The Best Ways to Start an Otherwise Awkward Conversation

Awkward situations can be overcome with a bit of small talk.
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Maybe you found yourself at a friend's birthday party and you only knew the host. Perhaps you have a tendency to be shy, and starting conversations is difficult for you in general. Knowing how to make small talk and smooth over the awkwardness of initial encounters is a social skill worth learning. Take the time to master this skill and you won't find yourself at a loss for words -- regardless of the awkwardness of any predicament.

1 Talking to Strangers

Meeting strangers can create awkward situations. Whether you are starting at a new school or having dinner with distant relatives, not knowing people can be an impediment to conversation. In the Psychology Today article, "10 Tips to Talk About Anything with Anyone," Susan Krauss Whitbourne, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, suggests doing a bit of detective work before these types of situations. If possible, find out who you will be meeting and learn enough about them to prepare potential questions.

2 Elephant in the Room

Some conversations are awkward because there is an elephant in the room. Perhaps a best friend has had a recent loss in the family, or a dispute between you and your sister has overshadowed a family gathering. If you feel it is appropriate, address the issue that nobody is talking about in a direct and empathetic way. Tell your friend that you are sorry for her loss, or your sister that you wish to move past your differences. In some situations, you may wish to keep to small talk and avoid the big issues, particularly if emotions are running high.

3 Difficult Topics

Beyond an elephant-in-the-room scenario, some conversations are awkward because you have a difficult subject to discuss or unconventional request to make. For example, if you are feeling stressed about how to ask your mother for permission to go on an overnight trip, you might not know how to start the conversation. Give the other person fair warning so that the conversation doesn't take her by surprise. Leave your mom a note letting her know that you would like to talk about something important -- or send her a text -- whatever method of communication works best for you. The idea is to prepare her for a potentially difficult conversation and make it less awkward to broach the topic.

4 Shyness and Social Anxiety

Sometimes we have trouble starting otherwise awkward conversations simply because we are shy or socially anxious. If you want to push beyond your shyness to start a conversation, try using indirect approaches. For example, social and personality psychologist Jeremy Nicholson suggests asking someone for a favor, asking a question or making a statement when talking to someone new. You might ask to borrow a pencil in class, ask a girl where she got her boots or offer a comment about the weather. Ideally, the other person will reciprocate and the conversation will become less awkward.

Arlin Cuncic has been writing about mental health since 2007, specializing in social anxiety disorder and depression topics. She served as the managing editor of the "Journal of Attention Disorders" and has worked in a variety of research settings. Cuncic holds an M.A. in clinical psychology.