Setting Agreements: External and Internal

By Luci Englert McKean

A funny thing happened in the Open Training I was leading this week.

We were Setting Agreements, and, after the group split into pairs to collaborate on the first step,  the first pair shared their #1 request, “Practice Being Fully Present.” The selection itself wasn’t the funny thing; in fact, that’s a popular choice from our Sample Agreement list.  These participants said “staying present” was their highest aspiration in the training, a major personal challenge over the course of five intense days.

As I was charting the agreement, in order to more clearly define the pair’s request for others in the group, I asked, “What would it look like if others were not ‘fully present’?” I wanted to clarify so their new Critical Friends would know what these participants were asking of everyone. I was looking for responses such as “frequently checking one’s phone,” or perhaps “leaving the room repeatedly.” But they looked at me rather blankly, and said they hadn’t really thought about asking everyone ELSE to practice being fully present, only that this agreement was most important for them, personally.  

“Write down the four most important agreements you would ask the larger group to make, so you can trust the group to become a place where good, difficult work may be conducted.”

I was surprised. The instructions for Setting Agreements include “write down the four most important agreements you would ask the larger group to make, so you can trust the group to become a place where good, difficult work may be conducted.” I wondered if I had not been clear in giving the instructions. But it seemed this pair was the only one who spoke from an “internal” perspective, naming an agreement they wanted to make with themselves rather than an “external” perspective in which they were asking for specific behavior from others. I’d never seen this response before!

In the generative portion of this activity, we typically hear about others’ bad behavior: colleagues assuming ill-intent, whispering in sidebar conversations (or texting others in the same meeting!), or sharing work outside the meeting that should have been held in confidence. Pair by pair, we create a list of our requests for the group and clarify what each request really means to the people who suggested it.  

After the group finalizes and commits to a list of Agreements, a facilitator will often ask, “Which of these Agreements will be most challenging for you to keep, personally?”  Sometimes, participants will have been so focused on what they’re asking of others, they will not have thought about the fact that they, too, need to abide by the requests and restrictions they are asking of their fellow Critical Friends.  Or, they’re fully willing to uphold the Agreement they personally added to the list, but it’s harder for them to contemplate being FULLY committed to an Agreement that may go against their very nature — sharing air time, for example, or arriving on time. I’ve sometimes found it helpful to mention this wording that I heard in a previous training: “Your #1 request might not have been on my list at all, but I will abide by your top request because it’s important to you.  I want you to feel safe enough to do your best work, and I hope you want the same for me.”

My new friends who cued my Aha Moment this week completely inverted the instructions for this activity, starting with the interior perspective. This leads me to consider an alternate use of the Agreement Examples. Knowing these examples are all popular requests by others who have completed this training, I wonder if one might use the list personally and privately to improve one’s own participation in any given meeting, regardless of whether the group has set their own Agreements. I think I’ll review the list before heading into my next meeting and think about what might be helpful to the others invited to that particular gathering. I will aspire to protect them by acting in accordance with those agreements without being asked and without making a public display of it. I wonder if, eventually, I might be able to internalize all these “best behaviors” to be a better participant in any meeting, and if, by doing so, I might gradually, by example, improve the culture around me: as coastal fisherpeople say, “a rising tide will lift all boats.”  

I’m curious: have any of you looked at Agreements in this way, or been prompted to do so by others? Please let us know in comments.

Staff post by Luci Englert McKean, NSRF Assistant Director, co-editor of the CFG Coaches’ Handbook, and NSRF International Facilitator. Luci took “the longest path to becoming an NSRF National Facilitator” by participating, observing, and unofficially interning in nearly a dozen CFG Coaches’ Trainings before officially interning and being approved by her mentor facilitators. She may be reached at the NSRF office at 812-330-2702 or by emailing