Laird's Blog

Weeding the Garden of Dissent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy harvesting!

Outcome-based Expectations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Money, Sex, and Power in Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting a Lid on It

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

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

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

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

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

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

Show for Shirt and Shine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brownie Returns!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Business of Community Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

o  What advantages might communities have in the marketplace?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

231 Bottles of Beer on the Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serendipity and College Recruitment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flying Blind

My laptop is in "Depot" (the name Apple gives its high-tech service centers scattered around the country) getting a complete overhaul. When I brought it in to the St Louis Genius Bar to have the keyboard replaced last week—because the "e" key was getting balky—the technicians discovered when they opened the hood a "brown, sticky substance" had been corroding the motherboard. Bad, bad, bad.

Not only does that mean a longer delay (sending it out to Depot instead of effecting an in-house repair) but the damage is not covered under warranty—because it looked to them like someone slopped hot chocolate on the keyboard, even though I have no memory whatsoever of having spilled anything on my keyboard, and I'm the only person who uses my machine. Grr.

So here I am, composing this blog on my wife's laptop (until she departs for four days in Chicago to drop Jibran off at Shimer College, and takes her laptop with her) realizing that I'm going to have to operate for the reminder of the week without benefit of digital support (other than what I can manage with my actual fingers). That means:

o  No email (I can hardly wait to see the avalanche that will be waiting for me when I finally get reunited with my refurbished laptop—ugh).

o  No access to my calendar.

o  No access to my address book.

I figure this is Nature's way of telling me to concentrate on the non-electronic aspects of life:

—Organizing and otherwise putting away the myriad boxes of stuff that I just imported from my old bedroom at Sandhill. These are seriously restricting passageways in Moon Lodge and Ma'ikwe will be highly pleased if I can unclog the house. Further, It's an excellent opportunity in that Jibran's departure (as a regular resident in the house) means there is a serendipitous opening for storage in the loft that has heretofore been Jibran's sole domain.

—Helping Sandhill form up and pour a lid for their cistern.

—Continuing to dig out the damaged water line from the house to the cistern at Moon Lodge.

—Keeping abreast of food processing, which tends to get out of control this time of year.

All of which is to say that I'm not exactly out of work, or in danger of expiring from ennui. I just have an unexpected temporary simplification of my how-will-I-spend-my-day menu. My biggest challenge is accepting what I can't control and embracing my reality (rather than lamenting it—and obsessing over the jerk who spilled hot chocolate on my laptop).

While this is not exactly flying blind (I can still see and hear, after all) it's nonetheless an apt metaphor in that I'll be operating the next few days without navigational markers that are digitally based—which is just about all of them in the Information Age. While there is a refreshing, back-to-the-basics quality about this stretch of days, it is also evocative of the dead days of the Mayan calendar, when normal life (whatever that is) is suspended while the mathematically elegant (but slightly inaccurate) human-constructed calendar gets realigned with the earth's actual orbit around the sun.

These are days out of time, or least days out of digital time, and that's probably a good thing, affording me an opportunity to get my psychic gyroscope re-tuned to my physical reality. It also gives me more time to read, of which I never seem to get enough.

Critique of Sociocracy



Following is a summary of my reservations about sociocracy (aka Dynamic Governance) as a governance system for cooperative groups—especially ones depending on voluntary participation. I'm just not that excited about it.


In this monograph I am paying particular attention to how this contrasts with consensus, which is the main horse that sociocracy is stalking. (Do not assign any meaning to the order in which I’ve presented my points.)


1. Does not address emotional input
One of my main concerns with this system is that there is no mention in its articulation of how to understand or work with emotions. As I see this as an essential component of group dynamics, this is a serious flaw.


I even had one advocate tell me once that when you use sociocracy no one gets upset. Puleeease! If you have a system that only works well when everyone is thinking and behaving rationally then you have an unstable equilibrium. This is not a system; it's a fragment.


2. Double linking of committees (or “circles” in sociocratic parlance)
When a group is large enough (probably anything past 12, and maybe smaller) it makes sense to create a committee structure to delegate tasks. While people can serve on more than one committee, it’s naturally important to have a clear understanding of how each committee relates to each other, and to the whole.


While the above paragraph is Organizational Structure 101, in sociocracy there is the added wrinkle that committees regularly working together (as when one oversees the other, or when two committees are expected to collaborate regularly) are asked to place a representative in each related committee. These reps (one each way) serve as liaisons and communications links from one committee to the other, helping to ensure that messages and their nuances are more accurately transmitted.


While this sounds good in theory (and may work well in practice in the corporate environment for which sociocracy was originally created), it runs smack into a chronic problem in cooperative groups that are highly depended on committee slots filled by volunteers: too many slots and too few people to fill them well. In 27 years as a process consultant for cooperative groups, I don’t recall ever having encountered a group that reported being able to easily fill all of its committee and manager positions. Sociocracy blithely asks that groups add an additional layer of responsibility to what they already have in place, which means even more committee assignments. It’s unworkable.


3. Selection process calls for surfacing candidate concerns on the spot
One of the trickier aspects of cooperative group dynamics is handling critical feedback well. That includes several non-trivial challenges:


o  Creating a culture in which critical feedback relative to group function is valued and encouraged.


o  Helping people find the courage to say hard things.


o  Helping people with critical things to say to sort out (and process separately) any upset or reactivity they are carrying in association with the critique, so that they don’t unload on the person when offering feedback.


o  Helping recipients respond to critical feedback openly, not defensively.


Even though the goal is worthy, none of these is necessarily easy to do, and my experience in the field has taught me the value of giving people choices in how best to give and receive critical feedback. (For some its absolutely excruciating to be criticized in public.)


In the case of sociocracy, the model calls for selecting people to fill positions (such as a managership or committee seat) in an up-tempo process where you call for nominations, discuss candidate suitability, and make a decision all in one go.


While that is admirable for its efficiency, you cannot convince me that this promotes full disclosure of reservations, complete digestion of critical statements (without dyspepsia), or thoughtful consideration of flawed candidates. While I can imagine this approach working fine in a group comprised wholly of mature, self-aware individuals, how many groups like that do you know? Me neither.


4. The concepts of “paramount” concerns, and “consent” versus “consensus”
Sociocracy makes a large deal out of participants only expressing: a) preferences about what should be taken into account; or b) reservations about proposals, if they constitute “paramount” concerns. Unfortunately, the term “paramount” is undefined and results in considerable confusion about what the standard represents. I believe that this maps well onto the basic consensus principle that you should be voicing what you believe is best for the group—as distinct from personal preferences—and that you should only speak if your concern is non-trivial. In short, I have not found this principle to be illuminating, or distinctive from consensus thinking.


The second piece of confusing rhetoric is insisting that sociocracy is about seeking “consent” rather than “consensus.” I believe that the aim in this attempt it to encourage an atmosphere of “is it good enough,” in contrast with “is it perfect”?


To be sure, there is anxiety among consensus users about being held hostage by an obstinate minority that may be unwilling to let a proposal go forward because they see how bad results are possible and are afraid of being stuck with them. This leads to paralysis. While it shouldn’t be hard to change an ineffective agreement (once experience with its application has exposed its weaknesses), I believe a better way to manage tyranny-of-the-minority dynamics is by educating participants (read consensus training) and developing a high-trust culture characterized by good listening, and proposal development that takes into account all views.


In the end, sociocracy’s “consent” is not significantly different from “consensus”; it’s just playing with words.


5. Rounds are not always the best format


Sociocracy is in love with Rounds, where everyone has a protected chance to offer comments on the matter at hand. While it’s laudable to protect everyone’s opportunity for input, this is only one of many choices available for how to solicit input on topics (others include open discussion, sharing circles, individual writing, small group breakout, silence, guided visualization, fishbowls). Each has their purpose, as well as their advantages and liabilities.


While Rounds are great at protecting talking time for those more timid about pushing their way into an open discussion, and serve as an affective muzzle for those inclined to take up more than their share of air time, they tend to be slow and repetitive. If you speed them up (Lightning Rounds) this addresses time use, yet at the expense of bamboozling those who find speaking in group daunting, or are naturally slower to know their mind and be ready to speak.


If you only have a hammer (one tool), pretty soon everything starts looking like a nail and reality is not nearly so one-dimensional and who wants to lie down on a bed of nails anyway? You need more tools in the box.


6. Starting with proposals
In sociocracy (and in many groups using consensus as well) there is the expectation that when an item comes to plenary it will be in the form of a proposal ("here is the issue and here is a suggested solution"). In fact, you won’t get time on the plenary agenda unless you have a proposal.


While this forces the shepherd to be ready for plenary (a good thing) and can sometimes save time (when the proposal is excellent and does a good job of anticipating what needs to be taken into account and balancing the factors well), it can also be a train wreck. Far better, in my experience, is that if something is worthy of plenary attention, that you not begin proposal development until after the plenary has agreed on what factors the proposal needs to address, and with what relative weight. If the manager or committee guesses at these (in order to get time on the agenda) they may invest considerably in a solution that just gets trashed.


Not only is this demoralizing for the proposal generators, but it skews the conversation about how to respond to the issue (“What needs to be taken into account in addressing this issue?” is a different question than “Does this proposal adequately address this concern?”) In essence, leading with the proposal is placing the cart (the solution) before the horse (what the solution needs to balance).


Cooperative groups make this mistake a lot, and sociocracy follows them right down the same rabbit hole.

Econtrol

Have you ever attempted digital communication without a functional "e" key? It's a booger.

Over the course of last weekend, the most-used key on my laptop started misfiring. By Monday it was failing more than 75% of the time. Ufda. While it's somewhat better now—performing intermittently—I can't count on it.

At the moment I'm queued up for a keyboard transplant under warranty at the St Louis Apple Genius Bar. Meanwhile, I've been coping by substituting "command V" for "e" when I compose messages. While it's a damn nuisance, there is an amusing, creative aspect when normal systems fail and one is forced to improvise. Under duress, its amazing what work-arounds we can come up with. (And I've already had two people offer even more creative ways to produce an "e" on my screen without actually using the "e" key—apparently I'm not the first to have suffered this malaise.)

The good news is that I was scheduled to be in the Gateway City anyway for four days of duplicate bridge, and I'm playing cards less than 10 miles away from the Apple Store (read hospital).

The bad news is that the operation requires general anesthesia and my laptop will need to be in sick bay two days—an excruciatingly long separation when you're as dependent on electronic communication as I am. It's like entering radio silence, or sitting a Vipassana course.

The good news is that when I'm immersed in the arcane world of tournament bridge, all I do is live and breathe cards anyway and thus was anticipating a vacation from email (I'll play somewhere in the vicinity of 240 hands in 75 hours—and, yes, I will sleep each night).

The bad news is that when I checked in at the Genius Bar Wed evening (when I first hit town) they didn't have the part in stock.

The good news is that they can secure the part quickly and I can keep my laptop until it came in (which is why I've been able to compose and post this blog on my regular three-day cycle).

The bad news is that the delay to secure the part means there is a smaller window in which to effect the repair. As I'll be driving home Sunday evening whether I have a new keyboard or not, my fingers are crossed that there will be time enough.

And to think that this "crisis" wasn't even on my horizon a mere week ago. When Hayoka energy shows up in your life like this, you realize that the gods are smiling at our attempts to impose order on life through planning. Not only is it a myth—but it's one that we sustain despite consistent evidence to the contrary.
• • •Over the course of the last 25 years I've gradually transitioned from communicating via mail to communicating via email. While it's a difference of only one letter, it's a big shift.

We are, without question, firmly operating in an electronic world these days, and moving more in that direction every day. In fact, it wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say that I'm evolving into becoming an emale myself—a man who functions significantly in an digital context. In addition to my daily dose of email management (the volume of which is much greater than postal mail ever was), I regularly participate in conference calls, and two days ago I delivered my sixth process workshop via webinar. Are we headed for a future where we're constantly online?

To be sure, there remain significant and precious portions of my life that do not involve electronics or virtual reality. Intimate time with my wife, face-to-face dates with friends—witness my Sunday evenings with Men's Group, time with my counselor, and the bulk of my work as a process consultant. I reckon there will always be a benefit to being in the room, observing and responding to people in real time, where all senses can be brought to bear.

Thus, while econtrol in one's life may be desirable—the ability to understand and accurately manage digital content—it is not the same as control in one's life. And for today, at least, I have the much more modest goal of simply reestablishing "e" control.

