Ways To Deal With Awkward Silences In Conversations
Other articles on this site give advice on things like general approaches for making conversation, and how to think of things to say to keep one going. One specific situation people worry about is what to do if the all those suggestions don't seem to work, and an awkward silence sets in. Some people particularly fear them, and think a drawn out silence will be really uncomfortable and embarrassing, or that it provides a painful, real-life confirmation that they're a failure at socializing. Here are some quick tips for dealing with awkward silences when they occur.
Realize that not every lull or silence is due to a mistake on someone's part
People who worry about awkward silences are often quick to blame themselves if the conversation hits a snag. Sometimes these lulls occur naturally, simply due to what was being talked about:
- Everyone may have come to the end of a tangent, and they have to take some time to figure out what to say next. When some topics end it's fairly easy to think of something else to say next. With others no immediate follow-up comes to mind.
- If someone makes a particularly profound or thought provoking point everyone may want to pause and reflect on it for a moment.
- Everyone may be in a somewhat tired, distracted, or laid back mood, and just want to relax and not talk for a bit.
There are situations where silences are acceptable, and it's not necessary to constantly try to fill them
If you've just introduced yourself to someone at a party everyone hopes and expects that you'll be able to keep the chatter flowing. In other situations it's totally natural for there to be quiet periods. You shouldn't consider these awkward silences that must be vanquished at all costs. In fact, in these cases it's actually somewhat of the wrong play to try to keep the conversation going non-stop. Some examples are when you're riding with someone in a car, bus, or plane, if you're relaxing with a buddy and watching a movie, taking a casual stroll, or sitting around a fire.
Remember your conversation partner is likely also working to end the silence
Conversation lulls are mildly uncomfortable for everyone. Even if you can't quickly find something to say, the other person might. Everyone is equally responsible for keeping the discussion going.
At times more of the weight may fall on you, like if you're talking to someone who's shy, or you approached them and they're not sure if they want to chat to you yet. For the most part though, everyone is on the same team trying to make the discussion work. It's not all on your shoulders.
Don't panic. A few seconds of silence isn't that big a deal if you don't make it one
Silences happen sometimes. It's all about how you react to them. If you stay confident and in control you'll send the message, to yourself and to everyone else, that what's happening is totally normal, and not awkward at all. If you keep your cool and apply one of the suggestions below it won't be long before the conversation is back on track.
If you think about it, quick silences happen all the time between good friends. However, they're really comfortable in each other's company, so they don't worry about it and are content for there to be a few seconds of dead air. Their discussions could have as many silences as two people who just met, but they don't really notice them, and they don't see the exchange as being awkward and halting.
Come up with a new conversation starter
If a silence settles in, you can give yourself a moment to try to think of something that will continue the current topic. If nothing else, could you ask them the question they just asked you? Or chip in your thoughts on the matter they just gave their opinion on? If not that, maybe there was a dangling thread from earlier you could get back to ("So, you were saying before that you were visiting your cousins?...")
If nothing comes to mind then bring up a new topic. Just pick one of the approaches that you'd use to start a new conversation. You could ask a new question, or comment on a piece of news you heard recently. You could even use the dreaded, "...Soooo..... uh.... seen any good movies lately?"
People can 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. Most of the time it's totally fine to shift gears if the current tangent has run its course. 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.
Summarize the last thing the other person said
This is an option if they spoke last, and it didn't immediately spark anything you could add. If you paraphrase what they said it may prompt them to expand on it. Saying it out loud may also cause you to think of a comment you could make about it. For example, "... So, yeah, you were saying you don't have any big plans for the weekend, but may run some errands?" They may go into more detail about their chores, or you may think, "Duh, I can tell them about my own weekend."
Comment on the silence
I don't mean to say something like, "Wow..... this sure is awkward. Can't think of anything to say.... nope....." or "Why are you all being so quiet?" Depending on why the silence occurred, sometimes it can be appropriate to make a casual observation about it. For example:
- If a lull settles in because everyone was kidding around, and then one person made a funny, but very random joke, you could say, "Ha ha, I guess there's not much anyone can say to continue off from that."
- If everyone just exhausts a particular topic you could comment, "Hm, well it looks like we've come to the end of that thread" and then say something to take the discussion in a new direction.
- If you say something and it seems the other person can't think of anything to say in response, you could go, "Ah, I guess you haven't thought about that. Anyway, did you hear that..."
- If someone says something that everyone needs time to digest, after a bit of silence you could say, "Yeah, that's an interesting point. My mind's mulling over it right now...."
Take the opportunity to exit the conversation
If you were planning on ending the conversation soon anyway a quick silence can provide your opening to get going. Before the lull goes on for too long, take charge and say something like, "Anyway, I'll let you get back to what you were doing..." or, "Anyway, it was good running into you. I'll catch you later...."
Even if you weren't intending to leave, in some situations, like parties and networking events, there's nothing stopping you from exiting a conversation as soon as it starts feeling awkward by pretending you meant for it to be quick all along. Be careful though, as bailing from conversations early too often can become a bad habit that reinforces avoidance and prevents you from practicing how to recover from a lull and carry on.
Understand how to handle the feeling of being on the spot in conversations
As this article talks about, some conversations are more conducive to creating a pressured, on the spot feeling than others. If you suddenly run into someone in the elevator you're going to have a harder time making natural, relaxed conversation than if you were both chilling out and watching TV. Just knowing this can happen, and that feeling caught off guard can increase the likelihood of you struggling to think of things to say, can help in navigating it. .
Know how to deal with your mind going blank
Sometimes silences occur because your mind freezes up on you. It's a common social issue. This article covers some short and long-term ways to address it:
When Your Mind Goes Blank, Or You Can Only Think Slowly, In Social Situations