Co-creating community agreements in meetings

Last month, Drawing Change posted a friendly question on social media:

What’s your favourite community agreement, for meetings?

The responses were so thoughtful and empowering, they had to be shared widely. 

As opposed to “ground rules”, a community agreement is often formed by the group at the beginning of a meeting (there’s a twist on this – more on this in a moment). These commitments can help to create a safer space, be referred to if conflicts arise, and help set the tone and focus for your time together.

Here’s what people contributed:

  • “Learn (or lean) into discomfort.”
  • “Ask for what you need, offer what you can.”
  • “Uphold commitments.”
  • “Listen to understand.”
  • “Let go in order to grow.”
  • “Assume good intent, until proven otherwise.”
  • “Dig deep and Let go.”
  • “Do no harm.”
  • “Support others – this is how you learn about your own strengths.”
  • “Listen to Build. (instead of saying ‘yeah, but…’)
  • “Talk in headlines.”  (Useful if you need to ask “can you give us the headline?”, to get someone to summarize a statement for everyone’s clarity.)
  • “Take the wisdom out of the room but leave the names out.”
  • “Talk to each other not about each other.”
  • “Authentic self expression.”
  • “Limited tech use: we are all grown ups (with work and family obligations) but do your best to be present and avoid the compulsive email checking.”
  • “Nothing about us without us.”
  • “Sustainable ideas consider needs of all, so if an idea doesn’t work for you or the group, consider an alternate!”
  • “Take care of your needs.”
  • (for community work in Northern Mexico, we talk about the quality of) “resonance: we do not compare, contrast, discount or diminish our stories or those of others – we resonate.”  

These agreements were contributed by Ferananda Ibarra, Chris Corrigan, Krisztina Kun, Trilby Smith, Katy Golinsky, Gray Miller Creative, Ankit Chhabra, wolf, Nadja Petranovskaja, Brandy Agerbeck, Natalie Ord, Monica Brasov-Curca, Christine Martell, Jill Banting, Rachel Marcuse, Ken Lima-Coelho, Mark Busse, Julie Gieseke

Facilitating and co-creating agreements

Recently, I’ve been rethinking community agreements. When is it best to suggest principles to the group, and when is it better for a group to create their own? For my graphic facilitation training workshops, I might start the room with a poster like the one in the image above – and ask the group if they have edits or additions. Setting the tone from the front of the room like this works well — but only in low-conflict situations. For years I always asked groups to write them together, but in short meetings or focus groups, when time is very precious or the group is not coming together for a high-stakes conversation, it can seem trite to ask the group to participate in these container-building activities.

But, I’m recently home from a Lewis Deep Democracy training, with greater clarity. Community agreements or “safe rules” in LDD lingo can be a profound way of co-creating trust and safety while managing conflict. And, they don’t need to be the first thing we do together (!). One of the Deep Democracy trainers talked about how it can be a choice to pause and ask groups to create their “safer rules” (what the group needs to feel safer and do their work well together), right before they edge into conflict or go deeper. It could be in the middle of the meeting, for example. When emotions are heightened, and we ask people to name what they truly need – it can help the group be more honest about what they need to participate. And, she said, if the group asks for rules at the very beginning of the meeting – then she knows that they are already at the edge. Aha! So we can ask groups to create their own agreements from scratch, at a key moment, if we’re going to spend considerable time together.

Also, consider if the work should be split into more parts. Defining community agreements or ground rules can support better dialogue with self, the group, and community. As Monica Brasov-Curca shared with me on Facebook, “At a wonderful dialogue training, the trainer split the ground rules exercise into 3 parts. 1.) Community agreements 2.) Workshop conditions 3.) Participant intentions. And we co created all three…. it really is beautiful.”

Facilitate the conditions for being well together

Whether you begin with a list of suggestions, or ask a group to build their own agreements – you’ll find what works for the group. And if I’m a participant, here are some guidelines that I personally might suggest, to create the conditions for working well together.

Together we know a lot. We want to honour that the group has wisdom, and the answers are in the room. Everyone can be an expert. To elicit this, we can be curious and respectful with each other. Some actions to make this happen can be about encouraging questions instead of assumptions, and enabling anyone in the room to lead.

Take space, make space. Make room for people who think out loud by asking them to breathe first before speaking, and make more room for people who prefer to think quietly, to move up a little faster. This is sometimes known as “step up /step back” but with less ableism in the language.

Lean into discomfort. We’re only growing when we are on the edge of our learning. Sometimes it’s hard!

Uphold confidentiality. We don’t want people to share someone else’s personal stories, information, or attribute things to people without their permission – but we want people to share the knowledge beyond the room.

Do our best. Mistakes are okay! Make room to say” ouch, oops, move on.”  It’s okay to try and learn and do-over, be better. Asking for help is part of our movements for a better world.

Whichever tools we use, we want to build agreements where people what they need to learn as openly and securely together as possible.