Laird's Blog

Like Daughter, Like Dad

OK, I know this is going to come across as fairly geeky, but hey, I was a math major.

Playing with Powers
Tomorrow, my daughter, Jo, will turn 27. Not only is that the bloom of life, but it's three cubed. While novel in and of itself, what caught my attention is that I'm four cubed (64 if you're scoring at home). I realize, of course, that it's not particularly difficult to have a parent who was 37 when their child was born, but think about it. Realistically, this is the only dual-cubed parent-child linkage that is likely without raising eyebrows.

Sure, I could be one of those older guys who just can't stop breeding (think David Letterman) and be 64 when my child was eight (two cubed), or an undisciplined teenager who got their family started right out of the box at the testosterone-enriched age of 19 (resulting in dad being only 27 when their offspring turned eight).

Powerful Playing
While you may think that math oddities are not a particularly loving or respectful way to celebrate the anniversary of my daughter's nativity, you'd be wrong. In addition to being related by blood, Jo and I share a geeky fascination with board games. (While I know that equates to "bored games" to many, not so with us.) In fact, she has boardgamegeek.com bookmarked on her laptop. 

Let me put this in perspective. Last month I spent a week in Guelph ON doing some consulting with forming communities and attending a four-day conference in nearby Kitchener. Because the conference ended too late for me to catch the once-a-day bus to Ann Arbor MI, I had a leisurely last evening with Derek, who was my concierge and chauffeur all week.

While I put a pork roast in a crock pot with vegetables for dinner—cooking for a group is an excellent way for me to relax—Derek rustled up some friends to come over for board games after I assured him that I thought I could hang with his crowd. After dinner five of us settled on a game of Puerto Rico, which is one of the first excellent no-dice games. It was released in 2002 and nominated for the coveted Spiel des Jahres Award (Game of the Year in Germany). Twelve years old—which is long in the tooth for board games—it's holding steady as the #2 rated game at boardgamegeek.com.

Having played before, I adopted the high-income strategy, emphasizing tobacco and sugar (which allowed me to buy the best buildings) and I cruised to victory with 25% more victory points than the person in second. In contrast, when I play with Jo and Peter (my son-in-law), I'm lucky if I win one time in three. When it comes to board games, I live in a tough family.

Additional Power Plays
While it would have been enough that July 23 is Jo's birthday, there's more. I learned Sunday that my good friend, Jennifer, has a daughter Cynder, who'll turn 16 tomorrow (which, of course, is two to the fourth). In turn, that reminded me that for five months last winter I was 64 (eight squared) while my stepson, Jibran, was 16 (four squared). Pretty powerful stuff, eh?
  Finally, on a less quirky note, Dancing Rabbit founders Tony Sirna and Rachel Katz will be leaving the community tomorrow to begin an indefinite leave of absence. As the last two standing since their land purchase in 1997, it's a fairly big deal. Last night the community celebrated their inestimable contributions with an appreciation evening, which included oral testimonials, the presentation of a book of written memories, a puppet show, cupcakes, and a dance party. (Isn't that just about the best way to be sent off with love?)

Here was the tribute I gave Tony:


This last May I got my 40-years-in-the-wildeness-of-community-living pin. While that’s a long road, for the last half of that journey I’ve been walking with you, Tony. That’s two decades. Frequently enough, we were in the same room.
I remember your first FIC meetings at Christ Church of the Golden Rule in fall 1995, where you helped staff the Community Bookshelf table. I remember visiting the Dancing Rabbit House that you rented on Prince St in Berkeley near the Ashby BART, before you started your cross-country land search. I remember facilitating the where-will-we-buy-land meetings on Sandhill’s front porch with Rachel, Cecil, Aaron, and Halley. We go back a long ways.
You have been a precious friend because, like me, you are a community builder, you've always been able to see the big picture, and you’re not afraid of the fire. We both know what it’s like to be heart sore about our community, and to come to grips with the painful decision to leave it.
I appreciate you as someone willing to trail blaze as a leader in cooperative culture, as someone who emphasized social change work ahead of income production, and as someone who was a good friend in a storm—and we’ve seen plenty of heavy seas together. You were at both of my weddings to Ma’ikwe: the first one seven years ago and the one last week.
While I’m sad you’re moving away, I don’t expect to lose our special connection. From now forward we’ll just have to substitute quality for a paucity of opportunity.
Whatever is next, Tony, my heart goes with you.
No matter how you slice it, July 23 is setting up to be a powerful day.





What the Duck?


I've been living at Dancing Rabbit since November and we have a new thing that's been going on the last several weeks: the traveling menagerie. There's a subgroup here called Critters that has a bunch of, well, critters.

Not only that, but they move 'em around. You've heard the old saw about the grass is greener on the other side of the fence? Well the Critters operate on a variation of that theme: the grass is always greener if you keep moving the fence.

They have a lightweight flexible electric fence that allows them to construct a temporary enclosure, which they relocate every so many days for the grazing pleasure of their small herd of four goats and a miniature donkey. If you need the vegetation brought under control somewhere, let them know and you can get your field or side yard into the rotational queue. If you don't mind the bleating, and the somewhat irregular trim heights, you can effectively get your lawn mowed and fertilized in one go with no drain on the national oil reserves. It's a pretty sweet deal.

In addition, they're experimenting with a free ranging band of three ducks—Khaki Cambells to be precise, two hens and a drake. The image above depicts the breed.
Nowadays you can round the corner on a building and run into the duck patrol cruising the neighborhood. On the one hand, it's disconcerting (WTF, did I just see three ducks walk by?). On the other, it's evocative of throwback depictions of medieval village life, where humans and animals commingled far more than they do today (think Pieter Brueghel): 
While you don't tend to see many DR folks wearing headgear with ear flaps (at least not in summer) duck liberation has been a definite step toward inter-species integration.

To be clear, this did not happen in a cultural vacuum, nor is it without boundaries. For years, the village dogs (at least the well-mannered ones) have been allowed to enter the village pub on cold nights to cozy up to the fire, and so far no one has suggested that the make-way-for-ducklings movement be extended to include visiting privileges in the common house kitchen—for which I'm thankful (and so is the health department).

It's turned out that the unfettered ducks are popular (as well as novel). Among other things they tidy up under the mulberry trees, which are otherwise a damn nuisance when the prolific fruit starts dropping, staining everything sticky and purple. (Now it's just the duck shit that's purple.)

So far all the outdoor dogs, cats, and humans have managed to coexist amicably with the quackers, and we hope that continues.

While it's too early to tell if this trend will persist, the Critters are doing all they can to get their ducks in a row, so to speak, to secure and maintain social approbation. With respect to choreography though, getting ducks in a row is much harder to achieve. The little darlings do not exactly constitute a chorus line. (Have you ever tried to get ducks waddling in syncopation? I thought not.)

I've come to view them more as a band of roving minstrels, and I'm enjoying their spontaneous riffs—punctuated by their characteristic tail twitching dance routines—as noteworthy contributions to the improvisational passion play, Life in the Ecovillage, showing daily.

Group Works: Honor Each Person

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

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

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

1. Intention
2. Context
3. Relationship
4. Flow
5. Creativity
6. Perspective
7. Modeling
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
9. Faith

In the Relationship segment there are 10 cards. The sixth pattern in this segment is labeled Honor Each Person. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card: 


Respect each person's essential human dignity. View others' unique beliefs, approaches and concerns as a resource for group wisdom. Tolerate and even embrace idiosyncrasies, knowing that each person brings their gifts to the whole more fully when affirmed and appreciated.

This is a rich and subtle pattern. On the one hand, it's obvious. Who would speak against honoring each person (or in favor of purposefully dishonoring others)? 

Yet we are largely unaware of custom, of the water we swim in—unless we're swimming in someone else's pond, such as when we travel abroad. For the most part custom becomes an unnoticed backdrop that rises to our consciousness only when something is different. And the more different, the more we notice. When you take into account that most of us have been deeply conditioned in an individualistic culture, where identity is tied to the sense in which we are unique (rather than in a cooperative culture where we celebrate the ways in which we are similar), then difference tends to be strongly associated with distance. People who are different tend to become "other."

We may feel threatened by customs that are different than our own. We may feel confused. We may feel unwelcome.

Worse, styles may clash. A person who grew up in a blue collar family where mom and dad shouted and occasionally threw crockery when upset may behave in a way that feels overwhelmingly unsafe to a person whose family never raised their voice at the dinner table and only one person spoke at a time. Words and phrases that are precise and comfortable for a well-educated person may come across as unintelligible and manipulative to someone who barely finished 8th grade. Swear words are straight-talking to some; blasphemous to others.

In short, it's complicated. The trick, of course, is to focus on what's in the package, not on the wrapping.

The simple version of this is doing the work to not be triggered by the package (which includes dress, diction, skin color, emotional affect, physical disability, adornment, disfigurement, word choice, facial expressions, etc.), or at least to manage one's reactions. Yet this pattern runs deeper. It is not enough that you can parrot the words (or even the delivery); the object is to get what it feels like to be the other person; to see the dynamic through their eyes and their being. That is the deeper meaning of "honoring." It is much more than sharing the microphone.

Note the final portion of the text for this pattern: "... each person brings their gifts to the whole more fully when affirmed and appreciated."

The point here is that you will often not get what you might have gotten if you handle the opening poorly. Simply put, when people don't feel honored (or welcome) by their standards, they are far less likely to share what they have to give. If when they speak the audience stares back glassy eyed or checks their watches, it's not reasonable to expect them to pour their hearts out. 

In truly parochial settings, non-regulars can get labeled uncommunicative and surly for not sharing, yet the regulars may be altogether clueless about how unwelcoming they were. The newcomers experience no warmth or genuine interest in who they are or what they bring; the regulars experience boorish guests with off-putting habits, odd diction, and obscure reflections. It's a train wreck.

Does this mean you need to learn every culture's customs? No, but you can remember to ask a person what their customs of greeting are—rather than assume they'll be knowledgeable and comfortable with yours. 

When playing at home, the hallmark of honoring behavior is to be more curious than conforming; more accepting than judging. At an away game, it tends to work better if you watch and listen ahead of acting and speaking—the better to get a sense of local custom, before you inadvertently put your foot in something you'd rather you didn't… such as your mouth.

The Seven-Year Stitch

Tomorrow, Ma'ikwe and I will recommit to our marriage.

While that may not seem such a momentous occasion given that the original ceremony was April 21, 2007 (which means our marriage is older than this blog, and not exactly above-the-fold front-page news), tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of Ma'ikwe's decision to divorce me. It's also Bastille Day, the anniversary of the start of the French Revolution (325 years ago), marking the overthrow of tyranny and the French monarchy—just as Ma'ikwe was prepared to throw off the yoke of matrimony.

So it's no small thing to schedule our recommitment for July 14. Think of it as smudging the calendar. Right on the brink of dissolution, Ma'ikwe and I were carefully—over the course of the last 12 months—able to pick our way back from the edge of the falls without going over the edge and crashing on the rocks below.

It's been quite a year.

Marriage By the Numbers
Seven years ago we celebrated for four days. In the course of those four days we invoked four circles of community and enjoyed special meals with each: blood family, intentional community family, FIC family, and our spiritual family. The commitment ceremony featured four parts: past, community, who we are, and magic.

The first time we got married in the fourth month of a year ending in seven. Now we're getting re-married in the seventh month in a year ending in four. Balance. Ma'ikwe is an Enneagram Seven: the epicure and adventurer. In the seventh year of our marriage she'd had enough struggling and was ready to try something new. Yet she was also aware of the work set out for this type to mature and thrive:

Your spiritual journey is to search for right work and focused concentration. Spiritual growth will come to you when you approach life with disciplined sobriety instead of getting high on new ideas, options and plans. Like a stone skipping across a lake that sinks deeply when it comes to rest, you will do well to slow down, experience your inner depths, and focus on completion.

Freedom will exist when you accept the limitations of the present moment. Remember that envisioning something is not the same as manifesting it. True freedom comes with commitment and hard work—not from having unlimited options.

