5 Signs You’re Making Someone Uncomfortable
… and what to do about it.
While waiting for a drink at a coffee shop, I noticed two women in conversation. I was mostly staring off into space, but then something caught my attention. I couldn’t hear the discussion; I could only see its effects. The two had been chatting pleasantly and then suddenly one of them stiffened. The other kept blithely talking away. The listener stared intently at her coffee. She shrunk inward, pulling her sweater tightly around her. One knee began bouncing violently under the table and she moved her coffee cup closer to her.
All this happened within moments, just as my name was called. I picked up my coffee and left, wondering what had sparked the reaction and whether the speaker ever figured it out.
These moments happen to everyone. You say the wrong thing. You have bad news to share. You hit a tender spot. There will be times when you make others uncomfortable. In fact, sometimes you need to bring up something that you know the other person won’t want to hear.
When others are receptive to you and your message, communication flows effortlessly. But when people feel ambushed, embarrassed, shamed, or triggered, communication stops. You might still be talking, but your message is not being heard. When you detect signs of discomfort, then you can take steps to put the other at ease so that communication can continue. If you forge ahead obliviously, you will only further alienate them.
Below are five signs that the person you’re speaking with can’t fully hear you because they are more focused on their own discomfort than on your message. If you see one or two little things, don’t read too much into it. For example, if the woman at the coffee shop had simply tightened up her sweater, I wouldn’t have even noticed. She may have just been cold! It’s when you get an overall picture of discomfort that you need to pay attention to the red flags and adjust.
1. Sudden Baseline Shifts
Everyone has their own comfort zones, and you have to know them in order to assess when someone feels uncomfortable. The more time you’ve spent with a person the easier it is to spot when they act out of character. However, since most people fall into communication patterns, it generally doesn’t take long to establish a baseline and note sudden shifts.
There are three abrupt shifts that are often easy to catch:
- Subject. This one is pretty obvious. Randomly and quickly changing the subject often means, “I don’t want to talk about that right now.”
- Breath. Stress changes your breathing patterns. If you hear a sharp intake of breath, that’s a cue something distressing just happened. <gasp!> Usually, the whole body freezes, too.
- Voice. Watch for changes in the three P’s—pace (fast or slow), pitch (high or low), and power (loud or soft). When someone who has been speaking slowly noticeably speeds up, for example, or someone who typically speaks loudly quiets down, take note.
Be careful not to put too much weight on a single shift; these could have nothing to do with you. Maybe the person on the phone gasped because they just dumped ice water in their lap! (Not that I’ve ever done this, of course.) Or perhaps they realize that time is running out in your meeting and they want to make sure a certain topic is covered. Be mindful of the context. Don’t take these personally but do notice and adapt.
2. Nervous Energy
Some people have a great deal of energy and can’t sit still to save their lives. Others have specific tics they may be unaware of. If it’s baseline behavior as mentioned above, don’t worry about it.
However, when feeling anxious or angry, the body directs energy to legs and arms to prepare to either run or fight. Rarely do we actually act on those impulses… though if someone literally runs away from you, it’s a strong sign they were not comfortable in your presence! Usually, in fight-or-flight, that extra energy shows up in less dramatic ways:
“I want to run.” When you see legs and feet that bounce, jiggle, kick, stamp, or tap it’s a sign the person wants to move. It could be positive—maybe they’re excited to get started on the project you’re discussing. Or it could mean they’re uncomfortable and want to get away.
“I want to punch something.” In a “fight” response, all that extra energy goes to the arms. You may notice clenched fists, tightly crossed arms, drumming fingers, or what might seem like compulsive or extreme pen tapping or clicking. *clickclickclickclickclickclick*
“I want to be comforted.” When stressed, many people instinctively adopt “self-pacifying” behaviors, such as wringing hands, patting thighs, rubbing the back of the neck, or covering eyes. Most touching, including touching your jewelry or clothing, indicates you’re trying to calm yourself down. Other self-pacifying habits involve the mouth: biting nails, chewing the lower lip, or tightly closed lips.
When put together with other cues, these signals can demonstrate that the person you’re speaking with does not feel safe. Tread lightly and work to build rapport and trust before continuing.
3. Poor Breathing
You likely do not consciously notice the breathing patterns of others, but unconsciously, you pick up on the difference between relaxed and distressed breathing. Low, deep breathing exudes calm confidence; shallow, quick breathing reveals stress.
If the person you’re speaking to is breathing shallowly or holding their breath, you’ll notice the following: stiff, choppy movements, an edgy voice, tension in voice and body, broken sentences or difficulty finding words, and sometimes sighs or gasps, as mentioned above. When someone is comfortable with you, communication is easy, smooth, and fluid.
Recently, I asked for audience participation in a workshop and the group stiffened. Oops! They weren’t ready for that. I breathed myself, slowly and deeply, to create an atmosphere of safety, gave the participants an additional warm-up activity, and came back again a few minutes later when the group was better prepared.
