Found yourself in an awkward conversation in the last few weeks? I can assure you that you are not the only one.
While that scenario can sometimes be unavoidable, in many professional environments it is particularly important to be mindful of what you say.
There are some topics which are better suited for friends and family outside of the workplace, but, of course, ultimately it depends on the culture of the company for which you work and the industry you work in.
Sally Foster, the University of Kentucky’s director of the Graham Office of Career Management, has more than 17 years of experience coaching students and professionals through the career planning process. She often delivers etiquette presentations based on Emily Post’s etiquette guides and gold standards for collegiate level recruiting.
Foster advises that it’s best to steer clear of conversations regarding religion, politics, and sex in the workplace and interview settings. Other topics to avoid may include personal health or financial issues. These taboo topics may be further complicated by a lack of knowledge of the audience’s values and opinions related to the topic.
Foster cautions that professionals should also remember to demonstrate sensitivity to others by carefully avoiding internal company jargon and refraining from giving personal advice. There are many potential “land mines” to avoid when it comes to navigating the myriad of professional settings ranging from formal presentations to casual lunch conversations.
Avoiding these topics will enhance your impression with other professionals, be it colleagues or potential employers, she said. It is easy to offend or cause awkward interactions when these topics arise, so a good strategy is to always be mindful of discussion topics.
“In employment-related conversations we also submit ourselves to possible discrimination if we make available otherwise protected status details about our background and affiliations,” she said.
When asked how a professional can successfully navigate shutting down an uncomfortable conversation in the workplace, Foster said it depends on the situation. She suggests if you are the host, it may be easier to navigate and subtly change the topic of conversation.
If you are the guest, or interviewee, it can be more difficult to navigate. Addressing the underlying concern or question, without providing personal details is certainly an option in this case.
Foster shared an example about a group of coworkers at lunch and a coworker asks who you voted for in the most recent election. You could politely say you voted — assuming you did — and share that you are eager to see how the new administration addresses policies related to your industry to steer the conversation back to more work-relevant discussion.
In some cases, changing the topic of conversation may not work. In those cases, you may politely excuse yourself from the conversation. On the flip side, giving direct feedback can be helpful in some cases, such as sharing that the topic being discussed is a stressful topic, then shifting to the changing-the-topic strategy.
Foster shared that she has been in this situation a few times in the last few weeks. “My goal in these situations is to put everyone at ease and help all to feel included,” she says. “The delivery of the redirection or feedback is key. Sharing my concern in a diplomatic, warm manner is my preferred style. Usually it works!”
Remember to keep these strategies in mind the next time you find yourself in, or trying to avoid, an awkward conversation and always, always be kind and respectful of others — even those with whom you do not agree.
Amanda Schagane serves as a career coach in the Gatton College of Business & Economics at UK. She is designated a Master Career Counselor by the National Career Development Association and has served as president for the Kentucky chapter of the organization. Join her on LinkedIn or email her at Amanda.Goldsmith@uky.edu.