There can be few things more horrifying than arriving at a party to discover you don't know a single person there. In that split second, you can make a decision: go and make some new friends, or silently get your phone out and play Candy Crush next to the drinks table.
Usually it's the latter, and for even the most confident people those minutes waiting for someone you know to show up can feel like purgatory; time slows down.
Christmas time means three times as many of these awkward moments. Whether it's a work do where you're placed next to three strangers from the third floor accounts team, or a neighbour's mince-pie-and-mulled wine booze up: your social calendar can be littered with small talk and strained silences.
This is where Richard Reid steps in. He calls himself “Mr Charisma” and runs masterclasses from his Harley Street practice, teaching those less fortunate than himself how to be “the best version of you”.
Charisma: “Compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others”. But is that something that can be taught? Presumably, the likes of George Clooney, Barack Obama and Madonna had that certain something from childhood.
Is it merely confidence that Reid can develop in his clients?
He says not, adding, “Confidence is definitely a part of it, but charisma isn't just about you feeling better about yourself and maximising opportunities. It's about investing other people with a good feeling. You can be confident but self-centred: charisma is about making connections and positive relationships.”
Through a series of sessions – either one-on-one or as part of a class – Reid sets to work trying to erase a sense of inferiority or intense social awkwardness from his clients. And it's a busy time of year.
“People are going to Christmas parties and feeling very uncomfortable so we have a lot of work to do. We start with communication skills first of all. The biggest thing that people worry about is that they think they have to be some kind of entertainer and put themselves totally outside of their comfort zone.
“But it's not about putting on a performance to impress people: it's about connecting with people. So we develop active listening skills,” he said.
Clients will perform role plays to hone their skills, and they're set homework: they have to go and practice their techniques in the real world and report back. Having selflessly devoted most of my life to socialising (I am the People editor for the i paper), I wasn't sure what Reid could teach me. But I was horrified to learn that what I thought was a pretty stellar party-chat technique actually “didn't leave much room for anyone to react, or guide the conversation to another topic.”
Reid explains: “People think they have to do all the talking, but you have to be fully present. Mindfulness is key: engaging with people at all times.”
He adds, “One of the things we develop is not just listening skills but things like using open-ended questions.” For example, “What did you enjoy about it?” rather than “Did you like it?” And we should try not to hijack conversations. “If you take someone's experience and, with an 'Oh that happened to someone I know', you've then moved it back to yourself once again.”
Considering Reid also works with business people trying to improve their confidence in the work world, there's quite a lot of David Brent, “blue sky thinking”-style psychobabble. But it's undeniable that he's identified where a lot of us are going wrong – and how to turn it around.
In the last decade, the infiltration of the smartphone into every aspect of our lives has meant that we have a security blanket that is always to hand when we want to protect ourselves from the real world.
“More than anything, it promotes this idea of being unmindful,” says Reid. “We're not focused on anything, and it gets in the way of human interaction. Put the phone away – you look disinterested.”
So if you don't know anyone at a Christmas party and it makes you wish the ground would swallow you whole, what can you do?
“It's about normalising that experience. One simple way to do that is to get into the mindset that you're hosting the party,” he says.
“So it's not about giving you comfort. It's about putting other people at ease: try asking 'Can I get you a drink?' or asking, 'How was your journey?'”
Despite outward appearances, Reid says entertainers, politicians and top business people are just as nervous as the rest of us.
“These are people who you would believe have bags of confidence and charisma, but everyone has a gap between how they're pereived by the outside world and how they perceive themselves. Don't start comparing yourself to others. You lose focus on how you should be presenting yourself.”
I wanted to know why Reid was qualified to extract our charisma. Does he consider himself truly charismatic? Was he born Mr Charisma? Short answer: no.
“I've done a lot of work on myself based on the studies and research that I've done, so my charisma levels have improved,” he says. “It's about being authentic, not making them someone they're not.”
For more information, pinnacletherapy.co.uk
Parties for dummies: The dos and don'ts
1 Walk into the room in a measured way. Often, you can look apologetic for being there, and uncertain. Walk in confidently with the mindset that you belong there.
2 Act as if you're the host: put people at ease, offer to get them a drink. Be kind.
3 Remember people's names. It sounds so simple but often people don't. You immediately build that connection. Say someone's name straight back to them once they've introduced themselves.
1 Don't play with your phone
2 Don't compare yourself with other people in the room – thinking 'who is more confident than me?', for example.
3 Don't drink too much – it's inappropriate and sets you on a level that might not suit others in the room: you might make an ill-advised joke, for example.
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