Subject changing is a conversational technique for guiding shared thought in a mutually agreed direction. And like all tools, it has multiple purposes, some of which can be corrosive to collaboration. Understanding subject-changing helps us identify these sometimes-corrosive maneuvers, and helps us refrain from using them. Here's Part II of a catalog of techniques for changing the subject. See "Changing the Subject: I," Point Lookout for February 21, 2007, for more.
- Sometimes interviewers try to "pin" their interviewees. With each attack successfully evaded, the interviewer raises yet another issue, never acknowledging an escape. The interviewer's goal is to engender a feeling of frustrating impotence in the interviewee.
- This tactic is used in interrogation, cross-examination, and other hostile interviewing. It sometimes appears in performance reviews, when the determined supervisor tries to justify a negative review. Upon noticing the tactic, even if you're taken aback, do what you can to slow the pace and break the interviewer's rhythm.
- Un-self-conscious blurting
- This pattern appears in problem-solving sessions, when someone excitedly offers a fresh insight, and especially when the blurter has been lost in thought. It's best to forgive these blurts, because they're often treasures of great value.
- But the Subject changing, like all tools,
has multiple purposes, some of
which can be corrosive
to collaborationtactic also appears in intense arguments, when the blurter has lost self-control, and in other uncomfortable situations when the blurter is extremely stressed. Take these blurts as indicators of the need for a break.
- Focal carom
- In this tactic, the subject-changer offers a contiguous comment, but then shifts the focus in a slightly different direction. Done artfully, other participants might not even notice the carom.
- The true artist changes the subject by posing a seemingly related question, the main purpose of which is to enroll the other participants in the shift. By answering, they implicitly agree to the new subject.
- Asking a clarifying question
- This is a variant of the focal carom that incorporates an interruption. While these questions are often genuine, they can be used to simultaneously seize the floor and shift focus. For instance, "I think I understand. Do you mean X?" More about clarifying questions
- Here X is the goal of the focal shift. The purpose of the question can be to draw the others into a discussion of X.
- Here the subject-changer might open with a contiguous "sealer" comment, and then suddenly shift to a new subject. A sealer comment is a final summary or assessment, such as, "We don't know enough to decide that now, so let's take it up tomorrow."
- The subsequent hijack often begins with "Moving on…" or "On a more urgent matter, …" That's probably your last opportunity to call attention to the tactic, or to steer back to the thread.
Sometimes, even when there's more to say, it's best to let the subject change. It depends on who's in the conversation, and whether the time is right — even when the subject-changer is out of line. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
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this happens, we say we're in "firefighting" mode. But it's more than a metaphor — we
have a lot to learn from wildland firefighters.
- Virtual Communications: III
- Participating in or managing a virtual team presents special communications challenges. Here's Part
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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