Wednesday, November 24, 2010

How to Be a Savvy Community Visitor

This concludes my four-part series on how to be intentional about searching for a home in intentional community.

I. What does FIC already offer? [see my Nov 15 blog]
II. How to make full use of Communities Directory as a seeker's resource [see my Nov 18 blog]
III. Questions that will help you figure out what you're looking for [see my blog of Nov 21]
IV. How to get the most out of a community visit

Today I'll address the final question, what to keep in mind when visiting a prospective community. I'll break this into two parts:

A. What do you want?
This comes in various flavors:

—The Asking
After walking through the literature and identifying what factors are priorities, you should have a fairly good handle on what are the important things for you to be looking for. The relatively straight forward part of this is obvious: ask your questions, and notice how satisfied you are with the answers.

Suggestion #1: Ask more than one member the same question—you may get different responses. This could mean a variety of things, so be careful how you interpret it. It may be that the group is still figuring out its answer, it may be there's internal confusion, it may be that one of the people is new and mistaken.

Suggestion #2: Notice if you're experiencing any discord between how your head responds and how your belly responds. Your intuitive knowing may count as much or more than your intellectual knowing. Pay close attention to how the community feels to you. Discomfort may be triggered by being in a new or unusual environment—which is natural and not necessarily bad—or it may be an early warning that something is off and you'd be wise to figure out what it is.

Suggestion #3: Notice what people aren't talking about. If some questions being evaded or answered in vague generalities, it's a bad sign.

Suggestion #4: If you have special needs (this could be anything from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, to cat hair allergies; from a place to play a baritone sax late at night, to a space to study tantric sex late at night), be sure to get those out on the table directly. Don't assume you'll work that out later. Going the other way, don't assume there's no flexibility even if what you want is not officially on the menu. If you don't ask, the answer is always "no"; but sometimes groups will bend in your direction if you're otherwise an attractive enough prospect.

Suggestion #5: Notice how accurately members hear your questions and are responsive to what you actually asked. In groups that get inured to a steady flow of visitors, you may be hearing canned answers that don't quite hit the mark—perhaps because they didn't bother to carefully hear the question. For some people, a conversation is merely an excuse to talk about whatever interests them, independently of whether the audience has any interest in what they're saying! Not good.
—The Milieu
Because community living is mainly a social challenge, it's worthwhile to see how members interact informally.

Suggestion #6: How much laughter is there? Is the humor easy and comfortable, or tense and competitive? Sarcasm or Don Rickles put-down humor may be entertaining, yet it may also be symptomatic of unresolved tensions, and wearying over time.

Suggestion #7: How much do members speak critically of one another or of the group in casual settings? This too may be indicative of unresolved issues. Note: There is an important distinction between gossip that vilifies someone not present, and venting that leads to constructive thinking about how to engage the person whose behavior triggered the upset.

Suggestion #8: Notice how comfortable members are in silence. Notice any tendencies for one or more members to talk a lot. Can you imagine this mix being a good social setting for you? Warning: Don't get swept up in your enthusiasm about a good values match and/or a lovely physical setting at an affordable price—at the end of the day, your ultimate satisfaction in community life will be based on your relationships with fellow members. Is this your tribe?

Suggestion #9: Are you finding any members who offer decent prospects for a close friendship? While it can be tricky sorting this out accurately in a short visit, you'll still have first impressions and this is an important data point. It will enormously benefit your transition to community life if you have one or more people with whom you have an immediate, easy rapport (people you can ask stupid questions to and not feel embarrassed).

—The Engagement
It's a good idea to look at the balance between how much the focus of conversations is about you and how much about others.
Suggestion #10: How interested are members in who you are and your journey to community? While it's inappropriate you expect everyone to drop what their doing and rush over to hear your story before you've set your suitcase down, it's reasonable that members take time to reach out to you at some point in your visit. Integration into a community is a dance where everyone has steps—it's not all about you adapting to the group. Look for the group's willingness to take you, as a unique person, into account.

Suggestion #11: If you do not come across as being interested in the members of the community (note that this is different than being interested in the community), you will not be a very attractive candidate to join the group.

—The Meeting
If at all possible, try to time your visit so that you can witness a community meeting. There is probably no single opportunity where you can learn so much in such a short time.

Suggestion #12: If the community does not let visitors attend meetings, find out why. If there's a delicate issue where the group is wrestling with a tough problem and has designated this as a members-only session, cut them some slack. If however it's just an average plenary, barring visitors from attending probably signals some unresolved trust issues in the group and that's a warning sign.

Suggestion #13: If you're allowed to attend a meeting, ask at the outset what are the boundaries of your participation, and then stay within bounds. Hint: Not respecting the limits will make a bad impression. Perhaps you'll be asked to observe only, maybe you'll be asked to participate in the opening check-in and the closing evaluation but nothing else; maybe you'll be expected to be quiet unless someone asks you a direct question; maybe you'll be allowed to use your discretion about when's an appropriate time to speak.

Suggestion #14: Observe closely how well members hear each other, how constructively they work with different viewpoints, how well the group protects opportunities for all to speak (note that this is not the same as how evenly the air time is divided), and how the group works with emotions if they surface. Do you like what you're seeing?

—Dynamics of the Stay
I advise you to think carefully about how to set this up to work well for you. there are a number of things to keep in mind…

Suggestion #15: Arrange to stay for a week or longer, if possible. Obviously, the amount of information you can glean from a visit is directly related to how long you're there. While your flexibility to travel and be away from home is probably limited, staying a week is much better than just a weekend; and staying for a weekend is much better than just taking an afternoon tour. For one thing, your mood and your hosts' moods (and perhaps the weather's mood) are likely to shift over the course of several days and it's good to see things through a variety of lenses, all of which are part of reality's everyday landscape. (If long-term member Chris never has a good day when it's overcast, you may as well know that now.)

The longer the stay, the more chances you'll have for conversations that arise in a natural flow, rather than through semi-awkward forced dialog that can result from a telescoped visit—where you're marking off people on your Members To Talk To bingo card, hoping you can score a blackout before the car leaves. Whew.

Suggestion #16: For many, it's a big plus to visit with a companion who's also interested in (or at least curious about) community. Even if this person is not a serious candidate to move into the community with you, you'll have someone you already know to hep process your experience. Sometimes, your buddy will notice reactions that you're having before you do. The flip side of this is that you will not get nearly as much individualized attention if you're part of a tour group. Depending on how much you're wanting to learn, this lesser exposure may be acceptable, but know that going in.

Suggestion #17: If the group asks for a visiting fee, be sure to pay it, or negotiate a mutually acceptable exception up front. (A group may be willing to exchange work for fees, or have a low-income option, but don't assume that.) If the group does not have a fee, seriously consider making a donation. The amount is not nearly as important as the message you'll be conveying: "I understand that you're stretching to accommodate me into your everyday life, and I appreciate it." This will land well.

Suggestion #18: Sometimes visitors are expected to lend a hand with group work; sometimes not. Sometimes this expectation is dependent on how long you're there. Find out what the expectations are and try to exceed them. Better yet, find out what needs doing that is unpopular and try to help there. Warning: be careful of volunteering for a skilled task where you have no expertise. While almost anyone can safely wash dishes and sweep floors, if the group has to train you to be useful your offer may not represent a net gain.

—Widening Your Palate
It's generally a good idea to not narrow your choices of communities to visit too quickly, since the live experiences can have a significant impact on what you'll ultimate decide which qualities are crucial. It's an interactive search process, where the criteria can shift as you get fresh data.

Suggestion #19: Consider visiting communities that have qualities that you think you want strongly, even if there are other characteristics that eliminate that group as a likely home. Sometimes you can test drive a theory about what's important by visiting a place simply for the purpose of experiencing that quality up close and personal—to see if it really matters as much as you think it does. This strategy is all the more appealing if the community is nearby and doesn't cost much in time and money to visit. Refining your tastes through such forays can help prevent very expensive mistakes later on—such as selling your house and moving across the country, only to find out that you don't thrive living on an all olive oil and mango diet after all.

B. What does the community want?
Okey doke. Now let's switch horses and look at this dynamic from the other side. Some communities get interested in visitors only when they're serious prospects for membership. Others are more liberal about witnessing what they're doing, and enjoy strutting their stuff for the casual visitor as well—they see it as a commitment to general outreach and education about cooperative values. Even though you may consider yourself a bona fide serious prospect, the community may be cautious about accepting that label; they've heard it all before. So don't assume everyone's dying for a chance to sit down with you as the new person just on the scene. Give folks a chance to warm up to you.

—Been There, Done That
If the group has been around for a while, they're likely to be somewhat jaded by a steady flow of visitors, and it's hard to greet them all with fresh enthusiasm. This is especially true if your questions run to the mundane ("How many acres do you own?" "What's the dog's name?" "How much of your food do you grow?") Hint: Try not to ask questions that you could have gotten the answer to by reading the website.

—The Telling
If you're visiting to learn, try to emphasize listening over talking. The group will be looking closely to see how self-aware you are about how much air time you use. They will looking at how well you listen and can understand community dynamics. Hint: If you're unsure what's happening or the meaning of an exchange, it's better to simply ask than to pretend you understand.

While it can be fun and stimulating to have visitors to show around, it isn't fun and stimulating all the time. If you're hoping to be entertained and regaled by your hosts nonstop, give it up. They'll want to know that you can entertain yourself for stretches of your visit—without getting into trouble by spontaneously putting the dishes away in a kitchen you've never seen before, or overfeeding the wood stove to where the windows have be flung open in January. Hint: think about taking a walk, checking out the community library, or lending a hand scrubbing potatoes for dinner. Or falling back on that timeless shamanic admonition: chop wood, haul water.

—The Meeting
The community will have its own checklist for observing you, while you're observing them. They'll be looking at your self-discipline about respecting their boundaries on appropriate meeting behavior. They'll be looking at how well you can follow the dynamics. Afterward, they may be interested in how well you understood what was happening, and any observations you have about how things went. Hint: For some groups, this is a key assessment about your communication skills, so be on your toes.

—Running a Positive Balance
Almost all communities want members who will contribute at least as much as they receive. While you may not be directly asked to self-assess how you would stack up in that regard, you can bet that the community is nonetheless doing that assessment. As such, your chances of getting a favorable response to a member application will be significantly enhanced if you discuss first the ways in which you're excited to lending a hand, and explore second what you're seeking in the way support. Hint: there's a significant difference between enthusiasm for ongoing projects, and excitement to bring your own projects to the community. Where the former may be viewed as supportive; the latter may land as a challenging diffusion. If you can dedicate your first year or two to helping the community finish what's already on its collective plate, you'll see a lot more smiles around the closing circle.

1 comment:

Lotus Allen said...

Excellent series, Laird! With the times as they are, I believe we'll see an increase in people interested in and seeking community, so this is timely, imo. Thank you for your work.