We all know that stale feeling, after just having participated in a meeting which went south. People talked over each other, someone took up way too much space, or the schedule’s timing was not respected, and you did not know what to do about. This lack of control and ownership fosters frustration in participants and puts aims and outputs of gatherings at risk. Re-encountering the same dissatisfying situation leads to withdrawal from the process and advances underlying interpersonal tensions. All of that could be avoided with a straightforward method: Creating a Group Agreement!
In this month’s Method of the Month, I want to introduce you to one of the oldest but surprisingly rarely used facilitation methods – the Group Agreement. You could also know it as Code of Conduct, Group Norms, Ground Rules or Group Contract. Its primary function is to create common rules and norms for a group from that group and empower every group member to hold each other accountable. That gives equal ownership over the curse of a meeting into each participant’s hands, disregarding hierarchies outside the circle.
But why is it essential for a group to have mutually understood rules and norms?
Whenever we gather with other people naturally unspoken rules step into place. These can be the ways we treat elders, the expected dress code of a work environment or simply to be on time when meeting up with a friend. As often as these rules occur, they are unintentionally broken. You don’t offer you a place on the bus to someone, because you did not recognise their age or actually need to sit in public transport yourself because of an access need. You show up overdressed at a business conference because the organiser did not inform you about the business casual dress code. And my favourite one, I have this one friend who keeps showing up late without notice because I never told them that it drives me bonkers that they do not respect my time by being punctual.
All the above violations of un-spoken rules have one thing in common: they are all based on the assumption of the existence of the rules themselves. How can my friend ever know that I need them to be one time if I actually never told them? The same is true for all those frustrating meetings. We enter the room assuming that everyone is interested in finishing on time, being present and hearing each other out. We don’t know that one participant has a deadline today and is behind on their schedule, another tries to pitch themselves as an expert, and the third one is new to the topic and has no clue what the heck we are talking about. In those cases, a shared set of rules and norms creates clarity and stops the circle of the perpetuation of disruptive behaviours.
So how do you create a Group Agreement? – A simple description
Step 1 – Present the concept.
Group Agreement sounds straight forward, and everyone should get what it is, right? You would be surprised what some folks assume when I introduce the method by revealing the prepared flipchart and explain what the Group Agreement is NOT. It’s not a predefined set of rules I as facilitator subject the group to. It’s not an extension of hierarchies applicable outside the circle. It’s not the law of the land and therefore, has to be respected without changing or adapting it to the group’s needs. Next, I explain the purpose of the method.
For me, it’s important to emphasise that this is the first time the group creates something together and that this cooperation will lay the foundation of how they will work together, moving forward. I encourage participants to make sure the rules and norms reflect their needs for the sessions ahead. Lastly, before starting collecting the participants’ input, I explain that this method is not meant to shame anyone. Still, it is an invitation to reflect on behaviour or habit we hold and how they might impact others around us.
Step 2 – Create the rules and norms from the group for the group.
Next, I invite the participants to develop rules or norms they would like to be included in the Group Agreement. Often, someone will raise their hand right away and shout out the first idea, which gets the ball rolling. Nevertheless, sometimes the group is shyer or not really used to this kind of approach. So, I always have some idea rules handy or situation descriptions, which give them a frame of reference. They are in the style of ‘Imagine, during a discussion [behaviour] would happen. What rule or norm would you like to be in place to avoid this?’. Once a participant raises an idea without a direct challenge from the group, I write it on the flipchart.
Step 3 – Ensure consensus.
Once the group signals that all rules and norms, they need at that moment, the Group Agreement is completed. Before moving on, I will run through the different suggestions checking for each if everyone in the group agrees. I proactively encourage them to raise concerns and suggest changes to individual rules. The group must be on the same side when it comes to the rules and norms. If someone is opposed to them initially, they won’t reflect on their behaviours and not respond when called in.
