Do you suspect that your job interviews — or your networking attempts — go nowhere because you just don’t know how to have the kind of great conversation that makes it clear you’re a great match for the job?

I’ve said it before: Nobody hires you for your “job interview skills.” Great conversation skills: That’s what we’re going to work on this week.


If you’re a regular around Ask The Headhunter, or you’ve attended my presentations or workshops, you know that I believe job hunting isn’t about applying to job postings, or fine-tuning your LinkedIn profile, or even going on job interviews.

New jobs come from new friends

conversation skillsFinding the right job is about making new friends, because that’s where good jobs come from — other people. And to make new friends (and get the job you want ), you need to hang out with people that do the work you want to do, and you need to talk shop with them and share new experiences.

Of course, making new friends requires talking with people you don’t know (yet) and having meaningful conversations about the work they do and the work you want to do. This might be people who can lead you to a job, or a hiring manager or recruiter who can actually produce a great job offer.

So this week we’re not doing a Q&A. This special edition is about something that worries many, if not most, job seekers: their lack of great conversation skills.

Great conversation skills make great interviews

I have always contended that some of the best career-related advice and insight comes not from “career experts,” but from other content domains about relevant related topics, like the mathematics of poker. Of course, the main “career content” you probably read is the job boards. You likely devote most of your “study” time looking at thousands of postings about jobs you don’t really care about. But you already know that kind of career content isn’t likely to win you job offers.

It’s time to change all that and learn how to help the right people lead you to your next great job by learning the right way to talk with them.

Wired magazine has done us all a solid by teaching us how to talk to others in The Science of Having A Great Conversation. Or, as the author of the article puts it, “Making friends can feel daunting, but research shows there are many ways to build better connections.”

Amp up your job interview conversations

David Robson’s article is an excerpt from his new book, The Laws of Connection: The Scientific Secrets of Building a Strong Social Network. The article is chock full of research-based insights and tips for great conversation that no one can afford to miss — least of all the serious job seeker.

I’m going to summarize some of the key points Robson discusses at length. It’s up to you to read the full article.

Then, I invite you back here, to the Comments section of this column, where we can talk about how to put all this to work in your job search (or, if you’re a hiring manager, or even a recruiter, how to optimize the quality of conversation so you can fill jobs with the best people).

12 ideas for better interview results through better conversation

Robson claims: “Whether we are on a first date or meeting a lifelong friend, [or in a job interview] each sentence we speak offers a new opportunity for greater connection.”

“Tiny tweaks to our conversational style can bring enormous benefits.”

Robson cites some famous authors who “were so keen to show off their wit and intelligence that they lacked the basic civility of listening to others.” Do you listen well enough to make a conversation go where you’d like it to go?

“The simplest way of achieving this [being a better listener] is to ask more questions, yet surprisingly few people have cultivated this habit effectively.”

Take a guess at what kinds of questions you might ask someone, to “demonstrate your wish to build mutual understanding and give you the chance to validate each other’s experiences.” The article offers six kinds of such questions. Try making your own list before you read the article.

Want to make the interviewer so happy that they’ll be more likely to hire you? “People are acutely aware of whether they are being listened to attentively, and their perception of receiving active attention from another predicts their feelings of trust, and contributes to the well-being boost that typically comes from strong social connections. The more attentive we are to someone, the happier they feel.”

“Unfortunately, many of us rely on the wrong cues to signal our interest in others. People can display their attention with nonverbal body language…” What body language do you display, and is it helping you have the kind of great conversation that can help you get hired?

“…we might conclude that we should always allow our acquaintance to take center stage. This advice can be found in many influential etiquette guides…” But does that convey the right message and optimize the quality of the conversation?

Time in a job interview is limited. How can you use “the fast friends procedure” to create an instant bond with the person who will decide whether you get a job offer?

How many times has a “career expert” warned you not to open up personally in a job interview? “…scientists found that the amount of time someone spent in small talk about daily banalities made almost no difference… whereas deeper conversations involving the exchange of meaningful information about their circumstances and interests had a significant impact.” What kinds of personal information should you share?

Should you discuss what the hiring manager already knows a lot about, or should you demonstrate that you bring something new and exciting to the table? This one completely got me! The Novelty Penalty: “a general preference to hear about familiar experiences… The informational gaps could create a feeling of distance that undermines the sense of a shared reality.” (Or what I refer to as shared experiences.)

