What do I say next?
Have you ever wondered this?
Perhaps you were out on a date, and there was a pause in the conversation, followed by an awkward silence that felt even more awkward because you had no idea what to say next.
Maybe it took place on the job, amongst your co-workers, or perhaps you felt tongue-tied the last time you met somebody new. Whatever the case, being at a loss for words can be embarrassing.
Here are four tips and tricks for keeping the conversation going when you don’t know what to say next.
1. Prepare early.
Have you ever been with someone who always has a hilarious joke to tell, an incredible story, or a deep insight to pass on? If so, you may have wondered how these expert communicators can be so quick and witty. They are cool, collected, and naturally blend in to any conversation.
Would you like to know their secret?
Expert communicators are rarely as off-the-cuff as they appear. Improv comedians—the ones who respond to the audience and situations around them—are rarely as quick and witty as they appear. You see, those snappy comebacks, hilarious one-liners, and punch-lines that have us rolling in the aisles are really the result of many hours of practice.
This isn’t to say that being an improv comedian is easy—I’m sure it isn’t. But, it’s important to be aware that what appears to be high-quality, in the moment conversation is often the byproduct of hours of prior preparation. This means that:
Good communicators prepare to be spontaneous.
The more often you share a story, joke, or idea, the more natural and spur-of-the-moment it sounds. It’s easy to be off-the-cuff when you have a number of well-rehearsed stories under your belt. My friend Rob—who’s been a regular at Toast Masters for a number of years—always has a interesting story to share, or unique bit of humor to pass on and he does this by keeping a joke and story file.
He recommends using Google Drive—although I imagine that Evernote would also be a valuable tool for this. When Rob comes across a good joke or an interesting story, he adds them to his file. I’ll occasionally catch Rob testing out his material on Facebook and in our casual conversations. Rob then weeds out the material that doesn’t get a good response. In casual conversations, Rob’s conversation appears to flow naturally, but I know his secret. Good communicators prepare early so they can appear spontaneous when the right time comes.
A second way to prepare to be spontaneous is to keep up with current events. It’s much easier to join in a conversation when you are up to date on the latest happenings in the world.
2. Talk in terms of the other person’s interest.
I wish that I could take credit for the above statement, but this one comes from Dale Carnagie’s classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Would you like people to think you’re a good conversationalist? Dale suggests that accomplishing this is quite easy. Simply engage others in subjects that they are already interested in. Doing this frees up our conversational partners—it allows them to relax and enjoy the conversation because they’re not worried about what to say next.
Don’t forget, in new situations others are often as anxious as you and me are. When we steer the conversation towards topics of their interest, it makes communication easy and we come off looking like an exceptional conversationalist.
3. Ask good questions.
This is my personal go-to when I’m not sure what to say next. Here are a couple of key points to remember when asking questions
1) Use open-ended questions (or questions that must be answered with more than a simple “yes” or “no”) in order to keep the conversation going. Asking a flurry of closed-ended questions ends up sounding like an interrogation and gets awkward quickly.
2) Remember that everyone we meet is an expert on themselves. Casual questions—ones that are neither too personal nor too deep—can be excellent conversations starters. Questions like:
- What made you get started in your career?
- How did you and your spouse meet?
- What’s the best movie you’ve seen, or book you’ve read lately?
- What types of things do you like to do for fun?
3) Be Prepared. Similar to having a joke file and a story file, having a repertoire of thoughtful questions is a great way to never get tongue-tied again. Here is my favorite question to ask. I would suggest that you add this to your file immediately.
What’s the story behind that?
This question takes a little bit of explaining, but it works like magic. For example, if someone is wearing a piece of jewelry that stands out, you might ask, “What’s the story behind that necklace?”.
If someone rushes into the room, collapses on the couch and states, “I’m exhausted.”, you might respond with, “Really, what’s the story behind that?”.
I know this question sounds a little off, but it’s amazing how well it works. Everyone loves a good story, and people also love telling stories. When you ask, “What’s the story behind that?” you are inviting them to tell their story. In a sense, you are asking the other person to become the star of the show.
A quick FYI, sometimes this question is met with the other person asking, “What do you mean by that?”. I usually repeat the question in a slightly different manner. For example, I might respond with:
“That’s a unique bracelet, and I’ve never seen one like it. I figured there must be a good story behind it?”
“You look exhausted and I figured there must be a really good story behind what just happened?”
In my experience, responding in this manner always gets a good response. Inviting others to tell a story has never failed to lead to an interesting and engaging conversation.
This leads us to the fourth and final tool we’ll examine for getting a good conversation up and running. This tool is an advanced technique and also a lot of fun.
4. Enjoy the silence.
This technique comes from my training as a therapist. Others are usually just as uncomfortable with silence as you and me are. What I have found is that if you sit back, relax, and calmly attend to the other person (looking them in the eyes, expectantly awaiting to hear from them, but not staring them down in an intimidating or aggressive way), they will almost always break the silence first.
When an awkward pause takes place and your conversational partner realizes that you aren’t bothered by it, they will almost always scramble to come up with something to say next. It’s fun to watch and absolutely amazing what you can learn about others when you simply wait to see what they have to say.
Remember, this is an advanced technique and should be used sparingly, but like the other three tools, it works and is an excellent technique to add to your conversational repertoire.
So, there you have it. Four powerful tools for avoiding the tongue-tied, awkward silence. If you have anything to add to the list, or have a story to tell about using one of these conversational tools, please feel free to add it to the comments below.