How to Schmooze

About a year ago, I decided to take a class at Westchester Community College titled, "How to Schmooze," using the tuition reimbursement benefit from my layoff. The reason I signed up for the class was because I felt uncomfortable at parties and work conferences, and wanted to learn some techniques for engaging in small talk with new people. Although the class didn't pan out exactly as I had hoped ... it was more of a networking and presentation skills class, rather than the small talk class it was billed as ... it set me on a path to where I am today.

This is how I used to feel in a room of strangers.

We're in Now Now
Where is that, you ask? Well, I am 100% okay with approaching strangers and starting and maintaining conversations with them. It definitely takes concentration and I can't say it's my favorite activity ever, but it's gotten easier and easier the more I do it. And I do find myself curious and enjoying learning about the other person in the conversation.

Permission to Schmooze
The class left me wanting to learn more, so I borrowed a book from the library about how to do small talk. This book gave me three insights that freed me from the mental constraints that were holding me back. Here is what helped me:
  1. It is selfish to wait for someone else to start a conversation. The point of this statement is that most people are probably feeling uncomfortable in the same situation as you. Many of them might like to initiate a conversation, but can't bring themselves to do it. So you need to bite the bullet. 
  2. It is your social obligation to start conversations and keep them going. This was a life-changing concept for me, and related to #1 above. Part of what stopped me from initiating conversations was I didn't want to bother people. Changing my lens, and viewing the act of starting and and maintaining a conversation as an act of goodwill to society, gave me encouragement to do so.
  3. Continue engaging with someone until it's obvious they're not interested, or you get real engagement. You know when you ask someone how they are and they respond that they're doing well, and the conversation kind of ends there? The author writes that you need to keep going, delve deeper, until you get a real back and forth going. This lets the person know that you're genuinely interested, rather than just exchanging polite greetings. They will let you know, through their responses or body language, if they don't want to continue the conversation.
Putting Theory into Practice
After I read the book, I put my new knowledge to work. The basic routine I use is, open with a question that is relevant to the setting, actively listen, then say something yourself that gives the other person material to build on. Repeat as needed. I find that usually the other person will jump in after a few minutes and start asking questions or introducing new topics of their own.

When I would wait for my kids outside their art class or at school events, I would strike up conversations with the other parents who were also waiting. I know examples are helpful, so conversational openers I've used in the past are ... is this your kid's first time taking this class, and do you know what's going into the empty Babies"R"Us store next door. I was surprised how often a third or fourth (or fifth) person would jump into the conversation I was having with someone. I took this as confirmation that people do want to talk, they just don't know how to start or aren't comfortable doing so.

My forays into small talk were definitely inelegant and bumpy in the beginning. I was nervous, and sometimes the conversational topics were awkward. But now, a year later, it's much smoother sailing. I went to a reception last night for the new students in my Master of Social Work program and struck up conversations with brand new people I had never seen before, as well as professors, staff, and students I recognized from when I took a non-matriculated class last fall. And it was all good.

In Closing
In addition to small talk, I read a book on body language, and also continue to learn about how to build rapport and grease the skids of conversations through online articles. There is a lot to learn, and there are a lot of people out there who have spent a lot of time thinking about these topics and figured a lot of it out. You might be engaging in conversation killers you're not even aware of, and it's relatively easy to address once you are armed with knowledge. I already see the benefits of the work I've put in, and am looking forward to developing the skill further through learning and practice.


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