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Talking to Strangers

I am an avid Radio 4 listener and in the depths of the first lockdown, I heard a programme in the ‘Word of Mouth’ series about talking to strangers. Full of insight, Professor Tanya Bryon and her guests reported on research which reinforces what I always say: (a) talking to strangers is actually good for you. And not just in a practical way – it actually makes you feel better about yourself and your place in the world. It makes you feel as if you really do belong. And as we know, from a networking perspective, it can reap amazing practical rewards. 

And (b) you can get better at it. I often suggest honing your skills by starting a conversation in an unthreatening environment – in the queue at the supermarket, or in the park. The experts on the programme added an extra tip – if you are trying to talk to someone when you know you are slightly transgressing the unpspoken rules, acknowledge that fact. “I know I shouldn’t really comment, but I’ve just noticed that….” 

Please, though, don’t take my word for it. Listen to the 30-minute programme yourself:  https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000lmft

We’re all introverts now

Just before the first lockdown, I attended a workshop called ‘Networking for Introverts’. Little did I realise how quickly, and how completely, that title would gain in relevance. But I attended, not out of prescience, but because the claim that “I just can’t network; I’m too shy” is all too common. In fact, what most people are saying is that they’re not convinced that the effort they need to put in is worthwhile.

To a few people (a lucky few), building a network comes naturally. They just love meeting new people, putting people in touch with each other, helping out, and enjoying a warm glow of self-satisfaction when there’s a positive outcome. Most of us, though, have to work a little harder – and unless we are convinced that it’s worthwhile, we won’t bother.

Which is why I so enjoyed Herminia Ibarra’s short piece entitled 5 Misconceptions about Networking. Follow this link to read it: https://hbr.org/2016/04/5-misconceptions-about-networking

Asking questions can get you a better job!

Conversation is fundamental to all human interaction (networking included, of course). We’ve all met people who tell you all about themselves in response to your questions but never return the compliment by asking about you. Not your favourite person, I’m sure.

In business, as in everyday social encounters. Intuitively, we may know that people who don’t ask questions, who don’t actively engage with us are less likeable than those who do. Now I’ve come across some recent research with confirms this. In a nutshell, the authors (five Harvard academics) found that “people who ask more questions, particularly follow-up questions, are better liked by their conversation partners”. This seems, to me at least, pretty obvious. But clearly that’s not the case for everybody since the researchers also found that “despite the persistent and beneficial effects of asking questions, people do not anticipate that question-asking increases interpersonal liking.”

In more detail, the authors suggest that there are two main goals of any conversation: information exchange and impression management. In both cases, their rigorous academic studies found that asking questions influences both, positively.

But a couple of words of caution. Firstly, this positive impact excludes people who fire questions at you in order (consciously or unconsciously) to avoid revealing anything about themselves. To keep the ball rolling, we need to both ask and answer questions, show and interest and reveal something of ourselves. Or, as I often say in workshops, be both interested and interesting.

Finally, a personal anecdote, which demonstrates that asking the right (or at least not the wrong) question is important. While at business school, I was turned down for a job with a management consultancy. When I asked for some feedback, I was told that I was doing really well until I asked what hours I would be expected to work. As far as they were concerned, they were looking for total dedication. I wasn’t prepared to offer that, so maybe ‘all’s well that ends well’. I wouldn’t have fit in well with that work culture, and they gathered that from the question I asked.

You can find a summary of the research is here. A PDF of the full paper is here

The power of serendipity (or ‘better late than never’)

Doing a little ‘housekeeping’ on a rainy Friday afternoon, I came across a gem of a story, hidden in a (very) old email. I had obviously meant to share it at the time, and got side-tracked.

A workshop participant pointed me in the direction of an episode of BBC Radio 4’s business programme, The Bottom Line, in which Will Butler-Adams, CEO of Brompton Bicycles, the pioneering folding bicycle, explains how he joined the company – because of a chance conversation on a coach from Henley to London.

Seriously. Will got chatting to the man sitting next to him, and told him that he was an engineer. The man replied that he was chairman of a company called Brompton, and was looking for someone like him.

It’s not that Will wasn’t qualified for the job – he had a master’s degree in engineering and Spanish from Newcastle University, and had previously worked for chemical giant ICI. But his appointment as MD of Brompton at the age of just 28 wouldn’t have happened without that chance conversation on a coach trip.

“I wasn’t some hardcore keen cyclist, and I had never heard of Brompton. But out of politeness I said I would go and meet the inventor.” Will says. But – he grasped the opportunity offered to him with both hands, so to speak.

