Group signals one of the rules of belonging

The Rules of Belonging

How to relate well with others in groups and activities

So, how long since you were in some sort of group situation, frustrated because one person tried to insert themselves into everything? Did it make you as crazy as it makes me? Well, it’s no wonder, because – even if you didn’t ‘know’ it, that person was breaking the rules of belonging.

Many of us, because we rarely think about it, assume all relationships have one purpose. But there are actually two different ways to interact with other people. Both of them are important for our self-esteem. If you don’t understand the differences, you can easily find your wrong actions and expectations making life challenging for you.

At both Head.Set.Go! and here, we label these two types of relationships significance and belonging. Significance bonds are tight, and they value each person as individuals, just because! We’d traditionally label them love relationships, and much of the time one or other of the people are the focus of the attention and affirmation.

Belonging relationships tend to be looser, and most of the time the focus isn’t on an individual for the sake of it. It’s on the activity you’re doing together, with any personal attention related to whatever’s going on. Belonging groups are supposed to be about the ‘we’ and not have a ‘me’ focus. That’s why we get frustrated when people sometimes try forcing it to be otherwise.

Examples of Belonging

To make this a bit clearer, here’s some common times where our interactions should fit the belonging category:

  • At work or school – where the focus is on learning or making money for your employer (or, it’s s’posed to be!)
  • In a sports/hobby group – where it’s about your game or interest, and getting better at that
  • At a party, where we want to have a good time
  • At a gathering centred round beliefs (whether a faith meeting or a pro-something rally) – where it’s about the thing you believe in

Mostly, when multiple people gather together it ends up being a belonging way of relating, even when you’re with people you consider significant in your life. (I’ll cover that a bit more later.) So, a Christmas party or going to the beach with friends are belonging events, as is a team meeting and a school concert.

How to win at belonging

We all have this need to belong in something bigger than ourselves. It builds our self-esteem and helps us accept ourselves when we belong in groups. We like to believe we fit in well with others. BUT… we meet our need to belong differently from the way we solve significance needs. In relationships of significance, you receive personal attention in a way you personally like and appreciate, and then you give it back. 

That’s not how it works once you’re in a belonging context. As I said, with belonging it’s not about you. It’s about us. That means operating differently. If you want to win at belonging, contribute to the group. Offer or do something they value. Meet your need to belong by giving towards the purpose of the get together.

As you contribute in a way that benefits everyone, others should recognise this and express their appreciation. Maybe they’ll say how they like you being round, or they love what you put in. That’ll make you feel good.

And the greater your input, the more that should happen.

Belonging rule breakers

You might think it’s self-evident that when you’re in a group environment it’s not about any individual. Nobody at a concert would be happy with some random crazy taking over the stage and announcing, “I need Pete to give me attention.” Yet versions of this happen all the time, especially in a world where people think they’re the most important part of it!

What about the person in a meeting who won’t let go of their agenda, even when no one else agrees? The one who corners you at a gathering then dominates the conversation (which is all about themselves)? Or the kid/adult in your sports team who acts out, always challenges the coach and whinges about training? The rules of belonging can be broken in passive and aggressive ways, with subtle and overt moves.

Sometimes it happens because the person’s bored. So they disrupt, make a scene and get some attention. That’s still breaking the rules, because they assume their individual boredom’s more important than the original group purpose. Group consensus didn’t change the agenda. They did.

Anytime someone attempts to disrupt the purpose of the group with their own agenda, they’re breaking unwritten ‘healthy group’ rules.

Leadership issues

Group members aren’t the only ones guilty of messing groups up. Leaders have a long history of doing it too. 

All groups have hierarchies, and the larger the group the more leadership we need. By default, leaders do more work and take more responsibility for whatever happens, whether a CEO, coach or event organiser. So they should get more of the attention. But sometimes, they forget the purpose of the group and start making it all about themselves.

I’ve known more than my share of leaders who demand personal power and status at the cost of the ‘we’ – whatever it started off being. It’s usually the beginning of a disaster. People join a group for what it offers them, not what it gets the leader.

Dealing with those who’re messing it up

If you’re embedded in a group where the ego of your leader’s taken over, you can try reasoning, a coup, or walking away. They’re really your only options. What you do will depend on your available time, energy and probably your personality and values.

Group disrupters can sometimes be steered back with a reminder of what you’re there for – “Hey guys, I thought this was a study group. Can we get back to our assignment?” – but the person involved may not be happy. After all, the extra attention was probably working for them! It helps to use humor and kindness where you can. Most people haven’t thought about these rules of belonging and can be completely unaware of what they’re ruining.

Finally, if it’s you who’s being the nuisance, find better times and places to get individual attention just for the sake of it! Concentrate on making whatever you’re doing together the best version it can be instead. Follow the rules of belonging for your benefit (people will treat you better), as well as everyone else’s.

Affirmation; the feel good button in belonging

Although we meet our need to belong by being involved, we should also express appreciation for others doing the same. Recognising input is part of what makes groups and belonging work – it’s like the feel good button. To do that well, focus on what people did or contributed. The more involved they were, the greater appreciation should be expressed.

It’s not always easy to do this well, so here’s a hint. All praise should be specific and spoken as close as possible to the action. “You’re fantastic!” is mere flattery, and can give people big heads for no reason. Avoid it. Remember, belonging is about doing, so express your appreciation by focusing on the contribution made by the person you’re speaking to. Here’s the type of thing I mean:

“You put in useful feedback today.”

“Thanks for leading us through that meeting.”

“I loved that story you told about ___, it really helped me ___.”

The significance-belonging crossover

There’s times you’ll do stuff with people who’re significant to you. On those occasions – whether there’s just two of you or there’s more – it’s important to understand that you’re dropping back into a belonging world. Therefore, you should also drop back to following the rules of belonging.

For example, say one of your kids has just finished school and you want to go out to celebrate. (This happened with us recently – you might have seen the pics on social media!)  You could assume that’s all and only about the person finishing – and to be sure, she did get a fair bit of attention! But there was also much general celebration and laughter, alongside thanking one another for the contributions we’d all made towards her successful schooling. That’s an example of belonging, working within significant relationships.

My point? If you’re off to a celebration or even to watch a footy game together, it’s not the time to start insisting everyone watches you. Go have some fun together instead!

Breaking into a group

Let’s face it, friends are important, as we talked about recently. When you’re trying to work your way into a group, these concepts will really matter. Even though you don’t especially like some of the activities on offer, make sure you join in anyway. People are going to like the fact you do something with them before they start to like you for yourself. Remember, it’s about ‘us’!

If you try to force the focus to what you like and what you want, you’re likely to be cut out and left on the fringe. Make a point to be interested in the main action and affirm the key players instead. It’ll draw you in much more quickly!

Let’s wind this up!

Although we probably don’t like the idea of rules per se, they do help us function well in life. They create boundaries which keep us safe and help make life fair. Today’s ‘rules of belonging’ are just the same. If we want to thrive, to enjoy positive mental health and rich, rewarding relationships, we’ll be wise to be mindful of them as we interact with people this week.

When are you in belonging situations? Have you been keeping within the lines? How can we live better with this extended understanding over the next seven or so days?

Thanks for reading this. I hope you have a good week.




The Art of Belonging is a relational skill we all have to learn