Laird's Blog

Resilient Today

Today I want to focus on resilience. In particular, I want to share what the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC) is doing to help all of us be more resilient in these uncertain times. But first I'm going to tell a story.

When I moved to northeast Missouri with three friends and started Sandhill Farm in 1974, we were a group of 20-somethings with no experience in farming or rural living. When we announced to neighbors that we were committed to growing food organically, they were amused. As far as they were concerned we may as well have been from Mars.

Forty years later, the neighbors aren't laughing. Sandhill Farm is still there and still farming organically. If anything, the topsoil depth and natural fertility of our small farm has gradually increased over the years of our stewardship. While we hold about 75 acres of cleared land all together, we've steadfastly refused to till more than 15-20 acres—the patches that are flat enough. The rest is too steep and has been planted to grass, which keeps the dirt where it is instead of washing downstream in rainstorms, gradually increasing the size of the Mississippi Delta.

Traditionally, farmers in our part of America's breadbasket would go through a three-year rotation of corn, soybeans, wheat, and red clover. This cuts down on the need for artificial fertilizers, manages weeds better, and makes it harder for insects to establish dangerous populations to assault specific crops. But that cycle didn't produce enough income to handle the debt load incurred by purchasing land and large equipment. In consequence, crop rotations today have collapsed to two years: corn followed by soybeans, and then back to corn. Over time, following that program leads to a drop in fertility and the need for ever-increasing inputs (fertilizer, herbicides, and insecticides) to maintain yields. It's a vicious cycle, which invariably leads to a marked decreased in resilience.

By farming organically and relying on traditional crop rotations, our bill for soil amendments has been much lower than our neighbors, and isn't spiraling up as fast (while the price for anhydrous ammonia goes up like gasoline, when you put manure on your fields you're just paying shit). Also, we rely on open-pollinated seed, which we save from year to year. Our neighbors depend on high-yielding hybrids that are not only expensive but must be purchased new every year.

By farming only on a modest scale, we don't need expensive equipment. Our first tractor—an Allis Chalmers WC, built in 1939—was purchased at auction for one bid above scrap: $210. And it still runs today. We also have our own combine. It's a pull-type Allis Chalmers All-crop, built in 1952. We bartered 7.5 hours of labor for it when the owner decided it was taking up too much valuable space in his machine shed.

While our crop yields were significantly lower than our neighbors, the disparity in net income was softened by our being able to command premium prices for organic food. (In 1974 you'd never see an organic or natural food section in a grocery store; today it's hard to find a modern grocery without one.) 

Not stopping there we took advantage of our access to labor (both in terms of able-bodied adult members and the interns we'd attract during the growing season) to figure out ways to sell value-added products instead of raw goods. Thus, instead of marketing soybeans, we'd turn our soybeans into tempeh and sold that. While we grew horseradish root, we only sold prepared horseradish. With that strategy we needed fewer acres to produce the same income. By buying less land we've enjoyed a lower debt load. In fact, Sandhill has no debt. And none of our neighbors think we're from Mars.
• • •I told you the story of Sandhill's adventures in resiliency because I think it parallels the work being done by the Fellowship for Intentional Community. Over the course of 30 years FIC has had two main missions. The narrow one has been to be the most up-to-date and comprehensive clearinghouse of information about intentional communities, focusing mainly on the US and Canada. Its second, broader mission has been to promote cooperative culture in a world drunk on competition.

Just as Sandhill was ahead of its time in blowing the horn for organic farming and resilient agriculture, FIC has been ahead of the curve in identifying and promoting the lessons of intentional communities as models of social sustainability. For both entities, what came across as exotic and other worldly in their early years has proven to be prescient and apt as the rest of the world has caught up with the near-desperate need to get off the acquisitive hamster wheel of materialism.

Where Are We (and What Are We Doing in This Handcart)?
The emerging threat today is climate change and the global disruption of "normal" life. The melting of polar ice caps threatens coastal inundation. Places that used to have predictable rainfall now experience years of drought followed by massive flooding. Fruit trees are blooming in February instead of May, and there is unprecedented worry about adequate access to safe water.

Terrorist attacks have come in waves of numbing frequency—from a berserker truck driver on a rampage in the German Christmas market, to a solo fanatic driving down pedestrians on the Westminster Bridge in London; from the renowned hijackers of 9/11 who took down the World Trade Centers, to suicide bombers who are sheathed in explosives for the express purpose of detonating themselves in crowds—extremists are exhorting followers to perpetrate brutal acts of violence, without regard to human life, including their own. It is the triumph of nihilism.
On the political front, in the US there is almost a complete breakdown of civil discourse. There is no longer conversation and thoughtful dialog; there is only polemics and near-constant vilification of "other." Though there is only one Earth, if you listen to the nightly news you'd never know there was any awareness of our being on it together, with only a single future that we must share. All you hear today is breast beating for partisan agendas, and no willingness to recognize that others may hold pieces of the truth, just as well as we.
• • •Over the decades that FIC has been on the scene (since 1987), there has been a progression of "in" terms: from organic to sustainable to local to today's sweetheart: resilient. While the wrapping is new, the core message is not. We still need to figure out how to get along with each other. For all the reasons touched on in the preceding paragraphs that need has never been more urgent than it is today.

Intentional communities are important—but not because it is the lifestyle wave of the future. In Israel there was a time when as much as four percent of the population lived on kibbutzim; it would shock me if the percentage of the US population living in some form of self-identified intentional community ever got within sniffing distance of one percent. Today, for example, there about 100,000 in the US who are living in community. That number would have to expand by more than 30 times to reach one percent.

The importance of intentional communities is the pioneering work that they're undertaking in the crucible of group living. They are doing the heavy lifting to figure out what it takes to live cooperatively; how to share resources equitably; how to solve problems such that everyone's interests have been taken into account without settling for the winners and loser dynamics of majority rule. There has to be a better way, and intentional communities are in the forefront of the experiments that will light the path.

It boils down to figuring out a different way to be in the world; to harnessing the synergy of groups in order to create a better life for all, instead of competing as individual households and nations for limited resources. This is not about homogenization and one size fits all; it's about creating and maintaining quality while at the same time respecting and honoring differences and learning to live graciously while putting resource consumption on a diet.

If this resonates with you, read on.

FIC in Action Today
As someone who worked in the eye of the hurricane for 28 years (I stepped down from a leadership role with FIC at the end of 2015) I can tell you that the Fellowship never lacked for creative ideas about how to use funds. There have always been initiatives to better get the word out; experiments to conduct, evaluate, and chronicle; and collaborations to attempt. We don't just talk about hope. We test it.

For information about FIC's latest effort click here. They are trying to raise $8000 in order to fund four initiatives aimed at exploring the intersection of community and climate change: two books, a national speaking tour, and the latest issue of Communities magazine (released earlier this month). While they have raised more than half of their target (over $4800) there is only one week left until the perks being offering as incentives will be withdrawn. 

Now is the time to act! I'm asking readers and subscribers to consider donating (remember, it's tax deductible), and to ask your friends and acquaintances to do the same.
 
As a special incentive, for every $100 you donate to this campaign (for which you'll also get the satisfaction of having your oar in the water, pulling for a good cause) I will make a matching offer of 30 minutes of my time that can be used for any of the following:
—consulting about intentional communities 
—advising about cooperative group dynamics
—editing proposals or reports

This offer is good only through the end of the month (it expires at midnight March 31) and is in addition to any perks you claim from the FIC site. So long as you make your pledge or donation before April 1, you'll have one year to redeem the offer of my services.
 
Together, we are making a difference.

Reverse Discrimination

This weekend I've been conducting a facilitation training in Bellingham WA—Weekend V of VIII—and the teaching theme was Power and Leadership (each of the eight weekends we focus on a major aspect of what facilitators need to understand and keep in mind when trying to run dynamic and productive meetings).

While exploring the dynamics of privilege, Ma'ikwe (my teaching partner) explained that when people lose their privilege it feels like discrimination. Her essential point was that loss feels like loss, even when it's bringing everyone to even. As I sat with that it occurred to me that it might make a difference if your new position was the result of reverse discrimination… or maybe not.

In groups that work on becoming aware of how privilege skews the distribution of power, it's not unusual to consider adopting practices (at least for a time) where the group purposefully disfavors those segments who have benefited from unearned privilege and a slanted playing field. 

As an example, let's unpack the landmark University of California v. Bakke case in 1978, where the US Supreme Court looked at the affirmative action policy of the UC-Davis medical school to favor non-white applicants for the express purpose of correcting pernicious societal discrimination against non-whites. While the court ultimately struck down the UC-Davis policy for going too far, it provided the basis for supporting affirmative action programs in general, which subsequently became a legal precedent, and the underpinning of affirmative action programs today.

Two things are in play here: 

a) Recognition that there have been longstanding forms of discrimination in the society that are not what we want—I'm talking about race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious affiliation, whether or not you have children—those kinds of things.

b) In the interest of hastening the process of closing the gap between what exists and where we want be with respect to those kinds of discrimination, it is acceptable, at least for a time, to adopt policies that intentionally discriminate against those segments of society that previously enjoyed the benefits of privilege.

The first point was addressed in Civil Rights legislation. It was the second point that the Bakke case pivoted around, and the focus of this essay is to explore whether there is any significant difference between how it feels to undergo a power drop because of a) alone (the loss of privilege), or because of a) and b) combined (loss of privilege plus reverse discrimination). While it's an interesting question in its own right, I am not looking at whether reverse discrimination is a good practice; I am only exploring its impact on those whose power is reduced by it.

My credentials in this regard are various. First I have been working as a consultant to cooperative groups for three decades, and understand that culture profoundly. In addition, I'm someone who has gobs of personal privilege—white, male, older, well-educated, articulate, heterosexual, Protestant—who has chosen to immerse myself in the subculture of intentional community, which is hyper-vigilant about discrimination, to the point where I am often suspect when I enter groups for the first time (How much is this dude aware of his privilege; has he done his work around it?).

Frankly, as someone who has been trying to do his personal work in relation to discrimination, it's an advantage for me to be in a milieu in which I'm more likely to be watched closely—because it so easy for people who benefit from privilege to be blind to its application. In short, I've learned to mistrust relying solely on my own perceptions and good intentions. I figure I'm more or less like other folks: a work in progress. Some things I catch; some things slide by (oops!).

Taking my credentials one step further, I have been subjected to reverse discrimination. Not often, to be sure (no need to cry on my behalf) but I've tasted it. I'm thinking in particular, of gender discrimination in the arcane world of income-sharing secular intentional communities. In that rarefied setting, where I lived for 40 years, the same action that men would be criticized for (labeled overly aggressive) were likely to be celebrated if done by women (labeled constructively assertive). It's a double standard and there have been times when I chafed at being subjected to it.

Apropos this consideration, I viewed the way I was treated as unfair and that pushed a deep button in me. Fortunately it didn't end there, but I passed through that awareness, and it was painful. By degrees I took into account the analysis that led to the choice of reverse discrimination. While I was undecided about whether or not it was an effective strategy (to accelerate the creation of the just and fair culture that the men and women I lived with agreed we wanted), getting to that more sophisticated understanding allowed me to move through my pain. Today I don't recall how long it took me to work through all that—like unpacking Russian dolls—but I recall experiencing outrage along the way. I recall that I didn't enjoy being discriminated against. 

But then who does? And I guess that was part of the point, giving me a visceral taste of what some experience as a steady diet. 

Maybe a person of privilege can get the same taste by simply losing their advantage—going straight to the level playing field. But maybe not. In any event, it took me longer to tease apart the layers of feeling when I was on the receiving end of reverse discrimination, and I've ultimately come to view that experience as both more complicated and more profound.

Group Works: Follow the Energy

This past week I visited Tree Bressen, an old friend and peer in cooperative group dynamics. I was doing a series of workshops at Lost Valley Educational Center in Dexter OR, and she and Dianne Brause (yet another old friend) came out from Eugene for the afternoon.

Seeing Tree reminded me that a few years back I had started a blog series reviewing the Group Works process cards that Tree helped develop, and that reminder inspired today's essay. 

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. Intention2. Context3. Relationship4. Flow5. Creativity6. Perspective7. Modeling8. Inquiry & Synthesis9. Faith

In the Flow segment there are 15 cards. The fifth pattern in this category is labeled Follow the Energy. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card:

What does the group really want in this moment? Let your observation of cues and "vibes" guide your response and steering of topics and process. Paying attention to where the life is, you help it flower. 

By coincidence, the final workshop that I did at Lost Valley was about facilitation. At the outset I solicited from participants where they wanted me to focus my comments, and two of the half dozen requests were: a) flow and b) balancing content and energy. It turns out that addressing b) is often the answer to a).

