If you’ve been hit with a case of the “I don’t know what to say” – itis (it happens to the best of us), here are some easy solutions to help give you some confidence on figuring out what to say.
Not knowing what to say happens to everyone, not just people who feel their conversational skills are lacking. Whether you’re caught off guard or your mind just goes blank, it can feel paralyzing and socially difficult to know what to do.
You might not know what to say because a situation has come up that you genuinely don’t know how to respond to. Maybe something tragic happened to someone and you’re at a loss for words on how to respond or maybe something is happening to someone that hasn’t happened to you yet, like having surgery or retiring from a job.
Or maybe you’re looking up, “I don’t know what to say” because you find yourself in normal conversations with a blank mind. You were talking about a topic, and now it’s gone silent, and you just don’t know what to say in response.
Use these solutions to help kick your mind into gear and figure out what to say so that you’re never at a loss for words again.
1. Be Honest
If your mind went blank and you don’t know what to say, you can be honest about it. “I’m so sorry, I’ve just had a massive mind blank and can’t find my words”
Or if something has happened to someone that you’re not sure how to respond to, you can actually just say “Wow, I’m really sorry, I have no idea what to say right now” or “I’m at a loss for words.”
One of the most important things to remember when you’re wondering what to say when you don’t know what to say is that you don’t always have to have a quick witted reply to things or be ready and waiting with the perfect response to a unique situation.
You are also allowed to process, and to be honest about that processing, even if it’s for something as small as your mind really did go blank and you don’t know what to say next.
If you’re even bolder, you can be totally upfront and talk about issues you’ve had in conversation or that your mind is elsewhere, or you can lie and say that you had a response to whatever you’re talking about, but your mind has just gone blank and you’ve forgotten it.
Whatever the reason, be honest that you don’t know what to say and people can either help you along in the conversation or give you time to find those words.
2. Describe What You Can Hear, Smell, or See
If you’re in a conversation and you don’t know what to say, automatically go towards your senses.
What can you hear right now? Birds singing? The hum of a printer?
If you can hear it, it must be at least somewhat loud, so comment on it. “Those birds sure are loud out this window!” or even if it’s silent, “Wow, it sure is quiet for a Friday in the office!”
Another option is smell, if something smells good (best not to comment if something smells bad, that’s conversation etiquette 101)!
Even better is something that you can see. It can be making a comment about the color of a person’s dress or an item around the room or the amount of sun outside.
Describe the world around you and change the topic to essentially something that you have just sensed in real time.
This works to help you figure out what to say because it can get you out of your head, which is often the main culprit of not knowing what to say.
3. Ask a Question
As many people who don’t love socializing know, people love to talk about themselves.
Asking someone a question is a surefire way to get them talking without you having to worry too much about what to say.
It can also be easier than coming up with “statements” or comments on things.
You don’t have to talk about your day yesterday, but you can more easily ask them what they are up to this weekend.
An easy place to start is to ask someone where they got something. “Where did you get that bag?” “Where did you get that fishing pole, it looks nice!” or “Where did you get that notebook, I love it!”
It works every single time, because that person feels like you’re taking an interest in them and you’ve bought yourself some time.
It is also something that really does happen in a good conversation – someone suddenly notices something about the other person and asks them about it.
So you won’t come across as not knowing what to say, but rather someone who is interested.
You can also ask questions about what they’re doing the rest of the day, what they did this weekend, or where they’re headed next after you see them as some easy solutions to what to say.
4. Play Topic Association
All a conversation is one big round of topic association.
You start off with one, and then someone mentions another because they got reminded of it by what you were talking about, and it just goes around in a circle.
If you’re struggling with what to say in a conversation, this is a great game to play yourself.
What comes to mind when you think about the topic you’re talking about? It can be anything tangentially related.
Go with it!
So if you’re talking about the homework due in Calculus tomorrow and you’ve run out of things to say, what about another class? “Oh, that reminds me – that English exam was so hard, how do you think you did?”
Or if you’re talking about a certain celebrity, think about what other celebrities come to mind when you think about them.
Or maybe they make you think of a movie and a movie makes you think of something else.
You can either say “Speaking of XYZ, that reminds me…” or just change the topic naturally.
It’s a little bit like word association, but the point is not to overthink it too much
5. Have a Go-To Topic Memorized
This is going to sound a little out there, but you can have some go-to topics memorized that you pull out at random when the conversation calls for it.
Back when we were doing SAT prep in high school (many many years ago), there was a writing section where you had to respond to a prompt.
Our teacher had us memorize facts about a particular event – so say, the Civil War or the sinking of the Titanic, and then no matter what the prompt was, we were instructed to use what we knew about that event to respond.
