Friday, May 13, 2022

Property Rights & Social Contracts

A number of intentional communities struggle with the concept of a member's rights in relation to the community's rights, and I want to focus on a particular aspect of it that shows up when there's a vacancy.

It's relatively common for forming communities (this is particularly the case with cohousing groups) to promise prospective members that they'll have a free hand if they decide to sell. Understandably, this sweetens the pot for people on the fence about whether to buy a unit—helping the group to cross the finish line in selling out, which helps contain costs for early adopters.

The downside is that it's a questionable practice allowing a departing member to be in charge of selecting their replacement. While I don't want to be alarmist and this often works OK, the seller is generally more concerned with a quick sale at a good price, while the community's priority is a good fit—and those two objectives don't always align.

Worse, what if the seller is departing on less than good terms? Uh oh. They may not be motivated to care that much about how well the new buyer will blend with the community, or be completely forthcoming about the responsibilities and commitments that community members are expected to accept.

Key to sorting this out is understanding that an owner's property rights are distinct from a person's social contract as a member of the community. They are not the same thing. While it's very much in the community's interest to have property owners be members, the two do not automatically coincide.

While the property owner may have legal control over who they sell their property to (it depends on applicable laws and how things have been set up with the community), they do not have the right to unilaterally bless the buyer as a member of the community—which right rests solely with the community.

When these two concepts are conflated, mischief ensues.

The Power of Proactive Marketing

Because you want property ownership and community membership to go together, it is very much in the community's interest to play an active role in recruiting suitable buyers. In the ideal, the community will develop and maintain a waiting list of people you already have screened for suitability (value alignment, adequate financial means, and whatever else is on your wish list—maybe you're looking for a cellist for the chamber music ensemble, or a gourmet cook who can turn out elegant meals for 40), so that the exiting member will have an easy time selling and the community will be happy with the new member.

In one of the more creative versions of this, I know of a group where members have agreed to use the community as the real estate broker. In exchange for lining up a buyer (which the community has already determined it wants as a new member) it earns a commission on the deal, with the earnings going into a community improvement fund, thereby taking pressure off HOA dues. Nice.

However, if the group takes a passive, or hands-off approach in selecting the new buyer (which I don't recommend) it needs to step forward to assert its rights with respect to the social contract—establishing how the rights of membership in the community are tied to social behavior, not to property rights.

Misunderstanding Fair Housing Laws

Since 1968, it is US federal law that property owners cannot discriminate in who they rent or sell housing to on the basis of seven things: race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, and familial status. (There are parallel strata laws in Canada, but I am not as cognizant of the details.) Many communities mistakenly interpret this to mean that they are obliged to accept as a member anyone who applies and can meet the financial requirements. Not so! In fact, it's legal to be selective on the basis of any criteria other than the seven protected classes. Of course, it's a nuanced question what qualities you may want to screen for—I'm only making the case that communities are not legally prohibited from doing so.

While communities may be constrained about who buys and rents real property, they have considerable leeway about who is a member of the community—and therefore eligible to enjoy the rights and privileges thereof. 

Make sure your group doesn't miss the boat on this.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

What the F Can Happen with Conflict

I've been conducting workshops and trainings that focus on conflict in cooperative groups for three decades. For many years I titled a 90-minute presentation, "Conflict: Fight, Flight, or Opportunity?"

Over the years I've come to realize that the range of responses to conflict is far wider than fight or flight, and today I want to delve more deeply into that richness—and at the same time indulge my fondness for alliteration.

Framing the Field

I define conflict as the dynamic where at least two people are in disagreement, and at least one is experiencing nontrivial distress. Thus, it isn't "conflict" unless emotional reactivity is a component. Largely because most of us weren't raised to acknowledge or work with feelings as a regular human response, most groups tend to struggle with how to respond when strong feelings arise. Often people are left on their own in such situations (that is, the group has never discussed how to handle those moments, there is no agreed upon way to respond, nor is anyone authorized to enter that dynamic). The challenge is compounded by most of us having few (or no) examples of engaging with fulminating upset leading to anything but trauma and relationship damage. So engagement seems fraught with danger.

For some reason, it turns out that many of the ways that people respond when conflict emerges can be cleverly characterized by words beginning with the letter F. (Who knew?) Let me enumerate…


When someone is in distress, one the ways that can be expressed is with anger, or even rage. Triggered by something another person did or said, the person in reaction comes out swinging. Often, this will result in counterpunching in return, and an exchange of salvos ensues.


Another common impulse when triggered is to run away. Perhaps to get away from the event or person that's the trigger; perhaps to avoid saying or doing something you might regret later. You may be uncomfortable in reaction (whether yours or others) and want to remove yourself from that dynamic posthaste. This may also be the response when another person is upset and you're afraid of being caught in their crosshairs. Sometimes the flight response is traceable to childhood efforts to escape the wrath of an abusive parent or guardian.


This is a deer-in-the-headlights response. Sometimes people will shut down when in reaction and glaze over. More commonly though, you'll see this as an attempt to be safe when someone else is upset and you're afraid of drawing their attention—because you might suddenly be the target of their invective. As with flight, this might be a coping mechanism arising from being raised in a family with an angry parent—perhaps one with a drinking problem. 

When you feel unsafe, your amygdala takes over and you do whatever you believe necessary to survive. While the situation may not truly be life-or-death, it may be feel that way in the moment.


While you don't see this response much, it's when someone ramps up their response, which may be either honest or strategic, in an attempt to distract the upset person, as well as the group. In essence, they become the center of attention in their distress, drawing the spotlight away from the person originally triggered. (Oh, woe is me.)


This is an attempt to placate the upset person—trying to calm them down through appeasement, in the theory that their fire (anger) will die back if deprived of fuel.


This has considerable subtlety. Fearing the aggressive things the upset person might do, you carefully frame what you say or do in language calculated to be less likely to feed the beast. It's more engaging than fawning, yet often fails because the upset person feels managed rather than heard. Like you're following a script rather than your heart.


This is walking away—not running away (flight). It's deciding it's not worth it (or too scary) to engage with the upset, and acting is if nothing of significance has occurred energetically. (Let's not make a mountain out of a mole hill.)

—Feel into it

Ultimately, all of the choices above are forms of conflict avoidance or conflict management. What about conflict engagement? That, I believe is where the money is. 

My sense is that nothing works better than turning toward the upset and acknowledging it—to the speaker's satisfaction—making sure to connect with their emotional experience, the trigger point, and its impact on the person in reaction. While not so easily done in the chaotic moment, the principles are not difficult to lay out. Just use plain words and speak from the heart. If you get it wrong, don't worry—the speaker will let you know.

The three most common pitfalls when engaging with conflict are:
• Going into reaction yourself—it's not easy to stay centered or to focus on the speaker when you need help yourself.
• Giving a response instead of a reflection. The priority here is to make sure that the speaker feels heard before attempting anything else. There will be time for responses later.
• Offering a critique or reprimand about the speaker's delivery. If they are in reaction, this will most likely land as gas on the fire and won't be constructive. Even if their delivery was provocative or aggressive, you cannot reasonable ask an upset person to reflect on that while they're desperate to be heard. You may be able to speak with them about their poor choice of delivery later—but not at first.

Final Fillip
The bad news is that this work can be scary and there's no guarantee that it will go well. The good news is that it can be done well—and is urgently needed. My closing admonition is to take a deep breath and give conflict engagement—feeling into it—a try. What the F? It's unlikely to be worse than what you're getting with any other approach.

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.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Controlling the Story

I was raised as a Lutheran, and learned right away that there were competing ideas about right relationship to the divine. Not only were there a wide variety of religions (as well as those who rejected all religions—isn't it the ultimate act of hubris for humans to claim they comprehend "that which passeth all understanding"?), but there has evolved major disagreement among Christians, including a kaleidoscopic variety of Protestants sects, most of which are further fractured by doctrinal nuances. It's bewildering.

