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That awkward moment: why we should embrace everyday embarrassments in working life

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Even the coolest of cats has the occasional moment when it all just goes paws up, and in the world of work, there's no shortage of opportunities for putting your foot in it too.

But as our guest blogger Nicola Greenbrook finds, there are ways of turning these embarrassing experiences to your advantage...

That awkward moment: why we should embrace everyday embarrassments in working life

Awkwardness is one of the most common but uncomfortable qualities we can experience.

Whether it's saying goodbye to someone only to find you're both walking in the same direction, or having to speak to a team member about their 'personal hygiene' issue, embarrassing moments and tricky conversations take place regularly in our personal and professional lives.

In a new book by Melissa Dahl, senior editor at New York Magazine, called 'Cringeworthy: How to Make the Most of Uncomfortable Situations', she explains the compelling psychology of awkwardness. Why we feel it, how to manage it, and why even the most cringeworthy moments could be valuable to your development.


Why we feel awkward

Awkwardness can manifest itself in different ways: talking too fast or making terrible jokes for example, but why exactly do we feel it?

Melissa defines awkwardness as 'self-consciousness tinged with uncertainty' and offers a theory; when the 'you' that you think you're presenting to the world clashes with the way the world actually sees you.

As she explained in a recent interview with The Verge, "We like to think those two 'yous' are one and the same, and sometimes they are, but sometimes they're not". We may feel secondhand embarrassment for others quite easily, but when it comes to ourselves, it's not as simple to identify the gap between who we think we are and what the world actually sees.


Office awkwardness

Falling over on your commute is up there with the least desirable of situations, but the likelihood is you won't see the people who saw you stumble ever again (phew). However, saying something in jest in the office that caused offence or addressing poor performance with someone in your team can feel more tricky - after all, you see your colleagues every day and sometimes more than your family.

Working in the third sector can arguably provide even greater potential for awkwardness. You might accidentally say "there's no need to shout, I'm not deaf!" to someone who (you then discover) relies on a hearing loss charity, or overcompensate when offering help to a wheelchair user, unaware you're actually causing them embarrassment or inconvenience.

According to disability charity Scope UK, two thirds of people feel awkward around disability. Not enough people know or interact with disabled people and, because of this, they panic or avoid situations for fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. They created the #EndTheAwkward campaign which offers some invaluable tips to help everyone feel more confident about disability.


Embrace the awkward

With all this in mind, now could be the time to be an 'awkward-embracer'. Our natural instinct is to run away from an embarrassing moment but it could be an opportunity to remedy it. As Melissa says, 'it's useful information when your inner idealised person is not being perceived well'.

This gives you a chance to consider the other person's perspective, how what you meant to say was taken in another way and to put it right.

In the excruciating moments when we feel uncomfortable, we can get a little closer to the person we want to be. For example, attending a network event or a job interview can make you feel vulnerable and awkward, but can take you out of our comfort zone and help you develop.


Managing cringeworthy situations

In a professional environment it's likely you've been caught up in at least one cringeworthy moment, such as making a sarcastic remark about someone you've just spoken to on the phone - only to discover you didn't actually hang up. Or you may need to have a challenging conversation about something delicate, like a team member's personal issue that's impacting on their work. Both of which you may find awkward or even painful. ACAS defines a difficult conversation as 'where you have to manage emotions and information in a sensitive way'.

Here are some practical ways to manage these situations:

Confront

Don't ignore or run away from an awkward moment or put off difficult conversations. Try to acknowledge and face up to the issue as soon as possible, handling it in the best way you can; you may avoid experiencing what Melissa calls a 'cringe attack'; little humiliations or awkward situations from your past that come back unbidden to haunt you, sometimes years after they first occurred.

Plan

Finding the right words during a difficult conversation can be hard, so planning in advance can help. Jot down a few notes to keep you on track - the facts, what you know about the individual, any policies to refer to. Avoid composing a script; you may feel obliged to read it word for word which will appear artificial, plus the recipient won't know their 'part' and so it will naturally go off script.

Change your mindset

If you categorise the issue as a 'difficult conversation' that's going to be 'awkward' it will only heighten your trepidation. Instead, view it as a 'normal' conversation and shift your approach. For example, if you're a manager giving feedback about poor performance, treat the discussion as way of providing constructive evaluation and helping the individual to develop.

Apologise and move on

If you've said or done something awkward, it's not the end of the world. Say sorry and express regret, but don't let it finish the conversation and do your best to move past it. Avoid re-running 'mental footage' later on - it's likely the other person has already forgotten. Melissa draws on our tendency to overthink how closely others notice what we do, which she calls 'the spotlight effect'. She reminds us that no one is really keeping track of what we said or laughing at our foibles for too long - they're far too busy worrying about themselves.


Rather than berating ourselves for causing a cringeworthy moment or dreading that difficult-but-necessary conversation, it might be time to tolerate and even embrace the awkwardness.

By acknowledging the occasions when you're not perceived well and putting it right immediately, preparing for a challenging conversation or apologising for (not running away from) an awkward situation, you may create a better, more memorable impression - and grow braver and more experienced along the way.

 

Nicola Greenbrook, Freelance Writer and HR Professional

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