You can buy books on meeting facilitation—books that are meant to cover the topic comprehensively—that focus almost exclusively on managing content (what is being said, how does it relate to the topic on the table, how does it align with what others have said, what would be an insightful summary of everyone's input, where should we focus the conversation). But that's not good enough, or at least it isn't in the groups I work with (mainly intentional communities), where the expectation is that meetings will not only address issues; they will enhance relationships into the bargain. 

Riding Two Horses
In order to accomplish that, facilitators need to be able to work with energy. They need to be able to read it, sense trends, and have familiarity with choices that can acknowledge, shape, elicit, stimulate, defuse, hold, balance, enhance, and celebrate energy. And "choices" include far more than words: it's also tone, volume, pace, body language, sequencing, and whether to stand or sit.

Unfortunately, being conversant with energy is almost completely unrelated to the skills needed to manage content. They are different languages, with separate vocabularies and syntax. A facilitator may be good with one, both, or neither. I like to refer to this skill as riding two horses: the Content horse and the Energy horse. If you have a facilitator who is only facile on one horse, it can be effective to pair that person with someone who has complementary skills: getting the group's needs met with a team instead of an individual. 

While relying on two riders instead of one may be an elegant way to simultaneously train up a greenhorn while still protecting the group's need for a quality meeting, please be advised that team facilitating requires that both riders be deft at passing the reins without either horse spitting the bit. There should always be one horse in the lead and it's awkward for the group if it's not clear who that is.

For many groups, the person labeled "facilitator" is actually just riding the Content horse, with the "vibes watcher" atop the Energy horse. This can be fine so long as both riders know who's covering what and there's no confusion about how the hand-offs work. The biggest reservation I have about this deployment is that most vibes watcher that I've observed are passive, only stepping in when there's serious tension in the room—when the facilitator has lost control of the flow, or is in danger of it.

I prefer to teach facilitators how to handle both mounts (so that a single person is regularly reading the room for both Content and Energy), making micro-adjustments as the meeting unfolds. Small changes effected in a timely way can prevent the need for major changes later. If the Content rider is not alert to Energy, they can inadvertently make choices in service to problem solving that exacerbate Energy challenges. 

What do I mean? Let's unpack an example. If the facilitator is only looking at Content they may fall into a pattern of over-reliance on a particular format, say open discussion. On the one hand, there is steady progress made on the issue (good), but it may come at the cost of increasing frustration for those who are slower to know what they think, or who find it uncomfortable shouldering their way onto the on-ramp for a turn to speak (not good). Enjoying the enthusiasm of those who are jumping into the conversation, the facilitator may miss that one-third of the participants have not spoken at all and are either zoning out or getting bummed. Unattended, this disaffection can lead to rebellion, poorly supported decisions, or even a rift in the group (I thought everyone's voice was welcome here, not just the opinions of the loud and the rude). Ouch! A savvy and active vibes watcher might catch that drift and suggest a switch from open discussion to a go round before things get out of hand, or even before it's identified as "a problem."


Casting a Wide Net
In the example above I showed how attention to Energy could lead to a format choice that could significantly impact flow and inclusivity. But following the energy is much more than being sensitive to tension or reactivity. It also encompasses such mundane things as atmosphere (is the room too warm; is there enough fresh air); stamina (for how long has the group been sitting; do they need to move—either in the form of a break or via a format that gets folks off their butts); and mood (while fulminating distress is relatively easy to read, how about boredom and flat affect; sarcasm —deniable irritation; or frequent side conversations—scattered attention).

All of these fall under the umbrella of Energy and can be ameliorated by the ministrations of a skilled facilitator.

Drilling DownIn addition to giving advance warning or evidence of energetic discord (Luke, there's a disturbance in the Force) energetic cues can also suggest positive directions. Take for instance the dynamic when you're asking for responses to a proposal and a number of hands shoot up. Using a stack, you begin letting people speak in the order in which they raised their hand. Partway through (let's suppose there were six people in the stack) you notice an energetic surge in the room following the third speaker's statement. If you blindly continue the stack, there's a strong chance that that person's contribution will not connect easily with the previous speaker (even if they're on topic). 

Alternately, by paying attention to where the life is (invoking the admonition in the text that accompanies this card) you might suspend the stack to ask for responses to what was just said, and only return to the original stack after the surge has run its course. This is often a much better way to work issues, but it calls on the facilitator to be able to read the Energy (both its emergence and its demise) and to juggle threads.

Balancing ActLast, I want to remind folks that the Energy horse and Content horse can both pull heavy loads and neither should be seen as subservient to the other. Although I've mainly been looking at the importance of working with the Energy horse in this essay, they need to pull together. To be clear, there are moments—even whole meetings—where only one horse is spotlighted, but you want to have a saddle on both.

For those who experience group meetings as a tug-of-war between Process People and Product People, I want to offer a different view. The best meetings, where the flow is laminar instead of turbulent, are when the horses are pulling in the same direction.

Involuntary Loss of Member Rights

Regrettably, there are times when a group member behaves badly. Even worse, there are times when a person's behavior is sufficiently problematic and persistent that it calls into question the viability of that person's membership. Those are not happy moments, and not at all what people had in mind when they joined, but it can happen.

Painting in broad strokes, unacceptable behavior falls into two categories: a) an egregious outburst that calls for immediate consequences; and b) persistent irritating and disrespectful behavior that erodes trust over time. Examples of the former (which, fortunately, is very rare) might be firing a gun in the common house or setting a neighbor's shed on fire. Often this kind of behavior is illegal in addition to being dangerous, which means the group has recourse to calling in the civil authorities.

In today's essay, however, I want to focus on the second kind, where a single incident might be awkward but you'd definitely give the person a second chance (or even many chances) and a key element is the fact that the behavior continues after it has been pointed out. 

In general, groups will go through a sequence of escalating steps in the hope that it can successfully resolve the issue at the least expensive level, and you only take the next step if all the previous ones have failed.

Suppose Robin has done something that Kim has a reaction to and considers unacceptable (such as gossiping viciously about another member, or getting loud and demanding when  advocating for their viewpoints in plenaries, with no apparent regard for the opinions or sensibilities of others). In this dynamic the sequence of options available to Robin might be something like this:

1.  Try to work through your reaction unilaterally (sometimes distress is more about the observer than it is about the doer, and the bulk of working through it can be accomplished internally by the person in reaction).

2.  Speak directly with Kim about it.

3.  Ask a third party to join Robin and Kim in discussing it.

4.  Ask the Conflict Resolution Team (or its equivalent, if you have such a subgroup identified to support people struggling to work through interpersonal tensions) for assistance, either to think through what to try, or to figure out the best way to configure a conversation, including who might be a mutually acceptable facilitator.

5. Invoke the help of the entire group in a last train effort to get movement on the issue.

While there could easily be variations on this sequence—and it would be a worthy topic to explore what those options might be—today I want to focus on what might happen when Robin has gone through this entire sequence and there's still no joy. Now what?

Essentially, I'm focusing on the work a group needs to put in place to be ready to engage relative to the possibility of imposing sanctions: an involuntary loss of member rights. Most groups don't put anything in place until and unless they have a dynamic which suggests they may need to invoke it. Oops! It is much harder to craft a good set of agreements when you have a candidate in mind for their application, yet it's nearly impossible to get a group jazzed for discussing it ahead of need. Yuck!

On the one hand, a group may be fortunate enough that this kind of limit is never tested (whew). On the other, you're taking a risk. If you wait until you need it, the development of policy is likely to come across as a witch hunt (created expressly to justify the desire to get rid of someone). Believe me, it's an uncomfortable place to be.

It's my view that the group needs to have three conversations:

I. Defining Unacceptable Behavior
What specific behaviors are unacceptable to the point that if they are not corrected it could be considered grounds for imposing sanctions. 

II. Defining Due Process
What constitutes due process in conjunction with an involuntary loss of member rights? This will include:

—A formal examination of the claim that Kim has engaged in unacceptable behaviors (refer to the outcome of the previous step).

—A formal notification to Kim that the community has determined that they have behaved unacceptably in specific ways that are enumerated in the communication, along with what specific behavior changes will bring them back into alignment, and what period of time the person will be given to effect those changes.

—A second formal meeting at the end of the time period to assess whether Kim has successfully altered their behavior or not. If Kim has made the changes no sanctions will be imposed but they may be placed on probation (for a defined period) to see if the acceptably altered behavior continues or degrades to something inappropriate again.

—If the community determines that the there has been insufficient change, the community may then decide to impose sanctions from the list developed in the step below.
 
III. Defining the Menu of Sanctions
What is the options the community may choose from if it is determined that Kim has gone through the whole process (see the previous step) and their behavior continues to be unacceptable. Note that I am not talking about abrogating Kim’s civil rights if any apply; I am talking about the withdrawal or delimiting of Kim's social rights as a community member. 

Note further that you are not obliged to impose sanctions even when you are allowed to; the group must discern what sanctions, if any, are appropriate on a case-by-case basis.

A final note: I caution groups to make sure they are not acting in haste, and to pause long enough to look in the mirror (to what extent can the awkwardness with Kim be the result of bad behavior by others as well?) before reaching for sanctions. Consequences should be a grave step, taken only when everything else has failed. 

In short, make sure it isn't a witch hunt.

Peeing on Petunias

After 30 years before the mast (supplying navigational assistance to intentional communities struggling against interpersonal headwinds en route to the safe harbors of equanimity and harmonious living) I’ve encountered a wide range of challenging dynamics. The situations that are most compelling are those with the highest stakes—where the group is wrestling with issues that obviously have a wider social application.

For example, I once labored with an urban group trying to sort out cultural preferences in a neighborhood that included both Korean and Puerto Rican immigrants, yet their target recruitment profile was well-educated Greens. Living in a melting pot is one thing. Living in a melting down pot is something else. This community was hip deep in tough issues of race, income, safety, religious preference, and ethnic identity. The work had obvious application in the mainstream—not just for the well-being of the community in which the conversation arose—and I was excited to bring what I knew about diversity and communication to the front lines of social change.
 
Sometimes the conversations got heated and I was trying to thread the needle around whether emotional engagement itself (never mind what was actually being said) was seen as preferential treatment for one subculture over another. Ai-yi-yi!

I work with patterns. Over the course of many years (and many meetings) I've learned that it rarely makes much difference whether it’s a cohousing community or a student co-op. For that matter, it doesn’t make much difference whether it’s an ashram or a Unitarian Universalist Church. I’ve worked with them all, and people are people. When they aggregate into groups—my particular area of focus—people tend to behave in predictable ways and have similar blind spots.


As it happened, the very next weekend after I worked with the urban group referenced above, I was in another city working with a community that was wrestling with tension that arose in connection with Person A's cat urinating on Person B's flower bed.

In a flash of insight, it occurred to me that if I observed the second group with the sound turned off, that the facial expressions and body language came across as identical to what I’d encountered the week before. In short, I noticed that the affect was scale independent! People were filling their lives with drama to capacity, cleverly drawing on whatever fuel was at hand to reach the desired level of intensity. Fascinating.


While there was a part of me that struggled to take the cat issue seriously (after working with racial tension the week before, I was itching to ask the second group if they really wanted to invest so much energy in a triviality) but I took a deep breath and refocused. The issue, after all, was not the over-fertilized flower bed; it was learning how to work through interpersonal tensions—which is a serious world peace issue every bit as worthy of attention as ethnic diversity.

Still, it’s instructive every now and then to take a step back and assess whether you really mean to imbue the issue at hand with as much of your precious life force as you are. As Richard Carlson admonishes in his 1997 classic: don’t sweat the small stuff (and it’s all small stuff). It's embarrassing to look back over the span of my life and reflect on all the times I've gotten my knickers in a twist over small stuff. (What was I thinking?)

Today there is perhaps nothing more potent to help me access what Buddhists refer to as an equanimous presence than remembering to ask: 

Are we peeing on petunias here?

Excising Advocacy from Problem Solving

Last Saturday I did something I've done many times before: taught an Introduction to Consensus workshop.

This time though, I prepared by spending a couple hours the night before contemplating how I might approach this familiar topic in a fresh way. My efforts yielded two innovations.

First, it occurred to me to start out by asking participants what it would take for them to be ready to create cooperative culture, given that they'd been raised and deeply conditioned in competitive culture.

This was meant as a pump-priming exercise in that it's been my observation that a lot of intentional communities struggle with that transition. In fact, it's my sense that most start-ups commit to forming communities without discussing this transition at all. They just agree that community living is a good idea and they're ready to give it a go without questioning whether there's any personal work they need to undertake before they're "cooperation ready"—by which I mean able to respond to the normal challenges of group living and collective decision-making with cooperative behaviors.

While it may seem obvious to readers that that will be needed (and surely this assessment will have been made by thoughtful community pioneers), that is not what I've found. In particular, at certain key moments, such as when another group member expresses a strongly held divergent viewpoint about a matter you care about a lot, a cooperative response is among the least likely things to happen.

Instead of something along the lines of "Wow, I wonder how you got there. I have a really different idea about that and maybe you've thought of something I haven't. Tell me more" a much more likely occurrence is "What the hell are you thinking?!" or maybe "Are you kidding me? That would be a disaster!"

When the stakes are high and you have a clear opinion about your preference, it is far more probable that you'll respond to divergent views by preparing for battle. That's the way we were raised and it's what we know to do. To be sure, this may come out in a variety of ways other than outright attack—for example, expressing sarcasm, playing the victim, faction building behind the scenes (while expressing false support in the moment), or spreading hyperbolic rumors about the bad things that will happen if the other view prevails. All those options are divisive and come out of an us/them perspective that is fundamentally contrary to cooperative culture.

So my opening question was not academic; it was germane. Consensus does not thrive in competitive culture, and groups are not likely to enjoy the results if members simply bring their conditioned competitive behaviors into the attempt.

As a consensus trainer, I try to get that point made in the first five minutes.

Second, I devoted half an hour to brainstorming a list of the major issues I see groups struggle with when using consensus. Whenever I'm conducting a workshop I'm concerned with whether I'm addressing the audience's major questions. By offering a menu of the questions that most frequently arise I figured I might be better able to hit the sweet spot. Instead of guessing what they'd ask for, or trusting that they'd know how to articulate their needs if I gave them an open-ended invitation, it occurred to me that I might be able to productively short-cut the process by suggesting subtopics.

I came up with a dozen (in no particular order):

1. Culture Shift 
Community living is an explicit attempt to create and sustain a vibrant cooperative culture. Accomplishing that requires a certain amount of unlearning competitive conditioning and I believe it's crucial that groups get introduced to this reality as soon as possible. Better a bucket of cold water up front than bringing them into awareness only after they've bought a house.

2. Working Constructively with Emotions
You can find entire books and workshops that purport to offer a complete overview of consensus yet don't address this aspect of group dynamics at all. As far as I'm concerned those approaches are incomplete. Groups that do not discuss how they want to engage with on-topic emotional responses are sowing the wind. For what they invariably harvest is the chaos of emotional distress, with no tools or agreements in place with which to engage it productively. Not only is this foolish, but it's needlessly risky.

3. Welcoming Non-rational Input
The default style of secular meetings in US culture is rational discourse—to the point where other ways of knowing or processing information are expected to be translated into rational thought as a necessary first step to be eligible for being worked with, or even acknowledged. While common, I question the wisdom of that approach. It's at least worth discussing the potential of widening the welcome mat to allow participants to offer insights and responses in the language in which they arose. Thus, groups could look at the pros and cons of explicitly developing the capacity to work emotionally, intuitively, kinesthetically, and spiritually—as well as rationally. That would be different, eh?

4. Working with Conflict
This is the most volatile and dangerous aspect of emotional engagement, where feelings are most prone to being packaged with aggression. If a group fails to discuss how to handle conflict there will be nothing in place at times of need, and the group will be at the mercy of how individuals express and respond to distress. As most of us have had any number of bad experiences with that catch-as-catch-can approach, groups tend to be very nervous about engaging with emerging conflict and tend to default to a strategy of avoidance and containment. If encysting doesn't work, they just hope to survive it, like a bad storm. I think we can do better, which includes valuing conflict as a potential source of both information and energy.

5. Plenary Worthy 
One of the ways that groups inadvertently make poor use of whole group meeting time—a precious commodity—is by regularly allowing the group to work at a level of detail that is not worthy of the whole's attention. Instead of handing it off to a manager of committee when that point is reached, they continue to labor. The main reason that happens is because the group has never defined where the boundary of plenary worthy lies. In the fog of uncertainty the group soldiers on, simultaneously extending meetings (by drifting into territory they should have left alone) and undercutting the work of committees. Yuck.

6. Separating Advocacy from Problem Solving
As a long-time observer of how cooperative groups address issues, I've discovered that there's great potential for streamlining if issues are worked in two distinct phases instead of commingling both into one muddy free-for-all: a) first determining what a good response needs to take into account; and then b) figuring out what response best balances the factors identified in the first step. Further, as a firm believer in offering a seat at the table for on-topic passionate expression (what's the fun of hiding your light under a bushel?) I think it works best if time on the soap box is limited to part a). In the follow-up, problem solving phase you need a different energy—less circus and more collaboration.

7. Seeing the Glass Half Full
Although every now and then you encounter moments where the ideas and energy are all running in one direction—either all joy or all dross—that's rare. Most of the time you have a mix. In those moments you have a choice: should you focus on what's working or what isn't? While that question may seem trivial (after all, both are true; both are equally valid), it isn't. The norm in Western culture—where the individual is king—is to focus on differences and discord well ahead of common ground. In consequence, the presence of commonality can often go undetected for an embarrassing length of time. Why? Because you tend to find what you're looking for. This is important because durable agreements are built on a foundation of common ground. Yet consistently missing the boat results in needless delays. Ugh.

8. Dynamics of Blocking
For groups making the transition from voting to consensus, blocking can be a terrifying concept to embrace. (You mean just one person can stop the entire group from moving forward? A: Yes. Yikes!) The worry is that the group may have jumped out of the frying pan (an out of control majority) in exchange for the dubious advantages of greater exposure to the fire (tyranny of the minority). What's the bargain in that? It's important to carefully walk new-to-consensus groups through what constitutes legitimate grounds for a block, by what process a block will be validated, and the primacy of crafting the right energetic container for coping with a block. (And don't forget to keep breathing!)

9. Facilitator Authority
While most consensus groups accept without question that meetings will run better if facilitated, that doesn't necessarily mean they've digested what it is a good facilitator does, and how that's distinguished from the more familiar role of chairperson. For one thing, they ain't the same thing, and the role needs to be defined. For another, facilitators need express permission from the group to effectively handle phenomena like repetition, speaking off topic, sarcasm, and emotional outbursts. Without that authority, the facilitator role tends to devolve into little more than deciding who will talk next.

10. Commitment to Training 
It's not reasonable to expect new members to arrive on campus with a working knowledge of consensus. While you'll probably get a handful of community veterans to join, that will be the exception not the rule. Most will be starting from scratch or have partial experience that may be more problematic than beneficial. Thus, you're going to need to train new members (just as you may need to train facilitator). It is not a one-and-done proposition; it's an ongoing commitment. Hint: while it may be tempting, it's penny wise and pound foolish to expect new members to pick up the nuances of consensus by osmosis (watching others). If you want everyone singing from the same hymnal, it's less expensive in the long haul to give everyone voice lessons.

11. Triumph of Curiosity over Combat
The key moment in cooperative culture is what happens when people encounter serious disagreement about non-trivial issues. Do they lean in and express curiosity ("Whoa, I'd like to hear how you got there. Maybe you're seeing something I missed") or do they gird their loins and prepare for a fight, to defend their turf? Cooperative culture is not about being wimpy, but neither is it about limiting dissent. In fact, the higher the stakes the more important it is that the net is cast wide.

12. How Power is Associated with Roles
One of the more important measures of a cooperative group's maturity is its ability to openly and sensitively discuss how power is distributed in the group and what can/should be done about the ways in which it's uneven. Because power is the ability to influence what others say and do, you cannot give it to those with less, but there are things the group can do to encourage its members to develop their capacity for leadership and to grow to become more powerful. Is the group being sufficiently mindful about power distribution when authorizing people to fill key roles? Is it thinking strategically when committing resources to train members to be better able to fill needed roles?

Community as Economic Engine


It’s endlessly fascinating to see what kaleidoscopic patterns can be generated by shining light on a single facet of intentional communities, and then slowly rotating the focus from one group to the next. As this issue of Communities drills down on cooperative economics, I want to look at what emerges when the lens is trained on how communities organize financially.
 
Intentional communities sort broadly into two kinds: those where members share income (roughly 10-12 percent of the North American field today), and those where they don’t (the vast majority).
In the case of the former, the community takes primary responsibility for the economic welfare of its members. In consequence, the community rolls up its sleeves and develops community-owned businesses, and takes advantage of collective purchasing power to leverage economies of scale to make ends meet. In addition to the day-to-day, this kind of community also provides for member vacations, health care, and retirement. It’s cradle to grave coverage. Members put everything they earn (though not necessarily everything they own) into the pot. In return, the group picks up the tab for all expenses—within whatever boundaries the community sets.
For non-income-sharing communities, however, the collective tends to leave the economics of member households untouched. This is a huge difference.
As someone who lived in an income-sharing community for fours decades (1974-2014) and was a delegate to the Federation of Egalitarian Communities for two (1980-2001), I have deep familiarity with how the collective can partner with individual members to address economic imperatives. In addition, as FIC administrator for 28 years and as a group process consultant for three decades I have visited and worked with more 100 non-income-sharing communities and thus have first-hand knowledge of the economic realities in that milieu as well.
Both because most intentional communities don’t share income and because the potential there is less explored, the primary focus of this examination will be the economic relationship between the collective and the individual in non-income-sharing groups. I’m going to first describe what’s extant, and then attempt to make the case for shifting it to something else.
The Community Lens For the community, it’s much simpler if its financial focus is narrowly defined: the group will manage the collective assets and liabilities (such as property taxes, infrastructure, and common facilities) and member household will manage themselves. Not only does this protect individual privacy (getting the right balance between group and individual can be tricky) but it’s less work. Members may do a fair bit of expense sharing and collective purchasing, but the group’s interest in member finances tends to be limited to whether the checks for HOA dues clear and members don’t default on their mortgages. To be sure, if a member gets into financial trouble, the group may rally around them—either collectively or as neighbors—but it isn’t obliged to.
The Individual Household Lens For the member this hands-off policy cuts two ways. On the one hand it means that information about their financial reality (beyond whether they qualify for a loan if one is needed to buy or build their unit) and their household budget is entirely their business, just as in the mainstream culture.
On the other hand it typically means foregoing one of the principal advantages of shared living: the active assistance from others in figuring things out.
On the expense side, there is considerable room for sharing expenses in non-income-sharing communities, and a good bit of this happens. Perhaps the community has an internal food-buying club or has a link with a nearby CSA (community supported agriculture). Maybe the community owns a single pickup truck or wood splitter that is shared among all members. The group may build a swimming pool, a workshop, or an exercise facility—all of which are likely to be larger and better equipped than what members would build on their own. 
But what about the income side? This part of the equation is largely unexplored.
My good friend, Terry O’Keefe, and I have been trying to bring a lantern into this cavernous, dark room. We think non-income-sharing communities are mostly missing an important opportunity to partner with their members, bringing community assets to bear. Our point is not that communities mustdo this, but that it is a possibility that is largely missed. Often communities are located in places where jobs are poor (which is the obverse of the cheap land coin). If prospective members had help solving their economic challenges it could make a substantial difference in community accessibility.
When Terry and I conducted a workshop bearing the same title as this article to a packed room at the 2015 national cohousing conference (in Durham NC), these questions bubbled up in the audience: 
1.  When does it make more sense for the community to own a business, and when does it make more sense for individual members to own it?

We suggest looking closely at two sub-questions:
a) What structure gives you the best chance of manifesting the management energy needed? Keep in mind that possessing a great commercial concept is not the same as possessing great management skills, and neither is the same as business savvy (though there is definitely overlap). Thus, people with sound business ideas often need help (whether they know it or not) with: —Developing a viable business plan —Securing start-up money —Finding a qualified manager or management team —Creating a marketing plan —Identifying personnel needs (how many and with what skills)
b) To what extent are you open to fellow community members as a potential labor force? This question excites us a lot because of the potential for entrepreneurs (the ones who cook up business ideas) to partner with their non-entrepreneurial neighbors (who are looking to supplement their income but are reluctant to start a business). These two segments coexist in almost all groups and are often at odds with each other, because of the strong tendency for entrepreneurs to be risk tolerant while non-entrepreneurs are risk averse. Here they can make common cause.
2.  What advantages might communities businesses have in the marketplace?

