The below is an excerpt from Christie Hunter Arscott‘s new book, Begin Boldly: How Women Can Reimagine Risk, Embrace Uncertainty, and Launch a Brilliant Career, which equips readers to take risks using a model built around three mindsets: a curious mindset, a courageous mindset, and an agile mindset.
With a step-by-step method for taking risks, assessing rewards, and refining approaches, she gives women a repeatable framework to guide them through this critical career skill.
Hunter Ascott’s goal is to encourage women to take chances on themselves and turn risk-taking into an enlightening and empowering antidote for self-doubt. As Christie reminds us, the biggest risk for women is not taking any risks at all.
Going beyond your comfort zone to connect with new people can feel like a risk in your early career years. The fear of invites ignored, of outright rejection, of conversations that fall flat, of awkward silences, and of mentorships that don’t materialize can be a hindrance to building the connections that matter most. But connecting with others, even in the face of discomfort and potential failure, is usually a risk worth taking. The long and the short of it: Connectivity is correlated with career success.
A research study by Catalyst, and countless others studies, notes that networking is a key factor that enables women to progress. The question isn’t whether we need to connect with others but how we are going to connect in meaningful ways.
The answer: Connect with curiosity.
When I work with women in the earlier stages of their career, few things elicit as much fear as the dreaded word networking. Have you ever shied away from attending a networking event? Have you ever walked into a room and your chest tightens, hands sweat, and nerves heighten? Have you ever tirelessly prepared for what you were going to say on a call and then still struggled to articulate your thoughts without sounding awkward? Have you ever beaten yourself up after an event because what you meant to say just didn’t come out right? Does networking ever feel almost underhanded, as you think about all the things you need or want to get from others?
At best, most of us are a little uncomfortable networking; at worst, we find even the thought of networking to be cringeworthy, forced, and anxiety provoking. I’m going to share the one simple tool you need to cultivate the connections that matter most.
Applying a lens of curiosity to those around us is a simple and often-overlooked technique for building meaningful connections with others. When networking, early career women are often ill-advised to hyperfocus on what they want to say instead of crafting something equally, if not more, important: what they want to ask.
Research shows that questions in conversation have the power to increase likability and build more authentic connections with people while helping address the pervasive pressure and often accompanying fears of networking. Relationships are at the core of the human experience both inside and outside the workplace. To fully engage with other people, we must adopt a spirit of inquiry and infuse curiosity into our conversations.
/ Challenge / Many early career women report that they shy away from one of the most essential career-building activities, networking, due to anxiety and fears. This becomes career limiting, especially at later stages in their careers.
Why is connectivity important? Because the strength of your networks can directly influence your long-term career prospects. We have decades of data proving that the right connections are correlated with better career outcomes (including but not limited to getting your foot in the door for new roles and advancing within organizations). Many studies have correlated the power of networks with someone’s career mobility and career advancement; as one example, the work by Boris Groysberg at Harvard has highlighted that women who have built amazing careers succeed by leveraging their broad networks.
On the flip side, one often-cited and well-documented reason that more female managers don’t advance to top executive roles is their lack of established informal organizational and industry networks.
My research with Lauren Noël, also reinforced this theme: Women who have crafted meaningful and fulfilling careers possessed a collective focus and shared the belief that no woman is an island, and that our connectivity and relationships are absolutely critical to our success. In other words: Don’t go at it alone!
Why start early? Connectivity breeds connectivity, so starting early is essential if you want to reap compounding returns. The one mistake I see women making again and again is waiting until they feel they need a network to start cultivating connections. If you wait until you’re ready to transition roles or organizations to build your network, it’s too little, too late. Building meaningful connections should happen before you have a distinct need.
By starting earlier, you can maximize what I term the multiplier effect of networking. You connect with one person, who connects you with two others, they connect you with four others, and it continues. Your network expands and expands through this knock-on effect. The time to network is now so that you can reap the multiplier effect of network returns during your entire career.
