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Think back to some of the meetings you’ve been in. Did everyone keep on topic for the entire time? If you’re like me, you’ve had your fair share of meetings that drifted from the topic at hand. Maybe it was an off-hand remark that leads to a discussion on a current political event, or a recent blockbuster, or a nail-biting sports game. As a facilitator, it can be difficult to decide when to get the group back on track. Here’s a trick for letting it happen naturally.


The Challenge

The role of a facilitator is to objectively and empathetically guide the participants through a decision-making process and Tuckman’s Five Stages of Team Formation. This role is a delicate one, as the facilitator is in a position of power by default. Any display of preference for one side or another disrupts the group’s balance and self-authority. Additionally, the facilitator may move the discussion along in a pace that differs from the group’s wishes. It’s up to the facilitator to evoke participation while honoring the group’s wishes per their established norms.

We can see this trial play out when the group gets off topic. A facilitator may wish to give the participants a conversational break and allow it to happen. However, it could last for too long, cutting into valuable work time. Or, the facilitator could then cut it short, disrupting the rapport between group members and upsetting the flow of conversation.

How might a facilitator enable the group to decide for itself when their off-topic discussion has run its course?


Choose a Code Word

I’ve found that establishing a code word while setting group norms provides participants this natural break. This code word (or phrase) is usually something random and neutral, such as “R2-D2”, “Pineapple”, or “High Five Day”. For this blog, I’ll use “Gidget” as the example.

Whenever the group is discussing a topic not on the agenda, or not relevant, and a participant feels that the off-topic conversation has gone on long enough, they’ll say “Gidget”. This snaps the rest of the group out of the off-topic remarks and back to the meeting’s purpose.

Why not say “hey all, I think we’re getting off-topic”? Because that could put other members on the defensive. These participants might try to justify the discussion. Or they dismiss the observation. This reactive rebuttal delays the group from getting to the primary topic.

“Gidget” puts the discussion back on track.

The randomness is a benefit. Its unexpected nature breaks the circle of discussion around the rogue topic. Participants hear it, stop talking, and recall the meeting’s true purpose. The group can then start back on course.

Participants all agreed to use it for this end. Each decided to defer to the other when that person feels the topic has strayed. The power is in the group’s hands. There’s much less need for a facilitator to exert their influence.

The next time you’re establishing group norms at a facilitated event, try including a code word. You might be surprised how useful it is!


Greg Reger is a Senior Associate who connects the dots between data, processes, and people to enhance public services. He has dedicated his career to make government work better.