Ideas toward a Relationship Safety Agreement in Groups

by Elizabeth Reid

Whenever a group of people gather together there is a risk of emotional hurt. After training in Contemplative Dance with Alton Wasson and Daphne Lowell, I came to see this risk as a reality of the complexity of differences among movers. Different energies just rub each of us in our own unique ways. Sometimes we are deeply touched. Sometimes we have lots of fun; sometimes our feelings are hurt.

In Contemplative Dance training we learned strategies to help find ways to work through these relationship rubs. Many of the strategies are based on the psychological notion of projection.

We all come to relationships with our own projective filters, some conscious, some unconscious. This means that we have unique, individual interpretations of what other's body movements, statements, stories, twitches, quirks, or sounds might mean. The authentic movement form and group setting encourage both movers and witnesses to experience their own projections in movement and in witnessing. Often as witnesses we contain our thoughts completely within the group or only reflect about another mover through movement in order to highlight the projective nature of commenting on each other. Brief responses to each other may be allowed but the agreement is to work towards owning our response as our own projection. In my imagination or in my dream or I am the one who... When you moved, I felt... In my projection, I saw.

When there is a relationship rub it could be thought of as similar to an individual bellyache that needs care in the collective body of the community. Healing a bellyache is not easy for an individual person. In a group, a bellyache is even harder as often when one person has a bellyache, for another person it is a belly dance.

It is an ongoing challenge to embrace all our differences with compassion. To use the help of projection to enhance our own practices is to understand that something that rubs us the wrong way may be something to learn to be compassionate about in ourselves. In my dream the diversity of our energies as a group reflects the good and difficult energies of the whole world.

One goal of many AM/CD peer and facilitated groups is to develop our individual practices in a local community group setting. The process of AM/CD practice can be scary in any setting. The local community group setting can be both supportive of safety and risky. Practicing with people who live in our communities adds different dimensions of risks, such as dual relationships or histories with baggage. Safety agreements are put into place to help the group make safe room for each individual.

Safety agreements are not rules. Each person is invited to agree. Buying into the process of creating safety and feeling safe is essential for the long term work of the group. These agreements hopefully add to our sense of safety and our ability to move into more depth of work. For example, sound agreements are made to make sure all feel safe as movement impulses are explored with different levels of noise. We are reminded to physically care for ourselves, to watch out not to hurt our bodies or the space that we are using. Finding ways to feel safe in the midst of complex relationships requires even more thoughtful agreement.

When relationships no longer are safe because of unresolved hurtful, angry, or intense feelings, many groups dissolve. Loving or romantic feelings can also cause problems. There is a certain inevitability that over time, feelings in relationships become difficult.

Where group members know each other in a number of settings a discussion of how relationship disharmony will be handled may help the long term life of a group. A group might agree that members can discuss relationship disharmony in another confidential setting. A facilitator might offer to have individual sessions with group members around particular concerns with group agreement as to this structure at the outset of the group. A facilitator might screen prospective members to set up beforehand that all group members agree to have a supportive network for handling relationship rubs.

Most of us feel the need for a sense of belonging and alliance in a group setting. For example, sometimes group members travel together to the group meeting. A discussion of what kind of sharing happens to and from group meetings and in social times generally might lead to an agreement to contain conversations about the group at these times. If we share how we feel about something outside the group, the feelings can collect in an alliance of movers. "Gee, I feel that way too." This is immensely comforting but takes the focus off working with our own projections. Opening up discussion of a movement session outside of a group setting might slip into to a dual relationship such as one mover feeling used for support or therapy without a clear agreement. The invitation of AM/CD is to drop the need for alliances and support and instead to explore more deeply our own material. I am the one who needs to feel everyone is on my side. I am the one working to be on my own side. I was so touched by what happened in our last movement practice...Oops I forgot we are not talking about that during our social time.

Other strategies that groups have used to heal relationship disharmony have included a whole group moving a relationship concern. The group might agree to move hurt or anger as a group exercise. Sometimes individual group members need to take a break or a step back out of a group to restore their own sense of balance. Moving with a different group of movers can add information and understanding to a relationship disharmony in our local settings. Going to a training away from the local community group might help members gain insight or heal a relationship rub. What I imagined was a dislike I had for another mover, turned out to be my own discomfort when a certain noise came into the room.... In my imagination another mover is difficult for me because of my own family issues. I will try to resolve that at a deeper level for myself.

An underlying assumption is that movers know what is best for their own body and mind. An important safety suggestion can be for each individual of us to carefully choose to only go psychologically where we feel safe. Gosh another mover is sobbing, I want to go help her. Boy, it's hard for me to trust that she knows what is best for her.

Each person is part of the group for her/his own individual experience, not to impact each other as a goal. I wish he were different... oh, how nice to just focus on me being different if I would like to be.

Whenever possible prior to attending a group, we need to have an agreement about the commitment to attending the sessions. Members can agree that they will attend when their energy allows, setting an expectation for some in and out of group attendance. Each of us has our own projective filters on comings and goings of other group members. These feelings can also be taken into the movement process. Some groups may be more comfortable with a firm commitment for attendance, while others may not. When people can't attend, groups may hold a virtual space for the missing person. In my projection when you miss the group there is a loss. I miss your energy, but in my imagination I can move or hold our space in a way that adds your energy to our time.

When new members join our groups, it is a chance to review and revise our safety agreements.

There will always be times when a group member leaves a group or a group needs to disband to end a difficulty. When a member needs to leave, agreeing beforehand that each mover ideally will try to offer an owned sense of why they are leaving, can help both the mover and those who remain. In my imagination I keep getting a bellyache when I come to this meeting because I do not feel safe with my own material right now. I will come back if I can or I hope to find another place to work on these issues for myself.

The following list attempts to summarize these notions of what groups might agree to at the outset to attempt to create a longer term safe environment. Groups can agree:

  1. that the focus of the group is the development of individual practice,
  2. that little or no process time for relationships is done during the group time,
  3. that confidentiality means we do not share about other movers outside the group setting,
  4. that if an individual has a feeling of upset we take it into our own movement session,
  5. that relationship difficulties are handled in confidential, supportive networks outside of the group setting,
  6. that we discourage discussion of the practice session during social time,
  7. that bodywork is based in the notion that each of us knows what is best for our own body,
  8. that there is no expectation of others to change,
  9. that when we leave or are absent from group we shared an owned sense of why.

Please add your thoughts on agreements that have worked to enhance the handling of relationship rubs or belly aches.

With deep gratitude...Elizabeth Reid

Special thanks to Alton Wasson for thoughtful editing of this article, for leading a yearly Facilitators training and to the Facilitators Reunion group for a wonderful full discussion of these ideas. Also my own local community group where we do what we call "Movement Meditation" for the opportunity to facilitate and learn, hopefully over the long term.

copyright 2007 Elizabeth Reid


Aileen said...

Elizabeth's writing was very stimulating for me, particularly the question of projections from witnesses. I hope people (you all) will respond with how to deal with that issue ---- either how to avoid projections or how to make use of them. And the question of what "safety" means fascinates me.

Aileen Crow

Elizabeth Reid from Averill Park, NY said...

Maybe safety is a quirky projection for each one of us. I love the question of how to make use of projections. For me anyway they are unavoidable.

Aileen said...

More about projections, in response to Elizabeth Reid
by Aileen Crow

The subject of how to get the good out of our projections fascinates me: not just within authentic movement groups; but in the relationships between me and other people in daily life.

These relationships mirror those between my whole self and its many different inner parts (new ones coming all the time). It’s a question of which parts get identified with, and which parts get excommunicated. If something or someone ‘bugs’ me, and I identify with the upset part, I tend to exile the ‘something’ that bugged me and blame it. It’s Not Me. It’s his or her fault. A part of me, not the whole me, gets re-stimulated (a co-counseling term) by an old unresolved problem, or by seeing someone do or say something IT would NEVER do, or by comparing itself negatively to someone who does something better than IT could ever do. That part is ‘shen pa’ (a Buddhist term). IT has taken over my identity, or been put out onto another person.

One thing that helps me is to be careful about language. I learned this from Ann Weiser Cornell, a Focusing teacher, who wants us to distinguish between only using the word “I” to mean the whole self (which she calls ”Presence”), and calling it “something”, or “a part” when there is a sense that something urgent is disturbing us.