As an adult, I've become increasingly interested in the position that different religions take with respect to other religions, or different sects within the same religion. While many preach that theirs is the one true way and all others are apostate and worship false idols, there are also graduations of condemnation (where, for example, congregations of certain sects are considered confused or misguided, but not necessarily hopeless or infidels). Most refreshing of all, IMO, is finding religions that promote spiritual inquiry, but leave it up to the individual to figure out what best works for them, a la Unitarian Universalism. For those who embrace UU thinking, there are many true ways. Hmm.

Ten years ago I stumbled onto How It Is, the collected writing on Viola Cordova (1937-2002), a Native American philosopher and cosmologist. She was a Jicarilla Apache mixed with Hispanic blood, who grew up in northern New Mexico. She became a professor who studied and taught Western philosophy while articulating Native American philosophy. She did a lot to contrast White/Eurocentric and Native American cosmologies, and I found her writing illuminating.

Cordova explains that in Native American philosophy there is an emphasis on place, where beliefs about how the world began and what it means are specific to locale and are not expected to be the same elsewhere. There is just one Earth, of which we are all a part. There is no heaven; no parallel universes; no do-overs. The Earth is our home—as well the home of all other peoples and species. It is where we learn the meaning of harmony and coexistence. It is not inherently dangerous.

This made so much sense to me! Why accept the premise that there is one best answer? Why can't there be many?

How the Profound Informs the Mundane

Regardless of where one comes out on the matter of right relationship to the divine, it's not difficult to connect the dots between the point I explored above and how groups function (or fail to function), which is basically the focus on my life work. In mainstream US culture there is more or less a constant battle to control the story, labeling it a moral imperative: either believe my version or be subject to my derision and rejection as a moral degenerate. While that's an overly harsh characterization of the entire culture (there still exist moderate Republicans and Democrats who are left out in this analysis), there is ample evidence that it's a fair description of what dominates current political rhetoric, and the way that we engage with disagreement.

Sadly, people bring this combative, righteous style with them when attempting to create cooperative culture (whether in intentional community, co-ops, schools, churches, nonprofits, neighborhood associations, or whatever), resulting in all manner of mischief when unexamined.

All too often, when a group is wrestling with an issue and different perspectives emerge, those on each side will go through a process something like this:

• I, and those who agree with me, are thinking about what's best for the group; our viewpoint is tied to one or more recognized group values.

• If people disagree with me, they must be opposed to that group value. Their thinking must be rooted in selfish concerns—something other than group concerns.

• I have the high moral ground and need to defeat this opposing perspective, both for the sake of securing the best response to this issue, and for the good of the group going forward—we cannot give in to selfish concerns.

Thus, it becomes a holy war and there is a tendency to recapitulate (psychically, not physically) the same dynamics that have plagued humanity all along: the urge to vanquish the infidels in the name of the divine. We are fighting the good fight, and we are righteous. Once this mind set obtains, any movement from one side toward the other is often seen as compromise or selling out—something to be disdained.

In this toxic atmosphere, tempers flare, hearing degrades, and problems don't get solved. Yuck.

How Air Can Lead to Error

So how can we do this better? I'll give you my answer by way of an example. Let's suppose there's a suggestion on the table to install air conditioning in the common house. Side A is in favor of this, and Side B opposes it. Side A is grounding their position on quality of life of members, who have trouble functioning in the community's hot and humid climate during the summer months. In order to make full use of the common house—a major community asset—they favor this upgrade (something the community couldn't afford in initial construction). Side B is concerned about cost (both the initial outlay and the higher utility bills) as well as the environmental impact.

In summary, Side A is thinking about community values Q (quality of life of members) and F (making full use of common assets). Side B is thinking about community values A (affordability) and E (environmental impact).

If the conversation remains focused on installing air conditioning, it becomes a tug-of-war dynamic, with a winner and loser. In my experience these conversations tend to be exhausting and unsatisfying, yet follow naturally from our conditioning.

When facilitating the consideration, it is often helpful to ask everyone to step back for a moment from debating air conditioning—a particular solution—to examine the interests that inform the prospectives: Q, F, A, and E. Typically, it isn't difficult to establish that each side is thinking about what's best for the group—they're just emphasizing different values. More, Side A is pro-Q and Pro-F, but miscast as anti-A or anti-E. Similar, Side B is pro-A and pro-E, but not anti-Q or anti-F. Getting everyone to recognize this is deescalating.

