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Look for the grain of truth

Over the years many people have asked me what it was like to live in a community such as Findhorn. There is no quick way to answer that question. But I do know that I learned a lot about leadership at Findhorn. Early on I struggled to listen at length to complaints and criticisms about my leadership.  It was new to me to genuinely listen to and respond to these non-defensively, while at the same time holding my position. I struggled to do this without getting into an argument. And then one day I discovered how to do this.

We were at a large facilitated Community meeting. I was coming under attack in a way that I felt was unreasonable and outrageous. I was starting to respond defensively.

The facilitator said, “Stop right there, Patrick.” I stopped mid flow.

What is the grain of truth in these criticisms of you?” he asked me.

What do you mean?” I shot back at him.

Every criticism, however outrageous you may feel it is, has a grain of truth in it. See if you can find it and acknowledge it.”

This took what felt like a long minute while I sat in silence thinking. The criticism was that I was dishonest and had deliberately lied to the Community about how many builders were required to join, and that this was changing the nature of the Community’s culture.

That was quite a few criticisms at once.

I replied as honestly as I could. “You are right that I didn’t know how many builders we would need. Can I explain why this has turned out differently?

It worked. The tension in the room dropped immediately and I calmly explained why things had turned out differently than even I had expected. The majority of the people in the room were happy with that and we moved on.

As I did more of this, the criticisms died down. And I started to think more about how my behaviours and actions were contributing to some of the conflict in the Community.

This is probably the most useful leadership skill I have ever learned.

Slowly I started to win over the majority of Community members, who began to see that the Ecovillage was a welcome and necessary development and that the Community should welcome the fact that so many builders wanted to help make this a reality.

A few years later I was CEO of a charity called the Teachers Benevolent Fund. It was a 125-year old charity that was focussed on retired teachers, needed modernisation and part of that required closing down a number of somewhat dilapidated and loss making nursing and residential homes. I had to hold a number of meetings at each of these homes, first with the staff, then the residents and finally their families. The meetings with family members were the hardest and on this occasion I drew on learning from my time at the Findhorn Foundation.

The meeting with the residents’ families was harder. I was joined by the chair of the trustees and the treasurer, both longstanding members of the teachers union. We started the meeting with the families by explaining what we were doing and why. Some of the family members were fairly angry, and early on one of them started accusing me of all sorts of bad motives. Before I could say anything, the treasurer stood up and started to defend me in a combative manner. I immediately stood up again and walked in front of him, interrupting him.

I remembered the words from the Community meeting at Findhorn: ‘Look for the grain of truth, however outrageous the criticism or complaint.’

I dug deep and spoke to my accuser, a man upset that we were about to turn his mother’s life upside down. “Yes, sir, this will be disruptive for your mother. And I apologise for that.

He relaxed instantly. He asked what we would do to minimise her disruption and I slowly and patiently went through what I had said earlier.

We spent the next hour with me responding similarly to a number of such criticisms. We discussed alternative options. In one case a woman threatened to remove a legacy from her mother’s will, which I encouraged her to do if that was what her mother wanted and offered to explain how to do this. At the end of the meeting, a few people came up to me and said that, although they didn’t agree with the decision, they respected me. I silently thanked Findhorn for my conflict-resolution training.

The two trustees had been largely silent. The treasurer winked at me at the end and softly said, “That’s not how we do it in the union.”

I know,” I said. He giggled.

I went back to visit the Findhorn Community some years later and had tea with Eileen, the founder. I was well into the next phase of my social enterprise journey and I was able to say to her, “There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t realise that I’m using a skill that I learned here at Findhorn”.

She liked that.

This is an except from my book Creating Social Enterprise: My story and what I learned which is available for sale here.

I hope you will be able to come to my book launch at the Phoenix Cafe at Findhorn on Friday 2nd June, 2023 at 7pm. I’ll be in discussion about the book with my former colleague and good friend John Talbott.

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