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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 Facilitation Skills: Riding Two Horses
    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
    • • •
    Riding Two Horses: Content and Energy

    In order to do great work, facilitators need to be able two master two core skills:

    You have to be able to manage content, and you have to be able to manage energy. Let's examine them one at a time.

    Content
    At the most basic level this means hearing accurately what people are saying, and discerning what matters to them and why. It's a skill set that most would think of of right away when asked what facilitators do. That said, there are levels of subtleties. Not only should the facilitator always know where the group is at, but they should have a damn good idea about where the conversation is headed—and whether it will be a good thing to go there.

    On a more subtle level, it is rarely sufficient to simply open up a topic for discussion and expect that natural conversation will be safe enough and inviting enough to draw out all the relevant input (not because meetings are inherently unsafe, but because not everyone processes ideas and is ready to articulate their thinking at the same pace, and because not everyone is equally comfortable speaking in front of the whole group). The skilled facilitator needs to offer a variety of ways to elicit input from participants.

    (Coincidentally, mixing up formats has the synergistic benefit of keeping the energy up as well, as groups are typically energized by doing something new, rather than slogging through the same old same old.)

    When working content, the facilitator's bread and butter skills are not hard to imagine: 

    • Contact statements
    This is the ability to distill down to its essence what the speaker just said, both so that others in the room  can hold the Cliffs Notes version of the input, and so that the speaker will be affirmed (among other things, this is an effective preemptive strike on those who are prone to repetition). While this tool needs to be applied judiciously (if the speaker was clear and the group is tracking well there's no need for a contact statement), it can be amazingly effective at keeping the ball rolling.

    • Paraphrasing
    Some of the time the speaker's point has not been well understood. When that occurs, it useful to be able to restate the speaker's point(s) in such a way that the input is the same (in the eyes of the speaker) yet the frame of reference has been shifted such that the audience now gets it. The fog lifts. Simply repeating the original statement (perhaps a bit louder) rarely succeeds.

    • Summarizing
    The skilled facilitator knows when the group is approaching the limit of how many worms it can tolerate crawling around the floor before anxiety starts to build (because it's getting too hard to recall where all the worms have gotten off to). In a complex conversation where many viewpoints are expressed, it is quite helpful for the facilitator to periodically offer up a summary of what been heard so far. The summary both separates signal from noise and clumps like opinions, creating ease for the group and helping them maintain focus.

    • Fishing
    A good facilitator is agreement oriented. While you might not think that's remarkable, it is. In a dominant competitive culture (which is unquestionably what we have in the US), people are conditioned to think first in terms of differences; not similarities—because there is ingrained in us a psychological imperative to identify how we are unique as individuals and you can only be sure of that when you distinguish yourself from others; not when you agree. 

    Thus, if the facilitator has done sufficient personal work to unlearn competitive conditioning, they can replace it with an agreement orientation which seeks first to identify similarities. And because people tend to find what they're looking for, it's not unusual for the facilitator to be among the first to see how a proposal could hold the whole (while others are obsessed with differences) . When that happens, the facilitator should offer it to the group as a possibility. If it works, great (maybe you can get done early). If the group balks, just back out gracefully and let the conversation continue to mature. Maybe you missed something and you don't want to sacrifice your neutrality on the altar of your insight.

    The point is that it's OK for the facilitator to offer possibilities (rather than sureties) if they think it might lead to a breakthrough. Don't withhold in deference to group ownership (the mistaken notion that the solution somehow won't count unless it bubbles up from the rank and file). If the group likes your brilliancy, they'll own it soon enough. If they don't buy it, oh well, you tried. Let it go and move on.

    Another version of fishing is when the facilitator is unsure what someone said or is uncertain of the motivation underneath it. Starting with the assumption that everyone is trying to be helpful, sometimes it pays for the facilitator to take a stab at what they think might have been intended, in the hopes of forestalling less friendly comments from others who are confused. This is the facilitator jumping into the breach, in service to maintaining an attitude of cooperation and curiosity. If the facilitator gets it right, all manner of mischief may have been sidestepped; if the facilitator gets it wrong, the facilitator can gracefully accept corrective comments from the speaker and on we go.

