Sometimes people don’t need ground rules (or “pre-agreements”). Ground rules, however, can provide psychological safety for participants; improve the likelihood that decisions made are implemented and durable; and provide a facilitator or mediator with “permission” to intervene if necessary. They are like a driver’s manual for all the different cars trying to navigate in unknown territory.
When two or more people are working through challenging problems and there are enthusiastic and even zealous people present with diverse interests, ground rules are a safety mechanism that helps ensure effective communication.
Here’s an example. If you are in a group facilitation and there is one or more powerful, forceful speakers as well as one or more group members who are less assertive and quieter, choosing a ground rule such as “No interrupting” may make the “less obvious” folks feel safer and therefore more willing to fully participate in the group. This is important to everyone because if the quiet ones psychologically withdraw from the process, they are less likely—down the road—to support the decisions made, implement them, psychologically “own” them, and advocate for them. They are more likely to later undermine those decisions, consciously or otherwise. Beyond that, it’s often the more reflective (aka quiet) folks who have the best ideas that would serve the common good.
Another example is confidentiality. Agreeing a discussion will remain confidential might encourage participants to be more honest as they will worry less that what they say will be passed on to the wrong people. We know agreements of confidentiality are easily compromised, and in mediation, confidentiality is a legal issue, with exceptions built in for different circumstances or roles (e.g., spouse, clergy, attorney, or therapist). That said, if people can trust others to keep their word about maintaining a confidence (or maybe even keeping comments made anonymous), that can free people up to be more forthcoming, which is sometimes needed to get to the heart of the matter.
The phrase “ground rules” comes from baseball, where different outcomes mean different things in different cities because of the peculiarities of the baseball park. I like seeing the metaphor of ground rules as “rules of the road”—like what certain traffic lights and street signs require. They provide an agreed-to set of rules that prevent (verbal) accidents. The discussion is less likely to experience “fender benders,” let alone crash and burn if all drivers (participants) follow the manual (ground rules).
Another example: We know we are less likely to experience the discussion-debilitating effects of unfiltered and harshly expressed acrimony (like yelling at someone) in a group process if we have a ground rule that states, “We will all be respectful.” Of course, it will take a strong facilitator to enforce the ground rules. What about that?
Ground rules provide the facilitator or mediator with what one writer calls “a logic of intervention.” If participants agree to ground rules, then it is “logical” for a mediator to intervene. Otherwise, there is no obvious reason why a dominant speaker should necessarily respond to some stranger saying, “Please don’t interrupt.”
To give a different instance, why should someone stop yelling at someone just because a facilitator asks? If people have agreed ahead of time to ground rules such as “No interrupting” or “Be respectful at all times,” then people can be held accountable if they act otherwise: “Excuse me, Sam, stop for a moment. Let’s take a time-out here. Remember at the beginning of the day, we all agreed that …?”
A strong facilitator knows the entire range of possibilities and is able to suggest the right ones for the circumstances. Rules might involve different group discussion guidelines; how decisions will be made (consensus? vote?) and the consequences of such choices; methods of presenting information; ways to “debrief” the process; or what to do if there is media interest in the proceedings. Sometimes, just the one, supposedly all-inclusive “Be respectful” rule (hoping to alleviate the need for similar others) is sufficient. This is easy to introduce and can be followed by a request for other rules members would like to propose. When folks have agreed, they have made their first deal.
And it’s true some groups won’t need ground rules. They know the way so well and have driven it together so often, they can simply count on each other to create a successful journey.