Groundrules: empowering or oppressive: part 2

Reflecting on Daniel Hunter’s article, mentioned in our previous post, a few things come out for me.

Firstly, not to be put off using of a group agreement (I don’t do ground rules and find the terminology too reminiscent of school for many of the groups I’ve worked with). It’s a good tool. Whilst Daniel is right to point out that, like any other facilitation tool, it can be done superficially, we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath water.

I find that a group agreement heads off the vast majority of ‘difficult’ behaviour and domination and does open up the way for the quieter voices and the least assertive to play a more active role. But it would be a mistake to think that the group agreement does all that on its own. Negotiating an agreement simply raises the consciousness of the group about issues of group dynamics and participation and it will need to be supported by a constant flow of reminders, gentle (and some less gentle) challenges, body language – gesture and facial expression.

I’ve reflected on whether my negotiated group agreements always list clear behaviours, and I’m not sure they do. That’s one tip I’ll be taking on. Here’s a few others I’d like to offer, in no particular order – some of which chime with Daniel’s thinking:

  • Don’t use an agreement if it’s not appropriate – deal with issues that arise in the moment if that works better for you and/or the group using the facilitation tools we all have in our toolkits!

If you are going to use an agreement:

  • Ensure the group agreement is framed in practical terms – what does this tool do for us as a group? For me people need to understand what they’re being asked to sign up to. Offering a rationale is essential for this – whether it comes from the facilitator or from the group. That way you get the process-skeptics on board
  • That rationale can (and should?) be given in the language of the margins and mainstreams. It should answer the question ‘How will this behaviour make this meeting accessible for all of its participants?”. See every agreement as negotiating space for those who find the dominant culture difficult to participate in, for whatever reason – negotiate for full participation
  • Get agreement! I’ve seen facilitators simply read through a proposed list for agreement and end with an “is that OK?”, accepting the low (indecipherable) murmur as assent
  • Take the time to fully negotiate the agreement at the start. It sends a clear message to the group that you, the facilitator, are serious about participation and opening up the margins
  • Use the negotiation process to cement your mandate to facilitate with the group. It’s a 2 step process – “Can you all sign up to these behaviours”? and “Can I have your mandate to support you in doing so?”
  • Negotiate a culturally appropriate agreement. I think Daniel’s right – we can get lazy and fall back on the shorthand of things like ‘no interrupting’ without checking that our assumptions work for this group. I know I’ve been guilty of this at times
  • Go back to the underlying purpose of the agreement – what do we want to achieve by our lazy shorthand of ‘no interrupting’? A safe space for everyone to feel able to contribute, have their voice heard and their point respected? So work from that – it may lead you to ‘no interrupting’ but it may not

Groundrules – empowering or oppressive?

Daniel Hunter of Training for Change has contributed a thought-provoking article to Turning The Tide’s latest Making Waves. In it he talks about ground rules and the various ways in which they can, ironically, undermine the safety of a group.

This flows from Training the Change’s emphasis on margins and mainstreams – that every group has a mainstream and a margin. Even groups of radicals who see themselves as the margin have a mainstream. If our ground rules (or group agreements – Daniel talks about agreed rules) reinforce the mainstream we do nothing to enhance the accessibility and safety of the spaces we facilitate and even undermine it.

I’d recommend taking the time to read the whole article, but for those in a hurry, here’s a few excerpts

Ground rules, to me, reflect a mistaken activist belief that we can and should legislate out oppressive behaviors. Safety requires more than rules…. Legislating oppressive behavior rather than dealing with it when it arises can reduce safety

First, ground rules need to be understood as a real group process. After a list has been made, the facilitator should test for agreement in a genuinely open way. The question should be understood: is this a list of behaviors you agree to hold yourself accountable to as an individual? If there’s not some open resistance to the list, you’re not asking enough. Therefore, if you plan on ground rules taking 10 minutes, you are rushing the process. Rushing makes it a ritual and reduces its meaning

Secondly, the list needs to name behaviors that can actually be regulated…Take “active listening”. It is so broad and means a whole range of behaviors that are understood very differently by different people. The facilitator should help the group break that down into specific behaviors. That might include: no talking while others are speaking, letting people finish saying a point, reflecting back during disagreements

Ground rules tend to be created by the mainstream of the group, who are clueless in their coerciveness. Take, for example, “no interruptions” as a ground rule. It explicitly privileges one communication style over another… African-American cultures and other cultures that may be marginalised have different styles of communication and may view interruptions differently — they can be part of keeping the pace of conversation moving. It’s still rude to cut off someone if they have not been able to make a single point, but even more rude to hog the floor making multiple and even unrelated points. But “interrupting” allows people to handle a conversation point-by-point, keeping a flow of a conversation.

Every group will have its own set of mainstreams and margins, and when the full group is asked to make a decision, who tends to get their way? The mainstream or dominant culture of the group!

And for another recent conversation on ground rules, check out Lynn Walsh’s Away with Ground Rules.

Why not read Part 2 of this post?