How to handle tangents

Effective facilitation requires distinguishing between an unhelpful tangent and a potentially interesting detour.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes.

People ask this question presumably because they see a tangent as problematic. But that’s an inference or subjective judgment, not an objective fact.

Human beings do not always think in linear predictable patterns. Our minds often make interesting and unexpected connections.

Sometimes a tangent is a temporary detour into a more productive or interesting conversation, one not anticipated on the agenda.

Other times, it indeed is an unhelpful distraction from a more important discussion.

Knowing which is happening is critical to determine the appropriate facilitation response.

Assessing the tangent

To decide, we can draw on two of the several diagnostic questions Roger Schwarz poses in The Skilled Facilitator:

  1. Have I observed long enough to make a reliable diagnosis? If so …

  2. Is what’s happening a problem?

Question #1 asks us to not jump in immediately, to let things play out a bit.  The second question calls for an inference or subjective judgment about what is observed.

When I can answer yes to question #1, I typically raise the issue of the tangent with the group by sharing only an observation, initially keeping my inferences to myself.

It seems we’ve started to stray from the agenda.

Stopping here allows group members to react and share their own inferences even though I’ve not formally posed question #2.

Doing so can be particularly valuable if you are an external facilitator. What an outsider might consider to be an unhelpful tangent may carry greater meaning and relevance to group members. I could, of course, more directly invite their opinions.

It seems we’ve started to stray from the agenda. I wonder if this is what you think most needs discussion right now.

When people want to pursue the tangent

What if participants indicate they have some interest in discussing the tangent? I might then negotiate an initial time limit since we do have a planned agenda to cover.

We still have a lot on the agenda, but since there is some interest in this topic might I suggest we focus on it for #___  minutes and then reassess where to go next?

Establishing a time limit for the tangential topic helps you manage the clock and reassures those participants who may be less certain about the tangent’s value.

If interest in the topic is strong and more expansive discussion time is needed, I might say:

We still have a lot on the agenda. Since there is strong interest in this topic, how might we modify our remaining agenda items to allow for ample discussion of it now?

I almost always engage the group in helping make this decision because everyone needs to own the agenda and how time is managed.

When the tangent can be addressed later

If the group instead indicates the topic is useful but can be set aside, I usually ask for a show of hands to determine in which parking lot it should be placed:

(1) Not right now, but today          (2) Not right now, but in the future

Using two parking lots helps distinguish the more pressing topics from those that can wait for another day. I also find it helpful to label my parking lots as illustrated in order to further define what needs attention.

For in-person meetings, I create those parking lots on flipcharts. For virtual meetings, consider using the whiteboard function, an open Google doc, or simply adding annotated text on the two images above.

Remember, it is facilitator malpractice to park items, but never return to them during a session or to do so in a rushed manner.  Always include adequate time in an agenda to address parked items.

When tangents surface repeatedly

These recommended tactics can help you effectively manage the occasional conversational detour.  If straying from the agenda becomes more frequent and unproductive, a different response likely is required, one directed at what is causing the frequent tangents.

In future posts, we’ll dig a bit more deeply into how agenda development and using group norms or participation agreements can make it easier for discussions to stay focused on what matters most.


Have a group dynamics situation you’d like some insight on how to handle?  Leave it in a comment and it may indeed be the focus of a future post in this twice-monthly How To series.

© Facilitate Better and Jeffrey Cufaude, 2020. All rights reserved.

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