How to share care in a living community

I live in a eco-cohousing community of 40 homes, and over 60 adults. we have smallish separate PassivHaus homes; car sharing; a “Common House” where people cook and eat together; shared community tasks; and organisation and governance by consensus. It’s quite large as cohousing goes, and while several values are common, there is also much diversity. Some minority groups find a home here: in our case, including vegans. We try to be inter-generational, though there are more older people than younger. That’s partly due to economic factors.

It is a surprisingly complex little society, and any group like this has its own life, its own character, which would take a long time to describe. For Opencare, I’d like to focus just on one of the challenges that I see here: how we engage with our own and each other’s well-being. We have at present no special provision for caring for each other: it happens in some ways at some times, informally.

Sharing some non-mainstream values, and a vision that is not yet shared by the majority of people, there seems to be some kind of assumption that we will provide a safe space for “people like us”, a haven from the strain of being minorities who are disregarded, or even criticised, elsewhere. This need for a sense of psychological safety does appear in various ways, sometimes surprisingly. This is often hidden in the rest of society. Otherwise, our needs are probably similar to most people’s.

We do have methods for dealing with conflict, but the challenge seems to be to get people to engage with them. Recently, a small group of members underwent training in Restorative Circles []. If we all understood and participated in this, it might help deal with issues that have surfaced. Relatedly, several members have developed, to differing degrees, along the path of Nonviolent Communication []. If we all interacted with each other following NVC principles, maybe that would be a highly positive influence on our community culture, and the well-being of all of us. But how does one persuade a diverse group of people with different backgrounds and histories to engage in one practice like NVC? What about other practices, like co-counselling?

This brings me to outlining the challenges that I, personally, see for our cohousing group. How do we collectively approach the issue of mental and spiritual well-being, with little common ground to start with? How can we then grow (in) a culture that effectively supports the well-being of individuals, and of the group as a whole? How can we be sure that an individual will receive the care that they need? Can we rely on informal relationships, or should we organise this in some way? Part of our well-being is the sharing of common purpose: how can we frame and agree our common purposes, from members whose values diverge? Are we fixed with the vision of the founders, or can we (and do we want to) move on?

These are hard questions to answer, but I have the sense that we will need to answer them more and more, if we are to develop the resilience that we will need as mainstream politics and economics unravel. We need now to care for each other’s resources of time, energy and good will, and as we age, we will increasingly need to look after our health and strength if we are to achieve what we want to achieve, being a positive transformative influence in the world.

Some thoughts :slight_smile:

Hello @asimong,

The issues you’re facing in your cohousing community actually sound a lot like the type we face in my university, especially how to align views on wellbeing when everyone comes from varied backgrounds, with sometimes completely divergent perspectives.

One thing we’ve taken to doing, in order to give a space for the range of views and thoughts on these topics is we hold semesterly fishbowl discussions. Possibly your community could benefit from adopting this format as one of its methods for exploring issues that arise.

Another point I wanted to touch on, is when you discussed wellbeing you asked if you could depend on informal relationships alone. I think it’s important that individuals have access to professional care if/when they need it, but that doesn’t diminish the role that informal relationships play in getting people to help and supporting them in their struggles. Along those lines, I think you might be interested in looking into bystander training, where members of your community who are interested can learn how to best support people, and connect them to the care they need. I’m not sure where you’re based, but one I can recommend is Mental Health First Aid, which is offered (often for free) in a number of countries.

Hope some of this is useful! I would also love to hear more about how these issues are already being addressed within your community.

And some other thoughts

First let me say that I was so fascinated by your cohousing community I spent the past hour reading many of the documents and web pages.  Much admiration to all of you.  I would come by for a look but I’m in California.  Maybe sometime soon…

Your Articles of Association and other agreements to which one signs when joining are generally material in nature.  There is a document about shared values, of which the formal ones are ecological values.  But it also says “we would like our community to be built on trust, respect, friendship and understanding.” But those four are not part of the formal agreement from what I could see.

Those four are daunting to put into an agreement to say the least.  And maybe the group or the founders don’t want such things to be formalised not because it is hard, but because it is better to not get formal with them.

But the process for joining involves a lot of face time with community members over a number of visits and meetings.  I assume that when it comes to a vote  for admitting someone, most everyone considers the whole person and whether or not they will be good cohousing companions.

But disagreements happen.  Things go unsaid and build up.  So what then?

