I do love good group conversation. Done right, it’s way more entertaining than TV. Not to mention the social benefits. But sadly, it’s a dying art. These days people are so busy IMing or watching TV, or whatever, that throw them in a face to face conversation, and they have no clue. Either they sit there like a deer in headlights. Or they contribute, but continually break the flow with off-mark comments. So, as a service to group conversations everywhere, I thought I’d share a few unspoken rules-of-thumb I’ve observed over the years.
1. Obey the flow: It’s important to realize the main goal of most group conversations: to create an engaging and humorous experience for all involved. This can often seem trivial. After all, with our world so fucked up, shouldn’t we be more serious? No. Unless the point of the conversation is to resolve some pressing issue, seriousness is not your friend. Not only is being engaging and funny simply more fun, but there are many truths that only expresses themselves through humor and conversation for its own sake.
2. Listen: Listening is what gives you the right to contribute. Jump in without listening, and you’re likely to say something irrelevant and distracting. Ideally, your comments should be aware of the entire conversation, from start till now. In advanced group conversation, this will lead to self-referencing inside jokes that survive throughout the entire conversation.
3. Keep it to yourself: Often, the brilliant thoughts you don’t share are more valuable than the ones you do. Consider this example. You’re in a lively group conversation. A question arises that happened to be addressed in a fascinating NY Times article you read that morning. You should relate this, right? Not so fast. It is your conversational responsibility to take a step back for at least a split second and question how your contribution fits into the larger conversational whole. Often, you’ll find that the question or subject at hand is only interesting in the context of the Thing; the conversational structure you’re collaboratively building. Go off on a long, fact filled tangent, no matter how interesting you may find it, and don’t be surprised if it breaks the flow (see rule #1), and results in eye rolling.
4. Be brief: It’s a conversation, not a monologue. Longish stories are okay, but they’d better be good (and preferably tested in previous group conversations). Being brief also allows for another essential element, topic fluidity. If someone’s bored with the current topic, other people being brief eases their suffering and gives them openings to change the topic. It also allows for quick exploration of new topic ideas. This increases the likelihood of finding a juicy topic everyone can agree on.
5. Optimal people mix: This one is more difficult. Even following the rules, sometimes the chemistry just isn’t there. Often, this is because the people dynamics just aren’t working. There are whole textbooks on this I’m sure, but here’s one simple rule I’ve noticed: you need a good balance of active and reactive people. By active, I mean those people that do most of the driving. The high-energy, typically type-A types always trying to control the conversation. By reactive, I mean the usually quieter, thoughtful types that react to and reign in the active types. It’s a dance. You need leaders and followers. Lack either and good conversation is not impossible, but much more challenging.