This is important for two reasons:

a) It establishes that there is no high moral ground, and no one is being selfish. So let go of that (and the tendency to respond from righteousness).

b) There is no benefit in lamenting that the group isn't all of one mind at the outset. That's normal. The conversation that you want to have—the one that's constructive—is not about air conditioning. You want to discuss how best to balance values Q, F, A, and E, all of which are now known to be in play on the issue of the common house being too uncomfortable for some members to use in the summer months. The solution that emerges may involve air conditioning, or it may not.

There is much more wiggle room in that conversation than there is in a battle over air conditioning.

At root here is understanding that it doesn't benefit the group when people try to control the story. It works far better when you simply expect there to be different stories, and accept with grace the need to hear them all and to balance how the group's common interests intersect in this instance. That is the righteous work.

Out of One, Many

Working backwards from our national motto, e pluribus unum (out of many, one) I'm advocating for the problem solving potential of seeing that there are generally many pathways forward and it is enormously liberating and constructive to start with the assumption that different people will frequently see an issue in different ways and that that's a cooperative group's strength, rather than a consternation. To get there, the group needs to accept the basic premise that it is often a trap to presume there is one correct prospective and that that will be the survivor of rigorous debate.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

The Challenge of Integrating New members

I recently received this blog comment from Rabbit:

I have lived in a cohousing community in California since 1999. A friend told me she'd read somewhere that you write about an inevitable moment in a community's life when the early people (founders, or some such term) and later people collide over change and changes in what earlier folks hold/held as the "vision" for the community... I'm looking for some guidance on our community as it confronts some of the conflicts embedded in this older/newer member conflict.

While Rabbit's framing doesn’t evoke a memory of a specific piece of writing, the topic is familiar to me, and I think it's a worthy one to explore. 

The first comment to make is that this is an issue peculiar to successful communities—only ones that last long enough can have both older and newer members.

As I reflect on it, there are a handful of elements that may be present in this dynamic (which is related to why this is messy), and I think it’s useful to tease them out, and take a look at each separately. In no particular order:

a) Vision Drift (a close relative of mission drift)
Even if there were no turnover in a group over 20 years (highly unlikely, but possible), people’s life circumstances change and their priorities and thinking are prone to shift, which can result in the same people no longer wanting the same things they’d did two decades ago. With that in mind, as well as what you get with turnover, I think it’s a good idea for groups to step back and reset the gyroscope every five years or so, to test for this. Where is the group today?

b) Integration of New Members
A key question is how to affirm the desire to support new people getting their oar in the water (contributing their energy and new ideas), while not signing a blank check—the group still needs to exercise discernment about whether new ideas are worth supporting. While this dynamic exists independently of whether new ideas originated from longer-term members or newer members, it is particularly challenging when they come from the newbies, who may have trouble parsing out how much the older folks are close-minded and how much their ideas are naive.

c) Quality of Records
Can members (new or old) reasonably discover what the group took into account when addressing this topic that the group has wrestled with before? Are the records good enough to tell what’s changed from then until now that justifies looking at it again? I advocate that the standard for reviewing a past decision is what's different? (Note that I am not saying that a policy or agreement should be reviewed simply because a new person doesn't like it. They deserve a response, but the group is not obliged to jump to the new person's call.) If your minutes aren’t good enough (or accessible) then you’re relying on oral history and that’s likely to be less satisfying. 

d) Peeing on the Tires
It is the tendency of most people to want to have a say in community agreements—to want to make a contribution. While you can expect this from everyoneit shows up differently in old and new members. If, for example, it isn't clear whether it's better to stick with the old policy or to try something new, longer-term members will tend to prefer the status quo (their work), while the newer folks will tend to favor a change, so that their contributions can get some love. Though both mean well, there can be a clash that's tricky to navigate.

