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I’ve always been uncomfortable talking to someone new or people I don’t know well.
Over the years, I’ve learned exactly what to do whenever I found myself thinking “I don’t know what to say”.
First of all: It’s NORMAL not knowing what to say. I thought there was something wrong with me. It just turned out that I needed to learn some strategies for when my head goes blank. You see, social skills aren’t something we’re born with. They’re just that – skills – something we can learn.
Here are my tricks for how to always know what to say.
1. Build the conversation around 4 starter-questions when you meet someone new
When you’ve just met someone, you need to make small talk to warm up to more interesting conversation later on. But how do you actually know what to say?
These are the questions I always have in the back of my head, ready to fire off whenever needed. (Just knowing that I can have them as a safety net makes me more relaxed)
Don’t fire them off all at once, but use them when a topic dies out:
- How do you know people here?
- Where are you from?
- What brings you here?
- What do you do?
Now, be careful not to flood the other person with questions. Then it might seem more like an interrogation than a conversation. It’s important to equally share things about yourself, which leads me to the next tip.
(My guide on how to start a conversation here.)
2. Use the IFR-method to balance your conversations
Ever come across someone who constantly asks questions? Annoying.
Or someone who NEVER asks questions? Self-absorbed.
For years, I wondered how to find a balance between talking about myself and asking questions.
We don’t want to constantly ask questions, nor constantly talk about ourselves. The IFR-method is all about finding that balance. Here it is:
Inquire: Ask a sincere question
Follow up: Ask a follow-up question
Relate: Share a little bit about yourself, related to what they said.
The other day I talked to someone who turned out to be a filmmaker. Here’s how the conversation went:
Inquire: – What kind of documentaries do you do? She: – Right now I’m doing a movie on bodegas in New York City.
Follow up: – Oh, interesting. What’s your take away so far? She: – That almost all bodegas seem to have cats!
Relate: – Haha, I’ve noticed that. The one next to where I live has a cat who always sits on the counter.
And then I inquire (IFR repeat): Are you a cat person?
You want to make the conversation go back and forth like that: They talk a bit about themselves, we talk about ourselves, then let them talk again, and so on.
Notice how with the IFR method, it’s easier to come up with things to say.
- If you find yourself thinking “I don’t know what to say” when you’ve asked a question, follow up on what you just asked.
- If you don’t know what to say when you’ve asked a follow up-question, relate to what you just asked.
- If you don’t know what to say when you’ve related, inquire about what you just said.
3. Practice shifting your focus to the conversation (instead of focusing on yourself and what you should say)
When therapists help people who completely lock up in conversations, they use something called Shift of Attentional Focus. They instruct their clients to focus all their attention on the conversation they’re in rather than thinking about how they come across and what they should say next.
(It’s hard, especially in the beginning, but gets surprisingly easy with some practice)
Here’s how to do it:
Say that you ask someone how their week was. They reply “I went with my friends to Paris last weekend, it was great!”.
Here’s what I would have started thinking before I learned about this method:
“Oh, she’s been to Paris! I’ve never been there. She’ll probably think I’m boring. Should I tell her about that time I went to Thailand? No, that’s stupid. I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY!”
And so on.
With Shift of Attentional Focus, on the other hand, you constantly move your thoughts back to the conversation.
Let’s REALLY focus on what she just said. What questions might we come up with to move the conversation forward?
- What was Paris like?
- How long was she there?
- Is she jet lagged?
- How many friends did she go with?
It’s not about firing off all these questions, but to fully focus and let your natural curiosity come up with questions. You can then choose which ones to actually ask.
Focus on her sentence above and see if you can come up with even more questions.
4. Move the conversation over to them
Another thing you can do to come up with things to say is to stop trying to come up with conversation topics. I know, that sounds weird, so let me show you what I mean.
Of course, if you’re already feeling nervous, it might not be so easy to just “relax and stop worrying about it”. But there’s a trick that you can use if you’re nervous.
Shift the conversation over to the other person by asking sincere questions. This keeps the conversations going, and as it moves forward you can throw in small facts about yourself that you feel comfortable sharing.
For example, if work comes up, you can ask basic questions like:
- Is it stressful at work or how do you like it?
- What does your job look like more specifically?
- What do you want to be doing in 5 years?
- Is it a good company to work for?
These Why What How questions are great across the board, on any topic! You want to break up the questions by sharing a little bit about yourself every now and then, like I talked about in the IFR-method above.
Here’s my guide for how to break up the conversation without asking too many questions
5. Use Conversational Threading as soon as a topic dies out
One of my favorite methods to know what to say is Conversational Threading. It’s not only helpful for continuing your conversations – but it also makes them be more dynamic.
In short, conversational threading comes down to the fact that your interactions don’t have to be linear.
For example, if you’ve exhausted the last topic you were on, you can always jump back to something you’ve talked about earlier.
