Learn how to be a better neighbor before moving in and continue to work on these skills while in community.
This is one of a series of essays related to cohousing. For more information, see the introduction here.
There is a oft-cited quote that circulates in cohousing communities and it goes something like this:
“Cohousing is the most expensive personal growth course I ever took — but it came with a free house!”
While partly in jest (there are sadly no free homes), I was struck by the high level of maturity exhibited by most of the people I spoke with. This was especially true in talking about some of the more challenging aspects of living in intentional communities.
It might sound odd to describe adult homeowners, many of them seniors, as mature but it has to be said: while all people age, not all people grow up. I’m sure you’ve encountered juvenile behavior in people of all ages. Maybe you have a neighbor with an unhealthy fixation on a leafy tree located on your property, or perhaps you’ve worked with someone who avoids conflict to their own detriment. There are so many ways that people can exhibit maladjusted ways of dealing with stress — many of us don’t learn these skills until the need is obvious. These also might be the kinds of behaviors you imagine, in horror, when considering the prospect of living in an intentional community. Sure, that could happen — in fact it’s very likely that it will happen from time to time. However, within all of the communities I visited there were people that have done a considerable amount of personal development work prior to moving in and continue to do this work while living there. Having a good number of people with such skills has the effect of modeling better behavior for the entire community by pointing to more productive ways of dealing with challenging issues. You should aim to be one of these people with the ability to model better behavior. Don’t be the person who does this learning on the backs of your new neighbors. If you are planning to move into such a community or start one yourself — be prepared to deal with the challenging aspects of human relationships in direct and productive ways.
Many members of the communities I visited have skills in mediation, non-violent communication (NVC), facilitation, consensus building, and dialogue. I’ve provided a few links to some useful books below (please share with me your favorites in the comments). Some people picked up such techniques in their work or religious lives, others took workshops as part of their path to self-improvement. Some people learned about such methods after moving into community by observing behaviors in others that seemed both practical and important in such communities. These skills are important. If you are interested in forming or joining a community, start doing this work now.
I recall discussing this issue at length with someone who has been a member of a few communities and she suggests that at the end of the day “it’s all about relationships.” That is, it’s easy to get caught up in the challenge of establishing the community, buying the land, designing the buildings, but once you move in you have to go on living together — that is the point. It becomes less about buildings and gardens and more about the quality of the relationships needed to manage these spaces and how they are used together. She continued “we had some really serious, heavy stuff that we had to go through. And, you know, a community is like a tapestry…. or like a garden — if you don’t really take care of it it’s gonna get poisoned, or it’s gonna get totally tattered. Then you can’t repair it. So you’ve gotta work on that stuff, in an ongoing community.”
If you are the kind of person who is offended by the notion that you might need to do this kind of personal development work, it’s possible that you are not a good fit for a community that is run on a non-hierarchical decision making model. While I will address the issue of conflict resolution in a later essay, it seems that people in such communities have to be both confident enough to voice dissent when they feel strongly about something — while also having enough respect for others to listen to their differing views. This requires a delicate balance of skills related to managing one’s ego and expectations while not losing one’s sense of self.
You may have already noticed that much of our modern lives are not actually governed in a way that treats people in an equitable manner. In your work life you will be given more or less room to express yourself based on your position in an organization, or even on if you look or act a certain way. This is not supposed to be the case in such non-hierarchical organizations, such as cohousing communities. It can be hard for some people to deal with this balance of power and the pace of such democratic processes. That said, you can learn how to be a better communicator, but it will take work.
Kimi Nakamura, a newer member of the Creekside Community in Courtney B.C., compared living in a community to being part of a team, and like any other team, it requires regular effort to build commitment and this means “continued personal development, community development in terms of communication, dispute resolution… things like that. That needs to be an ongoing thing.”
That is, it’s one thing as a member of the community to take on this work to prepare yourself for living in such a context, but given it’s importance to the continued development of the community itself, it’s also worth investing in as a collective. Many people I spoke with suggested having regular workshops that are free to attend within the community (all the better if you include some food). That is, you may want to consider this to be a part of the budgeting process of your community. In the same way that the building and grounds are going to need to be maintained over time, so to is the invisible architecture that makes these communities intentional. Put aside money to pay for workshops or training for the community so that you are continuously building skills over time and adopting new skills as the community ages and changes.
All interviews conducted by me, Cheryl Gladu