Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Roadmapping

One of the bread and butter skills of a good facilitator is getting everyone on the same page. I use the term "roadmapping" to cover this, and there are two ways that facilitators use it to help guide meeting participants: 

a) Providing a clear picture of the intended arc of the meeting (what will be discussed and in what sequence). For the most part this is taken care of with a well-crafted agenda. However, there can be a trap to this: facilitators may fall in love with the elegance of their plan, or they may hold on too tightly to the plan as a life ring in choppy seas.

It works like this: as a facilitation instructor I emphasize the value of being prepared for the anticipated agenda, which includes what questions to pose, in what order, and in what formats. If it turns out that the meeting doesn't flow as anticipated and there need to be adjustments, some facilitators can be reluctant to make them—both because they want the payoff from their planning investment (it looked so good on paper!), and because once they leave the map they may be unsure of their footing and worried that they'll lose their way.

b) The more subtle aspect of roadmapping—and the one I want to mainly focus on in this essay—is regularly reminding the group of where it is in the conversation and what kinds of responses are appropriate. When you take into account how common it is for surprises—both big and little—to arise in the course of a meeting, this in-the-moment skill is crucial to bringing everyone along effectively with the unplanned twists and turns of a dynamic conversation.

This second aspect manifests in three ways:

Off-roading
This is deviating from the planned agenda. While it may not happen often, the group has the right to change its mind about what to talk about whenever it wants to, and sometimes it wants to. (To be clear, in consensus the whole group has to agree to the change; it doesn't happen simply because someone threatens to hold their breath until they get their way.) While this should be a deliberate choice, sometimes things emerge that justify it. For example:

• Working fulminating distress.
• Clarifying a misunderstanding that no one knew existed ahead of time.

• Exploring a question that's suddenly more compelling than the regularly scheduled agenda.

Following the juice
Good facilitators know how to temporarily narrow the focus for tactical reasons. It frequently happens that the topic in hand has several components and comments do not necessarily follow one another, even though all are on topic. When that occurs, facilitators have choices about how to proceed. They can lay back, allow the chaotic flow, and try to pick out themes over time. Or they can look for moments when there is an energetic surge and then restrict responses to what was just said, in the hopes of riding the wave of interest to pin down agreement about that component. Once the surge dissipates (and you've captured all the product you can), the facilitator will widen the focus back to where it had been previously.

This technique can be an effective way to tackle complex topics—aggregating a solution piece by piece as opportunities present themselves. Doing so, however, requires facilitators who are light on their feet, and able to see the possibilities as they open and close in the moment. They need to be able to seize the time and walk away gracefully from their original plan.

In order to get there, facilitators need to be crystal clear about the objectives of the meeting, so that they can constantly sniff out shortcuts as the meeting unfolds.

Not leaving food on the table 
The last benefit to roadmapping is knowing what's possible and being ruthless about harvesting all the agreement that's in the room. By knowing exactly where you are with respect to objectives and concerns, the skilled facilitator knows when to stay with a topic a little longer and when to pull the plug.

—Partly this is keeping a weather eye on the goals for the topic, extracting maximum benefit from the conversation. Where can precious time be used to greatest leverage?

—Partly this is time management: you have to start wrapping up a topic soon enough that loose ends can be identified and tied off without slipping into overtime. 

—Partly this is the magic eye skill of learning to see potential agreement (instead of obsessing about the ways in which people diverge) so that you can accurately sense when to stay with a topic a bit longer and when to pull the plug. Often a skilled facilitator will be the first person to see the possible agreement, simply because they're the one most attuned to looking for it.

• • •
A good facilitator should always know where the conversation is supposed to be focused and what the group is trying to accomplish.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Conflict, Bullies, and Introverts

A friend of mine recently posted these comments in response to my blog of Nov 16, 2015, What It Takes for Groups to Be Less Conflicted about Conflict:

Assuming the accuracy of data reporting the relative predominance in cohousing of people who view themselves as introverts, the use of boundary “management” or strengthening/closing in response to bullying (or even just to conflict in general) may be seen more frequently when an introvert feels bullied.  

My thinking is that the initial response called for—engaging or confronting—would require a decision or choice to engage, which the introvert might need to go inside to reflect upon first. Once there, they might determine that inside is safer and less demanding, and not come out again.
Staying in the fire is not easy for anyone, and perhaps even less so when the preferred examination process takes place internally. The decision to return to the fray and engage may be asking introverts to demonstrate a greater degree of courage than they possess, especially when it is not supported by the community.


