In preparation for holiday parties and family get-togethers, I’m sharing an excerpt from the book Speak Easy: Mary Lou’s Rules for Engaging Conversation by Matthew Calkins and Mary Lou Walker. Cupola Press published this book in 2010, but it’s a timeless piece and especially applicable this time of year.

Don’t Steal The Subject

“The true spirit of conversation consists in building on another man’s observation, not overturning it.”
—Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton

How often has this happened to you? You are in a party conversation, telling the story of your trip somewhere—say, camping along the Colorado River. Someone jumps in and says that he and his family camped there once too, and then he proceeds to steal the subject and tell the story of his vacation. Sometimes this is even done with a sense of implied superiority: “Oh, yes, I know that campground—but did you get a chance to explore the canyon downstream? If you had been there for another day, as we were, you might have had the opportunity.” Of course, you are internally seething, thinking—I wish your raft had overturned and you had a good soaking on that extra day!

Later we will talk about how to counter this kind of theft and smug one-upmanship with wit and raillery, but for now just think how frequently this happens. And admit that you do it, too! We all do. When we hear a story that triggers an association in our lives—whether people or places—we long to share it. Often we stop listening and politely wait for our turn—which may never come! Sometimes we rudely interrupt the current story and steal the subject. Of course, this is wrong—but so hard to resist. It happens with equal, or perhaps greater frequency, in political or other topical conversations. One idea or opinion or piece of news and gossip triggers thoughts of another, each person elbows in, and off it goes.

What to do? Go back to the previous paragraph. Note the observation that when an association is triggered we often stop paying full attention to the person talking and begin waiting for our turn to speak. There is a huge difference between listening and waiting to speak. Try and stay with listening and set the corollary incident aside for later (if it gets lost, it is not that important). Then, instead of stealing the subject, dig deeper. Ask questions. What was the funniest thing that happened on the trip? Was there a moment of beauty so awesome that you were moved outside of your self? Has this experience changed you? Provocative questions make for good conversation. People will be flattered by the attention but, even better, the conversation may take an interesting turn. It might move beyond recounting incidents and opinions to reflection or laughter (both of which are good).

President Barack Obama once said something that struck me in this regard when he was a student at Columbia University. The young Mr. Obama said, “Everyone appreciates a kind word and a thoughtful response.”

How true. Everyone appreciates being listened to and not interrupted. And no one, it is fair to say, is fond of having their story hijacked. Learn some manners. Wait your turn. Don’t steal the subject.

For more conversation tips, the book is available at most online stores and at Cupola Press.

One thought on “Conversation tip: Don’t steal the subject

  1. Kate

    Gail- This post really spoke to me! I know I interrupt all the time- thinking I’m just relating to someone, all the while taking the conversation hostage. Keep the posts coming. I love them! -Kate

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