an Interview with M. Scott Peck, by Alan AtKisson
IN CONTEXT #29, Summer 1991
In modern times, the idea of "community" has increasingly
been expanded to include not just the place where one lives, but the web
of relationships into which one is embedded. Work, school, voluntary
associations, computer networks - all are communities, even though the
members live quite far apart.
But according to psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck, for any group
to achieve community in the truest sense, it must undertake a journey that
involves four stages: "pseudocommunity," where niceness reigns;
"chaos," when the emotional skeletons crawl out of the closet;
"emptiness," a time of quiet and transition; and finally, true
community, marked both by deep honesty and deep caring.
Peck's thinking on this subject is detailed in his 1987 book, The
Different Drum: Community Making and Peace (Simon and Schuster). He is
the author of several other books, including the phenomenally popular The
Road Less Traveled.
Peck - "Scotty" to all who know him - is also the co-founder
of the Foundation for Community Encouragement, created to support
community-building work, and he and other Foundation staff have since
conducted over 275 community building workshops. Here he reflects on that
experience and the challenges - and joys - of working together to be in
Alan: In the first sentence of The Different Drum you
say, "In and through community lies the salvation of the world."
You've done five years of community-building work since writing those words.
Do they still hold true for you?
Scotty: Very much so. I had very little experience with community
building when I finished the book in 1986. But I now have a great deal of
experience, having worked with organizations and groups throughout North
America and in the United Kingdom through the Foundation for Community Encouragement.
I'm more convinced than ever of the truth of those opening sentences.
My second book, People of the Lie, is on the subject of evil.
In the second chapter, on group evil, I quoted the Berrigans' saying
that perhaps the greatest single problem we have is to figure out how to
metaphorically "exorcise" our institutions. Recently, I realized
that the Foundation is doing exactly that - by building community within
those institutions. Of course, to do an exorcism you have to have a willing
patient, and a willing organization doesn't come down the pike every day.
Alan: What are the metaphorical demons that need to be exorcised?
And what does "community" mean in this context?
Scotty: The names of the demons range all over the map, from misuse
of political power to apathy, from corporate lies to organizational myths
that are unrealistic, and so forth.
Community can be one of those words - like God, or love, or death,
or consciousness - that's too large to submit to any single, brief definition.
At the Foundation we consider community to be a group of people that have
made a commitment to learn how to communicate with each other at an ever
more deep and authentic level. One of the characteristics of true community
is that the group secrets, whatever they are, become known - they come out
to where they can be dealt with.
By other definitions, a community is a group that deals with its own
issues - its own shadow - and the shadow can contain any kind of
issue. We have tried unsuccessfully at the Foundation to come up with a
sort of slogan, but one of the phrases that kept coming up was from the
gospels: "And the hidden shall become known."
The Foundation just finished a conference on business and community at
the University of Chicago School of Business with some seventy-five hard
headed businesspeople. The theme was "tension", and the subtheme
was that, within an organization, community represents a forum where the
tension can be surfaced out in the open and made known. You can't develop
a "tensionless" organization. To the contrary, one of the conclusions
at the conference was that you wouldn't want to develop a tensionless
Creating community in the context of an organization permits those tensions
to be surfaced and dealt with as best they can, rather than being latent
or under the table.
Alan: Many groups and organizations in recent years have been
experimenting with community building and consensus process. For some it
works beautifully - but for others, seeking consensus seems to become a
morass that sucks energy out of their efforts. What's the difference between
groups for whom consensus works, and those who never quite seem to get there?
Scotty: One of the things we have to get to is a definition
The Foundation once did a workshop for a large group medical practice
that clearly had a problem with retaining its professional staff. When they
called us, they said they had all agreed that they needed a community-building
workshop, and that they would take two days off to do it. Now, it's not
enough to go into an organization just to build community, because if you
do that and leave, the whole thing collapses two days later. So when we
work with organizations, our initial intervention is at least three days.
