Are you listening?

Ears, not mouth, are the best way to make the most of small talk during holiday gatherings

The parties. The receptions. The dinners. The fundraisers.

If your social calendar is filling up for the holidays and that fills you with a sense of dread, you're not alone. If you don't want to end up on the receiving end of a tirade about politics or a pondering on the snow forecast, may we suggest a question-based conversation?

For Stacy Sacco, starting conversations and making them feel meaningful to both people talking is the stuff of art. As the director of the University of New Mexico's Small Business Institute, he says students need to learn networking skills for their livelihoods, but those tools also come in handy for holiday gatherings that feature fewer business cards and more greeting cards.

"The holidays are one of the best times for quality conversations," he says. "Everybody is in a festive mood, they may be planning for or have family in town, so there can be discussion of their families and their history. And it's near the end of the year, so it's about what are you going to do next year, what are your plans?"

The easiest way to get someone talking? Ask a question. Listen to the answer, then ask a follow-up. See how long you can go without talking about yourself.

"It's about trying to connect with people and saying hi and being genuine," Sacco says. "You have to be careful you are not interrogating them. It's got to be sincere.

What do you like about the place you are from?"—"Oh, they've got a cool old movie theater. What was the last show you went to?"—"What made you interested to see that show?"

Even if you're not someone who has trouble chatting, you can use holiday gatherings to become a
better listener. Sacco says he's in that category. And the question strategy works in this case, too.

"Sometimes I put on a different hat and I say I am going to be the interested introvert," he says. "It turns me into a guy who is still talking, but what am I talking about? You!"

Pro Tips

Give yourself a goal: Don't just show up and start biding time before you can make a getaway. Promise yourself you will ask questions and listen to the answers of three new people or sort-of-new people. Plan three questions to help get each one started.

Connect with the host: There are people at the party who have to talk to you, and you don't even have to come up with something to say. Whether it's the people who invited you to their home or the president of the company hosting the work event, make a plan to greet and engage with them. Say thanks and then, "Tell me about your group." or "What's your favorite thing about this space?"

Bonus round: Wait until the next person arrives to talk to the host and make sure you meet them. Getting an introduction can give you credibility and motivation.

Take along a chatty, curious friend: Do not hole up in the corner with said friend, however. Use their social ease to ease yourself into the conversation in a relevant way. Give the friend a gift for helping you meet the goals in tip number one.

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