Rules of Communication

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These rules of communication, together with our process of communication, govern how we interact at meetings, and are the first thing our group decided upon, and one of the most important aspects of our group. These rules also govern the discussion on the wiki, and, with a few caveats about writing in the first person plural ("we"), the writing on the wiki itself, and in any other official communications of the group. See also Wiki Writing Guidelines.

These rules are considered part of our core beliefs and practices, but we do not require people to follow them at all times. However, we think that it can be helpful to follow these rules in many aspects of daily life, and we encourage people to try applying these rules to their lives, and see what results they produce.

Contents

Positive principles

WTW-green-50.png This section is part of our core beliefs and practices. The content of this section reflects the consensus of our group. Always obtain consensus at a meeting before editing this section. Other material on this page is part of our general wiki and may not reflect complete consensus.


Rather than formulate the rules of communication merely as a list of things not to do, we start by presenting the key principles of how we want to to communicate:

  • Talk about each person as a whole person.
  • Talk about shades of gray and complexities where they exist.
  • Speak from your own experience.
  • Admit when you don't know something.
  • When talking about other people, focus directly on their specific words or actions.
  • Use words within the range of meanings used in society at large.
  • Use I-statements like "I think" or "I've read" when stating an idea for which there may not be a consensus.
  • State directly when you are uncomfortable with the conversation or want to change the subject.

The rules

WTW-green-50.png This section is part of our core beliefs and practices. The content of this section reflects the consensus of our group. Always obtain consensus at a meeting before editing this section. Other material on this page is part of our general wiki and may not reflect complete consensus.


  • Do not attach negative labels to people or groups of people.
  • Do not use black-and-white categories unless there is a consensus that something fits into them.
  • Do not use any "should" statements or statements expressing a similar sentiment (e.g. "ought", "supposed to", "deserve", etc.).
  • Do not attribute thoughts, intentions, or motivations to other people.
  • Do not exaggerate.
  • Do not state as fact something for which there is not a consensus among the people present.
  • Do not blame anyone for negative outcomes.
  • Do not unilaterally redirect the conversation or change the subject without acknowledging that you are doing so.
  • It is okay to share quotes, paraphrases, or ideas which break the rules of communication, so long as the rules are broken within a descriptive mention, rather than broken by direct use of language.

General commentary

These rules do not capture everything about the way we wish to communicate. One of our core beliefs is that the principles and spirit of these rules are more important than their literal wording. It is possible for statements to literally fit within these rules, but run contrary to the spirit of the rules.

Use of the word "wrong"

An example which has come up in our group before would be the statement: "I think that is wrong," when following someone sharing a personal belief using an I statement. This response uses an I statement, but it is problematic for several reasons. It is ambiguous; it could be interpreted "I disagree." or "I don't believe that." but it could also be interpreted: "I think it is morally wrong to believe that." which is a different sort of statement. This sort of statement also is likely to come across as rude or abrasive. Instead, it would fit more within the spirit of our rules to say one of the more specific statements.

Humor

Why This Way has developed a particular sense of humor revolving around the rules of communication. Humor is welcome in meetings, and we frequently make jokes that draw attention to various ideas in our group.

However, we have also expressed concern that some forms of humor have the potential to offend. Many of the forms of humor that people are most likely to find offensive would also be prohibited under our rules of communication. For example, people can use sarcasm to imply something negative about a person or a group of people. This would be prohibited under our rules, even if the statement did not break a rule literally, as one of our core beliefs is that we place more importance in the principles and spirit of our rules than in their literal wording.

Because interpretation of humor and taking offense to it is subjective, we apply the same sort of standards to the use of humor that we do to our use of I statements vs. stating things as fact, allowing people to bring up a concern if they think a certain joke or humorous statement breaks the spirit of the rules of communication.

One way we sometimes use humor, which is allowed under our rules, is to encapsulate statements which break the rules of communication in ways that draw attention to them, as in saying: "That would be like if someone said..." followed by something that demonstrates a particularly egregious form of breaking a particular rule.

Examples illustrating why we want to communicate this way

Use words within the range of meanings used in society at large

Our principle of using words within the range of meanings used in society at large serves multiple purposes, including inclusiveness, and respecting people's beliefs and boundaries.

