What are Your Unspoken Agreements?

Screenwriter John August recently asked a thought-provoking question on his podcast Scriptnotes (co-hosted by The Last of Us writer/showrunner Craig Mazin): When someone mentions the 1960s, what comes to mind for you? If you’re in the Western world, your answers probably include JFK, Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, The Beatles, flower power, Woodstock, the moon landing…? Those kinds of defining moments and movements are part of our “collective narrative” about the ’60s, but they’re obviously incomplete (even if you were alive at the time, and your personal narrative of the era contains a lot more details and personal memories). Much of what we collectively think of as the 60s really means late 1962 onwards – what does that make 1960 and 1961? August suggests that those two years fit more with our perception of the ’50s. Similarly, when we think of the first decade of the 21st century, we usually think of 9/11 and the resulting “war on terror.” Again, our collective narrative – our common understanding and unspoken but shared agreement about something – is based mainly on moments or movements that stand out from the ‘norm.’

Teams, too, have unspoken but shared agreements about things: about the value of a particular product or service you provide; about how a particular client behaves; about the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do things. You may have heard that the majority of communication is nonverbal (the commonly-quoted 93% is misleading, but studies agree that nonverbal cues carry more weight than the words we say); the majority of your team’s shared agreements are also unspoken. and if your team’s agreements were an iceberg, only the small, spoken few would be the part above the water (did you know that part is called a hummock?). The unspoken, unconscious ones are like the underwater part (did you know that part is called a bummock?): they’re mostly invisible but can have a huge impact on those around them. Some of them are helpful (they simply save time), but others can lead to team members being marginalized, one client receiving too much focus at the expense of others, and, on a more fundamental level, dishonesty, anger, fear, jealousy, and bitterness. All of which harm a work environment.

And here’s the kicker: separately from your teams, and wider culture, you have unspoken agreements with yourself. Agreements about power dynamics in your workplace (and elsewhere in your life), agreements about how you see yourself, agreements about the work you do, agreements about your skills… Your unspoken agreements unconsciously shape your interactions, your decisions, and your actions in fundamental ways.

If these unspoken agreements are so foundational to how we operate on a daily basis, how can we become more aware of them so we can decide if they are 1) valid and 2) helpful?

This Week’s Tip:

If you run team meetings: Include 10 minutes this week for “Agreement Testing.” Bring up a topic that it seems like there’s some agreement around, and ask people to verbalize their thoughts on it. Give space to hear multiple opinions – maybe the agreement isn’t as unanimous as it seems! If the conversation feels complaint-driven, that can all be part of the process; ask the group then how can you make an agreement that is productive and helpful. Work on reaching a concensus, even if it’s a baseline level that can be built on over time. If this is a helpful conversation, ask your team to suggest other ‘agreements’ to test in future meetings.

If you don’t run team meetings: When you hear an assumption made in your team voiced as a shared agreement, bring attention to it and suggest kicking the tires on it, whether it happens in a meeting or in another setting. Suggest to your team leader that you all spend some time investigating your shared agreements in future meetings.

By yourself: Over the coming days and weeks, take an inventory of the people and common scenarios in your life, and ask yourself what unspoken agreements you have about them. It might be helpful to ask someone who knows you well; a partner or trusted friend. Once you’ve uncovered some, ask yourself if those are agreements you want to keep; are they helpful, or do they cause problems? If the latter, what changes can you make to your agreements to turn them into something more beneficial?

Try these out this week, and let us know how it goes! We’d love to hear from you.

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Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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