Use ground rules to help manage individual and group behavior during meetings and workshops. You can lead meetings and discussions without ground rules, but did you ever leave an unstructured meeting with a headache? The term “discussion” is rooted similarly to the terms “percussion” and “concussion.” A little bit of structure will ensure that you get more done, fast.

Primary Ground Rules

Consider a few, select ground rules for every meeting, regardless of your situation. We consider the following four ground rules so important we use them in every meeting or workshop.

Ground Rules Help Manage Meeting Behavior

Ground Rules Help Manage Meeting Behavior

  1. Be here now (ie, turn off electronic leashes)
  2. Consensus means “I can live with it” (and will support it inside and outside)
  3. Silence or absence implies consensus
  4. Make your thinking visible

1. Be Here Now

First and foremost, speaks to the removal of distractions and getting participants to focus. Typically demands that electronic leashes be reined in—i.e., phones on stun mode, laptops down, be punctual after breaks, pay attention. The hardest thing to do with a group of smart people is to get them to focus on the same issue at the same time.

Your job is to remove distractions so that they can focus.

2. Consensus means “I can live with it”

We are NOT defining consensus as everyone’s favorite or top choice. Nor are we suggesting that our decisions will make everyone ‘happy.’ We are facilitating to a standard that everyone can professionally support. Participants agree they will NOT try to undermine the results after the meeting ends. If so, they are guilty of displaying a lack of integrity. We strive to build agreement that is robust enough to be considered valid by everyone. No one should lose any sleep over the results. Remember however, it may not be their ‘favorite’ course of action.

3. Silence or absence implies consensus

This ground rule applies to structured, for-profit situations and NOT necessarily unstructured, political or social meetings. During our standard business meetings, participants have a duty to speak up. It remains the primary responsibility of the facilitator to protect all the meeting participants. It is NOT their job to reach down someone’s throat and pull it out of them. If participants have information to bear in a discussion, then it is their responsibility to share it. Participant involvement is their obligation, not simply their opportunity. Their silence speeds us up since we don’t have time to secure an audible from every participant on every point discussed in a meeting. Their silence indicates two positions that need to be stressed by the facilitator, namely:

  • They will support it, and
  • They will not lose any sleep over it.

If either is not true, shame on them—they are being paid to participate. If they cannot accept this responsibility, they should work somewhere else.

4. Make your thinking visible

People do not think causally. They think symptomatically. Two people eating from the same bowl of chili may argue over how “spicy” it is. Note, they seldom argue about verbs and nouns. Rather they argue about modifiers (eg, adjectives and adverbs). They subjectively argue about spiciness. To one, the chili is hot. To the other, it is not. They are both right. A great facilitator will get them to ‘objectify’ their discussion so that they both can agree that the chili is 1,400 Scoville Units. They don’t think Scoville Units however, they think ‘hot”. As facilitator you must challenge them to make their thinking visible.

Secondary Ground Rules

We refer to other ground rules as ‘situational’ in that you will vary their use depending on meeting type, participants, deliverable, and timing. Some of the secondary meeting ground rules we have found particularly effective are shown below. We don’t have space to discuss them all but our favorites, based on frequency of use, are italicized:

  • Be curious about different perspectives
  • Bring a problem, bring a solution
  • Challenge (or, test) assumptions
  • Chime in or chill out
  • Discuss undiscussable issues
  • Don’t beat a dead horse
  • Everyone has wisdom
  • Everyone will hear others and be heard
  • Focus on “WHAT” not “HOW”
  • Focus on interests, not positions
  • Hard on facts, soft on people
  • It’s not WHO is right; It’s WHAT is right
  • No “Yeah, but”—Make it “Yeah, AND…”
  • No big egos or war stories
  • Nobody is smarter than everybody
  • No praying underneath the table (ie, texting)
  • One conversation at a time (Share airtime)
  • Players win games, teams win championships
  • Share reasons behind questions and answers
  • (or,) Share all relevant information
  • Speak for easy listening—headline first, background later
  • Team is responsible for outcome
  • The whole is greater than the sum of the parts
  • Topless meetings (ie, phones on stun, no laptops)
  • We need everyone’s wisdom

Ideation Ground Rules

There is an entirely different set of ground rules that should be used during the Ideation step of the Brainstorming tool. While covered in detail in another newsletter, we are providing the list below for your convenience. With these or any of the above, do not hesitate to comment for additional explanations:

➢ No discussion

➢ Fast pacing, high-energy

➢ Accept the views of others

➢ All ideas allowed

➢ Be creative — experiment

➢ Build on the ideas of others

➢ Everyone participates

➢ No word-smithing

➢ Passion is good

➢ Stay focused on the topic

➢ Suspend judgment, evaluation, and criticism

➢ The step (or workshop) is informal

➢ When in doubt, leave it in

➢ 5-Minute Limit Rule (ie, ELMO doll — Enough, Let’s Move On)


Become Part of the SolutionImprove Your Facilitation and Methodology Skills

First of all, go to the Facilitation Training Store to access our in-house resources such as annotated agendas, break timers and templates used in our FAST Professional Leadership, Facilitation, and Methodology Training.

Furthermore, the FAST curriculum on Professional Facilitation Skills details the responsibilities and dynamics of an effective facilitator and methodologist. Remember, nobody is smarter than everybody, so consult your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual. Attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership-training workshop offered around the world. See MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn up to 40 SEUs from the Scrum Alliance, 40 PDUs from PMI, 40 CDUs from IIBA, or 3.2 CEUs).

Finally, don’t forget to order Change or Die if you’re working on a business process improvement project. Change or Die provides detailed workshop agendas. It also includes numerous tools to make your role easier and your team’s performance a lot more effective.

We are daring you to embrace the will, wisdom, and activities that amplify a facilitative leader.

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