Laird's Blog

Roadmapping

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

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

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

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

This second aspect manifests in three ways:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conflict, Bullies, and Introverts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

50 Years Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caught in a Fork in the Road

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

Introverts in Communituy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reslishing One's Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Navigating the Boundary Between Personal and Group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 365

Exactly one year ago today I underwent an autologous stem cell transplant at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester MN. The fact that I'm writing about it is a fair indication of that procedure's efficacy, and my multiple myeloma (a cancer of the bone marrow) has been in remission ever since (knock on wood).

Medicos keep track of transplants by counting days. Thus, July 29, 2016 was Day Zero. While the first few weeks were rocky (I felt like shit from the melphalan they gave me July 27 to kill off everything in my bone marrow, which resulted in diarrhea, no energy, and no appetite), the stem cells eventually took hold and repopulated my bone marrow. As my blood cell counts went up, so did my energy and spirits. Things have been getting better ever since. Who would have thought that normal activities—such as cooking, rewiring a wall socket, and walking the dog—could feel so good?

Unquestionably, I'm lucky that I didn't develop cancer until now, and that multiple myeloma is a type that Western medicine has been developing effective protocols to treat. While there's no telling how many anniversaries I'll live to celebrate, I couldn't be off to a better start.

Question: What am I doing on my anniversary? Answer: Wrapping up an 18-day road trip. I had stops in Mountain View CA to labor with a two-year-old cohousing group, a segment in Los Angeles where I helped my son and grandkids get ready to move to a less stressful life in Las Vegas (yes, you read that right), and a third leg at Sandhill Farm (my home of 40 years) to disappear the old house trailer that had served as FIC headquarters for nearly two decades. While the first portion only entailed psychic heavy lifting (showcasing how to untangle conflict and complex issues constructively), the last two literally featured packing things in boxes and schlepping them in and out of trucks. It's work I couldn't imagine having the strength and endurance to handle a year ago.

Today I'm heading back to the barn, traveling from Rutledge MO to Duluth MN (with intermediary stops in Quincy IL, Chicago, and St Paul). Arising at 0 dark thirty, Sandhillian Joe Black chauffeured me the 60 miles to Quincy to catch the Illinois Zephyr, which departs for Chicago promptly at 6:13 am daily. 

We crossed the Mississippi in the pre-dawn light, just as colors were reinhabiting the diurnal visual palette. On the bridge I noticed tug boats and barge tows, and mused about how I would be detraining 16 hours later by St Anthony Falls in St Paul, also on the Mississippi and hard by barge traffic—just much further upstream. With luck, I may catch the sun setting on Ol' Man River as we chug between Winona and Red Wing. It's a motif for the day: as the river winds, so does my life.

The last leg will be achieved via Skyline Shuttle, which runs vans between Duluth and the Twin Cities every 75 minutes. I'll catch the 11:10 near the state capitol tonight and pull into DECC Parking (Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center) circa 2 am, where Susan will collect me. While I don't like being separated from my partner that much, I love what I do and the reunions are incredibly sweet.

It's a measure of my improved health that I've been able to resume my work as a process trainer and consultant, traveling one or two weeks per month on average. Not only does this provide Susan and me income, but it affords me the opportunity to visit friends and family around the edges of my work, and adds meaning to my recovery—I've been blessed with extended play, with which I can do additional good in the world as a builder and promoter of cooperative culture.

All and all it's terrific to be honoring a milestone today, instead of a headstone.

On Sandhill's Porch

I'm typing today's entry while sitting on the front porch at Sandhill Farm, that had been my home from 1974 to 2014.

(I am visiting for a few days, principally to disappear the retired FIC Office—an old '70s-era 12x60 house trailer that has reached the end of its useful life.)

The front porch is a location that evokes rich memories, and I cannot sit here without being simultaneously nurtured and stirred by that history, so much of which touches me personally. It's attached to the White House, the original farm building that has been the nerve center of the community throughout Sandhill's tenure on the land. The White House contains the community's office, dining room, and the kitchen used to cook the daily meals (in contrast with the food processing kitchen, located in another building).

In spring, summer, and fall the front porch serves as the central social space—where members and visitors most commonly eat and hang out. Frequently, it's where people read during breaks and off hours. It's also the most frequent meeting space.

Location, Location, Location
Part of what makes the front porch so compelling is that it's eastern facing. In the Midwest that's important because it captures the morning sun, when heat and light are typically welcome, while shedding it in the afternoon, when ambient temperatures and illumination are more than enough. Further, air stirs through the porch in ways that it doesn't indoors, providing welcome relief from summer's oppressive humidity. (In addition, air flow is life-preserving when we're grinding horseradish in the fall—don't ever attempt that in an enclosed space without a gas mask.)

While the White House came with the property when we bought it in 1974, the front porch was narrower then (eight feet instead of 12) and not screened in, as it is today. When we rebuilt it in the '90s to its current configuration we increased its value tenfold.

In the winter the front porch is sheathed in plastic and transformed into a mud room, firewood staging area, and rudimentary airlock. So it's precious space year round (including as a weather-protected staging area for incoming and outgoing packages).

Finally, it's an incomparable observation post for experiencing thunderstorms, where you can fully see, hear, and feel the impact of a low pressure cell racing across the landscape without getting drenched. It's better than Omnimax.

Down Memory Lane
In addition to the multitude of quiet memories (reading and sipping coffee in the morning; cooling off with a glass of ice tea in the afternoon; lingering after dinner), there are many prominent porch moments that echo in my memory. To wit:

o  A meeting in the early '80s (during a thunderstorm, no less) when some members asked me to leave the community.

o  Filling transplant trays each April with sorghum seeds in preparation for field planting in May. This was work we mostly did as a group. A rite of spring.

o  A meeting in the late '90s when the male in one established couple announced that he wanted to get together with the woman in another established couple, which she fully supported but the other partners did not. (Talk about juggling sticks of dynamite!)

o  Innumerable membership meetings when we'd get down to brass tacks about the perceived enhancements and challenges of a prospective's candidacy.

o  Playing live music and singing along into the night at our 20th anniversary party in 1994.

o  Conducting the Sandhill Trivia contest at our 30th birthday in 2004.

o  Facilitating a meeting among Dancing Rabbit's founding members in the early '90s, where they assessed the pros and cons of various potential locations for buying land (they had visited sites all over the country before ultimately selecting property only three miles from Sandhill).

o  Enjoying the fantastic array at the potluck buffet on the porch every Beltane/Land Day celebration in early May. 

All in all, Sandhill's front porch is to me what a madeleine cookie was to Proust.

On Being a Good Meeting Participant

As a cooperative group process consultant I mostly focus on the role of the facilitator, because it's a major leverage point in how well meetings function. It has, for example, been my experience that a skilled facilitator can single-handedly turn a poor meeting into a good one.

