David Morin

How do you join a group conversation if you’re not supposed to interrupt?

How do you enter a group conversation? On one hand you’re not supposed to interrupt people, but on the other hand, someone else always seems to start talking before you get the chance to say anything.

In this article, I give you 4 powerful techniques you can use to enter and be part of an ongoing conversation without being rude.

A few days ago, a friend invited me to a mingle his company arranged.

I spoke to one girl there who was really fun and interesting.

If I had left the mingle at that point, I would have described her as socially savvy.

But later, in a group conversation, she just couldn’t get in despite repeatedly trying to say something.

Man trying to enter conversation spends few minutes smiling and nodding at edge of circle

How come?

Well, the rules behind 1 on 1’s and group conversations are different.

The nature of group conversations mean that there will almost always be someone who starts talking just when you are about to

In group conversations, you’re competing for attention from several others. You need a different skillset from 1 on 1 conversations to get people’s attention (without coming off as attention seeking!)

Here’s an example.

Even if only 1 in 5 of the population are bad at paying attention to others, a group of 5 will on average include someone saying something just before you are about to chime in.

Lesson learned:

The girl at the mingle waited for her “turn”. But you can’t wait for others to stop talking before you signal that you want “in”.

At the same time, you can’t blatantly interrupt people.

We want to signal without interrupting

Here’s my trick that works surprisingly well: At the very moment someone’s finished talking, I breathe in quickly (like you do before you’re about to say something) and make a gesture with my hand.

Look at this screenshot from a dinner we recorded for one of our courses. When I breathe in, the people around me subconsciously register that I’m about to start talking. My hand gesture triggers people’s motion sensing, and everyone’s eyes are drawn towards me. The hand motion has the advantage of working even in loud environments.

David gestures to enter a group conversation

By simply breathing in through my mouth and raising my hand, everyone refocuses their attention from the guy in red to me.

There’s another difference between group conversations and one on ones that we need to know about:

Group conversations often tend to be in more high energy environments.

When a lot of people meet the energy level in the room tends to be higher, The more high energy, the more it’s about entertainment and having fun, and less about getting to know people in depth.

Lesson learned:

The girl was still in the “1 on 1 mode”, waiting too long before talking.

It means that it’s OK if you happen to cut someone off a bit too soon. To be clear, you don’t want to interrupt people, but you want to cut the corners a bit tighter than in 1 on 1’s.

There’s a third big difference we need understand to be able to join in on an ongoing conversation:

The way you listen, not how much you talk, decides if people see you as part of the conversation

In one on one’s, each person usually talks around 50% of the time. However, in a group conversation of 3, each person will only be able to talk 33% of the time. In a conversation of 10, only 10% of the time and so on.

This means that the more people in the group, the more time you spend listening. This is natural.

Therefore, we need to step up our listening game.

I noticed how the girl’s gaze wandered off after a while. That’s natural to do if you can’t get into the conversation, but it created the feeling that she wasn’t part of the group. I probably spent 90% of the time just listening to others in that group. But I kept eye contact, nodded and reacted to what was being said. That way, it felt like I was part of the conversation the whole time. Therefore, people who talked directed a lot of their attention towards me.

Lesson learned

As long as you are involved in what is being said and show it with your body language, people will see you as part of the conversation even if you actually don’t say much.

Don’t try to lead group conversations

Socially successful people should always take the lead, right?

Not quite. People who try to push their own agenda in conversations and talk about what they think is interesting instead of picking up on what others like talking about tend to be annoying.

When you’re talking to someone 1 on 1, it’s just the two of you creating the conversation together. You can try taking it in a new direction to see if the other person is following, and that’s a great way to progress and get to know each other.

This isn’t how joining ongoing conversation works.

Here, we need to follow in on the topic instead of leaving it. (This is why it’s important to truly listen, like I talked about in the previous tip.)

Imagine you’re in a group conversation deeply emerged in, say, a horror story about backpacking in Thailand. Here, you don’t want to break in by starting to talk about your delightful vacation in Hawaii. Your Hawaii experience might be a great topic for later, but when you’re just about to join a conversation, you want to be close to the current subject and its emotion. In this example, Hawaii is close enough to the subject, but the emotion of it doesn’t match up at all (horror story vs having a great time).

Lesson learned

When entering group conversations, don’t depart from the current subject. If I wanted to join that conversation about the backpacking horrors in Thailand, I would start off by showing interest in the topic:

  • How many nights did you have to sleep under that banana leaf? or
  • How long was it before you could treat your spider bite? or
  • Didn’t it hurt to amputate your leg?

Well, you get the point.

Do you have any horror stories about joining a group conversation? Or do you have any good experiences or tips you want to share about it? I’m excited to hear about it in the comments!

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Comments (4)

  1. Jay

    I have a lot of sympathy for the person with the amputated leg, great advice, thank you.

  2. Michael schirmacher

    My most recent group horror story:before dinner a spirited conversation took place between 3 other persons and myself. The topic was one in which all 4 of us have strong opinions, but varying degrees of education. I have 2 graduate degrees and great experience in the topic. There were three times I tried to enter the conversation, each time beginning “what I believe is most important here is…” after the third time I failed to gain attention I called attention to what happened: “excuse me, but 3 times I have tried to offer my own view, but have been ignored. What’s going on here? I’m not feeling respected.” The 3 women were not even aware that I had tried to speak; one suggested my voice was too low (it wasn’t. I spoke assertively and clearly each attempt.) One woman privately suggested how aggressive one other was. I concur but am still dumbfounded at being literally unheard. Any thoughts on this?

  3. Those are insightful points. Two of the points, in particular, were aha moments.

    The first point that really spoke to me is how group conversations tend to be in more high energy environments, and therefore it’s more about entertainment and having fun, as opposed to getting to know another person more deeply, the latter which is more the aim when conversing 1 on 1. This insight is an important realization for me because then I know how I need to adjust in group situations, that is, up my own energy and be more lively if I can, in order to avoid not fitting in or feeling left out.

    The second point that hit home is how it’s the way you listen, not how much you talk,that determines whether others see you as part of the group conversation (and whether you yourself feel like you’re part of it). That’s also a realization that’s significant in helping to successfully mingle in groups, even if one isn’t saying much.

    Interesting to know and implement.

  4. Butch

    There is an old saying don’t worry about the person or people who talk all the time because they are just seeking attention
    But watch out for the one who listens all the time from that person you can gain insight. When ever I am in a group conversation it seems that the one who was talking would talk about a subject that they had no idea of what they were talking about. Whenever I entered into the conversation I always got cut off because what I would talk about was clearly over their mentality.so I would just listen and most of the time it was amusing. There is some basics you should know before attending a group conversation 1. The intellect of the people you are having a conversation with 2: The social status of the people in the group. When I got in group conversation where the intelligence of the others were not that great it’s hard to pay attention
    To really anyone. When it was a group of people who were affluent that’s all they can talk about is their selves. In either case I would always get amused but to get everybody interested just bring up something having to do with sports ahhh now this always has done interesting conversation. But the best conversation in a group are the ones who are affluent and very intelligent. These conversations are always the best because no really cares about their social status and all love to talk about subjects that challenge the mind. Those to me are the best conversation and the ones where time just flies by.