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 speaking with someone:
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 to take an interest in other people and make it your goal to discover what makes each person unique. When you start 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:
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 your attention back to the conversation going on in the outside world is also a good way to keep yourself from focusing on any anxious or insecure thoughts you might have. 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. You get better at staying tuned in with practice.
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 going through your head. More generally, try to take the attitude that people want to get to know you and hear your thoughts.
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 draw a blank 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, and 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 thrilled about it, but don't hold it too against whomever'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 are often happy just to be around their friends and pass the time. It's fine to socialize in a simple, friendly way.
Don't stress too much about switching topics
You may have something you want to say, but feel you have to abandon it because you can't think of a smooth segue into it. When friends talk they bring up new topics all the time. When one conversation thread has come to an end, it's normal to jump to something unrelated. It's okay to change the subject as long as the transition isn't completely abrupt and jarring, and you haven't cut someone off from a point they wanted to stay on. If you do switch topics, here are some suggestions:
- If the other person is expecting a reply, give them one first. Like if they asked how your family's doing, fill them in on any news, and maybe quickly ask about theirs. Then you can jump to the next thing.
- Make a shift seem less sudden by tacking on a phrase like, "That reminds me...", "Speaking of...", "I'm not sure why, but that makes me think of...", or "This is going to sound random, but..."
- If you pause for a few seconds before changing topics it can signal, "Looks like that subject is done. I'm gonna switch to something else."
Practice noticing all the "jumping off points" in the statements people make
Not everything you say has to directly tie into the sentence made right before. However, if you pay attention to what the other person says, their statements can give you a lot of ideas. For example, if they tell you, "My weekend at the cottage was fun. I went jet skiing for the first time," some possible jumping off points are:
- Weekend - Talk about how your own weekend was, e.g., "Oh, that sounds fun. I stayed in town and went to a concert on Saturday."
- Cottage - "Oh, nice.. Was the cottage more isolated, or on a busier lake? Whose cottage is it, your family's, a friend's, a rental?"
- Jet skiing - "Wow, I've never done that. How'd you find it?" or, "I remember doing that as a kid. The newer models must be way more fun. How was it?"
- First time jet skiing - "It's not jet skiing, but I remember the first time I ever drove a boat..."
As always, there's no single correct response so any of those could be good ways to keep the conversation going.
Sometimes people will set up obvious jumping off points for you because they have something they want to talk about, but don't want to launch right into it without gauging your interest. For example, they'll say, "Man, the weirdest thing happened to me at the music festival..." You just have to say, "Oh yeah? What?" and they'll tell you.
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 on the material you've already put out there.
Realize you often don't have to answer questions ultra-literally
When people ask you a question on one level they are curious to know the answer, but on another they just want to have a fun, engaging conversation. If you don't exactly reply to what they asked, but still say something interesting, they'll usually be happy with your response. For example, someone asks you if you've seen any good movies lately. You haven't watched any in the last few weeks, and could only literally respond with "No", which isn't the meatiest contribution. The exchange doesn't have to hit a snag. Instead you could say something like, "I've been doing other things for fun. I've been teaching myself to play the guitar lately. It's been rough on my fingers, but I'm slowly getting the hang of it." Obviously there are times where you will need to properly answer a question, but it can open up a lot of options if you know you have more flexibility in how you can reply many of them.
Ask someone their thoughts on the question or topic you just spoke about
You can't build a whole conversation around this technique, but it's simple and can help you here and there if you're at a loss for words. If you just answered a question, ask the same one back to them (e.g., "I'm going into the city to visit some old college friends. What're your plans this weekend?"). If you gave your opinion and observations on an issue first, then after you're done, you can ask them what their thoughts are.
If they just spoke about something, act as if they just asked for your opinion
Even if they didn't explicitly go, "So that's my take on the topic. What's yours?" you've always got unwritten permission to share your thoughts after they're done.
Have some topics or statements prepared ahead of time
This takes some pre-planning, but you can often do it just an hour or two ahead of time, so I put it under the immediate strategies.
You'll 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 up a current event" or, "If you know you'll get asked a certain question a lot, it helps to have an interesting little blurb to give in reply". 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 response, you can say what you're thinking - "Ha ha, sorry. I don't know much about that stuff."
Try not to leave it 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 facts in a way you can relate to better, e.g., regardless of the dry numbers, he's talking about a fast, cool looking car he's excited about. Or maybe you'll mutually decide to chat about something else.
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 tone deaf 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 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 you have way more to talk about than you may assume
People who have trouble with conversation sometimes claim they have nothing to talk about, and they "know" they're boring because all they do is work or play video games or whatever. Everyone has more topics they can speak about than they think. Even if most of your time is taken up by one so-called boring pastime, you still watch the odd movie, catch bits of the news, or have funny little things happen to you as you go about your day. You have your unique perspective and opinions on all of them. You have thoughts on your dreams for the future, your family, current events, larger philosophical questions, what it's like to live in your area, what type of cereal tastes the best, what cats are like as pets, and on and on and on. Don't unnecessarily dismiss conversation ideas with, "Well, sure, I have an opinion on that, but no one wants to hear it, so it doesn't count." Any of them could potentially work in the right context. Take some time to think about the range of things you could potentially bring up in the future.
Learn something about a range of topics
This is a classic recommendation. 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 learn about some seemingly obscure new topic earlier in the day, and then it will come up in discussion that very evening. So try new things, read a variety of books and websites, watch a mix of different TV shows, movies, and online videos, listen to podcasts, and so on.
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. (Though, we all have our subjects we're just deeply uninterested in, and are fine being ignorant about them, even if it hobbles our interactions a smidgen every now and then.)
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 ability to come up with things to say. Your mind can go blank. The unpleasant physical sensations can distract you. You're more likely to have thoughts like, "No one cares what I have to say" or, "I have to impress everyone", which lead to filtering yourself too much. You'll also have trouble keeping your focus on the other person and what they're saying.
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 someone won't be able to come up with anything to say because the conversation has reached a point where the only thing they can think to add is something they're not comfortable sharing. For example:
- They 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 being loud and blurting out crude jokes.
- Or more generally, they 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 situations. 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 and insecurities they bring up. If we find someone intimidating because we care about their opinion of us, we'll also try watch what we say and second guess everything. We'll feel if we don't say the exact "right" things they'll lose interest. 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 some research in your down time. 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 look 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: