How to avoid awkward silence (1)

How to Avoid Awkward Silence

By David Morin & Viktor Sander | Last updated: August 13, 2019

In this guide, you’ll learn what to do when the conversation goes silent and you don’t know what to say.

My name is Viktor Sander (B.Sc., B.A. with a major in Psychology), I’ve helped people improve their communication for over 12 years.

Here are my 18 best tips to avoid awkward silence:

1. 3 lifeline-questions to ask when it’s awkward (that works in any situation)

Here are two phrases that are almost universal. If you don’t come up with anything else – fire these off.

Lifeline-question 1: Where are you from?

This one is great to use at the beginning of a conversation because it’s a natural thing to ask and it helps you to get a grasp of who the other person is.

Lifeline-question 2: Did you hear that [Insert anything newsworthy]?

You can use this one no matter what you were just talking about, and you can refer to anything you’ve heard in the news, or anything newsworthy related to where you are.

  • Did you hear that they will hire more people?
  • Did you hear about the robbery here last week?
  • Have you heard about the new owners?

Lifeline-question 3: “How do you know people here?”

This one is perfect at a party or social event. It’s usually one of the first questions to ask when you meet someone new at any kind of social event.

2. When you think the other person is waiting for you to say something – they’re probably thinking the same thing

When there’s an awkward silence, the other person might be panicking just as much or more than you.

It can feel like they are waiting for you to say something and thinking about how awkward you are.

But in reality, they might think that the awkward silence is THEIR fault.

You’re not the only one who blames yourself. The other person can go blank in their head, give too short answers, forget to ask a follow-up question, or even just don’t know how to keep the conversation going.[6]

And regardless of whose “fault” it is, people try to solve the silence themselves – they’re NOT waiting for you to do it.

The next time there’s an awkward silence, remember this:

No need to panic, they aren’t waiting for you. The other person isn’t expecting you to fix the conversation; they’re just desperately trying to come up with something to say.

3. Give more than bare minimum answers

When we’re self-conscious, we tend to keep our thoughts and opinions to themselves. This makes us appear reserved and stiff.

If we give bare minimum answers, like just answering “yes” or “no”, it’s hard for the other person to keep it interesting. It forces them to do all the creative work for the conversation. And if we don’t contribute with anything, it can seem like we don’t want to talk.

To keep a conversation going, the other person needs some input from us so they can relate. The more info you give in your answer, the easier it is for them to either relate or ask an interesting follow-up question.

Examples of what not to say if you want to avoid awkward silence:

 + Do you work or study? 

 – I study. 

 + What’s your favorite food? 

 – Pizza. 

Examples of what to say in an awkward silence to keep a conversation going:

 + Do you work or study? 

 – I study Computer science at our local University. I’m on my final year now. 

 + What’s your favorite food? 

 – Neapolitan style Pizza, it reminds me of when I went to Italy last fall. 

4. Talk about feelings and opinions instead of facts

To most people, feelings, likes, dislikes, and opinions are more interesting than facts. Make it a habit to get to know the other person’s thoughts and feelings on the topic you’re talking about.

Asking questions about topics people aren’t interested in is like biking uphill, but asking questions about something they can connect to emotionally makes the conversation flow without effort. And there’s nothing people are more emotionally invested in than things closely connected to their identity.

Things to talk about that people are emotionally connected to:

  • Their future plans
    • What’s your plan for the summer?
    • What are your future plans after […]?
  • Their personality/identity
    • Do you prefer a party or a chill hangout?
    • Are you more introverted or extroverted?
  • Their previous experiences
    • Did you get exhausted hiking so far or what did it feel like?
    • How was your vacation?
    • What did you think about the movie?
  • Their accomplishments
    • Did you have a specific diet plan to succeed so well with your weight loss?
    • What’s something you’re proud of having done this year?
  • Their interests
    • How do you usually spend your free time?
    • What kind of music do you mainly listen to?
    • What’s your favorite movie?
  • Their dreams
    • Where would you like to live?
    • What’s your dream job?
  • Their jobs (if they love it)
    • What do you like best about your job?
    • What made you choose your career path?
  • Their children or grandchildren
    • Do you have any children/grandchildren?
    • How old are your children/grandchildren?
    • What do you best like doing with your children/grandchildren?
  • Their lives
    • How did you like living in [city/country]?
    • Do you have any pets?

These questions shouldn’t be asked out of the blue; they should be connected to what you’re currently talking about.

These are questions you can ask after the initial small talk when you start the conversation. If you ask these questions too early, people might feel uncomfortable. But to truly bond and move the conversation forward, you need to involve people emotionally.

