Laird's Blog

You, and an Established Group that Is Committed to Operating Cooperatively

Today I am completing my blog series on power in cooperative groups:

Part 1: Yourself

Part 2: You and a New Group   

Part 3: You, and an Established Group that is Not Committed to Cooperative Culture

Part 4: You, and an Established Group that Is Committed to Operating Cooperatively

While being "committed to operating cooperatively" will not, alas, necessarily mean that the group has discussed power and its distribution in the group, at least you should be able to count on a constructive response when that request bubbles up. I expect, for instance, cooperative groups to understand the distinction between "power over" and "power with," and to not be stuck on the naive hope that power can be evenly distributed in the group.

In the best groups (the ones furthest along in working well with power), you'll find four distinctive features. (I'm aiming pretty high here, so don't get discouraged if your group isn't doing any of these yet—much less all of them.)

1.  They'll be able to handle conversations about the misuse of power without going thermonuclear
This is not easy to do. In fact, most groups don't have these kind of conversations at all. They are just too scary. Yet the reverse is scary, too—where people only discuss it in the parking lot.

A claim that power has been misused is, essentially, an accusation that someone used their influence for the benefit of some, and at the expense of others. This type of criticism commonly gets translated into impugning one's integrity and it can be hard to create a container strong enough to hold all the energy and to preserve the relationships. Handled poorly this kind of conflict can split a group in two. Not pretty.

So being able to work power at this depth requires that the group be able to handle conflict deftly. It's a tall order, yet it's something the group needs to do well anyway.

2.  Power will be expressly be included in new member orientation
While it doesn't seem to be that difficult to articulate the concept of "power with" it's been my experience that groups rarely discuss power dynamics with new folks because it tends to be a work in progress and the group may not be that proud of what it's accomplished.

If someone asked me what to look for when visiting a group they were considering joining, I'd suggest they pay particular attention to how openly the group discuses how power is distributed. If they are not open with you up front, how can you count on it getting better?

3.  The group will have a plan for developing the leadership capacity of all members
This is a definite step beyond recognizing how power is distributed in the group, and being able to talk about imbalances openly. If you do not have the distribution you want, how can you remedy that? While you cannot simply give people power (influence), you can purposefully invest in them and in their leadership capacity. You can give them opportunities to lead that are appropriate to whatever development stage they're at. You can invest in your members so that they will be more influential in the future as they accumulate experience.

4. Managers and committees will be regularly evaluated 
For this to make sense, there need to be job descriptions and an enumeration of the qualities wanted in people filling positions in the group. This establishes objective standards against which to assess performance. Further, it should be some group's job (Personnel Committee?) to see that this happens on a regular rotation and with a consistent, caring process. (Heaven help you if you only dust off evaluations when someone has been coloring outside the lines or is shirking their duties and you want to slap their wrists—it'll be a bloodbath.)

Evaluations should be may things: time for tweaking and improving mandates, a time for mid-course corrections, and a time to celebrate what's working well.
• • •If a group is hitting on all four of these cylinders, there should be plenty of power for acceleration and braking as needed. But even if you aren't running on those four levels (yet), consider it a blueprint for the peppy group vehicle you always wanted.

Power in Cooperative Groups, Part 3: You, and an Established Group that is Not Committed to Cooperative Culture

Today I am continuing my blog series on power in cooperative groups:
Part 1: Yourself
Part 2: You and a New Group  
Part 3: You, and an Established Group that is Not Committed to Cooperative Culture
Part 4: You and an Established Group that is Committed to Operating Cooperatively

The subject of today's focus is the situation where you are committed to cooperative culture but the group in question is not. To be clear, it's not that the group has expressly declined to be cooperative; it may never have discussed it (or only given it cursory consideration, such that the de facto culture of the group is not cooperative).

(As it happens, this phenomenon—creating an internal culture that is far less cooperative than you'd expect from looking at the group values—is endemic among intentional communities. In fact, it's one of the principle reasons I get steady work as a group dynamics consultant, because unleashing competitive dynamics in the thick of would-be cooperative culture is like letting a fox loose in the hen house—it gets bloody real quick—even when everyone is dressed up to look like poultry.)

Assessing How Cooperative a Group's Culture Is 
Consider this series of diagnostic questions:

1. When the stakes get high, are meetings more or less a battlefield over which the fate of issues is decided, with winners and losers? 
2. Is it risky to reveal inner doubts or moral anguish because it will be seen as weakness? 
3. Is it savvy to line up allies before an issue comes up for consideration, the better to steer things in a productive direction once the meeting starts?
4. Are members cautious about how information is shared because of concerns over how it might be misconstrued, or leaked in embarrassing ways?
5. Is the expression of distress seen as loss of self-control, or perhaps interpreted nefariously (as in crying or getting angry to manipulate outcomes or to control what gets discussed)?
6. Is there a significant emphasis placed on meetings being efficient (to dispose of issues quickly)?
7. If Member A finds Member B's group behaviors challenging, is Member A more likely to discuss that with Member B, than with Member C (who may or may not have the same issues with Member B)?
8. Do new members report that they feel welcome, and that they were well oriented to how things work in the group?
9. Do standing committees regularly offer new members an orientation about what they do and how to get involved in their area?
10.Is there clarity in the group about how it will work with emotional input?
11. Does the group ever discus how power is distributed in the group, and how it would like it to be distributed?
12. Is the performance of people who fill manager roles regularly evaluated?

The more you answered questions 1-7 in the affirmative (or questions 8-12 in the negative), the less likely you are to have developed cooperative culture. The point I am trying to make is that what you actually do counts for far more than what you say you'll do. You don't just claim cooperative culture; you have to build it and sustain it, one practice at a time.

So the scope of today's blog covers two kinds of groups: a) those that have cooperative values but not cooperative culture; and b) those with progressive values but with no aspirations of developing cooperative culture.

How Power Is Accrued in These Groups 
(Note that this list is similar to the way that power is accrued in cooperative culture, yet there are significant differences.)

—Through being unflappable (not being knocked off center by distress in others)
—Through being firm (though not ruthless—compassion helps, but you don't want to be perceived as a softie)
—Through brokering successful coalitions
—Through being discreet when in possession of delicate information
—Through being an effective advocate in plenary
—Through being a gracious winner (no rubbing it in) as well as a gracious loser (no whining)
—Through not discussing power (if you have it you needn't discuss it)
—Through completing assignments well, on time, and within budget
—Through demonstrating a knack for creative problem solving when encountering curve balls
—Through not letting personal issues get in the way of group performance
—Through doing above and beyond what was asked for (over-performing)
—Through being steadfast and steely in your resolve

The principle challenge in this dynamic is figuring out what's possible in the way of purposefully shifting the culture of the group toward being more cooperative without explicit permission do so.

What Can You Do a Guerrilla Social Change Agent?
As it turns out, quite a lot. Consider this set of potential action steps:
—Volunteer to facilitate when you're not a stakeholder on the agenda

—Volunteer to take minutes when you're not a stakeholder on the agenda (the summarizing done by a good facilitator is essentially the same skill that a notetaker relies on when summarizing comments—one does it orally, the other in writing).

—Agree to head ad hoc committees where the composition appears volatile. Someone good at bridging and working even-handedly through differences can make a measurable difference in productivity. If the mandate is unclear, you can get that corrected with alacrity.

—When in discussion and people are mishearing each other, wait for whoever is running the meeting to help out, but if they fail in the attempt (or worse, fail to see that an attempt is needed) it's an opportunity for you to offer a bridge that gets things untracked.

—If someone is having trouble feeling heard there is a chance for you to step in with a concise summary that captures both the essence of their meaning, and why it matters to the speaker. Trust me, you will not be vilified for this initiative (even when you don't get it right you'll earn partial credit for a good faith attempt).

—If someone goes into nontrivial reactivity and you reach out to make a connecting statement that acknowledges what they're feeling (without judgment) and captures what's at stake, you will be universally loved (for having successfully deescalated a minefield without ducking the issue).

—You can totally shift the energy in the room by offering a solid connecting or summarizing statement that sensitively represents the views of someone you disagree with (most don't believe that's even possible).

You'll undoubtedly notice that all of the above suggestions are ways in which you can make a positive contribution by focusing on the "how" rather than the "what." If you are not attached to outcomes it gives you considerable wiggle room with respect to how business is conducted, and people will pick up on things going more smoothly if you're effective in your efforts.

The beauty of this approach is that all the above suggestions can be attempted at low risk (when was the last time you recall someone getting called out for being covertly cooperative?). They are tactics aimed to grease the wheels of conversation and, in aggregate, to help nudge the group culture more in a cooperative direction. In addition to deescalating the tension that frequently infuses and stultifies plenary conversations in not-so-cooperative groups, it will subtly work to instill authenticity and civility in the culture. 

Who knew that subversion could be so pleasant?

Power in Cooperative Groups, Part 2: You and a New Group

Today I am continuing my blog series on power in cooperative groups:

Part 1: Yourself

Part 2: You and a New Group
 
Part 3:  You and an Established Group that is Not Committed to Operating Cooperatively

Part 4: You and an Established Group that is Committed to Operating Cooperatively

One the principal differences between competitive culture and cooperative culture is how we intend to work with power (which, unfortunately, is often quite different than how we actually work with power, but bear with me). So let's take a moment to explore intentions. In competitive culture one earns power through having ideas that are brighter than those of others; through being demonstrably superior at presenting one's ideas persuasively; through being better at promoting one's ideas; through being better at securing allies for one's ideas.

In cooperative culture we want power (influence) to be used for the benefit of all—not for the benefit of some and at the expense of others. In competitive culture the model is that the best idea will emerge as the winner (survivor) of a fair fight (vigorous debate). We don't need to worry so much about "the benefit of all" because that will be an automatic byproduct of the free market, with everyone struggling to prevail… at least that's the theory.

We are increasingly questioning the competitive model for a number of reasons:
—the playing field is never level (without safeguards to protect rights, they are curtailed and subverted for the benefit of those in power, preserving the status quo)
—those in power have tremendous advantages over those with less (the richer get richer)
—the rules are written by those in power, institutionalizing their advantages (do you think it's just a coincidence that laws are written by lawyers and lawyers are very powerful and rich in mainstream culture?)
—in reality, everyone does not have equal access to the microphone, much is decided in smoke-filled back rooms; ideas originating from people out of power are not as seriously considered as ideas coming from those in power.

Unfortunately, being clear that we want something different (in this case, cooperative culture) doesn't mean we know how to act cooperatively. Especially when the stakes are high and there's disagreement. In today's essay I want to focus on the situation where you are a serious shopper for getting involved in a group that's ostensibly committed to operating cooperatively and you're trying to decide if this is the group for you.

Here is a set of questions, the answers to which should help you sort out whether this is a good group for you. There are a number of lenses that it may be fruitful to consider this through:
o  How well does the group's core values match yours?
o  How well does the group's actions align with its values (do they walk their talk)?
o  Do you like the people, are you energetically drawn to their ED, their Board, and key staff? 
o  Can you see yourself volunteering for this group, joining their Board, or becoming a donor?
o  How does the group welcome new people (is there room at the table for new blood or is there an in-group and an out-group?)

But this series is about power, so I want to set aside the above (perhaps for future essays) and drill down on that particular lens for assessing a new group.

Has the group ever had an explicit conversation about how it wants power to be used in the group (and how it doesn't want it to be used)?

Can the group talk openly about power and how it is distributed in the group? (Hint: if members tell you not to worry; power is evenly distributed among members, you should be very afraid.)

Has the group ever had an explicit conversation about what qualities it wants in people who fill leadership positions in the group? (Note the difference between this question and "do you want leaders?") What support, if any, do you need from others to be willing to fill a leadership role in the group? Has it discussed what commitment it has to developing those qualities in its members? How will it celebrate and appreciate good leadership and the healthy use of power?

If this last question caught your attention (it should) I suggest you consider three ways you might go about that:
o  Trainingo  Mentoring
o  A commitment to filling leadership roles with people who are good enough, rather than always reaching for the best qualified, with the explicit goal of increasing the capacity of the group down the road without unduly straining your commitment to quality work now.
 Has the group ever had an explicit conversation about what it wants its culture to be?
Points to consider:
—how is information shared—are meetings open to all
—are minutes good enough that people who missed the meeting can tell what was said
—how are slots filled (both manager positions and committee seats)
—do you have clear mandates for committees and managers, laying out their authority
—how welcoming is the group to new energy

Note: Weak process (by which I mean inconsistent and incomplete minutes, inability to work constructively with emotions, sloppy mandates, and their ilk) favors the status quo—whatever power distribution is currently in place.

