How to Build a Tribe

It is important to preface this entire document by saying that I had very specific objectives for creating a tribe. In particular, I wanted a group that was emotionally vulnerable with each other, who are reacting in real time to each other’s responses, where we create a safe space to say and feel and process anything. If you’re looking for something else, only some of this will apply to you. If you share this vision with me, a list of concrete steps to get there from here is below the fold:

Step 1: brainstorm a list of potential tribe members

I was selecting for people who I thought a) wanted something like this, and b) had the skills to participate in such a group. My final list was about a dozen people.

Step 2: interview each of the potential members individually

I let the conversation flow wherever it was going, largely using the heuristic of following emotional valence – that is, asking more detailed questions when the other person felt strongly about something. However, I did have a general outline that I followed when I didn’t see an obvious follow-up question:

When did you feel close to a group of people?

What communities have you been a part of in the past? What did you like or dislike about them?

What do you want out of a group?
What is your ideal tribe like?
What can I provide you that would get you to come once per week?

How do you emotionally connect with others?

What topics or activities do you want to do?

Who do you really want there?
Who do you really NOT want there?

What weeknights work for you?

The initial questions were to figure out whether people wanted what I wanted, and also gathering data on how other groups were managing to create that. The next bunch of questions were trying to figure out how to provide them with enough value that they would make a once/week commitment. You can have a lower commitment group of every other week or something like that too, but I personally like the once/week frequency.

The final questions were more logistical in nature: trying to determine whether there were any fundamental incompatibilities in my selection (e.g. an unknown hostility or something), and coordinating people on a specific regular meeting day. Note that not all of my tribe members knew each other, so this was somewhat of a wild card. It’s possible you’d want to introduce everyone to each other beforehand, especially if you’re unsure of fit.

Upon doing the interviews, I narrowed down my selection to about ten people.

Step 3: create some kind of agreement, ask people to give some kind of affirmative response, and then schedule a weekend trip that works for everyone

The agreement may not be crucially important, but mine were, verbatim:

“Confidentiality: in order to create a safe space where people can share fully and honestly, everything that is shared inside the group stays inside the group. You can share your experiences and your feelings with others, of course, but the details of someone else’s life or their process stays private.

Meetings: the initial group meeting will be a weekend hiking/camping trip, at a date to be determined by us shortly. Following that weekend, I ask that you make every possible effort to attend a weekly meeting for three months, at which point we will meet to decide the future of the group. Currently the logistics that seem to work best are Monday nights, starting at 8 PM and lasting for a couple of hours.

Intention: the goal of the group is to create a feeling of connectedness, to be emotionally vulnerable with everyone else involved, and to be supportive of others in their effort to do so. As a group, we will try to meet everyone’s needs, and help them become the best version of themselves they can be.”

(Note: I would now propose a different confidentiality agreement: by default things can be shared, but if anyone requests confidentiality it will be absolutely respected. We also established a fixed end time of 11 PM.)

In that same email I also launched a Doodle poll to select a weekend that worked for everyone. I recommend trying to arrange the weekend sooner than later, to keep enthusiasm and momentum going.

At this point, two of the ten members dropped out for different reasons, leaving us with a core 8 people.

Step 4: the initial weekend

There is probably an art to getting this right, but I don’t think I have all the pieces in place yet. I think getting people away from their normal context is a good idea: I recommend either renting a place for the weekend, or going camping in the woods. Bonding activities of different kinds are important. Going through a shared intense experience, either physically or mentally, is pretty important. This could be something like skydiving, cliff jumping, a physically demanding hike, etc.

The basic outline of my first weekend included driving out to a camping location with a hot springs nearby. The first day involved everyone carrying a bundle of firewood to the campsite, which left everyone physically exhausted by the end of the hike, whereupon we still had to set up camp and build a fire. Once that was done, we relaxed around the fire, talking about vulnerable/emotional subjects, singing songs, sharing stories, telling jokes, run around the fire screaming, roll big boulders around, things like that.

The second day we continued hiking, and eventually reached the hot springs. In retrospect, this did not go as well as planned, in part because the hot springs were a large public location with lots of other people around. We shared some meals, but ended up splintering into smaller groups and doing our own activities. Now we meet once/quarter, and it is always in a secluded location with no other people around, which facilitates in-group interactions.

The final day involved hiking to a secluded small structure with an incredible view, getting naked and sitting in a circle, and discussing vulnerable/emotional things, before engaging in a ritualistic closing ceremony and then driving home. I do think that being naked can be a profoundly powerful experience: it provides openness and vulnerability in a deeply embodied way, there is something profoundly human about it, and it is not something we casually share with others. I broadly recommend incorporating as many primal aspects as possible: fire (candles if not bonfires), physical play, being in nature, eating with your hands, etc.

Step 5: begin your regular meetings

This is where the real work – and fun – begins!

