Setting a group agreement

One of my work routines as a facilitator, akin to a pilot running through pre-flight checks, is to establish an agreement on some fundamentals with a group or individual. The industry jargon is ‘contracting’ but though a useful principle, can sound like jargon too. Done well, it is a real contract – a meaningful mechanism that establishes the very basis on which we are working together. The quality of the contract will have a direct impact on the quality of outcome. Hence contracting well and re-contracting is a skill that requires imagination, assertion and confidence.

In the training world or in the setting of a formal meeting, the group agreement is much maligned and misunderstood, because it is often done perfunctorily or half-heartedly. It brings on the ‘ground-rule’ slump where many participants understandably switch off, in the same way many passengers do during airline safety instructions. It’s true that several important principles may be predictable, but they can be done in such a way that makes them engaging and meaningful.

Common pitfalls

The following are classic phrases used. I give some suggested alternative wording, but you may not need them or can use your own plain language interpretation.

1. Confidentiality

Writing up the word confidentiality and expect everyone to know what it means. People will interpret this word in different ways according to their work background and experience.

All terminology such as confidentiality has to be swiftly defined and a common understanding achieved. For example, ask that we keep private information in the room, and that something said in a specific context is not quoted outside of the context. Give an example of the kind of private information you are referring to such as someone divulging a difficulty they are having with their manager. Ensure you encourage good practice principles, tips and techniques to be outside of the agreement so they can be spread far and wide. Also, make sure you spell out exactly the terms on which you are commissioned in relation to confidentiality.

If you are required to do a report to a commissioner, you should state this from the outset. Transparency is important here. Never commit to absolute confidentiality. If you encounter malpractice such as around a safeguarding issue, you may well have a legal obligation to do something with this information.

2. Respect

Allow a statement such as “Respect other opinions” to be part of the agreement. This is asking for trouble. Opinions can be anything from off the point to oppressive. Yet many suggest this, and we must never agree to this statement being part of the contract. Try…

Respect others and listen to other viewpoints.

We can also challenge respectfully

3. Language and behaviour

Use jargon such as “Work within an anti-discriminatory framework”. This is not only meaningless, but it gives a negative impression. Rather…

Let’s try to use language and behaviour that fits with the organisation’s values.

4. Judgement

Allow the phrase “No judgements”. This is meaningless. We are trained to make judgements, will automatically make them anyway. More helpful is…

We’ll take care with our judgements/try not to pre-judge

All of this takes a little time of course, so more useful is to have some pre-prepared illustrations that represent the common themes groups might suggest (such as an envelope to represent confidentiality, an ear to represent listening and so on). You can then quickly adjust/add as the group wishes. This saves a lot of time, and makes it more engaging. I use about six areas that commonly need to be agreed upon, then adapt as required. Even better is to find some magazine illustrations that capture the essence of what is meant, and laminate them. This is visually appealing, quick to use and makes the whole process more engaging and meaningful.

And remember to use the agreement…

Lastly, USE the group agreement during the learning session. Too often it’s done at the start, then ignored. It need only take a very short time, but over the course of the day, check back that all is well, particularly people being able to ask questions, pace etc. And of course, should you encounter any difficulties in terms of behaviour (time-keeping, pointscoring, poor listening, high talker etc.), then a quick reminder of the agreement/contract is all that is needed to manage the potential difficulty in an impartial and professional manner.