Set ground rules for effective communication


When you work with the camp participants, you notice that some discussions have the potential to create friction or misunderstandings. You can be better prepared to manage confrontations and improve communication by setting some ground rules.

Explore the importance of setting ground rules

Have you ever been part of a discussion that seemed chaotic with people speaking out of turn and interrupting each other? Have you felt disrespected or slighted because others interrupted you in a discussion and didn't let you share your opinion? What can you do to avoid such situations in a technology workspace?

Setting ground rules at the beginning of a group interaction to enforce some basic agreements can help avoid potential misunderstandings. Even the act of having the conversation around ground rules helps introduce a sense of intentionality for the group. It can also assuage any apprehensions people might have about not being understood.

Create ground rules

You can create ground rules to help prevent people from feeling ignored or belittled and help avoid awkward moments. The following sections describe some examples of ground rules that can help during conversations.

Use "I" statements

Use "I" statements to speak for yourself and not for others. It's easy to make generalized statements about practices, such as "At our university, we do..." or "In our organization, we like to...." But you should always speak from your own vantage point and not presume that others share your perspective.

For example, a participant approaches you at the coding camp to voice their opinion about a topic you've introduced that they find challenging. Consider how you might emotionally react if they use a "you statement" versus an "I statement":

  • You statement: "This new topic is very challenging for the class. You should have thought twice before introducing it to us now."
  • I statement: "I'm struggling with this new topic. It's really challenging for me. I need help."

The participant's "you" statements might provoke a defensive reaction in you because they're assigning blame. They're also implying that everyone in the group feels the same way they do.

The participant's "I" statements are from their perspective, and not the entire group. They take ownership of their own feelings and responsibility for asking for help when they need it.


Active listening is just as valuable as actively contributing. It's important to know when to step up and increase your active participation by expressing your thoughts. It's also equally important to know when to step back when you're dominating the discussion.

Commit to "sharing the air" and provide others an equal opportunity to express their thoughts, opinions, and feelings. Remember from the video: When you create space to listen to others, you're choosing to listen with purpose.

Line drawing of a person stretching an imaginary thought bubble that represents creating space to listen to another person.

Respect confidentiality

Reassure participants that what they communicate within the group will stay within the group, but what they learn in the group can be taken away and applied outside of the group. By implementing this rule, you provide them the freedom to learn openly and without fearing that what they say will be shared in other settings. Of course, it's okay to share what you personally learned in the group. It's not okay to share the statements that others might have made in the group setting.

Have you ever been in a situation where you shared some private information with a friend, only for them to share it with others without your consent? How did that make you feel?

Suppose a participant at your coding camp approaches you privately with a problem. You discuss the problem with them and together you arrive at a solution. You feel like the entire group would benefit from a discussion about the problem and its solution. Should you go ahead and share this information without prior consent from the participant who shared their problem with you? How do you think they would feel? By obtaining prior consent before sharing the participant's problems with the entire group, you reaffirm their trust in you and respect their confidentiality.

Assume positive intent

Intent and impact aren't always the same. Have you ever said something in a conversation without giving it much thought and then realized that your message sounded different than you had intended? This is what's referred to as the "that's not what I meant" moment. If you often say things in a manner that doesn't accurately reflect your intentions or that causes the recipient to misunderstand, then you're not alone.

Remember that the same is true of other people. When you listen to others, it's important to assume that the speaker has positive intentions. By assuming good intent, you give them the benefit of the doubt.

If the person you're talking to reacts strongly and you realize the message they're responding to isn't your intended message, your first instinct might be to defend yourself by saying something like, "That's not what I meant!" Before you do that, take a breath. Remember that clarification is important, but the other person's vantage point is valid as well. You both need to take back a step and realize that the intended message wasn't necessarily the message that was received. By assuming positive intent and understanding each other, you can then move forward to establish true communication.

Line drawing of a person holding up their hand to another person and saying, Not my intention.

Listen respectfully

One of the key aspects of communication is respecting the other person's right to express their thoughts.

Have you ever been interrupted when you were trying to contribute your opinions in a group? When you're not allowed to speak freely or you don't feel listened to, you feel discouraged, ignored, and offended. Interruptions are disorienting and make you lose your train of thought.

Seek to understand what others are saying, even if you disagree. Give others the chance to share their thoughts without interrupting them. After listening to them, also take care not to dismiss their opinions without adequate consideration.

We've all had experiences where we're talking to someone and they stop paying direct attention—they might tune out, or check their phone, or look elsewhere. These behaviors can be belittling to the speaker.

Remember that in any communication you need to be respectful, not just in the words you use but with your body language too. People are very good at picking up on visual cues (intended and unintended) in communication. Be fully present and always provide your complete attention to the speaker. Maintain eye contact or focus and signal your understanding by using phrases such as, "I understand what you're saying" or "I hear you and I agree."

Evaluate and revisit the ground rules as needed

After you introduce ground rules, it's important to revisit them—both after the first meeting in which you introduced them and again soon after. You can ask the group, "How did we do? Do we need to add to our ground rules or check in on them?"

The following list provides more guidelines for ground rules that you can apply:

  • As you establish and refine ground rules, be open to new and different perspectives.
  • Involve your team in a discussion and notice how people are feeling, including yourself.
  • Search for opportunities to involve everyone in the group.
  • If you come across ideas that you're unsure of or have questions about, remember to stay open minded.
  • Note the feedback you receive and observe the different temperaments on your team. These observations will give you a better idea of the need to constantly reassess your ground rules.