On The Spot vs. Lower Pressure Conversations
This article will talk about a distinction I've noticed in how different types of conversations can feel. Most of the time when you talk to someone there isn't a ton of pressure to it. Maybe you still have to work to think of things to say at times, but overall the atmosphere is fairly unrushed and relaxed. At other times you'll find yourself talking to someone and you'll feel very on the spot, in the hot seat, and like you have to struggle to do most of the work to come up with stuff to talk about and keep the discussion going. I'll go over these two rough types of conversations, and give my thoughts on how to deal with the more high-pressure ones.
'On the spot' conversations
Whether a conversation feels 'on the spot' or not is an internal, subjective thing. It's not something that always comes up in certain situations. It doesn't necessarily last the entire conversation either. That 'on the spot' feeling can come and go, and pops up most often when you've just started talking to someone.
Like I was saying, when you're having these conversations you feel like all eyes are on you, that you have to say something, and there's a tension or awkwardness in the air. Another feature of them is that it's usually just you and the other person (or people), face to face, needing to say something to each other, with no other distractions. Of course, the problem is the pressure to come with something to speak about can make you nervous and make your mind lock up, so you don't think of anything at all, or stumble over your words.
Some common situations where this feeling can occur are:
- When you run into a neighbor in your building's elevator. It's just you and them in a barren box, with not a lot of time to have much of a back and forth before the trip is over.
- Similarly, when you run into a co-worker in the hall or in the break room. Again, the time pressure can ratchet up the intensity.
- When you run into a mild acquaintance in public. Here the fact that it's unexpected may leave you a bit tongue-tied.
- For some people, they feel like this when they have to talk to someone on the phone, or through video chatting.
- When you're first talking to someone you don't know well. When you're at a mingling-oriented event you may get this feeling with each new person you chat to. Also, when you initiate the conversation you often really do have to drive the discussion, while the other person waits to see what you have to say.
- The whole effect from the previous point is magnified if you approach a group of people. Then several pairs of eyes are on you as you address them. It can feel awkward talking to everyone in the group at once. You can also feel very exposed if you're trying to talk to one person in the group, and the others are just standing there watching the exchange take place.
- I think the 'on the spot' sensation is more likely to happen if you feel like you're bothering people or interrupting them, or if they wouldn't have any natural reason to talk to you otherwise. For example, if you tell yourself you should talk to someone so you can network with them, it may charge the interaction with an uncomfortable vibe in your mind.
- The 'on the spot' feeling happens most often with strangers. It can catch you by surprise by appearing around friends or acquaintances in the right context. For example, you may have no problem chatting to your co-workers every day at lunch, but at a staff party at a convention hall you may find yourself standing around with them in the middle of a big room, with this, "Um... what to say? What to say?" feeling. The unfamiliar circumstances may have temporarily robbed you both of something to talk about.
More relaxed conversations
In contrast to situations that put you in the hot seat, some scenarios take a lot of the pressure away. Here you don't have to think of something to say right at that moment. You have some leeway to not always be contributing to the conversation, or to respond to people instantly.
Some situations where everything can be more low key are:
- Slipping into a group of people who are comfortably chatting. You can hang back, listen, and pitch in when you want to.
- Hanging out with another person or group where there are other things taking people's attention, e.g., you're all watching a movie on TV, strolling around, playing video games, or going on a bike ride. There's no expectation that you need to be talking to each other every second.
- Going up to someone in a situation where there's no expectation of talking, e.g., going into the staff break room and seeing a co-worker there who you're totally at ease with. You can start a conversation at your leisure, and fiddle with your lunch or phone first. It may be okay to eat or flip through a paper for a bit, chat for a minute or two, go back to something else, talk again briefly again, and so on.
I mostly mentioned the more relaxed type of conversation to compare it to the trickier 'on the spot' variety. Most people don't have as much of a problem with relaxed conversations. Though one issue is that while there's less pressure to talk, you don't want to be completely silent either. You do have to contribute occasionally, but sometimes the lack of urgency can lead you to sit back a little too much. The article below has some ideas on being able to think of things to say if you need it:
Handling the 'on the spot' feeling
Just being more aware of how that 'on the spot' feeling plays out, and the contexts it often appears in can help. Everything is worse when it catches us off guard. When you know what something is as it's happening, and you can reasonably predict when it will occur, then it's a lot easier to deal with. It may still be tough and take some work in the moment, but at least it won't totally come out of nowhere. Instead you can, say, go up to someone at a party and think, "Okay, I'm going to feel a bit nervous and like my mind is blank for the first 30 seconds or so. But it's just part of the territory, and it'll pass pretty quickly. I'll just say the things I need to say to push through the hard part."
Another thing that can help is to realize that when you feel on the spot and like you can't think of something to say, it's usually caused by outside factors, not because you're an intrinsically boring or awkward person. Like I said, even people who are friends can sometimes find themselves feeling at a loss for words around each other. Conversations can just be a bit tricky right at the beginning before everyone finds their balance. If you took any two normal people, suddenly threw them together, and said, "Both of you, talk to each other! Now!" they'd likely stutter and fumble at first.
A general piece of conversational advice that definitely applies here is don't be afraid to fall back on supposedly boring, routine small talk questions. This is what they were made for. You show your friendliness and interest. You get the discussion rolling. You have something to fall back on since the more creative part of your mind is seized up temporarily. Don't worry about seeming dull and unoriginal.
The more you practice talking to people in these awkward situations, the easier it will get. After a while you can get used to those weird first few minutes and start to feel more comfortable and confident during them.
It's totally understandable that we all avoid or put off starting some conversations in the first place because we want to steer clear of that uneasy 'on the spot' feeling. Like if you see our neighbor in our building's mail room, it can be so much easier just to check if anything has arrived for you and get out of there without saying a word. No one is going to bat a thousand, and I'm not saying you always have to be in the mood to want to chit-chat with people either, but try to start these conversations anyway even if they don't feel the greatest at first. As I said, when you know they're going to feel pressured at first it's a lot easier to navigate them.
These related articles may also be useful: