Facilitation tricks – for anyone – to avoid conversational rabbitholes

Every organization, every company, every group has them. The dead-end conversations, where you can’t reach a resolution, but you have to have the discussion anyhow once it’s raised. It’s as if you were running across the field, and you suddenly drop down a hole, like Alice in Wonderland, in freefall, not sure where the bottom is, nor how to get back to ground level to keep going to your original destination.

When I’m facilitating, it’s often my job to steer the group around these features of the landscape without falling too far into them. But you don’t have to be a formal facilitator to do this skillfully – and you don’t always have a facilitator in the room, so everyone who’s on a leadership team should have some capability in navigating through them.

Here are some questions to keep handy and try when a group you’re in seems to be slipping into one of these conversational dead-ends. Some may sound a bit hostile or aggressive when written down, but it’s all about tone and gestures – and intent. Try to put away your defensiveness and be genuinely curious and that will go a long way to keeping the conversation constructive.

So, the questions:

  • “Has this issue been resolved?” It may be that this is something that’s been asked and answered. It may be coming up because not everyone is aware of the resolution, or doesn’t really accept it. And sometimes people just plumb forget it’s been dealt with.
  • “Does this really pertain to the question we’re discussing?” Often the answer is a slightly sheepish “no” and the conversation can continue. Or sometimes this question helps the person talking to make the connection, and then, at least, you know why it’s come up.
  • “Can we talk about this another time?” (The slightly more jargon-y and therefore just slightly more irritating version of this is “Can we take this offline?” is used in many organizational cultures.) It’s another way of suggesting that the conversation is off-topic. If the person who brought it up is just venting, “another time” may turn out to be “never.” And maybe that’s OK.
  • “Can we put this on the parking lot?” The difference here is that you’re offering to talk about it at the same meeting, just later on. When you come back to it later, maybe the moment has passed, or maybe you can pick up where you left off if there’s really something valid to discuss, but at least you’ve gotten through your agenda in the meantime.
  • “Does anyone else share this view?” This is helpful if it’s really just one person with an axe to grind. This one in particular requires a deft touch to pull off without creating an uncomfortable environment – use with caution.

And finally, listen to these issues. If this topic really is so hard to avoid, maybe it’s time to address it. If you think it got resolved, clearly not completely. If you think it’s irrelevant, perhaps it isn’t. What exactly is it about this topic that makes it a rabbithole for you?

(Naturally, if people ask you these questions frequently, it’s time to wonder if you’re the one pulling everyone into the bottomless conversational pit…)

Hopefully nobody winds up calling for other people’s heads to get chopped off – let’s leave that for Alice in Wonderland.

If you’d like to discuss how we can help with facilitation, please get in touch.

Contact us at meredith@meredithlow.com or call 416-737-3935 to discuss how we might be able to help.


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