Dynamics Of Regular Group Conversations
Group conversations have a different dynamic to them than one-on-one exchanges. People who are fine at speaking to a single other person sometimes struggle with them. This article will cover how more day to day, low key group discussions operate. In another article I go over how to approach group conversations when they get more loud and hectic.
You don't have to worry as much about keeping the conversation going
In a one-on-one conversation you carry half the responsibility for keeping it afloat, even more if the other person isn't saying much and you want to pick up the slack. Unless everyone is unusually inhibited, group conversations flow more smoothly. There are more people in them, so at any moment it's likely at least one person will have something to add. If you're not the best at coming up with things to say group conversations don't put you in the hot seat as much.
The consequences of not contributing are different
If you can't contribute enough to a one-on-one interaction it'll usually peter out. In a group conversation there are always going to be more people listening than speaking. If nothing to say comes to mind you can hang back, follow what everyone is talking about, and hope a statement someone makes sparks an idea for something you can add.
If you go an extended period of time without talking no one may care. However, they may notice you're being quiet and wonder why. They might assume you're shy, aloof, bored, and so on. They may ask you why you're not speaking much, which can be annoying and embarrassing. These articles should help:
If you're prone to social anxiety, hanging back can give it plenty of space to grow. If you're putting a lot of pressure on yourself to contribute, your nervousness and self-consciousness can build the longer you've gone without saying something. Ironically, this can make chipping in even harder, because anxiety jams your ability to follow the conversation and think of things to say. If you can relate, check out this article:
Additionally, if you don't contribute to a group conversation it can head in a direction that doesn't interest you, and you can start to feel checked out and disconnected from everyone.
In group conversations everybody is discussing a topic together, and many one-on-one strategies don't apply
In a group conversation everything that's said is thrown into the "middle", for the benefit of all the participants. Whether people are talking about a movie, debating a political issue, sharing heartfelt personal stories, or joking around, a good contribution is something that everyone will enjoy and be able to work with.
In a one-on-one conversation you get to zero in on your partner and, if you want to, direct the exchange in a certain way. You can play interviewer and ask them questions about themselves. You could bring up one of their hobbies and take on an interested listener role. You can slowly move the discussion toward a particular topic that you want to talk about.
Those approaches don't work too well in group conversations. It's harder to focus on one person. If you do that and try to have a break away one-on-one conversation in the middle of the group, the other people may sit back and listen for a moment or two, but they'll soon switch the topic back to one everyone can take part in. The person you're trying to speak to individually might also be eager to rejoin the bigger discussion.
You only have a limited amount of power to direct where the conversation leads as well. There are several other people's agendas in the mix, and they may pull the exchange in any number of directions. You need to be flexible.
Practically these ideas can come into play when you're joining a conversation, especially one where everyone knows everyone else. Once the quick introductions are out of the way, often the best thing to do is act as if you already know everyone, join in on whatever it is they were talking about, and show your personality that way. Your first instinct may be to try to take one person aside and ask them getting-to-know-you questions, but that doesn't always pan out, for the reasons I just mentioned.
Putting the good of the conversation first is extra important
Conversations jump around, and can move away from a topic you were getting ready to talk about. With more people in the mix, group conversations are especially likely to do this. It's better to go with the flow, rather than try to force the discussion back to the point you wanted to make. Also, if you're talking to one person and you shoehorn the conversation back toward an old topic, you're only potentially going against the wishes on a single individual. In a group several of the members may want to talk about something new, so it's particularly self-focused to try to make the conversation only about what you want to discuss.
The skill of being able to interject and make yourself heard comes into play
Shyer, more reserved people often have a hard time with this part. In one-on-one conversations each person takes a turn. Occasionally someone will interrupt the other, or talk too much and not let them get a word in, but for the most part there's a comfortable back and forth. Group conversations can be orderly, but as they get bigger, and everyone becomes more excited and passionate about the topic, then there's more and more competition to get a turn to speak.
It's no longer good enough just to have something interesting to add. You need to know how and when to interject, and then hold everyone's attention long enough to get your point out. People who aren't used to this, or aren't confident and assertive enough about making themselves heard, can find themselves being ignored, talked over, and drowned out. The article on rowdy group conversations goes into more detail.
Group conversations can be tougher if being the center of attention makes you anxious
Some people generally feel more self-conscious in larger groups. They may feel exposed whenever they speak, but especially if they're piping up after not saying in anything in a while, or when they don't know whomever they're talking to that well. Even people who are normally okay in groups sometimes find themselves more in the spotlight than they'd like. They may be about to tell a story or give an opinion when they notice all eyes on them, waiting expectantly. It makes them feel like they're about to give a speech and that's when the nerves kick in. If you struggle with this it's something you can get used to in time. You can purposely put yourself in these mini-performance situations and gradually get more comfortable with them.
It's harder to monopolize group conversations
And this is good, since monopolizing is a well-known conversation faux pas. Unless you hold a very respected position, or you're much more forceful and talkative than everyone else, it's hard to hog the stage in a bigger discussion. If you're rambling at someone in a one-on-one conversation they may pretend to be interested and let you speak out of politeness. In a group that duty to be courteous is diffused. Also, keeping one person hostage is bad enough, but it's considered extra selfish to hold a group captive, so it won't be long before someone cuts you off.
With a bigger audience to impress, people are more prone to showing off
People still brag or try too hard to seem funny, interesting, or dominant in one-on-one conversations, but group discussions really tend to bring out this behavior. There can be a more competitive, one-upping dynamic. Be aware it might happen to you and try to rein yourself in if you're tempted to try to impress everyone.
If you put a bunch of people together, a shifting series of one-on-one and mini-group conversations can break out
Sometimes when a group gathers they have one big discussion. In other situations the configuration will continually change as people break into sub-conversations, stay in them for a while, and then look for new ones to join. This often happens when the group is sitting around a table in a noisy environment and it's too loud for everyone to hear the people farthest from them.
In a group of seven people, three might be talking together, while two other pairs are having one-on-one side discussions. A few minutes later there may be two sub-groups of three and four each. Five minutes after that everyone may have stopped to hear one friend's story. It's almost like the larger group is a tiny party that people circulate around and mingle in.
When a group conversation has this dynamic, follow your mood and move around it as you'd like. If you're in one sub-discussion, and it's sliding into territory you're not as interested in, join another or start a new one with someone else who's also unattached. The group isn't all talking together, so it's okay to go back to one-on-one conversation mode. If you're listening to one sub-conversation and someone tries to start a new one with you, or pulls you into theirs, quietly gesture that you're already focused on one already.