How To Think Of Things To Say When Making Conversation
It's common for people to say they struggle to make conversation because they often can't think of things to say. When talking to someone one-on-one this may lead to awkward silences. In groups they may be seen as quiet. This article will provide both some short-term and longer-term pointers on how to get past this issue.
Immediate strategies for being able think of things to say
The following suggestions are about ways to come up with more things to talk about in the moment, when you're already conversing with someone:
Don't filter yourself too much when trying to think of something to say
Often when people feel like they can't think of anything to say, there are actually lots of possible contributions passing through their mind. But instead of going with them, they nix them for one reason or another; "No, I can't say that. It's too boring.", "No, that's too out of the blue.", "Oh, I'm kind of nervous saying that, though I couldn't tell you why." Often this process is quick enough that we don't notice ourselves doing it, but if you tune into your thoughts you can watch it happening. Instead of censoring yourself too much, just spit out some of the ideas passing through your head.
Don't fret too much about saying generic things
There's a lot of advice out there telling you not to bore people with cliched, unoriginal conversation topics. Sometimes we get this message to the point that it paralyzes us in social situations. We'll meet someone new and not say anything to them because we think it's a huge faux pas to say something uninspired, like asking them where they work.
Just say this stuff anyway. Something is better than nothing. Often, seemingly dull questions like, "What do you do for fun?", or "Seen any good movies lately?" get the ball rolling. Soon enough you're talking about something more interesting. They can be a necessary evil, a reliable, if tiresome, fallback. When people get asked questions they've had to answer a million times before, they're not always crazy about it, but don't hold it too against the person who's asking either.
Also, in general you shouldn't put too much pressure on yourself by feeling every last thing that comes out of your mouth has to be extremely original, insightful, and entertaining. People mostly talk about pretty humdrum topics, and they just want to be around their friends and pass the time. It's fine to socialize in a simple, friendly way.
Elaborate on the things you have to say
If it's your turn to talk, instead of saying "Fine" or "It was good" or "Yeah...", flesh out your answer. Give your opinion. Tell a mini-story about you did on the weekend, instead of simply saying it was fun. Say more about the TV show you just mentioned. Without rambling on, try to stretch out your turn to speak. You can often find additional things to talk about just by going into more detail about the material you've already put out there.
Pay attention and keep up with the conversation going on around you
It's always easier to come up with things to talk about when you really follow along with what everyone else is saying. It's much more likely that something relevant you can add will pop into your mind, sparked by a statement someone else made. However, it's sometimes hard not to succumb to that tendency to zone out and disappear into your head. Nudging our attention to the conversation going on in the outside world is also a good way to keep ourselves from focusing on any anxious or insecure thoughts we might be having. Conversations can also be a bit annoying to follow at times, like if many people are talking at once, or if the environment is loud. Sometimes it feels easier to give up and not devote your full attention to it. This is something you can get used to doing if you find it difficult.
Go in with an overall approach for making conversation
There are general road maps you can follow for making conversation. For example, a popular one is that you can take an interest in other people and make it your goal to discover what makes each person unique. When you enter a conversation with an approach in mind, it provides you with some rough guidelines on what you can say next and where you want to try to take things. I cover some common approaches in this article:
Have some topics or statements prepared ahead of time
You'll sometimes see advice saying things like, "Before you go to a party it's always good to catch up on the news, so you'll have a few ready-to-go topics prepared, or you'll have something to add if someone else brings the stories up" or, "If you know you'll get asked about a certain question a lot, it helps to have an interesting little blurb about it ready". Sometimes people will prepare in a more general way and keep a few topics in their back pocket that they know they can bring out whenever the discussion hits a lull. This could be as simple as asking, "So has anyone read any good books lately?"
It never hurts to have some go-to statements or topics you can draw on. However, I find it's hard to remember more than a handful of them at once. There's no need to try to memorize thirty different lines you could use at a party. In the moment you'll probably blank on most of them anyway, or get stuck going through a giant mental list to pick out the best option. If you've only got three choices it's easier to just go with one.
If someone says something where you don't have anything you can contribute, you can just be open about it
Often we'll come to a spot where we can't think of what to say because what the other person has said has given us nothing to go on. Like if you know or care nothing about cars and someone tells you the McLaren MP4-12C's engine produces 592 bhp, odds are your mind is going to go, "Uhhhhh.....". In these cases rather than scrambling to try to come up with a relevant follow-up to their statement, you can say what you're thinking, "Ha ha, sorry. I don't know much about that stuff."