A Filing Cabinet in the MIddle of Our Kitchen

Our house is a wreck.

This past week I finally completed moving out of my old bedroom at Sandhill—a process I'd begun right after Thanksgiving and had been dragging my feet about completing. Partly I was waiting to see how well it worked out with Ma'ikwe and me living together. Nine months and one marriage recommitment ceremony later, the answer is that we're going to stay together. Unfortunately, the "yippee!" associated with that decision is inextricably commingled with the grief of letting go of my home for 40 years. This is exactly what people are talking about when they use the phrase "mixed emotions." 

Mind you, I'm not questioning my decision, I'm just heart sore. 

At a Sandhill meeting July 28 I announced that I'd made my decision (I was technically on a leave of absence for one year), and agreed to complete my relocation to Moon Lodge by the end of last week. It took me three trips, but I finished Saturday evening. Whew! There are undoubtedly some stray items lurking in other locations around the farm (it's scary how much one can "spread out" in four decades) and I haven't touched the attic yet, but I've completely liberated my bedroom and that was huge.

Removing everything from my room, layer by layer, was like conducting an archeological dig of my adult life. It was tender, and the memories flooded in much faster than I had time to dwell on. It was all I could do to keep my consciousness floating with the tide, and not stop my hands from putting the next item in a box. I had kinda been hoping that I could avoid this and die in place (leaving the detritus of my life to my survivors), but this has more integrity and, in the end, I'm glad to have done it. For one thing, it's sobering to have my nose rubbed in the reality of all that I've accumulated despite my conscious choice to lead a non-acquisitive lifestyle (where did all this shit come from?). It's a first-world morality play.

While significant chunks of my material life were siphoned off to either Sally Army or the landfill, Sandhill's loss has largely been Moon Lodge's gain—and I don't necessarily mean in a good way. Ma'ikwe's and my house is now bloated with my stuff. (I had no idea I owned that many pairs of shoes!) Hence the awkward (temporary) location of the legal-sized filing cabinet that Ma'ikwe just snagged off Craig's List. 

As if it weren't challenge enough to absorb with grace the disgorgement of Laird's possessions from Sandhill, we're staging things for Jibran's imminent departure for college next week, are entering the height of canning season (we have to put all those jars of sunshine and goodness somewhere), and still have to figure out a permanent home for Ma'ikwe's four-drawer inspiration of boxy metal (which, ironically, was purchased in the hopes of decluttering the living room furniture—that Ma'ikwe is in the habit of using for file storage). 

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that we're closing off a 4'x4' firewood pass-through in our west wall this week. Nothing like a little strawbale retrofit to ensure that we don't run low on dust motes.
 

On the subject of imposing order, we hardly know where to start.

While a high percentage of things have day-to-day utility, there are some curious oddments—such as:

—My collection of board games (still growing). These are in active use—I typically play something once a week.

—Our semi-serious investment in kitchen gadgetry. The frequency of their use varies widely, but some are absolutely precious.

—My cosmopolitan liquor (and liqueur) inventory. For some reason, I buy bottles of alcohol like I buy books: faster than I consume them.

—My stamp collection (inherited at age 10 from my mother's Uncle Art, whom I never met), but which has now been dormant for the past 15 years.

—My camping equipment (all together, I've spent about a year of my life in a canoe and I have a sizable assortment of clothes and paraphernalia that are strictly reserved for that use. I even have a homemade map drawer that contains a lifetime investment in Canadian topos at 1:250,000 (four miles to the inch) which is what I guide with when serving as the bourgeois on a canoe trip. Just as a large part of my heart remains at Sandhill, a smaller, though still significant portion of my heart resides in the boundless wilderness of the Canadian Shield (pre-Cambrian granite, the oldest rock on Earth) that stretches across much of central Canada. Though my last trip was in 2006, I may yet have another one in me, and retaining my camping gear keeps that flame alive.

Luckily, Moon Lodge is a big house (900 sq ft) and my wife and I are resourceful—in the sense of: a) having a lot of resources; b) possessing the ingenuity to figure out how to store the damn stuff; and c) having the resolve to let go of what we no longer need or use.

I expect Moon Lodge to be my last home. While that may not be the case (Ma'ikwe is an Enneagram Seven, after all), I'd rather not go through the chaos of moving again, and thinking long-term produces better solutions for the here and now.

At the very least I expect to have the ding dong filing cabinet moved in the next few days, so we can once again enjoy a straight path through the kitchen to the side door. Sheesh.

Personal Work or Relational Work?

I recently observed a group that is in the habit of regularly taking time to meet for the purpose of looking into member's reactivity. (Good for them!)

When getting together for that, participants are asked at the front of the meeting if they have anything they want to work on, and to indicate their relative level of urgency—with the understanding that whoever wants it most will get attention and that no one will be pressured into the spotlight. There is the further agreement that each participant is fully responsible for getting their own needs met.

As you are undoubtedly aware, there is an incredible array of options for doing personal work, yet this group has a particular approach that it used most often. It's based on the assumption that if you have a reaction to something that another person said or did, then there is probably a self-judgment in you about doing versions of the same thing and it's useful to root that out—so that you can better understand where you're unresolved; so that you can better understand how you're triggered by others; and so that you can more easily move beyond your reactions. It's powerful stuff.

Let's suppose that Chris had a reaction to Adrian. If Adrian isn't present, then it's turned out to be relatively straight forward maintaining focus on Chris. However, when Adrian is present, things get more complicated.

On the one hand, Chris still has personal work to do (looking for the self-judgment). On the other, Adrian may have a reaction also, after hearing Chris' upset. Maybe Adrian is surprised to learn that Chris had a reaction, or perhaps Adrian is knocked off center by the strength of Chris' expression of upset (while the group may have helped Chris by encouraging them to "get it all out," that may not be so wonderful for Adrian, who is the landing spot for Chris' judgment). Think of it as a multi-car accident.

Where does the group give attention now? Do you stay the course with Chris, and hope you have enough time afterwards to tend to Adrian later, or do you hit the pause button with Chris to give Adrian mouth-to-mouth? What if Adrian asks for attention in the midst of focusing on Chris (putting the group in an awkward situation)? What if Adrian is too overwhelmed to know what to ask for? What if Adrian feels it's too disrespectful of Chris to interrupt the focus that Chris has requested, even though Adrian needs help? In short, it's messy.

