How to Have a Conversation When You Don’t Know What To Say

Picture yourself sitting in the cafeteria during your lunch period. Now imagine a kid you know from class sits down across from you at the table. You recognize each other. You both say “hi,” and comment on how crowded it is in the lunchroom. Then what?

For some people, the answer is obvious. Those people could probably think of a dozen things to say next, and imagine endless directions for the conversation to go in. But for others, it’s a little bit trickier.

If you find yourself at a loss for what to say in a conversation, you might find it difficult and stressful to get through any social situation. It may be easier for you to simply keep to yourself, even when that means missing out on opportunities to make friends and have fun. As you’ve probably figured out by now, you’ve got to learn how to talk to people if you’re going to form meaningful relationships.

This would be much easier if there was a magic formula for conversations, but unfortunately it’s a bit more complicated than that. The conversations you have will vary depending on who you’re talking to, and what you’re talking about. There is no one set of subjects that will interest everyone. There are, however, a few keys to getting a conversation going that you might find helpful. Check them out:

  1. Keep it Simple. Simple subjects tend to be the easiest place to find common ground. Don’t make it your goal to impress the person you’re talking to with obscure knowledge on random topics. Instead, start a conversation you both can contribute to using your experiences instead of your trivia knowledge. Ask the other person how their day is going, if they’re liking any of their classes, or if they have anything special planned for the weekend. You may find that the conversation evolves and takes somewhere unexpected, but it’s helpful to first build up the comfort level with simple subjects.
  2. Explain Your Answers. That may sound like an instruction for a test question, but it’s actually a helpful way to keep a conversation from falling flat. Nothing kills a conversation faster than one word answers, so don’t be afraid to expand a little. If that kid at your lunch table asks how your day is going, don’t just leave it at “good.” Tell him why it’s been good. Did a teacher that usually assigns tons of homework give your class the night off? Did you find out you made the sports team you tried out for? The more you’re able to share, the more potential conversation topics you’ve opened up.
  3. Let Conversation Flow. In a way, conversations are a little like a word association game. Someone says something that reminds you of a story, so you decide to tell it. Then your story sparks a memory that the other person decides to share, and it continues on like that. Don’t be afraid of steering the conversation in a new direction, as long as you offer a quick explanation to explain the change in subjects. Simple phrases like “Your story reminds me of the time I…” or “It’s funny you should mention that. It made of think of…” should do the trick, and keep everyone from getting lost.

The more comfortable you get with a person, the easier conversation usually becomes. Of course, sometimes you’ll find that a conversation just isn’t going anywhere. It might turn out that you don’t have much in common with the person you’re speaking to, or maybe they just don’t feel like talking. In those cases, it’s okay to move on from the conversation, but don’t let it discourage you. When you find someone that has the potential to become a friend, it’s worth making the effort to get to know them.

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Isa Marrs is the Founder and Executive Director of the Where I Can Be Me® social skills program. She is a board-certified speech-language pathologist who specializes in pragmatic language (social skills) disorders in children. Read More