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Deflect and Redirect Awkward Holiday Office Party Conversation

Sometimes, someone at an office party stirs the pot by asking a question or making a comment about a controversial or off-limits topic. And certainly this year with the news media overwhelming us with reporting about presidential debates and primaries, there is no shortage of opportunities for uncomfortable questions to be asked.

What do you do when you are confronted by someone who directs the conversation to politics, religion or sex?

Deflect. You deflect by refusing to take the bait. You don’t respond directly to the questioner. You might even gently suggest that you don’t have an opinion on the topic or are uncomfortable discussing it at the moment.

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Redirect. You can acknowledge the person’s comment, but then redirect by changing the topic. “Interesting point, but right now I’m curious, what you think about…?” Of course, one of the best ways to be able to redirect is to do a little preparation before the event. Identify a couple of topics you can bring up to change the subject.

Focus on the person. Better than simply redirecting, use the opportunity to ask the person a question about him or herself. “Interesting point but right now I am really interested to hear more about that trip you took to Italy last summer.” This approach relieves you of the burden of having to speak. Instead, you’ve given the person permission to talk about a subject that is dear to him or her. Of course, to be able to turn the conversation to focus on the person, you need to know something about him or her that you can ask about. A little homework ahead of time may save you from being trapped in an uncomfortable conversation.

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Excuse yourself. Finally, when all else fails, you can disengage. But do it politely. “John, it’s been great catching up with you. Please excuse me. Maybe we can pick it up later.” There’s no need for subterfuge like excusing yourself to the restroom or to get a refill for your drink. After all, the person may follow you, and now excusing yourself will be just that much more awkward.

Keep in mind that the holiday office party is an opportunity for you to get to know colleagues with whom you may not otherwise have a relationship. Step out of your comfort zone and talk to people you don’t know rather than holing up with colleagues you interact with every day. The options above can help you if you run into a situation that is untenable, but the bright side is you may end up building new relationships not just during the party but ones that will benefit you in the future.

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If you have a business etiquette question, please email it to [email protected] You can hear more Emily Post etiquette advice on the Awesome Etiquette podcast featuring Lizzie Post and Dan Post Senning. Listen and subscribe at infiniteguest.org.

Post’s newest book, The Unwritten Rules of Golf, Morrow, is available at emilypost.com.

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers’ questions in The Boston Sunday Globe’s weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business” and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book “Essential Manners For Men” was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of “Essential Manners for Couples,” “Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf,” and co-author of “A Wedding Like No Other.” Post is Emily Post’s great-grandson. His media appearances include “CBS Sunday Morning,” CBS’s “The Early Show,” NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and “Fox News.” Follow Post: @PeterLPost.

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