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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.

  • Game On
    When I grew up I played a lot of cards and a lot of board games—Monopoly, Careers, Clue, Risk, Parcheesi, Life, Scrabble—that kind of thing. Games were an enjoyable way to learn math, strategic thinking, statistics, economic principles, and even geography.

    In my teens I expanded my repertoire to include chess, go, and bridge.

    When I was a young adult there was a new round of games: Diplomacy, Rummikub, Scotland Yard, Uno, followed by the family of train games by Mayfair—starting with Empire Builder, and eventually extending to Eurorails and Iron Dragon.

    In the '90s the pace picked up. I was introduced to the breakthrough Eurogame Siedler von Catan (Settlers of Catan in English) designed by Klaus Teuber. Eurogames emphasize strategy while downplaying luck and conflict. They also tend to have economic themes rather than military and are more likely to keep all players in the game until the end.

    Designed for 3-6 players, Siedler allows opportunities for players who are lagging behind to slow down the leader, and offers multiple winning strategies. The best version (for my sensibilities) is the Cities and Knights expansion, employing the fish feature and a deck of 36 cards substituting for all possible rolls of two dice. Over the past two decades I've played this game hundreds of times and it remains an all-time favorite.

    Then came the no-dice games of which there are now many: Puerto Rico, Trajan, Hansa Teutonica, Caylus, and the games of Uwe Rosenberg, notably Agricola, Le Havre, and Ora and Labora. I am in awe of constructors who can figure out how to craft a game that minimizes random chance yet remains balanced.

    For those who want to do more than one thing in an evening, there are shorter games like Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Dominion, Race for the Galaxy, and Splendor.

    For the more cooperatively minded, there are a handful of offerings where players unite against the game (either everyone wins or everyone loses). Examples include Arkham Horror, Pandemic, Forbidden Island.

    While there are way more games than those named above (who can keep up?), these are ones I've played most and which essentially comprise my gaming universe.

    Coincident with the emergence of Siedler, my kids (Ceilee and Jo) became old enough to join me at the gaming table and it was something we did together (instead of a television, we played board games and I read thousands of pages of fiction to each of them). Sometime in the late '90s we hit upon the idea of conducting Game Days: marathon sessions where we'd play all day and occasionally into the night.
    (It amuses me to observe that in the last decade Jo and I have exchanged roles with respect to board games. When she was a child I used to introduce new games to her; now it's the other way around. In fact, Jo met her husband, Peter, at a game store in Asheville NC, and they typically participate in gaming nights twice weekly. While Susan and I both enjoy games, we don't play that often.)

    Game Day Rules
    1. The first game is always Monopoly (which takes us experienced gamers about 45 minutes).

    2. The person who finishes last in a game (or the first person eliminated) picks the next game. 

    3. No game will be played more than once.

    4. In addition to the games themselves, we play a meta game where we kept a running total of points earned this way:

       o  You earn a raw score of 5 points for winning a game; 2 points for second, and 1 point for third.
       o  In addition, there is a multiplier for each game (anything from 1.0 to 1.8) that is used to determine the adjusted score (taking into account the degree of skill/difficulty for that game). By definition, Monopoly has a multiplier of 1.0; for each additional game the players agree on the multiplier at start of the game.

    5. The winner of the meta game is the person who accumulates the most total points over the course of the Game Day.

    6. Players may selectively drop out of any game. While they score a zero for that game, they preemptively earn the right to select the next one.

    Over the years there have been quite a number of people who have participated in Game Days, but the hard core—those who have most consistently indulged in this particular brand of fanaticism—are Jeffrey Harris (who lived for seven years at Dancing Rabbit, just three miles from Sandhill), Ceilee, Jo, and myself.

    We tried to reprise this configuration last Friday at Jo's house in Las Vegas, but unfortunately Ceilee was not able to get away from Los Angeles to participate. Still, we had a potent gaming group: Jeffrey, Jo, Peter, and myself—with Susan flying in from Minnesota for a long weekend. While Susan decided to stand back from the intensity of Game Day, she joined us for a recreational game of Ticket to Ride Thursday evening, and a marathon game of Mah Jongg that started Saturday evening and extended into Sunday.

    For Game Day we played these five games:
    Monopoly
    Colonia
    Trajan
    Railroad Tycoon
    Anachrony

    While Jo and Peter knew all five games, I was playing Colonia for only the second time, and Railroad Tycoon and Anachrony for the first time. Excepting Monopoly, Jeffrey was playing every game for the first time. While there's a marked tendency to be subject to fool's tax the first time you pencounter a complex game, it was a testament to Jeffrey's game savvy that he hung right in there.

    After a stout breakfast we started play around 9:40 am and played until 1 am (with breaks for lunch and dinner). Notably, all four players finished first at least once, and all four of us finished last at least once. (When we played Colonia, Peter won with a score of 26; I finished dead last with a score of 23.) The competition was remarkably even, and I had a wonderful time connecting with family and an old friend. 

    Given my improved health these days and the fact that Ceilee, Jo, and Jeffrey all live in the Pacific time zone, I'll be looking more assertively for future Game Day opportunities in the months and years ahead. It's hard to get too much fun and games with family and friends.

  • The Centenary of My Father
    Four days ago my father, Robert Schaub, would have been 100—if he hadn't died in 1989.

    Marking this milestone, it seems appropriate to pause and reflect on the influence he had on me. It turns out that it was quite a bit.

    I was 40 when my father died and our time together on this earth divides fairly sharply into two periods.

    I. The Early Years
    This covers my birth through high school graduation, essentially my first 18 years. 

    I was my father's first child, and his only biological son. He clearly loved me, and had aspirations of my taking over the engineering business that his father (Fred Schaub) had started in the Depression. It took me a while to figure out that he was giving me love and attention that he was not giving with the same exuberance to my siblings. I was his favorite; the one he wanted to grow up like him. In my early years I accepted this without reflection; just as privileged people everywhere tend to be oblivious to their advantages.

    We grew up in a middle class neighborhood and I never knew serious privation. We were not rich, yet we never lacked for basics. 

    The two most important educational experiences of my early years were: 
    a) I spent many summers (from ages 8-16) at Camp Easton for Boys in Ely MN, where I learned campcraft and a love for wilderness canoeing. Time spent in the pristine lakes and rivers of the Precambrian Shield became precious to me as opportunities for spiritual cleansing and renewal. It is a part of the world that is blessedly unspoiled by humans, where life reduces to elementals: wind, sun, water, rock, trees, and fire.

    b) My junior and senior years in high school I worked on the school newspaper, The Lion, under the guidance of faculty adviser Kay Keefe. I learned journalism and the art of writing clean prose—something that has paid dividends ever since. It was also my seminal experience with leading a team. I was the editor my senior year and practically lived in the newspaper office. There were 20 other seniors on staff as well as 40 juniors (who were being groomed to run the paper the following year). I loved the camaraderie of working together toward a common goal.

    I did well academically and was able to get into a prestigious school: Carleton College in Northfield MN.

    II. That Adult Years
    This covers my college years through Thanksgiving weekend of 1989, when my father went to bed not feeling well and was dead in the morning of a heart attack.

    My time in college (1967-71) coincided with the height of the Vietnam War, and I, along with many of my peers, underwent a political radicalization. While my father continued to hold conservative Republican views, I veered sharply to the left and we never reconciled the rift. I became aware of the perniciousness of institutional racism, that Christians did not necessarily have God's approbation for all that they did, and that sexual orientation did not necessarily mean straight. These were protean times and I couldn't get enough of it.

    My father, on the other hand, did not enjoy what I was becoming. He had scrimped and saved to make college a possibility for me, and I had betrayed that investment by using the opportunity to challenge almost everything he believed in. I returned home as a viper in the nest. We became two males whose ships passed each other in the turbulence of the '70 and '80s, rarely recognizing that the other's charted course had any validity as guidance for the uncertain future.

