Six rules for working in groups

I was just asked: Do you have a set of ground rules you use when facilitating a group?

Mine are fairly simple. Here’s the list. The explanations follow.

  1. Share space
  2. Share responsibility
  3. Honor time
  4. Savor humans and humor
  5. “Everyone has a piece of the truth”
  6. Phones on vibrate
  7. ___________________
  8. ___________________

Share Space

This rule includes physical and air space. I let participants know that they shouldn’t feel constrained by the chairs or break schedule. If they need to stretch, their aching back requires them to stand, they need refreshments or a bio-break, or to open or close a window, they should take charge of their comfort and environment.

I also note that some of us think by talking, while others need time to think before sharing their thoughts. So we thinking talkers need to rein ourselves in a bit and also allow some pauses to linger while those who think first prepare to share their thoughts. And those who think first may need to be a bit more daring and perhaps put forward a few not-completely-formed comments now and then.

Share responsibility

While I’ve been hired to guide the process, the outcomes of the meeting are the group’s responsibility. If the agenda needs reworking, if individuals have particular insights that would be helpful to the process, please share. And of course, what happens after the retreat is the work of the participants.

It also means that individuals need to put onto the table the issues and ideas that need discussing. If you don’t mention it yourself, no one else is likely to do it for you.

Honor time

My commitment is to guide the group through the agenda items and end the meeting on time (and sometimes even earlier if possible). That requires everyone’s attention to assignments and commitments to arrive and return from breaks at the agreed upon time.  If it looks like critical discussions are taking place that require more time, I’ll negotiate that with the group with options for trimming items  or extending a few minutes.

Savor humans and humor

This is the rule where I bundle rules such as respecting each other and treating each other with kindness.  And of course, every meeting can benefit from good hearted smiles, chuckles and shared laughter now and then.

Everyone has a piece of the truth

This Quaker saying, also attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, reminds us to listen carefully and learn from different perspectives.

Phones on vibrate

There’s nothing more disturbing than a cell phone ringing right in the middle of a deep discussion. This comes with the request that if you need to take that call, please do it outside the room.


Every group may have its own additional set of rules or special ways of being together. I like to leave space for ensuring this, or accommodating special needs like a color vision deficiency.

I share these rules at the beginning of the meeting and ask the group if it can agree to work with them as the guide. I then hang the flip chart up where I’ve recorded them so that I can point back to the agreement on the off chance that someone forgot a rule in the heat of a discussion.

What rules guide your group work? I’d love to have you share.

4 responses to Six rules for working in groups

  1. Bonnie Koenig

    Great list! I often add “Silence is not Agreement” – This is especially important in meetings where the meeting language is not everyone’s mother tongue, but it is also respectful of the fact that everyone processes information at a different rate. By adding this as a guideline I encourage everyone to hold the facilitator(s) and each other accountable to not moving on from important junctures or decisions until everyone is indeed ready.

  2. Jo Nelson

    This is what I use. I don’t call them rules. They are more like underlying assumptions.
    Working Assumptions

    (with explanation of each in parentheses)

    1. Everyone has wisdom. (This doesn’t mean everything that everyone says is wise. It means that behind what they say is wisdom, and we will listen for it.)

    2. We need everyone’s wisdom for the wisest result. (In the same way that a diamond is more valuable when it is cut with more facets, what we come up with will be more valuable when we have illuminated more facets of what we are working with.)

    3. There are no wrong answers. (See number 1 — behind what may seem on the surface as a wrong answer — and I have heard some that were positively evil on the surface — there is wisdom, and that is what we will listen for. The corollary, of course, is that there are no right answers, only the best we can come up with given our limitations.)

    4. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. (Trite, yes, but points to consensus as creating a larger answer that is not identical to any one view, but includes the wisdom of many. Diamond image again. I think of compromise as smaller than the sum of its parts, consensus as larger. Like a puzzle picture, which is the sum of the puzzle pieces and their relationships. All puzzle pieces are included, or there is a hole.)

    5. Everyone will hear others and be heard. (This doesn’t mean that everyone has to talk all the time — then nobody would be heard. It means listening to others as well as making sure your wisdom is on the table.)

    I’ve recently concluded that Aretha Franklin would probably summarize the whole list with “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.”

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      Thank you for sharing these underlying assumptions. The “everyone has wisdom” is very much the same as “we all hold a piece of the truth.” I really like your continued focus on wisdom as an organizing principle.

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