Let's unpack this, starting with definitions and premises.

o  Almost all groups will contain a mix of extroverts and introverts. For the purpose of this essay I'm defining extroverts as people who are energized by engagement with others; introverts tend to be drained by engagement. Extroverts recharge their batteries by being with others; introverts recover alone. It's not a good or bad thing; it's just different.

o  Plenaries (meetings of the whole) tend to favor extroverts because it's an energizing environment for them. For introverts meetings can be a strain—they often have to pump themselves up to stay focused and engaged, and they're frequently operating outside their comfort zone. 

o  If you add conflict to the mix (emotional distress) the stakes tend to get even higher. While extroverts often raise their energy in the presence of conflict (some even thrive on it), this can be excruciating and feel unsafe for introverts. This tends to make it even harder for introverts to get their oar in the water and keep pulling.

o  Bullying is about acting in a way that's intimidating, making it harder for others to voice their  concerns or interests, or to hang in there when disagreeing with the bully. It is not about the bully's viewpoint; it's about how they express themselves and the ways in which they apply pressure on others to back down or otherwise yield. Bullying succeeds when others believe that exiting the unpleasant dynamic is more important than getting their needs expressed or met.

o  Bullying can show up in a wide range of ways:
sarcasm
raising one's voice
talking fast
interrupting
getting upset 
denigrating other's viewpoints (if you think this is rare, reflect on the dominant style of current political discourse)
woe-is-me manipulation (let me have my way because I'm a victim and your opposition prolongs or exacerbates my suffering)
threatening unpleasant consequences

o  Bullying may be a conscious, tactical choice, or it may be an unconscious style, so ingrained in a person's personality that they engage in it by default. 

o  Bullies may care how their behavior impacts others or they may not. That said, there is an advantage in cooperative culture in that there is a baseline assumption that the group will do its best work only when all relevant viewpoints are expressed and taken into account. Thus, in a cooperative setting there is a greater chance that a bully will be willing to be willing to work with feedback about how their behavior is making it harder for others to speak. The bully may deny that that they intend to intimidate others, but they may be willing to work on changing their behavior once they know it's having that effect.

• • •
So what can be done about bullying in cooperative groups, taking into account how hard this dynamic can be for introverts? Here are half a dozen suggestions:

1. Talk about it ahead of time
I think it's essential that group's discuss the phenomenon of bullying behavior and how they want to handle it. (Hint #1: It is an an absolute nightmare to postpone this consideration until you're in the moment. You need to do this pre-need. Hint #2: Note how I phrased this—bullying behavior. Object to the behavior; not the person.)

2. Commit to interrupting bullying wherever it's encountered
This will almost certainly mean authorizing facilitators to step in when they believe bullying is occurring—whether the intimidation was intended or not isn't the point. If bullying is allowed to happen unchecked, things will not magically get better.

Note how nuanced this can be. Suppose someone in the group is intimidated by loud voices and feels bullied by a member of the group who is frequently passionate in their statements. How much does the group want to protect the person who feels intimidated and how much does it want to support each member having access to their natural style? Where is the balance point?

3. Have agreements about how you'll work with emotional reactivity and develop the skills to deliver the support you commit to providing
You have to anticipate that when bullying surfaces that some of the time reactivity will be part of the mix. It will be paralyzing if there is no confidence in the group's ability to compassionately and accurately work the moment—be it the bully's distress, other's distress, or both.

4. Introverts and extroverts are going to have to make peace with one another
You cannot expect everyone else to adapt to you. For extroverts this translates into being sensitive to how your style can make life challenging for others. For introverts it means there has to be room at the table for the passionate and the boisterous, just as much as for the quiet and contemplative. You don't have to pretend to be something you're not, yet group culture is a mixed salad, not a homogeneous stew.

5. Offer a mix of formats, making it easier for introverts to contribute or to express distress
Take time to canvass your membership to get a sense of what will help people feel safe and that their contributions are welcome. Don't guess what people want; ask. 

What am I talking about? Small group breakouts, individual writing, talking sticks, and guided visualizations are techniques that offer a more deliberate pace and a less chaotic on-ramp. Intermix them with the up-tempo raucousness of brainstorms and open discussions.

