As a corporate trainer with over 25 years of experience facilitating strategic planning, creativity and innovation, values based leadership workshops, Leslie Ciborowski, President and Founder of TrainSmart, emphasizes the importance of establishing ground rules upfront.
A productive session requires more than just bringing a group of smart people together in a room. Without a structured approach and clear guidelines, workshop discussions can easily veer off course and devolve into unstructured debate or groupthink. Ground rules create the foundation for open, constructive dialogue and effective consensus building. They foster an environment where participants feel safe to express candid perspectives without fear of judgment or reprisal. When all group members commit to upholding ground rules, you enhance the quality of ideas shared, the ability to challenge assumptions, and the momentum to drive decisions and follow-up actions.
Based on in-the-trenches lessons from countless sessions, here are 15 ground rules to establish at the start of any productive workshop:
1. Be Fully Present and Avoid Distractions
Multi-tasking diminishes a participant's contribution to the workshop. Set the expectation upfront that attendees avoid distractions and be fully engaged for the session. We specifically call out shutting down laptops and putting phones on silent as a rule. This signals people should actively listen and participate rather than passively sitting there partly tuned into their email.
For example, in a recent strategic planning workshop we facilitated, two executives kept glancing at their phones until we set the distraction-free ground rule. This immediately changed their body language and level of eye contact.
2. Practice Active Listening
Active listening creates understanding, shows respect, and improves the flow of dialogue. Tell participants to listen closely to others without interrupting and allow each speaker to fully finish their thoughts before responding. Ask people to build on others' contributions to weave the discussion together versus jumping randomly from point to point.
In a workshop on improving cross-departmental collaboration, we instituted active listening ground rules, which led to richer idea-sharing as attendees felt heard.
3. Balance Airtime Appropriately
Ensure all participants get sufficient opportunity to contribute meaningfully while also keeping discussions on track. We frequently use the phrase “share often but share concisely” and remind more extroverted talkers to leave space for quieter group members.
For example, in a recent workshop, a couple of senior leaders tended to dominate the dialogue until we established the airtime rule. This helped draw out insights from more junior staff who had been hesitant to speak up.
4. Challenge Ideas Respectfully
The challenge is healthy, but attacking individuals is counterproductive. Make it clear that critiquing ideas is fair game, but participants should constructively question assumptions. Say “just to play devil’s advocate...” and avoid accusatory language.
We ran workshops where challenging perspectives too aggressively created defensiveness. Introducing the “respectful challenge” rule transformed critiques into thought-provoking discussions.
5. Bring Solutions, Not Just Problems
Workshops easily turn into gripe sessions unless you explicitly set the expectation that participants should raise issues along with suggested solutions. Saying “I disagree with X part of the strategy” is unhelpful; saying “I’m concerned about X and think we should address it by doing Y” keeps the conversation productive.
In a recent workshop, the CFO called out individuals who brought up problems without solutions and asked them to reframe their concerns constructively. This improved the actionability of the output.
6. Maintain Confidentiality
For sensitive topics, clarify upfront that discussions should not leave the room. Ensure participants can share openly without concerns about leaks or gossip spreading through the organization.
In workshops dealing with changes to compensation models where emotions can run high, the confidentiality ground rule creates a safe space for honest dialogue and early surfacing concerns.
7. Test Assumptions Through Inquiry
Many unproductive debates are rooted in untested assumptions and a lack of data. Encourage participants to transparently probe the validity of assumptions by asking questions like “What evidence do we have for that thinking?” or “What data supports or contradicts that view?”.
At a recent workshop on updating internal policies, we frequently pointed to the “test assumptions” rule, which revealed outdated beliefs driving certain positions. We were then able to have more meaningful debates.
8. Limit Unnecessary Side Conversations
Off-topic sidebar discussions during a workshop show disengagement and slow the group’s progress. Remind participants to stay focused on the issue and avoid pulling the dialogue off track through tangents and side conversations.
In workshops with frequent breakout sessions, point to this rule when bringing the group back together if we hear too many hushed side exchanges. This signals getting quiet and turning back into the full group.
9. Maintain an Open Mindset
Insist that participants remain open to new ideas and perspectives shared rather than stubbornly clinging to initial assumptions. Emphasize that the purpose of the workshop is to explore ideas together with fresh eyes.
Early in a recent workshop, one participant announced he disagreed with a core strategy the group was set to debate. We coached him to approach the session with an open mindset, which led to him conceding specific points by the end.
10. Speak Your Truth Authentically
Creating psychological safety for candor is key. Let participants know they should feel comfortable respectfully sharing their perspectives or concerns, even if their view contradicts the mainstream opinion in the room.
In one workshop, the CEO reinforced this rule, which empowered participants to question certain assumptions openly without fear of professional reprisal. This ultimately strengthened the strategy.
11. Stay on Topic
It’s easy for workshops to go down rabbit holes into irrelevant tangents. Remind participants to keep comments focused on the goal and core topics so they can progress effectively through the agenda. If discussions veer too far off course, we pause and explicitly refer back to the “staying on topic” ground rule to reel the conversation back in.
12. Balance Your Airtime Appropriately
If specific individuals have already spoken a lot, they should create space for others. If someone hasn’t contributed much, urge them to share their perspective since others would benefit from their insights. Proactively managing airtime prevents imbalanced and unproductive discussions.
13. Discuss Ideas Openly Without Attribution
Attributing who said what can inhibit openness. Let participants know that you encourage discussing positions transparently without referencing specific people. This avoids finger-pointing dynamics that shut down productive debate.
14. Commit to Action Items and Next Steps
Workshops should drive tangible outcomes and decisions. If meetings get stuck analyzing without progressing, we highlight the action-orientation ground rule. This prods attendees to move the discussion toward what we will do about the issues debated.
15. Continually Improve Group Dynamics
Pause periodically to evaluate what group behaviors are working well and what can be improved. Quickly discuss any issues openly so you can adjust in real time. Maintaining a growth mindset as a group is critical.
In summary, principles around mindset, communication, and action orientation create the foundation for driving robust insights and alignment through workshops. Of course, specific sessions may require additional ground rules around confidentiality, device usage, and so on. The critical piece is clearly establishing group norms upfront rather than assuming everyone is on the same page. With the right ground rules, you enable workspace dialogue to spark breakthrough thinking and meaningful decisions.