    Even as I was exhilarated by all the fresh ideas and and lifestyles that I was exposed to, I was aware that there was a widening gulf between my father and me, and it left me in anguish. It got so bad that we couldn't be in the same house for 48 hours without squabbling, exchanging sniping remarks.

    While I didn't expect him to agree with me, I wanted to be accepted as someone who could think differently. But I never got that. My father felt I was squandering my college education; that I couldn't stand the competition of the real world and had retreated to the obscure triviality of a farm in northeast Missouri. He was bitterly disappointed in me. 

    He was a sensitive man who didn't know what to do with his feelings. There were precious few role models for emotionally aware men in those days, and my father gradually became an alcoholic as he struggled to cope. He died a fairly lonely man.

    III. Being My Father's Son
    Though I fought with my father for almost all of our last 20 years together, and spent untold hours trying to disavow his influence, the truth is that I am very much my father's son. While it took me most of my adult life to get there, I am now at peace with that. Let me count the ways…

    •  Stable Home
    I enjoyed a childhood where I was loved and secure. Think about how huge that is; how much that should be every child's birthright. Well, I had it, and I tried as hard as I knew to provide the same thing for my two children, albeit in different ways than my father provided for me.

    •  Intellectual Development
    Dad expected me to use my brain and I did. To be sure, I have employed it differently than he intended, but he resented that he did not have choices when he was done with school (shortly after high school he went to work for his father) and vowed to give his children something he didn't have. I benefited from that freedom and chose something radically different—something my father never imagined I might choose: to start an intentional community and become an expert in cooperative culture.

    •  Insight into Relationships
    Though I was pretty invested in the idea that my father was obtuse (how else explain his bulldogged adherence to what I considered antediluvian political views in the face of changing times) he really wasn't. As I think back to memories of my childhood, there are many examples of my father's insight.

    Once, we were walking into a department store, looking to buy a pair of socks. My father looked ahead to the man at the information kiosk, who was absorbed in checking an article of clothing. Dad leaned over and told me, "Watch this. I'm going to go up to that man and ask a clear question. His response will be, 'What?' "

    Up until then I had never heard my father predict what another person would say and I thought it fairly brazen of him to hazard a guess. In any event, we proceeded to walk up to the counter. My father patiently waited until the man looked up, at which point he spoke slowly and clearly, "Excuse me, can you tell me where where we can find men's socks?" To which the man replied, "What?"

    I was pretty impressed.

    •  Love of Words
    My father had a passion for the English language, and he passed that along to me. Though it was just an oral tradition for him, I regularly endeavor to dust off underused denizens of the dictionary when speaking and writing. (If not I, then who?)

    •  Insistence on Quality
    At my father's engineering company they made high quality liquid level controllers. He insisted on it. Today, I'm a stickler for quality as well. It doesn't matter if I'm concocting tomatillo salsa, window reveals, or a magazine article; I always give it my best shot.

    •  Entrepreneurial Energy
    While I purposefully eschewed materialism as an adult (an in-your-face rejection of my father's lifestyle), it turns out that I'm risk tolerant and good at making money—just like my dad. It took me a number of years to work through my issues with money, but I finally came to peace with it, so long as the money has been earned in activities that are congruent with my values, and that people are not denied access to my services because of low income. Today I like making money.

    IV. The End Game
    I made an effort to reconcile with my father a couple years before he died. I wrote him a letter in which I owned my contributions to our broken relationship, asking if he was willing to meet me in this effort. While he thanked me for my offer he declined to own his part and we were not able to reassert the loving feelings that had been ascendant during my childhood. 

    But it was important that I made the attempt. I was able to turn the corner on my anger, transmuting it into sadness. After 17 years of bickering I finally began the unilateral work of rehabilitating the memory of my father into that of the man who loved me and was doing the best that he could.

    Sadly, he did not live long enough to see me blossom in my chosen fields: as FIC administrator; as creator of a self-insurance program for income-sharing communities; and as a cooperative process consultant. He did not live long enough to see that I was using my community in northeast Missouri as a base of operations; not as a place to hide.

