Switchtracking is a pattern in feedback conversations that is so common that it’s instantly recognizable: someone gives you feedback and your reaction to that feedback changes the subject.

A switchtrack is that place where the track is going a long and there is a switch. Depending on the way the switch is turned the train will glide smoothly onto a second track or stay on the first track.

So what’s happening is a conversation starts, the first person stays on their own conversation, the second person smoothly switches to a different topic which is their own reaction to the feedback and often the feedback that they have themselves for the first person. They get further and further apart and they don’t even realise that they’re going in different directions.

There are really two topics on the table… and [each participant] is hearing the conversation through the lens of their own topic. They’re not even realising that there are two topics on the table.

Sheila Heen discusses switchtracking on the first episode of Shankar Vedantam new Hidden Brain podcast. The Hidden Brain podcast is one I’m going to continue to listen to. You should definitely listen to this episode, if only for Heen’s entertaining example of switchtracking.

Heen was right. Switchtracking is instantly recognizable. I’ve been focusing on improving the conversations that I have with other people, both at work and outside of work. While I had a vague notion that either I or someone else was “changing the subject,” having the idea of “switchtracking” is going to make it much easier to identify when I’m doing this.

It will also make it easier to identify when someone else is doing this. As with asking more questions, identifying when someone else is switch tracking is useful not so that I can catch people out, but so I can identify what is important to the person with whom I’m speaking. Heen also addresses this in her discussion with Vedantam:

For the person doing the switchtracking, you’re just thinking, “Well, that’s not the most important thing to talk about. What we need to talk about is your problem.”

The person who started the conversation sometimes actually does realize that the other person is changing the topic, and they view it as making excuses or distracting or trying to take us off on a tangent. To the second person, it’s not a tangent at all. It’s the most important thing going on.

So that’s what the fight then becomes about. We’re both aware we’re having an argument, and the real argument is about what’s the most important topic here between us.

Interestingly, Vedantam asks Heen what happens when both people feel their topic is the most important and neither wants to give way. Heen’s response: “You’re sunk.”

This, for me, was the key insight of the podcast. I’ve been in more conversations that end like this than I’d care to admit. “You’re sunk” is exactly right. Those conversations go nowhere. Or rather, they go round and round like a screw that’s lost it’s thread.

These situations aren’t irrecoverable. The parties can come back later, but in the heat of the moment, an impasse is reached. To overcome this, someone has to give up their agenda and start listening. I’m working on becoming that person.