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Setting ground rules: Is there any point?


Alan Matthews wonders whether we should rip up the rule book. or even have one in the first place...

There’s been an interesting discussion in one of the various training forums I’m involved in about the value of setting ground rules at the start of a course and I thought it would make a suitable topic to cover here. I know a lot of trainers begin their courses by getting the participants to set and agree ground rules for behaviour during the training. In fact, some people seem to spend quite a long time on this and may even use it as the opening activity, with people breaking into groups to discuss it and come back with ideas. Some trainers even draw up 'contracts' with their learners, so they all make a commitment to each other at the start. Others may only cover it briefly, getting a few notes down on a flipchart before moving on.

But how much value is there in doing this? Could it even backfire and do more harm than good? And, if you do set ground rules, what sort of things are useful to include? First of all, why do trainers do this at all? Well, the obvious answer is to establish some guidelines for how people will behave during the session. One reason for that is to pre-empt any potentially challenging behaviour, such as people arriving late after breaks or carrying on separate conversations. It’s also part of the process of clarifying what’s going to happen and how the training is going to be run. But it can also be partly to engage the learners from the start and to get a discussion going.

Actually, that raises another question. How much do you involve the learners in the process of setting the ground rules? What sorts of things are usually included in these ground rules? In my experience, they can cover all sorts, from practical issues to deeper questions of how people should treat each other. Some items I’ve seen included are:

  • switching off mobile phones
  • punctuality
  • confidentiality
  • listening to each other
  • asking questions
  • being open to new ideas
  • having fun
  • treating each other with respect
  • guidelines for giving and receiving feedback

This illustrates for me some of the problems about ground rules.

Some of them are so vague as to be meaningless. If a group came up with 'respect' as a ground rule, I would feel obliged to ask them, 'What does that mean? What would it look like?' The second problem is, how can you enforce a rule that says people should treat each other with respect? Or that people should listen? Or that people should 'have fun'? Is it your business to do that? Is it essential for your training to be effective that people do these things? Of course I would prefer to work in an environment where people did treat others with respect, listened, had fun, etc. but how far can I enforce that as a requirement on a group I have probably just met?

"How can you enforce a rule that says people should treat each other with respect? Or that people should listen? Or that people should 'have fun'? Is it your business to do that?"

If they don’t actually behave that way, it could be to do with the environment in which they work, the existing relationships between people in the room or the culture in which they live and there’s not going to be too much I can do about that. Another possible criticism of setting ground rules is that it can be seen as a little patronising. If I go into a room full of adults, and often people who work with each other every day, do I really need to get them to agree how they will behave?

Can’t I assume, unless they demonstrate otherwise, that they will observe some basic norms of social behaviour? There’s a danger that I could come across as rather condescending if I start the day off by exhorting them to 'play nicely' (taking me back to my days working with four year olds). Another issue is that my own ideas of what constitutes 'correct' behaviour may be based on my own values and cultural background. For example, I’ve worked with groups from a wide range of backgrounds – lawyers, accountants, teachers, engineers, nurses, shop floor workers. All these people work in different environments and the way they interact with each other will reflect that.

Some groups engage in a lot of banter and are quite loud and energetic. They challenge what I say, ask questions, interrupt. Is this showing a lack of respect for me or for each other? Not usually. It’s just how they’re used to behaving and, in fact, it can be a sign that they’re relaxed and have included me in their group for the day. They don’t feel they have to be on their best behaviour. I take that as a compliment.

I’ve also worked in various different countries and I know that some behaviour is cultural. Different nationalities have very different attitudes towards punctuality, for example. (I love working with Portuguese groups but good luck with trying to get them back from coffee). One answer to this is to get the group themselves to come up with the ground rules, so that they can set them according to their own standards and norms and the trainer isn’t imposing his or her own values on them. The other advantage of this is that, in theory, it is easier to get a group to commit to a list of guidelines which they drew up themselves.

However, I still think this leaves a lot of problems with the whole issue of ground rules. So here’s my own view. For me, the key issue is making sure that the learners get something of value from the training. That’s what I’m there for and that’s the area where I have a duty and a responsibility. The whole point is that any behaviour in the training room needs to be supportive of effective learning. If some people behave in a way which interferes with the learning, then I am justified in challenging them, for the benefit of the whole group. So my main concern at the start of a training event is only to cover any areas which specifically relate to the training.

"The whole point is that any behaviour in the training room needs to be supportive of effective learning."

So I will set out at the start the way I see the day going. For example, I’ll say that:

  • it’s going to be highly interactive
  • that it involves people working and talking together
  • that I want people to feel free to challenge, question and discuss anything I say
  • that my main concern is that they get what they need from the training and I’ll do everything I can to make that happen

I’ll mention that, in my experience, they will tend to get more from the day if they:

  • get involved
  • ask questions
  • talk and listen
  • turn up on time after breaks
  • switch phones off unless they’re expecting an important call they really need to take

However, I’m also aware that people are different and don’t all behave in the same way when learning, so I have to be very flexible in terms of what I expect and accept from individuals. I’ll also want to make sure that I understand exactly what they do want to get from the training, so I’ll make sure I give them a chance to say what they need from me and from the event to make it worthwhile and then I’ll do my best to deliver that. After that, it’s down to me to provide a learning environment which does encourage people to get involved and be engaged, also where possible to have fun and enjoy themselves (because I think that supports the learning, not just for its own sake).

I see that as part of creating an effective learning environment – I can’t force people to enjoy themselves, to get engaged or to ask questions, I have to create an atmosphere where that becomes easy for them. So, as you may gather, I’m not a big fan of ground rules. I am a big fan of trainers creating positive, engaging environments where people can learn and interact in their own ways but with a view to getting as much value as they can from the experience.

This article first appeared on Alan Matthews's blog. You can find it here. Alan Matthews runs TransformYourTraining. You can purchase his new book, 'How to Design and Deliver Great Training' from Amazon here. He works with internal training teams to help them design and deliver exciting and engaging training. You can get a free copy of 'How To Be A Top Trainer' from and you can follow Alan on Twitter at @AlanMatthews11

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