Have you ever been in a conversation that took a turn toward a topic that makes you uncomfortable? There are ways to gently guide the discussion back to something that is more appropriate without embarrassing the other person. However, that’s not always possible when you’re dealing with someone who can’t take a subtle hint.
Acknowledge Then Redirect
If someone starts talking about something that is awkward or makes you squirm, a simple acknowledgment before turning the topic toward something completely different should be enough of a hint. Most people will understand what you’re doing and go along with you.
Examples of how to redirect the conversation:
- When someone brings up a topic that can cause an argument at a party, you may want to say something like, “There are quite a few different opinions on that issue. Why don’t we discuss something more pleasant, like your last trip to the islands?”
- If someone mentions your ex who left you heartbroken, you can say, “That was a difficult breakup, but it’s given me the opportunity to meet other interesting people who enjoy dancing as much as I do. Have you ever done the Argentine tango?”
- When a person reminds you of the fact that you didn’t get the job you were hoping for, you can say, “Yes, I was disappointed, but the interview process gave me a better idea of what I need to consider when applying for other jobs.”
- When the conversation goes from interesting and fun to miserable or boring, say something like, “That makes sense, but I’d like to hear more about (whatever conversation you were talking about earlier).
Compliment on Knowledge
One of the best ways to direct the conversation is to compliment the person on something that’s only slightly related to the topic. For example, if she’s being critical of a political issue that you embrace, you may say something like, “I’m fascinated by your insight. What’s your background?”
Use a Word or Phrase to Segue into a Different Discussion
Sometimes people start talking about things you’re not interested in or know nothing about, and you don’t have anything to contribute. A one-sided conversation can become quite uncomfortable, and you have a choice. You may listen to them drone on and on, or you can look for an opening to move to something else. Listen for a word or phrase that provides an opportunity to switch gears.
Here are some ways to segue to a topic that’s something you’d rather discuss:
- If a person starts discussing the trend of cold-shoulder tops in fashion, and the latest styles don’t interest you, say something like, “Speaking of cold shoulders, can you believe how quickly the temperature changed in one day?” Then you may continue discussing the weather.
- When someone can’t stop talking about his latest golf match, and it bores you to tears, as soon as he mentions hitting the ball onto the green, you might want to mention that green is your favorite color. Then talk about why you like the color green and how it brings back fond memories of hiking in the forest.
- When medical folks get carried away discussing body fluids, broken bones, and other topics that can make most people cringe, as soon as one of them says the word “stitches,” say something like, “Speaking of stitches, have you seen the latest standup comedy on Netflix? It was so funny, it left us in stitches.”
Abrupt Change of Topic
Another way to deal with a subject that you don’t want to discuss is to wait for a person to catch her breath and change the topic to something that is more agreeable. Most people will take the hint, but if it doesn’t work, try it again. Smile when you do it so the person doesn’t perceive you as being antagonistic or think you’re not a good conversationalist.
Here are some examples of how to quickly change the subject:
- When people start gossiping about someone who isn’t there, point to the buffet (or another inanimate object) and make a comment about how much planning must have gone into it.
- If a person says she has issues with the company you work for, you can smile and ask if she has any pets, and if so, what are they. She should take the hint that your employer is off limits in this discussion.
- When a person starts criticizing your friend or coworker, flash a big smile and ask about her last vacation.
There are times when people can’t take a hint or won’t let go of a topic, no matter how obvious you are with your attempt to change course. These are times when you’ll need to do something more drastic and let them know you prefer to talk about something else.
Here are some things you might say:
- I’m sorry, but that topic brings back bad memories, and I’d like to talk about something else.
- I don’t know anything about this subject. Can we discuss something we both enjoy?
- I’m uncomfortable discussing religion with people who don’t understand my faith. By the way, I love your necklace. It emphasizes the color of your eyes.
- We clearly disagree on politics. Why don't we find some common ground to discuss?
No matter how tactful you try to be, there are some folks who will hammer away at whatever topic you don’t want to discuss. Instead of arguing or getting frustrated over how to change the subject to something that isn’t so uncomfortable, glance around and say you need to find the ladies’ room.
If you decide to return to the same person, come armed with another topic of conversation. Hopefully, the person will have forgotten about the uncomfortable topic or realize the topic isn’t open for discussion. If not, all you have to do is say, “I’m sorry, but I really need to go now.”
One of the best ways to deal with uncomfortable topics is to be prepared with a list of conversation starters about topics you don’t mind discussing. Listen for words or phrases that give you an opening to change the subject.
Here are some ideas for topics that most people can relate to:
- Changes in the weather
- Local sports teams (unless there are some die-hard rivals that may get into an argument)
- Popular TV shows or movies
- Favorite restaurants
- Best vacation spots for singles, couples, or families