Ground rules for facilitating and leading productive meetings.
Meetings fail for three primary reasons. One, the purpose was unclear. If the purpose cannot be clearly identified, the meeting was unnecessary or poorly thought through. Two, meetings fail because they are poorly planned. This includes ill-conceived logistics, unwritten agendas and incomplete participant lists. Three, meetings fail because they are poorly run. They start and end late, or agenda integrity was not maintained. At the end of the meeting, nothing was decided, and no one was better off. Ultimately, that’s the litmus test.
A neutral facilitator can help teams use an effective process during meetings to discuss its issues. This includes helping the group (a) confirm its goals and objectives; (b) stay on topic; (c) clarify how shared views align or differ; (d) understand the assumptions and interests underlying the discussion; and (e) develop solutions and next steps that meet the needs of all parties. In sum, an effective facilitator helps the group have a productive discussion.
Ideas and concepts from researchers such as Ed Schein and Donald Schon influenced my approach to facilitating. Eventually, I adopted ground rules from The Skilled Facilitator by Roger Schwarz. The rules guide and clarify my role as the facilitator and serve as a learning tool for improving group effectiveness. Introducing these rules allows the group to establish a process and adjust the rules to best meet team needs and preferences.
Core Values (Schwarz 2002)
Four core values explain why the ground rules are what they are and provide a base of common understanding for the group and the facilitator.
- Valid information. Teams need accurate, complete and relevant information to make decisions. This includes sharing thoughts about how the discussion is going and sharing points of view in ways that help others understand your reasoning.
- Free and informed choice. This means that participants make decisions based on valid information and not in response to pressure from others inside or outside of the group. Valid information supports free and informed choices, as well as internal commitment.
- Internal commitment. Group members feel personally responsible for their decisions and support the decisions of the team. Then the group can move forward. The process depends on this.
- Compassion. Members disagree openly and respectfully and demonstrate a genuine concern for each other.
Ground Rules for Effective Groups (Schwarz 2002)
- Test assumptions and inferences. When we assume, we fail to verify if something is true. When we infer, we conclude something about what we do not know based on things that we do know. Specifying and testing assumptions and inferences support our core values by generating valid information for making informed choices.
- Share all relevant information. This means we share all the information we have that is relevant to a particular decision, even if that information does not support our point of view. Why? Because if members of the team make decisions and later find out that relevant information was withheld, they will feel that they were prevented from making an informed choice.
- Use specific examples and agree on what important words mean. Using specific examples means naming people, places and events. Specific examples provide evidence that enable other group members to assess your perspective independently. Some worry that such specificity can make members defensive by putting them on the spot, but the ground rules provide a way to say, “I see it differently” or “you may be misinformed.”
- Explain your reasoning and intent. Reasoning is your thinking; intent is your purpose. Make clear for others the reasons and intent behind your comments, questions and actions.
- Focus on interests, not positions. Interests are the “what” of a given issue while positions are the solutions or the “how.” Roger Schwarz writes, “One way to think about interests is as criteria that need to be met in order to solve the problem in a way that people will support.”
- Combine advocacy and inquiry. If we focus on advocating or arguing a point of view, we may fail to learn what others think. If we only ask questions of others, we may not help them understand our reasoning and intent. When sharing a perspective, invite questions and comments.
- Jointly design next steps and ways to test disagreements. When disagreements arise, work together to develop an approach to test the differences and solutions.
- Discuss the undiscussable issues. These are relevant issues that members feel they cannot discuss openly without negative consequences. The existence of undiscussable issues may represent relevant and valid information.
- Use a decision-making rule that generates the level of commitment needed. Groups use different approaches – such as voting or consensus – to make decisions. This rule ensures that members understand how decisions will be made and supports their internal commitment to these decisions.
How do these ground rules work in practice? Normally, if, as the facilitator, I feel individuals are saying or doing things that may reduce the group’s effectiveness, I point out what I am observing, ask if others see it differently, and, if they don’t, ask if the individuals would be willing to express their thinking in a way consistent with the ground rules we agreed to. My experience is that teams appreciate this approach and prefer having a process introduced that they adopt and make their own rather than developing ground rules from scratch.
Mendell, Brooks. 2006. Loving Trees is Not Enough: Communication Skills for Natural Resource Professionals. Aventine Press. 114 pages.
Schein, Ed. 1993. The academic as artist: personal and professional roots. 16 pages.
Schon, Donald. 1983. The Reflective Practitioner. Basic Books. 374 pages.
Schwarz, Roger. 2002. The Skilled Facilitator. Jossey-Bass. 407 pages.
 For those interested, please find a list of references with links at the end of this essay.