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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.

  • When Committees Get Ahead of the Group
    I was recently working with a community that had been together for several years but was struggling with the right relationship between committees and the plenary.

    Like most intentional communities, the group had committed to making decisions by consensus. Unfortunately, also like most groups, the community had not bothered to get trained in consensus or to define clearly how it would work (uh oh). I have sympathy for how they got there. Members had mostly led successful lives (how else would they have been able to afford their units?). How hard could it be to work things out with like-valued people?

    Sadly, living cooperatively is harder than it looks, and good intentions and a healthy bank account are rarely sufficient to get you to heaven.

    Let me explain how they'd slid into the ditch.

    In consensus all the power (the ability to decide things for the group) initially resides with the plenary (meetings of the whole), and you don't move forward in the presence of a principled objection (by which I mean a proposed action or agreement is deemed bad for the group, contradicts an existing agreement, or is crosswise with a common value). While groups sometimes run afoul of what constitutes legitimate grounds for blocking, that wasn't where this group was struggling. Their issue revolved around how power was distributed.

    While consensus groups start with all the power being held by the plenary, it's generally not a good practice to keep it that way. If the group has more than a handful of members (eight?) it's almost always better to delegate some degree of power (the ability to make decisions that are binding on the group) to managers and committees. If all decisions must come to the plenary for final say, it becomes a choke point, and members are all too often forced to sit through conversations about matters they really don't care about—when they'd rather be washing their hair or watching reruns of Downton Abbey.

    This leads to problems. First, there is meeting fatigue (why are we spending so much time in plenaries?), which leads to a drop in energy and diminished meeting attendance. Simultaneously, it undercuts the morale of committees when all their work must be funneled through the plenary, which is under no obligation to like what committees send up. If all the power is retained by the plenary then why join committees, which only do grunt work? If committees struggle to get members and are demoralized, then the plenary has to pick up the slack, which puts even further pressure on community meetings as the sole place where action happens. It's a vicious cycle. 

    Over time, plenary attendance may shake down to the point where only the battle tested and diehards are coming to meetings and resentment builds over the imbalance of who has their oar in the water when it comes to governance. Yuck!

    The community in question was foundering over three things:

    a) The mistaken notion that it's inappropriate in consensus to ever delegate group-wide decision-making to managers or committees. (While only some of members held this view, it was sufficiently prevalent to hamstring attempts to authorize committees to make decisions without the plenary sprinkling holy water on it.)

    b) The inability to develop a sense of trust among members that everyone in the group was generally well-intentioned and can normally be relied on to think and act in the group's best interest. (Note that this is not the same as expecting everyone to think and act just like you—which you'll never get.)

    c) The lack of open conversations about how power is distributed in the group: how it actually is, how you'd like it to be, and what's possible. To be fair, this topic is a hot potato for almost all cooperative groups and few handle it cleanly—so I'm profiling a typical group, not a defective one.

    Now I want to switch focus to committees trying to operate in this environment, and the dilemma they face. On the one hand, they want to be useful and get things done. On the other, they don't want to be accused of power mongering. When the plenary is not used to giving committees meaningful work, teams may be left to feel their own way into what their role should be. 

    During my visit, two different committees brought forward work for the plenary's consideration. In both cases, the committee had done its homework, having made a concerted effort to listen to what community members wanted (not just what committee members wanted), and to develop proposals that reflected that input. However, because committee conveners were taking the lead in bringing things forward, there was suspicion that the committee had gotten ahead of the community and was pushing water uphill. Some members felt that they were being sold rather than solicited, and there was a tense undercurrent.

    The good news is that this is fixable. Here's how:

    1. Clarifying consensus ambiguities, with a particular eye on delegation
    The community needs to address head on the pros and cons of committees being authorized to handle issues in their bailiwick within boundaries established by the plenary. In addition to resolving questions about the theory of delegation, the group stands to benefit substantially from being much more diligent about delegating effectively. If the license for committees is ill-defined there's plenty of room for mischief and misunderstanding. If the plenary expects good work from its teams, it needs to set them up for success by making crystal clear what's expected.

    When operating within the traces, committee initiatives need to be celebrated, not eviscerated.

    2. Talking openly about power
    While this isn't easy, it's doable and necessary. The community needs to develop a common understanding of what power is (influence), how its distribution is situational, how its distribution is always unbalanced, and how it's neutral in and of itself.

