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:
- No Surprises
- If you tell people "I want no surprises," prepare for disappointment. For the kind of work
that most of us do, surprises are inevitable. Still, there's some core of useful meaning in "I
want no surprises," and if we think about it carefully, we can get what we really need.
- Assumptions and the Johari Window: I
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- Tactics for Asking for Volunteers: I
- CEOs, board chairs, department heads and team leads of all kinds sometimes seek people to handle specific,
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- False Summits: I
- Mountaineers often experience "false summits," when just as they thought they were nearing
the summit, it turns out that there is much more climbing to do. So it is in project work.
- Creating Toxic Conflict: II
- Some supervisors seem to behave as if part of their job description is creating toxic conflict among
their subordinates. It isn't really, of course, but here's a collection of methods bad managers use
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
- And on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people 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.