How do you join a group? When do you step in a group conversation? So much goes on, you just block up. How do you add to this crazy dynamic?
Last September I was reminded again how hard this is. By pure coincidence, I was at a formal political event. There were ministers, senators and even the King and Queen! (You guessed it, not from the States 😉 ). This is an official Dutch event called “Prince’s Day”. I can be really cool about it, but I sat in the last row, so not next to our cute queen, bummer, haha.
Before all the official ceremonies, I had to mingle with senators and their entourage. Kind of awkward. I tried to remind myself everyone is a sentient sack of meat. Just like me! With that relativism, I started joining small groups for some sweet senatorial small talk. Trying to add value with goofy jokes. You know, by being myself.
It wasn’t working.
Somehow I didn’t know how to socialize anymore. Awkward silences,… being ignored,… and my brain blocked up. Painful. Luckily, after a while experience kicked in. I found my groove and a few cool senators.
But man was it frustrating and hard at first. The die-hard political setting didn’t help. Apparently, the upper political class was not interested in entertaining a washed up geek. It brought me back to the time I always was awkward as fuck.
Remembering how awful it feels if you can’t fit in. When you are excluded. Standing uncomfortably on the sidelines, feeling hopeless.
That is why I write about group conversation. Because you can learn to handle group conversations. Even in these kinds of settings. Just like I learned to handle it. Even if you feel you just don’t get it.
Let’s take a deep dive into the wonderful world of group conversation. So you won’t regret going to parties. Leave the comfort of your home with confidence. Have no more worries about keeping up appearances, but know exactly what to do. How to be yourself. Not stressed out about what others think of you.
The weird dynamics of group conversation
So many weird manners do we humans have. The larger a group, the more chaotic. A good group size is about 3-7 people. Any bigger and a group splits into subgroups. Or a portion of the people will be uninvested in the conversation.
Don’t treat group dialogue as a one-on-one talk. Though the basics are the same, a lot is different. There is a dynamic in energy, topics, and emotions. This asks for flexibility on your part. To better fit in and understand, start observing the different roles people adopt.
You have the leaders, who guide and steer the conversation. Supports, who add to the dynamic and content but don’t contribute too much. The jokers, who mainly jest. Good for lightening up and smoothing out the kinks. Agitators, the people ready to poke around for fun, excitement or out of boredom. And the public, who mainly observe and enjoy.
Going into group conversation unskilled, you might think: “I'll bother people if I walk up and start talking”. Unfounded self-criticism! You add value! Either by the interesting things you say, or by the mere act of socializing. People feel good when they socialize. If you do it well – you give them that feel good vibe :)! (and yourself too by the way!)
You need to learn how to engage group conversation.
Reading the situation
The first step to joining any conversation is knowing if a group is open to you or not.
In some settings, people have an intense conversation without room for new people. Like old friends loudly bantering, flowing in a dynamic build up over years! These are not the right groups to join.
But there are relaxed and open groups you can join. Look for the right signs. A group not too loud and intense. Where people are loosely arranged. With good openings for proper angles of engagement.
Not only does the arrangement matter. But the way people carry themselves. Are their arms closed, legs only pointed at each other? This indicates a closed mood.
Instead look for people with their arms relaxed, in a wide open stance. You have a better shot at connecting with them.
You could jump into a conversation and scream: “I’m here bitches!” (And honestly, it sometimes works.) But a better idea is to scope out the setting a bit first. Be near a group and listen. But don’t creepily eavesdrop for an hour. If you hear something interesting, or if there is a lull in the conversation, use that to enter. (more on that later.)
Gauge what the conversation is like and about. So you won’t join randomly and unprepared. What is the tone? Serious, somber, personal? Or are people just comically bantering? There might be a serious discussion going on. Are you ready to add a story, facts or emotional value to this conversation? Are you even interested in it? Yes! Great. Time to get ready!
You might be self-conscious about entering the conversations. (Surprise!) But overthinking how you are perceived and act kills the coming dialogue. Try to relax before you enter a group. One way is using a simple breathing technique.
Take 10 deep breaths in. In 4 second, hold and breathe out slowly for 8. Your body will automatically relax. Use this ease to enter! A better way yet is the classic 3-second rule. Once you decide you want to talk to people, step up to them within 3 seconds. So you have no time to doubt – you just enter the fray.
Entering the arena
So the easiest way to enter a group conversation is through someone you know. Pat them on the shoulder, say hi and join the banter. He can introduce you.
But most of the time you have to enter by yourself. As suggested, you have been observing the group a bit. Enter in an angle where people see you approach. Preferably in an open spot as well.
Approach and be assertive! I can’t stress this enough, but don’t just stand there expecting to magically become part of the dynamic. Very lightly introduce and acknowledge the group. By entering, and giving a small nod or tilt of the head.
- “Hey guys, whats up?”
Introduce yourself quickly to the group. Shaking hands is more formal but might fit the setting. Say who you are and give other people the chance to introduce themselves as well.
