How Not To Get Talked Over Or Ignored In Group Conversations
You're hanging out with a bunch of people. You begin to say something, but half a sentence in someone else starts talking, as if you're not even there, and everyone listens to them instead. Or you get your full statement out, but no one notices, like you never spoke at all. Getting talked over or overlooked can be really frustrating and discouraging, especially if it seems to happen on a regular basis.
I'll share some strategies for making yourself heard. I'll focus on group conversations, because that's where the issue usually pops up, though I realize it can happen one-on-one with certain people as well. I'll stick to casual social situations, and won't specifically touch on being ignored in workplace meetings or school group projects, though many of the suggestions below can still be used in them.
First, have realistic expectations about getting talked over or ignored
Some people struggle with getting overlooked partially because they approach conversations with unconscious assumptions that, a) make them more likely to get talked over, or b) more likely to unnecessarily take it personally and get down on themselves.
Realize everyone gets cut off or ignored in group discussions sometimes
It can set your insecurities off when you say something and it falls on deaf ears. "Do my friends not care about me?", "Am I boring and forgettable?", "Do people think so little of me that they don't give a second thought to interrupting me?" In the moment it's easy to forget that it happens to us all from time to time. As I'll write about more in a second, group conversations have dynamics that can cause people to get interrupted or overlooked. When you're feeling the sting of getting talked over, it's also easy to focus on that experience and forget all the times you spoke and weren't ignored, or someone else was, or you were the one to interrupt. Of course, there's a decent chance you're reading this because you're sure you're ignored more than average, and I will get to some more practical tips for addressing that.
Have realistic expectations about group conversations, especially hectic, excitable ones
They're not all like that, but group conversations can get chaotic. At any one time several people may be chomping at the bit to speak. Everyone's attention can quickly move from one person or topic to the next, sometimes in the middle of a sentence. Individual voices can get swallowed up in the chatter. If alcohol's involved everyone will be extra loud, impulsive, and distractible. A dog-eat-dog mentality can set in where everyone accepts that if you want some air time you have to grab it for yourself. A bit of interrupting or talking over each other becomes condoned in that context. If you go in expecting everyone to take turns in an orderly, polite fashion, and the rest of the group sees it as a no-holds-barred competition to get attention, you're more likely to say something only to have someone else jump in and overpower you two seconds later.
Realize some groups have an unwritten set of rules that's especially centered around interrupting or jostling for the spotlight
Social circles, families, and workplaces develop mini-cultures after a while. Like one family may sit around the dinner table and take turns speaking, and scold anyone who interrupts. Another may be full of opinionated amateur comedians who think nothing of spending meals shouting at each other to try to get their arguments or jokes across. If everyone from particular group always talks over you it doesn't necessarily mean they dislike or don't respect you. Your group conversation style may just be out of sync with theirs. Longer term you could always choose to steer clear of these types of groups, though it never hurts to know how to manage in them.
Some people are more prone to interrupting or talking over others
Group conversation dynamics aside, everyone knows some people are chronic interrupters. There are many reasons for it. A handful of more charitable ones are:
- They're a touch too eager
- They were raised in the kind of interrupting-friendly family mentioned above, and don't know any better
- They have a conversation style where they see interrupting as showing they're enthusiastic and engaged
- They have a condition, like ADHD, that leads them to impulsively blurt things out
Some less-excusable ones are that they're inconsiderate, self-absorbed, arrogant about their beliefs, thoughtless and oblivious, and so on. Either way, if you just happen to hang around a lot of interrupters, you'll be more likely to get talked over, through no fault of your own.
Depending on how someone sees you, they may be more likely to tune you out
For one, if you're with people who know each other well, and you're a stranger to them, they may focus on you less. That includes being less likely to notice when you try to add something to the conversation. They didn't actively decide they hate you. It's that sometimes people are in a headspace where they want to talk to their friends, and aren't up for getting to know someone new. Even if you're an otherwise likable, socially savvy person, in certain situations where you don't know many people, you may find yourself not as included. Sometimes they'll warm up to you after a while, but not always that day.