—In communities of size there typically exists an amazing pool of skilled, motivated people available on site to help you with most aspects of business development. It’s an untapped gold mine. —Building (or at least enhancing) community can be an explicit byproduct of doing the work. Given that your people value the community (and the connections) this significantly boosts job satisfaction and morale (which translates directly to better attention to detail, fewer mistakes, less absenteeism, more pride in the work, less turnover). —If the business is owned by the community (and members are the workers) there will tend to be enhanced motivation and satisfaction from that fact alone. (There are any number of jobs I would gracefully do for my community that I would never do for wages.) —Healthy communities tend to have superior skills at communicating and working constructively with conflict. This can make all the difference in terms of job satisfaction and can be readily parlayed into superior customer service. —Communities tend to be more collaborative (and less hierarchic). To the extent that this obtains, problem solving becomes an all-skate activity (not just something management tackles). In addition to enhancing morale, it leads to more creative ideas and better problem solving. —Community-based businesses can often be more fluid about part-time work, flex hours, day care on the job, costuming, and working at home. —You’ll tend to get more people who will volunteer, because of the values you represent and how it helps the community. —There will also an opportunity advantage among customers who value cooperation. Potential customers within your service area who value community will preferentially give you their business. While there will be limits to how much they will be willing to pay a premium for your product or service, they will at least prefer you when price and quality are comparable. —Your labor pool itself may give you an advantage. For example, my long-time community (Sandhill Farm) produces sorghum syrup. While our neighbors could grow sorghum just as easily as we, they didn’t have the labor to do the work and couldn’t afford to hire it. Thus there was virtually no local competition for our product and we get the business from all who prefer to buy locally (which is a growing market share). Not stopping there we pressed this advantage by inviting friends to join us for the labor-intensive three-week harvest each fall. Our numbers temporarily swell to three times their normal size and it’s a madhouse harvest festival (a form of temporary community that we know how to manage). We’re no more efficient working this way, but all the incoming labor is volunteered—guest campesinos are compensated with wonderful food and camaraderie. —To some extent people can substitute for capital and property. If people are a major resource, think about how to leverage that. Let me give another Sandhill example for how we applied this principle. Just like most of our northeast Missouri neighbors, we grew soybeans. If we sold them as a raw product (as our neighbors do) we wouldn’t have any advantage. However, we added value to our soybeans by making them into tempeh, and selling that instead. While it wasn’t a get rich scheme (we made about $10/hour on tempeh), there were several advantages to this approach: • We could make tempeh year round and work when we wanted (when you’re dealing with raw agricultural products you must work when the weather is right, not when it fits your schedule). • We set the price for local, organic tempeh. When you’re selling raw products, you mostly have to sell for what buyers will pay. • We were selling a product that aligned well with our value for healthy living. Soy-based protein is easier on the land than meat-based protein and there’s no cholesterol. • We could produce the same income from one acre of soybeans converted into tempeh that our neighbors could generate from selling 25 acres of raw soybeans. That allowed us make the income we needed farming far less land, which meant our operation needed far less capitalization. —Often communities develop expertise in an area to meet their own needs, and that knowledge can have commercial application in ways that home-scale experiences may not. For example, Twin Oaks (Louisa VA) was a well-established community of about 90 adults that grew a significant fraction of its own food in extensive community gardens. When neighboring Acorn (Mineral VA) acquired Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (an heirloom garden seed business) in 1999, it was an easy adjustment for Twin Oaks to become a major seed grower for Acorn, thereby boosting income for both communities.
—Communities frequently control land or have commonly held buildings that are underutilized. (Have you ever noticed how often the lights are out at the common house?)

3.  How tricky is it to navigate the dynamic where members are both peer/peer and employer/employee?

The hardest part is likely to occur when the employer gives the employee critical feedback about their performance as an employee—and these two are at the same time neighbors. This can be dicey, and a lot will depend on how well the culture of the community supports the expression of critical feedback and clean communication. If the community struggles to work through tensions among members then this does not bode well. Going the other way, where roles are clear and skills are sharp, it’s just another of life’s unexpected pleasures.

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

We suggest groups think about this in two ways: 
a) What can communities do to foster and support business development among entrepreneurial members? [See the replies to Questions 1a and 2 above.] By seeing the collective skills of community members as a pool, it’s quite likely that there is expertise within the pool that can cover most of the needs for business expertise—especially at the advising or consulting level (as opposed to the regular job level)—without going outside the group. Canvass the group and put that skill to work! Not only will you be strengthening the economics of the community, you’ll be strengthening relationships into the bargain.
Beyond that, the community may be a huge help with capitalization, perhaps through borrowing against capital reserves or by organizing a loan pool funded by members with deep pockets.
b) What can groups do to help new businesses create jobs for non-entrepreneurial members? We touched on this above, and think the community’s role in this may be crucial. Often small business owners are content to remain a one-person or single household operation. The owner may not be strong in social skills or is otherwise leery of the dynamics of hiring and firing neighbors. Thus, remaining a ma-and-pa outfit eliminates potential personnel headaches, and owners may not be that ambitious about growing the business. 
However, the savvy community will know that a majority of its members are non-entrepreneurial, some fraction of which may well be eager for local work that has a good values match. By getting involved at an early stage, the community can be in a position to offer the carrot of helping to identify business assistance in exchange for job creation—including the offer to troubleshoot personnel concerns, on an as-needed basis. There can be a lot of good in this. The principle is simple: the more people you have eagerly hunting in the clover field, the more you’re going to turn up specimens with four leaves.
To be clear, access to the community’s “Chamber of Commerce” would be strictly voluntary; no one would be required to use this group, or to heed its advice.

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

While I think there’s a lot that can be done to dial down demand (and live happily on less), it nonetheless makes sense to be smart about analyzing prospects for new business ideas with time tested traditional queries. For example: —What's the market for your product or service? —What's the competition? —What do you do better than anyone else? —What are you passionate about doing? —Can you profitably produce or deliver your product or service at a price people are willing to pay? —How is your business an expression of who you want to be in the world? —How will you manifest the start-up capital you need to make a go of this business? —How will you service debt and not go belly up?

6.  How do you handle the tension between the non-entrepreneur (who tends to be risk averse) and the entrepreneur (who tends to be risk tolerant)?

