By Christopher Green
The awkward conversation has to be one of the most challenging scenarios in our lives. Most people don’t like confrontation or conflict anyway. It doesn’t matter if the issue is a difference of opinion, the need to bring up an embarrassing matter, or to give bad news, most of us struggle with the basic uncomfortable nature of this type of conversation. Some people have no filter between their thoughts and their mouth, so there’s no such thing as an awkward conversation, at least to them. They don’t usually concern themselves with how they are abrasively impacting others.
On the other end of the spectrum, others have a hard time being assertive in the best of times, and when it comes to an awkward conversation, it creates a near impossible wall for them to scale. From our many years of personal and professional experience with awkward conversations that have ranged from family members to clients, we offer these five keys.
1. Pause: Whether you find yourself in a sudden and unexpected moment of awkwardness or if you’re anticipating a conversation, it’s important to first pause, step back and consider your thoughts and feelings. Awkward conversations are filled with feelings and multiple reactions. Those feelings can include embarrassment, anger, anxiety or frustration. Responses can include shock, defensiveness, denial, retaliation, or indifference. Taking a pause is about self-awareness. It’s about recognizing and regulating your own feelings so you’re not swept away in the tide of awkwardness.
2. Enlightened engagement: This is all about having the presence of mind to not only prepare yourself, but to also give some type of notification to the other person that the conversation is coming. Offer a simple text, email or quick comment like, “There’s something I’d like to talk with you about today.”
With your self-awareness elevated, confront the unknown of the awkward with confidence. When you engage the person, be clear, be concise, be cautious, and be conclusive. Engage the person with CARE (compassionate awareness with respect and empathy). When your engagement is from this higher perspective, you can be mindful to determine where the conversation should take place, as well as when.
However, if the awkward conversation is a spontaneous moment that breaks out in front of customers, in the office, or in the living room, you can diffuse a potential disaster by saying, “Let’s talk about this over here,” or “Can we step outside for a minute?”
Enlightened engagement will cause you to be so self-aware and socially aware that you won’t be easily driven by your own fear of the unknown within the awkward. Instead you’ll be guided from a perspective of wisdom and concern for the person with whom you must speak. This can still hold true, even if the person is hostile and responding in a very negative manner.
3. Ask Questions: Do not assume that you know the answers, even when it seems obvious. Depending upon your relationship, ask questions like, “Are you aware that….?” or “Please help me understand why….”
After you hear their response, be prepared to ask the second question. Sometimes we ask one question. The person answers, and then we react. However, we suggest that you ask a second question just to make sure that you are clear and understand their perspective. It’s not about asking questions until you get the response that you desire. You don’t ask until they say something that you agree with. If you do that, you’ll turn it into an interrogation instead of a conversation. You are asking questions until you are sure that you understand their point of view. If you feel they are being untruthful or omitting some part of their story, please know that you’re not a judge and this is not a hearing. You’re simply giving them an opportunity to present their view.
4. Listen to Learn: If you’re going to ask questions, then you must actually listen. We humans do not listen very well. We pretend to listen, we selectively listen, or we listen for pauses and breaks in the dialogue in order to state our opinions. Active, empathetic and facilitative listening is absolutely essential for navigating the awkward conversation. If you can provide reflective listening feedback during an awkward conversation, you can take away the power of the awkward and empower yourself and the other person to actually have a healthy, mutually-beneficial conversation. Your listening and feedback will communicate that you’re making a sincere effort to understand them and the situation surrounding the conversation.
5. Respond: Instead of being reactionary, you can make a thoughtful response rooted in compassion, concern, and curiosity (a genuine desire to understand). Most people tend to merely react to the revelations that come out of an awkward conversation with a criticism or an immediate correction of the other person. We’re not saying that these won’t be part of your conversation, but they should not be your first responses. The punitive reaction will yield limited, if any change. However if a critique (without criticizing), correction or advice comes from a position of compassion, concern, and curiosity, you have a better chance of building bridges rather than erecting more walls in the relationship.
Chris and Carol Green are the founders of C and C Connections, LLC and creators of the CARE-Ready Life Coaching model.