Group Process Innovation from Intentional Communities

Intentional communities experiment with and develop many different forms of interpersonal and group processes, or communication methods among people, some of which migrate into and influence the larger culture.

Excerpted from Allen Butcher:

“Intentional communities also make or adapt innovations in group process, for inter-personal communication, self-governance, and communal economics. There are many forms of inter-personal and group processes used in community, from check-ins, to social contracts, to large-group processes such as, “Heart of Now” and “The Forum.”

In decision-making, consensus process may have been invented by Quakers in their “Friends Meetings,” although tribal cultures around the world have used forms of consensus process in place of authoritarian decision-making for ages. Within intentional communities, particularly the cohousing movement, consensus process is preferred. Many different adaptations of consensus process have been developed as a result of people both in and outside of community having decades of experience using it.

In the field of communal economics, the greatest innovation in secular intentional community must be the vacation-credit labor system, the most advanced form of labor-credit system in use. In these systems, hours of work done over the required minimum weekly quota of hours accumulates in the member’s personal account, to be drawn down by the member at a later time when taking a vacation. Different versions of this economic innovation have been used at Twin Oaks, East Wind, Acorn, Emma Goldman Finishing School and other communities. This method of organizing labor in communal society values all labor equally, including domestic labor and income work, and encourages and supports the feminist ideal of both men and women being free to work in cross-gender roles.

The most innovative aspect of labor-credit systems is that there is no or minimal exchange or trade of labor credits among members, since labor credits are only units in an accounting ledger, without using any form of token or anything else that might be used as a currency.

Non-exchange, labor-credit systems in communal societies are the most advanced form of time-based economy, called “labor-sharing.” Simpler forms of time-based economies do not involve labor-sharing, instead are called labor-exchanges, like “time banks,” a form of hybrid between monetary exchange systems and time-based economics, in which hour credits can be traded among members.

The vacation-credit innovation in communal economics serves to show how people can live exclusively according to the values of sharing and equality. Although this form of communal economy is not likely to be adopted by the dominant culture, it does contradict the idea that there is no alternative (TINA) to monetary economics.”

Allen Butcher continues:

“Intentional communities experiment with and develop many different forms of interpersonal and group processes, or communication methods among people, some of which migrate into and influence the larger culture. A good example of how such influence moves from community to the outside world is in Israel where many Kibbutz members who learned management processes in their communities became military and government leaders. In many different intentional communities, especially those with conference centers in Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, India, Japan and elsewhere, various forms of group process are taught.

A large-group-awareness process taught on the Canadian and U.S. West Coast, formerly known by its Japanese name, “Naka-Ima,” and later named “Heart of Now” at the Lost Valley Conference Center in Oregon in the 1990s, originated from ancient Shinto religious concepts concerning understanding the nature of humanity. Heart of Now is typically a weekend-long program involving a variety of individual, small group, and large group events including lectures, song, and movement, and involves individuals focusing upon being present with ones’ core beliefs and attachments in a form of body-centered, group therapy, typically with about two-thirds of the people involved providing experienced support roles. (Tree, 2006; Breffni, 2006; Kozeny, Geoph, personal email communication, 2004, September, 20) An article about Naka-Ima appeared in Communities magazine (issue # 104 pp. 22-6).

A shorter process called “Selbsdtdarstellung” inspired by Wilhelm Reich and developed by the 1970s community network called Actions Analysis Organization in Austria, has been adapted for the process now called “The Forum.” One person is in the center of a circle of others silently witnessing, usually with a facilitator assisting the person through a form of collective psychodrama, which may last from a few minutes to as long as the individual desires. The person in the center speaks or otherwise expresses what they are feeling in the moment in order to reach a personal clarity about what they are passionate about in their lives, and for the group to know that person better. A version of this process is taught in Europe and in the U.S. by the community known by its German acronym “ZEGG,” or the Center for Experimental Cultural Design. (Tree, 2006; Breffni, 2006; Kozeny, Geoph, personal email communication, 2004, September, 20) Several articles about ZEGG have appeared in Communities magazine (issues # 87 pp. 42-5; # 101 pp. 62-4; # 130 pp. 15-7)

The Esalen Institute on California’s Big Sur coast, the Findorn Community on Scotland’s north coast, and Auroville in Tamil Nadu, South India have all inspired many different intentional community-based conference centers around the world to offer a range of group process trainings.

In the 1970s in Philadelphia the Movement for a New Society (MNS) developed many resource materials about group processes which were taught at least in North America and Europe. These include consensus process for group decision-making as inspired by Quaker religious practices, the “clearness” process for individual communication with a living group or working group, and adaptations of aspects of re-evaluation co-counseling techniques for small groups, originally developed by radical psychological counseling organizations. The publisher New Society Press began by publishing MNS materials.

A range of different large and small-group format communication processes, along with samples of social contracts, behavior codes, MNS clearness process, constructive criticism and negative feedback, decision-making and planning processes, and a section on the “Shadow Side” manipulations and dysfunctions in community are presented in the paper, Light and Shadows: Interpersonal and Group Process in the Sharing Lifestyle. (See:

One of the simplest and most effective communication processes presented in Light and Shadows is called “Heart Sharing,” developed by the Ultimate Vehicle Family in the early 1980s. This process involves the people who desire to build a close relationship, meeting in a circle in a quiet space with only water to share, while each person takes as much time as they wish to say to the group only what they want the others to hear, not everything that is going on in their lives or that they are thinking about. There are no comments made on what is said and no discussion unless a question is asked. Each person clearly states when they have finished so that the next person may begin. Nothing is repeated to others outside of the circle. Scheduled for a time separate from business meetings, Heart Sharing can provide a safe space for each person in the group to communicate what is most important to them to say to the others with whom they work and/or live.

How and to what extent all of these and similar community-oriented group-process methods have been developed within community and disseminated throughout the culture as part of the larger human potential movement of the latter part of the 20th century, may be impossible to account for and measure. In The History of Utopian Thought, Joyce Oramel Hertzler expresses this dynamic in his more general comment about the impact of communitarian innovations upon the larger, outside or dominant culture.

Behind all individual genius is something greater, more creative, more powerful, more intimately in touch with the sources of life, … and this is the collective mind, crude and largely dormant, though it may be. … The Utopias incorporate the best element of their age, which creation, however, is an act of ingenuity and originality. … [T]he Utopians were giving audible expression to murmurings so faint that but few even noticed them. These voices were so far in the van of their age that their conceptions were received as fantasy and their owners dubbed “Utopians.” (Hertzler, p. 180)

In the 21st century the predominant focus of community-based conference centers is ecological sustainability through renewable energy, natural building methods and materials, and permaculture or organic agriculture. The importance of inter-personal and group process is still stressed and taught, yet the shift to a predominant focus upon ecological issues, which existed to a lesser degree in the 1960s and ’70s intentional communities, shows how the intentional community movements parallel or track the changing concerns, fads and challenges of the dominant culture. In a time of a growing ecological awareness among the general population as a result of concerns about climate change, a specific intentional community tradition and international network has developed to address it called the “ecovillage.”

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