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An Expert's Guide to Steering a Conversation

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My wife is an excellent driver. She’s not only accomplished behind the wheel of a car; she knows how to deftly steer a conversation as well.

Recently, we hosted a dinner party during which the conversation turned to baseball.The Mets fans around the table were talking about the team’s chances this season, not exactly a discussion that played to her strengths. She had heard on NPR, however, a profile of former Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey that gave her an opportunity to jump in with interesting, related content that didn’t require citing a utility infielder’s on-base percentage. The next thing I knew, the testosterone-driven chatter had morphed into a conversation about 60 Minutes, which also had recently profiled Dickey.  

Regardless of whether you’re at a dinner party, company off-site event or a networking event, the ability to steer a conversation toward your strengths is a crucial communications skill to have. Too many of us suffer in silence while others in a conversation cluster drone on about a topic we don’t feel knowledgeable enough to contribute to.  

Related: 7 Ingredients to a Successful Business Dinner

This steering technique, in media coaching parlance, is often referred to as “bridging,” connoting the fact that the conversational path being pursued by another person may very well be a dead end for you. If that’s the case, you’ll need to bridge to a conversational road that suits your purposes. Accomplishing this subtly and organically is the key, since the goal is to steer the conversation not clumsily hijack it.  

An example of a clumsy hijacking during a media interview would be saying something like “I’m not here to talk about that today; what I am here to talk about is…” Another example is the dreaded and now grossly overused “we’re just really focused on building a great company and providing value to our consumers.” That response is provided nearly 100 percent of the time when a reporter asks a tech entrepreneur if he or she is considering taking the company public. What makes this sound clumsy and canned is the absence of any validation of the question.

A smoother bridge would be something like “I think it’s only natural for everyone to think of that step as the ultimate destination for a company of our maturity and size, but it’s still a bit early for us to be making a definitive call on that.”

Related: The One Word Leaders Should Stop Using

Another bridge for that scenario could be “I’m not entirely sure that is the only barometer of how we’re doing as a company. Sure, in many instances it’s held out as the ultimate indicator that you’ve arrived, but we also put a lot of stock in whether we’ve accomplished A, B or C.”  

This technique comes in handy not just in media interviews but during any type of high-stakes meeting. For instance, if an app developer were sitting across from potential financiers who were insinuating that a certain lacked a “cool factor,” the entrepreneur would ideally not get defensive and argue why the device is cool. The people holding the purse strings have already stated how they feel. The right move here would be to steer the conversation away from the importance of being cool to the worth of being useful and make the best case possible for why that characteristic is a better indicator of success.

Like driving a car, effective steering requires a light touch. A fluid, more gradual approach, rather than a harsh tug at the wheel, will always yield a better result.

Related: 7 Power Tools of Persuasion

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