This is one of a series of essays related to cohousing. For more information, see the introduction here.
Without fail, when I talk with people about collaborative housing, or any kind of more intentional community-led development process, the issue of conflict emerges. Most often this comes up via some anecdotal horror story of an experience with a condo board or a “crazy” neighbour. This is often presented as a warning as to why collaborative communities couldn’t possibly work. If one where to take a moment to reflect on this argument, it might become clear how this misses the point, as this is evidence that the status quo often doesn’t work and could use some improvement. Rather than assuming people will always agree, collaborative communities seek to be better at dealing with human nature and difference. Does it always work? No. Does it work at all? Yes, it certainly does.
Conflict is ultimately one of the reasons that people within any community should seek to work on their personal capacity for dialogue and communication prior to and while living in community. Yes, your community should have a conflict resolution agreement, the process of reflecting on this and considering what one might have to do when agreement isn’t forthcoming is very beneficial to the community. However, as Shaun Woods of Denman Island Coho suggests “conflict is probably the least likely thing to be resolved just by policy or even by structure. It’s too delicate and too emotional.” Or as Lindy Flynn from Heddlestone Village puts it “you cannot legislate cooperation. You can make all the agreements that you want to, but if people don’t want to do it, they’re not going to do it.” That is, disagreements are something that people have to be willing to engage with if a community is to function in the long run. Members of such communities tend to eventually recognise conflict or disagreement for what it can be — an opportunity to learn. Like most lessons in life this takes time and courage, but is worth the effort.
Ultimately, beyond any particular agreement, people have to be prepared to make the most of the inevitable frictions that arrive between neighbours. As Shawn suggests “you can’t really come up with a policy that guarantees a psychological and emotional happiness with the result,” that will only come, if at all, with a community member’s own personal development. One thing that was really apparent in interviewing many people that had lived in such communities for years was their advanced levels of personal development — including their willingness and ability to talk about uncomfortable topics with frankness and generosity.
Ultimately conflict resolution guidelines are a commitment made by each member to try to resolve issues before they become problems for the betterment of the community rather than simply for their own personal interests. This means that while you might have a personal inclination towards avoidance - this is what is most comfortable for you - this is almost certainly not productive for the community.
As Canadians, we might face a particular challenge in this regard. “Canadians are so polite… you’re so polite — God forbid you would say what you honestly think because it might make someone upset,” shared a US-born member of one Canadian community, “you know there is a bit of that going on. So the mouthier people tend to push the people that are just quiet and don’t want to get into a hassle about it… so the people who don’t want to get into a hassle about just wander off.” This is actually something that came up in a number of conversations that I had with non-Canadian residents of relatively new cohousing communities. There was something of a sense that Canadians are socialised to be less confrontational than, say, Americans. The same might be said of women compared to men — and women are disproportionately represented in such communities. As such, this socialisation is something that people learn to work on, over time, together.
The interesting thing about this is if you take the view that expressing one’s views not as a confrontation, this sets up the situation to be less confrontational. It serves the community if you learn to see conflict as an opportunity to better understand your neighbour and to work on your own personal growth as it relates to issues of control and trust. This seems to be something that does in fact happen in communities over time.
Deep Listening and The Principle of Charity
Intentional communities presuppose that people are seeking a way to life together in a meaningful fashion. In order to do this effectively, many communities embark on a process of learning how to communicate in a more productive fashion with one another. One process that many community members become acquainted with is Nonviolent communications or NVC.
Central to this is the idea that you treat your neighbours with the same level of respect you expect to receive in return. This is easy enough when you are getting along, but becomes more challenging when faced with conflict. In listening to members of Canadian cohousing communities describe the conflicts that were resolved in a satisfactory manner a few patterns emerge.
Firstly, communities disentangle dialogue from decision making. If a proposal is rejected or an idea needs to be worked out, it’s worked out independently from the process of making a decision on that topic. Often this takes the form of community conversations or one-on-one advice seeking. When there is some kind of misunderstanding or a disagreement between parties, many consider that the views of the other party is based in some kind of sound judgement. Now this seems obvious, but it wouldn’t take a long look at modern discourse to see how some people are all too happy to see a disagreement as an opportunity to be proven right, or to call out the errors of another’s thinking. Learning to create a new understanding, in cohousing communities is based in processes that support and encourage meaningful dialogue.
Within this more contentious part of a dialogue, participants seem to consider something called the ‘Principle of Charity.’ This is the notion that when you develop a critical commentary of someone else’s argument, you should criticise the best possible interpretation of that argument, in order to encourage a constructive dialogue. That is, don’t pick at the weakest points of some arguments in the pursuit of a victory, but instead consider the strengths of their ideas in order to create a new understanding. One member put it this way “to have a happy marriage the phrase you have to perfect is… ‘you may be right’ ” this was followed by a knowing chuckle.
This is one of the fundamental distinctions between dialogue and debate. Dialogue is creative. Debate is combative. With this in mind, it becomes obvious how a debate, a fight, is the wrong approach to solving a disagreement among neighbours. Unlike maths, two negatives rarely make anything positive when it comes to human relations. I’ll have more to share on this at a later date.
All interviews conducted by me, Cheryl Gladu