However, most folks will seldom or ever wear the hat of facilitator. For the vast majority, they will simply attend meetings, not run them. That does not mean though, that they, as participants, have no role to play in how well meetings go.

So let's focus on what it means to be a good meeting participant. I have a number of suggestions.

Do Your Homework
Read handouts and reports ahead of time and organize your thoughts. Coming with an open mind is not the same thing as coming with an empty mind.

Be Disciplined About Speaking
Meetings are not open mic. You are expected to speak in turn, on topic, and without repetition. Once the meeting begins, participants are expected to be circumspect about when they speak and what they say. Here's a sentence of condensed advice that I call the Participant's Mantra: 
 
What does the group need to hear from me about this topic at this time? 

If you don't have a good answer, please consider the option of not talking.

Commit to Engagement
As long as the group has been diligent about only allowing work appropriate for the whole group to take up plenary time, then there is an important role for everyone to play on every topic. Essentially, all agenda items are subject to a binary sort: either you're a stakeholder on a topic, or you're not. 

If you are, then you’ll be motivated to pay attention because the outcome matters to you. If you aren't then you are perfectly poised to safeguard the process, helping people bridge differences. Your active assistance in that capacity is more likely to be well received if you are disinterested in the outcome. All of which is to say, please don’t fall asleep in meetings, or zone out doing sudokus in the back of the room just because a topic doesn’t grab you.

Assume Good Intent
If someone says something or does a thing that comes across as bizarre or mean-spirited, the meeting will go much better if you can pause and ask for more information instead of launching into reactivity. Because one thing is certain: the other person's story about why they did what they did will not be that they are bizarre or mean-spirited. While their thinking may not have been sound, and their choice may have been unwise, it will almost always be well intended and it will behoove you to hunt for that when their motivation is opaque to you.

Shifting Perspectives
Though this is an advanced skill (and beyond the reach of some), it can be tremendously helpful in bridging differences if you can learn to see an issue through the eyes of others, and not insist that everyone see it your way. 

Be Sensitive to How Much Air Time You Take Up
Although it's not strictly necessary that speaking time be divvied up equally among participants, it's generally desirable that everyone has a protected point of entrée. If you are the kind of person who is quick to know what they want to say, and does not find speaking in front of the whole group daunting, please be mindful of leaving room for others who are not so quick or comfortable, so that they can get their oar in the water, too.

Emotional Literacy
While mostly groups work in the arena of ideation (what's our best thinking about how to handle issues X, Y, and Z?), there will be times when feelings play a major role in what transpires. For that to go well, it's helpful if participants are self-aware (what am I feeling?) and able to acknowledge what's gong on with others (does this topic bring up strong feelings in you?). Not acknowledging strong reactions rarely goes well.

Community and Aging in Place

I spent 41 years living in intentional community. Though I left my long-established community home (Sandhill Farm) in an effort to save my marriage in 2014 (which didn't work out so well), and I've since relocated to Susan's well-established neighborhood in Duluth, my heart remains dedicated to cooperative culture.  (Over the years I've become less attached to the specific form of community, yet very much committed to cooperation. If the incivility and mean-spirited boorishness of the Trump Administration does not convince you of the need for cooperative culture I cannot imagine what will.)
Although I moved out of intentional community just as I entered my senior years, that was an accident, not a strategy. As my cohort ages (we're talking Boomers), I've noticed that an increasing number of intentional communities are starting to have serious conversations about how to work creatively and realistically with an aging population.
While most communities did not think much for how they would handle growing older when they got started, that's not the case with all groups. For example, with the advent of "senior cohousing" (where no one south of 50 need apply), there are elder-friendly features built into the design—wider walkways, fewer stairs, additional space for live-in caregivers—and residents don't have to worry so much about kids screaming at mealtime or wayward Tonka toys on the pedway at night. Regardless of how the community was designed, however, all communities will have to cope with an aging population if they are successful (that is, if they last long enough for original members to grow old). In the case of senior cohousing, they just don't have to wait so long to get there.  Because few, if any, intentional communities have been built promising members care through end of life, what we're talking about is aging in place—staying in the community for as long as possible. But what does it mean? What can members count on? Few communities define this ahead of need, and that's the main motivation for this essay—to get groups discussing this tender and important topic before the hard decisions need to be made and misunderstandings can lead to grief. It's easy to understand the appeal of aging in place. Relationships are the lifeblood of community, and when groups are functioning well there is vibrancy, joy, and camaraderie among the members. It's a no-brainer that people would want to hold onto that in preference to a dubious future in assisted living.
With that in view, it is important for the community to start defining the limits of what it can provide for members, so you’ll know when it’s time to start talking about what help people can ask for, and when it’s time to start thinking about going somewhere else, because one’s needs have outstripped the community’s capacity to help.
—Hint: Don’t want to wait until you’re facing your limits to start determining them—these conversations should happen well ahead of need. 
Here are some things to consider:
A. Managing the DemographicsIt will not work if everyone is infirm at the same time. While there are subtleties about where the limits are, and how to cope with a burst of needs that might blossom all at once (as if infirmity were contagious), it should be fairly obvious that the group will have a much easier time covering the care needs of 10 percent of the population, than it would if 75 percent needed that same level of attention. The former might be a powerful time of pulling together; the latter might be a horrific swamping of the boat.
Special note for senior cohousing: This point is all the more compelling for you in that you've purposefully selected a much narrower age range to work with. Instead of a span of 75 years (in a fully-fledged multi-generational community), you're only working with 25 years. That means you have to stay that much more focused on a viable ratio of the healthy to the infirm. Digesting this, there is a great deal that can be done by an active Membership Team to recruit new members that are healthier (and younger) if your community is starting to get long in the tooth.
Word of Caution: Fair housing laws prohibit recruitment that is based on age, yet there is no law against targeting your recruitment efforts. So if you want families with young children, don't advertise for that in print; focus your outreach on Montessori and Waldorf schools, or the local chapter of the La Leche League. Go to the places where you are likely to find the values match you seek and the age range you're hunting. B. Emphasizing Relationships as SecurityTo an amazing degree, it’s possible to substitute neighbor care for professional assistance. In most developed countries we tend to define security in terms of money or insurance. Yet community allows us to substitute relationships for money to a large extent. I’m not talking about asking your neighbor to perform surgery, but most care needs are modest and don’t require trained professionals. I’m talking about helping with physical tasks, being a buddy in going for walks (or to do gentle yoga), inviting seniors to social opportunities (like playing cards on Saturday night, or being part of a book club Tuesday afternoons), walking the dog, and driving people to town once a week.
Many will be able to live a lot longer in place if they receive a modest level of help in key areas. While extraordinary support can be sustained briefly (such as when a person is in a whole body cast for a month following a car accident), less heroic levels of support can be sustained for much longer—even years— if spread out over a large enough population, so it isn’t so much of a burden on any one individual or household.
C. Communication Support as Distinguished from Physical SupportSupport can look like many things. While we most often think of physical aid (getting down high things for a person in a wheelchair; or feeding someone with broken arms), the group may commit to being a communication clearinghouse without committing to any particular level of physical support. I know one group, for example, that established a Care Committee (for any member in need, regardless of age), such that it would be available to help get the word out within the community about anyone's compromised health situation and what particular kinds of support that person was looking for. There is no promise that help will be forthcoming (individual members will respond as they are moved by the particulars of the situation); only a promise that the call will be put out, and that responses will be coordinated if the person wants that.
D. Balancing Social CapitalBecause communities are comprised of individuals who have chosen to live together, you cannot mandate care. If it's “required” it will become a burden and the energy will be wrong. You want care to be given freely. This will tend to flow much more easily if the person in need has established social capital within the group—by having given substantially to the community (in terms of time and energy, more than money) prior to need. When a person has generously given of themselves to the community, the community naturally wants to support that person in return. If, on the other hand, a person arrives in the community with intent to run a negative balance (where they need more support than they can give) that doesn't work well.
E. Financial Safety NetDespite what was said under Point B, there may be times when financial support is needed or helpful, and that too can be organized by the community. This can be done either through increasing dues to create a surplus to capitalize an Emergency Care Fund, or by asking those who are better off financially to donate to such a fund. This pot of money could then be administered by the Care Committee, working under guidance developed and approved by the plenary.
F. Trading Off One Kind of Support for AnotherYou cannot be all things to all people. Groups have to choose. The more money and time you give to aging in place, the less discretionary bandwidth remains for other worthy causes, such as supporting people with developmental disabilities, or providing transitional refugee housing. I am not advocating for any particular position when I state this; I am only pointing out that there are limits. The more you give to one thing, the less remains for anything else without risk of flooding the engine. 
I urge groups to discuss this and prioritize where they want their support to go, and how often they’ll review their decision.
G. SafetyWhen should limits be placed on a person driving, operating dangerous equipment, or even supervising others? When does it make sense to limit a person’s power in decision-making because of deteriorating memory or compromised cognitive ability? Talk about how you'll recognize, discuss, and communicate about these delicate moments, balancing the need for disclosure within the community with appropriate discretion about who that information is shared with outside the group.
H. Dignity and the Opportunity to Be UsefulEven with deteriorating abilities, people can often continue to be helpful to the group if thought is given to how to set it up well, and this can make a large difference in quality of life for a person with diminished capacity. No one wants to be made to feel useless or a burden. Perhaps by pairing the senior with a younger person, or only giving them tasks that do not depend on the particular ability that’s been compromised, it will be more possible to engage seniors usefully in community life well into their later years.
If you like this idea, it could be made part of what the Care Committee handles when they periodically canvass members for an update about their limitations and needs.

