Community Bypassing

We level up our experience of community by growing beyond sharing an experience to sharing choice-making

Beth Sanders
13 min readMay 31, 2022


— listen to this article here —

Community work is messy, and we like to avoid the conflict-ridden work we find in our community experiences. Yet when we can meet each other with connection, deepen our conversations to strengthen our connection and find our way into relationships that involve accountability and responsibility, we improve our capacity to make choices together, rather than in isolation from each other. In so doing, we are better able to face the bigness of local and global challenges, even in the tricky territory of community.

Our expectations of each other are in transition. What we expect of government and our public institutions is changing. What we expect of business is changing. The demands on our community organizations are changing. And we, too, as citizens, are placing different expectations on ourselves. It’s not enough to expect others, government or business, to meet our every need. We, too, need to step up and get involved and be active participants in our own lives and futures.

It’s also not enough for us each to get involved independently. It’s time to do so together as community. To do that, we need to connect and interact, exchange ideas and insights, hold self and others accountable and responsible, and share decision-making where possible and appropriate.

Community is about people

The Cambridge Dictionary defines community as “the people living in one particular area or people who are considered as a unit because of their common interests, social group, or nationality.” Cambridge Dictionary provides some examples to help us discern what the definition means:

  1. He is well-known in the local community.
  2. There’s a large black/white/Jewish community living in this area.
  3. Her speech caused outrage among the gay community.
  4. Drug trafficking is a matter of considerable concern for the entire international community.
  5. There’s a real sense of community (=caring and friendly feeling) in this neighbourhood.

There’s a quality of sameness in a shared identity in the first four examples. The fifth example is about how community feels.

David M. Chavis and Kien Lee, leaders of the American social enterprise Community Science, offer helpful language to understand what the word community means in the Stanford Social Innovation Review:

First and foremost, community is not a place, a building, or an organization; nor is it an exchange of information… Community is both a feeling and a set of relationships among people. People form and maintain communities to meet common needs.

We often define community by geography and place or a shared narrative based on culture or interests. But these definitions do not describe why we feel community. Chavis and Kien make a profound statement:

Neighbourhoods, companies, schools, and places of faith are context and environments for these communities, but they are not communities themselves.

Whether physical or virtual, the places we live and gather are context and environments for communities. That feeling of community is something else. Chavis and Kien recognize that “members of a community have a sense of belonging, safety, and caring for each other.” Our sense of community builds on the quality of social contact we have with each other, our interactions and exchanges and how well we enable accountability and responsibility in our relationships. Further, Chavis and Kien recognize that community members “have an individual and collective sense that they can, as part of that community, influence their environments and each other.” When we deepen into our sense of community with each other, we share this sense of influence we have on our experiences, individual and collective. When we avoid this deepening, we disable our impact.

When we deepen into our sense of community with each other, we share this sense of influence we have on our experiences, individual and collective. When we avoid this deepening, we disable our influence.

Community bypassing

Feeling connection to others because we have, or have had, the same experience is a shared community experience, a one-way sense of connection. When we avoid two-way contact and connection, conversation and relationships, we erode our ability to access the wisdom, support and influence of a far more extensive community experience.

Below are six symptoms of and eight antidotes to community bypassing.

SYMPTOM 1: Feel community when there it’s not there

Our longing to belong and feel connection tricks us into thinking we feel community when all that is happening is that we share an experience: living in the same neighbourhood, identifying with a group, believe the same things. The belonging we feel in a “shared experience community” is a shared identification with an identity narrative, one to which we easily and firmly attach to meet our need to feel connection — community bypassing surfaces when we stop there.

Community bypassing is present when:

  • There is no or little social contact between people (connection bypassing). For example, we: don’t talk to our neighbours, don’t see who is on a webinar call with us, or “feel the oneness among us” without making contact.
  • There are no or few interactions and exchanges between people (conversation bypassing). For example, we gather to listen one or a few people and do not have opportunities to be in conversation with each other.
  • People don’t hold themselves and others accountable and responsible for the quality of their relationships (relationship bypassing). For example, we keep our agreements about how we’ll talk to each other hidden.

When we avoid social contact that leads to connection with one another, the interactions and exchanges that come with conversation, and the accountability and responsibility that come with relationships, we are not able to access a sense of community where we make meaning together and make choices that better shape our realities.

ANTIDOTE 1: Ask, “Are we merely sharing an experience?”

A shared experience can lead to a sense of community that Chavis and Kien describe as a “sense of influence” over our realities. When we ask, “Are we merely sharing an experience?” we give ourselves an opportunity to pop the imaginary community bubble and notice if a more profound sense of community is available.

