What happens if things don’t go to plan?

How many meetings do you attend when things are not going to plan? What signs and signals do you observe that things are going off course?

Signs and signals

  • Negative comments
  • People not participating
  • Agenda not relevant to the meeting
  • Meeting goes off track
  • People have not prepared
  • No Agenda
  • Groups of people talking together
  • Meeting goes over the time slot allocated
  • The meeting discussions/Agenda is not relevant to you or your team
  • People look bored
  • No one is listening

Why don’t we always notice these?

There are three reasons why picking up on these signs can be difficult:

People hide their true feelings

Many people have become quite skilled at hiding their real thoughts and feelings at work, so that there might not be obvious signals that something is going wrong until it is too late.

People don’t notice signals

It is easy to become so task focused that you do not notice what is happening in the group. There might be tensions building up between individuals or negativity in an individual but, because we are determined to get through the meeting and onto something else, we fail to see them.

People ignore the signals

These signals are either within us, telling us that something is not right, but we dismiss this and fail to trust our intuition. Or we see signals from others and either feel ill-equipped to deal with it or hope it will go away.

Things to look out for

In attempting to read the signs and signals, you are in a much better position if you know the people present. This is because you already know their usual body language, expressions, tone of voice, whereas with new people it is harder to pick up when something is wrong. Reading signals in body language is not as easy as one might think, as some signals can be misread.

For example:


This can be because someone is disagreeing. Yet it can equally be because they are concentrating or confused. The best bet is to check it out by asking something like: ‘I can see a bit of a frown on your face X, is everything OK’. This allows them a chance to say what is going on for them.

Looking away

When people are thinking hard about something they often look upwards or sideways (we do this to access the part of our brain that helps us to think through ideas or visualise what something will be like). So you need to learn to distinguish between this and looking away because someone is not interested.


Some people lean back because they are relaxed and comfortable, while others because they are not interested. Leaning forward can indicate that someone is interested; on the other hand it can be because they disagree and want to get their word in next!

Arms folded

It has been said that someone sitting with their arms folded means that they are disgruntled or negative. However, some people are more comfortable sat like that and others might be cold!

The best thing to do is to look out for changes in any of the following, which are different from a person’s normal behaviour:

  • Body position
  • Facial expression
  • Posture
  • Positioning of the head
  • Use of arms, legs and hands
  • Tone of voice
  • Eye contact
  • Use of words

What to do if you pick up on these signals

Weigh up the facts

Before deciding on a course of action, think about the person or people involved; the rapport you have with them; the topic(s) under discussion etc. These will all impact on how important it is for you to take immediate action or wait until after the meeting.

Take action

Where appropriate it is better to take some action rather than ignore the signals. For example:

  • If people are looking tired, then have a 5 minute break, suggest people get out of the room and come back and sit in a different place
  • If someone is frowning, check it out
  • If two people are arguing or one person is dominating the meeting, then use your skills to stop this behaviour and resolve the problem.

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