You’re in the middle of a great conversation and then, suddenly, things take a turn and you feel trapped — how can you change the subject without making it awkward and alienating the other person?
It’s a scene that plays out all the time. But the holiday season can be a hotbed for awkward conversations. It seems that everyone has that one relative who just doesn’t get why it’s bad to make racist or sexist comments. Or you may know someone who always seems to ask your opinion on any number of controversial subjects. In those instances, the opportunities for faux pas seem limitless.
To get the lowdown on the right way to change the subject — without awkwardness — Business Insider consulted Kiaundra Jackson, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of “Staying Sane in an Insane World: A Prescription for Even Better Mental Health.”
Here are three tactics she suggested:
Asking a question or commenting on something else that’s going on around you, like “Did you see that dog run by us?” can provide a swift and effortless opportunity to redirect the conversation. Plus, it shows that you’re aware of what’s going on around you without making the other person feel like you’re not paying enough attention to them.
But use your judgment about the timing and pay attention to other person’s body language, Jackson said.
“If you are changing the conversation immediately after someone starts talking, then that can be awkward and obvious. It can make the person feel like what they are saying has no importance,” she said.
Pay attention to your conversation partner’s eye contact, facial expression, and where they put their hands and arms, she said. “Our non-verbal communication speaks so much louder than the words we speak.”
For example, according to research gathered by the University of Southern California, frequently tilting the head backward and raising your arms above your shoulders may be a sign of joy or pride. On the other hand, someone who tilts their head forward and has a more collapsed posture may be expressing sadness.
Calling for backup, or getting another perspective on the topic, can also be a great way to take the heat off of you. For example, you might try asking something like, “Hey Sally, what do you think about X?,” if Sally were outside the conversation.
But this solution isn’t a cure-all. For example, you probably don’t want to do that if the current topic is too taboo and you don’t have a close relationship with the person you’re bringing into the conversation.
“The relationship will always determine the depth of the conversation,” Jackson said. “Is it a coworker, a spouse, or someone you just met? With a stranger you can just stick to small talk. But if it is with a close friend or family member, then you can dive a little deeper and discuss feelings. If it is a coworker, then trading opinions without judgment is the best option.”
Some people are masters of this trick — so much so that those on the other side of it can’t see it coming. If you want to employ a conversational side-step, phrases like “that reminds me of,” “yes, but,” or “by the way,” can be helpful. But, again, context is key.
“Changing topics when someone is expressing something heartfelt is something to consider. If someone is crying, talking about a traumatic experience, or expressing their thoughts and feelings about a touchy subject, I would suggest listening and not changing topics at all,” Jackson said.
Regardless of the tactic you choose to employ to change the subject with tact, it’s important to consider your own motives, Jackson said.
“Changing the subject just because you are bored is much different than avoiding a difficult conversation. If a person finds themselves always changing topics in conversations with people or have been told that they frequently change topics, then maybe there is an underlying issue,” she said. “Certain topics can be a trigger to some people and they may not even know it. It can be a subconscious reminder of some unresolved issues.”
On the flip side, if you find others repeatedly changing the subject during a conversation, it’s worth finding out why that’s happening, too.
“I would say something like ‘I see you keep changing the subject of our conversation, is there something about this that is making you feel uncomfortable?,'” Jackson said. “Although some may find it offensive, I think honesty is still the best policy. Instead of trying to think of all these creative ways to change the topic.”
In short: If you’re truly not willing to talk about something, it’s OK to tell someone a topic is simply off limits.
Originally published on Business Insider.
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