6. Make sure that the right to be heard is joined at the hip to the responsibility to hear and work constructively with the views of others
When bullies are driving an agenda they are all too often insisting on their right, while sidestepping their responsibility. Make sure that that doesn't happen. First help them be heard, then slow things down to make sure that there's air time for other perspectives. After all, introverts are not stupider; they're just quieter.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

50 Years Later

Yesterday I took a train to Chicago and was met in Union Station by Jeff Stewart and Jan-Erik Damber. 

Though I had not seen either of them since 1967—the year I'd graduated from high school (we three were seniors together at Lyon Township in La Grange IL), I had no trouble picking them out by the Amtrak information kiosk in the main waiting room.

When I first met Janne he was an AFS student from Sweden. Today he's a (nearly) retired urologist living in Göteberg (the second largest city in Sweden, on the shores of the North Sea). Janne lived with Jeff's family during the 1966-67 school year, and my brother (Guy) and I visited the Damber family in Sweden for a few days toward the end of a nine-week European odyssey that took us to Ireland, Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Denmark and Sweden. Though many of the details of that trip have faded over the years, I recall that our stay with the Dambers was the highlight of the trip, as it was the only time we were not in a hotel, hostel, or pensione.

The most amazing part of yesterday's five-hour visit (over brie, wine and hamburgers) was the absence of strain or awkwardness. It was just interesting people sharing stories. In addition to the three wise guys, our social complement was rounded out by Jeff's wife, Steffie, and Janne's partner, Christina. The conversation flowed as easily as the wine, as we pleasurably bounced around among high school memories, catching each other up on what had unfolded in each other's lives over the course of the last five decades, commentary on the insanity of American politics, and speculation about the prospects of The Donald and Kim Jong-un—two world leaders with the ego management and temperament of oversexed cockerels—inadvertently starting a nuclear war as they posture for cameras, trade taunts, and otherwise play with matches.

Though I am foregoing the social chaos that would characterize my high school class' 50th reunion this weekend (which is why Janne and Christina are in town), it was lovely reminiscing and gradually revealing to one another the pearls of wisdom we have each carefully strung together over a lifetime of living. A leisurely dinner party for five in an Oak Park apartment, after all, offers completely different prospects than a cattle call of 300+ milling about in an antiseptic ballroom.

Once again I am reminded of why it is good to have friends, and why it is important to take the time to enjoy them.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Caught in a Fork in the Road

Sometimes facilitators get caught between competing principles and it can be hard to divine the best response.
 
I had an example of this recently when I was working with a group that had called me in, in part, because they weren't doing well handling seriously distress among members and it was piling up. (Though this is not rare, far fewer ask for help than need it.)
 
During an opening session I had asked members to reflect on the myriad challenging things that they had witnessed over the past year and what they each might have done differently, that may have had been a better response. I was trying to get them thinking of constructive choices and less about their upset with others, as a prelude to working on crafting a policy the next day.

While most people did as I asked, there was one women who didn't. She responded in anger. 
 
At the start of the meeting I had offered a summary of what I'd heard from people during 20 hours of one-on-one conversations. Included was a claim from half a dozen women who had independently reported to me that they felt there was unaddressed sexism in the community (which definitely got my attention). During the go round the angry woman used my statement as a springboard to launch an attack on some younger men she felt had been discriminating against an older woman.

Suddenly I was at a crossroads I had hoped not to encounter.
 
On the one hand, I prefer to work difficulties in the moment and doing so would have been directly addressing an area in which the community had been struggling and wanted my assistance. By not addressing it I was risking needing to clean up a mess later.

On the other hand, the issue of sexism wasn’t even on my radar until the day before (it hadn't been mentioned as a possible topic when I was hired) and I was concerned that tackling that issue (while plenty serious enough and worth attention) might eat so much time that little would be left for the topics I had been asked to address. I was already worried that there were more heavy-duty issues on the table than there was time to get to, and was thus very reluctant to let a late-arriving topic jump the queue—because another issue in play was the strategy that if you act provocatively enough it will be rewarded with attention. What a mess! I was going to pay a price either way.

In this instance I chose to let the attack stand, to protect the overall agenda. While no one took the bait (no one responded with a spirited defense), and no one else fired another salvo—thus preserving my attempt at a reflective beginning, I'm not sure if I made the right choice.

At least two people who felt called out by the attack spoke to me on break about how upset and distracted they were by being blind-sided and left without an opportunity to tell their side of events. This was a high price to pay, yet these same people were already embroiled in other tensions about which I knew we had to deal, and I preferred that the first examination happen in territory that was already widely known. 

