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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Navigating Emotional Minefields

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December 31, 2020
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cross-posted from Laird's Commentary on Community and Consensus




One of the defining indicators of the health of cooperative groups is how they respond when strong feelings emerge among members.

Most of us were raised in a mainstream culture that did not develop our capacity to know our feelings or understand what constructive responses would be when they erupt in others, and few groups select for members who have that orientation. (To be clear I'm not talking how to handle unbridled joy. I'm talking about rage, paralyzing fear, deep sadness, overwhelm, and even grief—you know, the hard ones.)

If the group does not explicitly discuss how it wants to engage with feelings, mostly they don't, and the results of that neglect and chaos are not pretty. A good portion of my work as a consultant to cooperative groups revolves around trying to help them understand why they need to develop an ability to work with feelings, and how to do it.

The interesting case is when one or more members attempt to traverse an emotional minefield (by which I mean a stretch of territory where it is suspected that strong feelings may reside below the surface) and someone explodes—perhaps by intentionally triggering someone known to be sensitive in a particular way, or perhaps inadvertently, but an explosion nonetheless. Now what? I want to examine three possible responses:

I. Cordoning off the Entire Area

If the group reacts with anxiety, and fears an escalation that may result in severe damage to relationships, they may call an immediate halt, clear everyone out of the field, and declare return visits off limits. That topic (that minefield) is now taboo. In general, this comes from most (all?) members having no experience of examining feelings as a safe exercise. Many have personal memories of such sharing having no boundaries, with the result that people come away feeling abused, exhausted, and no better informed. So why allow it?

While this response has the benefit of limiting the potential damage that can result from attacks that accompany outbursts, it also has the unintended consequence of teaching people that they can control what is discussed through expressing distress, and the louder the better. Not good.

2. Designating the Explosion Site Off Limits

This, obviously, is a more measured response, but it's still a rejection of opening up to emotional expression. In this case, it's evaluating such incidents on a case-by-case basis rather than with a blanket prohibition. Maybe the next explosion won't be so overwhelming. 

In this response the group is willing to leave the door cracked, hoping to develop some capacity to work with feelings, while at the same time protecting against potential aggression, by reserving the right to clamp down on it if it feels too dangerous. This can be received as a mixed signal. When the light is yellow instead of red, those who go into reaction may feeling authorized to express themselves (assuming they have sufficient control to choose), while those most leery of being exposed to raw feelings may feel they were being given protection that may not be there in their moment of need. This can go sideways quickly.

3. Bringing in a Medic

Reactivity happens. As all humans are emotional beings (as well as rational) let's first make sure that aggression is limited, and there's no arterial bleeding, and the let's find out what it means. In my experience, the group will ultimately be far better off if stays with the reaction long enough to be sure it understands both the reaction and the trigger, as well as what meaning that has for the person (if you project meaning onto the incident without checking it out, you are subject to all manner of mischief). This is data. If the distress surfaces in the context of the group wrestling with an issue, this data may be highly relevant to what the group is working on. 

To be clear, I am not suggesting that the upset person gets to control the outcome or the narrative—you are only getting their story, yet it's something to take into account. It is a matter of discernment what weight to give it, just like any data. I am only trying to make the case that knowledge comes in a variety of packages and emotional knowledge is no less inherently valuable than rational knowing. Groups are thus well advised to develop the capacity to speak in both tongues.

If you don't, the person in distress is likely to be isolated and pathologized ("we expect members to control themselves in meetings and outbursts are not welcome; we will not dignify it by giving it attention"). The massage to everyone else is: don't try this yourself; translate your feelings to thoughts if you want them to be respected, or shut up. This effectively cuts off people in distress from being seen as useful members in problem solving, and people in reaction may be tied in knots trying desperately (in silence) to figure out what they will be allowed say, meanwhile missing what others are saying. It's expensive.

• • •

Having said all that, it's understandable why groups don't necessarily start with an understanding of why they need to develop the ability to work emotionally. If everyone is a fish swimming in the waters of rationality, why contemplate what it might be like to fin through a sea of feelings? The reason, of course, is that humans bring their emotional selves into the room every time there's a meeting, and no amount of cultural disapprobation will prevent all expression of strong feelings. It's just not how humans are wired, no matter how hard you try to squelch it. Pretending otherwise is a barrier that gets in the way of the group doing the deeper, richer work of which it is capable.

So you need to have an agreement or two about how you'll handle that. And if you decide to engage (which I strongly recommend) then you'll need to agree on how, on what license you'll give facilitators to go there, on how you'll adjust agenda setting to allow for it, and on how you'll skill up your community to do it well (do not under any circumstances promise that you'll create safety for exploring strong feelings when you don't have a clue what you're doing). All of this is worth the effort, but it's a package and it's an investment.

When people move into intentional communities they are purposefully choosing to live in greater proximity to others, and agreeing to share decision-making more than is done in traditional households. This invariably leads to friction. There is a naive projection that many first-timers carry with them into community living—hoping that shared values and a commitment to cooperation will mean less friction. Sorry. It doesn't work that way. We all bring our quirky personalities and competitive conditioning with us and when we disagree about nontrivial matters, the gloves come off and strong feelings are alive and well.

The measure of a group's health is not how much conflict it has; it's how it navigates the minefield.


Header image by Christopher Michael. CC BY 2.0



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