Laird's Blog

Gnostic Imaging

I was at St Luke's Hospital yesterday for my monthly check-up with my oncologist. When I stepped up to registration (so I could get outfitted with one of those nifty plastic wrist bands that help staff make sure I'm the right "Laird Schaub"), I was surprised to see a display of full-color tri-folds on the counter that advertised "Gnostic Imaging." 

Say what? They've got CT scans for detecting esoteric, spiritual knowledge? What will they think of next! It's one thing, I thought, for a hospital to be on the cutting edge of medical research; it's all together something else to be dancing with the Wu Li masters. And I was very curious how that intersected with treating cancer.

For a minute or two, my mind started flowing in all manner of creative directions, trying to make sense of what I'd seen. Then I adjusted my stance and discovered that a box a facial tissues had been obscuring the left-hand margin of the flyer, which actually read, "Diagnostic Imaging." Oh. My bad.
• • •But then again, what if I had read it right the first time? Wouldn't that be an interesting East-meets-West kind of Hippocractic amalgamation? And why not on the cancer ward—where the veil between this life and whatever is next tends to thin out precipitously. Who's to say what kind of knowledge is most needed when one is close to transition?

Further, why not offer one-stop shopping for all your medical inquiries? For the most part modalities come in their own boxes (or edifices, in the case of hospitals) and don't tend to play well with others. Western medicine here; Chinese medicine there; Ayurvedic in this corner; Ayahuasca in that corner; over the counter on this side; over the rainbow on the other side; snake handlers in the sub-basement; and bats in the belfry.

It's not just what science or your spirit guide tells you should have the inside track on our attention: it's what you have faith in. And that's a highly personal decision. 

What I know—having lived through being close to death 28 months ago when my cancer was first diagnosed (and imaged at St Luke's, thank you)—is that a positive attitude and a strong support network make a difference. While those intangible factors are not definitive (optimists die, too, after all), my oncologist in Duluth and my hematologist at Mayo Clinic (who are both all in on Western medicine), freely acknowledge that attitude impacts outcomes for reasons that defy quantification. 

Hmm. Maybe there are no accidents. Maybe St Luke's should be offering gnostic counseling, offering a menu of medical approaches, rather than one-size-fits-all. They could think of it as hedging their bets, catering to the patient's proclivities, rather than trying to direct them. Just a thought.

Isn't it amusing what kind of insights can be triggered by standing in just the wrong place at the right time? Life tends to be a lot more interesting if you're paying attention.

Facilitating Outliers

As a professional facilitator one of my most difficult tasks is working with individuals who are out of step with the rest of the group and feel strongly about the validity of their views.

Even though I do my best to make sure that everyone is heard, when there is little to no resonance with the outlier's views it is depressingly common for them to claim that I have been biased in how I facilitated the conversation—that if I hadn't skewed things there would have been more support for their ideas. (Actually their thinking proceeds in reverse: the fact that the group didn't respond well to their thinking is evidence, in their eyes, that I must have skewed things, because that's a more palatable explanation then that the group heard what they had to say and the earth didn't move.)

While I try to be careful to make sure that outliers have been heard (by giving back a summary of what they said until they report that I got it), a complicating factor is that I'm an active facilitator, who will rein in repetition, redirect off-topic comments, and name any disturbance in The Force. Commonly enough outliers have had a lifetime to perfect their craft and they don't particularly appreciate my cramping their style (for example, by limiting their opportunity to repeat their views, or by not allowing them to hijack the topic on the table to flog their agenda). They will conflate my active management of the conversation with my being biased. When they are the main ones acting out, it may look like I'm picking on them. Never mind that I told them up front how I would facilitate and got their explicit buy-in to do so. 

[Caution: This pattern does not obtain with all who find themselves in a minority position: I am only describing the dynamics when it does.]

Because we're talking about humans, it's typically more attractive to blame others for what's not working than to look in the mirror. So it's not surprising that it plays out this way—yet awareness of the pattern doesn't make it any more fun being the object of the outlier's frustration. 

Another way this plays out for the outlier is this: I've been acting this way consistently and I never got push back about my behavior until you (Laird) showed up. Because you are the different element, the problem is you. You can follow how they got there, but this simplistic analysis neglects to take into account how group members may have been cowed by the outlier's behavior, to the point that they're reluctant to voice objections—either about their views or their delivery. Many people in cooperative groups are conflict averse and will choose to suffer in silence rather than risk being in the outlier's crosshairs. I'm not saying this is a good thing, but it happens.

Ironically, I could be the outlier's best friend in being heard—precisely because I'm neutral on the issues and see it as my job to make sure that everyone's views are being taken into account. This tends to be of little solace, however, when the outlier's perspective is not persuasive. When I summarize responses and the preponderance of opinion slants away from the outlier's position, the outlier may question the validity of my summary—rather than to reflect on what they may have missed in their analysis.

In the extreme, the outlier may know ahead of time that their position on a key issue is not widely shared and will strategically choose to skip the meeting at which that issue is discussed and then weigh in after the fact, expecting their late input to be honored—even though they have completely sidestepped the concomitant responsibility to listen respectfully to the views of others. Essentially they want their views taken seriously but haven't extended the same courtesy to others. This goes over about as well as a turd in the punch bowl.

As a facilitator, I'm caught among a handful of imperatives: a) protecting everyone's right to be heard on the topic at hand; b) calling people on their behavior when it's out of alignment with the group's process agreements; c) naming what's happening, even when it's painful or awkward; and d) trying to see that no one feels isolated, even when no one else agrees with their position. If the outlier takes the view that calling them on coloring outside the lines is a personal attack and will only accept agreement as evidence of support, it can be damn near impossible to deliver on all four imperatives.

Unfortunately, an outlier with their heels dug in comes across as someone who is both holding the group back and doing so in pursuit of a personal agenda. A double whammy. That is, they are not generally perceived as having the group's best interest at heart—which may or not be the case. It is a common error in logic for people (independent of whether they are in the majority or alone in their perspective) to think: I know that I'm thinking of what's best for the group; therefore those who think differently may be doing so for suspect reasons. What's missing here is that reasonable people can disagree about what's best for the group. In fact, in my experience, it's rare that people don't have a way to tie their views to common values. Typically, they have an novel way of interpreting common values, or may be emphasizing one at the expense of another, but there's almost always some legitimacy to their position.

I have often pondered what this might look like from the outlier's point of view. It amazes me how commonly outliers come across as unshakable in the worthiness of their position—even in the face of overwhelming evidence that no one (or very few) are persuaded by their thinking. How does that work? Do they really believe that they alone can see the truth? That everyone else is shallow in their thinking or misguided in their analysis? While it's a possibility, I have rarely seen it play out that way. It's much more likely that the outlier is off about something than that everyone else is, yet it doesn't appear that that even occurs to them as a possibility, and that seems off. How can you agree that the best interests of the group is paramount and not consider that possibility (even to the point of feeling threatened or disrespected when I suggest it)?

I know If have to speak up about what I see (I can't let the threat of awkwardness stop me from doing my job), yet I'm still working to find better ways for that to land well with outliers. It's a tough nut.

Ramping Up in Duluth

Last weekend Susan and I got an invitation to visit Bob and Lois, retired UMD professionals who live along the North Shore, overlooking Lake Superior. At a recent party Lois casually revealed that they had ramps on their property and Susan's ears pricked up. 

Ramps are wild leeks that possess a semi-mythical reputation among foodie wildcrafters. While, for some reason, they are particularly associated with West Virginia, their range is fairly extensive: all over the Eastern US and the Midwest. Part of the appeal is that their season is remarkably short—like that of morels. You have about 10-14 days to harvest them at peak flavor and minimal woodiness. Plus you have to know where to find them. 
Susan and I wasted no time in setting up a date to journey up to Bob & Lois' (with bucket, shovel, and gloves in the back seat) to see what we could harvest, not knowing what we'd find. After a delightful drive along the shore of Lake Superior en route, we pulled into their driveway and were pleasantly surprised when Bob revealed that every green thing we could see on the forest floor behind their house was a ramp. Yikes! We'd hit a gold mine. 