    • Weaving
    This is a more advanced skill, whereby the facilitator connects the dots between what was just said with what had been said before (either by the same person or someone else). It is all the more impressive (and often more helpful) when the time gap between the two is large (perhaps not even the same day). This simultaneously accomplishes a number of good things: a) the group tends to relax because your tracking  what what's being said longitudinally and able to access it at need (in IT-speak it's extremely handy for facilitators to have a large RAM—random access memory)—the group will feel safer in your hands; b) it tends to comfort the earlier speaker, as they will be touched that you've been holding their input and weaving it appropriately—which serendipitously undercuts the motivation for the prior speaker to repeat their input (hurray!); and c) it reduces the number of variables in play, bringing the group that much closer to resolution.

    Note that weaving could either work in support of the current statement or in contrast to it. The key is that you are bringing up the connection to sharpen the conversation, to get the group to focus in the right place, either on a potential point of agreement or on a potential pitfall that needs to resolved. Either can advance the ball.
     
    • Partial agreements
    When a topic is complex (most of the juicy ones are) it is often beneficial to break it into digestible chunks and tackle them one bite at a time, rather than cramming your mouth full and trying to swallow the solution whole, as this often results in choking down food that is insufficiently chewed and you get indigestion. Yuck. A skilled facilitator will develop a sense of how large a bite the group can masticate, develop a sequence for tackling the various tidbits of the topic, and then methodically guide the group through the multi-course (and perhaps multi-meeting) meal.

    • Knowing when to delegate
    It is a common error for cooperative groups to start in the right place and end in the wrong place. Plenaries need to be diligent about only working topics at the plenary level, and then showing awareness and discipline about handing details off to a manager or committee once the plenary work has been completed. All too often groups are seduced by the good feeling of making progress and slide right past the correct stopping place to extend the high—essentially jumping a fence and micromanaging a subgroup. This can result in the subgroup feeling stepped upon (why bother to do the work if the plenary is just going to override us?) resulting in demoralization. With an eye out toward this possibility, the facilitator needs to be on their toes, to ensure that the plenary is not on the subgroup's toes. 

    On occasion, the skilled facilitator needs to ask the group, "Are we done working this topic at the plenary level; is it time to hand over final details and implementation to the subgroup?" thereby gently reminding the group of how it intended to operate.

    Now let's cross the aisle and focus on the second horse.
    • • •
    Energy
    Is the engagement bringing everyone into the conversation? Is it deepening an understanding of one another, or is the energy fractured and brittle? Are people reactive or curious when divergent views are expressed? Is the group energized or drained? Are there undercurrents swirling in the room that aren't surfacing? Are distracting side conversations starting to pop up? Is there sarcastic humor being dripped into the room like dark ink tainting clear water? Are people getting bored? Do participants need more oxygen or a bio break?

    All of these are energy questions, and a skilled facilitator will regularly scan the group for signs that any of these conditions obtain, and then have an internal conversation about which horse to be riding at any given moment: is it more productive to focus on content or energy right now?

    Unfortunately the skills needed to ride these two horses are almost completely unrelated. A person could be good at both, good at neither, or proficient at one and not the other. 

    In general, the most difficult horse to ride well is the one with unbridled reactivity (which will be the subject of the next blog in this series), and it's important (even crucial) that the facilitator not promise an ability that they do not possess. Thus, even if you're convinced that working emotionally is a needed skill, you can't fake it. You have to be able to do more than explain the theory of working emotionally; you have to be able to deliver in the dynamic moment, most of which will be unscripted and chaotic.

    While content work is largely cognitive, energy work relies heavily on intuition and relational skills—which expressly includes reading nonverbal cues (pace, tone, volume, eye contact, body language, facial coloring, etc) and understanding cultural context. (For example, people talking over each other may indicate indignation in some groups; in others, the same behavior only signifies interest. You have to understand what you're experiencing in context.)

    While a good deal of content work can be reasonably anticipated; with energy you have to be ready for anything. Thus, facilitators need to be centered, open, and light on their feet. You have be able to hit the curve ball, not just the fastballs down the middle.

    One of the challenges of working with energy (which is invariably a factor whether it's recognized or not) is that many groups have not made a commitment to go there, and thus the way may be complicated by resistance to certain concepts and vocabulary ("We're here to solve problems, not navel gaze") if the facilitator attempts to bring the group's attention to an energetic concern. So packaging may be an issue.

