That awkward silence.
You know what I’m talking about.
That void in time and space that sits between when you run into Doug from Accounts Receivable, exchange pleasantries about the weather, weekend plans and how busy your week is and make the dash to the break room.
That long pause after you run out of things to talk about on a first date and you have already played the usual 20 questions
That slow shift in your chair over coffee with a potential client when you have exhausted the usual pleasantries.
Awkward silence are a way of life but they have a away of getting under our skin.
“Say something! You’re both just sitting here!”
“They must think I’m super boring.”
“Quick. Quick. What can I say next?”
“Now everyone is going to think I have nothing interesting to say.”
These are the thoughts that run through your head as you struggle to find momentum in a conversation.
We are always looking for ways to deal with awkward silences in conversation.
People tend to hate awkward silences. It’s just the way we are wired. They tend to make us look at ourselves as the cause and see silences as a weakness or poor reflection of our social skills or ability to entertain. Fortunately, just like removing “um” from your vocabulary, these awkward silences can be dealt with.
Over the past 3 years of sales in Chicago I have developed what I think is a fail proof system for getting out of an awkward silence such that neither party feels self-conscious or uncomfortable.
Embrace the awkward.
I have adopted a policy of “it’s only awkward if you make it awkward” from the realization that the only way to grow and progress in any area of life is through experience.
I used to be terribly awkward when I ran out of conversation topics. As a result, I would avoid initially engaging in some conversations out of fear that I would once again be confronted with an awkward silence and feel self-conscious about it.
The real turning point came when I realized that the only way to fight these feelings and develop my social skills in that regard was to seek out as many conversations as possible and to embrace the silence.
If you are constantly trying to avoid these scenarios, you are never going to develop the skills, confidence or mindset that will liberate you from its hold.
Don’t revert to what you normally do in an awkward pause – don’t look at your phone, check the time, run off to the restroom. That is a cop out. Embrace the awkwardness!
I wrote this article for people looking to develop their social skills and to avoid those cliche awkward silences. At the same time, I would make the point that if you are truly confident and comfortable with yourself, then you should just let them happen! A silence or lull in conversation between two people is completely natural and is a reflection of the comfort and confidence level of both parties. However, it doesn’t always feel natural… so onward we go!
So, step 1 in fighting awkward silences is to have more conversations and experience the awkwardness!
Ok, now you have a lot of awkward silence experience under your belt. Great!
In looking at my own behavior and interactions with others I have realized that the biggest reason I would encounter these “earth shattering” awkward silences is because I wasn’t entirely present in the conversation. What do I mean?
I don’t know about you, but my mind tends to wander. Even when locked in a conversation, I sometimes find my mind wandering to something I have to do later, an observation I just made or something as trivial as how hungry I am. These are mental distractions and they have a tangible impact on your ability to hold and further an organic conversation.
When you commit to a conversation, commit to it 100%! Minimize your mental ADHD and focus on the person or people in front of you. Doing so will allow you to become full vested in the conversation, creating more organic flow and continuation of interaction.
Don’t have a goal in mind
Along those same lines, when my mind wanders, I often find it trying to find the next topic of conversation.
Kind of like in hockey where you’re supposed to go where the puck is going, not where it is… this is how my mind often operates.
I found that allowing my mind to operate in this manner – trying to predict or force the next topic of conversation – to be an extreme hindrance to allowing natural conversation to flow.
Stop developing a game plan for your conversations. Don’t worry about running out of things to say.
If you are constantly thinking of what to say next instead of going with the flow and being present in the conversation, you are going to encounter a lot of awkward silences.
Everyone loves to talk about themselves. Fact.
Use this to your advantage. If you are not comfortable with an awkward silence, always know that you have an ace up your sleeve. All you have to do is ask a relevant question about the person you are conversing with and the pressure is off.
In fact, in my experience, the best conversations I’ve had are those with people who listen more and talk less. Embrace what you think is an awkward silence, make eye contact and then ask a relevant personal question.
The key here is ask the right kind of questions. If you ask a question like…
“How’s your week going?”
“Are you busy?”
“Isn’t this weather great?”
You are just asking for an awkward silence after that. Those are simple boring yes or no questions.
Instead of asking these no-brainer, low value questions, ask open ended high value questions that elicit conversation.
Even in a situation where your mind goes completely blank, you can ask open-ended questions like
“tell me more about…”
“how did you get into…”
“what’s the best part of….”
Observe and ask
If you are simply trying to make small talk and don’t want to go too deep, take advantage of your surroundings!
In a coffee shop? Make an observation about someone around you or something happening in the background?
At a conference, mention something everyone attended earlier.
When you are having a conversation, know that you both ALWAYS have something in common – the setting in which you are conversing. Use this if you want to fill a silence by simply bringing up something about your environment.
Have the right mindset
This doesn’t always apply because sometimes you are engaged in conversation to strategically impress, entertain or generally be the coolest person the world (like sales for example). But, from my own experience, having the right mindset when going into a conversation is essential to leveling the playing field and imbuing yourself with the confidence needed to feel comfortable in any social setting, conversation or interaction. I forget where I saw this but it sums up the mindset you should have (without being overly cock):
I used to walk into a room and wonder if everyone liked me. Now I look around and wonder if I like them.
See the difference between those two attitudes. One is self-conscious and one is self-affirming. If you adopt the second, it will help you avoid the self-conscious trap that silences present. To you, they will no longer be awkward but rather a natural transition or simply an opportunity for something to sink in.
I’d love to hear what practices you use to avoid OR embrace awkward silences. Email me! firstname.lastname@example.org
Image credit: wiki, Unsplash