We find that one of the key parts covered when starting a facilitated session is the establishment of ground rules. Often, participants in our classes ask, “Are ground rules a ‘nice to have’ or a ‘need to have’ in meetings?” Are they simply pedantic, or can they be effectively used in facilitated sessions?

There is a school of thought that ground rules are for elementary school – they are trite, and people would be better served to focus on more “important stuff.” At Leadership Strategies, we find that ground rules can serve a multitude of purposes both to run better meetings (wouldn’t that be a nice change?) or to run better facilitated sessions. So, let’s start with two key reasons for using ground rules and then offer what we refer to as “Provocative Ground Rules: Ground Rules to Address Key Issues.”

Why Ground Rules?

Provocative Ground Rules

1. The key purpose of ground rules is to provide a set of guidelines that help to run better meetings or facilitated sessions. They are meant to be self-governing.

What we mean by that is once the ground rules are established and the group agrees to the ground rules, the entire group – both the facilitator and the participants – share the responsibility for enforcing the ground rules. A specific example would be the inclusion of the following ground rule that has been agreed to by the participants:

“One Conversation”

This means that if you have a Whispering Willie in your session and Willie begins his conversation with his neighbor, any participant would be fulfilling their responsibility to the ground rules by courteously reminding Willie about that ground rule.

2. Another reason ground rules are needed is that they start a “consensus-focused process” (our tagline for Principle 7, Consensus Building, in The Effective Facilitator).

In addition to gaining agreement on the agenda during the session’s start, the establishment and adoption of ground rules is also one of the first opportunities for a group to gain consensus at the start. By getting everyone’s acceptance of the ground rules, the group is trained to build consensus (starting with relatively easy areas), which initiates the meeting on a positive track. When a controversial disagreement arises in your meeting or facilitated session, the group looks to you as the facilitator to guide them through a process to gain consensus. Ground rules help remind the group to return to consensus.

Provocative Ground Rules: Ground Rules to Address Key Issues

Last month, we provided resources around Preparing for Success (Principle 1 in the Leadership Strategies methodology). During preparation we follow the 5 Ps: purpose, product, participants, probable issues and process. When we identify those probable issues, often times as the facilitator we can address those probable issues by “taking them off the table” by the use of provocative ground rules. Below are three of our most popular provocative ground rules we recommend you try.

1. “Build up”

Ask participants not to be critical of recommendations or suggestions as they arise. We ask them to not criticize and to take the chance to onlybuild up on what is said to make it better.

2. “ELMO”

This means “Enough Let’s Move On.” Allow participants to take a check to avoid the “beating a dead horse to death” on any discussion/issue. If the majority agrees that a discussion is essentially completed, we move on.

3. “You can leave silent but not unhappy”

This centers on consensus and lets the participants know that if they do not agree, the time to speak up is in the meeting/session – not after in the hallway/cafeteria/office/water cooler/etc.

These are just a few ground rules that I have found very useful. They are thought provoking, and I often wait to see if any of the participants will ask me what they mean as I ask the participants to adopt the ground rules. (Remember, it’s important to first get consensus on the ground rules.) If you’d like other helpful, provocative ground rules, contact us. For those of you who would like to share some of your own, please leave a comment. Let’s hear it!