How To Run A Meeting That Doesn’t Suck | Part 4: You Have To Know How To Deal With Breakdowns With Grace And Efficiency

This is part four of a seven part series.
Read Part One Here.
Read Part Two Here.
Read Part Three Here.

Almost everyone I meet seems to think they know how to run a meeting. The startup founders I coach are convinced that their ability to guide a process is better than almost anyone else. The coaches I work with are no different, they feel their ability to listen and reflect makes them master facilitators. And yet consistently when I sit in on a meeting that one of my clients runs, I have to bite my tongue to hold back my suggestions and objections.


This is despite the fact that there are numerous guides, books, and outlines for how to run meetings. The real problem is that running a meeting is less about the mechanics (timing, agendas, talking sticks, conches, wands, etc) and more about the ability to be with people while also leading them with grace to a place THEY want to go.

So after running thousands of meetings and sitting through even more, here’s the skills you actually need to be successful.


You Have To Know How To Deal With Breakdowns With Grace And Efficiency


Meetings would go much more smoothly if they didn’t have any people in them. Humans are funny, we take things personally, we dig into positions that don’t matter, and we bring our own set of fears and filters to everything we do.

But people are still the magic of meetings. Our kindness, our creativity, our empathy, and our ability to cooperate and collaborate gives us the ability to build giant buildings and perform beautiful symphonies. To be great at facilitating meetings you have to know how to work with people when they stop working.

At some point during your meeting there’s going to be a breakdown. Or more simply put, someone is going to get upset, repeat an opinion over and over again, try to move beyond a vague point too quickly, or something else.

When this happens you have to know how to work with it. If you can work with it skillfully then you can get the team back on track without stepping over or onto anyone in the process.

Here’s how I do it:

A. Identify that there is breakdown – is this normal helpful conflict or is it getting too heated? Is the team on track but thrashing or is it off track? Are you on topic or in a rabbit hole? How does the room feel?

Mostly you’ll feel breakdowns happen. It will seem like all of a sudden you’re in the weeds or that something has been said that is causing a strained reaction. Notice it and wake up.

B. What is the breakdown? – Is someone upset? Has someone taken something personally? Does some not feel heard? Are people taking sides?

Once you can tell something is wrong you have to work out what shouldn’t be or should be that is. You can do this by yourself or in the group.

“Hey I noticed the energy has shifted, does anyone else feel it? What’s going on here?”

C. Attend to the breakdown – You shouldn’t try to fix it, fixing a breakdown won’t solve the problem. First you just need to attend to it by putting your attention on it or the group’s attention on it. There are a couple ways to attend things I do.

The first is just listening – I’ll go to the person who is upset and say, “Hey I notice this topic has some energy for you. Can you tell me about that?” Then I simply reflect what they say. Many times this is all that’s needed to move on, since being heard is a simple need we all have.

The second is depersonalizing the issue – If the team is debating whether to invest in marketing or sales it’s natural that the head of sales will get invested. So instead I simply invite everyone to argue for why marketing should get the money and then I ask everyone to argue about why sales should get the money. This way the debate isn’t personal. It’s not about who deserves the money. It’s about the options and their value to the company.

D. Resolve the breakdown and move on –
This can be the hardest part for many people. When a breakdown happens we tend to either avoid the problem and hope it goes away or we hyper focus on the problem way too long.

Very often people aren’t going to be fully bought in on every choice the group might make. And not everyone will have wisdom for everybody else.

When a breakdown happens you need to attend to it, but then you need to move on. Often I’ll hear someone out, check in to make them feel heard, and then simply say, “Hey we need to move on now, is that alright with you?” They almost always say yes. The key here is I’m calm, present, and I ask their permission.

Don’t get lost in the breakdowns or you’ll play whack a mole forever, deal with what you can and then move on.

This is part four of a seven part series.
Read Part One Here.
Read Part Two Here.
Read Part Three Here.

Check back in next week as we cover friction.