August 2000 // Volume 38 // Number 4 // Tools of the Trade // 4TOT4

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Two Techniques to Foster Collaboration Within a Group

This article describes two techniques that a facilitator can use to help foster collaboration within a group: ground rules for effective behavior and a consensus framework for decision-making. Examples are included that outline how a facilitator can apply these techniques in a group.

Marlene K. Rebori
Community and Organizational Development
Cooperative Extension
University of Nevada, Reno
Reno, Nevada
Internet address:


Collaboration is a popular and frequently used method for managing differences among people within a group (Gray, 1989). Although people forming a group may have the aim of collaboration, creating an atmosphere of collaboration that supports mutual respect and shared decision-making is a difficult challenge. This article is for community educators and volunteers who work as facilitators with groups and who desire collaboration. Two effective techniques that I have used to foster collaboration within a group are ground rules and a consensus framework.

Ground Rules for Effective Behavior

Ground rules are explicit guidelines the group agrees to follow. The purpose of ground rules is to help guide constructive behavior. Ground rules can also outline process procedures, such as how decisions are made and how information is shared (Schwarz 1995; Susskind, 1999). Typically, ground rules frame expectations about the way things should be done at meetings. An effective way for a group facilitator to establish collaborative group behavior is to introduce a draft set of suggested ground rules at the first meeting.

During the discussion of ground rules, the facilitator explains the purpose of the ground rules and encourages the group to discuss them. To illustrate how this may occur, the facilitator may say something like, "I drafted some suggested ground rules we could all follow for today's meeting. Although they are only suggestions, let's go over the ground rules and see how people feel about following them."

An Example of "Suggested Ground Rules"

  • Focus on interests and ideas, not positions or solutions to the problem.
  • Listen to understand each idea and interest. Ask questions.
  • Respect different viewpoints.
  • All ideas count, even wild ones.
  • Everybody participates.
  • Everyone shares responsibility for following the ground rules.

The facilitator may say things like:

  • "These ground rules are only suggested to help us start thinking about how we can work together more constructively. Does anyone have any comments or items they would like to discuss about these suggested ground rules?"
  • "Are there rules you would like to add?"
  • "As the facilitator of the group, my role is not only to make sure everybody follows the ground rules, but also to model these ground rules to demonstrate effective group behavior."

Even when ground rules are introduced and thoroughly discussed, someone will inevitably break a rule. For example, a group member may say, "I am here to stop future development in this community." This statement is a position, thereby breaking the first rule listed above. A facilitator who is modeling the ground rules would respond, "In keeping with our ground rules, let's reframe your statement into an interest. Would you say your interest is to retain areas of open space?" A facilitator can use reframing frequently to help members stick to the ground rules.

The ground rules should be written on an easel pad and posted for everyone to see at each meeting. Groups that continue to meet may want to print the ground rules on colored 3x5-index cards and laminate them.

The overall purpose of ground rules is to help foster collaborative group interaction, not to restrict it. The group can change the ground rules or add new ones based on group needs.

Consensus Decision-Making Framework

The second technique that fosters collaboration is a consensus decision-making framework. Consensus builds group cohesion by incorporating everyone's opinion in the group. Rather than approaching consensus from an "I can live with it" perspective, I propose an alternative framework for arriving at consensus. This alternative framework allows groups more room and flexibility in building collaborative agreements. The framework includes five levels, but depending on group preferences, fewer may be appropriate. The possible five levels include the following.

1. I can easily support the decision or action.
2. I can support the decision or action, but it may not be my preference.
3. I can support the decision or action with minor changes.
4. I support the will of the group, but I don't necessarily agree with the decision or action.
5. I cannot support the decision or action.

Using this framework, a group approaches decision-making on an issue or topic showing their level of support. For example, the facilitator may say, "It seems as though many of you like this idea. Let's get a reading on the level of support for the proposal. On the idea to use the Wildlife Division's data regarding elk population numbers, show your level of support. Please raise your hand and show 1,2,3,4, or 5 fingers, depending on how strongly you favor the proposal."

To foster collaboration, the facilitator should ask additional questions for all levels of support expressed, questions like, "What were your reasons for indicating level 2 support?" However, for levels 4 & 5, the facilitator should ask direct questions to elicit participant concerns, such as "Bob, what are your specific reasons for indicating level-5 support?"

Group members may want to include what constitutes consensus in the ground rules. For example, does everyone in the group need a 1,2, or 3 level of support? Groups that have a time constraint but that still want to use consensus decision-making can adopt a 70/30 rule, requiring 70% of the group members to indicate level 4 or above for consensus. The 70/30-rule still fosters collaboration by creating a shared understanding within the group for each member's level of support.


Using ground rules and a consensus framework will foster collaboration on both the beginning and end of group interaction. Ground rules establish the path for constructive behavior. The consensus framework supports the atmosphere established in the ground rules by providing an understanding of why group members support a potential decision.


Gray, B. (1989) Collaborating: Finding common ground for multiparty problems. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Schwarz, R. (1995). Ground rules for effective groups (Rev. ed.). Institute of Government. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Susskind, L. (1999). A short guide to consensus building. In The consensus building handbook: A comprehensive guide to reaching agreement. L. Susskind, S. McKearnan, and J. Thomas-Larmer (Eds.). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.