MBA Career Advice: Listen! A Hot Tip for Great First Impressions

In this weekly series, our friends at MBA Career Coaches will be dispensing invaluable advice to help you actively manage your career. Topics include building your network, learning from mistakes and setbacks, perfecting your written communication, and mastering even the toughest interviews. 

Most people hate networking events—for good reason! Milling around with a bunch of strangers, trying to find the “important” people, jockeying for their attention, and then attempting to impress them can put a lot of pressure on you. That last part in particular causes people a great deal of anxiety: how am I going to make a memorable impression on this stranger?

Here is an easy way: listening. Most people do not think about the power of listening in building connections when they are working a group at a networking event. Consider this easy method:

  1. Join a group of people who are already speaking. Introduce yourself to the person next to you, or to everyone if there is a pause in the conversation.
  2. Listen to the person who has the floor. Ask yourself this question: Given what he/she is saying, what is this person really passionate about?

For example, Sarah is talking about a trip she took to Vietnam with her sister. She is describing a beautiful beach they visited that was very secluded and peaceful. She is brimming with enthusiasm. You can see that at least some of the things she cares about are family (or at least her relationship with her sister), travel, interacting with nature, and the experience of solitude and quiet.

  1. When a natural pause occurs, ask the person who was speaking a question that allows him/her to expand on a passion. Some examples based on Sarah’s story may be…
    – “It sounds like you have found some beautiful places in your travels. What other places have you discovered?”
    – “If you could recommend the three best things to do in Vietnam, what would they be?”
    – “Do you get to travel with your sister often? Where else have you been?”
    – “I am curious whether you have any good ideas about how to create a feeling of peace and solitude here in the midst of work and the city. It’s so wonderful to travel, but the challenge is bringing that feeling home. What do you think?”

Notice how all these questions are open-ended, allow Sarah to expand on her experience and something she loves, and maintain a level of social distance that does not encroach on her personal life. For example, “What does your sister do?” “How did you afford that trip?” and “What does your family think about you taking a vacation with your sister?” would be too personal and inappropriate.

Notice also that these questions focus on Sarah and do not attempt to deflect attention from her and onto you. Some questions or statements that would do that include the following:

  • “Oh, I have been to Vietnam, too. My favorite place was…”
  • “You know, my favorite nature spot is….”
  • “Have you been to the beach in Bali? It is….”

A time will come to introduce your own ideas into the conversation, and eventually you will want to give your personal input. But listening first makes a better impression. Doing so shows your respect for the people already in dialogue, demonstrates that you have a sense of humility and interest in others, and enables the speaker to come more alive, an experience we all love to have. So do not forget the last and most important step:

  1. Actually listen to what the person says. People know when you are not really listening. They can tell when you are just waiting to talk. If you do not listen, you will destroy all the goodwill you created by asking such an interesting question. So listen, pay attention, and follow the conversation wherever it goes from there!

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