I have previously written about coping with stress and anxiety, now we'll focus on the art of turning the awkwardness of meeting new people into an opportunity to let yourself shine.
To catch you up to speed with the last article, I have social anxiety. That means when I’m surrounded by large groups of people I don’t know, I want to get the hell out of there as soon as possible. But over the last few years I’ve taught myself some tricks that have not only helped me overcome the awkward feelings, but also have allowed me to become the life of the party instead of a wallflower.
The most valuable lesson I can give you is to work the room. Don’t stand still, even if you are petrified of your surroundings. Instead of becoming a victim of the awkwardness, take control of it. Own it completely.
Identify the Different Groups
As you begin to float around the room, take note of the different groups.
Chances are you’ll come across a group with someone who is what I like to call a “street preacher” in that they are in the center and entertaining lots of people. These groups are good to identify. You can listen to what the person has to say, but what I do is listen to what they have to say enough that I can interact with them or be able to interject if the opportunity is present.
In these situations, use this as a chance to read the body language of the listeners in the group. Some people will be enthralled, others will be disgusted. Take note of this so later you may spark up conversation with any one of the people listening by referring to the speaker and his/her conversation. It doesn’t matter what opinion you take, just be able to speak to the other person’s opinion.
Bail out of this group politely and continue your path. Most of the time I will fly around the room with my goal being a cocktail or h'or dourve and then just being able to escape each group with, “Well, I’m going to go grab a drink, have a great night…I’ll catch up with you later!”
(Please note that after some practice, you will need to pace your drinking or eating. Many times, out of nervousness, I’ve gotten trashed by making very numerous trips to the bar and tossing drinks back too quickly just to make conversation.)
At some point you’ll probably come across a group of wallflowers. You can take this opportunity to either ask a question about the event or about someone in the room. By talking about something that everyone has in common (if you’re in the same place, something of common interest probably brought you there), you’ll be engaging all members of the group. And sometimes people just need a kick-start to conversation.
To be engaging, you must always make the person you're talking to feel like they are the most important person in the room. Make solid eye contact, smile and laugh when appropriate, and be an active listener. This isn't a suggestion to be ‘fake,' it doesn't matter if you like this person or not, it simply means you're giving the person your full attention to what they're saying. That’s how politicians win constituents. It’s not about what I have to say or that I have some important message that makes people like me, it’s that I’m an engaging person who can interact with everyone and can talk about anything.
Taking Control of the Conversation
So let’s say you are at a dinner party with lots of people you don’t know. People are talking about a topic you have limited knowledge on. Your two options are to sit there and be quiet or subtly redirect the conversation.
At one point, you can either chime in with a question or with an acknowledgment of the speaker, such as “Really? I hadn’t heard that…who said that?” or “That’s so interesting. Did you hear…” and then redirect the conversation with a segue. Sure it seems ballsy, but what do you have to lose? You aren’t speaking as it is, so you'll be forgotten anyhow. And if it turns into a situation where you make an ass out of yourself, own it proudly and make it a joke of the evening.
A word about jokes. If you make jokes and think that ‘no one gets them’ – the joke is really on you. Humor resides on that dangerous line between terribly clever or terribly offensive. If you aren’t sure of yourself, don’t use jokes. For the most part, I know that I can usually just say something offensive and get away with it, so I tend to use that as an icebreaker amongst individuals. Sure it’s pathetic, but it works.
And that’s the point – you’re going to have to do what you’re good at to get this job done. Ultimately you want people to like you, to adopt you in their circle (or want to), or commit to you either personally or professionally. You want people on your side and in your contact list.
While this all has been geared toward social situations, the same tips apply to professional networking situations. Yes, it’s probably more important you focus on work, but the one thing that everyone hates is someone who talks shop all the time and can’t speak about anything else or have a laugh. Be the person who can talk about last night's game, or the person that can get others to open up about their family. Don’t make jokes at the expense of people above you, since this alienates you from those in charge. Obviously you don't want to be a kiss-ass either; that’s the worst and you will become the butt of jokes you aren’t privy to.
My last words of advice: be yourself. You've heard this since elementary school, but it really begins to make sense when you relax and open up. If I’ve learned one thing in succeeding in work and in life, it’s that I’m just myself. I say what I want to say and I’m honest and I’m not above having a laugh at times. Don’t try too hard to be someone you aren’t – have faith in yourself that you can succeed and that most people are probably more nervous to talk to you than you are them. So give them the opportunity to get to know you and fall in love. From there, world domination seems so much closer, doesn’t it?