Laird's Blog

Why Cooperative Groups Fail to Accept Offers of Help

I'm currently immersed in four days of FIC organizational meetings, where a key focus has been how to make better connections with others trying to build cooperative culture. Essentially, those of us with deep familiarity in community living believe that we're learning something in the crucible of that experience that has wide application—in neighborhoods, in the workplace, in schools, and in churches—yet we're frustrated with the lack of invitations to share what we know. What's going on?

I think this declination sorts itself into three main reasons:

A. Not Open to the Idea
Some groups believe that the intentional community experience is simply too exotic to be relevant to their situation—and they may be right. Or they may not (more about this in Part B below).

Some groups believe it's more problematic than beneficial to be closely associated with intentional communities (interestingly, this can be true even if the would-be recipient is itself an intentional community!). As such, they'd rather do without. This might be because: 1) they think it's politically unwise (if their constituency finds out they've been cavorting with Hippies there may be a knee-jerk negative reaction); 2) they think it's superfluous (the would-be client believes they can handle their struggles internally, or what intentional communities offer will not address their need); or 3) or maybe they believe that the help is not replicable (we'll never be able to do what you can do, so why bother having a taste of it?).

A more subtle, yet pervasive version of this is where the group is willing to continue to muddle through because they have no concept that it can be better, or it's beyond their imagination to seek help (we may not be perfect, but we're proud of our self-sufficiency).

Some people perceive acceptance of help as an admission of failure. For some it's too embarrassing letting others get a peek at their dirty laundry. 

Thus, there are a number of reasons why groups may not be open to outside help.

B. Misunderstanding the Offer
Some resistance is tied to not wanting to be in a position of being told what to do by an outsider (I'm not saying that would happen; I'm saying there's repugnance at the thought that it might).

It's not unusual for clients to believe that their situation is so complicated or unique that it's too daunting to bring in outside help. (It would take too long to bring them up to speed; why should we pay to educate an outsider?) What they fail to grok is that people experienced in cooperative dynamics are familiar with patterns that may appear as impossibly specialized to the residents (who haven't as much cooperative experience under their belt as the consultant).

Some don't appreciate that groups are groups, and that the lessons gleaned in one cooperative setting are often readily adaptable to another.

Sometimes the folks making the offer do a poor job of casting it in ways that are accessible or attractive to the would-be client.

C. Misunderstanding the Need
It's relatively common for groups to mistakenly think that the problem essentially amounts to some small number of difficult members being jerks, rather than realizing that there's a bit of the jerk in all of us and what's needed is better tools for unpacking triggering dynamics.

If you've never witnessed a group work authentically and compassionately with distress, it may be hard to imagine that the group could use help with it.

Groups that slog through discussions where members disagree, may not understand that skilled facilitation can make a night and day difference in the likelihood of finding workable solutions without anyone selling out, or feeling run over by a truck.
• • •One of the reasons it's worthwhile to sort out these causes is that I believe we might be able to do something about B & C (for example, through better messaging, and more careful tailoring of offers to appeal to clients' needs), while A may be intractable.

At the very least, it will help us hone in on the opportunities where we think we have the best chance of turning it around—which has got to be a better response than wringing hands, or blaming the damn clients.

There and Back Again

Not only is the title to today's blog the alternate (lesser known) title of J. R. R. Tolkien's 1937 classic fantasy, The Hobbit, but it accurately captures my relapse into lower back pain following my overzealous representation of Sandhill Farm at the Best Missouri Fair at the Shaw Botanical Gardens, Oct 3-5. That is, I went there and now my back hurts again.

I know that was nearly three weeks ago but I still hurt.

Unfortunately the basic problem is getting older, which I suspect is terminal. The tenderness that I'm dancing with traces back to a fortnight of heavy construction on a cistern project for Sandhill that I oversaw (and apparently overdid) in late May. My folly was thinking that I could do anything (or at least anything that I've been able to do in the past), and that ain't necessarily so.

Having been a homesteader since I moved to Sandhill four decades ago, there's always been an emphasis on physical labor, and mostly that's an aspect of my life that I've fully embraced. Gradually, however, my work mix shifted from lifting with my arms, legs, and back to lifting with my pen, voice, and brain. Over time I did less work on the land and more as a nonprofit administrator (first for the Federation of Egalitarian Communities and then for the Fellowship for Intentional Community) and as a group process consultant and trainer.

Last May I got up close and personal to my physical limitations with the questionable choice to jump into concrete work after months of doing nothing more aerobic than carrying my own bags on train trips and pecking away vigorously at a keyboard. My back could tell the difference.

After a couple weeks of rest and recovery from the cistern work, my back wasn't "normal" (which condition I'm not sure I'm ever going to experience again) but I was able to resume normal non-constructive duties—I just needed to be cautious. When I got overambitious with a shovel digging up a suspect water line behind our house in July, my back made it clear the next day that that wasn't such a good idea.

The thing though that put me over the top of the pain threshold, was a four-day sequence at the beginning of October. On Thursday I was over at Sandhill grating, blending, and jarring 10 gallons of peeled horseradish root (yielding 127 half pint jars for sale—about eight gallons). In addition to the tears and irritated mucous membranes, I had to schlep our 90 lb Univex slicer/shredder from the commercial kitchen to our front porch (never try to shred horseradish indoors). It was like lugging a bag of cement. Ugh. At the end of an eight-hour shift I was bone tired and my back was sore.

The next day I returned to Sandhill to load for the fair, which entailed packing several boxes of sorghum (a case of quarts weighs over 40 lbs) and myriad cases of condiments. After a couple hours the pickup was full, and so was my quota of lifting for the day… but I wasn't done.

When I got down to St Louis I had to unload everything in our booth space and my back was protesting. I knew I was in trouble when I went to bed that night, but I still had to reload everything that didn't sell at the end of the fair Sunday evening and I was hurting badly by then. (Is there anything worse than lifting a weight that you know you shouldn't?)

It is now 16 days later and ibuprofen is my best friend.

My recovery has been painfully slow and I'm not used to being so limited in my activities or needing to be so careful when I get out of bed. I was walking to a meeting in the dark two evenings ago and when I stepped into a low spot in the road that I couldn't see, I overstrode slightly and it was like someone was gouging my lower back with razor blades. No fun. While I'm making do, I have to be way more cautious than I'm used to.

There is one silver lining: the sympathy and support I'm getting from Ma'ikwe, who has been struggling with lower back issues herself since '09, as a symptom of chronic Lyme. While it's not so great having both of us needing to be extra careful when lifting buckets, Ma'ikwe has been totally understanding when I ask her to help put on my shoes first thing each morning, before I've limbered up enough to be able to do it myself.

It's the different between sympathy and empathy—she's not just patiently listening to her partner describing pain, she's actually been walking in my moccasins. Painful as that is, we're navigating this together and that helps a lot.

The Giants Win the Peanut!

In 1951 Bobby Thomson hit "the shot heard round the world." With the Giants down 4-1 going into the bottom of the ninth inning in a do-or-die playoff game against the dog-ass Dodgers, they fought back to have runners on second and third with two outs and a run in. Dodger manager Charlie Dressen brought in Ralph Branca to relieve a tiring Don Newcombe to face Bobby Thomson (who had hit 31 homers in the regular season—some off Branca).

After throwing the first pitch for a strike, Thomson pulled a high inside fast ball into the left field stands, and Giant radio announcer Russ Hodges said it all:

There's a long drive ... it's gonna be, I believe ... THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!

[Did you ever wonder why the Dodgers chose to face Thomson, a home run threat, with first base open? On deck was the Giants' rookie-of the year candidate, Willie Mays, and the Dodgers wanted no part of him.]

The reason I bring that up is that two nights ago Travis Ishikawa, a journeyman defensive specialist that the Giants brought up from their Fresono farm team for the second half of the year, took a fastball from St Louis Cardinal reliever Michael Wacha into the right field stands, sending the San Francisco Giants (which the New York Giants of Bobby Thomson became when owner Horace Stoneham moved them west in 1958) to the World Series. Just like Bobby Thomson 63 years ago, Travis' pennant clinching belt came with two on board in the bottom of the ninth. Travis will never have to buy a beer again as long as he drinks in the City by the Bay.

I write about all this because I'm a sport fan. Baseball is my first love, and the team I love above all others is the San Francisco Giants, which I inextricably bonded with the moment they departed the Polo Grounds of Manhattan and landed in the Golden State. There is a capriciousness and purity about this that may only have been possible among eight year olds who grew up watching Leave It to Beaver, but here I am.

When Travis went yard on Michael, my inner eight year old went bananas: a Wach-off homer! My 33-year-old son—a diehard Cardinal fan—grudgingly texted me, "Hope you turkeys win it all now..." which passes for graciousness among the male sports fans in my bloodline.

Knowing of this internecine rivalry between Ceilee (the Cardinal fan) and Laird (the Giant fan), Annie (Ceilee's mother, who grew up an Indian fan—talk about long sufffering) sent me a two-word email the next day, "Go Giants!" After all, it's not just about getting to the World Series; you actually have to play it. In this case against a red-hot Kansas City Royals team that ripped off eight straight playoff victories to get there on the American League side of the bracket.

Semi-famous for her tongue-in-cheek malapropisms, Annie (whom I've known since 1968) was wont to ask each summer, "Who's gonna win the peanut this year?" This from the same person who grew up attending a Protestant church inspired by the teachings of John Calvin and who thought as a child that road signs at intersections were expressly for the benefit of her congregation: "Presbyterian Crossing."

For the sake of father-son relations it's gratifying that we've been trading ascendency the last five years, with the Giants winning the pennant in the even years and the Cardinals in the odd ones. Now all the Giants have to do is cool off the Royals. Both teams have had a good run to get to the Series. Both snuck into the playoffs as wild card teams, yet roared through their opposition with ease. It's the fifth-seeded Giants against the fourth-seeded Royals. Who's streak will endure for one more round?

Though it's anybody's Series, I feel lucky. Surely it's an omen that Bobby Thomson's birthday was Oct 25, the same as mine. At least such rabbit-foot logic makes sense to this baseball fan, a part of whom will always be eight years old.

Go Giants!

Waiting for Frost

Today (at noon) marked the exact mid-point of October. As we cross into the dark side, a strange thing happens—gardeners start longing for a frost. 

Mostly, frost is something homesteaders want to assiduously distance themselves from. They want it to depart their fields as early in the spring as possible and stay away late into the fall—but there are limits. As the root cellar fills and pantry shelves begin to groan with the collected abundance of the growing year, you reach a point where enough is enough. Sure, you could just walk away and let the rest of the garden go, but that's hard to do; farmers are hard-wired to gather everything they grow, and it sometimes takes a frost to euthanize a garden that still has life in it. We're just about there.
 • • •Homesteading in mid-America means that nine months of the year (September through May) you're paying close attention to whether the forecast calls for temperatures above or below freezing.

In the Winter
Although this is the sleepy time for growing things, there is still plenty of outdoor work to do (it's a farm, after all). If you need to cut wood, for example, it makes a huge difference if the temperature is 25º or 35º. If there's no snow on the ground, then 25º is much better. The ground will be firm and you should have no problem maneuvering in the woodlot. At 35º, think mud.

On the other hand, if there is snow then 35º may be better because the white stuff will melt off the log (less ice to dull your chain saw) and the ground is likely to still be frozen. 

If you're splitting wood, I suggest looking for something closer to 15º. The ground won't be greasy (better footing) and the cord wood pops right open in the cold (plus the brisk temperatures help counterbalance the heat you generate wielding a maul).

In the Spring
When the sap starts rising in the trees (typically in February in northeast MO), everyone starts to get itchy to plant garden. While some things can tolerate freezing temperatures (peas, onions, beets, carrots, potatoes, salad greens, and brassicas) most of the garden has to wait patiently for danger of frost to have past.

