Ground rules, also known as agreements, are terms that participants agree to follow—and the facilitator agrees to uphold—during a conversation.
In the following video, library workers talk about their use of ground rules and how to introduce them to participants.
Using Ground Rules to Set Expectations
Ground rules help establish expectations for how people will talk with one another and can help you maintain open lines of communication. There is no definitive list of ground rules that facilitators should follow. For more information about establishing ground rules, see page 12 of the LTC: Facilitation Guide. Good ground rules can be adapted to the situation or group, and participants can help create or modify them.
At the start of your gathering, welcome everyone, introduce yourself, and remind them of the topic. Cover any introductory information, videos, or other content that is relevant to the discussion. When you are ready to start the conversation, begin by reviewing the ground rules: "Before we get started today, we have several ground rules we will use to help us all feel welcome and comfortable participating today. I will go over these - please let me know if you have any questions or if there is anything you would like to add."
When setting ground rules, it’s important for you as the facilitator to:
- Make it clear that the group is here to discuss, not debate or argue.
- Outline what it means to talk respectfully: listening to one another, not making assumptions about others’ statements, asking questions.
- Clarify the goals for the meeting/conversation. Are you making a decision? Exploring options? Learning more about one another?
- Describe your role as a facilitator. Will you participate in the conversation or lead them through it?
Once you have a complete list, ask participants to agree to the rules before starting the conversation. This sets the expectation that they can uphold the rules if violated. If your group is meeting more than once, there is no need to recreate the list each time. Revisit the rules as a reminder at the start of each session.
Types of Ground Rules
As you look at the following examples of ground rules for different situations, consider which could apply to your own conversation(s).
Book Club Agreements
- Listen and respect all points of view
- Be curious - ask questions to better understand one another
- Everyone is encouraged to participate
- Share what is important to you
Youth Discussion Group Ground Rules
- Everyone gets equal “air time” - no one dominates
- Respect each other
- Do not interrupt
- Ask questions rather than making judgments
- Have fun
Ground Rules for Conversation on a Public Issue
- Show respect for and seek to understand one another
- Speak from your personal experience and do not make assumptions about others
- The conversation will focus on the issue at hand
- Ideas will be shared without judgment
- The group will decide together what actions they want to explore further
- Take ownership for these ground rules as individuals and a group
You may choose to ask participants if they wish to add to these ground rules. This can create additional buy-in, especially when working with youth, starting conversations of a sensitive nature, or where conflict may arise. This allows participants to articulate behaviors that might make them feel unsafe or shut some people out of the conversation.
Facilitation Techniques: Conversation Starters and Questions
Once you have laid out the ground rules, how do you get the conversation started on the right foot? In the following videos, library workers explain how they strike the right tone from the beginning.
As noted in the video, ice breakers can be a useful tool to kick off your conversation. They give participants a chance to share something about themselves or about why the topic of the conversation is important to them. Ice breakers can be short, silly, or fun little introductions, such as Suzette Chang's example, "What did you do to get ready to come here today?" or they can be your opening questions (more on that below).
Questions are key to generating discussion and will help you move through the conversation to ultimately achieve your goals. While we talk about these questions in a very linear way in this module, in reality, conversations are not always so linear:
As a facilitator, your role is to listen to the group. Sometimes you will find the questions you outlined in advance will not flow in the order you planned for. Be flexible with the process! If the group naturally shifts the conversation in a way that feels productive or appropriate, that's ok. You may want to circle back to some of the questions you had planned for earlier in the conversation.
Click the plus signs below to read about crafting questions for the beginning, middle, and later in the conversation.
Getting Things Started
Once the ground rules have been outlined and agreed to, you are ready to get started. How do you jump in? Depending on your goals, you may start a couple of ways:
- Decision-making: You may want to start by providing some introductory information on the topic and ask people to share their personal experiences, for example, how has this issue impacted you personally? Why is this topic important to you/your friends and family? By starting the conversation with personal stories, the topic is grounded in the experiences in the room, which is helpful when you begin to explore potential options.
