18 Ground Rules for Group Discussions

"Strong opinions, loosely held"

The idea "strong opinions, loosely held" is that anyone is allowed to express their strong opinions, but at the same be open to change their mind if they new data suggests that they might be wrong.

"Disagree without being disagreeable"

"Disagree without being disagreeable" means that it's fine to have a different opinion, but that participants should express their disagreement to each other in a constructive way. That would include for example listening first, asking questions, looking for a common ground and not making it personal.

"Seek first to understand, not to be understood"

Normally, we do this in reverse. Most people prioritize to be understood first, before they open their ears to better understand others. This can have a negative impact on the meeting. Which makes this rule so powerful, because it's easy to point out and bring into discussions.

"Tackle problems, not people"

When people feel that they 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.

"Everyone participates, no one dominates"

There are always a mix of extrovert and introverted people in a meeting. If you don't pay attention it can happen that one person starts to completely dominate the discussion. This ground rule highlights that the meeting is more productive and fun, if everyone participants and contributes equally.


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.

"Be present, or be elsewhere"

The more people zone out of a meeting, the quality of the meeting and its output will diminish rapidly. Often people do this unconsciously because they feel that the meeting isn't relevant for them. "Be present, or be elsewhere" is a good meeting guidelines to establish shared awareness and clear expectations one participants.

"Share the air"

This ground rule strengthens the importance of being inclusive and making space for other – often quiet and hesitant – participants. It's everyone's responsibility, to find ways that everyone can contribute their ideas and thoughts to the meeting.

"Discuss undiscussable issues"

Undiscussable issues are those issues that are on everyones mind, but no one is able to bring them forwards. Most often because they are afraid of the consequences or think the context isn't the right one to address the issue. "Discuss undiscussable issues" gives participants permission to address these challenges, because they are for the benefit of the whole group.

"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 coming to the conclusion, 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.

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.

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.

"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.

"Make ideas tangible"

The more tangible ideas are, the easier it is to discuss them. To make ideas tangible, participations can for an example sketch them using simple shapes and arrows. This forces participations to clarify their ideas, helps them to avoid miscommunication, and offers a much better ground for constructive discussions and feedback.

"Use “I” statements"

Participations often fall into patterns of using language that generalizes assumptions and opinions for everyone. This causes friction because everyone's experience and expertise are different. Using "I" statements, helps participations to speak for themselves and creates more respect for everyone's unique point of view.

"Tolerate and teach, don’t shame and blame"

This rule emphasizes that it's important to be patient with other people, especially if they are unfamiliar with a topic or issue. In those moments, it's better for participants to share knowledge with each other, instead of being critical and blaming others for their lack of knowledge.

"Be the crew, not the passenger"

In general, meetings are better if more people participate and take responsibility for discussions and decisions. "Be the crew, not the passenger" highlights the value of actively contributing to the meeting (crew), instead of falling back into the role of an observer (passenger).

Parking lot

Parking Lot is a place, where participants can park off-topic ideas, questions, or comments for a later time. Establishing this as a ground rule highlights that participants can suggest on their own when to place something on the parking lot in order to keep the meeting on track and on time.