We build community in the first two, then spend a third day having the group
make written, consensual decisions about what they are going to do to
maintain themselves as a community.
Well, these doctors said "My god! Do you know how difficult it is
for seventeen physicians to take off from their practice for two days, and
you're saying we have to do it for three?" I said, "Yup!"
They finally agreed.
Physicians have big egos, so they don't ordinarily work very well
together. But to give you an idea of how well a group can work in
community, here's the definition of consensus they developed on the third
day of that workshop: "Consensus is a group decision - which some members
may not feel is the best decision but which they can all live with,
support, and commit themselves to not undermine - arrived at without
voting, through a process whereby the issues are fully aired, all members
feel that they have been adequately heard, in which everyone has equal
power and responsibility, and different degrees of influence by virtue of
individual stubbornness or charisma are avoided, so that all are satisfied
with the process. The process requires the members to be emotionally
present and engaged; frank in a loving, mutually respectful manner;
sensitive to each other; to be selfless, dispassionate, and capable of
emptying themselves; and possessing a paradoxical awareness of both people
and time, including knowing when the solution is satisfactory, and that it
is time to stop and not re-open the discussion until such time that the
group determines a need for revision."
Alan: That's certainly comprehensive!
Scotty: It's starting to be used by organizations around North
America precisely because it is so thorough. A number of answers to your
question come out of that definition. There are a lot of organizations that
operate by what they think is consensus, but it really is not consensus
at all. I've run into three top executives, for example, who have told me
that they "rule by consensus"!
But to meet the definition's requirements, you essentially have to
have what we call true community. And if you do not, you can come up with
a kind of decision-making process that you call consensus, but isn't
Many institutions that try to get to consensus fail because they are
not yet true communities. They aren't ready yet to get to consensus,
because they need to work on themselves before they start to make
Alan: Assuming a group does make it to true community and
consensus, how does it stay there? What, for example, did those doctors
decide to do to maintain themselves as a community?
Scotty: Well, the doctors are a wonderful example because they
did a number of things, including having a follow-up workshop and doing
some work with a consultant. They radically revised their committee system
to make all major decisions by consensus, and in community. They used their
definition of consensus in their recruitment of new members. Over the year
after our initial intervention, they grew from seventeen to twenty-five
But a year and a half later, having become fat and successful again,
the crisis had passed and they gave up working on it. I now hear they are
out of community. It takes a significant amount of effort to build community,
but it takes even more effort - ongoing effort - to maintain it.
The biggest problem with community maintenance, as with community start-up,
is the problem of organizations simply being willing to pay the price -
which is, primarily, a price of time.
It's also a price of ongoing vulnerability. And it is a price of being
willing to continually re-examine your norms. Sometimes the price is having
to repeat the work of community-building workshops, or having consultants
work with you. And the biggest opposition to paying the price is from people
who, just as in individual therapy, want what the therapist would call "the
magical solution." There are many organizations that would love to
have community if we could give it to them as some kind of free magic. It
ain't magic, and it ain't free. It's work, like anything else.
Alan: But work with a potentially huge pay-off. A clearly focused
intention seems to be key here.
Scotty: Together with vigilance. And I don't want to be discouraging
about the price - I think the price is extraordinarily cost effective.
For instance, the Foundation did a couple of workshops for two
labor/management negotiating teams, for a Fortune 100 company. They had a
two-month obligatory negotiating period, and they vowed to try to keep
themselves in community for those two months, which they succeeded in doing.
Instead of "coming to the table," they got rid of the
table. Management and labor had previously eaten separately; they ate together.
Management vowed to come in with its bottom line, financially, right at
the very beginning. They each vowed not to try to caucus for the
two months, and they succeeded.
They changed the rules, and they collaborated on a contract. Both sides
were saying things like, "Hey, you guys are overlooking this thing
that is to your advantage." This was the highest paid consulting contract
we've had for the Foundation. We probably charged them $16,000, but they
probably saved $16,000,000 for a strike that didn't happen.
