Your group needs people who, if there were to be a supply chain disruption or natural disaster, would share their last provisions with each other. Your group needs people who, if a member had a crisis, would let another member couch-surf a few weeks and help them strategize to get back on their feet. Especially for those without family, your group needs people who, if a member had a devastating accident, would take them into their home while recuperating. At the same time, an inherently kind temperament is not enuf. Interpersonal skills include the capacity for effective boundaries.
What builds and protects the kind of closeness and commitment many of us are searching for? Effective team building includes (a) a culture of compassion and (b) earned trust. The sections below are about these more nebulous “feelings”-related parts. A separate page covers techniques related to interpersonal relations, including (a) fair and effective decision making processes, and (b) effective conflict management.
If you don’t enjoy the process of getting to know others, maybe you haven’t found the others that are a good fit for you. Conversation may not be a top skill of yours, but the magic still happens as you share. You realize that your quirks and eccentricities are endearing to some, or at least tolerable. It takes time, and there’s no hack or shortcut.
There’s no magic one size fits all solution. You can build a happy life only on the foundation of your own nature, your own values, your own interests. So if you want to be happier, healthier, more productive more creative, you have to begin by saying: Who are you? What kind of person are you? When have you succeeded in the past? What do you want? Know what works for you….When you know yourself, you really understand other people much better…you’ll see that in some ways you’re alike and in some ways you’re different. And it’s not that one person’s right and one person’s wrong….It’s just how do we all get where we’re trying to go? (Rubin, as cited in Gervais, 2018, 1:04:40)
Brene Brown offers suggestions to foster connection while at the same time maintaining personal integrity: (a) people are hard to hate close up, move in; (b) hold hands, with strangers; (c) speak truth to bullshit; (d) be civil; (e) strong back, soft front, wild heart. Brown (2017) says the following:
It’s about breaking down the walls, abandoning our ideological bunkers and living from our wild heart rather than our weary hurt. We’re going to need to intentionally be with people who are different from us. We’re going to have to sign up, join and take a seat at the table. We’re going to have to learn how to listen, have hard conversations, look for joy, share pain and be more curious than defensive, all while seeking moments of togetherness. (para. 1)
Daily shared time in working, recreation, and meals can help your team connect in a variety of ways other than decision-making or interpersonal group processes. Incorporating play and ceremony in your community schedule can help you establish your cultural values. Some of your community members may not value certain gatherings. You may find it helpful to have two parts to gatherings: first a brief opening participatory segment that all might be required to attend, then a longer optional but strongly encouraged portion. The following are some well-loved community traditions:
- Rites of passage and celebrating successes of the group (or members of it) can strengthen members’ sense of belonging.
- Events that include giving positive written feedback to each other are helpful, sometimes more powerful when done anonymously so that there’s no expectation of reciprocity.
- Inviting neighbors and the wider community during holidays and seasonal events can strengthen or initiate partnerships.
Help each other notice signs of burnout and celebrate each other’s contributions. Using a circle process weekly for an hour or two can help smooth out interpersonal challenges that otherwise could build steam and blow up.
One thing that I’ve noticed over the years that happens a fair bit is that people who have never been to community before or have never done serious sustainable living before, they’re coming for the sustainability. And this thing called community, and what they get that they’re not expecting is this really deep level of core acceptance of themselves as whoever, however they are, like people here are so encouraging and appreciative. That’s what I want us to spread out in the world, is that people really feeling seen and met and encouraged to be all of who they are. (Living Paradise, 2020, 00:00)
A scholar of community life writes, “The material forms, the buildings, the fields, the technology and the economy are all dependent upon these subtle relationships between the individuals that make up that community. If these relationships fall apart, the community will also fall apart” (Bang, 2007, pp. 220-221). Team members need constancy in providing support to each other. Gentle persistence in fulfilling the basic needs of the group prior to embarking on larger goals will give you a better chance of success. Make agreements that are as radical as you choose, but commit to not step outside the bounds established by the group. Before the group can achieve its higher aims, its most basic needs must be addressed. If the foundation of emotional support isn’t created, the wellbeing of the group suffers.
If you were raised to believe unconditional love is an attribute you should aspire to, you may also have received the impression that it means you shouldn’t say no to those you love. The term compassion might be a better word for community interaction. Relating in community requires conditions, boundaries. It might make sense to reserve the term unconditional love to apply to a parent’s care for minor children or pets. And good training of them means you must say no sometimes. Unconditional love means that care and affection is not based on whether the other behaves or not, but there are still consequences for crossing boundaries. It doesn’t mean you have no disapproval; it means the expression of compassion will not depend on approval. Compassion requires boundaries. For example, I can care for my child only because I’m not spending my time trying to take care of everyone else’s child who might have a need. That’s the reality of our limited time and attention. Yet I recognize that my child’s well-being depends on the well-being of the culture and institutional structures she grows up in, so I do take responsibility to look after the well-being of others’ children to the extent that I can balance this with other goals and obligations. Even with my unconditional love for my own child, I understand that all other children are as valuable as mine. I can still love her more, because she’s my responsibility.
Mutualism. Is it really love or is it transaction? Is it really that this person or group promise seen protection and support you as super precious and valuable like your parents may have? Or are they like most human expecting something in return, and how much? Getting that clear up front will prevent you from a world of wheels and hurt feelings. The truth is, most of us engage in transactional relationships, because it makes reciprocity more obvious. There is a strong norm of reciprocity in all primate groups, and it’s strongest when built gradually. What makes it work is the willingness of someone to give first, trusting that they will likely receive, being okay with the fact that they might not.
