by   Steve Roche

What to do if things aren’t working well

Meetings don’t always work well. We know that. So what do you mean by ‘not working well?’ How do you recognise when a meeting is not working well, and what can you do about it?

If you notice:

  • Lots of side conversations or a stony silence
  • Increased restlessness, with people in and out of the room
  • Signs of boredom, tiredness, fidgeting
  • Excessive argument, taking longer than expected.

...then what you are doing is obviously not working.

Occasionally it will be clear that a meeting is failing to meet its objectives, usually for one of these groups of reasons:

  • Participants – too many, wrong people, wrong mix
  • Ownership – missing, conflicting, expecting too much
  • Show-stopper issues arising
  • Group can’t or won’t make decisions.

Admit that things are not going well and confront the issue. Check with people, for example:

‘Can we review what we have achieved and if we are still on track?’


‘I feel this approach is not working, what do you think?’

You need to stop and find out why it’s not working. Be honest with people and negotiate with them on what to do.

If you can, do this just before a break, so you have a bit of time to think through the change. You may have some ideas, but it will always be helpful to understand from the group why they don’t like the current approach or what they want to see happen next. Discuss it openly and get agreement on how to proceed.

The group may even decide to terminate this meeting and arrange another. If this is the case, before finishing, arrange clear objectives for next time, thank people for their involvement, note the lessons learned, and leave them feeling that they have contributed to something worthwhile.

When you are running a meeting, you will often be sharing the feelings of most of the group, but your job is to put that aside and come up with more subtle ways to get the group back on track.

What you think: ‘Oh just shut up or we’ll be here until midnight’.
What you say: ‘We seem to be going round in circles’.
What you think: ‘You’ve done no preparation so we’re all just wasting our time’.
What you say: ‘We don’t seem to have enough information to pursue this’.
What you think: ‘I wish you two would shut up and listen to the Chair for once’.
What you say: ‘We seem to be having two meetings’.
What you think: ‘We’re never going to get anywhere at this rate’.
What you say: ‘We’re still on the first agenda point’.


Other useful phrases that are not accusatory or directive:

  • ‘There seem to be strong feelings about this issue’
  • ‘We seem to have got bogged down in detail’
  • ‘We don’t seem to have heard from everyone’
  • ‘We seem to be avoiding this issue. What is making it so easy to avoid?’
  • ‘The energy seems to have dropped’
  • ‘We seem to have gone off the agenda’
  • ‘We seem to be somewhat divided on this issue’.

You will have spoken out loud what many others were thinking. The intervention gently pulls people up and gets the meeting back on track. With stubborn game-players it may be necessary to intervene in this way two or even three times. But by then, everyone knows what is going on and it’s harder for them to continue their difficult behaviour.

You need to be aware when someone is taking the meeting off track and to intervene – sometimes quickly and forcefully – to get the meeting back on course.

Ways to intervene

  • Interrupt gently, perhaps by saying,

‘I’m going to interrupt you for a moment...’

  • State what is going on without blame or accusation or pointing the finger at anyone particular
  • Sum up when it seems there are too many ideas around
  • Ask for clarity from those with differing viewpoints
  • Take a break.

The short break (‘comfort’ break) is a helpful tool that can be used to:

  • maintain alertness and concentration levels
  • allow quick thinking time
  • help tempers cool
  • allow for rapid negotiation and re-focusing.

A general strategy for dealing with difficulties:

  • Notice what is going on
  • Call attention to the problem
  • Enlist the help of the group
  • Make required changes to process, agenda and agreements
  • Refocus on objectives, outcomes and priorities
  • Continue

What would you do?

How would you resolve these situations?

Come up with your own ideas before looking at the suggested approaches below.

  1. Two people head to head in conflict
  2. Arguments and bad feeling all round
  3. Process is not working, or straying from the agenda
  4. Unable to reach decision/consensus
  5. Lacking vital information/input/people
  6. Danger of overrunning
  7. Disruptive or uncooperative people
  8. Senior person getting in the way

Suggested approaches

Suggestions for what you could do to resolve these situations:

  1. Two people head to head in conflict
  • Invoke the five minute rule. If still not resolved, park on Issues board or note as an Action to take outside the meeting.
  1. Arguments and bad feeling all round
  • Remind the group of the objectives and ground rules.
  • The feelings may actually be the key issue (the objectives may be wrong, in other words).
  • Call a short break for cooling off time. Talk to individuals to calm and reassure them.
  1. Process is not working, or straying from the agenda
  • Check with the group: if they feel it’s off track, find out why and what they want to do instead.
  • Call a break to give yourself time to change the process or check with individuals.
  • Check that you are not imposing your own agenda, process or input.
  1. Unable to reach decision or consensus
  • Check that this forum does have the authority and information it needs to make the decision.
  • Use the Five Minute Rule to push for a conclusion. Park as an Issue or Action if it can be deferred.
  • Refer to the Owner for an executive decision.
  • As a last resort, abandon the meeting and decide if a further meeting is needed.
  1. Lacking vital information/input/people
  • Watch out for people trying to duck the issue.
  • Decide if this is a ‘show-stopper’: don’t be afraid to terminate the meeting if necessary.
  • Get consensus on what to do: can the situation be remedied in time to carry on and do something useful? Do you need to change the scope and objectives?
  1. Danger of overrunning
  • Don’t just allow it to overrun, stop and check with the group: do they want to negotiate extra time?
  • Review the agenda: deal with top priority things first.
  1. Disruptive or uncooperative people
  • Invite personal views from those not contributing.
  • Challenge unhelpful behaviours in a non-confrontational way.
  • Remind people of the appropriate ground rules.
  • Ultimately, refer to the Owner for guidance or a decision.
  1. Senior person getting in the way
  • Have the courage to articulate what is happening without being intimidated.
  • Refer to the ‘all views have equal value’ ground rule (if you have it).
  • Take a break and talk to the person individually.