Laird's Blog

Why Conflict Resolution Committees are Like Maytag Repairmen

As a consultant to cooperative groups. one of the most common things I'm asked to demonstrate is how to work constructively with conflict. 

Illustrative of this point, I'm just wrapping up a four-week swing through the Eastern time zone in which I've worked with three different residential communities. In all three instances, a portion of what I did was explain my thinking about conflict, and then demonstrate its application with a live example of some festering interpersonal tension where the protagonists volunteered from the floor. Think of it as theater in the round.

While all groups have conflict, only some have a commitment to engage with it when it surfaces. Fewer still have agreements about how to engage with it and members trained in delivering that support. Some groups (less than half) have a Conflict Resolution Team (in one version or another) whose job it is to be available to support members having trouble extricating themselves from the mud all alone.

While I'm always happy to hear that such support is in place, it turns out that Conflict Teams tend to be like the apocryphal Maytag repairman: grossly underused. Why? Here are half a dozen reasons that explain what I think is going on:

1. Is the team authorized to be pro-active?
When groups first stick their collective toes into the swirling waters of distress there is a tendency to take baby steps rather than full strides, with the result that the team is expected to not engage unless asked in by one or (hopefully) both protagonists.

This caution will definitely choke the amount of work that comes the team's way in that there are all manner of reasons why people needing help don't ask for it—including pride, embarrassment, uncertainty about whether it will make a difference, and lack of confidence in the members of the team. Further, people in distress don't always make good assessments about what's happening and what they need, all of which complicates case loads for the Conflict Team.

Better, I think, is to authorize the team to step in whenever it has the sense that there's unresolved tension and it's spilling over into group functionality.

2. Lack of a baseline commitment to make a good faith effort to resolve conflict if named as a player by another member
This is an important understanding that's missing in most groups. Thus, if Chris is struggling with Dale and asks Dale to discuss it (in an attempt to work it out), is it acceptable for Dale to say, "No"?

Mind you, I'm not saying that Dale needs to agree with Chris' story about what happened, to admit culpability, or to accept blame; I'm only suggesting that they have an explicit obligation—by virtue of being a member of the group—to make an honest attempt to sit down with Chris (perhaps with third party help from the Conflict Team) and sort it out.

Lacking this agreement, many people named in a conflict are leery of getting together with someone known to be upset with them, for fear of being the pin cushion in a wrestling match with a porcupine. Who needs it?

3. Lack of clarity about what support looks like
Often, groups empanel a Conflict Team without being clear how they will conduct their work, what options are available to protagonists regarding formats, or what support and safety will be extended to "customers."

Ambiguity about these things amounts to signing a blank check and it's understandable that there will be hesitancy about committing to an unknown process to navigate volatile territory. Juggling live sticks of dynamite is dangerous on any occasion; is it any wonder that being asked to do so in an unknown dark room is not appealing?

4. Lack of confidence in the skill of the team
Even if the process is fairly well defined (addressing the previous concern), there may be serious questions about whether Conflict Team members are sufficiently proficient at managing it. Who wants student doctors in charge while you're undergoing open heart surgery?

5. Confusion about whether team members facilitate all conflict cases that come their way
One reason why members don't approach the team for help with a conflict is that they may not have the impression that any of the team members are sufficiently neutral. Team members may be known to be close friends with the person you're conflicted with, or highly sympathetic to your antagonist's viewpoint. When those conditions obtain it's understandable that would-be customers try to get their needs met elsewhere.

The remedy, I think, is to spell out the expectation that the team is responsible for finding a facilitator (or team of facilitators) who is skilled enough and neutral enough to be mutually agreeable to all parties. There is no need to limit who is eligible for filling this important role to team members or anyone else—including the possibility of securing help from outside the group. The prime directive here is having a successful meeting between Chris and Dale—not generating work for people wanting to facilitate conflict.

6. Casualness in how team members are selected
For the Conflict Team to be used a lot, great care needs to be taken in how team members are selected. This is not an appropriate occasion to simply accept the first four people who volunteer for the job. While desire to do the work may be a factor, it isn't nearly enough.

First you'll want to delineate the qualities wanted from people serving in this capacity. The list might look something like this:
o  Discretion
o  Empathy
o  Fair-minded
o  Good listener
o  Ability to work constructively with emotions and in the presence of high distress
o  Ability to collaborate well (with fellow team members)
o  Good communication skills
o  Trusted
o  Approachable
o  Skilled at facilitation
o  Has time in their life to make the team's work a priority when a conflict arises

Second, you'll want a selection process that gives the whole group adequate opportunity to indicate which members rate high for these qualities.
• • •It's one thing to know enough that you need a tool and make the effort to have it on hand. But that's not enough. You also have to make sure the tool is used when the occasion for which it was secured arises. A garden hose that's left untouched, coiled neatly at the side of the house when a fire starts among the leaves in your side yard, is not much different than having no hose.

