November / December 2003  Volume 29, Issue 8
ABA Law Pracice Management Magazine, November/December 2003 Issue
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RipIT! Make the Most of Mingling
Debra Fine
Do you dread holiday parties? Does attending another open house make you want to run inside your own house and lock the door? You're not alone. Keeping a conversation going during social occasions can be an ordeal. But these occasions represent opportunities to develop relationships and broaden our networks. Whether you realize it or not, networking happens all the time.

Everyone learns technical skills required of their jobs, but not everyone places importance on conversational skills. The ability to talk easily with anyone is a learned skill, not a personality trait. Learning how to handle yourself at social gatherings will help you develop rapport with people and leave an impression that lasts far longer than exchanging business cards. Here are tips to improve your small talk.

Be the First to Say “Hello.” Smile, introduce yourself and always shake hands when you meet someone. Act as if you’re the host. Introduce new arrivals to your conversational partners. And take your time during introductions. Make an extra effort to remember names, and use the names frequently in the conversation.

Maintain Eye Contact. When they’re in a group of three or more, many people look around in the hope that others in the group will maintain eye contact on their behalf. But people don’t feel listened to if you're not looking at them.

Show an Interest in Every Person. The more interest you show, the more wise and attractive you become to others. Listen for information that can keep the conversation going. Get individuals to talk about why they’re attending the event and you’re on your way to a dialogue.

Make Them Feel Special. People want to be with people who make them feel special, not people who are special. Take responsibility to help people you talk to feel as if they’re the only person in the room. Show an interest in your conversational partner’s opinion, too. You’re not the only person who has opinions about the stock market, weather patterns or what’s wrong with kids today.

Play the Conversation Game. When someone asks, “How’s business?” or “What’s going on?” answer with more than, “Not much.” Tell more about yourself so that others can learn more about you. But be careful with business acquaintances. You wouldn’t want to open a conversation with, “How's your job at XYZ Corporation?” What if that person just got fired or laid off? And be careful when you’re asking about an acquaintance’s spouse or special friend. You could regret it.

Don’t Act Like an FBI Agent. Questions like, “What do you do?” “Are you married?” “Do you have children?” and “Where are you from?” lead to dead-end conversations.

Be Aware of Body Language. Nervous people make others uncomfortable. Act confident—even when you’re not.

Be Prepared. Spend a few minutes before an event preparing to talk easily about three topics. They’ll come in handy when you find yourself in the middle of an awkward moment. Or seated at a table of eight where people are playing with their food.

Stop Conversation Monopolists. If possible, wait for the person to take a breath or to pause, then break in with a comment about the topic. Then immediately lead the conversation in the direction you want it to go.

Know Your Exit Lines. You do need to move around and meet others. But don’t just melt from in-progress conversations. Make a positive impression by shaking hands and saying good-bye as you leave.

Some people view small talk as inconsequential. Instead, we should consider it the appetizer for every relationship. It can turn a challenging, awkward situation into a success. Small talk connects us and helps us build relationships, whether the setting is business or social.

Debra Fine ( works nationwide as a speaker and trainer and lives in Denver. Author of The Fine Art of Small Talk, she is a former engineer who used to lurk in corners when she wasn’t avoiding social functions altogether