Community Building and Intentional Communities

„You mean we have to keep on growing?”
by Ed Groody
Communities, No. 86,

    M. Scott Peck uses the word "community" to mean the actual experience of connectedness--a certain way of communicating and being together which requires a depth of individual and group awareness, commitment, and authentic communication. People have described this experience of community variously as: "belonging," "healing," "transforming," "renewing," "a rich silence," "a safe place," and even, "a mystical experience." Perhaps it is the conscious or unconscious yearning and longing for the "experience of community" which brings many people to intentional communities. The important point here, however, is that awareness, commitment, and certain skills are needed in order to build and rebuild this "experience of community."
    Despite their best intentions, some community groups rarely, if ever, experience this kind of "community." Doing workshops across the country, I have visited intentional communities which hold common goals, share values, live together on the land, and share economic resources, yet which never experience a sense of genuine community.
    Of course, the experience of community may not be for everybody and cannot be forced upon them. Some people may seek out intentional community simply to get away from people and/or mainstream culture. For those who do wish to experience community however, many excellent individual and group communication process tools and techniques are available. Dr. Peck's community building process is one which provides a clear and practical way to understand groups and deepen one's experience of authentic community.

The Four Stages of Community Building
    Dr. Peck found that groups classically move through four stages, which he terms Pseudo-community, Chaos, Emptiness, and Community. By being able to identify which stage they are in and by understanding the characteristics and appropriate tasks associated with each stage, groups can communicate and work together more authentically and effectively.
    The four stages can overlap, and groups move back and forth through each of them. For example, in a group of 50 people, 45 of them might be experiencing the Community stage while two or three are still in Emptiness and one or two in Chaos or Pseudo-community.
    It is helpful to view each stage as having constructive and destructive aspects. The destructive aspect occurs when a group remains in a particular stage longer than is necessary. Groups with little history tend to start and remain for some time in Pseudo-community. Over time, depending upon maturity and skill level, groups may move effectively through all four stages.
    We might say that a healthy and highly functioning community is one which is able to move through the stages consciously and according to what is called for at any given time. The group is able to identify what stage it is in, and has the awareness, discipline, and skill to see and do what is required to move forward. Likewise, each individual in the group has the individual responsibility to monitor his or her own relationship to the group.
    Unfortunately, many groups today, from intentional communities to businesses, often remain stuck in Chaos or vacillate back and forth between Chaos and Pseudo-community. This may cause undue frustration and conflict and eventually lead to the collapse of the group. Other groups may struggle with the unrealistic expectation that they "should" be to able to remain in the stage of Community most, if not all the time. If we just "tried hard enough," or were "smart enough," or if "Joe would just leave!," we would be happy and get along swell all the time. On the contrary, in a healthy community it is understood that each stage of the process is unavoidable and important, and serves a vital purpose. In fact, without Chaos and Emptiness there can be no experience of community. This is an important concept and one foreign to a western culture still reliant upon outdated concepts of Newtonian physics which values control, predictability, stability, and equilibrium above all else. By avoiding and trying to control or organize our way out of Chaos, deeper levels of authenticity, order, and evolution are bypassed or delayed. To put it more simply, no matter how highly skillful, mature, or trained a group might be, they will always experience all four of the stages.
    People often feel relieved when they learn that Chaos is a natural part of the process. We are often instructed in our culture that we are supposed to be happy and in control most of the time, and that things should be relatively easy. When we learn that all groups experience Chaos, and that community building requires a great deal of skill and effort, we see that our group is not so different from others. We also see that if our group is stuck it is usually less about one person causing the Chaos, and more to do with the entire group's process.
    Each stage in the process has identifiable characteristics, and group members operate under certain fundamental premises. As I describe each stage below, please reflect upon your own experience in your community. How does Pseudo-community play out in your group? How do you respond to Chaos? What are the personal obstacles you typically need to empty to be present with your fellow community members?

