Limits of Written Agreements

Written agreements are necessary but not sufficient. Here’s what it takes to make sure agreements are kept:

  1. A group needs to establish open and honest communications about agreements. “Open” means the whole truth, not just the parts that seem most socially acceptable. You don’t need to say it all up front, but if you don’t gain enuf trust eventually to be fully seen, you likely will set yourself up for problems later on.
  2. When unexpected issues come up, there needs to be timely communication. A regular schedule makes this more workable, so the burden of scheduling doesn’t fall on the most affected or the most committed member.
  3. When only a percentage of a group makes communication skills a priority, meetings are more likely to become a burden and a source of contention. There needs to be good attendance to meetings where agreements are renegotiated. Resolving challenges early on needs to be understood as keeping them from becoming dealbreakers later.
  4. The timing and relevance of issues needs to be considered so that members don’t feel burdened by resolving what may seem to them trivial concerns or the responsibility of a committee they didn’t choose to be part of.  

IC leadership consultant Nicole Hartley Bradford states the following about community agreements:

I don’t think you want to attract people to your projects who are not actively working to shift from states of power-over. Such states on an individual level perpetuate the hierarchical models of modern culture on a group level. I think it’s reasonable and understandable to anticipate that people will break agreements, because there isn’t yet training that works widely available about how to change your mind with clarity and integrity. I discovered the hard way that it doesn’t work to expect people to be responsible, then when they aren’t, to use sideways strategies to manipulate them into being responsible. Housemates or community members are kidding themselves to think that charts, rewards and reminders, punishments and praise will result in everyone doing their part happily ever after. The intent is to empower people (including oneself) to co-create agreements that likely to work, because all parties have communicated with radical honesty, including about what resistances come up. The wisdom of resistance helps create agreements that are good enough for a first (or next) time-bound experiment.

Two group facilitators with decades of experience living in intentional community speak to one of the reasons we resist making explicit agreements or contracts:

We say relationships have been commodified when people begin to tally what they’re getting and what they are giving. This tallying influences behavior as people attempt to buy favor or favors with their words and actions. When our thoughts about how to engage with a partner, neighbor, or coworker revolve around what we will get out of that engagement, or what that person is worth to us, we’ve lost our way in terms of connection. This leads to conflict and some really bad decisions, in part because we are really bad at tallying. Whether it’s doing dishes or a community maintaining common property, people generally overestimate their own contributions (which they see easily) and underestimate the contributions of others (which are less visible). This leaves almost everyone feeling like they are getting a bad deal. (Ludwig & Gimnig, 2020, p. 124)  

Community minded people typically agree with these facilitators that what matters most in community is human connection. The importance of written agreements and contracts is that they can (a) help us carry on through the inevitable times that connection is strained, (b) mediate a mismatch in reciprocity style, and (c) protect unsuspecting idealists from people who can convince others (and maybe even themselves) that they are givers when they are acting more consistently as takers (i.e., “agreeable takers”).

Reference for quote: Ludwig, Y., & Gimnig, K. (2020). The cooperative culture handbook. Foundation for Intentional Community.