It is common for groups of people to develop their own specialized terminology or jargon. This jargon can make the group's communications (whether written or spoken) hard for outsiders to understand. In Why This Way we do not identify members, only participants, and our requirements for participation specify only that people make a commitment to follow our rules in our official discussions, not that they are necessarily familiar with how our group uses language. We thus want our group's communications to be as accessible as possible to people unfamiliar with our group.

The use of language in specialized ways by certain groups can be used to promote an agenda, such as influencing a person's value system without their consent. In Why This Way, we want to provoke thought and influence people's value systems, but we want to do so in a consensual way that fully respects people's existing value system. Sometimes, the ways in which groups use language in non-standard ways can correspond to other violations of our rules of communication, such as when groups apply a negative label to people who hold different views.

Examples of uses of language that would break this rule:

  • Landmark education, in the Landmark forum, uses the word "unreasonable" with a positive connotation, to describe ambitious goals. This use of language would not be allowed under our rules, even in meetings attended by people familiar with Landmark's terminology, because the word is rarely or never used in this way outside of Landmark's subculture.
  • In right-wing political speech, it is common to see labels like "socialist" or "communist" applied to any policy which shows some tendency towards government involvement in social welfare programs. This usage conflicts with the widely-accepted definition of socialism and communism as an economic system with communal control over the means of production, land, and distribution of capital. When applied to specific people or groups of people, these labels also break our rule about negative labels. This usage can also break or rules about black-and-white categories and exaggeration (i.e. labelling something as "socialist" because it has socialist tendencies or shares something in common with socialist stances).
  • Certain left-wing ideologies define racism in such a way that identifies whites as racist, regardless of their beliefs or actions, and similarly claims that minorities cannot be racist. This definition of racist conflicts with the widely-accepted definition of "racist", which is usually limited to a person who believes or advocates for the viewpoint that certain races are inherently superior to or deserving of more rights than others. This use of the label "racist" would conflict with this rule, because the term is rarely or never used this way in society at large. It would also break our rule about assigning negative labels to people--even if the person using the label "racist" claimed that they did not intend it to be interpreted as a negative label, because the label is commonly used as a negative label in society at large. However, using the term "racism" to describe cultural and institutional systems of racism that favor one racial group over another would be allowed under this rule, because "racism" is used in this way in society at large, and this rule would also not violate the rule about applying negative labels to people.

This rule is worded "within the range of meanings" because many of the words used in society have a broad range of meanings, and we want to leave room for using and considering many different interpretations. In some cases, such as when a word has an uncommon alternate interpretation, or when a certain subculture's use of a word seems to be entering widespread use, it may not be clear whether or not the use of a word fits within this rule or not.

We have generally erred on the side of caution, finding ways to rephrase or explain our ideas without referring to esoteric or uncommon uses of language. However, we have also made an effort to consider these uncommon uses of language, especially in our writing on the wiki, in order to minimize the possibility that people interpret our writings in ways other than how they were intended. Shying away from the problematic word, and clarifying what definition or usage we intend when we do use these words, can address both of these concerns.

Do not attach negative labels to people or groups of people

Our rule explicitly prohibits attaching negative labels to people or groups of people; we are also cautious about applying negative labels to a person's beliefs, although this is not expressly prohibited.

Examples of negative labels:

  • He is an idiot.
  • The tea party movement is racist and xenophobic.

These sorts of statements can be harmful for a variety of reasons. For one, they are untrue or inaccurate, in the sense that they depict things in black-and-white terms that are actually more varied. For example, intelligence is complex, and nearly everyone has some areas in which they are more intelligent than others. Labelling someone as an "idiot" dismisses a person, going against the ideal of viewing each person as a whole person. The second statement is even more of a false generalization because it characterizes an entire group in negative ways, when in reality the group consists of many individuals and each individual's views are complex.

Labels like "racist" and "xenophobic" are not useful when applied to whole people: nearly all people have some degree of bias or prejudice against certain groups of people, and even people who identify as racist may have some tendencies to respect or value certain qualities in people of other races. Instead of labelling someone as an idiot, or as racist or xenophobic, it is more empowering and constructive to identify specific statements, actions, or abilities that led you to question a certain aspect of a person's intelligence, or that struck you as reflecting some sort of racism or xenophobia.

