How to make the most of awkward situations

Awkwardness is pretty much inevitable, so we should try to take advantage of it.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 31 May 2018

A quick glance and a mumbled ‘thanks’ as you find yourself alone in the work kitchen with the stranger from floor three. The stuttered ‘well’ as you try to end the conversation during a networking drinks. Or a well meaning but a poorly worded joke that leads to a lumbering and repeated apology as you frantically dig yourself out of the self made hole using far more words than necessary...

Awkwardness comes in many forms and can often leave you wanting to bury your head in the sand.

'There is a clash between the you you're trying to present and the you that other people are seeing,' says Melissa Dahl - journalist and author of Cringeworthy: How to make the most of uncomfortable situations - when explaining why awkward situations make people feel so uneasy.

She's spent the last three years trying to work out how to avoid uncomfortable occurences and has bad news for anyone looking for a complete cure - but she does believe you can use them to your advantage.

Here's a couple of tips:

1. Learning lessons

Dahl argues that uneasy moments give you an opportunity to learn something about yourself, because it gives you a small glimpse into how other people perceive you.

‘We don't get a lot of moments like that to see ourselves in that way’ highlights Dahl, arguing that these moments can provide the chance to reflect and analyse how you approached a situation or how you worded a certain phrase.

Of course you actually have to take this opportunity instead of wallowing in self-pity and it might not help you in the short-term, but over time you can adapt to potentially prevent similar situations in the future.

2. Just get to the point

‘Sometimes it's better just to be as straightforward as possible,’ says Dahl, talking about how for some leadership can often throw up uncomfortable situations.

So in other words, if someone has a suggestion you disagree with, tell them so - but do it politely - don’t try to skirt around the issue out of fear of upsetting someone. It’s easier to say than it is to do but it will really save you some awkwardness in the long run.

3. Weaponise the silence

There’s something quite unnerving about prolonged silences and according to the University of Groningen, a gap of just four seconds leaves English speakers feeling uneasy.

But you should resist the temptation to fill the silence, at least for a few moments. A gap in conversation allows people time to properly consider what has been said, compose themselves and stimulate ideas.

4. If all else fails, just remember you’re human

Sometimes there are just some situations that make you cringe no matter how hard you try to avoid them. So next time you spill coffee all over your collegues's report, just embrace it, recover and move on.

‘Stupid things happen to absolutely everybody,’ says Dahl. ‘But they can be also be a way to connect with other people once you have recovered enough to make it into a funny story.’

Image credit: James Steidl/Shutterstock


Stephen Jones recommends

7 social hacks for awkward people

Read more

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

How to manage a liar

No-one likes people who are economical with the truth. But workplaces are surprisingly full of...

Where are the opportunities for growth in 2022?

MT Asks: The Metaverse, good customer service and regional investment could all be fertile areas...

Groupthink the cause of Partygate, argues workplace psychologist

Partygate happened because the 10 Downing Street team didn’t feel comfortable standing up to its...

Should a rule-breaking boss always step down?

As Credit Suisse’s António Horta-Osório steps down for breaking covid quarantine rules, Bojo has apologised...

How to know if it’s time for fight or flight

Here’s what leaders should consider if they find themselves in ethical hot water, by leadership...

“Hedging your bets is one of the worst things you can do as ...

Tharsus CEO Brian Palmer has just stepped back after years of bringing robotics into the...