Practical Tips for Avoiding the Awkward Silence

Tamsen Butler
Seated nervous couple on date

Silence isn't always a bad thing, nor is it always awkward. There are easy ways to avoid uncomfortable silences in conversation, both in person and while speaking over the phone.

Don't Fear Silence

Not every silence is awkward. Sometimes silence can be reflective or simply a natural break in the conversation. What is the difference between silence and an awkward silence? A study by scientists from the University of Groningen suggests that silence is awkward when it disrupts the flow of the conversation. If you can learn to accept natural silences within a conversation, you'll soon discover that silence isn't to be feared in every situation.

Start Strong

A strong start to a conversation can help keep both people engaged in the moment and not stray off into awkward silences. While there is certainly something to be said for spontaneity in conversation if your main goal is to avoid the possibility of awkward silences, having a conversation topic in mind beforehand will help you stay on track.

Reading Cues

Sometimes you can feel the awkward silence coming, and other times it hits without warning. Pay close attention to the other person's body language and look for signs that they aren't enthusiastic or comfortable with the direction in which the conversation is leading - these signs indicate it's time to steer the conversation in a different direction. If you can change the topic to something the other person is more enthusiastic about, you may be able to avoid the awkward silence altogether. Here are some signs to look for:

  • The other person seems disengaged.
  • The other person is paying more attention to the lint on their clothes than they are to the conversation.
  • The person keeps glancing at their watch or the exit.
  • The other person keeps interrupting you, but not finishing their sentence.
  • The person's responses seem curt.
  • The person's responses don't seem to match up with the conversation, as though they aren't really listening or engaged in the conversation.

Phone Cues

Talking to someone over the phone, even if it's via FaceTime or Skype, makes it difficult to fully read the other person's body language to anticipate an impending awkward silence. Look for signs of discomfort or boredom that will likely lead to silence within the phone conversation:

  • As with regular conversations, curt or stilted responses may point toward an upcoming awkward silence.
  • If the other person seems to lose track of the conversation, this may point toward disinterest in the topic.
  • You can hear or see them fumbling with something else.

Dealing With the Cause

Remember that silence can be steeped in contemplation, so there is no reason to try to avoid those moments. On the other hand, an awkward silence resulting from discomfort or boredom can be dealt with directly and perhaps bring you both closer together. Don't ask if you're not prepared for an honest answer, but consider asking something along the lines of, "You seem distracted; is there something else you want to talk about?" If you ask this, do your best to really listen.

Changing Direction

Switching the conversation to a different - but perhaps related - topic is a natural way to keep it flowing nicely before or after an awkward silence. Take care to not constantly flip from one topic to another in an attempt to keep the conversation going. This may come off as chaotic and frantic, making it look as though you're nervous. Try to transition from one topic to another as naturally as possible. Here are some ideas for smooth transitions:

  • "That reminds me of...."
  • "I forgot to tell you about...."
  • "Let me tell you what I heard the other day...."
  • "You're a good person to ask about...."

Arm Yourself With Topics

If you're worried about potential awkward silences, it's a good idea to go into a conversation with some topic ideas in your mind already. Just don't shoot off topics so quickly that it feels to the other person as though it's a rapid-fire twenty questions, but having some interesting topics or fun questions prepared in your mind can keep a conversation interesting and engaging.

Let the Conversation End

Silence may indicate the natural end to the conversation. You shouldn't try to compel a conversation forward that has come to a natural end. Pushing a conversation beyond its natural course will probably lead to more silence, so know when to allow a silence to mean a conversation's end.

Practical Tips for Avoiding the Awkward Silence