Has the group had an explicit conversation about the power peculiar to founders and how you intend to handle that with firmness, sensitivity, and compassion?

Has the group discussed how it will work constructively with the range of abilities among members to express themselves well orally and in writing when representing the group? (This came up poignantly for me at Sandhill once, when a long-term member told me that it mattered more to her that several voices be represented in the text of the community's website than that the prose was clear and well-written. In essence, she was concerned that I had too much power by virtue of my being a practiced writer and this was her initiative to see that it was more widely distributed—even if the quality of the text reflected poorly on the group. She not only didn't want me drafting text; she didn't want me editing hers.)

To what extent is the group able to support the expression of critical comments about how a member uses their power? The toughest moment comes when one member thinks another has used their power to benefit some at the expense of others and that assessment is not shared by the person being criticized. It can be incendiary. You'll be dealing with both the limits of individual members to handle criticism that's likely to land pretty close to the bone, and the ability of the group to be able to create a container sufficiently strong and compassionate to sustain a constructive atmosphere.

To be fair, I don't recall ever having encountered a group that's had all these conversations, but I can dream. Meanwhile, I derive hope from knowing what they are, and with any luck I've given readers something powerful to look for (so to speak).

Power in Cooperative Groups, Part 1: Yourself

Today I'm starting a blog series spotlighting the concept of power in cooperative culture. In the context of group dynamics—my main arena—power has to do with how people interrelate, but I want to start with the individual before interactions begin.

In physics, power is defined as work accomplished over time, or force multiplied by velocity. In sociology, the lens I'm using in this series, I define power as influence, the ability to get others to agree to something or to do something.

I've chosen to examine the individual's relationship to power through a series of questions, the answers to which can help a person sort out where they stand in relationship to power in any given situation.

1. Do you want power? 
While that may be an easy "yes" for some, it's an easy "no" for others, with plenty of anguish in between whenever the answer isn't obvious. Yes, it's a opportunity to contribute and to influence results, but the obverse of that coin is that it's also an opportunity to mess up, and not everyone is comfortable with that weight on their shoulders.

Knowing that you can never know all factors that bear on a situation (much less what weight to give those factors), when do you know enough to be willing to act? This can be subtle. Perhaps it's not so difficult to assess retrospectively, but it can be chaotic and challenging (even paralyzing) in the dynamic moment—which can be heavily freighted with consequences if you get it wrong. The pressure of the moment, coupled with the uncertainty, can be overwhelming.

Even if you are clear that you have power, care about the outcome, and know what you think, you may be hesitant to exercise your power.

2. How can you assess what power you have?
—Your power is group specific. What is your history with that particular group? Has anything happened lately that would suggest a shift in power?
—How persuasive are you as a communicator?
—Do you have background advantages on the issue at hand? (In addition to being group specific, power is situation specific—you may know electrical wiring, but not plumbing; you may be a logistical whiz, yet poor at negotiating.)
—Though others cannot give you power (influence), they can give you authority; or they can abdicate their own power, leaving the field to you, which changes the calculus. (Whether you want power under either of those circumstances is another question.)

3. How do you get power?
In healthy cooperative groups you can get power, or accrue it, through a wide variety of ways:
o  demonstration of relevant skill
o  display of confidence
o  reputation transmitted through respected sources who vouch for your skill or wisdom
o  demonstration of being able to accurately assess what's best for the group (as distinguished from what's best for you)
o  showing that you're sensitive enough to frame comments in ways that acknowledge the interests of others
o  history of on-time performance 
o  history of following through on commitments
o  reputation for coming through in the clutch
o  not needing personal recognition
o  readily crediting others for their contributions
o  not being quick to assign blame
o  owning your mistakes 
o  being open to new ideas
o  seeing the good intent in others (especially those with whom you disagree)
o  reputation for being able to bridge disparate views
o  known to be able to receive critical feedback with grace and openness
o  being explicitly authorized to make decisions that are binding on the group

You can also acquire power in unhealthy or unearned ways:
o  privilege 
o  friendships with powerful people
o  family ties (power through legacy)
o  as a donor (money talks)
o  as a martyr (who works too much and expects power as the payoff)
o  brashness (tough skin; others will back down before you will)
o  sarcasm (intimidation)

4. What does it take to be willing to use your power?
o  a reasonable assessment that you know enough about the issues being discussed
o  an issue you care enough about
o  do you need it to be likely that you'll be right?
o  sufficient courage to risk being wrong, to have incomplete or faulty thinking exposed, or to be found in opposition to others (Hint: if you have to be right, lay down your lapel mic now and back out of the room)
o  strong enough core (sense of self) that you'll be OK even if your pitch is ineffective (you have less power than you thought) or your advocacy turns out badly for the group
o  can you admit doubt to yourself; can you admit doubt to others?
o  does your willingness to use power depend on how it was gained?
o  does your willingness to use power depend on how you think others will treat you if they don't like the results?
o  does your willingness to use power depend on the media of communication available to you?
o  does your willingness to use power depend on who you expect to disagree with you?
o  does your willingness to use power depend on the magnitude of the stakes?
o  does your willingness to use power depend on the likelihood of push back or resistance to what you'll advocate?

5. How do you know that you're using power in a good way?
A lot of times you can't be sure. While few of us use power with intent to put one over on others, it can certainly land that way at times (and be terrifically embarrassing). Why? Perhaps because you didn't think though the consequences as deeply as you might have; perhaps because there were unknown factors at play, skewing the results; perhaps because you didn't know what everyone wanted and were working from faulty premises. Shit happens.

6. What are the likely consequences?
With power, feedback loops tend to be fairly direct. If the people you've influenced believe you used power well (for the benefit of all), you'll be paid in kind. That is, you'll have more power in the future. The reverse is also true. Note that you can veer into the ditch in two ways: a) what you advocate is perceived to benefit some at the expense of others (or substantially favors some more than others); or b) your even-handed suggestion turns out badly for all.

Colder by the Lake


The title for today's blog is the nom de guerre of the Duluth comedy theatre (you know it's real theater when it's spelled "theatre"—their line, not mine) that's been making fun of local weather since 1983. Susan and I enjoyed a reprisal of their hit musical Les Uncomfortables this past summer, which is a slightly off key (and off color) retelling of the founding of Duluth by Québécois voyageurs, that establishes the gold standard for what can be accomplished under the banner of poetic license. I lament that I was not yet in town for their 2010 original work, Older by the Lake (the Colonoscopy Monologues). I heard it was dark, but hey, you can't see everything, and sometimes it's better when you don't.

The picture above was taken last Jan 17 and does a bang up job of portraying the bay outside the Port of Duluth as the mercury descends—as it does today. When the way is clear, ore boats ease through the canal and under the lift bridge (framed in the lower right) to enter the inner harbor. However, it is -15 ˚ as I type and the ice elves are busily extracting heat from the water. It is not expected to get north of zero again until Sunday, by which time the shipping season may be a done deal. Today, ironically, it's warmer by the lake—a whopping 50 degrees warmer (from whence the fog that ethereally floats on the surface as the lake gives up its BTUs).

Whenever I tell people I've moved to Duluth (I've been here a year now), three out of four times the first response is some form of commiseration: "Oh, I'm so sorry." Why, they're thinking, would anyone in their right mind move to the icebox of the country? While the straight forward answer is that I came for love (which is good enough), it turns out I have a plethora of strong back-up replies: I like the cold climate (and clean air and abundant fresh water); I like inhaling fragrance of white pine as soon as I step out the back door, and am spiritually drawn to the boreal forest. As icing on the cake (so to speak), Duluth has been my gateway to wilderness canoeing since 1959. (What about community, you ask? Community is no less dear to me today, yet is needed everywhere; so you can't make a bad choice in that respect.) So the real question is, what took me so long?

Of course, you need the right clothes to enjoy winter, and I have them—including a fabulous LL Bean down parka that my mother gave me years ago and patiently rests in the storage because it was mostly too warm for winters in northeast Missouri or Chapel Hill, and I haven't broken it out yet this winter. 

For some reason the coldest week of the year always seems to be the one right after New Year's, when all you have to keep you warm are memories, a tired Christmas tree, and—in our case at least—a mantle full of tompten that imbue our living room with their indefatigable good cheer:




The indoor downstairs rhythm for Susan and me rotates around three locations:

a) The Kitchen 
Where the magic happens. We both love to cook. Sometimes our performances are solo; sometimes we manage a duet. This is a creative center, and much more fun because we have each other to bounce ideas and tastes off of, and to nurture with our food. If you're ever invited to dinner, say "yes!"

b) The Dining Room
In addition to eating at the table, it's where Susan does her morning Sudoku, pays bills, and wraps presents. It's where I set up shop every morning, tackling the NYT crossword, chasing email, crafting reports, and authoring blogs.

c) The Living Room
In addition to television therapy (we're watching reruns of West Wing, Aaron Sorkin's magnum opus, where Martin Sheen portrays the President we wished we'd could have elected), we catch the PBS News Hour, view some sports now and then, play gin rummy, and read our respective books under the benevolent gaze of the tompten. Sometimes Lucie joins us on the couch.

While I've been able to recover a substantial portion of my flexibility and stamina after battling cancer, I have to accept that with three collapsed vertebrae I will never shovel snow or split wood again, which are regular features of winter homesteading that I miss. (It helps my morale that I'm well enough to make breakfast and empty the dishwasher these days while Susan shovels and takes Lucie for a spin around the block—so I'm doing something useful.)

And we have a new treat on the horizon for 2017. I switched health insurance (to supplement Medicare) t Blue Cross Blue Shield effective Jan 1 and have just found out that it includes access to a local fitness center at no additional charge. As Susan's insurance offers the same perk, we're about to add regular visits there to our weekly routine. Susan has her eye on swimming laps in a heated pool and I'm thinking sauna. It's one more reason that life is better together, as we're far more likely to keep at it if it's something we do together.

Oddly enough, it turns out that in winter I am drawn to sensual experiences of heat (wood fires, saunas, baked goods in the oven, and the warm cave of our bed) just about as much as I am to the cold. It's a yin and yang thing.

Now where did I put that parka…

Bedlam 2016

This is my final post for 2016 (actually, my it's my first for 2017, but I'm invoking poetic license,) and I'm going to use it to continue an annual tradition I started five years ago: by summarizing where I've slept this past year.

I refer to this as "bedlam" because: a) I'm on the road a lot and have a chaotic and confusing distribution of sleeping arrangements; b) some think that my travel schedule is prima facie evidence of mental illness; and c) I have a congenital weakness for word play.

So here are the highlights of where I was when the lights went out each night. (Due to health challenges this year was quite distinct from any other, yet hopefully entertaining nonetheless.)

o  I moved to Duluth last winter (relocating from Chapel Hill NC) and spent a whopping 209 nights at home, which is 57%, up a modest 4% from the previous year, and down 5% from 2014. So a run-of-the-mill total.

o  The single stat that's off the charts is that I spent 81 nights in the hospital, at a rehab facility (in Duluth), or at Transplant House (in Rochester) where I bivouacked while undergoing my stem cell transplant. In toto that was nearly a quarter of my nights in a type of location where I had not spent even one night in the prior five years!

o  I stayed with clients 31 nights, down sharply from 51 a year ago (essentially that's a function of having placed my consulting and teaching career on hold for eight months while I arm wrestled with the Grim Reaper—and was sufficiently successful to win a reprieve).

o  I visited family and friends a modest dozen nights, down precipitously from 74 last year. When you're seriously sick you just don't get around as much.

o  I traveled to attend FIC meetings and networking events a mere eight nights, an anemic total compared with 36 the year before.

o  I slept on a train 25 nights, which was rather a strong showing considering that the total was just six before Labor Day. Nonetheless that was down from 42 nights on rolling stock in 2015.

o  All together, I slept in 10 states and one province.