Sometimes Money Is Not the Right Currency

There's no doubt that money matters. But not always.

I recently worked with a group that was struggling over how to find an equitable settlement with its developer (who was also a member of the group) over promised facilities that never materialized, and one of the key challenges was coming to agreement about constituted "equitable."

Here's the back story:

o  The project was started about a decade ago when the developer bought a piece of land and promoted it for a community location. He sold lots for a certain amount of money, with the understanding that some of the purchase price would go toward paying off the land, some would go toward infrastructure (roads, sewer, and utilities), and some would be set aside for building common facilities. While the exact nature of the common facilities had not been delineated, everyone agreed that the promise had been made.

o  The project was to be developed in two phases: roughly two-thirds of the lots were in Phase I, and the remainder in Phase II.

o  When the bottom fell out of the housing market in 2008, it put an unanticipated squeeze on the master plan. It was hard to sell lots, interest payments were piling up, and the cost of infrastructure development spiraled upward. The net result was that after Phase I lots were sold there was only enough money to pay off the mortgage and to complete the infrastructure. Nothing was left over to build common facilities.

o  Further complicating matters, it turned out that the Phase II lots were in a more remote location such that there were serious questions about whether it would be revenue positive to develop them. Thus, it was by no means certain that completing the development would actually yield any additional revenue with which to fund construction of common facilities.

o  As long as this issue remained unresolved, the developer was stuck in no man's land: halfway between being a real estate professional who hadn't kept a promise, and being a fellow member of the community. It was awkward. Everyone wanted to get beyond this limbo, to the point where the development phase was complete and everyone was just a member of the community, yet they needed a pathway that would both protect the rights (and dreams) of the community to common facilities and didn't bankrupt the developer in the process.

o  By the time I got there, the group had been gnawing on this bone for more than two years and there was serious fatigue over the time and energy it was taking to untangle this Gordian Knot.

Now what?

There were a couple ways to look at this.

Option 1: The Financial Solution
Under this approach the group could assign a dollar value to the empty kitty for common facilities and then compare it against what the developer offered as compensation. While there would undoubtedly be some serious numbers to crunch, there are known methodologies for getting all that accomplished. In the end you could compare the value of the proposed remedy to the value of the debt and adjust as needed.

In many ways, that's the point of money: to facilitate fair exchange between apples and oranges.

However, fair market value does a notoriously poor job of taking into account mental anguish, good will, and the importance of ongoing good relations among the players. As all the folks involved in this decision were going to continue to live together after the settlement, this mattered quite a lot.

Option 2: The Energetic Solution
Under this approach, the group would purposefully skip the step of conducting a careful financial analysis and go for the gestalt. That is, once both sides were satisfied that the offer is reasonable, the group could decide to accept it because it was close enough and the most important thing is to get the problem resolved and move on—not extracting the last nickel possible.

While money is a tool, and not inherently good or evil, focusing on financial equality as the prime directive has a way of devaluing intangibles—such as relationships, the lifeblood of community—rather than supporting them.

In the end, the group chose Door #2, and the relief in the room was palpable, as weight was lifted from everyone's shoulders and the sun came out from behind the clouds.

Closing Contact with the Third Rail of Distress

Almost all people living in intentional community—as well as those aspiring to—value good communication. After all, the heart of community is relationship and that's pretty hard to develop and sustain with weak communication.
That said, all conditions under which communication is attempted are not equal. Some are way more challenging than others. In particular, one of the hardest is when one or more people are experiencing serious distress. In fact, the higher the voltage, the more uncertain and potentially explosive the connection becomes—to the point where it's questionable whether even to attempt it because:

a) Relationship damage may seem a more likely outcome than enhancement (sometimes people express distress in damaging ways).

b) The possibility of constructive exchange may seem too remote.

c) The environment in which the engagement occurs may be too uncomfortable or toxic for the people not in distress to be able to function.

d) There is no clarity about what will be constructive.

e) There is no confidence in anyone present possessing the skills needed to be constructive, even if there's agreement about how to go about it.

However, despite all these reasons to be cautious, reaching out and communicating with people in distress is also when it can do the most good—in terms of helping the person through the distress, helping the group shift back from turbulent to laminar flow, and strengthening relationships through deeper understanding.

So how do you handle it?

I believe that once a person identifies with being in serious distress, the group's prime directive is to make sure that that person doesn't feel isolated, and the way to accomplish that is to establish an authentic connection with their experience—essentially, that means being able to demonstrate to the upset person's satisfaction three things:

1. What's the trigger?
What happened (or didn't happen) that resulted in the reaction? Sometimes it's an action, sometimes it's a statement; sometimes it's a sequence of things that becomes the trigger. Sometimes it erupts out of nowhere and sometimes it's been building for years. Rather than guess, you need to ask.

