when a meeting goes off on a social tangent, how can I bring it back to business?

I’m sick, so Thursday I’m running posts that were already waiting in the publishing queue, which means no short-answer post today.

A reader writes:

I’d like to reach out regarding a very minor issue I have discovered in my general demeanor/social etiquette in the professional environment and was wondering if you had any advice for me.

I am fortunate to work on an incredible team that seems to function as more of a meritocracy, rather than a strict hierarchy. I have excellent management, but everyone feels free to voice his/her own opinion, and expertise is valued as it presents itself. That having been said, I have noticed one particular habit I have that breaches social etiquette.

Occasionally, when I am presenting my share of the work at a team meeting, other coworkers will go off on a tangent (either work-related or otherwise). This really doesn’t bother me, as it amounts to only a few minutes, and there is usually some valuable discussion that can come from it. My issue is this: when conversation on a topic has died down and it is still my turn to speak, I return to the matter of hand in what I suspect is a very blunt manner. After letting my coworkers’ discussion conclude, I will usually return directly to what I was in the middle of presenting. For example, a long pause will lead to me saying, “During task A, I did X, Y, and Z,” with little to no segue. As soon as I remark in this manner, my team will usually erupt in laughter, as if I have just confirmed that I disregard their thoughts (which in this most recent case included good vacation spots).

My team is very casual and joke-friendly, so this has not become a problem yet, but this is not the first group of coworkers to respond in this way. How can I return to the task at hand in a more unoffending manner that reflects the casual nature of my office? Saying something like, “Since we’re on a tight schedule, I think I’ll continue with my presentation,” will most likely come across as overly stilted.

The key, I think, is not to sound put out or brusque — and not to be overly formal, since the atmosphere is clearly an informal one. So, for example:

Them: (talking talking talking about vacation spots)

You (cheerfully): All right, soooooo, getting back to the issue at hand…

Note that you’re smiling here and using a warm tone, which signals that you recognize that fun has been had and that you are pulling the group away from it). You also want to wait to do this until there’s a pause and you can break in — you don’t want to be talking over people when you do this.

Also, once you’ve said this, pause and wait a beat. You want to wait for people to draw their attention back to the meeting, and waiting a beat signals that you get that. If you don’t wait that beat and instead just plow straight into the work topic you’re about to address, you risk coming across like a bit of a martinet.

{ 58 comments… read them below }

    1. David

      All right, sooooooo, getting back to the OPs question…

      (sorry…couldn’t resist. But I knew as soon as I started reading this that when Alison began by saying she was sick, that would get a response before the question at hand. Fell better!)

  1. PEBCAK

    I also like the non-segue, but again, in a TOTALLY cheerful tone, with the sort of “wink, wink” that you are are talking nonsense.

    “Speaking of hawaii, where are we at on the code defect prioritization?”

    1. plain jane

      Or “Alas, during task A, I was _not_ trekking to Machu Picchu, so instead I spent my time on X, Y, and Z”

      This gives the advantage of you contributing to the social component of the conversation while also bringing people back on track.

      1. en pointe

        Yes, or even just any quick little comment related to the social topic, really.

        “Yeah, Machu Picchu would be great to see”, or just “Mm, that sounds really interesting,.. anyway, as I was saying, during Task A, I did X, Y and Z”.

    2. hilde

      I think this is a great response if the OP’s personality could pull it off (and I don’t mean anything by that just that if a person isn’t naturally jocular then making a joke like this wouldn’t feel natural and will come out wrong). But something like this where you are acknowledging the side conversation I think is important just for human relations. It’s annoying when the convo goes off track, but it’s obviously something this team does and apparantly finds value in. If the OP changes the subject very brusquely (as viewed by the team), that can create a weird dynamic that can erode the camaraderie feel over time. But by doing the “speaking of {insert side convo topic}, I was just about to say that {back to the task at hand}” you’re showing you’re sort of part of the conversation but wanting to move back to the topic. Like Alison said, your tone and delivery is critical no matter what you choose to say.

  2. LisaLyn

    Is it mean laughing? Does it go on a long time? Because if it’s a little eruption, that could be your segue. They may just think it’s an awesome quirk of yours to abruptly go back to the actual point of the meeting and like to acknowledge that with laughter.

    But you can sense the tone, of course, way better than I (since I’m not even there, ha ha) so if you want to say something before jumping back into the work stuff, I’d keep it light and just like, “Wow, cool — ok, back to this stuff, then.”

