Silence is golden, or so the old adage goes, and while that’s true – especially if you are an introvert – it can become a source of panic and fear when it crops up in the middle of a conversation. I am sure you have been in this kind of situation; you are in a conversation with someone you have just met – at a conference or networking event, perhaps – and your mind suddenly goes blank. You start to panic as you try to find something – anything – to say, but the harder you try, the more you realize that your mind has gone blank. You start to see your conversational counterpart’s smile falter and their eyes wander.
Perhaps you are able to salvage the conversation in time or perhaps the person you are talking to politely excuses themselves and moves on to talk to someone else. Or, worst of all, perhaps you blurt out something inappropriate or silly, which leaves you embarrassed.
Whatever the consequence, this situation happens all-too-often, especially for introverts and shy people, leading to many avoid engaging with strangers wherever possible.
So, why does this happen? And how can we counteract this mind-consuming blankness when it rears its ugly head?
Why we “go blank”
For interest’s sake, let take a quick look at why we “go blank”. In an article by Janice Leslie Evan on owlocation.com, the author states that going blank can often be the result of some of the following reasons:
- Change that results from a shift in role or environment.
- Anxiety caused by an aversion to being around strangers
- Lack of sleep
- Feeling overwhelmed
Alternatively, the person may suffer from an underlying medical condition.
For most of us, the “blanking” of our mind, especially in a social situation, results from anxiety due to introversion or shyness. The reason that this happens is that unknown situations are mistakenly perceived as hostile environments by our brains. This activates the fight or flight reflex, causing cortisol and other hormones to be released, which in turn disrupts our cognitive processes. Ta-da! Blankness.
That’s why, when we attend social events more and more, we “get over” this response as our brain learns that social situations are not the hostile environments it initially assumed them to be.
What to do when you go blank
But all is not lost! There are things you can do to salvage or recover from (what I will term) the “blanking event”. The important thing is to either “roll with it” by admitting to the fact that your mind has gone blank or to distract your attention from the event so that it doesn’t end up getting trapped in a cycle of anxiety as you focus more and more on the blankness to try to remember what you were saying.
Chris Macleod, in an article on succeedsocially.com, offers a few suggestions as to what you can do when your mind goes blank.
- Tell people your mind has gone blank. Most people have experienced this at some point and so can sympathize. Turn it into a joke and have a laugh about it.
- Use calming techniques like taking a deep breath. It sounds corny but taking a deep breath has been proven to relieve anxiety. Focus on the breath entering and exiting your lungs to distract you from the blanking event.
- Look around and notice what is around you. Ask a question or start a conversation about someone or something that catches your eye. Perhaps something you see reminds you of an anecdote that you can relate to salvage the situation.
- Have a few things planned out ahead of time by preparing a few ice breakers or topics that you can use in emergencies. Questions are good because it gets the other person talking.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself. This is nothing to get stressed over.
- Find out about some strategies for making conversation by reading up on conversation tips and tricks. This will help keep you more self-assured and will be beneficial to you even if you don’t go blank.
The best advice I can give is to be prepared to use all of the strategies above or at least bear them in mind. Different situations may require different solutions, so having a range of options can only be beneficial for you.
How not to run out of things to say
Turning now to running out of things to say (which is a little different from “going blank” but has a similar outcome: an uncomfortable silence) we can look at options for finding pertinent things with which to revitalize your conversation.
In one of their videos, Charisma on Command suggests the following ways to quickly find things to talk about when your conversational well runs dry.
- “…reminds me of…”. If someone or something near you reminds you anyone or anything else, mention this and ask if the other person agrees. This could lead to a conversation about the person or thing reminding you or what it or they remind you of. For example, “This venue reminds me of a conference hall in Las Vegas, in the Palazzo Hotel. It was fantastic. What’s the best conference venue you have been to?” or “This brioche reminds me of something similar that I had when backpacking through Europe. I love French bread. How about you? What kinds of foods are your favorite?”
- Use “open” questions. This means asking questions that require the other person to say more than “No” or “Yes”, which are referred to as “closed” questions. Open questions guide the other person to not only do the bulk of the speaking but also to reveal more about themselves.
- Why? Ask “Why?” when the other person tells you something; not in the way a three-year-old asks “Why?” to everything she hears, but rather to genuinely explore what the other person is talking about. For example, if a person you are in conversation with says “I love the South of France in summer”, you can enquire “What is it about the South of France that makes you like it so much?”
