The fairest rules for meetings

fairest rules meetings
What are the fairest rules to use when running meetings? This might seem like an odd question. You might ask, “Fair to whom?” or, “What do you mean by fair?” I think it’s reasonable to concentrate on fairness to participants: the majority of those involved with the meeting. As to what being fair to participants might look like, let’s turn to the ideas of the moral and political philosopher John Rawls.

In his influential 1971 book A Theory of Justice , John suggested that “the fairest rules are those to which everyone would agree if they did not know how much power they would have.”

All meetings have rules, whether overt or covert, conscious or unconscious, that influence how they proceed. These rules are embedded into every aspect of the meeting, from the seating arrangements (1, 2, 3, 4) to the meeting formats employed. We usually think of rules as guides to process. But, at a deeper level, rules instantiate issues of status and power.

Status and power at meetings

I think of status at events as the relative levels of proclaimed or perceived social value assigned to or assumed by attendees. And power at events is an individual’s capacity to influence the actions, beliefs, or conduct of attendees.

Typically, but not always, higher status implies greater power at meetings.

In wider contexts, status is situational. The low status janitor at a big corporation may be the high status head of their family at home. Some say I have high status in the event industry, but when I’m facilitating a roomful of subject matter experts, I’m the most ignorant and lowest status person present.

At a traditional meeting, however, perceived status roles rarely change significantly during the event. This leads to a number of problems, which I described in my first meeting design book: Conferences That Work.

To overcome these problems, one of my goals for the participant-driven and participation-rich meetings I champion is to use process that deemphasizes old-school fixed status at meetings and emphasizes what I call real-time status.

The key process I use to do this is to ask the group to commit to specific agreements (rules, if you like) at the start of the event.

Here are the six agreements — The Four Freedoms plus two other agreements — that I’ve been using for years.

fairest rules

The fairest rules and my six agreements

Which brings us back to John Rawls’ intriguing and bold statement on what the fairest rules would be: “those to which everyone would agree if they did not know how much power they would have.”

Let’s use Rawls’ suggestion to explore the fairness of using the above six agreements at a meeting.

The first agreement…

…is that everyone has the right to express their point of view. At many events, only high status people talk. I remember the physics conferences I attended as a lowly graduate student, where the prize-winning physicist lectured for fifty minutes, and only his (yes, they were all guys) colleagues and rivals spoke at the end. The tacit assumption was that you didn’t speak unless you had something brilliant to say.

The first agreement I have a group make is that anyone has the right to share their opinion with others in the group. For a low status person (like me at those conferences), that is a great freedom to have. If I had explicitly been given it, I might well have had the courage to speak all those years ago.

High status individuals at the physics conferences reinforced their high status by speaking publicly. They maintained or gained status, at the expense of others who did not. That was not fair.

I think my first agreement clearly implements Rawls’ fairest rules suggestion.

The second agreement…

…is that everyone has the freedom to ask questions. Like the first agreement, this freedom allows low status group members to speak up. In particular, it removes the—often self-imposed—barrier to asking a “stupid” question. How often have you not understood what someone said, but failed to ask them a clarifying question “because it might make you look stupid”?

Of course, having the freedom to ask a question, even if you’re worried it might make you look stupid, often has an unexpected outcome. It frequently turns out that other group members have the same question! And it’s often the case that the reason many people have the question is that the speaker has been unclear about what they were saying, or perhaps even said something incorrect.

Speaking truth to power often involves questioning what a speaker has said. High status individuals may not like this. So I think my second agreement also clearly implements Rawls’ fairest rules suggestion.

I introduce the third agreement at meetings…

…by saying, “it’s about the F-word.” <Pause>. “Feelings.”

Meeting participants don’t, in general, spend much time expressing how they feel. Although that’s often the case because feelings aren’t relevant to a group discussion, sometimes people think or feel it’s inappropriate to share how they feel with others, especially to a group of strangers.

This agreement says it’s okay to talk about how you’re feeling. It gives individuals permission to talk about sensitive issues, if desired. Besides being potentially healthy for the sharer, it is often validating and helpful for group members who feel the same way. Talking about how you’re feeling reduces power inequities in meetings where dominant members try to push through a contentious decision. Giving participants the freedom to share how they feel can help ensure that more voices are heard.

Like the first two rules, this rule also supports low status and low power individuals in a group. So it also implements Rawls’ fairest rules suggestion.

The fourth agreement…

…is a meta-agreement that gives participants the freedom to say that they don’t feel the three preceding agreements are being followed. Though I’ve never heard this freedom invoked at any conference I’ve facilitated, I feel confident that its existence, and the group awareness that everyone has agreed to it, helps prevent the kind of dismissal, shaming, and bullying behavior that can surface at traditional meetings.

