Setting Ground Rules

Setting Ground Rules

notepad-117597_640If everyone were a master communicator – incapable of distorting the facts, clear about their own motives, able to accept responsibility to see each perspective clearly – then perhaps ground rules would not be necessary.

But no one is a perfect communicator. Even the best communicators fall into traps and pitfalls.

Ground rules are the guardrails that guide a strategic conversation safely home.

The following ground rules have proven successful time after time. Each ground rule points to one of the tools or skills embodied in straight talk.

The Ground Rules

  1. Understand each other’s styles
  2. Agree on the meaning of key words
  3. Tackle issues, not people
  4. Permit one speaker at a time (avoid side conversations)
  5. Bring issues to the table (avoid “back room” discussions)
  6. Keep discussions focused
  7. Explain the reasoning leading to your conclusions
  8. Invite inquiry into your views
  9. Inquire into the reasoning of others
  10. Make “undiscussable” ideas discussible
  11. Identify missing data

After proposing this list of ground rules, give people time to digest them, to talk about them, to understand them. Usually this takes about 30 or 45 minutes worth of discussion. The major point to underscore is this:

Ground rules benefit everyone equally.

They are a way to ensure a successful outcome. Therefore, assuming everyone wants a successful outcome, everyone should be motivated to abide by them.

At this point, it’s natural that someone ask:

“Why these ground rules? Why not others?”

The answer is: These rules work. You may add to them, if you like. But you cannot subtract from them. These rules are the minimum needed for straight talk.

Someone will say:

“What happens if someone breaks a rule?”

Don’t be surprised if they do. Human nature being what it is, people will break the rules – even after they agree to abide by them. Usually it’s not intentional.

From kindergarten on:

  • We’re trained to advocate our opinions, not challenge them.
  • We’re trained to assert a position until another person yields.
  • We’re trained to defend ourselves.

Especially at first, people will break the rules all the time. So you need to start slow, and give each other constant encouragement. The group will learn from your mistakes.

Someone will ask:

“Who should act as policeman?”

The answer: You all will. Each participant should monitor the quality of the communication. This requires people to “parallel process.” People will need to track the content of what’s actually being said and, simultaneously, track the quality of the process – i.e. what’s missing, or not being said. It’s like playing a friendly game of softball. Everyone needs to be umpire – even when they’re up to bat.

How does this parallel processing work in practice?

circle of assumptions 2When the marketing director starts to talk, you’ve got to be simultaneously listening to her arguments and asking yourself, “Where is she on the Circle of Assumptions? What data is she missing? What’s going on in her Inner Script?” Everyone in the room should be acting in the same capacity  – simultaneously acting both as a steward of, and a participant in, the conversation.

“What if we’re scared to speak up?” someone will say.

The only way to overcome this fear is to practice. People have to see that the rules work. When you point out that a ground rule is being broken, don’t view it as criticizing someone. Instead, view it as helping each other learn a new skill.

Keep reminding yourselves: The ground rules benefit everyone. Their purpose is to build understanding, not limit it. None of these rules serve any one person’s interests, only the interests of the group.

What happens if a “bad actor” routinely treads all over the rules?

500px-Notepad_icon.svgOften, all that’s necessary is to ask the group whether the ground rules are being adhered to. Calling attention to the behaviors of the group is usually enough to get people to be more sensitive to their behaviors. Another step is for someone to call a quick time-out and invite the person outside to talk about his or her behavior.

Can these ground rules be used in other types of meetings?

Of course. But an hour-long meeting doesn’t afford the time needed to lay out the ground rules thoroughly. Initially, you’ll want to apply them to a meeting of a half day or more. Afterward, you may choose to apply the ground rules to every meeting.

Over time, you’ll find that people will make the ground rules a matter of honor. They’ll talk about them as being key factors in successful communication. They’ll preach their value to the rest of the organization. And, in time, the culture will evolve to a point where the ground rules are seen as an elementary part of every communication – as principles of conduct rather than rules.

At that point, your organization will have become truly a learning organization.


Lesson 17: Inner Scripts Lesson 19: When Ground Rules Aren’t Enough

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