What's ahead? My FIC administrative days are behind me and I'm cutting way back on attending events. Travel in the year ahead will be focused on consulting and teaching, with occasional trips to visit family and friends. Once Susan retires there may be more vacation travel but that's mostly on hold for now. Meanwhile, sleeping in my own bed never looked better… nor was it better for my back.

Happy New Year one and all!

Nonprofits, Guilt, Martyrdom, and Accountability

I recently worked with a group that hired me after they had struggled for a year to make a difficult decision. They were looking for assistance with four things:

a) How to finally make the decision (their inability to cross the finish line was eating them up) while at the same time avoid calling for a vote, if possible. Voting was on the books as a backup to consensus yet had never been invoked, and they were leery of how a split vote might harden hearts.

b) Regardless of the decision, the group knew it needed to recover from the relationship damage that had been sustained over the prior year. The community needed to heal and was uncertain how to go about it.

c) Help identifying the lessons from the hard time.

d) What tools could I leave them with that would help them avoid repeating the exhausting experience they had just gone through.

Though I was principally hired to wrangle the group to a consensus decision, they were happy to have me arrive early (Wed night) and stay through Sunday, which allowed me sufficient room to facilitate five hours of plenaries, sit with committees for four hours, and interview individuals for 13 hours.

One of the pivotal moments came Saturday morning when the whole group was gathered and I asked people to respond to the question, "What, if anything, do you want others to know about what has come up for you in the context of this issue and the way the community has been working on it?"

Everyone was given a chance to speak once, and almost everyone did. It took us 80 minutes to get around the room, but I knew this was an essential building block of the healing process, since so many had reported to me in 1:1 sessions that they did not feel heard. There was no cross talk and no discussion; people just listened. 

While most of what was said was not a surprise, there were a handful of revelations—especially with regard to analysis and depth of anguish. Two strong themes that emerged from that sharing were: a) many reported feelings of guilt (either about what they had done, or about what they had not done in connection with the presenting issue); and b) a significant minority described feelings of martyrdom (doing more than they felt comfortable doing, to the point of resentment, even though no one had asked them to do so much).

Because it's so common for people in nonprofits to feel either guilty or overworked (sometimes both!) this is where I want to focus today's essay.

o  Dynamics of Volunteers
There is always much more work to do than paid staff time to accomplish it. This leads to relying on volunteers at all levels: everything from filling Board spots, to filling coffee pots; from taking a few minutes to meet with visitors, to taking minutes at a few meetings; from running to the store to get flip chart paper, to running off hard copies.

People's life circumstances vary widely. Anything from retired in good health with no kids at home, to two rugrats in a household where both parents work full time and can only scrape together 30 minutes of discretionary time once a week (before bed Saturday night) to read a magazine, change the sheets, or make love (pick one).

People's motivation to do more than their fair share varies widely, based how much they identify with the group, how intrinsically interesting they find their work, how they've been raised ("giving back" is a powerful motivator in some households, while "charity begins at home" is cross-stitched over the fireplace in others).

In the land of volunteers, recognition is the coin of the realm, yet all coins are is not valued equally. Some prefer that this be handled quietly, behind the scenes—perhaps via a hand-written note or a privately delivered bouquet of flowers. Others want their name in lights, or engraved for posterity in pavers prominently displayed on the patio flooring of the new building. Nobody is wrong; they're just different.

o  Dynamics of Uncertainty
Not knowing fully what's going on, do you assume the best or suspect the worst? When you encounter a fog (lack of clarity) do you tend to hold back until the fog lifts, to avoid the potential embarrassment of a misstep, or do you step right in figuring it's simpler to secure forgiveness than permission (and you have no qualms about breaking a few eggs en route to an omelet)? Hint: it's not so much that there's a best path in this situation as that there are multiple lenses through which this common circumstance will be viewed, and there needs to be some compassion around the near-certainty that different folks will navigate this differently— without anyone being branded a jerk or cold-hearted.

o  Dynamics of Structure
When structure is high, people who like that find it relaxing and reassuring (you know where you stand and what's expected). If you don't like it, it's a straight jacket that forces one-size-fits-all solutions, eliminating nuance and respect for individual differences (we are people, after all, not automatons).

Alternately, when structure is low, people who favor that will appreciate the extra breathing room, making it possible for creative solutions to bubble up and fill the interstices left by emerging conditions. They accept responsibility for their actions and are glad that their intelligence is not insulted by having it all spelled out. Sometimes they are able to do more; sometimes they need to do less, and they're confident that it will all even out over time. If you don't like low structure, then you experience it as dangerous or needlessly vague—initiative can be viewed as power mongering; inaction can be labeled overly timid, placing undo burdens on those who have to pick up the slack. In short, you can get in trouble either way.

o  Dynamics of Guilt
The old saw is that guilt is the gift that keeps on giving. Left unattended, it breeds in dark corners. In a perfect shit storm we hesitate to voice guilty feelings for a number of reasons:

—It can be excruciating shining a negative spotlight on yourself.

—If you alone sense it, you may be drawing heretofore unfocused critical attention to yourself. Now that you have alerted others to what you feel guilty about, they may join in your negative judgment, heaping ashes on your soul.

—If others don't share your self-judgment, your critical assessment may come across as unbalanced—even paranoid—calling into question your ability to read situations accurately. Left unexamined, this can lead to people sharing less with you in the future (for fear that you'll do something weird with the information) or to being more hesitant to give you assignments that require discernment. In short, your social capital can take a hit.

—While people prefer that co-workers (especially leaders) are relatively self-aware of their weaknesses and foibles, it is also true that they are generally more drawn to people with a positive attitude, who are not obsessed with flaws. After all, nobody's perfect and we have work to do. Let's get on with it. If you are devoting a substantial portion of your bandwidth to self-flagellation, how much remains for problem solving and being an enjoyable compatriot?

Of course, not being forthcoming about one's shortcomings also carries risks. (Did someone say this was easy?) If others think you should be more sensitive to how your words or actions may result in strain for others, you're in danger of coming across as callous, uncaring, or at least naive if you're not the first one out of the blocks with a mea culpa. It doesn't take very many iterations of contemplating the best course of action with respect to self-disclosure before you enter that rarefied how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin territory: where you start to feel guilty about whether or not you've expressed enough guilt. Talk about chasing your tail!

o  Dynamics of Martyrdom
Here's how martyrdom works: First there exists a decided shortfall of work that needs to get done and some people respond by volunteering to do extra, in a good faith effort to close the gap. So far so good. Over time, however, the extra work becomes a burden, and this is where it gets interesting. Instead of cutting back to a more manageable workload, the martyr continues to keep their thumb in the dike yet starts claiming that they're due extra consideration in group decisions by virtue of "credit" they've earned by letting their thumb get all wrinkly—even though the group never agreed to that quid pro quo. At its worst, the martyr resents the group and the group resents the martyr, with each feeling taken advantage of by the other. Yuck!

The baseline in most nonprofits (of which intentional community is a subset) is that they have to depend  both on some degree of volunteerism, and on some portion of the volunteers contributing above and beyond their fair share to the well-being and maintenance of the organization. The trick is making it clear that you do not want people contributing more than they can do freely (no strings attached), because the resentment invariably poisons the well.

So you must rely on uneven contributions, yet embrace them in such a way that it doesn't leak into martyrdom. The good news is that with diligence, clarity of purpose, and good communication this strategy will float. Without those buoyant qualities however, prepare to ship water.

o  Dynamics of Accountability
Many people come into the experience of community living with the best of intentions… and naive ideas about how humans will behave. It can be shocking (a fall from grace) to realize that people don't always do what they say they'll do, and, in fact, will sometimes willfully break agreements. Now what? Some groups are paralyzed by this dynamic. They didn't sign up for holding people's feet to the fire and they resent the miscreants who visit this unthoughtful behavior on the group. Unfortunately, merely occupying the high moral ground and adopting an attitude of dismay and disdain will—along with $4—not get you much more than a good cup of coffee. Unaddressed, the impact of people being allowed to color outside the lines is a steady erosion of trust and a malignant cynicism about group agreements.

You're going to have to talk about it.

In the group I mentioned at the front of this essay, one of the most disturbing elements was how many people told me 1:1 they were disturbed by what they saw others doing yet were unwilling (to date) to approach them directly to discuss it. There were some instances where this had been going on for more than two years. Not good.

While some people automatically associate accountability with consequences, it's rarely that simple. (Yes, there are times when there's an obvious and natural option: when a person repeatedly fails to clean and sharpen the community chain saw after using it, they may lose their designation as an approved operator.) In general, I find it more productive to focus the conversation on the carrot (improved relationships and social capital) rather than on the stick (loss of privileges, fines, and a trip through the spanking machine).

o  Dynamics of Clearing the Air
Once you've screwed up your courage to have that conversation, my strong advice is to set it up well. First, ask for a good time to share some critical feedback (don't assume that what's good for you is good for them). You might give the headline, without giving the feedback ("This about following our agreements about chain saw use") so that the recipient's imagination doesn't veer into overdrive. Sometimes people feel more at ease if there's a third party present. While you shouldn't agree to conditions that don't feel safe to you, the prime objective here is to have a constructive exchange, so I urge you to give as much ground as you can in the set up.

Once the talk begins, keep in mind that yours is not the only truth in play, and that there needs to be a full opportunity for each player to say what they believe happened, what feelings came up for them about that, and what meaning that sequence has for them. It will serve you well to remember that you may have a mistaken perception or you may not be fully aware of the circumstances.

I advise that the goal here should not be so much about punishment and consequences as about eliminating the problem in the future and repairing damage to relationship. You can aim to secure an affirmation of the agreement that the behavior is unacceptable—even though you thought the group already had that agreement. Now you've made sure: a) that others are clear about that as well; and b) that if the objectionable behavior persists that there will be another conversation. If the perpetrator thought it might go unnoticed or be allowed to slide by, you have disabused them of that.

Alternately, the conversation may go in other directions. It could, for example, uncover ambiguity or dissatisfaction with the agreement that needs plenary attention. Further, it is not unusual to learn that a person is breaking an agreement in part because they witnessed someone else break that agreement and not get called on it—thus, the problem may be bigger than you knew.

(While there is occasional need for policy about how to handle a pattern of agreement breaking—where the same person fails repeatedly to keep agreements despite attempts to point it out—this drifts into the territory of involuntary loss of member rights and is beyond the scope of this essay.)

The thing is, guilt, blame, martyrdom, and the desire to punish are all common fauna in our zoo of alternative culture, yet none are helpful. I have written this essay on the theory that we need to thoroughly understand their living conditions and breeding habits if we're to have a chance of expunging them from the many places in our culture where their presence persists. We have to learn to neither feed nor pet the dangerous animals, and it is my hope that this tour guide will be instructive in that effort.

Why I Support FIC and Why You Should, Too

Today I'm making a $1000 year-end donation to the Fellowship for Intentional Community and I want to tell you why—in the hope that it may inspire you to write a check of your own.

FIC has been around since 1987, when a group of dedicated individuals with fire in their bellies came together from across the continent to explore a common dream: to promote a more cooperative world. Out of that modest beginning—perhaps 20 people with high enthusiasm and no bank account—over the course of three decades the Fellowship gradually built a viable network, founded on the premise that the intentional community experience can be a beacon of light in dark times.

Though only a small fraction of the population will ever live in intentional community, where property is jointly owned by a group that has coalesced around common values, I am convinced that there is a broad-based societal hunger for a greater sense of community and belonging in our lives—something that we used to have in greater abundance and that has been degraded over the course of our lifetimes. (If you question that conclusion, just reflect on the enmity and lack of civility that characterized our recent Presidential election. We are a seriously fractured society.)

Thus, FIC operates at two levels: a) serving in the trenches, making available the hard-earned lessons about what distilled from those who have gone before, and helping groups find prospective members who are a good fit; and b) repackaging those lessons so that they can be exported and usable wherever people want more community in their lives.

