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How to Use Questions to Get Meetings Unstuck

Meetings get stuck. The conversation goes off track or circles around without making progress. Sometimes a few people take up all the airtime or no one wants to share a dissenting opinion. In these situations, and more, questions can be a powerful tool to unstick a sticky meeting conversation.

The Power of Questions

Unlike statements, question tend to open up thinking and invite reflection rather than reaction.  Statements can easily come across as opinionated or judgemental whereas questions and comments of curiosity, when used and delivered appropriately, reduce this sense of attack. Questions do require a sensitivity to delivery. The tone and body language you use when asking will influence whether the listener hears a genuine inquiry or a passive aggressive remark.

Consider the following scenario:

You’re twenty minutes into an hour long meeting and two colleagues have unintentionally hijacked the conversation. They’re deep in the weeds and everyone else is sitting silently while the two of them go back and forth on details that aren’t relevant to the meeting’s initial agenda. Maybe you’re in a position of authority or have developed strong relationships with the meeting participants. In this case, you might insert yourself easily by saying, “Sorry to interrupt, but I think this conversation has gone off track. We have a full agenda so let’s take that topic offline and get back to the agenda.” But what if it’s your boss or two highly respected colleagues who has taken the conversation down a left turn? What if the idea of interrupting them makes your heart beat fast, your palms sweat and your head spin?

It may feel like like you’re overstepping your boundaries when you interject. Others may see your behavior as too assertive or a critique of your colleagues. In actuality, you’re taking ownership of the meeting’s success and supporting the group to get back on track, exactly what you and every meeting participant should be doing.

Get meetings unstuck with questions.

In cases where an interruption feels more risky, asking a question or making a comment of curiosity may be the perfect solution. In the scenario above, imagine how the two colleagues might respond if you said one of the following:

“Excuse me. I’ve gotten a bit lost. Can you help me understand how this conversation connects to today’s agenda?”“Sorry to interrupt. Given we’ve got all these folks in the room, would you mind taking this detailed discussion offline so we can get through the rest of the agenda?”“Terry and Jamie, this sounds like an important conversation, but I’m wondering if it’s the most important topic for this meeting. What do you think?”

According to the Fast Company article, Want To Know What Your Brain Does When It Hears A Question?, “research in neuroscience has found that the human brain can only think about one idea at a time. So when you ask somebody a question, you force their minds to consider only your question.” In essence, when you ask a question, you interrupt the chain of thought and help them reflect on their own behavior. By doing so, you generate buy-in rather than dictating a redirection of the conversation.

Questions can help you unstick challenging meeting situations.

Using inquiries and comments of curiosity can be an effective way to unstick a variety of sticky meeting situations. Marilee Adams, author of Change Your Questions, Change Your Life: 10 Powerful Tools for Life and Work, recommends asking “learner” questions” instead of “judger questions”. She says, “Learner questions are open-minded, curious and often lead to discoveries, understandings and solutions.” While “judger questions” are close-minded, critical and can easily shut people down or elicit defensive responses. When you’re helping get meetings unstuck, use the following “learner questions” and comments of curiosity to get you started.

Scenario 1: The conversation is spinning.

When you find the conversation isn’t making progress, consider one of these questions:

I’m wondering if we’re missing some critical information. What information do we still need to help us come to a resolution?Can someone re-state the issue is we’re discussing and what we’re trying to achieve in this discussion?

Scenario 2: Unclear decision-making or brainstorming criteria.

When making a decision or brainstorming ideas, it can be frustrating when participants are working from different assumptions. Try one of these framings to bring clarity and alignment to the process:

I’m wondering if there are any criteria we should keep in mind when generating ideas.Can someone state the factors we’re considering and how they’re prioritized for this decision?Is there anything I should keep in mind when we’re brainstorming / voting?

Scenario 3: Unequal airtime.

It’s not uncommon for a few people to take up the majority of airtime in a meeting. To counteract and balance participation, ask one of these:

I realized we only have a couple minutes left for this topic. Can we hear from some people who haven't shared yet?Dan has made some interesting points. Carey and David, what are you thinking?There is so much in this conversation and I don’t want to miss out on getting everyone’s input. Could we take the next few minutes and each write down our thoughts? That way, even if we don’t get to them all, at least I’ll have them in writing. Does that sound OK?

Scenario 4: Unclear next steps.

There is almost nothing more frustrating than leaving a meeting and wondering what you accomplished in that time. Equally agitating is discovering a few days later that meeting participants interpreted the meeting’s outcomes differently. Before leaving a meeting, be sure to ask:

Are there any next steps I should be aware of?Can someone recap the decision we made and any next steps?I’m going to do ‘X’. Are there any other next steps?

Anyone can facilitate using questions.

Meeting facilitation techniques like using questions are powerful because anyone can get started. You don't need to be the meeting leader, an influencer, or even have any formal training. When you see unproductive meeting situations take place, be bold!  Start with the questions listed above and then create your own questions to sharpen your facilitation skills for any sticky meeting situation.

Next time you’re frustrated by a colleague’s behavior in a meeting, see if a question can shine a spotlight on the issue and help the group move forward.


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