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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.

  • Olé
    In a few hours, Susan and I will depart Duluth for the start of a 10-day adventure on the Iberian peninsula, and we're psyched.

    This is a vacation we've been pointing toward for two years, ever since I started recovering from my stem cell transplant for treating multiple myeloma, and it looked like I'd have some extended play after experiencing very dodgy health the front half of 2016.

    Being near death helps bring life sharply into focus. Upon reflection, I liked most of what I'd been doing before cancer revealed itself in my bone marrow, but there were nonetheless a few adjustments I was determined to make, principal of which was more time spent enjoying relationships. (I also read more and am less reactive, but in this essay I want to stick with the main line: placing relationships more squarely in the center.)

    Some of that is friendships and some of that is family, both of which are scattered all over North America—after nearly 40 years of community networking and process consulting, and the diaspora pattern that characterizes the typical modern family. Thus, when I travel for work (continuing my career as an itinerant process consultant) I try to take the time to visit area friends along the edges of my time with clients—which process is made easier by having a number of clients as friends—double dipping, as it were. And now, after nearly three years in Duluth, I'm developing local relationships as well, notably in the Chester Park neighborhood where we live and among the players at the duplicate bridge club in town. 

    Yet foremost among my important relationships is the partnership I'm forging with Susan. That's the one I really want to focus on. She was there for me immediately when I stumbled sick into her home at New Year's of 2016, and almost didn't have the energy or wisdom to make it to St Luke's emergency room at the end of January, where I finally discovered how sick I was.

    For the first few months it was nip and tuck whether her relationship to me would more accurately be portrayed as hospice nurse than partner, but now that I've come back from that precipice, we have a chance to create a relationship with room to breathe and laugh and play. For two years now we have been holding onto our upcoming trip to Spain as a marker for where we wanted out relationship to go: I worked on recovering my energy and containing my cancer, and she got ready to retire as the church lady at St Paul's Episcopal, where she had been running the office since 2010.

    With both of those objectives accomplished here we are—finally ready for our first major trip together, where we both have the time and energy to enjoy it. To help contain expenses, we're participating in a loosely organized tour through Gate 1 Travel, that provides air transportation, rooms each night, breakfast each morning, a few dinners, and a few tours (think Prado, Escorial, and Gaudi architecture). The rest is free time as we explore Madrid, Toledo, Valencia, and Barcelona. We're thinking about tapas, riojas, and seafood, as well as off-season Mediterranean vistas. Yum.

    And this adventure, we hope, is just the start. We also have designs on trips to other places as energy, enthusiasm, and money intersect—Mesa Verde, Quebec, Iceland, New Orleans, and Argentina are at the top of the list. 

    It's great to be alive, and have one's consciousness focused on the wonder of it.

  • Key Facilitative Skills: Developing Range
    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 

    • • •
    Developing Range: Holding the Reins Only as Tightly as the Horses Require
    The basic theme of this essay is that group members can exhibit a rather wide range of meeting behavior and the facilitator, in the ideal, needs a range that's appropriate to span the entire gamut. Thus, when the group is operating smoothly (is engaged, listening well, and staying on topic), the facilitator can sit back and stay out of the way. Alternately, when the group is misbehaving, the facilitator needs to step in and redirect—sometimes firmly.

    Ground Rules
    This is the facilitator's license to act, and should be explicitly established at the front end of a meeting.

    Lacking authority to run the meeting, the facilitator may not be able (or even allowed) to redirect  inappropriate comments. In groups where this happens the facilitator devolves into someone whose role is diminished to deciding who will talk next—which is just a shell of what it should be.

    This is the list I usually work with when hired as an outside facilitator:

    • Emotional expression is OK; aggression is not
    • If confused about what's happening, ask
    • Raise your hand to speak
    • I'll try to call on people in the order in which they raise their hands, but may alter that based on who has not spoken recently or to follow a thread
    • Silence means assent (at least on procedural matters)
    • If the group is undecided about what to do, the facilitator will make the call
    • I'm here for everyone
    • I’ll interrupt perceived repetition

    • I'll keep people on topic
    • I'm agreement oriented
    • Assume good intent
    • Please silence all electronic devices (we don't want to be interrupted by the clever jingle on your cell phone)


    While these can be phrased differently and additional ground rules can be added (don't be shy), this set has served me well.

