awkward silence in conversation

Awkward Silence in Conversation (Explained)


The conversation was going perfectly. You just finished a riveting story about saving a stray cat’s life in the parking lot of a TGI Friday’s. And yet now…things have slowed down to a crawl. Neither of you can think of what to stay next…and suddenly you’ve completely run out of ideas…

In today’s episode of Your Social Skills Explained, I’m going to give you 2 reasons why we have awkward silences in conversation – and then I’m going to give you a solution for dealing with it.

“Emotional Attraction Signs – EXPLAINED” Video Summary


Reason 1: Expectation

  • Bethany Teachman, Virginia Dept of Psychology: “awkward situations can be boiled down to an incongruence between what is happening and what we think should be happing.”
  • In other words, when things are playing out a certain way and we believe “no – they should be going like this instead”, things tend to be awkward
  • Here’s the kicker: Teachman argues that it feels weird not because of what’s happening but because of our relationship to what’s happening
  • We don’t experience the silence in conversation as awkward because we stop talking. We feel awkward because we expect the conversation to not have any lulls or quiet moments.
  • Our expectations are centered around endless talking – and this is not realistic or practical
  • Have you ever written an email and had to pause and think of what to say next? Imagine if you put the pressure on yourself to keep typing no matter what – and even 2 seconds of stopping to think means you’re screwing up? This is the kind of pressure we put on ourselves in conversation!

Reason 2: Interpretation

  • So Bethany Teachman’s formula for an awkward moment: violated expectation + incongruent behavior = awkward
  • The formula for an awkward silence: expectation of endless talking + quiet moment = awkward silence
  • When we expect the conversation to flow with no silence at all, we are actually setting ourselves up for failure right then and there. Because as soon as something deviates from that script, we’re in a tough spot.
  • If silence is the enemy – if it’s the behavior we are trying to avoid, we’ve put a condition in place that will create anxiety the instant it shows up. It is the interpretation of what silence means to us that makes it awkward. Not the silence itself.
  • Imagine talking to someone on a date while having a shock collar wrapped around your neck. And every time you uttered the word “have” you received a shock. How would that affect your ability to carry on a conversation?
  • You’d be anticipating the shock constantly – it would be in the forefront of your thoughts. Instead of listening to the other person or feeling like you can relax and express your personality, you would be stuck in your head trying to avoid the word “have.”
  • This is precisely what is going on up here (point to head) when we’re focused on avoiding quiet moments. It’s not that the quiet moment itself is bad – it’s that our brains have placed an artificial shock collar around the neck that is programmed to go off whenever the conversation reaches a lull.

Solution: Re-Framing

  • So we have two options to avoid awkward silence. The first option is to insist on filling up every single second of conversation with noise – so there are literally zero quiet moments – OR – we simply reframe what silence means.
  • We should expect silence in advance – as if it’s already built into every conversation we’re ever going to have. And instead of it being a bad thing, we choose what we want it to mean instead.
    • We could make it mean “Time to relax and gather my thoughts”
    • “Time to take a deep breath”
    • Or “Time to hang back and see what they come up with”
  • Once your brain realizes that silence itself is not a BAD thing, you open yourself up to having more confident, easy-going conversations.
  • The easiest way to do that is by taking a page out of the Exposure Therapy playbook. Exposure Therapy is intentionally introducing the thing you are most afraid of over and over again in a safe environment.
    • So if you’re afraid of snakes, the therapist would choose a snake that is harmless and expose you to it at first – and then gradually introduce snakes you’re more and more afraid of over time. Your mind adapts more and more, getting more and more comfortable, until the fear is gone.
  • So if you have a fear of awkward silence, pick someone you are close to in your life. And practice introducing quiet moments into the conversation. Start with 3 seconds – working your way up to a minute. Then move onto people you don’t know quite as well – coworkers, relatives, acquaintances, someone you have class with, and introduce 3 seconds of absolute silence with them.
  • As you do this more and more, your fear of awkward silence will diminish. And you will actually get to the point where you readily welcome a lull in the conversation. During these moments, you can smile, think about what the other person has just said, or simply reset your thoughts. None of which are awkward – all of which are awesome.


So there you have it. The top 2 reasons we have awkward silence and the best solution for dealing with it.

How do you handle awkward silence? Let me know and I’ll see you next time.

Want some more help with keeping conversations going? My Free Conversation Crash Course is dedicated to help you completely annihilate all awkward silence from your conversations. If you’d like to learn more, be sure to check out the course. You can gain access right below.

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