Many years ago, before I learned how to develop good conversation skills, I had one of those nightmare evenings only those who get lost for words can understand…
It was that lazy, relaxed time of year, December between Christmas and New Year. It was dark and cold outside, it looked like it might snow and I didn’t feel like going out but I had to.
My girlfriend, Cristine, was having a party at her house and I didn’t want to go but I had to because she wanted me to be there to meet a large group made up of her friends and neighbours, and her mother. I only knew one person who would be there, her Uncle Steven who I had met a few weeks before. He was easy to talk to and very friendly so the only thing I was looking forward to was meeting him again.
I felt nervous and unsure of myself as I stood at the front door with a bottle of wine. Cristine opened the door and invited me in, she looked happy and pleased to see me. She was smiling and animated and this made me even more nervous; I didn’t want to let her down, I didn’t want to make a bad impression but I still didn’t want to be there and there was one thing I knew for sure – I was not in the mood for meeting a bunch of strangers.
Cristine led me into the living room and proudly introduced me to a room full of strangers. Everyone looked over and stared at me to welcome me before returning to their huddles. I stood there wondering what to do as Cristine wandered off to the kitchen. Everyone seemed to be engrossed in their own private conversations, there was a gentle hum to their conversations and I stood there helpless. I didn’t see a way in, I didn’t know what to say, I put my hands in my pockets and I wished I had stayed at home to watch TV.
After a while I found Uncle Steven and locked onto him. I forgot about everyone else and I gave him no option but to have a very intense chat about whatever I wanted to discuss. At times he looked bored and every time it looked like the conversation might end I got more stressed and worried that he might walk off “to get another drink”and leave me looking foolish standing on my own with no one to talk to.
Minutes took hours to pass and I wondered how long more I needed to stay before I could politely leave. It was a painfully slow evening but thankfully it finally came to an end but not before I had to endure some abuse from Cristine. She wasn’t smiling anymore, in fact she was quite annoyed, annoyed with me. She asked me why I hadn’t mingled and talked to people. I tried to explain but she didn’t get it, she was your classic social butterfly, talkative and likeable. She loved meeting people, she could talk to anyone and was at ease in all company. She just had no idea what it was like to be quiet, stuck for words and afraid of rejection. She didn’t know how close I had come to not turning up but I did anyway for her.
I made my way home, watched TV for a while and I decided to renew my policy of avoiding parties. And, I made a mental note to be on the look out for a new girlfriend. Without even trying I had embarrassed Cristine in front of her neighbours and friends, I didn’t expect her to want to see me again.
How Not To Behave When You Meet New People:
When I look back at that evening with the benefit of what I’ve learned since I can see clearly that there was nothing random about the poor results I achieved. Back then my expectations and poor conversation skills both conspired to create the perfect storm of silence.
I used to decide that I had nothing in common with most people, that people weren’t interested in getting to know me and that if I was myself people would judge me, disapprove of me and most likely simply reject me. I now know that these were incorrect beliefs however such an attitude determines how you behave, it limits you by restricting your ability to express yourself and stops you from letting your true personality shine. And that’s what people do want to see because that’s what makes you interesting.
In terms of conversation skills I relied on a number of ineffective strategies that rarely work for anyone, it wasn’t personal. Firstly, I was reactive and I waited for people to approach me which simply doesn’t work because you often end up either alone or talking to someone you don’t really want to talk to.
Secondly, I also used to force people to talk about whatever I was interested in and I’d go deeper and deeper into those topics simply because I wasn’t so nervous if I talked about what I knew well. This too is a poor strategy for engaging people in mutually enjoyable conversations.
Finally, I also had a habit of locking onto people. If I was lucky enough to have a conversation work out I would do everything I could to monopolise that person’s attention, to make sure they couldn’t get away!
You may relate to some or all of these patterns. What’s important to recognise though is that only a few drivers create or destroy a conversation and only a few patterns create or destroy your ability to enjoy a social gathering. Once I dropped the negative habits I mentioned above, and this is important, replaced them with more positive and much more effective approaches, meeting people and enjoying their company started to seem like the most natural thing in the world.
Going to a party can be nerve wracking, something you want to avoid and a source of embarrassment or it can be something you look forward to all week because you know you’ll have a ball and meet interesting and wonderful people who are keen to get to know the real you. You can be quiet, express yourself and still have a great time with people who find you interesting and enjoyable to talk to – the key is to identify those patterns you use that don’t work and replace them with strategies that do work.