Conversation Agreements on the Journey to Equity and Inclusion

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As we engage in the important conversations surrounding equity and inclusion, it’s helpful to establish conversation agreements to guide us on our journey.


It may feel a bit formal or even awkward at first, and that’s part of the process. Throughout our Shares and group discussions, we’ve found that establishing conversation agreements gives everyone a chance to express their feelings and experiences. The journey from Cultural Humility to Cultural Reverence requires us to undergo self-examination and reflection—individual and as a group – something that can feel challenging and even uncomfortably new to us – especially in conversations with our colleagues.


Establishing conversation agreements as a first approach to the conversation about culture and identity sets a framework for the discussion. It helps ensure that the participants’ feelings and experiences are honored and respected, contributing to moving the conversation forward in a healthy and generative way.


Why Self-Reflection is Critical to Communication


It is reasonable to move through a spectrum of emotions when engaging in conversations surrounding equity, inclusion, and cultural competencies. Each of us is on a different journey and brings unique experiences, perspectives, and insight to the discussion. This is to be honored.


That said, it’s not uncommon for initial emotions to range from defensiveness to confusion to anger and more. Some participants may feel singled out or an undue burden to lead the conversation. Others may be wrestling with limiting beliefs about themselves and how their perspective “fits” into the conversation. All of this can be addressed which then allows the conversation to continue, open, and deepen versus being shut down and guarded.


At Share, we understand that these conversations are crucial pieces of the journey from Cultural Humility to Cultural Reverence. When working in human services, all participants need to examine their perspectives. Not only does it help us better connect with our fellow humans, but it helps us understand the work and better connect with ourselves.


Any time we start conversations at Share, we establish conversation agreements. Conversation agreements give us a safe container to express our thoughts and engage with others. These conversation agreements allow us to dive in deeper, even into challenging areas, and to get in touch with our behaviors and beliefs in a way we may not have been in touch with before.


It’s essential to recognize that the journey to equity and inclusion isn’t just an intellectual exercise. The work requires emotional and spiritual intelligence working together with our intellectual side. Open, direct, and necessary conversations about orientation-ism, age-ism, racism, gender-ism, bias, classism, and oppression bring up a lot of pain—these are deeply distressing conversations built on generations of inequity and oppression.


Conversations are a crucial part of the journey. Setting up the safe container of conversation agreements allows us to feel our emotions and engage with our spiritual essences fully. These conversations require us to examine our personal values and human spirit and reflect on what’s important to us – our individual and shared values. The work requires a safe container and boundaries to allow us to explore and delve into these challenging topics.


Despite the messiness and discomfort in these conversations, there is “treasure in the trouble.” When all participants have a safe container to explore, they reach new insights, make discoveries about commonalities, and breakdown biases, and disrupt the continuum of oppression. It’s in the messiness that the work of equity and inclusion becomes exciting, and hopeful as we start to move toward internal and external change for an equitable, shared future.


What Are the Conversation Agreements?


So, what are the conversation agreements? Are there universal conversation guidelines for equity and diversity training? How do human service providers engage in difficult conversations?


At Share, we’ve established 20 conversation agreements that we use in our trainings. These aren’t exhaustive; there are often additional agreements that individual groups will add during the conversations. Other groups may decide that an agreement won’t fit their situation, or they need to adjust it to encompass their goal better. It’s important that everyone is in consensus with the guidelines for their conversation.


We use these 20 conversation agreements as a springboard to begin discussion.


  1. Listen from a place of acceptance; take 3 breaths.
  2. Silence is okay.
  3. Use “I” statements when speaking; speak to be understood.
  4. It’s okay to respectfully disagree.
  5. No fixing or saving.
  6. Take risks; no pressure to speak; share what you can.
  7. Be disciplined about not making assumptions.
  8. Be inclusive of all; not exclusive of any.
  9. No blaming, no shaming (yourself or others).
  10. Confidentiality is essential.
  11. Courage to interrupt if something is going amiss or being left unsaid. (Make the invisible visible.)
  12. Use “oops” and “ouch” if you hear something that offends you and be open to learning what the speaker meant; attend to impact vs. intention.
  13. Be fully present; attentive to oneself and others.
  14. This is an ongoing learning process.
  15. Take thy hat off; we are equals, peers in this learning space.
  16. Our values, cultural identities, heritage, and past experiences matter.
  17. Conflict is always possible, and conflict is okay and can be transformational.
  18. We are all prejudiced; prejudice is learned and can be unlearned.
  19. We are here to learn from and with each other.
  20. We will support each other to maintain these agreements.


For a PDF of these agreements you can go here:  The Agreements.


Reflecting on Conversation Agreements: Putting the Agreements into Action


When we first introduce the conversation agreements to a group, we have them teach each other about the agreements.  They reflect on each agreement and discuss what comes up for them as they review and define them. It’s important to reflect before we go into the conversation because sometimes, we may even have a reaction to the idea of establishing “guidelines” in conversation. What often happens is that the group starts employing and practicing the agreements as they teach them to each other!


Some people may feel like their conversations have already been restricted or that certain biases limited their ability to share their feelings and experiences. The introduction of further guidelines may bring up some frustration and discomfort—and recognizing these feelings, expressing them, and discussing them is a critical part of the process.


The goal of conversation agreements is to create a space where everyone feels safe and their feelings and experiences are supported and welcomed. Because the journey from Cultural Humility to Cultural Reverence requires us to examine our beliefs and biases, we may feel many emotions well up. This journey is connected to our human spirit and our intrinsic values—a very emotional experience for many. Feelings are an inherent part of our humanity and are to be honored and valued.


Once the conversation agreements have been settled by all parties and we’ve reflected on the feelings associated with these agreements, we can move forward with the work of exploration. Will everyone fully adhere to the agreements? Of course, there are always slip-ups and missteps. For many of us, this is an entirely new way of communicating, and it can take work to adjust to the framework.


While all the agreements are important, one of the highlights is found in conversation agreement 11. Courage to interrupt if something is going amiss or being left unsaid. (Make the invisible visible.)  This agreement allows any member in the group to call-in vs. call-out when education is indicated. This avoids the limiting pitfalls into shame and blame of self or others that shut down the conversation, opportunities for learning, and required introspection.


It’s also essential to recognize that, as said in agreement 17. Conflict is always possible, and conflict is okay and can be transformational. New and challenging conversations may lead to conflict, and despite many of us wanting to avoid conflict at all costs, it’s an integral part of growth and learning. Learning requires conflict and can be uncomfortable; transformation is often complicated and even painful.


As a whole The Agreements are a balancing board that supports us all to grow our muscles to listen, learn, and empathize with the experiences of those who have unique identity characteristics from our own.  This establishes a foundation of mutual compassion that then leads us further toward our goal of achieving true equity and inclusion for all and, most importantly, together.


As we explore concepts of equity and inclusion, conversation agreements allow us to safely let down our guard and do the necessary internal work for change. These engagement guidelines are imperative for creating an environment that fosters growth and helps us build the critical connections that allow us to successfully extend service to our fellow human beings.


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