While FIC estimates that there are perhaps 100,000 people living in some form of intentional community in the US today, there are easily 100 million who are the audience for the larger mission. Because FIC makes do on annual budget of around $150,000, they've gotten exceptionally clever at stretching dollars. Their budget has no fat.

o  Though I retired from front line work with FIC a year ago (my only remaining task is a pleasant one—convening the Award Committee that organizes nominations for the annual Kozeny Award for lifetime achievement) my heart remains solidly behind its efforts to promote cooperative culture based on the cutting edge work of intentional communities to puzzle out what it means to be socially sustainable. Is this work crucial today? Do we need a better response to society's challenges than Donald Trump?

o  My work as a group dynamics instructor and consultant is rooted in over 40 years of community living. Just as soldiers refer to battlefield experience as "on the job training" there is no more grounded way to understand group dynamics than total immersion—it's not a hobby for me, it's been my life. And I know of no richer or more complex classroom in which to learn my craft than membership in a secular income-sharing intentional community (in my case, Sandhill Farm)—where everything is on the table and you have to work it out with everyone you live with. If you can do it there, you can do it anywhere.

o  If you are an individual, FIC makes available the resources needed to better understand the options available in group living: why people do it, what challenges they face, and what the rewards are. Their Communities Directory can be an invaluable aid in helping you find out who's doing what and where.

o  If you are an intentional community, FIC's Directory provides lifeblood support—both through its free listings, telling the wide world that you're out there (the online Directory supplies information to over 100 different people every hour around the clock), and by helping you locate those who are on the same path as you—groups who may have already weathered similar challenges. (In today's world you no longer have to go it alone.)

o  If you are part of a cooperative group, the Fellowship is pleased to supply you with in-depth information about how your organization can function better, based on workable solutions pioneered in intentional communities. (Though my 30-year-old consulting practice has been centered around helping communities, I field an increasing number of calls to assist nonprofits, churches, schools, and workplaces, where there's burgeoning interest in the nuts and bolts of how to develop and sustain cooperative culture.)

Communities magazine was launched in 1972 (FIC took over as publisher in 1992) as the accreted pre-internet vision of seven cooperatives scattered across the US who saw the need for chronicling what's happening in the protean world of community living. Though this periodical has operated at a deficit almost every year, it has survived on a shoestring circulation of around 1000 paid subscribers and the rock-solid dedication of an underpaid staff and a publisher who thoroughly believes in its mission.

o  I almost died of cancer last winter, and paying for my extraordinary medical care almost killed my bank account (even after the substantial cushions of Medicare, supplemental insurance, and the generous support of friends were brought to bear on my situation). While my cancer is currently in remission (knock on wood) it can come back at any time and there is no crystal ball that can tell me with any certainty what kind of savings is prudent to accumulate against that possibility. Though it's awkward knowing what amount of money I can reasonably afford to free up from my limited supply without jeopardizing my health, I know that FIC needs my support now, so I'm writing that check.

o  Amazingly, today I have prospects for some period of high-quality time in front of me. As someone who was recently dancing close to death (and who may suddenly find himself again on the brink at any moment) I have given serious thought to how best to use this gift of additional time. I believe I am called on to continue my work to build a more cooperative world, and to give back as much as I can to all who will follow.

o  When done well, donations are a collaboration, matching the donor's dollars, skills, and connections with the recipient's energy and know-how. Everyone benefits. I am not asking for a handout; I'm asking for a partnership. 
o  With 30 years in the field FIC has amply demonstrated that it knows how to build connections, how to be discrete with sensitive information, how to be even-handed when representing the incredible breadth and diversity of the Communities Movement, and how to represent to the media the relevance of the community experience to a culture that is sick with adversarial dynamics and unjust practices.

o  In these extraordinary times the Fellowship needs extraordinary support. I invite you to give like your life depends on it. That's how I'm seeing it. To make an unrestricted donation click here. Donations are tax deductible. To become an FIC member as a show of baseline support (and receive benefits in return), click here

If you're looking for a meaningful last-minute holiday gift—either for yourself or a loved one—consider a gift subscription to Communities magazine. To subscribe or renew to Communities, click here.

Any and all of these steps will help.

Together, we are making a difference.

Consensus Ritual at the Point of Decision

I've been working seriously with secular consensus since Sandhill started in 1974. Although the bulk of my learning has been distilled from living it (on the job training), I participated in a five-day consensus and facilitation training taught by Caroline Estes at her home community (Alpha Farm) in 1987, and I started my career as a group dynamics consultant later that same year.

As consensus—in one or another of its many guises—is by far the most common form of decision-making in intentional communities, and communities are the foundation of my consultancy, I have necessarily been hip deep in consensus for the last four decades, the last three as a professional.

As someone who believes firmly that meetings should be enjoyable as well as productive, I look for occasions where whimsy can seamlessly be inserted into the flow without sacrificing continuity or efficiency. One such place—and the subject of today's essay—is the specific moment when a group is poised to make a decision.

Much of what happens in a meeting is informal (thank god)—things like where to focus the conversation, what topic to address next, whether a summary is good enough, or when to take a break and for how long. While these questions may have gravitas in the moment, they are procedural matters with a short lifespan and will promptly be covered over by the sands of time. This class of decisions stand in sharp contrast with binding decisions about budget or policy—things you want carefully captured in the minutes and the agreement log, ad which may impact the community for years.

While it's generally not that big deal if you're loosey goosey about procedural decisions, you don't want any sloppiness when it comes to policy agreements. Thus, it tends to be a good idea to have some kind of ritual by which group members indicate whether they're in agreement (green light), standing aside (yellow light) or blocking (red light).

A number of groups employ colored cards for this purpose, both to indicate the nature of their comments during discussion, and to indicate their position when testing for consensus. Essentially, each member raises a card at the key moment instead of their hand. Other groups use thumbs (up=yes; sideways=stand aside; down=block). Some are more nuanced, such as relying on the number of fingers held aloft to indicate their degree of support:
0=Over my dead body
1=Stand aside
2=I can swallow
3=No problem
4=I'm liking it strong
5=Best thing since pockets on shirts

Some more adventurous groups really go for the gusto—I once encountered an art collective where people gave a hearty pirate Argh! to signify affirmation. Opa! (At least in my presence rum was not involved and no planks were walked.)

Really, anything can be done so long as the meaning is clear.

Is Silence Golden… or Iron Pyrite)?
A word of caution. It's such a great idea relying on silence=assent. While it's tempting to reach for this time-tested Quaker standby (after all, the strongest roots of secular consensus are traceable to the worship practices of the Religious Society of Friends, and they like silence=assent) don't be seduced! I counsel against mum's the word, since silence is so easily misunderstood. It can mean any of the following:
o  I heard you and have no problem
o  I'm confused and don't know what you want
o  I'm thinking and not yet ready
o  I didn't hear you; I'm oblivious
o  I'm so angry that I can't speak 

Yikes! Since guessing is a poor strategy, it's better to rely on something proactive and unambiguous. Best is using a symbol that is not used for anything else—so that its employment is crystal clear. (Arghing, for example, is unlikely to be confused with anything else—unless your group is reprising Peter Pan or rehearsing for The Pirates of Penzance).

I figure this is just the kind of opportunity I like: bring out the clowns and the dancing bears! Maybe it could be a perk of facilitating (or a bonus for volunteering to take minutes)—you get to be queen for a day and announce the consensus ritual de jour. It's OK to have fun; just make sure that it's also obvious.

Saturday Night Live

Here's a picture taken last Saturday night, as the New England facilitation training class unwound at The Pizza Stone, just a few doors down from The Karass Inn, where we were gathered in Chester VT for an intensive three-day weekend. Starting on the left is Alyson (my co-trainer), Clinton, Laird, and Steve, followed by Sue, Valerie, Leslie, and Mary continuing around the horn.

You can see the detritus of dinner strewn around the table. Though the food and drink were scrumptious, we were worried about a restaurant where our group was a majority of their customers during the 6:30-8:30 stretch on a Saturday night. That's not a great business model. Of course, having the place more or less to ourselves helped our group hear each other across the table—something we often struggle with—and we got excellent service. (We're hoping that they were just caught between seasons: with leaf peeping behind them and skiing dead ahead.)

I decided to share this image because it saves 1000 words, helping make clear the potency of the class engaging in ways other than in the classroom. Alyson and I endeavor to teach facilitators to work with the whole person (by which we mean the emotional, intuitive, kinesthetic, and perhaps spiritual, as well as the rational) and that means walking our talk—teaching the whole person and purposefully engaging the students at multiple levels. Laughter and singing, for example, are used liberally (who wants to be grim all the time?) and tears are never far from the surface when we dance close to the bone.

Thus, we shut down the classroom around 5 pm each Saturday (after being at it nonstop since 9 am Friday) and step out together. On the occasion of last Saturday the skids were greased by Clinton, who just so happened to bring a bottle of homemade mead from Buffalo—which helped us shuffle off to dinner with smiles all around even before anyone had ordered their first beer.

While drinking is optional during the off-hours of our class, it's advantageous as an accelerant when you want to let your hair down. (Of course, after chemotherapy this past summer I don't particularly have much to let down, but it's slowly growing back, nicely paralleling my body's ability to handle alcohol again. These days I have a drink about once a week instead of the near daily intake of a year ago—and that's plenty.)

While we prefer a larger class (10-12 is ideal, balancing greater income without compromising individual attention and opportunity), from a learning perspective half a dozen is terrific. With smaller numbers there was plenty of breathing room, allowing us to tease out the tangled threads of personal distress whenever we encountered tender knots—which is a difficult thing to schedule.

Since first launching this two-year facilitation program in 2003, I've delivered the training in its entirety eight times and have three more currently underway (in New England, the Pacific Northwest, and in North Carolina), and two more on the drawing boards (one in the Mid-Atlantic States and another in Colorado). While I've tweaked various aspects of the program over the years, some things worked well right out of the starting gate and have become bedrock features:

o  Whenever possible I work with a co-trainer (preferably a woman for the gender mix).

o  Weekends always begin with a Thursday evening check-in, followed by teaching that starts full bore at 9 am Friday, and continues through a Sunday afternoon closing.

o  The main approach to teaching is to learn through doing. While there is plenty of time for questions, typically two-thirds of each weekend is devoted to preparing for, delivering, and debriefing live meetings that the students facilitate for the host group—with the trainers in the room as a safety net in case the students lose their way or are ineffective.

o  Although we almost always work into the evening on Fridays, we scrupulously take a break after Saturday afternoon. The students tend to be running on fumes by then anyway and need time to recharge their batteries. Instead of accomplishing that by dispersing in solitude, we encourage the class to eat out together (at some inexpensive nearby restaurant with decent acoustics and a liquor license). We eat ravenously—it takes prodigious quantities of carbohydrates both to facilitate and to learn about facilitation—and laugh until our sides ache, followed by an early bedtime. (Hint: if you can't laugh at yourself this training will kill you.)

o  At some point or other everyone goofs up—including the trainers—and that moment invariably becomes grist for the mill: another fucking growth opportunity.

Leslie (the Québécoise sitting second from the right in the photo above) mentioned Sunday that she once met a woman who was able to listen to a discussion and then weave the essence of what she'd heard into a pithy poem. (Wow!) In that spirit I offer this ditty entitled Facilitation Feedback, sung to the tune of Wells Fargo Wagon (from the Broadway hit musical The Music Man):


[Chorus]
O-ho facilitation feedback's comin' to our group,
Oh please let it be for me!O-ho facilitation feedback's comin' to our group,I wish, I wish I knew what it could be!
[First Voice]I got a card with sugary comments on my birthday.  [Second Voice]In March I got a lukewarm report.  [Third Voice]Once I got some sour grapes from Tampa.  [Fourth Voice]Laird Schaub sent me a handout and an email retort.
[Chorus]O-ho facilitation feedback is a-comin' nowIs it the same old shit or should I flee?  [Fifth Voice]It could be kudos!  [Sixth Voice]Or death threats!  [Seventh Voice]Or a double entendre!  [Eighth Voice]Or it could be
  [Chorus]Yes, it could beYes, you're right it surely could be
[Eighth Voice]Special feedback  [Chorus] Some very special feedback  [Eighth Voice] Just for me! 
—with apologies to Meredith Willson

Pushing Versus Inviting

There's a prevalent style of facilitation that's mostly passive—where the person running the meeting isn't doing much more than deciding who'll talk next, punctuated by the occasional need to blow the whistle, perhaps to signal that time has expired or to announce a restart, either to referee moments of fulminating tension or to cut through the fog of creeping chaos.