The beginnings of connection that come with a shared experience feel good, and it can feel so good that we don’t investigate further. It is important to know when there isn’t more happening than a shared experience, even if this is an uncomfortable realization. From this understanding, we can discern where and how to grow our sense of community.

ANTIDOTE 2: Create opportunities for social contact and connection

When we design gatherings, we choose to keep people separate or create opportunities for them to make contact with each other. (For ideas about how to design for contact, check out this post about connection bypassing.)

ANTIDOTE 3: Create opportunities for interactions and exchanges between people

Conversation is an activity in which we connect and explore joy and laughter and grief and hardship. Conversation is a container for connection that only occurs after we have made contact and start the back-and-forth of ideas, thoughts and feelings. In a conversational space, we actively learn and question. (For ideas about how to create opportunities for interactions and exchanges, check out this post about conversation bypassing.)

ANTIDOTE 4: Encourage and support accountability and responsibility

Accountability and responsibility help us be trustworthy and experience trustworthiness in others, key elements to crafting relationships that generate a sense of community where belonging is front and center. One strategy to do this is to have conversations where we make and remake agreements among ourselves about what we expect of each other. In doing this, we choose to care for the quality of our relationships. (For ideas about how agreements can help with relationship making, check out this post about relationship bypassing.)

SYMPTOM 2: Choose rescue over resilience

We have social contracts among us, often unspoken yet palpably present. For example, we pool our resources to meet community needs by using taxes to fund firefighters and paramedics. Each community chooses a standard of service — how fast we want them to reach us when we call — that it is prepared to fund. Within this social contract, we decide how we’ll help each other out when emergencies happen — and when they do, this is vital and needed rescue work. We also choose how much prevention work we are prepared to do to minimize our need to be rescued.

When we focus on the short-term fix, we affirm a rescue culture: we don’t have to do anything differently because someone or something will swoop in and save us. In contrast, a culture of resilience acknowledges both the need to respond to emergencies and grow our capacity to adapt to new life conditions. There is a time and place for rescue, yet as our default stance, we minimize our capability to learn and grow as a community by expecting someone to know how to handle the situation and give us instructions.

SYMPTOM 3: Decisions are made by some, for others, without question

In a rescue stance, we don’t share decision-making because there are designated people who know better. If I arrive in the hospital emergency room with multiple injuries, I will defer to the experts, expecting that some choices will be laid out for me as appropriate. Their expertise informs my choices, but the choices are mine. I may even seek out alternate expertise to inform myself about my next decisions.

Community decision-making is not as simple as in an emergency room because many of us have different information, opinions, perspectives, and priorities. It is true that some of us do know better than others on certain topics, AND we have a choice to make about WHEN to make decisions for others, when to make decisions for ourselves or when to make decisions together. As a community, however, we avoid shared decision-making when we believe without question that some know better than others.

ANTIDOTE 5: Notice “good” and “bad” feelings about decisions

It can feel good to be rescued and have others make decisions for us because we absolve ourselves of responsibility to take action for our well-being. We can relax into feeling safe and secure when being looked after by others, leaving the work to others. Further, some of us feel safe and secure in the rescuer role.

In dynamics where we place responsibility for our experience on others, either as the rescuer or the rescuer, we blame the other when things don’t go as we’d like. When we want to be rescued, we get angry because they are not rescuing us. (Just make this go away.) When we want to be the rescuer, we get mad because they are not allowing themselves to be rescued. (Just do as I say, and this will go away.) Suddenly, the other becomes a threat to our sense of self because we can no longer play the familiar roles that make us feel good. So we feel bad.

SYMPTOM 4: Ignore when inferiority or superiority are in play

The need to be rescued or be the rescuer comes with a stance of inferiority and superiority. A few years ago, I experienced a man in his mid-70s driven by his superior knowledge to save the world. His backstory (as I imagine it): a lifetime of brilliant and unacknowledged work and rejection by all major decision-makers. He’s a rare human who can see our future better than we can, but since we can’t hear it or don’t like to hear it, we have tuned him out for decades. And since we’ve tuned him out, he now yells at us.

As a conference keynote speaker in 2019, he didn’t recognize that the few hundred of us listening to him believed him; he didn’t need to convince us that our lives on this planet are in trouble and we need to take action. He ramped up his yelling and was insensitive and violent in delivering his message. He fell into a saviour trap, and we fell along with him, leaving his violence unchecked, leaving us battered and bruised by humanity’s inaction.

His primary message: I know everything there is to know, and I’m here to save you. He really wanted to save us.

From a stance of superiority, we force our knowledge on others because we know better. The harsh truth, loud and fast, may compel some to act and if it does, it doesn’t last because it doesn’t come from within us. Within is where change happens.

