by Raven Glomus
I’ve written about this several times before, but I feel like I can’t say it enough. Community is all about relationships. I’ve written a piece about an imaginary community that is actually a composite of three communities that I’ve known–and why the founders couldn’t get it to work. (Hint: they focused on the ecological goals rather than relationships. Of the three real communities, one lost the alpha male founder and is currently very focused on relationships, one recently seems to be doing better–and likely because relationships are being nourished, and I don’t know what happened to the third–likely it’s not around.) Polish communal researcher Katarzyna Gajewska wrote a post for us on why tech folks have a hard time building communities. (Hint: Techies focus on design, rather than relationships.)
So, how do you build relationships? The first step to building relationships is to be gentle with yourself and with others. That’s harder than it might sound. Most of us (myself included) have a tendency to be critical, and justify it as being ‘realistic’. The truth is, being critical alienates people. It’s not that you can’t point out when something (or someone) isn’t working–or is hurting someone else. The question is how you do it. (More on this in a moment.)
The next step is to listen. Listening can be hard. The problem is that most of us have had some kind of trauma in our lives. I’ve talked about communities as laboratories for social change. After spending lots of time living in community, I’ve come to the realization of why social change doesn’t happen (and why communities don’t happen–or do briefly and then fall apart). My insight was “We trigger each other.”
There are tools to deal with this, whole books written on processes that help with listening. The difficulty usually lies in actually doing what the books recommend. I am going to focus on Nonviolent Communication (NVC), not because it’s the only or best way, but because I’m very familiar with it. NVC is a very useful tool to help with listening and building connection–but only if it’s done right. I’ve heard criticism of NVC and it usually amounts to people doing what they think is NVC–but not understanding what Nonviolent (also called Compassionate) Communication really is. If you are telling someone that they are not doing NVC correctly–or at all, you are not doing NVC. NVC is not a tool to change another person’s behavior, it’s a tool to help you to understand someone else, to listen better.
The goal here is to actually listen to another person and to listen to them first. I like Stephen Covey’s formulation: “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” It doesn’t mean that you don’t get to put your viewpoint out. It means you listen first and make sure that they feel understood, before you try to explain. This is when you can point out, gently, problems.
Listening is really difficult to do when you are being triggered. If you aren’t able to listen, don’t try to get your point across. Instead, go find someone who can listen to you enough to let you have enough free attention to listen first. There are lots of practices people engage in to do this (NVC empathy sessions, Re-evaluation Co-counseling, Active Listening, Focusing, etc.) and using any of these can be helpful, but really just finding someone who can listen can be very useful.
This is one of the advantages of living in a community. If a community is big enough, generally there’s someone and often several folks who are not triggered by whatever is going on. That’s not to say that they don’t have triggers, but in a big enough group of folks, different folks will have different triggers.
If there isn’t anyone that’s not triggered, or if the situation is difficult enough, don’t be afraid to bring in outside mediators–someone who is truly neutral and can listen to all sides.
The final thing that I want to suggest in terms of building relationships to build community is that making a real commitment to the community and the people in it, makes a huge amount of difference. When folks know that they can disagree, and disagree strongly, and it won’t destroy the relationships, it contributes to the longevity of the community.
Building relationships builds community. I’m suggesting at least three steps that help build those relationships–being gentle with yourself and others, learning to listen and listen well, and making strong commitments to the community and the people in it. Relationships are not the only part of community building, but they are the glue that holds a community together.