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How To Get Better At Small Talk In Time For Holiday Parties

It’s early December, so that means you’re likely neck-deep in the high season for what can be the most banal of networking events – the holiday party. I attended two parties last week. I’m sure I’ll be going to at least half a dozen more this year, as I imagine you will too. Which means that there is going to be lots of small talk and meeting new people.

If you’re the type of person that feels comfortable at social events, this is a high point of the year. But if you’re the type of person who feels they don’t do well at social events then this time of year can bring anxiety and nervousness.

small talk

Holiday parties often bring together all types of people who don’t know each other. You likely know the hosts in some fashion, a few other people, but it’s likely that you’ll end up at parties where you are surrounded by strangers. And if you don’t feel comfortable in approaching people you don’t know, then that anxiety can come bubbling up inside.

This anxiety can lead to self-doubt and often give rise to crippling questions such as:

  • What do I talk about?
  • What if people ignore me?
  • What if people think I’m not interesting?
  • What happens if there is a lull in the conversation?

If you think you’re not good at networking events, you’ve likely had these thoughts. Maybe you’ve told yourself that you’re not good at social events because you’re “not a people person.” As such, you only make perfunctory appearances at holiday parties. It likely unfolds something like this:

  1. Go to holiday party where you don’t know many people
  2. Arrive late
  3. Head straight to open bar, consume free drinks
  4. Speak only to the few people you already know
  5. Leave early
  6. Become frustrated that you never get anything out of social events

Sound familiar?

You Can Learn Small Talk

It’s not that you’re “not a people person,” or bad at networking, it’s that you never learned how to engage with new people in awkward situations. And let’s be clear, cramming a bunch of strangers into a space and plying them with alcohol for a year end, quasi-religious party is an awkward situation.

Meeting new people, and engaging with them in some meaningful way is a skill to be learned like any other. Some people they may feel it comes naturally. But more than likely they were put into these types of situations more frequently than you when they were younger. It wasn’t something they were born with.

People good at small talk have experience and practice under their belts. It likely doesn’t seem like practice, it’s just something that has happened organically over the course of their lives.

If meeting new people and engaging in small talk is something that hasn’t happened frequently for you, it’s only natural to feel awkward or not good at it. Fortunately, it’s a skill that you can improve like any other. And if you want to meet more people, grow your network, and find more business opportunities, it is a necessary skill to possess.

I know, you’re groaning and rolling your eyes at the idea of becoming good at small talk. Not only have you convinced yourself that you’re not good at it, but maybe you also think it’s dumb or beneath you. That small talk is somehow bad or necessary.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: everyone knows that small talk is inconsequential. No one thinks it’s significant or important. But they do it for a simple reason.

Small Talk Helps Grease The Wheels

Small talks helps soften the rough edges of initially interacting with a new person. It helps blunt the anxiety both people likely feel when interacting with a new person. Because as anxious as you feel when meeting a new person, they’re anxious too – even if they seem cool and collected on the outside.

Small talk is what you have to go through in order to get to the real stuff. It’s a feeling out process to determine if you really want to engage with someone on a deeper level. And sometimes you won’t! And that’s okay.

Small talk is like fishing. Sometimes you won’t catch anything. Other times you’ll get something small or throw something back. On occasion you’ll land a whopper. But if you don’t ever grab a reel and get in the boat, you’re guaranteed to never catch a fish. The same is true with meeting new people and small talk.

If you have anxiety with small talk and haven’t spent much time going to parties and events, it might seem impossible to enter into conversations with strangers. Yet with some effort this can be overcome. Learning how to engage people with small talk takes some time, effort, and practice – you can learn to do it.

Here are five approaches to engaging in small talk with strangers at a holiday party.

The ARE Technique

First, up is a simple method of broaching a conversation with a stranger. Identify someone who seems approachable. Someone by themselves or just a couple of people. Make eye contact, and confidently go and introduce yourself. Most people can do this part, but flounder at what comes next.

Dr. Carol Flemming, a communications consultant, has a small talk strategy that almost anyone can follow and utilize, called the ARE Technique – anchor, reveal, encourage.

Anchor

An anchor is simply a shared observation. Either something related to the event you are at, or a topic that is on hand. Even the dreaded “weather option.” Don’t worry stressing over finding something incredibly interesting to say. Almost everyone realizes that these initial forays are simply the polite and necessary first steps required before you move into substantial conversation.

“They really laid out the red carpet for this year’s party.”

Reveal

The reveal is merely sharing something about yourself, that is related to the anchor. By offering up something about yourself, you are extending yourself out to the other person and providing them with something to respond to.

“There is a much larger crowd than there was when I attended the party last year.”

