Agreements for Communication in Community
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” – 1 John 4:7
In 2018 in times of relative peace, health, and prosperity (though we didn’t know it at the time!) Grace’s vestry approved what we call our Agreements for Communication in Community. These are concrete ways that we can bring non-violent love into our interactions with one another, making room for the Spirit to do the work of transformation among us. There happen to be 11 of them, and we began as a congregation in 2020 to examine, study, and try to put into practice one of them each month. Then… pandemic pandemonium.
I’d like to invite us into the study and practice of these agreements anew this year— as a way to a fresh start. To enact and practice God’s healing, transforming, non-violent agape love with one another. Our vestry leadership who did spend a year in study and practice of these agreements in 2019, has told me that they have been incredibly powerful not only in their church relationships but in other relationships as well.
1. Assume the best about other people.
2. Start from an appreciative mindset.
3. Listen with your whole self.
4. Confidentiality means not telling someone else’s story.
5. Value differences of opinion.
6. Don’t personalize disagreements.
7. Don’t triangulate; don’t manipulate.
8. Use email wisely.
9. In group settings, contribute proportionally.
10. To accomplish something together, everyone’s contribution is needed.
11. Community means with unity.
By which we mean…
1. Assume the best about other people. It is very difficult to interpret others’ inner thoughts, feelings, intentions, or motivations. When matters are unclear, ask questions before you draw conclusions about others’ actions or motivations. Check out your assumptions before you act on them. Give people the benefit of the doubt.
2. Start from an appreciative mindset—“What is right and good here? How can we build on that?” What we focus on, we feed, and what we feed, grows. By focusing on the positive, we identify and build on strengths. Sometimes we do need to address the negative, but by doing it in an appreciative way (also lifting up what is positive) we can avoid excessive attention to the negative which will actually exacerbate the negative attitudes, behaviors, and situations we are trying to improve.
3. Listen with your whole self. When you are listening to another person share their thoughts, feelings, opinion, or experiences, suspend your own—to the extent possible, push ‘pause’ on your thought stream. Do not formulate your reactions or what you will say next. Look at them, make eye contact, lean slightly forward with an open body posture. If you cannot do these things tell them why so they don’t misinterpret your cues. Let them know you are listening by re-stating what you think you heard (reflective listening). Ask questions to clarify and draw out the other’s thoughts and motivation. After you listen, take some time to ponder your feelings and thoughts before you respond/react.
4. Confidentiality means not telling someone else’s story. You are welcome to share your thoughts, feelings, and experiences, but not someone else’s. If sharing your thoughts/feelings/experiences requires telling a part of someone else’s story, you need their permission to do that. A good guiding question is: Would I talk about this in this way if that person were present?
5. Value differences of opinion; low-level, constructive conflict is generative. When someone has a different thought, opinion, or approach from you, engage it with curiosity, rather than defensiveness. Projects and ideas that incorporate a variety of viewpoints are much stronger than those born of one brain.
6. Don’t personalize disagreements—having a different experience, idea or opinion from you does not make the other a bad person. Be careful when you frame your arguments so that they are about ideas, not about the others’ humanity. When disagreements become personal, conflict becomes damaging. That damage to relationships, community and organizations can take a lot of time and energy to heal, and in the end may be irreparable.
7. Don’t triangulate, don’t manipulate. If you have a problem with someone, go to them directly, don’t gripe with someone else or try to get a third party to address it. State your beliefs and share your thoughts, feelings, and experience with conviction and ownership—that’s what “I” statements are for (“I think/feel/believe/experience…”) It’s not your job to change someone else’s mind… to quote +Greg Rickel, “Leave conviction to the Holy Spirit… She does it better anyway!”
8. Use email wisely. Email is great for communicating facts, challenging for communicating opinions, and deadly for communicating negative emotional content. Never email when you are upset. Try to hash out opinions and ideas, especially where they may differ, in person, over video call, or audio call (in that order of preference). Discuss difficult emotional content and check your assumptions about others’ inner thoughts, feelings, or motivations preferably in person, if necessary over video or audio call. We humans pick up all kinds of clues from the energy and pheromones others exude, from their body language, and tone of voice. These are the primary ways that we communicate, far more important than the words we say. Email communicates only words and leaves space for gross misinterpretation.
9. In group settings, contribute proportionally. Calculate the amount of time for a given discussion/conversation/questions or responses to a presentation. Divide it by the number of people in the room. If you are talking more than that amount of time, you are using someone else’s airtime. Prepare and try to get simple questions answered before or after the meeting. If you are the kind of person who usually jumps in and talks a lot, try holding back. If you are the kind of person who normally sits quietly and keeps your thoughts to yourself, challenge yourself to contribute early in the conversation. If you have already spoken once in a group conversation, try inviting someone else to contribute before you share a second time. Discussions are much richer when all voices are heard; meetings more life-giving when not dominated by a few voices.
10. To accomplish something together, everyone’s contribution is needed. Make commitments to our common life and work that you can keep, then keep those commitments in the timeframe agreed upon. When you realize that can’t keep commitments, communicate! Re-negotiation of commitments strengthens community; not following through without communication weakens it. People will contribute differently based on their gifts, skills, and other commitments; in a strong community, everyone’s gifts are engaged, and everyone has “skin in the game.”
11. Community means with unity. We come to life in community with a rich and vast diversity of personal experiences, inclinations, beliefs, preferences, talents, and communications styles (that list could go on!) This diversity is our strength—but only if we value and use it to bring us together. We are all on the same team. Each person is a unique and unrepeatable miracle—the image of God. We can honor that image in ourselves and one another if we approach communication with love, humor, gratitude, forgiveness and grace. Sometimes being right is less important than being in relationship.
Sources (and for further study): Appreciative Inquiry, Dynamic Dialogue, Family Systems Theory, Bishop Greg Rickel’s 10 Rules for Respect, Kaleidoscope Institute Respectful Communication Guidelines, and Life in Community!