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I am seeking suggestions for how to keep a conversation on topic with a 50 year old family member who says whatever comes into his head, often changing the conversation in a confusing way.

This happens face to face, over the phone, through email and text messaging, tries my patience and makes it difficult to concentrate on the original topic that the conversation started with.

I've tried addressing the issue directly but he gets offended. Here is an example to illustrate the problem:

  • Today he asked me to help him navigate using Google Maps but I couldn't even type in the address as he wouldn't stop talking and asking me random questions. This happened right after he told me to put my cellphone away as it's rude to be on it when you are with other people.

Is there anything I can say, preemptively, or when this starts happening? I'm thinking of asking "if there's something important, could you please say it first?" The situation has gotten so bad at times it has led to (verbal) fights!

  • I honestly can't really tell what the problem is. Is it really so bad to be told what is highlighted instead of "please text before you call"? And the thing with the light.. he just wanted to make sure you didn't get stuck with a product you couldn't use. He doesn't understand bikes it seems, but maybe he bought something incompatible with something he had at one point, and was just trying to save you from getting in the same situation? What exactly is it about his behavior that bothers you and others? – user4788 Jan 22 '18 at 9:41
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    The situation has gotten so bad at times it has led to (verbal) fights! suggests to me that you've already tried some things to address the behavior? What have you tried? – Tinkeringbell Jan 22 '18 at 9:54
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    @user2851843 - Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. – user58 Jan 22 '18 at 10:11
  • @ArwenUndómiel he's in his 50s – bluevapor Jan 22 '18 at 11:21
  • @Tinkeringbell being direct and saying I can't think when he talks like this – bluevapor Jan 22 '18 at 11:22
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It's not likely that you are going to change his behaviour in general or with others. But you can still do a lot to keep a conversation on track when you are talking to him yourself.

If you were talking about the bride at a wedding and he starts to go on a tangent or talk about something unrelated, simply pose a short prompt or clarifying question out loud such as ".. so the bride didn't think that the prank was at all funny?" or "what did the bride do next..?".

You should be prepared to gently but persistently and probably frequently nudge him back on topic. The only practical way to do this is going to be with a lot of short interruptions. This may get some pushback at first but unless he gets so upset as to stop talking to you entirely it is likely to succeed.

Try not to be confrontational, actually make a particular effort to be polite and easygoing at first to ease the transition. You'll get less resistance if you don't point out that he is off topic or directly criticize his rambling. Instead just interject a question or comment about the original topic, essentially changing the conversation back to the original topic as unobtrusively as possible. As soon as he goes off track or changes the subject pop a question or encouragement into the conversation that directly relates to the original topic.

Don't wait very long for an opening to do this, if he doesn't pause within a few seconds of going off topic, then talk over him if necessary to nudge the conversation back on track. He may not react well to this at first but (most people) have unplumbed depths for adapting to unexpected situations. If you consistently nudge the conversation back on track he will most likely push back a few times then more or less adjust to your "course corrections".

Try to do this as if it's no big deal, as if you're just interested in his previous statement and asking him to elaborate on that point. You don't want to position yourself as an antagonist or make it seem like you are trying to control the conversation. You can do this, at least at the outset, by letting him do the most of the talking but you make short interjections whenever he strays off topic.

Be prepared to interject fairly often with short questions or phrases that point back to his original thoughts when he strays. I've seen this work really well in the past. People can develop situational habits, that is stay more on topic with you than he may with other people. If you're lucky the nudging will also help develop his own ability to stay more on topic but there is no guarantee of that.

You may have to frequently nudge the topic back on course with short comments on the original topic but it's worth doing to have a more coherent and sensible conversation with him.

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I'm going to answer, even though I am a little bit guilty of this sort of behaviour myself. (I don't think I'm as bad as your family member though)

Face to face you can bring a conversation back on track by asking questions about the original topic, for example:

"My son had a bad day at school today. Hey you know, that reminds me of something that happened when I was at school..."

"You were telling me about your son's school - what happened there?"

But in text messages, you can't really stop someone without sounding rude. Could you try and look on the positive side - when people use abbreviated text speak you can't always tell their mood. If I received please text before you call I'd think I'd offended them! At least you know where you are with this guy.

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  1. Suggest that he carries a notebook all the time with him to take notes in. A notebook can help him with concentration. For instance, when he asks you a question, he can write the question down, or just a keyword with a question mark, and that can help him anchor him to the original question while he awaits for your answer.

  2. See if there is decline in cognitive abilities later in the day vs. the morning. If there is, try to deal with him during the times he's more able to concentrate on.

  3. If you think he should seek medical professional help. Help him with that. Go to his next doctor's appointment with him, or have another relative he trusts go with him. If it's early dementia for instance (and I'm not saying that it is, I'm just using dementia as an example), it's better to know as early as possible. We have drugs that can slow down dementia, but we don't have drugs that can reverse dementia. You should also take notes of whatever medical drugs, alcohol, or stimulants (like coffee), he might be taking, and what time he's taking them, to see if they affect his behavior in any way.

  4. The texting thing. That one is easy. Text before you call. But if you're in the US, you may even want to introduce him to Google Voice. It transcribes voice mails directly into texts, plus it has a bunch of other features that he might like.

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As soon as he starts talking to ask you for help, tell him you have a limited amount of time. This is not necessarily a lie: you're stating the time you're willing to use to help him (five minutes can be more than enough to help somebody reach an address). This could lead him to concentrate and avoid unnecessary tangents.

If this doesn't work, try stop him as soon as he opens a new topic and tell him to postpone the digression:

Wait, tell me about the address first, otherwise I won't remember it/I don't have much time and I want to help you. You'll tell me about {digression} later, ok?

Repeat it with every digression:

Let's talk about {digression 1, 2, 3 and 4} after you finish telling me about the address. Sorry, but I can't follow you otherwise.

This way you can make him notice the amount of new topics he opens while reassuring him you're not ignoring them.

Also, take the blame on you by saying that you can't follow his discourses and asking him to help you get the most important pieces of information first. In this way, he won't feel attacked and he'll be aware that you raise the digression question in order to have a better communication with him.

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