Communities are groups of people connected in some way. The connection could be as simple as living within the same geographic region or as complex as having a shared vision and mission that draws everyone together. Regardless of why people are part of a community, being so means finding a way to appreciate and make space for other people. While there are many ways to do that, I want to focus on two primary practices for developing the glue that makes communities work. The first of these is creating psychological space for the “other.”
When we speak about the “other,” it often seems like we’ve relegated people in the community to be something less than human. That’s certainly not what I’m implying in this post. However, we often like to say that someone with a different cultural background, race, or ethnicity is “just like us.” Honestly, that’s not healthy either because it ignores crucial distinctions. Diversity is an essential strength within a community, so to overemphasize “sameness” ignores one of a community’s strengths. However, if we focus too much on individual differences, we not only profoundly divide the community into subgroups, this extreme individualism impacts the cohesiveness of the larger group. Communities need to find a balance between group cohesiveness and diversity. Extremes are never good. So by speaking of the “other,” I’m doing so from a position of respect and regard for those differences.
When we speak about creating psychological space for the “other,” we mean that we allow for that individual’s presence and their difference to reside in our minds in a positive connected way. The other is not unconnected to us but instead connected as an extension of who we are. They’re not the enemy or an appendage to our community; they’re someone we consider a part of our life. You will find this on a microcosmic scale in successful marriages and as an essential part of developing a connected community. John Gottman, a famous marriage and family researcher, tells couples they need to create psychological space for one another to thrive as a couple (which is, in a sense, a small community). Giving someone psychological space means providing them a place in your mind; your internal self. When they aren’t immediately with you, you think of them, appreciate them, are mindful of the place they have in your life, and maintain an emotional connection to them. It also means that you’re aware of what the other individual needs from you and consider them in your decisions whether they are immediately present with you or not. Psychological space is an essential aspect of a good marriage but it’s also vital for communities to develop. When you’re mindful of other people in the community and what they need from the community you’re making psychological space for them. When you care about how they contribute to the community and how the community can embrace them, you’re creating a type of collective psychological space the whole community shares. If we can’t do that for one another, we can’t gel as a community. Think of how often city planners develop a strategy and forget that their plans infringe on a particular group. New highways may go through traditionally black communities without any representation from that community. Then, when this group asks for a place at the table, they’re viewed as getting in the way of progress. If we had a shared psychological space for one another, the group would have been represented from the start.
To develop this shared psychological community space, it’s essential to have and express gratitude for one another. Are we grateful to have Native American communities as part of our broader community? Are we appreciative of the unique gifts and talents this group of people contributes to our community? This sense of gratitude is the gateway for creating a psychological space that allows the larger community to adhere together. The two or three groups of “others” find a way to become an “us” that is inclusive and grateful for its diversity. Community leaders can start creating this communal psychological space by encouraging ways for each set of community sub-groups to appreciate the diversity each group brings to the more substantial communal experience. This appreciation must include ALL groups, not a select few. We often believe by merely appreciating the least represented, we’re doing what is best, but encouraging appreciation for all groups is essential and avoids resentment that emerges from ignoring one group over another. How one shows appreciation for the different groups should be left to the communities involved. Still, I encourage those in leadership to develop this appreciation and gratitude to make the appropriate psychological space for everyone who is a part of their larger community.
In closing, let me say this: We like to force inclusion and diversity on our communities, and in doing so, we make the individual groups resentful of one another. If we encourage gratitude for the gifts each of us brings to the table, we will find that the path to including one another in our minds and hearts is much easier to travel and will undoubtedly help us make the world a better place.