How to Avoid Awkward Conversations for the Analytical Mind
You push your chair back and heave a sigh.
It took you long enough, but your fourteen-hour programming binge wasn’t in vain. You completed your project and feel totally satisfied. What’s next?
You look around; do you tell your colleagues about your accomplishment? Naaah, you’re still mentally plugged into your workflow.
Oh right, and tonight you have that party. Not feeling like any interaction yet, though.
Man, this time you don’t want to make a complete ass out of yourself. Why can socializing turn awkward so fast? Why does it always feel like so much trouble?
The truth is, socializing can be hard.
It doesn’t help if you have to quickly switch from your digital working paradigm to IRL interactions. You need some time to readjust.
Totally understandable. After finishing 20,000 Krabby Patties, your local burger flipper is not very sociable either.
Still, though… Why does conversation become awkward way too often?
And for crying out loud, why are soft skills becoming more important in a world that is increasingly digitalized?
If you are a more rational and analytical person, socializing can seem like an enigma. Chatting with colleagues, networking, and making friends seem so illogical—unnatural even.
It just doesn’t make sense, and somehow you make everything awkward.
Having conversation should be easy. How hard could it be to have fun talking with colleagues or meeting new people? How can you feel free when talking to people? How does one keep a conversation flowing without nagging anxiety before and during a conversation?
You just want to feel confident while talking. It may seem impossible, but it’s easier than you think. But first, we need to look at the common barriers and errors that cause awkwardness and begin to understand how to overcome them.
1. The Challenge of Initial Anxiety
Most people are anxious when meeting new people. Initiating or holding a conversation can freak you out. No matter how motivated you might be, you grow paralyzed by anxiety just thinking of the interaction.
Anxiety makes conversation hard and awkward, leaving others clueless of what’s the matter, if it even comes to that. Most people won’t ask or take the time to understand, and you certainly won’t be offering any ready answers because your anxiety won’t allow it. It’s a vicious cycle.
Having an inability to initiate conversation, blanking out, or nervously rambling obviously sucks. To become socially fluent, you need to sidestep this mental quicksand.
What to Do About It
Put your fears in perspective. By rationally analyzing and breaking them down. Go through the process of imagining worst-case scenarios. Imagine what will happen if you talk to people and it doesn’t go well. What is the worst that can happen? Compare that to the worst thing that can happen every time you get into a car.
Being accepted by people isn’t life or death as it was historically. In ancient times, being isolated from your tribe likely meant death, so we evolved to have an emotionally heavy investment toward social interaction. That’s why we experience that gripping fear when we consider the possibility of an unsuccessful social encounter.
Compare total isolation and consequent death to losing some social status. If you look at it rationally, you see that your anxiety is exaggerated at least a tiny bit in our contemporary context.
With that in mind, learn to gradually expose yourself to more socializing. Start small. Through practice you will lose anxiety and gain charm. Start learning to smile at new people. Try smiling at one person a day, then two, until you smile at ten strangers a day.
Later on, you can begin to say “Hi”, ask how people are, have small chats, and ask people out. Gradually, you’ll train your social muscle.
2. Timidity and Silence
Being timid and silent in conversation doesn’t really help, either. You are overcome by nerves, have no clue what to say, and are feeling judged all the time despite wanting to have a nice conversation!
To avoid any potential judgment, you stay silent, meekly answering with two-word sentences, asking no questions, and not really contributing to the conversation. This causes said conversation to come to a screeching halt, making others want to leave.
You really need to speak up. Being silent may seem “comfortable” for you during a conversation, but if others are the only ones showing assertiveness, they get tired and bored, which makes it less likely they’ll want to talk to you again.
What to Do About It
Memorize and practice some openers before you meet people. Practice these in front of the mirror to get the feeling of saying them. Say them 10 times, 100 times, or 1,000 times, or as much as you need to make it feel easy and comfortable. No matter how weird it may feel at first, try it.
By practicing with your mirror image, you gain experience that will help you in real situations. Start practicing easy openers. Nothing fancy, just simple.
“Hi, how are you?”
“Hi, who are you? I am [player 1].”
“Hi, I don’t believe we’ve met.”
After an initial greeting, try remembering people’s names. A small trick is to repeat the name you just heard. Like: “ Hi [player 2], nice to meet you.”
Next, prepare a few go-to questions to ask. To get to know your conversation partner, practice and use some of these positively-framed questions:
“So tell me, what is your story?”
“Hey, I love your [item with genuinely cool feature]. Where did you get it?”
“What was the highlight of your week?”
“What personal passion project are you working on right now?”
When people answer, and their answer is short, incomplete, or unclear, follow up. Ask more with good “why” questions.
“Why did you feel that way?”