Try not to leave things hanging there though. Some people are too quick to give up on a conversation when it turns out there's one thing they don't have in common with someone. Often once you get your lack of familiarity about the topic out in the open, you'll then find a way to get the conversation going again. Like in the example above you might then think to ask, "So what is bhp anyway?", or the other person might realize he needs to cut out the technical details, and present the topic in a way you can relate to better, e.g., regardless of the dry numbers, he's talking about a fast, cool looking car that he's excited about. Or maybe you'll mutually decide to switch to another topic.
Another way you can be left with a loss for words is if the other person says something that rubs you the wrong way
Imagine you're talking to a seemingly grounded, intelligent person, and then out of nowhere they say, "I think fashion is super important. I don't trust anyone who spends less than $1000 a month on new clothes." It would stun you into silence. If you were thinking anything it would probably be something like, "Wow... That is so stupid I have no idea how to respond." We tend to have that response any time someone says something that strikes us as socially inappropriate or blatantly wrong. A milder example may be if someone says, "Have I read any good books lately? No, I don't read really" The person who asked may think, "Wha? How can someone not read?!?" and not know how to follow up.
Knowing all this can happen can help you counteract it a bit. Rather than beginning to panic because an
Longer-term approaches for having more things to say in conversations
The ideas below will help you have an easier time thinking of things to say in conversations down the road.
Know something about a range of topics
This is a pretty classic observation. The more random information and experiences you have floating around in your head, the easier it is to chat with people. If you have enough stuff stored away in your brain then pretty much anything someone says will trigger something you could contribute. It's sometimes eerie how you can be reading about some seemingly obscure new topic earlier in the day, and then it will come up in discussion that very evening. So read a variety of books, watch a mix of different TV shows, and try lots of new things.
This is a very pragmatic piece of advice, but I find it never hurts to be at least somewhat familiar with the things other people tend to be interested in and are likely to bring up. Even if you can't have an in-depth conversation about a certain area, being able to chat about it for a minute or two can earn you points. Like you may not know everything about a certain popular TV show, but having a factoid or two about it to bring up may help a conversation go more smoothly.
Just get more comfortable and experienced with talking to people in general
If talking to people makes you anxious or insecure, you'll have a more difficult time simply because your nerves will interfere with your mind's ability to come up with things to say. You'll also have trouble keeping your focus on the other person. In the most general sense, as you become more practiced and comfortable with talking to people, and you tackle your feelings of shyness, you'll start to relax more, and that will allow your mental resources to be more free and loose. Some more specific points are below.
Become more comfortable with certain topics and conversation styles
At times we won't be able to come up with something to say because the conversation has reached a point where the only thing we can think to add is something we're not comfortable sharing. For example:
- Someone may not like talking about their love life.
- They may be scared to give their honest opinions for fear of offending someone.
- They may believe they can't share one of their "boring" stories.
- They may feel inhibited and uncomfortable with speaking up when everyone else is the group is being loud and blurting out crude jokes.
- Or more generally, someone may just have a hard time with one-on-one or group conversations.
Over time it's possible to gradually face these conversational fears and start to feel more at ease with those topics or set ups. As you do so you'll unlock more options for things you can contribute.
Become more comfortable around certain people
If a specific type of person intimidates us we'll have a harder time thinking of things to say because of the anxiety it brings up. If someone intimidates us because we care about their opinion of us, we'll also try watch what we say and second-guess everything. We feel if we don't say the exact 'right' things they'll lose interest in us. If we can slowly get used to these types of people, we'll be able to speak more freely.
Learn to relate to a wider variety of people
We sometimes find it trickier to make conversation with people who have different interests, priorities, and ways of looking at the world. Not always, of course. Sometimes we're fascinated by people who are different, and find it easy to engage them. However, at other times we find ourselves thinking, "I have nothing to say to this person. We don't think alike at all. We hardly have anything in common."
You may find you can relate to these types of people better if you make an effort to put yourself in their shoes. Genuinely try to get a sense of why they think the way they do, like the things they like, and hold certain beliefs. You may be able to do this through reading. For example, if you work in a more creative position, and don't understand the mentality of the money-focused Sales & Marketing types at your company, perhaps by going through some books on those topics you'll get a better idea of where they're coming from. Or you could learn about someone through firsthand experience. Like a guy who dislikes rowdy frat bros may try partying for a bit, to see if he can get a sense of what all the fuss is about and what they see in it.
Trying to get a sense of where other people are coming from won't convert you into one of them, or cause you to suddenly endorse all their values. However, when it comes to making conversation with them, it'll probably become simpler. You won't be looking at them like they're an alien, and nothing you have to say could possibly resonate with them.
The advice in this article was more general. If you find you specifically struggle to keep conversations going with people you know better, you may also want to read the following: