Friday, January 29, 2010

Facilitate ... with Ground Rules

“Don't 'yuck' someone else's 'yum'!” Now, that’s a great Ground Rule! Using Ground Rules in facilitated discussions is something I have “turned on and off” over the years. I used them … didn’t use them … and now am back to using them.

Ground Rules are the behaviours that people in a group consciously and intentionally agree to use to enable them to work effectively together. Ground rules often cover meeting etiquette, discussion and decision-making processes, and ways that the team members interact with each other. They can range from procedures such as “turn off your cell phone” to ways of discussing such as “actively listen to each other” to values such as “treat each other with courtesy”.

Why do we use Ground Rules? All groups work to some set of procedural and behaviourial rules, spoken or unspoken. Think of times when you assumed or expected people in a meeting to behave in a certain way – only to find that they didn’t!

  • One person may think that interrupting another person when she has an important and relevant point is OK; others find the interruption rude.

  • One person may think that consensus is full agreement by everyone; another person may think it means everyone minus one or two individuals.

  • One person may feel comfortable when someone else directly challenges their opinion in a meeting; others would “curl up and die”.

  • Some people may automatically text message during meetings; others expect everyone to leave cell phones and smart phones at the door.

Taking time to clarify expectations and make them explicit in Ground Rules helps the group members to be “on the same page”; to understand how and why discussions will be held; to create an atmosphere that encourages open, respectful communication and participation; and to hold themselves and each other accountable.

Over ten years ago, I stopped using the term “Ground Rules” because the word “rules” seemed too heavy and authoritative for me! I changed to using terms such as “discussion principles, discussion do’s and don’ts, discussion guidelines”. These worked fairly well; however, did not seem to cover the full spectrum or convey the importance of group behaviours. Then, several years ago, I was introduced to the Ground Rules of “The Skilled Facilitator” by Roger Schwarz & Associates ( This facilitation approach uses nine Ground Rules which are based on five core assumptions and values. Together, the Ground Rules, assumptions and values speak to the importance of truly listening to each other, sharing all relevant information; acknowledging and being curious about how other people see things … and many other aspects of working together effectively as a group. From learning the Skilled Facilitator approach, I rediscovered the value and importance of Ground Rules and now use them again.

Ground Rules are comprehensive and profound yet also fun! Look at the Ground Rules on the poster above which I found in the blue avocado e-newsletter. As the newsletter states “Who can resist a "Ground Rules" sign for a meeting at a youth organization that includes the phrase: “Don't 'yuck' someone else's 'yum'?”

When facilitating a group, I now either introduce the group members to “The Skilled Facilitator” Ground Rules and ask their willingness to apply them to their discussion OR I help them develop their Ground Rules. I encourage them to think about logistical procedures (e.g. Start and end on time), values (e.g. What’s important in how we work together?), and discussion and decision-making techniques (e.g. We use collaborative techniques.)

My Conversation Blog Questions are: What Ground Rules do you like to use with groups and why? And what does “Don't 'yuck' someone else's 'yum'?” mean to you?!


  1. Excellent and thought provoking blog Barb! Especially love the phrase "Don't yuck someone else's yum"! Thanks.

  2. Love the blog, Barb... good to hear such great and informed tips. I plan on using them myself in the near future... keep them coming!

  3. I generally use one ground rule, other than the basic houskeeping - no cells etc. The rule is "There are no wrong answers this is not a test. Others may be added if I feel they are neded. I took three training courses from one individual who set ground rules and in each session managed to break a minimum of the three rules that were set.


  4. Dear Barb, I was searching the web for a site that would lead me to how to create groundrules for a group. I created a women's group in my community over a year ago. We started out with rules, but something went awry in the middle of the year when we realized we weren't really following some of the rules (like coming on time). One of the women "called" it on another woman, and the 2nd woman burst out saying it's not so important, etc. Then, the first woman asked if people are not commiting to that rule, how does she know what other rules (like not talking about the group outside of the group) they are not following? In short, as the organizer of this group, I feel like we need to do a night JUST on the rules and figure out what we do want to keep, what we don't need, etc. I'm looking for someone that I can talk this through with. Would you be interested to assist me? Thanks for posting this blog. Shira