I’ve just come from a Findhorn Foundation (FF) coworkers’ meeting – an assembly of: FF staff (paid employees); apprentices (those doing LEAP, our Living Education Apprenticeship Programme); and invited others. It’s the largest regular meeting of FF personnel. Coworker meetings are held on an ad hoc basis every three or four months. They can be called in extraordinary circumstances, or as a means of updating the coworker ‘body’ with important information, or simply for group building or social purposes. On this occasion, 60 or 70 of us gathered to discuss various matters at hand. We met in the Beechtree Room in Cluny, our second campus in the township of Forres, five miles from Findhorn. I chose to write on this topic (or perhaps the topic chose me) because I came away from the meeting totally inspired by what I witnessed and experienced there. It raised for me, some of the features and qualities of our community that keep my enthusiasm and commitment here alive.

I came to Findhorn ten years ago following a lifetime spent, on and off, in a diverse range of intentional communities. In each of them I experienced a different mode of governance and approach to meetings. My first communal experience was on kibbutz in Israel in the 1970s. The kibbutz movement was then about 70 years old, very firmly established with time tested systems and procedures. Members would meet once a month at an asefa (general meeting) in the dining hall – seated, I recall, at laminated tables set in a very large rectangle under harsh fluorescent lighting. Decisions would be discussed and a vote taken with a show of hands. Whilst this looked ostensibly like direct democracy at work, it also felt quite formal and alienating. However, there was one feature of kibbutz governance that particularly impressed me. Positions of power were strictly rotated every two years, even the key position of merakez meshek, a cross between farm manager, finance director and CEO – ‘top dog’ in other words. The choice of next merakez would be taken more than twelve months in advance. The candidate would be plucked from their job driving a tractor or milking cows and sent away to study for a year before taking up the position. Two years later s/he would find themselves back on the tractor or under the cows. For me, this epitomised the egalitarian ethos that so drew me to kibbutz in the first place. I’m not sure whether it survived the economic crisis that befell kibbutz in the ‘80s; I’d be surprised. In fact, many aspects of kibbutz life have been completely transformed over the last 30 years. The socialist/egalitarian ideological base has been completely eroded in most cases.

Having left Israel for reasons that I mentioned in my last post, I returned to Australia seeking a new communal lifestyle. By the mid to late 1970s the hippie ethos and alternative, back-to-the-land, movement were kicking off in Australia. Recently married, I moved with my wife to Tuntable Falls, the largest hippie commune in Australia. Tuntable was an anarchic place; it couldn’t have been more different to kibbutz in terms of its systems and procedures. In short, there were none! Or at least, very few. As I recall, we had only two rules: that there should be no cats or dogs (in order to protect the wildlife); and also no firearms (in order to preserve the peace and love, brother!). And yet people transgressed both. A few pet lovers refused to relinquish their beloved animals and others insisted on keeping a .22 so that they could despatch the cats and dogs. But I digress.

We made an attempt at governance. Like kibbutz, we held a general assembly every month for the purpose of ‘decision-making.’ But that’s where the similarities ended. Called a ‘Tribal Meeting,’ anywhere between 10 and 100 half or fully naked folk would sit on the grass in a circle under a tree. Decision-making was haphazard. There was little protocol to it, and even less agreement on any one topic. But it didn’t seem to matter much; most of us were too laid back and/or too stoned to care. After 8 years my family and I moved away from Tuntable, back into the mainstream. Our reasons were many and varied but one was my disillusion with an alternative lifestyle in terms of its potential for world work. In the beginning, we hippies were terribly idealistic (and also terribly naive, it must be said), convinced that we were going to change the world by our example – of low impact, collaborative and sustainable lifestyles. In the end, the onset of rampant consumerism and individualism in the ‘80s  rendered our example less and less relevant to the mainstream.

In the early ‘90s I got excited about what I sensed was the start of a new communal movement. And this time, it was fully embedded within the mainstream! Cohousing, it seemed from what I was reading, had the potential to enable large numbers of regular, urban, middle-class folk to live more simply and collaboratively – downsizing their houses, being less consumerist and more proactive, socially and environmentally. I spent 8 years as an academic researching cohousing in Denmark, Holland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the US; in the process, visiting 30 or 40 cohousing projects and ecovillages. And in most of them I had the opportunity to sit in their meetings. At the time, consensus decision-making was all the rage and it was applied in every group. Consensus was thought to address the deficiencies of conventional processes based on voting, which can discount the views of minorities, leading to alienation, withdrawal from the process, and/or non-compliance with any given decision.

The marketing literature of one cohousing community suggested that consensus ‘puts all members on an equal footing, avoids power struggles and encourages everyone to participate by communicating openly.’ In fact, genuinely open communication (let alone full transparency) critical to any such process, generally requires a separate and resolute agreement of its own. And many groups had such an agreement, usually written into a mission statement or some other social contract. And this is a point I most wish to stress. In my experience, it’s not actually the social technology per se that makes or breaks a decision-making process (i.e. whether it’s based on voting, consensus or Sociocracy, for example). In my opinion, successful governance is less dependent on a chosen methodology and much more reliant on deeper, underlying levels of trust and openness in the group. On the whole, I was very impressed with the smooth running of the consensus-based meetings I witnessed, despite the fact that many cohousing groups were in the midst of the often stressful period of designing and constructing their buildings and landscape. Their governance and indeed their social interaction generally, was underpinned by high levels of trust and goodwill. This is a feature of cohousing. Members typically come together two or three years before designing, building and moving into their community. They purposefully build relationships of trust and understanding before having to face the challenges of community life.

