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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.

  • Me Versus We
    Most intentional communities understand that there can be tension between what individual members want and what’s best for the group. While these two things are ordinarily meant to play well with each other, that's not always the case. In this essay I want to examine the consequences of how the group plumbs for what’s best.

    You may think it's obvious, but it isn't.

    I. The Sum of All Individual Preferences
    One method is to give everyone a turn on the soapbox to pitch their personal preferences and then attempt to find some middle position that balances all the ideas that have been floated. In this model everyone (or at least everyone with an opinion) tries to persuade others to come their way. Just as the group is comprised of its members, this approach builds on the theory that a good group solution is an amalgamation of its member's preferences.

    The argument in favor of this approach is that it's fair (everyone with an opinion is given the chance to state it) and relatively easy to gather the data (most people know their own mind, or can readily get there). On the downside this can be chaotic and potentially acrimonious (if the stakes are high and the differences are large). This kind of exploration can devolve into a tug-of-war debate and it can be a slog.

    II. The Balance of What Each Person Thinks Is Best for the Group
    A different approach is asking everyone to think about what’s best for the whole, and to put any ideas through that screen before speaking. While this may still produce different notions about how to proceed, the range will probably be narrower, and there is likely to be less personal investment—which aids in creating a collaborative environment for bridging among suggestions. So there is a double plus: a smaller gap to navigate and a better atmosphere in which to effect it.

    In this approach the conversation starts in a different place—you are only considering suggestions that one or more members consider best for the group. As a practical matter, this probably means that the suggestions that emerge here are tied in some way to an interpretation of the group's common values—as that's what defines what's best for the group. You will not necessarily get that with the first approach, which encourages members to stump for personal preferences.

    Finally, there is one more noteworthy advantage to the second approach: it encourages the group to move more toward the "we" end of the I-we spectrum, which better aligns with the group's efforts to gently (but firmly) move the group along on its way to unlearning competitive dynamics on the road to creating a robust cooperative culture. This is no small thing.
    • • •
    Why is this important? In my experience, groups rarely discuss how they will determine what's best for the group, and it can be highly confusing if the group allows both approaches at the same time. Someone following the first approach is susceptible to being labeled selfish or "not a team player" by those using the second approach, and that can lead to some raw feelings. 

    Going the other way, reliance on the second approach may come across as disingenuous or mealy-mouthed (couching personal preferences in the language of unity) to those willing to be forthright about what they want.  

    Fortunately, the solution is not that hard to come by: talk about it. (Have you noticed how often that's a foundational aspect of my advice about how to handle awkward group dynamics?) While I have a decided preference for the second approach, in the end it's more important that the group is using the same approach than that you follow my advice about which to embrace.

  • Why Critical Feedback Is Critical
    Three years ago I almost died. I was close to renal failure and didn't know it. Pain—a crucial biological feedback system—saved my life.

    Here's how it worked. Unbeknownst to me I had multiple myeloma (a blood cancer) that was producing an overabundance of plasma cells. My kidneys were working overtime to get rid of the excess and were wearing down. While I was not experiencing pain from that, it turns out that multiple myeloma also leaches calcium from the host's skeleton (a la osteoporosis). In my case that led to three collapsed vertebrae at the top of my lumbar section and I had excruciating back pain associated with that. So bad that I had trouble getting out of bed. That got me to the emergency room where the cancer and the renal crisis were discovered.

    In the social realm, critical feedback serves the same function as pain in the biological realm. Just as pain comes in a wide range of degrees of severity, so does criticism. Some pain you can safely ignore; other pain can alert you to a life-threatening condition that requires immediate attention. (As many of us experience critical feedback as painful, this analogy is not such a stretch.)

    In the social context, the important point I'm trying to make is that everyone needs honest reflections about how they're coming across to others. While you get to exercise discernment about what meaning to give that information, you can't work with what you don't have, and it is never in your best interest to put up barriers to receiving it… even though we do it all the time.

