norm setting as ritual

Last week I was reading about ritual and I began to think about the role of norm settings as ritual and their place in the training.  That thought brought me to re-reading Daniel Hunter’s article “Break the Rules: How Ground Rules Can Hurt Us” and thinking even more about norm setting as ritual.

A standard feature of many workshops is the obligatory “norm setting” or “ground rule” setting.  Usually this is done in the first few moments of a workshop right after the facilitator introduces the workshop.  The facilitator will say something like “we want to set norms for working together, what are some things we can follow that will assist in that learning?”  Then, participants who have set norms before will share things like “step up/step back,” “actively listening,” and “suspend judgment.”  The bold, vocal, and comfortable participants will ask clarifying questions while those who are confused or not ready to participate will not share their voice.  As Daniel’s article talks about, the ground rules are infrequently referenced again and thus could become “meaningless ritual.” All of this generally leads to those that have the most power in the room (facilitators and participants alike) to maintain that power while projecting a false sense of equality.

All of these ideas got me thinking about how to have a meaningful ritual of ground rules.  Rituals can be hollow reinforcements of undesired power dynamics OR they can create spaces of empowerment.  However, many short format workshops (1 day to 1 hour) do not feel they have time to spend 1 hour to create meaningful ground rules for this unique group (Daniel’s article clearly lays out how one can develop meaningful ground rules).

This got me thinking: Is it possible to use ground rules as an empowering ritual when there isn’t the time to fully engage in developing actual ground rules for a particular group? This question got me thinking about the purpose of ground rules, which is to open up space for community and connection.  When we are grounded in the purpose of our activities, it is easier to see if it is or is not fulfilling our intention.


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