Codes of conduct, also known as ground rules and behavioral covenants, are a tool to help meetings build a culture of respect and inclusion. They contain practices that embody the best values of an organization: empathy, taking responsibility, being respectful, honoring diversity, being inclusive, and so on. When meeting attendees review these core values and practices at each meeting and commit to them, group behavior becomes more empathic, responsible and appreciative of differences.

A Habit of the Heart

I used to think that ground rules were necessary only when a group was dysfunctional or conflicted. I now believe it’s wise for even long-established, healthy groups to review their rules at every meeting or two. Repetition reinforces desirable behavior. When ground rules are repeated at every meeting, they shift the culture of an organization to a greater respect for all.

No Scolding

Ground rules are more than a list of shoulds and oughts. Scolding people is not the point. When behavioral covenants are written as practices or disciplines rather than rules, most people make a sincere effort to incorporate them into their behavior.

Note the difference between the following statements:

  • We must use “I” statements.
  • I will take responsibility for what I think and feel by using “I” statements.

The first version is preachy. It doesn’t tell us why to use “I” statements, only that we should. The second version contains a core value: taking responsibility for one’s thoughts and feelings.

Explain both Why and What

The best ground rules contain both the why and what of the expected behavior. Ponder another example:

  • We will be inclusive of all voices.
  • We will seek the perspectives of all by inviting each person to speak.

The difference between these two is striking. Both uphold inclusion, but only the latter embodies it practically and concretely. The second statement tells you how to be inclusive, not only that you should.

Essential for Culturally Diverse Meetings

Ground rules are especially crucial in culturally diverse settings. Participants come to these meetings with different assumptions about leadership, communication and power. Some come from cultures where people lower on the social hierarchy must be invited to speak by a person with higher authority. Others come from cultures in which every person is expected to speak without being invited. Some cultures believe silence means consent. In other cultures, silence may mean dissent.

The Problem of Few Talking While Others Remain Silent

All of us have been in meetings dominated by a few people. I was a member of a citizen advisory group organized to influence transportation services for older adults and people with disabilities. The group of thirty was recruited for diversity in race, ethnicity, gender and national origin. Nevertheless, three White women and two White men dominated the first meeting. They were prone to interrupting when the less culturally dominant attempted to speak. The Black women, people who identified as Muslim, and the people with disabilities were largely ignored. After several meetings with similar dynamics, more than half the members dropped out. The group lost its diversity.

This group never established ground rules or a behavioral covenant. Adopting a few ground rules such as the following would have helped immensely.

Respectful Communication Guidelines

The Respectful Communication Guidelines, developed by Eric Law, Founder of the Kaleidoscope Institute, are written in an acronym, RESPECT, making them easy to remember. I have adapted the version below from Eric Law’s original.

R = Take Responsibility for what you say and feel without blaming others.

E = Use Empathetic listening.

S = Be Sensitive to differences in communication styles.

P = Ponder what you hear and feel before you speak.

E = Examine your assumptions and perceptions.

C = Keep Confidentiality.

T = Trust that greater truth comes through diversity.

For a full explanation of each ground rule, purchase a copy of Thrive: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Inclusive Meetings, 2nd ed.

If you establish ground rules or covenant agreements, your group’s behaviors will become more respectful, fair and kind. The core values of your organization will move from a document into the very fabric of your group.

© 2021 Dr. Mark Smutny. All rights reserved no part of this article may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording company taping or any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of Dr. Mark Smutny except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

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