Should there be rules? By Henrietta Hopkins

It’s been a busy few months for Hopkins Van Mil (HVM) with dialogues on wellbeing; food and drink and data privacy all up and running. It’s been absolutely fascinating from both a process and a content perspective and has given me and Anita a lot to think about.

One of the things that’s come up is: what are the rules for dialogue? And if we know what they are – should we use them?  In some of the sessions I’ve mentioned everyone knew each other; in others no one had met before; occasionally participants were not used to discussing their views, sometimes on sensitive issues, in a workshop setting.  In each of the sessions ground rules were used in one form or another and a number of routes for defining them applied including:

  • Drawing up a list of rules in advance: for example, not interrupting; giving everyone a free and fair opportunity to express their views; showing respect for the views of others. The list was distributed to everyone in advance of the session, and then again on the day in hard copy.
  • Writing up a few rules on a flip chart at the session: such as not using mobile phones when people are speaking in small groups; or highlighting the value in using them to tweet about the event and provide a hashtag.  Then asking participants to add to, or remove, items from the list.
  • Recalling the rules which have worked before: asking participants to remember the things which have made the meetings they have attended in the past successful. Recording each of the points on a flip chart and then ask participants to agree which of them should be used as the ground rules for the day.
  • We've even worked with a cast of actors to perform the rules!

Anita and I are more likely to use ground rules than not. So these are our reasons for thinking that there should be rules:

  • People often find it easier to find their voice in a discussion if they know what is expected of them and the people around them.
  • Even the calmest person can find themselves getting wound up in a dialogue setting.  This can be very creative and exciting, but if it goes beyond a certain point it can mean that other people present become intimidated, and don’t want to get involved in the dialogue – perhaps a rule would help?
  • People don’t always agree on what is, and what is not, acceptable in a discussion. Is it ok to criticise the person making the point– or better to focus on constructive comments on what has been said? Only by agreeing the rules will the group know.
  • A person taking part in the session might be willing to be part of the discussion, but also wants to check their emails on their smartphone.  For others in the group this could be taken as a signal that they aren’t interested in being present.  So agreement in advance on the use of phones makes it clear what is fine for the group and what isn’t.

Perhaps participants have come across other facilitation techniques, or have never been part of a facilitated dialogue.  Making it clear in some ground rules what the role of the facilitator is on this occasion could clear up any anxiety about the process.

So for HVM ground rules are a help, not a straight jacket. They put people at their ease so they can get on with the important part of the day – thinking through and discussing the issues openly and fairly, ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to contribute.  Recently we found that there was concern about using‘ground rules’, but agreement that some form of guidance was essential.  So we called them ‘help points’ and we all valued their use on the day.

But what do you think? Should there be rules? We’d love to hear your views.