    From this list, I want to shine the spotlight on three in particular:

    Emotional expression is OK; aggression is not
    This is a fork in the road. Many groups never even have a conversation about what to do with emotions, much less what permission they give the facilitator to work with them. For the most part, the default position of most groups is to discourage people from expressing their feelings (treating it as a loss of control), and then hoping for the best.

    Better, I think, is anticipating that feelings are going to be in the room (whether they're expressly welcome or not), and that you're ahead of the curve to anticipate those moments. Necessarily, that means authorizing the facilitator to recognize and engage with feelings, which means, at a minimum, connecting with the person who is triggered. 

    Thus, facilitators need to be able to work accurately at an energetic level (trust me, people who are upset will be able to tell in a blink whether they are being heard or managed, and bullshit won't cut it) and that's a question of range.

    I’ll interrupt perceived repetition
    While it's usually not that hard to tell when someone is going around the mulberry bush for the second or third time, it can take some courage to interrupt the speaker to point that out. While the recipient of this feedback may be gracious about it (whew); they may instead be outraged to have been called out. (I've had plenty of unpleasant moments when the speaker did not appreciate my cutting short their repetition.) So it calls for range to be the traffic cop, knowing that you might be the object of some icy stares or barbed retorts for pulling someone over for driving too slow and holding up traffic.

    I'll keep people on topic
    This one can be tough to discern. When a speaker has an unusual way of organizing their thoughts it isn't always obvious whether they're getting to their point by first circling Pluto (in which case you need to throw them some more line) or whether Pluto is their point (in which case you need to redirect). To be sure, this is basically another version of traffic cop, writing people up for leaving the scheduled route without permission. 

    When you're aware of tendencies in the group to indulge in indiscretions, sometimes the facilitator operates with a tight rein—so there is minimal room to misbehave. In the extreme, I've seen facilitators take up half the air time, offering up a more or less constant stream of guidance about where the group stands and what kind of comments are welcome. That's going too far in the other direction.

    Taking on the persona of traffic cop (essentially being a disciplinarian) does not necessarily come easily to every facilitator and thus is another example of range.

    Voice 
    When things are going well, the facilitator needs neither a loud voice nor a big stick. Unfortunately, meetings don't always proceed in laminar flow, and there may be moments when you need to project firmness in order to maintain or reestablish control.

    Alternately, there may be times when you need to get softer to sustain a container suitable for tenderness and vulnerability. 

    Taken together, you need range to handle both.

    Pace
    In addition to volume and demeanor, it's an advantage to be aware of pace and how adjustments to it can impact the group. In general, there will be variety among group members as to the time it takes them to  absorb information, to process it, and to organize their response. (Caution: there is no correlation between how quickly a person processes and the quality of their contributions.) 

    While it's probably not a good idea to always go slowly—at the pace preferred by the slowest thinker in the group (bo-o-oring!), you also need to be mindful of the dangers of leaving people behind at the ticket window when the train pulls out of the station (Oops!). One strategy for handling this is to work complex topics in discrete chunks, which allow the folks who need more time the chance to complete chewing and swallowing all the food in their mouth before more is offered. Meanwhile, those who don't need the extra time can be doing something else.

    Further, certain kinds of engagement predictably benefit from a slower pace. For example, you'd ordinarily run a brainstorm at much faster pace than a grieving circle. A good facilitator will understand that and have the range to set a pace appropriate to the need.

    Formats and Learning Styles
    It's useful to take into account that people have decided preferences in how information is presented. Generally speaking, there are three primary styles: aural, visual, and kinesthetic. In a typical group of 20+ people all three will be present.

    For the aural, meetings comprised of folks just sitting round talking works just fine, so long as they can hear. However, if you're primary intake is visual, then it helps considerably to have key points scribed on an easel or whiteboard, or to have graphics that illuminate concepts. The style that tends to be least well served is the kinesthetic learners. Sitting for long stretches can be hard for them and thus, formats that include physical movement can make a big difference in engaging this group.

    If you want to be an inclusive facilitator your repertoire of needs to include a range of presentation and engagement styles that services all three learning types.

    Road Mapping 
    A good facilitator always knows where we are in the conversation and where we're headed (not the outcome; but the sequence by which we'll get there). The better you can see around the curve, the more productively you can align the work in the present moment to serve where you expect to go.

    Standing or Sitting
    How the facilitator positions themselves in relation to the group impacts proceedings as well as their words. Understanding the language of positioning is yet another example of range. When sitting, the facilitator is either holding the reins loosely or reinforcing a request for a slower pace (perhaps for doing heart work). When standing, the facilitator has a stronger presence and tends to command greater respect. 