Exploration: In this conversation, start things off with a question. This could be personal in nature, for example, share a time you experienced belonging. Alternatively, it could be more specific to the topic or meeting, for example, What are your hopes for your children's future? Keeping the first question easy or general helps participants feel comfortable participating.
Conflict Transformation: Your starting question or prompt will focus on finding commonalities among participants. You can ask a personal question about their experiences, or have people share things they like or may have in common to identify connections, for example, what makes you feel welcome?
Questions to Keep the Conversation Going
As you continue through your conversation, the questions you pose to participants will help the conversation deepen, explore further facets of the topic, and simply keep the conversation going.
In a conversation set on decision-making, pose questions further into the conversation that ask participants to generate ideas for action, or to explore the pros and cons of potential options if they are already identified. For example: What ideas do you have for addressing this issue? OR, If we were to take the action proposed, how might our community benefit? What might we have to give up?
In exploratory or conflict transformation conversations, your questions may ask for participants to deepen their connections or their understanding of the topic. This often builds upon the opening question or topic. For example: How can we best prepare our children for the future we envision? OR, How do you welcome others? What might we do together to welcome others?
As you progress further into your conversation, you will also want to continue progressing your questions towards your goal.
Decision-making: What are some of the issues we haven’t discussed yet about this topic? Are there other considerations we need to make in coming to a decision?
Exploration: What can you do to help make this future a reality?
Conflict transformation: We have identified ways to be more welcoming to others. How might we better welcome each other in this room?
Practice with Question Types
On page 2 of your Conversation Planning Tool, write down your basic questions for your conversation:
- What are your ideas for how you will break the ice and get your conversation started?
- What are your opening questions?
- What are the questions you will have to keep the conversation going?
- What are the questions that may come later in the conversation, identifying ideas or potential actions?
Facilitation Techniques: Active Listening
During the Conversation: Making Sure Participants Feel Heard and Hear One Another
Once the conversation is underway, your job as facilitator is to help participants hear one another and feel heard in return. This process is called active listening. Your ability to listen actively will not only make participants feel more confident and engaged, but it also models respectful communication skills for others in the room. Here we will discuss three strategies for active listening: paraphrasing, summarizing, and reframing. Additional tips and best practices for active listening can also be found on page 16 of the LTC: Facilitation Guide.
Examples of Active Listening
Click the accordions (plus symbols) below to learn more about active listening skills.
- What it is: Stating briefly, in your own words, what you understand a person to have said. Paraphrasing focuses on the actual content of what the person said - not any potential underlying feelings or motivations.
- Why you use it: It shows you are interested in the person and are willing to try to understand them.
- What it looks like: “What I hear you saying is…is that correct?” If they say no, ask them to clarify.
- Example Sentence Starters: "What I hear you saying is..." or "My understanding of what you said is..."
- What it is: Restating key information that has been shared to improve group understanding. Identify areas participants have in common and note differences.
- Why you use it: Summarizing clarifies statements and keeps participants on the same page. It is particularly useful after several participants have spoken. It also helps a recorder capture any information they may have missed!
- What it looks like: “We have been discussing this question for a while. To recap, here are some of the common views I heard...and also some areas where we disagree...is there anything I missed?”
- Example sentence starters: "To recap, here is what I've heard so far..." or "Let me confirm our understanding of the conversation so far..."
- What it is: A technique for defusing loaded or angry statements. Reframing restates the individual’s comment in a neutral and calm way by focusing on the key value or concern behind the sentiment.
- Why you use it: This helps defuse any discomfort or potential conflict and helps participants to hear the speaker’s underlying meaning without the emotions behind it or the language originally used. Note: this should not be used for racist or derogatory statements, which should be addressed directly.
- What it looks like: “I hate the way that this group advocates for their view by trying to indoctrinate young people.” ---> “It sounds like you have concerns about the tactics used by this group.”
- Example sentence starters: "It sounds like..." or "If I understand you correctly..."
Paraphrasing, Summarizing, or Reframing?
Read the following examples of participant statements on each item below. Then, click the plus symbol to see an example of a potential facilitator response. See if you can identify which active listening skill is being used. How might you respond in your own words?
I just don’t know that we can make this happen without other resources outside the library – we can’t do it all alone!
