When Someone Wants to Say Something No One Wants to Hear

As cohousers we generally believe in the principle that everyone gets a voice. We think of ourselves as taking all views into account and welcoming differences of opinions.  But what about when we don’t? What do you do if someone has more to say after others in the community are past tired of hearing it? Is there a point at which one person’s need to be heard is less important than someone else’s need to be done listening?  

This is one of the tough places in community and I don’t believe that there is a perfect answer that works in all cases. I do believe there are things we can do to make it better, or worse, that will have significant impact on our community for years to come.  

Most communities actually have policies to address this sort of thing. When a small group determines the agenda for plenary meetings, they have the authority to not allow the member in question to bring their topic to plenary. There may be a policy that allows a community to override a block, “consensus minus one” is one of many variants. There may be a policy stating that a particular committee has the topic in their domain and if the member isn’t happy with how the committee handles it, there is no recourse.  All of these are examples of policies enacted to protect the efficiency and energy of the whole from being disrupted by the passion (or rigidity) of one.  

It is likely that these policies will be needed from time to time when the cost of continuing to engage with an unhappy member is greater than the cost of overriding them. However, it’s worth noting that silencing or overriding a member of your community always comes at a cost. Often it is a high cost, paid out for years to come, measured in resentment, loss of trust, reduced participation and less sense of safety in the community. This cost occurs even if everything is done according to policy, and it is likely to impact everyone.  Thus, it is worth a good bit of effort to avoid the situation when you can. So how does a community do that?  

  • Get really good at listening. Often the underlying problem is that the member doesn’t feel they have been heard, even if they have been given ample opportunities to speak. It’s surprising what a person can tolerate when they feel heard and fully understood. There are a number of structures that address this need. My favorite is Imago Dialogue.
    • Mirror what you hear the person saying
      • What I heard you say is . . . 
      • Did I get you?
      • Is there more?
    • Validate that what they are saying makes sense – even if you do not agree with it.
      • That makes sense to me because . . . 
    • Empathize
      • I imagine you might be feeling . . . 
      • Is that what you are feeling?
      • Are there other feelings?
  • Get curious. Try to set aside judgements and get really interested in why this topic is so important to the member and what it means to them.  Even if you never agree, if they believe that you really understand where they are coming from, it will be easier for them to understand your position.
  • Take time for one-on-one, perhaps first with a facilitator and then with two people in conflict, perhaps with support. This can take a lot of time, and it is sometimes the only way to create enough safety to really get to the heart of what is happening.  
  • Be authentic. Pay attention to why this is so important to you and share the things that matter most to you, not just the things that you think will win the argument.
  • Replace “This person is a trouble-maker!” with “This person is struggling. How can I help?”  
  • Note that sometimes the best thing for the community is to meet the needs of one member, even if it means doing something most others don’t like.  
  • Consider bringing in a process consultant to help, especially if the situation happens more than once.
  • Be prepared that sometimes all of this effort will not achieve the desired result. I believe all of it results in learning and improved relationships over time, but it doesn’t always end happily. Be ready to forgive everyone and work on healing where you can. 

Category: Conflict

Tags: conflict, hearing, listening, process

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