    Thus, standing up will get everyone's attention—highly useful when the group needs to be reined in. Sitting down indicates that all is well, or it's time to drop down into a softer, more reflective space. Walking toward a speaker sends the wordless message that it's time to wrap up, or they otherwise have the facilitator's undivided attention—perhaps because they're in distress; perhaps because they haven't responded to a more gentle attempt at redirection.
     • • •
    Every facilitator will have a natural style—the way they'll conduct business unconsciously. The main point of this essay is that there's considerable potential for enhancing your effectiveness if you consciously develop your understanding of how adjustments to style will impact proceedings and your ability to alter your style to fit the moment.

  • Key Facilitation Skills: Managing the Obstreperous
    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 

    • • •
    Managing the Obstreperous
    Although not inevitable, it’s relatively common for groups to struggle with the patterned behavior of one or more members that most others in the group find disruptive or challenging. Maybe the person is regularly irritable (or at least uncharitable); maybe they lash out at those who disagree with them (after all, we have a President who does that); maybe they regularly leak sarcasm. Once I witnessed a group struggle with a member who had an abrupt, staccato laugh that set people on edge. Pretty much anything out of the ordinary can be experienced as "a problem."


    Let’s label the person with the triggering behavior Person X.

    Essentially you have three choices in how you respond:

    a) You can ignore them, hoping they'll go away (or at least the behavior will go away) if it doesn't get attention. 

    Depending on how much Person X cares about how others respond to them, and understands that a change in behavior might produce a better connection, this might work. Mostly though, I think this strategy hinges on a level of subtlety that Person X won't possess, and the essential trade-off is that it's acceptable to lose Person X as a contributing member of the group in exchange for relief from their difficult behavior. And they may well continue to do the thing that bothers you even after they've been marginalized, so this is an iffy approach.

    b) You can ostracize them or try to contain them—essentially putting them in the penalty box for being too weird. Maybe this means they're never picked to serve on key committees. Maybe their input is systematically ignored or undervalued. Maybe no one asks how they're doing. There is nothing in writing, but everyone knows the drill, and they're treated as a second class citizen (or maybe third class, depending on how stratified your group is).

    c) You can try to understand them, adjusting how the group responds to their behavior.
    I think the most fruitful way to think about this dynamic is as a diversity issue. How far is the group willing to go to embrace a range of styles? This is a nontrivial question that groups are often resentful having thrust upon them.

    To be clear, I am not taking a position on the answer to this question (no group can be all things to all people, and there are always limits to how far a group can stretch to embrace "other"), yet I've witnessed plenty of examples where a group has given up on Person X because it's far more comfortable to label them "the problem" and to pull a full Pontius Pilate, than to look in the mirror and do the personal work needed to expand beyond one's comfort zone to bridge to Person X with all their warts.

    As a facilitator, my default is to throw the obstreperous a life ring—rather than to shackle them with the psychic equivalent of a horse collar or an electronic ankle bracelet (pick your metaphor). If you can set aside, at least temporarily, the group's reactivity to Person X's delivery, and focus on the meaning of what they're saying, I've found there's a good chance that Person X will start to behave better—which is a good deal all around. Though I am not guaranteeing this result, I've enjoyed considerable success with this approach.
    Challenging deliveries, I think, are best understood as ill-conceived strategies for getting heard. What's more, in most instances Person X is following a lifelong pattern rather than choosing to be difficult. They're just doing what they always do. (One of the ways this breaks down is that others can't imagine that Person X is oblivious to how much the group struggles with their behavior and therefore posit that it's purposefully chosen, and then they're outraged about that, too. It can get pretty messy.)

    Thus, when the obstreperous get heard (mission accomplished), they tend to calm down and their behavior improves. If groups focus first on Person X's awkward or provocative delivery and insist on dealing with that as a precondition to working with Person X's point of view ("I'll be damned if we'll let Person X get away with that disrespectful shit") it rarely works. You push; they push back. (The applicable adage here is what you resist persists.)

    I know this sounds counterintuitive (leaning into the punch) but it's the main approach I employ in working with so-called difficult people.

    Notes Along the Way
    •  Have you defined what kind of meeting behavior you are asking from members? (It’s not particularly fair or effective to hold people accountable to norms or standards that have never been articulated.)

