What's the best way to change the subject?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of people who know that they’re talking about. Today we wondered, how do you change the subject of the conversation without anyone noticing?
‘Tis the season to endure awkward conversations with family members around the dinner table, or battle through disagreements with drunken colleagues you dislike at your Christmas party.
To help you through this tumultuous time, we’ve enlisted the help of psychologists, political consultants and etiquette experts who suggest ways to change a conversation’s direction without anyone noticing.
Consultant at PowerThru Consulting and member of The American Association of Political Consultants
Answer and then immediately pivot. If you can pivot to something people will want to talk about, so much the better. For example, your family member asks you "What should we do about Syrian refugees?" and you don't really want to get into a fight. "I think we should be a welcoming country. For example, Donald Trump is the son of an immigrant, and a couple of his wives are immigrants too. I think a more urgent problem is the decline of the American family, celebrity culture and throwaway marriages..."
Curator and archivist at the Political Communication Center, at the University of Oklahoma.
Create a disturbance, then redirect with your topic.
Ex: welcome someone to the conversation with gracious introductions; flick a “bug” off their shoulder; drop your water bottle, or accidentally bump into someone.
Psychologist and coach and MD and founder of Cause An Effect Consulting
A great technique is just to use the connector "yes, and…." or "yes you’re absolutely right and….."—you can then alter the conversation as you wish. By using such agreeable words, the brain is more likely to accept whatever comes next—it isn’t primed to critique or defend and is therefore much more accepting of a change—its defenses are down if you like….
Lifestyle and etiquette expert and author of Let Crazy Be Crazy
When dealing with challenging people who are a little difficult or perhaps speaking out of turn, the tip that I give is to turn a stupid question into a new conversation. The way you do this is to focus on the person who is speaking. People love to talk about themselves, so the way to change a conversation without them noticing is to ask them a question about themselves—whether it’s maybe a recent vacation or something about their children or grandchildren or something they like to do. Whatever it is, turn the focus on them rather than you, that way it’s not so noticeable.
Chartered psychologist, associate fellow of British Psychological Society
Avoid negative starts e.g. no, but, however—instead try to start with the same terms of the existing conversation, even if it is about politics or religion, so as to avoid confrontation or an abrupt switch, e.g yes (the topic) is certainly in the news a lot at the moment. Then, begin your switch using either an interesting anecdote or story that is connected and fairly neutral or simply say "what interests me at the moment is .." and continue into the new topic. Have the presence to recognize when you are feeling annoyed or embarrassed by the direction of the conversation and the ability to "see" yourself and take a step away from your own reactions. It may be reasonable for the conversation to continue and you who needs to reflect on your own reactions. If you take the decision to change the conversation, take a moment to plan before you resume your engagement in the conversation. You’ll have the added advantage of appearing thoughtful.
Clinical psychologist and member of British Psychological Society
During some Clinical Psychology sessions, a psychologist may need to gently steer the conversation into a helpful arena for a client. Some of the techniques we use to do this may be helpful in day to day conversations also. However, in true psychology style, it is firstly important to know why you want to change the conversation. Psychologists often use a technique called "helicoptering—imagining you are cognitively hovering above the conversation to have a look at the wider context. What is it about this conversation that is causing you to want to change it? Is it because the topic is boring? Is it because you have something you need to discuss? Is it because you are embarrassed by the current subject matter, or is it something about the person you are talking to? The actual reason can often give you an insight into how best to move the conversation on. I will often view a conversation as having a start, middle and end, and I might be mindful about what I would like the conversation to cover somewhere along the way. I might already have thought of a couple of goals for the conversation also. However, that gives a lot of room for other people in the conversation to also have their voices heard. A conversation can build powerful alliances, and changing a topic too quickly can jeopardize this.
Within a psychology session, clients can often become stuck in certain ways of thinking and acting. In order to be helpful, psychologists will often ask questions in order to facilitate the making of fresh interpretations or to add to existing knowledge. There is a real skill to moving a conversation on. In part, it requires listening for a certain amount of time to what the other person wants to talk about, with some acknowledgement of your interest of that topic. Once you have done that, asking some questions about that topic can also be helpful to deepen the connection between you. Not until that sense of collaboration in a conversation has been developed would I then try to steer a conversation, and I would still do this tentatively. I might let someone know that their interest reminds me of something I know about. I might ask about another topic or person who is then connected more easily to my topic of interest.
Sometimes I will view a conversation as a dance. You might need to be thinking about the steps two or three moves on, as well as where it is now.
Often being able to influence a conversation means also knowing the person you are talking to and recognizing the power in the relationship. You might require different techniques, and a longer amount of time listening, to change a conversation between you and your boss, or you and your parent compared to you and a friend. It can be much harder to influence a conversation when there is a power differential present. You may need to have a friend or colleague to help you in a situation like that in order to shift the power balance a little. Many conversations at a senior management level are had outside of meetings in order to then influence the conversations in them.
In summary, a change in conversation is often best done lightly, as part of a longer conversation view. It is worth taking the time to know your conversation partners in order for this to be most effective. There is no one size fits all solution to every conversation, rather a series of skills including listening, validating and acknowledging, and then a series of questions or reflections that then allow you to talk about what it is you want to with no one noticing because they have also been heard.
Some of the most divisive issues in the U.S. (percentage of those who consider them morally acceptable)
Sex between an unmarried man and woman
Gay or lesbian relations
Having a baby outside of marriage
Buying and wearing clothing made of animal fur
Medical testing on animals
source: Gallup's 2015 Values and Beliefs Survey