On Dealing with Problematic People at The Kalavan Retreat Center


Since winter, we've had about 30 international volunteers and guests stay at The Kalavan Retreat Center. Some were only here a few days, and others a few months. Some left and came back. Others are already planning return trips from abroad. As a result, we are currently constructing new accommodation in the form of an attached studio apartment behind the main house so that we can house more guests and volunteers as the need arises. Soon after that, we will continue building the earthbag dome we started.

We are also now expanding our volunteer outreach to focus on Armenians themselves who want to experience a new side of life in their own country. It's been much easier, in general, to get people to fly in from other countries than to get locals to drive just two and a half hours from Yerevan. The likely reason for this is a subject that deserves its own dedicated discussion.

Overall, I would judge the social enterprise here as a success. It has had a large positive influence on the state of the house and the community. Personally, I've had to adapt to the role of head of the household, ensuring that the ship keeps running and everyone gets along. It's a bit different than the role of eccentric hermit I'd mostly been playing in Armenia before. But I embrace the new challenges it brings. It's like preparing me for having my own family some day.

Of the 30 people who have stayed here, I would classify only three as overtly problematic. I guess 10% isn't a bad rate. It's certainly beating the general human average of inconsiderate assholes. Little arguments, conflicts, and disputes are inevitable, of course, any time you congregate enough people in one place long enough. But they can generally be resolved so long as all parties are reasonable, self-reflective, communicative, and respectful. These three, however, seemed to lack these essential characteristics and set themselves firmly against adjusting their expectations and behavior to a fair and harmonious way of co-existing with the other guests here and acquiescing to the wishes and rules of the man hosting them.

Before the last problematic person arrived, we spoke on the phone so I could help clarify what being here would be like, including telling them about some issues we'd had with some previous guests who had come in with very specific expectations. Some had showed up at my place and were immediately very demanding about how everyone should act in their presence, how lunch should be served, how work should be organized, how things should be cleaned, etc. I stressed that we've worked to cultivate a casual and laid-back atmosphere here with an emphasis on individual freedom.

Still, when they arrived, this same person took issue with how almost everyone behaved, including the most minor things like people being on their phones in their presence, how we ate lunch, or that some people (including me) politely declined to drink with them when they opened a bottle of my wine. They seemed deeply offended almost any time something did not go the way they wanted it to, despite having no reason to expect it to go that way. Then, they woke up early a few days after arriving, packed their things, and left without informing anyone.

The experience of dealing with this type of person has taught me a lot about intentional community development and overseeing that everyone in a spontaneously mixed house gets along as well as possible. In each of these three cases, I realize that I somehow failed to communicate clearly what their expectations for being here should be. It should have been clear to these people from the first stage of interaction that they would not be a good fit for what we are building here. I didn't apply a fine enough filter to ward them off.

So far, every problematic person has left The Kalavan Retreat Center shortly after they arrived. I haven't had to directly confront anyone about their issues, though I'm starting to think I should have done so from the moment it was clear they were expecting something different than what we offered or presumed some level of authority over the rest of us. I wonder what steps I'd have to take if they'd stuck around longer. I imagine that, eventually, I will have to sit down with someone and have a firm talk with them about their expectations for being here and how the way they've been treating others is not in line with our values.

I don't feel good about the prospect of kicking someone out of my house. I don't know what other options for housing they might have in each situation. I don't know what inconveniences I'll be casting them into. There would have to be some pretty serious crimes committed for me to get that extreme. But if the time comes that I have to address someone's behavior with them explicitly, I imagine I will leave them with two options: either improve their behavior or prepare to move on. I will leave the choice up to them.

Here's my hypothesis for what causes this behavior. There is a certain type of person with an unconscious authoritarian mindset. If they enter a space with established rules and systems already in clear effect, they conform to those rules and systems. Maybe they seek to polish and optimize them. But if they enter a space with only loose rules and guidelines, somewhere more anarchic, where people are mostly free to make their own choices, they have a different reaction. They automatically take it upon themselves to create rules and systems for everyone to follow. They simply cannot stand what they perceive as social disorder, and the only way to create order is via their force and social authority. 

Such people would make great politicians. They've mastered the bureaucratic mentality I describe in Everyone Is an Entrepreneur, the one that enforces rules for the sake of enforcing them and believes that the way it knows to do things is the only or best way they can be done.

If you read the values page of The Kalavan Retreat Center, you'll see that Value #2, Mutual Respect, stands out as a direct corollary to the first value of Authentic Self-Expression:

"Expression is a two-way street called respect. If you value your own self-expression, it means you don't want anyone impeding it with force or manipulation. You don't want anyone to suppress you and stop you from being who you really are. Logically, you have to extend that same courtesy to everyone around you. You cannot pressure others to live in accordance with your values. You cannot shame them for living differently than you do if it is an expression of who they really are. You cannot break the agreements you make with others without appropriate recourse or allow them to break the ones they make with you. You must defend yourself and others against attempts to interfere with the development of genuine values and personality.
If mutual respect cannot be established and maintained, people cannot interact with one another peacefully. You can only be as good to others as they are to you. We do not bow to ideological pressures to live or think a certain way, and we do not exert any on other people. We choose who to be, and we support and defend others in every way so that they can do the same."

Coming here might mean temporarily giving up some long-standing beliefs you have about how things are supposed to work. That's part of the value of a retreat—separating yourself from the limiting world and paradigm you knew before. The fact that people commonly do things in a certain way in your country doesn't mean we will automatically do them here, for instance. One of the benefits of a melting pot of many nationalities and worldviews is that we can take the best from what each of us knows and is accustomed to and spread that influence around. That just means that everyone who comes here needs to be willing to adapt, learn, teach, and grow.

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