    While power can be toxic when used to benefit some at the expense of others; it can be medicine when used to benefit all. The community urgently needs a common vocabulary about power.

    3. Trusting the process
    You can't expect community to bloom in an atmosphere of mistrust. After you do the work of cleaning up the ambiguities about how you want to operate (the previous two steps), members need to extend some grace to each other, allowing room for healing and good will to prevail.

  • Virtual Sick Bay Revisited
    In the last days of August my laptop started acting up… again. It was the second time in a month. This necessitated another trip to the Apple Store in Minneapolis, 150 miles away, where I surrendered my machine to the iMac wizards. The timing was awkward (isn't it always?). They needed at least three days to swap out defective hardware, and I was leaving the next day for a 10-day trip to BC and a round of facilitation training.

    While they offered to ship my repaired laptop to wherever I wanted, I was leery of it catching up to me as a moving target, compounded by crossing a border. The last thing I wanted was to have my machine chasing me around the continent, so I swallowed hard and directed them to send it home, accepting that I'd be going dark for two weeks. Gulp.

    How much did that shift my daily routine? Let me put it this way: I read eight books in 10 days. I'm that dependent on my electronic umbilicus. Now, thankfully, this second unscheduled work pause is over, and I'm digging out. While I suffered no loss of data (whew), my recovered email was again returned unsorted, and it will take me many hours to reestablish order.

    I am home for another fortnight (before heading out for Houston), during which I hope to enjoy the fall (Susan and I will be picking crab apples this week and making jelly) and get in sync again with my electronic cadence. I have a number of virtual balls to keep in the air, and it's impossible to succeed without a laptop that's hitting on all cylinders. Here's hoping I have one.

    Weather note
    As my work takes me all over North America, I frequently get a chance to see the glazed looks on people's faces when I tell them I live in Duluth. Pretty much everyone wants to know how I tolerate the long winters and the short growing season. How short? While taking Lucie for a walk around the block three weeks ago I noticed as I passed our garden plot that the larger tomatoes were finally starting to turn red-orange. Unfortunately—on the same walk—I also noticed that the neighborhood maple leaves were also starting to turn red-orange. Sigh. Growing heat-loving vegetables in Duluth is only accomplished in a tight window.

    To be sure, we are getting tomatoes, just not as many as gardens elsewhere. On the other hand, we don't need air conditioning—Mother Nature provides that on her own, without any assistance from Fedder—and for that Susan and I are highly appreciative. There are always trade-offs.

  • Lost in the Electron Forest
    It has now been 29 days since I last posted to this blog—the longest drought I've ever gone through since starting this publishing odyssey back in 2007. Uffda.

    It is not for lack of things to say or the motivation to write. I just couldn't get into my damn blog until now. Here's what happened…

    In the middle of July my laptop (a MacBook Air) battery suddenly stopped holding a charge. I could function when plugged into the grid, but the screen would go dark immediately if I pulled the electronic umbilicus. For someone on the go like me that's an incredible nuisance, so I took advantage of changing trains in Chicago July 17 to stop in at the Genius Bar at the Michigan Ave Apple Store in Chicago to see whether an hour in sick bay could make everything better.

    The good news was that my laptop was still under Apple Care warranty (I am two-and-a-half years into my three years of coverage). The bad news is that when they looked up the serial number for my machine they couldn't find a record that I owned it—and they wouldn't touch my machine without proof of purchase. Oh boy. As this was the first time I had brought this laptop in to get serviced by Apple, I had no idea this problem existed.

    Oh well, I figured, I would go home, root around in my files for a receipt, and then get my laptop attended to at an Apple Store in Minneapolis (after going down to Rochester July 30 for my annual post-stem cell check-up). As we don't have an Apple Store in Duluth, I have to get creative about getting my laptop serviced under warranty.

    Unfortunately, I had no luck finding an Apple receipt at home. I got a lot of things filed and better organized (it was time to do that anyway), but no receipt. I even found the box that my machine was originally shipped in, but no paperwork. Frustrated, I contacted my friend Jeffrey Harris who works for Apple and through whom I bought my laptop back in February 2017. 

    That turned out to be the smart move for two reasons. First, Jeffrey knew that there never was a paper receipt (so I could stop looking for one). Everything at Apple had been transferred to electronic records by then. No wonder I was having trouble with that.

    Second, Jeffrey, bless his heart, had a record of the web order for my laptop, and through that Apple personnel were able to trace what had happened 29 months ago. Turns out someone on their end simply dropped the ball when it came to recording the sale, and the error didn't get discovered until now. Ha ha. I was only moderately amused.

    In any event, I now—finally—had a clear pathway to getting service in Minneapolis. The folks there took a quick look at the situation and decided it would be prudent to send it to their tech all-stars in Houston—just in case there was more going on than simply a dead battery. Not knowing what they'd find, I was dutifully warned that it was possible that my hard drive would be wiped clean—did I have everything backed up? We did some backing up with iCould at the store and I left it in their hands.

    I figured I could live without a machine for a few days (I was promised a quick turnaround, and it was; I left it with Apple on Wed and the repaired machine was delivered to me in Duluth two days later, Aug 2). As it turned out, however, my hard drive was wiped clean. Ugh. While I haven't lost anything (good), that doesn't mean everything is organized and accessible. 

    After spending a couple days reinstalling programs and records from my backup external hard drive, I began facing the nightmare of reorganizing my email files. I have over 70,000 records and while all of that is backed up on gmail, it arrived in my laptop unsorted, excepting by date. That many unsorted records are not particularly useful, so I began the incredibly tedious task of reestablishing my filing system (I have over 200 categories). I have now devoted more than 30 hours to this task and I'm about half done. If this sounds like something akin to cleaning out the Augean Stables, then you're getting the right idea.

    On top of everything else, I couldn't remember the password to my blog. After establishing the account when it was opened back in 2007, my machine simply remembered the password and I was signed in automatically whenever I visited the site (who needs to remember a password to a site I visit constantly?). Now, however, I had a stupid machine that required remedial attention.

    Once again, a friend rescued me. This time it was Tony Sirna, who originally set up my blog account 12 years ago. He did a little noodling and figured out how I could get recognized as an author again, and not merely as a visitor. Whew.

    Another few weeks and I'll just about be back to even. I'm looking forward to it.

  • Facets of Respect
    This past weekend I was at the triennial conference of the International Communal Studies Association, hosted by the Camphill Village communities of Triform and Copake near Hudson NY.

    Among other things I listened to someone postulate that one of the foundational concepts that most intentional communities have in common is that their members desire respect. I had a complex reaction to that and want to walk you through it.

    My first response was dismissive. Sure, everyone wants to be respected (who would say they prefer to be disrespected?) but in terms of group dynamics it's a trap. A ready surface agreement that respect is a common value implies solidity that's ephemeral—because respect is slippery fish that's hard to net. 

    For some people it's not raising one's voice and pausing between statements. For another it's speaking honestly and from the heart—which can be loud and immediate. You can see the problem. Even if people were 100% consistent about engaging others in the way that they would prefer to be engaged, that may have no bearing on how the other person perceives respect. With the wide variety of communication preferences extant in the world it's almost random whether you'll like the way you're approached—even when speakers are trying to be respectful, which won't always be the case.

    [I am composing this essay aboard a train—the westbound Lake Shore Limited—and I had a relative minor experience of this very phenomenon within the past hour, buying a cup of coffee in the café car. When it was my turn for service, the attendant asked me what I wanted and I told her, "One cup of coffee, please." Then she paused, looked me in the eye, said "Good morning," and waited. The implication was that she was going to wait there until I responded, and she had all day.

    I dutifully mumbled a "good morning" in return, which reanimated her to start pouring coffee, but I was irritated. I didn't need an etiquette lesson, and hadn't been rude in the first place. While I am sympathetic with the desire to set a pleasant (even jocular) tone in the workplace, the attendant was playing a game I didn't sign up for, and didn't appreciate. Perhaps she wanted to be respected—seen as a person more than as a servant—but she came across as someone with a chip on her shoulder (she was fiercely nice, if that makes sense). I had the feeling that if I didn't say "good morning" I might not get my coffee. How was she respecting me (it was 6 am for chrissakes and I hadn't had any coffee yet)?

    Essentially she was demanding to be met on her terms, which she'd altered from the normal expectations for a café car transaction, without letting customers know ahead of time that a shift had been made, or asking their permission. It was a power play sailing under the flag of civility, and I didn't like being her guinea pig.]

    My second response was more thoughtful. Respect doesn't happen in a vacuum. It's a characteristic of exchanges between people. While I haven't found it particularly helpful to ask (or demand) to be respected, it occurred to me that it might be powerful to commit to communicating in ways that the recipient would consider respectful—to adopt a standard where group members would make an effort to understand what style of communication would come across as respectful to their audience and then try to engage them in that way. 

