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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.

  • Stubbing One's Toes in the Way to High Moral Ground
    Yesterday I got another chance to learn a lesson in humility (which persist in coming to me without my asking).

    One of the ancillary benefits of buying high-end supplemental health insurance (to ensure coverage for the pricey chemotherapy that suppresses my cancer) is that I get a free membership in an exercise club owned by one of the local hospitals. I go there to rebuild my strength and flexibility after a debilitating winter plagued by respiratory problems. 

    That meant 20 laps at a fast walk around the indoor track (a bit more than a mile), followed by 45 minutes in the sauna. (During the ages of 8-16 I spent most summers at a boys camp outside Ely MN, where we took saunas every other night in lieu of showers, and I grew to love the cleansing dry heat.)

    As I was changing into sweats in the men's locker room, another man approached me from the side and waited expectantly. As it was a little tight for him to walk by me, I stood up half-dressed and moved back so that he could get by. To my astonishment, he settled into the exact place I had been and blithely started to open the locker above mine. Shaking my head, I walked around the bench to a spot nearby so that I could finish dressing. By way of acknowledgment, he mumbled that he was trying to be respectful of my space.

    As I thought about it, he could hardly been have less respectful of my space. He saw me sitting on the bench changing my clothes—the very thing he wanted to do. What in the world gave him the idea that it would be OK to bump me so that he would have a more convenient location and wouldn't have to wait? Wouldn't it have been logical to suppose that I had a locker near his? At least he could have asked, instead of wordlessly standing over me, expecting me to give way. 

    I was particularly struck by the contrast of how his imperious behavior was draped in the raiment of sensitivity. In short, it galled me.

    I brooded over this interaction as I did laps, reflecting how much we all like to think of ourselves as aware and kind—even if others don't always experience us that way. The fact is, everyone has lapses, where absorption with self clouds our awareness of how our actions are landing with those around us, or we project onto others that they will see a situation the same way we do, without first checking out that bald assumption (and then proceed to act in a way that we intend as sensitive, yet may actually be irritating). Thus, microaggressions abound.

    Aetna once did a survey of the people who were found to be at fault in auto accidents leading to an insurance claim, and were amazed to discover that 90 percent rated themselves as above-average drivers. I suspect that the same kind of self-delusion applies to unmindfulness. Almost all of of think we are more commonly the victim of it than the perpetrator.

    I was still ruminating on this after completing my circuits of the track. Following a quick rinse in the shower I walked into the sauna and was pleased to find that there were only two others in there.  Sometimes there are six or more enjoying the Finnish bath (at the finish of their workout) and there are no seats on the top bench, where the therapeutic heat is strongest. No sooner had a sat down, however, than one of the men moved quickly to the door to close it all the way. Oops!
    While the sauna door is mounted on a spring hinge and closes automatically, it doesn't tend to close all the way and a slight crack can spill a lot of heat. I was so engaged with my inner dialog—about the unmindful man in the locker room—that I was unmindful about entering the sauna. It only took me about 30 minutes to make the same kind of behavioral error that had so outraged me. It was my turn in the penalty box.

    In addition to getting yet another chance to learn about mindfulness (in this instance seasoned lightly with the bittersweet taste of irony), I suddenly discovered sympathy for the man in the locker room that I didn't think was in me. Turning my attention to my own foibles, I was able to let go of obsessing about his. 

    It occurs to me that life has been incredibly persistent about providing me with opportunities to learn about humility. It's too bad I'm such a slow learner.

  • Booked in Duluth
    Wednesday and Friday I went into work with Susan. She's been the office manager for St Paul's Episcopal Church in Duluth since 2010, and works 8-1 every weekday.

    While it's unusual for me to provide anything more than chauffeur duty when it comes to backstopping Susan's church routine, this week I was pressed into service to help organize the book donations for St Paul's annual rummage sale, which came off yesterday without a hitch, and raised over $3000. 

    (We were lucky with the weather. The monster spring snowstorm that slammed into Minneapolis Saturday stayed south of us. We experienced high winds out of the northeast—there were eight foot waves on Lake Superior, large enough to entice some local nutballs to assay surfing in insulated bodysuits—but snow accumulation was modest and we had a good turnout for the sale.)

    Organizing the books was an interesting job (both logistically and thematically) that ate up about 10 hours. Starting with 30 or so bags and boxes on random titles, it was my task to sort the contents by type, display them, and create signage.

