Ground Rules for Public Engagement

Public EngagementAcross the US, civility is declining. We could argue about why – but the bottom line is that our communities’ capacity to have constructive conversations about things that matter is not what it used to be. People are not always interested in finding agreement and some even come to public meetings with a goal of starting an argument.
Begin every public meeting by setting standards for how everyone should behave. Ground rules – particularly when they have been developed together with the group – can help keep things civil and constructive. Consider the following ideas for ground rules to minimize incivility during public engagement initiatives.

• Participate with intention.
Begin by explaining, “I would like to encourage you to pay attention to what this meeting was designed to address. Listen to what is discussed and ask questions to help you understand. When it’s your turn to speak, share what you think in a constructive manner. Speak your mind and from your heart. Leaving anything unsaid is not helping anyone. Meetings are convened to accomplish specific objectives, and we are eager to hear your best thinking about how to accomplish those objectives.”

• Appreciate the diversity of perspectives.
Explain this ground rule by stating, “Everyone brings kernels of wisdom based on their own unique history and experiences. We can’t know or understand what someone else thinks unless we listen to them. We cannot have a full picture until everyone has had a chance to contribute. All perspectives are valid. When someone says something that challenges your thinking, listen to understand why they think as they do. This meeting was not designed to support an argument. It was designed to support learning together and the creation of a shared understanding of how we collectively see this topic.”

• Maintain a respectful space.
It is the facilitator’s job to maintain a respectful space, but that job is much easier if we ask the participants to help. This ground rule can be explained by saying, “Everyone is deserving of respect. That means we all need to treat each other with kindness and respect. It also means that we all need to avoid distractions. Please don’t do anything that would prevent others from hearing whoever is speaking. In addition, please silence your cell phones. Better yet, turn off your technology and focus your attention in the room and on the topics at hand.”
Post proposed ground rules on the wall, or suggest ideas for consideration. Invite the group to agree to comply and alert them to your job in enforcing the rules. Discussing ground rules as a group will only take a few minutes. Doing that before launching into tough public engagement topics will make everything easier.

Author: Wendy Green Lowe