The Tree of Compassionate Connection – Resolving conflict in a cohousing community

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Cohousing communities are intentional communities – communities made up of like-minded people from diverse backgrounds brought together with a shared vision of harmonious living. A united community, thriving as a team, supporting each other at every turn –and never, ever falling out about anything – right?


Like all groups of people who coexist, cohousing communities experience conflict.

As someone preparing to be part of the cohousing community of Treehouse Village Ecohousing (TVE) in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, I’ve been preparing for the reality of what my family has just signed up for. I’ve just finished reading The View from #410 by Jean K. Mason (2010), the story of one woman’s journey into cohousing (her yellow, sunny home on the fourth floor is called #410). It’s a complicated tale of challenge, conflict, and eventual (and ongoing) resolution. The challenges start with a compromise on the land purchase (a strip near the railroad tracks), then the general affordability of the project – who is being priced out? How can changes to the design be made that allow access to a diverse range of families without compromising the vision? There follows the huge challenge to resolve conflicts regarding the allocation of the individual units where more than one family wants the same unit. And then, of course, the conflicts of community living continue after the members move into their cohousing community. These include (in no particular order): communal storage, kids room design, shared electric meters, accessibility, parking, the local neighbourhood, uninvolved members, acoustics, addiction, teenagers, members leaving, clotheslines, repairs, cleanliness, recycling, graffiti…

It’s an overwhelming list!

But it mirrors some of my thinking right now. Lately I’ve taken to obsessing about my dogs – Blackberry, a greedy black lab cross, and Buddy, a smooth coated collie and general hoodlum.  They are both very friendly (perhaps too friendly?), but often poorly behaved. How can we make sure we aren’t winding everyone up with their doggy disruptiveness? Who is going to scoop the poop in the communal areas if we don’t see it first? What if they start chasing the resident herd of deer? What if some of our neighbours can’t stand dogs?

Date night

A couple of years ago my husband and I were on a date night, attending an evening organised by a local personal development group here in Bristol, UK. We didn’t know who the speakers were going to be; sometimes it’s just fun to turn up and see what’s on offer. The subject happened to be Nonviolent Communication (NVC), which was interesting as I’d just had an altercation with my daughter’s swimming teacher and was still fuming. The speakers were interesting – they had worked on the West Bank helping to bring Jews and Palestinians together in NVC workshops (which put the swimming teacher situation in perspective). They talked us through the “Tree of Compassionate Connection.” 

As attendees of the group we bought raffle tickets during the break. The top prize was a free course in Nonviolent Communication. The winning ticket was drawn at the end of the meeting, and the winner of the raffle turned out to be…me! 

I’m not saying it was meant to be, but…

The Tree of Compassionate Connection

So fast forward and here we are members of Treehouse Village. I have taken on the “operational role” of  NVC Support for our community within our Community Life Circle. Our mode of governance, Sociocracy, is closely associated with NVC as a way of compassionate, effective interaction. We have organised, and continue to plan, induction and training in NVC for our community.

The Tree of Compassionate Connection is a model of conflict resolution that features NVC. It was first developed by a Californian NVC trainer and family therapist named Inbal Kashtan (who died in 2014). Before her death she was the coordinator of the NVC “Peaceful families, Peaceful World” initiative. All this feels very resonant for Treehouse – it’s a tree after all! – and our vision of “a joyful, environmentally responsible, healthy, multi-age cohousing community.”

The NVC Tree of Compassionate Connection, by Shantigarbha: Adapted from the NVC Tree of Life by Inbal Kashtan:

The tree itself symbolises our community. At the centre is a heart – this symbolises the sweet spot, where everyone’s needs in the community are valued and are being met. The heart is the symbol of compassion because it takes everyone’s needs into account in a caring, respectful and loving way, and in a way that respects our common humanity. It’s at the centre of our community, and it therefore connects our inner world (how we connect to ourselves) and our outer world (how we connect to each other). The quality of that connection affects everything in our community.