Does entering by just introducing not feel right? Not spontaneous enough? Use an easy entry sentence. An opener if you will.
Ask a question, make a statement or use your observations. You can question or comment on numerous things. The context, environment, the group, the news, yourself, pop culture or tell a small story. Do this by focusing on one person to ask it to. But don’t neglect the rest. Be loud enough, and look around to involve the group. Some examples:
Ask to join the group:
- “Hey guys, mind if I join?”
Use what you’ve heard:
- “Couldn’t help but overhear you talking about quantum entanglement”
- “Are you talking about midi-chlorians? Fascinating!”
- “No way you guys like Dave Chapelle too?”
Join with a new subject, by statement or question.
- “You guys have these kinds of events more often?”
- “Wow, this is a cool mansion right?”
- “Hey, how do you know each other?”
- “Did you guys hear of the new SpaceX launch?”
- “Well these parties always make me awkward, how are you guys holding up?”
- “New Indiana Jones movie guys, yay or nay?”
If a few sentences get the ball rolling and you are in the conversation, introduce yourself if you haven’t done it yet.
- “Hey I am [fill in name] by the way”
There are situations, you already kinda know the group. Like a group of classmates, or colleagues. You can more easily ask to join the group. Just move up and ask:
- “Hey mind if I join?”
- “Scootch, what are you guys talking about?”
Then actually be a part of the conversation. You can barge in using the above kind of questions. Or wait a bit, and see if the group takes you along in the conversation.
Another interesting technique is using the ‘uninterested periphery.’
Sometimes, especially in larger groups, there are unengaged people. Looking around and not contributing. Go up to them – they are uninvolved anyway – ask them what’s happening. Use them as a gravity assist to catapult yourself in the rest of the conversation.
In any group the dynamic is different. Accept that! That will mean some flexibility on your part. Everyone has to adjust to fit in. Just don’t let go of your core beliefs and character.
In conversation you always have to adjust a bit – but don’t adjust your core values. In group conversation your need to be flexible in more directions.
A little pro tip: At small events, arrive a bit early. Then introduce yourself to all the people who are already there and those who trickle in. It’s easier with few people around. Because you already made contact, initiating talks, later on, will be much easier. Your assertiveness already broke the ice.
Dealing with rejection
All these techniques to enter work. But not 100% of the time. Besides, it takes practice to become good at it. Sometimes you will be rejected.
People don’t always open up, so you really can’t enter the group. There also will be times people politely let you enter the verbal fray, but don’t make you part of the conversation. Not letting you partake or merge you into the conversation. Notice if things don’t work out. Accept it and just discreetly excuse yourself.
It can feel humiliating and awkward, but hey, it’s human interaction, not an exact science. It’s a messy business, egos will be bruised. But bruises heal. Nothing you can’t learn from and try again, but better :)!
But in case you are able to enter the group but are not really taken in by people. Really assert yourself! Make effort to be part of the conversation.
So how do you do that smoothly?
Keeping the conversation flowing
In group convo, you will speak less than mano e mano. Unless you’re domineering or a smooth socialite. That means you have to listen well! Listen with intent and genuine interest.
You can show you are interested by giving verbal and nonverbal acknowledgments. Like saying:
- “Wow, did that really happen?”
The nonverbal equivalents of that are nodding your head, grunting or humming approval. “mmm mmmm”, all subtle but clear signs you are listening.
You don’t have to keep it at those acknowledgments. Ask follow up questions as well. Not only to the person speaking but to the rest of the groups as well.
- “What are your guy’s thoughts on that?”
- “That’s interesting, what would you have done?”
- “So how did that make you feel?”
Whatever is right to ask. But ask out of interest, don’t fake it, that doesn’t work. Not really interested in people and their stories? Start asking better questions! Also, cultivate more interest in people. Because believe me, if you do it right, you will find how fascinating people really are!
Also, show you are listening, with your body. We landed on the subject before. As you stand in the group, make sure you display an open and relaxed posture. Your arms at your side, feet pointed towards the group.
The portals to the souls
And eye contact. Look people in the damn eyes! Find it hard? Practice! Because you can learn it. Find it hard to focus on both eyes, try focussing on one, then the other. It is a simple trick to keep looking people in the eyes.
You make eye contact as you talk or listen. If you feel it has been long enough, don’t look down or outside the group. But look at other group members. Look in their eyes, as they look at the speaker. Because you can switch between people, it is good practice as well! This is an essential part of connecting!
So you want to add something. But you don’t really want to be an ass about it, by being loud and interrupting brashly. You won’t have to do either. But you have to be assertive.
In conversations, when someone is finished, there is a small pause. Then the next person talks. Yeah, don’t wait for that pause. Just barge in right after. Say what you want to say. Add value and be assertive.
Show others in advance you’re up next. Use your body language. Raise your hand as you are about to talk. Tilt your head a bit and breath in clearly. This shows you are going to say something next.
Sometimes you don’t have a choice but interrupting people. But you can do it politely.
