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Ground rules for working effectively in groups

Originally published on: 05.06.2014

One of my program participants recently mentioned the workplace value of the skills of moderation and facilitation. This conversation piqued my interest, so I searched the Net for the best books about facilitation and chose one that is considered a classic text on the topic of facilitation: The Skilled Facilitator: A Comprehensive Resource for Consultants, Facilitators, Managers, Trainers, and Coaches by Roger Schwarz. As a trainer who very often works with groups, one of Schwarz’s theories caught my eye: establishing ground rules for groups. Schwarz compiled a list known as The Ground Rules for Effective Groups that help make sure groups are communicating effectively. Below, the nine Ground Rules are listed with a short description (some or all of these rules can be adopted, or the group can create their own, at the first group meeting).

9 Ground rules for effective groups

1. Test assumptions and inferences

Making inferences from available information is a valuable skill, but what if we make these assumptions based on incorrect information or a misunderstanding of what someone else said? 

2. Share all relevant information

If members of the team don’t share all of their information, this can lead to incorrect decisions. Even worse, if it’s discovered later that someone withheld information, it can cause major problems. 

3. Use specific examples and agree on what important terms mean

If important terms are fully defined, team members can be assured that they’re speaking about the same issues in the same way.

4. Explain your reasoning and intent

If you can explain your line of reasoning to your colleagues, they’ll be better able to understand where you’re coming from. In addition, listening carefully to your colleagues’ explanations will help you understand the situation more fully.

5. Focus on interests, not positions

Closely linked to Ground Rule 4, number 5 suggests that we discuss the interests of the people involved and not the position they are taking. Rather than, for example, “He says the budget can’t go up, but I want a new computer,” think, “He needs more money for the advertising costs, but I can’t process the graphics with my old, slow computer.” Then, we’re thinking in terms of what people really need, instead of what we think they might want.

6. Combine advocacy and inquiry

In a nutshell, this ground rules means that when you state an opinion, you ask for comments and questions immediately. 

7. Jointly design next steps and ways to test disagreements

Agreeing on a system for solving disagreements beforehand can save time and make sure disputes don’t bring the meeting to a halt. 

8. Discuss undiscussable issues

Bringing sensitive subjects out into the open needs to be handled very carefully, but can ultimately lead to a group that is moving forward rather than constantly avoiding an uncomfortable conversation.

9. Use a decision-making rule that generates the degree of commitment needed

If these (or other) ground rules are followed, hopefully all members will feel that they have all the information necessary to make an informed choice and that their voices have been heard. If this is the case and a consensus is reached, every member of the team will feel more dedicated to following-up on the decision, as they they have been an active part of the decision-making process.

More on effective groups and facilitation

The short description of the ground rules above doesn’t really do the book justice. If you’re interested in this topic, I’d recommend getting a copy of The Skilled Facilitator for yourself. If you have experience with groups that work well together (or more tips for how to make group interaction more effective), please share them with us in the comments section below.

1 reply
  1. Will
    Will says:

    Chad – this is really valuable information for improving your group’s dynamics. I would like to add some specifics based on Ground Rule One – Test assumptions and inferences.

    A reliable method for testing what you assume to be correct, which can be used in any speaking situation is using active listening. This technique of repeating back what someone has just said to you, although it sounds simple, has many benefits: firstly, you check that what you understood is actually what the speaker meant to say; secondly, it can also be used in a small talk situation to encourage the speaker and thereby to continue a conversation; and lastly it shows that you are listening and interested in others’ opinions.

    I think this method can help in facilitating groups. What does anyone else think are useful ways of testing assumptions and inferences?

    Will Dover

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