Last night I went to a networking dinner for students at my alma mater. Unlike most of these somewhat painful events, at this one, the students were prepared and practiced so they interacted with the professionals easily. They had good 30-second "about me" intros, and they asked fantastic questions. Most importantly, they listened to the answers.
It’s easy to focus keenly on what we want to say when we’re in professional networking situations. And, don’t get me wrong, that’s important. But all the attention on our own words causes us to pay less attention to what others are saying. Yet listening is a critical tool for effective networking. Why? Because when we know more about the interests and challenges of others, we can correctly target our response to be more relevant. That ups the ante for both parties.
Here are two tips to improve your listening skills--and your networking:
- Listen to learn, not to respond. Often when we’re engaged in conversation, we’re thinking about what we want to say next. Instead, try to listen without giving a thought to solving the problem or preparing a response. It sounds scary, but I’ve found I actually have higher-quality responses when I do this because I make better connections to what the other person is saying. This also allows you to ask really good questions that show interest and increase understanding, both critical when building your network.
- Listen with your eyes. Sounds ridiculous, I know, but you can gain a lot of insight from looking at someone while they’re talking (and not looking at your phone). Not only does this convey respect, but it gives you a chance to see the person’s body language and check that off against their words. If there’s a mismatch, there’s something more going on than the conversation you’re having and you can factor that into how you react. For instance, if someone says they have time to talk, but keep looking at their watch, you know they really don’t and can schedule a time to talk later.
Here’s a useful TED talk on listening. The first part is about how we listen, and at 4:00 the speaker, Julian Treasure, offers 5 tips for listening better.