    While there is no knowing whether he would have allowed himself to enjoy any vicarious satisfaction from my ultimate successes, it gives me solace to think that he might. After all, a great deal of that success was built on the foundations he laid. 

    Thanks, Dad.

  • Watching Acorns Sprout from My Oak Tree

    Last week I got an email from my good friend María, who related an inquiry she'd received from a former client that we'd both worked with, asking for help in navigating tension that's tearing up a key committee.

    My initial, knee-jerk response was, "Why didn't they ask me?" But after about 10 seconds of licking my ego, it occurred to me that a good thing had happened. A protégé was getting professional respect.

    Even if you set aside my recent bout with cancer (and its dramatic reminder of my mortality) I was never going to live forever. So what could be better than to remain in the saddle long enough to start seeing my students blossom as process professionals? Now they're even taking work away from me! 

    There are a number of factors that enter into this equation:

    • Clients prefer to hire locally. If nothing else, it contains travel costs (for which clients are on the hook), and if they're really close, the consultant may sleep at home and commute to the job. Living in Duluth I'm hardly local to anyone.

    • Mostly my students are more moderately priced than me, and clients need to count beans just like everyone else. If you don't need the high-priced spread, why pay more? 

    • When I started working professionally (30 years ago), almost no one hung out a shingle as a process consultant. Today there's much more demand, and it's growing. Because I lived in an income-sharing community for the bulk of my career, I didn't need a lot of money, but I realized early on that as a market maker in a burgeoning field I could have an impact on the value people placed on process consulting. 

    Living in community in rural northeast MO my cost of living was minuscule; consultants living alone near major cities need to make much more. With that in mind I gradually moved my prices up over the years, so that those following in my wake could make a decent living.

    In addition, higher rates afforded me the flexibility to bring in aspiring students as apprentices. Without asking the client to pay more, I could share some of my income and give them valuable exposure (why would you hire someone who has no résumé?). I didn't have that kind of help when I started out, and I wanted my students to have an easier entrée into the field.

    • How much work do I need anyway? Even though I no longer keep my foot tromped on the gas, I am getting work in proportion to my need for income, and my desire to be of service. Mostly I slant things toward teaching and coaching these days, but I still get calls—especially from old clients, and from new ones with a five-alarm fire to put out.

    All together I'm getting 1-2 jobs per month and that's plenty. There's no point in coveting my students' work into the bargain. Besides, I'd like to narrow my focus to those aspects of group dynamics that are most pivotal and most complex.

    As an example, three weeks ago I attended the national cohousing conference in Nashville TN. Among other things I teamed up with Joe Cole (another protégé) to conduct an all-day facilitation workshop. I let Joe cover the basics, while I focused on the parts that grab me most: those brief moments in meetings when what the facilitator does can make the most difference: when the magic can emerge. In a typical meeting there are only 2-3 of those.

    Here's an outline of what I consider to be key leverage points for facilitators:

    A. Riding Two Horses 
    Being able to managing both content and energy, and knowing which to focus on in the moment. You also need to know when to slow down and when you can speed up; and you need to be able to tell when an agreement is in the room (and how to lasso it before it escapes).

    B. How to Work an Issue  

    There are three key aspects to this:

    Clearing the air

    While this step is not always needed, when there is nontrivial distress related to the topic you should always start by naming it. If you skip this step all subsequent work will be prone to brittleness and poor buy-in. Doing this means making room to hear upset (that means focusing on emotions), and finding out what it means.

    —Identifying factors to take into account

    This entails determining what a good response will need to take into account before you entertain suggestions about what to do. It's OK to make room for advocacy at this stage (though you shouldn't need to hear it more than once).

    Problem solving

    Which approach does the best job of balancing what needs to be taken into account? The time for advocacy has now passed; at this stage you're looking for bridging.

    Note: The container that the facilitator needs to establish for each of these steps is verydifferent and the order is crucial.

