Structural Conflict and Interpersonal Conflict
Diane Leafe Christian is a longtime researcher about and consultant to intentional community and author of Creating a Life Together and Finding Community. She identifies three types of conflict in intentional communities: structural, interpersonal, and “especially challenging behaviors.” You can read more about this in her ongoing article series for Communities magazine. She’s also currently writing a book about effectively managing conflict in intentional communities.
Diana (who asked that her first name be used instead of the academic convention of last name) notes that when consultants are hired by ICs to resolve conflict, they most often address the “proximate cause” of interpersonal conflict. She is convinced that most often the root cause of conflict isn’t really resolved, because much interpersonal conflict in forming community groups and the early days of community life on the land derives from what she calls “structural conflict.” As long as this source of conflict is unaddressed, the interpersonal conflict will keep recurring.
The first two lists are re-assembled here as a chart, to show the connection between the structural and interpersonal conflict. The parts in brackets are added, and we hope they accurately reflect Diana’s assertions.
How to Avoid or Manage Two Common Types of Group Conflict
ICmatch offers collected wisdom and consultants to help with all of the structural and interpersonal recommendations above. See the Templates for IC Description.
Especially Challenging Behaviors
Diana Leafe Christian (2022) states that for conflict instigated by especially challenging behaviors, all the above-listed remedies usually don’t work to resolve the conflict. However, if the above third listed structural step is followed (about the membership process), your community is likely to have fewer people who have a habit of such behaviors.
Diana lists the behaviors and admits that as a shorthand, behavioral health clinicians would call these narcissistic behaviors. This statement deserves a side note that Christian’s focus on behavior points to: It is unhelpful to simply label someone a narcissist, for two reasons.
- While there are criteria in the DSM to diagnose narcissistic personality disorder, in the context of community, it’s more helpful to see narcissistic behaviors on a spectrum. For example, every healthy 2-year-old tends to focus on their own needs and may sulk or throw a tantrum if their needs aren’t met. On the other end of the spectrum is Mother Theresa. Putting labels on people can divert the discussion away from the specific behavior that’s problematic.
- A set of self-interested behaviors may be appropriate or not, depending on the context. It gets us closer to resolution to speak of a specific behavior as it emerges in a specific context in relation to agreements.
Let’s give up the impossible and unhelpful task of assigning or comparing some level of trait narcissism along a spectrum.
Diana recommends the following:
- Learn about narcissistic behaviors and traits. In her article series she recommends two books as well as free youtube videos by therapists and life coaches who specialize in helping people learn about narcissistic traits and what to expect and what you can do. [This Psychology Today article provides a research-based and nuanced description of traits.]
- Lower your expectations that the person will ever change their challenging behaviors or behave in a mutually beneficial cooperative way in the community.
- Set limits and boundaries. Remain courteous, but muster up the courage to tell the person what behaviors you don’t want to experience. Tell them what behaviors are appropriate. State the consequences of their behavior if you are willing to follow thru. An easier way to set boundaries is to limit the amount of time you spend with them, or if possible avoid them altogether without being obvious about it.
- They may want to convince you they’re your friend or that they care about you. Don’t tell them important information about yourself or your life. Don’t share your feelings or concerns with them, because they may later try to use these against you.
- Consider creating a mutual support network with friends in your community, where you can practice empathy and nonviolent communication. When you need to confront the person(s) about breaking community agreements, consider bringing allies with you and/or giving the person(s) formal petitions asking them to keep their agreements. Consider attending meetings of the community leadership to request that they keep the agreements. Consider brining a proposal about this to the community business meeting. See suggestions for this in the third, fourth, and fifth articles in Diana’s article series in Communities Magazine.
Diana states that when the person exhibiting these behaviors hears multiple times from multiple people who have the same perspective on their behavior, they might finally pay attention. However, many with this behavior pattern find it intolerable to be challenged. They may decide you are all wrong and leave the group.
Diana’s discussion time was limited, but it’s likely her forthcoming book will address these challenges in more detail. There are two important topics that her list hints at, and that are important to guard against.
- Gossip. It’s tempting to trash talk behind their back when you are sure others have experienced similar behavior by the offensive person. This is a mistake that erodes community trust. The best practice is to confront the person directly about their behavior. A question may be more helpful, before bringing an accusation. If they are dismissive or you feel unsafe, bring an ally to help you confront the person. Do discuss the issue, set boundaries, document when boundaries are broken, and hold others accountable in the agreed-on manner.
- Two people engaged in narcissistic behaviors might create rival alliances. They might feel aggrieved against each other, accuse each other of colluding, and divide the group. Without a way to manage this conflict, the two rivals could destroy trust within a group that has the potential to get along.
If you experienced high school group dynamics, you probably have observed these dynamics plenty of times. Alternatively, you might come up with examples from your workplace or the world of politics. On the mild side, this is simply human nature, and we don’t need to demonize it. Yet left unchecked, these behaviors can limit a group’s productive capacity, and they can eventually destroy a group by eroding trust. For more on this topic, see Brene Brown’s discussion of trust, including her definition of “common enemy intimacy.”
Christian, D. L. (2022). Dealing effectively with conflict: Practical tips for intentional communities [Video]. In Laying the Foundation for Sovereignty. https://live-free-academy-6c03.mykajabi.com/products/exit-and-build-land-summit-ii-free-replay/categories/2150495808/posts/2158468945#