never had a client complain about price.

—Casualties
Sad though it is, not everyone likes me, or the way I work. I am very direct, and that can be more octane than some can handle. While I also try to be sensitive and compassionate, I am typically working complex dynamics under severe time constraints. As I do not get hired to play it safe (I get hired to be effective) it often means going into the lion's den. Inevitably, a certain fraction of the time (maybe 3%) what I attempt does not go well (perhaps I didn't have a full enough picture; perhaps my analysis was faulty, perhaps my technique was poor, perhaps the people I most needed to reach had their drawbridge up and there was no way to cross the moat). Most push back comes from people who are embedded in a stuck dynamic and are simply unwilling to have the light shined on their part. For them I am the disrespectful, outside agitator and there is no way I will ever be invited back—never mind that 97% thought what I attempted was brilliant, brave, or at least constructive. In my line of work if you don't hit a home run in your first couple at bats, you'll be on the trading block by morning. (Professional firefighting is not for the faint of heart or the thin-skinned.)

—Quality Control
Most groups have never seen anyone do what I can do and thus are hard pressed when it comes to evaluating whether it's a good value to lay out major resources (both time and money) to hire me. As I've come to appreciate that phenomenon, it has underlined the standard advice I give groups considering professional help: check references.

This field is so young and so thin that there are no standards for accreditation, and I have been so busy doing the work (and the rest of my life) that I have not gotten around much to seeing my peers in action—so I want no part of passing judgment on others. I'd rather let the marketplace handle that. At the same time, I think this work is too important for amateur hour. So it puts me in a tricky position: I want groups to get assistance yet am concerned that more people are putting themselves forward as professionals than who know what they're doing.

(What I can do, upon request, is offer a list of my coaching tree, professional-grade students of mine whose quality of work I can vouch for.)

—Experiential
My approach is overwhelmingly based on what works in the trenches—in real meetings. That's in contrast with work that's grounded in exposure to the literature, or from absorbing instruction from others. In my case the exceptions are:

o  Arnie Mindell's Sitting in the Fire, which does a terrific job of laying out the non-rational aspects of group dynamics, and the concepts of rank and privilege.

o  Caroline Estes, a lifelong Quaker who taught me to understand consensus deeply.

o  Mildred Gordon, who taught me the potential of interweaving the emotional and the rational.

Otherwise my thinking and my practice have been distilled from hundreds and hundreds of meetings, including 200+ professional gigs over a span of three decades.

Taken all together, I have an enormous pattern library to draw on (to the point where it's hard to show me something I haven't seen before). Thus, when you hire me you get a library card.

—Auditory Learner
It happens that my primary intake channel is through my ears. While I've worked hard to be competent with both visuals and kinesthetics, my main medium of exchange matches well with the way meetings are conducted: by voice.

—Writer
I write a lot. It got to the point a few years ago (while I was still the FIC administrator) that I was authoring something heavy duty—an article, a report, a major proposal, or a blog entry—every day. Never mind the three hours I devote to treading water with email every time the sun comes up.

At this stage in my life I've generated:
   over 1000 blog posts
   over 50 articles in Communities magazine
   over 100 reports to clients

The vast majority of this output has been focused on one aspect or another of cooperative group dynamics. When people ask if I'm going to write a book, I tell them, "I've already written several. They just aren't organized yet."

As a writer, I strive to be concise, cohesive, comprehensive, and colloquial. I rely heavily on metaphors (and alliteration).

—Facilitation Teacher
As I've gotten older, and therefore closer to the end of my career, I've become increasingly focused on passing along what I've learned. In addition to writing (see above) I've became much more active as a teacher. 

In 2003 I launched a two-year intensive training program for people who want to learn high-end facilitation. I've now delivered this program in its entirety eight times with three other courses currently under way (in New England, the Pacific Northwest, and North Carolina). Since recovering from cancer, I've been working to assemble the materials for a masters course, which I hope to offer in the next year or two. 