    1. Ruthan

      Yes, this! I actually think it’s more awkward if the presenter feels like she/he has to make excuses to get me back on topic. I wouldn’t say more than a “So anyway”, and I think no segue at all is fine, so long as you’re not interrupting.

    2. OP

      It is in no way mean laughing–it’s of the “laughing with you” variety. I just wanted to get some advice since it seems to be a little quirk of mine that follows me from office to office. And you’re right–the little eruption does usually end up being a segue in and of itself.

      1. A Bug!

        If you’re confident that your coworkers are finding it (good-naturedly) humorous and not taking offense, and it doesn’t bother you to elicit such laughter, then I honestly wouldn’t worry too much about it.

        I’d probably do something similar in the same situation, maybe with a look of mock disapproval.

  3. en pointe

    I would laugh too. But not because I would think that you were disregarding other’s thoughts or anything like that. I would just honestly find it comical to be sitting in a meeting that had veered off into a tangential chat about vacation spots, and then have the original presenter interject with ”During task A, I did X, Y and Z”, as if there’d been no interruption. Like someone had flicked the switch on a tape recorder or something.

    I wouldn’t be offended, or mean you any offence – I’d just laugh because I’d find it funny. As Alison said, preface it with a casual little acknowledgment that you’re bringing things back to the topic at hand and, hopefully, no more problem.

    1. TL

      I would laugh because I love absurdity and your ability to flip completely back into presenter mode as if nothing had happened would strike me as delightfully absurd. It wouldn’t be a mean laugh, though! It would be amused and impressed.

  4. A Dispatcher

    I always learn something new from AAM, today it’s the word martinet.

    As for the OP- you could also try jokingly acknowledging that it’s a bit of a bore to get back to work in your segue.

  5. Barbara in Swampeast

    Just getting over a cold here. Lots of hot tea and cats sleeping on your chest help (well, the cats THINK they are helping).

    OP how about a quick summation of the interruption before getting back to your presentation. “Right. Carol thinks that the Bahamas have too much sand and Barry wants piña coladas wherever he goes.” Pause for a beat. “Now back to alternative teapot handles…”

        1. hilde

          Agreed. Barbara’s suggestion could work with the right delivery. It’s not a template that could be used everytime the conversation goes off track. But maybe as part of an overall arsenal of ways to get back on track this is a good one to include, I’d say.

        2. A Bug!

          I think that’s really the main problem with questions like this. A given solution might be the perfect solution given a specific set of variables, but those variables can approach infinite. Factors include the personality of your coworkers, your own personality, how your own personality is received by your coworkers, and the existing relationship between you and your coworkers.

          While I think, given the right variables, the “summary” could be a good solution. But I can easily see how it would come across as condescending or snarky. I think it would take too specific a context for it to be a good general suggestion, but it’s up to the individual reader to assess whether any given advice is suitable for their own circumstances.

      1. Barbara in Swampeast

        I thinking in terms of acknowledging the interruption and then bringing them all back to the discussion. The example I used was flippant, so maybe it was a bad example. How about, “Carol has a good point about the Carter account. Now back to alternative teapot handles…”

    1. Anon

      Agreeing with the others – that sort of summary seems much more snarky and rude than no seque at all.

      I have tried, but can’t play it through in my head in any sort of tone that does not seem intended to cause offense.

      1. Cat

        I think it could work with someone who had a friendly relationship with their team and a fairly wry sense of humor, but I also think that if this was the kind of humor that was natural for the OP, they’d probably doing that rather than writing in so they’re better off with something more neutral.

      2. en pointe

        I think it could work if said cheerfully enough. Like in a ribbing sort of way, with a smile / eye contact to Carol and Barry when mentioning them to indicate it’s a joke. That said, it’s definitely one with higher potential for misinterpretation.

        My concern is that, from the letter, it doesn’t seem like this particular kind of thing comes all that naturally to the OP. And for a lot of these suggestions to come off well, tone is going to be crucial – that tone might come easily to the people suggesting them, but possibly not to the OP repeating them.

        I think what’s going to be most important is that she try to envision herself actually saying some of these in her own context and manner and, if possible, consider how they might go down in her particular workplace. That way, she can choose / adapt the ones she would feel most comfortable throwing out there in a light hearted, cheerful way.

        Maybe she would feel comfortable utilising all of them – in which case we’re certainly equipping her with an awesome arsenal! Alternatively, maybe she really needs to go with something simpler. Even just an “Mm, that sounds great / interesting.” pause “Anyway, as I was saying…”

    2. Becky B

      I think that could work. Our team is fairly closeknit and will fall into tangents during meeting, and sometimes it’s easier than others to do the “Okay, so have we finished item 2 and are ready to go on to 3?” insert.

      But if I’m designated note-taker for the meeting, I include all anecdotal comments when sending out the recap. *evil*

  6. Anonymous

    Are you sure youre sick? What are your symptoms? Can you come to work anyways? Are you sure you’re not hungover?

    Feel better :)

    1. Bryan

      After I interviewed with her she said she’s sick, what does that mean? Did I get the job? Are they going with other candidates?

  7. Wilton Businessman

    I think as the presenter, it’s your job to not let the conversation go off-topic. For example, if Suzy starts talking about her vacation during your presentation, just say “Can we take that conversation offline?” and move on.

    1. TL

      If it’s part of the culture and everyone’s presentations have little discourses, I don’t think that would go over well.

      1. Us, Too

        Agreed. I get that SOME meetings may need to stay super focused, but in general a few personal anecdotes and comments are part of a healthy corporate ecosystem. I’d never want to work somewhere that a 30 second off-topic conversation is stopped before it can start.

  8. TL

    You can say almost anything as long as you have a good sense of humor and an upbeat attitude. The key is to make it sound like you’ve enjoyed the conversation but you still want to finish your presentation in a timely manner.

    For instance, with an extremely over-exaggerated hurt face: “Guys, are y’all really trying to say that you don’t find streamlining processes for chocolate teapot manufacturing as fascinating as Hawaii?”

    Or, similarly: “Hawaii sounds great, don’t get me wrong, but I think what’s reaaally interesting is this equation for minimizing waste in the chocolate pouring process!”

    “And on that note/that brings us to/what a perfect segue into MA’s new teapot tax and how it affects our bottom line.” (especially if has nothing to do with your presentation.)

    “I hate to be the party pooper/Debbie downer, but can I bring your attention to the colors we’ve choosen for our new line of mint chocolate teapots?”

    1. Elysian

      If the mint chocolate teapots aren’t unnaturally green with little chocolate flecks, you’ve done it wrong.

  9. ChristineSW

    This is very timely since I’ll be having my first meeting as chair of my county council’s subcommittee soon, and this group sounds very similar to the OP’s group. I always joke that I’ll be bringing my whip. They’re a great group of people, though, so cheerfully saying “Oookay, getting back to X issue” or “moving on!” seems to work well. They all laugh, but I can tell it’s not meant to be mean-spirited because they know how much I like to keep things on track. I was complimented for this in previous chairperson roles too.

      1. Becky B

        This, plus lemon and brandy, is helping me in spirit (heh) if not in much else. Get better soon, Alison!

    1. en pointe

      Yes! That’s the other one – people may laugh thinking “Oh, jeez, we were really off topic weren’t we?!”

  10. Jamie

    Just me just say that if I were in the meeting I’d be the one looking at the OP with sympathy silently waiting for the others to knock it off.

    Friendly banter is great, but not mid meeting.

    I don’t have the issue with small talk, but I have it with people getting into minutia sometimes. I.e. I’m talking about a higher level procedural issue and someone starts talking about that thing that happened one time with that one job …derails…hate that.

    It’s a joke around my office that I’m the only manager who sends an agenda, starts on time, and ends on time. So I always make a joke about protecting my reputation for meeting times and then I get a laugh, apology, and get it back on track.

    1. ChristineSW

      Can I come work for you? LOL.

      The minutia drives me nuts too. Or, how about the person at one job who, during the “round table” portion, would ask like 10 questions. *twitch twitch*

      1. Jamie

        We’ve all worked with that person. And half the questions are just slightly rephrased version of questions already asked. Ugh.

        When I’m running a meeting and someone does that I just nicely tell them to please see me after.

  11. NutellaNutterson

    I think it’s my own quirk, but I find “anyways” incredibly dismissive. I’d rather have the person running a meeting say almost anything else to transition back to the agenda.

      1. H

        So anyways… ;) Other than the fact that Nutella and Joline find that certain word to be offensive, can we get back to the discussion at hand? ;) ;)

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