7 Fail-Safe Ways to Discuss Taboo Topics Without Being Offensive
It can be extremely easy to avoid discussing difficult topics altogether. In today’s increasingly easily offended world, it can be scary to express your opinions on taboo topics even though open discussion can often lead to progression. We see some of the unfortunate souls who dare share their opinions get berated on the internet and we think, nope, not worth it!
But what about situations where we have no choice but to talk about uncomfortable topics? Maybe we’re missing out on vital information that affects our finances because we’re afraid to talk about money for example.
Perhaps a friend wants to uncover the reasons why they have self-destructive habits but they feel they can’t openly talk about their issues. Sometimes avoiding the very conversation we don’t want to have is holding us back in life.
Whether it’s about sexuality, money, religion, or politics if we can be honest with our communities, then how do we expect to progress?
This doesn’t mean we have to blast our sordid secrets to everyone or force others to have difficult conversations with us if they don’t want to, but perhaps we can equip ourselves with the right mindset and conversation skills to handle talking about taboo topics in respectful and constructive ways.
We’ve outlined 7 examples below of how you can safely discuss taboo topics without causing offense. As with all types of conversations, it can be difficult to predict the responses of others, and whilst the examples below are well-thought-out and tactful, there will always be some people who choose to take offense.
We advise that you read the verbal and non-verbal cues of others when talking about sensitive issues, these examples aim to offer you suggestions of how to put your best foot forward:
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Example 1 | Creating a Safe Space When Talking About Mental Health
If you’re happy to talk about this with me, I’d like to see the world from your perspective.
How does that make you feel?/…and that makes you feel?
What do you think would have to change in order for you/others to feel better?
With mental health becoming an important issue in today’s society, it would benefit us all if we can create safe spaces to openly discuss what’s really going on. Unfortunately, mental health is still considered a topic that shouldn’t be openly spoken about, leaving many who suffer from problems to suffer in silence.
In the U.S. 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness each year and in the UK this increases to approximately 1 in 4 people; it’s clear to see that mental health issues affect a sizable portion of western society.
Fear of judgment, negative stigmas, and misunderstandings can play a huge role in keeping people quiet, therefore, seeking to understand by using supportive statements phrased as open-ended questions can help open up a dialogue.
When discussing mental health with people be sure to not jump to conclusions or diagnosis, this can end up shutting down the conversation and can result in (the very thing you’re trying to avoid), causing offense.
As always, if you are concerned with the mental state of someone it’s important that that person seeks professional help from a qualified practitioner.
Example 2 | Reserving Judgment When Talking About Sexuality
What are your experiences as a [Insert Variable]?
Sex is a natural human interaction. There is nothing wrong with being reserved when it comes to discussing ins and outs of bodies, however, sexuality should never be used against people.
People shouldn’t feel ashamed for being sexual beings whether it’s to do with their preferences or behaviors and so forth, and nobody should feel shame for the natural way in which their body operates.
Talking openly and honestly without judgment about sexuality is a sure-fire way of reducing the discomfort and anxieties surrounding the topic. It also gives us a barometer to detect when certain situations, behaviors, or relationships really are unhealthy and ought to be reconsidered.
Disagreeing with others, listening to other perspectives and experiences is how we all learn.
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Example 3 | Respectfully Disagreeing When Discussing Politics
Even though it doesn’t match mine, thank you for sharing your perspective.
By being taught not to talk about politics can be problematic. We need to be able to discuss things rationally and in a productive manner if we want to progress as a society.
If we do not learn how to deal with opposing beliefs we’re likely to end up pitting ourselves as enemies toward anyone whose worldview does not match ours. Much like most of the examples in this article, we should always strive to listen first before we give our input.
Here you'll get practical advice on how to have difficult conversations with colleagues, employees, and managers. You'll learn to develop your communication skills to improve your relationships, teamwork, and business performance all from the comfort of your laptop.
Example 4 | A Case for Discussing Personal Finances
Money can be a weird and touchy subject. Whilst it’s a great deal easier not to discuss finances outside of your close friends and family, there are some benefits to finding out what your colleagues or potential connections make. This is for a couple of reasons; one to bench-mark where you need to value yourself, and two, to make sure you’re being compensated accordingly.
However, it would be better to tread carefully when discussing money as everyone’s relationship to their money is different, and being nosy or assuming a level of familiarity can seriously rub people up the wrong way. If you’re sharing with others how well things are going for you just be cautious to phrase things delicately and know your audience.
