In 2020 I was introduced to "microsolidarity", a set of ideas and methodologies on relating to others in groups. Over the last 6 months I've been experimenting with it in the form of "crewing".  This post is a casual outline for anyone interested of the steps I took organising crews of rats and EAs to meet weekly and:

  • help each other with life problems
  • nerd out over mutual obsessions, from wellbeing to emergence to ambition
  • just generally connect as human beings

I didn’t set out with a plan, I just did what felt right at the time so take this as less of a recipe and more of a retrospective from which you might want to pick and choose some stuff of your own to try!

What I did:

#1 Collect "free electrons": I'd keep an eye out for people I suspected might be interested in crewing and would be fun to hang out with. I found mine:

  • In "introductions" slack channels for events (be on the lookout for key interests like "community", "governance", "wellbeing" or "relating")
  • At virtual conferences for communities like effective altruism, complexity weekend, or radicalXchange
  • People I know in real life (though never more than 1 per crew)
  • People recommended by other free electrons

#2 Connect: I'd reach out to these people to see if they'd be interested in a 1-1 chat

  • Normally this would be a message like "Hey, if you were interested in jumping on a call sometime to connect I'd love to chat about X 😊"
  • I'd go on a walk, call them up at the agreed time, and just get to know them. The conversations might involve:
    • swapping backgrounds
    • discussing ambitions
    • ending up talking about shared topics of interest
  • Normally they'd also nerd out about something I think a lot about (community, utilitarianism, public goods, civics, etc) and the conversation would just spark up

#3 Mention Microsolidarity: Inevitably I'd start talking about theories of groups or experiences I'd had crewing, and if they showed an interest I'd mentioned there might be an opportunity to join a time bounded crew coming up. If they seemed keen I'd add them to my list. 

  • Note: I've noticed people are normally a lot more interested in joining something with a time limit, rather than an indefinite commitment.

#4: Form the crew: Once there were 3 free electrons who've expressed interest I thought would vibe I just dumped everyone in a group-chat and we found a time to meet weekly for 6 weeks. I would just go with combinations of people that "felt right", but two things I came to realise I was doing were:

  • Organising the group around a shared interest like "ai-safety", "wellbeing", or "civics". Basically people who get fired up over the same thing.
  • Trying to avoid an "EQ" vacuum in a crew. The more people who feel comfortable discussing the way something is making them feel right now, rather than what it makes them think of, the better. Cerebral groups aren't worse than "feely" groups, but I was gunning for the latter.

#5 Have an intro session: We'd get on a video chat and spend 90 minutes getting to know one another. Generally I found everyone gets so high on "new crew energy" that 🔥 topics of conversation will just spontaneously emerge as people introduce themselves. Though if the spirit of emergence doesn't fall on the group you may need to be willing to "stand up on stage" and act as a foil for the group, talking about something you're currently passionate about.

#6 Case clinics: Case clinics are the secret ingredient. Over the next 4 sessions each person would bring some problem they were working on to the group, and receive 90 minutes of undivided attention from their peers. I would ask around before the session to see who was interested in volunteering to bring a case. Examples of some of the topics we've had:

  • Social anxiety / feelings of inferiority
  • Break-ups
  • Fears around over-ambitious projects
  • Imposter syndrome
  • Feeling torn between rural or city living

The case clinic format involves:

  1. A 15-20 minutes monologue from the case giver about what they're going through with space for clarifying questions
  2. Each "coach" reflecting back what they heard and how it made them feel without giving advice or over-intellectualising
  3. The case bringer reflecting back what it was like to share and receive the reflections, and any further thoughts they have
  4. A generative dialogue in which advice is now allowed

Things I've been more intentional about over time that seem to affect how things feel:

  • Holding a spirit of curiosity during the case sharing portion (people really value being asked clarifying questions on their case)
  • Paying attention to my emotional rather than intellectual reaction to the bullet points of the case being brought, and then modeling reflecting my emotional reactions back during the reflection portion. When someone shares something vulnerable to a group of strangers their monkey brains wants most to know first how it's affected the receivers emotionally.