Human beings naturally approach things and people that they like and feel comfortable with. You seek out and engage with anything you think will do you good. Conversely, you turn away from anything that might cause you harm—physically, socially, professionally, emotionally, or spiritually. Social norms prevent us from literally turning our backs on people we don’t like the way we did in kindergarten (most of the time), but nonverbally, others may still communicate a desire to create some distance between themselves and you or the topic being discussed.
Here are some typical signs of discomfort and avoidance:
Eyes. Eyes are the “window to the soul” and therefore looking someone in the eye can be deeply personal. Eye contact is a sign of engagement; a lack of eye contact can indicate a need for space. Covering eyes often means, “I don’t really want to look at this issue.”
Insisting on eye contact when someone is avoiding it is invasive—to ease tension, find something else both of you can look at. If you want to destroy rapport, saying “Look me in the eye when I’m talking to you!” will definitely do it! It’s better to back off when needed.
Orientation. Particularly note which direction the feet and torso are facing. Someone who wants to engage with you will turn their whole body toward you, perhaps even leaning in your direction. If, however, the person is looking at you but their body is facing away or their feet are turned toward the door, it’s a good sign they’re trying to be polite but want to escape the conversation.
Space. If a person seems to be shrinking, making themselves as small as possible, it’s a sign they do not feel comfortable. Sometimes, they simply lack confidence. It may have nothing to do with you. But if you see someone visibly shrinking as you address them, take note.
Blocking. People will often put literal physical barriers between themselves and someone or something that makes them uncomfortable. A friend of mine once picked up a throw pillow and clutched it to his chest when a certain difficult topic came up in conversation. You might see people pull a jacket or sweater closed, open up a laptop, set a bag on the table between you, or hold a book or report (or pillow!) to their chest.
Difficult conversations happen; they are a fact of life. Just because someone is uncomfortable with the subject matter doesn’t mean you should skip it. However, noticing signs of discomfort can help you navigate rocky terrain. When these signals pop up, you’ll get farther if you slow down, ease up, and proceed softly.
5. Evasive Word Choice
Given the breadth and depth of human languages, the words people choose can provide subtext. “Hello” sends a different message than “Hi” or “Howdy,” though the actual words mean the same thing. Just as body language can communicate avoidance, so can verbiage. Here are some things you might hear when you’re making people uncomfortable:
Vagueness. When you hear a comment that is so full of jargon, corporate-speak, circular references, or simply words that seem to mean nothing at all, the person might be too uncomfortable to say what’s really on their mind. (Then again, some people speak this way habitually!)
Apologies. If the person you’re speaking with repeatedly says, “I’m sorry” when no apology is necessary, it may be an attempt to ingratiate themselves. This can also be habitual, so be sure to watch for other cues as well; however, constant placating may be a sign of a perceived power imbalance and a need to create some safety.
Verbal Crutches. When anxious, certain phrases can pop up either to bolster or soften what someone is about to say. Statements that attempt to add weight include, “to be honest,” “frankly,” “to tell the truth,” or “the important thing here…” Softeners include, “in my opinion,” “maybe,” “it feels like,” or “it’s probably just me, but…” There’s nothing wrong with these phrases in certain contexts, but if you’ve noticed other signs of distress along with these words, your conversation partner likely doesn’t feel they can speak freely.
Hesitation. Have you ever thought, “Would you just spit it out!?” When rapport is high and conversation is positive, words flow smoothly without awkward pauses. Difficulty finding words demonstrates that the person you’re speaking with either can’t think—they’re stressed and not breathing, and therefore unable to collect their thoughts—or has concerns over your reaction to what they have to say. In addition to hesitating, sometimes this shows up in phrases that stall for time, such as “that’s a good question” or repeating something you just said. Keep in mind that for some people, especially introverts, stalling is a natural (and helpful!) conversation tool. Taking some time with an answer could mean the person is deeply reflecting upon your question and taking it seriously. If that’s the case, they will be calm and still during the pause, as opposed to tense and stilted. As with all these cues, look for patterns.
When you see these signs of discomfort (and trust me, you will!), don’t make up stories about what’s going on in the other person’s head. You have no idea. Are they embarrassed, angry, hurt, offended, feeling stupid? You don’t know. Simply note that you’re seeing signs of discomfort without interpreting them.
Then, mitigate. Pause and breathe. From there, depending on the topic, situation, and your relationship with the person, you might change the subject, check in, use humor to lighten the tone, acknowledge what you’re seeing, or continue the conversation but at a slower, gentler pace. To create safety, keep breathing, use open body language, and hold space. If it’s an important conversation, you might postpone the discussion, change venues, or depersonalize the interaction by looking at a visual aid, using less personal language, and coming from a place of curiosity.
Life is uncomfortable. Not all the time, thankfully! But moments of tension, stress, and unease will intrude in your conversations. Often, they are fleeting and don’t require much investment from you. But other times, you’ll need to proactively work to keep the conversation moving forward and the relationship healthy. When you start noticing these signals, you’ll be empowered to respond appropriately. And instead of leading to communication breakdowns, these uncomfortable moments can turn into opportunities to build rapport and connection.