Joanne McCallie, an award-winning coach of high-level athletes, speaks of the importance of this solid trust for maintaining mental health, as she learned when struggling with bipolar depression:
You have to at some point trust, and when you trust, it’s a small circle, and you’ve got to be able to share who you are authentically. That’s going to save you until you can really get grounded. The human connection as we all know has been incredible, that its been lacking so much, and there’s so much depression right now. Suicides are up. It’s a tough space that we’re in, and you, when you’re fearful, you run from human connection, because God forbid somebody could see inside of you and see that fear. (Gervais, 2021, 1:09:34)
Marissa King, a Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Yale School of Management, states the following:
How do you create or nurture an environment so that trust is generalized.…psychological safety is that trust transcends any two individuals. That’s the difference, so it’s a property of a group not the property of any two individuals within a group. And that I do think is possible.…the hardest piece of it tho is….it’s hard to create, but it’s super easy to destroy… generalized trust. (Gervais, 2021, 1:04:10)
Typical new teams go thru processes described by Tuckman as forming, storming, norming, then performing (Stein, n.d.). This is a short-cut for describing the process of (a) learning about each other while establishing expectations around a shared purpose and setting up roles; (b) working out boundaries and working thru inevitable conflicts as work gets started; (c) if commitment can be maintained and conflict managed well, resolving the discrepancy members feel between their individual expectations and the reality; then (d) using the benefit of diverse inputs of group members to accomplish a joint purpose.
If you build among each other a strong camaraderie, you will be prepared to help foster that in other groups or the people you may be serving. When energy or commitment dims in one, the others can carry on, giving a chance for rekindling the energy or commitment. The connection among you—if you can keep working thru disappointments and misunderstandings—is likely to become the most important asset, something you wouldn’t trade for a life of prestige, physical ease, or great possessions. It takes intentional and consistent group work to make sure small issues are resolved before they become problematic to relationships.
Brene Brown (2017) encourages us to build trust in the following ways:
- Respect boundaries. Respect others’ no. Insist on respect of your own no. Create a boundary of distance or a wall between you and those who don’t respect your no.
- Be reliable. Keep agreements.
- Be accountable. Acknowledge mistakes, apologize, and make amends.
- Have integrity. Decide based on values and demonstrate the courage to take a stand.
- Be slow to judge. Be curious when you don’t understand. Ask rather than make assumptions. Believe that intentions are basically good.
It’s okay to build trust gradually; in fact, it should be gradual. Trust your intuition if it’s telling you to proceed with caution. Those interested in intentional community usually value compassion and tend to be trusting. They may over-give instead of waiting to see when the other reciprocates after a first act of trust and vulnerability. Brown (2017) found that those who show the greatest compassion also have clear boundaries, because boundaries allow them to maintain caring without depleting themselves. When you’ve done your due diligence to discuss and negotiate about everyone’s needs and limits, it frees you up to show more compassion without concern that you may be setting a precedent or expectation that you may not have the capacity to continually offer.
From four decades of life in Sandhill, an income-sharing intentional community and farm, comes the following wisdom:
I feel like this is the groundwork of world peace …. I think you have to take people where they are. You have to see them realistically and not have a battle for dominance of one style over another, and it’s hard. There’s a default mode that all these unexamined things are sort of a norm, and that means “people like me,—that’s the norm—and people who are not like me, they are the problem.” I’m doing work right now with a group … really struggling with somebody who’s got a very demonstrative pretty emotional reactive style, and I don’t know that this group has ever talked about what do we do with that. To what extent is this person being abusive or violent, and to what extent is this a different style of working emotionally, and there’s going to be delicacy around this conversation. … There is a boundary here, and I don’t think they’ve ever talked about it. …. This is going to be a big factor in terms of what kind of membership you got, what do you actually do to embrace people where they are, as opposed to insist that they follow some kind of norm. What are the boundaries of inappropriate behavior? But how do we do that with sensitivity? (Shaub, 2022, 01:17:15)
Expectations can be especially touchy with sex. Men especially should be honest about whether their intent is casual recreation without further obligation. Williams Brown’s (2013) Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up restates the bitter truth to hopeful women: your sexual availability is not what’s going to win his devotion. Women need to be smart about the fact that men can genuinely feel they are totally committed before, then feel not so committed after.
Some in older generations are less comfortable being open and direct about sex and physical affection. Millennials and Gen Z have been correcting the ambiguities that always plagued the more subtle communications of the past with an emphasis on explicit understandings within “consent culture.” While some consent norms may involve more discussion that many people prefer, figure out what works for your group to feel safe, comfortable, and approachable. Boundaries around sex, gradual trust-building, and transparency are aspects that can make or break your whole team. The free love experiment already played out in the 1960s. Learn from it, especially if you are counter-culture in this aspect. Elizabeth Shé wrote that within the free love movement that she experienced as a child, lack of boundaries set her up for a lifetime of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse (Cain & Zappa, 1999).
Checking in with each other: a good male-to-male article about consent culture and physical intimacy (external website).
Our list of group interpersonal meeting formats has trust-building, decision-making, and conflict management processes. The Bright Future Now course, from Context Institute, was created to help people level up individually to the point that they are prepared to be contributing members of a group, without letting personal issues drag down group processes.
References are accessible here.