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Listen! Avoid Awkward Networking Moments

Picture of Angela Guido

Angela Guido

You already know to leave your agenda at home when networking.

But today, let’s find out how to gain access to any networking conversation without being an arse.

Exactly HOW do you break into a conversation already in process?

  • How do you elbow your way in as an outsider without stepping on toes?
  • How do you make a graceful entrance into a group already conversing?

There you are, milling around in a huge group, appetizers in hand, trying to find the important people, trying to connect, and trying to make a good impression on the people who can provide the professional relationships your career needs while many other people are trying to do the same. It’s easy to feel powerless and overwhelmed in such moments.

Having a great way to introduce yourself when the time is right will give you confidence. But you can’t just barge into the conversation and announce yourself.

  • Have you ever seen people do that?
  • They stride into the circle and start giving their pitch?
  • And everyone is looking at each other like “who IS this guy?”


Please, don’t be that guy.

Keep in mind that networking events are not a pitchfest, they’re not a showroom floor where everyone is hawking their wares. Networking conversations are meant to be a dialogue, an ongoing discussion among a group of people who are all getting to know each other.

A networking conversation could last two minutes or two hours.

Your objective in networking interactions should not be to get in and out as fast as possible, shelling out your business card and trying to appear as the single, central source of truth.

Instead, focus on bringing yourself fully into a dynamic conversation with others. This is what will make the strongest impression on everyone. And at a networking event, everyone matters. Don’t believe me? Ask Gary Vee. Love that guy.

When you are the newcomer to the group, it’s not your turn to introduce yourself. That time will come.

But it turns out that the best way to make a positive impression on a new group of people at a networking event isn’t to talk. Rather, the clever  investment of your time there is to listen. Effective communication? Networking skills? The guides often stress that meaningful conversations only  happen if you ‘get out there and sell yourself’.

Perhaps most people don’t consider the power of listening to build human connections when they are working a group at a networking event. But as it turns out, silence is actually  more powerful than words.

Here is how to work a group through listening:

  1. Join a group that is already speaking.
  2. Listen to the person who has the floor.
  3. Ask yourself this question: Given what he or she is saying, what is this person really passionate about?
  4. Then… ask that person a question that allows him or her to expand on that passion.
  5. Actually listen to what the person says.

Enthusiasm is contagious.

So, if you help ignite someone else’s excitement about a personal passion, everyone will benefit, and that positive feeling will inherently be associated with you.

Here’s an example.

Vanessa is talking about a trip she took to Peru with her sister. She is describing a beautiful beach they visited that was very secluded and peaceful. She is brimming with enthusiasm. You can see that at least some of the things she is passionate about are family (or at least her relationship with her sister), travel, interacting with nature, and the experience of solitude and quiet.

When there is a natural pause, ask Vanessa follow-up questions that allow her to expand on a topic she is passionate about based on what you have just learned. Some examples based on her story…

  • It sounds like you have found some beautiful places in your travels, what other places have you discovered?
  • If you could recommend the three best things to do in Peru what would they be?
  • Do you get to travel with your sister often? Where else have you been?
  • I am curious if you have any good ideas about how to create a feeling of peace and solitude here in the midst of work and the city. It’s so wonderful to travel, but the challenge is bringing that feeling home. What do you think?

Notice how all of these questions are completely open-ended questions, allowing Vanessa to expand on her experience and something she loves, and maintain a level of social distance that doesn’t encroach into her personal life. “What does your sister do?” “How did you afford that trip?” “What does your family think about you taking a vacation with your sister?” would be too personal and inappropriate.

Notice also that these questions focus on Vanessa and don’t attempt to deflect attention off her and onto you, nor even to look for common ground. Some (negative) examples that would not do that…

  • “Oh, I have been to Peru too, my favorite place was…”
  • “You know, my favorite nature spot is….”
  • “Have you been to the beach in Bali? It is….”

If you want to chime in and share your own experience, do that SECOND. AFTER you have helped Vanessa shine a bit more. But try leading with listening, because it respects the people already in dialogue, shows that you have a sense of humility and interest in others, and enables the speaker to come more alive, an experience we all love to have. So don’t forget the last and most important step:

Actually listen to what the person says. 

People know when you aren’t listening. They can tell when you are just waiting to talk. If you don’t listen, you will destroy all the good will you created by asking such an interesting question. ‘Active listening techniques’ are actually a simple facet of basic social skills: listen, pay attention, and follow the conversation wherever it goes from there!

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