Update for March 13th, 2023 at 4:45pm PST: Join me for a chance to get some great skills virtually at my Savvy Team Dinner Happy Hour.
The awkward team dinner. You get it. It is a way to connect with your teammates and get a really nice free dinner. The latter might be more true, but you never seem to bond with your teammates at a team dinner. You come home with your leftovers in a takeout box and lie in bed deconstructing your social interactions while the filet mignon digests. It was exciting at first, but when you got to the event…..well, it could have gone better.
Here are some ideas to consider next time your skip-level boss arranges a team dinner at “that one steak house around the corner”.
Not to do:
Here is a list of 7 topics never to talk about at a social event. These are not bad as topics, but they are boring, self-indulgent and uncreative. You want to stand out, not bore your workmates. One might talk about them in private with a trusted friend or spouse, but never at a crowded dinner table in a poorly lit restaurant with coworkers. If the conversation plunges into one of these, subtly change the topic. It helps conversation not be self-centered and boring.
Here’s the list:
Route (the roads or traffic you encountered on your way to the event)
Money (including NFTs, crypto, bitcoin, blockchain, tokens, etc)
Notice my list of 7 topics is really 8. That is because “weather” is not on the official list but is still boring. Notice I did not include talking about work, religion or politics. Those subjects might be on the borderline of topics to stay away from, but at least they are interesting.
Another thing to skip is showing up to impress others rather than be impressed by them. With that in mind, this leads us to what to do at a team dinner.
Now that we have covered what not to do, here is the to do part. Here is where you can earn a gold star, if not for success, then for participation! Here is how you can shine at a team dinner:
Be a listener.
It is simple, but it can be tricky too. Being curious means you are likely going to ask more questions than you are going to answer. Curious questions are not judgmental and let people share what they want to share. For example, an incurious question might be, “Are you married?”. The answer is only “yes” or “no”, which might make your teammate feel uncomfortable and go nowhere. Conversation starters are more open-ended. A more curious version might be: “Tell me about your family.” They can answer however they like. They might tell you about their mom, kids, or pet rather than their husband. They do all the work in the conversation, and you learn a lot about them. If you worry about not having any spontaneous open-ended conversation starters, prep for the dinner by memorizing a few. Here is a list: Conversation Starters.
These casual and curious conversations with your coworkers will help you the next time you are in a meeting. It is not the specific information which will help you work together, rather the sense of belonging you feel because you made a legitimate connection. You will be able to have the inside track to working well together because you know each other outside of work (a bit). It will also keep you from regretting silly stuff you said, because you said less, and listened more. Which is number two: listening.
There is no trick to listening. Just listen. If you are having trouble listening, it might mean the conversation is boring (see above), or you are not ready to listen. Come to a team dinner prepared to listen.
To sum up:
Here is the straight story on the team dinner. Come ready to listen, come curious. Manage the conversation topics so they are interesting, open-ended, and fun. Participate in humility. Arrive at the dinner ready to give something, rather than to get something. You might be surprised it is impossible to give, without getting something (besides Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo) in return. Without trying too hard, and reframing the intention of the meal, you will be the coolest kid at the table.
These tips and tricks might even make Thanksgiving at Uncle Steve’s a bit more manageable. Think of awkward, manufactured, social bonding experiences as a do-over for your past self. If I could go back to high school as the person I am now, I would have had way more fun, and way more friends.
Think of team dinners as an experiment, or an opportunity to hone your social skills. Start by trying one tip, see how it works. If it doesn’t work for you, that is okay. The most important skill you have is to be yourself. You went to university to master a technical skill, not necessarily social skills. It’s okay if your strength is not small talk at work events, you can improve. Your super power is spread-sheets, and design documents, and coding the heck out of that next project.