- “Sorry to interrupt, but I want to react to what you just said”
- “Wait, I want to add something to that”
Acknowledge other people’s value and add your own thoughts. But don’t do it too often of course. Keep things light and apologize a bit. Use humor to lighten the situation.
It’s hard to plan all these things. So sometimes you will be interrupted, sometimes you will interrupt someone else. It’s no big deal! There will be times you and someone else start talking at the same time. Be gracious and let the other speak. But if you haven’t added anything in awhile, just take the spotlight.
If Anxiety Hits
Sometimes it can feel overwhelming to talk to a group. So much input, so many faces. You just block up. You get anxious and self-conscious.
- “These people don’t like me”
- “I made it weird again”
- “Did I say anything wrong?”
You just zone out. Your mind blocks up. Your mind races but you just don’t know what to say. How do you get out of that state?
As said earlier, try to regain your calm by taking deep breaths. 4 seconds in 8 seconds out. Just do that ten times. No problem, you can easily be silent for a minute. Feel calmer? Just give it a few more deep breaths.
Now – instead of focusing on this ambiguous concept called a group. Just focus on one person at a time. The entire group can be overwhelming. So many things said, so many faced to interpret, so many potential judgments. An overload of information. Causing the blue screen of death to pop up in your head.
But you can talk to one person, right? Focusing on one will be clear. So look at the person talking only. Just ignore the rest of the group. There is only her – the rest follows. Someone else talks, slowly shift your attention to them. Ignore the chaotic blob, just focus on the individual elements.
If you are ready – address that one person. Not the group! The group doesn’t exist. Look her in the eyes. Talk to her. Wait for her response. If someone else answers refocus only on that person. And so on. This will make group talk way less overwhelming. You talk from one person to one person.
Yes, I said the dynamic is different. Groups are not the same as individual talks. But taking it apart first, helps you tackle the whole. Over time it will blend in smooth group conversations. Where you can see how the parts make up the whole.
What to talk about?
So what are you going to talk and ask about?
Let’s look at asking first. If you want to play it safe, you always have the classic FORD technique. But also the infamous RAPE subjects to avoid. This keeps things civil.
Things to talk about – F.O.R.D;
Family; Occupation; Recreation; Dreams
Other great subjects: - P.M.T.F.
Pets, Media (movies, music, books), Travel Food & Drinks
Things to avoid talking about – R.A.P.E
Race; Abortion; Politics; Exes
(*abortion, as in all highly sensitive issues)
These are pretty good guidelines, especially when you first meet people! But of course, there is more flexibility. You will find that out over time when you grow more experienced.
Want a broader range of subjects? Prepare! Read books, newspapers, Reddit or some juicy tabloid and use it to know about interesting topics. Use those to spark exciting conversation.
Don’t know what most people talk about? Try this, open MSN.com or yahoo.com (don’t use them as a search engine), there you’ll see what data-driven content looks like. So what most people love talking about! For me it’s stuff I’m not interested in and still click on.
There are loads of subjects you are interested in. You don’t have to talk about the Kardashians if you don’t want to. Talk about things you find fascinating and your passion. But be flexible, because what celebrities might be for you, Warhammer is to others. So have a few awesome common interests to discuss as well.
Changing the subject
If you don’t like the current subject, segway organically into another one. You can do three things to move on. You can zoom out, zoom in or move laterally. Say we are talking about the new iPhone. But you are totally not interested. Zoom in; talking about the apps available and the technology going into it. Or zoom out; talking about the impact smartphones have in daily life. How you can’t live with or without them. Or you pan to similar subjects, the new Samsung, your new tv, how Apple is also entering the autonomous car market. You name it!
Remember, if you really don’t know anything about a subject. Don’t pretend you do, you will look like an ass. Ask more through genuine interest. Don’t fake knowledge and don’t pretend to be smart.
Also, have a few funny or interesting go-to-stories. Worried you don’t have an interesting life for compelling stories? That actually doesn’t really matter. Look at Seinfeld. You can have amazing stories about how quirky “normal” things are. Or about your crazy thought patterns! Share your awesome stories with the world!
You might want to practice the art of storytelling. Start by practicing jokes! Small stories in and of themselves. A beginning, a middle and a funny twist. Balancing tensions and release. Master your vocal toolbox to tell awesome stories!
A few final Pro tips
Always try to make others feel comfortable. Ask people their opinion make them part of the group. Because you might not even be the shyest person there. Make sure everyone in the group feels part of the dynamic.
You can also ask people outside of the group if they want to join the conversation. Because just like you, they might now know how to join.
Use names and tie individual narratives together. Repeat what people say, show you listened, and ask what others think about it. Displaying interest and leadership.
If you want to shine even more and become the center of attention, ramp up your energy level to 125% of the current flow. People will flock to your enthusiasm. But in a balanced way, not a wild frenzy.
So that’s your 101 on group conversation. Ready to take on the world? Time to practice my friend! It is a lot of info, but feel free to ask more questions.