Why our community succeeds where others fail - episode 4 - the art of communication

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Ramin Farhangi- co-founder of the democratic school « école dynamique » and co founder of the democratic eco village « Village de Pourgues ».  Author of TEDx and book "Why I created a school where children do what they want" (published by Actes Sud in September 2018). Ramin offers training for project leaders from Sudbury-inspired schools and villages.

There is violence in me, and I sometimes spread that violence on others.

In 2016, I screamed out with rage at one of my colleagues on the phone to the point of saying "you represent everything I hate", in reaction to some simple and hearable objections she was making to a project I was running. In 2017, again with the commercial assistant of the residence of the Ecole Centrale Paris (when she had no power over the situation), outraged by their way of negotiating certain logistical aspects of the EUDEC summer conference. I felt such hate for her boss that at night, dark thoughts kept spinning in my head. A month ago, a new story with the Foix tax centre calling me to tell me that we are not allowed to live in a 15 m² trailer with three of us, to which I replied "how do you feel if I tell you that you are a little shitty civil servant whose life doesn't make any sense?".I have treated my own father with contempt, addressed him as if he were the last of the jerks, and used forty arguments at a hundred miles an hour to show him how he had understood nothing, and how right I was. I have despised overconsumers who go beyond the fateful bar of what the planet can regenerate: how on earth can we consume three planets when the consequences are clear?! How can we eat meat on a daily basis and thus support such a despicable treatment of animals and deforest the Amazon?! What the hell! Are you guys stupid or what?! Don't you have any empathy?! No sense of responsibility?!

These moments of extreme violence are rare enough to forgive each other and continue to live together in peace. Moreover, those around me will probably tell you that I am a quite cool, even of exemplary wisdom. Yet, this violence does exist, and sometimes it takes over me to the point where I lose control. I am ashamed of this beast that lies dormant in me and what it can be capable of, me who aspires to be pure goodness and pure sweetness. In addition, I also have more ordinary violence in me on a daily basis, which I keep secret so as not to offend anyone: judgment. I judge almost anything that doesn't look like me. If I shared all this judgment, nobody would want to be with me.

Today, I doubt that non-violence can be achieved by anyone, even a person like Gandhi who has dedicated his life to this path. Knowing that every judgment is violence, it emerges in each of us several times a day. What we can do with this violence, at most, is put our conscience on it, stop, breathe and de-activate the bomb.

Non-violence is not a state of being, it is a way of being. It's a daily job.

Living in community means facing such a diversity of people that it risks awakening the darkest parts of each individual. The choice of such a way of life therefore requires a tenfold increase in efforts to explore the path of non-violence. I think that the survival of such a project requires that everyone puts as much awareness as possible into their way of relating to each other and to themselves. In Pourgues, our stability and continuity depends in large part on our ability to develop our ability to communicate with each other.

In the first three episodes, I talked about our foundations and structure, inspired by solid models that have proven their worth over time (Sudbury Valley School and Reinventing Organizations). The design of shared governance is essential, and I believe that these structures inspire individual responsibility and non-violence in the informal world. But the pure structure (even when handled with great mastery) seems to me to be insufficient to ensure the continuity of a community. An excellent school or opal village (see episode 3) can still ultimately lead to a violent and irreparable break-up of the group. Having lived through it for several years now, I am becoming increasingly aware that the human factor is a challenge that no principle or tool can master. To overcome this challenge, no concept, no method can exempt individuals from a permanent and profound work in contact with reality.

Communication is not a method to be applied, it is an art to be developed. It is a path of wisdom that knows no end.

Any group without a leader that is formed should therefore devote enough conscience and time to this challenge. ALL the time available if necessary.

In Village de Pourgues, our main common project during the first three to six months was to set up a serene and stable community life. We have succeeded, and I dare to think (at the risk of being taken for an arrogant man) that this success is definitive, and that our group is now strong enough to be unbreakable. So it was a good investment of time.

