Minimize Awkward Moments

No matter how smoothly you navigate through most of your work and your life, you’ve undoubtedly suffered a few of those inevitable awkward moments.

You know the kind: where your brain stops working and without warning you “choke” in the midst of whatever you’re trying to do. You may suddenly find:

  • You can’t remember the name of the person you’re conversing with,
  • You can’t come up with a proper response to a question or comment,
  • You can’t think of what you were going to say next,
  • You suddenly feel foolish and out of place,

…or something even worse.

Moments like these are an unhappy feature of how our brains sometimes operate. Depending on the situation and the timing, they can cause anything from slight embarrassment to significant differences in our level of performance, to major turning points in how the world perceives us – and how we perceive ourselves.

Fortunately, scientists have studied the human brain enough to understand some of the underlying mechanisms, and have come up with techniques to minimize the frequency of their occurrence.

These techniques include the following:

Stay Present

One of the mechanisms that most often causes moments of awkwardness is a shift in brain function that minimizes awareness of our surroundings and maximizes self-conscious worry. Instead of feeling fully present, you become anxious and uncertain, perhaps about how you’re coming off, how you look or sound, or anything else that’s one step removed from in-depth immersion in the current experience.

The simple shift of awareness from focusing on the moment to focusing on yourself is enough to take you out of your game and throw you into an awkward moment.

The best remedy is to re-immerse yourself in what’s going on around you. This involves two separate elements.

First, practice staying in the moment. The idea is mainly to become comfortable noticing that you’re suddenly thinking about something else, such as how you’re dressed or whether you’re charming someone. Learning to “stay in the moment” gives you greater ability to let such thoughts drift out of your mind as quickly and easily as they drifted in. Meditation can be a valuable skill for not getting carried away with stray thoughts.

Second, practice focusing on your senses and the details they bring you about your surroundings. The idea is to consciously pay more attention to the sounds and sights around you, and what they may mean or imply. In a conversation, for example, hone in on what others are saying, feeling, and trying to convey.

The act of focusing on what’s going on around you, and analyzing how it does or doesn’t fit with past experiences, helps keep you in the moment intensely enough to avoid feeling awkward.

Rely on Suitable Habits

Habits are a great way to navigate social moments without letting worry or self-consciousness cause you to “choke.”

For example, it’s a common habit when meeting someone new to ask “How are you?” or to say “Nice to meet you.” We don’t think about any of this. We just say it.

You can intentionally expand your repertoire of suitable social habits in various ways, such as:

  • Smiling and making eye contact with people when you first meet them, then giving your name and a short self-introduction, such as: “I’m Bob. I’m here with Sally,” or “I’m Bob, in from Chicago for this conference.”
  • Covering for momentarily going “blank” in a conversation by saying something like: “Interesting. I’m going to need a moment to think about that.”
  • Giving yourself time to think when confronted with a surprising or difficult situation by initiating a brief “time out,” perhaps with a remark like: “I’d like to know more about why….”

You can use these and other suitable social habits to sidestep many of your brain’s attempts to switch into self-consciousness or worry, and thereby minimize any awkward moments that may have ensued.

Dump Your Baggage

Because awkwardness often results from the stress in a situation, it’s a great help to reduce your stress level, going in, by writing out your anticipated fears and concerns.

One way to reduce the power of these fears and concerns is simply to list them, along with their worst-case and best-case consequences. This exercise helps engage the logical part of your mind, itemize your specific fears and concerns, and put them into a less stressful perspective.

Another approach is to write these fears and concerns in the form of a story. You can try writing about what may happen to you in the upcoming situation, what you may do and say in response, and how it may all work out, for good or bad. Letting your imagination run with your fears and concerns usually makes them less intimidating.

The act of reflecting on these feelings and formally committing them to writing generally seems to lessen the level of emotion connected with them, particularly the less important ones.

Although not always, awkward moments can lead to unwanted consequences. It’s helpful, therefore, to minimize the number of awkward moments you experience, even in the most stressful and difficult situations, by understanding where they may come from, and by taking these and other steps to defuse those causes. 

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