Skip to main content

How to Handle Difficult Conversations

Find tips on handling awkward or difficult conversations.

How to Handle Difficult Conversations

We've all had the uncomfortable, unsettling experiences of saying exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time; having to deflect personal questions; or fending off constant interruptions.

Some basic principles to avoid making embarrassing gaffes are as follows:

  • Don't assume. For example, just because someone looks pregnant doesn't mean she is pregnant. Or, just because that delicious young thing you see with your boss/neighbor/colleague is half his or her age does not mean it's a parent/child relationship.
  • Think before you speak. For example, before you launch into a political diatribe against a candidate or a party, ask yourself if the person you are talking to has a relationship with them. It's just not very smart to rail against Republicans to a large Republican contributor.
  • Make sure you know who's within earshot. For example, your discussion of Demi Moore's breast augmentation surgeries could hurt and offend someone nearby who's recently undergone breast cancer surgery. In short, stick to small talk because it's not dangerous.
  • Don't be afraid to admit what you don't know. There is strength in defenselessness. And it's far more appealing than trying to appear knowledgeable about something and making a complete fool of oneself.
Inappropriate Questions

    Are you two sleeping together?

    How much money do you make?

    How come you don't have any children?

If someone comes up with a nasty or particularly inappropriate question, you can ignore it or tell the person that you consider the question to be rude. My favorite tactic is to say: “Why do you ask?”


Go lightly. In fact, wrap your comments in a compliment such as, "One of the things I like best about you is your enthusiasm. You might not even realize that you interrupt me a lot. So I'm asking you to do your best to curb the habit and listen to what I say. Then I'd welcome your feedback and listen to you."

You might be able to work out a private signal between yourselves in the future to help break the habit. Above all, keep in mind that your goal is to be helpful, not harmful.

Body Language

Don't fold your arms, and do keep your hands away from your mouth. Both send negative signals. Try holding a drink in one hand and putting the other hand in your pocket or, perhaps, on the strap of your handbag. The point is to look relaxed and receptive. Lean forward slightly when the other person speaks.

Getting Away

It is very important to close a conversation gracefully. As humans, we need two things when dealing with others—acknowledgment and closure.

We need people to acknowledge our presence. That's why you might not mind waiting when a clerk says, “I'll be right with you,” or even just looks at you and nods briefly. The need to be acknowledged also explains why you are so annoyed when a receptionist says, “Please hold,” and cuts you off before you can say anything.

By the same token, it is annoying when people just drift away after a conversation without some acknowledgment that a conversation has occurred. When you feel a conversation has run its course or you have to move along, wait for a break in the conversation and then say something like

    “Well, I've got to say hello to our host (or George or my aunt, for example).”

    “That food looks delicious. Think I'll have some. Excuse me.”

    “I'm going over to the bar for a refill.” (Don't try this one while holding a full glass.)

Then say something like

    “It was good talking with you. I enjoyed learning about Ireland.”

If others at a party interrupt and you cannot end the conversation properly, make some sort of parting gesture, for example, brief eye contact and a wave.

Giving a talk and holding a conversation have a lot in common. Both work better if you are relaxed and natural. In a way both put you “on stage.” If you try to put on a show or if you are not entirely sincere, your listeners will pick up on it. So don't say things you don't believe, even something as trivial as complimenting someone on her hat or dress or telling someone that he looks terrific when you both know he doesn't.

Subscribe to Family Education

Your partner in parenting from baby name inspiration to college planning.