Cut the cringe; how to overcome awkward silences
Awkward silences; what’s going on?
Punch ‘awkward silences’ into any reputable search engine and you’ll likely be met by a slew of articles offering you the best tips on how to circumnavigate these uncomfortable conversational breaks. Given the surfeit, you might start wondering whether the quality of the advice you’re reading up on is legit; how can you really know if it’s bogus or bona fide?
One way to ensure the info you’re buying into is kosher is by getting an expert’s opinion. And that’s just what we’ve done. Nick Notas is one of America’s leading dating confidence consultants. Notas first dipped his toes into confidence coaching 10 years ago and has since built up a service of international standing. Although he chiefly works with improving men’s self-confidence, he admits his advice on quashing awkward silences is completely unisex.
So why does the Boston-based specialist think uncomfortable pauses arise? “It generally comes down to some form of not being present in the conversation,” he says, “more often than not it occurs when someone is inside their head, anxious about the next thing they need to say, or whether they’re impressing the other person.” Notas also reasons that this acts as a conversational block, particularly as you start “missing all the little nuances and social queues that you can build conversation from”.
Notas goes on to use an example from the clients he works with to pad out his assessment. “For the people I work with, it’s almost always a self-security issue in that moment,” he says “people worry that if they’re not saying the next best thing, something interesting or coming up with the perfect question, they’re going to get rejected.”
Notas’ judgment that rejection is central to people’s perceived fear of awkward silences chimes with a 2011 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Fronted by Namkje Koudenburg and her colleagues at the University of Groningen, the study found that uninterrupted conversations are connected with feelings of belonging and self-esteem, whereas those bedraggled by brief silences conjure up negative emotions and feelings of rejection.
Crucially, the Dutch researchers reasoned that our aversion to lengthy lulls stems from a much more visceral dread. Over the course of our evolutionary history, sensitivity to signs of rejection developed to prevent us from being excluded from a group – something that would’ve most likely been life-or-death situation thousands of years ago. Luckily for us, awkward silences don’t have such severe consequences nowadays. Nevertheless, they still elicit unpleasant feelings. How do we get the better of them?
Breaking the cycle
Granted, skirting around the abyss of an awkward silence is easier said than done. Notas says that the key realization is to spot the cyclicality of the situation before it spirals out of control, otherwise “you’re making a mountain out of a molehill”. “You effectively build up this issue, because you’re worried about it, which makes you spin inside your head in the moment, which in turn makes you less of a conversationalist,” he says, “it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
How about some practical guidelines for when you’re caught up in the moment? Fortunately Notas is armed with a bounty of actionable tips that can be implemented as soon as the conversation splutters to an uncomfortable halt. “The first step is slowing down, which seems counter intuitive,” he says, “but when you experience a massive amount of stress all of a sudden you’re not feeling what was happening in the conversation, nor what your genuine opinion is.”
Notas says that rather than having a free form and organic conversation, you start clutching at arbitrary strings, or as he puts it “you start trying to manufacture ideas that are often at odds with one each other”. Instead, Notas suggests taking a few seconds to recompose yourself: “Take a deep breath, grab your drink, smile, drop your shoulders and take that conscious pressure off. Quite often this fixes the issue and five seconds later you remember what’s been said and how you wanted to contribute to it.”
If the reset doesn’t work and you’re really struggling to get conversation flowing, Notas has another, slightly unconventional tactic. “If you really can’t come up with something, it’s super easy once or twice in a conversation to say ‘hey, where did we leave off’ or ‘what did you just ask, sorry it slipped my mind’,” he says.
To the uninitiated or the shy, this seems like a calamitous idea. Notas doesn’t think so. “A lot of people are terrified of owning up or showing vulnerability, you could think it will make the other person think you’re weird,” he says, “but if you say it with a sense of comfort there’s often no problem and you jump right back in.”
Above all Notas is certain that awkward silences are shaped by our own misperceptions. “If you get a silence and your gut reaction is that it’s something terrible, you’ll build that fight or flight response and want to eject,” he says. The trick is bolstering the status quo instead: “If you look comfortable, relaxed or even if admit that you didn’t know what was said, the person you’re talking to won't perceive it as an awkward silence, they’re just going to view it as a pause in the conversation,” says Notas.
Above all, Notas’ formula for mastering the art of conversation is a straightforward one in practice. “It’s about realizing it doesn’t have to be awkward, changing your physiology and taking a break so that you give yourself a natural moment to respond,” he says, before adding with a laugh “and then hit an eject button if you really need it!”