    What do I mean? There are all manner of dodges and deflections we clever humans develop to keep feedback at bay, or to discourage observers from making the attempt:

    •  Defensiveness
    •  Denial 
    •  Feigned deafness
    •  It's too embarrassing
    •  Our identity is so associated with our behavior that it's devastating to have our behavior criticized—because we translate it into "we're bad"—even though that's not what was said
    •  We attack the messenger if we don't like the message
    •  We dismiss the message because it didn't come in a respectful package
    •  Our egos are too fragile to handle criticism (we need six positives to tolerate a negative)
    •  I don't like the person who gave me the feedback and am suspicious of their motivation
    •  I don't know the person who gave me the feedback and therefore dismiss or discount the validity of their perception (how accurately could a stranger see me?)
    •  But I meant well

    Sound familiar? Sadly, all of this is just so much shooting yourself in the foot. What's more, the stronger the reaction (which tends to be the hardest feedback to hear) is the most valuable of all. Think about it. If someone likes what you did and doesn't tell you, you're likely to continue what you were doing—which isn't a problem. If, however, someone is struggling mightily with what you did and doesn't tell you, your continuing to do what you've been doing could be incendiary.

    Most of us come out of a mainstream culture that doesn't provide good models for how to do feedback well—either on the giving end or the receiving end. So we're mostly blazing trails when we move in this direction, with precious few models to guide us. While its necessary work, it tends to be awkward and clunky in the initial attempts.

    How to Make the Shift
    OK, suppose you're convinced that your group is better off consciously developing a culture in which members give one another direct honest feedback. How?

    1. Have a plenary conversation about moving in this direction—about making it a foundational part of the culture you are purposefully trying to create. You are not likely to get there accidentally. While you're at it, ask everyone what kind of support they'd like to make this easier to sustain.

    2. If you have a team whose job it is to help with interpersonal tensions, ask them to be available to help members say the hard thing if it feels too scary to do alone.

    3. You might consider setting up an evening where people practice giving and receiving critical feedback, to test drive the model before you really need it.

    4. Feedback is likely to land better if you are specific, describe how it landed for you (without attempting to ascribe motivations to the other person), and and can state what would work better for you (a request, not a demand). To the extent possible, steer clear of judgments and globalization—just give the feedback straight.

    5. Passing along critical feedback tends to work better if you negotiate the setting. Thus, you might approach the person you want to give the feedback to with, "I have something I want to discuss with you. It's about something you did that I had a reaction to. Is now a good time?"

    People have all kinds of preferences. Why not give your audience whatever will put them more at ease? Maybe they want it first in writing so they can think about it before discussing it. Maybe they prefer to hear it in the morning rather than at night. Perhaps they'd like a third party to be present.
    • • •
    Please understand that I am not saying you have to agree with the assessment or necessarily change your behavior as a consequence of hearing critical feedback. You need to exercise judgment about what weight to give the feedback.

    —Was it simply a misunderstanding?
    —Did the other person understand context?
    —What might you do to make it easier for the other person next time without altering the message you intend to convey?
    —What might you be willing to shift because you care about the other person and want to make things to go better?

    Your mantra, I believe, should be: what truth can I find in the criticism? And based on that, what am I willing to do about it? It's OK to take your time to think about it before responding. Good culture is not a race.

  • Cabin Still
    Last Saturday I did something I wasn't sure I'd ever do again—I sat on the stern plate of a canoe and propelled it around a lake. To be sure, it was a small lake, but I was paddling nonetheless and the torque of my J-stroke on my spine was painless. Whew. 

    Susan was in the bow and the experience stimulated a silent upwelling of good memories.

    Back when I was eight years old and among the youngest cohort of campers at Camp Easton for Boys (Ely MN), I was introduced to the gentle art of canoeing—something completely foreign to my upbringing in the suburbs of Chicago. I took to it right away and it's been part of my persona ever since. All together I figure I've spent about a year of my life in the back of a canoe. Not so much these days, of course, but the association persists.

    Even a brief circumnavigation of the shores of a quiet lake in northern Wisconsin was evocative. It was a highlight moment for Susan and me.

