Posted at 16:00 on 9 Nov 2020 by Pandora / Blake
As my patrons know, I've just moved house, and am now living in an amazing community with friends. Forming this community has been a powerful experience. It happened surprisingly quickly, from realising during the March lockdown that none of us wanted to live in isolation again, to moving in together at the end of September. In between were five months of weekly Zoom calls, two in-person socially distanced park meets, and some of the richest group work I've ever done. It's transformed the entire way I think about relating.
Several of us have previous experience of attempting to form a community like this, myself included. It turns out that if you want to make it work, you have to do the work - both within yourself, and with the group. We've taken our learnings from our personal experience, from self-development work and our studies into how to form high-functioning relationships, and evolved an organic process which seems to be working really well for us. It's challenging, but so worth it.
I've identified five key principles which I think are absolutely essential if you want to build trust and connectedness with people, that will withstand all the difficult things that come up in our lives. In this post I'm going to share them with you, and I hope you find them useful.
#1: Slow down
This one was huge for me. I have a tendency to run quite fast: I get very enthusiastic about things, and I can bring a lot of energy to a group. This can be great - it certainly gets stuff done! - but it can also be overwhelming, and mean there isn't space for me to tune in to what's going on for other people. There are times when I need to take a breath and slow down.
Last year I attended one of Betty Martin’s 5-day courses on consent for touch professionals. One huge takeaway from it was that if you want consensual touch, you need to slow down. If your approach is too fast, you don’t give the other person time to listen to their body and discover how they feel about it. It turns out this applies to all other kinds of interaction too.
I've learned how important it is to slow down when I'm talking, and when I'm listening. One practice I've learned which is really powerful is to leave a pauses after someone has spoken, to give yourself time to really absorb what they've said and let it land. It results in more emotionally satisfying interactions where people feel really heard.
Many of the people in our group were new to each other when we started talking in May. Although some of us had goals in mind (like "form a community and move in together"), it was really important that we didn't rush straight into “let’s work out how to achieve this!” right away. We took time to get to know each other, to relax around each other, and to let our mammal brains suss each other out.
You could read this blogpost as a checklist of targets: “if we achieve these goals, we will feel safe”. Although I think all these learnings are important in forming that bond of intentional trust, it was vital that we didn't try to tick them off mechanically. We needed to give ourselves time to hang out and chat with no agenda, time to be how we were in the moment.
We needed to slow down.
#2: Learn to listen
Part of that slowing-down process was learning how to listen to each other. If people don’t feel heard, they don’t feel safe - and in any community, but particularly when we share our home with each other, a sense of safety is absolutely vital. Listening is something of a superpower, something I'm still learning and still struggling with. Often a difficult emotion like anger or frustration can be dissipated simply if it's truly heard.
Giving someone this powerful listening is harder than it sounds. You’ve got to avoid relating what they say to your own experiences, or inserting yourself into their narrative; rather than thinking “oh, this reminds me of when...” you need to open yourself to their experience and simply be with their reality.
This can be especially hard if what they’re describing is their reaction to something you’ve done or said. I'm learning to notice my own discomfort and relax, rather than immediately reacting.
Listen with your full attention, with curiosity, with compassion, and with respect. Don't interrupt, don't jump in, and try to stop yourself from leaping ahead to problem-solving. Just listen and sit with what they're saying.
Intentional listening of this kind is vital for community forming - and it has to be mutual to really work. Some of this stuff is the skills therapists use, but you’re not each other's therapists. Listen to the people in your group, let them feel heard and don’t insert yourself till it’s appropriate to do so. And then when it’s your turn to speak, expect the same consideration from them. You too need to feel truly listened to in this way.
#3: Check in
Making sure we all have chances to check in with each other is something we’ve done from the beginning of this process, and we’re still doing it regularly now that we’ve all settled in. It sounds like such a simple little thing - and it is! - but it’s proved so, so powerful.
We have a weekly Saturday morning meeting, and we set aside a couple of hours for it. Our relationships are one of the most important things in our lives, and they deserve our time. Plus, we love hanging out. We sit down, and then go around the group, taking it in turns to share. Each person speaks for as long as they feel moved to, usually around 5-10 minutes, just about how they are in that moment, what kind of week they've had, and what's looming large in their world. There's no pressure to reveal anything in particular, but when people are totally honest about how they're feeling, the conversation is so much more valuable.
