The challenges of ‘Ground Rules’

We need to get comfortable with simultaneous speech.

I want to begin this post with two excerpts that can give a bit of context for this discussion. The first comes out of work on mindfulness practices used in some kinds of organizing cultures and will mostly be relevant for those contexts, and the second comes from Training for Change and can apply to ground rules in any organizing space.

The first is from Carla Sherrell & Judith Simmer-Brown, at http://www.contemplativemind.org/files/ICEA_vol1_2017.pdf, who write:

“An assumption is that still, quiet bodies are reflective of equanimity, nonviolence, and mindfulness.

When this is held as the only valid spiritual practice or path, there is an implicit assumption that the more still and quiet, the more mindful the person. There are a number of reasons that this assumption could be unreflectively held.  … Stillness and quiet may be utilized to keep unexamined, challenging feelings and relationships at a distance. The exclusive focus on quiet, still bodies as the path to mindfulness may contribute to mindfulness settings becoming narrow, exclusionary, environments of white privilege.

The unexamined privileging of quietness and stillness in practice can, explicitly and implicitly, result in these becoming the standard for behavior on and off the cushion throughout mindfulness settings. Some ways that this standard may be expressed and demanded follow.

The language of speaking “gently and softly” may appear in formal and informal community agreements and codes of conduct. Whether in the context of joy or distress, the perceived raised volume of voices, in both spoken and non-word sounds, is routinely quieted. For the most part, groups become present through shared silent experiences.

To be acceptable, movement throughout the environment must be perceived as intentional and contained; it must take up little space or resemble white European movement practices. For the most part, groups become present through stillness or experientials that limit movement.

In communication with others, one-to-one or in groups, movement of the body must be perceived as contained, with limited, small gestures of hands, heads, and facial expres- sions. Volume of voices must be perceived as low. Broader movements and higher volume of voice may be considered out of control, distressing, and/or violent to others. In conflict, bodies must be perceived as even more contained and voices as even more quiet.

Some may assume that these expectations are simply and clearly essential to creation of peaceful, nonviolent, mindful environments in which all are welcome. Actually, they may guarantee the creation of environments in which the bandwidth of welcome is very limited.

In these settings there are very few acceptable ways to communicate (verbally and nonverbally), to be in one’s body, and to have voice. There are very few acceptable ways to be, not only personally but culturally.

In communities of color, there are a variety of settings in which norms include quietness and stillness. And white settings may include physically animated, vocally high-volume experiences. Still, culturally-informed communication patterns do exist and are transmitted to each human over generations through ethnicity. These patterns include range of stillness and movement of the body; volume, pitch, pauses, and silences in speech; and when, how, and with whom we may express emotions (Ting-Toomey & Chung, 2012; Sue & Sue, 2013).

Because of the highly racialized nature of U.S. society, these cultural and ethnic patterns are filtered through the construct of race, placing the dynamics of white privilege and supremacy and the marginalization of people of color at the center of intercultural communication styles and patterns. In the 21st century, negatively interpreting and judging culture-bound patterns of communication and embodiment that do not match the patterns of whiteness can result in exclusion, dismissal, and/or criminalization of people of color—from not being hired or promoted (Le, 2017), to suspension or expulsion as early as preschool (U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2014; Turner, 2016).

Descriptions of this violence are coded personally: “He is just not a good  fit for us.” “That child is loud and aggressive with the other children.” In the mindfulness movement, the narrow definition of mindful bodies can become yet another weapon to be utilized to control, exclude, and criminalize bodies of color within institutions, even as those in power in the movement tout the benefits of mindfulness practices to individuals, institutions, and society.

In unexamined assumptions about quiet, still bodies, critical questions go unformed and unanswered in mindfulness settings.

What is the range of expressions of stillness and movement of bodies present within and across cultures in this environment? Of volume of speech and non-word communication? When bodies and voices are evaluated as reflecting mindful practice, what cultural lenses/perspectives/bodies are doing the evaluating?