/ Solution / Use curiosity as a tool for tackling fears and hesitations around connecting with others.
Imagine having dynamic and vibrant networks and meaningful connections with people who infuse value and insight into your career as you do the same for others. The key to bridging the gap between where you are and where you want to be is to use curiosity as a tool for tackling fear and hesitation around connecting with others.
You have the ability to harness the power of questions in conversation to build connections. Again, it’s about focusing on flipping the script: Instead of thinking about what you want to say, think about what you want to ask, including what you want to learn or know.
In the summer of 2019, I developed and delivered a weeklong class, She Leads: A Real World Readiness Program, for female students in their final years of high school. Designed to help bridge the gap between what we learn in school and what skill sets and mindsets are required outside the classroom, the program addressed a range of topics, including a lecture titled “Nerves and Networking: Making the Connections That Matter.” What did the students put into practice to address their fears? They approached networking with a spirit of inquiry—that is, a curious mindset.
When they shifted the focus from preparing what they wanted to say to what they wanted to ask, the nerves associated with networking were noticeably reduced. I’ve used this tool again and again with women I coach, mentor, and advise. The bonus: You will learn exponentially from the experiences and insights of others at a critical growth period of your career. Curiosity is the foolproof solution we all can use to ignite connectivity while moving past our fear and hesitation.
Put It into Practice
Contrary to popular belief, language matters. How we label an activity matters. Different words elicit different reactions, so how we frame something can have differing psycholog- ical and behavioral impacts. In one experiment, some people were asked to think about making friends at a cocktail party and others were told to imagine trying to network and make professional con- nections. Those who were in the networking group responded that they felt “dirty,” including feeling self-serving, manipulative, or deceitful, and shied away from connecting with others. My work and research have revealed that the association between networking and “dirtiness” arises more in women. Given that women are more prone to worry about being “liked” than their male peers, it isn’t surpris- ing that we may shy away from networking if we feel that it is self- serving and could affect likability.29
How do we reduce the negative feelings associated with network- ing? We can use different language. Use the power of reframing to position it as “connecting with others” or “building meaningful rela- tionships with others” or “forging new friendships” or “cultivating connections” or “getting to know others.” Find the words that work for you and reduce those feelings of “ickiness” and angst.
Adopt a curious mindset and focus as much on what you want to ask as on what you want to say.
In 2016, I gave a lecture at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School on the future of work and reigniting human connectivity in organizations. I shared an image of an iceberg, noting that what we see above the waterline is only about 10 percent of a person and that the key to building powerful connections is seeking to understand the person behind the work, the other 90 percent. As you think about connecting with others, prepare questions that will allow you to do that, to get beneath the surface. Seek to understand the person behind the work.
Not long after this lecture, in early 2017, I was co-facilitating a program for early career women hosted by Harvard Business School (HBS). Alison Wood Brooks, an HBS professor, shared a tool that can help us connect with others. She noted that we often think about six points of separation between us and another person. But what’s actually true is that it takes about six questions to find some point of commonality between you and someone else. She noted that not only do questions increase a person’s likability and influence, but also, by asking them, you can find a point of relation and connectivity with others.
What my work and research have revealed is that this approach is especially important for you if you’re from an underrepresented group in your organization, particularly if you’re Black, Indigenous, or a person of color, or in another underrepresented group within your organizational context. This is because affinity bias is at play in the workplace, meaning people are more likely to gravitate to those who are similar to them.
Whether a workforce is predominantly white or male or both, or has some other dominant demographic group, when we’re in a minority position, affinity biases can work against us. This is because there might be individuals who automatically associate with others who are visibly similar to them. If we’re in a minority position, we’re more likely to be in a situation where people don’t have an affinity for us.
