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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.

  • Key Facilitative Skills: Sis Boom Bang

    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 

    • • •
    Sis Boom Bang 
    It's relatively common for people to hold an ideal of the facilitator as someone who is unflappable and emotionally contained. Someone who invariably radiates cool blue light and is always on an even keel, inspiring centeredness and steady-as-she-goes energy in those around them. 


    I suspect it's because many are uncomfortable in the presence of passion—not because it's bad per se, but because it engenders chaos that is difficult to follow, hard to corral, and fosters unbridled statements. There is worry that if the facilitator gets too emotionally engaged that their neutrality may be compromised and it might be interpreted as permission for participants to ramp it up as well.

    While I get the concern (who wants to go to a meeting that operates at an exhausting pace and feels unsafe?), I don't buy the conclusion. Facilitators are human, every bit as much as those they are facilitating, and everyone will do their best work, in my experience, if they bring their entire, authentic selves to the task. That means their heart as well as their head. Meetings need to work for diverse styles of communication: both for those who want a slower, more deliberate pace (the default mode in most groups), and for those who prefer something more up-tempo and less controlled.

    For my money, meetings should be alive, not shackled. To be sure, there are still boundaries around appropriate behavior when engaging emotionally. I am not advocating for anything goes. For example, I think all contributions should be on topic and it's fair to redirect comments that aren't, regardless of whether they are thoughts or feelings. In addition, I think is important to object to aggression, by which I mean deliveries that come with barbs or judgments (I'm fine with knowing that you're angry; I am not fine with your calling someone an asshole.)

    Facilitators can—and I believe should—be emotionally authentic and expressive without sacrificing neutrality or taking sides. What I'm talking about is recognizing and naming the energy in the group with affect, as distinct from expressing personal enthusiasm for the merits of a specific contribution. Connecting the dots, this means that the skilled facilitator needs to do able to accurately capture and work with input that surfaces in the context of meetings in which passion is invited. Don't license a pace that swamps you intake valves! You have to work within your range. I'm just making the case for why it may be in the group's interest to expand your range.

    When the group experiences a success, why not take a moment to celebrate, with the facilitator leading the cheers? If that energy is in the room, do it. When the group is stuck, it's generally helpful to name the frustration in the room (whistling past the cemetery is not that great a strategy). When someone leaks a sarcastic comment, it's OK to yell, "Ouch!" Be real. I teach that facilitators should bring a cool head and a warm heart, as both are needed.

    Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe
    While most facilitators know to project optimism and a welcoming demeanor, a sterner test comes when someone injects a discordant thought or concern into a conversation that was otherwise proceeding smoothly. I'm not talking about off topic; I'm talking about a different viewpoint. Now what? 

    At this moment the facilitator needs to lean in and immediately set the tone. While eyeballs may be rolling on the other side of the room ("we were doing fine until you spoke") the facilitator needs to welcome this fresh voice, so long as the input is on topic. "OK this is different. So-and-so has another view on what needs to be taken into account. Do others share this concern?"

    You are trying to accomplish a number of important things in this moment:

    —Legitimizing the input (so long as it's reasonably tied to a group value). This is not taking sides; it's making sure the windows and doors are open.

    —Encouraging minority concerns to get expressed by promptly validating their being stated (making it that much easier for the next person to be courageous).

    —Jumping in right away to set a tone of curiosity, not allowing the naysayers (who were happy with the way the conversation had been going) to respond with disagreement, or worse, scorn. To be sure, they will have their chance to weigh in, but not right away.

    Tone here is very important. It is hard to be creative and build cohesive solutions when the tone is combative and the energy is fractured. (When you reflect on the current paucity of curiosity in contemporary political discourse for the viewpoints expressed by those sitting across the aisle, it's no wonder we experience broad-based gridlock in DC. Dialog is stillborn.)