e) New People Tend to Be More Attracted to Your Reality than Your Vision
Vision is what you are moving toward, even if it’s something you never fully achieve. Even if everyone at the outset is aligned around it, the folks who join later tend to make their decision to enroll on the good ship Community more on the basis of what you have achieved, than on what you say you intend to achieve. When that occurs, the later arrivals can become a sea anchor that resists ongoing movement toward the distant isles, because they like it where you are now. This can be spirit crushing for founders in whom the vision still burns brightly.

f) Understanding the Pioneer/Settler Dynamic
By nature, founders (pioneers) need to be risk tolerant—entrepreneurial. Launching an intentional community is a step into the unknown in many ways and it’s hard to succeed if risks scare you to death. However, if you survive the early days and become established, the later arrivals (settlers) tend to be less risk tolerant—after all, they are joining a known, tangible thing. The houses have already been built. The processes are already in place.

On the one hand, risk aversion among settlers will tend to reinforce point e). On the other, some fraction of new folks will also be entrepreneurial and are likely to want to have a chance at creation also—just like the pioneers did—recapitulating the dynamics of point d).

g) How Much Do You Invest in Integrating New Members?
Sometimes the older folks forget what it was like to be a newbie—even though everyone was one once. For most new folks, joining an intentional community is an adventure unlike anything they've done before. So much so that it's unreasonable to expect them to even know what questions to ask.

This task is further complicated by the richness of community culture. While it's one thing to create and disseminate to new arrivals a book of agreements (it's a good idea for everyone to have a copy BTW), that's just the tip of the iceberg. The vast majority of norms or customs will not be delineated in a handbook—which means that someone has to be available to offer community in translation, or you are essentially deciding that it's OK for the new folks to figure it out by trial and error. (Hint: this is a poor choice.)

Taken all together, I believe it's incumbent on the established members to take a proactive attitude toward demystifying the community culture, and offering the information in multiple ways (in recognition that people have a variety of preferred learning styles). Thus, in addition to handing new arrivals a copy of your self-published Field Guide to Our Community (some like to read), you will be well-advised to also assign them a buddy (because some don't like to read), who gets together with her or his charges regularly to answer questions and explain what's really happening in the community. (Hint: this service can be especially valuable after community meetings, where there's a whole bunch of history and habits that are crammed higgledy-piggledy into a mere two hours.)

h) Commitment to Pulling the Weeds
Creating a successful intentional community is more than just surviving the pioneer stage. After you break the ground and plant the seeds, you still have to tend the garden. In particular, groups tend to benefit strongly from consensus and conflict training—as a mainstream upbringing generally doesn't prepare folks well for either. Rather than just doing them once in the early years (like a vaccine against polio), I suggest repeating them for new arrivals. This is a much better strategy than expecting new folks to just pick it up osmotically. Think of trainings as booster shots.

Monday, March 7, 2022

Choices at the Point of Conflict Emergence

There is considerable leverage available to both individuals and groups if everyone has a general sense of what's happening and one's options at the point when conflict first manifests—when you first realize that there is significant reactivity in the room. Regardless of whether you are conflict avoidant or fully embrace fulminating upset, it helps to have a general sense of how to respond, beyond flight, fight, or freeze.

There are, essentially, three cases:

Case A—The other person is in reaction, and you aren't
Try to make your first step an attempt to acknowledge what the upset person is going through, which includes both a reflection of their emotional response and what the trigger was. Try to do that with minimal judgment. Note that a reflection (what is going on for them) is different than a response (what you think about that). This is the most deescalating thing you can do.

A complication can arise when the upset person is aggressive or attacking in how they express themselves. They may be clearly crossing a line of acceptable behavior in the context of group norms and it may be tempting to call them on that as a first response—both because you may experience what they've done as outrageous and damaging; and because you may hope that putting up a firm stop sign may interrupt the abuse.

Although it may be counterintuitive, I've learned that it's generally more effective to first show that you see that the upset person is in reaction and you are paying attention to what's happening for them. Even if you don't understand their reaction, you can acknowledge it. It demonstrates that you care and that you are not shying away from them when they're hurting.

