We’ve all been there. The consultant or meeting leader whips out a flipchart page and cheerfully writes the heading “Ground Rules” or “Working Agreements.” They use colorful markers to write the same things at every meeting: Speak one at a time. Listen with an open mind. Attack the problem not the person. You stifle a yawn.
That yawn is one of the reasons your organization is struggling with racial and gender equity and inclusion! Problem-solving meetings are places where your organization really show its values. Setting the rules about how to work together is a key opportunity to disrupt inequity and foster inclusion. Why?
Explicit rules disrupt inequity. Often, we invite a diverse group of people to meet, and we assume we’re all using the same rules of engagement – and we’re frequently wrong. Sometimes there is one set of rules spelled out for “everyone,” yet in practice those rules are enforced very flexibly for white people or men, but rigidly for people of color or women. Writing down group rules explicitly – and holding each other to them – is one way to practice setting equitable, transparent standards for engagement.
Inclusion requires power-shifting agreements: In a conversation among people whose voices are usually at the center of a conversation and people whose perspectives and voices are often marginalized, we may need to shift how power is used so that we can work together equitably. Such agreements might include:
Step up. Step back. Listen up.
Everyone in the circle gets to speak without reaction or response.
Name power differences explicitly.
Say what you need. (“Speak louder, I can’t hear” or “We need a caucus!”)
Ask about intentions; attend to impacts.
Ask clarifying questions before advocating.
Clearly state any decision we are making, and how it is being made.
Inclusion is about mutual accountability. Building Working Agreements is different from imposing a set of Group Rules. Co-creating a list of behaviors you need so that we can work well together is a chance to practice inclusion instead of demanding assimilation. Holding each other accountable to those agreements in real time – “I have just heard five comments from senior managers with decision-making power. I’d like to hear more from my colleagues on the front line” – is how we live up to our beliefs that we are smarter together, and that diverse voices really matter.