By Vega Subramaniam
Last Thursday (AKA The Day that Must Not be Named), Mala and I spent time with friends, eating, drinking, and making merry. At some point, we thought it would be fun to play a game together.
Mala, being Mala, said, “What if we take turns asking a burning question that we’re curious to hear everyone else’s responses to, and then take turns responding to each other’s questions?” You can argue whether what Mala offered is a “game” (it’s not). But for whatever reason (answer: social justice inner nerd times 10), that’s the “game” (it’s not a game) that we chose to “play” (it’s not a game).
You know what? It. Was. Awesome. Questions ranged from “cake or pie?” to “if you could travel anywhere on the space-time continuum, where and when would you go?”
The question I posed was, “how do you feel about ‘community agreements’?” You know, those things listed on flip chart paper at the beginning of facilitated work and activist gatherings? That is, for me, indeed, a burning question.
I have a distinctly complicated relationship with community agreements, also known as “ground rules.” Frankly, I would rather just dispense with them altogether because:
Perhaps most insidiously, as often as not, community agreements are seen as a reason not to engage in conflict, rather than as a path through conflict. Mala and I not infrequently hear, upon completion of the “community agreements” exercise, some version of this: “you know, sometimes I just want to call someone out, and I don’t want to be polite or pretend that I’m not angry.”
…Come again? But…isn’t that the whole purpose of the agreements? To be able to have the difficult conversations, challenge someone, communicate anger, in a productive way? Why would we worry about oops/ouch or shaming/blaming except to allow for tensions to rise and be navigated fruitfully?
My fear is that community agreements freeze rather than provoke courageous conversations. That when someone either disagrees with or is offended by a statement or posture, the community agreements make them averse to vocalizing their disagreement or offense.
If we are to go through the exercise, how can we do them differently? Bring them to life? Give them more potency? How can we deploy them the moment the elephant appears in the room? Or when tensions flare? What other solutions might there be for us to co-create a vibrant, conflict-welcoming, inclusive meeting culture?
I want stories. When have you experienced community agreements being used skillfully? When have you experienced community agreements saving a potentially explosive situation? When have you seen the lack of community agreements lead to a situation going south beyond recovery?
What have you experienced that breathes fresh new life into a practice that surely continues to exist (passively or not) because we yearn to be heard and have an impact? Leave a comment, so we can learn new ways of agreeing AND disagreeing together.