2. What's the energy?
It turns out that getting the energy right is often more important than getting the story right. That is, in order for the upset person to feel heard, it's important that the person reaching out gets into a similar energetic zone—raising their energy if the person is angry, and dropping down for people who are afraid. Smoke curling out the ears needs to approached very differently than tears rolling down the cheeks.

Sometimes people make the mistake of trying to be an island of calm when reaching out to people in distress (on the theory that matching energy risks further stimulating the overstimulated), but my experience has been the reverse—that upset is far more likely to be sustained when met by mismatched energy. ("If you truly understood what I'm going through you wouldn't be so goddamn calm!")

3. Why does it matter?
The final piece of my triage trio is making a connection to why this matters to the person in reaction. In what way did this touch a core interest or concern? Understanding context can often be a key element in feeling fully held. This is especially helpful when the listener can establish how the concern is reasonable and tied to something valued in the group.

Note that none of the above is about taking sides; it's simply about hearing accurately and establishing connection without ducking hard feelings or assigning blame. Done well, information should now be freely flowing again.
• • •Now let's spin the above another way. Instead of focusing on someone in distress, think of someone who comes across as stubborn and locked into their position; someone who's perceived as holding the group up by not working productively with the input of others. They're seen as insisting on their right to be heard, yet it doesn't appear that they're living up to their responsibility to work respectfully with the views of others.
How do you handle that?
My advice, amazingly enough, is to proceed in the same way as with people in distress (outlined above). In general, someone balks at reaching out to others not because they're an asshole, but because they don't yet feel that they've been reached out to. Thus, the request to balance rights and responsibilities lands hollowly for the stubborn person because they don't have the sense that their rights have (yet) been honored.
It is not enough to simply assert that you have heard the person, you need to be able to show them through reflective listening. Better yet, feel into their beleaguered position (as an outlier for being stubborn) and establish a connection to why their position matters to them.
Then see if they unclench and are better able to reach out to others and find middle ground. In my experience deep hearing is incredibly effective as a topical balm on raw feelings and as an analgesic for stiff dynamics.

Why Consensus Takes Forever (but Doesn't Have to)

One of the most prominent complaints about consensus is the perception that it takes too long to get things done.

In thinking about how to compose this essay, I was reminded of an old Mad Magazine cover that featured a spoof on piracy. Across the top was the teaser "Seven Ways to Quell a Mutiny." Underneath that, in a more discreet font, was the secondary teaser: "Eight Ways to Start One."

Trying to be more up-tempo than mischievous, I will reverse the numbers for this essay, offering seven roads to consensus hell, followed by eight paths by which good results can be rescued from the voracious jaws of poor process.

This pickle (of trial by meeting) comes in a variety of flavors; here are seven:
• Stubborn minorities can too easily monkey-wrench the process
• It takes too long to hear from everyone
• Too many things require plenary approval to go forward
• When key people miss meetings all the work has to be redone when they return
• Forward progress is paralyzed by the emergence of serious distress
• Decisions are weak, devolving to the lowest common denominator, which translates into high input and low output
• The person with the thickest skin (or strongest bladder) prevails, rather than what's best for the group

OK, that was the house of consensus horrors. Here are eight tools with which exorcise those demons:

1. Culture Shift
Consensus is designed to thrive in cooperative culture, but most of the people attempting it have been raised in competitive culture. In order to get good results users need to understand that it takes unlearning combative responses in the face of disagreement. This takes effort and awareness. Without them, consensus devolves into unanimous voting and it can get ugly.

2. Working Volatility 
No matter how respectful and constructive an environment you create, or how mature the participants, there will be times when people enter non-trivial distress, and you'll need agreements about how to engage in those moments, as well as the skill to deliver on those agreements. Again, these are not typically skills that most of us were raised with—but they can be learned. You can't afford to let reactivity paralyze the group.

3. Finding Agreement in a Haystack
Most of us have been conditioned to think first about how we are unique from others, before we think about how we are similar. Because we tend to find what we're looking for, mostly we see disagreement before we see common ground. In fact, some people have trouble seeing agreement until it's waved right under nose. Finding agreement in a jumbled haystack of opinion should not be dependent on good fortune; it should be the residue of learning to look for it.

4. Skilled Facilitation
It can make a night-and-day difference having a facilitator who can create and maintain a collaborative container in which meetings occur, reminding people of their cooperative intentions when the going gets tough. While the need for this diminishes as the group gets more savvy about how to function cooperatively, in my experience have a sufficient diet of early successes can be crucial to feeling sufficiently nourished to stay the course--and a skilled facilitator can provide the bridge to those successes.

5. Corralling Repetition

I'm not saying that consensus is easy. But neither it doesn't have to be that hard (or take forever). 

The Erosion of Neutrality at Home

I was recently talking with a friend who described for me the arc of her relationship with her home community, where she'd been living for more than a decade. She started out as a mother of two young kids and didn't aspire to an active role in community affairs. Gradually though, as her kids needed less constant attention, she got drawn into meeting facilitation and planning plenary agendas (two separate roles, by the way). These were significant contributions and mostly her work was well received. 

