#278: How to Control the Conversation in English & Avoid Uncomfortable Questions

Jun 14, 2023 | Business Professional English, Communication Skills, English Conversation

Have you ever been surprised by unexpected, uncomfortable questions that are too controversial or too personal?

For example:

  • So who are you going to vote for?
  • Why don’t you have kids yet?
  • Why did you move here?

Or maybe you felt uncomfortable because the conversation turned to gossip. And you didn’t want to be part of it. 

If you’ve ever felt stuck or unsure of what to do in a conversation, you’re not alone.

In fact, recently I received an email request for this extract topic.

“I would love to see more videos on dealing with difficult people and how to steer a conversation from uncomfortable subjects, like politics or speaking ill of someone.”

The key to dealing with difficult people and uncomfortable subjects is knowing how to control the conversation.

Whether you’re an advanced-English speaker or just starting your language journey, today you’ll learn 3 practical strategies to control the conversation in English.

This means you’ll know how to answer the question if you want to, how to change the topic with ease, how to be assertive if necessary, and how to simply end the conversation

WATCH THE LESSON

How to Control the Conversation in English & Avoid Uncomfortable Questions

When uncomfortable questions pop up in a conversation or the topic takes an unfortunate turn, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to answer. Moreover, you have the power to choose how and where to steer the conversation.

    In doing so, there are 3 strategies you can use:

    1. Use curiosity to understand the purpose of the question
    2. Redirect the conversation by changing the topic
    3. Communicate your boundaries with an assertive tone

    Let’s review each one in-depth and learn essential English phrases to help you control the conversation in English politely. 

    Strategy 1: Use curiosity to understand the purpose of the question

    Without a doubt, some questions are simply rude. There are people who don’t care about personal boundaries and others who are intentionally aggressive.

    But sometimes, people will ask a question out of genuine curiosity. They want to get to know you. They just didn’t know how to ask or phrase the question appropriately. 

    So the initial question sounded too personal, abrupt, or rude.

    And sometimes, people ask questions because what they really want is to discuss a difficult situation. 

    For example, maybe a coworker is struggling with life as a new mom 

    She doesn’t know who to talk to so she asks you a surprisingly personal question. Her goal is to see if you’ve dealt with the same challenges.

    But again, the initial question seems surprising and even uncomfortable.

     

    One way to control the conversation and give you the power to decide IF you want to answer is to respond with curiosity, get more detail, and understand the purpose of the question.

    For example:

    • That’s an interesting question. I’m curious to know why you’re asking.
    • Wow. That’s an unexpected question. Can I ask why you want to know?
    • Good question. But first, what about you? Why did you move here?
    • That’s a difficult question to answer. Is it something you’re struggling with?

    Asking these questions will:

    • Give the speaker an opportunity to further explain the question 
    • Help you understand the original intent of the question
    • Give you the power to decide whether you want to continue with the conversation or not

    You may realize the question was asked out of genuine interest and decide to respond.

    Or you may want to use Strategy 2:

    Strategy 2: Redirect the conversation

    If a conversation takes an undesirable turn and touches upon sensitive or uncomfortable topics, you can regain control by redirecting the conversation.

    A simple technique for this is the acknowledge and pivot method.

    This means acknowledging the previous topic briefly and then smoothly transitioning to a different subject. 

     

    You could transition, for example, by bringing up a recent event, a shared interest, or a positive experience.

    For example, you could say, 

    • “That’s an interesting point. Speaking of which, have you heard about [insert a different topic]?”
    • “Good question but I’m not really into politics. What I do want to talk about is your latest vacation! You just got back from Slovenia. How was it?”

     

    If someone asks you when you’re having kids, you could say, 

    • “We’ll let you know when we decide. Speaking of kids and family, have you heard the movie theater in the neighborhood is reopening? I’m so glad to have it back and I’m excited to see the remodeling updates. Did you go often before it closed last year?”