Here are many more questions to ask friends.

Research shows that people who are genuinely interested in others make friends more easily.

Ask “you-questions” to keep a conversation going

There’s something all the questions above have in common:

They all contain the word “you”.

You-questions are great to avoid awkward silence and to create an emotional connection. When you include a “you” in your questions, it makes the question more interesting to the other person. Chances are that as you ask you-questions, you’ll come across something you’ll both enjoy talking about.

5. Use earlier subjects you talked about when you run out of things to say (the “conversational threading”-method)

Let’s say that the person you were talking to said something, and you have no idea of how to build the conversation on that.

You’ve hit a wall.

Now, ask yourself what you were talking about earlier in the conversation. Then, go back to any previous subject and ask questions related to that.

Example of conversational threading

Say that the other person previously mentioned a trip to Paris, but the conversation has carried on:

– How was your weekend?

– Good. I didn’t do anything special though. (The conversation is about to hit a wall)

– I see. You said you visited Paris not too long ago, right? How was it?

You can also relate back to discussions you had last time you met:

– How was the art class you mentioned last time?

– Did you manage to get your apartment sold?

– How is Lucy doing after the surgery?

Click here to read our guide on how to make interesting conversation.

6. Awkward silence can be a sign that it’s time to end a conversation

You can’t keep all conversations going forever. Most conversations are best kept short and sweet. Dragging things out by forcing a conversation to keep going can actually be quite awkward in itself.

So, when it starts getting quiet and you’ve done your initial pleasantries and small talk, you can end the conversation politely with a nice wrap up:

  • “It was so good to see you. Hope you have a great day!”
  • “Anyway, I’ll let you get back to that. Great seeing you!”
  • “I gotta go now, see you later!”
  • “Alright! Good talking to you!”
  • “I just got here, I’m just gonna go have a look around and say hi to everyone. See you later!”
  • “I’m starving! I’m gonna go grab something to eat. See you!”
  • “I’m just gonna go use the restroom, good seeing you!”
  • If it’s appropriate, it can be good to end a conversation by exchanging business cards or contact details.

Ending a conversation is just as much about body language as what you’re saying. Match what you’re saying with your body, so if you’re about to leave, you can start turning away your body, or give them a wave or a handshake. Whatever is appropriate.

7. What you say doesn’t need to have a point

Many times when there’s an awkward silence or pause, we try to break it with a question. Sometimes, that works. But other times it just ends in another silence and you’re forced to ask question upon question to keep the conversation going.

The problem here is that we want the other person to talk so that we can get ideas on what to talk about. But the other person might feel just as awkward as you and they want YOU to talk.

When you keep asking them questions when they’re feeling awkward, you put all the pressure on them.

Do this to break the cycle of awkwardness

Start talking about something you did today or this weekend. (Stay with me, I know it sounds weird, but you’ll soon understand. I promise!)

Example:

“I had lunch over at that new sushi place today. I had tuna and salmon nigiri plus miso soup.”

This seems pointless at first. But immediately, new things to say come to me. I could talk more about sushi places, other new restaurants in town, what I thought about the food, the price, or the service. I could also ask the other person about any of these things.

But even better is to keep talking and let the other person jump in where they hear something interesting.

The point is that your story shouldn’t have a point. 

Telling a story like this is like the conversational equivalent to a buffet. There are lots of small bites in there that the other person can have a taste of. They just need to ask you or start talking themselves about anything you say that they find interesting.

With this technique, you give them control to pick and choose from the topics you touch upon in your “pointless” story. This both gets rid of awkward silence and makes sure the conversation stays interesting and relevant to both of you.

“But this feels so weird. I can’t just talk about something like this. What if I bore the other person?”

This may sound weird until you try it. Then, when it works, it will feel like the most natural thing in the world.

People do this all the time. And you don’t even notice it because it’s so natural. Try it just once and you’ll see.

8. Decrease your nervosity or anxiety by focusing on the other person

Nervosity is created when we become self-conscious – we focus too much on ourselves. But there’s a trick to prevent self-consciousness from even happening – focus on the other person instead of yourself. That way your brain can’t focus on yourself because it’s busy focusing on something else.[9, 11]

Focus on them by thinking about what they’re talking about or how they’re feeling or even how they look. You can read more about how to focus on the other person in our guide on how to avoid nervosity around others.

9. Ask them to explain something to break the awkward silence

It’s easy for people to talk about what they are interested in. You can almost always ask someone to expand on the subject or explain something in more detail. This is great to stop awkward silence.

When the conversation goes quiet, ask something along these lines:

  • “How did you…?”
  • “How does that work?”
  • “So, what do you think about that?”
  • “How did they respond when…?
  • “What were you thinking in that situation?”