I think it's best to approach this dynamic using triage principles: go first where the need is greatest, and work your way through the room. Thus, Chris should still get the chance to do personal work, yet there may be times when that's interrupted to handle an emerging reaction in real time.

While that's my view on how to manage the dynamic where more than one person has something "up" for them simultaneously, there are other ways to see this. For example, you could take the position that if personal work is the primary purpose of the group, then ermergent relational dynamics should take a back seat, and group attention shouldn't be deflected from Chris regardless of what Adrian experiences: it's Chris' turn and Adrian will have to wait.

Further, some hold the view that relational work always proceeds better after personal work has been completed. If you buy that, then examination of the Chris/Adrian dynamic will be enhanced by the delay to focus solely on Chris. 

Of course, going the other way, there is surely a component—perhaps the main component—of the Chris/Adrian kerfuffle that is personal work for Adrian. Thus prioritizing Chris over Adrian may not translate into emphasizing personal work over relational work; it may simply be giving people attention in priority order at the outset and agreeing to not change focus to another person until work with the first is completed, regardless of what bubbles up in the examination

In working with this group there have been two occasions where I witnessed a Chris/Adrian dynamic where the person in the Adrian role was clearly struggling with what the Chris person had reported, yet the group doggedly kept the focus on Chris (which was the norm), even when Chris got stuck in their story and was having trouble getting traction on their personal work. It was excruciating watching Chris flounder while Adrian needed oxygen. In both instances I expressed my uneasiness with the choice to stay with Chris, and the group is chewing on whether it wants to do anything differently in the future.

While I still prefer my approach to this dynamic (giving focus where the need seems greatest, even if that means switching from one person to another before the work with the first person has been completed), it's important to report that in both cases I named, the Adrian character ultimately got attention and the meetings in question ended satisfactorily for all parties. So I'm not talking about disasters; I'm talking about minimizing anguish and what constitutes effective work.

There is integrity to any of the approaches I've outlined above. The important thing is reaching agreement in the group about how it wants to handle it, which includes an analysis of what will ultimately serve group members best, helping them be more fully actualized and aware.
• • •Finally, I want to add a contextual comment about working with relational tension in cooperative groups. As a for-hire facilitator it's common for me to encounter unresolved tensions among members (who hires outside help when everything is going well?), but it's rare that there is an agreement in the group that all members are committed to doing personal work, so I am expected to navigate the tension without reliance on self-awareness among protagonists. (The range I've encountered over the course of my 27-year career as a group consultant is startling: all the way from it's never my fault, to the second coming of Saint Francis of Assisi.)

While I firmly support the view that doing personal work will enhance one's ability to respond constructively when encountering relational tension, when I work conflict in cooperative groups I proceed without reference to personal work (since there's no agreement to go there, and I'm not a therapist). Instead, I work directly with how people are feeling and thinking (never mind how they got there) and try to bridge differences what's available in the room. With diligence, compassion, and good intent it's almost always possible to get the job done. While that work may benefit people on a personal level, I make no claims that that will happen.

I operate from the premise that everyone wants and deserves to be heard and understood, and that unresolved tension among group members is both unpleasant and expensive. Let's see what we can do to restore flow without anyone being "bad." While this approach would undoubtedly be more potent if everyone were committed to doing personal work, it still works.

Tragedy of the Commons in Community

In 2009, Elinor Ostrom came out of nowhere to win the Nobel prize in Economics. A jill-of-all-trades political economist, she'd conducted considerable research into the dynamics of managing the public good. Her research ultimately led to her publishing in 1990 her seminal piece, Governing the Commons, the Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. In this she laid out eight principles for self-governing common elements.

I have listed these below as they appear in David Sloan Wilson's 2011 book, The Neighborhood Project, which includes David's explanatory text:

1. Clearly defined boundaries
Members of the group should know who they are, have a strong sense of group identity, and know the rights and obligations of membership. If they are managing a resource, then the boundaries of the resource should also be clearly identified.

2. Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs
Having some members do all the work while others get the benefits is unsustainable over the long term. Everyone must do his or her fair share, and those who go beyond the call of duty must be appropriately recognized. When leaders are accorded special privileges, it should be because they have special responsibilities for which they are held accountable. Unfair inequality poisons collective efforts.

3. Collective-choice arrangements
Group members should be able to create their own rules and make their own decisions by consensus. People hate being bossed around but will work hard to do what we want, not what they want. In addition, the best decisions often require knowledge of local circumstances that we have and they lack, making consensus decisions doubly important.

4. Monitoring
Cooperation must always be guarded. Even when most members of a group are well meaning, the temptation to do less than one's share is always present, and a few individuals might try actively to game the system. If lapses and transgressions can't be detected, the group enterprise is unlikely to succeed.

5. Graduated sanctions
Friendly, gentle reminders are usually sufficient to keep people in solid citizen mode, but tougher measures such as punishment and exclusion must be held in reserve.

6. Fast and fair conflict resolution
Conflicts are sure to arise and must be resolved quickly in a manner that is regarded as fair by all parties. This typically involves a hearing in which respected members of the group, who can be expected to be impartial, make an equitable decision.

7. Local autonomy
When a group is nested within a larger society, such as a farmer's association dealing with the state government or a neighborhood group dealing with a city, the group must be given enough authority to create its own social organization and make its own decisions, as outlined in points 1-6 above.

8. Polycentric governance
In large societies that consist of many groups, relationships among groups must embody the same principles as relationships among individuals within groups.

The reason I bring this up is that intentional communities—almost by definition—manage common elements, and in practice, issues with that not going so well are widespread.

Where is the line between the individual's purview and the group's purview? (I'll give you a hint: there's overlap.) There is awkwardness here both in knowing whether the group is a stakeholder, and in knowing how to proceed when it is decided that a group conversation is appropriate

I want to start with a couple of general observations:

o  Adjusting for Scale
This operates at two levels. 

First, for the purpose of exploring how Ostrom's work (and Wilson's interpretation) applies in the context of intentional community, we can safely set aside Principle #7 as a significant factor because virtually all intentional communities comprise autonomous units (excepting those that are outposts from the mother ship), and principle #8 is aimed at larger scales (such a city, state, or nation).

