What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say

You know the feeling. Queasy sensation in your stomach, sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat, and your mind goes blank. What were you going to say, why can’t you find words, and why won’t your mouth work?

Whether it’s the first meeting with somebody or a friend coping with a difficult life situation, we sometimes can’t find the right words. Awkward silence ensues. In the worst cases, that silence drags on too long and crosses into the point of no return. There has to be something you can do, right?

With a little preparation and some practice, you can avoid many awkward social interactions. Nothing is fool-proof, and you’re bound to experience some cringe-worthy encounters, but these tips and tricks could get you out of some tight spots.

Reasons We Can’t Find the Words

Not knowing what to say is more common than you realize. At some point in time, everybody encounters a situation where they simply can’t find the right words for the moment. It happens for different reasons, and part of limiting your awkward encounters is determining your triggers.

Work with Your Personality Traits

Many introverts struggle with social situations. Often referred to as shyness, introverts need time alone to recharge and process their emotions. It’s not that introverts don’t enjoy the company of others, it’s more that they benefit from time alone to reflect on their thoughts and feelings.

If you’re an introvert, plan for social encounters. Shut down and recharge in solitude before going out. Remember, it’s okay to decline some invites to ensure you have sufficient alone time.

Dealing with Difficult Circumstances

Sometimes words fail us because we can’t comprehend the situation. Difficult circumstances that remind us of bad experiences in our lives, seeing people in pain and cases of extreme sorrow, are all challenging to address.

It’s normal to struggle to find words of comfort or assurance in some scenarios. We’ll address some tips and tricks for handling tough life situations later on.

When You Have Extreme Social Anxiety

Social situations make many people uncomfortable. What happens when the most uncomplicated social encounter leaves you feeling paralyzed? Social Anxiety Disorder is common and extends beyond shyness. It can affect everything from speaking in public to using public restrooms.

Social anxiety presents in different ways for different people. Some people with social anxiety may have no problem addressing a crowd but dread one-on-one conversations. Others struggle to find words in any social situation. Even the symptoms and severity people experience can vary.

If your difficulty with social interactions stems from a social anxiety disorder, and it’s significantly affecting your life, you may want to see a professional. It can be difficult to ask for help, but it may be necessary to overcome your social anxiety.

Creative Ways to Find Your Words

Whatever the reason for your word-finding struggles, there is a way to limit the effects. While you can’t account for every variable, you can develop conversation skills to counteract many everyday social struggles.

Prepare for Social Interactions

It sounds silly, but a little pep talk can go a long way to easing your anxieties about social interactions. Before leaving your house, take a few minutes to center yourself. You may not be able to calm the queasiness entirely, but even a small boost of confidence can make the conversation more comfortable.

  • Get over the need to be perfect. Nobody expects you always to say the right thing, and attempting to do so contributes to not knowing what to say next.
  • Don’t overthink or try to plan too far ahead because you’ll miss out on parts of the conversation. Practice focusing on the present and being a better listener.
  • Let go of the negative thoughts and embrace your curiosity. What do you want to know about the people you’re meeting? What do you have in common? Can you learn something from them?
  • When in doubt, compile a mental list of popular or current topics that you can speak on and hold interest in. Try scrolling through your news feed for ideas.

Meeting Somebody New

Knowing what to say when you meet a new person is stressful for many people. It’s normal to have no idea how to start up a conversation. Thankfully, you can learn techniques to get you through most initial encounters.

Try a Starter Question

You’re at lunch with a new work acquaintance, and the conversation slows to a crawl then abruptly halts. You both shift awkwardly, push food around or play with your water glass, and examine your surroundings. It’s the perfect time to pull out a “starter question.”

Don’t bombard the other person with questions, but a simple, open-ended query shows that you’re interested in them. It can also revive a dying (or dead) conversation. There are plenty of simple conversation starters, but a few relevant to the above scenario would include:

  • Where are you from?
  • What brings you here?
  • What did you do before this?
  • What do you like to do outside of work?