A wonderful example of the power of serendipity and proof, if you need convincing, of what can happen when you talk to strangers. How often, I wonder, have you rebuffed friendly attempts at conversation on planes, trains and buses?

You can listen to the programme here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b011vhdm and read a little more here: https://web.archive.org/web/20160308210218/http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-23239764

Abundance theory (aka is the glass half full or half empty?)

Some meetings have practical outcomes: an introduction, perhaps even a new client. Other outcomes are a little vaguer. That was the case when I had coffee with a senior member of the alumni team at the University of London. She mentioned, in passing, something called Abundance Theory. Intrigued, I questioned her.

It seems that the term Abundance Theory was originally coined by Stephen Covey (author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). Basically, it’s the notion that there is plenty to go round in the world. Plenty of jobs, recognition, information, help. And that we all benefit from being generous, and helping others, rather than jealously guarding our knowledge and contacts

Think for example, of what geographers and urban planners call clustering. You would think, wouldn’t you, that one jeweller in a neighbourhood (or one florist or shoe shop) would be sufficient. So how to explain Hatton Garden, London’s jewellery district where literally hundreds of jewellers cluster in just a few streets? Or Silicon Valley? Or London’s Silicon Roundabout or Cambridge’s Silicon Fen? Why on earth should similar, and competing companies, accumulate in dense clusters, living cheek by jowl and (very probably) poaching each other’s staff?

The answer is because they all benefit from abundance. Access to the latest thinking at a nearby university (Stanford in California or Cambridge in the UK), a pool of talented individuals and a buzzy atmosphere full of new ideas and innovation. The more the merrier actually is true in the case of clustering.

Now transfer that concept to the individual level. In certain instances, clearly, there may be only one job to be filled. Or one contract to be agreed. But take a step back, and use a broader perspective. You don’t get this job – but by helping someone, you are introduced to an even better job (which, with any luck, you get). Or by talking to your network, you get the lowdown on a company and realise that the contract you were chasing wasn’t that great in the first place. Next time round you are far savvier and knowledgeable.

I’m by nature sceptical about touchy-feeling approaches to life. If keeping a gratitude diary works for you, that’s great. To my eyes, though, our world is not made of cotton wool, and you will have some hard landings and learn some tough lessons. But that doesn’t mean that you have to adopt scarcity theory and ruthlessness as your approach. In the final analysis, life isn’t a zero sum game. My gain is not necessarily your loss. And vice versa, of course

If you’re also a sceptic, try it out for a while, and let us know what happens. I know full well that changing attitudes isn’t easy, but there’s no doubt that it is worth trying. Some suggestions:

• Seek out people who see the glass as half full (aka positive people),
• Share more of whatever it is that you need (help, encouragement, introductions….). That’s also known as ‘paying it forward’.
• Try to see things that scare you as opportunities not threats. For example, a room crammed full of people you don’t know: it’s not the lion’s den, but an opportunity to meet some new people and make some new contacts. Who knows where that may lead – but serendipity should be the subject of another blogpost.

How many friends can you have?

I’m often asked at workshops: How big should my network be? And in the past, I tended to reply somewhat sarcastically: How long is a piece of string? In other words, if you ask a silly question, you get a silly answer.

But on reflection, the question isn’t quite so silly, especially if it is rephrased like this: “How big a network can I actually maintain?” The right answer is: about 150.

If this sounds simplistic, you might be interested to hear about research by Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford. He has discovered that our social world is actually much more limited than we might expect. Despite the fact that for the past couple of hundred years most of us have been living in ever-larger cites, average network size remains around 150. (But please be aware: the number is by no means exact, and can be over 200.)

To check his findings, Dunbar looked at all sorts of data sources. Most tribal societies today live in groups of around 150. Average village size England in the year 1087 (as recorded by William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book) was 150. In many armies the smallest standalone unit (the Company in the British Army) is around 150 people. And if you look at the parish records for English counties in the 18th century, in each one the average village size is 150 (except, inexplicably, for Kent!).

Who are these people? Actually, each network of 150 people can be broken down into smaller groups. Firstly, most of us have a small circle of about 5 people with whom we are intimate. Then we have about 15 good friends, about 50 friends, and in the region of 150 acquaintances. Interestingly and again inexplicably, each level seems to increase by about a factor of 3.

