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How to Deal with Negative Conversations

How to Handle Awkward Silences


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		  How to Handle Awkward Silences 

“Fairly often when I am talking to someone I want to get to know  better, or someone I've just met, I feel as if I very quickly exhaust any  subject I come up with. Then we stand there and I can think of no  graceful way to either continue the conversation or to leave it. What  are some good things to talk about? When there is an awkward silence, what is the best way to remedy it?”  This is a situation that we've all experienced at some time in our lives.  Adolescents, most of whom go through periods of feeling shy, suffer with  these awkward moments. Many adults do so as well, especially when in unfamiliar settings and meeting strangers.   

Nearly always there are two conversations going on at the same time:  One is the external conversation with another person; the other is our  internal conversation, the `self-talk,` that makes us nervous. Most of  the time we don't notice the internal one that is saying things like  `You'll look stupid` and `You never know what to say.` When this  self-talk goes on, you will feel self-conscious, as if the other person is  judging you. When you are feeling judged, you become over-cautious  and hesitant, and this hesitation easily becomes contagious so that others may also feel hesitant.   

Mentally Prepare for Conversations with Strangers   

Anticipating the possibility of feeling awkward, you can mentally  prepare by anchoring yourself in some positive affirmations that can  contradict the negative self-talk. For example, you can say to yourself  `I am a good person who is genuinely interested in others.` Or, `Each  day I am becoming a better conversationalist.` By affirming your  positive qualities, you are building your confidence and ease.   

Acknowledge Feeling Awkward   

Another remedy is to acknowledge that you are feeling awkward.  That is, to say so, as with “Excuse me, I'm new here, and I'm feeling  a little bit awkward right now.` The chance is that your conversational  partner is also feeling somewhat awkward, and for you to say so can  dispel the momentary tensions.   

Become the Attentive Listener   

Social conversation is a mutual activity, and sometimes when we  are feeling stressed we assume the full burden of a conversation.  Instead, having a number of questions available, we can create a  partnership that has the other person doing her share of the talking  while we listen carefully. Questions like `What kind of work do  you do?` and `What brings you to this event?` plus additional  questions that get others to talk about themselves are helpful.  When the other begins talking – telling their story – we can use  follow-up questions to draw them out.   

Have a Rich Assortment of Topics to Share   

When we have lots of current information to share, and when we  acknowledge that to ourselves, we can be confident that we do not  lack for conversational topics. However, if we have only the topics  of work (shop-talk) and our personal lives to share, we may feel at  a loss for words. When we stay current with world and national events,  culture (books, films, music), and community affairs, we'll have a lot  to talk about when meeting strangers. We can introduce one of these  topics with a question, such as `What movies have you seen recently  that you'd recommend?`   

If the Other Person Is Preoccupied   

It sometimes happens that we find ourselves engaged in conversation  with a person who is extremely shy or is preoccupied with other concerns. If, after our sincere effort to draw them out, they remain stand-offish, we may as well tactfully excuse ourselves and move on to other people who are more open and friendly. To do this we need only say, `Please excuse me. Perhaps we can talk at another time` and take our leave.   

It is not our responsibility to fully carry the conversation. Conversation  is like a dance, taking turns leading and following. To lead we initiate  new topics and share our knowledge and experience. To follow we listen attentively and ask questions. However, sometimes one partner doesn't choose to dance, and at these times it is best to find other partners. 


Loren Ekroth ©2012, All rights reserved.

Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life.

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