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Keep discussions from straying too far

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in Leaders & Managers,Team Building

You create a well-organized agenda for team meetings. You write the goal on a flip chart for all to see. And you ask smart questions to direct the conversation.

That's a good start. But it doesn't guarantee that the group will stay on track.

Many teams lose their focus as discussions veer off tangent. A participant may raise a hot-button issue and trigger a torrent of comments that have little to do with your objective.

As much as you're tempted to jump in and refocus everyone on the matter at hand, you don't want to shut down potentially promising debates that stray from the agenda. Those unplanned excursions into new topics can produce unexpected payoffs.

As a rule, let the group redirect the discussion for about five minutes. That's when you need to decide whether to intervene and honor the agenda—or abandon it and go with the flow. Or take a vote to see how the team wants to proceed.

If the group reaches an impasse, compartmentalize each issue. Reach closure by saying, "We're not going to resolve this today, but at least we've made progress. Now let's move on."

To prevent a motormouth from wasting everyone's time on irrelevant commentary, begin by saying, "Let's get back to the agenda" or "For our remaining time today, we need to focus on other priorities."

If that doesn't work, call a break and privately urge the loudmouth to simmer down so that others can chime in. Explain that while you value his or her input, you're concerned that the rest of the group must participate more actively.

Beware of subtly encouraging the group to veer off topic through your silence. If you let the conversation degenerate into a free-for-all, some team members may conclude that you're not serious about helping the group attain its goal.

Disarm critics by agreeing with them—at least at first. Say, "You're right under certain circums-tances" or "I see where you're coming from and I share your concern." Then explain how the present situation requires new thinking or how your proposed action achieves the same goal with a different strategy. By affirm-ing what you hear, you're more apt to woo potential adversaries.


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