One of the things that most struck me when I first arrived at Findhorn was the level of grace which pervaded most meetings. Prior to that, I had endured 8 years as an academic sitting in faculty meetings driven by inflated egos, hidden agendas and intellectual one-upmanship. At Findhorn, people seemed modest, unassuming and without any hidden agenda. Furthermore, they actually listened to each other! Meetings of all kinds appeared to run without structure, sometimes without even a chairperson. Usually a ‘focaliser’ would lead to begin with, but after that, most meetings self organised without need for overt control or intervention. Typically, they became a free-wheeling discussion somehow guided by an invisible protocol: everyone waited their turn to speak; nobody would interject or speak over another; and nobody spoke for longer than appropriate. I was very, very impressed. And it strengthened my conviction that a group with relationships of trust and goodwill doesn’t need to overlay their meetings with structure (i.e. apply consensus, Sociocracy or similar). Indeed, it’s better off without!

Anyway, back to the coworkers meeting I mentioned. On this occasion it was lightly held by Camilla, our Chair of Management; she had information she wished to convey. There were essentially two topics to cover. Camilla spoke to one and another coworker, Adele who works closely with Camilla, spoke to the other. The first was a very sensitive matter that carried the potential to tip the group into angst and recrimination. The second was a vast and somewhat amorphous topic that probably meant something different to every person in the room. As such, it might have been a difficult topic for 60 people to coherently discuss. And it also carried a certain charge with the potential to incite strong feelings. After Camilla and Adele had talked to each topic, a discussion ensued. Many people spoke, some passionately. Yet, throughout the meeting, a sense of calm, order and deep listening prevailed. The discussion of both topics was completed in good time, with everyone who wished to speak feeling heard. It was very, very inspiring.

I believe there are two main contributors to the level of grace that characterise our meetings: our agreements and our spirituality. The Findhorn Foundation (FF) and Community have developed over many years what we call, the Common Ground. This is a list of 14 agreements that represent values to which we all hold. The FF Web site says of the Common Ground, that it’s ‘a living document, a code of conduct, and used as a tool for transformation for ourselves, the community and the world.’ Every FF coworker formally agrees to do their best to abide by the principles articulated in the Common Ground. I’m not going to discuss it here in depth; the full document can be downloaded here. But I’d like to pull out those particular clauses which I believe clearly contribute to the grace of our meetings:
Respecting Others: I wholeheartedly respect other people – their differences, views, origins, backgrounds and issues.
Direct Communication: I use clear and honest communication with open listening, heart-felt responses, loving acceptance and straightforwardness.
Reflection: I recognise that anything I see outside myself—any criticisms, irritations or appreciations—may also be reflections of what is inside me.
Nonviolence: I do not inflict my attitudes or desires on others.
Perspective: I acknowledge that there may be wider perspectives than my own and deeper issues than those I am immediately aware of.

The second reason for the success of our meetings is, I believe, our spirituality. I’ve covered this in some depth elsewhere in this blog (e.g. the post, Going Within) so, again, will not go into detail here. Suffice to say that our spirituality involves deep ‘inner work’ i.e. working on, and taking responsibility for, one’s issues, particularly those things that trigger us. This is where we look deeply into our psyche to identify the source of our aversions, irritations and challenges. We reflect on our various needs, wants and desires and seek to unpack their origins. And it’s where we get to work on the ego, to ensure that its shadow side doesn’t suddenly flare up in the middle of a meeting.

Finally, I must admit that we do have an adopted meetings methodology of sorts – we begin all gatherings with a moment of silence. This simple but deeply meaningful act defines our meetings, in a way. It goes beyond helping participants settle into the space and become present. I believe it works very subtly to remind us of our commitment to the Common Ground and also the reflections and results of our ‘inner work.’ A moment’s silence serves to prime a meeting with those qualities I’ve mentioned: grace, ease, openness and deep listening. At the end of a meeting, we usually link hands and close with another moment of silence, this time to express gratitude for what has transpired. And in that moment, speaking for myself, I also feel the oneness of the group and of our community – our essential interconnectedness.

All of these qualities that so impress me about our meetings are what enable them to flow with such grace. So I for one, am strongly opposed to the introduction of Sociocracy as an overlay to our meetings (as has been suggested). I don’t think we need it, and furthermore, I think it could do more damage than good. It has the potential to stifle the free flowing conversational style that is enabled by our underlying trust and goodwill. Perhaps, there is an argument for using Sociocracy (or the next big thing in meetings facilitation) on rare occasions, for particular purposes – when a controversial decision needs to be made, for example. But apart from that, I move that we don’t adopt it!