Getting Assertive in Fast-Moving Conversations
You’re in a conversation with multiple colleagues or clients. You want to speak up to get your perspective heard.
But the conversation is being dominated by a few loud and confident voices (usually those with the highest status in the group). And there’s a lot of quick comments being exchanged from multiple people.
It’s hard to find a way in. So what do you do?
Here are 8 key tips to practice.
1. Get into the Conversation Rhythm
Have you ever been in a flowing conversation, and then the one oddball in the group says something awkward or unexpected, and the whole discussion comes to a screeching halt?
That’s what happens when someone is not in rhythm with the conversation.
Your first step is to get “in synch” with the flow of the conversation.
Imagine merging onto a highway.
You can’t just blindly forge ahead however you want. You need to speed up to match the rest of the cars. Too fast is dangerous, and too slow is dangerous.
You also need to look out to see the position and momentum of the other cars around you. Who is going to slow down to let you in? Who is not? Who is going to make a lane change to get out of your way?
That’s how you safely find your opening.
The same tactics that work in fast-moving traffic apply to fast-moving conversations.
Before you join in, you need to feel the flow and rhythm of the conversation.
Don’t just sit there passively waiting for “your turn.” Listen actively.
Follow the conversation closely, observe the dynamics, and process what is being said.
Make eye contact with every speaker. Nod when you agree with something.
Turn your attention away from your own opinion and onto the situation and what everyone is contributing.
What happens when you don’t respect the rhythm of the group?
You get cut off, talked over, sidelined or you just never enter the conversation in the first place.
2. Notice the Gaps in Conversation
Every conversation, no matter how fast or dynamic, has gaps.
These are moments of transition where there’s a lull in energy, or a potential topic change.
And, just like on the highway, every conversation has participants that are willing to yield and others that are not.
Trying to jump in front of the obnoxious non-yielder is like trying to merge in front of a speeding truck. Avoid it.
Instead, look for gaps or lulls. These enable you to jump in at the perfect moment.
3. Match the Energy of the Conversation
Even if you identify the opening perfectly, you still have to match the energy of the group.
Otherwise you will lose your momentary opportunity to someone else who the group feels more consistent with.
If the conversation is high-energy, you can’t be low energy. You have to amp yourself up to match it.
By the same token, a high-energy person trying to enter a quiet, calm, low-key conversation will be seen as disruptive and will be resisted. On the surface he or she might seem to be stealing the show, but they are really just marginalizing themselves in the minds of their colleagues.
A lighthearted conversation with lots of banter and humor can turn more somber or analytical. But it will take some time to get there. Laugh along with the group. Mirror their body language and smiles.
Once you are matching their energy, only then can you maneuver the conversation in a new direction.
4. Vocalize While Others are Talking
Vocalize without actually saying anything substantive. For example:
- “Right, right…”
Do this subtly, with a quiet voice and with slightly less power than the person speaking.
You’re just looking to get onto people’s radar.
Vocalizing communicates that you are beginning to enter the conversation.
In the highway merging analogy, consider vocalizing like your blinkers. You are giving everyone advance notice of where you are going.
This will make people much more likely to stop and listen when you start speaking in earnest.
5. When You Make Your Move, Start Talking and Don’t Stop
A classic mistake of unassertive speakers is they go halfway.
They begin speaking, and then they don’t finish their point and fizzle out. Or they allow others to interrupt and cut them off.
Don’t allow that to happen.
People might talk while you’re talking. A lot of times this happens just purely because of the conversational momentum that existed before you jumped in.
(In other words, don’t assume it’s because they don’t respect you or are trying to overpower you in particular.)
Don’t let their talking distract you.
Keep talking. Keep making your point and complete your statement fully.
You might be surprised how people stop themselves from interrupting when they see you have full, 100% intention of completing your statement.
This is important to get your point across, but it’s also valuable to establish your image in the group as someone to be listened to.
This also leads to the next point…
6. Be Comfortable with Others Talking Over/ Alongside You
Fast-moving conversations are messy, dynamic and disorganized.
People jumping in and interrupting each other is more the rule than the exception.
Understand that going in, and prepare for it.
Don’t get thrown by the fact that other people want to speak up or might have something to say briefly while you’re talking.
Just as you wanted to jump in at one point, someone else may want to jump in to add their comment or to expand on what you’re saying.
Take the whole thing in stride. Don’t expect the world to stop just because you’re speaking.
And that leads us to the next tip…
7. Don’t Wear Out Your Welcome – Keep it Short and Sweet
When you do have the floor, make your point in a clear, quick, and straightforward way.
If the conversation is fast-moving, don’t think you can begin a drawn-out monologue or lecture.
Again, respect the dynamic of the group, and adapt to it.
If you take too long to make your comments, then the group will tune you out, ignore you, or interrupt you to regain the fast motion they had before you jumped in.
Repeated infractions will make the group remember you as someone to be ignored and discounted. Which makes it even harder to get their attention in the future.
Remember: Assertiveness is not just about getting the attention, it’s also about what you do with that attention once you get it.
8. Split Off a Sub-Group From the Larger Group
Skip this step if your only choice is to speak to the entire group at once.
Sometimes seizing everyone’s attention all once is too difficult or impossible.
This maneuver enables you to begin conversational momentum without doing that.
You simply address the one or two people right next to you and begin talking.
The larger conversation can still continue for whoever wants to participate. But you have created a new thread.
This new thread can then attract new participants in the subsequent moments, with you setting the pace of the conversation.
Sometimes the answer is to forge ahead on your own terms and carve out your own conversational niche inside the group.