Clearness versus Feedback
I am quite sensitive about comparing Twin Oaks to Acorn. It is perhaps like trying to compare great books. There is so much done right, does it really make sense to focus on the downsides? And i firmly believe that propagandists (like myself) should be vocal critics, trying to make the ideas and experiments they are advancing be better.
So it is with some trepidation that i compare the different systems my two communities use for dealing with problems between members or between a member and the rest of the community. In theory, both approaches look quite reasonable.
At Twin Oaks, one part of the system we use is a technique called the Feedback system. Someone does something outside our agreements (they don’t make their labor quota for a long time, they spend more money than the community provides – creating a debt to the community, or they have other problematic behaviors) and they get a feedback called on them. If someone is in a conflict with another member, there are a number of things which are supposed to be done before a feedback is called, including mediated face-to-face conversations between the people who are in conflict. If this mediation goes poorly, a member can call a feedback on another member and if 10 members agree it is appropriate (by signing the proposal to call a feedback) then the feedback is launched. If things are really bad, the feedback can be the entry way to an expulsion process. But this is quite rare actually, perhaps happening less than every couple of years.
When a feedback is called, a date for the community to meet with the individual is set. A facilitator is selected, if the focus person wants they can also have an advocate. The facilitator of the feedback is clear that we are trying to create a safe space for people to express their views and concerns. Usually, there is some mix of appreciation and critique of the person who has had the feedback called on them. Their friends and supporters will often come to make sure they know that their are positive voices in the course of the community. Usually the conversation is dominated by different members perceptions about what the problems with the focus person are and in some cases constructive feedback on how to address them.
When we coach people on how to handle feedbacks, it is generally about how to manage their defensiveness. When someone gives you a critical observation, almost all of us jump to what is wrong about the critique. This is exactly the wrong way to respond at a feedback. Instead, you start by validating the part of the expressed concern which feels genuinely true to you. You reflect back, ideally summarizing and using different language, so that the person with concerns feels heard. And it is important to say how you disagree (if you do) but not in a charged and defensive way.
After listening to the concerns, there is a “Next Steps” portion of the feedback, in which the community investigates if there is something which needs to happen next. Are we done with this issue? Do we need a behavior contract with consequences if the problematic behavior repeats? Do we think the problem is so big that we need to start the process of expelling this person?
At first glance this seems complete reasonable, especially in a one-on-one conflict there is lots of mediated conversation before the problem comes to the entire group. And this is another one of those cases where completely reasonable is not quite as it appears.
Alternatively, Acorn uses our clearness process to deal with these types of problems. One important difference is that the clearness process is not an extraordinary process, it is the same process which is used by every member at least twice every year. The other central difference between a clearness and a feedback is that the clearness requires one on one conversations with every member of the community. After these conversations are finished there is a group clearness, which appears at first glance would be of the same form as the Twin Oaks feedback, but it is not really. Typically, in the Acorn approach the inner personal heavy lifting is done during these one on one conversations and the group event is summarizing the set of (generally successful) conversations so everyone can get an overview of concerns and solutions. It is important to note that this format is much more accessible at Acorn (which has a population of 30) than at Twin Oaks with it’s 93 adult members.
This process can also be used in an emergency, as with me recently where i was inviting guests in a way that made people feel run over. Plus i had the misfortune of co-hosting Nero who set Acorn at fire. It was not time for me to do one of my regular clearnesses, so we put together one that was principally focused on this particular problem. I talked with everyone and other issues came up and even before we had the group clearness at the end, i was already feeling quite good about the groups response to my mistakes and feeling like the resolutions we were coming to would work for everyone.
From my perspective there are three critical differences here, all of which make the Acorn system generally preferable. The first is that these clearnesses are part of regular life and membership at Acorn. You don’t need to be messed up to have a clearness, though if you do mess up, it is a familiar tool for helping to decode that. The second is that everyone is involved in a one-on-one conversation before the big group meeting. These can be facilitated, work i have done and enjoyed at Acorn. Finally, the consensus underpinning of the Acorn system means members are seeking solutions which work for everyone.