Claire Milne muses on Transition Network’s Relational Agreements
What helps you to collaborate most effortlessly?
Do you feel nourished by the relationships in your group?
Do they support you to creatively share your gifts, skills and experience?
And, if not, what do you need for this to be the case?
This blog, by Claire Milne (former Inner Transition Coordinator at Transition Network), tells the story of how we at Transition Network have been asking ourselves such questions over the last year or so in an attempt to get better at collaborating, as part of a wider organisational change process.
Prioritising time to design and cultivate a healthy collaborative culture is essential to supporting us to communicate and collaborate in ways that allow us to deliver on our Purpose. It is also essential to being able to embody our values, enjoy ourselves, and to unleash our full transformative potential. If we have learned anything over the last 12 years of Transition, it is that how we do things and in particular, how we relate and communicate with each other, is just as important as what we do.
Yet it doesn’t always feel easy to prioritise this relational dimension of our work when the world around us keeps reflecting just how urgently we need to make massive tangible infrastructural change happen – right now!
Back in 2018 the Transition Network staff team went through a group process to co-create a set of Relational Agreements to support the creation of this collaborative culture. These agreements express the ways of being and relating that we identified as providing a bedrock for the trust and safety needed to collaborate most effectively and transformatively in our work together.
We used an Open Space format to explore the question: “What supports us to collaborate?” We harvested a very rich body of information about our respective needs in relation to healthy relating and collaboration. A smaller group of us then distilled this down into a list of 8 agreements that we proposed to the whole Transition team (staff and Trustees). We then used a consent-based decision making process to gain explicit agreement from the whole team, that when working for Transition Network we will do our best to align ourselves with these ways of being and relating – in recognition that this is what supports us all to be most effective and transformative in delivering on our collective Purpose.
Transition Network’s Relational Agreements
When working for Transition Network we agree to do our best to align ourselves with the following ways of being and relating to help us create healthy collaborative culture:
Accountability: We do what we say we are going to do and communicate clearly when we are no longer able to.
Appreciation: We find ways to cultivate appreciation and gratitude and express this regularly.
Awareness: We find ways to increase our self-awareness in relationship to our: needs; impact on others; relationships with power; and, our conditioned ways of being and relating.
Sovereignty: We act on our increasing self awareness and compassion around power, privilege, rank and the Drama Triangle to more and more:
- Exercise agency alongside empathy and compassion;
- Say ‘no’ when we need to;
- Voice ‘reasonable’ objections as and when they arise;
- Offer and receive feedback even when it feels uncomfortable and as early as we’re able to;
- Name conflict when we feel/see it, whether directly involved or not;
- Honour the diversity of our experience by expressing our appreciation, gratitude, joy, celebrations, achievements, hopes, longings and positivity as well as our fears, frustrations, anger, sadness, vulnerability, despair and grief.
Communication: We find ways to communicate with respect, care and compassion for ourselves and each other, including: listening at least as much as we speak; speaking one at a time without interrupting; supporting all voices to be heard; owning our judgements; seeking agreement around and holding confidentiality as appropriate; and, speaking from our needs and hearts.
Feedback: We take action to learn how to offer and receive feedback in healthy ways, even and especially when it feels uncomfortable, and to respect any agreed processes around this.
Conflict Resilience: We make the effort to find ways of becoming more conflict resilient, and to respect any agreed processes around this.
Resourced and Available: We do what we can to become adequately resourced and available within our collaborations – both physically and emotionally, by: cultivating balance in our lives and learning how to avoid burnout; finding ways of balancing our own needs with that of the group; and saying ‘no’ when we need to.
Learning how to collaborate across difference
There are, for sure, plenty of different perspectives within the Transition Network team around just how much time we ought to devote to learning how to collaborate better vis-a-vis just getting on with stuff. And this has been rich, albeit often deeply challenging material to help us learn how to navigate the differences that exist in our team. Rather than pushing our differences under the carpet to avoid discomfort, we are trying to learn how to be honest with each other so that we can get better at collaborating across our differences – well, on a good day, anyway!