More often, negative labels are milder:

  • Anna is annoying.
  • The people who hang out in that bar are unfriendly.
  • He is an inexperienced teacher.

These statements can be reworded as I statements, and possibly by adding more descriptive detail:

  • I often feel annoyed by Anna, because she frequently interrupts me.
  • When I've been in that bar, I've found that the regulars keep to themselves.
  • I did not like the way he taught that class; I noticed it was his first year teaching.

These sorts of statements still capture the essence of what the speaker was trying to communicate, but they actually communicate more, and they do so without making any global claims about a person's essence or nature.

More specific statements can help us to like a person more and have more empowering and fulfilling interactions. If we view people as "annoying", we see them in strictly black-and-white terms. If, instead, we see a specific behavior that they are engaging in as annoying, we open up the door to liking the person more by focusing on and drawing out qualities we like in the person. As we start thinking in this way across the board, we can be happier and more empowered.

Do not use any "should" statements or statements expressing a similar sentiment:

"Should" statements, or their equivalents ("ought", "supposed to", "deserve", etc.), are problematic in discussions for a variety of reasons. When discussing things in a group, global statements like "We should..." or "People should..." can cause people to become defensive if they disagree with the recommendation. This is true even when the should statement is encapsulated in an "I statement", for example: "I think we should..." or "I think people should..."

But even when should statements do not evoke a negative emotional response in anyone, they often are not the most effective way to communicate. For example, when a person asks a question like: "Should we do this?", they could have several different intentions in mind. They could be thinking: "I want to do this, is that okay with you?" or they could be thinking: "I don't know what to do in this situation, do you have any ideas?". People also use the word "should" to describe expectations...for example: "The data should turn out this way." which can often mean: "Based on my understanding of the situation, we'd expect the data to turn out this way." but it could also mean: "If the data does not turn out this way, we have a problem." Avoiding the word "should" forces us to be more specific in our communications.

Another problem with should statements is that they often represent moral views on which there is no clear consensus. For example, people often use words or phrases like "should" or "should not" when they are communicating their own belief that a certain behavior is right or wrong. The problem with these statements is that they express personal moral beliefs, on which there is often no consensus, and they present it as a factual statement rather than an I statement. This can elicit defensive or negative reactions among people who share different views.

Another problem with should statements is that they can have the effect of making personal opinions sound like moral statements, such as when people say: "She should not be wearing that.". By avoiding should statements, people not only avoid offending others or making them feel defensive, but they also help to distinguish their likes and preferences from their values or beliefs. For example, instead of saying: "She shouldn't be wearing that." a person could say: "I don't like the way that outfit looks on her." or "I would not ever wear an outfit like that.", which communicate two slightly different, but related things, neither of which turn the person's outfit into a global moral statement.

Yet another problem with should statements is the way they can create or be associated with a vague sense of obligation, a phenomenon which can lead people to act in harmful ways and/or act purposelessly, and in extreme cases, feel a lack of contentment or meaning in their actions and life as a whole.

The benefits of avoiding the word should and its equivalents include:

  • Helping us to become more specific in our communications, voicing our own desires, opinions, and intuitions, and furthermore, separating true needs from wants.
  • Keeping discussions of potentially controversial issues more positive, and avoiding conflict by avoiding the eliciting of defensive reactions when we tell people what they "should" do.
  • Helping people to distinguish between personal preferences and values and beliefs.

Using "have to" or "need to"

Using the phrases "have to" or "need to" can sometimes be equivalent to should statements. Making a general statement like "drivers have to watch out for pedestrians," is like saying "drivers should watch out for pedestrians." We want to avoid this type of statement. However, it is okay to use these words in conjunction with a specific goal, such as "we need to leave now in order to get there by six."

Using the phrase "I'm not ___ enough"

Using the a phrase like "I'm not smart enough" or "I'm not working hard enough" with no specific goal can have a similar effect. It can imply "I should be smarter," or "I should be working harder." However, it is okay to use the phrase in conjunction with a goal, such as "I'm not working hard enough to get this project done by six tonight."

Do not make any statements about another person's thoughts, intentions, or motivations

One fundamental reason behind the principle of not making any statements about another person's thoughts, intentions, or motivations, is that no one truly knows these things besides the person themselves, but, furthermore, that person is likely not fully aware of their own thoughts, intentions, or motivations. Talking about people's private thoughts, intentions, or motivations is not only highly speculative, but it has great potential to offend and escalate conflicts, especially when people attribute negative intentions to someone.

Even when you accurately describe a person's thoughts, talking about another person's thoughts can come across as invasive, overstepping a boundary, as people's thoughts are generally kept private. In some cases, talking about a person's thoughts can come across as invading in a person's privacy without their consent. An example of this could be saying something that "strikes a nerve", such as playing off a person's insecurity in a way that upsets them. Another way this can happen is that, after making a statement or asking a question about a person's private thought(s), the person's facial expressions or body language might betray the truthfulness of your statement even if the person did not wish to share the thought(s) in questions.

Rather than talking about a person's intentions or motivations, we can talk instead about their actions, and we can (when we are certain of them) quote their words. When discussing people's actions and words, we are more likely to remain truthful, because we are discussing the only aspects of that person with which we have direct experience: no one has direct experience with a person's thoughts, motivations, or intentions, besides that one person.

Limiting our statements to people's actions and words also respects peoples' boundaries: people's private thoughts remain private, and people are more likely to feel secure and comfortable in the conversation.

General thoughts, intentions, and motivations

This rule does not exclude talking about thoughts and intentions in general. We can talk about possible motivations for general ideas, or about certain intentions being healthy or unhealthy, without saying anything about specific people or groups having those motivations or intentions. While we may talk about intentions in our general wiki, we try not to say anything in our rules and policies that would require anyone to speculate about anyone else's intentions in order to enforce it.

Do not exaggerate

Examples of exaggeration:

  • Saying "people have told me X." when one person told you X.
  • Saying "always" when "most of the time" is more truthful.
  • Saying "most of the time" when "some of the time" is more truthful.
  • Using words like "very", "extremely", or "exceptional" when they are not the most truthful choice.
  • Making a statement when it is only somewhat true or slightly true.
  • Making an analogy to something that is grossly out of proportion.

When in doubt, to help determine if you are exaggerating, give yourself several options of words to choose between, including ones on either side of the word you initially chose. For example, if you said: "I found it very difficult.", you could compare this statement with: "I found it rather difficult." or "I found it extremely difficult", or even the milder: "I found it somewhat difficult." Usually, when you actually consider each statement side-by-side, it is immediately apparent which one most accurately reflects reality.

Exaggeration, by definition, is untruthful, and represents an inaccurate use of language. Exaggeration can cloud decisions and discussions, and can cause escalation of conflict.

There are also benefits to erring on the side of caution, as far as exaggeration is concerned. One way to avoid exaggeration is to use understatement. Understatement can be more likely to help people and discussions to reach the truth, or at least reach a respectful understanding of differing viewpoints, because understatement is more likely to reach people who are reluctant to believe something because it conflicts with their beliefs in some way. Understatement is particularly powerful as a way of nudging people out of black-and-white thinking: providing a very gentle counterexample is often all it takes to get someone to admit that their global statement (such as one involving always or never) is not 100% true.

Do not state as fact something that is uncertain

The principle of not stating as fact something that is uncertain is a key principle in retaining a constructive atmosphere in debates of a practical nature, such as when discussing a course of action to follow in a group, building a set of rules or laws, or discussing politics.

Some common examples of these sorts of statements are:

  • Statements presenting an interpretation of cause and effect, when the cause-and-effect are not 100% clear. Examples include statements like "Policy X caused economic effect Y." -- economists and political theorists frequently disagree on which policies caused which results, so in the absence of a clear consensus, it is more accurate to word such a statement as opinion, like: "I believe that Policy X caused economic effect Y."
  • Statements presenting something as fact when there is no consensus on that topic. For the purposes of this rule, we consider something uncertain if there is a lack of consensus in the present group, even if there is a consensus elsewhere, such as in the scientific community or in a certain religious group. Examples include: "Life begins at conception." or "There is no God." More accurate statements would be: "I believe life begins at conception." or "I do not believe in God."
  • Statements that imply a universal notion of "best", when there are different ways of measuring what is "best". Examples include: "That's the best Indian restaurant in town." or "The best way of approaching this is to..." These statements can be reworded as: "That's my favorite Indian restaurant in town." or "I'd be most inclined to approach this problem by..."

Do not blame anyone for negative outcomes

The principle of avoiding blame has two distinct rationales behind it. One is that, in most cases, cause-and-effect are complex and unclear, so any sort of assignment of blame is a matter of uncertainty. The other rationale is that blame, even when cause-and-effect are clearly agreed upon, can create conflict or cause conflicts to escalate. Blaming a person can tend to make that person become defensive, thus discouraging them from taking responsibility.

Viewed alternatively, blame places responsibility on a person without their consent; we include the principle of avoiding blame so as to encourage people to take responsibility of their own accord.

Taking Credit

Originally we had a clause in this rule that prohibits taking or assigning credit. While we have removed it from the rules, we still agree that taking or assigning credit can be problematic in some cases.

If one person takes credit for something, or if someone assigns credit to one person, other people who contributed to the positive outcome can feel marginalized. The practice of taking or assigning credit can get people to focus on assigning different relative worths to people, which we want to discourage. When people are credited for accomplishments, it can also encourage these people to act on the basis of wishing to receive praise from others, rather than simply acting to achieve a goal that is desired or good. By refraining from assigning credit, we help everyone to remain self-motivated and focused on the positive goals, rather than becoming sidetracked by acting out of a desire to receive standing in a social group. We also want to prevent the formation of unhealthy social structures where there is a hierarchy of power in which people at the top take credit for the work of people beneath them.

It is good to praise people for their contributions, but as praise can be powerful, it is important to be conscious in our use of praise. We thus encourage people to praise people for specific contributions, rather than to globally assign them credit for some desired outcome that they merely played a role in achieving.

Do not redirect the conversation or change the subject under the guise of answering a question

One of the goals of our group is to encourage everyone to communicate honestly and have the conversation as a whole feel consensual to all involved. The practice of dodging a question and redirecting the conversation under the guise of answering a question is fundamentally dishonest, as it presents the impression of answering a question without actually doing so. Such behavior, unfortunately common in political debates, often elicits defensive or negative reactions in the person who asked the question, sometimes leading that person to engage in negative behavior themselves (such as mentally labelling the person as "evasive", or evading questions themselves).

There are times when people do not want to answer a question, and there are times when people want to change the subject. Our group does not want to attach any negative stigma to either of these choices. If someone is not comfortable answering a question, they can let the group know that they're not comfortable. An example of this would be if someone said: "I would be reluctant to assign her responsibility for that task because of my past experiences working with her." and someone asked: "What exactly happened with her?", the first person might choose to say: "I'm sorry, I'm not comfortable sharing any more details here."

Similarly, if someone wants to change the subject, this is always fine. For example, suppose two people in a larger group start discussing a particular issue back and forth. Someone else might say: "Since we're running low on time, I'd rather us move on to another topic. Could you two discuss that issue on your own later?" Or, for another example, someone might say: "I just thought of something I wanted to bring up tonight, it's unrelated but could we talk about it for a moment?" These sorts of statements and questions tend to come across as much more respectful to the other group members, as they are open and straightforward about the intention to steer the conversation.

Handling quotes, paraphrases, or ideas which break the rules

The handling of quotes or paraphrases which break the rules of communication, or ideas which break the rules, can be summed up as the "use-mention" distinction: it is allowable to mention (and discuss) things that break the rules, but it is not okay to break the rules in your direct use of language.

Examples:

  • It would be permissable to say: "There was an editorial in this week's thursday paper that called the county commissioner corrupt." (a paraphrase or description of another person's statement) but it would not be permissable to say: "I think the county commissioner is corrupt." (this directly assigns a negative label) nor to say: "Whoever wrote that editorial in this week's thursday paper thinks that the county commissioner is corrupt." (this statement describes someone else's thoughts)
  • It would be permissable to say "I keep thinking that I should do my homework." but not to say: "I should do my homework." because the first statement is an I statement that expresses that one is using a should statement in one's personal inner-dialogue, whereas the second statement is a direct should statement.

This approach to handling information or ideas that are perceived as potentially harmful is distinct from censorship. Rather than censor any information or material, we want to present the material with a conscious acknowledgement that something about the material is contrary to how we want to communicate. This allows us to discuss all ideas and allow free flow of information, while protecting ourselves from ideas we see as harmful, untruthful, or contrary to our goals.