The Joy of Community

An interview with M. Scott Peck
by Alan AtKisson

Photo: Scott Peck

Scott Peck

In modern times, the idea of "community" has increasingly been expanded to include not just the place where one lives, but the web of relationships into which one is embedded. Work, school, voluntary associations, computer networks - all are communities, even though the members live quite far apart.
   But according to psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck, for any group to achieve community in the truest sense, it must undertake a journey that involves four stages: "pseudocommunity," where niceness reigns; "chaos," when the emotional skeletons crawl out of the closet; "emptiness," a time of quiet and transition; and finally, true community, marked both by deep honesty and deep caring.
   Peck's thinking on this subject is detailed in his book, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace, which appeared in German in October of 2007 (it can be ordered at He is the author of four other books, including the phenomenally popular The Road Less Traveled, which has sold seven million copies..
   Peck - "Scotty" to all who know him - is also the co-founder of the Foundation for Community Encouragement, created to support community-building work, and he and other Foundation staff have since conducted over 1,000 community building workshops. Here he reflects on that experience and the challenges - and joys - of working together to be in community.

Alan: In the first sentence of The Different Drum you say, "In and through community lies the salvation of the world." You've done five years of community-building work since writing those words. Do they still hold true for you?

Scotty: Very much so. I had very little experience with community building when I finished the book in 1986. But I now have a great deal of experience, having worked with organizations and groups throughout North America and in the United Kingdom through the Foundation for Community Encouragement. I'm more convinced than ever of the truth of those opening sentences.
   My second book, People of the Lie, is on the subject of evil. In the second chapter, on group evil, I quoted the Berrigans' saying that perhaps the greatest single problem we have is to figure out how to metaphorically "exorcise" our institutions. Recently, I realized that the Foundation is doing exactly that - by building community within those institutions. Of course, to do an exorcism you have to have a willing patient, and a willing organization doesn't come down the pike every day.

Alan: What are the metaphorical demons that need to be exorcised? And what does "community" mean in this context?

Scotty: The names of the demons range all over the map, from misuse of political power to apathy, from corporate lies to organizational myths that are unrealistic, and so forth.    Community can be one of those words - like God, or love, or death, or consciousness - that's too large to submit to any single, brief definition. At the Foundation we consider community to be a group of people that have made a commitment to learn how to communicate with each other at an ever more deep and authentic level. One of the characteristics of true community is that the group secrets, whatever they are, become known - they come out to where they can be dealt with.
   By other definitions, a community is a group that deals with its own issues - its own shadow - and the shadow can contain any kind of issue. We have tried unsuccessfully at the Foundation to come up with a sort of slogan, but one of the phrases that kept coming up was from the gospels: "And the hidden shall become known."
   The Foundation just finished a conference on business and community at the University of Chicago School of Business with some seventy-five hard headed businesspeople. The theme was "tension", and the subtheme was that, within an organization, community represents a forum where the tension can be surfaced out in the open and made known. You can't develop a "tensionless" organization. To the contrary, one of the conclusions at the conference was that you wouldn't want to develop a tensionless organization.
   Creating community in the context of an organization permits those tensions to be surfaced and dealt with as best they can, rather than being latent or under the table.

Alan: Many groups and organizations in recent years have been experimenting with community building and consensus process. For some it works beautifully - but for others, seeking consensus seems to become a morass that sucks energy out of their efforts. What's the difference between groups for whom consensus works, and those who never quite seem to get there?

Scotty: One of the things we have to get to is a definition of consensus.
   The Foundation once did a workshop for a large group medical practice that clearly had a problem with retaining its professional staff. When they called us, they said they had all agreed that they needed a community-building workshop, and that they would take two days off to do it. Now, it's not enough to go into an organization just to build community, because if you do that and leave, the whole thing collapses two days later. So when we work with organizations, our initial intervention is at least three days. We build community in the first two, then spend a third day having the group make written, consensual decisions about what they are going to do to maintain themselves as a community.
   Well, these doctors said "My god! Do you know how difficult it is for seventeen physicians to take off from their practice for two days, and you're saying we have to do it for three?" I said, "Yup!" They finally agreed.
   Physicians have big egos, so they don't ordinarily work very well together. But to give you an idea of how well a group can work in community, here's the definition of consensus they developed on the third day of that workshop: "Consensus is a group decision - which some members may not feel is the best decision but which they can all live with, support, and commit themselves to not undermine - arrived at without voting, through a process whereby the issues are fully aired, all members feel that they have been adequately heard, in which everyone has equal power and responsibility, and different degrees of influence by virtue of individual stubbornness or charisma are avoided, so that all are satisfied with the process. The process requires the members to be emotionally present and engaged; frank in a loving, mutually respectful manner; sensitive to each other; to be selfless, dispassionate, and capable of emptying themselves; and possessing a paradoxical awareness of both people and time, including knowing when the solution is satisfactory, and that it is time to stop and not re-open the discussion until such time that the group determines a need for revision." [ 1988, Valley Diagnostic, Medical, and Surgical Clinic, Inc. of Harlingen, Texas and the Foundation for Community Encouragement, Knoxville, Tennessee, reprinted with permission.]

