Get Back on Track


Keep Discussion Moving with Pace-keeping Signals
At times, it's tough for a facilitator—or anyone for that matter—to get a word in edgewise while someone races off in heated monologue down an interesting but tangential path. Groups I've worked with have begun to use a simple signal to let the speaker know as gently as possible that they're off topic. We write the word "tangent" on a couple of Styrofoam cups and place them around the table. When someone goes off on one, someone else reaches for a cup and holds it up. The tangent speaker rolls his eyes and usually says something like "You're right," to which the facilitator responds by saying, "Should we park this to talk about it later?"

It's a simple and very effective idea, which I often remember to use five minutes after I most need it.

I wish I had a more formal source to cite for this technique, but Katrina, a very smart colleague, first introduced the technique using a simple sign. On one side was the word "tangent," along with a picture of a person shooting a bow and arrow with his back to a target. On the other side was the word "sold." Below that was a picture of a cartoon horse on his back—presumably dead. We used this side when someone was belaboring a point.

In a later meeting, another colleague was asked to make signs. Not finding cards, he quickly grabbed Styrofoam cups from the office coffee station and wrote on them. The cups have the advantage of being both silly and harder to lose on the table amid the flurry of index cards and stickies usually used to model information captured in the meeting. The idea stuck.

Nowadays we also write on cups "too much detail" and "no solving"—used when we're trying to gather information to avoid prematurely jumping to solutions.

Keep empty cups on the table; you'll see other signs pop up. In a recent meeting, the phrase "uninteresting tangent" was scribbled hastily on a cup to wave. We also found that participants who knew they were headed off into the conversational weeds would pick up the cup and raise it above their own heads while they spoke. These pace-keeping signals are a handy way of letting a collaborative team self-regulate and free up a facilitator to focus on other things.

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