I'm traveling to Durham NC where I'll be working with a cohousing community (my 61st if you're keeping score at home). I'll be using one of my favorite approaches: a four-day intensive immersion. After arriving Wed evening I'll get a good night's sleep and then begin work in earnest in the morning.
My time with the client group will divide into two distinct parts:
Segment I: Interviews
From Thursday morning through Friday afternoon I'll make myself available to meet with group members in ones, twos, and in teams. I'll ask questions, but mostly I'll listen.
They'll tell me what they think I should know about the group, or about their relationship to the group. They'll tell me what's precious about the group and what's challenging. They'll share their opinions about how we should focus the plenaries on the weekend. They'll tell me what the objectives should be for our time together.
Taken all together, I'll form opinions about how the group has lost its way and where the points of leverage lay for getting unstuck.
Segment II: Plenary Work
Everything shifts at Friday dinner. Afterwards we'll be gathering in plenary, in meetings that my partner and I will facilitate.
We'll start with my giving the group a summary of Findings: the themes I've distilled from Segment I. This, hopefully, will accomplish a number of things:
o That I have listened well.
o That I have a solid grasp of where the group stands, including a concise articulation of its issues.
o That I have a road map for how to use the weekend plenaries productively.
o That I have digested the complexities of the group dynamics and am not overwhelmed.
[Aside: This last may not seem like much, but it's common for members of intentional communities to experience what's happened in community as a singularity in their life, and it's therefore natural to project that it will be difficult (if not impossible) for an outsider to grok the sophistication of their reality in a single pass. What they often fail to take into account is that what's unique to them—living in community—is the (rarefied) air that I've been breathing for the last 40 years, and that fact is a prime reason why I was hired in the first place.]
From this starting point the weekend can unfold in a wide variety of ways but I can confidently predict that the elements will be an interwoven mix of:
—establishing heartfelt connections among members
—offering the principles of good process (generally this is slanted more toward introducing new ideas, rather than dismantling practices that are dysfunctional)
—demonstrating how to apply the principles while simultaneously tackling one or more pressing issues that the group needs to address anyway (this yields a double benefit: product on a specific issue and a workable model for how to tackle things more effectively in the future)
—laying out a sequence for tackling topics that emerged in the course of our examination but that we didn't have time to adequately address while I was on campus
Along the way I expect the energy to be up-tempo, I expect to have fun, and I expect relationships among members to be enhanced. What's not to like?
• • •
Having laid all this out, it's only fair to confess that I developed this approach because it plays to my strengths: both in intensity and spontaneity. For those who prefer a much more detailed battle plan my approach comes across as frightfully cavalier and unprepared. While I've been in this situation frequently enough over a 30-year career that I thoroughly trust my ability to "see" what needs to happen in the dynamic moment, I have peers—whose abilities I have great respect for—who would sooner go into a consulting weekend with no pants on than so little clarity about the arc of the weekend on the eve of the first interview. What I see as luxurious, they see as borderline irresponsible.
When I train facilitators I emphasize the importance of developing one's instincts—learning to trust their gut.
Nowhere is this more valuable than when working with a group that's hemorrhaging in multiple planes. Cursory prep work will reveal that there are several legitimate points of entrée and the question emerges, "Where to start?"
In a situation like this experience has taught me that all roads lead to Rome and it doesn't matter that much where we start. So my preference is to follow the juice. That is, find out where the heat and passion are most concentrated and begin there. My absolute favorite way to accomplish this is through on-site interviews.
While it doubles my time on the job (four days instead of two), I know that if I listen carefully I'll learn all I need to know about where people are stuck and what matters to them. I firmly believe that people almost always know the answers to their own problems; they just get temporarily blinded from time to time. My job is not to perform magic (pulling a rabbit out of a hat); it's to pull away the curtains that have been obscuring the answers that were always there. Think of me as a community optician—the guy who's full of options and opticals, though hopefully few illusions.
This weekend I'll be working with María Silvia from Chapel Hill. In addition to being a close friend, for the last seven months of 2015 I lived on the third floor of the house she owns with her partner, Joe Cole. I'd happily still be there today excepting I fell in love with Susan and moved to Duluth to follow my heart, about which I have no regrets. María is highly talented and it's a treat for me to mentor her in group dynamic work. (Joe, by the way, is also talented and I'll be partnering with him to offer an all-day facilitation training as a pre-conference offering at the national cohousing conference in Nashville, May 18.)
As much as María loves me—and I know she does—it drives her nuts how little I map out before arriving on site. To be sure, she knows that plans need to be adaptable in the face of emerging conditions and is not a slave to them; she just doesn't like to arrive on site with nothing up her sleeve. The irony here is that María is a passionate Latina and there is nothing she needs to learn from me about following the energy. She just needs to increase her confidence that the ground will be where she needs it be when she commits her weight forward before the ground is in sight.
It's a dance.