Depending on how green your thumb is—and how long you've been without fresh vegetables—it can be an excruciating wait. (Is there anything more delicious than your first homegrown or wildcrafted salad of the year?)

In the FallOn the one hand, homesteaders keep a close eye on Weather Underground (or old ankle injuries) for early warnings of impending freezes so they know when to strip the garden—after doing all that work to get everything planted and weeded, you want to capture as much of the bounty as possible. In the 40 years I've lived in northeast Missouri we've had our first killing frost as early as Sept 15 and as late as Nov 10—which is quite a wide range. Obviously this means big swings are possible in the amount of produce harvested from gardens at the end of the season.

If you last into October though (as we have this year), the sweet corn is long gone, the tomatoes have already dialed it back on their own, and the green beans have dried up. Still going are peppers, okra, and basil, all of which will just keep on trucking until Jack Frost paints them white.

I cranked out a batch of end-of-season pepper relish last week and I believe those will be the last jars we add to our store of 2104 canned goods. In the weeks ahead there will be sweet potatoes to dig, and the late root crops and salad greens will persist into December, but everybody here is ready to trade access to a few more late peppers in exchange for witnessing a population crash among houseflies and grasshoppers.

We're ready now to sing hallelujah and amen to another growing year.

Saying "No" to Prospective Members

One of the trickiest issues that intentional communities face is screening prospective members.

Some groups find this so odious (judging whether others are good enough) that they don't even try. Instead, they rely on prospectives to sort themselves out appropriately, based on what the community has said about itself (on its website, in brochures, or in listings), and how the new person relates to the community when they visit.

Another factor when it comes to screening is that communities often borrow money from banks to develop their property and are thus subject to federal Fair Housing Laws, which means they may not discriminate against people on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, or familial status. Some groups mistakenly translate this into a proscription against using any discernment about who joins the group (or buys a house) but that's not true. It's perfectly legal to insist that people be financially solvent, not have been convicted of felonies, or agree to abide by common values and existing agreements. In fact, it's legal to choose against a candidate for any reason other than the seven protected classes listed above.

What's more, there are any number of people who are attracted to community for the right reasons but are not a good fit, and it's better all around if the community plays an active role in screening for decent matches. In many cases (unless the would-be member is a community veteran) the new person is still wrestling with the question of whether any intentional community is a good choice for them, much less your community. There will be many new and strange things that people have to make sense of during their initial visit, and in the process they can easily miss clues as to whether the visit is going well or not as seen through the host's eyes.

Finally, when you take into account how important it is to have your membership aligned about what you're trying to create, it becomes clear why it's not a good plan to rely mainly on the new person figuring it out on their own. Yes, this may mean that someone washes out sooner, but isn't that better for them as well—rather than getting a false impression about how things are going and discovering the mismatch six months after moving in? Delayed disclosure may relieve the community of having a difficult conversation up front, but at what cost?

OK, let's suppose I've convinced you that communities should get actively involved in membership selection. In broad strokes, there are four possibilities about how a prospective visit may go:

a) Both the community and the prospective realize it's not a good fit. While there's the possibility of some hurt feelings if the prospective feels that what they found did not match what the community promised, mostly this ends amicably and there's no problem.

b) You both like each other and the prospect converts to becoming a new member. Hooray! That's what you had in mind and you're off to a good start. Of course, the honeymoon will end and not everything that starts out well stays that way. While there's no guarantee of long-term happiness, you did your best and now you take your chances.

c) The prospective doesn't feel there's a good fit, though the community likes what they see and wants to encourage the prospective to hang in there. Most of the time when this occurs it's because the prospective comes across as a "good catch" and will likely be attractive to a number of communities. In short, they have options. In this situation also, there's unlikely to be hard feelings. The community may be sad at losing a good prospect, but dating doesn't always lead to marriage and you knew that all along.

d) The hardest combination—and the one I want to focus on in the remainder of this essay—is when the prospective likes the community but it's not reciprocated. Now what?

In general, this is because of one or more of the following factors:

o  Poor social skills
There's a high value placed on good communication skills in community and it can be a serious problem if the prospective is not good at:
—Articulating what they're thinking
—Articulating what they're feeling
—Hearing accurately what others are saying
—Expressing themselves in ways that are not provocative
—Taking in feedback about how others are reacting to their behavior
—Being sensitive to how their statements and actions are landing with others

The issue is not so much whether the prospective fits right in, as whether the members feel they can work things out with the prospective when there are differences—because there will always be differences (eventually).

o  Weak finances
Sometimes it's a question of whether the prospective has sufficient assets or income to meet the financial obligations of membership. Not everyone who is drawn to community has their life together economically.

o  Too needy
Occasionally prospectives come to the community to be taken care of, and there appears to be a frank imbalance between what the person can give relative to the level of support they're needing. For the most part communities are looking for a positive or break-even balance from prospectives and will tend to shy away from those with mental health issues, emotional instability, addictions, or extreme physical limitations—unless there is a plan offered whereby those needs will be taken care of in a way that works for all parties.

Note that there are some excellent examples of communities that have built their identity around serving disadvantaged populations:
—Gould Farm (Monterey MA) focuses on mental health
—Innisfree Village (Crozet VA) focuses on intellectual disabilities
—Camphill Village (the first in the US was located in Copake NY and now there are 10 others) focuses on developmental disabilities
—L'Arche Communities (the first in the US was located in Erie PA and now there are 17 others) focus on intellectual disabilities

o  Failure to keep commitments
It's hard on communities when members make agreements and then don't abide by them; when they make commitments and then fail to keep them. Sure, everyone has a bad week, but with some people it's a pattern and communities are leery of folks who aren't good at keeping their word.

To be sure, it can be difficult to discern a pattern during a visitor period, yet it's one of the reasons groups like to ask prospectives to lend a hand in group work parties—so they can assess follow through and work ethic. People who come across as allergic to group work don't tend to be viewed as good members.

o  Too different
This factor is something of a nebulous catchall. It can be an unusual personality, a quirky communication style, strange tastes or habits… Perhaps this traces to a different cultural background, but regardless of the origin it can be hard when there are no others like this person already in the group. Members may feel awkward in this person's presence and questions arise about whether they can make relationship with this person.

Even where there is a group commitment to diversity, that doesn't mean that everyone can find a happy home there.
• • • One of the measures of a group's maturity is its ability to have authentic and compassionate conversations about hard things. And discussing the sense that a particular prospective is pushing the group's edge around the limits of what it can handle is an excellent example of a difficult conversation.

Saying "no" is not fun, and it can be very hard to hear it if you're the one being voted off the island. Yet sometimes groups have to do it, and putting it off doesn't make it easier later. The best you can do is anticipate that this is coming and discuss ahead of time what qualities you want in new members, so that you've already established the criteria you'll use before you start applying them.

There will still be challenges: such as the dynamic where one member wants to stretch to take a chance on a prospective that another member is convinced is a poor risk, but at least you'll have established a basis for the conversation—in this case: what is the perceived risk, and how much is too much?

While living in community can be a wonderful experience—I've been doing it for four decades and love it—it isn't always easy.

Questioning Technology

Do you ever wonder about how much technology to embrace in your life? I do. I figure the answer lies somewhere in the gulf between ball point pens and nuclear power plants, but where exactly should we draw the line?

I realize that we're not likely to stuff any genies back in the bottle, but having a genie on hand does not necessarily mean we should request wishes from it. What is the intersection between a sustainable life and a technologically abundant one? What technologies make sense?

This requires some discernment. 

First, we can cross off the list those things that are flat-out too dangerous, such as automatic weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles. And it's not much of a stretch to go a layer deeper and eliminate nerve gas, crewless aircraft, and genetically modified organisms (such as tomatoes spliced with fish genes).

Next we can knock off technological advances of dubious utility, such as electric knives, fake seafood, and stretch Hummers. In some cases, we've just taken a good thing too far: vacuum cleaners are useful, but who needs one with variable speed suction? 

Of course, some choices are far more nuanced: table saws are dangerous (accounting for half of all woodshop accidents) yet also very useful—not many carpenters can approximate the precision of a machined straight line cut with a rip saw.

One of the most important lessons I learned from doing construction was to figure out how to build things such that I could repair them when they failed—not if they failed; when they failed. It occurs to me that that wouldn’t be such a bad way to assess technology either. If I can’t reasonably repair a thing myself—or at least locally—how dependent do I want to be on it? How confident am I that I’ll have access to replacements? What will I do instead if that technology is no longer available? It may make sense to use it until it's gone, or it may not. Sometimes dependency on new technology leads to an atrophy of the old technology—the one you'll need to rely on when the new one is no longer available. 

For example, I suspect we're losing a generation of farmers who understand the intricacies of crop rotation and green manure cropping in the post-Word War II era, where mainstream agriculture has come to rely on anhydrous ammonia for nitrogen and pre-emergent herbicides for weed control. These are things to ponder. 
 
What about computers? Leaving aside the obvious fact that no is going to be manufacturing microchips in their basement, to what extent is computer technology anti-relational? Are email, texting, and Facebook becoming a substitute for face-to-face conversation, and at what cost? To what extent are people increasingly holed up at home at a keyboard (like I am right now) instead of visiting the neighbors? For that matter, how often do you encounter people fully engrossed with their laptops and smartphones even when they're in social spaces like coffee shops and restaurants? I'm not convinced this is a good trend.

Google is able to track what kind of information we're seeking and then display ads for products and services related to your search. Amazon suggests titles similar to the one you asked about. On the one hand this is smart advertising. On the other it's encouraging us to reinforce our opinions rather than seek a variety of viewpoints. Is the increasing sophistication of information technology reinforcing the trend toward polarization that currently plagues political discourse in this country? 

These are not simple questions, but the most dangerous choice of all is not asking them.

Critique of Sociocracy Revisited

Back on Aug 18 I posted an entry, Critique of Sociocracy, and it elicited an unusual amount of response. After taking time to digest it, here is my riposte, relying on the same format I used two months ago.

Caveats  Over the last 10 years, I’ve had personal conversations with or read materials from a number of sociocracy advocates, including John Buck, Sharon Villines, Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, John Schinnerer, Sheella Mierson, Nathaniel Whitestone, Barbara Strauch, and Diana Christian. Cooperative group dynamics is a field I’ve been living in for 40 years and working with professionally for the last 27 years.
All of that said, I have had limited experience with sociocracy in action(attending workshops that outline the theory and demonstrate the techniques are not the same as dealing with real issues in live groups) and it’s important to acknowledge that if the practice of sociocracy turns out to have solid answers for my concerns then that deserves to be honored. The fact that I haven’t yet heard answers to my reservations that satisfy me, or seen sociocratic groups perform as claimed, does not mean that there aren’t groups doing well with it.
With that prelude, here's a continuation of the conversation (I realize that I've repeated a number of paragraphs from the Aug 18 post to establish context—bear with me):
1. Does not address emotional input
One of my main concerns with this system is that there is no mention in its articulation of how to understand or work with emotions. As I see this as an essentialcomponent of group dynamics, this is a serious flaw.
Nathaniel Whitestone responded:
While the framework of sociocracy does not refer to emotions specifically, I find that I can effectively use the framework to include emotional content. Emotional content is a valid input, along with any other information, during every phase of the policy development & decision-making process. Most of the trainers (and all of the certified trainers) I have worked with have training in emotional processing of some kind and bring that into the process. I see that as essential.
That’s good to hear, yet I still worry that the literature says nothing about this. I believe strongly that we need an integrated model of working with the whole person (rational, emotional, intuitive, kinesthetic, spiritual) and it bothers me when this is not addressed. I’ve worked with some groups that have embraced sociocracy, and have not noticed among them any better-than-average understanding of how to work emotionally, which makes me wonder how much this is incorporated in sociocratic training.
To be fair, I rarely find groups have done much work on this. It’s hard and tends to be scary. It’s heartening to hear Nathaniel’s confidence that skill in working emotionally is a standard feature among Sociocratic trainers. I just wish I saw more of it in the field.
Sharon Villines takes a different tack:
Is addressing emotional input any different from addressing any other input?
Yes, it's a different animal, and one that our culture is particularly poor at.

