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


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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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • jonathanfigaro January 15, 2010, 5:22 pm

    great blog post!

  • Josten January 17, 2010, 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, 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, 8:13 pm

    Breathing always works for me.

  • Cathie August 25, 2010, 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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