My biggest party fear is being seated next to someone in a set-table situation who I don’t know. What if we have nothing in common? Will they expect me to entertain them? Can you relate to this deer-in-the-headlights dinner party feeling?
For example, I attended a training event and there was an arranged dinner at the end. We’d been switching groups all day long for various activities so I knew some of the people but hadn’t been with them long enough to develop a deep connection and I didn’t really know anyone there. At dinner, I was seated next to 2 new people. Across the table was a man who had happened to be in the majority of my groups and we had shared a few jokes. I would have felt much more comfortable sitting next to him.
I felt like I hadn’t found common ground with my neighbours yet. My mind kept wandering to the interesting conversations I was overhearing across the table. In a cocktail situation, my instinct is to excuse myself and find my comfort zone, but this was a set table situation. If I didn’t act quickly, heavy self-doubt would set in and I would have a terrible night.
I tried to talk with my neighbours, which was exhausting and awkward. Luckily, the dinner was relatively short and then everybody left the tables and started dancing.
Since then, I have learned a few techniques to help keep the great night in tact:
1. Focus your mind and choose to commit to the conversation
Once you’re aware this is happening, you can take charge. Acknowledge the doubt, then gently move past it and make a decision to commit to this conversation.
To help your mind commit, make a bargain with yourself. Agree to commit for 5 more minutes to take the pressure off talking with this person all night long.
2. Make a game of it to remove mental barriers
Challenge yourself to learn something new from this person. Pretend you’re Sherlock Holmes and try to discover personal detail or pretend you’re an archeologist to uncover common ground.
3. Take control of the conversation by asking open questions
When someone is talking, they feel they have control of the conversation and this helps them open up. But in reality, it’s the person asking the questions who has the power – they control where the conversation goes and learn from the interaction.
Open questions lead to broad answers. Closed questions give yes/no answers. Open questions begin with Who, What, Where, When, Why, How?
TIP: Why questions can come across as judgemental when asked of a person directly. If using why questions, try to engage your curiosity about a process rather than a person – eg, Why is it done this way? as opposed to Why did you do that?
If you can’t think of a question on the spot, you can say, “That’s interesting, tell me more about that,” to keep the conversation flowing instead.
4. If you’re asking the questions, you have to be prepared to listen to the answer.
Check out my previous posts on Listening for more detail.