Whether you’re going to your work holiday party or heading back home to chat with relatives you haven’t seen in a while, this is prime small talk season. You know it’s good to connect with others, but you’re feeling somewhat anxious about the whole thing. No worries. With these small talk tips, you can focus on the fun part of holiday get-togethers.
Set a goal for the holiday party
When you set a goal for yourself, anything is doable. You might choose to approach three new people or to spend a total of thirty minutes at the party. If you would like to stay longer, reward yourself with breaks after a certain amount of time if you need them.
Let’s say you’re spending time with relatives for an extended period of time, set small talk conversation goals. For example, you could learn two new things about each person in the room. Think about why you want to attend the gathering and how you can maximize your happiness.
Prep some talking points about yourself
I used to struggle with the question, “So, what do you do?” I’ve been a stay at home mom for twelve years and I would always answer, “I’m home with the kids.” Then, I would leave it at that. That was my fatal flaw. You never just leave it at that when you’re making small talk. It doesn’t matter whether you’re between jobs, at home watching the kids, or an astrophysicist – be prepared to give a more elaborate answer to variations of the question “What do you do?”
If you feel like you must answer the question directly, mention your job but then expand upon your answer by saying, “But in my free time I love to ____.” Your hobbies and interests are much more fun to hear about anyways. No one really wants to hear the ins and outs of the work day. So, give them something they can latch onto to keep the conversation going. Mention your hobbies, a favorite activity you do with your family, a recent movie or book you liked, or an upcoming vacation. Before the party, think of two or three things you would like to share about yourself.
Catch up on current events
Even if you could care less about celebrity news, sports, or politics, give yourself a one-week homework assignment. Read up on the news for five minutes a day for the week leading up to your event. You can sign up for email updates through sites like theSkimm where you will get the main talking points delivered to your inbox.
Look for approachable people or groups
Stand back and read the room before you jump into a conversation. Depending on your personality, you may feel more comfortable making small talk with one person instead of joining a group. Do what works best for you.
Look at people’s body language to see who is approachable. If you see someone smiling and making eye contact with you, that’s as good an invitation as you’re going to get. If there’s a physical opening within a group, casually stand in the circle and wait for the appropriate moment to introduce yourself.
Listen more than you talk
Imagine the best conversationalist you know. It’s probably someone who is good at listening and not necessarily the most remarkable storyteller. Put less pressure on yourself to master the art of small talk. Instead, focus on being an active listener.
To help improve your listening skills, look into the speaker’s eyes and mimic her body language. Not only does this make the speaker feel like you’re a better listener, it also helps you focus on what she is saying. Respond with appropriate nods, say “yeah” or “wow” to show you’re listening, and encourage her to continue with questions like, “And then what happened?” Super important – don’t interrupt. Focus on what is being said instead of worrying about what you are going to say next.
Ask open-ended questions to guide small talk
The best way to keep a conversation going is to ask open-ended questions. This means asking questions that start with “Why” or “How” or phrases like “Tell me about…” or “How do you feel about…” For example, you could ask “How do you know the hostess?” or “Tell me about your holiday plans.”
In contrast, closed-ended questions result in a “Yes” or “No” answer. It’s okay to intersperse closed-ended questions throughout the conversation, but you’ll want to follow-up with open-ended questions. You might say, “Do you have any upcoming trips planned over the holidays?” If the answer is “Yes”, you can say “Tell me about your trip. What activities do you have planned?” If the answer is “No,” you can follow up with “It is nice to stay home and relax. How do you like to spend the break?”
Expand upon simple answers
Help the other person by leaving clues about things you might like to discuss. The more material you add (without going overboard), the easier you make it for the other person to continue the conversation.
Where are you from?
“I live in Chicago now, but I grew up in Miami.”
“I’m from Dayton, where the Wright Brothers invented manned powered flights.”
What do you do?
“I’m at home with the kids and I do some writing on the side.”
“I’m a lawyer, but I make a mean apple pie when I’m not in the office.”
How do you know the host?
“I work with John’s wife and we used to play on the local volleyball team together.”
Go out on a high note
Once you’ve met your goal, you’re out. Leave the conversation while it’s still going well. Unless you and the other person really hit it off, the conversation will start to dwindle. Leave while you’re both still feeling good about it. Shake the other person’s hand and say “It was really nice meeting you, Jerry. I’m going to grab a bite to eat. Can I get you anything?” Then, walk away to get that dessert that’s been calling your name all night.