aaaaaand this is one reason why I don't come to MeFi meetups...
June 19, 2011 3:02 PM   Subscribe

I've lost my mojo for participating in group conversations and would like to get it back. Rather than getting advice from talkative people (whose skills are ingrained) I'd prefer suggestions from people who've dealt with group conversation problems firsthand or have a quiet conversation style.

Long story -- I have been having a problem for many years with being unable to actively participate in conversations with a typical group setting (3, usually 4 to 8 people), especially if it's mostly small talk or social in nature. I've noticed this is becoming a problem at parties, social visits, and so on.

What seems to happens is the talkative ones engage in conversation, especially if there are alpha types or chatterboxes in the mix, and in minutes I am sidelined as a listener. From then on, I find myself more and more unable to wedge myself into the discussion, either because it's tougher to do so in a normal way or because it's tougher to communicate the nonverbals to get an opening in. What's the underlying problem? I have no idea. Maybe I am not a good conversationalist, maybe my brain can't keep up with the tempo or is too distracted, maybe it's some kind of social anxiety I haven't gotten a grip on, or maybe I've forgotten basic group skills or don't have the group nonverbals down right. I am not sure.

I want to work on this, though, and ask if anyone has wrestled with this problem or has any good techniques to share. Also if there are suggestions for figuring out what my underlying problem is, I'd welcome hearing those.

I know that when a large social gathering is split into smaller groups, it's easy to drift to those I have more in common with or talk up the ones standing by themselves, and I've had some luck with that. My problem is more acute when I'm stuck in one group.

Toastmasters is NOT what I am looking for because I have no fear of structured public speaking, and I actually have mastered that somewhat. Likewise, I tend to be a good conversationalist when I am engaged strictly one-on-one with someone else. But once you bring in another person into the mix, that's it... I seem to lose my place on the conversation seesaw. How to Win Friends and Influence People seems to be brought up a lot here when it comes to conversation skills, but the dynamics are clearly different when it comes to a group and I think that's a whole other ball of wax.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 98 users marked this as a favorite
I feel like part of the way the alpha types end up monopolizing the conversation is by injecting the usual "uh huh"s and "yeah"s that you would normally include in a one-on-one conversation, while somebody else is speaking. It tends to make the current speaker address them more, and gives them a leg up in jumping in when that person is done speaking. They continue engage directly with the current speaker, rather than just listening along and waiting for a chance to say something. If you haven't spoken up to that point in the conversation, starting slow with some nods or chuckles at appropriate moments seems more appropriate than suddenly jumping in from the silence with a "totally!" when you agree with a point that has been made.
posted by vytae at 3:11 PM on June 19, 2011 [5 favorites]

One thing I do - and it took me years to figure out that this was happening - is move to the edges of a group and try to minimize how many people have me in their lines of sight. I had no idea I was doing it until I started wondering why people would talk to me in small groups but not in slightly larger groups. Check to see if you do anything like that, that would non-verbally discourage people from including you in conversation.
posted by rmd1023 at 3:18 PM on June 19, 2011

Ask other people questions that make them respond in a fun, interesting way.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:24 PM on June 19, 2011

Groups are tough. A couple of suggestions:

Have you had a thorough hearing evaluation? I have just enough hearing loss that it's very hard to follow a conversation in a group. As a result, I work so hard just trying to keep up with what people are saying, that I have no mental juice left over for actually talking. If it were easier to hear, it would be easier to speak. Maybe you have something similar going.

How's your voice? If it's on the quiet side, that would be barrier, too.

In a group, notice who besides you is not talking very much. Look for a chance to bring that person into the talk by asking "hey x, what do you think about that?" That will get you into it, too, without making it seem like you're just barging in announcing your own opinion.
posted by Corvid at 3:29 PM on June 19, 2011

Ask other people questions that make them respond in a fun, interesting way.

But how can anon ask, if they can't get a word into the conversation?

This happens to me, too, and one thing I've tried to do is observe how the conversation gets handed back and forth between those talking, and then do the same. I often see someone starting to interrupt, then stopping (realizing they're interrupting) but still giving the appearance of being about to talk (leaning forward, animated look, etc.). Everyone then knows they are next in line to speak. I've stopped caring a lot about interrupting. (I don't like it; I like conversations where everyone listens really deeply and lets others finish what they're saying, but that's not the way that these kind of animated group discussions go.)
posted by salvia at 3:34 PM on June 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have the same problem, right down to the part about public speaking. For me I think it comes down to social anxiety. In a group that I know well, it's much easier to feel like a participant, and when you get to that stage you stop thinking about what you're saying and it feels easy. In a group that I feel less comfortable with, I'm hampered by my own worrying about things. "Oh, I have kind of a thought about that... it's probably not very interesting to anyone else though... they'll probably think I'm stupid... do these people even like me?" etc, etc.

