The last two years have highlighted the importance of human connection as we’ve learned to deal with the impacts of social distancing, lockdowns, and closed borders on our personal and professional relationships.
Studies have shown that having strong and varied social connections can reduce anxiety, improve self-esteem, and build trust and empathy. The same is true for our professional connections… yet, so many of us find the idea of actively developing our work-related networks challenging. It’s not the case for everyone, but for some, having a tooth removed seems less painful than building and maintaining a professional network.
I feel your pain because I’ve been there. I spent years actively avoiding doing this. I kept thinking there must be another way – “if I work harder, I’ll get noticed”, “if I study more, I’ll be qualified in that field”, “I just need to have a great resumé and cover letter” or “I post on social media, isn’t that enough?”.
Unfortunately, while these strategies are not “bad” as such, and they might even occasionally deliver some success, they’re all passive. And to build a successful career or business, you need an approach that is active… or even better, proactive.
When I finally made the leap into my own business, I could no longer avoid the expert’s advice about networking… I had to face my fears, get over myself and just do it. Now, I’m not saying I don’t still sometimes have to push through the discomfort barrier… but, over the last 3 years I’ve developed some practices and habits that make the experience easier and sometimes even (shock!!) enjoyable.
How to network like a pro… in a way that’s not icky
1. ASK “WHO CAN HELP ME?”
Your network is already stronger than you think. Often when I ask clients, “who do you know who can help?”, I sense their despair as they say “no-one”. But as we dig deeper, there are always nuggets of gold to be found! It’s just math… if you know 20 people and they know 20 people, who in turn know another 20, then your network is already 8,000 people. (And this is conservative, in reality the numbers are likely far higher.) So, I promise you, there’s already more than 1 person in your extended network who can help you. You just need to find them.
2. ASK “HOW CAN I HELP?”
This one involves a very technical skill… “listening”. How many times have you walked away from a conversation thinking, “I could help with that”?… but in the moment didn’t say anything. This is much more common than you think and happens in social, professional and ad hoc settings. So be alert to the opportunity to support others with information, advice or contacts. [CAUTION: Nothing is more irritating than receiving unsolicited advice so instead of “you know what you should do…”, try “I could help you with that” or “I could introduce you to someone” and let the recipient decide.]
3. ASK THOUGHTFUL QUESTIONS
One of the reasons the concept of networking feels icky is because it’s tied to the idea of selling yourself. I’ve found turning the spotlight onto the other person works wonders. Instead of trying to position yourself, get curious about them by asking insightful questions. In the main, people love being asked about themselves or for their opinion. It sets off the areas of the brain associated with reward and pleasure. Avoid the obvious “how did you get to be…”, opt instead for “what have you found challenging?”, “what do you love most about what you do?” or “what advice would you give to others?”.
4. NOT EVERY CONTACT WILL STICK & THAT’S OK
You might spend a few minutes, an hour or day with someone, at the end of which you go your separate ways. Sometimes you’ll hit it off immediately and develop an instant connection, sometimes you’ll take something valuable away from just one conversation, and sometimes you’ll be glad to see the back of them. Whatever happens, just like in a social relationship, let it develop organically. If it feels natural to continue the conversation, do so. And, if it doesn’t, don’t try to force it, don’t wonder if you did something wrong, just don’t dwell on it at all. You’ll gel with some people, and you won’t with others… and it’s all ok, either way.
Are you ready to think differently about networking?
If you’re convinced about the benefits of networking but still feel uncertain about how to go about it, here’s a few tips to manage your mindset –
- Relationship building is a behaviour, not an activity to schedule.
- Consider how you can be helpful, authentic and interested in others.
- Always be prepared to communicate your value.
- Think about quantity but aim for quality. Take all opportunities to connect but acknowledge only a small handful will have ongoing mutual value.
Over to you… go forth and make valuable connections!
Does the thought of putting yourself out there to build connections and showcase your value fill you with dread? Let’s discuss how I can help you remove your self-doubt, get clear about your value and enable you to start having valuable career conversations.