One of the first things you must consider is the leadership structure. Since you are the one reading this guide and putting the tribe together, by default people will look to you for leadership. Do you want to be the leader? Do you want it to be implicit or explicit? Do you want other people to step up? Will this be structured or impromptu? Some people form groups where they intend to lead permanently. I have seen groups that rotate every week, or every few months, or whenever the current leader feels like stepping down. No matter how you solve this problem, leadership is necessary for at least coordination, if not producing content for the group, so it is worth addressing early on.

Personally, I encourage group members to step up in the moment to propose exercises, prompts, discussion topics, etc. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. I always try to keep a bunch of those things in my back pocket in case the group seems to be faltering/undirected. During that initial weekend many people were willing to step up and provide suggestions. Having at least some other members who will do that can be very helpful from an organizational perspective. We have also experimented with picking one or two people to lead a meeting in advance, avoiding the usual diffusion of responsibility and forcing them to come up with content in advance.

Group practices to consider

Every meeting begins and ends with a check in/out. I encourage everyone to at least identify what they are feeling, and then some characteristic of that experience – by default, this is where they are feeling that in their body (kinesthetic sense), but it can also have shape, color, any number of attributes. If we are trying to stick to time, then I encourage people to only share that, and little else. From here you can start adding prompts. One example is to mention the high and low points of the week. In long-running groups I’ve seen before, this check in becomes a bit more extended, and encompasses what is effectively a recap of the previous week’s major events. If you go down this road, emphasize the important things and how they affected you, don’t just share every little detail. Alternatively, if you have a more focused idea in mind for the meeting, you can stick to feelings-only check ins.

One of the most important things in my opinion is to have a group norm of raising your hand when you feel similarly to someone else. This is very important for giving people real time feedback about shared experiences. Part of the objective is to show people that they are not alone, that other people have fundamentally similar internal worlds. This also helps reinforce being emotionally open. We have recently played with raising a closed fist when you feel the exact opposite of someone else’s experience – I wouldn’t recommend this for groups just getting started, since you want to build that sense of shared experience, but I personally find it useful to call into question my own fundamental assumptions.

[Update: we have subsequently introduced two new gestures, which have greatly increased the total amount of non-verbal communication being layered on top of whoever is speaking, and this has been a big hit. One of them we took from CFAR, which is to wiggle your fingers at someone when you like what they are saying and want them to say more. We have also taken the “finished” sign from American Sign Language, which looks somewhat like the “so-so” gesture done with both hands, to mean that we are losing interest in the current thread, usually as a result of someone going off on a tangent.]

A general heuristic we use is to be aware of other people’s emotional state, make observations about their state (particularly if they don’t seem aware of it or are not acknowledging it), and empathizing with them as necessary. For the people who are not self-aware, this brings them more quickly in line with their emotional state. The empathizing is a critical technique for getting people un-triggered quickly, and working through underlying issues. This group norm encourages and keeps the focus on emotional openness.

We have only played with the use of ritual a small amount, but this is something I hope to explore more in the future. One ritual I have borrowed from Native American traditions is the use of a smudge stick, typically bundled sage. I will light the sage, spread the smoke across the person’s body, and talk about how they are leaving behind the outside world and stepping into a safe space. I think the strong scent along with the hypnotic language creates a powerful association, and can bring people into that context more quickly. The check ins do currently serve a similar purpose, and we’ve tried starting meetings with meditation or other practices too.

Going forward, we have decided to have one weekend/quarter together as a group, where we get a large block of quality time together, and use that as an opportunity to reconnect, recommit to the group (or decide to leave, which no one has done yet), formally or ritualistically acknowledge that recommitment, and to discuss the possibilities for the following quarter. You will also need to hash out various things going forward, like what your guest policy is for example (if you allow them), and other forms of business items. We’ve decided to use the solstices and equinoxes as ritualistic Schelling points, which feels very appropriate to me.

But what do you actually do?

First of all, anyone can request group time, and this occurs after the check in, before the main event of the meeting. Sometimes for big things this is announced in advance of the meeting via email. If someone has had a conflict, a major life event, a revelation or breakthrough, if for any reason they want group attention/processing, they can get it. Usually, after the check ins are finished, I ask people whether anything is keeping them from being present. Most people are fine most of the time. Sometimes people need to get a 1-2 sentence thing off their chest. Sometimes it turns into another long process. This is highly variable and depends on everyone’s state. This part can take up the entire meeting, or just a few seconds.

For the first term of three months, I would recommend alternating life stories and working in dyads with prompts.

Life stories are basically what they sound like: everyone gets a turn, on different days, to tell their entire life story. In practice this has taken between 1-3 meetings/person depending on the complexity of their lives. Most people have never done something like this, so it can potentially get bogged down. You can prepare beforehand or not, as you see fit. In terms of feedback from the group, the important thing is to keep everyone engaged. If the story ever feels boring, or the person is pulling away from their emotions, the group needs to speak up immediately. I usually ask the person how much feedback/questions they want from the group. Thus far most people are okay with questions, and in my experience they do lead down good paths for the most part. That is also important for discovering areas of shared experience, or things people are sensitive about. My heuristic for telling my own story was to focus on the psychological origins of my most prevalent emotional patterns, plus some weighting towards fun/interesting stories. The questions asked of me were more about my day to day experience, and that resulted in me telling some fun little anecdotes from my childhood that they found endearing – much more lighthearted than my relatively weighty historical retelling.

