How to Confront Uncomfortable Topics of Conversation

Uncomfortable topics are, well, uncomfortable. Though everyone has unique triggers, I imagine there are topics of conversation that cause internal (or visible) squirming for many. Some of the named uncomfortable topics in my recent research were money and financial status, politics, mental health, future plans, feelings, and anything that the person has little knowledge about. All of these topics can be well-justified for the discomfort they cause.

Personally, my level of comfort with different discussions has fluctuated over the years. While discomfort is somewhat related to insecurity, and some people may not feel that, I do think a certain amount of discomfort is healthy. I think that those who rarely feel uncomfortable talking about any given topic could perhaps be inflexible in seeing other perspectives or not challenging what they know. But that’s not why I think uncomfortable topics are worth discussing for the purpose of this post!

Today, I’m talking about when the discomfort becomes a block in communication. It’s about those times when you may leave a conversation feeling heavy with regret, “I wish I said this, or why did I have to say that?” or when you may feel misunderstood, unheard, even hurt. 

How can we more openly approach the conversations we dread?

Impending stampede to avoid

What are your own most disliked topics? When or with whom are they typically brought up? Again, discomfort arises for different people in different situations. No one is at fault, and we all have a right to feel our own feelings. Know that what might be uncomfortable for you, could be no problem for me, and vice versa.

Maybe you hate talking sports with one of your friends or feel frustrated when your mom brings up in front of your boyfriend that she’s still waiting to be a grandmother. You might wish you were somewhere else when race is mentioned at a restaurant or when your boss comments about sex at a staff meeting. Surely someone has revealed a secret or bottled up feeling at a party that silences the room! 

For many of my peers and me, it can be difficult to engage in small talk about what we are doing with our lives. A simple “what do you do for work” or “what are you studying” becomes a spiral of explaining yourself and justifying different choices you’ve made. Some will script their answers ahead of time.

Where in your body you feel your discomfort? Some people become fidgety, others breathe irregularly or their heart beats faster. I notice changes in my body temperature and feel tightening in my chest, hands, or jaw. Some people may feel emotional to the point where their eyes tear or voice shakes. 

How do you usually approach these topics? Do you avoid them all together? Change the subject? Suffer in silence until it blows over? Maybe you throw in humor to make nervous laughter appropriate. There are all sorts of ways we defend, but isn’t it exhausting?

How might these conversations become easier for you? Some believe that if they were able to anticipate the reactions of people, they would feel better about saying how they feel. Removing judgement all together would be ideal. We wouldn’t have to think about whether we sound ignorant, insensitive, wrong, or generally ridiculous.

Many people have expressed that they don’t feel like they can ask questions and openly learn from others for these reasons. Unfortunately, judgment and conflict naturally occur in discussions. So, while predictability isn’t really feasible, it might be helpful to do some investigating and research. You will likely be more confident speaking about something and with informed opinions. According to organizational psychologist Adam Grant’s latest book, expressing curiosity and openly accepting when we’re wrong is not only a beneficial skill for growth and discussions but a form of intelligence. His suggestions are to be more flexible about what you know and be confident in your ability to learn.

Many of us may have to unlearn relying so heavily on the feedback of others. I know some people believe therapy has helped them become more comfortable speaking and openly expressing their feelings. Others believe that plain self-confidence would be enough for them to easily say “I don’t know much about that to have an opinion yet” or “Let’s save this topic for another time—I don’t feel like getting into it right now.” 

There is no easy, direct solution here. What’s important is that we are able to recognize our own patterns, reactions, and limitations. Then we do our best to be approachable. Finally, we can practice expressing some of those limitations, monitoring and stabilizing the stress reactions, and accepting that mistakes will be made. Empower yourself by leaning into your discomfort and exploring what it’s really telling you. 

Go reduce the blocks that keep you from engaging in conversations! There is growth on the other side! If you like this page, please share it.

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