While I subsequently got the opportunities I was hoping for to work closely with the two men in reaction, we never got close to working the topic of sexism. While I'm satisfied I delivered solid work germane to the community's struggles, you never know what would have happened with the road not taken, and I'll just have to live with that.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Introverts in Communituy

I just read Susan Cain's book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking. It came out five years ago and was recently recommended to me by my friend, Roger Stube.

Among other things, it makes the case that Western culture (North American in particular) is dominated by extroverts—people who are energized by contact with others, and who tend to enjoy mixing it up at parties and meetings. Cain points out that this unintentionally creates an uneven playing field at which introverts tend to come out looking bad, even though there is no correlation between one's standing on the extrovert/introvert scale and intelligence.

For the most part, we tend to squander what introverts could contribute because things aren't set up to be comfortable—or even safe—for them.

As a group dynamics expert, one of Cain's more intriguing revelations is that extensive studies have shown that group brainstorms are invariably less productive—in both quantity and quality of ideas—than what results from individuals working alone who subsequently pool their ideas. I didn't see that coming.

(Interestingly, the one exception to this is online brainstorming, where participants are electronically connected, but not physically. Somehow that cancels out the way groupthink can stifle originality or inhibit those who are worried about sounding stupid when everyone is in the same room.)

To be sure, there is still a place for processing information as a group and coming to agreement together. Group cohesion is highly desirable and is not something you just mail in, or drop into someone's In Box. It is forged in the meeting.

While there's danger in generalizing, it's my strong anecdotal impression (after closely observing cooperative groups for four decades) that a majority of people living in intentional community are introverts (as opposed to somewhere between one-third and one-half of the general population). So what does this mean?

For starters, it suggests rethinking the way meetings are run. Because typical meeting culture emphasizes the bold, the quick, and those who are more comfortable speaking in front of groups, extroverts are favored. We have to work to create multiple on-ramps. That means purposefully creating room for people to digest information without haste, and spaciousness to organize what they want to say. 

One possibility is to give people time in silence to contemplate what they've heard and what they'd like others to know about their thinking before calling for responses. To be clear, I'm not talking about slowing things down all the time; but it may be a better idea than I knew to do this regularly.

Another possibility is being more rigorous about offering alternatives to open discussion (were people simply speak as they are ready), where extroverts are bound to dominate.

It also suggests the potential utility of taking time to ask people what their preferences are around pace and method of sharing—in the whole group, in small groups, with just one other person; orally, in writing, in a skit, through interpretative dance, in pantomime… whatever.

Cain's work suggests that the essential first step is creating an opening sufficient for everyone's story to be told, so that there is a sense that their input will be welcomed (though not necessarily agreed with). While extroverts often enjoy vigorous debate, rough and tumble conversations characterized by rising and falling decibel levels can leave introverts feeling decidedly unsafe and intimidated. The preferred style of one tends to be awkward for the other. 

Cain's book further reveals the startling fact that style unconsciously subverts thinking, such that people tend to be influenced by forceful and confident presentation—to the point where they will agree with the speaker and not realize that they might have come to a different conclusion if that person had not spoken. Yikes! This suggests being careful where you start Go Rounds, so that the same influential people are not setting the tone each time. (To be clear, Cain was not criticizing outspoken extroverts, she was just pointing out how things play out if you are not aware of what's happening.)

If this is new information, it's likely being received as an unwanted complication. My advice is to take a deep breath. While I'm sorry for the complication, the truth is you were already have it in your group, so you may as well understand better what's going on and try to adjust. The potential reward is that half or more of your group may suddenly come alive.

In fact, the rewards may be even greater than that. Because many introverts have had to learn to cope in an extrovert-dominated culture, they have learned to pump themselves up to operate at an extroverted pace and demeanor. As a result they often arrive home exhausted after a day's work, badly in need of recharge time (quiet time with minimal stimulation). To the extent that people are given ways to contribute that fall within their comfort zone, there is less accumulated fatigue.

In the larger picture, Cain explains that many psychologists think that personality can be boiled down to these five traits, which can present in any combination: 

Introversion/Extroversion
Agreeableness (how prone people are to conflict)
Openness to Experience (how open they are to novel experiences)
Conscientiousness (how diligent they are about doing what they said they'd do)
Emotional Stability (how easily strong feelings are triggered)

In the context of intentional community (and by extension, cooperative group culture) it's easy to imagine that you'd find people easier to get along with if they scored high on the last four traits, but where they stand on the Introversion/Extroversion spectrum is not predictive of happiness in community at all. Both can work out well; both can be a pain in the ass.

