Top 5 lessons learned living in a village: A psychologist’s view

DSC06180For those who like to put things in context, read this short post covering the big picture of One Planet Thriving.

There are two, and only two, necessary (but not sufficient) variables for community success: (1) Minimize disagreement, (2) Handle disagreement skillfully.

The Top 5 Lessons are all trying to help to achieve these two variables. They are necessary for community success, but they are not sufficient for that success — other variables are also needed. As a side note, most of the articles on social technologies on this site are dedicated, in one way or another, to skillful disagreement because it’s very difficult, very few people can do it (including myself), and most people don’t even know what target to aim for (hint: it is not avoidance of unpleasant emotion).

Here are my top 5 criteria for a functional village, in order of importance are:

(1) Without interaction between people, there is no village: (a) Allocate time for relationships. (b) Live in physical structure that encourages interaction and get the right balance between public and private space.

(2) Invite those who can (a) skillfully hear and express their truth even when there is unpleasant emotion and (b) are willing to continually improve at this. Best way to know: you’ve had disagreements and come out the other side.

(3) Be free! Learn from failure and communicate instead of creating too many rules

(4) Small is beautiful. Empower the smallest decision-making group possible for the decision at hand.

(5) Welcome people, build goodwill, and be clear about a coherent vision and process.

What is left out of this list? All kinds of physical technologies. For example, food is central and we need new systems for our future. Resilience is also important. Both of these huge categories will require cooperation. Thus, both (and many others) depend on the two critical variables and lessons discussed here.

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And now, for those who want more detail, welcome to the rest of this post.

First, a bit about my background so the reader can place these reflections in context (see About Us for more details). Psychology. I have spent almost 20 years learning about, studying, and engaging in psychology. My Ph.D. is in Clinical Psychology, the study of individual characteristics associated with suffering and thriving. I have also been privileged to work as a psychotherapist since 2005. Co-housing. I have been living in Troy co-housing community since 2007. I have had disagreements with neighbors, some of which were resolved and some of which continue to affect our daily interactions, some handled with skill and some not so much. Part of the point here is that I’m not saying I actually am able to do everything I am advocating. All of us humans are just trying the best we can.

Based on the synergy between my professional and personal experience, and conversations and visits with many people leaning into this work, I have come to a fairly simple set of conclusions about good characteristics of a village, the top 5 lessons I’ve learned. I hope they represent some contribution to “social permaculture” principles that we can gradually use to evolve our culture in a more sustainable direction. Because our culture has lost the ingrained, in-your-bones, knowledge and practices consistent with one planet thriving, we now need to intentionally engage in what one might call “life design.” One significant challenge to our success is our ability to live and cooperate together in life (not just work). So, without further ado, here are my top 5 lessons in order of importance.

(1) Without interaction between people, there is no village. This is so important that every other point is merely a way of increasing the frequency, resilience, and quality of interactions. As Paul Wheaton has said, “Community is 90% of permaculture…it’s the hard part” (source). First, though, the interactions have to occur. Facilitating this requires 2 prominent counter-cultural imperatives: (a) Villagers need to allocate time for relationships, and (b) Live in physical structures that encourage interaction and get the right balance between public and private space.

(a) Allocate time for relationships. To paraphrase Thomas Merton, busyness is a form of violence*. There are at least two ways busyness undermines a functional village: (1) We’re too busy to do the ongoing work of nurturing our relationships, and (2) We burn out trying to do too much for the community.

There have been many days in our community when Troy is a ghost town, everyone at work or fulfilling some other obligation or desire. There are other days when it’s difficult to walk from one end of the community to the other without bumping into multiple people, touching base on Troy business or social event planning, or just talking as friends. The contrast between the two types of days accentuates how important it is for villagers to have time to simply be available to bump into and then talk. Without time to be together, there is no village.

And, being in a village means you don’t have to do it all, a fact that can be a relief when one is able to give up some control and trust fellow villagers to take care of things, not as you would, but in a way that’s maybe better but at least — mainly — good enough. The alternative is burnout.