People may also tend to talk over or ignore someone they see as being lower status than them in some way. Sometimes you can change how they see you. Sometimes you can't. I know this is the explanation people worry about the most. It does happen, but it shouldn't be the first thing your mind jumps to. As this article shows, there are lots of other possibilities.
Adjust your speaking style so you're more likely to be heard
The more hands-on suggestions start here. Some people get overlooked because they communicate in a way that's easier to tune out or cut off, especially in rowdy group conversations. You don't need to become a highly skilled, forceful orator, but if you have a less-effective speaking style you should try to get up to at least an average level.
If you're shyer it may be uncomfortable to do many of these things at first, but they're goals you can slowly work toward. If you're a more considerate, reserved conversationalist it can also feel irritating to have to sink to the level of the noisy interrupters and compete with them at their game. Try to see it as being realistic about how some kinds of conversations work. It's not that you're being rude, you're playing by the appropriate set of rules for your circumstances. You don't need to use every tactic or become a full-on obnoxious conversation dominator either, just do what you need to do to not get totally ignored.
Make sure your speaking voice isn't holding you back
At the most basic level you're more likely to be talked over or unnoticed if people can't hear you to begin with, have a hard time following what you're saying, or find your tone meek or unengaging. Particularly in bustling group conversations, people only have so much patience for soft-spoken speakers. It's not that they're mean and heartless, more lazy. They unconsciously think, "Why put effort into trying to make out what this one person is saying when I could be focused on someone else I can hear easily?" (I know there are anecdotes about how some powerful people use a quiet voice to force everyone to closely pay attention to them, but what works for some CEO or movie mafia Don doesn't always carry over to a random pub night).
- Speak at a regular volume, or even a bit loudly if there's a lot of background noise or chatter. This article goes into more detail on having a quiet voice.
- Speak from your belly / diaphragm to give your voice more projection.
- Speak in a somewhat lower pitch. This also helps your voice carry.
- Speak clearly. Don't mumble.
- Look toward the people you're speaking to. Don't look down and talk into your chest.
- Speak at an average pace for your region. If you go too slow or fast people may get impatient or exasperated and cut you off.
- The odd "like", "um", or "you know?" is okay, but don't use them so much that you become inarticulate.
- Use a tone of voice and body language that shows you're reasonably sure of yourself and what you're saying. You don't have to seem ultra-confident about everything that comes out of your mouth, but don't come across like you're timid or have zero-conviction.
- You don't need to be hyper-animated, but speak with at least a little expressiveness and energy in your voice. Don't sound monotone or passionless.
Know how to effectively start speaking
Next, odds are higher you'll get talked over if you aren't good at picking your spot to speak, and then at catching the group's attention once you begin.
- As mentioned, if you're in a boisterous group conversation, accept you'll probably need to do a little friendly fighting for your chance to hold court. Don't expect that once one person is done you'll just be able to start talking and that everyone will politely stop and listen.
- Develop your ability to find the right time to jump into a discussion. This varies from group to group. With more restrained ones it can be in the pause after one person has finished speaking. With chattier ones you may have to be faster and cut off the end of the last person's closing sentence. It's an instinct you've got to develop through firsthand observation and experience. Watching real-life conversations is obviously useful, but you can also get a feel for it through talk shows, podcasts, or streams where a group of hosts are chatting.
- Say your opening sentence loudly enough to be noticed.
- If several things are competing for the group's attention, repeat your opening sentence a few times until everyone hears it.
- If no one heard you the first time, wait a few seconds, then try repeating your opening line again.
- If several people are trying to speak at once, get your opening sentence out a tad faster and more loudly than theirs (if you're good at this it's selfish to constantly snag the spotlight for yourself, but if you have to compete to be heard it's okay to do every once in a while).
- In the lead up to trying to speak, use gestures like leaning forward, sitting up straighter, raising your hand in front of you, or making a perked up "Ooh, I've got something to say about what she just said" face.
- When you're not speaking, generally seem like you're listening and engaged with the conversation. People are less likely to listen if you seem checked out and bored, then suddenly try to add something.
- Be in a central, noticeable position within the group, e.g., if everyone is standing around in a loose circle at a party, be in it, not sitting in a chair behind it.
- Know that in even if you do everything above, you'll still sometimes get ignored or have someone else talk over you and get their turn instead. You can't always win, especially when several eager people are battling for each chance to talk.
Know how to "hold the floor" once you do start speaking
Even if you know to how initially begin speaking, you can still get talked over or ignored soon after if you can't keep the group's attention on you:
- Apply the tips above regarding speaking loudly and clearly enough, etc.
- After you've said your first sentence or two, take a split second to see if everyone is focused on you. If not, try to get their attention ("Ha ha, wait, is anyone listening? Yep? Okay, anyway I was saying..."), or accept you don't have it and try again later This can save you from talking for several sentences, only to realize no one was tuned in, then sheepishly trailing off.
- Match the general energy and speaking style of the group. If everyone's in a light, joking mood and making short, punchy statements, don't use a tone and cadence of someone giving a sober, considered ethics lecture. The group's likelier to tune out anything that doesn't fit their vibe.
- Be careful about taking long pauses in the middle of speaking. People may think you're done talking, or know you're not, but still use it as their chance to interrupt you.
- Be as succinct as you can. That doesn't mean you have to reduce everything you say down to a sentence, but don't let your speaking time be longer than it needs to. Also, have a rough plan ahead of time for what you want to say. Don't ramble on or put your thoughts together as you go.
- Once you've made your main point, don't try to keep going and add more tangential, off-the-cuff thoughts to it. If you're done let other people respond and have their turn.
- I know this is general, but try to make your statements at least somewhat interesting or entertaining. You don't have to turn everything into a stand-up comedy act, but don't be super-dull.
- Look at the people you're talking to. Don't stare into space, which makes you seem like you're more speaking to think out loud or hear your own voice. Or to put it another way, seem like you're engaging with people by talking to them or with them, not at them.
Know ways to fend off interrupters
- Raise your voice (not in an angry way) to overpower the person trying to talk over you
- Hold up your hand in a "Wait a second, I'm not finished" gesture
- Say something like, "Whoa, I'm not done yet. Give me a second." Do you best to use a good-natured tone, not a touchy one.
- Give the interrupter a "Dude, seriously?" look. They may not care or feel chided, but you can always try.
- While you generally want to look at the group, if you know someone is likely to try to interrupt you, avoid eye contact with them. They can see catching your eye as their okay to start talking, even though you're not done.
If you can't avoid getting talked over, know how to handle it gracefully
- As I keep saying, accept it can happen to everyone sometimes. Don't pout or retreat into your head. Stay with the conversation and wait for another chance to speak.
- If someone successfully interrupts you in a lively group conversation, and they don't do it too often, and it seems like they have something interesting to say, just surrender the floor to them.
- If you're speaking and feel yourself losing the crowd, wrap up your statement or anecdote quickly. Maybe even acknowledge it by saying something like, "Ha ha, I guess this story isn't as good as I thought it was. Anyway, it all turned out okay in the end. What're you going to say Bill?"
- If you try to speak up and the group as a whole doesn't hear you, the people nearby might have, and you may be able to spin it into a side-discussion.
Consider what topics you're speaking about
Yet another way people can be more likely to get cut off or ignored is when they try to chat about subjects the group isn't that interested in.
- Consider what the group values and wants to hear about, in that moment, and in general. For example, if everyone is joking around about what they did last night, and you bring up politics, they may not acknowledge it because they're not in the mood to get into that.
- In general, don't assume the group values the same things you do, or what you think you have to offer. For example, you may know you have insightful opinions about world events. You may also assume that other people recognize and appreciate the importance of someone who's perceptive that way. But that group may not care about that stuff, and value funny stories and emotional sharing instead.
- Try not to be one of the later people to speak on a topic. By the time you get to it the group may be ready to move on to something else, and won't put up a fuss if someone talks over you to change the subject.
- It goes without saying that you should try not to say anything that's so odd or inappropriate the group will have act as if you never said it.
- Sometimes you won't do anything wrong, but will say something the group won't have much to say in response to. At the time it feels like they were ignoring you, but may have simply not been able to think of anything to add.
