Laird's Blog

Stubbing One's Toes in the Way to High Moral Ground

Yesterday I got another chance to learn a lesson in humility (which persist in coming to me without my asking).

One of the ancillary benefits of buying high-end supplemental health insurance (to ensure coverage for the pricey chemotherapy that suppresses my cancer) is that I get a free membership in an exercise club owned by one of the local hospitals. I go there to rebuild my strength and flexibility after a debilitating winter plagued by respiratory problems. 

That meant 20 laps at a fast walk around the indoor track (a bit more than a mile), followed by 45 minutes in the sauna. (During the ages of 8-16 I spent most summers at a boys camp outside Ely MN, where we took saunas every other night in lieu of showers, and I grew to love the cleansing dry heat.)

As I was changing into sweats in the men's locker room, another man approached me from the side and waited expectantly. As it was a little tight for him to walk by me, I stood up half-dressed and moved back so that he could get by. To my astonishment, he settled into the exact place I had been and blithely started to open the locker above mine. Shaking my head, I walked around the bench to a spot nearby so that I could finish dressing. By way of acknowledgment, he mumbled that he was trying to be respectful of my space.

As I thought about it, he could hardly been have less respectful of my space. He saw me sitting on the bench changing my clothes—the very thing he wanted to do. What in the world gave him the idea that it would be OK to bump me so that he would have a more convenient location and wouldn't have to wait? Wouldn't it have been logical to suppose that I had a locker near his? At least he could have asked, instead of wordlessly standing over me, expecting me to give way. 

I was particularly struck by the contrast of how his imperious behavior was draped in the raiment of sensitivity. In short, it galled me.

I brooded over this interaction as I did laps, reflecting how much we all like to think of ourselves as aware and kind—even if others don't always experience us that way. The fact is, everyone has lapses, where absorption with self clouds our awareness of how our actions are landing with those around us, or we project onto others that they will see a situation the same way we do, without first checking out that bald assumption (and then proceed to act in a way that we intend as sensitive, yet may actually be irritating). Thus, microaggressions abound.

Aetna once did a survey of the people who were found to be at fault in auto accidents leading to an insurance claim, and were amazed to discover that 90 percent rated themselves as above-average drivers. I suspect that the same kind of self-delusion applies to unmindfulness. Almost all of of think we are more commonly the victim of it than the perpetrator.

I was still ruminating on this after completing my circuits of the track. Following a quick rinse in the shower I walked into the sauna and was pleased to find that there were only two others in there.  Sometimes there are six or more enjoying the Finnish bath (at the finish of their workout) and there are no seats on the top bench, where the therapeutic heat is strongest. No sooner had a sat down, however, than one of the men moved quickly to the door to close it all the way. Oops!
While the sauna door is mounted on a spring hinge and closes automatically, it doesn't tend to close all the way and a slight crack can spill a lot of heat. I was so engaged with my inner dialog—about the unmindful man in the locker room—that I was unmindful about entering the sauna. It only took me about 30 minutes to make the same kind of behavioral error that had so outraged me. It was my turn in the penalty box.

In addition to getting yet another chance to learn about mindfulness (in this instance seasoned lightly with the bittersweet taste of irony), I suddenly discovered sympathy for the man in the locker room that I didn't think was in me. Turning my attention to my own foibles, I was able to let go of obsessing about his. 

It occurs to me that life has been incredibly persistent about providing me with opportunities to learn about humility. It's too bad I'm such a slow learner.

Booked in Duluth

Wednesday and Friday I went into work with Susan. She's been the office manager for St Paul's Episcopal Church in Duluth since 2010, and works 8-1 every weekday.

While it's unusual for me to provide anything more than chauffeur duty when it comes to backstopping Susan's church routine, this week I was pressed into service to help organize the book donations for St Paul's annual rummage sale, which came off yesterday without a hitch, and raised over $3000. 

(We were lucky with the weather. The monster spring snowstorm that slammed into Minneapolis Saturday stayed south of us. We experienced high winds out of the northeast—there were eight foot waves on Lake Superior, large enough to entice some local nutballs to assay surfing in insulated bodysuits—but snow accumulation was modest and we had a good turnout for the sale.)

Organizing the books was an interesting job (both logistically and thematically) that ate up about 10 hours. Starting with 30 or so bags and boxes on random titles, it was my task to sort the contents by type, display them, and create signage.

While doing the same thing with used clothes, dishes, or household knickknacks—regular rummage sale staples—is just as noble in God's eye, laboring among those flea market genres would bore me to tears. Books, however, are another matter. I have a great fondness (weakness?) for them and unpacking each container was akin to opening a box of Cracker Jack to see what treasure might be inside. It was also fascinating to see what people had been reading and were willing to part with.

While everyone assisting with the sale was volunteering their time, there was one major perk: as the book organizer, I got the pick of the litter. Here are ten gems (all paperbacks) that I gleaned from the sea of donations that flooded in over the transom:
 A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Dead Wake by Erik Larson
The Coffee Trader by David LissMirror Mirror by Gregory Maguire
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi 
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
The Full Cupboard of Life by Alexander McCall Smith
Fifty-five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal by Elizabeth White• • •When I got together with Susan in 2015 we were both eligible for Medicare, and we made a mutual pact to downsize our worldly possessions—rather than leave so much dross it to our adult kids to sort through when we depart this vale of tears. While some things have been easy to cut back on (how many t-shirts does one need anyway?), books are hard for me to let go of.

Fortunately I started facing the music on my book fetish four years ago, when I took the pledge: going forward I would release more books than I captured. More precisely, this was a commitment to achieve a net deficit each year, and does not prohibit me from acquiring the occasional new title (or 10) along the way. Among other things, this meant reading the books I had already acquired (in some cases decades ago) and steering clear of the temptation of bookstore window shopping. It takes discipline.

So far, I'm succeeding. On average, I consume a book a week (it's amazing how much time you liberate for reading if you: a) don't have cable television; b) don't do Facebook; and c) travel by train), and that affords me more than enough slack to cover for my annual indulgence at the St Paul's rummage sale.

While Susan has an iPad (and therefore e-reader capacity), I tried reading a book electronically and I simply don't derive the same joie de vie. There is something viscerally pleasurable about holding paper and turning pages that an e-reader lacks. Fortunately, books are still being printed and used bookstores—though not as prevalent as they once were—are still around. We have three in Duluth and I do business with two of them.

It's a happy day when your partner asks you to help out in ways that are a joy to deliver. Everyone feels good (and I have 10 more titles to add to my diminishing horde).

April is the Cruelest Month

Yesterday I got to watch a couple hours of the first round of the Masters Golf Tournament. While I ordinarily am not drawn to watching golf, I love the history and beauty of this particular tournament—the only major that's played on the same course every year: Augusta National.