    C. Right Relationship Between Plenary and Committee

    There are several parts to this:

    o  Only dealing with plenary worthy considerations in plenary

    o  Having the discipline to stay on topic and not drift into a level of detail below plenary worthiness

    o  Developing and using a template for establishing comprehensive committee mandates

    o  Creating a thoughtful method for filling committee and manager slots

    o  Establishing the habit of rigorously evaluating committees and managers

    D. Getting All the Product in the Room

    Many groups fail to see the forest for the trees, and allow conversations to end without connecting all the dots, thereby squandering some of the concentrated work. Agreements that are not captured in the moment are lost, and must be rebuilt another time. Very wasteful.

    To accomplish this the facilitator must be able to see how things look from the prospective of each participant, and have a feel for what everyone can say "yes" to.

    E. Managing Your Nightmares

    While no one is perfect, to be an excellent facilitator you need to know what you don't know, and where your blind spots are. 

    What personalities drive you crazy?

    How are you triggering for others?

    —Can you manage your reactivity?

    F. Can You Handle Failing in Public?

    No matter how accomplished you are, no one succeeds all the time. When you have a bad moment as facilitator, however, your failure can be spectacular. Can you pick yourself up off the floor and get back on the horse? Hint: If you need to succeed every time, quit now.

    G. Getting Help

    —Inviting critical feedback about how you're facilitating (Hint: If you get defensive, the feedback does no good).

    —Bringing the pool of facilitators together to help plan and debrief meetings
     

    —Identifying area facilitators who can help your group when you need outside neutrality.

    —Making a commitment to training, which means both time and money. Hint: Learning by osmosis alone is not enough.

  • Signs of the Times
    I was recently working with a community that had been wandering in the wilderness of group process for seven years in search of a consensus policy under which members could post yard signs (think political campaigns) on the strip of community land that fronted their access highway.

    Essentially, it was a three-cornered argument:

    A. Freedom of Speech
    As is the case in most intentional communities, the members of this group often have definite opinions about the political questions of the day, and clear preferences about candidates. Some fraction of those folks want to be loud and proud about their views, and there is no more noticeable platform on which to do so than right along the frontage road.

    People in this camp believe that all members—who own the property jointly—should be allowed to express their views with signage (within the bounds of size, length of time posted, and noninflammatory language) as a First Amendment right.

    This comes from the position that home can be a base of operation for nonviolent social activism.

    B. Aesthetics
    Many think signs are ugly, and it's an affront to their sensibilities to have political candidates and catch phrases be the first thing they encounter when they arrive home—instead of trees and flowers. Ugh. Aren't there enough assaults on our consciousness in this modern electronic world (where even the President is prone to posting provocative tweets before we can get to out first cup of coffee) without having it invade our nest?

    This comes from the position that home can be sanctuary, for safety and renewal. People in this position yearn for a place where our bruised psyches can be salved by unadulterated contact with the natural environment.

    C. Misinformation & Confrontation
    There is unease among some that signs imply monolithic support in favor of the espoused candidate or position, when that's almost never the case. Thus, if you disagree with the sign (or even are neutral about it) it can be uncomfortable feeling that everyone driving by the sign may think the sign represents your position.

    In this way signs lack nuance and people's individual viewpoints are at risk of being lost whenever a (pardon the expression) trumped up neighbor posts a sign. Yuck.

    There is also a second question here: what constitutes effective social change? While some willingly embrace vigorous political discourse, others find it crude and confrontational—especially when reduced to shibboleths and slogans. Instead of stimulating thoughtful conversation there is concern that signs merely feed the contemporary tendency toward knee-jerk sorting that fuels us/them dynamics—which we pretty well know doesn't work.
    • • •
    Taken all together, it's not hard to see why it was difficult to craft a policy that embraced all positions. All three concerns have a foundational quality, such that movement toward A was seen as undercutting positions B and C, and vice versa. No matter what was proposed it tended to cut close to the bone for someone, and thus no proposal garnered everyone's support. Stalemate.