In some ways, this agreement is the closest framing of Rawls’ fairness rules suggestion. It says not only have we agreed on rules that minimize power differentials but we also have the right to call out instances when these rules are not being followed.

The fifth agreement…

…is about keeping what is discussed while the group is together confidential. I’ve written in more detail about the value of this important agreement here. Interestingly, this agreement potentially benefits all participants, whether high or low power/status. Why? When anyone shares, they potentially reveal something about themselves. A group confidentiality agreement helps increase people’s feeling of safety, possibly making it more likely they will share something sensitive.

The corporate CEO risks confessing that they have been neglecting a company-wide issue for too long. A mid-level manager shares their difficulties working with their boss. A new hire summons the courage to ask what they think is a basic question, to which they believe they should know the answer. All these actions are more likely when the initiator trusts that the group will respect their confidentiality.

The fifth agreement, therefore, is probably the easiest agreement for high status group members to agree to. They have something to gain too. It epitomizes Rawls’ fairness rules suggestion.

The sixth agreement…

…is about staying on time.

A meeting may have a predetermined schedule, or the schedule may be negotiated and constructed on the fly, as typically occurs at peer conferences (aka unconferences). I have been at too many conferences where unchecked, self-important presenters run way over their allotted time, causing an inevitable train wreck with subsequent sessions truncated and even cancelled. (Here are a couple of my own unhappy experiences.)

Applying Rawls’ suggestion would mean that all presenters would agree to present as if they had been scheduled at any point in a meeting program: the first or last session, or at any time between. As the above article explains, the resulting program, where everyone stays on time, offers many advantages to everyone involved.

How do your meeting rules fare under Rawls’ fairness rules?

How do my six agreements fare under Rawls’ fairness rules?

Pretty well, I think!

Take a few minutes to think about the rules — overt or covert, conscious or unconscious — that you use to run your meetings. How does their fairness fare? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

If you discover you are still enabling power and status imbalances at your events, you are not serving your participants well.

What are you going to do about it?


Want to learn more about John Rawls and political philosophy in a delightful way? Listen toA Theory of Justice: The Musical!

Handling a meeting question that isn’t

Dealing with questions that aren't We’ve all experienced the meeting question that isn’t. A session presenter or moderator asks for questions and someone stands up and starts spouting their own opinions. A concluding question (if they even have one) is little more than an excuse for their own speech.

Are you tired of attendees making statements during question time? Here are ways to deal with audience questions that aren’t actually questions.

Read the rest of this entry »

Reduce Chinese-style self-censorship at your meetings

censorship at meetings The Chinese government runs a massive online censorship program. Why mention this on an event design blog? Well, the most effective aspect of China’s online censorship regime illustrates what happens when you don’t incorporate covenants into your meetings. You get self-censorship at meetings.

Self-censorship at meetings

Tech In Asia explains:

“Imagine being near a steep cliff. During the day, when you can see clearly, you might walk right up to the edge to take in the view. But at night or during a thick fog, you’re probably going to steer well clear of the cliff’s edge to ensure that you don’t accidentally misjudge where you are and tumble to your death.

China’s vaguely-defined web content rules and inconsistent censorship enforcement work the same way as the fog near a cliff: since people can’t see exactly where the edge is, they’re more likely to stay far away from it, just in case. There’s no toeing the line, because nobody knows exactly where the line is. So instead of pushing the envelope, many people choose to censor themselves.”
The cleverest thing about China’s internet censorship, Tech In Asia

The value of meeting covenants

As I’ve explained elsewhere, good covenants publicly clarify the freedoms that attendees have at an event, like the freedoms to speak one’s mind, ask questions, and share feelings. Agreeing to such freedoms individually and as a group at the start of a meeting dissipates ambiguity about behavior. The cliff edge dividing acceptable from unacceptable behavior becomes much clearer. Participants are no longer uncertain about what is O.K. to say and do.

Once attendees feel safe to share, empowered to ask questions, and express what they think and feel, amazing things happen. I’ve been using explicit covenants for fifteen years. In my experience, effective learning, meaningful connection, engagement, and resulting community all noticeably increase.

Include covenants to reduce Chinese-style self-censorship

If you omit group covenants at your meetings, you default to an environment where participants will self-censor their behavior. Given that it takes about five minutes to explain and obtain covenant commitment, it’s crazy to miss out on one of the simplest and most effective things you can do to improve your meeting.

