It happens when you least expect it — an uncomfortable conversation we immediately wish we could do over. Of course, we never set out to have a weird or difficult exchange with someone (especially at work), but sometimes that’s what happens. The good news is that things don’t have to continue to be weird afterward — there are plenty of ways to bounce back and make things right again.
We asked members of the Thrive community to share their tips on how to recover from an awkward interaction. While everyone has their own way to cope, it’s good to remember it happens to everyone, and you can move on.
Empathize with your listener
“I attempt to recover from the situation by extending empathy. I’ve found this helpful especially during emotionally charged situations. As a leader, especially, it’s important to never shy away from sensitive and difficult conversations. I’ve always found it helpful to focus on why people say what they say, as opposed to what they say. It’s important to acknowledge the other person’s point of view and perspective to show that you care to move the conversation forward.”
—Vinutha Narayan, global head of strategic programs, San Francisco, CA
Realize that someone’s reaction says more about them than you
“Recently, I was at a birthday party for some friends and neighbors. When the bill came, I took the drink bill because I wanted to pay for it on behalf of my friend’s birthday. The husband of the birthday lady grabbed it and started shouting at me. He said if I paid for it, I would never ever be invited again. I was pretty shocked and let him pay. I was also pretty hurt, but I waited to see how I felt about it the next day. I did not take it personally — to me, such a reaction signaled he had been triggered, but it wasn’t my fault. The next day, he approached me with words of apology and I readily accepted them!”
—Susy Giddy, life coach, Mont Tremblant, Quebec
Look to the future
“I remind myself that everyone is human, and that an awkward encounter has most likely happened to them before, too. The best thing I can do is smile, let it go, and think ahead to our next positive interaction instead of dwelling on the awkward one!”
—Brooke Muller, social media associate in healthcare communications, New York, NY
Reflect and prepare
“I find it’s easiest to mirror the person’s facial expressions, mood, and attitude if things become awkward. Afterward, I’ll reflect on the conversation went so I’m prepared for the next one. I think about whether this person had a sense of humor, if they were chatty or straight to the point, and then before the next conversation I have with them, I’ll decide if I want to ask them about their weekend, make a joke, or jump right into an important discussion. Going in prepared after having one awkward conversation is all you can do.”
—Bea Maloney, finance associate, New York, NY
“My company’s receptionist was late or absent many times in the last month. We all grumbled about it but did nothing. One day, the CEO blew up and told me to fire her on the spot. When our receptionist arrived, I had channeled all my anger. I called her into my office and told her it would be her last day. She was devastated. In my anger, she had become a problem — not a person. I put up my hands, apologized, and asked her to help me understand why she had been late so often. It took a moment, but I could see her relax just a bit. I learned she was juggling childcare and helping her sick mother. When I took time to understand the situation, we were able to have a real conversation that helped us find a solution. We never know what is going on in someone’s life. I learned that It’s good to stop for a moment, especially when we are angry or emotional, to find out what’s happening and then show the other person genuine care.”
—Noal McDonald, HR consultant, Los Angeles, CA