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Laird's Commentary on Community and Consensus
For 25+ years I’ve been a community networker & group process consultant. I believe that people today are starved for community—for a greater sense of belonging and connection—and I’ve dedicated my life to making available as widely as possible the tools and inspiration of cooperative living. I’m on the road half the time teaching groups consensus, meeting facilitation, and how to work with conflict. This blog is a collection of my observations and musings along the way.

  • Just in Time Training
    One of the initiatives of modern business management is reducing the amount of time that inventory sits idle on the shelf to the absolute minimum. Unsold inventory represent unproductive money and acts as a sea anchor on profits. While you don't want to be out of stock (many times that results in the would-be customer changing their mind about buying from you, or, heaven forbid, buying at all—not good). So there is attention paid to finding the sweet spot where you run out of something just as the last customer snarfs up the last saleable piece of that product that you have, with the next customer magically not appearing until the replacements have arrived.

    While it's a bit nerve wracking to resist reordering product before you absolutely need to, there's no doubt that profits can be enhanced if you get it right. This concept is styled just-in-time inventory management, and I was inspired to write about it because I just experienced Amtrak's version of this on a trip from St Paul to Raleigh.

    First let me set the table. I'm on the road about a third of the time—doing a mixture of consulting (out-of-town firefighting for groups with a internal hot spot they're struggling to manage on their own), facilitation training (mostly via a two-year intensive training program I pioneered in 2003 for cadres of a dozen or so at a time), or attending conferences and board meetings (I presented at the national cohousing conference in early June, will attend a board meeting of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions in Yellow Springs OH next week, and will participate in the triennial gathering of the International Communal Studies Association in Hudson NY the week after that).

    When I travel, my preference to go by train. Because I frequently work in or around Durham NC (which, for some reason is the hottest spot for community forming east of the Front Range on Colorado) I have taken this particular train itinerary many times:

    Leg One: St Paul to Chicago on train #8 (the eastbound Empire Builder). This trains originates in Seattle and is due into St Paul at 7:43 am, due into Chicago at 3:55 pm. Yesterday the Empire Builder didn't arrive in St Paul until 10:31—2 hours and 48 minutes in arrears. Uh oh.

    Leg Two: Chicago to Washington DC on train #30 (the eastbound Capitol Limited). This train originates in Chicago and was good to go for an on-time 6:40 pm departure but waited patiently to collect the folks (like me) who were frantically trying to board when the Empire Builder pulled into the station at 6:35 pm. Amazingly, everyone made the connection and we departed at 6:43 pm, only three minutes off schedule. Unfortunately we immediately coughed that up when we encountered heavy freight traffic in the mixmaster at the south end of Lake Michigan. We didn't pull into our first stop (South Bend) until 10:05 pm—56 minutes late. An inauspicious start. As the night wore on the delays increased and we didn't limp into DC until 2:49 pm—an hour and 44 minutes behind, affording us a leisurely 16 minutes to board #91 (easy peasy compared to our experience in Chicago).

    Leg Three: DC to Raleigh on train #91 (the southbound Silver Star), due into Raleigh at 9:01 pm. This choo choo originates in New York and turned out to be late arriving, so we even had time to stand around on the platform (in the oppressive humidity that is July in DC). We pulled out at 3:22 pm, 17 minutes behind. We'll see how late I get to bed tonight.

    According to the schedule there is 2.45 hours between trains in Chicago and exactly two hours between trains in DC. Two hours is the minimum that Amtrak requires in order to guarantee connections. That means that if you miss your connection they'll put you up overnight in a hotel so you can catch the same train the next day (or an earlier one if it's available). As it's a losing proposition for Amtrak to eating hotel bills, they very much want their trains to not be more than two hours late. 

    The last two days (I'm composing this blog while still aboard the Silver Star: Leg Three) Amtrak cut this as close to the bone as possible, without hemorrhaging hotel rooms. In both Chicago and DC I never made it into the station. In each case the first train arrived late, but within 20 minutes of the scheduled departure for the connecting train, which was pulled into the adjacent track. I came off one train, walked across the platform, and boarded the second train: just in time.

