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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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?
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:
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.)
Long ago, when I was a British college student, I would set off to explore Europe each summer. There were no budget flights in those days, so I traveled by train. Some of my trips lasted days, but I loved the journey because of the people I met. I still remember the G.I. returning from Vietnam who’s now a Denver judge, the Belgium cabinet minister who tried for several hours to convert us to communism, and the cute Irish postgraduate student who…well never mind.
Now I live in the U.S. where trains are a rarity, at least in my part of the world, so I fly when it doesn’t make sense to drive. And I still enjoy striking up conversations with the stranger(s) sitting next to me. I’m not pushy—some people don’t want to talk, and that’s fine—but, more often than not, we end up exploring each other’s lives for a few hours. Over the last few years I remember, among others, the French airline executive who kissed me on both cheeks when we parted, the nun who visited prisoners and showed me years of correspondence, the fascinating sales director of a major internet hosting company, the lay ministry provider of counseling support for military families, and the British basketball agent who also owned a debt collection agency.
Some of these people shared intimate things about their lives during our time together; things I doubt they shared with most of the people they worked with every day. They did this because we were never going to meet again. For a few hours, they were with the Stranger on the Airplane. And, of course, they were my Strangers on the Airplane, and sometimes I told them intimate things as well.
The Stranger on the Airplane during Conferences That Work
I’ve seen a similar thing happen at Conferences That Work. The intimacy is not as deep initially, because, I think, attendees are aware that they may meet another time if the conference is held again. On the other hand, if they do meet a sharer again, attendees have an opportunity to go deeper. I find it strange, yet enjoyable, to meet people once a year and expand my connection on each occasion in unforeseen ways.
In my experience, the majority of people (on airplanes and at conferences, at least) enjoy talking quite freely with strangers who they trust. Because the ground rules support a confidential, safe environment this potential of intimacy is present at Conferences That Work. I like that. How about you?