Group agreements (not rules!) help to create safe and caring spaces that will enhance any group activity. They serve as a set of clear, co-created guidelines to help participants feel comfortable with each other in an atmosphere of safety, respect and trust. Everyone shares the responsibility for the experience and once developed, a group can regularly re-visit the agreements to see if they are still working and make changes if issues come up.
Many people skip over this step when working with groups whether in a short term event or long term setting like a classroom. It is, however, a powerful piece of prevention that can help make a group experience successful. There are a variety of ways to establish group agreements that allow each member to have a stake in the group environment and the outcomes. As a bonus, it helps leaders and facilitators deal with any challenging behaviours that arise.
While agreements need to be generated by the participants themselves, the following outlines 11 common elements that promote a safe group environment. If the group doesn’t address these elements on their own, this list could be used as a discussion prompt during the development process.
2. Amnesty - is a companion to confidentiality and means that confidentially shared information isn’t used against others during or after the group. When members have relationships outside the group, amnesty agreements help to encourage people to share the truth without fear of blame or judgement down the road.
3. Put-ups, not put-downs - aims to eliminate behaviours that may insult, make fun of, minimize, or attack other people in the group or themselves. Putting one’s self down might look like, "Well, this probably isn't important, but …" or "This may sound stupid, but…"
4. Right to pass - supports people who don’t want to talk in a group without asking them to explain themselves.
5. Respectful listening - includes the expectation that the group will listen with attention to someone who is sharing and that only one person talks at a time.
6. Feelings happen - acknowledges that people may experience feelings such as hurt, sadness, boredom, or anger at some time in the group. An agreement in this area shows respect and opens the door for people to express feelings.
7. I-statements - are ways for people to speak for themselves and their own experiences when talking and not to speak for others unless asked to. It helps participants to speak the truth and not spread misinformation about "them," "you," or "us."
8. Give it a try - includes agreements about trying out experiences and activities that are new and/or uncomfortable in a safe environment.
9. Personal accountability - agrees that participants, for the most part, can take charge of their own needs (taking stretch and bathroom breaks, making themselves physically comfortable, asking for help when they need it, and so forth). This includes enjoying and having fun during the process.
10. Show up and be present - requires participants to set aside concerns and distractions and be as present as they are able.
11. Be open to an outcome, but not attached to a specific outcome - results in an openness and willingness to share leadership and give and get feedback to enable everyone to get the most out of the time together.
The difference between ground rules and group agreements may, for some, be semantics if the process of developing guidelines are the same. The important variable is that a traditional "rule" is imposed while an agreement is co-created by an entire group.