Whether you're tasked with addressing an employee's hygiene issue, or you're at a loss for words about how to console someone who is dealing with a personal tragedy, you may be tempted to avoid saying anything. After all, awkward conversations are really uncomfortable.
But avoiding the elephant in the room will only add to the discomfort and tension. Sometimes, you need to face those issues head-on, even when it's uncomfortable to do so.
Here are eight tips for making an awkward conversation less awkward:
1. Avoid the silence.
Research shows it takes only four seconds of awkward silence to skyrocket your anxiety during a conversation.
The more anxious you feel, the less articulate you'll be.
Whenever possible, plan what you want to say in advance. Knowing what you need to communicate can help you deliver your message in a way that will prevent as much awkward silence as possible.
2. Speak in a private setting.
Don't hold an impromptu conversation in the hallway when you happen to pass by the person. Instead, meet in a private room where no one else can overhear. And if someone else brings up an awkward subject first in a public setting, suggest holding the conversation elsewhere.
Sitting can add comfort to an otherwise difficult situation. At the very least, make sure you and the other person are on the same level. If you remain standing while you talk to a person who is sitting, you'll be physically talking down to them -- which isn't the tone you want to set. If there's only one chair in the room, remain standing with the other person.
4. Offer a warning.
Soften harsh words or direct questions with a simple warning. Instead of saying, "Billy, the other employees say you smell bad," soften the blow with a word of caution by saying, "What I'm about to tell you might be a little difficult to hear." That gives the other person a minute to emotionally prepare for what you're about to say.
5. Acknowledge your discomfort.
Denying your discomfort can cause you to come across as disingenuous. If you're fidgeting, shifting your weight, and averting eye contact, acknowledge your anxiety. Offer a quick sentence that explains what the other person already senses, such as, "I'm a little uncomfortable bringing this up."
6. Be polite, yet direct.
While it's important to be polite, don't soften your words so much that your message gets lost. If you're firing someone for their incompetence, don't imply they're being let go because there isn't enough work. Indirect communication will only add to the other person's confusion about what's really going on. Stick to the facts and keep the conversation short.
7. Be an active listener.
Give the other person a chance to process what you've said. Be an active listener by reflecting back what you hear and by offering clarification on points that may have been misunderstood.
Be prepared for the other person to experience intense emotions, ranging from embarrassment and sadness, to fear and anger. Unless the person becomes inappropriate, be willing to help the other person process those emotions for a bit.
8. Draw the conversation to a clear close.
Awkward conversations often end in an equally awkward manner. Uncertainty about whether the conversation is actually over, or confusion about what will happen next, only adds to the clumsiness.
If you're going to follow up on something, state that. If you expect the other person to take further action, express your expectation. Then, end the conversation by saying something like, "That's all I wanted to talk about today. Think about it and get back to me with any questions."
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