Author: Tree Bressen
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #140
Q: Historically, our group has felt fairly unified in our core values. Our business discussions and decisions rested on certain basic assumptions and expectations, including the importance of respecting others, welcoming feedback, accepting personal responsibility for feelings and actions, avoiding blame, and—to the best of our abilities—communicating openly, nonviolently, and compassionately. We held both regular business meetings and regular well-being meetings, so that business discussions could flow more efficiently and interpersonal and emotional issues could have their own forum. This arrangement allowed us to “call vibes” during a business meeting and channel an obvious well-being issue into another setting, untangling it from the matter at hand; it also gave us circles in which we could focus exclusively on nurturing individual and group well-being, resolving conflicts, and becoming more connected as a community.
More recently, our group grew in size and it became more difficult for everyone to attend regular well-being circles. Some people tired of the structure, while others got intensively involved in a different well-being circle instead, separate from the whole community. We scheduled less-frequent community well-being circles, and attendance even at those slowly declined. Some newer arrivals turned out to be resistant to or rebellious about “dealing with feelings” and elected not to participate in well-being circles. Concurrently, there was an increase in focus on certain business issues, and more talk about the importance of “separating business and community.”
Unfortunately, “separating business and community” now seems to mean, for some people, that we each have a choice whether or not to deal with well-being issues or feelings when they impact business issues. Our old practice, with a balance of business and well-being circles, gave equal importance to the two areas, and included everyone in both. Now, it seems that well-being issues can affect our business circles more than they ever did before—through cynicism, unresolved interpersonal conflicts, and negativity—while some of the most outspoken people apparently do not share the core values and understandings that allowed us to deal with these issues in a separate well-being forum, in which they often resist or avoid participation.
How do you suggest keeping business decision-making, on the one hand, and community well-being issues, on the other, both healthily separate and integrated? How can our community return to better balance, more effective decisionmaking, and greater connection?
Tree Bressen responds:
I have to say, i feel for you and your community. This sounds like a tough one. While it might have been better if the group had done more effective membership screening up front or taken other steps to prevent the shift in core values, telling you that probably doesn’t feel like much help now. So what are your options? Because the group is not on board with what you are wanting to see happen, my response focuses on what you as one individual can attempt.
1. Do whatever you can to make whatever remains of the well-being forum keep healthy and happening. Put positive energy into it. Help make it a fulfilling experience for whoever is there. Good energy will make it attractive to others to join.
2. Assuming the sessions are flowing well, approach members who haven’t been coming one-on-one to invite them to attend. Tell them you would love to see them there. If you can’t make the approach without a judgmental tone, recruit someone else to have the conversation instead. Or split up the membership list, with each regular attendee committing to talk with a few other people who they have a good relationship with.
3. Be a role model yourself in how you relate with others. If you have a conflict with someone, don’t wait for them to approach you (which they may never do), take the initiative to work it out.
4. When you notice emotions coming up at business meetings, you can help create safe space to bring them out, whether or not you are the official facilitator. Statements like, “Wait a moment, i’d like to hear more from Sam about why he supports the proposal,” or “Jo, it sounds like your concerns are X, Y, & Z, is that right?” can potentially get at feelings without necessarily using explicitly emotional language. Because they are clearly based in an effort to be productive on the issues at hand, even people who are “anti-touchy-feely” are likely to respond well and appreciate these efforts.
5. Does your group do evaluations at the end of meetings? That might be an appropriate time to bring up observations of how conflicts are getting in the way of communication. Or if it’s really obvious that this is happening in the middle of an agenda item, you might choose to be bold and call it in the moment. If you take that route, try to express yourself in a compassionate way if you can.
6. To the extent possible, avoid polarizing the issue. Find the part of yourself that appreciates an emphasis on task, and express that to the more business-oriented members. Look for how you can be their ally. State things in terms they can relate to. For example, “I really think that in order to move forward effectively with this proposal, Wilma and McKenzie need to sit down and discuss the reasons for their differing viewpoints.” (As opposed to something like, “The bad vibes in here are driving me crazy—can’t you two work out your stuff?”)
7. Recruit more members who share values of communication, dealing with emotions, and personal growth. Over time you may be able to reverse the shift.
Laird Schaub responds:
This is a great question, touching on a number of important topics.
First, what does it mean to be a member of the community? Apparently, at first there was a clear value around working through interpersonal tensions and then, for some reason, you ceased screening new members for a fit with that value. Unless that shift was consciously made, that’s a guaranteed train wreck. The old timers will lament the “heartless” newcomers, and the newbies will feel blindsided by the old fogies’ hidden agenda.
The solution to this is being as intentional as possible about matching prospective members with community values. If you intend that working through emotional issues is group work, make sure incoming folks know what they’re signing up for (and have sufficient social skills to get the job done).
