The Introvert’s Guide to Building Community

Published by Lori Pickert on March 18, 2013 at 09:06 AM

This post is part of my Monday series on PBH for Grown-ups — you can see all of the posts here.

Note: This is not about excluding extroverts. Extroverts are like honey badgers — they don’t care. They are welcome as members of the introvert’s community, and they’re welcome to use this guide to build their own.

Personally, I am an ambivert, meaning I have both introvert and extrovert traits. On the one hand, I prefer staying at home and I crave a lot of alone time. I’m a happy hermit. On the other hand, I love public speaking, teaching workshops, and talking to strangers. If I’m somehow tricked into going to a party, I always have a great time. (Regardless, I won’t want to go next time, either.) I love to build community. I love to help people connect, work together, and support one another.

So whether you’re introverted, extroverted, or a lovely blend, these tips should work for you — but it seems to be the hermits who need the most help, so that’s who we’re focusing on today.

1. Build it yourself — and be in charge.

I know what you’re thinking — “I don’t even want to GO, let alone be in charge. I don’t want to FIND it, let alone build it.” But if you’re the person at the party who is driven crazy by the loudness of the music, wouldn’t you prefer to have your hand on the volume control?

Being in charge is the comfort position. You control everything. You set the parameters, you set the goals, you set the tone. You control the information — you’re the one with the phone numbers and e-mail addresses. If you are picky about how things go down, then you want to be in charge so you can make the group and activities fit your needs and your comfort requirements.

There are a lot of challenges when you try to break into an existing community:

- You don’t know the unspoken rules.

- You don’t understand the social hierarchy.

- There are existing friendships and cliques.

- The agenda has already been set and things are traditionally done a particular way.

The main challenge is that someone else is making all the decisions and you will have to adapt. If you build it, you can customize the experience to what you need and want. Whatever effort you would save by choosing an existing group, you would have to expend bending and adjusting to something that doesn’t fit you and makes you miserable. If a group exists that suits you perfectly, great. But if it doesn’t, you’ll exhaust yourself compromising. You may as well spend your energy building something that would make your life exponentially better.

Invest your energy where you’ll get the biggest return. Building a community that gives you what you need and want is worth the effort.

2. Always start small.

In software, it’s the beta. In marketing, it’s the test group. At every single stage, every time you contemplate trying something new, always, always do a test version. Never commit until you’re sure you’re happy with your results.

You may think “community” and imagine the people on Friends hanging out at Central Perk. But community can start with just you and one other person. After all, how did the friends on Friends get together? Monica and Rachel were friends in high school. Ross and Chandler were college roommates. Chandler and Joey shared an apartment. (Are you scared I know all this?) Community is built of small nodes of friends as well as individuals. You will be the nucleus of your community. If you have just one other person who is committed and on the same page, you have what you need to start. And note: this person does not have to be a close friend. In fact, you and this person don’t have to have anything else in common — just this.

Whatever you want to start — art class, sketch walk, hiking group, book club — first set up one or more stand-alone activities. Arrange them at different times so you get different participants. (Advertise in your local Yahoo homeschooling group, at your co-op, at the library.) See how it goes. Meet the people and remember to collect their contact information. If you like them, tell them one-on-one that you’re thinking of doing something similar on a regular basis. Reflect on how things went and what you might want to change in the future. This is a good way to find other people who can form the nucleus of the community you want to build.

If you’re going to make mistakes, make them in the beta version. Move into your new group having already identified possible issues. (For example, one thing I’ve learned is that if you offer a free group for kids and don’t require parents to stay, you’ll be treated as a free babysitter.)

Testing also gives you the opportunity to try out different venues, different ways to organize the time, and so on.

Start with a very limited version of what you envision, test it, learn from it, then launch the bigger version.

3. Respect your own needs.

It’s not selfish to fit your community to your own needs. Understand this: every time someone creates a community, they are building for a purpose. There is no way to make something that is “fair” or “perfect” for everyone. It is perfectly legitimate for you to create something that works well for YOU. And there are plenty of other people who would prefer something different from what is usually offered — they will find you. You are creating parameters that appeal to YOU but they’ll also appeal to someone else. And if some people don’t like it, they can build their own community just as you did.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have to please everyone. It’s a recipe for pleasing no one (including yourself). A great community has a strong leader who isn’t afraid to say “this is the way we do things — sorry, that’s just not for us.”

Remember that when you make a safe space for yourself, you are making it for others who want and need the same things. You don’t have to make it for everybody.

4. Commit.

Community succeeds or fails on the basis of commitment. You have to commit. Then you have to find one other person who is also committed.

There must be a nucleus of committed people. There can be a larger, looser group who dip in and out, but there must be a solid core who always show up and who really care.

These days, people have many, many things vying for their time and attention. There are a million ways to fill your free time. With any one person, there are only a few things they really, truly care about. The other stuff? It tends to slide off the bottom of the to-do list. You cannot build a community unless you have at least a few people who are going to put this front and center. And you absolutely have to be one of those people.

Charging money is one way to push people to commit. If they have paid for it, they are a lot more likely to show up. But remember that accepting their money means you are absolutely committed. Keep it defined — a particular number of meetings/get-togethers/classes. Then, if things go well, you can do it again.

When parents decide which activities to drop, they will always drop the free ones first. They feel like they should stick with the things they paid for, to get their money’s worth. Adults are much the same. It’s not about which activity is more fun or more satisfying; it’s about how much you invested. So remember this when you begin to build — if people don’t feel they’ve invested anything, they’re more likely to pull out down the road.

You don’t have to charge money — but if you don’t, you will definitely need a core group of committed individuals for whom your community is essential.

5. Be prepared to say no.

Other people will be surprisingly bold about asking you to change every aspect of what you have arranged: the time, the location, the age group accepted, the conditions of participating (small fee, parent participation). Like shoppers at a garage sale, they will consider everything up for discussion. If this surprises you and takes you off guard, you’re more likely to (perhaps accidentally) give in to their demands.

If you don’t think about it ahead of time and prepare your answer, your stumbling and stuttering may be taken as a yes by a human steamroller. The best thing to say in any situation where you find yourself at a loss is,

“Let me think about that and get back to you tomorrow.”

This works in a whole variety of situations, by the way. It’s what I taught my staff to say to parents who were upset or had complaints. When someone else is either emotional (making a complaint or upset themselves) or ambushing you (surprising or stunning you with their question or demand), this simple sentence gives you time to collect your thoughts, time to get your own emotional response under control, and time to gird your loins and prepare your reasoning if you have to say something difficult (like “no”).

The next day, contact the person in the way that feels best for you: phone, e-mail, or in person. If you’re saying no, try this:

“I wanted to give your question/suggestion serious thought, but I’m sorry, we are going to stick to our original plan/schedule/location. This is what works best for us. I will let you know if things change in the future.”

You cannot be all things to all people. If you find a core group that is happy with what you’ve created, that is all you need. People who are unhappy are free to start their own group. If you start trying to cater to everyone’s needs, you’ll soon find that your group has lost focus. The more defined it is, the better it will be — so you may as well define it by your own needs and wants and then find others who are happy with it, too.

6. If necessary, pull the plug, take a break, then try again.

Sometimes you realize it’s just not working out for one reason or another: wrong people, wrong routine, wrong focus. Or maybe your needs have evolved. That’s okay. Make an announcement that you’re going to have to withdraw from organizing the group due to personal reasons, offer to pass the responsibility for running it to one of the other members if they contact you within a set amount of time (say, two weeks), then wish everyone a happy day and close it.

If you want to reboot your community, don’t offer to let someone else take over — let it die completely. That way you can rebuild using some of the same people. Contact them one-on-one and let them know you’re hoping to reboot sometime in the near future with a few changes. This would be a good time to ask for their input, too.

Take a break, reflect on what went well and not so well, brainstorm, and you can try again now that you have a better idea of what you want to do (and maybe who you want to do it with).

• • •

Figure out what matters to you. That’s your meaningful work. Find out who else it matters to. That’s your community.

No matter what you want to accomplish, community is key. Whether it’s online or offline, whether it’s focused on you or your kids, community is where you see how you fit and how you can contribute. It can be as simple as having two other families to hike with once a week or as complex as an online forum with thousands of members — but it comes down to finding other people who want to do what you want to do. It’s about making friends, but it’s also about finding colleagues and building a network. It’s about building a community of people who can help each other accomplish something larger than what one person can do alone.

Take your time. Start small. Figure out what works best for you. You have the freedom to craft something customized to your wants and needs — take advantage of it. Look for one other person who shares your interests and goals. Create the opportunity to find that person.

You can build the community you dream of. Someone has to take the first step. Believe it or not, it can be you.

35 comments

Comment by shelli : mamaof... on March 18, 2013 at 10:55 AM

Awesome article, Lori. Thanks. I have learned some of these things too, although part of what I've learned also is that I'm just not in a position to be a leader right now. But I so agree with you about starting small - that is what I am able to do.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 18, 2013 at 06:04 PM

 

...although part of what I've learned also is that I'm just not in a position to be a leader right now...

just keep in mind that even making time to get together with *one* other family regularly can be the start of something...

but it’s good to recognize when you don’t have the time or energy to do what’s necessary to make it work. xoxo

Comment by Alex on March 18, 2013 at 11:10 AM

I didn't even know the word ambivert! Thank you for explaining it, now I know what to call myself!
Another great article.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 18, 2013 at 06:04 PM

thank you, alex! ;o)

Comment by Cara on March 18, 2013 at 11:27 AM

I'm an ambivert just like you. This article appealed to my introvert side and gave me some things to reflect on as my homeschool group evolves.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 18, 2013 at 06:05 PM

i think ambiverts have to overcome all the same things when they start communities ... because we’re introverts when it comes to *starting* anything.

Comment by dawn on March 18, 2013 at 11:36 AM

as my dd10 and i often discuss, we do what we like and invite others to join. if it works for them, they'll stay and do it with us; if not, they won't, and that's ok, too.

understanding and knowing that others' choices at any point in time say more about those other people and where their comfort zones lie, rather than much about us or our likeability or the really-fascinating-ness of our chosen activity, helps us recover from hurt feelings when we put out ideas for something and they don't pan out.

it's kind of like deciding what to wear. if we choose to put on clothing to please someone else, or to try to fit in, or look like what's in current fashion, and it makes us uncomfortable because it's tight or itchy or hot or is just *wrong* , we have to work really, really hard to appear confident and happy, and we tend not to fool too many people, anyway. if we wear what makes us feel good and reflects our preferences, our natural, inner beauty can come out unforced. heck, it's hard to keep it contained under those circumstances!

displaying our own sense of style, whether in our clothing or our choice of lifestyles/interests/activities, tends to attract the kind of people we prefer to be around. we are more successful at finding the people who accept us, rather than simply tolerate us, and we can build our community, whatever size it may be, with others who can feel comfortable being themselves.

Comment by 1luckymama on March 18, 2013 at 01:24 PM

super post, lori!!! i also love dawn's reply, especially this part:

"understanding and knowing that others' choices at any point in time say more about those other people and where their comfort zones lie, rather than much about us or our likeability or the really-fascinating-ness of our chosen activity, helps us recover from hurt feelings when we put out ideas for something and they don't pan out."

so, so true and well said!

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 18, 2013 at 06:06 PM

thank you! and i totally agree about dawn! :)

Comment by Rach on March 18, 2013 at 05:27 PM

I love this part of dawn's comment

-displaying our own sense of style, whether in our clothing or our choice of lifestyles/interests/activities, tends to attract the kind of people we prefer to be around. we are more successful at finding the people who accept us, rather than simply tolerate us, and we can build our community, whatever size it may be, with others who can feel comfortable being themselves.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 18, 2013 at 06:06 PM

love love love what you wrote, dawn, and i agree completely!

Comment by amy21 on March 18, 2013 at 12:03 PM

It is so hard for me, Lori, that the Monday posts go up while I'm out and then I delay feeding my children lunch when we get home so I can read it!!

I've learned many of these things as well...and I second the charging part. I've worked at non-profits organizing programs under grants which stipulated the programs were free. Guess how seriously people took them? I once drove nearly an hour to find out that "oh, you're just an extra thing, we don't know if people are interested in having you here or not." Charging, even a small amount, indicates that you take yourself seriously. (I ended up getting around that stipulation by charging a travel fee.)

I have to go feed the kids (and myself). Great post, Lori, lots of practical advice...which you know I love!

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 18, 2013 at 06:08 PM

oh no, i’m starving children! ;o)

that charging issue took me totally by surprise. i really wanted to be part of a community of people who were willing to share their talents with others for nothing. but my ideals ran smack dab up against some people who were soooo ready to take advantage of them. sigh.

thank you for your kind words, amy, and for sharing your experience!

Comment by amanda {the hab... on March 18, 2013 at 01:08 PM

you just used the words honey badger in a blog post. i have the maddest girl crush on you right now!

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 18, 2013 at 06:08 PM

hearts .. rainbows .. glitter

Comment by Rach on March 18, 2013 at 05:32 PM

I love this. I'm starting a playgroup for friends soon, and there is so much there I recognise from previous events I've organised. People will do what suits them rather than your group, and I have had to say no to requests such as late attendance, leaving half-way through etc. Getting people's commitment can be hard, as all have different agendas. I have insisted on commitment as I can see how it is so important as the whole venture just flops otherwise. Love this bit in particular:-

-with any one person, there are only a few things they really, truly care about. The other stuff? It tends to slide off the bottom of the to-do list

Charging is an interesting and valid suggestion. I'm going to charge expenses now, for materials.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 18, 2013 at 06:10 PM

 

the bummer is, it feels *bad* to say no. and it feels bad to have people try to weasel you into doing what they want. and it feels bad to be taken advantage of.

you start out wanting to build something great and you’re quickly mired in negative stuff — it’s no wonder so few people are willing to do the work of starting and maintaining communities.

HOWEVER (positive bit now), i think if you go in with your eyes wide open and ready to deal with what’s coming your way, you can get to those people who really appreciate what you’re doing and want to be part of it. they ARE out there. you just have to dodge and weave a little to find them.

Comment by Melissa R on March 20, 2013 at 03:43 AM

In regards to charging. That really does work. Even a few $$ gets people committed. If the event truly is costing nothing then I have found two things that work 1) charge a nominal fee that will then be donated to a local charity (be sure everyone knows this) and 2) charge a nominal fee that they will GET BACK at the event if they are there. If they do not show up, then it gets donated.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 20, 2013 at 06:49 AM

nice! thank you, melissa!

Comment by Kim on March 18, 2013 at 08:57 PM

This is an amazing post and so very close to my heart right now. I was trying to create a community and realized it wasn't working. Some things you mentioned...commitment, lack of support from others, etc were the demise of it. After much discussion with my husband I realized I was working hard to create something that wasn't in line with everyone else. It was a difficult realization. I let it go and backed away, not as gracefully as I should have, but it was the best decision for me and my family.

I am lucky to also be a part of another community, that is strong, thriving and growing. This is where all my heart and soul will go now, as I think trying to start anything new is just not in me...at least not right now.

Thanks so much for this post :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 18, 2013 at 09:24 PM

thank you so much for your comment! it can be really painful when things don’t work out. thank you for sharing your story. <3

Comment by Deborah on March 19, 2013 at 08:55 AM

Thank you for writing this. I can relate to not "fitting in" to existing groups but having the desire to start my own. Now I may have the courage to do so - although I am still lacking the ability to commit.

I also appreciate Dawn's comment about "finding the people who accept us rather than simply tolerate us." What a good concept!

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 19, 2013 at 10:51 AM

you might want to try setting up a series of stand-alone get-togethers — it really is a fairly pain-free way of starting to connect with other like-minded people. and you don’t have to commit to more than a few hours at a time!