Alan: What sustains a community in the long term?
Scotty: I'm not sure how sustainable community is unless it has
a pretty clearly defined task. Healthy organizations have a mission statement,
often along with a philosophy and a vision statement, which they continually
update and revise. I suspect that there are a lot of intentional communities,
for example, that either don't have a mission statement or haven't looked
at it for years and years.
Alan: So communities of all kinds need to say, "This is
what we are going to do together."
Scotty: And "This is our purpose for being together."
And that statement has to be reexamined, ritualistically, every couple of
years. Doing this requires that the organization's cultural values be explicit.
At each of our Foundation's board meetings, not only do we have a list of
our ground rules - our whole culture is spelled out in a big flip
chart somewhere where everybody can look at it.
These values include openness, being willing to be challenged, to re-look
at norms, being willing to change. There has to be love and respect, of
course - but there also has to be valid data. There has to be a kind of
tension between caring and a terrible dedication to reality.
Of course, there are some organizations or communities that should probably
not be maintained or sustained. That gets into the issue of, "When
has an organization outlived its usefulness?" That, again, gets into
re-visiting the mission statement. "Do we still have a mission? Maybe
we don't anymore."
A critical part of the art of sustaining community is integration of
task and process. Task is working on your mission, and process
is working on yourselves as a community. This art requires an enormous amount
A group of people never become a community and stay a community. They
continually fall out of community, back into chaos or pseudocommunity. What
character-izes a healthy, ongoing, sustained community is the rapidity with
which it is able to say, "Hey, we've lost it. We need to go back and
work on ourselves."
Alan: "We need to leave off working on our task for awhile
and do some work on our process."
Scotty: Right. Switching from one to another is difficult. The
timing is an art, and requires discipline.
We work by doing the community process first, and then going on to the
task. One of the things that characterizes our work is that it's very gentle.
But there's one exercise we do that is not gentle. For groups that
are interested in issues of sustainability, and task versus process, we
will have them work on themselves as a community for fifteen minutes. Somebody
will be in the midst of talking about themselves, saying something terribly
deep, and they'll be crying and heartbroken. But at 15 minutes, the leader
will snap his or her fingers and say, "Now start working on your task,
your mission statement."
It's amazing how good people get at this after awhile. They can be in
the midst of re-phrasing a policy document, and the leader can make a snap
of the fingers again and say "Now go back to your process," and
they can go right back to that person who was crying fifteen minutes ago,
who starts crying again.
Now in reality, you want to be much more artistic than that, rather than
switching by rote every fifteen minutes. But we use this rather brutal exercise
just to demonstrate to groups how they can overcome their inertia.
It shows that it is possible for a group of human beings to switch
like that on a moment's notice.
Alan: Suppose you want to create community in your office,
or right on your block, but you don't have a workshop to go to. What do
Scotty: One of the reasons that we set up the Foundation was precisely
to help those groups that are not able to do it on their own. Somewhere
between twenty-five and fifty percent of the groups that read The Different
Drum and try to develop community on their own are able to do it. But
the other fifty to seventy-five percent can't. They just don't have the
process skills, or the right combination of people. They've got to get expertise.
But sometimes the expertise they need may in fact be task, rather than
process, expertise. For instance, when we started the Foundation we were
a bunch of "do-gooders" who really didn't have the foggiest idea
about how to do good. If you had asked me six years ago what strategic
planning was, I would have said it was something that was only done by the
Air Force, like strategic bombing. As a Board, we had to learn strategic
planning and how to run a business. In some ways, that's actually harder
than starting with a structured, task-oriented organization and trying
to develop community.
Alan: That certainly seems to have been true for many intentional
communities over the years. Often it seems to have been the business, management,
and structure issues that have proven to be the Achilles' heel.
