How to Overcome the I Don’t Know What to Say Syndrome

by Henrik Edberg


Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/caste/ / CC BY-SA 2.0

“There is no such thing as a worthless conversation, provided you know what to listen for. And questions are the breath of life for a conversation.”
James Nathan Miller

“If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time-a tremendous whack.”
Winston Churchill

One of the most common problems that people may run into in conversations – based on my own experiences, emails/comments I get and feedback from people in real life – is that their heads go empty and they don’t know what to say next. The conversation stalls and there is even perhaps an uncomfortable silence.

So how can you overcome this challenge?

Here’s what I do.

Why does this problem even come up?

First, here’s my short explanation why you might run into this problem. One reason might be that you are simply not prepared or out of your “regular world” (meaning for example that you go to a party to watch the finals in the world championship in rugby but know nothing about the sport while the other people are huge fans).

But a more common reason why you may run into this problem is that you feel that you need to say the “right thing”. You may want to not want to appear stupid by saying the wrong things or asking the wrong question. Or you want to impress someone.

1. You don’t have to be perfect.

Realize that you don’t always have to have the best answer or say the perfect thing. No one is expecting that except you.
Setting such ridiculous expectations just screws with your mind and improves nothing. Instead it can lead to a sort of performance anxiety that winds up paralyzing your mind. And so you don’t know what to say next.

2. Don’t think too much.

When you think too much you tend to have your focus inwards. You become self conscious, start to question yourself and fear what the future may bring. You get stuck between options for what to say and nothing comes out.

If you instead bring your awareness back the present moment you shift your focus outwards again. You notice what the people you are talking to are actually saying, what is happening in your conversation and around you.

This is the natural headspace stay in when you’re in a conversation. It’s a place where you probably are most of the time with your closest friends and family.

So how do you get into this comfortable and social headspace?

  • Breathe or observe. The simplest way to reconnect with the now is to just focus on your breathing or to observe and take in your surroundings with all your senses for just a minute.
  • Assume rapport. Basically, instead of going into a conversation or meeting nervously and thinking “how will this go?” you assume that you and the person(s) will establish a good connection (rapport). How do you do that? Just before the meeting, you just think/pretend that you’ll be meeting a good friend. Then you’ll naturally slip into a more comfortable, confident and enjoyable emotional state and frame of mind. In this state of mind conversation tends to flow more naturally without much thinking. Just like with your friends.

You may want to do a combination of breathing to relax if you feel tense and stressed and then you assume rapport to bring yourself into an even more positive headspace. Going straight from nervous to assuming rapport successfully may be too big of a leap.

3. Tap into curiosity.

When you are stuck in some kind of negative emotional state then you are closed up. You tend to create division in your world and mind. You create barriers between you and other things/people.

Curiosity on the other hand is filled with anticipation and enthusiasm. It opens you up. And when you are open and enthusiastic then you have more fun things to think about than focusing on your nervousness or fear. So be curious.

But when you are curious, don’t get stuck in the questions game where the conversation turns into an interrogation. Mix the questions up with making statements. Instead of asking what someone’s favorite film is just tell them what your favorite one is and the let them continue from that statement.

4. Associate.

Find something in what you are already talking about to help you move into the next topic. The topic of fishing lure commercials on TV can help you bounce over to the time you and your uncle got trapped in boat without fuel while fishing. And then you and the people in the conversation can go on to talking about family or the oil problems the world is facing.

You can also find inspiration for topics by simply observing your surroundings.

5. Prepare.

The tips above should help you out but if you get really stuck anyway then you may want prepare and have a few topics in your mental backpocket.

  • The person you are talking to. Again, curiosity is good because people like to talk about themselves.
  • Passions. People love to share positive emotions and usually like to know what makes the other person tick.
  • Watercooler topics and the news. It never hurts to be updated on what’s happening in the world.

6. Do the right thing.

This is more of a long-term solution but it makes conversations and just about anything easier and makes your life flow in a natural way.

If your thoughts and actions aren’t in harmony then you don’t feel so good about yourself. You feel like you are disappointing yourself and your self esteem sinks. If you on the other hand do what you deep down think is the right thing as much as you can then you feel like you deserve good things in life (and so the need to impress anyone significantly decreases). You feel confident and alive.

This does of course come through in a major way in any interaction.

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{ 21 comments }

Clinton Skakun January 12, 2010 at 8:37 pm

This can be a frustrating problem. But when you just start taking yourself less serious and maybe risk saying the wrong thing, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Steven | The Emotion Machine January 15, 2010 at 5:21 am

I agree Clinton! As a relatively introverted person, this is definitely something I have suffered from throughout my early school years. The advice in this article is very helpful though!

Oscar - freestyle mind January 12, 2010 at 9:18 pm

I identified myself with several points here. I particularly remain without words when I speak with someone whom I have a deep interest too. I think this happens to me because my desire to spend time with them is greater than the numbers of questions/experiences I can ask or share with them at that particular moment.

Avish January 12, 2010 at 9:35 pm

Nice article with some really goo d tips. As an improv comedy guy, I would add the “yes, and” idea to your points. Rather than struggling to come up with something new to say, simply listen (and be curious, like you suggest) and then respond with a question or statement that builds off of what they just said. So if they mention movies, you can either a) ask what their favorite is or b) mention yours and see what they say. It takes a lot of pressure off of having to keep coming up with new topics.

