Do This One Thing a Day to Defeat Awkwardness

By Brittany Lyte on 6 December 2014 0 comments

How do you handle an awkward social situation, like the moment a party guest says something controversial and the whole room goes quiet? Or when you witness Tony making a cruel joke about Sandra's extra weight — without realizing she's standing right behind him?

Well, researchers say it's that moment of unbearable silence that follows most any social gaffe that activates feelings of awkwardness for not only the blunderer but everyone else who witnesses the faux pax and is faced with enduring such an uncomfortable pause without knowing how to end it. The way to end it, of course, is to prevent it from ever existing.

"A mere four-second silence suffices to disrupt the conversational flow, and make one feel distressed, afraid, hurt, and rejected," a research team led by psychologist Namkje Koudenburg writes in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. By contrast, conversations that are void of such uncomfortable pauses have the opposite effect, fostering goodwill and camaraderie. "Flowing conversations are associated with higher feelings of belonging, control, self-esteem, social validation and perceived consensus," the researchers write. "People do not always actively search for opinions of others, but they can validate their opinions by deriving a general feeling of consensus from fluent conversations."

The One Thing Is...

So when your co-worker walks in to lead the Monday morning board meeting, trips over the overhead projector cord, and falls plum on her face — don't let the room fall silent. Instead, say something. Ask her if she's okay. Make a lighthearted joke about how treacherous technology is. Say whatever you can conjure to prevent that moment of silence from ever occurring. That's the key to maintaining the comfort level of everyone in the room.

Say Whatever's on Your Mind

Social confidence coach Eduard Ezeanu writes on his blog that one of the best ways to keep the conversation flowing is to stop looking for the perfect conversation filler and simply say whatever comes to mind first. After all, time is of the essence when it comes to awkward silence prevention. So don't overthink it.

"There is always something to say in a conversation, a way to continue it," Ezeanu writes. "The fact that people who can keep talking for hours nonstop exist is living proof of that. Awkward silences appear in conversation many times because we don't give ourselves permission to talk. We are overanalyzing, looking for the perfect thing to say, for the proper line to continue with. When we can't come up with one, we shut up and just sit there. That's what creates most awkward silences."

So if you feel like talking about the the delicious eggs benedict you had for breakfast, do that, Ezeanu advises. You'll discover that conversations flow much more naturally when you let go and allow yourself permission to talk about whatever's on your mind in that moment.

Circle Back to Recover From a Stall

Chris MacLeod, a psychologist who overcame her own social awkwardness stemming from childhood, writes that another good approach to recharging a dwindling conversation is to circle back to a dangling thread from earlier in the discussion. ("So, you mentioned you're into rock climbing; how long have you been doing that?")

"People often worry that it's bad to shift subjects too abruptly, or that their new topic is too boring and cliched, or that by doing all this they've revealed their hand that they couldn't think of something to say earlier," MacLeod writes. "Most of the time it's totally fine to shift gears if the current tangent has come to an end. It's also all in the delivery. If you change topics in an uncomfortable, stilted way, then it might be awkward. But if you speak in a comfortable manner, like taking things in a new direction is the most natural thing in the world, then it won't seem like anything out of the ordinary."

Ask About a Sharp Opinion

And for those times when you're faced with a potentially long awkward silence after someone makes a controversial remark or expresses a sharp opinion that's completely opposing to your own, MacLeod says the best response is either an honest or a curious one. You could either acknowledge the person's opinion and politely say you feel differently or you could question them about their views — not in an antagonistic way, but in a manner that shows you're interested and mature enough to try and understand their views, although you may not share in them.

How do you avoid (or recover from) those awkward moments? Please share in comments!

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Do This One Thing a Day to Defeat Awkwardness

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