Re: Gossip vs. venting
From: Tree Bressen (
Date: Mon, 30 Dec 2002 23:23:10 -0700 (MST)

I've appreciated the great stuff already posted in response to this topic,
and would like to add the following comments in three sections.


>> *    I undertake to keep my relationships within the group clear by
>> with my problematic issues directly with the persons concerned. [Cathy]

Kay wrote:
>Phrasing it this way puts no responsibility on the "persons concerned."  The
>reason this isn't already the obvious first line to follow is that people
>have a lifetime's experience of it being at best a waste of time and
>sometimes actively backfiring.

This sounds really familiar to me; when i show up to work with groups i
frequently encounter an attitude of despair based on people's negative past
experiences.  I think that's very understandable given how poorly our
culture trains people in conflict resolution skills.  So part of my goal is
to offer people a sample of a better experience, to give them hope that
it's possible.  Once they get that taste, i figure they are more likely to
try learning the skills to make it happen.

Amazingly, the skills are not actually that hard.  Sure it takes practice
remembering to do it in the moment, getting smoother at it, and so on.  But
i am convinced that anyone with a commitment to making peace with others
can learn this stuff.  There are various good systems around, "Non-Violent
Communication" (by Marshall Rosenberg) is one of the more popular ones
these days.  My observation is that what the various systems have in common
is *reflective listening.*  Saying back what you heard the other person
say, with as much compassion as you can muster.


>To be effective, there first must be an agreement, "When someone has a
>problem with me or my actions, I will make a good faith effort to resolve
>it."  With a good-faith agreement in place, you don't need a deal-directly
>agreement -- it becomes the simplest way to deal with something.

This reminded me of a social innovation that i think some folks on this
list will be interested in.  It's called a "State of Grace Document."  Here
is a description from Tom Atlee:


It is the brain-heart-spirit child of Maureen McCarthy of the consulting
firm Engaging the Soul @ Work.

The State of Grace Document is an agreement between two people (or any two
entities, including groups, corporations, and countries) co-created to
sustain a high quality of relationship -- "a state of grace" -- between them.

The State of Grace Document stands in stark contrast to that ubiquitous
document -- The Contract -- which is an agreement to ensure that interested
parties comply with certain mutually understood expectations.  Contracts
usually include an explicit or implicit threat of punishment for failure or
betrayal, backed by the power of the legal system.

Contracts and laws are vital to hold together a society of self-interested
entities seeking alliances in their competition for limited resources in
situations that may involve considerable dishonesty, alienation and
temptation.  Contract constitute an effort to nail relationships down so
they don't get blown away by some gust of social entropy.

A State of Grace Document, on the other hand, is a resource for lifting
relationships above the storms of social entropy into the realm of vibrant
co-creativity.  It doesn't nail relationships down.  It provides them with
a radiantly alive center from which to continually co-create themselves.


A State of Grace Document has a deceptively simple structure.  Its one to
three pages emerge from an in-depth conversation in which the following are

1.  A statement from each party on what it is about the other party and the
relationship that they find so valuable -- "the 'story' of the individuals
as they see one another while things are going smoothly."  Whenever the
conditions described in these statements are present, the relationship is
considered to be in the "state of grace" which inspired its birth.  The
purpose of the document and its related conversations is to sustain that
state of grace.

2.  An agreement about the length of time the two parties will tolerate a
departure from that state of grace.  For a marriage or a close working
relationship, that time period might be an hour or a day.  For a less
immediate relationship, such as between business clients, it might be a
week or a month or more.

3.  A commitment by both (all) parties that if they are out of their state
of grace, they will come together -- before that agreed-upon time period
has elapsed -- to have a heart-to-heart talk about the state of their
relationship.  The aim of that conversation will be to either heal the
relationship into its original state of grace -- or to transform it into a
new state of grace.

There is an assumption here that what is most valuable is not necessarily
the relationship's FORM, but rather its QUALITY, the state of grace.  If
the relationship slips out of grace, that may indicate a need to redefine
it to meet new conditions or needs.  So the question becomes:  What is the
NEW state of grace for that relationship?  It may involve a new active
vision or set of expectations.  Or it could involve new ways to live out
the satisfying story the relationship began with.  It might even involve an
honorable, graceful closure to the active relationship, a friendly
separation.  In any case, it is a renewed state of grace.