In structured public speaking, someone has given you time to speak, and an audience, and you have the floor. In conversation, you have to take that space for yourself if you want it, and it's awfully difficult when you're surrounded by more assertive and confident folks. I think the bit about body language above is spot on. When you can get a word in, I agree that asking questions (as mentioned above) feels more manageable than jumping in with a comment or story. Otherwise, I'm at a loss. I'll be watching this thread to see what others come up with.
posted by lookoutbelow at 3:48 PM on June 19, 2011

Powerful body language hack: Want the attention of the group? Raise your hand. Seriously. It'll cause whomever (in mildly polite company) to stop and acknowledge you.
posted by filmgeek at 4:13 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is something I practiced. I talked about this in a comment a few years ago.
posted by sweetkid at 4:15 PM on June 19, 2011

I have this - and am guessing from the number of favourites that quite a few people do and haven't found a solution. My feeling is that I'm just not particularly good at thinking of things to say when the conversation is moving fast, but need time to reflect. I guess this would get better with practice but I now spend as little time in groups as I can. When I am in groups I usually now have craft work with me. I still can't get a word in but I'm less frustrated about it as I have something to do.

I have noticed that occasionally when I really want to say something someone observant in the group will notice and ask me directly, so I must be giving off some non-verbal signals. If this happens to you, you could consider what those signals are and intensify them. There's some linguistics stuff about turn-taking you could read too - random links here, here, here. I expect some of MeFi's linguists like iamkimiam could say more about this.

If this happens in groups with people you are close to, you could consider asking them about it - seeing if successful group-speakers have any suggestions, or are aware of anything less than optimal about your behaviour in group conversations.

sweetkid - your comment reads to me as if it's about one-on-one conversation and meeting new people, not group situations where the problem is getting into the conversation in order to say anything.
posted by paduasoy at 4:47 PM on June 19, 2011

I am an alpha conversation hogger - at least, I used to think so.

For maybe the last two and a bit years, having decided that I was an alpha conversation hogger, I've gone into meetings promising myself that I won't say a single thing. That lasts about five minutes, not because I can't keep my mouth closed, but because people start asking me to speak. There are people there, like you, who probably have much more interesting, relevant and insightful things to say, but nobody asks them to speak. I've also noted that there are 'listeners' who might find a window to say quite a bit, and it seems like they're saying good things to me, but nobody really pays attention to any of it, because they're...well, a listener.

My first conclusion was that I've been a hogger for so long that people just expect me to say stuff, think it's weird when I don't, and so ask me to speak so that things are 'normal' again. This kinda went out the window when I moved to a completely new organisation with people who didn't know me and it happened anyway.

This has lead me to a second conclusion, which is that there are just some people who are alpha in conversations, and that in at least some cases, the amount you talk, and the extent to which you're introverted or extroverted, monosyllabic or sparkling, doesn't seem to have much to do with whether you're an alpha or not. If anything, not talking has made things worse for me, because people think I must be sitting on some deep insight, or that I've been carefully listening to and analysing everybody else's thoughts and so I'm in some position to issue a grand, unifying announcement.

Maybe it's because I'm male and tall. Maybe it's because when I do listen, I look people in the eye and nod, or lean forward, and this makes them want approval or think that I have some sort of special authority - some sort of body language I'm unwittingly using. I really don't know. Maybe try the looking and nodding thing and sitting up straight or leaning forward a bit. I notice that listeners seem to sit in corners or on the side and make themselves small and don't look at anybody, but that could be selective bias. It's worth a shot, though.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:54 PM on June 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm a bit of an alpha conversation hogger (I'm working on it) but I have several close friends who are in your shoes, and I've spent some time thinking about how to engineer conversations so they get more of the spotlight and I get less. I do think a lot of it comes down to body language, because changing other things makes very little difference - as obiwanwasabi noticed. Here are some specifics about the body language:

1. Physically include yourself in conversation. I notice that my friends who tend to get excluded tend to physically exclude themselves - holding themselves smaller, looking down, or most commonly slightly hiding behind others. Occasionally I have tried to physically include them by, if we're standing in a circle, opening up my shoulders and forcing them more "in" the circle - only to have them step back to still be slightly behind me, thus creating a gap for someone more assertive to step into and completely block them.

2. Talk loud. My friends who are sometimes overlooked tend to speak at a normal conversational tone, or even mumble a bit. This does not work in a group conversation, particularly if it's in a loud atmosphere (a bar, etc) where many group conversations take place. Project. Talk louder than you think you need to.

