Friday, December 15, 2017

Advice for New Intentional Communities

I recently received an email inquiry from Tree Bressen, a friend and process peer living in Eugene OR. She was putting together a list of recommendations for new cohousing groups and asked for my input. As this struck me as a good topic, I decided to post my thoughts here.

Note: Honoring Tree's request, I have cast my comments specifically for the world of cohousing, which is a subset of the Intentional Communities Movement (perhaps eight percent) that I am thoroughly familiar with (over the course of the last 20 years I have worked professional with 66 different cohousing groups, many of them multiple times). Looking over what I've assembled, almost everything here applies just as well to all intentional communities—not just those flying under the cohousing flag.

Here are Tree's recommendations for developing cohousing groups (in italics), followed by my comments in roman.

1. Before the group is 12 people, make an agreement that everyone will assist regularly with common meals (either cooking or cleanup). By the time you are bigger than a dozen people it may become prohibitively difficult to pass that policy, and passing it leads to more common meals which makes for a more cohesive and vibrant community. Eating together regularly preemptively solves many other potential issues.

While I'm a big fan of common meals, you can be a happy and valuable community member without eating with others. Pressuring people to eat together when it doesn't work for them doesn't strike me as sound approach. Better, I think, is to make the meal program so compelling that people will surge to participate. (Use the carrot not the stick.)

Historically, cohousing communities tend to see their meal programs shrink over time. The cooks get weary of coping with so many dietary restrictions, seniors can't hear well over the din of boisterous youngsters, and those clamoring for inexpensive prices undercut those looking for gourmet menus. Ugh. Common meals are an opportunity for creativity and diversity, not one size fits all. They're well worth doing and can be a precious social lubricant, yet aren't the only way to build connections.

2. Make sure anyone considering joining agrees (preferably in writing) to follow all preexisting agreements. Index agreements by subject, not just date, to make it easier for both new and old members to find items by topic.

More important than written agreements (in my view) is establishing a cooperative, collaborative culture. If people want to be assholes, they'll find a way to accomplish that no matter what documents they've signed to the contrary. The key moments are when people disagree and the stakes are high. If you can navigate those times with relationships enhanced—rather than exhausted or degraded—you're in the sweet spot. [See points 4, 9, and 13 below for more on this.]

3. Cohousing communities generally use consensus decision-making. Get training in how to do it effectively. Later as more members join you'll need another training to catch them up; in the interim, include some kind of internal orientation to the decision-making system as part of bringing new people on board. When I teach consensus decision-making, it takes at least one full day.

I want to broaden this to new member orientation and integration. Certainly the decision-making process is part of it, but there's much more, and all kinds of mischief ensues when this is handled poorly. Warning: it is insufficient to create an "owner's manual" and expect that alone will get the job done. Only a fraction of the culture you create will be elucidated in writing, and reading is not everyone's preferred mode of learning. What's more, new members often don't even know what questions to ask. I suggest assigning a buddy to every new household for about six months. (Warning: being a proactive buddy is a skill, and may require training; don't treat this cavalierly.) Remember: it is far easier to retain a member than to replace one.

4. Take steps early on to establish whatever culture you want to foster regarding giving each other feedback. Conflict avoidance causes problems to snowball, later becoming giant and expensive and awful (angry departures, lawsuits, and so on). You need a way for people to talk when they are feeling unhappy or critical toward each other. It's OK if someone needs to take a breather, cool down for a few days before engaging. But long-term unresolved conflict corrodes the community. Don't discuss anything emotionally charged via email. Meet in person (or by phone if necessary during development before everyone is on site) and help each other to listen well.

I want to separate this chunk into three distinct components, all of which are important:

a) Working with Emotions
I urge groups to make a commitment to this as early as possible. You cannot count on folks new to community understanding the primacy of emotional literacy because the vast majority of us grew up in a world where this was not addressed outside of therapy or intimate partnerships. People take in, process, and express themselves in a wide range of ways and one of those is emotionally. Humans bring feelings with them everywhere they go, why not commit to learning the language? Insisting that everything be translated into rational thought (or it somehow doesn't count) is a bad idea. Hint: you can welcome feelings while objecting to aggression.

b) Nurturing Critical Feedback
Just as pain is a necessary biological feedback loop (if you step on a nail it's a damn good thing that your foot hurts), groups need clean channels of feedback so that members can inform each other how actions and statements are landing. This is not about bad intent; it's about finding out that someone had a reaction to something you did as a group member. It provides the opportunity to clear up misunderstandings and to repair damage to relationships before fissures become chasms. Feedback may be awkward to hear, but it's always in your interest to find out. It's like going to the dentist—you may be squeamish about the experience but it's essential for maintaining healthy relationships, the lifeblood of the community.

c) Working with Conflict 
This can be a scary thing, but avoiding it doesn't work. You really have only two choices: pay now or pay later. And the interest rates on unaddressed upset will eat you alive. You need to identify at least a few folks in the your group with the talent and motivation to work with conflict, and agree on one or more methodologies that the group endorses. If you don't have that among your membership at the outset, invest in training and promote that resource being used. It can pay big dividends.

5. Give everyone basic facilitation training. Even if they never volunteer to facilitate full-group meetings, it will make them better participants. Establish a strong and supportive culture around facilitation and your facilitators will stay involved and happily contribute to everything else flowing well. A strong and supportive culture means facilitators doing more than just calling on whoever has their hand up to speak next; it's a more active model. At every full-group meeting, ask for specific feedback at the end: what worked well and what could have been better. That models graceful reception of feedback, and leads to a spiral of improvement over time.