If you do need to discuss novel ideas, how can you do it successfully, to make the conversation pay off? There are good ways to increase the quality of conversation — and the odds the other person will like you — by sharing “additional information that would allow you to close the gap in understanding.”

Join us in the Comments section below

Read the article for the details, then let’s discuss.

Nobody’s going to hire you for your interviewing skills. Learn how to have the kind of great conversations that makes it clear you’re a great match for the job you want.

What kinds of conversation skills do you use to elicit advice, insights and referrals to the jobs you want? Are conversation skills and interview skills the same thing? Where does a job interview end — and a great conversation begin?

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  1. I’ve never had good conversation skills. As a child, it meant I didn’t make friends. I’m not really making friends as an adult either, so I’m sure I’ve missed out on job opportunities, since I’ve had to resort to applying online since I don’t know anybody. I’ll be turning 46 on my next birthday so I’m not sure if I’m going to learn now a skill I’ve never had, or how far it would get me anyway since I’m not a young man anymore.

    • @Robert: I firmly believe learning the art of conversation at any age can make a stunning difference in anyone’s life — whether when job hunting, or just living.

      • Where do you go as an adult to learn these skills when you don’t already have them?

        • @Robert: Join a local book club or volunteer for a role that involves a lot of interaction with others, especially with people very different from you. Try a Toastmasters group where you will learn and practice sharing ideas and knowledge with strangers in a safe, structured setting. Or offer to present a tutorial on a topic you’re expert in at a professional gathering, preferably one where there’s Q&A and lots of interaction and discussion afterwards.

    • @Robert I agree with Nick. I was over 40 when I started to come to terms with my autism and worked to improve my people skills.

      I think of the things listed in the article, really listening to people may be the most important. (Personally, I find really listening to others to be exhausting.)

      • Where do you go as an adult to learn these skills?

        • Well, it’s a matter of practicing. What do you enjoy doing that you can discuss with other people?

          In general, I’d say that in-person is better than online. Twenty or so years ago, I was involved in a community for the game Diablo 2, and we got to know each other well enough than when one person was deployed to the mid-East, we sent him some books on tape. Nowadays, I think there is a lot more stupidity online, and you have to look for pockets of intelligence.

          For me, it started after getting out of a horribly crazy relationship I’d jumped into right after my father died. (And while that may have been a growing experience for me, I don’t recommend it for anyone!) Anyway, I decided to try some new things. The local parks and rec offered a fencing class, so I signed up for that. Then the community college offered a 100-hour class on massage therapy. (What?!? Physically touching another human being? That is so far out of my comfort zone!)

          Another route for me was the desire to be in a relationship. When I was 43, I saw a review in the LA Times for the book “The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists”. I got studying this stuff, and learned, to my amazement, that to meet women, you have to talk to strangers! Now a lot of the pick-up community is a freak show – and that’s what makes the best TV – but some of it made sense to me. For example, there’s Scot McKay, whose mantra is “Deserve what you want”. (Dude, you want to date women who are out of your league? Then work on yourself and become the kind of man who merits a great relationship. His theory is that while you can’t control other people, what kind of person you are is up to you.) Another person in the community – whose name I forget – was asking what does it mean to be “a stand-up guy” – and basing his “technique” around self-respect.

          And what does Jane Austen have to say about this?

          “Perhaps,’ said Darcy, “I should have judged better, had I sought an introduction; but I am ill qualified to recommend myself to strangers.”

          “Shall we ask your cousin the reason of this?” said Elizabeth, still addressing Colonel Fitzwilliam. “Shall we ask him why a man of sense and education, and who has lived in the world, is ill qualified to recommend himself to strangers?”

          “I can answer your question,” said Fitzwilliam, “without applying to him. It is because he will not give himself the trouble.”

  2. Some good tips – some of which I knew, others I didn’t.

    If you’re worried that sticking to some sort of script will set off someone’s BS detector, practice these techniques with friends, neighbors and colleagues until they become second nature.

    While you’re headed to the bookstore or library, I also highly recommend Dr. Robert Cialdini’s books, “Influence ”and “Pre-Suasion” for additional insights on human behavior and communication techniques. Cialdini has a knack for presenting scientific information in an easy-to-understand manner.

    • @Garp: Bob Cialdini’s “Influence” is a very readable “must read” book about the research on persuasion. I also recommend Duncan Watts’ “Six Degrees” about networks.

