Mix and mingle with aplomb

November 28, 2004|by KATE COLEMAN

The wild holiday rumpus has begun. There were Christmas parades before Thanksgiving, and Santa arrived at several area shopping centers days before Black Friday.

The annual circuit of holiday parties - at the office, at the neighbors', at the in-laws' - soon will begin.

Are you ready to mingle, chat - have a good time?

Some people actually enjoy that sort of thing.

Many dread such gatherings.

Despite the fact that she's written seven books - "How to Talk to Anybody About Anything: Breaking the Ice With Everyone From Accountants to Zen Buddhists" among them - Leil Lowndes said it's still difficult for her to go to a party and meet people she doesn't know.

A very shy child, Lowndes started watching people she admired - film stars, ministers.

She paid attention and learned how to get through situations she found uncomfortable - and then some. She's built a career teaching people how to communicate for success through her books, audio programs and seminars.


"You can learn how to do this," said Debra Fine, author of "The Fine Art of Small Talk."

Fine, a former civil engineer who was overweight and felt invisible as a girl, said she "made up" her career as a keynote speaker and trainer.

She was a single mother with two kids living in Colorado. She figured there must be other people who felt as awkward in conversation as she did. She created a workshop for the lifelong learning program at her local community college. Six students signed up. Sixteen were in the next session. Then the class started to and continued to sell out.

"This confirmed for me that there was a need," Fine said.

She travels the country, taking her program to large corporations and government agencies, hundreds of trade associations and other organizations.

You don't have to be born with the gift of gab, Fine said. Skill in conversation can be cultivated. Part of it takes place before you open your mouth.

Most people are not aware of it, but body language is important, Fine said.

For example, she often stands with her arms crossed in front of her.

A person with crossed arms might be feeling awkward or nervous at a party, but the pose also can be perceived as a barrier. You might look like a "know-it-all," she cautioned.

How you look helps determine how you stand, Lowndes said. There's a whole ballet of movements: If you're tall, or male, you stand farther away from another person. Petite women can stand closer, Lowndes said.

Have strong posture. Look people in the eye, she recommended.

At the party

The position of confidence and power is in the center of the room, Lowndes said. On your way to that spot, look every sixth or seventh person in the eye and say, "Hi, how are you? Are you enjoying the party?"

You'll look well-connected, she said.

Fine's strategy includes looking around the room, finding someone who isn't talking to anyone and starting a conversation.

Be the first to say hello. Introduce yourself.

If it's somebody you've met before, but you can't remember his name, ask - even if it's embarrassing, Fine advised.

That ties in with her primary points:

· Take the risk.

Even if you're shy, start the conversation, Fine said. Don't hope that someone will approach you. There are worse things than being rejected at a holiday party.

· Assume the burden.

It's up to you to come up with conversation topics and fill the pregnant pauses.

"It is up to us to assume the burden of the comfort of others," Fine said.

Say something specific - something that will help the conversation continue. "Give me something," Fine said. In response to a question about holiday plans, Fine's answer is a good example: "I'm really looking forward to having my son home from college."

That statement invites all sorts of follow-up questions: Where does he go to school? How long will he be home? What's he studying?

The other side of that conversational coin is to listen for "free information," Fine suggested.

She mentioned that she moved to Colorado. Where'd she move from? When? Why did she move? Why'd she stay?

"Take time to be a good listener," agreed Mike Harsh, Hagerstown Community College professor of speech, English and drama. What really gets people talking, he said, is asking questions about themselves.

Pay attention when someone is talking to you, Lowndes advised. Watch them, and notice when their eyes light up.

"Pick up on their enthusiasm," she said.

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