Ground Rules, also referred to as Operating Norms or Operating Agreements (we’ll use this latter term from now on), form the boundary of a group’s process container. In a world where many of our ways of communicating are habitually dysfunctional, creating, committing to, and following good operating agreements is a huge leap forward to guiding participant behaviors in a healthy, functional direction. They also give the facilitator, and all participants, implied consent to intervene when agreements are broken.
Why are Operating Agreements Important?
Some time ago, I was involved in a new personal growth group where we spent the first two meetings just working through our operating agreements. In fact, discussions around one of them, “We will test inferences and assumptions,” sent us into a heated hour long discussion and quite a bit of awareness around our own personal patterns of communication.
Why would we spend so much time belaboring a single operating agreement? There were moments when comments and questions like this came up during our meeting: “This is ridiculous. This is too nit-picky. We’ll never get on with the real work if we keep going like this.”
It’s ironic that when we see the need to form a group to build a stronger team, to solve a pressing problem, to build a cohesive strategy, or to develop ourselves personally or spiritually, we get focused on doing something and want to bypass or rush by how we do it. This is ironic because how we go about working with others creates the problems we later have to go back and clean up.
How we do something can make all the difference in the world. How we communicate and understand each other contributes to either the prevention or inflaming of problems in the first place. Taking the time to explore and improve how we relate and work together can give us the leverage, insights, passion, and staying power to accomplish the extraordinary.
It’s our operating agreements that guide how we work together. So yes, they are worth the time to work out. And working them out together is when the work of becoming an effective team usually begins.
How do we Establish Operating Agreements?
First, we commit to spending the necessary time to develop them by finding agreement on specific behavioral norms. With that said, you can always suggest operating agreements you believe would be important after the group takes a cut at them, then let them decide to include them or not.
If you’re only meeting once for a two-hour meeting, you may simply suggest a few basic operating agreements you believe will support your group’s work together. Or, request agreement on norms as their need arises. For example, a cell phone rings: suggest stowing our electronic devices. Or, people begin talking over one another: Suggest that only one person speak at a time.
When participants are reluctant to develop operating agreements, ask this question. Would it be worth taking some time now to unravel some of our most dis-empowering patterns of communicating and working together, if it would positively change the way we work together from now on, perhaps saving us countless hours and energy in the future?
Or getting more to the bottom line: Would you be willing to invest 30-60 minutes today to save 100 hours later?
What are Examples of Good Operating Agreements?
Here is a comprehensive list of operating agreements. These operating agreements assume a group meets regularly to deal with non-ordinary problems, and has sufficient time to solve them.
- Show up on time. This assures that everyone’s time is respected and that minimal time is wasted starting the meeting and returning from breaks.
- Manage electronic devices. This minimizes distractions so that attention can be focused on the substance of the meeting. While today many people rely on these devices to function, simply silencing or stowing them may not suffice. Help each group decide how to manage this issue. Refer to Solving the Smart Phone Dilemma and Can You Pass the Blackberry Test for a more in-depth look at this increasingly complex challenge.
- Show up prepared. Come to the group having completed your homework or assigned actions items. Refer to Prepare More, Meet Less for a deeper look into what it means to properly prepare for a meeting.
- No side talking. One person speaks at a time while others listen. This shows respect for each speaker and helps to assure that everyone and everything is heard.
- Listen actively. Check your perception with the speaker before responding if you’re uncertain about what’s said.
- Be concise. Speak in headlines by considering what you have to share before speaking, and state it as concisely as possible, letting this possibly lead to an invitation to speak in more depth on this subject.
- Check your assumptions. We all project our own meaning onto other’s words. Before jumping to conclusions, check in with the speaker to clarify their intended meaning.
- What’s said here, stays here. What’s learned here, leaves here. If you have something to say that that relates to this group, say it in the group, not in the parking lot after the meeting. Do not disclose anything shared here by anyone outside of this group without permission. Privacy forms the basis for trust and future willingness to be actively involved in sharing thoughts and feelings. When it comes to training groups, we encourage personal experience to be shared outside the group but not specific statements by others.
- Be conscious of your body language. Nonverbal behaviors like rolling eyes, disgusted looks, and shaking heads can be used as a weapon against others. Put your thoughts and feelings into words and express them directly and compassionately.