Ruminating on Feedback

I spend a good deal of time teaching multi-weekend cooperative facilitation and leadership training around the country (I have one going on concurrently in New England, North Carolina, and the Pacific Northwest, with a fourth about to start in Ann Arbor).

Three-quarters of each training weekend is devoted to preparing for, delivering, and debriefing what students are able to do when facilitating live meetings for the the group that's hosting the weekend. In this essay I want to drill down on what happens in the debriefings, which are doubly important. 

First, it is invaluable for trainees to get immediate reflections on the work they've just completed, while the experience is fresh in their minds and in their bodies (they learn both ways). With this in view we invariable protect the hour just after students have facilitated a two- or three-hour meeting to go over and critique what happened. First the person facilitating self-evaluates, and then the rest of class gives comments, with my co-trainer and I blending our comments with those of other students. 

Comments cover the gamut from laudatory to critical, from questioning to affirming. We emphasis being concise and not being repetitious. When students receive feedback they are allowed to set boundaries around how it is delivered, yet are encouraged to do their best to take it as it comes and to not comment or explain their choices (excepting to ask clarifying questions). There sole job during debriefings is to take it all in and try to learn from it.

Second, we are training students both how to give and receive feedback, which is a grossly underdeveloped skill in Western society, and a foundational piece in the cooperative culture we are trying to replace it with. It's my view that the wider culture does a piss poor job of acculturating its citizenry in this kind of communication. Mostly we grow up learning how to stonewall, deflect, belittle, defend, or counterattack. Listening for useful information, sadly, is frequently the last option considered.

After observing this for some time, I've made the choice to teach this straight up. That means I'm direct, and I never say something insincerely. That is, I don't blow smoke up anyone's ass. If I give you a compliment, you've earned it. If I offer corrective comments; it's because I think something can be done better and I want you to know that. If you did something that you always do well, I'm likely to not say anything at all (why bother; you already have that down).

Further, I don't embrace the technique of feedback sandwiches (where compliments bracket criticism), in part because I've learned that most people pick up on the technique and quickly learn to discount the bun and go straight to the meat. When people struggle to use I statements ("I sensed that the group didn't respond well to your strong suggestion about where to focus the conversation."), listeners learn to translate that comment back into the original You statement ("You blew it by not letting the group tell you where they wanted to start the conversation. When you pushed them you lost their trust in your neutrality.")

To be fair, there are times when I don't say something that I might—perhaps because I cannot think how to frame it in a way that I believe the recipient can hear. And there are times when I back off because I sense the person is overloaded, or because I'm becoming reactive rather than constructive. On top of that I make mistakes. Sometimes I'm too harsh; sometimes my comments are out of proportion; sometimes I've misread what happened.

More than any other aspect of my work as a process trainer and consultant, it is in the arena of giving critical feedback that I am most likely to get into hot water. Even though I feel professionally bound to reflect what I see, people's resistance to criticism can be impenetrable, or I may feel to see the opening. On top of that there is added danger when I'm working with a group that is conflict averse (which many are), and is weak in dealing openly with tough issues. It is all too common for people who don't want to hear what I have distilled from observation and listening to blame me for the problem ("No one else has ever said that to me; you must be driving your own agenda" or "We didn't have that problem until you showed up.") I don't get paid to be timid, but that doesn't mean I'll be celebrated for being brave.

To be clear I try to be more circumspect in how I give critical feedback to groups. (It is not unusual for permission to hire me to be predicated on the perceived benefit of my laboring with one or more "problem" members, and other members are unpleasantly surprised to learn that I think their behavior is part of what's not working—it did not occur to them ahead if time that that was a possibility and now they're outraged.) 

