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By Beth Ellen Holimon

I remember a particular meeting, where the agenda seemed to be more of a suggestion than a plan. As I sat at the table, eager to make decisions, it became apparent that we were veering off course. Tangents blossomed like wildflowers, and before long, the conversation drifted so far from the intended topic that it was barely recognizable. It was a frustrating experience, with each passing minute feeling like a wasted opportunity for progress. This memory always reminds me that it takes planning for meetings to maintain focus and meet the needs of all involved. 

Meeting Focus

What’s the Secret to Meeting Focus? 

Before a meeting starts, even if it’s just a one-off meeting, set the tone by establishing community agreements. These agreements serve as guiding principles for behavior during a meeting and can include commitments to active listening, respect for time, staying on topic, active participation, constructive feedback, cell phone etiquette, and confidentiality among many other ideas.   When planning for meetings within an organization, community agreements or meeting behaviors, usually stem from the values of the organization. Before every meeting, go over the agreements in creative ways to keep them in front of mind for all.  

We all know that agendas are a key component to meeting focus, but if we want all participants involved in the discussion, we need to make sure they are involved in the making of the agenda too.  I once had a weekly staff meeting with a standing agenda of updates that people were not finding useful.  We changed the format to have an agenda that anyone could add to throughout the week and they would lead the discussion on that topic; if the item was just an update, then it was asked to make it an email.  The meetings were different every week, people were much more engaged, and we sometimes ended the meetings early. 

The meeting facilitator can make all the difference between a meandering discussion and a focused exchange of ideas. It’s the facilitator’s responsibility to keep the conversation on track, manage time effectively, and ensure that everyone has a chance to contribute. Use techniques like summarizing key points, asking probing questions, and redirecting tangents to maintain focus.

When the discussion starts to drift, don’t be afraid to intervene and bring it back on track. Use phrases like:

  • “Let’s circle back to the main point.”
  • “That’s an interesting tangent, but let’s save it for another time.”
  • “I appreciate the input, but let’s focus on the topic at hand.”
  • “We seem to be getting off track. Can we refocus on our agenda?”

These gentle nudges can help steer the conversation back to its intended path without derailing it entirely.

Visual aids such as slides, charts, and diagrams can help reinforce key points and keep the discussion focused. Use them sparingly and strategically to support your main points and guide the conversation forward.

Respect the time of all meeting participants and avoid wasting it on irrelevant discussions that can derail productivity. Keep a close eye on the clock, use a timed agenda when appropriate, and gently steer the conversation toward closure when time is running short. If necessary, table any unfinished discussions for follow-up meetings.

The way a meeting ends is as important as the way it starts. It helps all participants feel the utility of a meeting when it ends with a summary of action items and assignments.  In addition, review the community agreements to determine if changes need to be made. This can be done with a quick “fist to five” survey or even a survey sent to the participants’ phones.   Evaluation and iteration are critical to maintaining meetings that contribute to organizational culture. 

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