Sociocracy has developed a handshake relationship with Non-Violent Communication (NVC) for the identification and resolution of feelings. My understanding is that some sociocracy trainers are also teaching NVC. The technique is helpful in addressing the feelings attached to issues.
This may work fine, yet I want to make the case for a system that includes emotional input from the start, rather than an occurrence that triggers a different approach. My life work has been aimed at integrating energy and content—not placing them in separate boxes.

People bring their fears and anxieties and personal preferences to sociocratic circles and the workplace just as they bring them to any other context. When the number of group members who have learned to focus on the aim, listen to each other, and resolve objections reaches a tipping point, friction will be reduced. But certain personalities and differing aims will clash sooner or later.

The research by Richard Hackman at Harvard shows that teams work better together when they focus on and achieve success. All the other problems blamed for team dysfunction fade—personality clashes, inequality of effort, lack of expertise, etc., suddenly have no meaning. The identified problems are still there; they just no longer impede productivity.

Hackman found that addressing emotions, personalities, and contributions is less effective than focusing on an aim and accomplishing it. Since that is a prime purpose in sociocracy, it leads not only to effectiveness but to harmony—which sociocracy was originally designed to accomplish.
 
Hackman’s claim contradicts my experience in the field. In looking at his work it appears that his research was focused on the business world, where maintaining healthy relationships may not be as central as it is in cooperative groups in general, and in intentional communities especially.

I’ve found that once distress reaches a certain level it’s not possible to do good problem solving because of all the distortion that’s associated with high distress. You have to first attend to the distress. Most groups—sociocratic or otherwise—don’t handle this well. Lacking an agreement about how to engage with this dynamic, most groups are either paralyzed by distress, or seek ways to contain or marginalize those in distress, who tend to be labeled disruptive.

2. Double linking of committees (or “circles” in Sociocratic parlance)
When a group is large enough (probably anything past 12) it makes sense to create a committee structure to delegate tasks. While people can serve on more than one committee, it’s naturally important to have a clear understanding of how each committee relates to each other, and to the whole.
While the above paragraph is Organizational Structure 101, in sociocracy there is the added wrinkle that committees regularly working together (as when one oversees the other, or when two committees are expected to collaborate regularly) are asked to place a representative in each related committee. These reps (one each way) serve as liaisons and communications links from one committee to the other, helping to ensure that messages and their nuances are more accurately transmitted.
Barbara Strauch (from Austria) wrote:
The most important motive for double linking is to protect leaders from being torn apart. With double linking there is a representative from each lower circle sitting with the leaders, participating in the decision-making, making sure that the needs of lower circles are fully represented.
Further, groups only need double linking when they get large enough to need a leadership circle that oversees smaller circles. When all organizing is accomplished in a single circle, double linking is superfluous.
Barbara did not say at what size double linking makes sense, and maybe her view is that intentional communities rarely get that big (perhaps because organizing can be accomplished in plenary and thus additional circles are not needed). However, the sense I’ve had from other sociocracy advocates is that double linking is appropriate for intentional communities—at least the larger ones (30+?)—so I want to respond to that.
While this sounds good in theory (and may work well in practice in the corporate environment for which sociocracy was originally created), it runs smack into a chronic problem in cooperative groups that are highly dependent on committee slots filled by volunteers: too many slots and too few people to fill them well. In all my years as a process consultant for cooperative groups, I don’t recall ever having encountered a group that reported being able to easily fill all of its committee and manager positions. Sociocracy asks groups to add an additional layer of responsibility to what they already have in place, which means even more committee assignments. I don’t understand how that’s practicable.
In the responses I received to the above, there was emphasis placed on the distinction between “circle meetings” (at which policy is discussed) and “operational meetings” (at which work is organized and accomplished). The point being that double linking only need come into play at circle meetings, and that these need not happen that often. While I can certainly understand the claim that if there are fewer meetings at which double linking is expected than there is less of an additional burden on personnel, there is still some additional burden and I wonder where the energy to fill those slots will come from.
3. Selection process calls for surfacing candidate concerns on the spot
One of the trickier aspects of cooperative group dynamics is handling critical feedback well. That includes several non-trivial challenges:
● Creating a culture in which critical feedback relative to group function is valued and encouraged.
● Helping people find the courage to say hard things.
● Helping people with critical things to say to sort out (and process separately) any upset or reactivity they are carrying in association with the critique, so that they don’t unload on the person when offering feedback.
● Helping recipients respond to critical feedback openly, not defensively.
Even though the goal is worthy, none of these is easy to do, and my experience has taught me the value of giving people choices in how to give and receive critical feedback. (For some it’s absolutely excruciating to be criticized in public.)
In the case of Sociocracy, the model calls for selecting people to fill positions (such as a managership or committee seat) in an up-tempo process where you call for nominations, discuss candidate suitability, and make a decision all in one go.
While that is admirable for its efficiency, I seriously question whether that promotes full disclosure of reservations, complete digestion of critical statements (without dyspepsia), or thoughtful consideration of flawed candidates. While I can imagine this approach working fine in a group comprised wholly of mature, self-aware individuals, how many groups like thatdo you know? Me neither.
A number of sociocracy advocates tried to assure me that these selection processes invariably work well and bring out the best in people, but I've worked with too many groups (over 100) that contain too many frail egos to swallow that whole.
4. The concepts of “paramount” concerns, and “consent” versus “consensus”
Sociocracy makes a large deal out of participants only expressing: a) preferences about what should be taken into account; or b) reservations about proposals if they constitute “paramount” concerns. While “paramount” is not easy to pin down (what is paramount to me may not be paramount to you), I believe that the concept maps well onto the basic consensus principle that you should be voicing what you believe is best for the group—as distinct from personal preferences—and that you should only speak if your concern is non-trivial.
In addition, sociocracy is about seeking “consent” rather than “consensus.” I believe that the aim in this attempt it to encourage an atmosphere of “is it good enough,” in contrast with “is it perfect” or “is everyone happy with it.”
To be sure, there is anxiety among consensus users about being held hostage by a minority that may be unwilling to let a proposal go forward because they see how bad results are possible and are afraid of being stuck with them. This leads to paralysis. While it shouldn’t be hard to change an ineffective agreement (once experience with its application has exposed its weaknesses), I believe a better way to manage tyranny-of-the-minority dynamics is by educating participants (read consensus training) and developing a high-trust culture characterized by good listening, and proposal development that takes into account all views.
If “consent” is basically the same as “consensus” than we needn’t worry the terminology so much. If, however, they are meant to be substantively different, then I can only make sense of this if “consent” is a weaker standard than “consensus” that allows the group to move forward (it’s good enough) when it would still be laboring to find consensus.
Let’s see where that leads. The interesting case is when there are reservations among the group that would not stop consent, yet would stop consensus. I expect the spirit in which sociocratic advocates favor consent is an attempt to address the dynamic when individuals are stubborn about allowing a proposal to go forward because of personal reservations. While this undoubtedly happens, the question becomes whether the dissenter is acting out of a what’s-best-for-the-group perspective (that others are missing or failing to weigh appropriately) or out of a personal preference, which no groups want to be burdened with.
What environment will best lead to an open (non-entrenched) exploration of what’s happening? In my experience the key to accessing whatever flexibility is possible with a dissenter is first making sure you’ve heard they’re viewpoint andwhy it’s important. While this can be delicate work regardless of the group’s decision-making process, I’m worried that if sociocracy is about getting across the finish line faster, that engagement with a dissenter may come across more as “Is your concern reallyparamount?” with a view toward asking them to let go, rather than “Let me make sure I understand what you’re saying and why it matters,” with a view toward finding a bridge between that person and others.
Now let’s take this a further step. Sociocratic advocates often make the point that consent (it’s good enough) shouldn’t be such a big deal because you can always change agreements later if they’re not working. Maybe. If an agreement flat out doesn’t work then I agree that changing it probably won’t be hard. But what about an agreement that’s working well in the view of some and not so hot for others? Or more vexing still, an agreement that’s working well for most members of the group, but not well for the dissenter—the person persuaded to let go because their concerns weren’t paramount enough? Uh oh.
5. Rounds are not always the best format
Sociocracy is in love with Rounds, where everyone has a protected chance to offer comments on the matter at hand. While it’s laudable to protect everyone’s opportunity for input, this is only one of many choices available for how to solicit input on topics (others include open discussion, sharing circles, individual writing, small group breakout, silence, guided visualization, fishbowls, etc.). Each has their purpose, as well as their advantages and liabilities.
While Rounds are great at protecting talking time for those more timid about pushing their way into an open discussion, and serve as an effective muzzle for those inclined to take up more than their share of air time, they tend to be slow and repetitive. If you speed them up (Lightning Rounds) this addresses time use, yet at the expense of bamboozling those who find speaking in group daunting, or are naturally slower to know their mind and be ready to speak.
While I’ve been told that it’s OK for Sociocratic groups to use formats other than Rounds—which relaxes my anxiety—what I’ve seen among Sociocratic groups to date is a heavy reliance on Rounds, and I’m concerned.
6. Starting with proposals
In sociocracy (as well as in many groups using consensus) there is a tendency to expect that items come to plenary in the form of a proposal (“here is the issue and here is a suggested solution”). In fact, in some groups you won’t get time on the plenary agenda unless you have a proposal.
While this forces the shepherd to be ready for plenary (a good thing) and can sometimes save time (when the proposal is excellent and does a good job of anticipating what needs to be taken into account and balancing the factors well), it can also be a train wreck. Far better, in my experience, is that if something is worthy of plenary attention, that you not begin proposal development until after the plenary has agreed on what factors the proposal needs to address, and with what relative weight. If the manager or committee guesses at these (in order to get time on the agenda) they may invest considerably in a solution that just gets trashed.
Not only is this demoralizing for the proposal generators, but it skews the conversation about how to respond to the issue. (“What needs to be taken into account in addressing this issue?” is a different question than “Does this proposal adequately address this concern?”) In essence, leading with the proposal is placing the cart (the solution) before the horse (what the solution needs to balance).
In response to the above, I was told that sociocratic groups don’t always start with proposals. While I’m glad to hear that, it doesn’t match what I’ve encountered so far when working with sociocratic groups. If it turns out that I’ve just been unlucky and only found groups that have been confused about the model, I’ll be happy to be wrong.
7. Governance System or Decision-Making Structure?
Some advocates have taken the position that sociocracy is a governance structure while consensus is a decision-making process. Other advocates have stated that sociocracy is both. As a cooperative process consultant my body of work covers both topics and I see them as inextricably linked. At the very least, consensus implies a certain approach to governance and I'm not inspired to try to parse out what belongs in one category and what belongs in another. I prefer to teach them as complementary aspects of well-functioning cooperative culture.

I think governance questions are things like:
o  Committees and managerships in relation to plenary
o  How committees and managers relate to each other
o  Defining the difference between standing committees and ad hoc committees
o  How authority is delegated
o  How subgroups are populated and their work evaluated
o  Standards for how committee work is made available to the whole group 

I think decision-making questions are things like:
o  How decisions are made
o  How topics are addressed
o  Standards for how meetings are run (including the role of facilitator)
o  Standards for what's plenary worthy
o  Standards for meeting notification
o  Conditions under which meetings can be closed
o  Standards for how plenary proposals get developed
o  Conditions under which a dissenting minority can get overridden
o  Standards for when an agreement might be reviewed
o  Standards for minutes

As sociocracy definitely has things to say about how meetings are run, it’s clear to me that it delves into decision-making. More accurate, I think, is to describe sociocracy as a governance system and decision-making process that offers a particular, highly structured approach to consensus. It’s about doing consensus a certain way. 

