5 Ways to Turn Around an Awkward Conversation

Read these 5 ways for how to survive an awkward conversation. Pictured: an empty restaurant booth.

We’ve all been there. We’re at a party or a family reunion or a barbeque, and someone says something awkward or rude and the whole vibe comes to a halt — like a wrench has just been jammed into the well-oiled gears of the social gathering.

It might be an in-law who speaks on ugly political topics in condescending tones. Or the aunt who always knows how to make you feel horrible about your dating life. Or the friend-of-a-friend who’s in top physical condition and has a million suggestions on how you can lose 20 pounds, too.

When an insensitive comment comes out of someone’s mouth, most of us freeze up because we’re busy processing the emotional turbulence, and the subsequent silence only amplifies the moment. Who wouldn’t give their life savings to pull the lever to a magical ejection seat in that moment?

Here’s the next-best thing: a survival guide. You know, a cheat sheet — tips to help you persevere and not let those horrible remarks get to you. Here is that sheet for when you’re deep in the weeds of an awkward conversation and tension abounds.

Acknowledge your discomfort in a funny way!

You don’t want to waste emotional energy wallowing in weirdness. So, when in doubt, keep things light. Often, this completely disarms anyone asking those weird questions — or if they feel the ensuing tension, it makes their comment seem all the less horrible. It’s a win for everyone!

For instance, if Aunt Barbie makes some awkward remark about your dating life, and she’s staring at you, ready for your awkward reply, your response can be simple as, “Oh, ouch, Aunt Barbie — ouch! But you’re right. I should write a book about my dating fails! It will be a bestseller. Who wants to write the foreword?”

Once you catch Aunt Barbie off her game, take the opportunity to deflect and ask everyone around you some good questions. Which brings us to…

Prepare a list of fun conversation starters.

If potential awkward conversations keep you up late at night, having a few ideas up your sleeve is definitely worth the preparation. You can save these ideas in your phone, memorize them as you drive up, or physically write them down — and slyly pick one out of your pocket when you’re desperate.

Only you know what topics will work for your friends or family. That’s right: ONLY YOU. Something innocuous with one family could be a firestarter with another. So use your intuition, and make a list of ideas. A question  as simple as, “Any new restaurants that you’ve wanted to try lately?” might be the perfect antidote for awkwardness for one family, but might trigger furious debate in another family. Perhaps a better option for them might be, “What’s been your favorite food show to binge on Netflix this year?”

Don’t think too deeply, but consider hobbies, interests, and topics that everyone would find at least a little entertaining. In general, though, food and books are usually safe bets.

Repeat what they say. Repeat what they say.

If a conversation is going slowly — and you really, really just don’t know what to say in response, literally just repeat what they just told you. Exactly. Play it back, slowly, nodding. Not only does this make them feel affirmed and listened to, but it also gives the conversation some breathing room. It gives them time to explain what they were saying in a better way, and provides them with an opportunity to expand the conversation, rather than filling the silence with the dreary, “yep….” It also might give you time to come up with a better response. Speaking of which…

Make them sound like the best versions of themselves.

This classic tip from interviewers involves a little bit more creativity and a splash of graciousness and generosity. For instance, let’s pretend your cousin, Tom, is going on about his new favorite hobby: camping. Instead of nodding along in an attempt to understand what he’s talking about when he starts listing off camping gear, say something along the lines of, “Ah, sounds like you’re getting in touch with your exploratory spirit!”

Essentially, go big picture. Take what they’re saying and extrapolate on what this might mean for them. The cool thing about going this route is that it makes it easier to come up with questions that keep the conversation moving, as it puts you in the right mindset — prompting you to start asking them even more interesting questions.

See the good in them.

Depending on the person, this can be really hard, but if you’re doing the above, you’ve already started. Sure, your brother-in-law might not be able to take a hint, Aunt Barbie might be nosy, and cousin Tom might be an annoying overachiever — but those kinds of perceptions are always incomplete.

Maybe your brother-in-law’s annoying passion for argumentative politics is actually rooted in his interest in philosophy. Maybe your Aunt Barbie is just fascinated with human relations, and would be an excellent person to talk to about the last episode of This is Us. And maybe Tom really just wants to be admired for who he is — and not who he pretends to be.

So, within reason, give them what they want — push yourself to see the good in them and it will be far more likely that you will see more good in yourself and in the holidays.

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