Process of Communication

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This process for communication and running meetings is being developed and agreed upon by consensus. This process uses our rules of communication.

The process

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.

  • At the beginning of each official meeting, all participants must verbally consent to follow the process of communication and to try to follow the rules of communication.
  • People entering the meeting later must similarly consent.
  • If someone is not willing to consent in this manner, they may either leave the meeting or silently observe.
  • There may be one or more moderators to check that people follow the rules. However, everyone's participation (and role as a moderator) is necessary to ensure that rules are followed; the moderator is not a substitute for individual participation.
  • Any participant present can enforce the rules of communication at any time, by respectfully interrupting anyone speaking. Interruptions can take one of two forms:
  • Asking a question: "Do you think that you are exaggerating/using a should statement/analyzing someone's thoughts when you are saying..." or "Do you think it would be more in accordance with the rules to say..."
  • Making an I statement about disagreement with facts: "You said X, but I don't believe that; can you rephrase that as an I statement?"
  • After an interruption, the original speaker can choose to reword their statement, according to the rules, or acknowledge that they broke the rules and abandon the point.
  • If the original speaker is having trouble rewording their statement, anyone can suggest a wording: "You could say..." or "Do you want to say... ?"
  • Anyone can interrupt the person speaking for the following reasons:
  • To ask to slow down the pace of the conversation.
  • To request a pause, at which point the group must pause the conversation.
  • To ask the speaker to clarify a point.

General commentary

Not everything about our process is necessarily formally expressed in words. The practice and culture of interpreting our written rules is important as well as the literal wording.

People not feeling comfortable voicing a concern in the moment

It is possible that someone may feel that a rule has been broken, but not feel comfortable saying so. For example, someone may not wish to reveal in the moment that they disagree with something that someone else stated as a fact, because doing so would reveal something that they do not wish to reveal because it is too personal. In these cases, people can bring up their concerns later, if they feel ready to do so.

Taking time to articulate a concern

It is also common for people to realize after the fact that a rule has been broken, especially in the case that someone only realizes that they disagree with something stated as fact after later reflection. Our process gives several options to people faced with this situation. If people think that a rule might have been broken, but are not sure, the person can interrupt to clarify in the moment. If the conversation has already moved on, people can ask to revisit a previous point as part of the normal conversation, without interrupting.

Objections to dynamics other than those that break rules

Our process and rules of conversation are intended to serve multiple purposes, including keeping dialogue truthful and respectful, making sure everyone's concerns are addressed to as great a degree as possible, and keeping the conversation empowering and purposeful.

Sometimes conversational dynamics or ways of communicating can come up that make people uncomfortable, or that seem to go against the spirit of our rules and process, but do not necessarily break the rules in any way that anyone present pinpoints explicitly. In these cases, people can bring up their concerns in the conversation, without interrupting.

Some of these conversations can lead to modifications to our rules or process.

Why do we use this process?

This process is radically different from most other processes for running meetings.

Why consenting to follow the process and rules is important

In Why This Way we place great importance on the rules and process of communication. Furthermore, in meetings and on the wiki, it is not optional to follow the rules and process. Sometimes, newcomers to our group have expressed surprise at the strictness with which we enforce the rules; although our practices specify that participants in our group are not expected or required to believe all our beliefs or practice all our practices, our organizational policies specify that at official meetings, we follow the rules and process of communication.

There is no problem with people accidentally breaking the rules; we understand that the rules are difficult to follow and may sometimes require knowledge that only other people present have, and we designed our process with the understanding that people will break rules. It is common for even long-standing participants to break rules repeatedly in meetings.

However, it is very important that people are willing to try to follow the rules, and that they follow the process of being willingly interrupted and amending their statements. Interruptions can come across as abrasive to some people, and can also cause people to lose their train of thought or forget what they're saying. We place a higher priority on ensuring that the rules and process are followed, than on preventing people's point from being derailed.

By explicitly giving consent to follow the rules and process at the beginning of each meeting, we hope to make people more conscious of the importance we place on the rules and process, and the fact that they are choosing to follow them in order to participate.

Consent is also one of the core ideas in Why This Way. We want to make sure that people are choosing to be held accountable for following the rules and process before we attempt to enforce them.

