Last Friday, I finished my latest week-long intensive in Healthy Communication at SCNM in Tempe, Arizona. Each year, a few of my students ask me to account for the agreements that I bring forward at the beginning of the class and require them to sign before continuing on in my class.
Every semester, the students change but the questions I hear remain the same. Where am I coming from with these agreements? Why do I think it so important to the well-being of these students that I’m willing to spend precious time on it, time that I could just as well put into teaching other things that might be valuable for them? What justifies the use of so much class time for these agreements?
CALLED TO ACCOUNT
If you’re one of my students and you have wondered about this, I’m about to explain my thinking, my intentions, and my hopes for the benefits of the time and energy that we all invest in this.
And while I don’t expect that my explanations will satisfy everyone’s interest, I do expect that you will consider what I have to say with the respect I think I’ve earned from you in the work that I’ve done to contribute to a positive difference in your life.
First up, I think agreement is the foundation of successful relationship. When we get married, we make agreements. When we enter into business relationships, we make agreements. When we raise our children, we make agreements that help them understand the boundaries and gain rewards for learning and growing in a healthy way. But in most realtionships, the agreements we make are negotiable, and we arrive at them together. What is the distinction I make about the context in which agreements work better when they are not negotiated? When the agreements are a requirement for taking a course rather something you can take or leave on a whim, or for any reason you decide to elevate to a higher level of importance?
Any negotiation on their part must therefore be done in the dark, whereas the composition of the agreements is done in the full light of my knowing what’s ahead. Consider the metaphor of a routine flight. I wouldn’t negotiate a route with a pilot on a commercial flight, and I’m guessing that neither would you. Instead, I purchase a seat and give my consent to sit in my seat and mind my business and ask for help if I need it. And I let the pilot do the flying, to apply the expertise that the pilot has and to which I’ve agreed by buying the ticket and taking my seat. If I have a problem with the route, with turbulence, with the service, the time to take it up with the pilot is not during the flight, when it might interfere with the successful completion of it, but once we’re safely on the ground. Following this metaphor, when a student enters my class, they are getting on board my flight, I’m responsible for their safe arrival, and to fly with me, they get to trust that I know more about how to get where we are going then they do. Otherwise, why take classes? Why pursue an education? If you already know everything, you’d be wasting your time and mine.
What I find interesting about the agreement process is the response each student has to it. Some students are more than willing to trust me, for no other reason than the fact that SCNM trusts me to do this work for them. These students take it in stride that they don’t have to worry, that nothing remarkable is being asked of them other than to commit to their own success. I do love having people in the class who are willing to take the trip with me and find out where it goes and how it goes.
But others buckle and fight with their idea of what is being asked of them. It seems as if the fact that I’m asking them to give me their word brings up their own doubts and fears about their own ability to keep it and be true to what they say. Some are afraid of letting me down. Some are afraid of letting themselves down. Some are afraid of giving up control. Some are afraid of embarrassment. And my observation about all of these responses is that they are not novel to the agreements process. In fact, these students have lived their lives with these issues, and I’m giving them the opportunity to face them and resolve them. I consider this essential for the healthy communication class. Because what kind of communication is possible when a person doesn’t trust themself, or trust another? The giving of trust and being trustworthy is an empowering place from which to take a course in healthy communication.
WHAT’S THE DEAL?
And what is being asked of them in this set of agreements? Nothing but common courtesy, respect for their classmates, respect for my time, and making the choice to give themselves whole heartedly, without reservation, to the learning process. The agreements set a level of expectation about what I, as educator, need from them, as students, to make through a very personal and potentially life changing 20 hour experience. This is my alternative to tests and quizzes, and all the fear and anxiety that tends to provoke. The class is about healthy communication, and I want to deliver it in the healthiest manner I know. I’m interested in people who want to learn for the sake of learning, not to pass a test, so I make the only test that you be true to your word. In my view, making and keeping agreements is the healthiest way to have healthy communication with others.
There have been occasions when I’ve been accused of making an illegal contract, or using coercion instead of persuasion. To these students, I can only say that there isn’t a court in the land that would read these agreements as a legally binding document. It’s too full of holes, there is too much open ended language, and too many weasel clauses to bind anyone to anything other than their own concept of it. It isn’t a contract, it’s a set of understandings. Your signature does not bind you to me, it binds you to you, and only as far as you choose to be bound. It represents your promise to you to do your best, and nothing more.
Further, I tell my students that I’m not here to judge what their best is, that they are completely accountable for attending the class and learning what is offered. If, at the end of the class, a student tells me “I did my best,” they’ll get no argument from me. Pass. I believe that everyone does their best. Is that really coercive? Because a line in the agreements says that keeping these agreements is necessary to pass the class? Nope. If you’re in my class, you are there by your own choosing. You chose to attend the school. You chose to pursue the doctorate. The school offers classes and has requirements for passing them. My requirement is the agreement, working through it, signing it and keeping it. You chose to trust that the school knows what its doing. My class is where the rubber meets the road, where the implicit trust is made explicit.
