5 Tips for Surviving Awkward Conversations

No high-falutin’ head-in-the-clouds speculatin’ in this post. Nope, this gets into the nitty-gritty of what it’s really like to love, which means, on occasion, you have to have one of those conversations. You know, theone where you say (or are told) We need to talk.

cuz there’s a Socially Awkward Penguin inside all of us…

You know, when a loved one says that, it’s not going to be fun. They’re not concerned about what movie you’re going to choose next, or what color to paint the kitchen. No, We need to talk implies that there is something Wrong with the world, specifically in the affairs of the heart.

It means the game of love has to call a time out and check in with all the players. Because the referee just slam-dunked a field goal behind the sticky wicket and it caused a wardrobe malfunction that the underwater cameras couldn’t help but broadcast and who let all these horses into the pool anyway?

If you’re smugly holding a six-card full house and your partner gives a triumphant shout of “Blackjack!” as they slap the dominoes on the table, you may have a need for an Awkward Conversation.

Can’t Go Over It, Can’t Get Around It, Gotta Go Thru It

I’ve had, in my opinion, more than my share of those kinds of conversations. Blame it on an active mind and an attempt at an open heart, but if I had a nickel for every awkward conversation I’ve ever had…well, I’d have a few nickels. However, I’ve noticed that while the frequency of awkward conversations has not lessened (and no, thank you, I don’t want to examine why that is) the level of awkwardicity in each has tended to lessen.

At least, it does when I’m able to follow these five rules. Guidelines, if you will. Feel free to poke at them, dismiss them, ridicule them, or adopt them wholeheartedly.

  1. Make Time – Remember that post on Wednesday about being Time-Bound? Well, this is a time to allocate a big chunk of time – preferably open-ended – and just let everything else go. If you have a meeting in an hour, or your favorite TV show is on later, let it go. The more you try to constrain an Awkward Conversation, the more it will insist on showing you just how awkward it can become.
  2. Make Neutral Space – If a conversation has the potential to be about awkward, uncomfortable, or downright painful, it’s not a good idea to do it in a place that you’d rather have associated with happy memories. For example, the bed? Bad idea. In fact, the house may be a bad idea. On the other hand, airing out your feelings in a restaurant or having to shout them out at a bar can also be awkward. Best bet? A long walk through a park, with the opportunity to stop at a bench or something.

    However, don’t choose That Special Place that you both loved to visit together. You want to make sure to find a neutral space. Being in your own space may be comfortable for you, but it puts your partner at a disadvantage, and vice versa. It’s best if either of you has the ability to leave the situation if it becomes too awkward, and if it’s your room, leaving the other person there makes things, shall we say, awkward-er. If things go badly, you want to be able to avoid that place and the associated memories without any problem.

  3. Pay Attention – If there was ever a time to turn off the cel, unplug the tv, put down the controller and ignore the instant messenger, this is it. It’s hard to resist the urge to live-tweet – the twitterverse gives us the illusion of a zillion supporters just waiting to help us through this time – but when you’re in the awkward conversation, it’s best to be in it. I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t want to, because of course you will. But this is the time for delayed gratification. You can facebook all you want later; that’s what it’s there for, and if you subscribe to the practice of Relationship Status posts all you might have to do is make one change to receive a deluge of Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that! 

    So focus on the person who’s talking. Practice listening, not just hearing, and give them as much importance as you’d like them to give you when it’s your turn to talk.

  4. Remember RENT: “There is no future. There is no past.”This is semi-related to number three, but only tangentially. In any conversation, there is a tendency to finish the other person’s sentences, to jump ahead to what you’re sure they’re going to say, to already have crafted your glib, poignant, and oh-so-cleverly-eloquent response before they’re done with the introductory So here’s what I think

    You gotta let that go. Basically, make a rule: no interrupting. Likewise, for the duration of the conversation, you have to accept that whatever you thought the past meant as well whatever you thought the future held may be completely changed by the end of this awkward conversation. It may not be fair, it may not even be true, but it is the nature of Awkward Conversations that they often change the status quo. Holding on to pre- or post-conceptions is a good way to get run over by reality. So be in the present, address the issues the Awkward Conversation was created to address, and accept that you’ll be able to live in whatever world has been created by it.

  5. Assume the Best Intentions. When your current world-view has the possibility of change in some aspect – your money, your job, your relationship, your faith in the combined intelligence of the Congressional Science Committee – it’s very, very hard to not feel threatened. Attacked, even. Awkward Conversations imply some dissonance in the way things are that needs to be resolved; this means there will be some conflict, and in any real conflict, there is the chance that you won’t win.

    However, if you are having the Awkward Conversation at all, it means that there is some basis for an assumption of good intention on the part of the other. They care about you enough to have the conversation in the first place; for every Awkward Conversation that people have, there’s a dozen that were avoided in favor of just leaving. Try to hold that idea in your head: the person talking with you is also scared, frustrated, in the same place of uncertainty that you are, and the things they say are coming from a mixture of all that fear plus all that caring about you.

    This often results in a muddled, angry mess, of course, and things will be said that hurt, that aren’t what you really mean, or that are what you really mean but that you didn’t intend to say. Accept that in a spirit of working towards a place of understanding, and it will be easier to survive the slings and arrows of outrage.

There are other good strategies, of course, and the comments section is a great place to tell me about the ones I’ve missed. Frankly, if you can manage to put any three of the ones above into common practice I think you’ll reduce the level of Awkward in your conversations by a significant (perhaps even exponential) level.

However, if you’re looking to figure out how to avoid having them in the first place…well, that’ll have to be found on some blog other than mine. Life is messy; if you live it, it’s gonna get Awkward.

Grace, that only comes with practice. And that’s Monday.

2 thoughts on “5 Tips for Surviving Awkward Conversations”

  1. Love the “Assume the best intentions.” That one got me into a lot of trouble when I was young. Couple it with “the other person can NOT read your mind,” and my early attempts at relationships would have been a lot smoother.

    I’d throw in a “Fight Fair” clause as well. Defensiveness, frustration, and anger often crop up during the awkward We Need To Talk. Fighting fairly can keep you or your S.O. from shutting down. That Thing We Always Fight About can come up but only in the context of delving deeper (I’m sure Fighting Fair could be a whole blog post). The “Pay Attention” tip helps a ton in this case as well. Be there in the present, not in a past fight or hurt.

  2. 1- Have a plan. What do you specifically want to talk about? In what order? What important points do you need to hit? Write it down. Refer to it in the conversation. Yes, I have brought and used a cheat sheet for important talks. It helps keep you on topic and, if you get nervous and your brain locks up, oh hey that’s what I needed to say.

    2- State your intentions for the conversation from the beginning. “I’m hoping this interaction will help me get over X, understand Y, help me get past Z, clear up K confusion.” If the person knows why you need to talk, they are less likely to make the ‘oh no’ leaps. (They want to yell/break up with me. They are blaming/attacking me for something. I must defend defend defend.)

    3- Use lots of I-statements. Avoid you-sentences. “I felt X when I saw you with him,” as opposed to “You made me feel X when you were hanging out them.”

    4- Prepare for both positive and negative outcomes. I, who am highly optimistic for everyone else in my life, am incredibly pessimistic for my own circumstance. I think about all the ways things could go wrong, horribly wrong. But, thanks to my friends who pointed out my preparation flaw, I now think about all the ways things could go right. Either way, walking into the awkwardness, you a have base prep for how you will react, no matter the outcome.

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