Marsha B. Sauls, Ph.D.
Have you ever thought back over an argument you had and couldn’t remember what you argued about but do remember the hurt and resentment of the words that were hurled back and forth? Most of us have had this sad experience at one time or another. This phenomenon also happens at work, but there, the feeling afterwards may be one of being unable to get something accomplished or sometimes of helplessness and anger.
This is caused because we start to talk about one topic and instead of staying on topic the conversation gets shifted to something else. Usually the something else has to do with a totally different discussion. Often the something else is an emotionally laden topic that is considered too difficult to address directly.
To have discussions that are less emotionally painful and more productive it is helpful to ask yourself every so often while conversing if you are still dialoging about the original topic. If not, let the people or person to whom you are talking know you have gotten “off topic” and request a return to the original issue. One might say:
“I just realized we are not taking about ________, lets stay on that issue.”
“What you are saying now sounds important to you. That’s isn’t what I wanted to talk about right now. We can address that later. Right now I would like to talk about ______.”
“ Wow, I just realized I am talking about an issue other than the one I originally brought up. Let’s go back to ______.”
If the person you are talking to refuses to go back to the original topic because of the emotions that have developed, nothing productive will be accomplished and it is usually better to quickly end the conversation. One might say:
“ You know, what we are doing now is just not going to be helpful. I want to talk with you about _____ because it is important, but let’s talk later when we can stay on target.”
Then stop discussing the subject and if possible separate and do another task before trying again.
One way to “warm up” to noticing when your own conversations are getting “off track” is to listen to conversations others are having and notice when the topic changes and what happens as a result.