We are all able to listen, but listening well is an art that takes a lot of practice to master!

Because networking depends so much on listening, as I wrote last time, this post is about how to improve your listening skills. There are quite a few elements to becoming a good listener, so the following list is not comprehensive. But these things had the most impact on my listening behavior, so I think it serves as a nice quick start:

1: Curiosity Filled the Net(work)

Be curious. I try to gather information in every conversation. Along the lines of ‘We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.’ (Epictetus)

2: Try to Connect

Try to connect. For that the best basis is common ground. So I try to identify things I have in common with the other person. And then adopt a generosity mindset. Make sure to always stay on eye level with your counterpart. The pitfall is that you might sound arrogant instead of willing to give.

3: Connections Thrive on Trust

Build trust. For this, create a safe conversational environment by taking an observational stance, which avoids any judgment. If there is some opinion or attitude you don’t understand, this observational approach will help you to inquire further without jumping to conclusions. For trust to grow it is necessary that people accept each other, even if they don’t always agree.

4: Active Listening

I practice active listening, which means focusing on empathic understanding and comprehension of the content. Really focus on the conversation. One of the things that really annoy me is a conversation partner who constantly checks his or her phone. It gives me the feeling of being just a fill-in, until something interesting comes up. Not a good basis for a meaningful talk. I actually turned that into a rule for myself: no checking my phone or looking for other people at the same time. And if I am expecting an important phone call, I let the other one know. To communicate that I am still paying attention, I use interjections like ‘aha’ and ‘mhm’. I find an occasional “Really?!” or “How exciting!” (depending on the context) very helpful. You can use body language to show you are interested, e.g. by facing the other person and maintaining eye contact. You can also paraphrase what you heard your counterpart say. I do that especially when I’m in doubt if my interpretations are correct.

5: Be Truly Interested

The most valuable advice for better listening I found for myself, was to be truly interested. But how is one to achieve that? Especially as “faking it” usually has the opposite effect of what you are trying to achieve: instead of connecting you to your counterpart it disconnects you. When faking it, you are busy with acting, where you should be listening, and at some level the other person will sense that you are not sincere and stay on a superficial (and thereby for them a safe) level of conversation.

So, since it’s not like I can simply flip a switch, here are two strategies I developed for being genuinely interested and staying authentic at the same time:

  1. Find something about the person that you do find interesting. Sometimes it can be as easy as diving deeper into the small talk conversation you started out with . After exchanging business cards you could inquire about their job. Or if your counterpart mentioned she lives in a city you don’t know, you can inquire about that. And you can tailor your questions to your liking: if you are interested in education (maybe, because that topic is currently relevant for your own kids), you ask about the schools in that city. Or you ask about tourist sites in that place, if you are planning a weekend trip.

    Of course life isn’t always that easy. If the conversation you had so far doesn’t provide any clues for a topic, you will have to resort to another source to spike your curiosity. If the situation warrants it (being at a conference, a fair etc.) I ask others for their opinion on something related to this situation. I found this to be a good conversation booster. You can ask about their impression on the whole set up, their favorite speech so far or what type of interesting people they met until now. Just beware to stay in “listening mode” – and don’t get carried away voicing your opinion!

    Maybe all these options aren’t available, but you simply think the person is likable and would be nice to have in your network – listen closely to find out what it is you like about them. Or if the person seems very confident and knowledgeable – try to discover the source of their knowledge or competency or whatever it is that interests you.

  2. If you cannot find anything that you would like to discover about the person, focus your attention on finding out what makes you so reluctant to connect by listening attentively. Now, this second strategy needs a word of caution: you can waste a lot of time with people that you actually do not want in your network, if you keep trying to find out, why that is so. Yet I found this a good way to train my intuition: if my gut feeling tells me “not interesting” I try to verify this gut feeling by discovering what causes it. Sometimes I am surprised, because I discover that overcoming my first impression lets me have very fruitful conversations. More often I learn enough to validate my intuition, which is a very valuable learning in itself.

    This means: when you are practicing your listening skills, this second strategy to become sincerely interested serves two purposes: providing you with opportunities to practice listening and helping you hone your intuition. Once you get better at listening, you should shift more towards strategy one and trust your gut feeling about whom you and your belly do find interesting.

Let me finish with a thought based on a quote* I like:

No person has ever listened herself out of a network!

* No man ever listened himself out of a job. –Calvin Coolidge