Hi Lifehacker, I get invited to my partner's family dinners a few times a year, and I really struggle to find common ground. They are into travelling overseas and playing golf, while my interests are mostly gaming-related. I feel like I have nothing to contribute — I've even tried researching things to talk about. What can I do to contribute more to the conversation? Thanks, Game For A Talk
Family BBQ picture from Shutterstock
I have the same problem with some of my wife's relatives. Without any shared interests to draw upon it can be exceedingly difficult to get a conversation flowing; even if you're well acquainted. Here are a few tactics that I've employed to make family get-togethers less excruciating (and no, you don't need to learn golf).
The first step is to adopt an "active listening" approach. This is a great way to draw yourself into a conversation without actually doing much. It's the difference between being agreeably receptive and a disinterested blank wall.
Active listening is pretty straightforward and exactly what it sounds like:
- Listen to what your in-laws say. (Don't interrupt, disagree or "evaluate")
- Nod your head, and make brief acknowledging comments like "yes" and "uh-huh."
- Without being awkward, repeat back the gist of what they just said, from their frame of reference.
- Inquire (this is the important bit). Ask questions that show you've been paying attention and that move the discussion forward.
Your posture, tone of voice and facial expressions are also important factors when it comes to active listening. Granted, this isn't going to be much fun when the topic bores you to tears, but at least you'll be contributing to the conversation. (It's only for a few hours, right?)
Another proven tactic is to ask about challenges. It could be work related, buying a new car, renovating a house, anything. Most people enjoy discussing challenging tasks they are currently facing and will happily waffle on for ages. As an added bonus, you're asking them about what's going on in their lives, which shows you actually give a damn.
Personally, I've found it also helps to have a good understanding of consumer technology. By the sounds of things, your in-laws are fairly affluent and presumably over the age of forty, which makes them an ideal audience for this kind of stuff. As soon as they know you're a "tech expert", they'll be hounding you with questions about Smart TVs, fitness bands and the difference between Macs and PCs. If you want to be the centre of conversation, this is definitely the way to go. (If your in-laws are already tech-savvy, they'll still enjoy talking about new and emerging products.)
For more conversational tips, check out our shy person's guide to making yourself heard in a group conversation. While chiefly aimed at introverts in unfamiliar social settings, a lot of this advice can also be applied to your situation.
On a final note, bear in mind that your contributions to group conversations usually aren't important — or even that noticeable. Often, when someone feels like they are struggling to be heard, the problem only exists in their own mind. As long as you remain polite and awake, your in-laws probably won't care how much yakking you bring to the table.
Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our contact form.