While I’m not sold on that model, I’m fine with its being put forward for consideration as a model. At the end of the day, the proof is in the doing, and if groups like what they’re getting with sociocracy then that trumps everything.

8. A Structural Response to an Energetic Challenge
My final uneasiness is on the macro level. My sense is that a lot of the motivation for coming up with an alternative to consensus is that groups are frustrated with it. They struggle with obstinate minorities, working constructively with dissent, effective delegation, engaging productively with distress, and a sense of overwhelm and slog. These are real issues.
Over the years I’ve come to the view that the key issue is that most groups commit to using consensus without a clear idea that it requires a commitment to culture change to make it work well. The vast majority of us were raised in a competitive, adversarial culture and we bring that conditioning with us into our experiments in cooperative culture. When the stakes are high and people disagree, people tend to respond from their deep conditioning—rather than from their cooperative ideals. That is, they fight for their viewpoint and feel threatened by those who see things differently.
In broad strokes, sociocracy appears to offer a structural response: Rounds even out access to air time; the standard of voicing only paramount concerns protects the group from getting bogged down in personal agendas; double linking and open selection of managers and committee slots ensure transparency and information flow; starting with proposals streamlines plenary consideration.
All of these objectives are worthy. Yet I’m questioning whether that package is the best way to get there. To the extent that I’m right about cooperative groups not having connected the dots between cooperative processes and cooperative culture (where people learn to respond with curiosity when presented with different viewpoints, rather than combativeness), the main issue is energetics, not structure.
Naturally enough, high structure folks are going to like structural solutions. Unfortunately, cooperative groups also include low structure people. They also include people who are not quick thinkers, or comfortable voicing their views in front of the whole group. I’m wondering how well sociocracy will work for them.

Sorghum for $9

I'm was in St Louis this past weekend, attending the Best if Missouri Market at the Botanical Gardens. Sandhill Farm—my old community—used to participate regularly in this event, but it's a by-invitation-only deal and we lost favor with the selection committee back around 2002. Sandhill was able to achieve rehabilitation this year by combining its application with the Milkweed Mercantile at Dancing Rabbit, who were first-time applicants.

Here's a promotional image for the event used by a local television station in the Gateway City:

Note the prominent display (left of center) of a half-pint of watermelon jelly made by Mrs. Milkweed (who masquerades in day-to-day life as Alline Anderson, my neighbor and fellow impresario in the condiment business).

Alline had secured an end booth in the center aisle of Tent #2, which gave us three sides to sell from. That turned out to be brilliant as we were peddling stuff fast and furious, keeping three people busy most of the time. We were on duty for 21 hours during the stretch from 6 pm Friday through 5 pm Sunday answering inquires, giving out samples, wrapping purchases, running credit cards, and making change. (Boy, did it ever feel good to sit down at the end of the day!)

The highlight of the weekend was having Brenda Stemler stop by our table. She sampled our sorghum and bought a pint on Saturday. The reason that's a big deal is that she's a past president of NSSPPA (National Sweet Sorghum Producers & Processors Association), and her family has been making sorghum since the Depression (the one that started in 1929; not the one in 2008). That means she absolutely knew good sorghum when she found it, and couldn't resist buying some of ours. A high compliment.

Then she came back Sunday and bought a quart for her father—the paterfamilias of the sorghum-making Stemlers. An even higher compliment.

Reflecting on the Stemler tradition got me thinking about how long I've been associated with sorghum making. I go back pretty far myself. It was amusing to realize that there have been a lot changes since I first started attending fairs for Sandhill's in 1977, where we sold sorghum at the Bethel Harvest Fest (now defunct), and at the inaugural edition of the Hannibal Historic Folklife Festival. That year you could buy a gallon of Sandhill sorghum for $9.
Today, you can still buy a jar for $9—but only a pint. Interestingly, that's about what a gallon of raw juice will yield after we cook it down. Now we sell a gallon of syrup for $50. We've come a long way, baby.

In fact, I recall that a number of our elderly customers back in the late '70s were fond of telling us that they used to be able to buy a gallon pail of sorghum for $1, and that their parents used to buy it for as little as 25¢. That last must have been before even the Stemlers were in the sweet sorghum business. Think of it: in a century the price has for a gallon of biscuit topping has risen 200 times!

I tell you, $9 just doesn't buy today what it did then.

Balancing Listening and Speaking

I got in trouble recently when working with a client that had brought me in to help the group understand consensus better. Though they'd been living together for six years—and making decisions by consensus all that time—they'd never done any training in it.

My work with the client began one evening when I listened to a subgroup of about 6-7 folks provide background on the topic they wanted me to use as a demonstration for how to handle a complex and vexing issue. After listening to a round of everyone saying what they thought I ought to know about the topic, I started asking questions about what they had tried or whether they had a committee in place who's job it was to be concerned with certain things bearing on the issue. When the responses were mostly negative, I proceeded to outline some suggestions for different things to try… and that didn't sit well.

At least for one person, I was making suggestions far too soon. She and her partner had put in a tremendous amount of effort over the years to help with the community's various challenges, and was put off by my suggesting initiatives less than an hour into my visit. (I couldn't possibly know all that had been tried, and she felt her family's efforts were being cavalierly dismissed.)

As a process consultant, I'm expected—in a short time—to accomplish five things: find out what's happening in the client group, connect the dots among people's statements about history and the current state of affairs, outline a pathway through stuck dynamics, lead the group down that path, and recommend changes designed to improve group function in the future.

Though I demonstrably have a lot to do under tight time constraints, sometimes I go too fast.

To be clear, my venturing into potential responses in the first hour of my visit did not land poorly with everyone. In fact, most of the others in that initial meetingwere intrigued (and hopeful) that I had ideas of different things to try—which was the response I was hoping for. Yet for at least one person, that approach didn't work. While I was able to meet with her later and repair the damage—so that we could work together productively the bulk of the weekend—it would have been better if I had read her more accurately in the first place. While it's good to mend fences, it's better yet to not damage them.

Here's a fuller statement of what I'm attempting in a weekend:

I. Find Out What's Happening
This has several components:

o  What happening on this topic today (this includes existing agreements, whether they're being adhered to, and where the tensions lie).
o  What's the relevant history on the topic, leading up to where we are today?
o  How are people relating to the topic emotionally (irritated, bemused, concerned, angry, afraid, bored… )?
o  What, if anything, has already been tried to address this issue, and with what results?
o  How urgent is movement on this topic relative to other challenges the group is wrestling with?
o  Are there any players in the penalty box (by which I mean labeled intractable and badly behaved)?

II. Connect the Dots
On the surface, this means:

o  To what extent do the stories from group members differ? Is it a matter of different emphasis, or are they working from different "facts"?
o  What are themes that will need attention in order to work through the topic? How many strands are there to work?

Below the surface, this means:

o  How volatile does the topic seem to be? To what extent are the players holding unresolved tension that's likely to distort our ability to be productive in problem solving?
o  How are the personalities and styles of some likely to triggering poor reactions in others?
o  How well do people seem to be hearing each other—especially when their input and viewpoints vary?
o  To what extent is the stuckness attributable to poor process, a weak sense of common values, a clash of principles, a clash of personalities, or some combination of the above.

III. Lay out a Pathway Through the Thicket
Based on what I'm hearing and observing, I need to map out a route to guide the group from where they are to something more resolved and more unified. This means not only figuring what to do about the topic we're focusing on, but getting there in such a way that people feel better connected and less tense. In short, I need to attend to both energy and content.

Further, I need to be able to explain the route—both what we'll be doing and why—so that people know what's being asked of them, the sequence in which things will happen, and why I'm asking them to stretch and try something less familiar.

IV. Lead the Group Down the Path
Then, of course, I have to execute the plan. Sometimes this comes across as firewalking (when I ask them to follow me into the scary territory of unpacking emotional distress); sometimes this is experienced as pulling a rabbit out of a hat (when I'm able to see a workable solution to the issue before anyone else); sometimes it's mostly about managing the discussion: keeping people on topic, limiting repetition, summarizing frequently, altering formats to keep people fresh.

I have to walk my talk.

V. Recommend Next Steps
This comes in two flavors:

A. Work remaining to complete the issue
Most of the time groups ask me to tackle an issue that's both complicated (many threads) and volatile (impacted distress), and it's not possible to both teach what I'm doing and complete the work on the issue. Thus, it is common that work remains when the time runs out and it's my job to leave the group with a recommended sequence for how to frame the remaining subtopics and a recommended order in which to address them.

B. Changes in how the group handles issues
To the extent that I've been successful in moving things along on the topic, I've given the group a first-hand taste of why my approach may be worth adopting. In my report, I'll lay out discrete changes they may make in how they do things—a sample of which they'd just experienced—in order to extend that success to future issues.
• • •With all of this in motion, it can be a strain at times to resist moving onto the next step when I'm ready—to allow adequate time for the client to complete the step that's gone before. Sometimes I get the timing wrong.

Group Works: Hosting

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 seventh pattern in this segment is labeled Hosting. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card: 
Help the session feel like home. Making a place and arrangements comfortable for everyone supports accomplishment of the group's work. Attend to the well-being of each person and the whole.

This is about the container and ambiance of the meeting: the room, the seating, the lighting, the nourishment, the air quality, the formality (or casualness) of dress, the ritual that marks the opening and ending of each session... Much of what's comfortable or off-putting about this operates below the level of consciousness—yet is no less powerful, as possibilities ride in the channels of context.

Of course, this gets complicated when the participants come from multiple cultures, as each has its own familiarity and rhythm, and what is easeful for one may be awkward or even irritating for another.

Some of this is rather straight forward: you don't serve Orthodox Jews barbecued pork, and it wouldn't be a good idea to open the annual meeting of the Atheists Association with five minutes of prayer. Yet some of this is more subtle.

Consider, for example, how family of origin influences what's comfortable. The default mode for meeting culture in North America follows what I label Northern European culture (think German, English, Scandinavian). This style is characterized by one person talking at a time in well modulated voices; there is space between statements. 

Contrast this with Southern European culture (Italians, Spanish, Jewish, African American) where there is much more passion and the pace is quicker. People talk on top of each other and use more hand gestures. "Normal" engagement in Southern European culture translates to out of control upset in Northern European culture. Asking Southern Europeans to conduct themselves according to Northern European etiquette is excruciatingly stilted and flat.

It's not that anyone is striving to make participants uncomfortable; it's that we're often unmindful of what makes others comfortable or uncomfortable. Worse, there's a tendency to be oblivious to things when things are going smoothly for us, and we may miss clues about discomfort in others. (Thus, if you find the room too cool, you're much more apt to be sensitive to whether others are doing OK with the temperature. If you're doing fine yourself, you may not notice the room temperature at all.)

Let me give you a poignant example. Several years ago I began a two-year facilitation training and the host for the first weekend was an intentional community—which is almost always the case because they can economically absorb the out-of-town housing with spare bedrooms and couches. 

As it happened there were about 15 students in the class and all were from intentional communities except one woman. She was facing the double whammy of trying to acclimate to the intensity of the training (just like many other students) and at the same time make sense of her first experience in an intentional community. She was overwhelmed, but everyone else was focusing on the training—the community part was just the water they swam in. Thus, we all missed this woman's signs of distress until they boiled over in a rant on the last day, when she lashed out about how terribly she'd been treated (by which she meant neglected). Ouch! I had not being sufficiently mindful of what she needed to be comfortable. I had been a poor host. It's a lesson I'll not forget.

Ironically, the goal in this pattern is putting people at ease, yet it turns out to not be so easy to accomplish. Nonetheless, learning to be a gracious host is a worthwhile objective.

Managing Naysayers from the Sideline

In all groups beyond a certain size (eight?) you expect to see a gradient of involvement in the work of the group. While you expect some people to move in and out of involvement over time (varying by project, or by room in the their life to devote to group needs), there will naturally be some segment of the membership that's rarely involved to any significant degree. I'm not saying that's what you want; I'm saying that's what you'll get.

They don't show up to most Work Days, they skip out on committee assignments, and they rarely attend community meetings. If they kept to themselves and seldom contributed to community conversations it wouldn't be that big a deal—and some of the less involved are like that, more or less ghosts. But the more challenging version of the chronically less involved are those who want their viewpoints taken into account, even though they're often late in sharing them and seldom put their hand in the air when the call goes out for volunteers willing to help make things better.

In short, these are folks who insist on their rights, yet seldom show up for the responsibilities with which those rights are paired. It's a problem. 

To be clear, people are not stupid by virtue of being less involved. People who do little work can often be brilliant (or at least cogent and valuable) in their contributions to group issues and it would be foolish for groups to automatically close their ears in proportion to the speaker's level of contribution to the group's work. Nonetheless it can be galling when people feel directed (or hamstrung) by the demands of the less involved—especially when those contributions come across as ill-conceived, misinformed, selfishly motivated, or stridently delivered—and that's where I want to shine the spotlight today.

In this essay I'll offer a list of ways that there can be confusion about what's going on and remedies for it. If you intend to pull the tough love card and uncouple the obligation of the group to incorporate member input when that input comes from those not meeting their responsibilities to the group, it behooves you to be scrupulous about making sure you've done all within your power to clear up misunderstandings about what those responsibilities are.

A. Making sure prospective members understand the deal
Not all groups are diligent about explaining up front that the right to have your input taken into account is joined at the hip with the responsibility to extend that same courtesy to the viewpoints of others. If you come across as strident about what you want yet are not perceived to be working constructively what others have to say, it won't be long before you're deficit spending out of your social capital account. 

To be fair, it can get tricky in that being heard can be a prerequisite for some people's willingness to listen, and if people on opposite sides take that same attitude a stalemate is inevitable. Who gets listened to first? 

In any event, it's important to lay this understanding out clearly in the beginning. If you spring it on people for the first time when you want to hold their feet to the fire, it will not go well.

B. Making sure everyone knows when topics are being discussed and the appropriate window in which to offer input
This is about having and following a standard for announcing meetings ahead of time and making clear what topics will be discussed, so that interested parties can reasonably make plans to attend, or otherwise see that their input is delivered in a timely way. Complaining about people giving late input rings hollow when information about when the conversation is going to take place is obscure.

Further, when you take into account how common it is for people to miss meetings, you'd be well advised to regularly offer a defined opportunity for reflected input before closing the door on when it's OK to comment. 

Note: In order for this to work well you need good minutes (that go beyond recording decisions to include the rationale behind them) and a solid understanding of how minutes will be posted so that everyone knows where to look.

C. Making clear the difference between personal preferences and what's best for the group
Groups may want to hear personal preferences, yet are not obliged to accommodate them. On the other hand, they are obliged to take into account factors that everyone agrees are best for the whole.

It often makes a big difference if the group commits to training new people in the culture of cooperation, which teaches us to move away from survival of the fittest and toward what's best for the whole. If you're not careful about membership selection or don't invest in training the new folks, you're sowing the whirlwind and at risk of having things gummed up with a plethora of personal preferences.

Hint: Group-level concerns can be tied to group values and mission. Look for those linkages to validate the appropriateness of input.

D. Understanding the difference between identifying factors that need to be taken into account, and problem solving
One of the common ways that groups can get bogged down is when they're ill-disciplined about distinguishing between identifying what factors need to be taken into account, and figuring out how best to balance them. The first phase is expansive, during which advocacy is fine (even encouraged). The second phase is entirely different. It's contractive, and you're wanting participants to lay aside stump speeches and focus instead on the best way to bridge among the various group interests in play.

When groups fail to develop a culture where this distinction is understood, the plenary tends to vacillate between identifying factors and problem solving, with the inadvertent result that members can be inappropriately shrill (because they're speaking from advocacy) when others in the room have already moved on to the more creative and conciliatory phase of problem solving. Thus, participants deemed inappropriate may simply be confused about where the group is in the conversation and contributing where they can, as best they know how.

Strong, skillful facilitation can make a big difference here, making clearer where the conversation is at and what kinds of input are welcome.

E. Being clean when delegating authority
Sometimes late reactions to proposals expose problems with delegation. People may not be happy with who's been given a managership (or assigned to a committee), may feel that people are exceeding their authority (or attempting to), or may simply misunderstand that delegation has happened because there's sloppiness in minutes or the way they're distributed.

Thus, the person objecting to proposals or actions from the manager (or committee) may be complaining after the train has left the station, when the root of the concern is not that the train is in motion, but that the complainant believes they should have been given a schedule or had a say in who was on the crew, what the train's route would be, and whether it was a nonstop or a local.

These ambiguities can be cleaned up with sufficient care in how delegation happens and holding high standards for transparency, yet a lot of groups stumble over getting this right.
• • •The overarching theme in the points I've enumerated above is that it's essential to conduct business with impeccable process before considering the serious step of disallowing someone's input on the grounds of late arrival, or because it's coming from someone demonstrably out of account in insisting that their views be respected when there's no evidence of their having extended to others what they're outraged about not receiving themselves.

I realize that I'm focusing on a situation groups would rather not be in. Unfortunately, it's a lead pipe certainty that you will be (providing only that the group is large enough and lasts long enough). I offer this with the idea that it's a better strategy to have a map through the swamp then to keep searching for ways to avoid it, or to sit on a rock and wring your hands.

Weeding the Garden of Dissent

As a process consultant I regularly field requests to help groups liberate themselves from the swamp of unresolved conflict. While this can be tough stuff and worthy of skilled assistance, it has recently occurred to me that there are many points of "proto-conflict" that occur prior to the blooming of full-blown distress, when the first sprouts of dissent emerge in the group dynamic. If these are handled well, I believe it can avert a world of hurt later on. If not, fasten your seat belt. 

This blog is about recognizing and managing those early moments—it's about weeding the Garden of Dissent.

To be clear, the key problem is not dissent itself (if you endeavor to eliminate that, you'll have another problem; disagreement is the lifeblood of stimulation and growth); it’s the response to dissent that I'm focusing on. There are two points of leverage, both of which are worth cultivating with an eye toward limiting an unwanted harvest of conflict (in the unfortunate case where you let the weeds flourish unchecked).

Let's hold in the spotlight the moment when someone expresses disagreement with another person's idea or viewpoint. For the sake of this examination, let's say that Kelly is disagreeing with something that Jesse has said or written.

Part I: How Dissent is Expressed
There are a number of factors that bear on how this unfolds. As I walk through them, let's suppose that the group has decided to start a car co-op and Jesse favors buying a new Prius, while Kelly thinks it would be better to buy a used Jetta that can run on biodiesel. The new Prius will cost $25,000 and the used Jetta has 50,000 miles on it, is four years old, and costs $10,000. For the sake of simplicity, let's say those are the only two cars under consideration.

A. Kelly's mindfulness as a speaker
The more someone is aware of their audience and the ways that others in the group are open (or closed) to certain ideas and expressions, the better they'll be able to steer clear of known hazards in expressing their views. After all, the point is an exchange of ideas and information; not "winning," or breaking down someone's resistance.

Thus, Kelly might say, "I think it's way better to buy a used Jetta first, because it will save us $15,000 and we're much more likely to be able to recover our money if the car co-op idea fails and we have to sell assets." 

But knowing that Jesse and others in the group have had bad experiences with used cars breaking down and leaving them stranded, Kelly might say instead, "Although the Jetta will be far less money up front, I know that vehicle reliability is a factor in this choice, and Consumer Reports indicates that 2011 Jettas have a great reputation for low maintenance." [Disclaimer: I'm making this up for the sake of my example; I am neither endorsing nor deriding 2011 Jettas!]

B. Kelly's facility in expressing themselves accurately and cleanly (without provocative phrasing)
It's one thing to know what pitfalls to avoid (see the previous point); it's another to be good at stating something concisely, in a way that's easily understood, and with minimal risk of encountering an emotional trip wire for one or more members of the audience.

Thus, Kelly might say, "My household has been running Jettas for 10 years and we love them. I think the Prius fad is overblown and it irks me on principle to lose money to depreciation as soon as you drive a new car off the lot."

Prudence, however, suggests that Kelly might be better off with, "There are a number of things we have to balance in making this decision:
—The Jetta is $15,000 less to buy.
—The Prius can be expected to last longer.
—The Prius will be under warranty for three years; there will be no warranty with the Jetta.
—We expect the Prius to be more trouble-free because it's new.
—A car running on biodiesel is more eco-friendly than a hybrid, because most of the fuel can be produced from renewable resources.
—At 50 mpg and gasoline costing $3.40/gallon, it will take 200,000 miles before we've saved enough on fuel to cover the difference in purchase price, assuming the Jetta gets 28 mpg and biodiesel costs $3.98/gallon. So our decision, in part, depends on how many miles we think we'll drive co-op cars.

I prefer the Jetta both because I think it's more in line with our commitment to being ecologically progressive, and because I don't think we'll run our cars for 200,000 miles."

C. Kelly's understanding of how their input tends to land in the group
Beyond what is said (the actual point that Kelly intends to make), how things land also depends, in part, and what the group expects to happen. Thus, if the group is used to Kelly saying provocative things (or has a reputation as a Devil's Advocate), their loins may be girded as soon as Kelly has been called on to speak.

Thus, Kelly might say, "How do we know that the new model Prius won't be a lemon? At least with the Jetta we have a known quantity. Further, I don't trust oil company projections that gas prices will only rise gradually; if we're locked into a vehicle that depends on nonrenewable gasoline we'll be susceptible to being fucked in a few years."

If Kelly is aware that this swashbuckling style won't go well, they might say instead, "I think there's risk of mechanical trouble with either a new car or a used car; we'll have to decide which seems less risky. Also, I'd like to look at which vehicle we'd prefer in the event that fuels costs spiral up sharply. Does that change our thinking at all?"

D. Kelly's reactivity in the moment
If Kelly has a non-trivial emotional reaction to Jesse, that's likely to leak into what Kelly says about Jesse's idea. Depending on the group's sophistication in working with reactivity, Kelly could proceed in a couple of ways: a) owning their reaction at the front end of their statement; or b) figuring out some way to work through the reaction before expressing their dissent (this could be going for a walk outside, meditating, talking with a friend—there are many possibilities).

If Kelly plows ahead and speaks from reactivity you might get, "I'm totally opposed to buying the Prius. I think people are seeing it more as a status symbol (it's what hip Green people drive), than as a statement of ecological sustainability. I know the Jetta will cost more to run, but that's OK with me. I want to discourage people from driving so much and eliminate frivolous town trips." [Background: Jesse has two kids who engage in a lot of extracurricular activities at public school, requiring special trips to pick them up after the bus has left.]

If Kelly is aware of the reactivity, the statement might come out this way, "First I want to own that I'm having a reaction to the suggestion that we buy a Prius and it has nothing to do with our group. When I visited my parents last Christmas—in the McMansion suburbs of Chicago—I was shocked to see how many people were driving Priuses. When I asked Mom about it she said it had become trendy in the neighborhood as a painless way for people to show they care about the environment without loss of comfort or performance. 

"Holy shit, I thought, operating a hybrid car is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the lifestyle choices that are truly sustainable, and I want no part of being lumped with suburban greenwashing.