Because the tournament was not being carried on local television (it's still hockey season up here, with the Frozen Four playing in Minneapolis for the collegiate championship—BTW our local team, the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs, is in the finals again for the second year—and the Minnesota Wild have just secured a #3 seed for the upcoming NHL playoffs), I traveled with Susan to a downtown brew house (Hoops) to catch the game at the bar. While she played bridge in one room, I drank IPA on tap in another, and watched the defending champion, Sergio Garcia, melt down with a 13 on hole #15, and the unfolding drama of Tiger trying to revive his stalled career.

I also experienced an acute case of cognitive dissonance. On the television there was no mistaking the technicolor emergence of springtime in Georgia. The azaleas and dogwoods were in their full pink and white glory, and everyone was walking around in shirtsleeves. Outside, my car was parked in light snow.

This morning while fixing breakfast, I listened to NPR. A regular feature of their Friday programming includes a visit with Climatologist Mark Seeley, a University on Minnesota professor emeritus, who looked into the tea leaves and predicted below normal temperatures and above normal periods of rain and snow for the foreseeable future (which in the world of meteorology is about two weeks). I'm thinking, will the snow be totally gone by May?

I realize that the calendar says we're fully into spring, and it sure looked that way in Georgia. While the days here are definitely getting longer—just like they're supposed to—and we don't have much ice to cope with any more, no one around here is wearing shorts or tank tops just yet. Nor have any of our neighbors put away their down jackets or snow shovels. 

Down in the "warmer" southern part of the state, the Twins played their home opener in 38-degree weather yesterday. Baseball is supposed to be the game of summer, but we don't get much of that in April. A lot of locals take vacation time this month, to go somewhere warm (which is just about anywhere else), so they don't have to endure the death throes of winter. 

Sure, the sun is higher these days, but so are the expectations. April in northern Minnesota is an exercise in patience.

Cooperative Culture

My good friend María Silvia recently asked me to write about cooperative culture. As that struck me as a reasonable request, here are my thoughts...

The first thing to appreciate is that cooperation is the sociological opposite of competition. Mainstream US culture is rooted in competition—and characterized by hierarchic and adversarial dynamics. The basic notion is that a fair fight will produce the best result. Out of rigorous debate and trial by fire, the best ideas will prevail. (Never mind that the "fights" are rarely fair; that's another topic.)

Cooperative culture is a radically different approach, where you trust the wisdom of the collective as superior to that of the individual. Instead of a battle, you want to have minimal barriers to soliciting relevant input and to welcome divergent views. Rather than responding to differences with combat (We were doing fine until you spoke), in cooperative culture you try to respond with curiosity (Why does that person see this differently—maybe I'm missing something).

Here are features of cooperative culture:

• For cooperative culture to make sense, individuals need to identify with a group that is greater than themselves or their family—otherwise what are you cooperating with? And when this group gathers (to make common cause), there is an emphasis on members thinking in terms of what's best for the group—as opposed to advocating for personal preferences (and hoping that the sum of the parts will add up to a whole).

This is especially potent in decision-making. If there is a strong group affiliation then differences can be seen as a strength (because it broadens the base of ideas and perspectives to work with) instead of an occasion for a winner-take-all battle.

• The power is ultimately held by the group, not by an individual or subgroup who has agreed to play follow the leader. To be sure, it generally makes sense to delegate power to managers and subgroups, but it all flows from the whole.

• In cooperative culture it tends to matter as much how things get done as what gets done. The corollary of this is the primacy of relationships. If you're sacrificing relationships on the altar of principle (which I've tragically seen happen), you're at risk of drowning the baby in the bath water.

• There is a greater emphasis on sharing, which relieves pressure to own (how many lawnmowers does a neighborhood need, anyway; how many snowblowers; how many pickups?). This can have a profound impact on the dollars needed to achieve and sustain a quality of life. With sharing you can substitute access to things for ownership.

• Some people naively think that if you commit to living cooperatively that you can leave the strife and conflict of competitive culture behind. Sorry to say, that's not what happens. In fact, by virtue of purposefully living a life that is more intertwined with others, you'll have more occasion to experience disagreement. Thus, you need to have solid ways to work through conflict if you're going to be happy living cooperatively.
That means being able to recognize and work constructively (non-judgmentally) with emotional responses. While this is a valuable and powerful skill, it is not trivial.

• If you've gotten this far it's probably occurred to you that personal work is required to create and maintain cooperative culture. You'll need to unlearn competitive conditioning and up your game in the arena of social skills. Make no mistake about it, this is work. For a deeper treatment of what I mean, see my Nov 30, 2013 blog Gender Dynamics in Cooperative Groups.

• In cooperative culture you need people filling leadership roles just as in competitive culture, but you tend to be looking for different qualities. See my Sept 27, 2011 blog, 20 Qualities of Effective Cooperative Leadership for a delineation of these. Many cooperative groups fail to discuss what's wanted in this regard, and thereby stumble over developing a culture where (appropriate) leadership is nurtured.

• In the broader US culture, there is tremendous emphasis on the individual (in contrast with the collective). In consequence it is a psychological imperative to know how we are unique and can differentiate ourselves for others. The primary way we accomplish that is through disagreement. Thus, if someone says something that we half agree with, the first thing out of most people's mouth's is , "But… " because we have been conditioned to make clear at our first convenience how we stand out.

In cooperative culture, however, we try to start with what we like about what someone else has said (without waiving our right to state concerns later), and that has a profound impact on the container in which the discussion proceeds. In essence, we tend to find what we're looking for. If you're expecting an argument, that's what you'll find. Alternately, if you're looking for agreement, that tends to be there as well, and problem solving proceeds much differently if the initial response to ideas is supportive rather than questioning—even though both are valid.

Blocked Energy and Waging Peace

In the last year I've encountered an unusually high incidence of entrenched negativity. (Can Mercury be retrograde for an entire year?) I'm talking about people living in community who feel so badly hurt by others that they have largely given up on the situation improving. At its nastiest, this justifies being pretty harsh in return, and the damage escalates. It can get really ugly.

Essentially, I'm talking about people making war with each other.

How Did It Get This Way?
It's not that hard to imagine. Groups rarely start out with an understanding of why they will need the capacity to support members through interpersonal tensions. Nor do they tend to select for members who have that skill. Some are even naive enough to think that moving into community—an explicit attempt to live cooperatively—means that conflict will be left behind.

Not having been raised in a culture where the skills of peaceful problem solving were taught, we're often scrambling to figure out how to do it as adults—after the houses were built and moved into. As the scales fall from our eyes and we discover that we bring combative energy with us into the utopian experiment, we discover (to our dismay) that we need help working through interpersonal tensions—just like everyone else. It's humbling.