When I responded well to her decision to end the relationship (my therapist deserves a lot of credit here—I didn't know I had it in me), Ma'ikwe thought long and hard about whether to stay in the relationship longer, to see where additional work could get us. In the end though, she agreed and here we are.


Time on the Couch
Since last July, I've had 15 appointments with our therapist and couples counselor in Quincy IL (60 miles away). Sometimes Ma'ikwe and I went together; sometimes I went alone.

I've been working on my reactivity, clarifying what I want from the partnership, and delving into the murkiness of my sexual response. In turn, Ma'ikwe has been working on her tendency to withhold what she's thinking about, and to stop imagining that I'm upset with her whenever she catches me talking to myself (which I do a lot).

Recently we've been working on how to handle the situation when we both feel solid in our positions yet they don't match up. While this doesn't happen a lot (whew), it's not rare, and we've been learning how to accept occasional non-agreement without jeopardizing the partnership. The essential point is that we don't have to work through everything.

We have also been working on protecting intimate time together on a regular basis, and the primacy of consulting with one another before making major commitments. Slowly, we've been learning how to be better partners.

The Fork in the Road
It became clear to me last summer (in a way that I was loathe to face before Ma'ikwe's announcement last July 14) that I was going to have to choose between my marriage and my community, Sandhill Farm. This was not something I'd bargained for when we said "I do" seven years ago, and I had been resisting it even as Ma'ikwe was asking for more time together (after all, she had the option of moving to Sandhill; why did I have to be the one who gave up my home?).

But you only have to hit my on the head with a 2x4 once, so Ma'ikwe's divorce announcement got my attention. Facing the certainty of losing one, I was able to let go of my home and stick with the marriage—if Ma'ikwe would have me. (If she turned me down—a distinct possibility—then I still had my home of 40 years.)

I took a leave of absence from Sandhill right after Thanksgiving and have been living with Ma'ikwe since then at Moon Lodge, her house at Dancing Rabbit. While there have continued to be some things that go bump in the night (and sometimes during the day as well), we're mostly doing quite well. Well enough, in fact, for Ma'ikwe to put her seven-year itch behind her and recommit to the marriage.

Tomorrow, as we purposefully resew the threads of our commitment to one another—and begin wearing our rings again for the first time in a year—I'll be thinking of it as our Seven-Year Stitch.

Yours with Words

Ever since working on my high school newspaper (1965-67), I've wanted to be a journalist. While that has by no means been the only thing I've wanted to be, communication has been one of my enduring passions.

Slowly, over the decades, I've succeeded.

Starting in the 80s I occasionally authored magazine articles about community living. Concurrent with that, I launched a career as a process consultant, which inexorably led to report writing—lots of report writing.

Lost in the Fun House
Then things took a jump in 1992 when I negotiated FIC becoming the publisher of Communities magazine, taking over from Charles Betterton, who had lost the resource base to keep things going. This opportunity opened three doors at once: writer, editor, publisher.

—Over the two-plus decades that FIC has been behind the wheel, I've typically authored 6-8 magazine articles annually. Given that the road to effective writing is pretty much the same one that Lily Tomlin points out as the way you get to Carnegie Hall—practice—this steady work has been enormously beneficial in the development of my craft.

—Having apprenticed at my father's knee as a snob about words and their proper usage, I've also worked the other side of the aisle: editing. Even as far back as the early '90s, a network compatriot wryly gifted me a red pen for my birthday, because, after receiving my mark-ups of his draft white paper, he knew I must go through them faster than a garlic eater consumes breath mints.

—Rarest of all is the chance to be a publisher. While the circulation of Communities has never been above 1600, in our own small way we are a market-maker when it comes to grammar, spelling, and the meaning of words. We get to be ruthless in stamping out the cutesy disease of interior capitalization ("CoHousing" and "EcoVillage" make me want to vomit), expurgating unneeded hyphens ("e-mail," "by-laws," and "non-profit" are so '90s), and arbitrating a non-sexist solution to the need for a third person singular pronoun when gender is unknown (we prefer "they," making the plural do double duty in the same way that we ask "you" to be of service as the singular and plural second person pronoun).

I just eat that stuff up!

Throughout the last decade of the 20th Century and the opening stanza of the 21st, I gradually accreted an increasing number of communication offerings onto my workshop menu. Today my offerings include Conflict, Facilitation, Power Dynamics, Consensus (which comes in two flavors), and Humor (think of it as spumoni).

Blogging a Dead Horse
Then, in 2007, I dipped my toe into the blogosphere. Seven years and 770 entries later, I'm still at it. While I encountered an existential hiccup a few years back—wondering if I'd run out of fresh ideas and fall prey to reheating leftovers—I've been able to put that particular devil behind me. 

I've discovered that all I have to do is pay attention to what's happening around me! Life is never dull for an itinerant community networker who is domiciled in a thriving ecovillage (note the clean spelling), and there is always a new foal or filly gamboling about in the landscape of my life, offering itself up as inspiration for my next blog (think of it as the virtual equivalent of My Friend Flicka). There's really no reason to be anxious about slipping into a morbid fascination with describing dead horses.

Communities as a Pathway to Community

Even though publishing our quarterly magazine steadily loses money (we've finished in the black only twice in 22 years), it's something that FIC holds dear and we're doing everything in our power to keep it in print. The magazine was first launched in 1972, and has established itself as the source for information and inspiration about community living and cooperative culture.

We cover the Intentional Communities Movement in its full breadth: from cohousing to ecovillages; from ashrams to student co-ops; from group houses to agricultural communes.

At its best, Communities chronicles both the triumphs and the heartaches of cooperative living. We take you behind the scenes to examine what challenges people are encountering, and what solutions they are discovering in their day-to-day experiences of living together. 

Cooperative living is messy business and we try to cover it all. We don't sugar coat it, and we let authors disagree about the lessons to be learned. Our editorial mission is not to promulgate a party line; it's to make the lines shorter for getting into the party. If there's one thing we've learned from living in community, it's that we're all in this together and we're only able to do our best work when we listen to everyone's piece of the truth.

How You Can Help
This is where you come in. Nothing would make a more immediate impact on our bottom line than new subscribers. If you do not currently have a subscription, please consider clicking here and signing up. If you are a current subscriber, thank you!—and please consider giving a gift subscription to a friend or loved one. 

The timing couldn't be better! We've recently overhauled our website to offer content either as paper or plastic digital, and all back issues as either available as in-print copies or as digital downloads. We're also offering a completely revised collection of the Best of Communities on 15 different themes, where we've gathered together 15-20 of the best articles we've published on a topic (including Good Meetings; Leadership, Power, and Membership; Elders in Community; Challenges and Lessons of Community; and Cohousing) and created dynamite packets of 55-65 pages each. Buy one or buy them all.

For the truly inspired, we offer a complete back issue set—all 161 of them—for the bargain price of $500.

For those especially moved by what Communities has meant to you and will continue to mean in our collective effort to manifest a more cooperative future, I invite you to consider making an earmarked tax-deductible donation in support of magazine operations. It all counts.

Your support today will help keep our cooperative flame burning brightly—and all of us cooperative authors in print (and off the street).

Profits at Home

Have you ever noticed how people start to appear wiser the further they get from home? You may laugh, but this is a dynamic of biblical proportions. Matthew 13:57 says: … but Jesus said unto them, "A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house."

It's enough to make you want to take a road trip.

In this day of upward spiraling travel costs (we really are running out of oil), it seems prudent to contemplate the future for consultants. Being one, I think about it. After 27 years of going to my clients (or to events where I can showcase my wares in workshops), I am pioneering a webinar series that will offer a half dozen of my most commonly requested workshops, plus a seventh Q&A session styled Stump the Chumps, where Ma'ikwe and I try to hit whatever cooperative process curve balls people toss our way. While being connected via video and audio is not the same thing as being in the same room, it starts to approximate it, and no one has to travel. I figure my future will definitely include more of this.

[While the webinar series was scheduled to start July 2, we aborted when the software (GlobalMeet) started spontaneously malfunctioning 20 minutes into the presentation—gremlins started arbitrarily muting the speaker and unmuting the audience. The whole series has now been moved back one week and will begin July 9, and will run every Wednesday through Aug 20. It will be live 2-4 pm Central time, and will be available as a downloadable recording to anyone who signs up. This Wed we'll be switching to Adobe Connect to frustrate the gremlins. So if you missed our opening (comedy) act last Wed, the boat has still not left the pier.]

Webinars aside, I've been aware for a long time that there's been little interest in my skills within my zip code. Yes, I've facilitated my share of meetings at both Sandhill Farm and Dancing Rabbit, but I'm almost never asked to facilitate conflicts, which is probably the number one thing I'm known for on a continental level. (On a state level, I've only been hired to facilitate five times outside of 63563 in 27 years, yet four of those were to teach about or to facilitate a live conflict.)

Of course, at Sandhill—which is a very small community, usually around six adults—it was nearly impossible for me to be sufficiently neutral (or perceived to be sufficiently neutral) to be acceptable as a conflict facilitator. But it's more than that. My community hasn't even been interested in learning my theory of working with conflict.

I recently witnessed someone in tears over his frustration at how little interest there had been among his fellow community members in taking advantage of his offer to help people be more financially successful (this guy works only 15 hours a week and generates enough surplus to make annual donations north of $20,000, so he's demonstrably good at being financially generative). While I felt his anguish, it's no longer acute for me. I'm a good bit further down that road and my disappointment is more of a dull ache because I've grown accustomed to it—and because I get plenty of work in different time zones, which satisfies my primal desire to be helpful. I've adjusted my expectations and no longer look for people to seek my talents at home.

I'm also seeing another shift. Now that I've moved over to Dancing Rabbit (to live with Ma'ikwe) I'm not centrally involved in community dynamics and people are more open to me as a result. At my new community I'm highly selective about what community issues I insert myself into, and I'm not seeking influence as I did while living at Sandhill. Oddly enough, two people at Dancing Rabbit have approached me in the last half year to be a mentor for them. This is something I very much enjoy doing yet have done precious little of my first 39 years of community living (excepting twice I served as adjunct faculty for Prescott College, guiding—by email and phone—students doing independent studies on intentional community). Having let go, the opportunities have come to me, which I experience as something of a cosmic joke (which is better, I think, than a cosmic tragedy).

While part of this may be about me (can you ever rule that out completely?), I think part of what's going on is a generic avoidance of the schizophrenic dynamic where two people are simultaneously in a peer-peer relationship (by virtue of being fellow community members) and in a teacher-student relationship. It can be awkward to navigate the shifting power gradient, and some would rather avoid it all together, accepting the price of foregoing whatever might be learned (either from the teacher, or from juggling the roles).

When the teacher comes from outside—especially from way outside— all of that awkwardness can be neatly sidestepped. The consultant goes away Monday morning. At Sandhill, I think I'm more valued for my tomatillo salsa, my skill at wildcrafting morels, and my knowledge of how to file the community's tax returns, than for my ability to be sure-footed when navigating complex community dynamics.

While it remains to be seen how my opportunities to be an honorable prophet (much less a profitable one) may diminish as gas prices soar, for now I'm savoring that I still have work all around the continent—which may be extended by my nascent career as a webinar presenter (and indefatigable blogger).

It's a quirky world out there, and every now and then you need to stop and make sure you're still heading in the direction you intended.

Sharing Circles and Square Pegs

I attended a workshop recently on The Circle Way, based on the 2010 book of that title by and Ann Linnea. The workshop leaders were very promotional of groups using the Circle format to do deeper, more connected work. While I agreed with much of what they offered, their pitch reminded me of Shaklee distributors touting the universal benefits of Basic H (the miracle cleaning concentrate of the '70s) and I have the same reservations about sharing circles as I did about Basic H: although the Circle is a fine format some of the time, it isn't the best choice all of the time.

As someone who has lived in intentional community for 40 years and worked as a group process consultant for two-thirds of that time, I've been to an untold number of meetings, read gobs of books about group dynamics, and witnessed many different formats. Ever since workable models of secular consensus were first evolved to meet the emerging needs of the East Coast anti-nuclear groups of the '70s (thank you, Movement for a New Society) there has been an explosion of work done to develop cooperative processes—abandoning the arcane and susceptible-to-back-room-manipulation world of parliamentary procedure (think of all the murky and morally questionable process shenanigans that accompanied the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865, as showcased brilliantly in the award winning 2012 Spielberg film, Lincoln).

