Being brave when meetings go off track

When I was about 13 my Air Training Corps group found ourselves standing at the edge of cliff in the middle of the bush on a mountainside in New Zealand’s South Island.

Thirty of us had climbed to the saddle of Mt Somers and were making our way back. The trip had taken longer than expected so our leaders decided we’d leave the track and bush-bash our way down. We hadn't gone a hundred metres before we were bluffed, our path blocked by a cliff. It wasn’t a big drop so we decided to risk the climb down. The next cliff was too high to tackle so we detoured around it, looking for another way down.

Each time we were bluffed we had a choice. We could climb down, risking life and limb. We could go round, knowing there was every chance that another bluff awaited. Or we could decide that bush-bashing wasn’t working and retrace our steps to the path. From there we could start afresh.

We persevered, the risk of grievous injury growing with each cliff we encountered. The trip down took six hours, leaving some of us suffering heat stroke. The last stretch was undertaken as darkness fell. It was the classic wilderness adventure gone wrong.
When meetings go off track

Sometimes a meeting that you are facilitating can go off track too.

I was recently leading such a meeting. Things had become fraught and emotions were running high. Not only was the desired goal receding into the distance, but relationships were becoming strained.

The analogy that came to mind was bush-bashing. If you carry on when you start getting bluffed you risk making matters worse. But in a meeting, as in the bush, there’s always the chance to stop, to go back and to try a different way.

The courage to start again

When you’re facilitating a meeting that is going awry, it takes courage to stop proceedings. It means admitting that you haven’t done your job as facilitator.

I believe the only way you can do this effectively is to have the humility to be vulnerable and to admit you’ve made a mistake. It often that starts with an apology. It needn’t be a big deal, just something like “I’m sorry, I haven’t done a good job of helping you get to the right place in this discussion, let’s go back and try another approach.”

This lets you recognise that you’re all there to do the best job you can and to reaffirm that you’re all working towards the same objective.

It’s part of the art of facilitation, and I see it as a four step process:

  • Recognising when you are heading down the wrong path
  • Having the courage to stop and re-establish psychological safety (
  • Apologising and taking the discussion back to where it went wrong
  • Reframing the discussion so that there is a clear way forward

When the risks of continuing are great, the rewards of calling a halt are all the greater.

Photo of Mt Somers by David Maciulaitis CC BY 2.0