We keep talking about this but we don’t seem to get anywhere.
He wants everything done right now.
I can’t believe anything they tell me.
I worked hard since I was a teenager. We should expect everyone to work hard, not just get handouts. But kids should get food, clothing, and anything they need.
We're glossing over how to pay for it. For everyone to have health care, we can't make the government pay. I don't want to pay 50% taxes. Employers should step up.
On page 3 of your Conversation Planning Tool:
- Note which active listening techniques you feel you need to practice most.
- Create reminders for yourself about how to practice these techniques in the moment during a conversation.
Conflict Management and Challenging Behaviors
As the facilitator, you may encounter challenging behaviors. The following video describes some of these challenges and how to address them.
What to do if challenges arise
On occasion, challenges may emerge in a conversation. As the facilitator, don’t panic! There are simple ways to address these challenges in the moment. Click on the accordions below to read descriptions and examples of common challenges.
Behavior 1 - Hostility
What it looks like: Angry, cynical, or sarcastic interjections.
How it impacts the conversation: It may undermine the conversation, shut participants down, and be hurtful to individuals.
How to address it:
- Ask for clarification: "Could you restate what concerns you about this so we can understand your point of view?"
- Use empathy: "It sounds like this issue really troubles you."
- Refer to the ground rules. “At the beginning of the conversation we agreed to respect one another’s views.”
- Take a break and speak to them privately.
Behavior 2 - Domination
What it looks like: Constant talking or interjecting when others are speaking. Not allowing for other voices to be heard. Be aware of how oppressive systems may be upheld by this form of behavior. This may look like a male participant consistently talking over or interrupting female participants. It could also include white participants “centering” their own lived experiences to demonstrate that they have lived through a situation in which they are a “minority” and, in some cases at least, to ensure their identity’s experiences are still centered in every space.
How it impacts the conversation: Limited participation from others in the group; participants may tune out or leave if they don’t feel they can contribute. It may also lead to the silencing or undervaluing of marginalized voices in a conversation.
How to address it:
- Thank them and invite others. “Thank you. Are there others who would like to respond to the question I posed?”
- Interrupt politely. “I appreciate your contributions, but I’m concerned that we haven’t had a chance to hear from others yet. Could we hear from a few other people?”
- Refer to the ground rules. “We agreed at the start of today’s conversation that we would allow everyone an equal chance to speak.”
- Address myths and anecdotal evidence: “White people can be impacted by class and race, but it is also true that people of color are disproportionately impacted negatively. Let’s talk about why this might be the case.”
Behavior 3 - Experts
What it looks like: A participant who is an expert on the topic sharing facts, figures, etc. OR, someone acting as if they are an expert on the topic. This may also look like a participant critiquing the tool you’re using in a conversation rather than engaging with it.
How it impacts the conversation: Shuts down some participants who don’t feel they know enough to contribute or derails the conversation to focus on the expert sharing information and answering questions.
How to address it:
- Invite other contributions. “It seems you have a clear idea of what you think should be done. I’d like to invite others to share their ideas of what we might do.”
- Refocus. “You clearly know a lot about this subject. In this conversation though, we’re hoping to focus on people’s feelings about the topic.”
- Invite alternative contributions. “I can tell you know a lot about this issue. I wonder if you might be willing to write something up to share with the group before our next session?”
- Acknowledge that there are no perfect tools and articulate that the primary purpose of the tool is a way into conversation.
Behavior 4 - Fixers
What it looks like: Someone who has the solution to a problem and just wants to discuss it - whether it’s the topic at hand or participants' personal problems shared in a conversation.
How it impacts the conversation: Disrupts collaborative decision-making, can frustrate participants.
How to address it:
- Acknowledge and redirect. “You seem enthusiastic about this potential solution. I wonder if others have ideas for potential solutions?”
- Restate the purpose of the conversation. “We’re here to share our personal experiences with this topic and feel heard today. Let’s focus on listening to one another’s sharing.”
Behavior 5 - Reserved
What it looks like: Someone who is not participating in the conversation, whether they are uncomfortable or just content to listen.
