The Greatness of Ground Rules

Ground Rules might seem infantile, like rules for a kindergarten class: “Be nice to others.” However, they are essential to effective meetings because they are agreements on how we want to treat one another. They remind us of how, in the best of all possible meetings, we want to behave and get things done.

They are important because each of us comes to interactions with unconscious expectations about how other people should behave. Here are a few of mine: don’t interrupt, listen and make eye contact, and talk about what is important to you. However, not everyone has the same expectations. Some of us grew up in families or cultures, work in organizations, or live in communities where interrupting, minimal listening and eye contact, and speaking impersonally are the norm.

We don’t like it when people behave in ways that violate our expectations. We get anxious, angry, or check out. The key to preventing such unnecessary upset is to make the expectations we have of one another explicit in a set of agreed-upon ground rules. Sometimes these are called conversation guidelines or rules of engagement.

When we agree on how we want people to conduct themselves in a meeting, it helps us feel safe and encourages us to bring our ideas and perspectives to the table and to participate with confidence.

The image above includes some tried and true ground rules. They are:

  • Listen to understand, first
  • Let people finish their thoughts (i.e., do not interrupt)
  • Be pithy, succinct. Share the air time
  • Encourage everyone to participate
  • Stay on topic and on time
  • Turn off or mute all electronic devices
  • Start and end meetings on time

Building agreement on ground rules at the start of any meeting you anticipate might be contentious can be a ground-breaking first step. It primes people to believe they will be able to find common ground and avoid the dysfunctional behaviors that can derail interactions. The higher the stakes are for people in a meeting, the more critical it is to start the meeting by building agreement on ground rules.

You can propose ground rules and ask the group to add to them or to generate the list themselves by asking questions such as these:

  • “What would help you achieve the purpose and outcomes of this meeting?”
  • “What guidelines or ground rules would help you live out your highest hopes for the meeting?”
  • “What agreements would help you work together effectively during this meeting?”

Record people’s ideas on a flip chart in front of the room, check for questions of clarification and then build agreement on them: “Are we/you all willing to follow these ground rules?” Do not allow silence to mean consent. Ask for an outward sign of agreement: a head nod or a verbal yes.

One of the suggestions that people frequently make is “Respect one another.” I don’t let this stand as is. I ask, “What would I be doing if I were respecting you?” There is usually some behavior people have in mind when they say this. Add the specific behavior to the list so people know what this person means by “respect” and what they are agreeing to do.

To keep them alive and fresh, post them in the meeting room. Go over them at the start of every meeting, even if it is just pointing to them and asking, “Do we commit to continue to follow these ground rules?” During the meeting, remind people about them: “We seem to be violating our ground rules by not staying on topic and on time. Should we modify the ground rules?” At the end of the meeting ask, “How well did we follow our ground rules?”

Regardless of whether you are the leader, facilitator or participant you can help a group develop, build agreement on, and follow ground rules. They can be a great contribution to creating an effective meeting.

Thanks to Heather Equinoss for the illustration.

7 thoughts on “The Greatness of Ground Rules”

  1. At a recent training with a group of men who had just come through the correctional system, we started talking about ground rules and how we all would like to be treated. One fellow piped up, “I don’t want to be tasered.” It got a good laugh, but also showed how there can be very different expectations for group gathers!

    • Interesting and surprising! Thank you for this added perspective. Ground rules need to fit the setting!

  2. In recent years, I have found a lot of resistance to identifying, writing down ground rules at the start of a group and to referring to them at each meeting. The word you used was “infantile”, that people seem them as such. I’ve had difficulting getting around their arguments which seem to center around assumptions that we are all here with good will, we are civilized and we all know what that means. Sometimes I’ve been able to get a group to “get it”, other times, not. I also have a sense that people who’ve done them before think there’s nothing new and they already know the list.

  3. I forgot one thing. Where I see this resistance to ground rules the most is when I am working with people who like to think all process is “organic”, which it is in a way, so they don’t like defining it “too much” because things are just going to happen as they supposed to naturally.

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