Listening Skills to Grow Your Network


Good listening skills are more than just politely waiting for the other person to finish talking so you can make your point. Good listening involves a surprisingly active and focused set of skills that can break down interpersonal barriers, grow your network, and start building lasting relationships.

Does this sound counter-intuitive? If you want to grow your network, how does listening play a part? Shouldn’t you be figuring out ways to overcome shyness or resistance when reaching out to people? Shouldn’t you be figuring out how to pitch your value proposition to get people interested in helping you?

Yes to all of the above. But if you don’t establish rapport with someone right at the beginning, nothing else will matter. The first step is to show people that you care about what they have to say.

Everyone’s a Little Nervous

It can be challenging to strike the right balance in a networking event conversation. Particularly at the beginning, when you’re just meeting someone, it’s hard to get a rhythm going. It’s hard to know whether or not you have anything in common, or whether there’s the potential to build any rapport. You don’t want to talk too much, and you don’t want to talk too little. Just showing up to an event can be challenging. Over the course of my career, and particularly when I was looking for a job, or I was having trouble with my current job, showing up at a business event and talking to people was a chore that I often avoided.

I wish I knew then what I know now about how to turn a networking event into a more positive experience.

Getting Started

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” If I learned anything from Stephen Covey’s landmark productivity classic, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, it was this one concept (aka Habit 5). It’s no use nervously barreling into a conversation – either because you’re naturally gregarious, or nervously trying to overcome your shyness. No matter what kind of personality you have, the first thing you want to do is ask the right question.

This is the choke point that everyone is thinking about as they’re walking in the door to the networking event, or even meeting someone for the first time on a video call: “What do I say?”

Per Covey, the idea is to give the other person the opportunity to express themselves first. By doing this, you’re extending your interest and respect for them, and instantly getting the conversation off the ground in a more caring way. If you were to start off by making some provocative or challenging statement, you risk pushing them away.

It’s like winning the coin toss in football and choosing to play defense. The strategy is to let the other person set the tone so that you can think and respond. This allows you to first get a sense of who they are. When you understand who they are and where they’re coming from, you have a much better opportunity to share your point of view in a way that they can understand and appreciate.

Contextual Awareness

Breaking the ice at a networking event can be challenging. If you’re feeling awkward or out of place, you probably haven’t thought about what you were going to say, so you pick the first thing that pops into your head. Or you look around, and pick up on some random aspect of the room or the people and make some random comment. That usually hangs in the air and no one knows how to respond. We’ve all been in this situation.

Instead, prepare for the moment with a question that you’re going to ask. Make it fit the context of the event or the venue. It doesn’t have to be personal, but asking “What brings you here this evening?” is a perfectly acceptable way to kick off the conversation. You could also ask about what’s going to be taking place, as in: “Have you heard this speaker before?” You could also ask for information and be self-deprecating, as in “I’ve never been to one of these before. Can you tell me how this works?” or “I was intrigued by the blurb on the invitation. Do you know what’s going to happen here?”

With your opening question, you’re confirming your shared interest in the event, and creating a neutral yet encouraging way to spark a conversation.

Active Listening

What do you do while the other person is talking? Do you nod your head, but you’re really only pretending to be listening? Are you actually trying to figure out what you’re going to say in response? You’ll actually develop more rapport with the other person, and create an opportunity for an actual relationship by actively listening to what they’re saying. Let it sink in. Don’t feel like you have to have an immediate come-back. Encourage them to say more. Keep listening.

Forget what your agenda is, what your pitch is. Don’t worry: you’ll get your chance to explain yourself and what you do and what you’re looking for. For now, really concentrate on what they’re saying. Make this an active process. Look them in the eye. Focus on their words. Make this a moment of zen-like concentration.

Many people think that networking events are about pitching to one another. It’s like speed dating for business. You have 30 seconds to make your elevator pitch and then you’re on to the next person. At the end of the event, maybe you’ve collected a bunch of business cards, but you haven’t actually made any real connections.

Networking Event

Perception Checking

As you’re engaged in this active listening process, it’s a good idea to periodically respond to someone by reflecting what they’ve said back to them to make sure you’re on the same page. This is called perception checking, and it sounds like “What I hear you saying is…” or “Am I understanding you correctly?”

Popping these checks into the conversation does two things. First, it shows that you’re paying attention to what they’re saying and care enough to make sure you’re understanding them. Second, it gives them the opportunity to pause and actually reflect on what they’re saying. They may actually not intend to say what they just said (which is one reason you may be reflecting it back to them…). Your checking in with them gives them the chance to correct their statement, or explain their point more clearly.

Open-Ended Questions

If you want to stifle a conversation or even end it, ask a yes/no question. This doesn’t leave the other person much of a chance to really express how they feel or what they think. It also puts them on the defensive. It implies that you have or know (or think you know) the answer.

Instead, an open-ended question gives them the chance to express themselves more completely. It promotes an actual exchange of ideas.

For example, don’t ask “Do you agree that higher education in this country is in deep trouble?” Instead, you could ask “What do you think about higher education in this country?” The first question sounds like a trap. The second question is a neutral opportunity to express their point of view.

Open-ended questions are a great way to get to know someone and build rapport. They take any judgment out of the interaction. They create a level playing field where understanding is possible. You don’t have to agree with what they say. You’re just gathering information and… seeking to understand.

Your Networking Mantra: Always Be Giving

Paying attention to the other person helps you evaluate whether or not (or to what degree) they can be helpful to you in your career plan. But more importantly, it helps you figure out what information, contacts, or resources you could offer to them.

