It’s that very special time of the year when many Americans are receiving invitations to their annual office holiday party. If you’re one of them, you’ll probably look forward to the event with great excitement—until you start to recall the blunders of years past. Like the time you ran out of things to say to your CEO and awkwardly asked if his divorce was finalized. Or the time a drunk coworker got a little too close for comfort when you were both standing under the mistletoe. Or even worse things.
Yes, while office holiday parties can be hit or miss, many people find their past experiences fall more often in the “miss” category. Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way, says Andrew Sobel. He explains that with the right approach, your office holiday party can provide a great opportunity to build relationships and strengthen your position at your company.
“At the office holiday party, new relationships can be formed but they can also be ruined before they even have a chance to blossom,” says Sobel, coauthor along with Jerold Panas of Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others (Wiley, February 2012, ISBN: 978-1-1181196-3-1, $22.95). “Old relationships can be nourished and celebrated, or they can be compromised and endangered. You can leave feeling great—or feeling like a lonely loser.
“The first step to not being the lonely loser is not drinking too much. Alcohol makes your inhibitions and common sense come tumbling down, and it vastly increases the chance that you will say or do something that’s at best silly or at worst truly regrettable. Second, don’t worry about being smart or clever—go prepared to ask thoughtful questions. Lots of them. The way to endear yourself to colleagues—and to get noticed by senior management—isn’t to talk more about yourself and yourplans; it’s to ask engaging and inspiring questions.”
As Sobel shows in his book, the most underutilized strategy for building relationships, getting to know others more deeply, and exercising influence is asking what he calls power questions. These are questions that get to the heart of the issue. They help you engage with others more deeply. They uncover people’s passions. They give people new perspectives on their challenges. Power questions, at the most basic level, enable you to get to know others more deeply and ensure that you’re talking about meaningful issues.
“When you use power questions, you can really make your office holiday party—or any party you attend over the holiday season—count,” says Sobel. “You don’t have to dread the event and then head straight for the bar for some liquid courage when you arrive. If you think about power questions beforehand, you can go in feeling confident and prepared. And you’ll come away having really used that time to your advantage. You will have engaged your leaders and coworkers, and I think you’ll find that you’ve strengthened valuable relationships.”
If you want to connect more effectively with colleagues, deepen your existing relationships, and stick to the straight-and-narrow to stay out of trouble at your upcoming office holiday party, read on for a few power questions to help you out:
Questions about work. Don’t spend your time gossiping about coworkers and what’s been happening at the office. Instead, ask thought-provoking questions about how your colleagues feel about and experience their work. A few options:
1. What was your best day and worst day at work during this past year?
2. What was the most fulfilling experience you had this year?
3. What do you think is the best part of working here? The worst part?
4. What’s the most challenging part of your job?
5. How did you get your start? (This is an especially good question to ask your boss or a senior leader in your organization. It’s a simple but powerful way to draw someone out).
Questions about goals and challenges. If the foundation of relationships is trust, the engine that moves them forward is helping others reach their goals and confront their most challenging issues. You can do this, however, only if you understand what the other person’s needs are. So ask questions like:
6. So what’s on your agenda in your work for next year? Any particular projects or initiatives you’re focused on?
7. If you suddenly had a couple of extra hours per week outside of work, how would you spend them?
Questions about others’ passions. We have many activities going on in our lives, but usually we each harbor just a few true passions. If you can discover someone else’s passions, you’ll be able to connect much more effectively. Here’s how to do it:
8. Tell me about your favorites. What’s your favorite movie of all time? Favorite restaurant? Favorite book you’ve read in the last couple of years? Favorite way to relax?
9. Is there something you’ve always wanted to do, but have never been able to get around to it? A sport, a hobby, an event, a challenge, a trip, whatever?
10. As you think about next year, what are you most excited about—at work or at home?
11. What’s been the most gratifying experience you’ve had this year?
Questions to learn more about them as people. Ask people about themselves. The more you learn about them, the more you may find in common, and the more you’ll understand what makes them tick.
12. So, when you’re not shaking things up at the office, how do you like to spend your time?
13. When you were younger, how did your family spend the holidays? What are your plans this year?
14. If you hadn’t gone into (business, law, banking, medicine, teaching, etc.), what do you think you might have done?
15. Where did you grow up? What was that like?
“Of course,” notes Sobel, “there are also questions you shouldn’t ask and things you shouldn’t say. And it can never hurt to go over what not to say before heading out for your party.”
Here’s a sampler of the most important ones:
Appearances. “Unless you know the other person very well, do not make remarks or give compliments to a member of the opposite sex about their appearance or dress,” cautions Sobel. “It’s not appropriate and it could be either misleading or at some level offensive. Compliment them instead on their abilities and accomplishments. Period.”
Intimate Details. “Don’t ask someone who isn’t a pretty close friend about intimate personal details,” says Sobel. “A general question like ‘Do you have a family?’ is okay, but not questions about girlfriends or boyfriends, divorce, dating, romance, sex, and so on. You get the idea. Everyone has slightly different tolerances and comfort around going into subjects like this, and you need to err on the side of caution.”
Tipsy Revelations. “Don’t have a few drinks and then confront someone abruptly with your pent-up emotions,” advises Sobel. “For example, don’t say, ‘You know, I just feel like you don’t like me very much!’ or, ‘I want to be your friend.’ At best it might be cute, but most likely it’ll be embarrassing for both of you.”
Light of Day. “Always apply the ‘light of day’ test to your behavior,” says Sobel. “If someone reported your conversation and behavior the next day to your boss, your family, or a client, would you be embarrassed in any way? How would they feel about pictures or videos of those moments if they were posted on Facebook?”
“For many people, the holiday office party can bring with it more anxiety and dread than good cheer,” says Sobel. “And there is really just no need for that. When you arrive with a few power questions ready to go, you can make the event not only enjoyable but you can turn it into a valuable relationship-building night that could benefit you for a long time to come.”
Andrew Sobel is the most widely published author in the world on client loyalty and the capabilities required to build trusted business relationships. His first book, the bestselling Clients for Life, defined an entire genre of business literature about client loyalty. In addition to Power Questions, his other books include Making Rain and the award-winning All for One: 10 Strategies for Building Trusted Client Partnerships.
For 30 years, Andrew has worked as both a consultant to senior management and as an executive educator and coach. His clients have included leading companies such as Citigroup, Xerox, Bank of America, Hess, Cognizant, Ernst & Young, Booz Allen Hamilton, Towers Watson, and many others. His articles and work have been featured in a variety of publications such as the New York Times,Business Week, and the Harvard Business Review. Andrew is a graduate of Middlebury College and earned his MBA at Dartmouth’s Tuck School. He can be reached at AndrewSobel.com.