Who do you want to invite to your village?
(a) People who are skillful, self-aware communicators even in the presence of unpleasant emotion.
(b) People who agree with what you’re trying to do.
To some, the question, “who do you want in your village?”, may smack of elitism and invoke the possibility of other “isms” many of us wish to avoid: racism, sexism, class-ism, age-ism, etc. At the same time, a village or community is mostly about people.
The Status Quo Invitation Method of Finding Neighbors
It’s helpful to start this conversation by noticing that our status quo neighborhoods already have selection criteria, the two most important of which are probably (1) home price and (2) location (this includes proximity to good schools). Since a good location commands higher prices, it seems that economic means provides the primary filter for most neighborhoods: people buy the best location they can afford. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with your neighbors on environmental values, for example, or not. How does money sit with you as a selection criteria for your neighborhood? Regardless of our (dis)comfort with money as a defacto selection criteria, it may not be the most effective way to arrive at a community that will succeed in having close connections with each other (although many communities manage close-ish connections even given this disadvantaged filter).
There is another status quo way of finding neighbors, normally employed by a real estate developer. Basically, this is marketing and selling the units and includes advertising, marketing, etc. This approach normally focuses on location, cost, and amenities and so represents a more explicit, but similar approach, to a private party selling an individual unit/house in a neighborhood.
A Better Way?
Is there a better way? I think so. As discussed in more detail below, we could tilt the economics (through creating both affordable and market-rate units) so money doesn’t dominate the selection process, be clear about vision and process (which can be leveraged by location — for example, Troy Gardens Cohousing Community is located adjacent to community gardens and a CSA farm and attracts people who like those amenities), keep things small and free governance-wise, and build a physical structure that encourages interaction. This gives us a pretty good mix of folks.
We can do even better than all of that by adding one final (and more important) criteria: people should be able and willing to disagree skillfully. That is, they should be willing and able to speak their truth skillfully and hear others express their truth skillfully, even (and especially) when there is disagreement.
Unfortunately, because our culture at present relies on and teaches mainly avoidance strategies for dealing with reality, skillful disagreement is in very short supply. That’s because skillful disagreement relies on expanding our repertoire beyond avoidance strategies to also use intimacy strategies (also see this thread on skillful disagreement at permies.com forums). In my work with couples, it is very rare to find romantic partners entering therapy who can do this. If a couple who has decided to commit to a life together cannot do this, what chance is there that neighbors can?! In our culture, we are trained to avoid unpleasant emotion, rather than be mindful of it and skillfully communicate about it. For more details about this point, see this post on intimacy strategies in communication, strategies that depend on self-awareness of some kind and can be used in both platonic and romantic relationships alike.
The number 1 obstacle to this type of communication is defensiveness (one of the four horsemen of a relationship apocalypse): feeling criticized when one has not been criticized. In a culture like ours that emphasizes the role of personal responsibility, defensiveness is particularly common. Interestingly, the antidote to defensiveness, compassion for self and others, is increasingly being highlighted in our culture, a good thing!
Because we like to avoid conflict, it is often very unpleasant to engage with others without avoidance as a primary strategy: welcome to one of the primary benefits and costs of being in a community — you will grow and learn whether you want to or not! As a therapist, living in a community can sometimes feel like massive group therapy without an acknowledged or trained facilitator and no clear beginning or end to the session! And how many of us have energy for that at the end of a long day?
In general, people who have been traumatized (especially as children) will have to engage in a fair amount of self-work before they will be able to disagree skillfully. This is, first of all, not fair, and second of all, not their fault. Various adverse childhood events (ACEs), including crime in the home, verbal, emotional, sexual, and physical abuse, or neglect set people up for a lifetime of problems. There is an important literature on ACEs and their impact on adult mental and physical health. The greater the number of ACEs present in a person’s childhood, the greater the likelihood that person will suffer from one or more of the following: depression, anxiety, intravenous drug use, liver and heart disease, alcoholism, and more. They are also less able to interact skillfully with others, especially when there is unpleasant emotion, often arising from disagreement.
The most difficult people to get along with are those with personality disorders, a set of interpersonal and emotion-regulatory habits that often derive from unlucky childhoods. People with personality disorders are notoriously difficult to treat in therapy, though I have seen incredible courage, persistence, and growth with people I have been privileged to work with. The presence of a difficult personality can be recognized when normal attempts at communication repeatedly make things worse rather than better. Even in these cases, however, decent relationships can exist (see this post for more) with the exception of folks with what I have come to think of as “the Unholy Trinity.”
I have had occasion to wonder if cooperative or intentional communities are more likely to attract challenging personalities than a normal suburban neighborhood, in part because such folks are seeking connections, family, and community that they didn’t have growing up. Community can be quite a gift in this way, but we need to be realistic about how many challenges one community can successfully accommodate. Our industrial culture often seeks solutions through aggregation to achieve efficiencies of scale. We grow mono-crop corn for more efficient application of pesticides or put everyone with problem X in a group home with one expert facilitating. But, a good ecosystem enjoys a great deal of diversity and the resilience that comes from that diversity. Perhaps our communities should emulate that diversity. At the same time, we need to be aware of one crop coming to dominate the ecosystem and tilting the system away from this resilience. This is perhaps easier to recognize in a physical ecosystem than a social one. Although an uncomfortable topic, I would be surprised if we can develop the communities we need without developing healthy curiosity, respect, and discernment about this issue.
The best way, in my view, to know whether someone will work well in a community is to see how they handle disagreement, not on a one-shot basis (we all have bad days or bad moments) but on a consistent basis. Are they able to self-reflect, listen, apologize, name their own contribution? Are they able to be real or do they pretend everything is ok when it’s not (a positivity bias, see this post on the unrealistic optimism)? In short, to what extent are we able to speak our truth skillfully and listen to another’s truth skillfully, even when experiencing and/or being the recipient of unpleasant emotion? The people I’d like in the village of my dreams are people who can communicate in this way (I feel grateful that many in our co-housing community can). And we’ll only really know who those people are when we have disagreements with them and come out the other side. Since we’ll never be perfect at this, we should be willing to commit to getting better for the rest of our lives.
We can decrease our resource use — and thus increase our sustainability — through higher levels of cooperation. Since we can only cooperate to the extent we can skillfully deal with disagreement and conflict, the communication skills described above become one of the main limiting factors for our current culture in achieving sustainable lifestyles. It is one reason communities like Tamera in Portugal emphasis the importance of evolving social forms that can meet this challenge. Paul Wheaton Labs in Montana is experimenting with an “Ant Village” as their next evolution in social organization. Can you imagine sharing a kitchen with another family? Two others? Three? How about a lawn mower or a driveway? A bedroom? Obviously everyone has their own line to draw and this is important, but where that line is drawn will depend, in part, on communication skills based in self-awareness.
For more thoughts about living in community, see this post, The Top 5 Lessons Learned by Living in a Village: A Psychologist’s View.
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