We put all those attentive listening skills into practice, until everyone feels fully heard.
There are different patterns we've tried for when to respond. Sometimes we go around the whole group before anyone responds to anything anyone has said; sometimes we respond to each person before moving onto the next. There are differences with each format. The most important thing is to be honest, brave and kind.
I find that it just diffuses all that worrying we do about our interpersonal relationships. Are people cross with me because I left a load of dirty dishes out the other night? Was someone being off with me this morning, or did I just imagine it? We’re always telling ourselves stories about the people around us - but the truth is that we don’t know what they think until we talk about it.
It can be so reassuring to hear what is actually going on for someone in their words, even when it turns out to be something that’s difficult to hear. Because now you actually know! We're all putting work into owning our shit: recognising when our reaction to something is related to our personal history in some way, and sharing with everyone else what that’s like for us. By owning our feelings and reactions like this, we’re able to give and receive care in a way that is healing rather than hurtful for everyone in the house.
#4: Be vulnerable
How can you build intimacy without being vulnerable?
The first really deep, powerful conversation we had over Zoom was the one in which we shared our vulnerabilities. We’d all gone away and prepared a list: our insecurities, our flaws, our weaknesses, our sore spots, our traumas. We didn't hold back, we put it all out there. Everything we felt vulnerable about. Then we met on Zoom, and shared our lists with each other.
It was so powerful. There was recognition: hearing someone else express deep, painful feelings that I share. Then there was the respect and empathy I felt hearing about experiences I couldn’t imagine going through. Once we knew each other's sensitivities, it became so much easier to understand where each other were coming from, and treat each other with kindness.
It takes immense bravery to be revealed in this way, and I don’t think it's possible without first putting in a lot of honest self-work. This is the easiest step to describe, but it was one of the hardest to do.
#5: Own your power
I thought that sharing my vulnerabilities would be the hardest part of this process, actually, but in the end it wasn’t as difficult as this.
‘Power’ is a scary word. As a culture we’re taught to fear it; we tend to think of having power over someone, rather than having power for something. But it was essential to the health of our emergent community for us to be transparent about our powers, partly as a way of diffusing the potential for anyone to wield power over another without acknowledging they were doing so, and partly because we wanted to use everything we had to help out our group, and that meant recognising our strengths as well as our vulnerabilities.
Our powers are often bound up with privilege: I’m white, middle-class, university educated, a native English speaker. Even something like intelligence has more to do with our upbringing than our genetics. We each thought long and hard about our skills and talents, about what we had to offer to each other.
This kind of sounds like it should have been the fun part but god, it was so hard. To write a list of my strengths and powers, and then read it out to everyone? We’re conditioned to feel guilty about our powers, to hide them, to deny that they exist. Bringing them up out of the shadows was a profound experience.
At the end of that particular conversation, I was deeply struck by the realisation that it couldn’t have taken place between the members of my previous cohabiting community. In that group we were all scared and abashed of our own powers - and in some cases people were using those powers to manipulate and coerce each other. When we hide them away, that's exactly when we abuse them, sometimes without even realising it.
But, to quote Martin Luther King, our powers are how we fulfil purpose and effect change. There's nothing inherently wrong with having power, even power that others don't share. The key is to acknowledge it, own it, and offer it in service to the group, to ensure that everyone else benefits from it as well.
So there it is: a glimpse into our process. This isn't "five easy hacks to form a functional community". There's a lot more about shared values, communication styles and our relationships with ourselves which I haven't gone into here. But these are the major takeaways for me the incredible work we’ve put in over the past months. Using these ideas we’ve brought ourselves from a disparate group of individuals to a bonded community, sharing our lives in a way I’m already finding to be transformative.
This is still a work in progress for us, and I'm always interested in learning more. How have you gone about building trust in new relationships, what works well, and what doesn't? Share your thoughts in the comments!
This post was funded by my patrons. To power my activism and my writing on sexual freedom and social justice, join my Patreon community here