From a stance of inferiority, we believe we aren’t smart enough, perhaps deserve to be yelled at, and the more we listen to him, the less we listen to ourselves. And when we listen to only a few of us, there’s no room for community decision-making.

I need hospital emergency room surgeons to insert their expertise in my decision-making when rescue is needed, and I have the final say in how I wish to lead my life, just as community has the final say in how to improve how we live our lives on Earth.

ANTIDOTE 6: Make choices that are yours to make / make space for people to make choices that are theirs to make

When we can make choices on our own, we should. For example, I apply this to a clothing conversation with a 4-year-old: “It’s cold out today, so you need to wear pants. What do you choose, the red pants or blue pants?”. It also applies to the social habitat we make for ourselves when we gather. Conference attendees, for example, can create their agenda on the spot: “Here’s the big question we’re exploring today… what topics would you like to explore with your colleagues?” The work of organizers is not to determine what people will explore and when, but make space for people to explore what they wish to explore. (Consider participatory processes like Open Space Technology.)

ANTIDOTE 7: Listen to ourselves

The violent saviour man’s wish for humanity was that we make new and better choices to ensure our planet is healthy. Yet, he and the conference organizers did not create the conditions for attendees to explore how to think, let alone act differently. We needed to be saved, and there was only one way to do so: his.

In contrast, when we design for conversations with participatory processes, we create the conditions to listen to ourselves, invoke collective discernment and make shared decision-making possible.

SYMPTOM 5: Demand consistent information and tangible results

We desire stability, and when the world around us feels uncertain, we feel unstable and uncomfortable. Our confusion and frustration can appear as anger and demand others to be smarter, better, or do their jobs better. Throughout the pandemic, I recognize statements like these as calls for stability:

  • They should have known better
  • They keep changing their minds
  • Why can’t they keep their story straight?
  • Why can’t people just wear a mask or get vaccinated?
  • You’re not the boss of me!

These are calls for others to relieve me from the discomfort I am experiencing. By blaming others for our predicament, I remove myself from responsibility or accountability. I become the victim that needs to be rescued by those causing me my discomfort. Imagine what happens when we all do this — nothing gets resolved, and we stay in the misery of a crappy experience.

SYMPTOM 6: Avoid feedback loops

Feedback loops are channels of information about our well-being, both good and bad. When we choose not to look at this information, we do not recognize how our community choices are working or not working. When we don’t look at the available information, we disable our ability to make choices that would better serve us.

The violent saviour man was motivated to yell because he wanted to be heard. He could see that at the scale of community, we couldn’t make the necessary decisions because we weren’t paying attention to the information available to us. His experience: we ignore all the signs that we’re in trouble, and he is frustrated by our inaction.

ANTIDOTE 8: Learn about ourselves

Feedback loops are important ways to learn about ourselves at any scale: about us as individuals, a project team at work, an organization or neighbourhood, or a nation or species. However, we have to invite this information into ourselves and allow new information to influence how we think and perceive ourselves and the world, even if it makes us feel awful. Being able to learn about ourselves means embracing the discomfort that comes with learning and growing.

A cascade of bypassing

Community bypassing is a means to avoid shared decision-making. The symptoms are insidious because they are present even when we declare ourselves as a community, even when we claim that we share decision-making. While it feels satisfying to identify with, a community of shared interest does not, by default, share decision-making. Making choices comes after we contact each other, interact with each other, and hold ourselves and others accountable and responsible for the quality of our relationships.

When we avoid sharing opportunities to make meaning of our experiences and make choices from the meaning we’ve made, we avoid the challenges and brilliance of community.

Just as social contact is a means to disengage from connection bypassing, interactions and exchanges are a means to disengage from conversation bypassing, accountability and responsibility are a means to disengage from relationship bypassing, sharing decision-making is a means to disengage from community bypassing.

Community making does not mean being in relationship with everyone, but it does mean making room for everyone. The primary question to ask: Are we sharing an experience, or are we sharing choice-making? Sharing decision-making and expanding what we mean by community is a choice.


  • Where do you feel community as a shared experience?
  • What feels good about having a shared experience with others?
  • Where are you experiencing shared choice-making? (Note: it’s likely a small group of people.)


Definition of community:

Chavis, David M. and Kien Lee, “What is Community Anyway?: Our understanding of community helps funders and evaluators identify, understand, and strengthen the communities they work with,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, May 12, 2015. Retrieved on May 11, 2022.

This article first appeared at



Beth Sanders

Beth works with cities looking for practical ways to navigate the complexity of city life — to hear each other and make better cities. Author of Nest City.