- You can ask “revival question”, a more general question that revives the conversations. This could be something like, “So, tell me your story”, or “What would you say was your proudest moment?”
- Flip the conversation to them. Instead of trying to hog the conversation, flip the conversation to them by saying “So, tell me about what you do” or something along those lines. You can keep them talking by asking questions to make them elaborate on what they have said.
A few other tips that may help re-ignite your conversation are the following:
- Loop back. If you run out of things to say, loop back to something that the other person has said. If they told you previously that they like fly-fishing, revisit that and ask questions about it. Again, try to get them to do most of the talking. Ask questions and listen attentively.
- Blurt. You can try just saying the first thing that comes into your head. Obviously, this should be done with some filtering. Blurting out something like “Guppies make awesome pets” at a sales conference may come across as more as strange and off-putting than just trying to get the conversation going again.
- You can let the other person end the silence. However, they may end it and move away instead. But this is the risk you take.
As you can see, there are certainly ways to reignite a conversation when it starts to fizzle out. Some may work better than others, but it’s a good idea to be aware of all of them so you can use the relevant one when needed.
What you can talk about at networking events in particular
Worried about being stuck for something to talk about at an event. Here are a few ice-breakers to kick off a conversation (warning: use at your own risk).
- “What your favorite ice breaker at events?”
- “What is the worst ice-breaker you have ever heard? Mine is ______________.”
- “What do you do when you’re no at events like this one?”
- “What’s your elevator pitch?”
- “How often do you attend events like these?”
- “What’s your story?”
- “So, tell me everything about yourself. Just kidding. I’m ____________.”
- “What are you passionate about?”
- “What gets you out of the bed in the morning?”
- “I love this/these (insert food or beverage). Have you tried it/them?”
- “Since we’re both here at the bar/buffet table, let me introduce myself. I am ______________.”
- “How do you think this event stacks up? What’s the best event you have been to?”
- “This is a great venue. Have you been here before?”
- “Wow, that’s a beautiful/interesting jacket/tie/dress/set of earrings. Is there a story behind it?” Or compliment them on something else like their build or hair … or tattoo.
- “I’m just here for the food. What are you here for?” To be delivered jokingly.
- “If there’s one question you don’t want to be asked because you’re sick and tired of answering it, what would that question be?”
- “Have you met _______________?” Use this if you have met one or two other people that you can introduce this person to.
- “So, what are the biggest challenges that you are facing? And don’t say “Having strangers come up to talk to me”.
- “You must hate networking as much as I do.” Use this one if you see someone hovering on the outskirts of the event
- “Mind if I chat with you? I promised myself that I would meet at least three people here today, and I have already made friends with the bartender. So that leaves two.” If they say “Okay”, follow in with “What goals do you set for yourself when attending events?”
I shouldn’t have to say this, but it’s best to stay away from religion and politics when talking to strangers, especially these days.
Sport, on the other hand, is a perennial favorite and good fallback as many people know something about the big matches and competitions, even if they are not fans. However, don’t assume everyone is a card-carrying die-hard team devotee. Keep conversations about sport light and loose. You can use the conversation about a big sports competition to lead into questions about what sports the other person plays, if any.
How to end a conversation gracefully
Sometimes you end up talking to someone you really would rather not be. It’s good to give everyone a chance as many people take a while to get “warmed up”, but sometimes, they are simply too opinionated or arrogant to put up with. For these occasions, it’s best to excuse yourself politely to end your agony. You can use one of the following ways to bow out gracefully;
- Introduce them to someone else
- Ask them if they’ve met anyone else at the event and ask if they wouldn’t mind introducing you.
- “I am sorry to cut our conversation short, but I really need to mingle.”
- “I have set a goal to meet three new people at the vent tonight, so I am going to have to tear myself away from you.”
- “Well, I don’t want to monopolize your time. I am sure you want to meet other people too.”
- “I am sorry, but I really need to visit the restroom.” This is definitely a cop-out, but it’s effective
You can follow most of these excuses up with something like “It’s been a pleasure meeting you and I’ll be sure to get in touch to follow up”. It’s important to make the last part polite. And if you offer to follow up, make sure you do just that. Even blowhards can be good connections to have.
Silence in the midst of a conversation can be panic-inducing, whether it’s because you have simply “gone blank” or run out of things to say. However, as you can see, there is plenty of ways you can mitigate or even recover from this upset. Remember that it happens to almost everyone and is nothing to be afraid of.