Establishing Ground Rules for a Meeting

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It has become customary to establish ground rules for conduct during a facilitated meeting.  I like to think of these as the contract between the facilitator and the group.  If I am the facilitator, you tell me how you’d like yourself and the other participants to behave, and I hold you all to that standard.  Typically, each person is asked to identify something they’d like to see and we usually write them on a flip chart and post them somewhere.  One can expect items about participation, confidentiality, side conversations and nowadays, about attention to phones during the meeting.

But if given a bit more attention, establishing ground rules can be an opportunity to do much more.  If you, as the facilitator, have interviewed the members of the group and can see the potential for unproductive conflict, you can frame questions as part of the ground rule conversation.  For example, “During my interviews, I discovered that there is a real difference of opinion about item x.  I don’t believe that has any bearing on today’s conversation but it’s bound to come up.  If so, how would you like to handle it?”  The resulting ground rule can then be used to keep the meeting on track.

If I haven’t interviewed the participants in advance, I find I get a richer conversation about ground rules by asking each person to think of the worst meeting they’ve ever attended and to write down the thing that made the meeting so terrible.  We can then discuss what behaviours are needed to avoid that.  The interesting thing about doing it this way is that we can discover when people have different expectations and desires about how conversations will unfold.  For example, one person might report a meeting where the conversation went on too long and want a ground rule about limits on discussion.  Another person might talk about how conversations were cut short and wants room to fully discuss ideas.  Reaching agreement on ground rules that manage both of these expectations will lead to a much more satisfying experience for both participants.

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