Pachter's Pointers:
Business Etiquette Tips & Career Suggestions


Polite Ways To Avoid Unwanted Conversations

In a recent seminar, a young man asked how he should have responded to his manager, who inquired about his break-up with his fiancée. He felt very awkward discussing the details of his relationship with his boss.

The man brought up a communication concern that often arises: How do you avoid talking about something that you don’t want to discuss?

The first thing to remember is that you don’t have to answer every question asked of you. I am not telling you to be rude; I am suggesting that you politely extricate yourself from the discussion.

Here are some of your options:
Leave the group. Give some reason for leaving. For example, “Oh, I just remembered that I have a phone call coming in to my office in a few minutes. I’ll catch up with you later.”

Change the subject. Ignore the question and start talking about something else. You could say something like, “That reminds me, I wanted to talk to you about…”

Be polite and powerful. You could say, assertively, “I am uncomfortable discussing this. Thanks for your concern.”

Simply state the facts. In the above situation, the young man had brought his fiancée to company functions, so people naturally asked about her. He needed to say something. He could answer the question directly, but avoid all the details, and not get into the gloom and doom of it. For example, “I am no longer engaged to Anna. I’m okay. I believe things work out for the best.”

Additional information on communication and conflict can be found in my book, The Power of Positive Confrontation.


  1. Anonymous4/10/2012

    From a Reader:
    Make it clear that you don't discuss your personal life, so don't pussy-foot around. Set boundaries. Just say, "Thanks for asking, how was your weekend?" By veering him off the personal and refocusing the subject back to him, you are saying loud and clear that your personal life is your own business. He won't be intrusive again.

  2. Anonymous4/10/2012

    From a Reader:
    Barbara, I really enjoyed your article. Thank you very much for sharing the link with us all. In particular, I like the approach of changing the subject when the awkward question is asked. May I add a suggestion to your wonderful list?

    When a person encroaches on private matters, they may not be aware that this is an uncomfortable question. Not forgetting, we are often the ones who put others at ease with approaching us.

    Most recently, I was taken back by a question directed to me. At first, I felt like my personal space had been intruded and that the one questioning me had no business doing so. This particular lady is an acquaintance in a large organization I frequently attend. After the second time, I began looking at my own ability to put others at ease. Rather than taking a defensive stance, I behaved politely and gave a respectful response - not answer.

    We should not fear being polite, yet provide a respectful response, rather than ignoring the question or the person's possible concern. For instance, I answered this lady with, "That is not an issue for me, but I thank you for your care and concern."

    When I am faced with an uncomfortable situation, I make a simple statement like, "Everything happens for a reason. Thank you for asking." Although I do like the strategy of changing the subject, I would rather address the question politely, and be in control of the situation. This seems to diffuse the awkwardness and build more confidence for the next challenge that may come my way.

  3. Anonymous4/11/2012

    From a Reader:
    I am enjoying this discussion, Barbara. Life creates so many ways to engage with people and if you do enjoy interactions, you are likely to come across many, many different people at various functions or in business. To a varying degree, we all learn and continue learning, that within a conversation where we do not quite know how to get out of it fast and with poise, what are our choices?

    Another polite way to end or avoid an unwanted conversation, especially if you are in an awkward situation and caught off guard, is with preparedness. Having rehearsed in our mind for those unexpected interactions, will benefit us.

    Very kindly but firmly say, "Excuse me, I need to take care of a few things at my desk. It was very nice to see you, ________." Placing a positive note at the end, with a smile, is what I consider a good delivery. The same words can be said, harshly. If you say it with sincerity and a smile, it comes across positively and is in fact, a polite delivery.

  4. Anonymous4/11/2012

    From a Reader:
    If I were the young man I would say " Sir, I am touched by your concern, but I have put this painful episode behind me and resolved never to talk about it. Thank you for asking, but I am sure you will understand my need to keep silent. Should I ever need to talk about it, you would be the person I would turn to... On another note, I am glad you’re here, as it gives me an opportunity to discuss the project. Shall we move to your office?!!”...(change the subject)

    I agree, one should be prepared to tackle awkward questions and situations without coming across as brusque.

  5. Anonymous4/13/2012

    From a Reader:
    I think that the more you say--more room for another party to develop unwanted conversation. The answer should be a really short or silent.

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