    Up and Out
    Last, it's valuable for facilitators to wrap up meetings with a concise summary (one to two minutes) of what was accomplished at a meeting, so that the last taste in participants' mouths is what got done. Why? Left to their own inclinations, people will tend to focus on what didn't happen, or work still left to do, generating a feeling of discouragement and exhuastion. While both approaches are legitimate (that is, both may be accurate assessments) the energy of focusing on product is night-and-day different than dwelling on what didn't happen. You want people leaving a meeting glad that they attended and hungry for more.

    This is not about faking it. Don't claim success that didn't happen, or paper over serious concerns that still need work. You have to be real, but it's important to accentuate the positive. Product, for instance can include a sharpening of differences, where there is more clarity about what needs to be balanced and you have a plan about how to tackle it; it is not limited to what what got tied up with a ribbon and bow.

    The skilled facilitator will consistently project positivity, thereby eliciting positive responses from participants in return, bringing out their best—all the while naming the product achieved en route.

  • Key Facilitative Skills: Feedback

    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   


    • • •
    Walking the Feedback Talk
    For the most part, contemporary culture is downright awful at giving and receiving feedback. This shortcoming is a major impediment to clear communication in all settings, and undercuts the quality of relationships everywhere. In short, it's a big deal.


    In cooperative culture the stakes are even higher, because the lives of participants are more interwoven and there is more opportunity to rub each other the wrong way. One of the main challenges to creating robust communities is figuring this out—both on the group level and the personal plane. The dynamic is complicated by the fact that groups rarely make this explicit up front (if ever) and people often join (buy a house) without understanding that their satisfaction—and that of those around them—is dependent on the group's ability to foster and sustain clean feedback among members.

    In the effort to develop the group's capacity to work well with feedback, facilitators can play a pivotal role in modeling how to accomplish this with grace and minimal reactivity. (You can't very well ask it of others if you are not able to do it yourself.)

    On the giving end, many consider it rude to speak critically of others—at least to their face. Where that's the norm, people try to swallow their irritations (a practice that leads to heartburn), or manage them through pillow talk (venting with their partner) or parking lot gossip, which is a virtual acid drip on the social fabric of the group. Not only does the would-be recipient miss out on the information, but it's hard on the giver who withholds.

    Going the other way, it's also hard for people to receive criticism. It can be embarrassing, or even humiliating. Some will automatically translate critical comments into shame. Many are susceptible to conflating criticism of actions with criticism of the person. Strong negative reactions can lead to shut down, exit, and damaged relationships. If hearing criticism is unpleasant enough, people will learn defensive behaviors to deflect it or otherwise discourage others from giving feedback. It can really gum up the works.

    Trump, for example, offers a textbook example of how to deflect criticism through aggression. Invariably, his response is to lash back, often upping the ante by pushing the nastiness needle into the red. In doing so, he's sending multiple messages: 

    —Think twice about criticizing me, because you'll immediately get double your ugliness back. In fact, I may publicly ridicule you for having the audacity to speak out.

    —I consider people who criticize me publicly to be enemies. I demand loyalty from my friends and allies, and it's disloyal to be speak critically of anything I say or do.

    —Criticizing me will not change my behavior. If anything, I'm likely to do it more.

    To put it mildly, his response is uncooperative, and does not encourage people to express reservations and concerns (what good does it do, and who needs the grief?). It's a highly dysfunctional management style, and destructive of group cohesion and camaraderie.

    To be clear, I'm not saying that you can't have reactions to criticism, nor am I suggesting that there's anything wrong with you if you do. Reactions are normal part of being human and you may have trouble with either the content or the delivery, or both. That said, a reaction does not dictate a response. You always have choices about how you respond, and I'm suggesting that you hold onto that possibility like a life ring in a storm-tossed sea. It will ultimately serve you best, I believe, if you respond in a way that most honors relationship—which is the lifeblood of cooperative groups. Instead of blood letting; think blood flowing.

    How do you do that?

    •  Start by acknowledging what you heard, paying particular homage to the impact that your words or actions had on the other person, as they reported it. This is a good idea even if you don't like what the person said or feel you've been misunderstood. (Lashing back may feel good in the moment, but it's almost never productive.) The point of this is twofold: a) it establishes whether you heard correctly; and b) it values the other person's experience; it shows that you care, which is deescalating.

