I recently attended a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in which the group secretary criticised group members for “too much cross-sharing.” She was referring to group members’ sharing supportively towards a member of the group who’d recently experienced a relapse and was clearly feeling distressed and ashamed of themselves. The sharing was coming from a place of compassion and identification with the person’s suffering and was positive and very supportive in nature.
I was one of the group members who shared for the individual who’d relapsed as I have significant experience in this area having done so myself on numerous occasions in the past. I have experienced great shame and remorse in relation to drinking again after periods of sobriety in AA. Consequently, I feel it’s really important to share in a compassionate manner towards those who’ve experienced relapse and the associated feelings that tend to accompany it. I found encouragement and support from others within the group at times of relapse vitally important in helping me to re-engage with my recovery. Acceptance from others helped to combat my shame, which would often tell me that people were judging me. Being shown a non-judgemental attitude helped to dispel my shame’s lies.
In the meeting concerned people did refer to the individual by name as many of them knew her personally. They commented positively about her character and her progress in general, as well as sharing their own relevant individual experience. Some general suggestions were offered in relation to reconnecting with recovery, based upon collective and learned experience in relation to the phenomenon of relapse.
I see no harm in the above support offered by the group and believe it to be in accordance with AA traditions and the inherent principles they contain. The sharing was in the spirit of unity (tradition one), supporting each other, while allowing individual freedom of expression. There is no enforced censorship within AA. There was no criticism or judgement expressed and no direct advice telling the individual what “they should do.” Only supportive suggestions (mainly indirectly) based upon personal and collective experience were “offered.” At that particular group there is no group conscience decision (tradition two) or statement read out in relation to crosstalk, other than not “interrupting while members are sharing.” No one in the meeting was interrupted. The group can decide its own format in accordance with tradition four. It can allow crosstalk if that’s what the members of the group decide. The group was certainly trying to “carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers”, in relation to tradition five. I also think that the shares were coming from a place of “love and service” with members trying to “practise these principles in all our affairs”. (Step Twelve)
I think that the following opinion taken from a General Service Office (GSO) newsletter offers a balanced view on the issue of crosstalk in AA meetings:
Keeping Crosstalk at Bay
“A.A. has often been referred to as a “benign anarchy” — a world in which autonomy from group to group can seem like an invitation to chaos. Yet, unruly as some groups appear, when guided by the need for unity that underlies all A.A. activity and shaped by the recognition that the Fellowship is built on the connection that happens when one alcoholic shares his or her experience with another, a kind of order takes hold of almost every A.A. meeting.
As Bill W. notes in the introduction to the long form of the Traditions in the Big Book, “We alcoholics see that we must work together and hang together, else most of us will finally die alone.” One thing many groups have discovered that can test that unity within meetings, however, is crosstalk — sharing that is often considered intrusive and generally disruptive.
Crosstalk can mean different things to different people. Some groups define any comments, negative or positive, about another person’s sharing beyond “Thank you for your share” as crosstalk or interference. Some outline crosstalk as engaging directly in conversation with another alcoholic during the meeting or providing commentary or feedback on what another has shared.
The Washington Heights Group in Upper Manhattan has a statement, born of the group conscience, which is read at every Thursday evening meeting: “Feedback and crosstalk are discouraged here. Crosstalk is giving advice to others who have already shared, speaking directly to another person rather than to the group and questioning or interrupting the person speaking at the time. If cross-talk occurs, the chair will remind you of this policy.”
Of course, there can be a fine line between sharing and intrusion, as many groups have discovered, and what works in one location may not work in another. The main thing most groups can agree on, however, is that all sharing needs to be non-judgmental. “From the very beginning, one drunk talking to another has made the A.A. program go round,” says Anne T., of Rome, New York. “When someone shares in response to something I’ve said, that’s okay, but only so long as there’s not even a hint of censure, belittlement, scolding or preaching, all under the guise of sharing. Knowing there’s no risk of judgment makes me feel safe.” J. P., of Spokane, Washington, has also found that crosstalk of a giving nature is “sort of a language of the heart. It occurs with familiarity and can be very helpful. If members know one another well, as they tend to in small groups, they feel comfortable about saying, ‘I’d like to add something to what Jane said….’ To me the key is comfort and the hope that sharing one’s experience in recovery will help another alcoholic to stay sober and face life’s challenges with greater ease.”
Noting of crosstalk that “until the 1990s the word wasn’t even in A.A. vocabulary,” Susan U. of the 79th Street Workshop in New York City cautions against setting up too many rules and regulations in response to what — and how — people share in meetings: “There are no rules in A.A., just customs and the conscience of each autonomous group, and experience shows that for most groups attempts to control don’t work very well. On the other hand, the non-judgmental sharing we receive at meetings in response to something we have said can be beneficial to our recovery. It’s how we learn to live sober, productive lives, and that’s what sharing our experience and strength is about.”
In general, then, when it comes to crosstalk, giving advice or disruptive sharing in meetings, keeping the focus on A.A. unity — and on our own personal experiences as they may be helpful to another recovering alcoholic — can provide a useful guideline to keep group sharing on track and resentments from creeping in. As many groups have found, however, from time to time it may require a loving reminder from the group’s chair.”
Box 456, Vol.63, No 1 / Spring 2017
I would like to end this post with some wise words from a long-term member of the AA fellowship. They remind us that there are no rules externally imposed upon AA groups, or members, in relation to what can be read out or how we communicate in meetings.
What can be read or said at an AA meeting?
“The answer quite simply is anything the group agrees upon. There is no “recommended” list, no “banned” list and no rules what so ever about what is read or said at AA meetings. What guides each group and each member is our Twelve Traditions. Clearly traditions are not rules and there is no compliance-enforcement division in AA.
We often hear “That’s not Conference Approved,” or “That’s an outside issue,” [or “No crosstalk please”], from someone who’s trying to steer the meeting in their perceived rightful path. These statements are at best, half-truths. AA doesn’t approve what’s read in a meeting, the group does. AA doesn’t set rules in what can be talked about in a meeting, or cross talk or what the ritualistic readings are; the group sets these rules.”