Don’t just read this, nod your head, and forget about it. The next time you run a meeting, introduce covenants at the start (Chapter 18 of The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action has full details) and discover the power of covenants for yourself and your attendees!

Bonus insight on another relationship between censorship and meeting design: How you may be treating your meeting evaluations like a Chinese censor.

Photo attribution: Flickr user zedzap

Covenants, not ground rules

covenants not ground rules Though 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.”

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

Covenants, not ground rules

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. This shifts 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. The group can discuss them, modify them, or even set them aside.

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.

Ground rules at the Lost Levels unconference

ground rules REMINDERS at lostlevels Ground rules? We don’t need ’em!

Yes you do!

“Game makers find inspiration at Lost Levels, an intimate and involving gathering where anything seems possible”
Laura Hudson, The radical games event where the next speaker is you

The Lost Levels four-hour gaming unconference incorporates these agreements:

  • Make space for others!
  • Watch out for blocking views
  • Be an active listener
  • (and indirectly) Be amazing!

Don’t feel you need to use the Lost Levels agreements at your event. You should tailor ground rules (aka agreements or covenants) to fit meeting needs. But there’s something to be said for incorporating Lost Levels’ agreements into your events.

Image attribution: Laura Hudson, boingboing

We can talk about it

We can talk about it 4015519496_e9515f879b_b

We can’t talk about how we could do things better around here
We can’t talk about what isn’t working
We can’t talk about the countless opportunities we ignore
We can’t talk about what hurts
We can’t talk about dignity
We can’t talk about how to make magic happen
We can’t talk to our boss, our employees, our board, our investors
We can’t talk about the things we can’t talk about

That’s a shame.
—Seth Godin, We can’t talk about it

One of the reasons we feel we can’t talk about things is that we are scared about who might hear—people who have, or might have, power or influence of some kind over us, like our boss (“You’re fired!“) or colleagues (“He’s weird!”)

Even if we’re at a meeting where none of these people are present, we’re unlikely to say certain things if we’re worried that, somehow, what we say gets back to these people.

Which is why one of the ground rules I ask everyone to agree to at the start of my conferences is about confidentiality:

“What we discuss at this conference will remain confidential. What we share here, stays here.”

I explain that you can still talk about what happened in general terms (“Most participants thought that implementing the new regulations would lead to increased airline security.”), but not in a way that directly implicates an individual (“John Smith said that the new regulations were just security theatre.”)

In the fourteen years since I introduced this ground rule, no one has ever refused to abide by it. And, to my knowledge, no one has ever breached this form of confidentiality.

There’s no ultimate guarantee, of course, that everyone will always honor this agreement. When we share something intimate, at that moment we are trusting those around us. Each person has to decide whether they are prepared to take a risk. Sometimes they will remain quiet. But my observations over the years have led me to believe that this ground rule makes the environment safer for many attendees, with the consequence that some of them will share important sensitive things that would otherwise remain unsaid.

We can talk about it, if we feel safe enough. Explaining and obtaining agreement on a confidentiality ground rule can take a minute at the start of an event. In my experience, it’s time well spent.

Photo attribution: Flickr user lewishamdreamer

The implicit ground rules of traditional conferences

implicit ground rules Traditional conferences have implicit ground rules. Many people are surprised when I talk about the need for explicit ground rules at conferences. “Why do you need them?” is a common response.

So perhaps it’s worthwhile pointing out that every traditional conference has ground rules.

We just never talk about them. They’re implicit.

Some common implicit ground rules:

  • Don’t interrupt presentations.
  • Don’t ask questions until you’re told you can.
  • The time to meet and connect with other attendees is during the breaks not during the sessions.
  • Applaud the presenter when she’s done.
  • Don’t share anything intimate; you don’t know who might hear about it.
  • The people talking at the front of the room know more than the audience.
  • Don’t talk about how you’re feeling in public.
  • If you have an opposing minority point of view, keep quiet.

And a few more for conference organizers (a little tongue-in-cheek here):

  • Don’t reveal your revenue model.
  • Never explain how a sponsor got onto the program.
  • Don’t publish attendee evaluations unless they’re highly favorable.

You can probably think of more.

Of course, each of us has slightly different interpretations or internal beliefs about implicit ground rules like these, and that’s what causes problems.

When we don’t agree to explicit ground rules at the start of an event, no one knows exactly what’s acceptable behavior. (Think about what it’s like when you have to go to a conference and don’t know the dress code.) The result is stress when we’d like to do something that might not be OK, like ask a question, let a presenter know we can’t hear properly, or share a personal story. We’re social animals, and most of us don’t want to rock the boat too much. The end result: we play it safe; we’ll probably remain silent. And we lose an opportunity to make our experience better and more meaningful.