    •  Has a good faith effort been made to discuss with Person X what’s been difficult about their behavior?
    Note that this should include what alternate behavior is being requested.

    •  What is problematic to some may be a breath of fresh air to others—don’t assume a uniform analysis.

    •  It's sometimes useful to drill down on what exactly is being problematic. Here are some possibilities: 
     
    Is the behavior experienced as aggressive and bullying (comes across as intimidating)? Does making room for Person X mean losing others, who no longer feel safe if Person X is allowed to behave in a challenging way?

    —Is it manipulative? If the group has no agreements (or skills) in working with strong feelings then the emergence of distress can derail the conversation. If people think that's being done strategically—rather than as an honest emotional reaction—there can be hell to pay.

    —Is it indirect? If Person X injects snide comments into the conversation, perhaps through sarcasm, biting humor, or negative side conversations that are quickly disavowed if asked what's going on, it can cast a pall over the group.

    •  Does Person X care that their behavior is perceived as disruptive? You have more options for remediation available to you when they do, than when they don't.

    •  The goal is to protect the right of Person X to have their views expressed and taken into account while at the same time not allowing their behavior to get in the way of the same right being extended to others. It's not a one-way street, and sometimes you have to rub their nose in it, after you have heard what they have to say.


  • The Two Faces of Jargon
    I love working and playing with words. And while, yes, that includes doing the NYT crossword puzzle as a daily partnership ritual with Susan, it's way more than that.

    Last week I listened to someone give an impassioned plea for eschewing jargon, and it got me thinking. The speaker acknowledged that there was a place for specialized language (inside of specialties) but it was, in his view, a clear mistake to let that leak out into public where people just get confused about obscure meanings. His point—which was a good one— was that the purpose of communication was to be clear, not to obfuscate or to impress people with arcane, insider knowledge.

    But I was not willing to swallow his point whole hog. How is jargon (words with a specialty meaning) useful and how is it distancing? That's what I'm going to explore in this essay.

    While I agree that the overall context is communication and that the objective is passing along ideas and meaning as accurately as possible, we need to appreciate that everyone's understanding of "normal" vocabulary (even assuming we could define it) is not uniform, so the line between standard definitions and jargon is not quite as crisp as the speaker posits. Where does one draw the line, and why?

    Language, I believe, needs to resist change but not be immutable. It has to breathe, and cannot be a done deal. It has to be possible for new terms to become "normal" as the culture evolves. Thus, some of what starts out as jargon gets elevated to standard, and it's often difficult to tell at first what will endure and what will fade. If jargon is banished or never used, there will be no cream to rise to the top, available to be lovingly skimmed off from time to time and added to sweeten and enrich our speech.

    Consider, for example, this small batch of recent additions that are now solidly accepted (but were unheard of 35 years ago), all in the genre of emerging technology: email, social media, and tweeting.
     Here are some edgier examples: terms coming into general usage that I believe are likely candidates to become normalized (though it's probably too early to be sure):

    •  crowdfunding to describe a broad-based appeal to potential benefactors where you try to raise money from a large number of small donations, typically via an electronic platform (the prime examples of which are Indiegogo, Go Fund Me, and Kickstarter).

    •  mansplaining to describe the phenomenon where a man explains something (especially to a woman) in a condescending way in the mistaken belief that he knows more about the topic than she does.

    •  cisgender (often shortened to "cis") to indicate people who identify with the gender they were biologically born with (in contrast with transgender).

    The thing all these newer terms have in common is that they were developed to meet an emerging need. Because our culture isn't static (thank god), our vocabulary has to be protean enough to keep up. That means jargon needs to tested periodically to see if it's ready for prime time—not carefully restricted to the specialty closet or only invoked in dark corners sotto voce.

    And there's more. Consider Donald Trump, who uses a very limited vocabulary, and, in consequence, many trite phrases (for what else is left?). It's often hard to know exactly what he's saying, which is further complicated by his contradicting his staff and his disconcerting habit of disavowing a thing he says in the morning with a follow-up statement later the same day. He's pretty good at conveying a clear energy (disdain being his forte), but discerning meaning from his statements is like trying to follow a drunk home—he's all over the place. (Admittedly, in his case it's hard to tell if he values consistency at all and it's difficult to distinguish whether he's being purposefully obscure, or simply cannot communicate any better.)

    I bring him up as an example both because he's readily available and because it seems to me that he's embraced what my friend was advocating: no jargon. He speaks only in simple terms. How well is that working? 

