A few months ago, my wife and I were invited to dinner with a group of new friends. There ended up being eight people total, and a significant portion of the evening was spent sitting around the table, chatting.
Quickly, it became clear that everyone else already knew each other. And so, my wife and I found ourselves mostly observing the banter. Everyone was friendly enough, and we weren’t being excluded or anything. We just felt as though we were the outsiders, sitting in with a private group. Which … we kind of were.
After about 20 minutes, there was a brief lull in the conversation. And at that moment, one of the guys, Steve, turned towards my wife and asked, “So Melissa, tell us a little about yourself. Like, what do you do for work?”
I could tell that Melissa was surprised to be put on the spot like that. But she answered, and that led us down a new conversation path about careers and whatnot. And when that topic waned, Steve turned to me and asked the same question. That took us to a new topic about blogging and dating and relationships coaching and all the eclectic stuff I do.
And for the rest of the night, Melissa and I remained immersed in the conversation. All it took was two simple questions by Steve …
If you’re on the shy or reserved side, one of the most awkward social situations you have to deal with is the group conversation — you know, where a small circle of people are chatting about nothing specific, and everyone just jumps in and says whatever they have to say at any given moment. Topics bounce around, people talk over each other, and when you decide to say something, you have to speak up in a way that catches the attention of everyone in the group.
If you’re not particularly outspoken, you often end up just sitting there quietly, nodding along, trying to look engaged. Meanwhile, on the inside, you’re trying to figure out what you can say — or silently do — to feel like you’re actually part of the conversation.
Yep, it’s nerve-wracking.
If group conversations fill you with anxiety, take a tip from our friend Steve. You may not be able to think up the perfect, captivating thing to say. But you may not have to. Instead, keep an eye out for someone else who hasn’t said much, and make an effort to include them. Many people like to talk about themselves, so it’s a win-win.*
Or if everyone is already chatty, an alternative is to pay attention to someone who starts to share something, but is then interrupted. When this happens (and it inevitably does), the conversation often veers down a tangent, never getting back to the story the original person was trying to share.
So capitalize on this. Remember what this person was sharing. Wait for a pause in the tangent, then turn back to them and say, “Oh, you were telling us about [blank].”
And just like that, you’ve steered the conversation back for them. And I assure you, they will appreciate that.
After our dinner party, Melissa and I agreed that it was awesome of Steve to make an effort to include us. It was a simple gesture, but for us newbies to the group, it helped us feel accepted.
And the easiest part for Steve was that he didn’t even have to say anything substantial. All he had to do was ask an open-ended question, and then sit back and let the conversation proceed on its own.
Remember that next time you get stuck in your own group conversation. This technique won’t teach you what to say (you’ll have to check out other posts on this site for that), but at least you’ll be able to contribute.
*People like to talk about themselves, but you still have to ask the right questions. Steve’s was actually a bit blunt, and someone more guarded about their personal life may have been turned off by it, especially since it came out of the blue. Knowing what to ask and when to ask it is dependent on being able to read someone, which is of course an entire topic in itself here at Social Savvy Sage.