Second, intentional communities are purposeful attempts at greater involvement in each other's lives, which translates to greater intimacy even with the same size group. (Thus, you'd expect it to be easier to handle common assets in an intentional community than in a Thursday night duplicate bridge group, or a softball league of the same size.)

o  Group Identity 
To the extent that a person identifies with the group, they are internally motivated to be respectful with commonly held assets—because anything that degrades the common assets degrades their resources.

The converse is that if group identity is weak than so will the sense of collective responsibility. While no intentional community that I know of intends to have weak group identity, many do. And one consequence of that is a greater incidence of tragedy of the commons (the concept whereby commonly held assets are poorly treated because the members are acting more in their individual best interest than in the group's best interest).

Now let's drill down on the six remaining principles, as seen through the lens of intentional community:

1. Boundaries
I always think it's a good idea to spell out the rights and responsibilities of members. While all groups don't do this, most do a fair job of it and it's not a common problem that people are confused what assets are commonly held or who has access to them.

A more subtle problem is the way some members will forgo using jointly held assets (saving them for a time of greater need, or for those in greater need than themselves) while others use them whenever they want, because they can. People will naturally vary in whether they are consumers or savers, and this variance will show up in how frequently members will avail themselves of commonly held assets. This may be a source of tension and it may not, but you'd be advised to be sensitive to the possibility.

2. Costs and Benefits
This one has subtleties as well. While straight forward on the surface, it's not unusual for an imbalance in one arena to be compensated by an imbalance somewhere else (like the person who does more cooking in exchange for another raking more leaves). Community is full of such creative arrangements and sometimes you need to look at things broadly enough to understand whether something is truly out of kilter.

3. Self-determination
The key to this is making sure that the people affected by usage of a common asset are the ones making decisions about its management. While this is eminently sensible, there's are a couple ways groups can go astray.

First, not all common assets are of interest to all members who might have a right to their usage, and it often makes sense to limit decision-making power to those who are interested in using the common asset. (It will not tend to go over well if non-users want to wade into management issues, possibly complicating things for users.)

Second, you can also get in trouble going the other way, when management is delegated to a subgroup, but the boundaries of authority are murky. In those instances you can have a subgroup making decisions that adversely impact members who have a right to the common asset and interest in using it, yet do not have a voice in the subgroup.

4. Monitoring 
Often intentional communities are not so good at this, mainly because there is hyper-sensitivity to anything smacking of the "resource police." If people are watching resource use, then they'd be expected to speak up if there were a problem and that can be an uncomfortable and unpopular position—especially with anyone caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Thus it's tempting to simply trust that no one will abuse the resource, which often doesn't work that well either.

5. Sanctions
While I thoroughly support the notion of graduated consequences for persistent coloring outside the lines, I want to underline that punishment should be the last resort. Sometimes communities are unwilling to even consider options such as fines or exclusion. Better, I think, is that you put the possibility in place—which means defining the conditions under which sanctions are conceivable, without mandating that they be levied. That makes it clear up front (pre-need) that consequences can occur, yet doesn't tie the group's hands, or lead to anyone rushing to reach for the hickory switch.

Note: if you go that route, be sure to spell out the process by which you'll determine: a) whether a sanctionable offense has occurred; and b) if so, whether to actually impose a sanction, which one, and in what degree of severity.

6. Conflict resolution
Who could be opposed to swift and effective response? That said, the Ostrom/Wilson standard is geared toward binding arbitration, yet that's rarely how communities address conflict. Instead, in community there is generally a decided preference to seek a resolution that all parties accept energetically (rather than embrace a solution that is thrust upon them).

The tricky part is whether all players are willing to look honestly at their culpability in what went wrong. If you have one or more interested parties who feel that they are wholly the victim and all the wrong-doing has been done by others, conflict resolution can be an uphill slog.

Further there is an art to discerning the difference between promptness (which is laudable) and haste (expecting people to engage before they're ready); and it can be quite delicate crafting a format for engagement that provides reasonable safety and support for all (because what those concepts mean can vary so widely).

The bar is much higher in intentional community where people have to live in close proximity and share their lives. People living in the same residential neighborhood, or attending the same church, do not have the same degree of intertwined lives, and "conflict resolution" in those lesser circumstances can simply mean negotiated coexistence or an agreement to not serve on the same committees or projects.
• • • Taken all together, this is a fascinating problem. On the one hand, it's a tragedy that common resources are sometimes misused in community. On the other, communities are pioneering some exemplary ways of dealing with issues that don't necessarily mean resorting to rules and punishments. At their best, tragedies in community can lead to deeper understanding and compassion—where everyone benefits.

Relishing Corn

Four days ago I was in Kirksville awaiting the start of our weekly bridge game at the duplicate club—something I do almost every Wednesday that I'm not on the road—when one of the regulars, Chris Buck, came up to me and asked if I wanted any sweet corn. When I allowed as how I did (asking someone if they want fresh sweet corn in July is about the same as asking if they want a piece of hot apple pie with fresh-churned vanilla ice cream—why would anyone say no?), Chris fixed me with his stare and said again, with added emphasis, "Do you want any sweet corn?"

I replied, "I know there's a reason why you're asking me to answer this question twice. What's going on?"

It turns out that he'd set out an enormous patch of corn and it was starting to get away from him. It's been an almost perfect growing year in northeast Missouri. Temperatures have been consistently in the 80s (warm enough to keep everything growing well but low enough to avoid heat stress, on both the crops and the farmers) and a good soaking rain has manifested from the heavens whenever we needed it. The result has been bountiful gardens, and Chris had corn coming out his ears (so to speak).

He told me that he and his wife had already put up 250 bags of frozen corn and they had decided to stop there. (I reckon.) Given that the remaining corn, of which there was gobs, was in perfect condition for harvesting—a window that only lasts a few days. Chris was not asking me if I wanted a bag of corn; he was asking me if I wanted a pickup load. Gulp.

Cornucopia
Fortunately, I live in community, where it's actually possible to take advantage of large-scale, time-limited, no-advanced-warning opportunities.

So the next morning Ma'ikwe and I starting talking it through before we'd even gotten out of bed. The first question was how was the corn grown and was it genetically modified (GMO) seed. After some back and forth with Chris we determined that it wasn't organic, but neither was it GMO. While that meant it wasn't fully righteous by community standards, we knew that it was probably good enough to be attractive—especially because the sweet corn being grown in the tri-communities (the three-mile circle that includes Dancing Rabbit, Sandhill Farm, and Red Earth Farms) wasn't yet ready.

