You teach people how to treat you by what you allow, what you stop, and what you reinforce.
— Tony Gaskins

As I wrap up the long-running series on patterns of community, I want to tackle a difficult subject: protecting communities from disruptive behaviors. How do communities set the boundaries that define and protect their shared space? After all, growing a whole new story to be in requires safe nests for the fledgling memes and lifeways!

The obvious place to begin is the membership process. At Earthaven, people who showed up at the gate were thought to be the right people, and current members are still paying the price for past lack of discernment. At Dancing Rabbit, the sifting has been much more elaborate: first you tell in writing what draws you there and come for 2-3 weeks to learn and work in the community. Only then can you apply for residency. A letter of intention leads to an interview. If accepted, an 8-month residency is a prerequisite for membership.

Ownership and legal arrangements greatly influence community’s ability to censure persistent troublemaking. Earthaven’s 99-year leases and the need to buy out any built real estate got in the way of effective action. At Dancing Rabbit, month-to-month land leases create no debt and anyone can leave at any time, putting their improvements up for sale. And each newcomer must sign a commitment to undergo mediation conducted by a committee that exists for that purpose, if poor relations with another member begin to affect the rest. In addition, every community needs a legally thought out, ethically and financially acceptable process for expelling a member as a last resort.

Another line of defense is the integration of newbies into SLGs (small living groups”), the way Twin Oaks does it. Everyone there is a member of a group house, and people get to know each other intimately. Any significant issues quickly come to the fore. Dancing Rabbits tend to cluster around the various kitchens, but a newbie can fall through the cracks if they don’t join any of them.

These three relatively easy-to-implement strategies will protect communities from the influx of people heavily burdened by dysfunction or mental illness, in addition to assuring that there is a reasonably good fit between the new person’s and the community’s aims and values. It is much harder to deal with disruptive behavior that occurs ongoingly among the established members of a community.

Times of conflict can exacerbate this problem, make it more painful, visible, acute. Some of the conflict at Earthaven, for example, has its roots in the clash of the original vision of the founders, and the new visions and livelihoods brought in by the otherwise-welcome younger crowd. Having children or pets was originally heavily frowned upon, and there was a specific eco-protective vision of the settlement as a forest garden that has not stood the test of time. At Dancing Rabbit, there’s been conflict over the planned large community center (a huge and possibly misconceived project, meant to serve DR as it turns into a town some day); the projected change from consensual self-governance to elected town council is also bound to be a source of ongoing friction. Then there are the innumerable and inevitable issues people have with each other as they attempt to live their cherished values in close proximity and co-governance with others.

But conflict itself is not the problem. Disagreeing with people’s opinions is not the problem. After all, conflict is the stuff of life, making everyday existence more interesting and lively, often sparking changes for the better. The core issue is how we treat one another under pressure. Disruptive behaviors pop up as people attempt to deal with life’s challenges by less than optimal means. Many of us grew up with nagging, badgering, angry pushing, authoritarian crackdowns, and underhanded tactics. Our first impulse, when we left the family of origin, was to repeat the pattern, thus perpetuating the rage of generations. And when we join a community, we bring that baggage along. Life in community greatly amplifies old habits of pushing one’s agenda in less than savory manner, as well as any lack of skills in setting effective — yet peaceable — boundaries.

The purpose of boundaries is to protect and care for ourselves. We need to be able to tell other people when they are acting in ways that are not acceptable to us. In doing so, we take responsibility for how we allow others to treat us. And setting boundaries requires discernment. People often worry about being judgmental. But we do need to weigh people’s behaviors, and discern those which are compatible with our way in the world, and those which are not. All humans have equal value as human beings; boundary setting does not in any way condone judging a person’s essential self as bad or defective. But human behavior is not of equal value; chronic lying is not equal in value to chronic honesty.

Let me restate that even more strongly: All humans have equal value as human beings. I would go as far as to say, with the Quakers, that there is “that of God” in everyone, and to label people’s essential selves as somehow deficient or broken is a dead-end street. I see a difficulty arising in the alternative and therapeutic cultures when this basic and sound assumption about human ‘being’ is extended into the area of human ‘doing.’ People want to believe, in the face of evidence to the contrary, that all human intentions are good and honorable. This belief in turn undermines their efforts to deal with problem behaviors, thus endangering the whole community.

Psychologist Mariane Caplan once published in the Communities Magazine [#98] her anguished thoughts about persistent behaviors she subsumed under the “petty tyrant” label. She says: “We become compassionate when we realize that the petty tyrant is acting in the way that she acts because she is in pain. Period. Her harsh words and actions are stemming directly from her own suffering, and whether it comes out in the form of anger, self-pity, or trouble-making, its source is personal pain. When somebody behaves aggressively and hurtfully towards us, that person suffers the greatest pain. That is why she behaves as she does.” Beware. Ms. Caplan makes Mother Culture’s usual pitch for mind-reading. We can never really know why another person does what they do. Attempts at mind-reading facilitate ‘enabling.’ They distract people from keeping their attention on the problem behavior and on taking protective, healing steps.

We all harbor a mix of intentions, some good and some malign, others poorly understood even by ourselves. It’s a form of self-sabotage to try to figure out what sort of intentions lie behind problem behaviors. When dealing with difficult people — which we all are at one time or another — intentions are irrelevant. What is crucial is that the group successfully protect their social ecology from damage while giving the involved parties useful feedback and plenty of chances to modify their approach. Isn’t that the truly compassionate choice?

Some tools have emerged to help. Intentional communities generally take good care to train its members in NVC (nonviolent communication), and of late, also in restorative circles which are witnessed one-on-one conversations helping the parties take turns to listen closely and so work through to another place in their relationship. What is still missing completely from this picture are skills that have to do with navigating the treacherous ground of bullying, manipulation, and other forms of power abuse.

Are you ready to see human behaviors clearly for the motley crew they are, and learn the boundary-setting aikido moves that protect what you love? Once we master these crucial skills, we can begin to extend them to the larger social spheres that surround us. Only then do we stand a chance to counter the pernicious mainstream patterns of failure to set effective limits on those who harm the commons and the commonwealth.

Open garden gate with roses

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