Stages of Community Building
For many groups or organisations the most common initial stage, pseudo-community, is the only one. It is a stage of pretence. The group pretends it already is a community, that the participants have only superficial individual differences and no cause for conflict. The primary means it uses to maintain this pretence is through a set of unspoken common norms we call manners: you should try your best not to say anything that might antagonise or upset anyone else; if someone else says something that offends you or evokes a painful feeling or memory, you should pretend it hasn’t bothered you in the least; and if disagreement or other unpleasantness emerges, you should immediately change the subject. These are rules that any good hostess knows. They may create a smoothly functioning dinner party but nothing more significant. The communication in a pseudo-community is filled with generalisations. It is polite, inauthentic, sometimes boring, sterile, and unproductive.
Over time profound individual differences may gradually emerge so that the group enters the stage of chaos and not infrequently self-destructs. The theme of pseudo-community is the covering up of individual differences; the predominant theme of the stage of chaos is the attempt to obliterate such differences. This is done as the group members try to convert, heal, or fix each other or else argue for simplistic organizational norms. It is an irritable and irritating, thoughtless, rapid-fire, and often noisy process that gets nowhere.
If the group can hang in together through this unpleasantness without self-destructing or retreating into pseudo-community, then it begins to enter “emptiness.” This is a stage of hard, hard work, a time when the members work to empty themselves of everything that stands between them and community. And that is a lot. Many of the things that must be relinquished or sacrificed with integrity are virtual human universals: prejudices, snap judgments, fixed expectations, the desire to convert, heal, or fix, the urge to win, the fear of looking like a fool, the need to control. Other things may be intensely personal: hidden griefs, hatreds, or terrors that must be confessed, made public, before the individual can be fully “present” to the group. It is a time of risk and courage, and while it often feels relieving, it also often feels like dying.
The transition from chaos to emptiness is seldom dramatic and often agonizingly prolonged. One or two group members may risk baring their souls, only to have another, who cannot bear the pain, suddenly switch the subject to something inane. The group as a whole has still not become empty enough to truly listen. It bounces back into temporary chaos. Eventually, however, it becomes sufficiently empty for a kind of miracle to occur.
At this point a member will speak of something particularly poignant and authentic. Instead of retreating from it, the group now sits in silence, absorbing it. Then a second member will quietly say something equally authentic. She may not even respond to the first member, but one does not get the feeling he has been ignored; rather, it feels as if the second member has gone up and laid herself on the altar alongside the first. The silence returns, and out of it, a third member will speak with eloquent appropriateness. Community has been born.
The shift into community is often quite sudden and dramatic. The change is palpable. A spirit of peace pervades the room. There is “more silence, yet more of worth gets said. It is like music. The people work together with an exquisite sense of timing, as if they were a finely tuned orchestra under the direction of an invisible celestial conductor. Many actually sense the presence of God in the room. If the group is a public workshop of previous strangers who soon must part, then there is little for it to do beyond enjoying the gift. If it is an organization, however, now that it is a community it is ready to go to work-making decisions, planning, negotiating, and so on-often with phenomenal efficiency and effectiveness.”