    Many groups steer clear of energy as a focus because they're not sure they can contain it and are afraid of its potential for enabling wild behavior that may turn destructive. (If people are allowed to get excited who knows what will happen—it might lead to dancing) But even if you banned passion from the room (which I don't advocate), it'll creep in anyway and you'll have to deal. Ignoring it or bad vibing it are not particularly effective strategies. [I'll develop this theme more fully in my blog about Semipermeable Membranes—coming soon.]

    If you buy what I'm selling about needing to ride both horses, you may wonder about how to manage that in real time. Physiologists will tell you that it's not possible to hold more than one thing in your  consciousness at a given moment, so the skilled facilitator learns to regularly toggle between a focus on content and a focus on energy, so that there is a steady flow of fresh data about what's happening in each regard. Over time, the facilitator learns patterns and relies on them as an alert that something may be off. (I have a good friend who refers to this kind of sensory input as "niggles," which she's learned to deeply respect.)
    • • •
    In short, if you aspire to be a reliable, stable facilitator, I recommend that you build a reliable stable—large enough to house, feed, and exercise both horses.

  • Dark Clouds in the Queen City
    I'm sitting in a Greyhound bus in Cincinnati in the pouring rain. And that's the good news… because the skies didn't open up until after I'd boarded.

    I got up at 1:00 am this morning to start an all-day odyssey to southeastern Ohio to attend tomorrow's board meeting of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. 

    After Susan dropped me off at the Duluth Holiday gas station at 27th Ave in the dead of night, I caught the Groome shuttle to Minneapolis. From there I took a pair of Southwest Airlines puddle jumpers: first to Chicago Midway and then to Cincinnati. From there I rode the TANK (Transportation Authority of Northern Kentucky), an hourly shuttle into downtown. I walked from there to the Greyhound station (before the rain) where I was lined up to take a 75-minute bus ride up I-75 to Dayton, where Kat Walter (AMICS Board President) is ready to collect me and whisk me off to Yellow Springs—where the board meeting will happen.

    Kat's still waiting.

    While I had been more or less running on time until I got to the bus depot (I'm typing this at 4:15 pm and we were scheduled to depart two hours ago), we're stalled out at the loading dock, with no end in sight. (Remember the movie, The Truman Show, with Jim Carrey and Ed Harris? Those buses never left either.)

    The delay was precipitated by an argument between the dispatcher and driver. The dispatcher wanted the driver to make a special stop in Lima OH (package express?) and the driver (already 30 minutes behind because of a snafu in Louisville earlier in the day) refused. Now they’re pulling the driver off the bus (insubordination?) and we are awaiting the arrival of a replacement. 
     
    I don't think I ever seen so many unhappy people on a bus, some of whom have already been en route for more than 24 hours and were plenty road weary before being victimized by this pissing contest between Greyhound employees.

    Stepping back, I'm wondering, how much this is an echo of the tone set by the Donald. Civility appears to be in short supply in more places than Washington DC these days. What good comes from these assertions of power? About the only thing I can think of is that perhaps southeastern Ohio farmers need the rain.

  • Celebrating Without Sound
    Yesterday Susan and I celebrated the third anniversary of our getting together. On a balmy day in Duluth, our Saturday began by heading over to Vanilla Bean, a restaurant in the Mount Royal neighborhood to catch the Argentina-France game—the opening match among the survivors of group play in the quadrennial madness known as World Cup soccer. We knew it might be Leo Messi's last World Cup game and we didn't want to miss him and his magic left foot.

    We were the only ones in the restaurant interested in that particular form of entertainment to accompany breakfast—in my case, corned beef hash and a Bloody Mary (start the day off right, I say). I could tell right away that the poor bartender had no idea where to find World Cup amongst the plethora of cable TV options. He dutifully clicked through all the obscure music channels in the 1900s before finally finding the game on channel 11: Fox Sports. (Who knows why he didn't start with the low numbers?)

    It was an exciting game with several goals and several lead changes. Although Messi didn't score he set up two of Argentina's three goals, and it was fun to watch. Not wanting to push any of the locals off their feed, we watched with the sound off, as often happens at bars and restaurants.

