Guest post by communication consultant Geoffrey Tumlin, author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life, who explains how to navigate the gauntlet of conversational awkwardness during this years company holiday party.
As the holidays approach, unpleasant memories of last years office holiday party may still linger in many of our minds. Who can forget when Julian from accounting told the vice president of finance that he was bored with accounting, hated everyone in the department, and wanted to get into operations? (The VP certainly hasnt forgotten.) And remember how awkward it felt when Sarah from marketing cornered you by the punch bowl and wouldnt stop talking to you (loudly!) about the rumors surrounding a coworkers recent absence? Or the discomfort you felt when you couldnt recall Bills name as you attempted to introduce him to your boss?
If thoughts of this years party make you uneasy, says Geoffrey Tumlin, youre not alone. For many, the office holiday party is an anxiety-provoking festival of faux pas, awkwardness, and other embarrassments. Its the one party of the year that we cant wait to end.
Because of the awkward conversations, forgotten names, and a handful of inebriated coworkers, office holiday parties often create as much stress as they are supposed to relieve, says Tumlin.
The reasons these parties are so stressful are simple. In many organizations, the company holiday party is one of the few times of the yearand possibly the only timewhen large groups of employees get together socially. The unusual nature of the gatheringtheres often an audience, youre moving from person to person, and youre making much more small talk than usualpresents communication challenges that more routine workplace communication doesnt.
The key to successfully navigating the office holiday party is to play a defensive game, asserts Tumlin. Stop thinking about growing your network at the holiday party and start thinking about protecting the network youve already got in place by minimizing the chance of getting tangled up in awkward or embarrassing conversations.
Thats where Stop Talking, Start Communicating comes in. Full of counterintuitive yet concrete advice, it draws on Tumlins considerable experience as a communication consultant to show readers how to avoid landmines at this years office holiday party and prevent career-damaging incidents around the holiday punchbowl.
Here, Tumlin shares five ways to avoid trouble at this years company holiday party.
Embargo the eggnog.
The lubricating effect of alcohol is largely responsible for many holiday office party communication disasters. It was the cause of Matts disclosure of inappropriate office gossip during the party of 2010, for Jim complaining a bit too loudly about your boss back in 2011, and for Julian the accountant blabbing to the VP of finance that he wanted a more exciting career during last years party.
I hate to be a spoilsport, but nothing reduces office party incidents as effectively as steering clear of booze and the people whove had a bit too much of it, says Tumlin. One of the main reasons for verbal blunders at company holiday parties is that alcohol lowers our inhibitions, which erodes both our conversational restraint and our self-monitoring ability. Loose lips cause many verbal slips.
But what if your boss is pressuring you to drink? Theres no easy answer for a boss whos encouraging you to drink, notes Tumlin, but you do have options. You can get a drink and nurse it, or get a drink and say you need to say hello to someone. Or you might say that you dont feel like drinking, either because you dont feel well, or simply because you just dont want to drink on this occasion.
Avoid the person whos had too much to drink as much as you can, he adds. Communication is much more unpredictable when people have had a few drinks, and theres much more downside than upside when inhibitions are loosened in a professional setting.
Master the exit.
The graceful exit is another highly effective office party strategy. Timely exits are great office party tools, Tumlin asserts. Knowing how to extract yourself from awkward or embarrassing conversations minimizes trouble and shortens problematic interactions at the company party.
You can tactfully break contact by excusing yourself to the food line, to the restroom, or by saying that you need to say hello to someone (your boss is often a good excuse). But if someone is causing a disruption thats leaking out to other people, dont worry about being tactfuljust make a quick exit.
Break contact with people who are disrupting the party ASAP, says Tumlin. Dont worry about following social etiquette if someone has already thrown good manners to the wind. Hes already abandoned normal social behavior, so you dont owe him the courtesy of a tactful exit.
Invest five minutes in recalling names.
No one likes to draw a blank on a name we should have known. Fortunately, you can avoid many uncomfortable moments by recalling, just before the party starts, names of people you expect to see. The best way to increase the odds of remembering a name is to put it at the front of your mind before the interaction, says Tumlin. Take five minutes before the company party to think through the names of people who are likely to be there. Its a simple but powerful way to decrease the number of times you blank on a name you should have known.
If you end up stumped on a name at the party, ask early in the conversation for the name you cant recall, he adds. Say something like Please tell me your name again as soon as you realize that youve forgotten the name. The longer a conversation goes, the more awkward it becomes to ask for a name that isnt on the tip of your tongue.
But what about the dreaded party introduction, when your spouse or a colleague is standing beside you and a third personwhose name youve unfortunately forgottenis clearly expecting an introduction? Dont sweat it, says Tumlin. Theres an easy solution to this common dilemma .
Partner up smartly.
You can eliminate the dreaded party introductionand a number of other awkward incidentsby establishing a few conversational moves with your spouse or with a partner before the holiday party.
Develop a plan with your spouse or with the coworker youre attending the party with to automatically introduce themselves whenever you hesitate for a moment upon encountering someone new, advises Tumlin. This will trigger a reciprocal introduction and, crucially, will produce the name you cant recall. Once you have the name, you can always follow up with an apology for not introducing the other person if you like. For example, you might say, Im sorry, Jim, I should have introduced you two, or, My apologies, I thought you knew each other.
A good partner can also get you out of all kinds of company party jams, he adds. Your spouse or your party partner can be the person who asks for both of you to be excused from an awkward or a dwindling conversation by suggesting that you head to the food or drink line, or by asking for you to introduce him or her to your boss, says Tumlin. Use a partner at the holiday party to give you the reasonable external excuses you need to tactfully get out of conversations, and let your partner help you move along if youve lingered too long in one discussion.
Dont disguise stalking as networking.
Its a good idea to offer holiday greetings to your colleagues, your direct reports, and your boss, but dont seek out all of the head honchos and try to give them yuletide greetings at the company party.
The most senior people often get hounded by people currying favor at the holiday party, says Tumlin. If a natural conversation emerges with someone from Star Fleet Command, thats great. But dont stand in line to talk to someone you barely know. Shes probably trying to enjoy the party and would almost certainly prefer to be left alone. Greet your boss and, perhaps, your bosss boss. After that, relax and be open to any other conversations that may come your way.
Scale back your expectations about the company holiday party, he adds. Worry less about who you need to meet and what you need to say. Focus more on minimizing awkward conversations and enjoying as much of the gathering as you possibly can.
The office holiday party shouldnt be something we dread, says Tumlin. This year, lay off the juice, master the exit, review a few names, partner up smartly, and think about the party as a celebration and not as a Santa-themed networking event. With a little bit of luck, this years company holiday party will be unremarkable, and might even be enjoyable.