While the origin of the phrase is argued, ‘let’s take it offline’ entered the lexicon of business-speak in the early 2000’s and continues to be popular. It is hard to know in advance if the phrase is sincerely meant to respect other people’s time or a weasely way to avoid a discussion.
‘Let’s take this offline‘ has two common meanings. It is most frequently used to postpone a topic for later discussion, but the phrase can also be used by someone in power to end an uncomfortable interaction.
Context is key to decipher what the phrase really means. Here we cover frequent scenarios and how to respond effectively when ‘let’s take this offline’ is directed at you.
‘Let’s Take This Offline’ Is Used to Shutdown a Conversation
Regardless of the reason behind it, the purpose of saying ‘let’s take this offline’ is always to stop a topic from proceeding further at the current time. Most commonly used in a group setting, you will frequently hear the phrase during meetings and conference calls.
Going ‘offline’ has its origins in the tech world of computer science and refers to a process that operates independently of the main processor. Offline items can be handled at a different time and separate from the main discussion.
Interestingly, early message board users adopted the phrase ‘talk offline’ when they wanted to talk to someone on the phone or in-person because the communication is much more natural and fluid than online chat. In today’s business setting ‘talking offline’ simply means a face-to-face discussion.
‘Lets Take It Offline’ Can Mean ‘Let’s Talk About This Later’
In its most benign form, saying ‘let’s take this offline’ is the business jargon way of telling someone their discussion is off-topic or only applicable to a subset of the people present. It is viewed as a polite way of saying ‘your topic has merit and should be discussed, but not right now in the current forum’.
At a daily operations meeting, for example, someone may suggest a creative new way to approach a chronic challenge. The discussion is outside the scope of the meeting and you may hear ‘let’s not rat-hole this meeting, you and I should talk offline’.
Rat-hole: continue to talk about a tangential item to the main topic or agenda; also used to refer to the waste of money or resources
Similarly, if there are several people present but the topic only requires 2 or 3 members, you will frequently hear people say ‘we don’t need to waste everyone’s time on this item, let’s take it offline’.
When spoken sincerely, ‘let’s take this offline’ is the business equivalent of a sidebar to a news article or in legal proceedings. The sidebar is related to the main topic but stands on its own as a separate issue.
How to respond effectively: Once someone has issued the request for a separate discussion, the only thing remaining is for someone to schedule the follow-up. You can simply say ‘Ok, lets talk after the meeting’ or ‘I’ll put a follow-up discussion on your calendar’.
If you disagree with the request to postpone the discussion, you need to respond with some justification, such as ‘we can’t just circle back to our production issues, we need to figure them out before we can finalize delivery logistics’.
Circle back: cover this topic later on, frequently used when an early agenda item is taking up too much time
‘Lets Take It Offline’ Can Mean ‘Stop Talking About This’
In its more aggressive form, management will use ‘lets take this offline’ to put an end to the current discussion for any number of reasons. Frequently, leaders will take this approach when the conversation is not going according to their plan and they are reasserting their control over the situation.
For example, when managers get their team together to implement a policy change, some members will invariably try to turn the discussion into a debate about the merits of the decision. The manager may simply be the messenger and have no influence over the decision-makers, so to regain the upper hand they will shut down the discussion with ‘let’s take this offline’. It gives the agitator the illusion of being heard and the manager can continue with their script.
Managers buy themselves time with ‘let’s take it offline’ because they have more control over when the follow-up discussion takes place. When legitimate concerns are raised, they can go back to the decision-makers for clarification, and just in general they can prepare themselves for the questions that were asked.
All too often, leadership will use ‘let’s take this offline’ to defuse an uncomfortable situation and then never deliver on their commitment to revisit the issue. This lack of accountability is one of the reasons why employees despise the phrase so much – because it has been used against them repeatedly and is merely a socially acceptable way of saying ‘shut up’.
How to respond effectively: When your boss uses the phrase to mean ‘I don’t want to talk about this’ and they are unwilling to engage further, you need to proceed carefully. Continuing to press the issue in a public forum may be viewed as a challenge to your boss’s authority.
Before you carry on, think critically about your objectives and motivations. Do you have legitimate questions or are you intentionally trying to stir up drama? Your best course of action is usually to pause your questions until after the meeting has concluded, and then immediately follow-up with your boss in a calm and professional manner. If they don’t have time after the meeting, request a committed schedule to follow-up and then hold them accountable.
‘Let’s take it offline’ to preserve confidentiality: Managers do themselves a disservice when they handle sensitive, confidential questions with ‘let’s take this offline’ because it imparts an air of secrecy onto the topic. Confidential issues are never going to be shared with the larger audience, so it is better to say ‘this goes into confidential areas and we should have a private discussion’ so others present fully understand.
What to Use Instead of ‘Let’s Take This Offline’
Jargon in the business world is inevitable. Businesses operate more effectively with clear communication and discussion, so it is counterproductive to use phrases that mask your true intent.
Even Elon Musk attempted to prohibit his employees from “using acronyms or nonsense words … anything that requires an explanation inhibits communication” at SpaceX and Tesla, although his efforts have been largely unsuccessful.
But like death and taxes, just because business jargon is inevitable doesn’t mean you have to go along willingly. The next time you feel the need to take [something] offline, just do your part and say what you mean:
- We are getting off-topic, let’s get back to the reason for this meeting
- This item needs a longer discussion to do it justice, let’s schedule a follow-up meeting
- We need a private discussion for this sensitive matter
- This item only needs John and Fei Hong to discuss and decide
- You may not agree with the decision, but this isn’t a debate. Here is how to direct your feedback…
People will understand your message more clearly and you will be more concise without all the buzzword and lingo.