How to Steer Conversations When Networking

Ship's HelmI am convinced that at some point in their training, organizational consultants and HR professionals are instructed that, before they can move their boyfriend or girlfriend up to significant other or fiance status, they have to administer the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

My wife is a recovering organizational psychologist, so one night after we began talking marriage, she sat me down at her dining room table and left me with the booklet and a number two pencil. It turned out I’m an ENFJ – which stands for “Extraversion, iNtuition, Feeling, Judgment.” That means I focus on others and their moods, am a natural cheerleader, note what needs to be done and often do it, and offer to help others out when necessary.

Given how I feel about approaching people to ask for favors, does the extravert part strike anyone as odd? It sure struck me. But my patient Ros (Recovering organizational psychologist) explained that Myers-Briggs is more of a continuum than a pigeonhole. And, to be sure, a list of famous ENFJs includes a range of personalities and achievements. Martin Luther King, Jr., was an ENFJ. So is Mikhail Gorbachev. So is Ross Perot. So is Bob Saget.

After Ros identified my type, I didn’t give Myers-Briggs a whole lot of thought until I equated my focus on lunch with being an introvert. Aside from proving her point about Myers-Briggs not being a pigeonhole, it made me understand how I’m able to weather — even enjoy — all those lunches: I listen.

A Confession

I’m one of those people who, when you ask me how things are going, replies, “fine.” It must drive my boss crazy. There are times I head out to meet someone and check my Blackberry every block in the hope they’ve had to cancel. I might be on deadline or have a situation simmering at the office. It doesn’t matter. Lunch is one of those things you have to do, even when you’re not in the mood, don’t like your guest’s choice of restaurant (vegetarian again?), or are simply in a funk.

Fortunately, people like to talk about themselves. That means when meet someone, you don’t have to be feeling charming or even talkative, for that matter. Yes, you’ll have to hold up your end of the discussion. And, you’ll have to know what you want to learn about the person and be ready to ask questions in a way that allows them to, well, talk. But conversations are a two-way street.

Asking someone to tell you about their career isn’t the same as asking them to recite their resume. You get them to talk by telling them you’d love to know how they became so involved in, say, healthcare IT. No one’s born wanting to implement EHR systems, remember. Something piqued their interest, which led them to something else, which resulted in this contact, which led to that job, from which they got promoted. When they tell their stories, some people are incredibly engaging. Others are blowhards. But pretty much everyone offers some kind of lesson. Your job is to get them going and pay attention.

It’s also to be open, not only to what your companion is saying, but your reaction to it, as well. It’s too easy to listen passively, nodding and chewing your food while your companion does the heavy lifting. During lunch, I always hear something that makes me want to know more. It’s up to me to inquire about the details. So I do, asking questions intended to nudge the conversation into areas of common ground, instruction and, I hope, enough connection to warrant further contacts.

My point is you don’t have to be Mr. Personality to do this. You can be in a less-than-stellar mood, you can be shy, you can even be somewhat uncomfortable with the whole idea of meeting a stranger. Stop putting so much pressure on yourself.

Don’t forget to share your adventures out there – send me an e-mail (mfeffer at dice.com) to tell me what’s worked for you, or what hasn’t. Or post a comment below.

Photo: Sven Wolter via Wikimedia

Originally posted Oct. 26, 2009

Comments

  1. BY bob l says:

    How do you handle the phone interview when two or more people are doing the interviewing?

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