To the extent possible, I prefer to teach from live dynamics (where the lessons emerge from the what's in the room rather than from a script or a lesson plan). For the two years I'm together with students, I offer myself as a mentor—both in class and out. After completing the course, if the student is interested in going further and shows sufficient talent, I offer to let them accompany me on jobs as an apprentice, offering both advanced guidance (1:1 time with the teacher) and valuable exposure as a wannabe professional. Though I didn't have that kind of help when I broke into the field (why would you hire someone you'd never heard of and who has no track record?) now I have a chance to turn it around. And paying it forward is good juju.

—Major Philosophical Positions 
Over the course of my career my thinking about group dynamics has continuously evolved (in fact, it still is). And, as you'd expect, my peers have a variety of styles, different aspects they emphasize, and unique ways they approach their work. Here is an enumeration of ways in which I believe I am distinctive as a professional facilitator, and ways in which hold a particular orientation to cooperative culture.

o  I emphasize working with the whole person. That means the emotional, intuitive, kinesthetic, and spiritual; not just the rational (which is overwhelmingly the only way that most secular groups function in North America—though I suspect this is more by default than the consequence of conscious choice).

o  A professional facilitator needs to be able to work with content as proficiently as with energy. Doing one well is not enough. I cut my meeting teeth in an income-sharing intentional community with no designated leader. As far as I'm concerned that's the toughest nut there is (by which I mean the dynamics there are the most complex and intertwined). It's my view that if you can function well in that setting you can do it anywhere.

o  I've come to the position that you cannot fully bloom as a facilitator without developing and trusting your intuition; your thinking is not enough. Facilitation is more an art than a craft.

o  There is a bewildering array of tools available these days to assist with meetings—with bright, shiny new ones being invented and touted all the time. While I think that robust experimentation with new tools is good, and it's fine to add to your toolkit anything that works well for you, I have two words of caution:

a) You don't need a large tool bag to be a great facilitator; you just need a basic set of tools (formats and the like) that you know when to employ and how to use well. The heavy lifting in facilitation does not come from clever structure; it comes from a deep understanding of where people are at, what they need, and how to reach them.

b)  Beware of practitioners who are in love with a single tool, for as sure as they love their hammer, everything will start looking like a nail and the world is far more diverse than that.

o  The bottom line for facilitation is consistently delivering meetings that people want to come to because problems are solved and relationships are built and strengthened. It shouldn't be just one or the other. When exciting things are consistently happening no one wants to miss the bus.

o  Many groups that are avowedly committed to cooperative principles have not digested the foundational lesson that individuals raised in Western culture have been deeply conditioned to be competitive and you cannot expect cooperative behavior out of those people (which is just about all of us) when they encounter disagreement and the stakes are high. Competitive behaviors can be unlearned (thank god) but that requires personal work to achieve and you are not going to like the results if well-intentioned people attempt to effect cooperative culture while opting out of the personal work. 

o  Facilitation is a lot like midwifery. The point in a group's life cycle where skilled facilitation is most crucial is when the group is in its infancy and still trying to make the transition to cooperative culture. Good facilitators are able to remind the group of its good intentions and redirect inadvertent slides back into the abyss of competitive squabbling. Without good facilitation young groups often founder, get discouraged, and lose heart. As groups become more mature and cooperative behaviors become more ingrained, the need for strong facilitation lessens. Over time the group will develop a strong gyroscope and self correct without facilitator intervention.

o  As a social change agent, when I contemplate how badly we need a viable alternative to competitive dynamics (is anyone inspired by the model Trump is offering?), I figure I can't train good facilitators fast enough—the need is that urgent. So that's mainly what I do (along with articulating the theory). I've retired from everything else (though I still do some for-hire facilitation, both because it keeps me on my toes and it helps recruit students), but I'll die with an intriguing idea for my next blog ready to be fleshed out.

o  Though living in intentional community will never be that popular a lifestyle choice (it's too radical), there is a broad-based hunger for a greater sense of community in one's life—by which I mean more connection, civility, safety, control of one's time, and security. Intentional communities are pioneers in developing cooperative culture and they are important to the wider culture because our society is on the cusp of desperately needing to know how to get along better with one another, and how to equitably share a diminishing supply of resources without sacrificing quality of life.

My Strengths in Group Dynamics
Here are the aspects of cooperative group dynamics where I have developed my strongest reputation; it's what I'm best known for.

—Conflict
I define this as the condition where there are at least two viewpoints and at least one person in non-trivial distress. Conflict naturally occurs when groups deal with real issues and people are paying attention; the question is not so much how frequently conflict occurs, but how constructively you work with it. Most groups are scared to death of conflict and have nothing in place for engaging with it. It's jungle ball and they just hope to survive it.

I've thought a lot about the dynamics of emotional distress and I've learned that I don't freeze or get overloaded circuits in the presence of distress in others. As a consequence I'm frequently hired to help groups work through a conflict, to set up group agreements for self-managing conflict, or to train their personnel in conflict skills. It's also a key component of my two-year facilitation training.

The object of the training is not so much to reduce the incidence of conflict as it is to help groups not freak out when one or more of their members freak out. If we can stop the chain reaction there will be much less collateral damage and we'll be able to address derailments more expeditiously.

Today, if a group finds itself in the midst of a raging five-alarm fire, I'm one of a short list of people who gets called to put the fire out. 

By way of framing, my approach to conflict is unique to me. While I have familiarity with NVC (Nonviolent Communication) and there is common ground between how I approach conflict and the teachings of Marshall Rosenberg, we developed our thinking independently and I have some nuances that I prefer.

There is also a more recent entrant in the field of conflict work: Restorative Circles, whose main articulator is Dominic Barter. I have been introduced to this approach by a professional and have experienced it as a participant three times. While I have peers who are quite drawn to it, I was not that impressed (what I saw was too slow to get to the point, the conversation was not that productively focused on the dynamics between antagonists, the facilitation was too passive, and major issues went untouched). That said, this is an evolving body of work and worth keeping an eye on.

—Interweaving Energy and Content
While many systems for working with groups do not incorporate conflict as part of the theory (for example, sociocracy) I believe there is a growing understanding among process professionals that groups must address conflict in order to offer a coherent system (that is, you can't just duck it or pretend that sound structure and practice will eliminate its occurrence). 

I have worked extensively on what happens in plenaries (meetings of the whole) and the boundary between conflict and regular group business. Under what circumstances should you suspend regular business to attend to conflict, and when (and how) do you return to regular business after you have paused to address conflict? I am not aware of anyone who has more comprehensive thinking about managing this edge with sensitivity and effectiveness.

—Courage
Years ago I had just arrived on site for work with a first-time client when a long-term group member approached me with a question: "I hear you're fearless. Is that right?" Because no one had ever asked me that before and I had never described myself that way, I paused. Then I smiled, looked her right in the eye, and replied, "That's right."

As someone who has been hired to put the fire out, I am not going to stand by while the building goes up. I will give it my best shot every time and I invariably approach work with the attitude that I can effectively cope with whatever comes along—even though that's patently not true. (Thus, there are embarrassing moments when I am the poster child for Alexander Pope's famous line "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.") 

While I may fail for jumbled thinking, or for poor technique; I will never fail for being faint of heart. 

—Secular Consensus
There was important work done in the '70s by the Philadelphia-based Movement for a New Society to adapt the 300-year-old meeting practices of the Religious Society of Friends (which Quakers styled a "sense of the meeting," and was a distinctive and integral feature of how they worshipped) to secular political actions groups—anti-nuclear protest groups in particular.

