Questions Groups Should Ask (But Probably Haven’t)

by Laird Schaub, from  Laird’s Commentary on Community and Consensus, Tuesday, June 16, 2009

I just finished doing a weekend Introduction to Facilitation Workshop at Heathcote Community in Freeland MD. Friday evening through Sunday afternoon I worked and laughed with 16 participants as we explored a wide range of group situations and typical challenges that facilitators face. As a student of group dynamics and a teacher of facilitation, I am frequently in the position of describing the pitfalls that groups fall into by virtue of not having discussed and made explicit agreements about how they want to view to handle certain things.

By Sunday afternoon the workshop participants were all over me to give them a list of these questions, so here goes.

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The main thing to understand about this is not there is one right way to address all of the questions (indeed, different groups come up with all manner of good answers). Rather, it’s to understand that having no answer is guaranteed to be a problem. Sooner or later, the ambiguity will to bite you in the butt, and it’s much worse to attempt to sort many of these things out when you’re in the midst of tension resulting from members proceeding from different assumptions—or guesses—about the group’s position.

Almost all groups have some basic agreements: for example, about common values, how one becomes a member, and how the group will make decisions. While that’s a good start, it isn’t nearly enough. Here’s a much longer list of things that groups should discuss—preferably before the water gets hot: Note that none of these questions is limited to residential communities: they are meant to apply to any group trying to function cooperatively.

Meeting Culture
1. What is the purpose of meetings? To what extent is it to solve problems, and to what extent is it to build relationships among members?

2. What topics are worthy of plenary attention? Absent clarity about this, groups tend to drift into working at a level of detail that is beneath them rather than effectively delegating. This is directly related to the phenomenon of meeting fatigue.

3. How do you want to work with emotions that surface in meetings? Hint #1: Ignoring them doesn’t work. Hint #2: You can allow expression of feelings while at the same time object to aggression.

4. How do you want to work with conflict? (This is the most volatile subset of working with emotions.) While asking conflicted people to “take it outside” can work some of the time, it won’t always. What’s more, at least some of the time progress on the topic that triggered the distress may be held hostage to resolution of the upset. It can be very expensive to not have an agreement about how to work conflict.

5. Under what conditions, if any, is it OK to speak critically of a member who is not in the room? Caution: Be careful here. You don’t want people to be able to control by their absence what gets examined.

6. How do you protect the rights of members to have an opportunity to have input on issues examined at meetings they missed? Conversely, how do you protect the right of the group to move forward on issues when members miss meetings? This is a balancing act, and a good answer here probably involves clear agreements about advance notification of draft agendas, advance circulation of proposals, and standards for minutes.

7. What authority do you give facilitators to run meetings? Hint: If they’re not explicitly allowed to interrupt people repeating themselves or speaking off topic, you’re in trouble.

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Communication
8. What are your standards for minutes? What should minutes include? Where will they be posted? Are they indexed? Are they archived? Do the same standards apply to committees that apply to the plenary?

9. Do you have protocols for how email is used? Hint: Email is great for posting announcements and reports; OK for discussions; dangerous for expressing upset; and downright thermonuclear for trying to process upset.

Membership
10. What are the rights & responsibilities of membership? While groups tend to be pretty good at being clear about financial aspects, they tend to be less good at spelling out labor, governance, or social expectations. Hint: It generally works better if you think of these two questions as being paired.

11. What does membership imply about how much you want to be in each other’s lives? How much does membership imply a social connection beyond a business connection? Big gaps in answers (or assumptions) here can really hurt.

12. What are the expectations around giving one another critical feedback about their behavior as a member of the group? Caution: Is a member allowed to refuse another member a request to discuss their behavior?

13. What are the conditions under which a member may involuntarily lose rights, and by what process will that be examined? Caution: While it’s hard to get excited about tackling this delicate topic before there’s a need, it’s a nightmare to attempt to clear it up once the need has arisen.

14. How much diversity can you tolerate? While most groups aspire to embrace diversity (in fact—given that human cloning is illegal—some degree is unavoidable), there is always a limit to how much a group can tolerate and it’s important to have a way to talk about it.

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Governance
15. How do you select managers and fill committees? Caution: Simply asking for volunteers can work fine for some positions, yet can be downright foolish in others, where a definite balance or skill set is critically needed.

16. How do you evaluate the performance of managers and committees? This includes how, how frequently, and overseen by whom? Hint #1: Have people self-evaluate before the group takes a crack at them. Hint #2: This will tend to work much better if it includes both a chance to identify what’s not been working well and a chance to celebrate what is.

17. What is the group’s model for healthy leadership? Absent an agreement, cooperative groups tend to be much more critical of leaders than supportive, suppressing members’ willingness to take on leadership.

18. Do you regularly discuss how power is distributed in the group? Do you have an understanding about how to discuss the perception that people are using power less cooperatively than the users think they are? Caution: Tackle the first question before the second. Absent a clear sense of the need to talk about power, and an understanding about how to go about it in a constructive manner, this topic can be explosive (think Krakatoa).

Questions Groups Should Ask (But Probably Haven’t)

Why Communities? An Appeal

by Paxus (also published on Your Passport to Complaining)

The holiday season is a time for making charitable requests, so this is mine. I want to ask you to support the Fellowship for Intentional Community, which supports the larger network of intentional communities, mostly in the US. The FIC has all manner of lovely and useful programs (Directory, Magazine,Bookstore, Resources). They are the organization best positioned to accelerate the development of intentional communities, amplify the impact they have on society, and foster collaboration between intentional communities and the larger movement towards cooperation, sustainability, and social justice.

But that is not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about why intentional communities matter and why they matter especially now.

Mental Health: People are going crazy, and not in a good way. The stress on many people since the election has been incredible. Fear and anxiety in people who are part of oppressed groups is understandably incapacitating them in some cases and traumatizing them in many more. Add to this a spike in hate crime and the tremendous uncertainty of the time ahead and you have a recipe for some serious psychosis.

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One of the things we know from our work with academics is that living in community improves your mental health. In some ways this is completely unsurprising. Whatever services and support a community supplies, the stress on its members is decreased. Whatever support and affection members of communities provide one another, this is more joy and security in our lives. If we are looking at tough times it is wise to look to the people we trust and care for most and build community with them, intentionally.

Climate Effect: The Secretary of State (SoS) select was blocked from perhaps the largest deal in history by the Obama administration’s sanctions on Russia after the annexation of Crimea. This 1/2 trillion dollar plan for Exxon and Rosneft to drill the Arctic will curse our grandchildren to a wasted planet.

But even if we are able to stop this project, no one actually has a solution to the climate problems that are facing us. No one but us. The key to this climate and environmental fix is sharing.

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The income-sharing intentional communities movement is demonstrating that you can live a middle class, lifestyle on below poverty level income. The radical sharing involved is not easy, but it is completely accessible. Intentional communities are at the front lines of this critical social experimentation.

Trust and Empathy Building: If we are going to depend more on our love ones and friends, if we are going to dare to try to live together, we need to recognize that our communication is flawed and we show up with baggage. We have to be able to name our biases and prejudices and be willing to work on them. We need to be able to clear the air of past hang ups and commit to building trust and empathy among each other. Communities are working on these tools. Clearness process, Transparency Tools, Nonviolent Communication, and more are at the center of the culture of many communities.

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Intentional community is the laboratory for the practices and new cultures we need if we are going to weather these coming difficult times. Please support the best organization supporting these initiatives across the county.

Why Communities? An Appeal

Why I Live in Community

by Raven

I think that everyone who lives in community has their own reasons for it.  I know people who live in egalitarian communities for ideological reasons, for economic reasons, for social reasons, for ecological reasons, and for personal reasons.  Some just come to community because it’s something different to do, some because their lover moved there, and some because it’s a place that they can pursue their passions–agriculture, permaculture, building construction, crafts, or simple, sustainable living.  Some have come to community for any one of these reasons and are now staying, honestly, out of inertia.

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I live in community for a variety of reasons.  Probably the most important is social.  I grew up in a large family and have always lived with groups of people.  I believe that humans are tribal animals and we are meant to live with each other.  I think that it’s genetic

The other big reasons are ideological.  In my very first piece on this blog, I wrote that “Living communally–and sharing so much–is a direct challenge to a hierarchical, consumer focused, corporate capitalist culture.”   I’m one of the folks that lives communally because I want to live simply and sustainably.  In sharing so much, we almost automatically have a much lower carbon footprint than the average person in the US.

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But my real honest reason is that I’m an introvert.  I have a hard time going out into the world.  If I lived by myself, I fear that I would isolate.  In community, I don’t have to go far at all to find people.  As I write these words, I’m sitting in a common, dining area with people hanging out around me.  Some people think that I use the public computer because I don’t have my own.  But I do have a computer–I just have no desire to sit alone in my room all day while I’m working on various computer projects.

Really, I just want to live right around a bunch of folks that I love.  I just want to live with all my friends.

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Why I Live in Community

Goodbye Old Friend

by Mac, from the Acorn Community blog, November 2nd, 2015

Dear Falling Down Shed,

We will miss you, friend. You’ve done so much in your long life, and we will always remember you fondly.  Like that one time you used to live near the road and they had to drag you all the way up to your new home, some 50 years ago?  You used to go by the name of Farrier’s Shed at that time.  Horses and humans alike stayed dry because of you!

Oh, and remember those times after horses went out of fashion, and you started falling down?  Over ten years ago now I think?  You used to hold rugs and mattresses for us till it was time for our next party out in the fields…How kind of you to make sure that we had a safe space to store those things.

You’ve been falling down for so long that it’s seemed no longer fair to watch you suffer, slowly dangling yourself into the bushes, leaning over just a little more every year.  But, alas, it seemed like the right time.  We know that you will find the light, and will continue to warm our hearts and hands in the weeks to come.

On behalf of everyone who has ever witnessed your beauty and dryness, I think it’s safe to say that we will all loved you.  And we will always miss you.

Your friends,

Acorn Community

Goodbye Old Friend