Maybe your interests mostly line up with the group's, and you won't get talked over as much once you quit trying to bring up those few topics that never get much traction. However, if the group is indifferent to most of the things you'd naturally want to chat about, you may just be a poor match with them.
If the same few people constantly talk over you, consider politely confronting them about it
By this I mean taking some time to formally talk to them about it, not quickly saying something like, "Hey, you just cut me off" in the moment. This is probably something you want to save for people you know at least somewhat well. There's no single way to word it, but generally tell them you've noticed they have a habit of interrupting or not paying attention when you speak, and that it makes you feel frustrated or discouraged. Ask them to try to be more mindful about not cutting you off in the future. As with calling people out for interrupting you at the time, try to use a pleasant tone, not a grouchy or wounded one.
Be prepared for a range of outcomes:
- Ideally they'll apologize, vow to stop talking over you, and then follow through. Sometimes they'll go a little far and be too solicitous or tend to put you on the spot ("Wait, Jacqueline wants to speak. Let's all stop everything and stare at her"), but that phase should wear off.
- They'll apologize and vow to stop, but slip back into their old ways before long. You could try reminding them about what they promised. They may be open to help, like letting you subtly signal them every time they interrupt again. If they can't seem to stop cutting you off, you'll have to decide if they're still worth hanging around as much.
- They'll turn it back around on you, e.g., "Ah, you just don't know how to speak up and get in there when we're all drinking and joking around", "Our family's just like that. You know you can't expect everyone to stop and listen politely", "You mumble. We tried listening when we first knew you, but gave up after a while", "You take forever to get to the point" - Even though it can be hard to hear, try to consider whether this is feedback you need to take into account. Even if you admit there are some things you could work on, emphasize you'd still like them to cut you some slack.
- They defend their interrupting, e.g., "I just get excited and want to chip in. I'm not trying to hurt your feelings." Try to explain you get they aren't being mean-spirited, but it still makes you feel disrespected.
- They're dismissive and blow you off. That could be a sign you need to start pulling back from the relationship.
Make sure you're not making any conversation mistakes that put people off, and cause them to have no qualms about turning away or interrupting you
I think in most cases people who frequently get talked over are shy and quiet, or aren't experienced with fast-moving group conversations. It's only occasionally that they bring it on themselves. There are all kinds of mistakes people can make in conversations, but a big some big ones in this case are:
- Being self-absorbed and a poor listener, seeming like you don't care what others have to say and just want to talk about what interests you
- Being too opinionated and argumentative
- Seeming generally rude and socially oblivious, e.g., going up to three strangers who show all signs of having a private conversation and starting to tell them an inappropriate story
Maybe polish your overall presence / the outward impression you make
This one applies more to people you've just met, like if you go to a party where you barely know anyone and don't want to get overlooked in the conversations you try to join. People can be superficial. If they're in a group conversation with someone who seems low-status or unimportant (by their standards), they'll be likelier to tune them out, or not care about interrupting. A higher-status first impression would get a friendlier welcome. As with some other advice in this article, it's not that you have to be the best, just try to be up to average standards. Like you don't have to dress to a cutting edge hip level, but if you wear clothes that are clearly unfashionable to the tastes of the people you're talking to, you're going in with a handicap. Same goes for things like your grooming or body language. You don't need to be meticulously made up or brimming with confidence, but you don't want to look slovenly or horrendously insecure either.
As I've said, this is all going by the norms of the people you're chatting to. You may also decide you don't care about meeting their expectations, and will look for another group that's okay with you as you are. You can't appeal to everybody.
If an group you've known for a while tends to ignore or talk over you, possibly try to raise your status within it
I have to repeat that fretting about your status shouldn't be your first concern, and you should try to rule out other culprits like speaking too softly. This suggestion doesn't mean you have to claw your way into being the undisputed leader of the pack. You just want to get on more or less the same level as everyone else, rather than a notch below them. As for how to actually do this, unfortunately it's too big a topic for this article. In general, trying to raise your standing in a group isn't always worth the effort. Sometimes the problem is not that you're doing something wrong, but that you and the group aren't a good fit. No matter how much you try to change to please them, it won't be enough.