In the context of a facilitation training, I hold back less. Students are paying to be there and have been told that feedback training is an integral component of the course. Further, I have let them know that I will purposely not treat them with kid gloves. However much they may be embarrassed or feel shamed by receiving a critical comment from the instructor, they know I care about them and will never speak with intent to inflict pain—which is not something they can count on when someone in a group they are facilitating is unhappy with their choices. (I tell trainees up front that if they need to be liked all the time, and have all their choices praised, then they should quit now.)

If you think about it, you'll realize that feedback is most valuable when it exposes a problem. If someone misses a compliment, they are most likely to simply continue to do what they did before and that's not a problem. If critical comments are withheld however (or purposefully softened or made vague in the hopes of not damaging the recipient's self esteem), it's quite likely to lead to the inappropriate or ineffective behavior being sustained. Yuck.

So where does this leave us? What's an effective pedagogical choice for teaching people to get better at giving and receiving critical feedback? I wrestle with this a lot. Here are the guidelines that I've come up with so far:

Walk Your Talk
Don't ask students to do better with feedback than you can do yourself. If you want them to be more open to feedback then you have to be able to hear it when others are unhappy with something you've done. (Note that I didn't say you have to agree with critical comments; but it behooves you to be open to that possibility, and to demonstrate that you accurately heard what was said.)

Being Direct Does Not Mean Being Mean
Communicate with clean energy. Do your best to avoid giving feedback when upset. At the very least, own your reaction.

Care about your audience. Hint: distinguish outcomes and behaviors from intent and values. All too often when people are told that they did a bad thing, they hear that they are a bad person; don't allow that mistake to prevail!

Don't Dogpile
If someone else has already given a similar critical comment, don't repeat it. Doubling down on a criticism will far more often lead to overwhelm than additional learning.

Give Choices about Setting
In the end, it should not matter that much to the giver how the feedback is delivered, so long as the recipient fully hears and understands it. To that end, give the intended recipient options:

o  Alone, with a witness or advocate, or in the whole group
o  In writing or orally
o  On the spot, or at a later date

In short, give the person a heads up that you have some feedback for them and would like to know what their preferred setting is. Not surprisingly, feedback sessions are much more likely to go well (be constructive) if the set up is mutually agreeable.

Notice that I did not say give them choices about whether or not to hear the feedback (you don't want a culture where people are given the option to not deal); only choices about how they receive it.

Tips on Giving Feedback
—Be specific about what didn't work for you.

—Talk in terms of specific actions or behaviors; resist the temptation to interpret intent.

—Name your feelings ("When you did x, I felt y, and it has z meaning for me").

—If you know, request specific behavior changes that will work better for you and see if they'll agree to try to make the adjustment(s). You may not get what you want, but you can ask. If an agreement is reached, it is often prudent to put it in writing (memories being as selective as they are).

—Discuss consequences if the recipient agrees to make changes and then fails to do so. It is completely demoralizing to slog through a difficult negotiation, feel that you ultimately made important progress on dealing with an irritating behavior, then have it unravel through weak follow through or relapsed behavior, and find yourself back where you were before and without recourse. This can tear groups up.

Onion Rings!

Cooking is one of the things I find great joy in. 

As a male growing up in the '50s (with one brother and three sisters), I was not expected to cook. I was expected to mow the lawn, shovel snow, and take out the trash. My sisters did laundry and helped in the kitchen. (The only gender neutral chore was setting the table, and my mother carefully wrote down the rotation for the entire year as soon as she got her annual calendar, to settle bitter fights over whose turn it was.)

So I came to cooking late in life. I didn't start picking it up until college. Right after graduating I began living cooperatively (something I sustained until I started keeping house with Susan last year). By virtue of living in small groups from ages 21-66 it has basically been my turn to cook about once a week for the last four decades—an arrangement that works perfectly for me. That one day I'd give myself over to nurturing my housemates as the most important thing I'd do that day. I came to think of cooking as karma yoga. On the other days someone else cooked for me, and no one was taking advantage of anyone else. Perfect.

I even got to the point of enjoying doing dishes, though that took longer than discovering the joy of cooking (which was more or less coincident with discovering Rombauer and Becker's classic by the same name).

Every so often I get inspired to learn something new in the kitchen and this week it was onion rings. I've always been partial to alliums (think onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, and chives), and often order this American diner staple when eating at a roadhouse. Unfortunately, restaurant onion rings have often been disappointing. All too frequently they are either too greasy or undercooked. Yuck.

This week I'd finally decided that enough was enough. I was inspired by an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives hosted by Guy Fieri on the Food Network, that I caught while doing outpatient infusion therapy at St Luke's Hospital (something I do every fortnight to keep my cancer in check). The show I watched offered the featured restaurateur's recipe for onion rings, for which that place had a regional reputation. I was all ears.

I turns out that there are two keys to fabulous onion rings:

1. Cut them ahead
This guy starts Monday for onion rings he intends to serve Wednesday. On Monday he simply peels the onions and sets them in the refrigerator. On Tuesday he slices them, separates the rings, and lays them on a tray to air out in the fridge. On Wednesday he prepares the batter and fries them. The point of this deliberate pace is let the onions dry out so that surface moisture does not lead to the batter sloughing off in the hot oil. It turns out that freshly cut onions are juicy and that interferes with the adhesion.

2. Cook them hot
Whenever frying, you want the oil to be right below the smoking point (which indicates the oil is breaking down). That's somewhere around 350 degrees, depending on the kind of oil and how thick the food is. The hotter the oil, the quicker the frying is accomplished (about two minutes with onion rings) and the less absorption occurs. 

Hints: 
o  Make sure the oil is reasonably fresh (you can only use fry oil so many times before it starts to break down and get rancid).

o  Put enough oil in the pot that it stays hot when the raw onions rings are dropped into the oil (a significant drop in temperature equates to soggy rings).

o  Don't put too many rings in the pot at the same time; you want to cook them fast.

o  Onion rings are supposed to be light, not heavy, and they should be served hot.

To reduce the variables we bought a box of onion ring batter (Don's Chuck Wagon brand, a subsidiary of Hodgson Mill, seasoned with paprika, pepper, and celery). Further, we used Vidalia Onions, now in season. They are incredibly sweet and not sharp—delicious when fried. Though these onions don't keep well, when you can get them fresh they're the onion of choice. Yum.

To our delight, Susan's and my very first attempt turned out well enough last Tuesday afternoon, that we promptly cranked out a second batch that we proudly delivered to our annual neighborhood Fourth of July Party that evening. Talk about street cred!

In the future Susan and I look forward to experimenting with plain bread crumbs and seasoning our own batter. What a delightful addition to our repertoire. 