    While doing the same thing with used clothes, dishes, or household knickknacks—regular rummage sale staples—is just as noble in God's eye, laboring among those flea market genres would bore me to tears. Books, however, are another matter. I have a great fondness (weakness?) for them and unpacking each container was akin to opening a box of Cracker Jack to see what treasure might be inside. It was also fascinating to see what people had been reading and were willing to part with.

    While everyone assisting with the sale was volunteering their time, there was one major perk: as the book organizer, I got the pick of the litter. Here are ten gems (all paperbacks) that I gleaned from the sea of donations that flooded in over the transom:
     A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
    Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
    Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
    Dead Wake by Erik Larson
    The Coffee Trader by David LissMirror Mirror by Gregory Maguire
    Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi 
    State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
    The Full Cupboard of Life by Alexander McCall Smith
    Fifty-five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal by Elizabeth White
    • • •
    When I got together with Susan in 2015 we were both eligible for Medicare, and we made a mutual pact to downsize our worldly possessions—rather than leave so much dross it to our adult kids to sort through when we depart this vale of tears. While some things have been easy to cut back on (how many t-shirts does one need anyway?), books are hard for me to let go of.

    Fortunately I started facing the music on my book fetish four years ago, when I took the pledge: going forward I would release more books than I captured. More precisely, this was a commitment to achieve a net deficit each year, and does not prohibit me from acquiring the occasional new title (or 10) along the way. Among other things, this meant reading the books I had already acquired (in some cases decades ago) and steering clear of the temptation of bookstore window shopping. It takes discipline.

    So far, I'm succeeding. On average, I consume a book a week (it's amazing how much time you liberate for reading if you: a) don't have cable television; b) don't do Facebook; and c) travel by train), and that affords me more than enough slack to cover for my annual indulgence at the St Paul's rummage sale.

    While Susan has an iPad (and therefore e-reader capacity), I tried reading a book electronically and I simply don't derive the same joie de vie. There is something viscerally pleasurable about holding paper and turning pages that an e-reader lacks. Fortunately, books are still being printed and used bookstores—though not as prevalent as they once were—are still around. We have three in Duluth and I do business with two of them.

    It's a happy day when your partner asks you to help out in ways that are a joy to deliver. Everyone feels good (and I have 10 more titles to add to my diminishing horde).

  • April is the Cruelest Month
    Yesterday I got to watch a couple hours of the first round of the Masters Golf Tournament. While I ordinarily am not drawn to watching golf, I love the history and beauty of this particular tournament—the only major that's played on the same course every year: Augusta National.

    Because the tournament was not being carried on local television (it's still hockey season up here, with the Frozen Four playing in Minneapolis for the collegiate championship—BTW our local team, the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs, is in the finals again for the second year—and the Minnesota Wild have just secured a #3 seed for the upcoming NHL playoffs), I traveled with Susan to a downtown brew house (Hoops) to catch the game at the bar. While she played bridge in one room, I drank IPA on tap in another, and watched the defending champion, Sergio Garcia, melt down with a 13 on hole #15, and the unfolding drama of Tiger trying to revive his stalled career.

    I also experienced an acute case of cognitive dissonance. On the television there was no mistaking the technicolor emergence of springtime in Georgia. The azaleas and dogwoods were in their full pink and white glory, and everyone was walking around in shirtsleeves. Outside, my car was parked in light snow.

    This morning while fixing breakfast, I listened to NPR. A regular feature of their Friday programming includes a visit with Climatologist Mark Seeley, a University on Minnesota professor emeritus, who looked into the tea leaves and predicted below normal temperatures and above normal periods of rain and snow for the foreseeable future (which in the world of meteorology is about two weeks). I'm thinking, will the snow be totally gone by May?

    I realize that the calendar says we're fully into spring, and it sure looked that way in Georgia. While the days here are definitely getting longer—just like they're supposed to—and we don't have much ice to cope with any more, no one around here is wearing shorts or tank tops just yet. Nor have any of our neighbors put away their down jackets or snow shovels. 

    Down in the "warmer" southern part of the state, the Twins played their home opener in 38-degree weather yesterday. Baseball is supposed to be the game of summer, but we don't get much of that in April. A lot of locals take vacation time this month, to go somewhere warm (which is just about anywhere else), so they don't have to endure the death throes of winter. 

    Sure, the sun is higher these days, but so are the expectations. April in northern Minnesota is an exercise in patience.

  • Cooperative Culture
    My good friend María Silvia recently asked me to write about cooperative culture. As that struck me as a reasonable request, here are my thoughts...

    The first thing to appreciate is that cooperation is the sociological opposite of competition. Mainstream US culture is rooted in competition—and characterized by hierarchic and adversarial dynamics. The basic notion is that a fair fight will produce the best result. Out of rigorous debate and trial by fire, the best ideas will prevail. (Never mind that the "fights" are rarely fair; that's another topic.)

    Cooperative culture is a radically different approach, where you trust the wisdom of the collective as superior to that of the individual. Instead of a battle, you want to have minimal barriers to soliciting relevant input and to welcome divergent views. Rather than responding to differences with combat (We were doing fine until you spoke), in cooperative culture you try to respond with curiosity (Why does that person see this differently—maybe I'm missing something).

    Here are features of cooperative culture:

    • For cooperative culture to make sense, individuals need to identify with a group that is greater than themselves or their family—otherwise what are you cooperating with? And when this group gathers (to make common cause), there is an emphasis on members thinking in terms of what's best for the group—as opposed to advocating for personal preferences (and hoping that the sum of the parts will add up to a whole).

    This is especially potent in decision-making. If there is a strong group affiliation then differences can be seen as a strength (because it broadens the base of ideas and perspectives to work with) instead of an occasion for a winner-take-all battle.

    • The power is ultimately held by the group, not by an individual or subgroup who has agreed to play follow the leader. To be sure, it generally makes sense to delegate power to managers and subgroups, but it all flows from the whole.

    • In cooperative culture it tends to matter as much how things get done as what gets done. The corollary of this is the primacy of relationships. If you're sacrificing relationships on the altar of principle (which I've tragically seen happen), you're at risk of drowning the baby in the bath water.

    • There is a greater emphasis on sharing, which relieves pressure to own (how many lawnmowers does a neighborhood need, anyway; how many snowblowers; how many pickups?). This can have a profound impact on the dollars needed to achieve and sustain a quality of life. With sharing you can substitute access to things for ownership.

    • Some people naively think that if you commit to living cooperatively that you can leave the strife and conflict of competitive culture behind. Sorry to say, that's not what happens. In fact, by virtue of purposefully living a life that is more intertwined with others, you'll have more occasion to experience disagreement. Thus, you need to have solid ways to work through conflict if you're going to be happy living cooperatively.
    That means being able to recognize and work constructively (non-judgmentally) with emotional responses. While this is a valuable and powerful skill, it is not trivial.

    • If you've gotten this far it's probably occurred to you that personal work is required to create and maintain cooperative culture. You'll need to unlearn competitive conditioning and up your game in the arena of social skills. Make no mistake about it, this is work. For a deeper treatment of what I mean, see my Nov 30, 2013 blog Gender Dynamics in Cooperative Groups.

    • In cooperative culture you need people filling leadership roles just as in competitive culture, but you tend to be looking for different qualities. See my Sept 27, 2011 blog, 20 Qualities of Effective Cooperative Leadership for a delineation of these. Many cooperative groups fail to discuss what's wanted in this regard, and thereby stumble over developing a culture where (appropriate) leadership is nurtured.

    • In the broader US culture, there is tremendous emphasis on the individual (in contrast with the collective). In consequence it is a psychological imperative to know how we are unique and can differentiate ourselves for others. The primary way we accomplish that is through disagreement. Thus, if someone says something that we half agree with, the first thing out of most people's mouth's is , "But… " because we have been conditioned to make clear at our first convenience how we stand out.

    In cooperative culture, however, we try to start with what we like about what someone else has said (without waiving our right to state concerns later), and that has a profound impact on the container in which the discussion proceeds. In essence, we tend to find what we're looking for. If you're expecting an argument, that's what you'll find. Alternately, if you're looking for agreement, that tends to be there as well, and problem solving proceeds much differently if the initial response to ideas is supportive rather than questioning—even though both are valid.

  • Blocked Energy and Waging Peace
    In the last year I've encountered an unusually high incidence of entrenched negativity. (Can Mercury be retrograde for an entire year?) I'm talking about people living in community who feel so badly hurt by others that they have largely given up on the situation improving. At its nastiest, this justifies being pretty harsh in return, and the damage escalates. It can get really ugly.

    Essentially, I'm talking about people making war with each other.

    How Did It Get This Way?
    It's not that hard to imagine. Groups rarely start out with an understanding of why they will need the capacity to support members through interpersonal tensions. Nor do they tend to select for members who have that skill. Some are even naive enough to think that moving into community—an explicit attempt to live cooperatively—means that conflict will be left behind.