      • I’ve struggled with verbal communication as an adult & I do believe it has hurt me professionally. I was not permitted to speak as a child unless an adult spoke to me first, something I’ve had to work with a therapist on to try to overcome. Now I’m just socially awkward, uncomfortable & unsure when it comes to verbal communication.I will master it eventually.

  3. For those who feel like you are more technically-oriented, or “nerdy,” you can use that as a way to approach the process of interacting with others from a different perspective that someone who feels that they are already an outgoing “people person.”
    As a real-life example, I highly recommend the works of Debra Fine, who was an engineer that actually lost out on promotions due to her inability to interact effectively with others. She had been operating under the philosophy that all she needed was to be good at the technical aspects of her job, and she was very good at that, but when her company wanted to send her to a client to help the client understand what she had made, Fine felt too shy to go.
    She decided to apply her skills to “engineer” social interaction, and learned how to connect with others.
    What I mean is that she had a problem and used her problem-solving skills, that she had been using as an engineer, to overcome the obstacles to getting out of her shell and meeting people and making them feel seen.
    For example, if you are at a function at a conference, and you see someone standing alone, you could approach them. They may be like you were – wanting to chat but not knowing how to break the ice. Being the one to make the first move is such a relief for them, you have already become an ally and a friend in their eyes.
    Your interactions always need to be genuine, of course.
    She also teaches you, the reader, some techniques to help you overcome your own shyness or reticence. One is to prepare a list of topics to bring up at the dinner when it seems like the conversation has lulled. Like the example above, being the one to “save” the conversation elevates you in the minds of the others at the table.
    Another tool is to ask someone how to spell their name if you have forgotten what their name is. The other person realizes that you have forgotten their name, but because you are coming at it from a different angle, it is less awkward for both parties.
    Or, rather than feel shy about it, just face it head on and say, “You know. I’m one of those people who has a hard time remembering people’s names. Even though we’ve met before, please remind me of your name.” In this instance, the other person is likely to feel more respect for you because you have taken responsibility right from the get-go.
    After the function, she recommends taking a few moments before you leave the venue and reviewing whom you’ve met and what you’ve talked about. Make notes if it helps.
    If you are a science- or engineering-oriented person, then you are probably already skilled at seeing the “web of life” or other kinds of connections and dependencies. Why not use this skill to see how you are connected with others, and how they are connected to each other?
    What you can offer is that you may be able to help person A connect with person B, who don’t know each other, but both know you.
    That is, rather than worrying about your lack of social skills, approach a conference function with a goal: “I will keep talking to people until I find three who have come to this conference for similar reasons to mine and learn what they plan on doing with what they have learned here.”
    Or, you could just make it about something fun like, “I will talk to people until I have found three who can tell me something new about Riemannian Manifolds.”
    This makes it not about you and your ego/shyness, but an objective plan that you can execute just like you do your science and engineering work.

    • @Michael: Those tips are as good or better than anything in my column. I’ve never heard of Fine but will look her up. Thanks for summarizing and posting her suggestions. What strikes me is that none of them are tricks. All reflect a genuine intent to create and improve relationships. As you note, that’s what this is all about! When people complain to me that they don’t want to “network” because it’s “icky,” I tell them that if it feels icky, DON’T DO IT!

      • “Good manners is the art of making people comfortable. Whoever makes the fewest people uncomfortable has the best manners.”
        ? Jonathan Swift

  4. I’ve been fortunate to have several interviews in recent weeks, and all of them used those behavioral “tell me about a time when…” questions that kill natural conversation flow. Not to mention, I kind of suck at recalling anecdotes without sufficient time to give them some thought.

    I figured it had been a subject here on ATH, so I searched and found this Q&A from 2017 –

    I try to do what Nick suggests by talking about the job, the work that needs to be done, and how I would do it, but they all seem determined to stick to the script.

    • @Tom: Another way to handle managers that stick to the script is to answer as best you can, then ask, “Could you lay out a live problem you’d want your new hire tackle? I’ll do my best to outline how I would approach and do it, with your input and critique. This might give us both a good idea of how we’d work together.”

      Any manager that has an issue with that question is either authoritarian (“I do interviews, and everything else, just one way: MY way!”) or not engaged in the work.

      • Thanks for the advice, Nick. I failed to mention that these were all panel interviews with some combination of manager, HR, and co-workers taking turns with the “tell me about a time when…” questions.

  5. I think to some degree poor conversation skills pushed me out of a job.

    Last week, Nick mentioned that “One of the top venture capitalists in Silicon Valley recruits for his startups by sitting in the back of lecture halls and watching students participate in class. He looks for the oddballs. Students who ask insightful questions and think out of the box.”

    When I was at a startup, my out-of-the-box thinking just seemed to irritate the founder. I’d say something, and he’d say “What?” and look at me like I was insane. Then I’d explain why what I’d said made sense to me. I can’t say this happened every conversation, but it was often enough that over time I just dug myself in deeper and deeper. I remember one time the COO was down from the Bay area (we were in LA) and he, the founder and I were talking. At least a half dozen times in that conversation, I’d say something that the founder thought was crazy and then the COO would say, “Yeah, that happens all the time in San Jose.”

    One thing I wish I had done was – instead of explaining myself – to ask why he thought what I said was crazy. (Years later, when I got to studying this stuff, I heard of the idea “First seek to understand and then to be understood.”) But I didn’t, and since the founder was really the key person at the company and since I irritated him, the right thing to do was to fire me. But I didn’t realize that at the time – it was only later that I got to reading Paul Graham’s essays to try to make sense of my startup experience. And my belief – obviously I have no real insight to his thoughts – is that the founder didn’t realize it either. And since he couldn’t say “You irritate me; you are out of here!”, he fell back on questioning my competence more and more until I got pushed out.

    I have to admit that even after all these years, I’m still a bit bitter about that. At every other job in my career, I’ve gotten excellent reviews and been regarded as a top-notch dev. On the other hand, in a slightly saner moment, I can’t wish that events had gone differently, because at my next job I had the best boss of my career, and outside of work, I met the woman I would marry. So it all worked out for the best.

    • @Timothy: It’s hard to dismiss useless, mean-spirited criticism from someone that has authority over you, especially if you have (and continue to have) an excellent reputation. I think we sometimes suffer from this because we try to be responsible, helpful and good at our work – in part because we want to please those with authority and we want their approval. Sometimes we have a boss who is so insecure that abusing their charges is their main way of justifying their position. Bosses that lack good communication skills themselves can produce all kinds of unwarranted angst in others. We succumb to a kind of halo effect that imbues that boss with unwarranted legitimacy. In other words, we believe and trust the fool when we should know better.

      It happened to me in graduate school, where I had one adviser who completely lacked empathy and another that I realized later (too late!) was a psychopath who abused students that displayed any kind of insecurity. Took years to get over it, all while every other data point I had contradicted that fool’s assessment of me. If you tend to have high standards for yourself in your efforts to do your best work, it can be too easy to accept invalid but forceful criticism as valid when it’s not. I find there’s a tip-off, though. The critic couches their criticism in petty personal attacks, not as the helpful suggestions of a mentor that cares about you.

      Yah, the bitterness can be hard to swallow even years later. But I learned a helpful little trick. Imagine the fool looking in their mirror in the morning. They see the same fool they saw the day before – the same fool they will see every day.

      Enjoy all “the best” you have in your life. My mentor, a wise professor I also met in graduate school, taught all his students the best foil to fools: “Never work with jerks!”

      • @Nick Thank you for the kind words. And what you experienced in grad school – I honestly don’t know if I could have persevered through that!

        I can’t think of him as a fool. (I’m more likely to look in the mirror and see myself as one.) He was/is really smart and definitely had the startup work ethic. If he wasn’t sleeping, he was working. Meals were an annoying interruption of work – it affected me so much that even now I tend to eat too quickly. He had traits of Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs. I believe – but have no proof – that he did a Jobs-like move of buying back stock shares from the girlfriend who had been supporting him, just before the first VC support deal was announced. Related to that, one of the first things I said that got a “you’re crazy” reaction was that as one of the first employees – there were five of us and I was the first to get a salary, not just stock – I hoped to eventually build up to 1.5% of the company.

  6. I talk to people but I suck at follow up stayed in touch. I worked somewhere for three years and no one asked me for my contact details and it never occured to me to ask any of my colleagues for theirs.

  7. Also Dale Carnegie’s classic, “How to Win Friends and Influence People”.

  8. I know this may be the wrong place to put this, but this is pretty recent news. Looks like the ban on noncompete agreements was at least partially blocked:

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