Conversational Drifters

At a recent business meeting of 8 people, one participant was unaware that his ramblings were irritating others. He spoke aloud whatever crossed his mind – when he had the floor, he got a text and mentioned it was from his wife. He further explained that his was was upset about her boss and wanted his input. “She just wants me to listen” he went on, “Boy, is her boss a jerk.”

This kind of unedited commentary was not unusual. He had conversations with individuals in the group — taking up the whole group’s time — that should have happened afterwards between just the two of them.

I was struck by how much time — and money — this wasted. And I’m afraid it was not an isolated instance.

I’ve also noticed this in personal conversations. Some people have no concept on how to stay focused in the conversation. They ramble about people and events the listener has no interest in. They don’t pick up the cues that they should get back on track or stop talking. Much time is wasted in social situations as well as business ones.

If you are the speaker, it may be useful for you to think of it as you would if you had a meeting with your attorney. You know you are paying by the minute, even if s/he bills you in 15-minute increments. You would limit your questions and comments to only those that were critical to the information you needed. You’d rein in your non-sequiturs and tangents. You’d truncate or eliminate your stories. You’d be concise and succinct.

Some may say this is too stringent and would take all the color out of conversations. Part of being friendly is sharing beyond the business at hand. Friends allow each other to meander in conversation, and sometimes these twists yield some interesting discussions.

True. However, I think it takes a keen reading of the audience and situation to accurately discern when it’s OK to drift. If we have limited time, best to use it wisely rather than chit chatting and not getting to discuss important issues.

I’ve had executive coaching clients who were so unfocused they’d use up much of our time on inconsequential topics. Even when I’d steer them back on topic, they’d get back on target but then drift. They had no idea they were doing it even after I’d point it out. I began to think it was an avoidance mechanism so they didn’t have to tackle the work they’d engaged me for. I got frustrated because we wouldn’t accomplish as much as I knew we could if they stayed on point.

The only way I know to help meanderers is to gently point out their habit and what it’s costing them. If they decide to tackle this pattern, they may need help becoming aware of it in the moment. If you are one who wanders conversationally, ask for feedback and enlist those you trust to tell you when it’s happening so you can stop and realign your comments to the topic at hand. It’s not easy, but I think it’s worth it as you’ll be seen as more present, aware, respectful and competent.