Adding a list of potential starter questions to your pre-socialization prep work is a good idea. You know what you’re walking into and can create a handful of questions to revive your conversations.

Balance Your Questions with Answers

Asking too many questions is irritating, but not asking enough makes you look self-centered. Finding a balance opens the door to an even exchange and helps build relationships. You can use some of your starter questions with this technique.

Start with a question, ask a follow-up, and then relate to what they told you. For example, in the lunch scenario above, you may ask what your coworker likes to do outside of work. Listen to their answer and develop a clarifying question.

If your coworker says they like to binge TV shows after work, ask which is their favorite. Once they answer, you can discuss the show if you’re familiar with it or mention a few shows you like to watch.

When the topic is exhausted, try another question, and repeat the process. Not only does this trick breathe life into dying conversations, it allows for a balanced exchange and builds rapport.

Pay Attention and Shift Focus

Listening is the most critical component of conversation. When you listen to the other person, you can pick up plenty of cues about where to take a conversation. If you don’t know what to say to somebody, use their words to move things forward.

To use this method, ask a question and focus on the other person’s answer to develop an appropriate follow-up. If you ask about somebody’s weekend and they say they went camping, you can ask plenty of follow-ups. Where did you camp? Do you use a tent or camper? How often do you go camping?

This technique takes practice, but once you master it, you should be able to work your way through most conversations. Plus, well-developed listening skills will help you in other aspects of your life.

Draw from Your Surroundings

When in doubt, look around. There is an endless supply of subject matter wherever you are. From artwork to background music, you can find something to comment on that will spark conversation.

Tips to Help Any Struggling Conversation

Not every awkward conversation is with a new person or acquaintance. Sometimes circumstances affect the rhythm of a conversation between two people who are closer. Other times, the blend of new and established relationships can impact the social dynamic and alter the trajectory of the conversation.

Practice Conversational Threading

If you can master conversational threading, you will never run out of things to say. This doesn’t mean you won’t face an awkward or difficult situation that leaves you scrambling for words. However, it should make conversations easier for you.

The concept of conversational threading usually references emails, online forums, and other virtual conversations. However, it does have some real-world applications. To be successful, you have to embrace the idea that discussions do not have to follow a set pattern and can easily jump topics.

You and a friend are chatting. She mentions that she visited a new boutique, but the conversation rolls on to an upcoming wedding, a run-in with an old flame, and then hits a lull. You can reignite the conversation by asking about the boutique she mentioned.

Reframe Your View of Silences

In terms of conversation, many people feel silence is awkward. However, this isn’t always the case. Silence does not have to be negative. Sometimes, it’s just a moment to catch a breath or pivot to a new topic.

Reframing your view of silences and learning to embrace them will change how they feel at the moment. If you can appreciate that silences happen and choose to relax instead of tense up, those around you will follow suit.

Like most techniques, learning to roll with silence in a conversation takes practice. When you learn to find comfort in silence it removes the pressure and helps you find something to say.

Reassess the Situation

Don’t get stuck on missteps. It’s easy to dwell on something we said that wasn’t quite right, but it’s a mistake. When you feel yourself focusing on a past remark, do a quick reality check. Ask yourself if it’s really as bad as you think. The chances are good that the other person didn’t even notice and if they did, didn’t care.

Approach the situation logically. Are you having a bout of self-doubt? Review what you said, how the other person reacted, and how the conversation continued. If the other person didn’t storm off or quickly end the conversation, what we said probably wasn’t as bad as we think.

The truth is, most people don’t judge us as harshly as we think. We are our worst critics and tend to paint things worse than they are. Keep this in mind when you think you committed a massive blunder. Instead of dwelling, brush it under the rug, and move on.

Don’t Force Thought-Provoking Comments

The art of conversation is not exclusive to smart people. Even if you are smart, you don’t always have to contribute deep, thought-provoking insights. There are a time and place for deep conversation, but sometimes people just want to relax.