Bon appetit!

Tension Between Principle and Relationship

Earlier in the year I worked intensively with a community that had a member who was in a tough bind. She cared deeply about community and put all of her energy into making her home the best she thought it could be.

The problem was that she held her ideas about how to proceed so tightly that she was essentially willing to deplete all her social capital in promoting them. After years of fighting the good fight (steadfastly promoting her ideas), almost everyone else had given up trying to work with her. Their view was that she showed no interest in alternate views, and would eventually wear everyone down. Yuck.

You can see how this could happen. Intentional community often inspires people to create a lifestyle that's firmly rooted in their principles. Sadly, in this instance her inspiration turned out to simultaneously be her opportunity and her bane. Relationship is the lifeblood of community, and it's counterproductive (even tragic) when one's ideals obscure the need to tend to them. What does it gain you if you secure your ideals, yet ultimately have no one left with which to enjoy them?

In sympathy with this dynamic, the admonition to open your heart to alternative views can appear as the same thing as being asked to accept "alternate facts." When a fellow member is working with a different set of principles—or even orders the same ones into a different package—it can be experienced as threatening, putting your dream at risk.

The request (demand?) to work constructively with different perspectives can feel like selling out. While the highly-principled person believes they're acting in the group's best interest (they'll thank me in the end), that's not how it comes across to those whose ideas are being rejected—to them this person is experienced as obstinate and arrogant (who made her God's gift to community?).

In order for groups to successfully navigate this dynamic, where principles clash, it's typically helpful to take a moment to vet the viewpoints for alignment with group values. Most often, in my experience, there is no high moral ground. That is, members are usually emphasizing different common principles, rather than promoting a personal agenda. If you can establish that point, it's generally possible to deescalate and to start looking for a balance point—instead of for a kissing-your-sister compromise.

The trick here is recognizing that a different perspective (about what is best for the group) is not the same as an unholy one. If you establish that, then perhaps no one will feel compelled to conduct a jihad. Maybe stridency can be checked at the door.

Beware of One-Trick Ponies

There is a trend in cooperative group process that has me worried: the tendency to offer one-size-fits-all solutions to complex dynamics.
I can understand the seductiveness of this. (Wouldn’t life be simpler if we had a handful of straight forward techniques that could reliably get us through the hard spots?) We yearn for magic beans (clear answers), and there is no dearth of practitioners who offer up their pet modality with the promise that if you only learn their approach your problems will be over, or at least easily managed. 
The difficulty with those claims—of which there are a growing number—is that none can deliver utopia on demand. Perhaps some of the time, but not all of the time. People (and therefore the groups into which they accrete) are simply too complex for their dynamics to be reliably broken down and resolved with techniques that can be digested in a weekend seminar.
To be sure, there are principles that serve as reliable guideposts (the imperative of acknowledging distress before attempting problem solving; the need for known channels of feedback whereby one member can pass along critical information to another about their behavior as a member of the group; meetings will occasionally be experienced as unsafe without agreements about how you’re going to work constructively with emotional input; healthy relationships are the lifeblood of community). In addition, there are useful patterns that can be learned (groups will include both the risk tolerant and the risk averse—you might as well get used to it; go rounds in large groups invariably take a long time and are highly repetitive; people process information and organize their thoughts at different speeds; rational discourse is not everyone’s best language).
But there is not just one right way to do things, and those who try to convince you otherwise are selling snake oil.
Hear me correctly: I am not saying that sociocracy, ZEGG forum, restorative circles, and nonviolent communication have no merit. I'm saying that they are not panaceas. They all have strengths and can work spectacularly at times. However, my experience informs me that all of them have moments where the gold is revealed to be only a veneer; where the luster can be tarnished in the heat of the moment and the base metal core exposed.
All of them have been oversold. If a practitioner tells you that their approach has no downside and works well across the board, be very afraid.
If you witness an approach to group dynamics that works well, there’s an understandable urge to learn that approach. So far, so good. My advice, however, is that you don’t stop there. Test drive other approaches to similar dynamics so that you can pick and choose among them. Your prime directive should not be how to operate with the fewest techniques (looking for the one true way); it should be what’s most effective. Give yourself options.
Becoming nuanced and effective with cooperative group dynamics is not so much about learning a formula (if A happens, then do B) or operating from a playbook. It’s more about having an understanding of principles and developing an instinct about which to apply in emerging conditions. While it’s an excellent idea to create a plan ahead of time (to feel into what you expect to encounter), you have to be willing to scrap your plan and go off script in the dynamic moment—because that’s what the situation calls for. Your pole stars are two: 
a) What approach do you think is most likely to help the group reach its objectives for the meeting, recognizing that your answer may change over the course of the meeting?
b) How can you move forward enhancing relationships (rather than degrading them) and without leaving anyone behind?
If your course of action addresses both questions well, you know you’re in the sweet spot—never mind how well it aligns with your original plan or your favorite technique.
If you see someone do something terrific using only a hammer (or read a book that extols the virtue of hammers), there is a risk of falling in love with your hammer and neglecting the other tools in your kit. Over time, if you’re only using your hammer, a subtle change can occur: everything starts looking like a nail. (After all, it’s natural to want to justify your investment, and it can be embarrassing to admit that you may be overly relying on one tool.)  The problem is that dynamics remain as messy and complicated as they ever were, yet if all you see is nails then out comes the hammer. Have you ever tried to cut a board or turn a nut with a hammer? Don’t let that be your group.

Game On

When I grew up I played a lot of cards and a lot of board games—Monopoly, Careers, Clue, Risk, Parcheesi, Life, Scrabble—that kind of thing. Games were an enjoyable way to learn math, strategic thinking, statistics, economic principles, and even geography.

In my teens I expanded my repertoire to include chess, go, and bridge.

When I was a young adult there was a new round of games: Diplomacy, Rummikub, Scotland Yard, Uno, followed by the family of train games by Mayfair—including Empire Builder, Eurorails, and Iron Dragon.

In the '90s the pace picked up. I was introduced to the breakthrough Eurogame Siedler von Catan (Settlers of Catan in English) designed by Klaus Teuber. Eurogames emphasize strategy while downplaying luck and conflict. They also tend to have economic themes rather than military and are more likely to keep all players in the game until the end.

Designed for 3-6 players, Siedler allows opportunities for players who are lagging behind to slow down the leader, and offers multiple winning strategies. The best version (for my sensibilities) is the Cities and Knights expansion, employing the fish feature and a deck of 36 cards substituting for all possible rolls of two dice. Over the past two decades I've played this game hundreds of times and it remains an all-time favorite.

