One of the most common conversation-related questions we receive from clients is, “How do I avoid running out of things to say in social situations?”
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. A Google search of “running out of things to say” returns 187 MILLION results.
Of course, this is all too familiar to us because it’s something every single one of our coaches have experienced as well. It’s actually very important to us to have coaches who have gone through the same trials and tribulations as our clients, because we can truly empathize and can provide solutions that worked personally for us as well as thousands of students in the past.
Identifying the Problem
There’s an interesting element to this issue, and that’s that it is not constant. It seems to only happen in certain situations. For most of us, we don’t experience this issue with our close friends or family, even when we’ve exhausted almost every possible conversational topic with these people. So why does it happen so frequently with strangers then? Shouldn’t there be MORE to talk about given that we know less about strangers and have more to discover about them?
Well, yes, but the reason you freeze up and “run out of things to say” when in social situations isn’t because of a lack of content.
Notice how a few drinks instantly solves that problem, and the drinks don’t give you “additional” content.
Clearly, then, the problem is psychological or anxiety-based.
But we know more than that. Our findings (which coincide with those found in Maxwell Maltz’s best-selling Psycho Cybernetics) from training thousands of students show that almost all of the “freezing up” issues happen as a result of a very specific action:
Thinking about what to say.
You actually demonstrate this fairly easily. Walk up to 3 of your most outgoing friends. Then pull a video camera out, hit record, point it in their face, and say, “hey dude, say something funny.”
What’s going to happen? Without fail, your friends will freeze up and “not know what to say.”
The only people who will be able to immediately say something are people who have specifically prepared for this scenario. Just about everyone else will freeze up.
What you’re seeing is the natural “brain lockup” that almost always happens when you think about what to say.
Why This Happens
We suspect that the reason for this is a shifting in focus. When the brain focuses externally, it engages its senses, it’s aware of the surroundings, and it allows us to communicate effectively with others.
But when you shift the brain’s focus INTERNALLY, it creates self-analysis (also known as self-consciousness), doubt, and introspection. While this is good for analyzing oneself, it tends to have a very detrimental effect when trying to interact with people (who are external) while focusing on the INTERNAL.
We’ve all had those moments where we’re totally at ease, and the words flow out of our mouths like water from a spout. Where conversation is effortless and feels like it could go on forever. Now notice in those moments… that you are keenly UNAWARE of your own thought processes at that moment. You aren’t thinking about what to say, or if you’re saying the right thing, or how you feel. In fact, you could say that as an engaged conversationalist, you’re mostly thinking about your opinions and listening intently to what the OTHER person is saying (as opposed to waiting for your turn to talk). You’re empathizing with their emotions, you’re listening attentively to their story, and you’re fully engaged in what they’re communicating, both verbally and non-verbally.
And therein lies the key.
Effortless communication happens when we are EXTERNALLY focused, engaged with the person/people we are speaking to, and relatively unaware and unfiltered in our own thoughts.
Brass Tacks: How to Actually do This
#1. Forcing Yourself NOT to Think About What to Say
The very first step to this is to make a very conscious effort NOT to think about what to say. Most of us will “think about what to say” almost on auto-pilot the moment we feel like we’re stalling in a conversation. The thing is, you have to force yourself to do the opposite.
It’s like riding a bike and forcing yourself to keep your feel on the pedals even though your instincts say to put them on the ground so that you don’t fall.
Voicing the words “what do I say?” in your head is a trigger that causes you to lock up, so the first step is to stop that from happening. Instead, you’ll need to throw caution to the wind and have a sort of blind faith that your brain will naturally come up with something… if you let it. After all, you let it come up with something every time you talk to your family or close friends. You don’t “think of what to say” with them, so how is it that you don’t freeze up in those scenarios? Because you’re relaxed and letting your brain do its own thing.
You do the exact same thing here. Take a breath, relax, and trust that you will come up with something without thinking about it or pre-scripting it in your head.
#2. External Focus
The second thing is that you MUST maintain an external focus. That is, don’t let yourself become self conscious or internally focused. The easiest way to do this is to engage your senses, since most people find it VERY difficult to engage senses (focus externally) while simultaneously thinking intellectually (focus internally).
Start by picking any of your “traditional” 5 senses. Let’s say it’s the sense of hearing. Now remove the filters your brain naturally has on your ears which filter out background noise or other unimportant auditory cues.
Practice it right now. Stop what you’re doing and listen very carefully. Notice how there are all kinds of sounds that you didn’t hear 10 seconds ago, because your brain filtered it out. It might be the sound of a refrigerator, or the sound of traffic outside, or the hum of a fan. There are dozens of sounds you probably tune out at any given moment because your brain determines that they are unimportant.
Now do the exact same thing with every other sense.
Done? Good. Now notice that during that entire time, you weren’t really thinking. You were FEELING. And that FEELING prevented you from focusing internally and locking up.
