Everyone's been there. You are in the middle of a conversation at, say, a networking event, and suddenly your conversation halts. Enter awkward silence.
These moments are uncomfortable for everyone, but the experts say you shouldn't fear the silence--instead embrace it. And then use your non-verbal communication skills and small talk to get the conversation back on track.
First thing's first: This idea that silence is bad is all in your head. Dr. Steven Berglas, a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist and executive coach, likens awkward silences to having to wait the weekend after your doctor calls with results on a Friday and asks you to call him back. You assume it means bad news.
“When you have silence it creates a situation of ambiguity,” says Berglas. He blames our uber-digital lives--where communication is instant yet also distant-- for causing misunderstandings between people in actual conversations.
His biggest piece of advice when you hit an awkward silence: look the person straight in the eye.
“Don’t break eye contact. Maintaining eye contact is the best thing you can do, “ says Berglas. "If you see the other person stops talking, just ask if something is amiss. Don't let the silence linger or both parties will start spinning negative interpretations."
Robin Koval, president and co-founder of the New York City-based Kaplan Thaler Group and author of The Power of Nice and The Power of Small, agrees that awkward silences seem scarier than they really are.
“I think if you don’t get a response, it may really not be about you. We tend to take things so personally. It may be because that person is really distracted, or is really busy,” says Koval.
Small Talk to the Rescue
Her weapon: You just need to break the silence with a little small talk.
“What’s the worst that will happen to you? You make a comment to someone in an elevator, and they don’t answer you. What have you lost? Nothing,” says Koval.
She continues: “You start from the premise that most people are endlessly interested in themselves. Act interested in a person and make a comment. You’re moving the conversation to a whole different place, a more personal place.” (This might be a good time for you to check out this excellent and thorough guide on making small talk.)
If you are still uncomfortable with awkward silences and small talk, she advises to practice. She recommends starting chitchat with someone on the subway before diving into your boss’s cocktail party and to focus on the other person.