Laird's Blog

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.

Tough Topics in Cooperative Groups

Not all topics are created equal. In the context of cooperative culture, some topics are much tougher to get at than others.

Here are half a dozen that I encounter regularly. These are by no means all, but they're representative. If your group consistently handles any two of these well, you're way ahead of the curve. (If not, I'm available for hire.)

I. How Power is Used in Cooperative Groups
Groups need to understand—and be able to talk authentically about—how power (influence) is distributed in the group.

If the group has not done foundational work to define healthy models of leadership, it is fraught with danger for members to admit that they have power or are available to fill leadership roles.

Members of cooperative groups tend to want the power gradient to be a shallow as possible (ostensibly in the hope of getting away from the power abuses all of us have had bad experiences with in mainstream situations, whether it be family, church, school, or workplace), but wishing doesn't make it so. Power is never distributed evenly, and you can't reasonably work constructively with a thing you can't talk about openly.

Groups need to distinguish good uses of power (generally speaking, it's when people use their influence for the good of the whole) from poor uses of power (using influence for the benefit of some and at the expense of others) and to develop the chops to be able navigate the perception that a person did not use their power as cleanly as he or she thought they had. That moment is particularly tricky.

Hint: If your group hasn't yet defined what qualities it wants from leaders, and what constitutes healthy uses of power, have those conversations now! Just bumbling along in the fog is not a strategy; it's a train wreck.

II. Limits of Diversity
No group can be all things to all people.

While all groups have some level of diversity among their membership (surely you weren't expecting clones), and most embrace a common value supporting diversity, it is a nuanced question just how much you can handle of any particular stripe of diversity—which manifests in a bewildering array of sizes and colors.

And it's worse than that. While few groups get around to an in-depth conversation about what they actually want in the way of diversity, I have not yet met the group that's developed a culture robust enough to give voice to the desires of those of how want more of a thing (in the name of diversity), only to encounter others in the group who report feeling stretched to the max. Now what?

You need a strong web of caring relationships to sensitively navigate that conversation.

III. Accountability
In most groups there will be a mix of people who favor low structure and people who favor high structure—with a healthy sprinkling of folks in the middle. Those at the low end prefer minimal rules and a high degree of personal discretion, coupled with personal responsibility. They want the flexibility to make nuanced determinations on a case-by-case basis.

Those on the high structure end favor spelling things out to relieve the anxiety of uncertainty. If the standards are well-articulated than you know at all times where the boundary is and it's easier to relax. You'll know what's expected and when you've done your fair share.

The bad news is: nobody's wrong. People at both ends of this very human spectrum have to figure out how to live together. One of the key tests for this is what happens when Member A has the perception that Member B has broken an agreement or failed to come through on a commitment. (Hint: If you believe this problem would be eliminated by high structure, think again.)

Note that I didn't say that Member B had done anything wrong; I said that Member A thought Member B had done something wrong. In situations like this most groups prefer that Member A discuss this directly (and hopefully cordially) with Member B in a good-faith attempt to resolve this concern as cheaply as possible. But what if Member B isn't interested in hearing feedback from Member A—either because of the content or because of the delivery?

Does your group have in place an explicit agreement that members are expected to provide a channel for receiving critical feedback from other members about their behavior as a member of the group? Few do. Yet you can see how much mischief can result from accumulated grumblings that never get cleared. Yuck.

The next thing you know, there's a call for accountability (we can't let those bastards get away with this; they're ruining the community!). This can polarize the group in a blink.

Whenever there's the sense that someone has neglected a duty, done slipshod work, or acted in their own interest instead of the group's, there needs to be a conversation. You need a group culture strong enough to hold that conversation and to keep its focus on repairing damage to relationship; not on determining who's right and how many lashed should be meted out.

Sanctions come only at the end of the line, when all else has failed.

IV. Standing up to Bullying Behavior 
This is a special case of the previous point, yet one that obtains frequently enough to get its own mention.

Bullying is about intimidation. It's accomplished through size, facial expression, crowding of personal space, belligerent attitude, tone of voice, volume, persistence, and through threats and retaliation. It's pushing others out of their comfort zone to the point where they shut up or leave the field rather than continue to voice concerns or opposition.

It needs to be stood up to and not allowed to control the conversation, yet that often adds up to meeting the bully with behavior that mirrors theirs—which tends to be distinctly uncomfortable in the genteel world of cooperative living. Sadly, many good people would rather exit or tolerate bad behavior than stand up in the face of it.

The challenge is to be both firm and compassionate. It's not about ganging up on the bully (which runs the risk of sliding into vigilante dynamics), and it's not about mud wrestling on the plenary floor; it's about interrupting the behavior as soon as it arises, and changing the focus to what's unacceptable about the process before continuing with the topic that the bully was speaking to. You cannot afford to allow bad process to run unchecked.

V. Being Selective about Members
Many groups shy away from discussing what qualities they want in members—not because they don't have preferences, but because it's unseemly to be viewed as favoring some over others. Mostly, I think, this is a misinterpretation of a core value of anti-discrimination.

