Communal Living on The Farm: Handling Conflict

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Photo by Douglas Stevenson

The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee, is probably the best-known model of intentional communal living in the world. The Farm Then and Now (New Society Publishers, 2014), by Douglas Stevenson, traces the development of this ongoing social experiment from its early communal days to its modern incarnation as a democratic cooperative, and shows how this flagship of counterculture idealism continues to serve as a model for sustainable living. This excerpt, which is from Chapter 7, “Community, Conflict and Compassion,” discusses how conflict and disputes were handled in the intentional community.

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The Farm’s ability to survive and continue over decades of change is due in no small part to the community’s ability to resolve and endure conflicts large and small. A basic straightforward approach to resolving conflict has allowed the group to stay together, tempered with forgiveness and the recognition that time does indeed heal wounds, but that scars that go untended can fester and rise again to the surface. The returning conflict represents a new opportunity for those involved to resolve their differences.

Relationships on The Farm

The Farm is unique for the depth of long-term friendships between members of the community. The majority of people living on the land have been there over 30 years starting originally as Founding Members or as children who grew up and are now adults in the community. There is a lot of family. These bonds form the glue that holds the community together.

At the same time, the ability to develop new friendships with people who have joined as members in more recent years provides the polish and luster that keeps life here fresh and renewed. What allows The Farm’s newer folks to meld seamlessly into the fabric of the community is directly related to the community’s ability to pass on the skills of conflict resolution as a tool for personal change.

It is important to accept that conflicts will arise. Personalities will clash. Buttons will be pushed. Toes will be stepped on. Not everyone is warm and fuzzy all the time. People express themselves differently from culture to culture. Living in community brings people closer together, increasing the chances for disagreements to arise. At some point, new arrivals may find themselves in a personality conflict surrounding an “issue.”

It is also clear that even long-term relationships can become crossways, and may fall into repeated energy patterns. This explains why, even among close friends, sometimes it becomes necessary to admit that they have let petty disagreements push them apart. Each may feel or believe they can see how the actions of the other produced the wedge at the core of the disagreement. The real change only comes about when we reflect to see our part and what actions and changes we can make in ourselves. By assuming a person’s goodwill, you can enter into the conversation together as two people wanting to understand each other and to be heard.

Most issues can be cleared up as simple misunderstandings that end with a hug. But the cycle of life includes larger dramas. Situations will arise — some serious, some not so serious — but they will take some working out. Learning how to talk to each other is a valuable skill.

The Path of Truth

The primary element that resonates to the core of The Farm’s spiritual foundation is the profound respect for truth itself as a concept and practice. In a community formed by individuals coming together to seek spiritual understanding and awareness, it is assumed that each person can hold on to truth as a lamp illuminating the darkness of illusion, leading to greater clarity and sanity. Truth is seen to represent honesty in all relationships and exchanges.

From The Farm’s Beginning

As the members of The Farm learned how to live together in community, the adherence to truth served as the touchstone for conduct in day-to-day living. Each individual was regarded as God’s eyes into the world, carrying one piece of the truth as the Observer. The power of truth could be utilized to raise the collective intelligence for decision making and for resolving differences, rallying each person’s input until the actual truth of the moment could be determined. In practical application, this meant that everyone was expected to express their feelings and put into words their observation and viewpoint of the truth.

Communal Living — Sorting It Out

For the first 13 years of The Farm’s existence, families and single folks would live together in communal households of around 15 to 45 people. Residing in such close proximity to one another each day meant that people were exposed to each other’s actions and habits in a way that doesn’t happen when living separately. The subtle energy exchanges between a husband and wife were no longer hidden away but instead played out on a stage before an audience of observers. The sharp words and subtle intimidation that often take place between spouses unnoticed behind closed doors became obvious and unacceptable tactics when acted out before fellow housemates. Often, it simply came down to telling guys to being nicer to their ladies.

Encounters in the Workplace

Work crews provided another opportunity for people to bump up against each other and “work it out.” The hierarchies and pecking orders found in usual workplaces were replaced by a system in which (ideally) no one had greater social position than another. All were considered equal. This meant that when someone felt they were treated unfairly, it was within their right to call attention to what happened and seek redress to their situation. If a person felt belittled, intimidated or bossed around, they were expected to speak up for themselves and not let the exchange go down.

When unbalanced energy exchanges are able to occur without being acknowledged and corrected, they linger in the subconscious mind. In order to clear the air, it became each person’s duty to bring these actions to light, speaking the truth during what could be long sessions to “sort out the vibes.”

Because each person agreed that their presence in the community was to pursue a spiritual path, this also meant that they were seeking this type of information about themselves in order to bring about personal change…at least in theory.