Here's a fair image of what we found in situ:

We'd arrived worried about the possibility of taking too much of a precious resource (greedy gourmands that we are), only to discover it was like a weed at their location—take as much as you want.
In no time at all we'd harvest three clumps, which yielded about six cups of cleaned product—more than enough for a delicious pot of ramp-potato soup. Yum. As an adult I've come to love the challenge of eating your zip code, and this ramp discovery nurtured my values as well as my palate. A perfect fit.

Though the cleaning took far longer than the harvesting, it was worth it. Next year we'll go for more. And no, we're not going to give you Bob & Lois' last name or the address where they live. Find your own gold mine.

Power and Love

Saturday morning Susan and I arose early (no small thing on a weekend, when sleeping in is a treasured option) to catch the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Aside from the breathtaking pageantry on a gorgeous day in jolly old England—labeled "crackers" by a British commentator, whatever that is—and an incredible array of hats (a milliner's wet dream), I was impressed by the homily delivered by Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. He's based in the US but crossed the pond for the chance at 16 minutes at the lectern in front of the British royals, the BBC, and all three major American television networks. (Though apparently he'd only been offered five minutes, he seized the time, and made the most of it.)

In an impassioned delivery, Curry's spoke about the power of love—certainly a topical theme for a wedding. While Curry made the case for how anything is possible if we trust in love, I was struck by how Adam Kahane harnessed the same horses to plow a different field in Collaborating with the Enemy, a book I read earlier in the week. While I was favorably impressed by Curry's admonitions about how powerful love can be in a marriage, I want to focus this essay on Kahane's work about the marriage of power and love.

Jacob Corvidae, a friend of mine who used to live at Dancing Rabbit (and currently resides in Boulder CO, where he works with Kahane) recommended the book. Kahane's work has special appeal for me because we both work with groups, trying to help them help them solve problems collaboratively—without asking anyone to shift their core values or alter their personality.

—Setting Kahane's Table
To better understand Kahane's concepts, here are his definitions for three key terms:

o  Power (per theologian Paul Tillich): the drive of everything living to realize itself.

o  Love (also per Tillich): the drive toward the unity of the separated.

o  Holon (per Arthur Koestler): something that is simultaneously a whole and a part.  

While "holon" is a new term for me and I define "power" differently (I think of it as influence: the ability to get others to agree with something or to do something), I want to present Kahane's thinking in his terms. [The italicized segments that follow are quoted from the book.]

Kahane contends that every person and group possesses both of these drives—power and love—and that it is always a mistake (unbalanced) to employ only one. Per Martin Luther King, Jr, "Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic."
 With respect to group dynamics, Kahane believes that effective collaboration requires three kinds of stretches, all of which challenge conventional wisdom:

—The First Stretch: to Embrace Conflict and Connection
His foundational idea is that there is more than one whole. Having worked in the field of group dynamics for three decades I agree with him. It is sobering how much trouble I have getting people unstuck because of their belief that there is a single whole (a single reality) which they are aligned with and which those in opposition to them are not. (Why move toward others when you are closer to the truth?) Commonly enough, both sides of a disagreement have a similar idea about their being only a single whole and each feels righteous about their perspective being the one that's correct. Effectively, neither side is motivated to work with the views of others, resulting in a stalemate.

Things can proceed much more fluidly if you accept the notion that there are multiple wholes. You have one, and those who see the same situation differently have another. The more wholes you can include in  your awareness, the better chance you have to build robust responses (ones without holes).
 Kahane further believes that in complex situations that are not amenable to imposed solutions, we need to be able to both fight and talk; to both assert and engage. The key to being able to work with multiple wholes is being able to work with both power and love.

This challenges my thinking that fighting is antithetical to collaboration. While I have always been in favor of not ducking hard issues and of getting disagreements out in the open—and I am fully aware of the constructive potential of conflict—I have mostly experienced fighting as destructive, rather than a sign that someone has reached the limits of how far they can stretch to include another's whole. 

To be clear, Kahane's claim is nuanced. The use of power can be a constructive element to the extent that assertion is generative. Once you encounter resistance, continued pressing slides into being destructive and is no longer healthy. Going the other way, the generative side of love of engagement. But once it starts to engender capitulation, is crosses into the anaerobic breeding ground of manipulation. Kahane makes the case that fighting and talking are the two complementary poles of collaboration, and that going to too far toward either is ineffective. You need both.

Further, it's important to differentiate between problems that can be solved, and polarities that cannot be solved but only managed.
—The Second Stretch: to Experiment a Way Forward
Kahane describes four ways of talking and listening:

a) DownloadingHere I listen from within myself and my story. I am deaf to other stories; I hear only what confirms my own story ("I knew that already"). The talking associated with downloading is telling: I say what I always say, because I think that my story is either the only true one or the only one that is safe or polite to tell. I assert that there is only one whole (for example, one objective or team or strategy) and ignore or suppress others. Downloading is the typical behavior of experts, fundamentalists, dictators, and people who are arrogant, angry, or afraid.

b) Debating
Here I listen from the outside, factually and objectively, like a judge in a debate or a courtroom ("This is correct and that is incorrect"). The talking associated with debating is a clash of ideas: each person says what he or she thinks, and some ideas and people win and others lose. This mode is more open than downloading because people are now expressing their different views and are aware that these are their views and not the truth ("In my opinion… ").  

c) Dialoging
Here I listen to others as if from inside them, empathetically and subjectively ("I hear where you are coming from"). The talking associated with dialoging is self-reflective ("In my experience… "). This mode opens up new possibilities because now we are working with multiple living holons, each expressing its power and love.
d) Presencing
Here I listen not from within myself or another, paying attention just to one specific idea or person, but from the larger system ("What I am noticing here and now is… "). When I am in a group that is presencing, it is as if the boundaries between people have disappeared, so that when one person talks, he or she is articulating something for the whole group or system, and when I listen, it is as if to the whole group or system. 

All four of these modes are legitimate and useful. It's not that we need to employ only one mode, but rather that we need to be able to move fluently and fluidly among them. 

According to organizational theorist Karl Weick: People find their way forward not necessarily because they have a good map or plan. Instead it is because they "begin to act, they generate tangible outcomes in some context, and this helps them discover what is occurring, what needs to be explained, and what should be done next." They don't need to have a clear vision or goal; they only need to have some shared sense of the challenge or problematic situation they are trying to overcome. Collaborative teams typically make progress not be carefully executing an excellent plan to achieve agreed objectives, but by acting and learning from this acting. 

—The Third Stretch: to Step into the Game 
We have to take action; not just watch and wait for the perfect moment when all stars are aligned. The way I frame this concept is that there will be times when you need to commit your weight forward without knowing where the ground is, trusting that firm footing will appear where you need it when your foot comes down.

The question about collaborating that I am asked most frequently is, "How can we get them to… ?" But in non-hierarchical, non-controlled collaboration, you cannot get anyone to do anything. We blame and "enemyfy" others, both to defend and define ourselves. We see ourselves self-centeredly as the protagonist at the center of the drama of what is going on around us, so when we experience a challenge, we react as if it is a personal attack against which we must defend ourselves. We are frightened of being hurt, so we separate and shield ourselves by asserting that we are right and others are wrong. We fear that if we collaborate with those others, we will become contaminated or compromised—that we will betray what we stand for and who we are.

The problem with "enemyfying" is not that we never have enemies: we often face people and situations that present us with difficulties and dangers. Moreover, any effort we make to effect change in the world will create discomfort, resistance, and opposition. The real problem with "enemyfying" is that it distracts and unbalances us. We cannot avoid others whom we find challenging, so we need to focus simply on deciding, given these challenges, what we ourselves will do next.