Lacking the skills needed (and perhaps not even being sure what they are) groups are often overwhelmed by the chaos of fulminating distress and paralyzed about what to do. Unfortunately, once things get beyond the ability of the protagonists to address, they rarely get better on their own. Instead, they fester and undermine the joy people meant to get out of living together.

And I'm not just talking about what the antagonists go through: it's no picnic tiptoeing around unhappy campers. There's plenty of misery to go around.

Sometimes groups don't ask for help soon enough, and hurt members (if they haven't left) get entrenched in their negativity, so steeped in it that they no longer trust in the good intent of their adversary (If they really cared about me they wouldn't be so damned stubborn) or believe that relationship repair is possible.

Preconditions for Having a Chance to Turn it Around
About half the time I'm hired to work with groups there's at least one example of a stuck dynamic where the protagonists have not been able to find their way through it and the poisonous fallout is leaking on the group.

So I encounter versions of unresolved interpersonal tensions three a penny.

What I have noticed recently, however, is a marked uptick in the frequency of people so badly hurt that they have given up on the possibility of rehabilitation. I've run into this dynamic five times in the past year—which would ordinarily be a decade's worth of heavy sledding.

People in that much pain are fighting for their community life and want their adversary vanquished (while beaming them to Mars might be their first choice, they'd be willing to accept that person (or couple) crawling into a hole and never coming out).
Even though I tell people (tongue in cheek) that I don't do hangings, I occasionally get asked to anyway (tongue not in cheek).

When it gets that bad it's much harder to bring them back. Not impossible, but harder, and I have a much lower incidence of success in effecting repair. Even when I'm successful in getting the group unstuck one or more protagonists often jump ship once I lance the festering wound.

As I've contemplated this, it's occurred to me that I have been counting on certain baseline assumptions that may not always obtain:

—A willingness to see the adversary as a person of good intent (I'm not asking that they be seen as an angel, or that you have to give up on the notion that they can be a jerk; only that they are not evil—that they fundamentally care about the group and are trying to be constructive).

—A desire for relationship repair with that person.

—A willingness to look in the mirror for ways they may have contributed (perhaps unwittingly) to how the conflict unfolded and didn't get better.

—A willingness to set aside their cynicism and despair long enough to let me guide them through an even-handed exploration of the conflict and the possibilities for reconciliation (or at least deescalation).

—An openness to the possibility that their adversary can change (probably not their personality or their core beliefs, but how they behave with you and the group).

—A willingness to suspend the belief that their adversary has purposefully acted to hurt them (thereby justifying responding in kind).

In the last year I've have come to realize that I've not been diligent about checking for these open doors; I just assumed them. Now, however, I'm learning to ask.

A Soft Landing
Some fraction of the time, I've been asked in too late‚ by which I mean the damage is so severe that repair is not possible. Essentially, the will to attempt reconciliation is not present. Of course, some reach this break point sooner than others. Some have greater tolerance for hanging out in anguish and some hold out longer sustained by hope.

Although I always begin with the idea that a bad situation can be turned around, occasionally I'm convinced by my assessment that it's not a realistic possibility in this situation. When that occurs my objective shifts from reconciliation to orchestrating a non-punitive separation. If people can no longer live together, yet still are (I won't give that so-and-so the satisfaction of my leaving), someone has to tell them.

As I help people consider exiting as a viable choice (while I appreciate how strong your dream was that community would be a better way to live, how much of that dream are you experiencing? How much fun is this being?) I have to simultaneously be vigilant that no one is heating up a pot of tar and plucking chickens in an effort to "accelerate" the departure of adversaries.

People can be incredibly vicious when they feel wronged and have given up on relationship with an adversary. Really, it's a microcosm of how nations go to war. I try to explain that not everyone can live well together and occasionally separation is the best choice. It doesn't have to be anyone's fault; it just has to be recognized as unworkable (too much effort for too little joy).

Sometimes the most valuable thing I can do is to say the hard thing. While I'm rarely loved for that, I'm hired to go into harm's way and do the best I can to be compassionate, even-handed, and fearless. It's a hell of a way to make a living. But it's a great way to wage peace.

On Being a Good Meeting Participant

A lot of my blog is focused on consensus meeting dynamics. For the most part I look at the leverage possible through skilled facilitation (which I have been describing at length for more than 10 years in this blog, and been teaching since 2003). However, good meetings are everyone's responsibility, and I want to shine the spotlight today on meeting participants—the other side of the equation. There is a lot of leverage there, too, and many groups, to their detriment, never delineate what's wanted. Following are my thoughts about that.

Meetings are Structured Space
Meetings are not informal social time. As such there are behavior expectations, which need to be spelled out, perhaps in Ground Rules, which lay out specifics (such as not repeating oneself, speaking on topic, assuming good intent). 

Another way to see this: meetings are not open mic, where you get to say whatever you want at any time. They require participants to be self-disciplined.

Strategy Choices for Getting to What's Best for the Group
Even if you agree that the ultimate objective is getting to what is best for the group (and you should), there are two significantly different ways to approach this:

a) Everyone stating their personal preference, and then having the group collectively decide what is the best way to extract a balance out of that stew.

b) Everyone screening what they say for what is good for the group (leaving aside personal preferences), so that the group need only balance ideas that have already passed that test.

The second approach works much better. In saying this I understand that not everyone is equally good at discerning the difference between personal preference and group concern, and thus the group may need to help them with that on occasion. Nobody's perfect.

Nonetheless, it can be incredibly irritating if some members are operating from paradigm b) while others are operating from a). In that case the choir is not singing from the same hymnal and the voices will not be melodic. If your group is not clear about this, talk about it and try to get on the same page.

Participant's Mantra
Here is my distillation of an internal screen that all participants could adopt in an attempt to use good judgment about when to add input. Remember: it's not about how good you look; it's about the group getting to the best decision.

What does the group need to hear from me about this topic at this time?

If you read this closely there are five chances for participants to hesitate before speaking:

a) "group"
Is this input appropriate for everyone to hear?

b) "need"
Is this input necessary (not tangential) for the conversation at hand?

c) "from me"
Has this input already been given by others? If so, why do you need to say it also?

d) "about this topic"
Is this comment germane to where we are in the conversation? (Warning: if you're free associating that's a bad sign—unless it's a brainstorm.)

e) "at this time"
Are we at the point in the consideration of this topic where your comment belongs?

Doing Your Homework
If there are handouts for topics (perhaps background material or a draft proposal) it is your responsibility to read them and think about them ahead of time. There is a large difference between coming to the meeting with an open mind (good) and an empty mind (not good). If you ask questions in plenary that were addressed in handouts that you didn't read, you are abusing the group. 

