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Volume 7, Issue 9;   February 28, 2007: Changing the Subject: II

Changing the Subject: II

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Sometimes, in conversation, we must change the subject, but we also do it to dominate, manipulate, or assert power. Subject changing — and controlling its use — can be important political skills.
The Night Café, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

The Night Café, by Vincent Van Gogh, painted in Arles in 1888. In the center of the painting is a billiard table. The object of one variation of the game, Carambole Billiards, is to strike the object ball with your own cue ball by caroming off your opponent's cue ball (and possibly three cushions). Strategically, it's desirable to leave your opponent's cue ball in a difficult position, should your own ball miss. The game was very popular in France at the time.

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.

Whac-a-mole
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 collaboration
tactic 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.
Hijacking
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. Go to top Top  Next issue: How to Tell If You Work for a Nanomanager  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!

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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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