Norming: finding/defining our own ways

Norming is a group's third and final preparatory task, the last threshold any group must pass before it can begin to work towards its chosen goals.

This threshold is a formidable one for Pagans, because "norms" are a lot like "rules.Ē We like to think of ourselves as spontaneous, irrepressible, free spirits. When we gather into groups, we yield some of that cherished autonomy.

In the professional literature on groupwork, the word "norm" is used to mean group members' mutual expectations, guidelines about how to behave and a way of predicting the behavior of others. Every human group has norms; like power relationships, they are inevitable. Like power relationships, they are also often covert. Like power relationships, they can support or impede our work. But no group can survive or function without norms.

 Norms definitely include ethics, but they go far beyond that. There's no particular ethical reason to drive on one side of the road or the other. The choice is completely arbitrary. But if we don't all drive on the same side, harmful collisions will happen. Some group norms are as arbitrary, and as necessary, as that.

Some norms are implicit, silent, perhaps even unconscious. Norms can grow organically from the group's experience without ever being explicitly stated. But implicit norms may also spring from old family habits and cultural assumptions, useless and often obstructive.

Implicit norms are also difficult for newcomers, who can only hope to learn them by observation. Too often, people discover implicit norms by transgressing  -- which can be embarrassing. This keeps long-standing members in a constant "one up" position, not healthy for them or for the newcomers.

Other norms are explicit, consciously chosen, openly known to all. Some are compiled in written documents and given to seekers and newcomers.  


Sources for group norms

As a group in formation develops their starter set of norms, they can draw from many sources. Here are some:

  • our upbringing and cultural background: We all have some idea of what is polite behavior, appropriate grooming, and so forth. In simpler times, this was a pretty good starting point. Today, as we try to work with people from diverse cultural backgrounds, hidden assumptions from the dominant culture can act like booby-traps. We need to be perceptive, sensitive and flexible about our manners, even as we hold to our values and ethics.

      More important: Pagan groups are places for willed magical and spiritual self-transformation. We are here in large part because we were not satisfied with the values and customs of conventional society. So, letting unquestioned cultural programming shape our group norms seems contradictory.

  • the outcomes of prior internal conflicts: During the storming phase, there may have been barely acknowledged struggles for control of what gets done and how. These struggles shape what we do and how we do it. Covert norms, like covert leadership, are profoundly disempowering to the group.

  • precedent: Lineage based groups inherit a written and oral tradition. Self-generated groups may develop documents and anecdotes of their own, which are presented to later-joining members. These explicitly stated norms are at least clear and fair. At best, they embody what our predecessors learned from their own experiences and wise reflections.

However, they may also be excessively limiting. Precedent should be thoughtfully considered, but not enshrined as dogma. In a healthy, living tradition, every generation learns, grows and contributes, so group norms are constantly adapted to changes in the group, the community, and the world.

  • experience: As groups go on, they encounter, and resolve various problems and situations. Our memories of what worked, or did not work, before will guide us when similar situations arise in the future.

  • the group leader: In my discussion of the storming phase, I described the multiple sources of a leader's authority and power. Influence over what gets done and how it gets done obviously includes influence over the development of group norms. Since this power cannot be avoided, it's best to use it consciously and responsibly.

In new groups, where the members are relative strangers, the coven leader's influence is naturally multiplied during the early days. The group gathered around the leaderís original vision. While the others are still engaged in forming and storming, the leader may be distributing handouts or offering classes on ethics and etiquette. Far more important, however, is quietly demonstrating appropriate behavior. Leaders are role models; what they do, especially in this formative period, will set the tone for a long time to come.

  • inspirations and brainstorms: Occasionally someone gets a flash of insight. This may come in a dream or during a formal divination session, or at any other time. It may come to the group leader or to any member. Much of our work, after all, is preparing ourselves to receive such gifts. Like precedent (or like the information on web sites like this, for that matter) such information should be respectfully considered, but not automatically followed. None of us is a perfect channel. Instead, we are collectively responsible for interpreting, weighing and integrating inspirational information just as we do information from any other source.

Types of group norms

Just as they arise from a variety of sources, group norms apply to several different facets of group life. Here are some types of norms:

< procedural norms define how things are done in a group. This ranges from administrivia to core ethics. Are guests welcome, and under what circumstances? How do we manage the group's expenses? What should a member who has to miss a meeting do? How do we make decisions and resolve conflicts? What are our standards of confidentiality? Do we sit on the floor or in chairs? Does our cup hold fruit juice or wine? Do we want to admit new members after the group is underway? Do we use recorded music in rituals?

< communication norms are about both the style and the content of our interactions. Communication style is an important part of identifying where we are. One local coven, for example, uses only highly stylized, formal language during their rituals. To make this possible, they thoroughly discuss whatever work they intend to do in a pre-ritual briefing. They also hold their classes outside of Circle to encourage questions and discussion. In Proteus, in contrast, we discuss coven business and do all teaching within Circle. We use ordinary language for such discussions. That means that, for us, language style is not an indicator of whether we're in sacred space/time. Neither of these approaches is right or wrong, and a member of either group can easily adapt when visiting the other.

Content is even more important. Any group will have norms governing appropriate levels of self-disclosure under different circumstances. Consider, at a business meeting, when somebody asks "how are you?" in greeting, whether they really want to know your diagnosis. Unusual amounts of self-disclosure are necessary for growth groups, and this in turn requires correspondingly high concern for confidentiality.

Deviation from group expectations concerning self-disclosure is far more disconcerting than stylistic difference. Once, years ago, at a Hunter's Moon ritual, we were each asked to tell about a time that we experienced ourselves as either Hunter or Prey. All but one of us did. That person, a guest, recited a poem about the hunt instead. The poem was beautiful and beautifully recited, but still not her own. By acting as a performer rather than a participant, that person shattered the trusting atmosphere for all present, deadening the remainder of the rite.

< achievement norms encode a groupís understanding of what success means. This will vary, depending on their chosen goals. For a training group, the requirements for Initiation and Elevations are achievement norms. For a group that has undertaken to publish a magazine, it might be meeting deadlines and adhering to production quality standards.


Some typical norming questions: 

1.  Learning/teaching style: do you use a highly structured curriculum, laid out by the teacher or derived from their tradition or lineage, or are you self-directed learners? Is your teaching style directive or student-centered? If you have a structured curriculum, what does it cover?

2.  Ritual style: does your worship tend to be relatively more shamanic or ceremonial? Do you work from an inherited script or create your own? If you use scripts, are people expected to memorise or read? Or do you work extemporaneously? Also, do you tend to stay within a particular ethnic pantheon?

3. What is your group's decision making style: authoritarian, democratic, or consensus-based?

4. What kinds of demands do you make of your members or students? How often do you meet, and for how long? How much "homework" do you require of your students? In your group, do members typically spend a lot of "extracurricular" time together?

5. Does your group has a group project or task? If you do, how are tasks assigned and coordinated? How time-consuming is this work?

6. Is your group single-gender or mixed gender? Do you work robed, street-clad, or skyclad?


Pagan groups nurture members' growth. As people change, their relationships necessarily change. So it's not at all surprising that our basic operating procedures, our norms, will also evolve. Neither is it surprising that, as our insight deepens with growth, we might come to understand how some of our initial, implicit norms are working against our goals. To keep the groups vibrant and creative, we have the right and responsibility to clarify, adapt or outright change our norms

You can go forward to Performing

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by Judy Harrow, HPs, Proteus Coven
© 2006, by Judy Harrow

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