    Recasting the Net
    Then the group did a clever thing. After years of banging their collective heads against the wall of rights (which turned into an inconclusive tug-of-war), they empaneled a task force to tackle it fresh, selecting committee members not strongly identified with any particular position.

    The committee then did a number of noteworthy things:

    1) To be sure of their footing, they conducted a detailed survey of member views about signs.

    2) In the interest of increasing the task force's gravitas, they purposefully recruited two additional members: one known to be pro-sign and one known to be anti-sign—both of whom were also known to be able to put the group's best interests ahead of their own.

    3) Digesting the perennial loggerheads that resulted from focusing on rights, they hit upon the idea of turning around the conversation by focusing on responsibilities.

    4) In putting forward their proposal there were three key components:

    —They did not come to the plenary until they had a proposal that the full committee was behind; that is, there was no minority dissent on the task force.

    —They advocated for creating a standing Sign Advisory Committee (SAC) whose job it would be to review all proposals for signs to be posted on community property, to help surface and resolve any concerns. The SAC could not impose solutions (they could only advise) yet they would be in place to promote dialog and help find soft landings.

    —They asked for a trial period of one year, to test their theory that if the community approached this issue with an attitude of responsibility, that members would rise to the challenge of being responsible (rather than sink to the temptation of insisting upon rights), and no one would feel run over or sold out. Because of the one-year sunset clause, the community will review the agreement in 12 months, and the agreement will expire at that time unless the plenary explicitly acts to continue it.

    Best of all, it worked! Instead of settling for the least common denominator, the community was inspired to stretch to live up to its higher aspirations. Much more satisfying.

    I'm writing about this because it was inspiring to witness. The group did not pretend that there were not differences (in fact, the main points I outlined above were all reiterated in the survey results and the committee did not flinch from acknowledging them when introducing the proposal).

    Now, for the first time, any member can propose a sign and that proposal cannot be blocked. However, every proposer is expected to listen to any and all concerns and to make a good faith effort to resolve them either directly with the person who raised them, or with the assistance of the SAC.

    It's delightful to observe cooperative culture emerge from the fray with a creative answer. I see it as a sign.

  • Tough Topics in Cooperative Groups
    Not all topics are created equal. In the context of cooperative culture, some topics are much tougher to get at than others.

    Here are half a dozen that I encounter regularly. These are by no means all, but they're representative. If your group consistently handles any two of these well, you're way ahead of the curve. (If not, I'm available for hire.)

    I. How Power is Used in Cooperative Groups
    Groups need to understand—and be able to talk authentically about—how power (influence) is distributed in the group.

    If the group has not done foundational work to define healthy models of leadership, it is fraught with danger for members to admit that they have power or are available to fill leadership roles.

    Members of cooperative groups tend to want the power gradient to be a shallow as possible (ostensibly in the hope of getting away from the power abuses all of us have had bad experiences with in mainstream situations, whether it be family, church, school, or workplace), but wishing doesn't make it so. Power is never distributed evenly, and you can't reasonably work constructively with a thing you can't talk about openly.

    Groups need to distinguish good uses of power (generally speaking, it's when people use their influence for the good of the whole) from poor uses of power (using influence for the benefit of some and at the expense of others) and to develop the chops to be able navigate the perception that a person did not use their power as cleanly as he or she thought they had. That moment is particularly tricky.

    Hint: If your group hasn't yet defined what qualities it wants from leaders, and what constitutes healthy uses of power, have those conversations now! Just bumbling along in the fog is not a strategy; it's a train wreck.

    II. Limits of Diversity
    No group can be all things to all people.

    While all groups have some level of diversity among their membership (surely you weren't expecting clones), and most embrace a common value supporting diversity, it is a nuanced question just how much you can handle of any particular stripe of diversity—which manifests in a bewildering array of sizes and colors.

    And it's worse than that. While few groups get around to an in-depth conversation about what they actually want in the way of diversity, I have not yet met the group that's developed a culture robust enough to give voice to the desires of those of how want more of a thing (in the name of diversity), only to encounter others in the group who report feeling stretched to the max. Now what?

