From time to time, conversations land in one of two disaster zones. Everyone tries to speak at once or nobody says anything at all.

When either of these things happen, I find myself thinking about the art of conversation itself, and wondering why it’s gone wrong. As an attitude to have, this isn’t helpful. I realised (whilst supposedly meditating) that such analysis actually is a hindrance and becomes a barrier to actually having the conversation.

Too many voices

Sometimes there’s a rush, and everyone wants to speak at once.  Everyone has so many ideas and thoughts and corrections to add to the conversation. When I’m thinking about what you’re going to say it’s easy to lose awareness of the cadence of conversation and forget to observe the people around you enough to know who else is about to leap in on the same beat. Of course, it doesn’t really matter. I laugh, say go on’, or ‘you first’ and the conversation continues. The thought that I ought to be more aware is a negligible worry that dissipates with my fascination of what comes next.

When nobody speaks

Then, there are those other times when nobody speaks. A natural lull falls in conversation. One pattern ends and the next hasn’t yet begun.

There’s a slim line between ‘awkward silence’ and a comfortable pause. What’s more, the same pause in conversation can be both at the same time, but to different people. Once you analyse the situation and define it as awkward, you feel awkward and it becomes so. Anything that’s subsequently said feels desperate, difficult and unnatural.

Why conversation fails

Often, I feel like the sacrificial lamb that says something to make a fool of itself in order to end the forbidding silence. It can be easier to witter onwards than go back and look at why such feelings of awkwardness are happening.

Most often, it’s a case of being more concerned with how I’m interpreted by my companions than with what my companions actually have to say. With all the Buddhist teaching I’ve had recently I can’t help thinking ego, ego, ego. More people leads to more people to impress which results in more overwhelm and an overload of gobble-de-gook or conversationalist’s block.

No wonder I often find strangers, whose judgement I don’t fear, easier to talk to than my loved ones.

Other times an awkward silence happens because the conversation is edging too close to something I don’t want to talk about. Maybe something that I feel uncertain about, or that I’m acutely aware than I have no idea how to express in a manner that’s not going to get me labelled as crazy or will just end up leading to more awkward questions.

And sometimes it’s not knowing what to ask or say because I feel I should already know the answers, or because I’m worried it’s a question or a topic that’s boring or uncomfortable for my companions. Just because I want to talk, doesn’t mean the person I’m facing wants to hear about that particular whim at the forefront of my mind.

Mostly though, if I’m honest, it’s just me trying to protect my ego. I don’t want to take a risk that I’ll say something stupid, irrelevant or boring that is going to make my friends think less of me. And by doing so, by having such inhibitions, I’m selling myself short. I’m not speaking when I should and I’m latching onto irrelevant conversation topics just for something to say.

I feel awkward, and therefore interpret the conversation flow as awkward, when I put self-preservation above learning from the people I’m with.

To me, this is a profound and useful thought to acknowledge.