3. Make eye contact with everyone. Again, I've noticed that people who tend to be overlooked make eye contact with just the person they are most proximately responding to. This creates a really weird and uncomfortable dynamic for everyone else: you start to feel like you're intruding on a private conversation within individuals, and feel like you should ignore it. Since it's a group conversation, you should start by making eye contact with the immediate-response-person, but then before the sentence is over, have looked around and made eye contact with everyone else, thus pulling them in.

4. Don't pause too long before you speak. Unfortunately this is hard for people who tend to be deep and thoughtful thinkers, but it's important. People are uncomfortable with too much silence in group conversations; a one-on-one can handle a lot more, but group conversations you can't have more than a second or two, tops. In my experiences of trying to include my friends, I have deliberately left longer-than-usual pauses, only to find that (a) that makes other people jump in; and (b) the rhythm of the conversation is destroyed. You gotta jump in quickly, even if it's just with a placeholding thing ("Ha ha, well, you know") to hold attention for a second while you plan what you're going to say.

I hope that helps. It's really unfortunate that group conversation dynamics work the way they do, because I don't really want to be a conversation hogger either, and am often very interested in what the quieter people are going to contribute. But even with the best will in the world, if the above body language problems / other factors are in play, it's hard to maintain a group conversation with them.
posted by forza at 6:02 PM on June 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

I've never followed a specific routine or method, but a good friend of mine (I like to call her my Yenta) had a New Year's Resolution of trying out different dating set-ups just for practice talking to people. First it was J-Date and then she attended a couple speed dating events. Going in she had zero expectations, other than to simply talk to a wide range of men. Her advice: "All you're doing is talking to somebody, it could be interesting or boring. Even if it's boring, you're still getting practice and becoming more prepared for future situations where you run across somebody who you want to talk with or get to know better." Eventually she came up with the Cheapskate's brainstorm of finding out where Speed Dating events were happening in her part of Brooklyn and just going to hang around the bar. Same thing, people float over after and she met/talked with a ton of guys.

You may not want to try speed dating, but my friend's advice worked for me. Good or bad, I have an experience of just talking to a lot of different people and becoming way less socially anxious/more good at conversation. I pretty much go to any type of networking event I get invited to because I figure "What the Hell?" It hasn't pushed my career forward, but I've surprised myself by enjoying just meeting and talking to random people.

Another secret I've learned is that everybody else feels the same way too about social situations. Even people I've casually known for years where they have a lot of friends, et cetera. It's kind of surprising when you talk to somebody (one acquaintance comes to mind) and realize, "shit, they're just as anxious and shy as the rest of us." THat helps me a lot and makes me want to put the other person at ease.

As for Toastmasters or public speaking training, you'd be surprised how it helps. I'm an extrovert, but doing TM and public speaking/debate in high school was great training for how to think and speak on your feet. Another anecdote, talking at a party with another acquaintance who I'd say is somebody very cool and popular. She complimented me about being so funny/quick on my feet with jokes and comebacks. I wouldn't have developed that skill without the public speaking training!

Finally, there's always anti-depressants (though for more than just shyness). I was taking Amiltryptaline for awhile to treat insomnia. It was a period of time thanks to my work environment where I felt really unhappy and down on myself. An unexpected side effect of being on that med was that I got better, started feeling better about myself, started feeling more assertive/outgoing, and did a Hell of a lot better being in situations where I'd talk/socialize with strangers.
posted by green_flash at 6:17 PM on June 19, 2011

Oh, and because some of my tips were about how to hold the floor once you say something, here are some about how to get people to notice you saying something in the first place.

1. Precede your comments by moving forward slightly. Either lean slightly, or step slightly, or at least gesture slightly. The movement attracts attention, and since it's forward it makes you look like you want to engage.

2. When other people are talking, make eye contact with them and with everyone else in the group. Also, nod, smile, say "uh huh" etc. I think sometimes I end up with the floor when I don't want it because I do this, when all I wanted to do was encourage them to keep speaking, but somehow doing this created a cue that when they were done, it would be my turn.

3. Don't worry too much about saying something awesome and witty. Conversation is like a cooperative tennis match; your job is simply to lob the ball back, not to hit a smashing killer shot that will stun everyone. So don't overplan what you're going to say. Doing that will cause just that crucial bit of delay that makes the pause last too long, and other people to jump in instead.
posted by forza at 6:31 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have had this problem and I think I have managed to work through it, at least some of the time. The main thing I did was try to be more assertive. Like other commenters have said, make sure you're part of the conversation circle, don't let people step in front of you and make eye contact. When there's a pause in the conversation and you have something to say, start talking. If someone else tries to talk at the same time (the wedging out you mentioned, perhaps), hesitate, but keep speaking. You can't so this all the time, (then it becomes annoying or rude) but it's okay to keep talking. I used to stop whenever someone else began at the same time I did, and then I never managed to say anything.
posted by raeka at 6:40 PM on June 19, 2011

"The problem," as I see it, is that the aggressive talkers not only keep talking once they start, the other big talkers will interrupt them in order for them to start their chain of thoughts. I just started a job at a software company whose core people behave like this. Concision is not their strong suit, in my opinion, or maybe I've just focussed on being concise so that when I do get a chance to say a few words I make sure that my point gets across as soon as possible before one of the alpha types starts talking over me mid-sentence.

