Living Systems Norms for Group Communication

By 💌 and 💌🌐

A wetland acts as a natural water filter, trapping sediments and converting pollutants into less harmful chemicals. We see these communication norms as BABY STEPS that start to transform interpersonal tensions into trust energy. Ultimately, the goal is to grow a natural filtering system for group communication that keeps glorious amounts of trust energy circulating! (By themselves, these norms won't get us all the way there but they're a really good start in that direction).

Dedicated to Naveed Heydari and Theo Grondahl



The level of tension in the room is starting to rise

Many mammals, like domestic cats, have a whole set of behaviors that allow them to engage in "ritualized aggression" with each other - warning each other off, signaling intent to fight or withdraw - without actually getting into physical combat. In tense interpersonal situations, we often don't realize how much threat energy others are experiencing when we think we are "just voicing our opinions."

Use I-statements to lessen the threat energy packed into You-statements or Declarations: anchor your observations and feedback to what’s coming up for you in your own field of experience: for example, "I’m feeling like this may be an overly complicated approach…" vs "This is too complicated" (or "You’ve made this too complicated"). I-statements by themselves won't keep you out of interpersonal conflict (let alone physical combat) - they're more like a deliberate ritual with our word choice that makes our mind more receptive to the possibility that others will disagree with us.

Active Listening


Your perspective feels like it just got trampled on

In cows (as in other species), mother-offspring pairs communicate with bidirectional "contact calls" - both mother and offspring recognize each other's distinct vocalizations, so when the calf bleats and the mother answers, the calf knows that it has been Heard (and vice versa). We humans can tend the Group Field by offering each other the sweetness of being Heard - even if we don't agree with what's being said - by Mirroring before Responding.

When someone has voiced their opinion, let them know you’re really listening - and immediately signal positive intent - by reflecting back to them what you heard them saying. Stick closely to their own words ("What I hear you saying is…"). This practice communicates your care and respect for the other person in themselves, apart from their opinions. It is a Seed that builds trust and goodwill every time it is sown.

In your reflection, try to avoid JIFing:

  • Judging - saying anything that passes judgment on what is being said, even if it’s positive! Especially if it is negative
  • Interpreting - making extra assumptions about what the speaker meant
  • Fixing - anything that attempts to address or solve what comes up

Owning your interpretations


It feels like the other person is trying to impose their viewpoint on you

Animals are often territorial, and we take that to mean "aggressive." But if you flip it around, territorial displays by animals (say, a spotted leopard spraying urine on a tree trunk) are actually a way of preventing aggression by indicating ownership (another spotted leopard can pick up the message and choose to avoid the fight by going elsewhere). Human language-users have a problem: our words can seem like we're staking claiming to unassailable "objective" knowledge on an issue. This happens when we don't own our interpretations AS just that, our own interpretations - our own stories.

Actively acknowledge your own fallibility upfront by labeling your interpretations as stories that you’re holding: "I have a story that…";"This story might be mistaken or unfair….". Be prepared to find out that the other person holds a very different story. Normalize differences of perspective by labeling your stories as stories every chance you get; hearing this label quickly sensitizes people to holding this practice as a living norm in a group.

Sharing emotional impact


You feel upset, judged or triggered by what someone has just said

Trees send distress signals to each other through their roots. Through underground fungal networks called "mycorrhizae," they can perform incredible feats of care-taking: for example, elder trees use these networks to pump extra sugar into the roots of younger trees that are still too young to reach the light of the forest canopy. Our trouble as humans is that we often lack a good way of communicating our distress to each other in a way that awakens the willingness to care-take: vulnerability feels scary, like a sign of weakness. But when we skillfully signal our emotional state to others, it can soften their hard edges.

Offer the other person a window onto your emotional reality by sharing how their words or actions impact you at the level of your body, emotions, or thoughts.

  • "Hearing you, ___"I’m feeling some emotional impact. [I want to share that] I’m experiencing it as a tightness in my throat and my heart is pounding" (impact at the level of bodily sensations)
  • "I’m experiencing some sadness and fear (impact at the level of emotions)
  • "I’m having thoughts about whether I belong here"; "The thoughts that are coming up for me are…" (impact at the level of thinking)

This practice plants Seeds of spaciousness, slowing down the conversation so compassion can enter the room.

Validating before Criticizing


Someone's criticism makes you feel unseen and unappreciated

Elephants touch each other with their trunks. Monkeys engage in social grooming. Dolphins rub their flippers over each others' bodies. Animals constantly reassure each other with touch (scientists call it "affiliation"). We human animals often underestimate the need to put a verbal touch of reassurance into our communication with someone we disagree with. It's not caving in - it's actually a way of creating better energetic conditions for sorting out those disagreements.

Put a Yes before a No by making an effort to find and highlight the genuine common ground you share with someone before you deliver criticism. Can you validate their feelings? - "I get your frustration; I feel your disappointment". Can you identify a strength or a merit in what they’ve put forward? - "I appreciate the work you’ve put into this…" "I appreciate the level of detail in your rendering…"

Helping others feel Seen


Environments where our gifts are not recognized erode trust

Many highly social species like ants, elephants, whales, and chimpanzees value the gifts and talents of specific individuals in their groups. Animal Elders are not just the oldest; they're the most skillful at things like finding food, discerning danger, and de-escalating conflict, and their social groups thrive by giving these talented individuals clear leadership roles in the social order.

Make a regular practice of appreciating the gifts that others bring to the everyday table of our interactions: normalize this practice so it becomes second nature in the group culture, like taking sips of water. Weave a running thread of specific appreciations through ordinary meetings, conversations, and gatherings. Get people in the habit of collectively witnessing the bigger Selves that live in each one of us. This practice plants the Seeds of group resilience by fostering a multi-faceted culture of skillful collective leadership.