Q: In the past, whenever I have tried to share with others there has been tension over some part of the arrangement, and sometimes things have ended badly. Any advice for preventing that?
A: Sharing is such a positive, fun thing to do and such a powerful force for change, that it’s hard to believe how many sharing arrangements have foundered on the shores of communication problems.
But sharing does have its challenges, and many of them seem to be related to communication—or put another way, to people being people. It’s even been said that sharing would be great if it weren’t for the people. (Okay, we might have said that. But it’s kind of true.)
In most cases, problems come up because sharers failed to set clear expectations, anticipate obstacles, or agree on a way to resolve conflict. The good news is that all of these things are easily done, and once you’ve done them you are well on your way to a successful, harmonious sharing relationship.
Credit: Steve Wampler
In even the simplest sharing arrangement, it’s crucial that you and your sharing partner(s) have the same understanding of what’s going to happen.
Let’s take a simple meal-sharing arrangement as an example. Imagine that you and your friendly neighbor decide that once each week, you’ll make dinner for each other, thus saving each of you one night of cooking per week. You’ll cook on Monday, and the neighbor will cook on Wednesday. You give each other a list of food likes and dislikes and you’re good to go, right? Sure, until you realize that your neighbor’s idea of dinner time is 7:30, while you like to eat much earlier—so on the first Monday, you bring the food at 5:30 and find your neighbor isn’t even home yet, and on Wednesday, you sit waiting until you’re hungry and irritable. Furthermore, your neighbor brought enough food for you to have four meals, while you only cooked enough for one serving.
So now you and your neighbor are both a little bit frustrated—you because you didn’t get your food at a comfortable time, and your neighbor because the arrangement didn’t feel fully reciprocal. Not a good start to a sharing arrangement that should generate the good feelings that usually arise from cooking for and sharing food with others.
Yes, you can go back and talk over these issues, but how about avoiding them in the first place? A short sit-down over a cup of tea would likely have brought you to the right questions about timing, delivery methods, serving sizes, how to communicate if you especially like or don’t like something the other person has cooked, and other details.
Other examples abound. A car-sharing arrangement requires you to consider how you want to pay for fuel, maintenance, and repairs, as well as how you’ll schedule use and how tidy you expect the car to be when you use it. A neighborhood work group means planning a yearly schedule, establishing parameters for projects, and setting a bar for how much participation is required to stay in the group. If you’re setting up a babysitting cooperative, you must decide how you’ll keep records, whether multiple-child care situations are worth more time in trade, how members will join and leave the coop, how leadership will be handled, and how you’ll deal with things like snacks, television, and other rules.
Credit: Nathan Siemers
Imagining the problems that might arise in a sharing arrangement is probably the thing that sharers resist most fervently. At the start of any relationship, we mainly see the positive aspects of our partners and the potential up sides of the connection.
But it’s absolutely necessary to imagine your worst-case scenarios: What happens if we both want to use the car at the same time? Who’s responsible if someone has an accident in the car? What if your food makes me sick? Am I on the hook if someone falls off a ladder while helping to work on my house? What if someone wants to leave the child care coop when they still owe a lot of time to others? And so on.
It’s tempting to agree that if something bad happens, you’ll just work it out at the time. After all, you’re people of good will, right? Well, you will surely be full of good will at the start, but when your vacuum cleaner comes back with a broken hose you may not feel so friendly. What’s more, you might feel uncomfortable talking about it. If you have an agreement about repairs, however, there’s no conflict—you simply put it into action.
Agreeing on How to Resolve Conflict
When people say they’re anxious about sharing because they’re afraid something will go wrong and it will mess up their relationship with a friend or neighbor, what they’re really saying is that they don’t have confidence in their own ability to resolve conflict. And that’s natural, because most of us prefer to avoid conflict when we can, so we don’t have the skills needed to achieve a resolution.
There are two pieces of good news about that. One is that you don’t necessarily have to do it yourself; you can ask a neutral friend or a trained mediator to help you. The other is that you can learn the skills needed to communicate effectively in ways that will help you avoid conflict and, if it does arise, manage it.
At this point you’re probably wondering exactly how to go about doing all of this. That’s where the 20 questions come in. The first step in any sharing arrangement should be to sit down with your fellow sharers and together answer the questions that will help you to set expectations, anticipate obstacles, and plan for dealing with conflict. Here are the 20 basic questions, adapted from my book, The Sharing Solution:
1. Why are we sharing?
2. What are we sharing?
3. Whom are we sharing with?
4. How many people are we sharing with?
5. How will the timing of our arrangement work?
6. Who owns the shared items?
7. Should we form a separate legal entity?
8. What should we call ourselves?
9. What do we get to do?
10. How will we make decisions?
11. What responsibilities will each of us have?
12. What are the rules for using our shared property or meeting our shared responsibilities?
13. How will we handle administrative matters like scheduling, communication, and record-keeping?
14. How will we divide expenses? 15. How will we manage risk and liability?
16. Are there legal requirements we need to follow?
17. How will we resolve conflicts or disputes?
18. How will we bring new people into the group?
19. How can a member leave the group?
20. How do we end the sharing arrangement?
These questions are broad and designed to get you thinking about the major issues that arise in sharing situations. Depending on what you are sharing, you may need to expand on these or add other questions specific to your arrangement.
The next step is to learn more about effective communication methods. There are some very simple ways to improve your communication skills, including reading some of the excellent books on the subject or taking a short class in something like Powerful Non-Defensive Communication or Non-Violent Communication. If you have a long-term, relatively complex sharing arrangement like co-housing, you might all agree to take a class together, so that you have a common understanding about how you want to relate to one another.
Whether you take a class, read a book, or just make agreements with your sharing partners about how you want to relate to one another, the first rule of good communication is to always give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Your reasons for sharing are probably grounded in common values and a desire for a kinder, more connected world. You can manifest that in how you act toward your fellow sharers, just as sharing itself manifests human connection and caring. By always offering the benefit of the doubt, and with just a small amount of effort, you can have a sharing arrangement that is harmonious and rewarding.