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How to Tactfully Keep Conversations on Track

Updated: Oct 4, 2019

Nothing wastes time or frustrates people more than someone hijacking a conversation, whether it’s at work during meetings, or in our personal lives.

It happens too often. You know how it goes. Your friend wants to get together to share all about her recent vacation. A few friends decide to meet for dinner and drinks so you can all enjoy your friend’s pics together. As your friend begins to share a photo, she mentions a really cool gift that she found for her son while she was there. Another friend jumps in with, "Oh how is Harrison, is he doing ok after the separation?" and bam, just like that, the conversation is about her son, the kids, the custody battle, which leads to a discussion of the unfairness of custody laws, and another friend’s story of her marital issues and before long it's time to go home and you have only seen 2 photos of your friend's trip to Italy.

This kind of sidetracking happens often in conversations. We joke about ourselves or others who have a tendency to do this, “oh look - squirrel!” Although the intent isn't bad, for most of us who experience this, it usually isn’t a funny matter. In all seriousness, at some level, it doesn't feel like our friend really cares about our vacation. Just think of how often this happens, whether with friends, with your children, your spouse, or your siblings, or at work.

People easily get distracted and forget the purpose of the conversation. A simple question leads the speaker away from where they were going, to where we want to go. Even if the listener is genuinely interested, they can still end up taking the entire conversation off course. The speaker might even feel the departure, but they usually still follow because it feels too awkward or difficult to stop it. Feelings get hurt, people get frustrated, and time gets wasted.

Just consider the impact conversation hijacking has on workplace productivity. A room full of people spend an hour in a meeting. If we tracked the cost every time the conversation went astray we would pay much more attention to this costly sidetracking. Many of us have probably been the culprit at one time or another. So what can we do?

As soon as you notice you've taken the discussion off-course, just bring it back, with a simple statement like "It was good to catch up on Harrison, and I didn’t mean to take us off-course, so tell me more about Italy! I want to see those pics and hear all about it!"

Or as soon as you notice someone else has taken the conversation astray, you could say “Harrison’s fine, and I’d love to tell you all about him but I really want to share these awesome vacation memories with you tonight!”

Especially in workplace conversations, whether you're the listener who took it off-track, or the speaker who is being led off track, it's important to course-correct as soon as possible. "OK, that's a good topic we need to discuss. Let's table it until we get through our agenda, and then we’ll come back to it, or schedule time for it later." In team meetings, use “The Parking Lot.” When a topic comes up, write it in the parking lot. At the end of the meeting see what’s on the list and then either schedule another meeting or task things out. Build in time on your agenda for managing the Parking Lot.

Think of ways you can build in awareness of conversation hijacking. Giving people our full attention and staying on course during conversations is not just a nicety in our personal relationships. If we care about the relationship, we need to take care of it. In our workplace, it’s a cost of doing business and needs managing if we want to improve productivity.

Have you been in this situation before? Do you think these tactics will be helpful to redirect conversations in the future? Let us know in the comments!

Cheers,  Laurie

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