8 community agreements: build trust and encourage vulnerable growth in workshops




recently i was hosting a workshop and one of the participants requested that i publish the community agreements i used so that they could be used by other facilitators.
 
so here they are, the 8 community agreements i use in workshops:
 
twinkle fingers: i learned this facilitation/consensus tool while living at occupy vancouver. basically it works like this: you bring your hands up, palms facing forward, to around the level of your shoulders, then you wiggle your fingers. we do this to find agreement on something. it's also a way to signal support or resonance with an idea, rather than speaking out loud. it can be used for decision making or within the flow of conversation in the workshop. you can also create another signal for disagreement like a thumbs down or arms crossed into an x. i usually test this agreement with the group first, so we have a tool to adopt the rest of the agreements.
 
confidentiality:  when we are sharing vulnerable truths in order to deepen our healing, growth and learning, often we want confidentiality as part of the container. at the same time there is a simple truth about people that we can't ignore when making these agreements: people talk. and people will especially talk when they learn something in a workshop that changes their life or their perspective.
 
so, how can we hold confidentiality and acknowledge that it is in our nature to share what we learn?
 
in workshops i encourage folks to talk about what good sharing looks like. some people call this "sharing the story but not the person's name." for me, living in a rural community and in an activist micro community before that, i've learned that sharing the story can often be the same as sharing the person's name. so i offer the agreement that "we will share what we learn, but not how we learned it." if you heard something that really changed your life, share the lesson, not the details that might be an over-share for other folks in the group.
 
i will also often encourage people to not share info if they really truly do not want it shared outside the group. sometimes we can share parts of a story and still get the support we need, without sharing details that put us at risk in some way. which leads me to the next agreement.
 
consent and self care: i define consent as being in control of your own self. this means that if you don't want to do something, don't do it. if i suggest an activity and you aren't into it, by all means do it in a way that works for you, or not at all if that's what you'd prefer. i also tie consent in with self care. if you need to do something to take care of yourself - like go to the bathroom, take a smoke break, eat, get up and stretch - by all means please do so. i'll take care of me, and you take care of you so we can all show up and learn together in good ways.
 
one thing to consider in this is how we interact with cell phones. many facilitators will ask that everyone turn off their phone in order to participate. this can exclude on-call workers, single parents, folks with loved ones in hospitals and folks who just generally need their phone on for some reason they may or may not want to share. i prefer agreements where we are in charge of ourselves and we minimize our impacts on others. so, if you need to keep your phone on, go for it, but keep it on vibrate if you can.
 
no assumptions: here we agree to not make assumptions about the other people in the room. this agreement has two parts. one is not to assume things about specific people, especially just by looking at them. here i talk to the group about how i use a "they" pronoun, even though many people might assume i use the pronoun "she." i also talk about other life experiences i have that other folks might not know from looking at me. i use myself as an example, but you could also invite other people to share info or details about their life that you might not notice by looking at them. the second piece of this agreement is about not making general statements, especially about groups we are not a part of. the tool i offer here is "i" statements. so rather than saying "all queer people..." i would say "i feel this way about my queerness." this way you avoid telling other people things about their life experiences that may not be true, which is an easy way to break trust.
 
if you don't understand, ask: sometimes in a shared learning space someone will talk about a life experience we don't have or don't understand. for example if i say that i'm genderqueer, someone might have never heard that term before. i find it helpful to encourage people, especially in the spirit of not making assumptions, to ask questions if they don't understand something. along with this agreement comes the understanding that you don't need to answer someone's questions if you don't want to. sure, it can be great to foster a generosity of spirit and an abundance of patience for the learning of others. and sometimes we don't want to be and educator in a space we came to to learn and heal. it needs to be ok to ask questions and it needs to be ok to hear "no." being able to say no is an important piece of consent and self care.


 
be mindful of  group dynamics: i have heard this described as "step up step back." the idea here being that if you are talkative you should try to talk less and give space for others. and if you are a quiet you should try to speak up more. while i generally agree with this idea, in groups i'm facilitating i offer this amendment.
 
i am a person who can, given the right topic, talk a lot. and quickly. with vigour! i know what it's like to sit in a workshop where everyone is awkwardly waiting for someone to talk - where quiet people feel pressured to speak when they may not want to (which is why, as a facilitator, i usually don't call on people to speak) and loud people hold their breath as they fight back sharing. 
 
i want to exist in groups where our natural vibes and personalities can get into a good flow with each other.
 