Like most teams we often fall into conditioned patterns of fear around difference and conflict, for example by subtly or explicitly making each other wrong or by burying our heads in the sand, trying to pretend nothing is happening in an attempt to not feel the discomfort of our differences and the fear that it can evoke. Perhaps unsurprisingly this is when unhealthy and damaging conflict starts to take hold, relationships start to crumble, and things start to get painful – and guess what, our motivation, creative juices, health, wellbeing, and effectiveness suffer.
Personally, during this process of co-creating our Relational Agreements, I learned so much about my blind spots. I caught myself regressing to zero-sum thinking when it emerged that my needs around relationship and collaboration seemed very different, and at times conflicting, with the needs of some of my team members. With time, patience, and practice, I am learning to welcome and embrace differences in our perspectives and needs, rather than experience them as threats to my identity and sense of belonging – and/or preventing my needs from being met.
Navigating our relational needs in healthy ways
I am learning that any need I, or anyone else has, is not only valid but needs meeting if our relationships and collaborations are going to be healthy. And, just as importantly, I am learning that none of us can expect any particular person, group or organisation to meet our needs. Getting real about what our needs are and then finding healthy ways to meet them is perhaps one of the most fundamental skills needed for healthy group culture – and life more generally. And needless to say, it is also vital that we learn how to discern between what are very real needs for us, vis-a-vis preferences and wants.
So often we are too frightened of even admitting we have needs, let alone finding healthy ways of meeting them. To admit we have needs is to admit we are vulnerable – something most of us find excruciating to admit to ourselves, let alone those we work with.
However, if we are not aware of our needs then the chances are we will either:
- Burnout – because without knowing what our needs are, we will not be able to find healthy ways to meet them, or;
- Get into conflict – because when we are not aware of our needs and are unable to find healthy ways to meet them, we will attempt to get them met by unconsciously manipulating people and invariably finding ourselves in conflict.
For most of us, being honest about what we need to feel present, available and healthy in our relating, and asking fellow group members if they feel able to meet our needs, without demand or expectation that they will be up for it, makes us feel deeply vulnerable. Yet this is actually the only healthy way to get our needs met. If our needs around relating aren’t met the effectiveness and wellbeing of our groups will continue to be mired by burnout and conflict.
Skilling up around how to identify and get our needs met in healthy ways has the potential to radically transform the health and effectiveness of our relationships, groups, and movements – and therefore the world at large.
Finding the sweet spot between embracing difference and meeting our needs
It is deeply humbling to reflect on how much emotional discomfort and resistance initially arose in response to, let’s face it, the incredibly small differences in perspectives and needs that exist within our predominantly white, middle class, middle-aged Transition Network team – compared to that which exists across the rest of the world. Through this process, I came to realise that my valuing of collaboration as a radical tool to address the systemic abuses of power embedded within hierarchy only holds true if, and when, we are doing the work of learning how to collaborate across difference.
What does that actually mean? Well, in my experience it means:
- doing the sometimes gruelling, yet always liberatory, work of becoming more self-aware;
- deeply looking at and transforming my own relationship with power – in particular how the victim-persecutor-rescuer dynamic plays out within my own psyche, egoic structure and relationships;
- becoming more curious and humble about what life is like for others;
- learning how to ask good questions and;
- letting go of my deep-seated and conditioned addiction to being right!
Most of us tend mainly to collaborate with those who are pretty much on the same page as us in terms of political perspectives, identity politics, and ways of communicating and relating. When we don’t prioritise making the effort to collaborate across difference, we remain in a bubble and risk exacerbating the status quo around systemic power abuses.
By this, I mean that how we understand and define healthy collaboration can end up being based on the unexamined experiences, beliefs, and needs of those whom the mainstream culture already affords most power and privilege. For collaboration to be truly healthy and transformative it needs to have unconditional love and compassion as its guiding design principles and be underpinned by a radical commitment to increasing our capacity for empathy and self-awareness around our impact on those around us.