If you're not part of the problem, the can't be part of the solution. Playing it safe (staying above the fray) is not good enough.

Self-centeredness means that we arrogantly overestimate the correctness and value of our own perspectives and actions, and we underestimate those of others. This impedes collaboration because it distorts our understanding of the situation we are in and what we need to do, and it creates conflicts with the others we are discounting.

The essence of the third stretch is assuming responsibility for the role that we ourselves are playing in the situation we are trying to change, and therefore for what we need to do differently in order for the situation to change. This stretch is challenging because it requires us to take the risk of engaging fully in the situation and so being changed or hurt by it. It requires us to be willing to sacrifice some of what feels known, familiar, comfortable, and safe. "In a ham omelet," the quip goes, "the chicken is involved but the pig is committed." Stretch collaboration requires us to be pigs rather than merely chickens.

When we notice ourselves blaming others—focusing on what they are doing and what we hope or demand that they do differently—we need to bring our attention back to what we ourselves are doing and what we need to do differently. Sometimes what we need to do is to try to influence others—but now we are taking responsibility for, and willing to change, our part in the situation that we are all part of. Whenever we find ourselves distracted by others, we need to come back to the simple question, what must we do next? 
• • •So how does this map onto my understanding of group dynamics? Seen through the lens of Robert Moore's seminal on male archetypes, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, I have struggled over the entirety of my adult life with a tendency to be too often the Warrior (who is overly fond of assertion) and not enough the Lover (who extends empathy). Now Kahane invites me to see the collaborative potential when the Warrior and Lover are balanced in one body. This shift in my thinking is both liberating and enlightening.

I am also aligned with the concept of letting go of control and working with what emerges. Skilled facilitation, I've discovered over my career, is not so much about about steering and delivering solutions, as it is about: 

• Creating a resilient container (stout enough to hold the energy and safe enough that vulnerability blossoms);

• Asking the right questions;

• Bringing your whole self to the task;

• Paying attention to what's happening; and

• Articulating what the group reveals about itself. 

It's an art form.

When Committees Are Authorized to Make Decisions

One of the key challenges for groups of 20+ members working with consensus is how to effectively delegate. If you retain all decision-making in the plenary it invariably leads to a bottleneck—on the one hand there are too many plenaries and they last too long; on the other, committees are almost certainly underutilized (and probably demoralized by being expected to content themselves doing only scut work in service to the plenary).

[In this essay, "committee" is any subgroup of the whole, including a manager, who acts on behalf of the whole.]

In groups of 20 or more I strongly advocate that plenaries concentrate their attention on whole group concerns (such as interpreting common values as they apply to an issue, setting the annual budget, or defining member rights and responsibilities) and delegate to committees decision-making authority on all details that drop below the need for whole group deliberation. That said, stating theory is much easier than setting it up and having it go smoothly. There are challenges to getting delegation to work as elegantly as you can draw it up in a multicolored organizational diagram.

I was spurred to write about this issue (the underbelly of delegation) by a conversation I had recently at a community struggling with the question of what constituted fair notice of meetings at which decisions might be made that impacted everyone. The problem was that the group was committed to two core principles that weren't necessarily playing well together: a) transparency and the opportunity for people not on the committee to offer relevant input; and b) committees having a clear pathway to get their work done without being hamstrung by late input or complaints after the fact. What is the balance point between due process and efficiency?

Here are my thoughts about a checklist that consensus groups could use in assessing whether the committee is on solid ground or quicksand when exercising decision-making authority on behalf of the whole:

1. Is the committee coloring inside the lines?
Is it clear that the committee has the authority to make the decision? If there is any question about this it will generally go better if the committee pauses to get its mandate clarified before proceeding. Even with the best of intentions, wording can be exposed as ambiguous in particular situations and it will go better if you're asking for permission than forgiveness.

2. Adequate notification
•  Develop a protocol for how committee reports are organized, such that notification of work on pending issues is listed up front—perhaps in the subject line or the opening paragraph. The standard for notification should be blessed by the plenary, and it should specify how far in advance of the meeting the notice needs to be posted.

• If the committee thinks that there might be controversy or strong interest in the issue from members not on the committee, then it can use HOT TOPIC in the subject line, or some other attention getter that everyone understands. If they think that the issue is hot enough, they might even set up a special meeting with the expectation that it will be an all skate.

• If the person with input cannot attend the committee meeting at which the topic will be addressed, they can send comments electronically, or meet privately with a committee member ahead of time to convey their views. Note: It can be important that all group members understand this informal option (rather than complain later about being disenfranchised).

• Is email notice alone satisfactory? If there are members who don't read email, maybe you also need to post a notice on a bulletin board or stuff notices in mailboxes… or maybe something involving carrier pigeons. In this day of expanding media options it behooves the plenary to spell out "adequate" in unambiguous terms.

3. When email isn't the right medium
Email is good for posting notices; less good for discussing issues, and downright bad for expressing or processing upset. Although I'm laying this out as if it's a done deal that email will be the primary mode of communication, I think if any party—on the committee or not—finds that email (or Tweets or Facebook) isn't working for them that they should be able to request moving to face-to-face communication and that that will be honored. Putting this one agreement in place will alone cut down on all manner of mischief, miscommunication, and unhelpful teapot tempests.

4. When input arrives late
While the committee is expected to work respectfully with input from all group members (not just members of the committee) that arrives in a timely manner, group members are expected to respect that it's unreasonable (and possibly disrespectful) to submit input after the deadline and expect the committee to back up. Committees may be smart to reconsider their thinking in light of late input, but they shouldn't be obliged to.

5. When the committee feels a disturbance in The Force
If the committee suspects that there may be more input than they've heard or that feathers may otherwise be ruffled, it may purposefully chose to proceed more cautiously than authorized. For example, the committee might post its decision as tentative and allow a comment period (two weeks?) before going to final, even though it has the plenary-blessed imprimatur to do so immediately. I'm not saying that they have to; I'm saying it may be prudent.

6. When criticism surfaces after the decision has been made
Perhaps a member is unhappy with the decision and believes some crucial piece of information may have been missed. They speak up to encourage the committee to reconsider the matter. While the member has the right to do this, it is linked to the responsibility to inform themselves of the committee's thinking (as captured in the minutes) to see if their concerns were already taken into account. Going the other way, it's the committee's responsibility to see that the minutes are good enough to accomplish this.

Alternately, a member may speak up because they feel the impact on the group has not been adequately thought through. Instead of new information they may have a markedly different take on the decision's consequences.

These possibilities lead us to:

7. When to reconsiderIn wrestling with whether to revisit a decision, I think the standard should be if any of the following conditions obtain:

•  Did the committee fail to follow the group's process agreements in reaching its decision?

•  Is there sufficient new information to justify a revisit? This is a judgment call. We never have all the information and there is always discernment about when there is enough in hand (about which you have reasonable confidence in its quality) to proceed.

•  Did the announcement of the decision trigger sufficient anguish and gnashing of teeth that it will likely affect implementation if unaddressed?

If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," then it's adequate grounds to reconsider. Otherwise, play on.

8. What if the committee is done and the energy is still unsettled?
While this hopefully is a rare occurrence (where reconsideration is requested and the committee declines), I think there should be another body (perhaps Steering or Oversight, if you have either of these animals in your committee bestiary) designated to step in and call for a meeting anyway—probably a plenary—to address the tensions and effect a return to laminar flow.
• • •What I've tried to offer in this essay is a framework for troubleshooting problems in effective delegating. That said, more will hinge on an abundance of good will and the sense of everyone pulling on the oars together, than on the creation of airtight agreements. In my experience, energy issues are not solved well by structural responses—it's like trying to turn a nut with a screwdriver.