Asking someone to explain something in more detail also has the added benefit of showing that you’re interested in what they’re talking about.

10. Use open questions to prevent awkward silence

Open questions are questions where you can’t just answer yes or no; they need some sort of explanation. The opposite is a closed question where there is a correct answer.

Open questions can be a great tool to keep a conversation going and get some more interesting answers. It’s a good way of getting to know a person’s feelings and opinions about different subjects.

Examples of closed vs open questions:

Closed question: Do you like your car?

Open question: What do you think of your car?

Closed question: Has your car been in an accident

Open question: What happened to your car?

Closed question: Is that a red car?

Closed question: What color is that car? (Questions that just needs a pre-determined answer like “red” is also closed.)

Open question: How would you describe that car?

Closed question: Do you prefer Mercedes or Volvo?

Open question: What’s your favorite car?

Note that closed questions aren’t bad per definition. They do have their place in most conversations. But if you often feel like you don’t get long or interesting answers to your questions, or that you keep having to ask questions all the time – that can be a sign you’re using too many closed questions.

11. Why clever and interesting questions kill the conversation

Are you ever afraid your questions are boring or stupid? Are you censoring yourself to avoid saying stupid stuff? Are you afraid you’re boring the other person?

The thing is, when you try to make everything you say smart or interesting, you get stuck in a trap where it’s SUPER hard to come up with anything to say. Your mind goes blank. And instead of sounding smart or interesting, you’re just quiet and stiff.

When you let go of trying to sound smart and interesting, you can instead express who you really are. Even if some of the things you say will come across as uninteresting, that doesn’t matter because you’ll come across as natural, relatable, and warm. And that makes YOU interesting as a person.

It’s OK to ask stupid or boring questions. Questions don’t have to be clever. It’s much more awkward to not say anything than to ask something “stupid” or “boring”.

Think about it. In the middle of a conversation, I bet that you almost never think “what a boring statement!” or “what a stupid question!”. The conversation just keeps going.

So, the next time you are about to censor yourself because you think that what you are going to say sounds stupid, try saying it anyway. If you are usually too quiet, it’s better to say something than nothing.[8]

12. The interview-trap and how to avoid it

The interview-trap happens when you ask too many questions without sharing enough about yourself.

It can be tempting to ask question upon question to keep the conversation going, but this pressures the other person to do all the real talking. And it starts getting weird for them to open up when you barely reveal anything about yourself.

Give the other person a break by also contributing to the conversation and revealing equally much about yourself.

After you’ve asked a question, throw in comments that reveal something about yourself or what you think. You don’t want the other person to feel that he or she reveals more than you do.

Example of how to balance a conversation to avoid the interview-trap:

+ Hi! How are you doing?

– Good!

+ How do you know people here?

– I know Martin and Lucy.

+ Oh, cool. I’ve known Lucy since high school. She’s the best! How did you two meet? 

In the last sentence, I revealed that I also know Lucy. That little piece of information is enough to break off the “interview-vibe” and it also creates an opportunity for the other person to ask me more about my relationship with Lucy.

If you realize that you’ve been asking too many questions, no worries. Just break in with a statement, a story, or reveal something about yourself.

13. Trying to avoid awkward silence makes it worse – acknowledge it instead

When you acknowledge the silence it’s easier to move on and makes the conversation more natural.[4]

Here are some examples of how to acknowledge silence or awkwardness.

If you were talking about a topic, and then there’s not much more to say about it you can say:

  • “Good point. I guess that pretty much sums it all up. *start a new topic*”

This one is funny if the other one made a joke/teased you, and you don’t have a snappy comeback:

  • Touché (Basically means “You scored on me, I don’t have a comeback, congrats!”. )

If the other person doesn’t seem to know how to respond, you can say something like:

  • “Yeah, it’s a tricky subject, anyway… *keep talking*”

If the other person says something thoughtful, but you don’t have a response, you can say:

  • Hmm, *scratch head/chin*, that’s an interesting point. I’ll need to think about that.

14. Great figures in history knew how to use silence in their communication

It’s often been believed that loud and outgoing “extroverts” make the best leaders, politicians, entertainers, and businessmen (and women).

Those who love to talk are shoved to the head of the group and given the microphone, whilst the more silent types are relegated to the background.

But many people are slowly waking up to the fact that people who prefer silence over talking are just as capable of changing the world.

According to Susan Cain and her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that can’t Stop Talking,” some of the best leaders and minds of history were labeled as introverts throughout their lives, including Albert Einstein, Frederic Chopin, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin, and many, many more.