"I care passionately about our car co-op being part of the solution to the challenge of being sustainable, and it's odious to me if all we achieve is being chic. Thus, I want vehicles that are economical to operate, that run on renewable fuel, and that are reliable. Beyond that I want us to be trying hard to make do with fewer trips and doing more multitasking whenever we drive somewhere. Hopefully, having a car co-op will lead to our owning and operating fewer vehicles."

E. The quality of the relationship (resilient or brittle; casual or strong) between Kelly and Jesse
The better connected Kelly is with Jesse, the more likely it is that Kelly's dissent will be heard accurately and responded to constructively, wiht no residual animus. The reverse is also true. If there's a history of charged exchanges between Kelly & Jesse, then it's that much more likely that this exchange will go poorly as well—even to the point where Kelly might think twice about expressing their dissent (is it worth the possibility of a blow-up?).

If Kelly proceeds without taking this into account, they might say, "I am not persuaded by Jesse's advocacy for a Prius. Not enough weight is being given to using renewable fuel, and I don't think we'll ever get our money back from shelling out $15,000 more up front. I think the Prius is being supported mainly because it's seen as sexier than a Jetta."

However, if Kelly were sensitive to the fact that their relationship is not strong, that statement of dissent might be transformed into, "I get it that Jesse prefers the Prius, and understand the viewpoint that there may be a public relations benefit in choosing a vehicle that blatantly contradicts the mistaken idea that sustainable choices are always grim and result in an impoverished life, with people limping along.

"Nonetheless, it's hard for me to choose a car that uses nonrenewable fuel over one that doesn't, and I worry that the much higher sticker price for the Prius is money we'll never get back through fuel efficiency. Isn't conserving dollars part of being a model of sustainability also?"
• • • If speakers are interested in their opinions being received with an open mind, they'll be motivated to learn how to express them in ways that are minimally triggering. Hint: there's considerable value in first establishing that you've accurately heard the person you're disagreeing with—including why it matters to them—and then expressing your divergent views. People tend to be far more flexible in response to being challenged if they feel they've been fully heard. 

Part II: How Dissent is Received
Now let's take the other side: how Jesse responds to Kelly's dissent. The factors here include:

F. How well Jesse feels their viewpoint was understood by Kelly
It's not unusual for someone's first thought when encountering resistance to be that the dissenter didn't fully understand their idea, or the reasoning that undergirds it. And sometimes that's the case! So it's important to sort misunderstanding from disagreement. If this happens in the context of a group meeting, the facilitator can often lend a hand in sorting this out.

Warning: for some people it's hard to allow for the possibility that someone might dislike their idea on its merits, and for them dissent gets translated into one of two distortions: a) you didn't understand what I said; or b) you dislike me and are taking it out on my idea. When you have such a person in the group, it's all the more important that you can establish early on that this is not about mishearing or vendetta; it's about disagreement. 

G. Jesse's emotional state prior to hearing Kelly's dissent
In addition to the possibility that Kelly is in reaction, Jesse might be in reaction also. Perhaps because of what someone else (not Kelly) said; perhaps because of a fight they had with their partner at breakfast; perhaps because the time is getting squeezed to cover this topic in the meeting and that's upsetting—it could be any number of things. 

However, regardless of how they got triggered, if they are, then that becomes a factor in how well they can accurately hear what Kelly says and are able to put a constructive spin on why. As distress levels rise, so does distortion—even to the point where nothing is getting in. While it's rarely that bad, all parties need to be alert to the possibility of distortion and what to do to bring distress down to the point where the distortion is minor and manageable.

This is the mirror image of point D above, and Jesse has the same options that Kelly had.

H. The personal work Jesse has done (if any) to better understand and manage their reactivity
It will help a lot if Jesse is aware of being in distress and can self-disclose. Of course, reactivity will be less likely if Jesse feels confident that they were heard well when expressing their ideas originally, or if Kelly is able to express their dissent in minimally provocative ways.

Warning: there is a trap here in the group dynamic. If the group advocates that members do personal work to be more emotionally aware, then there can be reaction to the lack of having done that work (and spewing in the group), independent of the quality of the speaker's thinking. If emotional maturity is a standard, then there can be a tendency to be irritated whenever people express upset. If this happens, people will quickly learn to suppress upset (to appear more mature and gain group approbation), and that's the road to hell.

I. The degree of connectedness and trust between Jesse and the group in general
If Jesse feels well-connected in the group then disagreement will not be as threatening to their standing in the group, and trust in the connection will create some leeway to explore differences without Jesse feeling that their credibility and social capital depends on their idea prevailing—which is an association you don't want Jesse to be making.

J. The degree of connectedness and trust between Jesse and Kelly
It also matters how well Jesse feels connected to Kelly, whether there are unresolved tensions from past exchanges, and how confident Jesse is that they can work with Kelly productively. If Jesse has respect for Kelly as a group member that helps. If Jesse finds Kelly's contributions to be half-baked or frivolous, it isn't going to go so well. This point is the flip side of E above.
• • • In general, you want the lowest possible barrier to dissent being expressed, and the greatest possible attention to relationship between the speaker and recipient. Often, the assumption of good intent can be lost (or at least mislaid) in the heat of the moment. When dissent lands as a threat, you're off to the races unless you can clear that up on the spot.

My hope in composing this monograph is that a deeper understanding of the pitfalls of dissent may lead to managing misunderstandings and reactivity before it develops into conflict and dysfunctional patterns—where it tends to be much more difficult to root out.

Happy harvesting!

Outcome-based Expectations

Most intentional communities expect members to contribute in non-monetary ways to the development and well-being of the group. While there are all manner of questions to address in setting this up fairly and sensitively (see my blog Working with Work for an outline of the key questions), today I want to drill down on what happens if you define expectations in terms of output or accomplishments rather than hours.

The impulse to go this way comes from the realization that all hours are not equal. Everyone is not interchangeably proficient at the same tasks; everyone doesn't lean into the work with the same enthusiasm; and everyone has a different idea of what a 10-minute break is (or how frequently it's OK to take them). Thus, there can be considerable variance in how much productive work people accomplish in the same unit of time, and basing expectations on outcomes is an attempt to get around that. ("Take as much time mopping the kitchen floor as you like; just do a thorough job.")

The downside of this approach is the difficulty in equalizing baseline contributions—which is demonstrably one of the goals in setting participation standards. For all their faults and crudeness, hours is a uniformly understood concept and easy to equalize. Thus, the concept that every member is expected to contribute 10 hours per month is straight forward to grasp; yet it's awkward establishing how many snow shovelings of the front walk equate to balancing the community's checkbook, or how many deep cleans of the common house kitchen amount to the same contribution as convening the committee that oversees common house operations.

Embedded in this rat's nest are a number of questions:
o  Does all work count equally (even assuming equal proficiency)?
o  How do you determine task equivalents excepting by comparing the amount of time it takes to accomplish them competently (which gets you right back to hours)?
o  Even if you were able to parcel out jobs equally (which I'm questioning), how will you take into account that people are not equally thorough in how they clean a floor (never mind how fast they are)?

For all these reasons groups tend to find it simpler to go with expectations based on hours. I'm not saying it's perfect; I'm saying it's simple and a reasonable approximation.

That said, I am in favor of laying out what's needed to do a job well. Thus, "cleaning the kitchen floor" can be delineated to mean:

Every Sunday morning:
—remove all containers and furniture from the kitchen, dusting and cleaning surfaces as you go.
—sweep the floor.
—wet mop the entire floor.
—empty all recycling and trash containers, cleaning the containers if needed.
—on the first Sunday of each month, hand scrub the floor instead of wet mopping.

While there will still be differences in the degree to which people scrape up blobs of waxy residue that resist coming off with scrubbing, spelling out expectations will definitely reduce the range of how differently people perform a task.

In deciding how to set up a standard of work expectations, it behooves groups to think through what they're trying to accomplish. In addition to the work itself (getting the kitchen floor cleaned), there may be the desire to:

o  Create a sense of unity among members (we're all in this together—in part, because we all contribute a baseline amount of volunteer labor to the group).

o  See that labor expectations are fair, adjusted for capacity and life circumstances.

o  Promote camaraderie among members through working together (thus cleaning the kitchen as part of a team is seen as superior to encouraging cleaners to do it alone at 2 am). 

o  Teach members new skills, which suggests that people be given work assignments partly based on desire, and not solely on credentials or proven competency, It may also suggest term limits on how long one person can retain a popular assignment. 

There is also a subtler value here: by encouraging members to try many things it creates more familiarity with the full range of tasks being done. In turn, this promotes sympathy and understanding with what others are doing, helping to reduce tensions related to martyr and slacker dynamics.
• • •The point of illuminating the richness of things that groups hope to accomplish through members' non-monetary contributions is to give a sense of how much nuance is involved. When you digest that, I wouldn't worry too much about measuring expectations in terms of hours. While outcomes may be a truer measure of what's wanted, they're a booger to quantify and at the end of the day what's most important is that there's good energy—not how efficiently someone cleaned the kitchen floor, or that everyone did exactly the same amount on the groups' behalf.

Money, Sex, and Power in Community

I recently had an email exchange with a friend who wrote about a presentation he gave entitled, "Money, Sex and Power.” He had this to say about it:

It dealt with "happiness" via the question of whether or not one's basics needs for money, sex, and power are being met or not. And how that is foundational for developing the elements of higher consciousness: compassion, creativity, collaboration, insight, spiritual growth, etc. [My friend’s point was that people will seldom focus on those other things unless basic needs are met first.] A favorite phrase of mine is: "I've never seen anyone reach enlightenment while being chased by a pack of hungry wolves (or hungry bankers)!"

Thus, if you want to know how happy the members of any particular group are, you might first ask how well their community handles money, sex, and power as a practical matter.

When I reflect on what I know about how communities relate to money, sex, and power, it seems to me the patterns play out distinctively for each need, and it's instructive to examine them one at a time.

First though, I want to offer an overarching caveat. How members of intentional communities are faring with respect to money, sex, and power is not causally related to whether the community wades into these topics, and good answers on the individual level may not be matched by good answers on the group level. So don't conflate the two. That said, they can be related, so let's look at what intentional communities do, and how that impacts the odds of their members being happy.

Money
In community, many people (especially those whose lives are grounded in the community and don’t work outside) are largely divorced from the day-to-day world of money. They may have already established a secure lifestyle through savings or passive income, or may have considerable access to community resources and that’s good enough. Their security is based on relationship more than money in the bank and they feel “rich.” To be clear, this does not negate my friend’s point, but it shows that money needs can be satisfied without a lot of attention to money, or, in some cases, without a lot of money.

All of that said, the majority of non-income-sharing groups (which 88-90% of intentional communities are) do not tackle the issue of members' needs for money excepting in the limited sense of what it takes from each member to cover common elements (debt load, road improvements, common facilities, capital replacement fund, etc.). That is, it's up to each household to figure out how to make enough money, and the community doesn't attempt to address it. 

It can even be worse than that. Some communities have a policy of not hiring members to provide services for the community—even when the need and the money are both present—to avoid the potential awkwardness of one member serving as another's employer.

While I think there is a lot good that can come from a community viewing itself as an economic engine and partnering with members to create flow, the other side of this coin is that most members who join non-income-sharing communities are not expecting the community to provide help with income generation, so it's not as if communities are failing to deliver on a promise.

Sex
Very few groups take this on. The overwhelming majority of communities consider this a private matter among consenting adults and that the group has no stake in sexual dynamics (outside of upholding group values around nonviolence and prohibiting illegal activities). This can get tricky when member choices lead to relationship tensions that don't resolve well (because the group is demonstrably affected by what's happening yet has no license to step in), yet it's rare for a group to create a forum to discuss what's happening.

