Unwritten Rules



  • What are unwritten rules? (0:55)

  • A Christmas tree can be ripe with unwritten rules (3:35)

  • Forget the strategic plan; it’s about the salad dressing (9:25)

  • What wonders wait on the other side of our rules? (13:20)

  • Questions to guide an exploration of your own unwritten rules (15:10)

Unwritten Rules

Today, I’m going to talk about the unwritten rules, as I realize that I live by – and may be limited by – this set of unspoken rules that I’ve collected along the way.

What are Unwritten Rules?

They’re rules of our own making, rules that we’ve adopted that govern our decision-making and our behavior patterns.

These rules are so nuanced they’re barely noticeable to anyone else, but when they’re challenged, they cause us discomfort, bring up conflict within us, and make us wonder – and judge – why other people don’t follow the same set of nuanced rules that we do. These rules are more like the woven pathways, shortcuts you would take across an open field instead of following the main road.

They are similar to paths that I walk so many times that I could traverse them with my eyes shut, knowing each twist and each turn, each gully, each mound, every root that sticks up, or rock that I have to navigate around.

They’re paths that are unofficial, and they’re really only familiar to me or people who’ve become adapted to or grown up in the same territory that I have. Think of it as the turn you take when you’re walking somewhere with a visitor from out of town and, all of a sudden, you realize you’ve taken this unmarked turn – maybe through a gate or over a rock – and you say, “Come with me; this is a shortcut,” and the out-of-towner says, “Oh wow, I’d never notice this was here.”

To not take this pathway would feel really odd to me. Silly even. I mean, why wouldn’t someone always follow this same path now that I’ve introduced it to them? It’s only logical.

But the tricky piece is that every single one of us has our own logical pathways. These are the unwritten rules we were taught growing up or that we developed as we’ve lived our own lives. Most of the time, like turning onto a shortcut through a field, they’re so automatic that we don’t even notice we’ve taken them until someone says, “Huh. That’s not the way I do it. That’s not the path that I take.”

So, here’s an example…

Unwritten Rules at Home

My partner and I entered into our relationship later in life, after each living independently for a really long time. Our paths were well worn, and the first time they diverged was when we were decorating our inaugural shared holiday tree.

As she was busy elsewhere, gathering ornaments and bringing stuff into the living room, I automatically – and quite logically, in my opinion – draped the tree in all clear lights. Beautiful, pristine, clear lights, like icicles hanging on a tree you might come across in the quiet woods. Clear lights, like any sensible person would have. And when the tree was covered, and she was in the room, I plugged them in so we could bask in the glory of their gentle glow.

And when the lights came on, she looked at the tree in horror and said, “Where’s all the colors?! Wha— You’re not leaving it like that, are you?!”


I had been a Clear Light Girl for most of my adult life. I raised my two daughters to be committed and loyal to clear lights on Christmas trees. I’d been the master of my own Christmas tree for the past 30 years, so we’re talking about 30 years of clear lights without a single string of color to mess up my perfection.

We argued. We sulked. We each wondered, frankly, what the hell were we doing, two independent, strong women who’d lived lives of creating comfort and having things exactly the way we liked them, and now we had the audacity to think that we could merge those woven paths? Blend those unwritten rules?

The discomfort was difficult, and the ground underneath my feet? Well, it no longer felt that familiar or good. In the merging of two lives well-lived, the nuanced underwritten rules that I’d adopted were becoming more and more obvious to me, particularly in contrast to my partner’s unwritten rules.

I realized how tightly I clung to them, as if changing them or adapting them would mean I was lost, that I was losing, and maybe even unable to find my way back to self again.

There were big things that I changed so easily, like moving 500 miles to merge our lives. That part was easy-peasy, because making that move fed into what I value: adventure, exploration, curiosity, and – the biggest part of our relationship that I love – authentic connection.

But it was the small things, the patterns of behavior that I do almost without thinking about them, that threw me off balance. So much so that I was willing to fight for what I believed was right.

Things like: The best way to fold the bath towels. I automatically fold them into thirds and then fold them again before putting them away, while my partner folds them into quarters. And there’s giving the dishes a quick rinse before tossing them in the dishwasher versus washing them until they’re spotlessly clean and merely using the dishwasher as a sanitizer. Or our second biggest fight, when I quickly grabbed a metal binder clip from my office to close an opened bag of frozen peas and tossed the bag back into the freezer versus closing it with a fancy plastic clip made specifically for food storage.

These were the things we argued over, the things that made us shake our heads in disbelief that we had given up the comfort of our independence to merge with someone who didn’t take the same well-worn paths, who didn’t know the rules.

You know, I have the luxury of watching my grown daughters form their young lives with their partners and jointly create their own pathways and shortcuts. Their nuanced, unwritten rules bring them closer together and bring their young children comfort. Together, they’re creating their own ways of This Is How We Do Things.

Maybe Friday night is pizza night. Maybe their holiday tree stands in the same corner. Maybe they fold their towels a certain way. And when I considered that, I realized that building a culture – aka the way we do things – is much different than merging cultures.

