Perhaps the single most important conversational skill is recognizing when others are signaling discomfort.

If you can recognize subtle expressions of discomfort, you can try to solve the problem before it escalates.
Perhaps you have asked a question that they do not want to answer, or requested an action they do not want to perform. Perhaps your turns at talk are too long, not giving others the chance to participate.  Perhaps they have become bored of the topic and would like to change it, but you are not cooperating.  Perhaps they wish to end the conversation now, but you are not picking up on their signals and they fear they will have to be rude.

If you recognize that your conversational partner is expressing discomfort, but you don’t know why, it’s perfectly fine to ask!

Nonverbal Signs of Discomfort

  • diverted gaze
  • quick grimace settling into a pained expression
  • a shift to a more ‘closed’ posture (arms crossed and/or hunched over)

Verbal Signs of Discomfort

  • A longer-than-usual unfilled pause, perhaps followed by a vocalized pause (uh…., um…., hmm…., oh…., well…., (audible sigh)). Note that pausing (unfilled and/or vocalized) may also be a sign that the speaker just needs time to think, but in that case, the speaker will not pause too long without saying something like “hang on, let me think about that….”  to show that they are not unwilling to answer; and the body language while the speaker is pausing will usually differentiate between “reluctant” and “focused thinking” signals.
  • Slower than normal speech, with no enthusiasm (monotone), as if words are being dragged out of them.
  • Giving only a vague response to a request for information.

The words tell us only that “that’s my favorite story,” but the speaker clearly projects that he is experiencing some discomfort. His facial expression is distinctive: he winces! He shifts his posture slightly, as if to make himself smaller. His voice is hesitant and he trails off at the end.