Your right to have your opinion heard is tied at the hip to your responsibility to inform yourself adequately ahead of time. They go together. If you neglect the latter you are at risk of forfeiting the former.

Communication Skills 
Living in cooperative culture takes personal work (because it requires unlearning deep conditioning in competitive ways). Here are what I believe are the essential questions, pinpointing the skills needed to function well in cooperative culture:

o How well can you articulate what you're thinking?
o How well can you articulate what you're feeling?
o How comfortable are you sharing emotionally with others?
o How well do you function well in the presence of emotional upset?
o Can you see the good intent underneath strident statements by others?
o Can you distinguish between a person's behavior being out of line and that person being "bad." 
o How accurately do you hear what others say?
o How easily can you shift perspectives to see issues from other viewpoints?
o How easily can you see ways to bridge different positions?
o Are you able to show others that you "get" them to their satisfaction?
o Can you own your own "stuff"?
o Can you reach out to others before you have been reached out to yourself?
o How well can you read non-verbal cues?
o Can you readily distinguish between process comments and content comments?
o In a meeting, how easily can you track where we are in the conversation?
o How adept are you at approaching people in ways that put them at ease?
o How well do you understand the distribution of power in cooperative groups?
o Do you have a healthy model of leadership in a cooperative group?
o How open are you to receiving critical feedback (with minimal defensiveness)?
o Can you distinguish between projection and what's actually happening in the moment?
o How well do you understand your own blind spots and emotional triggers?
o Are you as interested in understanding others as in being understood?
o How aware are you of your privilege?
o How interested are you in getting better at the above?

Looked at the other way around, if you are not interested in doing this work you are likely to be experienced be a sea anchor by the rest of the group. If you didn't know that before, know it now.

Respecting Process Agreements 
If there are Ground Rules established for how the meeting will run (there should be), honor them. Among other things, if you start operating outside the Ground Rules and are called on it, accept the redirection; don't fight it.

Facilitators are given authority to guide the meeting productively. They are not your enemy; they are the group's servant. Support their work. This does not mean that you cannot object to what they are doing if your believe they are making a poor decision, but exercise this right judiciously. Things will tend to go much better if you give them the benefit of the doubt, and talk about your concerns later (perhaps during meeting evaluation, or privately).

Understanding the Bargain You've Made
By moving into an intentional community you have purposefully chosen to live more closely with others. That entails a commitment to sharing more things with neighbors, not just within your household. The benefit of this is greater relationship (the lifeblood of community) and less need to own everything yourself. The challenge is needing to work out agreements in areas where you formerly used to be able to decide things unilaterally.

For this to work well (get more of the benefits and less of the challenges) you need to understand the bargain you've made and work to make it pay off. It won't happen by accident (and grumbling won't help).

Why You Should Always Be Paying Attention
On any given topic, you are either a stakeholder or you aren't.  If you are, then it's obvious why you should be engaged: you care about the outcome and want to have your views taken into account. It matters on the content level.

More subtly, if you aren't a stakeholder, you are perfectly positioned to protect the quality of the conversation. You can be an invaluable asset in protecting how the group does its work, helping people get past misunderstandings, and articulating bridges between positions that strong stakeholders may miss—all because you don't particularly care about the outcome. You just want resolution that works for everyone. It matters on the process level.

It is a hallmark of cooperative culture that the how matters just as much as the what. So both roles are equally valuable.

My point is that once you've accepted the draft agenda, don't zone out. Stay engaged and help the group function well.

Caution: Group Norms Are Subject to Individual Interpretation
It is relatively easy for groups to agree on certain norms, such as being respectful and honest in group communications (who in their right mind would advocate for being dishonest or disrespectful?). But those two values don't always play well together. For some, being direct is absolutely in line with being honest and respectful. For others blunt honesty can come across as a weapon and highly disrespectful. Not what?

One person thinks they've acted wholly in alignment with group norms, while another views the same behavior as an egregious violation of the same norms. What a mess!

The lesson here is not to abandon an attempt to articulate group norms as hopeless, but to understand better the limits of what that gives you. It does not eliminate ambiguity, but it does provide a solid basis for what you need to discuss when things go south. Be gentle with other.

Working Conflict Like Dreams

Earlier this year I got an out-of-the-blue insight from a student in one of my facilitation trainings. Dave Werlinger (from Elderspirirt, a cohousing community outside of Durham NC) pointed out that working with conflict is, for him, a lot like working with dreams. Huh?

I'd never heard that before.

(Part of the beauty of teaching is sometimes insights flow in the other direction—from the student to the instructor.)

Dave's contention is that interpreting dreams requires a lot of paying attention and asking questions, where it's more about setting the right container than brilliant interpretation. In his experience things rarely fall into place right away. You have to be patient and willing to follow your intuition into non-rational territory. Free association is the norm, not the exception. He feels his way into insight.

The more I sat with that approach, the more it made sense. 

Though fulminating conflict is not a large part of the landscape of most communities (thank goodness), it's present to some degree in all communities, and most struggle to handle it well. (As a frame of reference, I encounter serious unresolved conflict in about half the groups I'm asked to work with—it's that common.) Here's what I've come to understand about why that's the case:

•  Almost all of those living in community were raised in the wider, competitive culture, where differences were settled through debate (the outcome of which is determined by a majority vote), intimidation, or fiat ("Because I told you so"). We brought that competitive conditioning with us to community, and when the stakes are high we tend to respond out of that earlier experience (rather than from community values). That is, we tend to fight, flee, or give up and get cynical. 

While that generally doesn't work well in cooperative settings, it's our default mode. If groups don't grow beyond it, they get stuck, conflicts don't get resolved, and they fester, eroding the foundations of community. Yuck.

•  In the majority of groups, the model for "legitimate" collective dialog is rational thought. Without explicitly discussing it, most groups fall into running meetings in community more or less the same way they learned to run them in student council: relying on parliamentary procedure and the expectation that all input will be presented rationally (if something starts as an intuition or a feeling, you are expected to translate it into a rational thought before speaking).

•  When you break conflict down, reactivity is always an element. That is, there is a strong emotional component. What's more, you aren't going anywhere until that's been acknowledged and its meaning is understood. (Essentially, if two people in conflict are viewing the same triggering incident through significantly different realities—which is quite common—is it any wonder that it's hard to make progress on problem solving? Well-intentioned attempts at resolution tend to break down in a battle over controlling reality—where each side demands that the other accept their framework as a precondition for moving forward.)

•  There will tend to be a higher incidence of conflict in community than in the wider society, because: 

a) You are trying to do something together as a group (that's why it's called an "intentional" community), and that translates into more opportunities to encounter different viewpoints than in a random neighborhood, where you are not trying to make common cause.

b) In community you have more intertwined lives, which means there are more things you have to work out with your fellow members—the more you share, the more likely you are to encounter conflict. (Read that last phrase again—many may find it counter-intuitive.)

