Questions and answers from the messy/ fascinating side of equity, diversity and inclusion. 

Making discussions human-friendly: Ground rules 101



I'm a fan of ground rules.  In a world where freedom is everything, the brain sometimes craves a little guidance, or as an awesome engineer I knew once called them: guardrails. Fun fact: I learned to use ground rules in anarchist camps. This only further cemented in my mind that they are not about limiting human authenticity -- they are about making communication channels human-friendly.  I now use rules of engagement in group conversations, in group coaching, and I recommend companies that have more than 6 employees implement them for general work interactions. 

WHY THEY WORK: Research shows that all human groups use rules of engagement to make something that can be very unpredictable (humans and human conversations) be a little more predictable.  Most ground rules, or rules of engagement, are implicit, ie they don't have to be spoken to be understood. For example, a common human rule of engagement is that it is a sign of respect to let another person finish their sentence before you begin yours. However, when human groups get larger (especially past 20 people) these rules need to be made explicit because there are simply too many personalities and preferences and expectations for our brains to keep track of.  Creating ground rules, or rules of engagement, is especially critical if the conversation territory is new or difficult (say, if you're talking about justice, religion, politics, race, etc).  Without ground rules, infighting and "splintering" (when the group divides into subgroups that don't trust each other) can spiral out of control.  

Ground rules do not have to be stuffy and stiff, and should not be overly cutesy or gimmicky (it's ok if they don't spell something clever as an acronym). They do have to be shortish, so brains can remember, like "Stay curious" (my personal favorite ground rule). 

I have five ground rules that are my go-to based on my experience mediating tough conversations and facilitating justice work.  Read my five go-to rules I use for group discussions and general team work. What I have concluded: A little time upfront setting a few rules of engagement (it can be 10 minutes) consistently set a foundation for human-friendly communication and minimizes the need for mind-reading.