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.

Photo by Leif Parsons

1. Make a Pit Stop

Back when I worked as an undercover officer for the FBI, if someone started asking me a lot of questions, I had to throw him off so he wouldn’t figure out who I was. I would excuse myself, head to the restroom, and remain there for a few minutes. When I returned, I would immediately ask him about something new. It’s much easier and less awkward to change the subject after you’ve taken a short break than to stop a conversation midstream. I still do this when I want to switch topics if I’m stuck next to someone on an airplane or at a social event.

Joe Navarro, a former FBI special agent, is the author of What Every Body Is Saying ($20, amazon.com). He lives in Tampa.

2. Use Flattery

Complimenting people works, especially in prickly situations. Why? It helps them forget the issue that had them up in arms just minutes ago. Plus, people tend to listen more closely to words of praise, which can put them in a different frame of mind. Try this the next time you want to distract someone: Ask her how she learned so much about the particular topic at hand. If she’s touched by your interest, she may recall a related fond memory or experience and subsequently abandon the argument and tone down her rhetoric in the process.

Cynthia W. Lett, based in Washington, D.C., is the author of That’s So Annoying: An Etiquette Expert on the World’s Most Irritating Habits and What to Do About Them ($15, amazon.com).