We all have our own preferred conversational rules of engagement. When things are going well, it’s easy to overlook someone violating what we consider to be conversational norms. But when conflict enters the picture, our Ghost Rules can contribute to tension and escalation.
The management group was gathered and ready to begin their day with me. It was a team of ten department heads who worked well together but occasionally experienced frustration when they disagreed strongly about a decision or situation. They’d asked me to help them figure out how to better navigate conversations that grew tense or became stuck.
We cleared some space in the room so that we could all stand in a line with me at one end. I explained that all of us carry certain “rules of engagement” into our conversations, and these rules influence how we interact and how we expect others to interact with us.
These rules are born in myriad ways: Some come from our families, while others from our educational and faith institutions, and still others from our communities, cultural values, and current or prior work settings.
Our conversational rules of engagement are a kind of scaffolding for our conversations, and they say a lot about how we wish to be treated and seen.
The problem isn’t that we have our own private rules of engagement. The problem is that they’re often unstated and so they’re invisible to others. They are Ghost Rules.
Not only do our individual Ghost Rules often fly under the radar, but they also sometimes chafe other people’s Ghost Rules. As a result, some conversations get tense for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the content of the conversation.
Ghost Rule examples
I told the management group that it can be illuminating for a team to uncover the Ghost Rules its members carry with them.
Standing at one end of the line, I said that I was going to state a conversational rule of engagement. The other end of the line would represent complete disagreement with my stated “rule.” After I stated the rule, I wanted everyone to arrange themselves along the line, as if it were a continuum. Those closest to me agreed with the conversational rule, while those closest to the other end disagreed with it.
I said, “It’s ok to interrupt when someone is speaking.”
Almost everyone moved quite far away from me, down toward the other end of the line. Two lingered mid-way. One woman stayed next to me.
I asked someone from the far end to say why they disagreed so much with my Ghost Rule. One person said, “Because it’s rude to interrupt people.” Several near her nodded in agreement. I asked someone mid-way to say why they were in the middle. One said, “Because while it can be rude to interrupt, some people just never shut up and you have to interrupt to get them to stop talking.” Then I asked the woman next to me why she had placed herself there. She said, “I have to interrupt others because otherwise, I don’t get a chance to speak.”
I asked someone to stand where I was and name one of their own Ghost Rules and we continued from there. Rarely did everyone place themselves in the same spot on the continuum. There were several instances where one cluster found itself on one end of the continuum, with another cluster down at the other end — the first cluster’s Ghost Rule was diametrically opposed to the other’s.
Ghost Rules like these resulted in people clustered all along the continuum:
- Conflict is a sign of an unhealthy team dynamic.
- You should never raise your voice.
- It’s better to set disagreement aside and come back to it later with a clearer head.
- Conversations about agenda items shouldn’t go off on tangents.
- If you’re higher on the org chart, your vote should matter more because the consequences are greater for you.
- People who don’t talk a lot should push themselves to step up more.
Illuminating Ghost Rules
Ghost Rules don’t influence conversation only at work. Couples and families can have a range of Ghost Rules that inadvertently create tension. When my husband and I began dating 30+ years ago, we discovered very quickly that his “no-interrupting” Ghost Rule and my “conversational overlapping is ok” Ghost Rule were going to chafe.
You don’t need the exercise I conducted with the management team to illuminate your team’s or your family’s Ghost Rules, though I find the movement and the continuum help suss out informative nuances.
Talking about Ghost Rules doesn’t just illuminate them. It acknowledges their existence and reminds us that under-the-radar dynamics influence our conversations all the time. And it helps family or team members detect and inquire about a potential Ghost Rule when they see one down the road.