Thanks!

Johnny January 12, 2010 at 9:57 pm

Even with really conversive people, there is always the dreaded uncomfortable silence that appears once in a while but usually with the quiet types (like me). I usually counter this by blurting out the first thing on my mind to get the conversation started again. It’s not always the choicest words being said but it works… kind of like starting up that old Honda on a cold winter day.

Ideas With A Kick January 13, 2010 at 12:59 am

Nice one Henrick,

I find not knowing what to say to be a funny thing. Because our minds are always going, and there are always thougths spinning in our heads, whicj we can express. But we are afraid of not saying the right thing, so we edit them out. This is why I often recommend blurting: just say whatever comes into your mind right then and be at peace.

Eduard

Devin | Travel To Grow January 13, 2010 at 6:54 am

Great article!
I used to have this problem a lot, but I’m much better now…
I’ve found the key to flowing smoothly in a social conversation is staying completely in the present moment and OUT of my head. When you start monitoring how you are doing in the conversation, or thinking if your not talking enough, or worrying about what your going to say next or wondering if your being at all socially awkward then all these problems start to become a reality… if instead you stay out of your head, just be in the moment, and not even worry about it for a second everything flows and you wonder why you ever thought you had these problems to begin with.
Really listening to someone with genuine interest helps too. Ask people why they think what they think, and what makes them feel how they feel…don’t be afraid to ask deeper questions. Try to connect with the person fully without any social barriers in the way and it will be effortless and in addition people will enjoy talking to you more.

Jarrod - Warrior Development January 13, 2010 at 8:37 am

Thinking too much is a problem I certainly come across now and again.

When you hear ‘maybe I should say something?’ in your head then you know you have entered the wrong place. I find the best conversations flow without words flowing through my mind. To do that you either must have conditioned associations from society stuck in your head or you have to trust yourself and what you do.

Samarpal Singh January 13, 2010 at 10:37 am

It is really a wonderful site. I am very much thank for providing so much positive stuff.

Richard Shelmerdine January 13, 2010 at 11:27 am

This is a really creative idea for a post. I really like the “assume rapport” because sometimes just assuming rapport can bring rapport into a room. Trying to verbalize perfectly will always fail too because nobody knows the exact right set of words at any given moment. Great post.

Erich January 13, 2010 at 11:46 am

never being a social animal, i have dreaded this moment, however i’ve come up with my own fixes by concentrating on the “you” or who i’m speaking to. i also tend to put a small smile when the conversation stops and cock my head as if waiting for something, this often prompts another animated round.

Srinivas Rao January 13, 2010 at 6:04 pm

Interesting post Heinrik. I’m one of those people who rarely seems to run out of things to say, so it really stumps me when it happens. I think one other thing that people could do is to be present. That makes a huge difference because then you are focused on the conversation at hand. Also, I find that if you keep asking questions with genuine curiosity, people open up because the favorite subject of most people is themselves. Great tips in this post.

Hilary January 14, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Hi Hendrik – good points and helpful tips. I would add smile and be positive as you start a conversation .. for now it could be about the weather (here anyway!), and that anacronym FROGS – family, Occupation, Sport … except I can’t remember what the R and G stand for … hopeless!! Anyway it’s being open and finding out others’ interests and leading the conversation on.

I had one interesting experience – I met a plastic surgeon & his wife, when my mother and I were travelling over the Rockies, – and he was obviously very full of himself. So the second meal we had with them .. I just asked them questions – he mostly answered – they didn’t ask us one thing – and we were from England .. for the whole meal = I was amazed my ploy worked – as I’d set a test to see if that’s what would happen – frightening how self-centred people are.

Good to be here – have a good 2010
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Henrik Edberg January 14, 2010 at 6:21 pm

As always, thank you all for the added insight and tips. You made this article a lot more helpful for the readers. :)

Ellen January 14, 2010 at 7:04 pm

Hiya,

I just wanted to say that I loved your article. It was really well written and very informative :-) I’ll be using your tips this weekend, thank you very much!

Ellen

Jan January 15, 2010 at 9:54 am

Changing the ‘me’ -talk in to ‘you’ -talk seems to bring forward conversetation as it is about enquiring the things the other person is interested in. Usually, after a while, the conversetation becomes communication i.e. shared between the participants.

The other thing is to free yourself from the guilt of having things to say. There is no need of talking if you have nothing to say. Just listen.

jonathanfigaro January 15, 2010 at 5:22 pm

great blog post!

Josten January 17, 2010 at 7:01 am

I’ve learned that in conversations the whole secret is to be relaxed and yourself.

Steve-Personal Success Factors January 18, 2010 at 7:00 am

Perhaps the most important thing you said was to be curious, and to associate. By being curious and associating, you will always have new information and ideas to pose to the other person. And you do have to be confident and relaxed enough to let there be silence from time to time.

Roberto January 23, 2010 at 8:13 pm

Breathing always works for me.

Cathie August 25, 2010 at 5:45 am

“If you on the other hand do what you deep down think is the right thing as much as you can then you feel like you deserve good things in life (and so the need to impress anyone significantly decreases). You feel confident and alive.” I agree with so much. I think if I have integrity and do what I think is right, I feel much better about myself. It just makes sense.

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