From that beachhead, consensus blossomed to become the most common way that cooperative groups attempt to make decisions. The intentional community that I helped form in 1974 (Sandhill Farm) blithely adopted consensus right at the start and never looked back. However, that did not mean we knew what we were doing, and there were all manner of growing pains encountered on the road to maturity.

By the time I tentatively ventured into the nascent field of cooperative group consulting in 1987, I had become something of an expert on secular consensus, and there has been a steady call for advice in that capacity right that continues to this day (next week I'll be conducting an introductory consensus training for a forming group in New England for the third time—bringing all their latest members up to speed).

To be sure, my experience in working with consensus has been limited to groups with 100 members or fewer, yet it remains my hands-down favorite choice for how smaller groups can make decisions and organize themselves. While I have ideas about how some version of representative consensus might work well for groups with more than 100 members, I haven't had much chance to test drive my thinking.

Though my advocacy for consensus is solid, it comes with a caveat: to get good results requires an understanding of the personal work needed to unlearn competitive conditioning, and a commitment to training. The skills needed to do consensus elegantly are eminently learnable, yet purposeful effort is required. Don't adopt consensus unless you're willing to put in the effort.

—Depth of Familiarity with the Topic
Finally, I want to reflect on a natural progression that people go through if they persist in applying time and thought to their field. Starting as a professional practitioner, I gradually started teaching how to be a practitioner, which led to my thinking about and articulating why we facilitators do things the way we do. 

Today I am an active theoretician about cooperative group dynamics, which makes me much more valuable than "just" a practitioner. This translates to my being able to accurately place a specific experience in the context of trends, quickly sorting breakthrough from novelty, and extracting the essence of a new thing. It also leads to "seeing around the curve," anticipating what's coming and whether that's a good thing or something to be alarmed about.
• • •Thus, the danger of Trump is not so much that he's emotionally immature (though, to be fair, if he launches a nuclear attack in a fit of pique, it will render moot a lot more than this paragraph) or anti-progressive in his policies. The real danger is that those of us who know better will be sucked into the vortex of his divisive us/them politics. The danger is that we will start to see Trump and his gleeful de-constructors as less than human. If we succumb to that temptation, it will eviscerate cooperative culture and close out the possibility of a future where we learn to share equitably and are able to get off the materialistic merry-go-round. It is up to us who have done the work to develop the long view, to keep the candles lit in the dark.

I cannot see the future, but I'm far enough down the road to see the trends, and the broad steps we must take to keep alive the possibility of a future worth having. I know how to keep my eyes on the prize and not be deflected by the drama of Trump's everyday dysfunction.

Cooperative Culture Revisited

Today I'm blowing on the coals of an exchange I had right before Thanksgiving with my friend, who offered the reflections below on my blog of Nov 20, Defining Cooperative Culture.

As I am taking a few days off work, I thought I would comment on your latest very interesting blog. I think you are overemphasizing the differences between competitive and cooperative cultures, at least as far as organizations are concerned. Certainly, some of your points touch on matters that don’t generally affect organizational behavior, such as what people eat, but most of them do. 

In fact, many of them are part of an organizational framework called Enterprise Risk Management. ERM is a management practice that analyzes ideas and problems from many different angles through frank 

and open discussion. ERM is specifically designed to avoid blame and to surface as many views as possible. But my comments are about more than ERM. The points you make have become staples of well-managed companies because they work.  

I have limited familiarity with corporate for-profit culture and I'd never heard of ERM before receiving my friend's comments, but you cannot have been raised in the US without deep personal experience of competitive culture, which is the bedrock of Western civilization. When he writes that I'm overemphasizing the difference between the two I wonder what familiarity he has with cooperative culture. I don't say that to be snarky, but because I've worked as a consultant to cooperative groups for 30 years and the vast majority of my clients haven't—to their detriment— bothered to define what cooperative culture is. In fact, a lot of my workload stems from groups that are ostensibly committed to cooperative principles yet bring unexamined competitive behaviors to the attempt, and it's a train wreck. 