A common misconception about explicit ground rules is that they restrict us from doing things. (“Turn off your cell phones”. “No flash photography”.) Actually, good ground rules do the opposite; they increase our freedom of action. That’s because, by making it explicit that certain behaviors, like asking questions, are permitted they remove stressful uncertainty and widen our options.

I use six explicit ground rules for all Conferences That Work. Four of them, The Four Freedoms, are available for download. To learn about the others and understand how they all work, read my book!

What do you think about explicit ground rules during conferences? Have you attended conferences that used them? If so, what was your experience of having them available?

Participation techniques you can use in conference sessions

Participation techniques you can use in conference sessions Here’s the summary handout for my workshop on participation techniques you can use in conference sessions that I’ll be leading at MPI’s World Education Congress 2011. The notes at the end of the list contain additional resources for information on these techniques.

Technique: Setting ground rules ‡*
Brief description: Setting ground rules before other activities commence clarifies and unifies participants’ expectations.
When to use: Start of session, workshop, or conference.
Helpful for: Setting the stage for collaboration and participation, by giving people permission and support for sharing with and learning from each other. Increases participants’ safety and intimacy.
Resources needed: Paper or online list of ground rules.

Technique: Human spectrogram
Brief description: People stand along a line (one dimension) or in a room space (two dimensions) to answer session questions (factual or opinions).
When to use: Usually at the start of a session. Also use as an icebreaker before or during the three questions.
Helpful for: Allowing participants and the group to discover commonalities. Also use to pick homogeneous or heterogeneous groups/teams. Also use to hear a spectrum of comments on an issue and then view any resulting shifts in opinion. Gets people out of their chairs!
Resources needed: A clear corridor space between walls (one-dimension), or a clear room (two dimensions).

Technique: The three questions *
Brief description: Three questions answered in turn by every participant to the entire group within a given time limit, typically 1½ – 3 minutes.
How did I get here?
– What do I want to have happen?
– What experience do I have that others may find useful?

When to use: Normally, right after ground rules have been set.
Helpful for: Learning about each participant, exposing topics and questions of interest to the group, uncovering formerly unknown useful expertise for the group to share.
Resources needed: Question cards and pens, circle of chairs. Do not replace cards with the three questions posted on a wall or screen.

Technique: Fishbowl *
Brief description: An effective technique for focused discussion. Works by limiting and making clear who can speak at any moment.
When to use: During any conference content or topic oriented session. Also use for conference closing discussion.
Helpful for: Keeping group discussions focused. A plus is that contributors need to move to and from discussion chairs, maintaining alertness and engagement.
Resources needed: Chairs, either set in two concentric circles or in a U-shape with discussant chairs at the mouth.

Technique: Personal introspective *
Brief description: A session where attendees privately reflect on their answers to five questions. All attendees then have an opportunity but not an obligation to share their answers with the group.
When to use: Towards the end of the event, usually just before the final group session for a short event. At multi-day events, sometimes held as the first session on the last day.
Helpful for: Reinforcing learning and concretizing changes participants may wish to make in their lives as a consequence of their experiences during the event.
Resources needed: Chairs, either set in small circles or one large circle, personal introspective question cards and pens.

Technique: Affinity grouping †*
Brief description: A technique to discover and share ideas that arise during the conference and group them into categories, so they can be organized and then discussed.
When to use: Can be used at any session to elicit and gain group responses to ideas. Also useful as a closing process if action outcomes are desired.
Helpful for: Future planning, and uncovering group or sub-group energy around topics and actions. Can be used to guide decision-making by the group.
Resources needed: Cards and/or large sticky notes, pens, pins or tape if cards used, walls for posting.

Technique: Plus/delta *
Brief description: A simple review tool for participants to quickly identify what went well and potential improvements.
When to use: Normally during a closing session.
Helpful for: Quickly uncovering, with a minimum of judgment, positive comments on and possible improvements to a conference or other experience.
Resources needed: Flipcharts and, optionally, ropes or straps.

How to improve your conference with explicit ground rules and Two principles for designing conference ground rules.

† An expanded description of affinity grouping is available in The Workshop Book: From Individual Creativity to Group Action.

* See a complete description of this process in Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, available from this website, Amazon, or any bookstore.

Other resources
The Knowledge Sharing Toolkit is a useful list of participative processes that can be used with groups.