These individuals weren’t afraid of silence and often used it to their advantage.

For example, according to biographer Joseph Ellis, the great American statesman George Washington had “the gift of silence” and would often remain silent during debates.

He also never pretended to be a great orator – yes, public speaking is not for everyone.

Yet this man literally changed the world…

So don’t be afraid of silence, or being quiet.

16. The ability to be silent and listen is attractive

There is one thing you can do in a relationship that is almost guaranteed to upset the other person: not listening.

Not listening to the other person has been blamed for countless breakups, divorces, and family quarrels.

People that don’t know how to listen effectively often find themselves in failing relationships, or find it hard to attract a partner.

On the other hand, those that do know how to stay silent and listen – often have longer-lasting relationships, more friends, and stronger connections.

In fact, according to a recent Men’s Health survey on what makes a man attractive, 53 percent of respondents agreed that the ability to be silent and listen was the most attractive practical trait that they look for in a partner.

In other words, women like men who are good listeners and comfortable with silence.

And no doubt, men appreciate a woman who’s there for him and gives her undivided attention, too.

Of course, it’s not hard to see why being a good listener is so highly desired. Everyone wants to be heard as it helps you feel appreciated and valued for who you are.

So the next time you find yourself on a date where you seem to be doing most of the talking, take a step back and listen. It’s attractive to be comfortable with silence and listen. You don’t need to fill every gap with words.

Your date will appreciate the window you’ve given them to express themselves.

16. An example conversation between two strangers

Let’s say that you are new at your job or new in school.

At lunch, you end up next to a co-worker or classmate. For the sake of the example, let’s say the other person is really nervous and doesn’t say much at all – so you have to lead the conversation.

-You: Hi, I’m Viktor!

-Stranger: Hi, I’m Josh!

-How are you doing?

Initiating a conversation should be as simple as possible. Nothing fancy here.

-I’m good.

-Where are you from?

When you come across people who are not super-social, you will probably have to fire off a couple of questions before you can expect to get them into the conversation. They need to get warmed up.

-I’m from town.

-Ah, were you born here?

-Yes

-I think I’m starting to get my head around this town now. Hey, do you know some library or some good place to study in this city?

I make a statement to break off the questions, and follow it up with a new question, making it easier for Josh to carry on with the conversation. Instead of trying to come up with questions, I ask something I already have been wondering about. It makes the conversation more natural.

(Josh starts explaining, and at the same time gets warmed up talking to you)

– Where do you like to be when you study?

– I think I prefer just sitting at home or sometimes being in the library.

– By the way, what phone is that?

Here, I didn’t come up with anything to relate to Josh’s reply, so I changed the subject to the phone he had on the table. You can talk about almost anything as long as it relates to the conversation or the situation. There’s also a possibility that Josh likes his phone, and then it’s something he’s emotionally connected to.

(Josh talks about his phone)

– I’m thinking about getting a new phone, would you recommend your model?

(Josh talks)

– So what’s your plan, do you want to stay here, or do you want to live somewhere else in the future?

(Josh explains that he wants to live in Berlin)

– I see, that’s a place I want to visit, actually. Why Berlin?

(Josh explains)

– OK, so it’s mainly the culture and the atmosphere.

Here, I didn’t come up with anything more on the “Berlin” thread for the moment, so I summarized what he had just said. Summaries are great to make the other person notice that you are alert and care about what he or she is saying, and you can always use this “summary trick” even if your head’s blank.

– Exactly! And also…(It’s easy for Josh to talk about something he likes, so now he starts talking more about Berlin.)

– I should go there someday. How do you spend your weekends in this town?

– There are a lot of clubs, but I spend most of my time gaming, actually.

– What games?

Notice how I repeatedly let him explain things, and that as soon as I didn’t come up with something to say about the current subject, I went back to a previous one.

(Josh explains what games he plays)

– I’m playing [ that game] too. What level… (The conversation continues from there)

We now reached a mutual interest. The small talk is over, and the conversation becomes interesting. Now, both Josh and I can come up with things to say without effort.

In real life, you shouldn’t be this calculating. The comments are here to illustrate the principles of conversation that we went through earlier.

In real life, it’s about practicing these principles in conversations over time so that after a while, you can use them without consciously thinking about them.

With many of the people you come across, you will be able to find some kind of mutual interest or experiences or opinions, as long as you ask the right questions.

Here I came across a mutual interest – the gaming. From that point on, the conversation continued without effort because we were talking about something that we both were passionate about.