Encourage

Time to get the other person involved. Ask questions related to your reveal that seek to find out if the other person has some connection to your reveal. These questions usually start off with something like:

  • Tell me about…
    Have you ever…
    What brought you to…
    How do you know…
    When did you…
    Why…

“Is this your first time coming to the party?”

At this point you should be able to push the conversation along, either continuing to use the ARE Technique, or segueing into a more in-depth conversation.

  • “It’s your first time? How did you hear about it/who invited you?”
    “You were here last year as well? I’m surprised we didn’t bump into each other. Did you see/Do you know…?”

It’s a very simple technique that almost everyone should be able to use immediately. It might still be a bit awkward at first, but like everything else, you’ll get better with practice.

Help The Host

If it’s a large scale party, with caterers, etc. this won’t work. But if it’s a smaller party, offering to help the host is a good way to begin to meet people as people are constantly going to be touching base with the host.

The host will likely appreciate the gesture as it can be hectic to run a party. If the host needs help, then you now have something to do and will likely need to interact with people to do it. But, even if the host doesn’t need any help, they’ll likely engage with you for a bit.

A good host should also hopefully be aware enough to notice if you’re a bit apprehensive. Part of being a good host is introducing people to each other at their party, so a host will likely introduce you to a few people to help get the conversation going.

But you’ve only got one or two tries with this one. Don’t cling to the host repeatedly, they’ve got a lot on their plate.

The FORM Method

If you’re still engaged with someone after using the ARE Technique, and are struggling for where to go next, trying using the FORM method: Family, Occupation, Recreation and Money. You right now: “You’re never supposed to talk about money!” It’s not what you think.

  • Family: Do you have kids? Where is your family from? Lived here you whole life? It’s easy for people to talk about their families. It’s also an open invitation for them to ask about your family and begin a dialogue.
  • Occupation: What type of law do you practice? Oh you’re not a lawyer? You’re a Central Usability Specialist specializing in marine social media relations? What the hell does that even mean? Maybe not that far, but you get the gist. Americans define themselves by their jobs. Asking someone to take about who they spend the majority of their day is an easy conversation starter. Plus you can compare notes about similarities and differences in your jobs.
  • Recreation: What do you do outside of work? Really? How long have you been into cage fighting? Sports, hobbies, TV shows, movies. Most people have lives outside of work. If it’s how they spend their free time, they are going to be willing to talk about it.
  • Money: What happened with the price of gas? How do you think the new ride sharing ordinances will shake out? Anything that is currently happening that involves money is likely on people’s minds.

The reason that the FORM Method works well is because almost everyone’s favorite topic is themselves. When you pose personal questions to someone, show an interest in who they are and what they do, you make them feel important. You’re showing that you are interested in them. This usually makes people feel a bit more relaxed and can help jump start a conversation.

For those who might have some sensitive topics in your life, note that this is also opening the door for the person to pose the same types of questions to you. If you don’t want to talk about your family for personal reasons, don’t broach the topic.

Also, be mindful that you want to have a conversation with someone, not an interview. Don’t relentlessly hit people with questions unless you want them to politely excuse themselves.

Stand Out

Special appearance by Sam Glover.

Special appearance by Sam Glover.

A couple of weeks ago I was at my local Bar Association’s annual Bocce tournament. Most people were in some sort of business casual attire. Some people were in jeans and a button down shirt. A few were still in suits, likely from court. I wore my (now classic) Kanye WestLaw shirt.

At least a dozen people I didn’t know approached me with some variation of: “I love your shirt!”

People were asking what it meant, where I got it, etc. It was an instant conversation starter and I didn’t even have to put any effort into it. This might be a stretch if you suffer from social anxiety.

But wearing some type of conversation starter – an ugly Christmas sweater, a goofy tie, etc, – can be a good way to invite people to come speak to you. You won’t have to go up to other people, they’ll come to you and you’ve provided them an anchor with which to begin the conversation.

I’ve saved the most advanced tactic for last. This is reserved for the experienced.

Don’t Give A Damn

At some point, if you’re lucky and believe in yourself, you just give up pretending to be a certain person or act a certain way. You stop making sure you fit into other people’s boxes. You mature as a person and accept who you are as an individual and are proud of it. Instead, you engage with people by being who you truly are – not by pretending to be something you’re not.

Anxiety and apprehension melt away because you don’t need someone else’s approval for who you are. At that point, what does small talk matter and why should it bother you?

Be yourself, don’t give a damn, and let things fall where they may. If someone doesn’t want to engage with the authentic you, then you certainly don’t need their approval. Not do you want to spend time engaging with them. Better to be yourself up front, find kindred spirits, and turn casual relationships into real relationships.

Give some of these a try at the next holiday party you attend. You might just be able to put your small talk anxiety to rest.

If you like techniques like the above, you might like my book, which has words.

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