Committee Norms and Guidelines for Meetings

Guidelines for Honoring and Talking Across Differences©

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee Norms and Guidelines for Meetings

Guidelines for Honoring and Talking across Differences©

            Guidelines are often presented as “rules for the road” or compared to a traffic officer directing cars through a rotary or traffic circle. They are much more than that. They are the framework and the building blocks (content) as well as the mortar (relational glue) that hold together a community as it moves on a journey from being a collection of disparate individuals to living into the fullness of community.

            We are all in different places on the journey.  Wherever we are, it is helpful to begin with some behavioral guidelines recognizing, understanding at deeper levels, and celebrating our differences. At times, when our differences seem overwhelming, guidelines ensure that we can speak and act in ways that will honor who we are in all our uniqueness. These guidelines are both simple and profound: simple in that they seem obvious to nearly everyone who hears them, and profound, in that if we ever truly lived them out in all their implications, little other regulation would be necessary. Every conflict, however small or large, can be traced to the violation of one of these guidelines. Most often the violation includes denying that significant differences exist or seeing differences as greater than or less than, as “my way or the highway.”

            When adopted and practiced, these guidelines offer a common language that allows differences within a group to surface in a manner that serves ongoing growth for individuals and for groups as they discover new insights for themselves. It is a language that allows some safety in encountering differences so that the disagreements that arise can lead us to be more fully present to one another with all our differences.

Try on

            To try on a new idea or belief does not mean that I judge my former idea or belief as wrong. It means that I do not judge the new idea or behavior as wrong. I am willing to see the benefits and disadvantages of different ways of thinking or behaving. Trying on a new perspective is often a cumulative process. Some ideas or ways of acting are “acquired tastes.” Similar to getting used to a new pair of shoes, one may need time to try out the benefits of a new idea or a new way of relating to others. Two things are important to remember about exploring new options. First, if you don’t try on anything new, you are stuck with the same old ideas and methods, and your learning will stagnate. Second, whenever you try on something new, you always have the option of going back to what you knew and believed beforehand, or to the ways of interacting that have previously worked.

            An attitude of superiority, or of internalized inferiority, often underlies the violation of each of the guidelines. With regard to this first guideline, when I am in a position of dominance and I refuse to try on a new idea or way of behaving, at some level I am saying I know that my old way is better than this other way you are inviting me to consider. When I am a position of less power, I may be saying I do not have the internal resources to try on this new way, because I am not capable enough to do it. Thus, attitudes of superiority and inferiority hinder the exercise of trying on new ideas, feelings, and behaviors.

It’s Okay to Disagree.

When disagreement is not allowed, people don’t show up as fully themselves. If I am afraid that what I will say cannot be heard in a particular group or community, I may be hesitant to speak and if I do speak, I will be always on guard. I may even develop a type of split personality—bringing only the “acceptable” part of me to the group, and sharing the part of myself that is not “acceptable” in other places. Such behavior will mean that I will not likely ever consider myself a truly committed member of that community.

            Believing that it is okay to disagree both honors individuals and their differences and is an act of faith that the community is mature enough to understand and embrace significant differences.

It’s Not Okay to Shame, Blame, or Attack Oneself or Others

Whatever the cause, when people attack, blame, or shame one another, there is an immediate need to re-norm the community by reiterating the guidelines.

Phrases such as: “How could you possibly think that?” and “No one who really cares about this groups would . . .” are examples of shaming another person. Sometimes we shame or blame others through non-verbal body language, such as when we sigh deeply after someone says something we disagree with or find boring, or when we roll our eyes, or drop our head to avoid looking at the speaker.

Attacking, shaming, and blaming others with whom we disagree may stem from not valuing the vast diversity of goodness and beauty that is present in creation. Some people feel a very strong need to defend what they believe to be true, to control and manage the truth as if the world would whirl into chaos if their “truth” were challenged or amended. Or they may believe that they have been chosen to direct and manage others during a cataclysmic collapse of morals.

Those who blame and shame others or themselves may need support in their fear, even as one works to ensure that others in the group or community can disagree without being abused.

Practice Self-focus

            Practicing self-focus has two parts. The first part has to do with using “I” statements—that is, making a commitment to speak in the first person singular about what one thinks, believes, or feels.  Here the point is to avoid unsupported generalizations, such as: “People think …” or “Everyone believes . . . .”

When I speak in generalities from a place of power or privilege, without acknowledging my status, I foster monoculturalism by speaking as if what I am saying is true for everyone, rather than simply my opinion or my privileged group’s way of thinking.

            As a group facilitator, it is more effective to say “Can you tell me more about . . . ?” than to ask “Why do you believe . . . ?” Inviting a person to tell me more is open-ended and shows my interest in the person as well as the statement. Asking a person why they said something strikes many people as questioning their motives or intelligence, and frequently triggers defensiveness. I am reminded of the times I angrily asked one of my daughters, in a demanding voice, “Why did you do that?” They were quick to learn that I was not asking for information but saying, “You should not have done that!” The problem is that questions that start with “why” often trigger memories of shame and defensiveness.