Why interruptions are allowed

The norm in many meetings and cultures of communication is to not allow interruptions, viewing them as rude or confrontational. However, the interpretation of an interruption as negative is subjective, and interruptions can just as well be viewed as positive.

In our group, we view following the rules of communication as something positive and essential to the functioning of our group. We have all agreed upon the rules by consensus, and we are constantly refining them. The purpose of the rules is to ensure the most productive and positive dynamic possible in the discussions. The base assumption is that when people break the rules, they are doing so unknowingly, so they want to be corrected ASAP. Our process involves an immediate interruption rather than a statement after hearing the person out because:

  • Being interrupted immediately after breaking a rule provides immediate feedback, which is extremely helpful at developing people's skills at following the rules. People tend to break our rules of communication unconsciously, so if they are allowed to continue talking, by the time people later point out how they broke the rules, they may not remember the exact statement they made as clearly (or at all). Interrupting immediately will ensure that people catch the ways in which they are breaking the rules, so that they get better at following them.
  • Many of the rules are related to maximizing factual accuracy and truthfulness in the conversation. If a person is allowed to continue speaking after stating something that is less than fully truthful, the person might draw conclusions based on their statement, thus reasoning from a shaky foundation. This wastes the group's time, and can also create a more extensive "web of untruths" to unravel, which can confuse people.
  • In a discussion, if someone states something as fact that others disagree with, and then proceeds to reason from their "fact", the others who disagree may start feeling defensive and stop listening. Interrupting the original speaker and having them rephrase the statement as an I statement can help disagreeing listeners into a place where they can listen more comfortably and fully to the person's reasoning without feeling the need to close off.
  • Some of the speech patterns associated with breaking our rules of communication correspond to states of mind which are associated with depression, anxiety, anger, or other states that are generally not productive in discussions. The process of interruption, once people get beyond the immediate negative connotation that our society attaches to interruption, can actually provide an immediate mood boost to the original speaker, once the speaker rewords their original statement. For example, someone might feel frustrated and say: "She is so difficult to deal with, she was just being an obstructionist." at which point someone could interrupt and say: "Do you think you're using a black-and-white category or negative labels?", and then the original speaker could say: "I'm sorry. I was feeling frustrated with her yesterday after she did not agree to make an exception for me." -- The act of rewording a statement using language that acknowledges one's own feelings and is more specific and factual about what happened often leads to an immediate calming of frustrations.

Another way of looking at the interruptions is that they keep ideas that break the rules of communication out of the group. Many of the ideas that correspond to breaking the rules of communication are ones that the group sees as harmful or hindering of truth, for example, negative generalizations about people (which, when carried to an extreme, can lead to anger and hate) or subjective opinions presented as fact (which can hinder or confuse the search for the truth, and/or cause unnecessary conflict). If people state an idea that breaks the rules, without being interrupted, people in the group may start to believe these ideas, which might push the dynamic of the group as well as the emotional state and/or belief system of the people in the discussion away from a healthy state.

The interruptions are thus intended to keep both individuals and the group as a whole in as healthy a state as possible.

Other types of interruptions

Our group does not universally support interruptions of any sort. In some groups, people interrupt because they want to seize the conversation or share their own ideas. The interruptions used in our group do not serve the function of seizing the conversation; they are intended to be brief and to elicit a response from the speaker who was interrupted, who can then continue speaking.

Why the process of having the speaker reword their statement or abandon the point?

The point of interruptions is not to argue or stop a person from talking, but merely to keep the discussion on a positive track and within certain bounds. The process is designed to have the discussion flow continuously, rather than stagnating.

After an interruption, the original speaker thus has the opportunity to reword their statement. So, for example, if someone said: "I think we should do X." and someone interrupted them by asking: "Did you just say should?", the original person could continue: "Oh, I just said should, sorry...I would like us to do X." Or, if someone said: "That vendor clearly did not have our best interests in mind, and was just trying to sell us something." and someone interrupted with: "Are you analyzing that person's intentions?" the original speaker could continue: "Oh, yes I am, I'm sorry. When I was talking to that vendor, I did not get the sense that I could trust that they had our best interests in mind."

