The Underestimated Value of Conversation in Career Change

The Underestimated Value of Conversation in Career Change

“We started with the phone calls, which scared me to death,” said Eric Smith, a senior technology specialist of flow assurance for an engineering consultancy in the Oil & Gas industry.

Eric’s employer had just been bought out by another company whose culture was a poor fit. He needed an exit strategy. But his skillset was so niche that he struggled to find – let alone land – an appealing job. So, Eric hired career management firm, The Barrett Group, to assist him in his job search.

As Eric had neglected his network for years, one of the first tasks his career consultant gave him was to rebuild his social capital. And he wanted Eric to do it by making phone calls. Eric shuddered to think he would need to call people he hadn’t been in touch with for five years.

“I’m at the upper range of the Millennial generation. We don’t call people on the phone!” he said.

Eric’s anxiety about phone communication is far from uncommon – and, perhaps, not surprising. The volume of text messages sent surpassed phone calls nearly 20 years ago, and the gap has only widened since. Phone call aversion is pervasive in younger generations, but it’s also evident in older generations. It’s part of a larger pattern of dread about social interactions that has developed among people in recent years. Smart phones and technology kickstarted the problem, making devices easier to engage with than an unpredictable individual, not to mention addictive. Then the pandemic put it on steroids.

What people don’t appreciate (or perhaps they do but struggle, nevertheless, to overcome their fears) are the wide-ranging benefits of voice conversations. In studies, voice communication is superior to texting in building strong social connections and engendering a sense of well-being. In career change settings, voice communication also catalyzes opportunity. People asked to evaluate a potential job applicant found individuals to be more thoughtful, intelligent, and competent if they’d heard, rather than read, the person’s job pitch.

What’s more, communication, of which conversational skills are a pillar, is the number one skill sought by recruiters.

Serious career changers, therefore, should seriously consider the underestimated value of conversation in their job searches.

Let’s Talk About Advantages

The reasons people stress about phone calls are varied. They worry that a phone call takes too long. It comes across as a nuisance. They don’t have much time to respond. They have to think on their feet. They will feel judged if they can’t think on their feet. In short, it will feel awkward and, anyway, why would anyone go there if they can just text!?

The argument for phone calls is that conversations create career advantages that texting does not. Here are three real-world examples.

Building Relationships.

Tracy Katz used phone conversations to develop a wonderful personal connection with Jennifer, a recruiter at a company where Tracy very much wanted to work. And the lengths to which Jennifer went to help Tracy secure a position at her company, as a result, are remarkable.

After getting acquainted, Jennifer helped Tracy get a first interview for a role. To her dismay, Tracy was turned down for the position. Then another interesting position arose. Tracy called Jennifer again, who happily promoted Tracy’s candidacy. Jennifer also suggested another position that she thought was a good fit for Tracy. She even sent personal recommendations to the hiring managers on Tracy’s behalf.

Again, Tracy got neither position. Devastated, Tracy called Jennifer to share the unhappy news. But Tracy insisted she would keep trying because she liked the company so much. Highly impressed with Tracy’s positive attitude and now confident that Tracy would be a valuable asset to the company, Jennifer emailed Tracy a few weeks later to discuss yet another opportunity. This time, it was a position that Jennifer was personally involved in designing – with Tracy in mind!

Thrilled, Tracy took the job and credits the relationship she built with Jennifer for this outstanding success.


Networking is a dirty word for some people. Better to scratch the word from your mind and replace it with “social capital.” Social capital is the greatest – and most underutilized – personal asset of most people. In a job search, your goal should not be to ask people for a job. It’s to connect, to trigger fresh conversations, even to extend an offer of help. Connecting and reconnecting with people stimulates opportunities to arise organically, as they did for Kia Banisadre.

Initially, Kia had little faith this approach would work. When it landed him a fantastic job that he never imagined doing, however, he became a devout convert.

It started when Kia called an old friend. During the conversation, Kia’s friend said he wanted to expand his business but needed accounting help. Kia knew a guy who runs an accounting firm, so he offered to refer him. He called his former accounting colleague and had a chat. This buddy, it turns out, was fleshing out a budding market opportunity and asked Kia for advice. Kia was happy to lend his expertise.

To Kia’s surprise, those conversations led to the buddy inviting Kia to help launch a new business for his firm and run it. It was an opportunity that Kia would never have had if he hadn’t invested time in some conversations and fostering connections.

Negotiation and Sales.

Ray Cleary found his dream job through the “ecosystem” (as he calls it) of his network of contacts. But first he had to prove himself in the interview process.

In a job search, you are a salesperson and the product you are selling is yourself. Your challenge is to prove that you are the perfect person for the situation. Having excellent conversation skills is key. The first goal is to read your audience and adapt your narrative accordingly. Next, try to connect with someone on a personal level. This human connection may increase the chances of someone wanting to work with you. Finally, being able to articulate the benefits of your value proposition and address concerns effectively can make the difference between success and failure.

So it was for Ray, who insists that landing his job hinged on a 90-minute conversation.

One Saturday morning the hiring manager for the position called Ray to ask whether he was available for a group interview. He was. The interview turned out to be intense.

“I faced off with four to five people on the call. It was a tough 90 minutes! I had to think on my feet, and the whole process brought home to me that you need to be well-prepared when a good opportunity comes to you,” said Ray.

Just Pick Up the Phone

Knowing your value does you little good if you don’t pick up the phone to communicate it. Despite Eric Smith’s aversion to making calls, it was ultimately a single phone conversation that proved decisive.

The job he wanted was with a company where he had interviewed four months earlier. He had interviewed seven times and developed a detailed demo project only to be told of a sudden hiring freeze. Then he noticed the company had posted a new ad – for the same position.

Eric called up the hiring manager.

“The hiring manager told me that I had submitted an excellent demo project and that it was clear I had a command of the project details. His reservation, however, was that it wasn’t clear that I had experience working at a high level.”

Eric seized the opportunity to explain how he had abundant experience in high-level work. Those qualifications had just never come up during Eric’s previous interviews with this individual. The hiring manager was soon convinced that Eric was the perfect person for the job and offered him the position.

“The hiring manager had a hang-up with my candidacy that I was able to quickly resolve when I called him. But I would never have called him if I hadn’t gone through The Barrett Group Program. George Schulz, my career consultant, coached me on how to call people in a way that made me feel comfortable and how to follow up appropriately on interviews. It was because of George that I called that guy and asked him what was up.”

Pause, Listen and Don’t Interrupt

Good conversation skills, whether over the phone or otherwise, are highly important in the professional world. They serve as a cornerstone for successful interactions in virtually every aspect of business and career development. Besides career change, conversation skills are useful in leadership, management, problem-solving, conflict resolution, customer service, and countless other ways. As workplaces become more diverse, the ability to adapt one’s conversational style and demonstrate cultural sensitivity, too, will be increasingly valuable.

If you are uncomfortable with conversation, you should take the pains to up your game. If you don’t use them, social skills atrophy. But there is no need to panic; practice makes perfect. What’s more, the rules for verbal engagement are surprisingly enduring, according to The Economist, which published a special edition on the art of conversation” last month. If nothing else, it counsels, simply “remind yourself to pause, listen, and not to interrupt. And it also helps to remember people’s names.”

In essence, mastering the art of conversation is a professional asset. It’s a key to unlocking opportunities, valuable connections, and personal growth. Whether clinching a deal, landing a job, or nurturing relationships, real magic happens in the exchange of words.

Written by Julie Norwell

Julie Norwell is Senior Writer & Content Manager at The Barrett Group.

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