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Ground Rules

Heidi Burgess

Updated May 2013



Ground rules are the rules of conduct for a conflict resolution process, such as negotiation, mediation, arbitration, or consensus-building. They may cover the behavior of the disputants, the role or behavior of any third party (e.g., facilitator or mediator), the methods or process to be used, or the substance of the discussions.


Anyone involved in or designing--or participating in--a dispute resolution process.


Ground rules are guidelines for appropriate behavior in any dispute resolution process. According to Resolve, a leading environmental consensus-building organization, ground rules need to cover seven topics. They are:

  1. the purpose of the process;
  2. who should/may participate;
  3. how decisions will be made;
  4. how meetings will be conducted;
  5. safeguards to protect parties;
  6. schedule; and
  7. facilitation issues (who and how).


For example, behavioral ground rules for negotiation or mediation may be that people must tell the truth (to the best of their knowledge at least)  talk one at a time, that they must listen carefully to their opponents' statements, and that they must treat each other with dignity and respect. Mediation ground rules often require that the conversation that takes place in the meeting room be confidential, unless an explicit agreement is made to release particular information.

Ground rules on the intermediary's role in mediation or consensus building might include the idea that the intermediary will set an agenda for each day's meetings, which needs to be approved by the parties, and that the intermediary will lead the discussion, giving each party an equal amount of time to talk.

Process ground rules for a mediation might say that people are expected to be on time for meetings, that substitute representatives must be approved before the meeting occurs, and that observers are (or are not) allowed. Finally, substantive ground rules will define which topics are to be covered, and which not.


When the disputants are familiar with each other, and with the process, such ground rules may simply be assumed and not stated outright. If the disputants have not worked together before, however, or are not familiar with the process, explicit ground rules can be very helpful in focusing the discussions in a productive way and preventing the process from becoming side-tracked by unnecessary procedural disputes.

In general, the parties should discuss ground rules together and develop a set they all agree upon. This has a double benefit. First, it provides guidelines for behavior that participants are likely to follow as they contributed to making the rules. Second, it provides a first sense of success. If parties can successfully work together to develop ground rules, that is a first step towards working together effectively to solve the problem at hand.

Links to Related Articles:

Collaborative Problem Solving and Consensus Building

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