If you are looking for a nice peaceful life in a commune, forget it. I often tell people starting communities, that conflict is not a question of if, but of when.
This isn’t a design flaw of communities. Basically, whenever you have two or more people doing something together, at some point, there’s going to be conflict. This is because no two people are identical and no two people see things the same way. Add more people and there are more chances for conflict.
And the important thing to realize is that conflict isn’t bad. In fact, working it through is a good way to reach a better solution than simply accepting what one person says. This is why consensus is more powerful than voting. In voting, the minority is overpowered. In consensus, you need to listen to everyone and try to learn from each side.
And I say all this as someone who is a chronic conflict avoider. Believe me, I am scared of conflict. But I’m even more scared of not dealing with conflict. Not dealing with conflict is one of the things that destroyed a community that I loved.
After it was all over, one of the folks I had been in community with asked me if I hadn’t been aware of all the conflict going on. I replied that I knew it was happening, I just didn’t know what to do about it. So I basically ignored it.
I still don’t know what to do with conflict, but I’ve learned a few things. The first is to actually say, “Hey, there’s conflict happening. We should deal with this.” It doesn’t go away by pretending it isn’t happening–in fact that generally makes it worse.
Listening generally does help. If you can, don’t take sides. Assume there are good reasons for all positions and try to figure out what each person needs.
And sometimes a mediator helps–someone who is outside the situation and sometimes someone who is outside the community.
A few other things about conflict. What I’ve found is that the bigger the community, the less intense conflicts are. It seems counter intuitive until you realize that with a couple, for example, each of them will try to meet all their needs from the other person. The more people there are, the more points of view, the more different people who can meet folks needs, the bigger the buffer, the more likely there will be folks who can hear all sides.
And, for the last couple of years, I’ve been living in a community that embraces conflict. It’s been amazing to see people who will be screaming at each other in a meeting (this doesn’t happen all the time but it happens enough) and later be working together. These folks have lived like this for years.
And this leads to looking at one other thing about conflict. The goal isn’t to eliminate it, the goal is to make it safe to deal with. And something that makes it safe is commitment. If you know that you can disagree with folks, get upset with folks, even occasionally yell at folks, and they are not going to run away or never speak with you again, then it makes conflict more possible and therefore more manageable.
So the commitments we have help us weather the conflicts and the conflicts make us stronger. If you want a commune that can last, learn to deal with conflict.