Holding Healthy Boundaries
I recently decided to leave the Transition Network staff team largely because this process around Relational Agreements made visible to me that my specific needs around relating could not be met within the Transition Network team. Through a somewhat gruelling process, I managed to identify and take responsibility for my needs and found a healthy way of meeting them, which meant making the difficult decision of leaving the team – sounds simple eh! I assure you it did not feel that simple at the time!
What I also came to learn is that for Relational Agreements to be meaningful beyond a set of aspirational and impressive sounding values, they need to be accompanied by mechanisms to hold ourselves to account. And because these Relational Agreements were formed early on within our wider organisational change process, we had not yet developed the mechanisms to ensure that the Relational Agreements were invested with the power necessary for them to support this accountability process.
The Transition Network staff team are now in the process of developing this accountability process around the Relational Agreements. They are strengthening their muscles around healthy ways to give and receive feedback and around relational repair in the face of conflict.
With all of this in mind, as with any relationship, for it to be healthy it is vital that we each learn how to hold boundaries for ourselves and identify just how much difference within relational styles can truly work for us. We need to find the sweet spot between embracing rather than avoiding difference within our groups – and – ensuring the conditions are in place for us to feel safe enough to flourish and share our gifts most potently in the world.
Inner Resilience and healthy collaborative culture
The transformative power of collaborative culture has its roots buried deep within the full-bodied process of re-connecting with ourselves, others and the other-than-human world. This rich process which we could call Inner Resilience has the potential to naturally grow our trust in ourselves, in those we are collaborating with, and perhaps most importantly, in life’s natural abundance and ability to support all beings.
Paradoxically, in a context where uncertainty (and the fear it tends to evoke) becomes more and more part of our everyday experience, learning how to work with emergence is becoming one of the key skills needed for healthy collaboration. Working with emergence calls on us to develop new ways of approaching our work, drawing much more on our creative, intuitive right-brains than many of us previously have. For example, responding to uncertainty with an emergent approach calls on us to become more flexible with our planning, responding fluidly to situations as they emerge rather than taking the more ‘predict and control’ approach that most of us have been conditioned into.
Working with emergence calls on us to learn how to strengthen our muscle around being in the unknown, which is more than uncomfortable for many of us. To do this we need to get interested in what this discomfort feels like in our bodies, rather than shutting down to it and defaulting to our conditioned ways of being. And from this place of interest and curiosity, we may well find a panoply of surprises presents itself to us: an infinity of previously unfathomable creative responses making themselves known to us when we have the courage to dance in the unknown.
Learning how to do this in a collaborative way that respects our respective gifts and limitations; passions and fears, is a vital ingredient in radically transforming our groups, communities and society at large. And for this to be possible it is essential that we prioritise cultivating our Inner Resilience within a wider context that recognises that we are all connected and in this together – rather than Inner Resilience being more of the same individualised process born of the thinking and paradigm that created the crises we currently face.
To embrace the Earth’s undeniable nudge towards returning to life as inherently inter-connected and emergent is to remember our trust in something so much bigger than that which our minds can fathom. And in so doing, in my experience, we get to harvest our kaleidoscopic collective intelligence and deliciously drink from the depths and unfathomable vastness of the precious ecosystem we co-exist as.
Claire Milne has been working as Inner Transition Coordinator for Transition Network for the last three and a half years, exploring ways to support the integration of Inner Transition and healthy collaborative culture within Transition Network and across the international movement.
Claire recently left the Transition Network team to continue her work birthing an Inner Resilience network of networks. This new initiative seeks to cultivate more health and Wholeness across our socio-ecological movements – and the communities they work in solidarity with, by nourishing and nurturing the intersection between the inner and outer dimensions of change.
From a place of Love and compassion, the Inner Resilience network of networks seeks to address the millennia-old marginalisation of the inner and other-than-human dimensions of life that is hindering our individual and collective evolution towards radical inclusion, Wholeness and health, with increasingly devastating social and ecological results.
To find out more about the Inner Resilience network of networks and how to get involved contact Claire: email@example.com