While at dinner with friends the other night, one of them was telling us about her vacation in Italy and she mentioned a wonderful gift that she found for her son while she was there. Another one of our friends jumped in with, "Oh how is Jackson, is he doing ok after the separation?" and bam, just like that, the conversation is about Jackson, the kids, poor guy not getting custody, which leads to a discussion of the unfairness of custody laws, and well, 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, “oh look - squirrel!” about those people who have a tendency to do this. It can be easy to get distracted. Our questions lead the speaker away from where they were going, to where we want to go. Depending on the topic and the relationship, you might lead them back, but often we don't. And for most of us who experience this, it doesn't feel like our friend really cares about hearing about our vacation. The intent isn't bad, people just get distracted and forget the purpose of the conversation.
As soon as you notice you've taken your discussion off course, just bring it back, with a simple statement like "It was good to catch up on Jackson, now tell me more about Italy! I want to see those pics and hear all about it!"
This also happens in workplace conversations all the time, one-on-one and in meetings. 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 figure this out and then come back to that, or schedule time for that later." In our team meetings we use “The Parking Lot”. When a topic comes up, we write it in the parking lot. At the end of the meeting we see what is on the list and then either schedule another meeting or delegate things out.
Giving someone your full attention while listening actively, and with empathy, will build relationships and enhance trust and reliability. Try it - at home, with your friends, and at work -and watch your relationships improve!