Community is an old-fashioned concept, one that many of us now put the word “online” in front of. But, when it comes down to it, we all need in-person, real-life communities to thrive and be happy. “Communities help us succeed where we cannot by ourselves,” says Charles Vogl, M. Div, Executive Coach and author of The Art of Community: Seven Principles for Belonging. “Just knowing that we have others to support us makes us stronger, even as we risk failure. Wouldn’t we all love to work in a team or live in a neighborhood where we have such a community?”
While Vogl mostly helps CEOs and other leaders create camaraderie within their places of work, his thoughtfulness around the concept can help all of us create stronger communities where we live, in our families, and throughout our lives.
“Communities are bound by shared values—values about something,” Vogl writes on his website. “They can be about bicycling, about living on your block, or about a commitment to ending genocide. Not everybody belongs in every community. Healthy communities have boundaries.”
This may seem counterintuitive because we live in a world where we like to say “everyone is welcome,” but, in fact, strong communities use boundaries to support inclusion and communication, not to force people to stay inside or be unwelcoming to outsiders. Most have porous borders.
For example, my own communities include a chorus, my family, a belly dancing class, the independent school where I work, and, of course, my friends. Each group is its own sensibilities, and while they are all filled with loving and kind people, each has its own shared value (for instance, no one else in my family belly dances!).
However, all of these communities, like other successful societies, are filled with people who care about “one another’s welfare and who help each other,” Vogl says. That’s good because having a supportive network of friends and family is more indicative of whether you will live a long life than than any other health marker.
Many of us, though, do not feel as if we are part of supportive groups. The suicide rate is rising and that is directly related to the loneliness and isolation many people feel. To counter these feelings, more people turn to screens to fight the loneliness, but in reality, screen time just adds to the pressure of perfection and can intensify loneliness. Instead, we need to strengthen our IRL connections.
Invite people to do things and into your house
“The world would be radically different if every American had six people they could call at 3 a.m. because they are having a crisis,” Vogl says. “As a parent, I want to model for my son how to create community, so I am focused on teaching him how to ask for help when he needs it and show up for people who need help.”
The invitations, Vogl says, must be frequent and consistent. “Don’t just invite people over once a year for a party,” he adds. “Invite people more frequently. At some point it comes down to math; you need to invest so you get better results, and don’t count the nos. There are no demerits. Keep inviting.”
Also, show up when you are invited. I went to a concert on a Sunday night recently and turned to my friend in the middle to say, “I’m so glad I got off my couch for this!” The best part wasn’t only the music, but that so many of my friends from different social circles were also there and seeing them reminded me that I am part of a few communities that bring me joy.
Create a sacred space for conversation
Make sure everyone is aware that at these gatherings, things can be said that can’t be said elsewhere; it should be a safe space. And make sure the guests are not distracted by electronics or sports. “People should just come over to talk,” Vogl says. If you notice that you and your family are in the same room, but all on devices, why not start a conversation about screen time and happiness? Communities work when people feel connected and if everyone is in the same room, but communicating with people who are outside of the room, then you’re really not experiencing a sense of “community.”
Build community at work
If you’re a leader at a company or business, keep your real-life workers connected by making sure they feel valued and heard, just as you would in your home or within your circle of friends. While work spaces are different than family and friend spaces, it is a sense of community that helps companies and businesses grow. Workers want to stay in jobs when they believe they belong and can thrive in their jobs.
If you are a manager or leader at work striving to retain employees, focus on building a sense of community in your office rather than discussing numbers, results, or sales. Once employees feel loyalty to the mission of their place of work, they are more likely to want to stay and do their best.
Turn your hobbies into communities
Do you knit? Form a knitting circle or offer knitting groups at your local library or community center so that you aren’t knitting alone but with others. Are you a reader? Start a book group (mine, filled with friends from my hometown, meets on Skype once a month). Whatever your hobby, look for ways to share your interest with others, and not just one person, but a few. Then, turn that small group into a warm and supportive community by sharing snacks (they can be healthy!), making your space screen-free, and, if a member of the group needs help, showing up for them.
It isn’t always easy to invite people into our homes, and it’s also sometimes a challenge to accept that others want to connect with us, but the rewards are manifest. So, think about someone in your community who could use a visit and maybe a casserole. She’ll be happy you took a chance, and you’ll be happy, too.