Want To Stand Out And Have Fun At Holiday Parties? Collect Stories.

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Office holiday party Photo Credit: Getty Royalty Free Getty

Of all the best kept secrets in storytelling, this is my favorite: To become a great storyteller, one must first become a great story collector.

The busy schedules of holiday parties offer a major chance to do some serious story collecting. In fact, those who might get tired of endless party chatter can deploy a different strategy: aggressive listening.

How do you listen aggressively? Four ways.

1. Listen with your whole body (except your mouth).

Have you had this experience at a holiday party? You’re talking with someone, and the whole time they are talking, their entire body is animated. But when it is your turn to talk, suddenly, their body language completely changes. They finish your sentences for you; they fidget; their gaze wanders, possibly looking for someone else to talk to. To be fair, we all do a little of this from time to time, but it’s important to recognize it as the opposite of aggressive listening.

To listen aggressively, look at the other person most of the time while they’re speaking. When you aren’t looking directly at them, focus on a nearby empty space. This not only helps you avoid “staring them down,” it also communicates that you're thinking deeply about what they are saying. Also, uncross your arms and legs to avoid looking defensive or closed. When you need to come across as especially engaged, lean forward with your loose fist supporting your chin (like the sculpture “The Thinker.”) Your body language should say, “I’m all ears!”

August Rodin's famous sculpture The Thinker in the grounds of the Musee Rodin, Paris. Photo Credit: Getty Royalty Free

2. Don’t impress others; let them impress you.

At the end of the year, there is unspoken pressure, especially at work parties, to parade your “best-of” from the year. Especially when someone speaks of something that reminds you of your accomplishments, you might be tempted to interject with your story. Resist.

Interjecting can be seen as stealing the spotlight. Focusing on their story--sticking with it, asking good questions, and thinking through what it means--is the best approach.

3. Be curious and respectful.

Sometimes when I meet strangers, whether my Uber or Lyft drivers or at networking events, they ask me, “So, Esther... Is that your real name?” They are curious, but not at all respectful. My immediate reaction is to recoil and shut down.

But here’s an example I chronicle in my book, Let the Story Do the Work, that prompted a different response. In the summer of 2006, my husband and I traveled to Milan and were exploring a palace. As we did so, an older gentleman walked out of the front gate and approached us. We couldn’t speak more than a few words of Italian, but nonetheless, we decided to ask if he could tell us more about the building. He obliged--in limited English--and then asked if we would like a tour of the inner courtyard. We were delighted. After a few minutes, he asked if we would like to see his office. Inside, I noticed several tattered photos on his desk. In one, people in military uniforms stood near a sheet covering a dead body. When I pointed at the photo, he explained the story. It was taken during World War II, and the body under the sheet was his fallen best friend. My husband and I were stunned by this stranger’s candor.

Wherever I am in the world, I have found that when I am respectfully curious, all kinds of people meet me with generous openness. Being curious and respectful makes your audience feel acknowledged, cared for and willing to open up and share their stories.

4. Ask Crazy Good Questions

When you ask good questions, you enrich conversations and walk away learning new things, hearing vivid stories and building stronger relationships. Use the 10 Crazy Good Questions template in Let the Story Do the Work to build your own playbook of great holiday questions. Meanwhile, use these to get you started:

After the conversations, reflect on the stories you’ve heard. How do they make you feel? What do they mean to you? Share it back to the person who told you the story. The answers can help you decide whether you might have just heard a story you want to share with others later (with permission, if the story is a personal one).

Stories like these, from others’ perspectives, can give you a full “story library” to peruse so that you can pick out the story that is best suited to each type of audience you want to persuade. And all that from the simple “chit-chat” of a holiday party.