Have you ever felt like you were walking in circles only to discover you were actually making progress? This is the antithesis of what I hear from most people. Typically they share that their group is not making progress, and it feels like they are just working in circles. Or meetings they attend are circular in discussion, without achieving defined outcomes or next steps. If you or your teams fall into this trap, take a minute to reflect on what you have learned from the circular process, use this data to inform your team, and take actions to pivot and alter your course.

Let’s focus on meetings for this post, and we’ll tackle the work aspect in another posting. Some of the more relevant reasons why meetings can feel that they are going in circles:

  • There is no clear agenda outlining what is supposed to be accomplished
  • People weren’t provided the agenda ahead of time to be prepared or chose not to prepare
  • The agenda is packed with too many “discussion” conversations in too short a period of time
  • There was not a clear understanding of or process for making decisions
  • The right people or decision makers are not in the room

Often what I have observed is leaders or team members becoming frustrated when the meeting appears to be going in circles. As the frustration mounts, they internally squirm and try to assign blame for the problem. Perhaps to some person, “You are just not listening to what others are saying,” or the process, “We are not clear on what the next steps are,” or to the lack of outcomes, “How will we know when we have made the right decision?”

In reality the group is making progress; the difficulty is that no one is taking responsibility for acknowledging what’s been learned and making that apparent to the group. It’s like being on a walking trail that has intersecting loops, and recognizing when you pass a familiar landmark that offers a sense of direction. Here’s a quick fix when you think that the discussion at your meetings is going in circles, with nothing being accomplished.

Step back from the conversation and ask each person what they have heard others share. This requires people to literally stop and look up from the immediate trail ahead of them. They have to shift their attention from what they’ve been focused on to what others have been saying. As the person asking the question, now is the time to write out on a flipchart, white board (or the computer) what each person is saying. You may have to remind a few people, “I need to be clear on what you have heard others say.” Once you have the information documented now the group can determine what’s been learned and identify the next steps for moving in a forward direction.

Meetings that have a circuitous path to them may be frustrating, but they may also be needed to get all the information and perspectives from everyone out in the open. Quell your frustration long enough to realize there is learning in those circular paths and use them to your advantage.