    Generalizing from Trump, I believe limited vocabulary correlates with the incidence of hackneyed phrasing. While that may not be inevitable, it's common and it isn't a good thing. Overused phrases typically have a dull edge. They cut poorly and are imprecise at conveying meaning (just as poorly oxygenated blood has trouble invigorating cells). Going the other way, jargon is energizing (if sometimes confusing). Think of it like a pond turning over, stirring up nutrients. 

    Do all uses of jargon succeed in conveying meaning? Absolutely not. The more nuanced question is whether the incidence of failure indicates that we should never try, because everyday use of jargon sometimes confuses instead of inspires? For me it doesn't, though the decision to judiciously interlard one's speech with jargon calls for discernment in word choice—and a commitment to patient explanations when you overreach.

    What is the value in stretching the language? While there were many aspects of my relationship with my father that I've struggled with, his love of words was something I readily embraced and for which I am grateful. Among other things that seed ultimately grew into my becoming an author and a public speaker, because I love the medium. It's an art form (rather than a mine field). 

    I have made the strategic choice to regularly employ less commonly used words in my speech and writing because they have the meaning I want and I rebel against dumbing down the language (and the Orwellian concept of word elimination to control dissent through reducing the vocabulary to express it—a central feature of 1984—which was offered as dystopian fiction in 1949, yet expresses perfectly the horror of what this process can lead to—a version of mind control.

    Besides, at the end of the day, I'm just having too much fun playing with the words. And who wants less fun in their life? 

    In closing I'm going to ask that you indulge me on a pet peeve. "Enormity" is often used these days to mean large, but it didn't use to. It means evil. Will the language expand to embrace the misuse? Maybe (even though it makes me want to puke). There are plenty of other words to convey large (immensity, for example). On the other hand, Kleenex has now come to mean any facial tissue, not a particular brand, and I think that's probably OK, so enormity is likely to become acceptable as a synonym for large, despite my dyspepsia. Such is life, and my lack of ability to control it.

  • Upper Limit Participation
    When I was working with a consensus group recently, I asked them what issues they were experiencing, and the strongest response was burnout. Too few people doing too much. They had been hoping that the commitment to consensus would translate into everyone more or less having their oar equally in the water, but that's not what they were getting (which incidentally, is common). What to do?

    To be clear, this was not a money issue. It was mostly an energy issue. The context was non-monetary contributions to the community's well-being and maintenance, and they were focusing on contributions in two broad categories: a) physical upkeep and improvements; and b) governance. Although they are apples and oranges (for most people, cleaning the common house toilets or shoveling the sidewalk is not the same as facilitating a plenary, or serving as convener of the Maintenance Committee), yet it all counts.

    In addition, almost everyone recognizes that it's a poor idea to be draconian about this and requiring everyone to contribute equally (and what do you mean by everyone: is it every able-bodied adult; is it contributions per household; do renters count?). There needs to be flexibility about capacity and life circumstances. That means factoring in disabilities (both temporary and permanent), family exigencies (sick mother-in-laws, children with broken bones, sudden job loss, and the like), and the limitations of people's skill sets.

    [For a fuller treatment of the questions to consider in setting up expectations around Participation, see my blog from Sept 29, 2008, Working with Work.]

    In this essay I want to focus on the dynamics of people who are giving above and beyond—those who are burning out. Quite simply, community would not be possible if there weren't some folks willing and able to give extra to the cause. The challenge is how to set this up to succeed. On the one hand you want to encourage volunteerism; on the other it's easy to overdo it.

    I think the line you want to draw is that you do not want people contributing to the point where there's resentment. All offers to contribute extra (even presuming you can define it) have to be freely given with no expectation that you will be repaid in power or privileges (or a plum parking space and or an office with a corner window) by virtue of your contributions—that is, no strings attached. (Note: you can always earn power by dint of doing well a job well, but that's not same as claiming power based on having logged extra hours.)

    What motivates someone to do extra? I think it's a number of things, many of which may obtain in combination:

    •  Opportunity
    I have the time and skills, and care about the group, so why not?

    •  Satisfaction of service
    I get personal satisfaction out of helping and there's a clear need. Further, by doing extra it assuages my anxiety about whether I'm doing enough (don't laugh, this can be a key motivator).

    •  Work they enjoy
    I get satisfaction out of the specific jobs I do. They are inherently interesting to me, or utilize a skill that I derive pleasure from putting to use.

