Tips to network and survive company holiday parties
Holidays are here. Which means you’re about to endure a lot of mandatory fun—company parties, business networking events and all sorts of obligatory social gatherings—over the next few months.
If you want to make lovely banter this holiday season, here are some ways to start a great conversation and how to get out of a bad one.
STARTING A CONVERSATION
This takes the pressure off you to come up with the topic of conversation. The best questions start with why, how, or what—those usually produce longer responses and the foundation for good dialogue. Avoid questions that start with when, do, can and will—those are usually answered with a simple yes or no, and then the conversation stalls.
Request a story
It doesn’t matter if you bump into an old acquaintance or end up seated at a table with someone you’ve never met, one of the easiest and most effective conversation starters is to demand that the other person begins. Tell me what you’ve been up to since we last spoke or Nice to meet you, what do you do? People love to talk about themselves. So let them.
Admit you’re bad
This works, especially with people who are also not great at starting conversations. I know because my own networking game is sub-optimal at best. When I make eye contact with someone I don’t know at a party, and I can tell that neither of us knows what to say, I often blame myself for the awkwardness. Hi, I’m Bill. I’ve been here an hour and I have run out of cool stories to tell. I’m the worst at networking. Chances are the honesty and self-deprecating approach will build rapport and kick things off in the right direction.
Know when to pivot
A novice conversation starter leads with comments about the weather. Man, it’s cold out there today, am I right? Yes. Of course. Dude. It’s December. It’s cold. The moment someone brings up the weather, this is your cue to shift topics. Why? Usually, the only answer you have to give is yes. Always avoid paths that lead to yes or no answers. They inevitably leave you with awkward pauses and herky-jerky conversations. Instead, use the weather question as a jump off and ask a question that is tangential. Yea, it is cold—even for D.C. this time of year. Wait, where are you from again? Now you’re off on another topic.
Compliment and continue
Another easy way to strike up conversations with strangers at business parties is to compliment the person on their outfit. Love the jacket. I’m in the market for one myself, actually. What stores would you recommend I check out? The point here is, don’t just drop a compliment like, “Love the jacket,” because then they will inevitably say, “Thanks, I like it, too.” See, it’s a non-sequitur. Make sure you know where you’re headed with the conversation before you jump in.
(By the way, I am in the market for a new leather jacket and would love recommendations on places to shop. Let me know if you have any suggestions. For real.)
ENDING A CONVERSATION
The one thing that may be more difficult than starting a conversation is ending a conversation. Here are some ways to extricate yourself from a conversation that’s not going anywhere.
Make backup plans
Use a tool to escape a conversation that has gone off the rails. Before you walk into the party, set your phone alarm to go off in 30 minutes. Then, if you’re stuck in a conversation and your phone happens to “ring,” you can politely excuse yourself and break away from schmoozing. Would setting an alarm make you feel disingenuous? Ask a friend to call you in 30 minutes instead.
Look for body language
When someone is interested in what you’re talking about, they give off subtle clues. The book What Every Body is Saying has a ton of different examples of how you can tell how someone is feeling. Things like their posture, eye contact and even how they cross their legs can tell you a lot about a person’s state of mind.
For example, if you notice someone you’re talking to keeps looking at their empty drink cup, stop talking and suggest that you need a refill too. If they are scanning the room looking for someone else at the party while you’re talking, they probably want to leave and find that person. In fact, they probably aren’t even paying attention to what you’re saying. So conduct a preemptive strike—ask to be excused before the discussion fizzles out. Say you have to go to the bathroom or that you need a refill of your own. You two will soon part ways and be off to find new, better conversations.
When you want to move on, leave the party, or simply want to get some more food from the buffet—you’re allowed to do those things. You don’t have to stay stuck listening to someone else talk for the entire party. No matter how emotionally or mentally difficult it may be for you to cut someone off mid-sentence, sometimes that’s exactly what you have to do. And you can do it politely. Hey, sorry to cut you off, but I really need to use the restroom. Excuse me, I’ll be right back. Whether you actually go right back and talk with them is entirely up to you.
Now that you’re armed with plenty of tips to make your holiday parties and networking events flow a little smoother, get out there and enjoy some mandatory fun.