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Extension > Community > Civic Engagement > Tip Sheets > How can we support more productive discussions?

Engaging with the Public: A series of best practice tip sheets

How can we support more productive discussions?

Tip: Set ground rules

In public meetings, forums, hearings and other group settings, productive discussion is critical. Ground rules help a group start and maintain productive discussion. Ground rules clarify expectations for behavior in the meeting. In this tip sheet, we answer the question:

How can we start and maintain productive discussions?

About ground rules

Ground rules are a short list of expectations to guide how a group works together. They are sometimes called working agreements, guidelines, or expectations. While many public organizations use parliamentary procedure as a form of ground rules, such formal rules may not be sufficient or appropriate for guiding public discussion.

Effective ground rules help:

Here are suggestions for ground rules that can be especially helpful for public meetings:

Groups can create ground rules in advance of the meeting, or with the group at the meeting. The group's size and purpose can determine how ground rules are set. In large public meetings, we recommend that meeting planners provide ground rules created in advance. This allows the group to focus on the meeting topic while having clear expectations for discussion. In smaller groups, creating expectations together as part of the meeting is a helpful first step to working and making decisions together, particularly in a group that will work together over time.

Once ground rules are clarified, leaders should confirm with the group that these rules will guide discussion. The group's agreement allows the leader or a group member to directly address an issue when a ground rule is not followed.

Having nine or fewer ground rules helps the group more easily remember and support them. Post rules on a handout, table tent or flip chart so that they are readily available. If the group meets multiple times, repost rules at each meeting to orient new participants and remind others.

Summary

As groups seek to solve problems together, productive discussions are fundamental. Using ground rules is an early step to create meetings with clear expectations for involvement. When combined with skilled facilitation, good meeting design and thoughtful involvement by participants, ground rules help make meetings more effective.


References

Boyce, K. (2002). Ground rules for public participation. Fact sheet. St. Paul, MN: University of Minnesota Extension

Justice, T., and Jamieson, D. (1998). The complete guide to facilitation. Amherst, MA: HRD Press.

Scheffert, D., Anderson, M., Anderson, S., et al. (2001). Facilitation resources, volume 4: Managing group interaction. St. Paul, MN: University of Minnesota Extension.

Tip sheet prepared by Lisa Hinz, Assistant Extension Professor and Educator, Leadership and Civic Engagement

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