How to manage sensitive topics in small talk conversations

Managing sensitive topics small talk

There are quite a few topics that are “taboo” or frowned upon at work. Politics and religion are the two most obvious topics. Why? Because people tend to have strong opinions, and if either topic comes up in conversation at work it can make people feel uneasy.

Over-generalizations about a group of people, office gossip, and complaining about job frustrations can also make people feel awkward and unwelcome. Work should be a positive environment so everyone can achieve their best for the good of one another and the organization, right?

In this episode, we’ll discuss some things you can say to gently steer the conversation away from sensitive subjects at work and help make the office environment more positive.

Let’s go!

  1. Transition to a new topic

If the conversation is moving in a direction that is inappropriate, you can simply find a transition to a new, more neutral topic.

One way to do this is change the focus of the conversation to the person you’re talking to. You can ask them about a project at work. For example, “Before I forget, I enjoyed the presentation you gave last week. Did you design the PowerPoint yourself?”

If you know that this person has a hobby that they’re passionate about, you might ask about that.

For example, “I know you ran the half-marathon last month. You know, I’m interested in jogging, can you give me tips on how to start?”

2.   Pay a compliment

Who doesn’t like to hear something nice about themselves? You can “pay a compliment” to the person you’re speaking with. “Carol, I love your earrings. Where did you get them?” or “Daniel, are those new shoes – they look great! Where did you get them?” A compliment and follow up question is a great way to change the subject of the conversation.

3.      Expand your audience

A quick way to steer the conversation away from a touchy subject is to introduce a new person into the conversation. In this way, the new conversationalist can reset the conversation and you have an opportunity to move to a new topic fast. It’s like hitting a pause button or saying TIME OUT!

If you don’t see anyone that you know nearby, you can ask the person you are talking to for an introduction to someone they might know by saying: “I’ve been wanting to meet David – can you maybe introduce us?”

4.   “Yes, but…”

Never underestimate the power of, “yes, but.”

You can easily change the topic of conversation by agreeing with the speaker with “yes,” and then quickly changing the direction with “but.”

For example, if the person you’re talking with is speaking negatively about their colleague – such as… “Sue talks very loud…” your response can be “yes, but she makes wonderful chocolate brownies. Have you ever tried them?” And with a simple “yes, but” you’ve moved the conversation away from office gossip about someone who talks too loud in to the crowd-pleasing subject of desserts!

It’s almost unfair, sort of like a bribe talking about desserts…

Yes, but… have you tried her brownies????

You likely aren’t chained to this person.

5. Excuse yourself

If you really want to get out of the conversation you can say, “excuse me” and leave. If you want to be more polite, any excuse will do. You need to make a call, go to the restroom, get some fresh air outside. If you think you might be ready to talk again afterwards, you can say something like: “Excuse, me I have to go to the restroom real quick. I’ll be right back.”

Or, “Sorry, I’ll be right back, I just need to make a quick call.” Stepping away from the conversation gives a natural break, and when you resume talking with this person you can start fresh by introducing a new topic, like “Oh, I was thinking… Are you coming to the company picnic this weekend?”

And if this person is your employee? Maybe you can just fire them? Just kidding…

What about you?

Have you ever been in a situation, perhaps at work, in which you felt uncomfortable with what the other person said?

What strategies have you used to manage sensitive topics that come up in conversation?

Share them in the comments!

And if you want to practice speaking English, then consider my Faster Fluency Conversation Club. Club members can participate in 3 group sessions per week. You will be paired up in small groups with other motivated students and a Fluency Trainer, either Trish or Cara.

The small-group size ensures you get plenty of practice to speak American English and receive feedback on mistakes or suggest ways you can speak more colloquially, so you gain fluency faster.

You can get all the details and join the Fluency Club by clicking on this link:

You’ll also get extra resources and a conversation guidebook, to help you increase your vocabulary and become more confident in conversations. Thank you for learning with Speak English with Christina, and I’ll see you next time!


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