Facilitation Friday #10: Establish Rules of Engagement

In order for us to do anything with each other, we first have to understand how we want to be with each other.  Having stated and understood rules of engagement, shared agreements for participation, helps create a safer climate for individual participation.  Defining norms for a conversation, community, or organization helps people understand "this is who we are and how we will do things here."  As Margaret Wheatley has said, “To create learning organizations, we must understand the underlying agreements we have made about how we will be together.”

Be prepared that for some, engaging in this preparatory work (particularly the language of being with) triggers visions of repeated group hugs culminating in a rousing chorus of Kumbajah. This is an excellent example of why it is important to understand how to manage challenge and support

Rules of engagement operate best when a group itself generates them, as well as identifying how they are to be applied and when and how the group's alignment with them should be evaluated. Because some individuals will see no need for the exercise, I generally begin with a very brief discussion of the following question: When you've been part of a group that really produced some amazing results, what helped make that possible?  Inevitably, individuals will suggest a clarity of roles and responsibilities, shared goals or direction, and an understanding of how to work with each other.  

These responses then make it easier to answer the next question: Given the work that we are to do with each other, what are some of the agreements or ground rules we should make to guide our efforts?  I believe the initial preface is important because it acknowledges that the norms are to help produce the work.  Different work often requires different norms In addition, making the connection between the norms and the work can help calm those who might see this as some touch-feely exercise.  Here are some sample agreements from one of my favorite facilitation resources, The Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making:
  • People draw each other out with supportive questions,
    “Is this what you mean?” 
  • Each member makes the effort to pay attention to the person speaking.
  • People give each other room to think and get their thoughts all the way out.
  • Opposing viewpoints are allowed to coexist in the room.
  • Each member speaks up on matters of controversy. Everyone knows where everyone stands.
  • Members can accurately represent each other's points of views—even when they don't agree with them.
Shared agreements can be generated in a variety of ways: large group facilitated discussion; small group list generation followed by large group voting; individuals noting ideas that are then clustered into common themes and reviewed by the group.  You could begin the process prior to the first meeting or conversation, anonymously collecting and aggregating individuals' ideas via an online tool like SurveyMonkey. When doing so, I've often dumped all the responses into Wordle and generated a word cloud to help the group see some of the values and norms it is suggesting.  A group whose members already have some familiarity with each other could use an online Wiki to draft their norms outside of an actual meeting or workshop.

Select a process that honors the work the group is to do, what will be comfortable for the participants at this stage, and what fits with the time you'd like to spend on this effort.  Personally, the time I spend on this process loosely correlates to the length of time this group will be with each other.  I'll spend far more time on developing shared norms at a staff retreat because they become part of the enduring culture of the group.  For a strategic planning session, the time devoted will be substantially less; even moreso, for a one-off workshop.  A loose rule of thumb?  The more ongoing the group, the more I'll go on about norms. When time is very limited, you might share a draft list of group ground rules and then invite additions or modifications.  Be careful that doing so doesn't produce individual compliance to your rules rather than ownership and commitment of the group's agreements. 

And while generating the group norms is important, simply noting them on a flipchart without ever referring to them again does a tremendous disservice to their value, as well as the group's development.   Reference them to help recreate the safe climate when tensions start to flare: I can tell people have some strong opinions on this topic.  Before we go any further, let's quickly revisit how we agreed to talk with each other.  For ongoing teams or work groups, I often ask individuals to volunteer to be the "conscience" for one of the norms, committing to thinking about that one throughout their time together and helping call attention to it when individuals apply it well or stray from its possibilities.  This further distributes the ownership of the norms from me to them.  And finally, it is valuable at the end of major blocks of time together to step back and ask the group to assess how well they did on using the ground rules in their discussions and what lessons they should remember for their future work with each other.

I'll be doing a full-day public facilitation skills workshop for the American Society of Association Executives on August 21 in Washington, DC.  Learn more and register here.

Every Friday in 2012, I will post information and insights about effective facilitation, sharing some of the content and thinking I provide in the one-day and half-day facilitation workshops that groups often engage me to present.  You can find previous posts by searching for the tag: facilitationfriday.

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