Each person’s ability to hear the information and accept it played out in different ways. It is always easier to see the faults in others than it is to acknowledge these same faults in yourself. When delivered with love and compassion and coming from friends that you knew and trusted, the person receiving feedback would be able to hear and take in what was being said and phenomenal changes in personality could take place. Old habits could be broken.

Joel, a member since the early ’70s, describes it this way:

We discovered that a person’s subconscious habits are only subconscious to him or her. It’s conscious to everyone else. So we agreed that it is in a person’s best interest to tell them about their bad energy habits, if it was necessary, and it must be done in a compassionate way. [It worked when] the person [who] received the information [understood] that it was given to be helpful, and looked inward to “de-condition” themselves from the bad habit.

However, when a person was backed into a corner, surrounded and outnumbered by people unhappy with their actions, walls of defenses could also be thrown up, blocking the individual’s ability to take in the information and make positive steps toward change. We recognized that, in these often very sensitive situations, the element of compassion is paramount. Joel adds:

Jokes and sarcasm, cynicism, criticism, competitiveness, one-upmanship are seen as power and control techniques. We can discuss differences without being feisty with each other, and in a way that doesn’t demean the person we disagree with. We can all be together without any fences, [but only] if we each become aware of how we are feeling when communicating. We need to communicate from a reflective state and not be so attached to our positions that we communicate while angry or vengeful.

During the early days of The Farm, sort sessions could last for hours, and at times, all work would stop until the individuals involved could get straight with each other. Not every encounter worked out smoothly or came to a positive resolution, but enough did, so that learning how to mediate differences became a core element of the community’s survival.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Jumping ahead 40 years, the basic elements of working it out remain, but many things have changed. Farm families no longer live together in large communal households. Usually people live in single-family dwellings. Nevertheless, most people residing on The Farm were members during the communal years and have spent decades utilizing the process of speaking truthfully and directly to each other as a means of resolving differences. Approximately a quarter of the current community is next generation, young people who were born on The Farm that have absorbed these techniques through direct observation and osmosis.

Mark, a next-generation member born on The Farm, now married with a child of his own, recalls:

There was a lot of working it out on the old Farm. We saw it through example with our folks and different people in the community working it out with each other. Whenever we’d [as children] get into trouble, we would be working it out with our parents or whoever we had transgressed against. [Now] I see that skill in myself and my friends, being able to communicate and work with people out in society on a greater scale, and it is a great strength we all bring.

Newer residents will, at some point, find themselves drawn into this means of conflict resolution either as observers or as direct participants in a disagreement. It is the way of The Farm.

“You have to be considerate of more people’s opinions than you normally would have to deal with,” explains Susan, a 35-year-plus member.

People care about how we treat each other. So when issues come up you have to take the time to listen and hear people out and express your opinion and let there be quite a few interactions. You don’t get immediate gratification most of the time. You must have patience and a willingness to go through a process.

Step by Step

Pamela, who has been with the group since the days in San Francisco, says, “Talking to each other is primary. You learn not to just talk around somebody or get mad at them but actually talk to them.”

In most situations, the breakdown of communication is between two people. Although it can be difficult, the very first step is to talk directly to each other, one-on-one, being careful to listen and take in what the other person is saying, as well as putting out your side of the argument or feelings in the situation. More often than not, this is enough. Failing to talk, avoiding this difficult conversation, can allow the gravity of the situation to get blown out of proportion. Assumptions about the other person can melt away as you come together face-to-face and recognize each other as human beings that are inherently good, who make mistakes, and remember that you are actually friends.

A Fair Witness — The Path of Mediation

Sometimes the wedge between people is too wide for them to resolve without help. Each may feel distrustful of the other or have experienced a hurt so painful that listening and seeing the other person’s viewpoint is unachievable without help. To facilitate resolution, instead of getting together one-on-one, each person brings along a fair witness. Ideally the two people chosen for this role are accepted as honest and respected for being fair by both sides. It works best when the fair witness is also an effective communicator, since another aspect of their role can be to speak on behalf of one party or the other. In situations where conversations rise in intensity and one or both people engaged in the dispute lose their cool and get defensive or uptight, the fair witnesses can interject and call on both sides to take a breath, calm down and remember why they have come together, ultimately to resolve those differences.

Going one step further, it may be necessary to have a more formal mediation and call on the service of a trained mediator. The mediator is a person present that does not speak for or stand with either party, someone totally outside of the issue, allowing them to be completely neutral. Many people in The Farm community have received training as mediators and have assisted in the local county criminal justice system, helping aggrieved parties achieve closure and restitution, a process that works especially well with cases involving juvenile offenders. A member of The Farm worked on legislation to enact a state law offering mediation as an option for juvenile offenders, making the services available in every county of the state.

Crossing the Line

On the early Farm, with so many people living in such tight quarters and with the acknowledged agreement that it was OK to “get up in each other’s thing,” egos were kept in check and for the most part no one got too far out there.

When the community faced an economic collapse in the early ’80s, for a time all rules and agreements became somewhat up for grabs and in a way redefined. As the population shrank from the peak of over 1,000 people down to around 100 adults, there was no longer the intense need to work it out, as everyone became more focused on their own families, raising their kids, establishing careers and taking care of their personal lives. Members experienced more individual freedom, and there was no sense of compulsion to monitor or engage in the affairs of a neighbor or friend.

Unfortunately, over time this also means that occasionally someone will cross the line and allow themselves the luxury of anger, which in their mind becomes personally justified because of some rationalization. In this case, we are talking about more than a heated discussion, where the situation feels on the edge of physical violence or the verbal tone is extended and abusive. It happens. People act out, lose it. Something goes down. Those observing the conflict may feel strongly enough about what went down to call for a Disciplinary Inquiry.

The Disciplinary Inquiry is part of The Farm community’s bylaws. The Membership Committee goes on a fact-finding mission, seeking the truth, talking to those directly involved, to casual observers, anyone who might have a piece of the puzzle. The Membership Committee tries to ascertain the why, why did these actions happen? Their task is not only to consider the immediate cause, but to question what may be beneath the surface, the underlying reasons or root cause. More often than not, actions in the present will stem from something unresolved from the past.

Nonviolent Communication

Nonviolent Communication, or NVC, is a national movement that has found its way to The Farm as a method of improving communication skills and mediation efforts. It embodies many of The Farm’s techniques for “working it out,” but helps refine and improve outcomes by consciously identifying methods of conflict resolution. Paramount is the art of deep listening. Often in an ego confrontation or argument, we are only half listening, instead lost in our heads, and busy planning a rebuttal. We’re not taking in the information, and letting the other person know that we have stopped and truly heard what they had to say.

A simple exercise of Nonviolent Communication is to repeat the person’s point, which can be even better if restating in your own words, not just parroting their statement, indicating that you actually understand what they have said. This act requires you to really listen and consider their situation, which may even modify your own feelings and soften your position, before jumping into your own side of the disagreement. When someone feels truly heard, they are better able to let go and be open to the other person’s position as well. By leaving a few moments before the next person speaks, they will be listened to with the same respect.


Ultimately, the only way anything is ever resolved is through forgiveness. The person committing the offensive behavior must truly understand the ramifications of their actions, exhibit remorse and seek forgiveness. It is then up to those on the other side to accept the sincere apology, offer forgiveness and provide the space for change to take place.


Although forgiveness is the first step in healing, there are usually emotional scars. While people engaged in a conflict may come to a resolution, it doesn’t necessarily mean they immediately become fast friends. That only happens in the movies. In real life, sometimes things may work out best if people are allowed to have space and go their separate ways.

This is one of the great advantages The Farm has over many other intentional communities. In smaller communities of 10 to 20 people, any discord affects the entire group dramatically, even leading to the breakup of the community. In contrast, The Farm’s population now hovers between 160 and 200 people. The natural tendency is for members to have a tight circle of a few close friends, a larger circle that they might resonate with in a variety of ways, with overlapping circles that take in most everyone else, including a few people they may choose not to be around. Because the residential areas of The Farm are very spread out, and with multiple layers of people to hang out with, the community is able to absorb a lot of personal drama or trauma and allow people to get on with their lives. Social dramas usually only directly involve a small number of people, leaving the vast majority as mere observers or completely oblivious. It pays to remember that everyone is more absorbed in their own movie, the one in which they are the star. While your personal drama may feel like it stands out like a wart on the end of your nose, for those not directly involved, the incident may be no more than a blip on their radar screen. This degree of separation allows the community to roll on, absorbing the ebb and flow, seeing the cycles of tension and relief pass through almost like the seasons.

In the end, it comes back to friends. Our friends provide moral support when they see things from our point of view or tell us when we make mistakes. Our friends love us even when we blow it. They give us the room to change and possess the patience to wait for that change to happen.

When living in community, conflict is inevitable and compromise is essential. The Farm’s ability to give and take is what makes the community truly sustainable.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Farm Then and Now, by Douglas Stevenson and published by New Society Publishers, 2014. Buy this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Farm Then and Now: A Model for Sustainable Living.