Friday, January 23, 2015

Saying No

It's one thing to respond negatively when offered illegal drugs. But just saying "no" isn't so simple when setting limits for what you'll tolerate.

In cooperative culture, establishing boundaries can be tricky. While this has a personal version (where a friend asks a favor) and a group version (where a member asks for group support or permission), I'm going to focus on the latter as the case that's more interesting (read complicated).

In the community that I helped start and lived in for 39 years (Sandhill Farm) we worked hard to say "yes" to any member request—while at the same time cultivated a norm that members use discernment in what they asked for relative to community resources. In consequence, we rarely fielded special requests and we rarely said "no." While this worked fairly well, it's hard for most people to turn down requests from people they care about (don't you love me?), and people are not uniformly shy about asking for what they want—notice I said "want"; not "need."

When people don't ask, the effective answer is always "no." Still, people hesitate to ask for what they want for any number of reasons:

o  Because they're unsure of their standing in the group (do they have enough social capital?).

o  Because they don't think they deserve it.

o  Because they don't want to be perceived as needy or selfish.

o  Because they may want to "save up" for a larger request later.

o  Because they don't want to place their fellow group members in the awkward position of anguishing over whether to say "no." 

Sometimes non-asking leads to people feeling as if they're earning psychic credit that can carry over and be applied to future requests (you should say "yes" because of all the past times I didn't asked for anything). As this accounting happens entirely inside the person's head and is invisible to others, it can lead to some spectacularly awkward dynamics.

What about folks who work hard to understand and internalize the group's standard of living and make few requests? Are they being punished for this relative to members who make few adjustments in what they ask for and wind up getting more of their requests granted simply because they have a thicker skin and can pump out requests guilt-free?

This begs the question, what is your group trying to equalize when evaluating requests?
—Percentage of requests granted per member
—Amount of group resources devoted to personal pleasure
—Degree of privation (all should suffer equally)

It doesn't take rocket science to see where applying different screens may lead to different results—all while presumably paying homage to the blind deity of Fairness. Has your group discussed this? Most haven't. They just bump along in the dark and hope for the best.

When you sift through this, I believe the safest harbor to steer toward has the following four features:

Step 1. Asking members to screen all requests for what they think the group should reasonably support regardless of who makes the request. Note: this standard implies an answer to how much group resources should be held in reserve for contingencies—which is a delicate issue in and of itself.

Step 2. Encouraging members to bring forward all requests that meet the above test (flattening cultural differences about stoicism or deferred gratification, and extinguishing phantom social credits for non-requests).

Step 3. Discussing and determining what the group is trying to equalize when treating member requests "fairly."

Step 4. Developing a culture in which there's minimal judgment about giving or receiving a negative response, so long as it's aligned with your answer to Step 3.

Done well, I think this strategy gives groups a decent chance of being in the know whenever they decide its best to say "no."

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