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5 Ways to (Subtly) Change the Topic of Conversation

What’s worse? Being (a) trapped in an elevator, (b) stuck on a train, or (c) stranded in a tiresome—or contentious—cocktail-party discussion? If you answered (c), read below. Five savvy experts, including a former FBI special agent and a bar manager, divulge their finest conversational exit strategies.

By Michelle Crouch
Illustration of a conversationLeif Parsons


3. Enlist Help

Sometimes when I’m working at the bar, a patron gets too close to a topic that I don’t want to talk about. So I immediately draw other customers into the discussion, hoping to steer it in a different direction. Just the other day, someone asked me what part of town I live in. I answered her vaguely, but then she wanted to know my specific street, which made me feel uncomfortable. So I launched into a story about an incident that recently happened in my neighborhood. While doing so, I raised my voice and started to make eye contact with others around me. Soon they were all listening and jumping in with their own similar stories, and I was off the hook.

Jeffrey Morgenthaler is a bar manager at Clyde Common, a restaurant in Portland, Oregon.

4. Play Word Association

The most discreet way to intro--duce a different topic? Link it with something that was previously said, even if the new subject is connected by only the smallest detail or key word. If I’m with a guy who’s bragging about his new car, for instance, I will chime in and say, “I love fast cars, too, but I’m actually more of a running gal.” From there I can talk about the great workout I had that morning or the road race I’m running this weekend.

Catherine Blyth, a British writer, is the author of The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure ($22.50,

5. Deflect

In media training, I teach executives how to take control of a question-and-answer session. I’ve found that the best method is to use a conversation technique called “the bridge,” which is a phrase that helps you segue into the subject you want to talk about. One of my favorites:“What’s important to remember is…” Let’s take one example. Say a job recruiter asks for your thoughts on a recent scandal at your alma mater. First vocalize your opinion, even if it’s just to say, “I think the whole thing is reprehensible.” Then, to direct the talk away from the sticky matter, go right into the bridge. “But what’s important to remember is that the university is one of the great research institutions in our country, and I’m very proud to have gone there.”

Carmine Gallo is a communications coach in Pleasanton, California, and the author of several books, including Fire Them Up! ($22,

Read More About:Sticky Situations

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