How Group Agreements Can Make Your Meeting a Success

July 11, 2022 Jordan Boege, MPP

Group agreements can help make your meeting a success

Congratulations, you’re about to run a group discussion! Whether you’re an experienced meeting facilitator or just starting out, group agreements can help ensure your public or stakeholder engagement process is productive and your project is a success.

What Are Group Agreements?

People often hold passionate views about economic development and their communities, especially when it comes to critical topics like resiliency and strategic planning, and it is important to channel that passion in constructive ways. Group agreements help set the stage for a productive discussion and deliberation, especially around contentious topics.

Simply put, group agreements are a list of ground rules designed to create an environment for productive conversation that all attendees and participants agree to use. Group agreements can vary widely depending on the number of participants, the topic at hand, and the goals of the conversation.

Group agreements help build trust and shared understanding among participants — factors that are key to achieving real results. The best group agreements are brief, clear, and purposefully tailored to the discussion at hand.

Some useful group agreements include:

  • Be fully present: There can be a lot of pressure on busy people to multitask, particularly in online settings. Asking people to engage with their whole selves for the duration of your conversation sets a tone that you value their time and that others in the group will value their time, as well.
  • Focus on the idea, not the person: This agreement is particularly useful when discussing contentious topics in public settings. There is nothing wrong with disagreeing, but personalizing those disagreements tends to distract from the goals of a conversation and leads away from constructive dialogue about ideas and towards ad hominem and personal attacks. When introducing this group agreement, it can be helpful to ask participants to consider asking questions of other participants rather than seeking to argue to prove their point.
  • Share the air: We all know someone who tends to dominate a conversation, whether purposefully or on accident. Power dynamics can also keep younger participants and those in traditionally marginalized groups from participating. A reminder at the beginning of a meeting for everyone to share the air is a straightforward way to create a space where everyone knows they will be listening as much as talking and creates an expectation (which can also be explicitly stated) that you as a facilitator will step in if only a few people are doing all the talking.
  • Be curious and open to learning: Many times, people come into conversations with preconceived notions of why they are right about the issue at hand, and they may very well be correct! But an important part of a productive dialogue is an openness to having your understanding of the world change with new facts, data, and experiences. Agreeing at the beginning of a meeting to stay curious and open helps get people into a headspace where they are more focused on the conversation than they are on being right. This, in turn, can help lead to new insights and innovative thinking.
  • Be solution-focused: Meeting time, particularly public meeting time, is precious. It can be difficult to find time in busy schedules for people to sit down and talk with one another in a meaningful and engaged way. There are often only one or two opportunities to get public input or to get all key stakeholders for a particular cause in a physical or virtual space together. Occasionally it is important to get people together to discuss the nature of a problem, but more often the challenges surrounding an issue are clear — how do we plan for the future given a lack of funding, minimal staffing resources, aging infrastructure, or other barriers? How do we become more resilient? In these scenarios, it can be easy to focus on what does not exist and why the problem will be difficult to overcome. By focusing participants on solutions, however, meeting time can be more productively spent looking for ways to overcome the challenges at hand rather than rehashing the problems that have brought the group together in the first place.
  • Take risks, be raggedy, make some mistakes — then let go: This agreement is particularly useful for brainstorming sessions and times when conversations are occurring earlier in a project. Many people feel a lot of pressure to look good, be correct, and not sound unintelligent. Unfortunately, those pressures and the fear of how they will be perceived can get in the way of productive thinking and brainstorming sessions. Letting participants know right off the bat that they do not need to be perfect, only engaged and thoughtful, helps set the stage for open and honest dialogue about the issues at hand and creates an environment where fear of being judged is not at the forefront of people’s minds.

How to Introduce Them

The best time to share group agreements is at the beginning of the meeting, where they can be displayed to the group. Facilitators can then ask attendees if they agree to the group agreements prior to discussion, which helps set ground rules and expectations for how the conversation will go.

It is important to select group agreements based on what you are trying to accomplish and the setting of your discussion. For instance, virtual dialogue can look much different than an in-person conversation since some participants may opt to turn off their video or call in, and because interacting through a screen creates a different environment than being in the same room with others.

The above examples of group agreements are just that, and you are only limited by your own imagination and vision, so take risks, make some mistakes, and happy facilitating!

Camoin Associates uses robust community and stakeholder engagement to help shape and inform many of the plans, strategies, and recommendations we develop for our clients. Our Strategic + Organizational Planning Team is ready to assist you with your next economic development, resiliency, or revitalization project. Learn more and contact us today!