(Hint: the measure of a community's health is not so much the frequency of conflict, as how well you work with it when it emerges. Conflict is unavoidable. Unfortunately, many communities also avoid learning how to work with it.)

So let's look at what we have:
—Conflict requires a capacity for working emotionally.
—Few come into community with that skill.
—Groups rarely start off with a commitment to welcoming emotional input.
—Community living brings people into closer association, accelerating the incidence of conflict.

Can you see the train wreck coming?

What I like about Dave's dreamy approach is that it's non-rational (note that I didn't say "irrational"). Since it's pretty clear that trying to think your way through conflict is a flawed concept, Dave looked elsewhere for inspiration. Having learned (through dream work) to trust that a state of inquiry, openness, and non-judgment can result in connection and insight, Dave was willing to try the same thing with conflict. Go Dave!

Resting at Home

I was supposed to be in Nashville this evening.

But I'm sitting on my living room couch instead, recuperating from a nasty bout of RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) that I contracted 11 days ago, at the tail end of facilitating a retreat for Heartwood Cohousing in Bayfield CO. It used be that doctors thought RSV was a phenomenon that only affected children, but now they're changing their minds about that.

The symptoms appear similar to those of a common cold, with lots of wheezing, coughing, and general low energy. I was hospitalized for three days last week, during which I got some antibiotics and oxygen therapy. Mostly though, I just have to ride it through. 

So what's so noteworthy about a minor virus? Two things. 

First, it highlights that I'm immunocompromised, by virtue of my multiple myeloma. While I'm doing well battling my cancer, it takes it out of me and I don't have the constitution I once did. It's easier for me to catch a bug and it takes longer for me to recover. While I've tried to make adjustments (I don't work as much, nor do I agree to work more than two weekends back to back), it's not easy to know where the line is, or when I've overspent my energy budget. I'm still adjusting to the new Laird.

[As an interesting aside, my doctors think I'm probably better off traveling by train than by air, both because of pressure changes and because of the sardine-like quality to air travel, where I'm more likely to catch whatever someone else in the plane is carrying.]

Second, there is a complex calculus for me about what work I accept. Having come back from being  mortally sick two years ago (when the cancer was first discovered) questions about what to do with my life came sharply into focus. Not knowing how much time I have remaining (not that anyone ever does), or with what degree of vitality, how did I want to use it?

Given that I love what I do as a process consultant and teacher, I could think of nothing better than to use my good fortune (both in the sense that I have recovered sufficiently to be able to deliver at a high level, and in the sense that I am blessed with all the job offers I can handle) to continue to apply what I've carefully distilled from three decades in the field to help groups struggling today. After all, what did I come back for if not to be of service?
While there is no danger of running out of work, my challenge is finding the balance between helping all who ask for help, while at the same time not overtaxing my somewhat fragile body. Given that I typically make work commitments months in advance, it's pretty much a crap shoot how healthy I'll feel when that time rolls around. Sometimes, like today, I get caught out and can't answer the bell. While I hate canceling commitments, sometimes there is no choice (both Susan and my oncologist were quite firm about my canceling my trip to Music City, and that's a powerful duo to defy).

By staying home and extending my recuperation from RSV, I am protecting the chance to board a train Monday evening to facilitate a retreat in Mountain View CA the following weekend. I just have to get better by Monday, to avoid the ignominy of canceling back to back weekends.

After the California trip I'll return to Duluth for over a month, which my body will be quite thankful for. I tell you, this getting older business is not for wimps.

The Relationship of the Subgroup to the Whole

One of the trickiest things for cooperative groups to get right is the relationship between the plenary and its committees (which are variously styled teams, subgroups, task forces, circles, or thingamajiggers). In a well-functioning group both the plenary and the committees have dynamic and complementary roles. Each knows what they're doing, everything is covered with minimal duplication, and they know when to consult with each other.

Unfortunately, it ain't always that way.

Basically the plenary/committee relationship can play out in four flavors. Let's walk through them:
• Weak plenary and weak committees
This is your worst nightmare. Does anything get done? While I don't see this very often (whew), it does occur. Typically it's the result of: 

a) weak leadership—no one wants to be decisive or to suggest a more robust structure because they don't want to be perceived as pushy or dictatorial (who appointed you God?); and/or 

b) a weak understanding of consensus (where people mistakenly believe that disagreement is an indication of a system failure or that the wrong people are in the group).

When the group doesn't know how to work constructively with differences, it can become paralyzed (instead of edified and energized) in its presence. Thus, voicing disagreement essentially becomes a pocket veto, derailing whatever work was underway when the dissent surfaced. Yuck. This is no way to run a railroad.

• Strong plenary and weak committees
I encounter this phenomenon quite a bit. In this scenario committees do grunt work for the plenary, but are not allowed to make many (any?) decisions on their own. Everything (more or less) needs to be run by the plenary for approval, and it often happens that group members who are not on the committee use the plenary approval process as a chance to redo the committee's work, or raise objections at the 11th hour, with devastating impact on the committee's morale (why bother to invest in developing proposals that will just be trashed in plenary?).

It is a misunderstanding of consensus that everything needs to be approved by the plenary. While it's true that the ultimate authority rests with the plenary, some portion of that should be deliberately handed off to committees, lest the plenaries get bogged down in minutia (have you ever been in plenaries where you felt trapped by the agenda—where the group was ready and willing to discuss what color to paint the common house bathroom and you wanted out of there?).

In this dynamic it's hard to get people to fill committee slots and there's considerable fatigue with all the plenaries needed to cover everything. The meeting junkies run the plenaries, attendance drops off, and there's tension about the increasing number of members not participating in governance. What's more, every time a committee doesn't function well, its portfolio winds up being added to the plenary's already overfilled plate. This model is unsustainable and leads to leadership burnout or martyrdom, both of which are expensive.

• Weak plenary and strong committees
This is the obverse of the last scenario, and I'm starting to see this more. In its zeal to avoid the pitfalls of the prior example (which abounds) groups occasionally go too far the other way. They delegate so much to committees that there isn't much left for plenaries to tackle. In some cases they shut down the Steering Committee—because all issues are assigned to committees, and the committees are happy with their license and don't see the need to use plenaries to gather community input. This leads to fewer plenaries and the phenomenon of balkanization, where each committee is a power unto itself. 

If a committee struggles (which is bound to happen) it can be difficult to get at, as the plenary is too weak to step in and there may be no opportunity to evaluate how well a committee is functioning (or evaluations are so perfunctory that the problems are not named or addressed). So either the committee asks for help (which is possible, but not something you can count on) or it languishes.

