Over the weekend, I attended the annual Civil Liberties & Public Policy conference at Hampshire College. The topic of the conference is “From Abortion Rights to Social Justice: Building the Movement for Reproductive Freedom”, and it was an eclectic mixture of students, activists, and grassroots and nonprofit professionals.

I returned to CLPP to facilitate “The Revolution Starts with Me: Recipes, Remedies, Rituals and Resources for Activist Self Care”. As in years past, this workshop had over 40 participants and was well-received.

At the start of every workshop I do, I make sure to explain the purpose and intent of the workshop and its activities, share what’s going to take place, and what I feel is going to be the take-away points and “call to action” for my participants.

One major component of my workshops is establishing the ground rules. Known as “group agreements”, “safe space agreements”, “community norms”, and many more names, ground rules are the first step in setting the tone for how the facilitator and participants will interact with each other during their time together. Here are some things to keep in mind:

1) It’s a group effort:

Participants will identify what they need from each other and from the facilitator in order to feel comfortable participating in the workshop. I prefer to develop the ground rules with the assistance of the participants. When this happens, there’s more investment and participants will be more intentional in how they interact with each other. Some group rules that have come up in my previous workshops include:

  • Step up, step back (This refers to everyone contributing to the activities. This ground rule commonly refers to participating more if you’ve been holding back and allowing others to contribute if you’ve been taking up a lot of space. This can also be listed as “Step up, step up” (encouraging more communication from everyone, in addition to increasing listening)
  • One mic (To make sure everyone is heard, only one person speaks at a time).
  • Confidentiality (Some workshop topics can be very personal. What’s said in the room should not leave the room once the workshop is over.)
  • “I” statements (Speak from your own experience. Avoid making generalizations.)
  • Active listening (When listening to a participant, avoid distractions like looking at your phone, writing things down, etc. As a facilitator, it’s always helpful to repeat back in your words what you heard the participant say to demonstrate that you were listening and to request clarification, if needed)
  • Don’t yuck my yum (What sounds good to someone else may not be appealing to others. I may like avocado and peanut butter sandwiches, but if I share that with the group and I get a visual reaction and verbal non-approval, I may be discouraged from contributing for the remainder of my time with the group. You don’t always have to agree with what someone says.)
  • Assume good intent (People are human and may make mistakes, such as forgetting to address a participant by their preferred gender pronoun. It’s best to politely correct someone rather than make a scene. If needed, you and the participant can find time after the workshop to discuss what occurred and to find a good conclusion).
  • Take breaks and take care of yourself as needed (If participants feel more comfortable sitting on the floor, let them. Encourage restroom and water breaks. If someone needs to step outside of the room for whatever reason, be ok with that. They’ll be back.)
  • Social media (This ties into confidentiality. In some workshop spaces, people tend to tweet what’s being said. However, encourage participants to announce that what they’re about to share should not be repeated out on social media.)
  • Challenge the idea, not the person (When something sounds unfamiliar to you, don’t be afraid to ask questions to gain understanding. Focus on the idea, and avoid personal attacks. This is important when you dealing with participants who come from various communities, lived experiences, and certain levels of privilege.)

Sometimes, you may not have enough time to devote to developing the ground rules with the participants. List the rules you commonly use, then ask if the participants agree with what’s been listed, as well as make suggestions for other rules.

2) Keep the ground rules visible:You can write the ground rules on a board or on flip chart paper. Keeping the ground rules visible is useful, especially if the workshop is expected to last several hours. If the group feels that the ground rules aren’t being honored, you can refer back to them.

3) Model the ground rules: Your participants won’t adhere to the ground rules if you don’t. This is especially true if you’re not making “I” statements or doing active listening.

4) Revisit, when needed: If you notice that people are speaking over each other, making generalizations, and yucking someone else’s yum, refer back to the ground rules to reestablish commitment to them.

5) Maintain flexibility: When someone proposes a ground rule, ask the other participants if they agree to it. If most do, add it to the list.

Developing ground rules is a great way to set the tone of your workshop. Keep these 5 points in mind, and feel free to use the sample ground rules I’ve listed. If you do decide to use them, let me know how they worked with your participants!

RAISE YOUR VOICE: What are some key ground rules you have used in your workshop? If you’ve been a workshop participant, what ground rules stood out in the workshops you’ve attended?

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