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Refocus Critical Conversations that Go Off-Track

Even if you use a positive facilitation approach during a critical conversation, the discussion can still go off-track. Critical conversations can go off track for many reasons. When one does, refocus the conversation.

Refocusing a critical conversation can be done in three simple steps: clarify the focus, check for agreement, and continue.

  1. Clarify the focus of the critical conversation.

    When you sense that the discussion is going off-track, you may not be the only one who’s thinking the same way. Any party involved in the critical conversation can start this clarifying process by opening the dialogue to generate the information needed for discussion.

    Clarifying sounds like this, “In the beginning of the conversation, we agreed to work through a disagreement on how to productively ask questions during our team meeting. It seems we’re now trying to solve the problem of why people are late to meetings.”

  2. Check for agreement among those participating in the critical conversation.

    After you clarify the focus of the conversation, develop agreement on the priority of the conversation. To check for agreement, the leader may ask, “Do we want to focus on solving the question of why people are late to meetings first, or should we finish the earlier discussion?”

  3. Continue the critical conversation.

    Finally, help all the parties in the conversation come to closure and move on with the discussion. When the group agrees on what to do next, write down the agreement and continue the conversation.

    The leader could say, “Great. I’ve put ‘finding out why people are late to meetings’ on the discussion board so we don’t forget it. Now let’s get back to the first concern we were addressing: how to productively ask questions during team meetings.”

You may notice that during the agreement process, you’re not throwing away the original purpose of the meeting. Sometimes, having flexibility in what the parties will discuss next creates a better environment for tougher discussions and will, most importantly, get the parties in the conversation working together.

Although boundaries and flexibility are important, be cognizant of and respect the hierarchical, cultural, and social norms, values, and rules between parties in the conversation. Ignoring organizational rules or cultural values can cause unnecessary anxiety or anger — neither of which is good for a positive critical conversation.

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