Last I want to share a gem about anger from Quiet. Cain starts with a story from Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion by Carol Tavris:

There once was a Bengali cobra that liked to bite passing villagers. One day a swami—a man who has achieved self-mastery—convinces the snake that biting is wrong. The cobra vows to stop immediately, and does. Before long, the village boys grow unafraid of the snake and start to abuse it. Battered and bloodied, the snake complains to the swami that this is what came of keeping his promise.

"I told you not to bite," said the swami, "but I did not tell you not to hiss."

Many people, like the swami's cobra, confuse the hiss with the bite.

In essence there is an important difference between expressing anger, and being aggressive. The two are not the same, though they are often thought to be. Going further, Cain shares that extensive studies have shown that the practice of venting does not "let off steam." If anything, venting fuels angers. 

With all do respect to Cain's exemplary scholarship, I have a subtle spin on this that I think can make a significant difference. Let's suppose the situation is that Adrian did something, Chris is pissed off, and Jesse has been asked to listen to Chris vent about it.

While I buy Cain's conclusion if Chris vents alone, or vents in Jesse's presence with Jesse only passively listening. Suppose however, that Jesse only agrees to listen if there is an understanding that the session will not end until there is a discussion (with Jesse's active assistance) to determine what constructive steps Chris will take to not remain stuck in reactivity. 

This might be Chris agreeing to talk to Adrian about what was upsetting to Chris (with or without Jesse's accompaniment); it might be identifying the ways in which Chris has an anger issue; it might be helping Chris see how they inadvertently contributed to the bad dynamic. It could be any number of things, but this ending offers hope of helping Chris move through their upset without stuffing it or risk unloading on Adrian like a ton of bricks.
While Cain's book may be Quiet, it spoke loudly to me.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Relishing One's Work

In my four decades at Sandhill Farm I gradually developed specialties—just like every other member. In my case I was the community electrician, the guy who filed taxes, the butcher, and an acidified food expert (that is, I processed the lion's share of pickles and condiments during my tenure—anything that could be canned in a hot water bath, rather than via pressure cooker).

The joke was that when I was away from home (about half the time), I'd be processing group dynamics. When I was home I'd be processing food.

In the Midwest, my busiest stretch was July through Oct, with August being the peak. That's when the tomatoes start rolling in, which meant tomato sauce, tomato juice, salsa, barbecue sauce, and ketchup. Leaving aside the occasional once-every-five-year crops, I'd also work up batches of corn relish, dilly beans, tomatillo salsa, horseradish, pickled beets, damson plum preserves, and pepper relish (both medium and hot). I'd spend many a day in the kitchen, emptying five-gallon buckets of garden bounty, turning their contents into canned goods that we'd either sell or enjoy ourselves. While others worked in the dirt; I worked over steaming kettles.

When I got sick last year (I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in January 2016) it appeared that my canning days might be over. But they aren't! Last fall I recovered from my stem cell transplant in time to be crank out a token run of tomatillo salsa, headlining fruit Susan produced in our postage stamp garden in Duluth.

As my health has gradually improved since then, I upped the ante this past week when I went wild at a farmer's market in Spooner WI. Monday I canned five jars of dilly beans, eight units of pickled beets, and 13 pints of corn relish. Although it was a long, wet day of cutting up in the kitchen, it was highly satisfying to dust off the canning funnel and jar lifter, and to be back in the swim of water bath processing.

• • •
Our glory in the kitchen continued yesterday after Susan and I sat down on the couch mid-afternoon to puzzle over that diurnal challenge that most households face: what's for dinner? Determined to do something about reducing our inventory of foodstuffs (after struggling to find space in the basement to store our burgeoning supply of canned goods), we started with the idea of featuring a beautiful fresh head of garden-surplus broccoli that had been given to Susan at work that morning.

As we have a goodly supply of organic pork in our freezer, we hunted online for a stir fry recipe that combined brassicas with tenderloin. While there were some, we got distracted (always a hazard when browsing the internet) by a recipe for spicy pork with kumquats. Say what? Incredibly, we had 5 oz of fresh kumquats in our fridge—exactly what the recipe called for. We took that as a clear sign that this is what we should have for dinner.

