Awkward conversations usually occur in one of two ways -- people run out of things to say or someone says something inappropriate. If you've found yourself in either of these situations, you know how difficult it is to shift the conversation. Planning ahead for awkward lulls and knowing how to handle tough questions will put you in good shape the next time a conversation takes a detour.

Paraphrase

Sometimes conversations become awkward because you don't know what to say next after someone is finished talking. If you find yourself caught in this dilemma, consider simply repeating back in your own words what you have heard -- with an empathic tone, advises psychology professor Susan Krauss Whitbourne, in the Psychology Today article, "10 Tips to Talk to Anyone About Anything." For example, if your best friend is upset after talking about a fight with her boyfriend, say "It sounds like the fight with Billy last night was really upsetting." People often have want to be heard rather than to be given a solution to a problem.

Ask a Question

If a conversation is awkward because you don't know the other person well, consider asking a question to learn more about that person and to find topics of mutual interest, suggests the Yale University resource "Conversation Tips." For example, if you are talking to a new friend at a party, say "So, how do you know Jennifer?" or "I like the music tonight. What bands do you listen to?" Think ahead if you know you will be in a situation with strangers, and have at least three open-ended ("how" or "what") questions ready to use.

Offer a New Topic

Sometimes conversations become awkward in a group situation. If you're with a group of friends and the discussion hits a lull, consider it an opportunity to offer a new topic of conversation, suggests Krauss Whitbourne. Say, "What did you all think of the new episode of Lost?" or "What did everyone think of the new dress code rules at school?" Try to choose a topic that is inclusive -- meaning that anyone in the group will be able to respond or the topic has wide appeal.

Be Direct

Conversations can take a nasty turn if someone says something inappropriate. Some people are plain rude, while others may not be aware that they have made you uncomfortable. In both situations, take control with a strong and assertive statement such as "I would prefer not to talk about that." If the other person persists, turn to someone else in the group and start a conversation about a different topic. Being honest and direct helps to improve communication and ensure that you don't end up angry and resentful, advises psychologist John Grohol in the Psych Central article "9 Steps to Better Communication."