Saturday, April 23, 2011

When Unwelcome Behavior Meets Unwelcome Advice

I recently had an interesting correspondence with a couple members of a cooperative house. It started with the following email:

I'm trying to find help for my co-op in a difficult situation. Though we have been a cooperative since 1981, we have no agreements or group norms about how to handle situations where guests are behaving badly.

While guests are normally respectful and welcome, on two separate occasions one particular house member—a woman with a serious drinking problem—brought home a young man (different one each time), they drank until drunk, she left them in our common space to sleep, and the guys went into a different woman's room uninvited. In On the first occasion, the man drunkenly tried getting into the woman's bed until she screamed for him to leave, which he did. On the second occasion, the inebriated man opened a mother's door (with her kid sleeping not far away), took off his shirt, put her daughter's shirt on, and climbed into bed with the mother. She screamed and got him out of her room. On both occasions the host woman was passed out drunk.

One of the assaulted women asserted that she wanted to deal with this on her own by talking to the woman who hosted these two men, but unfortunately didn't get around to it. When one of the men came back for a subsequent visit, we confronted him and he denied everything to the point of accusing the mother of lying. On the basis of nothing having been proven about inappropriate behavior, the hosting woman wants to bring him back as a guest.

There are many new members in the house who don't have much experience in cooperative living and have never dealt with these issues before. I am looking for help.

We have sought mediation, but the host woman with the drinking problem never shows up to those meetings. I'd like to stay because the other members are really wonderful, yet I don't feel safe.

I responded as follows:

While I'm learning of this situation only through you, and I know there will be other sides to the story, here is my advice based on the assumption that you have given me an accurate picture of events. This sounds like an awful situation, which essentially boils down to a house member acting inappropriately and the house not dealing with it well.

There are several points to look at:

1. Do you have clear house agreements about members being responsible for the behavior of their guests? And if so, is being drunk, passing out in the common space, and entering people's rooms without permission unacceptable behavior? I'm assuming that's so, but I'm checking (the point being that it's hard to hold people to standards that have never been articulated). There is also an issue of safety here, which I imagine is something that the co-op means to value (whether you have words to that effect or not).

2. All groups, in my opinion, benefit from having an explicit commitment that all members need to offer all other members a channel by which they can offer critical feedback about people's behavior as a member of the group. In addition, I'd add that members be expected to make a good faith effort to work out conflicts in which they are named—even if they don't think there's a problem. It sounds to me that you don't have such agreements and now it's hard to approach the woman with a drinking problem who occasionally brings men with poor judgment home. If you did have such agreements, the hosting woman would be expected to show up at a mediation involving their behavior. Mind you, she wouldn't be compelled to agree with another person's story of what happened, or that she'd need to do something differently, but she would be expected to make a reasonable attempt to work things out. In some groups I know, failure to show up for such attempts could be considered grounds for expulsion—if the pattern is strong enough or the conditions are dire enough.

3. It's my view that even if the woman member with the drinking problem weren't bringing strangers home, there'd be a problem. While a house member's alcohol consumption may generally be a private matter, there's a place where an individual's behavior becomes a group issue, and I'd argue that that line has been crossed and that the group has the right to demand at least moderation in her drinking to the point where she's present when she brings guests home and is willing and able to protect the house from her guests acting inappropriately.

This is a reasonable norm for all house members, and even if the woman believes her guests and not the claims of her housemates about what these men did, I doubt it would be hard to get everyone to agree with the following:
o house members are responsible for guests behaving responsibly
o guests are not to enter private rooms without express permission
o guests should not be in the house if inebriated
o house member safety is paramount; it there's any doubt about what's happening, the guests will promptly be asked to leave and you'll sort it out later

Beyond all this, I'm amazed that this woman with the drinking problem is still there. Have you asked her to leave? If she's not willing to tackle her drinking problem (and see that her behavior when drunk has unacceptable consequences for the rest of the group), I wouldn't want any part of her as a house member.

• • •
When the woman posted the above to her fellow house members, this came back (with my subsequent response to all parties interspersed):

I am a current resident at the co-op in which another member recently wrote to you concerning a problem we are going through.

I would like to discourage you from giving advice to others. I am not currently involved in the situation but as an outsider who has actually met both parties I can assure you that what you received was a very one-sided review.

I am fully aware of having heard from only one person, and that other stories may be substantially different. My advice was based on what might be done if the statements given to me were true, including the following (all of which could be disputed):
o That the woman described has a drinking problem.
o That on at least two occasions men she invited into the house were drunk and the woman went to sleep while the men entered other women's rooms without permission.
o That the the issue was not brought up to the woman with the drinking problem.
o That the group is not clear about what responsibilities house members have for the behavior of their guests.
o That the group has not discussed when an individual's personal behavior (in this case, drinking) becomes a group issue.
o That the group is not clear about how to work interpersonal tensions between members.

To the extent that there is not agreement on the above, then it's entirely appropriate to back up to the point where there is agreement on what's happening and go from there.

The woman who wrote to you is one of the people involved in the disagreement. Your one-sided advice has really "fed the fire" and probably made this already intricate situation worse. You mixed some very sound logic ("Do you have clear house agreements about members being responsible for the behavior of their guests?") with your own inexperienced personal opinion. Like ending the entire letter the wrap up, "I wouldn't want any part of her as a house member."

That would be true for me if I believed that the statements from the original correspondent were true.

Please remember you have never met the woman being labeled as the problem. And you have never met the woman who wrote to you. Taking one's word at face value is dangerous. Look up "straw man." I appreciate your willingness to respond to this matter but would suggest you either leave out personal opinions or just don't advise personal conflicts in the future.

I'll willingly accept your chastisement about not being careful enough to make clear that my advice was based on the version of events that were given to me, and I'll freely admit that I am in no position whatsoever to make a claim as to their veracity. Further, I would be happy to rethink things in light of other viewpoints if I were involved.

However, giving advice in conflicted situations is what I do professionally and I'm not about to stop because someone doesn't like my thinking.
• • •
There has been no further exchange than this and that may be the end of what I hear. Did I do any good? Did I make matters worse? I don't know and I may never know. It is one of the most frustrating aspects of being a group process consultant—I rarely hear what happens afterward.

The one thing I do know, however, is that it can't be right to not talk about it.

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