Unless you plan on spending your life in baggy sweatpants with your hair tied in a knot by a velvet scrunchie from the 80s (be honest, that sounds amazing)—you’re going to eventually walk outside and be around other people. Lines are still open for a family member or friend to call on a phone or send a message through one of the many social media options.
While not impossible, it’s difficult to avoid interacting with other human beings, and with those interactions come questions. No matter how much we love or respect our family members, friends or colleagues, you’ll eventually be faced with a question that you’d rather not discuss in a public forum.
How do you respond to these awkward life questions with grace and elegance? The answer isn’t, unfortunately, baggy sweatpants with your hair tied in a knot by a velvet scrunchie from the 80s.
Let’s first look at the specimen under a microscope.
What questions are we talking about here?
How much money do you make?
Why are you still single?
Are you dating anyone?
Have you totally given up on the whole dating thing?
When will you give me grand-babies?
How many sexual partners have you had?
When did you decide to give up pursuing your childhood dreams?
Does this look normal to you?
When is the baby due?
Why didn’t it work out with so-and-so?
We cringe at these questions because they’re requiring us to be wide-slam open and vulnerable. To some questions, we may not even know the answer yet. The answers to these questions could be long, delicate, intricate, or involved. The reason why these questions feel awkward is that putting the question out there assumes three truths: 1) It assumes you have a logical and detailed answer in a simplistic delivery package; 2) It assumes you are ready to discuss it; 3) It assumes the person asking the question is the person you want to discuss the topic with. If one of the three assumptions is incorrect, you may find yourself fumbling for a response or immediately acting defensive.
Here are five tips for handling awkward moments initiated by awkward questions:
1. Take your time with your response.
When we feel vulnerable, we tend to become immediately defensive. When our body physically reacts with a racing heartbeat, a fuzzy mind and shaky hands, an impromptu forming of a sentence is an extremely difficult task. That is your body’s sympathetic nervous system kicking in; your natural “fight or flight” system telling you to exit the situation pronto.
You can override this system by tapping into your parasympathetic nervous system. Deep breaths, pausing and making slow movements such as setting down your fork full of spaghetti and folding your hands before responding will help you calm down and buy you time before speaking. Slowing down tells your body not to fear or rush. You are not being timed, so take your pause and your deep breaths before responding.
Here are 5 tips for handling awkward moments initiated by awkward questions.
2. Respond to their direct question; volunteer no further explanation or details and then segue into happier thoughts.
You do not need to explain yourself or your current circumstances. If you are asked a yes-or-no question, simply answer yes or no. You are not required to explain, defend, or provide further information if you do not want to.
If you are asked an open-ended question, simply answer as honestly as you’re willing and close the topic. For example:
Colleague: “How do you feel about the layoffs at work?”
You: *Pause* “It’s upsetting. I hope it isn’t too hard on everyone, but there are happier things we can talk about.”
In this example, you directly answered the question and provided closure by sending the message that you are not willing to discuss this topic at this time or place.
3. In order to more deeply understand the person asking the question, try to identify their “why.” Why do you think they’re asking you this question?
Most likely, they feel close to you. They may be asking you a revealing question because they genuinely want to know about your life. If their intentions are to learn more about you and your life, identify why they are asking you the question and proceed with genuine kindness. For example:
Father: “When will you give us grand-babies?”
You: *Pause* “I can hear your excitement for a future role in all of our lives. One day, if and when the time is right, you can use that excitement to change diapers!”
If their intentions are to expose something personal to you in hopes of harming you, set a healthy boundary for yourself and the conversation. For example:
Colleague: “How much do you make?”
You: *Pause* “I am not sure why that information is necessary to our relationship, but I am open to talking about why you feel it is.”
This doesn’t shut them down completely but opens the door to further understanding.
4. Stay upbeat and confident.
Remember this is your story and you are in charge of how you deliver it. Staying upbeat and smiling delivers confidence and structure for how the conversation will move forward. When we are feeling vulnerable, we are tempted to go into attack mode which includes name calling, eye rolling, and bringing up past scenarios that may not be relevant. All you’re wanting to do is change the subject, but staying upbeat and confident in your response will inevitably move the conversation forward in a happy manner. For example:
Brother-in-law: “When did you decide to give up on your childhood dreams?”
You: *Pause* “My childhood dreams are still very much a part of me and my daily work.”
When you stay positive, your audience stays positive and then everyone can move forward.
How do you respond to awkward life questions with grace and elegance?
5. In your answer, establish a clear closing.
When we are talking about vulnerability, you set the rules. You decide who knows what information. Never be afraid to simply say, “This is something I’m not willing to discuss right now, but I am happy to address it at another time.” Ending a conversation in a respectful and upbeat manner commands respect from those listening.
To summarize, navigating responses to questions that make you feel vulnerable is not easy or fun, but the power lies within you. They are waiting to hear from you, so you are in the position to set the stage. Remember this key formula: Breathe, Pause, Direct, Why, Smile, and Close. Following this formula allows you to respond while setting healthy boundaries for yourself and everyone around you.
In closing, be kind to yourself. Afterwards, on the replay, you may not feel you “nailed it” or “got it right,” but you’re living and breathing and made it through. Answering the tough, awkward questions is part of life and you are not alone when it comes to experiencing these moments. That is why sweatpants and velvet scrunchies were invented, right? So, Breathe, Pause, Direct, Why, Smile, and Close. Then you can be on your merry way!
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