Thursday, August 12, 2010

Living with People Who Don't Like You

One of the fears people have about living in intentional community is that there might be people in the group who don't like you, and vice versa. Well, you can relax. If you live in community for any length of time, you can pretty well be assured that this nightmare will come true. I've lived in community for 36 years and it's happened to me multiple times.

While it's no fun, and tends to suck the air out of your balloons, it's only partially in your control and is likely something you'll have to figure out how to live with if you're going to continue to call community home. This dynamic is hard to accept. Especially when you reflect on how no one's dream of community living includes this reality. When you start or join a community you are purposefully screening members for alignment with core values, and your natural expectation is that this will lead to a life that is more integrated and harmonious. It can be a rude awakening to discover that a solid value match does not necessarily say anything about whether people will like each other.

There are a wide variety of ways the bloom can come off the rose. Here are some:
—different communication styles
—different sense of what integrity means
—different comfort level relative to rules and structure
—different relationship to risk
—different relationship to authority and power
—different parenting styles

Never mind differences in humor, diet, attitudes about pets, or what constitutes pleasurable dinner table conversation. At what point do differences shift from being refreshing to irritating? At what point does living with diversity translate into living with folks who are so different that it's hard to understand their choices? Where does acceptance get eroded to the point of mistrust? These are bread and butter challenges to community living—and you better believe that it will occasionally get personal.

Partly it's a numbers game. Having someone dislike you in a group of 50 (where you never have to sit at the same table) is altogether different from having someone dislike you in a group of five (where there's no place to hide). Partly it's a matter of how much you are in each other's lives. In a cohousing community you may not see each other for a month; in an income-sharing community like mine (Sandhill Farm), there are chances to rub up against each other's sore spots every day.

In its milder forms, it may be possible to navigate tense dynamics simply by giving each other a wide berth. You and your nemesis may be able to avoid serving on the same committee, and perhaps the dislike between you will not extend much beyond awkwardness.

Sometimes though, things devolve into outright hostility, where one person sees the other as bad for the community and capable of mendacity and manipulation. Communication between the two individuals is highly strained and tension can settle like a pall over the whole group. In the extreme, it can take on the dimensions of a holy war.

Playing the Hand You're Dealt
So what can you do if you find yourself in this dynamic, when it hurts like hell and there's no immediate prospect that it will get better? The good news is that you have options. Keeping in mind throughout that there is always the option to exit—and I'm not judging anyone for making that choice—I want to concentrate here on what you can do if you stay.

1. In all likelihood, the other person has an unflattering story about you—a story that is substantially different from the one you have about yourself. You can start by resisting the temptation to develop a reciprocal negative story about them. Tit for tat more often leads to pieces than peace.

2. While no one is asking you to enjoy being disliked (or having a negative spin consistently placed on your actions), you have choices about how you respond when acid is being dripped onto your head and your reputation. If someone is upset with you, you can learn to be curious about how they got there (instead of outraged). If anger wells up in you, it is not a moral imperative that you erupt (you can reflect on what to do with your feelings, rather than blurting them out in the moment).

3. Try to steer clear of offering an analysis of why the other person dislikes you. Uninvited psychoanalysis is seldom viewed as an olive branch.

4. Avoid asking other members of the group to take sides. In a mud wrestling match, everyone gets dirty.

5. Look for opportunities to genuinely appreciate the other person, which will help in two directions: a) these acknowledgments will offer the other person a chance to soften their negative story about you (Note: I'm not guaranteeing that this will happen; I'm only talking about possibilities—at the end of the day,
regardless of how unfair or distorted you may think it is, what the other person thinks and feels is outside your control); and b) it will help you to see the other person as more complex, by reminding you of their good qualities; it will help you develop compassion for their struggle to see you in a good light.

None of this is easy. Outrage and moral indignation are tempting and readily available responses when you feel that others are consistently critical of your actions and questioning your motivations. But you still have other choices, and I'm trying—from a place that's deeply informed by the personal pain of this experience—to make the case that we'll all be better served if we can find the courage to walk away from the fight once it's clear that no constructive exchange is possible. I'm not talking about selling out, and I'm not talking about giving up. I'm talking about going inward and finding the will to respond from love and caring about the group.

As an alternative to hardening your heart or armoring yourself against the upsets reported by those who dislike you, cultivate the ability to let their criticism wash over you. Look carefully at what might be true, and concentrate more on how they are struggling than on how you are. One of the gravest dangers in this dynamic is indulging in self pity and becoming addicted to the anger.

From ages 17 to 33 I was locked into anger with my father, and my community living experience helped me to finally see my unwitting part in perpetuating this debilitating dynamic—after 16 years of blaming my father for everything that didn't work well in our relationship. Though it was decades ago that I successfully broke that vicious circle, my community living experience continues to give me the opportunity to learn more subtle lessons in getting unhooked from the hypodermic needle of anger and outrage. From time to time I've succumbed to embattled dynamics with people other than my father, and I get to go through it again. The hardest of all is when this battle is at home.

While withdrawal can be a bitch, it's way better than the alternative.


Quentin said...

This is very good.
Happens to everyone sometime and needs to be thought about and talked about openly.

Unknown said...

Given the topic and your comments on "tit for tat", I thought you might find this Wikipedia article on "tit for tat" and cooperation interesting. This obviously applies in more constrained circumstances but there are brief comments on its application in the real world.

charlie said...

I have observed the "taking sides" approach run rampant in my community--with active lobbying and pressure on persons to choose a side (especially nasty when a couple were involved in a protracted divorce). My experience has been that there are some significant gender role differences in how the "taking sides" approach plays out--with women being more more charged around doing this than men. In fact, at times it reminds of junior high school stuff ("if you take her side I won't like you").

Most disturbing to me was the willingness of some persons to make very strong judgments about another based on what one person said and they would never talk to the person they were judging to hear their side--even when requested to please do so. The notion here being that IF you are going to play judgment, then it is only fair to hear both sides.

Does co-housing self-select persons who are more vulnerable to the social controls of rejection, ostracism, and isolation? The notion of "what others think of me is none of my business," while a bit extreme, is a path some choose to walk in coping with this reality.

Tranq said...

I was wondering if you have any experience in handling these situations by educating people how the ego is behind most of these oppositions and how it keeps us from easily identifying and resolving the real root of the problem.
Is educating the parties about the workings of the ego a feasible solution?