You would be surprised how flexible some topics can be when responding to vague prompts and how easy it can be to twist things to work with what was asked.
We’re not suggesting you memorize facts about the Titanic and then bring them up randomly in conversation, but you can become an expert in a few specific topics and have that line of conversation ready to go whenever you don’t know what to say.
This works, of course, if the conversation is ready to move on – not if someone asked you what you’d like for dinner and you don’t know what to say, but it can be so useful!
Maybe it’s a fun fact about a type of animal popular in your area or a current event that you’re really well-read on. Use that as a jumping off point in conversations.
It won’t work with the same person over and over, but nobody else is going to know if your go-to small talk is the Star Wars convention around the corner if you interact with a lot of different people during the day.
6. Stay Silent and Let Them Fill the Void
You don’t always have to know what to say. It’s okay.
There is so much pressure to always be talking, and sometimes we should just do less of it (we even have an article on how to stop talking so much!).
It’s okay to not respond to everything and to stay silent, and this goes both for a trivial conversation where you can’t think of what to say next as well as responding to a situation in life.
Obviously, you should say something to comfort someone at some point, if necessary, but it can be okay to just be quiet too and see if anything comes out from their end that they want to get off their chest or say.
And in a trivial conversation, the other person may feel equally uncomfortable with silence of their own and fill that void so you don’t have to.
7. Don’t Overthink
When you’re trying to figure out what to say in a situation, don’t overthink it.
This is going to instantly freeze up your conversational skills, and often we are overthinking because we are worried about their reaction.
Don’t overcomplicate things.
As long as you’re not spewing offensive comments or insulting their mother, it’s hard to have good intentions and say something so incredibly bad.
People overthink a lot in social situations like if someone has a parent who passes away or a person is going in for surgery or any number of serious things.
You don’t want to say the “wrong thing,” so you end up overthinking what the “right thing” is and then you end up coming out with something weirder than what you would have said if you just responded from your gut.
You shouldn’t be mulling over what to say for hours, or even for minutes. Speak from the heart before your brain has a chance to jump in.
8. Tell a White Lie
Okay, this one isn’t necessarily a 10/10 on the moral compass, but if you’re talking to strangers that you won’t see again, sometimes it can be easier to just tell white lies than worry about what to say.
For instance, if someone starts to talk to you on the plane and wants to know your life story, you can totally just make one up.
We’ve done this countless times, and it can be a fun way to keep your brain engaged in conversation but not overthinking it because you’re just making stuff up on the fly.
It’s harmless, the person is just trying to make conversation, and you don’t have to get into why you’re flying home to Dallas to your aunt’s 82nd birthday even though your family has disowned you, you can just tell them that you’re going to do some sightseeing and have never been.
Obviously, don’t do this with people you know.
Strangers and people at a cocktail party only, please.
9. Use Your Emotions and Feelings
Emotion is a great way to help you figure out what to say when you’re like, “seriously, I don’t know what to say” because we’ve all got them (no matter how much you suppress them).
Don’t talk about logically things or comment on the world around you if you’re finding that your mind has gone blank. Think about how you feel.
Do you feel tired? Do you feel sad for them that they’re going to be late for work after this conversation?
Do you feel happy that you get to go out for drinks after work?
You don’t have to have a therapy session with someone to use your emotions in a conversation, and it can be another great way of checking in with yourself to figure out what to say next because you’re simply asking yourself what you’re feeling and then parroting that out to someone (except if your feeling is “I hate you and I’d rather be anywhere else,” then stick to asking them where they got their purse!
This also goes for knowing what to say in a social situation or a situation like someone losing a pet.
You don’t need to do anything other than express emotion. This is why “I’m so sorry for your loss” is really common or, “We’re so sad for your family and thinking of you.”
Talk about your feelings (serious or trivial depending on what the situation calls for) as a way to close the silence or get onto a new topic.
What to Say in Specific Situations
If you’re wondering what to say in specific situations, like if someone retired or what to say to someone who’s stressed or upset or crying or any number of things, we’ve compiled an awesome list of all of our guides so you can find the one that works for you and dig deeper into what to say in that situation.
- what to say when someone says sorry for your loss
- what to say to someone in the hospital
- what to say to someone before surgery
- what to say to someone graduating
- what to say to someone moving away
- what to say to someone who broke up
- what to say to someone who is upset
- what to say to someone who broke your heart
- what to say when someone retires
- what to say to someone who has lost a pet
- what to say to cheer someone up
- what to say to someone who had a baby
- what to say to someone who is stressed
- what to say when someone leaves a job
- what to say to someone who is crying
- what to say to someone getting married
- what to say to someone having surgery
- what to say to someone after surgery
- what to say to someone having a bad day