Also, I think that a group that does not have the means to invest all this time should simply not embark on the adventure. If individuals only come up with the idea of taking care of their own little personal affairs and have no interest in building a community, if they live in a kind of financial stress and have to struggle with a thousand worries outside the project of living together, then it is better to stay in your current little life. In Pourgues, everyone moved in, giving themselves all the time they needed to go step by step to meet the other and themselves. Today, everyone continues to take great care of their relationships. This time available seems to me to be essential to the success of such a project.

Since the first day and for the rest of our days, each of us has been working on his art of communication, because each of us, in his own way and according to his own intuition, has understood that his psychological stability and that of others depends on it. Everyone has understood that their learning to live together, their personal development and the health of their relationships with others is a matter of survival, as much as happiness.

It is in communication that respect or violence is established. It is in communication that we build together and destroy each other.

There are many approaches to developing this art, including the famous Non-Violent Communication inspired by Marshall Rosenberg's work (see Words are windows, or they are walls). There are also tools to repair links whose breaks have an impact on the whole group. In Pourgues, we use the Restorative circles, which I warmly recommend.

I would like to make an aside: I am often asked why we do not take care of each other's human relations, emotions and needs during the Inquiry and Arbitration Committee (see episode 2), to which I reply that the CEA is a non-violent process by which we define together our rules for living together. It has never been intended to do anything else, and it is moreover an inappropriate tool for any other purpose, and in particular to resolve human conflicts or provide "therapy" for the group. We therefore need to rely on other approaches to deal with the irrational, the subtle, the emotional, the relational... End of the parenthesis.

Whatever the philosophies we are inspired by and the tools we are equipped with, there is nothing more powerful than experience to progress in the art of communication. I sometimes hear project leaders say that they will found a community based on shared governance and NVC, and that all members will have received training, so everything will be fine. Without any doubt, these trainings are a great help, but just as we need to get into the water to actually learn to swim, we need to live together to learn the art of communication. And it is better that in a group that is formed, several people already have some experience of community life!

It is by waking up every morning and cooperating with people you don't necessarily want to see every day that you learn to observe all the judgment and violence you have in you and gradually de-activate them. Any couple committed to the long term has certainly experienced and felt this. The community is a kind of wedding with dozens of people, each with the potential to send us back our shadows that we didn't even know existed. Thus, community life seems to me to be the most powerful catalyst for human development.

There is no magic recipe for learning to communicate. Progress comes with experience, practice and perpetual introspection. It comes with adversity, the greatest difficulties, challenges and mistakes. It comes alongside masters who inspire us. Language learning comes most effectively through a multi-month immersion in the country. Similarly, the art of communication comes most effectively through immersion in a community of free, diverse and authentic people.

In Pourgues, I see us all progressing in this art on a daily basis. I see us coming into ever more conscious contact with the origin of the violence that resides in each of us (judgment, guilt, jealousy, disgust, etc.) and transforming them into objects of curiosity and study, into opportunities for work and self elevation. I see more of an increase in observation and listening, rather than reaction or escape. I see people looking to increasingly acknowledge their share of responsibility for what happens to them and focus on what they can do, rather than blame the rest of the world and complain.

I hear fewer and fewer stories that confuse fiction and reality, under the ridiculous prism of good and evil, with characters playing the roles of victims, offenders and judges. I see all our interactions with a fresh perspective. To progress towards excellence in the art of communication, we strive to focus on the facts and their consequences, neutral of any judgment. We learn to nurture contentment, letting go of all expectations that it could be otherwise, that there would be a better way than what is there now.

That, it seems to me, is what we mean by " kindness ". No more victims or perpetrators, but only situations, perceptions, emotions and needs. Situations are what they are. And as far as perceptions, emotions and needs are concerned, it is ultimately up to everyone to deal with them. If we are lucky (and this is usually the case), we have friends, confidants around us to support us in the exploration of these things whose origin will always keep a certain amount of mystery. Why am I like this? Why do I react like that when others react differently? My childhood? My parents? My ancestors? My genes? Can I change?

I don't know, and no one will ever know, but it's still worth looking into all the time.

Living immersed in such a culture necessarily leads everyone to progress in the awareness and embodiment of the value of freedom. This is the "common foundation" of Ecole Dynamique and of Village de Pourgues. In the next episode, I will talk about educational vision.