Ground rules can be a powerful tool for improving the human dynamics in a session. Too often, they are relegated to the type of rules that we might remember from elementary, middle or high school. Those might include straightforward rules such as, “Respect the speaker.”

Over the years in running many sessions with challenging human dynamics, we have developed a set of ground rules that I refer to as “Provocative Ground Rules — Ground Rules with a Clear Purpose.” Below are some for your consideration:

Look Through the Windshield and Not the Rear-View Mirror

This rule is aimed at getting participants to look forward optimistically in order to avoid responses such as “we’ve tried that before and it won’t work”. It can be especially helpful when a facilitator is looking for the group’s input on the leading indicators of financial performance or change management vs. the results reported after actions are complete.

Related: The Art of Probing


Enough Let’s Move On. This rule enables participants to come to an agreement in order to avoid “beating a dead horse” on any discussion or issue. Any participant or meeting leader can call for an ELMO and a vote is taken immediately. If the majority agrees that a discussion is essentially completed or can be revisited later, the group moves on to the next topic.

You Can Come and You Can Go, But You Cannot Come and Go

The purpose of this rule is to discourage those participants who are frequently leaving and returning in a session. It also helps eliminate the unnecessary distraction caused by the behavior, which can contribute to lowered productivity.

Related: Five Ways to Stop Meetings Torturing Your Staff

Build Up or The Therefore Rule

This rule prevents participants from being critical of others’ recommendations or suggestions as they arise. Instead, they are asked to avoid criticizing and take the chance to build upon what is said to make it better. This causes people to focus on improvement rather than depreciation. Participants are asked to build on another’s recommendation/suggestion or to end a critical statement such as “that might not work” with “THEREFORE, I would recommend that we…”

Silence Means Consent or You Can Leave Silent but Not Unhappy

Meetings are primarily for making decisions and building action plans. This rule indicates that, if the group is discussing something and someone does not agree, they must speak up. If they do not, it is implied that they agree with the decisions or actions determined in that meeting.

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The Rule of “2” (could be 3, 4, etc.)

The goal of this rule is to reduce the potential for an individual/individuals to dominate participation in a session. After speaking, a participant must wait for 2 other participants to speak or 2 minutes pass, whichever comes last. This helps prevent the vocal minority from dominating the discussions and increases participation from others in the group.

Let’s Focus on the Doughnut and Not the Hole

This rule requires the participants to focus on what is available and what they can do rather than what they cannot do as a result of budget restrictions, people limitations, or other drawbacks. It is especially helpful with a group that has significant resource constraints.

Establishing Provocative Ground Rules – ground rules with a purpose – before beginning your meeting or session can have a powerful and lasting impact on the human dynamics of group interaction. Try using some of these (or create your own) at your next meeting and see for yourself!


Want to learn more about establishing ground rules for your meetings?