Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Early Bird Gets the Berm

Today I wrap up my five-week East Coast trip and start heading back to Missouri. Hurray! Before jumping in the car to attend one more social function, and then begin the long trek home, I want to share a brace of vignettes from this trip, both of which illuminate important aspects of community dynamics.

Defining Who You Mean to Be
I was working with a forming community recently that was wrestling with the dilemma of when it was OK to start making firm decisions about who they were and how they wanted to be with each other.

It's a common question.

On the one hand, you can only participate in foundational decisions for any given community once, and groups are properly mindful of being deliberate about who gets that honor. Because it enhances identification with the group, and broadens the perspectives available for doing work that will stand the test of time, you can understand the impulse to delay making decisions until the group gets bigger. On the other hand, how will all those folks you're hoping will join your circus know what's happening under the big top if there's nothing posted on the marquee?

Every decision you make results in specificity that runs the risk of discouraging people from joining your group—including those who are especially coveting a founding experience, and those preferring the fork in the road not taken. I get that it can be nerve wracking to intentionally limit the pool of applicants ("How will we ever sell all the units?"), yet what's the alternative—sorting out differences and defining common ground after you've built the houses? Not a good idea.

On the whole, it's better to define what's truly important as early as you can, so that you're not inadvertently attracting prospectives who are hoping you'll be something else. Having said that, there's an additional nuance here that's valuable to take into account. Beyond identifying your ideal position on key values, it helps to lay out how much deviation from the ideal is tolerable. At the end of the day, you don't need everyone to agree exactly on everything (which is damn good because it's nearly impossible to get that), yet you need everyone to have overlapping tolerance on all key values. And it's hard to test for something you haven't articulated.

Notice that I said "key" values. If a thing truly doesn't matter much to your group, it's OK to wait until more people join the party before determining how you'll handle it. For the features that are crucial though, I advise getting them articulated as early as you can, as they'll ultimately be the basis for screening applicants anyway and everyone will be better served by having that out in the open.

While following my advise can place a heavy workload on the forming core of a new community, there are perks. When the group is small, each person has more sway in decisions. 

This phenomenon was summed up succinctly when the group I was working with was focusing on choices in site design and came to the realization that only a small number of members would be able to have houses that benefited from acoustical and visual separation by virtue of locating near earthworks that would be used to channel rainwater away from the houses. As one clever participant put it, "The early bird gets the berm."

"Blocking" Inquiry
I conducted a workshop on consensus yesterday (as part of the Northeast Cohousing Summit in Cambridge MA) and a question came up about how to handle the situation where people say they'll "block" a conversation about a topic they don't want to discuss.

That's interesting for a number of reasons:
a) In consensus, "blocking" happens only at the point of decision, so the term is being misused.

b) Semantics aside, it is no doubt a real phenomenon that members will sometimes try to stifle conversation about topics they feel strongly about (probably because they like things the way they are and are afraid that examination might lead to change). In their zealousness to get what they want, they may even threaten the group with high distress in an effort to derail the conversation. While this is inappropriate, it can sometimes work—particularly if the group has weak skills in managing distress, or in confronting bullies.

c) To be sure, when people have serious concerns about an issue there needs to be room for that to be fully articulated, accurately held, and worked with compassionately. It does not mean, however, that they can quash the conversation or that they are guaranteed to get their way.

In a separate conversation I was told a poignant story about a community where a significant chunk of the membership was strongly desirous of bringing in outside help to work through an accumulation of unresolved conflicts and was told by others in the group that they'd never approve that initiative. The status quo contingent was essentially happy with the way things had been going and saw no reason to rock the boat.

What, I wondered, were these satisfied folks thinking that it didn't matter that a bunch of their community mates were seriously unhappy? How is that OK? Mind you, they needn't have the same analysis as the dissatisfied folks, nor are they obliged to make changes, yet what does it mean to live in a cooperative community and not be willing to take a serious look at why a number of your fellow members are disgruntled? I don't get it. 

I understand why people might be afraid of difficult conversations; I just don't have a picture of how not talking about issues aids their resolution; I have no image of how petulant, pushy behavior promotes domestic tranquility. 

I suppose this is a case of the churly bird gets the squirm.