Here are some trends that I can distill from the broad sweep of my immersion in cooperative dynamics the last four decades:

o  The hunger for cooperative culture (in contrast with adversarial, competitive culture) is very wide and growing. (If anything, mainstream dynamics are getting increasing shrill, uncivil, and dissatisfying.)

o  Having the intent to be cooperative is insufficient to consistently produce cooperative behavior—especially when people disagree and the stakes are high.

o  The essential difference in cooperative group dynamics is that participants have to engage productively on the energetic plane as well as the rational plane. Among other things, this means that how something gets done matters as much as what gets done. On a practical level, this means that good meetings are ones where all participants feel that their input is welcomed, heard, and respectfully treated without their needing to change personalities, or to check their passion at the door.
o  While energy work can be significantly supported by the thoughtful choice of formats, there is no single format that works best (or even well) all of the time. If, as a carpenter, you fall in love with your hammer and neglect your other tools, pretty soon everything starts looking like a nail.

Circling Back
Let's return now to Circles as a format option. Mostly I'm aware of these being used in cooperative groups as a change of pace when it's more important to focus on energy than problem solving. An example would be a Grieving Circle when a dear one departs the group (perhaps by moving away or by dying). It could also be a celebration, as in a marriage, an anniversary, or an Appreciation Circle on the eve of someone's departure. In each of these instances, there is no problem to solve; the Circle is called so that people can share their hearts and deepen their connections.

Another common use of the Circle format is when doing a check-in (and it's twin sister, the check-out). While participants may or may not actually be arrayed in a circle, the concept is that everyone will get a chance to speak in turn, one at a time, saying briefly how they're doing and perhaps naming something on their mind that they'd like to set aside to attend to the purpose of the meeting. The point is to be better connected with everyone, and to allow a graceful opportunity for everyone to energetically arrive in the room before any heavy lifting is attempted.

Circles are also employed to get at the feelings connected with a topic prior to engaging in problem solving. The concept here is to clear the air of significant distress prior to discussing what action the group wants to take—mainly to eliminate or at least diminish the distortion and brittleness that typically accompany upset or reactivity. Groups that engage directly with "what to do" and skip this clearing step (either because they are unaware of the distress or because they lack confidence in handling it well) generally suffer difficult and exhausting meetings. With the idea of streamlining the process, they inadvertently wind up getting bogged down, or suffer relationship damage that takes longer to repair than the time they thought they were saving by not attending to the initial upset. Ugh.

While there are certainly more applications of the Circle, that's sufficient to lay out common uses among cooperative group that mainly operate through open discussion.

At this point I want to introduce what Baldwin & Linnea label the Components of the Circle. In their words this is an overview of what they advocate:

Preface
The Circle, or council, is an ancient form of meeting that has gathered juman beings into respectful converation for thousands of years. The Circle has served as the foundation for many cultures.

What transforms a meeting into a circle is the willingness of people to shift from informal socializing or opinionated discussion into a receptive attitude of thoughtful speaking and deep listening and to embody and practice the structures outlined here.

Intention
Intention shapes the Circle and determines who will come, how long the Circle will meet, and what kinds of outcomes are to be expected. The caller of the Circle spends time articulating intention and invitation.

Welcome or Start-point
Once people have gathered, it is helpful for the host, or a volunteer, to begin the Circle with a gesture that shifts people's attention from social space to council space. This gesture of welcome may be a moment of silence, reading a poem, or listening to a song—whatever invites centering.

Establishing the Center
The center of a Circle is like the hub of a wheel: all energies pass through it, and it holds the rim together. To help people remember how the hub helps the group, the center of a Circle usually holds objects that represent the intention of the Circle. Any symbol that fits this purpose or adds beauty will serve: flowers, a bowl or basket, a candle.

Check-in/Greeting
Check-in helps people into a frame of mind for council and reminds everyone of their commitment to the expressed invitation. It insures that people are truly present. Verbal sharing, especially a brief story, weaves the interpersonal net.

Check-in usually starts with a volunteer and proceeds around the Circle. If an individual is not ready to speak, the turn is passed and another opportunity is offered after others have spoken. Sometimes people place individual objects in the center as a way of signifying their presence and relationship to the intention.

Setting Circle Agreements
The use of agreements allows all members to have a free and profound exchange, to respect a diversity of views, and to share responsibility for the well-being and direction of the group. Agreements often used include:
—We will hold stories or personal material in confidentiality.
—We listen to each other with compassion and curiosity.
—We ask for what we need and offer what we can.
—We agree to employ a group guardian to watch our need, timing, and energy. We agree to pause at a signal, and to call for that signal when we feel the need to pause.

Three Principles
The Circle is an all leader group.

1. Leadership rotates among all Circle members.

2. Responsibility is shared for the quality of experience.

3. People place ultimate reliance on inspiration (or spirit), rather than on any personal agenda.

Three Practices
1. To speak with intention: noting what has relevance to the conversation in the moment.

2. To listen with attention: respectful of he learning process for all members of the group.

3. To tend the well-being of the Circle: remaining aware of the impact of our contributions.

Forms of Council
The Circle commonly uses three forms of council: talking piece, conversation, and reflection.

Talking Piece Council is often used as part of check-in, check-out, and whenever there is a desire to slow down the conversation, collect all voices and contributions, and be able to speak without interruption.

Conversation Council is often used when reaction, interaction, and an interjection of new ideas, thoughts, and opinions are needed.

Reflection or Silent Council gives each member time and space to reflect on what is occurring or needs to occur in the course of a meeting. Silence may be called so that each person can consider the role or impact they are having on the group, to help the group realign with its intention, or to sit with a question until there is clarity.

Guardian
The single most important tool for aiding self-governance and bringing the Circle back to intention is the role of guardian. To provide a guardian, one Circle member at a time volunteers to watch and safeguard group energy and to observe the group's process.

The guardian usually employs a gentle noisemaker, such as a chime, bell, or rattle, that signals everyone to stop action, take a breath, and rest in a space of silence. Then the guardian makes this signal again and speaks to why s/he called a pause. Any member may call for a pause.

Check-out and Farewell
At the close of a Circle meeting, it is important to allow a few minutes for each person to comment on what they learned, or what stays in their heart and mind as they leave. 

Closing the Circle by checking out provides a formal end to the meeting, a chance for members to reflect on what has transpired, and to pick up objects if they have placed something in the center. 

As people shift from council space to social space or private time, they release each other from the intensity of attention being in Circle requires. Often after check-out the host, guardian, or a volunteer will offer a few inspirational words of farewell, or signal a few seconds of silence before the Circle is released.
• • •Baldwin & Linnea are going well beyond suggesting that Circles be used as an occasional seasoning in cooperative meetings; they're boldly advocating that groups consider using Circles as their main mode of conducting business—that the Circle is robust enough to handle whatever comes along, and probably do it better. What's more, there are a number of groups that have accepted that invitation. 

With due respect to the ancient traditions which anthropologists inform us are the roots of Circle meetings—and which therefore testify to the vitality and resilience of that form—I want to raise questions about how far to take Circles in today's context.

Laird's Laager
I'm going to start by making some observations of contemporary Western culture, that provide a context for my recommendations regarding Circles.

1. In the sweep of human history, it's doubtful that human society has ever been more toward the "I" end of the I-we spectrum than we are today. I'm referring to how people tend to think first about how a thing impacts them as an individual, rather than how it affects the group, or the collective. There are even social and economic theories that the group is best taken care of when it's ignored and people only think and act on what's best for them.

While I think you can make the case that people are increasingly aware of the moral bankruptcy and unsustainable consequences of this approach (given how it supports gross inequality in the distribution of wealth and access to resources, and therefore widespread misery), the idea of the supremacy of the individual is not going to go away quietly.

That said, the steady rise in interest in intentional communities is testament to the appeal of purposefully trying to move back toward the "we" end of the spectrum—not to embrace the complete subjugation of the individual to the tribe, but rather to find more equilibrium.

2. Cultures that antedate post-Word War II overwhelmingly tended to be highly structured, which permitted far less latitude than we enjoy today regarding where you lived, class, sexual orientation, spiritual identification, choice of spouse, and even employment options. While there was a stronger sense of "we," it was packaged within hide-bound tradition, top-down hierarchy, and a level of xenophobia and parochialism that very few people today find appealing, or even acceptable. 

In short, we want a greater sense of connection, safety, belonging, and home, yet are unwilling to give up much individual freedom to get it. This is a challenge. A lot of us literally know who we are because we have views that differentiate us from others. Because deferring to others can be equated with loss of identity, many of us have learned at an early age that it's more important to focus on differences more than on similarities.

3. We are ritual starved. Though traditional cultures tended to offer much more ritual, in the name of religious freedom and separation of church and state people today tend to feel malnourished relying solely on Christmas trees, Fourth of July fireworks, Valentine's Day roses, and chocolate Easter eggs to connect with Spirit. While organized religion still provides an avenue for that, many are seeking to fill that void in other ways—and are not necessarily being successful in the attempt.

So here are my thoughts about the ways in which Circles are powerful, and the ways in which they are limited in their application:

o  In honoring the Circle's ancient roots, Baldwin & Linnea, they are offering a ritual-laden version with a set sequence, and defined roles that are purposefully rotated among group members. While I think the ritual will have resonance for many (addressing my third point above), some will chafe at the heavy attention to an arbitrary structure, losing sight of the prize: connection.

To illustrate my point, one of the workshop leaders (in the role of Host) took a moment to chide the other (in the role of Guardian) when that person chimed three times to indicate a shift in the process, instead of twice—even though attendees had not been told a thing about the significance of the number of chimes. You don't have to step back very far before you realize the ridiculousness of focusing attention on the number of chimes (a la the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin), when you are principally trying, in a workshop, to introduce the concepts of ritual and tone. That was an excellent illustration of how substance can be lost in attention to form.

Thus, while I think the purposeful introduction of ritual to cooperative meetings has merit, don't get hung up on the exact form it takes. Make it be your group's form—and don't take yourselves too seriously.

o  Along similar lines, you don't need to employ all of the roles outlined by Baldwin & Linnea above, nor do you need the roles to be strictly rotated among the membership. Better, in my experience, is to encourage roles to be filled as widely as possible, yet allowing members to opt out if any particular role is too uncomfortable for them.

While I'm in favor of helping people get over their anxiety about trying on unfamiliar roles and making the opportunity available to everyone, I'm not in favor of twisting arms or applying peer pressure to enforce rotations. I just tends to traumatize the reluctant and result in the group being poorly served. Yuck.

o  Not everyone is going to find Circle work appealing. Perhaps because they're uncomfortable with the unfamiliar; perhaps because the ritual overlay is too evocative of the unpleasant childhood church experience (from which they're still recovering); perhaps because the pace is maddening slow (not matching their metabolism or Latin style of expression and engagement); perhaps because it's too woo woo for hard-boiled pragmatists.

While the workshop leaders assured us that the initially skeptical will come around in time—and I buy that that will be true for some—I doubt it will be true for all. In fact, I'm confident in predicting that a good portion of initial skeptics will not come back to give it a chance to grow on them. You'll just lose them. Some pegs are simply too square to find affinity with the Circle.

o  Circle process will tend to work better among the soft-spoken (because there is protected air time), among those who take longer to process what they think and be ready to articulate what they want to share (the deliberate pace helps with that), among those more comfortable sharing at the heart level (as distinct from the head level), and among those who tend to be overwhelmed by strong feelings, especially anger and rage (because of the deliberate, reflective pace, and the emphasis on honoring requests for a pause whenever anyone wants one). 

