Strategies for Stopping Dysfunctional Behavior Before it Starts: Ground Rules with a Purpose

By Richard Smith, Certified Master Facilitator and Principal Facilitator with Leadership Strategies

We’ve all been in meetings before where things seemed to get out of control. It was hard to tell if anyone was really leading the session with so much “other” stuff going on in the meeting. So it’s important to do what we can, as facilitators, to make sure we keep things moving in a productive manner. Some simple and preventative steps can help you avoid many of the dysfunctions people are used to seeing.

When preparing for any facilitated session, one of the key areas to address is the identification of possible issues that might occur during the session. Once these issues have been identified, our best practices outline five strategies for conscious prevention of dysfunctional behavior. One of these five strategies is the use of ground rules.

As a part of the session opening, we recommend a review or development of the ground rules for the session and below are five sample ground rules we refer to as “Provocative Ground Rules: Ground Rules with a Purpose” that we would like to share with you.

Sample Ground Rule #1: Question First
This ground rule is to encourage the adage of “seek first to understand and then be understood.” It asks the participants to start with asking questions rather than challenging or disagreeing with another participant’s statement.

Sample Ground Rule #2: Take a Stand
This ground rule encourages people to give their opinions or recommendations when the time arises to make a decision as opposed to hearing an answer along the lines of, “Oh, I can support either of these alternatives.” This type of response is not helpful in moving the group towards making decisions.

Sample Ground Rule #3: You Can Leave the Session Silent but Not Unhappy
This ground rule is helpful in discouraging participants from waiting until after the session to express their concerns or lack of support for decisions. Facilitated sessions are about results and productivity. To achieve this impact we have to encourage participants that are not in support of an alternative or decision to speak up and share their concerns as a part of the session. I find a key benefit of a facilitated session is the open and honest sharing of the support as well as the concerns prior to adopting any decision during the session. It demonstrates how powerful the facilitated process can be in reaching creative and viable solutions.

Sample Ground Rule #4: ELMO
This ground rule is powerful in avoiding those discussions that can go on for too long during a session. It stands for “Enough Let’s Move On” and simply means that during a session, any participant can suggest to the group that a discussion has reached the point of ELMO. At that time, the facilitator checks with the entire group and, if more than half of the participants agree, the facilitator moves on to the next agenda item/discussion. The reason for the majority vote is to avoid the vocal minority from dominating the session.

Sample Ground Rule #5: The Rule of “x”
This ground rule is to prevent any participant from dominating a discussion and I find it helpful when the senior member of the group tends to voice his/her opinion and often influence the other participants. What it means is, once you have spoken during a session, you cannot speak again until “x” others have spoken or “x” minutes whichever comes last. (I typically use either 3 or 4 for my “x.”)

An Example:

During the preparation for a session that included over thirty senior executives, one of the common challenges many of the participants alerted me to was the tendency for the three most senior of the executives to dominate discussions. The comments included statements like, “These executives tended to shut down conversations by their responses,” or “As soon as a problem or potential solution was offered, these executives tended to offer their opinions about why the problem was unimportant or why a solution was not feasible.”

These participants recommended that we conduct a session without the three most senior executives present and then invite them a separate session to present the findings after the initial session. The senior executives were emphatic about their interest to hear the richness of the discussions and, as a recommendation I suggested we adopt “The rule of 4.” All three senior executives were in agreement about adopting that as a ground rule for the session.

During the kick off our session about two weeks later, when it was time to review the session ground rules I proposed the ground rule that once anyone in the session spoke, they could not speak again until four other participants spoke or four minutes, whichever came last. As soon as this ground rule was proposed, all eyes went to one of those senior executives to judge their reaction. Each told the other participants that they understood and would abide by that ground rule. The session was successful and enjoyed candid discussions throughout the two days as well as a solid list of issues with accompanying solutions for the most important issues.

Remember to deal with dysfunctional behavior — conscious prevention, early detection and clean resolution.

Interested in learning more facilitation techniques?  Check out our course, The Effective Facilitator.

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