Alan: That's certainly comprehensive!

Scotty: It's starting to be used by organizations around North America precisely because it is so thorough. A number of answers to your question come out of that definition. There are a lot of organizations that operate by what they think is consensus, but it really is not consensus at all. I've run into three top executives, for example, who have told me that they "rule by consensus"!
   But to meet the definition's requirements, you essentially have to have what we call true community. And if you do not, you can come up with a kind of decision-making process that you call consensus, but isn't really.
   Many institutions that try to get to consensus fail because they are not yet true communities. They aren't ready yet to get to consensus, because they need to work on themselves before they start to make decisions.

Alan: Assuming a group does make it to true community and consensus, how does it stay there? What, for example, did those doctors decide to do to maintain themselves as a community?

Scotty: Well, the doctors are a wonderful example because they did a number of things, including having a follow-up workshop and doing some work with a consultant. They radically revised their committee system to make all major decisions by consensus, and in community. They used their definition of consensus in their recruitment of new members. Over the year after our initial intervention, they grew from seventeen to twenty-five physicians.
   But a year and a half later, having become fat and successful again, the crisis had passed and they gave up working on it. I now hear they are out of community. It takes a significant amount of effort to build community, but it takes even more effort - ongoing effort - to maintain it. The biggest problem with community maintenance, as with community start-up, is the problem of organizations simply being willing to pay the price - which is, primarily, a price of time.
   It's also a price of ongoing vulnerability. And it is a price of being willing to continually re-examine your norms. Sometimes the price is having to repeat the work of community-building workshops, or having consultants work with you. And the biggest opposition to paying the price is from people who, just as in individual therapy, want what the therapist would call "the magical solution." There are many organizations that would love to have community if we could give it to them as some kind of free magic. It ain't magic, and it ain't free. It's work, like anything else.
Alan: But work with a potentially huge pay-off. A clearly focused intention seems to be key here.

Scotty: Together with vigilance. And I don't want to be discouraging about the price - I think the price is extraordinarily cost effective.
   For instance, the Foundation did a couple of workshops for two labor/management negotiating teams, for a Fortune 100 company. They had a two-month obligatory negotiating period, and they vowed to try to keep themselves in community for those two months, which they succeeded in doing.
   Instead of "coming to the table," they got rid of the table. Management and labor had previously eaten separately; they ate together. Management vowed to come in with its bottom line, financially, right at the very beginning. They each vowed not to try to caucus for the two months, and they succeeded.
   They changed the rules, and they collaborated on a contract. Both sides were saying things like, "Hey, you guys are overlooking this thing that is to your advantage." This was the highest paid consulting contract we've had for the Foundation. We probably charged them $16,000, but they probably saved $16,000,000 for a strike that didn't happen.

Alan: What sustains a community in the long term?

Scotty: I'm not sure how sustainable community is unless it has a pretty clearly defined task. Healthy organizations have a mission statement, often along with a philosophy and a vision statement, which they continually update and revise. I suspect that there are a lot of intentional communities, for example, that either don't have a mission statement or haven't looked at it for years and years.

Alan: So communities of all kinds need to say, "This is what we are going to do together."

Scotty: And "This is our purpose for being together." And that statement has to be reexamined, ritualistically, every couple of years. Doing this requires that the organization's cultural values be explicit. At each of our Foundation's board meetings, not only do we have a list of our ground rules - our whole culture is spelled out in a big flip chart somewhere where everybody can look at it.
   These values include openness, being willing to be challenged, to re-look at norms, being willing to change. There has to be love and respect, of course - but there also has to be valid data. There has to be a kind of tension between caring and a terrible dedication to reality.
   Of course, there are some organizations or communities that should probably not be maintained or sustained. That gets into the issue of, "When has an organization outlived its usefulness?" That, again, gets into re-visiting the mission statement. "Do we still have a mission? Maybe we don't anymore."
   A critical part of the art of sustaining community is integration of task and process. Task is working on your mission, and process is working on yourselves as a community. This art requires an enormous amount of practice.
   A group of people never become a community and stay a community. They continually fall out of community, back into chaos or pseudocommunity. What character-izes a healthy, ongoing, sustained community is the rapidity with which it is able to say, "Hey, we've lost it. We need to go back and work on ourselves."

Alan: "We need to leave off working on our task for awhile and do some work on our process."

Scotty: Right. Switching from one to another is difficult. The timing is an art, and requires discipline.
   We work by doing the community process first, and then going on to the task. One of the things that characterizes our work is that it's very gentle. But there's one exercise we do that is not gentle. For groups that are interested in issues of sustainability, and task versus process, we will have them work on themselves as a community for fifteen minutes. Somebody will be in the midst of talking about themselves, saying something terribly deep, and they'll be crying and heartbroken. But at 15 minutes, the leader will snap his or her fingers and say, "Now start working on your task, your mission statement."
   It's amazing how good people get at this after awhile. They can be in the midst of re-phrasing a policy document, and the leader can make a snap of the fingers again and say "Now go back to your process," and they can go right back to that person who was crying fifteen minutes ago, who starts crying again.
   Now in reality, you want to be much more artistic than that, rather than switching by rote every fifteen minutes. But we use this rather brutal exercise just to demonstrate to groups how they can overcome their inertia. It shows that it is possible for a group of human beings to switch like that on a moment's notice.

