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Four Steps to Manage Awkwardness

Updated: Oct 18, 2017

(and Communicate with Confidence).


You hear this all the time now. “I’m Awkward around so-and-so”, or “That was so awkward”, or “AWWK-worrrrrd”, the phonetically enhanced punchline to ‘defuse’ any situation and make light of it. Sort of.

That got me thinking – do we talk about Awkwardness in an accurate way?

What does it mean?

So let’s start the word itself – why ‘awkward’? Well, funny enough, the ‘ward’ is relative to ‘direction’, and ‘awk’ is to ‘backward’, as in the reverse direction. So Awkward came from ‘going in the wrong direction’, social embarrassment or even clumsiness, going as far back as the 1500s.

But what is perhaps even more curious is the division in how we perceive it, ranging from medical disorder, to a socialization issue, to a shift in our collective cultural identity.

So what is it? Something innate and psychologically-based causing us measurable anxiety, or a failure to adapt to newer ways of communicating without forgetting what it means to be directly human?

What makes us feel ‘Awkward’, anyway?

A lot of things, actually.

Medical News Today has a laundry list of items that can lead to social anxiety or ‘awkwardness’, including “excessive fear” :

  • Of being teased or criticized,

  • That other people may notice that the sufferer looks anxious

  • About being anxious, which makes the anxiety worse

You always hear that ‘Communication is Key’.

You NEVER hear that ‘Communication is Ris-ky’.

Why, though?

Interaction with other individuals or groups is a game of Odds, unconsciously measured as a win-lose scenario, with our own mind playing scorekeeper.

Will they like me? Will they accept me? What if I start sweating or stammering?

Let’s be fair: the message our culture gives us is that we love ‘winners’.

Am I rich? Am I popular? Am I good-looking enough?

True or not, this is what petrifies us.

What can we do to manage this?

1. Re-frame it: It’s not YOU, it’s the Situation.

Think of it this way: If you don’t know what to say, what is expected of you, or what you have to gain or lose, you immediately catastrophize, fearing the worst will happen. And this could happen to almost anyone.

This is why it may be better to talk about Awkwardness less as a ‘cultural’ state or personality type, and more of a situational anxiety that can be controlled with careful planning. Not only does this de-essentialize the problem – you stop ‘branding’ yourself as ‘awkward’ – but then we reframe it as a problem to be solved and this gives us a great feeling of control over our success.

More importantly, remember that we ALL feel anxiety!Just at different levels, in different situations.

Some folks simply have more triggers, or more situations/contexts that they are wary of, such as speaking to a large audience, singing, dancing, or even meeting an important person, like a political leader, celebrity, CEO or Parent-In-Law.

So in short, you are NOT an ‘Awkward Person’, you're a ‘Person experiencing Anxiety’.

2. Empathize with the person experiencing anxiety

We’ve all done this. We are the person feeling more confident and less anxious in a given situation, usually because we aren’t new to it – we’ve given a speech, or mingled with crowds a lot – and so we tell the anxious person they’re ‘worrying about nothing’, or ‘it’s no big deal’.

What we MEAN: They’ll succeed, and shouldn’t worry.

What they HEAR: Their concern isn’t important.

So instead, tell them about your first time in that situation, step-by-step how you ensured success. That knowledge is what they’ll appreciate, along with an encouraging pat on the back. Go get ‘em!

The trick is - if you can empathize with someone else’s anxiety, why not your own? Do you think less of them? Or do you have impossible standards for yourself?

3. Accept that it is OK to be a little stressed/anxious most times

Like we mentioned, human communication is all about Risk. It doesn’t matter if you’re walking down the street to get a tasty Burrito (spend on the Guac! It’s worth it!) or commuting to work on a train/bus, or stuck in the Elevator going up twenty stories with four other people. Western Culture trains us to keep to ourselves most of the time, and also to constantly fear being mugged, or robbed, among other things.

More to the point though, the more we interact with people, the more new situations and personality types we’ll come across. Like running into the first rude person you’ve met in months, cutting you off, or having a difficult co-passenger on a trip, maybe even the infamous YouTube commenters having a go at your favorite celebrity’s new video. Staying away from social interaction only makes it worse.

So, yes, we don’t know what’s around the corner (literally speaking, or in our inbox). And so we don’t have the life experience to have a template or schema to react to each unique situation.

4. Accept that Communication Risk is Good, because it brings out the best in us.

What if that’s okay, though? Wouldn’t life be boring if we knew how to react all the time, were never exposed to a bit of risk or awkward interaction, and find a good way to laugh it off later? We’d never have stories to tell others or in-jokes with our closest loved ones. And we’d stop learning.

Yes, it is scary to address a group of people sometimes.

And yet, what if you are the person in this moment that has the right message, the right demeanor, the right kind of reassurance that everyone desperately needs?

Exigence is a word in Rhetoric that approximately means ‘the critical situation or emergency demanding a written or spoken response’.

The best way to understand it is that phrase we often use: “somebody needed to say it”. Indeed! And why shouldn’t that person be you?

Leaders are constantly faced with this: the group of faces looking at you for answers, and yet doubt lurking within.

A quick technique: frame the dilemma as a question and ‘talk it out’. As you are talking out loud, feel for your own ethical compass, judge the room, the facial expressions. When do they perk up? When do they look disinterested?

You might say: “so we have an impossible choice here… do we cancel an order with one of our best customers or risk sending product that might ruin our reputation?” And as it did to me, it may occur to you… “Customers are hard to find, yes, but the good ones will always understand, even if they take a while to get back to the relationship you once had. But a bad product, a bad brand? That stinks forever.”

To embrace the Risk of Communication, think not of the awkwardness, the failure, the judgment that MIGHT come our way, instead think of how many small, great surprises await us.

No guarantees that the decision you make is the perfect one. Just the best one.

So go out there and speak your mind.


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