Though it’s not often diagnosed or really discussed, anyone who’s ever been stuck standing with a group of strangers who are staring at each other wordlessly is acutely familiar with the condition known as sedatephobia, or the fear of silence.
Even if you’re not technically afraid of silence, if you’re a human being, you are probably deeply uncomfortable with it, especially in a conversation. You’ve probably also, at some point, admired someone who seems to be completely immune to them, blinding everyone in the room with the confidence and charisma. But charismatic people — the ones who are really great dinner party guests, coworkers, or just people to know — usually share one trait: They know when to talk, and when to ask.
In her comprehensive CreativeLive class, Master Your People Skills, body language expert and researcher Vanessa Van Edwards explained her best tip for erasing awkward silences from any conversation.
“You have to have a follow-up question,” she explained. “You have to tie it back to them.”
“The biggest mistake I see people make when they tell a story is they tell their story and they just end it. And there’s sort of like, a laugh or an awkward pause, and you’re like ‘what to do next? Oh, I’m so awkward.’ So you have to end your story with a great question.”
If you think about it, an awkward silence usually directly follows a non-silent period of conversation, which is most likely either the answer to a question (“Where did you grow up?” “Boston.” [Silence]) or the end of a story (“and that’s when we found the cat!” [Laughter. Then silence.]). When one of those parts of the conversation ends, the lull forms, and everyone scrambles to come up with what to do next. To avoid this, says Vanessa, you need to prepare for the inevitable by adding a follow-up question to the end of your stories or conversation points. Before you even begin to tell a story in conversation, think of your way out of the story and into the next line of discussion.
Ending a story with a question, says Vanessa, not only ensures that the conversation keeps going, but also prolongs the chemical response that participants and listeners have when hear stories.
As Vanessa explains, the human brain “lights up” when it’s being told a story; in fact, it releases dopamine which make the listener feel like they’re actively participating in the story. People who are perceived as charismatic or charming, then, are the ones who can tell stories which interact with the listeners brains, draw them into conversation, and continue to make them feel good as participants. Basically, asking a follow-up question keeps the good times going, both in the room and in the brains of the people you’re talking to.
Then next time you’re in a conversation, whether it’s at work, on a date, or just out with your in-laws, try finishing any story you relate (even minor ones about your day) with a follow-up question. The awkward silence will melt away, and you’ll instantly become one of those people who seems effortlessly charismatic.