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  • Richard Bartlett

How Do We Want To Be Together?

This is one of the most powerful questions you can bring to a group: “how do we want to be together?” This conversation will bring the implicit norms (unwritten rules) out into the open.


Here’s a process we use in new groups, to help answer this crucial question:


  1. It starts with information gathering, hearing from everyone’s experience and opinions. Then you have a conversation together to build shared understanding.

  2. Then a smaller committee or working group will take away all that information to refine it into a proposal and formal agreement.

  3. Then we revisit the agreement periodically to maintain alignment between our ideals and our reality.


Step 1. Gather input


For this step you’ll need the full group, a facilitator, and about 60 minutes.


  1. 💭 Ask everyone to reflect on their own: thinking about a time in a group when you felt welcomed, supported and that you could be at your best... (2 min)

  2. 👉 In pairs, take turns to share your stories. (10 min) The person listening pays attention to what is important to the other person. ❓What attitudes/behaviours/qualities helped them to participate well in that example?

  3. ✌️ Then we combine the pairs into groups of 4. In your small group, each person shares the key things they heard that are important for the other person. Discuss together: what do you all need to be welcomed and to participate well in this group? (15 min)


We collect notes on a whiteboard. For example, here’s what one group came up with on Mural:


whiteboard with many post-it notes: e.g. "empathy", "listening", "appreciation"


Then with the whole group, we have a conversation about what we see on the post-it notes. Check for agreement, explore similarities and differences, and develop shared understanding with questions like “Are there any of these points that you can’t agree with? Are there any of these principles that you can’t commit to? Do you have concerns? Is something unclear? Is there anything missing?”


Unpack the values & principles into actions

For example, someone suggested “leaning into conflict”, but maybe it’s not immediately clear what that means. So we’ll have a conversation to unpack the concept into specific behaviours. In this case, we learned that “leaning into conflict” means not letting problems develop invisibly in the background, but proactively addressing tension as soon as possible.


Negotiate boundaries

For example, one of the post-it notes says “vulnerability”, but that might need more clarification. We probably don’t want to share everything with each other all the time, there are limits and boundaries. Discuss these boundaries together: how do we encourage people to share authentically? What limits do we want to put on what we share with each other? Is everyone expected to be vulnerable, or can they choose?


Step 2. Delegate to a working group

Before this becomes a solid, formal agreement, you will probably need to work out some details, e.g. developing specific terminology and definitions, thinking about scenarios like “what happens when...”.


In general we recommend not getting into this level of detail with the whole group as it can quickly become tiresome. Instead, delegate the “polishing” work to a small committee or working group. They can take the input from the whole group and develop the details into a formal proposal.


For most of the organisations we work with, this is a decision that is made by consensus, because we want a strong commitment to the “terms of engagement”. However, you may not be able to agree on everything right away: if it looks like consensus is impossible, you may need to reduce the size of the proposal and just focus on the parts that you can all agree to.


Step 3. Iterate

There is always some divergence between how we say we want to treat each other, and what actually happens in a group. It’s not realistic to assume perfect behaviour in a group. But it is realistic to ask for continuous improvement.


So when the first proposal is agreed, that’s only the beginning. It’s super helpful to return to the agreement periodically and reflect on it as a group, e.g. once per year. You can ask questions like: how well are we living up to our commitments? Do we need to update the agreement? Or to change our behaviours? Do we need training or support to develop new skills?


This is an ongoing practice of reflection and growth. It can be an incredibly potent technique for individual and collective development, because it guides people to make the “Subject-Object Shift”. Instead of being subjects of your communication culture, you can start to make the culture an object of shared inquiry.


Questions?

We will love to hear about your experience with this guide. If you want to open the conversation with your group, but you have questions, just drop us a line. We’re happy to help.