    The fundamental premise of Pseudo-community is that we are all the same. In its constructive aspect, members of the group focus on what they have in common: common goals, work tasks, shared beliefs and values. Communication is not particularly deep or process-oriented. Individuals in the group often use the word "we" and speak in generalities and platitudes. Conversation is typically focused on issues outside or external to the group itself, and only rarely on personal sharing. This stage is often task-oriented and productive. It is a good time to get work done. "We have something to do, we all are the same, let's do it." There is a uniformity of agenda and purpose. Pseudo-community is necessary for getting the everyday tasks of life accomplished. The deep and personal sharing which requires much time and energy is not always appropriate. If it were, nothing would ever get done! In the constructive aspect of Pseudo-community, communication is not authentic, but merely polite.
    With time, however, the uniformity of this stage becomes conformity. Rather than asking, "How are we the same, what are our common goals?," we ask, "What do I have to do to belong here?" "Will I rock the boat if I say that?" "What do have to do so I can remain a part of the group and avoid being excluded?" People often describe this destructive aspect of Pseudo-community as the "cocktail party stage," "superficial," or "phony." A helpful metaphor is that of an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg is what we actually share in common: beliefs, knowledge, goals, etc. But underneath the surface are our hidden differences, opinions, issues, etc. A fellow community member makes a remark that offends me and hurts my feelings, which I never resolve. Or perhaps I have a creative solution to a problem but am afraid to speak up. Perhaps I am troubled by a personal emotional issue. All of this vital in formation which we withhold during Pseudo-community is under the waterline. If the group is still performing its tasks and is communicating effectively, this hidden portion of the iceberg may not be a problem for a time. But eventually, think of how this hidden portion affects communication and problem solving. How can creativity be nurtured or the best solutions be generated when important information is excluded from the process? How can we experience connectedness with unresolved issues and resentments lingering between individuals? The group literally bumps into the iceberg. Or spends great amounts of energy trying to maneuver around it without anyone acknowledging it is there.
    We have all had the experience of sitting in a meeting where everyone there knows there are "elephants in the room." Everyone knows what they are, but no one acknowledges their presence. However after the meeting, when people are in their particular cliques, they say what they really feel and believe. For many individuals, this denial and avoidance of difficult issues results in frustration, aggravation, and boredom. Lack of trust and superficial communication are key characteristics of Pseudo-community in its destructive aspect.

    While the focus in Pseudo-community is on preserving similarities and the status quo, in the Chaos stage of community the focus is surfacing differences. Chaos is when we learn that there is a problem, that something isn't working. Needed information becomes available, and we can identify what the problems and issues are. In its constructive aspect, then, Chaos is the seedbed of creativity.
    While it is a positive sign that differences start to emerge, the only problem with Chaos is that few people bother to listen to or recognize the differences. Chaos is often mistakenly viewed as conflict. Conflict may occur in Chaos. However, the primary characteristic of Chaos is not conflict but a chaotic rhythm. The discussion jumps from topic to topic, with people talking back and forth, all around--with no real listening; where each person launches into his or her own agenda without any room to hear or take in other perspectives. During Chaos, when someone speaks to me, rather than making room inside myself to listen, I am planning my response, even before the person finishes speaking.
    While Pseudo-community is sometimes called the "we" stage, emphasizing similarities, Chaos is the "you" stage: "You need to do it my way." Chaos is a time when we struggle with expectations and control. We make demands on others, our environment, and on ourselves: "I know the way you should be, I should be, and this world should be." Preaching and finger-pointing are common during this stage.
    Intensity and control are often confused with genuine passion during Chaos. The frenetic pace of this stage may also be misinterpreted as productivity or effectiveness. I have heard people describe Chaos as a kind of force field that tries to pull them in, away from their own sense of centeredness. Others experience it as "a time of frustration," "anxiety," "confusion," "despair," "anger," or "attachment."
    Fixingis another characteristic of Chaos and a common way that groups avoid the next stage, Emptiness. Rather than let a problem surface, rather than let someone experience his or her pain or problem fully, I want to fix it--because if I don't, it will make me feel uncomfortable. During Chaos, "us/them" conflicts may arise and divide the group: new members vs. old timers, insiders vs. outsiders, people who support x vs. people who oppose x. Both sides of a topic or issue may hold merit, and the group, unable to see that they are in the Chaos stage, either becomes paralyzed or accedes to the direction of a more aggressive or persuasive person. When a group gets stuck this way, it means a deeper, unresolved issue under the surface is blocking progress.
    Planning and problem-solving are rarely effective when operating out of the Chaos stage. Recurring issues and "putting out fires" are another signal that a group is attempting to solve problems while in Chaos. Oftentimes, when a group is stuck here, it is focusing only on the content of a problem or decision, rather than the process or way the group is making the decision. In community building, how we make decisions is as important as what is decided.
    There are two ways to get out of Chaos. One, called "organizing," will get a group temporarily out of this stage but will not lead to Community. Rather than face Chaos and the next stage, Emptiness, groups try to "organize" their way out. This may take the form of group activities: "Let's all go around the room and say what we each think," or "Let's form a task force." Or it may show up as stricter rules and policies: "Let's add three more pages to the personnel handbook" (and thus avoid dealing with the chaos in this issue). Organizing only delays Chaos temporarily. The only way to get out of the Chaos stage and experience Community is go "into and through" the Emptiness stage.
    Learning how to be in Chaos and not "control it," and also having the personal maturity, skills, and willingness to "let go" and become empty, are major challenges facing all community groups.