    While some people may experience such bang bang station minuets as exhilarating, it's excitement I'd rather do without. If I missed either train I would be struggling to get to the client before my scheduled start time: 9 am tomorrow morning. The uncertainty of my connections meant that some fraction of my mental bandwidth was given over to calculating potential ameliorations in the event that a connection was missed. While this is something I know how to do, it is not my favorite thing to dwell on.

    I'd rather look out the window, or read a book. Oddly enough, I'm reading Paul Theroux's Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, (2008), a sequel to The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), where he chronicles his observations while repeating the itinerary he took 33 years before. Reading about train travel while experiencing my own. A box within a box.

    It's one of the things that happens when I'm on the train—my connections runneth over, and there's just enough time to appreciate them.

  • Key Facilitative Skills: Distinguishing Weird from Seductive
    As a professional facilitator for more than three decades, I've had ample opportunity to observe which skills make the most difference. As a facilitation trainer the past 15 years, I've collected plenty of data about which lessons have been the most challenging for students to digest. Taken all together, I've decided to assemble a series of blog posts on the facilitation skills I consider to be both the hardest to master and the most potent for producing productive meetings. They will all bear the header Key Facilitation Skills and it's a distillation of where I believe the heavy lifting is done.
    Here are the headlines of what I'll cover in this series:

    I. Riding Two Horses: Content and Energy
    II. Working Constructively with Emotions 
    III. Managing the Obstreperous
    IV. Developing Range: Holding the Reins Only as Tightly as the Horses Require
    V. Semipermeable Membranes: Welcoming Passion While Limiting Aggression
    VI. Creating Durable Containers for Hard Conversations
    VII. Walking the Feedback Talk
    VIII. Sis Boom Bang
    IX. Projecting Curiosity in the Presence of Disagreement
    X. Distinguishing Weird (But Benign) from Seductive (Yet Dangerous)
    XI. Eliciting Proposals that Sing
    XII. Becoming Multi-tongued
    XIII. Not Leaving Product on the Table
    XIV. Sequencing Issues Productively
    XV. Trusting the Force   

    • • •
    X. Distinguishing Weird (But Benign) from Seductive (Yet Dangerous) 
    For anyone who has spent a chunk of time facilitating meetings, it's a certainty that you've experienced being thrown a curve ball or two. That is, something happens that you didn't anticipate and you need to quickly sort out where that's headed and whether you want to be there. (Semi-tongue in cheek, I tell students that the difference between a good facilitator and a great one is about 10 seconds—don't tell me later about the brilliant thing you should have done—tell about the inspired thing you actually did).

    Your ability to work fluidly (and creatively) with surprises relates directly to your comfort at working off script. While it's good to make a plan for how you think the meeting might go (and how you'd like it to go), there's truth behind the adage that people plan and the gods laugh. That is, reality bears only a casual relationship to plans and skilled facilitators need to be light on their feet, ready to go with the flow—so long as it's in service to the agenda, or the group's wishes.

    The first order of business, once the unexpected makes an appearance, is determining whether you're veering off course, or just making an unexpected stop on the way to your regularly scheduled station. Let's walk through some possibilities:

    •  It could be that the speaker has an unusual way of expressing themselves, and the group needs help translating their input into something more digestible. Perhaps English is not the speaker's first language, and they stumble over idioms, or use words ambiguously.

    •  It could be that the speaker is bringing up a perspective that wasn't on anyone's radar, but is nonetheless germane. The speaker may need the facilitator's help articulating the link between their statement and a group value.

    •  It could be something off the wall—by which I mean unhelpful to the matter at hand—yet relatively harmless. That is, everyone groks that the input is a non-starter, the statement is not being that disruptive (it may even be entertaining), and it's easier to let the person finish and move on than to attempt to redirect them. It's a judgment call.

