When you find yourself at a loss for words about how to console someone who is dealing with a personal tragedy, you may be tempted to avoid saying anything. After all, awkward conversations are really uncomfortable. It is even more uncomfortable during these times with racial tension, and the struggle for equality in the workplace, business, sports, law, and pretty much every aspect of society.

But avoidance is not a solution to the problem, nor will it lesson the discomfort and tension. Sometimes, you need to face those issues head-on, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so. Here are eight tips for making an awkward conversation less awkward:

1. Speak up.

Knowing what you need to communicate can help you deliver your message in a way that will prevent as much awkward silence as possible.

2. Speak privately.

Don’t hold an impromptu conversation in the hallway when you happen to pass by the person. Instead, meet in a private room where no one else can overhear. And if someone else brings up an awkward subject first in a public setting, suggest holding the conversation elsewhere.

3. Have a seat.

Sitting can add comfort to an otherwise difficult situation. At the very least, make sure you and the other person are on the same level. Set the right tone, do not remain standing while you talk to a person who is sitting, you’ll be physically talking down to them — which is not the tone you want to set.

4. Offer a warning.

Soften harsh words or direct questions with a simple warning. Soften the blow with a word of caution by saying, “What I’m about to tell you might be a little difficult to hear.” That gives the other person a minute to emotionally prepare for what you’re about to say.

5. Acknowledge your discomfort.

Denying your discomfort can cause you to come across as disingenuous. If you’re fidgeting, shifting your weight, and averting eye contact, acknowledges your anxiety. Offer a quick sentence that explains what the other person already senses, such as, “I’m a little uncomfortable bringing this up.”

6. Be polite, keep it short.

While it’s important to be polite, don’t soften your words so much that your message gets lost. Indirect communication will only add to the other person’s confusion about what’s really going on. Stick to the facts and keep the conversation short.

7. Be an active listener.

Give the other person a chance to process what you’ve said. Be an active listener by reflecting back what you hear and by offering clarification on points that may have been misunderstood.

Be prepared for the other person to show various intense emotions, ranging from embarrassment and sadness, to fear and anger. Be willing to help the other person process those emotions where possible to your best abilities. 

8. Bring the conversation to a clear close.

Awkward conversations often end in an equally awkward manner. Uncertainty about whether the conversation is actually over, or confusion about what will happen next, only adds to the clumsiness.

If you’re going to follow up on something, state that. If you expect the other person to take further action, express your expectation. Then, end the conversation by saying something like, “That’s all I wanted to talk about today. Think about it and get back to me with any questions.”

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