Thoughts on Making, Keeping & Changing Agreements with Care



This principle can be a beacon to co-creating meaningful and satisfying agreements. I take it to mean being willing to dig inside to discover what your needs may be in the situation. Then you would share your needs so the other person can hold them with you. The next step would be helping the other person to dig inside to discover their needs. Once both people’s needs are uncovered, the needs can inform and support finding solutions that work for everyone.

In long-term relationships, whether at home or at work, usually people grow in different arenas. They explore, take up new interests or drop some. We rarely experience these changes exactly at the same pace or the same direction as our partners. These natural shifts can strain agreements that were made before such changes occurred. Just as new clothing fits us better, our agreements will need periodic refitting – or they can become quite uncomfortable, driving us into the stultifying territory of acting out of obligation or duty or ‘have to’ energy. The cost to our connections when we ‘submit’ to these motivations is enormous in loss of respect, self-respect, appreciation, joy and aliveness.

Sometimes we get into difficulties because we automatically agree before we even check to see if this particular agreement will work for us. (Of course, since many of our agreements are about the future, we cannot be sure what will be true when the time comes, but we can certainly state an intention.) However, when we say “yes” before checking in with ourselves, resentment or overwhelm can slip into our hearts. If that is a tendency of yours, perhaps developing a way to pause before agreeing can help. It might sound like, “I’d like to take a little time to think about this agreement and get back to you.”

We make agreements all the time, sometimes explicitly, sometimes they’re “understood,” and sometimes they’re only in our heads. I call the third kind of agreement ‘one-sided contracts’ because the other person didn’t know about it.

Since most of us are extremely poor at reading other people’s minds, it’s unsurprising that one-sided contracts rarely work well. Perhaps we make one-sided contracts as a hold-over from hormonally-enhanced awareness that occurs with the mother/child bonds or when we fall in love. With those hormones we seem to experience being completely understood by the beloved other. It’s temporary. Once the 6-18 month hormonally-supported mind-reading period is over, hopefully we have developed language and skills for working through agreements, or we can get into trouble.

How often have you been quite irritated or even furious because someone else didn’t keep an agreement between you? This anger usually comes when we leap into thinking someone is bad or wrong for not keeping the agreement and it leads to loads of suffering for everyone involved.

I grew up hearing the phrase, “My word is my bond.” I’m sure these words were offered as an ideal, to inspire. Before NVC, these words became an internal demand for me (and then an external demand): woe unto anyone who didn’t keep their word with me, especially around time agreements. Then I entered full Godzilla mode, stomping those ne’er-do-wells into the dirt! Take this label! Take that shaming! Righteousness prevails! Of course any meaningful connection was lost, but who cared?

I think sometimes frustration and anger arise because we can easily slide into thinking of ourselves and situations as static, or fixed, like a table. But we are living, breathing, growing beings who are not fixed. We flow and grow. We change. To keep pace, our agreements need to grow and change with us.

Sometimes we only discover after an agreement is made that it doesn’t work. Maybe there were unexpected situations we didn’t take into account. For instance, maybe I signed up for a class but I didn’t know my baby-sitter just took on another family on the same night of the week. Suddenly, my partner has to fill that role, but he or she had other plans.

I loved learning a different approach to breaking (changing) agreements in Dominic Barter’s restorative circles work. He’s a certified NVC trainer working in Brazil in the favelas. In a restorative circle everyone involved is heard, including the author of the act, the receiver of the act, and any community members affected. Together they develop agreed actions to address the needs that have been discovered. They come together later at a post-circle to discuss how the agreed actions did or didn’t meet the needs intended. Another concern in the post-circle is to explore, if an action was not done, what got in the way. It’s important to create new agreed actions which take the unexpected situation into account. Rather than falling back on “accountability” of ‘who failed,’ the focus is on what can help the agreed action happen.

Dominic told us about one young man who had spray-painted a man’s house. The man was retired and his home was his pride and joy. The boy had no sense until the restorative circle how devastating his actions were for the man who owned the house. Together they decided he would help repaint the house. The first date they arranged, the boy didn’t show up. At the post-circle meeting the man was angry, but Dominic worked to learn from the boy what had happened. It turned out the boy had a little sister who could not be left alone. His mother had been delayed at her job, so he had to stay home with his little sister until his mom could get home (need for care & safety) and by then it was dark. They set up a new time on a weekend and the boy came, but his buddies came by and started teasing and shaming him about being a sissy. The boy left the paint and went home (needs for dignity, respect and belonging). Again a post-circle happened, and they found a time when the other boys would not be likely to come by. The man and the boy completed repainting the house, and they became friends.

It takes a few experiences of successfully making, keeping and changing agreements with care before we start to believe in our bones it is possible for these discussions to bring us deeper connection and trust. And it frees up a lot of vitality when anxiety or even dread about such conversations no longer hang over us like a sword.

Remember ~

Meganwind Eoyang