Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 7, Issue 8;   February 21, 2007: Changing the Subject: I

Changing the Subject: I

by

Whether in small group discussions, large meetings, or chats between friends, changing the subject of the conversation can be constructive, mischievous, frustrating, creative, tension relieving, necessary, devious, or outright malicious. What techniques do we use to change the subject, and how can we cope with them?
A can of sardines — what many of us feel like on board a modern airliner

A can of sardines — what many of us feel like on board a modern airliner. Recently, Airbus reportedly studied a "Standing Room" class in which passengers would be strapped into standing racks.

When we converse, in meetings, in hallways or cramped into those tiny seats in coach class, we sometimes want to change the subject. Or maybe we usually want to change the subject. And sometimes we want to stick to the subject, when someone else doesn't. Here's Part I of a catalog of tactics we use to change the subject, and some tactics for preventing the change.

Ignoring (or pretending not to hear) what your partner said
When you have the "conversational ball," people assume that you'll continue with the current thread. Pretending to be unaware of the thread frees you to change the subject. This is especially useful when the latest contribution was an uncomfortable question.
Sometimes, when people haven't yet agreed on the subject, this tactic is actually a way of negotiating the subject. It's also used in reactive mode, to resist the attempts of others to change the subject.
When the distribution of power among the participants is fairly uniform, you can defeat this tactic by politely but firmly repeating what was apparently missed. Humor helps. But when your partner has a power advantage, resisting can be risky, because your partner almost certainly has more effective tools available.
Distractions
Offers of food or drink — one of many distraction tactics — are sometimes used to divert a partner who has targeted a weakness, or to break a partner's momentum. Other useful distractions:
  • Pretending to receive a mobile phone call. Most people assume that someone who suddenly answers a mobile phone that wasn't "ringing," is answering a phone that had been set to "vibrate." But that's an assumption. The call might be real — or not.
  • Summoning a server. This distraction is useful in restaurants, at parties, waiting for parking attendants, or whenever servers are present.
If your attention is required by the distraction, as it might be in the case of a summoned waiter, waitress, or wine steward, resisting the distraction can appear to be rude. Nevertheless, try to maintain your hold on the conversational thread. When the distraction ends, steer the conversation back to your topic of choice.
Mutual agreement
Sometimes, we seek a change of subject by mutual agreement. This is an important Offers of food or drink
are sometimes nothing
more than diversions
part of orderly discourse. The key phrases to use are permission-seeking: "Can we look at something else for a moment?" or "I have another matter I'd like to discuss…"
Changing subjects by agreement can be (paradoxically) contentious, especially if the parties have an asymmetric power relationship, when the "agreement" is achieved by implicit coercion.
But whether or not coercion is involved, it's usually wise to accede to the request — if you ever want others to honor your own requests.

Turns out that this subject is too big for one edition. So I'll stay with this subject next time. Go to top Top  Next issue: Changing the Subject: II  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenxfHZwIKbDKhwuozjner@ChacEDSPabbKSuxtjxWloCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Detour SignHow We Avoid Making Decisions
When an important item remains on our To-Do list for a long time, it's possible that we've found ways to avoid facing it. Some of the ways we do this are so clever that we may be unaware of them. Here's a collection of techniques we use to avoid engaging difficult problems.
A mismatchMessage Mismatches
Sometimes we misinterpret the messages we receive — what we see or hear. It's frustrating, and tempers can flare on both sides. But if we keep in mind two ideas, we can reduce the effects of message mismatches.
A wild turkeyIt's a Wonderful Day!
Most knowledge workers are problem solvers. We work towards goals. We anticipate problems as best we can, and when problems appear, we solve them. But our focus on anticipating problems can become a problem in itself — at work and in Life.
The wreckage of the Silver Bridge across the Ohio RiverHyper-Super-Overwork
The prevalence of overwork has increased with the depth of the global recession, in part because employers are demanding more, and in part because many must now work longer hours to make ends a little closer to meeting. Overwork is dangerous. Here are some suggestions for dealing with it.
Conferees attending the NATO Lessons Learned Conferencde 2015How to Find Lessons to Learn
When we conduct Lessons Learned sessions, how can we ensure that we find all the important lessons to be learned? Here's one method.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness, Effective Communication at Work and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Five almondsComing October 25: Workplace Memes
Some patterns of workplace society reduce organizational effectiveness in ways that often escape our notice. Here are five examples. Available here and by RSS on October 25.
Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International AirportAnd on November 1: Risk Creep: I
Risk creep is a term that describes the insidious and unrecognized increase in risk that occurs despite our every effort to mitigate risk or avoid it altogether. What are the dominant sources of risk creep? Available here and by RSS on November 1.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenNXnHNJCqIMimmSgBner@ChacwnEQUYjMfUEdtpWUoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Workplace Politics Awareness Month KitIn October, increase awareness of workplace politics, and learn how to convert destructive politics into creative politics. Order the Workplace Politics Awareness Month Kit during October at the special price of USD 29.95 and save USD 10.00! Includes a copy of my tips book 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics which is a value!! ! Check it out!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.