While I was writing this book, a study published by Catalyst highlighted that curiosity drives inclusion for people of color at work, and this came as no surprise. The aspects of us that are visible, above the waterline, are only one dimension of our identities, backgrounds, and lived experiences. By asking questions, we can find points of relation that may not initially be visible. If we’re from an underrepresented group, we may have to work harder to find that point of connection or affinity, beyond what meets the eye, and questions are the tool to do that.
We’ll delve into affinity bias and how to interrupt it later on in this book. When it comes to connectivity, curiosity is an incredibly powerful tool to get to a point of relation and build an affinity with other individuals. As mentioned earlier, there are invisible and visible aspects of you. So think about the visible bits as just the tip of the iceberg, what people see, and underneath are all these other amazing dynamic aspects about you that other people may not see. That’s the same truth for others. You want to ask them questions that eventually reveal something about them that may be unknown. Often it takes going beneath the surface to uncover a point of relation, something that you can connect to and build an affinity around. Using questions is an incredibly powerful tool to calm nerves and build points of relation. Go into conversations preparing for what you’d like to know, not just what you want to share.
Use curiosity and questions to focus on the needs of others—and identify the intersection of their needs and your skills.
The other powerful aspect of approaching connectivity with a curious mindset is that it will help you concentrate on what you can give. This also helps address the fear that networking is self-serving. Instead of thinking about what you can get, you flip the script and think about what you can contribute.
The more you understand someone else’s needs, current situation, context, and challenges, the more you can identify how you can provide value to them through helping solve a problem, sharing expertise, or facilitating a connection. You can’t appropriately match your skills and capabilities and resources to their needs without understanding those needs.
Asking questions is key to determining what you can give rather than what you can get. Experiment by asking others where they need support or how you can better support them in reaching their goals, what is top of mind for them right now regarding their role or their business, what are the biggest challenges they are facing, what opportunities get them the most excited, or where they see themselves going over the next five years. Picture a Venn diagram with their needs in one circle and your skills, expertise, network, and so forth in the other. By asking these questions, you can push the conversation forward to identify and isolate the area of
overlap, the sweet spot where your skills, expertise, and network can help meet the needs of someone else. Making a contribution to others can add meaning to your career, while generating value for others.
Leverage questions to redirect and refocus the conversation.
Sometimes despite our best efforts, our conversation partners will put the spotlight squarely on us. At times, this can feel like you’re standing at the end of a long hallway with a tennis ball machine launching ball after ball at you so quickly that you’re overwhelmed and missing every shot, with no hope of returning the ball in the right direction and putting it in play. When you’re on the receiving end of someone firing questions at you, it’s helpful to pause and focus on answering one question thoughtfully, finishing with an add-on question that passes the ball back to them. Be prepared with a few talking points and supporting anecdotes about who you are, what you do, why you do what you do, and where you want to go: your goals and aspirations.
Once you’ve shared an insight, pass the ball back. Imagine being asked about your career aspirations. You could share your desire to be promoted into a role where you have the opportunity to have a bigger impact on your organization and clients. You could then ask your conversation partners what their path to their current position was or whether they have any advice as you navigate this promotion period.
Focus on answering one question at a time, even if you miss a few of the balls coming your way, and strategically answer and pass the ball back to them with a question. If your answers and questions can build on known points of relation or commonality with your conversation partner, that’s an even bigger win. For instance, “I know you also started in this organization at the associate level. What was your path to management?” In addition to keeping the ball in their court, follow-up questions have also been proven to increase likability and positive perceptions of the conversation.
Don’t be afraid to use follow-up questions as conversation extenders that allow you to learn more about your partner and connect on a deeper level. Try these: “How so?”, “That’s interesting. What did you learn?”, “I’m interested in knowing more about that. Can you give an example of how this affected your career?”, “Wow, that’s a tough scenario. How did the situation play out? Where did things land in the end?”
Use curious questioning to move from “small talk” to “deep talk.”
