Have you ever participated in an intimate class or group meeting that broke down in some way? What happened? How did your level of engagement shift as a result?
Maybe one participant spoke more than anyone else and you mentally “checked out” because you knew you’d never get a chance to contribute. Or maybe someone you really wanted to hear from kept getting interrupted, which made you angry, and you spent the rest of the session noticing how many times she got interrupted rather than hearing what anyone was actually saying. Did a group of people keep showing up late after breaks, making everyone wait? Did you become so hungry, or so uncomfortable from sitting still for so long, that you lost your ability to focus?
Group agreements can do a lot to prevent scenarios like these. By fostering a sense of psychological safety within groups, they can make it much easier for everyone to participate more fully, or even show up in the first place.
Here are a few of topics around which group agreements can encourage open and intimate sharing among groups, especially in diverse groups comprised of people with a range of identities, or whose cultural, racial, gender, and/or class experiences (to name only a few!) may differ greatly:
- Schedule / showing up on time / timekeeping / what if you can’t make it
- Listening / talking at the same time as others
- Encouraging responses vs asking participants to receive each others’ contributions without responding or “fixing”
- Assuming goodwill / distinguishing between impact and intent
- Making space for all voices / permission to pass
- Speaking for yourself / speaking on behalf of others / making generalizations
- Addressing / identifying each other (eg nametags, sharing gender pronouns)
- Side conversations / off-topic conversations
- Use of technology / taking notes / photography
- Personal attacks / value judgments
- Availability of water and food
- Body care: official “bio breaks” / people taking breaks when necessary
- Accessibility / where to meet
If you’re the “holder” or facilitator of the group, it’s great to give participants the opportunity to co-create agreements prior to accepting them… though this is more practical for multi-day events when this process won’t take up too much of the allotted time! For shorter meetings with a new group, try setting aside even just a couple minutes to read out a prepared set of agreements, and asking people to acknowledge them with a quick show of hands.
As a participant, if you know there are certain group agreements that would help you feel safe or show up more fully, you might ask your facilitator before the event if they would be willing to address those topics as part of the intro to the session. If they are not willing to do so… well, then you have more information to help you decide whether or not that’s a meeting you want to attend!
I’d love to see examples of group agreements that you’ve found particularly helpful; please send any and all my way!