    Where Pseudo-community is the "we" stage, and Chaos is the "you" stage, Emptiness is the "I" stage. Unlike Chaos, where the focus is on others, during emptiness the focus is internal. I take time to reflect on my personal obstacles and barriers to trust and authenticity. Usually, one or two individuals recognize the group chaos and choose to "give up" or to "try another way." Group members during emptiness can realize: "I have obstacles and barriers that are preventing me from being present with the group and from seeing this situation clearly." The pace slows and the "agendas and voices" inside my head begin to quiet down. I recognize my own ego/need to control or manipulate. By removing these and other obstacles to being present, I am able to better accept people and things as they actually are. A shift can occur that changes how I perceive situations and perceive others. The polarities of Chaos may now be experienced as paradox--the unreconciled truth of contradictory ideas.
    Each person experiences emptiness in his or her own way. Some individuals need to share vocally with the group, others do not. One person may need to let go of the need to control, while another may need to empty the need to be passive and learn to speak up. Over time members learn what recurring personal obstacles they carry from their personal histories. Recent issues may also need to be aired.
    Emptiness is the time when the iceberg beneath the surface, the "elephants in the room," are addressed. Resentments, expectations, hurts, fears, and unexpressed needs are let go, creating room for deeper listening. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the process of emptying requires taking a risk. It is a simple truth that the greatest gift we can give to our community is the gift of our own vulnerability.
    Individuals and groups are often unaccustomed to this type of risking. During workshops, when we lead groups into the emptying process, they often want to find another way, and may try to organize or flee back to Pseudo-community. Yet, this is what community calls us to--to take off our masks and let others know who we are and what is going on with us "under the surface." Speaking the truth, confronting a difficult issue, sharing our brokeness, not knowing how others will respond, admitting our shortcomings, or sharing a personal success or joy--this "emptying" is what moves a group toward community.
    People describe emptiness variously as, "a time of surrender," "self-reflection and discovery," "discarding," "risking," "painful," "going deeper," "draining," "learning," and even "dying" (when old or no-longer-useful aspects of ourselves seem to die). This process requires personal and group skills, discipline, self-awareness, and group awareness. Emptying also takes time. Groups may need to schedule ritual time for reflection and contemplation. It also requires commitment, ensuring that community building time does not get pushed aside due to Chaos or avoidance of difficult issues.
    A word of caution: individuals and groups may at times mistake emptying with "dumping," which is merely a more sophisticated type of Chaos. While it is important to bring to the surface hidden issues and at times confront others, emptying is not saying whatever I want, however I want, whenever I want. Honesty and respect must go together.
    During our trainings we spend a great deal of time teaching and stressing the importance of "I" statements in healthy community. Adherence to the use of "I" statements is often a critical requirement for groups to move forward. "We" statements tend to generalize, avoid responsibility and risk, and cloak deeper levels of truth. "You" statements usually blame, injure, confuse, or put people on the defensive. "I" statements, on the other hand, own and personalize what we say, and make it easier for others to hear us. When I make "I" statements it requires me to take responsibility for my thoughts and feelings, to be more revealing and provide more information about my individual process and the group as a whole.
    Emptying may include giving feedback to others--and to not do so would be another form of Pseudo-community. However, there is a big difference between healthy feedback, given honestly and respectfully from a place of emptiness, and criticism, given from a place of self-righteousness or other motivation. We know the difference when we hear it. Many groups use ground rules for communication during community building time. In any case, community building requires discipline, vigilance, and an ongoing commitment to community principles.