Then came the no-dice games of which there are now many: Puerto Rico, Trajan, Hansa Teutonica, Caylus, and the games of Uwe Rosenberg, notably Agricola, Le Havre, and Ora and Labora. I am in awe of constructors who can figure out how to craft a game that minimizes random chance yet remains balanced.

For those who want to do more than one thing in an evening, there are shorter games like Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Dominion, Race to the Galaxy, and Splendor.

For the more cooperatively minded, there are a handful of offerings where players unite against the game (either everyone wins or everyone loses). Examples include Arkham Horror, Pandemic, Forbidden Island.

While there are way more games than those named above (who can keep up?), these are ones I've played most and which essentially comprise my gaming universe.

Coincident with the emergence of Siedler, my kids (Ceilee and Jo) became old enough to join me at the gaming table and it was something we did together (instead of a television, we played board games and I read thousands of pages of fiction to each of them). Sometime in the late '90s we hit upon the idea of conducting Game Days: marathon sessions where we'd play all day and occasionally into the night.
(It amuses me to observe that in the last decade Jo and I have exchanged roles with respect to board games. When she was a child I used to introduce new games to her; now it's the other way around. In fact, Jo met her husband, Peter, at a game store in Asheville NC, and they typically participate in gaming nights twice weekly. While Susan and I both enjoy games, we don't play that often.)

Game Day Rules
1. The first game is always Monopoly (which takes us experienced gamers about 45 minutes).

2. The person who finishes last in a game (or the first person eliminated) picks the next game. 

3. No game will be played more than once.

4. In addition to the games themselves, we play a meta game where we kept a running total of points earned this way:

   o  You earn a raw score of 5 points for winning a game; 2 points for second, and 1 point for third.
   o  In addition, there is a multiplier for each game (anything from 1.0 to 1.8) that is used to determine the adjusted score (taking into account the degree of skill/difficulty for that game). By definition, Monopoly has a multiplier of 1.0; for each additional game the players agree on the multiplier at start of the game.

5. The winner of the meta game is the person who accumulates the most total points over the course of the Game Day.

6. Players may selectively drop out of any game. While they score a zero for that game, they preemptively earn the right to select the next one.

Over the years there have been quite a number of people who have participated in Game Days, but the hard core—those who have most consistently indulged in this particular brand of fanaticism—are Jeffrey Harris (who lived for seven years at Dancing Rabbit, just three miles from Sandhill), Ceilee, Jo, and myself.

We tried to reprise this configuration last Friday at Jo's house in Las Vegas, but unfortunately Ceilee was not able to get away from Los Angeles to participate. Still, we had a potent gaming group: Jeffrey, Jo, Peter, and myself—with Susan flying in from Minnesota for a long weekend. While Susan decided to stand back from the intensity of Game Day, she joined us for a recreational game of Ticket to Ride Thursday evening, and a marathon game of Mah Jongg that started Saturday evening and extended into Sunday.

For Game Day we played these five games:
Monopoly
Colonia
Trajan
Railroad Tycoon
Anachrony

While Jo and Peter knew all five games, I was playing Colonia for only the second time, and Railroad Tycoon and Anachrony for the first time. Excepting Monopoly, Jeffrey was playing every game for the first time. While there's a marked tendency to be subject to fool's tax the first time you pencounter a complex game, it was a testament to Jeffrey's game savvy that he hung right in there.

After a stout breakfast we started play around 9:40 am and played until 1 am (with breaks for lunch and dinner). Notably, all four players finished first at least once, and all four of us finished last at least once. (When we played Colonia, Peter won with a score of 109; I finished dead last with a score of 103.) The competition was remarkably even, and I had a wonderful time connecting with family and an old friend. 

Given my improved health these days and the fact that Ceilee, Jo, and Jeffrey all live in the Pacific time zone, I'll be looking more assertively for future Game Day opportunities in the months and years ahead. It's hard to get too much fun and games with family and friends.

The Centenary of My Father

Four days ago my father, Robert Schaub, would have been 100—if he hadn't died in 1989.

Marking this milestone, it seems appropriate to pause and reflect on the influence he had on me. It turns out that it was quite a bit.

I was 40 when my father died and our time together on this earth divides fairly sharply into two periods.

I. The Early Years
This covers my birth through high school graduation, essentially my first 18 years. 

I was my father's first child, and his only biological son. He clearly loved me, and had aspirations of my taking over the engineering business that his father (Fred Schaub) had started in the Depression. It took me a while to figure out that he was giving me love and attention that he was not giving with the same exuberance to my siblings. I was his favorite; the one he wanted to grow up like him. In my early years I accepted this without reflection; just as privileged people everywhere tend to be oblivious to their advantages.

We grew up in a middle class neighborhood and I never knew serious privation. We were not rich, yet we never lacked for basics. 

The two most important educational experiences of my early years were: 
a) I spent many summers (from ages 8-16) at Camp Easton for Boys in Ely MN, where I learned campcraft and a love for wilderness canoeing. Time spent in the pristine lakes and rivers of the Precambrian Shield became precious to me as opportunities for spiritual cleansing and renewal. It is a part of the world that is blessedly unspoiled by humans, where life reduces to elementals: wind, sun, water, rock, trees, and fire.

b) My junior and senior years in high school I worked on the school newspaper, The Lion, under the guidance of faculty adviser Kay Keefe. I learned journalism and the art of writing clean prose—something that has paid dividends ever since. It was also my seminal experience with leading a team. I was the editor my senior year and practically lived in the newspaper office. There were 20 other seniors on staff as well as 40 juniors (who were being groomed to run the paper the following year). I loved the camaraderie of working together toward a common goal.

I did well academically and was able to get into a prestigious school: Carleton College in Northfield MN.

II. That Adult Years
This covers my college years through Thanksgiving weekend of 1989, when my father went to bed not feeling well and was dead in the morning of a heart attack.

My time in college (1967-71) coincided with the height of the Vietnam War, and I, along with many of my peers, underwent a political radicalization. While my father continued to hold conservative Republican views, I veered sharply to the left and we never reconciled the rift. I became aware of the perniciousness of institutional racism, that Christians did not necessarily have God's approbation for all that they did, and that sexual orientation did not necessarily mean straight. These were protean times and I couldn't get enough of it.

My father, on the other hand, did not enjoy what I was becoming. He had scrimped and saved to make college a possibility for me, and I had betrayed that investment by using the opportunity to challenge almost everything he believed in. I returned home as a viper in the nest. We became two males whose ships passed each other in the turbulence of the '70 and '80s, rarely recognizing that the other's charted course had any validity as guidance for the uncertain future.

Even as I was exhilarated by all the fresh ideas and and lifestyles that I was exposed to, I was aware that there was a widening gulf between my father and me, and it left me in anguish. It got so bad that we couldn't be in the same house for 48 hours without squabbling, exchanging sniping remarks.

