Over a cup of coffee, a technology professional remarked with a sigh, “I know I could advance in my career if I did more networking, but I don’t. I can’t stand the superficiality—I’m not interested in talking about golf, or team sports, or the weather.”
Many of us equate networking with paper plates and shallow conversations with strangers. Even people who are lucky enough not to be terrified by large events often dread them. After all, superficial conversations seem to reign, and two hours of predictable talk can be insufferably boring. Sometimes it seems that there is a superficial ceiling at these events. That ceiling can seem as impenetrable as any glass ceiling ever was.
Challenge your assumptions
If you find yourself expecting a conversation to be superficial, take a look at the assumption behind the expectation. Just because large events are often superficial doesn’t mean they have to be. Chances are that the majority of people you meet at any event are intelligent and interesting people, just as you are. To assume anything else is both arrogant and silly. If you make a commitment to engage at a meaningful level, you will. Take personal responsibility to connect at that level. Be willing to be respectful, open, and even a bit vulnerable, and it will happen.
Also, examine your own contribution to conversations in large group events. Do you keep abreast of a wide variety of topics? Are you reading widely and constantly learning? If you are excited about ideas, trends, and things that you’ve learned, chances are you’ll be a good conversationalist who draws out the best in others. If you are distracted, unfocused, or overtired, then you are contribution to the superficiality problem.
Offer a good question
In many cases, all it takes to break the superficial ceiling is few well-positioned questions. In a large group situation, good question is one that gives the other person an opportunity without putting that person on the spot. Sometimes it’s appropriate to give your own perspective first. If you are sincere, and you set the question up smoothly, both you and your partner in conversation will enjoy a deep conversation without feeling awkward. Here are some possibilities:
- I started a great biography on the plane yesterday. Are you a reader? What’s your favorite type of book? What’s on your “must read” list?
- I see that you are a human resources specialist. What changes have you seen over the course of your career? What advice would you give to someone new to the field?
- I see that you are in the insurance industry. Did you plan this career, or did it “happen along” when you weren’t expecting it?
- I’m looking forward to tonight’s speaker. I hear she’s inspirational. Who would you say has been the most inspirational person in your life?
- Out of curiosity, I’ve been doing some non-scientific research on parenting (or how people prefer get the daily news; or people’s reading habits, or fitness, etc).
- I’m interested to hear this speaker’s perspective on future trends in our industry. What are your predictions? Or what are the biggest challenges facing your company right now?
There’s no rule that says enforces superficial conversation at networking events. Often the people who complain about it are as responsible for the problem as anyone else. Make a commitment for your side of the equation. The superficial ceiling is not that hard to break after all!