    • If you have a nontrivial reaction to the feedback (let's be honest; sometimes it hurts!), it may be a good idea to delay a response until you're past the rawness. There is a world of difference between reporting a reaction and being in the reaction. If you're in high dudgeon, you might want to wait until you're no longer a drama queen. Why? Because the bottom line is connection and communication; not "winning" or proving that you have the inside track on reality.

    The biological equivalent of criticism is pain—it's a feedback loop that's an essential part of health management. If you step on a nail it's a damn good thing that your foot hurts—alerting you to take a gander at your hoof. If you touch a hot pan on the stove, pain immediately tells you to pull your finger away, before you do serious damage. I'm not saying you should enjoy pain; I'm saying you should be thankful that you know when you're damaging your foot or finger, so that you can deal with it promptly. If you were insulated from pain (a health risk for diabetics) you might walk around with a nail in your foot, or seriously burned fingers and that would not be good.

    Similarly, it's not good if your actions or words have triggered pain in others and you are not aware of that impact. While you may need to exercise discernment about what to do with that information—and it may or may not result in a shift in your behavior—if you don't get the memo, then you don't get the opportunity to take it into account. And it is never in your interest to not have the information—so long as it's genuine.

    What all this adds up to is that facilitators need to do sufficient personal work to keep their own feedback channels open (flawed models are not that inspirational). What's more, at least some of the time criticism will be directed your way in highly public settings, and occasionally delivered raw (by which I mean with little or no care given to how it will land). While this is undoubtedly unpleasant and may not be fair, it goes with the territory, and can go a long way toward leading the group into the culture it needs.

  • Key Facilitative Skills: Durable Containers for Hard Conversations

    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   

    • • •
    Creating Durable Containers for Hard Conversations 
    Fortunately, healthy groups do not need much active facilitation. By "healthy" I mean there is a well-defined agenda, participants come prepared, they speak on topic, they respect air time for others, they are willing to voice their views (even if they expect they may be unpopular), they listen well to others, disagreements are expected and worked with compassion and curiosity, the group gets a lot done (respecting the preciousness of meeting time), and the group conducts its business in such a way that relationships are enhanced.


    Unfortunately, all groups are not at that level of functionality, with the consequence that facilitators have to be more active, helping the group understand what kinds of contributions are wanted from different phases of engagement. In this blog I want to highlight three different kinds of containers—the need for which occur relatively frequently in plenary dynamics. In my experience, few groups are solid about the need for these nuances or how to set them up.

    A. Clearing the Air
    In all groups there will be times when there are unresolved nontrivial tensions that impact a topic. When this occurs, it's necessary to address the tensions before you tackle the issue. Why? Because unresolved tension is associated with distortion (and the greater the tension, the greater the distortion). In fact, at the extreme, if the upset is great enough it can be all consuming and that person is not capable of hearing accurately what anyone says. In short, they are not able to listen well, nor can they usefully participate in the constructive give and take of ideas. 

    And it's worse than that. Depending on the level of upset, if the people around the upset person are aware of fulminating distress they are likely to distracted by it and the possibility of imminent eruption (perhaps they are worried about the upset person getting support; perhaps they are worried about getting caught in the lava flow as collateral damage).

    Thus, it's generally a poor plan to attempt to solve problems with upset people. Groups often do it anyway because: a) they don't know what else to do; b) have no confidence in their ability to contain an examination of feelings (even if they know that's the right thing to do); c) do not have a history of productive results from such an examination; or d) don't have permission to work emotionally. Yuck.

    Where the group is unused to working with strong feelings (I am talking mainly about fear and anger, rather than unbridled joy or ennui) it can be scary to go there and the facilitator will need to be courageous. In most groups, a majority of members will be conflict averse and will not typically meet a request to examine raw feelings with enthusiasm. There will, however, be times when you'll need to do it anyway and it behooves a group to: a) lay out ahead of time the conditions under which it's appropriate to clear the air (for more of my thinking on this see When Groups Should Address Conflict in Plenary); b) how you will do that (so that people know what they've signed up for); and c) what authority is being given the facilitator to run this phase of a meeting.