            Self-focus has a second dimension. Here, self-focus means really listening to myself and the information from within that I often overlook. When I am truly self-focused, I am paying attention to the feelings that I am experiencing while someone else is speaking. As I am hearing her words and meanings, I am monitoring my own inner responses. I am aware that what is being said and what is not being said (what is left out of the conversation) are having an impact on me emotionally. Even if I do not know why I am having a particular feeling, I allow myself to become aware of my feeling state in the moment, and I take responsibility for it. Self-focus is being aware that these are my feelings. Something the other person said or did may have been a stimulus, and these feelings are mine. This sort of self-focus requires practiced discipline. When I am not exercising self-focus, I often “listen with my answer running.” I confuse my response with universal right and good. I am also in danger of responding to the statement without paying attention to the speaker.

            Sometimes people make the distinction between reacting and responding. Reacting generally means replying hastily to someone without fully taking in what they have said and or replying to the statement and not the person. Responding usually connotes listening to the person as well as hearing the statement and in some way valuing the person.

            In many cultures, people are reluctant to speak in the first- person singular. Their “we” statements are not generalizations as a way to avoid taking responsibility. For them, the use of “we” represents a deeply held belief in the primacy of community. For them, all actions of an individual, all thoughts, perhaps even feelings, exist because a person is grounded in a community. The notion here is “because we are, I am.” Cultural attentiveness is part of “try on” and “both/and thinking.”

Practice “Both/And” Thinking

            Some of us grew up with an “either/or” worldview; some with “both/and” worldview. Underlying either/or thinking is an attitude, unusually unconscious and unarticulated, that I am superior to the person with a differing position, or that the other person is inferior to me.  We may not even notice how deeply either/or thinking is ingrained in our way of living because it is part of our worldview. We are like fish swimming in the water and not noticing the water around us.

            The practice of both/and thinking often means substituting the word “and” for the words “but” or “however” in a sentence. This substitution is even more important when stating your opinion after someone has said something with which you disagree. Your “and” will let the other person know that they have been heard and respected, and that what you are saying does not cancel out what they have said. Stating strong differences with both/and language can help prevent people with strongly differing views from slipping into defensive postures or predetermined solutions. It acknowledges the complexity of a situation and invites both parties to investigate why it is that they see the situation differently. It is a path toward mutuality.

Be Aware of Intent and Impact

Intent is my intention or motive in doing or saying something.

Impact is the effect or consequence my speech or action has on another person or persons.

Sometimes I make comments that I do not intend to be racist, sexist, elitist, or oppressive, and nevertheless another person is deeply impacted by my comment. The person who feels hurt or offended may then accuse me of inappropriate behavior and may even say that they think the remark was racist, sexist, and so forth. The conversation quickly escalates, and both of us become defensive.

            Not only do I need to become aware of the impact I am having on others, I also need to inquire of myself what attitudes of superiority or privilege may underlie my comments and behaviors that others experience as oppressive. In a similar way, it is important for people with less privilege or power to reflect about the ways they have unwittingly learned to internalize or buy into their own oppression.

            Ethically, we are accountable not only for what we intend but also for the impact we have on others that we may not have intended.

Notice Both Process and Content

            Content is what we say. Process refers to how and why we say or do something and how others react. Notice who is active and who is not; who is speaking and who is not; who is comfortable and who is not; who is interested and who isn’t, including yourself. Ask about what you notice and share your thoughts and feelings as well.

Take 100 Percent Responsibility for One’s Own Learning

            When learning about and celebrating differences, it is very important to take responsibility for one’s own learning. Most importantly, this means that I do not expect the people who are the most vulnerable or underrepresented in a group to teach me what I need to know if I am in a position of privilege. 

Maintain Confidentiality

Confidentiality is important in one-to-one interactions, in learning groups, in board meetings, and in the wider community. It has to do with boundaries and safety. On a personal level, I may choose to take certain risks or to try on new ideas and behaviors. I might even be willing to expose my assumptions or discuss my personal beliefs if I have a sense that what I am saying will not be made public outside of the context in which I am speaking. Most simply put, this guideline means that everyone agrees not to tell one another’s personal stories.

In agreeing to each of the guidelines, people should be asked to make a commitment to each other and not just to the leader. This is most important with regard to confidentiality because people are agreeing not to tell each other’s stories. To emphasize this, I always ask group members to look at each person in the group as they verbally assent to the guideline of confidentiality.

What is said here, stays here. What is learned here, can be shared widely.

Some people add:

It’s Okay to Be Messy

One of the primary assumptions of learning about and celebrating differences in order to be in community is that no one is perfect. We are all on a journey. Because we are human, we will make mistakes. Being messy is part of trying on. It’s okay to have a negative impact and learn from it. It’s forgivable. Others in the groups will also learn. If you are constantly on guard about making mistakes or afraid of the impact you might have, it will be hard to try on new ideas and behaviors. Making mistakes is not, however, an excuse of shaming or blaming others or for failing to account for one’s impact on others.

Say Ouch

            It is important to interrupt shame, blame, or attack as quickly as possible, even if one does not know what to do next. When we are practicing self-focus and noticing a feeling of fear, anger, or loss, we might want to literally say “ouch” to alert the group to the impact that some words or actions are having on us. The facilitator may then interrupt what is taking place to focus on what the impact has been on the person who said “ouch.” When the group agrees to this as a guideline, people are agreeing that it is okay to slow down the content to allow for the processing of feelings that impact an individual, even if the intention was not to inflict hurt. Similarly, some people say “Oops” when they realize that they may have had an impact which they did not intend.

©These guidelines are abbreviated from William M. Kondrath, God’s Tapestry: Recognizing and Understanding Differences (Herndon, Virginia: The Alban Institute, 2008). They are based on guidelines developed by VISIONS, Inc. (