In pointing out these tendencies, I'm not trying to favor the soft-spoken over the loud-spoken, the slow over the quick, the emotive over the rational, or the passionately expressive over the subdued. I'm only making the case that in searching for a truly level playing field, Circle ain't it, and it's naive to think otherwise.

o  If you're part of a group that uses Circle as its main way of conducting business and you're happy with what you have, by all means keep doing it. I'm a big fan of doing whatever works. If you're thinking about moving in that direction, I advise that you to consider my reservations and see if you think they have substance in the dynamics of your group.

o  Personally, I like preserving Circle as a contrast from the main way of doing business, partly because you can then be more judicious about employing it only when it's the right fit for the need (which I believe are the times when aligning energy is more important than making progress on resolving an issue), and because you'll maximize the boost you'll get from the Hawthorne Effect, the temporary uptick in enthusiasm you'll experience simply because you're doing something different.

While I don't think Circle is the one ring to rule them all, and I don't know if the Circle will be unbroken, I think it fully deserves an honored place in the pantheon of format options for cooperative groups.

Starting with a Proposal, Revisited

Jasen recently replied to my June 10 post Why Starting with a Proposal is Usually a Bad Idea, and he brought up points that I want to respond to, expanding on my original thinking. Jasen’s comments are in italics, and my replies follow in Roman text. (Note that when I refer to a “committee” I mean for that term to encompass anything from a single individual or manager, to a team, task force, or standing committee—any subgroup of the whole).

I personally find this challenging to hear (thank you), as I'm a proponent of crafting the proposal prior to bringing a topic for discussion to plenary. As you state, plenary time is precious so I definitely agree that some topics should be discussed openly in plenary well before a proposal is crafted by an individual or subcommittee. The challenge is determining what constitutes a good "proposal" agenda item vs. a good "discussion" agenda item. Because of the abundance of potential topics that could come to plenary, a certain amount of delegation must be done to subcommittees/individuals in order for plenary time to be effective. My instinct likely is to lean on the proposal all too often. Your post is a good reminder of this.

Re: skewing the conversation, I agree that this happens but personally believe this to be a net positive for the following reasons:

1. The proposal helps define or frame the "problem" or “issue." It gives members a lump of clay to mold.


Yes, but the danger is that you might not have all the clay you need if the plenary restricts its reply to what the committee has prepared ahead. Further, it can sometimes take more energy to change the shape of pre-molded clay than if you were starting from scratch.

2. The proposal preparation allows for research to be done prior to plenary such that knowledge/expertise can be gathered for distribution at plenary. If this is not done beforehand, the plenary is not an informed position to make the best decision.

While this is a real phenomenon, I believe it's better handled by having the need for research anticipated by a thoughtful Steering Committee, whose job it is to screen suggestions for plenary agenda topics. A competent Steering Committee will ask the sponsoring committee to conduct anticipated research as a precondition to getting time on the plenary agenda.

Further, they should insist that the presentation be tight, with a focused question. This kind of diligence should go a long toward eliminating wheel spinning at the front end of a consideration.

3. Finally, in many (most?) cases, the plenary faces a number of relatively trivial, non-fatal, and revocable decisions such that even if the proposal were skewed towards an action of some kind, that decision can be evaluated and changed at a later date based on objective desired outcomes.

I have two thoughts about this. First, why are you dealing with relatively trivial decisions in plenary? A better approach, in my view, is delegating those to committees such that if they are operating within their mandate they can make decisions without coming to the plenary at all. Many consensus groups fall into the trap of insisting that all decisions be made by plenary and that committees can only propose. While care needs to be taken to craft thoughtful mandates for committees, I urge you to consider pushing out decision-making authority to committees as much as you can stand. That way only major topics come to plenary, such as ones requiring an interpretation or balancing of values.

While committees should always be informing the whole group about what they’re doing and provide a clear opportunity for non-committee members to have input on matters that the committee has authority to act on, there is rarely justification for clogging up plenary agendas with routine matters.

Second, I agree that the plenary shouldn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If a proposal seems good enough after thoughtful engagement, it is generally better to accept it and move on, trusting that changes in the light of better information or more complete thinking shouldn't be that difficult to effect down the road.

If you are not facing a looming deadline (which generally you aren't), another option in those moments when: a) you've done what you can on the topic; b) you've lost momentum; and yet, c) it doesn't feel "ripe," is to lay it down for seasoning and pick up again at the next opportunity—to see if anything has shifted. The important thing is to stop giving something plenary attention once forward momentum has ceased—and then not falling into the bad habit of recapitulating all the prior work when you get back to it, which means good minutes and disciplined facilitation.

Finally, if there is anguish about whether or not you have chewed on a proposal sufficiently to swallow, and are concerned about the potential difficulty of getting agreement to change it later (the interesting case would be when some in the group really like the agreement and others are quite unhappy), is to keep in mind the option of a sunset clause. This allows you to make a decision that will expire after an agreed upon trial period unless the plenary takes explicit action to continue the decision. The point is that if there is not approval to continue the agreement, then it expires.

Often, real life experience will make clear which way to go regarding a policy about which the group is in anguish over is it contemplates consequences. The sunset clause takes pressure off the group when there's fear of locking into a policy with a potentially large impact and there's uncertainty about whether you've considered thoroughly enough all reasonably likely outcomes and their consequences.

Where's the Puck Going?

This past week I attended a nonconference hosted by the Tamarack Institute for Community Encouragement (Kitchener ON) entitled "Community: Programs and Policies." (Actually, it looked a great deal like a conference, but the organizers wanted very much for us participants to consider it a series of conversations, and not at all stuffy like a conference—which goal they largely achieved.)

In the opening plenary. Al Etmanski interviewed John McKnight (known broadly for his articulation of the theory and practice of Asset-Based Community Development). Toward the end, Al wanted to know what was ahead for John as a visionary about community organizing. As Al lives in Vancouver BC and this event was happening on Canadian soil, he phrased his query: "John, where's the puck going?" Always one to enjoy a good sports metaphor, I smiled at this colorful framing in the land where ice hockey is king.

At the front end of the event, keynote speakers McKnight and Peter Block (who joined us via webinar from Cincinnati) drummed home the message that neighborhood assets and community capacity are abundant—despite a general sense of diminishment and paucity in those arenas. The overwhelming majority of care is given not by government agencies or well-intended nonprofits, but by volunteers (93% apparently, though I have no idea how that was measured), and for those of us who want more community in our lives (is there anyone who doesn’t?) it is mainly a matter of harnessing what we already have available all around us, rather than lamenting that we don’t have more.

As you might imagine (at least I wasn’t surprised) there was an accompanying theme of engaging on all fronts—bringing policy makers, implementers, and clients to the table to make common cause. While there were some encouraging stories from places where this has been happening, by and large decisions affecting communities are made without the active involvement of all constituencies, and many people in the room were reporting fatigue and overwhelm.

Hmm. Asking overworked people to be sufficiently pumped up to go home and do more seemed uphill. In contemplating where this particular puck was going, I became interested in two leverage points, both of which I want to explore.

I. Moral Oxygen
In his closing remarks Etmanski named a handful of key concepts to hold in view as we move forward, and the one that grabbed me most he labeled "moral oxygen," by which Al meant making sure that we, as caregivers and community builders, take time for renewal and support. Given that the need is bottomless, it's not unusual to allow our giving to get out of balance with our receiving, to the point where we're running on empty.

Not only is it not much fun (both for ourselves and those around us), but it markedly undercuts our effectiveness. Truly, less can be more. And while I'm all in favor of canoe trips in the North Woods for refilling spiritual reservoirs, or reading Margaret Atwood or Robertson Davies after dinner instead of another report, I want to take this in another direction.

Community is not a spectator sport. It is something you do with others; not for them. In that regard, participants at the Tamarack event were challenged to consider how they can be part of the communities they're hoping to foster—to think of themselves as members of the family, and not just as midwives. 

While on the surface this may seem to be yet another claim on everyone's (oversubscribed) time, there's magic that can happen here. Being a member of what Tamarack Director Paul Born might style "deep community" (in contrast with shallow or fear-based community) participants can get support and sustenance even as they give it. Thus, if service providers are willing to be vulnerable and more heart-connected with their constituencies there is the prospect of being renewed in the giving, rather than having that be something accomplished only on the weekends or during holiday.

I'm hopeful that many of the good people who were touched in their hearts during the time we were together will take away the insight that this kind of connection can happen through their work—and not just at annual nonconferences in Kitchener. You can't just gulp moral oxygen once a year and expect it to sustain you for months at a time without regular replenishment, and I think the most exciting strategy is figuring out how to find oxygen in the work, rather than around the edges.

II. Harmonizing a Cappella
My second point of leverage comes from contemplating the moment when you have everyone in the room for the first time—especially when there are people present who do not ordinarily talk with one another. It seems to me prudent to anticipate that at least some of the time (if not most) the various voices will not all be singing from the same hymnal. Then what?

If the music is sour, or too off-key, people will not be inclined to come back for more. So it's important that those initial all-skate sessions go well. In the course of our four days together, there was little attention given to how to do that, or the primacy of this initial conversation going well. 

To be fair, there was one workshop on The Circle Way, that explored the power of sharing circles designed to enter heart space. This is a format that tends to be heavy on ritual and proceeds at a deliberate pace. And there was another session in memory of Angeles Arrien and her work with the Four-Fold Way (an introduction to the archetypes of warrior, healer, visionary, and teacher). These offerings are directly relevant to the question of moral oxygen, yet there was nothing focused on consensus, facilitation, conflict, or power dynamics. Were all of these so well understood among participants that no attention was needed?

Maybe. But I doubt it. In particular, I foresee three primary challenges, none of which I consider trivial. I want to explore these by walking through the hypothetical example of a rundown low-income urban neighborhood, where all parties have come together for an initial conversation about how to strengthen the community. For the sake of simplicity, let's say there are four main stakeholders: municipal government, nonprofit social service agencies, local churches, and neighborhood residents. (I know I'm oversimplifying, but it's enough complexity to illuminate my points.)

—Culture Clash
Culture can be viewed through many lenses, including racial, ethnic, national, class, and meeting. While any of these may be in play, I want to focus mainly on organizational culture—the ways in which service agencies see things differently than city hall, which sees things differently than the local churches, which is different again from the people who actually live in the neighborhood. It's not enough that everyone is in favor of strengthening the sense of community in the neighborhood. Each may be holding a different part of the same community elephant.

Agencies may be looking for a lower incidence of unwed mothers or a decrease in people receiving welfare. The municipal government may want less violent crime or fewer drug-related deaths. The churches may be aiming for higher attendance at Sunday services, or more households willing to temporarily place refugees. Residents may want a heated, well-insulated meeting space, or lighting at their playgrounds.

Each of the stakeholders comes to the table with a somewhat different agenda and is beholden to somewhat different constituencies. While these disparate goals are not mutually exclusive—no one is "wrong"—it's not obvious that the conversation won't devolve into squabbling over limited resources.

—Cynicism
In most situations like this, the neighborhood residents will be inured to being told what they need—rather than asked their opinion and actually listened to. That is, they'll have already had a lifetime of experiences where they weren't asked what they wanted, or else weren't listened to (perhaps because the decision had already been made and the public hearing was just window dressing).

Understandably, this leads to deep discouragement about public process and cynicism about "meetings among all stakeholders." As the rep of one of those other stakeholders, it can be hard having your well-intended offer spurned and not even being given a chance to show that this time might be different. While it's not fair to judge you for the sins of those who preceded you, there's truth to the adage: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

At the outset residents are likely to be suspicious of outsiders' motives, so the current will be moving against you as soon as you put your canoe in the water. Better have your paddle out.

—Cooperation Versus Competition
Ostensibly, meetings of all stakeholders are attempts at being cooperative. But are they?

It is not enough that you intend to be cooperative. You have to understand that achieving that requires a culture shift, and unlearning deep conditioning in a competitive, hierarchic, and adversarial world. The key moment comes when someone presents a viewpoint that appears antithetical to yours and the stakes are high. Do you respond with curiosity or combativeness? Are you open to having your mind changed (based on an expanded understanding of what's going on) or do you want to win?