My experience in community is different from yours in that I lived for a number of years in a total collective that described itself as a “spiritual community.”  It was based around a charismatic leader/teacher who did in fact have quite a lot of say in just about whatever he wanted - which was a lot.  Still, we were a large group (we started at about 200 and grew over the course of 8-9 years to about 1500) and since we shared everything it was a matter of survival that at the household, work crew and personal level we have a day-to-day way of resolving conflicts.

I need to say at this point that we could not sustain ourselves as a collective (for a variety of reasons I won’t go into here).  After 12 years we “fired” the guru and changed into a cooperative that exists to this day, though most of us are not formal members.   But we did get good enough at the process of bonding that included intense “working it out” that our tribe outlasted the structure.  And the tribe that lives somewhere else (concentrations in northern California where we started, Austin TX and around NYC) outnumbers those who remain on the land in Tennessee.  But the tribe itself is strong and real among us in a way that has not diminished regardless of where we live.

We live all over now but the deep bonds didn’t diminish.  They were built day by day, hour by hour living and depending on each other.

We never got very formal about codifying how people get along except we did follow some simple age-old practices.

The basic thing we started with was an allegiance to the truth.  Not in a religious sense per se (as in “I am the Truth, the Way, etc”), but just that every person was going to try to be as truthful as possible with themselves and everyone around them.

Next, compassion.  People who live together, and don’t want to be a bunch of robots, need to find ways of being ok with each other’s ways of being. As it said in a recent artticle about why Findhorn has lasted so long one guy said, “everyone is willing to look at their stuff.”

And, we agreed that the vibes matter.  Not that everyone is going to be fake nice all the time, but that human consideration very much includes the vibrational space between people and is thus open to discussion as much as any material item.

A group may agree (tacitly or by not adhering to anything that isn’t in a written agreement) or, a group may just settle over time, into a state of not pointing out when someone bothers you, or you can see that the other person is playing some sort of game or being manipulative, or being afraid to say something, or just not having the energy for it, then resentments build up.  At a group level it can get factional.  Let it go too far and it wrecks the social bonds.

One problem with individuals and groups is not knowing what is, and is not, ok to talk about. In our community we went the route that there is nothing one cannot bring up.  High risk for sure.  Thus we got a lot of practice doing this with many screwups and many satisfying sessions.

In deciding whether or not to say something inconvenient to someone, we thought it best to start by considering, is it helpful?  Is it kind?  How much of my impression is really coming from the other person and not from my reaction to it?  The last one is important because in an honest discussion one’s motives for bringing something up very often get questioned, like it or not.

If we couldn’t come to terms, or a good feeling, we agreed that any one of us would act as a fairwitness to try to arrive at a place where everyone feels good and right and it’s fine to move on.

And if that didn’t work we would expand the circle.  Since we lived close together that often happened organically.  Without having any statistics, I think we did resolve huge numbers of disagreements.

I guess because we called ourselves a “spritual community” that embraced a very eclectic mix of sources (we were hippies after all), we would often advocate for our various points of view using tenets of other religious and spiritual practices as references.

One of them was the Buddhst idea of not getting caught up in “praise and blame.”  This translated for us that in giving and receiving feedback, we should stay mindful to not give or take either praise or blame.  When delivered with compassion then, it mitigates the perennial problem of somene feeling attacked and then defensive on one side and on the other the person giving the feedback delivering it with aggression as if to say “I blame you for this problem.”  (Or infinate variations of these and more.) It is hard to both give and receive feedback, so there can never be too much empathy.

I hope this doesn’t sound too patronising.  It looks to me from the pictures of the members that your community is loaded with great people who surely have great understanding of how to get along.

I guess this was my long-winded way of saying that if nothing is formal as to how one is to behave with others and how people are to deal with certain relationship problems, much can be achieved if there is a general consensus that it’s ok to say things to each other about the more subtle mental and “vibratory” aspects of living together and that it will get a fair hearing and be delivered with kindness, even if one is annoyed.

One thing I do know about why one should not avoid conflict if something needs to be talked over, is that relationships with any history of resolving conflict are stronger because built into the bond is the knowledge that you can resolve something because you actually did it.

Thoughts filled with experience and wisdom

Thank you, John @johncoate for this reply which makes great sense to me, and reading of your experience brings me more insight.


Learning from Enspiral, Loomio and in betweens

I really like what these guys are doing, althouhg I dont know them personally nor have I been in touch with their work too much. But I do read.

