Why the difference between ‘rules’ and ‘agreements’ matters

If a teacher makes rules, does it mean students have agreed?

At the start of the school year, teachers often ask, “Does anyone have an idea of rules we should have for our classroom this year?”

A keen student, hand thrust eagerly in the air, says, “You have to raise your hand to talk.”

“Oh, that’s a good one.” the teacher responds, and writes the answer carefully on a scroll-shaped paper titled “Our Class Rules”.

Another student calls out, “School should be fun.” The teacher ignores this suggestion and looks for a student who will say, “ We line up before leaving class.”

Eventually, there is a list of rules, and it looks much like every classroom’s list of rules. It was “student-generated” though, so they will be committed to these rules, right?

Let’s take another example. At work, when we want to form a new partnership, we start by discussing: “What is our shared goal?”. We spend time considering how we can best reach the goal — and then jot a few agreements about how we’ll work together in this partnership. We pass this back and forth a few times and then, maybe we even sign it.

Does this feel different to you?

Rules are for compliance

I suspect we’re often confused about the difference between “rules” and “agreements,” and this confusion has a significant impact on our motivation.

Rules are imposed. They’re set for the purpose of compliance. Transgressions should be punished to maintain the power of the rule. Rules are “above people.” The locus of control is external, teaching us that we don’t have the power — so we’re pushed toward obedience rather than internal motivation.

Agreements are negotiated. They’re set for the purpose of collaboration. Transgressions should be discussed to learn. Agreements are “between people.” The locus of control is internal, teaching us that we have the power — so we’re pushed toward intrinsic motivation.

Why make agreements?

Let’s return to the question of the goal. Is this list in place so we can learn, individually and together? Or is it in place so we have order? Compliance? Safety or the perception of safety? The illusion of respect or real respect?

What happens when there is a transgression? Is that an opportunity to reinforce the rule and show it’s seriousness? Or is it an opportunity for learning?

What would happen in your office, classroom, or family if you replaced many of your rules with agreements? Probably it would take more time at the outset — would this investment pay off? What’s the emotional effect?

Bio: Joshua Freedman is a specialist on emotional intelligence, an author, and the COO of Six Seconds, a non-profit dedicated to EQ. This article first appeared on Six Seconds and has been published as a part of the #StartEmpathy series, an ongoing campaign by Ashoka for the Think it Up initiative.