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Five ways to (subtly) change the topic of conversation

By Michelle Crouch, Real Simple
updated 3:12 PM EDT, Tue June 26, 2012
When stuck in an awkward cocktail party conversation, try to deflect questions.
When stuck in an awkward cocktail party conversation, try to deflect questions.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • It's easier to change the subject after taking a short break
  • Complimenting people works
  • Link to a new topic, no matter how small the connection
  • Use a phrase that helps to segue

(CNN) -- 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.

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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4. Play Word Association

The most discreet way to introduce 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, amazon.com).

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..."

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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, amazon.com)

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