But wait a minute. As we looked more closely at the recipe, it called for additional oddball ingredients:
Chinese five spice seasoning
Hoisin sauce
Oyster sauce
Fresh ginger root
Mirin (aka rice vinegar)

Riding the wave of our good fortune all the way to the dining room table, it turned out that we had all of these in stock (no wonder the fridge is crowded), substituting only fish sauce for oyster sauce, which we decided was close enough. Yeehah! We were the winners of an impromptu kitchen scavenger hunt.

Not content to leave it there, we still had to figure out what to do with the broccoli (remember, that's where we started). This led to our improvising a second stir fry, this time blending:
Broccoli
Onion
Radicchio
Cashews
GarlicGreen banana pepper
Red bell pepper
Crimini mushrooms

While we made a quick trip to the neighborhood market to secure the last two items, all else was on hand. The cutting up took about as long as the cooking, and we finished in time to catch the PBS News Hour with Judy Woodruff, to see if we were at war yet with North Korea.

Dinner was rounded off with a bottle of chilled Riesling and a peach cobbler I'd made with fresh fruit that afternoon, topped with vanilla gelato (on sale at our local co-op). One more note: when we found the pork cum kumquat dish not quite as zesty as advertised, we improvised with a few spoonfuls of sambal oelek at the table, fine tuning both the color and the taste. Perfecto! (Fortunately, we always keep a jar of chili paste on hand in the fridge for moments like this.)

We figure we were the only ones in Duluth (maybe the country?) enjoying this particular menu last night, relishing our work both in the kitchen and at the table.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Navigating the Boundary Between Personal and Group

I recently had an interesting exchange with a friend about how she interacts in her community, based on reflections I shared after spending three days consulting with her group. As the dynamics are not rare, I thought it instructive to share our dialog (with names and issues altered to obfuscate identity).

Laird:

I noticed that there were times when:

o  You told stories that were difficult for me to tie to the conversation. I struggled to figure out why you were telling the story you did.
o  You told a story (ostensibly for my benefit as the new person) that you had already told me.
o  You seemed to get lost in your stories, where you would get sidetracked in sharing details that were not central to the main point and then have trouble finding your way back.
In one of the gatherings where you witnessed me doing these things there were several others present and when the Schmidts launched into the barbecue episode (something that had been explored ad nauseum in the past), I thought Oh God no. Not that again. My partner considers my attitude ungenerous. In truth I am very fond of both Schmidts and try to be sympathetic and empathetic. However, the community spent a good chunk of a two-day retreat two years ago on this topic, and much other time before and since, and we never get anywhere other than a rehash. 

I just wanted to move to a different topic. It didn't occurred to me to find a nice way to do that, so I maladroitly tried to change the subject. What I thought the barbecue story and my tale of injustice had in common was lack of community support and recognition, but my partner disagrees. I didn't especially want to dredge up my story, but I was clutching at straws to change the topic. Maybe it would be helpful to learn how to say nicely, "Please, not that topic again."
Laird:
Thanks for this background, which was new to me. I have reflections in two directions.

A. Though it was obvious that the barbecue issue was an old wound, I did not know that the group had worked on it extensively, nor did I catch that you were trying to shift the spotlight off of what you considered a dry well (that said, your explanation helps me understand your good intent). What was different about this telling was that I was in the room. Based on what had happened during the day [where I had helped the group successfully work through some old, unresolved dynamics], I want you to appreciate that some people are going to want to tell me stories about something they are stuck on, in the hopes that I might be able to get them unstuck (rather than simply to wallow in a familiar mud hole, which may well have been what it seemed like to you). In my line of work I’m used to this (I’m never really off duty when I’m with a client), and I’m hopeful that I was able to give Ms Schmidt an insight into choices she has about old wounds, when I told the story about how I worked through my anger with my father. I’m not promising that there will be a change (you never know), but I believe I gave her something powerful and new.

To be fair to you, there was no knowing at the front end of her launching into the barbecue story that I was going be able to offer a helpful insight, yet I was basically giving her the same attention I gave everyone who wanted to talk with me (including you). I can understand that you might have feared that allowing Ms Schmidt to wallow in the mud risked souring an otherwise delightful evening, yet, in the end, what is more precious than helping each other work through tough issues?

