Ground rules are guidelines that participants in a meeting agree to follow in order to make the meeting more productive and enjoyable. Common ground rules include things like being respectful of other participants, not interrupting, and staying on topic.
The term originally comes from baseball. Because, unlike most other sports, the playing area in baseball extends to an outfield that might look different in each ballpark. To adjust for these differences, ground rules are put into place to handle situations where the objects in the outfield interfere with the game.
In this post, we will discuss:
Why are ground rules important in meetings?
Ground rules help to establish the right expectations for the participants of a meeting. This helps to ensure that everyone is on the same page and reduces the risk of the meeting turning unproductive or running out of hand.
Having rules in place that you consistently enforce can significantly improve how your team solves problems and makes decisions. – Roger Schwartz, Organizational psychologist
Setting ground rules also help to strengthen the bonds within the groups, because they are often set up together at the start of the meeting. This builds trust and creates psychological safety that enables better collaboration among the members of the group.
When should you use ground rules?
Ground rules should always be used with a clear purpose. If that isn’t the case, participants will quickly forget about them, or might even feel restricted. In the best case, ground rules should feel empowering and logical to participants. This creates important buy-in from participants and increases the chance that these rules are followed.
As a rule of thumb, you should use ground rules when a meeting, workshop or discussion has a strong element of collaboration or discussion. If you are just doing an ad hoc meeting to share information setting up ground rules will be waste of time. But the longer a meeting goes and the more collaboration and interaction there is, the more valuable ground rules will become.
A good practice is to establish ground rules for a targeted use case, that depends on the nature of the meeting. Here is a list of common use cases for ground rules:
- Establishing a safe space
- Staying on time
- Handling conflict
- Maintain focus
- Sparking creativity
- Creating equal participation
- Increase engagement
For each of these use cases, there are several ground rules that can be established.
[.box-highlight]Tip: To make it easy to find the right ground rules, we created a library of over 30 meeting ground rules that can be filtered by each use case.[.box-highlight]
In the next section, we give you some examples of our favourite ground rules and their use cases.
8 ground rules examples
There are a lot of great, simple ground rules that you can immediately start using in your meetings. Here are some of our favourites:
1. “Explore interests, not positions”
It’s often difficult to reach an agreement in a meeting because some people are often dogmatic about their position. But if participants mutually explore the interest behind the positions, it becomes much easier to find a common ground.
Use case: Handling and avoiding conflicts
2. A & A Rule
The “A & A Rule” says that instead of judging ideas, people should focus on adding to ideas or providing alternatives. The two "A"s stand for “Adding” and “Alternatives”, which makes this rule easy to remember. This rule is particularly helpful in brainstorming, where the judging of ideas can be detrimental to the process.
Use case: Sparking creativity and having a productive brainstorm
3. 3x3 Rule
The “3x3 Rule” says that everyone should wait until 3 other people have spoken, or 3 minutes have passed before speaking again. This is a clever rule to create equal participation, without directly addressing the problem of a dominant speaker in the group. Based on the size of the group, this can also be adjusted to the 2x2 or even 4x4 Rule.
Use case: Create equal participation
4. “Agree to disagree”
“Agree to disagree” highlights that there is always an option to come to an agreement, even though two people or a group disagree with each other. How? Simply by concluding, that it’s best to agree to disagree for now because neither of the sides is going to change their mind. After this agreement, the group can stop arguing and move on.
Use case: Handling and avoiding conflicts
5. “Be present, or be elsewhere”
The more people zone out of a meeting, the more rapdily the quality of the meeting and its output will diminish. Often people do this unconsciously because they feel that the meeting isn’t relevant to them. “Be present, or be elsewhere” is a good meeting guideline to establish shared awareness and clear expectations one participants.
Use case: Increase Engagement
E.L.M.O stands for “Enough, let’s move on” and can be established as a meeting rule to cut unnecessary discussions. Once stated, anyone in the meeting can say “ELMO!” at any time to indicate that it is time to move on to the next topic.
Use case: Maintain focus and stay on time
7. “Tackle problems, not people”
When people feel that their personal viewpoint is under attack, they often feel hurt, lash out and attack back. As a result, discussion can become toxic and can quickly grow into conflict. “Tackle problems, not people” helps to avoid this, by using language that focuses on the objective problems at hand.
Use case: Establish a safe space
8. Vegas Rule
When the Vegas Rule is used in a meeting, it means that everything that will be said in the meeting stays in the meeting. As you may guess, this comes from the original saying “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”.
Use case: Establish a safe space
How do you introduce ground rules?
Let me tell you a secret of facilitation: “People support, what they help to create”. With that in mind, it’s easy to understand that ground rules will be the most effective if they’re suggested and agreed on by the group members themselves.
There are three ways you can go about this:
- Collect ground rules from participants, and prioritize them with the group
- Present a large set of ground rules, and let the group decide which to use
- Suggest a small number of ground rules, and ask for the agreement of the group
What you use depends on the type of meeting, how important the ground rules and how much time you have at hand. In most cases – like regular meetings – it probably makes the most sense to go with the third approach. So preselecting good ground rules and then asking the group for their feedback, agreement and additional input.
At what time should you introduce and discuss ground rules? Here we would recommend, doing it as early as possible. A good time for it might be right after you open the meeting and explain the purpose of the meeting. Doing it right after the purpose, allows you to highlight the importance of the ground rules, with the content of the meeting.
[.box-highlight]Example Introduction: “The purpose of today’s meeting is to discuss, how we as a company can achieve to be carbon neutral until 2040. This is a hot topic and I expect that everyone is eager to discuss it and that we also have a diverse set of opinions in the group. Therefore I would like to establish a set of ground rules, that helps us to have a more productive and focused discussion as a group. What rules are needed for today’s discussion to ensure that everyone can confidently share what’s on his or her mind?”[.box-highlight]
Conclusion & Resources
Ground rules are a fantastic way, to set the right expectations in a meeting. There are easy to use and don't take long to establish. Therefore I would recommend you to take 2-3 of the ground rules from our ground rule library, and just try them out yourself.
Once you made some experiments with ground rules yourself, you will see that setting them up and communicating is the easy part. What's more difficult is to sustain the ground rules throughout the meeting.
Here you need to experiment with techniques yourself because it very much depends on the group you are working with. It certainly helps to make ground rules visible (e.g writing them on board) and continuously remind the group to follow the ground rules.