    OK, so it's hard. How do you clear the air effectively? First of all, I think it's important to separate this completely from fact finding, problem solving, determining truth, or assigning blame. Your priority in this phase is relationship repair. Nothing more. While the possibilities can be profound (I've experienced some amazing breakthroughs over the years), at a minimum you want to get to the point where the protagonists can function together in a group setting, rather be constantly triggered by each other. Thus, clearing the air may not result in the their signing together in next year's Christmas choir, but maybe they can serve productively on the same committee. That's victory enough.

    While there are multiple ways to accomplish this, an approach that works well for me is to work in dyads. Even when there are several people involved (a multi-car accident) it's productive to keep the conversation focused on two exemplars of the dynamic and see what you can accomplish there before opening it up to others. I've found that witnessing others unpacking and moving past hurt can often be just as helpful as being in the middle yourself. And if it isn't, you can always work more dyads as needed. 

    If you allow every stakeholder to participate in one conversation there is a tendency to have too many worms on the floor at one time, and it can be the very devil getting them all back in the can. Too often, different people have different points of stress and different reactions. With everyone striving to get their piece out it on the table, listening often suffers and no corners are turned.

    The method I use for examining conflict is a series of four questions:
    1. What are the feelings?
    2. What's the story (what triggered the feelings)?
    3. Why does this matter (what's at stake)?
    4. What are you willing to do about it (in the interest of repairing damage to relationship without changing personalities or values, or even admitting that you did anything wrong)?

    [Details about this were laid out in a previous blog in this series: Working Constructively with Emotions.]

    The tricky parts of establishing and maintaining this container are:

    •  Redirecting any attempt to problem solve (that will come later).

    •  Resisting any plea to take sides. There is a deeply ingrained tendency for people in tension to try to convince others that there's is the "real" truth, and the other person is either confused or purposefully misleading. Don't go there! What really happened isn't the point; it's understanding how each person's actions make sense when seen through the lens of their perceptions.

    •  Making sure that people speak fully about their feelings. Some are uncomfortable doing so, yet that's where the heart of the stuckness resides and it's very difficult to move past it until it's been expressed and acknowledged.

    •  Being scrupulously honest about what you've heard. It's OK (even helpful) to point out legitimate places of agreement or similarity, yet you also want to point out where stories or motivations do not align. While you want to be optimistic, don't sugar coat disagreement.

    •  On a more sophisticated level, I've found that it helps if the facilitator gets the affect right (not just the words) when reflecting back what a person has said, and it is often useful to probe if something doesn't hang together. Protagonists we permit quite a bit of directiveness from a facilitator so long as they are perceived as neutral and even-handed.

    B. Discussion—Identifying the Factors
    Once you've determined that an issue is worthy of plenary attention [see Gatekeeping Plenary Agendas for more on this] it's useful to diligently separate what needs to be taken into account (an expansive step) from what to do about it (a contractive step). Most groups are not aware of this distinction and allow the conversation to dance back and forth between the two, with the result that the group gets confused about what kinds of comments are appropriate, and often has to back track on elements of the solution because they were advanced prematurely. This is a major contributor to meeting fatigue.

    Better, I think, is making room at the front of the consideration to identify all the factors that a good response to the issue needs to take into account, and completing this step before moving on to problem solving. In general this is about identifying what common values are in play, and whether or not some values should be weighed more heavily than others.

    Here is a serviceable way to work through this in three relatively quick bites:

    1.  Brainstorm (a free form, unevaluated collecting of ideas about what should be taken into account)
    Because you don't get extra credit for saying a thing twice, it doesn't take that long to run out of new things to say. A key element of this step is allowing speakers to make an impassioned pitch for the factor they have named (say 60 seconds on the soap box).

    2.  Vet
    At this stage you review the brainstormed list and see if anything comes off, presumably because it was a personal preference (or possibly a joke) instead of a group value. If the group was fairly disciplined about the brainstorm perhaps nothing comes off. In any event, the end product is a group-approved list, which is far different than a brainstormed list.

    3.  Prioritize
    In this last step you make a cursory pass at whether all factors have equal weight or do some trump others. In my experience you only need to identify two levels: either everything has equal value, or there may be some factors that are "musts" while lesser priorities are merely desirables. This can be important guidance for the problem solving phase.

    The tricky parts of establishing and maintaining this container are:


    •  Not allowing evaluative comments during the brainstorm. This is a free-flowing, creative process and negativity is sand in the ointment. You have not bought anything yet; these are only suggestions at this stage.

    •  Making sure that participants understand the soap box option for selling their brainstorm ideas. This may be their only chance to cut loose and you don't want anyone to misunderstand that.

    •  Allowing the brainstorm to go through at least one cycle of slowing down and reviving before ending it. Often the first surge of ideas are the obvious ones, with the more creative (and often more valuable) ideas surfacing in the second surge.

    •  Deflecting solutions (they come later). You want to be adamant about completing the Discussion phase before entertaining solutions.

    •  Vetting can be tricky if the group is not conversant in its common values. Fortunately, the more you invoke them the more the group will be familiar with them, and they will be alive in your work, creating a solid foundation for building solutions.

    •  Be careful about getting bogged down in prioritizing. This only needs to be one simple sort, and shouldn't take too long. The heavy lifting is not here, but in the balancing of the values that occurs under problem solving.

    C. Proposal Generating
    This is the contractive phase that follows Discussion (the prior container). Notably, this has a completely different energy than Discussion, which can be fast-paced and somewhat raucous. In this phase you are done with advocacy. We have already determined what needs to be taken into account. Now you want bridging statements. Who has ideas about how the various factors can be balanced in proposed agreements or actions? Now we are putting together and everyone is on the same team.

    The energy here should be softer and more gentle. It is a creative process. It is coming home.

    The test here is how well a suggestion addresses the various factors that were the output of the prior step. There is no need to hurry. Silence can be productive here.

    The tricky parts of establishing and maintaining this container are:


    •  Not allowing people to repeat why a factor means a lot to them (that boat already sailed). The soap box is no longer available.

    •  Not allowing the energy to devolve into a tug of war, with winners and losers. You will not have a good solution unless everyone feels their input was respectfully worked with—this is not the same as everyone getting their way, but neither do you want anyone feeling like they've been run over or bullied.

    •  It is better to go slowly and accurately, than to hurry and regret it later. Sometimes an idea needs to incubate for a while before its wisdom is evident.

    •  Maintaining enthusiasm in the face of disagreement. Some people despair at the first sign of discord, and you need to model curiosity and interest in that moment, reminding people viscerally about how differences ultimately create a broader base (surer footing) on which to build durable solutions. Often it is helpful to highlight differences and draw the group's attention to the specifics that are not resolved, asking them to drill down on the question of how to resolve this apparent impasse. Don't be afraid or intimidated by differences.

    •  There can be delicacy about deciding when a solution is good enough to go with. You have to have had enough examination to identify flaws or reservations about a proposal to generate a feel for whether the concerns are fatal, or further work is likely to bring improvement. Keep in view the option to employ a sunset clause if people are worried about being trapped in a flawed agreement.
    • • •
    While the above three containers are by no means the only ones that facilitators will be called upon to use in the pursuit of their craft, if you only become adept at these three, it will make a huge difference in productivity and meeting satisfaction.

  • The Convener Role in Coopoerative Groups
    One of the challenges that cooperative groups face is developing governance structures that are appropriate for the culture they are trying to create. When all the models we've been exposed to growing up are derived from a competitive Roberts-Rules-of-Order voting culture, it may not be obvious how to accomplish this.

    In this blog I want to drill down on a specific instance of this phenomenon—one that I encounter frequently as a group process consultant—the role of the committee convener. In most cases this is never explicitly defined and people filling that role are often given the latitude to handle it as they see fit (under the dubious principle that if a person is willing to accept responsibility then we won't look too closely at how they do their job).

    In the absence of group guidance about what's wanted, I see behavior from conveners that ranges from the iron-fisted control exemplified by Mitch McConnell—who has sole power to decide what gets discussed on the floor of the US Senate (never mind what the other 99 senators want)—to I-don't-know-what-do-you-want-to-talk-about laissez faire passivity, where the committee members collectively bumble their way through the question of what to discuss as the meeting progresses.

    I think we can do better. If nothing else, isn't it an improvement to lay out what's expected before asking people to fill a role?

    With that in mind, here is what I suggest be used as a template:   

    Generic Description of the Committee Convener Role

    —This is mainly an administrative, coordinating role, not a decision-making or power position. In pursuit of this the convener's essential duty is to mediate a healthy relationship between the plenary and the committee, with maximum grace and transparency. This is about greasing the skids, not creating a fiefdom.

    —The convener is the point person for fielding questions about the committee, such as:
    • what is the committee’s mandate
    • what authority does the committee have, if any, to make decisions that are binding on the full group
    • what is the committee’s budget (and how much has been spent or committed to date)
    • when and where the committee meets
    • what’s the draft agenda for the next meeting
    • how to access the public minutes
    • whether a particular issue falls within the committee’s purview
    • whether the committee has established policy regarding something that falls within its bailiwick
    • how does one join the committee
    • what are the expectations of people who serve on the committee
    • how does the committee make decisions

    —The convener notifies committee members of upcoming meetings and communicates the draft agenda and background material for that meeting in a timely way.

    —The convener makes sure that the committee has process agreements and functions in accordance with them. Examples include:
    • How people get on the committee.
    • The circumstances under which a committee member may be asked to step down.
    • Expectations of committee members to attend meetings, and do the prep work needed to be ready to go.
    • How frequently the committee will self evaluate (this may be specified in the authorizing mandate).
    • When the committee meets, for how long, and where.
    • Standards for notifying committee members about the draft agenda and passing along background materials.
    • Standards for notifying group members who are not on the committee about upcoming meetings and their opportunity for contributing timely input on issues to be examined.
    • Standards for how minutes will be taken, how they will be reviewed for accuracy, and how they will archived and accessed.
    • Whether meetings will be facilitated, and, if so, how facilitators will be selected, and what is expected/authorized for people serving in that capacity.
    • The conditions under which the committee has the right to close a meeting, if any.
    • Expectations about how the committee will work with emotional input.
    • How will committee decisions be made (this may be spelled out in the committee mandate).
    • Expectations for how the committee will work through interpersonal tensions.

    —The convener makes sure that meetings have been adequately planned for:
    • that an agenda has been drafted (or suggests that a scheduled meeting be cancelled because there’s no work to do)
    • that an appropriate facilitator is lined up (if you use one)
    • that a minute-taker is lined up ahead, and that minutes get reviewed and posted in a timely way afterwards
    • that the meeting space has been reserved
    • that visual aids are secured (such as flip chart, markers, and an easel; or a laptop, projector, and screen)
    • that notice of the meeting to the full group (if the meeting is open) has been posted ahead of time, according to standards set by the group

    —The convener makes sure that coordination happens when issues require two or more subgroups or managers to collaborate.

    —The convener makes sure that committee issues requiring plenary input are passed along to those responsible for setting plenary agendas.

    —While the convener may be involved in committee agenda setting, they need not be, and they have no special power in setting the agenda. Their bottom line is that it happens in a timely way; not that they do it.

    —While the convener may facilitate committee meetings, that is not automatic. Facilitators (if used) should be selected because they have the skills needed to do that well, not because they are the convener.

