Caught in the middle of painful chitchat? Turn things around—or making a smooth and subtle escape—with these savvy tactics (because sliding into the hedges Homer Simpson–style isn’t always an option).

By Rebecca Webber and Maggie Seaver
Updated June 28, 2019
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Credit: Shout

A stranger-filled networking event; an uncomfortable cocktail party exchange; cringe-worthy small talk with a shy acquaintance—there are some awkward conversations too painful to comprehend until you’re stuck in one, grasping for things to say (or an excuse to leave). But it’s just part of life (welcome!), and chances are the other person feels just as uneasy as you do. Instead of making things worse or suffering in silence until someone comes to save you, take matters into your own hands and save yourself. Master these six ways to handle a clumsy conversation with grace and tact, and you’ll never avoid social gatherings again.

Make a friendly game out of it.

Get people into the spirit by making the atmosphere a little more playful. "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,' says Jeanne Martinet, author of The Art of Mingling ($10; "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."

Plan your opening statement.

If the hardest part of any conversation is starting it, this is one skill that will make your life easier. "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?'" says Jill Isenstadt, the vice president of member operations at AbleTo, an online therapy program for people with social anxiety. 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." Whatever it is, you have to practice it.

Repeat the last thing the other person said.

Anna Sale, creator of the podcast Death, Sex & Money and a host at WNYC, New York's public radio station, says this method is super effective. "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,'" she says. "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."

Don't be afraid to pause.

"Be comfortable with silence," says Jennifer L. Scott, writer of the blog The Daily Connoisseur and author of Polish Your Poise With Madame Chic ($14; "People talk for the sake of talking, but we all know it's better to think before we speak. Everyone has those moments thinking: 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 because I wanted to make the other person feel okay. Why? We let our nerves get the best of us and compromise our integrity. Don't fill the silence. Embrace it—or excuse yourself."

Practice empathy to 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," says Samuel Barondes, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco and author of Making Sense of People. "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."

Ensure your getaway is a solo trip.

Sometimes, you just need a break. But if you don't do it right you could end up hurting the other person's feelings or getting yourself in deeper—as in, they might follow you. "If you do need to get away, say you need to make a phone call," Martinet says. "This is a better option than backing 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."