How to Change the Subject in a Conversation

Three Methods:Finding a Transition to a New TopicUsing an External DistractionSteering the Conversation Subtly

As Winston Churchill once said, “A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject.” [1] When you’ve decided you don’t like the topic of the conversation you're having or you sense that the person you’re talking with is uncomfortable, there are a number of ways you can steer the conversation in a new direction.

Method 1
Finding a Transition to a New Topic

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    Be prepared! If you know you’ll be going into a situation where you’ll be talking to a lot of strangers, think of 2-3 topics for small talk before you get there.
    • Choose topics that are of interest to many people - hobbies, sports, and tech gadgets are a good place to start.
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    Focus on the other person. Since people like to talk about themselves, focusing on the other person can make it easier to change the subject.
    • Choose a topic that you know is important to your conversation partner. Examples include hobbies, an upcoming event, or a work project.
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    Pay a genuine compliment. This smooth way to change the subject can be used no matter who you’re speaking with. Find a specific aspect of the person’s jewelry, shoes, clothing, and say something nice about it! [2]
    • You can also expand on this new subject by asking for more information about the item or feature you are complimenting. For example, “Where did you get that great tan?”
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    Try the abrupt approach. If there is a lull in the conversation, change the topic completely rather than returning to it or trying to transition to another topic more gradually.
    • Ask a “conversation starter” question, such as: “What’s the oddest job you’ve done?” or “If you can have dinner with any three people, who would they be?” [3]
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    Consider your relationship. When deciding what topic you want to change the subject to, think about your relationship with the person to whom you are speaking. Are you trying to change the subject with a co-worker, someone you just met, or your mother-in-law? The stronger your relationship with the person, the more flexibility you have in topics to choose from. [4]
    • With strangers, stick to small talk. Since you don’t know the person, you can’t know what subjects might be touchy for them. The weather is almost always a safe topic.
    • If you’re trying to get to know someone, trade information. For example, ask the person why they are at the conference where you just met. [5]
    • With friends or co-workers, you can trade opinions. If you want to change the subject, give your opinion of a related topic. For example, your friend is complaining about the food at a restaurant that you chose, and you want to change the subject. Ask something like, “Isn’t this music unusual?”
    • With close friends and family, you can discuss feelings. This is the most intimate topic of conversation, but emotions are a valid topic if you are trying to change the subject with your spouse or your sister. Ask how the person is feeling about something you discussed in a previous conversation.

Method 2
Using an External Distraction

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    Focus on the present situation. Talk about the place where you are - the decor, the landscaping, the event, the city, etc.
    • Get your conversation partner thinking. Ask “How many people do you think are here?”
    • Point out something unusual in the environment. For example, “Did you see that huge dog over there?”
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    Expand your audience. Another way to change the subject is by bringing a new person into the conversation. Either introduce your conversation partner to someone else you know, or ask your partner to introduce you to someone.
    • If neither of you knows anyone at an event, suggest going together to a lively group and introducing yourselves together.
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    Excuse yourself from the conversation. You can tell the person you’ll be right back if you’d like to keep talking to them - a few minutes apart creates a natural reason for the topic to change.
    • Use a common excuse. Take a trip to the restroom, or to the buffet, or to get a few minutes of fresh air. [6]
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    Fake a call. You can ask a friend to call at a specific time with a potential “emergency.” There are also apps that can automate the process.
    • This can be a particularly handy technique on a first date.
    • You can always decide to stick with the conversation, but the interruption provides a space in which to change the topic.

Method 3
Steering the Conversation Subtly

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    Make small changes. You can shift the topic of conversation instead of changing it abruptly, by branching out in small steps from the subject that you are currently talking about.
    • Use ‘word association’ to shift from one topic to another. For example, if you have dragged on the subject of skiing or snowboarding too long, go on to talk about the weather up north, which can eventually branch to talking about the weather down south.
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    Use the ‘yes, but’ method. You can build a bridge from one topic to another by agreeing with the speaker, and then using the word ‘but’ to change to a new topic.
    • For example, if you don’t want to hear any more about cars, you can say, “I love fast cars! But I’m actually really into running fast.” [7]
    • Other transition words/phrases include: “That reminds me of…” and “By the way…”
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    Ask questions. Let your conversation partner help you change the topic of conversation. Listen carefully what they are saying and ask questions that steer the conversation in a different direction.
    • Make your questions open ended. This means they cannot be answered by a yes or no. Begin your question with the Who, What, Where, When, Why, or How to get a more detailed answer. [8]
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    Bring the conversation back an earlier topic. Maybe the conversation has just gone off on a tangent. Reintroduce an earlier topic by saying something like “I was really interested in what we were talking about earlier - can you tell me more?”

Warnings

  • Avoid making yourself the subject of conversation too quickly.
  • It’s safest not to offer advice unless the other person asks for it.

Article Info

Categories: Conversation Skills