Dyads involve splitting everyone up into groups of 2 (or one group of 3 if there is not an even number), and giving them some kind of prompt to follow. This has the advantage of giving people chances to build bilateral connections with each other, and to feel more comfortable with each individual person, allowing them to open up more with the group. This also allows more people in total to be actively engaged – ideally everyone is actively engaged in the one-to-many life story format, and indeed should speak up if they aren’t, but with a one-on-one situation no one has the ability to hide/withdraw much. Note that you can experiment with the length – anything from you pick one person and spent the whole night with them, to rotating often enough to hit every other member in one night. I also recommend having the leader generate dyads ahead of time, so that people are not allowed to just pick their favorite person over and over again. In between dyads, or at the end, it is nice to have the whole group congregate again and share something about the experience. One format is to have each person briefly summarize what their partner said for the group – this allows everyone to be more on the same page and not miss too much about what was said in total. You can also have people share any surprising experiences/thoughts, about themselves or their partners.

I have a strong desire to generate a large list of prompts and activities for group work, but unfortunately I do not currently have any such document written up. I am sure there are resources out there you could pull from if need be. I recommend being creative and trying to come up with some of your own for now. What do you most want to know about other people? What are the best conversations you’ve ever had, and what have they been about? What kinds of questions are on your mind right now? Use these prompts to generate prompts!

Beyond that, I think you can be more experimental with the format. In fact, I encourage maximal experimentation. One day I took the whole group on a hike, in the wind and rain, up Mount Davidson in SF to the top of the mist-covered mountain to see the giant cross. It was epic. (And if you want to help me compile a list of awesome activities, drop me a line and let me know what you tried and how it worked!)

As mentioned above, one thing we tried was to give everyone a turn as leader, where they had to direct the main section of the meeting as they saw fit. This encompassed everything from improv games, to dyads, to hot seat positive and negative feedback rounds. This is also a great way to alleviate leadership burdens on the primary organizer, and to see who is likely and willing to step into that kind of role going forward.

Also mentioned above, another possibility is to just extend the check ins indefinitely, and let people discuss any aspects of their lives as they see fit, letting the conversation naturally evolve and go somewhere interesting. People can also randomly propose ideas/prompts/games/activities in the moment, if it seems like the conversation is stagnant. This definitely has a more friendly feel, and less focused on deep work and personal exploration.

We’ve also tried focusing on individual people, similar to the life story thing, except doing so in a personal growth context – discussing high level life strategy, doing a deep psychological dive to change a pattern, figuring out low hanging fruit and establishing a new pattern, etc. Different people usually need different things in this regard. I found this to be useful for a large fraction of the group, and is certainly worth trying.

Hopefully this guide has given you the concrete steps that you need to build your own personal tribe. If you feel like anything is unclear, please let me know, and I will update the guide accordingly. I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all solution, and I encourage you to take or leave any of this advice when creating your own group. I am also very much interested in gathering more data, so please tell me what you try, what works and what doesn’t, so that together we can hone in on the art of tribe building. Also feel free to reach out to me to discuss the process, or if you want help or support in making this happen.

Best of luck on your journey!

  • T

    How do you navigate relationships with people who aren’t in the tribe, but would like to be? I imagine some friends/acquaintances of yours would have been quite hurt at knowing they had been deliberately excluded. I’m curious whether this was the case, and if so how you prevented or mitigated that damage? Secrecy seems like one solution, but clearly you didn’t choose that.

    • After we formed it, we got some questions from people about joining, but they understood when we explained that we weren’t sure we could preserve emotional intimacy while growing the group. We’ve encouraged other people to start their groups, using the process described above.

    • WilliamEden

      I agree that this can be tricky. It depends a bit on your social circle too. If you have a highly connected graph, and take only a subset of that, it’s a lot more obvious that you’re doing that and it does change the connection strengths within the larger group.

      If instead your graph looks more like a hub-and-spoke model, where lots of the people coming in don’t even know each other, you reduce the indirect conflicts between people, but can still get individual friends wishing to be a part of it.

      To some degree these things can be self-selecting: if you make it clear that this is about emotional closeness, some people really aren’t looking for that and will not express much interest.

      I also emphasize that I picked this group not because they were my closest friends, but that I specifically picked this exact mix and match of traits, attributes, interests, abilities, etc, because I believe it would work well together. It’s not a personal judgment on someone that I didn’t pick them this time around. I see the group as an experiment, and it seems likely it won’t be the last such group I form.