How (not) to side-track a meeting

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

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.

  • 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.

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.

  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…”

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).

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

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.

  • 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.



Sociocracy, Non-Violent Communication, Linguistics

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