Making conversation is the key to shining like a Christmas star at the office party. Chatting only with your spouse or your buddies from your department will earn you a lump of coal for a missed opportunity.
When you are stepping outside of your comfort zone and talking with people, you don't see often or know very well, the art of conversation takes a little preparation. Here are a few tips to get ready for the office party or any other event where you're mingling with a mixed crowd:
1. Show genuine interest. Make sure you're paying attention to the other person by nodding your head, responding with related comments and asking questions. Don't let them see that you are really studying how fast the buffet line is moving and counting the shrimp in the dwindling shrimp bowl.
2. Be aware of what your body language is saying. Face the person you're talking to, slightly lean in and make eye contact. Use your facial expressions to show you are involved in the conversation. If your toes and hips are pointing away, it sends the message that you are planning your escape.
3. Do your homework. Good conversation requires a little forethought. Have a few topics up your sleeve, avoiding politics, religion, office gossip or anything depressing. Sports, movies, food and plans for the holidays are good alternatives. It's easy to make conversation with people you see every day—your job is to mix and mingle with those whom you are less familiar.
4. Listen. If it were easy to follow this rule, we'd all be brilliant conversationalists. Many of us are so busy talking about ourselves—or thinking about what we're going to say next while the other person is talking—that we fail to engage in real conversation. How many times have you been in a conversation where someone asked the same question that was just answered only minutes earlier? A good rule of thumb: Listen 60 percent of the time and ask questions the other 40 percent.
5. Ask questions. Being a great conversationalist is not all about spewing an endless stream of stories or witticisms to amuse an audience. A question shows the other person you are interested in what they have to say and, ideally, they will answer your question and then ask a question in return. This "discovery" phase will hopefully lead to a common area of interest for you both to explore further and voila, a bond is forged. If you know a little something about the person—for example, if they have kids—start there. "How old are they? How is school going for them? Are they in any sports or activities? What are the hot toys for Christmas this year?"
6. Team up with your spouse. While you shouldn't stick to your spouse like glue, don't abandon your spouse to fend for him or herself at the office party, especially if he or she doesn't know anyone from your office very well. Work together. For example, if your husband is a football fan and you're not, he can help break the ice with a fellow fan. Always introduce him to whomever you're speaking with and include him in your conversation even if you have to bring him up to speed.
7. Practice the art of excusing yourself from a monologue. We all know people who spout off at length on random topics, ignoring all signs of discomfort in others. If you've been trapped in the corner for 10 minutes listening to a guest drone on and on, jump in when the rambler takes a breath, "Well, you certainly know a lot about the company's servers" or, "Sounds like you've really turned a corner with that lactose intolerance issue;" immediately followed by, "If you'll excuse me I think I need to freshen my drink… nice chatting with you. Enjoy the rest of the party!" After freshening your drink, head for the other side of the room and strike up a new conversation with someone else.
8. Do talk about the holidays. The fact that this is a holiday party lends itself to all kinds of discussion topics. "Are you traveling for the holidays?" "Have you done any holiday shopping/decorating yet?" "Do you know a good place to see Christmas lights this year?"
9. Don't talk about work. This is not the venue to complete a project or plan a client meeting for the following week. It is okay to mention upbeat news briefly, "Hey, I heard we had record sales last month!" but the holiday party is not the time to try to analyze departmental efficiencies. It's definitely not the time or place to gripe about anything or anyone from work.
10. Say thanks. Before leaving, be sure to thank both your boss and those who planned the party. And remember to thank your spouse for coming with you and being such a good sport throughout the evening.
Remember that the festive atmosphere of the holiday party creates a great environment to connect with coworkers you'd like to get to know better. The ability to engage in conversation with a wide variety of people is a skill that will serve you well not only at the office holiday party, but throughout your career.
Diane Gottsman, a nationally recognized etiquette expert, is the owner of The Protocol School of Texas, a company specializing in etiquette training for corporations, universities and individuals, striving to polish their interpersonal skills. You can reach Diane at 877-490-1077 or www.protocolschooloftexas.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @: www.twitter.com/DianeGottsman.