You know that hot-cheeks, racing-heart, sick-stomach feeling that happens when a conversation takes a turn for the worst. Everything suddenly feels awkward and uncomfortable, like you’d rather be talking about literally anything else. (This is especially true during election season!) You’re desperately searching for a way out, but how can you tiptoe out of this verbal horror, or at least gracefully change the subject without embarrassing yourself or someone else?
How to Gracefully Change the Subject of an Awkward Conversation
Acknowledge and Redirect
Most (but not all!) people will take a hint when you acknowledge an awkward topic and then steer it toward more agreeable conversation.
Successful “acknowledge and redirect” strategies might look like:
- If someone brings up a controversial subject likely to cause an argument, try, “There are a lot of different opinions on that issue. Why don’t we talk about something more pleasant, like that vacation you took last week?”
- When the conversation turns from fun to dreary, say something like, “That makes sense. Back to (whatever conversation you were talking about earlier), I’d like to hear more about (something specific from the conversation).”
- Breakups are always tough territory, so if someone brings up yours, gracefully change the subject with, “That was a hard breakup, but it’s given me the opportunity to meet new people who love exploring food as much as I do. Have you tried that new fusion restaurant downtown?”
Use Their Words as a Segue
When a sensitive or one-sided conversation becomes uncomfortable, but you’d like to continue talking with the person, you can listen for a word or phrase that offers an opportunity to gracefully segue to another topic.
Successful “segue” strategies might use words like:
- Speaking of…
- Funny you should mention…
- Oh, before I forget…
Make an Abrupt Subject Change
When a veiled redirect isn’t enough, an abrupt subject change might be in order. And yes, this can be done gracefully as long as you wait for the speaker to pause, and you smile and keep your tone pleasant—and work quickly!
Successful “abrupt subject change” strategies might look like:
- Make a comment about something happening around you: “The decorations at this party are so intricate! How do you think they made that cauldron bubble like that?”
- Ask a question about vacations, pets, kids (if you know the other person has children), or other subjects people typically enjoy discussing.
- You can ease an abrupt change with a transition phrase, such as, “Totally unrelated, but…”, “Not to change the subject, but…” (and change the subject), or, “On a happier note….”
Distract With a Compliment
This one works great when you’re able to use it! Try complimenting the person on something that’s adjacent to the unpleasant topic.
Successful “compliment” strategies might look like:
- “Your insight is fascinating! What’s your background?”
- “You’re so passionate about this subject. You must have spent a lot of time studying it.”
- You can also try complimenting the other person’s physical appearance and following up with a question, such as, “I love your bracelet! Where did it come from?”
Unfortunately, not everyone will take your hint to gracefully change the subject. In that case, it’s time to excuse yourself.
Successful “excuse yourself” strategies might look like:
- Getting a drink or snack. This is most gracefully done when offering to get a drink for the person or people you are talking to.
- Taking or sending a call or text message. This works best when you are speaking with more than one person, but “having to take a call” can also be used in an extreme situation.
- Greeting someone who has just arrived.
If you were enjoying talking to the other person, you might come back later with a different topic to discuss. Most people enjoy discussing sports, popular television, vacation destinations, or even the weather, which is a great segue to other topics.
Your Graceful Conversation Changers
Conversations can get awkward and uncomfortable! But that doesn’t mean you have to sweat it out. These strategies will help you gracefully change the subject when things get too hot, or you can slip away for better conversation.
What is your most effective trick to change the subject?
I’m Kay Hunter, Orange County image consultant for men and women over 40. I transform mature professionals, active adults, and seniors into more successful and confident versions of themselves. By expressing yourself through style and fashion, you’ll get that boost of confidence, visibility, and value you need to get to the next level. Enhance the joy of living—because great style is ageless!