After that, I mention that this agreement applies to everyone, including me as the facilitator, and everyone has the right to ‘enforce’ it when they feel like it is not respected. It’s only essential that they stick it themselves when they do. I usually illustrate it by saying something along the lines: ‘When I am constantly interrupting you, you have the right to let me know. Instead of saying ‘Anuschka, you suck. You always interrupt me’, phrase it more in line with our agreement like ‘I often feel interrupted by you. Please respect our common rules.’‘ Should they not feel comfortable doing it themselves, they can always come to me, and I will relay their need to the group.
Step 4 – Review, revisit, remind
Especially if running a multi-session or -day event, make sure to refer back to the Group Agreement. I usually place it on the walls in every room the group works at in a way it is easy to see for each participant. After every longer break (lunch break and in the morning of each following day), I remind the group of the rules and norms we set for each other and that they have the right to call upon them when they fill someone else, including me as the facilitator, does not respect it. Also, I invite them to raise any adaptations or additions to the agreement based on the group process’s development so far.
It is essential to keep the Group Agreement in the mind of participants. Only this way, participants feel also empowered to utilise it when working in smaller groups independent of the facilitator. When leaving participants to themselves, the authority the facilitator represents is withdrawn, and comfortable behaviours can reoccur. That alone can disrupt the group process and discourage less extroverted participants from engaging in the larger group.
When should you use it? – About the right context and use of the Group Agreement
When it comes to me, I believe we should establish some basic ground rules in any interaction with another person. With that, I don’t mean that you should start the conversation with the person at the bakery counter with: ‘I would like to buy bread, but first let’s brainstorm some norms for our interaction.’ As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there are many unspoken norms in society, but as I also stated, they are not always as mutual as we assume. So, when you feel not respected, or someone’s behaviour makes you feel uncomfortable, it’s valuable to raise your needs in a non-judgemental way, also in more informal settings.
For me, a Group Agreement is a must-have whenever a group gathers – in meetings, workshops, sharing circles, support groups and so on and forth. It cannot be replaced by a general Code of Conduct of the organisation presented initially, and everyone has to stick to unconditionally. As valuable as those are, they are often too broad to address each group’s specific needs. Systems of authorities applicable outside the room will most likely hinder the group from cooperating and ensuring everyone is heard equally. The agreement has an equaling effect supporting the needs of those with the least ‘traditional’ power in the room and empowering them to speak up and contribute.
I listened to an episode of Dr Miriam Hadnes’ podcast Workshops work in which she invited 11 experienced facilitators to a Fish Bowl discussion on essential facilitation practices. As valuable as the conversation was, some of the guests’ behaviours made one thing painfully clear. Even when gathering with folks, who should know about the importance of ground rules, they might default into disruptive behaviours without them. If you want to listen in, check it out here. There are still tones of gold nuggets to pick up!
What makes a ‘good’ Group Agreement?- Some ideas of rules and norms
A ‘good’ Group Agreement is always tailormade for the needs of the specific group, but there are some I always encourage the group to include in some form:
- Limited device usage.< – This is a must-suggest for me. I personally dislike talking to the back of a bunch of phones, but it also takes you as participant out of the session’s headspace and blocks you from connecting with the other people in the circle. I understand that we all have busy lives going on outside the room. That’s why I usually pair this norm with the invitation for everyone to freely step out of the room if they have to handle an important call or message. To ban especially phones entirely is not an option for me. Participant might need it as a support tool for language challenges or other access need.
- Criticise content, not people. – It is vital that we do not attack each other if we disagree with someone’s opinion. There is more potential for mutual learning, if we explain different standpoints instead of shutting the other person down.
- No -isms.> – In my workshops, I always aim to create an environment that is as safe as possible for all participants. That means I do not tolerate racism, sexism, ableism or any other -isms. If a group member says something or acts in a way that is hostile against another participants identity, it gets called out for what it is.
- We are not in grammar school. In groups where most participants have first languages different from the working language, it is crucial to make sure that everyone feels comfortable speaking no matter how well they command a language. Therefore, I encourage participants to not correct each others’ grammar or similar. If they do not understand what is said, they can ask by saying for example: ‘What I understood is [xxx]. Is that correct or could you repeat?’