Buoyed by those initial tastes of group dynamics, she deepened her involvement in community affairs and was occasionally drawn into taking a strong position on contentious issues—especially those where she felt the principles and integrity of the community were being challenged by obstreperous individuals. 

As it happened, we were talking shortly after she had gone to the mat with another member over a longstanding clash of styles and substance (which included participating in outside mediation at the community's encouragement), when she observed, to her chagrin, that her days as a facilitator in her home community may be behind her. She'd gotten hip deep into community muck frequently enough that wasn't sure she'd ever smell sweet enough again to be an acceptable facilitator.

While the community has plenty of other facilitators and was not dependent on her being in the pool for things to go well, she was lamenting the loss of a role she especially enjoyed, and didn't see it coming. It had not been clear to her that standing up in heavy seas for what she thought was right placed her reputation as a fair-minded facilitator at risk. Now she's seen as a major player.

To be sure, my friend was not regretting her decision to get more involved in community life; she was just expressing sadness about losing a service opportunity that she has a gift for.

As I listened to my friend's story unfold, it occurred to me that I've walked in those moccasins myself. Twice. At Sandhill Farm (my home from 1974 until last Thanksgiving) I facilitated only occasionally in later years. Though I've been a professional facilitator the last 27 years, I tend to ply my craft elsewhere and I was rarely asked to handle a thorny discussion at home. 

Following a parallel trajectory, it seemed increasingly inappropriate for me to facilitate Board sessions of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, for whom I've been the main administrator since the '90s. As someone heavily immersed in the content, I typically draft the agendas, but I don't run the meetings. Never mind that I'm a pro; I didn't have the right profile.
• • •One of the core principles of cooperative group dynamics is that meetings should be run by people who don't have a dog in the fight. That is, your facilitator should be disinterested in the outcome of the topics discussed‚ or at least approximately so.
Interestingly, for members who are deeply invested in their communities—which are definitely the kind you want—an inadvertent consequence of investment is an erosion of neutrality, or the perception of erosion (which is just as serious), such that some of your best members will inevitably become unacceptable as internal facilitators.

The tenderness of this hits home when, as often happens, the movers and shakers are also the folks who best grok good process. Now what? This can be delicate.

Over time individuals often have to make a choice about how they can best serve their group: as a person carrying the ball upfield, as a coach calling the plays, as a cheerleader, or as a referee. They all have their place, but the roles are not interchangeable. Once you're identified as a powerful stakeholder it can difficult switching back to wearing the zebra stripes of referee facilitator.

Some of this is due to fewer and fewer topics on which you are not associated with a viewpoint. Some is due to others being nervous that you may use the power of the facilitator role to steer the conversation in ways that doesn't align with what they think is best for the group. Note that it may not matter whether you actually do that; just the fear that you might can be enough to render you ineffective as a facilitator. In fact, the more you're seen as skilled in process the more others may be chary about having you in that role simply because of the steeper power gradient—not necessarily because there is any history of your misusing that power. It can get pretty goofy.

I know a handful of process professionals who have chosen to hold themselves aloof from engaging too deeply in dynamics at home. While that choice always struck me as odd when I first encountered it (why wouldn't you jump in with both feet to make your home as great as possible; why hold back?), now I have a deeper understanding of how things play out. If you feel that your greater contribution is helping your group with how rather than with what, then preserving your neutrality can make great deal of strategic sense.

While I may not have the discipline for that myself, I can admire it when I see it.

Laird's Ninth Symphony

I'm in Ann Arbor this week, principally to participate in the NASCO Institute, the premiere annual gathering of student co-opers across North America. I've been on the teaching faculty for the last 18 years, where I enjoy giving workshops and acting as a resource for the next generation of young adults excited about cooperative living.

This year I'm giving a brace of workshops: one on Consensus Headaches (how to relieve them, not get them or give them) and one on Delegation (which is a stumbling block for many consensus groups).

While the conference (and delivery of my workshops) begins today, it is not the only thing on my mind. Neither, for that matter, is the sleet happening outside, not-so-subtly reminding us all what season is queued up next.

In fact, a majority of my bandwidth today will be devoted to orchestrating Laird's Ninth Symphony: a Slow Food Extravaganza, where—for the ninth time in ten years—I produce an elaborate and scrumptious four-source meal for a dozen foodies and friends. Everyone will gather at 7 pm and devote the rest of the evening to conversation, consumption, and conviviality—all in a leisurely fashion. Most years we're still at it at 11 pm. It's one of the highlights of my annual calendar and delightfully bookends November as a month of gustatory celebration: with Slow Food Ann Arbor on the front end and Thanksgiving on the back.

