How I Learned to Work a Room, and You Can Too

I did it. I went to a cocktail party where I didn’t know anyone, and successfully chit-chatted for two hours. (Not to myself. I actually spoke with other people.)

I have never been good at the kind of networking where you’re supposed to walk into a room full of strangers and walk out with “connections.” The very idea makes me cringe. But as a writer and reporter, I get invited to more than my fair share of meet-and-greets. Every now and then, I read an invite and think, “Eeek. I really should go. But I won’t know anyone.” Sometimes I go, sometimes I don’t. Some of these events are better than others. They are rarely fun.

But now I’m actually looking forward to them. It’s as if all these networking receptions are part of a big game, and I finally figured out how to play. Here’s how I learned.

Last month, as I was heading to a work-related cocktail hour with some colleagues, I groaned that I hated having to introduce myself to a room full of strangers. Even though my co-workers were coming with me to this particular event, the whole point was for us to talk to people we hadn’t met.

Then one of my colleagues told me the trick he uses: When he walks into a room alone, he looks for pairs of people who are talking, and introduces himself to each person in the pair.

I thought you were supposed to approach people who were by themselves. If two people are talking already, why would you interrupt them?

Because everyone else is there to meet other people, too, he explained. So if you see a pair of people, the chances are that they arrived together and know they should be mingling. Or else they’ve just met and are, in the back of their minds, worried that they’re going to end up talking to this one person all night. (One of these people may be trying to get out of the conversation; you’ve just made it easier for them to exit.) Either way, they’re relieved to see you. And your chances of having a decent conversation are better, because now you’re talking to two people, not just one.

Consider the alternatives: Approaching one person makes it harder to eventually extricate yourself. And if you can find absolutely nothing in common with that one person, you’re sort of stuck, at least for a while. Plus, it’s becoming more awkward to go up to just one person, because self-conscious people who don’t have anyone to talk to will increasingly stare into their phones and give off the “I’m so busy” vibe -- even if they want to mingle. Breaking into a knot of four or more people is really hard, at least for me.

So twos are the best bet, and after that, threes.

Here’s the bizarre thing. It works. It really, really works. The next time I walked into a totally intimidating cocktail party, I had met only one person there before. Since she was with the company that was hosting the event, I knew she wouldn’t have time to talk to me. I took a deep breath, got a glass of wine, and looked for groups of two. I probably had a dozen conversations that night, some more comfortable than others. About half the people I spoke with offered me their card, which, in the age of LinkedIn, is becoming more rare. Then I went home, flopped on my bed, and thought, “I can’t believe that worked.” Game on. -- Kimberly Weisul


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No Calorie Comfort Food, Before the Holidays

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