But often, the most difficult conversations are moments within our everyday communication. So from introducing yourself to someone new to tripping over your words, we’ve pinpointed some of the most awkward conversational pratfalls and how to overcome them.
Many times, the hardest part of a conversation is starting it. When you’re dying to talk to someone but don’t know them personally, the nerves and unfamiliarity makes the next four conversational traps easier to fall into.
Fix it: By focusing on them. Charming people, writes Chris Gabroit, know how to approach someone humbly, as if they’re the most important person in the room. That isn’t insincerity; in the moment, that person is the most important person, because you’re speaking with them. And besides, everyone loves to talk about themselves.
The second hardest part of a conversation is knowing when to stop. You’re glancing at your watch, your side of the story has been reduced to nods and tiny steps backward … but the other person can’t take the hint. And you can’t get a word in to end their tirade. Does this guy ever take a breath? Or maybe you’re stuck in a loop of courtesies: “I’ll see you later!” “Okay, later it is, then!” “Alright, can’t wait!” And on and on … the face-to-face version of “You hang up … no, YOU hang up!”
Fix it: By bowing out gracefully. Adam Dachis coauthor of The Awkward Human Survival Guide, shared his tips with writer Stephanie Vozza:
If you’re at a party, excuse yourself to get a drink; if you’re at work, you can leave to get some coffee. You can also say, “It’s nice talking to you, but I have to talk to someone before they leave.” If your conversation is on the phone, end it by saying, “I’d love to catch up, but I have somewhere to be.” This will put an end to the conversation and allow you a chance to exit.
According to a 2011 Dutch study, people forced to watch a long pause in conversation were more likely to feel “distressed, afraid, hurt and rejected,” New York Magazine reported. Four seconds of silence is all it takes to make us feel uncomfortable, the study found. When much of our communication happens via text, chat and email, where the silence isn’t a palpable part of the conversation but a series of ellipsis while the other person types “When we’re talking to each other face to face, we’re communicating through our eyes and our body language and the rhythm of our voices–which soothes or scares the evolutionary history that’s alive in the back of our minds,” Drake Baer wrote earlier this year.
Fix it: By knowing when to shift to another topic. Introducing them to another nearby person resets the conversation. Having a few conversation-continuers at the ready can help. Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk, shares her go-to questions here.
You’ve managed to find a circle of acquaintances at a party, the conversation is flowing with the drinks … until you say something that seems to suck the air out of the room. You’ve been so focused on saying the right things at the right time, that your subconscious forgot to hang on to its inhibitions. “Most of the time, when we want to think something or do something or behave in a certain way, it works,” Harvard University psychologist Daniel Wegner told Wired. “But when we’re really striving for something, when we’re under extreme stress or high mental load, that’s when we tend to get these ironic effects.” Like accidentally dissing your colleague’s alma mater, or letting slip your seething disrespect for their profession.
Fix it: By apologizing as quickly as possible. Trying to smooth it over will dig the hole deeper. Own up to what you’ve said, admit the embarrassment, and say you’re sorry–without excuses. But apologize only if you care, says Dachis: “If you don’t like someone, don’t waste your time trying to make things better. Use the mistake to get rid of someone you never wanted in your life.”
When the person crashing and burning isn’t you, it can almost as painful to watch. They’re digging that hole deeper, and everyone’s standing around letting it happen.
Fix it: By diffusing the situation, and redirecting the conversation. This is a master-level move. To bail someone else out of an awkward moment by changing the subject quickly–or better yet, anticipating their outburst and doing some conversational jiu-jitsu to keep them from falling into that trap–is the work of unsung heroes. Most people are just waiting for their turn to speak, instead of listening to what’s really being discussed. Practicing active listening reveals when to intervene.