The Fine Art of Listening, er, Reading

One of the most important skills in interpersonal relations, whether business, romance, or social, is listening. In building online relationships, the equivalent is reading – not just skimming, but actually absorbing what the person said.

I recently joined LinkedInnovators, a Yahoo Group for people who are passionate about the use of LinkedIn. Last week, the group’s creator, Jonathan Meath, asked the members to introduce themselves, in a sort of “virtual cocktail party”. So I did, but some of the people don’t “listen” very well. A number of people apparently didn’t make it all the way through my introductory message before they decided, “Oh, Scott looks interesting – I’ll connect with him on LinkedIn.”

You see, directly under the link to my LinkedIn profile, I wrote:

PLEASE NOTE: I use LinkedIn for trusted referrals, not just to increase my exposure. I accept most contact requests, but I generally DO NOT accept connection requests until I’ve actually done some sort of collaboration/work with someone. If we haven’t worked together on something, please request contact, not a connection.

But several people must have just stopped at the link to my LinkedIn profile – they got what they were looking for and didn’t read any further. I have already received three requests to connect from people on the list who I’ve never met, never spoken to one-on-one, never worked with, etc. Now admittedly, they’re all three people I would probably like to meet, but making a connection on LinkedIn when we don’t know anything about each other simply isn’t the way to do it. They don’t know enough about me and I don’t know enough about them to be able to add any value when passing along referrals, or to be able to know even what kind of referrals to pass along and which not to. We don’t have to connect on LinkedIn to start a relationship!

Most importantly, by inviting me (or anyone else you haven’t really gotten to know yet), they put me in a really awkward spot. I don’t want to accept the connection invitation because then LinkedIn doesn’t work for me the way I want it to (and, by the way, the way LinkedIn recommends). Yet if I reject the connection, that may come across to you as a rejection of the relationship, which it isn’t.

You really put people in an awkward social situation when you request a connection with someone you don’t know. So most people, out of fear of offending the requester, accept the requests even when they don’t want to, and then that degrades the quality of the relationship chains, making referrals beyond two degrees much less effective.

So please, think carefully before requesting a connection and make sure that you either know the other person well, or they have indicated a willingness to accept any and all connection requests, as some people have done. Also, if you want to build relationships effectively, you have to learn to listen well – to read all of what the other person really says, not just skim it to get the information you’re looking for.

Imagine, if you will, this conversation at a local networking meeting:

Mary: “Hi, I’m Mary. I’m new here, and just kind of getting the feel for this group to see if I might like to participate more.”

John: “I’m John. What do you do for a living, Mary?”

Mary: “I’m an accountant for small businesses.”

John: “Great! I’m a computer consultant for small businesses. Are any of your clients in need of computer consulting? Would you please send me your client list so I can contact them and see if they are? And of course, you can contact all my clients too.”

Mary: “Excuse me, I’m going to go get another drink.”

Get the picture?

Online tools are great at accelerating the process of identifying and building relationships with relevant people, but there’s still such a thing as just moving too fast. Listen first. Build a relationship. Then figure out how you can be of service to each other. You can’t possibly know until you start listening.