What to do when a meeting becomes unproductive

Your meeting is going nowhere and the tension in the room is starting to escalate. You’ve been discussing the same topic for hours, but you and your associates are not able to reach consensus. A decision has to be made, so what do you do?

Although it may seem counterintuitive, this is probably the best time to disengage from the conversation. How do you disengage effectively so that you and your coworkers can return to the topic at hand with a clearer mind, and no one feels like you’re avoiding them?

Here are four things you can do to successfully disengage from high-tension situations:

1. Postpone the Meeting

It may be difficult to come to an agreement if all the pertinent information is not available, or the key players are not present at that moment. This information, or these key individuals, could help clarify the situation and allow you and your team to make the best informed decision possible.

You can disengage from the current, non-productive situation by using Persuading, which consists of stating a proposal and giving two or three reasons for your proposal. Example: “I suggest that we set a time next week to discuss this further with Tim. My reason for this is so you can take some time to consider the various aspects of Tim actually running this project; therefore, I think it would be better if we involve Tim in this conversation.”

2. Give and Get Feedback

Most often, sources of frustration and conflict are due to misunderstandings or misinterpretations. Following is a good tactic to determine how others are feeling and explore their thoughts and concerns.

You can disengage from this situation by using Bridging, which includes asking open-ended questions and listening effectively to get to the root of the problem and uncover the underlying issues. Example: “I’m feeling a little bit uncomfortable about how this project is going. I am unsure where we’re going to end up. How are you feeling? What is it you would want to do about this?”

3. Change the Subject

Sometimes, simply moving away from the present subject gives everyone an opportunity to reset their brains and get off the proverbial “hamster wheel”. You can disengage from this situation by using Asserting, which involves evaluating, stating expectations, and using incentives and pressures.

Example: “I like that we have accomplished a lot. I don’t like that we have been working on the same topic for three hours straight. I want to move to the next item on the agenda. If we do this, I will buy coffee for everybody. If we don’t move on to the next topic, I am going to have a hard time paying attention.”

4. Take a Break

An actual physical break, where you get up and move away from the table or conversation, can get everyone to regain their focus. It is also a good tactic to use if emotions are running very high. Physically moving away from an emotionally charged situation will help lessen the tension around the table. A short break is all you need to clear your mind and stretch your body.

The main difference between Taking a Break and Postponing is that a break is a short ten- to fifteen-minute recess, after which you resume the meeting, whereas postponing is planning for a future date and time to continue the discussion.

You can disengage from this type of situation by using Attracting, which includes Finding Common Ground and Sharing Visions. Example: “We all have been working very hard today. Imagine taking a 10-minute break and going for a little walk outside to feel the breeze and smell the flowers. We would feel recharged and could actually finish the meeting early.”

Again, when you disengage, your goal is to manage the tension in the room and create a positive environment for re-engaging in the conversation. If you plan to disengage from the conversation, it is very important that you communicate your intention to re-engage at a later time. Otherwise, you are simply avoiding the issue at hand and leaving people feeling abandoned, ultimately damaging your relationships.

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