“Why did you do that?”
“Why did you make that choice?”
There is always more to the story. Feel free to be interested and ask!
In preparation for socializing, have a few go-to stories or anecdotes about your life. Prepare some small narratives that are emotionally appealing. Make them funny, sad, enraging, or whatever is emotionally engaging.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what your awesome stories are, but I am sure you can come up with some. Think of memories that affected you the most in the moment.
Train yourself in advance. Start with the mirror, and then maybe with people you trust. After these preparations, it is much easier to overcome your shyness in social situations. With practice, your timidity will fade over time.
3. Weak Body Language
It’s not all in what you say.
How a message is sent often says more than the words themselves. How you communicate and display yourself is a message in and of itself.
Making poor eye contact, having bad posture, and displaying closed-off body language causes discomfort because you’re signaling that you are not relaxed. The result is that your well-meant message is ill-received.
No matter how good your literal communication may be, bad body language causes a visceral reaction in other people that will warp the meaning of your words and create uncomfortable situations.
Learning to avoid sending off these non-verbal communications is not the only important thing to remember when it comes to body language. You also need to read the messages conveyed by others’ behavior.
When you are oblivious to these signals, it can be very awkward or even insulting!
What to Do About It
Start studying and applying body language strategies.
There are many books, videos, and other sources you can reference. These resources explain how body language works: what postures display what meaning, how they are perceived, and why we use these signals.
Watch how people display body language around you in real life. Apply what you learned, analyze, and deduce what they implicitly communicate. Along the way you’ll learn how people feel and how to relate and communicate better given the circumstances.
Practice using the postures that convey the emotions you actually want to convey. Doubtful? Check out the second most-watched TED Talk ever. It explains how your neural pathways work in both directions. Experiencing emotions leads to certain postures. On the other hand, consciously applying a posture will make you feel the corresponding emotion.
So, if you don’t feel confident, automatically you will slump, hunch your shoulders, and lower your gaze. But if you stand up straight and lift your head up, you will feel more confident and energized.
When you start making better use of your posture, voice, and expressions, you’ll become conscious of how you feel and how others perceive you differently. With enough practice, you’ll eventually get to a place where you can understand and express yourself on an instinctual level.
4. Thinking Everyone Notices Everything You Do
Our egotistical, pattern-seeking brain is amazing.
Ever feel like everything you do gets noticed?
All your little stutters, hesitations, and fidgeting. You think people will see, judge, and stop respecting you, and that possibility makes you even more nervous.
Of course, most people won’t actually notice a thing.
Ultimately, you’ll feel uncomfortable, which you think others will pick up on and in turn make them feel uneasy. All of this causes socializing to be more difficult for you.
What to Do About It
First of all, know that most people are thinking about how they are portraying themselves. Your little idiosyncrasies are not on their radar. Even when people do notice, they’re often too preoccupied with themselves to care.
So it’s all pretty relative what gets picked up on. Your conversation partner is at least as self-conscious as you are. They are focusing on their own problems.
The best strategy is to focus on others instead of yourself.
Stop being self-centered. Shift your focus to others. Show interest and give others your undivided attention. Ask questions, look people in the eyes, and listen to their stories.
By focusing on them, you will stop noticing yourself and will make others more comfortable, which will make you more comfortable.
By leaning in and connecting to others, you will be less obsessive over irrelevant actions, and will find that there was no reason to worry in the first place.
5. Not Listening/Being Present During a Conversation
Do you sometimes listen to someone talk, but instead of truly listening, you let your mind race and try to think of what to say next? Or maybe your mental chatter is prattling on about totally unrelated stuff?
You are not the only one with an overly active mind. Unfortunately, others do notice you are not really listening, which can make them annoyed or even offended. In a conversation, you need to be present with your social counterpart, and not distracted by inner dialogue all the time.
What to Do About It
While someone else is talking, start focusing on what the other is saying—listen! Really listen. Getting distracted in your head? Remind yourself to pay attention again. Try to find what message someone is implicitly sending—and consider why they’re sending it.
When s/he is finished, take the time to process this information. Just pause for a bit. Be silent—no problem with that. Comprehend their message, process it, and then respond in a considerate manner.
Not enough input for your overexcited brain to just listen? Focus on your breathing as well. The in, out, in, out rhythm. Use this semi-meditative technique to stay present and be attentive to the dialogue.
6. Making a Bad First Impression
First impressions matter. We make an almost instant judgment call of others’ characters based on a first impression.
Screwing this up will leave you disabled for the rest of the interaction. You can redeem yourself, but it takes a lot of time and effort.
Most people don’t realize how conveying yourself positively initially will have lasting benefits. Going in without a clear intent—or no way of knowing why and how to present yourself—will diminish the chances of making a good impression.