To be fair, my friend may have highly relevant personal experiences with cooperative culture; I'm just not assuming that's the case.

In glancing over the Wikipedia entry for ERM, it was a mixed bag. While there were aspects of its practice that seemed consonant with what I'm advocating, there were conspicuous absences when it came to my broader point about culture and mind set (more on that below).

o  Caring about how as much as what
While there is lip service given to how things are done in the mainstream culture (don't break the law, pay fair wages, and deliver what you promise) there's no question but that the bottom line is king.  The bottom line is ultimately king because unprofitable companies die.  Moreover, the bottom line is a tangible goal that all members of the organization can relate to, since they all have their own bottom lines too.  The bottom line is an essential team building metric in a healthy organization.  In cooperative culture you're just as likely to get into hot water cutting corners on process as you are if you deliver slipshod product.  But, the bottom line is not an absolute monarch.  “Caring about how as much as what” is simply another way of saying that the end doesn’t justify the means.  A company in which people behave honestly and honorably is much more likely to be successful than a company filled with con artists.

There are several points to make here:
—Is the company thinking beyond itself? Is it factoring in its societal impact? 
There is a difference between a company that takes societal impact into account because it feels it will ultimately lead to greater profitability and a company that does so because it is better for all (the good of the local community).

—Leaving aside outright misrepresentation and fraud, following the bottom line can lead to a company deciding to pay the fine for polluting local water sources because correcting the problem is more costly than the fine. This is a rational decision that protects stockholders, even though it quite likely trashes the local environment. (Carried to the extreme, you have the US cigarette industry that deliberately adopted a strategy of purposeful obfuscation and misrepresentation despite knowingly inflicting untold harm on the US population because they could ultimately buy their way out of liability and protect huge profits. While few corporate swindles are so egregious—thank goodness—there could hardly be a clearer example of competitive culture run amok.)

—Rewards (raises, year-end bonuses, and promotions) tend to reflect corporate (owners) values. Overwhelmingly, that emphasizes profits above good community relations. To be sure, there are exceptions (look at the way Patagonia is run), but practices tend to follow the money and mostly employees earn raises by boosting profits (we'll scratch your back after your scratch ours)—far more often than by boosting neighbor relations.

—Companies have choices about how much they value employee moral or the impact of operations on the surrounding neighborhood. While I think the traditional analysis is that attending to these goals is just a more sophisticated cost of doing business; I am hopeful that headway is being made (among more savvy corporate owners) that these external factors (to the main line of making money) should more properly be considered base elements of enlightened corporate goals, because of the next point:

—Triple bottom line: profits, people, and planet; not just profits. This 20-year-old concept is a relatively recent example of efforts to shift traditional corporate thinking toward something wider and more sustainable; something more wholesome and more holistic. It is not anti-profit; rather it expands the target, so that social and environmental impact are also taken into account. This is the view that healthy companies properly take in account the culture and neighborhood in which they are embedded; they do not exist in isolation (and never did). Think of how dramatically this awareness would impact the discussion of whether to outsource production facilities?

o  Thinking inclusively (no us-versus-them dichotomy)
Not going forward unless everyone can be brought along is quite a different mindset than trying to secure a majority of votes. In the former there should be no disgruntled minorities; in the latter outvoted minorities are collateral damage, and a way of life.  The notion that everybody has to be brought along before action can be taken is pernicious, in that it vests power in the minority.  

This is a pretty big fork in the road and I'm wondering if my friend has ever seen consensus practiced among people who know what they're doing. He is right to highlight tyranny of the minority as a great fear, but it reveals, I think, only a shallow understanding of cooperative culture to presume that bringing everyone along is bad strategy.