To successfully grow your network, you need to be giving first and receiving second. If you approach your network as a service project, you’re actually going to get a lot more results. Making constructive and imaginative suggestions to someone you just meet helps them let their guard down. It immediately makes the conversation more productive, more actionable, and more memorable.

Be careful to make suggestions or offers that are appropriate, and based on what the other person has told you. This is another reason why you want to listen carefully and ask follow up questions. The more you know about their situation, who they are, and what they’re dealing with, the more likely you’ll be able to offer up something relevant. It could be something as simple as an article you read that morning.

Giving Is a Two-Way Street

Just the fact that you understand them, and are making a connection for them, however small, can be impressive. In return, they may want to help you. What a great way to kick off a networking relationship!

Walking into a networking event with the goal of helping other people eliminates a tremendous amount of pressure., even if you don’t actually meet anyone you’re able to help. Just walking in with that positive, helpful attitude will make the experience more enjoyable.

Don’t force yourself to be helpful. You don’t have to be on a mission. Simply open yourself up to the possibility. Finding an opportunity to be helpful will be a simple by-product of active listening and asking questions.

Open Body Language

Your posture and position speak volumes. Psychologists say that most of our communication is visual. If your body language is saying that you’re not interested or not present, you’re going to lose the other person’s interest.

Lean in but maintain a respectful distance (don’t invade their space). Again, look them in the eye. Don’t look around trying to figure out who you’re going to talk to next. Keep your arms uncrossed. Crossed arms (and holding your chin in your hand) communicate defensiveness and skepticism. Nod occasionally as you’re following the conversation. These points apply if you’re standing or sitting. If you’re sitting, leaning towards the person is more inviting than leaning back.

Sit or stand at an angle to the other person (up to 90 degrees). Facing someone directly can be intimidating. It also discourages others from joining the conversation – not good if you want to grow your network.

Try to stay aware of your body as you’re engaged in the conversation. If you feel yourself start to close up, which is a natural feeling we all get, take a breath and open back up.

Prize Them

Say something positive about them. As part of this vulnerable human-to-human interaction you’re engaged in, give them a figurative pat on the back for sharing their thoughts. There’s always a way to say something supportive, even if you disagree with what they’re saying. “Interesting! I don’t know if I agree with you, but I really appreciate you sharing your views.”

Make a small extra effort to let them know you are willing to accept them, regardless of their point of view. You may not feel that they are someone to follow up with, or someone you would feel comfortable working with – but you never know…

The goal here is to leave the conversation on an up-beat note.

You don’t know who they know. If they leave the conversation feeling accepted, understood, and listened to, they might just talk about you in a positive way to one of their contacts. And that contact may be someone you would be interested in meeting or working with.

For people with whom you’re getting along, and with whom you see eye-to-eye, you absolutely must end on a special note. Find a way to compliment them genuinely and authentically. This should be easy to do. If they’ve said one or more things that you find insightful, smart, or inspiring, you can reference them: “I want to thank you for what you said about X. It’s a unique way of looking at the situation that I’ve never thought of before.”

You can be self=reflective and vulnerable without gushing or coming on too strong.

Respond, Don’t React

When you’re listening, you’re in control. By control, I don’t mean that you are in control of the external situation, but that you are in control of yourself. You are present in the moment, considering all angles, and able to choose your response based on what’s going on right there and then.

You’ve certainly seen people in conversation who are not present. They’re clearly not listening, and trying desperately to get their point across without paying attention to the other person or to the situation. They may feel like they’re being successful because they say what they came there to say, but the people around them are put off by their manner, so their efforts fall flat.

Listening actively, and engaging positively with people in conversation puts you in a strong position. You have the freedom to choose what you’re going to do with the encounter, and are also sowing the seeds for a successful follow-up should you want one.

The business cards you collect will mean something to you, and you’ll be able to follow-up with these people effectively. They’ll be eager to talk to you because they’ll remember how you listened to them and engaged with them openly, and prized them for what they had to say.

Be a Great Listener

The goal of these skills is to put you in a better position to grow your network while at the same time staying relaxed and open. If you agree with me that your network is the key to your career success, then you’ll want to consider these approaches.

Try them out the next time you’re out at a networking event, or even on a one-on-one phone or video call. Ask open-ended questions, be present, and let the conversation flow in a natural fashion. Your openness may lead you to unexpected and innovative ideas or uncover mutual areas of interest that might not have come up otherwise.

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John Tarnoff is an executive and career transition coach, speaker, and author who supports mid and late-career professionals in defining, planning, and achieving more meaningful and sustainable careers.

Fired 39% during his 35 years as a film producer, studio executive and tech entrepreneur, he learned how to turn setbacks into successes in a volatile business. He reinvented his own career at 50, earning a master’s degree in counseling psychology to share his career lessons with others going through similar challenges.

Since leaving entertainment in 2010, John has coached individuals, groups, and led career workshops for university alumni, including for UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Corporate coaching clients have included Bank of America, Bridgewater Assoc., Levi-Strauss, Softbank, TD Ameritrade, and Thrive Global.

He is the author of the best-selling Boomer Reinvention: How to Create your Dream Career Over 50 and has been named a Top Influencer in Aging by PBS/NextAvenue.


  • I really enjoyed this post. Thanks for sharing it!

    I’m a Virtual Assistant that not only has clients but also coaches other “more mature” individuals on how to take their administrative skills from the office and use them working virtually instead.

    In my private Facebook group, we discuss issues such as networking and I thought this would be a FANTASTIC article for them to read.

    I just wanted to let you know I’ll be sharing it.

    Thanks so much!

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