We all spend a lot of time in meetings, either virtually or in person, so you really need them to be a good use of your time. Meetings that don’t go well can be demotivating, not to mention the fact that you haven’t completed the work that you thought you would be doing in that session.

One of the reasons for a failed meeting is when someone takes over the conversations, railroads your agenda and takes the meeting in a completely different direction. We’ve all been there: you’re trying to chair a technical discussion or walk through the online project plan when someone brings up a totally different topic and all of a sudden you’ve lost control of the room.

Here are some tips on how to cope when someone derails your meeting, starting with what to do if you are expecting it to happen.

If You Are Expecting Someone to Derail Your Meeting…

You’re working with a difficult stakeholder who has a history of interrupting meetings and taking them in a direction that suits his own agenda. You can pretty much predict that this is going to happen at your next meeting so here is how to deal with it.

First, get the right people in the room. If the difficult stakeholder doesn’t have to be there, then uninvited him or her on the pretext that their time is so valuable that you don’t want to waste it, given that you have everything covered.

If you have allies in the meeting who will back you up, brief them in advance on your plan of action so that they can support you. It’s easier to shut someone down if you have colleagues in the room who will help rather than pipe up, “That’s a great question, can we talk about that for a bit?” Let them know that you are worried that your project meeting will get derailed and tell them if it happens that you’ll try to bring the meeting back to the agenda. Ask for their support.

Next, have a clear agenda. This gives you something to draw people’s attention back to. A quick “Sorry, which agenda point is this?” can alert other people to the fact the meeting has gone off track and allow you to facilitate it politely back to the purpose of the meeting.

That brings us to the objectives. Make sure that everyone knows why they are there and what the meeting is for. It’s harder to derail a meeting that has a clear and solid focus – well, you can still try but it becomes far more obvious that your agenda isn’t the meeting’s agenda. I write the objectives at the top of the agenda so they are in front of everyone all the time.

If It Comes as a Surprise…

Sometimes you don’t know that your meeting is going to get derailed and taken in a completely different direction. Or even if you have a feeling that it might, it still catches you by surprise. You can cope – here are some tips.

If they are more senior than you

I advocate a different approach to someone who is more senior than you in the organizational hierarchy. You don’t have to differentiate, but when someone has power over your future career you might think it prudent to handle their interruptions more gently.

Try, “Great comment, I’ll take an action on that. [To the room in general:] Can we get back to agenda item 5 now please?”

If they are your colleague

Depending on your working relationship, you can tell a colleague that the subject isn’t appropriate for this meeting and that you’ll take it off line. In fact, you can tell anyone politely that you would like to follow up with them outside this meeting on that topic. Be a bit more abrupt if your message doesn’t get across: “OK, we’ve addressed that now, so any more points on that topic need to be taken off line. Can you organize a follow up meeting about that? Good, now moving on to the next agenda item…”

If You Can’t Get The Meeting Back

If you are derailed and you can’t get the meeting back on track, don’t panic. It happens to us all, especially with new senior stakeholders. Breathe. Make an effort to try to realign the meeting with the objectives and agenda but if you have already lost it (as sometimes happens when the derailer gets support from others in the room) then accept that and deal with it.

·If you can get on board with the new topic because, for example, it is relevant to the project even though it wasn’t what you thought you’d be discussing today, try to shape the meeting around that.

·Schedule a follow up meeting to discuss the topics you originally wanted to bring up (and be really careful about who gets an invite).

·Close the meeting on time. If necessary, pack up your things and make a move to leave. If they want to continue the discussion they can do so, but they don’t need you in the room for that.

Remember, if you can get something useful out of the meeting, even on the new, unplanned topics, then it wasn’t a waste of your time. Sometimes the new topics are more important than what you had originally planned because something has just come up or been flagged as a project issue. In those situations you’ll need to go with the flow. In others you’ll have to accept that you’ve been outmaneuvered and deal with it. Plan as best you can, stay on your agenda as best you can and you’ll find that your meetings get more and more productive with time and experience.