Comment by Deborah on March 19, 2013 at 07:44 PM

Thanks! I was thinking that too.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 19, 2013 at 09:01 PM

:o)

Comment by Kelly Stettner on April 2, 2013 at 02:39 PM

Lori, I can hardly believe what I'm reading...so many of the lessons I've learned over the past 13 years of leading the volunteer "charge"! I started the Black River Action Team here in VT in 2000 because I hated seeing junk in the river and felt that "Somebody ought to DO something" about it. My hubby replied that I should step up to be the 'somebody,' and I did. I've doubted myself, hated myself, hated my volunteer "core" that only materialized once a year for a cleanup, and hated the punks who throw shopping carts in the river. The *lightbulb moment* for me came when I remembered WHY I do what I do -- I love rivers. I love fishing, kayaking, swimming, tubing, and just watching them. I love the little bugs that crawl around the stones on the bottom. I love the way the water corkscrews through the channel. Remembering that passion and keeping it at the forefront of my heart when my brain is full and frustrated, that's what keeps me going and what keeps me happy. It's also what draws people to help me, which is what I want: to inspire other stewards of the river.

Thank you for this succinct and validating blog!!!

Comment by Lori Pickert on April 2, 2013 at 05:40 PM

 

thank you so much, kelly! experience is the best teacher, and i’ve had loads of it. ;o) not always pleasant but now i am making lemonade out of lemons by sharing what i’ve learned! :)

you make a beautiful point re: keeping your passion front & center so you can remember *why* you are making the effort!

Comment by Jenn on June 23, 2013 at 01:06 AM

Thank You so much for this thoughtful article Lori!

This has really been on my heart as of late - I am a newly single mama, homes learning my 2 children (4yo & 1yo) and I am in a smallish town where I know NO ONE!!

I am happy to wear the leader pants, and it's funny that I hadn't even thought of starting something myself - so thank you for that! I have been looking for a community but not much luck. Here I go...

All the best!
Jenn x

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 23, 2013 at 07:27 AM

 

that’s great, jenn. :) build the community you want! here’s a post about that very thing; maybe it will inspire you further!

show me what you’re working with @ happyer at home

Comment by lydia purple on May 14, 2014 at 12:32 PM

hi, i am halfway through your book and just found your blog and wanted to say thank you for sharing all this with us. i am a total passionate project learner (i believe it's because my parents couldn't teach me or efford paying for lessons the skills i wanted to learn, so i was my own there. and we grew up near the forest always roaming free to our pleasure. no scheduled childhood except for school. even public school couldn't kill the passion for learning in me, even though i mostly just sat there bored...) anyways, now i am a mom of soon 3 kids, my oldest is 4 and currently in preschool, but i just keep thinking about homeschooling. i am an introvert and i know that the biggest issue for me would be to build a community for us as a family if we homeschool, but this post is really helpful to get a perspective. i have been encouraging free art since my oldest started drawing with pencils the first time when she was 9 months old, and now inspired by your book i am supporting her in her first projects that she really owns ( making a doll bed). it's quite challenging to shut up and not take over and she is facing her first frustrations with things who don't work out the way she wants... she tried to get me to fix it, but i gently try to guide and encourage her to find a solution herself. so far i really enjoy watching her progress and thinking. one thing is sure, i will be a supporter of my kids projects whether we end up homeschooling or not. it would be a nightmare to quench the creative energy that these awesome little people have. thank you again for your practical guidance and insights.

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 14, 2014 at 03:44 PM

thank you so much, lydia! not taking over is definitely one of the mentoring challenges we discuss most often. :) whether you homeschool or not, you should join the forum if you want some online community and support as you move foward!

(and LOTS of introverts here. ;o)

Comment by Shanon P on July 7, 2014 at 07:53 PM

Oh, oh, oh! How I wish I had read this BEFORE I tried to start a small group in my home! It was going to be awesome... but the people... THE PEOPLE... they took it and wrecked it. LOL! And I let them! :/ I have learned. I know better now... this article was great to read because it really breaks down and solidifies my erred experience! Sometimes the best lessons are learned the hard way so they do NOT get repeated! :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 7, 2014 at 07:58 PM

ooh, i feel for you. :) i definitely learned these lessons from methodically making each and every mistake! ;o)

Comment by Brittney McGann on July 27, 2014 at 12:22 PM

This was really helpful to read! Only last week I decided to start a group for introverted homeschool moms. After two years of trying different groups we just could not find one that fit so I decided to make my own. We are off to a good start so far, but I will heed your advice! I told my husband that starting the group itself would be worth it even if we only found one other family that we really connected with.

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 27, 2014 at 05:05 PM

good luck with your group! let me know how it goes! :)

Post new comment