It is important to give the interrupted speaker time to think and reflect. Rewording statements can be very challenging, especially for newcomers to the group who are unfamiliar with our way of communicating, and who naturally communicate in ways that are farther outside the ways specified in our rules. It is not uncommon for a person, even people who regularly attend our meetings and are familiar with our rules, to struggle for a number of minutes before finding a satisfactory way to word their ideas. If someone is struggling to express themselves within the rules, they can put the matter aside but note that they want to come back to it at some point. It is important for there to be enough space in the conversation for the person being interrupted to be able to reflect enough that they can verbalize whether or not they wish to continue thinking to reword their statement, abandon it, or return to it at a later point.

Why interrupt by questions?

There are two main reasons that can justify an interruption: a universal overstepping of the rules of communication (such as using the word "should") which anyone could catch, and a personal reason. In the case of clear-cut statements that break the rules, it might be tempting to make accusations when interruptions, like "You just said should." However, these statements can be a bit jarring, and have a confrontational tone. Questions are less likely to come across as accusatory, but they also help the person to realize and take ownership of the fact that they broke a rule.

In some cases, however, it may not be clear whether or not a person has broken a rule. For example, someone may interrupt by asking: "Do you think you are exaggerating when you say that?" and the original person make think about it and decide: "No, I do not think I am exaggerating."

Why interrupt by I statements?

The other type of interruption, besides a question, is an "I statement" expressing a personal belief or viewpoint, or a change in factual information. As an example, suppose people are discussing abortion, and one person makes a statement: "Life begins at conception." thinking that everyone present agrees with it. Someone who does not share this belief could then interrupt, saying: "I don't believe that life begins at conception, could you rephrase that in an I statement?" and then the first person could say: "Apologies, I believe that life begins at conception." and then continue.

If someone makes a statement with a factual error, interruptions can also correct it. For example, suppose someone says: "Kathy is not free on Wednesday.", someone else might interrupt and say: "I just spoke with Kathy before the meeting, and she told me to tell everyone that she actually is free on Wednesday."

The set of beliefs or truths that are considered objective vs. subjective are different in different groups of people. Because people do not know which beliefs are held by or shared with other people present, interrupting with I statements is actually necessary in order to follow the rules effectively, especially as it pertains to stating only facts which are agreed upon as objective according to the consensus of the group.

Why allow interruptions to slow down the pace of the conversation?

A slow pace of conversation is often not only conducive, but essential to following the rules and process of communication, and creating the sort of dialogue we want to create in Why This Way. We want to cultivate listening and understanding, in which people's ideas are more fully understood, and minimize argumentative or combative dynamics in conversation, and situations in which people are placing a higher priority on getting their point out than on having everyone understand what is being said.

Our rules of communication require considerable thought and reflection to follow, and it often requires a similar amount of reflection and processing in order to determine whether or not someone else is speaking within the rules. Fast-paced dialogue, whether one person talking quickly, or multiple people rapidly talking back-and-forth, not only make it harder for the speaker to follow the rules, but can make it difficult or impossible to determine in the moment whether or not the rules of communication are being broken. The type of dialogue we wish to create with our rules and process of communication is one in which factual errors are corrected, confusing points are clarified, and things outside the rules are reworded or retracted, at the first possible moment, rather than have the conversation go on at length, building off a problematic idea.

Slowing down the dialogue helps to make sure that we actually address such points in the moment, rather than to allow people to go on speaking, when listeners are lost, confused, offended, or unsure of whether or not a rule has been broken.

Speed is not the only issue

Slower dialogue is not always universally better. At times, people can become frustrated if a person is speaking so slowly that they take up a disproportionate amount of space or time in the conversation, or if it seems like a person is not getting to the point.

We encourage people to slow down the pace of conversation not just by leaving pauses, but by thinking more carefully about what they are trying to communicate, and by speaking less, or speaking only about the most relevant ideas.

Why interruptions to clarify a point?

We encourage people to interrupt someone at the first point in a conversation at which they are confused by or stop understanding what someone is saying. This practice serves the purpose of ensuring that everyone present is understanding the speaker as fully as possible, and minimizing the time that people spend speaking in which other people are lost or not fully understanding them.

One idea behind this point is that the inconvenience of being interrupted is more than made up for by the time saved by not having people continue at length when they are not being fully understood. This point also aims to reduce misunderstandings: if a person has an idea of what a person is trying to communicate, but isn't sure of it, and it turns out their idea is wrong, the conversation may continue with one person misunderstanding the other person's point. This can create the need for further discussion later, so again, this rule helps save discussion time in the long-run.