Wednesday, May 4, 2022

The Intersection of Discretion, Transparency, and Trust

One of the prime challenges of community living is developing and maintaining trust among members. Groups will invariably be comprised of diverse people: different communication styles, a variety of personalities, a range of social and recreational proclivities, extroverts and introverts, fast and slow thinkers, risk averse and risk tolerant, young parents and septuagenarians, drinkers and teetotalers… people who can't stand garlic, and those who hate dogs. You pretty much have to use all the crayons in the box to draw the full picture.

It is naive to project harmony and laminar flow on groups simply because they align around vision and common values. The question is the extent to which groups are aware of this rich diversity and work to understand it—rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach (setting things up to work well for an idealized "normal" person, while everyone with divergent characteristics has to adapt or accept being left behind).

When groups fail to understand the above (a fairly common blind spot in my experience), there can be considerable friction when styles clash, and this will tend to undermine trust unless the friction is attended to. As we tend to not trust what we don't understand, it matters a great deal whether members make a genuine effort to get to know how each member is different, how they process information, what matters to them, etc.

While all groups desire trust among members, you don't achieve it or sustain it simply by stating a desire for it. You can't get it delivered by Amazon Prime, or by redeeming green stamps; you have to roll up your sleeves and work at it. An important principle in that regard is the relationship between trust and the flow of information. Simply put, when information is constricted, so is trust.

This gets complicated in community because most of us are used to living more private lives, where what happens in a household is shared only among close friends and family. Now it's not so clear. Private boundaries still exist, yet they have shrunk in two regards:

First, some kinds of decisions impact more than one's household to the extent that everyone gets a says in policy—it is no longer just a matter of each household acting on its own. You still have complete discretion over what you eat for dinner, yet it's the group's business whether your dog poops on the path or is aggressive around children. 

Second, there is a more subtle level of this, where the group does not expect to have a say in household decisions, yet is impacted by them. Take the example of intimate partners. Few groups expect members to consult before making such a decision, yet there may be ramifications of your choice that impact your neighbors. Let's say Dale is a long-term community member and starts up a new relationship with Chris, who is new to the community. A host of questions can emerge:

—Is Chris automatically a group member, or must they go through a membership process just like anyone else?

—If Chris behaves in ways that are problematic to members, how should that be handled? Is Dale responsible for Chris' behavior? Is it OK with Dale that other community members give Chris direct feedback about how they're behaving on campus?

—Is it reasonable to expect Chris to understand and abide by communication standards adopted by the community?

To muddy the waters further, suppose Chris is not new to the community, but had been living in the community in a relationship with Pat, and has now switched partners. Oh boy. (And don't tell me that that won't happen.) While the decision to make this switch is not subject to community review, you can bet your bottom dollar that it will impact the group socially. Can this be discussed (other than in the parking lot)?

Absent an awareness of the need and a willingness to have tender conversations, they are likely avoided. As a result, people are left in the dark and trust is degraded. Not because people want that result, but because they're afraid that the sharing will be awkward, embarrassing, or condemning.

In any given situation—not just in community—there is dynamic tension between discretion and transparency. What information is inappropriate to share, and what should be shared? What are the perceived costs and benefits?

I want to make the case that in community—where the lives of members has been purposefully interwoven to a greater degree than in the mainstream—groups are better off pushing the balance point more toward transparency than they are habituated to, because trust (dependent on information flow) is such a precious commodity. Yes, this calls for developing the skills needed to speak about personal matters cleanly (by which I mean non-judgmentally) and honestly, as well as the maturity needed to treat personal information with care and compassion.

But isn't this what you came to community hoping to find? Every time you shy away from sharing, it's a statement about the limit of how much you trust your fellow community members. Ouch!

To be clear, I am not talking about "gory details" or titillating he said/she said gossip. I'm not asking you to view community as a soap opera. I'm talking about letting the group know that two people had a flare up, this is what it was about, and this was the resolution. At the end of the day, it's my sense that there are very few situations that justify withholding information—at least in summary form—from your fellow community mates. What is held back in the name of discretion is often just avoidance, or a dearth of skill or will. 

Trust, unfortunately, is the collateral damage.

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