To be sure, there have been some notable exceptions over the years—groups that expressly did take an active role in examining and promoting sexual development (and experimentation) among members—yet they stand out all the more for being exceptions rather than the rule. Here are half a dozen that did so for at least a part of their history, some contemporary; some historical:
—Kerista (who coined the term polyamory)
—Ganas
—Zendik
—Oneida (the 19th Century community in upstate New York that advocated for free love and practiced “stirpiculture,” a form of eugenics)
—Shakers (who were celibate)
—ZEGG (a German community which inspired the Network for a New Culture in the US)

While I agree that sex is a universal drive, that drive is not uniformly compelling for everyone. Intentional community can be a great place to find a partner if you're aligned with the group's values and it's important that your partner is as well. Otherwise, community living tends to be a house of mirrors, where things you were hoping to keep private don't tend to stay that way. 

On the plus side, it is often possible in community to weather a break-up without either party moving away. There tends to be enough no-fault support for both players, and enough psychic space to heal. This can be especially helpful when there are kids involved—yet this is more about damage control than getting one's sexual needs met.

In general, I'd say that most intentional communities want their members to be sexually satisfied, yet decline to play any significant role in helping to make that happen.

Power
Whether communities are comfortable with it or not, all group dynamics are exercises in the use of power, by which I mean how one member influences another. (If you question this, when was the last time you were in a meeting where no one had any influence over anyone else?) The question is not so much whether people are exercising power, as it is about how they're exercising power: is it power over (for the benefit of a subset at the expense of others) or power with (for the benefit of all)?

Amazingly, despite the universality of its presence, most groups do not openly discuss it, or have a clear understanding of how to handle the situation where there's the perception that power has been used poorly. While I can sympathize with this not being easy, it doesn't get better for being ignored and it can be a large plus if the group can find the gumption and facility to address tensions related to power as they emerge.

However,  I'm using power in a different way than my friend. He was talking, I think, about having a sense of personal power—not so much the ability to influence what others do as the ability to steer one's own ship—of being able to control one's own destiny. 

I think community can help with that because individuals are likely to get more support for what they want in a community of like-valued people, where it's the norm for members to help each other. (It may be true, as John Donne avers, that no person is an island, yet we are nonetheless each distinct and life tends to be more enjoyable if you live in an archipelago, rather than off by yourself, surrounded by nothing but water in all directions. Community offers connectivity, and ameliorates isolation.) 

At the same time, it's only fair to look at how this can go the other way. In community, lives are intertwined to the point where there's greater potential for others to monkey wrench what you'd like to do, and this can be highly frustrating.

On the whole, if community members are mainly using power cleanly then you'll tend to like the results and feel happier. The reverse obtains if members often use power in service to personal agendas not broadly shared in the group. 

Putting a Lid on It

Colloquially, advising some to "put a lid on it" translates into a request to shut up, or shut down. Well, yesterday that's exactly what I did.

In this case, I was shutting up Sandhill's new 12,000 gallon cistern, which involved pouring 4.75 cubic yards of concrete. The trickiest part was getting the forming right over a rectangular hole that was approximately 8'x25', so that the concrete went where we wanted it—and stayed there while it cured. As that amount of wet concrete weighs something north of a ton, you don't even want to think about the mess we'd have had if the forms had failed and the concrete slumped into the cistern. "Dismay"is not even in the same solar system as the emotional response that would have ensued. Although I had configured the shoring entirely with wood—something I was doing for the first time—everything held and the pour went smoothly (if you don't count Sandhill's pet kitten who mistakenly thought it would be clever to jump onto the wet concrete, and who realized immediately that something was very wrong).

Afterwards, the driver of the concrete truck (Dennis) admitted that he was worried about the forming holding up to the task. As there is no end of the amateurs buying ready-mix for backyard projects, you have to assume that drivers see just about everything, and Dennis had been delivering concrete for at least a decade. When he complimented us on the stoutness of our forming, I knew it was because he was not originally confident that we knew what we were doing. And so, in turn, I complimented him on keeping that opinion to himself until we were done. Whew.

While there is still be a good bit of work left before we can start capturing rain from the roof, the hard parts are now done and that was the bulk of my assignment. In the days ahead I'll oversee the wiring and the installation of the submersible pump, and advise on how to handle the overflow and the best way to connect the guttering to the cistern intake, yet these oddments are relatively straight forward and it feels good to have honored my commitment to build Sandhill a cistern—something I promised to do when I left the community last Thanksgiving.

Noticing how sore my back is today I'm wondering how much it makes sense to undertake this kind of work for anyone in the future. While it's never been easy for me to accept physical limitations—especially for things I used to be able to handle in stride—it's all the harder when I feel my knowledge about how to do things and my understanding of good technique have never been greater. Nonetheless, it may be time for me to put on lid on heavy construction. Sigh. 

Maybe in the future I can be the guy who rescues the mischievous kittens and redirects the ill-disciplined dogs. Kind of like a New Age Walmart greeter.

Show for Shirt and Shine

As a consultant I float a lot of bread on the water.

Every year I attend community events and offer workshops without compensation so that people can get a taste of what I know, and how I deliver it. Sometimes this leads to paid work directly (within 12 months); sometimes the seeds are slow germinating and the fruit doesn’t ripen for years (last year, for example, I worked for a group that I first interested in 2003—it was a long wait); sometimes nothing happens.

I was doing a version of that at the Twin Oaks Communities Conference last weekend, when I moderated a panel on Radical Sharing Platforms, conducted a discussion exploring Community Businesses (their challenges and opportunities), and led an introductory workshop on Consensus & Facilitation.

Following the weekend I spent three days in Floyd VA visiting my dear friend Annie. While there, I was approached by a nearby forming community who got excited about how I might be able to assist their formation based on the taste a couple members had gotten at the Twin Oaks event. Thus, on Thursday (while Annie worked for a neighbor) I was whisked away for three hours with the new group: a quick one-hour tour of the built facilities and the new construction in progress, followed by a two-hour power lunch with nine folks, none of whom had ever lived in community before. Happily, they were an eager audience, the conversation was fast paced, and I had a lot of fun.

I knew going in that this was a pro bono demonstration of what I might be able to offer as a consultant, and it’s too early to tell if any seeds I sowed with this group will sprout or not. In the restaurant business, they’d call what I did a “show,” where would-be customers are given a look at servings of what’s on the menu to see if it’s ample enough and mouthwatering enough to order. (For some reason this request is particularly common at barbecue joints.)

After two hours of fielding rapid-fire questions about foundational structure and community agreements (we ran out of time, not questions) people were in a pretty good mood. As a thank you, my host offered me a t-shirt with the community logo on it, which I gracefully accepted (I can always use a new t-shirt). While I’ve collected quite a few of those from clients over the years (as well as bill caps), I enjoy getting them. Then it got better.

Among the nine gathered for lunch was a neighbor who was somewhere north of 60—yet sharp, spry, and entrepreneurial. We'd had some productive exchanges and I'd enjoyed the repartee. As we were getting up from the table she asked me to keep a lookout on her behalf for a new husband. I double clutched for half a second to make sure she was serious (she was), and then promptly promised to keep my eyes open. While that request is much rarer than the offer of a t-shirt, it’s not the first time I’ve been asked to provide yenta services on the side, nor do I expect it to be the last.

When I related the story to Annie and Carla (a mutual friend who arrived at Annie’s for an overnight just as I returned from my “show”), they both wanted to know if the woman was indirectly inquiring about my availability to play stallion. While flattering on some level, I quickly quashed that idea. I’ve got all the woman I can handle back in Missouri.

Then it got more interesting still (so to speak).

In our final minutes together we somehow wandered into a light-hearted conversation about local culture, and before I knew it someone had gone into the kitchen and returned with mason jar of clear, local moonshine—which the husband-seeking widow was happy to sample straight from the jar (at one in the afternoon, mind you) offering me an on-the-spot testament as to its authenticity and potency—after which the remainder was pressed upon me as a token of their appreciation for the day.

This exchange immediately evoked for me the 2008 novel by Matt Bondurant, The Wettest County in the World, which describes (with poetic license) the wild bootlegging days of his forefathers in Franklin County VA (which is quite close to where this exchange took place). And I naively thought this activity had largely evaporated in the first half of the 20th Century. Ha ha.

There was definitely something different about this group, and they’d finally hit upon something I’d never been offered or requested before. While there’s no knowing where this might lead, one thing is certain: we took a shine to each other and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Brownie Returns!

Like a lot of kids, I had a favorite stuffed animal when I was young: a small brown dog I called Brownie. Unlike most kids, I didn't get Brownie until I was a teen. At an age when most have grown out of attachment to stuffed animals, I grew into it.

While I don't recall why I wanted a stuffed animal going into junior high, there it is and I became very attached to my little buddy. Not only did I have him next to my pillow all through my remaining years at home, but he was my faithful companion as I:
o  Attended four years at Carelton College (1967-71).
o  Went to Washington for my two-year stint as a junior bureaucrat at the US Dept of Transportation (1971-73).
o  Traveled across country in a motor home for seven months while Annie, Dave Oser, Margaret Loud, and I explored America, a la Charles Kuralt (1973-74).
o  Pioneered Sandhill Farm (1974 onward).

All of that said, somewhere in the mid-80s I lost him. I know Brownie was still a regular occupant of my bed when Ceilee was born (1981) and Annie and I have a picture of them sleeping together in his toddler years. But I changed bedrooms a few times in the 1985-95 era (it's a semi-pro sport in income-sharing communities) and somewhere along the line Brownie got put in a box for "safe keeping" and never resurfaced. Ugh. 

Though I had lost touch with Brownie, the memories remained. When I was in high school, some careless friends were visiting my house one day and decided it would be clever to stuff Brownie into the corner pocket of the pool table in our rec room. When they pulled him out as a surprise, they tore his shoulder. The subsequent suturing was not up to hospital standards and he's been slowly leaking stuffing ever since.

He came factory equipped with a squeaker in one ear (a feature I never enjoyed; I prefer my stuffed animals to be soft all over and mute—unless I'm talking directly to them), and Annie performed a squeakerectomy sometime in the early '70s. Though the operation was a complete success, he retains a worn spot on his ear where the squeaker rubbed the fur off.

For a couple years in the late '90s (1996-98) I dated a yoga instructor who also had stuffed animals: Alex McGee (while I don't think Brown Bear and Gray Bear were a major factor in our getting together, it didn't hurt). When we broke up, the two aspects of our time together that endured the longest were my yoga practice (Alex got me going) and Brown Bear (who came to me in the "divorce").

While Brown Bear (BB) has become well integrated into my life (though he rarely does road trips, he's a steady fixture in my bed), I've made sure over the years that Brown Bear does not suffer the same fate of as the wandering Brownie. This has been made easier in that my wife, Ma'ikwe, came as a package deal with Rufus, a stuffed gray sea lion of approximately the same size and temperament as BB. They hang out together a lot, and we have a stuffed animal friendly bed. In fact, on many mornings we also have one of our Maine Coon cats join us, either Kyre or Galileo. It can be a real menagerie.

The Prodigal Brownie Appears
Last month I made the momentous decision to leave Sandhill (my community home of 40 years) and move in with Ma'ikwe at Moon Lodge, our house at Dancing Rabbit. That meant clearing out all my stuff from Sandhill. Ugh.

Last week, while unpacking one of the myriads boxes pressed into service to facilitate the move, lo and behold I discovered Brownie. Holy shit! Where had he been the last 30 years? I couldn't even imagine how he'd gotten into the box (which was loaded with an array of miscellany from my room) without my knowing it—that crafty old dog.

It happened that this joyous reunion occurred while I was alone (Ma'ikwe, who had never even met Brownie, was in Chicago delivering Jibran to college) so all I did was place Brownie (lovingly) atop the headboard of our marriage bed, where he could get a little fresh air (finally) and survey the whole scene without getting tangled up with Rufus or BB (much less Kyre or Leo). 