In general, this is where skilled facilitators earn their fees—gently, yet firmly reminding people of the way they intended to be and providing graceful, face-saving ways for belligerents to back out of dead-end confrontations.
• • •In fact, it's my sense that skilled facilitation may be needed to manage all three of the pitfalls I've outlined above. In the dynamic moment, you need the ability to reach out and show everyone that they are not just genuinely welcome at the table, but that they are seen accurately, not judged, and that no decisions will be made unless everyone signs off on them. You need to create a container in which people not only say their truth, but that they feel fully heard (note that I'm not promising that they'll get their way or that others will agree with their thinking), and that it's worth their while to make this attempt. If the first meeting goes well, the second one will be much easier.

Hmm. You might be wondering if these objectives can be managed by The Circle Way or Four-Fold Way, both of which encourage deep sharing and reflection. My experience is that they can help, but they will not work in all situations. Think back to the point about culture clashes. Slowing down and speaking deliberately can drive some people crazy, and what is meant as an even-handed circle that is open to all, will be perceived by others as a noose—choking off spontaneity, passion, and natural rhythm. Meetings should never be one size fits all, and it's incumbent upon the facilitation team to think through formats that will invite and bridge. It's OK to ask participants to stretch, but it won't work well if you're asking only some participants to stretch while others are left in their comfort zone.

What the Puck?
I admit that that's a lot to accomplish in an initial meeting, yet the good news is that it's possible. And when you think about it, can we afford to aim for anything less?

Roger and Me

For the past several months I've been enjoying a rolling (and freewheeling) email dialog with Roger Stube in Connecticut. Though we haven't yet been in the same room together, we're buddies. Roger is new to intentional community and styles himself as a political conservative (which I am not). Though he walks the other side of the street, he's curious and we have a lot to talk about. Think of it as cross pollination.

Recently Roger asked me to profile what kind of people are drawn to intentional community—a question I don't recall ever having addressed before. First, Roger ventured the following types, to prime the pump:

o  Idealists
Mostly likely young, may be disillusioned with the world as they see it. Are looking for a better way.

o  Disconnected
They want friendships/support they could not find in the outside world.

o  Lost
Don't know what they want to do with their lives and communities look interesting.

o  Conservationists
They want to lighten their footprint on the earth.
• • •While I found that a good start, I added:

o  Social Change Agents
Those looking to make the world a better place and see community as a base of operations.

o  Integrators
Those looking for a more integrated life (walking their talk). While I reckon this is a subset of Idealists, it has a different flavor than what Roger described.

o  Simple Livers
Those wanting a simpler life featuring more sharing and less consumption. This is a flavor of Conservationist, though with greater emphasis on a life centered around relationships rather than material acquisition and consumption. That is, there is a positive side of this choice, not just embracing privation.

o  Authentic
Those drawn to a more authentic life (less bullshit and posturing; less attention to fashion). They are drawn to an everyday lifestyle where participants share and discuss what really matters, dropping easily below the veneer of social niceties.

o  Socially Awkward
Those who feel rejected everywhere else. While this is variant of Lost. These folks are not sure they'll find a home or acceptance anywhere.

o  Parents
Those looking for a great (stimulating, progressive, safe, supportive) environment in which to raise a family.

o  Concerned with Quality Aging
Those looking for security, dignity, and usefulness as they age and are seeking it through living among friends and neighbors in an inter-generational context (not a retirement home or gated community for the silver haired).

o  Spiritual Alignment
Those looking to live with those who share their spiritual path, both to walk the path together and to share their ecstasy.

o  Answer Seekers
Some hunger for charismatic leaders with answers to life's vexing questions. (These are the folks that Erich Fromm wrote about in his 1941 classic Escape from Freedom). These are people willing to surrender individual choice to the wisdom/authority of another.
• • •Though I'm not confident that I've captured them all, this is a reasonably comprehensive list. As I reflect on it, it's pretty amazing that all of these elements can be folded into strong and healthy communities. But they can with sufficient attention to bridging and understanding the different lenses through which people in each category are experiencing life.

Red in Tooth and Claw Hammer: an Evening in Toronto

Last week I was visiting my sister and brother-in-law, Al & Dan Cooke. Though their permanent residence is the Chicago suburb of La Grange, Dan works for BMO (Bank of Montreal) and has been temporarily on assignment near the mother ship in Toronto. (Yes, it's a bit odd that the Bank of Montreal is headquartered in Toronto, but you have to take into account that Toronto is the unquestioned financial capital of our northern neighbor and everyone wants to be where the action is—which, in the case of Toronto, will take on added meaning as you read further.)

While I've happily visited Al & Dan in La Grange on any number of occasions, it was handy to catch them in Toronto last week as I was in Ontario to work with a trio of forming communities in Guelph, and then attend the June 23-26 conference (in Kitchener) being produced by the Tamarack Institute, Community: Programs and Policies.

First, though, I enjoyed three days with family, a highlight of which was this moment Thursday evening:

This image was captured at the bar of La Société (an up-scale French restaurant in the tony Yorkville district, within easy walking distance of Al & Dan's condo), just after we'd been served our first dozen raw oysters and cold crab claws. The picture evoked for me this quatrain from Tennyson's In Memoriam:

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed


It is, after all, in my nature to love seafood and we were fairly ravenous by the time we'd gotten to the restaurant. To be fair though, in the image, running top to bottom, I appear as tooth, red, and claw, or guy in red about to sink his teeth into claws. Think of it as poetic license.

In any event the restaurant was offering oysters and crab claws at the come-on price of $1 a pop, 5-7 pm on Thursdays, and there was flat out no way that Al & I were going to pass that up. It happens that neither of our partners (Dan and Ma'ikwe) care a fig for raw oysters, but Ma'ikwe was in Missouri and Dan was in misery (attending a dinner following the annual golf outing that he sponsors with lukewarm enthusiasm as a legacy from the guy he replaced at BMO). With our steak and potato partners not on the scene, there was a clear path for Al & me to indulge in La Société's largesse. So we did.

After moving into the main dining room for our entrée, it wasn't an hour later that the cast and crew of The Property Brothers was seated next to us, directly in Al's field of vision. While this collection of animated thirtysomethings just seemed like enthusiastic diners to me (oysters and crab claws could get anyone in a good mood), Al was wowed. As I learned in situ (or at least in my seat), The Property Brothers is a Canadian reality TV show that's hot right now on the Home and Garden channel (which, by the way, I didn't know existed—I last lived with a television in 1972, and I'm overwhelmed by the blizzard of options just a click away on your remote).

In the show, and in life, Drew Scott is a real estate agent and his twin brother Jonathan is a contractor. Their gig is buying run-down fixer-uppers and turning them into dream homes for their clients—all within a tight budget and a tight timeline. Drew wheels and deals to buy the property for a song, after which Jonathan performs his magic with circular saws and claw hammers. Who knew? (I certainly didn't.) But hey, even television stars have to eat somewhere.

While we thought that would be the extent of the evening's entertainment, we were wrong. Walking home we came to the intersection of Yorkville & Bay, only to discover that it had been cordoned off to vehicular traffic and been re-signed as "Maiden & Pearl." Hmm. It turned out they were prepping to shoot an outdoor street scene for Pixels, a full-length movie featuring Adam Sandler and Peter Dinklage that's expected to be released next year. As I understand it, the movie is based on the award-winning animated 2010 short film of the same name directed by Patrick Jean, with the dystopian premise of New York being invaded by rogue 8-bit arcade video games (think Space Invaders, Tetris, and Pac-Man run amok).

It was surreal walking through the set, where for three blocks all the cars had New York plates, the directional kiosk offered a map of lower Manhattan, and the urban bike rack was sponsored by Citibank (as it is in New York) instead of Telus (as they are in Toronto).

No, we didn't see the stars for this production; just their spoor. Yet it was somehow the perfect ending to a magical evening where we manifested the following trifecta, any one of which would have made last Thursday memorable:
o  Delicious seafood with my sister at fire sale prices.
o  Sitting next to glitterati at dinner (which started a stream of consciousness that extended all the way from Lord Tennyson to reality TV—talk about seven league boots).
o  A stroll through a live movie set where a portion of the largest city in Canada was masquerading as a portion of the largest city in the US. Where else but in the topsy turvy of Hollywood can that possibly make sense?

Baseline Decisions for Groups Using Consensus

Debby Sugarman (Brandywine MD) is one of the more accomplished students who has taken my two-year facilitation training. She recently conducted a half-day introduction to consensus and facilitation for a forming group in Maryland, and—as all good students will do—came up with some handouts of her own, including a list of 10 process decisions that consensus groups should make, preferably before they need to apply the answers.

With Debby's permission I'm showcasing her list here, accompanied by my annotations.

1.  Who is eligible to participate in consensus? Who can block consensus? 
First of all, note that these are two separate questions and may have different answers. The first could be as restrictive as everyone who's a member of the group, or as relaxed as everyone in the room. However, the second question should be answered much more deliberately and will probably be restricted to full members. (It generally doesn't make sense to give apprentices full use of the power tools until after some training and vetting.)

Note that embedded in these questions is clarity about other questions, including: a) how members are selected; b) how many categories of membership your group has and how decision-making rights vary by category; and c) the group's openness to new people in the room (which may be selective, depending on what you're discussing).

Also, you might be more open to non-member participation if you believe you've done a thorough job of spelling out what kind of behavior is appropriate from non-members. How interested are you in giving them a chance to add their two cents on the topics, either because they might have useful perspectives, or because it's a clever way to screen them for membership?

2.  Do you want a formal call for consensus? If so how?
It may seem a trivial matter how you know where everyone stands at the point of testing for approval, yet it can get tricky. Does silence equal assent? Or is it better that everyone is expected to give some definitive indication (thumbs up, displaying a green card, vocalizing "yes" or "aye"—I knew an artist collective once that relied on a pirate "argh" to indicate assent)?

The point is that it's better to have something deliberate and definitive as a guard against someone saying later that their opinion was never solicited, or that they didn't realize that there had been a call for consensus.

3.  How many stand asides are OK?
This is a fairly nuanced question. The way most people conceive of it, with consensus you have three options for how you respond when asked for your position about a proposal at the point of decision: agree, stand aside, or block.

You might think of it as green light, yellow light, and red. This question, essentially, is how many yellow lights can you tolerate and still feel safe proceeding. In consensus theory there is no definitive answer and that's why Debby is posing the question.

Some groups have a rule of thumb that says so many stand asides is equivalent to a block, but I prefer something more situational. First, I think you want a norm where the group is sure that it knows what the stand aside is based on (which gives you the opportunity to clear up misunderstandings, or to see if minor tweaks can resolve the concerns). Second, I think you need to assess the number of stand asides relative to:

o  Group size (three stand asides has a different meaning in a group of 60 than in a group of eight).
o  The importance or centrality of the person standing aside in relation to implementation of the agreement (agreeing to a new financial reporting system may not be so prudent if the stand aside is the group accountant).
o  Whether the reasons for standing aside are different or the same (if they're all the same it's probably less problematic than if the reasons are all different—which suggests improperly chewed input: if you swallow prematurely it may lead to indigestion).

Let me walk you through an illustrative example of this last point. Suppose the proposal under consideration is serving locally raised, organic turkeys (bought from Farmer Jones down the road) as one of the main dishes for the annual Thanksgiving feast. Long-time member Dale stands aside as a vegan, as he's done every year. He objects to eating meat personally, yet knows that the group has no agreements about diet and that some members eat meat. 

Now suppose there are two new members in the group, Chris and Adrian. 

Variation #1: Suppose Chris and Adrian are also vegans and stand aside for the same reason as Dale. This is essentially the same situation as last year, excepting that there are three vegans now instead of one. The vegans will not be asked to cook the turkey, carve the turkey, or serve the turkey, and they knew when they joined the group that meat eating was allowed at group functions.

Variation #2: Suppose instead that Chris stands aside because she questions the way Farmer Jones raises turkeys. Yes, they're local but they're confined to a small caged area and always on concrete. The turkeys rarely see the light of day, and Chris is queasy about eating "sweat shop" turkey. Suppose further that Adrian is uneasy because Farmer Jones has been raising poultry for 25 years and has always been conventional until last year, when he suddenly claimed to be organic. Farmer Jones has a local reputation for being a shrewd trader always on the lookout for an advantage and Adrian wonders about taking his word for not using growth hormones, medicated feed, or corn that's been grown with the aid of anhydrous ammonia.