Our outer world – how we connect with each other – is above the line in the diagram, and shows two big branches reaching upwards and outwards, embracing each member of our community. The connections we hold with each other develop in two distinct ways – through the power of empathy (how we understand each other and connect what is in our hearts), and through the power of self-expression (how we communicate our heartfelt needs to each other, both verbally and nonverbally). The branches are growing because the movement to empathize and self-express should be constantly developed – training in Nonviolent Communication can help in developing both the skills of empathy and respectful self-expression.

Empathy asks: “What are you feeling? What do you need?”

Self-expression says: “This is how I feel. This is what I need.”

Below the line are the roots of the tree. This symbolizes our relationship to ourselves. Interestingly, the parts of a tree existing above and below ground are generally equal in terms of its biomass. The quality of how we relate to others (the branches reaching out above the line) are only as effective as the strength of your connection with yourself. It’s a useful meditation to think about your own personal development as enabling your community to be more effective.

Conflict Resolution 

How can the diagram be used in conflict resolution? In my training, our teacher mapped out the parts of the tree on the floor, and facilitated us moving physically through the different parts of the tree to practice conflict resolution. It became clear that successful conflict resolution was incredibly dynamic and needed balance of empathy, self-expression, and at times when emotions became painful, self-care, during the process. This was called the “Inner, Outer Dance” and it was fascinating to observe, participate in, and facilitate.

Finally, the tree of compassionate connection offers us another meaning and helps us reach another level of knowing about conflict resolution and (potentially) its purpose within our intentional community. To illustrate this meaning, my NVC teacher, Shantigarba, told us a story about the Eden Project. The Eden project is an enormous and ambitious eco project here in the UK, which sets out to demonstrate the importance of plants and to promote sustainable use of plant resources. The project maintains two huge greenhouses, or biodomes, which are constantly regulated to fully nurture the plethora of vegetation they hold. 

The story goes that, in the early days of the project, the carefully cultivated trees in the biosphere would reach a certain height and then topple over. Given the attention paid to the exact amount of nourishment, exposure to sunlight, and calibration of temperature, the experts were mystified. Until, after a number of investigations, they realised something that they had never taken into account before: The real world. Specifically – wind. It seemed the trees needed a certain amount of resistance – to grow against the force of wind – in order to fully strengthen their root structure and to reach their full potential.

There was only one thing for it. Massive fans were installed and their blades turned to the young saplings, exposing them to gentle, and then increasingly powerful, currents as they grew. Lo and behold, the trees were able to root themselves effectively against the force of the wind, grow tall, and not topple over.

The point is that we go into our community not just expecting conflict, but seeing it as a way of ultimately making us stronger. Not just inevitable, but, if carefully and compassionately managed, desirable. Meeting and resolving our conflicts, and seeing them as opportunities to grow, will not just keep us upright, it will help us grow together in compassion.

As Jean Mason (2010) says from her tale of cohousing (which she regarded, in the end, as a resounding success):

Once, during a meeting, when the group of coho residents was bravely tacking the prickly subject of finding a comfortable way to live together, Howard offered this metaphor: ‘Many different people dance on the stage of our community. We learn to dance with all of them’. Sitting there, listening to Howard, the warm cozy high of that sense of belonging rushed through my body: this was a privilege, an extraordinary opportunity to find oneself in…to me, it is ceaselessly amazing that the workings of community have a berth at all…in a secular intentional home – it gives me shivers again just thinking about it.

And that is why, despite all the challenges, and despite the continuing poor behaviour of our dogs, we root ourselves in this cohousing community right now and actually look forward to the conflicts and ways we can resolve them. We understand now that it is because of our conflicts, and not in spite of them, that our own tree of compassionate connection, which lies at the heart of our community, truly flourishes.

One response to “The Tree of Compassionate Connection – Resolving conflict in a cohousing community”

  1. Susan

    Very interesting. Community is important.

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