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By Jane Long on August 12th, 2011

I recently came across a quote by Timothy Ferriss that I've been thinking about ever since: "Success in life is measured by the number of awkward conversations you're willing to have."

Though awkward situations are inevitable, this reminded me of a life lesson I learned by observation on the job.

A few years ago, I worked as an intern for a nonprofit. Each week an employee was scheduled to give a presentation during the staff meeting to update the company on their progress and how their department was doing.

When it was the graphic designer's turn to present, it became obvious that she had thrown together her presentation at the last minute. Her PowerPoint slides didn't work properly, she looked flustered, and she apologized nearly a dozen times as she shuffled through her scribbled-down notes. Her discomfort was so palpable that it made her seem even more unprepared than she probably was. The boss became noticeably irritated, and I squirmed just watching the situation play out.

Another week, it was the PR director's turn. When the boss called on her to give her presentation, shock registered on her face. I could feel tension building in the room as we anticipated another awkward situation and an unhappy boss. Without missing a beat, though, she just politely said, "Oh gosh, I completely forgot it was my week. I'm sorry about that. Could I do my presentation next week instead?" And that was that. No profuse apologies. No acting like she was in the hot zone.

I was amazed at how quickly she diffused an uncomfortable situation. Though she'd made an even bigger mistake than the graphic designer, her reaction was everything. Even if inside she felt embarrassed, after her initial shock, she didn't show it. Because she acted like the situation wasn't awkward in the slightest, everyone else just followed her lead. Even the boss mirrored her demeanor and said, "Oh...okay. Sure," like it was no big deal (which was rather out of character) and moved on. 

Moral of the story: Things are (most of the time) only as awkward as you make them.

While this tactic might not work every time (in some cases, you have to be careful not to appear too flippant about a mistake), nor will it get you out of awkward situations in the first place, it can make them a lot less uncomfortable once you're there.

Now I just need to figure out how to put this into practice when it comes to networking--the career aspect I find most uncomfortable. What situations do you find most awkward, and how do you deal with them?

Photo taken from this photostream and used with permission of a Creative Commons license.