- What happens in the room stays in the room. – This is an excellent rule to remind the group that there is certain confidentiality to what is discussed during sessions. It gives everyone the trust to really speak honestly without fearing consequences afterwards. It is a fundamental rule for teams with apparent hierarchies. If someone has to fear to be kicked out of the team when constructively challenging a leader’s idea, they will not speak up in the brainstorming.
- Don’t tell someone else’s story. – For the way, I approach facilitation, participants should aim to connect on a human level. Only by letting down the mask and speaking from one’s own experience, this is possible. The stories we make up about folks’ experiences different from ourselves are based on assumptions and biases.
When researching this post, I stumbled over some rules and norms other facilitators have used and made me curious to suggest to groups I am working with in the future.
- Build Up. – This is a suggestion I discovered over a Leadership Strategies. They ask participants to not criticise what is said before but to use the opportunity to only further develop the thought by building onto it.
- ELMO. – ELMO stands for ‘Enough, let’s move on!’. With this, the folk at Leadership Strategies allow participants to call ELMO whenever they have the feeling a discussion is stuck on a point. When the majority of the group agree, the debate is closed, and they move on.
- No ‘I am not saying [xxx], but…’. – I cannot remember where I stumble over this as a rule for workshops, but I wanted to share it here anyway. This rule’s idea was to encourage participants to reflect before they speak if it appropriate for the setting and if they truly stand behind what they are about to say.
- Explore the possibility of multiple truths being valid at the same time. – This encouragement was shared as one of the ground rules during a training by Partners for Youth Empowerment. It serves as a reminder that we do not have to agree or convince each other. There is already an inherent value in having the conversation at all.
Rules and norms sound too formal? – Alternative approaches to the Group Agreement
Not every group feels comfortable with the idea of rules and norm. Also, not every kind of session or gathering fits the concept of a ‘formal’ agreement. I once was part of a sharing circle for women* from different backgrounds which had a small set of ground rules set by the facilitator. Beyond that, she invited each of us to share a need we had for the group using the phrasing ‘To be able to show up as my truest self today, I need [xxx].’. This way, we were still able to get an understanding of how to treat each other. In another setting, the facilitator invited us to set intentions for our own behaviour in each session, reflecting on the session before.
These kinds of approaches require a certain degree of trust in the group and willingness for self-reflection. So I don’t recommend them in high-stake meetings or with unclear or sensitive group dynamics. If you still want to go deeper, I would put in the time and try out the approach for more detailed Group Agreements by Seeds for Change.
Before I let you go, I wanted to share some personal tips and reflections coming from directly from my practice utilising the method.
- Make it pretty!
Having a Visual Practice background, it comes naturally to me to create nicely decorated flipcharts, making participants more likely to engage with them. Nevertheless, it can get a bit messy when collecting the rules and norms of the group. You might have to twist and tweak to ensure consensus or suggestions you took as granted were not accepted by the group, so you have to cross them out. Sometimes I work on sticky notes or moderation card, but usually, I go straight with a pen to paper because that has a nice finally to it. That means that sometimes I have to re-write the final Group Agreement after the group moved on to the next activity. You might ask yourself if that is really worth it. So let me share with you what one participant told me once:
‘Seeing that you put in the extra work of making the Group Agreement pretty, made me aware of how important it actually is. Thank you!’
- Before or after the team building activity?
I am a big fan of coming up with the rules and norms as the first thing on the agenda, before doing any activities more complicated than an energiser. This way, everyone moves into the team-building exercise already having a base understanding of how to interact. On the other hand, sometimes it is hard for a group to come up with rules as they do not know each other and don’t want to look like they assume someone else will act a certain way. In those cases, I would make a base agreement and during the debriefing of the team building come back it and enrich it based on what happened during the activity,
- Make sure you have your client on the same page.
Not every client is familiar with facilitation approaches and even fewer with the idea of Group Agreements. Make sure you explain it correctly before the event. It will help both – you and them – avoid any potential irritations and conflicts.
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Putting this blog posts together each week is a labour of love, and it would really help me out if you support it by spreading the voice!
Love and appreciation,
P.S. Check out the last Method of the Month here!