FINDING OUT SOONER THAN LATER
The result of the agreement process is an opportunity to decide sooner in the process. If a student can’t count on him or herself to keep a few agreements that define common courtesies and establish boundaries for the minimum of acceptable behavior, the agreement process gives them the perfect excuse to cut and run, to retreat from their dreams before wasting any more money, time and energy. The way I look at it, if the agreement process helps you to focus, to think about what you are doing, to take ownership over your commitments, even if it means you have to work through your own defensive and even hostile reactions to boundaries and behavior early on in the process, better that than waiting until you are more deeply invested in both time and money in the program before bailing out.
WHOSE HEAVY HAND IS IT?
Some say it’s coercive when I single someone out for being late when they promised to be on time, when I call them to the front of the room in front of their classmates and remind them of their agreements with me and offer them the opportunity to notice whether they are measuring up to their own promises. But the fact is that a person who makes a promise in my class and doesn’t keep it has singled himself out. If I point out the fact that you singled yourself out by not keeping your word, that doesn’t make me responsible for what you did. Calling you out is the feedback mechanism to bring it to your attention. How does that make me or the agreements coercive? It’s not like I didn’t say anything about it. It’s a condition, and what you do with it is up to you. I announce during the agreement process that if I think you didn’t keep a promise, I’ll call you out and ask you to account for yourself. And if a student has a good, or even great, reason for breaking a promise, that doesn’t negate the fact that they made the promise.
I’ve been asked why I don’t do this ‘calling to account’ privately. My answer is that you made the commitment in front of your class, so accountability for it belongs to your class. It’s not a private matter. It’s a public matter and that’s where it gets addressed. It’s not supposed to be easy or comfortable, because life isn’t often easy or comfortable. It’s not meant to protect against embarrassment, because that isn’t something I can control for anyone else.
I confess, it is not a pleasant thing to be accused of bad intent by someone who doesn’t yet know you or get where you’re coming from. It isn’t fun to be blasted by someone who has misread your motives and assumed the worst about you. Truth is, it hurts. Oh well. This is earth. Sometimes, life is hard.
THE PROMISE IS THE PREMISE
My observation is that all too often, people use the breaking of a promise as the premise to keep breaking their promise. They elevate their excuses above their own word, and in so doing become unreliable to themselves and flakey to others. That’s no way to go through life, not if doing something that matters matters to you.
At the same time, I know that life is full of unexpected events, that circumstances change, and that the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. I know the possibility exists when we give our word that circumstances will prevail over us, and for some reason or other, we’ll break our promises. So, the agreements contain exceptions for emergencies, for desired breaks, for just about every contingency. At the end of the day, at the end of the week, there is no good reason not to keep the agreements, and every reason to find what you need in the agreements to support you in doing what you need to do in order to make the most of the class for your own benefit.
PLEASURE, PAIN, BREAKTHROUGH
But I don’t want to lose any of my students. I love this work. I’m their fan and cheerleader. I cherish the opportunity to work with these future physicians, to help them understand the consequences of their choices and habits, their approach and their results, to help them focus and become intentional and the chooser in their life rather than the victim of circumstance and excuses.
As to the students who engage me and challenge me and hold me to account for myself, ironically, they often turn out to be among my favorite students. They create the memories that I take with me from each class. And in return, maybe, just maybe they get a breakthrough that is life changing.
And so, dear students, I have to believe that, by now, you recognize that teaching this class is a responsibility that I take seriously, and I give my best to it every day. I make no excuses, I do it whether I feel like it or not, I do it whether it’s easy or not, I do it whether people laugh at my jokes or not, I do it whether they celebrate my playful ideas or not. I do it in the hopes that the class we create together in the context of these agreements can be transformative for each of you and for all of us, that it will give you the experience of being bound together by your word, and truly make a meaningful difference in the lives of those who make the choice of making and keeping these agreements with me. You win my respect by maintaining your own self respect, by learning from your experience and giving me all that you’ve got, including the occasional hard time, in the interest of your own future. I love you for all of it.
AND IN THE END
Lucky for me, sooner or later, just about everyone gets it (I can count the exceptions on one hand, out of several hundred students, and I believe that those few students found a reason to leave the school at a later point in time anyway.) When it’s all said and done, at the end of today’s final class, I hope that each student appreciates my motivations and intent in offering the agreements, respects my respectful interactions with them, and notices my consistency in dealing with them, even if I’ve done it imperfectly or it was sometimes unpleasant and even infuriating.
Most importantly, I hope that each student recognizes the class as an opportunity to reflect on how they will go about their education for the next four years. In my opinion, each of them would be well served by keeping these agreements for the entire four years of their education.
I wish all of you a very successful educational experience, and look forward to laughing with you at a convention, years from now, about the things we’ve explored together, including the agreements. And I have a favor to ask.
First, please don’t tell the next class about what I’ve revealed here regarding the agreement process. This post will disappear into my archive until next time around, and I’d rather each class and each student have their own experience of this work. An illusion only works when people aren’t in on how its done.
My other request? I’d love to hear your comments and feedback about making and keeping agreements.