I agree that you tend to get this dynamic in competitive culture, but that's not what we're talking about. When I have posited a culture that does not devolve into us/them dynamics—one of the main tenets of cooperative culture—it misses the point to criticize it because of the potential for mischievous us/them dynamics. Yes, minorities can be obstructive; but what if they're not? What if you build a culture where the expectation is that every on-topic voice will be worked with, where everyone has the responsibility to work constructively with differing viewpoints, and that some degree of dissonance is the expected starting point on every issue (else its resolution is trivial)?

Often, it’s a good idea to move forward even if not everyone agrees.  

Yes, and sometimes cooperative groups proceed that way. People feel heard yet understand that they've not been persuasive and the stakes are such that they're willing to let go.

Those that initially disagree may find that their opinions were wrong and learn from the experience.  Those that cannot agree no matter what may leave the organization for another that is more congenial, facilitating both their own and the organization’s growth.

That happens in cooperative culture (sometimes the values match is not good enough, and not everyone is willing to do the personal work needed to learn cooperative behaviors). In my experience though, competitive culture tends to mask misfits longer (or is more prone to giving up on people for the wrong reasons, such as a tendency to ask embarrassing questions, or to speak frankly).

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

Maybe. My lingering concern is whether ERM (which I don't know) is sufficiently expansive or facile to work in the non-rational plane. In my view groups do their best work when the following obtain:
o  participants do their homework on topics to be discussed
o  participants are disciplined about speaking on topic and not repeating themselves
o  participants insert comments in the right place in the conversation
o  participants listen carefully to what others say and identify first what they like or can join with in what others say before voicing concerns
o  participants are allowed (even encouraged) to contribute in their "native tongue," by which I mean from emotional, intuitive, or even kinesthetic knowledge—instead of insisting that everything be translated into the rational realm as a precondition for acceptance. If ERM does that, it didn't show up in the Wikipedia profile.

o  Placing relationships in the center
The weft and warp of cooperative culture is woven on the loom of human interactions. The stronger the connections, the tighter the weave. Good organizations value and respect the dignity of all employees (and customers too). Disagreements are essential for bringing out different points of view. The goal is to argue each issue on its merits, make a decision, and move on with everyone agreeing to abide by the group decision. This does not mean that decision is permanent; changed circumstances may lead to a changed decision. It does mean that everyone believes that all members have the good of the organization at heart. 

I like this description of the organizational ideal, but let's look deeper. There are times when there is a choice between relationship and problem solving. When that occurs, my overwhelming experience is that competitive culture will prioritize problem solving (reaching an answer within a time frame, say by the end of the meeting) at the expense of relationship (rather than laboring with people not ready to agree). The underlying message is "get on board or shut up"; which does not encourage dissonant voices to come forward.

While I think time is a legitimate factor in assessing the best use of plenaries (more and/or longer meetings are not necessarily a good idea; I think, for example, that time tends to be used poorly in most meetings across the board and first focus should be on trimming the fat and getting groups to seriously work toward adopting the standards I outlined above for meeting participants), in my experience when groups opt for cloture they are almost always trading time for relationship, and shorter meetings are almost always more expensive in the long run than dealing with the fallout of disgruntled minorities, where the cost shows up in the form of weak implementation (because one's heart is not behind what was crammed down one's throat); negativity brooding in the parking lot and around the coffee station; and hesitation to raise concerns next time (fearing a repeat dynamic), effectively undercutting the free-flowing discourse we all say we cherish so much. 

When the priority is problem solving, the standard of success is securing a majority of votes (or convincing the boss); once that's achieved you try to get the sucker off the floor and move on as expeditiously as possible.

When the goal is relationship you're not done until everyone agrees you're done. This does not mean until everyone thinks the same way; it means everyone reports they've said their piece, they feel heard, and they don't have anything germane to add. Sometimes this leads to laying an issue down for more research or more seasoning; sometimes it means going with "x" under "y" conditions as a better choice than waiting.

