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?