Each category includes the previous ones, rather like the concentric ripples created by a pebble thrown into a lake (where you, of course, are the pebble at the centre). The first three groups (intimates, good friends and friends) are fairly self-explanatory – but the outer circle of acquaintances are especially interesting, from a networking perspective.

Dunbar describes these acquaintances in two ways. On the one hand, they are people with whom you have some sort of relationship; they aren’t just names and faces. To use Dunbar’s own phrase, they are people with whom you could easily have a drink if you ran into them in the transit lounge of Dubai airport in the small hours.

Another way of describing them is to do with face time. These are people with whom you do things. People from whom you could ask a favour and have a reasonable expectation of a positive reply.

Why so few?
Why is our social world so restricted? Dunbar thinks there are two reasons. One is simply a time constraint. There are only so many hours in the day, after all, and so the time we can spend, face to face with friends and acquaintances, is by definition limited. However much we may want to invest in our relationships, reality gets in the way.

The second constraint is cognitive, to do with brain size. When studying primates, Dunbar found a clear correlation between brain size and group size; it follows that we are simply not capable of keeping track of more than about 150 relatively close contacts.

Facebook friends?
Dunbar, along with many other academics, argues that face to face contact is crucial to relationship building. Technology – from the telephone to email and social media – is great at helping us keep relationships going, especially in our spread-out world where we may have been born in one place, went to college somewhere else, and end up working in a third place. They help to prevent relationships decaying if you’re too far apart to go to the pub together – but, in the end, if we don’t manage to get to the pub occasionally, the relationship is likely to wither away.

So if you know anybody who claims to have 1000 Facebook friends, you know they must be kidding themselves. While people clearly vary in their ability to manage relationships, such extremes are (almost certainly) just not true. Being invited to a party, as I once was, with 2,000 of my host’s closest friends was fine – so long as I realised that ‘close’ wasn’t meant to be taken literally. Those hundreds of Facebook ‘friends’ aren’t even acquaintances; they’re more like entries in a database.

Facebook themselves have confirmed Dunbar’s general finding. It seems that the average friend count is 190, and 50% of people have about 100 Facebook friends.

Practical implications
We’ve always said that simply connecting names and business cards isn’t the same as building a professional (or personal) network. A database isn’t a network. And we also stress the importance of your weak ties, which are roughly equivalent to Dunbar’s acquaintances. Pay attention to your active network, nurture it and make sure you invest sufficiently by keeping in touch (both face to face and electronically).

Realise, too, that all Dunbar is proposing is an average. So if your network is very small, you may need to invest more time and effort. And if your network is large, be thankful that you are probably a natural connector, able to maintain a wide-ranging network relatively easily.

Take a look at your own network, and let us know if Dunbar’s number holds true for you.

Networking or Connecting?

I don’t often blow my own trumpet (after all, who wants to read endless blogs about the amazing workshops and masterclasses I run? Better to come to one, and see for yourself.)

But at a session I ran last week for Focus (www.focus-info.org), an organisation that works with expats living in the UK, I suggested that people might feel a little more comfortable about networking if they thought about what they were doing as ‘connecting’ rather than ‘networking’. The latter can have self-seeking connotations related to working the room; the former just implies having interesting conversations with a diverse range of people.

Lynne, who came to my workshop, was so appreciative of this idea, that I’ll quote her blog at length:
“Until today, I thought of networking as a fairly unpleasant task of making awkward small talk with strangers and collecting business cards. I learned from Judith that simply changing the word ‘networking’ to ‘connecting’ reframes it into a much more appealing activity. Looking at it from the viewpoint of a connector, we can go to events, meet lots of people who have their own unique perspectives and raisons d’être, learn about what interests them and what their current challenges are. Then, when we meet another person who has a similar interest, or maybe even a solution to an issue, we can connect those people and possibly help both of them. Networking just became fun! It’s no longer about me and it’s all about getting to know other people. Along the way, if we openly share our interests with people, then someone somewhere might be introduced to us.”

It seems to me fairly self-explanatory that one of the ways to turn something unappealing into something more attractive is to change both our definition of it and, of course, what we actually do. So, to mis-quote @JohnFKennedy: Don’t ask what your network can do for you, ask what you can do for your network!

You can read Lynne’s full blog here: https://lynnehaddow.com/2018/05/22/connecting-with-people/


Thinking about names again (it seems to be a theme at the moment), last week Laurie Taylor interviewed @NasarMeer (Professor of Race, Identity and Citizenship at #EdinburghUni) on #ThinkingAllowed on #Radio 4 about what he calls ‘micro-aggression’. How should one respond to that seemingly innocuous (but actually somewhat offensive) question: ‘Where are you really from?’ And what do you do when you, a black (British) person are congratulated on your English, or when someone seems to have trouble pronouncing your unfamiliar but fairly straightforward name?