See how stand asides for three different reasons feels more substantive than three stand asides for the same reason?

4.  Is there a group responsibility to a person who stands aside? If so, what?
This pairs with the implied question, "What are the responsibilities of the person standing aside to help the group resolve their concerns?"

—For the person standing aside in relation to the group
They should articulate to the group the basis for their choice, which may include why it's a stand aside instead of a block. In general, stand asides fall into one of two types: a) the person has personal objections that are not linked to group values (and thus, it's inappropriate to block); or b) they're not sure what they think, yet don't want to hold the group up to sort it out (probably because they had a known opportunity to do their homework yet didn't complete it).

They also have a more subtle responsibility to truly let it go if the group proceeds to make a decision. If they hector the group later with I-told-you-so energy, it will not go well.

—For the group in relation to the person standing aside
o  To slow things down to make sure they understand the basis for the stand aside.
o  To consider carefully whether they want to proceed with a decision despite the stand aside.
o  To make clear what responsibilities the people standing aside will have in implementing or abiding by the agreement if it is made.

5.  What are your group's values? (to be used in case of a block)
It's certainly important and valuable to have explicit group values—and not just so that you can dust them off when you encounter blocks (which should happen rarely).

Knowing group values is important both for group identity (who are you and what do you stand for; why would someone want to join you?) and because it should be the well you drink from on a regular basis when determining what needs to be taken into account when responding to an issue or an opportunity. Hint: In a healthy consensus group at least half of plenary time should be taken up with questions of how to sensitively apply group values to the topics at hand.

What underlays Debby's question is that it's important that consensus groups define: a) the grounds for a legitimate block; b) the process by which the group will validate a block; and c) the process by which it will constructively respond to a validated block. On the question of legitimacy, I strongly recommend that the test be that the proposal contradicts or runs afoul of an existing group agreement or violates a common value—and you have to know what those values are in order to use them as a screen.

6.  Are there any individual concerns that are appropriate to be considered as part of a block (for example in the case of a group who lives together whose decisions affect the personal lives of the members)
I believe what is meant here is whether the group has any obligation to validate personal concerns that are not also group concerns when it comes to blocking. If personal concerns (of any stripe) are congruent with group values then there is no question. The interesting case is when a proposal that is otherwise deemed good for the group adversely affects one or more members of the group on a personal level. 

My intuition on this is to develop a norm that you'll determine of how much to take that into account on a case-by-case basis, trying your best to accommodate individual needs as they arise, but not promising to do so.

7.  What are the responsibilities of the blocker to the rest of the process?
This one is paired with "What are the responsibilities of the group in the event of a block?" and is analogous to Question 4, so I'll respond in like manner:

—For the blocker in relation to the group
o  To explain to plenary the basis for their block and why that's legitimate (see my comments under Question 5).
o  To show up for a good faith effort to resolve the concerns so the proposal can move forward (perhaps in a modified form). Hint: The blocker should recognize that their right to block and have their concerns treated respectfully is paired with the responsibility to listen to the needs and thinking of others in the group (if you're pounding your shoe on the table insisting that you be heard while not showing the slightest interest in the views of others, it will be a train wreck).

—For the group in relation to the blocker
o  To listen with patience and grace to the blocker's concerns.
o  To expeditiously, yet sensitively determine whether the block is valid.
o  To work with the blocker in good faith in an effort to resolve the concerns to everyone satisfaction, recognizing that the proposal may need to be laid down if the block is validated and not resolved.

8.  How will you deal with personal conflict or strong emotion in a meeting?
Conflict almost always contains a non-trivial emotional component, but the reverse does not obtain. So I'll start with the strong feelings.

This is huge, and far more commonly encountered than blocks. For the most part we (cooperative groups in Western society) have an unconscious model of meetings being an arena where matters are examined and responses developed based on rational discourse. While I believe thinking to be an excellent tool, it ain't the only one in the drawer and it's not necessarily every member's sharpest tool. What about emotional or intuitive knowing (for that matter, what about spiritual or kinesthetic knowing)?

For this question I'll limit my response to feelings. Not only do they contain energy (a good thing if harnessed—there's no rule that says meetings have to be dispassionate or emotionally flat) and information (some people "know" a thing more surely emotionally than rationally; why not take advantage of that?), but you can't keep them out of the room anyway. You might as well come to an understanding about how to work with them constructively, rather than hold your breath and hope they'll mostly leave you alone.  

Hint: Condescension and eye rolling in the presence of emotional outbursts are seldom effective responses. I suggest leaning into the feelings to understand their meaning. Not only will it help you keep the emotive person in the conversation, but you might learn something relevant to the topic at hand.

Similarly, groups stand to benefit mightily from an agreement about how to work constructively with conflict (which I define as at least two points of view with at least one person experiencing non-trivial emotional reaction). Caution: It is not enough to have an agreement on the books, you need to have the in-house skill to be able facilitate conflict in the dynamic moment (by whatever menu of choices you agree to), and you need to have an agreement about the conditions under which you'll work a conflict in plenary (instead of outside of plenary). 

Plenary time is expensive and you want to use it wisely. That said, there are times when working a conflict in the whole group is the right choice and it will serve you well to identify what those times might be ahead of need. 

9.  What does your group want out of the minutes?
While the obvious minimal answer is a clear record of decisions (indexed for reasonable access), it's more than that. For instance, minutes can be an invaluable aid when deciding whether to reconsider an old topic. If you don't have a record of the points considered when the policy was originally made—which is much more than just the conclusion—it's damn hard to know whether someone has enough new thinking to justify a reexamination.

When work is lost we are often condemned to repeat it, and that's a drag. Further, how can you expect new members to get up to speed about why you do what you do, when there are no accessible records of how you got there?

That said, you don't need court transcripts. Verbatim records are almost certainly overkill, not to mention exhausting to take and tiring to read. You want a cogent summary of relevant points, with tasks and decisions clearly marked. Hint: It's almost always helpful to organize comments by topic rather than by chronology. Two years from now you may want to know how Evan responded to Jesse's point about affordability, but you won't give a shit which was stated first or that there was a break in between. Your prime directive as a notetaker is what is the group likely to want to know down the road.

Caution: A nuance here is whether (or under what circumstances) you want minutes to include attribution. Sometimes it makes all the difference in the world knowing who said a thing and you don't want to arbitrarily wipe that out with a no attribution rule.

10. Where should minutes be kept?
The point here is knowing where they are (in a three-ring binder, on Mikey's laptop, under Aunt Ruth's bed, on a bulletin board in the common house, in the cloud?) so that there's easy access and everyone can reasonably be held to a standard of having read them. Fortunately, in this electronic age, minutes have never been easier to take, correct, disseminate, archive, and index. You just have to be disciplined enough to take advantage of the tools.

Hint: If your group struggles to find quality notetakers, consider asking facilitators in training to take a turn in the barrel. Quickly and accurately distilling the essence of what people say is a facilitative skill as well as a notetaking skill. While the the former offers summaries orally and the latter in writing, it's the same skill.
• • •Thanks, Debby. That was fun!

Farm Fresh Country Breakfast

Tucked up in the hills and hollers of western NC, I enjoyed one of the most all-around satisfying breakfasts I've ever had. Let me tell you about it.

I just wrapped up a five-day visit to Asheville NC where I was seeing friends and doing some marketing while I was on the East Coast. I stayed with long-time friend, Terry O'Keefe, with whom I'm cooking up a business plan for a partnership to assist community businesses and economic development.

On Saturday Terry O'Keefe and I got together with his friend, Jim, (who owns a trailer park just down the road from where Terry used to live in Weaverville, on the north side of town) and we had breakfast up valley from the thriving backwoods hamlet of Barnardsville (population somewhere in the vicinity of 1700) at the Dillingham Family Farm on Spice Cove Dr—which lasts all of about 1000 feet and was mostly an impromptu parking lot while food was being served.

Here's what stood out about my experience:

o  Locavore heaven
The menu featured fresh, organic, local ingredients—just like home! Portions were generous, but not gargantuan. At the end customers were satisfied, not stuffed. This can be a fine line, but they hit it right.

o  Conversationally appropriate
There was a guy with a guitar singing original songs right next to the coffee bar. Though he had an amplifier, but he didn't play so loudly that it interfered with conversation (there are any number of dining venues I know that could stand to absorb that lesson in acoustical moderation).

o  Simple but good
The food was cooked to order from a menu of four options (the operational principle here is: keep it simple and do it well). I chose French toast with a side of pork sausage, but I don't think you could go wrong—everyone was loving their selections. The coffee was excellent. (While that may seem a minor achievement, it absolutely amazes me how many dining establishments serve stale, burnt, or weak coffee. What are they thinking?)

o  Simple technology
The whole operation was contained in an uninsulated three-sided outbuilding with a dirt floor. The "bathroom" was a one-holer next to the parking lot. After placing your order, the cashier carefully writes your first name and order on a slip of paper attached to a clothes pin. Customers were then instructed to walk their order over to the grill (15 feet away) where you placed it next in line on a table so the cook wouldn't get confused. When your order was up someone would holler out your name and you'd come collect your plate. An elegant system that kept extraneous wait staff to a minimum.

o  Environmental sensitivity
While we didn't eat on china, orders arrived on sturdy, unbleached, compostable paper plates, and we were given real silverware, not plastics spoons and forks. Wooden tables were protected with sheets of butcher paper, and "air conditioning" came from not having a door.

o  Wonderful conversation
We happened to sit outside at a picnic table with Anthony and his father Ralph. Anthony (in his 20s) works for Navitat, a nearby venue for zipline adventures, and Ralph is a thoughtful retiree, enjoying quality time with his son on a lovely weekend morning in early summer. We chatted amiably about shoes, and ships, and ceiling wax for about 90 minutes, occasionally delving into the meaning of life and the questionable trends of modern society.

o  Community connections
Bob, the guy manning the coffee station, is just about to move to Earthaven—the 19-year-old ecovillage outside Black Mountain—where he intends to grow shittake mushrooms and produce food via aquaponics. Who knew we'd run into community folks outside Barnardsville?

o  Ephemeral experience
You can enjoy the Dillingham Family Farm breakfast any day of the week… as long as it's Saturday. As near as I can tell advertising is solely word of mouth (their website doesn't even hint at it) and they're content to keep it low key and only one day a week. Having dropped in on a perfect June morning, with a gentle breeze flowing by the grill, it felt like I'd stumbled onto Brigadoon—the mythical Scottish village that appears only one day every 100 years. Driving away I wondered if I could find my way back without Jim.
• • •To be sure, an excellent breakfast is a treasure wherever you encounter one, but this was an above and beyond experience in the land above the interstate and beyond the internet. I'm already looking forward to my next visit to western NC where I now know at least one place where I can reliably sit down with real people to enjoy real food and real conversation—at least on Saturday mornings.

Talking to My Laptop

Starting July 2, and continuing every week until Aug 13, I'll be conducting a series of webinars about group dynamics every Wednesday afternoon. (See Laird's Greatest Hits for details.)

On the one hand, I'm thoroughly familiar with the material that I'll be presenting—all of the topics have been selected from workshops that I've delivered multiple times:
July 2: Consensus 101
July 9: Conflict: Fight, Flight, or Opportunity?
July 16: Membership: Questions You Should Have Asked Before Joining
July 23: Participation: Navigating the Swamp of Non-monetary Member Contributions to the Group
July 30: The Essentials of Dynamic Facilitation: How to Get Through the Agenda and Build Energy at the Same Time
Aug 6: Power Dynamics & Leadership in Cooperative Groups
Aug 13: Stump the Chumps: Q&A Session with Laird and Ma'ikwe about Cooperative Group Dynamics

What's different is that I'll be talking to my laptop rather than a roomful of faces, and I wonder how that will go.

As I have two hours set aside for each webinar, I think the time will naturally divide into two segments: 60-75 minutes of presentation, followed by 45-60 minutes of Q&A. The big question mark for me will be operating without the visual cues about how my presentation is landing with the audience (my laptop never smiles or even looks confused). Fortunately, Ma'ikwe will by monitoring comments and questions, funneling them to me as appropriate, so I won't have to be tracking chat boxes or hand waving graphics while working through my presentation outline (whew).

In the next couple weeks I'll prepare by walking through each of my presentations, looking for natural places to pause and ask questions of the audience, so that I'll be better able to gauge how well my points are getting across, adjusting as needed.

While we'll be offering electronic downloads of the webinars for people who miss the live presentations (look for this offering on the Ecovillage Education US website), the people joining us on Wednesday afternoons will get the greatest value, as they'll be able to pose their questions on the spot.

While I love working directly with people in the room, venturing into the electronic future seems inevitable. Not only does this give prospective clients a taste of who I am and what I can deliver, it bridges distance and eliminates commuting. What I'll be offering here is a small taste of the online instructional possibilities being offered by MOOCs: massive open online courses, where many people can get access to information inexpensively, and is already impacting university enrollment.

The difference in this case is that the number of webinar participants will be small enough that each can reasonably expect to get personal questions addressed. If this were being offered to 1000 people at once (in a real MOOC) that wouldn't be the case. While there's no question that being electronically connected is not the same as being in the same room, the exchange requires a much smaller investment of time and money and it's good to be experimenting with this medium. I'm looking forward to seeing how it goes and having some fun with it.

I hope some of you will join us on the 2nd.

Why Starting with a Proposal is Usually a Bad Idea

As a process consultant for cooperative groups one of the most common things I'm asked to address is why it's such a slog to solve problems in plenary. While there are number of things that may be in play, I want to focus here on one particular culprit that's a frequent contributor: expecting that topics come to plenary in the form of a proposal.

It's not too hard to figure out why groups think this is a good idea. Plenary time is precious and you want to make the best use of it. If someone has identified a problem worthy of group attention, it's likely to be more clearly defined and better thought through if the presenter is asked to come up with a suggested response. It's not so much that the group expects the proposal to sail through whole-group scrutiny without modification, as that the plenary will be able to dispose of items more expeditiously if the group can respond to a draft solution rather than build an answer from scratch. 

At least that's the theory. The reality is that it often doesn't work that way. Let's suppose that a committee is bringing an issue to plenary (it might be an individual, but I think the more interesting dynamic is when a subgroup does this). Here are the main pitfalls when a committee introduces an issue to plenary accompanied by a proposed solution:

1. Skewing the Conversation
If you start with a proposed answer, you will have a different conversation than if you start with a presentation of the issue. The developers of the proposal will tend to defend their work, and it will be predictably awkward surfacing factors that non-committee members feel ought to be taken into account.

Worse, some members may be intimidated by a proposal into not naming concerns that they feel the proposal doesn't address (or doesn't address well enough), because the train has already left the station and they don't want to irritate the committee members, or they may feel too much has been invested in the draft solution and they don't want to be labeled a saboteur. That means the group's best thinking is not being brought to bear. Yuck. Even though the group ostensibly supports a full airing of relevant views, starting with proposals unwittingly short circuits that goal.

2. Demoralizing Committees
If the presenter inadvertently misses some key factors (or weights them poorly) when crafting a solution, their work is susceptible to getting undressed in plenary, and that's demoralizing (and perhaps embarrassing).

This is actually a double whammy in that you not only have discouraged the people who have invested in creating the solution for that issue, but, if this is a pattern, it undercuts interest in serving on committees at all—because people will cynically expect to have their work redone (or trashed) once it gets to plenary, and therefore they'll be less inclined to make the attempt.

Note that it's no good blaming the members not on the committee because they will be surfacing their concerns or objections at the earliest opportunity that's been given to them.

While it may be true that the draft proposal helps the plenary identify the factors it wants to have addressed, is the time savings achieved (we;'re talking mere minutes here) worth the cost of discouraged committees? I don't think so. An enervated committee leads to mediocre work with the consequence that more work collapses on the plenary—the very thing you were hoping to avoid by asking for proposals up front!

[To be fair, sometimes committees get it right, and on those occasions having the proposal up front does save time, but it's a helluva a gamble.]

3. Cart Before the Horse
If you think about it, it's relatively silly to expect a few members of the group to either: a) anticipate accurately the sum of full group input about what needs to be taken into account when responding to an issue; or b) have no ego attachment to the work they put into developing a proposal. If the topic is appropriate to be handled at the plenary level, then why not start by hearing what the plenary thinks needs to be address (and the relative weight that should be given to the factors) before crafting solutions?

If the committee develops a proposal based on plenary-blessed factors, then they should be on solid footing when they come back to plenary and they're much more likely to have their work honored.

Are Proposals Up Front Always a Bad Idea?
No. If someone comes up with an idea for how to enhance their life (or the group's) that isn't driven by a group problem, I feel better about starting with a proposal. While there's still no guarantee that someone else in the group won't have an unexpected concern, this will be less likely in the case of initiatives, or at least less likely to be difficult to resolve.

Let me give you an example:

Case A: Community gardens are being devastated by wild rabbits, and the Garden Team comes to the community with a proposal to let dogs off leash at night to scare off rabbits invading gardens at night. (One member of the Garden Team has an uncle living on a farm and that's how they handle this problem, and it works with deer as well.) While this is a low-cost solution (hurray!), a number of members don't like it because: a) dogs tend to pack and engage in bad behavior when running loose together; b) loose dogs may be a safety issue for children after dark; c) dogs tend to bark more when loose outdoors and it will keep people up at night; and d) increased deposits of dog shit on the pedestrian pathways.

If the community had discussed this issue before the Garden Team drafted a proposal, they would never have suggested letting the dogs run loose. Now they have to start over.

Case B: Member Jones wants to raise rabbits for meat and comes to the plenary with a proposal to set up rabbit hutches in their backyard. In general, the community is OK with this plan so long as the community is notified when butchering is going to happen (so that the squeamish can avoid the Jones abattoir on those days) and that there's an understanding that the rabbits will have to go if they turn out to host any diseases that affect humans or other animals. Jones is OK with these conditions.

In addition, next door neighbor Smythe, is concerned that the rabbits may escape and devour her pride and joy lettuce patch, so she asks Jones to put a fence around his yard in addition to building the cages—just in case rabbits get loose. 

While Jones doesn't think a perimeter fence is necessary, Smythe is willing to pay for half the cost, and they agree to this solution.

In Case A it would have worked better if the Garden Team had simply brought the issue to the plenary and collected factors that need to be taken into account before drafting a solution. (They could have avoided going down the rabbit hole.) In Case B, starting with the proposal worked well, and no hares were split.

What's in a Name?

This weekend Ma'ikwe and I are conducting Weekend VI (of eight) of our Integrative Facilitation training in North Carolina and the teaching theme is Challenging Personalities. We work with the ways that people present with difficult styles and are pejoratively labeled by others. We all do it… and it's done to all of us.

Many are rightly uncomfortable with labeling (pigeonholing people based on type), yet it's water that facilitators must swim in, both because you can't stop it from happening and there's important information embedded in the assignments. We're not teaching students to use labels; we're teaching the to understand them.

We're teaching students to look more deeply at what it means that a person acts in certain ways—both in terms of what's going on for the person, and how their behavior tends to be disruptive or bothersome for others. Labels are useful as a shorthand for this package, even as we're aware that a person is not the same as their behavior, that the type is not an exact description of the behavior, and that there are dangers in relying on a pattern to predict future behavior.

In the class we ask students to identify the personality types that are most difficult for them to facilitate, and the ways in which they are perceived by others to be difficult. I believe the most useful way to view this is that all of us have behaviors that are challenging (though everyone is not reacting to the same things), and all personality types have a positive side as well as a darker one. In fact, the surest way into a productive engagement with someone about the ways in which their behavior is disruptive, is to start by acknowledging some advantages to what they've been doing.

For example:
o  The Bully may be terrific at getting things done, though it's problematic that others feel run over as collateral damage.

o  The Unprepared comes to meetings with an open mind and that's a plus, despite the frustration the group experiences in taking the time to catch them up.

o  The Timid does not misuse plenary air time, or speak off topic, though it can be time consuming drawing out their opinions, or creating sufficient safety for them to speak.

o  The Appeaser can be invaluable as a bridge builder between people not hearing each other, though it can be pulling teeth to get them to state their opinion.

o  The Repeater is dedicated to getting their viewpoints considered, even if you didn't need to hear it the third or fourth time. On a more subtle level, repetition may indicate that the facilitators are not doing a good enough job of showing speakers that they've been heard.

o  The Goofball can inject some much-needed leavening into a dense conversation, though at other times their antics may be a distraction that diffuses focused energy.

Our aim in exploring this topic is to get students to understand the power of labels (both good and bad), the ways in which everyone's behavior—including our own—has both beneficial and deleterious consequences, and how to work constructively with patterns of behavior that the group finds irritating.

While it's challenging work, I have the personality to take it on.

Gin and Bear It

Today's blog is brought to you by the word gin. As a writer, an editor, and lover of words, I am prone to reflecting about words and had occasion (as I rode the train east for a fortnight of consulting and networking) to reflect on how richly that particular word touches my life…

I. Death’s Door
My father’s favorite drink was a dry martini—"dry" as in he’d wave the cap of a vermouth bottle over the gin and call it “mixed.”

For most of my adult life I detested gin—both because it was my father’s favorite (and I was determined to make my own way in the world), and because the first time I got really drunk was as a college freshman overindulging in gin, and for decades afterwards the smell of fermented juniper berries would evoke visceral memories of that wrong of passage.

Slowly, I’ve rehabilitated gin. First , by working on my relationship with my father. Second, with the occasional therapeutic application of gin and tonic (the bitterness of quinine is so attractive it almost makes me wistful about malaria), and then my having fallen in love with the Negroni cocktail: equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari. Poinsettia red and deliciously bitter.

Expanding on the renaissance of gourmet coffee, micro-breweries, and decent local bakeries—all of which give hope for Western civilization—there is now an upsurge in small batch liquor distilleries as well. One of my favorites is Death's Door gin, made from hard red winter wheat harvested from Washington Island, 22 square miles of boreal farmland separated from the tip of Door Peninsula (Wisconsin) on the West Coast of Lake Michigan by Death's Passage. Tom & Ken Koyen have been handcrafting gin, vodka, and white whiskey there since 2005. 

Let's raise a glass to Tom & Ken!

II. Hollywood
Gin is also a card game, as in gin rummy. As it happens, it was probably my father’s favorite card game—which he enjoyed playing while imbibing "martoonies.”

For some reason, it turned out that Ma’ikwe and I got into playing marathon gin games on our honeymoon (it’s a looong flight across the Atlantic, and there were afternoons when sitting in our room with a bottle of wine and a deck of cards was more appealing than touring one more ancient Italian church). While we virtually never play cards at home, we still binge on long train rides.

Based on the way my father taught me to play, we employ "hollywood" scoring, where three games to 150 points are played simultaneously, but you cannot score in the second game until you've scored once in the first game, and you can't score in the third game until you've scored once in the second.

As my father's son, I learned to take card playing seriously as a youngster, and I still remember with chagrin the time I thought I knew enough about gin rummy to challenge my father to play for money while I accompanied him on a business trip. I might have been 10 years old at the time and he absolutely cleaned my clock. He didn't gloat; he just took my money and I learned a valuable lesson about the difference between casual gaming and serious gaming.

As someone who has enjoyed game playing all my life, I look for others who share my passion—not to gamble; just to gambol. Fortunately, we are now living in the golden age of board games and there are plenty of good players around, notably both my kids, Ceilee & Jo, and my stepson, Jibran. 

When it comes to serious card playing, however, I've mostly channeled my energy into duplicate bridge. Since 1999 I've been playing every Wednesday evening that I'm home and am now a life master.

In playing gin rummy with Ma'ikwe we both have to adapt to the other. I'm serious about it and she's casual. Ma’ikwe subscribes to the gestalt method of card playing (letting the Force guide her on what card to pick up and which to let go); I count cards and memorize everything she's picked up. We both have fun with it, though we have different expectations about how well we'll score. The key is that neither expects the other to adopt their style of play.