If we extract what we’ve learned from this conversation, keep these questions in mind:

  • Where is he from?
  • What’s his/her feelings/opinion on the subject?
  • Can he/she explain this matter to me?
  • What were we talking about previously that we can go back to?
  • Has he/she heard about that interesting thing I heard?

17. The psychology behind why awkward silences happen

An awkward silence usually happens when you (or the other person) does one of the following things:

  1. One of you runs out of things to say (Click here for a solution)
  2. One of you gives a too short or one-word answer to a question[25]
  3. One of you says something weird or unexpected that the other person doesn’t know how to respond to[2, 10]
  4. One of you misuse a turn-yielding or suppressing signal of whose turn it is to speak[3]
  5. One of you says something offensive that the other person doesn’t want to respond to
  6. One of you wants to end the conversation (Click here to see how to end a conversation)
  7. One of you doesn’t want to talk
  8. One of you misinterpret a comfortable silence or a pause as awkward and panic – making it awkward[1]
  9. One of you doesn’t know how to respond to something[10]

Check out this guide if you want to stop being socially awkward.

18. It’s OK to break the rules of this guide

The key to having a great conversation is not taking it too seriously. The more relaxed you get, the better the conversation will flow.

If something slips out of your mouth that is the total opposite of what this guide says, that’s OK! Actually, it’s usually better for a conversation if you don’t watch your tongue all the time.

So, follow this guide, but don’t be afraid to break its rules – and you’ll be on your way to having a relaxed, flowing conversation that everyone will enjoy.

If you liked this guide, you’ll love this:

How to stop being uncomfortable around people.

How to improve your eye contact with others.

Before your next conversation

Hey!

Don’t get overwhelmed by all the advice in this guide.

You can’t learn everything at once. Select one idea you like and implement it in your conversations. When you can do it naturally, come back to this guide and pick a new technique to practice.

References:

  1. Mukawa, N., Sasaki, H., & Kimura, A. (2014, August). How do verbal/bodily fillers ease embarrassing situations during silences in conversations?. In The 23rd IEEE International Symposium on Robot and Human Interactive Communication (pp. 30-35). IEEE.
  2. Bruneau, T. J. (1973). Communicative silences: Forms and functions. Journal of communication, 23(1), 17-46.
  3. Duncan, S. (1972). Some signals and rules for taking speaking turns in conversations. Journal of personality and social psychology, 23(2), 283.
  4. Clegg, J. W. (2012). The importance of feeling awkward: A dialogical narrative phenomenology of socially awkward situations. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 9(3), 262-278.
  5. McLaughlin, M. L., & Cody, M. J. (1982). Awkward silences: Behavioral antecedents and consequences of the conversational lapse. Human communication research, 8(4), 299-316.
  6. Anthony, M Martin, Swinson, Richard P. (2008). The Shyness & Social Anxiety Workbook Second Edition pp. 112-113. Oakland, CA
  7. Gilovich, T., Savitsky, K., & Medvec, V. H. (1998). The illusion of transparency: Biased assessments of others’ ability to read one’s emotional states. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(2), 332-346.
  8. Moscovitch, D. A., Rodebaugh, T. L., & Hesch, B. D. (2012, February). How awkward! Social anxiety and the perceived consequences of social blunders. Retrieved July 23, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3260374/
  9. Zou, J. B., Hudson, J. L., & Rapee, R. M. (2007, October). The effect of attentional focus on social anxiety. Retrieved July 23, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17521604
  10. Clegg, J. (2012). Stranger situations: Examining a self-regulatory model of socially awkward encounters. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 15 (6), 693-712 DOI: 10.1177/1368430212441637
  11. Mellings, T. M., & Alden, L. E. (2000). Cognitive processes in social anxiety: The effects of self-focus, rumination and anticipatory processing. Behaviour Research and Therapy,38(3), 243-257. doi:10.1016/s0005-7967(99)00040-6

David Morin

8 years ago, I committed to build my social confidence and become great at connecting with people.

Hundreds of books and thousands of interactions later, I’m ready to share with the world what I’ve learned.
The interest in my findings has been beyond my dreams. We now have 30 000 members taking our courses. Perhaps you’ve seen my writing in magazines like Business Insider and Lifehacker.

Follow me on Twitter or Read more.

Viktor Sander B.Sc., B.A.

Viktor is SocialPro’s expert in communication and relationships.

He has a B.A. with a major in Psychology at University of Gothenburg and a B.Sc. with a major in Biological Engineering at Chalmers University of Technology

Before he joined SocialPro, he worked as a relationship and dating coach.

Read more about him here.

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Comments (2)

  1. Anonymous

    thank you

    • Viktor Sander B.Sc., B.A.

      Glad you liked it! 🙂