    Not having been raised in a culture where the skills of peaceful problem solving were taught, we're often scrambling to figure out how to do it as adults—after the houses were built and moved into. As the scales fall from our eyes and we discover that we bring combative energy with us into the utopian experiment, we discover (to our dismay) that we need help working through interpersonal tensions—just like everyone else. It's humbling.

    Lacking the skills needed (and perhaps not even being sure what they are) groups are often overwhelmed by the chaos of fulminating distress and paralyzed about what to do. Unfortunately, once things get beyond the ability of the protagonists to address, they rarely get better on their own. Instead, they fester and undermine the joy people meant to get out of living together.

    And I'm not just talking about what the antagonists go through: it's no picnic tiptoeing around unhappy campers. There's plenty of misery to go around.

    Sometimes groups don't ask for help soon enough, and hurt members (if they haven't left) get entrenched in their negativity, so steeped in it that they no longer trust in the good intent of their adversary (If they really cared about me they wouldn't be so damned stubborn) or believe that relationship repair is possible.

    Preconditions for Having a Chance to Turn it Around
    About half the time I'm hired to work with groups there's at least one example of a stuck dynamic where the protagonists have not been able to find their way through it and the poisonous fallout is leaking on the group.

    So I encounter versions of unresolved interpersonal tensions three a penny.

    What I have noticed recently, however, is a marked uptick in the frequency of people so badly hurt that they have given up on the possibility of rehabilitation. I've run into this dynamic five times in the past year—which would ordinarily be a decade's worth of heavy sledding.

    People in that much pain are fighting for their community life and want their adversary vanquished (while beaming them to Mars might be their first choice, they'd be willing to accept that person (or couple) crawling into a hole and never coming out).
    Even though I tell people (tongue in cheek) that I don't do hangings, I occasionally get asked to anyway (tongue not in cheek).

    When it gets that bad it's much harder to bring them back. Not impossible, but harder, and I have a much lower incidence of success in effecting repair. Even when I'm successful in getting the group unstuck one or more protagonists often jump ship once I lance the festering wound.

    As I've contemplated this, it's occurred to me that I have been counting on certain baseline assumptions that may not always obtain:

    —A willingness to see the adversary as a person of good intent (I'm not asking that they be seen as an angel, or that you have to give up on the notion that they can be a jerk; only that they are not evil—that they fundamentally care about the group and are trying to be constructive).

    —A desire for relationship repair with that person.

    —A willingness to look in the mirror for ways they may have contributed (perhaps unwittingly) to how the conflict unfolded and didn't get better.

    —A willingness to set aside their cynicism and despair long enough to let me guide them through an even-handed exploration of the conflict and the possibilities for reconciliation (or at least deescalation).

    —An openness to the possibility that their adversary can change (probably not their personality or their core beliefs, but how they behave with you and the group).

    —A willingness to suspend the belief that their adversary has purposefully acted to hurt them (thereby justifying responding in kind).

    In the last year I've have come to realize that I've not been diligent about checking for these open doors; I just assumed them. Now, however, I'm learning to ask.

    A Soft Landing
    Some fraction of the time, I've been asked in too late‚ by which I mean the damage is so severe that repair is not possible. Essentially, the will to attempt reconciliation is not present. Of course, some reach this break point sooner than others. Some have greater tolerance for hanging out in anguish and some hold out longer sustained by hope.

    Although I always begin with the idea that a bad situation can be turned around, occasionally I'm convinced by my assessment that it's not a realistic possibility in this situation. When that occurs my objective shifts from reconciliation to orchestrating a non-punitive separation. If people can no longer live together, yet still are (I won't give that so-and-so the satisfaction of my leaving), someone has to tell them.

    As I help people consider exiting as a viable choice (while I appreciate how strong your dream was that community would be a better way to live, how much of that dream are you experiencing? How much fun is this being?) I have to simultaneously be vigilant that no one is heating up a pot of tar and plucking chickens in an effort to "accelerate" the departure of adversaries.

    People can be incredibly vicious when they feel wronged and have given up on relationship with an adversary. Really, it's a microcosm of how nations go to war. I try to explain that not everyone can live well together and occasionally separation is the best choice. It doesn't have to be anyone's fault; it just has to be recognized as unworkable (too much effort for too little joy).

    Sometimes the most valuable thing I can do is to say the hard thing. While I'm rarely loved for that, I'm hired to go into harm's way and do the best I can to be compassionate, even-handed, and fearless. It's a hell of a way to make a living. But it's a great way to wage peace.