In a recent post, we highlighted the importance of maintaining control over conversations with prospects and clients—that your value as a financial advisor diminishes without it. Part and parcel of maintaining control of a conversation is being able to switch gears when a client takes it in a direction you don’t want to go. Getting trapped in a tangent is a time waster, but how do you change the subject without making it awkward or alienating your client?
People go off topic for many reasons. Whatever the reason, they feel that what they have to say is important, so if you’re going to try to change the conversation, it needs to be done delicately and gracefully to not make them feel as if what they have to say is not important.
The first thing to consider is timing. Trying to change the conversation as soon as the other person starts talking can be jarring. Give them some space to run for a little while before stepping in. Then carefully listen for opportunities to apply one of several techniques to bring them back around subtlety.
#1. The conversational side-step
When the person pauses, use a side-step phrase to shift the conversation to something more relevant. Using phrases such as “That’s interesting you said that. It just made me think of…” or “Speaking of which…” allows you to inject your thoughts into the conversation. When done in the proper context, the other person won’t even notice what you did.
#2. Ask a probing question
As we emphasized in our previous post, whoever asks the questions controls the conversation. So, at an appropriate time, ask a question such as, “That’s interesting. What’s behind your thinking on that?” or “How did you become interested in that?” As you continue to ask probing questions, a new detail will emerge that you can use to transition to a more relevant topic. Done right, they won’t recognize you changed the subject.
#3. Use a pivot phrase
Using a pivot phrase can change the flow of a conversation when it veers off course. After your client goes on for a while, use phrases such as, “That’s interesting, but here’s how I see it…,” or “You bring up a great question, but the real question we have to ask is…” Again, context is essential.
#4. Neutralize the conversation
If your client goes on a rant about something, an effective technique is to neutralize it by acknowledging what they are saying and then using a transition phrase such as, “Sorry you’re experiencing that. We’ve all felt that same frustration.” That neutralizes the conversation while reinforcing to your client that you’re listening to them. You can then use a side-step phrase to segue into another topic, such as, “That reminds me of…”
#5. Create a distraction
A less subtle but still effective technique is to create a distraction that interrupts the conversation. You could tell your client that you need to attend to something outside your office. Gently apologize for the interruption and let your client know it will only take a minute. When you return, you can remind your client of the purpose of the meeting and start in on your agenda.
The key to any technique used to change the topic is applying your listening skills to determine the appropriate time to use it and the context in which it is used. You should also be ready to apply your empathic skills to acknowledge the importance of what they have to say before switching topics.
Interrupting someone to move them off a subject can easily backfire on you if you aren’t comfortable with the technique. It can only get awkward if you look or feel awkward doing it. I suggest you practice two or more of these techniques with someone you know.