5 Class Engagement Guidelines to Build Trust and Community
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By Patrick Briody, guest contributor
As mindfulness teachers, how can we best create a sense of trust and community in our online mindfulness classes? One tool I’m very grateful for learning in my Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher training is the practice of sharing guidelines for engagement with the group. As a closet anarchist, I initially felt some resistance to explicit guidelines, but over time I learned how important this can be in creating trust and safety. Not to mention focus and flow.
Explicit, stated guidelines create a frame within which participants can more readily contribute and engage with each other and the teacher. Seen in this way, guidelines are a compassionate structure. If, while sharing the guidelines, you are holding this intention in your heart, instead of seeing the guidelines as unnecessary restrictions, the participants are likely to feel cared for and supported. At least, that has been my experience.
Guidelines are especially important in virtual gatherings where we don’t have as much access to body language, throat-clearing, or other signs we use to signal to others an intent to speak. Although it’s most important to share the guidelines at the initial meeting of a group, this shouldn’t be viewed as a one-time practice. The teacher needs to follow through and provide reminders along the way, especially as participants naturally wander back to their more familiar ways of interacting. Right here is a great opportunity for the teacher’s own mindfulness practice: “Am I feeling a need to redirect to a guideline because it’s in the interest of the group, or in the interest of my need to be in charge?” Or perhaps: “Am I feeling I don’t need to redirect to a guideline because it’s really not needed, or is it more that I’m afraid the group will view me as uncool and a control freak?”
We’ve probably all participated in groups that either didn’t have explicitly stated guidelines or where the leader doesn't hold the group accountable to those agreements. Safety and trust can then break down, not to mention basic clarity on what we’re supposed to be doing: “Gee, are we using the blue hand now, or just jumping in when we want?” “Are we supposed to be using chat for comments while someone is speaking or not?” “Didn’t we all agree to be on camera?”
Guidelines for speaking are especially important in creating an inclusive and level playing field for all participants. If inclusion in the conversation is pretty much based on survival of the quickest/loudest, the more introverted (or polite) participants are likely to decide it’s not worth the bother to elbow their way into the discussion and share their thoughts.
Here are some guidelines that are typically used for MBSR groups. Most are applicable to in-person as well as online gatherings. When sharing the guidelines, you have the opportunity to ask for commitment from the group, as well as to ask if they think anything is missing. In some cases, you may also provide a written list, and perhaps include fundamental guidelines (e.g. confidentiality) in a signed “agreement."
Group Engagement Guidelines
1. Confidentiality - depending on the nature of the group, the confidentiality agreement may be more or less restrictive. For example, with MBSR, the agreement is fairly strict - to not repeat anything outside the group that other participants have said, even if unattributed.
2. Refrain from Advice Giving - this guideline can also take different forms depending on the needs. If the primary intention for the group is for deep learning through one’s own experience (as with MBSR), then participants are steered towards examining their own experience through mindful investigation rather than looking outside for their answers. Additionally, a sense of safety and trust is supported when participants know they won’t be quizzed by other participants about what they’ve just shared. A somewhat common habit pattern for some people in a group situation is to avoid the vulnerability inherent in sharing their own experience by quizzing other participants and then offering advice. This guideline can support learning for such people by interrupting that familiar pattern and allowing them to experiment with greater openness instead.
3. Speak in 1st person - this guideline is literally about using the word “I”. Rather than move into a philosophical or theoretical discussion about what “people” do, this guideline directs us to notice and report from our own direct experience. In some cases, previous training or cultural norms will have influenced the participants to steer away from using “I”. So this one usually needs a bit of reinforcement from the teacher to take hold.
4. Be Concise - the size of the group will influence to some extent what “concise” means in each case. Where group discussion is a part of the mindfulness practice, it can take some keen discernment to notice the difference between meandering without mindfulness through unnecessary details of a story and the kind of open wondering and exploration that can lead to insight. The teacher can help here by attending to how the participant is speaking rather than what they are saying, and gently redirect or encourage further speech depending on what they believe is needed.
5. Honor the protocols - In person the “protocols” might include arriving on time, removing your shoes when entering the room, or putting on your name tag. Online the protocols should make clear how and when to use the camera, mic muting, raising an electronic or physical hand to speak, use of the chat tool, whether to close other apps before joining, checking that your display name is correct, etc.
What has your experience been with explicit guidelines for group interaction? What has helped you as a participant or as a teacher?