If people with concerns don't trust that they'll be heard, they'll be much more disposed to whining and monkey wrenching. However, if people feel they're input is welcome, then much of this will be sorted out through common sense and informal conversations over a cup of coffee or a beer.

The Fog Bank of Silence

One of my hardest things to navigate as an administrator, facilitator, and cooperative leader is lack of a response. It can mean so many things. Let me count the ways…

—Maybe they didn't get the email (or phone message) and I didn't receive a bounce.

—Maybe I sent the message to a wrong, but valid, email address, and the recipient ignored it.

—Maybe they're thinking about their response and just aren't ready yet.

—Maybe they're upset with me (or what I said) and are delaying their response until they're less reactive.

—Maybe they need to coordinate their response with others and are awaiting word from them.

—Maybe they're too busy with other things to have moved my communication to the top of their queue.

—Maybe they're confused by my communication and are unsure how to proceed (or are wondering if a response is even needed).

—Maybe they don't know what they think, and are stalled out figuring out how to proceed.

—Maybe they're on vacation and enjoying an electronic moratorium (unknown to me).

—Maybe there's a crisis in their lives and everything non-essential has been placed on hold until that's dealt with.

—Maybe the person feels that responding to me isn't worth their time.

—Maybe they're teaching me a lesson by purposefully making me wait. (I know this is pretty funky—not to mention passive aggressive—but I've had it happen.)

—Maybe their computer, router, or internet service is on the fritz. If any link is broken the message will fail.

—Maybe my message got inadvertently shunted into the spam folder and was never seen (even though it was received).

While I doubt this covers all eventualities, it's enough to make my main point: if your start guessing about the meaning of silence, there's an excellent chance to get it wrong. It's better, I think, that you don't peer into your crystal ball, and just admit you don't know.

As if this isn't messy enough, in my case complications are compounded by a tendency to take my eyes off something once the ball is in the other person's court. Thus, it typically takes me a while to catch on that I haven't received a response I was expecting, and to send a follow up note.

While I ask people to at least acknowledge receipt of a communication if they aren't going to respond in a timely manner (48 hours?) that has proven to be a difficult request to comply with if people are not already in the habit. As you might imagine, I sometimes have to breathe through some irritation when people expect me to write twice (or even three times) before they write once, but such is life. If I want a response badly enough I exhale and write again, typically under the header: gentle nudge (even when I'd prefer to use a baseball bat to get their attention).

Without question, parting the fog of silence can be an exercise in patience and diligence—all the more so when you aren't being met halfway and the recipient is oblivious to the inconvenince their non-response is causing.

Surely you aren't subjecting others to that, right?

Email Headers as Navigation Buoys

We're all trying to survive in an environment of information glut, and some of us are drowning.

Just last week I had a student in one of my facilitation trainings explain that he missed seeing the course handouts (that had been distributed two weeks prior to our getting together) because he gets too much email to track it all. He needed a text message alerting him that an important email had been sent. Yikes! 

Essentially, he wanted me to communicate with him twice (via two different media) so that he could avoid being responsible for looking at everything that came in every morning on the flood tide swamping his In Box. While I'm sensitive to how spam chokes our email, burying the wheat in a surfeit of chaff, I didn't have a great reaction to the request that I do more work so that he could do less. (Who's zooming who?)

Given that it's highly unlikely that we'll put the genie back in the bottle (do with fewer or less robust modes of communication), we have to figure out better ways to cope with information overload. If you are part of a group that relies heavily on email to communicate (many of us are), I suggest adopting a protocol whereby group members classify in the subject line the kind of communication that is being sent. I recommend using ALL CAPS in the following ways:

RSVPUse this when you want a timely response from recipients. Usually this is accompanied by a drop dead date, such that your approval is assumed if there is no reply by the deadline, or you have no preference. If you respond late there is no guarantee that your input will be taken into account. This is used mainly to coordinate (as in setting up meeting times), to gather input in a routine manner, or to run drafts by people that you expect to be noncontroversial.

This lets people know that a meeting is coming up at which a decision might be made. If you want to have your input on this matter considered, attend the meeting. Or let the shepherds know your views ahead of time if you can't attend. 

If that header is too dry (who said we can't have fun?), how about LAST TRAIN, to inform everyone that this is their final chance to have input considered before the train leaves the station and the decision is likely to be made. If you submit views later than that, it's less likely to be taken into account, because the bar for reconsideration is necessarily higher than the bar for consideration.

This alerts readers to the fact that an issue is about to be discussed about which there is known to be some energy. Either there is already a fire, or there is plenty of smoke. So wear fire retardant clothing.

Hear ye, hear ye. This announces that an agreement has been reached and there is now a new sheriff in town—by which I mean a new policy or a fresh agreement. Maybe you'd prefer DONE.

This announces the record of what happened at a meeting. The minutes are where you'll find the rationale behind the decision, which may be important in discerning whether you have anything new to offer (if it's already been taken into account maybe you needn't speak up).

To be used for personnel notes, or delicate negotiations where recipients are not permitted to share the contents without express permission. Perhaps you'd enjoy SHHH instead.

No action or response is required. The content is informational. If time is tight, these are the emails to skip or jettison.
• • •While these categories won't cover everything, they can provide a rational basis for a quick prioritization without even opening the email, providing only that the communication has been classified correctly. And when time is tight, you'll appreciate having access to a tool that can serve as a personal flotation device to help navigate the deluge.

Group Works: Opening and Welcome

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

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

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

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

In the Flow segment there are 15 cards. The seventh pattern in this category is labeled Opening and Welcome. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card:  
The beginning sets the tone. Start intentionally, in a manner that invites group members to connect with one another, enter their voice into the circle, and participate as their authentic selves. Attend to building enthusiasm, focus, and commitment for the work to come.

I think the best openings meet two disparate needs. 

First, to create a clear marker that informal social time has ended and meeting time has begun, during which there are distinctly different behavioral norms in play. In my experience more than a few groups don't establish explicit expectations around this, which results in all manner of mischief, such as:

• People drifting in after the scheduled start time.
• Side conversations tolerated during the meeting.
• Participants failing to set aside their personal chapeaus, to hold as paramount what's best for the whole.
• Authorizing the facilitator to run the meeting (giving them the power to rein in inappropriate behavior).
• Allowing upset to kill topics (not knowing what to do, they abandon ship).

Second, to set the stage for the kind of work anticipated, which is what the text for the card speaks to. It's important to understand though, that "authentic, inclusive, and connected"—while excellent objectives—can look like different things in different contexts, and selecting an effective opening is far subtler than mere cheerleading, or getting everyone to sing Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.

Meetings, you see, come in more flavors than Baskin & Robbins has ice cream. Let me toss out a few examples to flesh out my point. Sometimes…

o  You have a tough problem to solve (a proposal to put solar panels on the Common House roof aligns well with the group's commitment to being green, yet the increase in dues to fund the project lands crosswise with the commitment to being affordable).

o  The group will need to do heart work rather than head work (perhaps you just lost a founding member who put more than 20 years of body and soul into building and maintaining the community).

o  You need a combination of the two (some want to invite area neighbors to use the Common House as a meeting spot—there are a lot of nights it's not used at all; others are concerned that an increase in stranger traffic on campus will undercut safety and lead to more vandalism—but they're not sure that this concern will be taken seriously).

o  It's time for a celebration (we finally finished construction of the swimming pool that the group has been discussing and planning for five years; let's have a pool party with margaritas on the deck!).

o  The heavy lifting entails evaluating a key committee (we've got four empty houses and no prospects in the pipeline; what is the Membership Committee doing?).

o  You need to referee a sore spot (Ms Peacock is ready to brain her next-door neighbor, Prof Plum, who encourages his dog to howl at the full moon every month, and rebuffs her request to end this earsplitting ritual so that she can get some sleep).

o  You need to peer into the crystal ball long enough to craft a five-year strategic plan.