In the interest of safeguarding their neutrality—necessary to be an effective referee—facilitators will often adopt a style that scrupulously steers clear of offering suggestions about how to handle issues on the table. As a facilitation trainer, however, that's not what I teach. Rather, I prefer that facilitators be open to the possibility of their having insights into good solutions that can accelerate bringing the ship into a safe harbor.

This is my thinking:

o  Mostly facilitators are members of the groups they facilitate. As such they typically have in-depth knowledge of both the players and the circumstances surrounding the issue. Why shut down a potentially valuable voice when it comes to figuring out what's best? I'm not suggesting that the facilitator's input should carry any more weight than anyone else's, only that it not be discounted, or disqualified.

o  On a more subtle level, good facilitators have typically done a considerable amount of personal work to become aware of their competitive conditioning and the ways that we have inadvertently been trained to focus on differences more than similarities. Thus, facilitators can be particularly valuable when searching for common ground.

[It works like this: in mainstream Western culture there is an extreme emphasis on "I" (in contrast with a potential focus on"we"). A consequence of this is an obsession with how we are distinct in any situation—because the "I," a culturally driven imperative, can get lost when wallowing in similarities. Thus, when the glass if half full we learn to quickly hone in on the empty part ahead of the half-full part. Even though both are equally true and solutions are invariably built on common ground, most people have been conditioned to see disagreement ahead of agreement. As such, they can be slow to see potential solutions lying right in front of them. In that dynamic a facilitator who has worked to unlearn their competitive conditioning may see viable connections between positions that others miss—until the facilitator articulates the potential bridge. It's not so much that the facilitator is brilliant (though that's a possibility) as that people tend to find what they're looking for and facilitators often have trained themselves to see common ground. It can be like Magic Eye autostereograms: obvious when you see the underlying three-dimensional image yet totally mysterious when you don't.]

o  At the end of the day, it doesn't matter much where a good idea comes from so long as the energy behind it is solid. (I know that I'm articulating a cooperative ideal and that in reality ego enters the equation more than I'd prefer to admit—where it matters on a personal level if the germ of the prevailing proposal came from you—yet it still behooves us to move in the direction we intend to go.)

o  There are, I think, two keys to this working well. This first is that facilitators do their best to remain neutral about the outcome and restrict their suggestions to ways of putting together elements that have already been articulated by the group. The image I hold is that it's OK to mold the clay, but please only use clay provided by other group members; do not slip your own clay bodies into the mix. The litmus test is that it should be relatively easy for group members to connect the dots—to see how the threads of your proposal were derived from input given by others.

o  The second key is that facilitators present their offerings with grace and humility. Not with a large bow wave that makes it difficult to express reservations. If members of the group feel that the facilitator is pushing, selling, or arm twisting, there is considerable risk of sacrificing their neutrality, which can be very expensive. Keep in mind that this admonition obtains even if the idea is brilliant. What you need to track closely is not so much the quality of your thinking (about which there can easily be divergent views) as the quality of its landing. If there is hesitation in the reception, the facilitator needs to back out of there; not fight for their idea. You should think of your suggestion as a gift. Much as you'd like it to be embraced, if it is spurned, so be it.

o  To be clear, I am not suggesting that the facilitator hide their light under a bushel. It's OK to be excited and enthusiastic about your suggestion; just be sensitive to the response and not bowl anyone over. If the succeeding idea mainly comes from a different direction, try to be equally celebratory (hurray we solved the problem!) and not subdued because your idea didn't turn out to be the stairway to heaven.

Musings About Economics

I was surprised to discover that in the last decade economics has become increasingly interesting to me as a social change agent.

My surprise is not so much that economics should have a seat at the table when discussing the elements of sustainable culture—that made eminent sense to me right away. The shock is that I might be sitting at the table, helping to articulate the economic elements of the better world we're all aspiring to manifest. I never saw it coming. 

Today's offering is a collection of 10 interestingly-shaped pieces of the economic puzzle. While I cannot promise that they can be assembled into a compete picture they suggest a different relationship to economics. See what you think.

1. The Big Canvas
For more than half my life I've identified cooperative culture as my lode star. As someone who wants to make a positive difference in the world, I screen all of my work through the fundamental question, Is this in service to building a more cooperative world? Mostly I've devoted myself to pursuing this through promoting and understanding community, and how individuals relate to it.

That's a plenty large enough field to play in, and there's no danger of running out of meaningful work. For decades it was compelling to focus strictly on how people functioned in a community context. Where did they fall into the ditch, what skills were essential to getting out of the ditch, how to work conflict constructively, how to balance "I" and "we," how to work non-rationally—stuff like that was my milieu and the bulk of my consulting work has fallen within those lines of inquiry. I've even been around long enough to help shape what the questions are.

Gradually, however, I became aware of larger questions. In particular, what is right relationship between social interactions (the heart of community) and resource consumption (ecology) and how we make a living (economics)? What does an integrated package of sustainability look like?

As I became aware of the three-legged stool of sustainability—ecological social, and economic—it was immediately apparent that all three legs were not equally robust. The ecological thrust has been most prominent (the first Earth Day was 46 years ago, and I can even recall a conversation with my high school science teacher in the late '60s about the pros and cons of a new text book that approached biology through an ecological overview—a radical concept at the time). For many today, sustainability is tantamount to ecology. The first and only images they hold are of solar panels, spotted owls, and recycling barrels.

In recent decades though, there has been quite a bit of progress made in bringing into wider awareness my leg of the stool: social sustainability. I've invested heavily in understanding the nuts and bolts of cooperation. I've learned how it breaks down and how it can be salvaged or repaired. I've traveled all across the continent offering everything from workshops in cooperative theory to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Satisfyingly, over the span of my professional lifetime I've witnessed a decided uptick in awareness of social sustainability.

That brings us to the poor stepchild that is the third leg: economics. It's the one that's least written about and least well understood. In contemplating this, I believe a huge factor is that the progressive elements most inspired by a sustainable future have a marked tendency to suffer from arrested development. In particular, they have not gotten past the biblical admonition that "money is the root of all evil."

Sustainable economics necessarily requires one to get comfortable with the concept of fair exchange, but it's damn hard to navigate that territory if you find money—the primary medium of exchange—to be inherently grubby and soul crushing. To be clear, I'm not offering paeans to money; I'm saying it is what we make of it, and it's not going to work if all economic exchange is smeared with the oleaginous face cream of prostitution and exploitation.

2. The Big Canvass
Terry O'Keefe and I are going to be delivering a workshop at next May's National Cohousing Conference (May 19-21 in Nashville TN) entitled "Community as Economic Engine." In preparation for it we're working with the Coho Association of the US on an economic survey. 

We'll be finding out how many communities currently partner with their members to enhance their economic situation. Overwhelmingly, non-income-sharing groups (about 90% of the total) wash their hands when it comes to helping members meet their economic nut. Terry and I think they can—and should—do better. In addition to banging the drum, we'll roll up our sleeves and suggest ways to do it.

3. Carrier as Belwether
Last week President-elect Trump did some serious jawboning with Carrier, the huge HVAC company in Indiana. They were poised to close down gas furnace manufacturing operations in Indianapolis and move nearly 1000 jobs to Monterrey, Mexico, where Carrier could pay workers $3/hour instead of $25/hour—realizing a neat $65 million in annual savings. It would have been a no brainer except for the fact that Trump had made a big deal out how he was going to put a stop to this very thing—outsourcing US jobs to foreign countries.

Given that Indiana is a very red state (and the home of Vice President-elect Pence), Carrier's proposed move would have left a very red President-elect (take your pick between embarrassed or angry, though the latter seems easier to access from what I've seen).

In the end, Trump succeeded in getting Carrier to rescind their move. But what really happened? No new jobs were created; rather, Indiana Governor Pence saved jobs (in his state) by offering Carrier unspecified "major concessions" that compensated them enough to forego their putative labor savings. And it does not take an MBA from Wharton to connect the dots between this deal and the sensitivity of United Technologies (Carrier's parent company) to retaining its favorable position at the trough regarding lucrative contracts for jet engines and other defense-related equipment.

Because Carrier has annual gross profits of $4 billion, the Mexico move only represented a gain of 1.6%, which they were willing to put on the table in exchange for concessions and public relations credit (it's interesting to speculate on what value Carrier assigns to not being in Trump's cross hairs).

When the smoke clears what have we got? We can be sure that Carrier protected its primary mission: making money for its shareholders. And Trump came through on a campaign promise to stop outsourcing. But what does protectivism have to do with "making America great again"? Are manufacturing start-ups now more likely to site plants in Indiana than Mexico? I don't think so. How long will it be before another major company gets the bright idea to announce plans to move operations out of country, trolling for another round of "major concessions" because Trump needs to avoid the embarrassment of failing to keep an uneconomic campaign promise?

Trump held up the hands of time for 1000 jobs in America's heartland, but it is hardly a blueprint for a robust economy. Progressives need to stop ceding economic territory to an energetic vampire like Trump.

4. Intersection of Economic and Social
In our efforts to articulate a better world (not just complain about the injustices of the one we've got) little attention has been focused on how the social and economic can, and should, be allies. Fortunately, there is considerable overlap between the two. The skills needed to resolve differences creatively in consensus are essentially the same ones needed to sort out thorny issues in economic diversity.

We need to be doing a better job of integrating the various parts of our lives into a cohesive whole, not straining the seams. Suppose you have a dream job in the city that pays top dollar, coupled with an idyllic house in the burbs with a great school for your kids—but there's just one problem: these two gems are interconnected by a brutal, bumper-to-bumper 90-minute commute twice a day, five days a week. How integrated is that (and how's your blood pressure these days)?

5. Intersection of Work and Value
When people complain about their struggles to find work, I've learned that what they really mean is their struggles to find good work. And "good," I've learned, distills down to values match. Though salary, flex-time, security, benefits, and a boss who respects you all come into the conversation, the bottom line is whether the inherent nature of the work—the actual good or service produced—is consonant with what you value in life. 

Thus, the fundamental economic challenge can be boiled down to this: how can I be paid a decent wage for doing work that I believe in? Once you understand this, life becomes simpler. Yes, it's more difficult if you are risk averse and non-entrepreneurial (because it can be too scary to try living on less income in order to have a better values match, and there are fewer options if you have to depend on others to create a job that will work for you) but everyone has choices.

We are not raised to think this way. For that matter, we are not raised to contemplate what are values are, much less how to assess job opportunities for a match with them. Instead, we are taught to prioritize income and marketable skills, and then use the money to buy what we want. The model we are offered is that if each person maximizes their potential (makes as much money as possible) all boats will rise on the flood. But that's way too simplistic. Income in a vacuum is too often vacuous (read spirit killing, which can be very expensive).

To be fair, jobs are available in a spectrum; not just sorted into categories of good and evil. And there can be a world of difference between jobs that are value-neutral (perhaps domestic cleaning) and those that are value-negative (say, marketing inferior products). The power in this analysis is appreciating the full value of a good match—where work is life affirming, rather than a necessary evil that allows you to pay the rent and buy groceries. Once you taste work that is value-aligned it spoils you for settling again for something less. When your heart is in it, it doesn't feel like "work." Your battery doesn't drain as fast. You recover more quickly and you're a joy to be around. It's addictive (in a good way).

6. Disassociation of Money from Security
One of the biggest lessons I learned from community living was how to get a better handle on the concept of security. As a young adult I didn't think much about it. I focused more on opportunity and how to be a positive influence in the world. In an effort to recapitulate the combination of stimulation and support that I experienced in dormitory living as an undergraduate (at Carleton College, 1967-71), I stumbled onto community living at age 24 and never looked back.

When, through a combination of intimate misadventures, I would up leaving intentional community 40 years later, I looked up and discovered that a lifetime of being economically generative had left me with very little money in the bank. I had been living in income-sharing situations since 1974 and had not been accumulating anything in my name. While I was safely under the economic umbrella of partnerships (first my intentional community, Sandhill Farm, and later my marriage) I lost that protection when those associations ended.

My initial response was to simply go out and make more money. While that started off well, my vulnerability caught up with me when I got sick last winter and discovered I had cancer. While my bank account was starting to swell, I hadn't gotten very far before work was derailed and I was facing horrific medical bills—a complete financial reversal. Fortunately I was already on Medicare and had purchased a strong supplemental policy that provided a substantial cushion. 