    I bring these examples up for a couple reasons. First, they actually happen. Second, groups tend to get uneasy when they don't understand what someone is saying or why they're saying it. A decent facilitator will immediately pick up on that discomfort and may feel called to step in, to protect the herd—much as a shepherd might circle the flock upon hearing the cry of a wolf. Yet, in none of the examples I gave above would clamping down be a good choice.

    To be sure, there are times when the facilitator needs to hold the reins tightly, to keep the group on task and forward moving. But there are also times when it's better to hold the reins loosely and take a moment to discern what's happening in the larger sense before deciding whether to step in or not.

    Now let's approach this from the other angle—where the speaker's input is congruent with the group's energy (rather than confusing or disruptive) or at least able to harness it, and at the same time is inviting the group's attention to shift away from where it had been.

    This can be dangerous, as it may undercut the progress that had been made on the agreed upon topic, and the facilitator is at risk of losing control of the meeting to the silver-tongued orator. While facilitators need to be alert to disturbances in the group's energy, they also need to be mindful of cross-town buses—conveyances that explore interesting, yet off-topic subjects. The facilitator needs to be diligent about keeping the group's attention on the agreed upon topic until it's completed, or the group explicitly chooses to change topics.

    Cross-town buses can appear for a variety of reasons:

    —The speaker may spontaneously be inspired by the conversation to make an impassioned pitch for something related to the topic at hand, without realizing that they're subtly changing the topic.

    —The speaker may have felt all along that the point they're addressing is more potent than the agreed upon topic, and is happy to have the group shift its attention their way.

    —The speaker may be uncomfortable with the focus where it is and is offering a distraction to deflect the spotlight to something less awkward. Sometimes the deflection is freighted with considerable passion, the better to obscure their sleight of hand.

    Regardless of the underlying cause, however, the facilitator needs to step in as soon as it becomes evident that the topic has shifted, forcing the group to choose between returning to the topic that was abandoned, or deliberately choosing to shift to the new topic (if that's more compelling).
    • • •
    I've packaged these two somewhat tricky aspects of facilitation together because they both call for the facilitator to act against the flow. In the first instance I'm advising caution when there may be an impulse to step in. In the second, I'm suggesting the reverse—stepping in promptly even though no one is asking for intervention (or even senses that it's needed).

    For facilitators the bottom line is whether what's happening serves the group and what it agreed to discuss. If something is off, it is the facilitator's job to find the least disruptive response that will return the group to productivity.

  • Me Versus We
    Most intentional communities understand that there can be tension between what individual members want and what’s best for the group. While these two things are ordinarily meant to play well with each other, that's not always the case. In this essay I want to examine the consequences of how the group plumbs for what’s best.

    You may think it's obvious, but it isn't.

    I. The Sum of All Individual Preferences
    One method is to give everyone a turn on the soapbox to pitch their personal preferences and then attempt to find some middle position that balances all the ideas that have been floated. In this model everyone (or at least everyone with an opinion) tries to persuade others to come their way. Just as the group is comprised of its members, this approach builds on the theory that a good group solution is an amalgamation of its member's preferences.

    The argument in favor of this approach is that it's fair (everyone with an opinion is given the chance to state it) and relatively easy to gather the data (most people know their own mind, or can readily get there). On the downside this can be chaotic and potentially acrimonious (if the stakes are high and the differences are large). This kind of exploration can devolve into a tug-of-war debate and it can be a slog.

    II. The Balance of What Each Person Thinks Is Best for the Group
    A different approach is asking everyone to think about what’s best for the whole, and to put any ideas through that screen before speaking. While this may still produce different notions about how to proceed, the range will probably be narrower, and there is likely to be less personal investment—which aids in creating a collaborative environment for bridging among suggestions. So there is a double plus: a smaller gap to navigate and a better atmosphere in which to effect it.

    In this approach the conversation starts in a different place—you are only considering suggestions that one or more members consider best for the group. As a practical matter, this probably means that the suggestions that emerge here are tied in some way to an interpretation of the group's common values—as that's what defines what's best for the group. You will not necessarily get that with the first approach, which encourages members to stump for personal preferences.

