The Paradox of Intentional Community, creative way to resolve this

Bruce Dickson
7 min readMar 25, 2019

Note ~ This is revised from a letter to Sky Blue, Director of the Federation of Intentional Communities, I heard speak last Friday night.

I was somewhat surprised how closely your view of the state of USA ICs matched mine.

After a good experience with group living situations, in 1978-1995s, I probably had the Holy Man’s Disease. I believed what most strengthened ICs was an explicit platform plank of ecumenical spirituality, supporting values of tolerance and diversity.

In the 2000s my idea of what most strengthens ICs matured into a more subtle insight.

What ICs lack — what most every progressive, eco, Green group has lacked since 1972 — is adequate and sufficient attention to is attention to and application of Best Practices in Group Process. Within this field are the keys for initiating and sustaining local weekly and monthly groups of Cultural Creatives, your ideal candidate for what green, eco, progressive topic your org promotes.

“Group process” will be too vague for many people who are outside of therapy and counseling circles. A more precise terms exists, even better than “emotional intelligence” or “EQ.” This phrase is “interpersonal competency.”

We can be even more precise: explicit methods and training in interpersonal competency.

Now we’re talking about something useful for the Me Too women and virtually anyone wishing to congregate Cultural Creatives around progressive topics and causes.

Two classic examples of failure to employ Best Practices in Group Process occurred in recent memory: the Obama ’08 campaign and Bernie 2016 campaign. Neither invested in creating on-going, sustainable, weekly, monthly local groups. The campaigns were all about “the horse race” and only about the horse race. After the race — poof.

I believe every failing-ageing progressive group and intentional community has this same problem: inadequate and insufficient attention to; and explicit use of, Best Practices in group process.

To return to ecumenical spirituality as a strengthener for ICs, I now believe Best Practices in group process are the necessary pre-condition for success in ecumenical spirituality. You build more live, heartfelt interactions between people on the foundation of improving their interpersonal competency. For all progressive orgs.

If you see a flaw in this argument, please comment below.

The BIG PARADOX of intentional communities

In my experience, the above explains the Big Paradox of ICs: Why is it ICs, the most exciting potential for the coming next civilization, are graying, aren’t exciting, can be stuck in boring business and committee meetings, and attract few younger participants?

This general paradox of ICs can be stated more precisely:
Isn’t it odd ICs, the most explicit human efforts at conscious cooperation and collaboration, are ignorant of, oblivious to, Best Practice in group process, a field and a literature which matured in the 1990s?

Q: Why isn’t this field and its literature better known among progressive leaders?
A: Two answers to this, a short and a longer one.

Short answer: The wisdoms of Best Practices in Group Process in the 1990s were absorbed by only those actively training small and large groups of people. This included some middle, school high school and college faculty but only 10% or fewer.

Longer Answer: In MBTI our dominant personality can be characterized as male, Thinking-dominant and Sensory-dominant. The dysfunction at the heart of this personality type is at the heart of the gradual, now very accelerated, collapse of male-leadership everywhere in the mainstream, which began in the 1970s. The Powell Memorandum is a useful reference point. As you can see many new topics and questions can branch off from this paragraph.

Only two scenarios for the next ten years of ICs

I see only two possible futures for ICs going forward.
SCENARIO 1) FIC and do catch on and make Best Practices in Group Process, a centerpiece of rhetoric, training, consulting and large, live public events. This itself will take several years.

Doing so will attract young people, more mainstream people, media attention, and all people looking for alternatives to the dying culture decaying behind us.

A beneficial side-effect is, solving the problem of dying churches, synagogues, etc and woefully under-used public meeting spaces such as libraries.

SCENARIO 2) FIC and continue to view themselves, and frame their purpose, in terms of the 1970–1980s, continue with head-on-a-stick practices in group process (talks, lectures, discussion groups, panels, and rely on text formats).

Progress on ICs and Land Trusts will continue at a snail’s pace and be viewed as boutique technocratic solutions for a highly educated few, not widely applicable to diverse situations and populations.

The consequence of this will be continued public perception of ICs as part of our past — not part of our future.

How are positive futures created?

The above asks the questions: How are more positive future created? What focus gives us the best fulcrum to create new culture between now and 2025?
A similar question was asked by Professor Carroll Quigley in his text, Evolution of Civilizations (1973). I recommend it.

More immediately relevant to this discussion is asking, “When has a newer, positive mainstream culture replaced an older, exhausted mainstream culture?”

