How to Break the Ice at Parties
OK, so the title is a bit cheesy; but how often have you been in a social situation with a new acquaintance and been lost for words? How often have you dreaded entering a room because you knew that you would have to speak to a stranger? How often have you yearned for the magic trick that will ‘break the ice’?
It’s natural to fear strangers. Humans are social animals; we are comfortable in our own tribe, among people we know. Comfortable, because we know where we are. Our status – where we are in the ‘pecking order’ – is secure. When we meet a stranger, we experience what Alain de Botton calls ‘status anxiety’. Where do we stand in relation to them? Without that knowledge, we feel insecure and unsafe.
Of course, because we are a stranger to the person we are meeting, they will be feeling just as anxious. Where do they stand in relation to us?
We both need to know. And, until we know, we are stuck. In the ice.
Who’s going to move first?
Suppose you choose to make a move. You could do three things.
- You could raise your status over theirs. Take command!
- You could raise their status over yours. Give way!
- You could seek to level status.
Levelling status creates rapport: what Wikipedia calls 'commonality of perspective: being "in sync" with, or being "on the same wavelength" as the person with whom you are talking.' So your aim, if you want to break the ice, must be to put yourself ‘in sync’ with the other person, to put yourselves ‘onto the same wavelength’.
How to do that?
Here is a simple, six-step procedure that is guaranteed to create rapport, level status and break the ice.
1. Copy the other person’s body language.
We interpret visual and vocal signals very swiftly. The trick is to work with two non-verbal elements:
- eye contact patterning; and
- vocal patterning.
Look at the way they move their eyes towards you and away from you. Subtly match that behaviour.
We often place our bodies in relation to other people in order to make eye contact patterning easier for us. If you are both standing, is the other person facing you directly or trying to stand beside you, facing in the same direction? Would they prefer to concentrate on you at this moment, or are they looking for an ‘escape lane’ by angling their body to yours (at about 45 or 60 degrees)? How could you place yourself to put them more at ease?
We interpret vocal signals almost as quickly and intuitively as visual ones. Match your voice to theirs, in terms of volume, pitch and pace. Listen to the words they are using and seek to match them.
The important word here is ‘subtly’! However carefully you are doing all this, it must look natural. If the other person notices what you are doing, they may interpret your behaviour as creepy or offensive.
You can test whether you have achieved rapport by ‘leading’: making a small, non-matching change in your behaviour. If they match the change – typically, within about a minute – you are probably breaking the ice.
2. Make no more than two statements before you ask a question.
When we are nervous, we will either be lost for words or find it hard to stop talking. If you are the one doing the talking, look for an early opportunity to ask a question: a genuine, non-threatening, non-probing question.
The best subject for this question is probably your common situation: the event you are both attending, the building or organization you are both in, the company in the room.
3. Ask three questions – but no more till you have done the next two things.
Being asked questions can be as intrusive as being talked at. Don’t let your questioning turn into an interrogation. Allow each question to arise naturally from the last answer, but take care not to probe too deeply. Limiting the number of questions will help you avoid slipping into the third degree.
And by this point, you should be preparing to do one of the next two things.
4. Find something from what you have just learnt to pay a subtle and relevant compliment about.
Paying a compliment of this kind demonstrates that:
- you are listening to their answers;
- you are paying them attention; and
- you are raising their status.
Above all, you are giving praise. And we love being praised. Giving praise works magic.
5. Find something in what you have found out to agree with.
Agreeing with the other person demonstrates that:
- that you are like them in some way;
- that you have experiences in common; and
- you have shared values.
Making a statement of agreement also gives the other person the opportunity to ask you a question.
6. Repeat steps 1-5 until the conversation takes on a life of its own.
Go round the cycle as many times as necessary. With most people, once or twice should do the trick.
And if the conversation is still icy after all that, be ready to give up. It’s probably a good idea to have an exit strategy. Simply excusing yourself and walking away is poor form (though you could resort to that if you can think of a plausible excuse).
Other options for releasing yourself might include inviting the other person to talk to someone else, or making a gift (food or drink; information; something they may need).
Practise this routine until it feels natural. It usually works best when the other person is unaware that you are using it.
This content was provided by one of our users, alanbarker830