The next time you feel “in your head,” practice this exercise and your senses will take over, allowing you to stop thinking so much.
Still not working? Have a friend do something random that startles you, like slapping you in the face without warning. If you’re not prepared for it, the sudden shock immediately pulls you out of your head as your brain stops thinking and starts FEELING (the pain). Try not to do this with friends who carry baseball bats with them.
#3. Carry the Burden with Opinions
Now that you’re out of your head, start talking. Generally you want to start by talking about you or your opinions. Pick a random topic or listen to what people are talking about and give your opinion on it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a good opinion, or an educated opinion, or even a correct opinion. Just give an opinion. In the beginning, don’t ask too many questions if you can help it. Just give your opinions. As a leader, it is your job to carry the conversational burden, especially at the beginning. Don’t be one of the followers who sits around and waits for someone to ask them a question or lead them.
Now when you give opinions, a funny thing happens. Instead of people giving you one word answers to your questions, they will give THEIR respective opinions, which are much more interesting. Their opinions will spawn additional conversational topics and pretty soon, you won’t even notice that you were struggling previously.
Now this can get a bit abstract so let’s see what this looks like in practice. Let’s say that you sit down at a table with a few colleagues, and they ask,
“Hey man, what’s up?”
You say, “fine” and then that dreaded, “Oh god I don’t know what to say” feeling starts creeping in. The point where you’d normally stay quiet and hope that someone says something, or worse, you excuse yourself because the awkwardness is too much for you. Except this time, instead of all that, you simply give an opinion.
“God, I am not a fan of Mondays. It always feels like everything conspires against you on Mondays because the universe knows that you should be miserable today.”
Your colleagues laugh and reply,
“Man, I feel exactly the same way. But you know, a crappy Monday is better than a crappy Friday. Because you can’t even appreciate a Friday night if the whole day was like your typical Monday.”
Now you can give an opinion on Fridays, or Friday nights, or last Friday night, or how much you’re looking forward to Friday. See how this gets easier?
“Okay fine,” you might say, “but my colleagues are computer programmers. They wouldn’t say something that witty if I said that piece about the universe conspiring against me.”
That can certainly be possible. I was a computer programmer for almost 10 years, I know all about that. So let’s say they reply instead by saying, “Yeah I agree.”
You can then transition by asking what they did over the weekend (and then replying with another opinion or with what YOU did over the weekend), or you can continue off of the previous thread:
“I think we should have a new company policy that Mondays start at noon and come with free massages and monetary bonuses. Maybe free booze too, if they’re feeling generous. I might actually look FORWARD to Mondays.”
Now we can talk about the company, coming to work at noon, massages, bonuses, booze, or any combination thereof. See how this starts getting easier? We’re introducing a ton of topics every time we open our mouths, and that is EXACTLY what you do with your family and close friends, which is why conversation seems so easy around them.
This will obviously take some practice to get right, but once you’ve mastered it, conversation becomes almost auto-pilot.
Remember that at the beginning of most conversations (especially those involving shy individuals or people you may not know very well), you will have to carry the conversational burden until they become comfortable enough to join in (or to start drinking heavily, whichever comes first).
Resist the urge to ask a lot of questions or make the conversation about them at first. This is fine if you’re interviewing someone or if they’re very interested in talking to you, but for most people, making the initial conversation about them is uncomfortable because it feels like an interview or interrogation, and it usually puts the conversational burden on them.
That’s why at the beginning, you want to talk about YOU.
Not sure what topics to give opinions on? Start with what they’re already talking about (if you’re coming in mid-conversation), or what’s relevant to the situation you’re in. Also consider opinions about you. What you’re into. What you do for fun. Your hobbies. Your favorite foods. Etc.
#4. Bridge to New Topics
The fourth and final step is to continue to bridge to new topics as we showed earlier in order to create an interesting and interactive conversation. You can switch to a more normal conversational back-and-forth once they get more comfortable and actually start contributing to the conversation.
What you DON’T want to do is “milk” a given topic until it becomes stale and boring and you start to run out of things to say. Instead, change topics BEFORE you think you should so that you always have an abundance of fresh topics.
Not sure what this looks like? Pay attention the next time you’re talking to a good friend or someone you haven’t talked to in a while. Watch how you jump rapidly from topic to topic as you update each other on your lives.
That’s what conversation is supposed to look like.
You can emulate this even with acquaintances or strangers by using the same style of speech as you do with friends and family.
Remember that not running out of things to say is only the first step. The key is to take these principles and practice them, use them, master them, and then move forward to your next goal.
Whether you’re at a meeting, social event, networking party, or on a date, the conversation is simply the baseline foundation. And it’s this foundation that you build upon to eventually create connections, relationships, friendships, and partnerships.
Hope this helps you along your journey of self improvement and personal development.
Have you tried this? Has it helped? Do you have your own tips on how to handle this? Sound off in the comments!.Posted on August 18, 2014