so rather than step-up, step-back, i offer these two strategies. the first is take a breath after someone speaks: look around to see if anyone looks like they are about to share, especially folks who haven't already. give some room for sharing to happen, recognizing that different folks gather their thoughts at a different pace. if it seems like no one is coming forward to share, then go for it. share away. and while you are sharing, utilize the second tool: appreciate that others are listening. acknowledge that listening is a gift to the group that is just as valuable as sharing.
 
and of course, as a facilitator you can check in if someone is sharing a lot and losing the rest of the group. you can offer 1-on-1 sharing exercises, visualizations, body games, or writing exercises where folks who are a bit more quiet might feel more comfortable sharing and parsing through their ideas. and circles can be super helpful too, where people can feel free to pass if they don't feel like sharing.

safety not comfort: this one could be an article all on its own, but for now i'll try to keep it brief ...  
 
often in group learning spaces, especially those that are grounded in anti-oppressive or trauma-sensitive values, there is a notion that we can create a "safe" space where no one will feel triggered or oppressed. personally i think achieving this kind of space is impossible. our trauma histories are complex. we live in a fucked up world. we have hurt each other many times before and we will again, even with the best of intentions. 
 
most of us are walking talking bundles of ragged nerves hoping for some kind of belonging or justice or both. we are bound to hurt and be hurt by each other. we need to get real with that truth to love and learn together. 
 
so rather than trying to create a "safe space," i would posit that there is a difference between being unsafe and feeling uncomfortable. for example, thinking about white privilege might make me feel uncomfortable as a white person - and i would argue that this feeling, especially if it's a new thing, is actually a good thing for me to go through as it means i'm deepening my learning by accepting, or at least facing, hard-to-digest truths. on the other hand, having someone yell at me, ostracise me, or threaten to hurt me - that would mean i was unsafe because those behaviours are abusive and detrimental to my learning.
 
it's important in learning spaces that address social justice issues that we be willing to feel uncomfortable in order to deepen our learning. especially when the discomfort comes from understanding our own privilege and the power we hold over others.
 
i think when we feel uncomfortable we are usually standing in fertile soil for growth.
 
and of course, all of this is complicated by the tricky and confusing land of triggers, wherein we can feel unsafe, because something reminds us of a time where we were unsafe, even if we aren't actually unsafe in the present moment. this is where the consent piece comes in. if something feels like its too much for you, then take care of yourself as you need to, which can include leaving the conversation if necessary. as a facilitator i try to offer myself as a support person if a conversation starts to feel like too much for anyone. watching body language, understanding how trauma lives in the body, and noticing people's energies are important skills for container holding around this agreement.
 
give people the benefit of the doubt: when we are in groups, especially with people we don't know, and especially when we are parsing through big feels shit with a social justice lens - we will say shit that is twinge-y to the folks we are sharing space with. much has been written lately about the problems with anti-oppressive language policing. while i definitely agree that it's important to be concious of how we talk to and about people and issues, we also need to make space for people to learn. 
 
i have found it to be an incredibly useful community agreement to suggest that we give each other the benefit of the doubt. if someone gets my gender pronoun wrong, i can assume they are awful and know nothing about gender pronouns, or i can assume they are learning and they made a mistake. a mistake that makes sense in the context of their life experience.
 
i'm not suggesting that we make ourselves available for endless micro-aggressions. we are allowed to have boundaries. we are allowed to say no. this is part of consent and self care. and we are part of a shared learning space because we want to learn. hopefully we can assume this to be true of others in the space and offer patience and generosity of spirit as we call each other in, rather than shut each other out.
 
...
 
so there you have it. those are the agreements i work with as a facilitator. some of the other pieces i include in container-holding are acknowledgement of indigenous territory and an introduction circle where we give our names, pronouns, access needs, and why we are interested in the work. all of these pieces, i feel, work together to support the group's learning and ability to connect well with each other.

feel free to take these agreements and play with them. use what serves you and leave what doesn't. facilitation is an art, based in lived experience. theory can only take us so far in this work. some things will work with certain groups and others won't. i'm very open to hearing your experience with using these facilitation tools, if you feel like giving feedback on them. and if you feel compelled to connect with me more about facilitation work, or see the workshops i'm currently offering, you can check out the facilitation page.
 
to your learning and mine.
 
<3
 
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the images from this post come from rebecca the imaging witch and chai chats, one of my favourite podcasts.

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