Setting the Norms for Great Conversation and Growth

If you walk around the Upper School building, you might notice the presence of a set of guidelines for “community-building norms” posted around, especially in classrooms.  What are these norms? The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) developed them years ago to encourage strong participation in training workshops, especially those designed to develop empathy, resilience and cultural competency.  At CA, we have been posting and repeating the thirteen items on the norms list for a few years now, and they have been extremely well received and implemented in all sorts of group settings, particularly when there is a high-level discussion involved.  The full list is posted below, but I will point out a few of the ones that resonate most with me and the Upper School’s work with students.

Speak from the “I” perspective
.  It is essential to own one’s words and opinions and to recognize that we can only speak our own truths; we shouldn’t try to speak for others unless we have been given express permission to do so.  Too often we hear speakers make sweeping generalizations, such as “Everyone knows” or “Lots of people feel the same way I do.”  We may think we can accurately reflect others’ opinions, but it’s actually healthier for a community (in our case a school environment) to allow people to speak for themselves and to stand by their own valuable ideas. They don’t need to accuse others or speak about mythical “yous” and “theys” when sharing their thoughts.  Students need to develop a strong sense of their own beliefs while being open to hearing others’ perspectives as well.  That leads nicely into . . .

Listen, listen, listen, and process.  There is perhaps no communication skill more under-appreciated than listening!  Rather than loading up for our next statement, we would all do well to sit back and really listen to what someone else is saying.  Being an active listener takes conscious effort, relying not only on open ears but an open mind.  The “process” part of this norm is equally vital.  In healthy groups people listen carefully, think carefully about what they have heard from others, and take the necessary time to fully digest what has been conveyed.

Take risks, be raggedy, make some mistakes—and let go.  Most people are their own harshest critics and as such tend to self-edit before even speaking.  Because they worry that others will judge them, they might retreat into silence rather than speak their opinions.  (It can be a vicious cycle since we can often be self-critical of our self-imposed silence, too: “I should have said something” is a common afterthought.)  In this norm, I love the idea of being “raggedy”—which really means being imperfect, and therefore, human.  The message easily translates into classroom settings as this particular norm is essential, for instance, in our global language classrooms. There students must be willing to take some risks and potentially butcher the target language.  ¿Porqué no?  Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Be comfortable with silence.  I worry these days that no one is comfortable with his own thoughts anymore.  Without the distraction of our devices or some form of entertainment, we might have to “suffer” in silence.  Teachers, too, often jump too quickly to rescue a class conversation from the dreaded silence when they could really just wait it out and let students think for a minute.  The opportunity to reflect on what someone has said, free from the distraction of needless chatter or peripheral noise, can sometimes feel like a gift.

These highlighted norms, along with the remaining nine, have provided a nice framework for discussions—even those that are challenging or uncomfortable—for our Upper School community.

Community-Building Norms – developed by the National Association of Independent Schools
• Be fully present.
• Speak from the “I” perspective.
• Own your participation and shape your own experience.
• Be self‐responsible and self-challenging.
• Suspend judgment of yourself and others.
• Listen, listen, listen, and process.
• Lean into discomfort.
• Experiment with new behaviors in order to expand your range of response.
• Take risks, be raggedy, make some mistakes—then let go.
• Accept conflict and its resolution as a necessary catalyst for learning.
• Be comfortable with silence.
• Be crisp; say what’s core.
• Treat the candidness of others as a gift; honor confidentiality.