Your colleague stops by your desk with what should be a quick update.
“Hey,” he says, with one hand casually propped on the corner of your desk, “I wanted to talk to you about that report we’re supposed to be working on for Alan. I was chatting with him last Tuesday… or maybe it was last Wednesday… no, it was Tuesday… actually, now that I’m thinking about it, it was definitely last Thursday after his birthday celebration in the conference room. Wasn’t that cake so good, by the way? I’m glad we opted for that instead of the ice cream cake that Susan was so adamant about.”
Are your eyes glazing over? Are you screaming, “Wait… what about the report?!” on the inside?
If you have co-workers, then chances are good that you’ve been forced to sit there while your team member rambles on through tons of irrelevant details and tangents.
It’s not only time-consuming and annoying, but it’s also confusing—the core message of what that colleague is trying to get across ends up buried, making it that much tougher for you to understand your next steps.
Is there anything you can do but to sit there and pretend you’re paying attention while you mentally make your grocery list? Fortunately, yes. Here are four polite phrases you can use in attempts to get that quintessential rambler back on track.
1. “Can I Stop You for a Minute?”
Interrupting someone might feel counterintuitive. But, if it’s become apparent that your co-worker is on a runaway conversation train, you’re more than justified in cutting him or her off.
This sort of approach is effective, while also being a little gentler—you’re asking for permission to jump in with your two cents, as opposed to brutally interjecting mid-sentence without any acknowledgement of your interruption.
As soon as you notice that your colleague is veering off toward an irrelevant subject, pose this question and then ask for any clarifying information you need in order to move forward. By nipping those digressions in the bud, you’ll subtly coach that person to stay on topic—without being overly blunt or rude.
2. “I Want to Make Sure I Don’t Miss Something. Can We Go Back To…?”
Let’s be honest—there’s really no polite way to tell someone that she’s rambling and boring you to tears.
That’s why this sort of statement is so beneficial. In a way, you’re shouldering some of the blame by asserting that you don’t want to let something slip through the cracks. You’re flipping the script and asking your team member to keep you on the right track.
Again, when your co-worker begins to lose focus on the subject at hand, jump in with an interjection like this one. After doing it once (alright, maybe a few times), you’ll make it clear that you’d like to wrap one conversation up before moving on to something different.
3. “Thanks So Much For The Update—I’ll Get Right on This!”
Endless rambling in and of itself is annoying. But, then there are those colleagues who can’t seem to take a hint. They stand by your desk blabbering on and on, without ever noticing that you’re eager to get back to your mile-long to-do list.
This sentence will come in handy when you find yourself stuck in those sorts of situations that make you grit your teeth.
There’s nothing wrong with engaging in a little small talk with your team members (in fact, I encourage it!). However, if that person is distracting you from the important work that you need to get done, go ahead and interrupt with a response like this one.
It not-so-subtly sends the message that you appreciate him keeping you in the loop and that you’re eager to get to work on that relevant task—which means you don’t have the time to hear all of the gory details of his cat’s recent declawing surgery.
4. “Let’s Catch Up Over Coffee Later”
If you’re feeling like an overachiever, this friendly sentiment can be used in conjunction with any of the statements above.
You might not be able to dedicate your full attention to that person’s personal anecdotes and endless rambling right now. But, if you don’t want to come off as totally cold or disinterested, you can offer to chat with that person during your next break, when you don’t have the ulterior motive of getting your hands on the must-know information you need.
In doing this, you make it clear that you don’t have time for friendly chatter right at this moment—but, that you’re still interested to catch up on what’s going on outside of the office (ahem, even if you aren’t).
We’ve all dealt with our fair share of incessant ramblers. But, the good news is, you don’t need to resign yourself to sitting there while your colleague gives you the play-by-play of how her leftover spaghetti gave her indigestion.
Put these four phrases to work and you’re sure to get your co-worker back on the right track—without making any enemies.
Photo of person talking a lot courtesy of Compassionate Eye Foundation/John Wildgoose/Getty Images.
Kat is a Midwest-based freelance writer, covering topics related to careers, productivity, and the freelance life. In addition to The Muse, she's a contributor all over the web and dishes out research-backed advice for places like Atlassian, Trello, Toggl, Wrike, The Everygirl, FlexJobs, and more. She's also an Employment Advisor at a local college, and loves helping students prepare to thrive in careers (and lives!) they love. When she manages to escape from behind her computer screen, she's usually babying her two rescue mutts or continuing her search for the perfect taco. Say hi on Twitter @kat_boogaard or check out her website.More from this Author