I am given a free hand to select the menu (usually based on a particular cuisine), and oversee the cooking and presentation—which usually means starting Thursday for a Saturday evening performance. In exchange, all the other celebrants divide up the cost of ingredients.

Many years I have the pleasure of producing this meal with my wife, Ma'ikwe. Both of us love to cook and it's a joy to dance with her in the kitchen preparing love in the form of sustenance. Right now, however, she's gearing up for a speaking tour of college campuses to talk about community and climate change in early 2015, and has decided to minimize her off-farm commitments in anticipation of the rigors of a heavy travel schedule ahead. So I'm in Ann Arbor without her. 

While I love cooking with Ma'ikwe, there's a silver lining to her absence: I could select a menu that's heavy on seafood, which I love and she does not. Further, I am blessed this year with terrific help in the kitchen in the form of Claire Maitre and Lesli Daniel. 

Though some year's I've done all the cooking solo, it's much less nerve wracking to have a buddy—and this year I'm blessed to have two accomplished assistants. This is especially valuable this year as I continue to struggle with a balky lower back from overlifting at a fair in early October. In fact, it's dubious I could pull tonight's meal off without Claire & Lesli's yeowoman help. Whew. Sometimes, magically, the universe provides.

In any event, here's tonight's menu, based on a Creole theme:

Signature cocktail 
Phoebe Snow

Appetizer
Cheese plate
Praline bacon
Shrimp remoulade   

Primi Piatti
Crawfish étouffée
Eggs sardou
Roasted beets with oranges and goat cheese

Secondi Piatti
Pan-fried John Dory with meuniere butter
Crabmeat Yvonne
Red beans and rice with andouille and tasso

Dessert
Bananas foster   
Key lime cheesecake

Wine Pairings
Pinot grigio
Pinot noir
Sauternes

Now isn't that music to your stomach's ears?

Group Works: Power Shift

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

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

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

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

In the Relationship segment there are 10 cards. The eighth pattern in this segment is labeled Power Shift. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card: 
Critical awareness and transparency around existing power differences can, if held well, allow the group to adapt authority structures to best reflect their values or serve their aims. Sharing power isn't always easy, but the rewards for groups who do so can be profound.

Many cooperative groups hunger for flat hierarchy and an even distribution of power. While that's an understandable sentiment, power—the ability to get others to do something or to agree to something—is always unevenly distributed.

In my view, when it comes to power the goal of cooperative needs to be:
o  Understanding how power is distributed in the group (including how that distribution shifts by topic and circumstance).

o  Distinguishing between power that is used well (for the benefit of all) and power that is used poorly (for the benefit of some at the expense of others).

o  Developing the capacity to examine the perception that power has been used poorly, without instigating a fire fight or inciting a witch hunt.

o  Enhancing the leadership capacity of members—so that an increasing percentage of the membership has the ability to use power well.

I question whether "sharing power" is the right phrasing, because a person with power (the ability to influence others) cannot give it to others; they have to earn it. To be sure, the group can authorize someone (or a committee) to make decisions on behalf of the whole, but if that assignment is not based on trust in the person's (or team's) ability to do a good job, it's a questionable prospect. 

That said, the group can intentionally support members learning to exercise power well—which, if the lessons are absorbed, will result in an increasing number of suitable people among whom to distribute responsibilities. 

There is a trap that some cooperative groups fall prey to in pursuit of "adapting authority structures to best reflect their values." If the group translates that into strict rotational leadership there can be trouble. Let's take, for example, a group that has 24 members and meets twice a month. In the interest of purposefully distributing the power of running plenaries, the group may adopt the practice of rotating facilitation such that everyone is expected to do it once annually.

On the one hand this is eminently fair and serves the goal, yet it places the plenary at risk. For one thing, not everyone is equally skilled at facilitation, nor does everyone aspire to be good at it. Thus, on those occasions when you have people uncomfortable and/or unaccomplished in the role, you're taking a chance that the quality of the meeting can survive amateur-hour leadership. Is that smart?

For another thing, one of the hallmarks of cooperative groups is disinterested facilitation, where the facilitator is not a significant stakeholder on the topics being addressed.

if facilitation assignments are made ahead of the agenda being drafted—maybe members facilitate in alphabetical order and everyone knows their turn months ahead, which protects against someone being on vacation at the wrong time—this becomes facilitation roulette. It's inevitable that this approach will occasionally result in a inadvertent conflict of interest, at which point bye bye neutrality. Now what?

Sure, you can scramble to produce a substitute facilitator but that undercuts the Power Shift You can see the problem.

Better, I think, is to encourage all members to develop facilitation skills, but to twist no arms (and traumatize no psyches) by making this mandatory. Further, I think cooperative groups would be wise to invest resources in training members in facilitation, and then giving them assignments in relationship to their skill (and appropriate for their neutrality). 

Think of this as a template for shifting power with discernment.

