September 27, 2019
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Sue Heilbronner
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Clean Agreements

Clean Agreements: The most efficient way to reduce hours of frustration and disappointment

If you have been wondering why no one ever keeps their agreements with you, it’s likely that you make lousy agreements.

Many of the executives and companies I work with find the Conscious Leadership concept of “clean agreements” to be one of the most transformative principles. 

The idea is that, as a matter of developing integrity and trust in your relationships, Conscious Leaders work to create and honor impeccable agreements. 

If you have been wondering why no one ever keeps their agreements with you, it’s likely that you make lousy agreements, hereafter known as not agreements. 

There’s a lot to like about living without agreements — you don’t have to do very much that you say you will, and you don’t expose yourself to disappointment when others don’t do what they say they will do.

Requirements for a Clean Agreement

I hit the concept of clean agreements head-on in my work with companies and at Leadership Camp. I often raise the issue in the context of attempting to make an agreement about how session participants will treat technology during our time together.

First, I teach the criteria for making a “clean agreement.”A clean agreement requires:

  • Clarity around a specific “who” will do the thing (e.g., not “the marketing team” but “Samantha as the project owner for the marketing team”).
  • Clarity around a specific “what” we are agreeing will happen (e.g., not “propose team goals” but “develop a set of goals for the marketing team using the V2MOM vehicle and ensuring that you’ve run it by sales, finance, and product before sharing it with me”).
  • Clarity around a specific “when” the who will complete the what (e.g., not “by Q4” but “by 5pm ET on October 27th”).

In addition to this triptych, clean agreements have these features:

  • They are realistic. The who, what, and when must be possible based on normal assumptions and some consideration of historical performance.
  • Agreements are mutual — bilateral or multilateral. This means they require consent. I’m not attached to whether agreements occur; I’m simply attempting to clean up our impression of whether we in fact have agreements. For example, if decision rights are present, I’m perfectly fine with leaders making orders. I covered this and other ways of using Conscious Communication in a previous post. That said, in order to make a clean agreement, one party must make a request for an agreement and the other party must agree. An agreement must be authentic. In my world, this means that the person being asked for an agreement should check whether they have a full-body yes before answering, and the party requesting the agreement should pay attention to whether they believe the agreeing party is providing authentic consent (or simply telling the requester what they want to hear). I consider this mutual evaluation to be a superb example of 100% Responsibility.
  • Agreements are renegotiable. If one party wishes to change the terms of an agreement, they get to do this consciously by requesting a renegotiation of a key term rather than simply breaching the agreement. Renegotiation also must be mutual, so there’s no guarantee the change will be implemented, but this practice of renegotiation enhances focus on the quality of agreements and instills trust across a relationship or team.

Here’s a handy visual checklist for these criteria of clean agreements:


Sample Use Case: Technology

Normally in sessions I facilitate, I first give an order: that all phones and notification devices are turned to silent inside the room. This is not negotiable for me because it allows other people to enjoy an uninterrupted experience. I then request an agreement with as many people as will make it with me: I ask that all communication devices be set in a position and in a location where silent notifications (vibration) will not be noticeable to the person who owns the device or to anyone around them (through a visual indication on a device). 

I invite people to check whether they have a full-body yes to this request. I am authentically open to no’s. This is important in engendering authentic consent. I typically get about 90% consent to my agreement. Sometimes one of the people who doesn’t agree comes up to explain why — e.g. sick kid, parent in hospital. When I hear these rationales, I simply say that I’m fine with a yes or a no, and that I honor the fact that we’ve arrived at a clear and reasonable place of non-agreement. 


New Use Case: Trigger Warnings

After my initial order, I typically typically ask if anyone else has a request for an agreement with the group. The other day, someone had a request: “If anyone is about to say something that might be a trigger, they give a ‘trigger warning’.”

I thought about this quickly and realized that this request wasn’t specific enough for me regarding the “what.” I wasn’t sure what I was being asked to agree to, and that’s a recipe for a lousy (or non-) agreement. This specific request was even trickier in a way that really shows how many sloppy agreements are created; It was the kind of agreement I and likely others in the room wanted to make right away. It sounded important to the requester, there was some emotion around the request, and it’s the kind of thing one should agree to. Right? 

Although we often say “yes” to agreements from a place of obligation or a wish to help, these types of motivation commonly lead to messy agreements. When we make  agreements from these motivations, we frequently skip over clarity on the “who,” “what,” and “by when.” In addition, we often overlook whether or not we have authentic consent. A “yes” from obligation or peer pressure typically is not a full-body yes.

In order to ensure I could decide if I wanted to and was capable of making this agreement, I dove in with clarifying questions. I asked the requester what they were specifically asking us to do. What kinds of topics would be triggering for this person? The person sat with that question and listed several examples including sexual abuse, eating disorders, and other violence. Through my questions, which were grounded in curiosity — a desire to get to an excellent agreement that would serve this person and the group — the requester kept checking in with their desires and preferences. They eventually concluded that they only wanted a warning in the event someone was about to speak of sexual abuse. I asked them what exactly they wanted to happen in the event someone was about to raise that topic. They said they wanted other participants to say “I’m about to speak about sexual assault” so the requester could leave the room for a few minutes.

The requester asked who was willing to make this agreement. Everyone said yes, and we were off.

We had learned the criteria for a clean agreement and made two quality agreements in the span of about 15 minutes. Think about that efficiency at your company (or in your family) and think about all the hours of frustration and disappointment that might be avoided with an intentional setting of a new impeccable agreement.

Sue Heilbronner

Co-founder MergeLane & Leadership Camp, coach, speaker, advisor, conscious leadership trainer.

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