For all of that however, I was still financially exposed and completely without the protection of my prior partnerships. As someone who had been active in the Communities Movement, I had been writing and presenting for years about the advantages of group living, especially if you redefined security in terms of relationships rather than bank accounts. Well, my cancer inadvertently afforded me the occasion to field test that theory.

Perhaps the most humbling experience of my life was the unabashed outpouring of love and support I received once word got out about my battle with cancer. I was completely bathed in caring energy—even from people I didn't know but whose lives had been touched by a workshop I once gave. This, I came to appreciate at a visceral level, was what it meant to redefine security in terms of relationships. No amount of money in the bank could substitute for what that meant to me, or the role it played in my being able to push the cancer into remission. It has been a team effort.

The cherry on top was that when I put out a discrete call for help with medical bills (through this blog last July), 30 friends responded and the gap was closed. Yes, money made a difference. But that was the medium; friends and relationships were the foundation.

If you are able to make this transition, it is incredibly freeing when it comes to how you budget. You need less income when you are not salting it away against a rainy day. If you can afford to work for less it widens the horizon in your search for work with an excellent values match. Depending on your circumstances you can even consider volunteer work. This is a quality of life issue, where bedrock is happiness.

7. Marriage of Entrepreneur and Non-entrepreneur
Although it took me about three decades to see this, it's useful to absorb the following reality about a typical cooperative group: in almost all cases there will be a significant minority of members who identify as entrepreneurial, and a clear majority who identify as not. This is an important insight because the profiles of these two groups don't align easily.

Entrepreneurs are risk tolerant and tend to not depend on the approbation of others to feel good about themselves. They are comfortable in their own company and tend to prefer low structure (read minimal red tape).

The majority are the reverse, and one of the main challenges  achieving group health is figuring out how these two disparate groups can play well with one another. It can be a bitch.

To add to the joy, community founders, almost by definition, tend to be entrepreneurial as pioneers. It takes a certain kind of craziness and audacity to envision a successful intentional community—much less attempt one—and no small amount of chutzpah to pull it off. That said, once a community is established it depends on a steady diet of settlers joining the experiment in order to sustain it, and settler qualities tend to be non-entrepreneurial. Talk about fun. (Did anyone promise that community was easy?)

Why hasn't more attention been given to this? Both are always going to exist and we need models for how they can be allies instead of irritants.

8. Integration of Entrepreneur and Community
Another angle on this same dynamic has to do with how the group relates to its risk-takers. Ironically, even though intentional communities are radical social experiments, they tend to be obsessed with their own stability, which leads to the development of a generally conservative atmosphere—not so much regarding politics as internal experimentation.

The upshot of this is that groups tend to view their entrepreneurs with a jaundiced eye (while we love them as our very own, we wish they wouldn't come up with so many boat-rocking ideas). Precious few communities have directly addressed this issue—perhaps because they don't understand that it's happening; perhaps because they're afraid it will lead to a witch hunt. 

As we know, however, that we resist persists. By failing to tackle the issue of risk management head on, the result is that it's decided in the trenches. Entrepreneurs adapt by either conducting end runs (under the theory that it's easier to get forgiven than to get permission) or by taking their energy elsewhere.

9. Difference Between a Good Idea and a Good Business
A lot of folks fail to understand that having good product sense is not the same as having good business sense. While having a superior product or service is a definite advantage, it doesn't guarantee black ink at the end of the year. The business world is full of cautionary tales about how the better product lost because it was outmarketed (think Beta versus VHS; or FireWire versus USB). 

To what extent are cooperative groups helping their members with business advice? Answer: not nearly enough. This problem needs to be worked from both ends. Entrepreneurs need to swallow their pride and ask for help (what do you mean it doesn't count if you get assistance?); cooperative groups need to get over thinking that helping to develop values-based business plans as contamination with filthy lucre (who, after all, is pure in this vale of tears?). The point of this is to help everyone. Not only will the entrepreneurs be rewarded, but as their businesses succeed they'll be better able to employ non-entrepreneurs, who want good jobs.

10. Local Answers not Federal
Circling back to my third point about Carrier, I believe that economics—just like politics—start at home; not with government subsidies. While markets can be as wide as make sense (and with today's information-based products that can be as far as broadband ethernet can reach, which is just about everywhere), the foundation of right exchange is local. Instead of doing everything myself (or doing without), I trade to you what I'm good at or have in surplus and get in exchange something that you're better at than I or can afford to share. If we both give good value we're in integrity and both of our lives have been enhanced. Everyone sleeps well at night. It's that simple.

Small towns die when they lose their economic base. When local stores are franchises and not locally owned (think Walmart), profits are siphoned off to out-of-town shareholders and wages drop to legal minimums. People are no longer working for Uncle Fred, Grandma Gutierrez, or Ole Johansson—all of whom care about whether your daughter is sick or your dog just had triplets; they're working for Lord Farquaad or his moral equivalent. The good news is that this trend can be reversed. Buy locally. Give a damn.

If the viability of our businesses was rooted in our home communities—instead of leveraged off of investment tax credits and accelerated depreciation allowances—we'd be inflation proof and wouldn't give a hoot what the wage rate was in Guadalajara.

It's something to think about.

The Pause that Refreshes

I borrowed the title for today's blog from the long-time advertising slogan of Coca Cola. It's one they first introduced in 1929. 

I had taken a break from blogging after giving thanks the Friday after Turkey Day and haven't posted anything since… until today—an occurrence notable enough that it seemed worth commenting on. That 10-day publishing hiatus has been by far my longest period of epistolary interruptus. So what's been happening, you ask? My health has continued its mostly unremarkable improvement , Susan and I are getting along just fine, and I've been unusually busy crafting proposals and assembling reports (not necessarily to determine who's been naughty or nice, but you get the idea).

Lest readers worry that my fount of creative composition is drying up, I was so a-bubble with ideas last Saturday that I arose to jot down notes at 5:30 am, before they dissipated like the brilliancies of dreams that evaporate as the sun peeks over the horizon. (To be sure, it was a confusing moment for Lucie—our eight-year-old rescue dog who enjoys nocturnal squatter's rights on our bedspread; she didn't understand why the light was on—but she soldiered on, putting her head back down as I scribbled away.)

o  I want to explore cooperative economics more comprehensively. Increasingly, I suspect the literature is missing key elements.

o  I want to examine more closely the art of teaching and the tarantella of dancing between being a practitioner (out of town gun) and an instructor (disassembling the parts so that students can discern the sleight of hand of the artful facilitator).

o  I want to delve more deeply into how we understand cooperative culture, and why the shift away from our competitive overculture is so urgently needed. 

o  Why are people so poor at listening? And so reticent to write?

o  I want to celebrate the miracle of how much good we humans are able to do in the world despite our feet of clay, our fumbling awareness, and the myriad excuses we have to be fucked up beyond functionality.

o   What is the right way to apportion attention among practicing the craft of facilitation, reading about facilitation, teaching facilitation, and writing about facilitation? Ai-yi-yi!

So there is a lot to write about. Whether Lucie thinks so or not.

Giving Thanks 2016

Today is a day of rest and reflection. After a full day yesterday, Susan and I have a gloriously unscheduled Friday with her son, Jamie (up from St Paul). Family time.  

This stands in sharp contrast with yesterday, which was completely orchestrated. I had infusion therapy in the morning followed by a full-court press in the kitchen as soon as I got home, to continue prepping a Thanksgiving feast for eight, the cooking for which started Wed night. Don't get me wrong: I love cooking in general, and celebration cooking in particular. Even better, it's something on which Susan and I are totally sympatico. 

Our biggest challenge is dancing gracefully through the choreography of two busy chefs in the kitchen at the same time. The prime prep spot is a bit too close to the sink, putting wayward arms and hips at risk when the rhythm of wielding sharp knives and sweeping away detritus are executed in the vicinity of quick rinses and sudden tool extractions. But we're figuring it out.

I find 6-8 is the perfect size for a dinner party. It's hardly any more trouble than cooking for two, gives you more latitude to try out dishes (while at the same time honoring de rigueur menu items such as turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and cranberry relish), is easy to divide between two accomplished cooks, affords us a suitable opportunity to bring out the fancy dishes and linen, and you can fit everyone around one table, holding a single conversation. What's not to like? Talk about slow food, dinner yesterday stretched from 4-9. All the way from hot-out-of-oven crab-stuffed mushroom caps to coffee accompanied by pecan pie topped with whipped cream.
• • •As I happened to be at Susan's for Thanksgiving last year, this is a great time to take a snapshot of all that's unfolded for me in the past year, enumerating the wealth of things that I have to be thankful for.

o  Last Thanksgiving I was experiencing steady back pain, but the worst was still ahead. I was three weeks away from it deteriorating to the muscle spasming hell that would make it almost impossible to travel or even get out of bed for six weeks, ultimately leading to hospitalization and the discovery of my multiple myeloma. I almost died.

o  While contracting cancer would never be on anyone's wish list, from that grave nadir many wonderful things have emerged. By incredible good fortune, my breakdown occurred in Duluth. Not only did I receive irreplaceable emotional and logistical support when I most needed them, but it turned out that I received superb medical attention once I got over the hump of accepting that I seriously needed help.

Duluth is not a large city (pop 86,000), and has only two hospitals (St Luke's and Essentia). Yet they both have invested in their oncology departments and I could hardly have picked a better place to have discovered my cancer. I was morbidly sick and went to the St Luke's emergency room Jan 31. Within hours I was accurately diagnosed (in contrast with the cancer being missed when I was tested for it in Missouri in December 2014), admitted to the hospital, and started on treatment—my kidneys were barely functioning at 20% capacity, I had been leaching calcium from my skeleton to the point where I was in imminent danger of fracturing something, I had three collapsed vertebrae, and my bone marrow was producing a plethora of unwanted plasma cells. I was one sick puppy. I was thankful for excellent medical care and a loving partner—as the reincarnation of Florence Nightingale who unstintingly jumped into the role without any clarity about their being a future for our relationship beyond nurse/patient.

o  Since bottoming out last winter, I have steadily responded to the protocols laid out by Dr Alkaied, my oncologist. It turns out that multiple myeloma is a variety of cancer for which there there has been tremendous recent progress made in understanding the disease and how to treat it. Not only is Alkaied current with the literature and research, he was able to consult with the rest of his cancer team (seven in all) and he had immediate ideas about how to proceed. I was thankful that of all the cancers I could have had, it was one for which there was hope for containment.

After some judicious experimenting with various protocols, we hit on a chemotherapy mix that my body responded to well and that drove down the cancer. I was thankful for having a strong enough heart and lungs to handle the strain of my recovery. (All those years of healthy living and good diet at Sandhill Farm were coming into play).

o  My gradual recovery was in service to a master plan that called for an autologous stem cell transplant at the Mayo Clinic this summer. It's a procedure in which they are world experts, and my case was overseen by Dr Buadi, a hematologist who specializes in treating multiple myeloma. I was thankful to have access to top-drawer treatment in state. (As Alkaeid necessarily treats all kinds of cancer, he only occasionally sees my disease; Buadi sees patients with my illness day in and day out.) I was also thankful for Ceilee, Jo, Alison, Annie, and (of course) Susan who comprised my indispensable on-site support team during my five weeks in Rochester.

o  Happily, the stem cell transplant was a full success. My cancer is currently in total remission, I have been given the green light to resume my consulting/teaching career (within reason), and I am starting a maintenance course of chemotherapy where I receive a lower dosage of Kyprolis, one of the drugs that was effective in containing the cancer last spring. I am thankful that there is a drug that works well for me and that I tolerate well (which is not everyone's experience).

To be clear, the cancer is dormant (good) but not gone. It is inappropriate to see myself as "cured." The cancer may return at any time, or it may not. Meanwhile, I am fully aware of living in a state of grace. I am thankful that I get to enjoy these days (years?) of "extended play," with sufficient recovery to do the work I love (cooperative group process) with as deft a touch as I've ever had, and to have a surfeit of friends and loved ones with which to celebrate life and smell the roses (as opposed to interacting with people more or less in passing, on my way to the next thing).

o  While my choice to live in an income-sharing community left me rich in relationships and experiences—for which I'll be eternally grateful and don't expect to ever second guess—it did not lead to financial security. Thus, I was scrambling to handle the staggering health bills I ran up this year. I am thankful that this crisis did not bloom until I was 66 and already on Medicare, and that I had the foresight (and good advice) to buy a generous supplemental insurance policy. 

