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When Meetings Get Stuck: Getting Past the 'Cork in the Bottle'

Meetings going off-course? Here's how to recognize and address what's happening to get back to what you need to cover.

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You have an agenda. You're completely prepared. You enter the meeting, start and … nothing's landing.

It's like you're speaking another language. You can see you've lost your audience. They've started asking questions that have nothing to do with the current topic — or even the current meeting. The questions aren't totally off-topic, but you weren't planning to address them today.

Congratulations, you've hit a situation I like to call the "cork in the bottle."

I call it this because human brains are weird, and our thought processes don't always align with externally-set priorities. We come into meetings with opinions and questions that haven't been set by the presenter or host of the meeting. And sometimes, those opinions and questions strike us as so urgent that we cannot pay attention to what's in front of us. Once we get our top concerns handled, the cork comes out of the bottle, and you can get to the tasty liquid (the meat of the agenda) more easily.

It can be incredibly frustrating to have a plan for your meeting, only to have it come to a dead stop because of off-topic questions. It's like looking forward to a glass of wine, only to find that the cork won't budge and the good stuff can't flow.

This "cork in a bottle" tends to happen more often when presenting to a group than needs to work through solutions and concerns verbally. I know that when I managed sales and consulting teams, a group of known "think out loud" folks, my meeting agendas would frequently hit the cork. And I would get frustrated, which was exactly the wrong thing to do.

When you're running a meeting, especially a sales or consulting meeting, hitting someone else's pressing priorities or "cork in the bottle" gets incredibly frustrating. And when I managed sales and consulting teams, I found that my reports would try to stick to their carefully-planned agenda and refuse to try to remove the cork.

Which, of course, was — again — exactly the wrong thing to do.

If you're dealing with a bored boss, a contentious customer or an inexplicable impasse, here are steps to take to reset and get to the good stuff.

1. Recognize that there is a "cork in the bottle"

If you're talking in a meeting and can see nothing's getting through, lots of thoughts can go through your mind: Am I not making sense? I must be an awful speaker. What's wrong with these people?

Learn to interrupt your train of thoughts with one more: Am I dealing with a cork in this bottle?

Some telltale signs that you're dealing with a cork include:

  • They ask to skip to a different part of the agenda.
  • They ask questions that seem irrelevant (and irritating).
  • After you refuse to go their direction, they completely tune out of the conversation.

Related: 3 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Meetings

2. Figure out what the cork is made of

Sometimes, you can immediately tell what material you have stuck in the bottle. Sometimes, however, it's hidden — so you have to figure out whether to use a corkscrew, church key or simple twist to get to the good stuff.

If your meeting attendees have already asked you about an off-topic subject or asked you to skip to a different part of the agenda, you've likely identified the cork and can move to the next step. If not, however, there are polite questions (i.e. not "I'm sorry, am I boring you?") you can ask to determine what the cork might be:

  • "Is there something else we need to address first?"
  • "Did you have any questions about this?"
  • "Is there another direction you'd like to go with this discussion?"
  • "Is there anything we haven't covered you'd like to talk about?"
  • "Do we need to do a deeper dive on anything?"
  • "Are we on track here? I want to make sure you're getting what you need."
  • "Is there anything else you'd like to add to the agenda?"

Related: 6 Ways to Make Your Meetings More Productive

3. Address the cork

Until you address the cork, you may be able to see the tasty liquid inside the bottle, but you won't get to drink it. This means you must pay attention to what they're saying rather than trying to figure out how to get back to your topic ASAP.

Once you truly hear what your attendees want to talk about, you need to decide what action to take. Are their interruptions something you can quickly discuss now and then move back to the planned agenda? Is it something you should talk about instead of today's agenda? Is today's agenda more pressing, and therefore you need to schedule another meeting to talk about it?

Whatever the case, you must directly address the cork, or you're going to find yourself right back in that initial frustrating situation. The person (or people) with the cork needs to feel like you heard them and addressed (or plan to address) their concerns, or you'll end up back at the frustrating beginning.

4. Determine how to drink the liquid

Depending on how you have to address the cork, you'll know whether you can get right to the tasty liquid or have to delay drinking it to another day. If the cork is a quick pull, you'll probably start "drinking" as planned. But if you have to completely change the meeting to work on chipping off a wax top to even get to the cork (i.e., have a lengthy discussion), you'll likely need to delay the beverage to another day.

Related: This Executive Learned the Secret to Productive Meetings While Working in the Kitchen at Pizza Hut

The TL;DR (too long; didn't read)

  • When you've lost someone's attention at a meeting, you might be running into a "cork in the bottle."
  • You must recognize that there is a cork, determine what it's made of and address the cork before you can move back to your agenda.
  • Once the cork has been removed, you can drink the liquid, although it might not be immediate.

It will take a little practice to get these steps right — it's easy for all of us to get too attached to our original plans. But once you learn to quickly and easily pull the cork and address what your audience is thinking, you can get back to your agenda and run meetings like a pro.

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