Let’s face it—networking isn’t always easy, and just like any skill—whether it be writing, client relations, or public speaking—it may take years of practice and refining before connecting with others in a professional setting feels anything close to natural. And now, whether the past few years of social distancing or the increased time we spend behind our screens is to blame, college students aren’t only struggling to network, they’re lacking experience and confidence in basics like making small talk and connecting with people. This issue is prevalent enough that colleges are creating classes to teach interpersonal skills
to help the next generation of business professionals enter the workforce without feeling uncomfortable speaking to their colleagues.
Upon hearing this, I couldn’t help but think that there has to be a straightforward way we can communicate how to, well… communicate. It doesn’t matter if you’ve just started college, are a few years into your first job, or are the CEO of a Fortune 500—networking is a skill anyone can struggle with. It’s not surprising, after all, that while we dedicate so much time toward building the so-called hard skills that typically account for what we consider our work—coding, trading, accounting, translating, designing, etc.—that it’s easy to overlook the myriad communication skills we need to facilitate that work.
The secret to effective networking? Curiosity.
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but in my experience, curiosity is the very thing that jumpstarts the kind of meaningful connections and professional relationships that can propel your career. It is critical to success in business. So much so that while leading my first company, I would always hire salespeople who modeled curiosity in their interviews over those who didn’t. Curiosity is a necessary and powerful communications tool. Just think about the conversations you’ve had with new acquaintances that really stuck with you. I’d wager a bet that the other person didn’t just talk about themselves, but asked questions and seemed genuinely interested in what you had to say as well. These are the kinds of encounters that don’t merely consist of small talk that fills the time, but meaningful conversation that creates bonds.
Not long ago, I attended a networking event myself. I was at a table with two young people who were just starting their careers. They both were kind, and I learned so much about them throughout the evening. I heard all about where they worked, where they went to school, and of course—the most important detail—that Tal Bagels is the place to go for the best bagels in New York City! It was a nice conversation, but I wouldn’t say we necessarily made a connection that would last beyond the day because there was something missing—it took me a moment to pinpoint what that was, but I later realized they didn’t ask anything about me!
I don’t say that to sound self-centered, I was genuinely interested in their lives, really enjoyed getting to know them, and truth be told, I’m very happy not to have to talk about myself. But the thing is, you never know where a little curiosity about the other person may lead. You might discover a mutual passion, a shared hobby, or some other bit of serendipity that sparks a more lasting camaraderie. Who knows what we may have discovered we had in common? They may have even learned something helpful to them from my experience. Unfortunately, we will never really know if there could’ve been an opportunity for a more lasting professional connection.
So how exactly do you apply curiosity to networking? Not only is it incredibly easy, it will actually take a lot of the pressure off yourself to be interesting. All you have to do is ask questions and actively listen. That’s really all there is to it. The issue with conversations like the one between me and those two up-and-comers is that I was asking all the questions. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it’s unlikely to lead to anything more than a passing conversation. You want to aim for a more balanced back and forth. You don’t have to ask anything complicated. A simple “What do you do?” or “What are you working on right now?” could work. These are called conversation starters for a reason. Think about what you might ask if you were interviewing a subject for a report or profile. If you approach conversations with that kind of curiosity, you’ll find yourself more engaged, at ease, and you might even make lasting friendships.
The above is also valuable and even necessary in a conversation with a connection who might be more experienced than you professionally, or when you’re being interviewed by a potential future colleague, boss, or supervisor. They are people too, after all. Don’t only ask them about the position and the company. Ask them why they started their company if they are an entrepreneur, how they got to where they are, what made them choose their industry, and other questions oriented to their likely well-rounded careers. This could build an invaluable relationship, give you a leg up in your career, and open you to a wealth of indispensable business acumen.
When asking questions, it’s key to really listen to the answers. That’s why genuine curiosity is so helpful. Your conversational partner might even give you bits of information that prompt your next question. Everyone has a story—make it your goal to uncover the other person’s.
There may, however, be times where this is more challenging. If you’re getting one-word answers or getting stuck in awkward lulls, that’s ok. If you’re actively engaged, you should be able to read the situation easily enough—is the other person shy or simply not interested in conversation? If it’s the former, share a bit about yourself and give them more space to reciprocate if they’d like; if the latter, don’t force the issue, simply find an appropriate moment to gracefully exit the conversation and move on. The other person might even be thankful you did.
If you feel like you made a connection with someone, try to find a way to follow up with them after the event; you might exchange emails, get their business card, or follow each other on social media, for example. Building professional relationships truly is as simple as that.
Curiosity is a critical part of not just business, but life in general. My company wouldn’t have grown nearly as fast without our hiring of incredibly curious people, and I would have missed out on so many rewarding friendships, both professional and personal. What propelled my company from a dorm room to the global stage was the strength of the relationships we built with our clients. And each one of those was founded on curiosity and maintained with care. We made sure to keep the conversation going with each of our clients. Keeping our channels open and staying in continual contact ensured that our clients got the time and attention they needed from us, helped us understand their needs so we could better serve them, and fostered mutual trust and genuine camaraderie.
It’s ok to be a little nervous at first when meeting new people, that’s perfectly natural. Just remember, when in doubt, stay curious! No matter where you are in your career, I can promise you that a little curiosity can be the spark you need to take you to big places.