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Anyone can get better at networking by simply talking less about work, study says

Posted by Deepshikha Shukla

February 22, 2022

Background: Sean Martin, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, led a study exploring the difference between conversations about work topics and nonwork topics, and how differences in words used by conversation topics affect conversation partners.

A goal of the research was to evaluate how the topics we discuss when meeting new people relate to our new acquaintance’s desire to stay in touch with us after the initial meeting. The study found that one aspect related to a new acquaintance’s desire for a second encounter was whether their conversational companion chatted a lot about work or about their life outside of work.

Reasons to dislike establishing new work connections

In professor Martin’s study, researchers analyzed data from lab and field experiments to identify potential reasons as to why some new interpersonal connections persist while others do not. 

The study found that when people talk about work, they tend to use more achievement-oriented and transactional words – like excel, win, gain, success – compared to the words they use when speaking about nonwork topics. This makes the speaker seem less supportive and attentive to their conversation partners. 

Listeners tend to be less interested in future interactions and less likely to want to stay in touch with people who talk a lot about work in transactional terms. The use of transactional words can also lead people to view the speaker as not particularly warm and a poor listener, the study found.

How to build better networking connections 

Silicon Valley companies are known for spending billions to create open workplaces featuring cafes and informal meeting spots so employees from different teams — who’d be unlikely to otherwise meet — can connect and forge new relationships that spark innovation.

The researchers suggest that such meetings could be more effective when people talk less about work in their first meeting, as it typically entails transactional language that can turn off listeners, to increase the likelihood of a second encounter. In short, people who talked about nonwork topics have an increased likelihood of follow-up interactions, according to the study.

But the study also suggests how we talk about work when meeting people for the first time matters: “Some people successfully avoided using these [achievement-oriented, transactional] words very much when talking about work, and to the extent they did, we didn’t observe the same penalty in terms of how their partners rated them,” Martin writes. 

“In other words, it may be less about the topic of work itself, and more about how the topic of work can trigger a vocabulary that makes people see us as being less interested in them,” he writes.

How to start conversations

To be more successful at business networking, the research suggests people should be mindful about which words they use when talking about work and the impression those words could convey. We should aim to use conversation starters that signal warmth and curiosity about others to increase the likelihood of a connection that persists.

The researchers suggest sharing information about one’s identity in a way that de-emphasizes achievement-oriented concerns. The result is that new acquaintances will view us more positively, thereby increasing the likelihood of creating an ongoing relationship.

Takeaway

“So, what do you do?” is probably not a great question to ask during an introductory meeting. While it may invite initial conversation, achievement-oriented language likely to ensue from the question can turn listeners off. New conversation partners prefer to interact with people who are good listeners and who communicate warmth and curiosity, and this extends to conversation about work. 

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