III. Eli WhitneyWhitney received a US patent in 1794 for inventing the cotton gin, a machine that mechanically separates seeds from fibers, allowing both to be more useful. 

Separating seed from fiber, or wheat from chaff, are serviceable agricultural metaphors for what I do as a professional facilitator. In a complex conversation I am often trying to distill the essence from the extraneous, and to enhance potency through separation. For example, if there is an issue to be solved and people are upset, it almost always works better if you attend to the distress first and independently from the problem solving. Thus, a facilitator is constantly trying to gin the input into usable parts.

IV. Making DoWhile immersed in Sandhill's cistern project the last two weeks, there were a number of times when I had to gin up solutions to construction needs as they emerged:

—When we couldn't find the tripod or the measuring rod for our transit, we called an ex-member known for her enjoyment of re-organizing the workshop, and she knew exactly where those things were located!

—Right before pouring the concrete floor I ginned up (out of a 2x4 cottonwood scrap) a spacing tool that could be used by a helper to accurately place 90-degree angled rebar into the wet concrete.

—When our hammer drill died on the day we needed to complete punching grout holes in the bottom of our bond beams, I raced over to Dancing Rabbit and borrowed our neighbor's (rather than trying to troubleshoot the electrical short or buying a new drill).

—When the motor seized up on our cement mixer part-way through our first grout run, I made the executive decision to focus on the electrical problem (in contrast with how I approached the stalled out hammer drill), diagnosing an unacceptable voltage drop that I was able to correct with a heavier gauge, shorter extension cord and we were back in business before the cement set up in the mixer. (Whew!)
V. AgitpropFinally, to gin up has a colloquial political meaning: to stir up trouble; whipping people into a lather out of proportion to the problem. (Think tempest in a teapot and mountain out of a molehill.)

There is a flavor of misdirection and gratuitous complication in this meaning, both of which are relatively familiar to someone who wades into group dynamics for a living. Over time, I've learned that a good strategy for addressing this phenomenon is to simply tackle them head on, assume the distress exists on merit, acknowledge it with a minimum of reactivity, and move on. 

(It turns out that it's much easier to sustain froth if it's fueled by the outrage of feeling ignored, misunderstood, or condescended to. By denying it oxygen, the effervescence fizzles out.)

Of course, if that seems too hard to pull off, you might try self-medicating with gin & tonic.

Leading by Doing Less

As I reported two blogs ago (A Chip Off the Old Block), I'm immersed in constructing a 12,000-gal cistern for Sandhill these days, and we're entering a crucial phase where I'm trying to complete construction of the walls (14 courses of concrete blocks high) before it gets dark Monday.

There are two steps remaining, each of which takes a day: a) grouting courses 8-14; and b) surface bonding both the interior and exterior of the block walls. Once both of these are done, the cistern is safe against cave-ins and the excavation can be backfilled. I'll be departing for a two-week junket to VA & NC early Tuesday morning (during while I'll set down my persona as cementitious maestro and assume my other identity as process consultant/community networker) and I dare not place the project on pause for a fortnight unless its proof against cave-ins.

The grouting is slated for today and that's relatively straight forward. The crew has already been through this for courses 1-7 and they know the drill. Also, if we get some showers today (there's a 40% chance by this afternoon) it won't cause a problem. Grout is pretty soupy anyway and won't be appreciably affected by water tempering contributed by Mother Nature—unless we get a frog drowner.

The bigger worry is tomorrow. Surface bonding will take all day and can't be done in the rain. Unfortunately, Weather Underground says there's a whopping 60% chance of thunderbumpers at dawn Tuesday, with chances for rain gradually diminishing to 20% over the course of the day. Not good. But maybe we'll squeak by.

As the honcho of this project, the biggest difference for me from when I did a cistern for Ma'ikwe three years ago, is that my back can't take the heavy lifting as well, and my right knee is still somewhat gimpy from overextending it in Sept 2012. I still have all the knowledge needed to honcho; I just can't do as much of the work.

It used to be that I'd never ask someone to do things I wouldn't do myself, and I could basically teach construction by the monkey-see-monkey-do technique. With some things (for example, electrical wiring or wood carving) I can still do that. But when it comes to heavy construction I need to give way to stronger backs and more limber bodies. I don't like it, but it's silly to pretend otherwise. Now when someone on the crew offers to do more of the lifting, I accept.

I'm still tired at the end of the day, but I can get out of bed the day after when I don't indulge in sure-I-can-lift-that-bag-of-cement macho stupidity.

To be clear, I am still the one who:
o  Lays out the sequence of steps for the work.
o  Anticipates what equipment we'll need beforehand (so we can find ours, borrow a neighbor's, or buy one).
o  Determines acceptable quality standards for each phase—it's trickier than you think!
o  Explains why we do things the way we do. Occasionally a new person has an innovation that improves our work (its accuracy or efficiency) but mostly I'm explaining why the new idea is not going to work well.
o  Thinks ahead to how large the crew needs to be each day so the scheduler knows how many people to secure and for how long.
o  Orders the exotic materials that cannot be procured locally.
o  Manages what we can do in the rain, and what needs to be halted.

So it's not as if I've suddenly been put out to pasture. I just can't do everything any more, and am (reluctantly) learning to accept that, as well as embracing different ways of leading.

I tell you, this getting older stuff is not for sissies.

Group Works: Good Faith Assumptions

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

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

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

1. Intention
2. Context
3. Relationship
4. Flow
5. Creativity
6. Perspective
7. Modeling
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
9. Faith

In the Relationship segment there are 10 cards. The fifth pattern in this segment is labeled Good Faith Assumptions. Here is the image and text from that card: 
Assuming others' good intent increases trust and effectiveness. Instead of interpreting "negative" actions as attempts at manipulation, insult, or power-play, we choose to believe people are doing the best they can and look for underlying values or needs in common. Searching for a better story, we find or create one. 

This is an interesting and powerful pattern.

On the one hand, I believe that there's a strong tendency to find what you're looking for. A lot of my success as a facilitator comes from my ability to set aside delivery and focus on how the speaker is thinking of what's best for the group. Looking for common ground, I'm often one of the first people to find it. If, instead, you're on guard for disrespect or a battle, then it's much more likely that that's what you'll find. Yuck.

The fact that two people have come to different conclusions does not necessarily mean they're asking different questions. In the name of safety, one person may advocate for restricted access (keeping the bad guys away), while another may promote increased traffic with minimal impedance (thinking safety in numbers, with many eyes watching).

Hint: If you can't think of a good reason why someone did what they did, you need more information. They may be taking into account factors you're ignoring (or the other way around) or they may be weighing things differently, but their answer will not be: "I just did it to drive you crazy; I'm a sociopath."

In general, the assignment of bad intent surfaces in one of two ways: a) a disposition to put a bad spin on things because of a history of tough interactions (read damaged trust) or unresolved tension; or b) feeling threatened or attacked by the person's response in the moment, either because of the position they've taken, or because of the way they've expressed themselves.

If it's genuinely a good thing that we all don't see things the same way—more viewpoints gives us a wider perspective on the issue—we have to welcome those differences, even when they go against what we want (or what we think we want). The object here is not to give a fake smile when you'd rather groan, but to exhibit curiosity—how did they get to a different viewpoint than you; maybe they have thinking that will enhance yours.

Interestingly, the strategy of expecting people to act in good faith tends to elicit better behavior in others. Even when someone acts out of malice (when bad intent was actually present) it tends to work better to assume that's not what the person meant, as it's an easier path back to the way we all mean to be then pulling their pants down in front of the group because they were mean and you caught them at it. 

To be clear, I'm not suggesting you be a fool and turn a blind eye to patterned viciousness; rather I'm making the case for being gracious and compassionate as a point of departure.

If someone lashes out or speaks with vehemence, try to understand where that's coming from rather than how it may cause hurt. If you seek relationship ahead of retribution, it will go easier all the way around.

A Chip Off the Old Block

Since last Tuesday I've been on assignment at Sandhill, helping my old community construct a 12,000 gallon cistern. While it's gratifying to know that I can still do the physical work, lifting and setting concrete blocks for eight hours the past three days has been exhausting. I've been easing out of bed each morning, not jumping.

Still, the work is going well. After having done a few of these projects (I've previously built two septic tanks and one cistern using a poured slab floor, block walls, and a poured roof) you learn mistakes to avoid and better methods of production, and this project has gone more smoothly than any I've done before.

1. Dig a big hole. More than enough to be able to walk around the work on the outside, the excavation needs to be able to accommodate the possibility of cave-ins without disastrous delays or necessitating that work will need to be redone. In this instance, the footprint of the cistern is 27' x 8.5', so we had the backhoe dig a hole 43' x 25'. (It's a bit eerie to be working in a nine-foot hole where you can see strawberries blooming above your head on the edge of the undisturbed garden—kind of a mole's eye view.)

2. That said, you need a tight enough hole that you can get a cement truck close enough to drop the concrete for the floor (with a minimum of chasing wet concrete by hand—talk about work), yet without running the risk of the truck collapsing the soil under its approach and sliding into the pit. (I've never seen a cement truck tip over with a load on, but I'm sure it isn't pretty—most especially when it ends up in your backyard.)

3. Much of the art of construction is learning when you need to be picky and when you don't. There are certain errors, such as the levelness of the floor or the squareness of the walls, where being a half inch off over 25 feet can haunt you the remainder of the project. Others, such as a sideways curve in a slab form or a crack in a concrete block don't matter a hoot.

My crew is young and eager, yet inexperienced working with concrete and block. Thus, when they see a slightly damaged block they ask me whether it's usable or not. Experience allows me to think ahead to how the block will be stressed and what it will take to overcome the defect. If a block is chipped, can it be hidden by placing it next to a pilaster; how much surface boding will it take to smooth over the hole? I can see ahead to make these assessments, and they haven't a clue. 

It is worthwhile to be very precise about the placement of 90-degree angled rebar when the slab is being poured, such that the portion that extends vertically out of the slab will fit nicely into the cavities of the concrete block. If it hits the webbing of a block it's a bitch. Because I'm invariably too busy during a pour to attend to rebar placement (I'm usually running the screed board), I've learned that I have to set up a simple system that can be done right by someone who has never poured concrete before. I finally figured one out and all the bars were placed correctly. Hurray!

As the only experienced block layer in my crew, I insisted on placing every one of the 52 blocks used in the bottom course in a cement-rich mortar bed to correct any issues in the levelness of the slab. If there was going to be a problem with how level the walls were, I wanted it to be my fault, rather than falling on the shoulders of someone who was laying block for the first time. This care paid off in the smoothness with which we were able to lay up the succeeding courses. Sometimes you need to go slow for a time, so that you can go faster later.

After seven days on the job, I am enjoying a day off (and so is my back). In fact, that's why I have the time and energy to post this blog entry. I week from today I leave for two weeks on the East Coast and my goal is to have the walls completed and ready for backfilling before I board the eastbound Southwest Chief June 3. As of today the walls are half up (seven courses of block have been laid and grouted, with seven more to go).

If we can avoid a serious cave in for another fours days, we should be golden. Then I can form up and pour the roof when I return, when no one will be holding there breath during a heavy rain.

I enjoy projects like this:
o  Unlike most of my group dynamics work, it's clear at the end of the day that you've accomplished something. (With group work, progress can be subtle.)

o  I enjoy working with my hands and using my body. (Or at least I used to. Every year it gets harder to lift full bags of cement, or maintain a spring in my step while schlepping buckets of grout.)

o  After 40 years of homestead living, I've learned quite a bit about working with concrete, block, brick, & tile, and it's a joy to put that knowledge to use. Even though I no longer do all the heavy lifting, I can still teach the techniques and lay out the work.

o  It's satisfying to pass along practical experience to an interested younger generation. I've received a good bit of this kind of mentoring over the years and it's time to pay some of it back.

It's amusing to realize that these days I'm the oldest block, whose health is most chipped—and yet I'm the one who's relied upon to determine whether chipped blocks are still serviceable. There's a symmetry about it that's pleasing to me.

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