So Ma'ikwe and I decided to go for it. That meant signing out the pickup and arranging to meet Chris later in the afternoon to harvest the corn. Meanwhile, Ma'ikwe posted a note to the community announcing that the corn rush was on, and that people could buy ears out of the back of the pickup around supper time at the bargain price of five for a dollar, go as far as you wanted.

At noon I called up my old community, Sandhill, and asked if they wanted any corn relish made with non-organic, non-GMO corn. (Having just moved over from Sandhill last November, I knew the community loved corn relish, that they were out, and that they had a surplus of cabbage—a key ingredient in corn relish.) By timing my request during the lunch hour, Trish (Sandhill's garden manager) was able to canvass the community on the spot and within 30 minutes gave me a green light to use the cabbage and do the processing in Sandhill's commercial kitchen in exchange for jars of corn relish. Deal!

By servicing both the fresh market with the preserving market simultaneously, I would be able to use every ear, while garnering a premium for those that were plumpest and without blemish. That is, we allowed people looking for roasting ears to pick through the pile to get the ones they wanted, knowing that we could make full use of the slightly damaged or overripe ears in the corn relish. Efficient homestead food management often entails sorting fresh-use from preserved-use as the crop comes in. Everything has a highest use, yet you need choices to take advantage of the gradient in quality.

By the time dinner was over it was time to clean out the back of the pickup (the community only has one and we needed to get it unloaded before the next user Friday morning). By good fortune, there were a couple of Sandhill members visiting Dancing Rabbit for dinner and we took advantage of that to fill the trunk of their car and a good portion of the back seat with sweet corn, reducing the volume of remaining corn to something that would fit into a packed garden cart.

While wheeling the cart from the garage to Moon Lodge—a distance of about a quarter mile—we managed to sell another $15 worth of corn to people we bumped into on the path who'd missed the first rush. (It was like selling honey to bears.)

Friday morning I needed to scrounge up the other ingredients needed for corn relish—onions, sweet peppers, vinegar, sorghum, and spices—plus enough jars to it all into. As they came from four different sources, it took a while and I wasn't settled on site at Sandhill until late morning. The first order of business was shucking about 500 ears of corn. Then I had to parboil them before cutting the kernels off the cob.

While work continued until nearly midnight Friday (with Ma'ikwe joining me for five hours) and for an additional five hours alone on Saturday, in the end we had:
—14 quarts of corn relish for Sandhill
—72 pints of corn relish to eat, sell, or give away
—14 quarts of canned corn for Moon Lodge
—20 quarts of frozen corn
—social capital from all our corn-happy neighbors

When I closed my eyes last night I saw corn. But I'll get over that, and we now have enough savory pickled corn to relish for the next four years. Yeehah!
• • •Typing this, I'm smiling as I think back to Thursday afternoon, when Jibran and I were pulling out of the corn patch with our loaded pickup. Chris asked if I wanted to come back in a day or two and get another load. I looked him right in the eye and said, "Thanks, but this will be enough."

Sometimes, you have to know when to quit.

Balancing Transparency and Discretion

I've recently became aware of an evaluation process in an intentional community that raised a poignant question about the balance between transparency and discretion, and what it means to be creating cooperative culture.

The Back Story
In the case of this particular community there exists a Board of Directors that oversees 501c3 aspects of community operations (the portion of community life that donors can receive tax deductions for supporting), and that Board is comprised of a mix of community members and non-community members. This is a relatively common arrangement, designed to ensure both: a) that the community's voice is present in Board considerations; and b) that there are outside eyes making sure that the community's educational activities adhere to mission and long-term goals.

Given that this community's vision is to be a model of sustainable living for the wider culture—as is true for many groups—it further makes sense to include non-community members on the Board because of (hopefully) their ability to see more clearly what it will take to bridge between what the community is offering and what the mainstream is available to receiving, which is no simple thing to navigate.

The Lead Up
In this instance there were two particular positions in the community that were hired by the Board, and it came time to evaluate how well those two people were doing in their roles. For the sake of this story let's cleverly refer to them as Position A and Position B. Having gone through iterations of this before (evaluating how well managers and committees are functioning in their roles) the community had developed some years earlier a standard evaluation form for this purpose. To be clear, this form was an internal document that had not been run by the Board for approval because most roles in the community are not subject to Board review.

That said, when it came to evaluate the people in Position A and Position B, the Board was delighted to make use of the evaluation form and process that had already been vetted and was familiar to the community. The norm in this community is that evaluations proceed thus:

o  The Personnel Committee announces that the evaluation is underway (for a set period of time), and sends an electronic link to the job description and the evaluation form. Note that everyone in the community is given a chance to evaluate job performance: that includes the Board, other managers who work alongside this person as a peer, staff who work underneath this manager, and even people in the community who are only occasionally affected by this person's work. While it's common that only a small number fill out evaluations, the net is cast wide.

o  After the comment period ends, Personnel makes sure that copies of all evaluations are sent to the hiring entity (the Board in this case) and to the person being evaluated.

o  The hiring entity then meets with the person being evaluated and discusses what surfaced in the evaluations and decides how best to proceed.

o  At the end of this face-to-face review, both the person being evaluated and someone representing the hiring entity sign a form indicating that this meeting took place and that all parties have seen and had a chance to discuss the points raised in the evaluations. This signed document then gets turned in to Personnel to become part of that person's permanent employee record—which is kept confidential, accessible only to Personnel, the hiring entity, and the person themselves.

It is important to note that this sequence is spelled out in the evaluation form.

The Train Wreck
When Person A was evaluated, only a small number of people filled out forms. While more participation had been hoped for, the process went smoothly. For the most part the feedback was positive and it was not difficult to discuss the ways in which improvement was desired.

Things did not go so well with the evaluation of Person B, which occurred right after evaluating Person A. The number of people filling out evaluations was again small, but this time there was considerably more critical feedback. When Personnel dutifully passed along copies of the evaluations to the person being evaluated, a couple of Board members blew a gasket.

What was Personnel thinking when it blithely shared raw critical comments with Person B? While Personnel was just doing its job—as delineated in the evaluation process—the Board members who were shocked had apparently not digested how evaluations were done in the community, and at least one of them rued the candor with which they described Person B's shortfalls. In fact, it seems the complaining Board members didn't even read the evaluations forms, where the process was laid out. Oops!

