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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

3 Polite Phrases to Shut Down Uncomfortable Conversations at Work

people having uncomfortable conversation
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We’ve all had those interactions with co-workers that just don’t feel right for the office. Maybe they’re all discussing NSFW weekend shenanigans in the kitchen or having a heated argument over a controversial topic.

And while we all have the right to voice our opinions, we also have the right to dismiss ourselves from interactions that make us uncomfortable.

According to a recent study by Beyond, 46% of job seekers feel uncomfortable talking about politics at work, yet 65% of them believe it’s totally OK to post political comments on social media or public forums. Basically, it’s not that people don’t want to have these discussions, it’s that they’d prefer not to have them in the office

So, how do you politely shut down shaky conversations at work—without offending someone or telling him or her off? These three phrases should do the trick.

1. “This Is an Important Conversation, But Could We Talk About it After XYZ?”

When you’re busy or stressed, you’re probably not going to react well to someone dragging you into an argument. So, it’s best to try to push the topic to a more appropriate time—and when you’re in a better mood. Plus, diverting it to later also makes it more likely that the participants move on and forget to even bring it up again.

So, tell them you’re trying to focus on your work and don’t have the time to engage with them at the moment—but maybe at happy hour or over lunch. If you’re feeling like that’s a little curt for you, you could even ask them to email you a link to the article they’re discussing and tell them you’ll read it once you finish this project.

2. “I Did Hear About That, Did You See [Other Less Offensive Story]?”

We do it all the time during small talk at work—start discussing one thing, then immediately switch gears when someone chimes in with an unrelated topic. Sometimes, listening to colleagues speaking in our kitchen feels like a game of telephone in that sense; everyone’s just finding common ground while their food’s heating up in the microwave.

You can use this same tactic purposefully. That being said, you probably don’t want to be obvious about what you’re doing or discount what the other person’s saying by completely changing the topic. Instead, use the theme as a smooth transition to something you feel more comfortable talking about.

For example:

Co-worker: Did you watch the debate last night? I was so pissed about that one comment.

You: I actually spent most of last night binge watching this new show on Netflix, have you seen it?

But if that doesn’t work, you should try…

3. “I Respect Your Opinion, But I’d Rather Not Talk About This at Work”

Sometimes, it’s best to just be honest and direct—and sometimes, it’s the only option to shut the conversation down. Your co-workers very likely don’t want to make you feel unsafe or uneasy, so if that’s the case, don’t be afraid to speak up in the moment. Plus, they’ll feel a lot better knowing where you stand now than finding out from gossip (or worse, HR) later.

If you want to keep it more lighthearted, say, “I made a rule with myself not to talk about [topic] at work or with family” or “Oh man, I think it’s too early in the morning for us to talk about this.” This way, you’ll seem less like the bad guy and more like someone who cares about preserving your work relationships.

It’s inevitable that you’ll find yourself in a problematic chat at some point in your career, but it’s not impossible to stop it before it gets out of hand. Openness and honesty goes a long way, and chances are keeping certain banter at bay will make work, and after hours, that much more enjoyable for everyone.