To skip to your interests @asimong , they are very rigorous in governance, and have a system where each person in the organisation has a steward who is sort of in charge of their wellbeing: they call it the stewarding circle.

Also about wellbeing, this ties nicely to what @johncoate wrote above: need for codification (via allegiances, settling rituals/practices, social contract, decision making model or what you want to call it…):

there is no such thing as a perfectly inclusive space. If you try to include everyone, you’ll include people whose behaviour excludes others. Community is defined by its boundaries, so the question becomes, where do we want to draw our boundaries? What behaviours do we want to include? If someone is getting close to a border, how do we want to treat them? (source)

Slight differences between living and working

Thanks, @Noemi I’m in a similar position having read some things about Enspiral etc. but not had any direct contact.

One thing I will say, though, is that the emotional safety side of relationships struck me with particular force in the cohousing situation. At work, “it’s just a job” - well, OK, some jobs have great personal importance, but as a rule one walks away every evening and weekend. In a cohousing (or other living) community, there is nowhere to walk away to. This seems to me to bring an extra level of emotional relevance.

Even in my extra limited experience, I completely agree

Just tonight we were talking about this aspect with @Matthias and @Alberto as we are in the process of designing The Reef in Brussels - we are not set on Brussels 100% as 2017-2018 is a prototype and already we are looking for a more convenient space. As we we brought up Sicily (Italy), or Calafou (Spain) against Brussels, “having nowhere to go to” makes a difference, in our case should residents decide to move out because the setup doesnt work for them personally.

Ours is a rental situation, for now. I’m thinking even when you acquire property and co-own it in some way, there needs to be a provision for getting out. Yes, it’s costly, but then most personal relationships or life problems are, when they hit a wall no?

getting out and staying in

replying to you, @Noemi , I agree it is very valuable for people to have open options for moving on – from relationships as well as living communities. On the other hand, I value genuine heartfelt commitment, where you commit to staying (unless there is unavoidable danger or intolerable hardship in staying). As we become more economically interdependent (as I think we will be as our current economy unravels) we need to recognise as well that moving out is really hard to arrange sometimes. As it was in the old days for women in marriage. I’m not saying go back there, I am saying let’s all work hard on doing the work of growth and development in ourselves and in relationship, so that there is (nearly) always a viable option for staying, supporting commitment. I happen to believe that this kind of commitment is also very good in the long term for our spiritual growth.

I hope this makes sense of the importance I put on the living community, compared with the working community. We have got used to the idea that employment comes and goes. I would say, let’s not get used to the idea that relationships and communities come and go, but instead that we all grow within them, and we find ways of strongly supporting other people growing as well. Hopefully, I look forward to this leading to stronger and more stable working relations as well, so that we can then have more long-term work stability. Not being stuck in the same work roles, of course: here too, we need to be growing and developing, and calling for more fulfillment in our working lives as well as our personal lives.

care in practice?

Hi @asimong, super interesting reading about your cohousing community and the strategies you’re exploring in seeking ways to care for each other’s well being. I’m really curious to know more about your expereince with restorative circles and if the members who were trained have begun leading them. This is a model we’ve been looking at for our group. Our collective mental health, especially in the last year, has become a major challenge and focus for us. We are not in a co housing situation now, but we try to share as much of our life and resources we can while living in a neighborhood together in NYC. Would love to hear any of your experiences or strategies for dealing with conflict, care for each others emotional, mental and spiritual well being.

Why a challenge?

Hello @Woodbinehealth , thanks for sharing your thoughts. Can I ask you in what sense your collective mental health has become a major challenge and focus? You wrongfooted me there, I thought your group was about physical and preventative health (though physical and mental are obviously connected).

And @asimong : fantastic story, and very good reflections there. Thanks so much. Yes, we are all juggling commitment and freedom, stability and excitement… it’s fundamental, I’m afraid. And not just in communal living, but also in traditional marriage and families, as you say. I liked this:

let’s all work hard on doing the work of growth and development in ourselves and in relationship, so that there is (nearly) always a viable option for staying, supporting commitment.

Amen to that.

Restorative Circles

Hi @Woodbinehealth – yes, a few of us (though not including myself) have done some basic training in Restorative Circles. I was a participant in one of the first, and i found it highly valid, appropriate and powerful. Another one is coming up, but it’s slow progress, as we can’t (and wouldn’t want to) force people into addressing their conflicts through RC. One of our issues is that there is already quite a bit of stored up ill feeling – resentment even – between some groups of people with conflicting views or needs. Hopefully RC should lead to rebuilding trust, but that cannot be more than a hope at this stage. I have also personally been involved in informal mediation between different parties in drawing up a food policy for our shared spaces that respects both vegans (some of whom are highly sensitive to the presence of meat and fish in their eating space) and others who feel they need non-vegetarian food for their health and well-being. I don’t know if this will come to a Circle sometime. It might.