    Finally, there is one more noteworthy advantage to the second approach: it encourages the group to move more toward the "we" end of the I-we spectrum, which better aligns with the group's efforts to gently (but firmly) move the group along on its way to unlearning competitive dynamics on the road to creating a robust cooperative culture. This is no small thing.
    • • •
    Why is this important? In my experience, groups rarely discuss how they will determine what's best for the group, and it can be highly confusing if the group allows both approaches at the same time. Someone following the first approach is susceptible to being labeled selfish or "not a team player" by those using the second approach, and that can lead to some raw feelings. 

    Going the other way, reliance on the second approach may come across as disingenuous or mealy-mouthed (couching personal preferences in the language of unity) to those willing to be forthright about what they want.  

    Fortunately, the solution is not that hard to come by: talk about it. (Have you noticed how often that's a foundational aspect of my advice about how to handle awkward group dynamics?) While I have a decided preference for the second approach, in the end it's more important that the group is using the same approach than that you follow my advice about which to embrace.


  • Why Critical Feedback Is Critical
    Three years ago I almost died. I was close to renal failure and didn't know it. Pain—a crucial biological feedback system—saved my life.

    Here's how it worked. Unbeknownst to me I had multiple myeloma (a blood cancer) that was producing an overabundance of plasma cells. My kidneys were working overtime to get rid of the excess and were wearing down. While I was not experiencing pain from that, it turns out that multiple myeloma also leaches calcium from the host's skeleton (a la osteoporosis). In my case that led to three collapsed vertebrae at the top of my lumbar section and I had excruciating back pain associated with that. So bad that I had trouble getting out of bed. That got me to the emergency room where the cancer and the renal crisis were discovered.

    In the social realm, critical feedback serves the same function as pain in the biological realm. Just as pain comes in a wide range of degrees of severity, so does criticism. Some pain you can safely ignore; other pain can alert you to a life-threatening condition that requires immediate attention. (As many of us experience critical feedback as painful, this analogy is not such a stretch.)

    In the social context, the important point I'm trying to make is that everyone needs honest reflections about how they're coming across to others. While you get to exercise discernment about what meaning to give that information, you can't work with what you don't have, and it is never in your best interest to put up barriers to receiving it… even though we do it all the time.

    What do I mean? There are all manner of dodges and deflections we clever humans develop to keep feedback at bay, or to discourage observers from making the attempt:

    •  Defensiveness
    •  Denial 
    •  Feigned deafness
    •  It's too embarrassing
    •  Our identity is so associated with our behavior that it's devastating to have our behavior criticized—because we translate it into "we're bad"—even though that's not what was said
    •  We attack the messenger if we don't like the message
    •  We dismiss the message because it didn't come in a respectful package
    •  Our egos are too fragile to handle criticism (we need six positives to tolerate a negative)
    •  I don't like the person who gave me the feedback and am suspicious of their motivation
    •  I don't know the person who gave me the feedback and therefore dismiss or discount the validity of their perception (how accurately could a stranger see me?)
    •  But I meant well

    Sound familiar? Sadly, all of this is just so much shooting yourself in the foot. What's more, the stronger the reaction (which tends to be the hardest feedback to hear) is the most valuable of all. Think about it. If someone likes what you did and doesn't tell you, you're likely to continue what you were doing—which isn't a problem. If, however, someone is struggling mightily with what you did and doesn't tell you, your continuing to do what you've been doing could be incendiary.

    Most of us come out of a mainstream culture that doesn't provide good models for how to do feedback well—either on the giving end or the receiving end. So we're mostly blazing trails when we move in this direction, with precious few models to guide us. While its necessary work, it tends to be awkward and clunky in the initial attempts.

    How to Make the Shift
    OK, suppose you're convinced that your group is better off consciously developing a culture in which members give one another direct honest feedback. How?

    1. Have a plenary conversation about moving in this direction—about making it a foundational part of the culture you are purposefully trying to create. You are not likely to get there accidentally. While you're at it, ask everyone what kind of support they'd like to make this easier to sustain.

