If you’ve watched any of the presidential debates, you’ve no doubt seen some bad examples of changing the subject. Whether the candidates completely ignore the question and talk about something unrelated or use an awkward transitional sentence, it’s uncomfortable and makes them look like they have something to hide.
You don’t have to be campaigning for president, however, to want to change the subject. Maybe you’re at a party and the conversation is getting old, or maybe you’ve been asked a question about a sensitive topic you don’t want to discuss. In public relations, changing the subject is called “bridging,” and communication experts say you can do it effortlessly if you follow a few steps:
A small shift can turn a conversation in a different direction, says Dianna Booher, author of What More Can I Say? Why Communication Fails and What to Do About It. When the talker pauses, ask, “What prompted your interest in the subject?” she suggests. As they elaborate, ask a further question about this train of thought.
“You will find a detail that surfaces a new topic that you can use to segue to a topic of your own,” she says. “They will never realize how the topic changed, and it always appears that they were the source of the topic change.”
“The content is important to the person conveying it, so a big point is to acknowledge that you hear what they are saying,” he says.
Use a neutral transitional statement, such as “Everyone can relate to having challenges.” This neutralizes the subject and also reinforces to the person that you are listening to them, he says.
You can change the subject by asking a transitional question that seeks positive input. For example, “We’re working on several projects that could impact us both. What are your suggestions on how we should approach them?”
“The transitional question is an extension of your transitional phrase and gets their mind off the original subject,” says Rodriguez. “Be genuine, and you will typically find that since you have asked them an engaging question that requires their thought on the new subject, their mind will follow the new subject.”
You can also change the subject by using the current subject as a “reminder” of something else you wanted to mention, suggests Booher.
“Say, ‘I’m glad you brought that topic up. That reminds me of a question I want to ask,’” she says. Then introduce a new topic.
Certain phrases can change the flow when a topic ventures into a place that is uncomfortable. Amy Laski, president of the communications agency Felicity, trains clients on media interviews and high-pressure situations. She suggests using a phrase such as, “I can’t get into that, but what I can discuss is . . . ,” or, “Here’s the way I look at it . . . ,” or “That’s an interesting question, but I think the real question we need to ask is . . . ”
“Whatever you do, do not feel pressure to speak about topics outside your area of expertise,” she says. “It is better to say, ‘I’m not the best person to speak about that, but I would be pleased to connect you with the person who is,’ than to misrepresent yourself or your brand.”
If you’re being asked something you’d rather not answer, find out if the person speaks for everyone by asking, “Does everyone on your team share this same opinion?” says Booher.
“The talker will almost always tell you about those who do not, mentioning their opinions,” she says. “Then you pick up on one of those topics as a segue to bridge to any other topic.”
Bring new focus to the conversation by creating a reason to step away, such as going to the restroom or helping the host, suggests Donna Lubrano, adjunct faculty at Northeastern University College of Professional Studies.
“You could also say, ‘Hey, I need another drink; would you like one?’” she says. “Step away for a moment and let there be a break in the momentum. A new drink can start a new conversation.”
It can be easier to change the subject if you do it with confidence, says Laski. “Body language and tone are often more influential than what you’re actually saying to change the subject,” she says. “If you do it with confidence and maintain eye contact, your conversation partner is more likely to join you as you take your discussion in your desired direction.”