From ground rules to shared expectations

Facilitators can encourage groups to move beyond identifying bad behaviors and toward positive outcomes.

Too many meetings fail to be productive and motivating. Even well-planned meetings with clear agendas, objectives and outcomes can deteriorate if certain participants dominate the discussion, focus on past grievances or fail to stay on topic.

Effective meeting facilitators, then, help a group to agree to a set of acceptable behaviors, prior to getting down to business. In so doing, the facilitator can shift ownership of the process to the participants at the outset. This set of acceptable behaviors is commonly referred to as “ground rules.” Typical ground rules include:

  • No texting or emailing.
  • Address comments to the group, not the facilitator
  • Allow one person to speak at a time without interruption.
  • Maintain confidentiality.

In the book, Reaching for Higher Ground in Conflict Resolution: Tools for Powerful Groups and Communities, the authors Dukes, Piscolilsh and Stephens describe a slightly different approach that begins with a “covenant” of shared expectations. This covenant helps a group aim for higher ground, beyond the typical limited and prohibitive ground rules. These shared expectations should provide transparency on acceptable behaviors and attitudes during the session. Appropriate agreements should make participants feel safe in sharing and expressing their views. Some statements might include:

  • Discuss un-discussable issues.
  • Focus on interests, not positions.
  • Explain the reasoning and intent behind your statements, questions, and actions.
  • Balance advocacy with inquiry.
  • Jointly design next steps and ways to test disagreements.
  • Keep the discussion focused.
  • Make decisions by consensus.

Although prohibitive behavioral expectations may be included in shared expectations, higher ground expectations go beyond behaviors. They are principled, value-based and creative; they involve dialogue in the true sense of “sharing meaning” and they are concerned with the common good.

Next time you are charged with facilitating a meeting, challenge groups to think beyond what they don’t want to what they do want. Have an open, participatory discussion to generate and come to consensus about shared expectations. Display this list of working agreements or shared expectations during the session for all to see, to remind the group of their covenant. Taking the time to agree on these shared objectives is time well-spent.

The Michigan State University Extension Leadership and Community Engagement team offers professional development training, including volunteer board development, communicating through conflict, meeting management and facilitation skills development, and organizational strategic visioning and planning.

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