Think of it this way: the person in distress is drowning, and their thrashing about (lashing out at others) is a cry for help. What they most need in that moment is oxygen, not a critique of their swimming strokes. When you hold someone accurately, they will feel less isolated, and the reaction will tend to diminish.

There will still be an opportunity to point out that they expressed their upset in a damaging way, just don't attempt offering that feedback until after you've bridged successfully to their reaction and been acknowledged by them as having been heard.

Case B—You alone are in reaction
The first step is recognizing that this is going on for you (as you cannot do something about a condition you’re not conscious of). Once you know (or can admit to yourself) that you are in reaction, try to accept that with as little judgment as possible, and seek self-care as your top priority. This can look like many things and can vary considerably from person to person. The key is knowing what you need. In general it helps to be offered what I proposed you extend to someone else in reaction (see Case A). 

Some people are able to manage this step on their own; others need help. You’ll know when this has been successful because you'll feel the deescalation (track your sensations—your body will tell you your degree of upset). If possible, try to articulate what's going for you, stripped of aggression. Note that it’s entirely different to report having an emotional response (“I‘m angry”) than it is to in the emotional response (“You asshole”). This is not about denying feelings; it’s about recognizing the potential danger of lashing out in a state of upset.

A word of caution about self-care. When someone moves away from the trigger to attend to themselves, this can proceed in a couple of ways:

Option 1: Acknowledging the reaction and moving through it
In this approach, the person asks questions like:
• What am I feeling?
• How do my feelings serve me?
• Can I accept that I did what I did, and not judge myself?
• What part of this can I own?
• What can I do to make it better?

Option 2: Armoring up
The person may indulge in self-laudatory statements (I'm OK; I didn't do anything wrong) or adopt the role of victim (I was mistreated; It was all their fault). When this happens it's laying responsibility at the other person's feet, complicating relationship repair.

There is a significant difference between the two.

Case C—Both are in reaction
This is the messiest version. Both of you need self-care at the same time yet neither can reasonably be expected to extend support to the other until you’ve received it yourself. Your mantra here should be: put your own oxygen mask on first. That probably means breaking off engagement with the other person for, at a minimum, the time it takes to effect self-care, either alone or with the assistance of others. Once you’ve accomplished that, you can consider whether there is still a need to extend reflection to the other person, to help them deescalate (I frame it this way because the other person may be getting what they need without you and by the time you're ready to reach out, they may no longer be in a raw place).

If you attempt to reach out to the other person sooner than they're ready, well-intended offerings are likely to be misconstrued simply because something you said or did may have been triggering for them and you are the last person they can trust in that moment to hear them fairly—even if you are able to, you are not likely to be trusted.

Friday, February 4, 2022

Mud Wrestling in a Tutu

In recent months I've been working with a forming group that has encountered some interpersonal tensions that have persisted—in some instances for years (they've been forming for seven). As everyone involved is new to community living, they did not understand at the outset that such tensions would arise or the importance of working them through (or put another way, the cost of not working them through).

They are good people (by which I mean intelligent and well-intended) yet this was new territory and they didn't know how to frame it. Essentially, they did the best they could—some things got worked through and other things didn't. In no case, as far as I could tell, did they believe that concerns were serious enough to bring in outside help prior to my arrival. In short, I experience them as a fairly normal group.

What's somewhat unusual about this situation is that my invitation came not from the people in the stew, but from new members who became aware of the deleterious impact of the unresolved tensions (think dark clouds overhead that rarely dissipate) and pushed the longer-term members to bring in outside help to see if things could be cleared up.

When the older members agreed, I was hired, and I set up interviews with the folks identified as being the sources of the long-term tensions. From this I produced a summary of what I discovered in the interviews (not a he-said-she-said, but an overall picture).

My observations didn't go down smoothly with everyone. This didn't surprise me, as things had deteriorated to the point where each of the people I spoke with had at least two others on the list that they were not talking to. Thus, I had done something that no one else among them had done in recent times: I spoke with everyone and listened to what they had to say. I didn't expect the stories to align easily (after all, I didn't get asked in because everything was in laminar flow) and I pointed this out. As some very much wanted their story to prevail, they had trouble with my rocking that boat.

