5 Tips For Surviving The Dreaded Business Dinner

Being a leader is all about your ability to connect with others, whether via Twitter or during a formal business dinner. Follow these 5 tips to increase your charisma and make meaningful connections.

"I hate business dinners," George Brinkman says to me. He says it with a ferocious conviction, and I am startled by the intensity of his comment. He is a seasoned business executive, a sharp guy with a keen mind. Funny, dry. The sort of fellow whose thoughts are always three steps ahead of everyone else’s. George speaks well and uses language beautifully. And his senior role at a Fortune 500 company requires him to attend lots and lots of such dinners.

"I hate the moment when we run out of things to say," George adds. There’s a long, pregnant pause. "And that moment always comes..."

Hmm, I think to myself. What I really dislike is not the dinners—no, it’s the fake conversations. They leave me feeling empty, and they zap the life out of me. I have a hunch these are the conversations George is talking about. The sports/weather/favorite TV show/happy family conversations. The blah blah blah of predictable chatter. The blah blah blah of no surprises. The blah blah blah of just filling up time with easy narratives. You have been there. You know.

Behind each of these conversations lurk some pretty powerful beliefs that drive how we approach another person and engage them. Some are clear and up front in our conscious mind. They likely hail from the worlds in which we grew up—our immediate family and the cultural norms into which we were born—and they explicitly inform what we say, what we don’t say, the energy we use to engage, the social etiquette we follow or don’t follow.

There’s a whole other range of beliefs that we likely cannot put into words. They hover in our subconscious mind—and that, of course, is their danger. They are not known to us, yet they write the script we follow. Couple this with the fact that everyone else is following their unspoken scripts, and the story suddenly becomes pretty complicated. All of us operate within a powerful collective consciousness which defines how we seek to connect with others—and much of this consciousness is not conscious. And so it happens again. We sit down for a meal, and suddenly we’re adrift in yet another fake conversation.

Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Yes, it just goes on.

For anyone who wishes to succeed in business—whether you’re an entrepreneur building your own company or a professional in a larger corporation—the ability to connect is vital. Not just vital—essential, mission critical. Without it, everyone of us hits the glass ceiling. Glass ceilings exist in nearly every aspect of business life. Connectability—the ease and consistency with which we talk to others—is the least talked about, yet in many ways the most daunting of these ceilings.

Talk is the first level of connection. It defines the most easily visible and audible part of our connection with others. It is, if you will, the surface of our social experience, the thing that others can most readily witness. If we don’t engage with a measure of skill and ease at the talk level, we are actively inhibiting the possibility of resonating with anyone at a deeper level. We never get to experience an infectious connection.

Think of a conversation as an improvisational dance between two or more folks. Our comfort in engaging another person through talk is the tipping point in this delicate dance, the force that turns it into either a pleasurable romp or an ordeal we can’t wait to escape. Five simple principles, and the skills that accompany these principles, help us shape any chat into an improvisation that brims with warmth, substance, and emotional connection.

Principle #1: Invite Me In.
Email-writing and texting have turned us into bullet-pointed communicators. This efficient communication style is increasingly showing up in one-on-one conversations. Crisp is good; cool and uninviting is not. Entice your conversation partner. Use emotional cue words and language that draw him into a conversation with you.

Principle #2: Open the Doors.
A conversation is like a walk down a long hallway lined with closed doors. Each verbal cue we hear is an invitation to open a door. Be curious. Take a risk. Notice the doors. Choose to open them.

Principle #3: Have a Point of View.
Your point of view about an event, an experience, an idea helps me to better understand you. When you state your viewpoint, you invite me to share my viewpoint in turn. It immediately enriches our conversation. Use language that clearly signals your point of view, and let your conversation partner off the hook by making it OK for her to have an entirely different perspective.

Principle #4: Own Your Stories.
Stories are a powerful way of conveying what truly matters to us. They are also a thrilling means of creating an emotional bond with others. We tend to tell three different types of stories: moment stories, meaning stories, and life stories. Stories have impact when they are told well. Know the purpose of your story, trust the details, and do not overexplain.

Principle #5: Reframe the Conversation.
When we find ourselves in a conversation that seems to be going nowhere, we can leave—or we can reframe the conversation. Artful reframing is invisible to our conversation partner yet elegantly shifts the direction of our chat. It shows a true mastery of the moment. Master talkers strategically choose their reframing questions as they shape their conversations.

Find more tips for being better at work in the Fast Company newsletter.

Excerpted with permission by Skyhorse Publishing Inc., New York, from Infectious by Achim Nowak

—Achim Nowak's first book, Power Speaking: The Art of the Exceptional Public Speaker, has become a leadership development tool in Fortune 500 companies. Achim has coached hundreds of executives and entrepreneurs. Influens, the international training and coaching firm Achim founded in 2004, is based in South Florida.

[Image: Flickr user Tarik Browne]

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