In fairness to the upset Board members, they were seeing this through the lens of how things are typically done in the mainstream, where critical comments tend to be summarized (and defanged) before being passed along to the person being evaluated. This simultaneously protects the recipient from being overwhelmed by the bow wave of criticism (however large it is), makes evaluators feel safer in being candid, and makes it less likely that bad blood will result between evaluator and employee.

Going the other way, sanitized feedback is more vague (both in terms of the specifics of what has been challenging, and in terms of how it can often be crucial knowing who gave comments in order to frame their meaning properly), which blunts their value. In line with its commitment to direct and honest communication—including the hard stuff—the community has intentionally embraced an evaluation process where feedback is passed along unadulterated. (If you can't say it to their face, don't say it.) If the recipient struggles to take it in, the community will provide support (this is not about treating people as piñatas, letting them dangle in the wind while everyone gets free swings).

Finally, passing along evaluations unedited saves the time it takes to craft a sensitive and balanced summary (no one in community complains that's there's too little to do) and neatly eliminates the danger of someone inadvertently seeing the unexpurgated evaluations at a later date, thus defusing what might become time bombs. (And don't tell me that never happens.)

The After Grow
What makes this a compelling story is that no one is wrong and there's considerable tenderness about which road to take. Which path leads to a fuller transmittal of critical information and which leads to its most constructive treatment?

While I applaud the community for bravely setting a high bar for communication standards by embracing direct feedback, there's plenty of room to question whether that quashes the expression of concerns. This is a nuanced conversation that needs to include both an assessment of what's possible now, and what we want to be possible in the future. (If you are not living the change you want to be, how will you ever get there?)

I think the community gets high marks for having a full-featured evaluation process, yet a lower grade for weak responsiveness to the call for evaluations. There is also work for the community to do in bringing the Board into greater awareness about the ways in which the community is expressly trying to be different than the mainstream culture (as well as work for the Board to do in reading forms before they fill them out).

Like a lot of things in community, robust evaluations—ones that are accurate, comprehensive, compassionate, and constructive—are a work in progress.

Doing Your Work

Suppose you're part of a cooperative group that makes decisions by consensus and there's an important issue under discussion. At the end of the first meeting it's clear that a lot of people see the issue differently than you do. While the group has not yet drafted a proposal about how to respond, what is your work—as a responsible member of the group—to be ready for that step?

For any process to function well it's helpful if the participants are relatively self-aware and are willing to look at the ways in which they may be stuck, or not owning their portion of what may be difficult. That's especially true in consensus, where one obstinate person can monkey wrench the whole shebang.

That said, even if you agree that it's important to do your "personal work," what does that mean? Here's a list of nine ways you might go about that. While this list is not exhaustive, it's highly suggestive. Think of it as priming the pump.

1. Are you respecting the views of those who think differently than you?
While you have the right to have your opinions taken into account; that's paired with the responsibility to take into account those of others. Have you done that?

2. Are you discerning the difference between personal preferences and what's best for the group?
While it's fine to give voice to what you'd prefer, have you paused to think through how much of that is legitimately in the group's interest, as derived from group values?

3. Are you owning your mistakes?
On those occasions when the group proceeds despite your concerns and everything works out fine, do you afterwards adjust your thinking in light of what happens? Do you admit to others that your fears proved baseless?

The flip side of this is celebrating (note that I did not say "gloating") when your concerns turn out to be justified. The lesson here is that your assessments are sound—please remain courageous in expressing them.

4. Are you considering both the head response and the belly response?
We take in, process, and "know" things in a wide variety of ways. While the default mode of examination in Western culture is to share your best thinking, there is also emotional intelligence and body knowing. Are they invited to your inner council also? Perhaps more importantly, are they taken seriously when their advice diverges from what you think?

5. Are you letting the work happen?
Sometimes we allow our busy lives to crowd out the time needed to digest the issues at hand and to come to know fully why we've responded as we have. Do we protect adequate time for reflection, and are we sufficiently disciplined to use that time well.

6. If you're having an emotional reaction, are your clearing that first, before deciding what action to take relative to the presenting issue?
Strong reactions are often accompanied by strong distortion and distraction. If you don't first attend to working through the upset, it can be the very devil sorting through what's best for the group.

7. Are you exploring what's at stake?
Sometimes it's illuminating to look closely at why a thing matters—both to you personally and to the group. What's the bad thing that might happen if you don't get your way?

8. Have you slept on it?
For some of us, subconscious processing—the kind of thing that happens when you're not paying conscious attention to a thing—can yield an insight. Sometimes we awaken to a sense of resolution even though we went to bed troubled. (Meditation may produce the same effect.)

9. If you're the kind of person who likes to talk through things with others, are you being careful to not solely discuss things with those who share your views?
While the theory of talking things through with others is that we'll be less likely to get stuck in our own tape loops, sometimes listeners just reinforce our prejudices. If you purposefully seek out the ear of someone known to have a different view than you, you're far less likely to become ensnared in this silken trap.

Exit Dynamics in Community

Although it's not what folks generally have their attention on when they start or join communities, the other side of the coin is that people leave. To be sure, this can happen for a wide variety of reasons. Let me give you a hypothetical dozen—all of which I've witnessed:

1.  Maybe the bread winner in your household just had their job transferred to Kalamazoo or Timbuktu, and they really want to keep that job.

2.  Maybe your 15-year-old got busted for smoking pot in the bathroom of the public library (there's a reason that "sophomoric" is an adjective that refers to poor judgment) and you're heart sick over the possibility that the negative publicity will give the community a black eye and lead to your family being ostracized in the community.

3.  Maybe your mother is getting to the point where she needs one of her adult children to live nearby, and none of your siblings has enough flexibility in their life to answer the bell. You do what you gotta do and it's time to give back to Mom.

4.  Maybe your daughter's asthma has worsened to where you have to move to a climate with lower humidity.

5.  Maybe you love all the coffee shops, liberal politics, and Powell's bookstore, but if you spend one more winter in Portland's gray drizzle your SAD (which is bad) will make your partner mad and it's time to move to a sunnier pad where you can both be glad.

