Nervous, uncertain networkers can often be heard to say, “I can’t network because I’m not very interesting, so no-one will want to talk to me”. It comes from the assumption that, in order to successfully engage at a networking event, we need to be witty, impressively articulate, able to tell a good story or be the life of the party. In reality, the reverse is more often the case. People who fit this description can be seen as self-absorbed, domineering or just plain insufferable.

Instead of trying so hard to be interesting, a better tactic may simply be to work hard at being interested. People who listen skilfully, ask relevant questions, probe the statements of the other person and show empathy are typically wonderful networkers. Other people enjoy their company, they share more of themselves and more about their organisational issues and opportunities.

This is not to suggest you only have a one-way conversation, with all the new content coming from the other person. This is too lopsided and may be treated with some suspicion. However, if you demonstrate a genuine interest in the other person, they will feel freer to speak for longer and more openly.

Imagine being approached by someone who maintains good eye contact, asks you about the challenges you are facing at work, and
demonstrates they are listening closely by paraphrasing and leading on to another question. This is someone you could enjoy spending time with and would certainly be open to working with again in the future. 

The skill of showing empathy during these short conversations can best be demonstrated by the way you summarise and paraphrase what the other person has said. Accurately paraphrasing the content demonstrates you were listening. Accurately identifying the emotion behind what someone has said demonstrates you are in tune with how the person was feeling. For example, the conversation may have been exploring the person’s difficult day with constant disruptions that interrupted their flow in writing a major tender document. Your response could be, “that must have been frustrating especially when you needed to focus closely on the details of those tender documents”.

Dr Shaun Ridley is Deputy Chief Executive Officer (Learning and Development) at the Australian Institute of Management in WA. His extensive experience in leadership, strategy and learning and development has been gained through his work with hundreds of organisations, across all sectors both domestically and internationally.