When You're Better At Group Conversations Than Talking One-On-One
Many people say they have more trouble with group discussions than one-on-one conversations. There are a few common reasons you might feel this way:
- Since there are more people taking part, you can feel more shy, self-conscious, and scrutinized.
- It can be harder to get a word in even if you're comfortable speaking. Everyone may be competing for the spotlight, and talk over you when begin to say something.
- With so many people feeding it, a group conversation's energy can get hectic and rowdy, which may not be your style.
- There can be an element of needing to play to the crowd. You have to consider whether what you want to say will be of interest to everyone. You may have to tweak your contributions so they're more concise and attention-grabbing. Perhaps in a three-person conversation you could have shared an obscure fact or given your lengthy insights on an issue, and gotten a good response. In a group of eight the same statements could fizzle out because five people are indifferent to hearing them.
- Bigger group conversations can be hard to follow. Someone makes a joke or comment, and before you can process it, two more people have already followed up with witty lines of their own. You don't have enough time or mental bandwidth to attend to everyone's nonverbal communication.
- With everyone trying to talk at once, the volume level can simply get irritatingly high.
- It depends on the particular group, but the topics in larger conversations can be more casual, jokey, or impersonal, which you may find dull. There can be too many people for the content to get that deep or intimate. Group members may not want to open up in front of everyone, or the topic may keep getting changed before it can really drill down into one area.
(Obviously all these issues are more pronounced in bigger groups. Most people are going to have an easier time with a polite four-person discussion at a quiet coffee shop than seven drunk people all blurting out jokes at a pub.)
It takes certain traits to thrive in group conversations. You need to be confident enough to talk with more people paying attention to you. You have to know how to good-naturedly fight for your speaking time. You need to be able to read the mood of the group and adjust accordingly. You have to be tolerant of the occasional annoyances of everyone shouting over each other or showing off. If you don't currently have those abilities, group conversations can leave you feeling nervous and clammed up, overlooked and excluded, drained and overwhelmed, bored and checked out, or irritated and resentful.
You don't need to deal with those factors in one-on-one conversations, so many people find them easier. They know they more or less have the other person's attention. The content can get more in-depth or personal. They don't feel on the spot to impress a whole audience. If they want to try to steer the interaction in a particular direction, they know four people won't try to change the subject two seconds later. Unless they're talking to someone in a noisy, over-stimulating bar, they know they'll be able to hear them and attend to their body language.
So that's the standard line of reasoning for why, if they had to pick, many people prefer one-on-one interactions. However, some people say they do okay in bigger discussions and feel lost when it's just them and a single other person. They may even feel like they're weird for being more comfortable in groups, when they know most people feel the opposite.
Here are the reasons some people find group conversations easier:
- There's less pressure to think of things to say or have a plan for where you'd like the interaction to go. If nothing comes to mind you can hang back and let someone else talk. It's not like a two-person conversation where if it's your turn to speak and you have nothing, there could be an awkward silence.
- Some of us feel extra-evaluated in groups. Others feel less exposed because they can disappear into the crowd. They figure if they're not talking most group members aren't going to focus on them. Even when they do chip in, everyone's only paying attention to them for a moment before they move on to the next speaker. They feel way more under the spotlight when they're talking to just one other person.
- Similarly, when some of us make a social mistake in a group we feel extra- judged and embarrassed, because more people observed it. Others find their group missteps easier to move on from. The impact feels more diffuse. They have a harder time ruminating about upsetting a vague collection of people, as opposed to when they put their foot in the mouth around a specific friend. They can tell themselves everyone was eager to talk and probably forgot about what they said a second later.
- If you get drained or anxious in a group conversation you can usually sit back for a bit to regain some energy or wait to feel calmer. If you're talking to someone one-on-one you've got to take part in the exchange regardless of how you're feeling.
- If you're not comfortable opening up to people or talking about yourself, the more casual, surface-level, or activity-focused nature of many group conversations may be more in your comfort zone. You can just make the odd joke as you all play a board game or watch a movie. You can add your thoughts and opinions to an interesting, but impersonal and abstract, debate.
- You don't need to have deep chemistry with everyone in a group, just get along well enough with all the members that the conversation keeps going. If you're speaking to someone alone and don't click, things can feel much more strained and halting.
- You may relish certain aspects of group dynamics. Many people find it annoying, but you may get a kick from jockeying with five other people to get your time on the stage.
- A group may allow you slip into a role or character you feel comfortable in, such as: The moderator who tries to prevent the conversation from getting too chaotic; the comedian who keeps everyone laughing; the wise professor who shares a fun fact every now and then; the mature voice of reason; the kind, considerate soul who helps the quieter members get a chance to speak.
- If you drink, and mainly find yourself in group conversations at parties and pubs, the alcohol may help you feel more relaxed and outgoing. You don't have that crutch if you're trying to talk to a co-worker in the middle of the afternoon.
What to do if you have a harder time with one-on-one conversations
If you have trouble with one-on-one conversations there are a lot of areas where you may be struggling, so I can't tell you how to fix things in a concluding paragraph or two. This site has an entire section on making conversation, and a dozen or more of its articles may apply to you. Similarly, if your anxiety and insecurities are holding you back when you chat to people one on one, a bunch of the articles in the section on shyness and self-confidence may help.
The main thing you should do is try to take a closer look at what aspects of one-on-one conversations are hard for you. Rather than having a vague sense that you're not good at them, try to nail down what the exact challenges are. Is it that you...
- ... put too much pressure on yourself to say witty, interesting things?
- ...get tongue-tied with anxiety?
- ...don't have a structure for getting getting through the first few minutes of small talk with someone you've just met?
- ...feel uncomfortable opening up to others?
- ...don't know how to search for common ground with someone who you don't immediately seem compatible with?
- ...don't know how to handle awkward silences?
- ...are fine in most situations, but shut down in certain contexts, like if you have to mingle at a career networking event?
Again, that's only a handful of examples of why someone could find two-person conversations tricky. Whatever your particular issues are with them, you can figure out what they are and make improvements.
Also, think about which of your group conversation skills and strengths you could carry over to your one-on-one interactions, to make them feel a bit more manageable. For example, if you do well in groups by playing a role, could you find one for two-person conversations that fits you, like being a good listener who wants to learn about the other person? If you're good at telling stories and entertaining everyone, you could use that ability here and there to help keep your one-on-one discussions going?
Finally, ask yourself if there are any scary or difficult aspects of one-on-one conversations you could gradually get used to by doing them in groups first, where you feel more relaxed. (I realize you can't do this with everything. Like you can't get used to dealing with awkward silences on your own when another group member can always fill them). For example, if you're hesitant to give personal details about yourself for fear of being judged, you may find it that little bit easier to initially share them in a larger discussion. Most people probably find it harder to open up in front of extra people, but if you find it less intense, begin from there.