1. Get comfortable with approaching strangers
Initiating a conversation with someone new can be scary for anyone, says Gerber—extroverts and introverts alike. But, she insists, it’s totally worth it. “There’s huge payoff to facing fear; it can be exhilarating and open doors to opportunities that wouldn’t be there otherwise. This skill is required in order to get most good things in life.”
Of course, some people are more comfortable with approaching strangers than others, so Gerber says it’s important to meet yourself where you are. “For extremely shy people, start by making warm eye contact with two people every time you’re out,” she says. “Get out of your head and acknowledge others. It will make them feel good about themselves.”
For more extroverted types, Gerber suggests initiating conversation with people who intimidate you. “Your lesson here is to make peace with and respect rejection if it should happen,” she says. “We are so paranoid about being rejected. But remember, the right people for you like you back!” And before long, all of your nerves will be replaced by curiosity—which is a far better place to hang out.
2. Just say “hi”
Once you’ve approached someone you want to talk to, don’t overcomplicate things. Gerber’s fail-safe opening line: “Hi, my name is X, what’s yours?”
She recommends having three to four thought-provoking questions in your back pocket, all focusing on the person you’re speaking with. (More on that in a minute.) And don’t be afraid to practice asking those questions beforehand. “It sounds nerdy, but it builds your confidence,” insists Gerber. “At work, you practice what you care about most—why wouldn’t you rehearse [for a social event]?”
And what if the object of your interest is talking to someone else? “Just say, ‘Excuse me for interrupting, but I wanted to make sure I met you,’” says Gerber. “But don’t be rude to the other people involved—include everyone in the questions you ask.”
3. Ask deep-dive questions
“The best way to drive a flowing conversation is to ask a question that elicits more than a one- or two-word response,” says Gerber. She recommends taking standard conversation starters—you know, the ones we’ve all heard and answered a million times—and flip them around in a way that shows you really care about the person’s response.
So instead of the old “What do you do?” question, Gerber says to go in with something like, “What do you like most about your job?” Or instead of simply asking someone where they’re from, have them tell you what they love about their hometown. And make sure to think about how you’d respond to these questions, too, says Gerber. “You can bet they will want to know your answer.”
4. Be a super listener
Gerber swears being a good listener is one of the most attractive qualities a person can have—and it’ll guarantee that you’re a super-popular party guest. “Listening is an act of deep respect; you are giving the other person value,” she says. “Any great relationship includes great listening, and in the bad ones you don’t feel listened to.”
The problem, she says, is that most of us aren’t paying attention when we’re having a conversation—we’re in our own heads worrying about what the other person thinks of us. The solution? “Instead of preparing what you want to say, act as if you could get quizzed on everything they said,” she suggests. “Imagine you’d have to retell their story, and catch yourself when you’re not listening.”
To take it a step further, mirror back what the person is telling you and ask to go even deeper. (“Wow, you love Brooklyn so much. How’d you choose to live there?”)
5. Navigate sensitive topics with grace
Political talk and holiday parties don’t usually mix—but this year is sure to be different. So what happens if you’re in a discussion that turns heated?
While you can’t change the way another person reacts, says Gerber, you can change your own energy for the better by listening and refraining from judgement. “What causes tension to mount in a conversation is rejecting what a person is trying to say, versus looking at it and accepting it, even if ultimately you don’t agree,” she reasons. “Just the act of letting it in creates a sense of calm for everyone.”
And don’t be afraid to speak your mind, too. “If there is something you want to say, say it when it’s your turn,” Gerber says. “It’s helpful to frame things gracefully with lines such as, ‘I know you may not agree, but…’ or, ‘I know this may be difficult to understand, but…’ or, ‘This is just my opinion, but….’ This way, whatever you have to say may be easier for the other person to hear.”
6. Make a tactful exit
Yes, it can be super awkward to step away from a conversation that’s not thrilling you, but Gerber says this is a vital skill—otherwise, you’re missing out on meeting people you might actually click with.
How to navigate this situation? “Always have somewhere to go, and be honest,” says Gerber. Tell the person you’re going to refresh your drink or excuse yourself for the restroom, and be sure to close the conversation. Gerber’s preferred closing line: ‘Thank you for this lovely chat, best of luck with XYZ.’”
7. Live a life that creates good stories
So let’s say you’ve done all this, but you still don’t feel like you have any interesting stories of your own to tell. That, says Gerber, is a sign that you’re playing way too small. “You may not be taking enough time to figure out your own dreams, bust your excuses, and take action in your life,” she says. “If you do this, you’ll have great stories and build confidence—even if you fail. Your attractiveness and sense of self come from your ability to dream and do the things you wish you would.”
Holiday parties can also be tricky if you’re trying to avoid alcohol. Luckily, there are lots of ways to get in on the booming sober social scene.