Dia de los Muertos 2014

This past weekend was the Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos. In the spirit of that, I continue a tradition I started last year, devoting my first blog of November to remembering those in my life who died in the previous 12 months. This year I am remembering three.

Steve Imhof • died Jan 8 (in his late 60s)
Steve was many things, but I met him in the unusual capacity of a male midwife. As it happened, my son, Ceilee, was his first solo birth. He generally worked with his wife, Joy, who was the more experienced midwife, but they had two clients who went into labor at the same time and had to split up to attend both. Steve got Annie and me, figuring (accurately) that we'd be less phased by a male attendant. 

Ceilee was born in the middle of our bedroom floor on a cold and sunny winter morning Jan 27, 1981, and Steve was a quiet, steady voice guiding us on this joyous occasion.

Though I lost track of Steve shortly after the birth, he surprisingly resurfaced in my life 27 years later when he drove up from Panama City FL to meet me in Atlanta (where I was visiting East Lake Commons to conduct Weekend I of a two-year facilitation training in the Southeast). After separating from Joy he had gotten curious about cooperative living and tracked me down to learn more about how he might build community in the panhandle of Florida.

After chatting with me in Atlanta he got intrigued by the facilitation training and spontaneously decided to stay for the weekend. Drawn into what we were teaching he signed up for the whole course and I got to see him eight times over the next two years. The final weekend was in June 2010, and I never saw him again.

Through occasional email contact, I knew that Steve was applying what he learned in the facilitation training to dynamics in his local fire department and that he was working on trying to coalesce some form of cooperative living in Panama City.


Mostly I remember Steve as someone who stayed curious his whole life, and was willing to question old choices in light of new evidence. We should all be so open to what's around us.
Marjorie Swann • died March 14 (at 93)
Marjorie was many things and lived a full life.

I first met her as the mother of Carol, a dynamic woman in Berkeley who is a dance and voice performer, a Hakomi therapist, and a social change activist. I was engaged in the dance of intimacy with Carol 1998-2000. Though it did not work for us to be partners, we have remained friends and I visited Marj (who lived in Berkeley as well) on a number of occasions while seeing Carol.

I also knew Marj as the ex-partner of Bob (Carol's father), who was a well-known economist and peace activist. Bob collaborated with Ralph Borsodi to start the forerunner of the Institute for Community Economics (that developed the community land trust model as a way to take the air out of the speculative balloon that inflates land prices). Toward the end of his life he championed the writings of E F Schumacher (Small Is Beautiful) operating out of the Schumacher Center for Alternative Economics in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Bob died in 2003.

Marj was a Quaker peace activist, very involved with the American Friends Service Committee, and a member of the War Resistors Leagues. She co-founded the Committee for Nonviolent Action in 1960—a group that continues strong today—and even found time to provide shelter for battered women.

I knew Marj only toward the end of her long life, when her waning physical strength limited how much she got out and about in pursuit of her various causes. Yet the fire burned strongly within her and her spirit was indomitable. There has always been something uplifting for me about being around seniors like Marj, who are engaged and open-minded in defiance of age—who do not go gently into that good night.

Stephen Gaskin • died July 1 (at 79)
Though Stephen was well-known as the charismatic leader who founded The Farm (Summertown TN) in 1971, I knew him only slightly. We chatted occasionally when I visited his community, yet I was never sure he remembered me from one visit to the next. 

Our most satisfying connection (for me) was when I was participating in The Farm Communities Conference Memorial Day Weekend in 2012, and was able to present to him—during intermission of an in-house rock band performance on the community stage—the Kozeny Communitarian Award for that year. It was last time I saw him.

While Stephen was a poster child for Flower Power and the legalization of marijuana, what stands out the most for me are two of his lesser known achievements:

a) Steadfast dedication to good local relations, navigating the considerable challenge of peaceably integrating Hippies arriving by the busload into conservative rural Tennessee.

b) Accepting amicably his being deposed as leader of the community when its centralized economy collapsed in 1983 and the population shrank from 1500 to 200. Stephen lived in the community for 30 more years but never again served in a leadership capacity. Very few can handle a transition like that, much less with grace.

The Murky Line Between Discipline and Violence

How do you define violence? Is striking children in the name of discipline violence?

These were questions that the Fellowship for Intentional Community Board wrestled with at its recent semi-annual organizational meetings, held Oct 23-26 at Dancing Rabbit.

FIC has been around for 27 years and is best known for its comprehensive Communities Directory, which was first published as a book in 1990 and continues today both in print and as a searchable online database. We only have three boundaries around being included in the Directory:

a) That you tell the truth (no misrepresentation).
b) That you don't advocate violent practices.
c) That you don't interfere with members freely disassociating from the community if they no longer wish to be a part of it.

While we receive few complaints about listed groups—about 2-4 annually—mostly these amount to someone not liking what a group is doing and urging us to drop their listing based on their personal distaste. If it's nothing more than that we don't act. Our job is not to tell people what they should like; it's to give them options and let them choose for themselves.