While I didn't expect him to agree with me, I wanted to be accepted as someone who could think differently. But I never got that. My father felt I was squandering my college education; that I couldn't stand the competition of the real world and had retreated to the obscure triviality of a farm in northeast Missouri. He was bitterly disappointed in me. 

He was a sensitive man who didn't know what to do with his feelings. There were precious few role models for emotionally aware men in those days, and my father gradually became an alcoholic as he struggled to cope. He died a fairly lonely man.

III. Being My Father's Son
Though I fought with my father for almost all of our last 20 years together, and spent untold hours trying to disavow his influence, the truth is that I am very much my father's son. While it took me most of my adult life to get there, I am now at peace with that. Let me count the ways…

•  Stable Home
I enjoyed a childhood where I was loved and secure. Think about how huge that is; how much that should be every child's birthright. Well, I had it, and I tried as hard as I knew to provide the same thing for my two children, albeit in different ways than my father provided for me.

•  Intellectual Development
Dad expected me to use my brain and I did. To be sure, I have employed it differently than he intended, but he resented that he did not have choices when he was done with school (shortly after high school he went to work for his father) and vowed to give his children something he didn't have. I benefited from that freedom and chose something radically different—something my father never imagined I might choose: to start an intentional community and become an expert in cooperative culture.

•  Insight into Relationships
Though I was pretty invested in the idea that my father was obtuse (how else explain his bulldogged adherence to what I considered antediluvian political views in the face of changing times) he really wasn't. As I think back to memories of my childhood, there are many examples of my father's insight.

Once, we were walking into a department store, looking to buy a pair of socks. My father looked ahead to the man at the information kiosk, who was absorbed in checking an article of clothing. Dad leaned over and told me, "Watch this. I'm going to go up to that man and ask a clear question. His response will be, 'What?' "

Up until then I had never heard my father predict what another person would say and I thought it fairly brazen of him to hazard a guess. In any event, we proceeded to walk up to the counter. My father patiently waited until the man looked up, at which point he spoke slowly and clearly, "Excuse me, can you tell me where where we can find men's socks?" To which the man replied, "What?"

I was pretty impressed.

•  Love of Words
My father had a passion for the English language, and he passed that along to me. Though it was just an oral tradition for him, I regularly endeavor to dust off underused denizens of the dictionary when speaking and writing. (If not I, then who?)

•  Insistence on Quality
At my father's engineering company they made high quality liquid level controllers. He insisted on it. Today, I'm a stickler for quality as well. It doesn't matter if I'm concocting tomatillo salsa, window reveals, or a magazine article; I always give it my best shot.

•  Entrepreneurial Energy
While I purposefully eschewed materialism as an adult (an in-your-face rejection of my father's lifestyle), it turns out that I'm risk tolerant and good at making money—just like my dad. It took me a number of years to work through my issues with money, but I finally came to peace with it, so long as the money has been earned in activities that are congruent with my values, and that people are not denied access to my services because of low income. Today I like making money.

IV. The End Game
I made an effort to reconcile with my father a couple years before he died. I wrote him a letter in which I owned my contributions to our broken relationship, asking if he was willing to meet me in this effort. While he thanked me for my offer he declined to own his part and we were not able to reassert the loving feelings that had been ascendant during my childhood. 

But it was important that I made the attempt. I was able to turn the corner on my anger, transmuting it into sadness. After 17 years of bickering I finally began the unilateral work of rehabilitating the memory of my father into that of the man who loved me and was doing the best that he could.

Sadly, he did not live long enough to see me blossom in my chosen fields: as FIC administrator; as creator of a self-insurance program for income-sharing communities; and as a cooperative process consultant. He did not live long enough to see that I was using my community in northeast Missouri as a base of operations; not as a place to hide.

While there is no knowing whether he would have allowed himself to enjoy any vicarious satisfaction from my ultimate successes, it gives me solace to think that he might. After all, a great deal of that success was built on the foundations he laid. 

Thanks, Dad.

Watching Acorns Sprout from My Oak Tree

Last week I got an email from my good friend María, who related an inquiry she'd received from a former client that we'd both worked with, asking for help in navigating tension that's tearing up a key committee.My initial, knee-jerk response was, "Why didn't they ask me?" But after about 10 seconds of licking my ego, it occurred to me that a good thing had happened. A protégé was getting professional respect.Even if you set aside my recent bout with cancer (and its dramatic reminder of my mortality) I was never going to live forever. So what could be better than to remain in the saddle long enough to start seeing my students blossom as process professionals? Now they're even taking work away from me! There are a number of factors that enter into this equation:• Clients prefer to hire locally. If nothing else, it contains travel costs (for which clients are on the hook), and if they're really close, the consultant may sleep at home and commute to the job. Living in Duluth I'm hardly local to anyone.• Mostly my students are more moderately priced than me, and clients need to count beans just like everyone else. If you don't need the high-priced spread, why pay more? • When I started working professionally (30 years ago), almost no one hung out a shingle as a process consultant. Today there's much more demand, and it's growing. Because I lived in an income-sharing community for the bulk of my career, I didn't need a lot of money, but I realized early on that as a market maker in a burgeoning field I could have an impact on the value people placed on process consulting. Living in community in rural northeast MO my cost of living was minuscule; consultants living alone near major cities need to make much more. With that in mind I gradually moved my prices up over the years, so that those following in my wake could make a decent living.In addition, higher rates afforded me the flexibility to bring in aspiring students as apprentices. Without asking the client to pay more, I could share some of my income and give them valuable exposure (why would you hire someone who has no résumé?). I didn't have that kind of help when I started out, and I wanted my students to have an easier entrée into the field.• How much work do I need anyway? Even though I no longer keep my foot tromped on the gas, I am getting work in proportion to my need for income, and my desire to be of service. Mostly I slant things toward teaching and coaching these days, but I still get calls—especially from old clients, and from new ones with a five-alarm fire to put out.All together I'm getting 1-2 jobs per month and that's plenty. There's no point in coveting my students' work into the bargain. Besides, I'd like to narrow my focus to those aspects of group dynamics that are most pivotal and most complex.As an example, three weeks ago I attended the national cohousing conference in Nashville TN. Among other things I teamed up with Joe Cole (another protégé) to conduct an all-day facilitation workshop. I let Joe cover the basics, while I focused on the parts that grab me most: those brief moments in meetings when what the facilitator does can make the most difference: when the magic can emerge. In a typical meeting there are only 2-3 of those.