Ma'ikwe and I only overlapped a couple days before it was time for me to head East for FIC meetings and the Twin Oaks Communities Conference, and it slipped my mind to tell her about my discovery. In fact, up until a few days ago I hadn't shared this news with anyone. However, once I arrived at Annie's it all came out. You should have seen Annie's jaw drop when I told her that Brownie had resurfaced—it was a resurrection of biblical proportions and she was gobsmacked.

When I skyped my wife yesterday I remembered to tell her about the discovery and Ma'ikwe promptly went into the bedroom and brought the little darlin' out for show and tell. Annie was overjoyed to see the rascal. We still need to give some healing attention to his old shoulder injury, but there will be plenty of opportunity for that this winter. No more time in the penalty box for Brownie!
• • •As I think about it, it's turned out to be a great fortnight for connections:
—Visiting with dear friend Ella Peregrine in Louisville en route to VA. She's been struggling with Myalgic Enchephalitis the last seven years and it's precious to be with her, even for half a day.—Taking Jenny Upton out to dinner, celebrating all her selfless years of service to FIC.
—Having a power breakfast last Friday with Peter Lazar, who's reviving a cohousing project in the Charlottesville area (on property near Crozet).
—Working the Community Bookstore table at the TO Conference with Elke Lerman, an ex-partner (1986-89) and good friend who is also the mother of my daughter, Jo.
—Catching up with Scott Williams, who used to be part of FIC's Membership Committee back around 2001. He came to the Twin Oaks because he needed to be in the area to help settle his aging mother in a nursing home. He's living happily in Tucson now, and I hadn't seen him in a dozen years.
—Seeing Jake Kawatzki, a long-time member Twin Oaker, who had visited Sandhill any number of times over the decades. He attended the conference and I hadn't seen him since he'd moved to Savannah seven years ago.
—Visiting with Annie for three days before returning home. We share a son (Ceilee) and she's one of my closest friends—going all the way back to Brownie!
—Talking with Ceilee yesterday. He's life has been in turmoil the last 20 months and I had not spoken with him for more than three months. Yikes! It was great to hear his voice and reestablish the primacy of our caring for each other. 

All of that and now I have Brownie, too, the first stuffed love of my life. Life is good.

The Business of Community Business

This weekend I'm at the annual Twin Oaks Communities Conference—something I've participated in for the last 20 years or so. It's a regular stop on my calendar.

I get to do some workshops, see old friends, sell books for Community Bookstore, help pull off a benefit auction for FIC (we made over $1300!), and have innumerable conversations with people seeking more community in their life. It's a lot of fun.

The best part (so far) has been pioneering a new workshop on Community Business. For the last few years I've been collaborating with my friend, Terry O'Keefe (Asheville NC), to figure out ways to help intentional communities have more robust economic activity, and we wanted to test the waters for interest in that focus.

Although our late afternoon Saturday workshop was not advertised in the conference program (we announced it for the first and only time at the opening circle Saturday morning), we drew about 20 folks and had a lively conversation throughout. It turned out that Terry and I were not the only ones with attention on economic sustainability. Hurray!

While it's too early to tell if that workshop interest can be translated into a business model (consulting with cooperative groups about how to be more business savvy), but it was an encouraging sign.

Here's are some of the questions that attendees were interested in:

o  When does it make more sense for the community to own a business, and when does it make more sense for individual members to own it?

It depends on whether it's an income-sharing community or not, what structure gives you the best chance of manifesting the management energy needed to operate the business, and how much you want the business to generate jobs for members.

o  What advantages might communities have in the marketplace?

—Often communities develop expertise in an area to meet their own needs, and that learning can have immediate commercial application (in ways that home-scale experiences often don't).

—Community members member tend to have above-average social skills (think customer service) and are happy to work part-time if they can work at home with flexible hours.

—Communities often control land or have commonly held buildings that are underutilized.

o  How tricky is it to navigate the dynamic where members are both peer-peer and employer-employee?

The hardest part may be when the employer gives the employee critical feedback about their performance as an employee—and these two are otherwise neighbors. This can be dicey, and a lot will depend on how well the culture of the community supports the expression of feedback.

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

There are at least two parts to this: a) what can communities do to foster and support business development among entrepreneurial members; and b) what can groups do to help new businesses create jobs for non-entrepreneurial members?

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

While I think you can dial down demand (and live happily on less), it nonetheless makes sense to be smart about analyzing prospects for new business ideas with tried and true traditional queries (what's the market for your product or service?; what's the competition?; what do you do better than anyone else?; what do you love doing?; can you produce or deliver this product or service at a price people are willing to pay?; how is your business an expression of who you want to be in the world?)

o  How do handle the tension between the non-entrepreneurial (who tend to be risk averse) and the entrepreneurial (who tend to be risk tolerant)?

You had this tension already, whether you have community businesses or not. This is just another application of it. It's a better strategy to learn to deal with the breadth of attitudes among your members than attempt to eliminate opportunities for those differences to manifest.
• • •Now all Terry and I have to do is sift through all the dialog and figure out how to offer services that help groups navigate this gauntlet of economic challenges. While I don't yet know what that looks like, I'm looking forward to it (which is a typical entrepreneurial response).

231 Bottles of Beer on the Wall

Last evening Marty Klaif, Diana Malsky, Harvey Baker and I took Jenny Upton and Dan Questenberry out to dinner.

Among other things all of us have served, at one time or another, on FIC's Oversight Committee (the subgroup that steers the ship between Board meetings) and our "official" excuse for last night's dinner was recognizing that Jenny had recently retired from active duty with the Fellowship. We figured she'd appreciate dinner (and a bottle of Washington State chardonnay) with friends more than a commemorative bowl or a wall plaque.

Dan & Jenny and Marty & Diana live at Shannon Farm in Afton VA. Harvey and I drove there Tuesday for two days of Oversight meetings with Marty (we three continue to be actively involved with FIC while Dan, Diana, and Jenny have gone on to other things)  Even though it was a Wed night (not exactly the high point in a restauranteur's week), we had to wait for a table at the new seafood place in nearby Nellysford, and thus dinner stretched into a three-hour affair. 

While awaiting delivery of our hors d'oeuvres we calculated that among the six of us veterans we had a cumulative 231 years of community living under our belts—with another six getting tacked on every time we sing Auld Lang Syne. That's a lot of meetings. One of the very best aspects of community living is that you do it with others, and last night was a time to celebrate long standing connections in all directions across the table.

Ankle Boots and Raincoats
While the conversation was free-ranging, the one constant all evening was easy laughter. Which I suppose is as good a marker as any for what it takes to thrive in community. If you can't occasionally step back and be amused by the absurdity of some of the dynamics we encounter in the nutrient-rich environment of community, things can get pretty exhausting. If you take everything seriously, you're at risk of spending every day ankle deep in bile and embroilment, growing ulcers on the side.

How bad can it be? Earlier in the week the FIC office received this communication from a correspondent who was unhappy with my being firm about not permitting hate speech and anti-gay statements on our website:

The fake, truth and God-hating Laird Schaub deleted my account because of fraudulent emails that he sent. He is a member of the gay mafia and wants to legalize child molestation.
 

Then he created fake accounts on ic.org to make fun of me. With so called Christian Jews self identifying as khazars. If Laird Schaub is a real person, which I seriously doubt, he is a very sick person. Whoever is using that alias is a spineless, ballless coward; an absolute vermin of the nth degree.
 

When The Lord's vengeance is poured out upon him justice will be served.

Can you feel the love? I'm telling you, being in the community business is not dull. In the case of FIC correspondence, the forecast every day is the same: cloudy with a chance of nutballs.

The moment at our dinner table last night that brought us closest to tears (of laughter) was when we came to agreement about the necessity of having a fine-tuned bullshit detector when wading through community dynamics—and ankle boots and a raincoat help, too (so you don't have to wash your hair or change pants so often). Be sure to get yourself some.

Now that it's the morning after, I'm glad we didn't try something sophomoric last night, like toasting every year we've known each other. We have another day of meetings today and hangovers do not associate well with quality thinking. At least we had enough oversight last night to not make that mistake.

Serendipity and College Recruitment

This past week, Ma'ikwe & Marqis dropped off their 17-year-old son, Jibran (my stepson), at college. It's the start of new adventure—both for Jibran and for Ma'ikwe & me, who will be living together alone for the first time in our nine years of intimacy.

Jibran is attending Shimer College in Chicago (it shares a campus with the Illinois Institute of Technology), a well-aged liberal arts school with the tagline, "dangerously optimistic since 1853." Given that they have fewer than 200 students, I reckon any school that sustains itself on such a shoestring enrollment has earned its optimism. For crying out loud, the school started before the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

In honor of Jibran's rite of passage, I want to share the amazing story of how he came to Shimer, an institution of higher learning that no one in our household had heard of before the evening of Nov 4, 2012—which most people recall as the night that Obama was elected to a second term.

The Front Story of Jibran's Recruitment
Let's go back to that fateful night almost 22 months ago. Ma'ikwe was suffering through another bad year battling Lyme disease, and she and Jibran were just ending a week of R&R with Ma'ikwe's mother—Kay, who lives in nearby Canandaigua and who had dropped them off at the Rochester RR depot in time for the scheduled 11 pm departure of the westbound Lake Shore Limited to Chicago. 

Right before the Amtrak stop, Kay, Ma'ikwe, and Jibran (three generations of Howards) had been watching election results in a Rochester bar, but the Presidential winner was still too close to call when it was time to catch the choo choo. Not possessing a smart phone, and finding no television or internet signal in the Rochester depot, Jibran walked up to a stranger and asked if the woman would mind checking the latest election results on her iPhone. She didn't, and they struck up a conversation as they watched the tallies come in.

Impressed with Jibran's perspicacious political commentary, the woman (Susan Henking), casually asked about Jibran's education. He openly shared that he was only 15 and was being privately tutored at Dancing Rabbit, a budding ecovillage in northeast Missouri. Susan suggested that he consider thinking about enrolling at Shimer College when he was ready to move beyond high school. It just so happened that Susan had recently been appointed Shimer's President.

Whoa! Impressed that a college president would find time for a thoughtful conversation with a odd-duck teenager, Jibran started looking into Shimer and liked what he saw. Among other things, it's a Great Books school, which means that their core approach to learning is reading source materials, followed by lots of discussion and writing. As a budding epistemologist, this appealed to Jibran greatly (who's never met a philosophical podcast he didn't like). In addition, Shimer does not ask applicants to submit a high school diploma, GED, or SAT scores (none of which Jibran possessed)—you just have to favorably impress the admissions office with your essay and interview.

Not only does Jibran come with a minimal academic paper trail, but he's entering college one year ahead of his age cohort. While some colleges may balk at that, at Shimer they don't blink—you're ready when you're ready. (In fact, Ma'ikwe reported that their incoming freshman class this year spans an age range of 15-28, which means that Jibran is not even the youngest.)

In any event, Jibran is now a freshman at Shimer. Talk about a long-shot coming in! To the best of our knowledge, Susan does not make a habit of trolling railroad depots in the wee hours for incoming recruits (but maybe she should).

The Back Story of Jibran's Recruitment
Ma'ikwe got back from Chicago yesterday morning, and one of the first things she shared with me was a conversation she had with Susan, in which the Prez revealed why she was at the Rochester train depot that evening with time enough for a recruitment pitch in her chance encounter with Jibran. Yes, she was also boarding the the train to Chicago, but she was there unusually early because she'd had a tiff with the friend she was visiting and they decided it might be as well to end their visit early, resulting in Susan putting in some serious bench time at the depot. 

Apparently Susan wasn't having her best day, and Jibran turned out to be the silver lining. If she'd arrived right before the train departed—as most travelers do—it's probable that Jibran and Susan would never have met. Then where would we be? Probably still scratching our heads over when Jibran would move out of the Moon Lodge loft and whither he'd be going.

I'm telling you, you can't make shit like this up.

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