This was highlighted quite starkly at a conference I recently attended. An acquaintance of mine, not born in this country, was interviewing an author. After several preliminary meetings, interviewer and interviewee had put together a more or less mutually acceptable set of questions. And then, during the live interview in front of an audience, the author asked his interviewer, just as they were about to begin: “Oh, sorry, just put me straight please. How should I pronounce your name?” Thus instantly making it quite clear that while he was British born and bred, his interviewer was most definitely a foreigner, an outsider. This despite several preliminary meetings at which he could easily have clarified the issue.

On the other hand, as I said in my previous post about ‘unusual names’ and my previous workshop participant Harshine Wikramanayake, having an unusual name can make you memorable. And that’s no bad thing in our overcrowded lives. It’s by no means simple. You can hear the Radio 4 programme at http://bbc.in/2pnaLQs

Who gets the top jobs?

I’ve just read an academic paper entitled ‘Who gets the top jobs? The role of family background and networks in recent graduates’ access to high status professions’ – written by academics from the Universities of London and Cambridge, under the auspices of the Institute of Education

The researchers investigate aspects of the thorny question of social mobility, in the hope that understanding it better will generate more effective public policies.

Looking at graduates, they find (I think surprisingly, but you may not agree) that the single most influential factor affecting whether or not they secure jobs in ‘high status occupations’ is whether they were privately educated or went to a state school. Interestingly, this is even more important than their personal educational achievements, which university they went to, their parents’ occupations, or where they lived.

The researchers then wondered whether the graduates social networks might be responsible for this – and in a slightly perverse way, I’m glad to report that they didn’t find this to be the case. I say glad because although you could call me an evangelist for the power of professional (and other) networks, I am naturally uncomfortable with even a hint of nepotism or unfair advantage derived from the use of ‘ready-made’ (family and/or professional) networks. I firmly believe that all of us, even newcomers to this (or any other) country, or first-time graduates or career changers can, with a little skill and a lot of imagination and diligence, build an active and supportive network in a new area. And so gain an advantage derived from their own skills and expertise. And luckily, professional networking is a skill which can be taught effectively.

If you are interested, you can read the full article here: https://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar?cluster=3060124704150884181&hl=en&as_sdt=1,5&as_vis=1

What’s in a name?

I’ve recently taken up yoga, and have been to an excellent beginner’s course. While changing in the dressing room, I idly read the notices advertising future sessions. To my surprise, last week I recognised one of the teachers’ names – a woman who came to a workshop I ran over a decade ago! So what, you may ask? What’s this got to do with a blog on professional networking? Let me explain.

When we discuss how (rather than why) to network, one of the topics we cover is the fine art of remembering people’s names. Some international students feel uncomfortable with the fact that people sometimes have difficulty pronouncing, let alone remembering, their name.

I try to persuade them otherwise. Firstly, I remind them that an ‘unusual’ name (that is, unusual for the UK, though often fairly commonplace elsewhere in the world) is, at the very least, memorable. Years ago, when I was asked to revitalise the Dorling Kindersley brand, I remember a long drawn out struggle with the ‘simplifiers’, who wanted to shorten the brand to ‘DK’. Easy to pronounce….but totally unmemorable. In contrast, although many people got the Dorling Kindersley name wrong (the funniest I remember was Darling Kindergarten!), few forgot it completely. And in bookstores, every assistant immediately knew who custgomers were referring to. I won the argument at the time, but I see (sadly) that they have now reverted to DK. I wonder…..

The same goes for people. Being memorable (for the right reasons, of course) can be a huge advantage. Back to the yoga studio – the name of the student was Harshini Wikramanayake – a long name, but most certainly memorable (and actually not at all difficult to pronounce if you break the syllables down).

So – there’s the connection between networking and yoga.

PS. If you want more information about Harshini’s teaching, go www.saneepa.com/



A guide to making – and keeping – the connections that make your, our and everyone else’s world go round.

The book walks you through everything you need to know about connecting with other people.

Judith and Tony’s goal in the book is to get away from the manipulative ‘working a room’ concept of networking. Instead, they use the results of research into human interactions coupled with real case studies to justify the hints, tips and suggestions they propose.


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