There are a lot of wonderful things that can happen in group conversations.
Discussions and productive disagreements can open our eyes to new knowledge or new ways of thinking.
We might feel inspired or have our creativity awoken by seeing how others interact with each other.
Our relationships to the individuals in the group can be strengthened through novel experiences and conversations.
And lots more.
But being a part of a group can also lead to some unique challenges. Especially if we’re new to the group, or if our interests or background sets us apart from the rest.
When these things are true, a common challenge many face is what to do when the conversation is focused on topics that they have little to no knowledge of or interest in.
And this was something I was asked about in an email I received recently.
The email was from someone who was mentoring a person that had relocated to the US from a very different culture, and was finding it hard to keep up with non-work related conversations, about things such as American football, at their job.
And since this is a fairly common question in my line of work, I figured I’d share my answer with everyone in an article.
As an immigrant myself, and one that has very little interest in American football, I can relate to the example you gave.
And although there are many ways to approach situations like these, I'd like to suggest my two personal favorites.
If and when we're interested in learning about the topic at hand, a great way to connect with people is to ask them to explain or teach it to us.
Most people love being asked about their passions, and when someone is genuinely interested in listening to them - not just to understand the topic itself, but also the reasons for their passion - they tend to love it even more.
Asking questions also demonstrates that we're open to learning new things, and that we're not the kind of person that thinks we know everything.
This strategy, though, isn't great for topics that we simply can't get interested in even if we try. In such cases, it won't just lead to an uninteresting conversation, but also often make the other person bring the topic up again and again in the future.
So in these situations, we want to choose a different strategy.
In any relationship, we will have some interests that overlap and some that don't.
And it's not just natural - but also common courtesy - to primarily focus conversations on topics that are interesting to everyone involved.
However, when we're the new person - or the person with the strongest intention to deepen a relationship - it will often be up to us to make sure that this happens. Even when it's the other person or people who tend to lead the conversations.
This means that we have to do two things:
Step 1 can be achieved by simply thinking about – and paying attention to – the topics we tend to enjoy in conversations. These can be both our general interests and hobbies, and things that we often like learning about other people.
Then, start bringing these topics up in conversations and pay attention to the responses you get. When people happily engage you on a topic, make a mental note of it - since it'll be a good one to bring up with the same people in the future.
And step 2, then, is to use statements or questions to bring those topics up whenever the conversation becomes uninteresting to us.
There are many ways to do this, but again I have two favorite strategies:
To take the lead we have to be able and willing to assertively make statements or ask questions that are likely to get people to switch the conversation from what it’s currently about - to our new topic.
And keep in mind that whether they’re done talking about the previous topic or not, does not matter. They can always return to it at a later time if it’s important to them.
In a group of people who are caring and attentive, pretty much anyone will be able to change the topic since any comment or question will be treated equally no matter who presents it.
This is, naturally, the kind of group that this strategy tends to work the best with.
On the other hand, in groups that are more hierarchical, that is - where there tends to be certain social leaders who determine what the topic of conversation is, things might be different.
In these groups, we have to be more assertive and confident when we speak up, in order to draw the group's attention to us and signal that we're taking over the lead.
This strategy is equally usable in both types of groups.
And all you have to do, is to let people know that this topic isn't something that we know anything about or have much interest in, and make a request to change it.
It’s important, though, that we have a topic or two to suggest that we believe both we and the people we’re talking to might have an interest in. Which means that the exercise I mentioned above is very important.
And when we use this strategy, it’s helpful to speak assertively, politely, with a smile or a little laugh, and by posing it as a question rather than a demand.
"Guys, I understand that you all love football, but you know, as a Norwegian I know nothing about this sport of yours so I feel a bit at a loss here. But I would love to discuss .... with you, if you're open to it?"
Unfortunately, a lot of people hesitate to actively change topics in conversations because they don't want to be rude, annoying, offensive, or whatever else their fears are telling them that they’re being.
But the people who worry about this fail to consider how they would react if someone made a similar request to them.
The vast majority of (mature) people would not just feel a little bad for excluding someone by discussing a topic they have no knowledge of or interest in, but they would also value the opportunity to include that person more by discussing something they all care about.
So unless we're dealing with people who are rude or self-centered, or it happens to be an important or urgent conversation, we very rarely get anything except a smile and an "of course!" as a response to such a request.
That said, I do recognize that these things might be easier said than done.
But although there are "more comfortable" strategies available (such as just letting people speak about the uninteresting topic and contribute with simple supportive and encouraging words, which can make them feel more connected to you even if you don't feel more connected to them) these strategies tend to be far better in the big picture.
Not only are these strategies more honest, they will also help shape the relationship long-term by giving the people around the chance to connect with you on a real foundation of shared interests.
So the short-term discomfort you might experience in the moment that you speak up or ask for a topic change, is simply a small down-payment on a potentially long and more meaningful relationship.
Hi, I'm TJ Guttormsen.
Since 2009 I’ve coached clients ranging from Olympic gold medalists and billionaires, to people who simply want more out life.
I’ve done over 100 national media appearances, published books, and created online courses that have earned several “Highest Rated” titles from their 11 000+ members.
Today I coach clients from all over the world, and teach seminars for business and events from my home in Las Vegas.
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