5 clues on how to change the subject when in an uncomfortable situation

Nov 18, 2015 by Brendan Jack

We all have those moments of anxiety, discomfort and panic. Sometimes we forget a person’s name, overstep a mark, say the wrong thing. Moments when someone puts us into a bad situation or we find ourselves stuck in a conversation we don’t want. A curveball question, scathing remark, or uncomfortable request. It can happen with staff, like when someone asks if his younger cousin can shadow you for a week for a high school assignment on business leadership. Who has time for a shadow?! Or a client invites you to their white water rafting teambuilding getaway. What if you prefer white water watching?

Sometimes you’ll have to bite the bullet. And as unlikely as it seems, you might even enjoy it. But there are ways to simply change the subject, allow time to pass, and hope the discussion never surfaces again.

Rule one

Never be rude when faced with an uncomfortable subject. Sometimes the best approach is to politely say, “Please, let’s change the subject.” Please can go a long way. The same goes for excusing yourself to a restroom. Breaking a conversation with this move can change the direction of a conversation.

If you’re being reprimanded and guilty as charged, then try lightening the mood by showing some respect. (But only if you have credit with that person in their emotional bank account.) Most of the time, just take it on the chin. If you’ve done wrong, apologize and mean it.

Take responsibility

Don’t run away from uncomfortable situations. Stay strong, calm and cool. Try turning that lemon into lemonade. Sometimes discomfort results in a situation where everyone gets to know each other better. Don’t ever leave things. If you’ve let someone down, make amends, apologize, take responsibility, do what you should’ve done.

There are plenty kinds of uncomfortable situations. Sometimes you’re wrong, get taken to task, or just get embarrassed. If your lack of diplomacy didn’t result in a nuclear attack and there was no big dilemma to solve, all you actually have is an awkward situation. Try some light relief to re-break the ice. Nothing works better than well-placed humour; perhaps some lateral thinking could soften the edge. Try stretching the truth or show them your hidden agenda.

Lie if you have too (but don’t blame us)

Sure, lying is bad. Don’t do it, until you really have to. The best diplomats are good at telling mild lies – no one needs the oversharing honesty of a Facebook post. Change the subject by talking about something else that is more dramatic, more severe, more intense. Make it up if you have to. (Don’t quote us on this.) The world is a crazy place – there’s always something bad to talk about. Don’t quote us on this either, we’re all very positive at Coolfidence HQ.

Use creativity to change topics. Plan ahead, have alternative topics or tangents ready. Subtly asking a person about their hobbies or interests can often reboot a situation.

Use a wing man if needs be. If you SMS them an agreed upon keyword, they’ll know to get you out of the boardroom with a fake work request.

Also, sympathy scores points. Don’t make it sound like the world has come to an end, but being yourself and being vulnerable is a human quality that people relate to. If they have your trust and you share a personal story, that can change conversations. A bit of drama goes a long way, just don’t overdo it.

Look over there!

Timing is everything and we may want to avoid a subject of conversation. Not because we’ve done anything wrong, but because it’s not the best moment to be talking about you-know-what or you-know-who. Perhaps something is not yet public knowledge and there are others around and you simply are not in a position to comment so, you go, “Hey, look, a shooting star!” It’s best to try this at night.

There are many ways to distract people. A new app on your phone, for example, can cause a lot of curiosity.

Dangle a carrot

People love a reward, an incentive, a nibble. If you feel comfortable and the rapport is healthy, then consider using an icebreaker. Mystery and wonder can redirect a conversation and change the vibe.

Just say “NO” and Double Take are good options. Short Stop will get people thinking of something different.

Summing up

We all land up in uncomfortable situations, discussing subjects we aren’t prepared for. Sometimes it’s our fault and we have to bite the bullet. Sometimes light relief helps distract from a troubled situation. Use your judgment – if it’s a real mess, then the best icebreaker might be in a stiff drink you pour yourself later after the dust has settled.

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