Who is, implicitly and explicitly, granted the power to name, evaluate, and sanction what is mindful behavior? Are intercultural communication and the dynamics of structural privilege and supremacy of whiteness present in the teaching, learning, and practice of mindfulness in our communities?

Without these considerations, mindless demands for stillness and quietness go unchecked and can become violent institutional and structural enactments of oppression.”

The next excerpt is From Training for Change:

Break the Rules: How Ground Rules Can Hurt Us
https://www.trainingforchange.org/training_tools/break-the-rules-how-ground-rules-can-hurt-us/

Mainstream Coercion

So why don’t I do ground rules in all my workshops? Because of the stipulation I mentioned before, “If ground rules are not coerced, then they are empowering.” The reality: 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. In this case the mainstream believes interruptions reduce effective communication because people cannot make their points when they are cut off – a belief more associated with white, middle-class, and professional cultures. African-American cultures and other cultures that may be marginalized have different styles of communication and 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 (as white people do all the time). 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 the dynamic is toughest when the group is early in its formation — exactly when ground rules tend to be done — and there is little container to hold the groups’ disagreements. Rather than speaking up against a mainstream norm, people holding a margin position will tend to be quiet, deferential and outwardly polite.

Legislating oppressive behavior rather than dealing with it when it arises can reduce safety. Rules without enforcement support a culture of non- accountability – which reduces safety. And unconsciously mainstream rules marginalize others – which reduces safety.

At Training for Change we regularly teach many options besides ground rules for creating safety in a group: from setting up workshops as learning laboratories to creating safety through “noticings” to emphasizing self-responsibility in conflict. But whatever tools we use, we should be conscious of how we are doing it and its impact on marginal cultures.


 

OK: so with that context in mind, today’s Nurturance Culture post explores a challenge that comes up often in helping create kind, caring cultures that do not reproduce oppressive practices.

Informally this post is called:

Why we need to get comfortable with ‘interruptions.’

Of course, I’m kind of joking. And kind of not.

One thing is clear: the desire to create space that centres voices traditionally silenced presents community organizers with a set of complex challenges. ‘Centring oppressed voices’ sounds relatively straightforward, but becomes more complicated on the ground.

I want to explore the complexity a bit, and hold these things together to see what we might be able to make of them. Here are a few of them:

  1. Dominant white cultural norms, if left unquestioned, may dictate that there is only one way to engage politely in listening to others, and this is in silence and clear turn-taking. The cultural norm in the dominant culture is that one shows listening by being silent, and speakers take turns ‘taking the stage,’ so to speak. A linguistic term for this style is ‘non-interleaving speech.’
  2. Many so-called ‘minority’ cultures also use non-interleaving speech. Cultures vary in this way; some may call for longer pauses and more silence to indicate turn taking than mainstream white culture.
  3. Since the equation of silence with listening is commonly in use in high-context cultures (e.g. this style is common among many Indigenous Turtle Island cultures and East Asian cultures, for instance), listening in silence and careful attention to who speaks when can be a helpful way to mitigate the tendency of people with significant privilege (white folks, cis men) to dominate conversations, particularly among people who all expect silence to be an indication of listening and receptivity.
  4. As a helpful reader reminded me, for some neurodivergent folks, such as people on the autism spectrum, and for people with hearing loss, turn-taking can also be an access issue, and can make it easier to hear and/or make sense of what is going on.
  5. There often appears to be consensus that a practice of turn-taking that centres non-dominant voices is a good means to counteract oppressive culture. These kinds of turn-taking can call for increased self-awareness on the part of white and cis and upper class people, who need to change practices so as not to continually dominate or silence others, as happens nearly all the time, in nearly every space in this society.
  6. This is a good thing. We do need to challenge people with relative privilege to listen to those with less, and to create conditions in which people from so-called ‘marginalized’ cultures are centred and heard.
  7. However, difficulties arise in applying this approach in mixed contexts.
  8. Many so-called ‘minority’ cultures, and many working class cultures,  do not use this style of one-at-a-time turn-taking at all, and do not equate silence with listening.
  9. In many cultures for example (e.g. Black, Latinx, South Asian, Jewish cultures), sitting in silence when someone is speaking may be considered rude, cold, or disinterested. Simultaneous speech can be normal and a sign of caring, listening, warmth, and being connected. (See the sound clip below for an example). What interleaving cultures make clear is that speech has many complex purposes: it can be used to listen, to empathize and commiserate, and to encourage the speaker to continue.
  10. As a side issue, obviously white people can also perfectly well ‘sit in silence’ to be polite and still not listen at all. There is nothing inherent about silence that ensures that people of colour will be heard. Non-interleaving cultures are verbally ‘stage-taking cultures,’ where the speaker is presumed to be centred through the silence of listeners, regardless of whether those listeners are in fact absorbing the speaker’s meaning. People from non-interleaving verbal cultures can silently wait for their turn to speak while disregarding what anyone else has said. Silence does not guarantee deep listening. Interleaving speech, on the other hand, requires an active, verbal interaction with the speaker, continually checking for mutual engagement and mutual comprehension. Neither style guarantees really hearing one another, but interleaving speech as as good as non-interleaving speech at creating mutual comprehension and in some cases may be more helpful, since ‘have I got you’ responses are continuously woven throughout the conversation.
  11. More core to my concerns here: since interleaving speech is common in many cultures, ‘speaking while someone else is speaking’ is not inherently a dominance move.
  12. This is so central I just want to sing it from the rooftops.
    Speaking
    while someone else is speaking
    is not inherently
    a dominance move.
  13. White culture comes out of a coercion and dominance culture. Encoded in the language and cultural norms of much of whiteness is a set of values over control, power over, and coercion. Hence, white norms require significant ‘padding’ and indirectness and many cues of non-dominance in order to counter the cultural assumption that humans are inherently competitive, and that speech acts are inherently dominance acts.
  14. Many interleaving cultures simply do not have this background assumption that all moments in which a human being speaks are implicit acts of domination. Instead they may perceive speech in a more interactive way, in which some moments of speaking over are moves to dominate – changing a subject abruptly, for instance – but most are not. The daily, ordinary flow of conversation includes a mutual responsibility to track topics together and remember what was said by both speakers so as to return to previous topics post digression. Interleaving speech may use digressions to enrich the connection and the feeling of enjoyment that each speaker brings to the conversation.
  15. Speaking while someone else is speaking is not inherently a dominance move. Yes, I keep saying it.
  16. That concept can be so foreign and unfamiliar for folks from mainstream white cultures that it can take a while for non-interleaving speakers (who have often been taught since they were very young to ‘be quiet and listen’) to absorb or take in and embody. Speaking does not inherently mean a power-over move, because in interleaving cultures, the speaker does not expect others to be quiet. Speaking and listening can happen simultaneously. I don’t know why this is, but it is. Interleaving speakers become able to hear multiple people talking and comprehend all of the strings of meaning, kind of the way a musican might listen to an orchestra and simultaneously hear the strings, the percussion, and even individual wind instruments. Our brains are capable of magical powers.
  17. In other words, that set of values, that silence = listening, is culturally specific, not universal. The significance of acts of speech is context-bound; not all acts of speech signify a move to ‘take the floor,’ what in white culture is experienced as a dominance move. 