However, if the complainant believes that the group has crossed one of our three boundaries above and is willing to stand by their position in a direct communication with the community, then we're willing to open a dialog with the community. Sometimes this amounts to clearing up a  misunderstanding, occasionally this leads to a modified listing, and every now and then it leads to our pulling a listing down.

We received a complaint this summer from someone who claimed a listed community had a policy of abusing children in the name of Biblically-inspired discipline, and he was perfectly willing to discuss this with the community.

Realizing that this was not going to be simple to resolve, I brought the issue to the Board. 

We had two issues to consider: 1) is the group misrepresenting its practices in its listing; and 2) is it advocating violent practices?

1. What's Happening and Is There Misrepresentation?
The complainant stated that community children are regularly disciplined by adults using reeds or sticks sufficient to raise welts and cause pain, though not enough to break the skin. Investigation shows that there are a number of ex-members who have testified publicly that this occurs. In television interviews, reporters asking for verification of the community's discipline practices are consistently rebuffed. On the one hand current members do not deny the practice, yet neither do they confirm it.

However, further research uncovered a website supported by the community in which the community admits to this practice. That resolved the question of what's happening and that it's a community practice, yet still left open whether there's been misrepresentation because this controversial practice is not mentioned in their listing. It would probably satisfy FIC's standard for honesty if the community explicitly included in their listing that the community condones disciplining children with a reed or switch that inflicts pain.

2. What constitutes violent practices?
When we first articulated our policy about violence, we distinguished between an act committed in the heat of the moment (while it may be no less traumatizing, acts of passion are easier to forgive than a policy of violence—such as regularly siccing attack dogs on unwanted visitors, or threatening people with guns).

Years later, we further refined our position by determining that hate speech is considered violence and grounds for being excluded from our listings. We had not, however, previously come to any conclusions about spanking children.

While a number of FIC Board members found the community's discipline practices personally abhorrent, the community claims that their practice is inspired by Old Testament Bible passages and discipline is done in the name of love. To what extent, if any, is it acceptable that a practice that is otherwise unacceptable be allowed because it's rooted in spiritual interpretation?

We needed to thread the needle around our commitments to: a) nonviolence; b) freedom of spiritual practices; and c) diversity of parenting philosophies. What a pickle!

What's more, one Board member wondered if this approach to discipline—however repugnant it is when considered in isolation—might actually be an effective deterrent to worse practices, helping to keep parents and other adults more disciplined about how they administer discipline. Who knows?

As FIC's main administrator (and the first monkey in the barrel when fielding critical feedback about listings), I needed a position that I could clearly delineate. If we took the view that striking children in the name of discipline was violent, how slippery was that slope? What about communities that take no position about disciplining children, leaving that wholly up to parents (which is what most communities do, so long as practices are acceptable within the eyes of the law)? Were we saying that any community that condoned spanking would be excluded on the basis of violating our boundary around violence? That could be quite a few.

After a thorough discussion we had narrowed our options down to:

Option 1
Deleting the community on the basis of their advocating violent practices. Some Board members felt this was a straight forward extension of our commitment to nonviolence. As they found the community's discipline practices unacceptable, its listing was unacceptable. If there are other groups that condone striking children in the name of discipline—even implicitly, knowing that it occurs on a regular basis and not acting to stop it—then we should take down their listings as well.

Option 2
Allowing the listing to continue if modified by the community to explicitly disclose information about their child discipline practices, accompanied by a statement from FIC that we are allowing this listing in the name of diversity and spiritual freedom, even though many of our Board believe this practice to be a form of child abuse. The argument here is that this might do a better job of balancing all the factors in play and it may be a more effective social change strategy because it attempts to educate about the issue, instead of turn our backs to it.

In the end, there was no consensus among the Board about where to draw the line, and it falls to me to do more investigating. By opening up a conversation with the community it may become clearer which way to proceed.

It was one of those moments where I hated the issue and loved the process, and an excellent example of using Board time appropriately—figuring out the best course of action in those awkward moments when our core values don't play nice with each other.

Issues in Inter-organizational Collaboration

Suppose you have multiple organizations interested in collaborating with one another. They each have similar—though not identical—missions and many common areas of interest, such as events, fundraising, outreach, education, research, and public relations. Let's further suppose that there's considerable geographic dispersal of the players, which complicates the desire for face-to-face meetings. How would you set it up to succeed?

One model is to put out the call for each of the partners to identify reps from their organization for each area of interest, encourage the reps to get together with their counterparts and see what happens. There is a simplicity and purity about this approach, but it tends to be fairly chaotic, and hit or miss about who answers the call, and how things move forward.

It works better, I think, if there's an identified coordinator—a person (or persons) whose job it is to call the meeting at which the reps gather, who sees to it that everyone knows about the meeting and how to access it (we're talking web-based meetings or conference calls), makes sure there's a draft agenda, that everyone gets to speak, that minutes are being taken, and that the conversation is forward moving.