Scotty: This is something I'm quite passionate about. Structure
and community are not incompatible. To the contrary, they mutually
thrive on one another. Actually, the greater the structure in an organization,
and the clearer that structure is, the easier it is for us to introduce
community into the organization. If a task-oriented business group that
is not well-structured builds itself into community, it will discover, I
think, that their very next task is to define roles. Invariably, those roles
are going to be in some sort of hierarchy.
The purpose of community is not to get rid of hierarchy. Again, part
of the art of all this is for an organization to learn how to function
in a hierarchical and highly structured task-oriented mode, and learn
how to function in a community mode. It also needs to learn the technology
of switching back and forth. The more clearly defined the roles are, the
more structured the organization actually is, the easier this switching
back and forth becomes. The more blurred the structure, the harder it becomes.
Alan: In The Different Drum you write, "An organization
is able to nurture a measure of community within itself only to the extent
that it is willing to risk or tolerate a certain lack of structure."
Is what you're saying now a modification of that earlier view?
Scotty: An elaboration of it. The only obstacle to building and
maintaining community within an organization is not structural. It's political.
If you get somebody at the top who is not willing to relinquish the structure,
even temporarily, or who has to dominate everything, there's no way you
can have community in that organization. So the people in the organization,
particularly at the top, have to be willing to temporarily lay aside their
role and their rank.
Alan: You've described personal growth as a "journey out
of culture". Is growth toward real community similar? Is community
Scotty: No, it's not a-cultural. I think there is a distinct culture
of community. Remember that at all of our board meetings we have, among
other things, a list of about thirty values in our organizational culture.
The principles of community are some of the parameters of what might be
considered a new global culture. Those are values like respect, and
using valid data. Only a very small minority of people - under 5% - can't
buy into those values.
Alan: What would "global community" look like? Is
it even possible?
Scotty: Sure it is. We have built community in every walk of life
and pretty much in every culture. We did a workshop last year for Jews,
Christians, and Muslims to build community. It was so successful the Muslims
have donated money to help us put it on again.
But the word global gets mushy unless it is related to a real problem.
For instance, I can practically guarantee you that if you took five Anglos,
fifteen Afrikaners, and thirty-five Blacks from South Africa and put them
together in the same room and got them to work towards committing themselves
to learning this "technology of community," that at the end of
three or four days you'd have them coming out respecting each other, loving
each other, and able to work profoundly effectively on whatever it is that
they need to work on. Community doesn't look any different wherever it is.
The problem is to get the people into the room.
Alan: And to keep them there through the four stages of
pseudocommunity, chaos, emptiness - and finally community.
Scotty: Right. The only requirement we have is that people stay
there and not walk out. Incidentally, another thing we've learned consistently,
which I didn't know at the time I wrote The Different Drum, is that
it's much easier to build community among unsophisticated people than among
the sophisticated. A group of diplomats or psychiatrists are really tough,
because you have to penetrate their sophistication to get to their innocence.
But I believe creating community is always possible, and when people
see that you can attain community consistently - that there are rules and
principles you can follow to get there - that fosters real hope.
Alan: So "the salvation of the world," as you refer
to it in your writing, is attainable.
Scotty: Very much so. Let me read you part of the Foundation's
Philosophy Statement, which captures some of the essence of this vision:
"There is a yearning in the heart for peace. Because of the wounds,
the rejections, we have received in past relationships, we are frightened
by the risks. In our fear we discount the dream of authentic community as
merely visionary. But there are rules by which people can come back together,
by which the old wounds are healed. It is the mission of the Foundation
for Community Encouragement to teach these rules, to make hope real again,
to make the vision actually manifest in a world which has almost forgotten
the glory of what it means to be human."
Being in community in an organization isn't a panacea. Reality still
exists. And as is characteristic of a healthy individual life, there's actually
more pain in community than outside of it. But there's also more
joy. To me, what characterizes a true community is not that it's
less painful, but that it's more alive.