Smart, insightful comments should be as organic as any other part of a conversation. When you force a deep dive into a topic, it can disrupt the flow. Nobody is going to judge you for contributing simple observations to a conversation, no matter how smart you are.

Know When to Dig Deeper

Are you extra interested in a specific topic in the conversation? Maybe the other person has an exciting or unique job, or they traveled extensively. If you are interested, listen for cues that they are open to a more in-depth discussion on the topic.

  • Did the other person mention the topic more than once, even subtly?
  • Do you want to know more about the subject?
  • If you pursue the topic on a deeper level, would the conversation include feelings or opinions?

If you can answer yes to these questions, the other person is probably willing to discuss the topic on a deeper level. Engage them by asking open-ended questions to encourage the other person to share.

Addressing Difficult Life Situations

What happens when you don’t know what to say because the situation is so difficult? Some life experiences involve intense emotions, and we struggle to find the right words. Nobody wants to make another person feel worse when they are already suffering, but we don’t want them to feel ignored either.

How to Address Broken Friendships

Humans thrive on relationships with other people. When a relationship changes, sours, or falls apart, it can have a profound effect depending on the depth of the bond.

People come and go from our lives all the time. What happens when it’s somebody you’ve been close with for a while? Friends are the foundation of some of the most important relationships in our lives. It hurts when a friendship changes, especially when the bond is severed. In some ways, the loss of a platonic friend is worse than a romantic breakup.

Don’t dismiss somebody dealing with the loss of a friendship. Even though it can be tempting to fall back on internet quotes and old sayings, they won’t make anybody feel better. Instead, offer condolences and support. Remind them that this happens to a lot of people and encourage them to spend time with others.

Dealing with a Breakup

When a romantic relationship ends, it triggers feelings of loss. People need to process the loss and deal with the heartache. However, they don’t need input from people to cheer up, get over it, or start dating again. So, what do you say to somebody dealing with a breakup?

There are plenty of kind, supportive comments that can help somebody through a breakup. They need to feel supported and loved.

  • “I wish I could take your pain away, but I can’t. I’m sorry you’re going through this, and I know it hurts.”
  • “You are not alone in this. I love you, and I’m here for you.”
  • “If you need to vent or scream or cry, call me or text me and I’ll listen.”
  • “Whatever you need to do to grieve, do it. Nobody can tell you how to work through this, and there is no rush. Take your time, and if you need me, I’m here.”
  • “I just wanted to check on you and see how your heart is doing?”

You may not have words to express what you’re feeling for the other person. That’s okay. You can say that. Offer your condolences and tell them you wish you knew what to say to make it better. That simple gesture says plenty.

When a Friend Fails

Failure is a part of life, but what happens when somebody close to you fails at something they worked long and hard for? They probably feel terrible about themselves and embarrassed to face anybody. Your friend may even be angry or frustrated. They need your help and support.

Be careful not to minimize their emotions about the failure but remind your friend that everybody fails at some point. If they need to, let your friend vent. Listen patiently and be supportive.

While your friend is feeling low, they may not be open to everything you say. It takes time to process the complex feeling associated with failure. Once your friend is ready, they may return to you to talk more. The important point to convey is that one failure does not define them as a person.

How to Handle a Job Loss

Losing a job never happens at a convenient time. It’s almost always one more thing on a pile of problems, and it’s painful. Somebody dealing with job loss can feel betrayed, embarrassed, and angry. If you ever lost a job, you can relate. That is what your friend needs to hear.

Avoid telling them how bad your job is and that you envy their position. Don’t suggest that they view their job loss as a well-deserved vacation.

Offering condolences is the first step in addressing the loss of a job. Be compassionate and empathetic. Share your experience with job loss if you can. Reinforce your faith in that person and offer your assistance. Let them know they can talk to you, meet up for lunch (your treat), or help them search for a new job.