    —The convener is expected to have a working grasp of all work being done by the committee (why the committee is handling the work on its plate, what the committee is expect to accomplish, who is doing the work, when the work is due, and what progress has been made on completing the work). This is independent of whether the convener is personally involved with the work. In line with this responsibility the convener is expected to monitor the progress of all tasks taken on by the committee, troubleshooting as appropriate.

    —The convener is expected to respond promptly, cordially, and accurately to inquires about the committee, regardless of whether those inquiries come from committee members or group members who are not on the committee.

    —If interpersonal tensions arise within the committee that do not resolve easily, the convener is expected to be proactive in getting the protagonists help. That may come from the convener but it could be from another person (or group of people) if they are more skilled, more acceptably neutral, or more available to the protagonists. In casting about for suitable help, the convener is expressly not limited to members of the committee in seeking the best choice.

    —The convener is responsible for maintaining accessibility and good relations with the conveners of other committees, as well as with all other group members.


  • Bedlam 2018
    After taking a year off, I'm reviving an annual tradition I started in 2011—taking a moment at the turning of the calendar to summarize where I slept during the past year.

    I refer to this as "bedlam" because: a) I'm on the road a lot and have a chaotic and confusing distribution of sleeping arrangements; b) some think that my travel schedule is prima facie evidence of mental imbalance (and I don't want to deprive them of data); and c) I have a congenital weakness for word play.
    So here are the highlights of where I was when the lights went out each night. Because I didn't post about this last year and 2016 was anomalous for health reasons, I'll compare my 2018 stats with 2015 as I sift for trends.

    o  It's always good to start with home. In 2018 I slept in my own bed (the one I share with Susan) 216 nights, or 59% of the time, which is about average.

    o  I stayed with clients 67 nights, which continues an upward trend in that regard (it was only 51 nights three years back, and that was an increase from 2014).

    o  I was with family 27 nights, down slightly from three years ago.

    o  I visited friends overnight a meager six nights, which was down dramatically from 42 nights in 2015. (I'm scratching my head over this one as I don't have the sense that I'm visiting friends less—maybe I'm just not spending the night like I used to?)

    o  As a cancer survivor I live with a compromised immune system and I was reminded of that last winter when I spent two brief stints in the hospital battling respiratory illnesses, trimming my total at home by five nights. 

    o  Coincident with my retiring as FIC administrator at the end of 2015, I only attended one set of meetings (as a Board member of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions) and one event (the Canadian Cohousing Conference in Vancouver last spring) in 2018. 

    o  As an inveterate train traveler I slept on the choo choo 30 nights, plus an additional three nights as Amtrak's guest in a hotel when I missed a connection. (Incidentally, those were my only nights in a hotel, for which I am thankful.) This was about average for nights on a train. I also spent one short night on a plane, winging my way from Atlanta to Madrid, where dawn and I arrived simultaneously.

    o  As an artifact of my battle with multiple myeloma, I have three collapsed vertebrae at the top of my lumbar section. While I've been able to adjust to this with minimal residual pain, I can assure you that I thoroughly enjoy lying down at the of the day on a nice mattress and letting my back unwind. As such, I'm happy to report that my days of sleeping on floors are completely behind me (as opposed to beneath me), and I was only on a couch or air mattress 10 nights. Whew. Sleep is important.

    o  Over the course of the year I slept and schlepped (my luggage) in 16 states, one province, and three cities in Spain (where Susan and I vacationed for nine days in October).

    o  It's amazing to reflect on my ability to resurface as an active consultant and teacher after my cancer was discovered three years ago. I was one sick puppy at the time, but responded well to treatments and here I am. Since then I have experienced full cognitive recovery, and my constitution has rebounded sufficiently that I can work an intensive four-day stretch with no loss in function. (Fortunately, faciltating and teaching are not aerobically demanding vocations.) Three years after dancing on the brink of checking out, I'm not only still getting up each morning, but have good things to do and good people to do them with. In all, I've got a pretty good deal.

    So that's my bedlam synopsis for last year. Here's wishing you and yours happy days and gratifying opportunities in the year ahead.