Setting Ground Rules to Guide Your Meetings and Discussions

Meetings can be an important step in developing strategies, coordinating work or ensuring that people are on the same page with information and responsibilities. A good meeting lifts spirits, creates action plans and does not drag on forever. A poorly run meeting can make you want to stick a fork in your eye.

While they may evoke memories of kindergarten or recess – ground rules are an essential tool for effectively managing meetings and keeping people involved. The goal is to determine guidelines for group process and individual behavior that participants are willing to accept. And when meeting attendees jointly create a few straightforward ground rules, they are more likely to respect these limits.

Ground Rules

Ground rules may include, but are not limited to, the following suggestions:

  1. Begin and end on time. Everyone has somewhere else they need to be. This places a value on people’s choice to work together and respects their need to have a defined time commitment.
  2. Distribute and read all necessary materials prior to the meeting. If there are documents that are central to the work of the group (e.g. agendas, reports, minutes or articles) they need to be provided in a timely fashion. Once provided, each member should come prepared to work – having read the materials.
  3. Follow an agenda. The meeting is convened for a particular purpose and the agenda is the group’s roadmap. Change is inevitable – so create a process for amending the original agenda.  Otherwise, stay on task and avoid getting sidetracked by unnecessary conversations or topics.
  4. Take turns speaking. As a sign of respect for the input of colleagues, only one person should speak at a time. Create a fair process that ensures all attendees have a chance to be heard.
  5. Listen before responding. The goal is to understand the point a person is trying to share, not to immediately contradict them.  Brainstorming requires listening without responding 
  6. Attack the problems, not the people. Begin from a place of trust. Assume that each group member is operating from a place of good intentions. Keep the conversation on the issues at hand and the potential solutions to the problems. Avoid identifying issues with specific individuals. Personalizing issues breaks down good will and creates defensive behaviors.
  7. Ask clarifying questions. As a listener, do not make assumptions about the point that is being made. As the speaker, do not assume you are being attacked if someone does not understand your position.
  8. Encourage debate. Not everyone will agree on all decisions or action plans. However, members can respect each other’s opinions without having to agree with them. The mere fact that someone disagrees does not make them the enemy. So check all egos at the door and find a way to make the dialogue productive.
  9. Silence = consent. When participants do not voice an opinion, the group will assume that they are in agreement with a particular position or course of action. The burden falls to each individual to raise alternative points of view.
  10. Bring closure to decisions.  Identify the process for making decisions and highlight when a decision is being made. Ensure all members have sufficient information to take a stand. Be clear what the result is and the action steps that will follow from the decisions.  Decision need to be in writing and available for reference.
  11. Define confidential information. While transparency is good, not all information may be available for public consumption immediately. Together, determine the pros and cons of sharing information Work that is in process may need to be held within the group until there is agreement. Certain parts of the process, participants’ positions or problems may remain permanently within the group as a means of building solidarity and trust.
  12. You can’t always get what you want. At its core, a meeting is the art of compromise made manifest. This means that inevitably there will be some grumbling about the concessions. But even if every member does not get their way, hopefully the group will still effectively meet its needs.
  13. Obviously, there are no guarantees that meetings will be smooth sailing – even with a set of ground rules. However, ground rules provide an operating framework that decreases the potential for conflict, maximizes participation and ensures clarity around decision-making. Smooth sailing or a fork in the eye – which kind of meeting do you prefer?