All of these meetings will be set up differently (or should be), and you want an opening where both the energy and the subject are consonant with the work ahead. Thus, you'll want to tailor the opening to that meeting's agenda.

Finally, a few words of caution: 

Caveat #1: KISS
Openings generally take 3-5 minutes, sometimes less. They represent a small fraction of the meeting, and preparation for them should be kept in proportion to the time they will take. If you are going to facilitate the front end of a meeting, then you should absolutely plan an opening, and make deliberate choices about. But don't belabor it. Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Caveat #2: It's Just an Opening
All of the above notwithstanding, at the end of the day the opening is only a beginning and not to be confused with the main event. The meeting is by no means ruined if you wrong-foot the first five minutes. A good opening is helpful and worth learning how to do, yet it's not crucial to the success of the meeting. If your brilliant opening falls flat, shake yourself off and move on.

Stubbing One's Toes in the Way to High Moral Ground

Yesterday I got another chance to learn a lesson in humility (which persist in coming to me without my asking).

One of the ancillary benefits of buying high-end supplemental health insurance (to ensure coverage for the pricey chemotherapy that suppresses my cancer) is that I get a free membership in an exercise club owned by one of the local hospitals. I go there to rebuild my strength and flexibility after a debilitating winter plagued by respiratory problems. 

That meant 20 laps at a fast walk around the indoor track (a bit more than a mile), followed by 45 minutes in the sauna. (During the ages of 8-16 I spent most summers at a boys camp outside Ely MN, where we took saunas every other night in lieu of showers, and I grew to love the cleansing dry heat.)

As I was changing into sweats in the men's locker room, another man approached me from the side and waited expectantly. As it was a little tight for him to walk by me, I stood up half-dressed and moved back so that he could get by. To my astonishment, he settled into the exact place I had been and blithely started to open the locker above mine. Shaking my head, I walked around the bench to a spot nearby so that I could finish dressing. By way of acknowledgment, he mumbled that he was trying to be respectful of my space.

As I thought about it, he could hardly been have less respectful of my space. He saw me sitting on the bench changing my clothes—the very thing he wanted to do. What in the world gave him the idea that it would be OK to bump me so that he would have a more convenient location and wouldn't have to wait? Wouldn't it have been logical to suppose that I had a locker near his? At least he could have asked, instead of wordlessly standing over me, expecting me to give way. 

I was particularly struck by the contrast of how his imperious behavior was draped in the raiment of sensitivity. In short, it galled me.

I brooded over this interaction as I did laps, reflecting how much we all like to think of ourselves as aware and kind—even if others don't always experience us that way. The fact is, everyone has lapses, where absorption with self clouds our awareness of how our actions are landing with those around us, or we project onto others that they will see a situation the same way we do, without first checking out that bald assumption (and then proceed to act in a way that we intend as sensitive, yet may actually be irritating). Thus, microaggressions abound.

Aetna once did a survey of the people who were found to be at fault in auto accidents leading to an insurance claim, and were amazed to discover that 90 percent rated themselves as above-average drivers. I suspect that the same kind of self-delusion applies to unmindfulness. Almost all of of think we are more commonly the victim of it than the perpetrator.

I was still ruminating on this after completing my circuits of the track. Following a quick rinse in the shower I walked into the sauna and was pleased to find that there were only two others in there.  Sometimes there are six or more enjoying the Finnish bath (at the finish of their workout) and there are no seats on the top bench, where the therapeutic heat is strongest. No sooner had a sat down, however, than one of the men moved quickly to the door to close it all the way. Oops!
While the sauna door is mounted on a spring hinge and closes automatically, it doesn't tend to close all the way and a slight crack can spill a lot of heat. I was so engaged with my inner dialog—about the unmindful man in the locker room—that I was unmindful about entering the sauna. It only took me about 30 minutes to make the same kind of behavioral error that had so outraged me. It was my turn in the penalty box.

In addition to getting yet another chance to learn about mindfulness (in this instance seasoned lightly with the bittersweet taste of irony), I suddenly discovered sympathy for the man in the locker room that I didn't think was in me. Turning my attention to my own foibles, I was able to let go of obsessing about his. 

It occurs to me that life has been incredibly persistent about providing me with opportunities to learn about humility. It's too bad I'm such a slow learner.

Booked in Duluth

Wednesday and Friday I went into work with Susan. She's been the office manager for St Paul's Episcopal Church in Duluth since 2010, and works 8-1 every weekday.

While it's unusual for me to provide anything more than chauffeur duty when it comes to backstopping Susan's church routine, this week I was pressed into service to help organize the book donations for St Paul's annual rummage sale, which came off yesterday without a hitch, and raised over $3000. 

(We were lucky with the weather. The monster spring snowstorm that slammed into Minneapolis Saturday stayed south of us. We experienced high winds out of the northeast—there were eight foot waves on Lake Superior, large enough to entice some local nutballs to assay surfing in insulated bodysuits—but snow accumulation was modest and we had a good turnout for the sale.)

Organizing the books was an interesting job (both logistically and thematically) that ate up about 10 hours. Starting with 30 or so bags and boxes on random titles, it was my task to sort the contents by type, display them, and create signage.

While doing the same thing with used clothes, dishes, or household knickknacks—regular rummage sale staples—is just as noble in God's eye, laboring among those flea market genres would bore me to tears. Books, however, are another matter. I have a great fondness (weakness?) for them and unpacking each container was akin to opening a box of Cracker Jack to see what treasure might be inside. It was also fascinating to see what people had been reading and were willing to part with.

While everyone assisting with the sale was volunteering their time, there was one major perk: as the book organizer, I got the pick of the litter. Here are ten gems (all paperbacks) that I gleaned from the sea of donations that flooded in over the transom:
 A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Dead Wake by Erik Larson
The Coffee Trader by David LissMirror Mirror by Gregory Maguire
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi 
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
The Full Cupboard of Life by Alexander McCall Smith
Fifty-five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal by Elizabeth White• • •When I got together with Susan in 2015 we were both eligible for Medicare, and we made a mutual pact to downsize our worldly possessions—rather than leave so much dross it to our adult kids to sort through when we depart this vale of tears. While some things have been easy to cut back on (how many t-shirts does one need anyway?), books are hard for me to let go of.

Fortunately I started facing the music on my book fetish four years ago, when I took the pledge: going forward I would release more books than I captured. More precisely, this was a commitment to achieve a net deficit each year, and does not prohibit me from acquiring the occasional new title (or 10) along the way. Among other things, this meant reading the books I had already acquired (in some cases decades ago) and steering clear of the temptation of bookstore window shopping. It takes discipline.

So far, I'm succeeding. On average, I consume a book a week (it's amazing how much time you liberate for reading if you: a) don't have cable television; b) don't do Facebook; and c) travel by train), and that affords me more than enough slack to cover for my annual indulgence at the St Paul's rummage sale.

While Susan has an iPad (and therefore e-reader capacity), I tried reading a book electronically and I simply don't derive the same joie de vie. There is something viscerally pleasurable about holding paper and turning pages that an e-reader lacks. Fortunately, books are still being printed and used bookstores—though not as prevalent as they once were—are still around. We have three in Duluth and I do business with two of them.

It's a happy day when your partner asks you to help out in ways that are a joy to deliver. Everyone feels good (and I have 10 more titles to add to my diminishing horde).

April is the Cruelest Month

Yesterday I got to watch a couple hours of the first round of the Masters Golf Tournament. While I ordinarily am not drawn to watching golf, I love the history and beauty of this particular tournament—the only major that's played on the same course every year: Augusta National.

