This entry in the Agreements Workbook series continues with “Agreements Tip #2: Have Clear Standards & Consequences.” This entry is part a, covering “Have Clear Standards,” such as being specific, anticipating contingencies, and avoiding ambiguous terms. Discussion of how to measure success and about having clear consequences will be in Tip #2b in a future post.
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Agreements Tip #2a: Have Clear Standards
If you’re going to bother making an Agreement, you’ll want to know why you’re making it, when it’s successful, and what happens when the Agreement gets broken. Here are a few sub-tips for doing this.
Be as specific as possible
The more specific you are, the easier it is to tell if the Agreement is being kept and whether it is useful. Some points to check for are:
Who ♥ What ♥ Where ♥ When ♥ Why ♥ How
Just as in writing that journal article for school, you’ll want to make sure you’ve covered all of the basics. You may not need all of these categories for a given Agreement, but checking for them is a good way to see if you are missing anything big.
Related to that, it’s important to anticipate reasonable contingencies. It won’t be possible to predict every circumstance, but in many cases, you may be able to think of situations that would require a special response. So think about how this Agreement might play out. Make a note of any specific “boundary conditions” or “grey areas” you might encounter, and what your desired response/s and/or consequences might be. (NOTE: I’ll be covering the Five Reasons Agreements Fail, and a suggestion or two for what to do about each one, starting on p. ___).
For instance, one group had a requirement that any new “play partners” meet the members of the group before playing with any one of them. One woman was traveling for business in a distant city, and unexpectedly met up with an old friend. Rather than miss the opportunity to connect (or worse yet, to go ahead and break the Agreement, hoping for forgiveness later), she called her partners and talked to them by phone. They all agreed that it would be ok for her to engage in sexual behavior with this person, so long as their testing was up to date, and there were no known active STIs. It wasn’t possible for her to introduce her partners to this person directly, but they were able to agree on a reasonable contingency plan, and they added that to a future version of the Agreement when one of the members took a job that had them away on travel more often.
Avoid ambiguous terms
“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
—Former President Bill Clinton, January 26, 1998
When writing your agreements, it’s best to avoid terms that could be interpreted in multiple ways, such as “sex,” “soon,” or “better.” If such terms are required, consider defining them in the agreement. You may think that it’s obvious what you mean by a given word, but chances are that one or more of your partners doesn’t have the same idea. If there’s any chance of a disagreement about a term, it’s best to at least talk about it, and better to write down what you and your partner agree is the meaning for the two of you.
My favorite example of an ambiguous term comes from my own childhood. We lived in a single-family home in the suburbs of a large city in the northeast United States. My father worked in the computer industry, before the advent of desktop computers. He would travel each day into the city by car, while my mother stayed at home taking care of the kids, the home, and working on various volunteer projects. As a “typical 1960’s homemaker,” one of her jobs was to prepare dinner for the family each night. She’d spend a fair amount of time and energy on this task, and we would all sit down together at meals. As a result, she needed to know when my father would be home from work, so she could properly time the meal. On several occasions, I remember her calling my father on the telephone, and asking when he’d be home. His answer, more often than not, was “I’m almost done, and I’ll be leaving soon.” Based on that answer, my mother would start the vegetables, put the casserole or roast in the oven, and have me set the table. Unfortunately, what my mother meant by “soon” was different from what my father meant, apparently! She clearly thought of “soon” as meaning “a very short amount of time,” perhaps five minutes. My father, on the other hand, apparently meant “as soon as I’m done with the task that I’m working on,” which might have been anywhere from five minutes to a couple of hours (or more!) This simple disagreement in terms resulted in many, many cold or overcooked dinners in our household, and no small source of tension in our family!
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[© 2011 Dawn M. Davidson]
Note that these entries are all rough drafts, and thus are probably missing things like references. If you know the perfect reference to add, feel free to suggest it! I always like to add to my resource collection.
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