    2. If you have a team whose job it is to help with interpersonal tensions, ask them to be available to help members say the hard thing if it feels too scary to do alone.

    3. You might consider setting up an evening where people practice giving and receiving critical feedback, to test drive the model before you really need it.

    4. Feedback is likely to land better if you are specific, describe how it landed for you (without attempting to ascribe motivations to the other person), and and can state what would work better for you (a request, not a demand). To the extent possible, steer clear of judgments and globalization—just give the feedback straight.

    5. Passing along critical feedback tends to work better if you negotiate the setting. Thus, you might approach the person you want to give the feedback to with, "I have something I want to discuss with you. It's about something you did that I had a reaction to. Is now a good time?"

    People have all kinds of preferences. Why not give your audience whatever will put them more at ease? Maybe they want it first in writing so they can think about it before discussing it. Maybe they prefer to hear it in the morning rather than at night. Perhaps they'd like a third party to be present.
    • • •
    Please understand that I am not saying you have to agree with the assessment or necessarily change your behavior as a consequence of hearing critical feedback. You need to exercise judgment about what weight to give the feedback.

    —Was it simply a misunderstanding?
    —Did the other person understand context?
    —What might you do to make it easier for the other person next time without altering the message you intend to convey?
    —What might you be willing to shift because you care about the other person and want to make things to go better?

    Your mantra, I believe, should be: what truth can I find in the criticism? And based on that, what am I willing to do about it? It's OK to take your time to think about it before responding. Good culture is not a race.

  • Cabin Still
    Last Saturday I did something I wasn't sure I'd ever do again—I sat on the stern plate of a canoe and propelled it around a lake. To be sure, it was a small lake, but I was paddling nonetheless and the torque of my J-stroke on my spine was painless. Whew. 

    Susan was in the bow and the experience stimulated a silent upwelling of good memories.

    Back when I was eight years old and among the youngest cohort of campers at Camp Easton for Boys (Ely MN), I was introduced to the gentle art of canoeing—something completely foreign to my upbringing in the suburbs of Chicago. I took to it right away and it's been part of my persona ever since. All together I figure I've spent about a year of my life in the back of a canoe. Not so much these days, of course, but the association persists.

    Even a brief circumnavigation of the shores of a quiet lake in northern Wisconsin was evocative. It was a highlight moment for Susan and me.

    The Long Goodbye
    Last weekend was also saying goodbye to a cabin that had been in Susan's life the last 30 years. It belongs to good friends Ray and Elsie (who live in Minneapolis) and is on the shores of Spring Lake, about 15 miles east of Spooner WI. Susan would be invited to join them at the cabin once or twice a summer and all their kids grew up sharing that experience. Since getting together with Susan three years ago the invitations have included me as well.

    Living in the north, Susan always aspired to have a cabin of her own, but her first partner, Tony, wasn't into the maintenance and it didn't happen. The next best thing, of course, is having friends with cabins and on that account Susan has fared much better. Susan has lots of friends.

    Still, Ray & Elsie's cabin is the one she's enjoyed most frequently, and the joy of our visit was somewhat undercut by the bittersweet knowledge that Ray & Elsie had accepted an offer on the property and this would be our last visit. By the end of June another Minneapolis couple will own the cabin.

    So we made the most of it, arising each morning to witness sunrise over the lake. We saw bald eagles, hawks, heron, hummingbirds, and Baltimore orioles. Although it was warm enough for mosquitoes, we were relatively protected on the screened-in porch that overlooks the lake—the perfect place to enjoy a good novel (I read two). We all took turns cooking, washing dishes, and dranking more beer than on a typical weekend.

    We brought Lucie with us and she loved being allowed to free roam in the nearby woods, and go for dips in the lake when it suited her. Her biggest challenge was sharing space with Ray & Elise's 18-month-old puppy, Polly, who invariably wanted to play more than Lucie (our grand dame at 11 years old). Even so, Lucie got plenty of exercise and slept like a log on the drive home Sunday.

    The first thing I did after unloading the car back in Duluth was take a nap. That nonstop relaxing at the cabin can really take it out of you.