Holistic health

@alberto, thanks for the comments.  While our resource center does focus on preventative health, one thing that has come to light in the last year is the paramount need for community mental health.  At this point in NYC, there is still infrastructure for primary care and physical care within institutions.  In addition, the regulatory and renting environment in NYC does not allow us to easily expand to include more “primary care” functions.  But in addition, as we think about this idea of health autonomy, we are striving not to just replicate the old instutions but to transform the way we think about health.  In that vein, we need to rebuild the idea of community and shared mental health as models to overcome the capitalist imposed isolationism that is so great here.  We are thinking of treating acute mental health episodes, but to form the foundation for “preventative” communal mental health.

Someone who knows about what could work at the group level…

…is @alan who wrote a heartbreaking and heartwarming post (few people pull this off…) on Losing Hope and Gaining Hope. As someone who was in need of care, he is now doing advocacy work for mental health - and this works at the palliative level too, it reads very empowering. So encouraging.

Greatest potential gains?

What I’m reading is: you think mental health care is the low hanging fruit of preventative health care. Is this correct?

I would have imagined that the low hanging fruit would be lifestyle stuff: healthy eating, exercising etc. Communities are good at this stuff, because each person helps nudging the others. Can I ask you how the focus on mental came about? Who proposed it, what was the story, what specific problem are you trying to solve?

Great thread… and inspiring mental health empowerment models

Hi @asimong, I’m just catching up on this thread. Many relevant themes. We’ve tried a bit of restorative circles too - though the people we work with nicknamed it ‘Conflict Kitchen’ because of the way the guy who introduced it to us described it - in that conflict is natural we just need somewhere to go with it - just as eating is natural and we go to the kitchen when we want to prepare food. We’re still figuring out how to bed it in. I’ve also worked a bit with NVC and follow Miki Kashtan’s work most. I think the question you highlight in relation to Opencare is very pertinent - “how we engage with our own and each other’s well-being”. I’m also wondering if you’re already tuned in to Laloux’s Reinventing Organisations - the passages on wholeness practices seem particularly relevant to what you mention about growing a culture that supports collective & mutual wellbeing.

Thanks @Noemi for the link to the Enspiral Stewarding Circle - it looks like it’ll shed light on something we’ve been wrestling in to reality for a while - we’ve been envisioning it as a ‘network of fives’ like a beehive. The question we’ve been aware of is how to create enough framework around peer-to-peer care without overformalising it and so it’s interesting that others have been working with this balance too.

Mental health is an ongoing focus within our working community too. @Woodbinehealth - I’m guessing you’ve come across the Icarus Project - I love their work and came across it when issues around how we define mental health became overwhelmingly real for my family. I love the way they frame their work as “by and for people who experience the world in ways that are often diagnosed as mental illness”. I feel that this way of describing what we all experience at times when our mental health is stretched creates enough space so that people are not defined by their diagnosis.

Its contributed to my ongoing reflections on an organisation’s mental health. I wonder if this is what you refer to when you say “collective mental health”? I’ve noticed that the organisation’s mental health seems unwell when there is too great a distance between various peoples perceptions of the organisations reality and its relationship to the world. It feels too big a gap and too likely to contribute to mutliple organisational personalities that can often be at odds with each other. We’ve recently concluded a year long collaborative process that has generated really embedded alignment in core things like values, the assumptions and context we’re responding to. The mental health of the organisation is noticeably improved.

I hope that these conversations will continue up to and during the event in October. Much to glean…

Laloux, NVC and organisations

Hi @Gehan, thanks for mentioning Laloux. Yes, many people into NVC seem also to value his perspective, particularly those who are interested in bringing NVC-type techniques into the workplace. My partner is looking at this area, and is also impressed by Miki Kashtan – not read by me yet though! She is pursuing certified NVC practitioner status, and is now well connected with the NVC scene in the UK. She is one of the ones who did the RC training and helps host Circles here.

