Groupwork Centre Blog

Group culture: The magic of facilitating group agreements

“How can we work well together?”

Last year, we worked with a group of IT professionals who were blown away by our use of group agreements when working with a group for the first time. Many of them had specialist technical expertise, but didn’t have the skills to work well in their project groups. Their meetings with clients and co-workers were all too often chaotic.

 By contrast, in a very short space of time, group agreements can help you to create a group’s culture, and at the same time, through your actions as facilitator, you can show people how you’ll keep the group feeling safe.

 Whether for a one-off meeting, or a team who will meet many times, agreements are designed to help a group establish their own set of expectations on how to work well together.  Compared to RULES that are handed down, everyone agrees to what’s in and what’s not in their set of agreements.

The key is the conversation about the agreements, not the final words you come up with.

The real power of agreements is in the fact that everyone has an opportunity to contribute and has their personal needs heard and generally met – and as a result, now feel safer.  Many people don’t get this: agreements are first and foremost about creating safety, not about policing behaviour. This is why it never works to use someone else’s agreements.

Steps to facilitate group agreements

The key question to ask a group putting together agreements is:

What’s going to help us work well together?”

Capture the words on a piece of butcher’s paper/poster so everyone can see them.

Scan the room and look for input. It can take a while to get started.  Don’t be impatient.

If people throw up one word values like ‘Respect,’ ask them to unpack the word:

“Ok, great … so what would that look like? 

What would someone be doing if they were sticking to that agreement?”

Once a set of words is offered (eg something like “Listening without interrupting”), check it out with the whole group.  Look for nods of approval and a vibe that the words are acceptable.

 “Does that make sense what Lisa is saying?”

Do not re-interpret what people offer. If you assist with the wording process, make sure the group is still happy once the words are written!

Notice body language. Agreement is often given by nodding but not always.  People are sometimes thinking and may be in agreement but not showing any outward sign that they do.  Look out for signs that suggest disagreement – folded arms, scowls; audible sighs or eye-rolling in extreme cases. When this happens, don’t be afraid to check it out.

 “It looks like you might not be 100% on board with this agreement, Eric?”

People don’t like feeling rail-roaded.  As facilitators we have to work against our internal need to have everyone agree quickly, which can come across as not listening or rushing the process.

Trust the group!  These agreements are for them after all. Whatever is offered will add vital content to the conversation that is revealing the needs and characters of the individuals who are in the group.

As facilitator, when you listen to people who disagree, you help everyone to feel safer because they witness your willingness to engage with different ideas.  As participants, we all worry that our opinion won’t be valued or will be different in some way (in our minds, “wrong”!), so our response as facilitators during this whole process is critical.

Keep looking for offers.  Continue to harvest and write.

 “So what else is going to make our day/team go well?”

On mobile phones or ‘devices’

In our experience, you may need to offer a couple of key items if they are not brought up by the group.  Simply ask people:

“What do you want to do about mobile phones and devices?”

Then have the conversation. Mostly people will be happy to have them on silent and check during breaks.  Stand by people with special needs or with sick kids etc, and show that things can always be negotiated.  This brings out goodwill.  When given the opportunity and responsibility, people are almost always happy to help.

“Are people happy for Sam to have the phone on vibrate to take a call from home?”

Agreement on confidentiality 

This is the other key agreement that should be checked out. Sometimes it’s really important and if not included can limit the extent to which people feel safe to share information.  We find that something around ‘sharing the learnings but protecting the stories’ is one way of navigating this. To have a blanket ‘cone of silence” approach to confidentiality, can be both impractical and unhelpful to taking learnings back to others beyond the group.

If you are also a member of the group as well as the facilitator

Trust that the group will cover most things they need to work well together. If towards the end of the segment you feel there are some key agreements missing, only then suggest one or two additions of your own. Check whether the group wants to adapt your suggestions – or not.

Note to Time-Savers and Self-Confessed Control Freaks

You may have a fear that people won’t be able to agree, which is why many people resort to ‘Ground Rules’. Ironically and not surprisingly, presenting rules can trigger the very behaviours in people we are fearful of, because that idea spreads unconsciously throughout the group. Trust the group!

Reaching agreement is not as hard as you might think. 

People are quite reasonable generally, and will sit happily with a range of group norms when the process is open and transparent.  The impact on group behaviour and the resulting effectiveness of the group can be very significant.

I encourage you to include this in your meeting practice, and notice its positive impact.