Want better meetings? Use Ground Rules

This post is part of a series.  Click here to read the whole thing.

photo credit: djprybyl

If the thought of adding “rules” to your meetings makes you feel rebellious on general principle, you aren’t alone–especially if you define “rule” as a restriction used by the powerful to maintain control.

There is, however, another kind of rule.

Games have rules that that have nothing to do with power dynamics.  Game rules are about creating the environment in which the game is played.  Without rules, games would not be fun.  They might not even exist.  Rules define the objectives of games, they create an even playing field, and keep players on the same page.  Without rules, it would be almost impossible for new people to join a game–because there would be no way to teach them how to play.

Ground rules are like that.  They provide a way for a group to decide together how they want to work, how they want to be treated and what is expected (of participants and the facilitator).  They ensure everyone is on the same page, and focused on the same objective.  They are about making sure there is a way (for everyone) to win.

Like games, different meetings with different people require different rules.  Eventually you may create new ground rules of your own or adapt rules you see other places–but to begin it is useful to have a “starter set.”  The rules shared here are  used by Dayton Diode and are adapted from the set used by Laird Schwab in his work with co-housing communities.

If you’ve never used ground rules, these will get you started, but they are not the only set out there.  Roger Schwartz outlines 9 as part of his Skilled Facilitator work.  If your group is fairly advanced or you are dealing with highly contentious issues, I recommend his set over the ones outlined here.  Also, check the comments for ideas for other useful rules from your fellow readers.

Ground rules to get you started

Take care of yourself
Meeting participants have the right (and responsibility) to do what they need to be comfortable in the meeting.  If they need to step out for a moment,  they should feel free to do so; if they can’t hear the conversation, they should let the facilitator know.  This rule doesn’t give anyone the right to be rude; it simply states individual needs are important and participants have a responsibility to make their needs known.  This rule also means participants are only responsible  for themselves.  Everyone can and should express their own opinions– there is no need for anyone to speak for another.   As one of my meeting participants once put it, “Please don’t express opinions you don’t have”.

We are all on the same team
It is common (and beneficial) for meeting participants to approach issues from different perspectives, and to have (very) different ideas on how goals should be accomplished.  Getting all of those different ideas on the table is the reason to have meetings.  All that diversity can also lead to disagreements and since most of us have some baggage around conflict  this is the place where meetings can get uncomfortable.

This rule is not about avoiding the conflict (Oh, look we disagree–but we are on the same team so let’s just ignore it).  This rule is an invitation to  re-frame.  Traditionally, we assume conflict means one party wins and the other loses.  With this rule in place, conflict means working together to find a solution big enough to encompass both party’s requirements.

I’m not suggesting this is an easy task.  for more support in this endeavor read Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury.

If confused, ask
Many meeting problems aren’t caused by substantive conflicts, they are caused by misunderstandings.  The purpose of this rule is to remind participants to check out their assumptions early and often.  By following this rule groups ensure their energy is spent working in the areas where real conflict exists.  This rule is really a subset of “take care of yourself” but avoiding misunderstandings is important enough to state twice.

When in doubt (about process), the facilitator decides
The purpose of this rule is to focus as much group time as possible on the actual work.  It’s important for group members to decide together on the outcome of the items being discussed, but it’s (way) less useful to spend time deciding how to decide.  If the group is in agreement on how to proceed on a process issue it’s generally a good idea for the facilitator to move in that direction.   When there is confusion or disagreement,  it’s generally best for someone to pick a direction quickly.  That person should be the facilitator.

Love ground rules? Share your favorites and why you love them in the comments.

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7 thoughts on “Want better meetings? Use Ground Rules

  1. Speaking from experience, this set of rules is very effective for running a productive meeting. Our Dayton Diode group really appreciates the meeting flow caused by these basic operating ideas. My question though is about how to implement the last rule if your group does not have the benefit of a facilitator. Can a team of peers without an unbiased “third-party” or more commonly a team led by the boss implement a version of this rule without causing tension? Thanks!

    • The best thing to do is to assign the facilitator tasks to one of the participants. It’s not quite as good as a neutral 3rd party, but for routine meetings it works pretty well. Ideally, the facilitator role will rotate through the group so everyone learns to do it–this also helps keep the power balance in check.

      Later I’ll write a whole post on what good facilitation looks like, but for the meetings you describe it should be very informal. The “facilitator” can stay seated with the rest of the group and participate in the discussion–she will just also pay attention to the flow of the meeting, make sure what needs to be discussed gets discussed, offer summaries of what was decided to make sure everyone is on the same page, and when necessary, make decisions about process.

  2. These are really simple rules that anyone can conduct a meeting by and not feel overwhelmed or crushed by what’s okay to say, or what’s “right”. This should be recommended reading by all stuffed-shirt managers who see meetings as a chance to get up on their soap box and rant 🙂

    • Ha! Thanks for the great image Sherice! It is those mangers on those soap boxes that have given meetings such a bad name. I know it’s very fashionable to cry “death to meetings” these days–but that’s because most people have never experienced good ones. Good meetings are one of the few places where genuinely new ideas and solutions can be generated because everyone brings a piece of the puzzle. Until we perfect the Vulcan mind-meld, meetings are here to stay. It’s time we got good at them.

  3. I agree Maureen. Ground rules help a lot. I’m on a team that meets weekly and last year we had a long list of ground rules and accountability standards and the like.

    This January, we went on a retreat that helped us to get crystal clear about our personal values and where we connect through those. (Things like hope, freedom, truth, kindness, etc.) It deepened our connection and work together hugely.

    Now, we’ve thrown away all the old rules lists and our biggest single rule is:
    show up for everything already connected to your values.

    This seems to naturally connect us to each other and the work we’re doing together and everything you’ve written above just follows

    • I love your Uber rule Susan–and it also illustrates an important point. Ground rules can be very different for different groups–and may even be different for the same group over time. The important thing to remember is the rules serve the group and the process–if at any time a rule keeps a group from doing its best work, it’s time to reassess.

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