Exit Dynamics in Community

Although it's not what folks generally have their attention on when they start or join communities, the other side of the coin is that people leave. To be sure, this can happen for a wide variety of reasons. Let me give you a hypothetical dozen—all of which I've witnessed:

1. Maybe the bread winner in your household just had their job transferred to Kalamazoo or Timbuktu, and they really want to keep that job.

2. Maybe your 15-year-old got busted for smoking pot in the bathroom of the public library (there's a reason that "sophomoric" is an adjective that refers to poor judgment) and you're heart sick over the possibility that the negative publicity will give the community a black eye and lead to your family being ostracized in the community.

3. Maybe your mother is getting to the point where she needs one of her adult children to live nearby, and none of your siblings has enough flexibility in their life to answer the bell. You do what you gotta do and it's time to give back to Mom.

4. Maybe your daughter's asthma has worsened to where you have to move to a climate with lower humidity.

5. Maybe you love all the coffee shops, liberal politics, and Powell's bookstore, but if you spend one more winter in Portland's gray drizzle your SAD (which is bad) will make your partner mad and it's time to move to a sunnier pad where you can both be glad.

6. Maybe you're sick unto death of your neighbor's barking dog and, after years of struggle, you're willing to move so you can finally count on getting a decent night's sleep.

7. Maybe you can no longer tolerate the interminable meetings. Making decisions together sounded OK in theory, but OMG.

8. Maybe your youngest child just left for college and the nest is empty. You don't want to be rattling around in all that house but there is nothing smaller available in the community, so downsizing means moving.

9. Maybe your marriage has just dissolved and you cannot bear the thought of continuing to live in the same community as your ex. (Maybe 10 years from now, but not next week.)

10. Maybe your mildly hyperactive daughter has been accused of bullying the neighbor kids and is no longer welcome in community play groups with her peers. Though the kids still want to be together, the other parents won't allow it. You feel your kid is being scapegoated, and don't want to live in a community where other parents seem unwilling to look at how their child is contributing to challenging dynamics.

11. Maybe you came to community expressly to learn natural building techniques and how to incorporate energy saving technology into everyday life. Now that you've learned all that, you're ready to head off to your mountain top property in Colorado to build your dream home and retire next to a trout stream.

12. Maybe you can no longer tolerate hearing youngsters scream at community dinners (ruining adult conversation) and you're bone weary of tripping over scooters and Big Wheels strewn about the pathways at night—right where the kids left them.

I could go on and on, but you get the picture. There are many reasons why people leave. Sometimes it's because there's a problem in the community that's not resolving; sometimes there are personal reasons that have nothing to do with the community; sometimes it's a bit of both.

From the community's perspective there are three particular possibilities that I want to highlight. These are important both because there may be chances to turn things around even at the eleventh hour, and because it's an opportunity for the community to learn what it might do differently in the future.

Possibility A: Where the member is facing a personal challenge that suggests leaving and may not have explored how much the community could be an ally in finding a response that wouldn't require moving away

In this dynamic there is probably no expectation that the community has anything to offer, and it's quite possible that the member has not even made an attempt to seek help from the community. But that doesn't mean there are no options!

For this to have room to fully bloom I think it makes sense for representatives of the community (Membership Committee?) to pro-actively, yet discreetly, approach the person or couple to see if they're open to exploring how the community might be able to provide some outside-of-the-box support.

If the openness is there (no arm twisting, please) the support team can find out details of the situation beyond what is known publicly and perhaps help with spade work to follow through on promising suggestions, either on the private side (directly with individuals) or the public side (using community resources). Even if no appreciable help is realized through this effort, it will land well that the attempt was made and the community will feel better that it went the extra mile.

Possibility B: Where there are challenges in the community that have been named, but attempts at resolution have been unsatisfactory and the person is ready to leave in frustration

In this dynamic there is likely to be some hurt feelings, perhaps in many directions. It is a delicate thing knowing when you've tried enough, and when it's time to let go and move on. Not all problems are solvable and not all people are meant to live together. Exit can be the right choice.

Yet there can be considerable gold in panning through the dross of failed attempts at conflict resolution—if you approach it with an open, what-can-we-learn attitude, rather than with a how-can-we-assign-blame perspective. While it may not be easy to get the protagonists to engage in a post-mortem analysis (who wants to pick the scab off?), you might have success if a neutral team (Membership, I'm thinking of you again) approached with a promise to simply listen, to make sure there's clarity about that person's side of events and how it landed for them.

It's possible that this kind of listening will lead to an insight about how things could get unstuck if approached differently, and—if it's not too late—those may still be tried. But I wouldn't hold my breath. Mostly the point of this kind of examination is to learn how to do things better next time; how to not dig the hole so deep that no one can get out.

Possibility C: Where there are challenges in the community that have not been named publicly, yet the person is willing to leave over them

This dynamic is a particularly interesting one because you may not know it's even in play unless you're privy to inside information or someone tips you off. The public presentation is that the person (or couple) has announced that they're leaving for personal reasons that have nothing to do with community dynamics (after all, they have to say something about why their leaving), but that's not the case, or at least not the whole story. How will you know to ask about this if you don't know it's happening?

Why would people do this? Perhaps it's too embarrassing to disclose their reactions in group. Maybe they're conflict averse and would rather leave than try to work it out. Possibly they're intimidated by the particular folks they're conflicted with and don't have the gumption to face bully dynamics. Maybe there are a bunch of small things, no one of which is fatal, but the accumulation is overwhelming.
The beauty of this possibility is that if you're following my advice about being pro-active in Possibility A, the interviewing group might discover that it's really Possibility C (where the "personal reasons" were trumped up to deflect inquiries about community dynamics), or a combination of the two (where there are both personal reasons and community reasons). If you uncover this dynamic, you may have a chance to still work the conflict (by whatever means your group has in place for that purpose). But even if it's too late for that, you get more accurate information about the ways in which the community has fallen short, which gives you a leg up on dealing with whatever broke down.

Exit Interviews
With all of the above in mind, let's drill down on what you might ask if you're interviewing someone who has announced they intend to leave. Here are some questions you might pose:

o How well did life in the community work for you and your family? What were the highlights; what was hard?

o Did you find the community to be as advertised? If not, please describe the ways in which there was a misunderstanding about what you'd find, and give us any suggestions you have about how to correct those.

o What suggestions do you have for how we could more accurately describe what life in our community is like? Please be specific.

o What would you say to a prospective or incoming new member that you wished had been said to you?

o Did you get the interpersonal support you were looking for as a member of the community? If not, what can you tell us about how we fell short?

o Are there ways that you wish the community could be doing more for its members? If so, please describe the ways.

o What, if any, aspects of community agreements did you really appreciate, and which do you wish were different?

o What, if any, aspects of community culture did you really appreciate, and which do you wish were different?

o Are there any unresolved issues related to community life that are a factor in your decisions to leave? If so, please tell us what they are.

o To the extent that there are personal reasons (unrelated to community life) influencing your decision to leave, have you tried to get help from the community in resolving those issues such that you could stay? If not, or you are willing to try more, we invite you to tell us in detail what those personal factors are. (While we cannot promise to pull a rabbit out of the hat, we're willing to give it a try.)

o If you had sufficient support from the community, would you be willing to try any further to work things out so that you could stay in the community? If so, what would that support look like?