Because the tournament was not being carried on local television (it's still hockey season up here, with the Frozen Four playing in Minneapolis for the collegiate championship—BTW our local team, the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs, is in the finals again for the second year—and the Minnesota Wild have just secured a #3 seed for the upcoming NHL playoffs), I traveled with Susan to a downtown brew house (Hoops) to catch the game at the bar. While she played bridge in one room, I drank IPA on tap in another, and watched the defending champion, Sergio Garcia, melt down with a 13 on hole #15, and the unfolding drama of Tiger trying to revive his stalled career.

I also experienced an acute case of cognitive dissonance. On the television there was no mistaking the technicolor emergence of springtime in Georgia. The azaleas and dogwoods were in their full pink and white glory, and everyone was walking around in shirtsleeves. Outside, my car was parked in light snow.

This morning while fixing breakfast, I listened to NPR. A regular feature of their Friday programming includes a visit with Climatologist Mark Seeley, a University on Minnesota professor emeritus, who looked into the tea leaves and predicted below normal temperatures and above normal periods of rain and snow for the foreseeable future (which in the world of meteorology is about two weeks). I'm thinking, will the snow be totally gone by May?

I realize that the calendar says we're fully into spring, and it sure looked that way in Georgia. While the days here are definitely getting longer—just like they're supposed to—and we don't have much ice to cope with any more, no one around here is wearing shorts or tank tops just yet. Nor have any of our neighbors put away their down jackets or snow shovels. 

Down in the "warmer" southern part of the state, the Twins played their home opener in 38-degree weather yesterday. Baseball is supposed to be the game of summer, but we don't get much of that in April. A lot of locals take vacation time this month, to go somewhere warm (which is just about anywhere else), so they don't have to endure the death throes of winter. 

Sure, the sun is higher these days, but so are the expectations. April in northern Minnesota is an exercise in patience.

Cooperative Culture

My good friend María Silvia recently asked me to write about cooperative culture. As that struck me as a reasonable request, here are my thoughts...

The first thing to appreciate is that cooperation is the sociological opposite of competition. Mainstream US culture is rooted in competition—and characterized by hierarchic and adversarial dynamics. The basic notion is that a fair fight will produce the best result. Out of rigorous debate and trial by fire, the best ideas will prevail. (Never mind that the "fights" are rarely fair; that's another topic.)

Cooperative culture is a radically different approach, where you trust the wisdom of the collective as superior to that of the individual. Instead of a battle, you want to have minimal barriers to soliciting relevant input and to welcome divergent views. Rather than responding to differences with combat (We were doing fine until you spoke), in cooperative culture you try to respond with curiosity (Why does that person see this differently—maybe I'm missing something).

Here are features of cooperative culture:

• For cooperative culture to make sense, individuals need to identify with a group that is greater than themselves or their family—otherwise what are you cooperating with? And when this group gathers (to make common cause), there is an emphasis on members thinking in terms of what's best for the group—as opposed to advocating for personal preferences (and hoping that the sum of the parts will add up to a whole).

This is especially potent in decision-making. If there is a strong group affiliation then differences can be seen as a strength (because it broadens the base of ideas and perspectives to work with) instead of an occasion for a winner-take-all battle.

• The power is ultimately held by the group, not by an individual or subgroup who has agreed to play follow the leader. To be sure, it generally makes sense to delegate power to managers and subgroups, but it all flows from the whole.

• In cooperative culture it tends to matter as much how things get done as what gets done. The corollary of this is the primacy of relationships. If you're sacrificing relationships on the altar of principle (which I've tragically seen happen), you're at risk of drowning the baby in the bath water.

• There is a greater emphasis on sharing, which relieves pressure to own (how many lawnmowers does a neighborhood need, anyway; how many snowblowers; how many pickups?). This can have a profound impact on the dollars needed to achieve and sustain a quality of life. With sharing you can substitute access to things for ownership.

• Some people naively think that if you commit to living cooperatively that you can leave the strife and conflict of competitive culture behind. Sorry to say, that's not what happens. In fact, by virtue of purposefully living a life that is more intertwined with others, you'll have more occasion to experience disagreement. Thus, you need to have solid ways to work through conflict if you're going to be happy living cooperatively.
That means being able to recognize and work constructively (non-judgmentally) with emotional responses. While this is a valuable and powerful skill, it is not trivial.

• If you've gotten this far it's probably occurred to you that personal work is required to create and maintain cooperative culture. You'll need to unlearn competitive conditioning and up your game in the arena of social skills. Make no mistake about it, this is work. For a deeper treatment of what I mean, see my Nov 30, 2013 blog Gender Dynamics in Cooperative Groups.

• In cooperative culture you need people filling leadership roles just as in competitive culture, but you tend to be looking for different qualities. See my Sept 27, 2011 blog, 20 Qualities of Effective Cooperative Leadership for a delineation of these. Many cooperative groups fail to discuss what's wanted in this regard, and thereby stumble over developing a culture where (appropriate) leadership is nurtured.

• In the broader US culture, there is tremendous emphasis on the individual (in contrast with the collective). In consequence it is a psychological imperative to know how we are unique and can differentiate ourselves for others. The primary way we accomplish that is through disagreement. Thus, if someone says something that we half agree with, the first thing out of most people's mouth's is , "But… " because we have been conditioned to make clear at our first convenience how we stand out.

In cooperative culture, however, we try to start with what we like about what someone else has said (without waiving our right to state concerns later), and that has a profound impact on the container in which the discussion proceeds. In essence, we tend to find what we're looking for. If you're expecting an argument, that's what you'll find. Alternately, if you're looking for agreement, that tends to be there as well, and problem solving proceeds much differently if the initial response to ideas is supportive rather than questioning—even though both are valid.

Blocked Energy and Waging Peace

In the last year I've encountered an unusually high incidence of entrenched negativity. (Can Mercury be retrograde for an entire year?) I'm talking about people living in community who feel so badly hurt by others that they have largely given up on the situation improving. At its nastiest, this justifies being pretty harsh in return, and the damage escalates. It can get really ugly.

Essentially, I'm talking about people making war with each other.

How Did It Get This Way?
It's not that hard to imagine. Groups rarely start out with an understanding of why they will need the capacity to support members through interpersonal tensions. Nor do they tend to select for members who have that skill. Some are even naive enough to think that moving into community—an explicit attempt to live cooperatively—means that conflict will be left behind.

Not having been raised in a culture where the skills of peaceful problem solving were taught, we're often scrambling to figure out how to do it as adults—after the houses were built and moved into. As the scales fall from our eyes and we discover that we bring combative energy with us into the utopian experiment, we discover (to our dismay) that we need help working through interpersonal tensions—just like everyone else. It's humbling.

Lacking the skills needed (and perhaps not even being sure what they are) groups are often overwhelmed by the chaos of fulminating distress and paralyzed about what to do. Unfortunately, once things get beyond the ability of the protagonists to address, they rarely get better on their own. Instead, they fester and undermine the joy people meant to get out of living together.

And I'm not just talking about what the antagonists go through: it's no picnic tiptoeing around unhappy campers. There's plenty of misery to go around.

Sometimes groups don't ask for help soon enough, and hurt members (if they haven't left) get entrenched in their negativity, so steeped in it that they no longer trust in the good intent of their adversary (If they really cared about me they wouldn't be so damned stubborn) or believe that relationship repair is possible.

Preconditions for Having a Chance to Turn it Around
About half the time I'm hired to work with groups there's at least one example of a stuck dynamic where the protagonists have not been able to find their way through it and the poisonous fallout is leaking on the group.

So I encounter versions of unresolved interpersonal tensions three a penny.

What I have noticed recently, however, is a marked uptick in the frequency of people so badly hurt that they have given up on the possibility of rehabilitation. I've run into this dynamic five times in the past year—which would ordinarily be a decade's worth of heavy sledding.

People in that much pain are fighting for their community life and want their adversary vanquished (while beaming them to Mars might be their first choice, they'd be willing to accept that person (or couple) crawling into a hole and never coming out).
Even though I tell people (tongue in cheek) that I don't do hangings, I occasionally get asked to anyway (tongue not in cheek).

