Emotional Ecology

You are the commune’s buddy. As such, it is important that you poke around and check in and get a sense of the internal dynamics within the commune, and that you play a role in maintaining a stable, compassionate, supportive and generous emotional space within it. I have kept my ear to the pavement and the floorboards, seeking out rumors, raised voices, complaints, excitements, aspirations. I try to check in with people randomly, to get a sense of their wants, wishes, grievances, resentments and tribulations. I try to get a sense of what everyone’s struggles are, and how these interact throughout the community.

Assigning Buddies: At any given moment, there are going to be tensions, crushes, disappointments, frustrations and strong affinities in a communal household. You should make it your goal to understand what these are, and to be sensitive of these as you advise, push, arrange and soothe. Especially when assigning buddies, I try to consider these dynamics. Sometimes there are links in the circular buddy chain that are more or less involved/helpful. It may be tempting to assign the less involved people as the buddies of people that we perceive as being stable and/or strong. I try not to assume who will need emotional support.

Soothing vs. Escalating: You should do your best to ease and soothe tensions until they become systemic and/or untenable. Sometimes, individuals will have issues with other individuals, often for good reason. I have repeatedly encountered this situation, and in these moments, I have had to ask: what are the costs, benefits and risks in this situation? What is the basic disagreement? Is there a clear antagonist? What is motivating each party in this fallout? Often, clarifying motivations is extremely helpful in understanding a complicated dynamic. Sometimes, it is politically infeasible to address a fallout or tension in the way that would satisfy others or even yourself. If a person has strong bonds with most people in the house, but one or several people are at the end of their tether with them, it is unlikely that you will be able to mobilize the house to push for asking them to leave, unless they have engaged in an act of violence or repeated reports to the CoCC, both of which automatically trigger a re-evaluation of their residency. In those cases where these processes have not been triggered by unequivocally unacceptable behavior, you need to determine whether it is desirable or feasible (concerning costs, benefits and risk) to push for asking them to leave. If this seems too costly, or too risky (and assuming that the person in question is not causing too much ongoing unavoidable harm), then you should view your role as one of soothing and reconciliation. This will often be unpopular with the people who are hurt by the situation, but it is important to push for unity and healing until other possibilities become available. You yourself may disagree with that outcome, but sometimes it is important to soothe the chaos, even if there are clear problems. That being said, it is important that there be processes in place for addressing and healing the source of conflict. An individual’s failure to comply with that process can become the basis for future accountability processes. Sometimes, you must make yourself temporarily unpopular, and say hard things about people, about processes, about practices, and about dynamics. It is good to flag these in the right contexts, and in ways that might lead to resolution. Sometimes, in a discussion channel or a house meeting, I have had to call out a specific decision or process that I see causing friction, or, more discreetly, I have had to critique individuals for neglecting particular roles, responsibilities and/or tasks—something that feels difficult, but is important for maintaining stability and accountability.

Tactics for Soothing:

Firewalling: sometimes there are people who are struggling with each other; sometimes a person or persons are struggling with a process or a role. I try to propose maintaining space between those struggling and the people/processes with which they are struggling.

Communication: Many things can be resolved through processing together. I try to bring common interests and visions and goals into the conversation. Space (Lack of Communication): Sometimes communication doesn’t help, and space should be taken.

Assessing Conflict: Emotional ecology is not a neutral process, but it can be fair. In every situation, I try to consider the costs, benefits and risks of various resolution paths, and the motivation profiles of those involved. Often, it is unclear whether one party or another it right, or whether one perspective is more true than another. Truth is not a good metric; consistency with overarching and shared goals and narratives and norms is a better metric.

Assessing Motivations:

Getting a sense of people’s motivations is extremely helpful for an emotional ecologist. Ideally, you can keep track of the motivational profile of each and every resident, and even for the applicants who apply to live here. In each case, I ask myself how these match up with the norms/values/shared agreements of the community. I have to ask myself: how do each party’s motivations aggregate into a social whole? Is this person motivated by social good? Altruism? Hedonism? Insecurity? Are they just out for themselves? Such an awareness becomes indispensable in the resolution of conflicts, when these motivational structures sometimes clash with one another. In assessing the motivations involved in various frictions, I have noticed some general ‘profiles’ that can each create problems:

  • The Out For Themselves (OFT): The OFT motivational structure is perhaps the issue that is the most OFTen destructive. OFT is motivational sociopathy, and really doesn’t belong in intentional communities. OFT does not necessarily mean cold; a person who is out for themselves may be quite warm, complimenting, and even extremely emotional, but this does not mean that they are motivated by altruistic ends. This can be a very difficult thing to detect, but it should always be looked out for.