If there is tension between committees (perhaps because an issue straddles the mandate of two) the whole is at the mercy of how well the committees play together. Sometimes this goes beautifully; other times not so much.

• Strong plenary and strong committeesThis is the sweet spot. In broad strokes you want plenaries tackling issues that require whole group attention (interpreting common values with respect to issues, establishing process agreements, conducting strategic planning, creating an annual budget, defining member rights and responsibilities, approving committee mandates—those kinds of things) and you want committees handling aspects that fall below the level of plenary attention.

Sometimes an issue has features that are plenary worthy (do those first) and levels of detail that can be handed off to a committee (do those second). When the group is clicking on all cylinders it will tackle the issue in the appropriate order and at the right level.

In a healthy group the plenary honors the work of its committees, yet reserves the right to regularly assess how well committees are coloring inside the lines of their mandate, and is not afraid to make adjustments when there are problems. At the end of the day, committees serve at the pleasure of the plenary; not the other way around.
• • •Now let's look at recurring dysfunctional patterns that feed into some of the problem children I described above, and what you can do about them. I want to focus on four.

1. Unclear or Incomplete Mandates
The foundation of a good relationship is defining the roles well. That's what the mandate is supposed to do, so it's important to get that right. For a template of what to consider when crafting a thorough mandate, refer to section F) Delegation in this blog entry from 2010: Consensus from Soup to Nuts.

Essentially, this is the committee's authorization; the box within which it should be operating. Being sloppy about this is the single biggest root problem I encounter with the plenary/committee relationship.

2. Not Being Clear about the Qualities Wanted for that Committee
While this may sound a lot like that last point, it's different. After you've drafted the mandate (and before you've filled slots on the committee,) it's worthwhile to articulate what qualities you want on people serving on the committee, so that candidates can better assess themselves and others for a good fit. 

As an example of what this might look like, see my 2015 blog Qualities Wanted from Members of the Conflict Resolution Team. While this list is for a specific committee, the concept easily generalizes.

3. Not Being Careful Enough when Filling Committee Slots
In most groups there tends to be more committee slots than there are willing and able members to fill them. In consequence, committee selection often devolves into the first folks who put their hand in the air when there is a request for volunteers.

While this quick and dirty process may work OK for some committees, I do not recommend it for subgroups where it's important that there be high trust, high balance, or high discretion. Rolling the dice on who volunteers the fastest and hoping for the best is not a smart way to fill committees.

Instead, I recommend something more deliberate. See section 3) Selection of Committee Members in this blog from 2017 for an example of what I mean: Committee Fatigue: on You, on Me, or Ennui?

4. Being Qualified to Do the Work Does Not Necessarily Mean Being Qualified to Run a Committee
Committees are often comprised of people who are knowledgeable about the work of the committee or are excited to learn. While this is well and good, it doesn't necessarily mean that they know how a committee should operate. In particular, there it is a skill to organizing and managing a group, and a skill to being able to work deftly with group dynamics. These are demonstrably different than being good at cooking, plumbing, or companion planting.

In essence, committees need both expertise in their work area and expertise in group process in order to function well in the group context, and this reality is often overlooked when deciding who will serve on the committee. If your group suffers from this, there are two ways you can think about a remedy:

a) You can rethink the qualities wanted from those serving on the committee (point 2 above), adding the desire that at least some committee members are savvy about group dynamics and are able to work with tensions arising in the committee context (either internally or externally).

b) You can make clear that the Steering Committee (or its equivalent) has the authority to step in if the committee is struggling, to help the subgroup sort out tensions or to develop a committee structure that will work better for all concerned. The point of making this explicit is that I believe it will work better if Steering cannot be turned down if they approach a committee in trouble. While you very much want a collegial (not adversarial) energy between Steering and the committee in question, any system that depends on individuals or groups self-identifying as needing help tends to get grossly underused.

To be clear, I am not proposing that Steering have the authority to impose solutions or changes on the struggling committee; I want Steering and the committee to make a good faith effort to work out a response that both entities believe are worth trying.

Weight, Weight, Don't Tell Me

I should have known what was coming when I started needing to pull in my belt another notch to keep my pants from falling down.

At my monthly oncologist visit last Thursday I weighed in at 161, which was down about nine lbs from January. While precipitous weight loss is not necessarily a good sign, I like this new weight better (who needs to schlepp around an extra nine pounds?) and it seemed a natural consequence of my suffering through respiratory troubles in January, during which I didn't have much appetite.

Given that I was tipping the scales at around 210 lbs on the eve of discovering my multiple myeloma two years ago, this is a much smaller me, and I like it.

Also, I'm breathing much better this week, my cough (the lingering residue of a cold in mid-December) is almost gone, and I am otherwise feeling fine. And that includes visiting a dermatologist (Dr Brown) the other day to look over a variety of skin oddities that my primary doctor (Dr Mast) thought were prudent to examine. I directed Brown to five spots on my body, all of which he judged benign (whew), though in the process he found two other spots that weren't even on my radar that he felt uncertain enough about to biopsy. (While he suspects they were most likely benign as well, why take the chance?) With skin cancer it's almost always treatable if you catch it soon enough, so I feel I'm in good hands on that account.

Dancing with Medicare Part D
More in my health consciousness right now is a switch I'll be making in chemotherapy protocols, going from infusion therapy (Kyprolis) to oral therapy. This will allow me to stay on course while on the road (infusion therapy requires visits to my local hospital and that's been difficult to choreograph when I'm out of state two weeks per month). In addition, I was experiencing some slippage in effectiveness with Kyprolis, so it was time for a change. From a health and quality-of-life standpoint this is a step forward. From a financial management standpoint, however, not so much.

My infusion therapy has been 100% covered by my insurance, because it was viewed as a medical cost (covered under Medicare Part B), but oral therapy is seen as a drug cost, (covered under Medicare Part D) and is subject to a 20% copay. Because the list prices for my drugs (Revlimid and Ninlaro) are through the roof I anticipate going through a sequence where I first have to pony up for the copay, until my out-of-pocket costs reach $3750. After that I go into "gap" coverage, which means I have to survive an additional $5000 in out-of-pocket payments before I get out of the gap. Following that I fall into the protection of catastrophic coverage, where my copays will drop to little or nothing, depending on the drugs.

Thus, I'm looking down the barrel of $8750 in health care costs to get through the rest of 2018 (none of which I faced last year, when all of my treatments were through infusion). Then next year, if I continue with oral therapy, I'll go through it all over again. It's quite the gauntlet.

Under Obama there were plans in place to gradually close the gap (also known as the "donut hole") for Part D coverage, but there's no knowing what will happen under Trump and his Republican majority. They have lusted after dismantling the Affordable Care Act, but have so far been unable to do more than chip away at the edges. So we'll see what 2019 brings. It may be a better deal for me, or it may be worse.

