5 Ways to Handle an Awkward Conversation

“Well, look at that—I need a refill” doesn’t always do the trick. (See No. 1. They might follow you.) If you’re stuck in painful chitchat, try these tactics for turning things around—or (last resort) making an escape.


Make a game out of it.

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I'll say something like, "Tell me three things about your company, and I'll guess what company it is." Or, "What's that you're drinking? Wait—let me guess." Get people into the spirit. Depending on the party, you might be even more daring. Say, "My friend and I are having a disagreement, so I'm taking a poll. Do you think kissing is cheating?" Small talk should be playful—like a game of tennis, not a job interview. And if you do need to get away, say you need to make a phone call. This is a better option than the buffet bye-bye, where you back away to get something to eat, or excusing yourself to go to the bathroom. With a phone call, people won't follow you. It's more believable if you give details. "Oh, my gosh, it's 8:10. I'm so sorry. I forgot to call my husband. I'll be back in a sec." In a crowded party, you're allowed to say you'll be back in a second and not come back—that is, unless you offered to bring the person a drink. Then you have to.
—Jeanne Martinet, author of The Art of Mingling. She lives in New York.


Repeat the last thing the person said.

That's very effective, because you're saying, "I've been listening to you. I hear what you've been trying to tell me. Now let's move on to something else." You can then shift to a wildly different place, like "Wait—tell me how your daughter's doing. The last time I saw her, such-and-such was happening." The idea is to give the conversation momentum, so you aren't stuck. You can also do this by gently interrupting when someone is rambling and not making a point. Wait for a break, then sum up their message for them: "What an incredible coincidence. I'm sure that made you feel so connected in your new city." I learned that from NPR's Terry Gross, who told me, "Help your guests sound like their best selves." I've found it works in podcasts and at parties.
—Anna Sale, creator of the podcast Death, Sex & Money and a host at WNYC, New York's public radio station. She lives in Brooklyn.



Be comfortable with silence. People talk for the sake of talking, but we all know it's better to think before we speak. Everyone has those moments: "What did I just say? Why did I just say that?" Pausing lets you listen, then respond—instead of only thinking of what you'll say next (which, honestly, makes the flow more awkward). It's also crucial in difficult situations. I was recently with someone who made an offensive joke, and I started giggling. I wanted to make the other person feel OK. Why? We let our nerves get the best of us and compromise our integrity. Don't fill the silence. Embrace it—or excuse yourself.
—Jennifer L. Scott, writer of the blog The Daily Connoisseur and author of Polish Your Poise With Madame Chic. She lives in Los Angeles.


Plan your opening statement.

Often the hardest part of a conversation is starting it. If you're sitting next to someone in silence at a dinner party, it's good to have a standby opener. It can be something as simple as, "How do you know the host?" I work with clients who have social anxiety. Research indicates that people with social anxiety have social skills on par with everyone else; they just feel less comfortable using them. I encourage people to plan some things they can talk about, depending on the situation they're about to enter. Maybe it's sharing a couple of things going on in your life. But you have to practice doing it.
—Jill Isenstadt, vice president of coaching for Joyable, an online therapy program for people with social anxiety. She lives in San Francisco.


Keep the peace.

In social situations, you are going to come across people you admire, some you're indifferent to, and some you find contemptible. Human diversity comes from both genetics and culture, and that's why everybody is somewhat different. Thinking of people this way—recognizing that they identify with a tribe, whether or not it's yours—helps you be less inclined to judge. And know that there's no use trying to convert them to your point of view. When a polarizing issue comes up at a party or a family gathering, let it go. Make this your mantra: It's very interesting to hear your point of view; I have a somewhat different perspective.
—Samuel Barondes, professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco and author of Making Sense of People. He lives in Sausalito, California.