What do I do when a meeting goes way off topic?

Freeze the River

You know what it’s like when you’re facilitating a meeting and there’s sudden heat on a topic? 🔥

It rises up and gains momentum, spreading from person to person. It’s exciting. It’s dynamic. A nerve has clearly been struck, and everyone is drawn in. Maybe they’re all trying to talk at once or the group chaat is exploding. Some great ideas are emerging and bouncing around. This is the moment when the conversation becomes a river 🚣‍♂️. It’s bubbling and flowing, and it can feel oh so good to cruise down it.

But what happens when this peaceful river is drifting you away from where you as a facilitator were trying to go? Sure, the conversation is great, but the meeting objectives are slipping away from you. In fact, yup, there they are – slowly but surely disappearing around a bend, getting smaller by the minute… 😱

We want serendipity and energy in synchronous meetings. We want surprise! But as facilitators, we need to be ready to manage these sudden shifts. 🌊 Do we surf the wave or shut it down? As soon as you start sense a conversation catching fire, ask yourself two questions:

1️⃣ Is this topic actually on the agenda?

2️⃣ Is it moving us towards our objectives?

If the answer to both questions is yes, let the river rip 🌊. Don’t worry about redirecting the conversation, but do focus on keeping time and winding the session down rather than letting excited participants go over time and then scatter without closure or next steps.

If, however, the answer to either of these questions is no, things are trickier. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean things are out of hand. In fact, this unexpected turn could actually be serving a bigger purpose. The conversation twist might not be speaking to the micro objective of the meeting, but maybe it is serving the macro objective. It’s possible that this is a magic breakthrough moment of a new idea ⚡️, and we should take advantage. The task of the facilitator is to decide whether you want to tube the river to unchartered but potentially fruitful territory or freeze it before you’re sent into wild and unproductive rapids.

If you know this is the 20th time the group has gotten into the same conversation and you’re in well-worn – and worn-out – territory then it’s your job to freeze the river.

📣 Try this: I can tell there is heat on this, but we’re here to accomplish [insert objective], and I don’t think this is going to get us there. Any final thoughts on this topic before I bring us back to our agenda?

Trickier still is when you don’t know enough about the macro goals of the group to know if it would be valuable to stay in this zone.

📣 Try this useful phrase when you need to figure out the utility of a topic ASAP: I’m going to stop us for a minute. Should we move on, or is this a conversation that you all think is important to have now?

This is a pretty simple question, but it can break the spell and allow you to ascertain how best to serve the needs of the team. If it becomes clear that, yes, we’re in well-worn territory here and we need to get out pronto, then it’s time to take a more assertive stance.

📣 Try saying: This is interesting, but it’s not what we’re here for today. Then you can guide the meeting back to its objectives; the river’s flow is on course once again.

The next time you find yourself up a runaway creek without a paddle 🛶 , pause and ask yourself whether you should 🛑 stop the unexpected conversation or 🟢 make the topic an explicit part of the meeting. By choosing the right waves to surf 🏄 , you might just find yourself paddling towards even more exciting outcomes.

I’m guessing you’re here because you want to get better at leading groups, improve your meeting culture, and maybe even organise some great events.

Well, you’re in the right place!

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