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
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!
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More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- Give Me the Bad News First
- I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that if you wait long enough, there will be some bad
news. The good news is that the good news helps us deal with the bad news. And it helps a lot more if
we get the bad news first.
- Asking Brilliant Questions
- Your team is fortunate if you have even one teammate who regularly asks the questions that immediately
halt discussions and save months of wasted effort. But even if you don't have someone like that, everyone
can learn how to generate brilliant questions more often. Here's how.
- Fill in the Blanks
- When we conceal information about ourselves and our areas of responsibility, we make room for others
to speculate. Speculation is rarely helpful. It's wise to fill in the blanks.
- Action Item Avoidance
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of the most popular patterns of action item avoidance.
- Communication Refactoring in Organizations
- Inadequate communication between units of large organizations is one factor that maintains the dysfunction
of "silo" structures in large organizations, limiting their ability to act coherently. Communication
refactoring can help large organizations to see themselves as wholes.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 27: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: I
- In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely? Available here and by RSS on June 27.
- And on July 4: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: II
- When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process. Available here and by RSS on July 4.
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