Note that none of these coordinator duties needs to be coupled with a personal agenda. That is, they can all be performed neutrally. While I get it that in Western culture we're conditioned to think of the person in charge of coordinating and running meetings to be someone with power to control (or at least steer) outcomes—think of Congressional or Senate committee chairs to grasp my point—one of the most salient features of cooperative culture is the purposeful separation of facilitation from stakeholder.

So a key point in collaborative dynamics is whether you have a coordinator at all, and, if you do, how that person (or person) gets selected. If you offer to fill that role without being asked first, there can be suspicion about your motivation. Is it to control, to enhance productivity, or both? Having no coordinator addresses the power concerns (that the coordinator, or the organization with whom they're associated, will have an advantage in the direction taken by the collaboration), yet at the expense of efficiency (without portfolio, reps will be hesitant to step into the void to perform coordinating tasks—for fear of stepping on toes or being labeled power mongers).

In an anarchistic ideal, every rep would be fully actualized: willing and able to perform coordinator duties as the situation calls for them. But I've never seen that model work well. People can be reps—and good ones—without having the bandwidth to perform coordinating tasks. Perhaps none of the reps in a given interest area will have the time or inclination to coordinate. Or maybe the reps who volunteer to handle certain coordinating tasks are not seen as capable. Now what?
 
Of course, the reps could discuss that and determine collectively how to self-organize and fill coordination roles, which includes the possibility of reaching outside their current configuration. Can you count on that happening? Probably not. Yet rather than predicting that it won't, I'm suggesting that if you recognize the need for baseline coordination, then, as a partner organization you may want a proposal on the table at the outset, establishing that each focus group will address a set of standard questions about how they will conduct business—note that I am not saying that different interest groups need have the same answers, or that the collaborative groups need to operate the same way that parent groups do:

o  Who will take the lead on scheduling meetings?

o  Who will serve as a point of contact for the group (the person to whom inquiries are directed)?

o  Who is authorized to be a spokesperson for the group?

o  Will the group operate with a list serve, and, if so, who will manage it?

o  How will reps be notified when meetings have been scheduled and the protocol for accessing them?

o  If the group is frustrated by a rep's performance (missing meetings, not coming prepared, acting stridently, etc.) what is the protocol for addressing those frustrations, including the possibility of informing the rep's parent body what's happening and possibly requesting that the rep be replaced?

o  What will be the standards for minutes, how will it be determined who will take them, how will they be disseminated, will they be available to folks outside the group, how can they be modified, and how will they be archived?

o  Will meetings be facilitated, and, if so, how will it be determined who will facilitate?

o  How will meeting agendas be drafted?

o  To what extent are reps authorized to make decisions binding on their constituent organizations?

o  If the group develops proposals, what can the group implement on its own and when do reps need to consult with their organizations? If proposals need to be shopped among the partners, who will manage this process?

o  When can the group proceed in the absence of participation from a partner group (what happens when reps miss meetings)?

o  What are the reporting standards for informing partners what the group is discussing?

o  What is the protocol for inviting additional partners to join the group?

o  How will the group make decisions?
 
While this list is not exhaustive, it's comprehensive enough to give you a good feel for what I'm talking about.

If you reflect on this set of questions, you'll observe that all of them have probably been addressed by each partner organization to establish how they'll function internally. None of this should be virgin territory. I suggest you think of it as extending what you already know to be helpful at home into your work with others. While there can a certain amount of impatience with tackling process considerations when an interest group initially gathers (it tends to be much sexier jumping into ideas for joint projects, which were the inspiration for collaborating in the first place), my experience has been that operating in the fog bank of murky process quickly erodes enthusiasm for the joint effort. If you want your group's work to have legs, you have to provide shoes.

While it may make sense, in the name of efficiency, to ask one partner group to take the lead on handling coordination functions (perhaps by virtue of access to greater resources or staff experience), at the very least all collaborative groups can walk through the checklist of organizational functions I've delineated above to keep things rolling.

Why Cooperative Groups Fail to Accept Offers of Help

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

I think this declination sorts itself into three main reasons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There and Back Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Giants Win the Peanut!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go Giants!

Waiting for Frost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saying "No" to Prospective Members

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questioning Technology

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

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

This requires some discernment. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critique of Sociocracy Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorghum for $9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balancing Listening and Speaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below the surface, this means:

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

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

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

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

I have to walk my talk.

V. Recommend Next Steps
This comes in two flavors:

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

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

Group Works: Hosting

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

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

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

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

In the Relationship segment there are 10 cards. The seventh pattern in this segment is labeled Hosting. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card: 
Help the session feel like home. Making a place and arrangements comfortable for everyone supports accomplishment of the group's work. Attend to the well-being of each person and the whole.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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