As she entered last week’s PRSA senior leaders’ reception in Chicago, an unemployed pro said she was advised by friends and a recruiter to shut down her job search until mid-January. I disagreed and challenged her to expand her network by meeting six new individuals before the end of the party. She accepted the challenge and met perhaps a dozen people, all of whom offered to help.
Later, I told her how impressed I was to see how she networked effectively. She admitted that she had researched most of the people she thought might attend the event so she was comfortable talking with her newfound contacts. And, importantly, she had honed an enthusiastic 30-second elevator speech that emphasized her experience and passion.
Inspired by her positive experience, I wanted to remind readers about a blog post from two years ago that offered tips on how to effectively network during the holidays. Just as I began writing, I received a timely email from John Millen, an author and communications coach who writes a weekly newsletter called Sunday Coffee. John recognizes many of us find it difficult to make small talk at social events and even family gatherings.
Here are John’s seven tips for surviving the “holiday conversation gauntlet”:
Don’t reach for your phone
For many of us, the solution to feeling awkward at a public event is to reach for our smart phones. When we are left standing alone, feeling like a lonely middle-schooler, the answer is to grab for our smart phones.
By palming our phone and checking for email, text or notification we reassure ourselves: “I’m not a loser, standing around by myself with no one to talk to,” we tell our inner critic. But we also cut off the possibility of meeting someone new, of catching the random set of eyes and making new friends.
Prepare ahead of time
Who will you be seeing? Old friends? Colleagues? Random strangers? Think about who will be there and scribble a few notes on a card about what you might want to share or avoid.
Will there be a particular person you want to make sure to connect with? Someone you should avoid? A little planning can help you maneuver through the emotional minefield we often face during the holidays.
Bring your stories
A great way to avoid awkward moments is to think ahead of time about some of your favorite stories. As human beings we are hardwired for stories. Just take a few minutes to look through your story bank to refresh your memory. You do have a story bank, don’t you? If not, check out my article Oprah’s in My Story Bank!
By opening up and sharing your personal stories or passions, you will encourage others to do the same. You’ll be amazed at what you hear and the bond that can be forged in a few minutes with someone by sharing yourself.
I recently met someone who told me he grew up in a small town in Texas. Though I’d never been there, that obscure town has special meaning in my life; so I shared my personal story with him and we came to understand one another at a much deeper level.
People love to talk about themselves when given the right space and opportunity. Ask open-ended questions (those that can’t be answered with “yes” or “no”) and ask questions that are more specific. In other words, not “how was your year?” but “what’s the best thing that happened to you this year?” A question like this will usually bring out a great story.
Be an active listener
We all like to think of ourselves as good listeners, but in most cases that’s just not true. If you monitor your listening skills you’ll find you spend a lot of time thinking about what you want to say next. We often just listen for keywords that generate thoughts that will turn the conversation in our direction.
Instead, listen without intent. Listen with empathy. Listen for what’s not being said. Listen for the attitude behind the answer and ask follow up questions to go deeper.
There’s nothing worse than the person who pretends to be listening to you, but keeps looking over your shoulder to see if there’s someone more valuable in the wings. Don’t be that person. See if you can stay completely focused on the person in front of you while truly listening.
These simple practices can make a huge difference in the quality of your communication and your relationships.
While some awkwardness during holiday conversation cannot be avoided, a bit of planning and thought can make a challenging season a whole lot less stressful.