I've been a part of 10 or so case clinics at this point, and with each I have more and more respect for the format. Having 3 other people give *you* so much care, to help you through something you're struggling with has been a novel and profound experience for everyone I've seen receive it.

#7 A graceful landing: Ending things well can be hard to achieve, especially if there was no time limit set on the crew. In the crews I've been a part of I've seen three outcomes:

  1. The slow death: This happened to the first three crews I was a part of, and I now work to avoid it. People's emotional experience of being in the crew starts to change as the "new crew energy" wanes. You get "failures to launch" where people show up and it's not a bad time, but it doesn't leave them excited for the next meeting, so people drop off one by one till the organiser stops organising. If you've ever been in a DnD group that peters out like this you know it doesn't feel great. But it's also not the end of the world.
  2. The time bounded ending: The crew disbands with a good feeling after the planned 6 weeks. People post stuff related to the crew in the chat every once and a while and you have people to contact down the line who may be interested in forming a new crew.
  3. The perpetual hum: If the crew is "humming" with enough energy to keep it going without you acting as the organiser, then the 6 week format can morph into something a little more dynamic whilst avoiding the slow death. At this point ideas around "rotating leadership" have come up where others in the crew volunteer to be responsible for it, and I can relax with scheduling or feeling the need to watch out for any snarls or issues arising.

And there you have it, my limited experience with crews and crewing, such as it is. If you want to try something like this yourself and have any questions (or just want to nerd out over groups together) feel free to reach out on twitter (@FilmerJarred) 😊.

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2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:37 PM

I really appreciate this post, especially the idea of time-limiting crews (with the option of extending if appreciated)! I’ve been workshopping similar ideas in anarchist spaces using their framework of pods & affinity groups.

I am not on Twitter but I’m curious how you developed the case format. Especially step 2:

Each "coach" reflecting back what they heard and how it made them feel without giving advice or over-intellectualising

This sounds almost-but-not-quite like a nonviolent communication method as I understand it. What do responses sound like in this step? And more generally, do you know what motivates the case clinic format (the presencing institute link doesn’t clarify)?

Thank you for the kind words 😊

re developing the case clinic format we use, I was lucky enough to receive a case clinic at a microsolidarity workshop, so I've basically just been trying to re-create the experience I had for others. Beyond that it's just been following the PDF / trial and error 😅

You're right to home in on step 2, I think it's the most powerful / important part of the process.

A typical response might be something like "when you opened saying X, I felt strong empathy for you, because I've gone through something similar. And I really liked the word you used to describe it, because I've never had a term for that feeling before. And when you mentioned your family did X I felt really angry and defensive for you, that sounded really horrible. And now I feel a lot of gratitude that you shared what you did, because I know how vulnerable that can be." and then they might move into sharing images or metaphors that came to them to help contextualise / understand the experience. I've found the words aren't as important as embodying and displaying the emotions I was feeling, and opening up so the case bringer can see how it's affected me.

What motivates this reflection step is what I think what motivates the case clinic format generally, which is in essence to give people the experience of communicating something going on with them that they can't communicate elsewhere. 

Everyone experiences a big multi-faceted emotional issue at some stage in life, and many of us are  working through at least one at any point in time. Most people find conversation useful to bring all the relevant emotions and thoughts into conciousness at once, but struggle to find spaces where they can do this because:

a. They feel they don't have the licence to talk to peers for 20 minutes straight about themselves

b. The listeners pay inadequete attention (not holding the entire context in their head, just the past couple sentances)

c. The listeners feel uncomfortable holding the problem and try to give advice to resolve that tension

d. The listener did understand, but fails to appreciate the speaker requires active confirmation that they were understood, and to know how they've affected the listener.