Why Can In-Person Conversations Be So Awkward?

Have you ever found yourself blurting out the first thing that pops into your head just to keep a conversation going? Have you ever gone completely blank, and found yourself flustered and feeling horribly self-conscious because you can’t think of a single thing to say except “Nice”, “Um…er”, “Great!”?

You are not alone in sometimes finding one-on-one, in-person conversations awkward, especially when you don’t know the other person very well. It happens to the best of us! It’s not you, or your level of education, or your intelligence, it is just the way the human brain works. The funny thing is that it is caused by the same thing that makes you think of the perfect comeback in a conversation, after the conversation is over. Essentially, when this happens your brain is experiencing a 504 timeout error because it can’t process a response quickly enough.

Table Tennis Conversation vs. Chess Conversation

Most day-to-day conversations, whether they’re business meetings or personal interactions, are like a game of Table Tennis. When your opponent hits the ball to you there isn’t much time to think, you need to take your best shot when the ball reaches you. You don’t want to “drop the ball” so that the person you’re speaking with thinks you haven’t heard them clearly, have nothing to add, or that you don’t understand. So, in an effort to keep the conversation flowing, you respond but you may find that your responses are relatively superficial and not well thought through.

Think about it, when someone says something, the person they are speaking with is expected to not only hear what is being said but also process the words, analyze the context, interpret the intent, consider all the possible responses, and respond immediately without pausing long enough for the silence to become awkward. That requires some serious processing power, even for a computer as sophisticated as the human brain. If a conversation is going to be meaningful and considered it should be more like a game of chess where one player makes a move, and their opponent has the space and time to think carefully before responding and not feel pressurized by silence.

Group conversations are particularly susceptible to causing 504 errors because there is even more information to process. Imagine you’re in an investment meeting and a colleague makes a really important revelation about the deal you’re about to make and, while you’re processing the information and its consequences, another colleague jumps in with a whole lot of questions which raise other issues that you need to consider. You’d think that with more “players” to take the “shot” you’d have more time to process all this information but, with the additional input, there is more information to process and you may well feel overwhelmed and give up, participating with shallow questions or input.

Quick Thinking Has Nothing to Do With It

The speed at which you think is essentially the processing speed of your brain. Say you have two people who have exactly the same processing speed, they can both think as quickly as one another, but one knows more about a topic than the other. The one who has more knowledge will have more information to process and will thus take longer to respond.

Another factor that plays a role in response time is the processing itself. When we hear something, and we are knowledgeable about the subject matter, our brain will automatically think of associated information that it will need to process. This additional depth of knowledge does not necessarily mean that responses will be more appropriate or better decisions will be made, it simply means that it may take longer.

Then there is the context of the conversation that will also impact the response time. If you are in a meeting with your CEO and colleagues and your context is to impress them, or if your context is to evaluate the risk of changing suppliers, your brain will be processing the situational information in addition to the matter being discussed.

Anatomy of a Conversation

  1. Someone says something.
  2. The other person processes the verbal information and analyzes what has been said.
  3. They process the body language of the speaker and the tone of their voice.
  4. They process the body language and responses of others in the room.
  5. They consider the subtext of the statement made.
  6. They think about what the right question or response will be.
  7. They consider what the potential reaction of the speaker will be to that question or response.
  8. If they experience the dreaded 504 error and aren’t sure what to say, they can go back to point 6 above until they do.
  9. Once they have decided on what to say or ask, the question or comment needs to be framed to avoid offending anyone, sparking defensiveness, or inspiring a positive response.
  10. They deliver their response.

As you can see there is a LOT of processing that happens in simply responding to a statement or question and you may need to take time to process all this information before being able to make a well-considered response. Making a meaningful contribution to a conversation has nothing to do with how quickly you think, it has to do with the amount of verbal, visual, and contextual information you have to process and giving yourself the space and time to do this.

When you start feeling awkward in a conversation remember that it probably isn’t because you’re not a good conversationalist, but rather because your brain processing a lot of information. Take your time, ask the person you’re speaking with to clarify, and don’t be afraid of taking long pauses should you need to. The person you are communicating with is going to appreciate a well thought through response rather than you saying the first thing that pops into your head.

If we are to engage in conversations that are productive and enjoyable, conversations where we listen carefully, where we take time to consider what is said and what to say, where we feel heard and understood; we need to make a concerted effort to ensure our conversations are like a game of Chess rather than Table Tennis.