    Next it was on to Home Depot, where we scored some light bulbs and a couple of foam paint brushes to apply polyurethane to the quarter round we're installing in the living room and dining room, accompanying our newly refinished hardwood floors. Although the house is still outgassing VOCs from the poly varnish, the odors are dispersing and we'll start moving everything back tomorrow.

    For our evening entertainment we started by catching the 7:00 pm showing of Won't You Be My Neighbor at Zinema, Duluth's indie movie house. It was a biopic of Fred Rogers (Mr Roger's Neighborhood). It's hard to imagine anyone who lived their life in a less Trumpian manner, and it was a refreshing antidote to the incivility and boorish behavior of our President.

    We had thought we might enjoy an anniversary dinner one block further down Superior St at Sound, a restaurant that was featured in the Taste Section of last Thursday's Minneapolis Star-Tribune. We were excited to try out the small plate specialties of their creative chef. Imagine our confusion, however, when we got to the restaurant and it didn't appear to be open. Instead, there was a sign indicating that would-be patrons might walk down a block and enter on Michigan St. 

    Following the instructions, we found ourselves in the basement, where the Rathskeller operated as a bar and bistro, with well-upholstered chairs sitting comfortably underneath brick arches and low lighting. When we asked about Sound, the waitress told us it had recently closed. Oops! I guess the newspaper review was a little out of date (but at least it explained why we were having trouble making a reservation).

    Now what? Well, the basement ambience was appealing on a muggy night so we decided to have a drink. The shelves lining the back wall were obviously well stocked and the gregarious bartender looked like he enjoyed a challenge so Susan requested a Canton (two parts bourbon, one part ginger liqueur, and the juice of half a lemon) and I asked for a Boulevardier. I earned a bit of street cred by pointing out where the bartender could find his bottle of ginger liqueur (two to the left of the Galliano), and then walking him through how to make my drink (a Negroni, substituting Woodford Reserve bourbon for Bombay Sapphire gin). When he garnished my drink with a maraschino cherry, I commented that it looked like he was using Luxardo cherries—at which point he queried, "Who are you?"

    After a pause I said, "Someone who likes to drink"—to which everyone at the bar broke out in cheers. We knew were in the right place. 

    Who needed Sound? We were making our own music in the catacombs of Duluth.

  • Freis Farm, Take Five
    I'm just back from five days in Chicago with three generations of Schaubs—the direct descendants of my parents, Bob & Val. For the fifth time in 29 years—1989, 1991, 1994, 2010, and 2018—we gathered from all over the US for a family reunion at a farm near Wilmington IL.  

    While my Dad died in 1989 (just months after the first iteration of our Freis Farm reunions) and my Mom followed 14 years later, the tradition continues. There were 41 of us this time. Participants hailed from Fairhope AL, Seattle WA, Clearwater FL, Duluth MN, Las Vegas NV, Provo UT, San Antonio TX, Galveston TX, Shreveport LA, La Grange IL, Iowa City IA, Los Angeles CA, and St Louis MO. Interestingly we sorted about equally into three age groups: 12 silverbacks; 16 in the middle (from late 20s to early 40s); and 13 kiddos—Bob & Val's great grandchildren. 

    It was quite the extravaganza. Fortunately, we dodged the global warming bullet. Though local temperatures were in the 90s and steamy the week before, a rain front stormed through Monday and the mercury fell 30 degrees (now where did I put that hoodie?) and stayed temperate all weekend. Whew. (In fact, when Susan checked the weather at home on Friday we were amused and amazed to discover that Duluth was 10 degrees warmer than Kankakee, an occurrence that may be rarer than reunions.

    Because it had been eight years since the last gathering of the clan, the youngsters (aged 10 years to 8 months) hardly knew each other, but they got over that in about 10 minutes, bonding into a pack a free-ranging imps. Fortunately, they never learned to hotwire the ATV.

    Every adult took a turn with food prep and clean-up, so that it never fell too heavily on anyone's shoulders, and the late-night carousers (especially after the late-night poker game broke up) more or less kept pace with the leftovers, so we never ran out of refrigerator capacity.