Here's an outline of what I consider to be key leverage points for facilitators:

A. Riding Two Horses 
Being able to managing both content and energy, and knowing which to focus on in the moment. You also need to know when to slow down and when you can speed up; and you need to be able to tell when an agreement is in the room (and how to lasso it before it escapes).
B. How to Work an Issue  There are three key aspects to this: —Clearing the airWhile this step is not always needed, when there is nontrivial distress related to the topic you should always start by naming it. If you skip this step all subsequent work will be prone to brittleness and poor buy-in. Doing this means making room to hear upset (that means focusing on emotions), and finding out what it means. —Identifying factors to take into accountThis entails determining what a good response will need to take into account before you entertain suggestions about what to do. It's OK to make room for advocacy at this stage (though you shouldn't need to hear it more than once). —Problem solvingWhich approach does the best job of balancing what needs to be taken into account? The time for advocacy has now passed; at this stage you're looking for bridging. Note: The container that the facilitator needs to establish for each of these steps is verydifferent and the order is crucial.C. Right Relationship Between Plenary and Committee There are several parts to this:o  Only dealing with plenary worthy considerations in plenaryo  Having the discipline to stay on topic and not drift into a level of detail below plenary worthinesso  Developing and using a template for establishing comprehensive committee mandateso  Creating a thoughtful method for filling committee and manager slotso  Establishing the habit of rigorously evaluating committees and managersD. Getting All the Product in the Room Many groups fail to see the forest for the trees, and allow conversations to end without connecting all the dots, thereby squandering some of the concentrated work. Agreements that are not captured in the moment are lost, and must be rebuilt another time. Very wasteful.To accomplish this the facilitator must be able to see how things look from the prospective of each participant, and have a feel for what everyone can say "yes" to.E. Managing Your Nightmares While no one is perfect, to be an excellent facilitator you need to know what you don't know, and where your blind spots are. 

—What personalities drive you crazy?

—How are you triggering for others?

—Can you manage your reactivity?

F. Can You Handle Failing in Public?

No matter how accomplished you are, no one succeeds all the time. When you have a bad moment as facilitator, however, your failure can be spectacular. Can you pick yourself up off the floor and get back on the horse? Hint: If you need to succeed every time, quit now.

G. Getting Help

—Inviting critical feedback about how you're facilitating (Hint: If you get defensive, the feedback does no good).

—Bringing the pool of facilitators together to help plan and debrief meetings
 
—Identifying area facilitators who can help your group when you need outside neutrality.

—Making a commitment to training, which means both time and money. Hint: Learning by osmosis alone is not enough.

Signs of the Times

I was recently working with a community that had been wandering in the wilderness of group process for seven years in search of a consensus policy under which members could post yard signs (think political campaigns) on the strip of community land that fronted their access highway.

Essentially, it was a three-cornered argument:

A. Freedom of Speech
As is the case in most intentional communities, the members of this group often have definite opinions about the political questions of the day, and clear preferences about candidates. Some fraction of those folks want to be loud and proud about their views, and there is no more noticeable platform on which to do so than right along the frontage road.

People in this camp believe that all members—who own the property jointly—should be allowed to express their views with signage (within the bounds of size, length of time posted, and noninflammatory language) as a First Amendment right.

This comes from the position that home can be a base of operation for nonviolent social activism.

B. Aesthetics
Many think signs are ugly, and it's an affront to their sensibilities to have political candidates and catch phrases be the first thing they encounter when they arrive home—instead of trees and flowers. Ugh. Aren't there enough assaults on our consciousness in this modern electronic world (where even the President is prone to posting provocative tweets before we can get to out first cup of coffee) without having it invade our nest?

This comes from the position that home can be sanctuary, for safety and renewal. People in this position yearn for a place where our bruised psyches can be salved by unadulterated contact with the natural environment.

C. Misinformation & Confrontation
There is unease among some that signs imply monolithic support in favor of the espoused candidate or position, when that's almost never the case. Thus, if you disagree with the sign (or even are neutral about it) it can be uncomfortable feeling that everyone driving by the sign may think the sign represents your position.

In this way signs lack nuance and people's individual viewpoints are at risk of being lost whenever a (pardon the expression) trumped up neighbor posts a sign. Yuck.

There is also a second question here: what constitutes effective social change? While some willingly embrace vigorous political discourse, others find it crude and confrontational—especially when reduced to shibboleths and slogans. Instead of stimulating thoughtful conversation there is concern that signs merely feed the contemporary tendency toward knee-jerk sorting that fuels us/them dynamics—which we pretty well know doesn't work.
• • •Taken all together, it's not hard to see why it was difficult to craft a policy that embraced all positions. All three concerns have a foundational quality, such that movement toward A was seen as undercutting positions B and C, and vice versa. No matter what was proposed it tended to cut close to the bone for someone, and thus no proposal garnered everyone's support. Stalemate.

Recasting the Net
Then the group did a clever thing. After years of banging their collective heads against the wall of rights (which turned into an inconclusive tug-of-war), they empaneled a task force to tackle it fresh, selecting committee members not strongly identified with any particular position.

The committee then did a number of noteworthy things:

1) To be sure of their footing, they conducted a detailed survey of member views about signs.

2) In the interest of increasing the task force's gravitas, they purposefully recruited two additional members: one known to be pro-sign and one known to be anti-sign—both of whom were also known to be able to put the group's best interests ahead of their own.

3) Digesting the perennial loggerheads that resulted from focusing on rights, they hit upon the idea of turning around the conversation by focusing on responsibilities.

4) In putting forward their proposal there were three key components:

—They did not come to the plenary until they had a proposal that the full committee was behind; that is, there was no minority dissent on the task force.

—They advocated for creating a standing Sign Advisory Committee (SAC) whose job it would be to review all proposals for signs to be posted on community property, to help surface and resolve any concerns. The SAC could not impose solutions (they could only advise) yet they would be in place to promote dialog and help find soft landings.

—They asked for a trial period of one year, to test their theory that if the community approached this issue with an attitude of responsibility, that members would rise to the challenge of being responsible (rather than sink to the temptation of insisting upon rights), and no one would feel run over or sold out. Because of the one-year sunset clause, the community will review the agreement in 12 months, and the agreement will expire at that time unless the plenary explicitly acts to continue it.

Best of all, it worked! Instead of settling for the least common denominator, the community was inspired to stretch to live up to its higher aspirations. Much more satisfying.

I'm writing about this because it was inspiring to witness. The group did not pretend that there were not differences (in fact, the main points I outlined above were all reiterated in the survey results and the committee did not flinch from acknowledging them when introducing the proposal).

Now, for the first time, any member can propose a sign and that proposal cannot be blocked. However, every proposer is expected to listen to any and all concerns and to make a good faith effort to resolve them either directly with the person who raised them, or with the assistance of the SAC.

It's delightful to observe cooperative culture emerge from the fray with a creative answer. I see it as a sign.