* “The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist…destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.” – Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

(b) Build physical structure that encourages interaction and a good balance between public and private space. Our community was developer-driven, meaning that the set of people who built the community also sold the units. Although there was some intentionality about the community being a co-housing community, unlike non-developer-driven communities, our community did not have the opportunity/chore of forming ourselves prior to moving in. Thus, prior to moving in, there was less social filtering that might occur otherwise. So, we formed our process and our culture after we moved in, not before. Of course, this creates its challenges, but I have been amazed at how well the community works. TroyGardensAerialI attribute this largely to three factors: (i) the physical structure of the community — 2 courtyards with 15 units surrounding each — encourages interaction and a safe place for children to roam (bottom right in photo); (ii) our community is connected to a community garden (bottom left), CSA farm (top right), and prairie (top left) and thus attracted people with the values of gardening and environmental awareness (see more about filters in point #5); (iii) true to co-housing, there is a good progression from public to private space — we all need to be able to retreat from time to time to rejuvenate (especially the more introverted of us), another point alluded to by Thomas Merton. In any case, with these three aspects of our community in place, you can throw in a fairly random mix of people and it works pretty well (even without a common house, though we still aspire to creating one).

The mix of people includes several with disabilities (of course, we all have some disabilities), many people with lower incomes (2/3 of the units are affordable units), outspoken people and quiet people, casual people and obsessive people, and its share of personality disorders. The co-housing community is located in Madison, WI and reflects some of the culture of the Midwest: salt of the earth people with a tendency to avoid conflict, partly by hewing to pleasantness. Most of us at Troy are like the general population in America these days — we have been trained to deal with unpleasant emotion by using a host of avoidance strategies (see point #2).

Despite all of this (and because of all this?), the community is beautiful, creative, and perhaps most successfully, provides a wonderful place for our children to grow up (see this post from one of my neighbors reflecting on her first summer at Troy for another perspective). This should give the would-be community person courage — it’s actually not that hard to participate in a good community.

(2) Who do you want in your village?

This topic became large enough that it is now broken out as a separate article.

(3) People like freedom: Let “Yes” be the default & learn from the “failures” of many experiments. People like freedom to do what they want to do. Let them be free! I think we’re more cautious than we need to be and therefore deprive our community of much spontaneous beauty and the knowledge gained from “failed” experiments. In other words, I’d encourage more decision-making at the unit size of the household. Trust your neighbors and let them go nuts in their own individual way: Let people build their tower of tin cans, their cob wall, or their fuzzy bunny sculpture! Whenever possible, just say “Yes”! If you don’t like something, talk to them, dealing with it at the level of the one-on-one.

I am starting to think that there is an inverse correlation between the strength and depth of relationships and presence of rules: the better the relationships, the fewer rules are necessary. There are now generations of people in America who no longer know what living in a close community is like. Perhaps it because of this that there is a corresponding confidence in the ability of rules to solve problems, leading ultimately to the licensing agreements that many of us sign on a daily basis online without even reading them.

A long-standing ecovillage in Missouri, called Dancing Rabbit, seems to be accomplishing something like this through their use of self-organized internal coops. Want to share meals with others? Form a food coop, build a structure to house it, and cooperate with your neighbors. Want a bath house? Same deal. Construction seems to work on a similar principle of free experimentation: the result has been a wide variety of structures, each with their own beauty. Some of these structures are not very successful and probably won’t be replicated by others. Some may be torn down. BUT, the whole community (indeed, perhaps many of us, particularly in similar climates) will benefit from the lessons learned by these creative and gutsy pioneers.

People pretty much hate meetings and bureaucracy (a recent podcast by Paul Wheaton and Jocelyn Campbell centers around the theme, “obligation is poison”), so let there be as little of this as possible! Rather than creating another rule, try an experiment or have a discussion instead (see this poem, called “Reality is Always Freshly Born”, for the irreverent but important observation that rules are always, by virtue of their generalizability, slightly wrong for any specific situation that arises. This fact is one reason mindfulness may be a helpful practice for many people). And, the more you have come to know the people in your community, and the greater their and your skillfulness in communication, the more likely it is that a discussion will succeed.

This point is integrally related to a planning and execution process critical for complex systems. Briefly, there are simple, complicated, and complex situations. Simple is baking a cake — there is recipe that can be followed and you’ll basically get the same result every time. Complicated is building a rocket — plan, build, test, revise your blueprints and you’ll get a working rocket that everyone agrees is a success. Complex is raising a child or living in a community — there ain’t no manual for this and never will be. Of course rules are helpful. Of course reading and science is helpful.  Of course we use all the information we can! But, in the end, with complex processes, the best we humans can do is act, monitor/observe (again, mindfulness is relevant here), revise, and act again. In other words, everything we do should be viewed as an experiment: do it, observe, learn, and then do. Let people do their own experiments, fail early and often, and build a culture of observation and iteration.

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(4) Size matters: for decision-making, smaller is better. At Troy, we govern ourselves as a whole. There are committees, community-wide meetings, and a board. All decisions are through modified consensus (see this post for more details on consensus) and they are decisions made by the whole community for the whole community. Troy has 30 units and roughly 150 people. I have come to believe that we would be better off creating neighborhoods, perhaps one per courtyard (15 units), and having decisions be reached by that neighborhood for that neighborhood. If it were up to me, I would experiment with reducing the size even further for as many decisions as possible with decision-making units consisting of 4-5 households where possible (similar to the coops in Dancing Rabbit).

One of the things people have to learn when joining our community is patience. Decisions take time because a full discussion often has to occur before a decision is reached. For example, a decision to change our garbage and recycling collection from truck-emptied bins to individual city-provided carts, took 2-3 years. This is largely because everyone in our community leads busy lives and finding the energy and time required to present and discuss issues is difficult. But, it is also slower because anyone can object to a proposal and then become part of another iteration of the discussion. Though patience is difficult in our “get it now” culture, it is important.

However, another unfortunate affect of the size of our governance and perhaps its interaction with our process, is that it can stifle creativity — a project doesn’t happen because people don’t want to go through the discussions and meetings required. Reducing the size of the governance units whenever possible, ultimately to simply allowing people to do more without approval (meaning the freedom of the previous point), and trusting the people’s sense of creativity and beauty may represent a step forward.

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(5) Welcome new folks: Build goodwill and be clear about a coherent vision and process. In part because we at Troy co-housing are just a group of busy people slogging it through life, we have not been as good as we need to be about welcoming new people into our community (I’m definitely guilty of this). There are two important aspects of welcoming new people.

First, it is clear to me that a half-pound of brownies on day 2 is worth approximately one metric ton of good will that will be necessary later when disagreements inevitably occur. It’s important to build a series of pleasant interactions so that there is some emotional sugar in the bowl to carry the relationship through tough times. This is one reason I believe the work of our social committee to be among the most important in our community. Although Buddha-Jesus-Gandhi might be able to engage skillfully in a disagreement without this sugar, for most of us it is essential.

Second, part of the welcome should include a clear discussion (by someone who knows what they are talking about) of the vision for the community (I would go beyond “vision” to adopting Allan Savory’s Holistic Management decision-making framework [also see, holistic management and this short video]), starting with the development of a holistic goal for the community) and the process being used to live that vision, with complete honesty about the shortcomings. Being honest means people get to decide NOT to enter the community if it’s not right for them. It is hugely valuable to have self-selection working for the community.

Included in this discussion would be a list of people to go to for particular questions: Jenny is the one to talk to about maintenance,  Bill for social stuff, Ted for governance, etc. Then, welcome to the jungle!

In summary, my final set of top 5 criteria for setting up a functional village, in order of importance:

(1) Without interaction between people, there is no village: (a) Allocate time for relationships. (b) Live in physical structures that encourages interaction and get the right balance between public and private space.

(2) Invite those who can (a) skillfully hear and express their truth even when there is unpleasant emotion and (b) are willing to continually improve at this. This is by far the most important and most difficult. Best way to know: you’ve had disagreements and come out the others side.

(3) Be free! Learn from failure and communicate instead of creating too many rules

(4) Small is beautiful. Empower the smallest decision-making group possible for the decision at hand.

(5) Welcome people, build goodwill, and be clear about a coherent vision and process.

And, of course, a central item that we urban folks take for granted: food. Food is central for civilization and we need new systems for our future.

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There are many other resources for thinking about community. This article at summarizes a series of posts and podcasts on this important topic, including the Wheaton Laboratory’s new Ant Village approach to community.





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12 thoughts on “Top 5 lessons learned living in a village: A psychologist’s view

  1. tereza

    Hi there,

    wondering who wrote this… i eventually found out by looking around your site more, but it would be great if you had a byline somewhere on this page for those of us who wandered here from elsewhere on the net (in my case from a post on facebook that i would like to share) and wonder who you are… there’s also no “about me/us” on this page, or your home page, that i could find.


    1. dmac Post author

      Hi Tereza,
      It’s so good to hear from you, especially given your association with Dancing Rabbit, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for many things: in particular, the gracious welcome we received when we visited and the eye-opening introduction to the coop idea of organizing things. The latter is definitely consistent with and inspirational of my emphasis on freedom and experimentation so clearly present at Dancing Rabbit.

      Please know that I would love the opportunity to speak and sing with you at some point.

      Finally, thank you for pointing out that it may not be clear who I am. I have added a “About Us + Contact Us” option on the site.

      Thank you and all your compatriots and DR for your great work!


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