    Even when you get it wrong, it's likely to land better if the other person knows you're trying, because the effort itself is evidence of caring.

    While it may seem obvious that it's smart to take into account how your intended audience prefers to receive information (after all the point of communication is to share information and you can profitably work it from either end—refining the clarity of your messages, and packaging them in ways that are easier for the audience to absorb), many of us get no further than the first part before putting one's mouth in gear or hitting send. Instead of taking the time to investigate what our audience prefers, there's a tendency to simply offer others what we prefer ourselves and take our chances. (I style this approach communication roulette.) Sometimes that works—in the same sense that even a blind pig will occasionally find an acorn.

    I realize this is fairly radical, focusing on the other person's receptors at least as much as on what you want to say, but if the prize is to be understood it's an excellent strategy, and I recommend it to you.

    In any event, that's the pathway by which I've come to have a new-found respect for respect.

  • Defanging
    As both a writer and a professional facilitator I am often asked to look over draft proposals, articles, or other communications where the authors want to get the wording right and are open to additional eyes on their efforts. This is more than copy editing (though I do that, too); it's assessing writing and making suggestions for clarity, concision, and anticipation of impact. Sometimes I am asked to review minutes for completeness, depth, and tone.

    It's a wide ranging art form revolving around the use of words.

    Recently, I was facilitating a board meeting at which members were going to discuss the sudden resignation of a key member, informed by tension that this person experienced with the executive director. Most of the board had no idea that tension had been brewing until it was too late to do anything about saving the working relationship between the two, and that was understandably frustrating.

    This was the first board meeting where this was to be discussed and important decisions would be made about how to respond. As the person setting up the sequence in which this dynamic would be examined I asked the departed board member to write a summary of events leading up to their resignation (they were unable to attend the meeting in person). It arrived less than 24 hours before the meeting and it occurred to me that it would be worthwhile to massage the message (shades of Marshall McLuhan), with the author's permission, to do what I style "defanging."

    I spent a concentrated hour reworking their 900-word account to preserve intent and enhance clarity, while at the same time removing some subtle barbs and provocative characterizations that would only serve to goad their counterpart in the troubled tango.

    Happily, the author was fine with my changes, and the reward came in the meeting when there was no disagreement about the basic sequence of events. To be sure, there were some major disagreement about whether the actions taken were good ones—there were real questions to discuss—but it is far easier to see clearly into the depths of an issue when the water hasn't been roiled by gratuitous inklings of innuendo or eddies of exaggeration.

    Mostly this entails reworking the statement to strip out any interpretation of the other person's intent (which not only fans the flames, but stands a good chance of being wrong). The guiding principle is simple: stick to what was observed, how it felt, and why it matters. That's plenty. It's not about being nice or sugar coating; it's about resisting the temptation to fuel your hurt by assigning bad intent or nefarious motives to the other party. While it may feel good in the moment, it never helps repair the damage to the relationship. It just makes it worse.
    • • •
    In this particular instance, the presenting issue revolved around risk tolerance and how much detail the executive director should be providing the board about the organization's tight finances. Once we unpacked it, there were several elements that contributed to the tension.

    1. Although the nonprofit has a commitment to functioning cooperatively, there was nothing in place organizationally to help people who were struggling with interpersonal tension, and too much was being asked of too few. Thus, when the two people that everyone was relying on were in tension with each other, there was nowhere to turn.

    2. The board had never discussed what level of risk it was willing to accept in carrying out its program. Thus, there was no risk lanes painted on the organizational roadway, such that the two most active people in the nonprofit could check their positions against.

    3. The board had never articulated what level of financial information it needed to carry out its role of fiduciary oversight. It's hard to fault someone for not having provided enough details in financial reports when those details were never requested.

    4. Even though the organization was known to be under financial strain, the treasurer role had been vacant for months. So no one had their eyes on the financial dials at the board level, alerting people that the needle was inching into the red.

    5. Historically the organization has had a passive board. So there was no precedent for board members to step up and place a firm hand on the wheel once the weather turned stormy.  There was minimal information flow and the board was confused about how to respond.

    The good news is that the board hung in there as all of this was revealed. Everyone took a deep breath and there was a positive response. Though I can't prove it, I believe that defanging played a small, yet significant role in our being able to set and maintain a constructive tone all day—keeping the sails trimmed close to the wind with minimal luffing.