Managing Discussions, Blog 3 of 3: Ground Rules and Feedback

Ground rules are critical for managing productive conversation, but they must be presented and agreed upon at the start of a meeting or process.

Key Talents for Better Public Participation, Part 11

Today, we close out our exploration of managing discussions with two critical skills: establishing ground rules and providing feedback.

If you missed them, check out our previous entries on face-to-face facilitation, recording and online moderation.

Ground Rules

When people are treated like adults, they generally act like adults. But sometimes, extra steps need to be taken to reinforce civil behavior. One way of doing so without removing group control over the process, is encouraging participants to set some basic ground rules – norms or standards for conduct, behavior and conversation that help shape constructive and productive dialogue and otherwise make a group functional.

Specifically, ground rules are used to establish the purpose of group, outline how meetings and conversations will be conducted, ensure that conflict is addressed but not escalated and create a safe environment to discuss difficult and controversial issues. The general premise behind ground rules is that all participants should be treated equally and fairly.

Ground rules may be offered or developed in several different ways, though two approaches are the most common. First, the facilitator can list some sample ground rules for the conversation and invite participants to accept, reject, or edit them and to propose new rules. Second, the facilitator can work with the group to develop ground rules from scratch. In this case, members of the group can propose a rule, and if most participants agree to it, the rule can be added to the list. In all cases, after presenting the ground rules to the group, the facilitator should make sure that the rules are agreeable to all.

Ground rules are critical for managing productive conversation, but they must be presented and agreed upon at the start of a meeting or process. Moreover, while some ground rules are fairly common, others may need to be developed or adapted for unique contexts. For example, depending on the goal of the process, it could be useful to include ground rules about how decisions will be made (e.g., through voting, consensus or deferral).

Fewer and simpler ground rules can be used when there are low stakes issues or high performing groups; more detailed ground rules should be used when there are high stakes issues or low performing groups.

Examples of Common Ground Rules

For low stakes issues or high performing groups:

  1. Use respectful language.
  2. Allow equal voice.
  3. Be mindful of time.
  4. Avoid side conversations.
  5. Turn off (or silence) cellphones and other devices.

For high stakes issues or low performing groups:

  1. Listen actively - respect others when they are talking.
  2. Speak from your own experience instead of generalizing. (Use "I" statements.)
  3. Ask questions to respectfully challenge one another, but refrain from personal attacks - focus on ideas.
  4. Participate to the fullest of your ability and help make sure every individual voice is included.
  5. Our goal is not necessarily to agree - it is to gain a deeper understanding.
  6. Be conscious of body language and nonverbal responses - they can be as disrespectful as words.

The ground rules described here, and the participatory process for developing and adhering to them, stand in stark contrast to Robert’s Rules of Order, the most commonly used guidelines in conventional participation formats.

Robert’s Rules are typically preset, cannot be changed by the group and often seem arcane to people who do not use them often. In these ways, they reflect a parent-child relationship between government and citizens. The ground rules that have emerged during the last twenty years in successful participation projects are more informal and egalitarian; in a number of places they have been referred to, facetiously but accurately, as “Bob’s Rules”:

Box 8: Bob's Rules (Robert's kinder, gentler sibling)

  • Respect other people, their ideas and opinions.
  • Do not interrupt others.
  • Try to say it in 25 words or less.
  • Speak only to the topic at hand.
  • No side conversations.
  • When an idea has been stated previously and you agree, only speak when you have something new to add.
  • Everyone gets a chance to share their opinion before someone speaks again.
  • Speaking briefly and staying focused is everyone's responsibility. This will make the meeting run smoothly.
  • These are everybody's rules and everyone is responsible for seeing that they are followed.
  • (Provided by Cece Hughley-Noel, Southeast Uplift in Portland, Oregon)
  • Ground rules should be easily accessible and visible. For example, in a face-to-face meeting they can be posted on the wall, and in an online forum they can posted in a way that makes them easy to find. This makes it easier to refer to them and ensure that they are followed.

Giving Feedback

Both facilitators and moderators often need to give feedback to participants, particularly when behaviors or actions are disruptive to the group. This can be a very challenging and difficult task – it is often uncomfortable to give criticism to others, even when it is intended as constructive criticism.

The purpose of feedback is at least two-fold. Most immediately, feedback is intended to stop a negative or disruptive behavior, but it also serves the broader, longer-term purposes of enlarging participants’ awareness and understanding and reinforcing the idea of treating people like adults. Feedback should be structured to be heard, which means that it should be:

  • Specific (it should clearly name the behavior or the problem);
  • Neutral, but encouraging (it should be centered on the behavior or the problem, not the person, and it should encourage the person to continue participating);
  • Based on observation (it should be grounded in what has been happened during the conversation); and
  • Well-timed (addressed at an appropriate juncture in the conversation, preferably at a break if it is the first offense, but then in the conversation if the problem continues).

If the problem continues, a facilitator can explain more clearly how the problem is affecting the group. One formula for giving difficult feedback is particularly useful:

“When you X [a specific behavior], it makes the group Y [a feeling or effect], and causes Z [a specific impact].”

For example:

“When you interrupt others (the behavior), it makes the group upset (feeling), and causes us to lose track of our ideas (impact).”


“When you talk with your neighbor (behavior), it seems like you are not part of the group (the effect), and it makes it difficult to keep the group moving (impact).”

If appropriate, a suggestion for the future can be added as a third part in this formula. For example:

“When you arrive late to our meetings (the behavior), it is disruptive to our work (effect) and throws us off schedule (impact). In the future, could you please try to arrive on time or let us know if you will be late?”

Read other blogs in this series:

Part 1: Ten Key Talents for Better Public Participation

Part 2: Building Coalitions and Networks

Part 3: Cultural Competence and Engaging Youth

Part 4: Recruiting Participants

Part 5: Communicating About Participation

Part 6: Managing Conflict

Part 7: Providing Information and Options: Issue Framing

Part 8: Providing Information and Options: Sequencing Discussions and Writing Discussion Materials

Part 9: Managing Discussions, Blog 1 of 3: Facilitating Face-to-Face Groups

Part 10: Managing Discussions, Blog 2 of 3: Recording and Online Moderation

Portions of this post were excerpted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy by Tina Nabatchi and Matt Leighninger. Copyright© 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.


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