Photo attribution: Flickr user choconancy

Two principles for designing conference ground rules

principles for designing conference ground rules I’ve written before about how to improve your conference with explicit ground rules. Though it’s interesting and enlightening to compare the ground rules embedded in conference designs—for example, Open Space Technology has five ground rules, while Conferences That Work and World Café have six—I won’t do that today. Instead, I want to share two principles for designing conference ground rules.

Ground rules should increase participants’ freedom, not restrict it

  • “Don’t speak unless the teacher asks you a question.”
  • “Pay attention!”
  • “Don’t chew gum in class.”

We’re used to rules like these that restrict our actions and reduce our freedom. But, surprisingly, it’s quite possible to create ground rules that increase our freedom at an event. Here are some examples:

  • Whenever it starts is the right time.—Open Space Technology
  • You have the freedom to ask about anything puzzling.—Conferences That Work
  • Make collective knowledge visible.—World Café

Each of these is a rule that gives permission for participants to act in a way that does not generally occur at traditional meetings. By explicitly giving permission for activities that normally are not associated with Conference 1.0 events, we increase participants’ freedom.

Make ground rules measurable

  • “Listen to others.”
  • “Be respectful.”
  • “Treat people politely.”

Rules like these are superficially appealing, but they aren’t effective because they rely on unmeasurable assumptions. How can we determine whether a participant is listening, respectful, or polite? We can’t, and this can lead to unproductive, time-consuming, and ultimately unresolvable disagreements during an event.

In contrast, here are examples of ground rules that are measurable and thus far less likely to lead to disagreement and subsequent conflict.

  • “Don’t interrupt.”
  • “Stay on time.”
  • “Keep what happens in each session confidential, unless everyone agrees otherwise.”

How were these principles for designing conference ground rules derived?

It would be nice to be able to claim that I first conceived these meta-rules for ground rule design, and then used them to build my conference ground rules. No such luck! It took me ten years to realize that explicit ground rules for Conferences That Work would be useful, and another five to figure out the six I now use. Only recently did I notice that all six follow the two principles I’ve described above.

What ground rules do you use for your events? Can you share any other principles for designing conference ground rules?

How to improve your conference with explicit ground rules

How to improve your conference with explicit ground rules

Remember kindergarten? O.K., I barely do either. But when I go into my local elementary school to read to the kids, I see ground rules like these posted on the classroom walls. The teachers create them for the younger classes, and I’m told that the Junior High comes up with their own (probably with some judicious teacher input). So it seems that explicit ground rules are useful in the pre-adult classroom.

Moving to the adult world, professional facilitators who work for more than a few hours with a group or team will usually have the members establish their own ground rules. Why? There are two reasons. First, because group-developed ground rules handle the specific needs of the group. And second, the process of development creates buy-in for the chosen rules.

However, traditional conferences don’t have explicit ground rules!

So perhaps you’re thinking: We’re adults, we know how to behave! or What’s the point, we’re only together for a few days!

Here’s why the right explicit ground rules will improve your conference.

The right ground rules fundamentally change the environment of a conference.

The six ground rules used at Conferences That Work are not about nitpicking issues like turning off cell phones & pagers in sessions (good luck!) Instead they create an intimate and safe conference environment, by sending participants these powerful messages:

“While you are here, you have the right and opportunity to be heard.”
“Your individual needs and desires are important here.”
“You will help to determine what happens at this conference.”
“What happens here will be kept confidential. You can feel safe here.”
“At this conference, you can create, together with others, opportunities to learn and to share.”

Introducing and having attendees commit to the right ground rules at the start of the event sets the stage for a collaborative, participative conference, because the rules give people permission and support for sharing with and learning from each other.

And when attendees feel safe to share and empowered to ask questions and express what they think and how they feel, what happens at a conference can be amazing.

As a result, setting good ground rules at the start of a conference may be the single most transformative change you can make to improve your event!

Two tips on adding ground rules to your conference design

Before you rush to add ground rules to your conferences, bear in mind two points:

  • Don’t attempt to brainstorm and negotiate ground rules amongst attendees at a first-time conference! The time required to do a good job would be prohibitive. Use some time-tested rules, like mine (here are four of them), or the four principals and one law of Open Space events.
  • Think twice before adding ground rules that embody participant empowerment to a traditional event that consists mainly of pre-scheduled presentation-style sessions. Your ground rules and your design are likely to be seen as conflicting!

Do you use explicit ground rules in your events? What has your experience been? Want to know more about using ground rules at conferences? Ask away in the comments below! (If you can’t wait, <shameless plug> you could also buy my books, which describe in detail both the ground rules used at Conferences That Work, and how to successfully introduce them to attendees.)

Image attribution: