When Off Topic is On Target


tangent comic

People often tell individuals with ASD to stay “on topic” in a conversation. And there’s some good reason: most people don’t like the feeling that a conversation that goes “off the rails” and turns into being about different than intended.

But do we always need to stay on topic? Have you ever thought about how a typical conversation goes? Many times, they don’t stay on one topic the whole time. It’s more like the conversation veers from the latest episode of Big Bang Theory… to theoretical physics… to physical education class.

So when do we need to stay on topic, and when is ok to stray from the topic a little? It may be helpful to think about finding a balance!

Balance Between Being On Topic and Off on a Tangent


There are lots of times when it’s helpful to stay on topic. But going off topic, or “on a tangent,” isn’t always such a bad thing. It’s how many conversations usually go, and new ideas and connections can emerge when we go on a tangent. So which is it: stay on topic, or go off on tangents? Well, there is a big “gray area” – space in between those two sides. Let’s look at the extremes first.

Tangents to the Extreme

Right Side-bigPeople do usually expect others in a group to stay generally on topic. If the conversation veers off on a tangent too much, it may feel distracted, or unfocused. Then a few things can happen:

  • In a group having a social conversation, people can feel ignored—that the ideas they introduced to the group aren’t being heard
  • In a group that’s working on a task, too many tangents can mean the task takes longer to complete, or doesn’t ever get done
  • If one person insists on talking about something that others in a group don’t want to discuss, they can get frustrated with that person for not considering the others

So it does make sense that people work on staying on topic. But there’s more to it…

Too On Topic

Left SideWe just saw what can happen when we veer off on a tangent too much. But is it always expected to stay exactly on topic? Must we always be “on track”? No. Here’s a story:

Recently, I was working with a colleague, S, on a list of 14 tasks we had to finish. Task number eight made me think of a recent conversation I’d had… which reminded S of thinking she’d been doing… which led to an amazing discussion, and 30 minutes later it became the beginning of a presentation that answers questions we’ve been struggling with for five years!

But that wasn’t on our list. So should we have just stopped and gotten back on topic? Not at all. Our tangent was interesting to both of us and led to new, original thinking. It was a productive tangent! Did we eventually have to get to our agenda? Of course. But it’s a good think we went off on a tangent for a little while.

Hence the need for balance in negotiating on topic and off on a tangent. Trying to stay on topic all the time can lead to a forced, overly rigid conversation. It can stifle creativity. And as I mentioned earlier, it’s not how most conversations usually go.

How Much Topic, How Much Tangent?

Like all Balance Challenges, determining how much to stay on topic depends on the context.

  • It depends on the people you’re with: a teacher or boss likely expects a more focused, on topic conversation than a friend.
  • It depends on the group expectation: a group that’s working on a project probably wants to stay more on topic than a social group that’s just hanging out.
  • It depends on the time available: whether social or work, it’s not as bad to be off on a tangent a bit more if you have a long time to work or talk. (But what counts as a “long time” or “short time”? It again depends on the context!)

If you sometimes struggle with the balance of staying on topic and going off on a tangent, think about this balance and which way you may need to “tip the scales.” When with a group:

  • Think about the balance and ask yourself:
    • Am I veering off on a tangent and the group expects me to move more toward being on topic?  Or,
    • Am I insisting we stay on topic when it would be ok to allow this to go off on a tangent?
  • Check in with the others in the group:
    • In a group that’s working on a task (like in school when you have 20 minutes to finish a group poster), you can ask, “I notice I’m talking about x – is that ok, or should we get back to y?”
    • In a casual conversation, you can offer to get the people you’re with, “I may have taken this in a different direction. So you were talking about…”

Do you tend to veer off on tangents and could probably tip the scale more toward on topic? Or do you tend to stick voraciously to the topic and could allow yourself to move towards allowing yourself to go off on a tangent? How does this help you think about your role in conversations? Let me know in the comments.


For an explanation of the Balance Challenge framework, see Balance Breakdown, always accessible on the top navigation bar.

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