The Need for Written Agreements

Brene Brown, in her study of human connection and what prevents it, came to the conclusion that “clear is kind.” The following sections all explain different ways that this principle is applied.

Over-givers Need to Know When They’ve Done Enuf

Two group facilitators with decades of experience living in intentional community note the following about the need for written agreements. The following quote describes people who, unlike most, tend to underestimate their contribution to a group. For these types, written agreements can help them recognize if they are giving and working too much.

The other extreme is tied to low self worth and assumes everyone else is contributing more. This results in anxiety and insecurity.…Martyrs invest to the point of self sacrifice, expecting that this will be rewarded with belonging and loyalty from their group. Those rewards are rarely delivered. (Ludwig & Gimnig, 2020, p. 124)  

Without clarity, we are not able to pinpoint when someone has repeatedly ignored or renegotiated their agreements. This keeps some people wishing and hoping, giving others the benefit of the doubt, potentially being taken advantage of, until they’re exhausted and unwilling to try community again.

Signaling Clear Expectations

Written agreements are to get clear on what we can agree to do. Everyone gets to be where they are comfortable. The process of creating written agreements—then attempting to keep them—is to help people find out if they’re a good fit together. When it’s not a good fit, it helps to find out as soon as possible, and hopefully separate without drama if it isn’t a good fit.

For example, people who think it’s a waste of time to keep a place perfectly tidy, they won’t be bothered by each other’s habits. They won’t end up living with a neatnik who feels like the place will never be tidy unless they do it themselves. Or if they do end up living together, they might agree on certain rooms being tidy and others not. Being with people who mostly want the same things gives you a lot of freedom to be yourself, with a few areas where you might change your behavior to accommodate others. Agreements help you get clear about your priorities. Without agreements, someone can insist they are being the most generous person ever—and maybe they are, but not in the way that you currently need.

Challenging Problematic Behavior is Easier

Contracts and written agreements create a boundary, perhaps primarily so that when someone is outside of that boundary, they can be immediately asked to step back into compliance. Contracts set up a situation where repeated violations can be noticed and discussed so that other members of the community are not taken advantage of. Many community-minded people are prone to be forgiving, more lenient in imposing consequences, and ever giving the benefit of the doubt. For these patient people, written boundaries help them recognize when they need to stop making excuses for someone. To keep allowing boundaries to be crossed without consequence can create an unfairly adverse environment for those who feel most violated and affected by a non-compliant member.

Signed Contracts Provide Clarity and Accountability

Contracts are not to force people to do something that they don’t want to do. Signing a contract means the signer is committed to comply and has carefully read the agreement. Contracts warn people not to join if they don’t agree with what everyone else has agreed to. Agreements are a framework that can help communitarians detect whether others have the capacity and real intention to follow thru in a manner that approaches fairness. When someone can’t or won’t comply, the contract allows the community a way to protect itself. The community can administer agreed-on consequences in a way that is gentle but firm, without cajoling and drama.

People Who Hate Rules

Gretchen Rubin describes four tendencies that people have about dealing with expectations. These relate to others’ and their own expectations. She groups people into four main categories: obligers, upholders, questioners, and rebels. It could be a helpful discussion to get clear on the tendencies of your group members. There isn’t one right way. Each has their advantages and disadvantages.

Some people complain about expectations, saying that it isn’t a good spiritual practice to hold expectations. Some people believe that holding others to rules doesn’t signify trust. That’s fine. You can accept their preferences without judgement, but they may not be a good fit for your community. People who need to be free of expectations hopefully will find exactly what they are looking for, but community life usually involves trade-offs. Most communities include people with needs that agreements are meant to accommodate. Most communities include people with vulnerabilities that agreements are meant to protect.

People with the rebel tendency may see written agreements as rules used to bully others into forever conforming to a set of majority-imposed rules. Yet most people don’t have any intention of using agreements that way.

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