Resolving Conflict in Intentional Communities

Diane Leafe Christian, a long-term scholar and practitioner of intentional community, listed three types of conflict: structural, interpersonal, and “especially challenging behaviors.” Christian made three lists describing how to resolve each of these conflict types. Until we get more details from her latest book in progress, we can learn from this generous wisdom from the talk referenced at the end of this page, about resolving conflict in intentional communities.

Christian notes that when consultants are hired by ICs to resolve conflict, they most often address the “proximate cause” of interpersonal conflict. Christian is convinced that most often the root cause of conflict isn’t really resolved, because most interpersonal conflict is based on either structural conflict or “especially challenging behaviors.” As long as those are unaddressed, the interpersonal conflict will keep recurring.

Structural Conflict and Interpersonal Conflict

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 Christian’s assertions.

How to Avoid or Manage Two Common Types of Group Conflict

Resolving Conflict in Intentional Communities

ICmatch offers collected wisdom and consultants to help with all of the structural and interpersonal recommendations above. See the Start page and the Template for IC Description.

Especially Challenging Behaviors

Christian states that for conflict instigated by especially challenging behaviors, all the above-listed remedies don’t work to resolve the conflict. However, if the third listed structural step is followed, you might find yourself with fewer people who have a habit of such behaviors.

Christian 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Christian recommends the following:

  1. Learn about narcissistic traits. [This Psychology Today article provides a research-based and nuanced description of traits.]
  1. Lower your expectations that the person will ever change. Your patience will probably only allow their behavior to be prolonged.
  2. Set limits and boundaries. Remain courteous, but limit time you spend with them.
  3. Don’t tell them your secrets.
  4. Create a mutual support network. When you need to confront them about breaking agreements, bring allies and formal petitions.

Christian 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.

Christian’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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

gossip erodes trust