Jeanine approached me with an interesting question after a workshop I conducted about professional networking. “I am always really interested in what other people have to say about themselves,” she said, “but I never know when it is okay to interrupt them to ask a question. For instance, if someone is talking about her family, I want to ask about the kids, but they haven’t stopped talking yet. I don’t want to be rude by interrupting, but I don’t want to forget my question, either.” I appreciated Jeanine’s question, not just because maintaining a good flow of conversation is crucial to professional networking, but also because she was being consciously aware of her behavior while networking; and weighing its impact on the outcome of the interaction. This is a far cry from some people I have observed, who bowl through conversations with no more thought about what comes out of their mouths than a five-year-old.
“Conversation,” I said, “especially in a professional setting, is like a game of catch.” When two kids toss a ball back and forth, there is an unwritten rule. Only throw the ball when the other kid is ready to catch it. And you only get the ball back when he is ready to throw it. While playing catch, the most important goal is to keep the ball from hitting the ground. If one kid throws the ball too far, it flies past the other kid and the game has to stop. The worst thing is having a game of catch that builds up a nice rhythm, only to have it come to a halt while one kid has to run to pick up the ball. The same is true of conversation. We have all been networking, and everything seems to be going fine when, thud, the ball hits the ground. Because networking conversations carry greater implications, dropping the ball is even more stressful for everyone involved.
I told Jeanine, “Before you interrupt someone, ask yourself if having the ball is worth taking it out of someone else’s hands.” Interrupting is the same as running over and yanking the ball out of another kids hands. The reason you didn’t have the ball in the first place is because they weren’t ready to throw it to you. Whatever reason you have for wanting the ball is never as important as the other person’s reason for wanting it.
I was at a networking event and asked a guy how he ended up in his current profession. His education began as a music major in college, which was a far cry from the consulting work he did for a living. I was curious about which musical instrument he studied, but he was still talking. And the point of his story was not about the instrument he studied, but about the circuitous route he took throughout his career. If I had interrupted to ask about his instrument of choice, I would have yanked the ball right out of his hands. I would have gotten the answer to my question, but ruined the game. So I waited, keeping my question in the back of my mind, but also realizing that, if we never got around to my question, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. After I listened until the end of his story, I was not only able to circle back to my question about his musical training, but because I truly listened, I was able to dig even more into his professional career.
“Beyond that,” I told Jeanine, “don’t overthink the conversation.” Given the delicate dance that is professional networking, you don’t want to err on either side of the coin. Being too cautious makes you appear unsure or nervous; we don’t trust tentative people to handle tough jobs. On the other hand, some people think that throwing caution to the wind makes them appear bold, but being careless during conversation can be perceived as reckless; and no one trusts a big mouth.
As Jeanine and I talked, Harvey listened and finally commented, “But some people never shut up. If you didn’t interrupt, you wouldn’t get a word in edgewise.” I said, “Networking is about building trust in as short a period of time as possible. When people talk, they trust the person who truly listens. Listening to other people talk never builds as much trust as being allowed to speak uninterrupted. If you want this person as a client, it doesn’t matter if you get a word in edgewise; if only matters that they want to see you again, and work with you.” I told Harvey about a client I had who spoke in such a way that it was clear she had a lot to say; and wanted a willing ear. I made a conscious effort to keep my mouth shut and my ears open. I kept thinking, “If she throws me the ball, I’m ready, but I’m not taking it out of her hands.” I ended speaking much less than I normally do during a conversation (just ask my wife), and my client ended up saying, “I’ve got some great ideas of how to use your services for my company. Can I have your business card?” To me, that is a great ending to a smooth game of catch.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.