It's one thing to be scrupulously fair on matters of race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, etc—all protected classes under fair housing laws—yet it's an all together different matter to be blind about a person's communication skills (when assessing membership potential) or their management skills (when considering them to mange a major construction project). The former makes sense from the standpoint of making strides toward building a more just world; the latter is just plain shooting yourself in the foot.

While you can make the case that almost everyone could benefit from living cooperatively, not everyone has the capacity to do it well and you can only make so many silk purses out of sow's ears. It's hard enough to navigate the intricacies of cooperative living with people who "get it"; why complicate matters by working with random volunteers? Doesn't it make more sense to be deliberate about who joins the group: about who is asked to do certain tasks?

To be clear, I am not saying that groups shouldn't commit to creating opportunities for people to learn the skills needed to take on group roles; I'm only saying it's a poor bargain letting unqualified people fill slots simply to avoid giving them the assessment that others don't think they're ready.

In the case of group membership, it's a frightening risk having little or no discernment about who joins the group, and then trying to get them out later once you've discovered they're a poor fit. In the case of making committee assignments or filling manager slots, the more important it is that the job be done well (or is a high trust position), the more crucial it is that you select well to fill it. The stakes are too high to trust to chance to meet your needs.

What all this adds up to is the importance of developing a culture in which it's OK to be discerning, and it's OK to let others know that you don't think they have what the group agrees is needed. Pretending people have what it takes when they don't is a very dubious foundation on which to build a durable culture.

VI. Working Constructively with Distress
Face it. We come out of a mainstream culture that does not do well with distress (outside of a therapeutic setting), and we bring that inability with us into the cooperative experience. Unfortunately, as human beings, we also bring distress.

Once nontrivial distress is in the room (never mind how it got there; it will come) you really only have two choices: pay now or pay later. Let's look at what happens with each of those options:

Dealing in the Moment
If you're willing to engage with fulminating distress, then a few things need to be put into place ahead of time: a) you need explicit buy-in from the group that there's permission to go there (seeking permission in the dynamic moment is a nightmare; it has to be done ahead of need); b) you should determine a menu of options that may be used to work with distress, so that folks know what they've signed up for; and c) you need to develop the internal capacity to understand and sensitively employ the modalities on the approved menu.

In my view if you're going to go down this road—which I recommend you do—then you need facilitators who can do two important things:

• Be sensitive to energy shifts so that distress can be recognized and attended to as it occurs. This can mean shifting on a dime, suspending the topic in which the distress erupted, to focus on the reactivity and getting the person (or persons) deescalated to the point that the group can productively return to the original conversation. This is an important criteria in that the skills needed to manage a conversation deftly are almost completely unrelated to the skills needed to work distress well. So asking facilitators to be able to do both can be a tall order.

•  Be able to discern when it's an effective use of group time to work distress, and when that's happened sufficiently that the group can productively return to working the topic that was suspended in order to attend to the distress. This is a sophisticated balancing act that calls for the facilitator to be able to accurately read how upset people are (both the person who was initially in reaction, and those around them) and when the group's attention can productively shift off the persons in distress.

Setting Distress Aside
When you make this choice you're rolling the dice. The good outcome is that it's possible that the person in distress can work through their feelings on their own and come through the experience OK, with no toxic aftereffects. I'm not saying that's likely, but it's possible.

Unfortunately, the downside is pretty big. All of the following can happen:

• The person in reaction may not be able to manage deescalation on their own. For as long as significant distress continues you have to expect they're experiencing significant distortion. That means they aren't able to hear accurately what's being discussed; they are essentially lost as a functioning participant, perhaps for the remainder of the meeting.

• Often, when one person is enduring unaddressed distress, there is blow by on those around them, who are significantly distracted by it. Thus, the focus of many people can be impaired when one person in distress is not getting help.

• When group members observe others not getting help (when they go into distress), the message is that it's not OK to go into distress. This leads to suppression, which makes it that much harder to know what's happening when quashed feelings start leaking and someone starts behaving weirdly.

• Even after the meeting you can't count on things settling down in a balanced way. Sometimes, upon reflection, hearts get hardened rather than softened and the group gets that much more brittle. Not good.

• Maybe you're thinking that if the group sidesteps working with distress there's that much more time to work the issue in which the distress arose. Yes, but it tends to be a bad bargain if the room is infected with significant distortion. How good can those decisions be? How good will the buy-in be if some people aren't hearing well?

Taken all together, I'm question whether you can afford the compound interest when you defer payments on distress.

Many groups avoid working distress in the moment because they have no agreement in place to do so, or no confidence in the skills of their facilitators to handle it constructively. Don't let that be your group.

Groundhog Day in Plenary

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

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

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

So why was the needle skipping back to the beginning?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting on My Socks One at a Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Art of Facilitating: Fishing at Deep Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consultant as Plumber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Individual and the Group, a Play in Three Acts

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

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

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

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

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

 —John Donne (1624)

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

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


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


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


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


And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries


—Paul Simon (1966)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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