Dinner party dos and don’ts

Table settingAs we approach fall, the cooler months are a wonderful time to have dinner parties and cocktail gatherings, especially around the holidays.

My husband and I love to have friends over to dinner. Whether a casual spur of the moment get together or a planned out dinner party, it’s always nice to enjoy the company of friends over a meal.

If you are planning to invite friends or business associates to dinner keep these tips in mind to ensure a successful event.

Ask about food restrictions

When your guests reply to your invitation ask if they have any dietary restrictions or dislikes. If the restriction is not too difficult to accommodate, it’s polite to do so.

I almost always ask my guests if they have any food restrictions well before the party so I have time to plan. One time I forgot to ask until the morning of the party. The menu included a mushroom dish as one of the main courses. Much to my dismay I learned that one of our guests dislikes mushrooms. Eeek! We had to come up with a substitute dish for our fungi hating guest only a few hours before the dinner.  Lesson learned; always ask well in advance to avoid those last minute scrambles or embarrassing moments when you see your guest not eating.

Greeting your guests

For events where your invitees don’t know your spouse follow these greeting guidelines. Whoever invited and knows the guests is the person who should greet them at the door. Once you’ve welcomed your visitors and taken their coats, introduce them to your spouse, partner or co-host. He or she should then offer them a drink, converse with them for a bit and then introduce them to the other diners.

Cocktail hour

Typically at a dinner party, you’ll spend 30 to 60 minutes mingling over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres in the living room before heading to the dining room for dinner. This allows your guests to arrive, settle in and enjoy a drink of some sort while getting to know the other invitees. Don’t linger longer than an hour as your guests will probably be hungry for dinner at that point and you don’t want the evening to go into the wee hours.

Seating

To facilitate mingling and conversation split up couples and, if possible, alternate women and men so that everyone is sitting next to someone of the opposite gender. If the party is larger than four people, use place cards. Try to seat talkative people with quieter people and/or pair up people who might have common interests. The hosts sit at the opposite ends of the table.

Keeping the conversation flowing

As the host, you have the responsibility to keep the conversation pleasant and moving. Ask your guests questions and share interesting information about your diners with the others so they have something to talk about. Be sure to engage the quieter folks and help them converse with others at the table.

I recently learned of an interesting conversation technique from leadership expert Michael Hyatt, founder of Intentional Leadership, who learned of it from a friend. It is the one conversation rule. The way it works is that only one person can talk at a time. And, rather than just waiting for your turn to talk you listen to that person. Really listen, and ask open ended questions – questions that start with who, what, where, when, why, how and tell me. The beauty of this approach is that the dinner table does not become a conversation competition where everyone, or often just a few, is trying to outwit or out-talk everyone else. Instead, even the quieter members get to be heard. Some provocative questions could include:

  • What’s your perfect vacation?
  • If you could sit down over a meal with anyone alive or dead who would it be? Why?
  • What’s on your bucket list, or what’s the one thing you want to be sure you do before you die?
  • If you could do any job in the world what would it be?
  • What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Then, ask additional questions to learn more:

  • “Why do you say that?”
  • “How would that change things for you?”
  • “What have you learned about yourself?”
  • “Tell me more.”

Great dinner parties are usually ones where the conversation is interesting and everyone feels included and engaged. Using the one conversation rule could be a powerful way to achieve that.

After dinner

Once the meal has been consumed, if your guests seem to be enjoying the conversation and company you could invite them to sit in the living room, which will be more comfortable.  Let your guests dictate when they are ready to leave. That said, if they are showing no signs of leaving and PM will soon become AM you could start picking up dishes while saying, “Well, it’s been so lovely having you join us this evening…” Most people will get the hint.

Walk your guests to the door, bring them their coats and thank them for coming. If someone brought you a hostess gift (and I hope they did), reiterate your appreciation for the flowers, chocolates, wine, etc. as you say goodbye.

Pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Dinner parties are always a treat.

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