Let’s be real. This tension exists already, whether you have community businesses or not. Isn’t it a better strategy to learn to deal constructively with the full breadth of attitudes among your membership than to attempt to eliminate or shy away from opportunities for those differences to manifest?
[Terry and I will be reprising this workshop at the next national cohousing conference in Nashville TN, May 19-21, 2017]
• • •
Can communities afford to not explore their economic potential? I don’t think so. 
I’m not looking for Trump’s jawboning to bring back the manufacturing jobs that were lost to outsourcing. I’m not looking for governments to bail us out at all. I’m looking at what we can do for ourselves, working together in values-aligned cooperative groups—the same kind of entities that impressed Margaret Mead so much for their potential to effect world change.  
Sidebar #1: Redefining TermsSecurity Ordinarily this term conjures up thoughts of bank balances and insurance policies. In community, however, or in close-knit neighborhoods, we can shift that to relationships—the people who will be there for you in time of need. There are some nuances here, such as maintaining an intergenerational mix (so that the percentage of members needing help doesn’t get too high) or joining a community after you can no longer contribute (knocking out of balance a healthy sense of give and take), but these challenges can be solved with sufficient forethought. —Quality of Life We mostly think in terms of amassing material goods or money (which can buy material goods). However, if we can shift from ownership of goods to access to goods, this is very liberating on one’s budget. In community, you learn quickly that everyone doesn’t need to own a lawnmower, a washing machine, or a table saw. Yes, sharing comes with challenges—the tragedy of the commons, and mutuality of need come to mind—yet think of all the dollars you don’t have to earn if you share items that you only need occasionally. This can be translated into working fewer hours, or changing to a job you enjoy more but pays less. —Sustainable Economics In the mainstream culture we rely on GNP (gross national product) as the principal indicator of economic health. That’s a measure of throughput, with no distinction between $1 million spent on building wind turbines or $1 million spent on cleaning up an oil spill (or $1 million in legal fees to defend the company that caused the oil spill)—they are considered equivalent events in terms of GNP. But what if we valued conservation of resources instead? Rather than measuring how many trees were sold for lumber, we’d focus on how many trees are still standing that could be cut into lumber. Since we live in a world of finite resources, maybe it would make better sense to focus on what we have available (rather than how fast we’re exchanging it). We could peg our sense of health to how many inches of topsoil we had at the end of the year, rather than on the dollar value of the potatoes we grew in that topsoil last year. Economist Herman Daly laid out a blueprint for this different approach in his seminal work, Steady-State Economics (1977). We could focus on a system of exchanging goods and services that can be continued indefinitely into the future with no one getting hurt. We could emphasize helping people find work they love and are good at. We could redefine “work” as something that purposefully blurs the traditional distinctions between work and play—because you enjoy both. To make a shift of this kind requires the fish to sense the water they’re swimming in and to decide to try something else. It’s questioning fundamental assumptions about what kind of activity or condition best measures the health of an economy—by which I mean a system’s capacity to support people getting what they need and want for a decent life. It’s hard, and perhaps a bit scary, but it can be done.
Sidebar #2: Challenges Peculiar to Community-based Businesses As promotional as I am about community businesses, there are pitfalls that it behooves groups to become familiar with up front: 1. You will need to devote time and resources to training people in communication and cooperative problem solving. While people will be attracted to what you intend and what you have created, that does not mean they will already possess the skills to plug in well. In fact, they most likely won’t (or will have those skills only partially mastered). Because intentional communities purposefully effect culture change, any business embedded in an intentional community will be operating in a different culture. In recognition of that tautology you would be wise to anticipate the need to build capacity as a precondition to reaping the benefits. (While you might reasonably project a flywheel effect that will help carry you along with its positive momentum once you have things well under way, there will be a lot of effort in the beginning getting things pointed in the right direction.) 2. It is a complication to embrace the concept that relationship building is part of your work. Yes, it comes with the advantages enumerated in the main article, yet it won’t all be cake and balloons. There will be times when you’re ready to focus on a task and some of your fellow workers will insist on working through interpersonal tensions instead. In mainstream workplaces, there are typically strict limitations on what, how, and when you can expect tensions to be addressed (if at all); in a community-based business you’re going to have to budget time to do this work way beyond the industry average (and it won’t come in predictable doses; it’ll be episodic, irregular, and occasionally intense). 3. Collaborative decision-making can take considerably longer than typical management styles in the corporate world. While you can make an excellent case for why collaborative styles will produce better decisions in general, there needs to be a fairly sophisticated understanding of how to delegate effectively and under what conditions it makes sense to use a more streamlined decision-making process (for example, to respond effectively to time-sensitive conditions and information). Doing this in a sloppy way is highly expensive (in terms of hurt feelings, a sense among workers of betrayal or hypocrisy, and frustration among management). It’s serious work developing an effective decision-making style for collaborative groups, and you can get creamed if you don’t anticipate this. 4. It can be tough navigating the dynamic where two members are in a manager/employee role in the community business, while at the same time relating as peers in community meetings. There are different expectations in those roles and it can get confusing if people have trouble changing hats when shifting from business conversations to community conversations.
Sidebar #3: Profile of Members Seeking Part-Time Employment Among members of non-income-sharing communities looking for employment, here are the preferences I have been able to distill from direct observation and discussion: —Options for part-time work —Flexible hours —May need help with childcare, or openness to having young kids at the work site —Strong match between work values and personal values (no prostitution) —Low/no commuting —Casual dress permitted (minimal wardrobe expenses) —Social skills highly valued —Limited desire/willingness to manage —Wages need to be decent, but not exorbitant
Sidebar #4: Defining Living Wage How much income is needed to live decently? Answers vary widely, based on individual circumstances. Essentially, we’re talking about covering basics (food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and health), plus some for education, travel, entertainment, and savings. Someone living in the city will have a different bottom line than for someone living in a rural county without a stoplight (as I did for 40 years). Someone living in an income-sharing group house will have a verydifferent budget than someone living in a single family home. The amount of money you equate with a living wage will be directly tied to the decisions you make about the amount of independence you seek and the degree you feel you need to own things (rather than share them), and these choices will tend to have a significantlygreater impact on your money needs than the local real estate market. Getting the Life You Want on Less Money Probably the biggest two items on your expense list where you have immediate potential for drastically reducing your living costs are in housing and transportation, with food a distant third. The more you share, the less money you need to have the standard of living you seek. It’s that simple (though, to be sure, the practice of sharing is not always simple—which is why there’s a social dimension to sustainability). Another factor is the extent to which you equate your worth with your wage (or your bank account). The mainstream culture has gone to considerable lengths to condition people to make this link, and it can take serious effort to unlearn it. (The good news is that it’s possible.) Making Work Work for You The way through this issue is to expand the list of things you value when assessing what you get from your work. While money is a factor, you can also value: —Relationships (both with colleagues and with clients) —Education (what you learn while delivering the job, either professionally or about yourself) —Opportunity to serve —Working conditions (pleasure derived from the environment in which you work) —Access to resources (use of company tools and expertise for personal purposes) —Contacts (which may lead to more rewarding jobs in the future) —Ancillary social benefits (the opportunity to visit friends and relatives living near or en route to where you’re delivering work—this is a big one for me, because I travel a lot as a process consultant) The point is that it’s good to have a complex equation when assessing the value you get from work, as it gives you the greatest leverage for practicing the permaculture principle of “stacking functions.” That is, your life will tend to work better if you can get work to satisfy multiple functions (rather than just generating the money with which to afford the myriad things you really want to do). The Problems of Separating Love & Money While mostly people are looking for more money from their work than they’re getting now, there can also be a challenge from the other direction: where people insist on not getting paid (or paid decently) for work they love. The idea here is that the other side of the people-not-having-work-they-love coin is people not wanting to mess up what they love by associating money with it. It works like this. Having taken deeply into their heart the shibboleth that money is the root of all evil they don’t want to contaminate activities they love with the taint of commercialism.  This can play out in a couple of versions. One is the artist (and everyone who practices something they love can be styled an “artist”—regardless of the value others place on that person’s work) who chooses to not sell what they produce (or accept commissions to create it), for fear that market preferences will influence (either subtly or grossly) their artistic choices and they prefer a non-economic purity in their practice. Another is that some people working in the social change field will prefer to volunteer or accept low wages in exchange for credibility or even power. The dynamic is that there tends to be a deep suspicion about the motives of people who ask for high wages (note that “high” in this context can simply mean a living wage), and some would prefer to demonstrate their depth of conviction by accepting little or no compensation, hoping (perhaps subconsciously) to trade their poverty for influence. While there are all kinds of flaws in this logic (what does it say about a model of a sustainable world if it depends on the people working to create it not being sustainably compensated for their efforts?), this “pride of poverty” phenomenon is a powerful dynamic undercutting the effectiveness of much social change work today. (For an excellent and poignant story about this, read pages 37-40 of Passion as Big as a Planet by Ma’ikwe Ludwig.)
Sidebar #5: Laird’s Economic Journey In the interest of completeness and transparency, I want to share my personal odyssey in relationship with money. While everyone’s path is unique, and my experience cannot be a blueprint for anyone else, I think personal stories ground the issues and can occasionally provide inspiration. Background I grew up in the Republican suburbs of Chicago, and have an extreme amount of privilege in the mainstream culture. My father was financially successful and I was raised to be so myself. There isn’t a shadow of a doubt about whether I could make lots of money if I set my sights on that goal. I did not grow up rich, but comfortably middle class. The most important thing I got out of my upbringing was a strong sense of self-confidence. As I understand it today, this is the result of: a) my privilege; b) feeling secure in my parents’ love; and c) my never having experienced any serious deprivation growing up (my basic needs were always met). So the first piece to understand is that I had serious advantages. While my father had plenty of money, and seemed to enjoy making it, it was also clear that he wasn’t happy. In fact, I came to understand by the time I went to college that he was profoundly lonely. It was a wake-up call of serious proportions to see my father—who was clearly a success as measured by societal standards—not happy. He was, I understand now, living well beyond the "Apex of Fulfillment," and I wanted no part of that experience. So my second piece was that I understood early on the limitations of what money can buy. I went to college during the years 1967-71: the height of Vietman protests. It was a period of unprecedented unrest on campus and I was smack in the middle of it. I burst out my conservative cocoon and started questioning damn near everything. I loved the intensity of the inquiry and what I now see with hindsight were my first tastes of community—dormitory living with peers. These were exciting times, and it was in that context that the next piece emerged: I was drawn to social change work (and I knew that I was going to be a builder-upper rather than a tearer-downer: I had seen both roles showcased in those years of protest, and it was quickly apparent to me that I enjoyed putting together solutions more than I relished ripping the scales from others’ eyes). Coming out of college, I knew I was supposed to get a job (in the same way that I knew that I was supposed to go to college after high school). Already oriented toward wanting to make a difference, it seemed a good idea to explore public service, and for two years I worked for the US Department of Transportation in Washington, DC as a junior bureaucrat. As it turned out, it was the only regular 9-5, M-F job I ever had. I worked for the then-magnificent salary of $7,000/year, and saved money. (The two main components of this were shared housing and not owning a vehicle; it’s incredible how far you can stretch a paycheck when you get control of housing and transportation, and don’t eat out every night.) While it didn’t take me long to grok that this would not be my most productive environment (too much bullshit, not enough action), it was a valuable experience. It was, for example, highly instructive to experience being the lowest paid person in my division (of 12 professionals and seven secretaries), and yet I was the only one not complaining of a shortage of disposable income. People in that office spent to the limit of their income (or beyond). Sure, they had nicer houses and nicer clothes, yet they didn’t seem happier. This reinforced my inclination to not enter the consumer rat race. What was the point? I also realized that I had lost that excitement and stimulation of college days. Maybe I’d made a mistake. Instead of focusing first on career possibilities and rebuilding a network of relationships in whatever job came along, maybe I should have done it the other way around: focus first on the peopleand let the job follow. In February 1973 I was in a public library and happened across the current issue of Psychology Today. It included an excerpt from a new book by Kat Kinkade, A Walden Two Experiment. It described the first five years of Twin Oaks Community, and it changed my life. “Community” was the label I was searching for to describe what was precious to me about my college experience. So now I had another important piece: people first; money second. By August I had “retired” from public service and began serious conversations with friends from college days about starting our own community, to recreate that special environment. By the following spring, we had founded Sandhill Farm: four people willing to try to make that happen. Because Twin Oaks was the inspiration and because I’d already done a fair amount of work to reject materialism, we set up Sandhill as an income-sharing community, where all earnings would be pooled. The community still operates that way today. The four of us were able to buy the land and expand the housing to meet our needs with cash (about $20,000). A significant fraction of that was saved from my two years in DC. I was 24 years old and had just bought land (with others) in northeast Missouri. I had no job (or even an inkling of how we were going to make the finances work), but we also had no debt. The Community Years From this point on, I began seriously working on developing a viable economic model that was quite different from any I had known before. Here are the components of what I was able to accomplish: —Drastically reduced my need for money to supply basic needs, by living in a homesteading community that shared income. —Worked consciously to expand the pool of things that give me high satisfaction (essentially this entailed cultivating curiosity). —Insisted that the highest possible fraction of what I do was things I loved doing. —Defined work broadly (valuing both domestic and income-producing activities as “work”). —Blurred the line between work and play. —Worked only when I wanted to (though I wanted to a lot). —Brought my full passion into everything I did. —Defined success as loving the process, not the number of projects completed. To the extent I’ve succeeded at this, I don’t track how much I work, and work doesn’t tire me. (clients feel this from me—even if they don’t know where it comes from—and it positively affects their experience with me, making it all the more likely they’ll want to work with me again. It’s a tremendous positive feedback loop.) By having lots of things that attract me, I have a wide variety of work. Because I also have considerable control of my time, this affords me an important degree of flexibility. Whenever I get tired of one thing (or seem to have lost my creative edge), I simply lay it down and do something completely different. By this practice I am able to maintain an unusually high degree of enthusiasm for what I do, and rarely get run down. Pricing Myself I do a lot of things that make money. Yet money doesn’t drive me. By having a low need for cash (by American standards) it gives me considerable leverage in the marketplace. As a process consultant (my most remunerative activity), I know that my services are valuable (I price myself as worth $1500/day, plus expenses). Whenever prospective clients ask what I charge, I give them that figure, and in the same breath tell them that I don’t want money to get in the way of the work and that I’ll agree to do the job (assuming I’m interested in it) for what they can afford. That is, I tell them that I’ll say “yes” to whatever amount of money they put on the table, without quibbling. The only requirement is that they have a conversation (without me present) about what they can afford. What I don’t do is offer discounts up front. I insist they have the conversation about what the work is worth. And then I trust their answer. In consequence, I get paid all over the map. Sometimes I work for a pittance, or even pro bono. In the end though, taken as a whole, I get paid plenty and I am able to ignore the paycheck when doing the work. One last piece. I’ve derived considerable satisfaction from making jobs up (rather than out-competing those already in the field). That is, on multiple occasions I’ve cooked up an idea for a job that hasn’t existed previously—something that really excited me. I’ve talked people into supporting me as a volunteer long enough to demonstrate that job’s worth, and then gotten the job funded. After a while, my interests invariably evolve, I find someone to replace me, and I create a new job. I’ve done this half a dozen times. After firmly establishing myself in the field of intentional communities as a process consultant, I am poised to leave that to others and focus instead on bringing the lessons and tools of cooperative dynamics into the wider culture—among neighborhood associations, schools, churches, and the workplace, where the commitment to community and cooperation is softer, yet the numbers yearning for something better are exponentially higher.

Techno Boosting in Duluth

Yesterday I transferred data from my old laptop ('12 model) to a spiffy new one (a refurbished late model MacBook). Whew.

In the pre-dawn hours of Thursday I'm outbound for a 28-day (five-gig) road trip and I had been anxious to get the migration completed before departure. I slept well last night with that technological accomplishment safely in my rear view mirror.
 
I figure I swapped out just in time: my old laptop was getting creaky. Not only was I rubbing the more popular letters off my keyboard (e, r, t, a, s, d), but I was needing increasing fingertip pressure to register my keystrokes (which meant a lot of tedious backtracking to correct misses). It's a joy to return to normal typing, where regular light pressure is effective. 
 
I had a moment of panic this morning when I tried working in Word for the first time on the new machine and it blithely informed me that I had read-only privileges until I registered my copy of Microsoft Office. What! While I had no idea why my registration didn't migrate to the new machine along with my files, now I had to recall where in Sam Hill I'd stored the box that the program came in. Amazingly, it was in the first place I looked (talk about a miracle): the back of the lap drawer of my desk. It contained a copy of the 25-digit key I needed to fully enable my programs. Saved!

Still, all is not beer and skittles. When my Mac was infested with a virus last June the local techie who got rid of it also, inadvertently, dumped all my iCal data and emails dated earlier than February 2015, and I was not able to restore either via my external hard drive back-up. Ouch! Barring some moon-from-the-bottom-of-the-sea recovery, I am in the process of reconciling with the increasing likelihood that I have permanently lost access to all of my professional reports and correspondence from 2014 and before. Ugh. (I'm lucky that all my blog entries are stored online.)

Still, I soldier on. On the plus side, my new laptop is tiny, yet powerful—it weighs just under a kilo, is small enough that it doesn't have an internal fan, and can run forever on battery power. It weighs about the same as a tablet, yet features a larger screen, with crisp, pro-retina pixelation.

I figure getting a new laptop is lot like my sister getting a new hip. It's awkward at first, but after you work the kinks out, you wonder why you waited so long to get it done.

Bring on that road trip!

How I Place Myelf as a Professional Facilitator

The other morning I lay in bed wondering how I'd describe myself as a process professional. In what ways am I distinctive? Here's my answer.

I. My Strengths as a Professional
There are aspects of what I bring to the table where I believe I stand out, independent of what I know about group dynamics.

—Reports
Excepting where I'm giving a workshop or an a la carte training (in which case there will be handouts), I commit to delivering a written report within two weeks. While the report basically recapitulates what happened live and what I said when I was in the room, I discovered early in my career that clients typically absorb only about 20% of what happens, so the written report gives them a second bite of the apple that they can refer to in their leisure. I have high standards for my reports.

—Founder
Some small, but significant portion of the time there are tensions in the client group that relate to a key player feeling isolated or misunderstood as a founder of the group. It is unquestionably a special thing being a founder, and it helps me bridge to those folks that I also have been a founder—of an intentional community, of a national profit, of a community business, of a consulting career.

—Large RAM
For reasons that are unknown to me, I can hold an unusually large number of balls in the air without dropping them. This is an enormously useful skill: taking in a large volume of information and being able to call upon it at will.

—Fast Thinker
There is considerable range in how quickly people process information and are able to separate signal from noise. While I'm not a prodigy, I operate at the quick end of that spectrum, which means I'm at the head of the pack when it comes to figuring out where we are and where we want to go.

—Parent
Some of the group issues I'm asked to facilitate involve parenting. On those occasions it helps tremendously that I have raised two kids in community—not because there is one right way to do it, but because I have personal familiarity with the range of what to expect (and non-parents seldom have street cred with parents).

