How to Change or Avoid an Uncomfortable Subject

Man and Woman Talking

I've said it before: humans are unpredictable.  And interacting with our fellow humans can place us in unpredictable situations that challenge our behavior.

Like when you're having a conversation with someone and that person all of a sudden brings up an uncomfortable subject.  Maybe she forgot the hints you've given that you don't want to discuss it.  Or maybe he is trying to get a reaction from you.

Either way, your first reaction may be to cut and run.  Or to react defensively.

But neither of these will resolve the situation appropriately.

The Games People Play

Aunt Sally knows that you don't wish to discuss your relationship status.  Being single during the holidays gets to you sometimes.  

And yet, as she does nearly every year, at Thanksgiving dinner she pipes up, “Has the marriage bug stricken you yet?” 

Almost worse than the invasive question is that you know she has a hidden agenda.  She’s always wondered about your lifestyle leanings.  

Or maybe your co-worker grimaces every time you use up-talk in his presence.  Sometimes he says, “Really?”  You try to pay attention in order to break the habit, but you're also very tired of feeling scrutinized in most conversations.

Does he want a reaction from you?  Or is this his way of helping you break the habit?  Does he really just forget that you’ve asked him before not to bring up this topic?

These, or similar situations are common.  Sometimes people just want to dig into your personal business, or think they're being helpful by patronizing you.  

In the past you have tried changing the subject directly, laughed it off, looked away and pretended you didn’t hear, or brought someone else into the conversation with a fresh topic.

Now it’s on the line.   You are being confronted with a situation that requires tact and direct solution.  And in the company of others.

Take Your Stand

You have every right to stand up for yourself when you feel put upon or are unfairly pushed into the spotlight. 

To deal with similar scenarios as with Aunt Sally or a co-worker, relax your face, put on a friendly (not smirky!) smile, and say with an even tone:

  • Aunt Sally, why would the answer to your question be of interest?”


  • Jonathan, is perfecting my speech habits a top office priority?”

Each of these responses will put these folks on the spot.  And as there is no place for them to go without losing dignity, they will probably sputter and you can easily move on.  

To recap - follow these three steps to stand up for yourself:

  • Keep agitation and anger in check.
  • Confront the person in a friendly, but firm, manner.
  • Verbally respond by getting straight to the heart of the matter.  Keep it short - you don't want to talk about this subject.

You also don't want to get pulled into a long, private conversation afterwards.  So if an apology is issued, you might respond with:

  • “Aunt Sally, thank you.  I appreciate your words.  Let’s head on back to the kitchen and get on with cleaning up.  We can drop this subject forever now, can't we?”


  • “Jonathan, it’s okay.  We both have so much to contribute and we’re going to do just that!  Let’s walk down the hall and see if Mary has time to review our project.”

In personal and professional communication, truth-telling should be a way of life.  But there are some things that, for whatever the reason, you do not want to talk about.  And that’s perfectly fine - you always have a choice.  

Just remember that you can be honest and kind simultaneously with ruffling everyone’s feathers. 

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