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 offendersmore 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…"
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.
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. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- Virtual Communications: II
- Participating in or managing a virtual team presents special communications challenges. Here's Part
II of some guidelines for communicating with members of virtual teams.
- The Limits of Status Reports: I
- Some people erroneously believe that they can request status reports as often as they like, and including
any level of detail they deem necessary. Not so.
- The Limits of Status Reports: II
- We aren't completely free to specify the content or frequency of status reports from the people who
write them. There are limits on both. Here's Part II of an exploration of those limits.
- That Was a Yes-or-No Question: I
- In tense situations, one person might question another. As the respondent replies, the questioner interjects,
"That was a yes-or-no question." The intent is to trap the respondent. How does this work,
and how can the respondent escape the trap?
- Anticipate Counter-Communication
- Effective communication enables two parties to collaborate. Counter-communication is information provided
by a third party that contradicts the basis of agreements or undermines that collaboration.
See also Effective Communication at Work and Effective Meetings for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 29: Time Slot Recycling: The Risks
- When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
- And on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
- Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.
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