    The Long Goodbye
    Last weekend was also saying goodbye to a cabin that had been in Susan's life the last 30 years. It belongs to good friends Ray and Elsie (who live in Minneapolis) and is on the shores of Spring Lake, about 15 miles east of Spooner WI. Susan would be invited to join them at the cabin once or twice a summer and all their kids grew up sharing that experience. Since getting together with Susan three years ago the invitations have included me as well.

    Living in the north, Susan always aspired to have a cabin of her own, but her first partner, Tony, wasn't into the maintenance and it didn't happen. The next best thing, of course, is having friends with cabins and on that account Susan has fared much better. Susan has lots of friends.

    Still, Ray & Elsie's cabin is the one she's enjoyed most frequently, and the joy of our visit was somewhat undercut by the bittersweet knowledge that Ray & Elsie had accepted an offer on the property and this would be our last visit. By the end of June another Minneapolis couple will own the cabin.

    So we made the most of it, arising each morning to witness sunrise over the lake. We saw bald eagles, hawks, heron, hummingbirds, and Baltimore orioles. Although it was warm enough for mosquitoes, we were relatively protected on the screened-in porch that overlooks the lake—the perfect place to enjoy a good novel (I read two). We all took turns cooking, washing dishes, and dranking more beer than on a typical weekend.

    We brought Lucie with us and she loved being allowed to free roam in the nearby woods, and go for dips in the lake when it suited her. Her biggest challenge was sharing space with Ray & Elise's 18-month-old puppy, Polly, who invariably wanted to play more than Lucie (our grand dame at 11 years old). Even so, Lucie got plenty of exercise and slept like a log on the drive home Sunday.

    The first thing I did after unloading the car back in Duluth was take a nap. That nonstop relaxing at the cabin can really take it out of you.

  • May the Fourth Be with You
    Susan and I attended the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra's season-ending performance this evening, where we enjoyed both a 60-degree evening (don't laugh—that's warm for the first week of May in Duluth) and a program styled Along the Mediterranean. The balmy weather helped put us in the mood for that program.

    We enjoyed a set of five up-tempo compositions, concluding with Ravel's Bolero—one of my favorite orchestral pieces. After a boffo crescendo ending and a standing O for all the various soloists, we were ready to head for the exit, when our puckish maestro, Dirk Meyer, took advantage of the calendar, grabbed the mic, and sent us off to summer with a surprise encore, introduced with the semi-cryptic entrée, "May the Fourth be with you." The DSSO then launched into a spirited rendition of John Williams' Star Wars Overture.

    It was a delightful way to spend Saturday night.

    Especially after having spent eight hours volunteering at St Paul's annual rummage sale earlier in the day, which pretty much took the starch out of Susan and me. The Episcopal Church netted something north of $2000—mostly on sales of items that sold for $5 or less (I counted the cash at the end and we had accumulated a whopping 235 one-dollar bills)—so that was a healthy outcome. 

    Email Purgatory
    Today's busy schedule helped take my mind off the need to dig out from under the 474 emails that had piled up last week when I was suddenly unable to send or receive email for eight days. For reasons that still baffle me (gremlins?) my email program (Apple Mail) suddenly asked me for my Google password and I had no idea what it was. My computer had been automatically logging me in for years and I was dead in the water.

    The problem first surfaced April 21 (which meant I was fully grounded on Earth Day—just not in a good way) and it didn't get resolved until the following Monday. As email is far and away my main connection to the information superhighway, I was in big doo-doo. Sure, I was able to handle the odd bit of business via telephone but mostly I was on hold, hoping that I wasn't missing too many time-sensitive requests.

    While I had no trouble with connectivity and therefore had full access to the internet, nothing is more crippling to me than than loss of email. It's how I conduct almost all of my business these days, excepting only the live work I do with clients.

    After spending 48 hours monkeying around on my own (trying all manner of possible passwords) it was time to call in reinforcements. So I took my laptop in to George Reindl, my go-to Apple guy at Downtown Computer. Although George needed help from both FIC (the Fellowship controls the ic.org domain that I've always used as my primary email address and I first needed to get a new password for my alias) and from Google, he eventually got it sorted out—including correcting the setting mistakes I made in my ham-handed attempts to fix the problem myself.