Talking Through a Health Crisis

An accident or illness could change the trajectory of your life at any given moment. It can be terrifying and overwhelming to deal with a major health crisis. People facing illness or injury need support, so the number one thing you can do is acknowledge them.

Even if you don’t know exactly what to say, acknowledge their situation with compassion and empathy. Let them know you care, and you’ll help in any way you can. While you probably can’t erase their health issues, you may be able to do other things, like laundry or meal prep.

Don’t take it personally if they withdraw from you. Accept that your friend or loved one needs space, but let them know you’re there when they need you.

Try to keep things as normal as possible. If you have standing Friday night plans, keep them going. You may have to adjust them to accommodate the situation. Instead of going to the movies, plan a movie night at somebody’s house. The key is maintaining normalcy and a support network.

What to Say to Someone Who Lost Everything

Fires and natural disasters, like hurricanes and floods, destroy communities. The devastation left in the wake of a disaster is incalculable. Many people lose everything, including irreplaceable items.

How do you find the words for somebody who lost everything? Avoiding the other person is not an option because ignoring what happened can hurt more than anything you say. Instead, reframe the situation and understand that people affected by disasters are grieving their losses.

In situations where somebody lost everything in a disaster, it may be more important to avoid certain statements. Strike the phrases “at least” and “just stuff” from your vocabulary because they will not help.

Even if you are both people of faith, try to avoid using your faith to comfort them. After a disaster, people sometimes question their beliefs and have a crisis of faith.

Be compassionate and supportive. Let the other person know that they’re not alone and ask how you can help. Acknowledge their pain and affirm their feelings. Let them know you’re happy they are alive and safe.

Supporting Somebody After the Death of a Loved One

The death of a loved one is never easy, no matter the circumstances. You can prepare for death in cases of long-term illness, but you still need to grieve. Generally, grief follows a five-step process, and the time frame for each step varies. You don’t want to rush the person through any stage.

When it comes to not knowing what to say, addressing the death of a loved one is possibly the most challenging situation. Sadly, many people avoid the situation altogether by ignoring the grieving party.

Words may seem to offer little comfort, or they may be afraid to say the wrong thing, but silence is far worse. Even a short statement or simple gesture is better than ignoring the situation.

  • “I’m sorry for your loss.” Make sure you back the statement with sincerity. A grieving person will recognize when something sounds hollow, and it may make them feel worse.
  • “I am hurting for you. I wish I could make it better, but I know I can’t.” One of the best things you can do is show compassion and empathy.
  • “I wish I had the right words. Know that I’m here for you, and I care.” Using these statements allow you to acknowledge that you don’t know what to say and offer support.
  • If you are religious or spiritual, let them know they are in your thoughts and prayers.
  • Share a favorite memory of their loved one.
  • Hug them.

Whatever you do, don’t tell them to be strong, point out the silver lining, or rationalize the loss. These attempts may seem helpful or positive, but they are the worst things you can do.

Special Consideration for Parents Who Lose a Child

The death of a child is often considered the worst thing you can face in life. It is not natural or fair when a parent must bury their child. Finding the right thing to say seems impossible, especially if you don’t share the experience.

Many of the statements listed above can apply to the loss of a child. However, you may want to hold off on expressing memories of the child. Eventually, sharing what their child meant to you may be helpful.

Understand that the loss of a child changes a parent’s life forever. While you can adjust to the new reality, the emotions surrounding the loss of a child are complex and often include an intense sense of unfairness.

When it comes to death and grief, the best thing you can do is be there for the grieving party. You may make the most impact by just listening to them, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Genuine support and presence are more important than anything else you can say or do for a grieving person.

Finding the Words

When you don’t know what to say, it may seem easier to exit the conversation and run in the other direction. Do you want to spend your life running from conversations? Probably not. Even the most difficult conversations are manageable with the tips outlined above.

There’s no fool-proof way always to know the right thing to say, but you can manage well enough in most cases. When in doubt, take a deep breath, and take a moment of silence to find the words you need.

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