While there's nothing wrong with everyone getting facilitation training, it seems overboard to me. Instead, I recommend that the group train a cadre of facilitators (if your have 40 in the group I'd recommend aiming for at least six) and anyone else who wants it. Warning: outside experience in a corporate setting only partially translates into the cooperative world of community living. It's much more complex than that.

Further, I think it's important to explicitly define what authority facilitators have to run meetings. They will need that to rein in poor behavior from participants who color outside the lines.

6. Have fun together. "There's no time for that!" you will protest. "There are a zillion committee meetings and everything else to get this place built." Yes. Have fun together anyway. It's the positive social rapport, the relationships nurtured, that will carry you through the work and make all that work worth it. Organize potlucks, reading groups, movie showings. Take things people would be doing individually anyway and invite them to do it together in pairs or groups, long before you are actually living together. At least once a year, have a big recreational outing together, a full weekend with no business meetings, just for enjoyment.

I'll say this a bit differently. Try to emphasize having fun in all that you do. And yes, that includes meetings, that bastion of sobriety. You can pretty well tell the vitality and health of a community by how much and how easily people laugh together (not to be confused with laughing at one another). Invite everyone to group activities, yet be gracious about people opting out. People tend to have busy lives and households can vary widely in the factors they attempt to balance when deciding how to spend their precious time. Whatever you do, don't create an orthodoxy about having fun.

7. Participate actively in the movement: 

—Join the Cohousing-L email list. There is a wealth of accumulated wisdom, it's an amazing resource. In addition to current conversations, there are extensive useful archives. 
—Go visit other cohousing communities. See what you like, and ask them what they wish they'd done differently when they started. Learn from them. 
—When you start writing policies, make use of the policy library (, and contribute back to it. 
—Encourage group members to attend as many conferences and cohousing-related events as they can. 
—Join the cohousing association and give back what you can.

This is a choice, not an imperative. While I agree with Tree's list of benefits, first you should ask whether outreach and social change activism are part of the community's vision. If they are, you'd be foolish not to engage with your natural allies. If however, that's not part of your mission (perhaps you're mainly aspiring to leverage resources to create and sustain a great life for members) then it's prudent to be aware of your sister communities as potential resources, while deciding the extent to which you want to invest in those outside relationships relative to all the other amazing choices in front of you. Maybe creating a community choir or a biodynamic garden are more compelling. Hell, it's your home. Make it be what you want. If reinventing the wheel is your shtick, knock yourself out.

8. Build the common house first.

I don't know. While the common house is intended to be a hub of relationship-building activity, it doesn't always play out that way. Design is not destiny. I've seen groups do fine without a common house, and I've seen many groups struggle to pay for it and then grossly underuse it. The key point—which the common house is meant to stand for—is the quality of relationships. That should be the god you bow down to.

• • •
That was Tree's list. Now I want to add five (not so) easy pieces that I think are important tickets to punch on the road to Camelot:

9. Emphasize Social Skills
Based on more than four decades of community living I've come to the view that there is nothing more predictive of a prospective being a good fit than assessing their social skills, by which I mean the ability to:

o  Articulate clearly what you think.
o  Articulate clearly what you feel.
o  Hear accurately what others say (and be able to communicate that to the speaker such that they feel heard).
o  Hear critical feedback without walling up or getting defensive.
o  Function reasonably well in the presence of non-trivial distress in others.
o  Shift perspectives to see an issue through another person's lens.
o  See potential bridges between two people who are at odds with each other.
o  See the good intent underneath strident statements.
o  Distinguish clearly between a person's behavior being out of line and that person being "bad."
o  Own your own shit.
o  Reach out to others before you have been reached out to yourself.
o  Be sensitive to the ways in which you are privileged. 

These are the skills that it takes to build cooperative culture. Everything else is negotiable.

10. Power and Leadership
Take the time to define what qualities you want in people who fill leadership roles, and then celebrate it when you get what you asked for. People tend to come to community with plenty of bad experiences with leaders who abused their power, which leads to a knee-jerk suspicion of anyone who steps forward to fill slots in the community. If you don't purposefully set up positive models, the default will be that leaders are expected to take plenty of arrows while being starved for appreciation. Surprise! In that oxygen starved environment it doesn't take long before no one puts their hand in the air when there's a call for volunteers. Don't be that group!

11. Diversity
Almost all communities list diversity as a core value, but what does it mean? The real question is how much diversity you can stand and how to talk about it when someone feels the group is at its limit. You cannot be all things to all people, and there are sure to be differences in where your members will want to draw the line. This is a touchy subject, yet it's even harder to talk about if you wait until the conditions arise that force you to apply the standard you have not yet created. Talk about a train wreck!

12. How much do you want to be in each other's lives?
There is a wide range among communities when it comes to expectations about how much members will interweave their lives by virtue of being in the same group. It's better to sort this out early—before you spend $10+ million dollars building roads and houses. There are many good answers, the important thing is that everyone in your group knows what they're signing up for and doesn't discover a mismatch until after construction.

13. Take control of membership selection 
Unless your community is completely financed privately, it will be subject to fair housing laws. However, there is a persistent misperception that this means the community has no say in who joins. That is not true! Fair housing laws state that you cannot discriminate on the basis of seven protected classes: race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, and familial status. Discrimination on any other basis is permitted. Thus, you can legally screen for people who align with the community's values, or who possess sufficient social skills (see point 9 above), which I suggest you do. Think of it as an ounce of prevention.

You do not want exiting members to be in charge of selecting who will join the community next. While this may work out well, it's rolling the dice. It's far better to develop a waiting list of people you have already cultivated and identified as a good fit, ready to write a check when there's an opening.


JeanneM said...

Wow! So much wisdom & clarity here. Thank you, Laird & Tree.

Anonymous said...

Thank you tree for the post. Appreciate your taking the time and the depth of your comments Laird, and act to realize them.