Confident conversations: how to avoid those awkward silences

“I don’t know what to say” is one of the top challenges people have when starting a conversation with a stranger. People may believe that they don’t have anything engaging to contribute or assume others won’t be interested. Even if they start a conversation with some small talk, they may find that they have run out of topics to move the conversation forward after a couple of minutes.

If you have ever felt this way, then the following five tips will make conversation and communication easier:

Relax and start listening

Don’t worry about leading the conversation; instead, learn to be a good listener. This requires you to:

  • Maintain eye contact. Don’t look around the room or glance at your phone.
  • Nod every once and a while. It’s a non-verbal signal that shows that you are absorbing what the other speaker is saying.
  • Speak up occasionally, even if to reaffirm your presence: “Good point!” “Interesting, I didn’t know that.” “What was that like?”

Engage in conversation

It’s good to have small verbal and non-verbal polite conversational behaviors like those listed above, but at some point, you’ll have to engage. The good news? It’s easier than you think.

Ask questions: the sooner you do, the sooner you become part of the conversation. You’ll also delve deeper into a topic where you may find common interests or experiences. Most people give up too early in a conversation and miss the nuggets of information that are waiting just below the surface.

Ask a relevant question

If you have been focused on what the other person is saying, think of a question to ask to learn more. Most people ask about something that follows the logic of the conversation, but general knowledge also helps.  

For example, if you are new to a city, read the local news or get to know the names of sports teams or local politicians. It’s awkward if people are talking about someone in the public eye and someone asks, “Who is that?”

Stay engaged—even when it is challenging

Not all conversations are going to be an intellectually stimulating experience. They’re more often about getting to know other people, trying to find common ground, and seeing things from another person’s perspective. 

While a discussion may not fall in your personal area of interest, its value is that you can learn something new. This simple shift can make all the difference.

Get rid of that awkward silence

We’ve all been in situations where the conversation just dies. If it happens to you, try not to let too much time pass before someone says something. If it doesn’t feel right to ask a question related to the conversation, you can say, “On another subject, what do you think about…?”

A few more tips for confident conversations

  1. If you’re uncomfortable talking with someone you don’t know, you are perfectly normal. Many people feel the same way.
  2. Listen with the goal of understanding the other person, instead of planning what you’ll say next.     
  3. The easiest way to keep a conversation going is to ask a good question. It doesn’t have to be a deep, profound, complex multi-part query; it’s a good question when you care about the answer.


Gayle Hallgren and Judy Thomson, CA, are facilitators who teach these workshops:  Mitacs Step Networking Skills, Skills of Communication, and Career Professionalism. Find free guides and helpful free tips at their website


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