—Cancer Survivor
This is a new label for me, and I'm not sure yet how it will play out. But if I've learned anything about group dynamics, all experiences come into play at one point or another. I've been a survivor for only a year, yet there have been moments in the past when I was working with individuals who were approaching mortality and it was a challenge to bridge to what they were going through. Now I'm better equipped. ("Did you almost die? So did I.")

II. My Flavor as a Professional  
There are a number of ways that I do things that are distinctive. In some circumstances they are an advantage… other times not so much.

—Compensation
As someone who has lived most of his adult life in an income-sharing community, I've never needed a lot of income in order to make ends meet. That's given me flexibility when it comes to what I charge for my time, which I use to bridge between my services being accessible to clients (affordable) and my work being aligned with my values (if I'm not being asked to build a more cooperative world I'm not interested in the work). On the one hand, I do not want money to stand in the way of helping groups in need; on the other I want this skill to be taken seriously and compensated fairly—both for myself and for the profession.

Over the course of 30 years in the field I've gradually worked myself up the ladder to where I rate my services as worth $1500/day, plus expenses (travel, room, and board). While this may be a bargain in the corporate context, my clients are almost wholly in the nonprofit sector and that's high enough. (If you think that's pricey, consider what lawyers and architects charge: my skill set is far rarer and my work is typically more pivotal to a community's success.)

While I don't offer discounts up front, and I insist that clients discuss among themselves what they can afford and the value of my work (a conversation I don't need to be part of), I tell them I will accept without question whatever amount of money they put on the table—so long as my expenses are covered (my inviolable line is that I never lose money working for others). Sometimes I get full boat; sometimes I work pro bono. On average though, I come out fine.

This is handled differently by some of my peers. Some simply suppress their prices as a nod to affordability (I have a dear friend who refers to this strategy as the pride of poverty movement, where social change workers compete to see who can work for the least). Others embrace the gift economy where no prices are set and groups pay what they think right.

I've come to prefer my approach for four reasons:
a) I've seen how much clients anguish over price; not giving them a number to work from is hard on folks. They want to be fair, yet they don't want to be foolish. If I give them no frame of reference it can be highly uncomfortable.

b) I am a market maker in the arcane field of cooperative group process consulting and I think strategically about those who will follow me. This is a field that barely existed when I first hung out a shingle in 1987. Though my income-sharing lifestyle means I don't need as much, there are plenty of good facilitators who live in single family urban dwellings and they need to make a living, too. By gradually doing what I can to raise the water level, all boats rise.

c) While I wish it weren't so, people pay more attention when they pay more money. And while money isn't much of a motivator for me, I purely hate it when clients don't pay attention. Thus, it helps to establish a healthy bench mark.

d) Since adopting this approach I've never had a client complain about price.

—Casualties
Sad though it is, not everyone likes me, or the way I work. I am very direct, and that can be more octane than some can handle. While I also try to be sensitive and compassionate, I am typically working complex dynamics under severe time constraints. As I do not get hired to play it safe (I get hired to be effective) it often means going into the lion's den. Inevitably, a certain fraction of the time (maybe 3%) what I attempt does not go well (perhaps I didn't have a full enough picture; perhaps my analysis was faulty, perhaps my technique was poor, perhaps the people I most needed to reach had their drawbridge up and there was no way to cross the moat). Most push back comes from people who are embedded in a stuck dynamic and are simply unwilling to have the light shined on their part. For them I am the disrespectful, outside agitator and there is no way I will ever be invited back—never mind that 97% thought what I attempted was brilliant, brave, or at least constructive. In my line of work if you don't hit a home run in your first couple at bats, you'll be on the trading block by morning. (Professional firefighting is not for the faint of heart or the thin-skinned.)

—Quality Control
Most groups have never seen anyone do what I can do and thus are hard pressed when it comes to evaluating whether it's a good value to lay out major resources (both time and money) to hire me. As I've come to appreciate that phenomenon, it has underlined the standard advice I give groups considering professional help: check references.

This field is so young and so thin that there are no standards for accreditation, and I have been so busy doing the work (and the rest of my life) that I have not gotten around much to seeing my peers in action—so I want no part of passing judgment on others. I'd rather let the marketplace handle that. At the same time, I think this work is too important for amateur hour. So it puts me in a tricky position: I want groups to get assistance yet am concerned that more people are putting themselves forward as professionals than who know what they're doing.

(What I can do, upon request, is offer a list of my coaching tree, professional-grade students of mine whose quality of work I can vouch for.)

—Experiential
My approach is overwhelmingly based on what works in the trenches—in real meetings. That's in contrast with work that's grounded in exposure to the literature, or from absorbing instruction from others. In my case the exceptions are:

o  Arnie Mindell's Sitting in the Fire, which does a terrific job of laying out the non-rational aspects of group dynamics, and the concepts of rank and privilege.

o  Caroline Estes, a lifelong Quaker who taught me to understand consensus deeply.

o  Mildred Gordon, who taught me the potential of interweaving the emotional and the rational.

Otherwise my thinking and my practice have been distilled from hundreds and hundreds of meetings, including 200+ professional gigs over a span of three decades.

Taken all together, I have an enormous pattern library to draw on (to the point where it's hard to show me something I haven't seen before). Thus, when you hire me you get a library card.

—Auditory Learner
It happens that my primary intake channel is through my ears. While I've worked hard to be competent with both visuals and kinesthetics, my main medium of exchange matches well with the way meetings are conducted: by voice.

—Writer
I write a lot. It got to the point a few years ago (while I was still the FIC administrator) that I was authoring something heavy duty—an article, a report, a major proposal, or a blog entry—every day. Never mind the three hours I devote to treading water with email every time the sun comes up.

At this stage in my life I've generated:
   over 1000 blog posts
   over 50 articles in Communities magazine
   over 100 reports to clients

The vast majority of this output has been focused on one aspect or another of cooperative group dynamics. When people ask if I'm going to write a book, I tell them, "I've already written several. They just aren't organized yet."

As a writer, I strive to be concise, cohesive, comprehensive, and colloquial. I rely heavily on metaphors (and alliteration).

—Facilitation Teacher
As I've gotten older, and therefore closer to the end of my career, I've become increasingly focused on passing along what I've learned. In addition to writing (see above) I've became much more active as a teacher. 

In 2003 I launched a two-year intensive training program for people who want to learn high-end facilitation. I've now delivered this program in its entirety eight times with three other courses currently under way (in New England, the Pacific Northwest, and North Carolina). Since recovering from cancer, I've been working to assemble the materials for a masters course, which I hope to offer in the next year or two. 

To the extent possible, I prefer to teach from live dynamics (where the lessons emerge from the what's in the room rather than from a script or a lesson plan). For the two years I'm together with students, I offer myself as a mentor—both in class and out. After completing the course, if the student is interested in going further and shows sufficient talent, I offer to let them accompany me on jobs as an apprentice, offering both advanced guidance (1:1 time with the teacher) and valuable exposure as a wannabe professional. Though I didn't have that kind of help when I broke into the field (why would you hire someone you'd never heard of and who has no track record?) now I have a chance to turn it around. And paying it forward is good juju.

—Major Philosophical Positions 
Over the course of my career my thinking about group dynamics has continuously evolved (in fact, it still is). And, as you'd expect, my peers have a variety of styles, different aspects they emphasize, and unique ways they approach their work. Here is an enumeration of ways in which I believe I am distinctive as a professional facilitator, and ways in which hold a particular orientation to cooperative culture.

o  I emphasize working with the whole person. That means the emotional, intuitive, kinesthetic, and spiritual; not just the rational (which is overwhelmingly the only way that most secular groups function in North America—though I suspect this is more by default than the consequence of conscious choice).

o  A professional facilitator needs to be able to work with content as proficiently as with energy. Doing one well is not enough. I cut my meeting teeth in an income-sharing intentional community with no designated leader. As far as I'm concerned that's the toughest nut there is (by which I mean the dynamics there are the most complex and intertwined). It's my view that if you can function well in that setting you can do it anywhere.

o  I've come to the position that you cannot fully bloom as a facilitator without developing and trusting your intuition; your thinking is not enough. Facilitation is more an art than a craft.

o  There is a bewildering array of tools available these days to assist with meetings—with bright, shiny new ones being invented and touted all the time. While I think that robust experimentation with new tools is good, and it's fine to add to your toolkit anything that works well for you, I have two words of caution:

a) You don't need a large tool bag to be a great facilitator; you just need a basic set of tools (formats and the like) that you know when to employ and how to use well. The heavy lifting in facilitation does not come from clever structure; it comes from a deep understanding of where people are at, what they need, and how to reach them.

b)  Beware of practitioners who are in love with a single tool, for as sure as they love their hammer, everything will start looking like a nail and the world is far more diverse than that.

o  The bottom line for facilitation is consistently delivering meetings that people want to come to because problems are solved and relationships are built and strengthened. It shouldn't be just one or the other. When exciting things are consistently happening no one wants to miss the bus.

o  Many groups that are avowedly committed to cooperative principles have not digested the foundational lesson that individuals raised in Western culture have been deeply conditioned to be competitive and you cannot expect cooperative behavior out of those people (which is just about all of us) when they encounter disagreement and the stakes are high. Competitive behaviors can be unlearned (thank god) but that requires personal work to achieve and you are not going to like the results if well-intentioned people attempt to effect cooperative culture while opting out of the personal work. 

o  Facilitation is a lot like midwifery. The point in a group's life cycle where skilled facilitation is most crucial is when the group is in its infancy and still trying to make the transition to cooperative culture. Good facilitators are able to remind the group of its good intentions and redirect inadvertent slides back into the abyss of competitive squabbling. Without good facilitation young groups often founder, get discouraged, and lose heart. As groups become more mature and cooperative behaviors become more ingrained, the need for strong facilitation lessens. Over time the group will develop a strong gyroscope and self correct without facilitator intervention.

o  As a social change agent, when I contemplate how badly we need a viable alternative to competitive dynamics (is anyone inspired by the model Trump is offering?), I figure I can't train good facilitators fast enough—the need is that urgent. So that's mainly what I do (along with articulating the theory). I've retired from everything else (though I still do some for-hire facilitation, both because it keeps me on my toes and it helps recruit students), but I'll die with an intriguing idea for my next blog ready to be fleshed out.

o  Though living in intentional community will never be that popular a lifestyle choice (it's too radical), there is a broad-based hunger for a greater sense of community in one's life—by which I mean more connection, civility, safety, control of one's time, and security. Intentional communities are pioneers in developing cooperative culture and they are important to the wider culture because our society is on the cusp of desperately needing to know how to get along better with one another, and how to equitably share a diminishing supply of resources without sacrificing quality of life.

My Strengths in Group Dynamics
Here are the aspects of cooperative group dynamics where I have developed my strongest reputation; it's what I'm best known for.

—Conflict
I define this as the condition where there are at least two viewpoints and at least one person in non-trivial distress. Conflict naturally occurs when groups deal with real issues and people are paying attention; the question is not so much how frequently conflict occurs, but how constructively you work with it. Most groups are scared to death of conflict and have nothing in place for engaging with it. It's jungle ball and they just hope to survive it.

I've thought a lot about the dynamics of emotional distress and I've learned that I don't freeze or get overloaded circuits in the presence of distress in others. As a consequence I'm frequently hired to help groups work through a conflict, to set up group agreements for self-managing conflict, or to train their personnel in conflict skills. It's also a key component of my two-year facilitation training.

The object of the training is not so much to reduce the incidence of conflict as it is to help groups not freak out when one or more of their members freak out. If we can stop the chain reaction there will be much less collateral damage and we'll be able to address derailments more expeditiously.

Today, if a group finds itself in the midst of a raging five-alarm fire, I'm one of a short list of people who gets called to put the fire out. 

By way of framing, my approach to conflict is unique to me. While I have familiarity with NVC (Nonviolent Communication) and there is common ground between how I approach conflict and the teachings of Marshall Rosenberg, we developed our thinking independently and I have some nuances that I prefer.

There is also a more recent entrant in the field of conflict work: Restorative Circles, whose main articulator is Dominic Barter. I have been introduced to this approach by a professional and have experienced it as a participant three times. While I have peers who are quite drawn to it, I was not that impressed (what I saw was too slow to get to the point, the conversation was not that productively focused on the dynamics between antagonists, the facilitation was too passive, and major issues went untouched). That said, this is an evolving body of work and worth keeping an eye on.

—Interweaving Energy and Content
While many systems for working with groups do not incorporate conflict as part of the theory (for example, sociocracy) I believe there is a growing understanding among process professionals that groups must address conflict in order to offer a coherent system (that is, you can't just duck it or pretend that sound structure and practice will eliminate its occurrence). 