6.  Maybe you're sick unto death of your neighbor's barking dog and, after years of struggle, you're willing to move so you can finally count on getting a decent night's sleep.

7.  Maybe you can no longer tolerate the interminable meetings. Making decisions together sounded OK in theory, but OMG.

8.  Maybe your youngest child just left for college and the nest is empty. You don't want to be rattling around in all that house but there is nothing smaller available in the community, so downsizing means moving.

9.  Maybe your marriage has just dissolved and you cannot bear the thought of continuing to live in the same community as your ex. (Maybe 10 years from now, but not next week.)

10.  Maybe your mildly hyperactive daughter has been accused of bullying the neighbor kids and is no longer welcome in community play groups with her peers. Though the kids still want to be together, the other parents won't allow it. You feel your kid is being scapegoated, and don't want to live in a community where other parents seem unwilling to look at how their child is contributing to challenging dynamics.

11.  Maybe you came to community expressly to learn natural building techniques and how to incorporate energy saving technology into everyday life. Now that you've learned all that, you're ready to head off to your mountain top property in Colorado to build your dream home and retire next to a trout stream.

12.  Maybe you can no longer tolerate hearing youngsters scream at community dinners (ruining adult conversation) and you're bone weary of tripping over scooters and Big Wheels strewn about the pathways at night—right where the kids left them.

I could go on and on, but you get the picture. There are many reasons why people leave. Sometimes it's because there's a problem in the community that's not resolving; sometimes there are personal reasons that have nothing to do with the community; sometimes it's a bit of both.

From the community's perspective there are three particular possibilities that I want to highlight. These are important both because there may be chances to turn things around even at the eleventh hour, and because it's an opportunity for the community to learn what it might do differently in the future.

Possibility A: Where the member is facing a personal challenge that suggests leaving and may not have explored how much the community could be an ally in finding a response that wouldn't require moving away

In this dynamic there is probably no expectation that the community has anything to offer, and it's quite possible that the member has not even made an attempt to seek help from the community. But that doesn't mean there are no options!

For this to have room to fully bloom I think it makes sense for representatives of the community (Membership Committee?) to pro-actively, yet discreetly, approach the person or couple to see if they're open to exploring how the community might be able to provide some outside-of-the-box support.

If the openness is there (no arm twisting, please) the support team can find out details of the situation beyond what is known publicly and perhaps help with spade work to follow through on promising suggestions, either on the private side (directly with individuals) or the public side (using community resources). Even if no appreciable help is realized through this effort, it will land well that the attempt was made and the community will feel better that it went the extra mile.

Possibility B: Where there are challenges in the community that have been named, but attempts at resolution have been unsatisfactory and the person is ready to leave in frustration

In this dynamic there is likely to be some hurt feelings, perhaps in many directions. It is a delicate thing knowing when you've tried enough, and when it's time to let go and move on. Not all problems are solvable and not all people are meant to live together. Exit can be the right choice.

Yet there can be considerable gold in panning through the dross of failed attempts at conflict resolution—if you approach it with an open, what-can-we-learn attitude, rather than with a how-can-we-assign-blame perspective. While it may not be easy to get the protagonists to engage in a post-mortem analysis (who wants to pick the scab off?), you might have success if a neutral team (Membership, I'm thinking of you again) approached with a promise to simply listen, to make sure there's clarity about that person's side of events and how it landed for them.

It's possible that this kind of listening will lead to an insight about how things could get unstuck if approached differently, and—if it's not too late—those may still be tried. But I wouldn't hold my breath. Mostly the point of this kind of examination is to learn how to do things better next time; how to not dig the hole so deep that no one can get out.

Possibility C: Where there are challenges in the community that have not been named publicly, yet the person is willing to leave over them

This dynamic is a particularly interesting one because you may not know it's even in play unless you're privy to inside information or someone tips you off. The public presentation is that the person (or couple) has announced that they're leaving for personal reasons that have nothing to do with community dynamics (after all, they have to say something about why their leaving), but that's not the case, or at least not the whole story. How will you know to ask about this if you don't know it's happening?

Why would people do this? Perhaps it's too embarrassing to disclose their reactions in group. Maybe they're conflict averse and would rather leave than try to work it out. Possibly they're intimidated by the particular folks they're conflicted with and don't have the gumption to face bully dynamics. Maybe there are a bunch of small things, no one of which is fatal, but the accumulation is overwhelming.
The beauty of this possibility is that if you're following my advice about being pro-active in Possibility A, the interviewing group might discover that it's really Possibility C (where the "personal reasons" were trumped up to deflect inquiries about community dynamics), or a combination of the two (where there are both personal reasons and community reasons). If you uncover this dynamic, you may have a chance to still work the conflict (by whatever means your group has in place for that purpose). But even if it's too late for that, you get more accurate information about the ways in which the community has fallen short, which gives you a leg up on dealing with whatever broke down.

Exit Interviews
With all of the above in mind, let's drill down on what you might ask if you're interviewing someone who has announced they intend to leave. Here are some questions you might pose:

o  How well did life in the community work for you and your family? What were the highlights; what was hard?
o  Did you find the community to be as advertised? If not, please describe the ways in which there was a misunderstanding about what you'd find, and give us any suggestions you have about how to correct those.

o  What suggestions do you have for how we could more accurately describe what life in our community is like? Please be specific.

o  What would you say to a prospective or incoming new member that you wished had been said to you?

o  Did you get the interpersonal support you were looking for as a member of the community? If not, what can you tell us about how we fell short?

o  Are there ways that you wish the community could be doing more for its members? If so, please describe the ways.

o  What, if any, aspects of community agreements did you really appreciate, and which do you wish were different?

o  What, if any, aspects of community culture did you really appreciate, and which do you wish were different? 

o  Are there any unresolved issues related to community life that are a factor in your decisions to leave? If so, please tell us what they are.

o  To the extent that there are personal reasons (unrelated to community life) influencing your decision to leave, have you tried to get help from the community in resolving those issues such that you could stay? If not, or you are willing to try more, we invite you to tell us in detail what those personal factors are. (While we cannot promise to pull a rabbit out of the hat, we're willing to give it a try.)

o  If you had sufficient support from the community, would you be willing to try any further to work things out so that you could stay in the community? If so, what would that support look like?

Like Daughter, Like Dad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here was the tribute I gave Tony:


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





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