16 Tips to Cope with Awkward Conversations

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Cope with awkward conversations by planning ahead, brushing up on your social skills, and knowing when to use a bit of humor. Although awkward conversations may seem difficult, they can be good opportunities to practice making small talk and handling conflict—especially for those with social anxiety disorder (SAD).

  1. Understand the awkwardness. Manage the situation by getting a grasp on the cause of your unease. Perhaps there are lots of long silences or maybe the other person has a strong opinion different than yours. Identify the reason for the awkwardness, and you will be one step closer to finding a solution. If the other person has just dropped a bombshell, it's okay to say something like, "I am just thinking about what you said," to give yourself time to digest the information.
  1. Keep the conversation flowing. There is a reason why long silences can make you feel uncomfortable. A 2010 study from the University of Groningen, The Netherlands, titled "Disrupting the flow: How brief silences in group conversations affect social needs," published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Research showed that fluent conversations lead to feelings of self-esteem, social validation, and belonging to a group. Do as much as you can to keep the conversation going, and both you and your conversation partner will feel more at ease.
  2. Find the humor. If a conversation has gotten awkward, consider doing something to lighten the mood. You can do this by telling a funny joke or story, poking fun at yourself, or finding the humor in your current situation.

    Keeping the mood light will help to break the ice and move the conversation forward. If you are stuck for a conversation starter you can even use a joke to introduce yourself, such as "How much does a polar bear weigh? Just enough to break the ice."
  1. Agree to compromise. Sometimes conversations are awkward because of disagreements. In these situations, always try to find a compromise. Practice empathy toward the other person, and try to understand how he views the situation differently than you. Doing so may allow you to accept his viewpoint without having to change your own.
  1. Listen and paraphrase. If you don't know what to say in a conversation, try simply reflecting back what you hear from the other person. If a new acquaintance at school is upset about a poor grade on an assignment, say something like "It sounds like you are really upset about your grade on that project." Often people simply want to know that their feelings are acknowledged rather than be offered solutions to their problems. Doing so also relieves you of the pressure of trying to think of what to say next.

    Spend more time listening and thinking about what is being said, than preparing what you are going to say. Ask others for their opinions rather than assuming everyone feels the same way as you, and be quick to stop talking about something if you sense it makes others uncomfortable.
  2. Ask a question. Perhaps you are in a conversation that is awkward because you really don't know anything about the other person. In these situations, it's best to ask questions to try and find mutual interests that can turn into conversations.

    If you know that you will be in a situation where you will be talking to strangers, try to plan at least three open-ended "go-to" questions (that start with "how" or "what") that you can use if you get into a sticky situation. For example, if you find yourself beside the punchbowl talking to an uncle you haven't seen in several years, ask something like "What keeps you busy these days?"

    Questions can also be asked to delve deeper into a topic that was discussed earlier in a conversation, to clarify misunderstandings, and to show that you are actively listening to the other person. Just be careful not to ask too many questions in a row, or you may come across as an interrogator.
  1. Offer a new topic. New discussion topics are perfect for lulls in conversation. Have a few of these handy and ready to bring out the next time you sense nobody else has anything to say. Some examples of topics include popular television shows, something that you all have in common (such as an upcoming test at school), and current events. Be sure that the topic you introduce is something that will appeal to your conversation partners.

    New topics are also perfect for small talk with strangers. Even mundane things such as the weather can be a great way to break the ice. If you know that you will be in a situation where you will have to make conversation with strangers, you might even consider doing some detective work to find out who you will meet and prepare some questions tailored to their interests. Offering a genuine compliment (about a clothing item or hairstyle, for example) is also a great way to talk about something new.
  2. Be assertive. If you find yourself in a conversation with a person who is rude, who has asked you something inappropriate, or has made you uncomfortable, it is important to stand up for yourself. Take control by saying something assertive, such as "I would rather not discuss that."

