How to steer your meeting back on course once it’s been derailed
Meetings become derailed all the time. It doesn’t matter how perfectly crafted your agenda is, how talented or productive your team members are, or how many years of experience you have facilitating. People get distracted. People get off-task. The question is – how do you steer your meeting back in the right direction?
Here are three effective methods for getting a meeting back on the right track once it has already started to derail.
Reference Visible Resources & Allow for Self-Correction
One of the best ways to steer a meeting back on track in the early stages of derailment is to reference meeting resources that the participants can see. Physical reminders of the task or topic at hand and how long they have left to work with it will usually result in participants steering themselves and their peers back on track.
Physically pointing at an agenda is an excellent go-to. Your agenda should be posted where all of your participants can reference it at any time; when a conversation begins veering off-track, politely point at the activity or discussion in the agenda your meeting is currently focusing on and verbally remind your team what the current timeframe is scheduled for. If they are getting distracted with a matter that will be tackled later on in the meeting, you can also point out that timeframe on the agenda and assure them that there will be time later on to delve into that content.
Timers are a wonderful resource for keeping your team on track during a discussion or activity. The gentle pressure of a time limit manifested as a visual countdown encourages participation, discourages distractions, and cuts back on tangents, sidebars, and other divergences that can derail your meeting. If your team does get off track under the presence of a timer, reference it as you did the agenda. Point to the timer, remind them of the goal they need to reach by the end of the countdown, and let them know how much time they have left. It looks like we have about 5 more minutes left before we have to move on to our next activity. Let’s be sure we’ve accomplished our current task before time is up.
In addition to a posted agenda and a visible timer, having notes about the work that has already been accomplished during your meeting can be an incredibly helpful resource. Have a designated notetaker keep track of discussion points, discoveries, completed tasks, and other key moments and takeaways during the course of your meeting. If a discussion gets caught in a loop or becomes repetitive, reference these notes; according to our meeting notes here, we already discussed _____. How can we approach the topic at hand in a new way? The notes can also be referenced if the meeting is suddenly derailed by a digression; according to our notes, we were discussing ____. Can we save this for later and circle back to what we were discussing before?
Directly Address Team Members
Sometimes the most effective course of action is to be direct. If you’re able to identify a single team member (or maybe just a few) who seems to be off track, you can address them specifically.
The key is to never assume that there isn’t a connection between the topic at hand and what the participant is saying just because you’re not seeing one. Perhaps there’s something you missed or don’t understand about the subject that is preventing you from seeing the connection, or perhaps the participant isn’t communicating their thoughts clearly. Allow them the opportunity to either clarify their thoughts or self-correct their departure from the topic at hand by addressing them with a question. I’m afraid I may be having a hard time putting two-and-two together here. Can you help me understand how this is related to what we were discussing/working on?
If you have a small handful of participants derailing the meeting, it may be helpful to use the refocusing of attention to another participant entirely to aid in the transition back to the subject that the room should be handling. Acknowledge the detour and then ask a team member who hasn’t yet spoken to the original topic at hand for their thoughts. Before we move on from our original discussion I would like to make sure we’ve gathered everyone’s thoughts. _____, what do you think about [original subject]?
If a team member seems particularly concerned with a subject that you were not intending to handle in the meeting, it may be helpful to offer them a later time to discuss their thoughts with you. It can be hard to put an important issue on the backburner without assurance that it will be handled in the future. If a divergence seems important to tackle at some point but is not in service of the meeting’s goal, acknowledge the issue’s significance and ask the participant to schedule time with you after the meeting. That does seem important to discuss, but I want to make sure we stay on task with the limited amount of time we have today. After this meeting, can we schedule a separate time to talk about this?
Ask the Group
If your entire team is having trouble staying on track despite attempts at redirection, it may be a symptom of an ineffective agenda or an unmet need. When in doubt, the best thing to do is simply point out the derailment and ask why it’s happening. It seems like we’re having a tough time staying on topic. Can someone help me understand why that is?
It may be that your agenda’s scheduled discussions and activities don’t serve the meeting’s end goal as well as you thought, and your team is having trouble simultaneously doing meaningful work and working towards this goal. Alternatively, maybe there’s an issue you didn’t account for while creating your agenda that needs to be handled before the topic at hand can be effectively targeted. In scenarios such as these, it is best to be flexible with your agenda and allow your team to help adjust the plan to better serve the work that needs to be done.
Another possibility is that your team has so much swimming around in their minds that it’s difficult to compartmentalize or distinguish their thoughts on one discussion point from their thoughts on another. If your team needs to clear their heads, it is time for a break. If they are running out of fuel, it is time for lunch or a snack (or perhaps some coffee). They know best what they need to unwind and refresh – ask them what you can do to help them more easily focus on the topic at hand.
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