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.

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