Example 5 | When Talking About Addiction
Although people who have been in close proximity with people experiencing addictions may have discovered effective ways to communicate, it is always difficult, because of the confusion addiction creates in the sufferer, and in those around them. Addiction is so stigmatized in our society, that people who have addictions automatically anticipate criticisms, insults, and rejection; therefore, be kind!
A person with an addiction is more likely to confide in you if you listen without interrupting or criticizing. Even if you do not agree with their behavior, addictions are a manifestation of something much deeper going on. Listen to the person with the addiction at least as much as speak to understand their point of view.
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Example 6 | When Talking About Race
Whilst I don’t agree with what you’ve just said, I can see where you might have drawn that conclusion from.
What happens when we make assumptions that go unnoticed and unaddressed? Problems arise. When we feel we can’t say what we’ve heard or what we’re thinking for fear of being attacked, we let our misunderstandings get worse.
If someone says something that we find offensive, first take a look at where they’re coming from – don’t assume they have the same thought patterns and experiences as you, and then (if appropriate) gently offer a counter-argument.
If we can look at talking about race as a learning opportunity; whether it’s about how the human brain work works or how societal structures work, then we can stop doing ourselves a disservice.
Example 7 | When Discussing Religion or Personal Beliefs
Not everyone who’s spiritual or religious enjoys talking about it in public, if you’re not on close personal terms you’re probably better off not bringing it up at all.
However, when getting to know people on a deeper level, people’s beliefs can be one of the most important aspects of their lives. Again, the best course of action is to ask open-ended questions, listen without judgement and only offer input when it is requested.
At Never the Right Word, our aim is to give you practical examples of how to handle life’s difficult conversations. If you have an awkward situation that you’d like example templates for, request a topic here.
If you’re interested in further reading, we’ve also included links to our trusted resources and related posts below. To find out more about NTRW and our recommended tools, you can do that here.
Lastly, if you found this content helpful or want to share your own examples, let us know in the comments. We’d also be delighted if you shared this article and joined us on social media too!
Never the Right Word
Hi there! I’m Amy, and I’m the person behind Never the Right Word. I’m a designer-by-day who’s fascinated by human psychology; you’ll find me learning about what makes others tick through all types of media and good old-fashioned conversation. Learn more about me here.
In 2019 Never the Right Word was born to fill the gap of ‘how-to’ websites with copy and paste examples showing you EXACTLY what you need to say to steer difficult conversations into positive outcomes.
Relevant Books We Recommend...
In Difficult Conversations: What to say in tricky situations without ruining the relationship; author Anne Dickson describes a range of difficult conversations that frequently occur in intimate, social, and work situations, and reveals simple but powerful techniques that will help you to transform the scenario. You'll discover how to communicate directly and honestly - without causing friction with those close to you. We love that this book offers 'real-life' examples and links to strategic and high impact negotiations. To get this book from Book Depository please CLICK HERE.
Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone is the perfect book for anyone who wants to get better at making new friends, negotiation or just dealing with people. Drawing on his experience as a psychiatrist, business consultant, and life coach, author Mark Goulston shares simple but powerful techniques readers can use to break through the tough exteriors of colleagues, friends, strangers, and even adversaries. Just Listen reveals how to make a memorable and positive first impression, listen effectively, calm an angry or aggressive person down, and steer conversations toward a more rational mindset and much more. Get your copy of Just Listen by CLICKING HERE.
In Exactly What to Say: The Magic Words for Influence and Impact, best-selling author and multiple award-winner Phil M. Jones presents what he calls his “Magic Words” and provides precise examples of how to put them to work. Expect to read the book quickly and feel instantly motivated to create your own examples to help you win more business, have more influence in your workplace, and grow your persuasiveness in social situations. This book took us approximately an hour to read and can be repeatedly referred back to with ease. We recommend this book to anyone who wants to build and integrate conducive habits into their communication skills. A thumbs up from us! CLICK HERE to buy Exactly What to Say from Book Depository.
Based on 15 years of research at the Harvard Negotiation Project, Difficult Conversations is the definitive work on handling unpleasant exchanges. It teaches us to work through difficult conversations by understanding that we're engaging in three dialogues: the "what happened" conversation (what do we believe was said and done), the "feelings" conversation (the emotional impact on everyone involved), and the "identity" conversation (what does this mean for everyone's opinion of themselves). We recommend this business classic-in-the-making because of its direct practical advice that can be applied to various circumstances. You can get your copy of Difficult Conversations from Book Depository by CLICKING HERE.
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