In observing intentional communities, Diana noticed that 90% of those started fail. She determined that the failing communities were brought down by structural conflict, often without identifying it. What is structural conflict? Structural conflict arises when the structures are not in place to help a community deal with conflict. Community doesn’t just happen. We need to create it and maintain it. So, to nourish community, Diana recommends that we build the following structures into our communities from the get-go, that is, even before we even have the land for our intentional community (if we’re starting a residential one): Our mission or purpose, a membership process and a decision making process. All three need to be clear, specific, and in writing so that they can be referred back to when conflict arises.
The mission or purpose takes our vision of a better world and makes it specific for us: What are we going to do toward that vision and why. It can help us determine whether a new person fits as a member, evaluate proposals, and ensure that all community members have similar values because the mission/purpose flows out of those. The membership process describes how new people become members of our community. It is best to have a small gate – to screen people carefully early on to ensure that they support our mission/purpose. The most commonly used decision making process is consensus, however, there need to be clear guidelines to ensure that the community has a way to handle cases where people misuse the process, avoiding the tyranny of the minority, or a decision has to be made fast. Members need to be trained in this process.
Intentional communities often suffer from our cultural bias toward conflict-avoidance. We might spend more time trying to heal the disruptive group member than to protect the community from the impact of the disruption. Thus, we need to leverage our decision making process, which has the tools to deal with misuses, and have the courage to say “enough” to members who are not following the process. Community requires that we set boundaries, just like in personal one-on-one relationships. Healthy boundaries enable healthy relationships.
Diana identified different types of decision making styles that need to be balanced in community: Early adapters (people who are systems thinkers, tend to think strategically, see challenges and opportunities long before others do); people in the middle (most of us, prefer a therapeutic approach – “why can’t everyone just get along”, conflict-averse); ponderers (slow, wise, kind); disruptors (often traumatized people who have not healed their trauma). Most people are “people in the middle” most of the time but we can also move into the other styles depending on context. The challenge for a community is to accept these various styles and leverage them. The early adapters can help by using their strategic thinking to build support for their suggestions by talking with the people in the middle and listen and share with them. The ponderers can set the pace because their input is tremendously valuable but it is important to ensure that they don’t bring the decision making process to a halt.
A way to ensure that community members can help each other heal while also getting things done is to follow the Sieben Linden approach to meetings. They separate out three different types of meetings: Feeling (attendees share how they feel; people give/receive empathy), thinking (participants share ideas and thoughts), business (attendees make decisions).