- Disagree with ideas, not people. Disagreement is inevitable and essential for groups to come to true consensus. Our behaviors become disagreeable when we target people rather than their ideas with our disagreement. This does not have to be the case. We can choose to respect others while openly disagreeing with their ideas. Express your disagreement directly to the individual concerned in an agreeable fashion.
- Be responsible for being heard. Make sure that your voice is heard and your meaning is understood. If it’s not and you feel it’s important and relevant to what’s on the table, be respectfully assertive to see that your input is heard and understood to the best of your ability. In some cases, this may take multiple attempts. In some cases, it won’t be acted upon and yet, you have done your part, at least at this time, as a responsible group member.
- Fully participate. In addition to your vocal input, the quality of your listening, your intention, your attitude, and your presence contribute to group results. Even from a purely physical perspective, verbal input contains only a small fraction of what is received by others. And from the energetic perspective, whether you sense it or not, your intention and state of mind and heart have an impact on the group as well.
Buy-in to operating agreements is critical before moving forward with a group. To do this, get verbal or some form of physical acknowledgment from each participant to check for either agreement, hesitance or an non-commitment.
A really simple way to check for this is a show of thumbs. A “thumbs up” sign means you totally buy-in to the agreements. A “thumbs sideways” sign means you may not love the agreements but you’re willing to abide by them and not present undue resistance because of them. A “thumbs down ” sign means you cannot commit to one or more of the agreements.
Resolve barriers to full consensus before moving forward by asking those with thumbs down for adjustments they need to commit to moving forward. You can also invite the thumbs sideways people to share ideas for improvement.
Once you have full consensus on the agreements in total, post them in the room where they are visible to everyone. Refer back to them as necessary to remind the group of their commitments.
Enforcing Operating Agreements
We all know what effective behavior looks like but usually go unconscious when we ourselves are misbehaving! Therefore, early enforcement helps members understand what the agreements really mean in practice. Challenge participants on deviations from the operating agreements early and often. And if you do not set a tone of strict adherence early in the process, it may become difficult to enforce them later.
If you are using more than two or three operating agreements, try focusing on particular items during appropriate activities or discussions. For example, if you are facilitating a discussion in a large group, state before the discussion starts that you would like to focus on active listening. Challenge participants to refrain from any side discussions. The same can be done if you are facilitating an experiential activity, by introducing it as a “silent” activity.
Model these operating agreements in your own participation. This is especially true for an item such as Show up Prepared. Listen Actively by regularly checking your perception when you’re not following what someone is saying.
Particpant Interventions. Invite all participants to help each other stay true to these agreements. And you can even ask them as a group how they would like to be called on breeches to the agreements by you or each other. Routine Breeches
If a particular agreement is routinely broken, ask the participants about it. A fruitful discussion can often arise from a close examination of why people are not adhering to particular items.
Make a group behavior issue an agenda item. A powerful intervention in an ongoing group is to add a routine process issue to the agenda of a future meeting. For example, if misunderstandings seem to be a regular occurrence, suggest making this as agenda item to explore in-depth in your next meeting. Raising the elements of your group process to the same level of importance as your group tasks can yield extremely high leverage. Imagine driving your car around for a year with a flat front tire claiming you don’t have time to fix it. Again, how many hours might you save by spending an hour to resolve an ongoing impairment?
Here’s some sample language for another breech: I notice that while we’ve all agreed to show up prepared, we seem to spend a lot of time getting people up to speed at the
start of many of our meetings. I wonder if this is an agreement we want to keep? And if so, how might we go about improving? A revealing discussion will often arise out of an inquiry into broken operating agreements.
Who Intervenes? Notice my language around these operating agreement breeches. If everyone in fact agreed to follow these agreements, then you, or any participant for that matter, can point back to the agreement itself as the source of the invention. We don’t want to make anyone wrong in this process, a simple inquiry about our committment to the agreement is often enough. In this way, the operating agreements are in a sense, performing the intervention.
Revisit the operating agreements at the start of each meeting, and if time allows, ask whether the participants would like to revise or add any new items.
And remember, you are doing the work of helping groups meet their objectives when you invite them to use high functioning behaviors (an effective container) as the way to accomplish them. After all, you wouldn’t go out to collect gold nuggets without a bucket, would you?
Is there anything you need to change about the way you help a group develop or enforce operating agreements? I’d love to hear from you. Please share your questions, feedback, and experience on this topic in the comments section below.
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