    If you find yourself the target of a difficult person, steer the conversation away toward a new topic and a new individual. Be careful not to keep uncomfortable feelings to yourself—or you may risk ending up resentful and bitter in the long run.
  3. Keep quiet. Not all situations call for conversation. While it is true that fluent talk among friends builds camaraderie, if you find yourself in public settings with strangers, talking isn't always necessary. Your seatmate on the bus or plane might not be interested in making small talk the whole trip—and that's perfectly fine. If the other person gives a lot of one-word responses, and folds her arms or leans away, those are signals that she may prefer just to stay quiet.
  4. Deal with awkward topics. Use tact to manage situations that are awkward because of what has been said. Steer the conversation in a different direction by saying something like, "Oh that's interesting. You know what else I heard the other day?" and continue talking about the less-sensitive topic.

    If someone interjects an awkward comment in the middle of an ongoing conversation, consider pausing for a brief silence, and then continuing the original line of discussion, rather than addressing what was said (also known as "saving face" for the person who made the misstep).

    Other ways to handle awkward topics are to remain silent or be upfront that you are feeling uncomfortable. Say something like, "I'm not really one for gossip, it makes me feel a bit uneasy because I wouldn't want others talking about me like that. Could we talk about something else?" Awkward topics can sometimes even be what is left unsaid.

    If someone is grieving a loss or there is a family dispute, it may form an undercurrent and create awkwardness in a conversation. Often the best ways to handle these situations is to get it out in the open—in a kind and compassionate way. Say something like, "I am so sorry for your loss. You must be having a hard time right now." However, if emotions are still very strong (such as in a family dispute) it might be best not to spend too much time acknowledging the issue, or you risk opening up old problems.

    Awkward topics can also include those where you have something to ask or a troublesome topic that you need to discuss. If you know that you will be having an awkward situation of this nature, try to give the other person warning so that he is not taken by surprise. Let that person know you have something important to discuss and set a time to do so.
  5. Exit gracefully. If there really is nothing else left to say, or you have some other reason for wanting to leave a conversation, be prepared and plan to do it gracefully. Always thank the other person for taking the time to talk. If someone is monopolizing your time and won't let you end the conversation, use an excuse such as needing to get another drink, as a reason for exiting.
  6. Be understanding. Not everyone is a social butterfly who loves making conversation. Some people may suffer with shyness or social anxiety, and take longer to warm up in new situations and with new people. If someone feels nervous around you because she doesn't know you, be kind and understanding.

    If the other person suffers with social anxiety disorder, it may be fear or panic that is causing the awkwardness between you. People with SAD are afraid of being embarrassed in front of others, and it affects how they live their daily lives. Don't judge someone who appears awkward, nervous, or afraid. Instead, be friendly, show a genuine interest by listening carefully, and find a topic of mutual interest, to help make that person feel more comfortable.
  7. Manage your own social anxiety. If conversations are awkward because of your own shyness or social anxiety, do what you can to manage these feelings. Practice social skills, read self-help books about overcoming shyness and social anxiety, and see a therapist if your anxiety is severe and interfering with your life. You owe it to yourself and your future conversation partners to get a handle on your feelings.
  8. Explain awkward endings. Sometimes conversations get cut short. Rather than ignore that a conversation ended awkwardly, apologize or acknowledge the situation the next time you talk with that particular person. Explain the reason why you had to leave and how it was not personal. For those with social anxiety, explaining that sometimes social situations can be overwhelming can go a long way toward putting the other person at ease.
  9. End with a summary. It's important to end conversations with a summary and a future plan. For example, you might say something like, "It was great talking about all the marathons you've participated in. Perhaps next time we are together we can plan for when I start training myself." This structured type of ending to a conversation helps to bring things to a natural close but also lead into future discussions.
  10. Help solve problems. Help someone solve a problem and the awkwardness between you will easily dissolve. Asking a friend for advice is another great way to keep conversations interesting and flowing. Talking about problems and solutions can take a long time—and give you something to check up on the next time you see someone.


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