Ground Rules for Effective Groups

(From Chapter 5 of The Skilled Facilitator, by Roger Schwartz)

1. Test assumptions and inferences

When you assume something, you take for granted that it is true without verifying it.  When you infer something, you draw conclusions about what you do not know on the basis of things that you do know.  cf.: Ladder of Inference.

p.104: The problem is not that you make inferences; you must do that to make sense out of what people are saying.  Rather, it is how you make inferences and what you do with them.

  1. You are usually unaware that you are making inferences, so you consider them facts rather than hypotheses.
  2. The inferences you make are often high-level inferences, greatly removed from the data you have.
    (cf.: Interpersonal Gap)
  3. You do not test out with people about whom you are making an inference wither it is accurate, you simply act on it as if it is true.

2. Share all relevant information

p.109: In a Difficult Conversation, there is often a large gap between what you say and what is in your left hand column.  You are likely to talk about the content or substantive issue and keep unexpressed your thoughts and feelings regarding types of information, in part because your feelings about others affect how you view the content of the conversation.

3. Use specific examples and agree on important words

p.112: Some group members and facilitators have a concern about naming names in the group.  They follow the principle to “praise in public, criticize in private.”  Unfortunately, this principle prevents sharing valid information.  If Joe and Selina’s not completing their report section creates a problem for other group members, and if Henry pulls [them] out of the meeting to share his concern, the other group members do not get a chance to directly share their own concern and Joe and Selina do not get a chance to talk about how others’ work habits may have contributed to their not completing their section.  Talking to Joe and Selina in private essentially removes the data from the system (the group) in which it arose, which increases the chance of the problem being solved in a way that contributes to more problems in the system.
The principle of praising in public and criticizing in private has a Unilateral Control set of assumptions embedded in it: discussing your concerns about other’s behavior is criticism.

4. Explain reasoning and intent

p.113: If you do not explain your reasoning, the people you are talking with will often generate their own explanation of your reassigning, and their explanations may differ greatly from your own explanation.  Using this ground rule means explaining to others what leads you to make a comment or ask a question or take an action.  Reasoning and intent are similar, but different.
Intent: your purpose for doing something.
Reasoning: represents the logical process that you use to draw conclusions on the basis of data, values, and assumptions.

Unilateral Control Model Mutual Learning Model
Making your strategy transparent is a problem because your strategy is to be unilaterally controlling; sharing your strategy reduces your ability to implement it. Explaining your reasoning and making your strategy transparent are opportunities to learn where others have differing views or approaches and where you may have missed something that others see.

5. Focus on interests, not positions

p.117: People’s interest lead them to advocate a particular solution or position.
p.118: The trouble with solving a problem by focusing first on positions is that people’s positions are often in conflict even when their interests are compatible.  this occurs because people tend to offer their position after they have attended to their own interests, but before they have included  members’ interests.

Example: Three people state what kind of car they want to buy, and all disagree.  If instead, they said why they chose the care that they did, it would be easier to find a model that met all of their needs.

6. Combine advocacy and inquiry

p.120: Combining advocacy and inquiry accomplishes several goals

  • It shifts a meeting from a series of mono logs to a focused conversation
  • It creates the conditions necessary for learning.

Because the Skilled Facilitator approach starts with the assumption that multiple views are an opportunity for learning, focusing on difference is essential.  The Mutual Learning approach increases the chance that you can intervene on disagreements without creating unproductive conflict and defensive behavior.

Inquiry, Genuine, and Rhetorical:
Genuine inquiry: ask a question with the intent of learning
Rhetorical inquiry: ask a question with the intent of conveying your point of view.
The difference … is not simply in words; it is a difference in intent and meaning and the kind of response you help to generate.

7. Jointly design the approach

p.125: In general, jointly designing next steps means

  1. Advocating your point of view about how you want to proceed, including your interests, relevant information, reasoning and intent. (cf.: Awareness Wheel)
  2. Inquiring about how others may see it differently
  3. Jointly crafting a way to proceed that takes into account group member’s interests, relevant information, reasoning, and intent.

p.127: Two important questions to ask when jointly testing disagreements are
1. How could it be that we are both correct?
2. How could we each be seeing different parts of the same problem?

8. Discuss undiscussables

p.129: Undiscussable issues are those that are relevant to the group’s task but that group members believe they cannot discuss openly in the group without some negative consequences. … Unfortunately, because such issues often raise feelings of mistrust, inadequacy, and defensiveness, members usually deal with the issues by talking about them not at all or outside the group meeting with people they trust.

Group members often choose not to discuss undiscussables, reasoning that to raise these issues makes some group members feel embarrassed or defensive; they therefore seek to save face for the group members (and for themselves as well).  In short, they see discussing undiscussable issues as not being compassionate.
yet people often overlook the negative systemic — and uncompassionate consequences that they create by not raising an undiscussable issues. (cf.: A Model of Social Loafing in Real Work Groups).

To raise the issue with compassion for others and yourself, do so with the assumptions that

  • You may be missing things
  • You may be contributing to the problem
  • Others are trying to act with integrity.

Even though this ground rule is emotionally difficult to use, the process for employing it is contained in all the previous ground rules.

p.131: “I want to share some observations and raise what may be an undiscussable issue.  I’m not raising it to put people on the spot, but to see if there is an unaddressed issue that is preventing you from being as effective as you want to be.  Here’s what I’ve observed. …”

9.Use a decision-making rule that generates the commitment needed

p.133: If commitment is needed (cf.: Stages of Change Commitment, Positive Response to Change, Negative Response to Change) and there are differing perspectives among members (or between group members and the leader), the decision-making process needs to help members (including the leader) explore their perspectives and create a shared understanding.  … Making a decision by consensus can take more time that other methods, but because people are then internally committed to the decision, it will usually take less time to implement effectively.  (cf.: Decision Making – in Organizational Behavior- an Experimental Approach)

p.134: You may be reluctant to use consensus because in your experience, groups are rarely able to reach consensus and you are worried that key decisions will not get made.  Many groups are unable to reach consensus because they do not use an effective set of ground rules.  Bu using all the other ground rules, the group increases the likelihood that it can reach consensus.


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