Covenants, not ground rules

covenantThough I believe that adopting explicit ground rules can improve conferences, I’ve never been especially happy with the term ground rules. Language is important, and Rules are typically imposed by bosses, governments, and dictators.

So the other day, during a workshop run by Patrick Short and Alan Montague, I was happy to discover a word I like better.

Covenant“an agreement, usually formal, between two or more persons to do or not do something specified.”
dictionary.com

Unlike rules handed down from on high, covenants are agreements, in this case between a facilitator and participants.

This may seem a little disingenuous, because I believe it’s still a facilitator’s responsibility to suggest or elicit covenants that shape group behavior. Given that facilitators typically possess more influence and authority over group process than anyone else present, they will likely shape the covenants the group adopts, to some extent.

Nevertheless, the term “covenants” describes a group’s agreements about how its members will work together, shifting the focus from imposed rules to group agreements. If contentious aspects of these agreements surface, they are the group’s agreements rather than the facilitator’s ground rules, and can be discussed, modified, or even set aside without necessarily turning the process into a challenge of something the facilitator has foisted on the group.

So for me, covenants are in and ground rules are out. It’s a small change, but I think it’s one worth making.

What do you think? How do you introduce group agreements when you’re facilitating? Comments, as always, are welcome.