  18. On the other hand, erasing difference or homogenizing a social context by, for instance, insisting that there is only one ‘good’ way to interact, or shaming interleaving speakers for expressing warmth and encouragement in the way that their cultures view as polite and appropriate, can be a dominance move. Social spaces that consider simultaneous speech ‘rowdy,’ or ‘rude’ can be highly oppressive towards those who come from interleaving speech cultures.
  19. For those who come from these interleaving cultural contexts, being required to conform to the assumption that ‘listening = silence’ can be oppressively assimilationist, and when done by white people can inadvertently impose white supremacist norms on the group. When well-meaning white facilitators impose moral judgments on folks from interleaving cultures as part of ‘ground rules’ for the group, by naturalizing ‘turn taking’ as the only ‘good’ norm, this framework can pressure some participants from so-called ‘minority’ cultures to abandon their own ways of being and relating, so as to avoid friction or prejudice when perceived through white norms. So while the need to centre quiet voices is helpful in reducing dominance by non-interleaving people with privilege, simultaneously, another axis of oppression can come into play. The desire to act in an anti-oppressive way by white organizers can inadvertently increase the oppression that some participants are experiencing.
  20. Add to this difficulty the tendency, coming out of white culture, for white organizers to fall into policing of one another in a way that seeks to be ‘perfect’ or to ‘correct’ one another, rather than having open hearts and being curious about the styles of being and communicating that can be present in a room. That tendency to shame or police one another for not “listening in silence,” while well meaning and potentially helpful in some situations, is not inherently conducive to creating a heart-based, relational organizing culture where people from interleaving cultures can feel accepted and be seen as whole people in warm, connected context.
  21. When we hold an awareness of these complex dynamics in our minds and hearts, we can come to an inclusive way of creating community spaces that both practice the vital centring of IBPOC voices, not by insisting that everyone use one communication style, but by making room for multiple ways of being in the world. Rather than creating a set of ‘ground rules’ at the outset that prioritize one style of speech as morally superior to others, we can find our own style, and grow in ability to meet one another across cultural difference, with an eye to centring those who are systemically oppressed – including interleaving speakers!
  22. For example: opening rounds can include asking people whether they come from cultures that need silence in order to speak, or cultures that need their listeners to ‘speak together’ with them, offering human sounds, responses, bits of speech, laughter, encouragement, in order to feel heard. When these multiple competing styles exist in the room, the ‘interleaving’ culture participants can then be careful to create space and silence, without being shamed or treated as ‘deviant’ for their interleaving speech, while non-interleaving culture participants – particularly white participants from mainstream culture – can offer curiosity about this dimension of cultural difference, and rather than judging or imposing the idea that silence = listening, can grow their awareness of the potential coerciveness of that belief for some folks from minority backgrounds. Adding this nuance to ‘step up step back’ can help create comfort and safety for both kinds of ‘marginalized’ practices. Replacing WAIT (‘Why Am I Talking’) with a bit of room to explore cultural difference and oppression in speech patterns at the beginning of a gathering, or asking people to say in an opening round what kind of listening they find helps them feel heard, and inviting participants to stretch out of their comfortable style to accommodate other styles, can be more effective than imposing one set of ground rules on a mixed group.
  23. Asking participants to identify their own cultural speech styles can happen even as we invite participants to centre quieter voices. Doing it in this way can take the moral judgment, perfectionism, or policing out of the practice of ground rules, and replace them with curiosity, and willingness to make room for difference across complex and sometimes overlapping axes of oppression and silencing. This go-around opener may allow for people who come from interleaving family or culture backgrounds to experience belonging, while also encouraging a practice of centring quieter non-interleaving participants, without valorizing or normalizing oppressive white mainstream norms. I particularly appreciated the note, above, that any culture will have difference within it. There are lots of Black, or Jewish, families who carefully take turns speaking and do not overlap, and there are White families who do simultaneous speech. This description is not meant to be totalizing, only to bring into awareness the presence of this complexity that will likely be in most groups, and the fact that interleaving speech is an ‘oppressed’ position in most community organizing spaces.
  24. That does not mean that interleavers need to stomp all over non-interleaving speakers. Interleaving participants can, for example, ‘buddy up’ with other interleavers to quietly cooperate together in ‘temperature checks’ of the room. They can help one another notice – through an agreed-on cue – when additional silence and spaciousness may be needed, in a cooperative and kind way that recognizes the valid and beautiful cultural differences in play while still creating silence when needed. In order for this to be practiced in a way that reduces oppression, while increasing comfort and safety, it can be helpful for everyone in the group to be aware that this cultural different does exist, and can exist across and among ‘race’ lines.
  25. Adding this dimension of complexity to group communication can deepen our commitment to anti-oppressive sharing of space, centring both interleaving and non-interleaving cultural styles, while growing in a sense of curiosity and open-heartedness.

