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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.

  • 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.







  • 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.