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Volume 21, Issue 33;   August 18, 2021: The Major Annoyance of Mini-Digressions

The Major Annoyance of Mini-Digressions

by

Digressions are expensive. They limit progress in meetings. They're most noticeable when they deflect the entire meeting from its stated purpose. There is another kind of digression that's less noticeable, more common, and just as costly.
The mural on the wall of the Cambridge firehouse

The mural on the wall of a Cambridge, Massachusetts, firehouse

In meetings, a digression is a deviation from the immediate objective. When everyone in attendance slips into the digression, and someone points out the slip, the group self-consciously returns to the task, perhaps chastened and embarrassed, but usually more focused and alert. There's another kind of digression that can lead to hard feelings and unpleasantness, especially if it's a pattern made familiar by one or more repeat offenders: the mini-digression.

Examples of mini-digressions

Mini-digressions slow the meeting's forward progress in ways both obvious and subtle, both direct and indirect. They happen in meetings or conversations when the contributor is making a point but repeatedly digresses in short comments usually irrelevant to that point. For example, in describing how Inman Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has evolved since 1970, the mural on an exterior wall of the fire station might be a point of interest. But talking about the amount of fading of the colors of the pigments would be getting a bit far afield.

Here's a Mini-digressions can lead to hard
feelings and unpleasantness,
especially if they're part of a
pattern made familiar by
one or more repeat offenders
more common example of a series of mini-digressions leading up to a comment about security procedures in an office building: "As I was entering the building this morning, I waved hello to the security guard, Geoffrey, whom you all know well, and he waved back at me and congratulated me again on our move to our new house in Springfield, which amazed me because how many people does he see in a day? How many people work in this building would you say? 500? More? Anyway, what was I saying…"

Yikes.

Signs you might have engaged in a mini-digression

If you find yourself saying "anyway, what I'm saying is" or, "where was I going with this," then it's possible that a mini-digression was underway. There are numerous other indicators. For example, if people interrupt you to prompt you by saying "And…" or, "Get to the point…" they might be simply impatient. Or you might have exhausted their patience with your mini-digressions.

Still more indicators:

  • You suddenly realize you've lost your train of thought and can't find it again
  • People in meetings "check out" when you speak
  • People rarely follow up with a point you've made, and rarely ask for more detail

Common patterns of coping with mini-digressions

In my experience, the most common coping pattern seems to be quietly waiting for the digressor to stop talking. This pattern is difficult to distinguish from another pattern, commonly called "checking out." People who check out are still in attendance, but they're no longer paying attention. They read email, send or receive texts, or goodness knows what else, maybe update their Facebook pages. Waiting and checking out are two patterns on the more passive end of the coping pattern spectrum.

There are also patterns at the more active end of that spectrum. Interrupting the digressor is quite popular. Examples:

  • Yes, yes, we know that, what's your point?
  • We've got a long agenda today, can you please just skip to the main point?
  • To the Chair: Grace, can we take this off line and now please just move on?

Among the more toxic coping patterns are those rooted in anger and frustration. Relationships between the digressor and numerous others might deteriorate. People might hold the digressor responsible for the frustratingly slow progress of the meetings. They might complain to each other about him or her, and speculate about why the meeting Chair tolerates the digressor's behavior.

How meeting chairs cope with mini-digressions

Although the Chair of the meeting has all of the coping options mentioned above, there are additional options not available to others. For example, in many meetings, the Chair has more freedom to interrupt with less risk of seeming to be rude. A typical such interruption might be, "Excuse me Harrison, can you just give us a quick summary?"

In small meetings, where contributions are often self-regulated, the Chair might have less control of who speaks and for how long. But in meetings of five or more, the Chair might have more control. Chairs can use that control to limit repeat digressors' opportunities to speak.

An example of the Chair's more direct exercise of control of the meeting is control of the attendance list and agenda. By limiting the portions of the agenda in which repeat digressors might have opportunities to speak, Chairs can reduce their impact on meeting progress.

A more striking example of the Chair's use of social power is direct, private intervention to address the digressor's behavior as a performance issue. [Brenner 2017] In many organizational contexts, the Chair can request a private meeting with the repeat digressor to provide commentary about the digressor's performance. If that isn't possible — as when the digressor outranks the Chair — the Chair can report the issue to the digressor's supervisor, or to the Chair's own supervisor, seeking advice or assistance.

How to avoid mini-digressing

Four simple steps can help you get control of your own mini-digressions:

Review your past contributions
Examine your past contributions to meeting discussion in a search for content not relevant to your point. Do people interrupt you, urging you to get to the point? Do you lose your own train of thought?
Know the point you are trying to make
Before you speak, know the main point you want to make. And keep it to a single point. Trying to make three points in one go risks confusing everyone, including yourself.
Deliver the headline first
Don't keep people in suspense. Give the headline first. [Brenner 2006] If you express yourself clearly enough, you might not need to say anything more.
Offer details after delivering the headline
Instead of jumping right into the details or background of the headline you just delivered, offer to do so: "I can explain a bit if you like." Or, "I can give background on that if people think it would be helpful." Avoiding the word detail is usually a good idea.

Last words

The true cost of mini-digressions can be both easily overlooked and very high indeed. It appears in the form of broken relationships, isolation of the digressor, and loss of access to the digressor's potential to make valuable contributions. Meetings can lose value as more attendees check out when insistent digressors consume valuable meeting time. And digressors can confuse misdirected coping with rejection of their contributions. Most expensive of all: loss of respect for a Chair who seems unwilling or unable to attend to the problem. Go to top Top  Next issue: Bad Trouble: Misdirection  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

Footnotes

Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Brenner 2017]
Richard Brenner. "Performance Issues for Nonsupervisors," Point Lookout blog, July 12, 2017. Available here. Back
[Brenner 2006]
Richard Brenner. "Deliver the Headline First," Point Lookout blog, May 3, 2006. Available here Back

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