Fortunately, even though I have cancer, I've recovered enough stamina and all of cognitive ability—such that I've been able to return to work as a process consultant and teacher, and—wonder of wonders—work has come my way! Although I now have to earmark the first $12,500 of income for health care (counting premiums and what it'll take to get to the safety of catastrophic coverage) I feel very fortunate to have a pathway where it's at least possible—all the while doing what I love.

Maybe there will not be as much disposable income left over for Susan and I to play with, but we'll do what we can, and we have each other. It's a pretty good deal.

Reflecting on the Ghost Train West

Today I'm riding Amtrak's Empire Builder westbound from St Paul to Portland, Oregon. Monday I'll make a connection to Eugene. There's hardly anyone on the train (maybe 15 percent ridership, tops). The weather is bleak outside (we're stalled somewhere east of Rugby ND as the dawn has caught us from behind. The temperature is dancing around zero and I have absolutely no desire to venture outside the warm cocoon of my coach car. 

This is one of my favorite times to travel by train. The low passenger load is not good for Amtrak's bottom line, but I cherish having two seats to myself (to create a nest for the 38-hour trip) and being liberated from being trapped in the acoustical envelope of inane cell phone conversation (where bored passengers while away the hours running down their stockpiled minutes nattering about what they had for breakfast, or what color pickup they noticed driving by). I enjoy how the quiet of the dormant winter landscape is matched by the library-like solemnity inside the car. It's peaceful.

As my readers know, I'm on the road a lot (have talking stick will travel, trying to put out the brush fires of competitive culture wherever there's a willingness to call in the fire brigade). You also know I have a decided preference for traveling by train. 

While Amtrak is only a skeletal train system compared to what existed before World War II, it's still a national rail system and I can mostly figure out how to get to where I need to go, and get there on time. As I reflect on it, my ability to rely on the train is peculiar to my unusual line of work and my specific constitution. I get it that it doesn't work for everyone.

•  Because I overwhelmingly work with cooperative groups in situ, that means my prime work time is Friday evening through Sunday afternoon—when members of client groups are home from M-F commitments. I work when they aren't.

Thus, even when I have back-to-back jobs, I typically have four days to get from the first one to the second. Not only does this protect a precious window to write up reports before they start to pile up, but I have time to take the train—even in the extreme case of traveling from coast to coast.

•  I don't suffer from motion sickness and have no trouble typing at my seat (or at a table in the lounge car) while rumbling across the country at 79 mph (where Amtrak engines are redlined). So my transit time is productive, unlike what I experience sardined into a plane seat at 30,000 feet.

•  I enjoy travel, do not have allergies, and can sleep anywhere. Very handy when it takes two overnights to get from Duluth to the West Coast—which is what I'm in the process of doing right now. For those who need a non-moving horizontal mattress to get decent sleep, the train is a poor choice.

• I don't take the train because it's fast, or because it's particularly on time. When you depend on tracks owned by freight companies and dispatchers whose salaries are paid by them, there are just too many occasions when weather surprises, equipment malfunctions, and freight train snarls lead to unscheduled stops of uncertain duration. And when you have a dead freight in front of you on single track, it's not like you can switch to an alternate route. You have to wait.

• Finally, I enjoy the train because it's slow. It protects reflective time that I am otherwise susceptible to giving away. Time to look out the window, read, take a nap, write, and think. [See more on this below.]

So there's an appropriate mind set when you ride the train. You have to embrace the journey and not the clock. You don't schedule things that depend on an on-time arrival, because you can't count on it. You have to surrender to the iron rooster. It's the zen of train.
• • •Interestingly (I'm not sure I understand it), I live in the Central time zone, but the vast majority of my client base is perversely located elsewhere. Thus, when I journey to a client it almost always means a substantial schlepp and at least two train connections. Sometimes three. Here's a snapshot of my current workload, in chronological order, January through April (one or two of which may not require travel, but that's not clear yet):
—Massachusetts (2)
—Oregon (2)
—Michigan (1)
—Colorado (1)
—Tennessee (1)
—California (1)—Virginia (1)
—Washington (2)
—BC (1)
 From this docket the job in the Volunteer State is the only one in the Central time zone (and it's the only one I can't reach via Amtrak, though I'll likely wind up flying in and out of southwest CO to avoid two eight-hour round trip car rides to catch a train in Albuquerque).

So even though I live in the icebox of the country, on the remote shores of Lake Superior, I enjoy a national consulting business, and the choo choo gets me around. It's a rather odd arrangement, but it works for me. I love Duluth and I love living with Susan there. Sometimes I'm even home to enjoy them. 

Mark, the guy who handles the 4:15 am Skyline Shuttle run from Duluth to St Paul every morning knows me by name. On average I'm catching the 8:00 eastbound Empire Builder to Chicago at least once a month, so I've become a regular and he tries to reserve the front passenger seat for my comfort.
• • •Last week I caught a feature on NPR radio about deep thinking and the ways in which today's culture, with its heavy reliance on social media and email, has led to lifestyles that allow easy interruption. Many of us no longer protect chunks of concentrated time in our daily routine. While that may not have been a conscious choice, the result is that our minds rarely drop into depth or significant creativity. Instead, we hover near the surface and dance, somewhat frenetically, from one bright shiny object (or blinking light) to the next.

This seems a questionable trend. Does anyone, for example, want to make the case that we're better off with a President who can't resist tweeting provocations at 4 am? Wouldn't it be better to spend more time in reflection and less in reflex (or acid reflux)?

This reflection about deep thinking, and its value as an anchor for sorting out who we are and who we intend to be rings true for me, and reinforces the point I made above about protecting reflective time on the train. As an Amtrak passenger I tend to not socialize. I'm not rude; I'm just quiet. I stay within the envelope of my seat (my laptop) and my consciousness. I just try to be, and reconnect with who I am. 

Ghost trains are good for that.

Facilitating in My Dreams

This past week has been a rough one for me healthwise. 

I contracted a cold in mid-December and have been trying to shake a residual cough ever since. While I had the presence of mind to get a flu shot back in October, there has been a lot of respiratory distress in and around Duluth (maybe everywhere) and my coughing degraded into pneumonia after a weeklong trip to Boston that ended Jan 18 (at 2:30 am).

Last Saturday I felt crummy and didn't eat anything solid. When Susan popped a thermometer under my tongue that evening I was up to 100.5 and she was concerned. (Because of my multiple myeloma I'm somewhat immune compromised and therefore more susceptible to catching crud.) Prudently, she called the on-call oncologist (which has a nice ring to it) at St Luke's Hospital where I get my cancer treated and was advised that I was probably OK if the fever didn't go higher.