    •  Recognition
    This can be tricky, in that people can be all over the map with regard to appreciation—all the way from preferring anonymity to a party once a month (or a $100 Amazon gift card). Sometimes a quiet thank you goes a long way. You need to know the person to get this right, but it can make a major difference when you do.

    •  How the work is delivered
    While there is a large dose of personal preference here as well, sometimes it matters a good deal how the work is done. While there are some who like to work alone and in their own hours (accounting can be done this way, for example) many are interested in contributions that can be done in groups (think committee work, garden parties, cooking teams, construction projects), so that social needs can be met concurrently.

    •  Leader support
    Beyond recognition for sheer hours, special consideration should be given to those who fill leadership roles (HOA President, committee convener, or project honchos). If the group has not done a good job of defining what it wants in people who fill leadership positions, there is a marked tendency in cooperative groups to slide into a culture where leaders experience an unhealthy ratio of criticism to appreciation, which undercuts their willingness to do more. This is deadly.

    Groups need leadership roles to be filled and therefore need a culture that supports it. If your group suffers from a rampant case of leader bashing, I urge you to take the cure. (See my blog of Feb 5, 2010, Touching the (Leadership) Void for more on this.)
    • • •
    If you want to enhance the experience (sustaining people in their contributions) here are some suggestions of things to try:

    —Help find replacements so they get a break (to step back for a time of renewal) and are not trapped by their competency (ironically, this occasionally means prying people out of their roles—even as they bitch about the workload, offers of help or replacement are never quite good enough, so they stay on the cross).

    —Look for ways to make the contributions more satisfying (it can make all the difference when someone serves on a committee with good chemistry and good communication; suddenly what was once a slog becomes joyous and the threat a burnout recedes despite no change in the hours).

    —Make sure everyone has a buddy; a sympathetic ear available to hear about what's hard. They may or may not have suggestions for how to improve things, but just having safe place to unload can help bleed pressure when the needle is starting to rise into the red.

    —Offer to help prioritize how they're contributing, retaining the most precious and letting go of the least.

    —Encourage them to talk about the strain they're experiencing in the subgroups they're in so everyone knows the picture (sometimes no one has a understands what busy people are juggling when they do their work in stoic silence; or they may know what they're doing in that subgroup but have little sense of the other balls they're keeping in the air.) Paint the picture (without melodrama, please) and trust the group to show up for you. (For some of us, receiving help is actually much harder than extending it.)

    Working it from the other end, I have a pair of suggestions for how you might encourage others to step up more (without shaming or guilt tripping):

    1) I think it's healthy for the group to periodically (maybe every year or two) gather for a one-topic meeting at which you go around the circle twice asking people to address these questions:

    Round One: Without defining it explicitly, do you believe you are contributing: a) your fair share to the labor of maintaining and improving the community; b) less than your fair share; or c) more than your fair share? In addition, please give an overview of what you're currently doing for the community. [It can be helpful here to allow others to add to the list of the speaker's contributions, but this is not the time to voice criticisms.]

    Round Two: What, if anything, would you be willing to do for the community beyond what you are now? If there is any support you'd like from others to accomplish this, what would that be (while there's no guarantee that you'll get what you ask for, you might, and if don't ask the answer is "no")? Please be specific about your needs. It may be childcare, partners to work with, a mentor to train them, chocolate, back rubs… whatever.

    This sequence has the potential to accomplish a number of good things:
    •  It informs everyone all at once about what's happening (or at least a lot of it). In general there tends to be more going on than most people know and this can shift the energy from a feeling of scarcity to one of relative abundance.

    •  If a person comes to the meeting with some tension about people perceived to be under-contributing (so called slackers), it can be helpful to hear what these folks are doing, and whether they agree with your assessment of whether they're doing their fair share. Warning: This won't handle all tensions, but it should help with some.

    •  It makes it much easier to match make when people reveal what interests they have and what support they need. Often people hesitate to offer assistance when they're confused about need, or are embarrassed to ask for help. This is designed to ease both of those tendencies.

    2) Participation Committee
    Another possibility is to establish a committee whose job would include periodically visiting every household (maybe once every two years) to ascertain in a non-threatening environment what interests, willingness, and availability they have for contributing to the labor needs of the community. This information can be used to match with needs, based on the same committee gathering that information from committees. 

    This kind of behind-the-scenes troubleshooting can be very helpful in pouring oil over troubled waters, reducing the tendency to gnash teeth, twist knickers, and burn out. Give it a try.