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When Meetings Go Awry


Each month we analyze data for several clients. In preparing for the meetings, we found some very interesting data for some of the clients. We reviewed it internally and discussed the best possible ways to present the information. After the prep meetings, we all felt really good about the data we were presenting and were reasonably sure, based on prior meetings, how the clients would react. The meetings were spread over several days, and the reality of the meetings was very different from what we expected.

The first client kept asking tangential questions, constantly changing the topic, despite being shown some very clear indicators of issues. The second client dismissed the findings and immediately started asking questions about data that we had not yet gotten or analyzed. In both cases, the client said things like “yes, yes, that’s good, but let’s talk about XYZ instead.”

In the first meeting, we tried to keep on track several times. After a few of these attempts, the client started disagreeing with the discussion. The discussion heated up a bit. It was at that point we changed our approach and started asking more questions about the topic the client kept bringing up. With the added questioning, what was becoming disagreement became a productive discussion. Despite being separated by several days, the second meeting felt very similar. In the end, our planned topics were abandoned, and related topics were taken up.

For one client, an audit we didn’t know about caused them to focus on issues unrelated to our work. For the other client, a recent incident drove them to focus on related but different issues. In both cases, we both came into the meetings with a general agreement on the overall topic but a completely different idea of the focus of the meeting. Some very simple techniques kept the meetings from going too far off track and ended up making a positive impact on the clients.


When going into a meeting, understand your priorities. What are you trying to accomplish or communicate? Why are you choosing to approach the client in this manner? Why are you choosing these specific topics? In many cases, these are answered for you in the request for the meeting but not always. Not only do you need to understand your priorities, but you also need to understand your client’s priorities. What is driving them? What is important to them? Another challenge is to remember that client priorities change and sometimes you won’t find out until afterwards.

Practical Steps

How do you reconcile these issues? Below are a few steps that can help take things from disagreement to consensus.

· Be aware a gap exists – Has the discussion gone off the topic or gotten heated? One good way to identify these scenarios is to practice active listening. If you are too focused on what you have to say, you can’t hear what the other person is trying to say. Acknowledge the conflict.

· Strive to understand both sides – Observe people’s behaviors, including your own. How are they reacting? Why are they reacting that way? Ask questions. What is driving them? What is important to both sides? Strive to identify the underlying needs or motivations of both parties.

· Search for common ground - Look for alignment. Where are things similar? You don’t have to agree on details but understanding that you are both driving in the same direction can help keep things moving.

· Come to agreement on next steps – As a group, brainstorm options or solutions. What actions can we all agree on? Who owns them and when will they be completed? When will follow up be done?

At the end of the day, remember that priorities change. The business drivers for your clients will never stay the same. The more prepared you are to address the change, the easier it will be to address them and the happier your clients will be.

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