My temperature was down Sunday morning, but so was I. After another desultory day of moping around (Susan was struggling as well—though she didn't run a fever, she was later diagnosed with bronchitis and the house sounded like a tuberculosis ward), she tried my temperature again and I'd spiked at 101.6. Uh oh. Time to go to the ER. 

While my natural inclination is to think I can handle sickness on my own (and stay out of hospitals), I didn't fight Susan's firm guidance and it was good that I didn't. I arrived hypoxic (low on oxygen), with diarrhea, and with pneumonia in both lungs. No wonder I was weak and coughing so much. They immediately started me on oxygen and respiratory treatments to begin clearing the fluids out of my lungs. I was admitted to the hospital and happy to give myself over to their expert ministrations.

Fortunately, I responded strongly to the treatments and my symptoms starting moving in the right direction immediately. By Tuesday morning I was off oxygen and doing laps in the hallway to regain muscle strength after lying abed for 40 hours. They gave me a double round of antibiotics, a prescription for an inhaler, and sent me home.

Today—four days out of the hospital—I've recovered enough that I'll be departing in a few hours for a 12-day road trip to the West Coast and work with back-to-back clients. Fortunately, work is energizing for me, it's not aerobically straining, and I expect to be fine.

When I return (Feb 8) I'll start a new protocol for treating my multiple myeloma, switching from infusion therapy (with Kyprolis) to an oral treatment (a combination of Dexamethasone, Revlimid, and Ninlaro). My oncologist thinks this will be more potent in suppressing the cancer, which is creeping back, and will allow me to continue my active travel schedule without treatment interruption (I have to be in Duluth for outpatient infusion therapy, but can take pills with me wherever I go).
• • •Meanwhile, I want to share an interesting phenomenon that I discovered this past week while trying to make it through the night with minimal coughing. Whenever I get prone there's an adjustment in my lungs to the lower angle and I cough more. Obviously, that's not very restful (for either me or Susan) and it can take a while to find equilibrium. 

I don't breathe as deeply while lying down, to avoid triggering a cough reflex, and that contributes to the hypoxia and shortened REM cycles as my lungs gradually accumulate fluid and another coughing round is set off. Ugh. This means that I go through a shallow sleep/dream state throughout the night which is somewhat like hallucinating.

I was amused to discover that I go through a pattern. First I go over the work ahead of me in the next day or two. By virtue of "seeing" my schedule and making a rough plan for how I'll handle things, I calm down. Where others count sheep, I rely on logistics. 

Next, as I start to drift off to sleep, I start thinking about issues in my life or imagining work ahead of me and what it will take to deliver excellent product for that client. (As it happens, I'm juggling work with 10 clients right now—all to be delivered in the next three months—so there's plenty to chew on.)

While this imagining of future work may or not be insightful, it tends to be restful. But the most interesting part is that is that I'll next drop into something deeper and create a dream in which I'm actually facilitating—not thinking about facilitating. Maybe it's what all facilitators do at night—who knows. In any event, my tendency is to create scenarios in which I'm wrestling with something sketchy and cantankerous, and I wake up disoriented and with an elevated heart rate. I'm having a facilitation nightmare! And it takes me a few moments to realize that I don't have to be there. I get up, have a drink of water, and consciously back myself out of the mess I awoke in. Then I lie back down and start another cycle.

What am I doing? What am I trying to work out? In what universe does this pattern help me heal? I realize that I'm so deeply associated with facilitation now (after 30 years) that I can't actually turn it off. It's who I am.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. But who's in control? What a fascinating thing our brains are.

When Committees Don't Function Like Plenaries

As a process consultant I'm asked to assist groups in a variety of ways. One is by helping them learn how to facilitate better meetings. Another is how to set up committees to function well. Both of these are common requests, and I get plenty of practice at each. As odd as it may seem, however, sometimes these two objectives land at cross purposes, and that's what I want to explore in this essay.

As a consultant, my work is overwhelmingly focused on plenaries—meetings of the whole. Almost always that's the messiest arena (where there are the most variables) and the place where I can do the most good. However, success at that level doesn't always permeate to all corners of the group culture.

I. Even when the group gets religion about the need to invest in facilitation skills, and shifts the meeting culture about how plenaries are run (praise the lord) that does not guarantee that those advancements will trickle down to the committee level.

Most groups allow committees the latitude to determine their own process (rather than expecting them to mirror the way plenaries are run), and most committees default into the Roberts Rules of Order standard of expecting the chair to run meetings—without giving a moment's thought to whether the reason a person has been selected as chair (perhaps administrative skill, expertise in the committee's domain, organizational diligence, facility with details, or just plain willingness to take a turn in the barrel) has anything to do with qualities needed to run a good meeting (good communication skills, neutrality on the topics, a knack for at bridging differences, unflappable in the presence of reactivity).

Thus, even when the group adopts the practice of carefully selecting a facilitator to run plenaries, committees often don't. Worse, they often don't ask for help—even when they desperately need it. And if the community has offered committees carte blanche when it comes to how they'll operate, they are loath to go in after the fact to suggest that they up their game.

II. In a typical group it's not unusual for the enthusiasm for process to be held on a gradient. While some see it as the second coming, others consider it a necessarily evil that has to be tolerated to quell the navel gazers. This spectrum is often characterized as the tension between Process People and Product People. 

Not surprisingly there tends to be certain committees (maintenance and landscaping, for two) that attract more than their share of the Get 'Er Done folks (aka Product People) who want to spend minimal time in meetings and maximal time doing stuff.

While this is not necessarily a problem, it can be. If a committee has an underdeveloped sense of process and low tolerance for talking through dynamics, it can come across as inaccessible when other community members have a beef with them. When process isn't in your consciousness, or you have a low opinion of its utility, issues tend to get shunted to the side or ignored (I'd rather be weeding) and that just pisses people off. They can appear as a rogue committee that doesn't give a shit about anyone else. I'm not saying that's true, but that's how it can look.

The committee can feel like martyrs (unfairly vilified and under-appreciated for all the work they're doing for the community) while appearing as prima donnas to others (going about their merry way doing what they please and ignoring complaints). Can you see the train wreck?

III. I believe the antidote is crisper mandates. In the plenary agreement that authorizes each committee, it's important to spell out what latitude the committee has about how it operates and the rights retained by the plenary to step in if there's the perception that the committee is not functioning well—one of the tests for which should be whether good faith attempts are being made to resolve complaints in their field of operation with alacrity and openness. No siloing.

I'm all in favor of giving committees latitude for self-determination, but you need to accompany that with a clear pathway for dealing with problems. Otherwise you're betting on the weather and praying it doesn't rain—which is a very bad plan, because it always rains eventually.