    You need a strong web of caring relationships to sensitively navigate that conversation.

    III. Accountability
    In most groups there will be a mix of people who favor low structure and people who favor high structure—with a healthy sprinkling of folks in the middle. Those at the low end prefer minimal rules and a high degree of personal discretion, coupled with personal responsibility. They want the flexibility to make nuanced determinations on a case-by-case basis.

    Those on the high structure end favor spelling things out to relieve the anxiety of uncertainty. If the standards are well-articulated than you know at all times where the boundary is and it's easier to relax. You'll know what's expected and when you've done your fair share.

    The bad news is: nobody's wrong. People at both ends of this very human spectrum have to figure out how to live together. One of the key tests for this is what happens when Member A has the perception that Member B has broken an agreement or failed to come through on a commitment. (Hint: If you believe this problem would be eliminated by high structure, think again.)

    Note that I didn't say that Member B had done anything wrong; I said that Member A thought Member B had done something wrong. In situations like this most groups prefer that Member A discuss this directly (and hopefully cordially) with Member B in a good-faith attempt to resolve this concern as cheaply as possible. But what if Member B isn't interested in hearing feedback from Member A—either because of the content or because of the delivery?

    Does your group have in place an explicit agreement that members are expected to provide a channel for receiving critical feedback from other members about their behavior as a member of the group? Few do. Yet you can see how much mischief can result from accumulated grumblings that never get cleared. Yuck.

    The next thing you know, there's a call for accountability (we can't let those bastards get away with this; they're ruining the community!). This can polarize the group in a blink.

    Whenever there's the sense that someone has neglected a duty, done slipshod work, or acted in their own interest instead of the group's, there needs to be a conversation. You need a group culture strong enough to hold that conversation and to keep its focus on repairing damage to relationship; not on determining who's right and how many lashed should be meted out.

    Sanctions come only at the end of the line, when all else has failed.

    IV. Standing up to Bullying Behavior 
    This is a special case of the previous point, yet one that obtains frequently enough to get its own mention.

    Bullying is about intimidation. It's accomplished through size, facial expression, crowding of personal space, belligerent attitude, tone of voice, volume, persistence, and through threats and retaliation. It's pushing others out of their comfort zone to the point where they shut up or leave the field rather than continue to voice concerns or opposition.

    It needs to be stood up to and not allowed to control the conversation, yet that often adds up to meeting the bully with behavior that mirrors theirs—which tends to be distinctly uncomfortable in the genteel world of cooperative living. Sadly, many good people would rather exit or tolerate bad behavior than stand up in the face of it.

    The challenge is to be both firm and compassionate. It's not about ganging up on the bully (which runs the risk of sliding into vigilante dynamics), and it's not about mud wrestling on the plenary floor; it's about interrupting the behavior as soon as it arises, and changing the focus to what's unacceptable about the process before continuing with the topic that the bully was speaking to. You cannot afford to allow bad process to run unchecked.

    V. Being Selective about Members
    Many groups shy away from discussing what qualities they want in members—not because they don't have preferences, but because it's unseemly to be viewed as favoring some over others. Mostly, I think, this is a misinterpretation of a core value of anti-discrimination.

    It's one thing to be scrupulously fair on matters of race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, etc—all protected classes under fair housing laws—yet it's an all together different matter to be blind about a person's communication skills (when assessing membership potential) or their management skills (when considering them to mange a major construction project). The former makes sense from the standpoint of making strides toward building a more just world; the latter is just plain shooting yourself in the foot.

    While you can make the case that almost everyone could benefit from living cooperatively, not everyone has the capacity to do it well and you can only make so many silk purses out of sow's ears. It's hard enough to navigate the intricacies of cooperative living with people who "get it"; why complicate matters by working with random volunteers? Doesn't it make more sense to be deliberate about who joins the group: about who is asked to do certain tasks?

    To be clear, I am not saying that groups shouldn't commit to creating opportunities for people to learn the skills needed to take on group roles; I'm only saying it's a poor bargain letting unqualified people fill slots simply to avoid giving them the assessment that others don't think they're ready.

    In the case of group membership, it's a frightening risk having little or no discernment about who joins the group, and then trying to get them out later once you've discovered they're a poor fit. In the case of making committee assignments or filling manager slots, the more important it is that the job be done well (or is a high trust position), the more crucial it is that you select well to fill it. The stakes are too high to trust to chance to meet your needs.

    What all this adds up to is the importance of developing a culture in which it's OK to be discerning, and it's OK to let others know that you don't think they have what the group agrees is needed. Pretending people have what it takes when they don't is a very dubious foundation on which to build a durable culture.

    VI. Working Constructively with Distress
    Face it. We come out of a mainstream culture that does not do well with distress (outside of a therapeutic setting), and we bring that inability with us into the cooperative experience. Unfortunately, as human beings, we also bring distress.

    Once nontrivial distress is in the room (never mind how it got there; it will come) you really only have two choices: pay now or pay later. Let's look at what happens with each of those options:

    Dealing in the Moment
    If you're willing to engage with fulminating distress, then a few things need to be put into place ahead of time: a) you need explicit buy-in from the group that there's permission to go there (seeking permission in the dynamic moment is a nightmare; it has to be done ahead of need); b) you should determine a menu of options that may be used to work with distress, so that folks know what they've signed up for; and c) you need to develop the internal capacity to understand and sensitively employ the modalities on the approved menu.

    In my view if you're going to go down this road—which I recommend you do—then you need facilitators who can do two important things:

    • Be sensitive to energy shifts so that distress can be recognized and attended to as it occurs. This can mean shifting on a dime, suspending the topic in which the distress erupted, to focus on the reactivity and getting the person (or persons) deescalated to the point that the group can productively return to the original conversation. This is an important criteria in that the skills needed to manage a conversation deftly are almost completely unrelated to the skills needed to work distress well. So asking facilitators to be able to do both can be a tall order.

    •  Be able to discern when it's an effective use of group time to work distress, and when that's happened sufficiently that the group can productively return to working the topic that was suspended in order to attend to the distress. This is a sophisticated balancing act that calls for the facilitator to be able to accurately read how upset people are (both the person who was initially in reaction, and those around them) and when the group's attention can productively shift off the persons in distress.

    Setting Distress Aside
    When you make this choice you're rolling the dice. The good outcome is that it's possible that the person in distress can work through their feelings on their own and come through the experience OK, with no toxic aftereffects. I'm not saying that's likely, but it's possible.

    Unfortunately, the downside is pretty big. All of the following can happen:

    • The person in reaction may not be able to manage deescalation on their own. For as long as significant distress continues you have to expect they're experiencing significant distortion. That means they aren't able to hear accurately what's being discussed; they are essentially lost as a functioning participant, perhaps for the remainder of the meeting.

    • Often, when one person is enduring unaddressed distress, there is blow by on those around them, who are significantly distracted by it. Thus, the focus of many people can be impaired when one person in distress is not getting help.

    • When group members observe others not getting help (when they go into distress), the message is that it's not OK to go into distress. This leads to suppression, which makes it that much harder to know what's happening when quashed feelings start leaking and someone starts behaving weirdly.

    • Even after the meeting you can't count on things settling down in a balanced way. Sometimes, upon reflection, hearts get hardened rather than softened and the group gets that much more brittle. Not good.

    • Maybe you're thinking that if the group sidesteps working with distress there's that much more time to work the issue in which the distress arose. Yes, but it tends to be a bad bargain if the room is infected with significant distortion. How good can those decisions be? How good will the buy-in be if some people aren't hearing well?

    Taken all together, I'm question whether you can afford the compound interest when you defer payments on distress.

    Many groups avoid working distress in the moment because they have no agreement in place to do so, or no confidence in the skills of their facilitators to handle it constructively. Don't let that be your group.