While that protection meant that I was insulated from the vast majority of my bills, I still had thousands of dollars of liability and was facing the double whammy of not being able to work while I focused on my recovery. I am thankful to the 30 some people who generously responded to my June blog appeal for financial support, effectively bridging the gap between what I had and what I owed. Whew!

o  My bedrock in all his has been Susan (how do people make it through life without a loving partner?). Of all the many things that I have to be thankful for today, none is more precious to me than Susan and the unprecedented opportunity that was opened up from behind the clouds of my health crisis for the two of us to enjoy our latter years in curiosity, in laughter, and in the exuberant exploration of love.

Defining Cooperative Culture

Back in 1974, when a group of four of us started Sandhill Farm, I started down a path that ultimately added up to my dedicating my life to building community. While that commitment has never wavered (the need for community today as more urgent than ever), I've frequently adjusted the lens through which I see what I'm doing.

One of the most potent and enduring ways to frame my life's work is that I am promoting cooperative culture—as an alternative to the competitive culture that dominates mainstream society. But what does that mean, cooperative culture?

While it's analogous to asking a fish to define water, I can at least nibble around the edges.

o  Caring about how as much as what
While there is lip service given to how things are done in the mainstream culture (don't break the law, pay fair wages, and deliver what you promise) there's no question but that the bottom line is king. In cooperative culture you're just as likely to get into hot water cutting corners on process as you are if you deliver slipshod product.

o  Thinking inclusively (no us-versus-them dichotomy)
Not going forward unless everyone can be brought along is quite a different mind set than trying to secure a majority of votes. In the former there should be no disgruntled minorities; in the latter outvoted minorities are collateral damage, and a way of life.

o  Going to the heart (rather than being nice)
Done well, cooperative culture is about plumbing the emotional and psychic depths of topics, not just the best thinking. Wherever there is tension we work to resolve it, not paper it over.

o  Placing relationships in the center
The weft and warp of cooperative culture is woven on the loom of human interactions. The stronger the connections, the tighter the weave.

o  Being open to disagreement and critical feedback
In healthy cooperative groups there is an awareness of how vital it is to establish and utilize clear channels of  communication among members whenever anyone is having a critical reaction to the statements or behavior of another member in the group context. Failing to attend to this leads to the erosion of trust and is damaging to relationship.

o  Emphasizing access and sharing (rather than ownership)
A corollary to recognizing the primacy of relationship is that "things" take a back seat to people. In the interest of leaving more for others—both present and future—cooperative folks work to eat lower on the food chain and consume less. If we share, then access to things can be a reasonable substitute for ownership, and everyone can chase fewer dollars in order to secure a satisfactory quality of life.

o  Taking into account the impact that your words and actions have on others 
Another corollary is the realization that cooperative culture doesn't work well unless it's working well for all of us. That translates into mindfulness about how one's activity lands on others. In the wider culture the model of good decision-making is competitive: that a fair fight will produce the best result (survival of the fittest). In cooperative culture we explicitly reject that thinking—because we know that life is not a zero-sum game where one's person's advancement is predicated on another person's loss.

It's much easier to expand one's consciousness to hold all species once you accept that we need to hold all of humanity (no just those living in blue states, those promoting white culture, or those embracing green politics). Once there, it is that much harder to be at peace with people throwing trash out the window of their car (essentially fouling our one nest), or with company CEOs who decide to pay fines because it's cheaper than eliminating pollution from their waste stream.

When seen through the lens of cooperative culture private ownership entails the responsibility to conserve, enhance, and extend—more than the right to hoard, misuse, and exhaust.

What do I mean by cooperative culture? All of the above.

Facilitating by Intuition

Today I'm traveling to Durham NC where I'll be working with a cohousing community (my 61st if you're keeping score at home). I'll be using one of my favorite approaches: a four-day intensive immersion. After arriving Wed evening I'll get a good night's sleep and then begin work in earnest in the morning. 

My time with the client group will divide into two distinct parts:

Segment I: Interviews
From Thursday morning through Friday afternoon I'll make myself available to meet with group members in ones, twos, and in teams. I'll ask questions, but mostly I'll listen.

They'll tell me what they think I should know about the group, or about their relationship to the group. They'll tell me what's precious about the group and what's challenging. They'll share their opinions about how we should focus the plenaries on the weekend. They'll tell me what the objectives should be for our time together.

Taken all together, I'll form opinions about how the group has lost its way and where the points of leverage lay for getting unstuck.

Segment II: Plenary Work
Everything shifts at Friday dinner. Afterwards we'll be gathering in plenary, in meetings that my partner and I will facilitate.

We'll start with my giving the group a summary of Findings: the themes I've distilled from Segment I. This, hopefully, will accomplish a number of things:

o  That I have listened well.
o  That I have a solid grasp of where the group stands, including a concise articulation of its issues.
o  That I have a road map for how to use the weekend plenaries productively.
o  That I have digested the complexities of the group dynamics and am not overwhelmed.
[Aside: This last may not seem like much, but it's common for members of intentional communities to experience what's happened in community as a singularity in their life, and it's therefore natural to project that it will be difficult (if not impossible) for an outsider to grok the sophistication of their reality in a single pass. What they often fail to take into account is that what's unique to them—living in community—is the (rarefied) air that I've been breathing for the last 40 years, and that fact is a prime reason why I was hired in the first place.]

From this starting point the weekend can unfold in a wide variety of ways but I can confidently predict that the elements will be an interwoven mix of:

—establishing heartfelt connections among members
—offering the principles of good process (generally this is slanted more toward introducing new ideas, rather than dismantling practices that are dysfunctional)
—demonstrating how to apply the principles while simultaneously tackling one or more pressing issues that the group needs to address anyway (this yields a double benefit: product on a specific issue and a workable model for how to tackle things more effectively in the future)
—laying out a sequence for tackling topics that emerged in the course of our examination but that we didn't have time to adequately address while I was on campus

Along the way I expect the energy to be up-tempo, I expect to have fun, and I expect relationships among members to be enhanced. What's not to like?
• • • Having laid all this out, it's only fair to confess that I developed this approach because it plays to my strengths: both in intensity and spontaneity. For those who prefer a much more detailed battle plan my approach comes across as frightfully cavalier and unprepared. While I've been in this situation frequently enough over a 30-year career that I thoroughly trust my ability to "see" what needs to happen in the dynamic moment, I have peers—whose abilities I have great respect for—who would sooner go into a consulting weekend with no pants on than so little clarity about the arc of the weekend on the eve of the first interview. What I see as luxurious, they see as borderline irresponsible.

When I train facilitators I emphasize the importance of developing one's instincts—learning to trust their gut.

Nowhere is this more valuable than when working with a group that's hemorrhaging in multiple planes. Cursory prep work will reveal that there are several legitimate points of entrée and the question emerges, "Where to start?"

In a situation like this experience has taught me that all roads lead to Rome and it doesn't matter that much where we start. So my preference is to follow the juice. That is, find out where the heat and passion are most concentrated and begin there. My absolute favorite way to accomplish this is through on-site interviews.

While it doubles my time on the job (four days instead of two), I know that if I listen carefully I'll learn all I need to know about where people are stuck and what matters to them. I firmly believe that people almost always know the answers to their own problems; they just get temporarily blinded from time to time. My job is not to perform magic (pulling a rabbit out of a hat); it's to pull away the curtains that have been obscuring the answers that were always there. Think of me as a community optician—the guy who's full of options and opticals, though hopefully few illusions.

This weekend I'll be working with María Silvia from Chapel Hill. In addition to being a close friend, for the last seven months of 2015 I lived on the third floor of the house she owns with her partner, Joe Cole. I'd happily still be there today excepting I fell in love with Susan and moved to Duluth to follow my heart, about which I have no regrets. María is highly talented and it's a treat for me to mentor her in group dynamic work. (Joe, by the way, is also talented and I'll be partnering with him to offer an all-day facilitation training as a pre-conference offering at the national cohousing conference in Nashville, May 18.)

As much as María loves me—and I know she does—it drives her nuts how little I map out before arriving on site. To be sure, she knows that plans need to be adaptable in the face of emerging conditions and is not a slave to them; she just doesn't like to arrive on site with nothing up her sleeve. The irony here is that María is a passionate Latina and there is nothing she needs to learn from me about following the energy. She just needs to increase her confidence that the ground will be where she needs it be when she commits her weight forward before the ground is in sight.

It's a dance.

Democracy Does Note Have to Be Majority Voting

In response to my most recent post, The Mourning After, Frands Frydendal wrote:

Can democracy be wrong?

I think it can, meaning it has its weaknesses, and the recent election—in the nation that is supposed to be the vanguard of democracy—shows that a serious update is long overdue. Fortunately new knowledge to create updates has recently become available. 


The election of Trump as the President of the United States is only part of the evidence that democracy as we know it is obsolete. Clinton as the final counter-candidate and the whole process has denounced democracy's claim of being the final solution to the questions of state. 


Versions of democracy differ a lot, but they all rotate around majority decisions, and all the possible ways to influence the majority, including ways that allow for manipulation and collective folly. Of course majority voting is not used for decisions about scientific evidence, neither is it used (much) for business. 


The recent US election is only one out of many democratic decisions leading to questionable, inferior, or even disastrous consequences. Think of the democratic triumphs of Hitler, Brexit, Putin, Assad, Erdogan, and other examples of democratically re-re-elected despots.

Why is it that so many believe that democracy with majority vote is the best decision-making system for a nation or state? It all comes down to the lack of a better alternative. Winston Churchill said:  “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Maybe it is time to try something new. Otherwise democracy will indeed be the end of that chapter of history. 


I think it is an important task for community workers to locate and inspire communities that have the wish and potential to develop better, alternate versions of democracy, to a point where we can say it has been tried at least on a local scale. 


The bits and pieces to replace majority voting are evolving fast in the circles of sociocracy.

[As English is not Frands' first language, I have lightly edited his statement—hopefully without altering its meaning.]

In the face of our recent US Presidential election, Frands has made an impassioned plea to expand our thinking about what's possible with democracy. In particular, he questions how much practicing democracies have relied on majority vote to make decisions—offering up the recent US election as prima facie evidence of the folly of relying on the current system to yield reasonable results—and makes a plea for experimenting with other forms of democracy to liberate it from the manipulation we just witnessed.

By definition democracy means "rule by the people"; where every eligible citizen has a say in how things will go, and there is no presumption that some people have superior wisdom to others. At larger levels (nation, state, or even municipal) this generally translates into some form of representative government where decisions are made by a majority of elected officials or delegates. This adaptation is typically done to reduce to manageable levels the time it takes to hear from everyone. In a direct democracy—where everyone who cares to is given the chance to speak to the issues at hand—there just isn't enough air time to get it done.

Of particular interest to me, Frands hints at the direction he'd like to see experimentation take: some version of consensus, which stands in sharp contrast with majority voting. From this point forward I want to respond in two parts: a) consensus in contrast with voting; and b) sociocracy in particular.

Contrasting Consensus with Majority Voting
Consensus has two major historical threads that I'm aware of: 1) The Religious Society of Friends; and 2) Native American cultures. In the case of the former, Quakers developed consensus (which they style "sense of the meeting") as a way to conduct religious meetings. By creating a contemplative meeting environment with plenty of spaciousness in which members of the congregation can speak as moved, Quakers believe that they are nearer to God and that that is the best way to evince God's intentions.

This version of consensus was adapted to secular groups in the '60s and '70s, with the Movement for a New Society leading the way in the context of anti-nuclear protest groups making decisions at action sites. From there it blossomed into the most commonly used decision-making process among intentional communities—a position it's held for at least the last half century.

The link between Native American cultures (think Iroquois Confederacy in particular) and secular consensus is less direct yet nonetheless helps to establish that the roots of alternative forms of democracy (by which I mean something different than majority vote) are much more deep-rooted than Frands knows. While I am not aware of any instances where consensus in intentional communities has inspired municipalities to adopt it as their form of government, there are plenty of examples of schools, neighborhood associations, congregations, and nonprofits that have been moved to work with consensus. So there is a growing body of work along the lines for which Frands has advocated.