This brings me to the conflicts and challenges in the organizations that I consult with…

Unwritten Rules at Work

When I work with organizations, the time-wasting drama and chaos that I’m faced with so often isn’t about the mission of the organization or the big goals of the company – it’s more often about the unwritten rules.

The varying beliefs around the right way to do things, the unspoken patterns and behaviors that each person believes are right, their well-worn paths that they believe all of us should be walking – everyone brings these beliefs to new jobs, new teams, and new projects.

Some of the disconnection I see created is when people look at each other in disbelief because the way the other person operates, the path they walk, seems illogical. So many times the companies that I work with want to talk about the big things, like missed due dates or budgets that aren’t met or strategic plans that aren’t followed through, but the dialogues around restroom norms or the culture in the lunchroom are not given attention – but they need it.

When I was an employee, I was at a company where we had this ongoing discussion – and I’m talking maybe over five years – around Are the condiments in the staff refrigerator for sharing or not? Are they private property or public property? If you bring in your favorite fancy mustard and stick it in that refrigerator, does that mean anyone can have access to it?

And then, without fail, after weeks of debate and decision-making on beliefs around what the norm is, someone brings in a precious bottle of organic Green Goddess salad dressing, puts it in the refrigerator, and then a new employee (or an employee who hasn’t been privy to all the discussion where we came up with the norm around sharing and not sharing), opens the refrigerator door and – to everyone’s horror – grabs the precious bottle and pours the sacred dressing on their salad.

And everyone in the lunchroom forms opinions.

We form opinions around how this person breaks the norm (or upholds the norm) even though they were not in the dialogue around what the norm is or means. We all sit there, holding judgment from our individual places of unspoken beliefs, unspoken behavior patterns, unspoken ways of doing, while this unsuspecting person is breaking all the norms, upsetting a culture. We look at them and think, How could one person be so illogical?

These are the kinds of things that cause the kind of conflict that gets in the way of an organization achieving its big-picture goals.

The World Outside Our Unwritten Rules

As I notice my unwritten rules, as they come out into the daylight and have a spotlight shown right on them through the contrast between what I believe is logical and what my partner believes is logical, I’m beginning to question if my unspoken and unwritten rules are holding me back or move me forward.

I’m wondering which rules really have meaning and which ones just help keep me … a little more comfortable.

I’m asking myself which of my rules, when I let them go, might give me more freedom, more fun, more understanding of the larger world, and maybe even a new pathway to take.

And when I dialogue about them with my partner instead of judging them, I get to understand how to honor her comfort zone and also honor mine. These conversations are necessary for our relationship to progress without the bumps and landmines of someone says, “I can’t believe you’re unloading the dishwasher so wrong!” or even worse, when one of us thinks it without saying it, and thereby moves to a place of anger and resentment, of questioning how we ended up here and what we’re willing to let go of.

Exploring Your Own Unwritten Rules

So I’m going to ask you: What are your unwritten rules, both at work and at home? Spend the next couple of days noticing them, and also questioning them.

Not sure what’s an unwritten rule? One way to identify them is when you see someone doing something, or you hear someone saying something, and you think, That’s not the way it’s done, or That’s not the way it should be done, or That’s illogical. Or you may feel discomfort in your body.

When that happens, ask yourself: What is my belief system around these rules? Is it comforting? Could it be shifted in the name of developing better relationships?

And then ask yourself how you might engage with others about these rules. Do you discuss them and share them? Do you shine some light on them? Or do you just laugh about how funny they are?

I frequently hear people say, “I love my work. I love the goals of the organization, but man, oh man, some of the staff here just drive me nuts, so I’m going to go and look for another job.” I also hear people say, “I don’t feel like I fit. I walk into the lunch room, and I don’t feel welcome. People here are so stuck in their ways.”

Over the next few days, notice when you judge how others do things and where you feel discomfort when your own traditions or routines get disrupted. When you hear yourself or someone else saying, “But that’s the way we’ve always done it,” take a breath and be open to noticing that if perhaps you make a shift or a change, you just might experience some freedom and joy while building stronger relationships.

About those Christmas lights: We decided to alternate them year to year – clear lights one year, then multicolored lights the next. This was my year; it was the clear light year. But you know what?

I secretly strung the tree with dozens of strings of multicolored lights, and I felt so excited as I waited to see her face when I plugged in the tree. And as soon as she saw the unexpected multicolor glow, she knew. But it wasn’t just that I gave up my path; It was that I loved the joy that got created.

Acknowledging and then letting go of unwritten rules can feel good. Give it a try. See what shifts for you.


P.S. If you’re interested in understanding more about how self-awareness, self-empowerment, and the way we communicate and dialogue can be life-changing for you and for those you work with and interact with, go to NavigatingChallengingDialogue.com and sign up for the Navigating Challenging Dialogue Skills Workshop. I can’t wait to spend more time with you!

CommunicationBeth Wonson