The ground rules being used by a cooperative housing community in Connecticut caught our attention recently. We are big proponents of using ground rules to facilitate productive discussions. These ones were especially good because they were thoughtful, detailed, and well-organized. They were also handwritten, which gave them a deeply personal quality (similar to how a handwritten note has so much more impact than an email).
The complete story about this cooperative housing community can be found here: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/11/realestate/connecticut-cohousing-foreclosure.html?smid=em-share
If everyone were a master communicator – incapable of distorting the facts, clear about their own motives, able to accept responsibility to see each perspective clearly – then perhaps ground rules would not be necessary.
But no one is a perfect communicator. Even the best communicators fall into traps and pitfalls. Ground rules are the guardrails that guide a strategic conversation safely home. (Click here to learn more about ground rules)
The following ground rules have proven successful time after time. Each ground rule points to one of the tools or skills embodied in straight talk.
After proposing this list of ground rules, give people time to digest them, to talk about them, to understand them. Usually this takes about 30 or 45 minutes worth of discussion. The major point to underscore is this:
Ground rules benefit everyone equally.
They are a way to ensure a successful outcome. Therefore, assuming everyone wants a successful outcome, everyone should be motivated to abide by them. At this point, it’s natural that someone asks:
The answer is: These rules work. You may add to them if you like. But you cannot subtract from them. These rules are the minimum needed for straight talk. Someone will say:
Don’t be surprised if they do. Human nature being what it is, people will break the rules – even after they agree to abide by them. Usually, it’s not intentional. From kindergarten on:
Especially at first, people will break the rules all the time. So you need to start slow and give each other constant encouragement. The group will learn from your mistakes. Someone will ask:
The answer: You all will. Each participant should monitor the quality of communication. This requires people to “parallel process.” People will need to track the content of what’s actually being said and, simultaneously, track the quality of the process – i.e. what’s missing, or not being said. It’s like playing a friendly game of softball. Everyone needs to be umpire – even when they’re up to bat.
How does this parallel processing work in practice? When the marketing director starts to talk, you’ve got to be simultaneously listening to her arguments and asking yourself, “Where is she on the Circle of Assumptions? What data is she missing? What’s going on in her Inner Script?” Everyone in the room should be acting in the same capacity – simultaneously acting both as a steward of, and a participant in, the conversation.
The only way to overcome this fear is to practice. People have to see that the rules work. When you point out that a ground rule is being broken, don’t view it as criticizing someone. Instead, view it as helping each other learn a new skill. Keep reminding yourselves: The ground rules benefit everyone. Their purpose is to build understanding, not limit it. None of these rules serve any one person’s interests, only the interests of the group.
Often, all that’s necessary is to ask the group whether the ground rules are being adhered to. Calling attention to the behaviors of the group is usually enough to get people to be more sensitive to their behaviors. Another step is for someone to call a quick time-out and invite the person outside to talk about his or her behavior.
Of course. But an hour-long meeting doesn’t afford the time needed to lay out the ground rules thoroughly. Initially, you’ll want to apply them to a meeting of a half-day or more. Afterward, you may choose to apply the ground rules to every meeting.
Over time, you’ll find that people will make the ground rules a matter of honor. They’ll talk about them as being key factors in successful communication. They’ll preach their value to the rest of the organization. And, in time, the culture will evolve to a point where the ground rules are seen as an elementary part of every communication – as principles of conduct rather than rules. At that point, your organization will have become truly a learning organization.
Check out the full article on “The 11 Ground Rules of Straight Talk” to learn more about each rule, and how these rules can lead to communication that is both heated and productive. There is no need to distinguish between a conversation filled with passion and one filled with trust.
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