When you connect with someone new, your natural inclination may be to ask standard small-talk questions like “What do you do?” or “Where are you from?” However, recent research builds a compelling case to use curiosity to go deeper in conversations and, in turn, learn more about others while catalyzing more meaningful and enjoyable conversations. Intimate conversations are correlated with higher levels of happiness in comparison with “small talk.” While many of us may steer clear of such conversations with strangers and believe that these more intense conversations are reserved for friends, the studies show that this is misguided and that we probably underestimate how much other people—especially strangers—can enjoy and find satisfaction in more meaningful conversations. In a dozen experiments with roughly 1,800 people, from business executives to visitors in public parks, researchers found that participants felt happier and more connected than they expected after relatively deep conversations with people they had just met.
Try asking deeper questions.
- What do you do? ▶ What do you love doing?
- What is your current role? ▶ What is something about you that is largely unknown, something that isn’t in your bio or CV? What is something about you that others may find surprising?
- Where are you from? ▶ Where do you see yourself in five years? What are you most looking forward to in your career over the next year? What’s the next thing you’d like to cross off your career bucket list?
- How is your work going? ▶ What aspects of your work do you most enjoy and why? What do you least enjoy and why? What gives you the most meaning, satisfaction, and joy at work?
- How are you? ▶ What’s been on your mind recently? What’s top of mind for you right now? Is there any type of support you need right now? What was the highlight of your week? What’s been going well? What hasn’t been going so well?
Think about adding some interesting questions on risk-taking so that you can learn from others and hear their stories to fuel your practices.
- When was the last time you got out of your comfort zone? How did it go?
- What’s the most daring thing you’ve done in your career? • What risks are worth taking in life/career?
- When have you failed? What did you learn?
While the evidence strongly suggests swapping “small talk” for “deep talk,” the researchers have a word of caution: “Let’s be clear. Our research does not suggest throwing all caution to the wind, assuming everyone wants to be your best friend, and revealing your deepest thoughts to anyone you meet. ‘Too much information’ can be a real thing. Instead, our research suggests that the person next to you would probably be happier talking about their passions and purpose than the weather and ‘what’s up.’”
Use a curious mindset to move beyond superficialities. Take a try-it-and-tweak-it approach. Try out some questions in conversation, experiment having deeper conversations with new contacts, and then tweak your approach based on how it went.
Leave likability concerns at the door—curiosity has you covered!
Networking can be anxiety inducing for anyone, but especially for women who face the added pressure of negotiating the double bind, with research highlighting that women are perceived as competent or liked, but rarely both. To make things more complex, researchers in Canada, Spain, and France studied 221 MBA students who were in their early career years and had six-plus years of work experience, and discovered that women were more likely to define their identities according to how others viewed them.
This means that the pressure when networking can seem insurmountable: we must be likable and competent, and the views and judgments of those around us must be positive if we want to form positive identities. That sounds exhausting and anxiety provoking, with an incredible amount of pressure being put on these seemingly all-important interactions.
However, a study published in 2017 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology provides an easy work-around so that you can simultaneously build deeper, more genuine connections with someone while being more likable: Just ask questions.
Yes, it is that simple.
The key finding: People who approach conversations with a curious mindset and ask more questions, particularly follow-up questions, are better liked by their conversation partners and build better connections with more chances for a future connection point.
While this may allay some fears, the women I work with often ruminate for weeks and even months about interactions: fixating on what they should have said, how they could have said it, and what they should have done differently. A team of researchers from Yale, Harvard, Cornell, and the University of Essex found that this negative self-talk and critique is most often biased and overinflated, as “people systematically underestimate how much their conversation partners liked them and enjoyed their company.”
This “liking gap” is the difference between how much we think people like us and how much people actually like us. Women in particular face this gap. Your solution: Leave likability concerns at the door. Your perception of how much someone likes you is most often going to be skewed, with a glaring gap between reality and what your inner critic is telling you! Use the power of curiosity—asking questions, listening deeply to answers, and asking follow-up questions—to forge meaningful connections while allaying likability concerns.