 

Practice:

In an opening go-around, in addition to the usual getting to know you questions (who are you, what brings you here, anything access-wise we need to know about you that would help this space feel good for you, pronouns, etc.), facilitators can also ask:

What helps you feel heard? Different cultures have particular ways of showing listening.
Do you tend to need people to listen quietly while you speak, or do you prefer to have people speak with you or overlap with you in order to show they are being welcoming and encouraging you to share? Take a minute to think about how your family or cultural background understands listening, and whether you are someone who would rather people speak with you, or be silent for you. If the words ‘interleaving’ and ‘non-interleaving’ work for you you can use them. or you can just say what you find helps you feel comfortable, silent listening, or talking-together listening.

Typically, the interleavers in the room will know exactly what you mean, while the non-interleavers will be more likely to be unaware that this difference exists. This is an indication of the dominance of non-interleaving speech in North America, which means that interleavers are accustomed to altering their speech patterns in order to fit in to the dominant culture. Instead of reproducing this pattern of silencing, this can be a moment to bring additional awareness to the group of this dimension of oppression, so that the interleaving speakers in the room are not left alone to handle and teach this to the group.

to illustrate: here is a short sound clip that illustrates one kind of interleaving speech. (There are other kinds – this is just one example). I encourage you to listen to the clip before going on to the next step.

In this clip, everyone speaking is also all listening to one another. This kind of speech, far from generating ‘dominance,’ is an affirming, connected, warm way of showing listening, encouragement and interest, in one interleaving context. This is not ‘rude’ or ‘dominating,’ it is affirming and connecting with the speakers.

Here is a second clip that illustrates one axis of oppression present in the normalizing of non-interleaving speech (TW this is a clip of a dinner scene from Annie Hall, a film made by someone who has abused and not taken responsibility – heads up if that would not be comfortable to watch): Easter Dinner Scene – Annie Hall

Does your family or culture use interleaving or non-interleaving speech? I’d love to collect more examples of interleaving speech to share with curious readers. Send yours to nora.samaran@gmail.com and they might get posted here!

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2 thoughts on “The challenges of ‘Ground Rules’

  1. Hey Nora,
    Thank you for another very insightful article!

    To add some more complexity: in a conversation, I want to feel heard, I also want to be able to listen. And this is maybe a place where neurodivergence/ disability needs to be considered as well. For me when there’s too much sound at the same time, not only do I have a hard time listening, but I can also panick/ feel triggered. I mean as a baserule I avoid conversation with too many people, I prefer one-on-one, and in one-on-one conversation I enjoy and need some interleaving (I feel a lot more heard if there is visible and audible reactions). But in groups I just don’t understand what is happening anymore if too many things are going on at the same time. Also because even when one person is speaking I’m already tracking what she’s saying AND what she’s not saying AND what her body is saying AND what is the energy I’m picking up, as well as the other people’s body language and the general enegy/dynamics of the room and my own sensations and energy etc etc…. Oh my god group conversations are so intense! Though maybe it’d be different in a group where there’s a lot of intimacy, and people know each other well and are really tracking one’s another state.

    Like

    1. thank you! this is super helpful feedback! i’ll see where I can add this element in. yes also anyone with hearing loss also might find it extra difficult- i hadn’t thought of these two things…

      Like

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