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

I appears my friend and I are aligned about this principle, which is good. The tricky part is actually breathing life into it in the culture. Even among groups avowedly committed to cooperative culture (the preponderance of my client base) I rarely see this well established. When it comes to doing the personal work needed to unlearn competitive behaviors and replace them with cooperative responses I'd say the four toughest nuts to crack are:
a) Being able to first respond to viewpoints that differ substantially from your own with something other than "but…" b) Being able to talk openly about how power is distributed in the group, and what you want to do, if anything, about the imbalance.
c) Being able to work authentically and constructively (and not in reaction) with fulminating upset.
d) Being able to give to others honest critical feedback about their behavior as a group member and to receive same from them in return without defensiveness or stonewalling.

For most of us, the nightmare scenario (when receiving critical feedback) is when it arrives in an ugly package (you-statements instead of I-statements; delivered with attitude coated in nasty sauce), from someone known to be judgmental and close-minded. Yuck. This person is a jerk, they've had a reaction to something you did (what's new?), and now they want to dump on you, perhaps blaming you for their having a bad day. Yuck! While you may have every reason in the world to blow them off, and aren't in the least interested in a substantive relationship with that person, can you find it in your heart to sift for the potential truth in the muddy slurry of their diatribe?

If you can, then it's an affirmation that you may have gone a long way toward completed your personal work in that regard—that you get it that it's unwise for you to ignore information about how you're landing with others. While you have choices about how you evaluate that information or whether you want to modify your behavior in the future as a consequence (being a careful listener dos not mean you have in any way forfeited your right to discernment) it's important to you to have the fewest possible barriers between you and raw data about how you're coming across. It's in your best interest to welcome it all—even if the person offering it has no interest in your views the other way.

o  Emphasizing access and sharing (rather than ownership)
A corollary to recognizing the primacy of relationship is that "things" take a back seat to people. In the interest of leaving more for others—both present and future—cooperative folks work to eat lower on the food chain and consume less. If we share, then access to things can be a reasonable substitute for ownership, and everyone can chase fewer dollars in order to secure a satisfactory quality of life.  Sharing of information and transparency are hallmarks of a well-managed company.  The idea of “leaving more for others” can be translated to mean building an enduring enterprise.

Again, I'm pleased that my friend and I align. I worry however, that in competitive culture (where the model is that the strongest prevail in a fair fight) that players are encouraged by the culture to aggregate power, not to share it. As hoarding information and masking motive (never mind intentional misinformation) are traditionally seen as aids in controlling power (gaining and keeping influence), I'm not convinced that competitive culture is nearly as conducive to promoting sharing and transparency as cooperative culture—where job evaluation will emphasize how well you helped the team succeed, and are not obsessed with personal credit).

o  Taking into account the impact that your words and actions have on others
Another corollary is the realization that cooperative culture doesn't work well unless it's working well for all of us. That translates into mindfulness about how one's activity lands on others. In the wider culture the model of good decision-making is competitive: that a fair fight will produce the best result (survival of the fittest). In cooperative culture we explicitly reject that thinking—because we know that life is not a zero-sum game where one's person's advancement is predicated on another person's loss.  I disagree with some of the terms you use like “fair fight” and “collateral damage.”  If people are to be open in discussions they must be allowed to say hurtful things sometimes, but that’s a mark of trust not violence.  As we say in our company, “everyone has a belly button.”

I'm pleased to hear that my friend has had enough positive experiences of corporate culture that he's not found my comparisons of competitive and cooperative culture compelling. However, that begs the question: to what extent is this my unsophisticated understanding of the range of corporate culture today (that doesn't sufficiently allow for cooperative practices to thrive in that environment), and to what extent is he naive about the depths of cooperative culture and the possibility of a sea change in group dynamics when practitioners do the personal work of unlearning competitive conditioning? Hard to say, and probably beyond the scope of this medium to resolve.

For all that though, it's the right kind of conversation be having, and I'm heartened that we have so much in common about the culture we desire, whatever label we give it.