Alan: Suppose you want to create community in your office, or right on your block, but you don't have a workshop to go to. What do you do?

Scotty: One of the reasons that we set up the Foundation was precisely to help those groups that are not able to do it on their own. Somewhere between twenty-five and fifty percent of the groups that read The Different Drum and try to develop community on their own are able to do it. But the other fifty to seventy-five percent can't. They just don't have the process skills, or the right combination of people. They've got to get expertise.
   But sometimes the expertise they need may in fact be task, rather than process, expertise. For instance, when we started the Foundation we were a bunch of "do-gooders" who really didn't have the foggiest idea about how to do good. If you had asked me six years ago what strategic planning was, I would have said it was something that was only done by the Air Force, like strategic bombing. As a Board, we had to learn strategic planning and how to run a business. In some ways, that's actually harder than starting with a structured, task-oriented organization and trying to develop community.

Alan: That certainly seems to have been true for many intentional communities over the years. Often it seems to have been the business, management, and structure issues that have proven to be the Achilles' heel.

Scotty: This is something I'm quite passionate about. Structure and community are not incompatible. To the contrary, they mutually thrive on one another. Actually, the greater the structure in an organization, and the clearer that structure is, the easier it is for us to introduce community into the organization. If a task-oriented business group that is not well-structured builds itself into community, it will discover, I think, that their very next task is to define roles. Invariably, those roles are going to be in some sort of hierarchy.
   The purpose of community is not to get rid of hierarchy. Again, part of the art of all this is for an organization to learn how to function in a hierarchical and highly structured task-oriented mode, and learn how to function in a community mode. It also needs to learn the technology of switching back and forth. The more clearly defined the roles are, the more structured the organization actually is, the easier this switching back and forth becomes. The more blurred the structure, the harder it becomes.

Alan: In The Different Drum you write, "An organization is able to nurture a measure of community within itself only to the extent that it is willing to risk or tolerate a certain lack of structure." Is what you're saying now a modification of that earlier view?

Scotty: An elaboration of it. The only obstacle to building and maintaining community within an organization is not structural. It's political. If you get somebody at the top who is not willing to relinquish the structure, even temporarily, or who has to dominate everything, there's no way you can have community in that organization. So the people in the organization, particularly at the top, have to be willing to temporarily lay aside their role and their rank.

Alan: You've described personal growth as a "journey out of culture". Is growth toward real community similar? Is community "a-cultural"?

Scotty: No, it's not a-cultural. I think there is a distinct culture of community. Remember that at all of our board meetings we have, among other things, a list of about thirty values in our organizational culture. The principles of community are some of the parameters of what might be considered a new global culture. Those are values like respect, and using valid data. Only a very small minority of people - under 5% - can't buy into those values.

Alan: What would "global community" look like? Is it even possible?

Scotty: Sure it is. We have built community in every walk of life and pretty much in every culture. We did a workshop last year for Jews, Christians, and Muslims to build community. It was so successful the Muslims have donated money to help us put it on again.
   But the word global gets mushy unless it is related to a real problem. For instance, I can practically guarantee you that if you took five Anglos, fifteen Afrikaners, and thirty-five Blacks from South Africa and put them together in the same room and got them to work towards committing themselves to learning this "technology of community," that at the end of three or four days you'd have them coming out respecting each other, loving each other, and able to work profoundly effectively on whatever it is that they need to work on. Community doesn't look any different wherever it is. The problem is to get the people into the room.

Alan: And to keep them there through the four stages of pseudocommunity, chaos, emptiness - and finally community.

Scotty: Right. The only requirement we have is that people stay there and not walk out. Incidentally, another thing we've learned consistently, which I didn't know at the time I wrote The Different Drum, is that it's much easier to build community among unsophisticated people than among the sophisticated. A group of diplomats or psychiatrists are really tough, because you have to penetrate their sophistication to get to their innocence.
   But I believe creating community is always possible, and when people see that you can attain community consistently - that there are rules and principles you can follow to get there - that fosters real hope.

Alan: So "the salvation of the world," as you refer to it in your writing, is attainable.

Scotty: Very much so. Let me read you part of the Foundation's Philosophy Statement, which captures some of the essence of this vision: "There is a yearning in the heart for peace. Because of the wounds, the rejections, we have received in past relationships, we are frightened by the risks. In our fear we discount the dream of authentic community as merely visionary. But there are rules by which people can come back together, by which the old wounds are healed. It is the mission of the Foundation for Community Encouragement to teach these rules, to make hope real again, to make the vision actually manifest in a world which has almost forgotten the glory of what it means to be human."
   Being in community in an organization isn't a panacea. Reality still exists. And as is characteristic of a healthy individual life, there's actually more pain in community than outside of it. But there's also more joy. To me, what characterizes a true community is not that it's less painful, but that it's more alive.

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