The fascinating aspect of all this, to me, is the prospect of taking that ‘something’ that got disowned and projected out onto another person, and mining the gold within it. Here’s one way I know to do it for myself by myself, which comes before dealing with projections within an AM group.

First, I need constant practice in being aware that I am my whole self (via meditation, AM, art, etc) so that I know when something in me is shen pa, or re-stimulated. The whole me is curious and interested to explore that something, not get rid of it, trusting that there’s something of value in it.

I personify whatever IT is: I find its rhythm and do that physically. And its sound. I can role play it, and move like it. I write dialogs between IT and my Process Mind part, which is curious about IT’s fears and desires. I almost always draw IT, and often make figures of IT. Projection is the stuff of art.

All this is Process Work (Thank you, Arnold Mindell), mixed with Authentic Movement and art, that allows relationships to be worked out, no matter how difficult they may seem in the beginning. As Cornell says in her book, “The Radical Acceptance of Everything”, “There are no enemies within.”

Elizabeth Reid from Averill Park, NY said...

I was moved to write this article on safety in groups because of relationship belly aches in my own group. When consulting with other facilitators, I found that every one had a story of similar difficulties. I think we all aspire to Aileen's description of a process that allows radical acceptance of all, but in for example a monthly group with little time to process it is hard to manage. My own goal in writing the post was to offer suggestions of how to manage the less than ideal situations that do not allow for enough time to process. Also, I hope we all can find compassion and acceptance of ourselves when it is not possible at this moment in time to resolve a relationship difficulty. In my discussions with others it is so common a problem, that like shen pa I think it must be the human condition.

By the way I am very grateful to Aileen for sending me to look up what 'shen pa” is... There is a long, good description of it on Pema Chodron's web site.( One part of the notion I liked was that the human condition is one of dissatisfaction. This grabbed me as I struggle with wanting things to be different than they are. Pema suggests awareness of the places that hook our sense of dissatisfaction might lead us gently toward more self and other compassion.

Thanks Aileen for your thoughtful comment on my post.

Tom said...

Thank you, Elizabeth for your thoughtful piece. I like your notion of relationship rubs and then seeing them as belly aches. I have lived with relationship rubs since kindergarten and earlier. What would school be like if we could deal with relationship rubs and accept them as you and Aileen advise? I speak in the present tense because I often seem to reenter kindergarten in every new group of people that I must interact with for a while.
I like your focus on "The invitation of AM/CD is to drop the need for alliances and support and instead to explore more deeply our own material." We need not be polite when out moving with eyes closed. Our job is to follow our own inner impulses.
I am headed into a group experience this weekend in movement. I am going to reread you piece and bring some of its wisdom to that group.

Elizabeth Reid from Averill Park, NY said...

Thanks for your response to the article. It is such a blessing to me that a blog piece is still there after quite a bit of time and can be read at the moment it meets your need as the reader. I hope your movement experience had few relationship rubs and felt safe. Elizabeth

Germaine said...

hi elizabeth, as will probably be noted by the blog's virtual Big Sister, i've been perusing the blog this evening and enjoying this nice leisurely way of looking at it and making belated comments. reading pieces (like your own) written awhile back is so fresh! i really appreciate your piece. as tom mentioned, it's so thoughtful and non-pushy. i too like the 'rub' concept and the acceptance of this as being very valuable. i think i want to get used to this instead of pretend, in my discomfort, it can be obliterated. makes sense. i had a feeling of alton through the entire piece and was not surprised to find at the end that he indeed had an opague hand (mere gesture most likely) in it. i warmly thank you elizabeth. i'm going to refer to your piece frequently when the rubs come about... which will be any moment now most likely. it might be a good idea to print it out and put it on my fridge for easy reference. cheers.

Elizabeth Reid said...

Just what I imagined would be a wonderful possibility with the Blog. To be able to read it at moments of leisure which are all too rare. Thanks for what you say about my post and for all your comments as you browse the blog. I like revisiting the idea that rubs are inevitable and to be embraced. Alton did not write my post but as my teacher he demonstrated the ideas, gave some editorial suggestions, and encouraged me to facilitate so I could really learn how to get agreements to work. I am deeply grateful for the many lessons.