It bugs the shit out of me and it's exacerbated by alpha-chat being a high-status trait, philosophically a form of social violence, so more and more people try to do it beyond those it comes naturally. I just figure they don't want to hear what people who aren't interrupting them have to say, so I just sit back. Once in a while I'll respond to a "why so quiet?" with an "I don't like interrupting people," mostly toward my brother who is like this, but I've resigned myself to just being the quiet one. I have no use for superficial status traits. "Real bad boys move in silence" - KRS One
posted by rhizome at 6:57 PM on June 19, 2011

Interrupt once the speaker starts to lag. Seriously. This isn't rude in this environment, or at least not as rude; watch and you'll notice this going on all the time.
posted by J. Wilson at 7:09 PM on June 19, 2011

If you are interested in reading about the dynamics of conversation, the key phrase to search for is "conversation analysis" (CA). That is the academic discipline of analysing how conversation ("talk") works. It kind of stands at the intersection of linguistics and psychology. Turn-taking is a major focus of interest. I bet lots of Conversation Analysts have looked at how talkative people manage to get larger groups to acknowledge them as "next" in the conversation. You could read up on techniques other people use and try them out yourself to see what works for you.

(I am a linguist, but not a practitioner of CA, which is why I don't have more concrete suggesitons for you.)
posted by lollusc at 7:28 PM on June 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

Just throwing this out there because I didn't see it mentioned yet: Alcohol. I am the kind of person who elicits feedback like "you're so quiet" and "you're such a good listener" and while I can, using some of the tricks mentioned above, muscle or act my way into being a conversational star, it feels very unnatural and unnerves me.

If I drink just enough beforehand, though, I relax and stop caring, I laugh more, I have less of a filter, and if one of my jokes falls a little flat, I can always claim later on that "I was tipsy" and pass it off that way.

Be responsible, of course, but it honestly helps me more than anything else.
posted by Nixy at 8:37 PM on June 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

What's odd about your question is that you imply you were once good at this. You float the possibility that you may have "forgotten" basic skills. You say that the group-conversation mojo is something you've "lost" and would like to get back.

Either you're being disingenuous to some degree, or something has changed in the meantime. What was it? Maybe your life now involves professional / social contexts that are quite simply outside of your comfort zone?

I'm also struck by the total absence in your question of any indication that you're actually interested in these conversations you want so much to participate in. Are you just embarrassed to be seen as docile or socially lackluster? And yet, maybe you are just a socially lackluster person, who wants "hacks" to be perceived otherwise. Life can't all be hackable. Sometimes you're just who you are. Your motive here, in other words, seems suspect.

You should also ask yourself: what makes you a good conversationalist one-on-one? And are you really, or do you just take up more room in the dialogue, and derive pleasure from that? Do you really engage with that other person?

Because if you truly have the interpersonal intelligence to engage a single person -- i.e., to be really attentive, curious, responsive, empathic -- then you can absolutely transfer that intelligence into group contexts. But much of your concern sounds like an ego thing.
posted by taramosalata at 8:44 PM on June 19, 2011

When someone is telling a story in a small group, wait for the moment when the story is over, but people are still laughing about it and saying, "no way!" or "oh my god" to jump in with a question - experience has shown me it's easier to ask a question about their story (examples: "so did it work out okay in the end?" or "how did so-and-so react?") than to try and come up with a story of my own. That's an easy way to contribute at least a little.
posted by guessthis at 6:23 AM on June 20, 2011

I was noticing this the other day. I was at a dinner party with eight people and three people did almost all the talking. All eight of us are normally pretty vocal, so I was astounded by how completely the three people cornered the conversation. I think the most effective thing they did was keep questions in the sug-group. This requires you to have at least one buddy or preferably two, and is kinda an asshole thing to do on purpose (which I don't think they were doing), but it works really well.

On the other hand, if you want to break up the sub-group try asking a relevant question but to someone who hasn't been talking much.
posted by anaelith at 7:42 AM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

« Older Help me make Atlas.ti & Survey Monkey...   |   Beyond monogrammed towels Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.