    Now I have four days left to get everything caught up before alighting in Vancouver BC next Thursday for the start of a new two-year facilitation training, which will occupy my entire bandwidth. Because of my penchant to travel by rail, that means two of my remaining four days I'll be on rolling stock. Departing from St Paul's (the city, not the church) Union Depot Monday evening at 10:20 pm, I'm due to get to Vancouver at 11:00 pm Wednesday.

    Fortunately, I can be productive on a moving train (I'm not susceptible to motion sickness) and I'll have connectivity en route via the hotspot I can set up on my iPhone. So four days should be enough.

    It will have to be. Or the Fourth will not have been with me enough.

  • Key Facilitative Skills: Projecting Curioisty
    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   

    • • •
    Projecting Curiosity in the Presence of Disagreement 
    One of the most pivotal moments in group dynamics is the point of disagreement—when someone first expresses a significantly different viewpoint than another's, and the outcome matters. Most of us have been conditioned to respond to this as the opening bell of a fight. But it doesn't have to go like that.

    You need to keep context in mind. In cooperative culture you want what's best for the group, and the pathway to get there is not the same as in competitive culture—where the survivor of a battle over individual preferences is thought to produce the best outcome. In cooperative culture it shouldn't matter where an idea comes from; it only matters whether it's worthwhile. It shouldn't matter how much others are persuaded by your thinking; only whether we're collectively finding the best solutions.

    In competitive culture, we strive to win the debate. The theory is that good ideas will outlast poor ones, and testing ideas against each other is how we expose weaknesses and demonstrate an idea's staying power (if you can't knock it down, it must be good). In competitive culture you're hoping that your idea will prevail. In cooperative culture you turn that on its head—you go into a meeting hoping someone will change your mind—that your thinking can be improved upon. This is a radical shift, and not always easy to access in the dynamic moment.

    That's where the facilitator's skill can save the day. It's their job to gently, yet firmly remind people to be open of different viewpoints. If group members feel it's unsafe to voice alternate thinking, they will hesitate to do so, undercutting the foundational premise of cooperative culture—that the group does its best work when all relevant views have been heard and considered.

    I'm not saying that everyone will say brilliant things. I'm saying that you want the least possible barriers to members contributing their input on any given topic (because you never know where brilliancy will come from).

    So what makes this hard? Partly it's competitive conditioning (feeling threatened and argumentative when someone's ideas diverge from ours), but it's more complicated than that. Sometimes there will be problems with the delivery—which the speaker may or may not be aware of. Even assuming that the speaker is doing the best they can (which isn't always the case) what's comfortable and familiar to the speaker may be irritating and off-putting to the listener. If the delivery is freighted with aggression or sarcasm, it can be very difficult to respond with openness.

    And yet, it still serves us best to try.

    Working Distress and Disagreement
    In the instance where a divergent view is expressed with a froth of attitude (typically the most challenging version of disagreement), it generally works best for the facilitator to start by acknowledging the substance of the speaker's point of view—refraining from commenting on the edge to their delivery until later. Why?

    It works like this: when people express themselves aggressively it signals upset. When people are upset they don't listen well. When you can establish that you've heard an upset person's viewpoint and why they're upset, they tend to deescalate (become less upset). Consequently their hearing improves, they become less rigid, and it's easier to have a constructive conversation—all of which are desirable.

    To be clear, I am not condoning aggression. Rather, I'm trying to make the case for how to engage with it effectively. You can still hold someone accountable for being aggressive (or sarcastic), just not right away.

    Multiple On Ramps
    Because meetings are not uniformly accessible to all folks, it's prudent for facilitators to provide a variety of ways to engage. Some people take more time to know their mind and to be ready to speak than others. Some are more comfortable speaking in front of the whole group than others. Some are more articulate in writing; some more eloquent orally. By mixing up formats, and extending to meeting participants a variety of ways to engage, it's much more likely that everyone will have been given something with which they are comfortable. 

    Good facilitators think about this and prepare options ahead of time.