We’ve all been in that group situation where one or two people seem to dominate the conversation and it’s hard to get a word in edgewise. It can be extremely frustrating, especially if you’re an introvert or someone who appreciates a bit of space to jump in (like I do). So how do you deal with that situation? It depends, doesn’t it? You could try matching their energy and “elbowing” your way into the discussion. OK, that could work (although it sounds taxing). But if you don’t have the energy, you might just shut down and disengage. There’s another option that could work better, and it involves being flexible.
My close friend was telling me about a visit he recently paid his daughter, who’s a freshman in college and a talented singer and musician. He told me how she auditioned to sing in an a cappella group (think the movie Pitch Perfect or the TV show Glee) and felt disappointed when they offered her a spot in the group as the beatboxer (the person who makes all the percussion and drum sounds using a microphone). The rationale for the offer seemed to be something like: “We have a lot of good singers, but you know what we don’t have? A beatboxer.” My friend’s daughter knows how to beatbox and has done it before, but dang it, she auditioned to sing, not beatbox!
My friend showed me a video clip of the a cappella group with his daughter beatboxing, and it sounded great. I’m glad and not surprised. She’s good, and she contributed her talent to the group. Seeing the clip also led me to reflect on how we sometimes go into a situation with a preconceived notion of how we want to participate—how we want our voice to be heard. And when we find that the situation isn’t what we expect, we might do well to be flexible and adapt rather than get down on ourselves or feel like people are trying to shut us out.
Maybe the situation we’ve all faced at work or in our personal lives with the couple of dominant conversationalists could be like an a cappella group that already has two strong lead singers. And maybe what the situation needs isn’t another voice like theirs but, instead, a beatbox—a voice to provide context, accents, or contrast. And maybe that’s the way you can engage most constructively in a situation that already feels and sounds a bit crowded.
Clearly, if the people dominating a discussion leave absolutely no space for anyone else to add anything, then there’s nothing you can do. But I’d argue that usually the space is there, even if it’s hard to discern. You might just have to imagine yourself contributing in a different way than you originally thought you would. And in being flexible in the moment, you’ll likely engage more deeply, have more fun, and create some rich conversational “music” that adds value to whatever discussion you’re taking part it.
Guillermo Villar is principal coach with Cambio Coaching. He helps high-achieving individuals and teams communicate with intention to get the business results they want. If you’re interested in working with Guillermo, sign up for a free meeting to explore how he can help.