How (not) to side-track a meeting

Five ways to get lost in a meeting… or what to do if you do

It’s easy to get lost or side-tracked in a meeting! Here’s how not to get lost … or at least how to find your way back pretty fast!

Below is a list of typical behaviors that slow down meetings. They are common. They are wide-spread and omnipresent.

Learn to notice them in real-time and you will become a better facilitator instantly!

1. Aimless meandering

Aimless meandering is quite common. So common that I guess most people don’t even notice it. Its symptoms are when we talk for a while, and then we move on to the next topic. No decision, no next step, no “so what.” We just had a conversation. That’s very sweet but not what meetings are for. Meetings are for creating shared reality and alignment around topics that require more clarity or ideas.

The way I teach and hold meetings, each agenda items fits neatly into one of these three boxes:

  • If something is a report, I know what “success” looks like and how to know whether it’s complete: it’s complete as soon as everyone has understood what another team member reported on.
  • If something is an exploration, our objective is that everyone’s ideas have been heard. I know that it’s complete when most ideas have been voiced and heard (and/or written down). If I am facilitating, I might ask, “ok, have all your ideas been captured?”
  • If something is a decision, I know that we’ve reached a decision when there has been a formal proposal, and no one objects to it. I make sure to surface the proposal and work until there’s consent.

Unless you’re paid for the time spent in a meeting instead of getting things done, it’s easier to work towards a goal than to meander around. The only thing this approach requires is a moment of thinking while preparing the agenda or before jumping into talking about the topic. Set your intentions together!

2. Not asking for a decision

A related, quite common hold-up I see is facilitators who don’t dare to put a proposal out for consent and wait for a decision to fall from the sky instead. Alignment can sometimes feel like magic, yes, but most often, we work for it. Making proposals is part of that work. Pick a proposal and ask for consent or objections.

In case you need a simple pattern to follow, here’s one straight from the sociocratic practice:

  1. State the problem you’d like address/solve
  2. Ask for ideas on how to solve the problem (ideally, in around). If needed, do another round for more maturing of ideas
  3. Synthesize the ideas into one proposal, or pick one proposal and formally propose it. Then only deal with objections. In particular, don’t get pulled into the next pattern, alternative proposals.

3. Making alternative proposals

Here’s the pattern I am referring to:

  • Facilitator: “Ok, so now that we’ve talked about this for a while, I’d like to propose [A]. Are there any objections?”
  • Team member: “No, but I have a completely different idea. We could also…”

While this most likely stems from good intentions, I’d love to raise awareness that suggesting alternative ideas at the moment of a decision is not productive.

Think about it: in this little scenario, what is the facilitator supposed to do? Let go of proposal A? Ignore the new idea? Neither are good choices. Introducing an alternative late in the game puts the facilitator into a lose-lose position and the team with it.

Do I say people shouldn’t be allowed when they have new ideas? Well, no, but I think it helps to be conscious of our ideas’ timing and impact.

How could this be avoided? The best way to avoid this effect is to walk towards proposals more intentionally. In the sociocratic process, we often generate proposals together, co-creating them. That way, we will hear each idea while we’re still compiling a proposal.

What if it happens anyway? After all, we can’t prevent people from having new ideas, nor do we want to!

If someone introduces a new proposal during the moment of decision, I typically ask them to hold their idea until later. If things are complicated (for example, if saying yes to proposal A means not being able to do proposal B), I do a temperature check by asking the group (in a round) how they feel about the two choices. Then I pick the one with the most energy around it and propose it, moving to a decision. The other proposal idea may come back later, or not. Quite frequently, there are many paths forward. So why be paralyzed between two good ideas, not choosing either?

4. Staying vague

Quite often, team members don’t give us anything specific to work with. It can either be on the side of vague proposals or vague opinions (maybe-objections).

Let’s look at some examples:

  • “I think we should make sure this is inclusive. “
  • “I am just not whether this is a good idea.”

There is nothing wrong with these statements. But they need a bit of extra information. How are we going to make this inclusive? Why don’t you think this is a good idea?

Too many facilitators are easily satisfied with these vague statements, and we all nod knowingly but we don’t actually know. Ask more questions!

5. Playing the victim card

It’s quite clear to me that sometimes people don’t actually want to solve a problem. They want others to know that they feel bad for themselves and need attention. No shame, we’ve all been there. And if we’re honest, we also know that arguing has never snapped us out of that.

Because if someone is in a victim mindset, there is absolutely no adjustment to fix the proposal. They name a problem, you address it, and they find a new problem. Getting frustrated or angry doesn’t help either.

How can we get out of the drama? Here are a few things that might work:

  • Give empathy. Some people really only need to hear a few words of honest acknowledgment. Telling them their problem isn’t a real problem is just going to make things harder. Instead, validate. And then ask them to join the team of problem-solvers (see next point).
  • Point out that there is a problem to be solved and invite everyone to be an agent in solving it. Sometimes people snap out of victim-mindset when there’s something to solve.
  • Address the pattern, without the blame. “I have a feeling that we will not be able to adjust the proposal to meet your needs. Can you tell us what’s really going on for you right now?”
  • Table the discussion and move the conversation into a 1:1. The issue might be too stuck to be solved in ‘public.’
  • Lastly, if someone spends too much of their time in victim-mode and you can’t solve the underlying issue, it might be time to part ways. If one person has a strong victim-streak going, there’s no winning position anywhere on the team.

This last pattern is hard. Read more about it here.

See more articles and resources on meeting facilitation.

Ted teaches meeting facilitation using sociocracy.

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Sociocracy, Non-Violent Communication, Linguistics

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Ted Rau

Ted Rau

Sociocracy, Non-Violent Communication, Linguistics

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