“Switchtracking” is a handy name for something that happens to conversations all the time. A conversation will be about one topic until—as seamlessly as a train switches tracks at a junction—it jumps to another topic. It can happen consciously, unconsciously, out loud, in one’s head, in a group, or between two people. It can be good or bad—the second topic may be raised to avoid the first topic, or because the second topic is actually more important. But it is essential thing for clinical teachers is to be aware of switchtracking, to understand its role in productive and unproductive conversations, and to be able to deal with it when it occurs.
Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone, both lecturers at Harvard Law School, coined the term switchtracking in their 2014 book, Thanks for the Feedback. 1 While the term is new, they acknowledge that switchtracking itself is “so common that it’s instantly recognizable.” 2 Heen and Stone focused on the ways in which feedback, in particular, can trigger switchtracking. Jean and Sue have focused on the ways in which fraught conversational topics—especially race—can trigger switchtracking. Having a name for this conversational “move” has been very helpful in guiding, managing, unpacking, and exploring difficult discussions in the law and clinical teaching.
For example, consider the situation where Person A offers some feedback to Person B: “You need to be on time.” Person B might respond, “Please don’t talk to me that way.” 3 They have just encountered a switchtrack: the first topic was B’s tardiness; the second topic was A’s tone. These may both be important topics of discussion, but they are two topics and need to be recognized as such. As Heen and Stone put it: “Trying to talk about both topics simultaneously is like mixing your apple pie and your lasagna into one pan and throwing it in the oven. No matter how long you bake it, it’s going to come out a mess.” 4 There are a couple important elements to the mess here. First, the parties to this “conversation” might get further and further apart. Person A digs into the issue of lateness, which they increasingly feel has been unaddressed—while Person B digs into the issue of respect, which they feel has been unaddressed. Or, they might not even realize they are on two different tracks. The switchtracker might have unconsciously shifted the topic—not because they particularly wanted to talk about A’s tone, but because they were uncomfortable being critiqued.
Another example of this phenomenon (where no one realizes they are switchtracking) might be a spouse who gets a gift for their partner that their partner specifically does not like. “I told you not to get me chocolate,” says the gift-receiving spouse. “How about ‘Thanks for thinking of me?’” says the gift-giver. 5 Here, the spouses have switchtracked (Topic 1: Don’t you listen to me?; Topic 2: Why aren’t you grateful?) but they may not even know it. In fact, both may think they are still talking about the same thing: the chocolate. Heen and Stone note that while nothing is wrong with either topic, they have “zero overlap” and need to be discussed separately. 6
While feedback may be one consistent source of switchtracking in clinical teaching, just as in daily relationships, our particular focus has been switchtracking that occurs in discussions of sensitive or difficult topics. For example, Person A suggests that a strand of family law doctrine embeds racist or racially discriminatory assumptions. Person B responds: “That’s exactly how the courts talk about gender roles, too.” Sue and Jean have frequently noted switchtracking in painful conversations about race proceeding exactly like this. It is a great example of how switchtracking is not necessarily about switching from an important topic to an unimportant one, or simply “avoiding the issues.” (Here, for instance, one important issue has been switchtracked to a second important issue.)
Indeed, the second—switchtracked—conversation can be as or even more important than the first. “We may have hesitated to raise it earlier,” they write, “but here it is, finally out in the open.” 7 The problem is that the “conversation gets tangled.” We can certainly deal with more than one topic at a time—Heen and Stone do not dispute that, nor do we. But we need to know that more than one topic is on the table, and switchtracking is so seamless that we often do not notice it. “[W]e don’t realize there are two separate topics, and so both get lost as we hear the other person through the filter of our own topic.” 8
In the example above, we may have specifically wanted or needed to talk about the way race fits into the case law—not the way prejudice generally fits in, or gender-prejudice specifically. Or we may prefer to talk about gender roles in the case law, in which case we should move to that topic! But we should do it fully aware that we have switchtracked from where we started—we are no longer talking about race.
Monitoring Switchtracking as Part of our Teaching
How can we deal with switchtracking? First, we need to be aware of the phenomenon generally. We like to teach our students about switchtracking—and use Heen and Stone’s catchy name—so that they can recognize it themselves.
Second, we need to be aware of what kinds of encounters or conversations trigger switchtracking in ourselves and others. Heen and Stone focused on “relationship triggers,” moments when individuals cannot hear the topic (typically feedback) because of a relationship issue (you never just tell me I’m doing well!). We have instead focused on “topic triggers,” fraught issues like race that tend to switchtrack students in our clinical teaching.
The third step in dealing with switchtracking is to notice and identify specific examples as they happen. This is especially important in real-life conversations, but you could also practice with short hypotheticals. (Heen and Stone give examples of “Spot the Switchtrack” type hypos: (1) “Daughter: Mom, you never let me go out. You treat me like a child. Don’t you trust me? Mom: You should be grateful you have a mother who cares.” (2) “Boss: You didn’t meet your sales numbers. Salesperson: Why are you telling me this right before I head out on vacation?”) 9 When you notice switchtracking happening, say it. If you are working in a group that is familiar with the concept, you can even identify it by name: “I think we’re switchtracking here. One topic is x and the other is y.”
The fourth step is to continue “signposting” what has happened and what should happen next. 10 You have identified two topics, what do you want to do about it? You could, for instance, decide that the first topic is where you should remain, and urge yourself, your partner, or your class to get back on track. Or you could decide that the second topic is actually more important—and make the conscious, explicit, out-loud choice to move to that topic. Or, you could identify both topics as important, and make a deliberate plan to discuss one of them first, then purposefully circle back and explore the other topic. Here are some examples: we might say: “ I see we have switchtracked here, and I’d like to stay on our original topic of race. But I’m going to pin/park this second issue: gender, and find a time for us to return to it. “ or “I am available in office hours to followup on this/ or I invite you to open a thread on our classroom discussion board on this…..”
One final note. In monitoring switchtracking to keep the discussion on difficult topics, like race, some comments may appear to switchtrack, when they are in fact raising important issues of intersectionality—for instance, where race and gender stereotypes compound each other. Here it may help to clarify the comment and then be clear whether the conversation will proceed to address race, gender, or the intersectionality between the two.
It is impossible to discuss difficult topics or maintain complex relationships without occasionally (or frequently!) switchtracking. Becoming aware of switchtracking—and addressing it when it occurs—can help us pursue more focused discussions, clarify issues in important relationships, and generally remain clearer and together in our joint pursuits..
(We thank Peter Beck for his research and help drafting this page.)
- SHEILA HEEN & DOUGLAS STONE, THANKS FOR THE FEEDBACK (2014). ↩
- Hidden Brain, NPR (Sep. 22, 2015), https://www.npr.org/2015/09/22/434597124/trying-to-change-or-changing-the-subject-how-feedback-gets-derailed. ↩
- Adapted from HEEN & STONE 32. ↩
- Id. ↩
- Adapted from id. at 130. ↩
- Id. ↩
- Id. at 131. ↩
- Id. ↩
- Id. at 143. ↩
- Id. at 148. ↩