Communicate

How To Handle Life's Most Uncomfortable People

Life is full of awkward moments. We meet people who share intimate details about their personal lives after shaking our hands, others who barely have the capacity to talk, and find ourselves in delicate situations with our friends and family. In trying to relieve our discomfort, we often make matters worse, but that doesn’t have to happen. You can survive any awkward situation with the right mindset.

We’ve turned ourselves into well-mannered animals, choosing relentless caution and politeness over honesty. When someone puts us in an awkward situation, we tolerate it rather than communicating honestly. No one wants to be brutal, but you can be kind and candid at the same time.

The key to solving uncomfortable situations is to be confident that nothing can make you truly uncomfortable. It won’t happen overnight, but you can learn how to handle almost any awkward encounter human with a few key strategies.

People Who Don’t Know What To Say

We’ve already shown you avoid becoming an introverted weirdo. What should you do when you encounter someone who falls into that category? When someone is shy the first time you meet them there are a couple of things you can do to help the situation.

Ask A Simple Question That Requires An Opinion

If you’re a good talker you already know that treating a first meeting like an interview can a conversation moving easily and help find common ground. If someone’s shy, ask them about something that requires a definite opinion. If you ask how many siblings they have or if they like to travel you can easily end up with a single word answer. If you ask about a recent news story and what they think about it, you can hear their opinion and show that you’re not going to judge them for being honest, even if you disagree with their viewpoint. This strategy can help them open up. Hear what they have to say, respond where you can, and ask them why they feel a certain way when you don’t agree.

Show Them You’re OK With Their Discomfort

You may not enjoy someone else’s discomfort, but if you let them know you’re OK with it you can move past it. Try saying: “I might be wrong but it seems like you’re a little uncomfortable. Did I say something that put you off?” Gretchen Rubin from the Happiness Project suggests this variation:

“We’re really working hard, aren’t we?” or “It’s frustrating-I’m sure we have interests in common, but we’re having a difficult time finding them.”

This kind of tactic works for two reasons: (1) You put the awkward situation in the open which means no-one’s more trying to hide it; (2) you take the blame for it. From there, you can offer to tell them an embarrassing or private story so they can see you’re not judgmental. That can help to establish trust.

Don’t Be Boring

Most people will open up if you’re honest and demonstrate that you’re a safe, non-judgemental person. That said, you won’t make other people comfortable by being overly cautious. If you ask boring questions you’re much more likely to receive boring answers. Take reasonable risks (such as the news story tactic we discussed earlier) rather than sticking with dull small talk. Your goal should be an interesting conversation, because then you always walk away from the interaction with a positive experience.

People Who Share Too Much Information

The opposite of the shy talker is the person with no boundaries: the kind that tells you intimate life details you didn’t want to know within seconds of meeting. That conversational tactic often has an air of desperation. How can you handle it?

Be Honest

One common strategy is trying to exit the conversation as quickly as you can. Common approaches include taking a trip to the toilet, grabbing a drink, or saying you need to say hello to a friend who has just arrived. While all of these options give you a temporary respite, they leave open the possibility of resuming later. If the conversation really is awful, don’t fear the honest approach. Have the courage to be direct.

If someone’s conversational topic choices make you uncomfortable, tell them. Ask yourself this: why are you staying silent? Why should you remain uncomfortable just to avoid awkwardness? The situation is already awkward, and telling someone you’re uncomfortable doesn’t have to be a cause for anger or further dispute. All you have to say is “I’m really not comfortable talking about this” or “I’d rather talk about something else” so they’re fully aware of your boundaries. Relationship and family therapist Roger S. Gil agrees:

Whether it’s letting that person know that you’re not comfortable talking about a particular subject or giving them rules about when it’s appropriate to call you (such as “don’t call me unless you’re bleeding”), you need to let this person know what your limits are. When they cross them, let them know in a respectful manner. Don’t let them bully you, but don’t be a jerk either.

No matter how clear you are, you won’t always escape an awkward conversation with a direct and honest response. Sometimes you do just need to leave. Instead of using a tepid exit excuse, tell the truth. For example, you could say “we’ve been talking for a while and I really want to see some other people here.” With this strategy, you’re clearly establishing that the conversation has finished, but avoiding the harshness of “I can’t stand talking to you anymore!”

If you’re in a one-on-one situation such as a date, you have to make a more difficult choice: staying with this person for the minimum amount of time before leaving, or telling him or her that you’re not enjoying yourself and want to go. Both situations lead to awkwardness, but you really have to decide whether you prefer to rip off the bandage or peel it off slowly. I think it’s almost always better to take a straightforward and honest approach. Telling someone you don’t want to spend time with them isn’t fun for anyone, but ultimately it provides closure for both of you. If you don’t want to see this person again, you’ll have to tell them eventually. It may as well be now.

Be A Mirror

Spending time with an over-sharer will make you want to pull your hair out if you’re constantly dwelling on how horrible the situation is. When you can’t get out and you can’t be honest, be a mirror. Start over-sharing yourself. If your conversational partner is comfortable with providing too much information, you’re not taking much of a risk by sharing too much yourself. Have fun telling them things nobody else wants to hear about. Don’t let the other person dominate the conversation. Assert your right to talk as well. At the very least, this will make the time pass a lot faster.

People Who Inspire Uncomfortable Conversations

We’re all capable of behaviour that can result in potentially uncomfortable conversations. Your neighbours play music at ear-blaring volumes or have loud sex; your housemate promises to do his or her chores but never follows through; family and friends won’t stay out of your personal business. It’s awkward to sit someone down and tell them they’re causing you trouble, especially when you’re dealing with sensitive topics, but it isn’t impossible.

Don’t Assume Anything

The first key rule: don’t let assumptions drive your conversation. If you’re woken up every morning by loud sex through the walls of your apartment you shouldn’t automatically assume your neighbours are aware of the problem. You also shouldn’t assume that they’ll agree that what they’re doing is always a problem; after all, it’s not illegal to have and enjoy sex. The same goes for lawn mowing or loud party music: you don’t automatically have a right to complain regardless of the time of day. You can still speak out if something bothers you, of course, but you shouldn’t assume your neighbours are aware they’re causing a problem.

This can be difficult in the moment because you’re angry. Roger explains how best to approach a conflict:

When teaching couples how to fight fairly, therapists will validate the clients’ anger if it’s an appropriate emotional response to something. The therapist will then tell the clients to avoid responding to their mates’ target behaviour while experiencing an intense emotion. The same is true for confronting someone. While it’s tempting to tell someone off, doing so will likely get them to focus on the fact you’re telling them off and not on what you’re actually saying. I often tell clients to wait until their emotions die down (usually between 20-30 minutes) before attempting to confront the offending party.

In the case of a first offence, regardless of what it may be, give yourself some time to cool off. If you can’t approach the situation with a level head, you’ll only make matters worse.

Prepare A Simple Request

The same applies lazy housemates, overbearing parents, chronically late friends, smelly coworkers and anyone else who makes you uncomfortable for any reason. Often they’re not aware they are causing a problem, even when it seems completely obvious to you. They may think their behaviour is tolerable because no-one else has ever complained; they may be vaguely aware there’s an issue but not know how to resolve it.

You need to approach the conversation with the aiming of making one simple point: their behaviour makes you uncomfortable. Don’t tell them they should know better or that everyone is judging them. Use this as your template:

You may not be aware of this, but your behaviour is making me uncomfortable. You’re entitled to your own personal choices, but perhaps we can come up with a compromise that suits us both.

When broaching an uncomfortable topic, simply tell them the issue and say that you want to figure out a mutually agreeable solution to the problem. Perhaps you work late and don’t wake up until 10 in the morning. You could ask your neighbours to forego their sexual activity/lawn mowing/death metal band rehearsal until you have enjoyed a full night’s rest. If you approach the situation positively rather than simply demanding someone stop, you’re more likely to achieve results.

Be Relentless When Nothing Changes

Ideally, you want to resolve awkward situations as quickly as possible without creating conflict. Unfortunately, that won’t always happen. Some people are just giant turds who don’t care how you feel. These people require a little more persistence.

Take the noise-related example. If asking them to modify their behaviour makes no difference and they’re not interested in seeing your point of view, you’ll need to look at the heavier options. Find out the local laws or strata regulations regarding noise. Lodge a complaint every time it happens. Ultimately, maintaining a low level of noise needs to become a more desirable option for the offender. If you can’t make that happen through a polite conversation, make it happen by forcing them to deal with authorities every time they break the rules. The same principle works for other situations as well: make the problem more inconvenient for the person causing it and they’ll shift to a more desirable behaviour.

Above All Else, Maintain Self-Confidence

Situations become awkward when you decide they’re awkward. If you choose to feel uncomfortable when you don’t know how to handle a situation, you’ll often feel uncomfortable. It’s better to laugh and enjoy it, make fun of yourself, and move on. What people say and do doesn’t change who you are.

If you like yourself, there isn’t any need to feel bad about being honest with people. Feeling awkward comes from a place of fear, but there’s really nothing to be afraid of. Remember that, maintain a healthy amount of self-confidence, and you should have no trouble braving the strange world we live in.