I have worked extensively on what happens in plenaries (meetings of the whole) and the boundary between conflict and regular group business. Under what circumstances should you suspend regular business to attend to conflict, and when (and how) do you return to regular business after you have paused to address conflict? I am not aware of anyone who has more comprehensive thinking about managing this edge with sensitivity and effectiveness.

—Courage
Years ago I had just arrived on site for work with a first-time client when a long-term group member approached me with a question: "I hear you're fearless. Is that right?" Because no one had ever asked me that before and I had never described myself that way, I paused. Then I smiled, looked her right in the eye, and replied, "That's right."

As someone who has been hired to put the fire out, I am not going to stand by while the building goes up. I will give it my best shot every time and I invariably approach work with the attitude that I can effectively cope with whatever comes along—even though that's patently not true. (Thus, there are embarrassing moments when I am the poster child for Alexander Pope's famous line "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.") 

While I may fail for jumbled thinking, or for poor technique; I will never fail for being faint of heart. 

—Secular Consensus
There was important work done in the '70s by the Philadelphia-based Movement for a New Society to adapt the 300-year-old meeting practices of the Religious Society of Friends (which Quakers styled a "sense of the meeting," and was a distinctive and integral feature of how they worshipped) to secular political actions groups—anti-nuclear protest groups in particular.

From that beachhead, consensus blossomed to become the most common way that cooperative groups attempt to make decisions. The intentional community that I helped form in 1974 (Sandhill Farm) blithely adopted consensus right at the start and never looked back. However, that did not mean we knew what we were doing, and there were all manner of growing pains encountered on the road to maturity.

By the time I tentatively ventured into the nascent field of cooperative group consulting in 1987, I had become something of an expert on secular consensus, and there has been a steady call for advice in that capacity right that continues to this day (next week I'll be conducting an introductory consensus training for a forming group in New England for the third time—bringing all their latest members up to speed).

To be sure, my experience in working with consensus has been limited to groups with 100 members or fewer, yet it remains my hands-down favorite choice for how smaller groups can make decisions and organize themselves. While I have ideas about how some version of representative consensus might work well for groups with more than 100 members, I haven't had much chance to test drive my thinking.

Though my advocacy for consensus is solid, it comes with a caveat: to get good results requires an understanding of the personal work needed to unlearn competitive conditioning, and a commitment to training. The skills needed to do consensus elegantly are eminently learnable, yet purposeful effort is required. Don't adopt consensus unless you're willing to put in the effort.

—Depth of Familiarity with the Topic
Finally, I want to reflect on a natural progression that people go through if they persist in applying time and thought to their field. Starting as a professional practitioner, I gradually started teaching how to be a practitioner, which led to my thinking about and articulating why we facilitators do things the way we do. 

Today I am an active theoretician about cooperative group dynamics, which makes me much more valuable than "just" a practitioner. This translates to my being able to accurately place a specific experience in the context of trends, quickly sorting breakthrough from novelty, and extracting the essence of a new thing. It also leads to "seeing around the curve," anticipating what's coming and whether that's a good thing or something to be alarmed about.
• • •Thus, the danger of Trump is not so much that he's emotionally immature (though, to be fair, if he launches a nuclear attack in a fit of pique, it will render moot a lot more than this paragraph) or anti-progressive in his policies. The real danger is that those of us who know better will be sucked into the vortex of his divisive us/them politics. The danger is that we will start to see Trump and his gleeful de-constructors as less than human. If we succumb to that temptation, it will eviscerate cooperative culture and close out the possibility of a future where we learn to share equitably and are able to get off the materialistic merry-go-round. It is up to us who have done the work to develop the long view, to keep the candles lit in the dark.

I cannot see the future, but I'm far enough down the road to see the trends, and the broad steps we must take to keep alive the possibility of a future worth having. I know how to keep my eyes on the prize and not be deflected by the drama of Trump's everyday dysfunction.

Cooperative Culture Revisited

Today I'm blowing on the coals of an exchange I had right before Thanksgiving with my friend, who offered the reflections below on my blog of Nov 20, Defining Cooperative Culture.

As I am taking a few days off work, I thought I would comment on your latest very interesting blog. I think you are overemphasizing the differences between competitive and cooperative cultures, at least as far as organizations are concerned. Certainly, some of your points touch on matters that don’t generally affect organizational behavior, such as what people eat, but most of them do. 

In fact, many of them are part of an organizational framework called Enterprise Risk Management. ERM is a management practice that analyzes ideas and problems from many different angles through frank 

and open discussion. ERM is specifically designed to avoid blame and to surface as many views as possible. But my comments are about more than ERM. The points you make have become staples of well-managed companies because they work.  

I have limited familiarity with corporate for-profit culture and I'd never heard of ERM before receiving my friend's comments, but you cannot have been raised in the US without deep personal experience of competitive culture, which is the bedrock of Western civilization. When he writes that I'm overemphasizing the difference between the two I wonder what familiarity he has with cooperative culture. I don't say that to be snarky, but because I've worked as a consultant to cooperative groups for 30 years and the vast majority of my clients haven't—to their detriment— bothered to define what cooperative culture is. In fact, a lot of my workload stems from groups that are ostensibly committed to cooperative principles yet bring unexamined competitive behaviors to the attempt, and it's a train wreck. 

To be fair, my friend may have highly relevant personal experiences with cooperative culture; I'm just not assuming that's the case.

In glancing over the Wikipedia entry for ERM, it was a mixed bag. While there were aspects of its practice that seemed consonant with what I'm advocating, there were conspicuous absences when it came to my broader point about culture and mind set (more on that below).

o  Caring about how as much as what
While there is lip service given to how things are done in the mainstream culture (don't break the law, pay fair wages, and deliver what you promise) there's no question but that the bottom line is king.  The bottom line is ultimately king because unprofitable companies die.  Moreover, the bottom line is a tangible goal that all members of the organization can relate to, since they all have their own bottom lines too.  The bottom line is an essential team building metric in a healthy organization.  In cooperative culture you're just as likely to get into hot water cutting corners on process as you are if you deliver slipshod product.  But, the bottom line is not an absolute monarch.  “Caring about how as much as what” is simply another way of saying that the end doesn’t justify the means.  A company in which people behave honestly and honorably is much more likely to be successful than a company filled with con artists.

There are several points to make here:
—Is the company thinking beyond itself? Is it factoring in its societal impact? 
There is a difference between a company that takes societal impact into account because it feels it will ultimately lead to greater profitability and a company that does so because it is better for all (the good of the local community).

—Leaving aside outright misrepresentation and fraud, following the bottom line can lead to a company deciding to pay the fine for polluting local water sources because correcting the problem is more costly than the fine. This is a rational decision that protects stockholders, even though it quite likely trashes the local environment. (Carried to the extreme, you have the US cigarette industry that deliberately adopted a strategy of purposeful obfuscation and misrepresentation despite knowingly inflicting untold harm on the US population because they could ultimately buy their way out of liability and protect huge profits. While few corporate swindles are so egregious—thank goodness—there could hardly be a clearer example of competitive culture run amok.)

—Rewards (raises, year-end bonuses, and promotions) tend to reflect corporate (owners) values. Overwhelmingly, that emphasizes profits above good community relations. To be sure, there are exceptions (look at the way Patagonia is run), but practices tend to follow the money and mostly employees earn raises by boosting profits (we'll scratch your back after your scratch ours)—far more often than by boosting neighbor relations.

—Companies have choices about how much they value employee moral or the impact of operations on the surrounding neighborhood. While I think the traditional analysis is that attending to these goals is just a more sophisticated cost of doing business; I am hopeful that headway is being made (among more savvy corporate owners) that these external factors (to the main line of making money) should more properly be considered base elements of enlightened corporate goals, because of the next point:

—Triple bottom line: profits, people, and planet; not just profits. This 20-year-old concept is a relatively recent example of efforts to shift traditional corporate thinking toward something wider and more sustainable; something more wholesome and more holistic. It is not anti-profit; rather it expands the target, so that social and environmental impact are also taken into account. This is the view that healthy companies properly take in account the culture and neighborhood in which they are embedded; they do not exist in isolation (and never did). Think of how dramatically this awareness would impact the discussion of whether to outsource production facilities?

o  Thinking inclusively (no us-versus-them dichotomy)
Not going forward unless everyone can be brought along is quite a different mindset than trying to secure a majority of votes. In the former there should be no disgruntled minorities; in the latter outvoted minorities are collateral damage, and a way of life.  The notion that everybody has to be brought along before action can be taken is pernicious, in that it vests power in the minority.  

This is a pretty big fork in the road and I'm wondering if my friend has ever seen consensus practiced among people who know what they're doing. He is right to highlight tyranny of the minority as a great fear, but it reveals, I think, only a shallow understanding of cooperative culture to presume that bringing everyone along is bad strategy.

I agree that you tend to get this dynamic in competitive culture, but that's not what we're talking about. When I have posited a culture that does not devolve into us/them dynamics—one of the main tenets of cooperative culture—it misses the point to criticize it because of the potential for mischievous us/them dynamics. Yes, minorities can be obstructive; but what if they're not? What if you build a culture where the expectation is that every on-topic voice will be worked with, where everyone has the responsibility to work constructively with differing viewpoints, and that some degree of dissonance is the expected starting point on every issue (else its resolution is trivial)?

Often, it’s a good idea to move forward even if not everyone agrees.  

Yes, and sometimes cooperative groups proceed that way. People feel heard yet understand that they've not been persuasive and the stakes are such that they're willing to let go.

Those that initially disagree may find that their opinions were wrong and learn from the experience.  Those that cannot agree no matter what may leave the organization for another that is more congenial, facilitating both their own and the organization’s growth.

That happens in cooperative culture (sometimes the values match is not good enough, and not everyone is willing to do the personal work needed to learn cooperative behaviors). In my experience though, competitive culture tends to mask misfits longer (or is more prone to giving up on people for the wrong reasons, such as a tendency to ask embarrassing questions, or to speak frankly).

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

Maybe. My lingering concern is whether ERM (which I don't know) is sufficiently expansive or facile to work in the non-rational plane. In my view groups do their best work when the following obtain:
o  participants do their homework on topics to be discussed
o  participants are disciplined about speaking on topic and not repeating themselves
o  participants insert comments in the right place in the conversation
o  participants listen carefully to what others say and identify first what they like or can join with in what others say before voicing concerns
o  participants are allowed (even encouraged) to contribute in their "native tongue," by which I mean from emotional, intuitive, or even kinesthetic knowledge—instead of insisting that everything be translated into the rational realm as a precondition for acceptance. If ERM does that, it didn't show up in the Wikipedia profile.

o  Placing relationships in the center
The weft and warp of cooperative culture is woven on the loom of human interactions. The stronger the connections, the tighter the weave. Good organizations value and respect the dignity of all employees (and customers too). Disagreements are essential for bringing out different points of view. The goal is to argue each issue on its merits, make a decision, and move on with everyone agreeing to abide by the group decision. This does not mean that decision is permanent; changed circumstances may lead to a changed decision. It does mean that everyone believes that all members have the good of the organization at heart. 

I like this description of the organizational ideal, but let's look deeper. There are times when there is a choice between relationship and problem solving. When that occurs, my overwhelming experience is that competitive culture will prioritize problem solving (reaching an answer within a time frame, say by the end of the meeting) at the expense of relationship (rather than laboring with people not ready to agree). The underlying message is "get on board or shut up"; which does not encourage dissonant voices to come forward.

While I think time is a legitimate factor in assessing the best use of plenaries (more and/or longer meetings are not necessarily a good idea; I think, for example, that time tends to be used poorly in most meetings across the board and first focus should be on trimming the fat and getting groups to seriously work toward adopting the standards I outlined above for meeting participants), in my experience when groups opt for cloture they are almost always trading time for relationship, and shorter meetings are almost always more expensive in the long run than dealing with the fallout of disgruntled minorities, where the cost shows up in the form of weak implementation (because one's heart is not behind what was crammed down one's throat); negativity brooding in the parking lot and around the coffee station; and hesitation to raise concerns next time (fearing a repeat dynamic), effectively undercutting the free-flowing discourse we all say we cherish so much. 

When the priority is problem solving, the standard of success is securing a majority of votes (or convincing the boss); once that's achieved you try to get the sucker off the floor and move on as expeditiously as possible.

When the goal is relationship you're not done until everyone agrees you're done. This does not mean until everyone thinks the same way; it means everyone reports they've said their piece, they feel heard, and they don't have anything germane to add. Sometimes this leads to laying an issue down for more research or more seasoning; sometimes it means going with "x" under "y" conditions as a better choice than waiting.

