Most advice on networking focuses on how you should get your message across in polished formats, such as
the two-minute drill, elevator speech or personal commercial. The aim is to help job hunters provide a very
articulate and catchy rendition of what they can offer, what they’re looking for, and then ask the other
person for assistance in finding a job.
For instance, an executive might call someone he hasn’t talked with in many years and say: “Sam, I know
it’s been a while but I’ve been really busy, what with the job and the family and all. Well, for now, that has
changed — my job has gone away. Do you know of any openings for a [insert the function here]?”
If this is your approach, ask yourself, “Am I really networking or just bothering people?”
This process doesn’t work well, even with an effectively delivered message, because job hunters are totally
focused on what the other person can do for them. They show little or no regard for what this person might
need. They’re concentrating on taking instead of giving, talking instead of listening. Eventually, they become
so frustrated by their lack of results (job leads) that they give up.
But this isn’t networking; it’s a self-interested, one-way conversation. It lacks mutuality and won’t help you
in the short or long run.
Networking isn’t about getting something from somebody. Good networkers know this and seek little from
others. Typically, they have more contacts and friends than they know what to do with. They are fun to chat
with. And if they ever do need help, they get more than they need. Their secret? Being good listeners and
asking open-ended questions.
Their approach, which I have labeled “role-reversal networking,” is occasionally mentioned in sales-training
materials as a way to learn about customers’ needs. It takes as its premise the old saying: “You have two
ears and one mouth and should use them proportionally.” Spending more time listening and less time talking
will yield more of the results you’re seeking: a conversation that helps build rapport and create a connection.
Here’s how it works:
Good listeners are active listeners. You hear not just the words being said but also the feelings and
attitudes behind the words. It requires that you really listen, not prepare for what you’re going to say next;
that you ask follow-up questions to understand what the other person is really saying, not present your
counter-argument; and that you not interrupt. In short, it requires that you respect other people and their
opinions. As Atlanta-based author and leadership expert John Maxwell once said, “People don’t care what
you know, until they know you care.”
Simply stated, open-ended questions are those that cannot be answered by a single word (e.g., “yes,” “no,”
or “seven”); they require thought and engage the answerer’s mind. When questions focus on the other
person’s experience, interests or expertise, both of you will be more comfortable during the conversation,
and the other person will often open up to you about what and whom they know (your objective for
networking). After all, who doesn’t enjoy talking about themselves?
In addition, focusing your networking conversation on the other person takes you out of the spotlight. For
introverts, this makes networking a much more palatable activity. For extroverts, it opens their eyes to a
whole new world beyond themselves.
Here’s an example of what a role-reversal networking conversation might sound like.
Assume Sally has been introduced to Phil by a mutual acquaintance, Mike. All three are software developers.
Sally is unemployed and Mike is an independent contractor working for the company where Phil is a project
Sally: Thanks for seeing me. Mike speaks very highly of you and your ability to lead teams. How did you
develop that ability?
Phil: I’ve always liked working with people. Over the years, I took a lot of courses and successfully
passed my PMI Certificate exam. Those classes really helped!
Phil: Oh, I hardly do any coding at all any more. I really miss it. Most of my time is spent resolving
problems either from my team or from our in-house customers.
Sally: It sounds like you miss the coding part.
Phil: Yes, I do! It’s pretty easy to get programs to work the right way. It’s much tougher with team
members and customers.
Sally: What’s your biggest problem with team members?
Phil: Getting them to look at the situation from the customer’s perspective. They are more into writing
elegant code than solving customers’ problems.
Sally: Do I hear that! A couple of years ago we faced a similar situation.
Phil: Well, how did you handle it? …
By focusing on and listening to understand Phil’s situation and the issues that concerned her, Sally was able
to find an opportunity to display her own expertise at a time when it was of interest to Phil. In addition,
by keying into Phil’s business issues, the focus has shifted from Sally’s need for a job to Phil’s need to
solve some important problems. In this context, Phil is much more likely to picture Sally as a solution to his
problems and to create a job shaped around Sally’s strengths.
By concentrating on the other person’s needs and interests through the use of open-ended questions and
active listening, job hunters can enhance their results and come to appreciate networking. By seeking to
understand and help the other person, you’re ultimately helping yourself.
Not long ago, I worked with a finance and quality management executive who seemed to be networking well
and frequently but wasn’t getting results. As we talked, it became apparent that his approach was turning
people off because it was too self-centered.
Following our discussion, he changed his networking focus from asking for a job to listening to what the
other person was saying. He began to receive referrals to employed professionals in his field. Through these
new discussions, he learned about two companies that were struggling with issues he could resolve. Both of
these opportunities led to job offers, including one closer to his home that he accepted. “Once I closed my
mouth and opened my ears, my progress was exponential!”
Remember, not all networking opportunities will result in a win for you. However, if you do it properly, using
your ears more than your mouth, it will always be a win for the other person. That will be remembered,
appreciated, and many times reciprocated.
— Mr. Englander is a vice president and senior consultant with outplacement firm Right Management
Consultants in Addison, Texas.