If your friend mentioned that they saw a movie last weekend, and then the conversation moves on to, say, work, and then the work topic dies out, you can say
“By the way, you said that you saw a movie last weekend, was it good?”
Here’s a video that explains conversational threading with a real-world conversation:
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6. Rethinking awkward silence will make you more relaxed so you’ll know what to say
Often, the reason I didn’t know what to say was the following:
- There was a silence in the conversation
- I panicked and locked up
- I couldn’t come up with anything to say because I was nervous
My friend, a coach, and behavioral scientist made me realize something powerful: Silence is not necessarily awkward.
I used to think that the silence in a conversation was always my fault, and had to be corrected.
In reality, most conversations have silences or long pauses. We interpret that silence as a negative sign. Rather than focusing on the negative part of the silence, use the moment to catch your breath and move forward from there.
Silence isn’t awkward until you start stressing out about it.
If you come off as relaxed about the silences, people around you will, too. When you feel more relaxed, it’s easier to come up with the next thing to say.
Besides, it’s important to know that there can be many reasons for a break in a conversation.
- The other person is also nervous.
- The conversation needs a moment for you both to breathe and move forward.
- One of you is having an off day and you don’t feel like talking…which is okay!
Think about this: Being quiet together is something two people do more the better they know each other.
LESSON LEARNED: Practice being comfortable with silence, rather than trying to eradicate silence. It takes the pressure off and makes it easier knowing what to say.
7. Make a “Reality Check” to see if your way of thinking about conversations is realistic
Being a self-conscious introvert, I would often exaggerate social situations in my head and make it way more dramatic than it really was.
I’d feel like people were judging me for “failing at having a good conversation” whenever I’d say something “stupid”. Sure, people do judge us based on what we say, as well as how we say it. But the thing is they probably don’t judge us half as harshly as we judge ourselves.
So don’t get stuck thinking about that one wrong thing you’ve said five minutes ago because even if the other person did notice it, they probably didn’t think anything of it.
In reality, most of our blunders go by completely unnoticed by others, because they can be just as preoccupied with worrying about the way they carry themselves.
Practice being realistic by doing the following:
- Remind yourself daily, “Everyone gets nervous.”
- People care as little about your hickups as you care about theirs
- Just because you think that people will judge you negatively doesn’t mean that they will
8. Why smart people don’t have to say smart things
When I made friends with socially skilled people, they taught me something fundamental about what to say:
What you say doesn’t need to be thoughtful, interesting, or make you come off as smart.
Because when people hang out with you, they mainly just want to have a good time. They want it to be relaxing and enjoyable. They DON’T want constant though-provoking clever remarks. It can come off as try-hard or tiring.
Often, small talk is just fine. Have you EVER judged someone for saying something too simple? I guess not. Why would anyone judge you?
Stop trying to say smart things all the time. (It’s enough to say smart things when they pop up naturally in your head, but you don’t need to force them.)
My friend Andreas, for example, is great in social settings. He’s also a member of Mensa and they’ve measured his IQ to 145. When he talks to people, he can say things like:
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“I love the weather right now”
“Look at the tree over there, so nice”
“That car looks cool”
(He doesn’t come off as smart for saying smart things, but for being socially savvy)
LESSON LEARNED: When you stop trying to say smart things, it’s easier to know what to say because you take the pressure off yourself. Say what you want to say, and don’t filter yourself too hard.
9. Use association to have an endless supply of things to say
To have an ENDLESS supply of things to say – look around you!
If I look around my workplace, right now, I see a bunch of stuff I can make statements about. These statements can be used to make conversation.
Here’s an example:
- I like those plants
- This is nice music. What band is it?
- I like that painting
As an exercise you can do right now, look around you and see what statements you can make about the things you see.
10. Dig deeper
Dare to dig deeper into topics you find interesting. As you ask surface-level questions, don’t be afraid to at any point ask deeper questions too. (And share something about yourself in between the questions so you don’t come off as a spy.)
How do you know when to dig in? LISTEN! When something comes up that seems deeper than surface level, ask about it!
Signs you should dig in:
- This topic keeps being brought up subtly.
- You have an interest to know more.
- If you asked about this topic the conversation would include feelings, and or opinions.
Let’s say that someone told you that they work as, say, a golf trainer.
You can dig deeper by asking
- What’s that like?
- What type of clients do you have?
- What made you be a golf teacher in the first place?
And naturally, you break off the questions by sharing small bits about yourself every once in a while.
Pick one or two of the tips I listed above, and try to keep them in mind when you’re talking to someone you’re already comfortable with. If you start with someone you know, it will be much easier to “get” exactly how those methods work, and how to use them.
Once you get the hang of it and start trying it out with people you’ve never met before, you’ll see the worrisome thought “I don’t know what to say” disappear, and your social life improve.
- Hazen, R. A., Vasey, M. W., & Schmidt, N. B. (2009). Attentional retraining: A randomized clinical trial for pathological worry. Journal of psychiatric research, 43(6), 627-633.