    The healing experience of Community is a gift and a mystery. Deep listening and connection only occur when we are empty. By emptying ourselves of our expectations, obstacles and agendas, we create space for true listening, healing, and connection. It is within this container of emptiness that a spiritual or mystical experience of community is possible. In fact, the depth of closeness and community that a group feels is proportional to the depth of emptiness it is willing to experience. By getting ourselves out of the way we make space for the "spirit of community" to be present. People describe this experience in many ways: "connected," "healing," "powerful," "grace," "renewing," "rich silence," "generative," "closeness," and "transforming."
    Differences are not squelched, as in the Chaos stage, but instead are recognized and celebrated. There is room in discussion for all viewpoints and perspectives. Group members who are typically quiet often come forward. Likewise, typically talkative group members become more quiet and attentive. All voices are heard; it becomes a group of leaders. Conflict is a natural part of communication and still occurs, but is now healthy and graceful. Trust and safety are high. Group members are able to give and receive feedback more effectively. The Community stage is an excellent time for problem-solving and decision making. Group members have a knowing about when to speak and when to listen, and are able to tap into group creativity and wisdom. Instead of focusing on polarities, members are able to self-reflect and see the obstacles and problems beneath the surface. Because everyone is involved, commitment and alignment with decisions are high. During the Community stage, the group is a highly effective decision-making body. Again, for those with a spiritual or religious perspective, community is a time where the group is "open to the spirit" or a "higher power," and can make decisions based on this type of knowing.
    It is important to note that while this stage provides opportunities for healing and connection, it does not require friendship. We need not "like" someone to be in Community with them. However, we do need to fully include all individuals--exclusivity is the greatest enemy of Community. Similarly, the Community stage does not guarantee "warm fuzzies," hugs, or that things will be easier. In fact, groups that have existed for some time, but are new to community building, may find that buried sources of conflict are finally able to emerge in this stage. Community is however, always honest, respectful, real, and rewarding.
    Because the experience of the Community stage is so rare, many individuals have never intentionally engaged in building community. In our fragmented culture, individuals often only experience community accidentally, perhaps during times of crisis. Imagine being with a group of people who are not particularly close or do not work well together. Then someone gets injured or there is a natural disaster such as a flood or snowstorm. Have you ever noticed the sense of connection and the effectiveness of people working together in these situations? People "empty" their agendas in order to deal with the crisis, and the result is an experience of community. During workshops, war veterans have shared their mixed feelings about being in battle. On one hand, war was their most negative life experience. On the other, because of the constant crisis and sense of community with fellow soldiers, it was also their most powerful, connecting, and memorable experience.

Sustainable Community
    Community Building Workshop participants will occasionally ask, "So once a group has reached the stage of Community, does it stay there?" Oh, if only that were true!
    The experience of Community may last hours or minutes or days. Some say that on a deeper level a sense of renewal and connection with other group members may
    remain forever. But in our ordinary understanding and experience, the stage of Community, with time, moves back to the status quo, back to Pseudo-community or Chaos.
    The good news, then, is thanks to the work of many in the Communities Movement, we have rediscovered and developed technologies to assist groups intentionally build and rebuild community. The bad news is: this process never stops; we must build and rebuild. An accountant from a company utilizing the community building process to build trust summarized this point well. Upon hearing me explain that their management team would need to reflect together and empty regularly in order to maintain trust and rebuild community, a look of excitement, insight, and anguish flashed across his face and he blurted out,"You mean we have to keep on growing!?"
    With time, groups acquire greater levels of maturity and skill. They create an "emotional bank account" to fall back on during difficult times. However, ongoing learning and education in conflict resolution, group process, diversity, self-esteem, and personal awareness are keys to group health and functioning.
    I also cannot stress enough the need for outside facilitators to work with groups on a periodic basis. No matter how high-functioning your group might be, our personal histories always create dysfunctional patterns that groups simply become blind to. Having a fresh and objective eye to offer observations, guidance, and training is invaluable. However, be careful to bring in only experienced and trained facilitators. Due to the delicate nature of community-building work, a poor facilitator can cause great harm to individuals and the group as a whole.
    In order to sustain an ongoing intentional community or any organization, many elements must be in place. These include a shared vision and mission, shared values and principles, and effective economic structures, organizational systems, and decision-making processes which match the values of the community. Time in ritual, play, and celebration are also essential components. Community building provides a highly effective way to learn skills and build the foundation of authentic communication and trust needed to maintain these many components of sustainable community over time.
    I work with intentional communities whenever possible. I believe they are doing the work of social change and taking an essential stance in a fragmented and sometimes hollow culture. The experience of community is often personally healing, supportive, and renewing. It is tempting to linger in its glow. However, after a true experience of community, we are always brought back to what work we can do for others in the world. What return we can make to the community of Earth? The great Sufi mystic of the 13th century, Jelaluddin Rumi, said it well:

A night full of talking that hurts.

My worst held back secrets.

Everything has to do with loving and not loving.

This night will pass.

Then, we have work to do.

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