Second, I am not a fan of automatically separating business and heart (isn’t the new culture we’re trying to create essentially about the sensitive integration of the two?). Please don’t misread what I’ve just said. I am not saying it’s never appropriate to hold well-being circles. Rather, I advocate the community choosing, case by case, whether to work emotions that surface in general meeting in the moment or in a different setting (which could include one-on-one with facilitation, a well-being meeting of the whole group, work with outside counseling—really anything that the participants are willing to try).
Sometimes productive work on a particular issue is simply not possible until and unless the distress arising in the examination is resolved first. In such situations, tabling the interpersonal work for the next well-being meeting effectively means that the topic is held hostage to the distress. It’s reasonable for the group to be able to ask if it can afford that. By extension, if the answer is “no,” then it needs to be possible to work tensions on the spot.
Digging deeper, this is not likely to succeed unless the group has a clear understanding of how to work constructively with emotions. The art here is understanding when distress has risen to the level that it’s starting to cause non-trivial distortion of information. It is highly helpful for the group to have an agreement about checking this out whenever it is perceived to be happening (I phrase it this way because people often project distress onto others by assuming, erroneously, that everyone evidences distress the same way)—even in business meetings.
The idea here is to acknowledge the distress for the purpose of addressing the distortion—not to “fix” someone, or heal them. This is a meeting (of caring people), not therapy. Done well, the group need not be reactive to the fact that someone was reactive. They can simply validate what has occurred, counteract the tendency of distressed people to feel isolated and misunderstood, and return to the discussion of the issue. This last is key. It is the attempt to balance heart and business in the moment.
By assiduously separating business and heart into two different forums, it is predictable that you’ll get the result you’ve described: the “product” people will focus more on the business meetings, and the “process” people will attend more to the well-being sessions. Instead of enhancing integration, you’ll be inadvertently reinforcing the differences and accelerating a schism. In my book, offering “full-service” meetings where business and heart are both in play is the surest path to sound decisions and a cohesive group.
Beatrice Briggs responds:
“Business” and “well-being” are not two separate categories. Like thinking and feeling, they go together. Business decisions affect the lives of community members and vice versa. Efforts to suppress interpersonal conflicts and emotions in business meetings and divert them to another forum are counter-productive, as this case shows. So the question becomes how to find more productive ways to integrate the information contained in emotional and interpersonal material into the “business” discussions— without turning the meetings into group therapy sessions. The best way I know to do this is to use Roger Schwarz’s “Ground Rules for Effective Groups”:
1) Test assumptions and inferences.
2) Share all relevant information.
3) Use specific examples and agree on what important words mean.
4) Explain your reasoning and intent.
5) Focus on interests, not positions.
6) Combine advocacy and inquiry.
7) Jointly design next steps and ways to test disagreements.
8) Discuss undiscussable issues.
9) Use a decision-making rule that generates the level of commitment needed.
In order for these rules to work, they need to be applied in combination with the following core values:
• Valid information
• Free and informed choice
• Internal commitment
In a community context, compassion is essential. Group members need to cultivate the ability to temporarily suspend judgment and really listen to what they are saying (and not saying) to each other, be concerned for each other and recognize each others’ suffering. Business meetings are as good a place as any to put compassion to work.
Successfully applying these principles takes training and practice, as well as skillful facilitation. To get started, visit www.schwarzassociates.com, where you will find a lot of helpful articles and other information.
In short, my recommendation is to eliminate the practice of automatically sending emotional and interpersonal material to the “well-being ghetto.” Both your business meetings and community life will benefit.
Caroline Estes responds:
There are a few parameters missing from this question, so I will make some assumptions and hope that it is helpful.
It is not unusual for communities that
have been around for some time to become lax in their inquiry on new members. The passage of time often blurs the original commitment and intent of the forming individuals. It would seem that there has been a lack of understanding by some of the newer members as to the basic values and commitments that the original members had.
The only “out” at this point seems to be a process of recommitment. That is not to say that some of the original values and processes may not have matured into other forms, other than those at the beginning. However, from my perspective, the balance that you put in place at the beginning seems very mature and important.
It is not clear to me if the incoming new members understood and accepted the original process. If they did not or were not informed, then it is important to return to the original meaning and organizational expectation of the founders.
As I said, I don’t know under what circumstances you take new individuals, but it seems wise to be sure they understand the process they are accepting.
The larger the community gets without a clear understanding of the original purposes and values, the more diffused will be the acceptance of those purposes and values.
Native Americans hold with a basic number of 25 for a cohesive community. If you have gone beyond this number, it might be well to have separate circles to take care of emotional and deeper issues of your community. It would seem that the situation you find yourself in cannot lead to cooperative harmony at present.
It may also be a situation in which you need to divide the community between a core group that holds to the original vision and a support group that is in general agreement but not interested in the process of the community.