How it impacts the conversation: It may not always be an issue, but in conversations where the group is working towards a decision or collaborative action, it can cause frustration to not have all participants involved. Additionally, the reserved participant may feel they need to be invited to speak and left out if they are not asked.
How to address it:
- Create space. “Would those who have not had the chance to speak like to?”
- Check in with them during breaks to ask how you might support their participation.
Behavior 6 - Microagressions and Other Harmful Interactions
Microaggressions and Other Harmful Interactions
What it looks like: Microaggressions are commonplace verbal, nonverbal or environmental insults that communicate negative messages toward marginalized groups. These may be intentional or unintentional. An example may include a participant continuing to misuse the preferred pronoun of another participant, even after they have been corrected. It may also include instances of participants diverting a conversation about race to a different social identity, such as class. In other instances, intent may be prioritized over impact. This may look like a participant arguing that a policy’s initial intent wasn’t meant to be harmful to communities of color, rather than focusing on the actual negative impact the policy has caused or is causing.
How it impacts the conversation: When this behavior is displayed, it can shut down others completely, create hostility, or dismiss/devalue the lived experiences of people who are a part of a marginalized group.
How to address it:
As a facilitator, you are responsible for recognizing when microaggressions and other harmful interactions have occurred and determining the best way to respond to these kinds of comments or actions. You will need to decide, quickly during the course of the conversation, whether to (1) respond in a gentler way that pushes back against the statement but doesn’t derail the conversation, or (2) to intervene in a manner that interrupts the conversation.
- Name the microaggression and ask the person to recognize what they have said and its impact on others. “You may not have intended to be offensive or hurtful, but what you just said reinforces negative stereotypes about (XYZ).” If someone uses a problematic idiom or expression, provide an explanation of the meaning and history behind the expression and share an alternative way to express similar meaning.
- Model the behavior you want to address. If someone uses a phrase that is considered outdated or offensive, follow up in your response by using more inclusive language, such as “people experiencing homelessness” instead of “homeless people.” This person-first language recognizes that, for someone experiencing homelessness, it is a situation not an identity.
- Encourage respectful dialogue. “Please remember to trust people’s lived experiences. Remember that at the start of the session we all agreed to this as a ground rule.”
- Push back by asking questions to seek clarity or get alternative perspectives. “What do you mean by that?” “Have you or anyone else considered….?”
- Reframe the conversation. If someone says, “I don’t see color. I treat everyone the same,” you might reframe the conversation as: “It’s OK to see color. We live in a society in which people have different access and experiences, including based on skin color. We need to move from an equality model that treats everyone the same to an equity model that takes into account peoples’ needs, access, and privilege.”
The above tools and examples of microaggressions and other harmful interactions are in no way an exhaustive list. You may run into other instances of these behaviors while facilitating a conversation. Below are some additional resources and trainings that may be helpful:
- How to Talk About Race, a webinar from ALA’s Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services
- How to Talk About Race webinar facilitator guide and tips
- How to Talk About Race webinar related reading list
- Talking About Race by the National Museum of African American History & Culture
- Racial Justice in Education by the National Education Association
- Recognizing Microaggressions and the Messages They Send by UC Santa Cruz
- To inquire about additional facilitation training with a focus on social justice, reach out to ALA’s Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact the EDI Speakers’ Bureau at edispeakers.ala.org
What is the Most Appropriate Response?
Check your knowledge by reading the following scenarios and deciding which is the best way to address them.
What are the challenging behaviors that you feel you need the most preparation to respond to? On page 4 of your Conversation Planning Tool, write a few practice responses or actions you could take to address these behaviors.
In Module Four, you have learned about starting your conversation and managing the process throughout. Remember to craft your set of ground rules to the group and the topic and introduce them prior to getting started. Be sure to prepare your sequence of questions to help guide the flow of the conversation. Practice active listening to help participants feel heard and use your new responses for addressing challenging behaviors.
Keep the following resources with you as you continue to learn:
- Module Four Conversation Planning Tool
- Types of Active Listening
- Tips and Resources for Challenging Behaviors
- Facilitation Tips from ALA's Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services
Next Section: Closing A Conversation & Preparing Next Steps