The college students I work with are typically in the 18-22 age range. I am young enough that I can relate to them, but old enough that my pop culture references often go over their head. For example, I often joke that “I’m hip, I’m cool” a’la Austin Powers when talking pop culture with them – a reference which usually buys me some blank stares.
One pop culture reference that always gets recognition is the idea of “awkward.” A favorite of the millennial generation, #awkward has 2.4 million posts on Instagram. In 2012, a blog on the Chronicle of Higher Education reported the use of the word in an article titled The ‘Awkward’ Age. The author, Ben Yagoda, interviewed his then 21-year-old daughter Maria who shared a thoughtful reflection on the popularity of the term: “Youth culture needed a word to embody the discomfort that comes along with the extreme awareness of ourselves, and how other perceive us, that we experience in our day-to-day lives. My generation can’t handle lulls; with all our various forms of communication, we’re too quick and self-aware for social glitches to go unnoticed and unaddressed.”
As a career counselor and educator, a lot of my time is spent on teaching students how to handle a difficult (or awkward) situation, be it with a supervisor, co-worker or roommate. For young people, the thought of speaking up brings about a lot of anxiety. My job is to empower them to do so effectively. In education, we call this self-efficacy – one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations.
I have learned not to avoid confrontation but instead manage it. The more confident we are in addressing the situation in a positive and casual manner, the more at ease the other person will feel. Here are my tips and tricks for avoiding awkward and handling difficult interactions.
Keep your emotions in check.
The other person will pick up on the vibes you are giving off. If you are seething inside, the other person’s defensives will immediately respond. It’s their natural “fight or flight” mechanism going off. Avoid too much emotion or subjective interpretation. Stick to the facts. Managing emotions is half the battle in a difficult situation.
As my mom always said, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” You can be assertive and kind and still get your point across.
Do not address an already uncomfortable situation in front of other people.
You will increase the awkward factor by at least 50%. Make it a 1-1 conversation.
Do not address a difficult situation via email if you can help it. Find time to discuss in-person.
Your words can come back to bite you, especially when they are printed.
End on a good note.
End positively. If the situation is resolved, verbalize that it is resolved and all is well. Both parties will feel at ease and your working relationship can move on intact so that you’ll be better prepared to handle the next challenge.