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New Year, New You? Icebreakers Make Socializing Easier

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A new year is upon us! What better time to initiate positive change? To find a "new you" in some significant way?

I'm no longer one for resolutions with explicit goals, though they work well for some. I know my tendency to set overly ambitious objectives, then wither under my own scrutiny when I don't measure up.

Instead, for the past 15 years, I've exercised a different approach: I identify a watchword or phrase to remind me of behaviors or attitudes that could do with a little spit and polish.

One year, my watchword was "focus." I was fully aware that I over-schedule, over-commit, and allow conflicting needs to split my attention to the point of folly. Another year "perspective" was the word that guided me through rough days, enabling me to count my blessings.

Heading into the new decade, I can't deny that empty nest is nearly upon me. It's more disconcerting than I thought it would be, and I see that I need to broaden my circle of friends and be more sociable.

And that means my phrase for 2011 is get back out there.

Fortunately, years of public speaking and professional schmoozing taught me how to work a room. But I'm woefully out of practice. So I'm digging out my top 10 tips for successful socializing, dusting them off, and hoping to put them to good use.

Care to see?

1. Self-confidence
Of course, confidence works wonders in every situation, but self-esteem takes a hit post-divorce, post-layoff, and post plenty of other life altering events. So remind yourself what makes you interesting, exciting, appealing, or unusual. Not sure what that is? Ask a friend. Ask someone who knows you and loves you. And believe it.

2. Preparation
One sure-fire way to reduce anxiety before attending a gathering is preparation, and that includes the following:

* Know something about who will be there
* Arm yourself with non-controversial discussion topics
* Practice protective answers to personal questions
* Remember that open-ended questions encourage people to talk
* Learn to read the crowd
* Practice the art of listening

3. Perspective
Yes, perspective is one of my tried-and-true new year's watchwords that I still fall back on. With half our marriages ending in divorce, realize that in any social setting, you're in good company. You will encounter common experiences, common discomfort, and at times, uncommon compassion. Don't be afraid to be vulnerable.

4. Icebreakers!
There are many resources on the web that offer great icebreakers - in social settings, romantic encounters, professional environments, and more. Check some of them out. Games are often recommended in a training context (I've personally found them to work). So why not casually as well?

5. Fielding tough questions
Concerned over something as innocuous (and emotionally charged) as "Are you married?" If you don't want to say yes or no, try "I'm in transition." If you're feeling flirtatious, flash your sauciest smile and offer: "Not any longer." But don't trot out the details of your latest court proceeding or your preferred anti-depressant. Keep in mind the purpose of the social event, the impression you want to make, and whether or not your kids are within earshot.

6. Sample icebreakers
Focus on a handful of openers to get others talking. Lead with your first name, don't ask questions that result in yes or no answers, and don't be afraid to practice with a friend or for that matter, by talking to yourself in the mirror.

Here are a few suggestions:

* I find these crowds overwhelming, but you seem at ease. How do you manage?
* What did you think of the speaker?
* How do you know our host?

7. Liquid courage
Some of us go for liquid courage to lubricate and fortify, heading straight to the bar when confronted with a room full of strangers. Should this be your go-to solution? Ideally, no. Handled in moderation (solo at a wedding, for instance), it can be just the ticket. But if lining up the martinis risks embarrassment, you'd better have a few other ideas in store - especially if alcohol isn't an option, you have kids in tow, you're driving, or you simply don't care to drink.

8. Socializing after life change
Divorce isn't the only event that takes us out of circulation. Maybe you've been widowed, and it's been decades since you've ventured out as a single. Maybe you're a stay-at-home parent, and headed into the workforce after a long hiatus. Or you face the opposite challenge, in the midst of a period of unemployment, wondering how to handle conversations that typically begin with "what do you do" or "who do you work for."

Having been hit with the double whammy of divorce and layoff at the same time, I lived my share of unsettling social gatherings. If not for persistence, protective responses, and a handy set of icebreakers, it would've been much worse.

9. Be yourself
Be yourself. If you're naturally funny, go for it! If you can come up with something surprising or thoughtful - all the better. Comment on an entertaining bow-tie or a distinctive tattoo. Ask for an opinion or a recommendation. Observe and engage. Remember that an attentive listener is rare and will be a welcome change for many.

10. Get out there!
Meanwhile, I'll be updating my icebreakers and giving them a workout. It's a new year, and I'm resolved to meet new people and create new opportunities.