4.  A set of questions that will be addressed by both (all) parties when
they have their heart-to-heart talk.  The conversation need not be limited
to these questions, but these questions are designed to stimulate a depth
of engagement with each other and with the current reality of the
relationship.  Among the questions suggested by McCarthy:

*  What am I afraid of -- including what am I afraid of really saying right
*  What truths do I need to tell?
*  What do I need right now?
*  What do we each have to gain by ending this relationship?
*  What do we each have to gain by continuing this relationship?
*  What part does money play in this situation?
*  Have I let you down?
*  Is there a power struggle going on between us?
*  What do I appreciate most about you?
*  What do I have to forgive myself and/or you for?
*  Is it time to redefine or redirect this relationship?
*  What is the deep down knowing we each have about how this will
eventually end up?

Born through an effort to negotiate a positive divorce with her husband,
State of Grace Documents now shape the majority of McCarthy's significant
relationships, including not only her family and friends, but her business
relationships with major corporate clients.  Significantly, some of her
clients are now using State of Grace Documents in their own work.


For more information, see the website at

Not that i think everyone in cohousing is going to create one of these
agreements with every other person they share community with, but some
groups or individuals may choose to create some form of this, who knows?


>Anyhow, we are noticing tensions in our community dynamics, especially among
>those who live in the house.  One issue that has come up is determining when
>and how it is helpful for people to discuss negative feelings.  People do
>not always immediately want to talk to a person they are upset with.
>Sometimes they want a sounding board or a second opinion on the validity of
>their complaint.  Sometimes they just want to vent. Sometimes they just
>don't want to confront even though they should.
>We have seen cases in which the person being complained to has felt the
>problem required action and proceeded to tell others.  At one point this
>resulted in an emergency meeting that left some of our members feeling
>ambushed because this was the first they heard that they were the problem.
>They were too shocked to give their side of the story so this meeting did
>not open up communication.
>I am having trouble sorting out in my own mind who should say what to whom
>and when.  Any ideas on guidlines?

I don't think there is one exact set of guidelines that is right for every
group, rather, it's important that your group find something that feels
like the right match for your culture.

It sounds like in some of the cases you mentioned that going to the people
privately first, or finding a bridge person who could go to them, might
have been more effective and created less upset.

I've known groups or organizations that had a conflict resolution committee
that agreed to keep confidentiality when requested, or that could offer
support in setting up a mediation session.  I know of at least one
community that has an explicit agreement that it's ok to vent, but then the
person being vented to will work with the venter to find a way to take
positive action, such as roleplaying how it might go if the venter
approached the person they are upset with.

For myself personally, i live in a community where we have an explicit
commitment to resolve conflicts, and the main way i decide what to bring up
with someone is by seeing whether or not my upset about that thing goes
away or not.  If i'm annoyed in the moment but i get over it, i likely
won't bring it up.  But if a few weeks have gone by and it's affecting my
relationship with that person, that's when i know i need to sit down and
talk.  If i observe ongoing sparks of conflict between two other people in
the house, i will also talk with one or both of them privately and ask what
support they need to work it out, because that energy impacts the rest of
the group.

I recommend your group have one or more discussions about feedback.  

For example, i sometimes do an exercise with groups where i ask people to
brainstorm what they'd want someone approaching them with negative feedback
to do (e.g. don't tell me when i've just gotten home from work; use
"I"-statements).  Then i ask them to brainstorm what they'd want from the
listener, if they were the one giving feedback (e.g. try to understand my
point of view before you start explaining your own).  

The thing is, it often varies a lot by individual, so you might need to
take the time to find out how each person wants to be approached.  You
could make a binder where each member has two pages: one says how they like
to be appreciated (chocolate, extra childcare, someone to sit with them
while they catch up on filing, foot rubs), and the other says how they want
to be approached if someone has negative feedback to offer (make an
appointment with me in advance, give me a chance to go away for a while
before i have to respond, don't bring it up with me in the moment or in
public, etc.)

Whatever you come up with, there is nothing to replace sensitivity and

Good luck,



Tree Bressen
1680 Walnut St.
Eugene, OR 97403
(541) 484-1156
tree [at]
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