Getting Past Your Internal Roadblocks
Avoiding networking is a career-limiting and potentially career-stalling move. Don’t let the mere thought of networking stop you in your tracks. Use the power of a curious mindset to forge connections while addressing the barriers that may hold you back, including fears, self-doubt, likability concerns, affinity bias, and worries about risks gone wrong.
The most successful women I’ve met know that no woman is an island and that our connectivity and relationships are critical to our success. They believe that the onus for building and maintain- ing relationships lies with them and them alone. They proactively and strategically create the meaningful connections they desire through curiosity.
Kathleen Taylor shared: “I am a student of people. One of the things I tell young executives is to build time into their schedules to become students of people and masters of relationships.” If you go out with a spirit of curiosity, you’ll be amazed at what you can learn about others, about yourself, and about potential connections and intersections, and how you can help others. In the earlier stages of your career, a curious mindset will not only address fears and barriers to networking, but also allow you to tap into the wealth of knowledge of others. Becoming “a student of the people” is a powerful way to unlock learning and catalyze connectivity at this foundational point in your career.
Create a comprehensive list of questions you can use in conversations to build connectivity.
Understand that some of these questions will be good in some contexts, and other questions in other situations; having an ongoing list is a great starting point. This list can serve as a reference guide as you prepare for connecting with others. You can add to it and revise as you try different questions and approaches.
Some helpful tips:
- Put yourself in their shoes. Remember to think about what you would like to be asked. It makes generating questions easier.
- Search online for helpful tools and tips, especially those from the researchers I mention in this chapter (see the notes for sources).
- Think about what you want to learn. Your early career years are a critical time of learning and development. Think about what you’d like to learn from your conversation partners. Questions about career paths, experiences, key learnings, and advice are great places to start.
- Think about what knowledge you’d like to gain from the other person, in order to better assess how you can be of value to them. You want to be able to find something you can give, not just what you can get. Understanding their needs will help you do this.
- Remember that deeper questions can form deeper connections.
Come up with a goal for connecting with others that feels like a stretch or risk for you, something outside your comfort zone. If helpful, you can use the Bold MOVES framework to help you assess which risks to take. What is your Motivation for connecting with someone? What is the Opportunity you have to forge new relationships? What is your Vision if this goes well? Perhaps you make a meaningful connection with someone who can mentor or advise you or some- one with whom you can collaborate. What is your Endgame Plan? If things don’t work out well, where does that leave you and what will you do? Who is your Support? Is there anyone who can help you pre- pare for important conversations and opportunities to connect?
My career clients have different fears and risk appetites when it comes to the dreaded networking, which we call “connecting,” and so their goals vary. One aimed to attend networking events once or twice a month; she found crowds overwhelming, and we needed to face this head-on. Another client struggled more with video calls and the awkward silences, so we set a goal of connecting with one new person every other week on a call. Another woman set up the goal of reconnecting with two dormant ties every month and one new contact. Another wanted to take a risk and reach out to an executive to ask about a specific need. Create a monthly goal and implement this risk-based goal for three months.
Complete the sentence: When it comes to connecting with others outside my comfort zone, the bold moves that I am going to commit to are …
Did you experience any rewards—big or small—from your curious approach to connecting with others? Did your conversations flow differently? Were there different levels of engagement? Did you secure any follow-up discussions or opportunities to continue the conversation? Did you find out someone’s needs and how you might be able to help? Did you make any missteps that you learned from? Lessons are also rewards. What was something new that you realized? What was reinforced? Describe the rewards.
Reflect on how you would refine your approach and method for building and maintaining relationships in the future. What would you do differently? You’ve tried it, now tweak it.
Identify a situation where you will apply these learnings and refined approaches. When is the next time you can use a curious mindset to connect with others? Write it down.
Christie Hunter Arscott‘s new book, Begin Boldly: How Women Can Reimagine Risk, Embrace Uncertainty, and Launch a Brilliant Career, is now available.