Your work with organisations looks really interesting, and I’d like to learn more. Yes, there is plenty of overlap with the collective or organisational mental health of any group of people in regular interaction. The quality of that interaction is highly significant. And there are skills there to be learned and practiced – that’s part of my understanding of the basic approach of NVC.

Maybe there are several potential sources of cognitive (or affective?) dissonance, in 1-1 relationships as well as in groups, and again it could be seen as a branch of communication skills to address that dissonance and foster harmony (one of my favourite words :wink: ). What I don’t know enough about is how to help people (including myself) see the distorted views of themselves which contribute to dissonances in others as well as themselves. 1-1 interactions can so easily stall. Anyway I see these issues as highly relevant to the range of wellbeing and care issues that we are all investigating and may be living through as well.

How to release our collective latent wisdom?

This question came back to me today in the context of recognising that many of us (everywhere) have well-being challenges, for example in our personal relationships. Particularly in a community like ours, there is also a great wealth of experience, much of which has already been distilled into wisdom. If we were able to access this wisdom, many would be helped along our ways.

It’s a two-way process, of course. On some occasions we could greatly benefit from the experience and wisdom of others, and on other occasions they might benefit from ours.

And it’s more than two-way. One person’s wisdom is often shallow, constrained by the very life experience from which the wisdom comes. If we are lucky – for instance if that other person is a skilled therapist – they may be very helpful. But in a peer-to-peer world, it seems better to rely on plurality. The more people whose wisdom we have access to, the more likely it is that one of them will be able to “speak to our condition”.

So what’s the essence of the issue here? To me, there seem to be social and cultural barriers preventing the full realisation of this passing on of the wisdom of experience. But also there are time constraints. Maybe one challenge could be to find ways of finding people who have more to offer us; or conversely, finding people who we are more likely to be able to help effectively.

It’s a puzzle, and I would be delighted to read the reflections of others about this puzzle, or even suggestions from your experience, or collective wisdom, on how to address the issues.

Network based organisations - where I find it hard

You ask about the social and cultural barriers to these useful exchanges… I see the noise brought about by the digitalization as a source of considerable stress, and working in/with groups whose added value is precisely generating knowledge out of that and release it back into.

For Yannick, the problem is the lack of real collaboration. In the social entrepreneurial scene in particular, he sees more competition than collaboration - he says the collaboration culture means seeing information as a ship which needs to arrive in the harbour (‘Culture de la collaboration’ est de voir l’information comme un bateau qui doit arriver à bon port).

I cant speak of living together, but I can speak of working together. Maybe some things fit, I dont know.

For me, our ability to navigate the network and filter knowledge in and out has to do with how agile our organisations are - on one hand, we prize flexibility and autonomy, and the ability to shift roles and dynamics (a telling example: @johncoate spoke about the merits of interchanging roles - from being managed to being a manager in different projects with the same people). I see people prizing generalists more than specialists. But on the other side, I find it problematic that there’s a shortage of specialists or people hanging in to perform deeper execution tasks.

We are all leading something or working for something bigger, but we need to find the time to be just cogs in a machine, which i think we are anyway… and that for me is of essence.

Otherwise the risk not systematically capture the “wisdom of experience” because it becomes diluted in the many experiements and people we work with, who come in and out of contact with us.

To your comment above @asimong, what is a good example of dissonance in communication?

I have many in our working relationships, but it has to do - at least in my mind - with exceptional professionalism. Which means there are always ways to improve oneself, which makes one forgiving of the situation. Not sure if the diplomatic, soft way is the best to go when damage is produced.

Dissonance in communication

Thanks for the request for an example, @Noemi

Thinking about it helps me recognise how hard it is to describe such dissonances well. When I start to think about the dissonances between my own thinking / feeling / being and that of others around me, I feel quickly drawn in to defensive justification of my own position, which makes describing the other points of view more difficult to do in any kind of fair way. I try to maintain my own inner harmony by muting the dissonant voices; by invalidating them in my own mind. Alternatively, and sadly, we simply stop resonating with our own truth, and let it be silenced — drowned out — by the prevailing hymns. To hold dissonance in one’s mind is hard.

I will try to reflect on why it is so hard, and to dredge up some examples.

Am I the problem or are you the problem?

Or rather is it that no problem between people is 100% just one person.  Except sometimes it is.  That’s why this stuff is hard work.  In another discussion with a bunch of my old Farm friends we were talking about the things we value from our experiences together and many said something along the lines of “living simply.”  On the land, not much money, making as much of stuff as you can.  Simple living.  But socially it wasn’t simple at all!