The Power of Using Upfront Agreements to Improve Personal Relationships
As we strive to navigate power inequities, an upfront agreement can level the playing field.
Many of us are doing our best to raise our social consciousness and be considerate of one another as our culture finds its way to a new normal. On almost every important subject, we’re working to create space for differences of opinion and finding a new middle ground (or not). Thanks to the pandemic, we’re doing much of this online or within our little bubbles, and we face communication constraints that have made navigating our differences even more difficult.
Social media is an outlet, but it’s difficult to know who and what to trust. And that’s just the beginning. By their very nature, social media platforms don’t foster conversation. They’re designed to encourage polarity, controversy, or trolling. Finally, they work to strip away our decency with manners, etiquette, and kindness rarely associated with Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and others.
For folks who rely on non-verbal communication, body language barely exists as we live behind masks and screens, never sure if what we’re seeing is what was intended. Let’s face it, in a pandemic world, everyday human communication is a minefield.
But there’s hope.
It’s time to slow down and re-establish a communication baseline.
If you’ve ever worked in sales, this concept won’t sound foreign to you. You’ve maybe just never thought about using it in non-sales settings. The Sandler System teaches a technique called the Upfront Contract. It’s almost so obvious; it hurts. The idea is, if you want to get a sale, you need to treat your lead as a partner, not a prospect. Before every meeting, you do these key things:
1. Set a date, location, and duration for the upcoming meeting.
2. Clarify the meeting’s purpose and anticipated next steps (this would include transactions that might need to happen).
3. Make sure all parties have a chance to weigh in on the meeting agenda.
4. Make sure all parties agree on the expected outcome (an agreement, a plan, etc.)
The idea is by creating this upfront agreement, you’re setting expectations and clarifying points of view before you come together. I believe the secret sauce is how it sets mutual intention. Establishing a mutual intention is essential for successful communication because, if it’s paired with trust, it eliminates misunderstandings and hidden agendas and generates an atmosphere of respect and goodwill.
How to adapt this model to simple, human interaction.
As a communicator and coach, I spend a lot of time helping people. Regardless of the situation, the root of the problem often comes down to the same fundamental elements: people coming together to work through a problem without first establishing common ground: in this case, an upfront contract. I’m not suggesting getting crazy here and going through all the steps for every interaction. The idea is to create a mutual intention for what you’re going to do together. As you raise your awareness, the good news is it will just naturally become part of your personal style.
For a family, this might mean slowing down a bit and agreeing, upfront, about what you want to do and why you’re going to do it. It’s like expectation setting on steroids. It creates space for all family members to weigh in on what needs to be accomplished. It’s also an opportunity for the leader to remind everyone that this is intended to be fun, interesting, or necessary and not to make everyone crazy. By simply agreeing upfront on the intended outcome, it cultivates buy-in. Ideally, everyone will try to achieve the outcome, shifting the energy from “me” to “us.”
Too often, adults impose their will on everyone else, immediately undermining any chance of shared success. The upfront agreement invites those with less power — usually the kids — to chime in and remind you they still need a new bike tire or want to see their friends. You can deal with those objections in any way you see fit, but addressing their needs is both calming and validating. They feel heard, you’ve negotiated how to address their concerns, and ideally, what comes next is much more pleasant and harmonious.
In more complex communication settings, upfront agreements can address power inequities.
As a female executive, I can’t tell you how often I’d say something in a meeting and then see my idea mean nothing until a man restated it as his. It’s called hepeating, and if you’re the woman in this scenario, it sucks. It also trains the less powerful person (me) to shut up. Imagine a meeting where we agree upfront that the person who has the idea owns the idea. That means everyone agrees to be aware of the communication process that previously shut down the person with less power. It’s a simplistic example, but you get the idea. It creates space.
I could talk forever about the value of equality and how that would help us all deliver better results, but that’s a topic for another day. Right now, let’s just focus on awareness and creating an upfront agreement. If we agree to modify an agenda based on team feedback, we may discover roadblocks that keep getting overlooked. If we start a meeting agreeing that everyone is encouraged to share their concerns, that gives the team permission to speak. If we agree on who is the decision-maker, that helps the team know who’s going to make the final decision. It sounds so obvious, but we’ve learned to move so fast, we no longer take the time to set the stage for success.
Listening doesn’t mean agreeing. But asking “what’s your idea” is key to discovery.
The idea is, setting an upfront agreement is a powerful way to create safer spaces for communication, to build trust, to learn from one another. If we want to manifest change and collaborate more effectively, we need to respect each other’s perspectives. You don’t have to agree, but inclusion allows voices to be heard. As this becomes practice, the shift will help the team emerge with new ideas, fresh solutions, and different outcomes. The key is establishing mutual intention upfront.
I encourage you to invite everyone to help set the stage for communication and have input on the potential outcomes — from your family to your friends to work and beyond. We can actively manage power differentials without sacrificing efficiency. In fact, by being inclusive, collaborative, and patient, I believe we have the power to change our relationships, our culture, and our future.