Most of us have had this experience: we show up to a meeting to discuss one topic but a meeting participant takes the conversation in a different direction. We call that “Meeting Hijacking,” and it’s one of the many ways that meetings can be taken off-topic.
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Here are a set of strategies to keep your meeting focused on the stated purpose.
How can the meeting coordinator keep control of the meeting?
- Know your audience. Remember, you’re in control of who’s in the meeting. Before you ever walk into the meeting review your attendee list. Is there anyone who might be a meeting hijacker? If so, consider meeting with them prior to the meeting to “get on the same page” and feel out what his or her potential issues are going to be ahead of time. Hear what they have to say, and determine how to manage their potential impact to your meeting. People often hijack meetings because they need to be heard. This simple tactic can often help you side-step meeting derailments.
- Make sure you have a well thought-out agenda… and Stick to it. Having a strong agenda helps to prevent meeting hijackers because you can simply point to the agenda and remind everyone that this was what was planned. The topic they’re discussing could be addressed – in perhaps a follow-up meeting.
- Create a parking lot at the beginning of the meeting. During the course of your meeting, people may raise legitimate – and related – issues that warrant being addressed but that perhaps shouldn’t be addressed at this time or in this particular meeting. But how do you know when the topic is or is not that vital? Consider asking your experts – the very people you’ve brought together — for their input. “I hear this is an issue – and that it seems to be important. But given what our focus is today, is this issue part of the critical path to addressing the objective of our meeting today?” If it isn’t, then put the issue on the parking lot list, and with your leadership’s input, consider hosting a separate meeting to address those parking lot items.
- Use a boomerang to keep people engaged. Remember, as a meeting facilitator, your job isn’t to have all the answers: you’re there to help people accomplish the goal of the meeting. So, if someone raises a question or issue during the meeting, consider posing the question back to the group. This ensures you are consistently getting input from the team during the discussion process.
- Set the right tone for your meeting. Is this a working group session, where getting into the weeds is expected and needed? Or is this a meeting where the legwork is over and now it’s time for deliberation and decisions? Know where your meeting fits into the overall “workflow process” for getting things done.
- Know what “success” looks like for the meeting. If the ultimate goal for the meeting is to have a concrete decision made, then anything short of that isn’t acceptable. Getting to a final decision might mean taking a vote among your team, drafting policy language or creating a final list of recommendations for leadership.
- Corral your conversation. There can be that one person who just won’t let a topic die. If they keep coming back to rehash their issue or point of view, consider saying “Thanks Jane, you’ve done a great job of sharing the most important considerations in your argument. Let’s make sure we have everyone’s point of view now.” And then actually call on someone else in the room who has other ideas.
- Master the art of transitions. Just because you’re ready to move on to the next topic (or the clock indicates you should) doesn’t mean the team is ready to move on. Help your group shift gears to the next item on the agenda by wrapping up what you’ve heard, but “before we move on, have we addressed everything?” This can help keep conversations focused during their allotted time and signal to the group that the topic is closed.
Remember – meeting hijackers only have the power you give them. Maintaining and managing the meeting is critical to the meeting’s success – and ultimately how you as the meeting leader are judged. Carefully consider how to manage meeting hijackers before your next meeting to make everyone’s time productive.
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An earlier version of this article ran on Write It Well/AdCom Designs.