This has only happened a handful of times within historical memory.
My guess is, like most readers, the only example of large-scale cultural renewal I’m at all familiar with, is the changeover from the Ancient Pagan-Greek-Roman world of slavery to the early Christian monasteries and early church. I did not gain the wisdom of this from history books. Rather I absorbed the insightful wisdoms of how and why this change was promulgated from a biography of St. Patrick. He lived 500 AD in Roman Britain.

The early church demonstrated new ways people could connect and informally and live together that were more attractive and needs-satisfying than slavery.

At the grassroots level, the early church was NOT promoted by educated, intellectual Greeks. Rather the Good News was promoted at the grass roots level by slaves and former slaves. The group process of brotherly and sisterly love, offered in early Christian fellowships, was a social contract much improved over slavery. Compassion and forgiveness added to the wonderful possibility people could begin to care for each other.

Compared to slavery this new group process was a revelation, was Good News.

After the fall of Rome, cities were in decline. The positive transformation monastic learning, rural culture and agriculture around missions had on the post-slavery world was NOT a result of Bible stories or explanations about Christ. The cultural renewal (keeping the light of culture alive during the Dark Ages) had to do with Christian rhetoric, philosophy and sermons only for Christian leaders and academics.

For the people, at the grassroots, the early Christian Church attracted adherents because lay persons saw love, compassion and fellowship demonstrated, in action.

In the post-2008 world, as long as the group process practices of FIC and continue to resonate-resemble group process of the 1970s-1980s, lay persons will continue with their “been there done that” impression of ICs.

Only if healthier Best Practices in Group Process can be made the centrepiece of how FIC and put themselves forward publicly, will the mainstream public take note and become curious.

The ball to keep you eye on? How is group process evolving? Towards what? How fast?

Note ~ My brief comments on Sociocracy-Holocracy are appended at the end.

If the above remains abstract — not much changes. In the last 13 years, I have done what I can to compose live event scripts others can use in their communities to experience and expand Best Practice in Group Processes.

From my experience and from the 30–50 scripts and fragments I have, I wrote and self-published two books:

OLD TITLE: Group Process as an Art-Form: Best Practices for Facilitating HEARTFELT Live, Group Events, Large and Small

NEW TITLE: Heartfelt Facilitator Handbook, ow to Produce & Facilitate Live Event Group Processes
How to Re-Invent Face-to-Face Culture;
Put Group Process at the Center of Organizational Development
Team Human Group Leader Handbook

Second book: Milling and Dyad Exercises to Enliven Group Process; Questions for Learning Conversations
Group Process as an Art-form Series; Putting group process at the center of thriving, Progressive orgs
Creating Social Glue As an Art-form

Interested readers can request gift digital copies from me.
Your comments and conversation on this are welcome.

Briefly: What about Sociocracy-Holocracy?

The Good News ~ Sociocracy-Holocracy are definitely progressive innovations in group process. Where implemented fully with leadership muscle, these practices can and will upgrade communication, trust and productivity.

Diana Leafe Christian is a wonderful spokesperson-trainer on these.
However ~ Do Sociocracy-Holocracy change-alter local group process SUFFICIENTLY so mainstream locals outside the org become curious or care?
Probably not. Sociocracy-Holocracy are primarily a positive consultancy biz, helping medium to large orgs improve internal efficiency. In this, Sociocracy-Holocracy is closer to NVC adapted into Agile Software development Best Practices. Worse, Sociocracy-Holocracy is an extremely narrow conception of Cultural Creatives. Sociocracy-Holocracy is for Cultural Creative nerds. Not much for the women, not much for the young.

The Bad News ~ Sociocracy-Holocracy is Better Group Process for Nerds, a useful, still technocratic solution, for a problem most smaller groups do not have.

The problem most groups have is: FEAR OF INTERPERSONAL CONFLICT.
The solution? Explicit methods, explicit training in interpersonal competency and BP in GP.

Best demonstration of Best Practices in Group Practices — so far.

I wish I had multiple examples of heartfelt look and feel applied to all aspects of large group awareness trainings, but I do not. If you know of additional groups-orgs doing what Insight is doing, I would love to learn of them.

Q: What about Starhawk’s The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups (2011)?

A: Definitely better than no rules at all. Has some good ideas. This book reflects the academic and Quaker efforts on behalf of better group process in the 1980s-1990s. Still very prone to boring meetings. It is completely askew from Insight Seminars and games-based, activity-based learning, the main thing which can attract Cultural Creatives now.
Bruce Dickson lived in his first IC in 1972. He was employed at two food co-ops in 1973. Later spent a wonderful summer at East Wind, then lived in MSIA ashrams for 17 years