    If a coworker asks why you haven’t married yet and you don’t feel comfortable answering. You could answer politely and circle back to a previous, more appropriate topic. For instance, you might say, 

    • Thanks for asking but I don’t usually talk about my personal life at work. Oh, but I did want to ask you how the presentation you gave last week went. I know you were anxious about it.

     

    The key to acknowledging and pivoting is to find a connected topic. Then ask an open question that encourages the other person to share their thoughts on a different subject. For instance, you might ask, “What do you think about [recent news/entertainment]?”

    Additional transition statements include:

    • Sorry to change the topic, but I just thought of something I wanted to ask you earlier…
    • Before I forget, I wanted to ask…
    • Remember how I mentioned…?
    • By the way, before I forget, let’s circle back to X. 
    • I don’t mean to cut you off, but you mentioned X earlier. [Question]?

     

    Strategy 3: Communicate your boundaries with an assertive tone

    Establishing a boundary means making clear what is and isn’t acceptable to you. And when communicating boundaries, it’s important to make them clear and straightforward with no room for interpretation.

    I have an in-depth lesson on how to set boundaries with others and I’ll share a link to that in the notes below.

     

    For the purposes of controlling the conversation, you may choose to respond with soft, diplomatic language or overt, obvious disapproval.

    Let’s look at 3 ways to respond with example phrases you can use to control the conversation, steering away from the topic.

     

    (1) You could politely address with softer language:

    • I’m so sorry, I don’t feel comfortable talking about this. Can we talk about something else?
    • I respect your opinion, but I’d rather not talk about this here.
    • Sorry, I don’t feel comfortable talking about this. I would really appreciate it if we don’t bring it up at work.
    • Sorry, is it okay if we talk about something else?
    • Thank you for asking. I’d rather not discuss this because I don’t feel comfortable sharing my personal thoughts and feelings on this topic.
    • I’m afraid I don’t have much to contribute to this subject. Would you like to discuss something else?
    • You know I don’t like talking about people who can’t defend themselves. Since Susan isn’t here to share her side of the story, I’d prefer to not talk about it.

    (2) You could be direct about your discomfort:

    • That’s a bit too forward. I don’t feel comfortable answering that.
    • That’s too personal, I’d rather not answer that.
    • I don’t think this is an appropriate conversation for the workplace.
    • I’m not comfortable going into detail about that. 

    That said, if the question asked is extremely offensive to you, you could openly show your frustration.

    (3) Express obvious disapproval

    • That’s inappropriate. I won’t answer that.
    • That is a rude question. Please don’t ask me that again.
    • We both know this question isn’t okay to ask. I’m sure you know better.

      The Use of Humor

      I want to highlight that you can also use humor to communicate your boundaries or even transition to a new topic.

      Humor can be a powerful tool in controlling a conversation. If someone brings up an uncomfortable topic, you can use a witty comment or a joke to diffuse the tension. 

      This not only helps to steer the conversation in a different direction, but it can also lighten the mood and make everyone feel more comfortable.

      However, I recommend using this with caution. It’s important to make sure humor is appropriate for the context and that you’re able to maintain a friendly tone.

      For example:

      • That’s for me to know and you to never find out.
      • Wouldn’t you love to know?
      • I’m afraid I’m going to have to leave you in suspense on that one… forever.
      • That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? Why don’t we focus on what’s really important: what are you going to order for dinner?

          To recap today’s discussion, it’s important to remember you don’t have to answer questions if you don’t want to.

          And you have the power to control the conversation.

          You can use curiosity to better understand the purpose of the question so you can decide if you want to proceed. You can redirect the conversation by transitioning to a new topic. Or you can be clear about your boundaries.

          With that, I’d like to hear from you.

          1. Have you ever had someone ask you some uncomfortable or inappropriate questions? What happened? How did you handle the situation?
          2. Based on what you learned in today’s lesson, how would you handle that same situation now? What would you do and say? 

          You can share your answers — as well as your questions — with me in the comments below.

          ~ Annemarie

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