By David Morin
How to Avoid Awkward Silence
What we’ll go through in this guide
- How to always know what to say next in a conversation.
- How to fill an awkward silence.
- Specific examples of what to say when a conversation runs dry.
- A dangerous mistake people often make that causes awkward silence.
- What you should say when your mind goes blank.
- What you should do after you’ve read this guide to not feel overwhelmed – but to actually improve your conversations.
How to make conversation in a way that prevents awkward silence
A great way to make conversation is to ask the other person genuine questions and share related bits and pieces from your own life.
One reason why conversations hit a wall is that they simply aren’t interesting enough. We don’t get emotionally affected and after some boring job talk we don’t know what to say.
However, there’s a simple solution to this:
Ask questions that the other person can connect to emotionally.
Here’s what that means: People are emotionally connected to things that interest them, such as thinking about their future plans, or thinking back on their previous experiences, in some cases their occupations, and – not to be forgotten – themselves and their own lives.
Asking questions about something people aren’t interested in is like biking uphill, whereas asking questions about something they can connect to emotionally just makes the conversation go on without effort.
Here are some things that people connect to emotionally and some related sample questions. These are questions you ask after some more general questions, like we talk about here.
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 as soon as you’re warmed up.
These questions shouldn’t be asked out of the blue. You should ask emotionally connected questions based on what you’re currently talking about
– Did you get exhausted hiking so far or what did it feel like?
– Would you say that you are you a high performer?
– Did you have a specific diet plan to succeed so well with your weight loss?
– How was your vacation?
– What did you think about the movie?
– How did you like living in [city/country]?
– How do you usually spend your free time?
– What kind of music do you mainly listen to?
– What’s your favorite movie?
Hopes and dreams (after you’ve gotten to know each other a bit more)
– Where would you rather live?
– What’s your plan for the summer?
– What are your future plans after […]?
You shouldn’t memorize these questions. In fact, you should only ask questions that relate to the situation. These are only examples so that you catch my drift. What you need to remember is that they ALL have something in common:
They all contain the word “you”.
To avoid awkward silence, ask questions that contain the word “you”. That’s a good rule of thumb to find questions people connect emotionally to. That will make you more emotionally connected with each other and they will start contributing more to the conversation.
Obviously, your goal should be to make conversation both you and the person you’re talking to enjoy. Chances are that as you ask questions, you come across something, perhaps a mutual interest or maybe similar future plans, that you’ll both enjoy talking about.
How to come up with things to say when your mind goes blank
A conversation goes silent when you can’t come up with things to say. Here’s some advice for what to do when your mind goes blank:
Think back on previous subjects
This is an important one!
Memorize this technique and you’ll see vast improvements in your conversations.
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. Go back to any previous subject and ask questions that relate to that.
Say that the other person previously mentioned a trip to Paris, but the conversation since then 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, right? How was it?
You can even relate back to discussions you had the last time you met:
– How was art class?
– Did you manage to get your apartment sold?
– How was your journey?
Why questions don’t have to be “clever”
You probably notice when people don’t know what to say next. It get’s awkward and weird.
But on the other hand, I guess that you almost never think “what a random statement that was” or “what a silly question he asked”.
The truth is, it’s OK to ask silly questions. Questions don’t have to be clever. It’s much more awkward to not say anything than to ask something “silly”.
In the conversation below, pay attention to how simple and perhaps “silly” some of the questions are – and they work anyway. So, the next time you are about to censor yourself because you think that what you are going to say sounds too silly, try saying it anyway. See how it goes!
What are their opinions or feelings about what you’re talking about?
Make it a habit to get to know the other people’s thoughts and feelings on the subject you’re currently talking about.
Research shows that people who are genuinely interested in others make friends more easily. This is probably because they get to know people better, and two people (obviously) need to know things about each other to get to know each other.
In the example below, pay attention to how I ask about the other person’s thoughts.
Let them explain something
It’s easy for people to talk about what they are interested in.
You can almost always ask someone to expand on the subject. So when the conversation goes quiet, ask, “So, how does that work?” or “How did you…?” Notice how I ask the other person to expand on the subject on several occasions below.
Two universal lifelines
Here are two phrases that are almost universal. If you don’t come up with anything else – fire these off.
1: -Where are you from?
This one is great to use at the beginning of a conversation.
2: -Have you heard / Did you hear that [Insert anything newsworthy]
These are so useful because you can use them 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?
Knowing what to say next will make you feel more relaxed in conversations as well. Click here to go to the main chapter on how to stop being nervous when you’re talking to someone.
An example conversation between two strangers
Lets say that you are new at the company 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.
If you come across people who don’t say much, it could obviously be because they don’t want to talk. But most often, it just comes down to them being nervous.
Look at the context to find out. Are they occupied, do they look stressed and so on? If not, they are probably just glad that someone is acknowledging them.
-You: Hi, I’m David!
-Stranger: Hi, I’m Josh!
-How are you doing?
Initiating a conversation should be as simple as possible. Nothing fancy here.
-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, you were born here?
-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 get’s warmed up talking to you)
– Where do you like to be when you do work?
– 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 an Iphone, but you would recommend that one?
– 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?
– OK, so it’s mainly the culture and the atmosphere.
-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 some day. How do you spend your weekends in this town?
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.
– There are a lot of clubs, but I spend most of my time gaming, actually.
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 this in mind to ask:
-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?
-as he/she heard about that interesting thing I heard?
I’ve now been talking a lot about techniques.
If we become a bit more philosophical for a moment, I would say that the best mindset to have to avoid awkward silence is to shift the focus from you, to the person with whom you are talking. Over time, cultivate an interest in others:
Who are they? – Where are they from? – Where are they going?
Get to know the person, and relate to him or her by sharing bits and pieces of your life.
Although this might sound abstract, if you manage to implement this philosophy, you won’t have to focus as much on learning specific tricks and techniques.
Avoid these mistakes when you talk to a new person
1. Don’t conduct interviews
Whenever you ask someone questions, throw in comments that reveal something about you or what you think. You don’t want the other person to feel that he or she reveals more than you do.
– Hi! How are you doing?
– How do you know people here?
– I know [this and that person].
– Ah. Where are you from?
– Ok, me too. I ended up in Williamsburg. How do you like Brooklyn?
As usual, this sample conversation partner isn’t that talkative.
In the last sentence, I revealed that I too live in Brooklyn. That little piece of information is enough to break off the “interview-vibe”.
Try reading the sample conversation again and skip the“Me too, I ended up in Williamsburg”-part. Notice how it changes the feeling of the entire conversation?
Don’t get too caught up in details.
After all, awkward silence is caused by talking too little rather than too much so it’s better that you feel relaxed and make some mistakes, rather than trying to avoid mistakes so badly that you become self-aware and awkward.
So – if you realize that you’ve been asking too many questions, no worries. Just break in with a statement or a story or reveal something about yourself. A good rule of thumb is that both of you should have spent roughly the same amount of time talking by the end of the conversation.
2. Never comment on the awkward silence
This mistake is probably obvious – but because I hear people giving this insane advice regularly: Don’t comment on an awkward silence!
Don’t use the word “awkward” when it feels awkward. It won’t make anyone feel any better.
Likewise, you don’t necessarily need to say funny things to break the awkward silence.
Instead, use any of the techniques above, such as asking whether they heard about something newsworthy, or go back to a previous subject.
3. Don’t end with a statement.
A great way to end up in awkward silence is to drop a statement and then expect the other person to reply.
It can work with someone you know well – however, if you talk to someone you don’t know well, make sure to finish off your sentences with a related question.
– …so that’s why we decided to move here. How long have you been here?
– …yeah that’s one of the best movies I’ve seen. What’s your favorite movie?
– … so you could say that I’m mainly a carpenter. What are you working with?
3 reasons why you shouldn’t be afraid of silence
1. Silence is a normal part of communication
We’re told that our tone and non-verbal behavior account for a much bigger piece of the communication pie than simply the words we choose to speak.
As such, we’re told to talk with a convincing tone and to work on our non-verbal communication, such as holding strong eye contact, standing up straight with our chest pushed out, and remaining as still and relaxed as possible.
But there’s an important element of communication that is often simply swept under the rug as if it doesn’t really matter.
That important element is silence – itself a type of non-verbal behavior – which can have a significant positive effect on the health and solidity of your relationships with others when used properly.
So don’t think that there is something wrong with you if you happen to chance upon a lull in the conversation.
Instead, realize that the silence is just a normal part of communication and that you haven’t done anything “wrong” at all.
In fact, if you find silences creeping up in many of your conversations, don’t be alarmed: your temperament may just give you the opportunity to make a real impact on the world.
2. 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 that were a little quieter than others, or those that preferred to listen rather than talk, it was believed, were usually only valued for their contribution behind the scenes.
In other words, those that loved to talk were often shoved to the head of the group and given the microphone. Whilst the more silent types were relegated to the background.
But many people are slowly waking up to the fact that people who prefer silence over talk 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 a little 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.
Trust us: you’re in great company.
3. Silence will help your relationships (and even make you attractive!)
It’s probably the one thing you can do in any 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 mate.
On the other hand, those that do know how to listen – those that actually prefer to learn about what the other person is all about, instead of just rambling on about themselves – 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, chicks dig guys that are good listeners and are comfortable with silence.
And no doubt men appreciate a lady who is there for him and has his 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 remember the attractiveness of silence.
She or he will appreciate the window you’ve given her to express herself/himself, and what you learn about her (or him) will help foster stronger bonds between the both of you.
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. A glass of wine or a beer is proof of that.
See this guide as just a guide. If something slips out of your mouth that is the total opposite of what this guide says, it’s OK! Actually, it’s even better for a conversation if you don’t watch your tongue all the time.
However, if you notice that you repeatedly make a specific kind of mistake, this guide can be helpful in correcting that. 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.
- Ask questions that the other person can connect to emotionally. These include questions concerning his or her interests, experiences and hopes and dreams. All this can be summarized as questions that contain the word “you”.
- End statements and stories with a question, so that the other person will be able to continue the conversation.
- If you don’t come up with anything to say, ask something about any previous subject you were talking about.
- Don’t censor yourself: Say something silly rather than not saying anything at all. People don’t notice “silly questions” – they notice awkward silence.
- Make it a habit to get to know the other person’s opinions or feelings on what you are currently talking about.
- Ask the other person to expand on the subject by letting him or her explain how something was or how something works.
- Two phrases you can use that work almost any time are “Where are you from?” and “Did you hear that [newsworthy story]?”
- Avoid performing interviews by breaking off your questions with your own statements and stories.
- Avoid pointing out the awkward silence by commenting on it.
- Break some of the rules in this guide rather than trying to watch your tongue and becoming self-aware as a result. See the bigger perspective of this guide as a pathway to better conversations.
Before your next conversation
Don’t get overwhelmed by all the advice in this guide. There’s one, single principle that ties together most of what we have talked about here. And that is having a focus on the other person.
I recommend that you cultivate curiosity in people you meet. Who are they, where do they come from and where are they going? Get to know the person, and relate to him or her by sharing related bits and pieces of your own life. Cultivate this interest, and the rest will follow.
Don’t try to learn everything at once. Select a few ideas and implement them in your conversations. When you are able to do them routinely, come back to this guide and take something new away with you.