B. Now I want to shift lenses and look at this from your end. It will happen again that you are in a pleasant conversation when someone slips into dwelling on an old wound. What are your options?

o  Try to shift the focus to something else (which was the choice you made). The danger here is that the speaker may fight (cordially) for control of the conversational focus, and become irritated with you, either because you're undercutting their efforts, or because you come across as clueless about what the focus of the conversation has been. Neither of those two possibilities are happy ones.

o  Offer to listen, with the condition that after discharging, the person will work with you to come up with one or more constructive next steps (which was what I recommend in relation to gossip).

o  Try to name your discomfort as soon as you are aware of it. “Is there going be anything new in this retelling? If not, why are we doing this? This sounds like a book I’ve already read.” If the speaker does not accept your claim that it’s all old news, simply give them a synopsis of events along with what you understand their reaction to be. Ask them if you've gotten the essence of it. This will establish what you’ve heard before, and set the table for limiting the current focus to new material.
 
Talking about opportunities to volunteer: I inappropriately pointed out that I feel fulfilled by what I'm doing (some of our members speak about feeling unfulfilled and looking for something) and have no intention of volunteering. You pointed out that no one is pointing a finger at me to volunteer. Totally true. Where my remark came from: Guilt. Also, deep down inside, I'm still the little refugee girl who didn't know the majority language and culture. As a teacher, I've worked with lots of immigrants and refugees on these. I'm very skilled and very experienced. I'm also angry that, for my professional work, I have always been paid poorly—in that respect, treated almost as a volunteer. So though I know there's great need and could contribute a lot, I don't.  
Laird:
I can follow this, and it’s not hard for me to identify with it. I have a strong desire to be useful and it can be hard to not volunteer when there’s a task out there to do that I know I can handle and no one else’s hand is in the air. Yet it can’t be good that your past anger is stirred up (about the awkwardness of trying to integrate into a new culture, or about not having been fairly compensated for a lifetime of good work) when it comes to helping your community. To be clear I am not advocating one way or another about how much you volunteer (I don’t know enough to have an opinion about that). 

I am doing another thing: pointing out that requests for volunteers in the community (which must go on all the time) are triggering anger in you that may not be well known or understood, and that may greatly complicate your relationships in the community. Or have you disclosed to the group what you’ve shared with me? While you may be protecting yourself from resentment, you may come across as being a queen, who is too good for the menial work of the community. (I’m not saying that’s happening—no one expressed that view to me—I’m describing the risk.)
 • • •
The underlying theme here is how appropriate is it to share your personal stories when living in a group. While moving into an intentional community means your lives will necessarily be more intertwined than would likely be true among random neighbors in the wider culture, how far should that be taken? 

The answer can be subtle, and deserves a conversation. Unfortunately, it's been my experience that groups rarely have that conversation. Instead they just stumble along and hope for the best. Members often have to guess how much to share of their personal story, trying to thread the needle between saying too much (being accused of giving TMI) and too little (who was that masked man?). When are we just chasing around the mulberry bush talking about old hurts to no effect, and when are we genuinely asking for help to get unstuck?

When are we giving enough information to help others understand the context in which we view current situations, and when are we being too stoic, missing the opportunity for genuine connection?

I recently had this exchange with someone from a different group:

There are multiple personality conflicts here, but I do NOT want to spend time in fishbowls [working through the conflicted dynamics] or discussing certain personalities or individual conflicts—we need to talk bigger picture. For example, how the community has not been able to effectively absorb the change that comes from new people moving in.

Laird: 
While I hear your desire to focus on better integrating new people, there's a problem with skipping the step of working through conflicts. In my experience, once you have a build up of tension and hurt between two people you can’t discuss solutions until you clear the tension. That does not necessarily require work in a fishbowl, but something must be attempted to draw the poison before entering into problem solving, and it appears that the community has not developed robust ways of working through interpersonal tensions.
 • • •
Lacking a deep enough understanding of how group members approach life differently, we tend to misunderstand (and worse, assign bad intent to) actions and viewpoints that diverge significantly from our own. The beauty of group living is that you have the opportunity to bring diverse viewpoints to bear on the issues you collectively face. You have a richer pool of experience to draw from.

Unfortunately, that's simultaneously the bane of group living if you don't do enough spade work to appreciate from where those differences arise. It is not just a matter of chiseling off the rough edges until everything runs smoothly (viewing community as a giant rock tumbler). We have to be interested in why these differences exist and curious about their potential meaning—instead of responding with, Uh oh, here we go again.