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

I appears my friend and I are aligned about this principle, which is good. The tricky part is actually breathing life into it in the culture. Even among groups avowedly committed to cooperative culture (the preponderance of my client base) I rarely see this well established. When it comes to doing the personal work needed to unlearn competitive behaviors and replace them with cooperative responses I'd say the four toughest nuts to crack are:
a) Being able to first respond to viewpoints that differ substantially from your own with something other than "but…" b) Being able to talk openly about how power is distributed in the group, and what you want to do, if anything, about the imbalance.
c) Being able to work authentically and constructively (and not in reaction) with fulminating upset.
d) Being able to give to others honest critical feedback about their behavior as a group member and to receive same from them in return without defensiveness or stonewalling.

For most of us, the nightmare scenario (when receiving critical feedback) is when it arrives in an ugly package (you-statements instead of I-statements; delivered with attitude coated in nasty sauce), from someone known to be judgmental and close-minded. Yuck. This person is a jerk, they've had a reaction to something you did (what's new?), and now they want to dump on you, perhaps blaming you for their having a bad day. Yuck! While you may have every reason in the world to blow them off, and aren't in the least interested in a substantive relationship with that person, can you find it in your heart to sift for the potential truth in the muddy slurry of their diatribe?

If you can, then it's an affirmation that you may have gone a long way toward completed your personal work in that regard—that you get it that it's unwise for you to ignore information about how you're landing with others. While you have choices about how you evaluate that information or whether you want to modify your behavior in the future as a consequence (being a careful listener dos not mean you have in any way forfeited your right to discernment) it's important to you to have the fewest possible barriers between you and raw data about how you're coming across. It's in your best interest to welcome it all—even if the person offering it has no interest in your views the other way.

o  Emphasizing access and sharing (rather than ownership)
A corollary to recognizing the primacy of relationship is that "things" take a back seat to people. In the interest of leaving more for others—both present and future—cooperative folks work to eat lower on the food chain and consume less. If we share, then access to things can be a reasonable substitute for ownership, and everyone can chase fewer dollars in order to secure a satisfactory quality of life.  Sharing of information and transparency are hallmarks of a well-managed company.  The idea of “leaving more for others” can be translated to mean building an enduring enterprise.

Again, I'm pleased that my friend and I align. I worry however, that in competitive culture (where the model is that the strongest prevail in a fair fight) that players are encouraged by the culture to aggregate power, not to share it. As hoarding information and masking motive (never mind intentional misinformation) are traditionally seen as aids in controlling power (gaining and keeping influence), I'm not convinced that competitive culture is nearly as conducive to promoting sharing and transparency as cooperative culture—where job evaluation will emphasize how well you helped the team succeed, and are not obsessed with personal credit).

o  Taking into account the impact that your words and actions have on others
Another corollary is the realization that cooperative culture doesn't work well unless it's working well for all of us. That translates into mindfulness about how one's activity lands on others. In the wider culture the model of good decision-making is competitive: that a fair fight will produce the best result (survival of the fittest). In cooperative culture we explicitly reject that thinking—because we know that life is not a zero-sum game where one's person's advancement is predicated on another person's loss.  I disagree with some of the terms you use like “fair fight” and “collateral damage.”  If people are to be open in discussions they must be allowed to say hurtful things sometimes, but that’s a mark of trust not violence.  As we say in our company, “everyone has a belly button.”

I'm pleased to hear that my friend has had enough positive experiences of corporate culture that he's not found my comparisons of competitive and cooperative culture compelling. However, that begs the question: to what extent is this my unsophisticated understanding of the range of corporate culture today (that doesn't sufficiently allow for cooperative practices to thrive in that environment), and to what extent is he naive about the depths of cooperative culture and the possibility of a sea change in group dynamics when practitioners do the personal work of unlearning competitive conditioning? Hard to say, and probably beyond the scope of this medium to resolve.

For all that though, it's the right kind of conversation be having, and I'm heartened that we have so much in common about the culture we desire, whatever label we give it.

Valborg's Centenary

If she hadn't died in 2003, my Mom—Valborg Gertrude Schaub—would have been 100 years old today. To frame that, the US was still two months away from entering World War I when she was born.

Do I feel badly that she didn't make it to triple digits? Nah. I had the sense 14 years ago that she was done, and wasn't interested in hanging around just for the sake of hanging around—which I respect. She'd had a full life and there are only so many times you can read Jean Auel and still pump yourself up for what amazing thing Ayla does next. Mom had reached the point where she lost interest in watered down scotch-on-the-rocks, and pushing the play-repeat button on life.

Mom was never that comfortable in the spotlight, but she was strong on the back benches and quietly competent: as the head of the household, as the first female president of the board of education, as the chairman of the Camp Fire Girl's Salt Creek Council candy drive (there was a time each year when we couldn't fit two cars in the garage because of all the candy cartons).

My Dad was a successful businessman and entrepreneur, but I owe my feel for administration and organization to Mom. Dad thought the world revolved around him; Mom knew it didn't. My Dad enjoyed eating out, but he didn't love food as Mom did. She'd wait until Dad was away on a business trip before bringing out salads garnished with white asparagus, or fresh beets steamed in butter. She'd gladly share a bucket of oysters with you but wouldn't even bother asking if anyone else wanted escargot or a wedge of ripe camembert. That woman could flat out eat.

This centenary is quietly being marked by all five of Val's children, all of whom (with partners in tow) plan to gather in San Antonio two months from now, where I'm confident that Val's spirit will be strongly evoked. Not just because we enjoy a shared ancestry, but because we enjoy the familial habits of eating, drinking, laughing, gaming, and storytelling upon which Schaub family ties have been founded and sustained.

I have every confidence, for example, that Alison and I will find a source of plump raw gulf oysters, which should go down well with a chilled bottle of gewürztraminer that Kyle will help ferret out of some rathskeller. Best of all, Susan and I will enjoy a long weekend of warmth, well before it arrives on the ore boats in Duluth. We'll get a sneak preview of what it's like to leave the windows up after sundown. It's been long months since we engaged in such risqué behavior in northern Minnesota, but it will come back to us.

There may even be rounds of ribbon sandwiches and Famous Wafers and whipped cream. Schaubber Jobber soul food.

It's Been Quite a Year

Exactly one year ago today my back pain had debilitated my health to the point where I was ready to turn myself in to the ministrations of St Luke's Emergency Room, in search of some relief. From that pivotal moment onward, I've had a incredible year—one worthy of some reflection…

Back on Jan 31 a year ago, it only took the St Luke's folks a matter of hours (and several tests) to discover that I was one sick puppy. The main problem being that I had an aggressive case of multiple myeloma—bone marrow cancer. This put terrific strain on my kidneys, which were limping along at 20% capacity, and I had been experiencing serious calcium leaching (common in myeloma patients) that resulted in three collapsed vertebrae (no wonder it was painful lifting things).

It took my St Luke's oncologist (Homam Alkaied) only a short time to map out a course of recovery—not that doing it was easy, just that the pathway was well described. The long-term plan was to get my cancer under control, but first they had to deal with my severe pain, imminent renal failure, and brittle bones. (Long-term doesn't count for much if you don't survive the short-term.)

I was hospitalized for 19 days, followed by 21 days in a rehabilitation facility. We were well into March Madness by the time I got back to Susan's in a wheelchair and 50 pound lighter. From there, gradually I did get better. By April I walked out of the wheelchair. My weight stabilized and a mixture of chemotherapy protocols (delivered via blood infusions) was effective in bringing my cancer into containment. I was able to manage my back pain through the judicious use of Oxycontin, and my body adapted to all the strange new chemicals flowing through my veins. 

By July I was ready for an autologous stem cell transplant at Mayo Clinic. That meant a five-week stay in Rochester MN, where I set a personal best for vials filled during a blood draw (19) and discovered I have an allergic reaction to three drugs—scopolamine, benadryl, and compazine—all of which resulted in temporary delirium and were highly entertaining. Eventually, my stamina lengthened, my nausea abated, and my appetite got relocated. On Aug 19 I was able to go home. 

After another month of R&R in Duluth, I felt strong enough to travel to and teach. Despite ongoing limits on my constitution (I no longer agree to six-week marathon road trips), the work has gone well enough that I'm now doing 1-2 jobs/month—a rate that feels sustainable even if I never get better than I am today.
• • • Thirteen months ago, I had arrived in Duluth Dec 27, 2015, intending a week-long visit with my sweetie straddling New Year's, but I was in such pain that I was bed ridden for a month—too sick to go home to North Carolina, or even to go to the bathroom. Susan brought me meals in bed. After getting the grim news from St Luke's, it looked like she might be giving me end of life care. Those were grey days for sure, with far too little sunshine.

Yet the sun shines today.

A year ago, Susan did everything—because I was unable to do anything. From a cold start last March (after graduating from the rehab center) I have slowly been getting my oar back in the water:

o   We have established a weekday morning routine that approximates domestic harmony: I make breakfast and coffee while Susan showers and walks the dog. She gets first crack at the Sudoku; I get first dibs on the NY Times crossword after she departs for work.

o   We do dinner parties again. While my energy may be questionable after dessert, I can be counted on to prepare at last half the dishes.
 
o   Though I may never shovel snow again, and I'm no account when it comes to moving boxes, running a household offers myriad ways to contribute that don't require a strong back. Though I'm only the back-up dog walker, I'm a serious help with dishes, and can sort trash from recyclables with the best of them.

o   Though Susan was handling my meds in March, now I do all my own dosing and calling in refills. While Susan was invariably chauffeuring me to and from doctor and outpatient appointments 10 months ago, some days now I drive myself.

o   Susan was used to operating her household budget wholly on her own before I romanced my way into her life in 2015. Though my moving in didn't change the budget very much (whew), we were lucky that my health crisis didn't either—thank you Medicare and supplemental insurance. Still, the future looked pretty shaky last March. I was no longer working and it looked like my medical bills were going to "above average" for the foreseeable future. 

With my cancer in remission, I'm again able to earn decent income (even doing work I love!). Our biggest challenge is not whether Laird will live to see another birthday, but when will we have sufficient economic flow that Susan can retire from her part time job as parish secretary at St Paul's Episcopal Church, so that we can spend more time traveling (and doing crosswords).

All day long, as I've reflected on the preceding 12 months, I've been unable to escape the overwhelming sensation that I've been one lucky dude.

Writing as Inspired

When I started this blog 10 years ago I embraced an arbitrary goal of publishing every three days—a pace that I was pretty much able to maintain for eight years. But I started slipping gears when I contracted cancer a year ago. Multiple myeloma led to multiple periods of hospitalization and some days I just didn't feel well enough to answer the bell. Upon reflection I've decided that's OK.

Having come back from the very edge of expiry, my priorities have shifted. I still cherish writing (and don't seem at risk of succumbing to the dreaded bane of writer's block) some days my back pain is too distracting (that was the case Thursday, when I took the whole day off), or other claims on my time take precedent.

Take yesterday. It had been a week since I'd last posted a blog, so I was overdue. But I was also trying to wrap up reports for a facilitation training that took place Jan 13-15. My professional commitment is to circulate reports within two weeks of completing an assignment. For a training weekend there are typically four reports. I had already done two but the deadline was looming Sunday (Jan 29) and this was more pressing than a blog entry.

By 5:30 pm I had finished my last two drafts and posted them to my co-trainer for comments. While that theoretically left plenty of time to craft a blog, I had had enough laptop communing for the day, and I no longer see the point of pushing like I used to. So, after watching the PBS News Hour to apprise ourselves of the latest misadventures of our new President (I guess we showed Mexico who's boss), Susan and I decided to catch a 7 pm showing of Hidden Figures, a powerful movie that lays out the extraordinary role that three black women scientists played in the US space program leading up the pioneering Mercury flights of Alan Shepard and John Glenn in 1961-62—despite the spirit-crushing numbskull reality of racial and gender discrimination. It was simultaneously an awesome and disturbing movie.

By the time we got home the only thing I had time for was wishing my son a happy 36th birthday (he and Sarah were in Las Vegas, celebrating with Jo & Peter). Though I didn't get any closer to him than voice mail, it warmed my heart knowing my kids were having a good time together. Thus, I had a lovely, full day. I just didn't include a blog entry.

And I'm pretty sure the sun still rises in the East.

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

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

Part 1: Yourself

Part 2: You and a New Group   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who knew that subversion could be so pleasant?

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

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

Part 1: Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power in Cooperative Groups, Part 1: Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colder by the Lake


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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now where did I put that parka…

Bedlam 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year one and all!

Nonprofits, Guilt, Martyrdom, and Accountability

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

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

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

c) Help identifying the lessons from the hard time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You're going to have to talk about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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