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A CONVERSATION WITH
Marv Thomas, MSW
How to Have People in Your Life by Choice, not by Chance
PERSONAL VILLAGE WORKBOOK®
- Q. In your book, you refer to the bedrock values of your rural upbringing. How do the lessons of your formative years play into your concept of the Personal Village?
- A. I grew up in a family that had just migrated off the farm. The values they brought with them included community, though they did not call it that. They simply looked after each other, supported births and stood by at deaths, and observed the ritual of family life by gathering often for big dinners, trips to the cemetery and to Sunday church. I simply grew up experiencing the richness of a warm circle of well-known folk and assuming that an extended circle of people would always be available to me. When I left home and moved into a modern, fragmented, hurry-hurry society I was simply shocked at how isolated I felt. My childhood experiences gave me a template for creating a vital personal community in my own life. And, I learned that I need to support the same thing for the people around me.
- Q. How have people become more distant from one another?
- A. Oh, many influences in the modern world have acted to cause more distance between us. Our mobility is one thing. Instead of wandering around in our natural neighborhoods, we drive miles to meet someone for coffee or spend hours in a commute. One challenge of modern society is our hurried lifestyle. We scurry here and there with such speed that we cannot take the time to stop and have a leisurely conversation. And when we do slow down, we too often choose the phone or the television over talking in a contact-rich way with the people who are right in front of us. Technology has also created distance. It has made communication so efficient that we no longer need to seek out face to face interactions in much of our daily life. This leads to even greater isolation. In effect, the conveniences that help also can hurt.
- Q. Do the internet and new technology help community?
- A. Yes, these new tools have opened doors that benefit us all. The strongest community is one where everyone knows what is going on. When we are all cross-connected everyone can participate. Mistakes can be identified quickly and corrective action can be taken. All of the skills available in the community can be quickly brought forward to enrich all of our lives.
The simple existence of mass information can force a change for good by opening our eyes to what is going on in the world. Global communication also allows everyone to have access to the historical record. When they do, destructive patterns can be identified more quickly and the lessons of the past that have worked can be applied. As a result, all of our communities, from families to nations, are stronger.
- Q. We now have email and cyberspace communities like myspace.com and match.com. How has instant communication affected human interaction? Is having e-mail and online buddies the start of a Personal Village?
- A. Yes, absolutely. The electronic ways of communicating have evolved naturally to compensate for our lack of connection. We are able to locate and engage with people we never would have found without it. The ability to communicate at any time of the day or night over great distances has brought us all closer together. This new technology has enriched our lives and allowed us to have frequent interactions, one of the essentials for strong community.
But the digital world is both a blessing, and a curse. Instant communications have tricked us into believing that sharing data, including what we are thinking and feeling, is the same as real human communication. We are all very highly skilled at being able to size up others when we have all the information like facial expressions or gestures or type of clothing or the company they keep. This information is best discovered in face to face engagement where we are close enough to smell smoke, soap, perfume, or alcohol to name just a few. In that close encounter we are more likely to know the true fiber of the person we are engaging. At least on the phone we have clues like voice tone, language use, and pacing which give us more clues. When we are on the keyboard or the telephone with another person, there is no one looking over our shoulder to give us a second opinion in case the interaction is off base. If a person depends strongly on cyber communications for their personal village without balancing it with face-to-face time, they can get into serious trouble.
- Q. How do you recognize when a community is at cross purposes, or is not healthy?
- A. If the community circle you find yourself in feels wrong in some way, it probably is. I have created a community effectiveness test that can help you orient yourself in a more precise way as to what is wrong. Then talk with friends outside of the community. Consult this book for clues about how to bring about changes. If it is possible, talk with other members of the community circle and see if you can collectively agree on a way to bring about positive change. Always think about trying to bring harmony between people and to find a way where everyone's needs are being met to some degree.
- Q. You often refer to the people in your life as being your greatest asset. What do you mean?
- A. For the last two million years of our evolution we have developed an absolute dependence upon others for protection and support and help in time of need. It is in our genetics to thrive when we are embedded in a supportive community. Years of research all show that having a strong supportive net of relationships leads to longer life, better health, and greater satisfaction. Crime goes down, school dropouts are less, drug problems are less common, health costs decrease and overall personal success is greatest when people are strongly connected to others who care.
- Q. Forming a Personal Village demands that you consciously connect with the people that make up your world--neighbors, the people you encounter every day during your commute, the person who serves you coffee at Starbucks, etc. Does this mean that one has to be outgoing and dynamic to have a Personal Village? Are there techniques that "wallflowers" can follow to achieve greater depth to casual relationships?
- A. Everyone can achieve great depth even in casual relationships. It is true that extroverts do have an easier time forming connections. For the rest of us there are lots of ways. The best way for those of us who are shy or cautious is to find some place; a church, coffee shop, book store, neighborhood simply and begin to hang out. Go to some place where the same people keep showing up over and over and where you can find something interesting to do like browse a book store. Gradually you will begin to recognize the same people keep showing up. In time they will notice you and gradually you will be able to engage in casual conversation. An easy opening line is to ask what brings the person to this book store or coffee shop. Then a smile and a hello the next time will slowly build a bridge for the two of you to talk about obvious things like the weather or what they do when they are not coming here. In short, if you hang out long enough you will begin to see ways to become involved and the others will naturally begin to include you. I have many other techniques about how to take any relationship to great depth in my book, Personal Village.
- Q. You highlight the Rule of Seven as a means of adding people to your Personal Village. What is the Rule of Seven, and how does it work?
- A: The Principal of Seven is your strongest tool to create new relationships that have depth and trust. It is your best friend in navigating around your Personal Village.
How it works is that all of us, now matter how confident and brash we seem, are nervous with a new relationship. When we can watch another person over a period of time, gradually our discomfort diminishes and we become more receptive to a new person. The research shows that comfort begins to develop after approximately seven different interactions have occurred. When you keep showing up or hanging out the opportunity for accumulating the magic seven connections occurs naturally. Then it is easier to establish contact with a new person.
- Q. Recent tragedies like Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters are dramatic examples of the need for strong community. What do you see as the most important lessons we can learn from these unfortunate events? What can we do to be better prepared?
- A. The most profound lesson is that in a crisis, people really do come together to help each other. When a family or a neighborhood or a city has built a net of strong relationships all along then when a crisis occurs they are much more able to take action. So the best practice is to take care of the needs of the community as they go along rather than wait for tragedy to strike.
The people who are on the ground in any level of community always know what is needed. If the lines of communication are open, the proper guidance and resources can be more effectively managed. In most cities we have a well developed system for fighting fires that sprung up from the spirit of volunteerism and caring for our neighbors. The same kind of openness to meeting the needs of the community members at all levels will provide the same kind of protection. Of course, a huge storm can overwhelm even the best prepared system, but if the needs of the people are being addressed all along, we stand a better chance.
- Q. What are some everyday opportunities we all have to work on our own Personal Village?
- A. We would all benefit from spending more time with the people in our lives. All of the modern conveniences in the world are still no substitute for face to face interaction. Start taking the time on a daily basis to engage other people. Give a cheerful greeting to everyone you pass on the street. Join in a new group, club or activity. Introduce yourself to your neighbors. Call a friend or relative. Start a conversation with the grocery clerk or the bank teller. Hold a door open for a stranger. Smile at a homeless person. The list goes on. You get the idea.