How to get comfortable with the ‘awkward silence’

Lockdown’s Zoom chats and Skype calls have changed the way we talk to one another, and not necessarily in a good way. 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that everyone in the UK experienced the following during the coronavirus lockdown: a sudden urge to bake sourdough or banana bread, a primal need to binge-watch all of Netflix’s Tiger King, and a lot – and we mean a lot – of Zoom calls.

That’s right: whether you used it to chat to friends, family or colleagues, there’s no denying that Zoom has ruled supreme over the past few months. And no wonder, really: the remote working tech has made it easier than ever to host virtual quizzes, deliver presentations, and stay connected with… well, with everyone.

However, as lockdown restrictions are eased across the country and we slowly reemerge from our homes, there’s no getting away from the fact that all of our virtual catch-ups have impacted the way we chat with one another IRL. 

Indeed, we’ve become so used to cramming as much as we can into our 40-minute conversations (did anyone ever pay for Zoom premium?) that we find ourselves speaking more (and more quickly) than ever. 

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The result of all this? It’s rendered the so-called ‘comfortable silence’ seriously uncomfortable.

Panicking over the ‘awkward silence’

Once upon a time, we relished those quiet pauses. We’d glance up from our work and catch a colleague’s eye, smile, and get back to it. We’d sit next to our friends after laughing great big belly laughs, too breathless to speak, eyes alight with joy. We’d read at separate ends of the couch to our partners, flicking through the pages and simply revelling in the fact that they were near. We’d flick through Netflix mindlessly with our sisters. We’d enjoy a meal at the table with our parents, chatting occasionally as we foused almost entirely on the delicious mountains of food before us.

We’d be able to sit and just be in someone’s company, essentially. But now… well, now it feels like we’re constantly fighting to fill the quiet with noise.

Two friends wearing face masks sit on a bench as they maintain social distancing at the Botanical Gardens , Sheffield, UK on a warm day on 22nd May 2020. (Photo by Giannis Alexopoulos/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
People are tentatively starting to meet up with loved ones as lockdown restrictions are eased over the UK.

Over the past week, I’ve met up for two (socially distanced, obviously) walks with friends, and each time I’ve ended up talking non-stop – to the point where I’ve wound up sick of the sound of my own voice. Something I would have previously seen as a natural lull in conversation is now an uneasy limbo between sentences, and a definite source of anxiety.

Essentially, the ‘comfortable silence’ feels far more vulnerable, far more uncertain, than I remember it being pre-lockdown. It has become the ‘awkward silence’. And it’s not just me who feels that way, either.

“I find myself talking a lot faster now,” one co-worker tells me confidingly. “I worry about running out of words, and I feel under a lot of pressure to keep conversations going. I think Zoom calls have made me think of conversations in terms of efficiency, and, when I can’t maximise this, it feels like I’ve failed.”

Another notes: “When there’s a pause on Zoom, it feels like the end of the world – especially when everyone rushes to fill the silence at once and talks over one another. I used to find that hilarious, until it started happening IRL.”

And still one more tells me: “I don’t know if it’s just because I’ve spoken to far fewer people since lockdown, but one of my closest friends has seemed particularly incapable of letting a moment of silence pass during our conversations on the phone. As someone who will quite happily take a breath between topics of conversation, I’ve sensed an urgency for her to fill every second with something which quite often ends up being a repeat of what had just been said or obscure filler.

“That said, I’ve been feeling the need to panic and extend my sentences on work Zoom calls lately, particularly when it feels like no-one is responding to what I’ve just said.”

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Why do we need to get comfortable with conversational lulls?

Couples therapist Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari wants us to remember that sitting quietly with someone has the potential to “be an intimate and connecting experience.”

“In relationships, conversations are often just reactive,” she says. “We wait for someone to finish what they’re saying so we can start on our own agenda. By doing this though, we’re often not really listening, just reacting to the narrative you have in your head, and not necessarily to what your friend or partner has said. Information gets lost. And the person you’re talking to might not feel heard or understood.”

Instead of reacting, then, Ben-Ari suggests that we try to reflect back on what we just heard, and make sure we understand.

“Then ask the magic question – is there more to this? You might be met with silence from the other person who wasn’t expecting this, but by inviting them to say more, a safe psychological space is developed. Take the silence as an opportunity to go deeper. There might be something they’ve had on their mind for a while but haven’t had a chance to share with you.

“If the question is asked of you, then take a couple of deep breaths and think about what you really want to say. Having the space to stay with something in silence and in connection, especially when the topic is emotionally charged, can be a very powerful experience. This communication technique, taken from Imago Relationship Therapy, can transform the way you relate to others.”

A woman on a Zoom call
The lack of physical reassurance we experience during Zoom calls makes us work harder with our voices and observations.

Ben-Ari adds: “Silence doesn’t mean nothing is happening. In fact, it’s often the other way around – a lot is happening and on a deeper level. We are giving the gift of our full presence to the other through the connection.”

How do we transform an ‘awkward silence’ into a comfortable one?

Ben-Ari advises that, with friends or colleagues, we should slow down our reaction to what is being said. “Take slow breaths, tell the other person you hear them, but allow the time to think about what comes next,” she says.

With a romantic partner, Ben-Ari suggests that we try sitting opposite one another, holding eye contact and hands for five minutes with no words.

“This can be a powerful and emotional experience,” she says. Practice this, alongside the listening technique above, and you will start to feel the benefits of comfortable silences and the deepening intimacy and connection it can lead into.”

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When not to sit with comfortable silences

“If you and your partner are in silence, but each one thinks about their own issues and avoids talking about what is in their heart, it’s just avoidance,” says Ben-Ari. “Being in silence with each other but you’re both looking at your phones is also an unproductive silence. 

“With comfortable silences you can feel closeness and intimacy… there’s an energy in your body. With avoidance silences you might feel distant, lonely, misunderstood, withdrawn in your own world. You might also find yourself in inner monologues rather than actual dialogues with your partner.”

Ben-Ari adds: “If this is the case, invite your partner to share what is on their mind and heart right now. Ask them how they experience the silence and whether you are actually avoiding each other. Share with your partners what are your feelings or concerns about the silence and have a safe conversation about how to deepen symbolic (words) and non-symbolic connection (body language and comfortable silences). 

“When you come with an open heart and mind and with vulnerability and appreciation, you can work wonders for your relationship.”

The Ready for Love courses by Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari are available to book here.

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