When it gets that bad it's much harder to bring them back. Not impossible, but harder, and I have a much lower incidence of success in effecting repair. Even when I'm successful in getting the group unstuck one or more protagonists often jump ship once I lance the festering wound.

As I've contemplated this, it's occurred to me that I have been counting on certain baseline assumptions that may not always obtain:

—A willingness to see the adversary as a person of good intent (I'm not asking that they be seen as an angel, or that you have to give up on the notion that they can be a jerk; only that they are not evil—that they fundamentally care about the group and are trying to be constructive).

—A desire for relationship repair with that person.

—A willingness to look in the mirror for ways they may have contributed (perhaps unwittingly) to how the conflict unfolded and didn't get better.

—A willingness to set aside their cynicism and despair long enough to let me guide them through an even-handed exploration of the conflict and the possibilities for reconciliation (or at least deescalation).

—An openness to the possibility that their adversary can change (probably not their personality or their core beliefs, but how they behave with you and the group).

—A willingness to suspend the belief that their adversary has purposefully acted to hurt them (thereby justifying responding in kind).

In the last year I've have come to realize that I've not been diligent about checking for these open doors; I just assumed them. Now, however, I'm learning to ask.

A Soft Landing
Some fraction of the time, I've been asked in too late‚ by which I mean the damage is so severe that repair is not possible. Essentially, the will to attempt reconciliation is not present. Of course, some reach this break point sooner than others. Some have greater tolerance for hanging out in anguish and some hold out longer sustained by hope.

Although I always begin with the idea that a bad situation can be turned around, occasionally I'm convinced by my assessment that it's not a realistic possibility in this situation. When that occurs my objective shifts from reconciliation to orchestrating a non-punitive separation. If people can no longer live together, yet still are (I won't give that so-and-so the satisfaction of my leaving), someone has to tell them.

As I help people consider exiting as a viable choice (while I appreciate how strong your dream was that community would be a better way to live, how much of that dream are you experiencing? How much fun is this being?) I have to simultaneously be vigilant that no one is heating up a pot of tar and plucking chickens in an effort to "accelerate" the departure of adversaries.

People can be incredibly vicious when they feel wronged and have given up on relationship with an adversary. Really, it's a microcosm of how nations go to war. I try to explain that not everyone can live well together and occasionally separation is the best choice. It doesn't have to be anyone's fault; it just has to be recognized as unworkable (too much effort for too little joy).

Sometimes the most valuable thing I can do is to say the hard thing. While I'm rarely loved for that, I'm hired to go into harm's way and do the best I can to be compassionate, even-handed, and fearless. It's a hell of a way to make a living. But it's a great way to wage peace.

On Being a Good Meeting Participant

A lot of my blog is focused on consensus meeting dynamics. For the most part I look at the leverage possible through skilled facilitation (which I have been describing at length for more than 10 years in this blog, and been teaching since 2003). However, good meetings are everyone's responsibility, and I want to shine the spotlight today on meeting participants—the other side of the equation. There is a lot of leverage there, too, and many groups, to their detriment, never delineate what's wanted. Following are my thoughts about that.

Meetings are Structured Space
Meetings are not informal social time. As such there are behavior expectations, which need to be spelled out, perhaps in Ground Rules, which lay out specifics (such as not repeating oneself, speaking on topic, assuming good intent). 

Another way to see this: meetings are not open mic, where you get to say whatever you want at any time. They require participants to be self-disciplined.

Strategy Choices for Getting to What's Best for the Group
Even if you agree that the ultimate objective is getting to what is best for the group (and you should), there are two significantly different ways to approach this:

a) Everyone stating their personal preference, and then having the group collectively decide what is the best way to extract a balance out of that stew.

b) Everyone screening what they say for what is good for the group (leaving aside personal preferences), so that the group need only balance ideas that have already passed that test.

The second approach works much better. In saying this I understand that not everyone is equally good at discerning the difference between personal preference and group concern, and thus the group may need to help them with that on occasion. Nobody's perfect.

Nonetheless, it can be incredibly irritating if some members are operating from paradigm b) while others are operating from a). In that case the choir is not singing from the same hymnal and the voices will not be melodic. If your group is not clear about this, talk about it and try to get on the same page.

Participant's Mantra
Here is my distillation of an internal screen that all participants could adopt in an attempt to use good judgment about when to add input. Remember: it's not about how good you look; it's about the group getting to the best decision.

What does the group need to hear from me about this topic at this time?

If you read this closely there are five chances for participants to hesitate before speaking:

a) "group"
Is this input appropriate for everyone to hear?

b) "need"
Is this input necessary (not tangential) for the conversation at hand?

c) "from me"
Has this input already been given by others? If so, why do you need to say it also?

d) "about this topic"
Is this comment germane to where we are in the conversation? (Warning: if you're free associating that's a bad sign—unless it's a brainstorm.)

e) "at this time"
Are we at the point in the consideration of this topic where your comment belongs?

Doing Your Homework
If there are handouts for topics (perhaps background material or a draft proposal) it is your responsibility to read them and think about them ahead of time. There is a large difference between coming to the meeting with an open mind (good) and an empty mind (not good). If you ask questions in plenary that were addressed in handouts that you didn't read, you are abusing the group. 

Your right to have your opinion heard is tied at the hip to your responsibility to inform yourself adequately ahead of time. They go together. If you neglect the latter you are at risk of forfeiting the former.

Communication Skills 
Living in cooperative culture takes personal work (because it requires unlearning deep conditioning in competitive ways). Here are what I believe are the essential questions, pinpointing the skills needed to function well in cooperative culture:

o How well can you articulate what you're thinking?
o How well can you articulate what you're feeling?
o How comfortable are you sharing emotionally with others?
o How well do you function well in the presence of emotional upset?
o Can you see the good intent underneath strident statements by others?
o Can you distinguish between a person's behavior being out of line and that person being "bad." 
o How accurately do you hear what others say?
o How easily can you shift perspectives to see issues from other viewpoints?
o How easily can you see ways to bridge different positions?
o Are you able to show others that you "get" them to their satisfaction?
o Can you own your own "stuff"?
o Can you reach out to others before you have been reached out to yourself?
o How well can you read non-verbal cues?
o Can you readily distinguish between process comments and content comments?
o In a meeting, how easily can you track where we are in the conversation?
o How adept are you at approaching people in ways that put them at ease?
o How well do you understand the distribution of power in cooperative groups?
o Do you have a healthy model of leadership in a cooperative group?
o How open are you to receiving critical feedback (with minimal defensiveness)?
o Can you distinguish between projection and what's actually happening in the moment?
o How well do you understand your own blind spots and emotional triggers?
o Are you as interested in understanding others as in being understood?
o How aware are you of your privilege?
o How interested are you in getting better at the above?

Looked at the other way around, if you are not interested in doing this work you are likely to be experienced be a sea anchor by the rest of the group. If you didn't know that before, know it now.

Respecting Process Agreements 
If there are Ground Rules established for how the meeting will run (there should be), honor them. Among other things, if you start operating outside the Ground Rules and are called on it, accept the redirection; don't fight it.

Facilitators are given authority to guide the meeting productively. They are not your enemy; they are the group's servant. Support their work. This does not mean that you cannot object to what they are doing if your believe they are making a poor decision, but exercise this right judiciously. Things will tend to go much better if you give them the benefit of the doubt, and talk about your concerns later (perhaps during meeting evaluation, or privately).

Understanding the Bargain You've Made
By moving into an intentional community you have purposefully chosen to live more closely with others. That entails a commitment to sharing more things with neighbors, not just within your household. The benefit of this is greater relationship (the lifeblood of community) and less need to own everything yourself. The challenge is needing to work out agreements in areas where you formerly used to be able to decide things unilaterally.

For this to work well (get more of the benefits and less of the challenges) you need to understand the bargain you've made and work to make it pay off. It won't happen by accident (and grumbling won't help).

Why You Should Always Be Paying Attention
On any given topic, you are either a stakeholder or you aren't.  If you are, then it's obvious why you should be engaged: you care about the outcome and want to have your views taken into account. It matters on the content level.

More subtly, if you aren't a stakeholder, you are perfectly positioned to protect the quality of the conversation. You can be an invaluable asset in protecting how the group does its work, helping people get past misunderstandings, and articulating bridges between positions that strong stakeholders may miss—all because you don't particularly care about the outcome. You just want resolution that works for everyone. It matters on the process level.

It is a hallmark of cooperative culture that the how matters just as much as the what. So both roles are equally valuable.

My point is that once you've accepted the draft agenda, don't zone out. Stay engaged and help the group function well.

Caution: Group Norms Are Subject to Individual Interpretation
It is relatively easy for groups to agree on certain norms, such as being respectful and honest in group communications (who in their right mind would advocate for being dishonest or disrespectful?). But those two values don't always play well together. For some, being direct is absolutely in line with being honest and respectful. For others blunt honesty can come across as a weapon and highly disrespectful. Not what?

One person thinks they've acted wholly in alignment with group norms, while another views the same behavior as an egregious violation of the same norms. What a mess!

The lesson here is not to abandon an attempt to articulate group norms as hopeless, but to understand better the limits of what that gives you. It does not eliminate ambiguity, but it does provide a solid basis for what you need to discuss when things go south. Be gentle with other.

Working Conflict Like Dreams

Earlier this year I got an out-of-the-blue insight from a student in one of my facilitation trainings. Dave Werlinger (from Elderspirirt, a cohousing community outside of Durham NC) pointed out that working with conflict is, for him, a lot like working with dreams. Huh?

I'd never heard that before.

(Part of the beauty of teaching is sometimes insights flow in the other direction—from the student to the instructor.)

Dave's contention is that interpreting dreams requires a lot of paying attention and asking questions, where it's more about setting the right container than brilliant interpretation. In his experience things rarely fall into place right away. You have to be patient and willing to follow your intuition into non-rational territory. Free association is the norm, not the exception. He feels his way into insight.

The more I sat with that approach, the more it made sense. 

Though fulminating conflict is not a large part of the landscape of most communities (thank goodness), it's present to some degree in all communities, and most struggle to handle it well. (As a frame of reference, I encounter serious unresolved conflict in about half the groups I'm asked to work with—it's that common.) Here's what I've come to understand about why that's the case:

•  Almost all of those living in community were raised in the wider, competitive culture, where differences were settled through debate (the outcome of which is determined by a majority vote), intimidation, or fiat ("Because I told you so"). We brought that competitive conditioning with us to community, and when the stakes are high we tend to respond out of that earlier experience (rather than from community values). That is, we tend to fight, flee, or give up and get cynical. 

While that generally doesn't work well in cooperative settings, it's our default mode. If groups don't grow beyond it, they get stuck, conflicts don't get resolved, and they fester, eroding the foundations of community. Yuck.

•  In the majority of groups, the model for "legitimate" collective dialog is rational thought. Without explicitly discussing it, most groups fall into running meetings in community more or less the same way they learned to run them in student council: relying on parliamentary procedure and the expectation that all input will be presented rationally (if something starts as an intuition or a feeling, you are expected to translate it into a rational thought before speaking).

•  When you break conflict down, reactivity is always an element. That is, there is a strong emotional component. What's more, you aren't going anywhere until that's been acknowledged and its meaning is understood. (Essentially, if two people in conflict are viewing the same triggering incident through significantly different realities—which is quite common—is it any wonder that it's hard to make progress on problem solving? Well-intentioned attempts at resolution tend to break down in a battle over controlling reality—where each side demands that the other accept their framework as a precondition for moving forward.)

•  There will tend to be a higher incidence of conflict in community than in the wider society, because: 

a) You are trying to do something together as a group (that's why it's called an "intentional" community), and that translates into more opportunities to encounter different viewpoints than in a random neighborhood, where you are not trying to make common cause.

b) In community you have more intertwined lives, which means there are more things you have to work out with your fellow members—the more you share, the more likely you are to encounter conflict. (Read that last phrase again—many may find it counter-intuitive.)

(Hint: the measure of a community's health is not so much the frequency of conflict, as how well you work with it when it emerges. Conflict is unavoidable. Unfortunately, many communities also avoid learning how to work with it.)

So let's look at what we have:
—Conflict requires a capacity for working emotionally.
—Few come into community with that skill.
—Groups rarely start off with a commitment to welcoming emotional input.
—Community living brings people into closer association, accelerating the incidence of conflict.

Can you see the train wreck coming?

What I like about Dave's dreamy approach is that it's non-rational (note that I didn't say "irrational"). Since it's pretty clear that trying to think your way through conflict is a flawed concept, Dave looked elsewhere for inspiration. Having learned (through dream work) to trust that a state of inquiry, openness, and non-judgment can result in connection and insight, Dave was willing to try the same thing with conflict. Go Dave!

Resting at Home

I was supposed to be in Nashville this evening.

But I'm sitting on my living room couch instead, recuperating from a nasty bout of RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) that I contracted 11 days ago, at the tail end of facilitating a retreat for Heartwood Cohousing in Bayfield CO. It used be that doctors thought RSV was a phenomenon that only affected children, but now they're changing their minds about that.

The symptoms appear similar to those of a common cold, with lots of wheezing, coughing, and general low energy. I was hospitalized for three days last week, during which I got some antibiotics and oxygen therapy. Mostly though, I just have to ride it through. 

So what's so noteworthy about a minor virus? Two things. 

First, it highlights that I'm immunocompromised, by virtue of my multiple myeloma. While I'm doing well battling my cancer, it takes it out of me and I don't have the constitution I once did. It's easier for me to catch a bug and it takes longer for me to recover. While I've tried to make adjustments (I don't work as much, nor do I agree to work more than two weekends back to back), it's not easy to know where the line is, or when I've overspent my energy budget. I'm still adjusting to the new Laird.

[As an interesting aside, my doctors think I'm probably better off traveling by train than by air, both because of pressure changes and because of the sardine-like quality to air travel, where I'm more likely to catch whatever someone else in the plane is carrying.]

Second, there is a complex calculus for me about what work I accept. Having come back from being  mortally sick two years ago (when the cancer was first discovered) questions about what to do with my life came sharply into focus. Not knowing how much time I have remaining (not that anyone ever does), or with what degree of vitality, how did I want to use it?

Given that I love what I do as a process consultant and teacher, I could think of nothing better than to use my good fortune (both in the sense that I have recovered sufficiently to be able to deliver at a high level, and in the sense that I am blessed with all the job offers I can handle) to continue to apply what I've carefully distilled from three decades in the field to help groups struggling today. After all, what did I come back for if not to be of service?
While there is no danger of running out of work, my challenge is finding the balance between helping all who ask for help, while at the same time not overtaxing my somewhat fragile body. Given that I typically make work commitments months in advance, it's pretty much a crap shoot how healthy I'll feel when that time rolls around. Sometimes, like today, I get caught out and can't answer the bell. While I hate canceling commitments, sometimes there is no choice (both Susan and my oncologist were quite firm about my canceling my trip to Music City, and that's a powerful duo to defy).

By staying home and extending my recuperation from RSV, I am protecting the chance to board a train Monday evening to facilitate a retreat in Mountain View CA the following weekend. I just have to get better by Monday, to avoid the ignominy of canceling back to back weekends.

After the California trip I'll return to Duluth for over a month, which my body will be quite thankful for. I tell you, this getting older business is not for wimps.