I've been participating in groups a lot in my life, groups whose only purpose is to provide an excuse for people to touch each other. Not physically, although that often happens, too. Emotionally, spiritually, I'm not sure what to call it. "Community building" is one term for it. They used to call them "encounter groups," but that label took on a negative connotation a generation ago after some participants came away wounded from battles they neither expected nor wanted. Seeking human contact, they encountered jousting fields.
What draws us to such experiences that are unrelated to any objective task, often not even offering us entertainment or intellectual stimulation? Each of us undoubtedly has a different set of objectives or expectations or just unarticulated hopes. Still, the impulses that make us social creatures are not entirely unique to each of us. There's something in us as human beings, I'm convinced, that pushes us together. It's not just sex or mutual protection. Even as we tend to withdraw into our television-watching habits and sit alone at our computer terminals, what we seek is connection to others. Only a very few of us seem able to live completely alone, in the wilderness of open spaces or the closets of our minds. Whether we consider ourselves fortunate in this respect (a la Barbra Streisand) or not, the rest of us need people.
One of the challenges of being with people is knowing how to do it. Who hasn't at some point in their life been surrounded by other people but felt totally isolated? Perhaps it's been merely a strange cultural setting, or not knowing the language, or feeling inadequate to the particular situation. Sometimes the people are in fact hostile toward us for some reason or other. I remember from my adolescence one of those "If you had one wish, what would it be?" conversations, when it was clear to me that my wish would be to be able to talk myself into—or out of—any situation. (I never got my wish.) What I really wanted was to be in social situations in which I didn't have to be afraid. What I really wanted was intimacy.
It takes practice, of course, and most of us learn enough to get by at the level we usually find ourselves. And our learning typically takes the form of learning the rules and roles of particular groups. Eventually, we come to feel relatively at ease, whether it be on the street corner or at the cocktail party or in the board room. Until that eventuality, we clutch or we fake it or we make jokes to cover our discomfort. We feel wary and defensive.
But what of these groups in which there are not supposed to be any rules or roles? Usually, we simply don't believe it, and spend a good amount of effort trying to discover what they "really are." In the community building workshops put on by the Foundation for Community Encouragement (FCE) begun by M. Scott Peck and others, the facilitators expected that the experience would begin with a period of politeness and testing of the waters. "Pseudo Community" they called it. Some years ago a friend referred to the same process as "circling," as dogs and other animals often do when meeting strangers. The tails may be wagging, but the senses are alert. The guard is up.
Getting to Scott Peck's "true community" is often arduous. It's a process of discovery, for the most part, discovery of the safety of the environment and discovery of our own ability to fit in (to say nothing of our desire, as we learn about the other people involved). There are skills involved, some of which we may have already at our disposal and some of which are specific to that situation. Learning to make "I statements" instead of commenting on behavior or assumed characteristics of others. Refraining from judgmental statements. "Owning" our own feelings, instead of blaming others for them. Avoiding giving advice, unless it's asked for.
Implied in all these skills and "rules of engagement" is a point of view, a stance, a frame of mind—what Scott Peck calls "extraordinary respect." It's the basis for trust, which Jack Gibb built into a whole philosophy of group behavior. We're all in this together, and each of us, with all our diverse backgrounds and personalities, is to be honored equally. If we disagree about something, you and I are on a level playing field: either of us might be closer to the truth. "Winning" is to lose touch with the relationship. And the relationship is what's really important.
And the thing that draws us together, with all our differences, is the need for relationship, to be in the emotional company of others. Only when we are clearly convinced of our basic equality, only when we each bask in the extraordinary respect of the other, can we create true community.
Donald Skiff, February 10, 2001