Next I offered a proposal for how to move forward, the main feature of which was doing relationship repair with any pair who was willing, with me facilitating. Some dropped out at this point; others are staying the course. In the main, the folks who declined to continue with me reported that they didn't have anything to clear with anyone else and were sufficiently open to doing so that they didn't need help from me. Further they considered it voyeuristic and awkward to be present while others did that work.

What I want to drill down on today is that two of those who opted out of working with me interpersonally have careers in academia, and I lay in bed this morning chewing on that. As I understand it, good professors have a foundational commitment to curiosity and openness to new ideas (based on the premise that no one has perfect knowledge, we can all learn new things, and it'll be a better world if we are open to that possibility—that they aspire to instill a thirst for learning among their students as well as a capacity for critical thinking, which expressly includes the idea that it's invaluable to hear new thoughts). Yet I wasn't experiencing these professors as operating from that framework—even though I was speaking from my area of experience about something they were new to. What was going on?

Here's what I intuit has happened. While the personalities of the two are quite different (and, interestingly, they don't particularly get along with each other), they both rejected working with me further after: a) I did an interview with each to listen to what they wanted me to know about what was happening in the community and where I might be useful; and b) they read my summary of what I learned in the interviews—which included the observation that among all who participated there were at least two others in the mix who were carrying animus toward them. In other words, I was able to confirm that unresolved tensions existed in all directions.

For one of the professors there was deep skepticism that this kind of work was needed to build a successful community. For the other there was skepticism about whether I was accurate in my summary and the suspicion that I might be overplaying the situation to drum up business for myself (this is styled "churning" in the investment broker field, and is highly unethical). Both held the view that they were open to working through tensions with others and if someone was upset with them and didn't approach them, that it was on them and let's move on. Wallowing in someone else's shit with Laird did not appeal to them.

Then I further reflected about what I know about group dynamics in academia. While my knowledge there is limited, I have occasionally worked with universities and have been largely appalled at the Byzantine politics and rancorous dynamics that obtain when faculty disagree. In short, it tends to be highly competitive (if not outright combative), standing in sharp contrast with the collaborative culture that intentional communities generally strive for. 

To be fair, I have no specific knowledge of the professorial dynamics at the institutions that these two teach at, but it occurred to me that these professors were willing to dismiss me and what I offered without bothering to hear why I thought what I offered was important, to learn any details about what I proposed to do, or even an openness to experiencing what I could to do, so that they could make an assessment about its efficacy based on first-hand knowledge—rather than on a projection. I'm guessing that they deem themselves to be successful in navigating dynamics in academia and see no reason that this expertise won't apply just as well to community dynamics. While it's amazing how far ignorance can take you, I can see how this might have happened. It's a phenomenon I call "unencumbered by reality." Not knowing what community might be like, they have simply projected from their life experiences that it would be more of what they already know. While that's not particularly sound thinking, I can appreciate how it might happen. Haven't we all been guilty of making unwarranted assumptions?

On the one hand, I am sympathetic to the dynamic of not knowing what you don't know. On the other, I think it's reasonable to expect professors to be sensitive to this possibility, and to be held to a higher standard, more in line with their professional ethics. 

I think what's happened at a visceral level, is that my report calls into question the value of what they know (or assume) about group dynamics in community and that it's hard for them to accept my word that it ain't so, as it threatens how they see themselves in the world and the application of their academic savvy. They see themselves as open to information from others—in particular, critical information about how their behavior is seen—yet their self perceptions matched up poorly with what others reported to me about them and this was unwelcome news. It was far more appealing to dismiss or attempt to discredit my observations than to look in the mirror (which I reckon is how they go about testing the resilience of divergent ideas in academia).

From where I sit, presuming to project the application of academia dynamics onto community life is about as accurate as saying that you expect to be good at ballet because you're experienced at mud wrestling. It turns out, in fact, that they are quite different endeavors, and what you learn at one is not at all sufficient to prepare you to be proficient at the other. 

Now where did a put that leotard?