  • Insecurity-based motivation: insecure people can be erratic and unkind, and this can be very divisive in a community.

  • High-expectation contributor: the high-expectation contributor is someone who gives a lot to the project(s) and feels disappointed and/or frustrated by others’ perceived lack of effort. This, in my experience, is much easier to resolve than OFT scenarios, because contributors tend to be motivated by altruistic ends.

  • Guilt: we have encountered people feeling guilty or ashamed for one reason or another: they feel bad for not holding up their financial responsibilities; they are overworked and cannot contribute the way they would like to; they are disabled or incapacitated in some way, etc. This can become expressed as frustration, irritability and/or other unhelpful emotions. It is worth being aware that these can be secondary to feelings of guilt underneath.

Assessing cost, benefit, and risk:

In determining a resolution path, I try to consider what the costs of doing so might be, and what the costs of not doing so might be. I then try to consider what the benefits of doing so/ not doing so might be. Finally, I try to imagine what as-of-yet unforeseen risks might be associated with the various resolution paths. These considerations, alongside the judgement of motivational profiles involved, should ideally lead to some idea of how to address the situation at hand.

Red Flags and Bogus Defenses: It is important to always be looking for red flags in people’s behavior and treatment of their fellows. This shouldn't necessarily condemn them in your mind, but it is useful to build and test cases as you navigate tricky situations. For me, one of the most important times to do this is in situations in which one housemate informs another housemate that they feel harmed or hurt by them. What I look for are what we might call ‘bogus defenses,’ and/or a plurality of defenses, the latter of which, in my experience, testifies to a serious problem. Often, people who are seasoned/experienced in being confronted for behaviors that they do not reform will deploy multiple lines of defense simultaneously (i.e. ‘I didn’t do what you are saying I did, and even if I did, it’s not a big deal, and isn’t it more important to talk about the process and the people accusing me?’), which can be a giveaway of bad faith/manipulation. There are also certain specific defenses that it is worthwhile to be aware of, since these divert the issue and are designed to dodge responsibility:

The Filibuster—dragging out a resolution process in order to avoid an unwanted outcome Hairsplitting—arguing over definitions and understandings

Postmodern Subjectivism—arguing that everything is subjective and questioning objective reality as a defense for poor behavior. Attacking the Process—shifting the conversation from one’s behavior to the process by which their behavior has been criticized, brought up, or addressed.

Table-Turning—attacking the integrity, credibility and/or behavior of the accusers as a way of dodging responsibility Hypersensitivity—being so emotional and/or stressed out that it appears to be unfair to ‘even be talking about this right now.’

Lip-Service—the use of a sincere tone or sincere words with no material follow-through or change.

There are definitely more, but these are some of the most important and common ‘bogus defenses’ that one will come across in accountability processes. It is extremely important not to let these thwart accountability.

Processes that lead to asking someone to leave:

Because serious violations have serious consequences, but rarely for every resident, we have come up with a few processes that lead to asking a person to leave by default. These are extremely important, because they shift the burden of this off of the hurt people. In nearly every such difficult situation, there will be people who feel adamant that the person in question not be asked to leave, but, more often than not, the people taking such a position are either uninvolved in/unaffected by the difficult situation, and/or have a personal emotional investment in themselves an anti-punitive or pacifist. While these positions are certainly understandable, they often neglect the harm being caused by problematic situations—harm that disproportionally falls on specific people. Our processes that lead to residency re-evaluation shift the burden off of the harmed people, and out of the hands of the naïve pacifists. Depending on the politics and history of the house at that moment, I typically always default to supporting removal in these situations.

Adversarialism: Be aware that you avoid escalating adversarialism, especially when the person involved has avenues for recourse and/or retaliation that you do not have a secure defense against. This is especially important with respect to tenancy situations, in which we are at a legal disadvantage against disgruntled and adversarial parties.

Searching for new avenues of support: You may, at times, notice that a particular kind of need is arising that may need a certain kind of support. I, for example, have noticed a repeated need for support for parents, and a repeated need for a space to air out feelings and to process grief, and a support/accountability process for people struggling with addiction. At each of these junctures, I launched an initiative to support these particular needs, with the Bay Area Co-Parenting Network, the Support Circle, and the Recovery Squad, respectively. You should always be on the lookout for new opportunities to sow mutual aid and communal support structures/organizations/genres.

Pay attention to tensions Pay attention to crushes Pay attention to roommates Pay attention to interests and motivations