Sure, some people can wing it, but most of the time they’ve had a lot of practice. If you’re not exactly smooth, then there’s a sure chance you’ll make a sub-optimal impression.
What to Do About It
Before you have a meeting, gathering, or party, think about what you are there to do. Why are you meeting people?
Do you just want to hang out, meet someone specific, or need to have a confrontation? Also, how do you want to be perceived?
Think about what your intent is.
Get that crystal clear. Know it and live it in your head so you can prepare mentally. Prepare what you want to learn, what to say, and how to approach the situation.
If you need some confidence and good vibes to support you, boost your self-esteem and positivity in advance. Do exercises to get in a positive and relaxed frame of mind. Work out, do power poses, meditate, play a video game, take a cold shower, or whatever helps you get into that state.
Then, go in with conviction. You know what you are there to to do. You prepared your right state of mind. Go make an awesome first impression.
7. Failing to Find Common Interests
Superficial talk is easy.
And not very interesting.
What we social animals long for is connection. This is what makes for a satisfactory dialogue, but you might be missing out on that satisfaction.
Why? What is the matter? You somehow can’t find a way to bond. There doesn’t seem to be a common denominator. Without substance to bond over, an extended conversation gets stale pretty fast, and can even turn awkward.
What to Do About It
Well, why don’t you look for overlapping interests? Become a verbal adventurer and start asking explorational questions. Scout and investigate for other people’s interests.
Ask what people do in their free time, what they like reading or watching, what food they eat, what sports they enjoy, and so on.
Furthermore, share your likes and dislikes. How else do you expect others to find common ground?
In the end, you’ll bond best through sharing vulnerabilities. It is hard. It can be hella uncomfortable, but it is also the thing that makes people connect: “I can’t believe you feel that way, too.”
Why do you think internet memes are so popular? It’s because they allow people to bond over something that is often left unsaid in normal life.
The release of tension and opening of character is what bonding over something common feels like.
8. Ego: Being a Know-It-All
Some people always have to prove themselves.
Many people have the delusion that they are superior to others.
Maybe you are a person that is always getting into these pissing contests. Always wanting to be right, always needing to be the wittiest, or being a know-it-all in general.
Let’s be honest—this need is mostly insecurity.
Maybe you are the wittiest, the smartest, or the moral apex of the world. However, always displaying your supposed “superiority” is annoying as hell.
It can ruin moods, conversations, and relationships.
What to Do About It
Learn to be okay with not always having a closing argument. Even though you may always be right, drop this compulsion to feel like the smartest person in the room.
Just take a deep breath, let it go, and let other people have the stage. Insisting on showing how “good” you are often communicates the opposite.
Stop seeing everything as a big competition. It doesn’t matter if you are not always the smartest.
Instead, learn to be open-minded. Listen to what people have to say. People, however stupid or ignorant they might seem, will always have something you can learn from.
Focus on these hidden values. Maybe it’s a new perspective or a blind spot in your own reasoning. Or you can learn how other people might think or display empathy and kindness. Ask questions, seek to understand, and learn.
Besides, you will convince people way more easily through understanding than by spraying them with your arguments.
Most importantly, seek to understand your need to constantly prove yourself. Why is it that you need to feel superior? Uncover your hidden anxiety and find a way to handle it.
9. Constant Rambling
Are you a rambler? Do you just keep talking and talking? Do you stumble through a solid stream of words because you are overly excited, overcome by anxiety, or afraid of silences?
You may not even notice this behavior. But if you are the only one talking, you prevent others from enjoying the conversation. You might do this unconsciously. By stumbling through words and half-finished sentences, you try to make sense of yourself. People are not that charmed, though. Everyone wants to take part in the conversation.
What to Do About It
Try to focus on listening and asking questions. Shift the focus from your talking and focus on their words instead. Listen two-thirds of the time, and limit your narrative to the remaining third. Being a good listener is the best way to have a fulfilling dialogue.
Be present when people talk. Focus on others and what they say explicitly and implicitly.
When it’s your turn to talk, pace yourself. Talk slowly. If you think you talk too slow, you probably still talk too fast.
Actively integrate pauses. Don’t jump in and out of sentences. When listening, actively wait a few seconds before responding. First, comprehend and process what you heard. Only then should you move on.
From Theory to Practice
As you can see, there are numerous ways to make situations uncomfortable. However, with a little preparation, focus, and genuine interest, your social interactions will become easier and easier.
Use this advice to train your social muscle, so you can feel free and enjoy yourself while socializing. Applying these skills will lead to more success and enjoyment in your personal and professional world.
And who knows? Maybe next time we’ll be having a stimulating discussion face-to-face!
I’m looking forward to it.