Compassion: A Secret Ingredient

Imagine you have been a member of a forming cohousing group for several months now, and you have just joined the circle for a big decision-making meeting about the vision and future of this community where you hope to live. You’re nervous. You have some health concerns, and you absolutely need to have a clean environment and access to organic food. Will the other group members care about these issues? Will they think it’s too expensive to accommodate your needs? You’re not sure you will have the courage to speak up, and if you do, you’re afraid you will sound too strident and people will turn against you. Yet somehow, as the meeting unfolds, you find your voice, you realize you are being heard, and you get more comfortable, even as you hear some opposing views. Somehow, by the end of the meeting, you feel more connected to the others in the circle. You have a hunch that the facilitator had a hand in supporting this positive outcome, though exactly how they managed it is kind of a mystery.

And maybe the facilitator would have a hard time clarifying that, too. After all, it’s one thing to successfully facilitate a participatory workshop with a cohousing community, helping future neighbors to make decisions together and build strong social bonds in the process. It’s another thing to explain how and why it actually worked.

I was recently putting together a webinar for architects about the participatory design process, based on my work with cohousing groups. Of course, I carefully outlined the methodology I use, from online surveys to specific group exercises. But that alone did not explain what makes for a successful workshop – one through which members deepen their sense of community. What does a facilitator do to support this human connection?

One of the most important roles of the facilitator is to hold a space in which members feel safe. These future neighbors are making some stressful decisions together! Some members might be afraid they won’t be able to afford to stay in the group. Others may be concerned that affordability needs will create a bland environment with few amenities. Someone else may be wondering whether their parenting style will be judged or whether their dog will be welcome in the community. Each person needs to know that they will be heard and respected, and met wherever they are - that it is safe for them to reveal their true feelings and concerns. The facilitator can model active listening, encouraging all voices to speak and welcoming what each person has to offer.

Underlying our various skills and methods, one of the most essential things we as facilitators can offer a group is compassion. This means not just creating space for members to be heard, but truly holding a deep compassion for each person throughout the meeting. At all times. Both when things are flowing smoothly, and when disagreements flare or the process gets bogged down. Always holding compassion for each person – even, maybe especially, individuals we might find challenging. Even that person who is having an outburst. Even that person who is having a hard time letting go of their ideas and hearing others. Everyone. Yes, of course, we will still keep the flow of the meeting on track. We will still deal constructively with an outburst or ask someone to stop talking so that others may be heard. But if we do so with an underlying caring for that person, a knowledge that they are a fine person just having a challenging moment, they may be able to emerge from the meeting not feeling like the bad guy. And the overall environment we create will be of safety and support – and community.

As I thought about it, I had to reflect that compassion is not just a secret ingredient for successful facilitation. It’s a secret ingredient that forms the foundation for any truly successful community. Approaching each of our neighbors with love and compassion. Striving to understand them in their differences and idiosyncrasies. Coming from the assumption that each person is to be cared for and appreciated. Even when it’s hard, even when we completely disagree with them, even when we find them challenging. If we approach them with compassion, we cannot lose. And our entire community wins.

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