    While conversations were all over the place (there was a lot to catch up on), we studiously avoided the third rail of national politics. While most Schauber Jobbers (yes, that's how we refer to ourselves) are appalled by the boorish, divisive behavior of our President, who knows who might have been seduced by buoyant economic numbers—never mind that the piper will have to be paid for our runaway national deficit, and there's something about tax breaks for the rich that make me want to throw up.

    Our reunions have now straddled a generation. Thinking back to the first one in 1989 (when the Berlin Wall came down—incidentally, the Schaubs have now been holding reunions longer than the Berlin Wall was up), my siblings and I were the middle generation then and today's parents were yesterday's rugrats. The wheel turns.

    Freis Farm is owned by my brother-in-law, Dan Cooke, and his two sisters. Though no one has lived there since his grandparents passed away decades ago, it's a working farm and the house and yard are maintained as a retreat facility and rural getaway conveniently located about an hour south of Chicago. One of Dan's nieces got married there the week before the reunion—and suffered through the brutal heat that we were lucky enough to miss.

    One of the beauties of Freis Farm is the myriad configuration of social spaces into which a large group can sort itself. The living room was big enough for a monster game of Schaub-themed Jeopardy Friday night, and doubled as an assembly pad for Lego fantasies by junior engineers during Thursday's inclement weather. There is a small television room that accommodated World Cup soccer viewing, and a porch that allowed for side conversations that were protected from both weather and pass-through foot traffic.

    Outdoors there is a screened-in gazebo (wired for sound), an open-air viewing deck that overlooked the rain-swollen creek (and doubled as an impromptu cigar lounge), a grilling scene in front of the garage, plus plenty of grass space for whiffle ball, croquet, horseshoes, bean bag toss, and tiki torch beer bottle frisbee (for those who needed encouragement to consume malted beverages). Some even found time to pick ripe Montmorency cherries and make a couple of pies.

    It was a good time for all.

  • Gnostic Imaging
    I was at St Luke's Hospital yesterday for my monthly check-up with my oncologist. When I stepped up to registration (so I could get outfitted with one of those nifty plastic wrist bands that help staff make sure I'm the right "Laird Schaub"), I was surprised to see a display of full-color tri-folds on the counter that advertised "Gnostic Imaging." 

    Say what? They've got CT scans for detecting esoteric, spiritual knowledge? What will they think of next! It's one thing, I thought, for a hospital to be on the cutting edge of medical research; it's all together something else to be dancing with the Wu Li masters. And I was very curious how that intersected with treating cancer.

    For a minute or two, my mind started flowing in all manner of creative directions, trying to make sense of what I'd seen. Then I adjusted my stance and discovered that a box a facial tissues had been obscuring the left-hand margin of the flyer, which actually read, "Diagnostic Imaging." Oh. My bad.
    • • •
    But then again, what if I had read it right the first time? Wouldn't that be an interesting East-meets-West kind of Hippocractic amalgamation? And why not on the cancer ward—where the veil between this life and whatever is next tends to thin out precipitously. Who's to say what kind of knowledge is most needed when one is close to transition?

    Further, why not offer one-stop shopping for all your medical inquiries? For the most part modalities come in their own boxes (or edifices, in the case of hospitals) and don't tend to play well with others. Western medicine here; Chinese medicine there; Ayurvedic in this corner; Ayahuasca in that corner; over the counter on this side; over the rainbow on the other side; snake handlers in the sub-basement; and bats in the belfry.

    It's not just what science or your spirit guide tells you should have the inside track on our attention: it's what you have faith in. And that's a highly personal decision. 

    What I know—having lived through being close to death 28 months ago when my cancer was first diagnosed (and imaged at St Luke's, thank you)—is that a positive attitude and a strong support network make a difference. While those intangible factors are not definitive (optimists die, too, after all), my oncologist in Duluth and my hematologist at Mayo Clinic (who are both all in on Western medicine), freely acknowledge that attitude impacts outcomes for reasons that defy quantification. 

    Hmm. Maybe there are no accidents. Maybe St Luke's should be offering gnostic counseling, offering a menu of medical approaches, rather than one-size-fits-all. They could think of it as hedging their bets, catering to the patient's proclivities, rather than trying to direct them. Just a thought.

    Isn't it amusing what kind of insights can be triggered by standing in just the wrong place at the right time? Life tends to be a lot more interesting if you're paying attention.