Monday, October 13, 2014

Saying "No" to Prospective Members

One of the trickiest issues that intentional communities face is screening prospective members.

Some groups find this so odious (judging whether others are good enough) that they don't even try. Instead, they rely on prospectives to sort themselves out appropriately, based on what the community has said about itself (on its website, in brochures, or in listings), and how the new person relates to the community when they visit.

Another factor when it comes to screening is that communities often borrow money from banks to develop their property and are thus subject to federal Fair Housing Laws, which means they may not discriminate against people on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, or familial status. Some groups mistakenly translate this into a proscription against using any discernment about who joins the group (or buys a house) but that's not true. It's perfectly legal to insist that people be financially solvent, not have been convicted of felonies, or agree to abide by common values and existing agreements. In fact, it's legal to choose against a candidate for any reason other than the seven protected classes listed above.

What's more, there are any number of people who are attracted to community for the right reasons but are not a good fit, and it's better all around if the community plays an active role in screening for decent matches. In many cases (unless the would-be member is a community veteran) the new person is still wrestling with the question of whether any intentional community is a good choice for them, much less your community. There will be many new and strange things that people have to make sense of during their initial visit, and in the process they can easily miss clues as to whether the visit is going well or not as seen through the host's eyes.

Finally, when you take into account how important it is to have your membership aligned about what you're trying to create, it becomes clear why it's not a good plan to rely mainly on the new person figuring it out on their own. Yes, this may mean that someone washes out sooner, but isn't that better for them as well—rather than getting a false impression about how things are going and discovering the mismatch six months after moving in? Delayed disclosure may relieve the community of having a difficult conversation up front, but at what cost?

OK, let's suppose I've convinced you that communities should get actively involved in membership selection. In broad strokes, there are four possibilities about how a prospective visit may go:

a) Both the community and the prospective realize it's not a good fit. While there's the possibility of some hurt feelings if the prospective feels that what they found did not match what the community promised, mostly this ends amicably and there's no problem.

b) You both like each other and the prospect converts to becoming a new member. Hooray! That's what you had in mind and you're off to a good start. Of course, the honeymoon will end and not everything that starts out well stays that way. While there's no guarantee of long-term happiness, you did your best and now you take your chances.

c) The prospective doesn't feel there's a good fit, though the community likes what they see and wants to encourage the prospective to hang in there. Most of the time when this occurs it's because the prospective comes across as a "good catch" and will likely be attractive to a number of communities. In short, they have options. In this situation also, there's unlikely to be hard feelings. The community may be sad at losing a good prospect, but dating doesn't always lead to marriage and you knew that all along.

d) The hardest combination—and the one I want to focus on in the remainder of this essay—is when the prospective likes the community but it's not reciprocated. Now what?

In general, this is because of one or more of the following factors:

o  Poor social skills
There's a high value placed on good communication skills in community and it can be a serious problem if the prospective is not good at:
—Articulating what they're thinking
—Articulating what they're feeling
—Hearing accurately what others are saying
—Expressing themselves in ways that are not provocative
—Taking in feedback about how others are reacting to their behavior
—Being sensitive to how their statements and actions are landing with others

The issue is not so much whether the prospective fits right in, as whether the members feel they can work things out with the prospective when there are differences—because there will always be differences (eventually).

o  Weak finances
Sometimes it's a question of whether the prospective has sufficient assets or income to meet the financial obligations of membership. Not everyone who is drawn to community has their life together economically.

o  Too needy
Occasionally prospectives come to the community to be taken care of, and there appears to be a frank imbalance between what the person can give relative to the level of support they're needing. For the most part communities are looking for a positive or break-even balance from prospectives and will tend to shy away from those with mental health issues, emotional instability, addictions, or extreme physical limitations—unless there is a plan offered whereby those needs will be taken care of in a way that works for all parties.

Note that there are some excellent examples of communities that have built their identity around serving disadvantaged populations:
—Gould Farm (Monterey MA) focuses on mental health
—Innisfree Village (Crozet VA) focuses on intellectual disabilities
—Camphill Village (the first in the US was located in Copake NY and now there are 10 others) focuses on developmental disabilities
—L'Arche Communities (the first in the US was located in Erie PA and now there are 17 others) focus on intellectual disabilities

o  Failure to keep commitments
It's hard on communities when members make agreements and then don't abide by them; when they make commitments and then fail to keep them. Sure, everyone has a bad week, but with some people it's a pattern and communities are leery of folks who aren't good at keeping their word.

To be sure, it can be difficult to discern a pattern during a visitor period, yet it's one of the reasons groups like to ask prospectives to lend a hand in group work parties—so they can assess follow through and work ethic. People who come across as allergic to group work don't tend to be viewed as good members.

o  Too different
This factor is something of a nebulous catchall. It can be an unusual personality, a quirky communication style, strange tastes or habits… Perhaps this traces to a different cultural background, but regardless of the origin it can be hard when there are no others like this person already in the group. Members may feel awkward in this person's presence and questions arise about whether they can make relationship with this person.

Even where there is a group commitment to diversity, that doesn't mean that everyone can find a happy home there.

• • •
One of the measures of a group's maturity is its ability to have authentic and compassionate conversations about hard things. And discussing the sense that a particular prospective is pushing the group's edge around the limits of what it can handle is an excellent example of a difficult conversation.

Saying "no" is not fun, and it can be very hard to hear it if you're the one being voted off the island. Yet sometimes groups have to do it, and putting it off doesn't make it easier later. The best you can do is anticipate that this is coming and discuss ahead of time what qualities you want in new members, so that you've already established the criteria you'll use before you start applying them.

There will still be challenges: such as the dynamic where one member wants to stretch to take a chance on a prospective that another member is convinced is a poor risk, but at least you'll have established a basis for the conversation—in this case: what is the perceived risk, and how much is too much?

While living in community can be a wonderful experience—I've been doing it for four decades and love it—it isn't always easy.

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