As a long-time consensus advocate and instructor (I've been at this for more than four decades) the main factor limiting the expansion of consensus is that it requires a commitment to culture change and personal work to consistently achieve stellar results. Without it, you're essentially importing competitive conditioning into attempts at cooperative culture, and it's a train wreck. Culture shift takes time and investment, and it's way more sophisticated than memorizing a new instructional manual and organizational chart.

That does not mean I'm giving up on the potential of consensus to be a viable alternative to majority voting, but I'm not sanguine about seeing consensus take over as a popular form of large-scale democracy. It just takes too long to hear from everyone, and requires that too many participants become self-aware about appropriate ways to participate.

Sociocracy as a Strain of Consensus
This particular form of consensus has be around since Gerard Endenburg adapted consensus to apply to his Dutch engineering firm in the '70s and was then imported into the US by John Buck in his book We the People, published in 2007.

While I appreciate that Frands is excited about sociocracy's potential as a robust form of consensus, I've looked at this fairly closely and believe it's substantially oversold. For a more thorough treatment of my reservations, see Critique of Sociocracy Revisited

While there is nothing peculiar to sociocracy that I consider a best practice (and thus, I don't see it as a panacea in response the failings of democracy), I think it's a mistake to get hung up on which form of consensus is best. It is huge when a group makes a commitment to functioning cooperatively and attempts direct democracy.

That represents radical change, and, like Frands, I'm behind it.

The Mourning After

Progressives face an important choice today. 

In the aftermath of Trump's triumph Tuesday there is considerable soul-searching and despair among progressives. That's understandable, but it behooves us to not just sit in the corner wringing our hands. The issues haven't changed and neither has their urgency—I'm talking about climate change, LGBTQ rights, universal health insurance, education subsidies, and anti-racism programs. But our tactics will have to undergo some serious revision because the Republicans are about to have their way with us. 

They control the Presidency, the Senate, the House, and a majority of state governor slots. So we're in for a bumpy time.

And you can't blame it all on the Republicans or the bungling of the FBI. Of the 231 million registered voters in this country, a whopping 43.2% did not vote!

The question before us is how will we respond. Will we retire from the field to lick our wounds? Will we become bitter and cynical, talking only among ourselves and reinforcing the us/them dynamics that dominated the political rhetoric of the Presidential campaign? 

Or will we rise above it? Divisiveness and vilification of Other cannot be the answer. It cannot possibly "make America great again." Can we be gracious losers? Can we be the loyal opposition that steadfastly continues to state our concerns and to voice our objections to the suppression of minorities, the gutting of environmental law, and the repeal of Roe v Wade.

Our task is not to overthrow or to monkey wrench the government; it's to change it from within. And that means dialog. It means reaching out to the 63% of white men and 52% of white women (yes, you read that correctly: a majority of white women spurned Hillary and voted for Donald) who put Trump in the White House. We need to know why a majority of white women felt they could support Trump even after the awful misogynistic statements he'd made in the Billy Bush tapes were revealed, and after a plethora of women stepped forward to give personal testimony about his reprehensible womanizing.

It is our challenge to try to find ways to bridge between the fair, just, and sustainable world we crave and the land of dignity and opportunity they feel has been denied them. There is only one lifeboat and we're all in it. As progressives it's our job to initiate these conversations, reaching out to people we ordinarily don't talk with, hungry for the ways in which we're all human and can make common cause. This is not about the homogenization of our culture or bending others to our will; it's about getting along with our neighbors, people with whom we don't always agree or see things the same way.

Though the room just go darker, guess what? We have a light. And the preciousness of its illumination only increases as the darkness grows.

For me, this moment is highly evocative of the aftermath of 9/11. While Bush was immediately intent on revenge (striking back at terrorists with deadly force), there was a significant minority that was more focused on the question: why are some Arabs so angry with us that they bombed our buildings, killing more than 5000 all together?

Fifteen years later, I don't want to fuel the anguish and despair; I want to channel the energy of this election into a wake-up call for progressives. There is work to do. As activist and songwriter Joe Hill wrote in a telegram right before being executed in 101 years ago: "Don't mourn, organize!"

Getting Trumped on Tuesday

Tomorrow we'll get to see if a person can get elected President of the United States campaigning on fear and anger—because Trump sure isn't running on qualifications (unless you have a soft spot for bluster and misogyny).

Over the course of my lifetime I've observed the steady erosion of civility in political discourse. (I yearn for the good old days of Humphrey and Dirksen). In this era of extensive polling and psychological profiling, candidates have moved sharply toward vilification (in contrast with discussing issues) because studies show that that has the greater impact on how people vote. Ugh.

What could possibly be a more potent validation of that theory than the viability of Donald Trump's candidacy? He's tall, rich, arrogant, racist, a blatant womanizer, has no experience in political office, and no reverse gear in his demeanor. As a collaborator he makes Genghis Kahn look thoughtful. He is the absolute embodiment of competitive spirit, who will fight until the end and has no qualms about who he climbs over or trashes en route. On top of all that, he's a whiner, graceless, and has minimal self control. In short, he's completely odious and inappropriate. And yet, he's within a few percentage points of being the favorite tomorrow.

Take a moment to let that sink in. That's how far he's been able to ride the tiger of anger and fear. His policy ideas are naive and unworkable, yet he's found resonance with labeling his opponent as Crooked Hillary, and making the pathetic case that his philandering is OK because Hillary's husband did it, too. Are you kidding me??

I wish I were.

I could rail against Trump all day, but he only does his shtick because it works. Rather than focus on the avatar, I'm more interested in what's going on in our culture that such tactics are effective. I believe there is a deep reservoir of hurt and anger in this country. The delineation of its elements are some combination of:

—Life is unfair. We were raised on the promise of the American Dream and it's inaccessible.

—Jobs are being exported overseas or obsoleted. And even if I'm fortunate enough to have one, I'm underpaid, disrespected, and without job security.

—The chasm between the rich and everyone else (like me) is yawning wider all the time.

—There is despair that my individual voice is too weak to be heard, or is ignored when it is.

—Politicians lie, the media lies, and so do doctors, lawyers, and bankers. Who can you trust these days?

These issues have been gestating for decades and will not be solved by tomorrow's election. Nor, I'm afraid, are we likely to see any diminishment of vitriol in political pronouncements—regardless of who wins. It may feel good (at least in the moment) to vote your gut, but lashing out will not rebuild trust. Not ever. What it will take is winners reaching out across the aisle to lend a hand to losers, because the bigger picture is that we're all in the same lifeboat.

Sadly, even taking that first step (which may strain credulity to imagine—Trump offering the top job at EPA to Elizabeth Warren, or Clinton appointing Chris Christie to head a blue ribbon panel on election reform) is susceptible to vicious criticism. (Note how viciously Obama was disparaged for attempting bipartisan dialog during the early years of his administration—it was labeled a sign of weakness and roundly dismissed.)  

What does it mean that Republicans are boasting that if Clinton is elected and they retain control of the Senate that they'll indefinitely tie up in committee any and all of her Supreme Court nominees? Is that just a measure of the GOP's resilience, bouncing off the mat after a knockdown—or a sign that the apocalypse is upon us?

It seems to me that we'll have to start by acknowledging these deep hurts (which, I want to point out, can be done without assigning blame) and taking their measure. There will need to be room for people to express their anguish and a place for that to land. Not because anyone meant to hurt the disenfranchised, but because the actions of the powerful have had that effect, and no lasting bridges will be built unless the abutments upon which they are constructed are secured to the bedrock of open, heartfelt communication (as opposed to posturing and mugging for the camera).

I'm gravely concerned that we may have gotten so inured to mudslinging and slimy behavior that we may have lost our ability to discern integrity, or our will to insist on decency from politicians. And I mean all politicians.

While someone will undoubtedly get trumped Nov 8, will it be Hillary? The Donald? Or the American people?

Dia de los Muertos 2016

Today is All Saints Day. It is also the Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, when the veil between the temporal and the spirit world is said to be thinnest. In Mexico this is a time to remember those dear to you who have recently departed. Notably, it is treated as a time of celebration. It is neither somber nor macabre. Gravestones are spruced up and altars are festooned in bright colors and momentos. Favorite foods are prepared.

I am especially drawn to this holiday because it addresses a societal need. Overwhelmingly I experience our culture as ritual starved, and I think we have an unhealthy out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude toward death. Having experienced a long, slow dance with my own mortality this year (in the guise of multiple myeloma), I say bring it on!

This year I've lost two.

Fred Huebner (March 20)
Fred was my uncle, having married my Dad's only sister, June. He was well into his 90s when he died, so he didn't get cheated, and I'm pleased to report that he enjoyed reasonably good health (including golf) right up until the end. 

While we were not close, we were family. 

Sadly, my father had a lifelong enmity toward his sister (June, Fred's wife) and that severely limited contact between the families, even though we lived in neighboring suburbs of Chicago. When my Dad and June's father—my grandfather—was alive, he would insist that the families do things together. But that commitment died when he did, and there were no more joint Christmas or birthday get-togethers after 1972.

June and Fred had two children. Decades ago their daughter, Diane, contracted cancer and predeceased her parents. Their son, John, has suffered from disabilities all his life. He never lived alone (until now) and is currently wheelchair bound. In June's latter years her health was delicate and she required constant care up until her death a few years back. So Uncle Fred's family has endured more than its share of health challenges.
Like Job, however, Uncle Fred was a person who didn't complain about the hand he'd been dealt. Instead, he dedicated his life to being happy. I know that may not sound like much, but it was. Almost always we have choices about how we spin the events around us, and for Uncle Fred the glass was never empty. He would bring a bit of sunshine into any room he entered. Though not an ambitious man, he was a loving husband and father, and a curious man. (One of the last times we communicated he passed along photos of Saturn taken from outer space—he couldn't resist sharing his amazement at what we're learning about the universe.)

We could all do worse than be that curious in our 90s.

Joani Blank (August 6) 
I lost a friend and community lost one of its staunchest promoters when Joani died this past August of pancreatic cancer at age 79. She had lived a full life.

As the cancer wasn't discovered until June, the end came fast, but Joani made the most of it, spending her last few weeks surrounded by friends and family, celebrating their shared lives. She died at home in her beloved cohousing community, Swan’s Market, in downtown Oakland.

I first met Joani at the national cohousing conference held on the campus of UC Berkeley in 2001. Though it was a "home game" for her (as an East Bay resident she could sleep in her own bed each night), it was immediately obvious to me that she was a tour de force who’s energy would be strong in any setting. She was one of the early adopters of cohousing, and worked tirelessly to promote it all the years that I knew her.

Joani and I didn’t always see things the same way. For example, she viewed cohousing as the epicenter of community living, while I saw it as just one of many good choices available under the big top that the Fellowship for Intentional Community has erected for showcasing options in intentional community and social sustainability. Yet, in the end, our differences were minor and we recognized in each other the same burning desire to create a more cooperative and just world. We were fellow travelers.

On a personal level, Joani stood out as someone you could work things out with. As an activist, she was aware that feathers would sometimes get ruffled. Whenever that occurred she wouldn’t necessarily change her viewpoint (or her style) but she’d tackle differences straight on, being willing to hear your side and to work constructively to a mutually agreeable solution. She did not duck the tough questions. While I’d like to tell you that this quality is common in the world today, it isn’t—and Joani was all the more precious to me as a friend because that’s the way she lived her life.

Joan and I crossed paths early on as I helped organize benefit auctions for a number of cohousing conferences and she was a generous contributor, often sending something sizzling from Good Vibrations, the groundbreaking sex-positive business that she started in 1977, with the goal of providing a "clean, well-lighted place for sex toys, books, and [later] videos.” Long before she died, Joani had converted Good Vibrations from “her" business to one that was employee-owned.

While she was undoubtedly better known as the proprietress who started Good Vibrations, I knew her as an icon in the Communities Movement. I last saw her in May at the regional Cohousing Conference on Aging in Salt Lake City, and we had our last exchanges via email in late June after she knew she was sick.

She faced death as fearlessly as she faced life: directly and with her eyes fully open. What better epitaph could one have?

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